REVIEW: Zodiac (2007)


Directed by David Fincher
Written by James Vanderbilt, Based on the book by Robert Graysmith
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch

David Fincher just can’t seem to get away from the morbid and disturbing. Beginning his feature-film career with the much-maligned Alien 3 and continuing through with Seven and Fight Club, even his more fun films deal with the darker shades of human nature, usually ending on some dour note that wrecks a fragile faith we as a society has come to hold dear. Zodiac certainly fits neatly into this reading of Fincher’s work, as its structure more befits a political procedural with no clear ending than a typical serial killer film.

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist who works for the San Francisco Chronicle. His quirky ways irritate Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter whose drinking gets in the way of doing his job. The two become friends thanks to a shared interest: the Zodiac killer. Graysmith steadily becomes obsessed with the case, as Avery’s life spirals into drunken oblivion. Graysmith’s amateur sleuthing puts him onto the path of David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a police inspector who has thus far failed to catch his man. Graysmith’s job, his wife and his children all become unimportant next to the one thing that really matters: catching the Zodiac.

The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in Northern California in the 1960s and ’70s, and originated the name himself in a series of cryptic letters and ciphers he sent to police and newspapers in the San Francisco area. Beyond this, not much is known about him, since he was never caught. Using this mystery, David Fincher’s film follows not the killer directly, but three people with whom the Zodiac would become a lifelong obsession: detective Dave Toschi, newspaper crime writer Paul Avery, and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith.

In this approach, the film does for serial killer flicks what All the President’s Men did for political thrillers; by taking a less-is-more, from-the-outside kind of mentality, Zodiac becomes a different breed of thriller, one that feels efficient and pulse-pounding despite the near-three-hour runtime and lack of on-screen scenes of the killer’s rampage. In a way, Fincher’s film seems to perfectly capture both the cultural shock of Zodiac himself as the fear of his presence pervades San Francisco and the cyclical feelings of discovery and frustration that each of the three leads experience.

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Zodiac begins not with the killer’s first confirmed attacks, but with the second, a choice that only becomes fully coherent with the very end. Taking place the night of July 4th, 1969, we follow Darlene Ferrin, a married woman, as she drives down a picturesque dusk neighborhood, fireworks exploding in the distance, arriving at one house in particular to pick up her secret lover, Martin Mageau. As night descends, the beauty of each shot begins to betray a creeping sense of unease as they pull off to a secluded couples spot, where they are stalked by a mysterious car. When the unseen occupant exits his vehicle and proceeds to riddle both of them with bullets, you know you are in for a spine-tingling time.

Much of the film seems to be made of build-up to these moments of shock, but is never filler. Weaving in and out of the different arenas of Zodiac’s cat-and-mouse game with society, the film gives us an intimate view into the newspaper media of the time, the law enforcement bureaucracy, and how neither seem to ever congeal into a coherent force working together to catch the psycho. For an uncommon procedural, Zodiac nails just why men like the killer are sometimes never caught.

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Shot on digital Thompson Viper cameras, Zodiac achieves the now-signature 21st Century Fincher look–low contrast, smooth details, and a diffuse look that almost emulates faded 1970s film, but without the dirt or scratches. I usually don’t prefer this look, gravitating more towards a more authentic filmstock appearance, but Fincher’s eye wins me over, imbuing even the mundane scenes with the unease of the time which makes the viewer tremble a bit inside.

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What really propels the film into classic territory, however, is the acting. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, the man who would eventually write the book upon which this film is based. Displaying an aptitude for puzzles early on, he quickly becomes attached to the Zodiac case despite not being taken seriously by his colleagues. He is, after all, a cartoonist. Gyllenhaal can have some detractors with regards to his abilities, but anybody who doubts his Graysmith has a serious screw loose. Graysmith is likeable yet single-minded in his obsession, wholly convincing. So too is Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime writer who seeks the glory of catching Zodiac, as if he’ll become Bob Woodward before Bob Woodward. With his career-defining role as Tony Stark just under a year in the future, RDJ gives us a preview of that character, with a smug confidence that erodes into horrific substance abuse after he receives a letter from Zodiac himself.

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Probably my favorite performances in the film are Mark Ruffalo and John Carroll Lynch. Ruffalo plays Toschi, the San Francisco detective who worked the longest on the Zodiac case. From his first scene, he exudes a proficiency with his job unmatched by other detectives, but begins to crack under the pressure of this seemingly-unsolvable case. Lynch plays Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect for Toschi and many other characters in the film. Lynch is unsettling in many ways, but never tips his hat too far as to unequivocally paint himself as the Zodiac, only allowing the audience to form a tortured “maybe.”

And therein lies the biggest strength of Fincher’s Zodiac, one that still defies explanation as to how the film received such mainstream acclaim: it doesn’t truly end. After Allen’s suspicion falls apart due to lack of evidence, the film begins to trail off, briefly picking up pace when Graysmith takes over the investigation as part of his book, but never arriving at a clear answer as to who Zodiac truly is. Indeed, by the end, when Mageau returns to the narrative to point out from a photo lineup the man who shot him in 1969, he seems completely sure–and then halfheartedly suggests that he had features from another man in the lineup, casting doubt on his memory. Like the 70s themselves, Zodiac drifts into nothingness with no payoff, no closure, just unanswered questions and the gut-wrenching feeling of letting a killer slip away unscathed.


REVIEW: Lucy (2014)


Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.

REVIEW: Escape from New York (1981)

escape from new york review

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins

You can’t get much cooler than John Carpenter. The self-styled rebel of the horror and sci-fi genres, Carpenter’s output from 1974 to 1994 is simply perfect, packed full of interesting and wildly entertaining films that run the gamut from cult gems to full-blown classics. Right in the middle of this period sits Escape from New York, a low-budget futuristic flick that transcends its trashy brethren thanks to thoughtful and tight set design, the reliable combo of Carpenter and Dean Cundey behind the camera, and a then-little-known actor named Kurt Russell.

In 1997, Manhattan has been transformed in the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, where criminals are sent in life sentence. When the Air Force One crashes in Manhattan with the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) aboard, having been traveling to a summit with other world leaders, the police commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) proposes a deal to the convicted one-eyed bank robber and war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). If he rescues the president and his tape in less than 23 hours, he would be granted pardon. In order to guarantee full commitment, Hauk injects a lethal capsule in his blood that will dissolve in the scheduled time. Soon, Snake is on his way into the Prison, a hellhole of humanity where once you go in, you don’t come out.

If it’s hard for you, my dear reader, to imagine New York, with its over-8 million residents and impressive business infrastructure, being walled off and transformed into a penal colony for the wrecked and crime-infested totalitarian state of America, then my friend, you only need to turn on the news.

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Good? Okay, back to the review.

What’s so great about Escape is that Carpenter’s and Nick Castle’s script is incredibly adept at getting background information across with just a glance by the characters. Just from watching the film and paying attention to dialogue, I can tell you that the United States is now more totalitarian than ever, with a nationalized and heavily militarized police force that operates like an army against the citizens, while the nation fights World War III against China and the Soviet Union with limited usage of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The crime rate has surged 400%, a surefire sign that the government is cracking down on things and acts that we’re previously non-criminal. All of this can be gleaned by inference from the smart writing and inventive production design by Joe Alves that makes the most of the limited budget, providing just enough to believe in the world without spoon-feeding.

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Opening with beautifully haunting sights of the New York Maximum Security Penitentiary provided by Roy Arbogast’s special effects crew (including matte painter James Cameron), comprising simple yet effective model work and some very crude computer simulation effects, these methods blend seamlessly with location work on Liberty Island, providing one of many ironic digs at authority Carpenter is so well known for, which further blends with the stark and bland sets of the police headquarters to create a vision of the future that is both imaginative and scarily realistic.

Into this hell world walks Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces war hero, now a captured bank robber on a one-way ticket into the Prison. At the time of filming, Kurt Russell was still a relatively little-known actor, having only the television movie Elvis as his big claim to fame. Here, he proves what a powerhouse he actually was, sinking into a pseudo-Clint Eastwood personality with such a contempt for authority and society that he must be literally threatened with impending death to save the President from the prisoners, courtesy of the microscopic charges lodged in his carotid arteries by police commissioner Bob Hauk, the legendary spaghetti western veteran Lee Van Cleef.

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By the time Snake is in the prison, we are just as enamored with him as we are the expansive St. Louis location shooting, standing in for a post-apocalyptic New York with tons upon tons of junk used as set dressing. As Snake slowly navigates the urban decay, his quietly-threatening interactions with everyone from the excitable Ernest Borgnine as the last NY cabbie and Harry Dean Stanton as the Prison’s resident engineering genius further impresses his cynical and world-weary streak of aloneness upon the screen. What I’m trying to say is, damn what a role, and a great performance to portray it.

Just as big a star as Russell on Escape is Carpenter’s direction, which by then was cemented by hits like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog. Working with his best DP, Dean Cundey, early Carpenter films usually featured slow, methodically blocked and shot sequences, many of them single-take camera passes, punctuated by bursts of on-screen action and shock, accompanied by a gruesomely realistic violence. Escape is no exception, and while not descending into slasher film-levels of gore, it can be at times relentless, even by today’s standards. The key to tempering this violent disposition is with Carpenter’s steady metaphorical hand, favoring suspense and low-light imagery as opposed to explosions and all-out general Bayhem. And of course, an atmospheric electronic score at least partially composed by himself. Escape offers yet another of his classic themes.

At its core, Escape is more than thrills and action; it actually joins a prestigious and well-hidden group of radical libertarian examples of American cinema, where authority and government are no less than the ultimate evil, but the heroes are not collectivist idols or even nice guys. Snake is the ultimate individualist hero, caring only for his own neck but displaying a sensible streak of survival, neither aggressive or sadistic. As he makes his journey from one Inferno into another, we see the two nemeses of libertarianism: the rampant state, controlling everything through fear and business, and the immoral anarchy of New York, where human beings are reduced to animals, flocking to another Che Guevara-style revolutionary in the Duke at best, and cannibalizing each other at worst.

Through this reading, which is most certainly the intent of the filmmakers given their past statements on the film and their own personal politics, Escape most certainly deserves to be looked at as more than a simple B-movie. In a way, it might turn out to be prophetic, if the British Trump at the head of the country in this film is any indication. So if you have, pop it in and enjoy. If you don’t, well get going on the hunt for it, because I promise that even on the lightest, entertainment-driven level of viewing, Escape from New York will not disappoint.

Just, for the love of God, stay away from Escape from L.A.

REVIEW: Baby Driver (2017)


Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal

Despite only having six films now in his catalog, Edgar Wright is one of the most popular filmmakers currently working. With an extremely British sense of humor and an electric style that infuses all of his films with an energy all his own, pretty much almost anything Wright touches these days turns to box office gold. Baby Driver is no exception.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young and partially hearing-impaired getaway driver who can make any wild move while in motion with the right track playing. It’s a critical talent he needs to survive his indentured servitude to the crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), who values his role in his meticulously planned robberies. However, just when Baby thinks he is finally free and clear to have his own life with his new girl friend, Debora (Lily James), Doc coerces him back for another job. Now saddled with a crew of thugs too violently unstable to keep to Doc’s plans, Baby finds himself and everything he cares for in terrible danger. To survive and escape the coming maelstrom, it will take all of Baby’s skill, wits and daring, but even on the best track, can he make it when life is forcing him to face the music?

Playing to genre stereotypes is nothing new for Wright, although the way he employs them is always interesting. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were very much parodies of zombie flicks and buddy cop film, respectively, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was an incredible ride into a terminally-Canadian 8-bit world of classic gaming and young love. With Baby Driver, Wright goes a little bit more subtle, but don’t worry. It’s still as out there as anything else he would concoct. This time he tackles the heist film, specifically, the classic getaway driver story.

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Yes, it’s been done to death in everything from Vanishing Point to Drive, but Wright’s style and flair are kicked into overdrive to compensate for the more down-to-earth narrative he is telling, resulting in one slick picture that is as pleasing to the ears as it is the eyes. Wright tells us that he conceived the film as far back as 1994, while listening to the titular song by Simon and Garfunkel. Lucky for us he got to make it, because Baby Driver is one of the most perfect meldings of soundtrack and visuals I’ve ever come across. The film’s vantage point is exclusively Baby’s, as he weaves in out of lanes on the road and pedestrians on his daily coffee walk, set to any number of classic pop and rock songs. Almost everything with a beat, whether it be the footsteps of the robbers or the reports from their guns, is synced perfectly to the beat of the current song, and when the music drops away, we are greeted with the persistent ringing of Baby’s ears. Wright’s attention to detail is exquisite, and the many easter eggs to be found among the periphery should make repeat viewings as fun as the first go around.

Another usual with Wright are his characters, and Baby Driver doesn’t slouch. Beginning with a bank robbery crew of married couple Jon Hamm and Eiza González, and typical-to-form hothead Jon Bernthal, pulling off their latest heist, the film centers on Baby, the music-loving, scar-faced-yet-handsome getaway driver, played silently by The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort. His face may be pretty, but he is force to be reckoned with behind the wheel, a fact for which the crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) keeps him around. But Baby isn’t satisfied; he is only pulling the jobs to pay back a debt to Doc, and his good heart is spiraling him deep into worse trouble, with his reluctance to kill or harm anyone on a job, and his budding romance with a cute little waitress named Debora (Lily James). While both can come across a little naïve, they fit snugly into the Wright canon of irreverent lovers with quite a few quirks all their own.

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Their relationship allows for even more pop culture references to float to the surface as they talk song names and the like, but it’s all done with the standard Wright style, never forced or faked. Baby’s happiness doesn’t last long, however, as he is forced into another job with Hamm, Gonzalez, and a loose cannon named Bats, in a hilarious and unsettling performance by Jamie Foxx. Here is where the stakes start to rise, and continue to climb as the job goes slowly wrong, and Baby finds himself in more than one terrifying situation. The tension in this middle act is incredibly palpable, and left me falling off the edge of my seat more than once with still enough time to laugh at the still-flying jokes. Perfect Bathos, Wright.

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When the heist finally happens, everything that was building for the past hour-and-a-half reaches a boiling point, and Baby makes a run for it, turning the film into a chase movie for the rest of its runtime. Here is where Baby Driver might stand to lose viewers, as the story takes more than one fantastical or whimsical turn that leaves plot holes aplenty. But knowing Wright, I submit that this is intentional, a way to resolve the story in a more dreamlike state as to leave the audience with doubts as they question whether Baby can truly have a happy ending to his journey. In other words, it’s the Three Flavors Trilogy or Scott Pilgrim all over again, only a little less wacky, and what’s wrong with that?

If you like Wright films, jump on this one; you won’t be disappointed. If you’re on the fence, I say give it a try anyway. You may end up being put off by the nonsense logic of its climax or the irreverent humor sandwiched into all the bloody violence, but if not, Baby Driver is quite the rewarding bit of action cinema, definitely a step above the rabble. With pulse-pounding chases, gut-busting performances, and a soundtrack that expertly plays with music and sound, I guarantee this film will be another surefire cult hit.

REVIEW: RoboCop 3


Directed by Fred Dekker
Written by Frank Miller and Fred Dekker, Based on Characers Created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring Robert John Burke, Nancy Allen, John Castle, Rip Torn, Robert Do’Qui, CCH Pounder, Stanley Anderson, Daniel von Bargen, Remy Ryan, Stephen Root, Jill Hennessy, Mako

Rushed into production by a cashed-starved Orion Pictures, RoboCop 3 is mostly remembered as the weakest of the trilogy, the one with no teeth or balls. Is that a fair analogy to make? Like RoboCop 2, I don’t know if I’m exactly qualified to say since both films were favorites of my childhood, and thus carry a nostalgic air about them in my head. In short, a part of me still enjoys them.

Though OCP’s CEO known as “The Old Man” is gone, his “Delta City” project has finally begun, pursued by the new Omni Consumper Products controlled by Japanese megacorp Kanemitsu. Using its own paramilitary force known as the Rehabs, OCP attempts to clear the Cadillac Heights district to make way for construction, but a band of rebels stands in their way. Robocop (Robert John Burke) and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), are now faced with a difficult decision: uphold the law and evict thise people from the only homes they’ve ever known, or resist and become outlaws.

As said, RoboCop 3 entered into production not long after the release of RoboCop 2, with Frank Miller returning to write the screenplay, still believing he could make an impression in Hollywood. Unfortunately, his draft would be raided and rewritten just like before, this time by director Fred Dekker. This isn’t to say that the film was completely butchered by Dekker, as Miller’s draft was mostly discarded ideas from the previous film; it wasn’t exactly helped by Dekker either.

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Probably the biggest problem, first and foremost, is the fact that the film is rated PG-13. The heavy violence and gore that RoboCop is most known for has been toned down to make the film suitable for a wider audience, and that is a big problem, especially considering how much it still is not suited for children. I’m not a censorship parent nor am I particularly religious, but in all seriousness, would you let your young child see a film featuring rebels attacking the police and several bloody shootouts? If your answer is no, you must have been among the parents who stayed away from the film in the summer of ’93.

It isn’t just the lack of violence, it’s the juvenile nature with which the film’s conflict is handled. McDaggett is a Saturday Morning Cartoon villain who can’t stop his lips from uttering the word “chum.” Rip Torn’s CEO character is, well, Rip Torn: yelling and wildly gesticulating his dialogue. The Otomo android twirls his sword around uselessly, as if he knows this is supposed to be a family flick and he can’t just gut RoboCop already. The Rehabs and the Splatter-Punks also suck any nuance straight out of the story, going for the G.I. Joe effect. And while I’m not exactly hating on the film for these reasons, as I’ll get to, they do distance it greatly from the RoboCop legacy, and takes away so much of the focus from RoboCop himself that he seems like a non-entity to his own film.

Two big pros save the film from being unwatchable, however, and that is the characters and the musical score. After his absence in RoboCop 2, Basil Poledouris returns to score this film, bringing the original themes back to a well-deserved welcome. It’s remarkable to discover just how much good music can make a film watchable. It doesn’t hurt to have such a quintessentially-Frank Miller story framing the movie either. Despite the kid-friendly rating, Miller’s fingerprints permeate this film as much as its predecessor. Everything from the heavy Japanese influence to the young tech whiz to such characters as the rebels Bertha, Zack, and Moreno are unmistakably his.

Photo including John Castle (Paul McDaggett) issued from "RoboCop 3" ( 1280 x 690 )

The actors also dive into the roles as best they can, and actually do a good job with the material. Any scenes with Pounder as Bertha, or any of the rebels for that matter, are a treat, Torn and Castle ham it up as they do best, and Jill Hennessy is a believable Dr. Lazarus. For the short screentime Nancy Allen has, she delivers some of the best Lewis moments of the trilogy here, and the same goes for Robert Do’Qui as Sergeant Reed. Only two drag the film down, and sadly they are two of the biggest characters; Remy Ryan as Nikko, the obligatory ’80s whiz kid who can hack with the best of them, who does little more than annoy, and Robert John Burke as RoboCop himself. Standing taller than Peter Weller, he doesn’t fit well into the suit, his motions are nowhere near as convincing, and the voice he uses is too high and mechanical for what was established before. It’s a shame Peter Weller couldn’t be here to finish the role that made him famous, but then we never would have gotten Naked Lunch.

The strangest thing about all of this is, having rewatched these films to review them, that I actually kind of liked the film. Every problem I’ve just listed still pulls it down far below the bar set by the original, but I genuinely enjoyed myself watching the third one. Even more so than the second film, which was usually my go-to growing up. I think what it comes down to is this: Dekker’s film knew to just have fun with the whole concept. It doesn’t delve at all into Murphy or his tortured existence, nor does it wrap up the OCP/Delta City arc with any believability, but it sure is one fun popcorn movie, and I’d buy that for a dollar.

REVIEW: RoboCop 2 (1990)


Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Frank Miller and Walon Green, Based on Characters Created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Tom Noonan, Belinda Bauer, Robert DoQui, Galyn Görg, Gabriel Damon

When a film like RoboCop is such a runaway success, there will always be a sequel. Even if it takes decades. RoboCop 2 reached theaters 3 years after the first film, which is par for the course when it comes to sequel-making, but perhaps it should have taken longer.

After a successful deployment of the Robocop Law Enforcement unit, OCP sees its goal of urban pacification come closer and closer, but as this develops, a new narcotic known as “Nuke” invades the streets led by God-delirious leader Cain (Tom Noonan). As this menace grows, it may prove to be too much for Murphy (Peter Weller) to handle. OCP tries to replicate the success of the first unit, but ends up with failed prototypes with suicidal issues… until Dr. Faxx (Belinda Bauer), a scientist straying away from OCP’s path, uses Cain as the new subject for the Robocop 2 project.

Director Irvin Kershner is best known, ironically, not for any of his own pet projects, but as the filmmaker who directed for George Lucas one of the greatest films of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. Here, he takes on a similar role, however the script isn’t exactly the vision of any single man. After a script by original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner was rejected, comic book writer Frank Miller was hired to produce a draft, which soon was called “unfilmable.” Now, I don’t know if that means the visual effects shots were impossible at the time or if his script was in bad taste, but the final film surely has Miller’s fingerprints all over it. It’s mean-spirited, overly violent, bloody, and chock-full of story points that would be difficult to swallow for anybody more conservatively-minded. Even more so than the first film, RoboCop 2 is brutal.

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For example, probably one of the most complained-about characters is Gabriel Damon’s Hob, a 12-year-old boy heir to Cain’s drug empire who swears and kills with the worst of them, effectively acting as Number 2 in the Trade of Death. It is not pleasant to see for the weak-spirited, and at times annoying for the more hardened. This and every other bit of extreme brutality is very much in line with the original film, but it seems to be missing Verhoeven’s trademark sense of humor. This is not to say the film isn’t funny at times, but the more physical comedy that Verhoeven saw in the most inappropriate times just isn’t here. Kershner tried his best, and I can tell because the tone and feel of the world of RoboCop is still there, but this lack of tongue-in-cheek fun can be a little distracting, even during RoboCop 2‘s well-filmed action sequences.

It also doesn’t help that the film feels much too episodic to work as a seamless narrative. The script is incredibly inefficient at introducing and following through on new ideas. RoboCop himself is first introduced as the automaton he was in the middle of the first film, with now recognition of the humanization he gained by the end of that film. He then confronts his wife, suddenly human again, but he sends her away to spare her the emotional turmoil, and his humanity and identity are never addressed again. This happens too many times in RoboCop 2, from the subplot of RoboCop’s “nice guy” programming by OCP to the Cain Nuke cult. Each of these tangents is also given the entire screen for whole acts, meaning the main characters sometimes disappear for whole swaths of the runtime. It’s a bad way to watch a film, and I’m not sure if these problems were inherent to Miller’s original draft or Walon Green’s revision.

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One more con: the musical score. Basil Poledouris’ score from the first film was pretty much perfect: brassy and thumping in action scenes, cybernetic and emotional in the quiet moments. Leonard Rosenman’s score is, well, adequate. It’s not bad for the most part, until a choir of women begin chanting “ROBOCOP!!!” I’m not kidding, and I’m not amused. It would have been better to just reuse Poledouris’ old score and leave it at that.

All of this doesn’t mean that RoboCop 2 is without its own charm. As said before, Kirshner was very adept at maintaining a consistent worldly feel in sequels to original films, and Phil Tippet’s work on the RoboCop 2 cyborg is probably the pinnacle of stop-motion animation, producing a lifelike robotic villain that for once actually feels big, overcoming the most common weakness inherent to the artform. And the film’s progression of the Delta City scheme by OCP is rife with social commentary on the wholesale takeover of American lives by big business. There’s still a lot to appreciate in RoboCop 2.

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Growing up, I usually watched this film, owing to the fact that I owned it and not the first one. Now, I’m more likely to choose the first, but RoboCop 2 is still worth a watch every now and then. Just be warned, it is no classic.


REVIEW: RoboCop (1987)


Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui

For a film so firmly rooted in its own time, RoboCop has certainly held up much better than anyone involved in its making ever dared to imagine. Part of that is obvious: it’s violent, heroic, and funny all at the same time. The other part is, well, not so less obvious, but certainly less pleasant to realize.

Detroit of the future. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has bought out the Detroit police department, planning to build the new Delta City where Old Detroit stands, even as a crime wave tears the metropolis apart. Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) gets transferred from Metro South to the West, where he and new partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) track down a group of criminals led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Unfortunately, Murphy is mutilated and killed by Clarence’s gang. Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), one of OCP’s employees, transforms Murphy’s barely cold corpse into RoboCop. RoboCop’s tests are successful after several trial runs in the city, but it soon rediscovers the memories of Murphy and now knows he has to find and arrest Clarence Boddicker.

Paul Verhoeven must be a sick little man deep inside. I don’t say this as an insult–actually, its more of an intimate compliment. Sometimes storytellers must be able to go to extremely dark places in order to do their thing. The Grimm Brothers certainly did, so it stands to reason that this quality sould be shared among filmmakers as well. Sadly, I see this quality somewhat receding in recent mainstream films, and that’s a shame. It’s part of the big lure of RoboCop. Neumeier’s and Miner’s script is no-holds-barred; it viciously attacks American capitalism, drawing blunt parallels between the suits in the OCP boardroom and Boddicker’s gun-toting gang of drug pushers, right down to both groups using the same vague catchphrases. “Good business is where you find it,” indeed.

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The script is heavily steeped in satire, a time-honored device that more often than not is misused. That isn’t any issue here, thankfully. RoboCop effortlessly pivots between tongue-in-cheek humor attacking American society and balls-to-the-wall bloody violence that seems just as much a parody of the ole Red, White, and Blue. That’s where Verhoeven comes in: being a Dutchman, he was keenly invested in outsider commentary on the national identity of the USA, and what did he come up with? The second coming of Jesus, sci-fi style. Murphy is gruesomely blown away, piece by piece, by the Boddicker gang’s shotguns, seemingly portraying an even more violent adaptation of the Christ’s Passion. He dies, and is resurrected by the power of corporate America to reshape the world in their image, i.e. to clean up Old Detroit before Delta City begins construction. This is a brilliant vantage point for Verhoeven to take on. While America may be the “land of the free” where all are (supposed to be) welcome, it has undeniably been a white, gun-shooting Christian man’s nation for 241 years. Verhoeven’s take on this fact is courageous and hilariously downbeat, as our savior’s second coming is as a bastardized Frankenstein, doomed to only react to evil by blowing it away with its big hand cannon.

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Peter Weller was the relatively-unknown actor who got to wear the bulky metal suit, and boy, did he make it his own. Rob Bottin’s design is iconic, but half of the legend is owed to Weller, whose robotic twists and walk are now firmly rooted in science fiction lexicon. Most certainly partly inspired by Arnold’s Terminator, Weller eschews a sleek efficiency of motion, instead bulldozing slowly through his criminal opponents like a human tank. It’s quite a thing to realize that some of the best gunfights in American cinema come from this film, and the hero gunslinger is essentially just strolling through the carnage with no regard to actual technique.

The other delights of the film are Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker and Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis. Boddicker is rude, cunning, disturbingly evil, and he does it all in thick glasses that make him look fatherly. It’s as if Whitey Bulger was revealed to have been Red Foreman before turning to crime and loving it. Lewis, on the other hand, is the quintessential feminist action hero: she’s tough, smart, and definitely a good guy, yet she isn’t weighed down by weepy diatribes or romantic tension. She’s a cop who happens to have a vagina. So what? That’s how you do feminism. It’s such a shame that the remake changed her into a man, and a useless one at that. I mean, good God, if 1987 could get it right, what in the hell happened to us?

I think the answer to that is obvious: we continued being the laissezz-faire society that RoboCop depicted. While we may not being reading in the news about how an ED-209 turned a company board member into Swiss cheese in a failed test (a still-incredible stop-motion effect by Phil Tippett, just saying), but we are seeing people literally get hurt by their overheating and exploding cell phones. We have seen Detroit go bankrupt and erode into the hellhole of the film. And lo and behold, the President of the United States reminds me a little too much of The Old Man for comfort. Such is the nature of prediction, I guess. It makes for great storytelling to know human nature, but it certainly doesn’t help one’s sleep. Oh well, I guess that means it’s time for another late night showing of RoboCop. I’d buy that for a dollar.

NOTE: RoboCop has been released in two versions: the original theatrical cut and an unrated Director’s cut, which adds about a minute of more violence and gore. As of this writing, the current blu-ray release of RoboCop only includes the Director’s Cut, but honestly, the differences are additive and so little that there isn’t anything missed by not seeing the theatrical version.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell (1995)


Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Written by Kazunori Ito, Based on the Manga by Masamune Shirow
Starring the voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Tamio Oki

Usually whenever classic and essential anime is discussed, two titles take center stage: Akira, and Ghost in the Shell. While I have seen the former several times and enjoy it a lot, Ghost has eluded me for all this time. Well, I have finally taken the time to view the original film, and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it surprises.

The year is 2029. The world has become intensively information oriented and humans are ever-connected to the network through their readily-available cybernetic enhancements. Crime has evolved as well, allowing hackers to take control over other people’s very minds. Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), a cyborg policewoman working for Japan’s omnipresent Section 9, tracks one such hacker, a mysterious and powerful individual known only as the Puppet Master.

Ghost was a part of the Nineties wave of anime flicks, a veritable golden age of Japanese animation which spawned most of the Studio Ghibli family films such as Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko. On the other side of the spectrum, adult animation saw a resurgence, many of the films being adaptations of manga, or graphic novels. Both Akira and Ghost were popular manga in the late ’80s, and heavily influenced by the cyberpunk movement stretching back to William Gibson’s work and the film Blade Runner, so when Akira earned a feature film in 1988, it must have been inevitable that Ghost would get one. These are where the similarities end.

Whereas Akira is a more hard-pumping action film, Ghost opts for a slow-burn approach, focusing on the suspense of the hunt for the Puppet Master and the philosophical grey area of the film’s setting. To be honest, I was surprised by this, having only heard of this franchise in the past and remembering the action-heavy trailers of the new live-action effort. Don’t take it to mean I was disappointed by this, I rather enjoyed the more quiet form of this work, just be forewarned if you saw the new one first and are expecting endless gunfights and fisticuffs.

Much of the film is a haunting affair; one particular group of scenes extends for about ten minutes, focusing on Motoko’s shaky sense of identity within herself. She is nothing more than an organic brain encased in a high-tech shell, connecting her to a simultaneously feminine and de-sexualized body. If that wasn’t enough to make her question what was left of her humanity, she also contends with another surreal fact of this post-post-modern world in that her brain is also linked forever to the network; her own thoughts are just as easily accessed by her partner Batou (Akio Otsuka) as his are to her. Imagine the inside of your head, the last true vestige of privacy, not only being laid bare to another, but that this arrangement is the new status quo of reality. Scary stuff.

This particular scene is book-ended by two long sequences of motion, weaving slowly through a poor district of the futuristic city as an ancient Japanese wedding song drones. This juxtaposition of both old and new is but one example of how well Ghost handles its surreal and memorable narrative. Usually when a science fiction film is composed mostly of dialogue and creeping montages, it gets boring pretty fast; Ghost handles its pace incredibly well, never reaching a yawn-worthy drag or unbearable preachy-ness.

Conversations always serve a purpose, some advancing the plot and posing mind-bending questions at the same time. Seemingly-irrevelent occurrences with the story almost always give way to disturbing revelations. I, for one, don’t think I will be forgetting soon the look of a supporting character’s face when told that the daughter he longs so much to be reunited with is nothing but a false memory, a face of pure heartwrenching disbelief. I doubt a live actor could ever accomplish what the character model does in that moment. And when there is action, it is meticulously animated to precise choreographic momentum.

Ghost in the Shell was enough of a success to spawn several more productions over the years, including two more films and an anime series, and of course, the American remake. Now, there is another version of this original film known as Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which replaces much of the original animation with CGI imagery, cuts several scenes, and redubs a few voices. I have yet to watch this version, so when I do, I will update this review accordingly.

Akira is still amazing and retains a high status within my favorite films, but Ghost in the Shell has quickly risen to match it. It’s a film that sticks in your mind for days, possibly even weeks, with its unique look into a post-human world where our already ubiquitous social technology has become part of our very body image, and it’s an engaging mystery to boot. Akira is often compared to Blade Runner, but I think Ghost is the closer relative of that classic film, and as such, earns my highest recommendation.