Blade Runner 2049

October 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In 1982, Ridley Scott brought us “Blade Runner”, an intriguing, cerebral sci-fi flick set in the future, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story entitled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. Make your own assessment of which had the better title; but I know what my answer’d be. The film wasn’t a success at the box office, despite having the star power of Harrison Ford, and some young talent like Sean Young. It was too slow, too dark, and miserable, in a year with “E.T.” and “Poltergeist”; even “Star Trek” gave audiences something to get excited about, in the world of science fiction. But “Blade Runner” was trying to be something different–a throwback to film noir, complete with hard boiled narration (that Harrison Ford reportedly hated). It was visually captivating, but little else.

Then, it gained a following in years to come. Now, it’s regarded as a classic, a golden standard of “thinking sci-fi”. Films like “Dark City” and “Gattaca” would come over a decade later, and were a little better received thanks to the groundbreaking “Blade Runner”. For me personally, “Blade Runner” never quite connected. I think because it had so much “stuff” in it, it kind of weighed itself down. The characters weren’t exactly very endearing, and the plot seemed to move in slow motion. The set design, the effects, were all magnificent. I still like to “look” at the film. But as a narrative, it just left me cold. Certainly I could appreciate what Scott was trying to do, and what message the film was saying about morality and humanity, and what it means to be human. What we take for granted, what we take with us, could be “tears in the rain”.

Now, 35 years later, we have a sequel. I was certainly interested, because I felt that with Scott again involved, maybe he could further develop the world he created back in 1982. Of course now, we are far into the future, with it being 2049. I’m sure this won’t spoil a thing–but Deckard is back, although his presence is couched in favor of our new Blade Runner, K (Ryan Gosling). K is part of a code that he is named after. He’s assigned to a case to “retire” a replicant on a farm. Replicants, if you’re familiar with “Blade Runner” lore, are robots designed after humans to resemble us completely, except for one trait: they lack empathy and are synthetic. They were mostly created as slaves, but some are “retired” (destroyed) if unwanted. If you’re not familiar, all of this explained in the opening sequence in text, so you aren’t completely lost.

Once K meets with the farmer (played by Dave Bautista), a fight ensues, with K being the victor and discovering something: replicant remains. And, the kicker–she was pregnant. This is unprecedented in replicant evolution, and there’s a race to destroy all remains of the all of it, including the child–who is alive. K is pursued by an employee of the Wallace corporation (who took over for the Tyrell Corporation following the first film), led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), she’s a replicant as well and replicants can have some superhuman powers. You don’t really want to be Blade Runned by a replicant.

K has somewhat of a normal existence: he works for the LAPD, and though being a replicant himself, he is obedient in his job, and good at it. His boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) seems to like him and his ethic, and even somewhat protects him once it gets out that the remains of the pregnant replicant have been taken. K also has a “girlfriend”, an entity that works like a holographic Amazon Echo, and who can love you unconditionally, with only the push of a button. Named Joi (Ana de Armas), after the product, she believes there’s something special in K, even though he thinks he’s just your average…Joe.

But when one of his implanted memories turns out to be seen as “genuine”, something impossible for replicants as they have no living memory, he starts to believe her, and–in himself.

But this sort of self journey only serves as background noise to an otherwise noisy, and would-be thought provoking film. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours long, you’d think director Denis Villenueve would utilize the run time to explore K’s existence more than just a few flashbacks, and link his to Deckard’s and other replicants. But this is an insulated film, and Gosling is always tough to read. So again, there’s an emotional hole that could’ve been filled with the kind of story this is telling–which has to do with literal creation. It doesn’t seem to drown in cliches of religious symbolism, thankfully, but it spends an awful lot of time on lingering shots of the world–colorful at that–that this film exists in. Yes, it’s gorgeous at times; sometimes, ugly. I think there’s a metaphor in there, something that can be divined from all the rainy, claustrophobic city sequences; then, contrasted with quiet beauty of a sprawling desert, or even inside an office building. There’s a lot of empty space, and that rings true for the film’s narrative. Just like in the first film, it seems to suffer from taking a short story subject and putting it into full length feature film mode. “Blade Runner” was only 2 hours though; this is almost 3. With that extra hour, we really don’t get much more juice that had already been squeezed from the original. We get very similar themes of self-worth, what it means to be human–and what the importance of one’s existence can be.

Harrison Ford looks tired in just about everything he does lately, and even though it’s nice to see him again, it feels a bit sad too. His character is alone, and has really nothing to look forward to. Spending more time with him, rather than leaving him for the third act as another MacGuffin, would have really strengthened the film.

The look of the film is exhilarating, and a lot of the film does actually work fine. But the bloated run time, including pretty much all scenes with Wallace, really bog the film down. Leto is a great actor, but his character has really no importance to the overall plot. And his musings are rather dull, instead of being ominous or foreboding. He does have a singular function, of basically being the puppet master of his creations. But Luv, his henchwoman, basically has a mind of her own and makes a fine villain on her own. She certainly doesn’t seem the type who needs to “obey”.

There is also another subplot of an uprising of replicants. I would imagine this would serve as a centerpiece for another sequel–but the film doesn’t work enough for me to want to invest myself in another “Blade Runner” film. As it stands, it falls flat, and only becomes relevant for K’s journey that I think he would’ve figured out eventually anyway. The resolution for Deckard is a little more uplifting and satisfying, but by the time we get there, I was ready to bolt out of my seat.

If you want a thinking sci-fi film, put more thought into it. That should be obvious–but also, make the plot interesting. Make it complete. This came off as a bit fractured, and it really hampered the full enjoyment I think a person could have with it.

If this were a replicant, I wouldn’t have a problem with it being “retired”.

My rating: :?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In 2014, we were treated to a new batch of heroes from Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was skeptical at first because I had never even heard of this comic book series before. It turns out, the Guardians go back to 1969, however the ones depicted in the film are from a “modern” reinvention, that goes back to the latter part of the 20th century. While there’s history there, this is a relatively new series. Nevertheless, my wariness for a new comic book franchise was diminished when I saw that James Gunn, formerly of TROMA, was attached to it. I’ve been a fan of his work dating back to his early days, and really enjoyed his later films such as “Slither”. When I saw the first “Guardians of the Galaxy”, whatever reservations I had were completely vanquished. I was thoroughly entertained by the characters: Star-Lord, or Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). I actually couldn’t wait for their next adventure, having so much fun watching them in their first film.

Now, we’re treated to that next story; and once again, it was a pleasure. The cast is a bit bigger this time, including previous side characters (and somewhat villains) such as Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). While the core Guardians are still the main focus, there is an ample amount of time given to these other characters, especially Yondu.

The opening credit sequence alone is enough to fall in love with this film. We see a growing Baby Groot (only potted in the finale of the last film), dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the Guardians fight a giant slimy creature as a favor to a group of people known as the Sovereign, who are condescending but open to rewarding them for protecting their (precious?) batteries. Nebula, Gamora’s sister, is being held by the Sovereign, and release her back to the Guardians once the task of destroying the creature (in another amusing sequence) is complete. However, Rocket steals some of these batteries, and the Sovereign goes after them. Their style of space battle resembles old Atari games for some reason. It’s inexplicable, but funny nonetheless.

We also open with another story, that becomes part of the bigger plot, that involves a man named Ego (Kurt Russell), young and dashing, charming a young woman. We later find out what the significance of this flashback is, and are re-introduced to Ego as an older man, who now claims to be Peter’s estranged father.

When the Guardians escape the grasp of the Sovereign, and other shenanigans, Peter and Gamora go with Ego to his home “planet”, along with his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a mysterious but intriguing character that catches Drax’s fancy (although he’s unwilling to admit it). We learn that Ego is known as a “Celestial”, a god-like being, and can control pretty much anything he wants, if he can share that power with someone. He wants that someone to be Peter, who is unsure whether to believe that this is his father.

Father and son relationships are extensively explored in this film–I almost wonder if this would have been better suited to be released around Father’s Day. You have the backstory of Peter and Ego, with Peter still holding onto his resentment that he watched his mother die without his father around. Then, there’s Peter and Yondu, who raised Peter to be a thief and stands by his reasoning: “he was skinny, and made it easy for thievin'” (paraphrased). Yondu, part of the Ravagers–a group of intergalactic smugglers–refuses to admit any other reasoning why he kept Peter around. But we find out why later in the film. It makes sense, and it’s actually quite touching.

That’s the other strength of the film. While it is funny–sometimes uproariously so–it’s also poignant at times. There’s a lot more to this film than just space battles and quick wit. And I think that, like Peter Jackson maturing into his calling for “Lord of the Rings”, James Gunn has found his calling in “Guardians”. It’s like he was made for this series. Yes, it strays from the original comic books and that’s partly why I credit him so much. He made this his own in a sense; and here, in this sequel, he’s really mastered it.

There was never a moment where I was bored, antsy, or frustrated. There are moments when Drax gets a little carried away, and a few awkward moments here and there–but for the most part, all of it works in the grand scheme. The film is almost two and a half hours long, and it really felt like it needed all of that to tell a complete story. Nothing is rushed or slapdash. Gunn takes his time building something and working it into a satisfying conclusion. Yes, there are some cliched, predictable plot twists and devices–I think that comes with the territory of a superhero film. They’re all, by design, franchised to be the same story structure. But there are some really nice surprises along the way, and you might want to keep a few Kleenex handy at a few points.

I know the future of this series ultimately will tie into The Avengers at some point–if the rumors are true–but as they stay in their own universe, I hope Gunn sticks with the series. To me, he’s the heart and soul and foundation of it. Yes, the characters are great–Peter and Gamora have excellent chemistry. Even Mantis and Drax share some nice screen time. Rocket is always a pleasure. And I can’t write this review without completely gushing over Baby Groot. He is adorable, and steals a lot of scenes.

But it’s everything that makes this sequel even bigger, and better than the original. It brings everything up a level, which is what sequels are supposed to do anyway. It’s a great way to start the blockbuster season; but more than that, it stands alone as probably the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year.

My rating: :D

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I thought when I first saw ads for this film that Marvel Studios was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and trying to pluck anything out of their catalog to sell to kids so that they could rake in money and dominate another summer. Then I saw that James Gunn’s name was attached and I started to change my mind a bit. I had never heard of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before learning of the film’s release; after reading up a little bit on it, it actually looked like it could be a fun vehicle. Another thing I was hesitant to be excited about was the casting of Dave Bautista. He doesn’t ever come across as charismatic or endearing. Finally I stopped my preconceived notions like a nosebleed and decided to just go see the film and draw an opinion on what I saw on the screen.

What I saw was pure, absolute, 100% entertainment. This is what summer action movies are supposed to be like. While the first twenty minutes or so are quite a lot to take in–lot of backstory–once it settles in and our feet are firmly planted, it is a real treat. Gunn’s flair for humor permeates the whole film, which is a good thing. It’s funny to think a former Troma filmmaker could pull this off. But he does. And he even includes his old pal Lloyd Kaufman (former founder of Troma Films and director of “The Toxic Avenger” among other films) as a prison inmate in one scene.

The story involves a group of criminals in their own way thrust together by a nice MacGuffin (a little metal orb) that is worth a lot; but what it is, nobody really knows. We begin with the backstory of the main character, Peter Quill (very nicely played by Chris Pratt), as he’s a child tragically watching his mother die before him in a hospital. The only thing that seems to comfort him is his walkman (this is 1988), with an “Awesome Mix” playing. He is told he is going to be taken care of by his grandfather; but once he runs outside, tears streaming down his face, he is picked up by a large spacecraft. Decades later, he is a grown man and a thief working for the alien that abducted (and ultimately raised) him, Yondu (Michael Rooker, always a pleasure to see) and steals an orb that is meant for Yondu so he can sell it. Only Quill is attacked by a group led by someone named Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and escapes with the orb, enraging Yondu. It turns out Korath wanted the orb for a Kree alien named Ronan, whose assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hired to track down Quill and take the orb from him. Meanwhile, there’s a price of Quill’s head that draws the attention of a scruffy raccoon-like being, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his companion, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and all parties converge on the planet Xandar, and are thrown in prison after some shenanigans take place.

There is a lot going on here, so I’ll just summarize: Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill, all pretty much team up to escape prison. They are helped by another inmate, Drax (who has a back story involving Gamora that’s too complicated to get into in this review), played by Bautista. They escape, and are wanted by just about everybody–but they discover that the orb is actually a casing for something called the Infinity Stone that–wait for it–can give you ultimate power. Ronan wants it, but he has someone to answer to as well–Thanos. Ronan turns out to be a rogue and wants it for himself, and Gamora’s half sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), fights for Ronan. The team basically has to save the planet Xandar from Ronan and his quest for the Infinity Stone.

So try to follow all that. Actually, even if you’re extremely confused, the film never gets bogged down too much with plot that it takes away from the action and adventure of the story. The film’s two hour length is perfect and timed and paced well so that it’s rarely a dull moment.

But it’s really the characters of the Guardians that shine. Quill is your everyman, someone we all can relate to, and his sense of humor is charming. Rocket is a loudmouth but also amusing; Gamora is stunning and of course her chemistry with Quill is palpable. The surprise to me is Bautista’s performance as Drax. While Drax is hardly charismatic by design, it is his droll demeanor that actually winds up being what’s appealing about him. He has no reflection, no identity for irony (he once is told something “went over his head” and he retorts: “Nothing goes over my head. I would catch it immediately.”) and he speaks with a ridiculous vernacular for someone of his brawny size. Bautista plays it totally straight, no winking at the camera, and that makes Drax one of the strongest presences on screen, regardless of his physical prowess.

There are also some very tender moments, and one of the most touching actually involves Drax and Rocket. I won’t give away what it is, because it’s a major plot point, but I will note that it tugged at the heart strings. Of course Quill’s tragic back story with his mother resonates, and he is always seen carrying his walkman, trying to impress anyone he can with his awesome music (which for me was hit or miss).

The film reminded me of “The Avengers” in its spirit and emphasis on character and humor. The camaraderie between the gang is fun, and even when they’re at odds (which happens occasionally), it’s still a hoot.

Even though it seems like Marvel reached for this one, it proves there are some gems even at the bottom of whatever barrel they are scraping at. And because Marvel believes religiously in sequels, I know we will see these characters again.

And I look very much forward to seeing them.

My rating::D