“Blade Runner” (1982) movie review

BadeRunnerStill a visionary masterpiece? On the rare occasion that I do not feel compelled to see one of the weekly new releases, I enjoy taking my Thursday night and watching an older movie that would be fun to review. As it turns out, it dawned on me that I had never seen Ridley Scott’s Neo-Noir Blade Runner despite the fact that it it a critically acclaimed film and highly regarded by many of my contemporaries. I have found that sometimes you have seen clips, heard people reference it, and simply hear the title so much that you think you have seen it. Then you realize that you’re familiar with the ideas, concept, or story but not the movie itself. So, I decided to watch it for Throwback Thursday and review it today. Unfortunately, I have been struggling with connecting with the film as so many other filmmakers and film lovers have. When watching a movie from 30+ years ago, I do my best to place myself in the shoes of the audience then. But, I am having difficulty this time. As a peer-reviewed cinema researcher, I believe that no matter how old a film is that it should still be relevant and impact audiences many decades down the road. Truthfully, I am not entirely seeing why it is such a regarded film still to this day. However, it is definitely an artistic masterpiece due to the technical elements of the production. So in many ways, yes, it still IS an iconic visionary masterpiece; but, fails to connect or resonate with audiences today.

Travel to a dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2020, or present day Detroit; take your pick. Many have fled the city for colonies on other planets or to the far north of the city to escape the rampant chaos. In the early to mid 2010s, Tyrell Corporation invented Replicants (or human-like androids) to carry out menial tasks and hard labor in a modern slavery fashion. Each unit was programmed to last for a specific amount of time (4yrs +/-). When a small band of Replicants decided that they wanted to take their lives into their own hands, they return to earth from the planet they were slaving way on and are determined to force Tyrell Corp to fix them. These Replicants led by Roy (Rutger Hauer) will stop at nothing. Over the years, when the Replicants began to pose a threat to humanity, special operations forces known as Blade Runners were trained to “retire” the androids. Former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has been reactivated and forced to retire the small band of Replicants that pose a threat in the already dystopian Los Angeles. Follow Deckard as he conducts an investigation and is fearful of his own life as he attempts to track down and “retire” the remaining Replicants before they achieve long-lasting life. All seems pretty routine until he encounters a special Replicant named Rachael (Sean Young) at Tyrell Corp.

It doesn’t take long to understand that this film is a neo-noir detective movie that takes place in a dystopian future. Neo-noir is regarded as a film noir style movie produced after the classic film noir period (which was relatively short (~1940s-50s). This genre [although, technically, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that film noir is more of a style not a true genre] follows many of the same tropes and elements found in film noir (think Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity, classic detective movies, or Orson Welles). Often, the protagonist is a solitary individual who finds him or herself in over his or her head who faces or exhibits perpetual pessimism, fatality, or menace in a plot consisting of cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. From a technical perspective, film noir (or neo-noir) is stylistically dark, high contrast, low key lighting, contains strategic shadows, and shots filled with symbolism and dichotomy. The plots are usually slow burning and contain social commentary or a self-reflexive narrative. Once analyzing this movie as a neo-noir, it becomes more fascinating but still lacks that timelessness that can be found in some of the examples mentioned earlier in this paragraph. As a artistic film, I am impressed with the vision of Ridley Scott. As a classically-regarded and praised film, I am not very impressed. Although, I find that it is an excellent example of how many in the early 1980s viewed the future and that is is a fantastic example of neo-noir style filmmaking.

One of the biggest problems I had with the film is the fact that I had trouble loving the protagonist or hating the antagonist, or feeling sympathy for either of the aforementioned. In screenwriting, it is imperative that the audience make a firm connection with either the protagonist or the antagonist. Note: the antagonist in a film/neo-noir is not always the “bad guy.” Whereas even Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd made a strong connection with the audience in that we feel great sympathy for her plight, yet she is the antagonist in the story–or many agree as such. Harrison Ford’s Deckard in Blade Runner never quite garnered strong support from me in the same way his nemesis Roy failed to elicit disdain. Both Deckard and Roy are fairly static characters–meaning they lack dynamic development. There is, however, an indirect glimmer of character development in Roy at the very end that plays significantly into the plot for a brief but strategic moment. As regularly reoccurring throughout the narrative the character of Rachael is, she can almost be removed from the film and change little in the overarching story. For the most part, she simply exists and pays into Deckard’s motivation, but mildly so. She neither causes him to view Replicants differently or becomes his sole goal. It is clear from early on in the plot that Deckard already had reservations in retiring Replicants. Rachael simply amplifies or intensifies the feelings that were already brewing.

Looking back at movies from the mid to late 20th century that take place in the early to mid 21st century can be quite entertaining. Sometimes the future portrayed in the film, in one form or another, has actually come to pass. Although, other times, the future is incredibly inaccurate. The dystopian Los Angeles in Blade Runner is definitely the latter. Yes, there are themes of unchecked immigration, authoritarian power, and capitalism that can be read as not so different from today; but, for all intents and purposes, the future is much more grim in the movie than in today’s reality. Perhaps that’s why it can be difficult to connect with this movie. It takes place in a “future” that never happened, and probably won’t happen in the now near future. I think that’s the danger when writing or directing a movie set in a future that relies heavily upon technology directly related to the plot. Some movies can pull it off. Take Back to the Future for instance. It works because the technology in the culture of the future isn’t significantly integrated into the essence of the plot or are solely responsible for some dystopian world. The futuristic technology merely exists and helps to move the plot along. In Blade Runner, the whole reason for the plot is because futuristic technology in our present day has turned on its creators and became the catalyst for a world drowning in chaos.

If you have never seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, I definitely encourage you to do so, especially if you enjoy film or neo-noir movies. It provides us with a glimpse into how the world viewed a possible future in the early 1980s; and prompts us to think about life and how we might behave if we knew that we only had a few years to live. Survival of the fittest maybe? Or, fight or flight? If I was a psychologist, I think that this would be fascinating to analyze from a psycho-social perspective. At the end of the day, the film was quite the visionary masterpiece for its day and still remains a favorite of many filmmakers, scholars, and just film lovers alike.

*This review is in reference to the original theatrical release

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The Magic of “Sunset Boulevard” Still Capturing the ‘Eyes of the World’

NormaDesmondThere is little question that Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard still captures the hearts, minds, and souls of audiences today, be they in their homes or Vaudeville style theatres turned movie houses. Since its release in August of 1950, it has been the inspiration to countless films. But what does it mean to you? What makes it special or stand out to you? Perhaps you just see it as an iconic film; or just maybe, you see it as representing something personal to you. From classic noir cinematography to some of the most quoted lines of all time, Norma Desmond’s spirit lives on. So much for Joe Gillis’ line about her “still waving proudly to a parade that has long since passed her by;” she is still as alive today as she ever was. Serving as a mirror to the current state of Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s film shed light on the darker side of celebrity that still haunts to this very day. This timeless movie provoked Hollywood to take a cynical and honest look at itself, and the dangerous price of stardom–especially when the star is fading into obscurity. Poignantly arriving near the end of the Golden Era (or Studio System), this cinematic masterpiece will continue to be the epitome of a Hollywood and anti-Hollywood film for all eternity. Beyond what it meant historically or industry-wise, it holds meaning and significance for many who watch it. One of its strengths to withstand the test of time is the fact is its ability to connect with people visuals and emotionally. That, combined with solid technical aspects, makes for a dynamic cinema experience.

The Story

Part of what still beckons the “eyes of the world” is the movie’s ability to tell the story within a story. In many ways, Gloria Swanson truly is Norma Desmond. Swanson took a role that was essentially making a mockery of everything she once stood for. Like Norma Desmond, Swanson was one of Hollywood’s highest paid performers in the 1930s and staged a failed comeback in the 1940s, following “talkies.” The role was originally offered to Mae West and Mary Pickford, but no one could capture the character of Norma Desmond like Gloria Swanson. Throughout the movie, we witness the psychological breakdown of a woman who is already seriously afflicted with chronic depression and even agoraphobia. I feel as though many actors, and even some industry professionals who are not performers, can truly understand what must have been going through the mind of Norma Desmond. Actually, even for those who are not involved in entertainment or media can still see someone who felt betrayed and left alone to drift away. We’ve all been there. Feeling like we have so much to give the world, our community, or to the arts, and no one to take or acknowledge it. Norma isn’t going through anything that we have not been through. Essentially, Norma’s significant other, or partner, was her celluloid self, the studio, the industry. And when her partner left her, never to return, she developed serious psychological and cognitive disorders. Each person who chooses to watch her downward spiral into insanity, should be able to identify with her on some level regarding something in their life. For Norma, it was being back on screen again. For you, maybe it’s finding a romantic relationship.

Paramount-Gate-287x162Fascinating elements of this story include the bewildering world of what lies between the glory and the fall of a celebrity who feels as though she built Hollywood, more specifically Paramount Studios. Never before had there been a movie that was developed around the idea of what happens to a star after they are rejected by the very business that created them. Serving as the inspiration to the opening scene of American Beauty nearly 50 years prior, Wilder set the standard in the dead body of the protagonist narrating the film. Like the fog over London, Gillis’ spirit hovers over the entire movie, narrating the course of events that lead to his demise. Joe gets to do what any of us would enjoy doing–getting to observe what happens after we die and how everyone reacts. Just like having a soundtrack to your life would be amazing, getting to narrate your story after you die would be equally, if not more so, enamoring.

 

William (Bill) Holden’s character of Joe Gillis is the prime representation of a starving artist. He lives in a tiny apartment, has a few credits to his name and is in danger of having his car repossessed. That describes many artists today, thus allowing other aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to identify with his frustrations. Like a true film noir, the ending is tragic for the protagonist. Part of the suspense is wondering just when will he meet his end and why. For those who are trying to make it in the industry as a screenwriter, the grief and depression Joe must been feeling is something with which aspiring screenwriters can empathize.

Sunset Boulevard contains something for everyone: elements of mystery, action, romance, and deceit are woven meticulously throughout the film. This allows for the story to transcend decades of movie evolution and maintain such a high regard in the minds of all the “people out there in the dark.” And, even land a spot on the Great White Way in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard Broadway musical. It’s been rumored that Paramount plans to make a movie version of the Broadway show, but that rumor has been floating around Hollywood for years. As much as the the musical is a tribute to the original, the movie will always be more impactful because the stage simply cannot bring you as close to eyes of the actor as the screen can. And, Norma “can say anything with [her] eyes.” But, thanks to Barbra Streisand keeping the songs alive, “With One look” and “As if We Never Said Goodbye” are brilliantly written to capture the feelings and state of mind of Norma.

The Screenplay

GillisWritingRegarding the screenplay itself, it is not a matter of what’s going to happen as much as it is how’s it going to happen. This pioneering non-linear structure served as yet inspiration for another film that would not be produced for nearly 60 years. Along with All About Eve and Citizen KaneSunset Boulevard played an instrumental role in the development of the 1994 blockbuster Pulp Fiction. A lesser known 2001 movie borrows many plot points from Sunset Boulevard including the movie title being a street name, entitled Muholland Drive starring Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Harring. Sort of a neo-noir, this is a more modern twist on the foundation Wilder laid with his masterpiece. On that note, now-a-days, non-linear films aren’t necessarily anything special, but at the time, Sunset Boulevard broke ground that would be the standard in abandoning traditional story structure. To me, the screenplay was written in such a way that many people can find his or her own story in the screenplay. Perhaps, someone feels like they are Norma–all but forgotten. Perhaps, there is a starving artist out there who can understand the predicament Joe Gillis was in–just trying to get ahead. To a lesser extent, there may be Betty Schaefer’s watching the movie who feel they have a lot of talent, but very little is recognized and want to find a creative outlet.

Unlike previous films, this movie was also ahead of its time in terms of including dark sarcasm and humor as chief elements in the film. Other aspects that capture the ears of the world, to Miss Desmond’s disapproval, are the famous lines from the movie. Ironically, Desmond despised dialog; however, her movie possesses the coveted numbers 7 and 24 spots on AFI’s Top Movie Quotes list. At number 24, “…I am big! It’s the pictures that got small;” and at number 7, ranking above “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “what we have here, is a failure to communicate” is the often misquoted “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” There are many other more obscure, yet brilliant lines of dialog and exchanges between characters, landing the screenplay in the WGA’s Best Screenplays of All Time list at number 7! It’s important to now only appreciate the movie as a movie, but to appreciate the story itself. Let us never forget that “someone sits down to write a picture” and fool ourselves into thinking that most of the time the “actors make it up as they go along.” Part of what makes this a timeless classic, and even a sort of Bible if you will, is the brilliant writing.

The Cinematography

One of the elements that stands out in the movie is the meticulous placement of lighting. Film Noirs are one of the best examples of how effective lighting can be in playing an intricate part of the storytelling process. Lighting can show us whether or not someone may have two personalities, whether someone is dark and sinister. Since films did not have access to color, in the same way we do today, lighting in a grayscale movie was very important. Since colors could not be distinguished, lighting played that role. In many ways, the lighting in a film noir is like the Norma of the movie itself. Color has caused lighting to be used in a different way. For more practical reasons that aren’t always artistic in nature. Furthermore, another element that makes a film noir a film noir is the cinematography. After all, the term noir is French for dark. So, essentially film noir simply means dark film. It holds up to the definition due to the physically dark scenes; and furthermore, the state of being psychologically dark. The 9-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer John F. Seitz is responsible for creating the haunting visuals and shadows that dominate most of the movie.

 

GIllisPoolOne of the shots that is the most puzzling is how Wilder was able to shoot Joe Gillis’ floating body in the pool. Now-a-days, that is simple enough–even YouTubers do it–but in 1950, how does one accomplish such a special effect? The use of mirrors in the film went beyond macabre and haunting set pieces; a mirror was also used to shoot this scene. Seitz placed a mirror at the bottom of the pool and shot facing down towards the mirror while Holden floated in the water with the police officers around the deck. This gave the illusion the camera was in the water facing up.Thanks to the iconic cinematography, the mansion “stricken with a creeping paralysis” appeared lonely and massive. There is no better example of this than when Gillis descends the grand staircase to a party where he and Desmond are the only guests on an expansive tile dance floor recommended by Rudolph Valentino.

"Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

“Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Some of the most memorable cinematography comes at the end of the movie. Wilder and Seitz chose to shoot parts of the finale in slow motion to create an uneasy feeling in the minds of the audience. As Norma begins to descend the grand staircase one final time, she is shot in slow motion, as if it were Norma’s dream coming to life–her big come-back. Pardon, she never left; the pictures left her. In her mind, she is playing princess Salome entering the palace; when in all reality, it’s not movie cameras, but news cameras documenting her psychological decline into insanity. With her famous line “I’m ready for my closeup,” she encroaches upon the camera operator determined to get the closeup she wants, even though it is fixed at a medium shot. The audience, she is so desperate to connect with again, is tragically out of her reach.

Conclusion

Sunset Boulevard means a lot of things to a lot of people. And, each person may have their own respective reasons as to why this film holds a special place in the minds and heart of those who love cinematic art. This movie truly embodies the latin inscription around Leo the Lion in MGM’s logo “Ars Gratia Artis.” Art for Art’s Sake. To me, it is one of the purest examples of artistic cinema. It also served as a mirror, to the dismay of the big producers of its day, highlighting the state of the industry at that time. People still remain mesmerized at this timeless feature because of all it has to offer. This is partly due to the fact that it as relevant today as it was in 1950. It’s entirely possible that there are Norma Desmonds today in their decaying estates watching their movies on TCM or AMC under the delusion that they remain stars that command the attention of the world. Regardless if you are a filmmaker or a connoisseur of movies, Sunset Boulevard captures the eyes and ears of all who peer into the world of Wilder’s Hollywood. And, it will continue to be a source of inspiration and entertainment for decades to come.

References

  • Sunset Boulevard, 1950, directed by Billy Wilder, Paramount Pictures production
  • Oscar Award timeline, http://oscar.go.com/oscar-history/year/2013
  • AFI top movie quotes of all time, http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx
  • IMDb entry, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043014/?ref_=nv_sr_1
  • WGA 101 greatest screenplays, http://www.wga.org/subpage_newsevents.aspx?id=1807
  • Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunset_Boulevard_(film)
  • Muholland Drive, 2001, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulholland_Drive_(film)

“Hail, Caesar” movie review

HailCaesarA brilliant post-war self-reflexive commentary on the Hollywood studio system. Go inside classic showbiz! Before the decentralization of “Hollywood” filmmaking, the big studio was king. And Hail, Caesar captures the socio-economic mountains and pitfalls of the decline of the Golden Age of Hollywood perfectly, complete with a pure message about love, dedication, and highbrow humor along the way. You couldn’t have asked for a better cast. From the excellent writing to the impeccable acting, this film is sure to provide you with old-school style entertainment paired with plenty of topics of discussion–especially for cinema scholars and historians like myself. Return to the Hollywood that still inspires dreamers today and experience life in the studio system. This is one of the best self-reflexive films about Hollywood itself since Singin’ in the Rain. Although, the social-commentary is more or less a plot device that plays in the background while the main plot is the true focus of this exceptional narrative. Truly a remarkable film that will likely find its way into sociology and film studies classes alike.

Hail, Caesar takes place during the final days of filming of an adaptation of the story of the Christ. During a set break, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped by a couple of extras and taken to a secluded beachside mansion in Malibu. Meanwhile, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of physical production for Capital Pictures, is busy running the show–from personnel management to the shuffling around of actors. Early on, you learn that Mannix is being aggressively pursued by the Lockheed corporation and he must decide either to pursue a career that will allow him to be with his family more and retire early or remain in Tinseltown to head up production and develop motion pictures.

Where to begin?!? As a peer-reviewed published cinema [and themed entertainment] scholar and historian, there are are so many different ways of applying a critical analysis to this film. Leaving the cinema last night, I was perplexed as to how to write about it. Ordinarily, I have a general idea of the direction I will head in my review by the time the credits roll–not this time. There is definitely a subplot in the movie that would be great material to dissect and analyze but I don’t want to spoil that for you; although, I can say that is is very apropos for that period in 1940s/50s Hollywood.

In order to analyze the material that I found most interesting, I want to first spend a moment on the film itself. Even before watching it, you already know that it boasts a brilliant cast and thankfully everyone lives up to the expectation that comes with their respective talent. From the leading players down to the A list cameo appearances, all the actors bring a unique flavor to the overall recipe of the movie. One of the elements that stands out the most is the attention to detail in the classic Hollywood production design. Essentially, we are watching a movie containing the making of another movie. The matte backdrops and traditional rear projection doesn’t stop in the story of the film being made in Hail, Caesar, but the classic production styles and designs cross over into the production of the Hail, Caesar itself. From the color schemes to the wardrobe and makeup, the attention to detail is flawless. Although much more humorous and satirical than the epitome of self-reflexive post-war Hollywood films, Billy Wilder’s Sunset BoulevardHail, Caesar does a superb job of going inside the word of showbiz and highlighting positive and negative consequences of the former studio system.

The film opens up with Mannix pulling Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) from an unauthorized photoshoot because the image the studio has of her could be tainted. That is really the first glimpse into what life was like for stars who worked in the Hollywood Studio System. Not limited to the talent, Mannix even told directors who would star in the pictures that they were hired to direct. Capital Pictures pulled a cowboy off his motion picture to then star in a drawing room comedy. When you worked for the studio, you worked FOR the studio. From your image to the projects you worked on (whether talent or technical crew), your every move was managed by the studio heads. Sounds like the perfect setup for exploitation, doesn’t it? In many ways, yes. However, the studio system also provided a central hub for working in motion pictures. One of the scenes shows Mannix walking down a corridor of editing offices, and that is something that isn’t quite the same today. Studios had exponentially more full-time staff until the final collapse of the studio system in the late 1950s/early 1960s. You had a regular job Monday-Friday and were typically on a salary. You were provided meals and other amenities during the work day. Yes, many aspects of your career were managed–even down to who accompanied you to the premiere of the film you either worked or starred in. But, many more people were employed by the studio directly than today. Just something to think about.

The studio is aptly named Capital Pictures. And rightly so, because at the heart of the movie, the two-fold plot of the film contains socio-economic commentary. The counterpart to the socio-economic side is about being dedicated to one’s true passions. Mannix can easily represent anyone who has a job that they work hard at and are dedicated to but often drawn to opportunities that would be easier and make more money. Do you choose to follow your passion? Or, do you choose the easy way out that would be more profitable? You will have to see the movie in order to discover how Mannix dealt with that real-world conundrum. Although the story of the passion of Christ is a backdrop in the film, it actually plays quite an important role near the end of the third act. The message of love transcends the screenplay (being shot in the movie) and impacts the actors and studio leadership. There are so many wonderful elements to discuss in Hail, Caesar and I have just touched on a few of them. I encourage you to make your way to the cinema this weekend in order to experience it for yourself.