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

La La Land (2016)

La_La_Land_Poster.jpgAfter watching this film two things become astoundingly obvious. Damien Chazelle has an equally unquenchable passion for film and for jazz. He’s also extremely bold, going all the way when it comes to choices as a director with everything from camera set-ups, lighting, staging, even casting. In fact, let’s start right there.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do not initially pop as performers. They’re not song and dance entertainers equal to the likes of Astaire & Rogers or Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. There’s no contest. But the brilliance of this decision is the very fact that these two beloved stars are one of the few remnants of the bygone Hollywood era where romantic stars were paired up together for more than one movie. Bogey & Bacall, Tracy & Hepburn, Loy & Powell, yes even Fred & Ginger.

And in a generation that’s often lacking that kind of history, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling still have a bit of that cinematic romance tying them together not just in one film but in multiple allowing the audience an even greater connection with them.

It makes the musical thoroughly modern and yet most certainly takes cues from the past and the rich tradition that it was born out of. The film’s knockout opening sequence is a far grander more audacious riff off of The Young Girls of Rochefort’ while the film’s ending reflects Chazelle’s deep affection for Umbrellas of Cherbourg wedded with the fantasy scapes of An American in Paris.

But sandwiched in between those obvious touchstones is a film that’s at moments mesmerizing, beautiful, and engaging on its own merits. Chazelle’s sheer boldness behind the camera is thoroughly impressive because he commits to telling his story in the most extraordinary way possible. It dares to dream, succumbing to the glories of the movie musical, taking risks that generally pay off in a big way. Like Jacque Demy he plants his film in the real world, in this case, contemporary Los Angeles, but he also stylizes it through elements such as production design, color, and lighting.

Beginning with the extended artistry of the initial traffic number, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera is about as fluid as they come, even overtly so, bringing such attention to itself that in many respects it becomes another figure, shaping how we view every one of these environments. Its conspicuous ways generally help to turn dance sequences and musical numbers into dynamic spectacles but there are individual moments where we might still question if a more static perspective is in order.

Still, it’s easy enough to disregard this as the camera is constantly casting its gaze on the world painted with the vibrant tones that brighten Los Angeles and allow it to enter a stylized awe-evoking state of eye-popping energy. Likewise, the storyline mixes and matches real-life locales with the artistic and the magical. It succeeds in becoming a diverse patchwork of lights and staging that sets the tone for every moment our stars are on the screen as everything from the backdrops to the very clothing that the actors wear is an extension of their current state.

Emma Stone is a real winner, genuinely hilarious and cute while still being overwhelmingly compelling as she struggles through her acting career balancing her “real job” as a barista with her true aspirations as an actress. And to his credit, although I wasn’t all that sure about Ryan Gosling in this film, with Stone by his side somehow it works rather magically superseding any other objection we might have about his performance. Like Astaire & Rogers, the song and dance routines become the galvanizing moments in the film as they should be. True, they hardly have the same caliber but their chemistry is what it holds it all together.

The minor influences of The Band Wagon can also be seen when they dance together in the night air overlooking Los Angeles. Meanwhile there gravity-defying routine at Griffith Observatory leaves behind simple references to Rebel Without a Cause and becomes its own spectacle entirely.

In all the other nooks and crannies you see the affection for film. The Killers poster on the wall, Ingrid Bergman’s face plastered up in the bedroom, and movie nights watching Bringing up Baby and Notorious with Grandma. But that’s only matched by the infatuation with jazz that similarly surges through the narrative. In this case, Sebastian is the vehicle for this passion. As far as criticisms the only one that I have heard voiced and I too can call into question is the very fact that a Caucasian male wants to resurrect jazz in its purest sense.

If nothing else it’s highly ironic because tradition says that this is an African-American art founded in those roots. That’s not to say that others cannot take the mantle necessarily but in some ways, Sebastian seems to think that people like Keith (John Legend) have sold out on their culture. I suppose that issue is still up for debate long after the credits roll.

Although “City of Stars” might be the most noted number developed by Justin Hurtwitz and Chazelle for this film, I must admit my personal favorite had to be “Audition” because Emma Stone delivers the song with such an earnestness that it’s mesmerizing to watch as all else disappears and we are left to watch her sing in empty space. Perhaps the film is often lacking the minimalistic moments and the juxtaposition of a scene such as this becomes especially striking. It’s so simple.

The final question to be asked is, what is La La Land or closer yet, what is Chazelle trying to say about fame and pursuing your dreams? Because in the end, it feels like a mixed message. The film is constantly a seesaw back and forth of following your passion, versus just making ends meet, to selling out or turning to alternative paths entirely. And when it’s all said and done and the movie has wrapped up we don’t know quite what we think.

We leave both characters in a place where they are undoubtedly better off than we found them in some respects. Still, there’s a wistfulness that hangs in the air, a bittersweet quality that lingers a moment longer and that gives La La Land a certain power that feels more complex than a simple musical fairy tale. That is yet another thing Chazelle borrows from Demy that works so well.

In some ways, it’s a very “un-Hollywood” ending and though the film does spend a lot of its time infatuated with that very industry, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be conflicted in the same breath.  In fact, that’s probably the most honest conclusion it could have arrived at. Dreams are good, the world can be a magical place if we let it be, but that does not mean for one instant that we will not be met with heartbreak or difficulties along the way.

I found myself unconsciously asking myself, What does the title La La Land even mean? I had not fully considered the implications of the phrase. Yes, it’s having your heads in the clouds, maybe even existing in an ethereal world of fanciful dreamscapes as much as it is a moniker for those who live the Hollywood lifestyle.  And it’s in both these places where the film dwells. Partially in the magical realms of dreams but also in those extremely human moments of confusion and failure. That is La La Land in a nutshell.

4.5/5 Stars

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

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This Canadian-American production, written by Nancy Oliver, undoubtedly frightens the more suppressed of us in the audience (mainly me) with its main hook, a man who begins a relationship with a female sex doll, but just like his entire town, most of us leave this film with a very different perspective. There’s an innate somberness to this film that hearkens to the palette and tone of Alexander Payne, and yet Lars and the Real Girl feels surprisingly innocent. The beauty of the film is how an entire community gets behind this one man and truly accepts him for who he is.

Lars Lindstrom as played so impeccably by Ryan Gosling is an isolated, lonely young man who goes to church on Sundays, lives across from his brother and sister-in-law, and avoids the cute girl at work with averted eyes. He’s an Elwood P. Dowd for the modern age. He trades in a disarming personality for an aloofness that conceals a deep well of loneliness and nevertheless shies away from normal everyday human interaction.

His views of sexuality and intimacy have been in many ways twisted up inside of him due to the specters in his past and a modern culture that does not know how to deal with sex by normal means. For Lars, it manifests itself in the form of a doll he buys off the internet. But far from using it to gratify his utmost desires sexually as we would expect, what he really does is project what he truly cares about onto this figure, christened Bianca.

She wears clothes like you and me, holds a nursing degree, lived the life of a missionary, and is constrained to a wheelchair, relaying all her thoughts to Lars and Lars alone. Harvey was an imaginary being whereas Bianca is tangible–in the flesh–sort of.

At first, this situation feels slightly uncomfortable and increasingly strange and in the moments of discovery Lars’s brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) are beside themselves. What will the town think? He’s crazy. What are they to do?

But the beautiful thing is that they seek counsel from older, wiser people in the community including the local minister and they preach a message of love, accepting Lars for who he is, and helping him through his healing process, whatever that means.

Everyone else only sees the freak, the dysfunction, but they fail to see the dysfunction in their own lives. It’s the ones who realize that–realize that they too have their own problems. They shed their hypocritical point of view and take Lars for who he is, quirks and all. By this point, the film has subverted expectations and the joke’s on us because although some people stop and gawk, the majority of the locals begin to rally around Lars.

He still maintains his delusions as his own insecurities, fears, and the dark recesses of his childhood become more evident. He’s fearful of contact, scared of being close, and it’s these moments that dredge up all the FOO, and he’s forced to deal with it.  But that makes way for some intricate conversations, brother to brother and between Lars and the kindly psychologist Dagmar.

It’s when he finally realizes just how much people care, that he’s able to let go. Give up Bianca and engross himself in the real world with a real girl. He doesn’t have to live life scared anymore. The film wins because of its sincerity. It never belittles. Never plays its story like a joke. For that, it deserves our respect as an audience. Even in the moments that it feels utterly absurd, pay it the respect it is due — just like what all these characters give to Bianca and in turn Lars.

What struck me in particular, was the nuance of all the main female characters. When we first meet Karin (Emily Mortimer) she is a generally caring sister-in-law who has such a great capacity to extend grace towards Lars. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), although she is a doctor, never becomes didactic–trying to change Lars or alter him– instead allowing him to heal of his own accord. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) is spot on as the Christian lady we all wish we knew. She cuts the holier than thou attitude, covering it with a heavy dose of genuine neighborly love. That speaks more than any amount of sermons or platitudes that can be spouted off as actions invariably speak louder than words.

Finally, Margo (Kelli Garner) is the epitome of the girl who Lars deserves. Sweet, authentic and a faithful friend. When Lars let’s go and concludes the grieving process, she is right by his side ready to live life next to him. She’s a real girl, through and through.

3.5/5 Stars

Drive (2011)

drive1You always think of the man in the getaway car as the wimp. Why else is he supposed to keep the engine running instead of helping with the job? Well, not anymore. Ryan Gosling completely demolishes that myth with Drive. It’s a neo-noir of sorts, but don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t your conventional Hollywood action flick. Albert Brook’s corrupt thug sans eyebrows says he used to back sexy European action films and that’s ironically enough what Drive is. There’s a new age electronic score to match the stylized action. Silky smooth slo-mo mixed with golden illumination of the characters and the L.A. nightscape.

Although he’s really a stunt driver and spends his spare time working as a mechanic for the shop owner (Bryan Cranston), the Kid (Gosling) works jobs on the side as a getaway car driver, and he’s the best of the best. He proves it in the opening minutes, perfectly timing his escape with the conclusion of a Clippers game. It makes disappearing into the night that much easier.

He keeps things in check, keeps his cards close to his body, and at times reminds me of Alain Delon in Le Samourai. He’s not quite so icy cool, almost serene, and yet that can disappear in a flash. So still, so slight of word and movement, and yet behind the wheel, he has so much purpose. He doesn’t use a gun. His methods are more brutal, and he only uses them when absolutely necessary. Such a role gives me a new found respect for Ryan Gosling. He really does seem to have the true ability to take on some interesting roles of varying degrees and intensities.

drive2All the characters around him are not necessarily fully developed entities on their own, but they function as more of an essence, developing this stylized world. Carey Mulligan is the aloof woman next door with the far-off gaze and quiet demeanor. There is an aura around her much like the Driver, maybe because they don’t talk much. There’s a mystery to them. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks have relatively short screen time, but they play pivotal roles in the film and they lend credence to the story because even if they’re no good, we have at least a little empathy towards them. And then Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are real crud of the earth who we don’t mind seeing suffer. It may not be a nice thing to say, but it’s undoubtedly the truth. The Driver seems outside of this fray at first, but he ends up getting involved in it whether it’s because of Irene or her husband’s botched robbery attempt. It becomes his business and it proves cataclysmic.

Aside from Le Samourai, there’s a bit of Bullitt here thanks to the ultra sleek car chases, and maybe even some Point Blank, another film that functions as a dreamy, unconventional thriller. We never see the inside of whatever jobs are being pulled, but it actually builds the tension as we sit on the outside waiting with the driver. He’s all business as the audience sits sweating it.

drive3What this film has and what I am not necessarily a proponent of, is the brutality and stylized gore. It fits the overall tone of Drive, but it does rub against me rather abrasively in a way that seems to make a spectacle of violence. That’s something that I don’t want. But then what is that saying about me? Do I find violence more palatable when it looks like an ugly and vile act? Yes, certainly, but I think I like it best when it is implied because that in itself seems perhaps even more stylized, and far less offensive.

But nevertheless, this story that parallels the fable of the scorpion and the frog is an engaging, albeit jarring ride.  You can help someone, you can want no part of them, but they will come right back and sting you because it’s in their nature. This is a story of relationships, of destruction, and a man who kicks it into high gear.

4/5 Stars

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)

crazystupid1Here is a film from screenwriter Dan Fogelman where Ryan Gosling acts as wingman for an estranged Steve Carell; seems like a basic enough pitch for a movie, and yet thankfully it’s not quite that simple. Early on Jacob (Gosling) implores the washed-up Cal (Carell) to lose the New Balance sneakers and drop the Gap for good. What follows is a lesson in how to be a “man again.” Also known as picking up women with new clothing, a better hairstyle, and a whole different strategy. Cal’s a man trying to step out and try new things after he found that his estranged wife of 20 years Emily (Julianne Moore) slept with another man. His understandable reaction at the time he heard the news was to jump out of a moving car. It hurt him both figuratively and literally.

So Jacob is the beginning of something new for Cal as he steps out to meet women. Some of the scenes make me want to crawl up into a ball out of the sheer awkwardness and that’s often the type of humor that Steve Carell revels in. He likes to make us squirm, and it happens on numerous occasions. He says all the wrong things at all the right times. You get the idea. But behind all this, he still has feelings for Emily, and he’s wistful in the presence of his kids. Everyone wants them to get back together. However, he’s not the only one facing romantic issues as his son Robbie and wing man Jacob soon have their own problems. Emily must figure out what she wants and up and coming lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone) must figure what is the best for her.

crazystupid2As for Cal, he attends a Parent Teacher Night to end all Parent Teachers Nights and it has to be the worst circumstances you could ever imagine. It gets uncomfortable quick as he learns who his son’s teacher is. I’ll spare you the details. Then there’s a  greatly hilarious twist that hits after all the primary cast find themselves in Emily’s backyard having a few unpleasant revelations. But the film doesn’t end there since the journeys of these characters have a little farther to go yet. They have to find themselves, navigating this crazy, and yes, maybe even a little stupid thing we know as love.

I must admit I like these guys in spite of those pick up lines (Lets get out of here) and attempts at romancing, because that stuff makes funny material for a film and we get some genuine laughs out of it, but it’s when we tear that down for a moment and look underneath all of that. That’s where we find true heart.

crazystupid3Most of these characters are well-meaning and likable and with those who aren’t, it’s forgivable, because they are necessary for the film’s humor initially. Namely Ryan Gosling and Liza Lapira, who always seem ready with a quip or maybe a one night stand with an obliging member of the opposite sex. The movie needs these characters I suppose since for starters it’s Jacob who helps Cal find a different side of himself. Liz who goads her friend Hannah to take a chance which she finally capitalizes on. But in truth, most all of these main players have a sense of humanity about them, mixed in with their faults and failures. Cal was once a good father and now he’s made a lot of mistakes. Jacob is a total womanizer, but when he cares about people he really does. He loses all the false pretense about him. Ironically, Cal changes Jacob as much or perhaps more so than Jacob changes him, which is important in the evolution of this film. They teach each other and in turn help each other move forward.

Even the teenagers Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) may have misguided affections in a sense, but we cannot help to empathize with them in their innocence. They’re young and in love and they don’t really know what that means. Very few of us probably do. Whether it’s finding “The One” or discovering your soulmate or not, it’s easy to forgive Crazy, Stupid, Love for its conclusions which might feel a tad cliche and bright. Just this one time, because these are characters who we don’t mind giving a happy ending to.

3.5/5 Stars