Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blade Runner (1981) - Directed by Ridley Scott

A lot has changed in the last 30 years, not the least of which is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which has seen multiple versions both released in theatres and on home video/DVD distribution. Upon its release in a sneak preview in 1981, the film was deemed too confusing, and thus Scott and star Harrison Ford were forced to input a rather awful voice over for the mainstream American release, a film which I really didn't like very much. There was a more violent International cut, followed by a “Directors Cut” in 1992, which Scott never approved. At least it removed that voice-over though! What was always apparent to me in all of the versions I had seen until recently (watched on TV, Pan-and-Scan VHS, or even that Director’s Cut DVD), including the U.S. release and the Director’s Cut, was a muddled visual aesthetic, as if the film was artificially darkened beyond comprehension. I’m not sure if it was the newer remastered “Final Cut” on Blu-Ray, my new TV, or a combination of the two, but to me, Scott’s film has never looked better than it does now, justifying and enhancing its high status as one of the watershed cinematic experiences of the last thirty years.

Scott’s film, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, is a sci-fi neo-noir of epic proportions that has been highly influential to multiple sci-fi, neo-noir, and anime films that have followed. It concerns the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is a “Blade Runner”, a hit man of sorts charged with hunting down and killing “Replicants”, which are androids that are nearly identical to actual humans who are used as slave labor in space exploration. Specifically, Blade Runner follows Deckard as he tracks a group of Replicants who have gone rogue on earth after killing some humans. Replicants look like humans from the outside and can even have emotions and learned behavior that they put together to create the semblance of a fully functional human being. We learn that they are rather desperate though, as they are only given a 4-year life span and will do anything to try to find a way to extend their lives. Deckard soon finds out that the task of “playing God” is a troubling endeavor.

Blade Runner has an aura about the way that it conveys its story, which is something out of pulp magazines, graphic novels or comic books combined with traditional film noir. All of it looks familiar, and yet it feels completely fresh and vital still today. Much of the credit to the film's success should be given to production designer Lawrence Paull, art director David Snyder and the multiple effects artists who drop us so mercilessly into a piteous Los Angeles, circa 2019, filled with towering, monolithic buildings, smog and pollution, continuous rain and darkened skies. In particular, the lighting of the film is monumental, standing up against something like The Third Man (1949), for perhaps greatest use of light and darkness of any film in history. Observe the way that light peers through window blinds, enlightening faces with chiaroscuro palettes. Or look at the use of neon lights, reflective surfaces, and smoke to create romance and tension. This film simply looks spectacular.

Rivaling the lighting, are the faces of the actors. This film is actually a continuous barrage of fascinating faces: Harrison Ford’s downtrodden and hard-boiled Deckard; Rutger Hauer’s Nordic aloofness complete with screaming, white hair; Sean Young’s angelic face, filled with tears and smeared mascara; Daryl Hannah’s mannequin-like perfection turned into a harlequin with white and black paint; Edward James Olmos’s pockmarked wise man. Considering the heavy doses of atmosphere, though, the film retains a dose of emotion. The Replicants’ drive to stay alive and become more human is almost fairy-tale in its quality. They are fully sympathetic antagonists, and this coupled with the gory violence strikes the viewer with a sadness and remorse. Thus, the film can play as highly emotive film noir, not just a stylistic exercise or a superficially cool film, something I have begun to call emo-noir, which is a term I used to describe Drive (2011). Although I don’t consider Scott to be an auteur in the strict sense, he has made a few remarkable films, Blade Runner being his best.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Week With Marilyn (2011) - Directed by Simon Curtis

I have been traveling and working in the UK for the last four weeks. As I write this, I am entering into my final week of this trip. I have spent time working with many wonderful British people as well as getting a deep dose of the culture here and the work ethic. I also had the privilege of spending some time traveling around the country on some days off, taking in the beauty of the Lake District and even Scotland before the snow fell. It was wonderful to have this experience. However, I’ve also at times felt like a fish out of water. One of the great challenges to being in another country once the sightseeing stops, is to try to function within normal society. I haven’t encountered any other Americans on this trip (perhaps a good thing), which added to the feeling of being different. Maybe it’s the time of year or the poor economy, but it has been interesting to be the “only American” around. I’ve felt like the odd one out, speaking with an American accent at the grocery store or the mall doing ordinary things where tourists don’t normally venture. Today, in fact, I went somewhere that tourists don't normally go: I went to the cinema and saw Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn.  Not only is it a brilliant entertainment and a superb fantasy, but I found a catharsis and sympathy in Marilyn’s plight, as she too was a fish out of water in this story involving her coming to England to shoot a rather ill-fated film with actor/director Laurence Olivier.

My Week with Marilyn is based on the diaries and memoir by Colin Clark, “The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me” and "My Week With Marilyn"(he was 3rd Assistant Director on The Prince and the Showgirl), where he recounts his short-term, but supposed deep connection to the most famous of movie stars: Marilyn Monroe, played with pure conviction here by Michelle Williams. In 1956, she embarked on a project with Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Brannagh), pairing the two of them in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), with Olivier in fact behind the camera as well as in front. Olivier's film is a rather bland confection, but Clark’s memoir (he was 3rd Assistant Director on the film), and My Week With Marilyn, documents the story of Monroe’s difficulty to work with Olivier during the production, her troubles with her new marriage to Henry Miller, and the rather odd and fortuitous (for Clark) relationship with the young Clark during the making of the film. Many of the best and most interesting scenes in the film involve Marilyn, her Method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and Olivier as they fuss and fight over work styles. For fans of classic cinema, these scenes are absolutely delicious fun.

I don’t normally go for films like this. I found last year’s The King’s Speech (2010) to be rather as expected, not containing many surprises. There might be something more to My Week With Marilyn though. This is not a “biopic”, which is usually meant to portray the entire life and breadth of a key figure. Instead, this film captures a short term glimpse of a star and is not subjective to the baggage of normal biopics, with the usual length and sogginess that comes with trying to capture everything. This is a film from Clark’s perspective looking at Marilyn Monroe, not the internal perspective of Marilyn looking outward. We never really encounter Marilyn except in the presence of Clark, or sometimes Olivier as well. In this way, Marilyn remains at a distance from us just as initially Clark is at a distance from her. When Clark is brought inter her inner circle, we have the privilege of going there with him. It is the paralleled point of view of Clark and the audience that maintains this important synergy. What in fact makes the movie succeed is this rather strict and intentional point of view that allows the audience to maintain a link with the subjective source of the material, rather than become distanced as objective observers of the proceedings. Clark is a rather blank canvas of sorts. We project ourselves into his shoes and we become Clark through this point of view. It’s not that we are flies on the wall. We are, in fact, this young man. He, in essence, lived out what millions of people would consider their greatest fantasy: to spend intimate moments with a mega star. Be it Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Michelle Williams (or whomever), there surely are times when moviegoers or fans have dreamed about what it would be like to meet such a person. I’ve wondered myself what it would be like if I could go back in time and have lunch with Garbo. What would I say? What would I do? My Week With Marilyn allows us to realize such a fantasy and put us right in the middle of it. Of course, what's in it for Marilyn? It's all mostly a trifle with nothing behind it. She is directionless, drugged, and utterly tragic and despairing. Clark gets to enact his rather selfish fantasy. But, Marilyn remains the exploited one in all of this. Where is her solace to be found?

Of course here is where we must have a discussion of Michelle Williams. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should turn my entire blog into a Michelle Williams fan page as I’ve already written about her glorious acting in Blue Valentine (2010) and Meek’s Cutoff  (2010) and my vote of approval at this point is rather redundant. However, I must admit that normally when I see an actor or actress take a role such as this, I tend to think of it as a sellout. In this case though, I feel like Williams has paid her dues. She’s done the indie films and the small pictures and created tremendous work along the way. Thus, I think she deserved this role and the chance to shine for the masses. I think Williams has earned all the accolades she will get for this role. Whether it’s her greatest performance or not isn’t a point to bicker on. It will likely be her iconic performance though. It will be the one she is remembered for by most people many years from now. As Monroe, Williams rightly stays far from any sense of caricature. She doesn’t play it too big, which allows the audience to sympathize with her humanity, and there is a deep humility and respect at the core of the performance that provides a transparency even though Marilyn remains rather enigmatic. It’s brilliant stuff all the way.

Whether all of this really happened back in 1956 is beside the point. The conceit works whether it’s truth or fiction. I would probably be so inclined to believe that with decades in hindsight, Clark’s memoir (which I haven’t read yet) would be highly subjective to the haze that envelope memories as they grow old. I actually think the film tends to capture the golden glow of such memories to the point that the film is rather absurdly glossy. This is not a flaw. On the contrary, if the film were to enact a greater sense of importance or realism, it could have become far too soggy. By keeping the glossy and glowing look, it gives greater weight to the subjective point of view and perspective, and I personally could care less whether the story is true or completely fabricated. It works cinematically, and that's my main concern. Although it’s clearly not the best film of the year, it is one of the best films of its kind and in my world there is room for films like this.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Before Sunset (2004) - Directed by Richard Linklater

(This review contains spoilers)
In Before Sunset, Linklater’s follow-up to his romantic masterpiece Before Sunrise (1995), we pick up Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) 10 years after they initially met on a train in Europe. Their epic day spent in Vienna talking, ruminating about life and falling in love, ended with our two lovers departing and making plans to meet up 6 months later on the train platform where they parted ways in Vienna. Of course, they leave without exchanging phone numbers or any contact information, which leaves the viewer very skeptical that they would ever meet again. In Before Sunset, we learn not just what happened 6 months later, but also what else has transpired in their lives since then. Not only is Before Sunset a brilliant and essential follow-up to the first film, in some ways, it’s better.

At the beginning of Before Sunset, we meet Jesse at a bookstore where he is signing copies of his book in a Parisian bookstore. His book, apparently somewhat popular, is the “fictional” account of his day and night with Celine, which occurred roughly 10 years before. Celine happens to be in the bookstore, eyeing Jesse from the stacks of books. They make eye contact and Jesse drops what he’s doing and goes over to see her. They meet awkwardly, slowly begin conversation, and decide to go walk around Paris while talking, before Jesse has to catch an evening plane from Paris to his next stop. We understand immediately that Celine and Jesse never met up 6 months after their initial day together. In fact, this point is discussed early on in the film, clearing up some mystery as to why they didn’t get together. Jesse had made it back to Vienna, but Celine missed the date because her Grandmother died right beforehand, with the funeral occurring on that fateful Dec. 16, thus eliminating any chance of them meeting up again, until now. They spend the rest of the film, as in the first, talking about their lives.

If there’s one part of the film that doesn’t quite work well, it’s actually the opening moments of the film where Celine and Jesse meet. It feels a bit forced and awkward in that bookstore. Once they get out on the streets, the film takes off and the chemistry so electric in the first film, comes into focus again. When comparing the films, it is obvious that Before Sunrise is easily the most traditional of the two, including proceedings more entertaining for standard audiences. What the first film leans on are the encounters with various passers by: the actors, the palm reader, the poet-bum. These encounters pace the film and break up the “monotony” of having two people talk the whole time. In Before Sunset, side characters are eliminated. It is essentially Celine and Jesse, alone for 75 minutes in one long conversation. Thus, cinematically, it’s more risky, and also therefore less romantic in the traditional sense. I feel that this approach is probably closer to what Linklater was trying to get at in the first film, but, Linkater succeeds here in that he’s able to convey the ephemeral time together better. This film nearly occurs in real time, providing us essentially with the lone 70-90 minutes that they have to catch up. In this way, he infuses the film with a fleeting realism. This realism is also apparent in the progression of the discussions which go from polite introductions and jokes, to talk of careers, to the heated discussions of what happened “that day” and why their love lives have never compared with that ever since. This progression toward the more serious reflects our natural tendencies to get to know someone or open up with less important topics and gradually dig deeper.

If the first film was all about “What could life be like?”, then the second film is about “What could life have been like if...?”. This perspective is especially apparent from Jesse and Celine as they talk on the boat tour on the Seine and then continue a heated discussion in a car ride:
Jesse- Why weren’t you there in Vienna?
Celine- I told you why.
Jesse- Well I know why…I just….I wish you would have been. Our lives might have been so much different.
Celine- You think so?
Jesse- I actually do.

My favorite quote in the film is this one:
Celine- I guess when you’re young, you just believe there will be many people with whom you connect with......Later in life you realize it happens only a few times.

Finally the film comes to its most pointed moment here:
Celine- I was fine….until I read your f****ing book. It stirred shit up, you know? It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was and how I had so much hope in things, now it’s like I don’t believe in anything that relates to love. I don’t feel things for people anymore. In a way I put all my romanticism into that one night and I was never able to feel all this again. Like somehow this night took things away from me…..

All these quotes seem so very true, not just for these characters, but great observations about life. There is definitely a regret in the tone of the film, to not just being young and stupid as they say, but to a remorse for what happened to their lives over the last 10 years following their decisions. They are only in their early 30’s, and yet there’s the sense that things are too late for them, as if the decisions made between ages 20-30 set you up for the rest of your life. Missing that window has caused great heartache for both people. I applaud the skepticism and pessimism in this film, as it’s a sobering flipside to the romantic optimism of the first film. Taken together, both films make up one of the essential cinematic relationships.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Before Sunrise (1995) - Directed by Richard Linklater

In 1991, Richard Linklater’s experimental masterpiece Slacker was released. Made and shot on a shoestring in his home-town of Austin, Texas, it consisted of a sequence of vignettes (conversations basically) between a couple of characters that lasted anywhere from 5-10 minutes, whereupon the focus then shifted to a new group of people which we follow for another 10 minutes. So the film goes in its attempt to quantify and give weight to the conversations of a smart but rather directionless group of people. It’s arresting in its vibrancy, inventiveness, and quirky characters, whom by definition we never get to know very well. This style of conversation being the centerpiece of the film, was continued to lesser effect in his coming of age tale, Dazed and Confused (1993). Dazed feels like a feigned attempt at profundity and slogs through a high school genre exercise. But, his next film would be an essential slice of 90’s cinema, a film about talking and listening, of profound discussions of life, death, and love, and a relationship that is born, blossoms, and fades within 24 hours.

Before Sunrise takes the concept laid down in Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but is more mature and focuses on two people for the entire film, rather than groups, so we’re able to dig deep into two souls who have been brought together for a very short time. We’re introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy), a Parisian, on a train in Europe. She is reading in her seat, but is bothered by the arguing couple next to her. She picks up her stuff and moves to the back of the car and sits down next to Jesse (Ethan Hawke). He and she notice each other. He strikes up a conversation with her, a conversation that will last for something like the next 24 hours, after he convinces her to get off with him in Vienna where he needs to catch a flight back home, instead of her continuing on to Paris, which is her final destination. They both realize the next day they must part ways, but in between they spend the entire day, night, and next morning talking, listening, and falling in love. His asking her to go with him is no risk to him. He’s got nothing to lose. Celine’s acceptance of the improvised moment, to leave the train with Jesse, is her leap of faith to accept his trust without question. Their timid and awkward first moments after getting off the train soon lead to letting their guards down, to sharing their inner beliefs and dreams, leading to undeniably romantic passages of the film as they realize they might be each other's soul mates. Linklater's technique doesn't artificially trump-up the romance or create a false sense of preocupation for the audience. We feel that Celine and Jesse earn each other's trust, and our trust as the audience because they are generally interested in each other as equals, as human beings drawn together. This is all done through patience and observing human nature as it unfolds: jokes to break the ice, tentatively giving complements to the other, being respectful of the situation and not taking advantage of the other.

Filmed in Vienna, the film has a gorgeously romantic atmosphere and a few scenes highlight the chemistry between the leads. I love the scene on the trolley-car that is a 6-minute conversation done in one take. They are asking each other questions to get to know one another, and their conversation is funny and observant, and you almost don’t realize it’s one take because it's effortless. The next brilliant scene is after they’ve picked up a record in the record store and they go into the listening booth to hear it. Linklater’s camera focuses on both their faces at the same time as they listen to the yearning, romantic ballad with the tension literally boiling over. They both want to look at each other during the song. But every time Jesse looks at her, she looks at him and he turns away, and vice versa as they avoid making eye contact out of embarrasment. This scene aches with a tenderness that is unbearably real. Of course much of the film is devoted to just following them through the city as they wander, but they encounter a few people along the way that almost act as signposts for their relationship as it matures. First they meet a few goofy actors on the bridge who seem to hardly regard them as a serious couple. Later, a palm reader seems to recognize their connection and leaves them with these words, “You need to resign yourself to the awkwardness of life”. Then they encounter a poet, who leaves Celine and Jesse with a beautifully written poem, giving weight to their evening and connection. Finally, the bartender, recognizing that they are living the most important night of their lives, gives them a bottle of wine to share. As their connection increases, so does the awareness of their connection become apparent to others. Sure enough, their youthful, idealized romanticism is wrapped up in living for the moment without much regard for the consequences. Their relationship seems to exist outside of time itself, and in the morning they have to face tough decisions. As the film reaches its ending, it's clear that the romantic optimism for life that they share gets in the way of practical reality.  It's this tug-of-war between romanticism and reality that sets up the difficult decisions. My lasting impression I take from the film is that it encompasses that point in life where one wonders what one's life might be like, and what life could be. Celine and Jesse are constantly attempting to answer these questions.

This film wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for the winning performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, giving life and breadth to the film and commanding our attention for the entire length of it. They are literally onscreen together for nearly the whole film. Linklater’s script, co-written with Kim Krizan, is knowing and honest about life as a twenty-something, and most of Celine and Jesse’s discussions encompass not pop culture or current events, but timeless things like memories and fears, making the film far less dated than it could be today. Of course, at the end of the film, after Celine and Jesse are no longer in Vienna, a melancholic coda comes over the film, recapping through images, the places they went through the previous day. Only now with the light of day upon them, these places feel ordinary and empty, as if the fleeting moments they shared together are destined to remain only as memories... or will they? It’s no big secret that there is a sequel to the film, Before Sunset, which takes place 10 years after Before Sunrise, that is an essential companion to the first one. I will examine the sequel next week. But it’s the first film that can always stand on it’s own, and there is a freshness about Before Sunrise even today.  Before Sunrise is one of my favorite dramatic romances, along with Casablanca (1942) and Brief Encounter (1948).