Blade Runner 2049 (****) chooses life

Blade-Runner-2049

Blade Runner 2049 – 2017

Director Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

There is a very strong theme in Blade Runner 2049 that helps to make its predecessor a better film. Of course, just defining what version of the movie Blade Runner is the predecessor would be a boon for those who enjoyed the series. In this particular case, we’re going to go with The Final Cut, as discussed with my friend WeMissE earlier this month. In that version, the last thing we see is a decisive Deckard (Ford) picking up the girl and heading to the elevator.

Picking up 30 years later, we have a new Blade Runner, named K, who is hunting down the rest of the Nexus 8 model Replicants, who had escaped an attempted purge shortly after the events of the first film. What happened to the rest of the Model 6’s, or even Model 7’s for that matter remains unasked and unanswered.

In an effort to avoid giving anything away, it can be stated that one of the 8’s is found right off the bat. He presents a twist right away. This will likely be common knowledge soon, but it was nice for me not to know right away, so I will not ruin it. If the first thing we learn is not enough, a bigger secret is revealed shortly there after. The knowledge of the secret sets K off on a voyage of discovery which leads him to ask questions more overtly, but no less entertainingly than with Harrison Ford’s Deckard.

On the side of humanity, we have Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi. Her motives are simple, whatever it takes to keep the bio-engineered humans in line. She is not a cruel person, but her methods are blunt and merciless. She feels knowledge of the secret is a powder keg necessary to extinguish before it explodes.

In their own category of interest, we have Niander Wallace (a wholly overcooked Leto) and his number 1, Luv (Hoeks). They follow K’s progress closely, interfering when they need to. It’s made very obvious who that bad guys are from the beginning, the other mystery is only a little harder to figure.

Mystery is not the main point of Blade Runner, though. It’s atmosphere, feeling and, to a lesser extent, philosophical questions on the nature of existence. What makes a human, human?  What makes a Replicant potentially more so?

As the evolving K, Gosling has never been more suited for a role. His look , a mixture of earnest curiosity and casual disconnect conveys the drive of someone looking to connect the dots. Whether you know what is coming up or not, it’s easy to follow and be drawn into his quest. While it’s never quite clear the connection he has with his virtual girlfriend, Joi (de Armas), it the sense of yearning is easy enough for us to connect. His reaction to others is interesting, too. His sense of vulnerability, even when there are things he’s clearly superior at, gives more to the plot than a million words could.

Hoeks is the most riveting presence of the rest of the cast. Her Luv has a clear sense of purpose that is a fresh contrast to the rest of the cast. She marches through the film like Famke Janssen in Goldeneye, only without the ridiculous puns.

Dave Bautista’s somber performance as Sapper Morton is frustrating,m for no other reason than for the potential he shows with the character. One can see how nice it would have been to see more of him by watching him in the short 2048 – Nowhere to Run.

Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful film. It is ponderous and vastly close in its recreation of the world created by Ridley Scott. While the original is good, with elements of noir and questioning of the way we treat those we deem different than us, it doesn’t give us enough of its most interesting character, Roy Batty.

This time, we have the benefit of more interesting characters, and a plethora of wonderful scenes that allow for us to enjoy the vast landscapes of futuristic earth and Ryan Gosling’s expressions.

Harrison Ford is better, too. You can actually feel his affection for Rachel now, when before it seemed like she was just an outlet for his desire, then. His take on love is a unique avenue.

One can feel the continuity between the films, but moreover this film feels like an improvement on the original by fleshing out and reinvigorating the story, with the same screenwriter in Fancher. Villeneuve understands and appears to love the world he’s inherited and he treats the viewer intelligently by not treading over the same ground.

The journey of Gosling is offset by the action scenes, especially between Replicants. There are no real amazing feats, but enough things that seem like they’d be hard to do. It does present a curiosity that has not been answered in two films.

What does it take to kill a Replicant? Sometimes its a well placed shot. Sometimes a few hits in the right places. Sometimes, a knife being run up the side through the rib cage doesn’t even do it. Near as I can tell, the only thing that does end one is when the plot point requires them to be gone.

As for the freaky creator figure, Wallace is on par with Joe Turkel’s Tyrell. He is more annoying, for all of his need to make sure he’s completely method. He has so few scenes where he actually moves, it’s funny to hear he spent so much time actually blinding himself. In the end, he moved his head around weird and talked in a stupid tone. Not any of this added anything to the film. I am sure that he got something out of it, but the audience does not.

If there is something else to observe, it’s that there still seems to be no role for a fully functional woman. This time, we have a toothless authority figure (Wright) who is drawn to K. We have a completely doting and pliant Joi, who provides nothing but (literally) hollow platitudes and dedication to K. That leaves my favorite, Luv. She is straight badass. None of these characters develop in any way.

The simple argument is that they are peripheral characters. The first film has Deckard and Batty taking the journey, and 2049 has K and Deckard again. If we follow simple logic, it is just he economy of characters. We can’t care about Rachel, Zhora or Pris or their counterparts because the story is not really about them. Until one of them has died…

Like I said, it’s not so much a criticism as an observation.

The film is longer by 3/4 of an hour, but this is augmented by the gorgeous camera work of Roger Deakins. The soundtrack works better for me and seems less dated. One finds it very easily drawn into the investigation with K. We know where he’s intending to go, but we never quite know where he’ll end up.

There’s a lot here for people who loved the first film. For those who just liked it, like yours truly, this bridges some gaps. Not sure where they can go with the next film, if there is one with the same writer, it is sure to be interesting.

(**** out of *****)

 

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Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (****) and Victoria & Abdul (***): Two pieces of a life continued

HerMajestyMrs.Brown

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown – 1997
Victoria & Abdul – 2017

Director (HMMB) John Madden, (V&A) Stephen Frears
Screenplay (HMMB) Jeremy Brock, (V&A) Lee Hall
Starring (HMMB) Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Antony Sher, Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Pasco, David Westhead, Gerard Butler
(V&A)  Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith

Seeing that Dame Judi Dench had reprised her role as latter-day Victoria 20 years after her first go-round must have been interesting to some. The first film grossed about 9 million world-wide, and this time it’s bordering on 5x that much. The passage of time has helped, one would guess. There is a much deeper appreciation for one of the best actresses of our time. Also, one could guess, there has been a swath of people who enjoyed the first film through other media. After having watched both in one day, I am glad that there can be sequels to movies about a Queen in the twilight of her reign, even if the sequel amounts to a little less of the same.

The first film, Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, is a measure of acting by three actors.

Dench earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Queen Victoria. To be sure, she gives a complete performance here. She’s a woman who’s given everything that she doesn’t quite want and by now mostly expects in her life. The thing she wants most, however, is the her husband. When we see her first, she’s in her third year of mourning Prince Albert. The film immediately brings in someone her husband had an immense fondness for in Scottish servant, John Brown (Connolly). The power of the film is presented in their subtle development of their relationship. It is really quite impressive because Connolly’s Brown is not a subtle man in the slightest.

Running earnestly roughshod through the lives of Victoria and her court, he ruffles feathers and gets panties in a bunch. While he never quite wins over the rest of the household, he certainly does win the affections of the Queen. It is a testament to Madden, Connolly and especially Dench that this never trips into areas that are really unknown. We see that there is genuine affection between both of them, but the public face is never quite revealed. This is the strength of the film and story. The public face of Victoria is never more than propriety, but it is never shown to be someone locked in the castle, either. She is a monarch, to be sure.

For his part, Connolly is incredibly engaging and committed to the performance. That he did not receive more substantial roles as a result of this film is a crime. He shows strength, perception and vulnerability in his role as a man who doesn’t realize he’s reached beyond his station in life. I truly enjoyed Connolly in this and every role I have seen him in and hope that somehow we see more of him.

The third winning performance is that of Antony Sher as Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Sher’s performance is a surprise to me, but apparently not to those who have seen him perform live. His Disraeli is a man of most lethal cunning, kind of Bill Clinton for the time. To be sure, you’d rather have him on your side, than working against you. It’s apparent that he’s got more going on than he reveals no matter to whom he is speaking. His charm, however, is undeniable. It’s born of intelligence that most around him just don’t have. If one compares the way Brown works the rest of the people in his life and is so completely out-maneuvered by Disraeli, the effect is immense and obvious.

To be sure, he is not a villain. He is the prime minister of a country whose constitution requires a monarch. More importantly, his party requires her conservative influence, which is lacking in the years since her husband’s death. Sher reveals all of the measures of these influences, and throws in a little arrogance for good measure. It’s a role I have enjoyed more with the passage of time.

Madden would go on to win an Oscar for directing in his very next film, Shakespeare in Love. He would also achieve modest financial success with many of his films until striking gold with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. His talent is in coaxing great performances out of good actors and classic performances from great actors. There are some beautiful scenes, but nothing that brings as much wonder as seeing the balance of power shift between Victoria, John, Benjamin and the people that surround them.

His portrayal of the people surrounding The Queen and Brown is more nuanced than one might expect, after years of Julian Fellowes productions come and gone. We are given subtle looks of concern and a smattering of ignorance. More importantly, we see John Brown overstep his bounds among the servants and the family, essentially presenting himself on a perch from which to be knocked off. When he does finally get a beating, two smart things happen. The director doesn’t make it obvious who may have done it and he also doesn’t play pity points for Brown. This only serves to make his relationship with the Queen less black and white. And that is good.

Billy-and-Connolly-and-Ju-006

Somewhat more obvious and less dramatic are the events of Victoria & Abdul. Historians and anglophiles alike were granted a repeat showing of the relationship between Brown and Queen Victoria. In life, it seemed an even more questionable relationship between what was possibly a charlatan and his target demographic: an older, forgotten person. Whether there is a certain truth to it, or it was the product of subtle historic racism is a question worth asking. It’s not a question that is asked as much here.

This time, we see an older, more defeated and seemingly lost Victoria, who confides to missing both her husband and John Smith terribly. This rings curious when one considers how distant she was toward the end of Smith’s life. Dench, however, is up to the task of making us relate to her misery. The opening shows the viewer an old, overweight woman who is being pushed through each day. The scene in the dining hall is a comic masterpiece, from the little boy running screaming his head off, to the adults running and screaming their heads off, to the Queen eating in a rapid pace compared to her guests right up to the point when she falls asleep mid meal.

Vic-3

The meeting and eventual friendship of the Queen and Abdul Karim (Fazal) seems a little rushed, compared to the straightforward negotiations between Smith and Victoria. The script appears to have its mind on other things, such as establishing the fact that Abdul is not a Hindu, but instead he is a peaceful Muslim. To the film’s credit, the scenes feel less political and more instructional.  There are no sideways jabs at Muslim phobia, it’s just plain old British panties in a bunch and the teasing of potential ribaldry.

This is also the place where the film differs from the more dramatic John Smith. It feels like Dench is the only actor that is caught up in a drama. Everyone around her seems to be in a comedy. This works, for the most part, if you’re not expecting Shakespeare. And I do mean Shakespearean comedy.

The scenery and images are sublime, and seeing Dench’s extension of her character works right up until the point where she gives her last speech, removing any of the doubt of her cognitive abilities.

It would have been more interesting if they’d left the question of her senility out there unanswered. And maybe if Abdul had some amount of depth to his character, maybe some question of his sincerity…

There’s none of that here, though. We get Fazal playing straight up and honest, to the point that his buddy and partner Mohammed (Akhtar) keeps thinking they have a chance to go home soon. This would lend itself to everyone being straight up. Having the Queen insist on calling him Munshi (teacher) removes any amount of character he might have accumulated in working an angle. Everything that happens makes him look the part of a puppet on a string. This is to the detriment of the story, but it works as comedy.

What doesn’t work as much is Izzard as the woeful Bertie. His character, as written, is even more incompetent than he was in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. Westhead’s Bertie takes a tongue lashing from Brown, but is otherwise rather unspectacular. In the new story, Izzard, Hall and Frears never pass up an opportunity to make Bertie appear to be the most incompetent of boobs.

The rest of the cast spends most of their time looking worried, offended or both. There is one particularly effective scene when Miss Phipps shows herself to be the lone voice of reason among the staff. For her trouble, she is granted the reward of giving the Queen an ultimatum that she had no part in deciding.

This is Dench’s show though, and she doesn’t waste her opportunity. Her understanding of the character is complete, to the point where we feel we literally know the Queen of England through the latter half of her life in watching these two films. The growth she shows from the first until the last scene feels authentic and weathered. Madden and Frears allow her the freedom to look completely uncomfortable with her lot in life.

It’s unclear whose decision it was to make it look like the Queen was completely washed from the sins of the oppression of the British Empire over their subjects. It’s a thin line to walk, making her so innocent, observant and wise at once. It doesn’t serve the story, but it definitely gives us the ability to see how brilliantly she can play it.

These films are not to be missed, if you want to see a master at her best. If forced to choose, I will take Connolly, Sher and Dench over Dench by ostensibly by herself.

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (**** out of *****)
Victoria & Abdul (*** out of *****)

Adams and Jefferson on Movies: The Exorcist and its true sequel, Legion (Part 2 – Extended Editions)

 

ExIII Legion

CoolPapaE:

First off, watching both stories at least twice in the space of a week, I can almost smell cigarette smoke wafting everywhere in my imagination. I know it was a different time, from 1990 and back, but seeing the different situations where cigarettes are presented became nauseating. Everyone had to just smell horrible. In part one, it’s funny seeing the priest Karras giving Chris (Burstyn) a cigarette. My priest as a kid in the 70’s, Father Donahoe, couldn’t wait to get out of service to light up. I never did see one of the other parishioners bum a cigarette off of him.

Karras Cig

Later there is a scene where Karras and Dyer swap a single cigarette back and forth as Father Dyer attempts to console him upon the loss of Karras’ mother. And that takes place in a small room over a bottle of Chivas Regal.

Exorcist III‘s Dr. Temple (Wilson) never has a cigarette out of his hand, no matter where he is in the hospital. In fact there is one scene when he leans over an ash tray and uses one cigarette to light the next. In his case, the cigarette is part of the character. It’s clear that Dr. Temples rather large ego has been damaged with his connection to the Gemini killer, and we see his obsession as a sign that he is indeed worse off than his patients when it comes to psychosis.

The cigarette usage through every version of the film make me ever so thankful they passed laws to prevent smoking in public buildings.

WeMissE:

Yes, the smoking was at times humorous, at other times repulsive.  I chuckled at the scene in the original film when Regan’s doctor comes out of the room where he has just administered one of those horrific, antediluvian tests, and has to stop and light a cigarette before he can share the results with Chris.  This poor woman is in anguish over her daughter’s condition, yet he can’t utter a single word until he gets that cancer stick crammed in his cake hole.  You are right that the constant chain-smoking was part of Dr. Temple’s character  in the sequel.  That unnatural, affected way that he always held the cigarette upright, almost level with his mouth, made me want to grab it from his hand and put it out in his eye.  Good God, that was annoying!

exIII temple.jpg

As far as the differences between the original and director’s cut.  In the case of the original film, I would say that the original theatrical release was already a nearly flawless film.   But the added scenes are nice.   In some cases, scenes that existed in the earlier version are just elongated.  The Iraq prologue with Father Merrin is fleshed out a bit more.  There is also an additional sequence with Regan being administered a medical test.  I like this scene because it adds to the progression of her condition, and reinforces the idea that the doctors were just following a diagnostic playbook, moving from test A to test B, and so on.   The so-called spider-walk scene, where Regan walks down the stairs in a position that seems to defy both anatomy and gravity, is definitely unsettling.

Perhaps the most interesting addition, and possible unnecessary one, is the conversation between Fathers Merrin and Karras on the stairs, after round one with the demon.  In the original film, they are just shown sitting in silence for a couple of seconds.  The extended version has Merrin offering his explanation for why the devil chose this girl, and what his intentions are.  Friedkin believed that the entire movie speaks this message.  Blatty, however, felt that the scene was integral to the story.   I do like the fact that when Merrin says the demon will make them doubt the existence of God, the camera is in close-up on Karras, who is experiencing those very doubts at that moment. But I tend to agree with Friedkin, that the priests sitting in silence is more powerful, and the message is not lost.   What do you think?

CoolPapaE:

Spot on. We know through the film that this is Karras’ test, from the moment that we see him with his aging mother. And what else is there to test a priest with than on his faith?

It is nice to have the spider-walk scene back, sans the wires that they lacked the ability to remove back in the original release. I also enjoy the padding to the Iraq scenes with Merrin. There are more subtle additions, like the dimming of the lights of Chris’s arrival home being accompanied by demonic imagery are also welcome.

The descent into madness for Regan is kicked off in a more intriguing way with the doctor revealing her first burst of profanity at the coaxing of Chris. The scene is a clever way of introducing the beginnings of the trauma to come.

The most incredible aspect to the updated release is the remastering of the sound and the film. There is a clarity I have never before experienced with the film, given that I never watched it in the theater. It adds a whole new dimension to the fear and agony.

Contrast this with the The Legion cut of Exorcist III which is a rough cut, to say the least. Most of the film’s additions are in the form of off-center, VHS dailies that are intriguing as much for what is missing as they are for what is there. First of all, where is Jason Miller? The haunted face of Father Karras is one of the key components that ties together this film to its predecessor. It’s Karras’ body and wounded soul that is paraded in front of us, with Dourif’s Gemini killer taking the reigns from within. In all the combination was off-putting in the best way.

The original cut seems to replace Miller completely with Dourif, making him the corpse of Karras as well putting him in the pictures of the young priest on the wall in the restaurant with Kinderman and Dyer. This would have damaged my experience of the film, to be sure. As good as Dourif’s performance is, I am glad that change was made, for whatever the reason.

Other scenes as added make the story more complete, like the explanation about the discovery of Brother Fain in Karras’ original coffin. It’s kind of strange to consider that no one bothered looking in the coffin before placing it in the ground, but I digress.

The ending is a strange compromise, too. I very much appreciate the complete removal of Nicol Williamson’s strange Merrin facsimile Father Morning. It was a strange, tacked on scene that served the purpose of satisfying the movie studio. It is replaced with the straight up murder of Dourif’s Karras by Kinderman. A little melodramatic, to be sure.

I do wish that they could have wedged in the “I Believe” scene, and maybe it was there in Karras’ original vision somewhere.

WeMissE:

Watching the so-called director’s cut of the sequel raised just as many questions as it answered.  In between the two versions, one could cull together the pieces of a pretty good film. But there is still something lacking.  You already touched on the absence of Jason Miller from the director’s cut.  If the film had been released that way, I would have been so confused.

I couldn’t agree more that the movie loses nothing with the elimination of Father Morning.  That character was so clearly created to remind viewers of Merrin in the first film.  And really, an exorcism is out-of-place here.  That is not the kind of confrontation that is going on here.   This is much more about Kinderman.   I suppose it would have been nice if Scott’s final speech could have been included in the director’s cut, but overall I prefer the more quiet, and sudden ending of the director’s cut to the bombastic original version, which again seemed an attempt in some ways to echo the original film.

So in the case of the original movie, we get an extended cut that doesn’t need to exist at all, but still doesn’t detract from the power of the movie.  In the case of the sequel, we get a director’s cut that absolutely needs to exist, and yet still leaves the viewer somewhat unfulfilled.

 

 

 

Golden Sombrero: To Live And Die In L.A. (*) is just awful

livediela

To Live and Die in L.A. – 1985

Director William Friedkin
Screenplay Friedkin & Gerald Petievich based on the novel by Petievich
Starring Willem Dafoe, William L. Peterson, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell, Jane Leeves, Jimmy Hart

“You ain’t my partner.  You ain’t even my fuckin’ friend!”

If they took every horrible thing about 80’s action movies and wrapped them into one package, you’d have To Live and Die in L.A.. Well, the soundtrack is good, at least. The cast is pretty good, too. They’re just not good at all in this film. Roger Ebert’s 4 star review helped to give the film a lift over the years, to the point that it has a 94% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anyone who watches the film from the perspective of a rational human being  would barely be able to justify not laughing hysterically, much less giving the film half of that respect.

What’s wrong with the film?

Let’s start with the script. The film centers around Secret Service Agents. At first you’d think their job is protecting President Reagan, since you hear him giving a speech as one of the agents, Richard Chance (Peterson) interrupts suicide bombing jihadist. The terrorist’s plot is further foiled by his partner, Greene (Hart) in a ridiculous display that should have ended up getting him killed. Instead, we have Greene telling Chance he’s getting too old for this shit as he rubs his shoulder afterward.

So, they’re protecting the president, right?

No, they’re tracking down Eric “Rick” Masters (Dafoe), a counterfeiter who is arrogantly displaying his prowess throughout the L.A. underworld…or maybe at the gym. Greene does one last stupid thing before he’s supposed to retire, and now Chance arrives just a few hours later with all the agents Greene should have had with him. Too late, his partner was shot in the face, with as cheesy a special effect as you could imagine in 1985. Really, though, there’s something wrong when a shotgun blast looks the same as a revolver blast did in 1971’s The French Connection.

We then find the agents breaking more laws and causing more damage than anyone they are trying to arrest. Part way through the film, one of the agents asks another why he doesn’t just go over to Masters’ house and shoot him. It would have caused a whole lot less grief for the characters, and the viewers.

Let’s talk about characters.

Chance takes the opportunity for revenge as a license to act like a complete asshole to just about everyone. His passion plays more like someone who’s beyond a coke binge. Peterson has charisma, but Friedkin pushes it to the side as often as he lets it shine. Several of his character’s decisions are downright stupid.

First, he lets his partner go off on his own for no justifiable reason. Next we see him busting a mule, Carl Cody (Turturro) in one of the most hilarious action scenes imaginable. First, he fires a shot past his target, then he inexplicably lets his guard down (not for the last time) as the guy knocks his gun away with a briefcase. As he’s cuffing him, a cop comes behind  and he completely turns his back on Cody while showing his credentials. Lucky for him Friedkin’s edit job made it to where Chance had already cuffed him before hand.

In Chance and his new partner Vukovich (Pankow), I think the French Connection director was going for an updated version of Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo. The result is painful to watch. Pankow, is clearly not a physical threat in any manner as Scheider’s Russo. In fact, he seems more like the kid brother who keeps asking you to wait as he tries to keep up. I spent more of the film thinking about his incredibly large forehead than I did enjoying his constant complaints to Chance about the laws they were breaking in pursuit of Masters.

As a duo, Chance and Vukovich could not be any less competent. They constantly take their eyes off the ball in crucial moments. Why? Mostly to provide a way to advance a chase, so they have something else to do. As officers of the law, I wouldn’t have these two watch a warehouse.

The plot is so obviously pointed towards having the two involved in a giant mess of a car chase, it’s incredibly funny to hear that they only netted $50k afterwords. The chase itself undoubtedly caused 20x that amount in damage. The car chase is the best thing in the film, until you realize it’s only so / so. Most of the time, Vukovich is moaning in the back seat. Did he get shot? No. He’s sad because someone they kidnapped got shot. It’s even dumber than that when you realize that the guy was a fellow agent.

Chance’s character feels like a complete mess. One can see moments where Peterson, in his second film after Michael Man’s Thief 4 years earlier, seems completely cognizant of his place in the scheme of things. The next thing you know, he’s forcing his informant / love interest to succumb to his “charms,” while eloquating about how good Quintin Dailey and Orlando Woolridge are compared to Michael Jordan. These days, we call that rape and bad basketball analysis.

Other highlights include figuring out the bellhop is a terrorist, confronting him and then offering to put his gun away so they can “talk.” Then there’s the time he ponders the thrill of cliff diving while driving against traffic.

Defoe is good and slimy here. He’s exactly what he should be, right up until he makes the fatal mistake of prolonging the final battle. Even at the time when I watched this as a teenager, he was the character I remembered most vividly. His character gets the benefit of being able to string two thoughts together without being sidetracked with guilt, a sudden realization or the desire to take his gun off the target. How he didn’t come out on top in this story is completely puzzling. Well, not really. The bad guy can’t really win, can he?

Speaking of the bad guy…William Friedkin might be the poster boy for how ego – among other things – can destroy a promising career. By the time he made this film, he had a steady stream of disasters in his wake. This was his 4th attempt at a comeback, after Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Cruising and Deal of the Century failed to resonate. It’s hard to figure out who else to blame for the failings of this movie than the guy sitting in the driver’s seat.

It’s clear when watching this film compared to The French Connection, there was a precipitous fall in execution, skill, just plain attention span with the man behind the camera. There are so many lapses in the story, the most consistent thing about it is the inconsistency. There is no one in this movie that I would purposely follow for more than 5 seconds, much less the 2 hour running time.

Which leads me to the question of why did I give it one star? The star is exclusively owed to the soundtrack, which is incredible, given the circumstances. The group Wang Chung, hired by Friedkin after he heard their previous album, wrote the majority of the music after watching a rough cut of the film. This serves it well, especially in the elongated opening sequence(s) and the chase scene.

The title song is the best song they ever produced in their long, and somewhat mediocre career. It adds more resonance and character than any of the characters deserve. I still don’t understand what the songwriters were seeing when they wrote such tender lines as:

I wonder why we waste our lives here
When we could run away to paradise

There is no sense that any of the people in this story would know the difference between wasting their lives and spending time in paradise. They seem to bring their own hell with them.

It’s pretty clear to me that Ebert was judging this film on its chase scene, his ignorance of counterfeiting and his seeming affinity for Friedkin, despite his flaws. His instinct for Peterson was a little bit higher in praise than I would give, but the guy has exhibited staying power. What everyone else was thinking when they praise this film, I have no clue. And I don’t want to waste any more of my life finding out.

(* out of *****)

 

THE UNINVITED (1944): “If a spirit comes back, it’s for some particular purpose.”

This guy covers parts of the cinematic world with an expertise few men have. Check out WeMissE’s take on the historic film, The Uninvited.

a year in the reel world

THE UNINVITED – 1944 – 99 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by Lewis Allen

Starring  Ray Milland (Roderick Fitzgerald), Ruth Hussey (Pamela Fitzgerald), Gail Russell (Stella Meredith), Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Alan Napier (Dr. Scott), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway).

Cinematography by Charles B. Lang

Music by Victor Young

Where to watch:  Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2013.

Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey.

(As I write this, it’s early October, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few “scary” movies.   I’m going to wander in the cemetery of forgotten films and see what I can dig up!)

In the rather lighthearted opening scenes of this movie, we are introduced to a man, a woman, and a dog.  The man and woman are siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, vacationing in an English coastal village.  Their dog chases a squirrel into a…

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The Big Sick (*****) is graceful, genuine and funny

Big Sick.jpgThe Big Sick – 2017

Director Michael Showalter
Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Starring Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam, Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kurt Braunohler, Shenaz Treasury, Vela Lovell, Zenobia Shroff

However much of the events that inspire a story like The Big Sick, the important thing is whether they are transpired in a manner that is true to how we live. There are so many events in this story that could have happened in any of our lives, it doesn’t really matter if the embellish a detail or two. What they don’t exaggerate is the importance of being a true person no matter where you fall in a story.

“Don’t you ever want to just be in a relationship so you can just finally relax?”

This is a line that is stated by a character who is in the film for perhaps five minutes. Her name is Khadija (Lovell), and she is one of many young women who’ve been set up for Kumail in an attempt to arrange marriage, as is Pakistani tradition. She is just one of the many beautiful women he has no interest in. She is, in that small space of celluloid, someone we all can identify with.

As Khadija says this, it’s clear that she’s just exhausted. She’s been through the ringer too many times to put on her best face. I looked over at my wife and she looked at me. We’ve were both there, many years ago.  Through everything we’ve seen as a couple, we’ve felt that relaxation. We never want to lose that feeling.

That there are several real male and female characters in The Big Sick is a tribute to its writers, the real life couple whose story is presented in the film. There are very few caricatures in the film. The ones that might qualify are so deftly handled, it just feels like a person we know and not a punchline waiting around to be had.

So many times when watching films about the life of a comedian you have several people who could fit in any cliché. There’s the buddy comedian, the nemesis comedian, the one that’s just not funny. In this case, these are friends who are all pretty funny. Even the one they say isn’t that funny.

The story is about the real life relationship of Emily and Kumail. They meet, become a couple, find out they’ve not been completely honest with each other and break up. Then she gets sick and he’s brought back into her life. Though she never has a say about it, since she’s in a coma.

As a couple, Emily and Kumail are cute without being precious. He’s got habits and a routine of bringing women into his life and “initiating” them with his favorite B movies. She’s clever enough to call him out on it. He’s genuine enough to admit it. She’s not mean, though. He has a one man show that’s not good. She asks questions that get him to think, but it doesn’t pound the point home with the audience. We know she has to be good for him. The change doesn’t need to be instantaneous.

The truths they are reluctant to share are two. First, Emily had been married before. Second, Kumail’s got a box of pictures of suitor women that his family had presented him with. This brings about a conversation on Kumail’s family. Emily still hadn’t met them after 6 months. Why? Well…

So the film kicks into a second gear, where Kumail carries a lot of the weight in navigating between his family and Emily’s parents. This handled with the same honesty the rest of the film has and it’s wonderful.

Kumail’s not the perfect Muslim. In fact, he’s about the same with his religion as I have occasionally felt in my travel through life.

When talking with Emily’s mother (brilliantly played by Hunter) she asks him how his parents met. He explains it was a blind date set up to a movie. She asks what movie they saw. That he didn’t know the movie his parents went to when they met says a lot about him. That Kumail realizes it and moves towards understanding shows even more. That this is a detail asked by a peripheral character says a lot about those who wrote it.

There are literally dozens of other avenues like this. Many things that resonate for people who’ve ever been disappointed by or risked disappointing their family. Compatibility is a thousand points that can match and one that hits awkwardly. Or maybe two…or a hundred.

It’s also being in a universe where you can’t imagine being together and somehow one thing just works.  It takes kindness, forgiveness and a willingness to listen. It’s pretty clear to me this film was created by people who know how to listen.

The performances, direction and writing are all exceptional. As much as one enjoys Hunter’s Beth, Shroff is excellent as Kumail’s mother, who is constantly interrupting dinner with “I wonder who that could be?” as she heads to open the front door to another possible suitor. Kher’s Azmat is a gentle and loving father, just like Romano’s Terry.  Kumail’s interactions with both are filled with such nuance, it feels right.

This feels like a Judd Apatow film. It’s got a few less rough edges, but it’s also not trying to be edgy. It’s just a story about a boy who meets a girl and everyone else they know is like everyone else we know.

Drive through still sucks, too.

(***** out of *****)

Gerald’s Game (****): We deserve the sunlight

geraldsgame

Gerald’s Game – 2017

Director Mike Flanagan
Screenplay by Jeff Howard and Flanagan based on the book by Stephen King
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel

Everything’s coming up Stephen King these days. The sheer volume of material he’s put out over the years make it surprising that we don’t see even more. The added benefit of his prodigious output is that we now have an entire universe of references from which to pull. The effect for Gerald’s Game is somewhat a boon, given the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The story is a simple one. Husband and wife Gerald and Jessie Burlingame (Greenwood and Gugino) head to a secluded cabin in Maine to spice things up in their marriage. For him, it requires objectification and role play. Jessie had something different in mind, like, say, talking. He no sooner gets the cuffs on her when she realizes their dichotomy and begs him to release her. He gets upset and an argument ensues, all while she’s still in the cuffs. During this argument, he falls dead on top of her.

The first hours are a mixture of disbelief and desperate begging for what she knows to be real to just…not be. Then we start to see the effects of her breaking down. Or maybe not.

The imaginings and reality of what she sees varies from scene to scene. Among the things that seem real, a starving dog that she’d earlier took pity on by feeding Kobe beef. For the most part, we come to accept the visions as aspects of her own breaking psyche. They are either trying to help, hurt or possibly eat away at her.

Eventually, we come to a deeper understanding of who Jessie is, why she is currently in chains and we start to understand what it might take for her to escape her bonds. If you think there is a metaphor in there, you may have seen this before.

Even if you have, Flanagan has such a gentle touch that it works. Those who have gone through similar experiences might be moved in Gugino’s performance, as well as Aurelia playing a younger Jessie. There is something in King’s study of character that works in marrying the adult to the child in experience.

There are many references to other works here, including Dolores Claiborne, The Dark Tower and Bag of Bones. I have read perhaps 5 King books in my life, so I am not an expert by any means, but I can say the references I understood made the experience a deeper one for me. Dolores Claiborne, in particular, resonates. The solar eclipse of 1963 in this story also occurs in that book. The stories are indeed bookends of the experiences of abuse detailed within.

The astounding thing is how much Flanagan gets out of the King material, considered one of his minor works by many critics of literature. To me, the scenes between Jessie and her abuser are deceptively well written and it shows how one can start digging a hole from which they reside for most of their life.

That’s where the eclipse and references to the sun come in. Such a simple metaphor shouldn’t work so well, but it does here, even better, perhaps, than it did in the movie version of Dolores Claiborne, which is itself an excellent film.

Flanagan has a vision that many of us may not see at first. He carried the hardcover version of this book around with him for years while pitching films. Most didn’t see a movie in it. He saw more than a movie. He saw something about how some of us spend our lives in the shadow of the sun. It’s an essential vision of the mask we sometimes put on our past.

There is more to the story, but it almost seems superfluous compared to the acting journey we’re taken on by the excellent Gugino and Greenwood. There is some blood and gore, but it’s handled in a manner that makes it shocking because it’s not gratuitous. If you have never questioned your past, this is a worthy film to watch.

(**** out of *****)

IT (*****) is a triumph of skill and understanding

IT-2017-Movie-Poster

IT – 2017

Director Andy Muschietti
Screenplay by  Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman based on the novel by Stephen King
Starring  Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague

There is a sweet moment midway through IT when the still forming “Losers” take a dive into a quarry for an afternoon swim. There is only one girl, Beverly (Lillis) in the group. She has a crush forming with Bill (Lieberher). Meanwhile, the chubby, thoughtful Ben (Taylor) has unrequited feelings for Beverly. Everyone is treading water with their heads halfway above the surface. Beverly’s innocently beautiful stare hits a slightly aloof Bill. Just to the side, the camera pans to Ben, who stares even more beautifully and innocently at Beverly. The kids are too young in 1989 to have anything but love to put out towards each other, even if the world has shown them some amount of brutality. As important, its obvious that the person holding the camera loves these kids, and what they represent to everyone experiencing this film. This is the point that won me over in IT.

The people who worked on IT, in every version of this film on its path to theaters understand the importance of the fact that all of the film’s viewers were all young at one point. To say that they understand the power of Stephen King’s ability to write about youth at least as well as Rob Reiner (Stand By Me) is cutting short how well they nailed this feeling. It’s amazing that they were able to stitch together a cohesive story, much less one of the best in a great year for movies.

Having watched the mini-series last weekend in preparation, my expectations were minimal. The first attempt at the story feels like agony when Tim Curry is not onscreen. The acting for the kids half of the story is passable, but the adult characters are some kind of torture. To be fair, even the source material feels this way. King’s kids have always felt more relatable than his grown up characters. Thankfully, the filmmakers gave themselves the gift of being able to establish the story with these stronger characters as we don’t get a whiff of the adults in the second half of the novel.

Even more, the story is streamlined to maximize the effectiveness on what it is preying on the children. IT is much better defined on its own terms. The effect is helped by making more subtle, realistic and separate the effect of the adults on their kids in the town of Derry, Maine.

For the few out there who don’t know, IT is represented most often in the guise of a clown, named Pennywise. Pennywise is not IT’s only form. There are changes from child to child, depending on what it is that makes them the most scared. Fear is an important factor in the disappearing of the children in this town, as we discover in the abduction and death of George Denbrough. He’s definitely dead, but he’s lured towards that gruesome end in such a deliberate way as to infer there’s something larger going on. George’s brother, Bill, has the same idea. In the months following his brother’s death, Bill has done some investigating. He knows something bigger is going on, as more and more kids are disappearing.

As school lets out and summer begins, he comes across more kids who have had similar but not identical experiences. These kids are given abbreviated backstories, but each of the most important aspects are covered. The Bowers gang works as a brutally scary force to push them together in an organic way. As their bond forms, they share their fears and begin to investigate them.

The acting for each of the kids is pretty much spot on. Lieberher has a sensitive nature that absorbs feeling and pushes it back out into the world in the form of empathy. Lillis carries the lonely role of idealized young girl with a grace and bravery worthy of the character. Given that she is almost an exact miniature of Amy Adams, she has the skill to match that belies her age.

As Ben, Taylor gives the sweetest performance. His moments resonate with anyone who didn’t look the way they wanted to as a child, but found a way to push forward through the disappointment. Wolfhard is excellent at showing the natural comic ability (note, I didn’t say “chops”) of Richie Tozier. The character is head and shoulders above the novelization. His is a face we’re seeing a lot of lately. And with the incredible Stranger Things about to embark on its second season, we’re bound to see him a lot more.

As Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Skarsgård succeeds in wresting the mantel of most effectively creepy clown away from Curry. At the very least, it’s a draw. He is a full-fledged, cohesive character with actual motives and a consistency that the nature of the mini-series did not allow the first time. There is a tricky, sweet cajoling that he employs that is effective as it is creepy. His clown draws you in before pouncing. There is a chance that his Pennywise could trick me, while there’s no way in hell I would give Curry’s the time of day. I don’t ever think I will hear the word “popcorn” the same way again.

Most of the film’s success I have to give to the collaboration of Muschietti and the writers Palmer, Fukunaga and Dauberman. It’s no accident that the feelings of winsome and terrible youth ring true. Each of the contributors have a track record that shows they have the ability to create authentic characters that possess authentic emotions. This helps when it comes to scaring the hell out of someone. You need to feel like there are real people to ever get a sense that the stakes are real.

The camera work is ethereal, even for standard shots. The chase scene with Ben is given a grandeur and desperation that would be absent were it not for the overhead shot of his running down the river in sheer terror. You can’t see his face, but the scenery threatens to reveal him to his pursuers. Terror like this is unexpected in a typical film.

This is definitely in the top 10 of Stephen King stories put in front of a camera. It may even be top 5. Stand By Me, Misery, Shawshank Redemption and maybe Dolores Claiborne are better than this. Some may argue The Shining, but not even King likes the Kubrick version that much.

The people making this movie love the art of making film. There is no ham handed jokes that play out awkwardly. Even if some of the scares are telegraphed, some very important ones take you unaware. This is a movie for people who don’t require spoon-feeding. A prominent example happens when Eddie (Grazer) has his cast signed by one of his schoolmates who is not exactly a friend. The joke doesn’t materialize until several minutes later, wordlessly, as the rest of his friends discuss something entirely different.

This should be on everyone’s list of top films, even in this banner year for movies. IT is a triumph of skill and understanding what it is to move human beings.

(***** out of *****)

 

Adams and Jefferson on Vertigo and Aliens in 70mm

AdamsJefferson

CoolPapaE:

The 70mm film Festival at Seattle’s Cinerama is almost a moot point by now. So many theaters offer a premium movie experience Cinemark’s XD is the one closest to my house, it’s hard to imagine driving to Seattle to see it there would be much better than what I could get within 3 miles.  Still, the big reissues don’t make their way to the suburbs often, so when WeMissE said we had an opportunity to see one of our favorite Hitchcock films along with another of our favorite films in the Alien franchise, I couldn’t pass it up.

When it comes to Hitchcock, I offer not much in the way of expertise, certainly not as much as WME, the author of the Alfred Hitch-Blog. I doubt any one of my friends or acquantances are as invested in the Xenomorphs as CPE. So I figured we compliment each other enough to give it our best back and forth.

Vertigo70mm

To start, let’s go to the nearly 60 year old Jimmy Stewart classic performance as John “Scottie” Ferguson. Watching this movie, I became aware of many things. Primary among these: I don’t know if anyone could play the role of a man as completely as James Stewart. I can’t say I have ever seen any male actor express the curiosity, bravery and vulnerability so completely. My appreciation for his skill has never been higher. The big screen allows us the rare opportunity to view nuance that we kind of assumed, based on his voice and mannerisms. Seeing him in this detail brought out something more than the small screen ever afforded us before. What do you think?

WeMissE:  

Yes, seeing Jimmy Stewart on the big screen was a revelation.  I’ve seen this movie before at least 5 times, so I felt like I knew it pretty well.  But seeing Stewart’s face in close up on that big Cinerama screen showed me things I’d never seen before.  There is always something going on behind those bright blue eyes of his.  You can see his thought process, as his character goes from interest, to love, to loss, to obsession, to anger.    For anyone who thinks of Stewart as a lightweight, this movie is exhibit A to refute that. Funnily enough, Hitchcock said years after the movie’s release that maybe one of the reasons Vertigo didn’t perform better at the box office was because Stewart was too old for the part.   I think Hitch was dead wrong on that count.  This role needed a seasoned actor, because Ferguson is someone who has been around the block a few times, which makes the final act all the more profound.  And I agree, I don’t think any other actor could have given the shadings to the character that Stewart does.

How about Kim Novak?   Specifically seeing her on the big screen.  Novak as Madeline, in the first half of the film, is exquisitely beautiful.  She as an almost other-worldly beauty, particularly in a couple of scenes.  What do you think about Novak?

Vertigo bed

CoolPapaE: 

So many things came to mind when seeing Novak’s Madeline waking topless, strategically covered after Scottie rescues her from beneath the Golden State Bridge. First of all, it’s one of the most overtly sexual scenes I have seen from that era. The feeling that Stewart is in a bedroom with what we know of as a married woman feels wrong. That feeling of dread grows slowly, to the point where we are in a near frenzy by the time he kisses her for the first time. We know this is all horribly indecent. We know it has to happen. Hitchcock plays the audience beautifully. Never before did this scene or those after it move me, even though I have seen it easily a half dozen times.

That is the power of Hitchcock on the big screen for me. The overly descriptive eyes of Stewart exploring every inch of Madeline. We become just as obsessed as Ferguson, to the point where we too are ignorant of the very pretty Bel Geddes in our quest to complete the journey with Scottie. We have to play this out .

By the time we get to the scene with Judy coming out of the green haze, it makes complete sense to us, even though we’ve made it through some pretty silly and dated dialogue (“Judy, please, it can’t matter to you.”) by that point. Hitchcock uses every inch of the very large frame to capture us in his ever shrinking world. It’s incredible how he can do this, but it’s often his casting of Novak isn’t any kind of mistake.

Kim’s frame is very statuesque and her acting is never sharper than it is here. She is completely a captive to her time. Manipulated by one man (Bailey’s Elster) and then another. She completely commands the screen early on with a helpless Scottie, only to be commanded by him after the death of Elster’s wife. It’s a completely mesmerizing experience on the big screen. One I completely dismissed up to now.

vertigo-greenbed

Is it possible for us to be cheated so badly of Hitchcock’s power by not seeing all of his films the way he intended for us to see them?

WeMissE:

Very insightful points about Kim Novak.  Interestingly, Vera Miles was originally cast in the role of Madeline/Judy.  She became pregnant, and the film was locked into a tight shooting schedule because Jimmy Stewart was already committed to another project after this.  Hitchcock was furious with Miles, and had to find a replacement in relatively short order, ultimately settling on Kim Novak.  As fine an actress as Vera Miles can be (I’m thinking of The Searchers, and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and Psycho) she has a wholesomeness that would not have worked at all for this role.   Her pregnancy was a blessing from the movie gods, because Novak gives a career-defining performance.   I would go so far to say that she is the ultimate Hitchcock blonde, the perfect idealization of what he was constantly trying to portray with his leading ladies.

To answer your question, there is something to be said for seeing a movie like this on a big screen, as the director originally intended.  This is the second Hitchcock movie I’ve seen on the big screen, the other being North by Northwest.  While I was impressed with that one in the theater, the difference was not as profound as in this case.  I think the subtle psychological complexities of Vertigo can be missed on a small screen.  I am sure that seeing it in a theater has altered my perceptions, and will affect future viewings.  And I definitely have a short list of other Hitchcock movies that I think would benefit from a big screen viewing.

One of Hitchcock’s great strengths, on his best films, was recognizing and surrounding himself with an incredibly talented team of filmmakers.   This film basically features the Hitchcock all-stars:  Bernard Herrmann as composer, Edith Head as costume designer, Saul Bass as title designer, Bob Burks as cinematographer.    How important do you think it was for Hitchcock’s overall vision to have such a great team?  How much do their individual talents contribute to the vision of the movie as a whole?  Is Hitchcock ultimately the auteur, or is there more than one hand guiding the creative output?

CoolPapaE: 

There can be no question of the combination of skill, talent and drive of which Alfred Hitchcock is comprised. I don’t even think I am qualified to assess exactly how much this combination was pollinated or did the pollinating.

Indeed, there is an incredible wealth of talent for this film, and this is not the only film that he made that approached this amount, even if they didn’t all work with him every time. What’s more amazing is that the film was such a complete non-event at the time of its release. Barely making its money back and significantly under-performing  many of Hitchcock’s other releases. It did receive two Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Sound.

From a Hitchcock layman’s point of view, I have to say the film is incredibly moving, in spite – no maybe because of its unusual plot, its incredible attention to detail and its spiraling, obsessive soundtrack. These things grab your attention when you are watching on a huge screen and the true vision of a genius takes a hold of the crowd and doesn’t let you go. If I were more a fan of his popular work, would I have enjoyed this as much?

Which is to say, how much does what one expects affect their enjoyment of what they see?

WeMissE:

I think expectations can definitely impact enjoyment.  I believe this is precisely why this movie was not a bigger hit upon its release. It certainly did not bomb;  it made around $7 million upon its initial release.  But compare that to the $36 million that Rear Window had made just four years previously.  Audiences had come to expect certain things from a “Hitchcock movie.”   And this movie subverted those expectations. Hitchcock was always very conscious of what the audience was seeing, and how they would interpret his images.  But in this case, he was self-indulgent;  he made the film he wanted to make.  Audiences were expecting the thrills, but they also wanted to see some some typical Hitchcockian humor, and a happy ending for the romantic leads.  But these elements are lacking here.  A 1958 audience was not ready for these dark themes.

One final note, while Hitchcock often called Shadow of a Doubt his own personal favorite of his own films, he described Vertigo as his most personal.  Many critics have taken this to mean that he saw himself in Scotty Ferguson.  Hitchcock took actresses, molded and shaped them, told them what to wear, how to walk and talk, made them into idealized versions of themselves, and then discarded them when the filming was complete.  I’m not sure if I believe this was a conscious choice, but I do think this movie is one of the most visually haunting films I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

CoolPapaE:

Speaking of haunting, Aliens is one of the few sequels that actually expands on the first film. Just like Empire Strikes Back, this sequel is seen by many as the best in the series. Indeed, there likely would not be a “series” continuing to present day were it not for this powerful film. This is one of only two films that I had not seen on the big screen and I am so happy I was able to partake on this special adaptation, given that I don’t think it was originally intended at 70 mm. Even so, the conversion process is magnificently rendered, except for a few uneven spots in the third act.

Everyone knows the story by now, but the story we all know is not the version that was originally released, or even re-released. Primarily what we miss this time is some implied plot points (Hadley’s Hope being sent to the derelict ship by Burke is spelled out and a little more set up in the barricade being two). The biggest thing that we miss with this version is finding out that Ripley had a daughter. This is pretty important to the future of the franchise as well as the movie itself. Having that cut out just takes some of the resonance from the story, not to mention her Oscar worthy performance.

How does this affect the film in 70mm? For me it brings more focus on the gifts inherent in Cameron’s pure vision. The press for the film has emphasized the militaristic imagery. We have space marines heading into the fight with much gusto and little forethought. The best thing about this take is really how quickly those who weren’t “listening” to Ripley’s warnings are dispensed with and we’re really just back to basics in record time. Still, it’s great to see all of that macho shit in a big screen. It makes the fall seem that much more drastic.

What stood out for you, WeMissE?

WeMissE:

The one thing that really stood out to me was the close-ups.  Cameron gives Sigourney Weaver lots of close-ups, and you really feel the impact on the big screen.  Also I was reminded how great Bill Paxton’s performance is.  Of course, its all the more poignant now that he has left us prematurely.

ripleytilt

I also thought, as I watched this on the big screen, that James Cameron had a very specific visual aesthetic in the 80’s and early 90’s.   Ignoring his last two mammoth films, whose box office was exceeded only by Cameron’s ego, and focusing on the films from Terminator through True Lies, he has a distinct style and sure-handedness in his direction.  I’m feeling like I haven’t given him enough credit.  My question to you is:  does Cameron get his due as a director?  Was he never considered a serious director because he made nothing but Sci-Fi and action prior to Titanic?  Or has he lost points in the ensuing years?

CoolPapaE:

There has never been another director like Cameron. He’s not one to follow anyone’s path or expectations. I have absolutely no qualms with his choices, even if his last few movies have been bigger spectacle and less story.  To the point when he directed Aliens, he had less power than he ever would again. It took exactly two releases to change this forever. You have to admire what he has done, and I look forward to what he does in the future, Avatar sequels or not.

We see his power with actors in Aliens. He takes a bunch of faces you’ve never been aware of previously and he makes them permanent fixtures in the national psyche. I have been a huge fan Henriksen and Biehn since this film. Paxton, what more can I say but he’s got his own category in this blog. Say what you want about Cameron’s technical prowess, it’s the fact that his actors keep coming back to work with him that makes me realize his skill with them is something special.

bishop-stare

As for the closeups, yes, this film has perhaps the best closeups I have ever seen. From Bishop’s intensely ambiguous stare to the look between Vasquez and Gorman’s look before they meet their end and of course Ripley’s subtle tilt of her head when she makes up her mind in the last act, Cameron knows the power of adding one’s face into the puzzle to be solved.

Cameron is not the perfect director, but he is certainly one of the best we’ve ever seen. His optics have consistently improved with every film and his stories, while not perfect, are always HIS stories. His movement from the Abyss, through T2, then Titanic and finally Avatar have constantly pushed movie making technology forward. 70mm shows the technical precision in the most intricate practical effects of the time. One can’t tell where Winston ends and Cameron’s lens begins. For me, he’s beyond Spielberg in this realm and at least on par with Lucas.

Am I pushing the comparison too far?

WeMissE:

No, I think that is an apt comparison.  Hell, Lucas has only directed six movies.  Just the fact that he is the creator of the most popular film franchise of all time elevates him to an almost mythic status.  And the prequels were a perfect illustration of the limitations of digital trickery.  And Spielberg is far more prolific than Cameron, but he tends to follow every good movie with two or three throwaways.  I hadn’t really thought about it until I read the way you put it, but Cameron really has just kept slowly climbing that mountain, doing what he wants to do, and improving the medium.

Nice observation about Cameron’s use of actors, too.  I guess that is one thing this movie shares with its predecessor.  Every character is a genuine person, not a caricature.  The soldiers have a genuine camaraderie; we can feel their backstory without even needing to hear it.   This is a quality sorely lacking in the more recent entries in this franchise.  But this one improves upon the original.

Just as was the case with Vertigo, I left Cinerama that night with a deeper appreciation for a movie that I thought I knew inside and out.   Some movies really deserve to be seen on a screen as big as the directors’ ambitions.

Any final thoughts, CoolPapaE?

CoolPapaE

One thing that had amazingly never occurred to me is about that the drop ship that had the Alien aboard (“Spunkmeyer?“). All this time, after at least 30 viewings, I never could understand how an Alien had made it aboard when it seemed the ship had only dropped for a second at the beginning. Seeing this on such a huge screen made it clear to me that this was not the only time the ship dropped. After they get to the Med Lab and just as Bishop is getting set up, we see him pushing boxes on a wheel cart in the background:

aliens-spunkmeyer

All this time, I thought I had caught Cameron on a technical detail. Nope, he just was not obvious and transparent with every move.

Yes, this film has elevated the Alien franchise to a height and mythology that it hasn’t even approached since. Sure, Ridley seemed to be onto something when he posted what looked to be the Alien Queen on a mural in Prometheus. Now with the foolishness in Alien Covenant seems to have washed it all away though. It’s like Ridley is the only one in the universe that thinks a robot created the Xenomorph. What a waste.

It was a great night and a wonderful experience. It indeed broadened my appreciation and changed my vantage on two remarkable films. I can’t wait to do it next year.

 

Mississippi Grind (****1/2) – Wind it out

mississippi-grind_posterMississippi Grind – 2016

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert, James Toback

“How much do you owe?”

“A lot.”

“To who?”

“Everyone.”

This is the rallying cry that brings a burgeoning friendship between Gerry and Curtis to the decision of throwing their lots together and bringing their trains of misery on a trip towards glory.

The fact that they are trapped in a miserable existence doesn’t hinder the process of decision-making. In fact, it informs their decisions. They didn’t end up at the same table by accident. They didn’t get there by providence, either. Though you’d be hard pressed to convince them of that. Each is caught in the circular existence of thinking the next big win is on the horizon. Meanwhile, they try to keep the collection of their losses from being the sunset of their chance.

Until then, there’s always a chance.

There is no one better at playing the hard luck loser than Mendelsohn. His power is in having his power steadily and constantly eroded. His Gerry is in a losing battle with dignity. He’s got losses piling up. He has not seen his child for several years. In fact, he has no idea that his ex-wife remarried. He does know she still keeps a stash of cash in the purple socks in her dresser, though. He has no clue what to do with a winning hand except to bet it all on the next loser.

There are 100 ways to define misery, and Mendelsohn has mastered 99 of them. If one wanted to watch the one film that defined his career, this could be it. He’s done it so well for so long. There’s something to say about having some range in your career. There is something else about finding what you’re good at and becoming a master.

Amazingly, the usually self-assured Reynolds finds the last one in this film. Curtis is a few miles short of where Gerry is on this journey towards misery, but he’s carrying his own fatal flaw. He’s got more going for him than Gerry, but it doesn’t stop him from picking up a few of his friends flaws. It’s kind of like a drug. He says he doesn’t care about winning. To watch him, you’d have to believe he’s telling the truth. He really is in it for the journey, as much as anything.

It’s wonderful watching how much these two feed off each other. What vibes they pick up, the amazing details they remember. They so desire to push their way to the next game, anything they can use to get them there is in play. Boden and Fleck are adept and bringing out the details in pictures that no amount of words could accurately describe.

The last act of the film brings everything where it needs to be. Gambling films often find their moral there. This is where they teach us the lesson that gambling doesn’t pay off. Thankfully, Boden and Fleck take the cliché and turn it on the viewer. Where it ends up and what we learn is for us to develop. They’ve just given us a little more research to inform our own decisions.

(***** out of *****)