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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (****)

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

Seeing Blade Runner as a boy was like witnessing a fortune telling of my future. I knew when I first laid eyes on Rick Deckard, the laconic blade runner who hunts Replicants in dystopian Los Angeles circa 2019, I'd end up just like him in three specific ways. First, I would have a short haircut. (I actually had a variation of Harrison Ford's Caesar haircut for a while in the '90s.) Second, I would still be single in my 30's. (Kudos to me for keeping that dream alive.) Third and most importantly, like Deckard, I'd be willing to have sex with a robot. (If she looked like Sean Young, although I'm sure when they're eventually invented, fembots will be much hotter.)

The 1992 Director's Cut of Blade Runner has always been the definitive version for me. I've watched it at least a dozen times over the last 15 years. I've also seen the theatrical cut on video with the voice over and more upbeat ending. The harsher, colder, more impenetrable Director's Cut, even with its unicorn dream that Sir Ridley Scott thinks supposedly "proves" Deckard is a Replicant, resonates with me much more.

Deckard has never been a hero by any measure a traditional hero is defined. He shoots a Replicant in the back. He coldly and cruelly reveals to Rachael that all of her memories are implanted from Tyrell's niece, which means she's a Replicant. He then calls Rachael while he's on a case and asks her out even after the way he treated her. Worst of all is their "love scene", where he becomes alarmingly violent both physically and emotionally as he forces himself on Rachael.

The "love scene" is an example of just how vital the score by Vangelis is. Vangelis' haunting music may be the single most important component of Blade Runner. Without the score laid over the "love scene", for example, it would play much, much differently. You can replace the word "love" with "robot rape".

Personally, I still don't believe Deckard is a Replicant. It just doesn't make sense from what we're shown of him and how his few associates behave towards him in the movie. The arguments towards him being a Replicant -- Unicorn! He has red eyes in one shot! More unicorns! -- don't wash with me. Deckard being human -- in some ways being more cruel and dangerous than the robots he hunts -- is the way I prefer to view his character. It makes for a better, more resonant story than "Deckard was a robot all along!" Sir Ridley can insert all the unicorns he wants into his movie, but I'll never buy Rick Deckard is a robot. But the beauty of Blade Runner is that it's ambiguous enough for either interpretation.

After years of blundering about with the rights to the film, the 20th anniversary restoration of Blade Runner in 2002 was completely blown, but here now for the 25th anniversary is the Final Cut, which Sir Ridley promises is the definitive Blade Runner. Having finally seen the Final Cut, it really ain't all that different from the Director's Cut. It actually is just the Director's Cut with a few added shots here and there and some altered or added dialogue noticable only to nerds who know the lines by heart. (That'd be me.)

Here's what I noticed as new or different:

* Bryant giving a bit more information about Leon to Deckard.
* A couple of added shots of the spinner in the air as Deckard heads to the Tyrell building to Voight-Kampf Rachael.
* A shot of Deckard's car entering the garage of his apartment building.
* The death of Zhora has finally been fixed where it is no longer clearly a stuntman in the wig that Deckard shoots in the back and crashes through glass.
* The dialogue where Rachael asks Deckard what he would do if she ran is different. In the Director's Cut the lines are: "Would you come after me? Shoot me?" In the Final Cut the words are now "Hunt me?" To which Deckard replies in the Director's Cut: "No. But someone would." But the Final Cut, there's a new line in the middle: "No. I owe you one. But someone would."
* When Roy Batty confronts Tyrell, in the Final Cut he demands, "I want more life, father." Much more polite than in the Director's Cut: "I want more life, fucker."
(In both instances, I prefer the Director's Cut's dialogue.)

The pivotal, iconic, climactic dialogue from Roy Batty (invented on set by Rutger Hauer) thankfully remains untouched:

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've seen c-beams glitter in the dark of Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like... tears in rain."

It would have been lunacy to change anything about that scene; in a way the entire experience of watching the movie hinges on it.

Despite the minor additions and alterations, I'm glad to see the Final Cut is the same bleak, sad, difficult, and strangely moving Blade Runner I've loved for half my life. They just don't make 'em like that anymore. 

"Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beowulf: The IMAX 3D Experience (****)


The Lies Heroes Tell

"How many sea monsters were there?"
"Huh. Last time there were three."

With that exchange, Beowulf shifted gears in the first act from being a gimmicky CGI Hollywood blockbustering of the ancient heroic tale to something much more. Unferth, counsel to Hrothgar, King of the Danes, has doubts that the boastful hero from across the sea who has come to Denmark promising to kill the monster Grendel is all he boasts he is. Unferth questions Beowulf about his losing a swimming match in a prior exploit. We see a flashback where Beowulf weaves a tale of a five day swimming match interrupted by a sea monster attack. You see, Beowulf lost the swimming match because he had to kill the sea monsters. The number of sea monsters varies according to whatever Beowulf needs at that moment to impress his listeners.

Yet Beowulf makes no mention of what we see in the flashback, where the final "sea monster" was a lusty mermaid. So what really happened? Or did any of it happen? How accurate are the legends of Beowulf's heroic deeds? The answers are who knows, probably, and they're whatever you want to believe.

What about the mermaid? Perhaps the mermaid in the flashback is symbolic of Beowulf's weakness, which he shares with all classical heroes: women and lust. Against any manner of man, beast or monster, the classical hero is indomitable. But against a beautiful woman, even the bravest, mightest hero finds the shinest armor or sharpest blade of little help. The enemy becomes the deepest desires within the hero. They spell his own undoing.

Beowulf does exactly as he comes to do, as the story goes. He takes on Grendel in Hrothgar's beer hall and kills him to the acclaim of all in Hrothgar's city. Then Grendel's Mother visits Beowulf in a dream and scares the mead out of him. I liked how mighty Beowulf suddenly turned into a trembling nervous wreck as he finds out that Grendel has a mother and his job isn't done. Naturally, when the mighty hero is faced with Grendel's Mother, guised in the gorgeous, shimmering, golden, wet, naked form of Angelina Jolie, in her magic cave, he caved.  All those promises of power and glory and being eternally king; they all sounded pretty good but what's even more good was the naked, wet, golden Angelina Jolie cartoon. It wasn't a fair fight.

Another neat thing about Beowulf was how the choice he made of lying about killing Grendel's Mother essentially ruined his life. The old king Hrothgar made the same choice when he was young and it came back to bite him in the ass. I liked how as soon as he saw the new kid fuck up, Hrothgar saddled him with the burden of the crown and jumped out the window. You've never seen a naked old man happier to die. Meanwhile, Beowulf's awesome life of traveling the world killing monsters and bagging comely lasses was over. Beowulf was stuck with a kingdom he didn't want, a queen who would have fucked him but now wouldn't touch him with a ten foot spear, a God he didn't want ("Christ Jesus, the Roman God"), and the burden of being the greatest hero who never killed a demon like he said he did.

Like King Arthur, Beowulf had a bastard on the way. And like Arthur's bastard Mordred, clad in golden armor, Beowulf's bastard is a golden man who morphs into a golden dragon (seems like Beowulf's DNA is better than Hrothgar's. Hrothgar's sperm only made Grendel, a deformed monster who didn't like loud singing.) The fight between old man Beowulf and the giant dragon is all it's cracked up to be. Beowulf's moment of realization of what he had to do to pierce the dragon's heart (a solution totally telegraphed by Hrothgar in act one telling Beowulf step by step how to do it) totally eclipsed every time Martin Riggs had to separate his own shoulder in the Lethal Weapon movies.

It's particularly enjoyable how Beowulf showed both the young hero at the height of his powers and later as an old man coming back for one last heroic deed that must end in his demise. Like Rocky in Rocky Balboa, that old chestnut of the aged hero coming back one more time to do the impossible never fails. I definitely dug old man Beowulf taking on his dragon son more than naked young Beowulf fighting Grendel. Both were awesome, but you can't top an old man vs. a dragon.

What is it with movies this past year with naked dudes fighting? First Borat, then Eastern Promises, and now Beowulf; they all feature naked dudes slugging it out. Beowulf went to comical, Austin Powers-esque lengths to conceal Beowulf's cock and balls before, during and after his fight with Grendel. I assume Robert Zemeckis kept all the fully rendered footage of Beowulf's balls for his own private collection. Maybe we'll see Beowulf's cock in Planet Hollywood someday.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

American Gangster (****)


That Ol' Blue Magic

Did I ever mention Denzel Washington is my favorite movie star? Odd if that's news to you. Seems like I say it over and over to everyone within earshot whenever a new Denzel picture opens. Let me state for the record, gentle reader, that Denzel Washington is my favorite movie star. I like a lot of actors, I'll go see a movie because of certain actors (I also hate certain actors and abhor seeing their movies but we won't go there), but there's only one guy at the top for me. There's Denzel and then there's everybody else. Ever since I was a teenager and saw Malcolm X for the first time (although it took me another 10 years to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is now one of my favorite books), Denzel has been The Man. "My man," as he likes to say.

I was one year old when Frank Lucas was sent to prison for conspiracy to distribute narcotics so the filthy, corrupt, crime-ridden New York City of the early 1970's depicted in American Gangster is the stuff of legend. New York today can still be dangerous although I lived there for years, still visit often, and never see any crime firsthand. Sir Ridley Scott and his filmmaking team palpably recreate New York circa 1968-1976. This was a time when the microwave oven was a new and scary invention.

So thorough and immersive is the experience that you can almost smell the sweat and desperation of the junkies and can almost feel the grit and dirt under your fingernails. From the apartment buildings in the projects of Harlem to the swank night clubs owned by the Mafia to the seedy diners in New Jersey, everything feels authentic. The soundtrack is persuasively of the era yet avoids being a jukebox of the most obvious pop hits. Plenty of movies have parodied the 70's in recent years but American Gangster doesn't mock, it brings the era to life.

About half an hour into the picture, Frank Lucas dons an afro wig and observes incognito as the pure grade heroin he purchased from Southeast Asia reaches his customers on the street. I sat there wondering what was going through his mind as he watched his fellow black people shoot up his "Blue Magic", heroin with a brand name as "trusted" as Pepsi. This is something Malcolm X wouldn't have stood for, to have a black man poison other black people and get rich off their addiction.

A few scenes later, Lucas reaches out to his family living in poverty in North Carolina and brings them all to a brand new estate in New Jersey, which he built for his elderly mother. They have a loving Thanksgiving dinner before Lucas brings his brothers and cousins back to Harlem and makes them underbosses in his "company". Frank Lucas is a man who gives a speech about how family is the most important thing, and then he immediately lets them watch as he shoots a rival in the head on the street in broad daylight.

Frank Lucas falls for and marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen, convinces her he's a gentleman, and later beats his cousin to death at a party in his home in front of her and their guests. He's devoted to his wife, never gives a second glance at the cheap and easy prostitutes during his Vietnam excursions, but makes the women who cut and bag his heroin work completely naked "so they don't steal anything."

Frank Lucas is fucking fascinating.

Not quite as fascinating but intregal to the story (because if he didn't exist, Frank Lucas would have only risen and not fallen), is Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest cop who brings Lucas down. Roberts is famous within the New York drug community as the cop who found a million dollars in unmarked bills and turned it into evidence instead of pocketing it like all the other crooked cops. Roberts may be a straight arrow but he's also got his crazy streak; I especially liked a scene in the park when some teenagers were annoying him to he threatens that he's "gonna have to kill" them because they didn't shut the fuck up like he ordered.

Roberts's unyielding honesty as a cop balances his disasterous personal life as a dead beat dad who cheats on his wife Carla Gugino with strippers, hookers, and his hot divorce lawyer. But goddamn it, Roberts isn't on the take, so he's the good guy. And he is, in spite of his failings. There's a heartbreaking scene where Gugino calls him out at their custody hearing for being a deadbeat philanderer and Roberts realizes she's right, surrenders the fight for his son, and walks out of the courtroom.

The home run of the movie's plotting, though, is the fur coat. Frank Lucas is a stylish man but he's business-like and proper in his appearance. He scolds his younger brother Chwetel Ejiofor (another of my favorites, reunited with Denzel from Spike Lee's Inside Man) for wearing a gaudy "clown suit", musing that the "flashiest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room." The one time Lucas breaks his own rule, when his wife Eva gives him a ghastly fur coat and hat which he wears to Ali-Frasier II so as not to offend her, he draws attention to himself and gets made by Roberts and his special narcotics team. (What a shame they couldn't get Will Smith to cameo as Muhammad Ali.) Later, when Lucas realizes what did him in, he throws the fur coat in the fireplace. Let that be a lesson to all men: don't ever wear a big, stupid fur coat. 

American Gangster is a pretty fucking great movie but it does run a bit long. Denzel and Crowe only finally come face to face in the final ten minutes, reuniting them for the first time since 1996's Virtuosity, a year before Crowe achieved stardom in LA Confidential. Their scenes, as Denzel agrees to work with Crowe to name names and bring down the corrupt New York cops, are an all-too-rushed denouement wrapping up the story. As good as their scenes together are, they lack the electricity of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino's coffee shop conversation in Heat. The closing title cards even run over their scenes.

The last shot of Lucas walking out of the federal penitentiary in 1991 with Public Enemy playing on the soundtrack is pretty awesome. By the time he walks out a free man, his wife has long since left him, his family members are still in prison or dead, his money is gone, and he missed the 1980's entirely. Yet one gets the impression that while he's out of Blue Magic, he's still got some of that ol' black magic and he can make it all happen again.