Thursday, October 12, 2017

Blade Runner 2049, American Made, Battle of the Sexes, Victoria & Abdul Reviews

Blade Runner 2049
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
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Entering the tradition of Tron: Legacy, Independence Day: Resurgence, and even Disney's recent Star Wars reboot, Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that comes a ridiculous amount of time after its predecessor. It's been 35 years since Ridley Scott's now-classic sci-fi adaptation bombed at the box office, and it seems as though Blade Runner, unlike those aforementioned properties, has far less mainstream appeal. It's philosophical, somewhat ambiguous, slow-paced, and lacks the "whiz-bang" action modern audiences are used to getting from other futuristic flicks. Although it's no surprise to me that Blade Runner 2049 - a sequel no one was really asking for - is struggling at the box office, I do have to give director Denis Villeneuve a lot of credit for even attempting to recapture the ponderous and dream-like feelings of the original film. However, although the film partially succeeds in that regard, its overlong run-time, dull characters, and unclear stakes make for an experience that probably works better as a post-movie discussion springboard than a piece of entertainment.

The story follows a new blade runner for the LA police department, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a bioengineered human called a replicant. As a blade runner, K is tasked with hunting down and "retiring" older model replicants who are beginning to show signs of rebellion. During one of his routine jobs, K unearths a secret that - for the sake of spoilers - has wide-reaching, chaotic implications for all of society. This discovery leads K on a path towards Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a blade runner who's been missing for 30 years. There's a lot more to the plot, but since the film is framed as a sort of sci-fi noir mystery movie, it's best to go in with no expectations - even if I found the "answers" to the mysteries somewhat unsatisfying.

I hate being so negative on a film that many top critics are touting as a masterpiece (I'm flashing back to Dunkirk), but there are many aspects of Blade Runner 2049 that I do believe are Oscar-worthy. This is one of the most beautiful-looking movies of the year. Roger Deakins deserves another Oscar nomination for cinematography - he's been nominated 12 times already without winning, so maybe this will be his year! I also thought the costuming and production design were amazing - that collared true-detective jacket that Gosling wears (as seen in the poster above) is as cool a movie look as you can get, and the subtle, but authentic look of a grimy future is a perfect, modern extension of the visuals laid out in the original film. There are also some ingenious new bits of technology - mainly stemming from K's holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) - that help visualize K's Pinocchio-like struggle to feel human in interesting ways. Similar to Mad Max: Fury Road, the world-building in this movie is rich and rife with detail.

NOT similar to Mad Max: Fury Road is the pacing. Blade Runner 2049 feels as though a replicant wrote the script. None of the characters have a distinct personality (even the humans), and even after we receive the buried "revelation" at the beginning of the film, we just have to take the characters' word for it that it is an important event. We don't actually witness or experience how this information would "break the world," so I personally never felt the stakes at play (especially with such a non-reactive main character). With its beautiful visuals and interesting philosophical ideas unable to save the overall film from being a bit of a snooze-fest, 2049 honestly reminded me of the worst aspects of The Matrix Reloaded, minus the awesome action setpieces.

While there are many elements in Blade Runner 2049 I admire, I just couldn't pretend to care about the unfolding story or where it was headed. It's such a cerebral, unemotional experience that even the interesting ideas it presents about what makes us human, the concept of memories (false or otherwise), and how technology is radically changing our relationships didn't land for me. Other recent films and shows, from Westworld to Inception to Spike Jonze's Her have all explored these same ideas in pieces of art that did engage me on an emotional level, so I left this film feeling numb. This might be a movie that will work better for me with repeat viewings, but for now, I think this 2.5 hour-long sequel is more fit for replicant consumption.

Rating: C+

American Made
Dir. Doug Liman
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One of the most over-used plot structures in the crime genre is the "rise and fall" story. Goodfellas, Scarface, Catch Me if You CanWolf of Wall Street, War Dogs, and many, many others all take the concept of an American living the American dream through a life of lawlessness, which leads to their ultimate comeuppance. It's a go-to, familiar structure that could potentially grow stale, but what makes American Made stand out from those other films is that it's not told from the perspective of the main gangster, drug dealer, or crime boss - it details the real-life exploits of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a daredevil TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to do some shady spy- and drug-related stuff in the 1980s. As one character describes it: it's legal "if you're doing it for the good guys."

Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal with a perfect sense of in-over-his-head eagerness and American excess. The film does a nice job conveying how this "middle man" got the thrill of his life while acting a part in this very troubling moment of American history - essentially arming foreign wars and both directly and indirectly aiding the drug crisis while the cash flowed in. Cruise doesn't play Seal with the over-the-top intensity we see in many of his action roles, but his charisma drives the film, even when it's tough to root for such terrible behavior. However, his character is about the only one with much depth. His wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), is pretty much a "nothing" character and we never get a real sense of her opinion of her husband's antics, other than she took a blind eye to the whole thing. We also learn little of the corrupt CIA case officer Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who seems to only pop up to give Seal a new assignment.

My biggest problem with American Made is that while it's a breezy ride that uses reliable crime movie tropes in a new, interesting situation, it doesn't quite convey a proper sense of danger. With its Guardians of the Galaxy-esque 70s soundtrack and canted camera angles, it's presented as way too "fun" for a movie about government corruption and the drug trade. The true story it's based on is fascinating, and with Cruise's commitment to his projects (including flying the planes himself) American Made could have been something much more special. As is - it's a total "check it out on cable" movie.

Rating: B-

Battle of the Sexes
Dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
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Battle of the Sexes dramatizes one of the most-watched sporting events of all time: the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Billed as the "battle of the sexes," this match came in the wake of the women's movement for equality, pitting King, the #1 women's champion dealing with her own homosexuality behind-the-scenes, against Riggs, a hustler with gambling demons making a spectacle of himself as a "chauvinist pig" to gain higher ratings. It's a fascinating true story that - as a nerd - I had no idea about before this film. Unfortunately, the solid performances on either side of the court by Emma Stone and Steve Carell weren't enough to elevate this predictable, milquetoast crowd-pleaser.

Battle of the Sexes is one of those films that would have been better served (excuse the pun) as a documentary. The performances, while strong, felt too heavy of mimicry rather than fleshed-out characters. Especially for a film called "Battle of the Sexes," Carell's character comes off as nothing more than a caricature, and every side character is one-note. Everything in this movie goes through the motions, biding its time until the final match. It's telling that the most interesting part of the film, for me, was the actual tennis match, shot almost exactly like a real broadcast. There's a nice attention to period detail, and clearly Stone and Carell went through some kind of tennis training regiment for their performances, but overall Battle of the Sexes feels too much like a  "safe retelling" rather than a revealing and insightful biopic.

Rating: C+

Victoria & Abdul
Dir. Stephen Frears
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Victoria & Abdul, from Philomena director Stephen Frears, is based on the late real-life platonic relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Considering England had colonized India at this time - this was quite the unlikeliest of friendships. In her old age, Victoria was re-energized by Abdul, being able to see the world through new eyes, and found a deep kinship with him that she was unable to with her own children. However, just about everyone else in the royal household attempted to destroy this bond between them.

I'm not a history buff, so I can't relate how accurate this film is to real life, but it does present some troubling ideas. Seemingly as soon as Abdul meets the Queen, he's practically in love with her (to the point where he says he finds her more special than his own wife). He grows to care more about this 80-something year old bat than his own friends and family, even though she's more or less oppressing his own people! His best friend dies off screen and he barely sheds a tear - his Queen dies and he sobs like a dribbling baby. It's a shame that this film avoids or only hints at all of the "grey zone" moral ideas from this story (such as Abdul selfishly taking advantage of his new position of power, the Queen's hypocrisy and disdain for her own family, etc.) as confronting those tough subjects would have elevated this film above "Hallmark Movie of the Week" status.

All that being said: Judi Dench is great. If you're a Dench-iphile, she really Denches it up in Victoria & Abdul. She's charming, funny, dramatic, and somehow both frail and powerful. But considering its title, I just wish the "Abdul" side didn't feel as suspiciously oversimplified in order to make the little old ladies seeing the matinee screening of this movie feel better about life.

Rating: B-

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