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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Imperfect but Haunting and Memorable
It is fascinating to see parts of the audience replay reactions to the original Blade Runner. You've heard grievances about plot holes, false set pieces and style over substance, no doubt, as well as something of an open-ended ending? While all these points are true in part, they also all constitute strengths within the context of this particular film, and do justice to its forebear.
Blade Runner 2049 opens as Agent K (Gosling) hunts down remaining Nexus 8+ replicants, against a backdrop of ecological collapse and mega-corporate rule. Tyrell Corp is gone and replaced by a bigger, more ominous force manufacturing a more obedient synthetic workforce. When the seemingly impossible happens, it sends K on a disturbing investigation with severe implications about whether these robots really are, as the original Tyrell tag-line promised, "more human than human".
Much has been made of the stunningly oppressive cinematography. Is it maestro Deakins' career best? It is hard to say, given the extent to which the phenomenal production design and the cinematography complement each other, along with effects that - save for one smartly played uncanny valley-leaning revival - make you wonder what is digital and what is practical. Director Dennis Villeneuve forges another mighty link in a very impressive chain of meticulous films, and while the film can never aspire to be as era-defining as its predecessor, it does convey more emotion and manages infinitely superior chemistry between its characters.
Ryan Gosling anchors and carries the film, despite the emotional distance deliberately placed between him and the audience from the onset. His is a quieter, more subdued tragedy than Rutger Hauer's fallen angel in the original, but his anguish and its pay-off resonate just as deeply. Harrison Ford bares his heart like never before, and his pairing with Gosling works wonders. The rest of the cast often acquit themselves very well despite sometimes limited screen-time or development, with the exception of a slightly underwhelming Sylvia Hoeks as the antagonist's hench-woman. For all his good work as a nightmarish version of a machine-linked Elon Musk, Jared Leto makes you wonder what original choice David Bowie might have done with the role.
In terms of collaborators, the only weak link, at times, is Hans Zimmer, who goes balls-to-the-walls with the more oppressive parts of Vangelis' concepts, but fails to blend those and the quieter moments into a cohesive whole. The music is, when present, also menacingly loud in the sound mix, and while this does reenforce the oft- present and appropriate sense of dread, it sometimes sets up summer blockbuster expectations, which this decidedly - and thankfully - is not. One wishes Villeneuve regular Johan Johansson had been given a chance to play in Vangelis' sandbox.
This is a rich and oppressive work, which refuses to answer all your questions, while evoking many fascinating ideas. It more than does justice to the original, and whatever throwbacks occur and, more often than not, thoughtful - even a reprise of the tears in the rain music theme, which Zimmer comes within inches or overplaying. What worked in the 1982 film still works here, and what didn't is actually improved, from the chemistry to the fact that our detective actually, you know, does some detective work for a change. It is that rare event film that has confidence in a more languid sense of pacing and textured atmosphere.
Imperfect, yes, but undeniably haunting. Much like the original.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Ridley Through The Looking Glass
They told me it was bad, but I went anyway. It's hard for me judge Ridley's work objectively, you see: two of his early masterpieces traumatized me as a kid and had a lasting effect on me, so I'm prepared to forgive a lot, perhaps too much. Except now, after 30+ years, I think I finally understand him.
Let's zoom out a bit. Ever since the first Alien sequel came out, Scott had been musing about what a sequel involving him might be about. Rather than continue Ripley's journey, he would rather investigate the Alien's origins, especially the colossal race briefly shown in 1979's Alien - in a massive, eerie set Fox almost had canned because it was pricey and did nothing to advance the plot. Think about it: had Fox had held a slightly tighter purse, there would be no Prometheus. Hardly a heart-breaking prospect for most people, myself included.
Fast-forward three decades and Scott got his chance. The answers to the questions nobody really cared about - since when does answering questions help a horror film? - were more puzzling than thrilling, and while you can commend Prometheus for trying something different, it didn't always do so successfully, chiefly in terms of design. Beyond the stupidity of the one-dimensional crew and the confusion of Damon Lindelof's rewrites, one of the greatest disappointments came from changing the engineers from Gigerian nightmares into gigantic blue Jason Stathams.
So Prometheus came and went. Ridley went from saying it wasn't an Alien film, to admitting it had Alien DNA. Audiences cried foul when they realized it totally was an Alien film but didn't feature the illustrious xenomorph. When the inevitable sequel came, it looked like audience feedback weighed heavily in pretty much every respect. You can be the judge of whether or not this turned out to be a good thing.
Alien Covenant reads like a wish-list of disgruntled Prometheus viewers. It fits in everything you liked last time around - Fassbender's android especially - and adds all the things you thought were missing, like the xenomorph (or is it still a prototype?), some brutal killings and echoes of the original film galore.
A new crew gets diverted by a rogue signal (ring a bell?) and discovers a terraformed world with weird idiosyncrasies. Before they can investigate bad things happen and synth human David (Fassbender) comes to the rescue. He is immediately fascinated with the crew's own android Walter (also Fassbender) and we see what he's been up to for the past ten years with engineer technology. Playing God on his lonesome, only a version of God that makes the Old Testament maniac come across as a choir boy...
From the get-go, Covenant goes out of its way to draw parallel's to 1979's Alien. Yes the prologue is pure Prometheus (in the best sense) but, form the way the titles pop up to plot beats, down to reuse of Jerry Goldsmith's score and the rehashed final 25 minutes, this really plays on your sense of nostalgia. It's a pity because while a lot of the newer ideas are a bit silly if you think about them for too long, they are the best things about the film. Them and Michael Fassbender. If you wonder why I haven't mentioned anyone else in the cast, it is because they are interchangeable and forgettable, but Fassbender is just so fantastic and put to such great use that he barely just about redeems the situation.
Quick aside on the music: the Alien saga is unique in the variety of its aesthetics, but it's worth adding that each film had its own distinct musical identity, with no effort ever made to carry over even the slightest theme. This has led to some fantastic music: from Goldsmith's understated eerie original to Horner's martial classic, all the way to my favorite, Godenthal's apocalyptic Gothic opera for Alien 3. Prometheus had a solid, inspiring theme as well, but still made no attempt to unify the saga. While it comes at the expense of creating anything new and memorable, it is commendable of Jed Kurzel to so successfully bridge the gap for a change.
Not all is perfect of course, for every awe-inspiring moment - a ravaged forest of giant trees, David's necropolis and attempt to "pet" a new alien, or his unleashing of deadly plagues - there is another of sigh-inducing stupidity: most of the crew's early decisions, a three-stooges-style alien VS rappelling proto-Ripley duel, or a twist you can see coming a mile away... and that shower scene alluded to in trailers is what you'd expect to see in Paul W. S. Anderson's Alien, down to its surprisingly inept execution.
My expectations were low going into this, mainly because of word-of-mouth, but then I saw it, and suddenly everything made sense. You have to think of it this way: before it was a phenomenon, Alien was a B-movie. Yes it was the best-looking B-movie of all time, but a B-movie nonetheless. That is also, in a way, what Ridley Scott has always been: a hack with a golden eye, who makes the most heartbreakingly gorgeous B-movies you can feast your eyes on. If you go into Alien Covenant expecting that, you just might love it. I can't say I did, but it did adjust my appreciation for it.
There are moments when it's a 1. Others (scarcer) where it could well be a 9 or 10. On the whole, I'll give it a 6.
M. Night Comes Full Circle
From prodigy to punchline, M. Night Shyamalan has had fascinating highs and lows as a filmmaker. The man once hailed as the heir to Hitchcock or Spielberg was soon compared to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll... I always found this a bit unfair, due to the tasteful notes sprinkled throughout even his most inept films. But he's finally crossed a line.
Celebrated as a return to form for the creator of the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Split follows damaged teen Casey (Anja Taylor-Joy) and 2 cliché bitchy teenager friends, who get abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy). The catch being that his disturbed cranium houses 21 conflicting personalities, with the promise of a very sinister 22nd on the way. Intriguing concept. What might the twist be?
There are - contrary to what you might have heard - two twists in Split. The first is that it mostly does exactly what it tells you it's going to do. And boy is there a lot of telling rather than showing in this overdrawn yarn! The beats are telegraphed in advance and the jumps predictable. The second twist plays squarely in the current trend of exploiting viewer nostalgia: in what might be his most forgettable film, Shyamalan dares to shove in a horribly contrived parallel to his greatest work. If Split is meant as a parallel sequel to that other film, then it shares none of the stylistic identity, which makes the forced kinship feel unnatural.
Speaking of style, the filmmaker has also sadly broken with his earlier aesthetic in most of the ways you could imagine. The visual elegance and fluency of his first 3-4 films is gone - as, sadly, is longstanding collaborator James Newton Howard. After plumbing the depths of found footage in his previous film, Shyamalan delivers a film that is often bland and sometimes downright ugly to watch.
Any positive commentary on this film has to do with its cast, so let's give them their due: McAvoy has a ball with his various personalities. It's never subtle stuff, but he throws himself at it and hops effortlessly between all 21 personalities in Kevin's head. Taylor-Joy, a revelation in The Witch, is, once again, luminous, transcending a half-baked part and giving these dreary proceedings what little believability they have. Her partners in confinement barely register, and, hamstrung as she is with terrible expository dialogue, poor Betty Buckly as the caring psychiatrist manages to deliver the worst performance in a M. Night Shyamalan film - yes, even one that features the customary terrible director cameo!
By now the irony of this review's title - and of the situation itself - should be obvious. Shyamalan would have you believe he's come full circle, back to the glory days of his debut. The truth is much sadder: pushed to the limit and with nothing left in him, yesterday's wunderkind is left scraping the bottom of the barrel for echoes of past glories. In that sense, he is sadly representative of an entire industry with a crisis of creativity.
Mindenki transports us to a strict girl's school in Hungary, where our newcomer protagonist tries out for the renowned choir. Only there's a catch, and the reason she ends up making the list turns out to be a bit disturbing. To say more would be to spoil the story.
Like all art-forms, cinema has its fair share of "golden rules" aimed at steering filmmakers clear of potentially catastrophic mistakes: don't shoot at sea, don't use animals, don't use children... The secret being that if you can transcend the challenges each rule poses, you can make a film that is pure magic. Director Kristof Deak's cast is almost exclusively comprised of 10-11 year-old girls, and he plays them like an elite orchestra. Because the performances are so pure and natural, the storytelling so liquid, this comes across as effortless filmmaking, when in fact it pulls off some of the craft's most daunting challenges.
It will be very interesting to see what Deak and co do next, especially after whatever happens on Oscar Night where, if there is any justice, this little gem will walk away with a little golden statue.
Rogue One (2016)
As Misguided As It Is Redunant
Following a motley gang of rebels on the hunt for the plans to a planet-destroying super- weapon, Rogue One, the fist "stand-alone" Star Wars story, finally lands with a loud thud on our screens. Two films in and Disney's management of this golden franchise is already showing very troubling signs of laziness and risk-aversion. If you've come looking for something a bit more original than The Force Awakens, this will be a a very strange disappointment.
By now the consensus is in that Episode VII, while entertaining, is basically a soft reboot of Episode IV, weighed down a bit by a Mary Sue heroin (despite a personable and able actress in the role). What that installment did do right, however, was nail the tone, and perform at its best when offering new ingredients. Its original characters were, for the most part, interesting and fun to be around, and you wish there were less fan-service to distract you. I mention all this because, strangely enough, Rogue One has the exact opposite problem.
After a title that enigmatically promised X-Wing action, then a trailer campaign implying a kind of Dirty Dozen meets Star Wars, the resulting film is more a limp, flavorless war in space movie with bland, under-cooked characters embarking us on a mission we all know the ending to, and them peppering it very heavy-handedly with enough fan service to handicap any attempt at an original story.
An intriguing new villain is introduced... but the fans want to see Darth Vader (and, supposedly Grand Moff Tarkin from episode IV), even though they have nothing to do beyond look cool and menacing and defang the main villain. Each new character stumbles in and has to be introduced with words: so much for the visual fluency of the original saga. Everyone kinda pouts their way through this, and the mood varies through different grey shades of "subdued" in an effort to be edgy and dark... and instead coming across as completely joyless, a real first for the Star Wars saga.
Unlike Episode VII, the fan service moments will be the only ones to quicken your pulse, never mind their narrative redundancy or lack of sense. Cool! That's Vader's castle... but wait, why are we here? Wasn't Vader established as kinda subordinate to Tarkin in Episode IV? Yeah! We get to see the Death Star fire the big gun up close... Except wasn't Alderaan in Episode IV meant to be a huge surprise? Hey, there's Vader again... dispatching people nobody cares about... And on, and on... Everything "new" in between barely registers, with the exception of Alan Tudyk as K-2SO as a welcome but underused touch of vague humor.
On the strength or these two films, we can expect much of the same coming up. More of the same with fan service coming at the expense of a satisfying narrative. This isn't as inept or ghastly as the prequels by any stretch of the imagination, but boy is it just bland.
See it if you must, but if it's Star Wars in war mode you want, you'd be better off getting a used copy of the Battlefront video game, which probably has more character development and narrative cohesion. At least that will spare you the horrific site of dreadfully CGIed Carrie Fischer and Peter Cushing.
The Jungle Book (2016)
We've hit a point of no return in terms of remakes: the recent announcement of yet another Indiana Jones film, Disney's intention to produce a new Star Wars film every year, and a mooted reboot of Peter and Elliot the Dragon (!) go a long way to showing the complete inspirational bankruptcy of blockbuster filmmaking. And in case that picture isn't sharp enough for you, along comes Jungle Book to crystallize the issue.
The original is among Disney's most perfect creations, and simply reissuing it in theaters might have accomplished what the present abomination did financially, without any of the wasted effort. What we have here is a deconstruction of the original, where every spin on an old idea misses the mark and every new "idea" turns out to be pointless and predictable.
In true flop-fashion, the problems can be traced to before a camera was even unleashed: the casting becomes and end unto itself, despite a weird mismatch between voice and animal or performance. That blend manages to be less convincing than Homeward Bound (and they used real critters). Ben Kingsley barely pulls off Baghera, but Murray and especially Christopher Walken are embarrassing, especially during the latter's cringe- worthy rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You". The real disappointment is poor young Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who is hung out to dry, too often betraying the digital fakery around him.
The throwback moments are mostly appalling, and the additions, all padding, are yawn- inducing: King Louie has a huge temple? Of course it will crumble during a by-the- numbers chase scene, with none of the humor of the original. The film also awkwardly acknowledges its own pointlessness: since the only way to "improve" on the original is to make everything faster, louder and bigger, serpent Ka is bigger than even Anaconda's titular joke was, and Louie could take King Kong in a fight, while the climactic jungle fire setting the scene for Mowgli's showdown with Khan could probably, in this incarnation, be visible from space.
So there you have it, a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiots etc, as the poet said. White noise. Meanwhile, it hardly registers as a blemish on a more recent poet, original author Rudyard Kipling, who would simply be appalled.
Less Fun Than Anyone Could Have Imagined
Five films into their stewardship of the Batman legacy and DC expanded-universe-in- waiting, and we are seeing the serious limits of Christopher Nolan and his team's abilities. What is the most striking is that those flaws stem from what, in any other genre, would constitute a strength (as evidenced by the recent Interstellar): a profound sense of pathos, and fixation with characters who are obsessive and frail.
Batman V Superman is three things in one, and already that should be a bad sign for anyone expecting a satisfying experience beyond mere fan service. It is a new Batman. It is a sequel to Man of Steel. It is also the first Justice League film. it's hard enough to pull even one of these off properly, as Man of Steel sadly demonstrated, but three? Those can hardly be fair expectations, and yet, team DC believes we wanted all this in one helping.
Man of Steel was the dourest Superman film ever made. You could even argue this isn't Superman at all, given his constant scowl, anger and fear, and his apparent disregard for human life, as showcased in a final city leveling rumble that was spectacular as it was non-sensical. Except without it, you could never have this film...
If you thought our new Superman was an emo sad sack, wait until you meet the new raging, nightmare-crazed Batman. Ben Affleck does wonders with slim material, and at least the plot, contrived as it is, gives him genuine reasons to hate the man in the red cape. If you're even awake 90-minutes into this bleak, depressing mess there's even some joy to be had in watching them go at each other, and the moment many people had dreamed of one day seeing on the big screen often comes close to justifying all the effort and expectation... and then suddenly things veer back to a generic climax. The design is a bit of a letdown, especially an underwhelming CGI baddie with unfortunate resemblances to Lord of the Rings' trolls, but the writing is what crucifies the film: if you thought Batman's reasons for hating Superman were a bit flimsy, the moment that brings them together is beyond contrived and ridiculous.
I understand this is all an attempt to go a bit darker and more realistic than the Marvel universe, a willingness to try something different that, in principle, I can only applaud. But must these films be so dull, so charmless? Batman and Superman can only play off each other if they are a bit different. Here there is so much angst on both sides they cancel each other out.
The only moment that conveys any real excitement is the introduction of Gale Gadot's Wonder Woman. Not only does it ratchet up the silliness a bit but it also delivers a real sense of fun that is sadly missing from the rest of the film.
A lot of that is down to Zach Snyder's confused direction, treating each scene as if it were trailer material and strangely mangling the action scenes, none of which have the precision and clarity of Nolan's outings (or even Superman Returns for that matter), but the story on display is also clumsily told. As a result, much of the fancy effects and choreography fall flat because of dramatic stakes that are either murky or downright inexistent, in a way reminiscent - frighteningly so in the case of one dream sequence - of Snyder's own vacuous Sucker Punch.
Please D.C. universe, lighten the tone a bit next time.
Xi you ji: Da nao tian gong (2014)
A Laughable Waste
Loudly heralded by flattering headlines and a record-setting budget (and box office in China, supposedly), The Monkey King crashes onto our screens and torrent servers in all its kitsch glory. Will the verdict be kind? Of course not.
First, let's get back to basics: the legend of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is a cornerstone of Chinese folklore and literature, and deservedly so. It is one of the great written human myths, and a large part of its appeal is universal, which would make it an ideal flagship project for a transnational production effort. You could adapt only select bits and end up with a great crowd-pleaser, as was done to hilarious results by Stephen Chow's A Chinese Odyssey.
The present effort aims to tell us the whole thing + prequel-style expansion in the form of a trilogy of 3D blockbusters. Ye shall be judged by the expectations ye set! Though the budget sets a record for China, the quality of the result in terms of effects (be they digital or makeup) is woefully sub-par, and the art direction is a mess, making this a frequently incoherent eyesore.
Then, let's look at the talent involved: Chow Yun-Fat and Donnie Yen's charisma and comic sense (respectively) eclipse anything else thrown up on screen, and might have gobbled up most of the budget. Yen gets away with it, wisely playing it both ways and seemingly the only person involved who knows this is all a big joke. Another contributor who barely gets mention in the comments section is Christopher Young, who's marvelous score annihilates anything composed that year and is worth discovering on its own.
It's worth pausing the sarcasm and shedding a regretful tear, for this whole enterprise could have amounted to something more tasteful - an animated feature could have been stupendous! - yet behold: the worst kind of fiasco, one that escapes financial disaster and thus runs the risk of spawning a whole host of similar horrors. But the real Monkey King is stronger than all that, and since filmmakers can't stay clear of his gravitational pull for long, one can hope in a few years time someone will do him justice.
Avoid this garbage and read the source, preferably while listening to this film's unbelievably great score.
Knight of Cups (2015)
An Embarrassment With Flickers of Genius
Terrence Malick continues his quest to become an increasingly acquired taste, making up for the discrete decades between his second and third films with this hastily conceived latest offering.
Once more assembling an impressive cast, Malick follows a hollow shell of a man in an existential crisis, and here we have the biggest flaw, an unfortunate combination of subject and sensibility: whereas other masters like Scorsese take the otherworldly and make it grounded and relatable, Malick's strength is precisely the opposite, taking the ordinary and injecting it with grace and ethereal majesty that, at its best, can be a profound experience. At worst, it comes across as pretentious and arty for the sake of it. The combination of aloof character and aloof style makes this a hard one to relate to, and the stream-of-consciousness "structure" falls flat, when it soared in Tree of Life, a film grounded in a relatable, primal fear (the loss of a child/sibling).
Everything is left to rest on cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's virtuoso shoulders, and were he in rookie in need of a show-reel, this would provide him with a never-ending list of shots any lower-level DPs would kill for. But he isn't, and he's worth better than this slim material, and even his great work experimenting with wide-angle-only lenses and the odd GoPro doesn't make this indispensable viewing. You can see a maturing of this style in The Revenant, or put to playful use in Birdman.
Here's hoping that Malick doesn't lose the plot and instead manages to reconnect with more human stories. Rumor has it that the upcoming - at the time of writing - Weightless has more immediacy. One can only hope.
Sad to say you can pass on this one.
Oscar-Bait Crumbling Under Its Worth
Spotlight is based on the true story of a Boston Globe editorial team's efforts to uncover systematic child abuse and abuser protection by the Catholic Church. Hardly fresh news, and a topic that will raise strong emotional reactions, and rightly so. But how does it hold up?
Given the weird emotional volatility surrounding this one, allow me to qualify this review (and its writer): the scandal revisited here is unarguably heinous, as are the many people who took part in perpetuating it. My own feelings about organized religion mean I was only mildly surprised, but then perhaps the subject of the clergy's hypocrisy is worth revisiting, as it has been in entertainment since Moliere's Tartuffe. But this is a film website, the medium is narrative film, and so Spotlight should - and shall, in the longer term - be judged.
This is a film that owes its success and Oscar nominations to its topic and, to a lesser extent, to its ensemble cast. It is also a throw-back to harder-nosed journalism-based films like All The President's Men - a much better, less self-righteous film. The end result however is a bit awkward: first, the structure is wobbly, throwing us in headfirst and assuming perhaps too much familiarity with the events. The character introductions are very rushed, which means it takes more time to build empathy, especially when it comes to the victims. The climax, such as it is, and ensuing denouement are a bit limp culminating in the obligatory white text on black background to tell you succinctly with words what the filmmakers could not achieve with visuals. It makes you wish, as many reviewers have, that this were a documentary.
The cast are uniformly good, with Stanley Tucci and Mark Buffalo the stand-outs, but these are solid, seasoned turns, nothing that cries out "best performance of the year". Technical credits are closer to a TV-movie than a major Hollywood release.
I can't give it credit merely for tackling an easy target from such a safe distance, but I would concede more points if it told its story more fluidly and dared to explore some of the more dangerous angles a bit more, such as police collusion, or that one memorable scene where a guilty priest rationalizes what he did in a way that hints at even worse events. Sadly, this chooses to play things way too safe.