Outside the Wire (2021)

Netflix has a something of a persistent problem with its ‘Netflix Originals’: its clear that they have lots of money to throw around at projects offered up to them and a really desperate need for new content on its platform. It must be a great time to be a creative in Hollywood right now.

Well, it was until Covid came along and rather derailed things, but what I’m getting at (Hollywood studios making hugely expensive blockbusters that it has no cinemas for notwithstanding), is that with Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+ and countless other streaming platforms financing all sorts of productions (series and movies), it must be a good time to be a creative in Hollywood or anywhere else, for that matter. All sorts of productions that wouldn’t ordinarily have ever seen the light of day suddenly get greenlit as if by sheer desperation for content. Money is getting thrown around these days like there is some kind of goldrush. Content is everything in the streaming wars, but the real trick is, not just any content, it has to be GOOD content. There’s not much point spending millions on something rubbish that nobody watches or that is killed after the first weekend by word of mouth: you don’t want your streaming service to be considered the Happy Dumping Ground for stuff no other streamer wants and nobody watches.

But maybe Netflix didn’t get that memo. Or maybe they have so much money they don’t really care (Katee Sackhoff’s Another Life got a second season, for fracks sake). Its fairly obvious that Netflix has more than its fair share of material that is leaning on the ‘average to absolute rubbish’ scale. It needs to put more quality content up, and unfortunately Outside the Wire is absolutely not it.  It opens with an intriguing premise but slides into absurdity within very little time at all, in that manner that is beginning to seem peculiar to so many Netflix Originals. Like The Midnight Sky, another Netflix Original that I watched just a few weeks ago, there is something fundamentally wrong at the screenplay stage with Outside the Wire. Its a mess. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. But it went into production anyway: gotta fill that January 2021 slot.

Sure, its executed efficiently enough- I mean, it looks pretty good with decent production values and fairly well-staged action sequences, but that’s really just about it. The cast are much better than the material: in fact, there is more than just a suggestion that this is a case of guns-for-hire just doing their job, and a really poor b-movie project being elevated by the money Netflix is throwing around and the cast and crew that money attracts. Its the kind of project that as a low-budget b-movie in the 1980s might have been fun and worthwhile- elevated to a ‘big’ movie with its high production values, it just made the thing seem worse than it possibly might have.  If you’re going to hire Anthony Mackie, give him something to do. If you’re going to make him a cyborg/robot, have some point to it, some reason for that, other than to have him looking cool in numerous video-game-like action sequences doing superhuman stuff. As it was, I was much more interested in the “Gumps” that were being used as frontline mechanical warriors, and how ‘remote’ and ‘acceptable’ they made combat seem in just the same way as military Drones do. Why not have some commentary about that? Why not do something like what  THX 1138 did decades ago? Have a military operation and run a cost evaluation against it that goes up with every bullet fired and Gump lost and collateral damage amassed, and once the op exceeds its budget the top brass back home pulls the plug. You know, throw some social commentary in; surely that didn’t go out of fashion with Robocop

This, unfortunately, is some other totally different movie/nonsense that pretends to raise big subjects and themes but, er, doesn’t, really. It conjures up some future civil war in Eastern Europe if only so it can shoot the thing in Hungary and thus benefit from increased production efficiencies, because its setting narratively doesn’t really add anything or even make any sense, necessarily. Why would the US go into Ukraine in the future when it never has up to now, even when civilian aircraft are shot out of the sky? Why would Russia allow that and why don’t we see any Russian presence or dramatic tensions or threat from its border? It eventually posits a nuclear threat from hidden silos but by this point the film is laughably implausible and its hard to feel any real threat. And if out hero has worked out thermal rounds/grenades do the business against our renegade robot, how come the bad guys never managed to work it out?

Ach. I’ve gone and done it again, devoted too much time and too many words posting about a film that really doesn’t deserve it. You really need to sort out the Quality Control, Netflix. Simply throwing the dice just doesn’t cut it, not anymore- certainly now that Apple and Disney are getting in on the act.

Hotel Artemis

artemis1.jpgIts 2028, and the futures great, if you can afford the price- in the grand cyberpunk tradition of films like Robocop, and in a dark reflection of the classic Chinatown,  Los Angeles is being torn apart by riots following a corporation’s decision to privatise the cities water supply. The City of Angels is now looking more like Escape From New York‘s prison wasteland, armoured riot police patrolling the streets and helicopters being shot out of the sky.

Hidden amongst the cities tower blocks behind the facade of an abandoned hotel, Hotel Artemis is a heavily fortified medical facility reserved for the criminal fraternity- a place where criminals, if they are paid-up members, can access the talents of The Nurse (a great turn from Jodie Foster under some make-up) an old woman who hasn’t left the building in over twenty years, and her assistant/muscle, the aptly-monickered  Everest (Dave Bautista), who enforces the rules- reminiscent of those of John Wick‘s hotels- that guests cannot bring in guns or fight the other guests whilst on the premises.

The premise may not seem captivating -it’s certainly not original, wearing its influences clearly on its bloody sleeve- but in execution Hotel Artemis is a great, a rather refreshing little b-movie with a cool head on its shoulders. Shot for about $15 million, it looks good and punches way above its weight regards its cast- as well as Foster and Bautista, it features Jeff Goldblum in the best performance I’ve seen from him in years, and Sterling K Brown, Sofia Boutella and Zachary Quinto put in fine work. It favours the early films of John Carpenter, looking a lot like a modern Escape From New York and also Alan Rudolph’s lovely Trouble in Mind, a retro-looking slice of the future that really makes the most of its claustrophobic setting and gritty, violent nature.

It also sounds alot like Carpenter’s early films too, thanks to a fine electronic score from Clint Martinez that is typically for him, brutal in places and angelic in others, ably supporting the film.

artemis2I found myself enjoying this film much more than I expected. Probably it’s that retro feel, harking back to Carpenter’s stuff, which I’m always a sucker for, but it moves along at a great pace and is over before you can question some of the logic. Foster’s The Nurse is a memorable character whose past comes back to both haunt her and set her free and the setting is so well realised it’s a pleasure to soak it up. It recalls so much of the genre flicks of the 1970s when most movies of the future were dark and bleak as this, and yes, there are neat nods to Robocop, stuff like that. Medical technology has improved, using organs from 3D printers and nanotech and advanced drugs, but it seems only the criminals can afford it using their ill-gotten gains, and the police seem to be out for hire to the highest corporate bidder. Its a lovely noir, dark-future movie, and while its not trying to be anything groundshakingly original, it uses its influences to fashion something that still feels fresh enough to enjoy with an indie-flavour that, again, reminded me so much of Trouble in Mind.

A great little movie, and a real surprise (is it wrong of me to admit I can forgive little films like this things I’d bitch about if it had a $50 million budget?). Mind, even though it only cost a purported $15 million, it still managed to fail to make any profit (worldwide it only earned about $13 million, which makes me wonder did it even get anything like a proper release?) so I guess that’s why stuff like this seems so rare, and its fate quite undeserved.

Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

RIP Bob Morton

morton1Ah, he knew how to party did Bob Morton. The slimy, double-dealing treacherous OCP executive in the 1987 classic RoboCop. He was born too early and in the wrong genre universe, else he may have benefited by Darth Vader’s warning “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations” because Bob surely did. In his climb up the corporate tree of OCP management by orchestrating the creation of the titular law enforcer, he screwed over corporate foe Dick Jones and got himself blown to pieces by a nasty guy with the unfortunate name of Clarence.I don’t know why Clarence seems such an unfortunate name, I’m sure there are lots of very nice people with that name, but this Clarence was a nasty piece of work who always seemed pissed off at people, and I always figured his name had something to do with it. Anyway, Clarence was a buddy of Dick so Bob got put on his shitlist and, well, Clarence had a way of dealing with his anger issues with guns and grenades. So, that was it for poor Bob.

Okay, maybe Bob snorted too much cocaine and would shit on his own mother for a dollar and a key to the executive washroom, but really, he was my favourite executive bad guy. The guy had no style, no class, and was played to perfection by the great Miguel Ferrer, who sadly died on Thursday aged just 61. I was always thrilled to see Miguel’s name on the credits of anything he was in, and I was truly crushed by the news of his passing. Maybe he never had a great super-star status or appeared in many classic films or shows but he was always a great joy to watch, a great character actor who was for some reason particularly adept at playing slimy bad guys. And his Bob Morton will forever be up there high in my list of slimy bad guys.

RIP Bob Morton, and RIP Miguel.

A Tale of Two Recalls

tr10

He awoke- and wanted Mars. The Valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them? Great and greater yet: the dream grew as he became fully conscious, the dream and the yearning. He could almost feel the enveloping presence of the other world, which only Government agents and high officials had seen. A Clerk like himself? Not Likely.

-Philip K Dick, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, 1965. 

tr11The other night I watched the 1990 Total Recall, and the following night the 2012 remake/reboot. Call it an experiment- and don’t try it at home, kiddies, it’ll possibly fry your mind.

Neither film has much to do with the Philip K Dick original short story. If David Cronenberg had managed to film his version starring Richard Dreyfuss or William Hurt then maybe things would be different. The box-office failure of the high-budget Dune led to the films original producer Dino De Laurentiis, in an effort to save his company, selling the rights to Carolco pictures, who bought the rights at the behest of Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the time in the prime of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger saw the film as a perfect action vehicle for himself and progressed the project himself- it was his decision to hire Paul Verhoeven for instance, being highly impressed by Robocop. The influence of Robocop would dominate the film- casting Ronny Cox as the main villain, and the hiring of many of Robocop‘s backroom staff- cinematographer Jost Vacano, production designer William Sandell, editor Frank Urioste, make-up effect wizard Rob Bottin. Philip K Dick’s original story was increasingly less and less of an issue as the film transformed into a sci-fi pulp successor to the uber-violent Robocop.

tor12Back in the day this was why I had something of a love’hate relationship with the film; on the one hand it was one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life (watching it at a special midnight preview event, to this day I have never seen a film in such a wild atmosphere of rampant testosterone and noisy appreciation of action films), on the other it was a terrible adaptation of the PKD original. It was the second major film to be based on a PKD story (following Blade Runner) but it didn’t feel like a PKD story at all- at least Blade Runner had the mood and some of the subtext (what is human?) of its source material. Total Recall didn’t seem to have anything from the PKD story; there is no bloody violence or muscle-bound heroes, or mutants or alien reactors , not even a trip to Mars, in the PKD story. It was  dumbed-down into a spectacularly violent action film featuring at the time incredible WTF violence as Schwarzenegger blew away the bad guys and saved the planet.

I’m being rather unfair to the film there but at the time that was how I felt. On the surface that was all the film was, and viewers could simply watch it as a literal telling of the story of Schwarzenegger saving Mars and be happy with that (even if that drew the ire of PKD fans).  But even then there was a sophistication to the film, a subtext regards the nature of reality and what was real (the final fade to white a lovely nod to a rather darker reading of the film) that suggested more of the spirit of PKD than might be initially guessed. Indeed, watching the film over the years its blatantly obvious that everything is just happening in Doug Quaid’s head, it’s a mindtrip either gone horribly wrong (leaving him lobotomised) or perfectly right (leading him waking up at Recall Inc. having had the ‘holiday’ of a lifetime)- it’s up to the viewer which. The idea that what we are watching is really happening anywhere other than in Quaid’s head is just, well, crazy. The story is preposterous, the science nuts (Mars as depicted clearly isn’t the reality, instead it’s a glorious pulp fantasy). The only way it works is if its a Recall package playing out in his head.

The film is over 25 years old now but it plays as well as it ever did- indeed the years have been very kind to the film. Sure some of the optical effects are showing their age (as is some very early CGI) but the film is still superior to so many action films that we have seen since. There is a brutality to it, and a joyful extravagance and glorious inventiveness to the action and the spectacle. Arnie shoving the probe up his nose to extract the tracking bug, the woman’s head splitting apart to reveal Arnie hiding within, the vast landscapes depicting the Red Mars of pulp dreams, the bloody violence… it’s a magnificent ride. It may not be a very good PKD adaptation, but it is a very good sci-fi action film.

tor13So why, why, why did anyone think a remake was a good idea? Of all the misguided projects arising from Hollywood’s current penchant of remakes and reboots, why would a remake of Total Recall be seen as anything good? It was hardly from a desire to make a film more faithful to the PKD original. Okay, we don’t have mutants or a trip to Mars but what we do have is just as confused a mess as Doug Quaids fantasy mindtrip of the first film. The idea that the adventure might be a fantasy, that nothing of it is real, is quickly dropped from the remake and what we are seeing is evidently ‘real’, silly as it is.

This is the biggest difference between the two films- clearly the originals sense of doubt about what is real was felt too highbrow for modern audiences.  Likewise the 1990 film had its own definitive ‘look’ whereas like so many modern films, the 2012 Total Recall spent a lot of time looking forward by looking back, particularly to Blade Runner and Minority Report. So much so, indeed, that at times it seems more a remake of those two films than the 1990 Total Recall- we have the rain-drenched, crowded neon streets of Blade Runner, the zooming rail-cars and chase scenes and sterile sets of Minority Report.

There isn’t much of a plot to the 2012 film- it’s more of a long chase/action scene, of elaborate effects sequences that could play out in silence and pretty much tell the story, such as it is. Which is what so many modern Hollywood films do, when you think about it.

Watching the original film, it’s clearly a Schwarzenegger vehicle, a film only he could star in, a film targeted chiefly at his fans. It’s playful and violent but is true to itself- that Verhoeven could manage to layer in some subtext about the reality of what we were watching is a bonus but hardly the chief thrust of the film. And while Schwarzenegger had a worldwide fan-base in 1990, it is clearly film aimed at an American audience; references to ESPN for instance and Mars looking like some mutant Disneyland.  The 2012 film on the other hand is just a soulless construct, the actors fairly faceless and devoid of character, the film a series of storyboarded action sequences designed to be globally distributed to an international audience requiring minor dubbing of its perfunctory dialogue. Yes its very pretty but none of it means anything. Even the original’s violence has been diluted to the standard cartoon cgi theatrics of modern action films. It looks spectacular but we feel nothing, the protagonists as inhuman and artificial as the robot police chasing them.

tor14The image above- it could just as easily be a shot from Blade Runner or Minority Report. Colin Farrell is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger and deserves a better film than he has here- this is what is so frustrating about the whole project. My one main contention with the original film is that PKDs stories were always about the Everyman- people like us caught in strange situations and reality-warping moments, and if there was ever any point to another Total Recall it was to return to the original We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and the casting someone of  Colin Farrell’s ability was a step towards that. But modern Hollywood action films are more stupid and one-dimensional than I ever thought the 1990 film was. Watching films like this, I wonder why bother with ‘real’ actors at all- the use of CGI virtual actors seems almost inevitable now, perhaps one day even swapping faces to match the ethnicity of the audience watching them.

So anyway, two nights, two very different Total Recalls. I’m sure I would be kinder to the 2012 film had I not been re-watching it the night after watching the original. It certainly looks spectacular and the visual effects are on the whole very photo-realistic, but after watching the 1990 film before it, it is clear that the 2012 film is a soulless digital construct compared to the analogue original. The question ‘What Is Real?’ lingers in the mind during the end-credits of the 1990 film, but during the 2012 film’s end-credits that question isn’t even necessary. None of it is real; it’s all artifice now. Philip K Dick would be proud of that irony at least.

 

Riddick (2013)


riddick1Riddick
is a fascinating proposition. Pitch Black was an original film (unusual in itself these days) that came out of nowhere to great success, at least on home video, where word-of-mouth managed to gain the film a second-wind financially, meriting an eventual sequel. Unfortunately that sequel was as overblown and pretentious as its title, The Chronicles of Riddick, although that said, it made a commendable attempt at original world-building with a gothic look straight out of Lynch’s Dune. Having become the very antithesis of the original, the second film was deemed a critical and financial failure, and that seemed to be that for the character and a franchise.

But Vin Diesel’s anti-hero Riddick remains an original and enduring character, and nearly ten years later we have another movie (take heart, fellow Dredd fans, there is yet hope!). And here is the fascinating part- the title itself is perhaps indicative of the films’ approach; Riddick is simple and stark minus any pretensions of its epic predecessor, and so it is lean and mean, costing less than $40 million to make in comparison to something close to the $120 million that Chronicles cost. You have to admire film-makers who listen to the fans and act on what they have to say, because its evident in how the film returns to the roots of Pitch Black that such corrective action has been taken.

Riddick reminds me of the best stories from Heavy Metal magazine in its 1970s heyday; heavy in style and hardware with a hard adult approach in its sensibilities, much akin to Alien, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior and the original Robocop. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Riddick is approaching any of those films in quality but it does share with those films an inherent, integral self-logic of purpose. Alien was a silly monster-in-space movie elevated by incredible production design and realistic, life-worn middle-aged characters, in which the steam-drenched, haunted-house corridors of the post-2001 space ship somehow made sense. Blade Runner‘s central premise (making superior artificial humans without any way of actually identifying them) is nonsensical but in its grimy, rain-saturated city it has a reality beyond its central proposition with its fascinating investigations regards death and humanity. Both films are violent, edgy and adult, traits further exampled in the brutal  dystopian future of The Road Warrior or in Robocop’s corporate satire. Its rock and roll science fiction of the senses, decried by literary purists but damned effective film-making nonetheless. They may not have been based on Heavy Metal comic-strips but they all feel as though they could have been.

riddick2So we have Riddick. After that bloated second film Chronicles I really didn’t expect very much from this, but you know how low-expectations somehow have the opposite effect, raising your sense of enjoyment? Well, I think I enjoyed this film more than I should have. Its low budget goes pretty far, and while its hardly a high-concept movie, it works. Riddick is left marooned on another hostile planet, and the set-up for this post-Chronicles turnaround is the only real false step, as the film attempts via flashback to establish an explanation/continuity that feels awkward as it refers back to the second film. This may work better in the extended cut on Blu-ray, but I saw the film on a HD stream via Amazon Prime so can’t comment on that. But anyway, Riddick is on the planet struggling to survive, and after several weeks (months?) finds a more habitable region and an abandoned outpost. Figuring the bounty on his head is the biggest pull, he sets off an emergency beacon announcing his identity, and sure enough two rival bounty teams fly in looking for his head. But soon all of them have more urgent dangers pressing on them, as a stormy rainy season sets an army of amphibian monsters onto them, leaping the film back into original Pitch Black territory. Its simple and, at its best, direct- in a similar way to how Dredd worked so well, it uses the limitations of its budget to strip the film down to its core fundamentals and make the best of them.

No doubt some fans, and particularly those fond of the second film, will be disappointed by a perceived  lack of ambition, in not pursuing the world-building set-up by the second film. Maybe a fourth film will return to add some closure to that as Riddick works on his revenge. I don’t know if a fourth film is in the works but after watching Riddick I’d be rather interested to see it. If Riddick‘s purpose was to breathe fresh life into a dead franchise then it seems to have succeeded.

Robocop (2014)

robo14It’s impossible to watch this film without the 1987 original being on your mind. Paul Verhoeven’s classic movie was such a perfect film, part action-thriller, part satire, part commentary of the times in which it was made, a remake/reboot seems so unnecessary, other than as an opportunity to make some easy money from an established IP and fanbase. Indeed MGM has tried to run with the franchise with inferior sequels and tv series for so long and with such limited success, that in retrospect a remake was inevitable.  But it just feels so wrong, especially with it so toned-down with a PG-13 rating (a 12-cert over here) to maximise the films potential audience. The extreme violence of the original was part of its message, part of its success, neutering it like this just feels wrong.

The biggest crime of this film is its inability or unwillingness to really bring anything new to the table, other than a typical cgi polish brought to the proceedings (the original’s budget was limited and fx rather ropey but that’s since become part of the old-school charm of it). Biggest contention for me is the humanising of the title character. The original Rob Bottin design was more machine than man, but this new version looks more like a bloke in a metal suit. This humanisation is furthered by Murphy always knowing who he is, maintaining his personality, memory and emotional ties, while in the original, Murphy was dead and only fragments of his memory/personality remained. At the original film’s end, he may reply “Murphy” when asked for his name, but he isn’t really Murphy at all, just adopting a dead man’s name. In this 2014 version, he is always Murphy, always a good cop, and eventually rejoins his wife and child, a vindication/outcome denied in the brutal original.

Perhaps I was never an impartial viewer. That 1987 original and its long shadow just can’t be escaped. While I can understand the materialistic/corporate sense of trying to reboot the original, it just remains wrong in an artistic sense, especially when its so sanitised as this. It may not be a really bad movie, but it remains a pointless movie, as far as I’m concerned anyway. I’ve no idea if it was successful enough to merit a sequel of its own but I rather hope not.