Blades, Stakes, And Losing Numbness.

Blade Runner Sketch

Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario [2015], Arrival [2016] and many other features) has taken up the Ridley Scott torch with confidence and precise attention to detail. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) interrogates the central question of the original Blade Runner (1982), but insistently presses the questions of human versus technology-based life, responsibility for creations, consumption and resource-stripping. Simultaneously it honours the original film without stomping all over the territory the 1982 classic marked out.

Examining Blade Runner 2049 brings to the fore of discussion the divergence of sequels, a bivalve opening in cinema of late. Sequels tend to go either by way of Marvel-mode franchises (branching from root stock films such as Thor [Kenneth Branagh, 2011], The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012]). The second branch is mad eup of those that expand the peripheries of their predecessors into new territories — arguably exemplified by films such as 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), the series Fargo (FX, 2014) spin off of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name, Mad Mad II: The Road Warrior(George Miller, 1981), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) and now Blade Runner 2049. It’s difficult to honor an artwork by recreating it in near replica in the Marvel-mode of sequels, though it is arguable financially ‘safe’. Instead, to produce divergent sequels, concessions must be made around screen-time and centrality of the previous protagonists (e.g. Harrison Ford’s character, Rachel, and minor characters beyond) must be shifted aside to peripheral, retrospective weight-bearers rather than the same characters found ~yet again~ in the pickle they were last time. Motivation-less overlords threaten the future of humanity, again.

Blade Runner 2049 has a twofold strength as both a sequel and a dystopian film that undercuts the mucky coating that gets left in your mouth after most recent blockbusters, these being a) attention to detail and b) writing strength.

A) Never underestimate the importance of a few dents, some dust and some reality in your scenes. Living in the years predicted by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner now –where we can call someone on the other side of the planet — is by no means a slick clean one, but is instead filthy, gutter-garbage-clogged, rude, prejudice riddled and inhabited by an incoherent garble of cultural clashes. So, too, should the world of the near future be. Goddamned production value is high in this film (meaning, namely, the effects are nuanced, realistic, gritty-real and not overrun with digital fingerprints. Let me sniff the stink, not feel the slick cold press of CGI.) No film is limited by the era in which it is made, only by the methods of production it uses. To illustrate, the practical effects of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) stand the tests of time well, and remains true to the context of the film’s time without being rendered unbelievable by Gameboy-sized, pixelated raptors. In contrast, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is so densely saturated by the CGI that was limited by its time of production aged so rapidly that romantic dramas have employed similar quality computer generated images.

B) The writing worked with believable — expectable stakes. This is not a direct world ender in the form of a laser-beam wielded by a cackling super-villain. The notion of ‘Super’ (which has been rendered bland and definition-less in a backdrop of films where, as Dash of The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004) says miserably, ‘if everyone’s special, then nobody is.’ The endless drive for distinct and fear-awe-love-inducing characters (an endless battle which is a central tenet of cinema — creating relate-ability and inspiration, escapism in one) has recently created the flux of large-budget, CGI, tech and star-studded films. These films I refer to include Marvel’s The Avengers and other branches of superhero films, but ‘super’ as a high-concept character trait has crept into other non-superhero media, including John Wick (Chad Stahelski and Davud Leitch, 2014), BBC’s Sherlock (2010), Lucy (2014), throwing off the baseline’s for accessible protagonists. We can never match them on the ‘super’ level. Somehow our characters are only worthy of admiration or able to rise above the tide of supervlllains by their own non-normative traits, be it photographic memory, physical strength or fighting prowess.

In Blade Runner 2049, K is pressed upon by a complex political situation of which he is a pawn. The stakes are felt viscerally precisely because he is largely helpless within the ‘race’ system that dominates the Earth of 2049. Instead of being above and untouched by the rising political complexities (as say Tony Stark would remain exempt, as would Thor and others), K is tossed in the tide of prejudice directly. He is hit and bleeds, feels pain. Paradoxically, the ‘skin walker’ robot of the Blade Runner dystopia triggered more empathetic pain in me than the ‘human’ protagonists of many films of late.

I hope that Blade Runner 2049 can set a precedent for the allocation of film budgets to tell stories that interrogate our representation of women, our use of technology, and our consumption practices (food and resources and commodities all). The fetishized world of Marvel and other franchises obscure any potential the films have for productive storytelling. Instead they remain hollow vessels for the parasitic side-products of the franchise to travel onwards. Film as host, consumption as parasite.

MACHINES: VOYEURS & VILLAINS

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Rahul Jain’s debut, Machines (2017), investigates the inner workings of a textile factory in India. The film explores the factory floor, the managerial staff, and the selling floor where the value of goods is decided. Reminiscent of Farida Patcha’s My Name Is Salt (2013), Jain’s film reflects the obscured and distanced sources of the objects we consume, using rhythm, time and stagnancy to throw us into a hellish landscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

 
http://www.rebelcircus.com/blog/the-garden-of-earthly-delights-from-heaven-to-hell/

Machines takes us into a labyrinthine silk factory in Sachin, India. Windowless floors and basements show the many laborious processes that produce screen-printed silks. The factory could have been borne of Ridley Scott’s imagination (somewhere between the spaceship tunnels of Alien[1979] and street levels of Blade Runner [1982]). Composed of interviews, interspersed with long, unbroken takes of workers performing repetitive physical labor, Machines deftly cuts a portal through the machine of international consumption. It lends us sight into what is otherwise a process hidden and distant from the everyday lives of the middle to upper class westerners who may encounter the film.

https://dogwoof.com/machines/

Perhaps the most troubling and important element of the documentary is our position as viewers. The finger of blame is pointed somewhat at us, the larger consumers of the products being made in the factory, and the whole documentary is steeped in the frustration of the worker underneath the systemic layers of profit above him. Yet the film manages to avoid spiraling into a flat-out critique of capitalism, which may be a strategic choice to retain the allegiance of the broader swathe of viewers. In an interview Jain states the confusion of the workers he was filming. “They’re coming up to me and saying, “Who’s the hero in this movie? Who’s the villain in this movie?” I say, “You’re the heroes. I’m the villain.” Crucially Jain’s choice to position himself as the villain — one who would uninterruptedly watch a young boy fall asleep at his work post, in an uncomfortable, unflinching take — reflects our own position too. We are given the comfortable view of the factory. We are voyeurs, left undamaged by the processes we see. We watch from a distance but are not necessarily provoked to action, something addressed by the gathering of workers towards the conclusion of Machines, who question what Jain is doing to help them. And the bad taste that lingers afterwards: what does this documentary do for the workers?

Most directly it informs of us of the distant and obscured origins of things, perhaps promoting us to make different choices about how we consume. But does the diversion of funding to a workplace like this address any of the problems experienced by the worker? The issues surrounding wage and labor disparities globally are complex beyond individual comprehension. Perhaps the only minute level of control we can excise as consumers is to recognize the use value of objects we own, maintain them rather than replace them, and to stay aware of our own position in the many-fold hierarchies of production. We should remain aware that costs of purchase go beyond the financial. But still, it is hard to shake a feeling of helplessness after watching the unflinching Machines. The face of reality is not reconcilable with what we had conjured up.

MY HAPPY FAMILY: NOT MANANA, BUT TODAY

My Happy Family

The second feature from directors Nana Ekvitimishvili and Simon Groβ (self titled duo ‘Nana & Simon’), My Happy Family (2017), follows matriarch Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), who decides to leave her family home, much to the outrage of the multigenerational occupants who live by her cooking, cleaning and care. My Happy Family tracks her attempt at finding freedom from the suffocating closeness of convention.

I have recently learned that this feature (alongside others including Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] and more recently Child’s Pose [Călin Peter Netzer, 2013]), is considered part of the post-communist Romanian Cinema wave. Watch these ears prick! A niche characterized by this…

“Set of factors: the determined unpicking of recent Romanian history and the Communist ideology whose legacy still continues to frame discourse; an unabashed irony and black humour; and the lo-fi visual aesthetic that was most often the direct result of a total lack of state funding.”

As a part of this movement, the political implications of citizens’ stories are not displayed with prominence, but are instead subtly interwoven into the domestic and (exotic to these Melbournian eyes) banal motions. Nana & Simon’s developing style is characterized by lingering takes and moments of quiet solitude for characters, allowing emotions to fully play out on actor’s faces. It was established in their first feature, In Bloom (2013), which explored similar themes of gender and generation in 1992, post-Soviet Union Georgia — particularly the simultaneously oppressed and structural role women play in Georgian society. My Happy Family is similarly nostalgic — Tbilisi seems to steeped in tea itself, houses are lived-in, occupied fully, until the cracks form, and these are left run rampant, yet poverty or malaise do not overrun tradition, food, music. The film’s context is real enough- and already suffused with tradition (even, it seems, into the structural bones of the cracking apartments families pack into), so that Nana & Simons moments of creative, decisive clarity ring out without interrupting the realism of the narrative and world.

The lack of additional soundtrack in My Happy Family makes the passing moments of music impactful — Manana’s resistance against performing at her school reunion makes her song all the more enrapturing, the men’s multifarious harmonies in traditional songs lend a depth and intensity to the dinner scenes that seem so often to sent Manana running the other direction. The houses are labyrinthine and the women resistant, strong, the men (though hard fought) are actively contracted to be water brushed off the backs of women who have been told (and still are told) that family and marriage and submissions are their sole passage of self-worth and means. Some reviewers have criticized the film’s “slice-of-life” pace, particularly at the film’s conclusion, which cuts us away from moments of climactic tension, excluding us from, what will be, perhaps, the result of Manana’s long battle for freedom. However, the cutting of us as viewers from these moments shows with a deliberate awareness, Nana & Simon’s foci for the film — not the bubbling points of familial tension and personal wrongdoing, but in Manana’s slow, second-stage metamorphoses into her own self, who can sing you to tears on a Russian guitar and eats halva for dinner whenever she damn pleases. Shugliashvili’s portrayal of Manana is deft enough that she doesn’t need to battle her Husband for our voyeuristic satisfaction, but easily sways us to emotional vulnerability with her skillful performance. I would readily argue against this film being ‘quiet’ — in fact, it is steeped in Manana’s depression, and a broiling need to release, to scream, to flail for room. Only Manana is to strategic and wise of a protagonist for that to occur.

Again, the duo’s feature seems to adeptly use family as a lens to explore the social niche, the mihrab of post-independence Georgia. The film is slow to unspool from the distaff, but it remains clear Manana’s turmoil is that of many women the world over, and her stalwart persistence in chasing freedom.

DOUBLE FEATURE… Watch with In Bloom to get a sense of Nana & Simon’s themes. Would parallel well with Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erg üven, 2015) or perhaps, to venture to the land of extremes within the same thematic terrain, Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, NARCISSUS

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is Luca Guadagnino’s fifth feature. A nostalgic and lust-riddled Bildingsroman, the film was adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name. It catalogues a romance between a seventeen year old Italian-American boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and a visiting American scholar, Oliver (Armie Hammer) in 1980s summer, “somewhere in northern Italy”.

As with Luca Guadagnino’s prior feature, A Bigger Splash (2015), the director creates absorbing and immersive quality in attention to ‘trivialities’, the moments of cultural and contextual detail that colour the on-screen character’s experiences as much as our own. Just as in A Bigger Splash, Marianne and Harry watch the making of fresh ricotta in Pantelleria, Elio and Oliver linger over commemorative WWII statues, and find secret water-holes to lie beside in the sun, and antidote to the time-hungry and overwhelming motion of modern cinema. Characters are afforded the space to contemplate, and appreciate, affording us the same room as viewers.

Equal to the rhythm of the narrative, the blocking of Call Me By Your Name is immaculate — allowing us access to the expressions of characters that on-screen fellows are not privy to. There is a symmetry between blocking and symbolism as we watch Elio and Oliver circumnavigate the statue in the town circle, so their paths may intersect — albeit fleetingly, at the far side. Something close to comedy arises from the blatant imagery which could have been (non-tastefully) under played, but is instead conspicuously exploited, to the point of cringingly intimate use, re-sharpening the role of symbol in film — and reminding us of filmic intent, that props do not roll into the mise-en-scène unintentionally, but are placed there by design.

The soundtrack features some original songs by Sufjan Stevens, and some existing. The scored piano soundtrack   (I was unable to hunt down the composer, as she/he/they have been obscured by the flurry of activity over Stevens’ songs, unless it was also Stevens himself who was composing) was complimentary to the simple, pragmatic beauty of the Italian summer. That said, the use of Sufjan Stevens angst-riddled and lyric-heavy songs was simultaneously too bold and directly linked with narrative events, yet equally appropriately teen-like and harmonious with ‘real-time’ events for Elio and Oliver. In an equivalent alchemy, the film is rife with symbols. The fetishizing of male bodies and of artistic form give this film a high-brow ‘self-awareness’ and breadth of imagery, yet remains accessible, reflecting on the ways music and image are conduits for our in-the-moment experiences.

What sets Call Me By Your Name apart from other coming-of-age-romances, particularly those with a focus on queer sexuality, is that it does not shy away from intimacy, or force is into a repression that manifests in other ways — the chewing of pencils or obsessions with teachers. Such repressions and ‘cutting away’ might have otherwise led us to believe that Oliver and Elio’s relationship as one of exploitation rather than mutual pleasure. Instead, there is no ‘light bulb’ moment for Elio. He is self-aware yet does not label himself, but instead (realistically to his precocious character) acts upon his desires, which makes his narrative of self-actualization one that lingers upon the positives of his relationships, rather than the limitations of them.

Whilst I appreciated the ‘ambiguity’ of sexuality portrayed in the film, with both Elio and Oliver’s sexual preferences remaining undefined and individualized, the women of the film are overlooked. Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio’s brief summer fling, gives an admirable — and largely unacknowledged — show of strength in forgiving Elio for his treatment of her, yet her role in his actualization is diffuse and peripheral. The mother, is a complex and wise character, Annella (Amira Cesar) but is left unexplored and undermined in the final bonding moments between Elio and his father. She is cast as an ignorant accessory to the family, rather than scholar, wit and structural support she is. In addition, the religious significance of Oliver and Elio’s relationship remains largely unexplored. Given the weight placed upon the Jewish-Italian-American heritage of the family, this seems like a point of conflict much broader and internal than what is portrayed within this film’s particular window.

This film is too immersive and captivating to conclude without dragging us with Elio’s heartbreak. Elio’s sorrow entombs us as the season shifts and snow falls — a near-sardonic show of pathetic fallacy, but a forgivable one, because the film did manage to leave a sad tang in my mouth, for all its bright positivity. Guadagnino got the salt and rubbed it in the wound, and our shared heartbreak with Elio is a testament to this film’s excellence.

WATCH…on the big screen. This film is beautifully shot, and worthy of the ticket price.

DOUBLE FEATURE WITH…For Guadagnino’s traits, watch A Bigger Splash for a bill that’ll give a dose of summer proper. For contrast, watch back to back with Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013), though be warned of the scandalous history to the filming.

BABY DRIVER: INTO THE GROUND

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Highly anticipated, severely overcooked, Edgar Wright’s latest feature, Baby Driver (2017) is an action, music and cringe-packed Hot Mess. Yes, it stands to be repeated, capitalized. Hot Mess. Where the film’s premise was cute in concept, it manifested as a teen-dream, driving-and-lady-porn catalogue, strung meekly together on the most tenuous of narrative threads. Edgar Wright went wrong, big time.

Baby Driver follows Baby, yes, B-A-B-Y Baby, (Ansel Elgort) a young getaway driver for criminals (bank robbers and the like). Due to childhood trauma he is a) near-mute, and therefore extremely ~cool~, and b) an excellent driver. Eventually his criminal attachments creep into his personal life and B-A-B-Y must face his gearbox demons head-on in a film climax shamefully overwritten and underperformed — enough to wonder how the film has maintained a 95% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Edgar Wright started two steps ahead on a path to success with Baby Driver. With his largely successful satirical comedies Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Wright has established a strong enough following to guarantee him at least some measure of viewership for Baby Driver. With a budget of $34 million USD, Baby Driver way outstrips the resources of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz combined. However, money has not equated engagement in this action piece. It watches like a bad 70s action-heist, complete with poor gender, ability and race representation.

The trio of women in the film are painfully loyal to the old-school trifecta of Virgin, Whore and Mother. First we have Deborah, (Lily James), the toothache-inducing love interest, who awaits Baby in her dead-end diner all day (and night), without ambitions beyond “hitting the road” (with Baby, in Baby’s car, of course). Then we have Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), whose body is so thoroughly segmented by the camera, it is a wonder we can recognize her a whole, able-bodied woman. She is the fetishized ‘bad-gal’ criminal who pops gum and looks pretty whilst wielding some heavy weaponry in the bank-robbing gang. (Don’t worry, she gets fridged at just the right time, so we don’t need to worry about her in the climax, and the antagonist has something to be vengeful over). Finally, we have the enigmatic mother-figure, Baby’s departed Mama, played fleetingly by Sky Ferreira.

These women are props for the real characters of the piece — the men — to play off and to find motivation by. Equally to using the women rather than engaging them, Baby finds martyrdom by rescuing (dumping) his wheelchair-bound mentor, Joseph (C.J. Jones), who is literally denied a voice or independence, digging Wright deeper into his trench of social insults. The plot shifts away from believability into convenience by such rapid bounds that the upbeat and music-riddled plot becomes sour and over-developed, a thin veil of detail that fails to disguise the shallow writing of a film that makes very little sense on paper. Much of Baby’s character choices are caught up in moments of confusing pride rather than self preservation, a complexity that could have been a point of interest but instead become one of confusion. His other mentor — a slightly undercooked rendition of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (they didn’t even bother subbing out Kevin Spacey to disguise it) — completely shifts character motivation in a leap that feels like it is trying to be ingenious but instead is unfeasible. The climax rolls into a fiery car park chicken game where masculinities clash and femininities get in the way, and the ‘gray’ morals of the protagonists are left unnervingly under-addressed when, at the film’s conclusion, passers-by vouch for his ‘niceness’ and general good-Person-ish-vibes in court.

Edgar Wright may have established a precedent for good comedy but Baby Driver seems more like an under-thought film that would have been written by a white, teenage boy who had too much money on his hands (“there’ll be cars, I say, Tim!” “Put your legs up on the table, dahl, the people’ll love it!”). Steer clear of this one to retain your faith in Wright.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Don’t bother with the cinema for this one folks, unless you want to emerge tinnitus-riddled and obnoxious, just like Baby.

INCLUSIVITY: Just the freaking worst. Jamie Foxx’s character, though prominent, is shallow, angry and damaging. Women are bodies to be cut by our gazes, and only white, able-bodied men are worthy of narrative focus.

THIS OR… Mate. Just go watch Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Also Baby Driver seems to drag itself towards Nicholas Winding Reyn’s Drive (2011), mute protagonist and all, yet the equally disturbing gender politics of that neo-noir make it difficult to recommend.)

LAURENCE ANYWAYS: Brutal Love, Brutal Metamorphoses

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Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012) is a true romance. There is so much meaty heart to this story that you rollick in the grip of it — the emotional stress of the characters, their faults and virtues.

Perhaps antithetically, the defining feature that sets the browser’s sights on Laurence Anyways is the journey of Laurence, into her own identity (Namely, coming to realize she is a woman, and changing her body and life to match that.) Gender transitions are a topic that is rarely delivered justice, but Dolan tackles this in the most intelligent way possible. This is not a story about Laurence, so much. Instead of making the spine of the narrative Laurence’s transition, instead, the lifeblood and pulse and motion of the film is Laurence’s relationship with long-term partner, Frederick. In watching it, the film is revealed to be equally about her journey. So, those that have selected the film for a sweeping exploration of the inner turmoil of Laurence are in for a double-whammy, delivered in full glitter-and-pop Dolan style.

Whereas another film may have chosen to summit the narrative when Laurence admits to her predilection, and focus on Frederick’s eventual climb towards acceptance, Dolan clears these waters immediately. No question, the meeting of ‘souls’ between Fred and Laurence overcomes the physical and social walls built by Laurence’s transition — they will try to stay together. We do not explore Laurence’s inner state (that, already, is decided. She knows who she is.) Instead we are carried on the tide of Frederick’s and Laurence’s overriding love, and the eventual social, emotional and physical pressures that weigh down upon them. Suzanne Clément’s performance is what makes (for this reviewer) this film so captivatingly about her — Fred as a reflection of society, and on the complexity (and construction of) gender.

Twisting towards a bittersweet conclusion, Dolan frames Fred and Laurence’s impermanent relationship. Their journey is steeped with adversity, tension, but also with a richness in beginning, middle and end, a head-on portrayal of characters being open, communicating, and still not being able to overcome their difficulties. If only all romance films could be so honestly, blatantly wholesome? Realism is not the superficial quality of Dolan’s films (his youth and vibrancy make his films feel like a HD 80s music video, jackets and all — perhaps excepting Tom at the Farm [2013]). However, Dolan’s writing is foundationally built on dialogue and characters and choices that are reflective of a normal, pressured human existence. Dolan’s predilection for Dickensian, grotesque chorus characters juxtapose with Frederick and Laurence’s nuance, throwing them into sharper relief, closer to the viewer. We are carried alongside them, and cannot condemn the priorities they each must weigh in deciding what integrities to maintain in their lives, and what to give up.

This film has so much warmth, and the circuitous conclusion reminds of the beautiful whole of the film — a story not solely about hardships, and the faults of our humanity, but instead a celebration of the ever-changing and transience of L-O-V-E, the Big Kahuna, the wave that surges, then fades.