November 27, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Twenty-five years after its debut, and 15 years after his "Director's Cut", Ridley Scott has finally completed Blade Runner. I am a big fan of this movie. I was too young (10) to see the movie in the theater in 1982, but I taped it off TV when I was a teen and watched it many times. In 1992 I saw the Director's Cut at the old Nickelodeon (now closed): the Director's Cut removed the "happy" ending and the voiceover narration from the taped-from-TV version I had been watching for years. Around 1994 I bought the Director's Cut on laserdisc and watched it many more times over the last 13 years. It's one of my 10 favorite movies, but there are a bunch of revealing mistakes, continuity errors, and technical limitations which deserve fixing in a movie of this quality. Scott has finally found the money and the time to fix those problems, plus tweak some of the scenes for his artistic preference, and The Final Cut is the result.
Besides watching the taped-from-TV version and the Director's Cut many times, I also have read a lot about this movie. Even a super-fan like me found the Final Cut to be only a subtle artistic tweak of the Director's Cut, with a little smoothing of the rough edges thrown in. Anyone who only knows the film casually will only notice the lack of a voiceover narration, and the removal of the happier ending. (Coolidge Corner with my brother Jon)
Stub Hubby Reviews Ridley Scott

November 25, 2007

I'm Not There

How do you make a movie about Bob Dylan? Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine) decided to explode the mythical, iconic Dylan by illustrating discrete pieces of the Dylan legend, each with its own story, and each with its own actor. The result: A surprisingly successful impressionistic collage, exploring who Bob Dylan was: to himself, to the public, to the press.

Marcus Carl Franklin is "Woody Guthrie", the 11-year-old black boy in 1960, who represents the young Bobby Zimmerman's adolescent soul. I know it sounds totally corny, but it works. Christian Bale is "Jack Rollins", the early Protest Dylan, all chambray shirts and humorlessness, before the cynicism kicked in. Heath Ledger is "Robbie", the domestic Dylan, who falls in love with a French woman (the montage is set to "I Want You", of course) but can't make himself emotionally available, or keep his cyncism from seeping in. Ben Whishaw is "Arthur Rimbaud", the inner philosopher, who answers the questions about life no one asks Dylan in reality. Richard Gere is "Pat Garrett", the withdrawn hermit Dylan. Does this represent Dylan's post-motorcycle crash 18-month sabbatical, when Dylan got off the carousel and tried to leave his public life behind? Perhaps this represents the older Dylan and his withdrawal from public life.

All of these pieces don't fit together so much as complement each other. I don't think we're any closer to understanding Dylan than we were already, but I'm Not There goes a long way towards justifying his eccentricity. Dylan comes off as a nasty jerk at times, but this movie explains why, even better than the documentary Don't Look Back.

imnotthereCate Blanchett is fantastic as the 1965-66 Dylan who turns away from Protest Folk music towards his own brand of electrified rock. This is the Bob Dylan (or "Jude Quinn", as he's called in these scenes) documented in Don't Look Back: tired of meeting stranger's expectations, surly towards the press and their inane questions, and protective of his art. Blanchett gets all the subtleties of the voice, the mannerisms (especially the fidgeting with cigarettes), and her final shot, where Quinn takes off her Ray-Bans and stares into the camera, was perfect. It reminded me of some of the interview footage in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home documentary.

I found the movie to be a little bit too long. I felt that the movie made it's points very well, but it didn't need to go on as long as it did. (Landmark Embassy Cinema, Waltham, with Em and George and Mandy)

November 22, 2007

The Mist

themistAn excellent adaptation of one of my favorite Stephen King stories. A creepy bugs 'n' tentacles horrorfest, crossed with a "Lord of the Flies"-style disintegration of civilization. Director-screenwriter Frank Darabont made a great movie out of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and he gets all the big stuff and small stuff right in The Mist. A freak summer storm triggers a catastrophic failure at an Area 51-style base in Maine. An unnatural mist overtakes a nearby town, and a storeful of shoppers are trapped inside an old-fashioned supermarket when their world disappears outside. Unlike most "end of the world" movies (Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow), where the omniscient camera instantly travels the globe to show us every data point related to the catastrophe, there's no briefings with the President in The Mist. We only know what the townsfolk can conjecture. Three Army privates share a little second-hand information about The Arrowhead Project, but the basis for the whole story is that no one knows what happened, when it will end, or why.

The shoppers quickly discover that the mist hides hideous monsters, monsters which will snatch up anyone who sets foot outside. The monsters are more than nasty enough. One character gets stung on the neck by a giant locust, and is dead within five minutes. Spiders spin webs which burn into the skin. These aren't Jumanji-style "just swat 'em with a tennis racket" bugs: the humans don't stand a chance. Kinda like the movie Jurassic Park would have been if Steven Spielberg had the guts to kill characters we cared about. Perhaps the flying bugs are a little too well detailed. They are given multiple close-ups, and the effects are very good, but most of the movie is shot in a handheld, digital video style, with plenty of shaky zooms and "unplanned" camera movement. So when we are shown a long, steady closeup of a locust hovering in front of Marcia Gay Harden, I wished the bug was photographed as shakily as the rest of the movie. My favorite bugs in the whole movie are the ones we barely see: the creature which kills Ollie has at least four pointed legs like a scorpion. Then there's creature King describes in the book, as his survivors try to drive south to escape the mist: a lumbering beast so giant, it towers over the highway, its legs so long the body cannot be seen passing above. Darabont nails it perfectly- we can barely make it out through the mist, but my imagination made up the difference.

The performances were all good. As the rational protagonist, Thomas Jane hits all the important character points just right: strong and resourceful, yet vulnerable and protective of his son. While his is the lead character, the whole movie balances on Marcia Gay Harden as the town's superstitious crank, who evolves into a murderous religious zealot as the walls close in. Her doom crying and Old-Testament babble is the emotional pivot which turns the movie, and if she couldn't support the movie's weight, the whole thing would have collapsed. Darabont assembled a fine cast of supporting players, including Toby Jones, Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, and William Sadler. My wife liked Nathan Gamble as Thomas Jane's son, and I was distracted by the weird face of Sam Witwer as Pvt. Wayne Jessup: besides his giant cleft chin, he clearly has a unibrow issue which he fixes with severe grooming. I kept staring at the hairless space between his brows- I could almost see the dotted line where the plucking begins.

Readers of the story will remember that the book ends with an open-ended "Hitchcock" ending. This wouldn't be satisfactory for a feature film which I paid $11 to see: people want a resolution. I feel that Darabont's ending, while traumatic, is close to as good as you could write. I am more frustrated with the marketing weasels, who included a shot in the TV commercials which gives away the ending. Even someone who had not read the book could catch this spoiler if they were paying attention. All through the movie, that one shot from the TV spot was lingering in the back of my mind, spoiling away.

THEATER NOTES: Emily and I went to the AMC Aviation 12 in Linden NJ, with Emily's sister Becca. Planning against a busy post-holiday crowd, I got us to the multiplex 30 minutes in advance, and we ended up the first persons to sit in the theater. Oh well. While walking out of the theater around 10pm, we were greeted by a couple + their four year old son standing in the doorway. Please God tell me that they weren't taking a child to see that movie! I think spiders bursting from a dead man's chest, a pterodactyl ripping a man's neck out, and a bisected corpse being dragged through a parking lot are a little much for the Spongebob set.

November 16, 2007

Great Prosthetic Devices in Movie History

  • C.D. Bales's Nose, in Roxanne
    "You feel yourself not staring. Then you think, "it's obvious I'm not staring." So you look, and you think, "I'm staring." So you say, "this is ridiculous," and you take a good look. And you think, "I'm looking at a man who, when he washes his face, loses the bar of soap."
    How many movies rest on a nose? Could this movie be made with a bad prosthetic nose? Through every minute of the film, viewers scrutinize the protruding proboscis Steve Martin wears as C.D. Bales in this 1987 romantic comedy. The fake nose is completely seamless. When Bales (or another character) touches the nose, it looks completely lifelike, or at least how you'd imagine a nose that size would look. The amount of energy which must have gone into such a perfect fake nose must be staggering.
  • The Hobbit feet in The Lord Of The Rings • There are 1,001 special effects challenges in The Lord Of The Rings, but the fact that Hobbits always go barefoot must have been the most tedious. It's all too easy for a science fiction or fantasy novelist to mention peculiar features of their characters: Zaphod Beeblebrox's two heads, and Hobbits' oversized bare feet come to mind. Making these peculiar features seem lifelike is much more work. The Hobbit feet are completely unspectacular, and their screen time is pretty limited. The feet make this list as an honor to Peter Jackson and his cast and crew, for going to the trouble of putting those latex feet on over and over again.
  • grouchomarxGroucho Marx's eyebrows and mustache • Groucho's greasepaint mustache and eyebrows turned his comedic character's face into a joke as broad as the humor of the Marx brothers' movies, and turned the Groucho character into a instantly recognizable worldwide icon. People around the world of all ages have seen the "Groucho Marx" disguise, an instant shorthand for laughs.
  • The Joker's face, in Batman (1989) • The comic books of the 1980s portrayed the Joker as a caricature of a man, with hideously distorted features. The 1989 Tim Burton movie bothered to create a reasonable origin for the Joker: Jack Napier, a powerful Mob lieutenant, is shot through the face, then nearly drowns in toxic chemicals, which bleach his skin and hair. His back-alley surgeon butchers the patch-up job, and the Napier's mind cracks after one glance at his new permanent grimace in the mirror. The prosthetic face Nicholson wears, especially when he wears flesh-tone makeup over his sickly white skin, is very effective.
  • Spock's ears, on Star Trek • The fake ears Leonard Nimoy wore every week on Star Trek were perfect. The combination of the ears, haircut, eyebrows, and makeup were very effective in making Leonard Nimoy (who looked kind of exotic anyways) look like an alien without being distracting.
  • Marko Ramius's hair, in The Hunt For Red October • Sean Connery has been losing his hair for a long time. When he began wearing follicular supplements we may never know. What we do know, however, is that the most spectacular, realistic, and flattering hairpiece he ever wore in a movie as as Captain Ramius in The Hunt For Red October. I recently saw Entrapment again on HBO, and his hairpiece in that movie was very good, and must have been expensive. There's no reason why any of Connery's fictional portrayals require hair, but I bet Connery has it in his contracts that the studio must provide a top-shelf hairpiece.
  • melaniegriffithMaria Ruskin's breasts, in The Bonfire Of The Vanities • I had to include a pair of famously augmented breasts on this list, and the story of Melanie Griffith's breast augmentation is famously well-documented: according to The Devil's Candy, Julie Salamon's book on the making of Vanities, Griffith had the boob job done after the exteriors were shot on location in New York, but before the production returned to Los Angeles for the interior scenes. Griffith gives her new implants a workout, with one spectacular orange gown, and two striptease scenes.

    Speaking of stripteases, an honorable mention goes to Demi Moore's breasts in Striptease. Moore was paid a then-record $12,000,000 to play the part, and specifically, to show the world her boob job.

  • The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz • She's the iconic Witch: the makeup and prosthetics which transform Margaret Hamilton into the Witch serve the character, not themselves- if pressed to describe the character, I might say "she's evil and hideous" not, "she has green skin, a big nose, and a pointy chin".

November 9, 2007

No Country For Old Men

nocountryforoldmen A quality "meditation on unknowable evil" movie, well-crafted by Joel and Ethan Coen. Llewelyn Moss, a down-on-his-luck unemployed welder (Josh Brolin) happens upon the remains of a drug buy gone wrong in the broad parched landscape of Texas. He finds a case full of money. He might have made it away scot-free, but he makes a series of rookie mistakes, and is soon tracked down by a sociopathic bounty hunter named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Meanwhile, the local Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) is closing in on Llewelyn and Anton, while despairing the decline of civilization in America, and feeling his own mortality. If this sounds like the kind of movie I normally avoid, you're right: its trailer was awesome, and I have a pretty high satisfaction ratio on Coen brothers projects. If it had been marketed like the Brad Pitt / Casey Affleck Western The Assassination Of Jesse James (A contemplative meditation set amongst the lyrical beauty of the American West) then I would not have even rented it. However, No Country has a well-crafted cat-and-mouse chase at its center, with the scrappy and resourceful Llewelyn barely staying ahead of his dark destiny, embodied by the clever, soulless killing machine embodied by Anton. The chase would have been more fun to watch if a> Anton had not been portrayed as indefatigable and humorless, and b> there were an "action" musical score to add some emotional relief.

Without a musical score, and including a murderous sociopath who is so potent he nearly kills by force of will alone, the viewer is granted no relief from the tension of potential sudden death. We are never given any clue that a character is safe for even a moment, placing us in the same paranoid fever as Llewelyn. Anton passes through any door with his air gun, which pops any lock with the press of a button. Anton kills through any wall or door with his shotgun + silencer, which kills instantly and silently. No door and no wall is secure against him.

Anton plays his bounty hunter as a unstoppable, unfeeling Grim Reaper: he takes some lives and passes by others. He can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with, and he will not stop, until Sarah Connor is dead. Oh wait, wrong movie: Anton reminded me a lot of the Terminator.

There's a scene in the middle of the movie lifted straight from The Terminator (1984): Anton is pursuing Llewelyn when Llewelyn shoots him with a shotgun. Anton barely escapes. Anton retreats to his motel room and patches himself up, silently cleaning his wound, picking out buckshot, injecting himself with needles, all without any apparent feeling. In another symbolic scene, Anton suffers a much more severe injury, one which a>demands professional medical attention, and b>means almost certain capture by the police. Yet Anton picks himself up and keeps going, staggering down the sidewalk, completely unaffected, simply existing in one direction only.

I found one of the common Coen brothers tropes frustrating and unnecessary: Anton travels by murdering ordinary people for their cars. The Coen brothers seem to take some kind of perverse comedic pleasure in placing ordinary corn-fed Americans in the path of certain death, then watching them squirm on the hook a bit before executing them. They've treated us to these vignettes in Fargo and Raising Arizona, among others, and it happens a few too many times in this movie as well. We're shown his murderous vehicle-acquisition technique a few times, but the final time, when he murders a chicken farmer for his truck, it's played for laughs which seem completely tasteless to me.

As I said above, I generally avoid contemplative meditations on life and death, but I am glad I saw this one. Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin are excellent. Tommy Lee Jones is as perfect as usual, although he played a very similar role in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The "thriller" sequences are taut and well-crafted, without the cinematic tricks the Coens used to rely on. (Kendall Square Cinema)