Blade Runner 2049

I see in IMDB that Denis Villeneuve is involved in yet another attempt at making Dune into a watchable film.  This makes sense to me.  Arrival demonstrated that he is able to handle complicated and sophisticated material.  That is what Dune needs and what previous attempts have been lacking.

That is also clearly why he got the gig to make a sequel to Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s masterpieces and a cornerstone of science fiction cinema.  This is sacred ground for movie loving geeks and not just anybody is going to be welcome to play here.  But Villeneuve has proven he has what it takes.

Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the first film.  Ecological disaster has accelerated and the Earth is groaning under the weight of mankind’s greed and waste.  There are people who have never seen trees.  The creation of replicants was banned for a time until another millionaire inventor named Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, buys the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation and uses their patents and his own ideas to create replicants that are guaranteed to not rebel.  But there are still some of the old kind around and thus there is still a need for Blade Runners.

K, played by Ryan Gosling is a new model of replicant.  He is also a Blade Runner.  While on a job, he uncovers a box buried under a dead tree.  Later it is confirmed that the box contains the remains of a replicant.  The only problem is that this replicant was pregnant, which isn’t supposed to be possible.

I really can’t go much further into the plot without spoiling it.  Although I can tell you that it is a standard mystery plot, meaning that it consists of a series of interviews with people who have attitudes.  But like in mysteries, the plot is secondary to the puzzle.

And the puzzle here is fairly complex and thought-provoking, although not as profound as the filmmakers think it is.  When people create robot stories these days they tend to forget that Asimov covered this material in the 40’s and he probably wasn’t the first.  But here it is repeated in an inventive and visually intriguing way.

Yes, this is a very pretty film with striking visuals and state of the art special effects that are not only well integrated into the live action sections but they advance the plot and add to the strangeness of the setting.  Villeneuve shows a facility with the visual that almost matches Ridley Scott’s.  The days are overcast and the nights are bright with building size advertisements that stop you on the street and interact with you.

The acting is good as well.  Gosling, when he is not being asked to sing and dance, is one of the best actors working today.  He’s not really stretching here but he does convey a matter of fact fatalism.  He knows he’s artificial and that his memories are fake, and that he is expendable.  Most of the time his character maintains equilibrium but when he erupts, it is striking.

Ana de Armas plays Joi, a holographic female companion that K has grown attached to.  She also knows that she’s artificial and de Armas plays the conflict between a program that must follow it’s algorithm and a being who is beginning to feel.  In that she mirrors K’s conflict.

And, of course, Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard, older and gruffer than in the last movie.  This is by no means a stretch since Ford is a gruff old man in real life.  But it is always fun to watch.

Blade Runner 2049 is a smart, entertaining film and a worthy sequel.  Hopefully, this is promising for Villeneuve’s Dune.

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Victoria & Abdul

Queen Victoria seemed to like the company of strong-willed men.  There was, of course, her late husband, Albert who guided and protected her through the treacherous early years of her reign.  Then came John Brown, a gruff Scotsman, played by Billy Connolly in the 1997 film Her Majesty Mrs. Brown. (Judi Dench played Victoria in that film as well.)  And now in a sequel of sorts, Dame Judi returns in Victoria and Abdul.  This time she latches onto an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal.

Her advisors and her family object to the friendship.  Sir Henry Ponsonby, played by Tim Pigott-Smith, is the head of her household staff and is quite alarmed at Abdul’s growing power.  As is her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, played by Eddie Izzard.  Victoria is in her eighties; her health is clearly failing and they want her last few years to be scandal free.  Especially if the scandal involves a brown person of low birth.  As Abdul grows in royal favor and his antics become more and more outlandish, these enemies plot harder to undermine him.

And that’s the main problem with the film.  The plot is repetitive and the occurrences don’t really build in intensity.  There’s a sameness to it that makes the stately pace to the film seem glacial.  Consequently there is no feeling that these enemies pose any kind of threat.  At one point Bertie and Sir Henry threaten to have Victoria declared insane.  Nothing comes of it except for a nice speech by Judi Dench.

Also it’s never explained why Abdul was attracted to the Queen.  Her motivations, of course, are well known.  She mourned Albert and for most of her life looked for that kind of relationship again.  But why would he be so infatuated?  It might have been his love of ceremony and romantic stories, but it’s certainly not clear.

The real reason for making a film like Victoria and Abdul is to show off the costumes and sets which are wonderful here.  It is also a chance to see Judi Dench deliver fine speeches and one-liners and to pick up some more awards.  Every time she puts on a tiara some engraver in Hollywood puts her name on an Oscar nomination.

Victoria and Abdul is in short Oscar bait.  And not in a good way.  It’s the classic great performance wrapped up in a mediocre film.  If you don’t care about the Academy Awards it can probably wait until it’s out on DVD.

The Battle of the Sexes

I remember watching the tennis match between Billie Jean King, here played by Emma Stone, and Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, on September 20, 1973.  I’m not sure how I got into it since I’ve never been a big tennis fan.  Billie Jean King, however, was a household name at the time.  And, though I never realized it until I did my research for this review, Bobby Riggs was a former number one tennis player in the world and won Wimbledon several times.

1973 was a restless time in American history.  The Vietnam War was still going strong though not well, and there were massive protests.  Watergate was a full-blown scandal.  And the Women’s movement was gathering steam.

Billie Jean King, one of the top female tennis players in the world at that time was a committed feminist.  Outraged by the disparity between men’s and women’s prizes in major tennis tournaments, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association which for a time ran its own tournaments and events.  It really took off when Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand that marketed its products to women, sponsored their tour.

Bobby Riggs was an inveterate gambler, hustler and out-sized personality.  He was married to Priscilla Riggs, played by Elisabeth Shue, an heiress whose father gave Bobby a desk job in the company.  She also insisted that he quit gambling and hustling, making him go to Gambling Anonymous meetings.  But Riggs wasn’t suited to such a conventional life.  He would sneak out of the house and do such things as betting his rich friends that he could beat them at tennis while holding the leashes of two large dogs and other such handicaps.

He finally hit on the idea of challenging one of the top female tennis players in the world to a match.  The match would be promoted by him making all sorts of outrageous sexist comments.  King was his first choice but she refused to become involved so he turned to Margaret Court, played by Jessica McNamee, who agreed.  Riggs beat Court handily and was unrelenting in his trash talk.  So much so that King agreed to take him on.

The Battle of the Sexes drags a bit in the beginning when directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are establishing things but takes off once the major conflicts are on stage.  The main strength is in the performances.  Steve Carell captures the bombast and larger than life persona of Bobby Riggs so well that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But he also portrays the vulnerability behind the façade.

Emma Stone is brilliant as Billie Jean King.  She’s a driven woman both in terms of winning tennis matches and advancing the cause of feminism.  But when she meets Marilyn Barnett, a hair stylist, played by Andrea Riseborough, she becomes confused and distracted by her attraction to another woman.  She keeps saying it’s over, but a few moments later, they are in bed together again.

It’s only when confronted with the match with Riggs that she sets aside her doubts and begins training in earnest.  That’s the difference.  According to the film, Riggs viewed the whole thing as publicity stunt, a hustle that would net him a fortune.  He didn’t believe most of the chauvinistic swill coming out of his mouth.  King took it more seriously; she knew she was fighting for the recognition that women were equal.  So she trained just as hard for this match as she did for any other.

And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I tell you she won.

The Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining film.

Dunkirk

The evacuation of some 400,000 Allied soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk on May 26 to June 4, 1940 is one of those things you always hear about.  Even though you may not know many specifics, you are aware that it is held up as a prime example of British pluck and bravery.  The most interesting thing about it was that it was technically a rout, a retreat.  But it is in fact the best example in history of a strategic withdrawal.  Four hundred thousand allied soldiers made it out of France and were available to defend England against Hitler.  If they hadn’t, the war would have gone very differently.  Looking back with the knowledge of hindsight, Germany’s only real chance to win the war was to conquer all of Europe, including Britain in the early days of the conflict.

In the eight months since the Germans invaded Poland and the allies had declared war, hardly a shot had been fired.   That changed in early May 1940 when Germany overran Western Europe using Blitzkrieg warfare.  With their air superiority and greater mobility on the ground they advanced hundreds of miles a day, blowing through, around and over the allies carefully prepared defenses.  Belgium, The Netherlands, and France were outmatched and in full retreat.  Allied forces, which had been stationed in France and Belgium to defend them against the Nazis, pulled back to the French coastal towns where they were quickly surrounded.  They set up defenses to slow down the Germans and give the evacuation time.

The problem was that the ports on that part of the European coast were too shallow and the big troop transports and warships couldn’t safely enter.  There was a mole jutting out into the deeper water but it was exposed to German dive bombers and quickly made unusable.  The allied soldiers could see the British coast from the beach at Dunkirk but there was no way to get there.  So the call went out along the southeastern coast of England.  Every fishing boat and pleasure craft was needed to make the crossing to France and help evacuate the soldiers.

Several movies have been made about Dunkirk over the years, at least three with this same exact title.  And that’s appropriate.  This is a story that bears repeating.  And Christopher Nolan’s treatment may be the best one.

Although if you are looking to learn about the battle, you’ll need to see the 1958 John Mills, Richard Attenborough film, the 2004 Timothy Dalton TV movie or one of numerous documentaries on the subject.  This is more of sensual experience than usual for a war movie.  Clocking in at an hour and forty-seven minutes, Dunkirk is no epic although visually it may resemble one.  It is a beautiful film.  It follows three sets of characters, cutting between their stories, sometimes very quickly.  I’m not sure but I don’t think they are even on the same timeline.  Some scenes are at night, some are in the day.  There isn’t a whole lot of dialog or many familiar faces in the cast.  In short, it’s a pretty good evocation of the fog of war.  No one knows anything beyond what their senses can perceive.

Christopher Nolan is in full command of the language of film here.  I’ve already mentioned the images.  He shot the whole movie on 70mm film and every frame is perfect.  The special effects are seamless, especially the aerial battles.  The way the editing works with Hans Zimmer’s percussive score to create tension is very effective.  The sound effects and the sound editing add to the tension, especially in the interiors of the sinking ships where the camera dips under water and the sound becomes muffled.  Every new Christopher Nolan film is a cinematic event at least in the technical realm.

There are also some great performances.  Mark Rylance turns in his usual exemplary job as a boat owner stoically doing his duty as he crosses the channel with his son, Peter, played by Tim Glynn-Carney, and their 17 year old deck hand George, played by Barry Keoghan.  Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles play three soldiers trying anything to get on a ship to England and safety.  Tom Hardy plays Farrier a fighter pilot out over the channel trying to protect the ragtag flotilla while keeping an eye on his fuel.  Because of the lack of dialog and the non-stop action you know almost nothing about these men and yet you sympathize with them because of the performances.

Dunkirk is not your usual film and it may not be for everybody, but given its short running time, I think everybody should give it a try.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s Spider-Man 3.0!  Or at least 3.0 as far as live action movies go.  I’m not sure about animation and TV, and I couldn’t even begin to guess how many times the character has been rethought in the comic books.  Spider-Man has always been Marvel’s top hero in terms of popularity and sales and was the first character inquired about when Hollywood came calling.  So the rights were sold to Sony over two decades ago.  Sam Raimi made two well-received movies and one that isn’t so well thought of, and then Marc Webb rebooted the character with two movies that no one seems to like, although I didn’t think they were that bad.  At that point Sony decided that they were at a creative dead end and since Marvel, which had since become a movie producing giant in its own right, had been knocking on the door, asking if they could at least borrow the movie rights to their most popular character, Sony decided to cut a deal.

And thus this version of Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, made his debut in the MCU in Captain America Civil War when Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., recruited Peter to The Avengers to fight on the side of the co-signers of the Sokovia Accords.  He fights alongside Iron Man, Black Widow and others and holds his own.

Which makes it difficult to return to his high school in Queens and resume a normal life.  Or what passes for a normal life.  For Peter Parker this means keeping up his grades, taking care of his Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei, trying to work up the courage to talk to girls, and fighting petty crime around his neighborhood.  He wants to move up in the world and become an Avenger, but Tony Stark doesn’t think Peter is ready.

It turns out that Stark is right.  Peter is a good kid who means well.  He has the awesome spider powers, although incomplete control over them, and the native intelligence to one day become a comic book scientist in the tradition of Bruce Banner, Hank Pym or even Tony Stark.  But being only fifteen, he doesn’t know much about people.  His voice is still high and unintimidating and he hasn’t learned to think like a criminal.  In fact, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to join the Avengers.

The movie is brilliant at depicting this.  It is a combination of the script, which was written by a whole committee of people, the direction by Jon Watts, and Tom Holland’s performance.  They show us the character’s arc from brash kid, still reveling in his powers and star struck from his experiences on that tarmac in Berlin, to humbled young man, willing to accept and work on his shortcomings.  It is a very moving experience—you very much identify with him—and entertaining to witness.

I mentioned in a review of an earlier films that Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s sunnier heroes and that is depicted even better in Homecoming.  He helps old ladies with directions; he stops bike thieves and car-jackers in and around his home in Queens.  He really is your friendly neighborhood Spider-man.  Even as Peter longs for another Avengers mission, he is developing an ethic for helping everyday working people.  There are several points where the bad guys endanger innocent civilians and Peter never thinks twice.  He saves the bystanders even at the expense of letting the villains escape.

And you know what?  Tom Holland’s performance isn’t even the best in the film.  That goes to Michael Keaton’s The Vulture aka Adrian Toomes.  Keaton steals every scene he’s in as a working class salvage engineer.  The film starts at a point eight years earlier when Toomes’ company is helping clean up in the aftermath of the Chitauri attack on the city in The Avengers.  He’s signed a lucrative contract with the city and figuring that this is his ticket to success and security for his family, has bought new equipment, trucks and hired new people.  It’s all taken away from him though when the feds and Tony Stark take over the clean-up.  Toomes and his men are kicked off the site and harshly instructed to turn in any alien technology they’ve already salvaged.  Angry, Toomes doesn’t turn in the Chitauri tech.  Instead he designs weapons with it, including a cool set of mechanical wings for himself, which he uses to steal more tech.  And he also sells some the weapons to criminals.  His watchword has been caution.  He wants his new business kept under the radar of the feds and especially the Avengers.  Keaton captures the working class values of this man who sees himself as providing for his family and getting what’s his.  This is a guy who is not going let anything threaten what he’s built or his family.  He is one of the most sympathetic villains I’ve ever come across.

As I’ve said before, the folks at Marvel, and comic book people in general, know their characters.  They know what liberties to take with their mythologies and most especially what the tone of the movie should be.  In most cases when they are the creative impetus, they get a better result than the movie people.  I hope Spider-Man: Homecoming makes a ton of money and Sony is convinced that this arrangement is too lucrative to abandon.  And I hope that someday Marvel is able to get the rights to the Fantastic Four in the same way or maybe even the rights to the X-Men.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

 

The Beguiled

There are certain types of films where the filmmakers do not provide windows into the characters’ souls, or at least not windows with clear glass.  There are no flashbacks or long speeches detailing formative events in childhood.  They don’t explain themselves or their motivations in any way.  The audience is left to speculate on such things or to be content with a main character or two being a cipher.  These films can be difficult because it often takes an effort to emphasize with or even understand such characters.  It’s like listening to atonal music; you have to pay close attention.

Whether or not the film is a success depends on if enough people think the effort is worth it.

It’s 1863 and the Civil War is raging near the Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a genteel girls’ boarding school in rural Virginia.  This institution is run by Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman with the help of Miss Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst.  Because of the war there are only six girls residing at the school and they are only there because their families decided it was too dangerous to bring them home.  But battles are being fought scant miles away from the school and Union soldiers have been marauding in the area.  They’ve already stolen the school’s chickens.  Most of the girls regard Union soldiers as monstrous rapists and murderers.

One of the school’s younger students, Amy, played by Oona Laurence, is out looking for mushrooms in the forest and discovers a Union soldier with a bad leg wound.  He is Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Ferrell.  Amy brings him back to the school.  After much debate Miss Martha and Miss Edwina decide to not inform the Confederate troops who regularly patrol the area about Corporal McBurney.  They tell themselves that he’ll die soon anyway and poses no threat.  But even at this early stage the justification seems thin.

Thanks to the two women’s ministrations McBurney starts to recover.  At first he is thankful and polite.  Once he is able he begins to do chores around the school in order to pull his own weight.  He forms relationships with the girls, especially Amy.  But then he begins to make advances to Miss Edwina, who is guarded and cautious at first even though McBurney appears to be sincere.

Problems begin when Miss Martha falls for him as well and Alicia, played by Elle Fanning, one of the older students in her late teens also enters the competition for his affections.

The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel film of the same name.  I haven’t seen it but according to Wikipedia Siegel said that it, “deals with the themes of sex, violence and vengeance and was based around, ‘the basic desire of women to castrate men.’”  Such misogyny was par for the course in filmmaking at that time.  Sofia Coppola, the director of the 2017 version was drawn to the remake to tell the same story from a female viewpoint.  At some point I would like to read a compare and contrast article.

It is a pretty film, well-acted, especially by the leads.  Although, as I indicated earlier, it is somewhat emotionally opaque. The only things you know about the characters is that McBurney joined the Union army straight off the boat from Ireland because he had no money.  Also he’s not the bravest man around.  And we also know that Miss Edwina is very unhappy at the school.

There’s a flaw in the script, which is by Sofia Coppola, as well.  It takes a while for the central conflict to manifest.  I suppose there are subtle things happening that are building tension during the first forty-five minutes to an hour but they really didn’t work in the intended way and they don’t advance the plot.  Everything at the school is going along as well as can be expected.

One quibble I have is that the presence of Spanish Moss in the trees is a very important visual symbol.  The opening shot is of a dirt road with a canopy of moss covered trees suspended over it, a soft-edged tunnel symbolizing our entry into the female world.  I live in North Carolina and it gets too cold here for Spanish Moss to survive.  You certainly don’t see it in Virginia.  But that’s obviously a minor complaint.

I think that like the characters, my reaction to this movie was muted and mysterious.  The film left me unmoved.  Or, to give it the benefit of the doubt, it’s a good film but simply not for me.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is one of the DC’s three biggest heroes.  The other two have had numerous TV shows and movies made about them and while Princess Diana had a show in the 70’s there has been no major movie until now.  We don’t have to think too hard to figure out the reason for that.  Comics, and movies for that matter, were dominated by men both on the creative side and the consumer side for decades.  Wonder Woman was created in the 40’s by William Moulton Marston in part to provide a role model for young girls.  I’m not sure if that contributed anything to her popularity or not.  But I do believe that Wonder Woman has always been ahead of her time in messages of female empowerment.

And now she is not only being called upon to save the world but also to save the reputations of DC and Warner Brothers.  It’s a tall order because her brethren Batman and Superman have been on a losing streak lately, their movies getting panned for being too dark and grim.  They’re making money, I’m sure.  But nothing like the mint that Marvel is running.  I imagine that this doesn’t go down well in the halls of the DC offices.  Not to mention Warner Brothers.

So they start Diana’s story with her origin, which is basically the same as in the comic books except they shifted the time period to World War I instead of World War II.  Diana, played by Gal Godot, is an Amazon on the island of Themyscira.  She was molded out of clay by her mother and then Zeus breathed life into her.  He did this to protect mankind from Ares, the God of War and therefore she has much more power and ability than your average Amazon warrior, which is saying something.  Themyscira has been hidden from the outside world since ancient times and only women live there.  Diana’s mother Hippolyta, played by Connie Nielsen wishes to hide Diana’s abilities from her.  But of course in time Diana realizes she is different.

An American spy working for the British named Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine, penetrates the dome of fog and bad weather that hides the island.  He’s flying a stolen German plane and crashes it in the crystal blue waters off the island.  Diana saves him and becomes alarmed when he tells her about the war raging in the outside world and that Themyscira may not be safe.  The Amazons are skilled warriors but they know nothing of guns, bombs or gas, or anything about modern mechanized warfare.  Once the island is successfully defended from the Germans who were pursuing Trevor, Diana decides she must venture into the outside world to clean up the mess that we dopey men have made of it.

But Diana has grown up in a nurturing utopia where everyone is fulfilled and happy.  She is shocked when she catches Trevor in a lie.  It never occurred to her that someone might not tell the truth.  In short she has no conception of the darker side of human nature.  This leads to several miscalculations on her part.  I won’t spoil the plot by going into them.

I like Diana’s arc as a character.  She goes from powerful but naïve to disillusioned and finally to determined.  Godot handles this well.  You believe she is a person who can understand any language but is completely ignorant of human motivations.  You can also credit Allan Heinberg’s screenplay and Patty Jenkins direction for that.

Chris Pine basically plays Steve Trevor as a slight variation on his Captain Kirk but that’s really all that the part calls for.  Besides his chemistry with Godot is spectacular.  Their interaction provides the best bits of humor and romance.

The supporting cast is good especially Trevor’s “crew” of reprobates that help him and Diana get deep into German territory.  Said Tahgmaoui plays Sameer, a cynical con man with a heart of gold.  Ewen Bremmer plays Charlie a shell-shocked Scottish sniper.  And Eugene Brave Rock plays Chief an American Indian smuggler.  These guys play well off each other and you can believe they’ve been a team for a long time.

For the most part it’s a pretty film.  On Themyscira the weather is always fine with bright sunlight bathing the spectacular coastline.  But in the outside world it is always dark and overcast with muted colors and a lot of close-ups.  The effects are pretty good for the most part although there were a few that looked fake.  Costumes and sets were all really good.

There isn’t much that’s original in the plot.  I suspect that they moved the time period to World War I to distract from the fact that they were stealing so much from Captain America: The First Avenger.  But the film is so well paced and the characters are so compelling that I didn’t mind it being derivative.

So did Wonder Woman save the day and rehabilitate DC’s cinematic reputation?  I would say it’s a good start.  It certainly points to the lighter, more comic book like tone that many in the fan boy press have been calling for.  Hopefully future projects will follow suit.

In any case Wonder Woman is a must see summer movie.


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