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.