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 review: “La La Land”

“La La Land” is like a young Labrador retriever: gorgeous to look at, eager to please, and exhausting. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has set himself a daunting task: create a movie that will rekindle Americans’ affection for both A) big, showy Busby Berkley musicals and B) live improvisational jazz. Reviving one of these flatlining patients would be a miracle; in trying for both, Chazelle stretches his movie’s energy too thin.

However, just as a flawed wedding cake is still cake, there are delights aplenty to be had, chief among them Emma Stone: any movie featuring her questioning eyebrows and lippy attitude has already made several correct decisions. Lots of attention will be justly paid to the costuming in this movie, specifically the use of a yellow dress (and Emma Stone can wear yellow) against a periwinkle sky. But even wearing a coffee-soaked uniform shirt and polyester anorak, Stone’s riveting, capable of communicating snark and humor and despair almost telepathically. Which is helpful, because her character, Mia, is an aspiring actress, and must summon up tempests from thin air in audition after audition, usually in front of bored, texting producers. (The ludicrous lines Mia must recite for these failures are a gem-like recurring bit.) Stuck in a similar position of despair, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, an achingly earnest young man who storms off his job when asked to play audience-friendly holiday medleys: his heart belongs to old-school, live jazz. Just as Mia is convinced that if she but writes, directs, performs and controls every aspect of her own one-woman play, audiences will respond in droves, Sebastian is convinced that if he could only own, renovate, design, name, and book his own jazz club, people will suddenly rediscover their long-dormant love of extended drum solos and piano improvisation. Both actors are charming and youthful enough to make this kind of winsome naiveté charming (as opposed to, say, incredibly grating), but you still want to see them grow up a bit—even, potentially, encounter a rogue spore or two of reality. John Legend, in an understated and excellent cameo as successful musician Keith, gently tries to talk some sense into Sebastian: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” His point struck me as tremendous good sense, but the movie’s hell-bent on painting him as a compromising panderer, and Mia and Sebastian as True Artists—Mia produces her play, which takes place entirely in a bedroom and centers on girlhood dreams of Paris, in front of a tiny, disengaged audience, but later discovers that it touched one very important person in a very special way. If your eyes are beginning to roll, welcome to the cynic’s bench in hell, where I have saved you space. By the time Mia launches into her breathy final number, which includes the phrase “Here’s to the dreamers”, the movie has left all earthly cares, and most of its earthly audience, behind. We know that we’re supposed to be uplifted, even enchanted, but the characters’ struggles feel trite and their triumphs unlikely, and that’s the real sticking point—we can accept a world where someone might spontaneously burst into song, but running a successful bar themed on improvisational jazz?

Give us a break.