Thursday, 8 December 2016

Have you ever retired a human by mistake?

Blade Runner
(1982)

(SPOILERS) There seems to be an increasing temperament of late that it’s okay not to like Blade Runner really all that much. Which is fine; no motion picture cow should be taken as sacrosanct. Not even Citizen Kane. I can’t say I remotely agree, though. Blade Runner’s a rare picture that only improves with each viewing, even given the best attempts of Sir Ridders to undermine its ambiguities and greatest strengths. But that’s the philosophical subtext, never Scott’s strongest suit, and given the rest of his filmography, it’s almost as if he tripped into it here. Where Blade Runner truly excels, exhibiting its director’s talents par excellence, is in world-building. This is an environment beyond any he has created; the uber-influential used future is a masterpiece of texture and ambience, a profoundly melancholy dystopia that nevertheless warmly embraces the viewer in its toxic arms.


And that’s principally because a fundamental part of what the picture is, every bit as much as the visuals, is the music. Vangelis’ score is entirely transportive, entirely mood-setting. It’s impossible to think of the film and not think of its soundtrack. And it’s like nothing else, standing apart from even the rest of the composer’s catalogue. From the repeated intonation of the projected geisha billboard to the sublime Memories of Green, it’s an amazing, aurally immersive experience that invests one in the cinematic landscape like no other (except, maybe, on a different level, Morricone’s contributions to Leone’s spaghetti westerns). It may well be that not going with Vangelis for the sequel is the right move (we could end up, like The Force Awakens re John Williams, with a pale imitation of past glories), but Jóhann Jóhannson has some enormous shoes to fill.


Bryant: I’ve got four skin jobs walking the streets. I need the old Blade Runner. I need your magic.

So much has been written about Blade Runner, I thought I’d take it as read that the sum of its parts represents a work of unalloyed genius and concentrate on a few areas I consider worthy of comment, be they ongoing areas of debate or slight tarnishes to an otherwise spotless copybook (for what movie is perfect?) One of these is: just how good a Blade Runner is Rick Deckard?


I mean, apart from it being entirely intentional to portray him as unheroic (he kills two replicants, but they’re both women, and in neither case is the depiction celebratory – he shoots Zora in the back, even if she goes down in a tragically beautiful slow motion crash, and Pris is left thrashing about like a wounded animal – and Batty very pointedly comments “Proud of yourself, little man?” There’s nothing seductive about the violence in Blade Runner, in an imitative sense; only Deckard’s gun is cool, and he doesn’t do anything cool with it).


Even buying that Deckard is out of the loop, it’s baffling that he’d be entirely clueless about the Nexus 6, that it’s a model given memories, and which is apparently significantly different in appearance to the average skin job (which makes you wonder how difficult it mustn’t have been to detect them previously). He generally appears to be remarkably ill-informed about the job he’s the best there is at. The philosophical end of the spectrum seems entirely foreign to him (“How can it not know what it is?”), which again suggests that before these Nexus 6s came along his job was fairly meat and potatoes. He doesn’t seem to have met Tyrell before (you’d have thought the industry would take briefings from those who policed its faulty hardware).


We’re told in the introductory text that, following the Nexus 6 mutiny, replicants were declared illegal on Earth; does Deckard know this (in which case, why doesn’t he know about the Nexus 6s?) and how does it match up with his saying that replicants coming to Earth is unusual (if this is pre-their being banned, does it mean that off-world replicants wouldn’t want to come there, so the Blade Runners were only investigating those that were Earth-bound? Even though the introduction specifically states they were used off world?) And post banning, do non-Deckard Blade Runners mostly sit around twiddling their thumbs?


Part of the problem is the feeling Ford correctly identified when he said Deckard was a detective who didn’t do any detecting (hence the inclusion of the scales scene, and the photo analysis; I’ve seen this picture loads of times, and I’m still never quite able to follow the photo magnification moves into the mirror image. It seems like clever detective work, so I’m forced to accept it). He’s encumbered with being a receptacle for exposition he should be aware of ("Memories! You're talking about memories!"). When he asks Rachel if the Tyrell owl is a fake, her “Of course it is” only really needed a “you twat” at the end. Whether or not he’s just playing dumb, he certainly comes across that way at times.


Rick Deckard: Say kiss me.

But it’s also an interesting, interior Ford performance, inexpressive and unsympathetic; you can see why the suits got nervous and Scott agreed to add the voice over, because Deckard goes no way towards meeting the audience halfway. At the centre of the picture is a romance that operates in an entirely functional manner. There’s no chemistry between Ford and Sean Young, and no real emotional bond between their characters.


The pivotal scene of “rough love” is admitted by all concerned to have been misjudged, where Deckard gives the woman what she doesn’t know she wants, forcibly (alternatively, and thematically, it might be seen to work; he treats the replicant like everyone else treats replicants, as a subordinate, a slave, to be done with whatever he so wishes, to behave like a pleasure model, à la Pris). Michael Deely suggested it had lost something in the edit, and Scott copped to the harshness in the way it was pushed probably being his fault, commenting that it was one of the least successful scenes, and that more words were needed. Katherine Haber said it “lacked tenderness” and didn’t come out the way it was meant to. Hampton Fancher observed that “Harrison turned it mean”, and he certainly has a bestial look on his face during the scene that says the opposite to Vangelis’ accompaniment.


I always felt Young was the picture’s weak spot, in a similar manner to Kim Greist in Brazil. Now I’m not so sure. I think it’s more a problem of Rachel being an entirely functional plot point; she doesn’t exist in her own right, unlike the other replicants. He reason to be is to reflect off Deckard. So, while Scott composes her and comports her stunningly, there’s no real emotional component, and no real insight into why either she or Deckard are supposed to feel what they feel towards each other.


Even this is justified to some extent by what is regarded as the picture’s greatest strength, that the nominal human relationship is far less resonant that the ones between the replicants, in particular Roy’s feelings for Pris. The parallel unfolding and insights regarding these two at JF Sebastian’s digs are affecting and involving in a way Deckard and Rachel simply aren’t, complete with the weird, skewed, domestic scenes between the trio, calculatedly manipulating the tragic Sebastian, but not in an entirely dispassionate manner.


And Hauer is just magnificent, in the way he holds himself, in the pauses and inflections (Scott called him naturally theatrical, in a positive way, and he’s quite right), the lingering dialogue; it’s this kind of element, the willingness to present non-naturalism in a natural way, that Scott has very much lost.


Roy Batty: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.

Of course, Batty and Pris are slaves who know they’re slaves; Deckard isn’t even aware of his inner processes. Whether or not he’s a replicant, he’s entirely a prisoner of his milieu (“If you’re not cop, you’re little people”). Even Tyrell is a slave, at least in the unfilmed conception of his character, where Batty kills his replicant, as seen, and then travels to the top of the building to find the real corpse of his designer in a sarcophagus (“It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker”). The only free agent is enterprise itself (“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell”, Tyrell informs Deckard).


Rachel: Did you ever take the test yourself?

But the abiding point about Deckard’s is he/isn’t he a replicant status is one that Scott has rather beaten into the ground with his active insistence on a definite (and affirmative) answer. As Hampton Fancher commented in the Dangerous Days making of documentary “I don’t think anything should show Deckard’s a replicant. If you think that, you’re already wrong. It’s just a question mark is what’s interesting” Which is exactly it.


The intimations from Villeneuve that this aspect will be honoured, and Fancher being the writer of the screenplay, at least suggested Blade Runner 2049 won’t get stuck on elucidating this point in tiresomely Scott-like fashion (see him botching the space jockey in Prometheus for further evidence). But we’ll have to see. Sequels often talk a good talk and fail to deliver.


Aspects like Deckard’s glowing red eyes or deleted dialogue (“You’ve done a man’s job sir. But are you sure you are a man?”), and even the all-important unicorn addition run the danger of incrementally underlining the point too much. I’ve always been sceptical about the need for the unicorn, even though the Gaf’s origami is meaningless without it; it strays into leading by the nose.


Indeed, I admire the passion with which Frank Darabont holds forth his own take, that Deckard’s dream is merely a result of “thinking about her implanted memories”, which is very much extra-diegetic, but has its own acceptable logic. I agree with Fancher, that the idea should be there, but it should equally have no definite answer. Scott’s “You don’t get it, you’re a moron” summation is exactly why he’s become such a banal filmmaker since… well, it started when Legend went belly-up, sadly (Sebastian's toys display a level of incidental playfulness the director just can't replicate when he goes all out for humorous characters in his next movie).


Darabont over-states his case, but winningly so, and I think he’s absolutely spot-on when he says “The story really only works if Deckard is human. The entire theme, which is very sophisticated, unravels”; it’s a journey of a man rediscovering his humanity, and it takes those who are not human to show him. Sure, have the ambiguity, but that’s intellectual ambiguity. The emotional resonance is divested from the film if his status is black-and-white. As Peoples says, though, the picture isn’t answering the question, it’s asking it; it’s only the blundering Sir Ridders who’s divesting it of mystique (as he is also doing to his Alien origins).


I also revisited the original (well the original international) cut on this occasion of watching The Final Cut, something I hadn’t done in a quarter of a century; I think the last time was probably a cinema screening (the first time I’d seen it projected) about a year before I saw the then new “Director’s” cut on the big screen. I have to admit, the DC never seemed like a night-and-day thing, the way all the reviews raved about it at the time. I was far more wowed by being able to get the proper soundtrack, having previously had to make do with a pale imitation.


And, looking at the deleted scenes, unless there’s a whole raft of stuff that didn’t end up on the DVD release, there isn’t really that much thematic content that’s missing from the picture. Alternate versions of scenes with extraneous and unnecessary dialogue, but only a few scenes that add real value. And even with those, one can see why they were excised, as they pin down details where a sense of it all is more appropriate. 


So, the visits to Holden are interesting, but being told the replicants “aren’t just a bunch of muscle miners any more, they’re no different to your or me” further undermines the case of Deckard being particularly good at his job; if the replicants were that easy to spot, presumably anyone could do it. The scene where Bryant and Gaffe are observing the second Deckard-Holden conversation is my favourite though, with Gaffe giving the answers his boss wants to hear (“I spit on metaphysics, sir”), even though that too is ultimately reinforcing a point that can be readily discerned (the replicants are looking for God).


Deckard: Replicants weren’t supposed to have feelings. Neither were Blade Runners. What the hell was happening to me?

I never thought the original voiceover was something awful, probably because it was the only version I knew (Del Toro – “I love that voiceover!”) Even now, revisiting it, I don’t find it that intrusive (on the other hand, watching some of the deleted scenes, it becomes a barrage of unnecessary, indigestible over-enunciation). It isn’t like there isn’t clunky dialogue in the movie itself (“Talk about beauty and the beast. She’s both” is a line that could easily have come courtesy of the writer of the narration). I mean, it’s ripe, sure, but there isn’t even that much of it.


It’s only the ending, as Darabont attests, that grates horribly, from the forehead slapping obviousness of “I don’t know why he saved my life” to the logical, thematic and visual atrocity that is the final, beautiful unsullied landscape of The Shining footage, and the comfort blanket of Rachel having no termination date (“I didn’t know how long we’d have together. Who does?”) If anything, the version of the voiceover Scott had in the pipe was even worse (“I watched him die all night It was a long, slow thing. He never whimpered, he never quit…”)


Now, though, I’m so familiar with the Director’s and Final Cuts that it does seem entirely unnecessary. Divested of it, the world and its themes are allowed to breathe, as is the aural depth. It’s actually understandable, given the admissions of repeat viewings being necessary to really appreciate the merits of the picture, that its reception was frosty. That said, you had The Film Year Book calling it an “intriguing mix of high tech and low pulp” and recognising its awards merit even if came up short (BAFTAs aside). Pauline Kael’s review recognised its visual prowess, but felt it fell short elsewhere (which is much as Darabont voiced, although he caveats that it was around the third time he saw it that its depths were revealed; the brilliance of the scale disguised what it did with the story).


You actually can’t argue with Kael’s criticisms of Scott’s approach (or indeed logic holes, such as why Leon needs a Voight Kampf test if visual records of him are held), but it would be interesting to learn if she modified her opinion on repeat viewing, if she ever watched it again. I love her take on Hauer, though (“a shoo-in for this year’s Klaus Kinski Scenery-Chewing Award”), even if I entirely disagree that his “gaga performance” is all wrong. But Kael, in succinctly summing up the picture’s narrative defects, also highlights that in the wholeness of it all – which, admittedly, she doesn’t fall for – they don’t matter; it’s simply that her first viewing, as pertinent as her criticisms are, isn’t the whole story.


Some of Scott’s tweaks on The Final Cut are, like the things Roy Batty has done, questionable (the added gore seems deaf to a picture that trod that line just about right, and if “I want more life, father” is thematically more resonant than “fucker”, you can never unhear the latter in that scene), but in the balance of things it is seamless and sensitive.


I have to laugh at some of Sir Ridders’ pronouncements, though (“My danger is I tend to get very cerebral” he noted when discussing how his sensibility was closer to Fancher’s than Peoples’. Contrast this with Dick’s observation that Scott’s take on replicants was the opposite of his, in which the replicants were less than human and reflected Deckard’s lost humanity; “he regarded that as an intellectual idea, and he was not interested in making an esoteric film”), since they’re at variance with everything he’s put on screen for the past 20 years. But in Blade Runner you can actually suspend disbelief that Scott’s a very cerebral guy, if only you ignore his relentless, post-operative voiceover.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Show me the chickens, Max.

Allied
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Just what is it that attracts Robert Zemeckis to a movie? Now that his prospects for creating entirely unasked for virtual landscapes have decisively dimmed, that is? The chance to work with accomplished, Oscar-winning or nominated actors on distinguished screenplays delving into intricate and rewarding subject matter? Or the opportunity to ransack the material, seeking some kernel or glimmer of a reason to justify further elaborate experimentation with some new technical trickery he has set his sights on this time? Yes, it’s the latter. Allied is a Notorious-esque WWII tale of romantically-entangled spies and the suspicions that arise, not so much of fidelity as loyalty to the winning side. Or, it’s the chance to give Brad a full virtual chemical peel, and roll those decades right off him, the odd unflatteringly turkey neck aside.


This CGI facial wash becomes the raison d’être of Allied (daring you not to find its content as unequivocally dull as its title), so if you’re keen to watch Brad in a not-quite uncanny valley state, but undeniably so very rather off, this will be right up your street. Otherwise, you will most likely find yourself left wanting. Zemeckis is working with less hyperbolic budgets these days, but they still afford him the chance to dabble in his preferred composite worlds, to as varying degrees of effectiveness as ever (honestly, his best work with effects remains his ‘80s output, when he wasn’t trying so hard).


Marvel at the manner in which Brad apparently lands his fighter plane and climbs out of it all in one shot (it’s that kind of thing you’ll probably find was the clincher in Zemeckis deciding to direct the picture)! Similar less-than-profound motivations likely went into the his decision to make The Walk (the plot is redundant thanks to the superior documentary, but just check out those vertiginous ambulatory exploits) and Flight (another plane crash, following Cast Away – oh, goodie!) And so, looking back on his career, similarly perfunctory, unadorned logic dictates his choices, post-Back to the Future; Who Framed Roger Rabbit (combine animation and live action), Death Becomes Her (unleash T2-standard CGI on a black comedy), Forrest Gump (Zelig-style interpolating of the lead character with news reel footage), Contact (more of the same, and the chance to do a 2001 trip sequence) and the challenge of making a whole movie while taking a break for Tom Hanks to get skinny (Cast Away and What Lies Beneath). Which brings us to his performance capture, decade-long pit.


So, if you’re trying to work out what Allied is about, scratching your head but to no avail, that’s what it’s about. You might have spent much of your viewing time hoping to be seduced and captivated by the romance between Brad’s Canadian Intelligence Wing Commander Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard’s French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, but to no avail. Brad’s playing elusive and Marion coquettish, and nary a tremulous spark is curried betwixt them.


Suddenly, they’re in the throes of passion and married and, Bob’s yer uncle, suspicion of Marianne’s true identity and allegiances is announced. At which point, you’re hopefully thoroughly invested in them being together and wishing it wasn’t true. But the fatal problem besetting Zemeckis’ movie, beyond even that it mistakes sluggish for elegant pacing (Zemeckis at his best is a master popcorn movie maker, but he’s not a debonair one, not in the sense of mustering élan and glamour; such gestures feel manufactured in his molten hands), is that you don’t care.


More than that, the problem is one of Steven Knight’s screenplay. He has written some corkers in the past (Eastern Promises, Locke), but here the structure never allows for empathy or investment. Cotillard is distant throughout (though more vital in her performance than the pixel-personified Brad), and so there’s no real power to her final sacrifice, or even her betrayal; this hasn’t been established as a game of cat and mouse from the start, à la Joe Esterhaz’s steamy thrillers (of which Jagged Edge is the exemplar), so when Max is ushered to the SOE basement, assuming a promotion is in the offing, it’s not so much a left turn as one that means others are doing all the donkey work.


And his resultant attempts to clarify matters, most notably during an excursion to France where he gets to “heroically” blow some shit up (and Zemeckis gets that fighter shot in), might be regarded as exposing his ineptitude (it follows his getting a pilot killed and sees him recklessly pursuing his own agenda, so demolishing the Bond super-spy myth) but is all ultimately on a hiding to nothing.


Which isn’t to say Knight and Zemeckis don’t occasionally score. The opening in Casablanca, chock full of Nazis sporting exotic uniform variants (a cossie for every country), makes the most of its Canary Islands shoot, and if the relationship lacks something, there’s the occasional burst of action to compensate as Max strangles a Hun in a phone booth and he and Marianne mow down their targets at a party (I don’t know about Marianne’s suggestion that actual French people wouldn’t be fooled by Brad’s French accent, though; how about just actual people?) These scenes suggest that, if Zemeckis would only get off his lauded perch and have some fun, he could make something as unapologetic as his ‘80s fare, complete with Spielbergian cartoon Nazis. Apart from that, though, commendably, the decision not to pull punches as to Marianne’s identity is at least something.


Simon McBurney, who’s making something of a supporting player name for himself as a spymaster, has a first class scene deep in a London basement as the Special Operations Executive man with bad news, and Matthew Goode scores as Max’s disfigured one-time colleague, abandoned in a nursing home. Jared Harris is also entirely formidable as Max’s superior, and Mike Leigh’s missus, Marion Bailey, walks off with the loathsome Nazi agent garland for her one scene standoff with Brad; Brad may bring the bullet, but she wins the acting award (that said, Anton Lesser barely registers in a comparable role, and his demise is off screen).


Other choices just seem odd, such as staging a party during an air raid, with apparent ambivalence towards the blackout. And the attempt at poetic panache as Marianne gives birth during another air raid falls entirely flat. Then there’s everyone seeming to be on drugs, which is all the rage in WWII lore of late, it seems (see Blitzed, on Hitler’s mashed Third Reich). With that and lesbians flaunting themselves freely, it’s amazing what an unfettered and tolerant era the war was. No wonder people get nostalgic for it.


Of which, what is with WWII being in vogue again? And particularly with Brad leading the charge (Inglorious Basterds, Fury, Allied). We’ve got Dunkirk coming up, and the recently announced Atlantic Wall with Bradley Cooper (fast becoming a facsimile of himself). Perhaps Hollywood is laying the foundations for encouraging an appreciative attitude toward a forthcoming conflict (if Russia’s out, maybe China will do), one that can be viewed as a similarly “just” war, and prep us with a host of ready material? Or it could just be the usual warped barometer, that knowing these movies can do well, they’ll keep on trying until they hit a sporadic, occasional jackpot.


Allied didn’t come cheap (enough), and its failure adds to the stack of Paramount underachievers this year. Brad might wring another 10 years of “youthful” stardom by having his features doctored each movie, but only if he picks his projects more judiciously. This has about as much cachet as the majority of failed star epic romance pictures, proving how difficult a genre it is to get right. Brad’s oft compared to Robert Redford, and he too came a cropper with such fare occasionally. Allied might be Pitt’s Havana.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Mr Darcy, you are as unfeeling as the undead.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Aside from providing Seth Grahame-Smith with a career (and thus rather underlining the crux of the complaint) there seems to have been very little point to his genre mash-ups. While I wouldn’t enthusiastically support magpie running towards creatively barren terrain the way he (or Max Landis) tends to, there is potential for having good fun with the clash of elements, particularly in this case. And, with Burr “Igby Goes Down” Steers adapting and calling the shots, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ought to have been a given. So it’s a shame that, by and large, it’s a bore.


Burr’s no action guy, which explains the pedestrian colour-wash cinematography and unengaging fight scenes. Occasionally, just occasionally, he wrings something from the material that almost works. The fight between Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) as they exchange Austen dialogue is well conceived and edited, and almost – but not quite – makes up for the sub-Buffy super-trained kick-ass chicks doing their zombie kung fu (as in, it’s dull-witted, and hasn’t been “cool” since the turn of the millennium).


And coming out best of the cast is easily Matt Smith as bumbling Parson Collins, reminding you of why he was a good choice for Doctor Who in the first place, before being swiftly undone by terrible dialogue and naff character choices; he’s a natural comic performer, and shines here, elevating the movie whenever he’s on screen (“Oh, is there some sort of trouble? Oh, it appears there is?”; hopelessly inept at fighting zombies, he appeals far more than the characters who do so ever-so blandly and heroically).


Sam Riley also does well, essaying the acid-tongued curmudgeon in agreeable fashion; if ever that never-to-be Blake’s 7 reboot gets off the ground, he’s a shoe-in for Avon. James makes little impression (is that Lily James or Lily Collins?). Meanwhile, Jack Huston is so ineffectual, he seems entirely intent on ensuring his star turn in Boardwalk Empire goes down as a one-off; his villain isn’t even hissably one-note. Elsewhere, there’s support from Sally Phillips (amusingly annoying) Lena Headey (predictably stony-faced) and Charles Dance (very Dance-y).


What this really needed was the Peter Jackson of Brain Dead/Bad Taste unleashed on it, relishing gallons of blood and dismembered bodies in bodices, but with the added attraction of Hammer Horror countryside. Instead, it’s fairly easy to forget there are any zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (it mustered a 15 certificate in the UK, but hardly justifies the rating). There’s a nice animated introduction using cut-outs, but that’s about as far as things go; Steers fails to conjure an ounce of atmosphere or tension, or sufficient winningly gruesome laughs.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.