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Old School Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974)

Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “The Conversation” is a paranoia-thriller surrounding a man within the surveillance industry, released fittingly during the height of the Watergate Crisis. The private surveillant in question is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and we first encounter him in the field, covertly recording audio of a conversation between a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) out for a walk. The two seem innocuous enough as they circle through the crowded plaza, we only get bits and pieces of their conversation as Harry and his small team use a variety of methods to capture their exchange. This film has a simple, but taught, premise and while it may be a slow burn as far as the pacing of the story unfolding- it is one wrought with tension, analysis, and questioning. It’s also a small miracle that this film is as good as it is because it was made and released inbetween Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films!

After Harry begins to analyze the audio back in his lab alongside his partner in the business, Stan (John Cazale), he uncovers a possible motive for his client wanting this information- with deadly implications. As a private, small time, surveillant Harry rarely knows intimate knowledge of who he’s tracking or why somebody wants them to be followed. He only knows the target and any knowledge relevant to getting information out of them through stealth and carefully applied technologies. As things escalate Harry finds himself between two sides of some high level corporate espionage, driven to prevent the murder of the young couple he was hired to tail. Harry Caul is an interesting character, especially for Gene Hackman after winning the Best Actor Oscar in “The French Connection” just two years prior. Here Hackman turns in Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s bombastic grit for a more measured and inward determination within Harry Caul. Harry’s a quieter detective, one whose problems are more internalized than Doyle’s.

Which leads me to the only real crux of an issue that I have with the film. After visiting a surveillance convention and meeting up with several acquaintances, Harry brings them back to his lab for a social drink. Up until this point in the film Harry has exhibited a very careful and fairly paranoid persona, he doesn’t let people into his life and he hides his secrets well. He’s even known by the others at the convention to be a shrewd businessman by making his own tech and never sharing his blueprints or prototypes to anyone. So, why has he invited a group of people to his working lab where his audio reels and secretive methods are hidden? After some deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple beats and one earlier scene that showcase how conflicted Harry Caul really is when it comes to social interactions and the nature of his relationship with intimacy. He seems to be a character that craves camaraderie and attention, but he also seems incapable of cultivating it in his own life. This character flaw is the only reason that I can fathom as to why he would loosen his standards so far as to let an unknown woman close to him and his secrets- which she takes full advantage of. Other than this scene, the movie feels flawless in Coppola’s hands- and most of it is as far as I can tell.

“The Conversation” is an excellently poised film within Coppola’s 1970’s filmography. Squeezed inbetween his first two “Godfather” films and followed up by “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, this was an excellent decade for the director. Rarely do I recommend a film based on it’s technical aspects- but even if the plot or performances didn’t catch your eye then maybe the audio and editing skill on display will, they’re absolutely fantastic for the film’s time. As a plus, a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford makes an appearance as a villainous corporate underling! What’s not to love about that?

Final Score: 1 Mime

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Review: Blade Runner 2049

Written by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher and directed by Denis Villeneuve “Blade Runner: 2049” has finally released thirty-five years after the original “Blade Runner” hit cinemas in 1982. Ridley Scott’s film may not have done all that well in its box office run but has since become a titan of science fiction influence grasping through the decades to expand its drudgy, wet, and dismal reach. A sequel to “Bladerunner” could have been a cash-grab from a greedy, blockbuster-foaming studio-but much to the relief of fans of the original, and newcomers to the franchise, “2049” stands apart from the original in scope and sensibility but feels entirely part of the world that Ridley Scott brought to life decades ago. In short- this sequel is as good as anyone could have hoped for and a brilliant film in its own right.

This is a film that deserves a second viewing, almost near demanding the audience of it in order to digest everything that we’re presented with. Luckily, the film is gorgeous and a beautiful spectacle to behold. The sights and sounds of this film are why I go to the movie theater. This is an absorbing film experience. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer of the film, has earned the accolades that the critics have been heaping on him. In this version of the future Los Angeles, it snows. The mountainous monoliths of architecture feel familiar, yet dwarf the landscape of the original in this labyrinth of buildings crammed and squeezed together. The encroaching tendrils of mother nature are kept at bay with gigantic walls to bend the ocean to our will, overbearing and frequent snowplows meander the street pushing heavy wet snow out of the way, and when it rains; it pours a near never ending deluge of water. The score is another gigantic factor in this film as Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch insert enough auditory callbacks to the bellowing synth of the original while also playing with some powerful tones that reminded me of a sort of Mongolian throat singing crafted to foster a sense of inescapable doom. I really loved that the film was perfectly happy to let a quiet scene play out in contrast to the overwhelming score in other scenes. Pairing sight and sound like this created something of a vacuum seal of immersion for me, it was enrapturing. The way Deakins frames each scene is a treat every time a scene cuts to a new location or new character. It’s every DP’s wet dream of colors and movement. Not to mention the exquisite use of lighting, shadows, and silhouettes- film professors and students will likely use this as an example for years to come. So, the film is beautiful-but does the story serve this visual feast?

Yes. I will leave all spoilers to be discovered upon viewing as that’s how I saw the film the initial time and my viewing was that much richer of an experience because of it. I will say though that as far as the performances go, every actor and actress pulled off believable, charming, brooding, and menacing roles that fit the world and the story perfectly. Some have criticized Jared Leto’s performance as “just another weird role from him” and while his character is definitely egotistical and over the top-that’s part of the character’s personality and it makes sense given the context of the film. I see no major faults in any of the performances, they fit the mold, and more importantly, the feel of “Bladerunner”. Particularly surprising and equally delightful were Ana de Armas as Joi the artificial love interest of Ryan Gosling’s officer K, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, the fierce and terminator-like personal replicant servant of Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. Both women showed off strong and powerful performances that helped to tie everything together in a painful and lonely punch to the gut. Speaking of which, Ryan Gosling’s performance as Officer K is the linchpin of this whole film, if he couldn’t sell his character’s story as efficiently as he did, the film would have fallen apart. He also gets his fair share of being on the wrong end of many fists throughout the story. After “The Nice Guys”, and now “2049”, Gosling might just be the character actor casting agents seek out when they need a protagonist that can take a few punches to the face while keeping his cool. Of course Harrison Ford cannot be forgotten, he may have given the best performance so far in this recent character revival of his. He wasn’t overused and he was absolutely integral to the plot in a way that was far bigger than I had expected out of this story. Lastly, it must be said- who doesn’t love Dave Bautista and how he has grown as an actor in these recent years? His role here as Sapper Morton was touching while retaining the fact that he’s a force to be reckoned with.

There is a large effort here to posit many philosophical questions about the nature of life and humanity, and while the film doesn’t always answer what it asks- it ponders them with considerable thought. There is, of course, the premise from the first film that still holds a place in the story questioning what is it to be human? “2049” expands on a deeper analysis of similar topics. What is the cost of slavery, and subsequently what does it mean to be free? What is a soul, and how do we decide who has one and if that means that humanity is better than the machines that experience life almost as equally as we do? What is an identity? What is real, and does it even matter? This is post modernism at its peak. The film also cleverly hides a litany of literary references and classic literature buffs will likely delight in the joy of recognizing the prose of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” in a $150 million dollar blockbuster sci-fi film. From “Treasure Island” to “Peter and the Wolf” and Charles Dickens, the film steeps itself in remnants of our past to better situate itself as an awful outcome of our own history.

 

“Blade Runner: 2049” is a feat of science fiction filmmaking and I personally got a lot out of the film and will be seeing it in theaters at least once more. It’s worth mentioning that this is a very long film and it is a slow paced one at that. While there is a lot more happening in this story than the original it takes its time to tell us. This film will not be everyone’s favorite film of the fall, some might even outright hate it-but if you enjoyed the original film and you have a love of film, especially genre films, you will probably find something to love in “2049”, I certainly did.

Final Score: Nine off-world planets

 

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Movie Pitch: Indiana Jones (5) and The Lost City of Atlantis

Now that we know Steven Spielberg will be directing the fifth Indiana Jones with Harrison Ford returning as the titular treasure hunter we can have some fun speculating in the meantime. What follows is not just a movie pitch, but an idea that I believe would make for a strong entry in the adventure series. Obviously, not all will agree, and that’s okay. Lets just all dream of a better Indiana Jones sequel together.

Okay, so:

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: *Not George Lucas

Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia Labeouf (patience), Daniel Day-Lewis, Chris Hemsworth & Mark Rylance

Plot:

It’s 1963 and Shia Lebouf’s Mutt from “Kingdom of The Crystal Skull” is on the trail of a South American war monger (Daniel Day-Lewis) that’s been manipulating villages into mind controlled slaves. Rumor has it the ruthless leader of the violent gang was seen with an artifact that allows for such a transformation over mind and body. Mutt tracks the gang but gets too close, seen, and caught. The man-in-charge leaves no prisoners and sends Mutt’s corpse back to the closest inhabited town to ward off any other would-be pursuers.

We find Dr. Jones examining a recently discovered temple in Central America when he receives word of Mutt’s demise. With Marion back stateside, bed ridden with a worsening case of alzheimer’s, Indy swears to find out the truth behind his son’s death. He leaves for South America with his most recent collegue, Samuel Kern, (Mark Rylance) an expert in diseases of the mind and tribal languages along with his steadfast assistant Kel Worth (Chris Hemsworth).

From there the group follows the trail of the band of criminals as they weave further into the jungle. Indy and company slowly piece together what they are after upon spotting them. It is not immediately revealed that Daniel Day Lewis’s character is a former Nazi, that comes later, but what they do figure out is that Lewis and his gang of miscreants are after the Lost City of Atlantis.. but why? To revive the catatonic body of Adolf Hitler that they have been hiding in secret all these years, of course. It turns out he was wounded upon their exit of Germany, the body that the allies found in the bunker was obviously an illusion to throw the allied governments off their trail.

The elite team of escaped Nazis want to raise Atlantis out of the depths because of the rumored healing properties and psyche warping abilities surrounding the small continent-city. I’d honestly love them to succeed until they get to the altar where Hitler is woken and placed in the device, only to have his face melt off similarly to the scene in “Raiders of The Lost Ark”, because who doesn’t want to see Hitler get his face melted off?

There’s a lot in play that could be changed or altered, but I believe there is a solid idea in there for a compelling return, and end, to the Indiana Jones film series.

Filmmaking ideas:

This film will need a lot of underwater shots. Who knows, maybe this will be what excites Spielberg the most, a new filmmaking challenge. He could even have James Cameron on as an advisor with his groundbreaking work in the waves.

I would almost entirely stick to on location shots, props, and huge sets as much as possible. Indiana Jones lived in the first half of the 20th century, and that was a far more palpable and tactile world than the one we live in now. At least in the romantic sense.

Mutt lives?

I feel like this could go either way. It would likely just be seen as fan service and a darker turn for the series so maybe killing the character off wouldn’t be the best bet. I wouldn’t want the character to go down the same path as Indiana Jones however, he should have his own story. I’d also be interested to see what Shia Labeouf himself would like to do with the character, with the amount of hate this movie (somewhat unfairly in my opinion but I recognize I’m in the minority on that one) received I doubt he would want to return unless it was worth his while. Maybe he’s thought of a tasteful way to end his character, or maybe he just wants an off screen death and nothing to do with the production. Although why anyone would want to turn down any amount of work with Steven Spielberg is beyond me.

Location of Atlantis

Originally I thought it could be fun to play with the myth of the Bermuda Triangle. The lost city’s docile effects on nature being the turbulent storms that the area is known for.. and mind warping, which could explain all the downed ships and planes over the years. However if we’re going with a more reality based concept Atlantis was probably located far closer to the “western world” at the time, Greece, Rome, etc. Although certain accounts only cite that it is “Far off in the Atlantic Ocean” and that it was “larger than Ancient Libya and Asia Minor combined”

Artifact that draws them to Atlantis

My Atlantis lore is a little rusty at best but all we really need is a good Macguffin, all of Indy’s stories have a solid one. Of course the screenwriters could simply make something up entirely that has no basis in lore, but if there was a viable object in particular that would be nice.

Casting

Obviously getting Daniel Day-Lewis for an Indiana Jones movie, especially as a Nazi on a quest to revive the Führer, would be difficult to say the least. Let’s be honest though, he’s won three academy awards for best actor, the man has absolutely nothing to prove. If he wanted to pursue a roll in one of cinema’s classic series and bring an unprecedented level of gravitas to a potentially generic role otherwise, why not? He’d probably have a great deal of fun in the process as well, but who am I to say? I’d simply just love to see him do it, especially after his scene stealing role in “Gangs of New York”.

I chose to add Mark Rylance to the crew because Spielberg loves to work with his regulars and adding Rylance to the series couldn’t hurt for the level of acting he would bring as well. Plus He’d be another knowledgable character to aide in the search for Atlantis.

Chris Hemsworth as Rylance’s assistant/personal body guard would add a youthful charisma to the team. He’s also entirely capable of acting as the tough and foreboding muscle, or a sort of “thief with a heart of gold” type. Plus somebody has to be able to throw a solid punch around besides Indy, and even he’s getting up there.

Thanks for taking the time to read and (hopefully enjoy) my musings on what I think would be a fun take on ending the Indiana Jones series now that we know we’ll be getting another one anyways. What would you like to see in the next/last Indiana Jones film? Let me know in the comments!

 

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis

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Monday Movie Pitch [On a Tuesday]: Expendables 4

First of all apologies for the late Movie Pitch this week, occasionally life can take precedence, and this week it did just that. Enough with the speed bumps however because this week I have a tantalizing pitch that I’ve been stewing over for quite some time now: The next iteration of “The Expendables” Franchise.

On the whole I’ve enjoyed “The Expendables” movies but as they continue the movies have an increasingly cumbersome issue with each episodic adventure. Each movie feels like just like the other but with different palettes of actors or explosive situations. It could be said that Marvel Studios films are getting somewhat into this same issue of overly consistent tone, but that’s a whole other issue in itself. As far as I’m concerned Sly and the Gang need to up the ante and change things up big time in the next movie or the franchise will die, especially given the horrific box office of last year’s third entry in the action heavy series. Granted, the numbers were particularly low because of the movie being leaked online two weeks before the release date, but any way you slice it 6 million for an opening weekend with the amount of star power involved just doesn’t add up. That’s simply bad news for everyone involved.

What I would do to revitalize the series is to play to the crowd of the audience, pitting the older action stars up against impossible odds, odds of a particular magnitude. Introduce a superhero into the mix. It’s the perfect direction for the series to reassert itself among the crowded super-powered market with a unique perspective. The trick is to cast a powerhouse in this role, somebody that’s charismatic, able to do action/CGI sequences well, and bring audiences along with him. That man should be nobody other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

I can already see the general outline of the plot. Act one has the Expendables sent to take out a young dictator on the world stage that has gotten unwisely bombastic with his nuclear weapon potential. North Korean assumptions can obviously be made here. Have Stallone and the team knock the palace doors down only to be out-staged by this new incredible force. They’re all out of the job after this sequence of events as the “hero” attempts to do as much as possible for humankind in eradicating war and instituting world peace. Eventually he must become either mad with power or deduce that he should be the earth’s sole leader because multiple sovereign nations will only ever result in war and discord. This is where the Expendables become important once more. After multiple countries attempt to nuke the Superman-like hero, and fail, the secret agencies that have been hiring the Expendables since day one step in and introduce some plot device or perceived weakness etc whatever they can do to trick, reason with, or kill the hero.

We could play into the otherworldly alien hero raised among humanity to save/destroy us storyline but that Superman “skin” has been used countless times as is. I prefer a “radiation/accidental act that transforms the everyday man” sort of event for this central character’s origin. For international appeal, and to make more sense for the global scale of the story, including new additions to the Expendables team from other nations would only help the formation of the group.

My top choices for additions to shake up the core team are as follows:

Jackie Chan: I’ve personally wanted JC in this franchise from the beginning since his contemporary Jet Li has had a spot on each film, small as they may have been. I shouldn’t have to explain why this would be a great deal of fun. Especially if he is against the use of guns.

Kurt Russell: Adding Kurt Russell to any movie is a wise decision in my opinion but he’s proven he’s ready to get back into the limelight with his “Furious 7” and “Hateful eight” roles and I’m sure any role they craft for him would be a blast.

Nicholas Cage: The franchise has gotten a bit ridiculous and if they want to be self aware and referential then adding in Nic Cage would be the just desserts. Especially if they need anyone to go crazy. He could be a conspiracy nut that knows everything on Dwayne Johnson’s character. Woody Harrelson would also fit this type of role… or Charlie Day, but that’s just because I love Charlie Day and will gladly advocate more roles for him.

Laurence Fishburne: The man that made Morpheus work has a certain gravitas to himself that would only help to bring balance to the team, plus he’s proven himself many times over the years for the type of work this film would likely entail.

Tom Cruise: Incredibly unlikely I know, but maybe they could squeeze an extended cameo sequence out of him similarly to how they utilized Chuck Norris in the second flick?

Charlie Hunnam: After “Pacific Rim” and “Sons of Anarchy” he could definitely be comfortable with a gun and growl, plus Stallone seems to enjoy the idea of “Young Blood” being added to the team.

Vin Diesel: Between saying “I am Groot” a hundred times and driving off of cliffs Diesel might be too busy to take on another franchise role anytime soon but no one can deny how much he could bring to the table in this sort of setting.

Idris Elba: Citing “Luther”, “Pacific Rim”, and his recurring “Thor” roles it comes to be seen that not only does Elba have a propensity for genre fair, but he’s a damn fine actor that can handle a one liner, or a monologue. Give that man a gun already!

Gerard Butler: “Shoot ’em up” alone has given this man enough action film cred to be involved in this series, let alone his glorious “300” role as King Leonidas. Give that man a sword, or a gun, or both- and let him have at it!

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I seriously doubt he would even want to take on this caliber of role, but his choice of the villain in the upcoming “Dr. Strange” film opens the conversation for more ridiculous options than the Oscar level work he’s currently being more associated with.

A few other recommendations for this film:

Make it a Hard “R” rating. All, or at least most of, the actors in the franchise come from action series where they are almost constantly killing hordes of bad guys in the process of achieving their goals, let them be who they want to be. Let the movie be what it wants to be too, going PG-13 for a wider audience only alienates the core audience that clamors for this type of movie anyways. Oh and cut the CGI blood splatter and terribly awful renderings of tanks and helicopters, we can all see how terrible it is and in the year 2015 we shouldn’t have to see blatant budget choices every time a bad guy bites the dust.

Put Stallone back in the director’s chair again. I stand by the fact that the original Expendables was the best in the series. While I enjoyed the second one there were clear losses of vision and expertise on several levels that Sly had covered in the first piece. Granted I know this series is not known for Oscar nominated performances or the world’s most stunning cinematography, but the first film excelled in areas where the sequels lacked. Having Stallone back in the saddle again might alleviate these issues and help to keep the tone and feel he wants consistent with what ends up being the wide release version.

Kill one of the main characters. They are called the Expendables after all, right? At this point in the game a death in the family, and I mean a meaningful death *SPOILERS* not what we got in two where a newcomer is introduced and killed two scenes later. It would be a good motivator for the team, but it only works emotionally for the audience if we’ve invested in the character. I nominate Dolph Lundgren’s character. He’s gone through a lot in the series and it would maker sense thematically to painfully cut that chord. Nothing against Lundgren though- he’s great.

All in all this could be a potentially huge game changer for this series if pulled off well. Obviously there needs to be a lot more thought put into Dwayne Johnson’s character to make sure he is overwhelming but not omnipotent as well as pacing issues, and having enough for the action guys to do what they do best, shoot, cut, blow up, and punches to the face! Hopefully Sly can make the next one work because I enjoy the series and love the talent involved, its because of this that I want each installment to be better than the last. That’s my movie pitch for this week!