BLADE RUNNER*** Out of the world


Beware: there may be some minor spoilers within

THIS IS A lush, sensuous piece of cinema. The terrific combination of director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”, “Arrival”), cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Sicario”, “Skyfall”), production designer Dennis Gassner (“Spectre”, “Skyfall”) and the brooding menacing score by Hans Zimmer (“Dunkirk”) have brought to life – quite spectacularly – the desolate, ruined, ever raining, garish, neon-lit world of LA in 2049. The figures are often dwarfed, lost in the unnatural light, the foggy mists of this post-apocalypse city where holographic Elvis concerts and sinuous naked women play out to faceless, indifferent passers-by.

The visual impact is stunning, and so seductively engaging that on many occasions, you’re forced to concentrate on what’s being said rather than being distracted by the eerie, melancholic strangeness on the screen.

The story follows the search by LAPD officer, K (Ryan Gosling) for one or maybe two babies that were born (miraculously) thirty five years before. They are potentially the offsprings of a human (maybe)/Android coupling; between the old blade hunter, Rick Dekard (Harrison Ford), whose humanity remains ambiguous, and his replicant lover.

Things have moved on since the days when Rick hunted down replicants gone bad. The newly created replicants, like K (whose name, humanized to Joe by his lover, deliberately mirrors that of Kafka’s alienated Josef K) are more obedient. And Gosling’s slightly bored, almost robotic acting style suits the role to a T.

But, in a world where the real and the unreal are almost the same, things begin to go awry for K after he begins to intuit that one of his childhood memories may well be real, and not just an implant.

Though there’s a boast that the replicants are more human than the humans, their mastermind, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto…replacing the original intention to cast Dave Bowie) bemoans their lack of two essential qualities: a reproductive womb and a soul.

K’s increasingly obsessive search for the babies shatters the myth of his replicant obedience. It makes him a target of the State lead by a ruthlessly badass, and ironically named, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). But it also leads him to Rick, the father of the twins, with whom he bonds.

This outer search is really K’s inner search for his real identity. Is he a replicant created in a factory, or human? And what really does being human mean? Certainly the love he has for Joi, (Ana de Armas) his AI “companion” who can morph from helpmeet to seductress (joy) in a blink of an eye (and with whom, in the body of a human prostitute he has one of cinema’s weirdest couplings) is real.

Can the realness of this love indicate the presence of a soul? Does this simply mean that he is human or that he’s become a replicant with a soul? And if the latter, then the fundamental divide aggressively maintained by the State, between replicants and humans becomes meaningless.

It’s a beautifully and intelligently scripted movie (by Hampton Fancher – “Blade Runner 1982” and Michael Green – “Logan”). No wonder Harrison Ford found it the best script he’d read. This is the kind of movie the Oscar types love: it’s so rich in that irreplaceable big screen, cinema experience and just enough profundity to make the experience ‘meaningful’, that the gaping flaws are overlooked (like “Gravity” and “La La Land”).

Watch this space.

The problem I found with the movie though, is that despite the script’s yearning for depth and the awesomeness of the production design, as a basic whodunnit narrative, there were countless gaps and holes in the storyline. One of the childten for example, is allergic to germs (symbolically allergic to the world she lives in) and holed up in an antiseptic bubble. Who put her there and keeps her there? Why? K flies around in a beaten up old LAPD car that turns into a rocket launching lethal weapon, taking out several other cop cars whose location he seems to have intuited. Huh?

And it was looong. It comes in at just under three hours. Though never boring, there were many moments when I wished they’d simply get on with the story, which often felt self indulgent…a bit too smugly pleased with itself. Joe Walker who has worked with Villeneuve on both “Sicario” and “Arrival” needed to have tightened the editing far more severely.

That said, it’s an enjoyable evolution on Ridley Scott’s initial story. Thank God he, or some canny producer, allowed him to relinquish control to Villeneuve (and not muck it up the way he’s done with the “Alien” franchise)
We’re always grateful for any small blessing.

 

BLADE RUNNER 2049. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright. Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green based on a story by Phillip K. Dick. Cinematographer: Roger Deakins. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner. Composers: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer

 

La La LAND**** Worth all the song and dance


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AT YET ANOTHER one of her many auditions (where she’s usually ignored, interrupted or just dismissed), aspiring actor and playwright Mia (Emma Stone) is asked to “tell us a story”. So, because it’s that type of movie, she sings. She sings a story of her aunt, her inspiration, who dared to jump into the Seine, because she just wanted to. “Here’s to the ones who dream”, she sings. “…foolish as they may seem. Here’s to two hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make”

The song neatly summarizes the idea that drives this compellingly charming movie. La la land, or LA, or the city of stars, is where the action takes place. But la la land refers not to the silly escapism of people who dare to follow their dream, but to the cynical put down by people too scared to follow theirs. Perhaps at a meta dimension, it also refers to the fantasy of a director who dared produce a movie – a musical of all things – that contained both the romantic joy of singing dancing Hollywood, but also the realism that followed dreams don’t necessarily lead where you’d planned.

The story itself follows the fortunes of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s the wannabe actor waiting, like her friends to be discovered; he’s a brilliant, if undiscovered, Jazz pianist. In the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals, they keep bumping into each other. “This could never be” he sings, “You’re not the type for me”. “What a waste of a lovely night”, she concludes. But with each serendipitous bump, antipathy turns into friendship and friendship turns into love. They each provide the motivation the other lacks (so it goes with love), until, one day, motivation is needed no more.

The very idea of “follow your dreams; never give in to the average, the everyday, the easy payday” is of course a tired cliché. But director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) manages the enormously difficult balance between the potential silliness of the idea and the pure magic that makes us believe; that seduces us into a la la land of fantasy, established from the get-go with an over the top dance routine right out of “Fame”…when an entire highway of drivers stuck in traffic sing about “reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine”. But the silly fantasy (is it silly to dream? To reach for the stars?) is all grounded in the same kind of honesty of vision and integrity of storytelling Chazelle delivered in “Whiplash”. This mix of fantasy grounded in the real world is nicely underscored (via Justin Hurwitz’ lovely book and Mandy Moore’s choreography) through the real, and clearly unprofessional, singing and dancing of its two stars. His voice (like his acting) is pretty dull; hers is clear and glorious.

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Indeed, this is Emma Stone’s movie. Chazelle is wise (and trusting) enough to allow his camera to linger on her. Through her eyes, through the subtlest of expressions, Emma, without words, manages to communicate vast depths of complex emotions. Her character morphs from the ditzy Hollywood hopeful in awe of ‘movie stars’ to a knowing sophisticate, well experienced in the ways of love. She it is who, singlehandedly, neutralizes any trace of cliché; and who (unfortunately) diminishes Ryan Gosling’s character to that of a simplistic, if pretty, one-trick pony. Gosling has a nice sense of comic timing, but too often, there’s no “there” there. He seems to spend more time trying to look cool than expressing emotion.

The idea all falls into place near the very end, in an extended sliding doors montage that delivers a resonance way beyond the limitations of its story…as it suggests to its audience the ‘what if’s’ to all their – our – lives. What if, the story concludes by asking, the sliding doors in all of our la la lands led us into alternative lives, alternative sound tracks? Would we be all the better or worse for it? Happier or just different? Are we living the life we chose, or just living in la la land?

 

LA LA LAND. Dir/writer: Damien Chazelle. With Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemary DeWitt, J.K.Simmons. Composer: Justin Hurwitz. Choreographer: Mandy Moore. Production designer: David Wasco (“Inglorious Basterds”). Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”)

 

 

NICE GUYS** Dumb and Dumber with guns


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NICE GUYS HAS a few brilliant moments and an occasionally inspired piece of script writing, but overall it feels like one of those movies shaped by focus group research and a squadron of script doctors.

Unlike the truly great buddy movies (Butch Cassidy… Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Rush Hour, Men in Black, Bad Boys etc) when you can feel the affection between the buddies despite (or maybe because of) their differences, this one feels like two separate and not very interesting or funny characters who happen to be sharing a story. Said story (set in 1977) is a series of brain storm vignettes in search of an idea and patched together probably by an accountant (which is surprising as its author, Shane Black gave us classics like “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Lethal Weapon”)

It centres around the picaresque search for a, possibly dead, porn actress who’s made a cause-related porn film; one that uses nudity and sex (natch) to highlight the plight of birds; they’re dying due to cars without catalytic converters. WTF you may well say. That’s the plot line?

The intent is to splice the film into a documentary about cars to be shown at the Detroit motor show. Huh?
You might call it an auto erotic protest. You might call it other things.

Even if you’re prepared to lower your demands for a coherent plot in service to the higher authority of good comedy and farce, you’d still be challenged to find this one worth following. Bad guys arrive and shoot people from time to time; we trail through a boobs dense Playboy type pool party; bodies turn up in unexpected places and Kim Bassinger (whose Botox-ed face is now immobile) steps in as a crooked Head of the Department of Justice.

Director/writer Black (who also directed Iron Man 3), perhaps listening too much to those focus groups, must have continuously sought to up the ante on farce even if it made no contribution to either sense or comedy.

Russell Crowe is the heavy (literally. This is a very portly version of the Gladiator) who beats up people (but mainly bad people who deserve his fists of fury). Ryan Gosling is a brain challenged, alcoholic, unscrupulous private investigator who we know is good, really…honestly, because he’s a caring (if eccentric) dad to the kind of kid that only appears in American movies: the sassy kid (Angourie Rice).

I guess both leading men, after a decade of ‘serious’ felt they wanted to display their comedic talents.

And maybe one day, that day will come

 

NICE GUYS. Dir/writer: Shane Black. With Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling. Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer. Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot (Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows)

 

THE BIG SHORT***Monopoly Money


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THE BIG SHORT is an engagingly enjoyable, morally tawdry film. It’s the dramatization of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name (so the characters are real but their names have been changed, presumably for legal reasons). It tells the horror story of the build up to and eventual collapse of the US housing market (with the rest of the world economies falling like puffed up dominoes). It’s a story of boastful greed, criminal fraud, smug hubris and thick- headed stupidity that left eight million unemployed and six million homeless.

Just another day at the office.

Director Adam McKay (Anchorman 1 and 2, Talladega Nights) hangs his tale around a triad of banker/investors, all of whom either figure out or stumble upon what’s happening in the real estate business. The story begins with Michael Burry (a compellingly watchable Christian Bale); he’s an autistic numbers-crunching hedge fund genius, with barely tolerable social skills and an unerring nose for reading the market. He is the one who sniffed out that the entire housing market was, essentially, a giant scam: fraudulent agents giving away mortgages to insolvent people; bundling and covering up these potential bad debts with other seemingly more secure mortgages, then selling them on from bank to bank and everything operating under the approval of the two corrupt ratings agencies, Moody’s and the S & P.

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His bright idea, that’s seen as ludicrously dumb by the banking potentates who control the money (how can he be right and everyone else wrong?) is to bet against (or short) the market… The more the market collapses, the more money he’d make.
He’s not the only one to read the tea leaves: Mark Baum (a permanently stressed out, pissed off Steve Carell) with an axe to grind against a system he’s part of and detests (his group work under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley) stumbles onto the truth, which they confirm when he and his team visit some of the new housing markets (and the boastful estate agents).

They discover the horrible reality of shuttered homes, properties on sale at knocked down prices, rising unemployment and mortgages being given away to the indigent.

An equally lucky duo of small-time investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) coached by an ex-market trader, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt whose production company Plan B produced the movie…as it did Twelve Years a Slave) also figure out what’s happening.

They all bet against the market with the big banks and investment companies (the gang’s all there: Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs etc… the villains of the piece) greedily regarding them as motley fools with money easy for the taking.

And, well, you know where it all ended up.

Director McKay treats the whole sorry affair not as tragedy but (rightly…since you either cut your wrists or laugh) as Black Comedy. The odd song and dance routine are thrown in to underline some of his points; and he offers up the brilliant device of deliberate cutting away from the story to jokey vignettes (such as Margot Robbie in her bath sipping campaign or Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen) to explain those obtuse financial products, like collateralized debt swaps etc.

It’s a fine piece of entertainment and a damning critique of the banking system (that, the movie tartly observes, remains unrepentantly unchanged); and it’s an inventive way of turning a documentary into a drama.

But the base material (a piece of economics journalism…Michael Lewis also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side) remains a dramatic strait jacket. Despite a few cursory nods (the under-used Marisa Tomei tries to humanize Steve Carell’s character) you don’t really get to know any of the characters as people (unlike the far superior Margin Call). They remain ‘types’: the amoral nerd, the gauche college drop-outs, the aggrieved manager, the womanizing rich guys etc. In the end, what matters is the morality tale…we don’t really know – or are made to care – much about all the characters involved. But the tenor of the tale certainly has us rooting for them. After all, they were smart (in a world of idiots), they outfoxed the banks and –ta da! – made a ton of money betting on the collapse of the world economy. Is McKay insinuating that in the moral climate of the world of banks, these men were the best of a bad lot? Their certainty and self-belief certainly comes across as heroic (we’re supposed to root for the small man against the big corporation).

And the movie’s coda: that only one person was sent to jail, that nothing has changed and that we’re heading for a fall again would lead you to believe The Big Short is on the side of the angels.

But hang on here: like their banking antagonists, the (real life) protagonists were risking billions… of their clients’ money. They come across as knights in some sort of shining armour….but really they were just as amoral and money hustling as the other bunch of amoral money hustling, even badder guys. Or so we assume: they’re all shown as having higher goals than simply making money and laughing at the world as it collapsed.

But this entire enterprise (an anti-bank movie funded by banks featuring bankers as ‘heroes’) is all just a bit too specious for my taste.

 

The Big Short: DIRECTOR: Adam McKay. WITH: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt. SCREENPLAY: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, Michael Lewis (book). CINEMATOGRAPHER: Barry Ackroyd

 

 

Intense and Operatic: The Place Beyond The Pines


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“The Place Beyond The Pines” is the first truly outstanding movie of 2013…just squeezing in before the onslaught of the blockbusters. This is a three-part story that all centers around an explosive confrontation between drifter Luke (a quietly convincing Ryan Gosling) and the steady good cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).

We initially follow the narrative of Luke, a motorcycle stunt-man who is shocked into a sense of responsibility when he discovers that a casual relationship he’d had with Romina (Eva Mendes playing down her attractiveness, as a woman struggling to make something of herself) has resulted in a son.

Suddenly he realizes that his life has shifted from that of feckless drifter to father, with the demands that this new responsibility brings. With no other moral compass to act as a guide, Luke interprets fatherhood simply as the need to provide ‘things’ – a cot, various toys and trinkets. And herein lies his own test of character: his nobler instincts to live up to a sense of parental duty drives him to a course of action that is, sadly, determined by his darker, amoral side. Egged on by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), his evil angel, he uses his motorcycling skills to turn to bank robbing. He cannot escape his drifter past, even if he tried.

The story suggests the kind of inevitability ahead of him (“if you ride like lightening”, Robin tells him, “you’ll crash like thunder”). It becomes distressingly clear that Luke’s life and character are formed of such stuff that no desire to rise to a higher realm of ‘responsible parent’ can trump the fate that his drifter soul has mapped out for him.

Character is fate.

If Luke is shocked into a sense of responsibility his past cannot live up to, Avery Cooper’s past on the other hand, forged by his strong relationship with his father, gives him a deep sense of resolve and a clear conscience-driven perspective.

Whereas Luke chooses the easier way of crime – the short-term, instant gratification of quick money, Avery is forced to confront crime, even as he becomes part of it. He finds himself briefly immersed in a corrupt scheme master-minded by the brilliant Ray Liotta (as crooked cop DeLucca). And it is up to his need to do the right thing that pits him against pretty much all his friends on the force. Avery, driven by a strong sense of guilt, has to fight his way beyond the corrupting influence of his clan to the place, as it were beyond the pines.

This is not to suggest that Avery is the unblemished goodie to Luke’s compromised baddie. Avery himself manages to do what’s right despite his own lust for power and influence. Luke wanted to cash; Avery wants the influence.

The third part of this trilogy concludes the balance between responsibility, conscience and parenthood when we meet their two children, now troubled teenagers, preparing to confront their own high noon showdown.

Mike Patton’s vibrant score adds to the operatic feel of this film; lends it the kind of gravitas Derek Cianfarance’s (who also directed “Blue Valentine”) directing and Ben Coccio’s and Darius Marder’s writing, deserves. Though Gosling, Evan Mendes and Bradley Cooper are the key protagonists in the drama, there really is a wonderful supporting cast that help lend the movie enormous stature and tremendous felt-life credibility.

MOVIE: Gangster Squad


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A NEW VIDEO game has just been launched. It’s called “Gangster Squad”. Actually, hang on, it isn’t a game, it’s a real movie. It looks like a game; the characters in it, who are apparently real actors, move like it’s a game; and the storyline sounds like a game. But the fact that it’s on at the Clapham Picturehouse and not on X-Box… that, I guess, is the big give-way. It’s the only give-away.

So, buyer beware – don’t be fooled by the glittering cast of this new, thuggishly dumb gangster movie that premiered this week.

The premise is this: it’s just after the war (1949 to be exact) and Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen, a low life Hollywood gangster with ambitions of taking over the entire West Coast. He controls not only whole legions of armed hench-men, but most of the politicians and police, who turn a blind eye to his nefarious activities. Except for Nick Nolte, who is taciturn, which means he’s uncorruptible. It is he who conscripts a squadron of ex-army (equally uncorruptible and dedicated) cops to make war on Cohen and his gang, outside of the constraints of the law and the badge.

Maybe you’ve come across plot lines like this before, and, what with this array of stars, you may be lulled into thinking that there’s some fiendishly clever twist on this old cliché to introduce new energy and thematic pulse, the way, say “The Untouchables” did.

But no, you’d be wrong. This is simply one of those super-masculine outings where the women are dames waiting to be saved by strong jawed men; where the bad guys just don’t seem to be able to hit their targets despite truck loads of bullets (shown jumping from their rifles in loving slow mo’), but where the good guys are keen-eyed shooters; where there is a relentlessness of sadistic blood-splattering violence; where the body count is unremitting; and where the dialog is snappy and meaningless.

Which matches the acting style.

The only excuse could be that director Ruben Fleischer (who gave us that classic, “Zombieland”) pushed them to go for, let’s say, a more broad interpretation of character. This must have opened up Sean Penn, who is usually very compelling and believable (the only half way decent thing about the dreadful “Tree of Life”) to ham it up to such an extent that I fear he might have his Equity card revoked. Josh Brolin, as Sgt John O’Mara the square-jawed un-killable leader of the pack of ‘good guys’ delivers a performance of such flinty resoluteness, he appears constantly to be busting his brains to remember his lines. And ‘it’ man, Ryan Gosling snatches his performance from the “cool dude” draw where he stores his “Drive” school of expression-free acting.

Much of the action takes place on a back lot that Fleischer’s production team must have snapped up from an X-Box drawer of fire-sale design discards. For it is quite clearly a back-lot; nothing remotely credible.

But, there is a lot of attention to wardrobe. Mary Zophres who dressed Harrison Forde and Daniel Craig in “Cowboys and Aliens” as well as the team from “Iron Man” gives us the GQ version of roaring twenties, rogue-cop style.

So at least, if “Expendables II” wasn’t your cup of tea; or if you aren’t surprised to find that the Oscar judges have passed over Jason Stratham yet again, you may find some solace in the flashy masculine clothes on display. And if even this is not your cup of tea, suggest you conserve your energy and time.