BLADE RUNNER 2049 (At the Multiplex: January, 2018)

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
D: Denis Villenueve

 

[NOTE: For more advanced and detailed thoughts than I’d be willing/able to provide without re-watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and/or re-reading Philip K. DIck’s source novel (both terrific…I just lack the time), you can go here, for Noel Vera’s review. I should probably have this site in my blogroll anyway. Soon, I promise. Spoilers in Noel’s review, but, since he’s doing the heavy lifting, none here.]

At least on a first viewing, I had the impression (it can’t be more than that on such brief acquaintance) that Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049 has surpassed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (to which it is a sequel), as the best adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s world-view. It might even stretch that view a inch or two, which would be about as far as such a view can ever be stretched. All Dick’s big themes are there. Madness vs. sanity. Reality vs “reality.” Man’ s relationship to technology. The precise point at which one thing turns into another (man into machine, sanity into madness, “reality” into reality….or vice versa).

Creating a visual equivalent of Dick’s flat but evocative prose (except in his ability to place dreams next to nightmares with disarmingly casual ease, he was no stylist…when you can do that, who needs style?), has never been easy. Steven Spielberg tried it in Minority Report and didn’t come close. But Scott got pretty close in the original Blade Runner (is there such a thing as pedestrian grandeur?) and I think Villeneuve (with Scott producing) got even closer here, in a film that toys with the original humans vs replicants (or humans using replicants, unless, of course, it’s really the other way round) concept with just enough verve and nerve to touch something new. Seeing 2049 on a big screen (to be fair, I’ve only caught the original on tape and disc) I felt myself getting a touch emotional on a couple of occasions.

But was it me…or some spiritual simulacrum I conjured for the purpose of reclaiming a younger self who might have responded even more strongly, which was certainly more appropriate than my current self, who kept threatening not to respond at all?

Those are the kind of questions Dick’s novels always asked of me (I wouldn’t presume to speak for others, as I can imagine interpretations sufficiently different to make mine seem as incomprehensible to others as theirs would be to me), and Blade Runner (at least in its “director’s cut” version) almost asked as well. It was both refreshing and disturbing to feel those emotions watching 2049. Which I guess means it made me feel a bit more alive–not something I often experience watching movies made this millennia.

This is made a bit more interesting–to me and my simulacra anyhow–by how little I was taken with the first twenty minutes or so, when Ryan Gosling seemed even flatter than usual and the beauty Villenueve and his team would bring to some of the later scenes had yet to manifest itself fully. Whether the movie got better as it went along or simply took over my senses I can’t say. (I’d hate to say it overwhelmed my mind,. That would be creepy and I’d hardly feel comfortable recommending it to others–which I very much want to do–if I admitted all that. But I did catch myself observing myself once or twice. Only from the next seat over. I don’t want you to think I was having some kind of episode.)

Once the film did take hold, though, it was riveting, and remained so, no matter how often I replicated and re-converged. There were times when I wanted to be in this film’s world. And, when you’ve seen it, as you really should, you’ll know just how crazy that is.

Curse you Denis Villenueve. You’ve made me irrational. You’ve made me think I could accept being Ryan Gosling! Harrison Ford was one thing but this smacks of evil.

And curse you Philip K. Dick. You’ve blurred the distinction between Dystopia and Utopia yet again–and without contributing a word. Years after I swore I was past all this, I now spend part of every day looking over my shoulder and around corners. Maybe only metaphorically, but still….I came out of the theater wishing I lived in a land where Donald Trump was president despite everything the FBI could do.

That will never happen, of course. Walking out next to me, my simulacra-self at least reassured me of that!

And I believed.

In other words, it’s a trip.

‘TIS THE SEASON….OF TRUMP (At the Multiplex: December, 2017)

I ventured out more than usual in December…mostly I just didn’t feel like staying home. But–and this is my idea of cheerful–you can learn things from watching the world die.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
D. Rian Johnson

I don’t remember this shot from the movie, so it might be a publicity still. Either way, I’d say it’s a problem when the Wookie has more charisma than the human. Doubly so if the human is supposed to be the center of the new galaxy far-far-away’s multi-culti dynamic.

Given the size of that central problem–assuming any under-forties can still radiate star power (I don’t get out nearly enough to make a final judgment but, based on what I have seen, the signs aren’t good), it isn’t the under-forties who are now expected to carry the central franchise of the modern world, the one which, imagination having gone the way of all flesh, all others must extend or debunk the way mold either feeds on or destroys what it attaches to–it’s amazing that the Star Wars franchise still entertains, even if I can’t imagine wanting to see anything but the original trilogy again before I die.

And it does entertain. At least if you’ve become as good at turning your brain off as I have.

Since this is the only movie here that isn’t specifically about Donald Trump–or at very least Trumpism–I blame him for lowering our expectations. Seems to be the going thing.

Catch it in the theaters. On the small screen the effects won’t be nearly as overwhelming and you’ll be stuck with the actors, none of whom are named Harrison Ford (for that, you’ll need to catch the Blade Runner update, which is incomprehensible and fantastic). Carrie Fisher, in her last role, is reduced to Earth Mother status, the very ethos she shook off like dead skin in her life and the original Star Wars movies. Mark Hamill is fine and, except for a brief appearance by Benecio Del Toro, the only point of strictly human contact to be found. Laura Dern, playing Earth Mother to the thousandth power, and against whom I held no previous grudge, actually performs a miracle of physics by creating film history’s first Black Hole right there on the screen where her character should be.

Make that to the minus thousandth power.

If only I could make myself believe anyone involved took the whole “long time ago” part seriously and was issuing this as a warning….

Like I say, catch it in the theater if you can. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, your television’s not big enough to overpower the senses and achieve the benumbed state where this works just fine.

The Greatest Showman (2017)
D. Michael Gracey

Featuring P.T. Barnum as…..Donald Trump.

Whenever I see Michelle Williams’ name in the credits of a mainstream movie, I hold out hope that she’ll find a way to blitz the thing, the way she does with nearly all her indie performances.

There was never a chance of that happening here. Though Wiliams gets to display her warm and lovely side this is strictly a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s Barnum. He’s in fine form and the movie’s theme is hardly without contemporary relevance. This is a shallow but effective portrait of a man’s dream and a land where bunkum is all. Master it, and it will get you all: women, money, fame, the love of the common people. Really, you could walk out of this and contemplate the century-and-a-half between our consummate national huckster’s prime and the new occupant of the White House’s ascendance and be truly bedazzled that it took so long for someone to take the final, logical step.

Big drawback: They went with period music.

Our period.

(NOTE: For an odd but possibly compelling double-bill, I recommend pairing this with Jackman and Williams’ other outing, an interesting little thriller called Deception, where he plays a manipulative terrorizer of women (and others) whose hand is bigger than her head. You don’t notice until he has to drop the mask of mere avarice and actually take hold of her. Ewan McGregor’s around, but, even at the center of the thing as the yob we’re supposed to identify with, he’s not too terrible a distraction.)

All the Money in the World (2017)
D. Ridley Scott

Christopher Plummer’s gotten most of the attention for stepping in to play J. Paul Getty, the oiliest oily capitalist in the history of oily capitalism, a part Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him for the begin with, when Kevin Spacey–for whom the part was clearly made and which it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he was born to play–was instantly Stalinized for being an accused pederast in this moment when any gambit that might bring down Donald Trump (no pederast, but he has bragged–on tape no less–about “pussy grabbing”….or hadn’t you heard?) is deemed worth deploying and talent be damned.

It’s not  a disaster. Plummer’s fine even though you can literally hear the lines he sort of mumbles snapping out of Spacey’s absent mouth and smile your way through the whole thing.

The real problem–and it’s not insurmountable either–is that the other actors, especially Michelle Williams, had to re-shoot scenes which had clearly been written with Spacey’s particular charm (the oiliest actorly smarm in the history of smarm…or acting) in mind. Worse, they likely didn’t re-shoot scenes where the Getty character isn’t present. So you have to assume that Williams (and others) spent half the movie we actually see acting against the absence of Kevin Spacey’s J. Paul Getty and half acting with Plummer’s bound to be antithetical take on the same man (or, if you prefer, character).

It shows.

But you know….it still works–as both thriller and character study.

The real tension isn’t in whether Getty’s kidnapped grandson is finally freed (and I was one of the millions who didn’t have a memory of how that all worked out, so the ending was news to me), but in whether Williams’ character (Getty’s estranged ex-daughter-in-law and the kidnap victim’s mother) will ever act out.

This is Michelle Williams, after all, the only working actor who knows what to do with that very kind of scene, or at least the only one who is willing to risk going there, time and again. And I was a coiled spring, waiting to see if she would, just once, get to turn the anger she usually directs at herself (and whether it’s the characters self-immolating, time and again, or the actress herself, time and again, is a mystery that wants solving), against an object worthy of her disgust.

And….

Well, it’s worth seeing the movie to find out, so I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say watching Michelle Williams work these kind of things out for two hours is never going to be a waste of time, even if it leaves you wondering if she will ever achieve the kind of stardom that would prove the world is better than me, Donald Trump or J. Paul Getty think it can be.

Darkest Hour (2017)
D. Joe Wright

In which Gary Oldman plays an aging, crotchety leader of a fractured party, out of step with his colleagues and every aspect of their shrewd statesman-like sense of decorum, but with an uncommon feel for the common man they can but envy and behold.

Winston Churchill keeps getting mentioned, along with contemporary phenomena like abdicating kings and Dunkirk and what not. But this is clearly the first high class movie (maybe the first period, I don’t do a good job of keeping up) about Donald Trump. I mean it could be a little bit about Harvey Weinstein–old Winnie did like to go about in his bathrobe and little else whilst dictating to comely young secretaries. But Harvey’s old news now, just another of Trump’s useful footwipes and hardly better off than Kevin Spacey or J. Paul Getty (who probably finds being dead and consumed by hell fire only a slight disadvantage over having to endure the presence of humans).

It’s a fine performance. If you accept that it’s this historical fellow Churchill Oldman is after, he’s got him dead to rights. He’s the spitting image. Sounds like him too. Nothing like Richard Burton on television way back, neither looking nor sounding much like the historical fellow at all.

Odd thing, though. You could watch and listen to Burton and imagine a despondent country hearing him say “Our policy will be to WAGE WAR!” and committing on the spot to doing just that, even, as actually happened, to the point of self-extinction. And you could imagine him–and them–understanding that the only choice left was already not between survival in any meaningful sense and extinction, but between extinction with honor or subservience in disgrace.

None of that here. The England this barely worthy Trump stand-in speaks to and for is hardly worth saving and it’s an even bet whether the filmmakers meant this England to stand for 1940 or 2017.

Fine job by the makeup department, though. And good work on the accent. Who needs thunder and lighting when you’ve got all that going for you?

Bravo!

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2017)

December 12-Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges, 4th Viewing)

To find out if Sturges can take off from noir the way the rest of his career took off from John Ford’s movies with Will Rogers. With each viewing,  I feel him inching closer, the way Rex Harrison keeps getting closer to having off his wife’s head–or his own–just because she’s so lovely in every way.

December 12-Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath, 3rd Viewing)

Because I’ve been wondering if Gwyneth Paltrow’s star-making performance–distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s company either just before or just after he tried to molest her (I haven’t been able to get the timeline straight even in the context of assuming everybody who is now on the record remembers everything just the way it was)–holds up.

It does.

And everything good around it, which is just about everything, is still good.

I watched it the first time as a rental. That was right after I saw Paltrow interviewed on Charlie Rose. Surrounded by snakes she was. Jane Austen must have seemed like a godsend. Any Jane Austen. But especially Emma, who is loved and valued to exactly the extent she keeps her mean streak cloaked under velvet manners. I think this might become a favorite.

December 13-Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron, 2nd Viewing)

To see if I missed anything the first time around. I don’t think so. This is a good, solid little noir which has gained enough of a reputation to merit a Criterion release. I’ll probably watch it again–it might make a great early sixties New York double bill with The Apartment.  But my old problem will always arise: outside Patricia Highsmith, I’m just not that interested in psychopaths. Not even the ones who are trying to convince me they want to go straight.

December 14-Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rossen, 1st Viewing)

I’m treating this as a first viewing even though it might be a second…and the first may not have been that long ago. I’m too tired to look it up, but if this is a second viewing, I might have revisited it to see if Richard Burton can get past that blonde wig.

There’s something a bit off about the whole exercise and that no-doubt-period-accurate wig (I can’t conceive another reason to make Richard Burton, of all people, look like Little Lord Fauntleroy) exemplifies the picture’s stagnant, occasionally ornery nature. The history’s not bad. The sets are often magnificent and there are individual scenes that work well.

Still, it’s missing something.

It’s too bad Land of the Pharaohs, released the previous year, wasn’t a hit. Joan Collins might have spiced this right up.

December 14-Body Double (1984, Brian DePalma, 1st Viewing)

Because I saw it for a buck in a local thrift shop and I was in the mood for some DePalma I hadn’t seen.

I won’t be in the mood for this again anytime soon. I’d rather have my chest drilled, like one of DePalma’s victims. That shot above is the best thing in the movie. One could be fooled by it into thinking this might be worth two hours of your time.

Don’t be fooled.

December 17-Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow, 3rd Viewing)

For the action scenes, which just keep coming. They’re among the best in modern cinema and have proved to be Kathryn Bigelow’s real calling card even as she’s moved on to Oscar bait high concept stuff.

And for Patrick Swayze’s performance as a sociopath with enough real charisma to make you understand why a fellow danger jockey like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah might fall for him even after the mask has come all the way off.

Plus a bunch of real life surfers who give you a tantalizing look into a culture that’s a long way from Dick Dale or Endless Summer.

Besides, there’s not really a higher concept than surfing bank robbers.

December 18-Cheyenne Autumn (1964, John Ford, Not Quite Umpteenth Viewing)

I guess I’ve seen this about half-a-dozen times now. For me and a Ford film, that’s just getting started.

It’s an odd, late entry in the Ford canon. Like a lot of his less-than-great films it divides people, sometimes bitterly.

I’m not in the “hidden masterpiece” camp, but I keep coming back to it.

Every time, I think it won’t work: That Richard Widmark not being John Wayne and Carroll Baker not being Vera Miles and Mike Mazurki not being Victor McLaglen and baby-faced Sal Mineo not making much of an Indian is just too much working against it even before the flat ending.

But, every time, I see so many good things in it–the long opening sequence, as fine as anything Ford ever did, the haunting shot of Karl Malden’s decent-but-blustering fort commander contemplating the carnage wrought by his own incompetence before he wanders into the snow, Mazurki’s “Cossack” scene, where he turns out to be pretty damn close to Victor McLaglen after all–I know I’ll always come back.

Late Ford, old Ford, sick Ford, conflicted Ford. It’s still Ford.

December 20-Black Rain (1984, Ridley Scott, 4th Viewing)

Because there aren’t enough Kate Capshaw movies, not even ones where she’s underutilized. And because, come to think of it, there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play a good guy, even if he’s a good guy with some more than rough edges…meaning there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play scenes no other actor of his generation could play so well and which happen over and over here.

And because only Ridley Scott could make modern Tokyo look and feel like an underworld.

If not the Underworld.

December 20-Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson, 1st Viewing)

Because it’s showing at the mall and it’s that time again. (More, perhaps, in next month’s At the Multiplex. For the record, after a close run during the first hour, I enjoyed it.)

December 21-The Man Who Never Was (1956, Ronald Neame, 3rd Viewing)

Because better a just-going-to-seed Gloria Grahame (already…by 1956!) playing an almost good girl with a broken heart than no Gloria Grahame at all.

And for a lovely ending, of which the modern world, where we can dream anything we like, did not turn out to be worthy.

Great poster, though.

Til next time….

ANTHONY MANN’S EPIC AUTUMN (Segue of the Day: 1/7/17)

El Cid
(Anthony Mann, 1961)

The Fall of the Roman Empire
(Anthony Mann, 1964)

Anthony Mann does not yet get his due. There are occasional professional contrarians who will tell you he’s better than John Ford, but they are a cult and Mann, who would have been the first to tell you he wasn’t quite John Ford, deserves far better. I’ve been counting him as one of my five favorite directors for a while now, but in the latest list from “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They,” the most exhaustive ranking of great films available, he has one entry (The Naked Spur, at #969 of a thousand).

That’s one fewer than Michael Mann, who I still think of as the Miami Vice guy, and the same number as John Avildsen, who’s on the list for Rocky.

All of which adds up to just another brick in the towering wall of our modern delusion. Mann made a handful of noirs and a hatful of westerns (hence the Ford comparisons) that are better than anything Michael Mann has done. He also made these two epics from the early sixties, which time is beginning to reveal as masterworks in their own right.

Watching them together (as I’ve done since I discovered them a few years back…this was my third go-round), in these hurly-burly days is an experience. And, for me, what was even more salient this time was having recently seen Marketa Lazarova, the Czech film from 1967 which I wrote about here, for the first time.

The long view of history I mentioned there is as fiercely present here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mann’s films served as some sort of inspiration in how to handle narrative and editing in Marketa or any other epic-minded film that uses similar devices to collapse time and space for the purpose of expanding our imaginations.

Of course these carry some Hollywood gloss–big stars playing against ethnic type, fabulous sets and costumes, casts of literally thousands. But once you absorb all that, and understand the level of obsession that went into these films (obsessions that encompassed and enfolded Mann himself, producer Samuel Bronston, the set designers, even the composers, all properly lauded in the fine documentaries that accompany the 2-disc versions from the Miriam Collection) it’s possible to recognize just how thorny and disorienting they are, how fully they (like Marketa) capture not merely lost worlds but lost value systems.

El Cid was a big hit, so big it made The Fall of the Roman Empire’s impossible air of art-house risk possible. For better or worse, the presence of Charlton Heston, then strongly identified in the movie-going public’s mind with The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, massive hits that had done a fine job of capturing value systems not yet lost in the previous decade, was able to carry El Cid to similar box office heights. But he refused to work again with his co-star, Sophia Loren, on the second film. Mann was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable narrative in El Cid. Any chance that he wouldn’t push past the edge in the followup was gone the minute Heston refused to sign on.

Whatever the reasons, Heston’s absence allows Fall to play as the more contemporary film.

I won’t say “better” because I’m a long way from comprehending either film at the level required to make that judgment. But, purely in artistic terms, Heston’s absence may have been as much a blessing as it was a box office curse. Fall became a famous flop, effectively breaking both Mann and Bronston in ways that went beyond the merely financial. Sadly, neither lived to see it redeemed by recent critical appraisals in a way that Cleopatra, a similar back-breaker from the same period, never will be. El Cid needed Heston because it’s a hero’s narrative. Fall didn’t need him (and one wonders if this was the real reason he passed on it), because it’s an anti-hero’s narrative.

The neck-snapping irony in this, is that El Cid is set in a moment when the Christendom just emerging (sotto voce because it’s never mentioned) in The Fall of the Roman Empire, is being saved from extinction.

The further irony is that Fall is even more opulent, something that seems impossible while you are actually watching El Cid.

In terms of both spectacle and historical accuracy, Bronston was determined to make David O. Selznick look like a kid in short pants. With Fall he succeeded. It took me this third viewing to comprehend how much his obsession with the details of Rome’s face, at the singular moment when the mask was finally beginning to show its cracks, has as much to do with creating the film’s unique aura of displacement as Mann’s sudden shifts of tone, mood, lighting, weather.

In the midst of the towering monuments to Rome’s glory, literally recreated with stunning scale and specificity on a plain in Spain, Christopher Plummer’s Commodus (the role of his career), and Stephen Boyd’s hapless Livius, really do seem like they are being toyed with by ancient and angry gods.

Livius himself–the hero Charlton Heston wouldn’t play–is redeemed only by his devotion to the old ways and Commodus’s sister. And it becomes clear, over time, that these virtues are inextricable from a stubbornness and pride that end up costing the lives of nearly everyone and everything he holds dear.

Boyd puts every bit of the bitterness that would come from such a man’s recognition of his own failures into his final line, a line sufficiently damning that one wonders how anyone thought they could get a hit out of this.

What we’re left with is indescribable opulence (it really has to be seen to be believed and I can’t even get my head around what these films must look like on the big screen), endless back-stabbing among cabals who vie for the loyalty of the military and the deep state, a hapless legislative body made exclusively of fops and fools, the endless peddling of influence. All these qualities course through El Cid and finally overwhelm the characters who populate The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The history runs in reverse, as history is wont to do.

The first film replicates the preservation of what rose in the place of what fell in the second film.

Whatever order one views them, these films, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire, which broke Samuel Bronston’s bank account and Anthony Mann’s health, are in the DNA of everything from Star Wars to Kurosawa’s late epics to the best work of the similarly under-appreciated Ridley Scott (who now must labor under the burden of CGI, an empire whose reach and grasp far exceed Rome’s…one hopes that Mann appreciated how lucky he was to fall in with a fellow visionary like Bronston even for a heartbeat).

You can take your pick of which reminds you most of the City by the Potomac these days, as the man who the Alt-Right likes to tweak all and sundry by referring to as the God Emperor ascends, rising from the bottomless sea of our present corruption, within which the deepest muck he was born to rule.