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to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista).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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A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

July 26, 2014

a most wanted man Greetings again from the darkness. If you aren’t an avid reader of John le Carre’ spy novels, perhaps you’ve seen movie versions such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener, or The Russia House. If not, how about director Anton Corbijn’s previous film The Amercian (2010 with George Clooney)? The more you’ve read and seen these, the more you are prepared for this latest.

Mr. le Carre’ was actually part of MI5 and MI6 (British Intelligence) and uses his experiencefrom so many years ago to provide the type of post 9/11 anti-terrorism spy thriller that doesn’t focus on explosions and gun play, but rather the subtleties of communication when very smart people go up against other very smart people who may or may not share their goals. Secrets and misdirection abound. Traps are set, and sly maneuverings are pre-planned.

As if all that weren’t enough, how about yet another mesmerizing performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman? He is a master at the top of his craft here. Sure, maybe the German accent is a bit distracting at first, but it was necessary because movie audiences needed a constant reminder that he is not playing an American! I cannot explain how this chain-smoking, mumbling schlub can so dominate a scene and disappear into a character, but Hoffman most certainly does both.

In addition to a very cool script, excellent support work comes from Grigor Dobrygin as Issa, the central figure in Hoffman’s character’s work, Willem Dafoe as a somewhat shady banker, as well as Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi, and Rainer Bock. The only miscast is Rachel McAdams as rich girl turned terrorist sympathizer.

Parts of the score were excellent – the droning, ominous piano notes set the right mood. The composer was Herbert Gronemeyer, a German rock star (you’d never know from the score). This is a delicious, challenging look at international spies and how one never knows where they fall on the food chain … minnow, barracuda, shark.

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman was such an impressive talent, and after this, there are only a couple of projects remaining where you can see his final work: God’s Project (from Sundance Film Festival) and the last of “The Hunger Games” series.  At some point, I will do a retrospective of his career, but not until his final works have been released.

watch the trailer:

 


THE CONGRESS (Le Congres, France, 2014)

April 13, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

congress Greetings again from the darkness. As a fan of director Ari Folman’s Oscar nominated Waiting for Bashir (2008), I was excited to see this one on the line-up at Dallas International Film Festival. While some will find The Congress a bit messy and difficult to follow, it certainly reinforces Folman’s innovative and creative approach to story telling and filmmaking.

The first half of the movie is live action and the second half is animated. The best description I can offer is as a social commentary, not just on Hollywood, but society as a whole. While Her makes the case for virtual relationships, this movie makes the case for virtual everything else! Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an aging movie star who is offered a chance to stay young and be popular forever. Just sign this contract, and Miramount Studios owns your complete public image. No more acting, just kick back and enjoy your money … and watch what we do with your image and career.

The cast is very strong, but the movie has a feeling of having been rushed through production … at least from the live action side. In addition to Ms. Wright, Danny Huston chews some scenery as a cut throat studio head. His blunt description of Ms. Wright’s “bad choices” since The Princess Bride speak to not only many actors, but for many in the audience as well. Harvey Keitel plays the agent, Jon Hamm appears through voice only in the animated sequence, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) plays Wright’s son and central plot figure, and Sami Gayle plays his sister. Paul Giamatti appears in both live action and animated form as the family doctor.

Some will be reminded of A Scanner Darkly, and others of Cool World. The best this movie has to offer is not in its (creative) presentation, but rather in its ability to provoke thought about the look of future society and the impact of technology … as well as the whole issue of identity and what makes us who we are. It’s a brain-scrambler if you stick with it.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

December 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The character of Lisbeth Salander absolutely fascinates me. That’s true whether we are discussing Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy novels, the Swedish film versions, or this latest film version from director David Fincher (The Social Network) and a screenplay from Steve Zaillian. It’s also true whether Lisbeth is played on screen by Noomi Rapace (Swedish films) or Rooney Mara. She is a brilliant character hiding in plain sight from a world that has fiercely mistreated her, and now misjudges and underestimates her. She is the oddest heroine I can recall … and I can’t get enough of her.

 Let’s start with the source material. Stieg Larsson’s books are far from perfect, but addictive just the same. The first book (on which this film is based) is, at its core, a traditional who-dunnit presented in a manner that is claustrophobic, paranoid and eerie. Moving on to this particular film, we find the director and screenplay holding the basic tone of the book and original films, while making a few changes … some minor, others more substantial. These changes may irk those fervent fans who are quite loyal to the books, but Fincher surely wanted to offer more than a simple re-telling of the story.

 Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hired to solve the 40 year old mystery of the disappearance/murder of Harriet Vanger, niece to Swedish millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). To research, Blomkvist must dig into the Vanger’s rotten family tree of Nazis, anti-Semites, sexual predators, anti-social fanatics, and a few just plain loony birds. You can imagine how excited this rich and once powerful family is to have someone uncovering long buried secrets. Circumstances allow for Lisbeth to assist Blomkvist in researching this.

 Unlike many mysteries where assembling the clues is the most fun, the real heart of this story is the odd, somewhat uncomfortable developing relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth. This latest version allows this to develop relatively smoothly, but it nonetheless rattles our senses. We see the subtle changes in Lisbeth as she slowly opens up to the idea of a real friendship based on trust. Fear not mystery fans, the Vanger clan still provides more than enough juice to keep any film sleuth happy.

COMPARISON: It’s truly impossible to avoid comparisons between the two movie versions and the respective casts. It’s quite obvious Mr. Fincher was working with a substantially greater budget than Niels Arden Opler had for the first Swedish film. While they are both enthralling, I actually lean a bit towards the rawer original. That takes nothing away from this latest version. Same with Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara. Ms. Mara is excellent in her performance and I was fully satisfied, though Ms. Rapace brought a rougher edge to the role … one that made it even tougher to crack that shell. The biggest difference in the casts is Daniel Craig against Michael Nyqvist. Mr. Craig is just a bit too cool for the role, while Nyqvist captured the insecurity and vulnerability that Larsson wrote about. To have two such strong film versions of the same story released so close together speaks to the strength of Fincher and Larsson.

 All of that is nit-picking. Both film versions are thrilling and sterling entertainment, and clearly the Fincher version will bring the story to a much wider audience. He even brought back Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to deliver another note-perfect score. I would encourage those that are interested to check out the Swedish version, as well as the Larsson books. Maybe you will join me in my fascination with this creature known as Lisbeth Salander.

note: this is an extremely harsh, dark film.  It includes brutal sex crimes, Nazism, animal cruelty and quite a few unlikeable, unsavory folks.  Heck, even the Swedish winter is jarring!

note 2: get there in time for the opening scene and credits. Reznor and Karen O (from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s) deliver a searing remake of Led Zeppelin’s classic “The Immigrant Song” … over some mesmerizing visuals.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Larsson books and/or the original Swedish films OR you want to see one of the most original characters on film OR you are just looking for another reason to hate rich people

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are looking for upbeat, light-hearted holiday entertainment OR you avoid movies featuring any, much less all, of the subjects in my note above

watch the trailer:


MONEYBALL

September 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While reading “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, I never once considered what it might look like as a movie.  And I am the kind of guy who looks at a mailbox and wonders if a movie about a mailman might be interesting (Costner proved me wrong).  If you are a baseball fan, you should see this movie. If you are not a baseball fan, the movie works very well as a metaphor for any business maverick who takes a risk and analyzes their company or industry from an entirely new perspective. The game of baseball was over a hundred years old when Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and friends turned the institution on its ear.

Mr. Lewis spent most of the 2002 season with the Oakland team and had full access to GM Billy Beane, Asst GM Paul DePodesta, and their process in putting together a team that would contend for the American League title … all under the severe handicap of ridiculous salary constraints placed by team owners.

 In this movie, Brad Pitt is spot on as Beane – the cocky, tobacco spitting former jock trying desperately to put his stamp on the institution of baseball. Due to some lawsuit of which I know nothing, the DePodesta role is renamed Peter Brand and is played by Jonah Hill, who looks absolutely nothing like Mr. DePodesta (who played baseball at Harvard). Despite this, Mr. Hill does an terrific job of becoming the statistical whiz who can analyze data and place value on players … a skill he is obsessed with even 10 years later.

 Watching Beane trying to communicate the point of change to the old school scouts is simply priceless and painful. Years of scouting based on body type and girlfriend ranking is replaced by statistical data spit out by Brand’s computer. The real fun comes when the team’s field Manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), flashes his bah-humbug attitude, bucks Beane’s system and continues coaching old school … from the gut. It’s not until Beane takes away all other options that Howe is forced to follow the new plan.

Baseball fans know that Bill James is the godfather of sabermetrics in baseball. I was happy to see him receive props in the movie.  For years his formulas and calculations were ignored and scoffed at by owners, managers and scouts. Thanks to the A’s success, ALL teams now utilize some form of sabermetrics combined with old fashioned scouting. Every measurable event in a game is tracked and results are analyzed. Many fans say it has sucked the joy out of the game. Others say it has provided opportunities for players previously ignored. I prefer to look at it as the same in any industry … everyone looks for a competitive advantage. Never ignore a tool or approach that can make your company more profitable or your team more competitive.

Being a long time Texas Ranger fan, I must mention some of the ties to this story. The Rangers current manager, Ron Washington (portrayed by Brent Jennings), was an infield coach on those Oakland A’s and gets a few scenes. Grady Fuson was the Head Scout for the A’s and later came to the Rangers as co-GM or Asst GM (depending who you ask) but had a very limited stay. Mike Venafro was a relief pitcher for the A’s who gets traded in 2002 so they can pick up a more valued reliever to take his spot (Rincon). It should also be noted that current Rangers GM Jon Daniels and his talented staff have a place for sabermetrics and their formula has worked.

The director of the movie is Bennett Miller, who was responsible for the excellent Capote, which also starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Bennett’s DP here is Wally Pfister, who works frequently with the great Christopher Nolan. Pfister’s camera work is superb. The amazing writing team of Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin provide a script with sharp dialogue and just enough baseball lingo so that everyone can follow. Supporting actors include: Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) as Scott Hatteberg, poster child for sabermetrics; Robin Wright as Beane’s ex-wife; and fantastic writer/director Spike Jonze (came0) as Wright’s zenned-out new husband and the polar opposite of Beane.

 I need to make a point about the performance of Jonah Hill. His movies Superbad and Get Him to the Greek are not my type of movies so I was never a big fan. That changed when I saw Cyrus last year. During the Q&A after this screening, Mr. Hill pointed out that Cyrus was the bridge that allowed him to be cast in this movie … his bridge to drama. He went on to state that his acting heroes are Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray because they have had successful careers in both comedy and drama. I can honestly say that it is easy to see Jonah Hill having a Bill Murray type career, especially since he has now lost so much weight – a significant weight loss after the filming of Moneyball. He is no longer the funny fat guy. He is a talented actor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are drawn to movies about visionaries OR you are a baseball fan and/or business person

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for over-the-top action sequences or a pure baseball flick

watch the trailer:


THE CONSPIRATOR

April 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While not a historical expert, I commend writer James Solomon for his years of research into a fascinating, yet quite dark moment in America. Many have attempted to couch the film as presenting Mary Surratt as an innocent bystander. I would argue that the film is much less about her innocence or guilt, and much more about the state of our country’s leaders and the judicial system at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

I found the two strongest elements of the film causing quite an internal conflict as I watched. First, the film is simply gorgeous. Costumes, props, sets and lighting all lead to a texture that puts the viewer right into the mid 1860’s. Second, the courtroom (and backroom) procedures generate a feeling of disgust. Although, we have had very recent examples of less-than-stellar judicial process in the U.S., we Americans still hold on to the belief that ours is the best and fairest system in existence.

 It was very interesting to see Kevin Kline as War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the guy calling the shots during this time and evidently had quite a power hold on the military, as well as the government. His viewpoint that the country needed a swift and decisive conclusion to this tragedy makes absolute sense … unless you happened to be one of the accused, or their legal counsel.

The lead actors in the film do a very nice job of capturing their characters and holding us in time. In addition to Mr. Kline, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union war hero and reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt. Tom Wilkinson plays Senator Reverdy Johnson who, as Aiken’s mentor, recognizes all elements of the procedures. Evan Rachel Wood portrays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter. She has few scenes, but each is quite powerful. Danny Huston is Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney, who clearly has free reign to do whatever is necessary to ensure a guilty verdict. Other supporting work is provided by Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints), Stephen Root, Johnny Simmons and Colm Meaney. The two miscast roles are courtesy of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long.

 I found Robin Wright‘s stoic portrayal of Mary Surratt to be quite mesmerizing. Her strength and motherly insistence on protecting her son was absolutely believable. In my opinion she should gather consideration for an Oscar nomination when the time comes. This is not a showy performance, but rather the foundation of the story.

Lighting of the time was thanks to candles and lanterns, and director Robert Redford masterfully captures that on film. We are always hoping for a bit more light on the characters or in the courtroom. Instead we get the feeling of being present. I did find some of the “buddy scenes” to be unnecessary, but the scenes with Wilkinson and Kline more than offset this weakness.

This is the first film from The American Film Company, whose mission is to present historically accurate films on American history. If their initial entry is an indication, we anxiously await their next projects.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood to be transported back to 1865 and come as close as possible to experiencing the conflict and grief of the young country just out of civil war.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to see the flaws within what is basically a very strong and judicious system