Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop 3 (1993)

Orion Pictures were determined to make “RoboCop” into a franchise. After “RoboCop 2's” box office success, the company went right to work on a second sequel. “RoboCop 3” was filmed in 1991, a year after part two came out. Despite disliking how his script was mangled last time, Frank Miller was lured back to write. Fred Dekker, director of cult hits like “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad,” was hired to direct. A big budget sci-fi/action sequel could've been a breakthrough for the cult filmmaker. Instead, the producers demanded a family friendly flick. Once again, Miller's script was butchered. Orion went bankrupt and “RoboCop 3” wouldn't come to theaters until 1993. When the sequel was finally released, the reviews were bad and the box office was worst.

OCP has fallen on hard times and is facing a corporate buy-out from the Japanese. The mega-conglomerate needs Delta City, the high-tech metropolis built atop Detroit, ready immediately. OCP sends in the Rehabs, their personal army, to forcibly evict the residents out of the city's slums. An underground rebellion has cropped up, to protect the citizens and oppose the Rehabs. While in the area to fight gang members, RoboCop ends up between the Rehabs and the rebels. After Anne Lewis is shot dead, RoboCop finds himself aligned with the resistence and standing against the corporation that made him.

A subplot in “RoboCop 2” took aim at moral guardians who wanted RoboCop to be less ultra-violent. Orion's producers were less self-aware than they appeared. In the wake of “RoboCop: The Animated Series,” a franchise defined by its gore was retrofitted to be kid friendly. Thus, “RoboCop 3” features few squibs and no graphic violence. The toning down doesn't stop there. The satire is reeled way back. We get one satirical commercial, an attempt by OCP to sell the Rehabs to kids. The movie ratchets up the goofiness. Such as the ridiculous mohawked gang members or a sequence where RoboCop drives an exploding pimp mobile. Most embarrassing of all, RoboCop gets a kid sidekick. She's called Nikko and she can't be older than ten. Yet she's such a genius that she can hack ED-209 with ease. She's the worst kind of overreaching kid sidekick, designed to be too precocious, too brilliant.

Despite a script obviously hassled by meddling executives, “RoboCop 3” does start with an interesting idea. A key scene puts the cyborg once known as Alex Murphy in a tricky scenario. On one side is a church full of innocent homeless people. On the other side is OCP's private army. He's pulled between two of his prime directives. How can he both protect the innocent and uphold the law? It's an interesting idea that “RoboCop 3” quickly scraps. After Anne is killed, RoboCop has his programming rewritten so he can get revenge on OCP and the Rehabs. I suppose, if the franchise was going to continue, RoboCop taking on OCP head-on was inevitable. When “RoboCop 3” has the hero marching into the corporate head-quarters with a flamethrower, it's taken things too far.

“RoboCop 3” was made for 10 million less than “RoboCop 2.” This is evident in a few ways. The special effects aren't as strong. ED-209 is still brought to life by Phil Tippet's brilliant stop-motion work. However, the dim-witted robot only appears in two brief scenes. RoboCop doesn't appear on-screen until ten minutes in. He doesn't actually do anything until the twenty minute mark. By the time RoboCop straps on a jet pack, the limitations of the budget become especially apparent. The action, overall, is forgettable. Fred Dekker wanted to hire a Hong Kong stunt team. However, Orion couldn't afford that. So the action is pretty weak, too often reduced to guns going off and people falling down. One really awkward scene has RoboCop shooting a gun out of a bad guy's hand, to embarrassing effects.

Another serious sin “RoboCop 3” commits is recasting the main role. Peter Weller was unavailable, due to filming “Naked Lunch” at the same time. Robert John Burke, a character actor who had starred in two Hal Hartly movies and “Dust Devil” by then, filled Weller's suit. Burke does a decent job of replicating Weller's robotic movement. However, he doesn't bring the same pathos to the part, his hands shackled by a thin script. There's some other talent in the cast. Nancy Allen agreed to appear only if they killed her character off. Allen, fittingly, seems deeply disinterested in what's happening. Rip Torn gets a few funny moments as the gutless CEO of OCP. Mostly, the talented supporting cast – Jill Hennessy, CCH Pounder, Stephen Root, Mako – are wasted in underwritten parts. Hennessy maybe gets the worst of it, as the scientist who befriends RoboCop and the little girl.

In an interview years after the fact, Fred Dekker took full responsibility for “RoboCop 3,” dismissing the narrative that a young director was steamrolled by pushy producers. If you squint, you can see some of Dekker's trademarks shining through. A shot, devoted to RoboCop carrying Lewis' body through a dimly church, recalls Dekker's work as a horror director. The aforementioned OCP commercial is brought to life with some goofy animation, which seems to fit Dekker's style. A plot point that clearly came from Frank Miller are the robot samurais that OCP's Japanese owners send to Detroit. One cool scene has the katana-wielding android straighten his mechanical jaw after getting whacked with a steel pipe. Sadly, this kooky element is underutilized.

“RoboCop 3” flopped but the franchise would continued. A television series would follow the next year, lasting for one season and earning little attention. Even though there's a sea of mediocre “RoboCop” spin-offs out there, the third entry still gets the most hate from fans. Which isn't totally unfair, as “RoboCop 3” is deeply mediocre. It's certainly less awesome than you'd expect a “RoboCop” movie directed by Fred Dekker and written by a pre-insanity Frank Miller to be. If given more time and money, and fewer family-friendly mandates from Orion, those two might've made something special out of this. Instead, they contribute to “RoboCop's” faltering reputation as a series. [5/10]

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1992)

10. Basic Instinct

After successfully bringing his love of graphic violence to Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven's next movie would try and sell the West on his love of explicit sex. “Basic Instinct” would team the director with Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter of “Flashdance” and other, less successful films. The teaming would pay off. “Basic Instinct” would become the fourth highest grossing film of the year. It remains one of the most iconic movies of the nineties. Eszterhas would become Hollywood's highest paid hack. Verhoeven's string of super hits would continue. And Sharon Stone would become a superstar. But how does “Basic Instinct” hold up, twenty-five years later?

A washed-up rock star is brutally stabbed to death with an ice pick by the woman he's having sex with. The homicide team, including Detective Nick Curran, immediately suspect Catherine Tramell, the dead man's girlfriend. Tramell is an author, whose latest novel seems to mirror the murder. Curran soon discovers Tramell has a fascination with violent crimes. And that people around her have a habit of dying, usually in ways predicted by her writing. Yet Nick can't resist the woman and begins a steamy affair with her. Soon, he begins to suspect somebody wants him dead and he's not sure if Catherine or someone else is responsible.

“Basic Instinct” has often been compared to Verhoeven's own “The 4th Man.” Both are thrillers loaded with graphic sex, utilizing similar black widow story lines. The big difference is “Basic Instinct” is incredibly dumb. In “The 4th Man,” the audience's suspicions rise with the protagonist's. No such doubt exist in “Basic Instinct.” From the moment Catherine slithers on-screen, it's obvious she's the killer. Catherine practically tells Nick she's going to kill him. Characters repeatedly make bad decisions, choosing to associate with an obvious serial killer or rush head-first into danger. And that doesn't even consider Eszterhas' ridiculous, overheated dialogue.

By 1992, Michael Douglas had already starred in “Fatal Attraction,” the previous high water mark for the erotic thriller genre. As in that film, Douglas is an anti-hero at best. Yet Nick Curran is an even bigger scumbag than Dan Gallagher. He's a moron, continuously associating with a woman that obviously kills people. He's an asshole, being a mean-spirited jerk to everyone around him. His default response to everything is violence, attack two fellow cops throughout the film. Worst yet, he has rough sex with his ex-girlfriend in one scene, grabbing her and pushing her over a chair. She doesn't seem to entirely enjoy it. Douglas' performance is at maximum sweatiness. He's tense at all times. He plays the part like a raging gonad, all macho bluster and asshole bullshit. (Douglas would also appear in “Disclosure,” making him the go-to guy for this sort of thing.)

Douglas was already a star during “Basic Instinct.” The film would make Sharon Stone a superstar, if only for a fleeting moment. Stone was having bitchy fun in “Total Recall” but, as Catherine Tramell, she slithers through every scene. Stone purrs all her dialogue. Every movement is made to generate as much sex appeal as possible. It's over-the-top but is one of the most successful elements of the film. When Tramell shows a sensitive side, Stone makes it clear that it's just another performance while still being convincing to the characters around her. It's easy to see why Stone would become a star. But you also understand why her fame was so short lived. This kind of acting probably wouldn't work outside the high-strung world of “Basic Instinct.”

The only person who seems to be taking “Basic Instinct” seriously is Jeanne Tripplehorn. She plays Beth Garner, the police psychologist who has had an on-again/off-again relationship with Nick. This is flagrantly unethical but that's the stupid, trashy world “Basic Instinct” exists in. Anyway, Tripplehorn is the only person concerned about the events around her. She's shaken by Nick's bad behavior and Catherine's obvious murderous streak. It's a personable, human performance in a movie of sweaty excess. (I also find her way sexier than Stone but that's a matter of taste, I suppose.) At the other end of the spectrum is George Dzundza as Nick's partner, Gus. Dzundza must be going for comedy. While everyone else chokes on Eszterhas' outrageous dialogue, Dzundza bites into it. He has the movie's most ridiculous liens but manages to make them funny.

“Basic Instinct” would see Paul Verhoven re-team with Jan de Bont, the director of photography would worked on most of his Dutch film. It would also be their last collaboration, as de Bont would soon launch his own directorial career with “Speed.” Jan de Bont guarantees that “Basic Instinct” looks good. The film is incredibly slick visually. This is most obvious during “Basic Instinct's” most notorious moment. Yes, I'm talking about the crotch shot that launched a thousand Skinemax flicks. The scene is tensely directed, the camera angle's tight, focused on the characters' faces. I keep describing “Basic Instinct” as sweaty but that adjective certainly describe this moment. Everyone's faces are caked with perspiration. The luridness of the scene is stretched to its breaking point. If only all of the movie balanced sleaze and entertainment equally.

By this point, Paul Verhoeven had established himself in America as an action director. Maybe that's why “Basic Instinct” also features some action sequences. There's at least two elaborate car chases. One of which has Douglas' vehicle weaving in and out of traffic on a perilous cliff-side road, a really stupid decision he sticks with. This is just a precursor to an even big car chase in the middle of the movie. Two muscle cars leap through the hills of San Francisco. When that isn't enough, they literally drive down a staircase. Naturally, the scene concludes with a big car wreck, a vehicle twisting off an incline. If that's not enough for you, the movie also features a few tense foot chases too.

Of course, “Basic Instinct” isn't really an “action movie.” It mostly features action of a markedly different type. The multiple sex scenes – a montage of the humping sequences, that can be found in the disreputable corners of the internet, runs over twelve minutes – vary from genuinely erotic to laughable. Nick taking Beth in his living room is intimate and passionate, skeezy as the scenario is. When Nick and Catherine finally do it, “Basic Instinct” features one of the more explicit depictions of oral sex you'll find in a mainstream movie. Yet most of the sensual moments in “Basic Instinct” are overly choreographed, featuring the kind of elaborate movie sex that would send most people to the emergency room. Lots of arched backs and exaggerated moaning. This is not the raw sexiness seen in Verhoeven's Dutch films. This is shiny, slick, mid-nineties eroticism. If this stuff tickles your pickle is entirely a matter of personal preference but it threatens to push “Basic Instinct” into the realm of camp.

Verhoeven being Verhoeven, the director can't help but throw in some ultra-violence with his graphic sex. Sometimes in the same scene! The opening ice pick murder focuses on spurting blood and agonized twitching. In the last act, “Basic Instinct” features a moment that wouldn't be out-of-place in a slasher flick. A killer clad in an obscuring rain slicker corners a victim in an elevator. The man is stabbed repeatedly in the neck, oozing more blood than is probably in the human body. It's a fantastic moment, providing catharsis to the tension running under most of the movie. You know the gore is good because it's provided by Rob Bottin, who made the mutants in “The Thing” and “Total Recall.” Honestly, if “Basic Instinct” favored the hacking and slashing over the fucking and humping, I probably would've liked it more.

“Basic Instinct” is one of the few films that has been described as both feminist and misogynistic. I guess it depends on how you read things. Those that call “Basic Instinct” feminist point out that Catherine triumphs over all the men in the film, using her feminine wiles to succeed over the men who oppose her. Those that accuse the picture of sexism point out that Catherine is depicted as a venomous she-cobra, that murders everyone in her life. And both camps are right, so I have no idea what to think. Neither group can support the obvious biphobia in the picture. Catherine has a lived-in girlfriend who ends up dead. Later, another bisexual women gets Catherine's crimes pinned on her. This stuff just hasn't aged well.

“Basic Instinct” is trash and knows it. Which makes Jerry Goldsmith's elegant, haunting score surprising. Goldsmith created a sense of mystery with plucking harp chords and chiming piano beats, while whining strings build suspense throughout the music. When the film goes in for the kill, so does Goldsmith's music. During the attacks and pseudo-attacks, Goldsmith's score blares to bombastic heights, doing a jump scare's job without overdoing it. The music's strength was such that the Academy Awards honored it with a nomination, even though erotic thrillers are not the types of movies Oscar usually singles out.

“Basic Instinct” was the right movie at the right time. I can't imagine something like this making 352 million dollars in 2017. That the long delayed sequel flopped so hard, that Sharon Stone's career burned so bright so briefly, should attest to that. It built upon the AIDS-era “be careful who you fuck” subtext of “Fatal Attraction” but in a campier, more high-strung direction. Which was perfect for the nineties. It also shows Verhoeven becoming more self-aware in his trashiness. Yet several sequences – the opening, the interrogation, the car chase, that stabbing near the end – work extremely well. I'm not quite sure what to make of the final product, a movie that irritates me with its dumbness even when it's being entertaining. [Grade: B-]

Friday, May 19, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop 2 (1990)

With the commercial success of the original “RoboCop,” a franchise had been launched. This was fitting, as “RoboCop” was basically a superhero movie before such things were in vogue. Despite seemingly being ready made for sequels, “RoboCop 2” went through some speed bumps. Paul Verhoeven was approached to direct but turned the project down, feeling like Orion just wanted to cash in on the first's success. Ed Neumier and Michael Miller's sequel idea was well received but they ultimately left the project due to a writer's strike. Instead, Irvin “The Empire Strikes Back” Kershner was brought in to direct, while comic auteur Frank Miller provided the script. Miller's script was heavily altered by Kershner and the producers, displeasing both Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. The resulting film made money but satisfied few fans.

It's not surprising to read that “RoboCop 2's” screenplay was needlessly shuffled around. The finished film features a weirdly convoluted plot, that is both overwritten and underwritten. It involves a mostly needless subplot about Detroit going bankrupt and the mayor's desperate attempts to keep OCP from buying out the city. This jives badly with an imbecilic attempt by OCP to recreate RoboCop and the main plot, about the cyborg hero fighting an insane drug dealer/cult leader named Cain. These plot lines eventually come together in an exceedingly messy fashion, leading to a last act that is heavy on the action but short on dramatic satisfaction.

Another big problem with “RoboCop2 “ is how it handles Alex Murphy's character arc. The first film ended with the robotic cop regaining his humanity. The sequel could have explored what happened next. Would Murphy try to get his old life back? Part two addresses these questions in a half-hearted fashion. RoboCop is still working for OCP, which seems an unlikely conclusion. He is stalking his wife, driving by her house during the day. This leads to an encounter in the police department between RoboCop and the woman that was his wife. With encouragement from OCP professionals, he tells her to go away, that her husband is dead. And that's the last we hear of that subplot. Instead of building on the original's character development, the sequel intentionally tosses it out.

“RoboCop 2” does explore the conflict between Murphy's human soul and his robotic programming... But in the most awkward fashion possible. After his emotions making him difficult to control – and the bad guys chop him up – RoboCop's three prime directives get expanded to hundreds, many of them conflicting. This leads to fitfully entertaining scenes of RoboCop acting very strangely, weakly disciplining children, reading Miranda Rights to a corpse, and shooting a cigarette out of a smoker's mouth. These moments are funny, and sold well by a typically compelling Peter Weller. There's some decent jabs here at moral guardians who want the hyperviolent RoboCop to be a kid-friendly superhero. Yet the humor ends up meshing roughly with the rest of the film. The sequel's humor, in general, is overdone. Its attempts to copy the original's satirical commercials hit certain notes way too hard.

Being a product of the early nineties, the overblown sequel to the eighties, “RoboCop 2” has to try and top the original. Since it was too dumb to truly top the original's pathos or satire, “RoboCop 2” placates itself by ramping the action up. Some of the action scenes are, admittedly, pretty damn cool. After gunning his way through the bad guys' drug lab, RoboCop chases after Cain on a motorcycle. He gets skidded across a brick wall and eventually plays chicken with the large truck. That stuff is neat. Yet “RoboCop 2's” desire to outgun the original results in violence that is often overly mean-spirited. There's just as much gore but part two lacks Paul Verhoeven's love of theatrical bloodshed. Instead, Kershner's action scenes degrade into RoboCop firing his gun and bad guys bloodily falling down. It's blunt and not nearly as much fun.

“RoboCop 2” pretends to be faithful to the original's social commentary. Yet its basic plot line boils down to that most empty of late eighties/early nineties platitudes. RoboCop says Just Say No. It's no coincidence that the movie's fictional drug, “Nuke,” has the same number of syllables and the same hard k sound as “crack.” Instead of making a point about the impact a society destroying drug had on inner cities, “RoboCop 2” plays anti-drug hysteria totally straight. Nuke is the worst drug ever. It's super addictive and its high is similar to religious awe. The drug turns users into hyper-violent acolytes. RoboCop and all the other cops are disgusted by the mere presence of Nuke. The sequel is attempting to address a serious social woe but approaches the topic with all the subtly of ED-209.

Another thing I dislike about “RoboCop 2” is how it turns OCP's Old Man into a major villain. The original gave the impression that Dan O'Herlihy's executive was at least less evil than his underlings. Part two reveals that the Old Man is even more calculating, cynical, and decadent than Dick Jones. O'Herlihy's performance is entertaining, if nothing else. Nancy Allen is mostly going through the motion, the script not giving Anne Lewis much to do. Delinda Bauer is likably sleazy as the psychologist that chooses Cain to be OCP's next murderborg, even if the character is so dumbly written. There was no topping Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker but “RoboCop 2” does have a pretty great bad guy. Tom Noonan brings all of his boundless nervous energy to Cain, a totally committed villain whose creepy God complex is only topped by his dependence on Nuke.

In fact, Cain is probably the best thing about “RoboCop 2.” The movie's last act is an orgy of destruction that lacks much meaning. Even from a plot perspective, it's a shaggy mess. However, the giant murderous cyborg is pretty damn cool. Code-named RoboCop 2 – which is a clever way to get the sequel's title actually in the movie – Cain's robo-body is brought to life via more of Phil Tippet's ingenious stop motion. The machine is all snapping claws and blazing chain guns. Despite his bulky size, he quickly navigates elevator shafts and auditorium halls. Tippet even incorporates some humor. When the Old Man foolishly holds up a canister of the drug Cain is dependent on, the robot hungerily snaps his claws. That's just one example of the character and personality Tippet brings to the massive kill-bot.

“RoboCop 2's” score isn't even as good as the original. Instead of reprising Basil Poledouris' brilliant score, Leonard Rosenman started from scratch. His heroic theme is alright but employing a choir, chanting “RoboCop!,” was probably a step too far. “RoboCop 2” is clearly a compromised affair. The script is disorganized. The tone is all over the place. The sequel lacks the original's heart. It does feature some cool action and creature work. Weller and Noonan's performances are worth seeing. Yet “RoboCop 2” is largely lackluster, failing to live up to the majesty of the first film. It's exactly what Paul Verhoeven feared it would be: a quickie cash-in. [6/10]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1990)

9. Total Recall

Despite frequently authoring science fiction that is overly cerebral and sometimes even surreal, not the most friendly terms to movie producers, the works of Philip K. Dick has seen quite a few film adaptations. Though “Blade Runner” is the gold standard, “Total Recall” is usually the second Dick adaptation people think of. Adapted from the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” the film had a long production history. Super producer Dino de Laurentiis wanted to make it back in the eighties, where it first crossed the desk of an intrigued Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Laurentiis thought Arnold was all wrong for the movie, by the way. He wanted Patrick Swayze to star.) When the movie was made, it was nearly directed by David Cronenberg, who worked on it for a year. Arnold had a heavy investment in the movie. After being impressed by “RoboCop,” he wanted to work with Paul Verhoeven. So once Cronenberg walked, the Dutch Madman was hired. “Total Recall” provided Verhoeven with another opportunity to create a hyper-violent action movie with sneaky, often overlooked intelligence hiding under the surface.

In the distant future, brain surgery is an in-and-out procedure, robots and holograms are everyday technology, and man has colonized Mars. None of this affects Douglas Quaid much, a normal construction worker with an average life and an average wife. However, Quaid dreams of a mysterious woman and adventures on Mars. He learns about Rekall, a company that will implant memories into the mind. Quaid purchases a secret agent adventure on Mars. When the chip goes in, however, Quaid start screaming about how he’s a really a secret agent. Soon, men are after him, trying to kill him. Quaid gets his ass to Mars, looking to uncover the mystery of what’s going on, all the while wondering if this is really happening or if it’s a memory transplant gone wrong.

With “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven sneaked a subversive satire of American politics inside a bone-crunching action film which doubled as an intelligent, personal science fiction film. “Total Recall” carefully walks a similar line. On the surface, it looks like just another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, another action adventure where the brawny Austrian murders a bunch of bad guys, albeit in even more brutal ways then usual. Some critics dismissed the movie as just that at the time. However, “Total Recall” is also a cerebral mind-bender, questioning the very nature of reality, identity, and memory. Throughout the viewers is left to wonder whether what Quaid is going through is actually happening or is an extended delusion. This leaves a viewer wondering about the malleability of memories and our perception of reality. The film leaves audiences thinking and asking question. All of this is accomplished without sacrificing the brutal, crowd-pleasing action.

As a science fiction film, “Total Recall” had an especially impressive pedigree. Look at this list: The director of “RoboCop,” the star of “The Terminator,” the writers of “Alien,” adapted from the author of “Blade Runner,” with the special effects guy behind “The Thing.” Unsurprisingly, the film has become a modern classic of the sci-fi genre. It certainly looks like a classic. The movie effectively creates a future world. Many of the sci-fi gadgets, like the holograms, silly future cars, or hilarious robot cabs, look a little campy today. However, the future of “Total Recall” is just close enough to our reality to be believable. The full body x-ray machines, an iconic image, are only slightly more invasive then our current airport security measures. Once the film gets its ass to Mars, the production designs ramp up even more, creating an appropriately unearthly orange glow and making use of some great miniatures.

With “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven made probably the goriest mainstream action film produced up to that point. With “Total Recall,” he topped himself. Every time someone is shot, enormous bloody holes are blown through their chests, their bodies flailing wildly as they die. But “RoboCop” wasn’t just a hideously violent action movie and neither is “Total Recall.” Through this lens, Verhoeven can satirize male power fantasies, so the faithful wife is actually an evil bitch and the bland day job is a cover for a glamorous life as a secret agent. Quaid, previously an average joe, is suddenly murdering goons with ease, cracking necks and blasting them to pieces. What would be an ordinary chase scene is undermined by the goofy robot driver making snide asides the whole time. The airport shoot-out features one of the film’s cleverest gag, including a woman literally big enough for Arnold to hide inside. A human shield is worked over so much, he resembles Swiss cheese. Verhoeven certainly had a good time making this one.

“Total Recall” was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time. That budget is all up on the screen, with excellent sets and special effects, not a one of which is dated. Let’s talk about Rob Bottin’s fantastic effects. When David Cronenberg worked on “Total Recall,” he added the very Cronenberg-esque element of a bunch of mutants living on Mars, cast-offs from the cruel mining company. Bottin was more then capable to create an entire colony of Martian mutants. The most famous of which is Kuato. He’s an inspired creation, a malformed, fetus-like creature with a wisp of greasy hair, growing from a man’s chest. In most any other film, Kuato would be a villain. Instead, he’s a soft spoken freedom fighter. The psychic incursion into Quaid’s mind is one of the more lyrical effects in the film. There’s Tony, a tough guy with a swirling tumor covering his face. He has a wife and daughter with a similar condition. One of my favorites is Benny, with his hidden, insectoid arm. And let’s not overlook Mary, the three-breasted hooker that would launch an entire genre of creepy internet porn. In brief, Bottin’s work is as excellent as ever and I admire the film for making mutant freaks the good guys.

Aside from Kuato and his band of freakish cohorts, the second most memorable effects gag from the movie are what happens to people’s heads in the atmosphere of Mars. Their skin stretches, their eyes bulging out of their heads, tongues bobbing back and forth like a bloated tick. It’s cartoonish, grotesque, and unforgettable. It’s not the only stretchy skin featured in the movie. A high-light of the film is the conversation Arnold has with himself. Taken instructions from a recording of Hauser, Quaid pulls a bright red tracker out through his nose. This is “Total Recall” at its funniest. Along with the hilarious, circular dialogue, the image of Arnold pulling a big red bulb out of his nose is intentionally humorous. 

The film’s blood-splattered action doesn’t run low in the last act. There’s a suspenseful chase through the Martian tunnels, which concludes with a giant drilling device and Arnold cracking a bad pun. The final third has Arnold blowing away dozens of identical henchmen, their blood and guts flying everywhere. The Austrian superstar is as jovial as ever, cracking jokes and making good use of a hologram machine. The ending of the film, where our hero fulfills his destiny and saves Mars is especially satisfying. And the blue skies on Mars is certainly an unforgettable image.

Which brings me to Arnold Schwarzenegger. By the time of “Total Recall,” the former Mr. Olympia was the biggest movie star in the world. Arnold had been wildly successful enough and properly iconic enough to start playing with his own image. As the film begins, Quaid is a seemingly normal guy, despite looking like Arnold and being married to Sharon Stone. Part of the plot has him discovering that he’s actually a secret agent. However, as he sees more of Hauser, his true identity, via pre-recorded message, he decides Hauser is a “fucking asshole.” During moments like this, I begin to wonder: Is Arnold making fun of himself? Think about the way Quaid tosses around perfect one-liners like “Consider dat a divorce!” or “See you at da party, Richta!” Look at the sheer severity of the violence, as Verhoeven pushes the film’s content as far as it can go. Under the right light, “Total Recall” is actually a full-bloodied satire of the kind of movie’s Arnold usually makes. And because Arnold has always been more self-aware then some give him credit for, he has a ball in the part. “Total Recall” is a great Arnold Schwarzenegger movie but also an interesting variation on the actor’s stock roles.

As in “RoboCop,” Verhoeven also creates an impressive cast of bad guys. Ronnie Cox plays Cohaagen, a similar role to Dick Jones. Both are corrupt corporate bosses, abusing their powers for nefarious deeds. Cohaagen wants to control Mars and crush the radicals. Oddly, he’s also partially motivated by protecting the planet, as he believes activating the Martian reactor could destroy all life. Cox is great but is almost overshadowed by Michael Ironside as his primary henchmen, Richter. Ironside brings the steely-eyed intensity to the part you’d expect, playing Richter as a blood-thirty psychopath more than happy to kill for his boss. It’s probably the ultimate Ironside part, a distillation of the many villains and hard-asses he’s played before and since. Rounding out the trio of bad guys is Mel Johnson Jr. as the turn coat Benny. Despite being a rat bastard, Benny is likable, mostly because of his repeated references to his multiple children and his matter-of-fact opinion towards employment.

The film also presents Arnold with two love interests. The first of which is Sharon Stone as Lori, Quaid’s wife. The part plays to Stone’s strengths as an actress. Lori is vindictive and gleefully evil, taking great pleasure in turning on her “husband.” Despite being a treacherous bitch, Stone still has more chemistry with Schwarzenegger then Rachel Ticotin as his actual love interest. This is partially by design. Ticotin plays Melina, Quaid’s literal dream woman. She’s the perfect partner for him, as heroic as Quaid is but also in end of a man’s assistance. However, she’s scrubbed clean, without much grit or character to her personality. I guess it goes to show that a dream woman is probably boring to anyone not having the dream.

“Total Recall” ends on an ambiguous note. The true ending of the film is up to the viewer. Either every thing that happened is real or Quaid is imaging the whole thing, part of his Rekall trip gone wrong. If you believe it, after the final fade to white, he has a seizure and dies. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to the question of whether the story is a dream or a reality. The ambiguity is the point. However, here’s my take on things. Before the mental implant is injected into Quaid, the lab tech mentions how the program ends with “Blue skies on Mars.” You’ll notice, this is how the actual movie ends. Before Quaid is injected, he’s in every scene, living his ordinary life. After he’s injected, the camera cuts away for the first time. Suddenly, we’re following other characters. Almost as if we’re watching a movie… Or the movie-influenced dream of someone imaging what it’s like to be a spy and a Martian freedom fighter. Things get increasingly more outlandish from here, with the mutants and the bloody explosions. And then Quaid literally meets the woman of his dream. Now, maybe he was dreaming about Melina because he had already meet her, in his life as Hauser. Or maybe this is another part of the Rekall program. I, for one, believe most of the movie is a fantasy, ending with our hero having a deadly seizure. But feel free to interrupt another way.

“Total Recall” would become a big hit, one of the last edgy, R-rated action flicks to hit big with audiences in the nineties. It’s another classic for Arnold, featuring the actor doing what he does best. However, it was also a success for Verhoeven, proving that the Dutch auteur had a future making action/sci-fi flicks that double as perfect example of that genre and savvy deconstructions. A classic like “Total Recall” was bound to have an afterlife. There was a forgotten TV show and a flaccid remake. The original, however, towers over both, the insistence to get yer ass to Mars still echoing through the pop culture sphere to this day. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1987)

8. RoboCop

After “Flesh + Blood” opened to lackluster box office, Paul Verhoeven doubled down on his efforts to establish himself in the American film industry. He moved to Los Angeles. “RoboCop” began life as a red hot screenplay written by Edward Neumeier, with the concept expanded on by Michael Miner. After the script was turned down by Alex Cox, it was presented to Verhoeven. He initially threw the script away, partially because he thought the title was silly. However, his wife fished the script out of the trash and got him to reconsider. It was a good call. “RoboCop” would become a rousing success, launching a film franchise that ran for years. Moreover, it remains one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, a landmark in science fiction and action story telling. It also happens to be one of my all time favorite films.

You already know the premise of “RoboCop” but I'll recount it anyway. In the near future, Detroit is a decaying city, full of crime. Massive corporation Omni Consumer Products have privatized the police force. When their initial plan for the future of law enforcement, a robot named ED-209, goes wrong, they move forward on the RoboCop project. Alex Murphy, a hard-working family man and cop, doesn't know any of this. When he's gunned down by psychotic crook Clarence Boddicker, his body is used by OCP as the basis for RoboCop. RoboCop goes to work cleaning up the streets. Yet, as memories of Murphy's past life filter into RoboCop's mind, the cyborg discovers that something more sinister is going on.

When created in 1987, the world of “RoboCop” was a cyberpunk dystopia. Thirty years later, it seems strangely prescient. Detroit really is a city in decline now, that doesn't even have clean drinking water. The police force has become increasingly militarized and the government is actively encouraging the privatization of public services. One prediction of the film hasn't come to past yet but might as well be true. OCP plans to bulldoze Detroit and build a glorious city in its place. A city for the rich that will exclude the poor that lived there once. This latter point is visualized when an attempt rape plays out underneath a billboard for the future Delta City. I don't think Ed Neumeier is a prophet or anything. He simply exaggerated the world as it already existed in the late eighties. And what was ridiculous satire thirty years ago just happened to be closer to realty now.

In 2017, “RoboCop's” status as biting satire is widely recognized. That the film's satiric element was overlooked for years, “RoboCop” being too often dismissed as a brain-dead action flick, really speaks to the myopia of some people. It's not as if Paul Verhoeven is subtle about it. The film's skewering of American foibles circa 1987 is most obvious in its faux television content. We see hilariously exaggerated commercials for massive sports cars or a nuclear war themed board game. The newscaster force smiles onto their faces, staying upbeat and cherry, even while delivering grim news about wars abroad or dying presidents.  The public consumes a crass, sexist sitcom based around a mindless catch phrase. The dual decadent and brainless entertainment clearly points to what America is in “RoboCop's” world: An empire in decline.

“RoboCop's” brilliant script was certainly a contributing factor to the film's lasting cult status. Yet “RoboCop” was also made at the peak of eighties' practical special effects. This resulted in some truly brilliant production design and creature work. Consider RoboCop himself. Inspired by Judge Dredd and Japanese superheroes, the titular character's design is impeccably sleek. Everything about RoboCop is meant to bring smooth machinery to mind. His rounded head and segmented shoulders creates a defined silhouette. The pistons on his legs bring the character's pure strength to mind. The effects work, from Rob Bottin and his team, is truly groundbreaking. After RoboCop removes his helmet, the viewer fully believes that Murphy's face was stretched over a robotic head. I don't know how they pulled that off.

As great as the RoboCop suit is, and I think it's truly great, it's not my favorite special effect in the film. That honor falls to ED-209, Murphy's most persistent reoccurring adversary. ED-209's design is also brilliant, looking like the three-way offspring of a pick-up truck, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a Sherman tank. ED-209 has a personality too. His programmed voice barks orders in a harsh tone, when it isn't growling like a monster. Yet ED-209, a top-of-the-line machine, can't navigate something as simple as stairs. When it falls on its ass, it kicks and screams like a baby. ED-209 is brought to life by a beautiful life-sized prop and some brilliant stop-motion effects from master Phil Tippet. Tippet's work contributes much of ED's humorous aspects, creating a life-like, personable character.

All throughout his Dutch films, Paul Verhoeven's visual sense continued to evolve in interesting ways. This developing talent is obvious in “RoboCop.” Compare the somewhat stiff action sequences in “Flesh + Blood” with the shoot-outs here. During the cocaine factory shoot-out, one of the best scenes in the film, Verhoeven's camera gracefully slides through the violence, providing a constant sense of motion. As awesome as the action scenes are, the quieter moments are even more impressive. Such as the scene where RoboCop explores the house that belong to him and his family when he was still Alex Murphy. The film smoothly shifts between what the cyborg is seeing and the memories of his wife and child. It's a gorgeous, touching sequence, powerfully conveying what the character is feeling through purely visual means.

When Paul Verhoeven came to America, he traded the explicit sexual content of his Dutch film for the most American of content: Graphic violence. Verhoeven would push his bloodlust to unseen levels in “RoboCop.” Every bullet blast produces an enormous, weeping wound. Bloody chunks are tossed into the air every time someone is shot. This is most apparent when ED-209 malfunctions. The robot's unintentional victim is reduced to a pile of bloody giblets, a grown man Swiss cheesed into blasted-up meat. Guns aren't the only weapons employed. When RoboCop stabs an opponent, more blood than seems possible spurts out. My favorite bit involves a man driving into a toxic waste bin and stepping out as a melted, mutated man. Who then gets splattered around by a car. It's an incredibly fucked-up scene seemingly inserted for the hell of it. It says a lot about Verhoeven that the only thing his director's cut returns to the film are longer, grislier scenes of carnage.

Still, there are trademarks Verhoeven didn't leave in the Netherlands. The director's Christ fixation remains present. Alex Murphy rises from the dead, making him an obvious Christ figure. Verhoeven points towards this with the cop's extended death scene. He is “crucified,” when Boddicker and his gang dismember him. During his climatic battle with the same villain, he is pierced in the abdomen by a spear, another Christ parallel. Moments before, RoboCop is seen walking on water. Verhoeven sneaks a sex scene into the film using similar tactics. When secluded in a junkyard, Alex Murphy and Anne Lewis share an intimate moment. She helps him straighten his gun, caressing his arm romantically. Afterwards, he can shoot straight. He then blasts a jar of baby food, the goopy contents splattering everywhere. RoboCop can't get laid anymore so this is the closest thing for him.

By 1987, Peter Weller already had one genuine cult favorite under his belt, playing the title character in the delirious pulp adventure “Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension.” With “RoboCop,” Weller would cement his status as a nerd icon. (It probably doesn't hurt that he's a history expert in real life too.) When first introduced, Alex Murphy is an everyman. He's an energetic cop, who wants to make a good impression on his first day on the job. We don't see much of him in these early scenes but it's evident that he loves his son. After becoming RoboCop, Weller brilliantly creates a new character through his body language. He affects a carefully chosen voice. Every movement is calculated, to display the precision of a well oiled machine. This is evident in the biggest action scenes and the smallest dialogue exchanges. Thought went into every movement Murphy makes. Weller's performance is simply brilliant.

As compelling as Weller's robotic motion are, what truly makes his performance touching is Murphy's character arc. Because “RoboCop” is a story about a man regaining his humanity, a machine realizing its human. A combination of the direction and Weller's performance make RoboCop hugely expressive. Such as when he searches the police archives for the men who killed him. His face never moves and yet we understand his pain. After barely escaping OCP, while heavily damaged, RoboCop removes his helmet and reveals his face. In a touching moment, he asks Anne to leave him alone. As Murphy regains his humanity, Weller integrates more human-like quirks into his robotic performance, visually illustrating the character's transition. At the ending, when RoboCop responds with Murphy's name, his journey back to manhood is completed. Which makes the film touching, even with all its bloodshed.

Weller is backed up by a fantastic supporting cast. Nancy Allen, the former muse of Brian DePalma, plays Anne Lewis. Allen is convincing during her early action scenes, smartly driving a car to get a drop on the bad guys. She's even better when reaching Murphy's humanity. A simple exchange in a hallway speaks volume. Among the OCP lot are several beloved character actors. The sadly late Miguel Ferrer is perfect as Bob Morgan, a spiteful bro of a business executive. He's an ideal villain, someone the audience hates but so entertaining that you still enjoy watching him. Ferrer amusingly hints at Bob's cocaine addiction by repeatedly flaring Bob's nostrils. Ronny Cox, meanwhile, mixes desperation and scraggly psychosis as Dick Jones, a despicable douchbag.

As great as those two are, they are not the best villain in “RoboCop.” Let's give a hand for Clarence Boddicker. He looks like an accountant, wearing a pair of glasses that seem like an odd choice for a thuggish drug lord. This is an intentional subversion, proving that not all hardened criminals look like Danny Trejo. The great Kurtwood Smith makes Clarence Boddicker a slimy little shit, someone who willingly sells out his boss when shoved into a corner. Yet Smith also brings a hilariously sardonic sense of humor to the character. A line like “Bitches leave!” become poetry in his scratchy Midwestern accent. The character is a punishing, sadistic bastard who is only in it for himself. Despite this, there's something oddly lovable about Clarence Boddicker. He's the perfect foil for the upstanding, driven RoboCop.

If I'm saying “RoboCop” has some of the best practical creature effects of all time and one of the best villains of all time, I might as well call its soundtrack one of the best scores of all time. Basil Poledouris had already create amazing scores for “Conan the Barbarian” and Verhoeven's own “Flesh + Blood.” With “RoboCop,” he tops even impressive work like that. The main theme mixes soaring strings with a metallic, hammering bass line. This hints at the dual nature of the protagonist, both man and machine. It also drives the action scenes with an irresistible energy. The quieter moments emphasize the strings, creating a mournful theme for Murphy's melancholic inner life. During the action scenes, Poledouris doubles down on the horns and percussion, creating powerful music to waste goons by. It's probably my all-time favorite score.

“RoboCop” remains a great film satirizing American action movies while also functioning as a perfect American action movie. Its humor is biting and hilarious. Its social observations are still relevant. Its performances are excellent. Its special effects still impress. The action is bold and bloody and unforgettable. The script sneaks a surprising amount of pathos into a hyperviolent story of cyborgs and crooks. One of the best blockbusters ever made, “RoboCop” still satisfies as a crowd-pleaser and as a surprisingly deep vehicle for social commentary. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1985)

7. Flesh + Blood

After the controversy and attempted censorship that greeted his last two films, Paul Verhoeven grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Dutch film industry. His next feature would be his first in English, a Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and American co-production. “Flesh + Blood” was an attempt by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman to build on unused material for their old swashbuckling show “Floris.” Yet production would be troubled. Verhoeven choose to shoot without storyboards and quickly came to regret that decision. The producers were pushy and demanded changes. There would be tension between the director and Rutger Hauer, leading to their relationship ending. Upon release, “Flesh + Blood” would be widely cut and censored, failing to generate much box office interest.

The year is 1501. The place is a battle ravaged Italy. A group of mercenaries, led by a man named Martin, have been hired to retake a city ruled by King Arnolfini. After a successful mission, Arnolfini refuses to give the mercenaries the loot they were promised. The gang also dig up a statue of St. Martin, which they take as a sign that Martin should be their leader. For revenge, he kidnaps Agnes, a virginal noblewoman promised to Arnolfini's son. Soon, the girl seemingly falls in love with Martin. The gang siege a near-by castle, claiming it for their own. Yet attacks from Arnolfini and Agnes' suitor, the threat of the plague, and disloyalty within the group threatens to destroy Martin's newly acquired home.

I've never seen “Floris” but, from everything I've read, it sounds like a typical medieval adventure show. “Flesh + Blood” is a blatant deconstruction of that story. The 1500s aren't portrayed as glamorous and shiny. Instead, Verhoeven intentionally depicted the time period as ugly and unpleasant. There's not a single surface in the film that isn't caked with mud and grime. The opening and closing battles take place in a downpour, the characters getting soaked. Murder rules the land. Rape is commonplace. Everyone dies and dies badly. It's a deeply cynical age too. Nobody's motivations can be taken at face value. “Fresh + Blood” was ahead of its time in this regard, as gritty depictions of classical areas are now in vogue. There's even a catchy phrase for it: Mudpunk. And “Flesh + Blood” is definitely an early example of mudpunk.

Fitting this deeply unglamourous setting, “Flesh + Blood” is not about nice people. The film's protagonist could graciously be described as “antiheroes.” In truth, they're heroes-in-name-only, thugs, thieves, and psychopaths who murder and rape as it suits them. Even the cardinal, the religious man among the group, kills on a whim. The gang are only in it for the payday. Their loyalties can be bought with the right price. Even after Martin is assigned as the leader, he has to constantly remind the other gang members that raping and killing everything isn't a great idea. “Flesh + Blood” is a challenging film, without a non-despicable character for the audience to relate to.

The casual amoral attitudes of “Flesh + Blood” accumulates in a sickening gang rape scene. Yes, this is Paul Verhoeven's third movie to feature an intense, graphic rape sequence. Which really makes you wonder what the director's hang-up with sexual assault is. The rape occurs after Agnes is abducted by Martin and the other mercenaries. After several other men attempt to force themselves on her, Martin takes the girl for himself. Verhoeven lingers on the mechanics of the assault. The men and women in the gang hold Agnes up and present her for him. There's multiple shots of thrusting asses and parted legs. The scene concludes with Agnes seemingly beginning to enjoy the assault, promising her love to Martin. Which is such an unnerving, confusing moment that I really do believe Verhoeven is mostly just fucking with us.

In fact, the movie supports the theory that Agnes being raped into loving Martin is a ploy to throw audiences off. All throughout “Flesh + Blood's” run time, the film teases with the idea that Agnes is only pretending to love Martin, so that she's not killed. In the final act, she's given a chance to let Martin dies. She saves him. Later, she leaves him to die. Yet even after burning the castle down, even after he attempts to strangle her, she pauses before walking away. Many of the romantic scenes between Martin and Agnes are played totally straight. Such as a lengthy and genuinely erotic love scene in a bath tub. It's really up for the viewer to decide whether or not there's anything sincere about her feelings or if Agnes is just trying to survive. The film seemingly leaves room for both interpretation. (If the latter is true, it's another trouble example of a Verhoeven women using her status as a sexual object to succeed.)

“Flesh + Blood” would be the final collaboration between Rutger Hauer and Paul Verhoeven, after seemingly being the Scorsese/DeNiro of the Netherlands. Apparently, tension would rise between the actor and the director because Hauer was hoping to play more heroic parts around this time, as he was concerned about getting typecast as a villain. Verhoeven, meanwhile, was pushing for Martin to be as morally gray – if you can call a rapist and murderer “morally gray” – as possible. The director clearly won out. Even though Martin is a totally despicable character, Rutger Hauer still brings some of his blue-eyed charm to the part. Even when he's doing awful things, you get the impression that Martin at least believes he's a good guy. We're all heroes in our own story, after all, so that approach fits the film.

Maybe one of the reasons “Flesh + Blood” seems uncertain about the quote-unquote love story is because the international producers were actively pushing for a romantic subplot. So Jennifer Jason Leigh's Agnes became co-leads with Rutger. Still, it's hard to imagine “Flesh + Blood” without Leigh's unique presence. When introduced, Leigh's Agnes strikes the viewer as deeply innocent. She is so naive that she actually asks her maid how sex works. When she's shown, Agnes lashes out violently. Throughout “Flesh + Blood,” Leigh maintains a sense of innocence, even when marching around nude or having rowdy sex. (Which is often.) There's a strange power in Jennifer Jason Leigh's eyes, a youthful beauty paired with an inscrutable cunning. In many ways, she gives the best performance in the film.

There's a large supporting cast in “Flesh + Blood,” even though Hauer and Leigh are clearly the stars. Tom Burlinson plays Steven, the prince Agnes is engaged to. Burlinson is in the tricky position of playing a villain, whose goal is rescue the princess from the raping, murdering looters. Burlinson pulls this off by portraying Steven as a know-it-all twit, easily disliked by the audience.  Susan Tyrrell has a showy, notable part as Celine, the wench that has ingrained herself in Martin's group. Tyrell portrays a real sadness throughout her performance, such as an early scene where she demands her stillborn child receives a proper burial. The scratchy voiced Ronald Lacey plays the unnamed Cardinal, a memorably off-beat character. Eighties action heavy Brion James also has a small role as an especially rowdy member of the gang. Jack Thompson's Hawkwood played a larger role in the original script but the final film cuts his part down so much that Thompson barely registers.

The film's title promises two things. Jennifer Jason Leigh's usually nude state guarantees the flesh. Verhoeven doesn't skimp on the blood either. The opening battle scene has limbs being chopped off. Men are driven through by sword blades. One especially memorable scene features hunks of a plague-infected dog being tossed over the castle walls. For the finale, “Flesh + Blood” really pumps up the violence. A man is impaled by four different wooden spears, still fighting as he goes down. Another mercenary, after realizing he has the plague, stabs himself by jamming his sword into the wall and flinging himself on the blade. The violence is intense, graphic, and prolonged. Just as you'd expect from the man who would make “RoboCop.”

Verhoeven's obsession with religious iconography especially comes to the surface in “Flesh + Blood.” The clue is right there in the title, as the word “and” has been replaced with a cross. The film seemingly criticizes the religious mania of the day. After digging up the statue of St. Martin, the mercenaries take any small detail as signs of divine intervention. When the statue's sword points in a certain direction, they follow it. Yet it's clear that there's no Godly hand directing their actions. The men are governed by chance, seeing heavenly intercession when there's only random happenstance. There's other weird, religious symbols floating around the film. Within the opening minutes, a nun has the top half of her head cleaved off. She lives but suffers from seizures, any stress driving her into a shaking state of religious awe.

The film's religious themes are in direct conflict with its scientific themes. Steven fancies himself a scholar. He dismisses superstition and the supernatural, such as when Agnes digs up what she thinks is a Mandrake root. When discovering several members of his party have been infected with the Bubonic Plague, he dismisses bloodletting as archaic. Instead, he suggests lancing the boils. Notably, a physician is dismissive of this at first, calling it “un-Christian science,” before later adopting the method. How technology marches forward is also a theme in the film. In the beginning, a rolling barrel of gun powder is presented as a new, advanced weapon. Later, Steven builds a large wooden tank. A long siege tower extends from the vehicle, which might seem ridiculous, even campy, if that actual technology didn't exist at the time.

The film also features a powerful, stirring score from Basil Poledouris, who was chosen to score the film specifically because of his iconic work on the “Conan the Barbarian” series. Verhoeven has referred to “Flesh + Blood” as the most difficult film shoot he's ever experienced. He nearly quit directing over it. Yet the filmmaker would learn from the mistakes of “Flesh + Blood,” continuing to story board his films and never kowtowing to pushy producers again. Even though the troubled production is sometimes evident in the finished picture, “Flesh + Blood” is a consistently interesting, if frequently troubling, motion picture. It's certainly a unique addition to the medieval action canon, an amoral adventure that only Paul Verhoeven would've dared to make. [Grade: B]

Monday, May 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1983)

6. The 4th Man
De vierde man

“The 4th Man” would be the last of Paul Verhoeven's early movie made totally within the Netherlands. The controversy that made finding funding for “Spetters” difficult continued with this film. This isn't surprising, considering Verhoeven's sixth film also prominently featured intense violence and homosexual content. “The 4th Man” underperformed in Holland but would continue Verhoeven's critical popularity in America, winning the Dutch director the best abroad reviews of his career. Now, in 2017, “The 4th Man” is widely considered one of the director's best movie. A mixture of erotic thriller, horror, dark comedy, and religious allegory, it's yet another movie that only Paul Verhoeven could make.

Gerard Reve is a respected and popular author but he's got some problems. First off, he's an alcoholic. Secondly, he seems to resent his live-in boyfriend. Finally, he's haunted by hyper-violent hallucinations. While leaving to give a speech in Amsterdam, he spots a beautiful man on the train. At the literary event, Christine, a beautiful but androgynous woman, grabs his attention. They spent the night together and, in the morning, Gerard discovers the beautiful man on the train is also her lover. He decides to stay with Christine, in order to seduce her boyfriend. However, as he learns more about Christine, he discovers her previous three husbands died mysteriously. And now Gerard is increasingly worried he may become her fourth victim.

Plot wise, “The 4th Man” builds upon countless stories about “black widows:” Women who seduce and marry men, before murdering them. It's a comparison the film makes from the very beginning. The opening credits play over footage of a spider capturing a fly in its web, encircling the insect and finally eating it. A little while later, Christine takes Gerard to the hotel where they have sex. A few letters in the hotel's sign – Sphinx – are out, so they spell “Spin,” the Dutch word for spider. This clues the audience in early on where “The 4th Man” may be going, creating a sense of building tension that runs throughout the entire film. You know Christine will be revealed as a murderer. You're just left wondering when.

That's assuming if any of “The 4th Man” can be taken at face value. Deception is part of the story. Gerard is manipulating Christine, so he can get close to Hector, her hunky lover. Christine, in turn, is manipulating both men, into becoming her next victim. If you go further, the entire film may be manipulating the audience. Because of Gerard's sporadic hallucinations, there's no way of knowing how much of the story is real. As his theories about the girl grow more extreme, one begins to wonder if he isn't just imaging everything. This sense of duality also fits into its protagonist's bisexuality. And if Gerard is really exclusively gay, sleeping with Christine is another layer of his deception.

Homoeroticism played a large role in “Spetters,” changing the context of all the male frontal nudity in Verhoeven's previous films. In “The 4th Man,” the main character's queer attributes informs much of the film. Gerard makes love with Christine, but only after noting she looks like a boy with that haircut. When actually having sex, he cover her breasts, to make her look even more androgynous. Herman comes off as a macho man, showing off his bod and bragging about his sexual conquests. Yet Herman's own sexuality proves surprisingly fluid, as Gerard successfully seduces him as a pivotal moment. If deception – something not being what it appears to be – is a main theme of “The 4th Man,” the way sexuality can morph or change fits into the movie's atmosphere.

Paul Verhoeven's obsession with religious iconography makes up a large part of the film. While sitting on the train, Gerard sees an illustration of Samson and Delilah. Later, he discovers that Christine's hair care products are named Delilah. Verhoeven literalizes the emasculating symbolism of Delilah cutting Samson's hair. In a fantasy, Christine cuts off Gerard's dick, instead of his hair. This is but one example of the Christian symbolism peppered throughout “The 4th Man.” That spider in the opening credits crawls over a crucifix. While in a church, Gerard imagines Hector, wearing his skimpy swim trunks, up on the cross. (It seems unlikely that Verhoeven wasn't familiar with the intertwining history of religious iconography and homoerotic images.) There's other stuff too. An infant's head is circled with an apple peel, like a halo. Gerard eventually conflates the child's mother with Mary. To make this extra explicit, she's always dressed in blue, the color most associated with the Holy Virgin.

Yet the most tantalizing symbolism concerns a color. During his train ride, after spotting the Mother and Child figure, Gerard imagines blood flowing down a photo of a building. That same red color reappears throughout the film. Whenever a client appears in Christine's salon, a red light flashes. This matches the red outfit the character wears when first introduced. During a frightening encounter with a dog, red roses blow through the air. A red scarf hangs from some steel poles, which become very dangerous later on. Red is a color with numerous connotations. It means blood. It means danger. At one point, the characters past a sign for the Red Cross, which mirrors an earlier sign promoting Christianity. This links red with Christ. So, in “The 4th Man,” red means Jesus but it also means death. This fits Verhoeven's view of Christianity, as a religion rooted in an act of brutal violence: The crucifixion.

Verhoeven actually made “The 4th Man” in response to critics who claimed the content in his last few films for excesses for excesses' sake. That the film was designed to impress critics is interesting, since it technically belongs to one of the most critically disregarded genres. You see, “The 4th Man” is a horror movie. It's not just because of the murders either. Gerard's bizarre nightmares and daytime hallucinations push the film into the realm of the macabre and horrific. His first hallucination involves a bloody eyeball appearing in place of a door's peephole. Another dream features Herman walking out of the sea, his own eye bloodily dangling from his socket. The most elaborate fantasy involves a key shaped like a pistol – also phallic symbols – and butchered slabs of meat floating over pales. The latter image feels like something out of a Jean Rollin film. The nightmare scenes in “The 4th Man” are intense enough that they make the actual acts of violence more shocking and upsetting.

For all the obvious symbolic elements at work in “The 4th Man,” I noticed another one while watching this time. While giving his lecture on literature, Gerard admits to exaggerating an incident that occurred the day before. He's an author, a storyteller. This certainly fits the possibility that certain parts of “The 4th Man” are imagined by its protagonist. Yet it goes deeper than that. While Gerard is speaking at the podium, Christine is recording him. Later, he discovers that she has recordings of all her ex-husbands. So there's the distinct possibility that Gerard imagines some of the film. Yet other characters are writing this story too, Verhoeven seems to say. Reality is subjective for everyone. (In another weird layer of meta-fiction, Gerard Reve is apparently a real Dutch author, well known and respected in his home country, and wrote the book “The 4th Man” was based on.)

Verhoeven would reunite with two actors who previously appeared in his other films. Jeroen Krabbe, last seen in “Soldier of Orange,” plays Gerard. The author spends most of the movie intoxicated, which certainly fits the stereotypes of the alcoholic writer. This allows Krabbe to play the part as sweaty and desperate as he wants. That works well, since Gerard's mental state is falling apart throughout the story. By the end, he's gone totally around the bend. Krabbe is having a lot of fun, playing a part as manic and unhinged as the film he's a part of.

Starring as Christine is Renee Soutendijk. Soutendijk previously appeared as the seductive Fientje in “Spetters.” At first, the parts seem similar. Both are women who seduce men for their own purposes, with Christine's sexual appeal being no less obvious than Fientje's was. Yet Soutendijk's performances are very different. She plays Christine as mostly sympathetic. When she discusses her dead husbands, she does so with genuine sorrow in her eyes. Soutendijk also summons an unnerving energy, giving a simple smirk great threatening powers. That the performance is so diverse certainly supports the two possibilities inherent in the script. Christine is either a deeply unlucky women, with three dead husbands, or a murdering black widow.

Some refer to “The 4th Man” as a comedy. While I mostly see the movie as an erotic thriller with strong overtones of horror, there are times when Verhoeven is clearly playing the material for laughs. A reveal, that Gerard has arrived at the hotel he's dreamed about, is so overwrought that it must have been intentionally goofy. That same sense of sarcastic melodrama rears its head when the protagonists pass a car crash. It's a brutal moment yet filmed with such detachment that it also becomes morbidly funny. By the conclusion, when Gerard is raving insanely about his theories, it's clear that a streak of absurdity runs through “The 4th Man.” To call the movie a flat-out comedy is misleading but Verhoeven's tendency to mess with the viewer is very apparent.

“The Fourth Man” is also excellently paced. The film's not very long but it rolls along so smoothly, so compellingly, that it feels even shorter than it is. Once the credits started to roll, I genuinely felt like I wanted more. The film is rich in meaning while also functioning as a taut thriller and a twisted horror picture. Strip away all the visual symbolism and you would still have an entertaining piece of pulp. Add it back in and you've got an arresting act of storytelling, the viewer taking every sight in and ruminating over its significance. Verhoeven might have left his home country for the greener California coast but he sure finished up his run of Dutch films with a damn good motion picture. [Grade: A]

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1980)

5. Spetters

Paul Verhoeven has been followed by controversy his entire career. I have no idea how Dutch cultural critics reacted to his first four movies, though they were all obviously quite popular. His next movie, 1980's “Spetters,” would also be financially successful. Moral outrage, however, would dog the movie in its native Holland. The original financial backers wanted Verhoeven to tone down the script, which he refused to do. The gay community thought it was homophobic. Women thought it was sexist. It was derided as lurid and decadent. In America, Steven Spielberg was about to recommend Verhoeven to George Lucas, based on “Soldier of Orange,” as a potential candidate to direct “Return of the Jedi.” Until “Spetters'” explicit content made him change his mind. Yet the movie has survived these controversies and is now regarded as a cult classic.

The film follows three friends in a small Dutch town. Each boy is obsessed with dirt bike racing and especially admire national champion Gerrit Witkamp. Rien is an extremely talented racer, on track to become a champion himself, with a steady girlfriend. Eef is everyone's mechanic, much to the chagrin of his hyper-religious father. Hans desperately wants to be as good as Rien or Witkamp but lacks their skill. The group's social life is disrupted when Frientje, the fetching girl who works at the snack truck, comes between them. After tragedy strikes, all the sex and bike riding in the world won't be enough to hold everyone together.

After making two period pieces, Paul Verhoeven returns to the modern day. “Spetters” is a classical coming-of-age story, loosely plotted, following six young people as they figure their lives out. Being an early Verhoeven film, the director loads this story with as much sex as possible. Each of the leads have a nude scene, with every male doing full frontal. The gang have two main pleasures in life: Fucking and riding bikes. It doesn't take long for Verhoeven to draw a parallel between the two, with Rien loosing his ability to race and become erect at the same time. The director sees the foibles of these boner-obsessed teens. One hilarious scene – which references Verhoeven's own “Turkish Delight” – has two couple simultaneously faking orgasms. It's only after they stop thinking with their dicks and pussies that the youths start to grow up.

As is common with coming-of-age stories, the relationships between the teenagers and their parents play a big role. Some of these are more dramatic than others. Rien's father is endlessly proud of him. He displays each of his racing trophies in his bar. Yet he doesn't push his son needlessly either, being perfectly happy to let his boy inherit the family business if this biking thing doesn't work out. Not every kid in the movie is as lucky. Eef is introduced trailing behind his father, his bike's path blocked by his father's tractor. Later, when the boy displeases his old man, he is brutally beaten. Eef's father believes God's wrath acts through him, given the right to physically punish his off-spring. Yet neither type of parenting saves either boy. That's the cynical world “Spetters” inhabits.

“Spetters” is an ensemble film but, if any character emerges as the protagonist, it's Hans van Tongeren's Rien. Rien's success as a bike racer is what his friends rally around. They each cheer him on. When he wins a race, it's a cause for celebration for all of them. He's popular with the girls, illustrated when he actually gets laid on the same night the other four stumble around. It's easy to see why Rien is so popular. Tongeren's performance is charismatic. He has an easy-going energy, which he often emphasizes with a charming smirk. When the more dramatic moments appear, Tongeren is good in these too, able to lend small gestures or simple phrases with meaning. Tongeren, tragically, would commit suicide not long after filming finished, ending a promising career and eerily paralleling his character's fate.

Toon Agterberg plays Eef, the group's mechanic. Eef is so good with engines that he can literally assemble a bike with his eyes closed. Yet something else is troubling him, besides his abusive dad. In an early scene, Eef is compared to John Travolta while dancing in a disco. Later, Travolta's face decorates a trailer owned by a gay man. (This is somewhat ironic, considering the rumors regarding Travolta's sexuality that have circulated for decades.) After leaving the club, Eef and his friends beat up a pair of gay men. On another occasion, he sneaks off and watches a hook-up between two gay men in a subway tunnel. Eef begins attacking and robbing hustlers. Yet this violence betrays a fascination with homosexuality. Eef's hidden queerness gives new meaning to the macho posturing he engages in with his friends, which includes a literal dick measuring contest at one point.

But subtly is not something Paul Verhoeven does. Eef's true sexuality gets forced into the open in a graphic, disturbing way. After robbing another gay man, Eef is chased through the same subway tunnel by a gang. He's pinned against a wheel and brutally raped by each man in the gang. Verhoeven shoots the scene in sickening close-up, focusing on the terror and agony the boy feels and the satisfaction his rapists achieve. The scene is appropriately terrible... But what happens next is a real head-scratcher. The rape causes Eef is realize his sexuality. He befriends one of his rapist and begins to live openly as a gay man. I, uh, don't think it works that way, Paul. Credit this baffling plot twist to the film being made in a different time and place or the director's obsession with shocking his audience.

Rounding out the group of friends is Hans, played by Maarten Spanjer. Spanjer, with his floppy hair and puppy dog eyes, appears to be the most innocent of the group. Hans is perpetually in Rien's shadow. During Rien's big race, Hans wrecks his own bike, not even finishing. After Rien's debilitating accident, Hans sees this as his chance to become a successful racer. Instead, he's humiliated by his idol, Gerrit Witkamp recording footage of Hans failing on the race track and showing it on television. Once again, as “Spetters” is about growing up, Hans only begins to achieve happiness after he stops chasing after his friend and pursues his own goals. Spanjer's performance is maybe my favorite of the film, as he keeps Hans likable and relatable even during his teenage outbursts.

The reason “Spetters” offended gays should be obvious. The reason “Spetters” offended women appears with Fientje. Fientje sleeps with practically every male character she meets. She screws a cop to get out of trouble. She sleeps with a news reporter to secure Rien a sponsor. She seduces Rien, encouraging him to dump his current girlfriend, because she believes him to be a future champion. After Rien's accident, she dumps him for Eef, as he plans to leave for Canada soon. Once Eef comes out as gay, Fientje shacks up with Hans out of sheer desperation. Like Katie Tippel, Fientje uses her feminine wiles to prosper herself. Yet this may be less sexist than it appears. Because Fientje isn't a bad person. She's strong, fighting off rowdy bikers in her first scene. Her fame whoring ways are another sign of immaturity, that she leaves behind as she figures out her place in the world. Either way, Renee Soutendijk's performance is certainly eye-catching.

The first half of “Spetters” is devoted to the sleazy fun of bike racing and graphic fuckery. The film takes a deliberate tonal shift midway through. Rien's success is cut short when he wrecks his bike and shatters his spine. He becomes paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheel chair. Robbed of his future, of both bikes and sex, Rien becomes despondent. This leads him to meet with his girlfriend, Maya, who has joined up with a group of evangelical Christians. Oh, yeah, “Spetters” offended Christians too. At a tent revival, Rien hopes a preacher can cure his condition. When it doesn't, he gives in totally to despair, taking his own life. Not only is this a sign of Verhoeven's growing obsession with religious iconography, it's another example of the film's thesis. That the young people need to follow their own path, instead of doing what others tell them to do.

As a filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven's visual skills continue to grow with each new feature. The bike racing scenes are impressively brought to life. The quick editing and handle on motion points towards Verhoeven's future as an action director. That same sense of motion carries to the sickening rape scene, which Verhoeven intensifies with close-ups and handheld shots. A few other images come to mind. Such as an overhead shot that shows Rien, alone and wheelchair bound, on a busy street. The film's conclusion features a point-of-view shot from a moving vehicle, as if the eye of God is observing every character as they reach the next step of their life.

Verhoeven's last three features has gorgeous, orchestral scores. But those movies were made in the seventies. “Spetters” was a modern movie about modern teens. To usher audiences into 1980, the film begins by showcasing its synth heavy soundtrack. Composer Ton Scherpenzeel, who would later form the Dutch New Wave band Kayak, provides the music. The main theme is driving and powerful, pushing the character forward with a fast paced beat. Later, that same theme is reprised in a darker manner, taking on a new meaning as the character's lives grow more serious. When Scherpenzeel isn't providing awesome beats, “Spetters” fills its soundtrack with pop hits of the day. Iggy Pop, Blondie, ABBA, Olivia Newton John, and other musicians of the day are often heard in the background.

“Spetters'” sexual politics have not aged well, assuming Verhoeven wasn't always just trolling viewers. Which is totally possible. For its flaws, “Spetters” is still a powerful motion picture experience. It captures a certain youthful energy, driving the audience along with the same speed as the teens on their bikes. The performances are great, the movie looks awesome, the soundtrack rocks, and the story is effective. It all adds up to make one of my favorite Verhoeven film. And if you're wondering what the title means, it's a now-outdated Dutch phrase for “hunks,” referring to the mud splattered by the bike wheels. [Grade: A-]