Blade Runner 2049 (Full Review)

Wine isn’t for everybody. While some find it to be a pleasant, and bold tasting elixir that soothes the soul, others find it bitter and unsatisfying. The original 1982 Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott was a technical masterpiece and a pillar for neo-noir science fiction. It is also an acquired taste. While the film gave us striking imagery and thought provoking undertones, some just couldn’t get passed the melancholy pacing. But like a fine wine, to me the original gets better with age. And over three decades later, Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), delivers a sequel that provokes the same sentiments.

Blade_Runner_2049_logoTo understand this sequel, it is inherently necessary to be somewhat familiar with the original film adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel. The world of Blade Runner is mostly a grim wasteland and artificial humans known as replicants are used as slave labor to keep society afloat. These replicants mostly serve their constructed purposes with obedience, but when they do go off the rails, they are hunted down and “retired” by cops nicknamed blade runners.

Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years after the events of the first film, when blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was charged with retiring five replicants but ended up falling in love with one and disappearing with her. Replicants are now being made by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to be much more subservient to the extent that replicants like Officer K (Ryan Gosling) are even being used as blade runners to hunt their own kind. When retiring a rogue replicant (Dave Bautista) leads to a shocking revelation, K is forced by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), to carry out a secret mission that could alter the fabric of society if he fails.

Like in the first, this film often moves at a dreary, sluggish pace that could be mind numbingly boring for some. But that isn’t something that should deter anyone who has ever sat down and enjoyed classic noir film’s like Casablanca or Taxi Driver. What the film lacks in suspense and action it makes up for in spectacular visuals and suave and swift performances. In those regards, Blade Runner 2049 actually manages to be even better than its predecessor.

The complexity that comes with the primary protagonist being a replicant himself adds tremendous tension to the plot. His interactions with members of both parties, as well as his struggles to understand his own humanity are gorgeously illustrated by his romantic relationship to an artificial intelligence named Joi (Ana De Armas) as well as his banter with Harrison Ford’s grizzly old Deckard. And just because the pacing tends to lull doesn’t mean the film isn’t void of some gripping action sequences. A climactic battle between K and Niander Wallace’s intimidating henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is wonderfully executed and stunningly filmed.

Aside from maintaining the sound and visual elements that made the 1982 film such a cult classic, Blade Runner 2049 manages to improve on the franchise’s lore with a more invigorating story and enthralling new characters. It is sure to bore some, but anyone with appreciation for the first will be undeniably impressed with this more than worthy successor.

FINAL GRADE: A

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Alien: Covenant (Full Review)

Back in 2012, Ridley Scott attempted to revitalize his science fiction/horror Alien franchise with Prometheus. Despite having a star studded cast and a premise filled with intrigue, Prometheus left me (and tons of franchise purists) a bit dissatisfied. It was by no means a lousy movie, but it failed to answer many of its own questions and was also void of the horror elements that made the original films so suspenseful. Having heard all of the gripes back then, it’s only natural to expect Scott to right the wrongs of Prometheus with Alien: Covenant.

Alien_Covenant_Teaser_PosterTaking place 10 years after Prometheus, this film follows the voyage of a ship on its way to colonize a new planet. After an on-board malfunction causes them to lose their captain, the crew decides to answer a distress call on a nearby habitable planet rather than re-enter cryogenetic sleep to reach their original destination. Little do they know, there are deadly alien creatures waiting to rip them apart upon arrival.

For the most part the crew (or inevitable victims if you’re familiar with the franchise) is intrinsically likable. Katherine Waterston does an amicable job as Daniels, the Covenant Captain’s widow and the film’s lead. She is humble and does a solid job conveying all the necessary emotions, but it’s admittedly difficult to distinguish the character’s personality from the previous film’s lead (Noomi Rapace). Danny McBride brings surprising emotion and southern charm to his role as Tennessee, the ship’s pilot. Carmen Ejogo and Billy Crudup do their best as the husband and wife duo entrusted to lead the crew after their captain’s untimely demise. Michael Fassbender returns to the franchise as Walter, a humanoid robot built by the expedition’s founder Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce in a cameo role). Just like in Prometheus, Fassbender’s performance is hauntingly magnetic and the film’s driving force.

It’s hard to truly delve into the problems and successes of Alien: Covenant without revealing heavy spoilers. But it is important to note that the film is a direct sequel to Prometheus. This not only means familiarity with the previous film is a must to understand much of Alien: Covenant, but it also makes the movie associate more with its underwhelming prequel than to the beloved first two films in the franchise. Just like in Prometheus, the true villain isn’t a terrifying alien and although there are still tons of creepy horror moments, the movie is more stomach churningly gruesome than it is outright scary.

The movie does deserve credit for making its characters a touch smarter than the ones in Prometheus (but only a slight touch) and unlike the previous installment, Covenant actually manages to answer more questions than it leaves on the table. But it still doesn’t do much to make itself more memorable. While it certainly doesn’t hearken back to the 1979 or 1986 films in thrills or suspense, Covenant does manage to be an intriguing and fun, albeit generic entry worth a watch for fans of the genre but possibly dismissive for anyone else.

FINAL GRADE: B

The Martian Review

Ridley Scott brought us such cinematic classics as The Gladiator and Blade Runner, but lately, it seems the famed director has lost his touch. Prometheus was underwhelming, The Counselor was a flat out mess, and just thinking about last winter’s Exodus: Gods and Kings sends me into a world of frustration. Simply put… Ridley Scott, you owe us one.

The_Martian_film_posterScott’s latest film follows the trend of recent fall space films such as Gravity and Interstellar which trade big budget action sequences for scientific realism. If you’ve seen those films then you should know to prepare yourself for a movie that is more Cast Away than Star Trek. The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a U.S. Astronaut who gets stranded on Mars after he gets separated from his crew during a violent storm. Presuming him dead, the world grieves until they find out that Watney has managed to not only survive the storm, but also figure out a way to stay alive until a 4 year manned rescue mission can be put together.

Some (the same people bored by Gravity and Interstellar) will be bored by The Martian. The story is often methodical and filled with scientific jargon you aren’t really meant to understand as much as accept. What makes The Martian captivating through its meticulous pacing is a surprising dose of humor thanks in large part to the charisma of its lead actor. Matt Damon’s charm and ability to bring a humbling sense of emotion to his character made me route for him as if he really was stranded alone on a barren planet. The supporting cast, loaded with big names and recognizable faces, is mostly good, but not memorable. The exception is Donald Glover as a quirky astronomer who is hilarious in limited screen time.

Although the journey feels lengthy, it is undeniably fascinating and heartfelt. The movie also provides breathtaking visuals along the landscaping of Mars, although you’d be foolish to pay the extra money for 3D here. Overall, The Martian may not be a classic, or as suspenseful as 2013’s award winning Gravity, but it is an educational and amiable story about human courage and resilience. And more importantly, it is enough to get Ridley Scott back in our good graces.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Full Review)

You don’t have to be a religious historian to know and love the story of Exodus. It has all of the elements of a great epic; a reluctant hero, romance, mysticism, and a very strong message about faith. At least… that’s what it’s supposed to have. These days, Hollywood can get their hands on any property and do their computer generated best to make it as bland as possible.

poster-1Enter Ridley Scott’s Exodus. His film has all of the pieces; an already concise source material, a strong actor in Christian Bale playing the role of Prince of Egypt turned slave liberator, Moses, and a budget that allows him to skip no details or hold anything back. And yet, he seems to find a way to squander most of this in the span of an unnecessarily lengthy two and a half hours.

Scott’s film doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be the story of Exodus, or just another generic swords and sandals epic. We are bombarded with an opening battle scene that serves next to no purpose and minutes and minutes of loud chariot rides through the desert, but we don’t get time dedicated to the things that actually matter.  Gone is the sense of camaraderie and brotherly love that is supposed to exist between Moses and tyrannical Pharoah to be, Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). And you can forget about the loving relationship between Moses and wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde). They meet, they have a conversation, they make goo-goo eyes at each other, and they are married in the next scene. There are also parts that are just flat out nonsensical: Exactly how are slaves able to go out in the wilderness to receive battle training?

Sure, the scope and grandeur of the film is appealing at times. The plagues and the overall massive size of the sets are pretty impressive. But even some of this gets lost in an epic mess. The plagues aren’t given much reasoning other than God (portrayed mostly in the form of a little boy) being angry and vengeful and the parting of the Red Sea (perhaps the most famous part of the story) is the most underwhelming scene in the movie.

Sadly enough, performances aren’t enough to rescue the film either. Christian Bale is good, when he isn’t fighting his natural European accent, but the rest of the cast is downright forgettable. Edgerton’s Ramesses comes off as a stubborn, spoiled, simpleton and Ben Kinglsey is given basically nothing to do, which is more than can be said about Sigourney Weaver’s Tuya, who could’ve been left from the movie completely.

It’s a shame the director of films like Blade RunnerGladiator, and American Gangster picked such a worthy story to ignore plot and characterization. Exodus: Gods and Kings feels just like another loud blockbuster. If you want eye popping spectacle then, by all means, enjoy… but if emotion, cohesion or just a simple sense of adventure is what you’re looking for, then just go watch Prince of Egypt.

FINAL GRADE: C-

I’m back… with a review of The Counselor

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Have you ever watched a trailer for a movie with an ensemble cast and thought, “Oh… this’ll be a great movie”, even if you don’t know or understand the plot from said two minute snippet? That’s what I did when I saw the preview for The Counselor. On paper, what’s not to like? Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, 12 Years a Slave), Javier Bardem (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men), Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt… the list of acting talent goes on and on. Rosie Perez and John Leguizamo even make brief appearances. It accounts for arguably the best cast in any movie this month. Throw in Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, American Gangster) as director and the expectation is set for what should be a great film… right?

Almost. Somewhere along the road, something was missed. And it took several minutes after the movie’s conclusion for me to pinpoint the problem. It isn’t the grim finale. There have been several movies with such an ending that are great films (The Korean film Oldboy comes to mind). It certainly isn’t the actors themselves. Fassbender is solid as the lead character, a lawyer who gets mixed up in drug trafficking to give his beloved wife the sweet life. Brad Pitt is his usual charismatic self as a Cowboy hat wearing, middle man. And perhaps the most captivating is Cameron Diaz, who is as sexy and sinister as I’ve ever seen her.

The problem is the story itself… which is an issue that would make any moviegoer scratch their head, because it’s perhaps the most important element of any film. No matter how many talented actors you jam into a movie, if there isn’t an interesting enough plot to drive the film, then it will almost always fall flat. I found myself unsure of the plot and direction of the film nearly forty-five minutes in.  That’s more than enough time to lose interest, especially in a film that trades action sequences for complex conversation.

There are some interesting anecdotes here and there, but several of the film’s themes seem a bit backwards and misguided. Many of the characters share “interesting” views on the opposite sex and I’m still not sure if the director was trying to make social commentary or create plot points with these and other exchanges. It all just seems to amount to a boring, un-relatable, lecture without a valid point. And no amount of casting can save that.

FINAL GRADE: C