Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)


Robocop

This is one that had passed me by but, with the remake out this year (which I’ve also, so far, missed), it made it on to my “fun easy trash to watch’ list but pleasantly surprised me; yes, it was trashy but it wasn’t just good fun being a little more complex than I at first thought.

I grew up reading 2000AD comic, so was well acquainted with Judge Dredd, and this film clearly takes that template of a robotic uber-cop, pitiless and indestructible, and gives it both an origin story and a pathos. It also lays down plenty of templates of its own, for other sci-fi to draw on later, District 13 being an obvious one to me, taking its basic plot of corrupt developers in league with crooks in a future dystopia. The Robocop’s view of the world is also something that you see in numerous other films and tv shows (though this also borrowed from Terminator, and there is also a repeating section where news and adverts are shown, to give us a vision of this future world, in all its shallowness.

In a future Detroit, the police force is largely being run by OCP, a private company that also has plans for a major development project, yet also seems happy for the criminals to have the upper hand over the police, though there are plans to introduce robot police. One of these, an extremely sinister and martial form of policing, is demonstrated spectacularly unsuccessfully at an OCP board meeting. This failure severely embarrasses the OCP vice president, Dick Jones (Ronny cox) and gives a younger executive, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) the opportunity to advance his own project and, maybe, to unseat Jones.

Meanwhile, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a good cop entering a really bad precinct, where he is partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen, looking particularly 1980s), pretty much a super-cop herself. On their first patrol, they encounter a group of thieves making their getaway and chase them to a warehouse where Murphy is brutally murdered, Lewis unable to help. The criminals get away and, shortly afterwards, the first Robocop appears, his face looking rather familiar.

Over the course of the film, we see the corruption of OCP go far deeper than was immediately apparent (even if we could guess) and the immorality of the very concept of the Robocop, as well as sadness of this particular one, as memories start to return (despite his programming). Weller’s unusual face makes him easy to recognise, rarely having to remove his helmet for us to do so. Some of the effects are pretty ropey, and the end of the movie does descend into standard, maybe sub-par, shoot-em-up fare, actually laughable at times. Still, with its subversive touches and moments of subtlety, this was far better than I’d expected.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)


Guardians of the Galaxy
I finally caught up with this, a little late, but I did want to watch it at the cinema as some of the reviews referred to it having a kind of Star Wars vibe, an event picture best watched on a big screen and in company. Perhaps it was that the cinema was nearly empty, only a few of us stragglers still not having seen it, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed.

The movie was fun, with plenty of laughs and entertaining throughout but, at the end, I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about and I struggle to remember any real stand-out moments from it. Perhaps it was just a case of reacting against the hype – ‘expectation inflation’.

As the film starts in 1988, we see a young boy at the hospital where his mother is dying of cancer. As she dies, she reaches out her hand but the boy hesitates too long and she is dead before he can say his goodbye. Unattended by the other grieving relatives, and with his father having left, he runs out into the misty night – and is abducted by a UFO. Cut to modern day and the same boy, now a man, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is on an deserted alien planet (we know he is the same boy as he’s playing the same cassette tape on the same Walkman) scavenging an ancient artefact, a mysterious orb. This is obviously a much-sought after thing, as he has to fight others to retrieve it, and a bounty is paid, both for him and the artefact he is trying to sell. A green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldan) is sent to kill him and retrieve the item for her boss Ronan who, in turn has been promised the destruction of his enemies of the planet Nova by his boss Thanos; and a genetically-modified raccoon, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and his tree-like partner Groot (Vin Diesel) try to kidnap him for the bounty. A three-way scrap on the planet Nova, after Quill unsuccessfully tries to sell the orb only results in all four participants being arrested and sent to a space station prison to rot, or die. There, they encounter another maverick outlaw, Drax (Dave Bautista) and they soon find that only they stand between Ronan and the destruction of entire worlds.

This is a Marvel movie, part of the ever-expanding Marvel universe, but much has been made of it not calling on the other movies, the way the various Avengers movies did. This is largely true (I only noticed the villain Thanos and ‘The Collector’ having made any prior appearances) but is also largely irrelevant. It’s still a Marvel film, and it still calls on the same mythos, and the tone, while more consistently playing for laughs than other films, still has much the same mix of silliness, heroics and suspense as those other films. The biggest difference is that where Avengers went for wit, this one went for fun. That’s probably why so many people liked it so much, and why I didn’t, so much.

There was the usual end-credits scene but I think I was the only person in that cinema who got the joke!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
A few weeks later than intended, I got to watch this film. When it came out, I was eager to see it, enthused by the reviews of it as an intelligent action film. Over the weeks, it’d dropped down my pecking order of films to watch but it was the most conveniently timed showing of any film available, so Dawn… it was.

I’d enjoyed the first film in this reboot, Rise… , but it hadn’t been really great, just good enough to set the scene, so it was really up to this one to lay down a marker of how the series would develop.

The story opens ten years after the plague unleashed on the humans in the first movie, with a cleverly mixed montage of real and fictional news footage to set the scene of human civilizational collapse, and then we switch to the ape community, a terrifically realised treetop “Ape City”. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) haven’t seen any humans for two years and have started to believe they have all died out, while starting to build their own civilization. Apes can talk – well, many of them – though most communicate through sign language, and the community is starting to create an identifiable and unique culture.

We follow this community for a while, including a hunt in which Caesar nearly loses his young son, Bright Eyes before being rescued by his friend Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba is a laboratory experiment survivor, and is a more aggressive character than Caesar, though Bright Eyes leans towards Koba’s point of view. Into this world stumble a small group of humans, one of whom, in panic, shoots Bright Eyes’ friend Ash.

Caesar lets the humans return across the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge, to their newly formed and precarious community within the ruins of San Fransisco, in order to prevent a war with the humans, telling them not to return but the humans desperately need the power of a hydroelectric dam located on the Apes’ side of the river, before their fuel runs out. The ape and human communities are nicely balanced, each with their pacific and militaristic wings, and all having their justifications for their stance, as they see it. The human ‘hawks’, such as the leader of the humans, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) see the apes as responsible for the disease that wiped out more than 90% of humanity; the apes remember being caged and, in the case of chimps like Koba, having been experimented on. The ‘doves’ in the human camp, led by our human heroes engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and CDC doctor Ellie (Keri Russell), realise that the chimps were unwitting and innocent vectors for the disease which had been created by humans. For his part, Caesar has seen more of humans than any of the other apes, including having been raised by them, and realises they/we are not all sadistic slavers. Nonetheless, the pressures towards conflict are strong and the doves have their work cut out to prevent a total war between species.

The movie is intelligent, raising general issues of sectarian and inter-community violence and, especially, trust but it is not overly po-faced and remembers that it is there to entertain us. The special effects and action sequences are really spectacular, quite a few notches up from the (already impressive) previous film, and all the more engaging for my having engaged with the characters, on all sides, and caring what happens.

Not my favourite film of the year so far (Once, Frank and We Are the Best, at least, were more fun) but it’s up there.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)


Under the Skin
“Enigmatic” might be too light a word for this film; “Wilfully cryptic” might be better. “Oddball”, too (though this is not necessarily a bad thing).

The film opens with light effects reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a woozy, shifting kaleidoscope that intimates something weird without actually spelling out anything specific (unless I’ve missed some glaringly obvious symbolism), and we then see a mysterious motor cyclist recovering a dead woman from the roadside on a scottish moor. He delivers her to Scarlett Johansson, naked in a featureless white room space. Johansson takes the clothes from the dead woman and she and the biker part company, Johansson taking possession of a transit van and driving round Glasgow, accosting strangers to ask directions, in fact trying to ascertain who she can seduce and entice into her van and back to a base where her victims will meet a rather unpleasant, though still unexplained, end.

There isn’t a great deal of plot; this is basically an alien coming to earth and, in human guise, experiencing a little of what it means to be human (the people she encounters being mostly good, some not so) and perhaps becoming a little more human in the process. It relies a great deal on tone and atmosphere, in this (although not much else) being a little similar to Johansson’s breakout film, Lost in Translation, and I struggled, at first, to fully engage with the film. One of the much-discussed features of the film is that some of Johansson’s encounters were surreptitiously filmed meetings with real people, and others staged, and I found this distracting, wondering who was ‘real’ and who not, though this became less of an issue later on, when the story elements came more to the fore and the random encounters less frequent. Also, there were some transitions from comedy to horror that were distinctly odd – at first, I wasn’t sure if the comedy was intended though I now think they were. In at least one instance, the comedy nicely set up an unexpectedly gruesome bit of nastiness.

Johansson is nude or semi-nude for significant sections of this film, which I’m sure will attract publicity, one way or the other; it doesn’t appear to be simple titillation but, rather, is an important part of establishing the identity of the alien. Kudos, too, for Johansson for taking this role, in a small, weird and oddly interesting film that would barely get a screening but for her involvement in it.

I’ve not read the book on which this is based, and I’m not sure whether it would help explain things, or if I want all the meanings neatly wrapped up. It’s a film that, while not entirely successful, is extremely interesting and it’s one I’d probably watch again.

Star Trek Into Darkness (JJ Abrams, 2013)


Star Trek Into Darkness

Ok, to start with an admission: I’m a bit of a Trekkie. Not hardcore, not obsessive, but I like and watched the original series and The Next Generation all the way through, even the crappy episodes, and can happily rewatch the good ones repeatedly. I watched most of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, though gave up as they trashed the legacy with Enterprise.

Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks the prime directive and loses his captaincy but regains it after an attack by a mysterious figure from Starfleet called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Investigating further, Kirk uncovers a plot to undermine Starfleet from within… Sorry, I can’t really be bothered with a precis of the plot. Suffice to say: crash, bang, bang, bigger bang, more bangs, etc… The cast do their best (Cumberbatch, unsurprisingly, is excellent) but this is only really of interest to people who like their films loud and fast.

The films have been pretty disappointing, by and large, only Wrath of Khan and First Contact really standing out for me. Abrams’ reboot of 2009 was a film of two halves; the first being an imaginative and engaging new start to an old story, the second being an unimaginative and brainless actioner unworthy of the franchise. I understand that Lost had a repution for an outstandingly bad finish so wonder if Abrams is simply incapable of completing anything well. This second Star Trek film had a repution for being ‘for the fans’ and being a bit more intelligent, if still at 100mph, so I went in cautiously optimistic.

Hmmm.

The experience was pleasurable enough at the time but I find myself disliking it the longer time has passed. Like Prometheus, this film is let down by rampaging stupidity; stupidity that undercuts the raison d’etre for the film and all the claims it makes.

There are dozens of minor quibbles – why does the Enterprise have to start the film underwater? why does Spock need to go into the volcano to set off a bomb? Do the filmmakers really think cold fusion freezes things? But there are bigger problems, too. One of the weakest films prior to this one, Insurrection, couldn’t decide on its ending, adding one crisis after another, seemingly lacking conviction in the sufficiency of the previous one. If anything, Into Darkness, is at least as bad for this, having an extended sequence that should be the climax superseded by another one that is even more long-drawn-out and then that’s not the end either. I simply lost interest.

There is also a suggestion that this film is “for the fans” but clumsy references to other films, often embarrassingly obvious, are only going to satisfy the most easily pleased of fans. Where Star Trek got its reputation, and its large and devoted fan-base, was in intelligent and unashamedly discursive and intellectual storytelling. All of the films, to a lesser or greater extent, have suffered from having to appeal to a mass cinema audience, people who know very little of the backstory or mythos of the Star Trek Universe, while keeping on board the diehard fans whose opinion, if mobilised, could create such a bad buzz as to kill the film. This current film, made by someone who has admitted to having no interest in the TV series or previous films, is not made to please the fans; it’s a film made in fear of them, but made to appeal to an entirely different audience.

Now Abrams has the Star Wars gig, one that he genuinely cares about, perhaps he can make a film that is genuinely for the fans; this isn’t it.

District 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009)


District 13 Ultimatum
Or, since it’s a French film, Banlieu 13: Ultimatum, if you prefer.  This is a follow-up to 2004’s District 13, in which the two leads, a cop, Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and a small-time crook, Leito (David Belle), put aside their differences and work together to prevent a dirty bomb from being launched in the eponymous district, which is a dystopian ghetto, walled-off from ‘civilized’ Paris and left to become a mire of crime-controlled poverty.  At the end of the film, promises are made that the wall will come down and the district will be re-integrated into wider society.

So (surprise, surprise), at the beginning of this film, nothing much has changed.  If anything, the crime is worse, with the gangs fractured along ethnic lines into armed camps led by ‘warlords’.  The Defence chief and head of a special crime unit corruptly conspire with a building firm (rather obviously named “Harriburton”) to manufacture a crisis in District 13 so that they can justify utterly destroying it and offering the real estate for luxury development.  It is up to Damien and Leito, now friends, to come together again and save the day.

The first film was good, brainless fun, a thrill-ride of magnificent chase scenes, loosely held together by a pretty silly premise and plot.  The leads players in this film are acclaimed stunt-men, leading lights in the world of ‘parkour’ and, if you see a film in which a chase scene involves incredible and adrenaline-boosting bouncing up, down and over buildings, chances are that one or both of them are involved, since there are not many people who can do this.  Luc Besson wrote or co-wrote both films, which is not a recommendation for depth, since Besson is really only good for flashy fun films.  Unfortunately, this follow-up film seems to be trying to make a more ‘political’ point and it is pretty damn clunky when it does so.

There are still some fantastic chase scenes and some wonderfully choreographed fight scenes, even if they’re no more realistic than the fight scenes from The Matrix.  The problem is that everything between the fighting and chasing is boring, lucicrous or both – and there isn’t enough fighting and chasing to keep your mind off the dull absurdities of the plot.

I’d recommend watching the first but skip this one – it adds nothing.