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The 15 Best Films of 2017

The most important question that any film must ask itself and that any filmgoer must ask themselves is “Why?” Why tell this story in this way? Why did I leave my house to go see this specific story being told? Why did I like that, why did I find that important to my life, why did I keep thinking about it? Why this film, this year?

For 2017, I had a fairly simple criteria. The “why” had to be “Because no one else could tell this story.” I looked for films that felt unique and exceptional. I looked for films that went above and tried to reach beyond what is to what could be. I looked for escapism in fantastic worlds, intense thoughts, and deep emotions. I looked for films to transport me to another world, to another mind. I looked for films that took a swing to land among the stars. These 15 did that.

15) Brigsby Bear

Creativity can and should be an act of kindness. Sharing some part of ourselves with the world around us is both asking for empathy and attempting to provide it. It’s a way of understanding the world and trying to work out our part in it, it’s that core belief that undergirds Brigsby Bear and makes it such a wonderfully remarkable little achievement.

Your mileage will of course depend on how much of writer/star Kyle Mooney’s anti-comedy shtick you can bear. There’s an awkwardness that feels genuine to every part of his interaction, a knowledge of how those truly isolated from society feel trying to interact with it, but it can be painful to watch someone on screen going through those growing pains.

But that’s what works about the film. It understands those growing pains as universal and finds the specificity in its bizarre little alternate world. The titular Brigsby Bear is a work of surprising cleverness and its steady outward growth and development provides a constant delight. It’s also rare that a year can boast two great Mark Hamill performances, but that’s what this film is good enough to give us.

Brigsby Bear is for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere but want to show people where they do.

14) Your Name.

The next Miyazaki is kind of a reductive term in Japanese animation (like calling anyone the next Disney), but let’s just say that I think Makoto Shinkai at least deserves the chance to carve the same path that Miyazaki had.

While he’s well into his career by now (and has made many great piece of animation), Your Name is the first movie that really stands to prove the great future potential of Shinkai. A fully realized and gorgeous work that feels like an old genre (body swap) made wholly original (now that would be telling), you see clearly why this film was the smash in Japan that it was.

It’s a rare accomplishment to write a story that goes from the intimate to the truly epic without ever feeling like it’s taking a wrong step. A tale across space and time that never loses sight of what’s on the ground, the snapshot of a time in your life where every possibility lays before you and you have no idea, where you uncover a world that’s larger than you could ever imagine.

Your Name tells a story we all feel on a scale we could only imagine.

13) Personal Shopper

Grief is an ever-changing process. It is something that no one can move through the same way, that no one has the same experience, but it is something that we must move through.

Personal Shopper shows one process of grief. Yours may not involve texting with a hostile-ish ghost, beautiful designer dresses, or being a medium. But Olivier Assayas’ haunting meditation is deeply recognizable in raw experience, in trying to move past something that has its claws dug into you, how to understand a loss that you haven’t reconciled with.

It helps that it has an all-timer of a performance by Kristen Stewart at its core. It’s important to never forget how much she’s turned her career around since the awkward early-20 something years to develop into one of our finest actresses. There’s an envelopment of the character, an internalization that she moves through in her own specific way to create something dazzling. She’s not creating the character, she is the character.

Personal Shopper moves through grieving in a way that makes us all understand.

12) Logan

America is heading towards collapse. We imagine it’ll look like The Road or maybe Escape from New York, but I know we won’t be that lucky. It’s more horrifying to imagine a world where things get steadily worse, but history keeps moving on. Humanity gets replaced, things get more desperate, the tentacles of control seize us without us knowing, the marginalized are shoved off.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate darkness at the core of Logan that has made it so resonant. James Mangold’s sweaty, fever-dream send-off to Hugh Jackman’s defining character posits a future where technology has increased late-capitalist desperation and where our own prejudice ends up swallowing up society whole. Jackman wears the weight of all that and the decades of violence that he has committed into his best performance, every moment and motion is a new agony informed by old pains.

Yet despite all that sorrow, Logan is at its best in the moments where it slows down. The moments of family, where Logan and Stewart’s Xavier get to just talk or enjoy a moment with Laura, Logan’s ersatz daughter. It’s a movie of atmosphere, willing to wear the weight of generations on its sweat-soaked shoulders.

Logan is a look into a future that we can prevent and a goodbye to the past we can learn from.

11) Colossal

It’s kind of rare that a movie ages well within the year it comes out. But as Hollywood had its dark underbelly turned up, Colossal‘s story of male entitlement and putting the pieces back together loomed larger and larger, much like the monsters contained within its movie.

Now, it is safe to say that no movie handled the Me Too moment (or pre-handled the moment) with more off-kilter wit or fun than Colossal did. Writer/Director Nacho Vigolando reamed a lot of bizarre humor out of Anne Hathaway’s exemplary performance and the increasingly strange situation she finds herself in. He manages to explore the actual sci-fi ramifications (she did technically kill people!) without ever feeling like it’s getting too lost in though, a deft handling of a difficult tone.

It’s that ability to handle tone that becomes more and more important as the film goes on, as Sudekis’ Oscar begins to become a more sinister presence and the film becomes a good v. evil story where one side is every dude who ever said the phrase “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Colossal is a story just a few months ahead of its time that’s funnier and weirder than it has any right to be.

10) Baby Driver

As a resident of Atlanta, I spend SO much time these days watching my city play anything but itself. It’s New York, it’s L.A., it’s Lagos. It’s hard to ignore that the Chinese restaurant that was down the street from me for 3 years has suddenly picked up and moved to Portland, Oregon. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you Edgar Wright for letting Atlanta be fucking Atlanta and showing the whole world why this is the coolest city.

Of course, it helps that the rest of Baby Driver is about as cool as movies get. Edgar Wright has carved a breathless blast of high-energy cinema, slick as a 70s Steve McQueen and singular as 60s French auteur. Baby Driver has every beat of film cut to a perfectly curated soundtrack, every bit of action designed like fine clockwork.

No film this year felt so alive and exciting and like a shot in the arm for popular cinema. Elgort’s Baby is gonna be in the heads of every young film fan getting behind the wheel for the first time.

Baby Driver is the kind of film that makes it a little more dangerous to drive down I-85, blasting “Bellbottoms” and trying not to get caught by the law.

9) The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro probably has done more for my love of film than anyone else. There’s a part of me that will always be the kid meeting him during the promotion for Hellboy in awe and just a little confusion.

But it’s the slow delve into his filmography and his love of monsters that pushed me forward. Del Toro is a filmmaker of supreme empathy, seeing the good and the beautiful in the grotesque. The Shape of Water is in someways the ultimate fulfillment of this, a movie where the outcast and the monster is the object of empathy and the beautiful lover and the man of society is the twisted murderer.

A film borne of a young boy wondering why Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t end up with the damsel ending up with the monster, The Shape of Water certainly makes some bold choices (including the one you’re wondering about). But the magic of the film is that it helps you understand all of those choices, believe in them, and become enveloped in them.

The Shape of Water believes in the good of monsters and the beauty of their love.

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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 can’t be the enduring classic the original is.

For a large part, that’s based in the impossibly different approach the two films take to their world. Not just in the actual material, but in the process that got it there.

Blade Runner had cut after cut, a formative legend that eventually pulled some grand truth out of raw material. Blade Runner 2049 arrived fully formed on the back of three decades of legacy-making. Blade Runner is a film that was forced into ambiguity, its questions more important and more formative than the answers it gave. Blade Runner 2049 is founded in its directness, barreling forward into a world in the hope of unraveling its mysteries.

Blade Runner is a sci-fi film told with detective flair. Blade Runner 2049 is a mystery story told with a sci-fi thought process. The former can leave threads for years, the latter must leave only its reactions.

But despite all this, let it not be said that Blade Runner 2049 is not a staggering and extraordinary work of cinema. Few films could come in with such personal attachment for me and such difficult mountains to surmount and end up creating something that feels as real and vital and alive and as ahead of its moment as the original did, even if it only expands where the original created.

Part of the reason I chose to wait to write this review was because I needed a while to let the initial reaction wear off, the other because I wanted enough time to actually be able to safely talk about some details of what happened. This is a film that has a lot to uncover.

K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a cop specifically designated to hunt down the superhuman slave-clones known as replicants, in LA in the year 2049. K is also a replicant himself, tasked specifically with turning in his own kind.

A job hunting down runaway replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) puts K on the trail of a possible replicant child, a child that turns the world around as replicants become capable of reproduction. But K is by no means the only one interested as creator of the current, more compliant replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), stays on K’s trail, sending his badass assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after him as K follows the obscured trail to the truth.

There’s almost no way to begin talking about Blade Runner 2049 without talking about its visuals. There’s a lot underneath them, but Blade Runner 2049 is undeniably one of the most striking works of cinematic visualization put out in theaters in sometime. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have joined to create something that I imagine looks like what every blockbuster will in about 5 years.

It’s not just Villeneuve’s able visual direction, tight and focused and maintaining an almost supreme control over its pace where the extreme length (for a blockbuster) feels absolutely deliberate and unfurling.

It’s not just Deakin’s camera work, deep and inky shadows unveiling and unfurling its world and brilliant neon illuminating a cold and unforgiving air. The natural and clever lighting creating something magical and aching and impossible.

It’s not just Dennis Gassner and Renee April’s production and costume design, real and advanced and functional and just as tangible as ever despite its scale and its distance from our own world.

It’s not just the special effects work, the ingenious holograms, the unnerving de-agings, the ads in the background sprinkling information.

It’s all of those things. Blade Runner 2049 is a stack of visual wizards doing the best work they’ve ever done, creating something ahead of its time and something that makes the loudest and best possible argument for seeing a movie on the big screen that anything ever has. To say nothing of the need to hear this thing on the big screen, one of the loudest movies I’ve ever heard sure, but one where every sound only heightens the envelopment of this movie.

Was it just the technical work, Blade Runner 2049 would earn the praise many have given. But to earn the praise I’m going to give, it’s also the story being told by the people who are telling it.

Villeneuve begun his career looking at the worst of humanity, its violence and its repression. Prisoners about tragedy, Enemy about control. Arrival seems to have signaled a possible shift for the filmmaker, a turn to something (while keeping his icy brutality) more about humanity. Arrival was about what it means for us to communicate as humans with each other.

Blade Runner 2049 is down to that very fundamental question…what is humanity anyway? It’s the same question Blade Runner asked, of course. But 2049 wants to attack it from a direct angle, interrogate what specifically divides us between the human and non-human, whether there is a difference, and whether it matters.

2049 turns things we identify as human and gives them a sheen of technological separation. One of the best cyber-sex scenes since her turns sex into something both recognizable and advanced beyond our years, asking what point this became that very human act.

Again, to ask, what is our humanity, what makes it ours? If the original was Biblical, Roy Batty a Lucifer tempting towards a better world, then 2049 is Nabokov asking what meaning these things have that we give them and Kafka asking what barriers we’ve set up to divide ourselves from the inhuman world.

Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have done all this in a script that still manages to function well on its narrative level. Every twist and turn is in service of that larger thematic and the stories we tell about these people, but it’s strong enough to keep you engrossed and difficult enough to force you to peel underneath the surface to find what’s going on. It’s remarkable this kind of storytelling, deliberately poetic and meditative, was in a studio film and in a blockbuster framework. Fancher, Green, and Villeneuve have created something beautiful and bold on the kind of scale few get to.

Its cast does remarkable work. More than Blade Runner, it’s the female cast that gets to stand out and drive its narrative. Ana de Armas gives a hypnotic performance as K’s girlfriend Joi, pushing and prodding him to ask questions of himself. Sylvia Hoeks gives a performance worthy of every henchman from Blade Runner, badass and cool and yet somehow petulant, like she’s going after K to be the best. And points to Mackenzie Davis for making the most of a short few scenes and reminding us why we need to see way more of her.

This also may be one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances. He’s given a complex character, a cold and difficult person who does hunger to reach for something more, who believes in a possibility that he’s greater. Gosling uses that great star persona (cool, calm, collected with rage willing to burst through) with just hints of the humanity appearing underneath that he’s so good at in other roles (see: The Big Short, La La Land).

Blade Runner 2049 has its flaws, yes. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score just doesn’t feel as apt or deft as the now-legendary Vangelis score. And Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace feels sewed on from another movie. Not bad but just not of a piece with the rest of the film.

But for someone who holds the original as one of the greatest films ever made, Blade Runner 2049 is as worthy a sequel as I can imagine. An expansion of the universe, a new story being told in a new way by a new storyteller using the same world looked at through new eyes. It joins films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as a filmmaker carving out a new path through a classic.

Grade: A

 

All You Need To Know About Blade Runner 2049

There are two fundamental questions everyone is ultimately going into Blade Runner 2049 with. One is the same question that everyone asks about every other movie: Do I need to see it?

The answer is simply enough, yes. I’ve chosen to tell you about this movie in this way because Blade Runner 2049 is perhaps one of the most surprise-packed major blockbusters in some time. There are twists and spoilers loaded in the very framework of this film. If you see it, read as little as you can about the film. The trailers, the original, and the shorts are all you really need.

What lies behind the veil of mystery is one of the most breathtaking achievements of big-budget sci-fi visualization in years. Blade Runner 2049, with Denis Villeneuve at the helm and Roger Deakins lensing, is absolutely jaw-dropping to look at like few films have ever been. Every frame is incredible, shadows deep and revealing the motion, color deeply saturating, and light glowing. There are visual ideas I can’t believe I haven’t thought of and special effects I couldn’t believe they pulled off. This is possibly the best work out of Deakins for a man who does nothing but excellence. And let it not just be Deakins. The production design, the costumes, the sound, the special effects work, every moment is incredible.

But it’s not just the visual work. Blade Runner 2049 is a tight and engrossing detective story with a surprisingly strong heart at its core. The cast pulls (largely) great performances, including out of some actors who’ve been coasting for a bit. A great narrative told beautifully is always worth getting out to the theater.

The other question? Does it live up to the cult classic original?

The original is one of my favorite films ever made, so I have enough authority here for it to matter when I say it absolutely does.

It’s not better, but that’s a tall order for any film to achieve. Especially because this is an entirely different sort of film, less ambiguous than the original, more unfolding a sci-fi flavored detective story than a detective-flavored sci-fi story. It asks and answers more directly, expands on a world rather than creates it, and comes from an entirely different conception of a future tradition.

But Blade Runner 2049 is in every way worthy of the original even after all these years. It stands firmly alongside films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as one that takes its original and makes something just as rich and fascinating as its predecessor.

See it this weekend, give support to a film this huge and ambitious and simply stunning. We’ll talk Monday.

My Most Anticipated of 2017 (That I’ve Actually Heard Anything About)

As we close off the last year in film, it’s time to look forward to the next one. It’s one of the most fun parts of any film year, when all the blockbusters and big prestige dramas lay before us full of possibility, all the Sundance pictures are still in the happy festival haze before the backlash and shocking revelations get started.

Of course, I want to be a responsible critic and manage expectations. That means that I want to limit the films that I’m looking forward to that those that have evidence. In other words, things that have trailers, reviews from festivals, or just some actual news on what the movie could be. It would be also be nice to have a proven track record. In other words, actual evidence from past successes or previous films in the series

In other words, sorry to Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League who are only up in the header image. Bait and switch, I know. But between no news, being too early for news, or being directed by Zack Snyder in Warner Bros.’ DCEU, there’s no reason to get excited just yet. But don’t despair! Here’s a few things you can be excited for!

Baby Driver

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Thinnest cling to the premise of the article, I know. But Baby Driver comes to us from Edgar Wright, one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who’s earned enough trust to jump out on whatever ledge he asks. Besides, we’ve seen what the film looks like and we know what it’s about! Baby Driver is a crime picture starring Ansel Elgort as a mute getaway driver who gets caught up in a robbery that goes wrong.

Did I mention that Elgort plays a character who drives to music and that therefore the entire movie will have its action sequences set to a ever-rotating soundtrack? Because if you’ve ever seen any other Edgar Wright movie, you will know that merging soundtrack with action is one of his specialties, and that if he’s given a chance to set a whole movie on that idea? You should be buying tickets now.

The Big Sick

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One of the first darlings of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this one comes from the husband-and-wife comedy team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, LA comedy scene darlings now turned screenwriters. The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter and based on the true story of how the two of them met and got married, it stars Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily.

Kumail is a struggling comic who gets heckled by Emily at one of his shows. The two quickly fall for each other, but run up against a roadblock when Kumail refuses to stand up to his traditional Muslim family, which leads to their break-up. Emily, however, falls ill and Kumail is the only one in the area who can take care of her and must deal with his parents, her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), and his own need to grow up.

Sundance du jour from the sound of it, but the reviews have pointed towards a romantic comedy that is filled with specificity (thanks to its real life draw) and knowledge of its genre with able acting and filmmaking.

Blade Runner 2049

The sequel that we never should have been excited for, Blade Runner 2049 quickly got us (okay, me) on its side with perhaps one of the only teams that could do any justice to the classic original. Director Denis Villeneuve, hot off the Oscar-nominated Arrival! Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins! A cast that includes Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Bautista! Also Jared Leto is there. The recipe looks to be for success.

The trailer only seems to show that it’s coming together. Barely anything revealed, but it showed a world that clearly picks up off the visually distinctive original, a lot of progress, and an intriguing mystery to come. It could be still on the pile of bad ideas, but this one looks like it has the muscle to lift itself out.

The Fate of the Furious

Speaking of muscle.

This is not an ironic thing. I really do earnestly love these movies. It’s a big budget action franchise that knows it can’t and shouldn’t take itself seriously, and instead leans into the talents of its cast and into ever increasingly pushing the size and scope of what it’s covering. The Fate of the Furious looks to absolutely pick up on that, dropping a story epic in scale, pitting an apparently traitorous Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) now working with an evil tech terrorist (Charlize Theron) against his former friends, now seemingly led by Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). It’s a movie that’s going to have a full blown Arctic car chase with a submarine getting involved. How do you not love that?

Get Out

Key & Peele was long one of the most exciting shows in comedy, and much of that came with the eponymous duo’s surprising knowledge of genre tropes and the filmmaking required to indulge them. So when Jordan Peele splits off to finally make a genre picture, you should stand up and take notice.

This was Sundance’s surprise midnight screening this year, and reactions out of there are suitably impressed with Peele’s confident first-time direction as well as the movie’s nuanced take on racial issues, aimed more at the subtle ways that the seemingly well-meaning perpetuate racism and the daily existence of Black men.

A Ghost Story

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A small film made almost entirely in secret, no one knew quite what to expect when David Lowery showed up at Sundance with a film starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck filmed in a little over two weeks after his gorgeous big-budget Pete’s Dragon. Excitement began to percolate with A24 picked it up before its debut.

Word out of Sundance is that it does not disappoint. A gorgeous and entirely unique film with some serious shit on its mind about love, death, and time (THAT’S RIGHT. TAKE SOME NOTES COLLATERAL BEAUTY YOU MONSTER). Lowery is one of our most exciting filmmakers and I’m thrilled to see him refuse to rest on his laurels.

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick was one of the best action films of 2014 and the 21st century so far. That’s pretty much all you should need to get excited for John Wick: Chapter 2. More of Keanu Reeves’ enigmatic assassin, more of the impressive worldbuilding the first one pulled off, and hopefully more mindblowingly well-done setpieces. John Wick: Chapter 2 really needs nothing more than its previous sequel and the promise of expansion as he’s beset on all sides by assassins looking to kill him all around the world.

Logan

I know, it’s weird for me that I’m looking that much forward to an X-Men movie too. But Logan‘s feverish and melancholy broken-down Western vibe is majorly working for me, as well as the promise of an actual look at the legacy that this long-lived franchise has managed to create, specifically with Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. There have been some preliminary screenings of the first 40 minutes of this film that received absolute raves, so if this one can maintain that momentum as well as the surprising heart of its predecessor The Wolverine, Logan might be something actually great coming out of X-Men.

Mudbound

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If you aren’t familiar with the name Dee Rees, then you’re seriously missing out. Her 2011 debut Pariah is a sweet and fascinatingly nuanced coming-of-age queer tale with an extraordinary amount of directorial confidence and I’ve been dying for a big screen follow-up from her. Mudbound is that follow-up, a generational tale of race in the aftermath of World War 2 with a cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund and so many more. Early Sundance reviews name this as another favorite of the festival, a surprisingly epic film with that same directorial confidence and precision that she showed in Pariah. It’s great to see talent rewarded and I can only hope Dee Rees has a long career to come.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This is the one I will most likely eat crow on, but I really don’t care. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet is a return by Luc Besson to the gonzo Sci-fi that characterized his best film, The Fifth Element. Valerian clearly holds nothing back, there’s so much creativity on display in its scope and its design. The fact that Besson always seems willing to go balls to the wall story-wise gives us the chance that Valerian might be able to actually be the sort of thing that goes over-the-top and earns being that truly insane visually. Plus, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne being the leads might mean this thing could be up for the Oscar for “Most Eyebrows in a Movie.”