Tag Archives: Film

The Florida Project

Rating: 4 out 5 stars (excellent)

Director: Sean Baker

Cast: Bria Vinaite, Brooklyn Prince, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Willem Dafoe

Synopsis: Orlando’s Disneyland is the American Dream, a vivid mirage of luxury enticing people from every nation. Beyond that fleeting dream where tourists fail to look, are motels full of desperate people living week to week before they have to move on. 6 year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live outside the Disney fantasy. Through Moonee’s eyes, we see her fragile life break down over one long summer break.

The Florida Project is a documentary wrapped inside a drama. The events are fictitious but the people who live in this forgotten corner of America are real enough. In 2014 I volunteered in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Every second weekend was spent in a roadside motel outside of Asheville. Besides the straggle of unfortunate tourists and Mexican workers, the motel’s patrons were people who had nowhere else to go and would wind up sleeping in the alcove of McDonald’s when their money disappeared. Poverty is an eternal and ubiquitous problem. In Europe, we have a smug disdain for America’s inequalities, forgetting that we had the same problem until 70 years ago and to some extent still do. In The Florida Project, director Sean Baker has created an unflinching portrait of America’s poor and forgotten which neither fetishises nor patronises its subjects. Through Sean Baker’s lens, the inhabitants of the Magic Castle and beyond are just people getting by.

Baker’s Tangerine is a film that I have ashamedly not watched. I do remember the film, shot on iphone 5s and with mainly ordinary people playing the roles, being lauded upon release for its realism. The Florida Project continues Tangerine’s legacy, dissolving the fourth wall into a blurred pulp of reality and performance. Bria Vinaite is an untrained actress headhunted through Instagram. The children in the film are actors with only a few previous credits between them. The intermingling of young talent, untrained actors and season performers creates surreal yet beautiful moments where events might be scripted, improvised or the actors just being themselves. It is charming to watch Halley and Magic Castle’s manager Bob (Willem Defoe) arguing until suddenly both begin to snicker like old friends.

Baker lets his performers be themselves, especially the children. The young stars behave before the camera with the unfettered confidence of youth, running off-script and simply speaking their minds like children do. Earlier this year, charming animated french film My Life as a Courgette  broached the dark adult world through a child’s eyes, and The Florida Project does much the same. Awash with incandescent violent and popping orange, the children’s summer is a frolic through mysterious new lands as they run past the neon signs and cartoon figures of motels and gift shops. Their innocence lends both warmth and poignancy to later events as Halley increasingly struggles to keep her and Moonee sheltered.

Willem Defoe may deliver his best performance as Bob. Defoe does not need words to show Bob’s conflict between his job and his desire to help the Magic Castle’s residents, especially the children. Caring and fatherly to Moonee and her friends, Bob becomes slowly crushed by an uncaring world, much like Halley.

The Florida Project’s pacing falters for the final twenty minutes but does not detract from the film’s engrossing story or social message.

Thanks to A24 for supporting the unusual and the innovative like Ghost Story and Good Time. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

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Wheelman

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Indebted to Boston’s West End mob, wheelman (Frank Grillo) serves as a getaway driver until a job turns sour at the hands of a mysterious caller. A small budget film picked up by Netflix, Wheelman carves a space for itself in a genre overshadowed by Drive, Baby Driver and Thief.  The film’s speed turns Wheelman into a giddy joyride, glancing attention away from the plot’s pastiche of generic crime thriller tropes.

Written and directed by Jeremy Rush, Wheelman is a crime thriller which tinkers with the genre. The confined world of wheelman’s car permeates claustrophobia like Phone Booth, while the camera’s fixed presence in the car borrows from Locke. Yet Wheelman provides its own take on both of these ideas. In Locke, the story is one man and a telephone. The car is the conference room where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) makes his calls. In Wheelman, the car is put to better use, becoming both a stage and a lens into the world. Characters enter the car, causing the world to feel more inhabited than Phone Booth. The presence of other characters creates some great moments as friend or foe sit beside wheelman in this cramped space. In the opening shot and later, outside events are framed behind the car’s front seats, adding a voyeuristic sense that you are in the back seat watching all unfold.

Visually, the camera’s constraints add realism to wheelman’s panicked dash around night-time Boston, while zoomed shots of the car flash with neon colours from the streets. Music is sparingly used in Wheelman, with silence or the car’s roaring engine filling the scene. However, the pulsing soundtrack by Brooke Blair and Will Blair ratchets up the tension in the right moments.

The plot follows what is expected from a crime thriller, but distinguishes itself through great performances and some clever tricks. The editing style is a rapid burst of quick shots across the car as though the camera, just like wheelman, is beginning to panic under pressure. A loop of calm jazz, better suited to a hotel elevator, constantly plays in the background when the mystery caller telephones wheelman, projecting the villain’s menace and dominance. Bank robber ‘mother fucker’ (Shea Whigman) and wheelman’s criminal associate Clay (Garret Dilahunt) both spend time in the car, providing humourous dialogue and extra tension during their appearances. Although the plot quickly becomes chaotic,  Wheelman slowly builds suspense through terse conversations with the mystery caller, causing me to jump back when bullets pop through the car windshield 30 minutes into the film.

Wheelman’s strength is Frank Grillo’s performance as the anonymous wheelman. Grillo’s rugged demeanour and animated toughness lends a credibility to the character, even when the plot predictably devolves into showing wheelman’s softer side. Having starred in The Purge sequels and been a brief character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Wheelman is Frank Grillo’s star vehicle.

For a film I downloaded on a whim for a long train ride, Wheelman was a pleasant surprise. I recommend it for anyone looking for a good, uncomplicated thriller to fill a lull in the weekend.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Tears in Rain: A World Repeating

* Spoilers below for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049*

Saying goodbye to Blade Runner 2049

I felt compelled to watch Blade Runner 2049 one more time. When the eye opens to behold a fractal of solar farms repeating across Californian fields, Blade Runner 2049 ascended from mere story into an experience, one to be savoured in the cinema before it disappears.

In revisiting Blade Runner 2049 last week, a line from the original Blade Runner circled my mind.

‘All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain’

A nihilistic statement about human impermanence spoken by dying replicant leader Roy Batty; after a fraught cat and mouse game between him and blade runner Deckard through a crumbling L.A. apartment block. Having won the fight and Deckard bound to fall to his death from the rain soaked rooftop, Roy saves Deckard. Reflecting on what he has witnessed as his four year lifespan reaches its end, Roy’s soliloquy reframes his struggle for a longer life into the most human desire, to have enough time leave a mark on the world.

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Deckard saved by Roy

Staring at the ensuing erosive tide of eternity, we distance our mortality through legacy like a raft amid darkened storms. The physical shell dissolves into a husk but a part of what we were remains on this plane, even if just for a moment longer. Accepting death, Roy saves Deckard in a last bid to remain in this world through the memories of another.

A World Repeating

Surveying Blade Runner 2049, Roy’s words have been proven wrong. The world of 2049 is seared by the actions of Blade Runner in 2019. After the murder of the replicants’ creator Tyrrel by Roy’s hand, the Tyrrel pyramid once the apex of the L.A. skyline lies dark and dormant. Replicants now have embedded memories just like Rachael, an experimental Nexus-7 replicant. Assumedly, the Blade Runners have been eventually replaced with replicants due to Deckard’s flight from L.A.

Observing Tyrrel’s dead pyramid for a second time in Blade Runner 2049, the perspective is changed. Looking from the ground up,  the palace has become the cornerstone for the headquarters of Tyrrel’s successor, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Layering the new atop the old, Blade Runner 2049 is the reincarnate of the world and the people from 2019.

The marks of  Blade Runner’s 2019 still linger in the physical space of 2049. Tyrrel’s pyramid is silent and the L.A.P.D. remains, anchoring the two worlds together by the thread of action and consequence. Yet in the characters of Blade Runner 2049 do the echoes from 2019 meld together. Created by Wallace to be his assistant, Luv embodies the polar extremes of replicants in Blade Runner. Luv is both Rachael and Roy, caring and cruel, childlike yet ruthless. She can be devotedly attentive, caring for the crazed industrialist Wallace even when he disembowels a newborn replicant. For those who cross her, Luv is a sadistic monster, shedding tears as she kills and cruelly toying with victims before death.

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Luv attacks

The parallels between industrialist Niander Wallace and Blade Runner‘s Eldon Tyrrel are clear. Industrialists who save humanity from crisis through invention. Tyrrel’s replicants propel humanity to the stars and Wallace’s synthetic farms keep Earth’s civilisation alive following environmental collapse. Fathers to the replicants, the pair are gods flawed by vision. Tyrell is a god of wisdom distracted by hubris. His eyes, bulging in their thick glasses, have the appearance of seeing but his pyramid is an ivory tower, obscuring Tyrrel’s understanding of what the replicants are. Wallace is a crazed oracle, accepting that replicants are the slaves to build a new human civilisation, he is literally blinded by his prophecy of spreading mankind far beyond the solar system. Tyrrel and Wallace may or may not see the replicants for what they are, but both are in the rut of complacency of the master, to believe that the slave will never rise up.

Not Heroes: Deckard and K

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Madam forewarns the breaking of the wall and the world

Writing this piece was partially inspired by a Washington Post article about Blade Runner 2049 by Alyssa Rosenberg. The article is an interesting read but what sparked my attention was the title;

Blade Runner 2049 is about learning that you are not the main character in your own story.’

Speaking after finding Rachael Tyrell, L.A police chief Madam confides in K, saying

‘The world is built on a wall that separates a kind, tell either side there is no wall, you’re brought a war.’

The world of Blade Runner is the wall, the barricade between replicant and man. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 are one conflict, each side pushing at the boundary entrapping the other, be it a life longer than four years or the gift of children. Deckard and K, pawns from the beginning dragged unwillingly into a larger fight. Deckard is forced from retirement during Blade Runner to draw out Roy and the other rogue Nexus-6 models. K is commanded to destroy all traces of Tyrrel’s secret of replicant reproduction. Deckard is almost a villain in Blade Runner as he coldly tracks down the escaped Nexus-6 models. After every killing, the replicants become more human and childlike. In Blade Runner 2049, Deckard is not the wise man who can answer K, but an old outlaw hiding in the bones of a dead city, pursued for what he knows rather than for any threat he poses.

Against the foreground of Blade Runner’s events, Deckard and K are the heroes of their own stories. They are two characters from different sides walking towards the wall. Finding the wall absent, each discover their humanity. Both begin their long walk towards the wall assured of the structure of the world and their place within it. Deckard firmly believes he is human and that replicants are simple machines, until meeting Rachel and almost being killed by Roy. In finding love with Rachel, Deckard questions his assumptions about replicants and whether he is indeed human. Deckard’s crisis about his own existence is clearer in Phillip. K. Dick’s ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’, but it is still present in Blade Runner. Rachael is the catalyst for Deckard’s doubt about himself, remaining silent when Rachael asks if he has ever performed the Voight Kampff test on himself. By Blade Runner 2049, Deckard no longer distinguishes between human and replicant. When asked by K whether his dog is synthetic Deckard replies;

‘Ask him what he thinks.’

Deckard’s response repeats the understanding  he briefly flashes in a slow blink as Roy quietly dies at Blade Runner’s end. For Deckard, he finds his humanity through love, through empathy, in connecting with the replicants he has hunted so very well for so long.

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K gets to hold the hand of someone he loves, Joi

The mirrored reflection of Deckard, K walks from the opposite side towards the wall. If Deckard finds his humanity through discovery, K finds his humanity through loss. Deckard finds connection to the rest of the world, while K wants to be connected. A Nexus-9 designated to hunt the outlawed Nexus-8’s, K initially accepts he is a machine, telling Morton Sapper when asked if he likes ‘scraping shit’ that;

‘We new models don’t run.’

In K’s world, life is one where ‘Joi’ is an illusion and ‘Luv’ is a monster. The baseline K is routinely subjected to tests whether he has begun to see himself as human. The faults the test searches for are the desires we take for granted: ‘to be interlinked’; to hold the hand of a loved one, to be part of a family. Each question asked in the baseline are desires K hides even to himself. Desire make replicants human. For Roy it was legacy, for K it is love, to feel connected to the world. Believing himself to be Rachael’s child, K desperately searches for Deckard, asking him about the mother he never had and why Deckard left.

Rooftop Revelation

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K and Joi one more time

It is K’s A.I. girlfriend Joi that makes him believe he is unique, encouraging the search for Deckard and renaming K ‘Joe’. After losing Joi, K discovers he is the decoy, the replicant implanted with the fabled child’s memories. Rescued and tasked with eliminating Deckard by the replicant resistance, K encounters a gigantic sexualised version of Joi on a rooftop.

For Deckard and K, clarity comes atop the summit. Deckard is raised up from death by Roy, now Christlike with a nail driven through his palm, while K gets to see Joi one more time while staring at the city from a rooftop.  By calling him ‘Joe’ again, Joi’s programming makes K realise that he does not need uniqueness to be a person, to be connected. Raising Deckard’s pistol, K chooses his own path. K saves Deckard and the two men wash up from the water, arriving together at the wall which divides the world, cutting L.A. from the oceans beyond.

By sacrificing himself, K just like Roy connects himself to something greater, love and legacy. For many of us, our only legacy will be loved ones, the family that remain after we fade like tears in rain.

By Saul Shimmin

I have written more about Blade Runner here. If you have yet to see Blade Runner 2049, hopefully our review can persuade you.

Thor: Ragnarok

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis:  Subversively self-aware and willingly self-deprecating, Thor: Ragnarok is for those who are bored or dismissive of superhero films. A Taika Waititi film throughout, Thor: Ragnarok bristles with a dry New Zealand sarcasm which caused my laughter to fill a dead multiplex on a Tuesday afternoon.

Under the cartel of Marvel, Disney, D.C and Warner Brothers, the superhero genre has become the soap opera of cinema. Throwaway stories whose heroes, villains, and dangers are interchangeable parts to be switched around. Each story is a predictable, comfortable clone of what came before and what will come next in the sequence. Seeing the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, these companies have tried to emulate the Nolan brothers’ work. Deprived of any finality, the frame of endless sequels fails to match the empathy or sense of attachment which The Dark Knight trilogy invoked, instead becoming garbled trains of self induced seriousness robbed of any pathos or realism.

Thor: Ragnarok harks back to the despicably underrated Mystery Men starring Ben Stiller, William. H. Macy and one of the best ever attacks on a villain’s limo. For both films, superheroes are just fantasies to be enjoyed as such, beings which would be completely alien to the rest of us if they existed.

Despite still having to clunkily tromp to Marvel’s beat of secret, revelation and post-credit teaser like a chained circus bear, Thor: Ragnarok did not care whether I became invested or attached. Instead, the film presents itself as a good time, a head spinning adventure full of gags, fuelled by the mad vibrancy of Jack Kirby’s comic books. The approach makes Thor: Ragnarok the best Marvel film so far, a colourful trip to be enjoyed for all its jokes, adventures, neon vividness, and thrilling synth soundtrack.

Waititi’s brand of zany humour pervades the film, delving into a meta narrative prodding fun at the seriousness of superhero films today. Much of the humour comes from ‘The Master’ (Jeff Goldblum), ruler of a borderland planet caught between wormholes, and in particular Korg. Voiced by director Taika Waititi himself, Korg’s calm demeanour of a ‘South Auckland Maori bouncer’ clashes with his towering pastel blue rock body and revolutionist tendencies. Poking through the fourth wall, Korg’s naivete leads to comments of both deep insight and awkwardness, garnering him laughs whenever present. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) benefit from changes to their characters. The film plays up their detachment from the real world, giving them a bumbling almost child-like approach to problems when they arise. Thor is a meathead with a heart of gold, with Hemsworth’s deadpan delivery of lines causing a lot of laughs both with and at Thor himself.

Mark Ruffalo excels as ever in his role as the Hulk and Cate Blanchett develops a funny bone as villain Helas. It is always great to see Karl Urban, an actor who remains underrated despite his roles in The Lord of the Rings, The Bourne Supremacy and his lead in Dredd. The real surprise character was Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), she is strong yet goofy like the rest of the cast but also has a moving back story.

Waititi and company are hopefully being thanked by Marvel for reviving a dead segment of their franchise. The last Thor film, Thor: The Dark World is a plane movie as defined by Tom Waits, where the film could only ever find an audience in a trapped container speeding at high altitude. That is how I watched the previous Thor film, while on a creaking Boeing 747 transatlantic flight to North Carolina squished between snoring businessmen and howling babies. The four year wait for Thor: Ragnarok was well used. Not since Anchorman 2 has a film caused me to uncontrollably laugh in the cinema.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

P.S: Tom Waits is also in Mystery Men, another reason to watch the trailer below:

 

The Death of Stalin

Film Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Synopsis: In the wake of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s sudden death, a power struggle begins in the upper echelons of Russia. Armando Iannucci brings his style of political satire from Veep and The Thick of It to his directorial debut.

To observe the interminable everyday evil under Stalin is to collide with farce. An orchestra collapses into a throng of panicked intellectuals when Stalin calls, while starving peasants arriving from the street listen obliviously to Mozart. Against the backdrop of the NKVD stealing people from their homes and causing son to denounce father, the soviet elite are tucked away in Stalin’s dacha, drinking, playing pranks and watching John Ford films. In modern times where ‘strongmen’ rule over Russia, America, China and elsewhere, The Death of Stalin forewarns the destruction such leaders and their followers can cause.

For a comedy, The Death of Stalin depicts life under Stalin with the fidelity of a documentary. Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin has not been well received in Russia. The film unflinchingly gazes at a chapter of Russian history which Putin has slowly redacted into something twisted and sanitised. Officers enter prison cells followed by the pop of a pistol while their chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) takes another of his victims away.

The Death of Stalin shatters the slick oil portraits of Stalin and equally attacks the pedicured images of the entourage behind him: A ring of sycophants, vying for the leader’s attention, while longing for his death and an end to the terror which has loomed over them. They all arrive to Stalin’s dacha like bad actors in a worn Greek tragedy, boasting their grief rather than helping their still living leader. Once the power struggle begins, the film is a mix between Iannucci’s usual observations of hushed plans between politicians and an exquisite dance concocted by Laurel and Hardie. The surviving Soviet leadership each hunger for power, but jostle and bumble to maintain appearances, with each competition becoming sillier than the next. A darkly deadpan thread of humour pervades the film, reminiscent of how The Lobster stared at the sickening until it became funny.

The strength of the Anglo-American cast gathered for The Death of Stalin attests to Armando Iannucci’s work on both sides of the Atlantic. Alongside Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi are British actors who deserve greater global recognition, especially Paul Whitehouse who terrifically plays Anastas Mikoyan. Molotov (Michael Palin) is a true believer, tottering around like an embattled veteran and idolising Stalin despite all he has suffered. Unintentionally but rather comically, Paul Chahidi’s appearance as Nikolai Bulganin has an eerie physical resemblance to Colonel Sanders, albeit far from the safe lands and fried poultry of Kentucky. My favourite was General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Unlike the rest of the soviet elite who prance around seising power, Zhukov is honest about what he wants. Zhukov’s soldierly bluntness casts Khrushchev and company as the sheep they are, while netting him both attention and laughs.

The film’s arc begins and ends with the Moscow State orchestra. The musicians have marshalled and play Mozart once more, but only one pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) plays confidently. Maria alone denounces Stalin before his death. Maria’s constancy is contrasted against the charade of Beria’s and Kruschev’s reforms, which were attempts to seize power and stay alive. Maria’s presence amid the chaos and evil which unfolds in The Death of Stalin reminds us how men cast in all political systems can become so dangerously divorced from morality.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

 

Mother!

 

Film Score: 3.5 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and him, a famous poet (Javier Bardem) live in seclusion at their country home until a stranger, simply called man (Ed Harris) arrives. Mother! twists biblical allegories into a horrifying condemnation of religion and humanity.

Mother! is an ordeal to watch. Following a viewing of the film last week, I remained slumped in my seat once the credits began, drained and disgusted by what had unfolded. The closest work to Mother! that I have experienced is F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Reaching the novel’s conclusion, I felt so enraged at the characters that I began to hate the story itself, and that was the point. Fitzgerald wanted the reader to hate the people and the system that Great Gatsby focused upon. Mother! like The Great Gatsby, is a statement spread through shock. Mother! evokes such a visceral emotional reaction that the disgust it gleefully creates reflects towards the film itself. A week after viewing, I am not eager to ever see Mother! again.

Director and writer Darren Aronofsky’s surrealist style takes a harrowingly Hitchcockian turn in Mother!  When the film begins, the world of Mother! is two steps away from reality. An appearance of normalcy exists but a strangeness is always present. The house appears modern but every implement from the refrigerator to mother’s medication are approaching one hundred years old. Before the walls begin to bleed, Aronofsky flags that nothing is right in Mother! The camera nauseatingly spins between rooms and strangers gaze at mother like fixated alligators sizing up their prey. A menace looms over mother but it is never quantified, letting imagination shape the abstract threat and causing Mother! to become deeply terrifying. Nearing the film’s final act I averted my gaze when mother was alone in a room and slices of white noise began to play.

The dutiful and besotted mother rebuilds the house and tends to her husband, him, played by Javier Bardem, an actor known for playing villains since his role as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Although not a traditional villain, ‘him’ is Bardem at his most unsettling. Complacent towards his wife, he deflects mother’s questions about the strangers arriving at their home. Bardem reveals no emotions despite mother’s despair, suggesting that he has orchestrated these events while Aronofsky’s focus on Bardem in these scenes morphs him into a devilish figure.

Jennifer Lawrence is commendable as mother but the role stops being a performance and becomes a feat of endurance in the second act. Similar to Leonardo Dicaprio’s role as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, character development is replaced by a series of ordeals which mother goes through. Personally, the real star of Mother! was Michelle Pfeiffer as the ‘woman’, the wife of man, played by Ed Harris. Appearing unexpectedly, Pfeiffer relishes in woman’s Eve-esque demeanour of temptation and manipulation as she toys with mother through feigned warmth and outright prying. Domhnall Gleeson alongside his brother Brian Gleeson both have a brief but memorable role as the two sons of man. Domhnall dominates the screen during his appearance as the black sheep of the family, incarnating the biblical character his role is based on.

Mother! is an ordeal to watch, and that is both its strength and weakness. Over halfway into the film my tolerance was completely spent. Persistence and my wristwatch is what got me through the remaining fifty minutes while others in the screen quietly departed. Cinema can and should push viewers, but personally Aronofsky overran my limit in terms of length, not content. Enough had happened by over halfway that I was ready for the ending to arrive. Mother! shares the same problem as A Ghost Story albeit more pronounced. Both films, ensconced by the themes they pursue, are addled with moments of dead time where little, if anything, makes sense. Mother! is more afflicted by this problem, at times feeling like a student theatre play plugging holes in the plot with provocation.

Mother! will be picked apart in the ensuing decades by film student and film critic alike, it is a rewarding film but often not an enjoyable one.

If I had to recommend one film in cinemas currently, it would still be Blade Runner 2049.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

 

Blade Runner 2049

Film Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Synopsis: This review deliberately omits any real details of the plot, because Blade Runner 2049 is best enjoyed with all its twists unknown, just like the journey Ridley Scott first offered to viewers thirty five years ago.

Watching Blade Runner’s final cut at the B.F.I. two years ago was the closest I have come to having a religious experience. I still remember digging my fingers into the armchair as the camera swooped down onto the rooftop of the L.A.P.D. building while Vangelis’ haunting synthetic score rose to a crescendo. Blade Runner 2049 begins with a literal eye opening once more that surveys the surreal landscape of a future Los Angeles, born from Phillip. K. Dick’s Cold War vision and Ridley Scott’s direction. Once more the same euphoria washed over me as a car fluttered across the screen and pushed back the horizon’s edge. All my scepticism for Blade Runner 2049 was unwarranted.

Neither a sequel nor a spiritual successor, Blade Runner 2049 is a chapter in the exquisite world first witnessed over thirty years ago, created by people who both understand and love the original. Passing the mantle from Blade Runner’s director Ridley Scott to Denis Villeneuve was the correct decision. Scott remains a great director but the taste he has developed for C.G.I over practical effects in recent years has betrayed the grounded future of Alien in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Scott would have likely had the same effect on Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve has kept Blade Runner’s engrossing visual realism alive by intermingling leftover concepts from the original with his own ideas. The Los Angeles from Blade Runner’s 2019 remains but is peppered with additions made by a predicted future grounded in the modern day. Blade Runner 2049 visits the world outside L.A. that Ridley Scott always wanted to include in the original. The film starts in a midwestern dust bowl swirling across bone-white synthetic farms in an environmentally exhausted world. A farmer emerges from a hydroponic tunnel of protein vats draped in a hazmat suit, covered in tubes and plastic. The farmer, the farm, and the world beyond, adorned by minute details, transcend the screen and become tangible.

A sense of reincarnation permeates Blade Runner 2049, concluding that the struggle between replicants and humans will perennially repeat itself. Echoes of the people and places from 2019 peel throughout the film like the old bones of Las Vegas which peek through the new structures above. The unbridled anger of replicant Luv (Slyvia Hoeks) is reminiscent of replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his childlike fury at an indifferent universe. Deckard’s own mention of Treasure Island is a reference to fellow Blade Runner Dave Holden, who reveals that the novel is his favourite book during a deleted scene in Blade Runner

Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Rodger Deakins have created their finest work in Blade Runner 2049. Deakins conveys the dichotomy of the alien and the familiar in Blade Runner 2049’s world. He superimposes the structure of future L.A. over the individual characters while recognisable words and brands from English to Urdu spread across the cityscape. The depth of field in these scenes, especially when focusing on Blade Runner K (Ryan Gosling), reinforces how tiny and equally inconsequential humans and replicants are in this strange new metropolis. Deakin’s masterful manipulation of colour segments the world. The smoggy grey and matte black of Los Angeles contrast with the rusted browns of the San Diego junkyards. Las Vegas stands derelict, swathed in a thick sodium orange soup as the desert swirls in silence. Deakins deserves every award he is nominated for this year.

Blade Runner 2049‘s visual opulence is matched by its bravery to broach the philosophical themes established in Blade Runner. The replicants in Blade Runner denote the arbitrary divides in human societies as I said in my 4th Wall piece here. Blade Runner 2049 returns to this central idea and offers a unique conclusion. The world of Blade Runner 2049 quickly reveals the schisms between humans themselves when K encounters fagin-esque orphanage manager Mister Cotton (Lennie James) in the bowels of the San Diego junkyards.

Beyond effects and cinematography, Blade Runner felt real because of its characters which were living and believable beings. At every rung of society which Blade Runner 2049 visits, the characters are alive and belong in this universe; from megalomaniac industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to toughly pragmatic L.A.P.D. chief Madam (Robin Wright). The personalities and motivations of the people K crosses propel the world around him. Unlike other modern blockbusters, Blade Runner 2049 is willing to financially invest in its characters by casting major stars like Jared Leto to convincingly depict supporting roles.

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Jared Leto as Niander Wallace

K was written for Ryan Gosling and no other modern actor excels at being a sympathetic vessel of violence. Watching Gosling in Drive, he effortlessly switches between tranquillity and rage while menace always smolders in his eyes. Contrasted to the silent Driver from DriveBlade Runner 2049’s refreshingly gentle pace lets the humanity and complexity of K seep out from his tough exterior. Harrison Ford gives his best performance since Blade Runner in his return to the role of Blade Runner Deckard, a man changed in the thirty years since the original. Wiser and warier, Ford’s performance is more emotionally charged than the hero he depicted in 1982, reflecting the price Deckard has paid to remain free.

The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch mesmerisingly emulates the classic soundtrack for the original Blade Runner by Vangelis. The noises of the world enmesh into the pulsating songs by Zimmer and Wallfish, perfecting the sound and vision of Blade Runner 2049.

Fans of Blade Runner have received a sequel they never deserved. Blade Runner 2049 is the best film of 2017.

By Saul Shimmin


My god. This film rocked me to my core with its sweeping opening of dust-ridden California as Zimmer and Wallfisch’s harsh, post-industrial score trumpeted over the speakers. If the Academy fails to nominate this film for every category (everything from Makeup & Hairstyling to Film Editing to Best Picture) it will be the greatest tragedy since Shakespeare in Love stole Best Picture from Saving Private Ryan in 1999.

Like Saul, I do not want to ruin any plot points, but I am dying to sing this movie’s praises.

The best part of the Blade Runner 2049 was its plot themes. They attacked issues that are just arising today, but will vastly affect our lives in the near future. I’m talking about Artificial Intelligence or AI and questions like makes something “alive.” Is it soul? Is it the ability to feel pain? Is it having the capability to reason? These are matters that may seem ridiculous to consider especially as Siri or Cortana struggles to understand your command to call your mom. But in due time, these will become problems that our generation will have to solve especially with the pace Apple, Google, Amazon, and other tech giants are pouring money into developing AI. Blade Runner 2049 expanded on themes raised in movies like Her, Ex Machina, and, of course, the original Blade Runner.

Raising such social questions and projecting the technology of the future used to be what science fiction did best. With recent rubbish films like Flatliners, Transcendence, and Ghost in the Shell, it was refreshing to let this movie challenge my mind and open it to the possibility of crazy technology that could soon be in my living room.  

The next best facet of the film was its settings and set designs. The post-apocalyptic world (society hadn’t been extinct, but the world had survived some nuclear blasts and mass plant extinction) was unsettling. The fact that some characters had never seen trees and that one city spanned the horizon like the mega cities in Dredd struck me at how fragile our planet is and how sad our existence would be without nature. However, it was not just the emotions that the sets sparked that made me love them. It was also their detail. Alessandra Querzola, the film’s set decorator, made sure to film them with junk, giving Blade Runner 2049 the used world aesthetic that George Lucas first introduced to the sci-fi world with Star Wars. Because of all the little things like exposed pipes, Coca-Cola ads, and all the curious trinkets in Doc Badger’s (Barkhad Abdi) shop, the movie’s realism was superb and provided it with a certain horror that such a dead world could be ours.

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Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles

Finally, apart from Denis Villeneuve, who has entered my Directors Hall of Fame that includes Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Danny Boyle, the movie’s actors were the icing on Blade Runner 2049. The greatest surprise was Villeneuve’s casting of Dave Bautista as the replicant, Sapper Morton. Bautista has slowly been climbing into the A-list ranks from his WWE origins and, I would argue, doing a better job than Dwayne Johnson. Despite his hulking figure (I think he slimmed down for this role) his movements were precise, his words exquisitely spoken, and his emotions, raw. It was a drastic reversal from the loud and humorous role of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, which reveals Bautista’s acting range is quite diverse. However, Bautista was not alone in acting excellence. Each actor/actress in the film similarly excelled in each of their roles. There was not one scene that was over or under-acted.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to dislike seeing movies twice, especially while they’re still in theaters. I normally get bored on second viewings after knowing the twists and turns of a plot. Blade Runner 2049, however, is a film I am dying to see again. And soon. I recommend you go enjoy this movie as soon as possible.

By Hagood Grantham

For the trailer, see below;

The Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Film Score: 2.5 out of 5 (Average)

Synopsis: Eggsy (Taron Edgerton), codenamed Galahad, is now in a relationship with the Swedish princess, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who he saved through the backdoor in The Kingsman: The Secret Service. However, a former Kingsman recruit, Charlie (Edward Holcroft), quickly upsets the status quo on the behalf of the secretive drug cartel, the Golden Circle. Charlie hacks into the Kingsman database and accesses the locations of all the Kingsman agents for his boss, the mysterious Poppy (Julianne Moore), who executes a series of surgical missile strikes that eliminate all Kingsman agents except Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Alone and without a base the two agents travel to their American counterpart, the Statesmen, for help in their mission to avenge their fallen comrades and save millions from the poisonous drugs Poppy has distributed across the globe.

When I read on Rotten Tomatoes that The KingsmanThe Golden Circle received the literally middling score of 50%, I expected to be thoroughly let down by the sequel to a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. While The Golden Circle failed to live up to its predecessor’s action, humor, and subversive elements, I still had a good time watching it. I’ve thought long and hard about why The Golden Circle did not recapture The Secret Service‘s magic. I believe the biggest reason for the disparity between the two films was the first was so unexpected with its John Wick-like bloody and excellently choreographed fight scenes alongside its lewd humor. Once the audience comes to expect such elements, it is difficult for a writer/director, in this case Matthew Vaughn, to one up himself on these accounts.

Vaughn tried to escalate his actions scenes with the heavy use of CGI, but this effort failed to boost them. Instead, these moments felt fake through the obvious presence of CGI. Also, the amount of cuts in camera angles distracted me and detracted from the intensity of the fights. The movie still delivered some great action pieces, but they were fewer in number than in The Secret Service. 

The humor survived into the second film, especially with its Glastonbury contest between Eggsy and the Statesman agent, Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), to plant a tracking device in a mucus membrane of a target. However, like the action scenes, comedic scenes were also fewer than in The Secret Service. I would’ve enjoyed a few more ridiculous moments, like the ending scene of The Secret Service that I hyperlinked above. It was in such moments when The Secret Service subverted its James Bond origins where it excelled. The Golden Circle did not do this enough.

The Golden Circle‘s greatest strength is its characters. I greatly enjoyed their interactions, especially the ones between Eggsy and Merlin. Mark Strong’s handle on Merlin’s character is deft and he adds a lot of emotion to the plot despite receiving little screen time. Vaughn also wisely and believably brought Colin Firth’s Harry Hart back into the picture after being brutally executed in The Secret Service. Having Harry/Agent Galahad back from the dead added a double element of uncertainty to a seemingly straight forward plot both with the device they used to resuscitate him and the side-effects of such a procedure.

I hope Vaughn is just encountering a case of sequel-itis like the Oceanmovies suffered with Oceans Twelve and can fully recapture his mojo in the third film (if Fox chooses to make a third installment). But if you’re in need of a (fairly) lighthearted flick and don’t mind some exploding heads and gross humor in the context of a secret spy world then go see it and enjoy.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

A Ghost Story

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis:  Haunting and harrowing, A Ghost Story confronts the truism that in a dark and cold universe our lives and legacies are inconsequential mayflies, leaving only the churning shadow of mortality. Couple C (Casey Affleck), a musician, and his wife M (Rooney Mara) are suddenly and tragically torn apart when C dies in a car accident in front of their quiet home. In C’s return as a ghost and haunting of his former home, writer and director David Lowery searches for a spiritual answer to death.

Visually, A Ghost Story is closer to a long piece of video art more comfortable in the quiet white walls of a modern museum. Sparse with dialogue and even motion, the film often becomes a beautiful slideshow of still images, framed through doorways and windows as the ghost perceives life coldly from the outside. There is almost a Vermeeresque knack to how Lowery composes these images. Through Lowery’s eyes, ordinary structures and objects bleed into one flowing image while audio samples of the world outside, or Daniel Heart’s score ebb and flow across it. C’s presence, returning as a simple white sheet with black eye holes, has an unsettling simplicity. Given the aspect ratio of the film and the ghost’s faceless presences, shots felt like uncovered old photos of seances, with C poised to lunge at the unaware people caught in the frame. C’s own disconnect with the world is poignantly conveyed by motion. The world seems deathly still even before C’s death. The inhabitants of C’s home move on and as C persists, the camera begins to spin between rooms while C shifts his gaze while days become months at a dizzying pace.

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(Affleck as C’s ghost along with director David Lowery)

Affleck and Mara perform well in their roles as props for Lowery’s vision and Daniel Heart’s soundtrack when either actor appears on the screen. Heart cannot be praised enough for his work on A Ghost Story. C’s ghost could have been a difficult character to connect with, but through Heart’s soundtrack the ghost becomes a canvas onto which each new song projects a different emotion. Heart’s work really conveys the ghost’s mounting anger and frustration, along with Lowery’s focus on the ghost’s expressionless face as lights flicker in response to his rage. The ghost’s maligned presence in various frames at times emanates menace or isolation.

A Ghost Story’s experimental reliance upon image and sound will cause many people to justifiably leave the cinema in the first twenty minutes. Although beautiful, the film is peppered with moments of dead time where nothing happens. In one particular scene Rooney Mara, grief stricken, makes a meal out of a pie.  The camera, without music or words, unflinchingly records Mara breakdown as she shovels the pie and crust until running away to vomit. These moments, like the one-man pie contest, are a struggle which only ardent art house cinema fans will persist through. Yet A Ghost Story is a rewarding experience with themes that few directors or film studios are willing to explore. The house and C’s return represent our shared fear of oblivion, to see whether the world remembers us. The world will likely not remember us and the only thing to do is leave little notes like M does, and let go.

After immediate viewing, A Ghost Story was going to receive three stars but in the passing week I have found myself revisiting the film, its ideas, and its haunting musical score. In retrospect the film is a struggle to watch, but many will appreciate it more in the days afterwards. Thanks to A24 for backing such a refreshingly unusual film.

For trailer, see below.

By Saul Shimmin

For the Love of Cinemas

As  Saul discussed in his “Netflix & Nolan” piece, Netflix is attempting to usurp Cinema with its original films that it releases directly to its website instead of opening them in theaters as Amazon has chosen to do with its slate of releases. I vehemently oppose Netflix’s actions, not because I dislike the films it produces and releases, but for several other, possibly harmful reasons for Cinema.

The first is what Saul discussed in “Netflix & Nolan.” Giving small, indie flicks screen time at the cinema gives them the spotlight they need to ensure their survival. Hushing them in the carousel of options listed under “Movies,” “Dramas,” or “Because you watched [fill in the blank]” will give Netflix a poor return on their investments in these films, and it will likewise discourage directors, actors, and screenwriters from partnering with Netflix because they might feel the company does not support their art.

My second reason for opposing Netflix’s attack on Cinema is based on my love for actual theaters. When I was completing my undergraduate degree at Davidson College, the theater was my weekend escape. Almost every Saturday, I trekked to the nearest cinema in Huntersville, NC to catch the latest releases. During my four years at Davidson, I saw many of my favorite films at this theater including FuryNightcrawlerGone GirlGuardians of the GalaxyRoom, and Deadpool. I loved going to the theater because the journey provided (and still provides me) with a separation from the stresses of the real world and Davidson, whether it was an impending paper deadline, an upcoming midterm, or three unread books. If I had tried to pirate one of the aforementioned films as many of my peers chose to do, or selected a film on Netflix, I would not have enjoyed it to the extent that I did seeing it in the theater. The theater, with its flashing marquee and overpriced concessions, helped ensure my suspension of disbelief as gateway between my troubles and the happy times I spent inside its interior.

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While I love a well made blockbuster (not you DC comics or most monster movies), I also enjoy watching more heady, smaller budget films like HerEx-Machina, and Prisoners in theaters. This past year I missed The Lost City of Z, almost ignored Paterson, and never even heard of The Handmaiden till Saul reviewed it here. I love to strike a balance between the bombast of blockbusters and the small glances that move mountains in indie and arthouse films. For my sake, I hope Amazon continues its plan of continuing to release its films in theaters.

Finally, I love the cinema for watching movies with others. Never does this aspect of the theater play a bigger role in my life than when Disney releases another Star Wars entry. Seeing these stories unfold and secrets unravel with people who care for the characters just as much as I do is hair-raising magic. It is an experience that neither Netflix nor I could recreate in my dorm room at school or living room at home. Being around devoted fans transports me further into a galaxy far, far away.

Please let us know your feelings below. We welcome a dialogue on this subject.

By Hagood Grantham