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Blade Runner (#110 of 14)

Summer of ‘89: Batman

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Batman</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Batman</em>

Returning to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman in light of Christopher Nolan’s recent, remarkably successful Batman trilogy turns out to be quite a fascinating experience—though, surprisingly, as much for their convergences in vision as for their divergences. Certainly, the stylistic differences are almost blindingly obvious: Burton the playfully macabre merry prankster, Nolan the deeply serious philosopher. And yet, both visions unmistakably flow from the same unsettling bedrocks: a world drowning in moral rot, one in which a self-appointed hero who takes the form of a human bat is, at heart, as deeply disturbed as the more overtly screwed-up villains he takes it upon himself to defeat. It’s just that these two artists view these characters and this physical and emotional world through different lenses.

The contrast is immediately apparent in the music. In stark contrast to James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s loudly generic bombast for the Nolan films, Burton opens his Batman with the operatic strains of Danny Elfman’s full-orchestra heroism, slyly suggesting the unabashedly heroic way Batman sees himself. After its opening-credit sequence, during which Roger Pratt’s camera roams around what is eventually revealed to be a metal Bat-Signal, Burton establishes his vision of Gotham City: an unabashedly surreal environment that owes more to the dystopian sci-fi visions of Metropolis and Blade Runner than to any of the notions of noir-ish realism that underpins Nolan’s films. Then there are the differing acting styles, with Burton’s actors generally eschewing the internal brooding that Nolan’s performers exhibit in favor of archetypal broadness. This style doesn’t just extend to Jack Nicholson’s galvanizing hamminess as the Joker, but also trickles down to its supporting players (William Hootkins’s wearily deep-voiced Lt. Eckhardt, Robert Wuhl’s enthusiastically pushy journalist, and so on).

Summer of ‘88: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Who Framed Roger Rabbit</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Who Framed Roger Rabbit</em>

Is there some sort of a deep political hypothesis nibbling on a carrot and overseeing the action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I mean, the film’s plot concerns a nefarious developer, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who wants to dismantle Los Angeles’s electrified streetcar system and replace it with a freeway-centric suburban wasteland, and in so doing appropriate and pave over a charismatic minority neighborhood, Toontown. And could it be that the kind of meta-cinematic crossovers—from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny going skydiving together to Donald and Daffy Duck on dueling pianos—that make this movie so entertaining and weird and such a product of the 1980s are also a utopian-type metaphor for the overcoming of the hostilities and rivalries and the competitiveness of the free market? Or am I going too far with this?

This much, at least, we know: Who Framed Roger Rabbit belongs to that category of slick and ironic and star-studded Hollywood film that takes as its subject Hollywood and moviemaking and life in Los Angeles, like A Star Is Born or Sunset Boulevard or Singin’ in the Rain, like Barton Fink or Boogie Nights or The Player. Which is to say, it’s self-conscious by default, and is always reminding you either blatantly or slightly less blatantly of other movies or shows or cartoons that you’ve seen. And yet, for me at least, the film manages to be its own thing, to be more than just a noirish, postmodern Super Friends/Justice League for anthropomorphic animal cartoon characters.

Tribeca Film Festival 2013: The Machine

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Tribeca Film Festival 2013: <em>The Machine</em>
Tribeca Film Festival 2013: <em>The Machine</em>

The Machine isn’t a breathtakingly original sci-fi film, but it’s an honorable one that impresses on the strength of both its ideas and its evocative style. Set during a second Cold War between the Western world and the Chinese, and predicated on a race for smarter machines instead of armaments, Caradog James’s film takes the form of a psychological tug of war for the “soul” of the titular machine: a female robot who’s the resurrected, digitized version of Ava (Caity Lotz), a promising computer programmer who’s killed early on in the film by a Chinese assassin. On one side, there’s Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens), a Ministry of Defense-employed programmer who’s secretly working to perfect a cybernetic creature that strikes a perfect balance between human and machine. His opposition is his boss, Thomson (Denis Lawson), who’s far more interested in the possibilities the doctor’s research affords to further the creation of superior soldiers out of current brain-dead human ones. Much of the film’s intrigue comes from seeing this machine struggle with these warring impulses within itself: trying to resist Thomson’s attempts at dehumanization after Dr. McCarthy has expressly ordered her to not kill. In that regard, The Machine functions as an obvious anti-war allegory, but on a broader level, the film also works as a metaphor for the eternal conflict between empathetic humanity and cruel inhumanity, the boundary of which often gets crossed in times of violent conflict.

Poster Lab: Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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Poster Lab: <em>Drew: The Man Behind the Poster</em>
Poster Lab: <em>Drew: The Man Behind the Poster</em>

In a column devoted to the art of movie poster design, it would be criminal to not highlight the one-sheet for a documentary about Drew Struzan, the most influential and notable film poster illustrator of the last four decades, and the strongest name to be tied to movie cover art since Saul Bass. As much a cult hero as an artist whose work has beguiled the masses, Struzan has been commissioned by geek superfans like Kevin Smith, who turned to the illustrator when whipping up promo material for Mallrats, and famously brought to prominence by blockbuster maestros Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who’ve hired Struzan time and again for the likes of E.T., Hook, and, of course, Star Wars. Also the man behind the iconic paintings that heralded each Indiana Jones film and Blade Runner (the latter causing a fan-fueled stir when the studio opted for work by John Alvin instead), Struzan may just be Harrison Ford’s definitive portrait artist, repeatedly nailing the actor’s likeness for two classic franchises, and for the film that many would call Ford’s greatest.

Oscar Prospects: Looper

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Oscar Prospects: Looper
Oscar Prospects: Looper

Does Looper have a prayer in the Visual Effects race, where tigers and hobbits and Avengers will be sprinting, neck-in-neck? Before the film’s release, the answer would have likely been a resounding “no,” as the throwback panache of Rian Johnson’s aesthetic isn’t even trying to compete with all the 3D bells and whistles of the spectacles above. But with a rapturous response from critics (RT score 94 percent and holding), Looper has the buzz and support to step into some serious contention, if not in the major races, then in tech areas that previously seemed beyond its reach. That is by no means to say the movie’s tricks are not impressive. A near faultlessly calibrated slice of futurama (err, future drama), Looper is 2012’s action flick to beat in terms of quality, and its old-school restraint has a contrasting lure that might make it a viable slot-filler (think the annual foreign trend in the Animation category). There must be scads of Academy members tickled by the dirty realism of a beat-up, flying crop-duster, or effectively unnerved by the rapid, Cronenbergian disappearance of a marked “loop’s” appendages. This wouldn’t be the title to declare where the industry stands today, but it would be the one to give the category an added touch of class.

15 Famous Movie Apparitions

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15 Famous Movie Apparitions
15 Famous Movie Apparitions

This weekend, your antidote to R-Pattz/K-Stew gossip is the sure-to-be throwaway ghost flick The Apparition, starring the crumbling couple’s Twilight co-star, Ashley Greene. Serving as Greene’s first star vehicle, the new thriller tells of a haunting presence derived from a shady parapsychology experiment, and sees a young woman (Greene) and her hunk husband (Sebastian Stan) scream their guts out before, naturally, calling in an expert (played by Lucius Malfoy himself, Tom Felton). There are plenty of memorable movie specters who’ve preceded Greene’s floorboard-creaking houseguest, and they’ll still be planted in viewers’ minds long after The Apparition dissolves into oblivion. Who to expect on this week’s list? Let’s just say that Carmen Maura, Jennifer Jones, and Bill Cosby have more in common than you might have thought.

Minority Report at 10

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<em>Minority Report</em> at 10
<em>Minority Report</em> at 10

Some of cinema’s most awesome sights are those that envision our future. Movies have routinely taken a look at where we’ll be decades, sometimes centuries, from now. And while these visions have captured our imaginations (from Metropolis’s towering skyscrapers and lumbering archways suspended thousands of feet over ground to Blade Runner’s perpetual rainfall over neon-lit urban decay), their accuracy has been sketchy. To be fair, not all of these movies necessarily tried to foster authentic versions of the future. Nevertheless, the near-deficiency of believable futuristic settings in the cinema speaks to the slippery slope of anticipating cultural, technological, and architectural components that are in constant flux. It’s with some bit of irony, then, that a movie about visualizing the future has produced a vision of society decades from now that continues to gain legitimacy, even as the work itself slips further into the past.