Quick Change (1990, Directed by Bill Murray and Howard Franklin) English 8

Starring Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Jason Robards, Randy Quaid, Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Philip Bosco, Phil Hartman, Kurtwood Smith

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Clever. Cynical. Funny.

The fact that Bill Murray has only directed one film suggested to me that it must not be very good. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not the case. His lone directorial effort, Quick Change, is modest but effective, clever, funny, and best of all, a showcase for an exceptional cast from the top down. Murray, himself, stars as Grimm, a New Yorker who’s had enough. So he walks into a bank and holds it up, Dog Day Afternoon style, before walking out scot-free with a million dollars thanks to his well-executed plan. The problems don’t really start until afterwards when he attempts to flee the country. He gets Police Chief Walt Rotzinger (Robards) after him and every possible situation New York can throw at him slowing him down.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(816)

Cobra (1986, Directed by George P. Cosmatos) English 7

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Brian Thompson, Reni Santoni, Andrew Robinson

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(7-Very Good Film)

Cool. Entertaining. Simple.

Marion Cobretti, a.k.a “Cobra” (Stallone) is a one-man army. Part of the LAPD’s “zombie squad,” he only gets called into the cases deemed to difficult for ordinary measures. His latest case is a whopper. Someone known as The Night Slasher is killing off citizens at an alarming rate and after an attractive model named Ingrid witnesses an attack and confirms Cobra’s theory that The Night Slasher is a gang and not one man, Cobra must do all he can to keep her alive. This is a simple-minded, action-packed ride and one of a number of films that I really disagree with the critical consensus. What are you expecting from Cobra? Literate dialogue, dramatic heft, plot complexity? If so, don’t bother here. You’re wasting your time. Cobra is pure action, cool, macho Stallone with those glasses and the matchstick dangling from his mouth. The villains are evil, ineloquent, and need to die. Guess who’s going to kill them: Cobra.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(815)

Inside Man (2006, Directed by Spike Lee) English 6

Starring Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe

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(6-Good Film)

Engaging. Smart. Solid.

Denzel Washington takes on a man (Owen) who has masterminded a perfect bank robbery, but there’s more at stake than just money, and the criminal’s motives may not be what they seem. Mostly effective, clever heist film with good performances, but I actually think the direction (by the great Spike Lee) could have been sharper. I also think the soundtrack is ill-fitting. I would have preferred a grittier approach than the glossy, over-edited style seen here.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(800)

Blade Runner: The Depth of Sci-Fi (1982, Directed by Ridley Scott) English 10

Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Darryl Hannah, William Sanderson, M. Emmet Walsh

(10-Masterpiece)

Stunning. Masterful. Provocative.

Science fiction can take the concerns of its time as well as timeless concerns and present them to an audience in a unique and entertaining way. British novelist H.G Wells played a huge role in jumpstarting this tradition. His works dealt with themes as diverse as man’s struggle versus technology, man’s fear of the unknown, and identity crisis like in The Invisible Man (1897). Jules Verne successfully foretold of the submarine, man’s ability to fly across the world, and space travel. E.M Forster in his novella, The Machine Stops, rather sagely wrote about a future society that would rely so heavily on technology that it would eventually be unable to function without it. The works of the early science fiction writers bore a complexity and a weight that made it a premier genre for boundary-pushing and exploration. Great science fiction has always challenged what society accepts, explored what is impossible to explore, and posed questions that aren’t often asked.

Science fiction film had its holy grail as early as 1927 in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In its dystopian contours, we have a literal embodiment of high class to low-class society; the haves and the have-nots. Following its protagonist, Freder, from the high class pleasure garden to the oppressive urban sprawl of low society as he searches for the women he’s infatuated with, Metropolis introduced both political (social injustice, societal hierarchy) and philosophical (the nature of men, what separates man from machine) themes to science fiction film, and became the benchmark for all the films that followed.

This is where Blade Runner, with its vast urban dystopia, picks up, reflecting a sort of decline of human emotion. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it was the first of Phillip K. Dick’s novels to be adapted for the silver screen. The novel, like classic works of noir, both in the form of literature and film, dealt with issues of identity, and the filmmaking team spotlight this aspect of it through noir-fused sets and style; Venetian blinds, hardboiled detective, dames who mean trouble but also have a soft side, and even voice over depending on which version you watch.

Dick’s story of a seemingly obdurate cop seeking to kill six near-perfect androids would become a film marvel in the hands of director Ridley Scott (fresh off of his first sci-fi hit, Alien), and, despite many glaring changes in the book’s transfer to film-the significance of animals is made vague and the principal character of J.R Isadora is lost completely-the main theme or question of what it means to be human is captured beautifully and provocatively. Blade Runner is a heavily philosophical film with religious undercurrents coloring its quiet moments. Is it any wonder then that upon release, the movie saw middling returns at the box office and was misunderstood by many prominent critics? Famed film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “It forces passivity on you,” in her review for The New Yorker. Janet Maslin for the New York Times opined, “A film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story.” And Roger Ebert said of Ridley Scott, “He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story. The movie has the same trouble as the replicants: Instead of flesh and blood, its dreams are of mechanical men.” Twenty-five years later, however, Ebert re-analyzed the film adding it to his canon of “Great Movies”, remarking on his earlier quibbles, “This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway.” I believe this point is where any analysis and discussion of Blade Runner beyond the spectacular superficial elements should begin. While many of the themes of Do Androids Dream of Sleep are still present within Scott’s text, the latter feels more concentrated compared to the former which felt to me like a self-published work; brilliant but without the mark of a real editor.

Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former detective with Los Angeles’ Police Department, who is brought back to expose and hunt down five replicants (androids bioengineered to perfection). Deckard gives every indication of being the hard-worn but duty-bound cop; incorruptible and without any apparent life outside of being a cop. On the trail of the replicants Leon, Zhora, Pris, and their charismatic and uber-Aryan leader Roy, Deckard is soon corrupted by the fifth android, Rachael. He knows she is an android and finds himself increasingly drawn to her against his better judgment. Deckard finds and terminates Zhora, Pris, gets help from Rachael with Leon and meets up with Roy on the rooftops in an extended climax with bizarre spiritual implications. He then runs off with Rachael into the unknown, and the credits roll over the uncertainty of our first viewing.  But Blade Runner gets better every time you watch it. It is the greatest embodiment of the question, what makes someone human?

Before looking at how the film addresses this question with the replicants and Deckard, I’d first like to point out its use of men and women in broad strokes to convey this theme. For one thing, the humans in the movie are highly individualistic, and that is a generous way of describing their solemn, lonely existence. Consider the character of J.F Sebastian (played by William Sanderson). As a genetic designer, he is one of three men responsible for the creation of the replicants. Pris accompanies him to his home, which is filled with animated toys that keep him company. His lone source of human contact seems to be the occasional chess game with the boss, Tyrell. He works constantly. Consorts with inanimate objects. Plays chess. Sits alone his massive apartment. This hardly feels like the life of a flesh and blood man. His appearance, too, lends itself to conspiracy theories of him being an android. The blood in his cheeks feels painted on and he wears the same clothes in the few scenes he occupies. But I interpret his solitude as an example of how isolated humanity is, and how the androids have picked up where humans have dropped the ball.

Similarly, there is the master himself. The grand designer, sitting alone atop his own private tower of Babylon. Again we have the motif of humanity isolating itself; cut off from other humans, cut off from relationships, cut off from emotions. Dr. Elden Tyrell is the creator; the life-giver. Before I get to the religious connotations of that, let us first look at him as simply another human in the story. No wife; no children; no house pets. He is married to his work, and I believe he says something about Rachael being like a daughter or something. What does it say about humanity when people are seeking artificial means of forming relationships rather than organically finding love and companionship? That is if they are even seeking, which most characters are not. How many married couples are seen in the film? How many children? I don’t remember any, and I would guess the notions of family and togetherness have migrated to Off-world colonies along with the people of means. Sci-fi films have long envisioned nightmarish futures and dystopias, but Blade Runner’s vision isn’t as off-kilter visually compared to the present. Its nightmare concerns the muted emotional aspects of humanity under the influence of some unknown conformity. The third human responsible for the androids is Hannibal Chew. He rounds out and drives home the point about the characters we can most safely assume are humans, as he too is seen working robotically at his work designing the eyes of the androids. Is there nothing left for humans but their work? We don’t get any sense of three-dimensionality out of any human character. We get no sense of them aspiring to anything.

Now we come to Rick Deckard, who I like to believe is a replicant, but will read as a human for this discussion. He lives to work, and the only hint of extracurricular interests comes about halfway through the film when we see he has a piano in his apartment. Deckard in that same scene quite cruelly breaks down Rachael’s faith in her own memory and identity; memory and identity also being crucial themes. He proves to her that her memories are manufactured, and the film later whispers questions about his memories when another cop leaves an origami folding of a unicorn that harkens back to Deckard’s dreams on the subject. How much can anyone trust their own memory?

Deckard has a foolproof way of identifying androids. No matter how convincing, how thorough the established illusion, he can identify a replicant based on their inability to empathize. To this effect, he administers the Voight-Kampff test described in the film’s original press kit as, “A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body. The bellows were designed for the latter function and give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect. The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements.” He needles his subjects about various strange things happening to animals and gauges their response. This sets up a very convenient line between humans and androids-humans can empathize, replicants cannot. Except this delineation falls apart throughout the film. Take the scene where Zhora is retired by Deckard for example. She is gunned down in the street with dozens of people breezing by. They keep moving. Most significantly, at the film’s end, Roy saves the man who killed his friends and tried to kill him. Is this a sign of grace from a being that has killed its creator and become its own judge of life and death?

In the novel, maybe the movie as well, Tyrell asks Deckard if he has ever used the Voight-Kampff test on himself. Aside from just being another occurrence where the text plays with our conception of who is and isn’t a human, the moment also points to a level of reflexivity that is lacking in the human characters but present in the androids. In essence, does Deckard ever question? Does he ever doubt? Apparently not for much of the film, until Rachael introduces it to his life. We see Deckard struggle with his emotional ties to someone he needs to kill, plus the physical aspects of that situation. Then, in the love scene in the apartment, he struggles to remain detached while convincing her that she is not human. He appears to waver a little as a result of his action, and I think we can see him empathize with her and her newfound knowledge. The combination of these doubts and frustrations lead to him taking her forcefully. It is an unusually attractive, aberrant, problematic, enigmatic scene as at a base visual level we have an attractive male movie star forcing his way with an attractive woman that raises all kinds of questions of consent and misogyny. For me, the scene represents Deckard’s awakening, wherein you have a male character flooded with an overwhelming load of novel feelings not knowing what to do with them, and trying to convince himself that she is merely a tool that can be used as needed. You can see how that comes close to not distant enough levels of misogyny present in films past, but here, I feel there is a dire subtext that makes the segment absolutely necessary. First, as repulsive a notion as it may be depending on your reading of the scene, this is the first time where we can begin to empathize with Deckard. He is flesh and blood after all, and he accepts her gift of love (albeit in a brutal manner) at long last. The scene also harkens back to classic noir where women are constantly getting pushed around and having to prove their angelic interiors to violent brooding male protagonists. We like those male protagonists and begin to like Deckard precisely for those flaws that are so apparent because it makes the characters more human.

Next, we have Roy, the super being/replicant/more human than human/Christ-figure.“We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical,” he says. He is dying. He feels his time coming to an end and wants more. This is a deeply human trait, and because his time is so finite, he searches for his maker for answers. The implications of this are readily apparent and separate the androids from the humans in a way that feels inverted. His sporadic utterances throughout the film move between ominous and wise, when he says things like, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” I could picture him easily having followers in our society. There is the crystal clear subtext in the film of Roy being a Christ-figure. Not a metaphor or a direct representation of Christ but someone who has a certain resemblance. His creator, Tyrell, informs Deckard that the motto in making the replicants was “more human than human,” which itself bears an apt description of the Christian conception of Christ. He experiences high levels of pain, sees the worst men have to offer, inspires others to follow, and ultimately allows his worst enemy to live, before he, himself, dies. For Roy, it is not a question of can he do what humans can, because he can do anything a human can better and to the extreme.

John Scalzi, in his Rough Guide to Sci-fi Movies, talks about science fiction’s ability to blend genres, styles, and subgenres. He says, “Science fiction does not contain itself to neat categories, and science fiction fans do not content themselves with one genre of film.” This points to what makes science fiction a genre capable of immense depth. Blade Runner at once rediscovered and reset the mold, and in its wake, we’ve seen other great films like AI: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), and Ex-Machina (Andrew Garland, 2015) explore this issue of what constitutes being human. Rick Deckard, talking about his enemy Roy Batty, summed up this theme in the end monologue for the original version (read without remembering Harrison Ford’s performance of this dialogue), “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life; my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.”

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(789)

The Bedroom Window (1987, Directed by Curtis Hanson) English 6

Starring Steve Guttenberg, Elizabeth McGovern, Isabelle Hupert, Paul Shenar, Brad Greenquist

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(6-Good Film)

Far-fetched. Stylish. Gripping.

      Cops are generally useless in movies like this one. If you have a thriller and the main character isn’t a cop, then most likely the cops are going to be completely unhelpful in the film. They’ll probably accuse the protagonist of something he didn’t do or arrive at the scene too late or get killed by the bad guy despite years of training while the film’s hero (an average male) is able to defeat that same bad guy. The Bedroom Window takes this cliché to an infuriating extent.

Terry Lambert (Guttenberg) leaves an office party early one night to begin an affair with his boss’ wife, Sylvia (Huppert). As their night winds down, Terry steps out of the room for a minute and Sylvia gazes out the window. At that moment, she witnesses the assault and attempted murder of a young woman, Denise (McGovern), by a pale, red-headed figure who then runs off. Not wanting to speak with police and risk having to testify in court where her husband would find out about the affair, Sylvia parts and resolutely decides not to speak of what she witnessed, content enough that the woman she saw was spared. Days later though, another woman is raped and murdered in similar circumstances to the attempt she witnessed. Terry, feeling a sense of civic responsibility, goes to the police and pretends that he witnessed the crime, feeding them information that Sylvia (who agrees with the plan) gives him. Lying to the police is not a great idea, but the way Terry’s life spirals out of control, as a result, is extreme and a little hard to believe. The first problem comes when Terry’s asked to look at a police lineup and pick out the assailant, where he meets Denise. The film, interestingly, loses its way later on, just when it starts to resemble other thrillers we’ve seen before, specifically the classic Hitchcock pictures. Hitchcock loved thrusting ordinary men into extraordinary situations, and the way Terry goes from key witness to lead suspect is very reminiscent of a famous scene in North by Northwest. It’s not that I have an issue with wearing the Hitchcock influence so conspicuously. A number of excellent films have done that: Charade, Blow-Out, Ghost Writer. And Hitchcock, also, wasn’t always interested in perfectly logical plotlines. My problem is that in The Bedroom Window, the rewards don’t always outweigh the frustration caused by maddening character decisions. Doing my best not to spoil anything, there’s one moment where Terry is left holding a freshly stabbed body and flees as the cops approach despite not having any weapon on him. If he had just waited, couldn’t he have just told the police, “how could I have stabbed this person if I don’t have a weapon?” As I said, logic is not paramount.

Aside from the frustration I felt watching the incompetent police in The Bedroom Window, and the silliness of some of its contrivances, the film is a perfectly serviceable thriller. It’s very good at times and its trio of leads (Steve Guttenberg, Isabelle Hupert, Elizabeth McGovern) as odd as it seems on paper, is the one atypical touch of an otherwise familiar thriller.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(777)

The Glass Key (1942, Directed by Stuart Heisler) English 7

Starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Joseph Calleia, William Bendix, Bonita Granville

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(7-Very Good Film)

Gripping. Enticing. Cool.

Early adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel featuring Donlevy as Paul Madvig, a big-time crook and political organizer, and Alan Ladd as his right-hand man and best friend, Beaumont. Their small empire runs into trouble when Paul alienates another powerful crook, Nick Varna, at the same time falling in love with a politician’s daughter named Janet (Veronica Lake), who happens to be the sister of a man he’s thought to have killed. It’s up to Beaumont to clean up the mess, and untangle the mystery, as he fights off the growing attraction between himself and his best friend’s girlfriend. Slick noir, with excellent supporting turns from Joseph Calleia and William Bendix. Ladd and Lake are justifiably a classic screen couple. Their smoldering makes the all too neat ending not only passable but completely satisfying.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(773)

The Ref (1994, Directed by Ted Demme) English 8

Starring Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, J.K Simmons, Christine Baranski, Glynis Johns

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Funny. Sharp. Black.

A skilled and ruthless burglar named Gus (Leary) gets trapped in small-town Connecticut suburbia after a botched robbery. With the police securing the town’s exits, Gus is forced to hide out while he comes up with his next move, choosing at random the home of Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (played by Spacey and Davis). Unfortunately for him, the old married couple is deeply dysfunctional, and their marriage problems spill out even as he holds them hostage. Though slightly stagey and contrived, the film does a nice job of sustaining its premise through its runtime, and the performances from the three leads are excellent. These are great roles for Davis and Spacey, and they make the most of them. The idea of suburban life not being all it’s cracked up to be is probably a film cliché at this point, but The Ref represents one of the better entries with that material. Better than the more lauded American Beauty in fact.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(766)