How “Blade Runner” Became a Cinematic Classic

September 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

As the countdown to “Blade Runner 2049” continues, it’s worth remembering that the original “Blade Runner” wasn’t met with the kind of reverence it enjoys now. When it came out in 1982, I was living in Berkeley and saw it in a packed theater on what I’m pretty sure was opening night. From the first scene–explosions over an ominous-looking Los Angeles–I knew “Blade Runner” was a masterpiece. I loved the dystopian future it depicted, from the constant rain to the Japanese-influenced motifs. I loved the fact that Deckard was an updated Raymond Chandler detective who lived in a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house. I loved the fact that the climactic chase scene was filmed in the Bradbury Building, George Herbert Wyman’s 1893 iron-and-glass masterpiece that, like the film itself, was years ahead of its time.

I was surprised, to put it mildly, when the critics didn’t share my enthusiasm. Janet Maslin, though she praised the movie’s special effects, called “Blade Runner” “a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned.” On their TV show “At the Movies,” Gene Siskel called it “a waste of time,” while Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up only for the effects. Twenty-five years later, Ebert reappraised it positively, in part because the once-futuristic lighted billboards had become a reality: “the story benefits…by seeming more to inhabit is world than be laid on top of it.” (Siskel died in 1999, so there’s no way of knowing whether he would have changed his mind.) The Hollywood Reporter called it “a Felliniesque journey into Dante’s Inferno, with Micky Spillane in tow,” though it also called it “mesmerizing.” Thanks to its decidedly mixed critical reception, “Blade Runner” was a box office dud.

The film’s reputation started changing with the release of Ridley Scott’s director’s cut in 1992. Shorn of its voice-over narration, “Blade Runner” gained a new following and began to be regarded as a science fiction classic. The lack of narration–tacked onto the original because some thought the story confusing–gives the film greater dynamism, as did additional footage that seems to affirm the theory that Deckard himself is a replicant. In 2007, the Final Cut, which I haven’t seen, expanded the unicorn dream sequence, remastered the haunting Vangelis score and added three scenes.

On October 6th, we’ll finally get the sequel: “Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it looks worthy of the original and will draw a massive audience of fans, including me. As for the critical reception, it’s safe to assume a much better response than the original received in 1982.

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My ebook on “Blade Runner” is available here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/BLADE-RUNNER–FOUR-ESSAYS?keyword=BLADE+RUNNER%3A+FOUR+ESSAYS&store=ebook

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Harry Dean Stanton, the Actor’s Prophet

September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

Harry Dean Stanton in “Lucky”

It was shortly before going to see his new film “Lucky” on Friday that I heard of Harry Dean Stanton’s death at 91. As in his work, his timing was uncanny. His exit from life that day made his last film, a wry examination of an elderly desert dweller coming to grips with death, all the more poignant for those of us who saw it.

Throughout his long career, which began in TV and movie Westerns and dramas in the 1950’s, Stanton was described as a character actor, one who excelled in secondary roles. The character actor label followed him even after he became a leading man in two 1984 films: “Repo Man,” and “Paris, Texas.” It was, I suppose, a reference to his anti-movie star looks: a slight build and a gaunt, weathered face that became more fascinating as he aged. Stanton’s nose, always prominent, came to dominate his face as the rest of his features receded. Increasingly, his visage looked less made of flesh than carved from wood.

But his looks had little to do with his acting. His method relied heavily on observation and stillness, two qualities that elude most actors and almost all movie stars. Lucky is a man of few words, yet there’s never a moment when Stanton isn’t fully thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. We see Lucky going through his day– getting dressed, shaving, brushing his teeth, exercising, venturing out to talk with fellow residents of his tiny town–quotidian activities made profound by Stanton’s acting. I wouldn’t have minded if the film had gone on in this way, like a more mundane “Groundhog Day,” but the screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja had a bigger theme in mind: mortality, and Lucky’s reconciliation with it. Filling out the story are colorful characters played David Lynch, Beth Grant, Ed Begley, Jr. and Ron Livingstone, but the film–and every scene in it–belongs to Harry Dean Stanton. For me the highlight is his unexpected, perfect singing of “Volver,” (“To Return”) at a child’s birthday party. More than a showcase for Stanton’s musical talents–he was an accomplished singer and guitarist–“Volver” is a song about memory, love, the passage of time and the inevitability of death:

To Return with a withered brow/the snows of time silvered my temples
To feel life’s a puff of breath/that twenty years are nothing

Through his performance of “Volver,” Lucky gains an acceptance of his own end, a moment of grace that affects everyone in the scene. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.

Remembering Sam Shepard

August 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sam Shepard, 1943-2017

My first job after college was an odd mix of performing arts and social work. Each week, San Francisco’s theaters, dance and opera companies and orchestras would funnel their unsold tickets to my firm, which would distribute them to social service groups that could fill seats on short notice. Our clients were low-income seniors, recovering alcoholics, pregnant teenage girls and the mentally ill, all of them living or receiving care in facilities.

It was a job that put me in daily phone contact with theater managers, social workers and, in the case of the seniors and alcoholics, the clients themselves. First came the tickets, then the matching of shows to clients: nothing violent for the mental patients, for example, and nothing depressing for the pregnant girls. The alcoholics were the most manipulative, missing their call-in deadlines and refusing all opera, symphony and ballet. The mental patients were the most frequent no-shows and disrupters, while the pregnant girls never wanted to see anything. The seniors were by far the most reliable, and game for almost anything. Consequently, they were our most frequent clients.

Each group was escorted by one of our volunteers, local culture enthusiasts who lacked the income to see live events. They went to most of the performances, but occasionally my boss would assign me a show she thought I should see. One of these was a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Magic Theater, which had launched first production of the play in 1980. I had never seen a Shepard play before and probably would have been impressed by any of them, but seeing “True West” in the small theater where it originated was an indelible experience. As the brothers Austin and Lee argued, drank, fought and switched personalities, I knew I was seeing a work of genius.

Sam Shepard’s side career as an actor certainly garnered him more fame and money than his career as a playwright, and like most people I’ve seen a lot of his movies. Most put him in supporting roles, where his handsome, lone cowboy looks and quiet charisma had maximum impact. Each time he appeared onscreen, whether in “Frances,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or any number of others, I felt a wave of excitement followed by a sense of relief. Whenever Shepard showed up, the film always got better.

Hearing of his death yesterday made me wonder who would fill his shoes, both as a playwright and actor. In the former category, comparisons to Williams and O’Neill are easier than those to younger American playwrights, whose work seems paler and less universal. And in an era where young American actors stay boyish throughout their careers, the Sam Shepard roles increasingly go to Australian, Irish, Scottish or English actors. Shepard himself was often compared to Gary Cooper, a Montana native he resembled both physically and stylistically, but who will remind us of Sam Shepard?

Women Transformed in Two Japanese Films, One Old, One New

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

Yoshio Tsuchiya and Peter in “Funeral Parade of Roses”

Koji Yakusho, Josh Hartnett and Shinobu Terajima in “Oh, Lucy”

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing two surprising Japanese films, one on the festival circuit and the other enjoying its first U.S. release since the early 1970’s. Although dissimilar in many ways, both involve women–cis and trans–who break out of society’s expectations in unexpected, sometimes violent ways.

“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.

“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.

“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.

“Midnight Diner” and “Sparks;” Two Compelling Netflix Shows from Japan

February 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Kaoru Kobayashi in "Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories"

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in "Sparks"

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in “Sparks”

One of the bright spots of the past couple of months has been my discovery of two new Japanese series on Netflix, both excellent. Both shows are based on books: “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” (“Shinya Shukudou“) on a manga (graphic novel) series, and “Sparks” (“Hibana“) on a novel. Season One for both series is available on Netflix, and both will continue.

“Midnight Diner,” takes place in one of the countless small, owner-operated restaurants located on side streets throughout Tokyo. What distinguishes this one is its hours–midnight to 7am–and its owner, a handsome, stoic man known as Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). Master’s facial scar and bearing suggest a mysterious past as a sword fighter, though it is never discussed. In his current life, Master is a talented cook who runs a tight ship: only one item on the menu but endless possibilities, based on ingredients he is given or has at hand. And though diverse viewpoints are welcome in the diner, there’s no fighting allowed.

Each episode is named for a different dish, most of which evoke strong feelings of nostalgia for those who order them. In “Corn Dog,” an old, washed- up comedian continues to treat his former protégé, now a successful TV actor, as his lackey. In “Tan-Men” (a kind of ramen), an actress-turned-chauffeur meets a late night D.J., who later recognizes her as the superhero idol of his youth. “Ham Cutlet” follows a soon-to-be-retired lawyer and his long-lost stepbrother who is fighting eviction from a city-owned apartment building.

Though each episode features different people, a core group of regulars provide both color and continuity. They include bar hostesses, two men who dress as women and a group of ladies who are either insomniacs or office workers on the night shift. Though separated by gender, sexual orientation and income, all are loyal to Master, who observes the action and offers sage counsel.

There’s a beautiful melancholy to the series that is at once universal and very Japanese. Watching it, I felt as if Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Hopper and the writers of “Cheers” had gotten together to make “Midnight Diner;” it’s that good.

Less accessible but no less fascinating is “Sparks,” which follows a two sets of Manzai stand-up comedians as their careers rise and fall. Manzai, which originated during the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries) but is strongly identified with Osaka during the Meji Era, involves rapid-fire bantering between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a fool (boke).

When the series opens, the young boke protagonist, Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi), and his partner arrive in Atami, a seaside resort city, to perform at its summer festival. Though they bomb, Tokunaga strikes up a fateful friendship with Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), the boke of an older, more skillful duo, and quickly becomes his protégé. As the series progresses, Tokunaga’s star rises while Kamiya’s falls, changing but not destroying their friendship, which (like those in “Midnight Diner”) is cemented over restaurant meals.

For Japanese speakers, “Sparks” offers a bonus: it’s a crash course in slang-laden, Kansai dialect, male Japanese. For everyone else, it’s a bromance that sheds light on an ancient but still vital Japanese comedy tradition. Although it took me a few episodes to get hooked on it, I’m looking forward to Season Two.

Remembering Carrie Fisher

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Carrie Fisher in 2013

Carrie Fisher in 2013


Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27th was an unexpected tragedy: she had suffered a massive heart attack on her flight from London on December 23rd, the nightmare scenario of every frequent flier. Why December 23rd? Why London? I soon learned she was flying back from filming the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” in which she plays Rob Delaney’s mother. As for the timing, it was obvious: she had made sure to get home in time for Christmas.

The death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, of a stroke on December 28th was shocking in its timing, though not as unexpected: Reynolds was 84 and had been in poor health. Although a mordant joke circulated that Debbie had managed to upstage her daughter one last time, her death underscored their devoted relationship: the two were next-door neighbors on a compound in Beverly Hills and in daily contact.

Both women became famous for films they made at 19: Reynolds for “Singing in the Rain” and Fisher for “Star Wars,” yet their careers couldn’t have been more different. Reynolds was a studio creation, an MGM musical star whose cabaret act lasted more than fifty years. She wanted a similar career for her daughter, bringing her onstage to sing from the age of 13, but despite an excellent voice–strong, bluesy and jazzy–Fisher blazed her own trail. After a stellar film debut in “Shampoo,” in which the 17-year-old fed, interrogated and seduced Warren Beatty in two riveting scenes, she beat out every young actress in Hollywood for the role of Princess Leia. “Star Wars” would have been enough for most people, but Fisher went on to write books: five novels (including Postcards from the Edge, which became a feature film) and three memoirs, one of which, Wishful Drinking, became a one-woman show.

Beyond her published writing, Carrie Fisher was for decades a sought-after screenwriter, not only on original work but on other people’s screenplays. Punching up scripts was her bread and butter and she did it well, adding jokes and fleshing out characters in the “Star Wars” series and in comedies like “Hook,” “Sister Act,” and “Made in America.” She also wrote for the Academy Awards, among many other TV shows. Despite her excellent acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally,” to me she was a writer first and an actress second.

It was through writing that I had my only encounter with Carrie Fisher, at a literary event in the mid-2000’s. It was a small, private gathering so I expected to meet her, but when she arrived–late, badly groomed and out of sorts–I knew it was not to be. As the anxious hosts huddled around Fisher, I sensed she would have rather been anywhere else, yet she had dragged herself to their house after sprinkling glitter in her unwashed hair. I can’t pretend that her brief reading was good, but after joking about the glitter she pushed through it, and probably with more difficulty than any of us knew. Her mother, a tireless trouper, taught her well.

Afterwards her struggles with bi-polar disorder led to hospitalization and shock therapy, which in turn led to a career resurgence–more books, the “Wishful Drinking” show, two more “Star Wars” movies and “Catastrophe.” Fisher’s late work included a documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which aired posthumously on HBO last weekend. Intended as a tribute to her mother, the film now seems a testament to the kind of family values that aren’t supposed to exist in Hollywood. Of course they do, but the Fisher-Reynolds bond was exceptionally strong, and in the end unbreakable.

Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

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