Sunday, September 18, 2011

Five Movies: Alternate Cuts That Helped

 Yeah, I thought I might be talking about Star Wars this evening, too. But I'm not nearly far enough into the Blu-Ray set to do that, so you're just going to have to wait a little bit.In case that wasn't clear, yes I did get the Blu-Ray of the complete series for the extra three discs, which I've been poking through when I have time. I never said I wasn't going to; I just said I'd think about it. Go back and look for yourself. But I digress, let's take a look at Five Movies that benefited from revisionist directors, writers, producers, or actors.

I have, in the past, bagged on THX 1138, Aliens, Terminator 2, Donnie Darko, and The Exorcist for alternate versions (usually called "Director's Cuts") that remove ambiguity or clutter up the film with unnecessary subplots or sequences. This past week the cyclical outrage over changes to Star Wars again brought up the debate about whether the creative force behind a film has the right to alter their movie, or if the movie belongs to the audience.

 In some cases, these alternate versions are effective or even improve upon the film, with or without the participation of the original cast and crew. This was actually a harder list to put together than the "Theatrical Cuts I Prefer" counterpart. I ended up leaving out a lot of alternate versions; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has an interesting "extended" cut, as do Apocalypse Now and Touch of Evil. I've decided to leave them off not because I don't like them or, in some cases, prefer the alternate cuts. The "workprint" version of Alien 3 is the only alternate cut we're likely to see since David Fincher has no desire to revisit the film, so I'm leaving that out of the five, although it materially changes the experience of watching the film. Not having seen the theatrical cut of The New World, I don't want to compare the two necessarily, although the differences are by all accounts atmospheric in nature (as I understand it, Blood Simple is a similar situation). I opted to leave out The Lord of the Rings and Leon: The Professional, but freely admit I prefer the Extended Editions.

 To keep to the rules, these are five films that have been changed dramatically by revisiting footage, inserting or deleting material. One or two have subtle changes in visual effects, but all of them are as or more interesting because of the alterations.

 1. Brazil - What is frequently forgotten when looking at the battle over Brazil is that between the two extremes of Gilliam's cut and Universal's "Love Conquers All" cut is that they reached a compromise before the film was released in December of 1985. The theatrical cut of Brazil was twelve minutes shorter than Gilliam's original cut (details covered here, which also mention a fourth version of the film), and it wasn't until the Gilliam approved Criterion release of the film that fans were able to see his complete cut of Brazil. Taken in its full scope, I tend to appreciate the abrupt opening and better sense of absurdity in the world than in the American theatrical release.

 2. Payback - This is a point of contention between friends, because I am partial toward Brian Helgeland's "Director's Cut - Straight Up" Payback, many of them hate it. Payback was a film we were tremendously fond of in 1999, and it's no-nonsense, smart ass attitude was a huge component in seeing it three times in the theatres and many more times on video. I wasn't aware that Helgeland walked away from the film when he couldn't cut the film in a way palatable to Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Icon Productions (Mel Gibson's company). I had no idea that the explosions, the narration, and Kris Kristofferson weren't a part of his original conception of the film. That the ending was much bleaker.

 After Helgeland left, Gibson shot much of the new material himself and that's the Payback audiences saw in theatres. And I really like that Payback. In 2004, Gibson and Warner Brothers reached out to Helgeland to see if he wanted to put together his version of the film - a leaner, darker experience - and he took them up on it. The resulting film is a dialectical Rashomon to the theatrical cut: they tell roughly the same story in a similar way, but the execution is different. Helgeland's cut is more mean-spirited, more direct, and isn't as interested in moments beyond Porter getting his money back. Gibson is more ferocious, and a violent exchange with Deborah Kara Unger shifts their relationship into a more volatile state. Porter is less likable, less identifiable, and his situation ends the way it probably would have, the way he thought it would. I realize that I'm in the minority even liking the director's cut, but I think it's a fascinating contrast to the "audience friendly" version I was first enamored of.

 3. Kingdom of Heaven - Longer is not always better. Ridley Scott's extended cuts of Gladiator and Robin Hood, for example, don't improve anything (in the latter case, they just muddle things more). Kingdom of Heaven, on the other hand, benefits significantly from expanding from two-and-a-half hours to a little over three hours as a Director's Cut. The theatrical cut briskly moved along, undercutting the scope and depth of the Crusades. However, by reincorporating nearly 45 minutes of footage, Scott eases the choppy nature of the film and lets it breathe as a full-fledged epic. (See differences here, and they're significant changes) When I mention Kingdom of Heaven, I make a point to recommend the Director's Cut, because while the running time may shy people off of the film, the shorter cut isn't worth bothering with.

 4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - As far as I know, the only way to see the alternate (referred to as Unrated) cut of Conquest is on Blu-Ray, but two changes shift the tone of the film significantly. Only the opening and closing were changed in 1972 (to secure a PG rating), and of the two the ending is more important. The brutal beating of a gorilla in the original opening sets the tone, but Caesar's post-riot speech at the end has been removed entirely. Instead of appealing for mercy, Caesar allows the humans to be beaten to death, and the bloodied apes are shown stacking the bodies of riot police officers. Gone is the implication that apes and humans could or should live side by side, which makes Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which also has an alternate Blu-Ray cut) a little more tenuous. The shift, however, is in keeping with the militant tone of the film.

 5. Blade Runner - I couldn't not put Blade Runner on this list. I really thought about leaving it off, because nearly everyone agrees that there's a stratospheric leap in quality from the Theatrical Cut to the "Final Cut" (named so because Scott was not actively involved in the already exisitng "Director's Cut"). Many of us grew up with the narration laden, expository heavy Theatrical Cut on VHS, and while it is what drew most to the world of Blade Runner, the 1992 "Director's Cut" really sparked a renewed interest in Ridley Scott's follow-up to Alien.

 Personally, I prefer the Final Cut, because it reflects changes Scott wanted to make but couldn't (he was working on Thelma and Louise). The differences between the DC and FC are not always evident, but are minor adjustments (the dove flying away, Zhora's death scene, the shift in one of Batty's demands to Tyrell) designed to make Blade Runner more cohesive. The most significant change is Deckard is no longer dreaming about the unicorn; he is shown to be awake the entire time. The Final Cut retains much of the ambiguity of the Director's Cut but has the polish and attention to detail Scott was unable to provide at the time. If I'm going to watch the film, nine times out of ten it's the Final Cut.

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