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The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen:RoboCop aka What it is to be Human

(contains spoilers)

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action/sci-fi classic RoboCop is not just a hilarious satirical masterclass, a special-effects showcase replete with religious symbolism (RoboCop is Jesus!), or one of the best action films ever made. It absolutely is all of these things, but it’s also a study on identity and what it means to be human, and what better way to explore such a complex subject than in a film that features a shoot-out in a cocaine factory?

To explore how RoboCop does this it’s beneficial to consider phenomenology. Phenomenology is the philosophical study of how the human experience and consciousness is shaped by phenomena (any existing thing, “something that exists and can be seen, felt, tasted, etc” (Cambridge dictionary definition)). How does this apply to film, and especially, how does it apply to RoboCop? There are many avenues of phenomenological exploration in film:

“the emphasis can either lie on the film-as-intentional-object or the viewer-as-experiencing-subject. Moreover, one can distinguish various degrees of generality and specificity: from a general description of the experience of film as such (Harald Stadler, Vivian Sobchack) to an investigation of very specific aspects that we experience when watching films. Think of the lived body experience of senses like touch (Laura Marks, Jennifer Barker) or smell (Vivian Sobchack), the spatial experience of video images (Steve Lipkin) or depth in film (Trevor Elkington), the temporal experience of documentary films (Malin Wahlberg) or slow cinema (Jakob Boer), the collective experience of the cinema auditorium (Julian Hanich) or the aesthetic experience of film worlds (Daniel Yacavone).” (Ferenc-Flatz & Hanich, What Is Film Phenomenology?)

German philosopher Edmund Husserl describes phenomenology as “the reflective study of the essence of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.” (Smith 2007), and if we consider the “first-person point of view” to be that of the camera, we can see how it can be imagined that a film is something that actively perceives phenomena, as well as consider the viewer’s experience of what the camera shows them, and how it is presented. In The Film and the New Psychology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about how films are constructed in a precise way which elicits a particular response from the viewer, a rhythmic amalgamation of sound and image, “the ensemble tells us something very precise which is neither a thought nor a reminder of sentiments we have felt in our own lives.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964 pg. 56). In the most simple terms, film can make us feel.

But what does this have to do with RoboCop? We can compare two scenes to get an idea of the different ways film can make us feel, both in emotionally (laughter, sadness, anger, etc) and physically (discomfort, pain, etc). In both the ED-209 boardroom scene and Murphy (Peter Weller)’s death at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and friends we witness the gruesome and bloody murder of a man, but the audience response to each is entirely different. In the boardroom, newly designed enforcement droid ED-209 malfunctions while being demonstrated and shoots an executive named Kinney to death. The tragedy is brushed off as a “glitch”, and the atmosphere in the room is one of annoyance due to money lost in developing a malfunctioning product rather than horror at the needless loss of human life, with the violence being so excessive that it ventures into the cartoonish. The audience doesn’t feel any tragedy or horror, only a satirical jab at corporate America, entirely down to what we are shown and the tone that is set by how it is shown to us. When we watch Murphy’s death scene, we come away with an entirely different feeling. It’s uncomfortable, it’s horrifying, and there’s a much greater feeling of pain and tragedy. What we see, what we hear and the way see and hear it creates an entirely different tone, and creates an entirely different feeling. When Clarence brings Murphy to his knees by striking him with his shotgun, there’s a close-up of the impact and an accompanying meaty thud to drive home the force for the audience. Clarence toys with Murphy, taking his time and revelling in his torture of him, the camera lingering as Clarence slowly aims his shotgun at different parts of Murphy’s body, the stoic yet faintly fearful eyes of Murphy contrasted with the joyful malice etched in Clarence’s face. When the shotgun blast obliterates Murphy’s hand there is a short shot of the impact, enough to see the devastation, before quickly cutting to Clarence and friends’ reaction of laughter. The criminals take glee in the violence they perpetrate against Murphy, and it serves to emphasise the cruelty and malice of the event. Much more time is devoted to Murphy’s experience of this violence compared to Kinney in the boardroom scene. We see Murphy cradle the ruined stump of his hand as he staggers in pain around the room before hearing his anguished screams when the rest of the criminals unleash volley after volley of shotgun blasts into him. The violence here, while still graphic and abundant, is much less excessive and gore-filled than Kinney’s obliteration, keeping the horror grounded in reality. We also see the shock and horror in Murphy’s partner Lewis (Nancy Allen)’s face as she witnesses the assault, unable to help. The difference in the depiction of and reaction to the violence in each of these scenes creates two entirely different feelings for the viewer, and when Clarence shoots Murphy in the head at the end of the sequence, “killing” him, the camera focuses on Murphy’s lifeless face and glassed over eyes, and it’s at this point that the film begins to explore what it means to be human.

Clarence Boddicker torments Murphy as one of his fellow thugs looks on laughing

As Murphy’s lifeless body is wheeled through a hospital corridor we witness the pronouncement of his death through Murphy’s POV. The tubes and harsh lights visible in the shot accompanied with the closeness of the men attempting to resuscitate Murphy create a claustrophobic and dire atmosphere. When the medical staff use the defibrillator on Murphy, we hear the jolt of electricity and cut to Murphy, eyes glazed and wide open, jolting along with it. The marriage of what we hear and what we see here magnifies the impact of it, creating an impression that the viewer can almost feel the shock themselves. Inserted in this sequence is a shot of Murphy’s wife and son standing outside his home, waving goodbye and smiling, and the camera pulls back from them at a rapid pace signifying the death of what makes Murphy human; his memories, emotions and personality. The medical staff verify Murphy’s death, the screen fades to black, a moment of stillness, and then the film seems to boot up like a computer, the POV now noticeably different. There seems to be an overlay with scan-lines and green text, like a computer system. It is through this difference that the change from Murphy to RoboCop is evident. We see engineers testing his vision, hearing, and other capabilities and see these functions represented graphically on screen such as soundwaves modulating what he is hearing, and a textual representation of the “program” that is being used, e.g. “Voice/Stress”. All of this serves to emphasise the now mechanical nature of our protagonist and his change from Murphy to RoboCop, but also allows the audience to feel the life in these interactions as we experience them in the same way that RoboCop would, all from his POV, which somewhat paradoxically makes him seem somewhat more alive and present for the audience, rather than just the object or property that Omni Consumer Products now views him as.

Engineers test RoboCop’s capabilities

The film continues in this way, with various scenes establishing RoboCop as different from the usual police officer, with shots of his robotic and unnatural way of walking and accompanying mechanical sounds of his limbs and joints moving, the shooting range scene showing the difference in his weaponry and capabilities, and a series of scenes showing RoboCop thwarting crimes in his own, somewhat impersonal style. At this stage of the film, it seems RoboCop has lost his humanity with even his voice seeming more robotic in pitch, tone and delivery. He seems not much more than a machine designed to fight crime, only stopping to recharge in a specially constructed chair and consume a nutrient paste (‘It tastes like baby food!’). Even at this stage however traces of Murphy still remain, such as the signature spin of his pistol before holstering it, in some of the phrases he uses and in his style of driving, but these seem buried deep in whatever subconscious that still remains in the brain contained within RoboCop. His old partner on the force Lewis (Nancy Allen) recognises these behaviours and comes to believe Murphy is still alive through RoboCop.

RoboCop “sleeps” as engineers monitor his activity

RoboCop begins to experiences memories of his previous life as Murphy, including something of a nightmare replaying his death at the hands of Clarence & co, and becomes fully aware of his previous life as Murphy after an encounter at a petrol station with Emil (Paul McCrane), who was one of the thugs involved in Murphy’s murder. RoboCop comes across Emil in the midst of an armed robbery and proclaims ‘Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.’ in much the same manner as Murphy did when he came across Emil and friends in the steel mill before his murder. Emil reacts in shock exclaiming ‘We killed you!’, before causing a fire and explosion at the petrol station. We see RoboCop react to Emil, frozen by the revelation, and feel his shock and burgeoning understanding. This is played against the replay of Emil’s exclamation through RoboCop’s memory, which plays to the audience through POV in a mechanical way with the overlay of scanlines and a “playback” caption. RoboCop subdues and arrests Emil, then finds information on Emil’s associates and suspected crimes through the police database, accessed mechanically with a spike built into his hand.

RoboCop replays Emil’s revelation in his “memory”

This leads RoboCop to visiting the address listed for Murphy, his old home, and this sequence definitively blurs the lines between Murphy and RoboCop through its use of POV and choice of shots to convey memory and flashback. As RoboCop walks through the now empty and for-sale house Murphy lived in with his wife and son not so long ago, there are various flashbacks, and it is how these flashbacks are presented that effects the impression the audience gets about who is remembering. What is most important is that first, RoboCop surveys the scene in the usual POV style we have come to associate with him; with overlay scanlines and green text as if on a computer screen. There is a burst of static and the scene changes to signify that this is now a memory of Murphy. The POV during the memories is devoid of the signifiers we have come to associate with RoboCop, the scanlines and green text are now gone. This is important because we have already been shown how RoboCop remembers things, he literally plays them back in his head using his operating system, but when RoboCop’s memories begin to manifest in the house this is all gone, it’s organic and much more natural than mechanical. This signifies we are seeing Murphy’s memory, and that Murphy is slowly becoming a greater part of RoboCop. If Murphy’s memories are RoboCop’s memories too, then it stands to reason that Murphy and RoboCop are one and the same.

RoboCop remembers his life as Murphy, the digital overlay melts away

All of this leads to a quest for justice for RoboCop, seeking to punish those who were responsible for Murphy’s death. This results in the aforementioned shoot-out in a cocaine factory where Clarence is arrested and puts RoboCop on the trail of Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), a senior executive at OCP responsible for much of the ills and crime inflicted on the people of Detroit, and in confronting Jones, RoboCop (and the audience) is served a stark reminder of his mechanical nature and the restraints that represents. When RoboCop attempts to place Jones under arrest, a hitherto classified directive in RoboCop’s programming makes itself known, stating RoboCop is unable to arrest any senior OCP staff, and attempting to violate it sends RoboCop’s systems haywire. We see this through RoboCop’s POV, the word’s “Product Violation” flashing in green text on the screen and bursts of static affecting the video feed of RoboCop’s vision as Jones explains ‘We can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?’.  Another OCP ‘product’ ED-209 is called in to finish RoboCop off, but RoboCop manages to escape, heavily damaged, and is rescued and taken to an abandoned steel mill by Lewis to recover.

A helpless RoboCop attempts escape

It’s at the steel mill that we first see RoboCop without his helmet, and the construction of the shot where we first see how he looks reveals multiple layers. The shot focuses on Lewis holding up a sheet of metal as a mirror for RoboCop which we can see his reflection in, and also shows the back of RoboCop’s head and part of his shoulder, slightly out of focus on the far left of the frame. So here we are seeing Lewis’s sombre but muted first impression of her old partner’s new look alongside RoboCop’s himself seeing it for the first time, as well as seeing what human elements remain of RoboCop ourselves as an audience. The distorted reflection itself helps to highlight the blurring of the lines between man and machine, and reflects the doubt and struggle RoboCop is himself having about his identity as Murphy.

Murphy (and Lewis) see what he has now become

RoboCop chooses to leave his helmet off for the remainder of the film, and it is in this manner that he bursts in to the OCP board-room in the final scene of the film to once again confront Dick Jones. He lays out Jones’ charges in front of OCP chairman the Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy) and explains he is unable to act against an OCP executive due to his programming. RoboCop presents his proof using the data-spike in his hand to playback a video of Jones admitting to the murder of another executive, and Jones reacts by taking the Old Man hostage at gun point and making demands. All the while, there are shots of RoboCop’s POV throughout the sequence, with “Directive 4” flashing in green text to highlight the mechanical restriction against his free will to act. Jones is fired by the Old Man and we see the green text disappear, RoboCop thanks the Old Man and, in true RoboCop fashion, riddles Jones full of holes and sends him through the high-rise window to fall to his death. The film ends as the Old Man asks for RoboCop’s name, who replies ‘Murphy’ with a smile and the film cuts to credits.

This is why I love RoboCop. Not only for it’s glorious action set-pieces, suitably slimy and irredeemable villains, dark sense of humour or hilarious satirical elements, but also because it is, rather unbelievably, a potent and stirring philosophical study on identity and what makes us human. The film shows us Murphy, then shows us RoboCop, and finally shows us how the two are one. The fact that it explores all this us while also featuring a shoot-out in a cocaine factory, a Toxic-Waste Man, a robot falling down the stairs and about two tonnes of broken glass is just a bonus.

Top 10 of 2018

This is a list of the 10 films I liked the most that I saw for the first time in 2018, in no particular order. There aren’t actually any films from 2018 in this list…

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

A mystery film centred around a murder on the Wind River Indian Reservation starring Jeremy Renner as a tracker and Elizabeth Olsen as the investigating FBI agent. The cast of characters is pretty rich and multi-dimensional and the central mystery of the film, though pretty conventional on the surface, is enough of a driving force to move the plot along and allow us to explore the central characters further. It also looks great, with the harsh Wyoming winter landscape looking particularly unforgiving.

The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman, 1943)

The simplest way to think of this film would be as a Western 12 Angry Men, especially since they both star Henry Fonda, but it’s not so simple as that. While admittedly not as great as 12 Angry Men, The Ox-Bow Incident came out 15 years prior and is a worthy study in the viciousness of mob mentality, something that is still very relevant today. It paints a fairly bleak and powerful picture of the more unsavoury aspects of human nature, and I would implore anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so at their earliest convenience.

Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940)

A wartime thriller set just as World War II is about to break out, the Nazis kidnap a Czechoslovak scientist working on a new type of bomb as well as his daughter, and a British secret service agent goes undercover in an attempt to recover them for the British war effort. The film is well-paced and not too overbearing with comedic touches to add a bit of levity, particularly from the characters of Charters and Caldicott (who I recognised from a similar film of that era, The Lady Vanishes). There’s a nice set-piece at the end involving a cable car, and the dialogue is always interesting and keeps the plot moving along nicely. The chemistry between Rex Harrison’s secret agent Dickie Randall and Margaret Lockwood as the scientist’s daughter Anna Bomasch also works extremely well, with the supporting roles such as the various Nazi officers or aforementioned Charters and Caldicott also contributing nicely to the overall picture.

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Barbara Stanwyck plays a con artist named set on conning Henry Fonda’s Charles out of his money, but the two end up truly falling for each other. A series of farcical mishaps and misunderstandings break them up, but the two’s love somehow endures. Stanwyck and Fonda are both great in this, with really believable chemistry, and the plot and situations set out are fairly amusing. The supporting characters help build on this playful atmosphere as well, and overall I found this film sweet and funny.

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)

Audrey Hepburn stars as a princess named Ann who is in the midst of a royal tour of Europe and currently in Rome. She’s growing tired of the pressures and responsibilities of her royal duties and ends up escaping her minders into the city itself, falls asleep on the street and ends up in the company of an American reporter named Joe Bradley played by Gregory Peck. Joe doesn’t realise Ann is the princess at first, letting her sleep at his apartment so she doesn’t get picked up by the police for vagrancy, but when he finds out he plays along with Ann’s ruse that she is simply “Anya Smith” and hides his profession from her, hoping to get a story he can sell for big money. The two spend the day together in Rome and, of course, start to fall for each other. While it’s hard to believe that a princess could walk around a major city without anyone recognising her, even in 1953, I was happy to suspend my disbelief because the film and characters are just so charming (especially Audrey Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her performance). I liked the ending a lot too, which was very bittersweet, and I can’t help think that it would be incredibly different if mainstream Hollywood made the film today.

The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)

Inspired by the 1958 film of the same name, 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama is set in a small secluded village in 19th century Japan, which has a tradition where once a member of the village reaches the age of 70 they must make a journey to a remote mountain nearby to die on its peak. Our main character is Orin, a 69 year old woman, and we see her final year in the village before making the journey. Although almost 70 she is still extremely healthy and capable, but resolves not to be taken by fear and to make her journey to the mountain with dignity and to cause no embarrassment to her family. The majority of the film deals with life in the village, and it seems like an extremely brutal and harsh place to live. Near the beginning of the film we witness the discovery of a dead baby who had been hidden in the snow, found after the thaw of Spring. The reaction to this is not as dramatic as you might expect, and seems to be taken much more as a part of life in the village rather than an earth-shattering revelation. Later in the film a family found to be stealing from others in the village is punished in a particularly harsh and brutal manner as well. It seems in the village it is all about survival, and to emphasise this point there are various short sequences of nature (animals fighting, mating, hunting each other for food) spread throughout the film, creating a parallel between the village and its natural surroundings, both ruled through the idea of survival of the fittest. The film is gorgeous too, the village and its surroundings beautifully presented. Perhaps not something you would recommend if someone just wants to be entertained, but The Ballad of Narayama is harsh, beautiful, artful and raw.

Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1958)

Previously all I knew about this film was that it served as the inspiration for John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which is explicitly evident in some sections of the film, but upon watching Rio Bravo I saw there was much more to it. The protagonist, sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) is steadfast and fearless in his belief in upholding the law, and it explores loyalty, redemption and the idea of community. Chance even turns down help at various parts of the film, only accepting help from those who are capable and truly willing. The action is well-staged, the characters engaging in different ways and a well-paced story which does not drag in the nearly two and a half hour run-time of the film.

The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)

I’ve seen a fair few haunted house films in my time, and it’s safe to say The Changeling is probably the most creepy and effective of them all. George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a composer whose wife and daughter die in a road accident, and so he leaves New York City for Seattle where he rents a large, old mansion to live in, which had been unoccupied for the previous 12 years. Shortly after moving in strange things begin happening, starting with loud banging and escalating to ghostly apparitions. John finds a locked room with some disturbing old artifacts of the previous occupants and puts his mind to finding out more about the history of the house and its residents. The mystery of the house reels in the viewer just as it does John, and I found myself invested throughout. There are some genuinely chilling moments, where the hair on my arms stood on its end. I won’t divulge much in way of detail, I’ll only say you should definitely watch this film if you have any interest in horror, and even if you have no interest in horror, you should probably watch it anyway.

Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955)

This one is all about the performances of the two central characters. The story follows perpetual bachelor Marty (Ernest Borgnine), a kind and good natured man in his mid 30s who works as a butcher and is constantly asked “Why aren’t you married yet?” by friends and family. Marty has tried but never been able to find a partner, attributing this to his looks and station in life. After being badgered to go out by his mother, he meets a girl named Clara (Betsy Blair) who everyone dismisses as plain and seems destined for old maid-hood herself, but Marty connects with her and they spend the night talking. The chemistry between Blair and Borgnine is warm, endearing and easy to get lost in, and is integral in positioning them as a good match for each other. The supporting characters like Marty’s aunt and mother provide the conflict in the story, first pushing Marty to find a girl then trying to pull him away once he finds one, and this conflict makes the conclusion seem more rewarding, but the best thing about the film is definitely the connection we see on screen between Marty and Clara.

I Wish (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2011)

In I Wish, we see two young brothers with separated parents, each brother living with a different parent and in different cities. The older brother, Kohichi, hears a rumour that the first time two bullet trains pass each other it generates a mysterious energy, and if you are there to witness it you are able to wish for whatever your heart desires. Kohichi hatches a plan to go to the place where two trains will intersect on a particular date and meet his brother Ryunosuke there to wish for their parents to get back together, and each brother brings some friends on the journey with them. The film is nostalgic, whimsical and incredibly sweet, and the child actors all engaging and real in their own ways. It all feels very wistful and heartfelt, with the rich emotion of familial connections explored not only through this grand wish quest, but also through the smallest of interactions like baking and music. An emotional film which is sure to make you look fondly back on your own childhood friends and adventures, and long for the capacity to believe in wishes again. A masterful sequence of associative editing near the end of the film is particularly affecting, and only adds to the film as a whole.

Last Week’s Films (03/09 – 16/09)

The Endless (Justin Benson & Aaron Muirhead, 2017)

I saw this one in the cinema and it was introduced by a gentleman that works there who saw it at a festival as a film that “blew his mind”, and I have to say that after the film ended I was a bit let-down. There was some nice time-related loopy-ness, and the setting of the campground/living space of a “cult” was fairly interesting, but the characters were a bit unengaging, the story was a bit boring and convoluted, and the effects, while not bad, seemed distractingly iffy (which is not surprising given the low budget). Not something I’ll watch again, but it was okay. 5/10

The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014)

A man shows up at a family’s home claiming to be the ex-army buddy of their now-deceased son. Through his interactions with the family we can see he’s not all he seems. There’s some fun action sequences in here, and the plot is suitably B-Movie nonsensical. Overall well-made and well-executed enjoyable nonsense. 6/10

Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

Watched this one for class. While I found it interesting from an academic standpoint to see the development of montage as a cinematic technique displayed in this film, the film itself left me a bit cold. It’s good to see the display of these editing techniques and think about why it is that they work, and notable in being one of the first to showcase them, it’s not really something I would choose to sit down and watch for enjoyment. Pioneering and interesting, yes. Enjoyable as a “movie”? Not so much. 5.5/10

The Predator (Shane Black, 2018)

What a bloody mess. I’m not talking about the gore either, which just made me yearn for the days of squibs, but the plot, the tone, the characters. All a mess. I lost count of the amount of times I thought “Well that was stupid.”, and the only good part of the film was when it ended. I wasn’t exactly expecting this to be any good, but with Shane Black attached as director thought it might have a chance of being something acceptable. Instead it was just annoying. The characters were either irritating, bland, quippy, or some combination of all three. It would be the worst film I saw released in 2018 if I hadn’t seen Day of the Dead: Bloodline. 2.5/10

American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018)

A group of college students attempt to stage a heist to steal some valuable art that is kept in their campus library. What was most interesting about this film was that it was half documentary, half dramatization, since the story is based on true events, we see the people who were involved in the real-life heist on screen and talking us through what went down, before cutting back to the dramatised action. So we get to see conflicting recollections from the main perpetrators unfold on-screen, as well as see the unromantic reality of how these events impacted their lives after the fact. I liked these touches, and it helped to ground the film in reality. 6/10

Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)

Tim Robbins plays Vietnam vet Jacob, struggling with the loss of his child and dealing with the after effects of his stint in Vietnam. He appears disassociated from life and at times even reality itself. The film was intriguing, and seems to ask of its audience philosophical and spiritual questions about death . There were some disturbing sequences and overall a feeling of malaise and sadness throughout the film, making it an effective and subtle horror film, but perhaps one you would need to be in the correct mind-set for before watching. 5.5/10

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)

Well, it looks spectacular, but it’s all in service of a fairly derivative and dull horror plot about a maniacal cult leader abducting someone’s girlfriend and ultimately murdering her. I suppose it helps drive Nicolas Cage’s character crazy, which is always fun to watch, but for me the film takes far too long to get into the action, and seems to be spend too much time navel-gazing. As I say, it looks spectacular, but it was the only thing the film had going for it, for me. 4/10

Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley, 2018)

This was a cute little story about a man who owns a record shop and his daughter who record a song together, it ends up getting play on Spotify and the man (played by Nick Offerman) dreams of the pair going on tour and properly starting a band whereas his daughter just wants to go to medical school. I really enjoyed the chemistry between the father and daughter, and the use of music throughout was very good too. 6/10

Last Week’s Films (20/08 – 02/09)

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

Barbara Stanwyck plays a con artist named set on conning Henry Fonda’s Charles out of his money, but the two end up truly falling for each other. A series of farcical mishaps and misunderstandings break them up, but the two’s love somehow endures. Stanwyck and Fonda are both great in this, with really believable chemistry, and the plot and situations set out are fairly amusing. The supporting characters help build on this playful atmosphere as well, and overall I found this film sweet and funny. 6/10

Escape From L.A. (John Carpenter, 1996)

Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken returns to yet another isolated and forgotten lawless U.S. city to perform a task for the government against his will, except this time it’s a lot less interesting, the characters a lot less colourful and memorable, and the film a lot less engaging. Some suitably mucky sets and a couple of enjoyable set pieces, but overall you just yearn for the days of 80s Russell-Carpenter collaborations. 4.5/10

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

This film looks great, with the powerful and eye-watering use of colour in particular standing out, and there’s some pretty good kung fu work in here as well (which is to be expected, given it stars Jet Li and Donnie Yen) but the story didn’t engage me so much. It was fine, and lovely to look at, but I won’t be seeking it out again any time soon. 5/10

Last Week’s Films (30/07 – 19/08)

Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018)

I have to start by saying I’m not really a fan of Wes Anderson’s style, it’s a bit too twee for my liking I suppose. While the animation style and design, and Wes Anderson-y way that each shot is presented in this film is very impressively done, I also find it incredibly distracting to the detriment of the story and characters. I lost count of the amount of times I overtly noted in my mind how symmetrical a shot was, or that whatever we were to focus on was dead centre, or both. It really just took me out of the film. Some of the characters were fairly charming I guess, and if you usually enjoy Anderson’s style you’ll like this too, but it’s not for me. 5/10

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)

Quite an interesting story of Chinese resistance to Japanese rule around the time of World War 2, and the relationship between the two main characters (the female resistance double agent and the male Chinese officer working with the Japanese she is working towards having killed) is fairly psychologically intriguing as well. Maybe a touch long, but still worthwhile. 6/10

Upgrade (Leigh Whannel, 2018)

A man is paralysed from the neck down in a violent mugging and is given the offer to be a secret guinea pig for a computer chip named STEM, which is to be implanted in his neck and take over the nerves which were now unable to get signals to the brain, regaining the ability to walk. With this newfound ability he investigates the murder of his wife in the same mugging that paralysed him, and as STEM becomes seemingly more powerful it seems there’s more to this technology than had been previously revealed. The action sequences are very entertaining and the “gimmick” of STEM is quite an interesting and well realised one. Maybe let down by the somewhat predictable progression of the story and ending but overall thoroughly enjoyable. 6.5/10

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

(contains spoilers)

Don’t Look Now has the unique honour of being the first (and so far only) thing that I have studied for a class and ended up enjoying even more afterwards. Usually, when you put something under the microscope and try to pick it apart and analyse it, it can take away a bit of the romance and mystery of it, but when I went back and looked deeper into the construction of Don’t Look Now, especially its editing, it made me appreciate it even more. It leads you long the same way of thinking as its main character John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), but on subsequent viewings when you know the full picture, you can see that everything was there for you to find the truth of it, if you only knew where to look. As John himself says in the beginning of the film, “Nothing is what it seems.”.

Synopsis

Shortly after a tragic accident at their home in which their daughter Christine drowns in a pond, John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) are in Venice where John is doing work restoring churches. They meet a woman named Wendy and her blind sister Heather. Heather claims to be psychic, and tells Laura that she can see Christine, and that she is happy. John scoffs and doesn’t believe, but Laura is taken in by them, with her mood even improving after these interactions. John himself keeps seeing a child-sized figure  around Venice wearing a red coat similar to Christine’s. Laura returns to England after receiving a phone call from their son’s boarding school that he has been in an accident, and after she leaves John sees her on a boat in Venice with the sisters. Fearing she has been tricked or abducted, John contacts the police who arrest and hold the women until John receives a call from Laura in England. Their son is fine and she is returning to Venice. John goes to the station to have the women released, and after seeing then back to their hotel leaves and walks in the Venetian night. He sees the red-coated figure, and follows them to a deserted building. John approaches them, thinking it is a child, saying he is a friend. The figure turns and we see that it is in fact a monstrous female dwarf, who slices John’s neck with a large knife, killing him. The film ends with Laura and the sisters on a funeral boat on the Venetian canals, just as John had seen them in what is now revealed as his own psychic flash earlier.

An anguished John pulls Christine’s lifeless body from the pond

When I think about what I like about Don’t Look Now, I always think of its editing,and how they are put together to create distinct associations in our minds. I think about an editing experiment devised by Soviet film-maker Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s. In the experiment, he used an image of a man’s face and juxtaposed it with a variety of different images.  Each sequence would elicit a different response, if the man’s face was paired with an image of food, the viewer would think the man looked hungry, if it was paired with an image of a girl in a coffin, audiences would find him to look mournful. This is the known as the Kuleshov effect, and the idea is that the way in which you sequence images can be manipulated to elicit the desired response from an audience. I think of this in relation to Don’t Look Now because there is so much juxtaposition between the images it shows us, and I was totally led by these images down the same path as John in the film, focusing on the red-coated figure.

The opening sequence in which the main characters John and Laura Baxter’s child Christine drowns introduces the audience to three main images and associations that appear throughout the film; the colour red, water, and glass. The sequence features John and Laura inside the family home cross-cut with shots of their two children playing outside out of sight of their parents and a fair distance away. We see Christine’s red raincoat reflected in the water followed by a graphic match cut to the fireplace in the home, then shortly after a close-up of a red hooded figure in one of John’s slides graphic match cuts to a shot of Christine in her red coat reflected in the water. John spills a glass of water on the slide causing the red dye on it to run, expanding in size, and in the climax of the sequence there is another graphic match cut from this slide to John pulling Christine out of the water, with the red shape on the slide appearing foetal in nature and matches Christine’s body position in the next shot. The shot of the slide is intercut with John pulling Christine from the water in anguish and is shown multiple times, cementing the image in the mind of the audience.  The red of Christine’s coat is burned into our minds and the colour becomes intrinsically linked to Christine herself.

John’s slide, with colours running after he spills water on it

Glass and water are also prominent in the opening sequence, with a telling cut that marries the two together. A shot of Christine’s foot splashing into a puddle is followed by an immediate match cut to her brother cycling over and shattering a pane of glass on the ground, creating an association of fragmentation and adding violence to the displacement of water.  The breaking of glass itself becomes a powerful image in the course of the film; whenever we see a shot in which glass is broken, it marks a fatal (Christine’s drowning and John’s murder) or near-fatal (John’s fall at the mosaic) incident. This is further underlined in the scene where Laura faints in the cafe and knocks over the table, sending its contents to the ground. We cut to a shot of two glasses on the floor, still intact, and following this accident Laura recovers and seems in better health and mood than before, strengthening this association and importance of glass in the audience’s mind. Water and glass seem ever-present in Venice (water more-so, of course), so it’s never long before John and Laura (and by extension, the audience) see it again to remind them of Christine’s death.

The editing of Don’t Look Now also contributes greatly to the audience’s impression of the strength and love of John and Laura’s relationship, and closeness of the family. For example, in the beginning of the film, Laura puts her hand to her mouth and there is a graphic match cut to Christine making a similar gesture outside as she plays, and in the same sequence as Christine throws her ball in the air there is a cut matching this motion to John throwing a packet of cigarettes to Laura. Shots of this type help to emphasise the closeness of the family and show them as intrinsically linked members of a unit.  In John and Laura’s sex scene this feeling of love and tenderness is deepened as shots of their lovemaking are cross-cut with them getting dressed and preparing to go out together afterwards. The passion and intensity of their lovemaking is juxtaposed with the normality and peacefulness of their preparations for the evening, and the association created by the use of these images is that there is love and tenderness in even the more banal aspects of the Baxter’s relationship, and again we see the film’s associative editing in action.

Thrashing rain dissolving to a shot of the glassy, unseeing eyes of Heather

There are many other examples of editing of this type throughout Don’t Look Now, and generally work towards creating a feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity in what we are seeing, leading us (like John) to the wrong conclusions.  One such example is when John is in a police inspector’s office and talking to him about Heather and Wendy. The inspector looks off-frame, and there is a cut to the two sisters outside in a courtyard seen through the window as if matched to the inspector’s eyeline, but we cannot be sure if this is what the inspector sees as he passes no comment on it. This type of editing, where we are shown carefully selected images which create specific associations, cause the audience to react in a certain way, though we do not realise the true nature of these images and their importance until the film’s conclusion.

A further two examples of this type of ambiguity are delivered through shots of the sisters placed at opportune and sinister moments. The first example comes as Laura implores John to come visit Heather and Wendy with her as they attempt to contact Christine, and John refuses. Laura says, “She’s going to try and reach her.” and there is a cut to the sisters laughing uproariously in their room, then back to John and Laura’s conversation. This of course appears unsettling, as if the laughter is in the face of Laura’s comment, but no ulterior motives are revealed during Laura’s visit to the sisters. A second example occurs when John is working and inspecting mosaics which had recently arrived. As he climbs the ladder to the platform high above a shot of Wendy laughing is superimposed over him, These shots associate the sisters as something sinister and underhand, to be suspicious of, but as we will come to see by the film’s end, this is not necessarily the case.

Wendy laughing, ominously superimposed on a shot of John ascending a tall ladder

Though we have been shown many images throughout the film that have created specific associations in our minds, we will come to realise what was important and what was misleading through the sequence at the end of the film in which John is murdered. A small woman in a red coat slashes at John’s throat and as his death throes are intercut with images we have seen throughout the film, as if to remind us what we have seen throughout the film and where we went wrong in coming to the same conclusions as John in the film. We see Laura, Christine, their son Johnny, Heather, images of the water of Venice and the pond in which Laura drowned, the slide with the red hooded figure, glass breaking and rainfall, as well as the film’s previous associations for images of glass reiterated with a graphic match cut from John breaking a pane of glass with his foot to the shot of his son Johnny running over a pane of glass in the garden we saw early in the film. Through the associative editing throughout the film we are misled, just as John was, that the figure in the red coat was Christine and this slide show of images as he dies shows us the associations we had made may not have been as clear or telling as we thought. The choice of shots throughout the film, their placement and length and the juxtaposition created by these choices all contribute to the power of the associations they create in our minds such as in the examples throughout this post, and show Don’t Look Now’s power to be in its editing. It’s a fairly simple story, but told and shown to us in such an incredible way. I struggle to think of a film which has editing quite like Don’t Look Now. If there are any others done quite so well, I’d love to see them.

Note: This post was adapted a bit from an essay I wrote about this film for class, so I had read some books/articles about the film to prepare for that. These included, but were not limited to, J. Izod (1992), R. Barsam (2013), Reisz et al (2009), J. Gomez (1981), A. Patch (2010), M. Demspey (1974) and M. Hubris-Cherrier (2011).

Last Week’s Films (23/07 – 29/07)

Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995)

This gangster film is a sort of Pulp Fiction-lite, with John Travolta in the starring role as Chili Palmer, a loan shark who has ended up in Los Angeles and tries his hand at becoming a film producer. There’s a colourful supporting cast including Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito, and overall it’s pretty light for a gangster film, and amusing too. It’s no Pulp Fiction, but it’s still pretty good. 6/10

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

When many controllers at US missile silos fail to follow procedure and seem unable to launch their missiles during a surprise drill, NORAD decides to replace the human controllers with a computer system. Later, hacker Matthew Broderick, looking to hack a games company’s server to play an as yet unreleased game, finds an unidentified server with a list of games including “Global Thermonuclear War”, and begins to play. The systems at NORAD all show this simulation taking place, and it’s taken by both the US and Soviet governments as the opposite side preparing to launch a nuclear strike. So Broderick must end the simulation with the computer system before the real world is destroyed through nuclear warfare, but the system will not end its simulation until the game is complete. It’s an interesting Cold War era thriller with a satisfying ending. It also seems like it would have been plausible at the time, given how on edge the US and USSR were during the Cold War. I imagine at the time it would have been fairly chilling, considering the climate of the Cold War. 6/10

The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, 1996)

Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are as a gay couple in Los Angeles. Armand owns “The Birdcage”, a drag nightclub, and Albert is its star attraction. Armand’s son Val comes home and reveals he has gotten engaged, and asks his father if he can pretend to be straight for the visit of his fiancé’s parents, conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his wife. Armand is hurt by this, but agrees to try, with Albert posing as Val’s uncle. Much of the comedy comes from the pair’s attempts to butch themselves up, particularly for the especially flamboyant Albert. I laughed quite frequently through this film, the flamboyant performance of Nathan Lane working well with the comparatively subdued one of Robin Williams, and Gene Hackman pitching his gruff, slightly clueless conservative Senator perfectly. Rather than being a film which laughs at homosexual culture, it gave its characters depth and had you empathise with them throughout, with the laughs coming from the absurdity of the situation rather than the fact these men are gay, or that there happen to be many men in drag. Overall, pretty warm and entertaining. 6/10

Last Week’s Films (25/06 – 22/07)

So…I didn’t watch anything new (to me, anyway) for quite a while, and rather than make empty posts for the weeks with no films, I just added some weeks together. Still only 1 new film in all that time, but still…

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

This is a collection of three animated shorts, featuring a stickman named Bill. There is a narrator who explains Bill’s thoughts, dreams and the actions throughout the film. I could not get into the style at all. The animation is simple (Bill is a stickman, after all), and the “random”, offbeat kind of humour did not work for me at all. I can see why people might like it, it’s philosophical and at times a little surreal, but the questions it asks and the manner of the asking is not the kind of thing I can get behind.  With a running time of 62 minutes it’s a fairly short watch, and if you are interested in watching it I would say this: You will know within the first 5 minutes whether you’ll love this film or hate it. It’s a no thank you, from me. 4/10

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: First Blood

First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

(contains spoilers)

I never saw First Blood when I was growing up, my only experience of the Rambo character being First Blood Part II where he singlehandedly frees a bunch of POWs in a Vietnamese camp killing scores of enemy soldiers in the process (I looked it up, it seems the body count was 75…). So, when I sat down to watch First Blood for the first time a few years ago I expected something similar: Sylvester Stallone violently murdering hordes of his enemies in the name of war and glory. Instead, what I saw was a damaged and fragile Vietnam veteran being driven to desperation by an abusive and short-sighted small-town police force. First Blood was a much more solemn and substantial story than I was expecting, with a good deal of emotional weight. The biggest surprise of all was that only one person died in the whole film, and it was entirely accidental…

Synopsis

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is travelling on foot in the Pacific Northwest with plans to meet up with an old army buddy who he served with in Vietnam. When he arrives at the address he was given he asks where his friend is and a family member informs him that he died the previous summer, of cancer he had contracted after the war due to exposure to the chemical weapons used there. John leaves and continues his walk, coming upon a small town in Washington named Hope. The local Sheriff John Teasle (Brian Dennehy) notices John and his army attire and takes him for a drifter, picks him up and leaves him at the other end of town and sends him on his way, telling him that the town of Hope doesn’t want his kind, even if the visit is just for the time it takes to have a meal. After being dropped off, John turns right back around and begins walking back into Hope.

Teasle notices John re-entering town, turns around and arrests him. He confiscates John’s knife and brings him into the station to be processed.  A particularly nasty officer at the station named Galt is extremely rough with John, who is silent and unwilling to follow commands. Galt at one point even uses his baton on John and beats him. When the officers hold John to be shaved he has flashbacks to his time in a PoW camp in Vietnam and struggles loose, eventually fighting his way free of the station, injuring some officers in the process. He steals a motorbike once outside and rides off into the hills, followed by Teasle, who orders backup to apprehend John including a helicopter and dogs. The police discover that John Rambo is a decorated Vietnam war hero and Green Beret but nevertheless a chase ensues which culminates in Galt going against orders and trying to shoot and kill John from the helicopter rather than just apprehending him, which causes John to throw a rock at the helicopter in desperation, cracking the windscreen and making the pilot lose control, causing Galt to lose balance and fall from the helicopter to his death on the rocks below.

Galt takes shots at Rambo from a helicopter as Rambo tries to flee the police

John tries to give himself up peacefully, stating that it was all accidental but the remaining police fire on him and he flees further into the hills. The police continue their pursuit and John incapacitates them all one by one (causing injury, but no death), using his guerrilla warfare training to set traps and hide in his environment. The final man he incapacitates is Teasle, and holding a knife to his throat he tells him that he could have killed them all, and that if they continue to pursue him he will give them a war they “wouldn’t believe”.

John pounces on Teasle in the hills, delivering his warning

The state police and local National Guard are called in, as well as John’s former commanding officer Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna). Col. Trautman advises Teasle to call off the search and allow John to escape so he can be recovered with less hostility at a future time. Undeterred however, Teasle continues to push for the capture of John Rambo. Eventually the National Guard blows up a mine John is hiding in and, believing him to be dead, the search dissipates. John, of course, survives the blast and finds an alternative exit through the mine, and upon his exit he hijacks an army truck, drives it to town and blows it up along with a gas station. He creates a further diversion by shooting out power lines and destroying a gun shop, before heading to the police station at the other end of town. While there he shoots and wounds Teasle, and is stopped before delivering a killing blow by Col. Trautman, who intervenes and warns John against it, stating it’s a sure way to end up killed by the waiting police outside. John breaks down crying, reflecting on the horrors he has had to endure in Vietnam and the miserable and aimless existence he found waiting for him back home. Col. Trautman consoles him, and he is led out of the building peacefully to be arrested as the film credits roll.

Trautman consoles John after breaking down

While there is some great action in First Blood, the films power and impact is down to something entirely different than just John Rambo being a badass super solider. There is a distinct emotional core to the film, and the violence and mayhem is treated in a sombre way rather than glorified and ostentatious. For example, in Rambo’s dispatching of his pursuers, we see exactly how terrified and out of their depth they are in the situation, and while we are firmly not on their side thanks to their prior treatment of Rambo at the station, we don’t revel in their subsequent injuries at his hands. In fact, it is distinctly unpleasant, with the injuries all appearing to be extremely painful (especially the officer who steps into a booby trap made of multiple sharp, pointed pieces of wood which deeply embed themselves into his legs) and careful attention given to their cries of agony and shouts for help. Juxtapose this with the previous sequence where Rambo is chased further into the woods by the officers and the dogs, it seems more exciting, with the audience wondering how Rambo might escape and the officers perhaps not treating the whole affair as seriously as they should, almost like it’s a hunt or wargame. Both the audience and officers are not yet aware of exactly what Rambo is capable of, but soon find out, to their horror.

The officers and dog handler continue their pursuit of Rambo

The death of Galt is an exception to this. It’s extremely quick, and we are only shown Galt’s fall from the helicopter and not the undoubtedly gruesome landing. We see his bloody corpse lying on the rocks in the aftermath, but are spared the more unpleasant details of the impact. The quick and largely unseen nature of the death, coupled with the audience perception of Galt as a loathsome bully, accidental nature of his death and the fact that Rambo was acting only in self defence contribute to a perception of blamelessness for Rambo, and further fuels our feelings that the continued aggression against him from the police officers is entirely unwarranted.

The police force itself is not portrayed as entirely barbaric however, while they are shown to treat Rambo poorly to some extent at the station, it is only Galt who can be said to be especially nasty and taking pleasure in his actions, with the others ranging from indifferent to reticent, although all are complicit in the abuse, and none do anything to stop it. The closest thing to help Rambo receives at the station is an officer who tells Rambo that going along and doing as he is told will be the best option for him. While sympathetic to his plight, this officer offers Rambo no real help. The audience might feel conflicted. Rambo should never have been arrested, has been treated extremely poorly at the station itself setting off episodes of PTSD, and only wishes to be left alone, but he has also been extremely uncooperative, injured and attacked some officers in his escaping the station and played a part in the death of another officer (however much the audience may feel it was deserved or an appropriate action), so we can understand why the police would continue to pursue him after he escapes. Even so, it is still clear who is in the wrong (the small-minded police force) and right (Rambo, who just wanted to pass through in peace), but the fact that the police force’s motivation to chase Rambo can be easily understood by the audience (even if they don’t agree with it) helps the film become less of a good vs. evil cartoon, and much more fully fleshed.

Rambo reveals his scarred body as the police process his arrest

First Blood does much to make us sympathise with Rambo and shed light on the horrors he and many other young men would have faced in Vietnam. For example, at the beginning of the film when Rambo is trying to track down his old army buddy, he shows a photo to a woman and explains that the man he is looking for is in the back of the photo because he was so large that he would’ve have taken up the full frame otherwise, and the woman explains that this same man is now dead, having withered away so badly thanks to cancer he brought back from Vietnam that he was so frail and small that even she could lift him easily by the end of his life. The short flashback sequences back to Rambo’s time in a POW camp also emphasise what a horrible time he has had, and that he is unable to escape it even back in his home country. Rambo may not have taken home a physical illness, but he is constantly mentally tormented by his experiences in Vietnam.

I can’t really imagine anyone other than Sylvester Stallone in this role, and he wonderfully portrays a tortured and mentally anguished man who has been backed into a corner by an aggressive and antagonistic small-town police force. I always find his eyes and face to have a forlorn, sombre quality in this film, and a quiet sadness. He is entirely believable as a super-capable and relentless soldier thanks to his physique and how he moves on screen, but also (and more importantly) he is able to convince us of the emotional and mental damage that has been wrought on this poor ex-soldier.

That we can sympathise with and root for a man who is so adept in violence, and who demonstrates that violent capability against the police is testament to the performance of Stallone and how the story unfolds. While it sometimes may seem a little far-fetched, such as with Galt bordering on cartoonishly evil, or how frighteningly well-prepared Rambo is in every physical situation that presents itself, the overall feeling I get from the film is one of realism and grit, especially in an emotional sense.  If you have only seen the sequels and found them to be excessively violent, over-the-top wish-fulfilment silliness, I would urge you to watch First Blood and be taken on a sometimes exciting, sometimes emotional and always entertaining journey.

 

Last Week’s Films (18/06 – 24/06)

The Taking of Pelham 123 (Tony Scott, 2009) 

I watched this film on TV one night after flipping channels, and was curious given that I really enjoyed the 1974 original. This remake did not stand up well against it at all… John Travolta plays Ryder, the villain of the story who hijacks the eponymous New York Subway train Pelham 123, and forces Denzel Washington’s train dispatcher character Walter Garber to act as negotiator. Washington is not bad, but Travolta is a giant ham, and the chemistry between the two doesn’t work particularly well. Overall it was pretty dull, and you should just watch the original. 4/10