Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween / George Romero Tribute Edition: "Day of the Dead" and "Land of the Dead"

Day of the Dead / Land of the Dead
I've been a fan of zombie movies my entire life, so it definitely bummed me out when George Romero passed away back in July. Whenever a filmmaker I like dies, I always revisit their work. With Romero, I knew I had to watch Day of the Dead again since it's my all-time favorite zombie movie. I bought the blu-ray (which looks great, by the way) even though I already have the DVD (it's that cool one with the Bub cover flap); I love this one enough to own it twice. In the documentary on the blu-ray, a producer mentions that Romero had written a much larger (in scope) film, but budget constraints forced him to scale it back. The larger version ended up becoming Land of the Dead (a movie I also own), so I figured this made for a good double feature for a Romero tribute and for Halloween, especially since Night and Dawn get most of the attention when it comes to Romero.

Romero seemed to work best when forced to go small. Night takes place in a single house. Dawn is in a mall. And Day takes place in a cave/storage facility. These small locations allow for more character building, and it frees up the budget to go all out on the makeup and gore. This is why I love Day. It's up there with The Thing for having some of the most disturbing practical effects of all time. The zombies may look more "Thriller" than Walking Dead, and the blood is candy red, but it's still disgusting...and great. The effects in Land are still good (the zombies look much better) and the feast sequence has its moments (the belly button ring being ripped out comes to mind), but there are bits of CG mixed in there, as well. It's not terrible CG, but it foreshadowed its much heavier use in Diary of the Dead. It's unfortunate that Romero couldn't get the budget to go full practical with the blood and guts.

With Romero, you come for the gore, but stay for the social commentary. Anyone can make a gory movie, but Romero could also make his films socially relevant, funny, disturbing, and philosophical. Something that is lost in many zombie stories today is the treatment of the zombies themselves and what it all means for humanity as a whole. That's not to say a show like The Walking Dead is lacking in the drama department; it isn't. But the focus there is solely on the characters surviving; they never stop to consider the world at large. If they do talk about the world at large, any big thoughts are usually dismissed with an answer along the lines of "Surviving is all that matters now." 

Whereas Day of the Dead has a lengthy scene in the middle of the movie in which John, the seemingly uncaring Jamaican helicopter pilot (greatest character description ever?), questions the whole point of humanity's "progress." There is no action or gore during this scene, yet it's one of my favorite moments in the film. The question, "Why bother figuring out why the zombie apocalypse, or anything at all for that matter, happened?" is asked, and it makes you think beyond the movie itself. John suggests that trying to figure things out might have led God to bring this curse on humanity, so they should give up trying to figure it out and start humanity over from scratch, and just live. It can come across as anti-scientific, but I think it's more about how we can't see the forest for the trees. It also works as a metaphor for enjoying the zombie genre: who cares why it happened, just enjoy the gore and violence. And for whatever reason, all of this being presented with a Jamaican accent makes it even better.

That might seem like way too much thinking for the zombie genre, but Romero's movies in particular were filled with very intentional social commentary concerning race (Night), consumerism (Dawn), militarism and scientific study (Day), and class struggle (Land). That's what makes this genre so great. If it was just gore, it wouldn't be this popular. Whether viewers realize it or not, they're drawn in by those themes.

More than anything, though, these films are entertaining. I love Day because of how heightened so many of the characters are. Joe Pilato, as the psychotic Rhodes, makes the film. He pretty much screams every line, which makes gems like, "I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I want to know what the fuck you're doing with my time!" Also, he yells "Choke on 'em!" as zombies feast on his entrails. It just doesn't get better than that. Steele and Rickles, equally psychotic, are a highlight, as well. It's overacting to be sure, but it's also plausible that people would get this crazy in that scenario.

Land doesn't compare to Day in the crazy character department, but it still has some great moments. Dennis Hopper's goofy ruse of "Watch out! Get down quick!" to murder an associate only to find out seconds later it was unnecessary always cracks me up.

Before I move my focus towards Land, however, I feel obligated to just spout off all the other reasons I love Day so much. So here goes, in no attempt of organization. The music: the very 80s score might come across as laughable for some, but it fit perfectly for me. I can't explain why, but the score made this feel more like the end of the world than more traditional movie music would have. I might just be crazy, but the music worked completely for me. They call the zombies "dumb fucks" multiple times. Rhodes calls a zombie a "pus fuck." There are plenty of goofy zombies (clown, football player, ballerina), which means these people died while wearing these outfits, which is hilarious to me. Miguel saying, "So fucking what?" That one zombie that steps off the platform too early and falls. The shovel kill. The way Rickles laughs. And finally, the location in general. The cave/storage facility is a real place in Pennsylvania, and I cannot think of a better actual filming location for a zombie movie. Okay, now on to Land.

Land of the Dead was something entirely different for Romero. The focus of his series began shifting to the zombies in Day with Bub learning to use a gun by the end. With Land the zombies making their way to the city is as focused on as the human story. The humans began changing more with these two films, too. There have been terrible people in all the movies, but they seem to have taken over in Day and Land. With all the evil humans around, you end up rooting for the zombies not for the gore, but because they seem like better people...even though they eat people.

This is why Land deserves a bit more love than it gets. Romero leaned into his social commentary more in this film than any of the other Deads. By turning the zombies into the heroes of the story, you see humanity in a villainous light. It's a very dark, disturbing message. The film suggests that zombies are the logical next step in evolution. Land was Romero's first zombie movie since Day, and it seems like he returned to the genre because he hated seeing the treatment of zombies. Zombies are mainly used as plot points now, and Romero wanted to make them characters again. He certainly did that in Land

The first time I saw Land in the theater I was too amped to see a new Romero movie to give much thought to the treatment of zombies. Rewatching it recently, it was all I could think about. All of the humans truly seem like secondary characters this time around. There are still good and bad humans, but the majority are terrible. Romero ditched any semblance of subtlety this time around and presented humans as openly worse than zombies. 

The lack of subtlety is not a critique. At this point in the Romero universe, any attempt at human decency would have been long gone. The setup of Land is that the rich get to live in luxury condos while the poor live in slums, and it will always be that way. The poor are given the hope that they can get to the top, but it's a lie. This is certainly a thinly veiled (okay, not veiled at all) criticism of capitalism. But I think it's more about where humans would eventually go in a zombie world. I believe this scenario could definitely play out. Of course, this is all based on the idea that an economy would still exist in the zombie apocalypse, and I find that the most implausible aspect of the film. But if money did still matter, Land is a decent prediction of what could happen.

Before I wrap things up, here are my favorite Land moments. The aforementioned Hopper scene. John Leguizamo wanting to become a zombie (mainly because I would be the same way in that scenario; why not see what it's like to be a zombie?). Using fireworks to distract zombies. The Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright cameos. Tom Savini! More goofy zombies; apparently an entire band died in their uniforms.

George Romero may have been known for making (amazing) zombie films, but these movies were always about humanity. The gore is top notch and makes these movies endlessly rewatchable and enjoyable, but the social commentary he inserted increasingly in each film makes them classics in my collection. It's not like Romero's social critiques are all that original or anything (it's not hard to look at consumers as brainless zombies), it's that he knew these films needed something more than gore. If I'm going to watch two hours of anti-human propaganda, then I at least want to see some amazing practical gore. George Romero was more than capable of providing that, and he will be sorely missed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049" - More "Blade Runner" Than "Blade Runner"

Blade Runner 2049

(This site is supposed to be about movies I own, but I'm making an exception for this Blade Runner 2049 review since I will own it when it is released on blu ray.)

Returning to beloved films from decades ago usually results in disappointment. But thanks to a recent influx of new films that continue the franchise (Star Wars, Alien) rather than reboot it, the results have been a bit more satisfying. Still, revisiting Blade Runner seemed like a bad idea. There's not much to the original film that begs for a sequel. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the unanswered question of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) was a replicant. It seems like a sequel featuring Ford would be problematic for that question. Also, the first Blade Runner was not an action movie. It was a moody noir set in a dystopian future. Would Hollywood allow a sequel to be made without turning it into an action film?

Thankfully, the filmmakers (director Denis Villeneuve, producer [original director] Ridley Scott, and writers Hampton Fancher [original] and Michael Green) handled things beautifully. They do not answer the question of Deckard. In fact, they add more to the debate for both sides of the argument. And, more importantly, Blade Runner 2049 is nowhere near an action film.

The plot, which I'll be vague about since the studio left it very vague in the promotional materials, is in the same vein as the original, playing out as a simple detective story in a complex, visually stunning setting. While the plot does add plenty of questions to the series and brings up plenty of existential themes concerning humanity and technology, the true appeal of the film is its style.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) was the perfect choice to succeed Scott in the director's chair. He has proven himself a master of tension and mood already, so it was great to see him set loose with a large budget in an already richly designed world. I rewatch the original Blade Runner on a yearly basis because of the world of the film. Blade Runner 2049 takes that bleak future and turns into perhaps the bleakest future in a film that isn't post-apocalyptic; perhaps it could be described as pre-apocalyptic. It's interesting that such an ugly moral world can be so beautiful. Villeneuve and director of photography Roger Deakins take massive landfills, radioactive cities, and bleak farmlands and turn them into cinematic wonders. 

The visuals, which are a perfect blend of CG and practical effects, are amazing on their own, and the nearly oppressive score (which rattled the speakers of my theater regularly) is the finishing touch. A world is only beautiful if you get to spend plenty of time in it, though. This is where critics (and Blade Runner fans) and a typical audience member might differ in opinion. Blade Runner 2049 gives you over two and a half hours in its bleak world, with many sequences consisting solely of Ryan Gosling walking slowly. I see that and can't take my eyes away because I want to examine and enjoy every frame of the film. Others might see that and want to yell, "Do something!" 

Perhaps the best way I can describe how interesting I found this arguably "boring" film is this: I went to see this after working a twelve hour night shift. I went to the earliest show I could, which allowed me to get two hours of sleep beforehand. I've done this with other movies and could barely keep my eyes open no matter the type of movie I was watching. Yet with Blade Runner 2049, I didn't so much as yawn a single time. I was truly worried I would fall asleep when I first planned to watch this lengthy film under those conditions. When I walked out of the theater feeling completely awake, I knew I had seen something special. 

Although the visuals, pacing, and music were the stars of the film for me, that does not mean the performances were lacking. Gosling is perfectly cast in the lead role. Harrison Ford is fine as the aged Deckard (though it seems like he's just being Harrison Ford instead of the actual characters he's returning too). Jared Leto was oddly zen-like in a villainous role, but he was underused. The standouts are the female performers. Robin Wright turns what could have been a one-note boss character into fully realized character. Sylvia Hoeks provides quiet menace as Leto's muscle. And Ana de Armas gives possibly the best performance as Joi, an AI girlfriend. 

With all of this praise I'm giving Blade Runner 2049, you might think it's obvious that I prefer it to the original film, but I'm not sure yet. My impulse is to declare this the better film, but it will take time to truly tell which film has the more lasting effect. The original Blade Runner didn't catch on for years. So maybe my opinion of this film will change over the years, as well. I doubt it, though. Like most films that I love, my immediate thought as I walked out of the theater was, "I can't wait to see this again." I think my yearly viewings of Blade Runner just became a double feature, and Blade Runner 2049 is definitely one of my favorite films of the year.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Unfortunately, this is probably the last Blade Runner for a while since it's underperforming at the box office, but I'm okay with where it ended. It definitely felt like a few things were set up for future installments, but it didn't end on a cliffhanger or anything. You can imagine where things go from that ending. But I do wonder if they ignored Leto's character at the end in hope of a sequel. Or maybe they introduced that replicant underground group to be expanded upon in the future. Either way, it stands on its own as a great movie.

Gosling was meant to play a Pinocchio-like replicant.

The Joi character reminded me of Her quite a bit. It's still an interesting plotline. At times you're watching a robot interact with a hologram. The fact that these two "lifeless" characters make up a big portion of the films says something about the overall question the film posits: What is humanity?

Man, Los Angeles is bleaker than ever. You can imagine if most people had moved off-world back in 2019 how bad it must be by 2049. 

Glad to see Edward James Olmos return, still making that origami.

So is Deckard a replicant? I think he's human at this point, though I thought he was a replicant after watching the original. It's not the aging that makes me thing he's human; it was the scene with him in the car as it submerged. If he was a replicant, he would have easily gotten out of the handcuffs. Of course, Tyrell could have made him pretty much identical to a human in all aspects if he was capable of making a replicant able to procreate. Perhaps Deckard and Rachel were his replicant Adam and Eve... Okay, maybe Deckard is a replicant after all. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Mixed Bag of Sci-Fi Nostalgia: Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner

(NewsRadio was originally going to be my next post, but I decided to postpone that and write something a bit more relevant since Blade Runner 2049 is coming out this week. NewsRadio is written and will be posted in a week or so.)

Nostalgia seems to be fueling the biggest movies and TV shows recently, and that is not going to change anytime soon thanks to the popularity of Star Wars returning to the original trilogy characters. Star Wars didn't start this trend or anything, but the massive success likely led to the greenlighting of new entries in other older properties. I can't help but think that Alien: Covenant was able to be made because of a promise to be more like the original Alien than the recent, divisive Prometheus. And based on the previews of Blade Runner 2049, it looks like the studio provided a huge budget; it's not a stretch to assume this is because of the Star Wars effect. While I love the resurgence of all these films I loved growing up, the nostalgia factor makes it a mixed bag (though I'm crazy optimistic for Blade Runner 2049). So is nostalgia helping or hurting the integrity of these franchises? Let's start with Star Wars.

The Force Awakens, many claim, gave the fans what they wanted whereas the prequels gave them what they didn't want. Not to get into a prequel vs. original trilogy debate, but one thing that can be said for the prequels is that they are different. For a lot of fans, that means they're terrible (I happen to hold them in the same regard as the original trilogy, but that's not the point). So when The Force Awakens came out, there was this collective sigh of relief: Star Wars was truly back. 

I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but the more I watched it, the more the nostalgia wore off. I still like it, but I also realize that it is an unapologetic rehash of A New Hope. People have pointed this out, but it seems like most give the film a pass. "Yeah, it's basically a remake, but, man, it really felt like Star Wars!" In other words, "Yeah, I've seen this movie before, but, man, it's a really good movie!" 

This is where I disagree with fans of The Force Awakens. Nostalgia is all about feeling, but I didn't think The Force Awakens felt like a Star Wars movie. It had all the right parts and whatnot, but it felt different. Not bad, just different. It's to the point now that I don't even consider that film's success the product of nostalgia; it was successful simply because of recognition. 

This is where the Alien and Blade Runner franchises come into play. Obviously nostalgia and recognition are part of the appeal (hell, Harrison Ford returns in Blade Runner, just like he did in Star Wars [PS - it's my theory that Ford is going through his most iconic characters and killing them off one by one; Deckard is probably going to die in the new Blade Runner, and he could also kill off Indiana Jones in the announced fifth film]), but one major difference with these two properties is that the original director, Ridley Scott, is heavily involved. Meanwhile, George Lucas, to the delight of most fans, has almost nothing to do with the new films. 

Scott's involvement is so important because he's not a fan. Everyone working on the new Star Wars films are fans, so, in essence, all the new stuff is fan fiction. Fan fiction can be good, but it will always feel a step removed. Just like Lucas was willing to do something vastly different (even if a lot of fans hated it), Scott can do whatever he wants with Alien and Blade Runner.

This has happened a bit already. The Alien prequel Prometheus, while certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, received a lot of negative blowback online. The film, in my opinion, has been nitpicked excessively possibly because it didn't deliver enough answers and/or the same experience of the first Alien film. The issue here is that Scott didn't set out to do either. Prometheus is not technically an Alien film as Scott has been following a multi-film plan to lead up to the original Alien. That's why there isn't a proper xenomorph in the film, and it's also why there are plenty of unanswered questions.

The more recent Alien: Covenant is different. It's as if Scott listened to the upset fans of Prometheus and tried to do two separate things: continue his multi-film plan and give the audience something very similar to the original Alien. I think the film accomplishes that, but that makes it the lesser of the two new films. I enjoyed the xenomorph sequence at the end of Covenant, but I was much more interested in the continued story from Prometheus. Pleasing fans is important, but when you give into them, it's like giving into a child who wants candy for dinner. Sure, the child will be full, but it's empty nourishment. Here's hoping that the next Alien film leans more towards Prometheus than Covenant. (To be clear, though, I really liked both movies.)

One thing that is undeniable about the Alien prequels is that Scott is still able to create the Alien atmosphere. Rewatching Alien recently, I realized that the atmosphere is why I love that first film more than Aliens. It's slow and brooding and effective. It also took what the original Star Wars presented (a futuristic sci-fi that looks lived rather than shiny and new) and perfected it. I recall Alien being described as truckers in space, and that's exactly what it is. This is best exemplified by the great Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton (R.I.P.). How often in a film set on a spaceship do you have characters arguing about wages? All of these elements add up to a nearly perfect film. A film that could not be replicated today because of pacing alone. Look at Covenant; they essentially remade Alien in the last twenty minutes. Audiences don't have time for slow burn tension these days.

Perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will prove me wrong, though. With a running time nearing three hours and a director (Denis Villeneuve) who specializes in mood, this could be the film that gets it right. Blade Runner 2049 could placate fans and retain the atmospheric feeling of the original. 

Blade Runner 2049 may have found the perfect formula for nostalgic filmmaking. Rather than shutting out the original director, allow him to be involved in the process (as Scott is on 2049 as a producer) without giving him total control. Star Wars could benefit from George Lucas's input, as blasphemous as that might seem to certain fans. Don't let him go full prequel with it, but let him in on the process. The guy who started it all just might have a few ideas for where the story can go.

Back to Blade Runner, what made me fall in love with this film over the years was the mood and atmosphere. Judging it on face value, it's a boring film. (SPOILERS throughout the rest of this paragraph.) Deckard is very low energy and is no match against a replicant in a fight, and he only survives at the end because Batty lets him. It's not meant to be much of an action film, though. It's an atmospheric consideration of what life is, especially in a technologically advanced world. It's slow and beautiful. I don't rewatch it at least once a year for the badass action sequences; I watch it because I want to revisit the world of the film.

Of course, simply wanting to revisit the world of a film is what led to some of the problems with nostalgic filmmaking in the first place. I guess the best way to describe it is that The Force Awakens felt like I was looking at a picture of the Star Wars universe, and I hope that Blade Runner 2049 feels more like a return to the world. 

Based on early reviews for 2049, it appears that they got it right with this one. I hope so. Because nostalgia will continue to drive the content of Hollywood as long as it's profitable. Nostalgia doesn't have to be a bad thing. When done right, filmmakers might be able to recreate the magic of the past. I'll find out this weekend when I watch Blade Runner 2049.