Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

The good news for dedicated fans of Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi epic Blade Runner is that its three decades-late sequel, directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is entirely worthy of its predecessor. In the age of endless cash-in reboots & sequels, we tend to wince at rehashings of our personally-beloved properties in fear that the new material will dilute or cheapen the original’s memory. Blade Runner 2049 is more or less on par with the quality of the original Ridley Scott film, so protective fans who hold that one close to the heart can go ahead & relax. For the less avid among us, it’s not quite as exciting of a proposition. The stunning visual achievements of both Blade Runner films are undeniable in their potency. Scott’s neon-lit future-noir dystopia has influenced essentially every sci-fi futurescape that followed in its wake. Villeneuve’s hologram-filled, mustard-colored toxic wasteland is a worthy descendant of that vision, broadening the scope of its universe by stretching its tendrils into the dead spaces beyond its overpopulated urban clusters instead of simply recreating the original’s look with 2010s CGI. The stories staged within those visual, world-building achievements are much less impressive, however. Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.

Ryan Gosling picks up the torch as the titular blade runner this go-round, following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as he unravels a brand new corporate intrigue mystery about the future of artificial intelligence production. The manufacture of “replicants”, a form of A.I. slave labor gone rogue, has been made illegal on Earth; Gosling is employed to “retire” (destroy) the remaining Earthling replicant rebels who’ve slipped past police surveillance. They’re difficult to distinguish from naturally-born humans, but Gosling’s blade runner (eventually named some variation of Josef K, presumably after Kafka’s The Trial) is especially great at his job, mostly because he himself is a replicant, a traitor to his “people.” Between being insulted for being a “skinjob” traitor by everyone he encounters & playing out 1950s suburban domesticity fantasies with his A.I. hologram wife, K unearths a dangerous secret that might interrupt the balance between man & man-made machines while on one of his “retirement”/execution assignments. This grand scale conspiracy mystery gradually involves an expanding cast of futuristic heavies: an A.I. programmer who lives in an isolation chamber (Wetlands‘s Carla Juri, of all people); a rogue replicant manufacturer who verbally plays God through a string of philosophically empty, Bray Wyatt-style pro wrestling promos (Jared Leto, nearly tanking the picture); a haggard Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film (hours later than you’d expect to see him); etc. K’s stoic P.O.V. at the center of this expanding cast remains a consistent anchor, though, relying on the exact same stone-faced masculinity charm Gosling employed to carry Drive. As big as the story is in an interplanetary, meaning-of-life kind of way, its focus always remains centered on the significance (or insignificance) of K’s function within it, even allowing the climax to be reduced to/resolved by a fist fight in an enclosed space.

Seeing this kind of a slow-moving, ultra-macho sci-fi noir on the big screen is the ideal setting. This is true not only because the surface pleasures of its visual achievements & sound design are its best assets, but also because it’s much less difficult to be distracted during its near-three hour runtime. Blade Runner 2049 technically boasts more sex, more violence, and more humor than the original, but it still leans heavily on the macho, hard sci-fi philosophizing of a Tarkovsky film or an academic lecture (it’s no mistake that a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire physically makes an appearance); that’s the exact kind of headspace where my mind invariably wanders. Looking back on its plot days after the screening I can recall big picture details in what it was trying to accomplish: a subversion of the Chosen One’s function in the Hero’s Journey, an echo of the human-A.I. entanglements of Spike Jones’s Her, whatever playing God nonsense Leto was mumbling about “storming Eden” & “the dead space between the stars,” etc. That’s not what makes the film impressive, however. What really sticks with you as the fine sand plot details slip through your fingers is the strength of its imagery. The way holograms haunt physical spaces or the way neon advertisements light the creases between the drab grey blocks of urban sprawl as a wall of synths wash over Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is what ultimately remains as the dystopic dust clouds of the narrative clear. 2049 is true to the DNA of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner in that way, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Morris from America (2016)

electrickchildren

fourstar

The classic The Onion‘s piece “Cool Dad Raising Daughter on Media that Will Put Her Entirely Out of Touch with Her Generation” has long been one of the satirical publication’s most often shared gags. It’s a joke that likely hits home most with nerd parents who strive to raise their kids with the “right” movies, music, and books without realizing how out of touch their supposedly cool offspring will be with their peers on the schoolyard as a result. As often as I’ve seen that article shared online, I don’t think I’ve ever seen its sentiment reflected in a work of art as precisely or endearingly as it is in the 2016 comedy Morris from America. Our hapless “cool dad” in this scenario is The Office vet Craig Robinson, appearing here as an American soccer coach raising his young son in Germany while working for a middling team. His son, the titular Morris, is frustrated with his father both for stationing him in a foreign country against his will and for insisting that he listen to old school hip-hop instead of chart-topping pop & rap. His alienation would be striking enough in an American setting, but in a foreign culture he’s especially stuck, isolated in the post-modern void of his dad’s design. The movie starts with this extreme example of that “cool dad”/alienated kid Onion article scenario as a launching point and somehow turns it into a touching, intimate, and surprisingly brave coming of age comedy matched last year only by the heights of The Edge of Seventeen.

Setting this particular tale of awkward American adolescence in Germany feels almost like a necessity, since 90s throwback nostalgia is in full swing in our current cultural climate. If the film were set in New York, Morris might’ve felt oddly at home with his peers, despite his father’s best efforts to obscure & isolate his tastes in a bygone era. In Germany, there’s no chance of that camaraderie. These kids are heavily into EDM, with all of the sex & drug-fueled chaos that culture implies, and Morris is ill-prepared to speak their language (both literally & figuratively) thanks to his dad insisting that he pay more attention to relics like cassette tapes & Ready to Die than anything that could be considered “dance music”. As Morris strives to figure out who he is as a person in a place that’s so foreign to his sensibilities, he often finds him lying to anyone who’ll listen. He lies about his age to older girls to impress them & flirt; he lies to his dad about the kinds of parties he sneaks off to at night; he lies in his own freestyle rhymes about how macho & “gangster” he is between nerdy bumblings & sips of hot chocolate. As the story goes on, Morris makes major mistakes, lands minor successes, and becomes confident in who he is through the painful process of growing up. It’s all very standard, coming-of-age fodder, except that the film smartly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to topics like the embarrassment of teen sexuality or the racism its protagonist encounters as the only young black man in his social circle. The movie may appear to tell a very familiar story, but it does so smartly and with satisfying specifics in its defining details that makes it feel like a personal work instead of a genre experience.

It’s difficult to convey what makes Morris from America unique within its genre. Craig Robinson is an always-welcome presence; I was delighted by the inclusion of my beloved Wetlands‘s Carla Juri in the cast; there’s stray moments of intense visual craft in a location choice or a or a fantasy sequence where old world art bobs along with old school hip-hop; it adopts the hip-hop kung-fu of The Get Down without any of the baffling blunders that show stumbles into. These are all stray delights in a simple, streamlined work, but they aren’t what makes it special. Early on in the film, Craig Robinson’s “cool dad” hip-hop nerd explains to his son that 90s rap production works so well because the beat is “not overpowering the rhyme, but supports the rhyme.” Morris from America is a low budget comedy with style & specificity to spare in its choice of location & soundtrack, but it works in much the same way. Its style and its rhythm never overpower its story of teen self-acceptance, but rather support it with a fresh, interesting context that makes the coming of age formula feel new & intimate again. It’s a low-key comedy that surprises both in its frank honesty & its quiet attention to craft. If it were a record or a cassette, it’d be the exact kind of discovery a cool dad or their perpetually-alienated kid would find great pleasure in discovering while digging through dusty old crates of forgotten media relics.

-Brandon Ledet