In many ways, the genetically-engineered replicants of the Blade Runner universe are better than the humans they are meant to emulate. Smarter, stronger, and as pretty as Ryan Gosling, they lack much of the degenerative qualities that result from messy acts of procreation. Yet underneath the slick exteriors, the facades meant to help them blend in with the ones from whose heads they have sprung, there can be detected a sense of the manufactured — a void of soul. Life is more than existence; born from inspiration, it has crawled out of the nothingness and fought its way into being. Blade Runner 2049 does its best to outwardly act and feel like a piece of soaring science fiction full of living notions — and is so convincingly sincere that it nearly pulls it off — but though visually and aurally stunning in its superb craftsmanship, a feeling of emptiness permeates the rich falling snow and thick orange fog that eventually makes the film’s artificial origins clear.
Taking place 30 years after the 1982 original film, Blade Runner 2049 follows K, a new-and-improved model of replicant that supposedly is less likely to revolt. He works as a blade runner for the LAPD, tracking down some older models that went rogue long ago. When one of his missions results in a discovery that could upend mankind’s perception of their own superiority and dominance, K is tasked by his boss to track down any evidence, inanimate or otherwise, and effectively torch it.
Over the years the cold mythology surrounding the original cinematic story has perhaps overshadowed the brilliant cosmic questions it attempts to raise as it reaches for the stars, feeling its way through the universe for answers as to what it means to be alive, to be human. The is-he-or-isn’t-he discussion of Harrison Ford’s noir-ish detective is (or was) a fun distraction that can enhance how the themes are perceived, but its actual significance to the film is merely surface, of little importance. Yet 2049 seems to have forsaken what many believe really made Blade Runner so seminal, instead doubling down on those guessing games, believing that complicated plotting is the real draw of science fiction.
This simple premise is evocative of the straightforward bounty assignment given to Rick Deckard those many years ago, but whereas that story maintained its basic structure as a frame around which to drape layer upon layer of philosophical trappings, Blade Runner 2049 gets lost in the twists and turns, more concerned with doling out tidbits of exposition and intrigue than exploring underlying meaning. Things may not be as they seem, people/non-people might have hidden pasts, and short lines of dialogue are spoken in ways as to reveal as little as possible as if a big reward is somehow coming at the end of the outline’s alphabet. Yes, there are bones thrown to the whole ‘what is real’ debate, and even some replicant love scenes (they’re just like us!), but it’s all half-hearted lip service that essentially mimics better scenes from other films. No, it’s the expanded lore that matters most here, and with so much time spent on teasing clues, the mystery loses ultimately significance and falls flat.
Mesmerizing design may have something to do with the disappointment though, as director Denis Villeneuve has concocted an awesome vision that aesthetically rivals its predecessor, giving off the impression that audiences should pay closer attention than they really need to. That Blade Runner 2049 at times feels like it has something important to say can almost solely be attributed to visual compositions that flat-out dazzle, portraying barren farmlands, a snowy metropolis, and the remnants of a desert civilization with the kind of wonder and reverence that implies Big Things are happening in this universe. They aren’t, but damn if I didn’t want to believe. Those hoping for the lived-in, murky grit of Ridley Scott’s neo-Los Angeles might be a tad let down by the arid sterility of this new version, its silky-smooth imagery slickly alluring instead of smoky and depressing, but the skin-deep beauty fits perfectly for a modern skin-job trying its best to simulate a more organic creation — and doing a hell of a good job.
Callback shots abound, evoking memories that most certainly were not implanted (I think), from swooping cityscapes to the starkly-lit replacement for the Tyrell Corporation, and the movement of the police cruisers is spot-on. The fakery is so appealing that had the film been shorter (it runs 160 minutes), it may have pulled the warm associations off without these reminders of a better film eventually wearing out their welcome. The references end up overly relied upon during the last act, as if desperate to connect — desperate to enjoy the same kind of life its maker had, but mistaken in how to do so. The pieces are all here, but they fit a little too perfect, as if shaped by a machine. Real personality is gone, replaced by facsimile. Ryan Gosling’s K should be the eyes and ears of an imperfect audience, a shaded vessel through which we relate, but his stoic demeanor comes off as more robot than replicant, a boring Galahad in pursuit of his Grail. Jared Leto’s megalomaniac industrialist lacks any of the misguided brilliance of his forerunner as he prances around like a supervillain. The film is populated with one-note characters; perhaps no one is truly alive.
Still, Blade Runner 2049 draws the viewer in, seducing them into a false sense of depth with widescreen pictures lovingly crafted to convey a stark setting. The mist of the unknown permeates every frame, suggesting there is something out there to be discovered, while Hans Zimmer’s score blares a mix of pulsing synthesizers and what sounds like the revving engines of hovercars. It’s a sensory experience rivaled this year only by Dunkirk, one to be absorbed by sinking back into a soft theater seat and letting the experience wash over. The awe cannot be sustained, but it’s intoxicating while it lasts.
The best sci-fi tends to have a reach that extend their grasps, but Blade Runner 2049 is content to fixate on its own gorgeous world rather than look to the heavens. There are points when it shows potential, such as a conversation with a young woman sequestered from a world she can only now imagine, and the appearance of a scraggly Harrison Ford does get the blood pumping briefly, but like the rest of the elegant nothingness, these fleeting moments are destined to be lost in time, like tears in the rain.
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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