Alphaville (1965) and Godard The Humanist?

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“That’s always how it is. You never understand anything and, in the end, it kills you.”

As a simple rule of thumb — a heuristic if you will — you can learn much about a person based on what camp they fall into when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suggests we have Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and “Other” (We’ll unfairly stuff Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, The Left Bank, and all the rest here).

Many probably wouldn’t need this scenario. All it takes is a one-word, guttural response: “Godard” or “Truffaut” For me, it’s Truffaut. It’s as if the wavelength he operates on so often connects with me. Whereas with Godard it’s always more a matter of admiration for his prolific creative powers and the intellect buried in each of his projects. I appreciate him from an analytical distance.

From the outset, Alphaville epitomizes the dichotomy of Godard: both the brilliance and what can make him utterly maddening at times. He’s the perpetual visionary iconoclast and artistic maverick like few others before or after (and he’s still at it!).

We’re met with a blinking light, like an interrogation lamp, shining down on the audience. The opening voiceover relates, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.” This is our introduction to the computerized brain and technological chimera: Alpha 60.

Godard’s protagonist functions a bit like a world-wearied Buster Keaton in his later years. Lines covering his stone face are perfect for suggesting that he’s seen the world. This alone makes him sufficient, but expatriate Eddy Considine was also known in France for his long connection with the serialized crime detective Lemmy Caution. Here he is tasked with missions, but as should be expected with noir storytelling, each successive leg feels more befuddling than the last.

Godard took Caution to the extreme, totally untethered out in his devised limbo of clunky Parisian sci-fi. It’s the profundity of taking the labels of the future (my labels, not his) and making them feel mundane, like the contemporary moment. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to call Alphaville a forerunner to HAL,  Blade Runner, or even Altman’s Long Goodbye, a film where you have a dissonance between worlds and time frames.

There is one moment when the all-knowing voice says something to the effect that there is never the past or the future. There is only the present — where we can exist right now. So, really, there is not an issue of incongruity because everything we see is accepted as it is, functioning in this landscape as one.

Godard, working with his famed collaborator Raoul Coutard, initially doesn’t even bother with chiaroscuro, but instead an utterly binary palette. Horizontal slats of darkness above strips of light or vice versa. A cigarette and gun in Caution’s hand are both visible, while his entire face is literally pitch black.

Getting to Alphaville and a hotel in the heart of this metropolis is a trip. The lobby feels conventional enough. This is a mere extension of the Parisian landscape. And yet he gets led to his room by a lady who looks suspiciously like a lady of a night (especially when her clothes start coming off), and Godard adds another lovely non-sequitur when a thug all of the sudden materializes in the bathroom leading to a stylized struggle.

Our tough guy runs for his gun on the bed and shots ring out through the room. He makes the agitated but lucid observation moments later, “Everything weird is normal” in this town. He’s never been more correct.

We get a suggestion of what Godard is playing with — the conventions and ideas he wants to tinker around with — as both an artistic and intellectual exercise. Beatrice, the first of several femme fatales, we find out, is a level-three seductress. It’s all too apparent the misogynism has not evaporated in this alternate world.

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Anna Karina appears next as the daughter of a high-ranking official with intimate knowledge of Alpha 60. Caution christens her a “pretty sphinx,” and she is an unsuspecting product of the disconcerting sci-fi dystopia that has overtaken society. Ironically, it comes packaged a lot like Paris in the 1960s run by capitalists.

As far as gadgets go, Caution employs a portable lighter-intercom slightly less ostentatious than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. There are government-sanctioned executions for those showing sentimentality, where the festivities are made into a bit of a water aerobics showcase. Another popular form of entertainment is theater executions — the electric chair in more diverting circumstances.

Logic is law. Tears and love are among those things outlawed. No one comprehends what “conscience” means anymore. I even made the initial assumption the books in the hotel rooms were Gideon Bibles. However, it turns out, “The Bible” is not theological but linguistic, in the form of a dictionary, as delivered by Jean-Pierre Leaud in a blink of a cameo. When words get eradicated from the cultural lexicon new editions are published and disseminated to the public.

As the tenets of society get more and more perplexing, Caution’s mission begins to spiral into chaos, toward the final destruction of the mechanical beast. Godard chops up cinematic reality with disruptive negative images that do feel otherworldly. There are car chases, murders, and corpses of those asphyxiated splayed on the floor. It seems Alphaville really is crumbling from the inside out.

The movie itself is full of these deconstructions, clever amalgams of Godard’s cultural proclivities, and his own personal wizardry. But if we are to fall back on my totally unessential litmus test, he rarely touches me to the degree Truffaut is capable of. There’s never the same laughter or warmth emanating from his characters.

Yes, in Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) they come the closest and there are extended periods that speak to me, momentarily touching my heart and my soul, if I can be so transparent. But at a certain point, they end because Godard is not in the business of humanity as much as he is in the business of the mechanisms of cinema itself. He is the great artist. Truffaut the great humanist. In turn, each affinity made them into two of the most passionate filmmakers the world has ever known.

Both very avid, opinionated, obsessive cineastes. It even drove a wedge between them in later years after their catalytic collaborations in the early 60s. It’s not all that unsurprising. Arguably their most similar films conceptually, are vastly different in both vision and execution.

Consider Contempt (1963) and Day for Night (1973) or even Shoot The Piano Player (1961) and Alphaville (1965). The first pair act as two entirely singular odes to the art of filmmaking. The latter two are indebted to the glories of film noir and other cheap genre fare.

But again, it feels like Truffaut is far more capable of humanity. You never get the same sense of transparency from Godard. There is even a feeling he relishes his status as this cryptic figure — a reputation, I might add, he has maintained for most of his career.

And yet even Godard, with all his enigmatic stylings, can continually surprise me like so many others. This is his ability to morph with the times and take on new forms like a Bob Dylan — to make a flawed musical comparison. For me, it was the final line of his movie — all but forcing me to eat my words — forcing me to feel empathy.

Natascha remembers how to say “I love you” as they drive away from the hysteria of Alphaville back to the Outer Countries. For Godard, this is a heady statement, the height of sentimentality even. It’s unexpected but fitting, his constant muse throughout the 60s, Anna Karina, emblematic of his most fertile creative period, it’s her words that ultimately define Alphaville. I love you. Maybe Godard is a humanist after all. At the very least, Karina in all her affection helps to humanize him.

4/5 Stars

Note: Since writing this piece, Anna Karina passed away on December 14th, 2019. R.I.P. to a legend. 

Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977): Sci-Fi, Spielberg, and Truffaut

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Close Encounters is built on a mystery and Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws starts off in a jarring fashion challenging us to stay with him. Because he quickly throws us into the action and suggests this is a sci-fi tale on a global scale.

Bob Balaban, a cartographer-turned-French translator, speaks for all of us trying to figure out what’s going on, yelling out against whirring old WWII fighter engines, “I don’t understand!” Two lines of juxtaposed dialogue are all we need. The planes were reported missing in 1945. But they look brand new! It takes a moment to tease out the dramatic situation, but there we are. The question is how did this happen? As this is a Spielberg creation, we must point our gaze heavenward or more precisely to the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Francois Truffaut somehow feels like a special piece of casting. The Nouvelle Vague director and hero of Spielberg is cast as Lacombe, a French scientist leading a surprisingly cooperative international team.

It’s not simply because this is the only film he acted in that he didn’t also direct. It has to do with his temperament and the subject matter. There’s something serene and utterly profound about Truffaut. He’s deeply human and engaged and yet feels implacable even as everyone else — the Americans especially — seem frantic and harried. He’s a calming force in a literal maelstrom.

Because Spielberg immediately sets the picture up as not only a national but a global storyline with implications for the entire world. It’s not just higher-ups and government officials covertly working on the issue. Extraterrestrial life would mean potential hysteria, especially for the common man. In this regard, he introduces a few stand-ins.

One is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). He loves to tinker, isn’t a particularly devoted father or husband, and he’s a staunch believer his kiddos should grow up with the quality entertainment he had as a kid like Pinocchio, instead of vacuous putt-putt games.

If we are to be honest, Dreyfuss can be a perfectly genial hero in something like American Graffiti or even Jaws, but within this narrative, reflected by his family life, he often comes off whiny and obnoxious, and it hurts his rapport with the audience.

In this particular instance, there’s some difficulty in feeling a true human connection with him even as we are drawn and fascinated by what forces he might have witnessed because that is the million-dollar mystery propelling the picture and keeping humanity agog with visions of UFOs and the great unknown of outer space.

Yes, we are planted in the 70s so if you want to blame his wife (Terri Garr) for not being a particular understanding or his children for being exasperating you can, but today it just makes him out to be a selfish dolt. This isn’t the same whimsy of some of his cinematic predecessors; it just feels like immaturity.

Sadly, without a substantial protagonist, a Hollywood blockbuster like this can feel intermittently detached and impersonal. It’s not based on lack of effort by the director or the actor. We simply don’t like the man.

It’s much more agreeable to stick with the sci-fi elements because this is where the film really has its deepest successes. Special effects hardly feel like a detriment. They are simple, practical casting just enough a spell to hold up. But they are not there to do all the heavy lifting.

The first encounter happens when Roy is driving down a country road in his truck only to be ambushed by the most spellbinding sight he’s ever witnessed in his life. It’s greater than any Aurora Borealis and sends his car into a state of zero gravity. The only indication he has after the fact of what he’s just seen is a burning sunburn across the side of his face.

From that point on Roy is doggedly firm in his resolve. It’s almost a primordial urge. He has to see the beautiful lights again, he has to understand them, he needs everyone to appreciate them as much as he does.

One person who does is a single mother, Jillian Guiller, whose little boy Barry has some transcendental encounters in the evening hours, drawn to forces outside of himself — the same forces pulling Roy to something unnameable. In fact, they are the same forces Lacombe is so intent on learning more about. It leads his team traipsing around Mexico, India, Mongolia, etc. all on the trail of this great unexplainable mystery.

For Roy, unadulterated obsession sets in. He can’t get the image out of his head. His wife is frightened. His kids think he’s crazy, and they have every right to. He drags all the family out to stare at the sky. He loses his job. He starts shoveling dirt through the kitchen window with the whole neighborhood watching the spectacle.

With his wife driving off in a tizzy, trying to rescue her family from a maniacal husband who needs mental health, he goes back inside. They fail to see the final destination, the symbol so many people have subconsciously remembered. It’s a clue of where our story must travel.

That leads us to a family road trip — at least one my family took while I was in high school. One of the stops was Devil’s Tower, christened the first National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Like Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest — which I coincidentally saw on the same vacation — Devil’s Tower is an iconic American symbol. Natural and still somehow mystifying even otherwordly. The perfect seat for our finale.

It’s a mesmerizing experience sitting atop Devil’s Tower taking in the bright lights, the musical patterns of communication putting John Williams’ talents to the best possible use. Though it would be lying to say it didn’t verge on monotony in patches, at its very best, Spielberg has an unabashed appreciation for the wide-eyed spectacle and his stroke of genius is taking a very concrete relic and making it so integral to this encounter.

There’s something totem-like, it is a monolith in its own right, and suggests something as ancient as time itself. His other choice is to make the creatures on the other end the most amiable beings imaginable. Years of watching The Thing from Another World and Body Snatchers taught a different paradigm, but Spielberg is an optimist at heart. It shows through and through as the story is carried away by the exponential magic of the final climactic moments.

In many regards, it is a taste. For those still capable of awe where special effects or time or comprehension don’t get in the way of enjoyment, those final moments can indeed be spellbinding. It’s true their trance-like grip reached out to me. The only regret is some of the momentary distractions leading us on this road. It takes a whole lot of roadblocks and digressions to finally get us to our close encounter.

There’s something else nagging inside me. Dreyfuss fulfilled his unerring obsession like an angelic pioneer sent off to the great unknown. He reached the apex as he conceived it. There is nothing more for him to do. Still, one must wonder how exactly are the wife and kids doing at his sister-in-laws? It seems Spielberg has conveniently left the problematic issues of earth behind for the extraterrestrial. Too bad we are not afforded the same luxury.

4/5 Stars

 

Note: I viewed the Director’s Cut although there is also the previous theatrical cut and the special edition featuring an extended “mothership” scene.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019): An Adequate Force Awakens Sequel

Star_Wars_The_Rise_of_Skywalker_poster.jpgYou might say I turned up to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker out of respect for the dead. Because we’ve lost many of our beloved figures. Han. Luke. Carrie Fisher. Peter Mayhew. Kenny Baker. You get the idea. And from the rumblings I couldn’t avoid hearing, it felt like Star Wars might be dead on arrival too.

After seeing the final installment of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, my reaction is hardly so dramatic, and you can judge whether that is a good or bad portent. In many ways, it succumbed to all the fears a myriad of voices had shouted out in years gone by. In others regards, it still managed to be entertaining, albeit with a host of caveats.

There’s a nagging conflict inside of me not unlike the dark or the light side of the force — this tug-of-war between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I want to enjoy Skywalker for all its delights and at the same time, it does feel like a bit of an out of body experience.

Because I look at this film, and it zooms by. There’s plenty of spectacle, likability, and adorableness to get us in the seats; it’s so easy to pass over the lapses (as it is with just about anything when its played against John Williams’ magnum opus).

Highlights include the return of Lando (Billy Dee Williams), another cameo worthy of a buzz of adulation. In this episode, C3PO (Anthony Daniels) has more license to jabber on (though R2D2, yet again, feels decidedly less important). There’s also a particularly hallowed place for Carrie Fisher within the film acting as a nice tribute.

The relationship between Rey and Keylo remains the most dynamic and intriguing element, carrying itself through the series as they maintain their intimate connection through the Force.

Daisy Ridley was positioned as the heartbeat of the franchise, and she more than proves her mettle navigating the last leg of the journey with an earnest conviction. Adam Driver is her near equal. Not perfect, but there’s something not entirely phoned in about him, an issue Poe (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) sometimes fall prey to. Invariably, Rey and Keylo have it out in a turbulent lightsaber duel recalling some of the epic glories of old.

However, now that the third and final trilogy is done, it does feel a bit haphazard, like it was dashed off without giving immense thought to how all the pieces fit together. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels all but cast aside, her place filled by two new strong female characters (Keri Russell and Naomie Acker) not without their charms, but really it’s too little too late. One questions why they showed up now and not in The Force Awakens.

A continuous trail of blatant MacGuffins and exposition along with a deus ex machina in the form of a giant convoy stuff the story end-to-end. To that point, the finale feels drawn out in a cavernous throne room high on mind-numbing spectacle but somehow empty of the genuine conflict I felt when Luke faced Darth Vader or when father saved son.

Did it all feel like a lie after what Rian Johnson’s film had suggested? Was it like a last-minute patch job to bring Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) back for an ending that looked eerily familiar, simply drawn out on a bloated scale? Somehow bigger explosions and darker interiors didn’t help the film’s case. It’s like anything. Bigger isn’t always better. Excess can make it lose its significance.

Because while Star Wars was always a broad galaxy, it remained grounded through characters and very personal stories we could relate to about family and friends. And whether it was entirely true or not, it always felt like George Lucas was some kind of marionette master who had at least an inkling of a plan for his world.

With Disney’s trilogy, we have been left wondering and as a result, there’s been a general lack of cohesion, which has been aggravated the further we’ve gone into this revamped franchise. Abrams feels like he’s making a sequel to The Force Awakens and thus if Rian Johnson’s movie didn’t exist, it might mesh better. But The Last Jedi does exist as is, and it deserved a finale worthy of the questions it dared to ask.

I’ll do something I’ve never done before by quoting myself from an earlier review. Because with The Last Jedi I said all of  Rian Johnson’s breaks with tradition would be worth it if the subsequent film could stick its landing:

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions.

The Rise of Skywalker falls back on what is, for the most part,  familiar. This partially comes down to giving J.J. Abrams the impossible task. Instead of saying this is the end of one trilogy, it’s implied this is supposed to be the thrilling summation of eight other films spanning over 42 years. That’s like catching force lightning in a thimble. Of course, he’s not going to be able to pull it off.

I very rarely cast dispersions on anyone, but I think it’s safe to direct our ire toward Disney if there is any blame to be had. Time has reminded us over and over again, Disney was more invested in their lucrative commercial investment than giving us the best story they could.

Marvel was the initial template, and we’ve seen films of wildly uneven quality with the worst functioning as soulless potboilers made to order on schedule. Star Wars is too dear for me to riddle it with such criticisms. It’s a fault and a bias to be sure, but I will say, out of any of the Star Wars films, Skywalker comes the closest to what I feared. I remember vividly my reactions to Rogue One in 2016, a film I modestly enjoyed for exploring New Hope nostalgia:

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates…

Even as Rian Johnson boldly ran roughshod over Star Wars lore, it feels as if this final film has done it a major disservice by falling back on the status quo. It goes beyond plot points for me. The writing off of Snoke is easy enough, even the clarification on Rey’s parentage (Obi-Wan pulled a similar trick on Luke if you remember).

But it’s the fact that none of this film’s digressions carry more than an ounce of surprise or what we might term movie magic. There’s nothing to take our breath away or make the hair stand on end. Everything it has in terms of charm and charisma is pent up inside those characters — those protocol and astromech droids, that wookie, etc. — and I do love them as much as anyone else.

Still, I was ill at ease trying to appreciate the moments we’ve been granted and feeling, simultaneously, they’re not quite right. We deserved something better from Disney who has served us up a Ghost of Star Wars Past.

President Lyndon B. Johson famously said something to the effect that when he lost Walter Cronkite on the Vietnam issue, he had lost public opinion. There’s a related point here somewhere, and here it is.

While my older brother’s not quite Walter Cronkite, I consider him one of the most thoughtful, well-versed Star Wars fans out there. He pored over the books, played the card games, collected the collectibles, and will no doubt remain a resolute Star Wars fan for years.

However, his reaction to this latest film was lukewarm at best. If I didn’t make it clear already, he loves Star Wars. In my little pocket of the world and the manner in which I perceive this galaxy as a very real and personal entity we cherished, it feels like someone has lost.

If not the Rebels, or Disney (who will rake in more money than ever), then it’s the fans who had such a profound affection for this franchise they wanted something more than a purely wish-fulfilling imitation. It felt so close yet so far from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The movie emphatically proclaims “The Dead Speak!” Sometimes it’s best to let them rest in peace. Something I’m not sure Disney understands or is willing to do.

3.5/5 Stars

Ad Astra (2019): To The Stars and “The Seeing Eye”

Ad_Astra_-_film_posterSince the dawn of man, the vast reaches of the cosmos up above have enamored us to the nth degree. You need only watch something like 2001 to be reminded of that fact. (There’s no doubt James Gray is well-versed in its frames.)

Herein lies a core theme throughout our very existence. We have this inherent overlap between science and spirituality — the celestial spheres and the extra-terrestrial — forming a framework for how we comprehend this world.

Aspects of this film even have a near-liturgy or the solemnity of an open-air cathedral. Dean Martin’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a hymn and a hint. Prayers are cast up to St. Christopher for the pilgrimage ahead. The dead are venerated like saintly martyrs for the cause. Because somewhere at the end of it all is the thought of some universal meaning, some ultimate truth, be it God or sentient being.

One is reminded of the proclamation the Soviet Union made when they sent their cosmonaut up into the stratosphere and came back down not having seen God. In essence, the conclusion was that this tangible world was all there is. Tools and technology are the instruments in which to make sense of the world. God, in whatever form, is only a pipe dream or a form of wish fulfillment for the weak. We must look somewhere else. Inside ourselves perhaps.

C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Seeing Eye” wrote the following response when pressed on the Soviet’s pronouncement:

“Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”

Watching Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) with this context uncovers profound meaning for me. It is a journeyman’s film pure and simple. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is on a mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He procures helping agents along the way, namely, Donald Sutherland in an enigmatic role and Ruth Negga, an operations director and Mars-native who dreams of Earth as the distant reality she once visited as a child. It brings to mind her parents, now deceased. Yet another cryptic puzzle piece.

One is led to think they do a fine job being exactly that, mysterious and understated, but it doesn’t give us much to relish as an audience. Tommy Lee Jones is a vanished American hero clouded with secrets of his own. Could it be the rumblings are true and he’s the manifestation of Kurtz in the heart of darkness on the surface of Neptune?

The question becomes not what is at the end of the universe but even more sobering, what if there’s nothing there, just the vastness and austere beauty (as Kubrick depicted, without his images of rebirth)? What are we to do then? Ad Astra‘s conclusions aren’t all that different than the Soviets all those years ago, but they are admittedly far less cynical.

While it lacks true emotional heft in crucial scenes, Gray’s endeavor is concerned with human relationship and this distinction is ever so important. Because this niche of movies can fall into two categories. 2001 spearheads those that are not altogether interested in humanity as such. It’s vast and clinical with the vision and scope Kubrick could capture immaculately. Whereas Tarkovsky’s Solaris or even more recent films like Gravity and Interstellar are far more intimate, regardless of any flaws they might engender.

James Gray is certainly skilled at developing the world planted in a so-called “near-future.” Still, as expansive as the galaxy becomes with every panorama and lens flair by Hoyte van Hoytema, so much more of the movie is borne by the features of Brad Pitt. His perspective and his thoughts. We come to understand him in physical proximity even as we are never allowed close emotional proximity.

Because Ads Astra is a pensive, solitary film. It maintains some intrigue by divulging little and stretching out its assets. It plays with some generic terrors. For instance, “The Surge” that has sent a shockwave across earth leaving many dead and without power. We have moon raiders, Gravity-like survival moments, which Pitt handles with steely aplomb, and touches of governmental conspiracy verging on the sinister.

Primates in space give another brief glimpse of 2001, Planet of The Apes, or even Alien. However, we also get the fleet-footed Nicholas Brothers, who are one of the best-kept secrets of Classic Hollywood’s musical circuit. All these are cultural references to earth, mind you, and not the outer reaches of the galaxy. This is an important observation.

Because there is an uncanny feeling that humanity has managed to shape outer space into our own image with the proliferation of Subway or DHL shipping even made available on the surface of the moon.  It makes the Restaurant on The End of The Universe less of a joke and more and more of a reality.

Still, these are never the elements completely defining Ad Astra for me. They are of secondary or even tertiary importance in deference to the central character study. I am willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt and believe his performance to be authentic and genuine. Where his masculinity is made really and truly vulnerable. We don’t build a deep connection with him precisely because he doesn’t have a rapport with anyone. Not his wife (Liv Tyler in a minuscule role), not his father, not anyone.

We begin to assemble a blueprint of someone who has always dwelled in their father’s footsteps, resentful of being abandoned, and simultaneously driven to be the best he can be in pursuit of the same auspicious goals. There are fractures cutting through his life even as he is a figurehead of national pride and American know-how, his life continually compartmentalized into professional and personal.

In fact, Ad Astra is simultaneously an exploration of how we forge heroes and erect idols in our culture. It doesn’t actually tackle this idea to an altogether satisfying conclusion, although it’s pardonable as the film literally takes an about-face. This is how it manages to set itself apart from the pack with a final decision different than the Soviets or Lewis, Kubrick or Nolan, even Tarkovsky.

For the final key, I turn to a very mundane place. One of my favorite bands sings about “Stars” from a Descartes perspective — humanity at the center of the universe — only to turn it on its head.

Instead of us looking up into the heavens, it becomes the stars looking down at us. To recall Lewis, those who cannot find “God” on earth will hardly find them in space. And those who look for meaning, or the beauty or the love they are lacking, in the skies above will probably be disappointed.

After all, maybe our objective is not the stars at all, and it never was. They are only markers and a compass with which to reorientate ourselves amid the entropy of this lifetime, that is, existence on earth. Once oriented, we can start looking around and seeing the people orbiting around us and begin a new objective — to love and cherish one another. It’s striking Roy’s final words almost sound like wedding vows. As if he went to the stars only to realize what he had to come back to. He finally had eyes to see.

4/5 Stars

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbiddenplanetposter.jpgWe’re all part monsters in our subconscious. ~ Leslie Nielsen as Commander Adams

I couldn’t help but recall Han Solo’s line about the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars in response to Luke’s derision. After giving his pride and joy an affectionate pat he defends her reputation like so, “She may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts.”

It seems fitting that the line is used to commend Forbidden Planet because this is the film that in many ways made science fiction what it is today. It’s almost too easy to trace the line from this film to the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek and a plethora of others. But today we’re so used to the canonical worlds of established sci-fi that Forbidden Planet might come off as quaint and a bit outmoded. Still, the film has it where it counts even today.

Forbidden Planet was also unprecedented in its day because this was no B-picture. This was A-grade entertainment and that was almost unheard of at the time for science fiction, a historically low budget genre. Leslie Nielsen is given his first starring role while Walter Pidgeon plays the scientist who greets the explorers on the surface of the planet that they were sent to investigate.

But the band of expeditioners who came before them was all but decimated by some unknown force leaving only Dr. Morbius alive (Pidgeon) along with his pretty daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who has no grasp of what life on earth is like. Commander Adams (Nielsen) is intent on staying on the planet until receiving further instructions from earth.

Still, something doesn’t sit right. There’s something off about Altair IV. A silent, invisible adversary is oftentimes more engaging than a visual one especially when it dwells very close to home and that’s precisely what presents itself moment by moment as the narrative progresses.

From their very first touchdown, this is an incredibly eery picture which manages to carry the audience’s attention for a great deal of the movie. In fact, if this was Star Wars they would have said, “I have a bad feeling about this” at least a couple times. But equally crucial is the subsequent development of the landscape around us that’s at times utterly entrancing.

The key to the film is that everyone plays it straight and serious and in this particular case it doesn’t come off as camp. There’s a gravity to it all that’s mesmerizing even in its bits of antiquity because the world is full of grand endeavors in creativity.

The electronic instrumentation provides what is purported to be the cinematic world’s first fully atonal electric score and even today each note is unnerving to the core. Whereas the theremin has somehow entered into the realm of parody these notes still seem resonant and they perform far better than any traditional score might have in the same circumstances.

At times Forbidden Planet showcases a very simple, even austere mise en scene and other times expands to almost labyrinthian proportions. The sweeping palette photographed in Eastmancolor with CinemaScope certainly adds to its allure straight out of the 1950s while still managing to take cues from stories from centuries prior, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, being the most obvious inspiration.

While not necessarily prophetic or correct in all its assertions about space travel (as far as we can possibly know) there’s a commitment to the world and a specificity to its inner workings that makes the Forbidden Planet into a fairly immersive place — a world alternative to our own that we are able to explore and I think that’s part of its unique status as a pioneering film. Because now we are so used to worldmaking and fantasies outside the realm of Earth whether it be Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

Here we see it too but it comes out of a time where most stories were human stories planted on earth or at the very least had the semblance of the reality that we know to be true here. And yet here was a narrative that dared transplant our human shortcomings to the other end of the universe in an entirely different paradigm while showing how man is his fallen nature can still make a mess of life even there. It’s a fairly powerful statement full of human psychology as much as it is about conquering new frontiers.

Robby the Robot (designed by Robert Kinoshita and the team at MGM) stands as a landmark among cinematic robots since he is his own entity as a standalone character. Far from turning on man, he’s about as useful as we might possibly think — even creating gallons of whiskey for the thirsty cook (Earl Holliman). The film was also a trendsetter in describing space travel in increments of light while miniskirts far from being a thing of the future still made a splash with 50s audiences as worn so provocatively by Anne Francis.

Through its final credits, Forbidden Planet is a special picture and that uniqueness goes far beyond its rightful place as one of the seminal explorations in science-fiction. The only thing left to say seems to be despite the iconic nature of its film poster, it has absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Still, it makes for a good piece of advertising. It must be if someone as oblivious as me is talking about Forbidden Planet over 60 years later.

4/5 Stars

Arrival (2016)

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Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.

It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.

Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.

What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously front to back in a perfect cohesive composition that comes into being in a single moment. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.

Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.

Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.

Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.

So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.

The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.

4/5 Stars

Review: Back to the Future (1985)

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Back to the Future zooms at us as a lovely mishmash of sci-fi thrills and 50s nostalgia that feels like pure happenstance. The one purported flaw, the fact that Marty McFly has no right to be in his family, is partially understandable. As Michael J. Fox wasn’t even slated to appear in the film. He was a last-minute replacement that just happened to pan out. But what a bit of serendipity it was all the same.

Without question Back to the Future clocks in as one of the most enjoyable adventures of the 1980s for delivering unadulterated audience satisfaction. It has all the great hallmarks we yearn for starting with rewarding characters, inventiveness that makes up for any corny interludes, and a pulse on what’s fundamentally entertaining.

Our introduction to the story tells us as much about Doc Brown as it does the teen rolling in on his skateboard, if not more so. Marty, the plucky kid with a penchant for rock n roll, finds Doc’s workspace in complete disarray thanks to an extended period of neglect. More on that later.

For now, the iconically cool vibe of “The Power of Love” underscores Alan Silvestri’s own cinematic orchestration on the project providing a fitting anthem for everything that is Back to the Future. McFly coasts around town on his skateboard using each passing car as his own personal lift. Rock is his main passion while his girlfriend Jennifer remains his main distraction. Meanwhile, Mayor Goldie Wilson looks to get reelected a la Nashville (1975) and Marty is accosted by locals championing the “Save the Clock Tower” campaign.

In fact, Hill Valley is a bit of a mythical city. It’s part Middle America, part fantasy, where the local principal is out to get our hero, his closest friend is a mad scientist, and he must battle against the ultimate affront of all time that he might not amount to anything just like his old man. Those are the stakes and this is the world. The perfect place for time travel. Doc in all his scatterbrained kookiness makes an appearance to introduce a DeLorean time machine into the storyline as well as the main conflict. The rest is in Marty’s hands as he whizzes away into the past.

The fact that it paints this world as a caricature as well instead of reality, far from being a weakness, becomes one of its bolstering charms. Refrains of “Mister Sandman” play throughout town. The local marques boast the star power of Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan (wink wink) in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954). Further still, the local five and dime features the tunes of Nat King Cole, Pattie Page, and of course, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Everyone gets a plug to set the scene.

A few good-natured jabs at incumbent President Reagan are also in order. After all, who could ever believe that an actor could become a president? Of course, nothing is all too surprising in this day and age. Still, the 50s via the 1980s were in many ways both simpler times. Star Wars and Van Halen. Chuck Berry and Jackie Gleason. That was the life.

It devolves into a glorious unfolding of circumstances as worlds collide and Marty’s cause begins to unravel at two ends. First, he needs to get back to the future, hence the all-encompassing title but in his haste, he accidentally tampered with the natural order of things – namely the initial meet-cute of his mother and father. It subsequently instigates one of the most awkward cinematic mother-son relationships known to mankind.

Having done irreconcilable damage to their relationship, Marty must do all he can to get his parents back on track. The problems are innumerable. Namely his mother’s infatuation with him, the dreamy out-of-towner Calvin Klein, his father’s undeniable dorkiness, and of course the bullies to end all bullies Biff. In fact, he’s been a thorn in George’s side for 30 years.

Still, with Doc’s aid (the quintessential secondary helper), Marty looks to right all that is wrong. It proves difficult as he attempts to set his parents up to attend the Enchanted Under the Sea Dance together – the fateful dance where young love kindled. Yet Marty watches his life slowly disappearing moment by moment as his parent’s union seems a slight chance at best.

With a few riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” and an imminent date with Doc at the old clock tower in town, a happy conclusion seems possible if not for the Libyan Terrorists still waiting for Doc in the future. After all, Plutonium doesn’t grow on trees and there are consequences for swiping it. Thankfully he doesn’t necessarily listen to his own advice about altering the future and Marty returns to a world that is strikingly different to the one he used to know. It’s strangely rewarding even if it does feel all too perfect in this third world.

While it becomes one of the most obvious films to shamelessly set up and plug its sequels (ultimately two other offerings), there’s no doubt that Back to the Future makes each a rewarding prospect. Not only is it boosted by a winsome performance by Family Ties favorite Michael J. Fox in a now defining role but Christopher Lloyd’s turn is equally laudable even if it easily typecast him in future tech nerd projects. There are certainly worst places to be.

Furthermore, under the tutelage of executive producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis became one of the great successes of the 80s and 90s with Back to the Future being yet another reason why Spielberg remained at the forefront of popular entertainment throughout the decade.

For their part, whether they like it or not Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd will remain pop culture gods in the hearts of nearly everyone. Bless them for that. Doc and Marty are as memorable now as they were back then and no doubt even years into the future. That’s right, a movie about a time-traveling DeLorean has staying power. There’s a bit of the magic of the movies for you.

4.5/5 Stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi.jpg“Let the past die.”  – Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

I left the theater feeling completely taciturn. It’s an onerous task to begin articulating all the jumbled fragments circulating through my mind but I will try my very best.  Certainly, there is a great deal to be enjoyed and to be relished about Episode VIII and you would be served well to go into The Last Jedi not searching out its faults but reveling in the successes that are there. Let it be known that there are many and Rian Johnson is a fine maker of movies as he guides us through the Resistance’s latest evasion of The First Order still up to their old business of quashing anyone who dares defy them.

True, I did not necessarily find it a narrative of revelatory reveals or epic showdowns in the vein of what I initially envisioned. However, I can see the picture separating itself from all of its predecessors — subverting the norm and drawing away from all that we knew before. That gels with much of what was said in the wake of The Force Awakens. It could not simply be another Empire Strikes Back if the new franchise was to flourish. In that regard, there’s no doubt Johnson’s film is an undisputed success building on the character arcs instigated in J.J. Abrams’ effort.

Yet my feelings are somehow conflicted.  Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) call to action to Rey (Daisy Ridley) midway through was never more pointed. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” And that’s much of what has been done here. Not simply in a single film or to the Jedi order or the legacy of a character but in some respects to an entire franchise.

I am realizing that though I cherish Star Wars as my own, the many aspirations and fantasies of my childhood, it is a communal narrative. It might seem odd to get so thoroughly introspective but I can’t help it. Star Wars is almost inbred into my DNA.

Watching this film might topple the white knights. For one, the Jedi order as we know it. They lose much of their mythical stature that they always evoked. We already lost Han Solo and it’s little surprise that Luke and Leia (with Carrie Fisher’s passing) will most likely not be returning either. The old guard has been all but removed from their posts (with the exception of R2, C3PO, and Chewbacca though Anthony Daniels is the only other returning core cast member).

But it’s no surprise that I often savor the past — the way things used to be. That’s part of what made The Force Awakens such an enjoyable ride. There was an innate sense that this was something new, yes, but it was also squarely centered on the glories of the original trilogy. If I said it once I said it a thousand times, it was like returning to the company of old friends.

Now the old is gone and don’t get me wrong the new additions were greatly appreciated. Once more Rey (Ridley), Fin (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Issac) are indubitably winning personalities and fine action heroes. It’s easy to become immersed in their individual journeys along with the newcomers such as Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). However, that doesn’t take away my wistfulness at the conclusion of The Last Jedi.

It wasn’t even the kind of bittersweet conclusion we saw in earlier installments either but a plaintive ending without a giant climax. Harrison Ford received a venerable though tragic send off. His contemporaries not so much. There is still hope and events have been prolonged for Episode IX but not in some monumental cliffhanger fashion.

Whenever I take in a new film I am also constantly filtering it through the reference points that I already know. Obviously, Star Wars has such a vast lineage that must be sorted through but this latest film also can be read through various other archetypes. It strikes me that Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero I always aspired to emulate, was like Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man — waiting in the wings until he finally stepped out of the shadows.

Though I enjoyed that moment and the pure rush of adrenaline when he came back to the fore, expectations do not always correlate with reality.  Although we get to see Luke Skywalker and there are some enjoyable moments, the best of them come as all too brief reunions with his faithful astromech pal and his sister followed by a showdown with his main adversary — The nephew who turned to the Dark Side — again it was this wistful sense of an anticlimax.

We see in Luke what Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) once was at least in a visual sense. A hermit who has removed himself from society. Cloaked, bearded, and detached. But whereas Old Ben was a wise, eccentric, and even a fatherly wizard, Luke has become a world-wearied, surly misanthrope. A far cry from the man we dreamed about.

The reverberations of the past echo down in other ways too from the inciting distress signal from his sister that started him off on this cinematic adventure all those many years before and then a visitation from a furry friend.

Likewise, the final showdown is somehow more reminiscent to the archetypal lightsaber battle of A New Hope than all the fanciful epic showdowns we imagined of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker tackling every conceivable villain with his green lightsaber. The old man’s words even mirror the final lines of his late mentor (Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you. Just like your father).

Even briefly with lightsaber in hand facing down the greatest forces in the universe as we always thought possible in our mind’s eye, there’s a momentary catharsis. Though the full satisfaction of the moment is stripped from us. Luke is not quite how we remembered him, nay, maybe not even the same man Mark Hamill embodied all those years ago.

It does bring to mind the mythological line out of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And it’s still true of Luke Skywalker for those in the galaxy far, far away and right there he can remain a hero.

The film’s most intriguing dynamic reveals itself in the perceived connection between arguably our two most crucial characters in Rey and Kylo Ren also known as Ben Solo. But that core struggle between the two of them — literally the dissonance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force — is rudely disrupted. It’s such an ambiguous dividing line between good and evil and though it still remains, the character of Supreme Leader Snoke, equally implicated in this web comes off as little more than a ploy. All the potential grand conspiracies around it are gone in a puff of improbable smoke.

Intertwined with this is Rey’s familial identity which has been of paramount importance to everyone ever since these new pictures were conceived. It’s not so much that I minded what the revelation was (minor as it was) but it was more the fact that this bit of seemingly crucial exposition was so quickly cast aside as well. It felt once more a bit like a bait and switch — as if the Star Wars saga was somehow rewriting its own mythos in counterintuitive ways.

Maybe for once, Star Wars has become a bit more pragmatic; it has sought out realism and the things of this world more than a galaxy far, far away. Here I will admittedly contradict myself but I am not sure how to deal with this development because Star Wars was always a fantasy, always a science fiction fairy tale built out of imagination and dreams. Now it seems to be inching more and more toward the real world. Not because there are any fewer lightsaber battles or blaster fights or fewer alien species and star systems to explore, but the makeup of the new generation of characters is somehow different.

It is a pipe dream to believe that Star Wars could always be the same because it was not created in a vacuum, it is no longer George Lucases, and it has so many other parties invested in it. I for one must come to accept that. The film ends on a rather odd beat with young children getting rapt up in tales of the Last Jedi and looking off into space empowered by the hope brought by the Resistance before the credits roll. Though it felt very un-Star Wars it’s somewhat fitting given this new direction.

Hopefully, younger fans eat up this latest installment and conceive adventures and worlds of their own like I once did, feeding on the visions of the screen as fuel for countless Lego lightsaber battles and made up assaults on the enemy forces with their ragtag band of Rebel Scum. These new films don’t mean so much to me but maybe they can mean something to the current generation. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to do.

Will I see the Last Jedi again? I wouldn’t be at all surprised but unlike The Force Awakens, this isn’t so much an extension of the original trilogy. This is a breaking of the chain. This is something starkly different and it’s taken the galaxy into uncharacteristic territory.

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions. But the boy inside of me still yearns for the Luke Skywalker of my youth as naive as that might sound. I suppose I’ve never been much of a realist.

4/5 Stars

Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

Blade_Runner_2049_poster.pngThe finest compliment that can be paid to Blade Runner 2049 is that it is indubitably the most enigmatic film I have seen in ages. Typically, that’s newspeak for a film that probably deserves multiple viewings, because its intentions, much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are not always clearly laid out. Especially in this day and age when we often expect things to be given to us and our hands to be held as an audience.

For that very reason, those who admired the original will potentially find a worthy successor in Denis Villeneuve’s rendition but this cult franchise might be hard-pressed to convert a new fanbase. Because while the greatest cinematic achievements are often equally artistic endeavors and continually entertaining, Blade Runner is worthy of the former while still lacking the kind of visceral fun that will grab hold of a new generation.

Still, there’s a necessity to draw up a distinction between faulty pacing and a film that is completely comfortable moving at the pace it deems important. The film paints in panoramas and epic strokes that the Ridley Scott’s original simply could not manage. Though perhaps more importantly, it did develop a cyberpunk, tech-noir aesthetic that created a new template for so many future projects.

The veteran cinematographer and Villeneuve favorite, Roger Deakins, produces visual splendors of the first degree with his own brand of photography. They are the kind of immaculate frames where shot after shot can be admired each one on its individual merit as if perusing a vast gallery of paintings. One important key is that oftentimes we are given enough time to take them in without frenetic editing completely cannibalizing the pure joy of a single image.

It can similarly be lauded as not merely a piece of entertainment for thinking people but a piece of visual art and a philosophical exploration. That last point will come up again later.

But it’s also quite easy to liken this installment to George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road (2015) which was able to provide a facelift to its material by successfully expanding the world that had been built in the original Mad Max trilogy. Likewise, this movie maintains much of the integrity of its predecessor by seeing the return of several cast members, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and even Ridley Scott to a degree as executive producer.

Our story in this addition begins with a new model of replicants, Nexus-9, who are used as the current force of blade runners as well as other more menial duties. Among their ranks is K (Ryan Gosling) an officer assigned by his boss at the LAPD (Robin Wright) to track down the last remaining rogue models of “skin jobs” still surviving.

Simultaneously the Tyrell Corporation has been replaced by a new organization led by a visionary named Wallace (Jared Leto) who has aspirations to create an even more magnificent android in search of true perfection of the human form. He’s also very much interested in a mysterious discovery that K makes while performing his duties.

Wallace sends out his henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks) to do his recon for him. Meanwhile, K travels far beyond the metropolis of Los Angeles with its unmistakable imagery full of Coca-Cola ads, Atari game parlors, and countless women walking the streets looking to pick someone up.

It’s comforting to know that my home away from home, San Diego, has been turned into a giant rubbish heap while Las Vegas looks more like the Red Planet than any earthly locale though still strewn with the remnants of the strip’s sleaze. If we ever took for granted that this is an apocalyptic world then we don’t anymore.

In keeping with the integrity of the picture and the curiosity of the viewers, it’s safe to say that Edward James Olmos makes his return as Gaff still partaking in his origami-making ways though his subject matter has changed slightly. And of course, the man everyone has been waiting for, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is of crucial importance that becomes at least a little bit more clear as K progresses in his search for concrete answers. The cornerstone of the story is, of course, Deckard’s beloved Rachael and the life of anonymity he has taken up since his retirement as a blade runner.

But until its very last frame Blade Runner 2049 feels cryptic and mesmerizing in a powerful way. The narrative is so expansive and grandiose making it questionable whether or not the film is able to maintain a cohesive core with a singular purpose but some potentially profound ideas are undeniable.

Plenty of spiritual imagery courses through it and hardly by accident. An almost Christ-like birth of a supernatural nature remains at its center and what we can presume to be several very conscious references to the book of Galatians —  a letter that not only tackled the so-called “fruits of the spirit” but Gnosticism or the idea that the Creator was a lesser divinity (not unlike Wallace).

Upon reflection, I’m still partial to the original because while both films grapple with the dividing line between the human and the non-human, the first Blade Runner came from a human perspective and that’s even in how it was shot and the technology of the time. It looks like our world, dark, dank, and gritty as it may be.

But in this narrative, while a further extension of that same world much of what we know is in question and it hardly feels like we are taking on a human point of view anymore but we are put in the place of a replicant — an android — even if he has a desire to be human. And again, that lack of humanity reveals itself in the very frames of the film full of unfathomable sights acting at times like a tomb-like mausoleum– so bleak and austere and cavernous.

That is to say that the original even in its darkness still managed to have a soul in the incarnation of Deckard. This picture though trying so desperately to do likewise feels even more detached. It, in some ways, brings to mind Gosling’s Drive character who was very much the same. And yet the other side still deserves some acknowledgment because there is an underlying sense that K does evolve into a more sympathetic individual as time passes. The case can be made that he is the most human.

Going beyond that, it’s also an exploration of how the world is saturated with sex and probably even more so than its predecessor. There’s a particularly unnerving scene where a man tries to combine fantasy with physical intimacy in a way that feels all too prevalent to our future society and consequently it brings up similar themes to Her (2013).

Even in such a future, it’s comforting to know that Presley and Sinatra live on in the hearts and the minds of the populous though that reassuring truth cannot completely overshadow the myriad of issues still to be resolved.

The final irony remains, the problems do not begin with the replicants themselves but in the hearts and souls of mankind. I see that central complexity of the film very clearly reflected in the two iconic objects. One an origami unicorn, the other a wooden horse.

Because we can read into the first if we want to as an indication that Deckard is a replicant and we can see the latter as confirmation that K is, in fact, human and yet on both those accounts we might be gravely mistaken. It comes downs to our own personal perceptions. Whether these beings were “born not made” or vice versa.

It gives more credence to the assertion that the eyes remain the window to the soul. That is never truer than in Blade Runner a film that fittingly opens with a closeup of an eye — the ambiguity established in the first shot. As K notes later, he’s never retired something that was born. Because “to be born means you have a soul.”

Of course, that razor-thin dividing line can be very difficult to dissect completely and that’s Blade Runner 2049 stripped down to arguably its most perplexing issue. Could it be true that an android could act with far more humanity than any human? The verdict might well be out far longer than 2049.

4/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars