Friday, October 06, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049: Even More Of A Slow Burner Than The First One

Now playing at multiplexes from here to the off-world colonies:

BLADE RUNNER 2049

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017)


Now, for a long time I didn’t think that there would actually be a sequel to BLADE RUNNER. But then, I didn’t think there’d be more episodes of Twin Peaks, more PLANET OF THE APES movies, or another GHOSTBUSTERS, or…well, you get the idea.

So, yeah, I should know better than to discount what the studios might still consider viable commercial properties. So here’s the long-awaited BLADE RUNNER 2049, coming 35 years after Ridley Scott’s original, but, wait, it’s actually more the follow-up to the DIRECTOR’s CUT that was released in 1992, or maybe it’s the sequel to the 2008 FINAL CUT.

There has been much debate as to which version of the first BLADE RUNNER is the definitive one (we can disregard the International Theatrical release, the US Broadcast version, and the Workprint), mainly because there’s an argument as to whether or not the protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison ford), is a replicant (a human-like robot, for those not in the know), and which version confirms this (or not).

Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ARRIVAL), working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancer, who co-wrote the original with David Peoples, and co-wrote this one with Michael Green; posits a new LAPD Blade Runner named K played by Ryan Gosling, who’s trying to solve a mystery involving a box he found on a mission full of the bones of a replicate.

The film tells us right off that Gosling’s K is a replicant, who may be a little conflicted about having to retire his own people as we learn in an opening fight scene with Dave Bautista (Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies) as a runaway replicant.

Through some detective work, with his boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) breathing down his neck, K discovers that the remains belong to a replicant named Rachel, who died in childbirth. That’s the same Rachel – the replicant played by Sean Young that Deckard fell for and left Los Angeles with for greener pastures at the end of the first one.

Meanwhile, we see K’s homelife where he interacts with his love interest, an electronically produced hologram named Joi played by the fetching Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who really breathes a lot of life into this project. At one point, Armas secures a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) for K so that she can engage with a surreal threesome with him.

By this point, one is probably wondering ‘what about Deckard? Where’s he?’ Well, get comfy as BR 2049 is two hours and 43 minutes and it’s well over half the movie before it gets to Ford.

In the meantime, we meet Jared Leto as the sinister yet zen-like Niander Wallace, who’s the films equivalent to the original’s Dr. Tyrell as he took over the corporation from him; Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s killer servant Luv, Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, a designer of the implanted dreams in replicants’ minds, and Lennie Jame as Mister Cotton, who runs a child labor camp, and helps K find Deckard.

K is led to believe that he may be the son of Rachel and Deckard, as there’s a memory of a wooden horse that he previously thought was implanted, but the date carved in it is his birth-date which is the same date carved in the tree where Rachel was buried.

Ford’s Deckard finally gets his screen-time in the last third, and it’s the lovably gruff, grumbling, rough and tumble performance we’ve come to expect from the 75-year old icon. It’s a shame he couldn’t have entered the movie sooner.

When I was 12 and saw the original BLADE RUNNER – the 1982 theatrical release – I wasn’t a fan at first. I found it to be very slow, dreary, and I disliked Deckard’s drab demeanor (I was expecting something more along the lines of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, I guess), but with repeat viewings it really grew on me. The 1992 DIRECTOR’S CUT really won me over, and I also loved THE FINAL CUT, though I’d be hard pressed to list what were really the crucial differences.

Upon seeing the trailers for this sequel, I knew one thing - even if the film is a disappointment story-wise, it’s was going to look amazing. And, sure enough, it looks fantastic. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ Oscar worthy visuals beautifully capture Dennis Gassner’s production design which expands on the definitively dystopian world of the original, adding the vast orange vistas of the deserts outside of LA, and the gorgeously lit lairs of Wallace’s opulent palace.

You’ll have plenty of time to luxuriate in those sets, as the film stretches out for long sequences, between what few action scenes there are, where K is flying or walking through them to get to his various destinations.

While the visuals expand on the look of Deckard and company’s world, the narrative doesn’t expand much on the idealogy of the world Phillip K. Dick created in his 1967 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” because Fancer and Green’s screenplay predominantly focuses on circling back on the events of the previous installment.

Also circling back is the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch jars throughout with otherworldly pulsing electronica that re-purposes the main themes of Vangelis’ soundtrack for the first one.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 has moments that are eye-poppingly immersive yet it also has moments that are dull as hell. 


To fully embrace the experience, it will definitely help to be a fan, or have at least seen the original. But it’s even more of a slow burner than the first one was. If you saw the original (or any version) and thought it was boring, then this one will bore you even more.

But Overall, Villeneuve’s take on the BLADE RUNNER is a fascinatingly flawed anti-epic that should delight the casual and the hardcore largely because it’ll give them something new to talk about.

However it
s received, I bet that decades from now, there’ll be a different version (BLADE RUNNER 2049: THE FINAL CUT perhaps?) that we’ll all probably prefer.

More later...

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Derivative AMERICAN MADE Gets By On Tom Cruise’s Confused Charm

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:

AMERICAN MADE (Dir. Doug Liman, 2017)



Let’s be honest - this movie has been made many times before. It’s the GOODFELLAS model of a cocky guy who does corrupt things to get the good life, while his wife on the side initially disapproves, but then is wooed by all the money coming in. This all, of course, ends badly, but not before some flashy montages stuffed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and some comical scrapes with the law.

AMERICAN MADE’s subject Barry Seal, buoyantly played by Tom Cruise, has even been portrayed five times before - mostly on the small screen by Dennis Hopper in the TV movie DOUBLECROSSED, by Theddeas Phillips in an episode of the Spanish language series Alias el Mexicano, by Dylan Bruno in an episode of Narcos, and by David Semark in the mini-series America’s War on Drugs.


Just last year, Michael Paré had a supporting part as Seal in the true crime thriller THE INFILTRATOR starring Bryan Cranston.

So yeah, Seal’s story has been touched on just a little bit.

We meet Seal here as a bored TWA pilot in the late ‘70s who is recruited by a smooth, scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson (EX MACHINA, THE REVENANT, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), as CIA operative Monty Schafer, to fly reconnaissance missions in Central America to collect counter-intelligence. Since when he tells his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) the name of the company he’s been offered to work for is called IAC, which stands for “Independent Aviation Consultants,” she says “that sounds fuckin’ made up,” he keeps his new job secret from her.

On one of his missions he is approached in Panama by the Medellín Cartel, made up of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yate Escobar) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), to smuggle cocaine for them from Columbia to Louisiana. This results in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences in which Cruise, who did much of his own flying stuntwork (of course he did), has trouble clearing a short jungle runway and almost crashes into the trees.

Seal gets into running guns for the Contras and is given his own remote airport in Mena Arkansas, where he hires several pilots to help him on his many missions. There’s always got to be a slimy character that may screw up things for the wheeling and dealing lead and it comes in the form of Lucy’s brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones).

SP Seal has to contend with that along with the DEA, CIA, the Contras, the Sandinistas, and the Reagan White House, where we get cameos by Oliver North (Robert Farrior), and George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer).

While AMERICAN MADE, written by second-time screenwriter Gary Spinelli (the little-seen STASH HOUSE was his first), recalls the formula of the aforementioned GOODFELLAS, and covers the same ground that the also aforementioned THE INFILTRATOR, SICARIO, WAR DOGS, SAVAGES, and especially BLOW did, it’s an enjoyable romp that features Cruise’s most invested acting in ages (take that, THE MUMMY!).

Cruise delightfully puts a cynical spin on his TOP GUN persona of old, and carries the movie with his charm even when he’s mostly confused about how in over his head he is.

It may be an overly familiar ride that plays fast and loose with the facts, but it entertains for most of its running time, and it’s commendable that it doesn’t ape the Scorsesean style as extreme as AMERICAN HUSTLE did.

Though not as good as their previous film, EDGE OF TOMORROW, this film has director Liman and Cruise appearing to work well together, which bodes well for their proposed sequel to EDGE. Maybe that one will have a better, less generic title than their first two efforts.

More later...

Thursday, September 28, 2017

BATTLE OF THE SEXES Should’ve Been A Drunk History Sketch With The Same Cast

Now playing at theaters, surprisingly mostly multiplexes, near me:

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

(Dirs. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)


This is the time of year that we get movies like this. Star-studded dramatic re-tellings of historical or quasi historical events packaged as prestige pictures or, to use a more accurate term, Oscar-bait.

In this overly earnest one, Husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) put Emma Stone and Steve Carrell through the true story motions of portraying reigning women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs, who faced off in a famous match in the early ‘70s.

King, who was 29 at the time, was challenged by the 55-year old Riggs, shortly after striking out on her own tennis tournament and union just for women after disagreements with the US Lawn Tennis Association about equal pay. Timely, huh?


The film juggles three strands - it’s the story of Carrell as the washed-up, compulsive gambler Riggs trying to get back on top, it’s the story of Stone’s King having an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) to the chagrin of her husband (Austin Stowell), and it’s the story of sexism in the burgeoning era of feminism.

But as promisingly rich as those elements initially appear, they only brush up against each other and fail to help form a compelling narrative. King is depicted as a driven, focused player; Riggs a goofy self-promoter, but they never clash in any impactful manner. There’s a lot of lip service given to the theme of women overcoming the idea that they’re the weaker sex, but the film lacks the passion to fully engage with its premise.

That’s perhaps, as with other recent true story prestige pictures such as SULLY, and LION there’s only really 20-30 minutes of story here. This results in long draggy stretches with little juice. Stone’s former Broadway co-star Alan Cummings comes in to add some sass to the project, but as much as I liked the mini-“Caberet” re-union, his role as a smirking fashion designer feels contrived (especially in his final lines) even though it’s based on a real person.

But I’m hesitant to blame writer Simon Beaufoy because he has had better experience with adapting true stories (127 HOURS, EVEREST, his Oscar-winning screenplay for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) before. The responsibility falls on Dayton and Faris for their lightweight and overly conventional approach to this material.

I think this movie would be an excellent segment of the Comedy Central show, Drunk History, with the same cast. If you haven’t seen the show, it involves celebrities (usually comedians) being filming while getting intoxicated and recounting historical events. For example, one episode features sloshed comic actor Steve Berg explaining the behind-the-scenes making of CITIZEN KANE, while in black and white recreations, Jack Black plays Orson Welles, and John Lithgow as William Randolph Hearst, act the scenes out, even lip-synching Berg’s quotes.

The fact that several comic actors – Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, and Chris Parnell (all SNL alumni) – appear in supporting parts, and the film is most lively when it goes for a laugh, makes me wish for a Drunk History version even more.

As it is, despite some invested acting by Carrell and Stone, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a bland, formulaic trip through dated clichés and the expected tropes of a period piece soundtrack (bad timing including Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for obvious reasons), and the obligatory photos of the real people at the end. It’s a well-intentioned, and relatively well-made drama, but it’ll most likely be forgotten by the time the awards season comes around.

Also, while the concept of a hyped-up tennis exhibition helping to change things is an intriguing premise, when it comes to the climax of the match itself, the realization that tennis is among the least cinematic of sports is hard to escape.

And that’s even when the stakes were as high as they supposedly were in September of 1973 at the Houston Astrodome in an event that was watched on T.V. by millions of people.

More later...