Tuesday, 4 March 2014

I Might Buy That for a Dollar: Robocop Review

The story of José Padilha and RoboCop is, by many accounts, an unhappy one, so troubled by studio interference that Padilha supposedly swore off another stint in Hollywood. Parsing the rumours suggests the usual story of studio mandates systematically headbutting artistic intentions - a tale further dogged by the fact that many feared Padilha’s sensibilities would stray too far from the bite of Paul Verhoeven’s original.

The 1987 RoboCop is a classic example of Reaganite cinema, satirically taking the excessive living and unfiltered ambition of the Baby Boomer generation to its soul-destroying endpoint. It comfortably sits with the likes of Videodrome and Wall Street as enduring touch points of the period - an accolade any remake would struggle to replicate. 

Yet, for all of this, the fearful accusations hurled at Padilha’s take on the run up to its release could just as easily be hurled at the original franchise’s increasingly hollow sequels; Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 is the rotten byproduct of the original’s cynicism eating itself whole (and, in hindsight, the first signpost of writer Frank Miller’s descent into madness), whilst the turgid third feature was little more than a two hour marketing exercise (oh, the irony!). The franchise is by no means a sacred cow, and, for all of its differences, RoboCop 2014 manages to be far truer in spirit to the original than any of its later iterations, though remains fundamentally flawed.

Part way through the 21st Century, the American OmniCorp company dominates in the field of robotics and AI, yet whilst their medical innovations continue to see success on home shores, the company’s series of highly effective robot soldiers are limited to foreign peacekeeping, when the real money lies in civilian law enforcement. Public opinion, however, is strongly against justice being dealt out by merciless robots, but a timely accident for policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gives OmniCop CEO (Michael Keaton) and beleaguered scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) the chance to circumvent governmental sanctions by putting a man inside a machine, swinging public opinion enough to ensure lucrative future contracts with Police Departments across the country.

Joshua Zetumer’s script again uses its future narrative to address the concerns of the day, but here, privatisation and big living take a back seat to manipulative marketing and PR, with RoboCop purely designed to acclimatise the public to robots before rolling out pre-planned “advanced” models (a wry extension of our complicity in buying products designed to be replaced each successive year), though beyond this, what Padhila really seems interested in is the frustrated marriage of man and machine; something touched upon only very broadly in Verhoeven’s take.

Wrestling as he does against his RoboCop persona, Kinnaman’s Murphy is rather more developed than Peter Wellers’, and comparisons to The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man abound as Murphy is forced to fight ever harder to keep his “heart”. Unfortunately, whilst there’s some interesting stuff going on here, the PR tack is far more engaging, with Keaton chewing up the scenery as a camp CEO with a head for selling. For all of his soul searching, Kinnaman’s Murphy ultimately lacks that real bite we need to rally against Omnicorp’s steady war of attrition on his sense of being. Ultimately the film doesn’t commit enough time or attention to either strand, and by the end credits leaves both as promising avenues only half explored.

Yet the fact that RoboCop decides to do its own thing rather than just being slavish to the original is really to its credit, and whilst it doesn’t even attempt to run with the anarchic vein of black humour coursing through the original, it does make the occasional nod toward it in Samuel L Jackson’s superb jingoist commentator Pat Novak. On its own terms, RoboCop is an alternately interesting and plodding re-take on the tale that shouldn’t be outright dismissed. Nevertheless, watching it reminded me of just how desperately contemporary cinema needs the same kind of bitter medicine Verhoeven and his peers were so good at administering in their hey-day. Where is our generation’s Videodrome?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Dangerous Liaison: Stranger by the Lake Review

The reception to little-known French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake has largely fallen into two camps: celebration of its atypically frank and unsensational depiction of homosexuality, and, conversely, criticism for its association of a gay cruising sub-culture with acts of brutal murder. In fact, this minimalist thriller falls somewhere in-between, adopting a refreshingly sober, no-nonsense approach to its exploration of human sexuality in all its contradictions and conflict, without ever completely succeeding in marrying its prevailingly naturalistic style with its moody genre affectations.

 The story is deceptively simple. At a gay nudist beach somewhere in rural France, a young man called Franck spends his summer afternoons swimming in the sapphire-blue lake, sunbathing, and engaging in casual sexual encounters with the other patrons. These liaisons are fleeting, the men involved exchanging very few details about one another, and the only other regular whom Franck has anything approaching a long-term relationship with is Henri, an older man who has taken to visiting the beach and sitting alone since separating from his wife.

  One day, he notices a strikingly handsome new man who calls himself Michel and is something of a Clark Gable lookalike. Franck quickly develops a fascination with him, and one evening after everyone else has left he unintentionally witnesses Michel deliberately drown the man he has been sleeping with, seemingly having tired of his affections. Instead of reporting the apparently psychotic and dangerous Michel to the authorities, Franck embarks on a passionate affair with him, continuing to let his blossoming feelings for the murderer prevent him from blowing the whistle even as a police detective descends upon the community searching for evidence of foul play.

  Any concerns that the film might try to establish a crude and nasty link between the bathers' lifestyle and criminal amorality are quickly dispelled. Despite the movie's setting, Stranger by the Lake is primarily interested in uncomfortable universal truths about the human sexual impulse. Although at first glance the nudist beach appears to be a sort of earthly paradise where individuals can indulge their desires freely and without pain, it soon becomes clear that this garden is just as postlapsarian as everywhere else. Behind the delirious pleasures of the flesh, its residents cannot keep their jealousy, fear, selfishness and grief at bay, and unruly, destructive human emotion constantly threatens to break through the lake's placid surface.

  This theme is brilliantly supported by the sensual cinematography, which captures both the environment's languorous, sun-drunk beauty during the day, when entwined bodies can be glimpsed between the lush vegetation, and its suffocating darkness at night, when it suddenly resembles a sinister hunting ground for the id.

  Disappointingly, however, once Guiraudie has established his self-contained world as a metaphor for our own, he struggles with the question of where to take the story next. In the lead roles, Pierre de Ladonchamps and Christophe Paou do a great job of conveying Franck's almost childlike innocence and Michel's arrogant, worldly charisma, but they are given too little material to make their relationship truly compelling. We are seemingly meant to believe that their relationship has moved beyond sex towards something darker and more complex, but as viewers we rarely see the characters engaged in anything other than lovemaking, and so what is intended to come across as a forceful, fateful attraction starts to risk feeling monotonous instead.  It is also rather unconvincing when the film abandons its insistently unhurried pace in the final act and shifts gears to become a more conventional thriller, complete with a rapidly escalating body count.

  For those interested in seeing a movie committed to exploring uncharted waters within genre cinema, Stranger by the Lake is well worth a dip, but swimmers should be warned that the dive is ultimately somewhat shallower than one might have hoped.