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

La La Land (2016)

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fourstar

“Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?”

La La Land was a rare cinematic experience for me. In its first 20min stretch, I was outright hostile towards the film. I felt even more alienated in the two big production musical numbers that open La La Land than I did watching Moana, a movie that’s appeal I didn’t understand to the point where I had to abstain out of fairness from directly reviewing it. The emotional impact & entertainment value of a traffic jam erupting into a big budget musical number about Los Angeles sunshine reminded me of the lofty gravitas of a car commercial, specifically that one where the hamsters gather all of New York for a Central Park jam session. This adverse reaction to the material wasn’t necessarily a fault of the movie’s, but more a personal shortcoming  when it comes to appreciating musical theater, especially when a chorus sings in unison, drowning out raw emotion with the shared mediocrity of a massive collective. Something changed for me during La La Land, though. Somewhere in the first act, when the narrative got smaller and the songs became more intimate, I finally got lost in the film’s love letter to Old Hollywood musicals, particularly of the Fred & Ginger variety. La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.

The content matches the form nicely here, continuing Damien Chazelle’s hot streak as a gifted, bare bones storyteller after his exciting one-two punch of the jazzy thriller Whiplash and the gleeful pulp of Grand Piano. Just as the modern-minded crowd and musical theater traditionalists must find a common ground to appreciate where Chazelle is pushing the movie musical as a medium, the film’s protagonists also begin their story at odds with each other. Playing an actor and a jazz pianist who suffer several hostile meet cutes before they begin to reconcile their mutual attraction, Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are perfectly convincing as our modern equivalent of Classic Hollywood charmers. Their Adam’s Rib-style hostility at an awkward pool party is where the film started to lure me into its web. By the time their romance flourished in movie theaters, jazz clubs, and planetariums only to flounder & fizzle once realism disrupted their romantic ideal, I was already humming “City of Stars” to myself and preparing to buy a poster to hang on my imaginary dorm room wall. The couple pushes each other out of their comfort zones in order to survive an ever-changing world; the jazz musician must learn to innovate to stay relevant, the actor must risk embarrassment to achieve success. In addition to their good looks, ease with comic timing, and gorgeous costuming, the couple at the center of La La Land appeal to the audience as a useful window into what the film was trying to accomplish. When their realistically cyclical, impermanent romance clashes with a surreal movie musical reverie in the film’s final act, the full scope of Chazelle’s ambition becomes crystal clear and any complaints about taste or expectation going in feel silly & irrelevant. This is a work that graciously rewards after its initial discomfort, whether you’re a musical theater traditionalist who needs to be pushed into exploring new ideas or a cold-hearted modernist cynic who needs to be warmed up to what the medium can accomplish even in its purist form.

I think it’s worth noting that while La La Land is sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile with personal sensibilities, it’s always gorgeous to look at. The film’s intense colors, beautiful dresses, and attention to symmetry & movement amount to a carefully constructed spectacle that, like Hail Caesar!, is a welcome reminder of the scale & fantasy that only Old Hollywood productions could muster. Whether Chazelle is overlaying shots of neon signs with poured champagne as a direct nod to Hollywood musical past or he’s using that hyper real abstraction for entirely new, surreal purpose, La La Land is consistently a wonder to behold. Even when I wasn’t enjoying the film’s content in its earliest stretch, I was never turned off by its form or energeric execution. All I needed to be won over by La La Land was for that manicured spectacle to be put to a more intimate & modern use, an emotional heft that could be whispered instead of belted for the back rows to hear. I get the feeling that the film intended to not only teach me a little appreciation for the value of its medium, but also to push those on the other side of the divide over to my own modernist, heretical sensibilities. And just when those two audiences meet for a brief moment of shared appreciation, the film then disrupts & explodes its own rules, breaking down the walls of that divide for a brief glimpse of how both audiences were always of the same mind without ever being aware of it. Innovation & tradition are equally important in La La Land and when they’re done right, they’re practically the same thing. There’s a long, discomforting path to that realization, one that’s made more difficult for some than others, but once you reach its epiphanic destination, it’s a real game-changer, an eye opener, one that’s well worth the initial unease.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nice Guys (2016)

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fourhalfstar

For as long as Shane Black has been writing stylistically strong cult classics in Hollywood (three decades), it’s incredible to think that he only has three feature credits to his name as a director. Black penned two childhood favorites of mine, The Monster Squad & Last Action Hero, along with major commercial successes like Iron Man 3 & the entire Lethal Weapon franchise, but he still stands as a kind of Hollywood underdog story, seemingly struggling to get his due as an auteur. The Nice Guys, a Ryan Gosling/Russell Crowe action comedy that’s currently struggling to earn back its relatively slim $50 million budget, may not be the runaway commercial success Black has been searching for as a director, but it does find him operating beautifully & efficiently on an artistic level. All of the hallmarks that make a Shane Black film distinct — witty dialogue, slapstick violence, children involved in activities way above their age range, stale genre tropes made to feel fresh — are on wild, brilliant display in The Nice Guys. This is the pinnacle achievement of a wickedly funny storyteller that sadly serves as yet another just-short-of-success story in a summer that’s been surprisingly lackluster in ticket sales, but immensely rich in hidden gems.

It’s difficult to discuss The Nice Guys‘s merits without comparing it to other works, as if it were a miracle of Frankensteined genre science. Its young girls braving the nasty waters of 1970s sexuality felt like a shoot-em-up action comedy version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, something I never thought I’d want to see, but was giddy to experience. Its general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, another unlikely genre mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Its precocious, smart-mouthed kid detective dynamic plays like Veronica Mars, except with an even younger protagonist & an even more adult/dangerous mystery to unravel. The list of similar titles the film might remind you of is virtually unending: Pulp Fiction, Bored to Death, Taxi Driver, The Big Lebowski, etc., etc., etc. And yet Shane Black juggles all of these pre-existing aesthetics without ever feeling rote or derivative. He understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.

Due to The Nice Guys‘s mystery plot structure it’s difficult to describe too much of its basic story without spoiling its rewards. At heart it’s a mismatched partners buddy cop flick where neither of the leads are cops, exactly. Russell Crowe plays a mercenary muscle, a hired goon with heart of severely tarnished gold. He teams with Ryan Gosling, a con-artist private detective who doubles as an alcoholic buffoon, to find a missing teen with ties to California’s thriving porn industry. Our team of in-over-their-heads antiheroes is rounded out by the single father private eye’s young daughter, who is never invited on missions, but often proves herself the most competent member of the crew. I would say this crack team of violent fuckups fall down the rabbit hole of the seedy side of 1970s Los Angeles, but since all sides of 1970s Los Angeles were likely seedy, that descriptor is more than a little redundant. Either way, they’re far from prepared for the political conspiracies, mass murders, life-threatening pollution, and hedonistic porn industry parties that complicate what should prove to be a cut & dry missing person’s case, but snowballs into something much larger.

If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir,” but that would greatly overlook what largely makes the film feel special: slapstick violence. Shane Black has an adept way of portraying violence that both shocks & amuses. There are certain violent displays in the films that had me gasping in their realistic & sudden brutality and others that had me struggling to breathe between laughs. A lot of what makes The Nice Guys funny is the matter-of-fact dialogue of phrases like, “Dad, there’s like whores here & stuff,” but much of the film’s entertainment value is in its violent physical comedy. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality is a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects. Seriously. The Nice Guys might be dying at the box office but the packed theater I saw it with last weekend was eating it up, wholly engaged with every weirdly cruel & surreally funny place the film decided to take them. Hopefully someone will take notice & help Shane Black bring more works this weirdly pleasing to the big screen. He’s surely earned a few more leaps of faith.

-Brandon Ledet

Lost River (2015)

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threehalfstar

Sometimes it’s gotta suck to be Ryan Gosling. Not often, but sometimes. Everything sucks sometimes, right? I’m sure being a talented actor & a beautiful human specimen is mostly all perks, but what if no one takes you seriously when you try to let loose the weirdo artist lurking under your perfect skin? Finalizing his gradual transition from pint-sized Mouseketeer to big boy artist, Gosling recently stepped behind the camera to write & direct his debut feature, Lost River. Critically-speaking, it didn’t go well. The film was panned on the festival circuit as “derivative” “poverty porn” and lost its wide distribution detail in the process, eventually being damned to direct-to-VOD status. Gosling’s first outing as a creator instead of a performer failed to secure accolades and the talented sex beast was left having an uncharacteristically bad day in the sun. The dirty secret is that Lost River is actually pretty damn good for a debut feature. It’s far from flawless, but there’s very little justification for the vicious critical beating it received on the festival circuit. If the film were directed by a fresh-out-of-film-school nobody it most likely would’ve had a better chance in the critical eye. For once it didn’t pay to be for Ryan Gosling to be a wealthy, well-known pretty boy.

Both the “derivative” & “poverty porn” complaints feel somewhat like they were aimed specifically at Gosling’s pretty boy swag instead of his final product. The claim that the film is “derivative” is technically true, but not really a problem considering the sources Gosling pulls from here. Names like Lynch, Bava, Korine, Mallick, and Refn are sure to be conjured by any discerning audience, but what film buff wouldn’t love pieces of those five aesthetics gathered in one neon-soaked, dilapidated package? Speaking of dilapidated, the film may also technically substantiate that “poverty porn” critique, as it pulls beautiful images out of economic despair, turning what remains of Detroit into a ludicrous dream world. I also see this complaint as more of an asset than a problem, especially considering how the images tie into the film’s thematic details (foreclosed houses, stealing copper from blighted properties, etc.). Also, it’s an aesthetic that’s worked wonders before in titles like George Washington, Gummo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The one legitimate qualm I found with Lost River is that it is poorly paced. There’s a calm, unrushed progression to the movie that plays right into the stereotype that art films have to be boring to be taken seriously. At least while the run time is glacially gliding along, there are plenty of worthwhile images to chew on: flaming bicycles, pink neon lights, glistening Casio keyboards, underwater dinosaur statues, slow-motion house fires, and so on. That’s not even getting into horror legend Barbara Steele’s hermetic mourning or fellow-perfect-specimen Christina Hendricks’ Tree of Life cosplay & blood-soaked burlesque. These images appear slowly, but each with great individual impact, backed by the sleek nightmare sounds of Chromatics genius Johnny Jewel. They’re definitely a sight to behold and it’s a sight I expect to revisit often, even if they do work better as still images than as a feature film. Gosling most certainly has an eye and once he tightens aspects like pacing & narrative, he has untold potential to make something truly great. I just hope that he hasn’t been discouraged from making more films by the negative reception his debut garnered. Lost River may not be a perfect work, but it does demonstrate a wealth of promise and it’d be a shame if that promise were snuffed out in its infancy by sourpuss critics.

-Brandon Ledet