Movie review: “Blade Runner 2049”

I almost didn’t see “Blade Runner 2049”, because my sister told me it was nearly three hours long, and, at 34, three solid hours of entertainment isn’t entertaining. I have back problems, a daily to-do list that spans several pages, and a cranky yet persistent belief that if filmmakers are really genius auteurs, they can figure out how to edit their auteur-ness down into a brisk two hours. “Blade Runner 2049” has proven me wrong. From the moment the darkness envelops you to the moment the house lights return, you remain transfixed, hanging in a suspension of equal parts enchantment and horror, until the movie sees fit to release you.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner who makes his living “retiring” (killing) older models of replicant. He performs his job with an air of calm detachment, which he’d need: K is himself a replicant, kept in the job because of his human commanders’ belief that new replicants are incapable of disobedience. Because “Blade Runner 2049” is not fucking around, K is a cop, the growing moral schism between his identity and his brutal occupation instantly recognizable as a commentary on policing in 2017 America. As he did in “Drive”, Gosling gives the impression of projecting two completely different faces at once: the impassive facade his character must maintain, and the mounting interior panic that only we in the audience can see. Gosling’s control over his microexpressions is so startlingly effective that watching him feels like being granted psychic powers—we understand K perfectly, but we don’t know how we understand, and couldn’t explain it if we tried. The moviemakers, wisely, allow his performance to do the bulk of the exposition: through K’s eyes, we slowly absorb the social hierarchy of 2049 Los Angeles, in which humans are king, some replicants are more human than others, and even replicants may own a virtual house slave, a holographic girlfriend to cook your dinner and switch off obediently when you want some peace and quiet, or when a phone call comes through from your boss. With all the vegetation and most of the animals blasted away by radiation, man and replicant alike have no choice but to consume synthetic nutrition and eke enjoyment out of synthetic relationships: K brings presents to his holographic girlfriend, even though his hands sink right through her; just as K’s human supervisor Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) tries for a collegial drink, but can’t ask K a question without phrasing it as an order. The dystopia’s blasted and lifeless landscapes are creepy, but the disturbance is nothing compared to the chill that passes over you when you realize that you’re looking at an ideal American workforce / consumer base.

Presiding over the monopoly on replicant manufacture, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) plays a futuristic CEO as a nightmare Steve Jobs who casually guts protoypes that don’t live up to his inscrutable specs. As Wallace pulls the strings behind K’s investigation of a missing replicant, we sense the plot closing around us, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s hypnotic score and director Denis Villeneuve’s haunting use of fog lulls us into a pleasant stupor—the ending is inevitable, but still surprises. It’s a hell of a Venus flytrap, and the strangest thing about it is how badly I want to be caught again.

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Movie trailer review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

OK so the trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. I can’t even tell you how excited I am for this movie. Let me count the ways:

First and foremost, Kylo Ren. I don’t think there’s been a more beautifully balanced anti-villain in my lifetime. I want so desperately to see this murderous little shit redeemed—I want to see him redeemed despite that he killed literally my favorite fictional character of all time, I want to see him redeemed SO HARD, AGAINST A WALL… wait, where was I? Right, Kylo Ren and how masterfully these folks have managed to put us both in sympathy with, and in terror of, this complete and raging asshole. It starts with the very first scene, a contemplative and quiet moment as Kylo Ren looks out a window. It’s so peaceful and pretty that your brain almost doesn’t register that the shower which he’s watching out the window isn’t rain, but sparks from assembling weaponry. We’re meant to draw a parallel between Kylo and the weapons outside—both he, and the At-Ats and other insensible war machines, are just tools for Snoke to manipulate, as the voiceover makes clear: “When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power… and beyond that, something truly special.”

The trailer cleverly uses this as the pivot point to Rey, who is presented as Kylo’s opposite in every way: dressed in homespun tones of dust and cream, sharing an island with Luke that is as green and verdant as every space occupied by the First Order isn’t. Rey, upon realizing that the Force is active and coursing within her, is looking for help learning to control it, and the voiceover makes it sound like she’s asking Luke for that help. “Something inside me has always been there, but now it’s awake and I need help.” I’m going to go ahead and guess that this snippet of dialogue is actually from her encounter with Kylo Ren at the end of the trailer (“I need someone to show me my place in all this.”), which encounter I’m furthermore going to guess takes place in the flaming wreckage that Luke’s eventually going to crawl out from under. That makes sense as a story arc, right? Hermit!Luke trains Rey, behaves like kind of a dick to her because he’s Luke and it’s been lonely on the island, and when the full extent of her powers reveal themselves he gets spooked and refuses to train her further. We don’t get to see him change his mind because Kylo Ren picks that exact moment to show up and burn shit to the ground; Rey, still stung by Luke’s rejection, decides that Kylo is the only other mentor who can possibly understand her and goes off with him, leaving Luke, who knows what kind of danger she’s in, to dig himself out from under the flaming drywall and follow them—with C3PO as his erstwhile sidekick. Finn, too, is surrounded by enemies—he’s back in his First Order uniform, embedded with the enemy on a mission of subterfuge. Poe is the only one of the trio who seems to be free of the First Order and running loose around the galaxy; my guess is that he’ll take the wild-card/Han role in the new trio of friends, providing rescues and sex appeal as needed.

Beyond speculation, this trailer offers tantalizing glimpses of two new creatures—a Porg, which, we learn, has a battle yelp like the beginning of “Immigrant Song” as sung by a Furby, and a crystal fox, which looks like a coyote designed by Swarovski. We’re going to need some interesting animals around to distract us from the knowledge that we’re watching Carrie Fisher’s last performance. Even if Kylo Ren doesn’t kill her, 2016 did, and seeing Leia in a situation of terrible peril with the knowledge that she’s gone feels strange and obscene, especially from the vantage point of 2017, when we are all in terrible peril. The Aboriginal people of Australia refuse to see any movie that may contain images of a dead person. I’m beginning to understand why. “The Last Jedi” promises us an ever-darkening world, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” did. I only hope we all live long enough to see the return of the Jedi.

Movie review: “The LEGO Ninjago Movie”

We now have three installments of the least creatively titled franchise ever, and a pattern is emerging: the LEGO movies center on isolated and friendless boys who long for the bonds of family, particularly their fathers, but who can relate to others only through the medium of plastic brick assembly. The first LEGO movie revealed its stakes in an unforgettable last-minute twist, and this is a problem for the subsequent LEGO movies: unforgettable twists can’t be reused. “The LEGO Batman Movie” tried to hit the same note by giving Batman a found family of Joker, Robin and Barbara Jordan, but without a single relationship as a focal point, the movie floundered. “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” tries the same trick, but with eight relationships instead of three. One feels the creators have not fully reflected. Nevertheless, onward to Ninjago, a colorful, vaguely Asian city with one glaring problem: a volcano-inhabiting supervillain named Garmadon who attacks the city so regularly that the local TV news features a Garmadon forecast. Opposing him are a group of teenaged ninjas representing the natural elements: earth, fire, lightning, water, ice… and green. Green is Lloyd. He’s Garmadon’s son. If the movie had left the stakes this simple—the son of a supervillain struggles to define himself—it would have made for a better film. Unfortunately, the movie tries for multiple epiphanies, and doesn’t quite stick the landing on any of them. However, I bet you won’t mind: Ninjago is so lively, so inventively jammed that it feels like a fully realized world, with potential for stories and lives well beyond the borders of the movie. Which, since you can purchase every brick and minifig used to build that world, means that the creators of “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” did stick one important landing. Gentlemen, start your Christmas lists.

Movie review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Matthew Vaughn can stretch your suspension of disbelief farther than most directors, but even he has a limit. Oddly, that limit isn’t “an ancient society of weavers who are also assassins” (“Wanted”), or “a mutant Holocaust survivor orchestrates the Cuban missile crisis” (“X-Men: First Class”) or even “Brad Pitt as an Irish Traveller” (“Snatch”). The moment Matthew Vaughan lost his grip on me was the moment he turned his charming protagonist, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) into a rapist, and expected me to cheer.

 

Let’s back up a bit: the “Kingsman” franchise has always been founded on the bedrock of Bond, in the same sense that “Family Guy” is founded on decades of accreted formula sitcoms: it’s not a satire on the format so much as an envelope-pushing exaggeration. So everything wrong with Bond—the ludicrous gadgets, the windy villains, the misogyny—is present and accounted for in the “Kingsman” movies. But where Bond is frequently gritty and dour, “Kingsman” is bright and poppy, with a spray-paint sensibility and a buoyant soundtrack. You see Colin Firth cartwheeling ass-over-bulletproof-umbrella to “Free Bird” and think, Oh, this is supposed to be fun!

 

For the most part, it is fun: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” continues in the same vein as “Kingsman: The Secret Service” did, with gleefully cartoonish bloodshed (a henchman is fed into a meat grinder fully clothed, a perfect hamburger patty emerging on the other end), a jubilant soundtrack (this one features both Prince and Elton John, the latter of whom cameos, delightfully), and plenty of pleasingly garish fashion courtesy of the immensely talented Arianne Phillips (Taron Egerton wears an orange velvet tuxedo jacket that deserves immediate enshrinement in the Met’s costume collection). And there is a new toybox of American characters to unpack: the British Kingsmen, who operate their unsanctioned spy agency out of a tailor’s shop, discover a parallel group of Yanks, whose home base is disguised as a whiskey distillery. Here is where the questionable decisions begin: Vaughan introduces Tequila (Channing Tatum), only to place him on literal ice for the majority of the movie—a criminal waste of charm. The Kingsmen must carry on with Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), who was dashing as Oberon Martell in “Game of Thrones”, but who gives a strangled, uncomfortable-seeming performance here as a bullwhip-toting cowboy. Halle Berry, too, seems ill-at-ease with her character, Ginger Ale, who’s given a glass ceiling to bump up against, but no lines or scenes with which to break it. Finally, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) reappears… with retrograde amnesia. (Halle Berry, never one to conceal her contempt for a silly plot device, all but rolls her eyes as she delivers the diagnosis.)

 

Other flaws emerge: two characters share the codename Whiskey, which other characters rightly observe is confusing. No plot development or punchline rests on this state of affairs; it just exists, and is confusing. Taron Egerton’s character is called “Eggsy” one minute, “Eggy” the next—well, which is it? But chief among all problems is the stomach-turning scene at Glastonbury, in which Eggsy/Eggy must meet, and seduce, Clara (Poppy Delevingne). His goal is not to inspire voluntary disclosure of secrets, which would be a bit icky but within the established bounds of Bond-ian spycraft, but to clandestinely insert a miniaturized tracking device in Clara’s vagina without her knowledge. This is sexual assault. What’s particularly odd is that I think the filmmakers know it; Eggsy first registers alarm, then disgust as he’s told the device must be applied to a mucous membrane—before reality dawns, Eggsy asks if he’s supposed to jam his finger up Clara’s nose. In a panic, he locks himself in a bathroom and calls his girlfriend, Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) for permission to carry on with the mission; we hope for a dousing of good sense, but Tilde’s the wrong girl for that. The price of her blessing is an engagement ring—just in case we’d forgotten the jarring, transactional note at the end of the first movie, when Tilde offered Eggsy access to her rectum as a literal reward for a job well done. Deal made, Eggsy returns to Clara and slides the tiny tracker into her panties—incredibly, the camera follows his hand to invade her vagina, here represented by a CGI-pink landscape swirling with blood vessels, where the tracker spins off like a satellite into space. Later on, just in case any young girls in the audience had any lingering doubts as to how very much the filmmakers hate them, Clara will be murdered by her boyfriend for having cheated.

 

After this, I didn’t know how to feel. The Glastonbury scene is so ugly in tone and spirit that it jarred me completely out of my cocoon of enjoyment, and I struggled to return. Even a silly, up-tempo fight sequence to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”—a pairing of song and scene I’ve wanted for ages—couldn’t completely erase the pall, and I left the theater feeling degraded and more than a little dirty. I had, after all, paid to see the movie. Did I ask for this?

Movie review: “Atomic Blonde”

If you are in the mood for a two-hour music video featuring candy-colored lighting, dramatic costuming, and Charlize Theron’s upper lip, you’re in luck: “Atomic Blonde” is happy to provide. If you’re looking for a master class in gloriously choreographed and photographed hand-to-hand combat, “Atomic Blonde” is your girl. If you want a functional spy thriller? Better look for a brunette. (I hear Jason Bourne is easy.)

“Atomic Blonde” passes the distraction test easily—within the first three minutes, in which a mutilated Charlize Theron rises naked from a tubful of ice cubes, I’d shed the looming specter of my car’s upcoming brake job—but runs into trouble once it tries to cobble together a plot. This is the kind of spy movie in which the announcement of a character always comes with a close-focus shot of a manila folder thwapping onto a table, complete with black-and-white surveillance photos paper-clipped to the inside cover and a helpful voiceover providing exposition. “Lorraine Broughton,” a clipped British voice tells us as we study footage of Charlize Theron, is an elite MI6 agent skilled in hand-to-hand combat, escape, all the spyish arts. “She’ll need every single one of them on this mission,” the voice continued, and I deflated a bit: nothing is less exciting than someone in a movie telling you how excited you should be.

Unfortunately, the trend continues: the movie introduces its MacGuffin (a list of “every agent we have” embedded in the guts of a flashy watch), then spends a truly unforgiveable amount of time trying to convince us that a list of spies we’ve never met and don’t care about is incredibly important. And that a flashy watch is not a stupid place to put a complete list of MI6’s staff. The movie’s creators are so concerned that we take the watch-list (get it?) seriously that they send John Goodman in to remind Lorraine of its importance, a few days into her mission. “If that list gets out, lots and lots of good, hard-working people are going to die,” he informs her soberly, but where are these people? So far, the movie has only introduced us to Lorraine, who can coordinate stilettos with gloves and who can also stab you to death with said stilettos, and to David Percival (James McAvoy), who can smuggle items underneath the Berlin Wall and who, as a man, can wear a fur coat, but who otherwise fails to inspire confidence. The movie also introduces us in rapid succession to a panoply of bearded East and West German operatives, then assumes we can remember all their names, faces, and allegiances as we flash forwards to Lorraine’s mission debriefing. Suddenly I needed a manila folder—I was in the second act, and I was lost. Was that guy Stasi? Was he the same one as before? Why is Lorraine suddenly speaking Swedish? Didn’t she kill that bearded guy already?

Without a flow chart, the movie is incomprehensible, but the plot’s opacity isn’t enough to keep us from noticing what’s silly here: a flashmob, with props, that Lorraine coordinates in three minutes prior to the advent of cell phones in the middle of an East German riot; Machiavelli’s “The Prince” all but spotlit on the bookshelf of a character we’re meant to mistrust; a tunnel you could drive a Yugo through, underneath the Berlin Wall. Nothing about “Atomic Blonde” is believable, much less tense, but all this silliness does free you to appreciate the opulent costumes on display. Charlize Theron, bless her, changes outfits about every fifty-three seconds, and the moviemakers, bless them, always give us a slow toe-to-head shot to absorb the billowing pant legs; structured jackets; pale yellow plastic sunglasses; corsets worn over shirts. Not since Rene Russo single-leggedly resurrected garters in “The Thomas Crown Affair” has there been a wardrobe so glorious, or so lusciously photographed: a softly lit fight sequence in which Theron, wearing a white plastic trenchcoat, wraps a yellow extension cord around herself like a vaquero managing his spare lasso, could easily double as a spread for “Vogue”, and probably did. Product placement is rampant here, not least from the cigarette  industry, who probably figured that with oranger things on everyone’s mind this year, no one would notice the resurgence of movie stars posing sexily while smoking and ordering Stolichnaya (the movie’s other apparent sponsor). Everything and everyone is beautiful in the 1989 of “Atomic Blonde”; as a logic-free place to escape to for two hours, you could do much worse. Try 2017.

Movie review: “Dunkirk”

I arrived late to the theater for “Dunkirk” and walked in about two minutes after the movie began. Two minutes later, I was gnawing on my own knuckles. An hour and forty-five minutes later, the stress had not noticeably dissipated, even after the credits rolled: leaving the theater parking garage, a car one level above me rolled over the garage’s expansion joints with a rattling clank, and, inside my Honda, I ducked. Such is the visceral nature of Christopher Nolan’s first war movie: there are no breaks, no breathing room, and no downbeats. You will never feel safe—every moment not spent engaging in immediate struggle is spent bracing for the next wave of fatal disaster. It is an exhausting movie.

“Dunkirk” takes one tiny strip of air, land, and sky, and puts it under a jeweler’s loupe: wisely, the movie eschews maps, and scale models, and cuts to general’s quarters far away from the action. You spend the time crowded with the characters into punishingly tight spaces: fighter plane cockpits, boat hulls, the support struts of a jetty. Slowly, every space is crushed: the planes crash, the torpedoed boats collapse like tin cans in outer space, the jetty is bombed steadily into smithereens. Then, the water catches fire. There’s an element of “now what” in “Dunkirk”—things get bad, and then things get much worse, and then things get so mindbendingly awful that you cannot understand how anyone survived. Which is a fairly respectful way to approach war: Nolan certainly doesn’t make it look glorious or fun or sexy in any sense. War, here, looks like something you would run a hundred miles barefoot in a snow of shit to avoid. But “Dunkirk”’s PG-13 rating has hampered realism considerably, and to the movie’s detriment: as horrifying as the situation is, we see little of what has been done to the human bodies trapped within it. Bombs drop on humans on the beach, but the camera feints away from the resultant explosion; machine guns seam a crowd, but death occurs with a minimum of screaming, and none of the bargaining, fear, and agony that would humanize the dying. The movie tries to get us as close as it can to the terror, but the artifice hangs a lantern. A camera can look away from a screaming man, holding his guts in—but a real human, placed in the same spot, could not, and the camera’s avoidance of what we’re fascinated by, distances us emotionally. That’s a shame: there should be no distance from war in the movies. We should not be able to escape looking at the faces, the bodies, of the dying young. This shouldn’t be a PG-13 experience.

Now: an argument can be made, and clearly was successfully made, that by keeping the movie under an R rating, the moviemakers increase the number of people likely to see it, and thus absorb some aversion to warfare. However, that argument is given the lie when we come to the end of “Dunkirk” and hear Winston Churchill being quoted: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”. “Dunkirk” is not attempting to realistically show the horror of war; instead, it is—skillfully, artfully, beautifully—trafficking in the perennial nostalgia for the one war worth fighting. You can decide for yourself if we need a reminder of that.

Movie review: “Spiderman: Homecoming”

“Spiderman: Homecoming” contains a tiny homage to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at its center, which is fitting, because Matthew Broderick seems to be the first actor to have been reincarnated while still alive. Tom Holland plays an alarmingly fresh-faced Peter Parker, so young that when he skives out of high school, you fight the urge (as you never did with Bueller) to convince him to stay. Inside high school, there are bearable torments; outside, Michael Keaton is waiting.

 

Coarsened by age and desperation, Keaton’s blue-collar Adrian Toomes is an unlikely villain for a superhero movie. He doesn’t strut or preen, his most dramatic bit of costuming is a tatty bomber jacket, and his motive is as prosaic as they come—squeezed out of his government contract for salvage, he keeps his mortgage paid with illegal weapons. The fact that some of them glow blue and can reduce a human to a crumbling cone of embers makes Toomes a bit less scary; director Jon Watts is savvy enough to understand this, and arms Toomes with an ordinary handgun for his most threatening scene, a simple conversation with Peter Parker that will make the muscles in your neck go tense. Keaton can now summon the voltage that Jack Nicholson once could: in his gaze, you can sense the menacing hum of a transformer ready to blow.

 

Opposite Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a distracted Tony Stark, one who checks in occasionally and lavishes Peter with tech—maybe a little too much tech—but isn’t really aware of his young protégée’s interior life. And since Holland reads as genuinely fifteen years old (he’s actually twenty), and capable of the kind of staggeringly bad decisions that only a fifteen-year-old can make, his fatherlessness feels risky. Marisa Tomei, as Aunt May, senses Peter drifting, but the movie insists she react by A) crying and B) giving Peter dating tips and makeovers. Beyond the retrograde gender role, this is a waste of Marisa Tomei, who had already set up the character (in “Captain America: Civil War”) as a delightful source of good sense and mischief in equal measures. You wanted to go drinking with Aunt May, and possibly get matching tattoos on your shoulderblade, though she’d stop you from getting one on your neck. Why is she reduced to behaving like a second-string friend in a Kate Hudson romcom? The rest of the girls are similarly squandered; Laura Harrier, as Liz, vacillates between serving as a crush object and a helpless victim for Spiderman to rescue. Zendaya fares only slightly better: playing an appealingly scruffy classmate of Peter’s, she’s given nothing of her own to do, and instead must provide a snarky Greek chorus on the doings of boys. Of all the 80’s movie tropes to call back to, sidelined women wasn’t a good pick; let’s hope by the next installment of “Spiderman”, the girls will have at least joined the 90’s.

 

As for Peter Parker, the movie brings him to a graceful landing back in the center of Tony Stark’s regard; the moment is understated and perfect, and both characters play it off as if nothing much has happened, even though everything has. This movie may not have the faintest clue what to do with women, but it absolutely gets boys, and that delicate, bittersweet moment when they finally become Spidermen.