Saturday, October 7, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Love? BLADE RUNNER 2049

Ridley Scott’s proto-cyberpunk sci-fi noir Blade Runner is revived as a ponderous Villeneuve somber spectacle in Blade Runner 2049. Over thirty years after the original, which imagined a dystopian future L.A. with contours – smoggy rain; polyglot class stratifications; enormous looming digital neon advertising – setting the stage for many imitators, the new film digs into the implications of its world. Before, Harrison Ford played a cop tasked with hunting down rogue cybernetic beings called Replicants. Decades later, a new model Replicant played by Ryan Gosling is hunting down the last of the old models who are still hiding out under the radar, living lives of quiet desperation, their illegal problem programming allowing them just enough free will to shake off the yolk of their makers’ expectations. In the opening sequence Gosling flies his hovercar over a vast dried up terrain to a far-flung farm where a gentle giant of a Replicant (Dave Bautista) sighs in resignation, fighting back in futile self-preservation before the younger bot breaks him down and checks him off the wanted list. Sounds like pulp fun, but look and listen to the film’s atmosphere, director Denis Villeneuve using the suspense techniques honed on the likes of his Prisoners and Sicario to turn out slow, carefully considered images with grey-air-and-glowing-screen palates and a soft quiet unsettling as a pot boils in the background. These filmmakers mean to take a movie about robots, holograms, flying cars, and corrupted files very seriously indeed. 

After last year’s Arrival found Villeneuve working with a deep, powerful strain of emotional content – wrapping an egg-headed first-contact story around an effective contemplation of parenthood, memory, and grief – he takes a step back into ice cold dread. This late Blade Runner sequel is merely a speaker-rattling drone, a slow drip accumulation of dread and despair gorgeously lensed by the great Roger Deakins. He paints in greyscale gunmetal tones and harsh neon lights gracefully arcing across beautiful faces and austere jumbles of concrete-and-polymer industrial parks and towering brutalist architecture. This is a future world at once sparse and ornate, underpopulated and overstuffed. The place, brilliantly built out from the iconic look of Scott’s original, is tactile and disturbing in its all-absorbing qualities. The entrancing score – so often sounding like a window-rattling motorcycle engine roaring by outside, or like a pitch-distorted, extremely slowed down dial-up modem – and the beautifully photographed production design does the heavy lifting. Characters here are poses; worldbuilding is ominous terse monologue; emotion is as crisp and empty as watching an android kiss a hologram. We’re to be contemplating the chilly romanticism of digital beings, but it’s hard not to shake the feeling we’re watching ones and zeroes execute their complicated programs. That’s partly the point, but there’s a frustrating surface-level satisfaction to the movie’s long, languorous, cavernous contemplation of its eerie images. I loved a scene where a hologram slides over a human woman and syncs to her movements, an imperfect process of digital possession that creates ever-so-slightly overlapping images. But it looks cool more than it is actually intellectually stimulating.

The film runs nearly three hours, and its pleasures are absorbing but fleeting. Its appeal sits entirely in stoic characters wearing fabulous wardrobe – stiff high collars, starkly starched trench coats – and inhabiting handsomely striking sets – echoing rooms, windswept irradiated landscapes, a theater of holographic entertainers on the fritz, thunderous man-made waterfalls, junkyards exploding in sudden District-9-style bodily harm as sudden death rains from above. It’s the sort of movie interested in exploring the differences between mankind and artificial intelligence, probing the deep mysteries of what makes a soul and what it means to create life, but in which man and robot alike are equally placid and monotone in demeanor. The ace supporting cast – Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis, and even Jared Leto (who is fine in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn) – are directed to be effective elements of the art direction, moving and emoting so precisely and mechanistically it makes a mockery of any sense you could figure out who’s real and who’s created. They’re all ghosts in the machine. Villeneuve’s style of handsome foreboding is admirably sustained, putting the script’s grinding inevitability and tangled, deliberately-paced core who-am-I? mystery plotting through a lens of impeccable craftsmanship. I was never bored, but never involved, always stimulated but never fully invested. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, but a hollow emotional and intellectual exercise. It’s incredibly cool and totally cold.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Requiem for a Scream: mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is a jangled, claustrophobic freakout, a Polanski-esque picture of domestic tension refracted into close, uncomfortable, intimate horror. It’s about miscommunication, a fundamental flaw in a relationship escalating into insurmountable obstacle as the situation grows into one out of control. The couple at its center live in a dreamy house in the middle of a forest clearing, with no road or driveway or any obvious means of escape. It’s mid-renovation, courtesy of the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who spends her days refurbishing the home. The older husband (Javier Bardem) is a writer we see poised with pen at the ready, but who never seems to write a word, or at least at first. As the film moves forward, their parallel mental states diverge, he a seemingly unstoppable obsessive people-person lit up with an almost divine (or devilish, perhaps?) zeal and she an increasingly vulnerable paranoiac understandably unsettled by a loss of control driven by her husband’s paradoxically uncommunicative openness. (It put me in mind of Aronofsky’s other works – Noah married to Black Swan, I suppose.) The film sticks closely, exclusively, to the wife’s perspective, pushing in with uncomfortable close-ups as her face reflects confusion, then stress, then mental anguish, and finally a complete and total breakdown. It’s understandable every step of the way, though seems to add up to less and less the longer it goes. 

The whole thing is shot in grainy, tremulous, shaky, close angles, maneuvering with maximum discomfort. We sit right up close to the boiling chaos about to erupt in this marriage, though the context for the leads’ personalities is sketched simply, hollowly, a clangorous and multipurpose metaphor. It’s clear from the beginning something is dangerously off about the couple, she far too patient and generous for his brooding dismissiveness. How often do we see her earnestly offer plain-spoken assertions of her wants and desires only to be rebuffed by his gruff selfishness? By the time a strange man (Ed Harris) shows up in the middle of the night coughing and smoking and asking if they have a spare room, it’s a sort of darkly funny laugh of recognition – an “of course he would” – to find the husband immediately agrees without consulting his wife. When their unannounced guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, dripping with the dark comedy of a contemptible houseguest, but oddly underused) turns up at the doorstep, she’s invited in, too. Then their grown sons are ringing the bell and one thing leads to another and it’s like the Marx brothers’ classic stateroom bit ran headlong into Repulsion. Lawrence plays relatable notes of total confusion, a sense of her world spinning out of control while everyone else acts like she’s the crazy one. Why are all these people piling into her house? What’s going on here?

Flowing with shock sensation – dripping blood, heartbeats in walls, crumbling architecture – the movie gets schlockier and nuttier as it goes, to the point where the wild sustained climax – I dare not spoil its shape or scope, but, boy howdy, does it take the inevitable progression of its plot to the farthest reaches of its insanity – had me thinking to myself, “what am I watching?” Aronofsky commits to the intensity of it all, building on the foundation of one sparsely characterized couple a muddled outsized allegory. Sure, Lawrence plays pained sweet homemaker, and Bardem plays smoldering artiste, but beyond that small flimsy bit of emotional scaffolding there’s nothing by way of personality or characterization to hold onto. (It’s one of those movies where the characters are unnamed, listed in the credits as simply Man and Woman and so on.) We only have pure shapeshifting symbolism (fitting for our current Mystique) – the twisted progression linking up inevitably with thoughts of domestic violence, societal misogyny, and cycles of abuse (both intimate and environmental), as well as the chaos that can follow in the wake of a tortured artist unable to handle fame. These grand ideas float through, but Aronofsky mostly highlights rattling unease and escalating abstract terror. This movie’s stressful, eventually howling with screams and fire and death in increasingly brutal effects. Aronofsky’s a master at marshalling filmmaking techniques – precise sound design, intuitive cutting, thick filmic cinematography, intense performances – to push buttons, but here it’s at or near its most fruitless. It’s technically dazzling and utterly exhausting.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

On the Road Again: THE TRIP TO SPAIN

With Hollywood in the grip of its latest bout of late-sequel-itis, is it too much to idly wish for a My Dinner with Andre 2? (I’d settle for the action figures, at this point.) At least we have The Trips, now a trilogy of Michael Winterbottom films following Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as versions of themselves bickering, bantering, and playfully marking their showbiz territory while dining and driving through beautiful European countryside. The Trip to Spain may not have the sparkle of discovery the first one had, or the fresh melancholy fully flowering in the second (to Italy). But the filmmakers haven’t skipped a step, creating a lovely portrait of quixotic, drifting middle-aged ennui, a sort of prickly Antonioni by way of Michael Palin’s travelogues. What a deft wonder, allowing Coogan and Brydon to play up and against their individual vanities, prattling like better than the best comedian podcasters – full relaxed, erudite, anecdotal mode dotted with the expected bursts of dueling impressions. (Best is an extended bit in which Brydon drives Coogan crazy pretending Moorish architecture was created by Roger Moore. Runner-up: Coogan’s constant Philomena humblebrags.) 

One could hardly ask for funnier company, and Winterbottom (and uneven and eclectic director, but when he’s on he’s on) maintains a perfect balance of casually beautiful location shooting, drooling food close-ups, and witty chatty conversations that prattle on and on, pleasurable looping around the same pet themes. Professional contentment and resentment, literary and cultural references, and off-handed tossed-off commentary about the Way We Live Now are once again topics du jour. It’s all filtered through the recurring motifs of creative frustration, business negotiation, petty jealousies, fatherhood, and legacy. They’re soulful comedians, not quite sad clowns, but certainly on the way to wintering into wisdom if they’ll let themselves. It’s familiar, but comfortingly so, while differing slightly, and not only in the locations. The ending this time is a stinging scorpion’s tail, puncturing the good mood with a topical surprise cliffhanger (of sorts), darkly funny and tremulously unresolved. As Coogan pontificates in the picture, European films are allowed big, obvious metaphor. They just work. Here a story about aging entertainers enjoying the sights and tastes of a foreign country, trading tales of the biz with subtle power plays and literary/historical references becomes a subtle, sad portrait of two men – and maybe a culture – on the precipice, uncertain where to go but onwards, anyway.
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