We’re back to talk about films. I know, we’re as surprised as you are. We’d have bet on this podcast turning its attention to pottery and irrigation by now as well. I’m afraid you’ll just have to put up with our lukewarm takes on Made in France, Prevenge, Miss Sloane, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Goodbye Christopher Robin, and Blade Runner 2049 instead. It’s a hard knock life.
Some films have delayed releases due to what is often referred to as “production hell”, but Nicolas Boukhrief’s terrorist-thriller Made in France suffered a delayed release due to the hell of real life. Originally scheduled for release in early 2015, it was shelved after the Île-de-France terrorist attacks in January 2015 (which included the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office). It was rescheduled for 18th of November that year, but pulled again after the Parisian terrorist attacks, including the bombings outside the Stade de France during the Germany vs France football match, on the 13th of November. It was eventually shuffled out on VOD at the end of the following January.
The delay apparently made international news, but to be honest I’d never heard of it at all until it popped up as a premiere on Sky Movies two weeks ago, and thought it looked interesting.
Half-Algerian, half-French journalist Sam (Malik Zizi) decides to infiltrate the clandestine mosques found in some Paris suburbs to investigate and write about Islamic extremism and jihadism. He finds himself caught up with a small group who begin planning an attack in Paris when their leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge) returns from Pakistan. Hassan shares tales of training camps and Al Qaeda, instructs them to shave off their beards, drink if necessary, and just to blend in to French society.
The group, importantly, is disparate in identity, looks and motivation. Sam is red-haired and, even for his Algerian heritage, is very European-looking. Driss (Nassim Si Shamed), an ex-criminal, is Arabic, and seems angry at the world in general. Sidi (Ahmed Drame) is black, an immigrant from Mali, who resents the French military for the unjustified death of his cousin, but is quiet, thoughtful and very uncomfortable with the group’s course. Christophe (François Civil) is a rich white boy, and a simpleton, whose main motivation seems to be to rebel against his parents. And French Hassan? Hassan’s a psychopath.
Eventually Sam manages to extricate himself long enough to visit the police, who it seems he has had some contact with previously about his investigation, to inform them what is happening, and to get help. Help is not forthcoming, though, and the police blackmail him with threats of being considered an accessory if he does not maintain his cover. So Sam returns to the cell, to find out the what, where and when of the target, and who is giving the orders.
I feel I was sold something of a dummy here – either by the trailer, or by my own mistaken assumptions – but this isn’t the more investigative piece I expected, or perhaps wanted. In most respects it’s a fairly straightforward thriller that happens to be set inside a terrorist cell (common enough in the likes of 24, perhaps less common in cinema). However, it is a fairly engaging, effective and tense thriller that handles its story and revelations well, and is crisply edited into a perfect 90 minute running time.
What sets it apart, aside from the real-life events it mirrored, or possibly even predicted, is that it does give some pause for thought. As the title suggests, this group is homegrown, it does not rely on foreigners or, apparent harbinger or bringer of all ills, immigrants. Most of the members are French, one is a convert, at least three are, or pass easily for, white Europeans. At least one was raised as a Catholic, and within the group there are tensions and discussions about what is, and is not (women and children) a legitimate target.
Director Boukhrief wanted to promote some understanding of what motivates people to do this, to reveal that reality is rarely as simplistic as the media or politicians may paint it. His idea was counter to that of people like French PM Manuel Valls, who said that to understand terrorists was to excuse them (proof that intelligence is far from a prerequisite for political office). Alas, he’s only partially successful, as Made in France is too confined by, and in thrall to, its genre limitations, and isn’t aided by the (hopefully wildly inaccurate) refusal of the police to offer Sam sufficient support and a hoary, almost laughable, cliché that at some point saves Sam’s life.
Still, it’s worth watching – the acting is good throughout, it’s genuinely tense at points, and even while constrained by its genre, it’s at least a slightly more cerebral example than many.
An odd one, this, written by, directed and starring Alice Lowe, perhaps best known for her turn in Ben Wheatley’s similarly themed Sightseers. She plays Ruth, a heavily pregnant lady with a few issues. Primarily, her partner’s recently died, and her unborn child is instructing her to do things. Well, I say things. Murder. It’s telling her to murder people.
People like creepy pet shop owner Mr. Zabek (Dan Renton Skinner), or pathetic local 70’s DJ Dan (Tom Davis). Why? Well, there is a reason for these seemingly arbitrary people to be targeted, and if you’re paying even the slightest attention to the film you should know why from the start.
However, seeing as the rest of the film seems to believe that it’s something that requires a reveal later on, I suppose I’ll classify it as spoiler territory and leave it alone, other than to say that plainly it’s not enough of a mystery to hang a movie-driving intrigue from.
It’s billed as a dark comedy as much a slasher film, and for me at least, there’s a couple of moments where it raises some wry smiles. Unfortunately, not all that many of them, and good chunks of the mercifully restrained eighty-odd minute running time pass without me thinking much of it one way or the other.
That, I suppose, is almost as much as there is to say about Prevenge. It’s not funny enough for a comedy, and too weird to work as a conventional slasher, and too obvious to hold any mystery. So if falls between three stools, which you’d think by law of averages it ought to have at least laid one cheek on one of them.
I’ve no real beef with the execution of Alice Lowe’s ideas – the performances, pacing, dialogue and so on are all perfectly adequate – but I find the overarching tenet of the piece not landing with me the way I hoped.
I imagine there’s a fairly large pool of horror movie fans, or the horror movie fan adjacent, who will find this right up their alley and take a great deal more from this than I did – I’ve seen it appear at least as a consideration on a few best horror films of the year list – but more general audiences most likely will not buy what this is selling.
Despite its name, which suggests a Jane Austen adaptation or a genteel character piece akin to Saving Mr. Banks, Miss Sloane is a political satire set amongst the lobbyists of Washington DC, starring Jessica Chastain as the titular Sloane; a merciless, driven, cynical and unscrupulous lobbyist who will use anything, and anyone, at her disposal in order to win.
When her lobbying firm is approached by representatives of the gun lobby (it’s not entirely clear if they represent the NRA or weapons manufacturers, though I think the latter) in order to “get more women into guns”, and defeat an upcoming firearms registration bill, Sloane, the star of the firm, and the profession, unexpectedly leaves. Oh, not because she doesn’t believe in the cause. Not because she is repulsed by the disgusting number of multiple shootings that occur in her country (a three-figure statistic is trotted out that, if even close to reality, is mindboggling, when in most countries ONE multiple shooting is too many). No, she leaves because it’s too easy, and she wants a challenge.
To wit, she agrees to join the small, but ethical (if such a thing exists in a profession that the film itself describes as the most morally bankrupt in the world), lobbying firm headed by Mark Strong’s Rodolfo Schmidt, and sets about using all of her considerable cunning, guile and conspicuously absent conscience to pressure senators to agree to vote to pass the bill.
There are some very big guns (if you’ll excuse the pun) ranged against her, and her opponents, led by former colleague and now enemy Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) who will also use any dirty trick they can, from newspaper hatchet jobs to investigation into her personal life to engineering a Senate enquiry into her potentially illegal lobbying practices (the Senate hearing forms the backbone of the film, with most other events presented as flashbacks), and it seems no-one will escape from this mess unscathed.
Miss Sloane is twisty and devious, much like its characters, but isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is, especially in its dialogue. As evidence, I present the scene in which Sam Waterston’s George Dupont, Sloane’s former boss, blackmails John Lithgow’s venal, vain and spineless Senator Sperling into beginning the Senate investigation, in which he says to Sperling “Do you know the derivation of the word annihilate? It comes from the Latin, meaning to reduce to nothing”. So, what you’re saying is that “annihilate” means “annihilate”? Thanks. Useful. Well done. Smashing writing right there.
That said, it is still pretty entertaining, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Not so much because of the plot, which is as serpentine and tortuous as the genre demands, but because I don’t know who we’re supposed to care about. The what is easy: clearly that country requires stronger firearm legislation, we can root for that, and hope that Sloane’s campaign is successful. But the who? Pretty much everyone is despicable: 90% of the characters, including, and especially, Elizabeth Sloane, are unscrupulous, devious, amoral scumbags, which makes getting behind any of them rather difficult.
There are exceptions – the morally upright Schmidt, and Sloane’s very ill-used subordinate Esmé (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – but while those characters may be more sympathetic, they are also much less interesting, and are more there as counterpoints to Sloane, rather than compelling characters in their own right.
The dialogue-heavy script from first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera shows his debt to Aaron Sorkin without approaching his great influence’s skill, but it’s serviceable enough. Indeed, for a first timer it’s impressively accomplished, but definitely helped by a strong ensemble cast and a great performance from Jessica Chastain as the steely lobbybot (it’s difficult to think of any bankable actress in Hollywood right now playing this role better).
Though its 2 hour 21 minute running time passes quickly enough, there’s definitely fat here, perhaps most notably the prostitution subplot, which goes nowhere interesting and only serves to highlight Sloane’s lack of time for, or interest in, anything like a relationship or a life outside of her work, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the entire rest of the film also serves this purpose.
And if, like me, you find underscoring grating, then this film will provide more than a few moments where you will be gritting your teeth, but despite these caveats it’s still enjoyable, and rewarding enough for me to recommend it should you see it pop up on your movie delivery service of choice.
Under most people’s radar, Danish toy building brick company LEGO have been building up their own little multimedia empire, thanks to some canny partnerships and tie-ins. There have been approximately eleven million LEGO video games, many based on popular movie franchises, such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Conjuring, as well as a few TV shows based on their own ranges such as Bionicle and, more pertinently, Ninjago. This marks the third cinema outing, after the successful and blandly inoffensive LEGO Movie, and this year’s much better LEGO Batman Movie.
Now, I couldn’t tell you what a Ninjago was before seeing this, so while on a quick glance at Wikipedia it does seem as though this follows on from the series, it’s not something that requires any prior knowledge. Ninjago City is a bustling blockopolis where life is given a certain edge by the proximity to would-be evil overlord Garmadon’s volcano lair. Garmadon, voiced by Justin Theroux, seeks dominance over Ninjago City because he is evil. He is evil, because he seeks dominance over Ninjago City. Such circles we weave.
He’s continually thwarted in his ambitions by a group of teen ninjas in mechs that range from sweet to tubular, led by the green ninja, Lloyd, voiced by Dave Franco. With these ninjas operating anonymously, neither the city at large nor Garmadon himself knows that the kid that’s thwarting Garmadon’s plans is his own son. Shock. Horror.
Still, the city at large does treat Lloyd with the disdain that becomes the son of a would-be oppressor, much to Lloyd’s anguish. Still, he’s bolstered by the support of his sensei Master Wu and his fellow troops Cole, Jay, Kai, Nya and Zane, voiced by Jackie Chan, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Abbi Jacobson and Zach Woods. However, one day Garmadon tires of constantly losing, and creates an ultimate stompy-mech impervious to the ninja team’s weapons. You’d think that’d be the first option.
This forces a desperate Lloyd to use the “Ultimate Weapon”, much against Master Wu’s wishes. This turns out to be a relatively harmless laser pointer, but just as the thistle whistles summoned great beasts in The Family Ness or Godzooky could summon Godzilla, a mighty beast appears, Meowthra who lays waste to the sweet, tubular mechs and swathes of the city in the supercilious, aloof way that only a cat can be.
Disappointed, Master Wu sends the ninja team on a quest for The Ultimate Ultimate weapon to control this rampaging beast, a search that will see them challenged, grow closer and also have Lloyd unexpectedly reach an understanding with his father.
It’s generally had mixed to poor reviews, although I rather wonder if that’s more due to the proximity to the admittedly better LEGO Batman film than anything inherently wrong with this film. Spacing them out would perhaps have yielded better Rotten Tomato scores, but perhaps not by much. It’s not the sort of film that’s ever going to review well, given the unavoidable similarity to the other LEGO films.
That said, I enjoyed this more than the original LEGO Movie, which was fine, but with some confusing messaging. This plays on rather more conventional themes of teamwork and self-belief, and it’s a perfectly fine story for this sort of thing, aided by some solid voicework.
More interestingly, for me at least, is that it’s frequently quite funny, with some irreverent lines and tangents that made me laugh more or less all the way through, which very much took my by surprise, Justin Theroux in particular nailing the delivery, and Zach Woods’ definitely a normal teen and not a robot at all Zane being something of a scene stealer.
Film of the year candidate? Well, no, not close to it, but I’ve enjoyed this silly kid’s flick more than a heck of a lot of this year’s more highly regarded work, and it’s certainly worth sticking on your catch up list for its appearance on home formats at the very least.
2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was fairly well-regarded; a James Bond/gentleman spy spoof, with some of the sensibilities of director Matthew Vaughn’s earlier film Kick-Ass. It was thoroughly entertaining (though admittedly didn’t fare quite so well on a second viewing), funny and action-packed. While not quite as subversive as it could, and perhaps should, have been, it poked fun at classism, and even had a go at a Pygmalion-style storyline. One of the few things that a lot of people collectively didn’t seem to care for was the sexism and, especially, the crass, puerile, anal sex references that marred the film’s final act.
So, naturally, Kingsman: The Golden Circle doubled-down on that crap, and from the beginning too. It also increased the running time to nearly two and a half hours, and boy! does it feel it – a throwaway action spoof has no business being that long. A lot of this is due to over-extended, self-indulgent action sequences, and the utterly inexplicable need to give Elton John something to do, other than the preferred thing for Elton John to do, which is to not be in the film.
So, what is in the film, other than Elton John? Well, the action begins with our hero Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), now an established Kingsman, being attacked by one of the failed recruits from the first film, Charlie (Edward Holcroft), who is now a cyborg (because of course he is). In what should be, but somehow isn’t, an exciting car chase through London, Eggsy and Charlie fight inside the confines of a moving black cab. Eggsy finally gets the best of Charlie, but not before a bit of Charlie’s arm hacks the Kingsman network through the cab’s computer. Yeeees.
With the location and identity of all Kingsman members now known, Charlie’s boss launches missile strikes against them all, with only Eggsy and Mark Strong’s Merlin surviving (while killing off the only female Kingsman agent, so that this can continue to be a very sexist affair). It at least also kills off Michael Gambon early doors, which is good as Michael Gambon is shit, and is not a fit replacement for Michael Caine. At a loss, Eggsy and Merlin discover that they have a (not retrofitted at all, no sirree) counterpart organisation in the US called Statesman, despite these two top-class intelligence gathering organisations seemingly being unaware of the existence of each other (and this after the fact that the Kingsmen have literally just saved the world from hundreds of corrupt politicians and heads of state, and the world’s richest man).
The Statesmen (who operate out a whiskey distillery in Kentucky, and who fetishize cowboy hat-wearing, drawling, bootlace tie wearing, good ol’ boy America as much as the Kingsmen fetishise proper English gentleman-ness) are, of course, bigger, better and richer. They also have an amnesiac Harry Hart (Colin Firth) in their care who, despite being shot point blank in the face by Valentine in the previous film, is alive and well thanks to Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and her, and I wish that I was joking, magic bubble wrap.
While Eggsy and Merlin try to help Harry recover his memories, they must also investigate the Golden Circle, the mysterious organisation responsible for the destruction of Kingsman. The Golden Circle, it turns out, is a drug cartel, run by Poppy (Julianne Moore), from her base in a nostalgic, idealised recreation of 1950s America in a rainforest in Cambodia, replete with those bastions of kitsch Americana robot dogs, robot beauticians and… Elton John?
Poppy, it seems, runs THE drug cartel, somehow having a world monopoly on all drug types, but is pissed off and, frankly, petulant, that she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for being a successful businesswoman just because her business is illegal and involves death, extortion, organised crime and mass murder. So her obvious course is to hold the world to ransom by impregnating all of her drugs (from ecstasy and marijuana to crystal meth and cocaine) with a genetically-engineered virus, that makes their users first delirious and uncontrolled, then living statues for a few days, before finally they burst. Actually burst. This whole film is basically a live action cartoon, with matching plotting and performances.
This virus can be cured instantly by the antidote she has stockpiled all around the world for drone delivery the moment that the president of the USA (Bruce Greenwood) signs some bill into law, I think probably entitled the “Drugs are now legal and Poppy Adams is the bestest, yay!” act. Except he’s not having it, instead happy to allow all the “junkie scum” to perish, and storing them in preposterous towers of cages inside sports stadiums until they all die, allowing him to win the war on drugs.
So it’s up to Eggsy, Merlin, Harry and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to find Poppy’s base, get the antidote to the victims, and free Elton John from his musical slavery. It is all very, very stupid and sadly, unlike the first film, not very entertaining. Aside from the gratuitously hyper-violent, unnecessarily long, church fight, the action sequences in the first film were entertaining and vigorous. In The Golden Circle they’re largely tedious, and sometimes involve Elton John.
While Sam Jackson’s world-conquering plot in Kingsman: The Secret Service may have been of the Bond super-villain sort, it was at least not entirely ridiculous, and the hints at exploiting people who gave up freedoms or control to Silicon Valley in exchange for free crap was timely and valid, even if that film was not the place to actually explore them. But the sequel? Jeebus! Cyborg arms and robot dogs and other technologies that may as well have been magic. Vaughn and fellow screenwriter Jane Goldman looked at what they did in the first film, and turned the dial all the way up to “Oh! Would you look at that – I turned the dial so hard the knob came off in my hand. So now, while we have no idea just how stupid our film is, can we discuss introducing Elton John?” Probably because one of the writers is a huge fan, and met him once at a party, and decided to indulge his or herself.
The whole thing is a ghastly nightmare. The Golden Circle seems to have a strong “drugs are bad, mmmkay?” message, while at the same time promoting the consumption of the never-has-been-a-problem-ever alcohol as an alternative (something it actually spells out in one scene). In the first, it clearly also had a US president who was meant to be then-president Barack Obama, whose head ‘gloriously’ exploded at the end, but the president in this case is wholly fictional, despite the absolute douchecanoe that is the worst president in US history being currently in office. But we should probably expect no less from a Fox film, and one that, in between all of the exposition scenes, uses Fox News for more exposition. (None of the Fox News presenters suffer from the drug-delivered virus, of course, because Fox presenters are wholesome and good. Fuck this film.) I will accept, though, that I may be reading far too much into this, since the rest of the film seems so ill-thought out, and the whole thing is, really, soulless product, not cinema. But as I’m forced to share a planet with Donald Trump, I’m in a perpetual state of irritation.
A(nother) massive problem in The Golden Circle is the acting, in that there really isn’t much of it. Colin Firth, a fine actor, seems genuinely unenthused, dismayed and dispirited by this lacklustre sequel, and could generously be described as phoning it in. Julianne Moore, a tremendous actor, gives the film far more than it deserves, but her poorly written role gives her very little to work with, and she largely phones it in. Jeff Bridges, a similarly great actor, seems to realise he’s being paid for some crap in which no-one cares about the acting, so doesn’t so much phone it in as use some text to speech service to do the job for him.
Then there’s Channing Tatum, who, when his character isn’t asleep, seems to be so anyway, and Taron Egerton, who I actually find quite engaging and likeable, but who really can’t emote. Which brings us on to Halle Berry, who similarly can’t emote. Or, for that matter, act. At all. Keith Allen, who can’t act. And Elton John, who we wish wouldn’t – Elton John can barely Elton John, let alone act.
The few saving graces come from Emily Watson and Bruce Greenwood, but in small and largely thankless roles, and the great, and professional, Mark Strong, whose Scottish accent, fortunately, continues to be as convincing as it was back in the original Low Winter Sun, saving us from that particular ignominy.
It seems that the idea for Kingsman was very much a one-shot deal, but I fear that we’ll see another sequel in a couple of years. If you want to help evade that possibility, do what I wish I had done, and don’t watch The Golden Circle. Unless, that is, you happen to be 12, in which case this film has been tailor-made for you (apart from, I’m quite sure, leaving you wondering who or what an Elton John is), so knock yourself out.
Domhnall Gleeson’s A.A. Milne returns from World War One a changed man, both physically due to injuries sustained at the Battle of the Somme, and mentally, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and an understandable disdain for the whole process of war itself. Finding a return to his pre-war London life of an acclaimed playwright, and also writing for Punch magazine too overwhelming, he and his family decamp to the country.
Said family by this point includes Margot Robbie’s Daphne Milne and their eight year old son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston). Country life soon becomes too boring for Daphne, who flits off back to London, leaving Christopher Robin to the care of his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), as is the way of the obnoxiously rich. Meanwhile, A.A. is struggling to start the anti-war polemic he’d hoped to write out here in the sticks, and gets increasingly frustrated about it, to the point of taking it out verbally on his son and nanny, because he is a frightful doucheclown.
He is further inconvenienced when Olive’s mother is taken gravely ill and she must leave to care for her, which means that A.A. must reduce himself to caring for his child, and staying around him for more than half an hour for what seems to be the first time since he was born. In a shocking development, it turns out that they enjoy their play time together, walking round the local woods with C.R. inventing stories starring his stuffed teddy bear, depressed donkey and tiny piglet, stories which inspires A.A. to write the Winnie the Pooh stories.
Which he does, and garners immediate success with, their innocent charm credited as helping the country rediscover joy after the war, which must surely be an indication of how bad things were. Of course, once it’s discovered that there’s a real live Christopher Robin, a media circus ensues, and because they are awe-inspiringly dreadful people, they’re happy to exploit this frenzy for maximum profit. This pooh-show reaches a nadir when, on a promotional tour of America they’re out of the country for C.R’s birthday. However they make sure to call and wish him all the best. Live, on radio.
After some harsh words from Olive, A.A. finally sees that they’ve been exploiting their child, just in time to pack him up and send him off to boarding school until he’s an adult. I know the past, and the posh, is a foreign country, and they do things differently there, but this surely seems callous at any time? Anyhow, we skip over years of relentless bullying, and meet a now 18 year old C.R. played by Alex Lawthe ready to go off to World War II, against his father’s wishes, for obvious reasons.
There are things, in isolation, to like about Goodbye Christopher Robin. Firstly, and most superficially, it often looks gorgeous, full of bucolic sun-dappled picture postcard shots of the English countryside. The cast uniformly aquit themselves well, Gleeson and Macdonald in particular. In general, the mechanics and execution of the film – writing, story, pacing, craft services, etc, are all very well handled.
However, it suffers greatly from being a film full of awful people doing objectively awful things. They might not see quite how awful they’re being, but they are nonetheless awful, and that makes it very difficult to engage with the film on its own terms. Instead, I engage with it on my terms, which are posh people are weird to the point of being inhuman, and this film feels like a documentary about badly programmed, malfunctioning Westworld hosts doing everything possible to give their kid grievous psychological damage.
This falls into the same category for me as Blue Jasmine did a few years back. On most levels, the film itself I’d have to dispassionately say is good, but the characters it contains are so horrible that it’s roundly repellent. So goes Goodbye Christopher Robin , an annoying experience that makes me yearn for the good ol’ days of class warfare. Also, Winnie the Pooh is a garbage bear for garbage people. Come back when you’re Paddington. Or Superted. Or those ones that Timothy Treadwell was talking to.
As any of you who have listened to the Top Films podcasts with which we began this Fuds on Film venture will know, I have not so much a love/hate relationship with Blade Runner as a bafflement/compulsion one, appreciating the visuals and the world, but largely left cold by everything else, while still being unable to stop periodically rewatching it. It’s undeniably, and objectively, a massively influential film, but, unlike certain weird people around these parts, who may or may not have a name that rhymes with vague, I realise that proclaiming it the best film of the eighties is borderline insanity.
As such, when production finally began last year on a sequel after decades of rumours, false starts and Ridiotley Scott doing his best to ruin the original film and its mysteries, I had neither the trepidation nor excitement many fans will have felt at the news, instead being left with my usual ennui and dismay that Hollywood was once again making a sequel instead of something fresh and new. But the presence of Ryan Gosling, direction by Denis Villeneuve and, perhaps most importantly for a sequel to a film so visually distinctive, the great Roger Deakins as DoP, I had some hope.
Before going to see Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner again but, worryingly, for the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t enjoy it incrementally more on my most recent viewing. Indeed, my enjoyment of, and appreciation for, Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic took a massive step backwards, and I once again found myself thinking “Hmmmm, this is not a good film. I do not like this film.” So that was a wonderful place to be in before watching the sequel.
The original Blade Runner is ostensibly a noir detective story, but one that largely left the detective element out of it. Blade Runner 2049 once again has a LAPD detective as its central character, but from the get-go actually has him do some detective work. And what a difference that makes to the engagement of the story.
Said detective is K (Ryan Gosling), like Deckard before him a Blade Runner, but a known replicant, one of the Nexus-8 models with an open-ended lifespan that were created after the events of the first film, and before the blackout, a mysterious week-long power outage that saw vast amounts of electronic records wiped out.
The film begins with K visiting Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue replicant, in order to retire him. After doing this, his survey of Morton’s farm reveals a mysterious box buried beneath a tree. The box turns out to be a coffin of sorts, containing the remains of a woman who seemingly died in childbirth, the twist being that the woman was a replicant (the identity of whom I won’t mention, but is unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone).
This revelation – that replicants are able to reproduce – produces two very different responses in two influential individuals. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), believes that the knowledge that the already physically and intellectually superior replicants can have offspring will lead to a war with humans, while Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, who took over what was left of the Tyrell Corporation, believes that replicant reproduction is the key to his company’s production yield problem.
Joshi orders K to track down and kill the child, a task which leaves K decidedly uneasy, while Wallace’s operative, the formidable replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), watches K from a distance, waiting for him to find his target so that she can deliver him or her to Wallace to allow him to unlock Tyrell’s final secret.
K’s investigations take him to the laboratories where replicant memories are crafted; an orphanage in the debris-strewn ruin of what was once San Diego but is now a rubbish dump, looking like a city-sized version of Star Wars’ trash compactor; and to the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, where he meets an unexpected figure from the past. Who is Deckard. Who is obviously Deckard, and who was always going to be Deckard. Sadly, while the film tries to keep the identity of K’s person of interest in the Nevada desert a mystery, marketing and promotion, perhaps necessarily, ruined that particular revelation. Pity.
Along the way, K will discover what happened to the child, and why, and question what it is to be human, and raise questions about free will, the meaning of life, individuality and purpose, and all of that compelling philosophical stuff that was the crux, and most interesting part, of the original film.
So, I suppose now is the part where I talk about if it was any good, particularly in light of how ambivalent, at best, I am about the original. Well, yes, it is very good. It’s not without its faults, which I will come to, but I thoroughly enjoyed Blade Runner 2049, and vastly more so than I ever did the 1982 film. Firstly, and appropriately because the original film’s visual style was so striking, and was its lasting influence and legacy, 2049 looks amazing. It’s a more visually varied film, though has plenty of shots of the grimy, rundown, LA that Deckard inhabited. But pretty much every scene, and every locale, is striking, from K appearing through the mist at Morton’s farm, to the clinical, white settings of the memory fabrication laboratory, to the dust-strewn wasteland of Las Vegas and the oppressive confines of the Tyrell/Wallace pyramid. I could easily turn the sound down and just look at this film.
Next, the story, because there is one, and certainly much more substantially so than Blade Runner. The detective story is engaging, and helped by a similarly engaging performance by Gosling, whose at first unaffected, almost emotionless, performance begins to make sense, and then develop and expand, as his character does. There are twists, and director Villeneuve, and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, provide plenty of clues and hints for us to generate theories as to the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of the thing, while keeping us off-balance and in the dark enough for us to never be quite sure of anything. I do have one problem with the story, though, but it’s a biggie, and it is that the final moment of the film more or less (and I mean pretty much completely) undermines the entire reason established earlier for that character’s previous actions. Best not to dwell on that too much, I reckon.
Acting-wise, it’s a mixed bag, but Gosling anchors the film, and that helps take the edge off of anything less than stellar (like Edward James Olmos’s cameo as Gaff). But perhaps the biggest, and most welcome, surprise is that Harrison Ford has remembered acting! I think, though I hesitate to say it since it seems so unlikely, that he may actually have been enjoying himself in this film. Shocking, I know, but I think it’s a genuine possibility. Certainly, old Deckard is considerably warmer than young Deckard who, really, was a bit of a cold fish in the first film, and also a bit of an arsehole. I think this is the only time in the last decade, and perhaps longer, that I have seen Ford act, and seem to enjoy doing so, aside from his quite engaging performance in Morning Glory.
Robin Wright is solid enough as Gosling’s superior, I guess, but is a little underserved by the script, though nothing like so much as Sylvia Hoeks, whose character Luv becomes a badass ninja chick with a bad attitude, for reasons. That type of character is very tiresome, largely because it’s not a character. Though when it comes to “acting” nothing is as bad, as egregious or as downright unwelcome as this film’s Rogue One Grand Moff Tarkin moment, where we are dragged against our will into the uncanny valley to meet a digital creation every bit as unconvincing and creepy as that Peter Cushing abomination. .
While it had been worrying me, I will say that the 2 hour 44 minute running time passed much more readily than I expected it would (though I wonder how much that will remain the case on any subsequent viewings), but there is still certainly plenty that could be trimmed from that, perhaps most obviously any scene featuring Jared Leto. Not that Leto is particularly bad, more that he’s not particularly anything. For all the much-publicised stories of the tedious and tiresome Leto fitting himself with opaque contact lenses so that he would, like his character, be unable to see, I am left wondering what the point was. As Scott recently observed on Twitter, his motivation and personality could be described as “has weird eyes”. Indeed, so inconsequential is the character that Leto’s entire role could have been reduced to a line or two in the mouth of Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv about her boss wanting Rachel’s child for business reasons.
I have a few other gripes, including the, let’s say over-enthusiastic, foley work, which gives Dave Bautista steps like the footfalls of doom, and punches between Gosling and Ford that sound like a wrecking ball hitting an elephant, as well as some dubious product placement. While signs seen in the original are still present in the sequel in this alternate future (Pan-Am, for example), and there is Coke advertising (really, it’d be weird NOT to have Coke advertising in any realistic city setting), there are a couple of more egregious examples.
First, there’s the prominent Sony logos (at least still a functioning company, and expected as this film is distributed by Sony and produced by Columbia, but Sony just can never help themselves in this regard), and second, there’s Atari. Yes, Atari. Now, I know that there were Atari logos in the original film, and it makes sense that in this timeline that Atari would still exist, especially given the apparent technological stagnation that has happened in the 30 years between Blade Runner and 2049, but Atari’s logo is here as paid-for product placement, and it’s grating when the film more or less stops for a moment to ensure you see the massive Atari logo on the side of a building, a company that hasn’t been relevant since… well, about the time the original Blade Runner was released.
But, while it can be fun to carp about such things, these really are minor issues in an otherwise very enjoyable, if flawed, film, that also happens to be an order of magnitude better than the film it is a sequel to. Definitely one to watch.
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