Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villenueve directs Jared Leto, Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in a refined sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner with this fall’s simple and stylized Blade Runner 2049. The original movie, directed by Ridley Scott, who gets executive producer credit here, was more of a mood than a compelling motion picture as far as I’m concerned.

This time, Villenueve matches the moody, noirish dystopian cinema style to the story — also based on a novel by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick with co-screenwriters — and comes up with a more coherent and linear movie than any version of the predecessor. As with Villenueve’s other pictures, such as Sicario, Incendies, Prisoners and last year’s Arrival, you don’t want to think too much about what’s happening on screen. What you see is often enthralling, as with his other movies, but there’s a limit to what the pictures convey.

For instance, when a police boss (Robin Wright, Moneyball, A Most Wanted Man, Wonder Woman) throws a barb at her policeman K (Gosling), an android/replicant and ‘blade runner’ assigned to hunt down older model androids, essentially telling the expressionless young cop that he has no soul, you might be inclined to wonder what she has to gain by the jab. After all, if he’s got no soul, why bother to deliver the dig? If he does, on the other hand, insulting him might deplete his motivation.

But with terms such as pre-blackout, pre-Prohibition, slavery, “Soviet happy” and other little seeds planted throughout this long and visually arresting film, Blade Runner 2049 offers the constant promise of resolution. There must be a point to the action, lines and clues, right?

Nicely, and not too exhaustively, there is, with an almost archival deliberation of details, points and themes that show respect for Ridley Scott’s film without alienating the modern audience. I couldn’t tell you much about the original, except that I think the late Joanna Cassidy is terrific in it, but even I recognized Edward James Olmos when he shows up in the new movie. Villenueve balances Blade Runner‘s essentials without being confined.

One of his themes, however thinly rendered, is that one ought to be free “to be [left] alone” and, in this sense, the movie’s deserving of praise. The first act sets the future earth’s dystopian tone as K sets out to do his job, or, in a good line which taps the best and worst of how one should regard today’s cops: “Do your fuckin’ job!” Villenueve injects an urgency with slow-burn suspense amid the tone-setting and character-building. Besides Leto’s blind, villainous “industrialist”, though monopolist is probably a better term, a character in bangs and a ponytail who serves the sinister blind man (Sylvia Hoeks, evoking Genevieve Bujold and stealing every scene) makes a penetrating impression.

It’s in the second act that striking symbols, images and thematic nuances come into play, eerily playing on ghoulish news headlines with numbers, fires and ashes suggesting a holocaust. Add to this disturbing sense angry mobs, hiding places, implants, what might become a Trojan horse and, tossed in with product plugs for Peugeot and Sony, an explosive twist on getting a manicure. Villenueve alternates the action with quiet, slow plot progression, too, allowing a few scenes with a memorable memory maker to take root. All this and his usual attention to detail, from chipped paint and K’s clammy skin when he’s merging fantasy and reality with two women to the Salvador Dali-influenced surrealism in red with high heels suggesting Pierre Boulle’s absurdism ala 1968’s Planet of the Apes.

The third and final act begins with an inviting homage to better days, styled to a crisp Vegas casino piano bar neo-classicism, complete with flashes of Liberace, Marilyn, Sinatra and Elvis in moving pictures. This almost made me want to live in this film’s 2049. With an adorable old dog, it’s a wistful remembrance.

If it sounds terribly abstract, it’s because Blade Runner 2049 is, like Villenueve’s previous movies, too ponderous, deftly implanting seeds while crowding them so they don’t fully take root and bloom. I think this is a fundamental fault with the series premise, however, which revolves around a question, not an answer: what makes a man? Still, entire characters could have been cut to accentuate the idea.

That said, it’s stunning. Hangdog Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, La La Land, Lars and the Real Girl) is the stranger in this strange new land. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club, Suicide Squad) and his accomplices dangle the prospect or threat of going “off-world”. The irascible, perpetually brow-furrowed Harrison Ford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 42, Cowboys & Aliens) reprises his original role (and is as bland an actor as ever). With waves, snowflakes and stairsteps symbolizing the constant war and peace of being human on earth — seeded with optimism — Blade Runner 2049 is something to see and ponder, if not to think too deeply about.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With Blondie, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars and various other American and British punk and New Wave recording artists, Tom Petty, who died last night in Santa Monica, revived rock and roll in the late 1970s with fresh, original and elementary songwriting and tunes.

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The 66-year-old Southern Californian, who was born and raised in Florida, dropped out of high school and met Elvis Presley on the Ocala, Florida, set of Follow That Dream, which inspired him to pursue a career in music. Petty, who’d been physically abused by his father, later said he’d decided to commit to becoming a rock and roll musician after watching the Beatles perform on live television. The early trajectory goes to why he’s being widely praised and mourned by music fans. I think part of what distinguishes Petty is that his songs and sensibility represent middle class American values. He brought both urgency and simplicity to rock’s essential roots. He did so with distinction.

I discovered Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with his breakthrough, bestselling 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes (pictured) with its powerful songs bursting with sharp guitar riffs and biting, straightforward lyrics expressed in Petty’s bluesy, emphatic vocals in “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”. As the years and decades passed, from his cool, distant “You Got Lucky” and “The Waiting” to “Free Fallin’” and the Dave Stewart-tinged “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Petty sings with the deep, slow and dead-on anger of someone who’s seeing things clearly for the first time, arcing up at the end for a fine, guitar-raging finish, and the simple yet insightful song he wrote with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, “Learning to Fly”, a Tom Petty single always expressed a mood, sense or thought with melody, structure and clarity. Even his duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for her bestselling solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is distinctive in its first few notes. Whether on his own solo album, Wildflowers, or in his brief collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in their band the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty made his mark.

As far as I know, Petty stayed focused on making music in his own way and he never strayed, holding to the unpretentious, childlike spirit of trading his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Elvis Presley songs, when he was a kid. In his recent book Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes reportedly wrote that “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.” Self-made Petty met, performed with and honored some of his own heroes, remaining active, touring and playing music he made, leaving behind a catalog of songs about life. I am one beneficiary of his having gone full speed ahead.

Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Neither as light nor as outrageous as it looks or might have been, the New Zealand-based Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which I watched on Apple TV over the weekend, thoroughly entertains. Recommended by writer and director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, this small film is the perfect pick-me-up. The movie’s directed by actor and Wellington, New Zealander Taika Waititi and based upon the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump.

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The setting is an older couple’s farm in New Zealand on the edge of the bush country. Seasoned Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has certain ideas about fostering a child, but the tough old farmer’s getting on and wants to get down to business, so she takes in an obese, troubled boy named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). She’s a no-nonsense guardian and caregiver, which the criminally inclined and intelligent child figures out and takes kindly to, so Ricky stays put without much fuss. For the first time in his life, he feels wanted, nourished and loved.

The story’s told with a literary flair, which suits the material neatly, because a sudden change in circumstances puts Ricky in barely plausible cahoots with Bella’s husband Hector (the always excellent Sam Neill, who is superb in these types of roles), an illiterate curmudgeon. Both husband and wife have a crusty old dog and know how to hunt with their bare hands, which shocks the portly pre-teen into a sudden alertness that both feeds the movie’s winking charm and gently, pleasantly plays against stereotypes.

As husband and foster child team against a power-lusting child welfare bureaucrat on their tails, with half the island’s police pursuing them across bush country, Ricky and Hector become fugitives by default and good humor ensues. The kid’s physicality and a quietly assimilationist subtext combine with stunning nature photography and storybook structuring to make Hunt for the Wilderpeople an enjoyably warm, man-boy adventure tale. To say more would spoil its charm, twists and innocence. But there’s enough wit and knowing brightness without sugaring the fairy tale sensibility too much to dramatize its theme that the wild and damaged soul can be tamed and soothed with knowledge, poetry and self-healing choices. Happily, color, cheerfulness and danger abounds.

Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a simple and romanticized tale of athletics, man and woman.

For all the bluster surrounding 1973’s sensationalist sporting event billed as the title’s battle of the sexes, which was a running media theme in the 1970s, before feminism dominated the culture, this small, character-driven film dramatizes at its best that the pursuit of excellence is liberating. Beyond that, with blurred images and the sound of a tennis racquet hitting a tennis ball to serve as the start of Fox Searchlight’s best movie since 12 Years a Slave, it’s a cultural snapshot, too, signalling substitution of personality cult for hero worship. No need to tell you how that part ended up.

All of it’s well done, except for a few bad choices. As ex-Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, heavily sideburned Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine, Hope Springs, Dan in Real Life, Foxcatcher, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) shines. And, as tennis champ Billie Jean King, minus the mullet, Emma Stone (La La Land, Aloha, The Amazing Spider-Man) does, too. Though Stone’s excellent depiction of King dominates at the expense of Carell’s excellent depiction of Riggs, and the imbalance minimizes Battle of the Sexes, the full measure of man and woman as athlete emerges.

The upshot is that Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champ, the world’s top men’s tennis player in the 1940s, is a gambling addict who’s more or less relegated to drudgery at his wife’s (Elisabeth Shue) discretion. So, he decides to cash in his winnings and trade on the trending women’s tennis. Riggs is seen as a hustler, though he is also father to a young son with whom he plays and to an older son who’s grown weary of his schemes. The showdown, made possible when Riggs cajoles, challenges and defeats a conservative women’s tennis player (Jessica McNamee as Margaret Court), is a chance at redemption. Battle of the Sexes would have been stronger with more scenes with Riggs, especially in close-up during the title’s match in Houston’s Astrodome. Carell does what he can with unequal screen time as a sexist challenger old enough to be King’s father, a fact which is downplayed.

Instead, with Alan Cumming in a great performance as an effeminate fashion designer who knows Billie Jean’s gay before she admits it to herself, Battle of the Sexes plays up King’s lesbianism. Peppered with clips of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in her popular, self-named situation comedy and lounging with Southern California’s easygoing ethos tuned to early Seventies’ Elton John, in comes a groupie-like hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). As single-minded Marilyn closes in on the single-minded athlete, she teases and tells her to “just drive”.

King’s emerging sexuality is central to the plot’s 1970s’ liberation theme.

Sarah Silverman is slightly less grating than usual as a tennis hustler, too. Though her hustler is supposed to be arch, intentionally or not, Silverman’s Gladys is as exploitative of women’s players as the clubby men, if not more so because Gladys acts like she’s a women’s advocate. As Silverman’s character tells one female athlete: “I own you.”

Bill Pullman plays the villain, a league official who rejects King’s demand for equal pay and, though Riggs is underdeveloped, Stone’s studied, natural portrayal of trailblazing Billie Jean King, whose athletic achievements if not ability are also somewhat understated, gives the oncoming contest more of a matter-of-factness that works to the story’s advantage. As Riggs faces the reality of his overhyped challenge, and King glows in her newfound sexuality, feeling both contrite about cheating on her husband (Austin Stowell) and herself with an air of Elvis, the ’73 match watched by millions plays as one man’s self-delusion and one woman’s pivotal assertion of her own power as producer.

With Silverman’s gray-streaked Gladys, Riseborough’s ingratiating Marilyn, Stone’s hardcore athlete and Riggs basking in one final spotlight, with Howard Cosell foreshadowing an unfortunate age of captive TV masses hypnotized by Simpson, Kardashian and Trump, the audience is left to ponder who’s hustling whom and to what end. End titles omit certain facts, including King’s denial of her long affair with Marilyn, who sued for palimony when she was turned out, lost her case and may have in some sense been wronged. Battle of the Sexes depicts the pressure, release and glory of what it means — and what it costs — to be the best.

In this sense, Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine), evokes 2015’s best picture, Steve Jobs. Though not as thoughtful, rounded and rich, it also revels in being about ambition, ability and competing to be the best.

Buyer Beware of the News

How do you know what you know? This is the question studied in the field of epistemology. If you go by reason, it’s important to apply the question to today’s media, too. The freedom of speech implies freedom of the press and, as censorship and so-called soft censorship or suppressed speech worsens, trusting the facts you read, watch and hear becomes more challenging.

CNN’s recent report linking Russians to fake Twitter and Facebook accounts constantly posting about racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter (BLM) — one fake Facebook account for “Blacktivist” had thousands more ‘like’s than BLM’s official account — underscores the potential power of foreign and domestic enemies and adversaries to affect the course of American news, events and laws. The whole police-are-racist position may have been impacted by such false posts, claims of outrage and expressions of disgust. CNN’s report (read it here) shows that the Russian state-sponsored smear campaign against police, whites and American law enforcement was conducted with specific targets including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where controversial police shootings were being protested by BLM, leftists and others — and feverishly covered by the press.

CNN’s report raises disturbing questions about reporting, gathering, aggregating, disseminating and consuming facts, assertions and conclusions regarded as “the news”. Does Russia, which reportedly tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump, consider black outrage over police brutality and institutional racism to be distinctly pro-Trump in political terms? If so, what other steps if any has Russia taken to foster leftist and BLM outrage? Are riots and attacks by anarchists who show up whenever Nazis exercise free speech — or vice versa or both — funded by Russia? Amid a national sports controversy purportedly instigated by opposition to police racism, it’s legitimate to question the origins, sourcing and funding.

This is especially true because, increasingly, journalism in all forms is unduly influenced by unseen, anonymous and secondary sources such as posts on Twitter and Facebook. Today’s news assignment and segment producers and editors are as whim-worshipping as the president. The coverage of purported trends is often highly charged with emotionalism, sensationalism and hyperbole. News often comes in spurts to match short attention spans. Suddenly, the news is dominated by events in Houston — Florida — Puerto Rico — depending on a variety of factors, including ratings, advertising, favoritism, related crony-controlled entities and political bias.

In today’s perceptual-based media, news aggregators and prodcuers tend to pounce on whatever third-hand (or, sometimes, non-existent, as happened in Mexico) reports emanating from some batch of real, premeditated, purchased or automated posts that, in turn, feed pre-programmed algorithms calculated to determine what’s trending. This estimate then regurgitates the same false, distorted or misleading claims. This invariably feeds your small or large screen or page as what’s news.

Earlier this month, I cautioned against deciding which movie to see based on what a band of programmers decides by consensus (read my post on Rotten Tomatoes here). This week, as Saudi Arabia prepares to let women obtain permission to drive, someone using a word commonly and quite distinctly associated with Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) followers (the flipside of the left’s social justice warriors or SJWs) threatened to kill anyone supporting women drivers (read the article here). This makes me doubt whether the threat is credible.

Is someone really trying to stop any attempt to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern, civilized age? Who stands to gain from the press and public assuming that Saudi Arabia is encountering, facing and defeating opposition to women drivers? False claims of horrific threats have in some cases been found to have been self-generated by members of intended victim groups. Arsonists, in certain cases, are the firemen whose job is to put out fires. America’s history of enemy agents who infiltrate the highest levels of American government, movements, industry and institutions, from Soviet Russia’s Communist spies to Islamic terrorists’ agents in place, must also be kept in mind. The nation is deeply and severely fractured and divided over a range of complicated and serious issues. It stands to reason that America’s enemies will exploit the divisions.

So, CNN’s report is more evidence that outsider and insider forces have every reason to divide Americans, which makes one’s need to read, think and judge with ruthless rationality more urgent. Anyone opposed to statism is well warranted to conclude that failed statist schemes such as ObamaCare might be intended to fail — to lead to total statism. Or that terrorist threats feed the total surveillance state. And it is reasonable to suspect that fake news propagates the media, including social media — to achieve total government control of the media. Congress is now considering legislation to regulate social media, a threat that reeks of censorship which authoritarian Trump seems seriously predisposed to enact.

What can stop it is you, or, more broadly, each American reading, thinking and judging for himself or herself what’s real, what makes sense, whether a claim has a credible source, makes a credible assertion, fits a particular agenda, context or policy goal, who’s making the claim (and who influences, owns or controls who’s making the claim), what’s at stake, where reports are coming from, how it’s being delivered, i.e., with breathless emotionalism, and why it’s coming out now.

I first warned about the emergent need to better discern how media’s consumed in a February 13, 2015, blog post on “New Media and You” (read the post, in which I first used the term ‘fake news’, here). I addressed the issue again later that year after Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly engaged in a televised spat, which I saw not as a real conflict but as two sides of the same mangled and defective coin (read “The Circus Cycle” here).

More than ever, the reader, thinker and trader — anyone who thinks for himself — must beware of what’s news and, as a corollary, assert his absolute right to judge what’s news for himself.