Robocop (2014)

robocop-movie-first-look-poster-2013-2014Cyborgs were pretty big in the eighties. And ninjas. And cyborg ninjas (I’m looking at you, Cyber-Shinobi). Of all the movie efforts at capturing the robot obsession of that decade, there are two stand-outs: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987). Robocop went on to have several less intelligent, and less successful sequels and spin offs. The 2014 re-boot was the first serious, big-budget attempt to re-launch the franchise. The production was beset with problems, director Jose Padilha reportedly described it as ‘hell.’ Key actors leaving the project, producers rejecting 9 out of 10 of his ideas, and the pressure of delivering a film that would appease the originals fans took its toll, and Padilha may be reluctant to take on such a big project in the future. Everything pointed to the film being a disaster.

So what did we end up with?

Robocop (2014) is a very intelligent, well made and interesting film. The strain of creative differences is apparent in places, and the writing is sometimes inconsistent, but overall this is a good, solid movie.

The film can be seen as a (very direct) metaphor for examining Americas role in the world, the use of drones in conflict, and the constant, sometimes vitriolic, debate between liberal and conservative America. The film also touches on the nature of free-will, and the use of technology in the modern world. These are themes that are not often explored in blockbuster movies. I can see where Padilha would have liked to have gone further, but the fact that he managed to get so much of this stuff in is impressive.

Samuel L. Jackson shines as an ultra right wing political talk show host and Michael Keaton is on great form as the super rich villain of the piece. Gary Oldman does his best with some at times clunky, and repetitive dialogue, but still manages to add something as the morally conflicted Doctor, the ‘creator’ of Robocop.

Where the film falls down a little is Joel Mckinnon’s  Alex Murphy, the films protagonist. Comparing him with Peter Weller, who played Murphy in the original is unfair, but difficult not to do. Weller played the role with nuance and finesse. He felt like an everyman, a tragic hero. Mckinnon’s Murphy is one note: A tough detective. It’s not McKinnon’s fault, the character is written as a tough-guy. But he seems at odds with the black humour of the movie, and the deeper themes Padilha is toying with. He has some good moments, but these are too few to save the character from being just another action hero.

I tend to forgive films if I can see what they are trying to do, and they are trying to do something cool and different. If you can forgive Robocop its flaws then it is an enjoyable action movie with more to say than most other movies in the genre.

 

Definitions of Art: Why “De Niro on the Death Star” is better than the Mona Lisa

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Not bragging, but I’ve seen the Mona Lisa. In Le Louvre. It was a small sad painting of a lady with a half smile. It was surrounded by tourists. It did nothing for me.

The above picture, “De Niro on the Death Star,” is the creation of fellow undergraduates Kelvin Peakin (Director, Haunted 2016) and Jacob Topen (Writer, spec script, Roboshark 2 – The Squeel 2016). It is far better than the Mona Lisa, for these reasons:

  1. Robert De Niro is laughing. There is no ambiguity about this. You don’t have to waste time wondering what he’s thinking, like you’re supposed do when looking at the Mona Lisa. He’s enjoying himself. He’s saying: “I’m having a great time. Why don’t you?”
  2. Darth Vader is smoking a cigar. He’s relaxed. He’s enjoying ‘Bobs’ company. It’s good to see Vader relaxed, he’s usually so uptight.
  3. If you want mystery, which some people do, take a look at Grand Moff Tarkin. What is he thinking? What’s behind that stern glare? That’s mystery for you.
  4. Every one knows who Robert De Niro, Darth Vader and Peter Cushing are. No one even knows who the lady in the Mona Lisa is. What’s all that about? A painting of someone when nobody knows who they are? Ridiculous
  5. There is a poster of Abba on the back wall of the Death Star. That’s great.

Obviously, Grand Moff Tarkin is not smoking a real cigar, it’s just a clumsily drawn brown line. Kevin and Jacob only had an hour. Whoever painted the Mona Lisa probably had ages. And he didn’t even bother to have her smoking a cigar.

De Niro on the Death star delivers on so many levels, and is a work that I feel will endure.

 

Reality Bites: The Dangers of Revisiting the Magical Movies of Your Childhood

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When I was a boy, I repeatedly watched Superman (1978), Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983). I regarded these films as masterpieces and could not see anything in them except good. I often watched them while dressed as Superman, and my parents have photographic evidence of this. I had Superman wallpaper in my bedroom. While I no longer dress as the Man of Steel, and my walls a little less garish, I remain a massive comic book movie fan-boy. And so, having not seen the original movies in a long time, it was with a sense of excitement that I talked my long-suffering wife into watching them with me. Superman was good. Not quite as good as I remember – the clownish version of Clark really jarred with me, among other things. I could happily accept such minor irritations as a ‘different interpretation of the character from my preferred model.’ I found myself choking up when Clark flies to save Lois by grabbing the helicopter. All in all it was okay. No childhood memories destroyed. Superman II did that. The movie is a comic farce, having much more in common with Batman ’66 then any comic book movie adaptation of the last decade. Hammed up performances, cringe-inducing comic set-pieces, inconsistent (and baffling) super-powers – memory loss kiss? Telekinesis? Teleportation? Big plastic ‘Super-shield’?? I barely made it to the end of the film, and had to endure a barrage of derogatory comments from my poor wife, who’s usual standard review of even the worst of movies is: “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

So, what’s changed? Not the film. The film is exactly the same film I repeatedly watched all those years ago. The film I loved. And I did love it. So, with that in mind, the film cannot be the problem. I’m not going to go into the production problems associated with Superman II, that’s not the point of discussion, interested readers can click here for that story. I’ve changed. My expectations and the things I enjoy and expect from a comic book movie have changed. My sense of humour and artistic sensitivities have changed. And I cannot stand Superman II. It is irredeemably awful.

Hold on a minute. But I love Superman. And I love Batman. What got me into Superman and Batman? That’s right: The Christopher Reeve Superman movies and the Adam West Batman ’66 series. Versions of characters that may not appeal to me now, but valuable versions of the characters none the less. With that in mind I am able to make peace with Superman II. Maybe love it from a distance, or something like that. Appreciate it for what it was and what it meant to me. But not watch it again. Or Superman III. And definitely not the other one. Nuclear Man?

Okay, so that will work for iconic characters that still mean a great deal to me; What about films I loved featuring characters that have all but disappeared from my consciousness? Recently, having recovered from the Superman II burning, my wife and I settled down to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). “It’s Spielberg,” I confidently reassured her, “and Harrison Ford. The Indiana Jones movies are great fun.” No. They were great fun. Indiana Jones is not the roguish, swashbuckling boys own hero I remember him to be. Here was a different ‘Indy’; a mysogynist, racist, thieving murderer who can apparently kill natives of foreign lands without any consequence. Raiders was painful. “It’s Spielberg, it will be okay” the angel on my right shoulder kept telling me, “Yeah, with George Lucas” hissed the devil on my left. Note: The devil on my left always uses expletives, which I have omitted for the more sensitive of readers. So, with the words ‘Shark Sandwich’ frequently coming to mind, we limped on to the end of the film, by which we had both developed a kind of thousand yard stare.

I can’t be a Raiders apologist. It’s wrong on so many levels. Yes, I know Lucas was obsessed with recreating the films of his childhood (so we are really watching a 50’s film made in in the 80’s).  And I know they were different times. Okay. Maybe I can settle for the ‘different times’ angle. Maybe that’s enough to make peace with Indy. Put him in the 50’s box and be done with it. But not watch it again. Or the other ones or the new one or the new one they’re making.

Thanks to Alyn for suggesting this post.

 

 

Doctor Strange (2016)

I went to the 3pm showing of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange at the Cineworld IMAX at Glasgow Science Centre (proclaimed, in person, at each visit, as the largest screen in Scotland). Then, with the indentations from the IMAX glasses still visible on the bridge of my nose, I returned for the 9pm showing. I’m tempted to end the review there, as it’s clearly obvious what I thought of this movie. I will add a little more (spoiler-free) detail.

I’m a DC guy that enjoys Marvel movies. My favourite movies in the MCU being Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Ant-Man (2015) and Iron Man 3 (2013). This list should give you the idea: I prefer the more quirky, ‘out there’ kind of Marvel movie. So, I was really looking forward to Doctor Strange.

From the spectacular opening, I knew I was in for a treat. While a Yankee Benedict Cumberbatch takes a little getting used to, this acting master craftsman soon has us under his spell. The real show stealer is Tilda Swinton, who, as The Ancient One, effortlessly portrays both gravitas and a sense of cheekiness.

Doctor Strange retains the feel and look of a traditional MCU movie, while delivering a little extra. Sure, the mind-bending visuals are spectacular, and a few times there are head nods toward more retro special effects, but what grabbed me was the spiritual angle of the movie. It’s not unusual for comic book movies to touch on or reference deeper themes. Doctor Strange doesn’t just touch on deeper themes, it explores them in a meaningful and consistent way. I identified with Steve Strange as he tried to straddle the worlds of Spirituality and Sarcasm. Having faith and trying to walk a spiritual path, but not taking yourself too seriously. This balance is maintained perfectly throughout the film. The more esoteric aspects do not feel shoehorned in as a prologue to the next action sequence, they are the central component of the story, and the film greatly benefits as a result.

While there are a few glitches, here and there, and I found myself wanting more of a certain sub-plot than I ultimately got, these are forgivable. Doctor Strange is a pleasure, from beginning to end.

4200 Formative 4: Reflections on ‘Haunted’ and Areas for Development

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A dog in a car. A big fluffy dog in a Toyota Celica, to be precise. Captured by Jacob Topen, DoP on our latest Formative Group Observational Film Project, Haunted. Readers will be devastated to hear that neither the dog, nor the car appear in the film. Though, it should serve as click-bait for this article.

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Haunted crew, Above, L-R: Jacob (DoP), Miles (Camera Operator), Kelvin (Director), Me (1st AD) and Chris (Location Scout). Below, Chris (Hiding), Miles, Ross (Producer), Kelvin (Gesticulating, Wildly) and Gerard (Actor, Niall). Not pictured, Jack (Sound).

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Things were going pretty well during the one day shoot. I’d more or less absconded all 1st AD responsibilities to Chris and was sitting down eating a sandwich; Kelvin was kind of holding it together and Miles at least knows one end of the camera from the other. More importantly, we were sticking to the script. Then the worst thing in the world happened: Somebody had a big idea. As we all know, there is nothing more dangerous than new ideas. They mean change and change is dangerous. Unfortunately, this idea was really good, so we couldn’t sweep it under the carpet. Even if it meant a different ending and urgent change of location. So, from a cosy studio flat, we ended up in a National Park, looking at puddles, with Jacob running around in an ‘I love London’ cap, wearing safety glasses, and shouting ‘Traitor!’ in Gerard’s face.  At one point Ross was talking about Matte Paintings. I should say at this point that the big idea was Jacobs.

Haunted is not a comedy, is is an observational study of a young soldier with PTSD. This is the second time I have worked on a group film project at SAE Glasgow and the second time I have had the privilege of working with an extremely talented group of people. Kelvin was fantastic as Director, keeping the show on the road and fostering a collaborative environment. Ross was steady and calm, offering excellent suggestions when needed, which is what you need from a Producer. Technically, Chris was Location Scout, but did more prep work than anyone on the team, and his experience and knowledge on all aspects of the shoot was invaluable. Miles really knows his stuff and is a wizard with The Camera and Lighting. Jacob was a phenomenal DoP, always coming up with interesting and exciting ideas, including the big idea that meant changing the shoot. Jacobs acting background was also really helpful during the more powerful scenes. Gerard was a star as Niall, the films protagonist. His patience was unending, and his screen presence is excellent. We’ve also got Jack from Audio (or, Audio Jack) on board for sound and music. Jack is an extremely talented musician and the early work he’s done on the score is something to behold.

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A team that works well together will meet the challenges it faces and overcome them. To change the ending of Haunted was a challenge and a risk, but we all knew that while we could have settled for the end we had on paper, we would have been doing ourselves a disservice. We had a great mood in the camp all day, and we were ahead of schedule, so we went for it. And it was worth it.

Now, a word about me. I’d like to run my own Production Studio, Direct and Write. Not much to ask, is it? To do this I’m going to have to learn how the Film Industry works, the different roles within it, and how the different roles interconnect. I’m also going to have to learn the language of the industry. Each business has its own language, and if you don’t speak it, then you’ll always be an outsider. I also need to learn the basic technical elements of the industry roles. I am learning these things by working on projects like Haunted. The crew of Haunted have a tremendous amount of wisdom and experience between them, from prior studies and from working in the industry. By working alongside them, listening, observing and asking questions, I am learning.

The Big Boys (2016)

Every now and then a film comes along that defines a genre. I think you’ll agree that, despite being made several decades after the movement, The Big Boys (Le Big Boyes) is the film that defines French New Wave Cinema.

Despite it’s obvious innovations, French New Wave suffered from too many limitations. Firstly, it was all in French. Disastrously short sighted in marketing terms. Secondly, the films were long. And I mean really long. Now, I don’t know whether or not people had more time in the 40’s or 50’s or whenever these films were made, but I simply don’t have enough space in my day to watch someone riding a bike for six hours, sighing. Thirdly, and most importantly, who cares about some people dancing in a cafe? I can watch Pulp Fiction for that. And it’s got Samuel L. Jackson in it.

Despite not having Samuel L. Jackson in it, The Big Boys has none of these flaws: It’s in English and it’s about 2 minutes long. And it’s got subtitles, so it’s credible. There is also no bike riding or dancing in cafes. Though there is a bit of sighing.

Classmate Jacob Topen at his improvisational best as the rest of us (Me, Kelvin and Miles) try not to crack up. Arron on camera, Gerard on lights and Dave Directing. Enjoy.