Friday, January 07, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 31-Jan. 6

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007/original 1982) ****
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples, Philip K. Dick (novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel

“Blade Runner” is one of those fanboy films that have had several different versions floating around for many years now. When I first saw it in the late 80s, such practices as director’s cuts were fairly uncommon. I saw what was then thought to be the only version of the film I would ever see. Despite a critical lashing upon its initial theatrical release, the film was already building a cult following. The release of the supposed ‘director’s cut’ in 1992 only fueled the cult status of the film, which was now being seen in a completely new light by its fan base with only a few differences between the two versions. Of course, those differences make a world of difference when you consider the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words and those minor changes involved a few hundred individual frames of film.

Ridley Scott is a director that rarely has mega box office success, but understands both the artistic and business value to be found in releasing multiple versions of his movies on video. In fact, a few years ago, A Penny in the Well teamed up with another blog, Daily Film Dose, to evaluate the many different versions of Scott’s films on DVD. You can read that article in two parts through these links. Part 1. Part 2.

Because of all the controversy surrounding the different versions of “Blade Runner”, Scott decided to return to the film in 2007 and create the his definitive vision of the movie, “Blade Runner: The Final Cut”.

Before watching this ‘final cut,’ I was most familiar with his ’92 ‘director’s cut’ version. I honestly can’t point out many differences between the two, as it’s been several years since I last saw the movie in any form. Although, I couldn’t point out the specific differences between these two versions (earlier versions included a dream sequence and a studio dictated voice over narration), the newest version seemed freer and less languid.

That’s not to say that Scott’s new cut runs at a quicker pace. Its visuals dictate a slow pace, as there is so much detail and beauty to behold in this future Los Angeles envisioned by Scott. I think, like his director’s cut of “Alien”, the editing in the newer version is tighter, more focused on capturing visual details and not over-emphasizing on more typical story details. But, little of the substance of the film has changed in this version.

I hope to return to the other versions of this film throughout 2011 to build a detailed analysis of just how this film has evolved through the years.

The Devil’s Own (1997) **½
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Kevin Jarre, David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick
Starring: Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Margaret Colin, Rueben Blades, Treat Williams, Natascha McElhone

Alan J. Pakula’s “The Devil’s Own” is that rarity of a movie that is well acted, well directed, and well written (up to a point), but just doesn’t work. It was an event movie upon it’s release because it brought together for the first time the great director of the 70s and 80s, Pakula, with the biggest box office draw at that point in time, Harrison Ford, and the dashing up and coming potential power house star, Brad Pitt.

The film’s problem lies not within its individual ingredients, however. Tackling the then fairly popular subject of the conflict in Ireland, the movie plays like it should have some sort of message to pass on about said conflict, but the message never seems to surface. Certainly there’s something there about how violence begets violence, the snake that eats his own tail, and all that; but there’s never any strong statement made, and we wait for it up to the anticlimactic end. The fact that there’s no central villain makes the conflict difficult to define. Although Treat Williams does provide a good villain, he’s not central to the story.

It’s unfortunate when a monumental teaming like this one comes along and disappoints. However, that’s often how it works out.

The Special Relationship (2010) ***
Director: Richard Loncraine
Writer: Peter Morgan
Starring: Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis, Helen McCrory, Mark Bazeley, Adam Godley

Screenwriter Peter Morgan continues his study of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in this HBO/BBC coproduction. This is Morgan’s third film on the politician, played in each film by Michael Sheen. The 2003 British television movie “The Deal” chronicled the clash of personalities between the increasingly right-minded Blair and Labour Party politician Gordon Brown. Brown would eventually become Prime Minister upon Blair’s resignation in 2007. The award winning “The Queen” looked at Blair’s first days as Prime Minister and how his populist outlook rallied public opinion upon the death of Princess Diana whilst the Royal Family fought him with outdated and unpopular tradition. Eventually, the Queen would embrace the young politician’s wisdom.

“The Special Relationship” looks at Blair’s shift in ideology, and the support and eventual betrayal he and U.S. President Bill Clinton would offer each other. The most striking notion this film shows us about Blair is subtle, but speaks loudly if you notice it. Before his first meeting with Clinton we see the not yet even elected Blair searching for a shirt in his humble dwelling where he has a frank conversation with his wife, Cherie. In his final meeting with Clinton, during which the two former allies witness the final concession of Al Gore to George Bush in the 2000 Presidential election, Blair resides in a giant estate and speaks in vagaries and with cautious defense to Clinton. He’s no longer the idealist we saw in “The Queen”.

The film made me wonder if any American Politian deserved such close study by American filmmakers as Blair warrants from Morgan in these three films. Ironically, Morgan gets his shot at just that politician in this very film. No, it is not the former U.S. President, but rather his wife, Hilary Clinton. Next to Blair, she is by far the most compelling person in the proceedings presented here. Hope Davis handles her perfectly. It struck me that her political career is really like no other politician’s in American history. From a First Lady who is perceived by all to be a puppet master, to becoming a surprise Senatorial winner, to a rejected Presidential candidate, to being appointed Secretary of State for an administration where it’s much better to be out of the country; it’s easy to believe that there will be a lot more of Hilary to come.

I’m Still Here (2010) *
Director: Casey Affleck
Writers: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix

To call “I’m Still Here” excruciating is missing the point. It is excruciating, but that’s not its problem. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any point. It’s fairly common knowledge by this point that this documentary by Casey Affleck about the decision of his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, to leave acting to pursue a career as a hip hop artist is a hoax. Apparently, the whole thing—including the infamous appearance on David Letterman when it appeared the Oscar-nominated star had lost his mind—was all set up for this faux documentary. Ever remaining is the question, “Why?”

Well, don’t look for answers in the mockumentary itself, as it is devoid of any answers about anything. The closest thing to an explanation for this utter lack of anything entertaining is offered by, of all celebrities, Edward James Olmos? And that elucidation is some wacked out analogy about climbing a mountain and falling off of it, only to climb back up again.

The only elements in this mess of a movie even approaching anything resembling entertainment are that appearance on Letterman—thanks to the comical interview remarks by Letterman—and the parody of Phoenix at the Oscars provided by funnyman Ben Stiller. The only thing resembling enlightenment is the final shot in the movie that follows Phoenix as he walks into ever deepening waters in the jungle until he eventually submerges totally. Everything else is a sad excuse for the sometimes-great performer to make himself look like an ass and fill every sentence of his speech with expletives and other various offenses. To think this is what really encompasses the life of an Oscar-nominated movie star is sad. To think Phoenix and Affleck thought there was anything to be gained from making all this up is just stupid.

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