Blade Runner 2049 (US-UK-Canada, 2017)

Life?

After seeing Arrival (US, 2016) I did start to get excited about this sequel to the 1982 classic, one of my favourite films. Denis Villeneuve is an exciting director and it was co-scripted by Hampton Fancher (who’d also co-scripted the original) thus the outlook was promising. All involved have delivered a visually stunning and mind boggling film; there are spoilers ahead.

It’s difficult to know where to start as there are so many ideas, drawn from the original and placed in a 2017 context, which makes this a film that needs a lot of thought. One thing we didn’t have in 1982, of course, was the Internet so now it is easy to see and engage in the discussion about the film.

In 1982 the buzz was that the film, which in those days were always released in America weeks in advance of their UK distribution, was amazing to look at. As an SF fan, particularly of Philip K. Dick, I had to see it and wasn’t disappointed. Obviously I saw the original version with the tagged on happy ending and explanatory voice over. Apparently Harrison Ford read the voice over, which he didn’t want to do, in as a dead pan way as he could hoping it wouldn’t be used. However, the world weary delivery was perfect for a film noir protagonist so it worked well. As for the ending, I understood it to mean (as we didn’t actually see Deckard and Rachel in a green world, it is only suggested) that we’d better look after our planet or we’ll end up in the dystopian world of 2019. Of course (because capitalism reigns) we haven’t looked after our planet and although I don’t expect it to go ‘tits up’ in two years it’s clear we are heading to a climate apocalypse of some description. The production design of 2049 is phenomenal (take a bow Dennis Gassner), the enormous sea walls of the climax are quite chilling, and the world is convincingly 30 years more shit than in the original.

SF is not a genre of prediction because, at its best, it is always about now. By extrapolating trends it seeks to hold a mirror to our world. AI was SF in 1982; now it’s with us. 2049, where most of the protagonists are not human, brilliantly investigates the philosophy of AI, and therefore what it means to be human. K’s relationship with Joi, an AI holograph, is contrasted with Mariette, a ‘pleasure model’. The latter says to the former, after one of the most bizarre and fascinating love/sex scenes ever filmed, (I’m paraphrasing) “There’s less inside you than you think.” A division between different types of humanoid AI is a fascinating idea.

Joi is a male fantasy in terms of her looks, and domestic devotion, and there’s a degree of understandable feminist flak about the representation of women in the film. The film is representing a patriarchal world, though few would dominate Robin Wright’s Lieut. Joshi, and so sexist representations are going to be used. The final time K sees Joi could be particularly exploitative of the female body, the narrative freezes in the way Laura Mulvey describes as typical of Classical Hollywood, but then ‘she’ speaks to him and the point is made. Our understanding of Joi’s and K’s relationship is that it was one of love. However, when she calls him Joe here, and it was she who had named him, we are reminded that she isn’t real, she calls everybody Joe. K stares at her presumably grieving for her but also questioning whether the love was real between them. Hence the narrative isn’t freezing but giving time for the audience (and K) to think: was his relationship with Joi real or a fantasy?

Objectified gratuitously?

Ryan Gosling’s taciturn (he’s always taciturn isn’t he?) Joe K refers to Franz Kafka’s The Trial; the modernist parable of an absurd world. The reference is to the existential angst of a meaningless life which fuels the film’s narrative trajectory; ultimately K’s life has meaning through altruistic sacrifice. His death scene in the snow, where the ‘tears in the rain’ music beautifully infiltrates the soundtrack, is extremely moving. One of the advantages for those of us old enough to have seen the original in 1982 is that 2049 works on our memories through subtle references. Of course anyone who’s seen the original will get the reference however, particularly sitting in the cinema, in an almost Proustian way, the references trigger vivid memories of the first experience of the film; well, they did for me. I was taken back 35 years and watched it with my, now long dead, dad.

Seeking a father is a key narrative driver of both films and movingly, through K, portrays the angst (maybe) experienced by a cyborg; a being with no biological father (or mother). Unlike the original, 2049 is equally interested in mothers and (evil capitalist) Niander Wallace wants to appropriate the female prerogative of being able to give birth. His actual blindness is a metaphor for his inability to understand that women are not meant to be under male power; in that he stands in for the numerous exploitative men that inhabit the film industry.

Male hubris

His (literal) sidekick, Luv, is another type of cyborg, one with fascist tendencies. She relishes being the ‘best’, as she says after beating up K. She enjoys destroying Joi and is aligned with capitalism when she remarks that she’s pleased K was satisfied with their product.

Another strong female, the cyborg revolutionary named after a Norse goddess, is Freysa and although a sequel in the near future seems unlikely, given 2049’s poor North American box office, it does appear that the human race in the film are doomed. To be honest, from the perspective of the dystopia of 2017, we probably deserve to be.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is brilliant, particularly the way he’s shot water (which brings us life) whether it’s the drops running down windscreens or the gorgeous ripple reflections in Wallace’s lair.

Hollywood is primarily interested in ‘worlds’ which can be transformed into franchises so, in some ways, box office failure is good as it discourages exploitation of ideas for purely commercial gain. Earlier this year Ghost in the Shell (UK-China-India-Hong Kong-US) attempted to remake the brilliant anime (Japan, 1995) into an origin story and I trust its poor quality (and box office) means that won’t happen. However, it is disappointing that cerebral SF films, that require $150m to make, are not a box office attraction; although it’s performed well in the UK and not bad internationally.

I’ve mentioned a few of ideas that are raised in Blade Runner 2049 but there’s a lot more to say. The ‘father-son’ fight, K and Deckard, played out amongst malfunctioning holograms in a ruined Las Vegas, was a tour de force and the eerie red lit mise en scene was haunting until, bizarrely, the sky turned red in the UK a few days ago as the ex-hurricane Ophelia barrelled up the coast of Ireland. It is a film that needs seeing more than once and, for once, the long running time is a bonus because there’s so much to see and you get time to think.

Climactic apocalypse

One thing that I don’t think the makers have right about the world of the future and that is it will be dominated by Caucasians. Like the original, 2049 has been taken to task for its representation of race. Like the original, most white people have gone ‘off world’ to escape the hellish world. They do so because they can afford it; the ‘little people’ are left behind. One shift of the last 35 years is the declining influence of white American power, accelerating under Trump, and the rise of Chinese and Indian influence. The protagonists of international cinema in 30 years time won’t necessarily be American. However, while North America remains the world’s biggest box office it’s likely that the hegemonic white (and male) perspective will continue.

Blade Runner 2049 is a haunting film that asks big questions and is great cinema.

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Lucy (France-Taiwan-Canada, 2014)

An American superhero made in France

An American superhero made in France

In the film ‘corner’ of cyberspace, amongst liberal circles at least, there’s much debate about when Disney/Marvel are going to produce a female superhero. This is when Russia is invading Ukraine; an apocalyptic cult is enforcing Middle Age justice on anyone they can; Ebola is devastating western Africa; citizens can’t feed and house themselves, not new I know but increasingly a problem in the UK. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is the only high profile female superhero in recent films and she only plays a supporting role in The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Yet here she is playing Lucy, a woman who acquires superhero powers blitzing the box office; she’s currently taken nearly three times as much as the ageing males of The Expendables 3 in North America.

Writer-director Luc Besson has a reputation for producing female protagonists, though I found La Femme Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) misogynist, and he’s scored with Lucy. It’s not strictly a superhero film, there’s no costume, but there are superpowers. In this sequel-driven industry it’ll be a surprise if she doesn’t come back and it would be a welcome return even though the film isn’t anything special.

Johansson, as usual, is excellent, particularly as the scatty student inveigled into giving a Korean gangster a suitcase. The gangster is played by the great Korean actor Choi Min-sik and his characterisation will have to down as another example of EuropaCorp’s (Besson’s company) xenophobia – see here; there are no positive East Asian characters. Once Lucy becomes ‘super’ she becomes less interesting but there’s plenty of cod philosophy, and physics, to keep audiences distracted. I liked Besson’s use of Eisensteinean montage in the early scenes when shots of wildlife hunters and prey and cut into the scene when Lucy is the prey of the Koreans.

As far as I remember, Johansson’s body is only objectified once; a shot at the airport that moves up her body from behind. There’s far more of her body on show in Under the Skin a film that probably won’t titillate much given its disturbing qualities. This is an important issue because patriarchy tries use women’s body as a way of controlling females – see the recent ‘hacking’ of nude, personal pictures of female ‘celebrities’. That is as absurd as Seth McFarlane’s ‘We saw your boobs’ song at last year’s Oscars and parades male stupidity to anyone with a maturity beyond adolescence. As Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the release of the images, parody account tweeted today:

‘If a man stands in the middle of the forest speaking, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?’

It’s a fair comment even if those of us who do not feel the need to prove they are men are categorised with the idiots who deal with their own inadequacies by trolling women that have the audacity to speak their mind and/or have a high profile.

Lucy is a film with a powerful female protagonist and I particularly like Amr Waked’s cop who can do nothing but get out of Lucy’s way in order to help her.

A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK, 2013)

A failure of form?

A failure of form?

This first screening of Conrad Clark’s second feature, at the Bradford International Film Festival, had the director in attendance and he explained he was attempting an ethnographic approach to portray the effects of global capitalism. He does this but I thought the film to be poorly made. Others have responded far more positively, see here, and Roy’s view here. Why didn’t I like it?

Narratively it’s obtuse; and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience has to work to fill in the gaps between the ‘slices of life’, about a female Chinese entrepreneur in the UAE. Sang Juan’s Le Fei, the protagonist, is also unlikeable as a character; she often rudely berates her workers; though I acknowledge that’s probably a cultural judgement. Again, I’m not against narratives that don’t offer easily identifiable characters but when, at the end, we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for her – through mise en scene and music – I wondered why we are purposefully alienated from her at the start. So, I didn’t find the narrative convincing; the direction, for me, was also at fault.

Again I’m not against, per se, poorly composed shots and/or non ‘classical’ styles. Indeed the handheld ‘realist’ style, here almost certainly dictated by budgetary constraints, has much to offer. However, when Clark insists on shooting a conversation using whip pans he does risk both nausea in the audience and being asked the question (politely I didn’t stay for the Q&A) ‘what’s wrong with shot/reverse-shot?’. Similarly he insists on using extreme close-ups, both in sound and vision, presumably to bring us closer to Le Fei, but again it risks ‘unpleasure’ when we experience her slurping noodles. Similarly, the camera often follows characters close-up from behind, which reminded me of the Dardenne brothers’ technique in Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999). Whilst in Rosetta I felt the eponymous protagonist’s determination to get on, here I experienced being dragged along on characters’ backs.

As Roy notes, there are a few scenes which are clearly documentary in nature; they look like Clark has asked itinerant workers to talk about their lives to one another. Interesting, yes, but they didn’t fit in with the film. As my recent posts on Kim Ki-duk films suggests, I am very interested in hearing about the downtrodden in our world, but there was too much wrong with the film for me to hear them clearly.

And I’m still uncertain as to why she was ‘fallible’ or why she was a ‘girl’ and not a woman.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (US-UK-Qatar, 2012)

THE-RELUCTANT-FUNDAMENTALIST_STILL_1-1024x842

Who Do I Identify With?

I haven’t read Mohsin Hamid’s novel on which the film is based which is an oversight as anything, like Amy Waldman’s excellent The Submission, that tries to get to grips with the ‘war on terror’, which threatens to run as long as the wars in Orwell’s 1984, is important. There was a lot to like about the adaptation, not least Riz Ahmed’s performance in the lead. The subtleties of identity politics are well rendered as Ahmed’s Changez finds himself caught between tradition and rampant capitalism. Kiefer Sutherland, incidentally, excels as the slimy capitalist, a role he may be danger of becoming typecast in – see Melancholia.

The febrile atmosphere of Lahore is thrillingly caught; a fellow member of the audience told me that only a few exteriors were shot in Lahore, not surprisingly given the state of play in Pakistan at the moment. The glass mausoleums of capitalism are also well shot though the problems inherent in using ‘9/11’ footage (that it was far more dramatic than anything cinema can render) were not resolved.

But… While I understood the reasons for the romance narrative, Changez is after all a young man seeking his way in the world, this didn’t ‘come off’ at all. Changez is in his early 20s and while there’s no reason why he wouldn’t fall for a thirty something Kate Hudson (34), she looked far older to me; unlikely as it is, she seemed to have suffered from botox. But that’s probably just me.

Without spoiling the film, I can comment that I admired the way Changez developed convincingly throughout the film but found the final scene, with Liev Schrieber’s journalist, risible. The expression on Schrieber’s character’s face should be mortified and not a wry smile.

Incidentally I saw this at a packed out screening at the close of the Bradford International Film Festival.

The Impossible (Spain, 2012)

Wish I weren't here

Wish I weren’t here

In the first film post of the year I talked about international cinema and The Impossible is another good example. For many people the only clue that the film is Spanish would come if they stayed to watch the end credits where the, actors apart, names are indubitably from the Iberian peninsula. Why would anyone think it was Spanish? After all the film is in English, focuses upon an English family and has enough spectacle for a Hollywood film. The clue that it’s not Hollywood is in the dearth of American characters; the most prominent of which, though briefly seen, are portrayed as bossy and selfish. Despite the film’s brilliance, its struggling to make an impact in America, though it is still on a limited release there.

The film recounts the true story (if it weren’t true we wouldn’t believe it I expect) of a Spanish family caught by the tsunami in Thailand, in 2004. Aussie Watts and Scot McGregor are playing English characters though in recognition that this will give the film more commercial prospects. In other words, if they hadn’t had their nationalities transposed the 30m Euro budget wouldn’t have been available. Only 30m?! It looked a lot more, the tsunami is brilliantly shown as is the devastation afterwards. JA Bayona’s febrile direction captures the fraught circumstances of the survivors, both physically and psychologically, as their first thoughts are for their missing members of their families.

It is in this that the film really triumphs; its portrayal of the survivors’ desperation to find their loved ones is truly moving. I doubt I’ll see a more lachrymose movie this year. The cast is exemplary particularly Lucas, the elder son, (Tom Holland) who is the focus of much of the narrative.

The film has been criticised for, typically, turning a developing world tragedy into a drama focusing upon westerners. A well thought through piece on this can be accessed here. The argument does hold water though, as noted above, the economics of filmmaking are such that a story of a Thai family, or even Thailand, would not get made to this scale. The anonymous bloggers states:

‘When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.’

This is a misrepresentation as one of the rescuers constants talks to Maria (Watts) albeit in the form of ‘jabbering’. But I don’t think this is a colonialist view of other languages but a representation from Maria’s perspective. I’ve no doubt that the man’s words (almost certainly encouraging) were perceived as ‘jabber’ in her painful and anxious state. In addition, the (silent it is true) locals who tend are shown to be wonderfully caring; but the film’s not their story. Later, at the hospital, the Thais are shown to be dealing with chaos both professionally and with care. That said, I would like to see a film that dealt with the appropriation of the fishermans’ devastated land to build tourist hotels in the aftermath – see Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

Mawkishness is often very near the lachrymose but this is a true story (more or less) and as a portrayal of human resilience and community (I was tearing up badly when Henry – McGregor – is offered mobile phone to complete a call home) I doubt this will be bettered this year.

Life of Pi (US-Taiwan-Aus-UK-Can, 2012)

FInding God? Don't think so.

Finding God? Don’t think so.

I didn’t get on with Yann Martel’s novel so I shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t ‘get’ Ang Lee’s take on it. Harry Cohn, mogul at Columbia during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, stated that if his ass started itching the movie was no good. My ass started itching 90 minutes into Pi which probably says more about my attention span than the movie.

CGI films tend to leave me cold, my concentration is is deflected by the glossy sheen of digital images and this film is ‘special effect’ heavy. However, they are at the service of the narrative, which apparently is intended to convince us of the existence of God. It was setting itself an impossible task. The CGI tiger (it is real only 14% of the time) is, however, utterly convincingly; visual-effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, has done a stunning job. The sea, however, as usual, is much less than real; though much of it was shot in a tank in Taiwan.

Some of the imagery was stunning, particularly the utterly still sea, and the lead, newcomer Suraj Sharma, is as good as the tiger. The film’s an interesting example of the internationalisation of cinema: Canadian source material; Taiwanese director; Gerard Depardieu cameos; American scriptwriter (David Magee); Chilean cinematographer (Claudio Miranda); in addition to the five countries cited above as producers. The $120m production budget requires a worldwide audience; currently it’s taken $214m in total.

The group I was with enjoyed the film; I was thinking of the curry we were eating afterwards.