Sunday, May 7, 2017

5/7/2017: Replicans and Replican'ts

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Blade Runner is a great movie, and it took me a stupidly long time to realize it. I always thought it looked fantastic, but my feelings toward it after my first two or three viewings were that it was soulless, cold, distant, deliberately confusing. But something about it made me keep trying, and somewhere in that third or fourth viewing, it finally reached me. (It doesn't help that so many versions -- the theatrical cut, the overseas theatrical cut, the "director's" cut, the final cut -- exist). Of course it's distant. It's a film about a man who may or may not be a humanoid replicant trying to destroy four humanoid replicants while he falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a humanoid replicant. I was wrong, however, about it being cold. Though the film is not a bucket of warmth and light, or a crowd-pleaser or attempted crowd-pleaser in the way most of Scott's other films are, it has great emotional resonance buried under its surfaces, especially as corporations increasingly program and direct human behavior (hello Facebook, the site where each human voluntarily and for no pay turns him/herself into a brand and a content generator for a business's profit (disturbing side note -- Zuckerberg (possibly a replicant himself) seems to be positioning himself to run for office -- RESIST! RESIST!)). Besides the corporate stuff, the film is a visual poem to the person we imagine ourselves to be, the person we were who exists in our memories, and the person we really are. Ridley Scott has always been a talented stylist, but Blade Runner is one of the few times in his career where style and substance met. I'm also a big fan of Alien and Thelma & Louise, but his other stuff ... ehhhh, not so much. Still, I'll always have a place in my heart for him because of the few times he hit the bulls-eye. Blade Runner still looks better than any science fiction or neo-noir film that followed and is a permanent rebuke to the tragic joke that is CGI.

Blackout (Doug Adams, 1988)
And now for something completely different. Obscure '88 psychological thriller/slasher horror oddity Blackout is a mostly terrible movie, but it never stops being fascinating. The people in this movie don't talk or behave like any human beings have ever talked or behaved in the history of humanity, but the movie doesn't seem to be creating this weirdness on purpose. The replicants in Blade Runner were much more human than the weirdies in this turkey. Blackout unfolds like a film created by aliens whose only exposure to human beings were two episodes of a soap opera, fifteen minutes of a slasher film, and an hour of random channel surfing. My favorite bit of dialogue: "You're being spiteful." "I'm not being spiteful. I hate spite!" Runners-up: "I'd give my soul to plant a kiss on his grave." And "My father and I don't really get along. Philosophical differences. He's a white supremacist." And "What, you think he's up in the attic watching my dirty movies?" "Those are your dirty movies?" "Hey, a guy's gotta live." And about 50 more truly weird lines. The plot is a complicated bit of weirdness about a young woman returning to her childhood home in search of her missing father. The home is currently occupied by her weird mother (who hates her) and her weird uncle (who likes her) and the weirdness between the two siblings. Weird. Director Doug Adams (not the Hitchhiker's Guide author) never made a film before or since (his only other IMDB credit is as a "chute cowboy" on the crew of the rodeo movie 8 Seconds, if that's not just another guy with the same name), but one of the screenwriters is Joseph Stefano, whose biggest claim to fame was writing the screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho. We're a long way from Psycho here. Adams mostly makes his film look like a flat '80s TV show, but there are a couple of effectively suspenseful scenes that use expressive colors and lighting. The rest? Ehhh, not so good, but definitely not boring. Blackout is currently only available as a used VHS tape (yes, I still own and sometimes use a VCR.)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

4/8/2017: Laughing Men and Black Gestapos

The Black Gestapo (Lee Frost, 1975)
An intriguingly oddball blaxploitation film, The Black Gestapo is more successful in concept than execution. The plot is pretty unusual. Set in Watts, the film is about The People's Army, a black power community activist organization that models itself after the military and has its own hospital. Tension exists between the group's leaders, Gen. Ahmed (Rod Perry), who wants to work within the system and avoid violence, and Col. Kojah (Night Court's Charles Robinson), who sees the need for direct revolutionary action, including violence if necessary. When some white gangsters start leaning too hard on black businesses and selling dope in the neighborhood, and a couple of their goons rape a black nurse, Ahmed gives Kojah the go-ahead to organize a small group to run the gangsters out of town. Kojah succeeds but turns mad with power, becoming a gangster and drug lord himself, and the stage is set for a People's Army civil war. As a historical curiosity, the film is fascinating, but the directing and acting are pretty amateurish, and the director spends too much time dwelling on sexual violence against women in ways that let you know he's getting off on it at the same time that his story is condemning it. That director, Lee Frost, had a lengthy career in exploitation, and his two best-known films are probably The Thing with Two Heads, starring Rosey Grier and Ray Milland, and moonshiner revenge Southernsploitation, Dixie Dynamite, starring Warren Oates.

The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928)
The mid- to late-1920s was a golden age of silent film, when poetic vision, technology, and technique had advanced together, and visually stunning masterpieces were numerous, before early sound made things clunky, stagy, and awkward again for a few years. The Man Who Laughs is one of these masterpieces. Based on a Victor Hugo novel, The Man Who Laughs combines elements of horror, comedy, romance, tragedy, swashbuckling adventure, historical costume drama, German expressionist influence, and the sad clown and life of the traveling performer stories to create a thrilling classic Hollywood entertainment. I saw this years ago and admired it without loving it. I don't think I was in the mood for a silent film then, because this second viewing really bowled me over. It's a gorgeously composed movie, full of great images and scenes (director Leni also made Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary), and producer Carl Laemmle's goal of making a film that blended the tones of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was mostly achieved, though all three of those films stand on their own. Besides the composition, this is also a film of great movie faces, particularly Conrad Veidt's in the title role.