REVIEW: “Blade Runner 2049”

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Green-lighting “Blade Runner 2049” could be considered one of the gutsiest movie moves in recent years. Ridley Scott’s 1982 original landed with mixed reactions both from critics and moviegoers. It’s unique and unconventional approach to practically everything pushed many viewers away and it failed to bring in the money Warner Brothers was banking on. Yet over time perceptions have changed and the film is widely regarded as a science fiction classic.

Now, 39 year later, along comes “Blade Runner 2049” and you could say it has followed the same path as its predecessor. While critics weren’t as divided, audiences didn’t come out for it and the movie fell well short of what it needed at the box office to break even. Yet just like the ’82 film, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect a re-evaluation over time and a greater appreciation for what “2049” is doing.

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Talks of a “Blade Runner” sequel had been ongoing for years with names like Christopher Nolan and a returning Ridley Scott attached. Denis Villeneuve eventually signed on to direct and with him came long-time collaborator and top-tier cinematographer Roger Deakins (fourteen Oscar nominations without a win and counting). What quickly became obvious was Villeneuve’s intention to keep certain things very close to the original. The look, the tone, even the deliberate storytelling all hearken back to Scott’s picture.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a Blade Runner for the LAPD. In case you need a refresher, Blade Runners are tasked with hunting down and “retiring” bioengineered humans known as replicants. K’s superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) puts him on the trail of a rogue replicant of interest (Dave Bautista) who needs to be put down. In his encounter with his target K discovers evidence of a child born possibly from two replicants. Joshi believes this startling knowledge that replicants can reproduce could start a war so she orders K to hunt down the child and erase any evidence of its existence.

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The devilish Tyrell Corporation from the first film is no more and the even more nefarious Wallace Corporation has risen to take its place. It’s ran by a mannered, milky-eyed Jared Leto who has also learned of the miracle child’s possible existence. And as you can probably guess, he wants it for his own reasons. He sends his personal strong-arm Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to tail Agent K and capture the child for the company.

The writing team of Hampton Francher (co-writer of the original film) and Michael Green (who contributed to four 2017 screenplays) wisely steer clear of altering the “Blade Runner” formula. Much like its predecessor, 2049 is a methodically structured puzzle, solved through slow but persistent drips of revelation. Surrounding that central mystery is a visually jaw-dropping world – a consistent evocation of the original film’s unforgettable aesthetic. Production designer Dennis Gassner deserves a ton of credit for visualizing such a stimulating dystopia, from the exquisitely dank and dreary Los Angeles to the glowing orange hue of the sandy and barren Las Vegas. Then Deakins elegantly shoots the world in a way that amplifies the moody sci-fi/neo-noir vibe and immerses the audience.

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Gosling (known for often acting in a perpetual state of lethargy) is a perfect fit for his role. K is a character hungry to feel and there is a surprising emotional resonance in Gosling’s portrayal. K is a tragic figure, mutually disliked or dismissed by both humans and replicants. He attempts to fill that void with a holographic companion called Joi (Ana de Armas). But ultimately it’s his mission to hunt down the child that puts the pieces together for him. One of those pieces is a returning Harrison Ford who brings an unexpected subtlety and nuance to the now older and wiser Rick Deckard.

“Blade Runner 2049” isn’t the first movie to pose the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Ridley Scott has long been fascinated with variations of that question and Villeneuve’s movie is no different. It’s an idea that lies under the surface of “2049” and its entire two hours and forty-five minute runtime. It is a bit long which certainly contributed to the lower box office. And viewers attuned to more action-packed rhythms have undoubtedly had a hard time with the picture. That’s a shame. “2049” has more to say, has more visual ingenuity and takes more risks than the bulk of the genre films we get today.

So for now it appears the gutsy call hasn’t paid off. But I can’t help but believe that over time “2049” will be reassessed by many who dismissed it and I can honestly see it someday being heralded as a new science fiction classic just like its predecessor. Sure, those are bold words but some people were saying the same thing in 1982.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Spectre”

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In a way I owe Daniel Craig a debt of gratitude. His tenure as James Bond is what lured me into the hugely popular franchise. Purists will likely scoff, but Craig’s iteration of the British super spy has featured less cheese and more humanity and vulnerability. An argument could be made that the high-energy cheese is what made those earlier films great. I believe that to a degree. But ultimately it has been Craig’s Bond run than has drawn me and given me an greater appreciation for the franchise as a whole.

This is Craig’s fourth turn as the dapper 007 and his second Bond film with director Sam Mendes. Their previous installment “Skyfall” was a global juggernaut at the box office becoming the 14th film to earn over $1 billion dollars. It was also well received by critics many of whom called it Craig’s best Bond picture. So now comes the next film and the unenviable task of matching the success of its predecessor. To do that the film was given a budget that has made it one of the most expensive movies ever created. But throwing money at a project doesn’t automatically equal good results.

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“Spectre” starts off firing with Bond in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. He’s on a deeply personal mission which leads him to a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Sciarra is connected to a sinister secret criminal organization called Spectre which is led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). At the same time M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling to protect MI6 from the aggressive head of the Joint Intelligence Service who wants to do away with the 00 program.

Bond tracks Spectre to Rome, the first leg of his globetrotting search for answers. He discovers that he may have a deeper connection to Ernst and his organization. As 007 hunts to unearth the truth, Spectre is out to stop him at all costs. They go head-to-head in a number of exotic locales including Rome, Morocco, Austria, and London. One of the film’s strong points is how well it captures all of the fun and varied locations.

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In fact all of “Spectre” looks good. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography lives up to the franchise expectations and at times it absolutely shines. The Mexico City opening is exciting and energetic featuring several visual highlights. The same goes for a fun car chase through the streets of Rome and a thrilling plane vs. Land Rover chase down a snowy Austrian mountain. The film definitely has its moments.

Unfortunately “Spectre” also has its flaws and no amount of visual splendor can cover them up. While I liked “Spectre” as a whole, I was expecting more action, more energy, more drama, more character development, and more signature Bond moments. Compared to Craig’s three previous Bond movies “Spectre” feels hollow, inert, and terribly inconsistent. After the phenomenal Mexico City start, the movie is constantly fluctuating between excitement and slow stretches of vapidity.

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You simply don’t expect this considering how well these movies have worked in the past. But as I sat in the theater I kept waiting for the film to gain its footing. I kept waiting for it to kick into gear. But there is a frustrating sluggishness to the screenplay – the collaborative work of four different writers. It wastes so much time that could’ve been better spent developing some of the characters namely the story’s villain.

Christoph Waltz is a superb actor but the amount of screen time he is given never allows him to flesh out a compelling villain. His villainy is mainly referred to more than shown and we never see that big Bond vs. Villain moment. The closest we get is an absurd torture scene that features one head scratching moment after another. I was so excited to see him as a Bond villain but this was a tremendous waste. As was Dave Bautista as Spectre’s hitman. He’s a stereotypical henchman who shows as much emotion as a house plant.

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Craig gives another good performance but he isn’t offered any material to stretch his character. All of the supporting Bond cast members are here including Q (Ben Whishaw) who gets more screen time than before. He’s a lot of fun. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) has a few good lines and Fiennes is good when wrangling back and forth for the 00 program’s survival. Unfortunately both feel underused. Lea Seydoux is the main ‘Bond girl’ this time around and her performance is solid. But her character is a bit flimsy and uneven.

That could be the best way to describe “Spectre” – uneven. It’s a film undoubtedly approached with mile-high expectations from many. Perhaps too high. But truthfully expectations aren’t the problem. This is a film that features some fine action sequences. It has a good story at its core and there are moments where it comes together in really interesting ways. But there are also moments where it makes practically no sense and other moments where it sputters and spins its wheels. Still I liked the movie and I’m anxious to give it another look, but with this cast and this pedigree I can’t help but be disappointed with what we get.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

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I don’t know if anyone expected Marvel’s cinematic universe to be the humongous global success that it has become. The comic book giant’s first wave of films brought most of its heavy hitters to the big screen and millions of people to the theaters to watch them. Most critics have responded positively to these films while also showing signs of growing weary of them. But Marvel has started their second wave of movies which will feature some of their more obscure characters. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one such film and I truly felt Marvel was overreaching. But an over $90 million opening weekend proved me wrong. But as the Transformers franchise has proven, a big box office take doesn’t always represent the quality of the movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a very different installment into Marvel’s movie world. It stands apart in a variety of ways including its tone, its setting, and the characters it brings to the table. It’s overall different feel may have been one of the things that has attracted audiences to it. That being said, it won’t take you long to recognize some pretty familiar plot points wrapped in the film’s shiny, CGI-heavy packaging.

At its core “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a story that you’ve seen before. A ragtag group of misfits must overcome their criminal pasts and personal animosities and join together to quell a cosmic threat. It’s that basic and you can see many of the plot angles coming a mile away. But for me a familiar story can be overcome if its centered around good characters. As luck would have it, good characters are one of the film’s greater strengths.

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Chris Pratt continues to deservedly catch people’s attention. Here he buffs up but maintains that lovable goofiness that seems inherent in every character he portrays. He plays a petty space pirate named Peter Quill, a.k.a.Star-Lord. After swiping a mysterious orb, he finds himself being pursued by the henchman of an alien fanatic known as Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan has made a deal with the ominous Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve the orb in exchange for power to destroy a rival planet.

Peter gets in way over his head and as his circumstances worsen he finds himself joined by a raccoon bounty hunter named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana,), and a revenge-fueled warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista). The dysfunctional team begin working together each for their own personal reasons, but as you can probably guess, a proper bond begins to form between them as things move along.

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For me the characters are what anchors this film. Each are unique in their own way and each contribute to the undeniable personality of the movie. There are times when the script does them no favors. There are some corny lines and there are times when the jokes fall flat or feel forced. But there are other times where the chemistry between the characters and between the performers just clicks. These are the moments when the jokes work and the camaraderie is entertaining. I also loved the 70s and 80s culture references sprinkled throughout the film. I did find myself wanting more in terms of backstory from the group (aside from Peter). I also thought Ronan, while extremely cool, was an incredibly bland villain who won’t be remembered past the end credits. But ultimately I liked the characters and am interested enough to see them together again (something that is certain to happen).

The effects and makeup are genuinely good particularly with Rocket and Groot as well as the host of alien side characters three of which are played by Djimon Houndou, Karen Gillan, and one of my favorite character actors Michael Rooker. I do wish Marvel would shake up their standard formula for big action endings. It seems that every film ends with a huge 20 minute CGI blowout that leans more on chaos than coherency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the ending of “Guardians” doesn’t work. It just felt a bit generic and almost what I’m starting to expect out of every Marvel movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” marks Marvel’s first real foray into their rich cosmic universe. It is in the same universe as the other Marvel pictures yet it feels strikingly different. That is part of the charm the movie possesses. It aims to be unique and features characters that I’m not that familiar with. But how that unfamiliarity influenced my response to the movie compared to other Marvel films is hard to figure out. In fact my response to the film as a whole may seem confusing. There are some glaring flaws and shortcomings but at the same time I was entertained enough through the film’s 2 hours. In that respect “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a success. Yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it just barely missed true greatness.

VERDICT – 3 STARS