Archive for Ridley Scott

Trying too hard

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2018 by dcairns

A fast-talking saleswoman (not Fiona) persuaded me to get the Sky movie channels, which means we’ve been able to catch up on a bunch of things we couldn’t be bothered seeing at the cinema. The generally unsatisfactory nature of the product discovered would allow me to congratulate me on my good judgement in giving it the go-by, except now I’ve gone and seen it, haven’t I?

What’s the name of the latest Ridley Scott sequel? — I want to say ALIEN VS PROMETHEUS — I will admit it doesn’t have P’s awful dialogue or nonsensical/stupid behaviour by characters. It just about makes sense as narrative. Except why open with a long, tedious discussion about the origins and purpose of human life — the central concern of the previous film, you may recall — if you’re never going to bring it up again? The ending is memorably horrible, I have to give them that, but the big silly fighting on a spaceship action climax doesn’t belong in this genre at all. What is this film supposed to be?

A friend asks: “Are the bodybuilders back?” I get a sudden false-memory flash: an arena full of the musclebound hearties, all furiously pumping iron. Why not?

But MAYBE I regret not seeing this on the big screen because Scott’s use of 3D, already assured, improved radically in THE MARTIAN (a terrific film, imho) and I can’t help wondering what it was like third time around.

ATOMIC BLONDE is dripping with style, but shall we say, somewhat overdone? As in, the titles identifying time and place (eighties Berlin) are not only in a dayglo spray-can font, but they spray on to the screen via animation, and there’s a spraying SOUND as they do so. Big long take fight scene which is really multiple takes stitched together digitally but impressing nonetheless. Charlize Theron essays sexy English accent and speaks in a whisper throughout. But has no opportunity to hit the emotions as she does in FURY ROAD. Nor does anyone else. The emotional flatline means that nothing feels surprising — we sure don’t care about the mission, and though there ARE plot twists, they carry no weight. The punch-ups are seriously ouchy, but there seems to be one every ten minutes, and they don’t lead to anything that feels like a development or paradigm shift. That’s as near as I can define what makes this slick thing seem so pointless and ugly.

IT has a similar problem. Set-piece after set-piece with almost no forward momentum. One of those films where an interesting director (Cary Fukunaga) quit ahead of shooting. Funny how creative differences always lead to creative sameness. The kids are all really good. Some dread is created, or it was for us, before repetition sets in. Yes, we get it, it’s about fear, but WHAT about fear? A lot of the problems may be in the source novel, but its the filmmakers’ job to solve them — they can’t be accused of being over-faithful to the letter of Stephen King’s doorstop (described by one critic at the time as five tons of crap in a three-ton crate). What insight into fear does the movie want to give us? And what supernatural rules does Pennywise the Clown follow? And what made anybody think having him turn into a giant spider was a good idea?

My personal aesthetic analysis: clowns can be scary, as we know, and if you take them out of the circus you get an added dissonance because they’re all dressed up, sureally inappropriate to their setting. A man looking out of a storm drain is scary, if he acts like he has a perfect right to be there. A similar kind of eerie out-of-placeness is created. He could be the modern equivalent of one of Magritte’s bowler hat guys. BUT — a clown in a storm drain is, again, trying too hard.BABY DRIVER is undoubtedly the best thing we saw. Edgar Wright reminds us that his stylistic paintbox contains more than just fast cutting — really lovely long take credits sequence. “You can see why they hired a choreographer,” exclaimed Fiona. The cast is terrific. Ansel Elgort (literally, Ansel the Gort) should be a star, although THAT NAME. Was there already a Captain McGlue in Actor’s Equity?

Only quibble is the ending, which literally takes five years to happen. One doesn’t like protracted endings. I somehow felt something problematic coming during the climax — a built-in indecision about who is the baddie (there are two candidates with better claims than the guy the settle on for their climactic confrontation), whether this should be a tragedy (I just don’t think the story has any weight if it isn’t) and if so, what is the hero’s tragic mistake (it seems to have happened before the movie starts, which isn’t the best approach)?But there’s such a wealth of film-making brio on display — maybe on a re-watch the ending won’t bother me so much. Why it bothers me now is partly because the rest of the film is so strong, and partly because it’s so symptomatic of the focus-grouped narrative soft-soaping that holds illimitable dominion over modern Hollywood. Like, we will never again have an ending that takes things further, or hits harder, than we expected.

To prove me wrong — what new films SHOULD I be seeing on cable?

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Skin Jobs

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2017 by dcairns

I turn fifty on the tenth of this month (accelerated decrepitude), which makes me the perfect age to have enjoyed BLADE RUNNER when it was brand new — it played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which sounds like quite a coup now, but of course the movie went on to perform poorly on first release. It’s nice to hear the sequel is getting lots of favourable attention, and I think we shall go see it. So to limber up, we revisited the original — actually, the first time we’d watched Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut.

“Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER is a cracker,” said the first line of The Scotsman’s review, as I recall.

I also remember a schoolfriend continually saying he was excited to see that new film, “RUNNER-THE-BLADE.”

And I remember when ITV showed the film the first time there was a warning that it was hard to understand nd you had to pay attention. The newspaper listing siad you needed to watch it from the beginning. The next day I heard two fellow students discussing it (I was at college by then): “How was it?” “I missed the first half, I couldn’t really understand it.” And this was the version with the over-explanatory VO.

H.F. giving it plenty of ‘tude. Not my fave close-up of him. But hands up if you enjoyed his Paul Linde impression when he visits Joanna Cassidy’s dressing room. Do you like it better than his Scotsman in LAST CRUSADE?

Part of what’s good about BR, arguably, asides from the sheen, is the muddled storytelling, which feels very seventies. You could make the dialogue hard to hear, like in THE FRENCH CONNECTION or HEAVEN’S GATE, and/or you could bury the essential plot info and make crucial character points impossible to visualise. Like, the replicants aren’t robots, they’re biological, but nobody comes right out and says that. Science fiction fans understand from the talk about genetic engineering that this is what’s going on, but non-nerds may be puzzled that the androids bleed.

But I want to talk a little about other, less deliberate and less reasonable muddle in BLADE RUNNER’s exposition. If you don’t like the film you’ll agree these are problematic. If you do like the film, you’ll hopefully find it striking that a film can be compelling even with such nonsensical elements in its storytelling.

The pencil-point next to the eyeball is a smart way to make the audience feel obscurely uncomfortable.

In the opening scene, we see a blade runner administering the Voight-Kampff test to Leon, a fugitive replicant. Replicants are apparently so identical to humans, despite being super-powered and having a four year lifespan, that the only way to spot one is by testing their emotional responses. This is exactly like the fabled psychopath test, with aspects of the polygraph thrown in for colour. Original author Philip K. Dick’s idea is that androids would be like psychopaths, emotionally defective copies of human beings. In came out of his researches into the Nazis for The Man in the High Castle. He claimed to have read a letter from a concentration camp guard, complaining to his wife, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick said, “There is something wrong with the mind that wrote that sentence.” Dick was thrilled when he saw the film pre-release, particularly by Rutger Hauer as replicant leader Roy Batty (cool that they have human names). Hauer looked a lot like a Nazi superman.

But why is it necessary to give Leon the Jon Voight Test? Later, police chief M. Emmet Walsh shows Harrison Ford photos of the replicants. They know he’s a replicant! Instead of testing his pupillary dilation, shouldn’t they just show him his photo and say, “Isn’t this you?” Or else just shoot him. It’s weirdly bureaucratic — which brings us back to the Nazis again — the movie actually makes the state and humans more Nazi-like, and there were plans to show replicant corpse-mountains at one point…

Dodgy vertical hold on shot of Rutger spinning on a swivel chair.

When Walsh shows the slides (looks like they’re on a big TV screen, but there’s a projector beam), he also explains to Ford, his top former blade runner, exactly what a blade runner does and what replicants are, and how they don’t have emotions… but Ford will later be seen administering the Jon Voight Test to Sean Young (he proves she’s not Jon Voight) so he must already know this. Theory: in films where audiences struggle to follow the plot and comprehend the story world, sometimes the confusion is actually heightened by scenes where characters tell each other things they should already know. Or DO already know — the infamous and deadly “As you know…” formulation, which is still very common in British TV and Harvey Weinstein productions. “As you know, I’m your father…” Improbably exposition throws everyone off-balance.

A lot of the off-base exposition could have been slipped into BLADE RUNNER’s opening crawl, I think, though you again have to be careful when feeding an audience info they haven’t any reason to be curious for yet. And it really helps when you swiftly follow the text info with visuals illustrating the point. STAR WARS does this. BLADE RUNNER doesn’t mention emotional tests, and talks sympathetically about the killing/retirement of replicants, whereas in the next scene its a blade runner who gets shot. (Also, strangely, the crawl is written in the past tense, unlike STAR WARS. Maybe the crawl-writer is looking back from 2049?) But of course one of the intriguing things about that first scene with Leon is that we don’t really understand what this test is. It’s a great hook.

Non-sci-fi types (muggles, mundanes, the unnerded) often have trouble with science fiction because they overthink it. They hear the jargon and believe they’re supposed to understand what it means, which is rarely true or important. They should really just ask who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In BLADE RUNNER, for the purposes of telling this story, we are to accept Ford as the hero, even though analysing the ramifications of the story world points towards a reading where Batty is a bit of a Spartacus figure and the blade runner is a sort of government hitman empowered to kill people for racial reasons. Sort of like a Florida policeman.

 

In the most recent editions of the film, the who-does-what-to-whom is very clear, but the first release version wasn’t even clear about how many replicants there were supposed to be on the loose. The excellent making-of book documents all this production muddle. You had two writers who didn’t meet until the premiere, where each thought the other was responsible for the awful VO. You had a director who hadn’t read the book: “I couldn’t finish it. It’s very densely written.” It’s 224 pages and was probably written in a week. One of the screenwriters didn’t get a chance to read it because he was bunged a copy of the script and ordered to start at once. He was probably correct to assume that any elements of the novel that hadn’t been included were left out because the producers didn’t want them.

Neither of the talented screenwriters felt he was terribly good at writing clues — a fairly important element in most detective stories. In the finished BLADE RUNNER, Ford’s stand-in finds a snake scale in Leon’s bathtub, in a scene shot back in the UK after the main shoot had finished. Then he does a scan of a photo found in the flat, eventually printing out a Polaroid (!) of Joanna Cassidy as Zora, another replicant. It isn’t clear in the super-grainy snap, but I think it’s her facial tattoo of a snake that causes him to realise that what he’s found is a snake scale. But then he goes to the market and asks if it’s a fish scale. So, if he doesn’t know what it is, what was the purpose the elaborate photo analysis? What information is gained?

Wait, i think I have it. I guess he finds Zora in the bath, thus associating her potentially with the scale, so the scale might lead to her. Whereas if the scale was Leon’s, it wouldn’t have been a useful clue.

But you see, that’s me putting this all together thirty-five years after seeing the movie. Though admittedly I haven’t spent all of the intervening time trying to figure this out.

Still, I’m pleased with my Eureka! moment in Leon’s bathtub.

The Look 3: McDowell Toasts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Since Donald Benson helpfully mentioned the starchild/space baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to answer that cool gaze.

I like it when films join up like that. Just think, if Kubrick had made NAPOLEON in 1970 as originally planned, this wouldn’t have happened, or not so neatly.

The film’s aren’t as directly successive, but it’s kind of neat the way Fred Gwynne finds some chewing gum stuck under his balcony railing in Bertolucci’s LA LUNA — Marlon Brando’s last act in  LAST TANGO IN PARIS was to stick his gum under Maria Schneider’s railing (and no, that’s not a euphemism for something beastly).

But back to this look. As Kubrick’s camera withdraws from closeup, via a zoom and a dolly back, Malcolm raises his glass to the audience. The next day, after seeing the rushes, Kubes rushed up to him and congratulated him on that detail. He hadn’t noticed. Despite the fact that he was operating the camera himself.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. A camera operator, during a moving shot, tends to concentrate on the edges of the frame more than the subject, checking the composition is working and that no unwelcome boom mic or tracks or, god forbid, crewmembers, have come into shot. This is why Harrison Ford was displeased to find Ridley Scott handholding the camera in BLADE RUNNER — he knew the director wouldn’t be watching his performance. (But Richard Lester speaks of his great pleasure at precisely the act of watching a great performance being delivered into the lens, while operating — but Lester would tend to operate on the wide shot, which wouldn’t require him to adjust so much for movement, leaving most of his great brain free to watch and assess the acting.)

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In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler.