Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous and deliberate

Like the original, its much more about tone and ponderousness than actual plot

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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%)

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.

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

American Made is lighter, bouncier drug epic

Tom Cruise’s version of the crime anti-hero was never going to be Walter White, but is that such a bad thing?

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%)