Review: In gorgeous ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ a new standard for sequels is set

There’s something that feels ironically punctual when experiencing “Blade Runner 2049,” 35 years after the debut of the iconic and innovative original continues to influence pop culture in ways we’ve become accustomed to by now.

Maybe it’s the fact that the long-gestating sequel was always waiting, in spirit, for Denis Villeneuve, like he was some long-awaited prophet whose destiny it was to accomplish the impossible on multiple levels (and accomplish, he has).

It could just be that we’re a little over a year away from when the events of Ridley Scott’s film take place – a bleak, dystopian take on impoverished 2019 Los Angeles that in many ways mirrors the personality some parts of the country have taken on: Desolate and deadly.

Now, in “2049,” that personalization is magnified. Replicants are still being hunted down, albeit now by their own kind. A bankrupt Tyrell Corporation has been acquired by a new company with unknown intentions. The environment’s pessimistic personality has evolved to a much darker characterization; one with cruel intentions.

And there’s a mystery to be solved, one with implications both far-reaching and personal. That “Blade Runner 2049” understands this from the first moments foreshadows its success as a visually hypnotic two-and-a-half hours of movie grandeur, and a sequel that magnificently builds on the intrigue and world of the 1982 original.

A large part of Villeneuve’s sensory kaleidoscope of a film follows K, the blade runner who – after a violent run-in with a skin-tone Dave Bautista who seems much bigger here than he ever did in “Guardians of the Galaxy” – begins to unpack clues to some larger revelations that come down the road. It isn’t necessarily the start of a full-blown war that Robin Wright endlessly alludes to in the trailers for “2049,” but early on the audience understands that the scope of what K is uncovering is far bigger than anything Decker discovered while hunting down a rogue group of Replicants back in 2019 LA.

To back up the intrigue of these revelations, “2049” goes all in to portray the world that would be affected by them. The range of environments that visual maestro Roger Deakins guides us through makes it seem like the entirety of “Blade Runner” happened within a few city blocks.

Here, we go to desolate countrysides, post-apocalyptic wastelands, scorched Chernobyls, geometrically astute corporations that pass more for deformed Rubik’s cubes than your typical techie offices (get with the game, Apple).

And of course, with the incessant and increasingly annoying BRAAAHM BRAAAAHMS of a Hans Zimmer score as a fellow passenger, the camera swoops, stalks and glides through morally bankrupt and constantly overcast Los Angeles (does this place ever see any sun?). With skyscraper-sized virtual ads and a stench of overpopulation, being on the street level with K is like traversing through an Alice in Wonderland of the “Black Mirror” variety.

It’s an atmosphere that is downright intoxicating in its futuristic dreariness, and a world that – from a technical level – provided me with a more memorable sense of awe than James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

It’s an environment that, like K, is grasping onto a sense of what it means to be human, and grappling with how being human has changed over the previous 30 years.

There’s much world-building here that also isn’t visually driven, but rather motivated by expanding on the lore that we now realize was only teased in the 1982 “Blade Runner.” Things have happened since then that, even though they are only referenced in bites, it’s clear they were earth-shattering. The mythos of Replicants themselves are front and center, as is their increasingly blurred distinction

The mythos of Replicants themselves are front and center, as is their increasingly blurred distinction from humans, leading to big questions about the state of humanity, and even its value going forward.

Who known if Phillip K. Dick ever asked the questions that “2049” poses, but the evolution of the franchise’s curiousity over the past three decades shows how important those questions are.

Not all of them are answered, however, and they shouldn’t be. Superfans of the 1982 film should also be consoled that even The Big Question surrounding Harrison Ford’s Deckard isn’t answered concretely. It’s a testament to the story and Villeneuve’s direction that it doesn’t have to be answered for us to know that, after learning what we learn, this world is in for more than it has ever bargained for.

But “2049” smartly puts those global implications aside as a subplot. It knows that it shouldn’t concern itself with such things. Even Jared Leto’s mysterious Niander Wallace doesn’t get a ton of screentime. Villeneuve is reminding us that, even after 35 years, the story of “Blade Runner” is still primarily the story of one blade runner in particular – Deckard.

Contrasting his and K’s journey and discoveries against their broader consequences, and against the more massive world their story takes place in, is the smartest thing Villeneuve could have done with this sequel, even if certain elements of the plot are too dense and far-reaching to take in at the first viewing. They’re not in any race against a world-ending clock — although a magnificently scary Sylvia Hoeks is hot on their heels — but the drama certainly reaches a crescendo all the same.

The magnetic build-up to those discoveries will be seen as more of a trudge by some, but for me, the film’s nearly three hours of running time flew by. It isn’t an action romp as the marketing may suggest but, like the original film, a very deliberate piece of filmmaking grandeur that confirms Denis Villeneuve as the most exciting director working today.

It’s bold and it’s tense, a kinetic dream of a film that is as technically entrancing as it is thought-provoking. That this film – that not many were asking for – was made when it was is an achievement, but experiencing it breathe with purpose is a bit of a miracle. It’s an intersection of mesmerizing world-building and engaging story that sets the template moving forward for not only contemporary sci-fi, but sequels of any genre.

In an age of seemingly needless reboot announcements and even more underwhelming execution, maybe that’s 2049’s most punctual message of all.

 

 

 

“Blade Runner” is rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language

Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

2017

 

Advertisements

Review: Emma Stone dazzles as women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King in ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Like the ostensibly unordinary back-and-forth dance that eyeballs engage in while watching a tennis match, so too does “Battle of the Sexes” breeze along fairly unspectacularly in telling the story of former tennis champion and feminist icon Billie Jean King.

And like a dramatic gaining of a point in tennis serves to remind the owners of those eyeballs that there is much more talent involved than they may realize, so too does Emma Stone turn in another forceful and endearing performance — one of the very best of the year, really — as King.

In the process, she gives the film — directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — a bit of redeeming quality. Not that “Battle of the Sexes” completely hits the net upon first serve, but it’s difficult to find very many things that separate it as an elite biographical offering, even as Stone plays and mesmerizes her way to potentially a second straight Best Actress nomination.

The story of Billie Jean King and her crusade against society’s ingrained sexism that sees her playing a nearly 30-years-her-senior Bobby Riggs is certainly a story that deserves to be told. King, a tennis champion in the early 70s who also championed equal wages for female athletes, also fought for LGBTQ rights later in life before becoming an early advocate for Title IX in sports, but the film doesn’t delve into that too much.

Instead, it focuses on her spirited drive to just get some damn respect. The method: Forming an all-women’s tournament to show that female athletes are just as big a draw as the men.

That later leads, by way of sheer, “Oh yes I can” attitude, to the iconic, real-life Battle of the Sexes — King’s match with former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, here portrayed by a seemingly hyperbolic but all too true-to-form Steve Carrell, who is channeling his inner Looney Tunes. That is, if Daffy Duck was deep down an egotistical, dogmatist brat who thought the world revolved around the XY chromosome.

Unfortunately for Dayton and Faris — as well as the audience — effectively contrasting Carrell’s cartoonish villainy with the very real (and very relevant issues) that the Battle of the Sexes represented is a tough endeavor. The film is made as authentically as possible, from the perpetual 70s cinematic tinge to the you-have-to-Google-it-to-believe-it antics of Riggs, and sometimes that works against it via uncomfortable tonal shifts.

The film breezes along for two hours, a perfectly fine Netflix watch that is mostly let down by its writing, but when Stone’s King is on screen, the film soars. Stone, fresh off a Best Actress triumph for “La La Land,” embodies everything about King — from her appearance to her confident glow to her personifying of a simple message: Women do belong on the same court as the men, and for the same wages.

But what the continually surprising Stone brings to the table feels restrained by lackluster writing; the script cheapens that important social commentary to where it feels almost tongue-in-cheek at times. And at others, especially in some early scenes, the fight for equality is presented in such black-and-white terms that you have to wonder why the struggle is ongoing for women decades later.

Thankfully, as the movie goes, it gets a little bit of a better handle on how complex the issue is, and just how cemented the psychology is that King is working to break through.

Carrell’s Riggs, meanwhile, hasn’t quite completely fallen from grace, but he sure is hitting every rung hard on the way down. On the cusp of a failing marriage and gambling addiction, he turns his attention to the headline-making King as the yin to her yang, the man who has no issues proclaiming to national media that his gender is superior.

The film wisely portrays Carrell as the one with seemingly nothing to lose and Stone with everything, raising the stakes of their historic match.

But even as Carrell and his feigned masculinity is one-half of the titular Battle, the film is largely driven by King’s journey, and her wrangling with the various things a professional athlete must contend with to be successful. An excellent Stone makes it a journey all the more heart-wrenching, and all the more inspiring.

With subtext that is uber-timely in a world where “pussy-grabbing” Trump is president, “Battle of the Sexes” does bring light to the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the world of sports (See: 2016 Olympic Games commentators).

But it’s the moments when that commentary is oversimplified that the film becomes self-defeating. The themes are important, but they’re tough to take seriously when the script’s portrayal of them borders on satire.

Dayton’s and Faris’s movie is still an entertaining time. It’s witty, with Sarah Silverman a standout as the organizer of the all-women’s tournament, and it truly breathes the era. It also doesn’t do anything particularly exciting for the biographical genre, as much as we hope it does with the importance of the character its story is centered on.

For as much a champion of women’s rights that King was, “Battle of the Sexes” burdens itself — and its message — by limiting the scope of her impact mostly to her feud with Riggs. And while that feud did come to represent her crusade against sexism at large, it still feels minimalized.

As a result, “Battle of the Sexes” feels like a triumphant one — it certainly has no trouble stating it is — but largely for reasons unknown, other than another stunningly spot-on turn by Stone.

 

 

“Battle of the Sexes” is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

2017

Review: For “mother!” Aronofsky trades subtlety for potentially meaningful mayhem

“It affects everyone in a different way,” says a narcissistic Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky’s hieroglyphics-filled-cavern of a movie, “mother!”

Yeah. I’ll say.

This is a film that has been nothing if not a bastion for discussion as the Cinematic Year transitions to awards season. “IT” has horrified mainstream audiences for two weeks (as well as satisfied New Line Cinema to the tune of the biggest horror opening ever) and I’d like to think that Paramount picked the week after to release “mother!” in order to provide a different – a VERY different – sort of disturbing experience in the theater.

Questions of the “What does it all even mean?” variety have certainly filled that discussion surrounding the latest offering from Aronofsky, as he continues to experiment the decade after receiving renown and even awards recognition for “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

But pervading those “what” questions, suitably, have also been a spattering of “how” inquiries. As in, “How far is this movie, and Aronofsky, going to go?”

“mother!” may be vague, ambiguous even, but it certainly isn’t subtle. It’s unusual turn after unusual turn, and even if you don’t realize you’re beating beaten mercilessly in allegory, you known damn well you’re being clubbed in the senses with freakish, non-stop non-sequitor.

It’s hard to call the 2-hour film anything short of a curiosity. You can join in the ride if you want by simply absorbing what’s on screen. But that’s not where the fun lies, unless all you’ve ever wanted from your movies is an Eli Roth offering that has something to say.

First of all, if there’s any movie you should know the least about before going into, it’s this one. (You can rest easy if you’re reading this before your first viewing that no major or moderate spoilers will be found in these paragraphs.) Though Aronofsky certainly has a major story to re-tell through Jennifer Lawrence’s trials and tribulations, it’s much more fun to Reddit up on those theories afterwards.

That’s because “mother!”, for as much a sensory experience as it is (Sound Editing/Mixing Oscars could be in the…mix) is awash in symbolism and aforementioned allegory. So much so that it’s a hell of a time trying to unpack it all. It’s a cerebral drama in seemingly the most grotesque and barbaric of visions, but one that certainly has statements to be made.

There may be a method to this madness, and there absolutely is a message.

It’s a message that will become clearer and clearer to some in the audience as Lawrence and company descend into a very particular kind of hell in the movie’s final act. But that doesn’t mean other themes aren’t at play; I counted three or four potential subjects that Aronofsky could have been critiquing/conveying/toying with in the first 45ish minutes.

I won’t divulge them. That would detract from your experience. But let’s grab a beer and discuss them afterwards, because this is a movie that drips with so many semantics and manifestations of the world at its carnal worst that you’ll be trying to connect the two for days afterward, even if you convince yourself you were completely turned off by Aronofsky’s unrestrained imagination.

Not everything in “mother!” is vague. There are certain details that stand out as red flags, clues to remember for later. The cues of isolation. Lawrence’s white clothes contrasted against the darker attire of nearly everyone else. The house being its own character, in a more literal sense than you’d expect.

I’m almost sure that some of those details were placed intentionally by Aronofsky to throw us off his scent.

With all this talk of a film that is a hell-bent on going to hell and back to tell the story of (SUBJECT REMOVED TO REFRAIN FROM SPOILING) through extended metaphor, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that “mother!” is lethargic.

Far from it.

It makes you uncomfortable as hell, sure, and has been proudly marketed by Paramount as “The most controversial movie since ‘A Clockwork Orange’” (Mel Gibson would like a word). But in an age where it’s so easy to get lost in a dreamlike trance with the majority of studio films (See: Marvel Studios), why not counteract that with a bit of nightmare to jolt us awake in our seats?

At the very least, the production value of “mother!”, given its solitary setting and symbolically layered premise, is something to be admired. This is the most no-holds-barred example of studio filmmaking in as long as I can remember, and in an age where Disney is firing up-and-coming visionaries for not conforming to what they want in a “Star Wars” film, that kind of creative freedom should be embraced. Here, it’s an absolute rush.

Even when there’s certain parts where the audience is torn between being utterly horrified or guffawing out loud. “It affects everyone in a different way.” It sure, does.

And now, a matter of filmmaking etiquette that Aronofsky presents front-and-center with “mother!”: Does the fact that a movie necessitates repeat viewing diminish its authenticity?

Personally, I am already booking the seat for my next showing. I wanted to return to this world immediately after the credits rolled. Not because I could equate some of what I was seeing on-screen with cinematic glee, per se, but because there were almost certainly some details that I missed, and larger ones that I still just need to figure out.

It stays with you in that way. At least, it did for me. And if I decide to give up and Google Aronofsky’s meaning, then I’ll probably watch it a third time with a whole new mindset. And I’d expect I’ll be satisfied in a different way.

Some asides: Music is absent in “mother!”, with Aronofsky instead electing for pinpoint attention to sound. From teacups breaking to more supernatural auditory occurrences, those are the director’s reassurances that once the movie gets from 0 to 100 mph, it rarely dips below 85.

The film also entirely follows Lawrence. We’re not just seeing the experience through her eyes, we’re living it; the camera is attached to her, and for the amount of closeups Aronofsky shoots of her, it’s surprisingly never a frustration decision. Bardem is the more tantalizing of the two, but that’s a result of the writing more than anything else.

Michelle Pfeiffer is her usual darkly sultry self, and Ed Helms is fine as the couple’s first visitor. Revealing other cast members, though, would be giving away too much.

What? I meant what I said about going in knowing the bare minimum. And the most bare minimum information anyone needs to know is this is a batshit crazy director at his batshit craziest.

Roger Ebert once said, “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” If that’s the true barometer for a film’s success, then “mother!” might be the best film of the year.

At the very least, it’s an absorbing, boldly made and deftly innovative movie that challenges viewers in ways we should want to be challenged. If we got two or three “mother!s” every year, Hollywood would be better off.

And so would we.

 

 

“mother!” is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Helms, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

2017

Review: ‘It’ a thrilling, if flawed, big-budget horror offering

There hasn’t been very much in the way of blockbuster horror lately.

Instead it’s been a tale of two extremes for the genre; either we’ve had the student film-esque, cheap scare formula made popular by Paranormal Activity that resides in cheese territory, or arthouse offerings like It Follows and The Witch with subtext that is sometimes scarier than anything manifested onscreen.

The Conjuring comes closest to representing a compromise of the two sub-genres, with its sense of bigger-scale, crowd-pleasing terror that doesn’t forget about the importance of character.

Enter: IT, Stephen King’s iconic (aren’t they all?) story of a killer clown preying on the children of Small Town, USA, and the group of Losers who take it upon themselves to destroy him.

King’s novel is a dense opus spanning decades, but director Andy Muschietti, along with the film’s four writers, deserve credit for telling a concise, first chapter of a tale that is also the most entertaining horror offering of the year.

The chemistry between the aforementioned Losers – a ragtag group of outcast teens with their own distinct personalities – is a marvel. The story revolves around their conflict with Pennywise, but the minutiae of their relationships with each other is as close as Hollywood has come to reviving the spirit Stand By Me. Jaeden Liberher is particularly excellent as the stuttering de-facto leader Bill, while Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame is a riot as living, breathing comic relief.

Sophia Lillis also puts in a breakthrough turn as Bev Marsh, though her story gets underwhelming when she becomes just another damsel in distress.

When Pennywise isn’t dominating the screen, it’s these kids we’re with, and it’s company that we’re more than happy to be a part of. They’re written adequately, bouncing back and forth between the typical teen angst and dealing with a killer clown. It’s a faithful compromise, so long as you can get past the occasional overindulgence on dick jokes and vulgar quips (the film’s R-rating isn’t solely for the scares).

They also all have their respective baggage that elevates their respective roles from would-be heroes to we-just-want-to-find-a-way-to-prove-ourselves-ers.

And then there’s Bill Skarsgård, who updates Tim Curry’s iconic turn as Pennywise with his own dastardly interpretation that is as creepy as it is addicting to witness. You can choose to cover your eyes if you want, but you’d be missing out on the movie’s best scenes.

The very best of those scenes might just be his introduction, a first greeting with the paper sailboat-toating Georgie – Bill’s younger brother who catapults the story into motion – that is equal parts tantalizing and brilliant. In about 90 seconds Skarsgård goes through the gamut of his sinister clown’s personality, from the cutesie-creepy laugh to glaring eyes that scream, “Hey, Georgie, get the hell out of there.”

Everything about those 90 seconds is perfect; from the “innocent” hello to its jaw-dropping ending, it’s a standout sequence of any film this year.

And unfortunately it’s Skarsgård’s only real opportunity at acting the part. From there on (until the final showdown), the CGI takes over, and Skarsgård – now having established Pennywise’s one bloodthirsty goal – is relegated to leering out from behind corners and whispering his victim’s names as if we are supposed to mistake the sound for wind.

It’s a bit of a frustrating turn, but doesn’t detract completely from the impact of when he is on screen. The most fun parts of the film are when he’s stalking the kids behind blood-red balloons, stalking his prey before pouncing on them in a standout haunted house thrill ride that proves the time is ripe for a live-action Monster House.

IT isn’t keep-you-awake-all-night frightening, but what it makes up for in sheer, Conjuring-esque terror it makes up for in visual flair and creativity, like a Jack-in-a-box that reveals a puppet much larger than anything the contraption is expected to hold.

Where IT really thrives, though, is in bringing to life the world of the homely-but-threatening town of Derry, Maine. Never before has a Stephen King world been brought to life so faithfully on an aesthetic level, right down to the sense that someone is always watching our lovable Losers.

When a theater marque advertising “The Nightmare on Elm Street 5” makes an appearance, you have to wonder if any other movie ever screens there.

That atmosphere only serves to heighten the sense of dread and stakes for the kids, who connect the dots in the town’s history en route to confronting whatever “it” is that is making children go missing. There’s an enticing bit of mythos that is teased, if not gently established, that hopefully is explored further in the sequel so that we can get a clearer picture of how much a force of evil Pennywise has been for years.

While the world of Derry is threaded with morbid undertones, it’s the occasional lapse in writing that keeps it from being one of the top three or four Stephen King adaptations (just being in the conversation is probably enough with how much the author has contributed to the genre). While the film for the most part balances its scares and humor well, at a handful of points the tonal shift is so jarring it’s as if the audience has entered the world of parody.

Aside from that, the ending leaves a little to be desired. It’s an entertaining confrontation between the kids and Pennywise, one enhanced by the aforementioned cinematic flair that helps make it a legitimate horror blockbuster. But when the stakes have been raised so high at various points in the previous hour-and-a-half, you can’t help but feel like the writers missed an opportunity to go for a dynamic, go-for-broke finish.

As a result, once the credits roll, it feels like perhaps the ride has been over for longer than we thought; we’ve just been sitting in the car waiting, craving another drop.

Still, those are minor complaints for what is entertaining big-budget horror. IT doesn’t worry about treading any lines between cheap thrills and story because it understands there doesn’t have to be a territorial divide, and its world-building is so brilliantly enticing – a wonder to see played out onscreen –  that it makes the wait for the sequel worth it.

Review: With Dunkirk, Nolan matures as a director and visionary

When it was announced that Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the polarizing space epic Interstellar would be a much more grounded film rooted in the history, it was a bit of a surprise.

Here was a director who has made a career (and, generally, huge box office returns) on the fantastical – imaginative works grand in vision and scope – looking to bring to life a much more straightforward premise by comparison.

But Nolan is also known for taking risks, and as it turns out, Dunkirk is no different. It’s a reinvigoration of the war genre, and its most innovative offering in decades.

There’s certain elements you can expect every time you go to see a Nolan film: a certain visual aesthetic that borders on broody without ever fully entering Kubrick territory, a pounding score, iconic imagery and emotional heft.

Dunkirk embraces all of these without succumbing to supersized blasts of Nolanism. If there’s one movie in his catalogue that a modern film buff might mistake for another director, it’s this.

At times the writer-director hopes for too much out of his films, whether it’s explicit thematical exploration or dense subplots that can get in the way of otherwise intense experiences.

But he shows growth with his 10th feature, which is also one of his leanest to date at 106 minutes. (His previous three movies – Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception – average over 2-and-a-half hours.) This film is a historical snapshot, one that depicts in harrowing detail the aftermath of a battle few know very much about – a reminder that even war’s less notable chapters are intense tales.

And Dunkirk is nothing if not intense from beginning to end, dropping the viewers in the middle of the action, at a point of peak hopelessness for hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers who can do nothing but wait to leave the French city at the onset of WWII as the enemy closes in.

The movie revels in the isolation of war, depicting it with surety and expertly-conjured shots, some of which are sure to become iconic –long lines of soldiers on the beaches, a lone survivor sitting on the only part of a sunken boat still above water, three British planes flying through immense expanses of sky like the last mechanical birds on Earth.

In a film where so few words are spoken, Nolan’s skill for crafting sweeping cinematography says so much about the situation the soldiers find themselves in, soldiers and pilots whose names we never learn. Although newcomer Fionn Whitehead is billed somewhat as the lead, there’s a cast of other characters who receive the same amount of attention and screentime.

We don’t know the backstories of any of these characters, and we barely get a glimpse into their personalities. While war classics like Saving Private Ryan fleshes out the stories of its troops, Dunkirk instead shows us that, by its very nature, war doesn’t care about who comes its way – it’ll put a bullet in you just the same.

It isn’t that Dunkirk is emotionless; pick any 5-minute stretch, and I was more engaged with it than other recent war movies like Hacksaw Ridge and American Sniper. With respect to those films and the real-life heroes they depict, Dunkirk is perhaps a more realistic vision of the how the boys sent off to fight in WWII – many of them teenagers – were never truly equipped for what they’d experience. The concept of home itself means as much to them as air; survival itself is a victory. By telling the story in a way that is so matter-of-fact, Nolan has found a way to perhaps pays as much homage to the soldiers as a studio film made 80 years later possibly can.

Nolan’s decision of how to present the story is, in itself, nothing short of genius. Without giving too much away, it unfolds over three distinct narratives with their own characters and timelines, and the moment I realized what Nolan was doing with the film’s aspect of time was the most satisfying lightbulb moment I’ve had in a theater this year.

It’s also the moment I realized he is the perfect director to tell this story, even though it’s almost totally different from anything he’s done.

It goes without saying that, technically, Dunkirk, is a marvel. Nolan once again partners up with Hans Zimmer, who lends his immense score-creating talents. The sound editing is top-notch, and the choice to make a good portion of the dialogue nearly unintelligible effectively adds to the intrigue, making you feel even more like you’re right there.

The film’s cast – for the miniscule amounts of time we spend with its individual components – ranges from good to really good. Mark Rylance in particular continues an impressive (and underrated) streak, and Harry Styles (yep, that Harry Styles) transcends whatever impression you might have of the musician beforehand in a role that’s decidedly more than a cameo.

Whitehead speaks probably the least of the major players, instead effectively embodying using a stoic, nearly zombie-like demeanor to express the attitude of every solider on the beaches of Dunkirk who have to be thinking, “How did I get here? Will I ever get out?”

That’s essentially the premise of the film, one which imagines the comforts of home as a luxury soldiers in war can’t afford. Even when they’re served tea and toast on an evacuation ship, they’re smart enough to know they’re not out of it yet. When they’re hesitant about going into the hull of a boat, seemingly descending into safety but fully aware that that safety can turn into a trap in a split second, you know they’ve been through hell.

Dunkirk may very well be the film that comes to define Nolan’s career. Not in terms of cultural impact, evolution of the craft or even when considering his best work (hell, I have trouble putting it into his top 3. His career’s been that good). But Dunkirk, more than any other of his movies, shows his discipline and ability to restrain himself from doing something overly dramatic and grand that would detract from the final product.

As a result, Dunkirk is one of his most intimate films to date, and the best movie of the year so far.

 

 

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experiences and some language

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damian Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Lee Armstrong

Directed by Christopher Nolan

2017

Review: ‘Life’ steals playbook from ‘Alien,’ still manages to be forgettable

In space, no one can hear you scream. We’ve known that for nearly 40 years.

But space, perhaps, could also the place where we can send “Life” so it doesn’t have to be endured by us Earthlings.

Daniel Espinosa’s tale of space-station-turned-house-of-horrors is enamored with the 1977 classic “Alien,” so explicitly so that its adoration makes those of us on the outside of this clearly one-sided relationship feel a bit disgusted and uncomfortable by the way it borrows its every influence.

And it’s evident from the very first shot, the camera slowly and eerily drifting through space just like the start of “Alien,” making us feel an isolation that has become almost like a second cinematic home in recent years (See: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian,” etc., etc.).

Inside the International Space Station that eventually comes into view is a small crew of astronauts which has just captured the first irrefutable proof of alien life. One of the astronauts – Hugh, a much too optimistic scientist to be poking around in a petri dish of alien life – calls it “Calvin” out of a sense of affection. But (surprise, surprise) Calvin is a stone cold killer.

The movie wants you to think he’s offing the humans one by one out of a natural survival instinct, but let’s be real: Calvin is enjoying being a source of torment and terror once he breaks loose.

“Life,” admittedly, does an adequate job in the early going by steadily building momentum as Calvin squirms his way through the ship like he knows the place. There are one or two fairly memorable sequences as he terrorizes his victims, but for some reason the film feels the need to break that momentum at times by morphing from horror into character-driven drama.

There’s certainly enough backstory – too much, actually – to remind us that these bodies of flesh and blood have lives back on Earth. Well, that goes for everyone but Jake Gyllenhaal’s David, who prefers the lonely quiet of space (he’s been up there for over 400 straight days) to the chaos of life on our blue and green planet.

There’s too many characters for there to really be a leading force. For a film so heavily influenced by “Alien,” “Life” is missing its Ripley – the hero we know little about but has so much charisma that we can’t help but cheer them on.

By comparison, Gyllenhaal and co. are so lifeless that it’s hard not to look forward to Calvin play cat-and-mouse with them.

Speaking of Calvin, his appearance and cadence is an easy target for cheap laughs at first, but make no mistake that it doesn’t take long for him to turn into a human-sized storm of violence and destruction, even if his tentacle-y design is uninspired.

For a film with an R-rating, that destruction doesn’t seem to be as visceral as it should be, though. Take away a few pints of blood and the handful of F-bombs, and “Life” is a PG-13 film with a slightly higher box office intake. What Espinosa was trying to accomplish by dialing back on some of the horror elements, I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t work to keep “Life” back from its full potential.

And then there’s the ending, which is sure to polarize. I’m on the side of “that was completely unnecessary”; it feels like little more than a desperate attempt at relevance, a talking point for a movie that surely is aware that it doesn’t have much life of its own.

Ultimately what leads to “Life’s” downfall is its complete failure to make us care for its characters. At times it’s too morose for its own good. One minute we’re following Calvin as he crawls along the outside of the ISS, looking for a way in while the crew is desperately barring all hatches. The next minute, the astronauts are contemplating the meaning of life and questioning their mission, as if they could care less about the extinction of the human race.

“Life” a cheap knockoff of a classic in the genre, without actually being inspired by what made “Alien” so terrifying: a pinch of originality, a type of horror we’ve never seen. “Life,” meanwhile, would be tough to recommend over modern straight-to-DVD offerings that at least offer something new.

 

“Life” is rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

2017

Review: In latest ‘Kong,’ visuals reign over logic, dull characters

The familiar question “Kong: Skull Island” seems to want to pose is: How powerless is man and his weapons when faced with nature’s most threatening forces?

Instead, it feels that those behind the camera were hell-bent on satisfying another curiosity: How much subpar filmmaking can the audience endure to get to the eye candy?

The latest iteration of the influential franchise that is nearing an unexpected 100 years of life is also one of its loudest and dumbest. It amounts to nearly two hours (though, thankfully, it seems much shorter) of brainless hodgepodge that teeters on overindulgence, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Transformer films for the worst reasons.

It’s one thing to make a monster movie and putting its human characters in the backseat. But if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Dan Gilroy are putting their scaly, furry, deadly creations front and center, their human counterparts aren’t just in the backseat; they’re being dragged through the road behind them at 100 miles an hour.

The dumbfounding thing is that part of “Kong” seems to want to make the humans an integral part of the story, even though it’s impossible to tell which of its handful of leading characters is supposed to be the main protagonist.

Is it Brie Larson’s idealistic photographer? Tom Hiddleston’s unconvincingly rugged tracker? Samuel L. Jackson’s tormented Vietnam War general, John Goodman’s obsessive scientist? They all have a legitimate case, and as underwhelming as their stories are, it’s clear that Gilroy was hoping one of them would hit the mark.

Even John C. Reilly’s Skull Island denizen has an unexpectedly large role, even though all he is destined to elicit are groans from the audience.

John Goodman plays Bill Randa, a scientist determined to prove that monsters exist, and researching them could hold scientific advantages. He manages to secure the support of a senator for a trip to Skull Island while the rest of the country’s leaders are preoccupied with the end of the Vietnam War (“There will never be a more screwed up time in Washington,” Randa says, in what might be the most ironically timely line of the year in a film).

After recruiting Hiddleston and Jackson to his team, and Larson hopping on as a photographer curious to see what Randa is on about, its off to the mythical land of monsters, where they are greeted with flying trees aimed at their helicopters and a grump Kong who doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.

From there, the adventure is on.

At least “Kong” doesn’t waste much time getting to its titular setting, and it doesn’t skimp out on its creatures either. The film boasts numerous creative monsters, snarling, snapping, seething their way on the screen. They provide the most satisfying moments of wonder, and absolutely share as much screentime as Kong, who, oddly enough, seems almost like a sidelined character in his own story at times.

But when he isn’t, the film’s most glorious shots (many of them prominently featured in marketing) unfold, like the ape king blocking out a huge sun in the vein of “Apocalypse Now” as he keeps watch over his territory, or as he lumbers morosely through valleys, the world’s deadliest loner.

“Kong: Skull Island” takes place in 1973, and it very much embraces its time period with hazy, napalm-colored horizons, a Rolling Stones-infused soundtrack, and even the relevant themes of paranoia. It’s all here.

While “Kong’s” aesthetic is consistent, the film’s tone isn’t. At times a full-on B-movie romp, at others an adventure film, and other points still a darkly gritty tale of revenge, “Kong” takes on more than we really ask it to, an unfortunate side effect of its overcrowded human cast (none of which are particularly memorable anyway).

Generally, “Kong: Skull Island” feels fairly unnecessary, the main purpose for its existing being a desire to show the immense scale that modern visual effects can provide. In that sense, I suppose, Kong himself is an appropriate case study, a suitable prop for the effects studio responsible for the film’s spectacle.

It’s tough not to compare “Kong: Skull Island” to its immediate predecessor from 2005: Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which feels like an uber-intimate and more dramatic character study of the monster by comparison to “Skull Island.”

In truth, the two couldn’t be more different. Even their apes look strikingly different. Jackson’s ate bamboo; Vogt-Roberts’ eats the tentacles of a squid that just tried to subdue him.

Whereas Jackson’s film offers a layered portrayal of Kong and his relationship to actress-turned-hostage Ann Darrow, Vogt-Roberts’ take is a much more dumbed-down affair that seeks to amaze through thrills rather than making us feel actual feelings for a 150-foot monkey.

Which is completely fine. In many ways, he accomplishes what he set out to do with “Kong: Skull Island,” though I wish it actually added something to the mythos of the legendary creature. Its high-flying action set pieces are entertaining enough, but its generally non-inventive plot and complete confusion of how to handle its characters almost makes it not worth the trip at all.

 

 

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

2017

Review: ‘Logan’ is a bloodily introspective affair that ends an iconic journey with more of a whimper than a shout of triumph

“X-Men” movies have always been about strength in numbers, finding family where others might just see freaks.

That formula has stayed consistent even with the “stand-alone” Wolverine flicks (which really just mean our favorite mutant teaming up with new allies), and even with the franchise’s first decidedly adult foray in 2016 with Deadpool, as the Merc with a Mouth seeks the help of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

But with “Logan,” the majority of the spotlight shines on Hugh Jackman’s alter ego, providing X-Men fans with an examination of the character 17 years in the making that is as complex as anything we’ve seen so far from the franchise, and perhaps the superhero genre as a whole.

Oh, and yes, there’s blood. Buckets and buckets of it to make up for what seems like 10 movies’ worth of carnage that was still trying to appeal to 10-year-old fans.

Director James Mangold takes care to make sure that the movie’s (much) more mature aesthetic manifests itself in more than just claws ripping endless waves of cronies to shreds. “Logan” also deals with some of the darkest themes of the series, making the so-called isolated and lonely experience of being a mutant at Professor Xavier’s school come off as a paradise.

There, teenage mutants are learning to control their powers by grown-ups who have come to terms with their constant struggle of being different from humanity. In “Logan,” children even younger than those at Xavier’s are making ends meet on their own, trying to survive while being hunted down by humans an age when mutants aren’t born so much as they are manufactured.

That’s the case of the young Laura when she eventually crosses paths with an old and grumpier than usual Logan, hiding out in the borderlands of southern Texas where he doesn’t have to worry about anyone that he doesn’t seem to care about anyway.

logan-trailer-003-1280x533

That even extends to his care of an old Charles Xavier, who is in a much more vulnerable state than we’ve ever seen him, and who seems to have given up on trying to convince Logan that he is meant to be more than the monster he was bred to be.

The duo reside with another mutant caretaker, passing the days with seemingly no end goal save to wait for their own bodies and mutant genes to wear out on them, until Laura gives them one more mission to embark on.

Jackman has stated that this turn as Wolverine is his last, and if that turns out to be the case, he delivers a powerfully nuanced and emotional performance that allows for insight into his character in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s easy to forget about Logan’s internal plight in other X-Men flicks when he’s fighting for something much grander than getting over his own existential crisis, but “Logan” forces you to contemplate the type of person someone becomes when they’ve become used to enduring through violence and rage.

Patrick Stewart also shines as the debilitated Xavier that has some of the best lines of the movie (whoever knew the professor could be this profane?), and Laura is quietly affecting in a largely dialogue-less role.

“Logan” certainly feels much more like a drama than a traditional superhero flick, one which successfully proves that deeper explorations of the genre’s characters and their motives can make for entertaining films, despite this one’s pacing issues. There aren’t any flashy effects, the villains aren’t of a supernatural nature and the world, or what’s left of it, doesn’t necessarily need saving.

However, the fact that Mangold makes character exploration the focus of “Logan” doesn’t mean it’s truly groundbreaking in any way; it simply takes a different narrative route than other superhero movies, albeit one that transcends the genre’s tropes. “Logan” is bold and brutal, but in many ways we only feel like we’re seeing something totally fresh because it’s the first such intimate foray in, or out of, the genre.

The most interesting thing that Mangold’s script delves into is Logan’s strained relationship with his rage and his efforts to control it. Jackman effectively portrays the struggles that Logan must live with in balancing that rage and using it in small doses, before taking the leap and releasing for the good of someone other than himself.

You never got the sense that that was a problem with previous “X-Men” films, but here it represents his internal journey.

Despite focusing more on the character and how he sees the world rather than how the world sees mutants (of which there are only a handful left in the not-so-distant future of the film), “Logan” by many accounts is very standard fare. The script does right by Jackman’s devotion the character, but very little else is there to intrigue us for the film’s 2 hours and 15-minute runtime.

There’s certainly brutal and bloody violence, but that gets to be heavy-handed at some points. The road-trip-across-America is bogged down by some questionable character choices, and with most of the movie’s most interesting backstory — the “how the hell did we get to where we are?” — Mangold wrongfully chooses to tease instead of explain fully.

As far as diverging from the straight-and-narrow path that today’s endless stream of superhero films are released from, “Logan” is a welcome step in the right direction at showing the storytelling possibilities of heroes we’ve come to know and love, but it’s just a start.

Deep introspection of one of those heroes that moviegoers have grown attacked to means showing sides of that character we never really thought about exploring, but by “Logan’s” end, we haven’t really  learned anything new about him. We just see him in his darkest and most dreary state. For some reason, that’s enough for Mangold,  when it isn’t for the audience.

 

“Logan” is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook

Directed by James Mangold

2017

Review: ‘Get Out’ a creepy, comical examination of race

“Get Out” is a film for everyone.

No, that doesn’t mean you should take your kids to see it. Rather, first-time director Jordan Peele brings us a film that is as fresh and smart as it is purely entertaining.

The genius of it all is that you can take it both ways, or just one – take your pick. Do you a want to turn your brain off to a thoroughly satisfying thriller, or engage with a movie on levels that are incessantly thought-provoking?

At a time when the pickings continue to be slim for quality horror and directors are looking for new ways to keep the audience awake at night, Peele pulls a 180 with the genre, blending scares, comedy and social commentary with a dash of searing realism. Bloody and hilarious, “Get Out” paints themes of racial tension and privilege in shades of neon when many other films might settle for a more subtle palette.

Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, the boyfriend to Allison Williams’ Rose Armitage, an interracial couple who shouldn’t seem out of place in 2017. At least Rose thinks so, as she tries to appease Chris’ nerves about going to visit Mr. and Mrs. Armitage, and the way they might react to seeing their white daughter with an African American man.

But Chris’ apprehensions begin to manifest themselves in ways that are so blatant it’s hard to believe Peele isn’t being too imaginative in the early going; he’s putting a microphone on a portion of American society that holds universal prejudices as unacknowledged as they are offensive.

Leave it to Peele – who, in a way, has been preparing this movie for years through his work on “Key and Peele” – to take the filter off that engrained prejudice, before taking the film to unexpected and crowd-pleasing extremes.

Peele isn’t tongue-in-cheek about the subject matter; he goes all in, beginning with an expertly-directed single-take prologue sequence that bluntly foreshadows the territory “Get Out” will eventually veer into. If subtle social statements in film are winks, “Get Out” is 90 minutes of cattle-prodding to the gut.

get-out-620-02

The film is strongest when it goes all out on its horror and comedic elements. In one early sequence, Rose introduces Chris to multiple very privileged white men who don’t hold back on their impressions of him. “Black is in fashion,” one proclaims to Chris, before he tries to find solace in the only other Black people in sight. He soon comes to realize there is something off about that demeanor as well, making him stick out in ways that are uber-uncomfortable.

“Get Out” is suspenseful in ways we’ve seen countless times before, but Peele has such a talent for interweaving searing, smart satire wherever he can that there are several moments that invite both feelings of tension and laughter.

It’s a bit hard, early on, to discern the right moments to do either, but the audience will know soon enough when to fully play into the joke.

The film also works for those who don’t watch their movies experiences with an intellectual perspective. “Get Out” stands out as a tight and taut thriller in its own right, with creepily menacing performances that almost get to be too much to bear before LilRel Howery – playing Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams – provides bellylaughs of comic relief.

It’s a testament to Peele’s craft that the film’s satire on assimilation and ostensibly universally-understood cultural divides comes across not as a call to action, but an emphatic wake-up call to the social situations of those that we might not even not we are marginalizing.

And it makes those statements in a way that is so universally entertaining, that the real horror might just lie in those messages not being recognized at all, until we place it in the context of our own lives and, potentially, our own prejudice

 

“Get Out” is rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references. 

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Directed by Jordan Peele

2017

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑