Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2016)

16. Elle

In-between 2000 and 2016, Paul Verhoeven only made two movies. Considering he was making a film about every other year for the first three decades of his career, that's a major slow down. Yes, “Black Book” was a hit in Holland and well reviewed internationally but, to many eyes, Paul Verhoeven was semi-retired. Until last year. With the release of “Elle,” Verhoeven would court conversation and controversy in a way that he hadn't in years. The film would generate discussion all over the world. Isabelle Huppert's lead performance would win multiple awards and universal acclaim. Unsurprisingly, “Elle” has been hailed as Verhoeven's comeback vehicle.

Michele, a successful video game producer and daughter of a notorious mass murderer, is raped in her own home by a masked intruder. Michele, at first, seems unchanged by the assault. She is as ruthless as ever at work and in her personal life. She bosses around her lover, belittles her employees, argues with her son, and begins some intense flirting with her next door neighbor. However, her attacker is not done. He leaves vulgar text messages and even enters her house when she's not home. After a second assault, Michele discovers the man's true identity. And then things get really complicated.

“Elle” was going to generate controversy, regardless. The cultural environment of 2017 is more sensitive to the subject of sexual assault than ever before. With Verhoeven directing, a filmmaker with a not always tasteful attitude towards sexual violence, “Elle” became especially contentious. Yet “Elle” grants a rape victim the greatest gratitude: Complexity. Too often in film and television, people who have been assaulted are depicted as weeping victims. Not too mention all the media that uses a woman's rape strictly to motivate a man's story. “Elle” is strictly Michele's story. Moreover, her reaction to being raped is complicated. She goes about her life, yet hides psychic scars. The assault might even awaken something in her. “Elle” is a multi-faceted portrayal of someone living through something horrible. And it deserves major kudos for that.

Some of that complexity is thanks to the director. Michelle is, in many ways, the quintessential Verhoven-ian woman. She's ruthless in her professional life, hard in her romantic and family life, and absolutely determined to succeed. However, I have no doubt that Isabelle Huppert is primarily responsible for making the character come alive so beautifully. Huppert's exterior is chilly. The only vulnerability she shows is a dark sense of humor, an occasional sarcastic aside to her cat. Even after wrecking her car, Michelle remains stoic. On the page, Michelle is almost a mystery. Huppert turns her into a complex, fully formed character. With her body language, a vocal intonation, a glance or a gesture, she hints at the layers within. No wonder some call Huppert the greatest actress alive.

“Elle” was based on a novel by Philippe Dijian. Despite this, the director makes the material his own. In many ways, “Elle” continues the themes Verhoeven has been developing since at least “Basic Instinct.” This is another story about an uncompromising woman and the clueless men in her life. Michelle's son, Vincent, is pushed around by his pregnant girlfriend. He quits his fast food job, despite needing the money. When the baby comes out black, Vincent still assumes the child is his. Michelle's ex-husband, an unsuccessful novelist, is in the grips of a pathetic mid-life crisis, dating a younger woman and desperately trying to stay relevant. Michelle's lover is a complete buffoon, a constantly horny dweeb. Even the rapist is clueless. After being fatally wounded, he asks Michelle “why.” As if she needs another reason to hate him. The film's heroine may be uncompromising, even cold, but the film's men are all totally clueless assholes.

“Elle” doesn't feature the graphic violence of Verhoeven's Hollywood movies. Attitude-wise, it is just as brutal. The film begins with Michelle's assault. The very first scene shows her struggling under her attacker, in an isolated wide shot. Which then cuts to her cat, watching dispassionately and uninterested. This characterizes the world of “Elle.” The later rapes occur just as suddenly, just as unforgiving in their violence. At times, it feels like the universe is conspiring against the protagonist. Because of her infamy as the daughter of a murderer, random people on the street toss food at her. A deer leaping into the road forces Michelle to swerve into a tree, another example of things going badly for her. But Michelle isn't a victim. Only hours after the first assault, she goes to work and oversees a video game cut scene featuring a rather literal mind rape. The world is cruel. She must be cruel to survive it. 

“Elle's” brutality is also present in the way it depicts Michelle's mental state. Outwardly, she shows little sign of trouble. Inside is another matter. During the middle of the day, we are treated to an extended flashback of the opening rape. This is a good portrayal of how random events can trigger traumatic memories. Further on, Michelle has a daydream about the assault going differently. She imagines a scenario where she successfully turned the tables on her attacker. This is also an accurate depiction of the mindset of someone who has survived a traumatic event. That the film cuts between the protagonist's memories and fantasies without warning further shows how an assault can fracture someone's thoughts.

During a dinner party, Michelle casually explains her father's rampage. How he went door to door through their neighborhood, shooting and stabbing twenty-seven people. And, she adds grimly, their pets too. An image of a young Michelle, in her underwear and covered in ash, became the symbol of the attack. No explanation is provided for Dad's killing spree, the same way no explanation is provided by Michelle's rapist. Despite his violent history, Michelle proves stronger than her father. In another example of the film's men being feckless, Michelle promising to visit him in prison prompts her father to suicide. Michelle doesn't have a good relationship with her mom either, an elderly lady who is engaged to a much younger stud. (Who, it's heavily implied, is only marrying her for the money.) Mom insists Michelle visit her father, a notion she rejects. This raises several issues, such as Michelle's reluctance to commit to traditional roles and the question of whether or not anti-social instincts are inherited.

As I said, “Elle” probably would've generated controversy no matter what. Yet one aspect of the script seemed especially contentious. Midway through the film, we discover that the masked attacker is Patrick, the neighbor that Michelle has begun an affair with. Even after discovering this, she doesn't call off the relationship. He helps her out of the car wreck. They have a peaceful dinner. Later, he assaults her again at Michele's insistence, which seems to give her a powerful orgasm. This is another layer of complexity atop “Elle.” Human desire isn't simple. Maybe Michelle is attracted to Patrick because he's different, in a horrifying way, than the spineless men around her. Or maybe it's just another senseless quirk of the universe. The film provides no easy answers, in its striving towards a human-like sense of complexity.

In the lead-up to “Elle's” release, Paul Verhoeven began describing the movie as his “rape comedy.” Which is probably another example of his shock value-laden sense of humor. Indeed, calling “Elle” a comedy is misleading, to say the least. However, one can see the darkest of humor within the film. After a tense conversation, Michelle's mother immediately keels over from a stroke. While mom's in the hospital, Michelle outright asks if the stroke was real or if she's just faking it. As her comatose mother begins to flat line, Michelle is more preoccupied with a malfunctioning TV. That same black humor is present in Michelle's interaction with her clueless son or meatheaded lover.

“Elle” is clearly Isabelle Huppert's film. Still, an excellent supporting cast was assembled. Laurent Lafitte as Patrick has the difficult job of playing a man who is charming in his normal life but, secretly, hides an evil perversity. Jonas Bloquet as Vincent, Michelle's son, also has a tricky role. Vincent must be enough of an idiot that he takes Josie's infidelity without question. He must also have something like an innocent side, coming off as not much more than a big kid. Both actors achieve these goals. Judith Marge as Irene, Michele's mother, displays a weathered sense of humor, having lived a hard life. Alice Isaaz, meanwhile, is perfectly bitchy as Vincent's girlfriend.

Another sign “Elle” is unmistakably a Verhoeven film is the way he litters the story with religious iconography. “Elle” begins around Christmas time. We see the neighbors set up a Nativity, where Patrick's wife comments on how much she loves the image of Baby Jesus. Later, during a party, we see Christmas mass playing on television. This is what spurns on Michele recounting of her dad's murders. All of these references to the Christ child play in contrast to Josie's pregnancy, as she's no Madonna and her child is clearly not the offspring of a virgin birth. I have no idea how this religious imagery plays into the movie's overall themes, other than Verhoeven seeing an excuse to indulge in another of his favorite habits.

Paul Verhoeven's return to Europe has produced some quality films, with “Black Book” and “Tricked” both being very good. “Elle,” however, is sure to stand up as one of his best films. It's a challenging motion picture but in an altogether different way then his other films. It presents a more mature perspective without loosing sight of what made the director special in the first place. Buoyed by an amazing Huppert performance, “Elle” impresses and lingers in the mind, haunting the viewer with the numerous questions – and no easy answers – it raises. [Grade: A]

The critical praise that greeted "Elle" has re-energized Paul Verhoeven's career. His next film has already been announced. "Blessed Virgin" is a fact-based story about a lesbian nun in the 17th century. A story of forbidden sex and religious imagery couldn't be more perfect for Verhoeven.

This Director Report Card has been exhausting at times - covering the RoboCop and Starship Troopers sequels was a mistake - but it has reaffirmed by belief that there's no other filmmaker out there quite like Paul Verhoeven.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Our RoboCop Remake (2014)

When the remake of “RoboCop” was announced, fans were, naturally, very skeptical. In fact, they were hostile. “RoboCop” is a movie that means a lot to a lot of people. It perfectly represents a bygone era of action, special effects, and concise screenwriting. In our PG-13 era of big budget superhero blockbusters, a new “RoboCop” movie represented something very different. So fans became proactive. A group of organizer brought together over fifty different filmmakers. They would put their own spin on every scene from the original “RoboCop,” fans allowed to change up Verhoeven's classic however they wanted. The result, “Our RoboCop Remake,” was released for free on the internet. The film's tagline - “If anyone is going to ruin “RoboCop,” it's should to be us” – perfectly captures the fan feature's absurdist, home-made approach.

Something that's fascinating about “Our RoboCop Remake” is the diversity of filmmaking styles on display. Just to remind viewers where the story is, scenes from the original “RoboCop” occasionally flash on screen. These scenes are then recreated by the fans. Sometimes, the shots are fairly faithful, until something crazy happens. Other times, a more low budget approach is taken. A foam RoboCop suit puts in frequent appearances. Often, the style shifts entirely. Both hand-drawn and CGI animation are utilized. (One exceptionally crude computer animated scene is from Jon Watts, who made the latest “Spider-Man.”) Some scenes mimic 8-bit video games. Others are recreated with action figures. Everything from puppetry to musical theater to interpretive dance makes up the many scenes in “Our RoboCop Remake.”

When you have so many different filmmakers collaborating on the same film, the outcome will inevitably be uneven. Luckily, “Our RoboCop Remake” is amusing more often than not. A number of scenes cleverly play with the format. One moment features the original dialogue but substitutes Kurtwood Smith and Peter Weller with babies. ED-209 machine gunning an OCP executive into bloody ribbons is recreated with muppet-y felt puppets, gore being replaced with fluff. Later, Murphy's murder scene plays out as a rather graceful dance scene. There are two musical numbers, the second of which rather brilliantly features action figures. Two of the funniest gags replaces cocaine with milk and cookies and has RoboCop writing a Christmas letter to his parents. Another scene has a lawyer stepping in, decrying the fan production, and encouraging the viewer to watch the officially sanctioned remake instead.

This stuff is pretty fun but the funniest moments in “Our RoboCop Remake” tend to focus on freewheeling absurdity. Such as when the cops shooting RoboCop argue about how human he is. Emil's robbery of a gas station is interrupted by his sincere appreciation for philosophy. Boddicker's assassination of Bob Morton dissolves into a cocaine-fueled hooker party. RoboCop discussing his remaining humanity with Lewis, brilliantly, dissolves into a discussion about the band Sublime. Two scenes made me laugh incredibly hard. One features ED-209's life flashing before his eyes, before Murphy explodes with him with the anti-tank gun. Another, which practically became a meme unto itself, escalates the original's near-rape scene into an orgy of gunfire and exploding penises.

Of course, not every segment is going to work that well. A few are awkward. Such as the opening, where the newscasters grossly chew on spaghetti, or a clown being inserted into Murphy's dying dream. The contribution from leans heavily on Spielberg references for no reason. Some scenes are overly occupied with potty humor. Dick Jones and Bob Morton's bathroom confrontation relies too heavily on piss and shit jokes. So does a scene devoted to RoboCop farting extensively. The SUX 600 commercial is transformed into a big dick joke. Several scenes are too clever for their own good. Such as a moment devoted to explaining “deconstruction,” which visually overloads the audience. Or Emil's toxic waste-assisted death, which simply warps the original footage.

Still, “Our RoboCop Remake” made me laugh enough to justify the time spent watching it. The collective filmmakers were obviously targeting the remake. The breakdance filled happier ending features an explicit potshot at the new version. Yet the fan film exist less as a rebuttal to 2014's “RoboCop” and more as a loving homage to 1987's “RoboCop.” The creativity on display by some of the filmmakers is very impressive. Who else but true fans would recreate a life-sized replica of ED-209? Or write a song and dance number about shooting baby food jars? Fans of that level should definitely give “Our RoboCop Remake” a look, if only for a few of the specially inspired moments of lunacy. [7/10]

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop (2014)

During the last decade, seemingly every beloved eighties property was getting rebooted, remade, or at least a brand new sequel. In this rush by studios to exploit any recognizable I.P. they might have, there was no chance that “RoboCop” was going to remain untouched. A remake was first banded about in 2005. The project really started to move forward in 2008. Darren Afronosky was briefly attached to this new “RoboCop,” one of several superhero-themed projects the art house favorite would pick up and then quickly drop. Eventually, the director's chair would be occupied by Brazilian action specialist Jose Padilha. Fans had their fangs out for 2014's “RoboCop.” It was quickly dismissed as another overly slick repackaging of a beloved, gritty classic. Audiences ignore it. A few years later, does this new “RoboCop” deserve a second look?

In the near future, the super-corporation OmniCorp has great success producing robots for overseas military use. The machines are very effective but a law makes it illegal for drones to operate in America. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars thinks of a work-around. What if they put a person inside a robot? After cop Alex Murphy is blown up by a car bomb, OmniCorp gets his wife to sign over his body. Murphy is rebuilt as RoboCop, a cyborg designed to fight crime. Yet Alex maintains his humanity. Soon, struggles arise between Murphy's desire to live a normal life, his need to solve his own murder and OmniCorps' hope for a super successful RoboCop.

The original “RoboCop” was about Alex Murphy being turned into a machine and regaining his humanity. Padilha's remake has practically the opposite idea in mind. 2014's “RoboCop” is about a man loosing his humanity. When this Alex Murphy wakes up as a cyborg, he still has his personality. He tries to maintain a relationship with his wife and son. He begs for the sweet release of death. However, this human element runs counter to the corporate objective. Thus, Murphy's free will is slowly stripped away until he only cares about fighting crime. This doesn't make as much sense to me as the original's concept. But at least it's something different. Padilha's “RoboCop” has its own ideas and objectives. It's not just a meaningless retread of the original.

In fact, the “RoboCop” remake is even somewhat insightful at times. Paul Verhoeven's satire of Reagan's America is traded out for something more contemporary. This “RoboCop” takes place in a world where corporations manipulate politics. OmniCorps wants to sell their kill-bots in America so they can make more money. The entire plot is motivated by corporate greed, RoboCop existing as a means to a billion dollar ends. A very Bill O'Reilly-like television pundit is paid to spew the corporation's message. Meanwhile, there's public debate over whether or not machines can be trusted to protect the innocent and uphold the law. This speaks to America in the 21st century, where drones fly the skies, corporations want to privatize basic public needs, and news networks' agendas oppose the truth.

Sadly, everything that's interesting about 2014's “RoboCop” goes out the window halfway through. At this point, “RoboCop” becomes an uninspired modern action movie. Murphy overcomes his programming and pursues his murderers. He uncovers a police corruption plot, which doesn't go anywhere. He chases after the crime boss that set him up, a seemingly important character that is disposed of without much fanfare. The last third is a blur of overly CGI'd action. Padilha's Brazilian films have been praised for their action but his work here is uninspiring. An Infrared shoot-out is hard to follow. The showdown with three ED-209s is weightless, CGI mayhem. Weirdly, the film reels back the chaos at the very end. Its climax is a totally limp stand-off which ends in the most underwhelming way possible.

Like many modern day, would-be blockbusters, “RoboCop” loads its supporting cast with familiar faces. Look at some of these names. Samuel L. Jackson is effectively shout-y as the O'Reilly stand-in, especially at the end when he unleashes his trademark profanity. Gary Oldman is suitably empathetic as the scientist who oversees RoboCop's programming. Jay Baruchel is amusingly weaselly as OmniCorp's marketing executive. Jackie Earle Haley works well as the former military expert who attempts to train RoboCop, an unlikable asshole. Michael Keaton doesn't ham it up as the main bad guy. Instead, he plays the role as feckless corporate douche bag. All these big names can't make up for Joel Kinnaman, the meat-headed, jocko void of charisma inside the RoboCop suit.

That suit is honestly one of the problems I have with the film. As to be expected, this “RoboCop” is nowhere near as interesting to look at as the original. Initially, the new RoboCop design doesn't look that different from the original. It's a fairly stream-lined modern version of the classic suit. That is until they paint the guy black. The remake tries to pass this off as a joke but it can't disguise what a boring design the modern RoboCop is. For another example of the remake's uninspired aesthetic, look at the updated ED-209. This ED is Jeep brown without the personality of the original. The remake mocks the “Transformers” movies which is funny, since its ED-209 looks like he'd fit right in with the Bayformers.

Many die hard “RoboCop” fans hated the remake. Which is an instinct I relate to. Yet the remake doesn't boil my blood. You can actually see the bones of an interesting film in here. The way Padilha's remake updates the original's satire actually makes it truer to Verhoeven's vision than most of the sequels. But, ultimately, those intriguing elements are sacrificed for the kind of boring theatrics people accuse the whole movie of being. The result is a film that is halfway sort of interesting and is halfway totally boring. Which is something “RoboCop” should never be. [6/10]

Monday, May 29, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2012)

15. Tricked

“Black Book” was a success, both in Holland and abroad. Despite this, Paul Verhoeven still seemingly disappeared from the film world for quite some time. Occasionally, you'd hear about an upcoming project. Such as a long gestating (and controversial) film about the life of Christ, which would eventually take the form of a book instead. In 2012, out of nowhere it seemed to us Americans, a new film popped up on Verhoeven's IMDb page. Entitled “Tricked,” there was very little information about the project. Eventually, the mysterious movie would get a U.S. DVD release, allowing fans of the director to finally figure out what the heck this thing was.

So what is “Tricked,” anyway? It's a fifty minute film that Verhoeven created as part of something called the Entertainment Experience. The idea behind the project was intriguing. The first four pages of the script were written by Dutch screenwriter and actress, Kim van Kooten. After Verhoeven filmed that beginning, the story was opened up, via the internet, to fans. Scripts for the next installment – totaling eight all together – were submitted from all over the country. The director and his team would consider which set of pages were best and proceed from there. In other words, even the filmmakers and actors making the movie had no idea where it would end up.

To boost the fifty minute short to feature length, “Tricked” is packaged with a documentary about its own making. Which, in what might seems like an odd move, plays before the actual movie. Honestly, my favorite thing about this opening documentary has very little to do with “Tricked” itself. Just watching Paul Verhoeven be himself is a lot of fun. Included is footage of the director on the set of “Starship Troopers.” We get to see him running around, yelling and screaming, impersonating the giant bugs that would be added later with CGI. “Tricked's” first half concludes with the director speaking about what the project meant to him, personally. He compares it to Felini's “8½,” saying this is only his 14½ movie. When the interviewer asks him to clarify this, he refuses, with a mischievous grin. No wonder actors talk about how much fun it is to make a film with Verhoeven. The guy clearly enjoys his job.

As with any documentary about making movies, the first half of “Tricked” gets into the challenges every production deals with. There's a lengthy sequence devoted to finding the right house to shoot in. Even after finding the perfect location, there's the trouble of shooting inside a residential building. Houses are made for families, not so much for film crews and all the required equipment. We see the challenges in casting, in auditioning many actors and narrowing it down to the right ones. Verhoeven discusses making a movie with a smaller budget than what he was used to on his Hollywood blockbuster. It's interesting, though the kind of stuff other docs have covered.

More compelling are the challenges unique to this project. Verhoeven quickly discovered that directing a crowd sourced movie was more difficult than expected. The original plan was to use the best submitted scripts. Verhoeven, however, wasn't satisfied with any one script. Instead, he compiled the best ideas from multiple submissions. This was an exhausting endeavor, considering thousands of potential screenplays were submitted. And they did this eight times! He struggled with writers who didn't stick to the tone set by the first four pages. More than one submission apparently dissolved into gun fights. Eventually, Verhoeven gathered some of the writers and gave them simple lessons about structure, construction, and pacing. Which is Writing 101 but, clearly, not all the amateurs knew this.

Eventually, the director discusses how freeing he found the experience. He talks how, without a massive Hollywood budget hanging over his head, he was able to lightly storyboard a film for the first time in years. This led to a more improvisational shooting style, which was further supported by the handheld cameras the crew used. That kind of free wheeling energy is evident in “Tricked” itself. The documentary proceeding “Tricked” is fun, if inessential, yet still give us plenty of insight into the movie's unique production.

Which brings us to “Tricked” itself. The film revolves around Remco, a Dutch businessman, on his fiftieth birthday. Several unexpected events happen at the party. There's some strange tension between Remco and Merel, the best friend of Lieke, his teenage daughter. Two of Remco's business partners are clearly plotting something, burning an important document in the bathroom. Most pressingly, Nadja – one of Remco's former mistresses – shows up pregnant. The next day, Remco discovers that his partners have conspired to sell his own company out from under him. And if Remco signs off on this, Nadja will deny the baby is his. Merel and Tobias, Remco's son, end up sleuthing into this scheme.

Going into “Tricked,” I had no idea what to expect. Very little has been written about the film, so I didn't even know what genre it fell into. All the posters and DVD covers suggest “Tricked” is a thriller. This is misleading. “Tricked” is, in fact, a comedy. Now, certainly, it's a dark comedy. As the title indicates, deception is the primary theme of the story. Each of the eight main characters are misleading each other. Remco is screwing around on his wife. His wife hides how much she knows about his affairs. Tobias is hiding his feelings for Merel. Merel, meanwhile, is hiding her secret lover from Lieke. The story constantly turns, revealing new information every few minutes. Yet the tone remains light and zippy. By the conclusion, “Tricked” is laugh-out-loud funny. A hilarious incident involving a pair of scissors brings the web of lies crashing down. The final frame is an uproarious switcharoo.

At the center of the story is an extremely dysfunctional family. Ineke, Remco's wife, is fully aware of his infidelity. She's always balanced his extramarital activity with their home life. Lieke,  the daughter, is a budding addict. She snorts a few lines of cocaine in one scene and is rarely seen without a glass of wine the rest of the time. Tobias, meanwhile, shows his affection for Merel by photoshopping her head onto pictures of nude models. The patriarch seems totally unaware of these problems. During a tense dinner, he mostly discusses his job, while his children argue with one another. It's clear that there's some problems at home.

You might expect “Tricked” not to feel like a Paul Verhoeven movie, due to its crowd sourced screenplay. Think again. “Tricked” doesn't lack the director's trademarks. There's sleazy sex, male frontal nudity, and a vomiting sequence. Meanwhile, you can easily draw a line from “Basic Instinct” and “Hollow Man” to “Tricked.” All three films deal with macho men being led to doom by their libidos. Remco has a long line of mistresses. The film, however, depicts his philandering behavior as pathetic. It's clear that Rembo is overcompensating for the lack of control in his life by manipulating vulnerable woman. That the character is such a blank makes the implicit criticism clear. “Tricked” is another Verhoeven film devoted to assassinating the fragile male ego.

It's also another Verhoeven film about women using their wiles to succeed. There's two unlikely heroines in “Tricked.” Merel, at first, appears to be another one of Remco's conquests. As “Tricked” goes on, Merel ends up uncovering Nadja's deception. Afterwards, in one of the film's most delightful sequences, she dumps Remco before he can dump her. The second heroine is Ineke, the put upon wife. She takes the action necessary to save her husband's job. The wife and the young mistress come out on top in “Tricked,” surprising and amusing the audience. This puts the film in line with Verhoeven's “Katie Tippel” and “Showgirls,” though its portrayal ends up being more positive than either of those.

“Tricked” has a pretty good cast too. The stand-out performance is Gaite Jansen as Merel. She has an unobtrusive sexuality, slowly charming the audience with her youthful good looks and unassuming attitudes. As the story progresses, Jansen's performance also reveals a skillfully hidden intelligence. Carolien Spoor, as Lieke, is one of the film's funniest performances. Upon discovering her best friend's affair, she has a massively amusing freak out.  Ricky Koole as Ineke has a cooler exterior, only hinting at how cunning she is. The men, almost intentionally, don't seem as well developed. Peter Blok plays Remco as almost goofy, a hopelessly unaware guy. Robert de Hoog as Tobias, meanwhile, plays up the younger brother's bizarre habits.

Paul Verhoeven might have had mixed feelings about the Entertainment Experience. He still succeeded in making “Tricked” his own. The result is an undeniable trifle that still manages to be highly entertaining. At least one more film has emerged from the Entertainment Experience project. Another Dutch film, called “Lotgenoten,” was made from the same material as “Tricked” but by different directors. A Chinese version, possibly helmed by John Woo, has also been kicked around. Though destined to be overlooked, Verhoeven fans should check out “Tricked,” a really fun, if brief, film. [Grade: B+]

NO ENCORES: Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)

1. Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)
Director: Ed Neumeier

Maybe the “Starship Troopers” franchise is cursed. Oh, sure, the first one was great, despite initially negative reviews and could've-been-better box office. But the sequels? Both were made for the direct-to-video market. Which is admirable but deeply unglamorous. Why do I say the series is cursed? Consider this. “Starship Troopers 2” was Phil Tippet's first feature film. It was also, thus far, his last. “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” was screenwriter Ed Neumeier's first feature film. It is also, thus far, his last. The franchise's screenwriter stepping behind the camera might give you hope that “Starship Troopers 3” will be an improvement over the lackluster first sequel. If I was you, I wouldn't get your expectations up.

Earth's war with the Arachnid menace rages on. Johnny Rico has risen to the rank of Colonel and remains a decorated soldier. Yet there's conflict in the Federation. The residents of the outer colonies, displaced by the war, dislike the military. Protest happens at home. After a gruesome loss, Rico strikes a commanding officer. He is set to be executed for these crimes. This is a cover story and Rico is rescued at the last minute. He's recruited for a top secret mission, leading a mechanized army called the Marauders. Their first mission is to rescued a group of high-ranking officer stranded on a planet with a psychic “God Bug.”

Since “Marauder” is directed by a screenwriter, you might have certain expectations for its story. Neumeier's previous work suggests he knows what he's doing. So why is “Starship Troopers 3” so badly structured? Halfway through, the story is essentially cut in two. The beginning reintroduces Rico, as well as his love interest Lola Beck and Omar Anoke, an Air Marshall and celebrity singer. After Rico is sentenced to death, Beck and Anoke's classified ship gets shot down on a desert world. From this point on, we're following dual storylines: Rico's training to be a Marauder while Beck wanders the alien planet. Maybe this is less Neumeier's fault than another casualty of a direct-to-video budget. This plot construction limits the screen time of star Casper Van Dien and the killer robots. Instead, it gives us much cheaper scenes of people walking around a desert.

“Marauder” does attempt to expand on the film's universe in a somewhat interesting way. Religion wasn't mentioned much in the previous two “Starship Troopers” movies, if at all. However, it's a major theme in this one. The people leading the anti-war protest are explicitly Christians. The flight attendant stranded on the desert planet with Beck is also Christian. The others treat her, and Christianity in general, like a weird cult. Anoke is seemingly converted throughout the adventure but, in actuality, has been psychically brainwashed by Behemecoatyl, the God Bug that lives inside the planet. In the final scene, Christianity becomes the state religion of the Federation, who recognize how powerful a propaganda tool religion can be. These ideas are interesting but, sadly, do not fuse naturally with the story. It's just another weird thing floating inside “Marauder.”

By the way, don't expect that stuff about the peace protest to contribute to the story either. A few scenes are devoted to the anti-war movement – led by a wounded veteran, by the way – during the news broadcast scenes. Neumeier mostly uses the trademark “Would You Like to Know More?” sequences to make the original's subtext text. “Marauder” acknowledges that the Federation is a fascist government. People are discreetly killed to cover up mistakes. Anyone who challenges the military is executed. The leaders are conniving bullies, who knowingly lie and manipulate the public. Amanda Donohoe, from “Lair of the White Worm,” plays a Federation leader as a pompous villain. By winking at the first film's satire, actually making its implications part of the story, Neumeier creates a “Starship Troopers” movie that is way less interesting than Verhoeven's original.

There was a time where I consumed a lot of direct-to-video monster movies. The one aspect that united the entire genre was crappy CGI creature effects. “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” has lots of that too. The Bugs are mostly brought to life with some extremely soft computer generated imagery. They look like cartoons, big plastic balloons that pop way too easily. The aliens do not look like real, believable threats. The main selling point for “Starship Troopers 3” were the Marauders. The powered armor played a big role in the book but was excised from the previous adaptations. Don't get excited though. The Marauders exist exclusively as sucky CGI machines. Even then, they play a very small role in the film. The giant robots swoop in at the end and save the day. That's about it.

For its countless flaws, I guess “Starship Troopers 3” is mildly better than “Starship Troopers 2.” The sequel includes one or two clever ideas. The Federation has started to heavily merchandise its own heroes. Omar Anoke is a best selling singer, his propaganda songs glorifying dying in combat. In addition to CDs, T-shirts and other collectibles are sold over television. The idea of a “God Bug,” a massive and powerfully telepathetic Arachnid leader, is intriguing. It's also, notably, one of the few practical monster effects in the film. There's also a neat moment that brings back the Brain Bug from the first film, who produces a high pitch shriek so powerful, heads explode. These interesting moments composed about five percent of “Marauder's” way-too-long 105 minute run time.

The diminishing star power of Casper Van Dien was not enough to elevate the “Starship Troopers” franchise again. After “Marauder,” the next entry in the series would be an animated reboot, which is supposedly slightly more faithful to Heinlein's original novel. I checked out “Starship Troopers 3” mostly because some people gave it faint praise, saying it's better than “Hero of the Federation.” Which is true but just barely. In execution, the conclusion of the trilogy is another low budget cash-in. There's no shame in going direct-to-video but shoddy productions like “Marauder” is why that release path has a bad name. [4/10]

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2006)

14. Black Book

Following his personal dissatisfaction with “Hollow Man,” Paul Verhoeven would return to the Netherlands. Twenty years had passed since Verhoeven had made a film in his home country. The director would re-team with Gerard Soeteman, who wrote many of his Dutch films. While the two had been writing “Soldiers of Orange,” they uncovered a number of interesting stories from World War II. Instead of putting them into an already long film, they decided to craft a stand alone film from this material. It took the duo fifteen years to finish up the script. Like many of the director's European films, “Black Book” would become the most expensive Dutch film made up to that point. Likewise, it would become a huge box office and critical hit in Holland. In many ways, “Black Book” belatedly wraps up thematic points Verhoeven had begun in his earliest films.

The year is 1944 and the Netherlands is under Nazi rule. Rachel Stein, a Jewish singer, is hiding out with a sympathetic but strict Christian family. After the farm is bombed by the Germans, she attempts to sneak out of the country with her family. The barge is ambushed by Nazi soldiers, who murder every Jew on the boat. Except for Rachel, who barely escapes. Dying her hair and changing her name to Ellis de Vries, she begins to work with the Dutch Resistance. After several underground fighters are captured, she is given the mission of seducing Ludwig Muntze, a Gestapo officer. As she grows closer to Muntze, the two develop real feelings for each other. Ellis' true alliances quickly come under scrutiny.

“Black Book's” status as a companion piece to “Soldier of Orange” is obvious. Aside from arising from the same project, both films are about the Dutch resistance during World War II. While widely beloved, “Soldier of Orange” struck me as slightly cold. “Black Book” doesn't have this problem. By explicitly making its main characters Jewish, “Black Book” gives a far more personal perspective on the conflict. Ellis is fighting against the extermination of her people. Yet we also see a Christian resistance fighter who has a mental breakdown after taking a life. Or a shot of starving children grabbing food from a crashed truck. Little details like this ground “Black Book” in history and reality, making its story feel more alive and vital.

That Verhoeven hadn't made a film in his home country in two decades is quite apparent in “Black Book.” Visually, the film looks like one of the director's Hollywood productions. The cinematography, provided by Karl Walter Lindenlaub, is sweeping and gorgeous. The musical score, by Anne Dudley, is highly theatrical. “Black Book” may look like one of the director's more expensive American production, Tonally, it feels like one of his original Dutch pictures. The film balances between an important historical story and free-wheeling pulp, resulting in an atmosphere that's polished but zips along at a speedy clip. Time had past but you can draw a direct line between “Spetters” or “The 4th Man” and this film.

Moral ambiguity is a topic Verhoeven has played with throughout his entire career. Even in his Hollywood films, most of his protagonists have been anti-heroes of some sort. This morally gray area emerges as the main point in “Black Book.” Ellis believes she's fighting the Nazis to get revenge for her dead family. Yet she winds up falling in love with a Nazi. That man turns out to be negotiating with the Dutch underground, keeping captive fighters alive. Another Nazi officer has been breaking his country's own laws, by keeping the gold and jewels taken off the dead Jews. As the story progresses, we discover that no one's alliances are easy to determine, that double agents and traitors are everywhere. The message seems to be that war changes everyone, no matter how upright they may appear.

Carice Van Houten stars as Rachel/Ellis. From her earliest scenes, Van Houten characterizes Rachel by a sense of rebellion. After her Christian land owner insist she read prayers from the Bible at the dinner table, she mockingly draws a cross in her oatmeal. She thinks on her feet. When German officers ask for tickets on a train ride, she finds clever ways around the problem. That same quick thinking keeps her alive through several scenarios. Inside, Ellis has a fiery need to stay alive. Outside, she often bottles up her emotions. Early on, she tells a friend that she still hasn't cried over the death of her family. Until a powerful sequence, where her grief, sadness, and anger overflows, leading to anguished tears. Van Houten's performance is extremely controlled, each movement and action well thought.

At the center of “Black Book” is the most unlikely of love stories. A romance between a Nazi officer and an undercover Jewish spy sounds like the stuff of exploitation picture. Despite this, there's an understated quality to “Black Book's” romance. Muntze and Ellis' earliest scenes have an unspoken chemistry to them, when the two bond over an interest in stamps. This, naturally, leads the two into bed together. Muntze quickly deduces that she is Jewish. Even after he figures out that she's a spy, Ellis remains attracted to him, asking for a kiss while a gun is pointed at her head. In return, he takes extra measures to protect her. Their honest affection for each other is displayed in a moment right after the end of the war is announced, where they dream about their future. It seems the Verhoeven woman – who uses her sex appeal to survive – has finally grown up into someone capable of genuine love.

Even in a prestige film like “Black Book,” Paul Verhoeven finds room for his favorite subjects. The violence in “Black Book” is brutal and intense. When people are executed, the resulting gunshots wounds are massive, weeping, and bloody. Two especially vivid deaths involve a spurting jugular vein and splattering brain matter. The film often features extended sequences of crowds being gunned down. We see victims collapse in gory piles. There's a graphic torture scene too, a man being drown in a sink and kicked in the balls. Yet there's an extra sense of gravity to these deaths. When we're shown Nazis executing unsuspecting Jews, it's impossible not to feel the seriousness of these actions. Verhoeven's love of excessive violence ends up making the film's gruesome content more powerful, the impact of the deaths being fully felt by the viewer.

The director doesn't skimp on the sex and nudity either. Van Houten is frequently nude. A lengthy scene is devoted to her dying her pubic hair blonde. Later, a different woman distracts some soldiers by pouring wine over her naked chest. Verhoeven's return to the Netherlands also means a return of the male frontal nudity that was commonplace in his earliest films. Even the unseemly interest in bodily functions seen in “Turkish Delight” makes a come back, as feces and urine both play a role in two scenes. This isn't just exploitation for exploitation's sake. It adds a natural, earthy reality that was sometimes absent in Verhoeven's American movies.

Van Houten's performance isn't the only impressive one. Sebastian Koch is surprisingly sensitive as Ludwig, gifting the part with a great deal of complexity. His eye seem to speak to the character's hidden depths. At the opposite end is Waldemar Kobus as Franken. A monstrous Nazi officer, Franken is characterized by a vulgar thirst for sex and power who is utterly ruthless with his enemies. Thom Hoffman appears as Hans, a member of the Resistance who isn't all he appears to be. Hoffman is very good at appearing benevolent one minute and devious the next. Lastly, Dolf De Vries has a notable part as Rachel's lawyer, a man who speaks matter-of-factly. De Vries previously had small roles in “Turkish Delight,” “Solider of Orange,” and “The 4th Man,”  making him something of a Verhoeven regular.

Like “Soldier of Orange,” “Black Book” has an epic run time. Instead of adding on an extended epilogue like that film, “Black Book's” story propels itself after the end of the war. Continuing the film's theme of moral uncertainty, Verhoeven does not portray the Netherland's post-war actions as right. German soldiers are marched through the streets, holding signs identifying them as traitors. Women associated with Nazis have their heads shaved and are called whores. Ellis is striped nude in a warehouse and has a barrel of excrement poured on her. Even in victory, war remains ugly and unfair.

It's very obvious that Verhoeven and Soeteman spent twenty years writing “Black Book.” The script is brilliantly constructed. Throughout the film, small details pay off in big ways. A bag of diamonds given to Ellis become important later, once we learn where they came from. An opening detail concerning people hiding in caskets later becomes an important way for Ellis to defeat an enemy. A factoid about insulin and chocolate, mentioned in passing during an early scene, ends up saving her life later on. This makes “Black Book” a really satisfying viewing experience, as the viewer never expects what details will become important later.

Raw sentiment is not something you usually expect from Paul Verhoeven. He often cloaks his emotions in a sarcastic sense of humor or satirical detachment. Yet this is the same director who made “Turkish Delight,” a heartbreaking romance. “Black Book” shows that Verhoeven could make an important film without sacrificing the quirks and obsessions that made him a cult favorite. Despite the success of “Black Book,” the director wouldn't make another proper film for quite some time. I'm glad this wasn't his last feature but, if it had been, “Black Book” would have been an impressive send-off. [Grade: A]

Saturday, May 27, 2017

NO ENCORES: Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)

1. Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)
Director: Phil Tippet

It doesn't seem unreasonable that “Starship Troopers” would launch a franchise. The first film told a complete story but its premise presented opportunities for more adventures. The movie was successful at the box office without becoming a massive hit. But I guess Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi satire proved popular on video. Seven years after “Starship Troopers” hit theaters, “Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation” hit video store shelves. A decent slate of talent was assembled for this direct-to-video sequel. Ed Neumeier returned as screenwriter. Phil Tippet, the man who created the Bugs in addition to other iconic movie monsters, would make his feature directorial debut with “Hero of the Federation.” Tippet has made stop-motion short films before and since – the excellent “Prehistoric Beasts,” the Kickstarted “Mad God” – but “Starship Troopers 2” remains his sole attempt at directing a full-length motion picture.

The Bug War rages on. A group of troopers, led by General Shepherd, are surrounded by Arachnid forces. Falling back, they retreat to an abandoned military outpost, a tower-like structure. After successfully setting up an electric barrier around the building, the group believes themselves to be safe. Within the tower, they discover Captain Dax. A war hero, Dax was sentenced to death for killing his commanding officer. Apparently, he was sick of seeing good men die senselessly on the battlefield. Yet the Troopers have to team up with Dax when a new, dangerous form of bug appears. These bugs are parasites, that crawl into people's mouths and take over their bodies.

It's very clear that the “Starship Troopers” franchise took a major budgetary step down for its sequel. The first film took place on the battlefield, showing soldiers fighting off thousands of giant bugs. “Hero of the Federation,” meanwhile, is primarily set within a single building. And not an especially futuristic looking building either. The film technically begins and ends with battle scenes involving the Arachnid army. These sequences, however, are shrouded in darkness, only providing us with fleeting glimpses of the insectoid menaces. It must be said that the few shots we get of the Arachnids actually look pretty good. Phil Tippet's history in creature effects insure that he knows how to shoot a computer generated creature in such a way that looks real.

Anybody who rented “Starship Troopers 2” expecting action-packed thrills on the level of the first film were probably disappointed. “Hero of the Federation” moves the franchise into a totally different genre. The script has all the hallmarks of a zombie movie. A group of individuals are holed up inside an isolated location, when an insidious infection begins to turn them against each other. At first, the infected look human but soon reveal their monstrous nature. Seemingly, the only thing that can kill the not-zombies is blowing their head off. “Hero of the Federation” even features a sequence where someone, after realizing a bug is inside them, commits suicide. Really, the only zombie movie cliché that's missing is the person who gets bitten but hides this information from the others.

Granted, the original “Starship Troopers” bordered horror already, what with its scenes of alien monsters gorily tearing people apart. The sequel explicitly moving in that direction isn't a problem. The problem is that “Hero of the Federation” isn't an especially good horror film. The sequel throws in a few jump scares and some unconvincing, squishy gore. Scenes of a naked Kelly Carlson, covered in blood, luring characters into her arms probably have no business being in a “Starship Troopers” movies. However, I will give the sequel some credit. The image of giant insects crawling out of and into people's mouths is mildly unnerving. For some reason, one of the infected soldiers slowly melts apart, eaten from the inside out by the bugs. This is some decent body horror. If the sequel had focused on that a little more, maybe it would've been better.

Horror movies are generally improved by having likable, memorable characters. That's another attribute “Starship Troopers 2” lacks. Firstly, the cast is far too large. There's about a dozen named characters. Of these cast members, most are interchangeable. I only recognize a few faces. Kelly Carlson appears as a purring, but evil, sex kitten. Ed Lauter shows up as the asshole sergeant who is, of course, already under Bug control. Brenda Strong stars as Deedee. Strong appeared in the first “Starship Troopers” but is playing a new character here. And not an interesting one either. Of the actors, really only Richard Burgi's Dax is memorable at all. That's mostly because Burgi doubles down on the macho tough guy act.

With Ed Neumeier contributing the screenplay again, you'd expect “Starship Troopers 2” to feature more of the original's satire. Not so much, it turns out. The sequel begins and ends with the satirical newsreels that defined the first film. The opening features some more flags waving majestically in the wind. The closing scene turns Dax's sacrifice into blatant propaganda. The joke, of course, being that Dax actively hated seeing soldiers died. He probably wouldn't have appreciated seeing his image used as a recruitment video. That's about it, as far as the sequel's attempt to emulates the first satirical elements.

So the cast is weak, the script kind of sucks, and the film doesn't successfully follow the original's tone. Which brings us to the direction. Phil Tippet's direction is obviously shackled by the tiny budget. There's only so much you can do inside a generic warehouse set. Even then, Tippet's visual sense is underwhelming. “Starship Troopers 2” is characterized by a cramped shooting style, resulting in hectic and shaky action scenes. The color palette for the film is mostly brown and soft blue, which is not an appealing combination. Tippet attempts some artier touches. A psychic dream is composed of close-ups of odd objects, like a chessboard or a blinking eye. Over all, though, “Hero of the Federation” looks cheap and hastily assembled.

I didn't like “Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation.” Neither does Phil Tippet. When he's spoken about the film, it's mostly been negative, saying the studio didn't give him much money or support. The project killed any interest he had in directing more live action films. Considering those circumstances, perhaps Tippet made the best movie he could've. There are elements about this direct-to-video sequel that are sort of clever. The parasitic bugs are skin-crawling and, when the original's insectoid threats appear, they look surprisingly good. That can't disguise “Hero of the Federation's” status as the cheapie cash-in it so clearly is. [4/10]

Friday, May 26, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop: Crash and Burn (2001)

You probably think I watched all of “RoboCop: Prime Directives” in one day. That's how they were often shown on TV. Or at least one nightly until I was done. I wish that was case. In fact, it took me over a week to watch all of the “Prime Directives.” I guess there wasn't much incentive for me to actually watch these things. For all the clear effort that was put into making “Prime Directives” faithful to the original, it was difficult for me to become excited about the conclusion. So here we finally are, at “RoboCop: Crash and Burn,” the final installment of the mini-series. Would the story finally come together into a solid whole at its conclusion? Well, I don't want to disappoint anybody...

“Crash and Burn” begins with RoboCop, James Murphy, and super-thief Ann heading towards OCP head-quarters. There's only a few hours until SAINT, Damian Lowe's artificial intelligence, takes over the city. Unbeknownst to Lowe, SAINT has been infected with the matter destroying virus Legion. Dr. Kaydick, protected by the still brainwashed RoboCable, are also on their way to the tower. As the timer counts down, rivalries come to a head. The two RoboCops face off. Ann and her ex-husband fight to the death. And Lowe wars for control of OCP with Cable's own ex-wife.

Here's a big problem with “RoboCop: Prime Directives.” Throughout the mini-series, a number of subplots have been teased. Throughout each installment, we've gotten small updates about Lowe's corporate takeover of OCP, about SAINT, about Alex Murphy's son, and about Kaydick and Ann's war over their daughter. Instead of delivering a satisfying conclusion to these lingering plot points, “Crash and Burn” just tosses everything together. Lowe is awkwardly disposed of, literally getting pushed down an elevator shaft. Kaydick and Ann's fight takes place apart from the rest of the story. James Murphy is just shuffled from scene to scene. Only SAINT becomes a truly pivotal story point, as the corrupt AI drives the entire episode.

Throughout my previous three reviews, I've mentioned how the action sequences in “Prime Directives” were rarely very satisfying. This trend, unfortunately, continues into the final act. Far too much of “Crash and Burn” is devoted to the fight between RoboCop and RoboCable. The battle between them stretches on for so long, that I honestly forgot why they were fighting in the first place. The degree of free will Cable has seems to vary from scene to scene. The non-stop fight actually leads to the two RoboCops being knocked unconscious for a while. As underwhelming as that fight is, it's still better than the fight between Ann and Kaydick. The two jump, kick, and wrestle with each other for minutes on end. Julian Grant tries to spruce up this scene with slow motion and shaky-cam, which only emphasizes how lame the fight is. (This, combined with Ann's leather outfit and sunglasses, makes it clear that Grant was emulating “The Matrix.”)

As “Crash and Burn” nears its conclusion, the mini-series attempts to put a bow on Alex Murphy's character arc. RoboCop spends, more-or-less, the entire film getting the shit kicked out of him. This makes the conclusion, where he is knocked unconscious and someone else saves the day, even more disappointing. Cable's final fate is very easy to foresee and any meaning his actions might have had are undermined by some epically shitty CGI. In the final moment, RoboCop regains his humanity and reconnects with his son. Which would be fine, if the original movie didn't end on a similar point. I will give the writers credit for bringing the whole prime directives thing back around.

During these reviews, I haven't mentioned some of the weird, minor things about “RoboCop: Prime Directives.” Like the oddly fitting spaghetti western-style score or a scientist who walks with a cane literally being named “Hobley.” Having watched the entire mini-series, I can now roundly declare “Prime Directives” another mediocre “RoboCop” spin-off. The filmmakers' hearts were in the right place but a lack of money, time, and skill undid these intentions. I guess “Meltdown” was the best installment, with “Crash and Burn” being the worst, but they all rate about the same for me. Having said that, I suspect if I had seen this show as a teenager, during a lazy Sunday while munching on chicken wings and mozzarella sticks, I probably would've dug it. Which is to say: “RoboCop: Prime Directives” is great if you have nothing better to watch or nowhere else to go. Consider the show damned with faint praise. [Crash and Burn: 4/10] [RoboCop: Prime Directives: 5/10]

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop: Resurrection (2001)

I'm beginning to question how the creators of “RoboCop: Prime Directives” picked the subtitles for each installment. “Dark Justice” made sense for the first movie, as the plot concerned a vigilante. The second and third episodes, “Meltdown” and “RoboCop: Resurrection,” seem to me like they should be switched. The second part concerned a character returning from the dead. The third part revolves around RoboCop's systems being completely torn down. Maybe they just decided it was catchier this way? Either way, “Resurrection” continues the “Prime Directives” series' attempt to follow the lead of the original, low budget and lack of talent be damned.

Last time we saw RoboCop, he was fleeing with Cable into the ruins of Old Detroit. “Resurrection” picks up there, both cyborgs being pursued by OCP shock troops. Murphy's power cells are nearly depleted, his life endangered. The two are soon separated. RoboCop is rescued by the band of mutant thieves he met last time. Cable, meanwhile, is abducted by Dr. Kaydick, a mad scientist with a grudge against the whole world. Kaydick manipulates Cable by implanting a kill switch in the cyborg's brains. Soon, the two RoboCops are once again turned against each other.

It seems every episode of “Prime Directives” is more action-packed than the one before it. “Resurrection” begins with a lengthy sequence of Cable gunning down the OCP men. The film ramps towards its conclusion when RoboCop drives a muscle car into a warehouse. This leads to another big sequence, with both RoboCops shooting yet more OCP goons. While this goes on, Kaydick and his ex-wife Ann – that's one of the superpowered ladies – have a kung-fu fight. The film even attempts some Verhoeven-esque ultra-violence. A bad guy gets his arm blasted off before Cable beats him to death with a sledgehammer. There's a problem though. Director Julian Grant's grasp on action is unimpressive. He employs slow motion too often, creating a melodramatic tone. The pacing is awful, as the action scenes drag on and on.

Something “Prime Directives” has lacked up to this point is a decent villain. Damian Lowe is  too smarmy and Bone Machine was laughable. “Resurrection” introduces Dr. Kaydick. If you watched a lot of genre television in the nineties, you might recognize Geraint Wyn Davies from “Forever Knight” and “Dracula: The Series.” Kaydick is a goofy character. A former OCP scientist, he's responsible for the Old Detroit thieves' superpowers. Kaydick can also run fast and shoot lightning bolts. His ridiculous plan involves a virus that infects both computers and people, an invention that stretches believably even for a sci-fi show. The writing is weak but Wyn Davies happily hams it up. He sports a perfectly demented grin and delivers all his dialogue in a horse whisper. If nothing else, a half-way decent villain centers the convoluted story a bit.

Speaking of the convoluted story! In its third part, “Prime Directives” is finally starting to do something with the various subplots it's set up. The last part concluded with James Murphy discovering RoboCop is his father. Throughout “Resurrection,” James insist he doesn't care about his RoboDad, helping OCP track him down. Yet, when they come face-to-face, his story changes. “Resurrection” also sees Lowe's advanced AI, SAINT, automating most of Delta City. By the end, the program has adsorbed Kaydick's killer virus, presumably setting up the last installment. This stuff is middling at best but at least the story is moving forward.

“Prime Directives” is still making attempts to follow the spirit of the original “RoboCop.” Satirical commercials play throughout, including a gag about Lowe replacing all the newscaster with clones of the same woman. Yet the mini-series' own mythology receives the focus here. I can't say I'm too interested in John Cable struggling with his robotic state or Kaydick stealing his daughter away from his ex-wife.  The seams in the acting are starting to show too, as Page Fletcher becomes a weaker RoboCop with every new installment. Still, I'm almost at the end of “Prime Directives” so I might as well wrap it up. [5/10]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop: Meltdown (2001)

The first episode of “RoboCop: Prime Directives” set up multiple story ideas the mini-series could utilize in future installments. Would the second episode revolve around the SAINT artificial intelligence, invented by an ominous OCP executive Damian Lowe? Or would the focus turn to James, Alex Murphy's adult son, still unaware that his dad is RoboCop? Both of these ideas are advanced in “RoboCop: Meltdown” but they're mostly saved for the end-of-the-episode cliffhanger. Instead, “Meltdown” focuses on Murphy's relationship with John Cable, his former partner that he was forced to kill in “Dark Justice.”

“Dark Justice” ended by hinting that Cable may be resurrected as the next RoboCop. This comes to past in “Meltdown.” After a trio of superhuman thieves break into OCP, Cable's wicked ex-wife wants to get rid of Robo. So she builds her recently deceased husband into a lookalike cyborg and has him attack OCP's CEO. The original RoboCop is declared a public menace. He is now pursued by RoboCable and a team of soldiers trained to take down cyborgs. While on the run, RoboCop ends up in the slums of Old Detroit, befriending one of the thieves that got him into this mess in the first place.

One complaint I had about “Dark Justice” was the relative lack of action. “Meltdown” certainly fixes that problem. The episode begins with the thieves turning the OCP building's security against itself. Several cops are sliced in half by high-powered lasers! Later, RoboCop tangos with the superhuman ladies. The episode concludes with him gunning down the cyborg kill squad. However, don't get too excited. “Prime Directives” still looks and feels incredibly cheap. The opening barrage of laser-assisted dismemberment is brought to life with some dodgy CGI. The fight between RoboCop and the thieves mostly involves him standing still while the women shoot shitty-looking lightning at him. The climatic shootout is handled better but still features some weak action direction from Julian Grant. He utilizes slow-mo and shaky-cam too often to cover up the show's obvious budgetary limitations.

I suspect the main attraction “Meltdown” offers undiscriminating fans is the promise of two RoboCops fighting each other. RoboCable looks just like Murphy's RoboCop, except with a darker, shinier armor and two guns. The Robo-on-Robo action, it may not surprise you to hear, is fairly unimpressive. The first big confrontation between the two involves Murphy standing still while Cable pelts him with machine gun fire. (Bizarrely, groups of innocent bystanders who were not there the moment before are endangered by this.) This results into a painfully slow foot chase. The car chase that follows is slightly more entertaining, even if it liberally indulges in car chase cliches. The second fight is more successful, as the two cyborgs toss each other through walls.

The second part of “Prime Directives” does expand on the series' world a little bit. The second half is set entirely within Old Detroit. Murphy even visits the old police station, which the mini-series does a decent job of replicating. Old Detroit is depicted as post-apocalyptic, the citizens gathering in seedy clubs and crowded markets. That's fine but the episodes other contributed to the series' mythology is baffling. The thieves that attacked OCP in the first scene have superpowers. They can produce lightning, morph into shadows, and run super fast. RoboCop befriends the young daughter of one of the thieves, who also has these abilities. If any explanation is ever offered for these powers, I missed it. Moreover, the superhuman individuals seem to exist mostly so the mini-series can indulge in half-baked special effects.

Despite its obvious flaws, I do like “Meltdown” slightly better than “Dark Justice.” The second episode is a little more faithful to the original film's tone. There's more blood. There's even some nudity, thanks to two random strippers. The second episode leans on the satirical commercials more. The opening news broadcast paints RoboCop as a hero. After OCP turns on him, the same programs talks about what a menace he is. They even sell a compilation movie of RoboCop's most violent moments! There's some other amusing stuff. A tabloid investigator sneaks into the police station, snooping around the lab RoboCop sleeps in. Amusingly, every time the reporter says something, a corresponding infographic appears at the bottom of the screen. In the back half, there's a commercial for a kids cartoon where a psychotic RoboCop fights “homeless ninjas” and a Furby-style toy that, the small print reveals, may cause seizures. It's not as smart as Ed Neumeier's writing but at least the mini-series is trying to keep up. (Amusingly, the commercials make references to antiqued technology like VHS and pagers. Canada really is another country, isn't it?)

Predictably, “Meltdown” concludes with Murphy reaching Cable's inner humanity and the two RoboCops teaming up. Perhaps showing the filmmakers' pretensions, a quote from Erich Fromm flashes on screen before the credits roll. The problem is, the quote is misattributed to Henry David Thoreau! I'm pretty sure Thoreau never wrote about robots. “Prime Directives” improves slightly in its second part but it's not enough to turn my overall opinion on this show around. “Prime Directives” is still a very cheaply made attempt to cash in on the “RoboCop” brand name. Here's hoping it gets better in the second half. [5/10]

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop: Dark Justice (2001)

At some point in the early 2000s, I was exploring the new video store that opened up in my home town. Sitting on the new releases shelves was a quartet of titles that intrigued me. There were, seemingly, four brand new “RoboCop” movies. I guess I wasn't interested enough to actually rent them though. Years later, I would discover just what the hell these movies were. Following the collapse of Orion, the “RoboCop” rights would end up with Fireworks Entertainment, a Canadian television company. A decade after producing the forgotten “RoboCop: The Series,” Fireworks' right to the series were about to expire. Hoping to squeeze a little more blood from that stone, they produced a four-part television mini-series entitled “RoboCop: Prime Directives.” Each episode was feature length and released individually in the States. The first of which was “Dark Justice.”

“Prime Directives” seems to treat the previous “RoboCop” sequels in broad strokes. OCP is still in business, which would seem to contradict “RoboCop 3.” Yet the Cadillac Heights slums so pivotal to that film are also referenced. Either way, the mini-series is set a decade after RoboCop first came online. OCP is suffering corporate re-shuffling and, once again, nearing bankruptcy. Meanwhile, RoboCop is dealing with a new dangerous breed of criminals and feeling obsolete. A vigilante calling himself Bone Machine is killing bad guys. RoboCop hunting the killer brings him to John Cable. Cable was Alex Murphy's partner but he has no idea that Murphy is now RoboCop. Soon, the two come into conflict.

All of “Prime Directives” was directed by Julian Grant. Grant previously directed “Electra,” an erotic thriller starring Shannon Tweed, and “Airborne,” a low budget action flick starring Steve Guttenberg. Grant insisted “Prime Directives” would be more faithful to Paul Verhoeven's original than the sequels were. Well, “Dark Justice” does lean heavily on a condescending television news program. Which is a decent attempt at replicating the original's satire. Don't expect any ultra-violence though. The action is pretty anemic. There's only two real action scenes. RoboCop fights some mad bombers in the beginning and Bone Machine in the last act. During the former, he spends most of the fight knocked out on the floor. During the latter, he fidgets around in a dark warehouse. Not exactly the most impressive action sequences.

The underwhelming action is a symptom of “RoboCop: Prime Directive's” primary problem. It's so cheap, you guys. OCP head quarters is primarily composed of a series of board rooms and overly dark offices. The police station seems to have one office and a hallway. RoboCop spends most of his time sitting in that fancy chair that monitors his computer systems. There's a long – way too long – scene devoted to two OCP executives talking in an elevator. As I said, the big finale takes place in a shadowy warehouse. Which is the favored location of many low budget action flicks. Bone Machine's equipment is composed of cheesy looking machine guns and a goofy skull mask. The producers clearly didn't have much money to work with.

There's another indication of “Dark Justice's” minuscule budget. Much of the episode is devoted to a lengthy flashback. To Alex Murphy and John Cable's days as partners, before Murphy transferred to the Old Detroit station. In other words, there are long scenes that are less “Robo” and more plain “Cop.” (Even these scenes are very cheap, as a dog is played entirely by off-screen sound effects.) Yet “Dark Justice” is mildly interesting as a prequel to “RoboCop.” After all, we've never seen much of Alex Murphy's time before becoming RoboCop. Murphy and Cable uncover a cannibalistic serial killer. Murphy is reluctant to use deadly force, showing his clear morals. These flashbacks mostly set up a scenario during the climax. But, on their own, this does shed some light on an underexplored area of the franchise's history.

“Prime Directives” first tried to lure back Richard Eden, the actor who starred in “RoboCop: The Series.” When that didn't work out, they got Page Fletcher. Fletcher might be recognized for his starring role on eighties horror anthology show, “The Hitchhiker.” (Coincidentally, Paul Verhoeven directed an episode of “The Hitchhiker,” giving Fletcher a vague connection to the original film.) Page does okay in the part. As RoboCop, he sports an oddly robotic voice. His performance isn't as disciplined as Peter Weller, lacking the trademark stiff movements. However, I do like the tired quality Fletcher brings to the part. This is an exhausted RoboCop, worn down by years of misuse, wondering what purpose his life now has.

“Dark Justice” is obviously meant to set-up further adventures. There's a number of plot points left unexplored. Such as Murphy's now adult son working for OCP, totally unaware of what became of his father. Or Damian, a sneaky OCP executive creating a sinister computer program named SAINT. These scenes often distract from “Dark Justice's” primary plot, the conflict between RoboCop and Cable, and the hunt for Bone Machine. As a stand alone film, “Dark Justice” is mildly distracting but a little too cheap to be truly effective. Hopefully “Prime Directives” will get better as it goes on. [5/10]