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Blade Runner 2049: A Worthy Sequel

12 Oct

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Blade Runner 2049 was by far the best movie-going experience I have had in a long time. So much so that I’m going to the theater again this weekend to watch it on the big screen before it disappears. By no means a box office bomb, BR2049 was unable to excite the all-important 25 – 34 age demo Warner Bros. was hoping would show up.

But you know what? I don’t care. Because the film stands alone as a masterpiece and a worthy sequel to the groundbreaking original – which just so happened to tank at the box office 35 years ago – even with Harrison Ford headlining! It goes to show that audiences still don’t have a clue when it comes to what truly matters in a movie: astounding visuals and a narrative that makes the audience think.

I predict that Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 will in the end inevitably spawn another sequel, just not anytime soon. I’m predicting a Blade Runner 2079, in which you’ll be able to literally enter the movie’s environment and maybe even walk beside whomever is the lead actor in that futuristic flick. Maybe by then, we won’t measure a movie’s impact by how much money it made at the box office. Maybe by then, audiences will be replicants themselves – watching the movie and laughing how right the filmmakers were back in the dark ages of 1982 and 2017.

For now, I’m telling everyone and everyone to watch this movie in the theater while they still have the chance. It’s truly a magnificent piece of filmmaking – and you probably won’t have any problem getting a good seat in your neighborhood multiplex in spite of that fact.

 

 

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The Maltese Falcon: The Flitcraft Parable

31 Jan

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If the stars suddenly aligned on an especially dark night and I was given the chance to remake the film of my choice, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the movie gods I will do The Maltese Falcon. And if such a cinematic fate befell me, my adaptation would include one special passage in Dashiell Hammet’s novel that has never been translated to film even though at least three film Falcons have soared into movie theaters since the novel debuted in 1930.

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Noir fans call it the “Flitcraft Parable” found in Chapter 7: G in the Air — a short digression completely unrelated to the novel’s plot in which Sam Spade, tells Brigitte O’Shaunessy a little story about a man named Flitcraft.

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In the story, Spade explains how Flitcraft, a real estate agent and family man living in Tacoma goes to lunch one day never to return.  Five years go by and his wife comes to the detective agency where Spade is working with news: someone in Spokane has seen a man resembling her husband. She retains Spade to track him down only to discover that it is indeed Flitcraft.

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Flitcraft tells Spade the day he went to lunch, he had walked by an office building under construction and a huge beam fell from eight to ten stories up, impaling itself into the sidewalk right beside him. The experience of nearly being killed had a profound effect on Flitcraft, jarring him out of his very existence for a moment. As Spade explains:

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“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” says Spade. “The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

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Flitcraft had left for Seattle that day without any provisions or extra cash. To his family, it was as if he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Flitcraft moved around a little bit before eventually coming back to Washington State where he married again – to a woman very much in appearance and temperament as his first wife – and started a new family. Spade concludes the story with a final thought:

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“I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,” says Spade. “But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, 1941

THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, 1941

I know why no filmmaker before me has ever seen the need to keep this digression in their movie version of The Maltese Falcon. It’s because on the surface of it, the Flitcraft Parable has nothing specifically to do with the larger plot of The Maltese Falcon. But if you think about it in terms of Spade’s character and, by extrapolation, author Hammett – you see that it has everything to do with how Spade is able to prevail in almost any situation put before him.

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Sam Spade is a master of observation.  A student of human behavior with the uncanny ability to boil life down to its barest and most basic essentials at any given moment. He’s able to see a situation by any given angle and point of view from whichever character he finds in the room. He knows that once you strip away love, desire, greed, lust, rage and romanticism from any equation – you are left with the truth: what we do with our lives is largely insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

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Who we love or hate, who we back and who we resist, will be most certainly be forgotten soon after we shed this mortal coil. That thought, whether delivered by steel beam from the heavens or a loved one’s untimely departure, whether by ugly divorce, chronic illness or natural catastrophe – is coming for each and every human who has ever lived. And when faced with our own mortality, we humans tend to react with varying forms of panic, fear, terror and desperation.

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What is less common, however, and what is so magical and I believe cinematic about Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable is not so much what the character of Flitcraft does – but how and why Sam Spade is telling the story in the first place. Spade is telling Brigitte that he (Spade) perceives life to be a game at best, a cosmic joke at worst. We’re lucky to even be alive, walking the earth so why take things so seriously? And at the same time, Spade plays the game well, better than anyone else and that includes her. And because of this high-powered perception, he knows that she is bad, playing him for a sap, a chump. He’ll play along as long as it amuses him, to see how it all ends up. Because what’s love when there’s a steel beam 30 stories up just waiting to fall with your number on it. Might as well enjoy life before it falls and that includes playing chess with the likes of a beautiful femme fatale.

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In the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s greatest fear is not death but being made a fool. And he’ll resist being her fool because as he tells her, “all of me wants to.” Spade could give Gandhi a run for his money when it comes to resisting an urge. He’s a professional, after all, with a job to do. And when death does come for him as it will all of us , you better believe he’ll stare into the Grim Reaper’s eye-sockets and grin back at him. Now that’s dark, people. It’s why I love Noir because it doesn’t hold back on the reality of the human condition – but pushes it kicking and screaming into the center of the spotlight.

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We’re all going to die, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and have a little fun. That’s why Noir as a genre is more than alive as well. Why Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable would be right at home in recent existential fare such as TRUE DETECTIVE (can’t you see Matthew McConaughey’s character regaling The Flitcraft Parable to an annoyed Woody Harrelson?) or even THE DARK KNIGHT’s JOKER character played by the late, great Heath ledger.  That’s the power of classic Noir, to strike a chord in every human’s fibrous, meaty core and question why each one of us are here and why the hell we take everything so damn seriously.

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Take Hammett and Spade’s word for it. Life is a game so enjoy it for what it’s worth and remember to play the game well while you have the time. Because you better believe the competition are playing for keeps – and no one likes to be made a fool of.

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Linda Blair: Exorcist Aftermath

31 Oct

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The Exorcism (1973) is one of those classic horror films that is surrounded by Hollywood legend. So much time has passed, four decades and counting, that it has taken on that patina of mythology for younger generations to encounter and be spellbound by. But behind all the hype and marketing manipulation, there was a distinct air of evilness that shrouded the production and its young star, Linda Blair. Few but the devoted fanatics (myself included) know that Linda, a tender-hearted twelve year old when she made the film – would literally go through hell as a result of the film’s impact on popular culture. And she would experience typecasting of the magnitude of Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960).

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Linda Blair is one of the most naturally-talented actresses there has ever been. She was a virtual unknown when cast for the role of Regan. And anybody who has seen the film could not possibly imagine anyone in the role but her. William Peter Blatty, the author of the 1971 novel of the same name who adapted his own work and won an adapted screenplay Oscar for his efforts – has said as much in numerous interviews over the years. The novel, once thought impossible to adapt for the screen because of its graphic nature, left everybody wondering whether the film would be an outright catastrophe. The fact that the production was slated for 82 days and ended up being 252 days left everyone at the studio freaking out. But as legend would have it, Director William Friedkin came up with an ingenious way out of poor word of mouth. His solution: start the Hollywood rumor that the production itself was cursed by the devil.

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Friedkin was a total tyrant on the Exorcist set. He was not above trickery to get his actors to react in a natural, horrified way. For instance, he built Regan’s bedroom inside a freezer unit so that you could see the actor’s breath when they spoke during the exorcist scenes. This caused the young Linda, dressed on in a thin nightgown, to forever after hate being cold. Ellen Burstyn, playing her mother Chris, suffered a back injury when she was yanked across the room via harness by an overzealous stagehand to effect the devil slapping her. But to be fair, Linda has said that she never suffered any emotional distress as a result of the filming. No, that would come later.

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The Exorcist premiered in December 1973 to an unsuspecting public. The film had a massive impact on popular culture, taking the audiences by surprise to such a degree that many fainted, became physically-ill and had to be taken out of the theater to recuperate. The film was graphic in its depiction of a 12-year old girl being possessed by the devil and director Friedkin had pulled no punches. But what pulled off the effect more than the make-up, or the pea-soup vomit, was Linda Blair’s natural talent and ability to portray a possessed child. And boy did she pull it off. So well, in fact, that people came away from watching the movie that she in fact had been possessed by the devil. The suspension of disbelief had been so successful and complete that people thought Linda Blair, 12 year old actress, was the devil incarnate.

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The movie-industry reaction was immediate and positive. Linda was the brightest actress to come along in a very long time and she was nominated and won a the 1974 best actress Golden Globe. She was in heaven and sought after by every producer and director in tinseltown. But what she was about to realize (and has been documented in numerous interviews and productions since) was that the worldwide general public was completely freaked out by the movie (which was rumored to include demonic subliminal images) and that her young life would never, ever be the same. The fact that 9 people associated with the movie has lost their lives over the course of the production did not help matters.

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In support of the film, Linda was obligated to embark on a worldwide marketing tour for the Exorcist. But what she didn’t realize was that very often people could not tell the difference between that of Regan, her character in the movie, and Linda the young actress. The reaction was immediate and dramatic, with people practically jumping out of their skin at the sight of her. From London to France, Australia to Japan she saw the same reactions from superstitious people who had seen the movie and in turn thought she was possessed by Satan in the flesh.

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What followed for young Linda was a hard path back to normalcy. An avid horsewoman, she retreated to the family stables and spent her time away from the public eye. But at the same time she had been firmly bitten by the acting bug and soon secured other, ambitious roles that proved the acting chops she had exhibited in The Exorcist were not a fluke. And Hollywood was only too happy to take advantage of a young, beautiful actress who could handle situations well beyond her years. They exploited her beauty and talent over and over again, in such projects as Born Innocent (1974), a TV movie that dealt with Juvenile Delinquency in the harshest of portrayals ever seen on TV. Infamous for the first-ever lesbian rape scene to be depicted on television, Born Innocent would spark public outcry and cause the networks to backtrack from graphic content shown at a time when young children may still be viewing. The actress herself felt taken advantage of and it would be decades before the film would be shown again with the rape scene intact.

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In the subsequent years, Linda would grow into a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing teen. She would taste all there was to savor of the limelight for a young actress exposed to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the heyday of the mid-to-late 1970’s. She dated everyone from Rick Springfield to Rick James, and would appear in the misdirected sequel, Exorcist II (1975). A dreadful remake by any definition, the film co-starred Richard Burton on a bender (or, at least he should have been making this drivel) and was a debacle from the first frame. The only thing Exorcist II did was prove just how classic it’s predecessor was in style, content and execution. Even the beautiful Miss Blair was unable to rise above the celluloid trainwreck. And in some ways, the would-be horror franchise misfire would foretell her own professional and personal misfortunes to come.

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Toward the end of the 70’s, Linda would get caught up in an unfortunate drug bust involving cocaine. She would not only be charged with possession but intent to distribute. Linda would plea-bargain and get 5-years probation with a $5,000 fine. She would also have to tour the country and talk to kids about the evil of drugs. But the harshest sentence would come from Hollywood itself. The once bankable star now would be lucky to land B-movie horror vehicles. The extremely talented actress was considered damaged goods and never be able to attain the stature that she once enjoyed at the tender age of 12. It was nearly a death sentence for her career. But she would not let it get her down like so many other child stars. Linda was too talented and too smart. She would play the roles she could get, show a little (or a lot) of skin and survive in the wilds of tinseltown.

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But there would always be her fans from The Exorcist, who knew better and could see beyond the roles that Linda had been reduced to playing. Hers is an ardent and loyal fan-base of followers, those who would watch anything she appeared in (guilty pleasures most of them) and root for her to continue her career. And Linda would be able to sustain her sanity, something young stars today should take notice of, working in her chosen profession and all the while giving her fans what they wanted – more Linda Blair. I must admit that I’ve seen my fair share of Linda’s work and there are moments of brilliance from the actress even in the trashiest of B-movie titles.

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Linda is a survivor and is healthier than ever today. She’s embraced a completely vegan diet which is more a testament to her love of animals than anything. And she has a foundation to rescue and rehabilitate abused animals. For me, Linda has always been as beautiful inside as she is out. She readily admits to have made her fair share of mistakes but kept her head held high and persevered in an industry where so many have burned out and disappeared completely. And while she’s never been able to recapture the level of fame she enjoyed and then suffered because of The Exorcist, she enjoys the honor of being an integral part of one of the most influential films ever made. After all, The Exorcist was the first horror film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (the golden statuette would eventually go to The Sting).

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I think the film is ultimately a testament to the talent of a young actress to let herself be totally possessed by a role and a director with a pure, albeit often ghastly, vision one of the greatest storylines of all time – the battle between good and evil on earth. And she approached the role as she has a lot of trials and tribulations in her life – with integrity, talent and a lightness of heart that makes me wish she had more opportunities to show us just how amazing an actress she really is. Without her, I believe The Exorcist would not be the classic film experience it is hailed to this day. Beyond horror, it terrified audiences because they cared about Regan, the young protagonist fighting for her life. And as amazing as the make-up effects are (thanks to veteran make-up artist Dick Smith) if it wasn’t for one fearless little girl doing her best behind all the prosthetics to believed a demon could possess a human host, the audience would never have been bedeviled.

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Here’s praying you enjoy The Exorcist for sheer entertainment value and marvel at young Linda’s tour de force performance this Hallow’s Eve.

TITANIC

16 Apr

One starry, still night off the Isle of Wight
In cold and liquid darkness made your wake
the ghost of fate took form before your bow light
and turned your maiden voyage into rape

A glancing blow was all it seemed to take
to swiftly submerge blue-blood’s bloated pride
and turn a voyage from the grandest state
into a vain and violent suicide

For seven and seventy years at sea
you have held vigil in the murky depths
amid the crushing darkness of fathoms

Adorned with rust and sea anemone
your grand staircase no long bound with steps
to entrance these aqueous catacombs

JJM, 1990