REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson, Based on the comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson is probably one of the most risk-taking filmmakers out there today, although that declaration should come with a qualifier; his risks aren’t in innovation or narrative, style, or visual effects techniques, but in the simple fact that he always sets out to please his own violence-loving tendencies. A glance through his filmography reveals an almost Hong Kong filmmaking-esque fetishizing of martial arts, gunfights, and balls-to-the-wall action is evident, and when coupled with his unique French perspective on the camera lens it makes for at least a good time, if not always a breathtaking time. Valerian is somewhere towards the bottom part of his middle ground, breathtaking to the eyes but not so much the head and heart, but is that really a bad thing?

In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha: an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. 

Based on the popular Franco-Belgian comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s film is a very obvious labor of love by the French auteur, having grown up reading the comic since it’s beginning in the yesteryear of 1967. Financed with a combination of crowd-sourcing and his own pocket, totaling 210 million dollars, Valerian is now the most expensive independent film ever made. Not that it matters much now that the film is tanking in the box office, but I suspect Valerian will have longer legs on home video and in the streaming market, where its spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element carved out a cult following.

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Valerian begins with what is now among my top-ten opening sequences of the past decade: the progression of the Alpha Space Station over two centuries, presenting all sorts of human and alien peoples joining hands with a succession of welcoming captains in mutual cooperation–and it’s set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Solid start. Continuing onto probably the best full-out visual effects sequence since anything seen in Avatar, we are introduced to the Pearls, a race of peaceful, nature-oriented aliens who fish magical, energy-giving pearls from the oceans, using small creatures called converters, that can replicate a hundred-fold anything they consume, to replenish the planet’s supply. But, just as quickly as we come to admire them, the Pearls’ paradise is shattered by the falling wrecks of a space fleet, and they seem to be obliterated by a war that they had no part in.

Without having actually read Valerian, I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate assessment, but from what I do know, this opening is an excellent demonstration of Christin’s humanist and liberal leanings in his writing, which comes more and more to the forefront through Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, as independent and humanist as they come, compared to her partner and superior, Major Valerian, who’s womanizing ways and adherence to protocol and law do more than infuriate his partner and the object of his desires throughout the story.

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Unfortunately, with their introduction is where I start to tune out. While Delevingne’s performance is a bit wooden in places, this is all a part of the package, as a glance through the comics reveals their Golden Age Space Opera origins, ’30s dialogue and all. In fact, in many scenes, I found her to be the breath of fresh air compared to Dane DeHaan, who in this critic’s opinion, should never have been allowed near the role of Valerian. His cheap imitation at a manly comic strip hero’s voice betrays how shrimpy he looks in the role, as if he were a ten-year-old boy playing astronaut dress-up. He has absolutely no chemistry with Delevingne, and his stunted delivery during some of the most pivotal and emotional moments destroys the drama almost as much as Besson’s barely passable writing.

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Oh yeah, the script. Honestly, past the mentioned opening, I’m not too impressed with the story. The comic was a space opera with heavy time travel elements, with Laureline literally having been an 11th Century French villager before being recruited into the Spatio-Temporal Service. The film makes little-to-no mention of time travel at all, presumably to streamline things for a wider audience, but that is no excuse for robbing Valerian of what could have been another major selling point besides the amazing visuals. Even worse is Besson’s handling of the romantic subplot and Commander Filitt’s (Clive Owen) motivations; while Filitt’s endgame is needlessly drawn out over ten minutes of precious climactic screentime, Valerian is established as already wanting to get into Laureline’s pants, and after only 20 minutes, is to the point of proposing to her. May I remind you this film is almost 140 minutes long?

Past these immense problems, the film starts to present some redemption. Everyone else in front of the camera does a pretty good job with their material, even when their roles amount to little more than extended cameo’s like Ethan Hawke and the great Rutger Hauer. And for once, Rihanna was actually one of the better parts of a movie.

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However, the real star of Valerian is the immense and immersive world created on screen through some of the best CGI work in a long time. Created by a unified team of ILM and Weta Digital artists, everything from the massive world of Alpha to the myriad species of alien beings are created lovingly and in textures that appear incredibly lifelike in Besson’s neon-lit style employed in this picture.

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So, what is my final verdict? While the casting of Valerian himself and Besson’s writing are huge flaws that pull the film down from the potential it could have had, ultimately, it isn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, the immersive world on display and the thrilling alien action are enough to convince me to give this film another go around when it hits blu-ray. Until then, I’d say proceed with caution on a matinee or discount night at your local cinema. Wait until a more worthy independent project comes along to pay full price.

REVIEW: Escape from New York (1981)

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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.

Maestro’s Marathons: The American Spirit Marathon

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This 4th of July weekend, prepare for the fireworks by catching the best of the best of red-blooded, patriotic American cinema!

The 4th of July. A time to celebrate freedom,

Independence,

Courage,

And star-spangled explosions.

The Movie Maestro presents to you, on this July 4th weekend, the American Spirit Marathon. 12 explosive, ass-kicking films, all ready to pump the free will of America straight into you! This Independence Day, welcome those freedom-hating aliens and Russians to ‘Earf’ and soar beyond the clouds to plant the Old Glory on the face of the Moon!

Every year on the 4th of July, I always popped in a movie to celebrate. Most of the time, my infantile mind picked Independence Day or Air Force One, and in recent years, I’ve stayed a bit infantile in my picks, going for a mix of some more nuanced examples of patriotism and the most bombastically-nationalistic action-fests out there. And now that we are here for the first Independence Day at the Movie Maestro, I figured I would share my usual picks for the ultimate American marathon.

Spaced out across four days, from July 1st to the 4th, the American Spirit marathon is the best prep for ‘Murican festivities out there!

And also, just because I know there’s someone out there who won’t get the joke, there is a heavy bent of irony to most of the picks here. No, I’m not a brain-dead idiot who will literally blow my arms off this 4th because I love me some ‘Murica, I’m just having fun with this. I hope you will too!

The picks:

Live Free or Die Hard
Live Free or Die Hard Movie PosterStart off the American festivities by saving the nation with its favorite foul-mouthed, working-class hero, John McClane. Live Free or Die Hard takes the old New Hampshire motto and puts it to work, throwing McClane into the high-stakes world of cyberterrorism. The holiday weekend, indeed, the entire country, is being threatened by a digital madman, the former NSA golden-boy Thomas Gabriel. His power seems endless, his goals are nefarious, but we have a secret weapon: Bruce Willis with a gun. And Justin Long with a laptop, but he’s obviously not the most important part. Leave it to that scruffy New York beat cop to bring an old-fashioned dose of analog justice to those high-tech freedom-haters, with fireballs aplenty. If you’ve ever felt that uniquely American need to blow up the grid over one annoying traffic light, then this is the movie to start with.

1776
1776 Movie PosterSetting aside the explosions and the gunfights for a moment, why not go back to the very beginning? With a splash of Broadway melody, this film details the lengths to which the Continental Congress had to go to keep the American Revolution afloat, while never sugarcoating the compromises that the founding fathers had to make to secure independence. It’s like no other history class in existence as the Founding Fathers spit rhymes like musket fire and dance circles around the Crown like their lives depended on it! (What’s that? I am being told their lives did depend on it. History!) You even get a crash course in some lesser known American history, like the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a big horn-dog or that John Adams was really Mr. Feeny! Don’t let the fact that it’s a musical scare you off; think of it as a break before more booms!

Air Force One
Air Force One Movie PosterWho doesn’t want their President to be an ass-kicking Freedom Machine? While in real life that leads to tired old TV stars becoming President, and unmitigated disaster as they charge into battle unprepared, getting their jacket threads caught in their rifle sling, resulting in Taps being played way too early, in movie-land it is a recipe for American pride, as Harrison Ford unleashes justice upon the terrorist hijackers of the Presidential Plane, one bullet at a time. Now that we seem to have to deal with Russian aggression again these days, won’t it be comforting to have Han Solo wreck their plans, American style? In an amazing suit, no less? While F-15 soar alongside, blasting bogeys with air-to-air missiles? Sign me up, I’m ready for that! Settle back into the action with this Die Hard-inspired thriller with an Executive twist! Harrison Ford has my vote.

Olympus Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen Movie PosterWhile Aaron Eckhart’s President isn’t as tough as Ford’s, at least he has one incredible bodyguard in Gerard Butler. Yet another Die Hard clone finds its way into the American Spirit marathon with Olympus Has Fallen, a battle for supremacy in the White House itself. It looks like those dastardly Kims have started their ultimate gamble, attacking our very seat of power with both subterfuge and superior firepower. Never fear though, as resident badass Butler, a.k.a. King Leonidas, a.k.a. Mike Banning loads up and singlehandedly defeats the North Korean menace within the walls of our most hallowed mansion! Does it matter that Butler is actually Scottish? Or that he seems just as well known for -shudder- romantic comedies as well as actioners? It won’t during this hairy-chested roller coaster ride of a movie! And we even have God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman on our side!

Rocky IV
Rocky IV Movie PosterThose Russians are at it again. In between election hacking and straight-up invading neighboring countries, now they’re sinking their dirty mitts into our sports! This time, their greatest boxer, Ivan Drago, has killed the Master of Disaster, the freedom-shorts-wearing Apollo Creed! Only one man stands in Drago’s way of claiming the title from the U.S. of A: Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion! A crowd-pleaser by any and all means, Rocky IV presents good old Philadelphian Rocky at his most triumphant, winning the Cold War all by himself in the ring, without a single Nuke fired or submarine sunk. While the original Rocky may be the better film, who doesn’t want to see the Stallion win in the most bombastic way possible, decked out in Old Glory, smashing communism with his powerful fists? There, I said it. Rocky IV is better than Rocky. Except it isn’t. Except it is. Isn’t it?

Lincoln
Lincoln Movie PosterReturn to the history books with Lincoln, one of Steven Spielberg’s best docudramas and Daniel Day-Lewis’s finest performances. Dealing with the difficult passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, Lincoln presents everything the titular President had to do, both painful and unethical, to bring about justice and freedom to a suffering people within the borders of our United States. A bit more somber than the rest of this marathon, it nevertheless is an important addition, reminding us that in between the RPGs and fistfights, there are true battles to be fought every day in the name of equality. And if I’m being much too serious and melodramatic about it, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that while there’s an overload of politics, it is much more interesting than your average CSPAN viewing, what with representatives engaged in the best insult battles I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

Double Feature: The Right Stuff / Apollo 13
Right Stuff-Apollo 13
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Jaws
Jaws Movie PosterIs it a typical July 4th movie? No. Is it particularly patriotic? Not really. To be honest, Jaws is mostly here because of its setting: on the eve of a big 4th of July weekend full of tourists and sunny beaches. Depending on the holiday to pull them out of debt and off of welfare, because it’s very un-American to be on welfare, Amity Island finds itself in a pretty pickle, and in the sights of a killer shark. Resolving to eliminate the menace in the only way New England Americans know how, Chief Brody, ichthyolgist Hooper, and Captain Quint get ready to go sharking. Because fishing is for Europeans. One-half horror movie, one-half Moby Dick with a decidedly more explosive climax, Jaws is just what Uncle Sam ordered for his extra-large seafood platter. It could be your town. It could be your beach. It could be you as lunch. So kick back and take a bite out of this summer classic!

Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger Movie PosterYou knew a superhero film was going to end up on this list sooner or later. They’re just as American as apple pie, fireworks, and massive nuclear weapons! But while Superman may stand for truth, justice, and the American way, well, he’s got nothing on the Captain himself, who launches headfirst into battle with the flag on his uniform and his indestructible shield! Steve Rogers just wanted to be a good citizen and serve his nation, but his sickly body prevented him from doing what he felt was his duty. Enter Dr. Erskine, who’s Super Soldier Serum transforms Steve into Captain America, the Star Spangled Man with a Plan, ready to sock it to old Adolf and his fascist monster, the Red Skull! Full of 1940s action and feel-good American vibes, this movie is ready take back the weekend from sharp-toothed fishes! Revel in Marvel’s over-the-top version of the Greatest Generation’s greatest fight with The First Avenger!

The Patriot
The Patriot Movie PosterWith one more trip into the past we arrive at Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, the ultimate revenge story set within the embryonic throes of the United States during the Revolution. Join Benjamin Martin as he cuts a swath through the British redcoats, intent on avenging his fallen sons by destroying his nemesis, the brutal Colonel Tavington. Join his son, Gabriel Martin, as he mends Old Glory and beats back jolly old England on the hallowed shores of our home. And join General Cornwallis as he learns firsthand what happens when Brits mess with the U.S. of A. Is it accurate? Nope. Is it awesome? You bet! What, you expected a movie showing Mad Max going all Ahab on the British Hitler wouldn’t be rousing? It’s a damn blast, is what it is! So stop whining about “historical context” and “nuanced drama” and just enjoy the show!

Independence Day
Independence Day Movie PosterA July 4th classic, Independence Day offers the best of both worlds: a sci-fi extraordinaire set during the holiday, and a patriotic romp, as President Whitmore rallies the entire world to declare its own Independence Day against the alien invaders intent on conquering it. It’s got metropolitan sights, military hardware, and cheesy conspiracy theories, so it has to be American! To top it all off, President Whitmore gives us one hell of a cinematic speech, and it’s only the primer for the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind, complete with a crazy crop-duster ready to deliver the final blow to those meddling alien overlords. It doesn’t hurt to have Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in the mix, puffing cigars and ruining alien motherships with the almighty power of the Apple Mac. It doesn’t get much more American than that. Now say it with me, “TODAY WE CELEBRATE OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY!!!”

Armageddon
Armageddon Movie PosterWhat could possibly beat Independence Day as the quintessential July 4th film? How about Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a movie with more American flags than any other? As detailed in my editorial, Armageddon lends itself well to patriotic fervor, and it’s a damn fun movie to watch on a day already centered around drinking and barbecue. You even get the biggest explosion of them all at the end as Bruce Willis (yep, he’s back!) blows up the mother of all asteroids! If you want to feel the tingle of America without blowing your fingers off, finish the marathon with Armageddon. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

And that is a wrap! Now, of course, these are only suggestions, feel free to mix and match or add your own. This is the day of freedom, so embrace it!

Fan Edit Review: LV-426

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Original Film Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof
Fan Edit by The Man Behind the Mask
Category: FanFix

Prometheus, while most would agree is a beautiful and thought-provoking film, is also incredibly divisive. Some, like myself, praise the mystery it has injected into the Alien franchise, while others have derided it as containing unbelievable characters, too many open ends, and even of not being a true prequel. This last point of contention certainly has some truth to it, as Lindelof’s entry into the project sought to distance it from established Alien continuity, and take the story into the uncharted realm of the then-called “Space Jockey” race as Ridley Scott wanted.

Enter The Man Behind the Mask, a prolific fan editor behind such edits as War of the Stars (the Grindhouse version of Star Wars) and the heavily shortened Kong. TMBTM’s vision for Prometheus is rather straight-forward: change LV-223 to LV-426 to make the film a direct prequel to Alien. This isn’t as simple as just changing the name of the planetoid on a star map and calling it a day, however. LV-426 is in many ways a radical departure from Prometheus, losing over 30 minutes of the original runtime and using new VFX work to alter the ending.

Taking a cue from JobWillin’s Derelict fanmix, TMBTM presents the film in black and white. While it looks great, I don’t know exactly why he went with this aesthetic. While Derelict is presented in this way to better marry the distinct visual styles and color palettes of two different cinematographers separated by 33 years, LV-426 doesn’t have this disadvantage, so what’s the point. Oh well, like I said, it doesn’t look bad at all, so there’s that.

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Right off the bat, there’s a big difference: the entire opening. Gone are the ‘Beginning of Time’ and Isle of Skye sequences, replaced with voiceover from Shaw’s video message to Peter Weyland, pulled from one of Prometheus’ blu-ray features. This greatly speeds up the narrative, a theme that is carried through the entire film. In some spots, deleted scenes are used to fill the gaps, and with the exception of one, I enjoyed seeing all of them put back into the film. On the other hand, some other editorial changes I wasn’t too fond of, like the loss of David’s viewing of Lawrence of Arabia and all subsequent references to it, some of the humorous banter between Fifield and Millburn, and the wonderful ‘Navigational Map’ sequence, in which David activates the computer aboard the Engineer vessel. I also wan’t a fan of the repeated line, “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” Once was enough, and it is in no way better than another line it replaces at one point: “Big things have small beginnings.”

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Video and sound quality are in tip-top shape, presented in over 15 mbps. The soundtrack is in 2 channels with what sounds like a Dolby Digital encode. It’s pretty solid, and has a bit of surround activity, or as much as can be expected in a stereo presentation. New VFX work is very subtle and almost unnoticed at the beginning of the film, but the biggest shots come at the very end. Beware, spoilers:

TMBTM removes the end ‘Deacon’ scene, instead digitally matting the creature into the Engineer as he is locked into the command chair, thereby revealing him as the dead Engineer from Alien, and the Deacon as his killer. This is a bold vision, but not one without its own set of discrepancies. If the Juggernaut from Prometheus is the Derelict from Alien, why is it fossilized after only several decades? What happened to the planetoid that so changed its environment (listen closely during Alien to discover that the Nostromo team’s walk to the Derelict occurred during the day–why is it so much darker than in Prometheus)? These problems certainly show how a direct sequel to Alien was certainly not the best direction to go.

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That being said, TMBTM’s edit is a fun way to kill an hour and a half. It’s stark and beautiful, its tight and suspensful, and it uses the much better Xeno-Fifield scene that so many fan editors are enamored with. It is not my prefered version of Prometheus, but I enjoyed my viewing, and that is way more than what I expected going in. Recommended as an alternate view of what could have been.

But how to get it? This time it’s very simple. Just watch on Vimeo!

REVIEW: RoboCop 3

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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)

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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)

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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.