Blade Runner 2049

915ff4b4db85b23edf4fb6396797800a

 

Blade Runner 2049 may feature the classic’s oppressive dehumanising cityscapes of its predecessor, but like its storied forebear, it is heartbreakingly and effusively human in its emotional and thematic outlook.

A film as self-contained as Blade Runner never seemed to need a sequel to complete it, but BR 2049 achieves that rarest of things – it takes the first film and iterates on it, providing a fresh new experience while drawing on the same primordial themes. 30 years after the  first film, replicants have been re-introduced on Earth; this time, they are made to be pliant and unquestioning in their service to humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner who dispatches previous iterations of “dangerous” replicants, follows a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a secret long thought buried and forgotten – the fate of Rick Deckard and Rachel, and the existence of an impossibility – a child born of a replicant.

First off, BR 2049 is a darned good hardboiled detective story. K broods in his tiny apartment, accompanied by his AI companion Joi (played to perfection by Ana de Armas) while his implacable detective instincts lead him inexorably on the chase. The film is long – almost three hours – but it unravels in a stylishly noirish slow burn. Some have called it slow, but personally, I never felt bored at any point – every scene seemed to drip with tension and atmosphere and foreboding. The aesthetics of this film – in the rainy, ocean-buffeted megalithic cityscapes of Los Angeles, to the parched radioactive wastes of Las Vegas – are brilliantly realised, and the thundering, discordant score suffuses each scene with a barely contained power. The film may take its time, but it is filled with viscerality, and every scene is plastered with visual interest.

Where BR 2049 really shines, though, and takes its place as a worthy sequel to the original, is just how emotionally resonant its character relationships are. In particular, K and Joi are a sweetly tragic pairing, two created beings at the bottom of the hierarchy that, despite everything, love each other. While the film is deliberately ambiguous about whether Joi’s affection for K is just a manifestation of her programming, the visceral sincerity of their affection for each other on screen always cuts through that ambiguity and makes their relationship feel authentic. Every scene with the two of them together was a wondrous technical and emotional achievement on Villeneuve’s part.

(NB: although if you take the position that Joi is just a glorified interactive dakimakura, you might be of the opinion that the relationship has chauvinist undertones. But I’m kind of with Daniel Dennett on the notion that there’s  probably no quantum leap between consciousness and not. If it looks, acts feels and thinks like a person, it probably is a complex enough gestalt to be person, notwithstanding that it follows some rules of engagement with respect to behaviour. Humans are no different. Can we truly be said to be free of biological programming, to love, have babies? There is probably no philosophical zombie, no Chinese Room).

And it’s that relationship, coupled with K’s own journey of attempted self-actualisation, that underlies the film’s core theme – that to be human isn’t about what you are made of, but about one’s ability to make human choices. Joi’s selflessness may be due to her programming, but if she, at some level, demonstrates her agency to choose, then she is human. Gosling’s K momentarily believes that he is the Replicant version of the Chosen One – a trueborn of his kind, with a real childhood. But when disabused of this notion and told that he is – after all, just another regular Replicant Joe – he chooses to exercise his human agency to ensure that Deckard gets to see his daughter (and that final scene where he peers through the glass to see her – that cautious but yearning look – is pure catharsis that makes K’s efforts seem even more worth it. Bravo, Harrison.) . It doesn’t matter that he, like Pinocchio, wasn’t made of flesh – his choices made him a real boy.

There is a pleasing symmetry to the first film – where the Roy and his gang fought to give themselves a future (in trying to extend their lifespans), K sought to give himself a past (by trying to find out if he was realborn, and that his implanted memories were not fake). They both failed, but in the process, their actions bequeathed them the humanity that society denied them. And the respective scenes near the end of both movies, where both K and Roy rest their weary heads, are equally emotionally charged. For while our heroes didn’t fulfill their original quests, they have self-actualised in another, very human sense.

This is something the Replicant Resistance doesn’t quite understand. Like Roy and his gang of dancing replicants, they are in a quest to give themselves humanity by fixating on its essential attributes – long life in the first film, childbirth in the second. It may break the world, but the ability to have kids doesn’t make Replicants human – even if they think it is. That is why K defies their order to kill Deckard and instead saves him – because he knows they got it all backwards. I both loved and was emotionally devastated by the film’s quite masterful sleight of hand in making audiences think K was someone special – the revelation that he was not broke me emotionally. But K pulls through his despair and does what he thinks is right, and claims his humanity even as he loses his happy ending.

Many science fiction films have played with this trope – to varying effect, but BR 2049 is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant renditions of this theme I’ve watched on film. It’s a testament that great film can’t just appeal to the intellect, but to the heartstrings as well.

It’s not a perfect film – I thought Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace was a ham-fisted Ridley Scott-esque play at the megalomaniac corporate villain, and his ambitions to create a race of self-replicating replicants a bit wool-headed given the implications. But most notably, he is just evil for evil’s sake, lacking any human empathy or capacity for understanding that cloning someone doesn’t bring them back. He kills for expository effect, too. Just an all-around narmy clown. His Replicant henchwoman, I thought was well-executed for her role as the baddie, but I thought there was a lot of scope to make her character more complex than just being Wallace’s tool with the occasional pang of sympathy for a fellow Replicant.

But beyond that, BR 2049 does what it sets out to do so well – and with such grace, style, beauty, and economy of storytelling – yes, I think that running time is justified – that it will be taking its place in my personal list of the all-time science fiction greats.

I give this film: 5 out of 5 emanators

Advertisements

Baby Driver

baby-driver-poster

What it’s about: A gifted young getaway driver tries to leave his life of crime, but realises it’s harder than it looks. Mayhem ensues.

Notes:

  • Much ink has already been spilled about how this is another of Wright’s cinematographic triumphs, and I shan’t go into it too much here. Suffice to say, much of this film is not so much directed as choreographed, actors moving to the beat of an eclectic and variegated track, car chase sequences impeccably shot and edited, that makes the movie a sensorial treat on so many levels. Visually, aurally,  proprioceptively, Baby Driver delivers.
  • Or, at least, in the first half or so of the film, when it shines the brightest. The film’s best scenes are almost all in the first half, in its kineticism, its humour, its cheerfulness, and Baby’s winning, cool-kid-but-not-douchey precociousness, amidst the violence and freneticism of the car chase sequences and trigger-happy action.
  • As the film’s plot starts to go into motion, however, Baby Driver‘s unique traits – its choreographed physicality, whiplash humor – fades somewhat into the background as a more typical plotline takes over – where Baby is blackmailed into continuing his criminal activities by his erstwhile handler Doc, who threatens his girlfriend Debora and his foster parent Joseph. Heists go south with the increasingly deranged antics of the psychopathic gang member Bats, who kills at the slightest provocation, giving the film its main source of dramatic tension as we wonder when this unstable element will explode.
  • At this point, the film essentially becomes Drive, but without the sun-gold stylishness and heavy electronic beats – taciturn protagonists with assumed names raining carnage down on their enemies to save themselves and their girls from psychopathic criminals. Also, while Drive ended on a low poignant note with the Driver sacrificing his humanity to save the woman he loves, even as she distances herself from him and the things he’s done, Baby Driver has a bucolic ending and a moralistic message. Baby, the kid with a good heart who was forced to break bad, served his time in jail, and having done penance for his crimes, is clean in the eyes of the public, and most importantly, his love interest. The two films therefore share the same stylistic and dramatic beats, but have different payoffs for their respective characters. Of course, the Driver did a lot more gruesome things than Baby, though.

Verdict: With a strong, stylish and refreshing first half that unfortunately segues a little into action film generica by the finish, Baby Driver doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 iPods 

 

IT (Movie)

stephen-kings-it-movie-poster

What it’s about: A bunch of kids fight an evil clown (among other things) and grow closer in the process.

Notes

  • Having watched this so soon after having read the book, I obviously can’t help but compare the two. And in many ways, the movie is actually better – more taut in its storytelling, clearer in its themes, less reliant on odd plot contrivances. But, of course, the hoariness and bloat of the book is part of its dreadful charm. Reading IT, unlike watching it, immersed you in a dark tangled forest of fear, something a 2 hour movie could never quite reach.
  • The book is also replete with a depth of lore, of tangential anecdotes of the city and its inhabitants and their deep dark secrets, making the city of Derry one of the main characters of the book, when in the movie the idea of Derry as a place steeped in that miasma of contagious psychic evil doesn’t really come through. And of course, the interweaving and simultaneous plot threads featuring the characters as children and as adults, with all the intratextual delightfulness that brings, becomes a movie entirely focusing on the children, with the second chapter an as-yet unconfirmed (but highly probable) sequel.
  • Viscerally, IT isn’t actually all that groundbreaking a horror movie. It has all the tropes – CG jump scares, an overreliance on a blaring orchestral score to signal scary moments, characters acting stupid and wandering off alone in dangerous places, and of course, clowns (though Stan Uri’s fear, the Thin Woman Judith, is pretty scary). What sets IT apart is not the quality of its horror, but rather how convincingly it portrays the struggles of adolescence, of childhood friendships, (potty-mouthed) banter, and solidarity, using the horror as a foil to bind its characters together. It’s a formula that works, and now that I’ve read and watched IT, I know why Stranger Things evokes such a pang of familiarity – the It story is a near-perfect evocation of that archetype of youthful friendship in adversity.
  • As for Pennywise himself, stripped of the story of his origins (which might come in the next instalment), he actually comes across as a rather one-dimensional villain, because his motives are never really explored in the film. He’s just a supernatural shapeshifting creep with a taste for scared children. Bill Skarsgard does his darndest to come up with a unique and scary interpretation of the character, all yellow-eyed, double-jointed, drooling menace, but in a way, Pennywise’s insanity is just animalistic – it doesn’t quite have that intelligent, twisted cruelty that Pennywise has in the book, in which he delights in tormenting and stalking his prey, not just through jump scares, but through psychological torment as well. But maybe that’ll come in the second instalment.

Verdict: Don’t expect to be too scared if you’re a horror veteran (I’m not and I wasn’t that  scared), and Pennywise himself doesn’t quite get to the stratospheric heights of scariness that I was expecting, but watch anyway for a near-perfect evocation of adolescent friendship.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 pills

 

 

Kedi

kedi-webposter

What it’s about: A documentary about the lives of the cats that roam around Istanbul, and the relationships that they have with each other and the humans that know them.

Notes

  • I’m of two minds about this documentary. On one hand, it’s a cute, beautifully composed romp through the lives of a number of cats that inhabit the streets and byways of Istanbul. On the other, however, it really isn’t much more than that. It tries to be. Most of its narration comprises the musings and benedictions of the Istanbul residents that look after these cats. They talk about how the cats have changed their lives, how they bring out the best and worst in people, and how they are themselves people-like in their character and actions. But the nuggets of insight grow thin after a while.
  • This is ultimately a documentary that outlasts its welcome. Its first half hour is everything you’d expect a documentary about cats to be. But it repeats itself and its platitudes over and over because it doesn’t have a narrative arc to guide its progression.
  • The cats are all distinct personalities, sure, but there is a sense of there being little follow-through – the documentary is a snapshot of each cat’s lives, but their stories are truncated before they have a chance to impress themselves upon us – the cat never catches the mouse.
  • The film does make me want to visit Istanbul, though – just because it makes it seem like such a welcoming city, one in which the street cat is recognised and appreciated for their tenacity and resourcefulness and in which they become part of the cultural and historical fabric of the city.

Verdict: Beautifully shot and full of cute cats, Kedi lacks a compelling narrative arc to sustain the many undeveloped vignettes of its feline stars, and ultimately becomes a bit of a repetitive slog towards the end.

I give this: 3 out of 5 cats

Wonder Woman

wonder-woman-2017-5

Wonder Woman mostly succeeds in creating a compelling origin narrative of one of the DC Cinematic Universe’s most promising superhero characters, even as it is weighed down in its final act by the appearance of a bombastic villain and some dubious plot choices.

I have to say that the inherent premise of Wonder Woman seems a little silly from the outset. An island of Hellenistic superhuman female warriors sounds like some sort of adolescent male fantasy, treating the prospect of empowered woman warriors as an exoticised “other” straight out of outlandish Greek legend. And how does it fit into the cosmology of the greater DC universe, and how Gotham City and Superman fit into it?

Also – how old is Diana anyway? Thousands of years old? Is that why she knows hundreds of languages? How long have the Amazons been hiding in their island, and are they all immortal or something?

But anyway, if we take all that at face value, Wonder Woman does a creditable job (as much of live action can) of making us suspend our disbelief. Much of it comes from the film’s sense of humanity, established in the first half hour or so of the movie, which portrays the society of the Amazons in grounded fashion, centered around the figure of young Diana as she goes about her business and secretly trains to become a strong warrior like her elders.

As the movie goes on, it deftly avoids a lot of the tired tropes that one might expect govern the plot beats of this kind of origin story. For example, Diana’s departure from her cloistered existence is not met with anger and resistance from her mother, but instead with rueful and loving acceptance. The gendered jokes and sexual hangups are kept to a minimum, and do not hinge on Diana being a complete neophyte about sex and gendered relations. Diana is strong, but also embracing of her femininity in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative.

As a superhero, Diana’s character narrative centers around the tension between her power and her confident naïveté over the affairs of the greater world. Part of her growth in character is about having her idealism punctured by the horrors of World War I, but reforming her sense of self through her sense of compassion. The film also plays up Diana’s fish-out-of-water nature in the ways you’d expect, but she manages to overcome that and succeed in her endeavors through a combination of dogged optimism and steely courage – refreshing in its earnestness and vigor.

In addition, Steve Trevor is a good kind of “superhero girlfriend” character – he exists, has things of his own that need doing, and is prepared to sacrifice himself for it. He’s a character independent of Diana, even as he serves to provide an emotional anchor for Diana’s character development.

That said, I wasn’t impressed with the movie ultimately panned out in the third act. Diana’s journey has thus far involved her quest to hunt down and kill the god of war, Ares – whom she thought was responsible for the evil in men’s hearts, whose influence led to war ad conflict. Diana’s resolve to kill Ares is therefore rooted in her optimistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of people. But when she cuts down who she thought was Ares, and the war continues to go on, she realises that her conception of good and evil is hopelessly naive.

The film, till that point, was doing a creditable job at developing Diana to the point where she needed to have that realisation. At that point, Ares was just a bogeyman to focus her energies – and I really thought that the film would go ahead and let Ares remain just that – a convenient moral fiction. But the film does reveal that Ares exists, and I wish it hadn’t. Ares’ reveal is flawed in many respects – it brings back the kooky mythological part of the franchise that could have been glossed over, Ares himself doesn’t look the part in the least (one of the lamest looking and sounding supervillains played straight I’ve come across), and Ares’ motives are your typical nonsensical supervillain shtick.

I guess to some extent it might have been important so that the film could have a climactic showdown with a powerful nemesis – sort of how Obadiah Stane ended up being the villain in the first Iron Man – but I thought that if the film had had more guts, it would have just gone ahead and revealed that Wonder Woman’s worldview was wrong and she was just another gifted metahuman who could come into her own because of what she’d learnt about herself in her experiences in the wider world, and not because she’s some ordained demigod. I suppose the challenge there would have been how to send off the film on a high note – although I’m sure there would’ve been other ways to do so.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 lassoes of truth

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol #2

guardiansofthegalaxy2vert-208281

Watching Marvel nowadays is an act that carries with it a certain sense of ennui.

The modern Marvel movie is the entertainment world’s equivalent of a bottle of Soylent – it has all the ingredients of a summer blockbuster, it goes down smooth, and it makes you satiated by its potent cocktail of humor and action. But it also lacks texture and grit.

The Marvel movie is at best, inoffensive, because it is so carefully blended into a mass-market appeal paste. It is candy for the lizard brain. And yet, I keep watching, and I keep wanting to watch, even though I know the next one is going to evoke that feeling of drinking an over-engineered high octane slurry.

Guardians Vol #2 is a carefully-made composite of everything that made the first one such a breakout hit. It’s got the 80s music, it’s got the wacky oddball characters, and it has Baby Groot, who was very early on identified as Marvel’s next great adorable mascot figure, which the film amps up to a barely tolerable eleven. Marvel, as I never tire of explaining, has this down to an exact science.

This time, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his estranged dad, the mysterious and powerful Ego (Kurt Russell), who wants to reconnect with Peter for reasons of his own. Suffice to say, things don’t work out and Peter starts to discover the true meaning of fatherhood. Hint: it’s not expecting your son to follow your plans for galactic domination after 27 years of neglect (this lesson was also learned in Star Wars).

The movie is chock-full of the requisite nostalgia, hijinks, prissy alien races that look like regular people painted different colors, impossible planetary configurations, plot contrivances, and paeans about the importance of family. Of which the Guardians are one, albeit, a snarling, ever-at-loggerheads one. And the jokes, of course, of which Guardians has an ample amount, although most of the good ones are pretty much in the trailer and involve Drax. Other notables include a race of gold-skinned aliens called the Sovereign whose pomposity is the butt of many jokes. There are the baby Groot jokes that feature baby Groot being adorably silly. Then there’s one joke that involves a ravager with the unfortunate name of Taserface that goes on a little too long for its own good, and one featuring Nebula eating an alien horseradish – some of these jokes telegraph themselves a bit too much, in a laughtrack sitcom sort of way – the equivalent of the film trying to tell you I just made a funny joke! Laugh at me! Then there’s the Peter-Gamorra romance, perhaps one of the most unconvincing in MCU canon – but then again, romance isn’t Marvel’s strong suit, really.

The good-vs-bad plot is pure pulp sf cliche, and not really in a good way – featuring villains with simplistic, all-consuming ambitions that don’t betray any human motivations. It really serves as a vehicle for the Guardians to go on that extended find-thyself pilgrimage through a tightly choreographed dance of spaceships and explosions.

Oddly enough, the most compelling character is Yondu, the blue-skinned ravager of somewhat ambiguous morals who altercated with Peter in a kind of half-friendly way in the first movie. Yondu is a child-trafficking, mass murdering ravager, but he is in many ways the character who receives the most development and serves as the emotional crux of the movie as a kind of tragic figure when he’s not busily massacring people with his telepathic arrow. Although he is the unfortunate subject of one of those contrived moral conundrums – the kind where you have to make a Hobson’s choice between two extremes with no possibility for a win-win improvisation – played for emotional effect, a trope that always gets to me when poorly thought through.

Ultimately, though, jokes and Yondu aside, the chief feeling I could muster when I left the theatre was a sense of great emptiness. Maybe because I had to work the next day, but probably more because Guardians, like many Marvel movies, got it backwards – it built an edifice of entertainment so crowd-friendly that it kind of diffuses into a general kind of ennui-laden satiety. The kind you feel after eating a tubful of Ben & Jerry’s. The movie has its entertaining moments and even its emotional kicks, but at the end of the day, it can’t hide the fact that it’s a loud flashing money-making machine. It just compensates for it better than most other action fare.

I give this: 3.5 Anulax batteries

 

Logan

logannewposter

***WARNING: SPOILERS***

Reading the exuberant reviews of Logan on the Internet, I’m left wondering if I watched the same movie as everybody else.

Logan is the latest in a line of X-men movies featuring the titular be-clawed superhero, played by the irrepressibly iconic Hugh Jackman. It tries to take a different tack from most superhero movies; showing our heroes not in their prime, but in a state of decline brought about by the slow wear of senescence.

Set in a near-future Trumpian vision of America, dust-choked and garish and xenophobic, Logan’s setting is a distillation of a world in which the forces of exclusion have won, and the final vestiges of those who are different eke out meager existences at the fringes of society.

The first half of the film is still very good, because it so elegiacally shows the state in which we find our once-great superheroes; it is cathartic in its evocation of desolation. Mutants are no longer being born, resulting in the death of Charles Xavier’s grand life project. In his advanced age, Charles has also started having seizures that prove lethal to the people around him if unchecked. Logan himself is aging, the adamantium in his body slowly poisoning him, reducing his healing factor. He ekes out a living as a limo driver, hiding out with Charles and  behind the Mexican border in an abandoned water tower, smuggling in the meds that will prevent Charles from having his destructive seizures, and saving up to buy a boat so that Charles can sail out to sea to live out his last days without fear that he will hurt more people with his seizures.

Patrick Stewart gives a truly heartbreaking performance as the now-bitter and forlorn Charles, a far cry from his earlier gravitas as Professor X. Pent up with an almost childish resentment at the state of the world, he lashes out spitefully at Logan, dependent as he is upon him. His lofty ambitions have given way to the forlorn hope getting a boat. When Laura shows up, a young mutant fleeing from the clutches of evil corporation Transigen (as always), he jumps at the opportunity to help her, though it seems less because of altruism but because it reminds him of his glory days. It is truly tragic to see Charles Xavier portrayed in this way, as an old man reduced to this, and in this sense, the film has succeeded in achieving that sense of pathos.

In contrast, Logan is more straightforward, driven by survival instinct and an odd sort of filial piety to his erstwhile mentor. His tireless physicality has been his only source of strength and with that dissipating, his vulnerability shines through. It makes the initial premise – that, as a shell of his former self, he must take on one of life’s crowning responsibilities – to be a father-figure to Laura and bring her through trials and tribulations to face a better future.

The film chugs along fine till the halfway point, when the group lodges for the night as guests in a kindly farmer’s abode, and Charles, in a heartbreaking scene, tearfully expresses his guilt at having killed innocent people during a psychic seizure to a person who he imagines to be Logan. But this person is actually a mindless, aggressive clone of Logan: X-24, who proceeds to kill Charles and the rest of the farmer’s family. Logan and Laura escape, but not before Logan sustains terrible injuries from which he is slow to recover.

After this point, the film just turns into irredeemable pablum. The sudden collapse of plot coherence is breathtaking. The film starts to reveal that Laura is actually fully in on a game plan orchestrated by the other mutant escapees from the Transigen lab to split up and meet at a staging point to attempt a border crossing into Canada, where they will allegedly be free of Transigen. To accommodate this plot twist, Laura’s character completely transforms. From a vulnerable, mute, unworldly, and emotionless, cold-blooded experimental test subject in need of a nurturing figure, Laura suddenly becomes capable of elocution, turns worldly-wise, and is suddenly emotionally adjusted. Her previous indifference to Logan turns into a daughterly concern. She drives him to a clinic to have him checked out – which really begs the question of why she needed help to escape in the first place, if she could manage a cross-country trip by herself. It’s almost like the plot had to make Logan just as vulnerable as it could make him, and this required creating a dea ex machina in suddenly making Laura into a different person, and not showing the process of character development that led to that point.

Essentially, Logan and Laura’s relationship, the tentpole of this film, is never actually developed. Logan never actually exhibits outward concern when he’s travelling with her – there is little indication that he does the things he does for her – until the very end, when, having delivered Laura to her destination, he tries to leave but returns to help the children when he realises that Transigen has found them, sacrificing himself to kill X-24. He’s a hero, sure, but a father-figure? Not really. At that point, Laura is suddenly grief-stricken at Logan’s death, calling him “father” at the graveside. But that father-daughter bond was never established in the film, making this scene utterly void of emotional heft.

It’s this sudden narrative incoherence and the writer’s willingness to accommodate gaping plot holes to rush the story to an intended end-state without doing the leg work that makes the latter half of this film such a failure, so different from its more affecting first half. Unfortunately, the clumsiness of the plot takes away any emotional catharsis the film might have had if it had devoted more time to exploring Logan and Laura more fully, instead of leaving it to the audience to fill in the gaps. Logan’s end might have been a fitting send-off to the comic-book legend, but the journey there is less than satisfying.

I give this film: 3/5 adamantium bullets