The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls. But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.
“I’m the best one,” a coolly sinister replicant (Sylvia Hoeks) declares amidst haunting imagery of walking backwards into dark, surging water in Blade Runner 2049‘s chilling climax.
If one is to believe the declaration of a doctor (Carla Juri) who specializes in fabricating human memories for implantation into replicants earlier in the film… that there’s a little bit of the artist in each one…then one might draw the conclusion that replicant mentioned above is speaking for none other than director Denis Villeneuve. He’s operating on a well-known (and much copied) property in this “30 years later” update of Ridley Scott’s classic neo-noir sci-fi…but he’s very much put his own stamp on it. There’s also a bit of “killing your darlings” in his daring showmanship, symbolically murdering his forefather Scott along with his oft-compared contemporaries David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. Yes, Denis…you are the best one.
But there’s more subtext (and context) than just “the mark of the artist” in Blade Runner 2049…there’s also philosophical pondering on artificial intelligence, slavery, and what it means to be human. Meanwhile, on the surface, the film tick-tock’s through the motions of your traditional noir detective story. Continue reading
“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.
Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.
Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.
Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show. Continue reading
A piece of human scoria (Billy Burke) with strong ties to the Bangkok criminal underworld murders an underage prostitute and is then justly dispensed of by the avenging angel ex-cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), which sets off a sequence of violent events as Billy’s brother, Julian (a practically speechless Ryan Gosling), is ordered against his will by his evil wicked-witch of a mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas – so brilliant at going against type and positively oozing with diabolical dirt-baggery), to mete out Chang. Suffice it say…(am I spoiling anything here?)…wrong move, brother. Only God Forgives is a film about the scum of the earth…ahhhh…but it’s an art film!
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was the best neo-noir “love story in the city of dreams” since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, then Only God Forgives is a despicable neo-noir “hate story in the city of sin.” Continue reading
If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.
Those words are spoken by auto body shop owner and bank robber Robin (the superlative Ben Mendelsohn). He’s the colorful character who gets all the best lines and spouts all the wisdom in Derek Cianfrance’s epic generational Upstate New York melodrama that spans fifteen years and is told in three parts. He says these words to small-time hood, motorcycle carnival trickster, blue-eyed and tattooed baby boy Luke (Ryan Gosling – aka The Gos, in his wheelhouse) who Robin has recently taken under his wing for a couple of bank jobs.
And no words spoken were ever truer. Luke has just found out that a former fling named Romina (a smoldering Eva Mendes who first appears on-screen in a t-shirt with no bra underneath like KAPOOYA!) had his baby – but she’s trying to move on, do right, and has shacked-up with a real man. Robin convinces Luke that his particular skill set (riding fast) would be best suited for crime and that is the best way to win back his woman and provide for his family. But even Robin knows there’s such a thing as riding too fast. Continue reading
In the sharply tuned rom-dram-com Crazy, Stupid, Love (currently on Blu-ray and DVD) our sad sap of a hero Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) remarks – while lamenting the disintegration of his marriage after his wife (Julianne Moore) reveals she’s been cheating – that no one ever seems to use the word “cuckold” any more. But that’s what he is. A cuckold.
In Alexander Payne’s shockingly bleak and depressing dram-dram-com The Descendants (currently in theaters) Matt King (George Clooney) is a cuckold, too, only his cheating wife is left in a coma after a freak accident.
Both films feature nice, good-hearted, middle-aged guys desperately trying to hold their families together and feature kids in uncomfortable situations…but Crazy, Stupid, Love mines for laughs while The Descendants mines for gold (Oscar gold). Continue reading
What are you going to do?