Monday, October 9, 2017

MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN: a review of "Blade Runner 2049"

"BLADE RUNNER 2049"
Based upon characters and situations from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Story by Hampton Fancer 
Screenplay Written by Hampton Fancer & Michael Green
Executive Producer Ridley Scott
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
**** (four stars)
RATED R

One of the most disturbingly risky and audacious sequences that I think that I have ever seen within a movie arrived in Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (2001), his grippingly dark, adult fable about a synthetic boy (an outstanding Haley Joel Osment) programmed with the ability to love and who essentially spends eternity discovering what it means to be human as well as attempting to finally have the love for his Mother reciprocated back to himself.

Yet, what was so gravely striking about the film's final sections, all of which occurs in an irrevocably altered post-climate change affected Earth, is the sequence that takes place 2000 years after the extinction of all human life. In a film that had already demanded so much of the audience's willingness to follow this particularly grim tale, to ask viewers to continue to be invested in an experience that had extinguished human beings and therefore, evolved beyond humanity while also discerning ways to uphold humanity was undeniably polarizing to say the least. Now, that we have arrived with "Blade Runner 2049," I would not be the least bit surprised if those feelings of audience polarization will rise once again.

Dear readers, I am of the age where I would have been old enough to have experienced Ridley Scott's iconic science-fiction thriller "Blade Runner" (1982) upon its initial release. As a matter of fact, I was all of 13 years old, already a science-fiction fan and more than eager to see any new vision that was ready to hit the silver screen. While my overall impression of the film at that time was not fully formulated due to its adult driven themes and ambiguities, it went without question whatsoever that I had witnessed a film unlike any other that had preceded it--and that even included both George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) plus Lucas and Irvin Kershner's "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), as those films were truly fantastical fairy tales that happened to be set in a galaxy far, far away.

Ridley Scott's"Blade Runner," while set in the year of 2019--which at the time sounded like a million light years away from 1982--was a film that had its feet firmly planted on Earth, with its evocative future vision that found the Los Angeles of the future drenched in constant neon accented rainfall, an over-populated landscape that had veered demonstrably Asian, as well as a disheartening increase in commercial advertisements. As for the more fantastical elements, albeit ones designed to force us to take a hard gaze at our own relationships with our own humanity and inhumanity, Scott gave us the "replicants," synthetic beings from the Tyrell Corporation that were devised as being slave labor that was "more human than human," an element that dangerously came to pass as the four year life spans of each replicant began to announce themselves in violent revolts, forcing them to be "retired" by police detectives known as the titular "blade runners."

While not a box office success at the time, "Blade Runner" has  more than deservedly earned its massive reputation as being one of the most influential science-fiction films ever made. With regards to the cinematography, special effects, an aesthetic that splendidly merged 1940's film noir with the futuristic, there simply was not a film that looked or felt anything like "Blade Runner," and with the juggernaut of a film score by Vangelis, there also just was not any film anywhere that sounded remotely like "Blade Runner" either.

Throughout the years, I have seen "Blade Runner" countless times and truth be told, I have not been awaiting a sequel to the film at all primarily because in its own melancholic dreamlike way, the film felt complete as is. But that being said, the original film--especially with the superior Director's Cut--was certainly open ended enough thematically and conceptually, that any further installments felt to be more than possible and perhaps, even justified. Thankfully, with "Blade Runner 2049," Executive Produced by Ridley Scott and directed astoundingly by Denis Villeneuve, already riding high after the brilliance of his previous film "Arrival" (2016), we have the rare sequel that more than honors the previous installment as well as Philip K. Dick's source material.

Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" grandly builds, expands, and enhances all that we know about the futuristic existential journeys of human beings and replicants and creates an experience that is undeniably mountainous in its scope and impact. Without hyperbole, Denis Villeneuve is a creative force to be reckoned with and then some as his vision has elicited something that could only be described as "awesome." Trust me, dear readers, "Blade Runner 2049" is a voluminous experience simultaneously designed to enthrall, disturb, provoke, challenge and saturate all of your senses.

Picking up 30 years after the events of the first film, with newer, obedient model replicants now integrated into society, "Blade Runner 2049" stars Ryan Gosling as K, a replicant blade runner for the LAPD, who is assigned to hunt down and "retire" rogue older modeled replicants as he investigates the growing replicant freedom movement. Discriminated against by his human co-workers (often being referred to with the pejorative "skin job"), K returns home each night to the comforts of his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), a product of the Wallace Corporation, the company that has usurped the now bankrupt Tyrell Corporation and is led by the blind inventor cum messianic meanufactuer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto).

Upon "retiring" a rogue replicant connected to the freedom movement, K discovers a box which contains what appears to be  human remains inside. The contents of that very box propels K into an odyssey which not only threatens the balance of power between humans and replicants, but also into an existential crisis based in lost dreams, memories that may be real or implanted, identities and self-perceptions that may not be what was once considered to be true and yes indeed, the whereabouts of Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), long gone for 30 years.

Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" is a triumph of ambition, artistry and most purposeful ambiguity. On a purely technical level, you would be hard pressed to find another film released this year (or possibly within the last several years) that is this visually dynamic as Villeneuve and the extraordinary Cinematographer Roger Deakins have fashioned a sublime collection of dreamworld imagery and dazzling sequences that more than honors all that Ridley Scott devised in the original film--in fact, I think Villeneuve and Deakins utilized Scott's work as a brilliant leaping off point, devising the imaginary future of an imaginary future world. The effect is often mind boggling in its execution.

Additionally, Composer Hans Zimmer is on a creative role!!! Following his incredible, downright anxiety inducing score for Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," Zimmer, working in collaboration with Composer Benjamin Wallfisch, has devised a film score that fully honors the innovation and haunting beauty of Vangelis' score to the original film by building and expanding upon it, now creating something that sounds like what one friend described as "metallic whale songs." While that may sound completely unpleasant to some of you, for me, the tactic worked sensationally and the sound worked in full tandem with the visuals, both enhancing each other to their elegant breaking point. As far as I am concerned, come Awards season, if Roger Deakins and the team of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch are not recognized, cinematic crimes would be more than apparent.

With all of the technical and aesthetic qualities in place, Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" certainly treasures Scott's (and Vangelis') film noir/Fritz Lang qualities as the gracefully flying automobiles and the constant rainfall continue as conceptual touchstones for the story. But Villeneuve extends himself from Scott's vision by taking what was once intimate in its impressionism and stretching the canvas to create something that is essentially operatic in style and most importantly, the story, themes and concepts.

Returning to the opening of this posting regarding Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," I would not be surprised to find movie going audiences as equally polarized in their opinions towards "Blade Runner 2049" as they were for Spielberg's opus. Denis Villeneuve has certainly not made his motion picture an easy ride for the audience, so to speak, as the film is not a "turn your brain off and watch the pretty pictures" experience. "Blade Runner 2049" demands that its audience pay attention and have a visceral and cerebral relationship with the experience as it is clearly designed to be something to fully immerse oneself inside of. Yet, the film is populated with a collective of characters, several of which may or may not even be human but are all upon their individual quests to devise what humanity (and therefore, inhumanity) may represent.

In addition to the replicant blade runner K, his love interest is a hologram, who in one striking sequence merges herself with a flesh and blood person in order to experience a sense of sexual intercourse with K. Another stunning section set within the post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, all bathed in clouds of golden dust and augmented by bizarre Kubrick-ian erotic sky scraping statues, finds K surrounded by human artifacts like jukeboxes and jittery holograms of Elvis Presley and dancing girls on stage. Yet, what of the toy horse that K discovers? Could that have emerged from a real or implanted memory or else from some far away dream that may or may not have been his own?

With the original film, at least within the Director's Cut version, Ridley Scott created the possibility that the human detective of Rick Deckard just may have indeed been a replicant, which in turn asks of all of us in the audience if indeed we are all replicants. This existential quandary also sits at the heart of "Blade Runner 2049" with the film's primary characters but additionally, I think that Villeneuve has also created a certain cultural commentary that questions the status of reality itself or at least our perception of reality as we are living our lives increasingly inside of a virtual world or worlds with our smartphones, mobile devices and social media.

Villeneuve's dreamworld aesthetic and measured pacing also contributes to the blurring of reality, dreams and unreliable memories, which at times over the course of this nearly three hour film provides fits and starts that are lulling and jarring--as if rapidly falling out of one dream and crashing into the next. From a character standpoint, I also feel that by blurring the identities of his cast in regards to whether they are human, replicant or otherwise, we are then further forced to ask of ourselves what is human in the first place and furthermore, if we can find it within ourselves to care for a figure who is a hologram more than an actual human, then what indeed is humanity itself?

That is the heart is the finest science-fiction as far as I am concerned: the posing of the eternal questions to explore and debate over and again and decidedly not how many alien ships can be destroyed. Yes, there is quite a bit of bang for the buck in "Blade Runner 2049," but this is a film of atmosphere presented with the utmost artistry.

At this time, I have to give credit to Ryan Gosling for the superior quality of his performance as he is a fine actor, who like Emma Stone, seems to have become more than a little self-aware, therefore diminishing the fullness of his acting. As K, Gosling is perfectly cast as his appearance looks to be a hair synthetic, much like his surroundings, which makes his crisis of self all the more compelling. As for Harrison Ford, what a pleasure it was to witness him eliciting a tough, gritty, deeply haunted performance that truly fills in considerable gaps in the 30 years between the events of the first and current films. As with his reprise of Han Solo in J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015), it was wonderful to see Ford not only revisit a character he invented with a sense of newfound gravitas but to elicit a rich performance again, the kind of which has been rare in recent years.

Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" for all of its razzle dazzle is not a film that is designed to shatter box office records, much as it was with the original film. But, I do think that if given an honest chance and opportunity, movie goers will find themselves enveloped in a cinematic universe unlike any other, one that will insinuate itself into your subconscious and alter your perceptions. Again, this film represents the finest of what we have witnessed at the movies in 2017, films that adhere to a artistic vision rather than box office. What Villeneuve has created is no mere cash grab but a work of art that is indeed built to last.

SAVAGE POSTSCRIPT
While my rating of the film is clearly highly recommended, I do have to warn you that the sound mix of "Blade Runner 2049" is EXTREMELY LOUD!!!! I spent much of the film with my fingers over my ears as the sonics were ear shattering.

This film is designed to be seen and experienced on the large screen but you may wish to take some ear plugs.     

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BLAND BILLE JEAN: a review of "Battle Of The Sexes"

"BATTLE OF THE SEXES"
Screenplay Written by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
** (two stars)
RATED PG 13

While I have never existed as anything resembling a sports fan what soever throughout my life, I certainly will always pay my respects to those figures who elevated and transcended the games in which they were associated, for their skill, determination, physicality and athleticism all congealed into the artistic.

Even as a small child in the 1970's, I was more than aware of individuals who accomplished athletic feats that were seemingly impossible, therefore changing the games as they had once been known. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Walter Payton, Olympian Nadia Comaneci and of course, the Greatest Of All Time, Muhammad Ali dominated not only their respective sports but all corners of American culture as well. Even in my very young life, with a then extremely limited world view, combined with that aforementioned non-interest in sports, not acknowledging those sports figures and others was an impossibility to be certain.

And without question, tennis legend Billie Jean King was one of those crucial figures who transcended the sport and pushed the world forwards.

Because of who she is and what she did indeed achieve during the 1970's and throughout the remainder of her life thus far, Billie Jean King demands a film that is the equal of who she is and what she endured and overcame. Unfortunately, "Battle Of The Sexes," from the directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton is not that film.

Now, let me preface by explaining to you that what Faris and Dayton delivered is not a bad film in the least. It is just not an inspiring one or even one that is terribly interesting or involving, quite the surprise given the subject matter and provocative elements inherent within the material itself.  In fact, it often elicited yawns. Decidedly not for the story of the life being told but for the dryly and dangerously pedestrian way in which the story was presented.

Framed directly with the backdrop of the 1970's sexual revolution and the rise of the Women's Liberation movement, "Battle Of The Sexes" stars Emma Stone as the inimitable Billie Jean King, who at the start of the film has become the Women's Tennis World Champion but soon becomes embroiled in a grander fight for equal pay when she angrily discovers that male tennis players will be competing for a cash prize that is eight times larger than the prize the women will be competing for.

When United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) big-wig Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refuses to make the cash prizes equal for both the male and female players, King, alongside her business partner Gladys Heldman (a strong Sarah Silverman), set out to formulate a rival Women's Tennis Association league, augmented with the self-created Virginia Slims tour, a package wooing the finest female athletes to their new corporation, although King would have to endure a drastic pay cut in the process.

Meanwhile, 55 year old male tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is finding himself at his own personal crossroads. His tennis career essentially finished, he is biding his time in an emasculated existence, toiling away in a meaningless office job and essentially living off of, and gambling away, the fortunes of his wealthy and domineering wife Priscilla Wheelan (Elizabeth Shue...sigh).

Riggs, clearly filled with equal parts bluster and boredom, challenges the ever rising star of 29 year old King to a  gender themed tennis match, playing up the titular battle of the sexes. Although at first she refuses, Riggs' defeat of Australian tennis champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), raises King's ire and soon, the match is a go, becoming a cultural, socio-political and media sensation, a tennis match eventually viewed by an estimated 90 million people around the world.

Yet, for both Riggs, and especially for Billie Jean King, the real battles are occurring off of the tennis courts, as King, married to World Team Tennis co-founder and attorney Larry King (Austin Stowell), is privately yet turbulently wrestling with questions concerning her sexual identity as she finds herself attracted to and beginning an affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's "Battle Of The Sexes" is a more than well intentioned, workmanlike sports docudrama that simultaneously evokes the tenor, tonality and look of the early
1970's with skillful craftsmanship, as well as devises a narrative that also showcases just how far we have and have not progressed in almost 45 years regarding women 's rights, equal pay between men and women and most certainly, the nature of closeted and open homosexuality and lesbianism for public figures, regardless of any increased prevalence within the media in the 21st century.

In fact, it would not be remotely far-fetched to make the connections between the film's pubic competition between a blowhard, self-described chauvinistic media hog against a woman determined to break the glass ceiling within the sports industry against a viciously fought Presidential election in 2016. Perhaps, that was indeed the intent of this film in the first place, even though it was filmed before the election came to pass entirely.

Even so, having a dramatized document showcasing how the trials and tribulations of the Women's Liberation movement did indeed produce a victory to serve as a source of solace and inspiration during a time when that very same movement faced a crushing failure, is a terrific conceit to augment the story of Billie Jean King. But unfortunately I felt that "The Battle Of The Sexes" fell dramatically flat and more surprising to me was how uninspiring the film actually was...and those feelings had nothing to do with knowing the outcome even before entering the theater.

For those of you who have seen Director Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" this year, just think of how aching, riveting, unpredictable, romantic, comedic, dramatic and supremely heartfelt that film was even already knowing that the real life participants in that film's love story are indeed married and even co-wrote the screenplay. The magic of that film was all in the storytelling.

By comparison, what Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton created with "Battle Of The Sexes" was essentially a meticulously designed period piece, filled end-to end with the finest production design, excellent sun baked cinematography by Linus Sandgren to the AM Gold styled soundtrack sprinkled throughout (Elton John's "Rocket Man" was a nice touch..but honestly, where was John's "Philadelphia Freedom," written specifically for Billie Jean King?), but with all of the tension, drama, urgency and thus, the palpable inspiration drained from the proceedings.

One major misstep, as far as I was concerned was the actual climactic tennis match sequence between King and Riggs. Certainly I do not think that Emma Stone and Steve Carell would have had to become tennis champions in order to portray their roles but I definitely would have found the film more convincing if the film stars were more overtly prevalent in the athletic sequences. The way Faris and Dayton have chosen to film the major tennis match is to have most of the action viewed from a distance, one would think because that way, editing would be drastically reduced and we could more easily follow the ball, so to speak. That being said, at such a distance, it is easy to deduce that we are not even watching Stone or Carell at all but more than likely their stunt doubles, with only cut away close ups of the film's stars scattered throughout. This approach did not to involve me in the match itself but to distance me from it because I was unable to "buy the fantasy" of what I was being presented on the silver screen.

Another significant problem with the film, unfortunately, is Ms. Emma Stone. Don't get me wrong. I have been enamored with the talents of Ms. Stone ever since her debut in Director Greg Mottola and Producer Judd Apatow's raunchy teen comedy "Superbad" (2007). Yet, as of late, she seems to have found herself in somewhat of a creative rut, much like Anne Hathaway, another young, exceedingly talented actress who has become a little more than self-aware in her choices and performances overall.

Yes, Emma Stone delivers a good performance and I do believe that her scenes with Andrea Riseborough are among the film's best, most sparkling work. Yet, for all of her obvious skill, which is on display throughout the film, I guess I felt that I was watching Emma Stone playing Billie Jean King, instead of watching her become Billie Jean King.  There was nothing lived in about Stone's performance and it just left me wanting because a shag haircut and round glasses are just not enough to emulate a full, three dimensional picture of a life. By this stage of her career, Emma Stone really needs to dig a bit deeper and not simply coast upon her powerful magnetism. I know she has another great performance within her but her portrayal of Billie Jean King was just not one of them.   

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's "Battle Of The Sexes" was as dry as the desert, utilizing none of the innovation found in their previous film, the beautifully dark literary fantasy love story "Ruby Sparks" (2012) and taking what could have been truly exciting and invigorating filmmaking and storytelling some and turning Billie Jean King's historic tale and victory into a sadly pedestrian, completely inoffensive, straight up the middle of the mass audience PG 13 road.

"Battle Of The Sexes" was banal, often a tad boring and frankly, it felt like a TV Movie Of The Week from the 1970's rather than a film about the 1970's in 2017. But then again, there was much of television during the 1970's that was more daring and groundbreaking than any one moment in this movie and therefore, the life of Billie Jean King. Truly unthinkable to me considering we have a story and film that contains themes of sexism, feminism, athleticism, competition, a sexual identity crisis and awakening, scenes from two marriages, a budding love story and gambling addiction and even so, the effect was as regarding sun saturated wallpaper for two hours.

Billie Jean King deserves so much better.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR OCTOBER 2017

Let's keep this cinematic train rolling, shall we?

While we are definitely at a crossroads with the state of the cinema these days with originality fighting for space and relevance against the painfully tried and true, I really wish to believe that originality will win the day in the long run because let's face it, which movie do you think will still be talked about after 2017: "mother!" or "The Emoji Movie"?

I rest my case.

That being said, there is no reason to believe that ALL sequels are cinematic wastelands, as already one upcoming sequel feature is earning reviews that are ecstatic.

1. "BLADE RUNNER 2049"
Dear readers, I cannot say that I have necessarily been salivating over a sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott directed cinematic wonderment that remains a seismically influential work of art to this day. That being said, now that the film is just about to arrive, I am enormously interested and more than ready to return to this wholly unique cinematic universe, this time directed by Denis Villeneuve, who already made a powerful mark within the science fiction genre with last year's outstanding "Arrival." 
2. "THE FOREIGNER"
I have to admit, the trailer had me more than intrigued. Under the direction of Martin Campbell, who previously helmed "Casino Royale" (2006), one of the finest James Bond thrillers in recent years, we now have this new political thriller which seems to showcase star Jackie Chan in a more subdued, dramatic fashion than I have ever been used to seeing and I am hoping that the film as a whole succeeds in the same fashion while also providing some urgent action.
3. "THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US"
OK...could you have two more attractive leads in your film?!   Even so, this survivalist tale starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, also caught my attention and I hope the script and performances will outweigh any cliches I fear may make their ways into the proceedings.

With that, October is more than full for me, so again wish me good health and luck and and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!