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

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REVIEW: “Sicario”

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I think we have reached a point where we can watch a movie and confidently say “That is a Denis Villeneuve film”. The French-Canadian filmmaker can be defined as someone not afraid to claw deep under the surface of difficult subject matter. He also spares his audience no amount of discomfort or unease when telling his stories. His films are incredibly cinematic and are recognized by both their narrative and visual intensity. Several films have helped reveal his uniquenesses, but his new film “Sicario” is his best yet.

Every one of Villeneuve’s characteristics mentioned above are  present in “Sicario”, a border thriller that stings with relevancy. Emily Blunt is superb playing Kate Macer, an FBI field agent specializing in hostage rescue. The film opens with a gripping sequence featuring Kate leading a raid on an Arizona housing division. Her actions catch the attention of her superiors who then ask her to join a task force led by Department of Defense ‘advisor’ Matt Graver (played with amusing cockiness by Josh Brolin). The mission is to strike back at the drug cartels responsible for a number of brutal killings. Anxious to finally make a significant difference, Kate agrees to join Graver’s team.

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Also on the team is the mysterious and shadowy Alejandro played with unflinching precision by Benicio del Toro. Back in 2000 he won the Supporting Actor Oscar for “Traffic”, but this stellar performance rises above his past work. His Alejandro is impenetrable – a walking contrast of information and emotion. The vast majority of the film is shown through Kate’s perspective. Like her, we struggle to figure out Alejandro, Graver, and the entire mission for that matter. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan meticulously feeds us small bits of information never allowing us the feeling of being fully informed.

“Sicario” is also strengthened by the sting of its moral ambiguity. There is no easy way to navigate the morality of what we see on screen. Kate struggles with it and Villeneuve forces his audience to struggle with it too. It casts a bright light on the drug war, border violence, and government policy painting each as murkier and far more complex than we normally hear through political talking points. It operates under the idea that we have lost the drug war. Now it’s about control and making sure it doesn’t consume us. But does that mean compromising our moral conscience and turning what we known to be ‘right and wrong’ into a much more gray area? These questions hit Kate like a crashing wave.

And there is no way to talk about this movie without mentioning its phenomenal presentation. Villeneuve has perfectly matched the intensity of his story and subject matter with a visual rendering that is truly absorbing and stimulating. It will come as no surprise that Roger Deakins’ cinematography is magnificent. When will this man finally win the Oscar he deserves? His camerawork is key in making many of these scenes work. There are no vanity or prestige shots. They all have meaning. Deakins visually infuses so many scenes with tension and potency.

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There is one particular sequence that may be my favorite of the year. Kate joins Graver’s team in a extradition mission to Juarez. They are to move across the border, pick up a high value target, and make it back. Deakins’ magic takes over the moment they leave the military base. Through his lens, Deakins reveals to us the boiling tension of the location and situation – the same tension that Kate is experiencing for the first time. It is also helped by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s simmering score – one of the year’s best. The entire sequence is cinema at its finest.

“Sicario” is a searing and provocative thriller – visceral and unflinching in its depiction of a situation with no easy answer. Denis Villeneuve and company expertly craft a cinematic experience grounded in relevancy and unwilling to sugar coat its subject matter. Villeneuve, Blunt, del Toro, Deakins, and Jóhannsson all deserve Oscar nominations and the film itself is among the year’s very best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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“SKYFALL” – 4.5 STARS

Skyfall” may be the best James Bond movie ever. Better yet, Daniel Craig may be the best James Bond ever. Now before the Bond diehards come at me with torches and pitchforks let me make something abundantly clear. I am not the biggest Bond guy. I haven’t seen even half of the Bond movies. So I certainly don’t consider myself a Bond expert. In fact I may not even qualify as a true Bond fan by some. I’m not well versed on Bond lore, the Bond girls, or the history that has surrounded this universally loved character for the last 50 years. So I don’t live under the false assumption that I’m an expert when it comes to the James Bond franchise. But I like to think that I know a good movie when I see one and “Skyfall” is a very good movie.

My Bond apathy changed in 2006 with the release of “Casino Royal”. It introduced a grittier, more grounded Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. He wasn’t as prim and polished and a sense of reality was brought to the character that I had never seen before. It was also a fantastic movie that I thoroughly enjoy. The Bond appeal grew for me in 2008 with the lesser but equally entertaining “Quantum of Solace”. And now he’s back with “Skyfall”, a 007 film that’s every bit as good as “Casino Royale” and for my money even a bit better. Sam Mendes directs the film, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Mendes tips his hat to several of the previous 007 films and has fun with many things that Bond fans should love. But he also maintains the emotional edge to Bond that has made Daniel Craig’s run so effective for me.

The film starts with a jaw-dropping opening chase sequence that uses cars, motorcycles, trains, and cranes. It moves through market streets, on rooftops, through tunnels, and finally on a huge bridge where Bond is inadvertently shot off of a speeding train by a fellow agent at M’s command. Believed dead, Bond goes off the grid and submerges himself in a life of anonymity and alcohol. Now the movie never gives a satisfying reason as to why Bond became a closed off boozer. We get a few hints of it later but it seemed pretty drastic and off-the-wall. But we wouldn’t have a Bond movie if 007 wasn’t spoiling evil plots with his well-pressed suits and assorted gadgetry. He makes his return after MI6 is devastated by terrorist attack with M seeming to be the main target. Judi Dench returns to the role that she first played in 1995’s “GoldenEye”. This time she’s not only a terrorist’s target but she’s facing heavy political pressure concerning her handling of MI6. As with each of her other performances in the series, Dench is marvelous and here we get to see a different side of her and her relationship to 007.

The big baddie this time is none other than Javier Bardem. He plays Raoul Silva, a psycho former MI6 agent with a rather large grudge against M. Bardem is deliciously villainous and once he makes his appearance the movie’s intensity amps up. Unfortunately he doesn’t show up until well into the film. Now that’s not a knock on the first part of the movie. But I wanted more of Bardem and I couldn’t help but feel that they could have built up the character and his motivations more in the early parts of the movie. Some of the movie’s best moments feature Bardem. There is a tense first meeting between Bond and Silva that you can’t take your eyes off of. There’s also a fantastic “Silence of the Lambs” styled exchange between Silva and M that sets the table for what’s to come later in the movie. It’s one of my favorite exchanges in cinema this year.

Another new addition to the cast is Ralph Fiennes. He places an ex-military man and current government intelligence official who regulates MI6. Fiennes is rock solid, as you would expect. Albert Finney also has a fun role as an old family friend of Bond’s and Ben Whishaw steals several scenes as Q, the gadget granting quartermaster. All the performances are good and this is probably the best overall cast in a Bond movie yet. They are helped by a crisp, intelligent, and perfectly paced script that pulls absolutely everything out of these characters. And the screenplay knows how to be respectful of the franchise while also having fun with it as well. There are several good laughs but for the most part this is the same serious, no-nonsense Bond that we got in the last two films and I’m thankful for that.

There are several other things that worked incredibly well that I could mention, most notably Roger Deakins brilliant camera work, the wonderful editing by Stuart and Kate Baird, and Thomas Newman’s perfect score. But not everything worked that well. The Bond girls have become almost as popular as 007 himself. But with the exception of the unconventional M, these Bond girls are bland and for the most part forgettable. Now Naomie Harris is fine as a fellow MI6 field agent who holds her own with 007. She has some really good scenes when working in the field, but she also has a couple of almost obligatory flirt scenes with Bond that didn’t work as well for me. Then you have Bérénice Marlohe who certainly looks the part but disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Also, I know Bond is a ladies man. But there are a couple of scenes featuring out-of-the-blue “romance” that are thrown in just because its expected from the character. Never mind that they clash with the tone and pacing of the story. Both are scenes that were poorly conceived and I could have done without them.

While these few flaws may keep “Skyfall” from being a perfect movie, they don’t stop it from being great movie. More importantly, the Daniel Craig era of 007 movies has won me over to the point that I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment. There has been a lot of internet buzz lately over who may be the next 007. But for my money Craig has earned the position for as long as he’s willing to take it. And as long as the studio is willing to surround him with a fine supporting cast, intelligent writers, and sharp directors, the possibilities are endless for this iconic character. One thing is for certain, I’m now officially a Bond fan and “Skyfall” only cemented that. Bring on oo7 #24!