RoboCop (5/24/12)

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When an Old Detroit police officer is brutally gunned down by a group of thugs, he is rebuilt as RoboCop.

Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) are on patrol chasing down a group of criminals led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). The gang lays an excessive amount of ammunition into Murphy and he is pronounced dead at the hospital. Omni Consumer Products sees an opportunity to take what is left of Murphy and use him as their product in an effort to turn Old Detroit into their own Delta City after their first project, ED-209, goes haywire and kills a young executive during a board meeting. Murphy, now as Robocop, sets out to bring justice to the streets of Old Detroit when he runs into one of his murderers. As his memory returns, with the help of his old partner, RoboCop vows to exact his revenge against Boddicker and OCP for taking his former life.

In a film that could easily be just another revenge flick, RoboCop is special because of its sense of humor and satire that is interspersed with the violence. Director Paul Verhoeven’s touch is apparent and RoboCop shares many similarities with another sci-fi favorite of mine, Starship Troopers. While parts of RoboCop are laughable, most of those parts are meant to be. That shouldn’t discount some of the deeper meanings in the film.

Revenge movies don’t have to be mindless to be fun and RoboCop excels when it isn’t mindless. For examples of mindless sci-fi revenge stories, see the abhorrent sequels. Actually, don’t see them. They are terrible. If for some reason you haven’t seen RoboCop, perhaps you had written it off before giving it a chance, go into it with an open mind and RoboCop may surprise you.

I give it 4 ED-209s in the boardroom out of 5 (violence warning for the video).

There are several version of RoboCop out there, make sure you get the NC-17 cut, the differences are relatively minor but it’s the way it should be seen. Also, the current (as of this writing) Blu-Ray version is atrocious, you are better off with the DVD version. The best way to view RoboCop is to track down the out of print Criterion version of the DVD. The picture and sound are impeccable and the extras are worthwhile.

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White Dog (5/21/12)

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White Dog is a film about racism  told through the story of a white German Shepard that has been trained to attack black people.

On her way home one night, Julie (Kristy McNichol) hits a stray dog. She takes the dog to the vet and takes him home with her. The dog and Julie share a strong connection, one that grows even stronger when the dog attacks an intruder trying to rape Julie. When the dog gets out, it attacks a black street cleaner. When Julie realizes things are not all right with her new friend, she takes him to a seasoned trainer, who tells her to have the dog put down. Instead, a black trainer decides to help rehabilitate the animal to see if the dog is capable of unlearning this behavior.

The racial themes of White Dog are almost driven to the point of beating the viewer over the head with them but some interesting points are raised. Is racism purely a learned behavior? Can it be “fixed”? Do animals perceive race on their own or do they need to be trained? The film doesn’t give direct answers to these questions, allowing the viewer to form their own opinions. The ending of the film is striking, however, and without giving anything away, shows that racism may just be misplaced anger towards something else.

Samuel Fuller had long and varied film career as both a writer and director before he made White Dog and the backlash from the film all but ended his career. I find this terribly sad because the film itself isn’t racist, or at least I didn’t see it that way. It’s not a fantastic movie or anything, in fact, the first half hour seems incredibly low budget and even a bit cheesy, but the message is strong and will likely stay with you long after the credits roll. Oddly enough, the best actor in White Dog is the white dog (or white dogs, more likely). There are some scenes when I was genuinely afraid that the dog would kill the human actors. While White Dog is not a film I would outwardly recommend, there is a lot to like about it and it would be a great film for a roundtable discussion.

I give it 3 muzzled white dogs out of 5.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene (5/19/12)

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Martha Marcy May Marlene takes us through the life of a young girl who escapes a cult and tries to fit back into society and forget her past.

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with Martha/Marcy May/Marlene (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from an isolated farm. She ends up at a diner where a man (Brady Corbet) from the farm finds her and she is very visibly shaken by his presence. Then she calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to come get her. After staying with Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), it is clear that Marcy May (known to Lucy and Ted as Martha) has been sociologically damaged and has no bearing of how normal human interaction is. We learn through flashbacks and nightmares about the cult Martha escaped, led by Patrick (John Hawkes) as Martha struggles with running away from the only life she’s really known, despite how traumatic it was.

While the film itself is very slow and deliberate, it is also incredibly tense at times. While Martha’s paranoia ramps up, we are left to wonder what is happening as well as ponder her future. How can someone so visibly damaged ever normalize and function back in society? If nothing else, it should be readily agreeable that writer and director, Sean Durkin, took tremendous care in the subject matter and did his homework. While it would have been an easy topic to exploit, I found almost all of it to be entirely believable and realistic, which in turn makes Martha Marcy May Marlene that much more frightening.

I also must point out the tremendous acting force that is Elizabeth Olsen. While most of the world knows of her twin sisters, Elizabeth truly steps into her own for this role and plays it perfectly. Also worth mentioning is a favorite actor of mine, John Hawkes, a man who I am also pleased to watch on screen. Given the pacing and the vagueness of what is actually happening to the characters at times, I could see how some people would be turned off by Martha Marcy May Marlene, but I found it to be exciting to watch and was totally engrossed by it.

I give it 4 John Hawkes playing guitars out of 5.

Included on the DVD/Blu-Ray is a short film called Mary Last Seen, also by Durkin, that acts as a sort of prequel to Martha Marcy May Marlene that shows a young girl traveling with a young man (also played by Brady Corbet) and taken to the farm to be assimilated into the cult. I would recommend watching it after Martha Marcy May Marlene since there are a few sly nods to the film.

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Léon Morin, Priest (5/19/12)

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Léon Morin, Priest is the tale of a handsome, young priest living in Nazi-occupied France and his interactions with a non-practicing widow.

A young widow named Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) who lives with her half-Jewish daughter during Nazi occupation in France one day finds herself in a church. She convinces herself she is there to mock the Christian faith during confession and randomly chooses Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as the priest. After seeing that Morin is not shaken by her confrontation and is, in fact, replying as if in an intelligent discussion, she slowly becomes taken with religion as the priest tries to mold her.

Through Léon Morin, Priest there is the constant question of whether Barny is truly practicing religion or if she is merely interested in Morin. At times, both seem plausible. Morin’s own intentions are not always entirely clear, despite remaining devout. The interactions between the characters are shown usually in brief scenes that build upon the story. While I found the characters in Léon Morin, Priest interesting, I was struggling to really care about them. Or perhaps I was having difficulty really understanding the conflict at hand. I never related to Barny or Morin on a personal level and since I’m not religious perhaps that caused the disconnect.

The writer/director, Jean-Pierre Melville, was quickly becoming one of my all-time favorites and this was the first time I’ve seen a film of his that was less than amazing. I enjoyed my time with Léon Morin, Priest, but was ultimately disappointed. While there was nothing technically wrong or missing from the film, ultimately I found myself not really caring about what happened to the characters. Perhaps that is no fault of the film’s but only the fault of the viewer.

I give it 3 confessions out of 5.

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The Godfather Part II (5/18/12)

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The Godfather Part II has been heralded as one of the best sequels ever to one of the best movies ever, continuing the story of Corleone mob family.

The Godfather Part II is an incredibly ambitious film, if nothing else since it is essentially two films in one, both prequel and sequel to the original Godfather. The film starts in the early 1900s with a young Vito Andolini (we find out his famous surname, Corleone, was given falsely at Ellis Island), whose father is killed by a mob boss, and the young boy is shipped to America. We are then brought into the mid 1950s with Michael (Al Pacino) in Nevada, attempting to spread the Corleone empire into Las Vegas casinos. The film then goes back and forth between Michael’s “present day” struggles as he also travels to Cuba and tries to find out who is trying to assassinate him, and a young Vito (Robert De Niro) as he rises to power some 40 years earlier, paving the way for Michael.

Clocking in at 200 minutes, I obviously gave an extremely abbreviated version of the film’s events. There are really two full movies here, both would be incredibly interesting on their own but the way they are intertwined makes The Godfather Part II an incredibly powerful film. The struggles that Michael faces both internally and externally are riveting, especially since family plays such a large role. While I love both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, they are not my favorite mafia movies, nor do I think they are Francis Ford Coppola’s strongest films either. For their part, however, they are incredibly well-made, superbly acted films that securely own their place in the top of innumerable “favorites” lists.

The Godfather films have a legacy about them, even if you don’t think they are the greatest films ever made, it should be easy to see their significance. The Godfather Part II is a film that builds upon the original film in every sense possible. While the pacing and length can be a bit of a bear at times, I would call none of the film superfluous. The Godfather Part II is a film I’ve only seen once before, it is an amazing film, but not one that I feel the urge to watch often. I can wholly appreciate everything about it, but I’m in the camp that prefers the original, perhaps due to the pacing. Still, The Godfather Part II is an amazing film that requires viewing at some point in one’s life.

I give it 5 Vito’s flaming towel silencers out of 5.

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Tokyo Story (5/18/12)

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Tokyo Story is a seemingly simple film about an elderly Japanese couple that travel to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children.

When the aging couple makes the trip from the county into Tokyo to visit their son and his family, we know nothing of what is to come. When the son and daughter have no time to spend with their parents, the daughter sends them off to a resort. Unhappy with that arrangement, the couple comes back and still find their children unable to make time for them. The widow of their dead son is the only one that can make time for them. Shortly after their return journey, the mother falls ill.

On the surface, Tokyo Story seems like a movie about nothing, but it’s actually an incredibly deep film about relationships, parenthood, adulthood, grief, joy, love, loss, and life. Each character is unique and relatable in their own way. I had two concerns going into Tokyo Story: the Japanese customs would muddle the plot and that the film wouldn’t really go anywhere. For the first half hour or so my concerns remained, especially the latter. Where Tokyo Story ends up is incredibly moving. Ozu has a tremendous talent for making very realistic situations and his style of camera work is unique and completely objective, almost sterile in viewing these relationships. The camera is completely non-manipulative in what is showing to you, allowing the actors to really shine.

When I started watching Tokyo Story I was skeptical. “How is this supposed to be such a great movie?” I thought to myself. By the end, I was a total wreck. Few films absolutely floor me emotionally, but Tokyo Story is possibly the most human, most endearing film I’ve ever seen. At first, what seems like an unremarkable film about a family becomes something truly beautiful.

I give it 5 sitting seasides out of 5.

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Goodfellas (5/16/12 and 7/15/12)

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Goodfellas is based on the true life story of Henry Hill, a former member of the New York mob.

Goodfellas starts with a young Henry (Ray Liotta) growing up working for mob boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), first as a porter and errand boy and eventually one of the leading members. We meet other mob members Tommy and Jimmy (Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, respectively) and the three have differing experiences with the mafia lifestyle. Life changes for all of them after a particularly large heist.

Some of the most dedicated followers may know that I consider Goodfellas my favorite movie of all time. My above plot synopsis doesn’t do the film much justice, it doesn’t touch on any of the characters, the humor, the dialogue, the violence, the allure of the mafia, the directing, the soundtrack, the acting…I could go on. Goodfellas is one of those films where everything just works and it is essential viewing for anyone that has heard the name, Martin Scorsese.

The legacy of Goodfellas has carried on through popular culture since it’s release in 1990. While some may argue The Godfather made mafia films “mainstream” but I would contend that Goodfellas played a bigger hand in our perception of the modern mob. It was even parodied on the children’s cartoon, Animaniacs and anyone that watched the HBO show Sopranos should recognize most of the cast from Goodfellas.

If I had my way, I could watch Goodfellas every week for the rest of my life. It’s one of those films that is just an absolute joy to watch and even though I’m trying to expand my viewing horizon this year, it has been a struggle to go five months without watching it.

I give it 5 Copacabana scenes out of 5.

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