Time to Die

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Y’all don’t actually think it’s not gonna go down here, right?

You think I’m just gonna be looking out for who hasn’t already seen the movie.

No, bruh, I’m here to say some shit about Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve and producer Ridley Scott’s sequel to Scott’s 35-year-old seminal science fiction classic tour de force Blade Runner. And if this isn’t your first time snooping round Motorbreath, you’ve damn well noticed it established multiple times that Blade Runner is my favorite movie – give or take a knife fight with Casablanca, but permit me my passion.

So, when I get into spoiler mode, expect me to put a great big warning and give y’all some time to dip. But there are elements of Blade Runner 2049 I’m simply not going to be able to comment on without grabbing receipts from within the movie itself and while I’m not going to give away the ending, I sure am not going to be hiding the premise like the marketing has been. In the meantime, here’s the short spoiler-free safe mode version of my review:

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Blade Runner 2049 is not a bad movie. It is just a less hated Prometheus, a frustrating overglutted tangle of interesting ideas that are provided in a gorgeously realized future environment, provided by Dennis Gassner and famously lensed by Roger Deakins in what is almost certainly his last hope for that Cinematography Oscar. There are clearly things Blade Runner 2049 wants to be about and it so certainly wants to be about those thinks that it tries to provide overwhelming lip service from characters as much as it can and Blade Runner becomes so frequently a movie of “people talking about what’s going to happen” rather than anything happening.

Which is a weird complaint to make about a sequel to Blade Runner. Blade Runner manages to be satisfied to spend most of its running time just living with the decrepit future noir world of Los Angeles without having much action OR theme-based dialogue, but that last element is the thing. Blade Runner isn’t a movie that talks about what it wants to be about, it just is. The philosophy behind that movie lives within the world-building in itself, the melancholy and existential within the darkened rainy alleys where characters hide and they fear for their lives without having to say “I’m scared”. When Roy Batty comes to terms with his own obliviation, he doesn’t have to say “I’m ok with this”, he just smiles and talks about his favorite memories and he doesn’t even have to spell out the fact that a lot of those memories aren’t real.

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25 for 25 – Tears in Rain

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Like I said just before, two movies battle for the spot of My All-Time Favorite Movie and I don’t want my decision to end on the film Blade Runner to imply that I actually give the edge to it as my favorite (even as it appears as number one in the actual posted list from last year, I find myself more and more aligned with Casablanca as I grow older), but mainly the fact that Blade Runner and I happen to share the exact same birthday: 25 June, so given that the special occasion of this series of reviews is in fact my 25 birthday on that day (35th birthday for Blade Runner and the year of its imminent sequel in October Blade Runner 2049), I may as well finish up on that very film that shares its nascency with me. And sure, it came out a full 10 years before I came to the world, it also didn’t truly earn its canonical status in cinema until the misnomered “Director’s Cut” (based on director Ridley Scott’s preferred notes without his direct involvement) came out on the exact year of my birth. So there’s squaring all of the anniversary and yearly stuff and blah.

The house cleaning in that above paragraph doesn’t even square the multiple cuts of Blade Runner that do exist in many forms, the most notable distinction being in which versions have the narration and what note it ends on (some have a direct statement as to the nature of the lead character’s existence, one infamously has an optimistic ending tonally separated from the rest of the movie). I just wanna be clear – ANY version of Blade Runner could be my favorite movie, I love it that much. But to identify what I’m talking about, my preferred version is the 2007-released Final Cut which is essentially the director’s cut (i.e. no narration, “unicorn dream”) with cosmetic changes that fix up any flaws and make it feel modernized and high quality in its visuals.

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For you see, Blade Runner is a movie extremely reliant on its visuals and atmosphere for my high praise of it*, being involved in two of the most visually demanding genres in any form of art… science fiction and neo-noir. Demands that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and designers Laurence G. Paull and David Snyder and concept artist Syd Mead are all willing to meet with, providing a decrepit zombie of urban Los Angeles in 2019 that can only barely stand to feel dynamic based on the poisonous neon lights threatening to evaporate the near-constant rain. It’s like if somebody caught pre-Giuliani New York City on its worst day and decided to give it glowsticks to cheer it up but that only depressed it more. That compliments the pessimistic mood of Blade Runner and meshes well with the nihilistic ideology of the noir genre without even having to deliver a single line of dialogue. Sure, these days that sort of aesthetic is seen in any given dark future picture, but Blade Runner originated most of it and feels like an assemblage of the perfect amount of pieces the same way that Halloween feels so with the slasher genre. And all that style is in benefit to the story, it’s not just what we’re looking at here but what it tells us in an unspoken way:

What it tells us is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-Blade Runner – police hired to kill synthetically created humans known as “replicants” in 2019 – who is pulled back into the profession after the escape of four Nexus-6 brand replicants, the ones most highly capable of emotional responses to their scenarios and the most updated model: imposing Leon (Brion James) who initiated this search after his attempted murder of an active Blade Runner, sharp Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), naïve Pris (Daryl Hannah), and her leader boyfriend Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Deckard’s investigation takes him to the creator of replicants himself Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and the discovery that his assistant Rachael (Sean Young) is in fact a highly advanced form of replicant. So advanced even she doesn’t know she’s a replicant.

Batty has his own problems: The Nexus-6 has a built-in fail safe of a four-year lifespan and so he’s on the hunt for Tyrell in order to acquire the opportunity for an extension on he and his fellow replicants’ clearly numbered days.

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The themes immediately write themselves – the identity crisis of Rachael discovering most of her life to be a fabrication, the dehumanization and amorality of Deckard’s line of work, the existential crisis facing Batty as he faces his own mortality – it doesn’t take much to understand what Blade Runner will explore just from a synopsis or flesh those out (and I do believe Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script very loosely adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the bare minimum of its requirements), but that doesn’t mean there is a whole range to the mysteries and answers Blade Runner tries to provide in the span of itself, as well as its dissection of its central genres. Just looking at the two lead performances from Ford and Hauer – Ford was very famously antagonistic to Scott and the material, yet that contempt for the movie ends up being its best friend in how it translates to cynicism and reluctancy for a character that doesn’t want to be doing this job in the first place. In a genre like noir where apathy and inevitability hang over the protagonist like cigarette smoke, we have a genuinely apathetic presence from an actor’s genuine attitude. And Hauer himself is so excitedly controlled and deliberate in his movement that it demands our eyes look at him when he enters the room, the chill of his eyes promising a savagery that we are paid with the film’s pseudo-slasher final chase, and coldly intellectual in even his expression of sorrow and pain at his comrade’s slaughter that we can believe he’s trying to understand these emotions developing in him while finding profundity in his actions and words (not for nothing can he sell sci-fi jargon like “I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhausen Gate” and make it possibly my favorite line of dialogue of all time. In fact, the whole “Tears in Rain” holds me down) and believing him as artificial perfection. He’s like a child who learned to run instead of walk and is now trying to figure out walking. It’s incredible.

Now, very few intellectual subjects interest me more than the concept of the self and what it means for such an intangible abstraction to give our individual lives such weight. And it’s a very scary topic, one that it’s easy to fall into several downhill spirals. Scott, in one of the few times his attempts at pop philosophy actually works out, provides one of the most welcoming explorations of that concept in Blade Runner and that all comes from how he knows the darkness of those intellectual corners can be given visual root within a city made up almost entirely of shadows without weak lights visually defining what’s on-screen in a minimalist fashion. Our mind fills out the rest of those shadows or we just leave them be, depending on how we look at things. And Blade Runner‘s ambiguity on certain plot threads allows that same level of impressionism on its narrative (though I personally feel there is a direct answer to the “Is Deckard a replicant?” debate within the Director’s and Final Cuts; one that seems to be contradicted by the existence of a Blade Runner sequel where Deckard is still a character). And that versatility to what the viewer gives or takes away only once again goes full circle to the film’s attempts to square with identity and what truly makes one human. Is it their deeds, is it their makeup? Is there actually an absolute answer?

I dunno, but I like thinking about it and for some reason, despite the pessimism of its visual world, I like doing it within the realms of Blade Runner‘s universe. Drifting away from the barely consequential plot to think about it in the middle of the heavy rain (Blade Runner is probably why I love rain) and under the lullabies of Vangelis’ pensive and mechanical synthesizer score (Blade Runner is probably why I love synthesizer music as well). Inside the broken blue-hued shells of the metropolitan nightmares that remind me of living in Far Rockaway provided by its matte paintings and its model visual effects (some of the best practical effects live inside of Blade Runner matching up to 2001: A Space Odyssey in their tangibility and surpassing it outright in imagination and fantasy). It’s all a space for me to draw out my thoughts in between the movie’s runtime. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again and let it be the final note on this movie and this very review series: my greatest dreams live inside the world of Blade Runner.

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*And indeed, I find it very interesting that I can have Casablanca vie so heavily for my favorite movie slot based on its narrative construction and Blade Runner based on its aesthetic. What a split in me.

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25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

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The Passionate Disappointment of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – Part 2: Scramble the Yarns

First of all, thank you guys so much for your patience. You guys really rock. I stated that the first straight-up video of Movie Motorbreath will be a pitch of re-arranging the yarns used in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and here it is. Made painstaking over many late night hours crammed in a work schedule that is leaving me dying, just for you.

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Thank you again!