Blade Runner 2049 (****) chooses life

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Blade Runner 2049 – 2017

Director Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

There is a very strong theme in Blade Runner 2049 that helps to make its predecessor a better film. Of course, just defining what version of the movie Blade Runner is the predecessor would be a boon for those who enjoyed the series. In this particular case, we’re going to go with The Final Cut, as discussed with my friend WeMissE earlier this month. In that version, the last thing we see is a decisive Deckard (Ford) picking up the girl and heading to the elevator.

Picking up 30 years later, we have a new Blade Runner, named K, who is hunting down the rest of the Nexus 8 model Replicants, who had escaped an attempted purge shortly after the events of the first film. What happened to the rest of the Model 6’s, or even Model 7’s for that matter remains unasked and unanswered.

In an effort to avoid giving anything away, it can be stated that one of the 8’s is found right off the bat. He presents a twist right away. This will likely be common knowledge soon, but it was nice for me not to know right away, so I will not ruin it. If the first thing we learn is not enough, a bigger secret is revealed shortly there after. The knowledge of the secret sets K off on a voyage of discovery which leads him to ask questions more overtly, but no less entertainingly than with Harrison Ford’s Deckard.

On the side of humanity, we have Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi. Her motives are simple, whatever it takes to keep the bio-engineered humans in line. She is not a cruel person, but her methods are blunt and merciless. She feels knowledge of the secret is a powder keg necessary to extinguish before it explodes.

In their own category of interest, we have Niander Wallace (a wholly overcooked Leto) and his number 1, Luv (Hoeks). They follow K’s progress closely, interfering when they need to. It’s made very obvious who that bad guys are from the beginning, the other mystery is only a little harder to figure.

Mystery is not the main point of Blade Runner, though. It’s atmosphere, feeling and, to a lesser extent, philosophical questions on the nature of existence. What makes a human, human?  What makes a Replicant potentially more so?

As the evolving K, Gosling has never been more suited for a role. His look , a mixture of earnest curiosity and casual disconnect conveys the drive of someone looking to connect the dots. Whether you know what is coming up or not, it’s easy to follow and be drawn into his quest. While it’s never quite clear the connection he has with his virtual girlfriend, Joi (de Armas), it the sense of yearning is easy enough for us to connect. His reaction to others is interesting, too. His sense of vulnerability, even when there are things he’s clearly superior at, gives more to the plot than a million words could.

Hoeks is the most riveting presence of the rest of the cast. Her Luv has a clear sense of purpose that is a fresh contrast to the rest of the cast. She marches through the film like Famke Janssen in Goldeneye, only without the ridiculous puns.

Dave Bautista’s somber performance as Sapper Morton is frustrating, if for no other reason than for the potential he shows with the character. One can see how nice it would have been to see more of him by watching him in the short 2048 – Nowhere to Run.

Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful film. It is ponderous and vastly close in its recreation of the world created by Ridley Scott. While the original is good, with elements of noir and questioning of the way we treat those we deem different than us, it doesn’t give us enough of its most interesting character, Roy Batty.

This time, we have the benefit of more interesting characters, and a plethora of wonderful scenes that allow for us to enjoy the vast landscapes of futuristic earth and Ryan Gosling’s expressions.

Harrison Ford is better, too. You can actually feel his affection for Rachel now, when before it seemed like she was just an outlet for his desire, then. His take on love is a unique avenue.

One can feel the continuity between the films, but moreover this film feels like an improvement on the original by fleshing out and reinvigorating the story, with the same screenwriter in Fancher. Villeneuve understands and appears to love the world he’s inherited and he treats the viewer intelligently by not treading over the same ground.

The journey of Gosling is offset by the action scenes, especially between Replicants. There are no real amazing feats, but enough things that seem like they’d be hard to do. It does present a curiosity that has not been answered in two films.

What does it take to kill a Replicant? Sometimes its a well placed shot. Sometimes a few hits in the right places. Sometimes, a knife being run up the side through the rib cage doesn’t even do it. Near as I can tell, the only thing that does end one is when the plot point requires them to be gone.

As for the freaky creator figure, Wallace is on par with Joe Turkel’s Tyrell. He is more annoying, for all of Leto’s need to make sure he’s completely method. He has so few scenes where he actually moves, it’s funny to hear he spent so much time actually blinding himself. In the end, he moved his head around weird and talked in a stupid tone. Not any of this added anything to the film. I am sure that he got something out of it, but the audience does not.

If there is something else to observe, it’s that there still seems to be no role for a fully functional woman. This time, we have a toothless authority figure (Wright) who is drawn to K. We have a completely doting and pliant Joi, who provides nothing but (literally) hollow platitudes and dedication to K. That leaves my favorite, Luv. She is straight badass. None of these characters develop in any way.

The simple argument is that they are peripheral characters. The first film has Deckard and Batty taking the journey, and 2049 has K and Deckard again. If we follow simple logic, it is just he economy of characters. We can’t care about Rachel, Zhora or Pris or their counterparts because the story is not really about them. Until one of them has died…

Like I said, it’s not so much a criticism as an observation.

The film is longer by 3/4 of an hour, but this is augmented by the gorgeous camera work of Roger Deakins. The soundtrack works better for me and seems less dated. One finds it very easily drawn into the investigation with K. We know where he’s intending to go, but we never quite know where he’ll end up.

There’s a lot here for people who loved the first film. For those who just liked it, like yours truly, this bridges some gaps. Not sure where they can go with the next film, if there is one with the same writer, it is sure to be interesting.

(**** out of *****)

 

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I Don’t Have A Vote: The 89th Annual Oscars – You are ruining Everything

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89th Annual Oscars – You’re Ruining Everything

Save us, Jimmy Kimmel. Save us.

This year, with all that’s going on in the rest of the world, we need movies more than ever as a distraction. Awards shows in the modern era normally have a certain amount of politics thrown in, but Meryl Streep’s  flatulent performance at the Globes really ruined it for a lot of people, including our entire house. One can hope they don’t hand her a microphone this year, but this is unlikely.

My heart was set even further asunder when I saw how good a speech can be. George Kennedy is not everyone’s first thought as an Oscar winner. And that also included George Kennedy.

Could you imagine anyone winning the award Post Halle Berry handling it with such grace? It beats talking about saving the planet from climate change and then flying off in a lear jet to go spend time on one’s yacht any day.

My wife wants to skip it. My youngest daughter wants to watch Jimmy. So do I. Looks like we’re going to have to rely on our DVR so we can cut the crap and enjoy the crappy spectacle.

As a result of that one complete overindulgence, I nearly lost the will to tell you what I liked best this year. This is as close to forcing it as writing comes for me. There was some good things in the movies this year though, and I think we need to talk about it.

My pick for the best in film this year is a lot closer to what the Academy picked this year. I can almost see it from here when there are no clouds at night. It’s somewhere behind Pluto.

So I will give everyone my take on who I would have won the awards. Often it’s someone who isn’t on the board, and that is okay. This follows with who I think should win of the nominees. I hope you find some way to enjoy some movies that may not be mentioned at all tonight.

Best Film:

I gave my highest rating to Hacksaw Ridge, Fences,  The Girl With All The Gifts, Loving and Captain America: Civil WarArrival and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story almost got there, too. That’s a pretty good year. Of these films, the one that I think accomplished the most is McCarthy’s take on an apocalyptic vision. In under two hours we see one of the most brilliant philosophical musings about moving forward as a species ever placed in such a humble package. If you haven’t seen it and you can stomach a zombie film that discusses and understands Schrödinger’s Cat, you should.

Of the nominees:

I need to go with Fences. It’s the best of those films. La La Land will likely win. Most winners for best picture ended up being just above average (at ***1/2 stars) for me.

Best Director: 

Arrival accomplished the most amazing thing this year in its approach to sci-fi. We have as many heady subjects going on as are occurring in The Girl With All The Gifts, and most importantly, Villeneuve works carefully with his team to avoid any of the tropes that we see in even the best sci-fi. It’s lone weakness of circular logic is insignificant when one considers we are going back to the most basic form of communication to ponder some of the deepest philosophical and heart-wrenching truths of human existence. His work here, along with an incredibly dense (if short) career’s worth of work places him just above McCarthy.

Of the nominees: 

Villeneuve. Gibson has created a powerful film that seems at once of its time and timeless, but I have to defer to the power of Villeneuve’s simple choices.

Best Actor:

Andrew Garfield has a great performance as a man driven by impulses that many can’t understand. Denzel Washington has the kind of vulnerable performance that he’s never done before. My favorite performance of the year is Ryan Gosling in…The Nice Guys. I spent much of La La Land realizing how good he had been and subsequently went home and watched it again. His range therein moves from incomparable weenie, to overwrought widower, horrible father to great father. If there were ever a performer that completely absorbed Shane Black’s vision, this is it.

Of the nominees:

Garfield may never be nominated again, and it would be nice to see him win. But there is no way he was better than Washington.

Best Actress:

Sennia Nanua has what I consider the most memorable and poignant performance of the year. Her journey from complete innocence to an understanding of her role in the advancement of humanity is one that I will not forget.

Of the nominees:

I am so hopeful that Ruth Negga wins this category for Loving. Her performance is the best of those that I saw. What I have seen of Huppert’s performance in Elle intrigues me. WeMissE has me thinking I need to watch this film today. But dear God, whatever you do, don’t give this to Streep.

Best Supporting Actor: 

Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson keep coming to my mind for their divergent takes on the sons of Troy Maxson in Fences. Both present incredibly resonant reactions to a father who is different to both of them and continues to change. I didn’t expect to be so enamored with their bit roles, but they really help to bring the story into focus with their performances. No one can take this award from Mahershala Ali, though.

Of the nominees: 

Ali.I love Shannon. He really made chicken salad here. Bridges is great here, too. But he’s done this guy before, even if the ending of this film pushes him to another level.

Best Supporting Actress:

There really can be no other discussion beyond who is second best. Davis has this award locked and she deserves it. This is a performance of the ages.

Of the nominees:

Davis. Just don’t thank Meryl Streep.

Best Original Screenplay:

Hell or High Water has about the best ending of any film this year. The only one that was better is Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s Rogue One A Star Wars Story. It’s remarkable achievements include creating a cast of original characters, making A New Hope‘s weaknesses disappear, and adding to the mythology while detracting the dorkiness factor. It’s truly a remarkable achievement in a series I had given up on seeing a good script from.

Of the nominees:

La La Land has a good script, but of this group, the best one I have seen is Hell or High Water. Sheridan is on a roll.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

This truly is a race between Fences, The Girl with All the Gifts and Arrival. The difference here is that the former is almost entirely word for word from the original. There is no real adapting, because it is perfect the way it is. Arrival is has had some work done, but then there is that circular logic thing. I enjoy both of them so much, it’s literally a tossup. Either of them will not be forgotten. My pick is The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s an extraordinary story that could be understood by kids as well as adults, even if the subject matter can be gruesome.

Of the nominees: 

Same here, though I give Arrival a slight edge since Wilson has already taken home some pretty impressive accolades (including 2 Pulitzer Prizes, one for this) and he would not be around to pick up the trophy, since he passed 12 years ago.

Best Cinematography:

Arrival and La La Land are both fantastic in this category. Simon Duggan’s work in Hacksaw Ridge is extraordinary. The work that stands out for me is Ben Davis’ seamless blend of effects and imagery in Doctor Strange. It’s one thing to push forward the incredible work done in dimensional photography in Inception. It’s quite another to completely replicate the remarkable comic book look shot for shot.

Of the nominees: 

This is one category I think La La Land should win.

Best Animated Film:

Moana is another in the long line of Disney Princess films that will resonate for generations. Sure it misunderstands the purpose of promoting a woman is to make her look good without denigrating men, but damn the visuals are exquisite and the songs are catchy. Zootopia is a really good movie too, but it’s preaching so much, the good stuff is harder to detect while trying to weave out the bad. For this reason, I have to go with the art of Kubo and the 2 Strings.

Of the nominees:

Kubo

I don’t know if I will ever stop watching this celebration of movies. As bad as it usually is each year, it’s still the best thing we have to mark the passage of a year in the age of film. It really helps if Jimmy Kimmel is on his game, though. We need him more than ever this year.

 

 

Arrival (****1/2) is learning to accept a different language.

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Arrival – 2016

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien

For those of us who are interested in good sci-fi, Arrival hits the mark pretty solidly on the head. Approaching the concept of first contact from a practicality rarely seen in films, it asks questions few movies dare to ask. One that kept coming to mind for me, Prometheus, loses its lustre just a smidgen.

One always knew that the Ridley Scott attempt at an opus took short cuts that undercut the grander vision for which it’s aimed. When seeing the courage Arrival has in breaking down tasks to the most basic level, it’s easy to understand they will lose some people. For those who want to give up and say it’s too hard, know this, my 10 year old daughter figured it out before they even entered the ship.

This is not to say the film is predictable. It is not entirely. There are so many wider questions that the story asks us to ponder, it is easy to understand why this film has not become the blockbuster it deserves to be. There are very few explosions, the firefights take place mainly offscreen. The bluster is as much philosophical in nature as anything.

The thing that catches the willing viewer in this story is the obsession with language and communication. Arrival takes our preconceptions on the tenets of communication and adds another dimension that may or may not be intuitive, depending on your learning style. The process of seeing smart people work out hard challenges is fascinating. Making it something we all can decipher with a little work is even more amazing.

Much of this is due to the writer and director. Villeneuve has cut a swath through the world of cinema that hasn’t been seen by this reviewer since David Fincher. His style is only matched by his ability to find and nurture great material. Heisserer is at his best here, showing much growth from horror remakes to something truly visionary.

The best thing about Arrival is Amy Adams. In a performance sympathetic and not at all maudlin, she gives a multi-layered performance that gives the viewer depth and keeps us wondering what she knows and, importantly, when she knows it. This role should net her a nomination, if not a win. She is a true acting force, on par with the best work that Jodie Foster ever did.

The story is very tight through the first 3 acts and starts to unravel a bit too quickly towards the end. We get to spend the last 15 minutes knowing what happened and just waiting for it to finish. This is not as much a betrayal to the viewer as a concession that some people may need a breather.

See this film. It will give you something to talk about and definitely fill your life with wonder.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Sicario (****1/2): The depth of darkness

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Sicario – 2015

Director Denis Villeneuve
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jon Bernthal, Bernardo P. Saracino

Easily the one of the top films of 2015, Sicario pulls you in from the first moments of Roger Deakins amazing camera work and does not let go until everything fades to black. The story is a labyrinthian journey for FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) into the world of the CIA in the never ending battle against Mexican drug cartels. Her CIA counterparts, Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (del Toro) sense an opportunity with her and she volunteers to work with them to further her efforts at investigating her own case.

That the CIA plays by different rules is a given. Their motives never do seem to be the same. After discovering that Gillick has a past in Mexico, they surprise her when they perform a bloody extradition of the cartel’s top men. Having the chance to prosecute a heavyweight in the states, Kate is overruled.  Eventually the two to let her know their true goal: to mess up cartel operations until the U.S. cartel head of operations Diaz (Saracino) is called back home to Mexico.

Everything works in this film. All the actors are completely absorbed into the sequence of events to the extent that it really feels like a much more complex story than it is. Leading the way are Blunt and del Toro. Both performances would be the best in just about anyone else’s career. del Toro in particular holds the viewer with a gravity that rivals his Oscar winning performance in Traffic.

Villeneuve is one of the best directors alive. He his streak is 3 near-classics and counting. His sensibility is one of quiet observation. He allows the viewer to draw his own conclusions on what they are seeing, without pushing even subtly in any direction. His work brings Fincher to mind, with a sense of humor dry as the Arizona desert. His work is given it’s most depth to date in the lens of Deakins. So much to look at with every shot, it would be a pleasure to watch even if there were no plot.

The plot is serviceable, but pushed to greatness with the aforementioned talents. Sheridan is Sheriff Hale from Sons of Anarchy. This is his first published work and he’s planning on working with Villeneuve and del Toro on a follow up. My interest in the sequel will hinge on their continued partnership.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Enemy (*****) Tangled and Dark

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Enemy – 2013

Director Denis Villeneuve
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini, Mélanie Laurent
Screenplay by Javier Gullón based on The Double by José Saramago

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”

Enemy is the kind of film that challenges you to absorb every moment. It’s not enough just to watch this film, you have to feel it. If you keep your eyes on the screen and your ears open to what is being offered, this should be no problem. The story is a dense allegory of a man who finds his doppelgänger while watching a movie. This starts a quest to meet up with his double, which eventually brings him to a new state of consciousness.  Or maybe an acceptance of his subconscious. Where you take it, is up to you.

Gyllenhaal’s performances here are flawless. There is very little to distinguish the two characters, Adam and Anthony, yet for the average viewer, he leaves plenty of breadcrumbs that have nothing to do with what he wears. In a career of brave performances, this could be his finest hour and a half.

Adam is a soft, pliable and initially incurious college history professor who teaches his class about totalitarianism as he wanders through the same activities day after day. Seeing him on a streetcar that moves through the city powered by wires gives a strong sense of where he exists. His girlfriend (Laurent) is more a vessel than a person, it seems, even if she won’t just let him have his way with her.

Anthony is a married man who cheats on his pregnant wife Helen (Gadon).  Hers is a sad existence until she is introduced to Adam, and even then it takes a while for them to really recognize one another. Anthony’s first meeting with Adam is shocking, and Adam runs. Anthony follows him, sees Adam’s girlfriend and senses an opportunity. Where it goes from here may be somewhat expected, but it takes a curve or two.

Villeneuve,  Gullón and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc take advantage of every word of dialogue, and every inch of the screen. Every scene is replete with images that point the viewer to an understanding of the futility towards which each half of the doppelgänger is heading. It’s impossible to give away anything by telling one to wait for the last shot. Gyllenhaal’s face says it all.

The history of Nobel Prize winning author Saramago’s storytelling has much to do with the message. Interestingly, the film’s primary imaging – the spider – is nowhere mentioned in the book upon which the story is based. The spider couldn’t be more perfectly used, however.

Enemy is worth repeated viewings. Immediately after the first viewing, I started it again. Like a hit record, every note and riff came clearer and more resonant that second time. Try to watch it once. Just try.

(***** out of *****)

Prisoners (****) exceeds the grasp of its flaws

Prisoners

Prisoners – 2013

Director Denis Villeneuve
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Screenplay Aaron Guzikowski

One could say that I am not a fan of Paul Dano or Melissa Leo.  They often play detestable creatures; almost always intentionally.  Many of the best parts of their films involve them losing or being hurt in some way.  When Dano starts getting beat up early and often in Prisoners, I am in hog heaven.  Like Jackman’s Keller Dover, I believe that Dano’s Alex Jones is the most vile type of person, wholly capable of the crime for which he’s been accused.  The crime is the abduction of Dover’s daughter Anna, and Joy Birch, the daughter of Franklin and Nancy (Howard and Davis).  He’s been caught in the vehicle that spotted in the area that they were last seen, and there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that hits the right eyes and ears at the right moments.

Soon enough, Jones is released and soon after he is kidnapped by Dover, who begins to torture the strangely mute adult child.  After Keller shows Franklin what he’s done, he coerces his complicity.  Soon after, the torture begins.  The feeling is sadly, angrily delicious.  Sure, the children’s whereabouts are not revealed, but it is quite obvious to anyone that he knows something of where they are.

Along this time, we meet Jones’ Aunt Holly.  She seems like any aunt of an idiot adult child.  She puts up with his eccentricities and explains what he’s like to live with to Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal).  Loki has a flawless record recovering children, which is a strange thing when you consider the odds.  His pursuit is hindered by his idiot boss Captain O’Malley (Duvall), but he manages to comb pretty thoroughly through some other cases along the way, gleaning seemingly inconsequential information.

About this time another suspect (Dastmalcian) comes to the fore.  Where this leads will be left for the viewer.

The performances of leads Jackman and Gyllenhaal are tense and finely conceived.  Gyllenhaal has the same type of freshness and desperate vibe shown in Fincher’s classic Zodiac. Jackman’s flawed honorable intent pieces together nicely with the moral of the story.  We feel his pain acutely, especially with his wife (Bello) moving right into a bedridden panic mode.  As a father, it is easy to identify with how his need to be a protector would transfer into malevolence after the chance for that has passed.

Davis and Howard are given the unique chance to show a different side of the victimized / victimizer angle.  Their reactions to finding out what Dover is doing is what many of us would do.

This is Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s movie, though, and they attack every minute of screen time they have as if there are really two little girls on the line.  The performances push the story through some gaps in reasoning and common sense.  It isn’t until the end that the lack of logic finally eats through an otherwise talented script.  While not having seen any of Villenueve’s directorial work before, this sharp and almost clinical effort ensures that I will, starting with Enemy.  If the work does not work in the most sensible manner, it does have grist as a thrilling morality tale.

(**** out of *****)