Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Film Review: BLADE RUNNER 2049 by Mike Sullivan

A friend of mine who likes to point out how often critics get it wrong will note the chilly reception THE THING and BLADE RUNNER received during their inaugural releases. In the case of THE THING -- a film Rex Reed called “a truly inhuman attack on human decency” not once, but twice in his hysterical review -- critics seemed to be a bit too distracted by Rob Bottin’s gooey creature effects to notice there was a film happening around them. Critics were also beholden to the inert Christian Nyby (but, c’mon we all know it was really Howard Hawks) helmed original and punished John Carpenter for tearing the rose colored glasses off of their nostalgic heads. There’s a sense of anger and confusion to these critiques, as if they were all still processing what they had just seen. That inevitably turned out to be the case when just a few years later THE THING was finally recognized for what it had always been: a modern horror classic.

On the other hand, those same people who missed the point of THE THING really understood what a vapid, self-important slog BLADE RUNNER was. Their negative reviews are as relevant today as they were in 1982.

A majority of BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you the main reason they love the movie is because of how it looks and sounds. But mostly its because of how it looks. It’s telling when art direction is the sole contribution a film can bring to its medium and art direction will always be BLADE RUNNER’s true legacy. The work of production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David L. Snyder defined the term dystopian future and was copied so frequently -- especially throughout the 90s -- the idea of a cramped, neon-infused megalopolis became an art department cliché. But without Paull, Snyder, DP Jordan Cronenweth or even Vangelis’ haunting soundtrack, BLADE RUNNER would be emptier than it already is. The story, characterization and “heavy thematic elements” are underdeveloped, shallow and so cursory they don’t seem inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick as much as the hacked out ad copy on the back of a Philip K. Dick novel.  Additionally, Ridley Scott’s George Lucas-ian compulsion to tinker with and otherwise revise BLADE RUNNER every few years has stepped on the obvious point the film was trying to make. Batty isn’t “more human than human” if he spares the life of a Deckard replicant. He’s just a killbot protecting another killbot. For those who whine about Greedo firing first, at least Lucas didn’t throw in an additional twist that not only revealed Greedo didn’t actually shoot first but was actually Princess Leia in an alien mask. Lucas’ stupid creative decisions may slightly effect characterization but they don’t negate the film’s reason for existing. I won’t say that BLADE RUNNER is all style and no substance, but I will note that it’s a Patrick Nagel print in a trench coat. It’s that bad Nighthawk Diner homage in which Elvis is serving Bogart a frosty vanilla milkshake once a green LED strip was artlessly placed in the middle of it. It’s rag-weed and condescending guys with chain wallets who carefully explain to me why I’m stupid for disliking GHOST IN THE SHELL. In essence, BLADE RUNNER encapsulates everything regretful and embarrassing about my early twenties.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is more of the same.

Now before I continue to rub my hate into the open wounds of its fanbase, I want to point out what I did like about BLADE RUNNER 2049. To start with, Ryan Gosling is good in it. An air of defeat hangs around his replicant character and Gosling plays him like a man whose reasons for living dwindle every day. Unlike Harrison Ford whose acting choices always seemed to be dictated around how much diarrhea he currently has and whatever gets him back to the hotel room quick enough to glumly stare into the darkness until he falls asleep on the toilet, Gosling brings depth to his android detective; not a sense of annoyed distraction. Incredible set-pieces emerge from the film. A sequence where Ford and Gosling fight each other in an abandoned Vegas lounge as malfunctioning holograms of Elvis and Liberace eerily blink in and out of existence around them is both otherworldly and knowingly silly. There’s also a surreal moment in which a replicant sex worker (HALT AND CATCH FIRE’s Mackenzie Davis) is hired to join Gosling and his girlfriend -- a sentient hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas) that is programmed to unconditionally love its owner. To BLADE RUNNER 2049’s credit, there’s a subtle emptiness in the way this relationship is depicted -- in a trippy, awkward threeway. And, of course, there’s Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which manages to outdo Cronenweth’s work in the original, not just in the way he photographs sweeping irradiated Vegas desert vistas but the way he depicts people slowly walking through ultra-modern office buildings or talking to receptionists in orange-hued waiting rooms. Which is great, because there’s much more footage of people slowly walking through office buildings than there are of the sweeping desert vistas. But take away Deakins’ lyrical photography and you’re left with a half-finished film noir padded out with surveillance footage of people dejectedly wandering around a parkade. Speaking of dejected people, Gosling’s performance, as good as it is, is somewhat muted by the fact that his depressed character is adrift in a sea of the saddest faces imaginable. Everybody’s sad even though they managed to live through a famine. Even Dave Bautista is sad and this is a man who should always be photographed laughing his head off as he tries to eat a melting ice cream cone. If you cut out every scene where sad faces stare purposefully out a window or at their feet, BLADE RUNNER 2049 would barely be feature length. If Scott’s BLADE RUNNER was the video for Murray Head’s "One Night in Bangkok" if it was filled with flying cars, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is R.E.M.’s "Everybody Hurts" video recast with Neuromancer cosplayers.

Like every movie Denis Villeneuve has directed, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is hauntingly beautiful but that’s it. The experience of watching this movie in theaters could be replicated by having a friend hold an "Art of BLADE RUNNER 2049" coffee table book in front of you, have them turn the page once every twenty minutes and, every so often tell them to make dumb-guy profundities about how technology is dehumanizing us and how people stare at their phones even when nothing is on the screen and, “Hey! Who’s the real phone here? You or your phone? Think about it, bro!” Villeneuve was the perfect choice to pick up Scott’s directorial reins because, much like Scott, Villeneuve’s films imply depth without actually having any. SICARIO was alternately naive and obvious, ARRIVAL was cloying and derivative, and his breakthrough film PRISONERS was an affecting film about loss until it suddenly morphed into something resembling a Riddler origin movie. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is Villeneuve’s most bloated and facile movie to date. Like its predecessor, BLADE RUNNER 2049 feints towards a deeper meaning without bothering to develop or even dwell upon its themes. Fans will tell you that Scott was asking his audience what makes us human but it’s a question he neither adequately addressed nor seemed to have much interest in answering. Especially after watching his various director’s cuts. Villeneuve seems to be saying even less as he halfheartedly rehashes Scott’s freshman dorm deep thoughts but with the addition of pseudo-intellectual red herrings, like a character waving around a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s JOHNNY MNEMONIC after it got kicked in the head by a mule and thought it was a Tarkovsky movie because it didn’t move as fast as it used to. But still, it’s a genre movie with the appearance of meaning so people will continue to dissect it much in the way people dissect THE SHINING even though Kubrick’s message was never deeper than, “I needed a fucking hit after BARRY LYNDON ate shit at the box office!”

Yet, in addition to regurgitating Scott’s vague themes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 perpetuates the dimwitted sexism of the original (every female character in this is never anything more than a bitch, a killer, a prostitute, a victim or arm candy) as well as its tone deaf racial politics (why are the WASPiest individuals outside of a Coachella concert portraying an oppressed minority?). The film also gives us a Sean Young cartoon from an unmade SHREK sequel to unnaturally shamble through the uncanniest valley and take up a permanent residence in our nightmares (although, I’m hoping the CGI Sean Young can eventually team-up with the creepy plasticine Peter Cushing from ROGUE ONE for a romantic comedy). And if all of that still wasn’t enough, Jared Leto is here to remind us how truly awful he is. In spite of his method actor bullshittery the guy still plays every one of his roles like that hyper dude at the Halloween party who is dressed as the Joker and, goddammit, will BE the fucking Joker until that clock strikes midnight! Sweet Christ, only Eddie Redmayne is worse.

I realize I’m in the minority with this. Disliking BLADE RUNNER is as loaded as disliking CITIZEN KANE or The Beatles in that people see it as trolling. Nobody has to agree with my thoughts about BLADE RUNNER nor do I expect anyone to agree with me. All I ask is for people to give BLADE RUNNER 2049 a little more time before they start calling it a masterpiece or even the best film of the year. I can only assume that seeing a big budget sequel to a movie everybody thought would never have a sequel created a kind of false positive in its viewer’s brains preventing them from seeing just how thin and portentous BLADE RUNNER 2049 is. Even compared to its predecessor.

Maybe you genuinely believe BLADE RUNNER 2049 is masterpiece. If so, I hope you realize how much you sound like every STAR WARS fan in 1999 who insisted that THE PHANTOM MENACE was every bit as good as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Critics aren’t the only ones that can get it wrong.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Film Review: Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! by Mike Sullivan

When people say the metaphor is obvious in MOTHER!, did they mean to say it was obvious there was a metaphor in MOTHER!? Because I can definitely agree with the latter observation. MOTHER! is definitely making a point about something but what that point may be, I’m going to leave to our nation’s greatest minds to decipher. Like the guy in ROOM 237 who insisted Barry Nelson has a boner when he shakes Jack Nicholson’s hand in THE SHINING or that dude who just wanted to make sure I’ve earned the right to wear a RICK & MORTY t-shirt and that I’m not wearing it for the wrong purposes (it turns out that I didn’t). There is a message in MOTHER! but that message is conveyed with all the grace of someone whose idea of charades is to give you the finger with one hand while making that “c’mon, c’mon” gesture with the other. Interpretations as varied as nuclear catastrophe, a stealth biblical history and even the perils of fame were used by various critics and observers to explain away the strange nuances of MOTHER!. But much like the films of David Lynch or even Louis Malle’s BLACK MOON, MOTHER! is far more enjoyable if its surreal structure and imagery is taken at face value. Granted, this can be difficult considering that unlike Lynch or Malle, Darren Aronofsky’s dreamy, pointed images drip with so much purpose you can’t sit back and enjoy the sight of an angry mob accidentally breaking the neck of the dancing, Ooga-Chocka baby from ALLY McBEAL (was the CGI purposefully that bad in order to neuter the queasy impact of that scene?) without thinking it has something to do with the goddamned Giving Tree or something. In fact, you’ll never be able to separate the images from their perceived meaning because MOTHER! is nothing more than an object lesson. Luckily, it’s also an object lesson whose point is so muddled and opaque you’ll never really be certain what any of it means (unless you listen to Aronofsky’s interpretation, which, we will get to in a moment). Sure, you’ll have a theory of what the moral of the story may be, but then Kristen Wiig will suddenly appear on screen, shoot several prone bodies in the head before succumbing to an explosion and you’ll start to wonder if you should even care.

Speaking of Kirsten Wiig, is MOTHER! supposed to be a comedy? Because I was laughing pretty consistently throughout its two hour running time. To start with, an exclamation point is present in the title. That’s usually a film’s way of letting you know that a romp is waiting just ahead so you better fasten your laughing belts because this is going to be one hilarious ride (Notice to any publicist or P.R. person who may be reading this review: Please make this the pull quote)! Additionally, MOTHER! feels like a gritty, almost pretentious reboot of WHAT ABOUT BOB?, MADHOUSE and other basic cable mainstays from the '90s about unwanted houseguests. Basically, Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed character is the Dr. Leo Marvin of the film. An uptight voice of reason whose frequent pleas to be left alone are ignored by her oblivious, unnamed spouse -- Javier Bardem -- who functions as this film’s equivalent to Fay Marvin. The Bob Wiley in MOTHER! is everybody who strolls into and quickly plants their ass in the sprawling Lawrence/Bardem estate. There’s Ed Harris as a strange old man who carries around a black-and-white snap-shot of Bardem (whose character is apparently a popular, high-profile poet. Which is probably the most unbelievable element found in MOTHER!) that looks like some highly goofy amalgam of an author’s photo, a high school yearbook portrait and a novelty Olde Tyme photograph from an amusement park. There’s Harris’ wife Michelle Pfeiffer, who drunkenly insults Lawrence, throws Lawrence’s wet laundry on the ground of her cellar for no explained reason and casually fucks an enfeebled, dying Harris in the middle of the day in the couple’s living room. There’s even Harris and Pfeiffer’s horrible sons who show up to the house uninvited just to beat each other to death over the contents of their dying father’s will in front of everybody. These guests, as well as the many guests that show up throughout MOTHER!, are all depicted as unstable, self-centered monsters and yet they all manage to delight Bardem even though many of them wander into their house and piss on the floor shortly before sitting on the couple’s kitchen sink until it comes crashing to the ground. Further strengthening the WHAT ABOUT BOB? connection is the fact that both films are about high-strung rich people learning about the joys/horrors of life through free-spirited poor people, both delight in putting its tightly wound leads through a series of unending humiliations and both end with the destruction of an ornate summer home. The only real difference is that MOTHER! is far more nihilistic and absurd. The reassuring face of Bill Murray is not on hand to remind us that everything is going to be ok. Instead, people are going to come into your house, kill your baby and then paint the walls of your living room in a misguided attempt at repentance. Sure it’s dark, but if you’re not laughing at that, you’re just not laughing.

Apart from being funny there is, as I noted earlier, a message. As indecipherable as the movie can be, it’s still hard not to draw your own conclusions. Maybe you were like me and assumed that MOTHER! was a feminist treatise. Maybe you thought Lawrence’s cipher-like performance and her frequent claustrophobic close-ups were Aronofsky’s way of uncomfortably placing the viewer in Lawrence’s shoes, a means to experience the constant aggravations, threats and indignities she faces on an hourly basis. Perhaps because Lawrence can’t have a single interaction without another character ignoring or treating her with a combination of hostility and condescension, you assumed MOTHER! was addressing the difficulties women face in the workplace or the world at large. Conceivably, you may have gathered that the third act about the warring cult-like factions that take over Bardem and Lawrence’s home is noting how organized religion alternately demonizes and marginalizes women. Mayhap you were struck by Bardem’s character, an unctuous cad who is never impressed by her accomplishments, finds himself marrying increasingly younger women, is described by Lawrence as someone who only “loves the way [Lawrence] loves him” and most tellingly, rips Lawrence’s heart out in the finale. And I mean that literally. If that was your interpretation, let me be the first to give you enthusiastic thumbs up, kiss you gently on the forehead and then whisper softly in your ear, “’Try again, you dunce. You fucking dunce.” Surprise! MOTHER! has nothing to do with anything I mentioned above. According to Aronofsky, MOTHER! is actually about climate change. Lawrence is an embattled Mother Earth protecting her home from careless outsiders, Bardem is a vain, self-involved God, while Harris, Pfeiffer, Wiig and the rest are supposed to be you and me: petty, self-destructive idiots stomping around on our giant carbon footprints, stinking everything up with our Burger King farts. Knowing this particular factoid ruins MOTHER!. Significantly. It not only removes the mystery behind the film, the clumsy allegory cheapens MOTHER! and places it alongside the same shame-based, hard sell approach to environmentalism as CAPTAIN PLANET and films like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. Realizing this is akin to the realization that every movie Brad Bird directed at Pixar was actually the same “Highlights for Children” spin on The Fountainhead. It’s so disappointing. Additionally, the environmental theme doesn’t clear up many of the film’s elements. It doesn’t explain what that yellow Alka-Seltzer-like substance is that Lawrence keeps taking every time she gets stressed out. It never really makes it clear what earth is supposed to represent (Is earth supposed to be Lawrence’s house? Or her baby? Both? Lawrence herself?). Nor does it explain what that third act hot take on religious fanaticism has to do with climate change or why religion has to play a role in this. If Aronofsky is going to wallow in loaded GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER level preachiness, why couldn’t Bardem’s character symbolize corporate greed or political non-action? Why is God getting dragged into this? I wish I could go back to those heady moments when I thought Aronofsky was telling me to stop being mean to ladies and that terrorism is bad.

And yet, even though Aronofsky ruined the experience of his own movie for me, I still can’t hate something this strange and upsetting. The kind of strange and upsetting you could only get on a twelfth generation VHS bootleg of an unsubtitled print of some Japanese movie from the '70s where yakuza members are murdering each other in a Technicolor chicken coop (more people need to see Hideo Gosha’s VIOLENT STREETS). MOTHER! somehow manages to out-weird Aronofsky’s NOAH and that had a rock monster with the voice of Nick Nolte and Ray Winstone as a guy who bit the heads off of lizards and carried a flaming sword. It’s also, thanks to DP Matthew Libatique, a beautifully shot movie with affecting performances. And considering the Rorschach Test qualities of MOTHER!, nobody will experience the film in the same way. You might be amused, enraged or horrified, but you’ll never be bored. MOTHER! is a flawed film. It’s a self-indulgent film. More to the point, it’s probably not a good film. It is however, the most unforgettable film you will ever experience and isn’t that what really matters?