Blade Runner 2049

I have a huge sense of Deja Vu with this picture. The advance screening we went to last night is foreshadowing some potentially unpleasant news for the studio that invested in this sequel. This is a movie that has been promoted all to hell, and at a 9:00 screening there were maybe two dozen people in the theater to see it. When I asked at the concession stand about the crowd that evening, the two girls said that there was a big crowd earlier, but they were all coming to see “Mully” , a specialty release. The employees didn’t even know what Blade Runner was. Thirty-five years ago, we went to an opening night screening of this new Harrison Ford film, and in a giant one thousand seat theater, there were maybe three hundred people. The 1982 Blade Runner tanked, and although it has a strong cult following and an impressive revisionist legacy, I’m a little concerned for how this new edition will do.

Director Denis Villeneuve was responsible for last year’s “Arrival” a film that placed highly on my end of the year list and the promise of Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford cemented this as one of the most anticipated films of the year. At least for cinema fans, as we are learning, there are fewer and fewer of us out there as every new movie platform launches. I hope I am wrong, because this is a solid film and deserves a wide audience, but I will understand if it follows it’s predecessor down the path of box office failure but cinematic glory. In many way it has the same strengths and weaknesses of the first film.

Blade Runner 2049 starts off with a cinematic technique that is not very encouraging. We get a title card with four paragraphs of exposition, moving on to the screen accompanied by the ominous score. If the film has to tell us what is happening instead of showing us, that is a danger sign. This movie doen’ even have a narration or character tell us the information, we have to read a preface. Once the story gets started however, things look a lot more promising. Actor Dave Bautista, who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine,shows up in the opening section and there is a piece of action that seems about right for the start of the movie. The updated technology of the spinner car is displayed in bright light rather than in rain and the dark, and a mystery is introduced. So far so good. The follow up on the mystery is not so good. We do not ever understand exactly the relationship of Bautista’s character to the rest of the story, In fact, it is a red herring but a very confusing one. This is just the start of a great deal of muddled story that detracts from the characters and helps make the visual splendor of the film it’s main selling point. [This should start to sound familiar to all you fans of whatever cut of Blade Runner.]

“K” the Gosling character, is a different kind of Blade Runner. We find out when he first encounters his targets and that ask him how it feels to hunt down his own kind. I don’t think this is a spoiler since it comes up in the first few minutes of the film. His supervisor, the frighteningly stern Robin Wright, treats him only slightly better than a vacuum cleaner, although she clearly sees his utility and respects his work. Their relationship is set up like the traditional over bearing police supervisor and rebellious underling, except that “K” doesn’t really rebel and Wright’s “Madam”  doesn’t below as much as she scowls. They both participate in a reworking of the digital picture enhancement scene from the original film, and later Gosling repeats the procedure again in an outside context. Some more echos of the first film.

Very much as “The Force Awakens” mirrors the first “Star Wars”, 2049 is hitting some of the same beats as the original film more than three decades later. “Luv”, the assistant to the owner of the company that makes the replicants which are now more compliant than their older versions, is a combination of three of the characters from the first film, Pris, Zhora and Roy Batty himself. Ultimately you will hate her but there is a strange attractiveness about her methodical manner and diffident smile. Niander Wallace is the blind genius behind the new version of the Tyrell Company, and since he uses floating electronic eyes to see, he feels like a combination of J.F. Sebastian, Chew, and Tyrell himself. He speaks in obscure terms and platitudes. Jared Leto comes across as creepy villain but one who will rely on his creations to carry out his dirty work.

There are three or four plots going on all at once, but they don’t always gel into a coherent story. “K” loves “Joi” a virtual reality companion. Luv is protecting “K” at times and attacking him at other moments. Lt. Joshi, referred to usually as Madam, seems to be aware of a plot, but unwilling to pull the curtain back to reveal it. There is also the thread of a replicant revolution in the offing. The procedural of following leads is sidetracked by new sub-cultures or  background world building that gets more and more obtuse. It may all ultimately make sense but it will probably take the average person two or three viewings to figure it out. The question is whether anyone will be motivated to do so. This movie is almost three hours and it is not a fast three hours. This again mirrors the original film, which was deliberately paced and not action heavy. There are lengthy discussions between characters which are often meant to be so high context that the audience might well believe they are supposed to be excluded from the conversation.

 

So far it probably doesn’t sound much like I enjoyed the movie. In fact I did and it is marvelous in a lot of ways. I just want to be out front in pointing out that the story is problematic and the script not very engaging. What is engaging however are some of the performances, the great visual design of the film, and some of the world building that was only hinted at in the first movie. The combination of effects and characters are fascinating in several places. There is a great scene when a pleasure model replicant and  the virtual reality companion, share space so that “K” can have a tactile relationship with the object of his desire. It was a great creative moment and the effect looks a little like a misaligned 3D shot. The set designs in the future abandoned Las Vegas are also pretty spectacular. Hinting at the future of our current obsession with drinking, gambling and old time entertainment.

The women in this film make the strongest impressions. Villeneuve manages to make an initially lovely villainess more and more reptilian as the story develops. actress Sylvia Hoeks provides a face that is made for molding into beauty and fear at the same time. Ana de Armas is the virtual Joi and she feels like the most real character in the plot. She is a voice of reason, a love object and the lady in distress all at the same time. Gosling is a fine actor and holds his own against the ladies, up until the arrival of Harrison Ford in the last hour of the movie. Ford’s Deckard is familiar from the first film. He wants to remain detached, he is very smart but also has some of the limitations of humans, and he has had three decades to drink all the whisky he wants. Ford manages to upstage everyone else in the film even though his screen time is very limited. His scenes with Leto have a James Bond quality as he is interrogated, but he does not have any bravado or fear to throw up as a defense, he simply has his own weariness to assure him that he will win out in the end. Ford seems physically formidable for his age and there are none of the acting crutches that he uses in his other performances here. He did not phone it in for this one.

If you treasure the first film than you will probably love this one as well. Once you get used to the bombastic electronic score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, you will be able to delight in the dense city backgrounds, stark farming landscapes and idiosyncratic technology of the future. It is a smart science fiction film with some good notions of what makes us human, but it is layered in a story that is murky and slow.

La La Land

A couple of East Coasters, not out of school for a decade, have captured the magic of the Hollywood Dream factory in a way that has not been seen, much less heard, in an eternity. Just as “The Artist” reflected the memory of the early days of the film business before sound came along to change everything, “La La Land” pays tribute to the golden age of musicals while updating them to contemporary days. If you have not already seen this film, and you are sitting there reading these comments, what the hell?  You could use the few minutes this takes to read to stand in line and get your tickets for what is going to be one of the best movie experiences of your year. No spoilers here, this movie is terrific.

Writer director Damien Chazelle and his musical partner Justin Hurwitz have found the heart of a 50’s musical in 2016 Los Angeles. Starting with a throwback version of the Summit Entertainment logo and expanding the screen to Cinemascope before any footage is run, we feel like we are in for a real studio experience. The dazzling song and dance number on the Freeway overpass that starts the film is choreographed with vigor and whimsy. Angelenos have been known to leave their cars in a traffic snarl like the one shown here, but never to move rhythmically atop their own vehicles much less those of their fellow Sig-Alert victims(Non-residents will have to look that one up). When the back door of a box truck is thrown up and a latin combo playing jazz infused dance music is already in full swing, you know that this is a fantasy that takes itself with a grain of salt but also with a good deal of conviction. The fact that it is capped off by the usual L.A. driver salute to his fellow travelers just tells you that this is not a form to be locked away in the past.

 

The clever lyrics to Hurwitz’s songs are provided by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you listen carefully you can here both bravado and wistfulness in the same tune. The story concerns two dreamers who find one another with some difficulty in the grind that is trying to make it in the business of this company town. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist struggling to survive by playing music gigs that are far below his talent. Emma Stone is the aspiring actress who makes a living with her nose pressed right up against the window of her dream, as a barista at the coffee house on the Warner Brothers lot. That setting provides multiple opportunities for this to be both a backstage musical and a more straightforward narrative singing story. The sets sometimes mimic the locations used throughout the film. The choices of which must have been influenced by a dozen other movies with Hollywood history.

 

Angel’s Flight has not been operational for a couple of years and since it’s restoration in 1996, it has been closed down on and off a few times. Never mind that this funicular doesn’t really operate, this is a movie about lovers in Los Angeles, and we need to believe.  There is of course no way that Stone’s character Mia can run across the city from the Westside to South Pasadena to meet Sebastian at the Rialto, or that the Rialto is permanently closed, again, this is a movie where your fantasy counts more than a trivia thing like physics. The sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory plays out like the Gene Kelly envisioned ballet from “That’s Entertainment” or “An American in Paris”.  In fact at one point in the film, Gosling practically dances with a prop street light, evoking the ghost of Kelly in this film.

 

Chazelle manages the tricky feat of having his cake and eating it as well. The star crossed love affair both fails and succeeds through the magic of musical story telling. While jazz style music may not at first seem a natural fit for a Hollywood Musical, the director finds a number of ways to make it work. Interestingly enough, there is even a number that betrays Sebastian’s ideals and leaves Mia  nonplussed, while still being entertaining and valid. Just like Mia, we are not quite sure how to take the moment, but we are also swept up in it. John Legend stretches whatever acting chops he aspires to as a jazz musician that knows how to make that career work, and he wants to take Sebastian along for the ride.

 

Two years ago, I made “Whiplash” my favorite film of 2014. Chazelle wrote and directed that film as well and the whole milieu of jazz music came to life in a completely different fashion. That movie was frenetic and shot with a style that seems fitting to the music it emphasized. Even though this movie uses the same kind of music, the direction here is fluid and models the graceful dance moves of people like Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  The camera follows our two lovers slowly as they walk across “Suicide Bridge” at night. The slow pan from inside the car,across the Rialto Theater after  it has closed does a subtle but effective job of indicating an important transition in the story. The camera glides and pirouettes just as the actors do in their dance scenes with phantasmagoric images of Los Angeles swirl in the background.

No one will mistake the two leads for professional singers but their voices are pure and sincere and work wonders at achingly evoking the desire on their parts for their dreams to come true. The hundreds of dancers employed in the big numbers and the musicians that play in the clubs and on stage are all excellent. He has only a small part near the end of the film, but Tom Everett Scott reminded me of an adult version of the character that you are most likely to know him from, another jazz enthusiast at that.  The film is a love letter to movie musicals and a great movie musical in itself. It is the opposite of the line that Gosling says at one point, “It’s Los Angeles, where they worship everything and value nothing.” The movie respects but does not deitize the films of the past and it values every contribution those movies made. “La La Land” is likely to be my favorite film of the year, if you see it and experience it the way I did, I suspect your feelings will be the same.

The Nice Guys

Here is a film with no redeeming social value whatever, except that it will tickle your funny bone, startle you with sudden shock and leave you feeling invigorated afterwards. The film is a hoot and if there is anyone still living in America with a sense of humor, this film was made for you. While it it not politically incorrect in any way, it features characters that are so amusingly not hip, that the irony police might be called out. “The Nice Guys” is vulgar but not cynical. There is plenty of violence played for humor, but there are real reactions to most of those moments which let the film be much friendlier than you have any right to hope for.

The movie has a retro feel because it is set in the 1970s but also because the characters will remind you of a dozen TV show detectives you may have watched in that era. Jim Rockford is one step away from being a partner in this detective agency, but that would turn the film into a takeoff of the three stooges rather than an homage to Abbot and Costello. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, the boozy private eye, as if he were a handsome Lou Costello. He has the double takes and flustered line delivery that would fit perfectly in a comedy place filler from 1948, “Abbot and Costello Meet the Bimbo”. He even has a moment where upon discovering a corpse he becomes a dysphagiatic  mute.

Russell Crowe has settled into middle aged beefiness with as much grace as a guy can muster. He’s not the matinee idol of twenty years ago, but he is still a hell of a good actor and he puts on some great comic chops here. Crowe and Gosling play off of one another in such a natural way that it is easy to imagine a series of films  featuring these characters. Of course I thought the same thing eleven years ago with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in pretty much the same roles. Shane Black may be cribbing from himself but at least he’s doing it from “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” and not “The Last Boy Scout”. The convoluted plot and the violent gangsters are standard for him, as is the involvement of a woman, more competent that the two leads, in this case March’s thirteen year old daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice.

The Warner Brothers logo from the seventies is on the opening credits of the movie. The city of Los Angeles is in it’s deep dark days of heavy smog overcast, and Hollywood was a sleaze factory of sex more than violence. Southern California residents will recognize the decay of the Hollywood sign, the Los Angeles River Bridge, and the intersection of Jefferson and Figueroa are not anything like they once were. [In fact, the bridge is gone now]. The hillsides of Hollywood though are played for great laughs and Ryan Gosling may be a comic genius because he manages to make the most incompetent Private Eye in the world, still come off as a sometimes insightful investigator, of course sometimes he just gets lucky.

I hope they do make this into an adult cartoon, ala “Archer” or at least plan a couple of other big screen adventures. It would be a shame to leave this much enjoyment to just the current movie season. This is my most anticipated movie of the summer, and The Temptations “Papa was a Rolling Stone” had me hooked from the first few frames. Plenty of soul music from the era plus a Bee Gees tune and Kiss anthem. It’s as if they found one of the home made 8-track mix tapes from my old Cutlass and plugged it into the speakers for the film. Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor that worked for me but I believe others much younger than me will get a kick out of this as well, burnt orange palate aside.