Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Okay. Let’s get it straight right from the start. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is one of my all-time favourite films. I own multiple versions of it, watched documentaries and read books about it, studied it and written academic papers about it. So, I went in to see Blade Runner 2049 with the academic side of me harbouring some fairly hefty concerns and the rest of me full of fan-girl anticipation.

I came out floored. I wasn’t expecting it to be THAT good. I think this is a wonderful film and is true not only to Scott’s 1982 masterpiece but also to the original source material, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K Dick.

The screenplay by Hampton Fancher (one of the writers of Blade Runner) and Michael Green is terrific and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is simply beautiful. But I think the big technical gongs go to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer for the soundtrack and Joe Walker for film editing.

Wallfisch and Zimmer breathe life into a score that evokes the memory of the Vangelis original but takes it in new and interesting directions, and Walker’s editing (particularly of the fight scenes) is simply sublime.

Though I loved him in Drive (2011) I was uncertain about Ryan Gosling but I shouldn’t have worried. Gosling is excellent as the LAPD Blade Runner. Similarly, Harrison Ford puts in one of his better performances, reprising his role as Rick Deckard and Robin Wright steals every scene she’s in – as always!

Villeneuve obviously loves the original film – it shows in so many ways. The framing and shot selection, lighting and colour palette all fit with and hark back to the original. There’s a thoughtful stillness at the core of this film that is lacking in so much of contemporary sci fi, and it talks (much like the original) about identity and what it is to be human. Blade Runner 2049 is a loving tribute but also a huge step forward in science fiction film. More like this please!

Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017) Directed by Christopher Nolan.

My parents were married only a few months before WWII started – yes, I was a very late baby for them! Although my father wasn’t allowed to serve in the armed forces (he was busy teaching people how to build machinery in munitions factories) both he and my mother had friends who served in Europe and the Pacific. By the time I arrived, my mother especially talked a surprising amount about the war, friends who made it through, those who never came home. So when I saw Dunkirk recently, it had quite a profound effect on me and bought back a lot of childhood memories.

I should say from the outset that Christopher Nolan’s vision isn’t entirely historically accurate as I understand it. The pontoon dubbed “the mole” was actually the main point of departure for evacuees and there’s little mention of the French forces and their role in holding back the German forces. Nevertheless, I think this is a stunning, beautifully made and quintessentially British film.

Like much of Nolan’s work, Dunkirk plays with temporality and after the first time shift, it’s an excellent device to show the different points of view of the three main protagonists. These are the young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and the RAF pilot (Tom Hardy). These main characters are ably supported by the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Mark Ryeland, who bring depth to proceedings.

There is more than a passing nod to other British film makers too, most obviously David Lean. The sweeping views of the beach, filled with real live extras rather than computer generated images, particularly brings Lean to mind. And the aerial combat is really wonderfully shot and edited, with Tom Hardy giving a great performance – mostly with his eyes!

For me though, the glue that holds it all together is the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. Perhaps it’s the musician in me but I find so many contemporary soundtracks intrusive and more inclined to bludgeon the viewer towards the required emotional response. Here, Zimmer creates a soundscape that works almost seamlessly with the visual tension to heighten both viewer response and immersion in the action. Yes, it is loud and at times almost overwhelming – but so is the subject matter.

Recommended for a cinema experience.

No One Can Run – CD Review

 

Last week, in between snow and spring sunshine, I had the opportunity to attend a CD launch by Hobart-based musician, Matt Dean. I’ve played quite a few shows with Matt over the years, perhaps most memorably, a Butterscotch Pony single launch in Launceston a few years ago. It was lovely to catch up with people, not have the pressure to play myself and hang out with friends, especially Matt.

This CD, ‘No One Can Run’ is (I think) Matt’s third solo release in about as many years and there’s a profound step up here in every way. I think the six songs on this disc are musically his best pieces so far, lyrically far stronger, very tastefully arranged and the whole benefits from the solid production of Mike Raine. I must also mention that Matt is offering download cards as well as physical CD’s and has produced a wonderful, limited edition booklet to go with this (which he keeps telling everyone, isn’t an autobiography), but gives further insight to the songs and Matt’s back story.

Thematically, the songs are all intensely personal, documenting a relationship breakdown, but I didn’t find them maudlin. Rather, there’s something really genuine in Matt’s words that reaches audiences and speaks (to me at least) about love, loss and learning lessons as part of the journey.

While the recorded tracks have added instruments and they’re well played, I love hearing Matt perform live – just him and acoustic guitar. There’s an immediacy that really displays the man’s skill and the depth of his message. I liken it to a painting in the naive art tradition. On the surface, there’s a direct frankness and simplicity – but if you look a little deeper, there’s complexity, pain and joy.

You can find ‘No One Can Run’ at Matt’s Bandcamp page but I’d recommend contacting him via email to see if you can get the CD, download card and booklet package, especially if you don’t live here. Worth doing!

Logan

Logan (2017) Directed by James Mangold.

I’ve always been a fan of big, loud comic book movies. I love a couple of hours of mindless escapism, particularly if there’s well-constructed set pieces, computer graphics that don’t detract from the action, strong characters and a good story.

Suffice it to say, most of the X-Men franchise left a lot to be desired in many of these areas for me (despite my enduring love for Sir Patrick Stewart), and I always thought that they pandered to a far younger audience than the source material warranted. In particular, I always wanted to see a Wolverine movie that wasn’t sugar coated.

Finally, James Mangold gave us Logan and I couldn’t be happier.

Right from the outset, Mangold informs us that this is not a popcorn flick for the kiddies. The story is dark, there is plenty of bad language and a lot of quite explicit violence, which I think are all necessary in underpinning the humanity of this film. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart reprise their roles as Logan and Professor Charles Xavier for one last time.

Logan is now visibly aged, his body is no longer immediately regenerating – even his eyesight is failing him, and seeing Wolverine wearing reading glasses was rather lovely. Let’s face it, this is Hugh Jackman, so he is still good looking, but no longer in a youthful, sensual way, which anecdotally some female friends found difficult to deal with. (Female spectatorship and objectification are very much alive and well!) Xavier is gaunt and elderly, suffering from a degenerative brain disorder and requires regular medication to stop him from killing everyone in his immediate vicinity. Logan is keeping him isolated near the Mexican border, and in the care of another mutant, Caliban (played very well by an almost unrecognisable Stephen Merchant).

Into this mix comes Laura, a young mutant who is on the run from a corporation. She is played with alarming ferocity and skill by Dafne Keen who manages to express so much with very little dialogue – it’s a stunning and incredibly mature performance. On the other side of the equation is Dr Rice (played with all the expected urbane menace by Richard E. Grant), who is performing ghoulish experiments on mutants, including young Laura.

The results are a violent, foul-mouthed, yet strangely beautiful and thoughtful take on universal questions about difference, friendship, family and death. This is the X-Men movie I’ve always wanted – a legitimately adult, well-made action movie, set firmly within a comic book universe that also tackles big themes with care and consideration.

I saw it in the cinema when it was first released in Australia earlier this year, and I confess I cried at a couple of key points, especially the end. I watched it again last night and I’m not ashamed to say it moved me to tears again.

Absolutely one of my favourite films of this year.

Ah, Spring!

Yes, it’s finally spring in the southern hemisphere – according to the calendar. The weather systems across southern Australia had other ideas this past week! It’s snowed down to the suburbs of Hobart and even I’ve noticed some sleet occasionally this week, particularly when I’ve been doing the late afternoon feed of the animals and picking veggies for dinner. Not good news for the nectarine or apricot tree that are now in full flower, but that’s the way it goes. I’ll be interested to see what kind of crops I get from them in January. Also, the beautiful Bella Bunny is due to birth her kits in the next few days. She’s made a gorgeous, silky nest in the nursery hutch out of her belly fur and if this cold weather doesn’t stress her out too much, I imagine there’ll be a litter of baby bunnies very soon ❤

Meanwhile, I’m not doing any of the things I thought I would this weekend. Instead of going to the movies today, I’ve been distracted by books, most particularly ‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan Le Fanu that I’ve been reading for my current university unit about Gothic and speculative fiction. It’s a small volume that was originally published as a serial in The Dark Blue in 1871-2 and is reputed to have influenced Bram Stoker when he was writing ‘Dracula’.

I’ve found it incredibly entertaining and I’m well into my second reading now. It contains all the classic tropes of Gothic fiction, an isolated, motherless heroine living in an old castle far removed from society. She yearns for a companion, a friend of similar age to her – and then Carmilla arrives in dramatic fashion into the story! The attraction between the two girls is well written and it’s at times surprisingly terrifying.

In tandem, I’ve also been reading ‘The Blood of the Vampire’ by Florence Marryat, (which sports one of the best covers ever) and while it’s a great read, it doesn’t have the same levels of tension that Le Fanu manages. Interestingly, I found Marryat’s characters far more believable and real (for want of a better term) than La Fanu’s and I think that might be part of Carmilla’s charm. The whole story has a dreamlike quality that’s very hard to pull off, and I think it’s one of the elements that makes ‘Carmilla’ such an enduring work. Both of these titles are available through Valancourt Classics and (naturally) I bought mine from Cracked and Spineless in Hobart.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll get some gardening done (it’s been too wet and cold to do much this past week) and hopefully, the soil will start warming up and I can start planting for summer.

Meanwhile, I’ve got some more reading to do 😀 Take care everyone, particularly my US-based friends who’re having quite a wild time at the moment. Stay safe ❤

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth (2016) Screenplay by Alice Birch (based on ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ by Nikolai Leskov). Directed by William Oldroyd.

The weather, (being spring in Tasmania) has taken a turn for the worse, so I’ve been watching lots of movies – and what better backdrop for an unashamedly Gothic drama. Lady Macbeth has been on my list since mid year, when I heard a very positive review by Mark Kermode on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast. I don’t usually buy into movie hype, preferring to make up my own mind, but in the case of Lady Macbeth, all of it is true.

I should say that this is not a movie for the faint-of-heart and doesn’t hold back. It is by turns, breathtakingly beautiful, sensual, obsessive, passionate, brutally violent and tragic. And I loved every minute of it.

Set in 1860’s England, this is the story of Katherine, a young girl who was “purchased along with a piece of land not fit to put a cow on” by wealthy collier’s son Alexander Lester and becomes his wife. As Mrs Lester, she is forced to conform to what ladies are and how they should behave, though Alexander shows no sexual interest in her and Katherine has no interest in conforming for any man.

One of the most notable things about this film (and there are many) are the use of landscape and place. The house is cold and shuttered each night, and scenes of Katherine looking out to the surrounding forest are all the more effective as the trees are reflected in the windows that encase her. The surrounding moorland is bleak but strangely exhilarating and an opportunity for freedom for Katherine.

I was surprised to find this was William Oldroyd’s directorial feature debut, but his background is in theatre and opera direction and here, he shines. The framing and lighting are glorious and precise throughout and Oldroyd allows the actors to do their jobs without getting too much in the way. The silences and stillness tell as much as the characters’ conversations – but that is not to say that the dialogue lacks in any way. The fine screenplay by Alice Birch is an adaption of Leskov’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, a 19th century work I’m not familiar with but I intend to seek out.

Overall, the sound design provides a sense of oppressive stillness in the house and there is almost no music in the entire film, relying instead on the natural soundscape. This works in tandem with the subtle direction and is a welcome relief from the many soundtracks in films that constantly tell the viewer what we’re supposed to be feeling.

The subjugation of women is a strong theme throughout the film but Katherine’s passion, which turns to obsession and finally, a twisted, steely resolve is central to the movie. The cast are without exception excellent – but Florence Pugh is utterly astonishing in the lead role.

In the final act, it would’ve been so very easy for this to descend into standard Gothic-themed melodrama, but it never does. The tragedy is too real for that.

A modern Gothic masterpiece.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) EuropaCorp Films, screenplay and directed by Luc Besson.

I’m a very forgiving film-goer. If a story is really good, or if a filmmaker has a particularly unique or ground-breaking vision I’m happy to buy into it. In short, I’d rather see films that are out of the ordinary and aren’t just playing it safe. Sadly, Luc Besson’s latest offering isn’t any of those things.

The source for this extravaganza are the much-loved and celebrated comic books by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin, which first appeared in the 1970’s and I confess I haven’t read them, though I plan to in coming weeks.

I should point out my allegiance from the outset. Lucy (2014) and Subway (1985) are interesting films I really enjoyed, and Leon: The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) while both flawed movies remain firm personal favourites. But from the very start, there’s something not quite right about Valerian.

It opened very promisingly, with the wonderful set up of Alpha (and a much too brief cameo by Rutger Hauer). In the first act however, there’s a narrative misstep that set up a dissonance which jarred and stayed with me for the whole film. On the plus side, the visuals are sumptuous, the styling is really beautiful and the fight scenes (hand to hand and space battles) are well choreographed.

The second act lost its way badly, getting bogged down in an unnecessary subplot. This held up the action and made me focus more on the actors. While I admire Clive Owen, I feel he was only there for the pay check. Sam Spruell was much better as General Okto-Bar and both Herbie Hancock and Ethan Hawke were too briefly on screen.

With respect to casting, three things stand out in this film. Firstly, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are very pretty and have the right look for the film. As a property that’s developed from an existing visual source, that’s reasonably important. Secondly, they couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper bag and have zero on-screen chemistry. One of the many saving graces of The Fifth Element is the casting of some serious acting talent, in particular, established action star Bruce Willis, who carries the film on his back, with able assistance from Ian Holm and the always watchable Gary Oldman. Sadly, there is no heavyweight help here – they don’t have enough screen time to pull it out of the mire. Third and finally, while I’m no fan of her music, Rihanna is fabulous as Bubble, and I think it’s worth seeing this just for her scenes.

I think in many ways Valerian shows how far ahead of its time The Fifth Element was. Besson has admitted that the original comics influenced his earlier film greatly and there were framing moments, edits in action scenes, even sections of dialogue in Valerian that took me back to it. So I think I’ll watch The Fifth Element again.

In conclusion, it’s an okay popcorn flick, the two leads drag it down but it was worth paying to see it on the big screen just for the spectacle.

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