BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

October 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve is being released in 2017 and based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings. Expect that to be the most complicated part of this review since we were mandated by the studio to follow many rules – write this, don’t write that. Such rules would normally be frowned upon (and even ignored by many), but in fact, this film does such a masterful job of paying homage to the first, while enhancing the characters and story, that we are eager for every viewer to experience it with fresh eyes and clear mind … no matter how tempting it is to talk about!

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best onscreen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions … just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are surely to also include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days. My theatre did feature the “shaky seats” that work in conjunction with the sound design … a gimmick I found distracting and more in line with what kids might find appealing.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proven himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own … and in my opinion, is better than the first. Hopefully stating that is not against the Warner Bros rules.

watch the trailer:

 

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STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

December 23, 2015

star wars Greetings again from the darkness. In what can justifiably be termed a cultural event, director J.J. Abrams brings us Episode VII in a film franchise (developed by George Lucas, now owned by Disney) that date backs almost 40 years. While I was one of the lucky ones who waited patiently in line to see the first Star Wars on opening day in 1977, I can only be described as a series fan rather than a Star Wars geek. My bond is with Han Solo and Chewbacca, so I’m not here to debate the minutiae of costumes, timelines and weaponry.

What I can happily report is that Mr. Abrams (he’s also directed Star Trek and Mission Impossible films) has found just the right blend of nostalgia, science-fiction, and geeky gadgetry to appeal to the widest of all audiences. The film is an honorable tribute to the previous six in the series, yet it’s more than entertaining enough to stand alone for new comers.

As we expect and hope for, the screen is filled with fantastical visuals that somehow push our imagination, while at the same time, feel realistic to the story and action. The aerial dogfights are adrenaline-pumping and spectacular in their vividness, and the more grounded action scenes feature Stormtroopers who have clearly had lots of target practice since the previous films.

You need only watch the trailer or read the credits to know that some of the old familiar faces are back: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and of course, our old pals C-3P0 and R2D2. Also back is the remarkable composer John Williams – likely to receive his fiftieth (yes, 50!) Oscar nomination for his work here. In addition to the familiar, new faces abound: John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kyle (don’t call me Ben) Ren, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Hux. There is also the magic of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, and an all-too-brief sequence featuring Max von Sydow. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, and there is an impressive list of other cameos available online if you are interested (Daniel Craig being the most eye-raising).

Abrams along with action cinematographer extraordinaire Daniel Mindel take full advantage of all available technical aspects in creating stunning visuals and spine-tingling sound. It’s a film made to be watched on the biggest screen with the best sound system, so ask around if you aren’t sure. If you are a long-time fan of Han and Chewy, you’ll enjoy catching up with old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the Star Wars galaxy, this latest will hook you into the force.

watch the trailer:

 


THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)

August 18, 2014

expendables3 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether you saw the first two in this series will directly correlate to whether you head to the theatre for this third entry. The filmmakers’ attempt at attracting a younger audience by adding a “new” crew and dropping to a PG-13 rating backfires, and will not provide the legs this franchise needed for more installments.

The regular old geezers are back: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jet Li (briefly), and Arnold Schwarzenneger. In addition, we get new “old” blood in the form of Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammar, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, and the dominating presence of Mel Gibson as the bad guy. The young blood comes in the form of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, boxer Victor Ortiz, and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey. The blandness of the newbies simply steals valuable screen time for the old folks, and the movie suffers because of it.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, comes courtesy of the all-time champion screen hog: Mr. Stallone. We understand that this  franchise is his baby, but why field an all-star team if you won’t let them play? Stallone gets a ridiculous number of close-ups and probably three times the dialogue of the runner-up. Snipes gets some time early in the film, replete with a reference to his real life prison sentence for tax evasion, and Ford and Arnold get in a few shots, but the only savior here is Mel Gibson. It’s a reminder of just how good he can be on screen … if we could only forget what a horrible person he can be off screen.

There is no need to go into detail on the plot or describe any of the characters. You know what you are getting if you buy a ticket. It’s just a shame the film’s direction and script aren’t at the level deserving of a cast that includes: Rambo, Mad Max, Blade, Conan, Han Solo, Hercules, Zorro, The Transporter, He-Man, and even … Sideshow Bob!

**NOTE: while Bruce Willis demanded too much money and does not appear this time, there is a Die Hard reference with the “other” Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi)

watch the trailer:

 

 


42 (2013)

April 13, 2013

42a Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate 42cbaseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman 42eflashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.

This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when 42bbeloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).

Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles.  Some comic relief is provided by 42dHamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).

Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.

**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.  Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army.  Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters.  Quite an amazing lady.

Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:

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COWBOYS & ALIENS

July 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With such a wonderful title, creative concept, stellar cast, the director (Jon Favreau) of Iron Man and Elf, and the collision of two distinct film genres – Westerns and Sci-Fi, we had every right to expect cinematic genius. Instead we get OK, just fine, and kind of entertaining. I believe that qualifies as a letdown.

My view of the film is that the western/cowboy portion is outstanding. The setting and characters are realistic and intriguing. Heck, there is steely-eyed  Daniel Craig as the outlaw Jake Lonergan; grumpy Harrison Ford as Col. Dolarhyde who runs the town with iron fist; loony tunes Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s son who is itching for respect; bespectacled Sam Rockwell as a barkeep called Doc; porcelain Olivia Wilde as the not-from-around-here beauty whose presence no one seems to question; and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff trying to do the right thing. We even have the obligatory kid (Noah Ringer from The Last Airbender) and a loyal dog.

 The weakness of the film is with the aliens. Many have said the film would be better without the aliens. Well, wouldn’t that make the title a bit ridiculous? We just needed BETTER aliens. These aliens are smart enough for intergalactic travel but they can’t outsmart a bunch of rustlers? And how many times did they capture Daniel Craig just to have him escape? Not to mention that their power seems to come from gold … and there is a shortage on their planet and ours! The beginning of the film is really, really good. It’s 1837 and Lonergan wakes up in the middle of nowhere, just outside the unfriendly town of Absolution. He is wearing a metallic bracelet/shackle around his wrist and no memory of who he is or where he came from. Although there are some terrific scenes, the film kind of drifts downhill after that.

 All I will say about the story is that the aliens attack Absolution by kidnapping a few residents and stealing gold. The cowboys fight back with six shooters, Lonergan’s bracelet, Wilde’s knowledge, and some help from the Indians.

What really bothers me about this one is that it should have been so much FUN! Instead, it’s mostly bleak with only a few comic lines tossed in. My guess is having NINE writers associated with the film was a real problem. Each of the characters holds some interest, but the story just kind of meanders with little direction.

 A couple of minor irritants for me: Lonergan wakes up and mugs three crusty old cowboys and winds up with perfectly tailored chaps, pants, shirt and vest; Olivia Wilde wears the same dress all the time but never really gets dirty; the cowboys shoot the aliens with guns, arrows and spears – sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t; and supposedly the aliens don’t see well in daylight. Tell that to the numerous cowboys and Indians who get slaughtered in the climatic battle. Lastly, Olivia Wilde’s character is the only one of her type. Where were her fellow “countrymen” to assist on her mission?

As I said, the cast is spectacular. It’s always nice to see Buck Taylor in a western. Clancy Brown plays the preacher. You will remember him as the prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption. Mr. Brown maintains his top position as the largest cranium of all actors. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) plays one of Lonergan’s old gang, and brings a touch of humor. And the fiddler is played by first time actor Rex Rideout. Nothing to say about that other than congrats on a terrific screen name!

The film is entertaining, but just falls short of what could have been, even what should have been. Watching Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford match wits in the old west is almost enough!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Daniel Craig in chaps and Harrison Ford in full curmudgeon glory are enough to justify the price of a ticket

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think it will be as much fun as the title suggests

Watch the trailer:


MORNING GLORY (2010)

November 16, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. It would be easy to dismiss this film as typical lighthearted Hollywood fluff that carries no real message (other than a 2 hour escape). The interesting thing is that its really not an escape – we are tossed right into the workaday world of a manic TV producer. Additionally, though it has plenty of light moments, it also carries a bit of depth in breaking down a couple of lead characters.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, morning TV show producer. Becky is a cute, driven, frantic, EverReady Bunny ball of energy who watches multiple TV’s and carries on multiple conversations, all while texting incessantly. She is hired by Jeff Goldblum in his final attempt at resurrecting ratings for “Daybreak”, a mere blip of competition to “The Today Show”.

The story gets interesting when Becky recruits/blackmails news legend Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to co-anchor the show with Diane Keaton‘s character. To compare, Keaton’s character will kiss a frog or don a pink tutu and has mastered the perpetual smile so necessary for morning TV. Ford’s character may not have smiled since 4th grade and views the mission of TV as delivering news and hard stories and information.  The good news is that Keaton is actually in control and not over the top, as she has been in most of her recent movies.  Ford certainly takes grumpy to the extreme.

The conflict in the story comes from Ford’s character (labeled the world’s third worst person), whom the world has passed by, and McAdams’, who is the eternal optimist. It’s pretty obvious they will somehow save each other, but still I found it entertaining to watch the road.  I also got a kick out of the exploits forced upon the poor weatherman played by Matt Malloy.  The weatherman role has always seemed to me an odd intersection of clown and scientist.

The film itself, directed by Roger Michell (Venus, Notting Hill) and Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), does a nice job with insight into those whose personalities are bound tightly to their job. There were a few occasions where the film felt choppy – like some scenes were cut or reinserted, and the music was consistently weak. I also could have done with about 8 fewer scenes of McAdams running through New York in her heels – we get that she never stops moving! The love story with Patrick Wilson felt forced, though making the point was necessary.  And thank goodness, there was no May-September romance between Ford and McAdams!  Even though it’s not at the level of Broadcast News, it offers enough depth and comedy to make this a worthwhile film to see.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine letting loose of your blackberry for anything or anyone OR you are fascinated by any woman who can sprint while in heels.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you actually believe Harrison Ford is a grumpy old man OR watching Diane Keaton kiss a frog crosses the line for you