Blade Runner 2049 (2017): Beautifully Disappointing (Review)

blade-runner-2049-main

The long awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sleeper hit “Blade Runner” is beautiful to look at and offers a ranging plot line but ultimately disappoints by the time the end credits run. Directed this time around by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) Blade Runner 2049 has the same dogmatic and plodding feel that the original film featured but with a lot more scope and, for lack of a better word, space. 

While the first film relied much more on the excellent Phillip K. Dick book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and a splendid cast that included Rutger Hauer as the lead replicant and a very young Daryl Hannah, this iteration moved forward in the verse to give us a different kind of “runner.”

K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner who is not human, he is a “new” replicant.  As he starts chasing down the remaining old replicants he finds a mysterious box after killing Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morgan. Inside the receptacle rests the bones of Rachel and evidence of childbirth. 

The film then follows K (or Joe as Joi – played with an aching poignancy by Ana de Armas – the computerized companion calls him) as he tries to find out who the child is. At one point we believe, as he does, that Decker (Harrison Ford) is his father, but later we learn more about this curious triangle. 

The performances in Blade Runner 2049 are top notch, with only Jared Leto letting the side down a bit with his take on Wallace.  De Armas manages to practically steal every scene she is in and it is nigh on impossible not to fall in love with this brilliant actress as she brings Joi to life.

Rutger Hauer may be missing from this tale but the Dutch are ably represented by the marvelous Sylvia Hoeks who manages to make her character suitably scary in all the right places.  Villeneuve does a good job recreating the verse that Scott initially brought to the screen but the film is over-long. Two hours and 43 minutes is a long time to sit and the slow pacing of the movie made this seem much longer at times. 

Like the first film the progress of the plot and story line plods along at a frustratingly pedestrian rate. Too much time is spent questioning something that the audience, if they have been paying attention, will have guessed  midway through the film.

Despite the film generating a overall feeling of mild disappointment, there are enough nods and winks to the original to keep fans interested and pleased. The origami sheep (made by Gaff – a clear nod to the Philip K. Dick book), the clear raincoat worn by Joi, the atmosphere of L.A. and the re-emergence of Rachel (Sean Young appearing in a clip and later as a CG creation that just was weird looking as the CG replication of the late Peter Cushing in Rogue One.

Blade Runner 2049 looks beautiful and feels like a logical carry on from the first. However, like Rutger Hauer has stated, the first film was almost sheer perfection. Any sequel, despite the love and care that went into it, was bound to fall short, as this does.

But…

This is a film that needs to be seen. It encompasses so much, while still falling that little bit short, that one must see it in the cinema to appreciate the sheer grandness of the world it presents. The sets, the costumes, the performances and the cinematography combine beautifully to take us into this gloomy downtrodden world.

The film manages to bring us into its tale of a miracle amidst so much decay and loneliness (which, ultimately, this sequel is all about) with a lot of care to detail and stunning visuals. Mild disappointment aside, Blade Runner 2049 is still one to watch on the big screen.

There is violence, not much in the way of nudity and very little foul language. While not as originally pleasing as Scott’s 1982 version, the film earns 4.5 stars in presentation alone. Similar to this year’s version of the Stephen King horror re-imagining “ItBlade Runner 2049 will deliver a potent punch for fans, while still managing to disappoint overall.

Is This Now (2017) Social Drama With a Bite (Review)

John Altman and Sabrina Dickens

Anyone who has read Mike’s Film Talk at all knows that we love Independent Films, Asian cinema and British film full stop. “Is This Now” is the latest offering from the stellar actress Sabrina Dickens and was written and directed by Joe Scott; this is Scott’s fourth film and his second time working with Dickens.

(The Bristol actress pulled in the Best Actress Award in the 2017 WMIFF. If one watches the film it becomes easy to see why.)

“Is This Now” follows the day to day happenings of Ingrid (played brilliantly by Dickens); a council estate orphan raised in the social services system. The film starts with Ingrid sitting in a toilet. She is naked and her legs carry the scars of self harm that many young women commit in order to handle stress.

Ingrid is singing but without listening to the song (one of the many penned by singer/song writer Kaya Herstead Carney) we know already that the system has let this young woman down. Later we learn of sexual abuse at the hands of the men in her life and how it has affected her.

Anu Hasan is Ms. Murray,  the social services worker who looks after Ingrid and Brigid Shine is Jade; another young woman who becomes a part of the abused woman’s life. John Altman (best known for playing “nasty” Nick Cotton on Eastenders) is Johnny, a band manager for JOANoVArc (the members of the band play themselves), who is, perhaps, the first male figure in her life who does not abuse her.

The young woman is in that vicious circle that abused survivors often find themselves in: In trouble with the police and unsure of how to react to anything “normal.” “Is This Now” follows two story lines with the same protagonist starting both.

Murray (played compassionately by Hasan who is another Eastenders alumni) tries to find justice for Ingrid within the system while the young woman herself undergoes a journey of discovery. On a trip to France she meets up with Jade and discovers a young man who manages to break through that thick and angry wall just a bit.

Dion (Fabien Ara) lives with his aunt who has a great huge mansion and a delightfully eccentric outlook on life. As things progress, it seems that Ingrid is slowly overcoming the hurdles that life has put in her way…Or has she?

The film itself looks brilliant. Filmed, in part, in Wales and parts of Liverpool, everything looks as it should. The Council office look spot on and the streets, as well as the shops and, in fact, all the sets feel perfect. Anyone who has ever gone to deal with Social Services or the Job Centre will recognize the surroundings.

Scott helms this drama very well. The theme, as well as the overall feel of the film, is as English as a “cuppa” tea and just as authentic. The music, the dialogue of the young people and the professionals around them – Murray and the bureaucrats she deals with – are all presented with a sure and certain ring of truth.

The story hides a surprising sting that is as satisfying as it is disturbing. It offers the viewer something with a bit of bite and is does not disappoint.

All the performers knock it out of the park and Altman is a delight as the band manager with a heart of gold. Scottish actress Ruth Millar is wonderfully eclectic as the aunt who dispenses more than a little advice to Ingrid when she really needs it.

(Altman also sings a bit and it is surprisingly good. It takes him far away from the nasty bit of work he played in Eastenders for so many years and is yet another indication of what a capable actor he really is.)

Dickens kills it as the council estate girl who is wrung through the wringer by life and her own demons. This is an almost addictive drama and her performance, along with Scott’s writing and direction, compels the viewer to stick around for the end.

“Is This Now” is an award winning film (Scott won Best Narrative Feature and the movie has pulled in two other awards.) that features very little violence, a touch of nudity and some brutal yet socially aware themes; i.e. the sexual abuse of children.

It is a film that focuses on the human condition and not on gratuitous violence. It is currently running the festival circuit and it is highly recommended that film fans keep an eye out for its theatrical release.

“Is This Now” is a full 4.5 star film that does not fail to make one think about life’s victims and their struggle to cope with it all.  We care about Ingrid, Murray and all the friends that the damaged young people interact with throughout the film. This one is a winner.

Sabrina Dickens

Don’t Breathe (2016): Scary Disinterest (Review)

Stephen Lang

Co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez (Rodo Sayagues was the co-author on the project) Don’t Breathe is an exercise in scary disinterest. No one character is appealing or sympathetic enough for the audience to ever really care about the outcome of this odd home invasion film.

At its core, this is what the marginally scary film is all about. A wounded veteran, played by Stephen Lang, who has been blinded in Iraq and been driven mad by the death of his only child, is targeted by three vapid and unlikeable young people. The trio decide to rob the old man of his settlement money after knocking him out with chloroform.

The vet is apparently immune to the homemade gas bomb and his dog is as well. The first of the three goes down (Daniel Zovatto as “Money” dies in a particularly graphic and impressive way – shot in the face; his lips blow out in what looks like a very realistic display of the gun’s power.)

This leaves Rocky (Jane Levy) and “Good Guy” Alex  (Dylan Minnette) to battle things out with the blind vet. There is no doubt that Lang’s character will end up on top. (The very casting of Lang ensures that the “victim” of this piece will win.)

By the end of the film, Lang’s blind man has almost impregnated Rocky, with a turkey baster, and nearly killed the young home-breaker as well. As scary as some of this film was, it lacked much in the plot department and did not feature one character that the audience could really care about.

The best parts of the film are those that feature Lang’s cold blooded but decent; “I a not a rapist,” he says while filling the baster, homicidal maniac who pulls out all the stops to defend his home and his self impregnated kidnap victim.

Don’t Breathe leaves things wide open for a sequel, where presumably the blind man hunts down the trailer trash survivor who robbed him of his replacement child and money.  He will have to travel to Los Angeles and may be a more grim version of that old blind warrior Zatoichi (which was re-imagined with Rutger Hauer in the 1989 action flick “Blind Fury.”) who uses guns instead of a sword walking stick.

The sequel may be more affected but will still suffer from having shallow and unlikeable characters. Without any one to really cheer for, apart from Lang’s vet who dishes out some well deserved retribution to those who would rob from a “helpless” veteran, this scary film’s second chapter will no doubt disappoint as well.

Lang kills it as the dangerous “cripple” who almost silent dispatches his home invaders. The rest of the young cast are adequate considering the lack of depth given their characters. Minnette, who was quite good in “Goosebumps” does not really shine here as his character is the least offensive of the three protagonists and is not really the good guy at all.

Fans of horror films may like this offering.  It is a 3.5 star effort that has some jumpy moments, no nudity, a lot of violence and a close call with a turkey baster.

Don’t Breathe is on Cinemax at the moment for steaming and can be rented via other platforms.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016): I Got You (Review)

Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss

Mel Gibson may well have clawed his way out of the Hollywood “doghouse” with Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel and based on a screenplay co-written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight the film tells the “true” story of Desmond T. Doss. Doss was the first medic to win the Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot in the battlefield. 

Somewhat amazingly, this over two hour film cracks along at a pace that never really lets up. We follow Doss as he fights the system and a group of Army colleagues who take forever to understand his beliefs. Andrew Garfield plays Doss (and got a BAFTA for his portrayal) in the Oscar winning film and his utterance of “I got you,” to each man he treats becomes a mantra of sorts to the audience. It also allows a certain amount of truth to shine through his performance and must be based on the real Doss and his time in the field. 

The editing, which won an Oscar, and the practical FX steal the show here as the battle sequences and the horrific injuries suffered by the men on Hacksaw Ridge while taking on an almost overpowering enemy are spectacular.  They are also hard to watch.

This could be said of the whole film. It is difficult to see Doss get a dose of barrack room justice – when his fellow soldiers follows the sergeant’s and the captain’s orders to make Doss see the “error of his ways.” It is just as difficult to see the death of the first man who really understand’s the conscientious objector.

Gibson’s film shows us many instances of discomfort, suffering and visceral wounds that, if real, would turn the stomach over with revulsion and horror. This may well be the real triumph of Hacksaw Ridge; it is not just the re-telling of the first decorated non-combative hero but a testament to the bloody and terrible toll of war in general.

(This was Mel’s chance to follow up the 1981 Peter Weir film Gallipoli, another film that focusses on the horrors of war. Gibson was in the film playing Frank Dunne an Aussie soldier.)

As an action film, Hacksaw Ridge, delivers on many levels. The battle on top of the ridge is intense and practically non-stop. Even the fall of night only delays the advance of the enemy for a short time.

In terms of performances, Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington both deliver admirably and Hugo Weaving is brilliant as the alcoholic WWI veteran who goes to bat for his son.  

The film is a white knuckle ride, including Doss’ expected hell in boot camp, and only the hardest heart would not get a lump in their throat at some of the more touching scenes. There are moments where the horrific injuries and the sounds of battle are almost too much and one can only imagine the bravery of those concerned at the actual event.

Mel Gibson’s ticket to redemption, in the eyes of Hollywood, is a full 5 star effort. There are mistakes, historical and otherwise, but these do not diminish the power of the film and its story. This is a brilliant counterpoint to Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film, American Sniper; which glorified the killing aspect of war.

Hacksaw Ridge is available on DVD and various online streaming platforms. Check out the trailer below:

Hidden Figures (2016): Touching Unsung Heroes (Review)

The three hidden figures relaxing

Directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, (Allison Schroeder was the joint author of the screenplay), Hidden Figures The Help can be seen as goes to NASA.  It peripherally tackles the same issues of inequality of race and looks at the double struggle that these real-life protagonists faced as women.

The film, and presumably the book, really has one message underneath the touching and inspiring stories of these three remarkable ladies: Education is the real key to equality. At least it was back before IBM and it’s temperamental keypunch cards and the advent of home computing. Back in the day, that university degree made the difference for intelligent women who would have been trapped in the world of “The Help” without it.

(The talented Octavia Spencer also appeared in”The Help.” The 2011 film, which also starred Viola Davis and Emma Stone, as well as Bryce Dallas Howard, also attempted to show what being black, and a woman meant in the shameful days of a segregated South.)

NASA did not see colour, however, and hired a great many black Americans to work as “computers.”  History backs this up but it also glosses over the contribution that these particular women made towards winning the space race. This was initially a one-sided contest that began in 1958 when the Russians took to the skies in an attempt to control space be getting there first.

Hidden Figures stars Spencer, as the self-taught computer “expert,” Taraji P. Henson, plays the mathematical wunderkind who grows up to become a crucial part of the early days of NASA; Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, the first black female allowed to study at a white school (she then went on to be the first female engineer at NASA).

Kevin Costner is Al Harrison, the man tasked with getting those “All the Right Stuff” astronauts off the ground and getting ahead of the Russians. Jim Parsons (from The Big Bang Theory) plays a snotty character who very reluctantly accepts the new computer, Ms. Johnson to his team and Kirsten Dunst is the disagreeable Vivian Mitchell, a woman who tries very hard to hold Spencer’s character back. 

Melfi gives us an accounting that is clearly embellished in places, like the very funny and pertinent scene with the policeman at the start of the film, but it may not be too far off the mark after all. For example, Harrison’s frustration at the treatment of his math genius is played out with a simple scene.  Al smashes the “coloured” restroom sign off the wall and with a look of distaste removes another sign from Mary’s segregated coffee pot.

Hidden Figures is about much more than the racial issues of the day. It is also about the looming change in society with the new IBM computers, the move of other technology to a new high and life in a segregated world. (This too would change, but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.)

What the film does best is give us a front-row seat at the business end of NASA. (On a sidenote here, the film allows for two splendid cameo performances from Glen Powell, better known as Chad Radwell in Fox’s “Scream Queens” and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who worked with Monáe in the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight.)

Hidden Figures may be the shorthand version of Shetterly’s book, as many have claimed, but it tells its story well. The time period looks authentic, the performers do not put one foot wrong and the film manages to be touching and, in spite of knowing how the first mission of John Glenn ended in real life, throws in a touch of suspense.

The film is a full 5 star effort. Any movie that can induce a lump in the throat while also evoking anger and sheer joy at the advancements made by the heroine’s in this recounting of a hidden history, earns every accolade it gets.

This was, apparently, a labour of love for all concerned and rightly so. It was a story that needed telling and Melfi, along with everyone else involved with this project, did a brilliant job presenting it.