Review: Blade Runner 2049

•October 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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In a film industry that is increasingly obsessed with cinematic universes, one crucial detail seems to go by the wayside. The idea of world building is not to explicitly set up endless tangential narratives, but simply to imply them. Enter an environment, and any direction will unveil a new journey. Thus, even as a non devotee, it’s nearly impossible to dismiss the impact of Blade Runner on science fiction cinema. While the characters and narrative could use more heft, the world around them is exquisitely conceived, and so many films since owe their existence to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film. Why then return to this world decades later given the seminal reputation of the original? As it turns out, the world and ideas of Blade Runner were merely the tip of the iceberg, and the explorations of personal identity and even the future of mankind steer Blade Runner 2049 into uncharted territory.

Thirty years after the events of Blade Runner, all replicants have been outlawed, save for a few that work under strict supervision for the LAPD. The last breed of replicants were Nexus 8’s, still hunted by blade runners, and now the Tyrell corporation has been absorbed by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whose synthetic beings are known as angels. Wallace has nearly perfected the construction of these creations, but one essential piece eludes him, an element that may unlock the next steps of securing humanity’s destiny. When LAPD detective Agent K (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a secret hidden on a remote Californian farm, the very fabric of civilization threatens to be torn apart, and the only man who may have answers is the long disappeared Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Where the original film used the familiar tropes of noir to navigate its dazzling environments and intriguing themes, the sequel ups the quotients of both exponentially. Blade Runner 2049 both deepens and expands the world, taking us to locales beyond Los Angeles, and introducing us to vital new characters. Agent K is at the very core of the story, but to discuss his personal sympathies here risks unveiling some of the key conflicts in the film. Suffice to say Ryan Gosling is absolutely perfect for the part and for the world of the film. Gosling is one of those rare talents who is capable of being a genuinely charismatic movie star and a tremendously refined actor. Much of Agent K’s story is an interior one, and Gosling coveys so much by doing very little. K has a relationship with a female character named Joi (Ana de Armas), and while the nature of their interactions is another neat feature of the film, it’s arguably the film’s least successful. Leto’s Wallace is judiciously used, but the few scenes he appears in have both a startling and ethereal impact. Surprisingly, the film loses a bit of its mystique once Deckard firmly enters the picture. Enjoying a career resurgence by resurrecting the characters that made him famous, Ford is nevertheless as reliable as ever, adding shades of pathos in resonant moments. The particulars of what happened to Deckard are appropriately ambiguous, but his and K’s shared path ends up being a bit too concrete for the film’s ultimate conclusion.

The film’s most valuable asset is director Denis Villeneuve, who has injected much of his past work with thematic ambiguity. With Blade Runner 2049, he rises to new technical and artistic heights. He and director of photography Roger Deakins provide the film with a jaw dropping sense of scale, yet also a consummate precision. There are dozens of images in this film that appear alien at first, until a change in composition or camera tilt reveals new layers. Misdirection is a major strength of Villeneuve’s, drawing the audience’s attention in one area, only to suddenly or gradually shift in another direction. Though the future may be drab and dystopian, Deakins’ near monochromatic color palette plays perfectly into its visualization. At over 160 minutes in length, the film requires a commitment of focus, but the pacing and mood are appropriately intoxicating. Though it is a big budget franchise sequel, Blade Runner 2049 draws more from art house cinema in its tone and texture than from most other Hollywood efforts. There are only a few action beats, and while they’re fairly well executed, the meditative passages are the most affecting. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score also progresses and departs from the Vangelis score, while never fully arriving to the same haunting impact.

If the original was the appetizer, Blade Runner 2049 is the main course. It draws upon the thematic elements that defined the original, and progresses them forward by leaps and bounds. Yes, there are a few missteps, and the narrative wraps up with surprising conclusiveness, but once again, the draw comes from the world itself. Los Angeles 2049 isn’t so much a place one wants to visit as it is a space of mind to inhabit. That is the true miracle of the possibility of world building.

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Review: Logan Lucky

•August 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Steven Soderbergh can make movies in his sleep. Liberated from the need to make “important” or “prestige” fare, he dives into whatever genre fascinates him at any given time, and leaves his stamp on it. With the latest venture in his versatile career, he takes the crackerjack spirit of his Ocean’s films and injects it into the South. The result is Logan Lucky, a loose and freewheeling ride that may lack tension and stakes to its narrative, but is chocked full of colorful characters.

Natives of West Virginia, the Logans are a hobbled bunch, cursed with a family history of accidents and bad luck. The latest setback has fallen on Jimmy (Channing Tatum), fired from his construction job in Charlotte, North Carolina, on account of a limp that can’t be covered by insurance. He’s a loving father, but his divorcee wife (Katie Holmes), plans to move across state lines, his ability to afford getting to see his daughter dwindles. Fortunately, Jimmy sees an opportunity, in pulling a heist at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the location from where he had just been fired. Familiar with the underground tunnel system that leads to a vault, he enlists the help of his military veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver), his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), and most importantly, imprisoned convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). Thus commences an unconventional sceheme that will almost certainly go awry, but may end up rehabilitating the Logans’ reputation.

Where Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films are about professional criminals, the crew of Logan Lucky is a patchwork of personalities. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver make terrific brothers, both nailing West Virginian accents, and providing good foils from each other. Tatum’s easygoing movie star charm butts up against Driver’s more insular focus, and the comedy often comes as much from silences as from punchlines. As Joe Bang, Daniel Craig completely goes against his hard nosed tendencies, opting to play boisterous mischief and shrewd intellect in equal measure. Rounding out the gang are the siblings, with Riley Keough’s Mellie Logan begrudging her brothers’ outlandish plans, a pair of dim witted Bang brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson) that have Joe’s implicit trust.

For a film that ostensibly carries a wealth of plot intricacies, Logan Lucky is a pretty laid back affair. Indeed, the narrative goes on more than a few twists and turns, from a prison breakout, to the central heist itself, and the eventual involvement of law enforcement, headed by Special Agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank). Yet the film doesn’t seem in any rush to move the plot from one scenario to the next. The approach is a bit of a double edged sword. The stakes to the heist are relatively low, and therefore, there’s no ticking clock and only a few moments of genuine surprise or urgency. While this detracts from some occasionally needed tension, the relaxed tone benefits the ensemble. Soderbergh has always been proficient at executing a good narrative, but digging into characters can be more rewarding. With Soderbergh’s technical fundamentals as assured as ever (he’s both his own cinematographer and editor), perhaps it’s fitting that the rebellious Logan Lucky is reflective of the director himself, free to follow (or ignore) whatever rules he wants.

Review: Detroit

•July 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Just last week, the President of the United States stood before a large gathering of law enforcement officers and made some none too subtle remarks encouraging police brutality. It seems the present still has much to learn from the past. While this country still strives for a more perfect union, it must do so by acknowledging the deep wounds of the decades and centuries prior. As racial tensions remain a major facet of life in America, it’s worth looking back as how history repeats itself. In the 1960s, Detroit was as racially inflamed a city as any in the country. As riots escalated, African Americans often found themselves in the hands of law enforcement, often for committing no wrongdoing. A major moment in the Detroit race riots came in 1967 at the Algiers Hotel, as depicted in Kathryn Bigelow’s new film. While searingly depicted in Bigelow’s confident docudrama style, the situation is played more for the polarities between right and wrong, and perhaps less for the moral ambiguities that simmer beneath the surface.

The incident at the Algiers Hotel resulted in the deaths of three African American men and is depicted in the film from three crucial points of view. The first comes from Larry Reed (Algee Smith), a talented singer and part of the up and coming group The Dramatics, who ends up at the hotel after a canceled performance. Will Poulter plays Detroit police officer Philip Krauss, whose thinly veiled racism reaches its boiling point that night. The third perspective comes from Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a local security guard who finds himself caught in the mayhem and tension, torn by moral choices. Detroit provides some background on each man from slices of their day to day lives, but their paths cross that night when gunshots are heard coming from the hotel. Police and national guardsmen surround the building, and in the ensuing chaos a man is killed. Completely sure that a weapon is hidden among the hotel patrons, Krauss begins resorting to violent and terrifying tactics. Though totally innocent, Reed is both helpless and horrified, while Dismukes is unwittingly put in an impossible position, in which he must both assist the reckless cops, and protect those who are blameless.

For a film that parallels the present in startling ways, Detroit has a wealth of setup before arriving at the pivotal central event at the Algiers. The film opens with an animated sequence portraying the conditions that fostered discrimination in the 1960s, but it belabors the point a bit much. Much more effective is the film’s first live action scene, in which dozens are arrested at an underground club, inciting rioting and violence from those passing by. Bigelow’s immediacy and on the fly staging of the scene and subsequent riots gives the film a vital veracity of emotion. This tension is brought to its most wrenching levels in the Algiers Hotel, a sequence that seems to last for at least an hour. While the film makes clear the lines between moral and immoral, the quandaries in between aren’t fully explored. There’s no mistaking the despicable acts that the police commit, nor the sheer terror of those being needlessly antagonized and assaulted. The aftermath of the event ripples major aftershocks out to all those involved, but it’s the eyes of Boyega’s Dismukes that carry the most resonance. An anchor of decency throughout, Dismukes is suddenly thrown into a tempest of emotion in the third act, simply by having been present at the Algiers Hotel that night. We’re never sure what, if any, kind of resolution he found, but perhaps that’s the point. After bearing witness to such horror, is it ever possible for solace to arrive?