Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

I just want this to be good. Nothing else matters. For obvious reasons, I am going to omit the usual plot summary after the introduction.

Trying to succeed Blade Runner is like justifying the existence of Big Bang Theory. It never needed to happen, it should not happen, but for some reason (you know why) it happened. The original Blade Runner is one of the most important science fiction movies ever made. It more or less created cyber-punk and showed sci-fi could be more mature and capable of telling a deep story. Of all the classics it did not need a sequel. Nobody, including other hardcore fans, asked for this. The original was just fine on its own and somehow we got 2049.

Like Force Awakens the deck was always stacked against it. Being better than a bad movie is as easy as punching a blind toddler, but being better than a genre-defining classic is next to impossible. With Force Awakens, callbacks and references aside, it succeeded by being great. As I said in the beginning, all 2049 needs to be is good and watchable.

I would have ignored it had Denis Villeneuve not been involved. So far he has yet to make a bad film with Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival to his name. Rather than buckle under pressure he grabs the reins and leads the way in his most ambitious project yet. Being a visual director he takes full advantage of the world’s unique style. Blade Runner is saturated in neon with lived in and weathered sets, packed to the gills with people and detail. It is surprising how such elements were standard practice back in the day look like pieces of art in a time of overwhelming CG.

2049 maintains the aesthetic of decay while looking updated, being 30 years after the events of the original. It is also darker with light doused in a perpetual haze or relegated to certain areas of the setting. You really feel the world standing on the edge of total collapse, fitting perfectly in line Villeneuve’s signature. He puts the desolation on display with beautifully bleak and imposing landscapes. Most of the interiors are well lit, but emphasize the ever-present grime of the world. Being a noir, Villeneuve makes great use of the darkness to supplement the atmosphere of decay and mystery of the narrative. It helps that the practical and visual effects used in these shots are stunning.

For spoiler reasons I am going to avoid talking about the writing or acting. The latter is obvious, but judging the performances could lead to unintentional revelations. I will say that Sylvia Hoeks was the stand out as Luv, a replicant dedicated to her job, and it was nice to see Harrison Ford care about his role. The man is 75 and a cultural icon, so I understand when he wants a break. Actually, I will give away one spoiler:

The trailer for Pacific Rim: Uprising was shown and it looks like hammered shit.

A couple negatives of note are the music and the placement of a particular scene. The issue of score may have more to do with the theater in which I saw the movie. Whenever a French horn or loud synthesizer would blare, it literally shook the auditorium with a loud creaking noise. I would say about half the tracks in 2049 have this sound and it was irritating. Even Hans Zimmer would tell the composer to tone it down. As for the faulty scene, it comes out of nowhere, like it was from an older draft of the script. The lead up did not fit or feel natural given the tone. Maybe I am missing something, but that scene should have been moved or reworked.

This does not feel like much of a review with everything I left out. Without the name Blade Runner in the title, 2049 is just another great film from Denis Villeneuve. On its own merit it has enough going on that keeping you in the dark is the only respectful thing I can do. A lot of my reviews of good movies are short because why ruin something you should see for yourself? 2049 may not be groundbreaking, but it is well worth the nearly three-hour runtime. It is a great film and that is all that counts in the long run. However, I would advise watching the Final Cut version of the original before buying a ticket.

Advertisements

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The first Kingsman was pretty good. It followed a comic book of the same name by Mark Millar, a fellow Scotsman and writer who sold out years ago. His stories are glorified spec-scripts designed to be adapted and Matthew Vaughn was up to the task with Kick-Ass and Kingsman. What makes the first movie great is how straight it plays the Bond inspired set-up, juxtaposed with violence and dark humor. Vaughn comes from British crime thrillers that share the same formula and he does it well. Kingsman was a perfect balance of stylish action and a sense of heart thanks to Taron Egerton’s Eggsy and Samuel Jackson being crazy. It was a fun, cathartic film and I have a good feeling about The Golden Circle.

After the Kingsmen are wiped out in Britain Eggsy and Merlin, played by Mark Strong, go west to the United States. They slowly unfurl a plot involving a drug kingpin holding the world hostage with a deadly virus.

It sucked.

Picture Anchorman 2; it is not a bad movie, but unlike the first it went headlong into crazy far too quickly. The previous installment built up to the insanity, letting the humanity and realism of the comedy take control. Now imagine if Anchorman 2 was Austin Powers in Goldmember and you get Golden Circle. If you feel the sudden urge to kill yourself, no one will blame you.

There is no juxtaposition, no sense of seriousness to back up the touches of humor and stylish violence. The last film took after Bond, but it was in no way a parody. The premise was a foundation for the transformation into something new and different. The self-aware quality of the first movie that was thankfully not acknowledged makes up the entirety of Golden Circle. From the get-go no one is serious about what is going on because they know they are in a movie. It is just a game and a bad one at that, yet they try so hard.

This comes through in many places, one of which being the extended cameo of Elton John. Instead of keeping him around to scream at other characters because that was actually funny, he had an action scene where he was mugging for the camera while “Saturday” played in the background. You also do not care about what is going because there is no reason. Without the seriousness, how can the audience care if the film does not either? Eggsy had a girlfriend that was infected with the virus, but the lack of urgency and a feeling that shit is real made it totally pointless. And do not get me started on the President character or the scenes in Italy.

Jesus-fuck-my-ass.

There is no finesse or narrative flow to keep the story moving at a decent clip. Scenes just happen in a disparate fashion, one on top of the other with no sense of direction. It was as though the story had a checklist of conditions that had to be met. Rather than construct a smooth narrative where each piece flowed into the other, the editor assembled it according to the list like a doctor performing a routine check-up.

All simple stories are linear, but you can have each plot point happen with some semblance of a clean transition. There is no build up to the villain’s grand plan, the Kingsman’ investigation of said plan, and nothing especially interesting about how it all happens. Then Merlin gets killed off, Channing Tatum is frozen virtually out of nowhere, and Colin Firth is cured of amnesia 10 minutes after he is reintroduced for no reason. It does not feel good to experience, like watching a montage that was ripped apart and edited out of order.

The only good parts are the action scenes. Vaughn has not lost his touch with a ton of faux long shots and slow motion. It looks great with nice choreography and grappling that was cool, despite my desire to see that whole move-set struck from existence. The performances were also acceptable with everyone doing their part. Julianne Moore did her best as the boring villain and Halle Berry was surprisingly okay.

That is all.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is terrible. It is disappointing, not fun, and not worth your time and money. If anyone says it is somehow good they are either stupid or lying (looking at you, IGN). Wait a couple months for the action scenes to appear on YouTube and watch those instead. Better yet, watch the first Kingsman because it is fantastic in every way the sequel is not.

Movie Review: Mother!

Darren Aronofsky is a pretty good director. The Fountain is one of my favorites, Noah is rather under appreciated, and I have yet to see Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. It is hard to put my finger on it because I am not expert, but the man knows how to put together a beautiful picture. He has a very well defined visual style in service to his films’ dreamlike atmosphere, regardless if they are fantastical or realistic. Mother! seems like a departure from his previous work, taking place in a small enclosed space with a strong feeling of claustrophobia. Was this a good change of pace or should you watch The Fountain again?

While trying to settle into their tranquil life, Him and Mother are visited by a mysterious couple looking for a place to stay at their home in the wilderness. It does not take long for the situation to spiral out of control as more and more guests come to the house.

Mother! is not a logical movie by any means, following Aronofsky’s dreamlike aesthetic from start to finish. You have to suspend your disbelief the whole way through because everything from the acting to the set is symbolic. Nitpickers will lose their mind in Lovecraftian insanity trying to understand this film with a logic that does not exist.

I will say, before I get into spoilers, that Mother! is a rare gem of horror. It touches a part of you that no jump-scare or creepy monster can ever hope to. It is something that pokes at your psyche, that awakens a fear and anxiety that most movies cannot, especially those of today. It is a deeply disturbing film and I recommend it completely, but get ready because it goes from one to HOLY SHIT very quickly.

Now onto spoilers:

The story is a retelling of the Bible. It starts at Genesis, then Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, the Flood, Crucifixion (you have no idea), and ends with Armageddon. It skips over certain details and I may have missed some things, but each character represents a key player in those stories with an interesting twist. Following the trend set in Noah, Aronofsky combines environmentalism and Abrahamic spirituality into one.

Javier Bardem plays God and he lives in a house, the World, built by Mother (Earth), played by Jennifer Lawrence. The house is Eden with everything the two of them could want. When God lets in Man and Woman, played Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, the house and Mother slowly deteriorate both physically and mentally. It is only after Man and Woman are cast out that things begin to improve, Mother becoming pregnant with His child, Jesus. Before the child is born, Him becomes more popular among new people, and they start to worship him.

That is as far as I will get with the narrative. You really have to experience first hand the horror and anxiety of the situation that follows and how Aronofsky interprets the latter events of the Bible.

Mother! is as much an art-piece as it is a think-piece. The way it is shot, the visuals, and acting lend themselves to the study of the relationship between God, the world, and humanity. When the worshipers come into the house, they destroy, and steal things without regard for Mother’s pleas. They abuse her environment because Him told them everything is to be shared and he loves them. It gets to a point where the house becomes a war-zone as soldiers, an allegory for the Romans (apt), kill the worshipers until there is relative peace.

I cannot recall the exact line, but when Mother asks why Him let the people destroy her world, his answer has a lot to say on the relationship between Man and God. Why do we exist and why does God need to be worshipped if he can do whatever he wants? Does he enjoy that we destroy everything he gave us in his name? Does he admire our devotion in the face of chaos and terror? Like I said, I cannot remember the line, but when it came up I was struck with questions of Man’s purpose. It is the oldest question in the book and Mother! tries to divine the answer through symbolism.

Then there is a question of spirituality and the world. The term “worldly” refers to things that are only temporary like sex, money, and possessions. Many faiths argue that you need to let go of worldly things to focus on the spiritual in the name of a higher power. When the worshippers destroy Mother’s house, it shows they care more about the spiritual than the environment in which they subsist, devoting their entire being to Him. This idea is striking because many Christians believe we do not need to protect the world or take care of ourselves because Jesus will return in the Second Coming and remake the world after Armageddon.

So far 2017 has been a pretty good year for horror. It Comes at Night, Split, and It have been exceptional in a time when the genre is in dire straits. Mother! takes it a few steps further by making you think while trying to disturb you. Believe the hype, ignore the critics, and buy a ticket.

Movie Review: It

I was 11 when I first saw the It mini series from 1990. My cousin or whatever had a VHS copy that we watched in his parent’s basement. He told me it would give me nightmares and my reaction when the credits rolled was “Wow, what a piece of shit.” Tim Curry’s amazing performance aside, the series is not great or scary. It was three hours of decent kid actors and awful adult actors being afraid of a clown with Rachel Dolezal hair, trolling at them with balloons. It did not help that the series was cheap as dirt and all of the characters were walking tropes. They were either bullied, abused, damaged or a stand-in for the author, and they needed to stick together because there is power in friendship. Am I watching a shounen anime or a Stephen King adaptation? Maybe because clowns were never that frightening I could not feel the fear, but I would rather sit through quality horror than Z-tier trash. And because the It mini series was an objectively bad adaptation, the movie remake falls perfectly in line with my rules. Was the film a vast improvement or somehow worse?

After a series of child abductions in the town of Derry, a group of friends realize they have had shared encounters with a spectral clown named Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard, that may be behind the disappearances. While investigating the monster they find it has a dark and lengthy history associated with the town.

Picture Stranger Things with an R rating and you get the It movie. It takes the kid adventure concept, pioneered by Stephen King and many 80’s films (Goonies, Monster Squad, etc), and turns it into a nightmare. It is more or less an ensemble where the fears of each kid plays into their shared goal of defeating the monster. It can become your worst nightmare made manifest and a part of their journey is overcoming what they are afraid of.

However, most of the film is focused on the kids’ friendship, and it would not have worked without great writing and acting. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to get the cast to seamlessly gel together. Everyone is their character in the purest sense, rolling with it from start to finish. Finn Wolfhard’s Ritchie and Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie work the best, berating and insulting one another like they’ve known each other for years. Then there is the love triangle between Bill and Ben in pursuit of Bev, played by Sophia Lillis. She is probably the standout with a ton of emotion and subtlety in her performance that will go a long way if she does not crash and burn like most child actors.

The relationship and interactions between the kids is enough to warrant admission. They carry the film like it is Tuesday and it also just happens to be rather decent horror. The jump-scares can be annoying if you hate them as much as I, but the grotesque imagery is significantly more palpable. The look of Pennywise when he transforms or contorts his body, his disguises, and hallucinations are genuinely frightening and well done. One disguise is an abstract woman with white eyes that is totally creepy, but the leper is worse.

Some of the effects-oriented horror is done practically, save for Pennywise’s monster teeth and the abstract woman, but the main issue I have is more in the execution. Loud noises and orchestra stings aside, the use of CG and weird editing drags down maybe a quarter of the scares. The abstract woman could have been done with prosthetics and the monster teeth with puppetry that was possible since the dawn of time. I do not know what it is called, but when Pennywise is charging the camera, it focuses on his face as he moves while the rest of the frame is blurred. It is like this scene from Fight Club or this from Catwoman and it was distracting. The scares would have been better if they saved the stings for after the reveal to let the audience react or take them out completely. Ambient noise and silence can go a long way; just look at It Follows and Silent Hill 2.

The last few issues with the It movie are three individual scenes. All of them are tone-deaf musical interludes that were very out of place. They happen in the midst of darkness, including a rock war after Mike sees Pennywise gnawing on a child’s severed arm, and Bev’s bloody bathroom followed by a clean-up montage. It is strange why these scenes were done this way because they take you right out of the moment. The rock war I can forgive, but the other two did not need to happen.

And now comes the most important question of all: how does Skarsgard compare to Curry’s iconic performance from the mini series? The dueling versions of Pennywise remind me a lot of Heath Ledger and Jarred Leto’s Jokers. Obviously there is only one that is great, but this time around the successor actually succeeds. Like Curry, Skarsgard uses his expressive features to his advantage, making wide toothy grins while bugging out his massive Rami Malik eyes. Unlike Curry he did not have much dialog, but focused more on using his physical presence than anything else. The guy is 6’3” in a giant costume, wearing a ton of make-up, and pulls it off in a way Curry and his legendary charisma could not. Skarsgard is physically scary where his predecessor was emotionally. I hope to see more of him in the future, especially as Pennywise.

Trying to be better than the It mini series may seem like punching a blind kid, but the remake had a lot to achieve. Other than be good the film needed to be scary and surpass or improve upon Tim Curry’s iconic performance, lest it fail. It is not just an improvement; it is a whole other animal. The chemistry and dialog of the ensemble, the horror-adventure concept, and Skarsgard’s Pennywise make it fun to watch. Honestly, it has been a while since I have felt this way in a movie. I wanted to see where it went and felt invested in the characters. Only once in a while do you get a film like this and Dunkirk in the same year. Regardless of how you feel about horror, go see it immediately.

Movie Review: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan is one of the best new talents in Hollywood. When it comes to writing he does it better than a lot of his contemporaries. His scripts are tight as a drum and to the point with great command of timing, visuals, and dialog that is so far unmatched. I wish I saw Sicario and Hell or High Water when I was in writing school. There is so much you can learn from his work and Wind River is his first crack at directing. Does he have what it takes to realize his vision or should it have been left in the hands of a professional?

While tracking down predators that killed livestock on the Wind River Indian Reservation Cory, played by Jeremy Renner, stumbles upon the corpse of a young woman. When FBI Agent Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, comes to investigate, she must team up with Cory to help find the killer in the unforgiving wilderness.

With three movies to his name, you can easily spot a handful of signatures in Sheridan’s work. They are Neo-Westerns with modern themes that have an honest, yet nihilistic outlook on life. His films do not shy away from the reality of situations, including violence and the nature of humanity. In Sicario, the Drug War was regarded as a conflict that needed to be fought like an actual war, without concern for conventional law. Hell or High Water dealt with a pair of brothers fighting against the system that was consuming their rustic, old fashion reality in west Texas.

Wind River is about the relationship between man and nature, not unlike The Revenant, but more obvious and to the point. Other than Banner, Cory and many of the characters are used to living out in the middle of nowhere, in the naked heart of the wild. They understand their reality as plain as anyone who grew up in such rough terrain. It influences how they see law and order, especially on the reservation. You could say the whole movie is about what Amerindians deal with in their territory if you wanted to make it political (and you shouldn’t).

Before Banner comes into the story, we get an idea of life through Cory’s perspective. It is enough to go on until we are reminded that the world we know still exists outside the reservation. It becomes frontier justice versus bureaucracy, but more in the manner in which an investigation is conducted while dealing with the elements. It compounds the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land once Banner gets shot at and has to travel long distances to get anywhere.

Granted, this is nothing new to Westerns, but what matters is the execution. Sheridan took the idea of a city slicker going out west and modernized it. The idea of reservations fending for themselves in the face of crime and corporate exploitation in a harsh environment was the next logical step. He makes it easy to understand while using common tropes of the genre. Wind River has a lot in common with the show Longmire, which does the same thing, but is darker and more violent.

In terms of direction, the film is very standard and ordinary. There are some nice landscape shots and well constructed chaotic action scenes, yet it lacked the essential ingredient to set it apart from the norm. The movie did not have Villenuve’s aesthetic or Mackenzie’s cinematography like his last two. Sheridan’s strength is definitely his writing and he needs a littler more practice directing to come into his own. That being said, I appreciate his use of practical effects. The environments seemed to be shot on location, there were real blanks in the guns, and real blood in the squibs. I have a good feeling he will continue this trend in the future.

Wind River would not stand out if Taylor Sheridan did not pen the script. The directing leaves much to be desired, but if you want a simple and honestly written Neo-Western look no further. I was pretty late in buying a ticket, so you better get to the theater as soon as possible. If you missed it, I cannot recommend Sicario and Hell or High Water highly enough.

Movie Review: Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars

Starship Troopers (ST) was one of the most influential movies of my development. I was 6 when I saw it in 1998 and it has stayed with me ever since. Later I read the book and became the man I am today. Both have merits that warrant consideration, but the film adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic has left the biggest impression. And on it’s 20th anniversary we get another sequel. Was Traitor of Mars a worthy successor or does it belong among the other follow-ups?

Following the events of Invasion Rico, voiced by Casper Van Dien, is sent to a station orbiting Mars to train a group of rookies. When a Bug infestation emerges on the planet’s surface, Rico is forced to put his leadership and unskilled Troopers to the test.

From the outset Traitor is not that great. The stilted voice acting is in service to a loose series of events connected by a very thin thread. There is a clear story, but along the way there are scenes and dialog that do not serve a purpose, beyond padding out the runtime. There are no interesting story moments or exciting action sequences worth remembering. It all boiled down to Bugs getting shot or blown up.

Those issues would mean the death of any other film without the element of satire. Ed Neumeier from the first movie returned to write the screenplay and peppered the signature ST propaganda throughout. There are FedNet segments like a show called “Who Do We Blame This Time?” and the narrator wondering if a certain invasion is going to be another disaster like Klendathu. The main antagonist, Sky Marshall Snapp, treats her job like a popularity contest where she contemplates blowing up a planet to increase her approval ratings.

Right off the bat the film is not serious, hence the voice acting and lack of a solid plot. It is more style over substance, the action and violence taking center stage. At the end of the day, Bugs getting shot and Troopers ripped apart is still awesome. Van Dien certainly knew what was going on, doing his best impression of George C. Scott’s Patton while looking like Guts from Berserk (seriously, he is Guts).

While there is satire, there is no juxtaposition to sell what it all means. The first ST was set up like a fascist propaganda movie with beautiful characters brainwashed into joining the military. They are happy to go to war with no regard for their lives before they are butchered in the first battle. The film juxtaposed the idealism and patriotism of the characters with mass murder to illustrate the horrors of fascism. It takes the youngest and most fanatical of the population to throw them at a war that will not end for the sake of maintaining the status quo.

Traitor is not trying to make a point. The humorous FedNet segments and dialog do not serve a purpose other than giving you something to laugh at. For the most part, it is about Troopers killing Bugs and some moé waifu villain trying to be the best girl. Perhaps something was lost in translation, given the movie is directed by Shinji Aramaki and Masaru Matsumoto from Appleseed and Harlock. Neumeier may have written the screenplay, but more often than not scripts undergo changes in development. Unless the end result was his vision, I would love to see what Neumeier was trying to achieve.

Traitor of Mars is not a bad sequel to Starship Troopers, but I find it difficult to recommend. It lacks real heart and finesse to get you invested, superficial issues aside. The only people who would get anything out of it are fans like myself. To that end, I recommend the first movie and the book if you have seen or read either. If you really want to watch Traitor, check out Invasion first to get a frame of reference. I also recommend the Roughnecks TV series if you can tolerate the janky animation.

Movie Review: The Dark Tower

A genre unto itself, about 90% of adaptations based on Stephen King’s books are pretty bad. I saw It when I was 11 and did not think it was scary or good. Later came The Stand and it was very underwhelming despite the concept. Dreamcatcher is so baffling it is beyond description. Thankfully, some of King’s adaptations are great. Frank Darabont’s early work, The Shining, and others are all worth a watch. Now comes The Dark Tower, based on the long-running fantasy series of the same name. I have not read the books, so I have no idea how it will hold up to fan scrutiny. Was Tower one of the good ones or another dud?

In the midst of earthquakes ravaging different parts of the world Jake, played by Tom Taylor, has nightmares of a fantastical world in turmoil. He sees the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba, fighting the Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, in an endless conflict with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance.

Even before the movie came out King fans hated what had become of their favorite story. One guy I know of from BroTeam said he was going to stack up his Dark Tower books and piss on them when the trailer came out. I had a general idea of what to expect going in and I did my best to set aside my preconceived notions. All art must be judged on its own merit, not the opinion of others. It also helps that I have never read a single King book in my life.

The hate from fans I understand, but Tower really was not that terrible. If anything, the film is very mediocre and boring. It takes a long time for stuff to happen and even then there is no guarantee. The action scenes that I assume were supposed to be cool were so underwhelming I could have fallen asleep. There was potential for cool moments that were never realized because the director has no eye for action. The use of CG muzzle flashes and debris explosions did not help either.

With that said, Dark Tower could have been worse. It could have been like 5th Wave or some terrible YA movie front-loaded with a ton of crap that did not make sense. The film was at least competent and told a clear story with decent performances. However, I cannot recommend it with the inherent mediocrity. You do not feel anything that happens on screen and I am starting to think there is more in the books. If you are not up for reading, check out some of the other adaptations of Kings work.