Saturday, March 31, 2012

April is Back to the 50s Month!

Remember sock hops, poodle skirts and Sputnik?  I don’t either (Hey, I’m not that old!).  Even though I didn’t grow up in the 50s, the movies of that decade dominated my consciousness.  Many of my early childhood memories were shaped by the constant barrage of 50s flicks that were in constant rotation on TV during the 70s.  Something about the movies from that time captured my imagination and never let go.  Stories were frequently told in broad strokes, with imagery to match.  Filmmakers weren’t afraid to dream big in an era overshadowed by cold war paranoia and the omnipresent threat of the atom bomb.

Throughout the month of April, I’ll be focusing mainly on the science fiction, horror and fantasy movies that made that period so distinctive, but there will be other genres represented as well.  I’ll include some personal favorites, and hope to make some new discoveries.  Join me, won’t you, as we delve into the weird and wondrous cinematic offerings of the 50s!

Stay tuned to this station for more updates…

Sunday, March 25, 2012

They Might Be Giants

(1971) Directed by Anthony Harvey; Written by James Goldman; Starring: George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward and Jack Gilford; Available on Netflix Streaming

Rating: *** ½

“If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we'd all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.” – Justin Playfair

Nope, this isn’t about the New York band with the same name (although They Might Be Giants’ founders derived the band’s name from the movie’s title). It’s actually a character study about a man who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes.  James Goldman’s script (based on his play) owes as much to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote as it does Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, with the ersatz Holmes conducting a wild goose chase through the streets of New York with his trusty (albeit humoring) companion, searching for his arch nemesis, Moriarty.

Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) formerly had a successful career as an attorney until he suffered an unspecified mental breakdown.  He’s since adopted the persona of fictional master sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and seems determined to inhabit this new identity as if the one that preceded it never existed.  Justin has no memory of his former life.  All he knows about Justin, whom he seems to regard as a completely different individual, is through articles and memoirs.  He currently resides with his brother Blevins (Lester Rawlins), who wants to have him committed to a mental hospital and take over his assets.  Scott approaches Playfair as if he was the real Holmes, steeped in his deductive reasoning and determined to solve an imaginary crime.  In one scene Justin discusses Don Quixote, who thought he saw giants instead of windmills.  Playfair acknowledges Quixote’s folly, but also found it admirable that Quixote could imagine that the windmills could be giants.  Here lies the key to his character.  As absurd as it may seem, his assertion that he’s Sherlock Holmes could be valid on its own terms.   He suggests that we all might be better off with the freedom to dream.  If he’s content with his delusion, everyone else should be as well. 

Holmes/Playfair finds his Dr. Watson in the guise of dowdy psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward).  At first, Watson’s fascination is purely clinical, regarding him as a perfect specimen of mental illness.  He’s a classic, once-in-a-generation case study, worthy of her attention as a scientist.  Her aim is to help him to get better, and forms a strange bond with this eccentric man, fascinated by his idiosyncrasies.  As Playfair points out, however, her own life is a mess.  She’s bookish to a fault, socially inept, and drinks herself to sleep.  She initially bristles at his summation, but something inside eventually clicks as she sees in him what’s missing in her previously dull life.  She feels invigorated to be taken out of her safety zone and engage in a chase, even though it’s probably a fool’s errand.  Watson could just as well be Sancho Panza to Playfair’s Don Quixote.  Her character progresses from one of clinical detachment, to begrudging indulgence, to acceptance as she decides that she likes her new role better.  Their budding relationship is more than professional, if somewhat short of romantic.  There’s a strange, off-kilter chemistry going on that suggests a symbiosis between Playfair and Watson, with each fulfilling some aspect that was missing before.  While it’s doubtful that Doyle had this sort of relationship in mind with the original characters, it works within the film’s context.

 They Might Be Giants is clearly intended to be a piece of entertainment, not a serious examination of mental illness. The screenplay throws around some Freudian psychobabble at the beginning, which doesn’t lend to the veracity of Watson’s character, nor does it provide any useful explanation for Playfair and his eccentric behavior.  Of course, this could be the point.  Director Harvey and writer Goldman never really expect you to believe that he’s actually Sherlock Holmes, but you’re happy to be taken along for the ride anyway. 

The comedy is played too broadly at times (witness the chaotic supermarket scene when Playfair and Watson evade the police).  I also wish the filmmakers had fully committed to Playfair’s delusion, giving him a good mystery for Holmes to solve.  Instead, the film tends to wander around aimlessly, much like its main characters, depicting one misadventure after another.  There was a lot of potential with the two main characters, and Scott and Woodward play nicely off of each other, but in the end it seems like a missed opportunity.  If only there had been a challenge worthy of the two performances.  The script runs out of juice by the film’s climax, leading up to an ending with no new revelations about Playfair, and seemingly finishing where it started. 

Nitpicks aside, They Might Be Giants is well worth your time for George C. Scott’s wonderful, quirky performance alone.  At the time of this posting the film has not found its way to DVD, but it is available on Netflix streaming for those who subscribe to the service.  It really deserves to be better known.  Hopefully more people will discover this hidden, slightly flawed gem.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

March Quick Picks and Pans

Cedar Rapids (2011) Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, a nebbishy life insurance salesman.  He’s asked to attend a national conference when his office’s star performer dies unexpectedly, although prior to this excursion he’s never left the confines of his small Midwestern town.  Tim seems presumably content to lead a predictable, boring existence, but all of this changes in the space of a few days as he learns about the larger world (or the world according to Cedar Rapids, Iowa).  It’s a slight comedy that’s not nearly as insightful as it pretends to be but it’s still funny in spots.  Cedar Rapids is worth it for John C. Reilly’s performance alone, as Tim’s profoundly obnoxious business rival Dean Ziegler.  You can tell Reilly was having a great time with his character, managing to walk the fine line between repulsive and likable.  Anne Heche surprisingly provides some spark to the film as well as Joan, a lonely married woman who comes to the annual conventions for more than just business.  The end seems slight and not as fleshed out as it could have been, although it’s perhaps fitting for the main character who probably wouldn’t be capable of any significant change.   

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Strigoi (2009) This almost unclassifiable comedy/drama/horror film from writer/director Faye Jackson takes place in modern-day Romania, and concerns beings known as strigoi, which are a bit like a cross between zombies and vampires.  Vlad returns home to his village to discover a series of strange deaths.  He suspects the townspeople (including the mayor and his priest brother) are all part of a strange conspiracy, if only he can gather enough proof.  He dismisses the possibility that strigoi, creatures straight out of local folklore with an insatiable appetite and penchant for blood, might actually be to blame.  The film vacillates between comedy and drama, without building up much tension.  Its more horrific elements are presented in a matter-of-fact, rather than terrifying manner, and most of the characters seem fairly nonplused by all of the supernatural goings-on.  I suspect that Jackson was more interested in depicting a specific place where old superstitions die hard and the fantastic co-exists with the ordinary, rather than terrifying audiences.  There’s also some commentary about the old communist regime that might be a little more relevant if you happen to be Romanian.  It’s an uneven, interesting mix of different story elements that might just be worth a look.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Baba Yaga (1973) (aka: Kiss Me, Kill Me) This curious artifact from the 1970s was based on an Italian comic strip from the 1960s, and is all style with little substance.  Several scenes feature images edited together to simulate comic book panels, contributing to the film’s distinctive look.  Isabelle De Funès stars as Valentina Rosselli, a freewheeling fashion photographer.  While walking home, she encounters a mysterious woman named Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker).  Baba Yaga instantly ingratiates herself to Valentina as a friend and confidant, but it’s clear that she’s setting a trap, like a spider spinning a web.  Baba Yaga is rife with 70s era sexual and social politics, complete with pretentious scenes involving pseudo-intellectuals sitting around discussing fascism and capitalism.  These scenes threaten to derail the story about the malevolent Baba Yaga, who brings death and chaos to everyone who crosses her path.  While the film isn’t entirely successful, it’s not boring, and at least it tried to do something different.  Is it Euro Sleaze with a sociopolitical message, or a metaphorical tour de force?  Who knows? 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (2011) Director Matthew Bate’s documentary chronicles the genesis of an underground cultural phenomenon and attempts to find perspective in a larger context.  In the 80s, two young men, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch Deprey, left Wisconsin for San Francisco to find their respective fortunes.  They settled in a run-down apartment and got more than they bargained for, in the form of two perennially bickering neighbors, Pete and Ray.  They decided to record the heated arguments, and the rest was history. 

Shut Up Little Man is at its best when it discusses tape trading and found recordings in the age before the internet.  In one scene, the recent Christian Bale tirade, which became a viral hit, is juxtaposed with the recordings of Pete and Ray fighting, leaving us to wonder what the difference is between voyeurism and entertainment.   Unfortunately, the material is far too thin for a feature-length film, and about halfway through, the film wears out its welcome.  The sound clips, along with the commentary become repetitive as the film grasps for some deeper, elusive meaning.  In the end, it was hard for me to see why the recordings held so much appeal in the first place.  About the only thing we learn is that schadenfreude apparently sells.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Classics Revisited: Blade Runner

(1982) Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples; Based on the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick; Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and Daryl Hannah; Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: *****

What’s It About?

“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” – Gaff, Blade Runner

The stories of Philip K. Dick, which often deal with themes of identity and altered reality, have been notoriously difficult to adapt to film.  Few interpretations of Dick’s work have adequately encapsulated his uniquely literary, skewed vision of the human condition.  Strictly viewed as a film based on a novel, Blade Runner could be seen as another failed attempt.  Taken on its own terms, however, director Ridley Scott’s take on Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands as a landmark effort.  Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples retained some basic aspects of the source material while going off on completely different tangents.  The end result is a dense, richly imagined world that’s an existential meditation on life, death and what it means to be human.

Several versions of the film have circulated over the years.  The most notable difference is that the original theatrical cut had a lackluster, film-noirish voiceover by Ford.  Although Ford’s voiceover provided a few minor insights, it was mostly distracting, and more often than not, pointed out the painfully obvious.  Scott likened getting the voiceover right as “forcing something through the eye of a needle.”  Scott and Ford were never happy with the results, and the voiceover was wisely omitted from the later versions (1992 Director’s Cut and 2007 Final Cut). 

Blade Runner takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2019.  Blade runners are a special unit of the police force, tasked with tracking down and destroying highly advanced artificial humans called replicants (designed to do the dirty jobs for humanity), whose presence on Earth is illegal.  The latest batch of replicants, designated Nexus 6, were engineered to possess superior strength and intellect.  When four of this new series escape to Earth, it’s up to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to “retire” the errant replicants.  The nature of the replicants is one of the fundamental differences between Dick’s vision and Scott’s concept.  Scott viewed the replicants as being superhuman in abilities, while Dick saw them as something less than human, a metaphor for the loss of humanity in society.  Oddly enough, these two divergent views lead to the same conclusion, that technology has somehow dehumanized us all. 

** Warning, some spoilers ahead (And if you haven’t seen this by now, why not?)!

Deckard is railroaded into the blade runner job once more, but he’s become tired of playing the cat-and-mouse game.  Ford brings a world-weary sensibility to his character, seemingly frozen in a perpetual malaise.  He drifts through his surroundings in an automaton-like state, unable to derive pleasure from anything.  In the 2007 DVD commentary, Ridley Scott speculated that Ford must have been a fan of Humphrey Bogart’s acting style, based on how he approached the Deckard role.  It’s easy to see the parallels when you view the scene in which Deckard corners the replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) in her dressing room, adopting a nerdy voice to throw her off guard while he closes in for the kill.  The scene is clearly reminiscent of a moment in The Big Sleep when Philip Marlowe (Bogart) similarly disguises his voice in a bookstore to confuse the shopkeeper.     

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is the de facto leader of the escaped replicants.  His soft-talking demeanor belies a killer’s instinct.  He’s designed for combat, but possesses self-reflective capabilities as well.  Hauer plays Batty with icy conviction and an understated intelligence, relentless in his pursuit of his creator.  He and his fellow replicants share a common problem – a built-in four-year lifespan.  Despite his superhuman strength and intelligence, there’s nothing he can do to stop the inevitable.  In his final showdown with Deckard, he takes a moment to reminisce about his experience in his brief life.  He somberly observes, “…all of those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”  

Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) literally sits in his high tower, away from the pollution and urban sprawl.  He remains detached from the rest of society, as he’s left to play god with his creations.  He callously tells Batty that “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” which comes across as more of a back-handed compliment than a consolation.  He loves his creations as an artist might love a sculpture.  Turkel plays the tycoon Tyrell as sort of a cross between Howard Hughes, Albert Einstein and Walt Disney.  Turkel was discovered by Ridley Scott, who liked his ghostly presence as the bartender in The Shining.  Tyrell appears almost otherworldly in Blade Runner.  Otherworldly, perhaps, but not invulnerable.

The most striking aspect of Blade Runner is the appearance of the film, populated by Syd Mead’s designs and effects work supervised by the great Douglas Trumbull.  Detailed miniatures help create the illusion of a densely populated, smog-choked urban landscape cast in perpetual night.  The flying cars (“spinners”) litter the sky, performing a dangerous ballet above the streets.  Blade Runner was mostly filmed in a studio backlot, although the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles is featured prominently in several key scenes with genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) and the remaining replicants.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Screenwriter Peoples purposely avoided using the term “android,” choosing to refer to the artificial people as replicants (based on a conversation he had with his daughter, who was studying genetics in college).  This a significant choice when discussing issues of humanity, which implies their biological origins – flesh and blood, not microchips and wires. It also helps to give the film its contemporary feel.

There has been much debate about whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant.  Some would see the scene where Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves an origami unicorn in Deckard’s apartment as irrefutable “proof” that this is the case (implying that he’s privy to knowledge and imagery that would only exist inside Deckard’s mind).  I think this is nothing more than an existential MacGuffin.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter.  In his cold-blooded pursuit of the replicants he loses what makes him human, only to find himself again in the process through his relationship with the replicant Rachael (Sean Young). 

The “lived in,” future-retro look of the city has been copied countless times (Dark City and The Fifth Element are just a couple examples).  It’s doubtful that there will be flying cars in L.A. or people will be flocking to off-world colonies by 2019, but the city designs still look fresh and visionary.  It’s an uneasy mix of old and new architecture that takes New York to an extreme.  Another prescient aspect of future Los Angeles is the heavy multicultural influence.  Scott stated that he made a conscious decision to depict an Asian-dominated society (evident in the ubiquitous building-sized advertisements, languages heard on the street and Deckard’s food choices).  Gaff uses a unique “street-speak” (concocted by Olmos specifically for his character), which is a conglomeration of Asian, European and Latin tongues. 

Lately, Ridley Scott has hinted about a sequel, which just seems like a completely unnecessary, inherently bad idea.  The characters and situations feel complete, with Rick and Rachael going off to whatever fate awaits them, and I’m fine with that.  There’s no need to continue their story, or hypothesize what a Nexus 7 replicant might be like.  Like so many other important films that preceded it (Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life) it wasn’t fully appreciated when it was first released, but it has steadily gained momentum.  And like these other classics, a sequel would only serve to tarnish the greatness of the original.