0292 | Dokhtari Dar Šab Tanhâ Be Xâne Miravad (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night)

AGirlWalksHomeAloneAtNightA Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is the debut feature by Ana Lily Amirpour, an English-born Iranian-American director now resident in Los Angeles. Ostensibly a Jim Jarmusch-style existential vampire tale with a few spaghetti western tropes added for good measure, it’s a striking and moody film shot in (beautifully-lit) black and white, and one that is heavily reliant on its carefully-constructed style: there is much use of shallow depth of field here, with plenty of interesting images created as a result, while a dreamy, narcotic haze pervades.

The link between drug addiction and the vampire’s constant thirsting for blood has been made repeatedly in cinema, from Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction to last year’s Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive, which had more than a whiff of heroin chic about it (even though the drug itself doesn’t feature). It does appear in Amirpour’s film, its use glorified to an extent by unnecessary shots of the ritual of shooting up, but interestingly she gives equal time to the other late night choices of certain characters: coke and ecstasy. Dealing in the latter is Arash (Arash Marandi), a gardener and handyman by trade, whose addict father (Marshall Manesh) has run up huge debts to a local thug and pimp (Dominic Rains).

But wait; I’m getting ahead of myself. It seems somehow wrong to be discussing the male characters first in a review for a movie that is far more notable for its women. Living in the same area as the three mentioned above – the fictional ‘Bad City’ – is Sheila Vand’s unnamed vampire, an enigmatic figure who we either see wearing a chador as she stalks men on the streets at night or lolling around playing records at home in a stripey t-shirt (not that I want to keep mentioning Jarmusch, but the film fetishises vinyl in much the same way as he warmly celebrated analogue equipment in Only Lovers). In her black cloak the vampire cuts a menacing figure on the dimly-lit streets, appearing suddenly in shot and with the ability to move swiftly around her targets, though she is also humanised by her get-up: part shoegazing indie kid, part Anna Karina, she sports Converse All Stars, black jeans, a ’60s haircut and uses a skateboard as her preferred mode of transport.

This vampire is judge as much as she is executioner, assessing her victims using an unconfirmed moral code before tearing at the necks of some and allowing others off the hook. Although initially it seems she only kills those who have sinned in some way or other, or are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, her actions do become ambiguous: the vampire acts as a protector of sorts to prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) and she kills two men who abuse Atti in different ways; however an attack on a drunk in an alleyway, possibly a homeless man, suggests that she is only stalking men who have lost control and are somehow in thrall to their vices; or that she is simply not as beholden to a code of conduct as she first seems.

After draining the desired blood she dumps the deceased unceremoniously into a grim roadside open grave that appears to be invisible to mere mortals. Eventually circumstance leads the vampire to Arash – in one of the film’s frequent amusing scenes – and a simple love story subsequently plays out, with the notion of the vampire’s true nature a constant threat to Arash’s life. He is spared, as is a small boy (Milad Eghbali) who – in true spaghetti western style – is often present, watching events unfold.

Amirpour’s film has strong feminist leanings, flipping the expected consequences of the title, while its religious symbolism demands just as much attention, particularly the way in which costumes are used. The importance placed on the chador is interesting given the criticisms and connotations it brings to mind; the other female characters in the film (Atti and Shaydah (Rome Shadanloo)) wear high heels and expensive-looking designer outfits, and their revealing dresses certainly contrast starkly with the vampire’s clothes. The two human characters are poles apart but they share a style that could easily be described as ‘western’, in the sense that the term is used as an insult by some Muslims, while the vampire’s traditional, conservative dress covers her body but not her nature. She also contrasts strongly with Arash, whose own look is based around one of the 20th Century’s most recognisable American movie stars: James Dean. There is a strong sense of conflicting cultures here, which is unsurprising given the writer-director’s upbringing, but it has been realised with a confident visual flair. The eclectic soundtrack, a mix of east, west and mariachi, is another ingredient for the melting pot.

As a horror film this is largely free of gore or scares, while the family drama sub-plot is disappointingly slight; there isn’t much to the love story, either, which is reliant on the coolness of its two protagonists and, by the end, the cuteness of a cat. Additionally the spaghetti western elements (the boy, the trumpets, the dusty barren landscape) do jar a little, but I must admit it’s all carried out with an infectious enthusiasm and a stylish swagger that had me hooked from the first minute to the last. Somehow the mishmash of genres holds together and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night just works, while its plethora of monochromatic images fit the pulpy material well. Bad City is, in reality, the small Californian town of Taft, and it’s amusing to ponder how riled some of the US’s more insular citizens would feel if they knew just how convincing it is as an Iranian location, but it’s a location well-used and shot with verve by cinematographer Lyle Vincent. Vincent makes a feature of the sparsity of the buildings and the heavy machinery of a power plant on the edge of town, picking out several silhouetted derricks and smokestacks with an artist’s eye, while his camera absolutely loves the actors, ensuring that this is a movie packed with frame-filling close-ups. Marandi takes advantage, but the star here is Vand, whose piercing gaze lingers in the mind long after the house lights have been switched on.

There are times when this film seems too cool for school, and there are one or two other faults that also ought to be mentioned: Amirpour forgets all about Shadanloo’s intriguing character in the second half, for example, while on occasion the landscape is recognisably American, but in truth it’s all forgivable and the pros far outweigh the cons. This is an intriguing debut, confidently shot, with flashes of sly wit and lashings of ennui.

Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo.
Cinematography: Lyle Vincent.
Editing: Alex O’Flinn.
Music: Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 101 minutes.
Year: 2014.
Rating: 7.5.

0291 | The Breakfast Club

the-breakfast-club-molly-ringwald-emilio-estevezFerris Bueller’s Day Off is better than anything else the late John Hughes made, in my opinion, but the rest of his output as writer and/or director is peppered with films that are worth the occasional repeat viewing. Take The Breakfast Club for example: a typical mid-1980s teen dramedy dated by its clothes, haircuts, Simple Minds theme song and reliance on once-popular Brat Pack actors, it actually holds up fairly well today because of the simplicity of its conceit, and also thanks to the winning ensemble performance of its mainly young cast.

In case your memory needs jogging, it’s Saturday morning in Michigan and we’re watching an extended detention: five teenagers are thrown together in the same room because of unseen prior indiscretions, while Paul Gleason’s grumpy teacher oversees the punishment. Judd Nelson is the mouthy rebel Bender, who demands most of your attention as he locks horns with Emilio Estevez’s jock Andrew, while Molly Ringwald’s pristine ‘princess’ Claire is usually on the receiving end of Bender’s insults. Anthony Michael Hall’s geeky ‘brain’ Brian watches from the sidelines and Ally Sheedy’s oddball recluse Allison sits at the back eating cereal sandwiches.

These kids are well aware of their supposed differences and each has a sense of where they fit, or where they are supposed to fit, into the various high school cliques and pecking orders. Hughes concentrates on their mutual mistrust at first, before the characters gradually open up to one another and realise collectively that they do in fact have plenty in common: each is unhappy at home because of parental issues that vary in terms of severity, while their individual personas mask shared pressures and insecurities. Their opinions of each other gradually change over the course of the eight hour detention, while the time is also filled with crying, dancing, makeovers, pot smoking and general teen kerrrrrazy-ness.

Hughes’s characters are memorable, and even though actors like John Cusack, Nicolas Cage and Rick Moranis were overlooked, each part was cast successfully. Amusingly three of those involved – Nelson, Estevez and Sheedy – played university students in St. Elmo’s Fire, the other most famous Brat Pack movie, which was released in the same year; as such it’s a stretch to accept one or two of them as being young enough to be attending high school, though it certainly isn’t an insurmountable problem. Nelson and Sheedy stand out, probably because they get to play the most interesting characters, while Gleason’s performance as the grumpy teacher is another to be enjoyed. His assistant principal Vernon represents the writer’s clear misgivings about the ability of adults to relate to teenagers: he is deeply unhappy because of his job, and he takes it out on the younger characters as a result, failing to identify with or understand them.

The writer-director’s script is packed with believable dialogue, and his historical importance in terms of changing the way (white American) teens were portrayed by Hollywood should not be understated: prior to Sixteen Candles, Hughes’s 1984 debut as director, teenagers were generally being portrayed as sex-mad idiots or mindless fodder for horror villains. The Michigan native, along with Cameron Crowe (who wrote the earlier script for Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High) gave them a new, modern voice and The Breakfast Club, arguably more than any other film, was successful in bringing typical concerns to the big screen. It has arguably become a little overrated in the years since its release but it still makes for a fine, low-key counterpoint to the more energetic teen-centric films of the same year (The Goonies, Back To The Future), while the oft-seen ‘relationships between characters locked in a room gradually change’ plot (12 Angry Men, Reservoir Dogs, Rope, Tape, etc.) is given a fresh spin.

Directed by: John Hughes.
Written by: John Hughes.
Starring: Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul Gleason.
Cinematography: Thomas Del Ruth.
Editing: Dede Allen.
Music: Keith Forsey, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Year: 1985.
Rating: 7.2.

0290 | Plemya (The Tribe)

The-Tribe_still-posterThe discussions that have been surrounding this astonishing Ukrainian drama by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy centre on whether its graphic sex or most shocking depictions of savage violence are somehow exploitative of its largely young, entirely deaf cast, and also on the film’s ability to make the viewer think about the usual ways in which they experience this art form, which has over the years become so reliant on sonics. Watching it is, without doubt, a cinematic experience unlike any other: the dialogue is entirely in Ukrainian sign-language and a title card informs that there will be no subtitles, while there is no score and the plot is not explained via intertitles (though it is easy to follow, based on what you see happen and what you pick up from the gestures, plus your own natural ability to interpret facial expressions and body language). Many reviewers have mentioned the silent film era when writing about The Tribe, but in truth this a vastly different kettle of fish, and Slaboshpytskiy was keen for his primarily non-professional cast to avoid the exaggerated actions of silent film stars. Instead he showed his young actors – who were previously familiar with Hollywood blockbusters, porn, and little else – a number of European art house films, including work by the Dardennes and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs.

The Tribe takes place almost entirely within the confines of a run-down boarding school for deaf children, a depressing microcosm filled with bare corridors and stark bedrooms. Filmed head on and with a static camera as a series of tableaux, with occasional steadicam shots following the actors and the action, we initially meet new student Sergey (Hryhoriy Fesenko) as he disembarks from a bus and asks a stranger for directions. In one long, continuous take he approaches the school for the first time and is directed by a cleaner to an alternative entrance, while we also witness a ceremony of sorts, during which happy pupils give flowers to the Headmistress and her teachers. Any sense that this place is an idyllic environment for learning are soon dispelled, however, and the school is quickly revealed to be a haven for criminality: a young gang of five teenage boys rules the roost, bullying younger kids and carrying out muggings under the watchful eye of their boss, who is also the woodwork teacher. The gang also pimps out two young female boarders at night to drivers resting at a remote truck stop.

Though initially disorienting, The Tribe welcomes viewers who aren’t well-versed in Ukrainian sign language through the simplicity and clarity of its scenes, of which there are just 34 in total (in a film that extends beyond the two hour mark). Sergey’s initiation into both school and gang life is clearly telegraphed, for example, although the characters’ relationships, personalities and pecking orders are established in subtler ways. Before long it feels natural to be watching a film in sign language, and though one or two scenes were not entirely clear to me at the time, they were at least explained by subsequent events that enabled me to understand.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, even though the lack of conventional spoken dialogue will put many people off, it’s not the primary barrier that will stop cinemagoers from ‘enjoying’ The Tribe. Instead it will more than likely be the lurid material that Slaboshpytskiy, also the writer and producer, gradually builds in. Initially the fights and pile-ons we see are sinister, and serious, but they can be watched without experiencing any lasting discomfort. This soon develops into brutal muggings: one on a quiet path filmed at night from a distance, another in more confined surroundings on board a train, though the camera concentrates on the air above the victim as he is beaten. Then come the graphic sex scenes as Sergey develops feelings for one of the prostitutes, a young student called Anya (Yana Novikova), whom he is warned off due to her attachment to the gang leader. The young cast members in question should be commended for their realistic acting during these scenes, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t uncomfortable viewing; there are no cuts away and the single takes extend on and on, although there are harder scenes to sit through as the film approaches its violent and startling denouement.

Without wishing to say anything specific, three scenes in particular left me in shock, and I consider myself a hardened cinemagoer who is rarely troubled by on-screen extremity: one involves Anya, one involves Sergey as he is punished for certain actions by his peers, and the last is the final scene of the film, during which the apparent profound deafness of the characters is especially relevant. Little wonder that I or my fellow half dozen audience members emitted gasps and audible sighs of relief as The Tribe finished, and little wonder that everyone remained in their seats throughout the credits, frozen by the images they had witnessed. As such, while I would recommend this film as one of the best I have seen this year, certainly the one that I’ve found the most challenging and the one for which I have the most admiration, I would add the caveat that you need a strong constitution if you’re going to sit through it; I felt mentally drained by the end.

There are few likeable characters here, if any, and some are involved in many other troubling incidents in addition to the ones I have alluded to above: it is perhaps less shocking in terms of its violence, for example, but a scene in which a boy with Down’s syndrome is physically abused has also stayed with me as much as anything more bloody in The Tribe. This is a grim and relentless picture, but necessarily so, given that it realistically depicts life in the Ukraine in such an establishment (presuming that the director’s assertions in interviews can be believed).

It can of course be read as a political allegory, with either the school or the gang representing the former USSR (or perhaps even the current government in Ukraine). Indeed the troubled recent history between Kiev and Moscow hangs over the film; Slaboshpytskiy wrote the screenplay in 2011 but has encouraged comparisons with the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the Maidan protests, stating that he was living in Kiev at the time of writing and suggesting that he may have been influenced by ‘something in the air’. The film was also made while the protests and the revolution were taking place. We see the national flag in various places, and the golden stars of the European Union appear regularly too; interestingly in one classroom a map of Europe highlights Ukraine’s proximity to the rest of Europe, emphasising it over the country’s border with Russia, while during the film Italy becomes a kind of excitement-inducing ‘promised land’ of fashion, fancy food and wealth. However the director is keen to show that freedom of movement from one country to another is a privilege that is not enjoyed by many Ukrainians, and the allegorical plot seems to be suggest that there are barriers other than money and bureaucratic red tape to prevent people from migrating or travelling freely.

However difficult it may be, I long to experience films like this, that feel so different to the majority, that starkly contrast with much of the turgid crap that gets released each year or those average movies that get wildly overpraised. The Tribe is undoubtedly a visceral film and a difficult one to sit through at times for several reasons, but this is obviously a story by a strong voice, it is well acted, and watching it is a fascinating and immersive experience. It affected me in ways that few films have done in recent years, while the use of sign language is absolutely, categorically not a gimmick.

Directed by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Written by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Starring: Hryhoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy.
Cinematography: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Editing: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 133 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 9.4.

0289 | On Deadly Ground

world3_1769287iAs I’ve said before, Forrest Taft is the most ridiculous of all of Steven Seagal’s personas, including the actual real life Steven Seagal, and the Alaska-set On Deadly Ground is his most unintentionally hilarious action movie: directed and starring the actor, it lays its heavy-handed environmental message on thick and ends with Taft lecturing a crowd of people on the free energy supression conspiracy theory, a kind of drawn-out coup de grâce for the preceding 90 minutes (though thankfully the scene was cut down from an initial 11 minutes; now there’s a director’s cut that doesn’t need to see the light of day).

Every time I watch it my favourite part changes. In the past I considered that finale to be a highlight. I’m not sure if Taft’s Native American vision amuses me the most at the moment, though, or whether it’s the bar fight scene in which he convinces a giant oil rig worker to change his ignorant, racist ways via a round of slapsies (or whatever the game is called where you are from). And just when I think I’ve reached a decision, I always remember the joy I get from watching Michael Caine’s face as he delivers the line ‘You wanna know who he is? Try this: delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul. Try to imagine the ultimate fucking nightmare. And that won’t come close to this son of a bitch when he gets pissed!’

Seagal’s Taft (hey, that’d make a good name for a beach house / a boat / a horse) is the good guy, of course, while Caine’s oil baron Michael Jennings is the villain. The former is an ex-special-forces-trainer-turned-fireman who specialises in extinguishing drilling- and rig-related fires, while the latter plays a Texan who has implausibly developed a strong south London accent. Jennings is cutting corners in order to get a new oil rig online by a certain date, having shafted a load of Native Americans for the rights to the land in the first place; when Taft gets wind of the ruse, the Texan tries to have him rubbed out, employing a team of thugs led by John C. McGinley’s wooden MacGruder (yes, really) and featuring Billy Bob Thornton in an early minor role.

You know the drill from here. Seagal engages in a number of fights (usually involving a group of bad guys who, for some bizarre reason, choose to attack him one at a time), from which he repeatedly emerges victorious, though considering the actor’s proficiency in aikido his scraps always seem leaden to me, even by usual late 80s/early 90s standards. The rest of the time Seagal does nothing to dispel accusations that this is nothing more than a ludicrous vanity project. When we first see Taft the camera slowly pans up the actor’s body to reveal his majestic, swivelling head (replete with dangling cigarillo, as you do) and there are many more shots designed to further cement The Seagull’s movie star credentials: Taft is seen silhouetted against burning fires, looking pensively across the landscape while sitting astride a horse, taking down gun-wielding bad guys with his bare hands, etc. etc. It’s all rather ridiculous, but enjoyable all the same.

Meanwhile Caine’s contempt for this film is writ large across his face, and clearly his mood darkened as the shoot progressed. By the end he’s so unenthusiastic you can just about make out the dollar signs revolving in the black holes where his eyes used to be; there are a couple of token (and poor) attempts at a Texan accent at first, but within about five or ten minutes the Englishman has all but given up. He is sporting jet black hair and looks, bizarrely, like a cross between Action Man, Don Draper and Seagal himself.

There is something oddly entertaining about the whole spectacle, particularly when you realise that the actor-director is tackling this folly with unabashed solemnity. And, in all honesty, it’s difficult not to admire him for his attitude. It’s easy to mock but he exhibits a genuine commitment to certain causes here way before the state of the environment became a cause célèbre (aside from Exxon Valdez-sized oil slicks, anyway) and also during a time when green issues were barely registering on the radar of the mainstream news media; there are far more in the movie industry that pay lip service to such a subject, and Seagal at least backed up his stance with action. So while the actor’s ridiculousness is often patently obvious, let’s give the man the credit due as well. (However I’ll stop the praise there and point out that during this period of his career he was plagued by accusations of sexual harassment, often from co-stars: optician Cheryl Shulman even filed a lawsuit against Seagal, claiming that he beat her and threatened her during the filming of On Deadly Ground, though it was dismissed by the judge in question. Ironic, perhaps, that the Forrest Taft character has the line ‘what does it take to change the essence of a man?’ in this film.)

Ultimately On Deadly Ground is a stinker, but there’s some fun to be had with it, and it must be said that if some of the work by cinematographer Ric White appeared in a film by a celebrated director, or if it was turned in by a more revered DP, then it would still be championed today (with the caveat that it’s presumably difficult to make the Alaskan landscape look anything other than stunning). I also refuse to completely dismiss any movie that has R. Lee Ermey delivering the line: ‘My guy in D.C. tells me that we are not dealing with a student here, we’re dealing with the Professor. Any time the military has an operation that can’t fail, they call this guy in to train the troops, OK? He’s the kind of guy that would drink a gallon of gasoline so he could piss in your campfire! You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear, without his toothbrush, and tomorrow afternoon he’s going to show up at your pool side with a million dollar smile and fist full of pesos.’

However let’s not get carried away. There’s a reason why Seagal picked up three Razzie nominations (for worst picture, worst actor and worst director, the last of which he won). There’s a reason why On Deadly Ground picked up a few more on top of Seagal’s personal haul: Joan Chen, dismal as the love interest, was also nominated, while there were further ‘honors’ bestowed upon the screenwriters and the composers of the film’s original song.

Directed by: Steven Seagal.
Written by: Ed Horowitz, Robin U. Russin.
Starring: Steven Seagal, Michael Caine, Joan Chen, John C. McGinley.
Cinematography: Ric White.
Editing: Don Brochu, Robert A. Ferretti.
Music: Basil Poledouris.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Year: 1994.
Rating: 1.2.

0288 | Robocop

gallery-7Updating a recognised, revered and cherished sci-fi classic is a thankless task which often ensures that the director in question will end up on a hiding to nothing; however I’m sure it’s the kind of job that pays well and presumably opens up many future opportunities for the person in charge, so long as money is made. I can see the appeal, particularly for foreign filmmakers wishing to step onto the Hollywood merry-go-round; re-inventing the original Robocop with mixed results here (and making a healthy profit to boot) is the Brazilian Elite Squad director José Padilha, with he’s-so-hot-right-now Joel Kinnaman taking over from Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, the cop-turned-tin-man whose job is to protect and serve the people of Detroit.

Franchise reboots often (rightly) arouse suspicion and cynicism, and naturally the announcement that Paul Verhoeven’s inventive, iconic, witty and brutally violent original was being remade led to outraged cries from both hardcore and casual fans alike. But this is the movie business and the 1987 Robocop isn’t some kind of sacred cow or sacrosanct work: if the idea of a Robocop remake is the kind of thing that gets your blood boiling then you probably need to take a good long look at the world, and hopefully you will start to worry about something else more worthwhile. Let’s face it, within the next 10 or 15 years we’ll probably see remakes of Back To The Future, Beverley Hills Cop, Gremlins and many more of those 80s classics.

Obviously Padilha’s film was always going to be compared to Verhoeven’s upon completion and release, and of course it is inferior, predictably lacking the satirical bite, the ferocious and bloody action, the memorable pack of villains and many other elements that made the original such a triumph. However it isn’t a complete duffer, and if you’re able to forget about the 1987 film – difficult given the similar plot, costume and some shared themes – I dare say you will enjoy it. Padilha’s film is mildly entertaining, even if it does fall apart at the end.

There are, thankfully, attempts by screenwriter Joshua Zetumer to create a modern spin on the satire of the original screenplay. Verhoeven and writer Edward Neumeier broadly attacked Reaganism and 1980s America by criticising and lampooning news media, TV shows, corporations, foreign policy, rampant privatisation, capitalist greed and gentrification, and Zetumer also picks several of those subjects as his targets. The 2014 film, set in 2028, begins with scenes that show OmniCorp’s robot army patrolling the streets of Tehran. Residents are afraid and have taken to suicide bombings to fight the invasion (a negative stereotype that caused a degree of outrage when the remake hit cinemas, particularly in Iran). It’s a thinly-veiled criticism of recent real life military campaigns conducted abroad, and the presence of Samuel L Jackson as a right-wing TV agitator quickly establishes the mocking tone, as he comically explains how grateful the Iranian people are with barefaced spin before revealing his own desire to see a robotic police force on the streets of American cities. Left-wing opponents are outraged, and there are repeated suggestions that US citizens aren’t ready for empathy-free, utterly ruthless law enforcement, at which point you expect to see both the writer and the director pop up in the background winking away to the audience.

Jackson has an important role here, and is tasked with delivering the satirical bite of the original more than any of the other actors. He pops up at regular intervals, talking directly to camera, and while his scenes lack the comic impact of Verhoeven and Neumeier’s amusing spoof adverts and fake news reports, it’s still an effective send-up of Glenn Beck-style commentators. There’s a particularly amusing moment where he presides over a live debate between OmniCorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, miscast as the villain of the piece) and his political opponent, cutting the politician off mid-point.

All of this confirms something we all know anyway. Some high-profile talking heads and news networks are politically-biased, but it’s hardly groundbreaking, and unfortunately there’s a lack of sneering contempt during the Jackson scenes that betrays the fact this is a safer, more gentle screenplay. This remake fails to tap into the same strand of anarchy (both comic and in the more usual sense of the word) that ran through the original and lacks its rampant nihilism and the links to exploitation cinema. All the roughness of the original, all its nastiness and chaos, has disappeared, and it has been replaced by the sleek, shiny order of the modern-day blockbuster: where Robocop once shot a potential rapist in the balls, for example, he now tasers wanted murderers so that they can be tried fairly. Of course in the real world this would be progress, but we’re not talking about the real world.

Nowhere is the gulf between the verve of the two films more apparent than with regard to the film’s villains. The 1987 Robocop juggled six odious characters successfully, including Ronny Cox’s ruthless CEO, Miguel Ferrer’s slimy careerist and Kurtwood Smith’s deranged kingpin, and the 2014 equivalents do not even come close to matching their earlier counterparts. Padilha and Zetumer attempt to incorporate a similarly large number of bad guys, but not one of them is remotely memorable: there’s a Clarence Boddicker equivalent but he is barely seen before he meets his maker, while Murphy’s dealings with a couple of corrupt cops elicits a shrug at best. Jackie Earle Haley occasionally pops up as an arrogant ex-military tactician, now working for OmniCorp, but he ends up trying too hard to make an impact. Faring worst of all is Keaton: an inherently likeable actor, his CEO spends most of the movie as an approachable, pleasant guy (even if he is driven by greed and a desire to aggressively expand his business) before undergoing a barely-credible turnaround in the final act.

It’s not all bad. There’s a fresh score but the original soundtrack by Basil Poledouris is used sporadically and Padilha’s Robocop features the kind of precision-shooting action and hi-tech gadgetry that you would expect, plus there’s a meaty supporting role for Gary Oldman (the only actor here with a playful smirk on his face). Michael K. Williams makes as much as he can of a scaled-down ‘cop partner’ part (Lewis, once Murphy’s love interest when played by Nancy Allen), while Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan tick the necessary boxes as Murphy’s wife and Adorable Moppet Son. The number of supporting actors (fleshed out by the likes of Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) suggests a lack of confidence somewhere along the line in either the character of Robocop, or the ability of Kinnaman to sell this film on his own, which is a shame as the lead actor makes a decent stab of it: something about the lower half of Peter Weller’s face just looked right, but Kinnaman’s physical performance is fine, and he accurately replicates the character’s mix of robotic swiftness and awkward steps and turns.

Overall, this is one of those remakes that seems better than it probably is because it isn’t as bad as it could have been. On the flipside it has probably received more stick than it deserves from some quarters simply because it is not as good as the original film (though I guess that’s fair enough if you’re blowing $120 million on something). Personally I feel ambivalent about it: I don’t think it’s awful, and while this isn’t a bad way to spend two hours, the fact is time would be better spent re-watching Verhoeven’s original.

Directed by: José Padilha.
Written by: Joshua Zetumer. Based on Robocop by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner.
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L Jackson, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earle Haley.
Cinematography: Lula Carvalho.
Editing: Daniel Rezende, Peter McNulty.
Music: Pedro Bromfman.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 118 minutes.
Year: 2014.
Rating: 4.9.

0287 | Mad Max: Fury Road

maxresdefaultI remember watching Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior, as a young-ish boy; probably about ten years old. I remember being transfixed by the final act, which famously features a long climactic chase as Mel Gibson’s titular hero fends off bad guy attacks while driving a giant, armoured rig across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with pedal firmly to the metal. It’s one of the all-time great movie car chases, up there with (but entirely different to) those that feature in The French Connection, To Live And Die In LA and Bullitt, and I expect I probably sat through most of it with my mouth wide open. I remember subsequently seeking out the low-budget first installment of the series, the cheapo 90-minute b-movie that implausibly became a worldwide smash, and being similarly impressed. Max was an iconic hero, director George Miller had created two fascinating alternative visions of Australia post-nuclear holocaust and Gibson became an international star. (I also thought Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome was pretty good, too, and think some of the indifference towards it that exists today is a shame, but let’s be honest: the highlights of the Mad Max trilogy are the car stunts and there are fewer in that third film.)

Anyway. That was 30 years ago, and I haven’t seen any of those original films since: in the mid-1980s a trilogy was a rare old thing indeed, and three Mad Max entries in quick succession had been more than enough for me, even at that tender age. I can’t say that I’ve thought about the series all that much since then, have never wished to revisit it, and wasn’t going to bother with Mad Max: Fury Road either until the overwhelmingly positive reviews started to appear a few days ago. I’d had it with Max Rockatansky, although it’s not hard to see why the series is cherished today by so many, particularly down under: the character is one of those charismatic, exaggerated, iconic individuals that encapsulates a certain aspect of the national psyche or a certain segment of society, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world, and the creation by Miller, original co-writer Byron Kennedy and Gibson certainly merited those three films. (An aside, but I feel the same way about James Bond: a character who is recognisably English to the rest of the world, who seems faintly ridiculous and anachronistic to me as an example of a modern English man, yet he remains a bizarre summation of many typical upper class white male English character traits: repressed, barely able to conceal his sense of entitlement, unwilling to open up and discuss his feelings with others, and unable to disguise his unfortunate superior attitude toward ‘colonials’, the working class or anyone in the position of ‘servant’.)

It’s a surprise, with all that in mind, to see the major roles in this new film occupied by Brits and Yanks, and to find out that much of it was shot in Namibia, though it’s not surprising to discover that both points have been put forward as part of a ‘Is Mad Max Still Australian?’ debate in the right-wing Australian press. Miller is back on board as director, and there are plenty of Australian actors in supporting roles and minor parts. It still feels like an Australian movie, more importantly, and though budgets have changed and special effects have improved there are plenty of links with the original movies; the production design is largely the same as the second two films of the original trilogy, even if some of the rough edges have sadly been dispensed with, and even though it glistens with the polished sheen of the modern blockbuster.

Part re-boot, part sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road takes that thrilling car chase from Mad Max 2 and expands it into a near-two hour action extravaganza, with Tom Hardy taking over from Gibson (in fact you might want to think of this as Locke 2: The Open Road). Hardy spends some of the film – though not all of it – playing second fiddle to Charlize Theron’s tough trucker Imperator Furiosa, a fearsome one-armed rig driver who has liberated half a dozen slave wives from the clutches of tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Furiosa and her party are chased across the landscape by the eye-bulgingly angry Joe and his army, are joined eventually by Max, and the group’s travels through different territories results in contact with a number of other hostile tribes to boot.

That’s it in terms of plot: there are other minor unimportant details while the long pursuit is sporadically interrupted by a couple of brief, quieter moments and bookended by scenes set at Joe’s Citadel, but the majority of the film is made up of kinetic, action-packed vehicular mayhem (plus the associated, wholly impressive, stunt acting). If something had been building up inside Miller while he was making animated family fayre like Babe, Happy Feet and their respective sequels he certainly found an outlet for it; I’m struggling to think of any film that relies so heavily on brutal, bone-crunching, ground-shaking action as this one.

And yes, that action is largely enjoyable to watch, even though Fury Road feels flabby at two hours. Vehicles repeatedly smash into each other; Joe’s army of war boys jump from one car to another, clamber along undercarriages and hang desperately on to bonnets; souped-up motorbikes fly through the air; spikes are used to impale; men fight and dangle from swinging metronomes; exploding spears are chucked; a guitar doubles as a flamethrower; some of this happens all at once, and if the velocity of the cars wasn’t enough in itself Miller often speeds up his film to enhance its cartoonish leanings. It’s zany, it’s pretty exciting and I expect that once again my mouth dropped open here and there. Credit must go to the actors (who are game and remain furrowed of brow throughout), the stunt drivers and stuntmen, comic artist Brendan McCarthy (who created the inventive character and vehicle designs) and the director, who presides over all this mayhem.

Even though I hadn’t been expecting anything else – I’d read enough to know what the film consisted of, and the trailer was a dead giveaway anyway – I still have to say that Fury Road is ultimately hampered by its paucity of dialogue and lack of story. There’s simply nothing here to stop this from being a minor blip on the cinematic landscape, a sugar rush snack that staves off hunger for an hour or two, and aside from one or two spectacular set pieces I doubt I’ll remember much of it this time next week. It exists simply to entertain for a couple of hours through its high-octane thrills and therefore most people who like action films, or watching fast cars, will enjoy it. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

As has been discussed many times elsewhere, it is interesting to see the male star take a back seat, literally, to the female co-star, but I think the suggestions that Fury Road is an important celebration or examination of womanhood that are doing the rounds are a little wide of the mark (seriously, watch this and compare). That said, as action films go, there are more feminist leanings here than the norm and yes: we get significant major and minor female characters, and as physically and mentally strong a female leader as I have seen in some time. However, as Dave Crewe succinctly points out in this review, there are certain choices made by the director and his writers that are more consistent with typically male-pleasing action blockbusters: ‘why didn’t Furiosa save Joe’s less conventionally attractive slaves?’ being an excellent case in point.

Still, Charlize Theron is the obvious highlight, and it’s great fun to see the manosphere getting its collective knickers in a twist: tough and strong, rarely needing to be ‘rescued’ and never once showing any desire for the love of a man, Theron’s Furiosa most obviously brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, and the fact that I’m having to use a character as old as Max himself for comparison highlights just how rare such personality traits are in cinematic heroines. It’s a shame Furiosa isn’t developed further within this film, and it’s a shame that Max has lost a little charisma too (although you could never accuse Gibson’s Rockatansky of being verbose and the tradition continues), but the character probably needed the re-invention after all this time. Fury Road eventually becomes as monotonous as Junkie XL’s score, and I think it has been a little over-praised, but it’s a fun Saturday night movie nonetheless.

Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris.
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne.
Cinematography: John Seale.
Editing: Margaret Sixel.
Music: Junkie XL.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 120 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 6.3.

0286 | The Fast And The Furious

Screen shot 2012-04-02 at 11.43.32 AMThis mid-1950s B-movie has little in common with the more celebrated recent blockbuster series other than its name and a general fascination with all things vroom-vroom, but it isn’t very well known and a lapsed copyright means it is in the public domain, so I thought I’d give it a spin. The producers of the Vin Diesel-led fast cars behemoth bought the rights to the title of this picture, which is co-directed by Edward Sampson and star John Ireland, but unsurprisingly left the rights to the story well alone (although it was remade as the dismal Charlie Sheen film The Chase back in the early 1990s).

Though its plot is basic, The Fast And The Furious is only 73 minutes long and there’s enough in writer-producer Roger Corman’s rat-a-tat script to sustain interest. Ireland plays Frank Webster, a man who has broken out of jail after being charged with a murder he didn’t commit, like all good Hollywood heroes. We don’t see the jailbreak, sadly, but we do see Webster attacking a have-a-go-hero at a roadside diner before kidnapping Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone), a young woman who happens to be driving her Jaguar towards a race across the US-Mexico border. ‘Perfect’, thinks Frank, who can almost taste the tequila already.

Unfortunately this is the movies and things do not quite go to plan. The first half of the film sees Connie repeatedly trying to engineer an escape from her captor’s clutches, while the second half sees the pair gradually falling in love after Frank’s innocence is established, before the race begins. The final fifteen minutes is largely made up of cars driving fast, with some nifty stunt driving on narrow, winding roads.

The two leads are enjoyable to watch, mainly because they both get to play livewires forced to spend the entire film in close proximity to one another. Ireland snarls his way through much of it and he has a couple of choice lines: ‘You must’ve gotten up on the wrong side of the car’ Frank drolly barks at Connie on one occasion. Malone’s character, meanwhile, is all feisty snap and crackle, slapping her captor and refusing to bow to his intimidation. There’s not much to their relationship other than that, and the film’s dalliance with love (or rather it’s dalliance with Stockholm syndrome) feels disappointingly contrived, and isn’t examined with any kind of thoroughness.

However we’re firmly in B-movie territory, and the main draw here is the cars, not the characterisation. As such there are countless shots of vehicles whizzing by, often with cameras panning in the opposite direction to enhance the feeling of speed (indeed from what I’ve seen of the present Fast and Furious series very little has changed in that respect). All the while engines roar and you can almost smell the gasoline in the air. There’s not much to The Fast And The Furious other than that, although I perhaps ought to point out that either age or something else has caused the film stock to show more than its share of wear and tear, and that some of the editing is decidedly ham-fisted, with at least one actor cut off mid-line. It’s a throwaway B-movie but it benefits from the ability of its two leads: Ireland, Oscar-nominated a few years earlier for his work on All The King’s Men, had fallen foul of McCarthyism in the early 1950s and had even successfully sued a couple of producers who had taken promised roles away from him, while Malone was a rising star who picked up the Best Supporting Actress award the following year. Albeit not for this piece of petrolhead fluff.

Directed by: John Ireland, Edward Sampson.
Written by: Roger Corman, Jean Howell, Jerome Odlum.
Starring: John Ireland, Dorothy Malone.
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby.
Editing: Edward Sampson.
Certificate: PG.
Running Time: 73 minutes.
Year: 1954.
Rating: 4.8.