“Citizen Ruth” (1996) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

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Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have emerged as America’s leading satirists of middle-class delusion. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways” were all critical (and sometimes) box-office hits roundly deserving of their universal acclaim. However, rarely mentioned is Payne and Taylor’s first film, the wonderfully acidic “Citizen Ruth.”

Ruth Stoops, the titular hero played by Laura Dern, is a drug-addict and petty criminal who finds out she is pregnant during one of her many stints in jail. Given the fact that she’s had four other children (all under foster care or under the care of ex-boyfriends/husbands), a judge offers leniency if she will abort her unborn child. This raises the attention of a local pro-life group called the Baby Savers who bail her out and try to use the judge’s offer as a call to arms for their cause. Through a series of circumstances, she then winds up under the care of a pro-choice group who want her to promote their cause.

Believe it or not, the degenerate Ruth winds up being the character you root for the most in the film. Dern pulls off the impossible in her characterization of Ruth. She manages to be sympathetic while still acting like someone you’d never even remotely think of inviting into your home.

No matter where you stand on the abortion issue, “Citizen Ruth” mercilessly attacks both sides. While I don’t think Payne and Taylor are saying that all pro-life or pro-choice people are like the characters in this film, they illustrate what happens when activists use people as symbols to “send messages” instead of actually doing something to help the people they’re exploiting.

In addition to Dern, the rest of the cast, which includes Kurtwood Smith, Burt Reynolds, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Mary Kay Place, M.C. Gainey, Tippi Hedren, Kenneth Mars, David Graf, and Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mom), all deliver terrific career-best performances.

A wonderfully brittle and nasty skewering of an extremely sensitive topic. If you have a brain, a heart, and a very dark sense of humor, you’ll hopefully find this film as hilarious as I did.

“Robocop” (1987) dir. Paul Verhoeven

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When I first saw the preview for “Robocop” in the summer of 1987, I rolled my eyes and thought it looked like a really stupid “Terminator” ripoff. Except for one thing. I noticed that the director listed on the final title card was Paul Verhoeven. I hadn’t seen any of Paul Verhoeven’s critically acclaimed and controversial films from Holland at that point, but I did know the name and I became mildly intrigued.

Cut to a couple of months later. The film comes out, has a great opening weekend, and lots of my peers tell me it’s really really good. So, I check out “Robocop” with good, albeit modest expectations. The movie opens with some funny satirical ads from the future. I’m thinking, “OK, this is kind of funny,” and then we go to a corporate boardroom. The corporate talking heads are introducing a new robot that will help bring order to a crime-ridden Detroit. Except that there’s a technical glitch, which results in one of the most shockingly, graphically violent scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.  Please note this is not safe for work or little ones and is the X-rated version of this scene that needed to be toned down for an American R-rating.

After the mayhem unravels, the scene ends with the CEO shaking his head at the VP who led this project, and saying “Dick, I’m very disappointed in you.” At that moment, Verhoeven’s mix of sardonic humor and sickening violence had me hooked.

The shocks and laughs continued. And not only did the nihilistic satire impress me, but the very visceral way the film was shot and edited knocked my socks off. It reminded me a lot of the first “Mad Max” film and did not look like anything else being produced by a Hollywood studio at the time. People criticize and praise Tarantino for mixing disturbing violence and humor, but Verhoeven was doing it in spades with the first “Robocop” in 1987.  This scene featuring the corporate scumbag played by Miguel Ferrer, being eliminated by a sleazy hitman played by Kurtwood Smith (who is hired by another corporate scumbag played by Ronny Cox) is a prime example of this.   I love the way the models/prostitutes casually run away from the sex/cocaine party like they’re missing an important TV show.  This clip is also not safe for work.

While the nihilistic satirical attitude impressed me, Verhoeven still has the courage to invest his story with real pathos. The scene where Murphy/Robocop starts having flashbacks to his life as a human and goes home to find his wife and child gone and an empty house is heartbreaking.

“Robocop” still holds up more than 25 years later and it’s truly amazing (as outrageous as the film seemed at the time) how much it got right about our present day American life. Corporations don’t run police forces (at least not yet), but they do run a lot of American prisons. The return and popularity of gas guzzling automobiles reached its peak in our country in 1997 (which is when the first “Robocop” takes place).

While “Robocop” could be called an American classic, I feel funny saying that since the film has Verhoeven’s very European attitude guiding the film throughout.