Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous and deliberate

Let’s start with the straightforward recommendation part of the discussion here: if you like the original Blade Runner, you will most likely love Blade Runner 2049. The last few years have seen many years-separated sequels come out to huge reception, and the successful ones have taken a variety of routes. Star Wars and Creed, for example, essentially played as tweaked remakes of the originals with the elder characters acting as guides for the new recruits. Trainspotting 2 was directly about the distance in time from the original, a sort of meditation on nostalgia. Mad Max Fury Road took its low-budget roots to high-budget fever pitch, amplifying all its existing elements to eleven.

Blade Runner 2049 is very much made in the same spirit as the original, but the plot links are secondary at best and distracting at worst. They are both movies much more about tone and ponderousness than actual plot, although 2049 is an even more visual movie than the original (which gave us Roy Batty as a fantastic monologue-delivery device). They both stop short of outright explaining what they’re about, but provide a nice amount to chew on and sort out. But, perhaps most remarkably, 2049 manages to stake out new thematic territory. While the original was about what it means to be human, what it means to face a definite mortality, and ramen, 2049 views most of those questions as closed by the original and expands its philosophical space even further. Instead of bothering to question whether the replicants have human feelings, 2049 makes no secret of the fact that Ryan Gosling’s K is both a replicant and a being with desires and wants. Instead, 2049 focuses on, among other things, the importance of personal history, questions of duty and self-autonomy, and most strikingly what makes relationships real. A side plot involving K’s relationship with the holographic software Joi starts off feeling like a minor distraction from the central mystery, but slowly becomes the beating heart of the film, even if its only a couple degrees removed from Her.

That central mystery is where some complaints might arise, as the second half’s need to involve Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard actually ends up significantly distracting from K’s arc, and so many balls are being juggled at a point that the ending can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. But, like the original, plot details matter very little, because the tone is sold so well. Hands down, Blade Runner 2049 is the most beautiful film of the year, and should absolutely lock down the overdue Oscar for cinematographer Roger Deakins. The mystery angle involves a fair amount of trekking across dystopian California, and Deakins and Villeneuve give each location a distinct feel. A deserted sand-covered Las Vegas suddenly takes on the feeling of an Egyptian ruin, only all the monolithic statues are wearing heels, and set the stage for an absolute wonder of a fight scene with intermittent appearances from an Elvis hologram. The protein farms on the outskirts evoke the manufactured landscapes of Burtynsky. A junkyard brawl recalls Children of Men, contrasting strewn metal and dirt with bright red blood. A late scene nearly directly calls back to Drive in its brutality, frigidness, and beach setting. Jared Leto’s villainous millionaire lectures his subjects in a shimmering golden pool, which may be the best Bond villain lair that never was. The sound design and score match perfectly the lackadaisical, exploratory mood, merging the synthy Vangelis score with the unmistakable Hans Zimmer bwahm, along with a more ambient, contemplative core. Given the thematic meat, audio trance, and visual splendor on display, its easy to forgive some wonky plotting.

A-

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, and Harrison Ford
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

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Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous and deliberate

Gerald’s Game bleeds its confined premise for surreal, muted terror

All in all, bed may be the place where the average human accumulates the most terror over the course of their life. It’s where monsters are most capable of getting us when we are kids. Its where we notice changes in our own bodies, and where we awkwardly learn about the bodies of others. Its where we get left to ourselves to stare at the ceiling and replay all our failures, consider all our dreads. But most of all, its where we sleep and where we are vulnerable. It’s where we open our eyes after a bad dream only to find ourselves surrounded in darkness and, for a moment, are left with no guarantee of our safety.

Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, makes expert use of these fears, and is considerably more gripping than its premise suggests. After her husband Gerald takes some role playing a bit too far and dies of a heart attack, Jessie finds herself handcuffed to a bed in a cottage far from home with no way to call for help. Rather quickly, things go south from there, but the film gets surreal as Jessie starts hallucinating. She dreams of past trauma, which comes off a bit stilted and melodramatic at first but pays off with an devastating bedside conversation. She conjures a shoulder angel and devil in the form of doppelgangers of her and Gerald. Some of her visions are much more directly horrifying, notably the bone-carrying Moonlight Man, but everything is played on a mute note, with nary a suddenly screeching violin to be found. It lets the terror settle in and burn into your brain, and when it does go for the jugular with a shockingly gruesome set piece, it was enough to have me biting into a pillow.

Carla Gugino carries the film, selling its quasi-self-actualization message, and Jessie as a character both comments on and dodges the woman-in-chains cliches that might be expected. As Gerald (and moreso as hallucination Gerald), Bruce Greenwood is hypnotic, creating chills through monologue and compellingly whispering about the motives of Death to a dehydrated and dazed Jessie. The movie even manages to capture a very King-like feeling, mixing the creeping supernatural-tinged dread with a complete, well-drawn character study. Unfortunately, the apparently epilogue is an absolute train wreck, but thankfully it is a true epilogue in that it comes after the conclusion of the main action. Gerald’s Game is excellent while it goes, and its high points are among the best of any King adaptation.

B+

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Gerald’s Game (2017)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Starring Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)
On Netflix

Gerald’s Game bleeds its confined premise for surreal, muted terror

American Made is lighter, bouncier drug epic

There’s a lot to be said about American Made from just how it’s being marketed overseas, with an ever-so-slightly different title in Germany — Barry Seal: Only in America. Rather than the ambiguously patriotic US title (the sarcasm in it isn’t exactly screaming off the poster), the European title foregrounds an exasperation with the American system, which the film itself sometimes forgets to do. This is a movie where the main character, Tom Cruise’s Barry Seal, is a weaselly opportunist who takes blatant advantage of a crooked system, and the system that gives him another leg up at every moment. In having Seal act as the narrator and playing into Tom Cruise’s movie-hero persona, American Made occasionally loses sight of the fact that Seal himself is really the villain here, rather than a victim of circumstance. Tom Cruise’s version of the crime anti-hero was never going to be Walter White, but is that such a bad thing? It avoids the depressing and patronizing comedown stage that haunts its genre cousins, such as Blow, instead lending the eventual crash a sense of inevitability. Most importantly, American Made is a lot of fun along the way, with a whirlwind energy and a respectably fleet runtime, as well as the occasional bit of novel weirdness, such as the appearance of Caleb Landry Jones as a burnout brother-in-law or a protracted crash scene which results in Cruise biking away from the authorities with cocaine dust clouds flowing off of him. Anything which provides us with that image has to be worth something.

B+

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American Made (2017)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda, and Domhnall Gleeson
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

American Made is lighter, bouncier drug epic

It clicks once It embraces the weirdness

Kids get scared of the most irrational things. Creepy basements, ugly paintings, black-and-white photographs, clowns. We form fewer irrational fears as adults, but when we re-encounter something that scared us as a kid, we often can’t help but get a little nervous (for what its worth, I still get anxious around aquariums and in the fish aisle of the supermarket). But the key to most of these fears is that they’re imaginary, that our mind outsizes them into terrifying monstrosities. Stephen King’s novel It may be about four hundred pages too long, but it taps into the reader’s imagination just enough to let it take some hints of fear and grow them into pure terror. The reliance on imagination presents a challenge for the film adaptations, where everything must be made literal, and the new It doesn’t always rise to the challenge. But it spins up some macabre fun along the way.

The first act of It mostly lives up to the worst expectations of a horror remake. The opening scene, where little Georgie meets a clown by a sewer grating, is shockingly brutal but inelegant, and that the goriness involves a small child is a bit much (indeed, a few people walked out immediately). Afterwards, as Our Gang of summer-lovin’ kids individually encounter all-to-real manifestation of their fears, It devolves into jump scares with little originality in terms of design (outside of a fantastically creepy painting come to life). However, once the gang comes together, starting by investigating a very clearly haunted house, It really finds its groove and becomes something like a Sam Raimi version of The Goonies.

Anchored by Bill Skarsgard’s performance as a Pennywise the Dancing Clown who indeed dances (and some mostly good CGI), the middle act presents a series of innovative grotesqueries that occasionally scare but consistently amuse. Not coincidentally, this point is also where class clown Richie Tozier (played by Stanger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard) suddenly clicks. Tozier is an annoyance in both the novel and the first movie, a character who is funny because the writer said so rather than actually being funny, but here Richie really works, in a natural, juvenile way. Once It starts having fun with the concept and lets loose, it becomes an absolute joy. And even though It makes no bones about it being the first chapter of a planned two-parter, the first film tells a complete tale and stands on its own as a bloody, R-rated version of Stand By Me.

B

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IT (2017)
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Starring Jaden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, and Bill Skarsgard
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

It clicks once It embraces the weirdness

mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

One of the chief thrills of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is in rooting for the film itself. mother! is wild and wildly ambitious, and veers dangerously close to self-parody many times. With a less sure hand behind it, mother! could be the most mocked movie of the year. Hell, it still might be. But its consistency and intensity amongst the chaos wipe away any complaints about such relative trivialities as logic and narrative structure. mother! is a thrillingly grand experiment, a love-it-or-hate-it experience that I firmly come down on the “love” side of.

Aronofsky purposely withheld almost all information about mother! before its release, and perhaps it is best left that way, as a puzzle to slowly piece together. In that spirit, I won’t discuss the plot, but suffice to say that a literal interpretation of the events of mother! is simply ludicrous. mother! is a metaphor wrapped inside an analogy, and while the metaphor itself could be either tacky or pretentious, its blunt presentation of it pays dividends. While the first act plays out as a chamber drama with metaphysical portents, after a spat between brothers enters the storyline, there’s no mistaking mother! for a literal story. Over the course of two hours, Aronofsky lays out his thesis on human history and human ugliness in the space of a single farmhouse, starting from social rudeness and culminating in mass chaos. The historical and environmental allegories it lays out are obvious but thrilling, while its commentary on partnerships, artistry, and sexism could take multiple viewings to fully unpack.

mother! is assuredly not for everyone. Some will find its allegorical nature obtuse, confounding, or pretentious. Many will find that it goes too far in its last act, which contains a level of violence well beyond what normally makes its way to mainstream cinemas. But as a piece of gonzo filmmaking, mother! is an absolute masterpiece, an unforgettable wackadoo journey through human nature that left me shaken and exhilarated on the way out.

A

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mother! (2017)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERY COMMENT: So, the mother! in question is most likely Mother Nature/Gaia, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, with Javier Bardem’s “Him” being God. The link between the house and our planet is pretty clear, painting humanity as uninvited houseguests who destroy the planet (in probably my favourite small moment, a guest barges into the bathroom and apologizes to Lawrence, saying “Just exploring!”). But does the metaphor fold back unto itself? If God is a inattentive partner and poet laureate, are artists also God to a extent? Is mother! arguing that fan bases destroy the personal world of the artist, with the artist themself as a willing participant in the destruction?

mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

Lethargic Logan Lucky lacks laughs

Logan Lucky, the newest from Steven Soderbergh of the Ocean’s trilogy, tries incredibly hard to not be Ocean’s 11. Instead of flashy suits and waxed hair, the heroes here wear camo pants and trucker hats. Instead of sending a world-class gymnast through a casino vault, they send a bag of gummy bears under a NASCAR speedway. Instead of light jazz constantly in the background, Logan Lucky mostly keeps the music quiet, occasionally injecting a little bit of blues rock. Ocean’s 11 reveled in the excesses of the 1%, while Logan Lucky spends its time in the “forgotten” America. But the most important difference is that the Ocean’s movies, as disposable as they may well be, moved, whereas Logan Lucky is a weirdly muted, low-energy affair. It certainly doesn’t pander to the audience, but given that it doesn’t really succeed as a drama either, a raceway heist movie should certainly be more entertaining than this.

For a movie that at one points gives a ten-year old a spray tan, Logan Lucky is rife with weird tonal mismatches. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Riley Keough all underplay as the titular cursed Logan family, seemingly to avoid rural simpleton stereotypes, but the film also introduces the ne’er do-well Bang brothers who lean heavily into the exact same tropes, including a pretty painful (and, at the end of the day, pointless) conversation about computer skills. The third Bang brother, played by Daniel Craig, certainly gets the best scenes in the movie, but most of those are on display in the trailer. Meanwhile, Hilary Swank shows up after a while with a tone that crosses well into self-parody, and Seth MacFarlane was shockingly allowed on set and even more shockingly allowed to put on a ridiculous British accent. In the astonishly oddly paced leadup to the speedway robbery, we spend some time with MacFarlane and a driver played by Sebastian Stan who calls food “software”, all of which adds up to precisely nothing and contributes precisely zero to the mood, comedy, or energy of the film.

This is a film in search of itself at every step, as it has all the ingredients in play to actually be a good bit of fun. As a comedy, it has a couple good scenes (the aforementioned gummy bears pay off well, and a Game of Thrones-related negotiation is a deadpan work of art), but swings and misses obviously far too often. As a heist, it leaves open too many plot holes by its end, which would be forgivable if it was more fun along the way. As an ode to rural America as told through heisting, Hell or High Water explored the same ground to much greater effect last year. As a portrait of a particular family at a particular time, it betrays its chance to make a point in its last five minutes in a really feeble attempt to give the audience something to cheer for. Logan Lucky just sits there, playing itself out without really caring if we’re with it or not.

Hell, at least Joe Bang is one hell of a character name.

D+

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Logan Lucky (2016)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, and Daniel Craig
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Lethargic Logan Lucky lacks laughs

Atomic Blonde is a spy-action mishmash

How much can you recommend a movie on the basis of a single scene? At the start of the third act, Atomic Blonde presents a truly masterful action setpiece, a brutal stairway fight between super-spy Charlize Theron and a pack of communist goons, shot in a brutal and clear long take. The scene must last for about ten minutes, and it alone redeems Atomic Blonde, which is otherwise a bit of a mess. The Berlin Wall backdrop and spray-paint punk aesthetic lend themselves to an anarchist or revolutionary spirit that the main plot and action never live up to. The plot is absolute cold-war spy nonsense, a series of thing that happen to illogical ends. This would be fine if it had some colorful characters, but even though Theron gives an amazing physical performance and James McAvoy gets some good lines in the early going, none of the supporting cast really pops at all. Even the action scenes are fairly middling, outside of the aforementioned stairway brawl. They are all fluid and well choreographed, but rarely exciting in the same pulse-pounding way that John Wick, director David Leitch’s previous, was. It also relies annoyingly heavily on ’80s pop cuts to score the film, but the intended tonal whiplash in certain scenes (such as 99 Red Balloons over a skateboard beatdown) isn’t so much jarringly misanthropic as juvenile, and the choices in the action scenes never gel as well as they do in something like Guardians of the Galaxy. But there is that central scene, ten minutes of pure violent ecstasy. It’s almost worth a rental for that alone.

C-

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Atomic Blonde (2017)
Directed by David Leitch
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, and John Goodman
Rotten Tomatoes (74%)

Atomic Blonde is a spy-action mishmash