Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

1982’s Blade Runner has been reworked and remastered more in the past three decades plus than most classic albums. Along with Alien, director Ridley Scott created a one two punch of science fiction classics in a span of just three years. While the former spawned a series of sequels and offshoots, it’s not until 35 years later that a proper Blade Runner sequel has arrived.

Mr. Scott serves as executive producer because he was busy making the mediocre Alien: Covenant. So it’s Denis Villeneuve handling behind the camera duties one year after his highly rewarding alien pic Arrival. He proves himself as a natural choice to revisit this dystopian future that’s been an incredible influence on many sci-fi experiences that followed.

That influence has mostly been in its bleak look and astonishing production design. 2049, as the title tells us, takes place 30 years after what we saw in the early 1980s. Our central character is K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who serves the LAPD like Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original. These days, K’s kind are programmed to be more obedient and their primary function is in slave labor. K’s day job involves hunting down old school replicants. In the ultra stylish night, he invents a relationship with the gorgeous holograph Joi (Ana de Armas).

One of K’s assignments leads to a startling discovery that suggests replicants have the ability to procreate. The existence of a being of that ilk is troubling to K’s boss (Robin Wright), fearing a war will break out between humans and replicants. The revelation also intrigues Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind owner of the corporation that manufactures the product. He envisions this as a considerable financial opportunity and tasks his chief enforcer (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the now grown child.

This all eventually leads back to Deckard, with Ford completing a trifecta of revisiting signature late seventies and early eighties roles. It also involves his romantic interest Sean Young from the original. She returns in the archival footage manner. 2049 expands the Blade Runner universe and also expands the running time, clocking in nearly 45 minutes longer than part 1. In that respect, the sequel takes a bit longer to get its motor running.

Luckily for us, the visuals that were so special 35 years ago are remarkable here as well. There are sequences that are bleakly beautiful. Those expecting a full update on Deckard’s dealings may be surprised to find he doesn’t appear until about two-thirds through the proceedings. This is Gosling’s picture to carry most of the way and he does so with a quiet intensity.

Like Villeneuve’s Arrival, this is a sci-fi venture more steeped in its themes than action sequences. Violence comes in short and sudden bursts and that’s in line with two of the filmmaker’s other efforts Prisoners and Sicario. It’s no accident that I’m comparing 2049 just as much to those three movies as I am with the Scott original. Villeneuve succeeds in making this long gestating follow-up his own while clearly valuing an adoration of the first. That doesn’t happen too often as even Scott has fallen short with his return to Alien world. The legions of admirers of what came 35 years ago should be pleased.

***1/2 (out of four)

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The Greatest Showman Movie Review

Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman doesn’t burden itself with much historical accuracy or being a full-fledged look at its title subject. Its pleasures are of the surface level variety. At one point, a stuffy critic begrudgingly tells P.T. Barnum that his show has succeeded in bringing joy to people. So does this musical in many moments.

Hugh Jackman is Barnum, an endless promoter who grew up poor and never forgot how he was treated by New York’s elite. He marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams), who came up with wreath and privilege. After some career misfortune in the 19th century era Big Apple, Barnum develops his greatest idea: a stage experience featuring society’s freaks. This includes a bearded lady (Keala Settle) with a beautifully booming voice and a dwarf (Sam Humphrey) who dresses as a general. He teams up with playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who also hails from the aristocracy but feels more at home among these outcasts. Phillip also finds love of the forbidden kind with the show’s trapeze artist (Zendaya).

While Barnum finally finds the financial success he’s longed for, it doesn’t buy him respect and that’s a consistent through line in the screenplay. Both the wealthy class and hecklers who lurk around the theater believe the freak show atmosphere is a disgrace. Barnum tries to combat this by touring with famed European opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Both his family and circus employees feel the neglect.

The brisk 105 minute running time features 11 song and dance numbers that move the plot along, often in montage fashion. Even a cursory Wiki read of Barnum’s grand life reveals that Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script aren’t making a biopic. Like the man it’s about, this picture is style over substance. The message of inclusion and acceptance is unmistakable and frequently touching. Most importantly, the musical numbers (from the team behind La La Land) produce plentiful happy feels.

With his theater background, Jackman is more than well suited to play the man in the top hat. He’s the focal point in many of the song and dance interludes. Yet it’s “Rewrite the Stars”, a gorgeously choreographed sequence with Efron and Zendaya, that proved most memorable for me.

A stuffy critic could gripe that a rewrite should have explored more of Barnum’s real existence. However, the joyous vibe while I was watching is enough to justify admission here.

*** (out of four)

Home Again Movie Review

Essentially Three Men and a Divorcée, Reese Witherspoon’s latest rom com Home Again is a bland genre exercise that struggles mightily to be relatable. The star plays Alice, the daughter of a famous deceased director and his starlet muse (Candice Bergen). The maker of this film, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, is the child of divorced writers/filmmakers Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers. Together and apart, her folks are responsible for such rom com titles as Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, What Women Want, and Something’s Gotta Give. One wonders if Ms. Meyers-Shyer could channel that insight of growing up with her famous parents into a perceptive screenplay. I wonder because it’s not found anywhere here.

Reese’s Alice has recently separated from her music exec hubby (Michael Sheen) and lives at a gorgeous L.A. home with her two daughters. She’s just turned the big 4-0 and genre contrivances soon brings three twenty something lads into her guesthouse. They’re all aspiring filmmakers. Harry (Pico Alexander) is the handsome director. George (Jon Rudnitsky) is the teddy bear screenwriter who forms a bond with Alice’s eldest kid. Teddy (Nat Wolff) is the actor who really has no notable character traits.

Harry and Alice start a May-December romance while her ex is weighing his return home. The boys also must deal with the drama of getting their movie made and keeping their integrity intact. A lazy script would signify that integrity by making them insist on it being black and white. That’s exactly the situation here.

Home Again simply doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It is a little more frustrating considering the talent involved could have dug deeper. Witherspoon is adequate in the lead, but we’ve seen her elevate similar material and she can’t here. The story doesn’t even allow for any real chemistry to develop between Alice and Harry. The director’s parents are responsible for some of the more memorable rom coms of the last three decades. At the least, many of them qualify as genuine guilty pleasures. Here’s hoping Hallie finds a similar voice, but this is a dull beginning.

*1/2 (out of four)

Red Sparrow Movie Review

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence once again with Red Sparrow. This spy thriller could rightfully be called The Somber Games. To put it in Red Bull terms, there are times when Sparrow could use some wings.

While Lawrence gives a solid performance, the film never quite strikes a satisfying balance between wanting to be a little trashy and wanting to take itself as stone faced seriously as every character who inhabits it.

Here we have Jenny from the Red Block – with the star playing Dominika. She’s a well-known Russian ballerina whose career is cut short in a freak injury. Unable to care for her ill mother (Joely Richardson) or make ends meet, her high-ranking government official uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her an ultimatum. Dominika is to become an employee of the Foreign Intelligence Service and extract information from suspects by any means possible.

This brings her to an intensive training course called State School 4 or as she later coins it – Whore School. It’s an apt description as most of the methods taught by its headmaster (Charlotte Rampling) involve seduction. Her training soon puts her in close contact with CIA agent Nash (Joel Edgerton) as he knows the true identity of a Russian mole.

Based on a 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow follows the spy flick playbook of frequent double crosses and surprising character reveals. Unlike some recent entries in the well-worn genre, it’s bursts of violence are hardcore and it’s filled with sex. Dominika is tasked with always staying a step ahead of her mostly male coworkers and marks. That almost always involves their uncontrolled libido.

Director Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence deserve some credit for making this pretty interesting for the first hour or so. The pic is not short on style and watching Dominika first adapt to her new reality has some entertaining and unexpected pleasures at first.

After a while, however, Red Sparrow struggles as it devolves into more familiar torture scenes and unsurprising “surprises”. Unlike Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron (a much better genre experience), there’s hardly any sense of fun here. The Lawrence’s seem convinced that the dour happenings are enough to sustain a 140 running time. Not quite.

**1/2 (out of four)

Tomb Raider Movie Review

Tomb Raider finds Alicia Vikander following in the career footsteps of Angelina Jolie – win yourself a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and headline a big-budget adaptation of a well-known video game. Lara Croft is back in a reboot that finds this London girl’s life as a bike courier interrupted by her tomb raidin’ father’s discoveries on a remote island.

Vikander’s Croft has been separated from father Richard (Dominic West) for seven years after he took off on a mission called Himiko and vanished. His task was to locate the resting place of a mythical queen on a remote island who can destroy the world. When Lara finds clues to the island’s whereabouts, she sails off with Hong Kong captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to find it.

Once there, she finds ruthless archaeologist Mathias (Walton Goggins) also looking for the grave. He’s got a group of mercenaries commanding a slave labor force. This portion of the running time could be deemed “Get Back to Work!” on the Blu Ray, since that line of dialogue is shouted loudly and repeatedly. Lara also discovers a lot of Papa Croft’s motivations on the island when not preoccupied by grand action set pieces. Both Mathias and Richard are guilty of neglecting many a daddy/daughter dance due to their occupations.

One of these days, the protagonist in an adventure will be faced with an extremely long jump over an object that is disintegrating quickly. They will make said jump and clear the crumbling item by about ten feet and be shocked by their solid performance skills. In Tomb Raider and everything else, that hurdle is cleared by approximately one inch and then the fall and then the subsequent Herculean effort to pull oneself back up. The first feature where the hero manages to do it with room to spare will elicit deserved laughter from the audience, if set up correctly.

Moving on, Tomb Raider doesn’t reinvent the wheel but earns some points by embracing its video game heritage. There are segments where it truly feels like the action could be generated by a controller. And it’s a testament to the direction of Roar Uthaug, the sturdy work of Vikander, some gorgeous scenery and well-placed humor that Tomb Raider is as engaging as it is. It’s far from perfect, but it’s more impressive than your typical video game adaptation and that includes both of Jolie’s Croft works.

*** (out of four)

I Feel Pretty Movie Review

I Feel Pretty offers an often amusing, if certainly not profound, twist on the mistaken identity comedy with a star who fully commits to her performance. That performer is Amy Schumer, who had a breakout role in 2015’s often inspired Trainwreck. She followed that up with the totally unimpressive mother/daughter pic Snatched. Considering those titles, I was a bit and often pleasantly surprised by its lack of reliance on the raunchy factor.

Schumer plays Renee, who works on the website for a high-end NYC based cosmetics company. Her works places her in a basement and she dreams of working at the headquarters on Fifth Avenue. Renee doesn’t even care if that means being the receptionist and taking less pay. In her mind, her inability to get that position is due to her non-model looks. However, when she bumps her noggin at a SoulCycle session, she wakes up thinking she looks exactly like those beauties.

What follows is a mistaken identity movie where only the lead is mistaken about her identity. Her confidence (as she perceives from her outward appearance) gets her moving up the corporate  ladder and developing a rapport with boss Avery (Michelle Williams, trying a rare hand at comedy with a Kardashian-esque high voice). Renee also begins dating the sweet Ethan (Rory Scovel), who’s attracted to her self-assurance.

Renee’s newfound outlook on life puts her in bikini contests, but it also negatively affects her dynamic with her two besties (Busy Philips and Aidy Bryant). Emily Ratajkowski turns up as Renee’s definition of the perfect girl. Surprise… we find out stunning women have issues too.

The blurred lines of our protagonist’s perception leads to some rather obvious developments in a screenplay from Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who also direct. Schumer does her darndest to elevate the material by giving it her all. Watching her false reactions to those around her provides a number of chuckles, though the script struggles to keep it fresh after a while. It’s no Trainwreck or the near train wreck that Snatched was, but I feel it reminded me of the qualities of its lead.

**1/2 (out of four)

Annabelle: Creation Movie Review

The 2014 Conjuring spin-off Annabelle didn’t exactly leave me clamoring for an origin story of the motionless demonic doll, but here we are with Annabelle: Creation. Set 12 years before the events of its predecessor, this prequel manages to be a slight improvement. Unfortunately that isn’t saying much.

A prologue documents toy maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) tragically losing their young daughter. Dad’s profession reveals that he’s the creator of the doll that first appeared in 2013’s The Conjuring. We suspect his child’s demise will later tie into Annabelle’s evil ways.

We skip ahead to a dozen years later in the mid 1950s as six orphans and their nun caretaker (Stephanie Sigman) are looking for a home. They are taken in by the Mullins family on their sprawling country property. Janice (Talitha Bateman) is crippled by polio and quickly stricken by a feeling that something isn’t right with the creepy doll she finds at the house.

Those familiar with the franchise know the technicians involved in the film’s making pretty much take it from there. Creation wishes to generate its suspense through sounds and lighting reveals. David F. Sandberg, who last directed Lights Out, is behind the camera.

The original Annabelle felt like what it was – a quick cash grab to build on the success of The Conjuring. It also looked a little cheap. This doesn’t. It’s just not very scary. If you add up all the time throughout several pictures where the camera lingers on its title character, you might have enough screen time for a fifth entry in the series.

The makers of Creation succeed occasionally at putting together a fast scare, but it’s nearly two-hour runtime seems drawn out and routine. All the camera tricks and sound works cannot ultimately make Annabelle seem more than a mostly dull ploy to keep the franchise rolling.

** (out of four)