Sunday, October 8, 2017

The new Blade Runner Stumbles but Finds Its Stride

The original Blade Runner takes place in 2019, so we have a maximum two years to create flying cars, colonize other planets, fill the world with Beijing-level air pollution, and genetically engineer a race of humanoid slaves in order for the the plot of that film—and this film predicated upon it—to be relatable. But hey, in the Age of Trump, anything is possible.

[Spoilers for the original movie ahead.]

We pick up three decades after Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) disappeared to live happily ever with fugitive replicant Rachael (Sean Young), who may or not have had a four-year lifespan built into her. Regardless which of the three cuts of the first film you consider cannon, there is nothing too confusing. Although let’s agree that any version without Ford’s voiceover is better than one with it; it’s well-known that Ford hated doing the voice-over and can literally hear it as he speaks. The Tyrell Corporation is now defunct and its replicant manufacturing empire is now controlled by megalomaniacal genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). A new more “obedient” breed of replicants is now allowed on Earth—the “give us synthetic hookers” lobby was not going to be kept silent forever—but the earlier freedom-minded Tyrell models—some with open-ended lifespans—are still hunted by the Blade Runners to be retired on sight.

LAPD detective “K” arrives at a protein farm outside of Los Angeles to investigate Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who is quickly established as an old Tyrell Nexus 8 model illegally on Earth (more on him here). For all his engineered ferocity and strength, Sapper is for the most part fairly gentile and polite until K is about to arrest him, at which point he pushes K’s head through a wall and the requisite fisticuffs ensue. K gets the upper hand and we learn that he is one of the obedient replicants, designed and programmed to hunt his own kind. He discovers something on Sapper’s farm that will take him on a journey questioning everything he knows both about his fellow replicants and himself, from the San Diego junkyards where orphans are sold like cattle to the Las Vegas wasteland where Deckard now resides in self-imposed exile.

When director Denis Villeneuve handed in the lyrically beautiful and haunting alien epic Arrival, diehard Blade Runner fans were reassured that the sequel was in good hands, and for the most part they were right. Part of the original’s beauty, however, was that it painted in ambiguity, letting the audience connect certain dots however it saw fit. Why did Gaff leave his origami unicorn at Deckard’s apartment instead of retiring Rachael and how did he track her there in the first place? Why did Roy save Deckard instead of letting him fall to his death? We are left to assume that the better part of human nature won out in both man and replicant, without any spelled-out heavy-handed monologue or cheesy sentiment.

In this sequel, Villeneuve plays it a little safer, going the safer action sci-fi route as the story heads into its second half, trying too hard to sew everything up. He does not trust his audiences the way Ridley Scott did. And that’s fair, since the original movie’s contemporaries are at the high end and above of the 18-49 demographic, and hitting a wider audience now means establishing plot points between iPhone glances.

The eternally-cocky Ryan Gosling is in new territory here, with a bad-ass veneer that cracks as the existential questions he faces cut deeper and deeper. Harrison Ford gets crustier and more fragile with every new role nowadays, and here it serves him as he inhabits an old warrior looking back on the pervasive darkness of his life and struggling to preserve the little that gave his life meaning.

You cannot go into this movie cold. See the original movie first. But overall, Blade Runner 2049  is a fun and thought-provoking ride.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Last Bloody Crusade of a Battered Hero

"Logan” is a an ideal closing chapter for Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine, the cinematic character of Wolverine itself, and I daresay even the X-Men themselves. Since its acquisition by Disney, Marvel has done almost f*%$ all to develop the superhero franchise since Fox holds the movie rights, so remaining story potential is limited at best. Of course, in five years or less, we’ll probably see some pumped-up Shakespearean actor sporting the adamantium claws and the excessive sideburns. But there’s still a case to be made for letting this very old soldier fade away.

We pick up in the year 2029, with our anti-hero working as a limo driver near the Texas-Mexico border and caring for the ailing Professor X (Sir Patrick Stewart), now suffering from senile dementia that has left his powers untouched but all but destroyed his ability to restrain them. He is the neurological equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Not a single mutant has been born in twenty-five years and most of those remaining have been hunted down and killed. As for what happened to the rest of the X-Men, that is a story alluded to in bits and pieces and if you can figure it out, you will probably wish that you hadn’t.

Logan spends his days driving tourists, teenagers going to prom, and funeral mourners. He’s also also a somewhat-functioning alcoholic who channels his aggressions through episodes such as the slaughter of gang members unlucky enough to boost his tires. And then a Mexican nurse approaches him, begging him to drive her and her young “daughter”, Laura, to a location in North Dakota where they can meet friends and join them in crossing into Canada. Logan at first refuses, but what kind of movie would this be if the story ended there?

Before long, Logan discovers that Laura is not only a mutant, but also harbors a connection to him that will permanently alter his destiny. And enough bodies and blood get dropped and spilled along the way to more than justify the “R” rating.

“The Dark Knight” garnered praise because it story and character development were a note-perfect Swiss watch mechanism of precision and fast, even pacing. It’s a great dramatic action-thriller that happens to be a superhero movie. “Logan” deserves no less praise for showing us the wear-and-tear of being a hero after the glory days are over and time catches up. Nobody considers that years of fighting evil rack up a lot of PTSD, or bothers to wonder if a superhero has retirement savings, but these issues are prevalent here.

Jackman and Stewart have both vowed that they are now done with the X-Men franchise, and they give this last turn everything they’ve got. We’re used to seeing the bitter and cranky side of Logan, but fans may have trouble recognizing Stewart’s final portrayal of Professor X as crotchety, cantankerous, and frail. He’s a reminder that even the strongest of us are mortal.

Without throwing a spoiler, I will say that those hoping for a redeeming, feel-good cereal-box-prize twist in the final seconds will be disappointed. For better or worse, you have to make your peace with the ending. But if you can hold back tears long enough, it’s impossible not to see its beauty.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

'The Accountant' Can't Quite Balance Its Books

In recent years, understanding of the autism spectrum has expanded as rate of diagnosis has approached an epidemic proportion. It is difficult, though, to imagine that parents would take comfort being told that while their child might never relate enough to others to have close friends or a spouse, a career as a mercenary beancounter might be a possibility.

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an accountant of many talents. If the IRS is on your back, he can itemize your deductions in such a way that you may never pay taxes again. And if you’re a Mexican drug lord with few million missing from the till, he’ll uncook your books and tell you who in your inner circle needs to be relocated to a drum of sulfuric acid. His combination of absolute precision and utter discretion makes him a favorite of big money criminals around the globe. What lies beyond Christian’s reach is casual eye contact, small talk, and normal social interaction in general. Christian has Aspergers Syndrome, but he makes it work.

Christian takes a quiet gig for a robotics firm with a nebbish owner (John Lithgow), a comely employee (Anna Kendrick), and a million-dollar hole in its books. And what is supposed to be a break from dealing with thieves and killers quickly becomes anything but. Christian finds himself on the run from an army of mercenaries lead by a slick assassin (Jon Bernthal), as well as a grizzled Department of Treasury boss (J.K. Simmons) and his sharp sidekick (Cynthia Addai-Robinson).

Whether you will enjoy The Accountant depends on what you expect to see. If you go in looking for an action-thriller, there are elements of that. If you are looking for a portrait of a developmentally challenged and psychologically tortured man trying to connect to the world around him, there is some of that, too. And either director Gavin Hood (Warrior, Jane Got a Gun) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Judge) couldn’t decide which story to tell or decided to mix both and hope for the best. If the latter, the result is awkward at best.

Watching Christian navigate the world around him with sympathetic awkwardness is a bit like the puzzles of which he is so fond. We don’t quite understand why he does certain things, like blast death metal music at himself with a strobe light flashing for twenty minutes each night, and the lack of at least a clinical explanation makes such details distracting when they are clearly designed to add dimension to the character.

The plot is at times almost incidental, with Simmons filling in plot holes with dialogue and jumpy flashbacks, which actually create more questions than they answer. It maybe would have worked a little better if more time was spent on Christian’s awkward interactions with people and what it means to live with this condition. Or they could have at least assembled a smoother narrative.

In any event, The Accountant is a bare-bones action thriller that makes an effort at being a character study of an unorthodox hero.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Of late Stephen Hawking has been much in the news for two reasons: his being portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film “The Theory of Everything” and his views on the rapidly approaching birth of artificial intelligence. "The development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking has written. To expand on this, many are afraid that if a bunch of hyper-intelligent machines were to suddenly inhabit the planet, they would very quickly ask themselves why they need share this world with a seemingly inferior and weaker race (us), and they would likely find no logical answer.  And for those of you not descended from Native Americans or Australian aborigines, take my word for it that this situation will not end well for us. It may turn out that James Cameron and the Wachowski siblings were the true prophets of the last few decades.

But none of these visionaries ever postulated an AI coming in the form of a young beautiful woman of the type most guys never had the guts to talk to in high school.

And these are the weighty-issues addressed by “Ex Machina” a bare-bones sci-fi thriller and pseudo-drama/romance from Alex Garland, who brought us the cult hit “Judge Dredd” a few years ago (not to be confused with Sly Stallone’s abortion of the 1990s). Our story begins when Caleb (Domhall Gleason), a young software coder at the world’s most popular search engine, wins a lottery to spend a week at the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), the company’s reclusive CEO, who invented the search engine when he was 13 and who now dwells in a fortress in the wilderness completely cut off from civilization. After arriving at the fortress and signing the mother of all non-disclosure agreements, Caleb learns his true mission: the Turing test. Nathan has constructed what could be the world’s first AI and Caleb is to engage with it and test whether or not it feels like communicating with a human being. And the fact that Nathan constructed AI in the form of the shapely Ava (Alicia Vikander) surely won’t complicate matters at all.

What follows is what some might consider a slow-moving narrative without a lot of thrills or even much use of potential visual devices to be found in a movie about human-looking robots and super-smart computers. Instead, Garland focuses on exploring the dimension of each of these characters and going beyond their simple archetypes. Caleb starts out as the typical introverted techie that could write the world’s greatest dating app, but who wouldn’t know what to say to a woman on such an app. But could he be more if the chips are down and a damsel is in distress? In Nathan, Issacs gives us what could be the id form of his wannabe mogul in “A Most Violent Year”, equal parts egomania and megalomania and obsessed with building a monument to his own intelligence and ability, moral consequences be damned. You know about five seconds into seeing Ava that within her silicone soul is the desperate yearning for freedom. But if she is really designed to be human, could her agenda really be that uncomplicated?

And that’s what “Ex Machina” is really all about, the question of what it really means to claim and retain one’s humanity. Does Caleb really want to help Ava out of selflessness, or does he think he’s finally found himself a girlfriend? Is Nathan a Svengali jealous of Caleb for coming between him and his Trilby, or is he so self-absorbed and arrogant as to not see what is right in front of him? And does Ava—whether able to mimic human thought and feeling or not—really harbor an attraction to Caleb, or is there more going on? It’s a love triangle for this millennium to be sure.

“Ex Machina” flows right by at 108 minutes and while it might not have attracted audiences enough to lure them from the suburbs all the way downtown to the specialty theaters in its initial limited release, it’s more than worth the trip to the local mall cineplex this week.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

It's a little odd to spend $61 million to make a movie--with much of that likely going into lavish set construction--and then spend so much time in tight, shaky closeups of the warbling cast.  The effect is not unlike "The Hurt Locker" with show tunes.  And there is definitely something cringeworthy about Russell Crowe's vocals.  He's not a terrible singer, per se, but he booms in a manner akin to an adolescent being forced to sing in the church choir.

Having said that, the film incarnation of "Les Miserables" is competent and entertaining as a whole.  For those whose girlfriends/wives never dragged them to the stage musical, "Les Miserables" is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name.  It takes place in 19th century France and centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict paroled after a nineteen-year sentence for stealing bread and attempted escape.  Embittered, hungry, and marked as a criminal, Valjean turns to theft to feed himself, until the kindness of a bishop inspires him to start his life anew as a good and charitable man.  This includes saving Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman-turned-prostitute to whose misfortune Valjean unwittingly contributed.  Later, Valjean adopts Fantine's orphaned daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and later Amanda Seyfried), and resides with her in Paris as a second revolution brews among the poor and local students.  Always in pursuit of Valjean is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean's former jailer whose rising through the police ranks fatefully brings him into Valjean's path many times over the years. Javert pursues Valjean for no other reason than that he broke parole and is a criminal and therefore cannot be redeemed.

The best musical performance is hands-down Anne Hathaway's sorrowful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream".  She has said that she practiced singing whilst crying to nail the emotion of the scene, and the effect is heartbreaking.  Given Dame Judi Dench's Oscar win for her eight-minute role in "Shakespeare in Love", it is not implausible that Hathaway will pick up a nod this year.

This is definitely a case where the lack of an intermission in which to use the restroom and gulp a merlot at the bar causes the story to drag a little bit.  While the script is faithful to the musical, there are a few moments during the a few of the ballads where one starts to feel numb in the backside and wishful for a sword fight or a riot to liven up the mood.

The main issue that this writer had is the wasted potential for grandiose delivery.  It is arguable that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper sacrifices spectacle for emotional intimacy, and that what worked in "The King's Speech" is a little awkward here.  Maybe no one told Hooper he had four times the budget of that movie to play with here.  Also, many of the performances teeter on the edge of melodrama.

Overall, though, Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" is an often rousing and eventually soaring tale of love, liberty, and the pursuit of criminal fugitives.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt's and Andrew Dominik's sophomore collaboration, "Killing Them Softly" died at the box office this weekend at the hands of vampires, James Bond, and The Great Emancipator.  I saw it in a theater of less than a dozen people and two of them walked out, likely disappointed that Mr. Pitt spent less time busting caps and more time waxing philosophic about proper etiquette among thieves and killers.  But even if it's not the story you paid to see, it's still a great story.  It’s also thematically simpler than “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.

When an ex-con dry cleaner hires two loser thugs to rob a mob-protected poker game, it looks like a can't-miss proposition.  The guy who runs the game, Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta) actually robbed his own game before and even bragged about it.  So when it happens again the bosses will just whack Trattman and that will be that.  But is anything ever that simple?

Enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), an enforcer who keeps things simple.  As he rolls into town, we see and hear news broadcasts of George W. Bush consoling Americans on the then-burgeoning recession and Barack Obama and John McCain selling “hope” and “strength” respectively in their bids to lead the nation.  “Killing” is not so much a crime drama as a cynical perspective of what it really means to survive and thrive in these hard times.  Jackie is no hero, or even an anti-hero.  He just wants to restore the status quo with the least possible complication.  So when one of his targets is too close as a friend, he brings in broken down fellow hitman Mickey (James Gandolfini) to do the job.  Mickey’s purpose is not so much violence as present a portrait of someone worn down and numb by a lifetime of bloodshed.  For a film with two hitmen in it, this movie is going to disappoint anyone looking for lots of action.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

"Silver Linings Playbook" is David O. Russell's most biting look at pathological self-destruction and redemption since "I Heart Huckabees", albeit with a darker tone. Bradley Cooper goes Oscar-trolling as Pat Solitano, a former high school teacher sprung from a mental institution eight months after a violent breakdown. Living with his superstitious father (Robert De Niro finally back in form) and his doting mother (Jacki Weaver), Pat nurses delusions of repairing his relationship with his wife, who has filed a restraining order and all but divorced him. He does not find much solace until he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow tortured soul soothing her grief--following the death of her husband--through unhealthy sexual encounters and ballroom dancing.

Cooper demonstrates a range never offered to him in the "Hangover" franchise or the sci-fi thriller "Limitless". From the outset, it is implausible that the actor who gave us the womanizing, alpha male Sack Lodge could inhabit a loser at rock-bottom trying to put his life back together, but Cooper pulls it off. Jennifer Lawrence also does great work, letting her freak flag fly while maintaining the undercurrent of strength laced with vulnerability that landed her the Oscar nod for "Winter's Bone". The great Mr. De Niro gives a heartfelt but appropriately restrained supporting performance as a father both exasperated by and concerned for his fragile son.

The story moves along at fairly brisk pace, with Pat and Tiffany feeling their way toward a real emotional connection the same way someone fumbles for a flashlight during a blackout. The focus remains on Pat, but presents Tiffany as closed off but desperate to feel something.

While it could be argued that the film squanders a lot of its dramatic weight with a slightly syrupy ending, the director offers a compelling portrait of two people doing their utmost to pick up the pieces of their broken existences and maybe find a little happiness.