Classic Reels: Sunset Boulevard

Sirens pierce the early morning hours and a dead body floats motionless in a swimming pool. Homicide detectives and newspapermen race to the scene. So begins “Sunset Boulevard”, a twisted tale of murder set against the bright lights of Hollywood.

It’s 1950’s Hollywood and struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, is having trouble making his car payments. When the insurance men come to collect, he tries to weave a web of lies to hold them off until he can scrounge up some cash. He can’t hide forever, and when he crosses paths with them on Sunset Boulevard, he makes a break for it. A high speed chase ensues. He outruns them, but in the process blows a tire, forcing him to park his sputtering car in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion. Its owner is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging silent film actress.

In her heyday, Desmond was a star, but now she lives a secluded life, far from the spotlights of Hollywood. She’s planning a comeback though, writing an epic screenplay that will bring her back into the thoughts of her once adoring fans. When she finds out that Gillis is a screenwriter she hires him to edit the screenplay. He moves in to edit full time, but soon finds out that something isn’t quite right.

With the passing of the silent film era, Norma Desmond and her mansion seem to go with it. She continues to live in the glory of her younger years while her house crumbles around her. Her living room is covered with old photographs of herself and an old organ lets out an eerie note with each passing breeze. As Gill and Desmond watch her old silent films, smoke hangs over the flickering light of the projector. Everything is dark and secluded inside Desmond’s mansion, creating an eerie background throughout the film.

Although the film delivers outstanding performances from its entire cast, Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond was a little over-the-top at times. It isn’t that her acting is bad, in fact, most of the film she genuinely conveys the sadness and tragedy of her character. But every so often, when a scene could have used a more subtle portrayal, she tends to over act.

There is an air of mystery throughout “Sunset Boulevard”. Things aren’t always as they seem, and plot twists are layered throughout, resulting in what feels like a very long film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. The story is completely engrossing, but at times it feels as if the film takes the long way to tell something simple.

Throughout the film, Gillis provides no-nonsense narration of the events around him. His quick one-liners and insights into a colorful cast of characters are what make “Sunset Boulevard” so enjoyable. He tells the story as he sees it unfold, and it is through his eyes we see the plot thicken. He’s not the greatest person, he’s flawed and has his own motivations, but he serves as a good filter to tell the tragic tale of Norma Desmond.

Hollywood is known for its glitz and glamour, but what of the stars it leaves behind? No matter how bright they become, most will not shine forever. It is here, on a quiet street lined with the mansions of stars of old, that audiences discover that not everything is as black and white as it seems on Sunset Boulevard.

Grade: B

– Brian

Classic Reels is a weekly blog by Lariat contributor Brian Sanders. Sanders reviews old movies for those looking to brush up on their historic cinema or those that are looking to reminisce on old flicks.

Classic Reels: Blade Runner

It’s 2019 and Los Angeles is a dark and rainy, urban metropolis. Fire shoots from the tops of factories surrounding the city, the sides of skyscrapers are now used for large video advertisements and a large blimp constantly crawls across the night sky, shining eerie spotlights below. The Tyrell Corporation specializes in creating androids for slave labor in the outer colonies of space. The androids, known as Replicants, are identical to humans and possess super human skills, but lack the ability to feel emotions. In an effort to prevent the Replicants from developing any sort of emotions, the Tyrell Corporation has put a four year life span on all of them.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a hard drinking, no-nonsense type of guy. He is a blade runner, a man whose only job is to hunt down illegal Replicants and kill them. When four Replicants hijack a ship, kill the crew and land it in Los Angeles, Deckard is assigned to “retire” them.

Blade Runner is not merely a science fiction movie. It’s a movie that uses science fiction as a backdrop and integrates stunning, atmospheric visuals to reveal the emotions of its characters. The world that Director Ridley Scott creates is one of a bleak, hopeless future. Los Angeles doesn’t even resemble the Los Angeles of today. Instead, it is more reminiscent of a run-down Tokyo, where technology is completely integrated with life. Crowds are everywhere, steam hangs on the streets and everyone seems to have an ulterior motive. It’s not a pretty place.

Instead of being completely science fiction, Blade Runner is birthed from the classic, Hollywood noir movies of the 40’s and 50’s. Deckard resembles a private eye more than he does a killer. He sports a trench coat while other characters wear suits, dresses and fedora’s. Rachel (Sean Yong), Deckards femme fatal, dresses like a movie star from the 40’s, clothed in black dresses and white fur coats.

Most films use music to set the mood for a certain scene; rarely do they set the mood for the entire film. The score for Blade Runner can only be described as futuristic jazz. Low hums from synthesizers and notes from a distant sax can be heard throughout the movie. It’s mostly sad music, adding another layer of darkness to Blade Runner.

With sparse dialogue and a nod to the detective novels of old, Blade Runner is a tour de force in the science fiction world. It was released when science fiction films were extremely popular and box offices were dominated with classics such as Alien and Star Wars. Blade Runner is cut from a different cloth, though. Its world is one that doesn’t involve space battles, aliens or a colorful cast of characters. What makes it so great, is that it is a believable notion of the future. It is not like some bright and shiny idea similar to the predictions that Americans in the 50’s had of the millennium. Yes, there are robots and flying cars, but instead of an ideal, perfect future, Blade Runner predicts one of constant darkness. Just like any good detective novel, characters are flawed, people are hurt and lessons are learned. And what’s scary, is that its notion of the future, just might come true.

If you happen to watch the film, I HIGHLY recommend the “Final Cut” version. Usually, I feel as though director’s cuts are gimmicky, but this is the first that I have seen with a noticeable difference than the theatrical version. Although the theatrical version has different ending, the great part of the final cut is that it omits the horrible narration by Ford. The final cut creates an ending that is more debatable, and in my opinion, far more enjoyable than the cookie cutter ending from the original.

Grade: A+

– Brian

Classic Reels is a weekly blog by Lariat contributor Brian Sanders. Sanders reviews old movies for those looking to brush up on their historic cinema or those that are looking to reminiscence on old flicks.

Classic Reels: The original Rocky

One consistent notion that runs through American ideology is the fabled “American dream”. It’s the idea that if someone works hard enough and posses enough determination, they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. If one movie were to personify this idea, it would be Rocky.

It’s 1976, America’s bicentennial, and world heavy weight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), agrees to fight an unknown fighter on national television for a shot at the title. On the mean streets of Philadelphia, small-time hustler and amateur boxer, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) spends his days collecting money for his boss and boxing in his spare time. He’s kind hearted, never hurting the people he collects money from, and everyday he flirts with his crush, Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy girl who works at the local pet shop. Rocky’s life isn’t going anywhere and he seems to have accepted the monotony of his future until the opportunity of a lifetime comes along.

Chosen simply for the catchiness of his boxing name, “The Italian Stallion”, Rocky Balboa is picked to fight Apollo Creed for the heavy weight title on New Year’s Day. He is the underdog, everyone expects him to lose and Creed is predicting an early round knock-out. What Creed doesn’t expect is a man willing to “go the distance”.

After seeing many of Sylvester Stallone’s movies, it’s easy to place him in the same category of actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mr. T. However, Stallone gives a surprisingly believable performance, showing off his acting skills. He is so believable as Rocky that it is hard to separate Stallone from the character to this day.

Surprisingly, it’s the lack of boxing that makes Rocky so great. Most of the film is spent following Rocky in the weeks leading up to the fight. It’s much easier to become more emotionally invested in Rocky, to see the obstacles he has to overcome. One of the most memorable scenes in Rocky, is his early morning training routine. He runs through the cold, early morning sunlight of Philadelphia as pedestrians stand and stare. At the end of his run he sprints up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and raises his hands in triumph.

Although Rocky is a movie about boxing, its love story plays just as an important role. Rocky, the loveable loser, and Adrian, the shy, plain sales clerk he falls in love with, are an extremely believable couple. Rocky never does anything too extravagant or unbelievable that seems to occur in most Hollywood films. Instead, he tells jokes, treats her with respect and takes her ice skating. Through this simple romance, both become more human, no longer just characters on the screen.

Over the years, Rocky spawned five sequels, but none has ever come close to the magic of the original. Rocky is still as classic and as relevant today as it did the day it was released. It remains an ode to the American dream of doing things on your own. By the end of the film it’s obvious that Rocky has class, he’s no longer a bum anymore, but instead, he’s finally become a contender.

Rating: A+

— Brian

Classic Reels is a weekly blog by Lariat contributor Brian Sanders. Sanders reviews old movies for those looking to brush up on their historic cinema or those that are looking to reminiscence on old flicks.