Blade Runner 2049? …More Like Blade Crawler 204ZZZ, amirite?


Let’s get an unpopular opinion out of the way first: I don’t care for the original Blade Runner. We can all agree that it is a pretty looking movie. Its impeccable production design has obviously proved hugely influential in the science fiction genre, and there is a lot of pleasure to be extracted out of Jordan Cronenweth’s neo-noir cinematography and the tingly electric score by Vangelis. So the movie’s got style. But in matters of substance, it leaves a lot to be desired. This new Blade Runner 2049, a sequel set thirty years after the original, follows in the footsteps of its predecessor almost identically. These are two and a half hours of stylish but empty images. Two and a half hours of oppressive dullness. Two and a half hours of oppressive boredom. Does the movie have anything interesting to say? I wouldn’t know. By the time it got around to explaining itself, I simply didn’t have the energy to care.

A lot of effort has been put on part of the studio not to reveal even the most basic plot elements of this movie, but it’s been a couple weeks since it opened and it’s not doing particularly well in the box office so I will go ahead and give a broad outline of what this story is about. The hero is K, a robot (or replicant) played by Ryan Gosling, who has been especially programmed to obey orders. Previous replicants weren’t so good at following orders, and so K’s job is to travel the galaxy and hunt down runaway robots. If you remember the original movie, you’ll know that people who do this kind of job are called Blade Runners. Now, the big difference of course is that the hero of the original movie was a human, and K is a robot. K’s obedient nature is put into question when he discovers a dead replicant who was apparently pregnant at the time she died. A robot? Pregnant? Existential questioning ensues.

That short synopsis should be enough to give you a broad idea of what the movie is about. Most movies about robots are about one of two things, and this movie is about both. One: it’s a movie that portrays robots as the members of an oppressed servant class. They’re practically slaves, designed to do whatever humans want them to do. Jared Leto even says so at some point in the movie, in a rambling monologue about “slave labor” and “civilization” and that kind of thing. Two: this is a movie that asks what makes a human a human. Is it consciousness? Because if you think about it, if a machine thinks it is concious, isn’t that practically the same as having a consciousness? So robots are oppressed, and they are conscious. So it’s actually not cool to oppress robots.

That might be a reductive way of thinking about the philosophy behind the Blade Runner saga, or it might just be all that the Blade Runner saga has to say about humanity. I lean toward the latter, and personally haven’t been convinced by any other arguments that try to make the themes of these movies sound more interesting than they are. But a movie isn’t its themes. At least not exclusively. Good movies have been made out of worse ideas, so we all know it’s not a matter of what you have to say, but how you say it. I’m afraid I’ve already spilled the beans about Blade Runner 2049′s mode of operation.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) who has proved to be a rather good filmmaker when it comes to setting an oppressive mood and building lots of tension. Somehow, neither of those talents transfer to Blade Runner 2049, which is simply dull from start to finish. Cinematographer Roger Deakins -largely considered one of the best living cinematographers in the world- is along for the ride, and while he works hard to make everything look as striking as he can, there is very little he can do when the pretty images he creates are in service of such an empty script. Considering the talent the people involved have shown in other ventures, I’d have to put the bulk on the blame on the movie’s atrocious script.

The biggest problem about the screenplay -and this is something that is a huge problem in the original Blade Runner as well- is that it confuses vagueness with gravitas. Practically every scene in this movie has the characters talk in vague terminology, going in circles around a subject without really saying anything about it. Everything that could be said simply is said in obscure poetic terms. Nobody refers to anything directly and nobody talks like people, regardless of whether the character is an android or a human. Harrison Ford enters the film towards the end, and he seems to be trying really hard to bring some emotional truth to the proceedings (which is unusual for Ford at this late stage of his career). Sadly, he is let down by the movie. And so are we.

What else can be said about Blade Runner 2049? I try to find something nice to say about it, and I come out empty-handed. Its most interesting moments seem to be cribbed out of other movies (like Her), or have been explored in better detail and more efficient fashion elsewhere (Ex Machina and World of Tomorrow come to mind). The design is pretty, but feels like it’s a lot of flash in service of very little substance. The score (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish) abandons the delightful luminosity of the original Vangelis in favor of boring drones of the kind we hear in every single blockbuster nowadays. And the less said about Jared Leto the better. Whatever purpose his character was supposed to serve, his scenes are the best example of how many people’s heads can fit inside this movie’s butt.

New York Film Festival Report No. 5 (Let the Sunshine In, Lady Bird, BPM)

lady bird

This is it. The final entry in my New York Film Festival diary. It was a very good festival. I’m very glad I got to be a part of it. As for you, well, you should be happy there’s a lot of great movies coming your way in the next couple months.

Let the Sunshine In
I try to avoid indulging in stereotypes, but let’s put on our prejudice hat for a moment. If I tell you “artsy French film version of a Nancy Meyers movie”, what do you picture? Because that’s the most effective way to describe Claire Denis’s new movie Let the Sunshine In, which stars Juliette Binoche as a newly single woman who bounces from one frustrating relationship to another. For those who heard French Nancy Meyers and expected a sexual thriller about kitchen remodeling: I have bad news. The movie has the rough structure and tone of a romantic comedy, but it’s all hidden under layers of impenetrability. That’s the French part of it all, of course.

Denis is a very talented and very well respected director. I assume that she had a very specific movie in mind, and that Let the Sunshine In probably resembles that movie quite closely. It is just a very unpleasant movie to sit through. My guess is that Denis is trying to say something about language, or communication, because her movie is made up of scenes of two people talking in which they dance around every subject never truly saying anything concrete, over and over again. This might be commentary on the way people talk (I guess), but it’s incredibly boring to watch. Also, this film was described to me as a “comedy”, which is too generous for a movie with maybe two chuckles in it.

Let the Sunshine In will probably be released in theaters sometime next year.

Lady Bird
I have a hard time finding things to say about Lady Bird other than that it is a delightful movie. There is no point to simply list all the things I liked about it, so I let’s talk about it in context. This is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who is mostly known as an actress. As a writer, she collaborated on two wonderful movies with director Noah Baumbach (in which she also starred). Film critic Kyle Turner pointed out on Twitter that Gerwig’s movies focus on the romance of relationships that aren’t explicitly romantic. Frances Ha was about a break-up story about two best friends. Mistress America was about an obsessive love between sisters. Now, Lady Bird, is a romance about keeping up the love between mother and daughter.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine, who has given herself the name Lady Bird, and is the kind of teenager who is trapped between feeling like she’s better and worse than everyone else. You know, typical teenager stuff. Lady Bird is a working class girl who lives in Sacramento and goes to a private Catholic school. She is trapped between wanting to leave her hometown and reinvent a new life for herself and loving the people and places that she’s known her whole life. This is most obvious in the complicated relationship she has with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. Ronan and Metcalf are the stand-outs in a cast full of incredible performances. What else can I say? The movie is hilarious, I can’t wait to see it again, and Gerwig is as good of a director as she is an actress and a writer.

Lady Bird will open in theaters on November 3. 

BPM (Beats per Minute)
This movie by Robin Campillo was the big audience favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize of the Jury. The film is best described as a portrait of the French chapter of the activist group Act Up, which stood up for the rights of HIV-positive people in the eighties and nineties. Other than its sexual honesty and impassioned energy, the movie is most exciting in the ways in which its structure reflects that of an activist group. The film has an expansive ensemble of characters, and it devotes a healthy amount of time to most of them. Each scene is presented from more than one perspective. The camera is constantly cutting to someone else’s perspective, as if it the film itself was reflecting the democratic ideals of the subjects themselves.

That’s true of at least the first two thirds of the movie. BPM is two and a half hours long (overlong running times being a staple of contemporary French cinema), and as it moves along it loses the plural focus. For its last section, the movie narrows its point of view on one specific character as his battle with AIDS becomes more intense. It’s not that these scenes are bad, but they are the kind of thing we usually see in movies about the AIDS crisis (not that there are that many movies on the subject). It’s a disappointment because it just isn’t as unique and impassioned as the first part of the film. It all comes together rather strongly in the end, but given how long the movie is, most of my patience had been lost by then.

BPM will open in limited release on October 20. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 4 (First Reformed, Wonderstruck)


This is my fourth report from the festival, discussing two movies that I wasn’t expecting to see. But, hey, crazy things happen at the New York Film Festival!

First Reformed
During the Q&A session after the screening, writer-director Paul Schrader was asked about his influences. He shrugged off and said: “let’s just say there will be a lot of term papers written about this film.” Indeed, First Reformed is the kind of movie that is designed to fascinate young cinephiles, and that’s a good thing. Schrader admits to lifting from such dry Europeans as Dreyer, Tarkovsky and Bergman while making the picture, though the most obvious influence is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Schrader’s movie also focuses on a priest -played by Ethan Hawke- who looks after a small chapel in Upstate New York and, well, keeps a diary.

Schrader’s goal seems to have been to make a movie that fits in the tradition of all the filmmakers mentioned above, and the many movies they made on the subject of faith and despair. I think he succeeded. First Reformed is not as severely designed and deliberately paced as some of its predecessors, but it is similarly ambitious and audacious in its filmmaking. Hawke gives what is most likely the best performance of his career as a faithful man who is confronted with deep emptiness. Like most of the other movies in this genre, it is all a slow build-up to a bold finale. It’s the kind of ending that shakes you off of your seat. The kind of ending that is hard to understand, but one can’t stop thinking about.

First Reformed has been picked up by A24 and will be released early next year. 

Todd Haynes is an incredible filmmaker. He makes some of the most carefully crafted movies in the world  with the help of some of the most talented collaborators in the business. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Carter Burwell -to name a few- are all among the very best of their respective crafts. Together with Haynes, they’ve made an immaculately crafted movie. The detailed recreation of New York City’s past, the wonderfully old-fashioned score, and the playful sound design, Wonderstruck is simply gorgeous. It’s almost tragic that such unparalleled talent is stuck working with a such weak script.

Author Brian Selznick adapted his own novel -about two deaf children, in two different time periods, who make fateful pilgrimages to New York City- to the screen. I haven’t read the source material, but from what I hear, the movie adheres to it quite closely. I got the feeling, watching Wonderstruck, that Selznick had a tough time translating his literary devices to the language of film. We get so little personality out of the two protagonists, that it’s easy to suspect the novel being told in the first person, able to access the characters’ thoughts and inner monologues. As written, the characters remain a little too blank, and the screenplay comes off as clunky. Especially when it is surrounded by such amazing craftsmanship.

As sad as it is that Haynes doesn’t quite manage to pull it all together, I can’t stress enough how beautiful the film is. Especially in its third act, when a shift in visual style allows production designer Mark Friedberg to show off with some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

Wonderstruck will open in theaters on October 20. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 3 (Felicite, The Other Side of Hope)

other side of hope

This is the third of what will now definitely be five reports from the 55th New York Film Festival. Before we get into it, I gotta say, if you have the means to afford to see a bunch of movies at this festival you ought to try it sometime. The Festival atmosphere is a true blast. And you never know what will happen, you might run into Dakota Johnson on the way to the bathroom like I did Tuesday night. Don’t worry, my heart stopped after the encountered but I’ve been brought back to life.

Felicite is one of the rare African movies that has found commercial distribution in the United States, which in a just world would make it a must-see for cinephiles. The film stars Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu as Felicite, a single-mother who makes a living as a singer in Kinshasa (that’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the way). It’s a tough living, but Felicite manages to get by. That is until her son gets severely injured in a motorcycle accident. Now the mother must come up with large sums of money to pay for multiple medicines and an operation. That synopsis must have put a pretty clear idea of what kind of movie this is in your head. If that’s the case, you’re probably right and wrong at the same time. 

The first half of the movie is, as expected, influenced by Italian Neorealism and even more so by the more contemporary work of the Dardenne brothers. The style is recognizable: hand-held cameras and shallow focus compositions that stick close to Felicite as she goes around trying to gather money however she can. Halway through the movie, however, there is a shift. Suddenly, director Alain Gomis dispenses with dialogue and we enter a world of much more expressionistic filmmaking. The movie starts to communicate with us through surreal images, dream-like sequences, and music. Felicite is a singer, after all, and all the most effective moments throughout the film happen when she sings.

It’s a bold structural gamble on Gomis’s part, that sadly works better for me in theory than in practice. The movie is ultimately a character study, and I feel like the expressionistic way in which the movie conveys Felicite’s inner life in the second half is ultimately too opaque to get a valuable read out of her. Still, this is the kind of fearless filmmaking I appreciate even when the movie fails to connect with me.

Felicite will open in limited release on October 27. 

The Other Side of Hope
This one’s a movie about a Syrian man trying to find refuge in Finland, but it’s not the kind of movie you’d expect from that description. This is directed by Aki Kaurismaki, the uncontested master of deadpan comedy. I know what you’re thinking, is comedy really the way in which we want to deal with a humanitarian crisis of this scale? Well, turns out deadpan comedy might be the exact perfect way to make movies about contemporary social issues. I have a theory as to why, if you’ll allow me to go on a brief tangent.

On his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the difference between iconic (simple, cartoony) images and realistic images. His theory is that humans identify more easily to iconic images due to their simplicity. It’s almost as if they were closer to the Platonic ideal of what they’re representing than a realistic image. The characters in The Other Side of Hope are so stiff and unsentimental that they’re almost like iconic images. It’s impossible not to see something of yourself in them. They’re irresistible in their simplicity. It also helps that the movie is hilarious. And sweet. It’s just a great film.

The Other Side of Hope will open in limited release on December 1. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 2 (Zama, Call Me By Your Name)


This is the second of what were originally going to be three reports from the New York Film Festival, but might end up being four (or five?). Who knows! Anyway, the movies keep being good so I want to keep recommending them.

Anyone who’s lived in Latin America will recognize that despite all of its beauty, the continent is still fighting to step out of the shadow of Colonialism. The hierarchical structures brought in from Europe have waned and morphed throughout the years, but they haven’t gone away. This colonial past is a dark spot that affects the core of the continent to this day. Lucrecia Martel, Argentine director of such masterpieces as La Cienaga and The Headless Woman, knows how to poke at this dark corner of Latin America’s psyche in a way few filmmakers are capable of. For Martel, adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s historical novel to the screen was a painstaking task, leaving a nine year gap between her newest film and the one before it. The cinephile community missed her terribly for the last nine years, but a movie like Zama is worth the wait.

Don Diego de Zama is the protagonist of the movie, and he is the perfect subject to represent the conflicting resentments of the South American upper class. He is an officer of the Spanish crown, stationed somewhere in the jungles of colonial Paraguay, who wants nothing more than to be transferred to a less remote town. So he waits. And waits. And waits for a royal letter that will change his fortune. A letter that never comes. Of course what makes Martel such a great filmmaker is how she chooses to tell this particular story. Beyond being another acute autopsy of Latin American society of the kind only Martel can deliver, Zama is a uniquely audacious film in terms of its filmmaking. There is virtually no exposition in the film. It’s hard to tell when and where things are taking place, and what we’re supposed to take out of each scene. It’s a purposely obtuse movie, the kind of difficult work that opens immense rewards to those who are willing to engage with it, and that only a master filmmaker can deliver.

Zama was picked up by Strand Releasing, which will release the film sometime in the first half 2018.

Call Me By Your Name
I’ve been a fan of director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) for a while now, and even I must admit that Call Me by Your Name feels like a big leap in his filmmaking. In which direction that leap is going could be debated. I’d argue it’s a leap toward maturity. He’s always been unapologetically stylish (and I’ve loved him for it). With this latest movie -a romance between two young men spending a summer in beautiful Northern Italy- he seems to have become able to apply his stylish fervent impulses not only with the focus of his previous films but with newly gained patience and restraint.

That tricky French term mise en scene- which describes how a movie chooses to tell its story in visually artful ways- must be applied when talking about this movie. All technical and formal aspects of filmmaking seem to be working in a very deliberate and impressive way. It’s a movie that manages to be formally impressive without calling attention to itself. And yet, as much as I admired its filmmaking, I couldn’t quite connect emotionally to the movie in the way most people seem to have. I suspect a variety of reasons for this. Some have to do with the film itself, maybe in its casting or its script. Others have to do with things outside the film, like the fact that I’m just a straight dude trying to connect to this specifically gay story, or how I had a really long day at work before sitting down to watch this deliberately paced two hour plus movie.

All I’m saying is there is tons to admire here. So given the circumstances of my watching of the film, I wouldn’t be willing to solidify my opinion of it until I get to see it a second time. And in case you’re wondering what the kind of intense reaction the film is generating in its target audience, I recommend this rather beautiful essay by Jason Adams.

Call Me By Your Name will open in limited release on November 24. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 1 (Faces Places, The Florida Project and The Meyerowitz Stories)

florida project

This is the first of three journal-style reports from the 55th New York Film Festival. I had a great day watching three movies one after the other yesterday. Not only were they all really good, but you will be able to see them all very soon in theaters (or streaming).

Faces, Places (Visages, Villages)
Legendary director Agnes Varda is 89 years old and she’s losing her eyesight. She suffers from an eye disease that makes letters bounce up and down and faces look blurry. It’s a rather sad, and frankly ironic situation to find yourself in when, like Varda, you rank as one of the greatest observers in cinema history. But that’s not stopping her. In this latest movie, Varda teams up with photographer JR, a young man who goes around the world taking giant portraits and pasting them on buildings. This is a sort of diary film, chronicling the duo as they travel from one French village to the next: meeting new people, and taking their portraits. The concept is simple, but the execution is masterful.

I don’t think there’s a more lovable personality than Agnes Varda, a tiny French woman who is as serious as she is hilarious, and manages to find deep truths in the most simple aspects of life. JR is a perfect foil for her because he, like us, can’t help but be fascinated by her. Of course Varda’s touch has all to do with how she can turn everyday events into moving moments of cinematic magic. This movie, like Varda’s greatest work, EXISTS. It doesn’t portent to be something it is not. It doesn’t pretend, it simply is. And it’s miraculous. This sort of premise could be deadly in the hands of virtually any other director. In the hands of Varda and JR, it is one of the great movies of the year.

Faces, Places opens in limited release on October 6. 

The Florida Project
This is the latest movie by Sean Baker, whose previous movie Tangerine was a huge critical hit a couple of years ago. As much as I admired its intensions, I was one of the few people who couldn’t quite connect to Tangerine‘s groove. All of this makes me really happy to report that The Florida Project is not only a huge step up, but one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Baker continues to be fascinated with characters who live on the fringes of society. This time, the focus is on a group of poor kids growing up in the shadow of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida. The mothers hustle in order to get by, scarping enough money to pay rent at a low-level motel (run by a lovable manager played by Willem Dafoe) while the kids run around screaming, cursing, and wreaking havoc.

Like with Faces, Places, this is a very tricky tone to pull off. Baker jumps between the innocent perspective of young children who only half-understand the world around them, and the pressure that mounts over the adults around them. After the screening, Baker mentioned that part of his inspiration was a desire to make a “Little Rascals” movie, which makes a lot of sense. This movie flows from uproarious comedy to deep realistic drama seamlessly as it builds toward an incredibly audacious finale.

While we’re on the subject, I could debate the merits and purpose of the finale for hours. I’m still thinking through it, currently admiring its intention but still wondering about certain aspects of the execution. I look forward to having many conversations about an ending that’s the sort of gamble most filmmakers would be too afraid to approach.

The Florida Project opens in limited release on October 6. 

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Noah Baumbach has entered the golden age of his career. He is grown unafraid of sillier jokes, he has become a master of wrangling his ensembles, and along with editor Jennifer Lame, has embraced a more experimental and playful approach to editing. This Netflix production is a bit of a continuation on the themes of The Squid and the Whalefocusing on two brothers -a successful accountant (Ben Stiller) and a failed musician (Adam Sandler)- and their relationship to their father (Dustin Hoffman), who like the father in Baumbach’s earlier movie, is a frustrated artist. A writer then, a sculptor now.

Beyond being hilarious, the movie features the truthful bitterness of Baumbach’s best work. There is a certain frustration in dealing with your parents as an adult that this movie gets at a little too well. The movie is a little more rambly than usual for Baumbach. It goes for a bigger scale that shows the director’s ambition as his career continues, but leaves perhaps a little too many elements it needs to weave together. At the end of the day, though, the movie remains a very interesting piece of filmmaking (changing in perspective, style and rhythm as it goes along), and is anchored by an excellent cast (with Sandler and Hoffman as the stand-outs).

The Meyerowitz Stories will be available to stream on Netflix on October 13.