REVIEW: “Child 44”

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“There are no murders in Paradise”. This is a phrase repeated several times in the period thriller “Child 44”. The line is a reference to the former Soviet practice of denying the existence of murders and serial killings within their Communist model. In the film we see the propaganda machine clash with a series of brutal child murders in Moscow and surrounding areas. The film is produced by Ridley Scott who was originally in line to direct. Instead the directing duties were handed to Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa.

“Child 44” is adapted from British writer Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel which was based on the serial killings of Andrei Chikatilo. The film begins by establishing the system and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Tom Hardy plays Leo Demidov, a decorated agent from the Ministry of State Security. His main job is enforcing the rigid laws and capturing anyone the government deems to be traitors. And we see their methods of law enforcement as manipulative, suppressive, and sometimes violent.

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Then there is Leo’s relationship with his disillusioned wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). When out with friends they look like the perfect couple, but she clearly shows a disconnect at home stirring up a number of suspicions within Leo. But in the background of the political and personal storylines, a growing number of murdered young boys’ bodies are turning up. The government wants to cover it up. Families are suffering. And eventually Leo finds himself caught in the middle.

I went into “Child 44” expected a murder mystery thriller. It is definitely that, but Richard Price’s screenplay ventures off into a number of different directions. The marital tensions between Leo and Raisa evolves into a deeper sidestory. A layered political drama builds throughout the film. Then there is the hunt for the serial killer. These and a few smaller subplots are interwoven within the fabric of the film resulting in the vision sometimes feeling clouded.

But the film leads us through this haze and unfolds each story angle, bringing them together in a deliberate, slow-burning method that clearly didn’t work for many. I love the tense political drama and its ominous, ever-present threat which bleeds into ever other facet of the film. There is a tension boiling behind every conversation large or small. There is a proactive paranoia within the bureaucracy which leads to some of the film’s more disturbing moments. And the oppressive nature of the politics hangs over the people like a shroud. It is very well done.

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The same could be said of the strained and uncomfortable marriage between Leo and Raisa. The edge to their story angle gets sharper as the movie progresses and the film does a fine job of giving them moments to flesh out their relationship. A number of outliers and influences play into their angle taking it into some very interesting directions.

That leads to the central storyline – the murder mystery and the hunt for a savage serial killer. At least it appeared to be the central storyline based on the film’s promotion. Actually this story angle gets less screen time than the others which was disappointing. The urgency grows with each grim and unnerving discovery yet it languishes in the shadow of the other stories. It is intensely intriguing yet strangely handled. I mean even with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it doesn’t feel like the film gives the murder mystery enough time or attention.

Plenty of criticisms were hurled towards some of the performances and particular casting choices. Gripes about the heavy accents and the decision to use predominately non-Russian actors. Honestly I think the film pulls it off nicely. A strong supporting cast features Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Joel Kinnaman, and a host of others.

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But it is Tom Hardy’s fiercely committed performance that carries the picture. His blanched complexion and weary eyes gel well with his consistently serious and solemn demeanor. In fact I think he may smile once in the entire film and even then the sincerity is in question. Hardy harnesses all of his character’s inner conflicts and various states of mind and presents them all with a robust confidence. Its a great performance.

“Child 44” is considered a bomb. It bombed with critics. It bombed at the box office. But I just can’t go along with the majority of criticisms. Yes, the film is a slow-moving experience. Yes, the film often lacks a clear and specific focus. But never once was I bored by the pacing or lost due to its narrative structure. Clearly the screenplay and direction could have tightened things up a bit, but there is still so much the movie does right. It ends up being a unique and compelling procedural that I found satisfying even in its messiness. I’m happy to go against the grain with this one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Robocop” (2014)

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I can’t tell you how many times I watched the original “RoboCop” during my teen years. The 1987 sci-fi action flick was such a wild ride. It had a really cool mixture of wacky humor, slick satire, a great villain, and some insane (and frequently graphic) action sequences. Then I heard that MGM was bringing RoboCop back. Yes, yet another remake of a popular 1980’s movie. Then I see where this new RoboCop film was getting the dreaded February release date. All things pointed to this being a crappy movie.

But what a surprise it was to find this to be a cool and competent action movie. Let me say it again,”RoboCop” is surprisingly good and I am as shocked as anyone. This is essentially a reboot that takes many of the elements from the original film and adds a modern touch. It shuffles up the narrative a bit and it gets a fresh coat of CGI paint. But the core of the film is the same. It falls short of the first film in several areas, but it makes its own satisfying statement in others. Again, I was really surprised.

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This “RoboCop” quickly lays out its politically charged landscape. The United States government has handed over its military reins to a multinational corporation known as OmniCorp. These guys have mastered advanced robot technology which allows for mechanical soldiers to replace humans. Their sales pitch points to how many lives have been saved in American military interests around the world. OmniCorp’s next big moneymaking venture is selling their products to local law enforcement. But a group of strong-willed senators and a very concerned public opinion stands in the way. This hodgepodge of political wrangling and big corporate greed is clearly intended as some sort of social satire. Well the message didn’t resonate with me, but it did set up an interesting landscape for the main story.

Speaking of the main story, this time around Swedish born actor Joel Kinnaman plays Detroit police detective Alex Murphy. He and his partner have been working undercover to bring down a local crime boss. But as he gets closer to blowing the top off the case, the bad guys get nervous and try to take Murphy out. A car bomb goes off leaving Murphy with severe burns, amputations, and no hope for survival. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) approaches Murphy’s wife Clara (played by the lovely Abbie Cornish) and offers to save her husband’s life by placing him in a permanent robotic suit. Of course Sellars real intent is to put a face on his robot program in hopes of swaying public opinion.

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One thing I was looking forward to was the return of Michael Keaton to a larger big screen role. I’ve always loved him dating back to his early madcap comedy style. While he is written to be your standard corporate baddie, Keaton brings a certain slimy panache to the role. It was great to see him back. There was also the casting of Gary Oldman as a scientist who struggles with the moral complexity of the RoboCop project. It’s a great role for Oldman and as you would expect he is fabulous. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson who plays a loud and opinionated cable news talk show host. We only see him via his broadcast and he is funny in spurts. But by his fourth appearance I was tired of him.

The funny thing about this film is that it flirts with a number of satirical themes and the story teases going in several different directions. But it pulls back on a number of occasions choosing to play it safe. There are several interesting turns that really hooked me and I wanted them to go further than they actually do. Still, there was enough in and around the central story to keep me involved. Some of the plot directions are really effective and very well conceived.

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But many people will go to “RoboCop” looking for some good, old-fashioned action. They will definitely get it here. Director José Padilha definitely knows how to shoot action. There are some butt-kicking standout sequences, none better than a wicked shootout in a pitch black gang hideout. It’s stylish, kinetic, and a ton of fun. The technology is cool, the RoboCop suit looks great, and there are several other visual flares that I loved. For example one scene shows what is left of Murphy once he is stripped of his armor. It’s a wild and disturbing special effect that also fuels one of the movie’s bigger emotional moments.

So many of these modern remakes have turned out terrible (I’m looking at you “Red Dawn” and “Total Recall”). The good news is “RoboCop” certainly isn’t terrible. It isn’t as provocative is it wants to be. It isn’t as clever as it tries to be. It isn’t as witty as it needs to be. But it is more fun than I ever expected it to be. There is some great action, some really good performances, and enough depth to the story to make it a worthwhile science fiction romp. Don’t expect a deep cerebral experience. After all this is RoboCop. But I can honestly say, that it had a lot more to offer than I was ever expecting.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS