Posts tagged ‘film criticism’

December 23, 2010

Are You A “RepliCAN” Or A “RepliCANT”?


Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner has gotten more critical talk in the near three decades since its release than maybe any other box office flop in that span.  Not counting the multiple subsequent re-releases, the film lost $9 million for the studio, falling short of $20 million gross (Box Office).  I’ve heard that it initially wasn’t well-received because audiences anticipated and yearned for another Harrison Ford, Star Wars-esque sci-fi action flick that would hold them over until Revenge of the Jedi (A handful of you know that’s not a typo.).  What found its way onto the big screen in 1982 was a less-than-moderately paced look into a gloomy future of planet Earth, where rain is constant and most are looking for ways to flee to the “Off World Colonies.”  The film has mere pockets of action, but is rich in themes that are now more recognizable and appreciated as technology races forward, becoming an increasingly integral part of our lives.

The movie crept onto, count ’em, three syllabi in my graduate school study…of English Literature, no less.  And what would inherently come up (By the third time, weeks in advance of actually viewing the film, I’d already begun organizing a mental pool on which of my peers would mention this first in class.  It, most unfortunately, wound up being the super-cute, pink-haired feminist who sat across the semi-circle from me.) was the question as to whether Rick Deckard is a Replicant or not.  The first time I’d seen it, I completely missed that as a possibility altogether (You too, eh?).  After that, I picked up on what really is the only shred of evidence that the protagonist could be a Replicant: the unicorn.

When Deckard does research on the Replicants that he has been asked to come out of retirement to hunt down and “retire” as well, he finds himself testing Rachael, a new Replicant creation of the Tyrell Corporation to see if she is one of them.  Rachael actually thinks that she is, in fact, human.  How was Tyrell able to gain this desired effect?  By encrypting memories into the robot’s system.  In trying to come to grips with the reality that she is not a real person, Rachael soon seeks the council of Deckard, falling for him in the process.  Deckard somehow feels compelled to requite this affection as well.  Later, he is seen contemplating his current case at his apartment when the screen flashes a quick shot of a unicorn.  A shift in gaze tells the audience Deckard is thinking of the mythological animal that could have quite possibly been “invented” by then.  After all of the Replicants have been vanquished, Deckard chooses to flee with Rachael because he fears for the “life” of his new love.  However, his partner in blade running, the origami master, Gaff, has left a tiny paper unicorn close to his front door, hinting at the notion that Gaff knows of the implemented, manufactured memories of the Replicant Deckard and that other law enforcement will be looking to retire the new lovers as well.  The screen turns to credits, creating an air of ambiguity around the film’s conclusion.

Though the famed unicorn is an exhibit of evidence pointing to Deckard’s identity as a Replicant, there are other things that need to be taken into serious consideration before coming to a conclusion on this matter, my fine, committed reader.

Let’s say just for shits ‘n’ giggles that the police force powered this Deckard up to track down and retire these other four Replicants.  That might explain the very odd fact that Deckard has not been on active duty for some time, yet has been able to maintain the lifestyle of a person with a full-time job (and he does seem to be a bit on the young side to be collecting a robust enough pension that would support his means).  However, what is infinitely more important, and, perhaps, puzzling, is that the Replicants Deckard has been charged with finding are new, elite models: The Nexus-6’s.  He’s nearly choked to death by Zhora. (Fearing her identity being unveiled by witnesses to a murder, Zhora instead flees her busy dressing room and is shot in the back by a trailing Deckard.)  He should have been killed by Leon, but was bailed out by Rachael.  He’s lucky to have killed Priss (Let’s be honest).  And Batty is clearly capable of killing Deckard with ease.  We see him toying with Deckard for quite some time and Batty grabs his arm before Deckard falls off the side of the building to his certain death.  Why would the blade runner unit use an inept, perhaps outdated Replicant model to hunt down others of a superior quality?  That would lead to certain failure.  It makes much more sense to explain Deckard’s near inability to kill these Replicants on the fact that he is merely a human being who, yes, has much experience as a Blade Runner, but little of late, and absolutely none in facing Nexus 6’s.

Another point that easily deposes the idea that Deckard’s true identity is that of a Replicant, and is closely related to the previous one, is that Deckard does not know he is a Replicant, which is a feature that Tyrell specifically touts as one of a brand new model of these droids that is of an even higher quality than the Nexus 6’s!  Add all this shit up.  Now the argument for Deckard being a Replicant is that Tyrell made a model that is better than the Nexus 6, would not be self-aware, but also not be able to take a Nexus 6 in a fight, which is what the fucking police force hired it to do…Yeah…right.

One of the film’s main themes that emerges from Batty’s speech towards the end, aimed at Deckard, is that as technology grows and people become more dependent upon it, the humanity of mankind will wither away.  As Deckard (or is that Indy?) perilously holds onto the steel thingamajig that hangs off the side of the building, Batty says to him, “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it?  That’s what it is to be a slave.”  Tyrell and Co. (TYCO?) created these self-aware machines only to be oppressed laborers.  They have no freedom and a very finite lifespan.  Man has no sympathy for these machines that do possess real feelings.  Throw in all of the obvious Jesus allusions (that huge spike through the palm, while Batty tries to stay alive to convey said theme) and symbols of purity (his incredibly light hair and the grasped dove that comes out of fucking nowhere) and you have a being whose mission is to deliver a message, a new truth to those who persecute him – a message that Tyrell couldn’t comprehend or “see,” hence the Coke-bottle spectacles and the manner unto which Batty murders him (crushing Tyrell’s eyeballs back into his skull).

The director’s goal to communicate this theme about a potential loss of humanity would not be properly executed if Deckard were a Replicant because there would then just be two robots in love, which was already possible with earlier versions of the Replicants anyway, like the Nexus 6’s.  So there’s no need to tell this story with updated machines.  On the flip side, with Deckard being a certified human, and having him fall in love with a robot, the lesson rings true because the lines have been so blurred between what is natural and what has been fabricated by man.  With Deckard, “the real,” standing next to Rachael, “the manufactured,” and the viewer not able to see any actual differences between the two, then a loss of humanity is observed in Deckard, while a more palpable humanity surfaces in Rachael.

Plus it’s incredibly obvious in the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” which the movie is based on, that Deckard is clearly a man.

December 13, 2010

“Inception” X 13 = Quality + Quantity (Part I)


This past summer was “The Summer of Inception.”  Sure, Toy Story 3 was the big draw in terms of dollars, but few (especially in circles of people that I care to concern myself with) were out at dive, hipster bars, sipping pints of LaGunitas, and having long, exhaustive conversations about whether or not Andy will ever play with Woody and Buzz again.  No, we were talking about if Leo was in limbo, man.  For all of those discussions on that pretty triumphant effort by the brilliantly gifted Christopher Nolan and how “great,” “deep,” and “innovative” that film was (and, oh, that visceral reaction to the ending), there was always the need to point out, and rightfully so, that parts of it were rather long-winded.

I find myself oft-frustrated with Hollywood these days.  Here you have arguably the best American writer/director, a top-notch, big-name, gifted actor, a fantastic up-and-comer in support, a female, not two years removed from an Academy Award, an all-time great in a minor role, some very talented unknowns, and the freshest face on the Boulevard, all in tow to create a film-telling of what is one of the most original stories in recent memory, and they botch it.  They condense an epic into a short story, all in the name of making money.  And they did plenty of that (Inception is #40 on the all-time list. Box Office).

Instead of going after the mega bucks, I contend, my steadfast followers, that Inception would have been a finer work of art if it had been redrawn as a 13-part cable television miniseries event.  This would have had an incredibly positive impact on the pacing of the story, optimized the use and integrity of the characters, and built a tension towards the climax that would have rivaled anything in the history of television.  No shit.

Episode 1: “Backstory”

Nolan took a lot of liberties in the film and (rather successfully, actually) banked on the idea that viewers would just accept the abilities of these people from around the globe to invade the dreams of others as plausible because it was only known to a select, usually wealthy, few.  He may too have thought of simply setting the movie, say, ten more years into the future as a cop-out.  I like the idea that all of this mind-infiltration could be going on right now because it subtly creates anxiety in the audience; however, it never sat well with me that there was not a crumb of explanation in the film as to how this power or technology could be possible.

Episode one of the miniseries could clear that up immediately.  In the film, Arthur, in speaking to Ariadne, mentions how it was the military, presumably the American brand, that developed this skill and implemented training to soldiers so that they could “shoot and stab and strangle each other and then just wake up.”  Set episode one in any given year that would have Cobb’s father, Miles, be significantly younger.  This is imperative because it was Miles who taught his son the art form, thus making the discovery at least a generation or two old.  Have a scientist figure out through experimentation, maybe even accidentally, how to dream storm.  Just so this edition of the show isn’t a complete snooze, have him see someone’s really fucked up dream.  Soon thereafter, he realizes that he can actually “design” another’s dream, thus making exploring the landscape much more enjoyable.  Perhaps this scientist finds that dream invasion can in fact be a helpful tool in enhancing the psyche of a “patient.”  Dreams fascinate all of us.  This should be enough, of course, if only tastefully done, to draw in viewers.  Have this chapter close with the military provoking the discoverer into instructing their doctors on this new ability for their own, corrupt means.

Episode 2: “Fine-Tuning”

Here viewers witness the perfection and expansion of the skill.  The technology becomes more elaborate and advanced, what with all the military (er…tax payer) funding being thrown in its direction.  Perhaps it is a young, aspiring human biologist and mathematician, Miles (er…Victor Frankenstein?), who develops the method for “Extraction.”

Remember at the beginning of the film, it was Extraction that was really Cobb and Arthur’s area of expertise.  Smartly, Nolan grabs the viewer’s attention by opening the movie with an action-packed sequence where the boys attempt to extract a thought from Saito’s mind as an audition for employment.  Nolan knew that one thing that would create mass-appeal would be high-octane, tense clashes in dreamworlds.  Imagine 13 episodes of this shit!

In that scene, Cobb and Arthur knew what they were doing.  In this episode, tension would be created with ease by having soldiers (like the astronauts of the ’60s) enter the dreams of others, while trying to extract an idea without knowing exactly what they’re doing.

Eventually, of course, they would succeed and be that much closer to mastery of this talent.  But, how about a cliff-hanger to ensure viewership through episode three?  How about right at the end, the military abducts a powerful enemy from, well…pick a fucking country from the other side of the world.  Just when the soldiers get into the mind of this diplomat, they are met with resistance, revealing that someone else has not only discovered this technology, but have found ways to defend against invaders!

Episode 3: “All Out War”

Now you have The Cold War, but in dreams.  This 60-minute installment picks up where the last left off.  Since unexpected violence of this sort has never erupted in dreams before for the U.S. soldiers, it can go on for a while.  The scientists have yet to develop the idea of the “kick.”  In the dream, after lengthy conflict, one of the soldiers is wounded, but doesn’t wake up.  Much panic ensues until one of them is finally killed by the dream security of the foreigner.  Upon reentering consciousness, he tells Miles what has happened.  Frantically, Miles tries to wake all the boys up.  He shakes them.  He slaps them.  Finally, the young soldier who perished in the dream, grabs a janitor’s bucket, filled with gray water, and chucks it onto one of his comrades.  He so vigorously wakes up, that he knocks over the private next to him.  The discovery of the kick.

Of course the diplomat must be killed, which enrages Miles.  He asks for an honorary discharge.  After this is awarded, the episode closes with Miles beginning the teaching of his newest pupil: his son.

***Part II***

December 1, 2010

“True Grit” – Probably More of the Same (Goodness)


The Coen Brothers.  When the final credits roll on their career, these guys are going to be ranked among the all-time great American filmmakers with Scorcese, Spielberg, Welles, and that terrible racist innovator, Griffith.  Especially since the early 90s, the Coens have been incredibly productive, versatile, and worthwhile.  How fucking funny is The Big Lebowski?  How troubling is Fargo?  How chilling is No Country for Old Men?  (That Oscar for “Best Picture” is really a “Career Oscar” because the Academy couldn’t squeak one out for any of their earlier, better works.)  How unexpected, but welcome, was that performance by Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?  (Hell, I could’ve just been setting you up for Hanks in The Ladykillers too.)  How brave of them to try their hand at a more commercially pleasing Intolerable Cruelty? (Yeah, I went there.) And don’t get me started on their lesser-known, under-praised, but quality works like the witty The Hudsucker Proxy and the subtle The Man Who Wasn’t There.

With their remake of True Grit on the horizon, I thought it fitting that I point out to you, my noble, addicted reader, an observation that I’ve been making for years now regarding the recurring theme of all of their pictures.  Each one of the Coen Brothers’ features features (See what I did there?) a character or a group, who are on a winding search for something more than what they already possess and are not entitled to.  This is key because their excessive desires are the impetus of, if not merely the main conflict of the story, then certainly these characters’ downfalls.

Observe.

Fargo‘s spineless Jerry Lundegaard sets up a kidnapping of his own wife so that he can take the ransom money he assumes his wealthy father-in-law will pay so that he, Jerry, can cover up his recent embezzlement from the car dealership where he is employed under the ownership of said father-in-law.

In No Country For Old Men, financially challenged Llewelyn Moss discovers drug money left behind after a deal gone bad and after ever-so-briefly contemplating whether to take the loot or not, he does, which garners the attention and relentless stalking of whom many critics believe is in fact death incarnate.

A Serious Man features Larry, a physics professor pondering the meaning of and desire for life, who considers taking bribe money from an Asian-American student for a passing grade in his class and thinks about sleeping with his sexy neighbor despite technically still being married to a woman who has mothered his 13-year-old stoner son and plastic surgery-obsessed daughter.

Ed “The Barber” of The Man Who Wasn’t There suddenly becomes dissatisfied with his lackluster life and decides too to embezzle money from his own wife’s boss so that he can go into the mysterious dry cleaning business with a cooky, falsely-coiffured stranger, while also “managing” an underwhelmingly talented, but hot, horny, and underage pianist.

There’s a plethora of characters who fit this bill in Burn After Reading: the gym employees looking for either CIA or Russian money for their discovered diskette, the agent who’s writing a memoir that only he would read, the agent’s cheating wife seeks a divorce, and there’s the guy she’s cheating with who is a serial internet dater (and throw in the sexual tension between the gym manager and the aforementioned female worker).

You’ve got casino robbers in The Ladykillers, the questionable loyalty of a mob underling, Tommy, in Miller’s Crossing, the gold-digger of Intolerable Cruelty, and the greedy board of directors in The Hudsucker Proxy.

In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett escapes from prison with two other inmates in tow so that he can get home to his since remarried wife, while two imbeciles kidnap a member of baby quintuplets because he won’t be missed with all the other infants still in their rightful cribs in Raising Arizona.

I know you’re thinking that The Dude doesn’t fit here.  Despite the love I have for the protagonist of The Big Lebowski and the fact that he may “not abide,” I must include him among this list of kidnappers, robbers, convicts, mobsters, executives, and used car salesmen alike because he was pretty stoked about the idea of getting all that money for the dubious drop-off.  Plus, poor Donnie, after taking all of Walter’s shit throughout the film, had to suffer that tragic heart attack when the nihilists showed up at the bowling alley looking for “ze money.”  No, no, this wasn’t just about getting the rug that “really tied the room together” back.

You’ll notice that in all of the works that at least lean towards the genre of “drama,” these characters who share the fatal flaw of having excessive desire are part of a rather unhappy ending.  Tommy loses everything.  Jerry goes to jail.  Though very ambiguous, the ending of A Serious Man (when a fucking tornado suddenly shows up) could include the deaths of Larry and half of his town.  The rest of the characters just outright die.

Viewers are to learn from these films that people must avoid too much fancy because inevitably the undeserved object of their desire will never be in their possession.  And their obsession can potentially lead to grave consequences.

Naturally, the comedies have to end on a happy note.  Everett gets his wife back.  Ed and Hi avoid jail.  Miles and Marilyn end up together.  And The Dude…”Things seemed to work out pretty good for The Dude…”  However, the inciting incidents of all the comedies, just as in the dramas, come about because the protagonist wants something exceedingly considerable, thus causing conflict.

I looked up the plot summary of True Grit and to no surprise of this astute movie viewer, once again the topic is “excessive desire” as a farm girl, who is a whole 14 years old, seeks revenge against her father’s murderer by hiring  a well-known, tough marshal.  “Tough” seems to indicate that he’s killed some men before (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/plotsummary).  Perhaps her motives here are justifiable, but surely one of the tension-building plot points will be the question surrounding her age and whether or not she should be taking part in their precarious pilgrimage to vengeance.  I guess when we hit the theaters on or around December 22nd, we can expect more of the same from the Brothers Coen.

October 21, 2010

Pitt vs. Norton: A Brutal Casting Call


Fight Club. Great movie. Awful ending.  You didn’t really buy into the Narrator not blowing his own brains out while ridding himself of Tyler, did you?  Come now.  Get a B&N card and read the damn book for a much more plausible and satisfying conclusion.

But I digress.

One of the great aspects of that movie is its observation of the new American male’s effeminate tendencies to consume.  You remember that scene guys; the Narrator is on the toilet in what should be a familiar position: that of a teenaged boy readying himself to masturbate.  However, the porno that “we used to read” has been replaced with publications filled with material wants, such as a “clever […] coffee table in the shape of a yin-yang” that he “had to have.”  Instead of adjusting the magazine to look at a Playboy centerfold and pleasuring himself to a pair of impeccably airbrushed breasts, he is attempting to fill the void in his life with “stuff.”  This is capitalism at its very best and, according to the film, it has emasculated him.  He says: “I’d flip through catalogs and wonder ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’”  A total chick thing to do and think.  With the emergence of waves (literally) of feminism and broken, fatherless homes seemingly becoming the norm, the definition of masculinity for many Americans has been upended (much like John Wayne’s grave, presumably).

Enter: Tyler Durden.

Throughout the film, Tyler exemplifies typical, often overblown, definitions of masculinity.  He does what he wants, when he wants to.  After meeting the Narrator, Tyler steals a sports car right in the middle of a fucking airport.  Later, he bangs the hell out of Marla Singer.  He commands the respect of all the men of the fight club, as he becomes their natural leader, despite the fact that he and the Narrator founded it together.  Tyler is in control of his life.

So if his goal in the film is to bring to a halt his effeminate and vapid consumerist tendencies, why is the Narrator taking up residence with Brad “The Sexiest Man Alive As Voted By People Magazine” Pitt and his designer fucking shades that he actually wears on an airplane?

I’m no idiot.  I know this was Hollywood’s attempt (and an ultimately successful one) at creating mass interest for the film.  Anytime a moneymaker like Twentieth Century Fox can grant top billing to the biggest movie star in the nation, no matter what the theme and content of the film may be, they’ll jump at the chance.  However, this casting call painfully dilutes the film’s brilliant message, which likely would have worked much better with a lesser-known, but highly respected and skilled actor…like, oh, say…Edward Norton.

By the time Fight Club was released in 1999, Pitt had found significant fame, while starring in many commercially successful movies, such as Interview With the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Seven.  Those mere three flicks grossed domestically around $261 million combined (IMDB.com).  So, David Fincher and company, in hiring Pitt in the lead role, had solidified commercial success for a movie that is, at its core, about the rejection of consumerism, capitalism, and pop culture.

Conversely, Edward Norton, who, ironically, plays the role of the Narrator and who, at first, “buys into” the consumerist life, was only credited with two leading roles before the release of Fight Club: Derek Vinyard in American History X and Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You (Yeah, I don’t know it either).  Though Norton earned an Oscar nomination for his role in American History X, those two films domestically grossed $16 million combined (IMDB.com).

Movies with counterculture themes and content should be reserved for the indie world.  As well-known as Fight Club is and as good as Pitt’s portrayal is, I can’t help but imagine how much better it would have been with an unknown actor anchoring the play and delivering the film’s message.  I sometimes wish that Norton had kept on that toned American History X weight, stripped himself of the hardcore Nazi tatts, and took on that role of Tyler.  And with a toned down wardrobe budget (Remember that fur coat with the black mesh shirt underneath?), the studio would have much more accurately delivered the film’s true theme.

October 13, 2010

Walter Peck Was Just Doing His Job


Everybody has seen the movie Ghost Busters. Everyone. One time I was on line, waiting to take a wiz at Dodgers Stadium, and I warned the guys in front of me that if they were going to “double up” to make sure that they “Don’t cross the streams.” Immediately the dude behind me shouted, “Hey Ghost Busters! My dad was the special effects coordinator on that movie!” I replied, “Man, I just watched that flick last week and those effects hold up.” He said, enthusiastically, “Thanks!”

But I digress.

Because I’m on summer vacation, I have a shitload of time to do something most others rarely do: think. I figured I’d spend it considering the debut scene of Walter Peck in that timeless, American classic film.

We all love Dr. Peter Venkman. Everyone. We find him endearing as he tirelessly tries to lay Dana Barret (“I am madly in love with you.”). We admire his balls when he repeatedly electrocutes that goofy student, while trying to lay the hot student (“You are a legitimate phenomena.”) And we look up to him as the solid leader of The Busters (“I believe there’s a reason for being thrown out of this dump […] To go into business for ourselves.”) All of that sets a gold comedy standard for garnering an audience’s sympathy for a character.

So, when Walter Peck arrives, greets that Venkman, and is welcomed with a slime handshake, we, the trained viewer, immediately laugh at that lovable rebel, yet feel unjustified scorn for the EPA visitor. Before Peck even sits down, we dislike him. I guess, aside from the actual ghosts, who, at this point in the film, are getting their proverbial ectoplasmic asses whipped by The Busters, that movie lacks a villain. Peck’s role in the film is to be the antagonist, but, when approached without preconceived bias, there is no tangible reason for a member of the audience to disapprove of him so vigorously.

In his initial discussion with Venkman, Peck simply asks him a series of questions that are clearly relevant to his reason for the visit and pertinent to his job. Things get touchy only when Venkman, our hero, becomes evasive and sarcastic. He gives vague answers and mocks Peck’s reasonable request to “see the storage facility” by childishly pointing out that he hadn’t said “Please.” Before you know it, there are shouts and talks of “court orders” and lawsuits for “unlawful prosecution.”

None of this is necessary. In this era of “Going Green,” people that work for the EPA are probably a little better revered. However, I guess, in 1984, when aerosol cans were much the rage, EPA guys could be shitted on with some regularity. So, clearly Venkman was just a product of his culture and time. Regardless, Peck did not deserve to be treated with such hostility. He was just doing his job.

In an earlier scene, there are pretty clear indications that even The Busters themselves aren’t totally sure as to what they are doing. While on their first assignment, they throw the switch to Ray’s backpack in the elevator and Peter and Egon, most humorously, and fearing incineration, jockey to be as far away from him as possible.  Egon and Peter Worry

Considering that, is it not reasonable then for Walter Peck, on behalf of the EPA, to wish to examine where The Busters store their game? After all, there were a lot of “wild stories in the media” and I could see why the man would “want to know more about what [they] do there.”

As the movie continues, Peck goes after The Busters with vendetta-like spirit. This is understandable. Sure he lets all of the ghosts out, but that was only because Venkman and the guys were not in compliance. As witty and hip as your local restaurant manager can be, would you eat there knowing that their food handling permits weren’t up to snuff? I didn’t think so.

So, next time you watch Ghost Busters, try not to sneer when the red-bearded and apparently “dickless” Walter Peck shows up. Instead, think about those (few) government officials who actually are out to do their job and keep all of America and the environment safe. Dickless?

This Post Was Originally Published on MindBombed.com