Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Robocop 2

How stupid is Omni Consumer Products?

The evil corporation of the Robocop movies, OCP decides, in Robocop 2 (1990), to install the brain of a deranged cult leader/drug dealer into its latest heavily armed, nearly indestructible cyborg, assuming they can control him through his addiction to a drug called Nuke. You'd think the fact he's played by Tom Noonan would have been enough to indicate this is an ill-advised course of action.

Then again, "ill-advised course of action" describes much of Robocop 2. The original Robocop is an action masterpiece. Robocop 2 is quite the step down in quality. There are a few neat ideas lurking around in the finished movie, but they aren't fully explored. There's some fun action but nothing as memorable anything in the original.

What makes this doubly disappointing is Robocop 2 was directed by Irvin Kershner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back. Reportedly, George Lucas tapped him for the Star Wars sequel because he would focus on character development amidst the special effects extravaganza. Apparently, by the time Robocop 2 rolled around, he forgot what made Empire so special.

Robocop 2 is filled with a lot of subplots. Among the various narrative threads: OCP CEO's (Dan O'Herlihy) efforts to foreclose on Detroit, a street drug known as Nuke that is apparently the most addictive substance ever and manufactured by the notorious Cain (Noonan), the continued police strike, an OCP scientist (Belinda Bauer) seeks candidates for the Robocop 2 initiative, and a foul-mouthed young boy named Hob (Gabriel Damon), one of Cain's most vicious lieutenants.

There's also the mayor (Willard E. Pugh in a performance more fitting for Saturday Night Live) who tries to save the city with a telethon.

Am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, Robocop! Peter Weller returns for another go-around as the cyborg law enforcement officer. His partner is still Lewis (Nancy Allen, given next to nothing to do), and he still patrols the streets fighting crime. Now, he drives by the home of his wife and son, looking at his former human life with longing.

Here's where Robocop 2 should have focused things on. Instead, this dilemma - is Robocop a machine with a program or is he a human named Alex Murphy? - is set up and never referenced again. Robocop and his wife have a truncated and sad reunion early on, and then she vanishes from the movie.

It could have been moving or tragic to see Robo try to reconnect with his wife and son. Would they accept or reject him? Can he still love? Does he have the rights of a human even though OCP owns his mind and body? You could build a whole movie out of these questions, but Robocop 2 gives them little attention.

Robocop 2 maintains the black humor of the original, right down to the presence of satirical commercials and newscasts, but while these bits are sillier and more outrageous (a car security system that kills the would-be thief, sunblock lotion that protects you from the depleted ozone layer while causing skin cancer), they aren't as funny. The original Robocop caught us off guard with this stuff. Here, they're predictable.

I do like some of Robocop 2. Cain makes for an interesting villain, and when his brain is uploaded into a cyborg, his final, knockout fight with Robocop makes for a worthy climax (although I miss the sleazy nastiness that Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox brought). And there is a priceless sequence when the OCP board demands new guidelines to make Robo a more politically correct role model, making him ineffective (like most ideas, this gets drops quickly, too).

Overall, Robocop 2 feels as confused as Robocop himself. It can't decide what it wants to be about: the action, the satire, the corporate politics, Nuke. Robocop tied together many different elements by linking them to an interesting character-driven narrative. When Robocop/Murphy is marginalized, treated as just another comic book-style superhero, the movie becomes scattershot.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Robocop

Robocop (1987) is more than a kick-ass action movie. It's also more than a clever and hilarious satire of corporations and privatization. It's the story of a hero who loses and reclaims his humanity. Beneath its cold, metallic exterior, a genuine heart beats.

Robocop, of course, is the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a cop in future Detroit killed by a particularly nasty villain named Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. Since the Detroit Police Department is controlled by Omni Consumer Products, OCP executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) uses Murphy's body as the basis of a new cyborg law enforcement program.

More machine than man, Robocop patrols Detroit, nearly indestructible. But beneath his programming and machinery, something of Murphy lingers, something his old partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) recognizes. Robocop soon discovers a link between the criminals who killed him and the leadership at OCP, namely crooked executive Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).

Director Paul Verhoeven gives Robocop his slick, outrageously over-the-top style to Robocop, and the movie is endlessly entertaining. The action is exciting, even though our hero becomes a near-indestructible robot; the special effects are amazing; the dialogue is nonstop quotable; and the vision of the future - corporate takeovers of public services, inanity of news coverage, crass commercialization, people treated as commodities and products to be bought and sold - is sly, darkly funny, and still relevant.

Beyond all that, Murphy's transformation into a programmable machine, and his subsequent effort to become who he once was, gives Robocop a strong narrative to hook on everything else and create genuine pathos amidst the over the top splatter violence and cynical satire.

His death at the hands of Boddicker's gang is horrifying for its gore and his killers' cruelty, and his exploitation at the hands of OCP is heart-wrenching. Criminals take his life; corporations take his soul and free will.

When he walks through his former home, his wife and son long gone, it's genuinely sad. The house is empty, Murphy's memories come flooding back, and Weller doesn't have to say a word to convey his anguish and anger.

Twice Murphy/Robocop is ambushed: once by crooks, once by corporate-owned cops. After the former, he is rebuilt by a new master. After the latter, with help from Lewis, he rebuilds himself. Robocop's ultimate triumph is not killing bad guys, as good as he is at that, but rather regaining his identity as Murphy. At the end, when he smiles and declares his name "Murphy," it's impossible to not cheer.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Loveless

With The Loveless (1981), Kathryn Bigelow makes her feature-length directorial debut (co-directing alongside Monty Montgomery), and Willem Dafoe gets his first credited screen performance as the leader of an outlaw biker gang, but historical significance aside, the movie falls flat. It is an interesting early work from a director who would go on to have a great career but doesn't have much else going for it.

The Loveless plays like an update of The Wild One with Dafoe in the Marlon Brando role. Vance (Dafoe) is on his way to Daytona for the races when he stops at a diner in a small town, and before long, the rest of his gang turns up, including Davis (Robert Gordon, who created the movie's engaging rockabilly soundtrack) and Sportster Debby (Tina L'Hotsky).

Because one motorcycle needs repair, the gang kills time in the town, which creates some tension and excitement among the locals. Vance meets and becomes attracted to Telena (Marin Kanter), a brash teenager whose father Tarver (J. Don Ferguson) is the town big shot and who doesn't like it when some motorcycle punk tries to have what is his.

I read a piece somewhere describing The Loveless as "The Wild One as directed by Terrence Malik," and it's an apt comparison. The film moves slowly, deliberately, and Bigelow and Montgomery deploy a lot of long, static, and occasionally unconventional shots that give the movie almost a dream-like feel at times.

For example, in the opening scenes, Vance stops to assist a woman with a flat tire. The shot holds the woman and her car in the foreground, and in the background, we see Vance drive a distance away then slowly turn around and come back. This shot creates some tension. We don't know Vance at this point, and we don't know what he has in mind as he approaches. What he does establishes his character: he replaces the tire and then takes all her money and forces a kiss on her.

Later, when Vance enters a diner, the movie holds a long, high angle shot of the diner as he approaches the counter, buys cigarettes, and walks into a corner booth away from everyone else. The man is an outsider everywhere he goes.

Not a lot of plot happens in The Loveless, nor is it an action movie. There's a lot of standing around, characters silently staring at each other with significant glances, and I failed to catch the intended meaning of much of it. Certain details are brought up and never mentioned again, or they don't go anywhere. Some of those long takes feel too long, and I kept waiting for scenes to move on.

Characters are opaque, and that makes it hard to understand why they do what they do. Between a gang of bikers with Swastikas tattooed on their hands and a bunched of bigoted rednecks, there's no one to root for, which makes it difficult to become invested in how the movie plays out.

I've seen Dafoe in so many creepy psycho roles it's a pleasant surprise to see him in this young, brooding rebel role. With slicked-back hair and decked out in all black leather, he makes a cool impression and holds our attention. No surprise he's the best thing about the movie.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Songs the Lord Taught Us

The Cramps: the rockabilly band from Hell.

It's fitting I cover their debut full-length album Songs the Lord Taught Us right after reviewing ...And Justice for All. If Metallica sounded like a band trying to make an impression, the Cramps sound like they don't give a damn what anybody thinks of them. Metallica played fast and complex arrangements with social justice themes.

The Cramps play simple, old-fashioned rock tunes at their own pace. They got a song called "Strychnine," about the joys of drinking, well, strychnine. "Some folks like water. Some folks like wine, but I like a taste of straight strychnine. You may think it's funny that I like this stuff, but once you've tried it, you can't get enough."

Led by the husband-and-wife duo of singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, the Cramps played punk rock with a garage band feel. Compared to the polished pop sensibilities of the Ramones or the thrashing, almost metallic onslaught of Iggy Pop, the Cramps had a country twang feel, a little more laid back but still kind of dangerous, like they might attack you from the stage at any moment.

The Cramps' style is minimalist. They don't bombard the listener with a wall of sound, and the production is sparse and rough. There is no bass guitar in the mix, the drumming by Nick Knox is direct and restrained, and while an organ turns up, it's only used on the song "Fever," the closer.

Songs the Lord Taught Us sounds like the kind of music that plays in a last-chance dive bar on the edge of a desert or maybe some backwoods bayou. There's an undercurrent of menace throughout the album, whether the songs are fast ("TV Set," "Garbageman") or slow ("I Was a Teenage Werewolf"), and Lux's sneering, coiled vocals are a big part of that.

The guitar work of Ivy and Bryan Gregory sounds like the kind of thing Elvis would have backing him the 1950s but filtered through a garage band amp, and the combination works strong. They doesn't shred; their style is more deliberate and poised.

Lyrically, the Cramps display a love of horror movies and sleazy sex romps, sometimes within the same song. As "What's Behind the Mask" goes, "Please, baby, please please give me one quick glance. Now how come I can't see your face when I see what's in your pants? Is it a skin condition or an extra eye? Surgical incision? I keep wonderin' why."

The music celebrates being outsiders, being away from the squeaky clean mainstream. The Cramps feel raw and real.

Terminator Genisys

At one point, Arnold Schwarzenegger's outdated cyborg protector asks, "Why do you hold on to something you must let go?" Is that Arnold asking why this franchise continues long past its expiration?

Terminator Genisys (2015) tries to do what the recent Star Trek reboot did: a reboot/side story in an alternate timeline to the original timeline of the series. Start things anew with a clean slate. Acknowledge the original while moving forward in a new direction.

You know what? I don't care. I just don't care. If Skynet wins in this timeline, so what? Anything that happens in this movie can be disregarded and never mentioned again in any future movies, sort of like how this one undoes the work of its predecessors, the good and the bad.

Maybe movie franchises shouldn't be trotted out indefinitely, and studios should learn to leave well enough alone. Terminator 2 wrapped everything up perfectly, and to get around that, the filmmakers have to come up with convoluted, nonsensical, and flat out boring explanations and new angles to justify keeping this series alive.

Genisys pretends to offer new story elements but mostly regurgitates old scenarios. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) gets sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of future Resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke), after Skynet sends a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to kill her before he's born.

Except, now Reese is behind the 8-ball. Sarah and a reprogrammed, older Terminator she calls Pops (Arnold) save him from a T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). As she explains, the 1984 Reese was sent to no longer exists, and now Sarah, raised by Pops since a Terminator killed her parents, is determined to destroy Skynet before it becomes active, but Reese is having flashbacks to a life he never lived, and there's a forward time travel trip to 2017, and then John Connor turns up in person but now he's been taken over by the machines (a twist revealed in every preview despite said twist taking place well over an hour into the movie), and...

I really don't care.

I'll give Genisys this: it's better than Terminator Salvation. Not saying much, but it is. The opening scenes showing the future war between humans and machines is better than anything in Salvation, and Connor actually seems like a leader this time around instead of a brooding, meathead action hero.

And it's a nice idea that Arnold's Terminator is older and out of date as it deals with mechanical issues. The movie does nothing with this, but it gives Arnold a few funny lines. And the helicopter chase near ain't half bad. Nothing groundbreaking, but it had some life to it.

But everything else is a washout. The plot gets so bent out of shape justifying the time travel stuff that it never gets going. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese spend so much time having to explain things they never emerge as interesting characters. Sarah's closeness to Pops is a rerun of the relationship between John and the T-800 in T2.

Again, we devote a movie to trying to stop Skynet before it goes active, which has been done twice already, and again, the fearsome, unstoppable killing machines of the first two movies have been watered down and are nowhere as frightening or threatening this time around.

Somehow, the movie roped J.K. Simmons into this mess. As a young cop in 1984, he witnessed some Terminator action and devoted his career to investigating time-traveling robots to the point he becomes an ally in 2017. If only he could have been the main character, and I'm only half-joking. Sadly, the franchise has become a total joke.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

...And Justice for All

During an uncertain time, Metallica created their most ambitious album to date but couldn't resist sabotaging themselves.

...And Justice for All arrived as Metallica and heavy metal faced turbulent times. Beloved bassist Cliff Burton died when the band's tour bus crashed in 1987, leading the grieving survivors to recruit Jason Newsted. Pop and glam metal continued to dominate the charts while thrash acts, including Metallica, received next to no radio airtime even as they gathered rabid followings. Meanwhile, a new band from Seattle would soon shake up the music world.

With this turmoil within and without the band, Metallica pushed their thrash sound in a more complicated and progressive direction. On ...And Justice for All, the boys sound like musicians confident in their abilities and anxious to prove themselves.

The songs are longer and more technically sophisticated, filled with multiple parts and changes in time signature. The title tracks goes nearly ten minutes as does the (mostly instrumental) "To Live is to Die." The former feels overlong and repetitive, but the latter, a tribute to Burton, works beautifully. It begins and ends with a tender acoustic guitar before getting heavy and distorted while maintaining a melancholy feel; the solo sounds like tears falling.

The most memorable song is "One," based on the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun about a World War I soldier trapped in his crippled, senseless body. It's frightening and heartbreaking. The band alternates between slow, melodic parts and frantic, intense thrashing moments that perfectly reflect the sorrow and anger war inspires.

"Harvester of Sorrow" and "Dyer's Eve" are aggressive songs throughout their running lengths. They are the shortest songs on the album (the only ones under six minutes) and play like angry bursts. "Harvester of Sorrow" is a slower, mid-tempo track, more deliberate and pulsing, but "Dyer's Eve," the closer, is a wild explosion to the finish line.

...And Justice for All also finds Metallica exploring deeper themes. I already mentioned the anti-war "One" and the title track, which is about how money corrupts justice and truth. "Dyer's Eve" is about family and religious hypocrisy. The opening "Blackened" is about the horrors of nuclear war and the devastation it wreaks on the planet. "Eye of the Beholder" is about hiding truth and attacking free will. Metallica had a lot on their minds.

All this is very good and more, but ...And Justice for All doesn't quite reach the heights of Master of Puppets or Ride the Lightning. The production is weak, thin and dry, and as a result, some of the songs lack the bite you know they should have. "The Frayed Ends of Sanity" starts great (using the chant of the Wicked Witch's guard from The Wizard of Oz), but the rest of the song is rather forgettable as is "The Shortest Straw," which lives up to its name by the least interesting song on the album.

Worst of all, Newsted's bass lines are almost completely inaudible (reportedly the other members' idea of hazing the new guy), which makes for a frustrating listen. Musically, Metallica sounds sophisticated, but apparently, they still needed to grow up some.

James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett play a great guitar tandem, and Hetfield's in fine voice, his trademark bark full of righteous fury and venom but capable of getting quiet and sorrowful at the right moments. Lars Ulrich's drumming is fine but nothing really noteworthy, and sometimes, he drowns out the others. I wish I could judge Newsted's contributions.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Terminator Salvation

With that title, Terminator Salvation (2009) seems to promise to save the franchise. Reaction to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines wasn't so hot (although box office returns were solid), and by taking the franchise to the future to depict the war between humans and machines, which has always been in the background of the series, the movie could offer what fans have long wanted while simultaneously getting things back on course.

Ugh! With the movie that Salvation ended up being, T3 doesn't look so bad anymore, does it? Christian Bale proves to be the least interesting John Connor to date, the depictions of the post-nuclear future are drab, and Sam Worthington is no Arnie, lacking the charisma and presence that made Arnold Schwarzenegger memorable.

There are a few small details I liked. I liked how Resistance command headquarters itself in a submarine, and Anton Yelchin makes for a good, young Kyle Reese. Moon Bloodgood plays a promising new character: a female fighter pilot. All the previous glimpses of the future war showed the humans as infantry or riding in trucks.

I wanted more insight into the war, the tactics, the overall battle plans. James Cameron would have had a field day exploring this stuff. We get little of that.

The movie opens in the present. Marcus Wright (Worthington), a Death Row convict, signs his body away to Cyberdyne. In 2018, as the war rages between humans and machines, Wright wakes up out of stasis, confused about what's going on and where he is. He meets up with the teenaged Kyle Reese (Yelchin), who fills him in.

Meanwhile, John Connor (Bale) battles the machines. His superiors (including Michael Ironside) plan a final strike against Skynet, but Connor thinks something is up and wants them to reconsider. He becomes really concerned when he learns Skynet has a hit list of targets. Connor is second; Reese is first.

The first two Terminators (and even parts of the third) presented a future that was the stuff of nightmares. The post-nuclear wasteland was always night as hundreds of Terminators and mammoth machines hunted down the ragtag humans. Skulls covered the ground, builds and vehicles lay in waste, and everything looked smoky and dirty.

A lot of Salvation occurs during the day, and except for a few brief scenes in the remains of Los Angeles, the world doesn't look too bad. The humans don't resemble post-apocalyptic survivors so much as folks just driving around desert roads. They're never shown hunting for food, warmth, safety from radiation fallout, etc. Bale and other fighters seem to be in great shape, have clean teeth, and don't seem to inconvenienced by the apocalypse in terms of personal hygiene and fitness.

Even the action scenes don't feel like Terminator action scenes. When the giant robot begins picking people up with massive claws, it resembles Transformers. The vehicle chases (on wide open, desert roads) belong in a Fast and Furious sequel.

The Terminators themselves are watered down to blasphemous levels. Remember Arnold's introduction in the original. He rips out a man's heart. This is what he will do if he gets close to Sarah Connor, so the whole movie keeps her away from him.

Here? The Terminators grab their human targets and throw them around at first, giving them a chance to run away, fight back, or think some of other course of action. You'd think the machines would know how to snap a neck when they get their hands on John Connor. For machines built and programmed to do one thing, they are horribly inefficient at killing.

So much doesn't make sense or goes unexplained. Skynet's big plan of the movie is to kidnap Kyle Reese, knowing the half-human hybrid Wright will lead Connor right to them in a rescue attempt, so they can kill him. If they know who Reese is, i.e. John' Connor's father, why didn't they just kill him when they had him in captivity.

Skynet, the ruthless AI that decided in a microsecond to eliminate humanity, captures lots of people and keeps them alive for reasons never explained. In the first movie, Reese explained some humans were kept alive to process the bodies, but nothing like that is suggested here. Skynet is rather clean and sterile.

I also don't know why they care so much about Connor for that matter. Ultimately, he's just a guy. He's just some guy in the Resistance, not its leader who inspired humanity to fight back. I don't see how killing him at any point would have altered things. Bale, looking rather bored, is a monotone, empty-headed action star who occasionally speaks on a radio al a FDR's fireside chats. I don't know why anyone listens to him. He does nothing to demonstrate he's a leader of men.

Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl did heroic things, but they weren't typical action movie heroes. They kept the character human, a normal person confronted with a great burden and a greater destiny. Indeed, Bale's interpretation runs counter to everything the character stood for.