Columbia Noir: City of Fear (1959)

cn3cCity of Fear proves less of a revelation than director Irving Lerner’s earlier Murder By Contract, which featured in Indicator’s previous Columbia Noir set. That film blew me away and I’m sure will be one of my favourites of this year. While City of Fear proves more melodramatic and ‘ordinary’ than the extraordinarily ‘cool’ and hip Murder By Contract, it does benefit from some unfortunate timing- its tale of a city under threat of an unseen, insidious and deadly menace resonates strongly with our contemporary experience of living in the time of a pandemic. Indeed, what we are living through now can only intensify the experience of this film and leaves one with a question- is this film really very good or is it just proving a mirror for our current fears and tensions?

Vince Edwards again proves himself a very good performer, albeit a bad guy more routine than the cold enigmatic assassin he played in the earlier film. He does a lot with very little, frankly, but then again that’s true for most everyone in the film. Shot with a very low budget and over the space of, allegedly seven days, this is b-movie film-making that clearly struggles to even make do, desperately padding the already slim running time of 75 minutes with repeated shots of cars in traffic, city exteriors and characters repeatedly scrutinising charts and maps; the film could easily lose fifteen-twenty minutes and you wouldn’t miss it. This is something of a shame as, on the strength of Murder By Contract alone, the creative talent deserved and would have benefited from more time and money. There are moments when it seems they have gone with the first take and moved on, with little evidence of any rehearsal.

That said, the film does have, of all things considering its meagre budget etc, a score by none other than Jerry Goldsmith (his second film score after working in radio and television during the 1950s, which is evidently how they got him). Its a nice, jazzy score that serves the film well, albeit obviously not even hinting at Goldsmith’s later epic soundtracks.

Like Murder By Contract, City of Fear is clearly a late-period noir on the cusp of the 1960s, and unsurprisingly, perhaps, feels very ‘modern’ and seperate from conventional ‘classic’ noir of the 1940s and early-1950s. It also has a curious television feel, in how its shot, how it ‘looks’- to me its more serviceable, obviously constrained by budget and schedule in just the same way as television shows were, lacking the time for the visual sophistication typical of superior noir with its visual styling. Maybe this actually works to the films benefit, with a distinctly hand-held, gritty, you-are-there feel to its location shooting. This latter element is possibly what I found most engaging- its like a glimpse of a lost world, the film almost an historical document with its late-1950s Californian streets, traffic and décor, images from a 1950s-set Philip K Dick novel like Voices From the Street or In Milton Lumky Territory.

How NOT to watch Blade Runner, Part Two

blade-runner-76Clearly these ‘reaction videos’ on YouTube are not for me. On the one hand, I cannot understand peoples fascination for them, albeit there is clearly an audience for them and those that put them up must evidently get some financial reward for doing so. I just don’t get it- why watch someone watching a film? What thrill does one get from seeing someone over-react in shock/horror at what they are watching? Do people really believe these YouTubers have never seen some of these iconic movies? And if they somehow haven’t seen the films or heard anything about them (I mean, The Empire Strikes Back and Vader’s ‘identity’- have they been buried under a rock or something?) then doesn’t that mean they are EXACTLY the least likely to be worthy of making a reaction video?

Anyway, regards Blade Runner: running (sic) through some more various reaction videos I’m just more disheartened about how people watch the movie and what it possibly means re: how people watch films in general. I’m sure its no definitive example but goodness it made me think. Actually, it didn’t just make me think, it made me rant in various texts to my old friend Andy who watched Blade Runner with me back in September 1982. Andy just seemed amused at my sense of insult and affront, possibly winding me up with his texts back, but at one point I was like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction quoting his ‘furious anger’ speech. Some of these YouTubers seem very pleasant and all, but the Nexus 6 bit refers to a model line, not a supervillain team (imagining a team of Reps calling themselves the Nexus Six is very Marvel, maybe) and one very nice guy totally missing the point of the movie when he was absolutely convinced throughout the film that Rachel was human (and everyone in the film referring to her as a Replicant apparently lying) – I don’t understand it. 

My suspicion is that its all part of the deep fake of these reaction videos. In this day and age, how do you avoid spoilers for old movies even if you’ve never seen them? So maybe these guys getting confused or missing the point is a deliberate ploy to make it seem like they genuinely haven’t seen what they are watching. When they surely, obviously, have: even some of the ‘Oh My Gosh!!’ reactions seem so wild they have to have been rehearsed (watch some of the The Empire Strikes Back reaction-videos of no doubt, ahem, ‘aspiring’ actresses being horrified by who is Luke’s father). I think some of my horror is just.. its all madness out there, you know? Social media is just so INSANE. 

I have the digital footprint of a gnat. Clearly I’m from some other century.

(Actually, I really am, now that I think about it. That possibly explains things a little).

The Absurdity Of Everything.

I sometimes wonder… on one of my texts to Andy, I asked him what he thought Philip K Dick would think, had he lived to see the world we live in today. Even ignoring all things Covid, the political landscape in America alone… well, Andy balked at that (No! Thats too much!” he replied, refusing to even give it consideration and adding that he was reaching for a drink instead). Sometimes though, I really feel like I’m living inside a PKD novel that I haven’t read yet. And yes, its probably titled The Absurdity Of Everything.

It’s dead, Jim

michaelbThe Michael Burnham Show aka Star Trek: Discovery completed its third season this past week and I’m still rather speechless. I don’t know what kind of deranged minds are behind this show but frack me it must surely be the worst sci fi show I have ever seen (at least until season four arrives next year). I suppose I should commend them for having the audacity to make a show about a psychopath with a God Complex infecting the galaxy with her psychosis.  Its pure Philip K Dick really, and quite fitting for our times: an Insanity Pandemic infecting the universe, 3188: A Messianic Odyssey in fact. 

How else to explain anything that happens in this show? I have no idea how many or how few are actually watching it, but I’m sure it has its fans: I’m sure its endless fascination with Wish Fulfilment is just wonderful for them: its all something of a Dream. We all like to think we are special, and the fantasy of The Chosen One is quite seductive; part of the appeal of the Matrix movies is the idea of being Neo, of being The One. Of being the subject of prophecy. The Michael Burnham Show is that fantasy writ large, in the guise of what we fans used to call Star Trek.

But Star Trek is dead. Its been dead for awhile, but if that wasn’t confirmed by the reboot movies from JJ Abrams or by last year’s Star Trek: Picard, then it surely is now. In fact, The Michael Burnham Show has surely kicked its corpse into the gutter. Maybe Star Wars got away lightly after all.

Michael Burnham is never wrong, and even when she is, it turns out she’s right in the end. When she ignores protocol or even direct orders, when she abandons her post to go off on one of her own far more important errands, and when she is subsequently demoted for such, its only a purely token gesture. Her voice and opinion will always still be desired, and when the push comes to shove, the Command Chair will always be vacated for her to take over and save the day. Its obvious everybody, even the head of Star Fleet, and certainly her fellow crew of the Discovery, are vastly inferior to her and will always defer to her. 

Just to underline the fact, none of the Discovery crew have any opportunity to compete with her on any level. Most of them don’t even have names, or at least names that matter or are memorable, and they surely don’t have any lines to speak, or any personality to inject into the proceedings. Arguably the co-star of the show, Ensign Tully -sorry, Tilly (the characters are so bland that even the nominal co-star has a name I find hard to remember)- is a prime example of a non-achiever, more suited perhaps to operating the sick-bay radio channel or the canteen, she is inexplicably promoted to be Number One in Burnham’s stead, if only to prove how most excellent Burnham was in comparison: I think its within thirty minutes of taking the Comm that Tilly manages to lose the Discovery to an alien aggressor (the Green Woman and her Motorbike Helmet goons) who board and take control of the ship and imprison the crew. Tilly can bluff and bluster like a ginger Boris Johnson- but typical of the show, there’s no substance to her, and after she escapes from confinement her attempt to retake the ship ends with her and her team asphyxiating in a corridor. Never mind Tilly, Michael’s here to save the day/save the galaxy/save the universe.

Its all fairly obnoxious and really insulting. I’ve never witnessed such stupidity in writing. The writers inject some 3188 tech – personal transporters in the uniform lapel badges- which, when they are tapped by the wearer’s fingers instantly teleports them anywhere they want to be. No coordinates, no voice commands, just tap the badge and this magic shit reads your mind or something. Now, you give all the crew this magic badge and hey presto, you’ll have empty corridors from then on because everyone just teleports everywhere, right? Canteen? The loo? Who even needs doors anymore? Tap the button and in a flash you’re there. And yet, and yet, in each subsequent episode we still see crew walking around pretending to look busy. I mean, they even have a gag in the episode in which they have the new tech in which an alien crewmember keeps on teleporting into scenes by mistake, and yet next episode nobody’s using them. These writers can’t even manage their own internal logic, even in the very same episode- in the finale the crew set off a bomb to wreck one of the nacelles and pull the ship out of warp, and then scarcely fifteen minutes later its magically all fixed and the ship is whole again and fully operational. I mean, wtf? 

I could go on. I think when I realised that Burnham’s God Complex psychosis is infecting everyone around her was when the show started to make sense to me, as regards how stupid it was and how crazy every character was behaving. It certainly explains how the show can shit all over established canon by suggesting Spock had a half-sister never mentioned in all the decades of the various incarnations of the franchise. Its obvious now that Spock never had a sister until she appeared, like one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods from some deep sleep, her psychosis infecting Spock into accepting her, her sudden existence affecting the fabric of reality and the mythology of the show. I half-expect the psychosis to infect our own reality, so that people will start re-reading their Star Trek paperbacks from the 1980s and 1990s and suddenly be reading, indeed, of Spock having a half-sister called Michael. Its fiction infecting reality like in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. God help us all. 

Never mind. Michael will save us.

Jesus wept: I just cannot believe The Jesus Rolls.

jesusThere’s corners of Internet forums where fans still debate such harrowing subjects as “Does Blade Runner really need a sequel?” even after we got the sequel, but I don’t imagine there’s ever been much traction in the question “Does The Big Lebowski need a sequel?” But you know how it is, Hollywood is always brave enough to answer the questions few dare to answer, especially if it thinks there may be some money in it. So here we have The Jesus Rolls, John Turturro’s response to the question few fans of the Coen Brothers film ever thought to ask.

But is it actually a sequel to The Big Lebowski? Or is it instead a remake of a 1974 French movie titled Les Valseuses (aka Going Places), some obscure European road movie that I had never heard of until I saw its name in The Jesus Rolls‘ end credits. I suppose what Turturro has done, in a way, is the equivalent of someone making a film based on Phillip K Dick’s book Now Wait For Last Year replacing its lead character with Gaff from Blade Runner and suddenly transforming a totally different PKD novel into a Blade Runner sequel. Any connection between The Jesus Rolls and The Big Lebowski are pretty ephemeral, really, other than it featuring bowling baller Jesus Quintana (Turturro) in his misadventures once out of prison, but it still may be too close for comfort for some fans who will live the rest of their lives in denial that this film even exists. And those fans who have seen it will really be in denial that this film even exists.

Its a pretty poor effort. Its frankly diabolical in places, with a deeply-entrenched immature fixation with dirty jokes and sex akin to that of the worst Carry On movie. If I was to suggest that the best section of this film concerned Susan Sarandon playing ex-con Jean, who spends her first day out of jail culminating in a bizarre threesome with Jesus and his best mate Petey (Bobby Cannavale)…. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, Sarandon is still a very beautiful woman but she must have been 70 when she shot this film’s sex scene with two guys… sure, all power to her, grannies do have sex and some of them possibly even threesomes but, really, its so bizarre its like watching a car crash in slow motion. Maybe Sarandon was making some kind of statement, and fair play it must have flown over my head, but its like maybe Louise survived the car crash at the end of Thelma and Louise, spent thirty years in jail, and then came out and got banged by two jerks (shit, maybe this film is a sequel to two films at once) and then grabbed a gun and blew her own brains out. Its not a Thelma and Louise sequel I ever expected, but hey ho. Like in most scenes in this film, you don’t know whether to laugh or groan, aghast. Most if it is just so stupid, such irreverent toilet humour, like its The Big Lebowski-inspired fan fiction written by a highly hormonal thirteen-year-old. But Sarandon is by far the best thing in this film, her section the best of the film by considerable margin. The less said about idiotic hairdresser Marie (Audrey Tautou, by God!) and her lifelong quest for the female orgasm, er, the better.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to write, its more than this film deserves. I’m just here to state that I’m brave enough to admit I was foolish enough to actually watch The Jesus Rolls. I did it so you don’t have to. Unless you are a huge fan of The Big Lebowski or Thelma and Louise and you really, really hate yourself.

Or maybe its some kind of comedic genius; who knows?

In the Tall Grass

tall1Here’s a film which is clearly one in which the creative team just lost control. It starts well enough and seems competently staged; decent cast, intriguing premise… everything seems to be in place for an effective and rewarding horror film, but at the midway point it just falls apart. Its weird, it takes this weird turn and you can see it unravelling before your very eyes, like the whole film just gradually collapses in front of you. By the time it ends, if you manage to stay with it that far, its an aimless mess of a film that makes absolutely no sense. Which had me scratching my head: at what point did this ‘people get lost in a maze’ film get so complicated and become such a messy genre mash-up that it ends with a dumb time travel paradox?*

The director, Vincenzo Natali also wrote the screenplay so likely deserves most of the blame. The film is based on a slim short story co-written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill (slim in that it lasts about 60+ pages and possibly would have made a great thirty-minute short film),  Evidently in his attempt to enlarge the story into a full movie Natali  got into all sorts of trouble. I haven’t read the original short so have no idea what he took  from it and how much he thought up himself, but I find it difficult to believe King and Hill let themselves get twisted up in a tale of an ancient and very evil rock, wormholes, cults, time travel, religious symbolism, mystical creatures, unwanted pregnancies, obsessive brothers, reluctant boyfriends etc. Well, maybe they did, you never know these days, but certainly Natali throws everything including the kitchen sink into it… except, of course, for a lawnmower (Damn. I thought I’d managed to forget that bloody awful film The Lawnmower Man).

One of my issues with horror films (or films in general, I suppose) when they get all weird, spooky, obtuse and Lynchian, for want of a better word, is that they should still have some kind of internal logic. Being obtuse shouldn’t necessarily mean being confusing. In the Tall Grass has several leaps of logic being excused by cutting to spooky imagery and effects as if that strange imagery is explanation enough- which it isn’t, its just the director’s lazy sleight of hand, an awkward excuse for what happens next.

So its all something of a shame. I wanted to enjoy it, and did for awhile. Sometimes short stories or novellas can be great launchpads for movies, you know, great ideas to spin a great film out of. So many films based on Philip K Dick material became their ‘own thing’ after spinning off the base ideas of a short story- so much so that few of them actually properly resemble the story they are based on (Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepTotal Recall and We Can Remember it For You Wholesale). At the same time though, once they go off and do their own thing they can also fall apart (Minority report and the original The Minority Report story). I suspect this is a case in which the original story was pretty slim and by expanding it into a full movie, it all just fell apart. Perhaps only worth watching to see Patrick Wilson absolutely chewing up the scenery as if he’s convinced he’s in a horror film as good as The Shining and that he’s up to the task of emulating Jack Nicholson (answer: it isn’t and he isn’t).

 

*Spoilers: our pregnant heroine and brother are saved from the grassy horror, resetting back (and we’re just expected to go with it, its not explained how) to just prior to when they entered the field, and instead turn back and, er, go back home.  But it was because they disappeared that our heroine’s estranged boyfriend came out there looking for them and ultimately sacrificed himself to save them. If they don’t disappear, he won’t look for them, so he’ll be back home too. But if he stays home, he won’t have come out searching for them to save them, so they will perish in the field…. Its one of those causality loops that bugs me all the time, including Avengers: Endgame earlier this year. I know, I should just go with it. Its only a movie, as dear old John Brosnan used to say.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

Bandersnatch-NetflixThere’s a moment in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a film Netflix is touting as ‘an interactive film’ where young computer programmer Stefan (Finn Whitehead) in a moment of PKD insight becomes convinced he isn’t in control of his own actions and shouts out to The Big Unknown. That’s when a choice is offered to the film viewer and I opted for Netflix as my answer, and lo, a text message appeared on Stefan’s computer that he was being controlled by a viewer watching Netflix, an online streaming service. Of course from Stefan’s vantage point of 1984, this didn’t mean a hell of a lot, but for me it was a strange meta-reality commentary on all things PKD and The Matrix and the nature of reality and what films are now and possibly might be in the future.

How well Bandersnatch functions as a dramatic work is open to debate, but as an interactive experience and nod to PKD and 1980s culture its something of a marvel. The old-style WHSmith stores (crikey, those old carrier bags even more of a nostalgic nod than possibly intended with recent news of Government intent over here), 2000AD, Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle on vinyl, the Thompson Twins and the grand finale (at least the one I experienced, as there are supposed to be five endings to Bandersnatch) of Laurie Anderson’s sublime O Superman, a song that sums up that whole era for me- so many moments had me cooing ‘awww….’ at the screen. Possibly the best was the Ubik poster coming alive. That would have blown poor Philip K Dick’s mind had he seen it, I think.

I’m curious to rewatch Bandersnatch and choose a different path/s to really put the test to its ‘interactive/multiple branches’ credentials but on first viewing it was damned impressive. Quite how Netflix managed the branching streams without incurring pauses for buffering etc is something of a mystery and, yeah, to be honest, one I’d actually like to avoid learning about, as if part of some unquantifiable magic.

It was quite apt, I suppose, as Black Mirror itself tends to comment upon and extrapolate on modern technology in dark and devious ways that the series used this interactive experience to tell its story of choice/freewill and the nature of its technology. Making the viewer a cog in the machine was quite ingenious. Whether in 2028 we’ll see a MI:9 that puts the viewer in charge of a (possibly CGI/virtual by then) Tom Cruise as he weaves through multiple paths of espionage and various twists of fate, and whether that would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is open for some other debate, but it’s possibly a insight into eventual possibilities.

Well, on the bleak side, there’s another nail in the coffin of good honest storytelling, maybe. We may have seen a glimpse of the future, and it’s something to do with keeping our hands on the remote, but not regards switching channels etc…

 

Film notes: Blade Runner 2049 Pt 1.

br2049sonyGlitchy, animated logos for Sony, Columbia pictures and Alcon Entertainment, like they are corrupted data or breaking down, play to a soundtrack that is instantly Blade Runner: drums drenched in reverb with plaintive high-notes recalling the sound of the CS-80 that was so much the musical soul of the original. The studio logos already hint that things are very wrong.

br2049columbWe don’t get any credits. Which is a shame, as I always liked those of Blade Runner, from back in the days when films took their time, and skillful choice allowed the mood of the music and the type-face of the credits to settle the viewer into the mood and tone of what will follow (in Blade Runner, the starkness of white on black, except for the blood-red film title, the dread of the Vangelis music – from the very outset, we know Blade Runner is not going to be a fun movie). But BR2049 is a long film, and the film-makers are not going to waste any time getting to it. We have waited 35 years, after all: a lot of tears lost in the rain.

Text  offers us a glimpse (some details will follow later in the film) of what has happened in those intervening years since 2019: following violent rebellions Replicants were prohibited and the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt. A subsequent collapse of eco-systems threatened all life on Earth and a worldwide famine was narrowly averted by Niander Wallace, whose company then acquired the remains of Tyrell Corp and resumed Replicant production of a safer model guaranteed to ‘obey’. It does not refer to these new models as Nexus: refers only to pre-Wallace Nexus 8 models with indefinite lifespans who are still on the loose, and still hunted by detectives named Blade Runners.

A subtle nod perhaps to the (non-canon? its hard to tell with so many multiple versions) theatrical cut of Blade Runner, in which during the ‘happy-ending’ version, Deckard referred to Rachel as having no termination date. She was, presumably, a Nexus 7? Were indefinite lifespans an attempt  to maintain obedience and order in an increasingly unstable/rebellious slave force?

To be clear: this 2049 is not our future. It is the future of the 2019 envisaged by Blade Runner, these films now an alternate universe, a tidy way of disparaging any criticism in our soon post-2019 world that we never got flying cars and humanoid slaves. It adds yet further weight to the original, no longer a work of future speculation but rather a picture of another, different universe. Perhaps one in which the Axis won World War Two, a cousin of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? Already this new film informs and re-vitalizes the original. Blade Runner no longer a vision of the future but rather one of an alternate past.

br2049eye1br2049eye2In a clear reference to the first film, BR2049 opens with a  gloriously-photographed, magnified eye staring back at the viewer, echoing that of the original’s eye starring out at us with the Hades landscape reflected in it. The eye was of course a major visual motif in the original: the Voight-Kampff machine focused on it to help discern Replicant from human, the eye the window of the soul, betraying simulacra from authentic*.

It is not revealed in the film, but the film-makers have since remarked that the eye that we see here belongs to Dr Ana Stelline. What is the significance of this? Does the fact that her eye, and the very last last line in the film (her observation, “Beautiful, isn’t it?) bookend the film actually mean anything? Does Ana ‘see’ what K sees? is there perhaps more to the code within the memories that she has implanted in so many Replicants? Or is her eye merely asking a question of the viewer, a demand of attention, or of an answer at the film’s end? We shall return to this later perhaps, for now we do not know of Ana or her importance to the plot.

br2049openWe see a landscape of solar farms, fields of solar arrays as far as we can see. This is California, 2049: an artificial landscape of metal and plastic devoid of life: a world of grey, almost calm, far removed from the acid rain and violently belching fire-stacks of 2019’s Hades landscape. The screenplay describes these solar farms as derelict; “All dead and abandoned to the dust and wind.” Watching this sequence knowing that they aren’t functional adds extra meaning- everything is collapsing; this is the end of the world.

Already the film is setting its agenda of expanding on the original- we are out of the city, reaching out to the world outside. A world that has visibly changed and yet also reflects the changes in our own world; this is our world seen through a prism of Blade Runner: a world of climate change and threatened environmental disaster made real.

A spinner car races through the grey sky. On board the pilot sleeps, finally awoken by an alarm- we do not yet know that this is Officer K or that he is a Replcant- but is this awakening akin to being switched on/activated, perhaps even literally so?**

The spinner car reaches a barren wasteland that almost looks like the surface of the moon, landing at a protein farm, a reference to the famine hinted at in the text introduction. This first scene is another nod to the 1982 film, albeit one perhaps only die-hard fans would be aware of; it is based on an un-filmed prologue written for the first film. A lingering shot of a pot simmering on a stove is full of reward for the die-hard fans who remember the storyboards of decades ago. The fan-service does not dominate the film, but clearly this film is a work of respect and care towards the original eagerly appreciated by fans who cannot believe that this unwanted sequel is as good as it is.

This sequence is shot in a largely static, restrained and rather monochrome manner- dark silhouettes framed by windows of pure light, this is perhaps the last time things will be as ‘simple’ as black and white for K. This sequence reminds me of Sergio Leone films, particularly the slow beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West– it feels like a Western somehow; the wooden, creaked floorboards and spartan, almost analogue building looking like a throwback to the 19th Century Old West.

br2049sappThe protein farm is being managed by Sapper Morton, a Nexus 8 combat medic who has been on the run since 2020.*** Morton washes his hands as if a slave to routine, and it is interesting that he then puts on some wireframe spectacles. Is his eyesight failing, the machine succumbing to age, or is it a reference back to Tyrell wearing his trifocal lenses, or perhaps part of an almost subconscious disguise,  as if masking the ‘window to the soul’, the eyes that betray a Replicant’s true nature?

All movement is slow, deliberate, the dialogue an almost delicate dance- Morton resigned, perhaps, to his fate, time finally having run out for him, K pleasant and polite, as if doing his duty with an element of regret. K says he would rather avoid the violent alternative although he no doubt knows it is inevitable. The violence when it is unleashed is short, sharp, brutal, Morton smashing K through a wall before K finally incapacitates him. K doesn’t seem as big as Morton but he is apparently more powerful.

Finally it is revealed that Officer K is indeed a Replicant, Morton condemning him for hunting his “own kind”. K doesn’t consider them the same, as his kind doesn’t run. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle,” Morton tells him, before K shoots him twice in the chest. There is a lovely moment here, as the camera shakes as Morton crashes to the floor. K looks a bloody mess, as beaten up as Deckard did in Blade Runner– I only remark upon this as back when Blade Runner was first released, it seemed so usual to have a hero get so bruised and bloodied as Deckard did, almost a hyper-reality (the blood from his cut lip spreading in his whisky glass…).

We see a shot of K’s hands in the sink, washing clean a bloodied eye. Sapper Morton’s eye. K has cut it out of Morton’s head, its electric tattoo proof of Morton’s Replicant nature, and of K’s bounty.  Memories of Hannibal Chew’s laboratory, and Leon placing those grisly trophies on the technicians shoulders.

br2049farm.pngThere is a lovely shot next, typically understated as so much of this film is, deceptively simple yet utterly convincing, as K leaves the building and returns to his car. The world is dull and grey, and the only sign of organic life is a dead, skeletal tree. K dwarfed by the landscape, a perspective we will see repeated throughout the film

K enters his spinner. It looks old and worn and dirty and authentic, lived in. It feels real, doesn’t feel like an elaborate, sophisticated prop. Again, that sense of reality to all this.  “You’re hurt,” his superior, Lt.Joshi, notices when he calls in. “I’m not paying for that,” she states. Pure cyberpunk. Almost a throwback to the original Robocop (“I’m a mess”/”They’ll fix you, they fix everything”), and a reminder that everything has a cost.

brflowerSomething outside catches K’s eye. He walks out towards the dead tree, and finds an incongruous element of colour, a flower; a single, yellow cowslip, placed near the tree. It being there must mean something. There is a mystery here, and that colour signifies that the black and white world that K knows,  his purpose and place in that world,  is about to slowly be pulled away. He orders his pilotfish drone to scan the area, and it discovers something buried. “Get back here before the storm,” Joshi orders him, stating she will send a dig team to see what has been buried there.

br2049citybr2049cityshot3br2049cityshot4We cut to a series of effects shots, exteriors of a smog-enshrouded city, the outskirts deserted and devoid of life,  and K’s spinner flying through wind and rain. Grey light persists until the electric neon of the city centre dominates, and we catch a glimpse of a massive structure, the Sepulveda Seawall, another visual hint that everything has gotten worse. As the effects shots show K’s spinner reaching a huge mega-structure that is the LAPD headquarters, the audio plays his baseline test. “Subject: Officer K D6-dash-3-dot-7.
Let’s begin.” Echoes of the old VK-test, somehow, but this is stranger, all the more bizarre. It feels very 1970s, in a strange way.  It is unexplained how it works- this film does not feel the need to explain everything. K Passes. “Constant K” the disembodied voice announces.  “You can collect your bonus.”

Its curious that a Replicant in this world, employed by the LAPD, gets paid and has his own apartment with some sense of private life away from his function, his job. Likely this is how he maintains his psyche-profile and passes his baseline test, which is evidently method of detecting post-traumatic stress that might threaten K’s obedience and an early warning of a Replicant going AWOL or faulty. Replicants seem to a part of ordinary society now. Which makes one wonder who is human, who is not, in all the crowd scenes.

At any rate, K has in mind something to buy with that bonus.

Perhaps a scene has been cut here, for I suspect there may have been a scene in which K purchases his ‘anniversary’ gift for Joi from the market they visit later when he seeks to discover the provenance of the wooden horse sculpture. Doc Badger may have been someone K knew well, and looking at all the gadgets surrounding him and his illicit trading hinted at in that later scene, I believe it was he that K brought the device from. Who knows? That damn four-hour cut is a constant tease.

br2049streetCut to that gorgeous street scene, of a huge snow-melting machine clearing the slush from the road as K walks towards his apartment complex. Its beautiful and complex and perfect. Its so very different to Blade Runner and yet so very Blade Runner, a fine balance so clever its breathtaking how often this film carries it off. Again, it feels like we are seeing a real world, in which so much is hinted at or unexplained. Its simply ‘there’.

End of Pt.One

 

* The eye motif runs throughout Blade Runner and has been endlessly discussed over the years. As well as the eye staring back at viewers at the beginning, examples include Tyrell’s eyes hidden by thick trifocal glasses (echoed in BR2049 by Wallace being completely blind rather than just visually impaired),  eyes that were crushed by Batty in the Replicant’s rage. Hannibal Chew of course designed eyes, Rachel’s eyes glowed oddly at times, as if reinforcing her false nature. BR2049 continues this ‘tradition’ with the digital tattoos stenciled/imprinted on the eye under the lower eyelids, literally betraying the owners true artificial nature in an instant.

** If one were to assume Ridley Scott’s statement of Deckard’s Replicant status as correct or canon (I don’t subscribe to this view, but its fun to play mind games sometimes), one could consider the following reading- have Blade Runners always been Replicants, as if it takes  Replicant to catch a replicant? This would suggest that Holden was a Replicant (Bryant’s later comment that he can “breathe ok as long no-one unplugs him” would carry deeper connotations) and that Deckard was ‘activated’ upon Holden being destroyed/damaged, as a replacement. Activated on the streets of LA near the noodle bar, with false memories etc, Gaff would have been on hand to pick him up and take him to Bryant, to set him off on his mission/purpose. The start of the story for Deckard literally as he appears first in the film, everything fabricated: his apartment with the photos of an ex-wife he never had, false memories and souvenirs to cushion his emotions and keep him stable. A very paranoid reading, to be sure. Especially when one considers Wallace’s almost offhand suggestion that Deckard and Rachel were programmed by Tyrell to meet and fall in love. There is no freewill in this particular nightmare scenario that really is darker than dark.

*** Dave Bautista is a revelation here, in a powerful and emotive performance that lingers long into the film. Everyone involved in this film seems to have elevated to their A-game for this project. This film hardly needs a prequel or sequel but whenever I see this scene I am struck by how fascinating a prequel would be (film or book) detailing Morton’s experiences on the battlefield and then escaping and hiding out in these wastelands.

Altered Carbon (2018)

altcSo I’m watching Altered Carbon, having finally succumbed to the charms of Netflix, and five episodes in now, I have to say I’m loving it.

Now, some that know me may feel this to be inevitable- it’s so obviously indebted to the 1982 classic Blade Runner that it almost feels like a Blade Runner 1.5, or maybe, following the methodology of BR2049, a BR2600 (which sounds like an Atari console- even more Blade Runner!), as the series is set far-future. The trouble is, for me mimicking or throwing nods to Blade Runner usually works only to wind me up. Its been done to death, it quickly gets tiresome and boring- one of the pleasures of BR2049 is that while it looked to be the same world of Blade Runner it did enough to look different.

Altered Carbon, however, has none of that BR2049 subtlety- this thing is pretty brutal in how it throws its Blade Runner-inspired visuals (the steamy, neon-drenched vistas, flying-cars and probing shafts of light) at you.  Its relentless really, like the brutality of its violence. This thing is bloody and violent and yes, it’s hugely Blade Runner-inspired dystopia is so relentless it just beats any argument out of you. You just have to go with it.

And if you do, you’re in for a hell of a wild ride. One of the main pleasures of the series for me so far is that it really throws you into it with little explanation. Even at this midway point I’m trying to really understand exactly what is going on, the nuances involved. One of the things I always regretted about Blade Runner was that its original vague text introduction from the workprint was replaced by a lengthy text crawl that explained the general premise complete with the date, instantly demystifying the proceedings (such a pity the Final Cut didn’t return to that original dictionary definition of a replicant). Altered Carbon just throws you into its complex far-future world which, while it looks so familiar thanks to its indebtedness to Blade Runner‘s visuals is really quite different. Characters make references to concepts and tech that is never explained; we grasp at indications of a far-future humanity that has explored many worlds and colonised many solar systems, in which the rich rule from lofty cities in the clouds while the poor make do with a world that is LA 2019 on steroids. Its refreshing that a show makes some demand on viewers to decipher what’s going on, and I’m sure I’ll need to watch it all again to really get the most out of it.

And good grief, the production values- how much did this thing cost? At times this thing looks almost as impressive as anything in BR2049, which on the one hand is hugely enjoyable but on the other worrying- how many viewers does this kind of expenditure need in order to ensure we get another season?

The central theme is about immortality and death: midway through the series, the details still seem vague, but alien technology has enabled people to digitize themselves -their intellect, their memories, personality, everything- onto a coin-sized device called a stack, which slots into the base of the neck.  When your body dies, as long as your stack is intact, it can be slotted into another body, referred to as a sleeve. If you’re rich, this sleeve is usually a cloned version of yourself in your prime, but if you’re not wealthy, it could be any sleeve that is available/affordable, so grandma could return as a middle-aged man, or a child as an old woman. In any event, death is no longer final, and as long as your stack is intact and healthy and you have the money to afford decent manufactured sleeves, you can live forever. Of course, if you’re poor your stack will have to just wait until your family can afford to purchase you a new sleeve, so in essence, immortality is for the rich, whilst the poor struggle to survive and do anything to ensure they can afford a new sleeve if they die, or a better one if they can work their way up to better, prettier, healthier sleeves while still alive (nothing stops you other than money from exchanging your current sleeve for a better one, just like changing-up your car).

Essentially, it is very, very, very future-noir.

altc2One of my favourite things so far is an AI based on Edgar Allan Poe that doesn’t so much run a hotel named The Raven but is the hotel The Raven, one of the wildest sci-fi  things I’ve seen of late that almost seems like it should have been a Philip K Dick story, and yes, again, feels very Blade Runner.

Really, all this thing lacks is Atari logos everywhere. Maybe I missed them.

Anyway, I’m now at the midway point and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ll post another review with plot details when I’ve seen the rest of the series.

 

 

Fabrications & Misinformations: (not) a Youtube Woody Allen movie, but maybe it should be.

utbeThis morning I had an hour free, and thanks to the wonders of intelligent televisions (question for later: are the televisions more intelligent than the programs displayed on them?) I decided to load up Youtube, put ‘Blade Runner 2049’ in the search box and see what popped up. There’s a few nice featurettes on there; Weta has a nice one about the miniatures, and there are obviously those prequel shorts (I rewatched the Blackout 2022 anime, that’s really good). Some nice analysis videos are starting to surface- 2049 is clearly a great film for discussion.

But I watched a few review videos, and good lord some are just plain terrible. Is this the future of film criticism? Two guys are on there talking about 2049 for some forty minutes and they can’t even remember some of the character’s names. On another there’s four reviewers talking about the film, and one of them claims the original Philip K Dick ‘short story’ states that Deckard is clearly a Replicant. What is he talking about? That is patently not the case, and it’s a novella, not a short story.

This kind of stuff really winds me up. In this day and age, misinformation is everything- I mean, some people believe everything they see on the tv or internet. And everyone seems to think they can be a presenter or critic and put themselves up on stuff like youtube without any qualifications or talk without any research or due diligence. God knows this blog is read by very few and amounts to very little in the great scheme of things, but I think about what I write and make an effort to be factually correct. But some people are spouting utter nonsense and drivel on these videos. It’s like the inmates are running the asylum, and quality control comes a distant third, fourth or fifth in the aim to get as many clicks/views as possible.

The dangers, of course, are that some people’s careers can be put at risk because of the unqualified opinion and vitriol on these sites/videos, whether it be the film-makers being spoken about or professional critics views being swamped out in all the nonsensical noise. Every fool seems to have an opinion, well, of course they do, and I guess everyone has a right to voice that opinion, but please, take the courtesy of due care and do some research.  Next thing you know, our Prime Ministers, Politicians and Presidents will think they can spout any utter nonsense without having to back it up with facts. Oh, wait…

 

Blade Runner 2049: Have you ever seen a miracle?

2049d2017.50: Blade Runner 2049

He would have loved this film, so I’ll begin by paraphrasing the late John Brosnan: Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, much to my surprise. So too,  I am sure, would Sara Campbell, and I just wanted to mention them both, for this film has been 35 long years coming, and not everyone who deserves to see it are still here to do so. There is a sadness knowing that, a reminder of the sense of mortality that permeates both (both! Still can’t get my head around that!) Blade Runner films, and a reminder of how lucky we are now, how remarkable this is. This film, Blade Runner 2049, should not exist.

Where to begin? Well, have you seen 2049? If not, stop reading now, go see the movie. You need to see it and it seems the film needs your patronage. And you really don’t need to read the spoilers that follow. If you have seen the film, you won’t mind the spoilers, and I hope you can give me your time, share with me my thoughts, offer some thoughts back. Sitting comfortably? This could be a long post. Time enough, as Batty might say.

First of all, I really have to say how strange an experience it was. Anybody who has read this blog will be aware of how much of a big deal the original Blade Runner is for me. I first saw the film in September 1982, and it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Thursday night may have been the most bizarre cinematic experience. You see, Blade Runner has been my favourite film for some 35 years – years in which it grew from box-office failure and obscure cult film to a video favourite and critical darling. For all those years until just awhile ago, the very idea of a sequel was ridiculous.

Yet here it was. I’d pre-booked my tickets for the first evening of its release, and was going with my long-term friend Andy who had been there with me back on that Saturday afternoon in 1982 when we saw the film for the first time. The tickets were 75p each back then, markedly rather more now. 35 years is half a lifetime ago and much had changed, but we both still shared our love of this particular film, and here we were for its sequel.

Of course I was nervous. The film had been the subject of much hype and early word on Twitter last week was frankly ecstatic. But what do critics and people who weren’t even born back in 1982 know? A good film doesn’t necessarily mean a good Blade Runner film, was this film made for modern audiences or for the fans who have lived this film since 1982? I cannot possibly explain the impact the film had back in 1982, in just the same way I cannot possibly explain the impact of the opening Star Destroyer shot in Star Wars on audiences back in 1977/1978 to people now. Films are of their time and while they may impress years later…  it’s hard to recapture that impact. I consider myself lucky to have experienced the original in 1982. It was of my time. It’s in my blood.

So here we are 35 years later and watching Blade Runner 2049 was an utterly bizarre, almost out-of-body experience. Yes I enjoyed it, I was fascinated and awed by it, but also there was an almost detached point of view of it, from outside almost. Interrogating it like some Voight-Kampf test of it being a ‘real’ Blade Runner film as opposed to some second-rate modern Hollywood replicant. The relief, of course, was overwhelming. 2049  is indeed a great Blade Runner film, but more than that, its a great sequel, a film that both informs and expands upon the original, in the same way as The Empire Strikes Back with Star Wars, or indeed The Godfather Pt.2. Watching Blade Runner again in the future might actually be improved by having seen 2049. Imagine that. 2049 might actually make Blade Runner better.

I’ve been thinking of Philip K Dick and of his astonishment at seeing twenty minutes of Blade Runner footage shortly before his death where he couldn’t work out how they got those images out of his brain.  For the past few days the film has been rattling around in my head as if I have been in some kind of post-traumatic fugue, trying to make sense of it. Was this how PKD felt when he had seen that Blade Runner footage? It’s not that I saw things Thursday night that I had imagined before, it was simply that they existed at all. Blade Runner 2049 is… well, in some ways it should not exist. It’s a near three-hour long arthouse movie made with a blockbuster budget, and a sequel to that strange dark sci-fi film that flopped spectacularly over three decades earlier. More than that, it’s a cinematic love-letter to all the films fans for all those years. And it’s quite brilliant.

2049fTo be clear, 2049 is not perfect, it’s not without its faults. But 2049 is also quite extraordinary. It raises more questions, cleverly sidesteps others. We are no longer simply asking how real or human a Replicant is, but also how real or human a hologram, or an AI can be? Can an AI fall in love? Can it feel empathy for another? Can it dream of electric sheep?

The film has the pace of a dream, is slow and hypnotic… shots, scenes, linger… maybe too long, I’m not sure, but it’s a long film and modern audiences get impatient with that. Not me, anyway, as it harks back to the Golden Days of ‘Seventies American cinema when American film was, well, better. But yes, it’s long, and its pace would seem to be utterly alien to most cinemagoers today. As expected, everything is beautifully staged and the cinematography is sublime- surely Roger Deakins will get his Oscar at long last. Speaking of Oscar….well, dare I say it, Harrison Ford actually turns in a performance I thought he was incapable of. It might even be the greatest performance of his career, oddly confounding any suspicion that any Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod might be a consolation gesture for that long career. The guy probably deserves to actually win it.

In my last post I mentioned that The Force Awakens was like a comfort blanket for Star Wars fans- what I meant was that the film contained familiar faces, music, places, objects, and was complete with a familiar plot that was like a greatest-hits package of all that had come before it. The whole film is designed to please, to wrap fans in a nostalgic return to childhood while lapsing into the calculated stupidity of so many contemporary blockbusters.

2049 isn’t like that. Yes its a Blade Runner film -sing the praises from the the highest rooftops!-but it’s quite utterly disturbing, particularly for Blade Runner fans.. well, certainly for me anyway. When that crate was dug up and its contents put on display in the LAPD morgue, I knew immediately whose bones they were. I just knew and it cut me deep. It was Rachel. This was Rachel, her skull…

For 35 years Sean Young’s Rachel has been frozen in time, a vision of utter beauty, a replicant of impossible perfection, the magical chemistry in celluloid of a beautiful actress, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography, stylish make-up and costume design. I have seen Sean Young many times in films since but she never really looked or sounded or acted quite like Rachel. For 35 years she has existed in that one film, a creation as timeless and permanent as any iconic performances of Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe. But here she was, a skull, some bones. It felt brutal, cold.

I’m not certain why, but throughout the film that really creeped me out. That feeling seemed to inform every scene. A sense of horror, of mortality, of melancholy. Later on when Jared Leto’s enigmatic (under-used?) villain Neander Wallace held Rachel’s skull in his hand before Deckard, it felt like something utterly monstrous. And when the inevitable happened, and that 35-year-old vision walked into the scene as if 35 years had never happened and the impossible had been given form, I nearly freaked out. My jaw dropped. I think I may have moaned. This was Pure Cinema. It was like a nightmare. I saw the pain and horror etched on Harrison Ford’s face and the torture was complete, palpable. I felt it too.

It was horrible. It was perfect. This film, I realised, should not exist.

And I’m thinking again about PKD’s reaction to seeing that Blade Runner footage. His astonishment. His reaction: “How is this possible?”

2049bHow is this possible that 35 years after Blade Runner, they made this huge slow enigmatic study of the nature of humanity and existence? The protagonist is a Replicant who has a relationship with a hologram. Two artificial intelligences sharing… love? Debating the validity of implanted memories? Discussing the possibility of being ‘real’? It’s a genius twist of the original film- here we  know that Officer K (a brilliantly nuanced Ryan Gosling) is a replicant, but does that make him any less real? As the films events unfold and he finds cause to question his implanted memories, and begins to think he may not be more human than human, but actually human, if not some kind of hybrid, the sadness of the eventual truth is heartbreaking.  And yet, like Batty in the earlier film, he reaches some self-awareness, some humanity that is undeniable. What is human anyway?

(This film even has a great joke, a funny one: as he considers Deckard’s dog, K asks, “Is he real?” and Deckard deadpans “Ask Him.” I guffawed. But that joke sums up the film. Is it real? What is real?)

We live in thrall to technologies intended to serve. People cannot seem to live without their smartphones. The hologram Joi is the natural extension of the smartphone, what it may evolve into. An AI assistant, a diversion, a replacement for human company. We may never have the flying cars of Blade Runner, but I suspect AI like Joi is inevitable- indeed, barring the holographic flight of fancy, it’s almost already here. But is it real, can it feel, can it aspire to be human?

Consider this:  an Hologram AI has purchased/arranged a pleasure-model Replicant to have sex with the Holograms owner/lover who is a Replicant itself (himself/herself/itself, how does that work with Replicants?). While I try to get my head around that, add this to the mix: the pleasure model that Joi hired is part of the resistance/uprising who uses the opportunity to plant a tracker in K’s coat, so is Joi a part of that resistance all along? Is K being steered by unseen forces all along?

2049eI really need to see the film again. All sorts of thoughts and observations have been rattling around in my head for the days since. A sign of a good film is one that lingers in your head. I am sure 2049 will reward repeat viewings, possibly for years. But I really need to see it again on the big screen before it slips across to disc (the thought that six months from now I will be used to simply rewatching it at home whenever I like is a frankly salivating prospect).

They show you someone weaving memories together in this film. Its breathtaking, like fashioning dreams with a strange (very PKD) device that looks part-camera, part bus conductor ticket machine. They show a Replicant having her nails done whilst orchestrating rocket fire from some automated weapons platform hanging unseen in the sky. A giant hologram selling an app steps out of the skyline to accost our protagonist who has already loved and lost that product, the giant hologram’s blank unfeeling stare utterly at odds with the loving sincerity of the eyes that he loved.  A wooden horse replaces the origami unicorn of the previous film, but seems to represent the same question: what is human? Can you trust your memories in a world that can have them woven like dreams and implanted? What is the meaning of the final shots where a dying K stares up at the falling snow and watches it fall into his hand, while Dr. Stelline in her glass world nearby fashions memories of snow falling out of nowhere?

This film should not exist.

Sadly, as I write this it seems the Box-Office for the film has been very disappointing, particularly in America. I feel a sense of history repeating, and it seems awfully unfair that the bravery in making this film so sincere and ‘honest’ to the original won’t be rewarded financially, and we won’t get a third film. Not that we should even measure quality by box office anyway, or that we even need a third film, but its seems cruel that, when we finally get a quality adult sci fi film, it stumbles at the box office, as if we’re being haunted by the lessons of 35 years ago all over again. In a genre swamped by huge empty-headed spectacle or superhero comic movies… Well, it’s very frustrating and quite utterly depressing and disappointing. 2049 deserves better from audiences, but at least it got the love of (most) critics. So it’s doing better than Blade Runner there, at any rate.

The question still rattles around in my head: this film should not exist, but it does. How is this possible? PKD would have loved that.