Review // Blade Runner 2049

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The dystopian story continues as an LAPD detective uncovers a huge secret that will change the world.

We return to a bleak California where human-like robots called replicants are kept in check by Blade Runners, police who specialise in “retiring” these rogue machines. Blade Runner “K” (Ryan Gosling) is sent on a routine mission and pulls a thread that goes further than he could’ve possibly imagined.

BR2049 is a huge film on almost every scale. Decades in waiting and teased out in trailers, it delivers everything it flaunted and more. Sonically and visually it is a feast and the story is one any writer would be proud to have conceived. In a barren future, K searches for Rick Deckard, a former Blade Runner who has been missing for 30 years. During which time replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has pushed robotics to godlike limits and the environment of earth has significantly deteriorated.

Director Denis Villeneuve was a mere 15 years old when the original was released but thankfully there are a few key people who have returned. Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard but arguably more important is Hampton Fancher’s return, writer of the original who has done a truly fantastic job penning 2049. The story is incredibly well written and with a run time of 2 hours and 43 minutes it really had to be. The continuity is remarkably comfortable but still easily understood as a standalone film, even if its main themes require a lot of thought.

The central performance from Ryan Gosling vindicates his position as one of the best actors working today but it is a great shame that some of the supporting cast are given little screen time to work with. Their performances are strong but the film could certainly have benefitted from greater depth or screen time for so many of the cast. Ford very naturally takes to his character and Dave Bautista shows how refined his acting skills have become in a short time. Yet while male dominated, it is the performances of the female actresses that are particularly strong, especially Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas.

Villeneuve paired up with powerhouse cinematographer Roger Deakins for this undertaking but BR2049 is unlike any film either have worked on before. The scorched earth backdrop is meticulously composed and many sequences genuinely look as though they’ve been shot on another planet. The scoring process of BR2049 was not without controversy but hearsay aside it sounds fantastic and adds a lot to the film. Industrial and brash when necessary but eerily quiet and reflective at key moments. The audio and visual effects teams contribute to a wasteland nightmare we’d do well to avoid, setting the tone nicely for the cast and writing to shine.

As Mark Kermode noted in a recent blog post, the original Blade Runner is still heavily debated 35 years on. With that in mind, there are key scenes and motifs in 2049 that will almost certainly be pored over with the same vigour in coming years. BR2049 is a clever, thought provoking blockbuster, a rare beast in this day and age. The world has progressed significantly since the 1982 original but the responsibilities and repercussions of breathing life into machines has never been more pertinent than today. A fitting sequel to one of the greatest films of all time.

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Top Five // Ryan Gosling

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Before the release of Blade Runner 2049 we pick our highlights of its leading man.

Blue Valentine (2010) dir. Derek Cianfrance
Charming and heartbreaking at the same breath, Blue Valentine follows the best and worst days of a tumultuous marriage through flashbacks and the present day. Gosling plays a removal man who falls for a young student and does his best to keep her in spite of great odds. One of Michelle Williams’ many great performances and a powerful soundtrack from Grizzly Bear make this an all round fantastic film.

The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) dir. Derek Cianfrance
Stunning moral tightrope act. A travelling motorcycle stuntman discovers he is a father and resorts to crime to provide for his new found family. Gosling’s second outing with Cianfrance is absolutely justified. Bradley Cooper plays a policeman deeply affected by their dramatic encounter, casting a shadow on their children’s lives and prompting questions of fate and legacy.

Drive (2011) dir. Nicolas Refn Winding
The go-to response whenever Gosling’s early career is brought up. His first big commercial and critical success in an impressive performance as an almost mute getaway driver. With a bizarrely iconic leather jacket, our driver with no name is a stuntman by day and wheelman by night caught in a web of mob deceit.  An iconic soundtrack that compliments the neon vibe beautifully and the first of Gosling’s films with Winding.

La La Land (2017) dir. Damien Chazelle
The musical that briefly won Best Picture at the Oscars earlier this year. Aspiring jazz pianist Seb takes a shot at the big time in a film inspired by the golden era of Hollywood. Gosling reportedly practiced piano up to 4 hours a day for several months prior to shooting and it really shows. Despite losing Best Picture, La La Land picked up Best Director, Production Design, Score, Original Song (City of Stars) and Cinematography so it may have lost the battle but certainly won the war.

Half Nelson (2006) dir. Ryan Fleck
Low budget indie film where a high school teacher shepherds a vulnerable student while juggling addiction and personal demons. This was a huge role for Gosling as he pushed into challenging dramatic territory and earned his first Academy award nomination. Noticeably smaller in frame than nowadays the boyish fragility of a younger Gosling is well utilised as he plays a teacher the kids respect but underestimate how much they may have in common.

Spotlight // Pulp Fiction

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One film, three stories, a million quotable lines. Pulp Fiction is cult cinema personified.

Despite a hugely successful career, if there’s one film that Quentin Tarantino cannot escape, it’s Pulp Fiction. His 1994 opus magnum frequents more “Best Film” lists than the rest of his filmography put together. Over 20 years later, it is still one of the most popular films ever and never ceases to be discussed or admired.

Originally imagined as a sequel to Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction was inspired by the serial nature of old horror films where several plots converged and often ended in a bloodbath. In this case mob enforcers Jules Winfield and Vince Vega find themselves held up in a diner by two opportunists, while their boss attempts to fix a boxing match using a ringer with a change of heart.

The incredibly violent script struggled to find a financier until it fell into Harvey Weinstein’s lap, who loved it so much it became the first film Miramax funded independently. Boasting several of cinema’s most treasured monologues and a briefcase aglow with mystery, the story itself was simple but Weinstein enjoyed the quirkiness in the nonlinear story and black humour. His faith paid off and it enjoyed great acclaim, oddly so for a film containing so much sexual violence, heavy drug use and racism.

Credited with revitalising the career of John Travolta, Pulp Fiction garnered him an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the greasy haired Vincent. Conversely Bruce Willis’ signing on required a significantly smaller pay check than he was used to. Which worked out just fine when he netted a percentage of the $214m gross and it took the Palm D’or at Cannes in 1994.

Littered with famous faces including Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken and Uma Thurman in her most iconic performance, it’s little surprise the film was so successful. Of course no Tarantino film is complete without a role for the man himself too, in this case Jules’ famously anxious friend Jimmie.

A landmark film that affirmed Tarantino’s status as an artistic force to be reckoned with, Pulp Fiction showcased what would become his signature tropes. Black humour, pop culture references by the dozen, anachronistic music, ensemble casts and extended dialogue. It’s a film so influential it’s genuinely hard to find someone who hasn’t seen it.

£4/5 gets you entry to our pub quiz beforehand and a free bag of popcorn to enjoy along with the film. Fetch Z’s chopper keys and meet us down in Knoxville for this classic.

Television // “The Deuce” Premiere

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James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Pernell Walker.

Acclaimed showrunner David Simon delves into New York’s 70’s porn industry in his latest project.

As creator, writer and executive producer of several of HBO’s greatest shows, David Simon is responsible for some of the best television ever produced. After lauded portrayals of Baltimore and New Orleans he turns to New York in seedy drama “The Deuce”.

The New York porn rise is chronicled through bar manager Vince Martino (James Franco) and prostitute turned porn star Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Vince is a recently single father helping pay his twin’s gambling debts and Candy has a young son she wants to provide a better life for. They spot an opportunity to make money as the industry literally takes off around them. In their endeavours they find themselves alongside many different walks of life, none of whom can be painted with broad strokes.

While only three episodes have aired in the US so far the direction the show is taking is very exciting. The Deuce takes a stab at the misogynistic and corrupt power systems in America with a modern slant. As always with David Simon, moral ambiguity is a strong theme and particularly interesting in the porn world where women hold such power but receive little respect.

The sensitive portrayals of sex workers are a refreshing change to stereotypical writing and the stories of those building the industry provide very intriguing television. It would also seem Simon is one of the few people able to reign in James Franco, as his turn as both Martino twins may be his finest performance yet. The cast are great across the board, unsurprising considering the number of familiar faces from “The Wire” and Simon’s other works. The Deuce has already been renewed for a second season and has the potential to rival HBO’s best if able to stay the course.

The Deuce premieres in the UK on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9PM.

Television // Need a Game of Thrones replacement? All roads lead to Rome

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Game of Thrones’ potential 2 year hiatus has left many looking for something new to sink their teeth into. While there are lots of great shows on TV right now, fans need look no further than its spiritual predecessor, “Rome”.

With a $100m budget from the BBC and HBO for its first season alone, Rome is the original blockbuster TV show of the 21st century. It follows Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) as two soldiers in a critical time for the Roman world.

Caesar returns from Gaul having won the will of the people but Pompey, leader of the republic finds Caesar’s new influence to be overreaching, sparking one of history’s most famous civil wars. “Rome” covers the many different aspects of life at this great crossroads with depth and wit, featuring some fantastic performances from a cast of all ages and strengths.

Despite rave reviews and a solid following Rome was shelved after only two seasons, primarily down to its colossal cost. However, the limited run meant it covered an important period of history and didn’t waver in quality like many long-running shows do.

Vorenus and Pullo’s arc as two of Caesar’s most trusted soldiers provides a familiar backdrop that fans of Game of Thrones will appreciate. War, religion, politics and sex take centre stage in this brutal era. It similarly features British and European actors, even sharing Ciarán Hinds (Thrones’ Mance Rayder) as Caesar. Like many of its peers, Rome makes great use of an army of extras, authentic sets and contains plenty debauchery and black humour while still remaining vaguely educational.

Do as the Romans do and indulge yourself on this great show.

Rome is available to stream via UK/US Netflix and to buy on DVD/Blu-Ray.

Review // Close Encounters of the Third Kind (4K Remaster)

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Steven Spielberg’s first foray into science fiction is now 40 years old and well deserved of a re-release.

All across the globe strange things are happening that cannot be explained. In Muncie, Indiana, electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) has an late night encounter with a UFO that changes him forever. As the US government begin to decode strange sounds coming from the heavens, they realise they are establishing contact with intelligent life and prepare to receive them.

Close Encounters is often forgotten within the context of Spielberg’s other works despite being one of his greatest achievements. In this early career venture Spielberg dared suggest that first contact with extraterrestrials might not be as apocalyptic as cinema had stereotyped, an idea he would revisit several times in his later career.

While the story itself is a refreshing change of pace from the death and destruction of contemporary alien films, the special effects are what truly won audiences over. Famed visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull passed up working on Star Wars shortly before beginning work on CE3K and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography still stands up as some the most beautiful in cinema. Richard Dreyfus gives one of his career-best performances as the conflicted family man Neary, alongside Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillion and a young Carey Guffey excellently directed by Spielberg in his prime.

With John Williams’ iconic and profoundly moving score, Close Encounters is still a beautiful experience for all of the senses. Nominated for 8 oscars and with many classic cinema moments, perhaps none more so than its 5 tone motif and unparalleled landing scene. Close Encounters is a benchmark in science fiction that has yet to be bettered.

Limited showings.

  • Cameo Picturehouse, 18th September
  • Edinburgh Filmhouse, 19/20/21st September
  • Belmont Filmhouse, 15th September
  • Omni Vue, 24th September
  • GFT, 15/16/17th September

Feature // How the West Was Won, Again

 

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Clint Eastwood clutches a timepiece, “For a Few Dollars More”, 1965.

As one of the oldest genres in cinema history the western has always maintained a presence in film. From the birth of Hollywood to the 1960’s, the western steadily cemented itself as one of the most popular genres and introduced stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and Clint Eastwood to the world. Yet as the 60’s came and went, cinemagoers and critics began to express interest in other genres. “New Hollywood” directors like Steven Spielberg expanded the scope of film, allowing a much greater choice. Films like The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey catered to the patient film theorists and Jaws terrified a generation, while Star Wars blew everyone away with cutting edge special effects.

By the late 1970’s cinema-goers were far more interested in the future than the past. Now that Neil Armstong had walked on the moon the public were no longer interested in cowboys. Blockbusters like Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Alien proved that science fiction had firmly replaced the historic as the nation’s favourite genre. The western was on its way out.

Michael Cimino’s colossally over budget western “Heaven’s Gate” crashed the genre in 1980. Green-lit on the back of his success with The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate almost quadrupled it’s budget and was shown 11 months late to a dreadful reception. In the years following, westerns were at their least popular. 80’s culture was sufficiently distracting and the popularity of sci-fi had progressed further. The rise of the Brat Pack and explosion of American pop culture meant that America had found new icons like Patrick Swayze and Molly Ringwald. As a tired genre in need of revitalising, the western fell victim to a new generation with a greater choice.

A return of sorts was found through the release of Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992). Yet if these were indeed the turning point in the popularity of the genre as many claim, they certainly had a delayed effect. Back to The Future Part III (1994), An American Tail 2 (1991), City Slickers I & II (1991/94) and Wild Wild West (1999) proved that studios were willing to invest in westerns again throughout the 90’s, but the films weren’t to be taken seriously. The big budget films like [Dances] and Unforgiven were personally produced by Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood respectively, meanwhile independent directors like Robert Rodriguez financed grindhouse westerns on his own minuscule budget. Any support for serious western pictures was still hard to come by.

The return of critically and commercially successful westerns would have to wait until the 2000s as the 21st century brought a new era of social understanding. Cinema began to mirror the changes that were being seen in society and aligning with a more open minded audience. Brokeback Mountain (2004) was one of the first westerns to feature homosexuality between central characters as the heart of the film. The masculine sheepherders’ battle with their inner urges was uncharted (and dangerous) cinematic territory, but critically loved. The film was a huge step forward, introducing a new demographic to the world of the western while showing filmmakers that they could be artistic, provocative and most importantly, still critically acclaimed.

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Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as lovers in Brokeback Mountain, 2005.

A flurry of high profile westerns emerged in the years following. The impact of Brokeback Mountain’s denial of convention inspired filmmakers to return to the genre with fewer rules and a renewed interest. Furthering the renaissance, the Coen brothers released “No Country For Old Men” in 2007 and a True Grit remake in 2010 starring 13 year old Hailie Steinfeld. The original film (1969) cast a 21 year old for the same role but the Coen brothers’ faith in Steinfeld showed a willingness to innovate that continued to progress the genre. Within 3 years, previously undesirable traits such as homosexuality and femininity had paid off. 40 years after it’s dominion, the western was back at the forefront of cinema.

Continued box office appeal brought more commercial directors like Quentin Tarantino into the fold. Plantation revenge flick Django Unchained (2012) featured an African-American cast dealing with slavery through very dark humour. Yet that didn’t stop it being one of the biggest box office hits of the year, grossing over $400m worldwide. 3 years later he released another, “The Hateful Eight” to similar acclaim. Both westerns featured racial friction as main themes. Fans argued the provocative language and extreme violence was a way of highlighting the differences in society between then and now, while others claimed Tarantino was stirring the pot in the name of controversy. Either way, the film was a success.

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A young Hailee Steinfeld,”True Grit” 2010,

Success has also been found by dipping into the art world. Northern frontier thriller The Revenant (2015) was traditional in premise, but very modern in execution. Director Alejandro Inarritu pushed the genre to it’s artistic limit, focusing heavily on landscape cinematography and minimalistic scoring. Despite featuring some of the least dialogue a mainstream film has ever seen, it was still one of the highest grossing films of the year and won countless awards. Similarly, when fashion designer Tom Ford was announced as director of Nocturnal Animals (2016) cinephiles collectively raised an eyebrow, but he crafted a fantastic if unconventional film. The fashion influenced film was exciting because of its gambles, not despite them. The juxtaposition of the Texas plains and the ivy-league art world struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Even on a very technical level, “The Assassination of Jesse James” featured several sequences shot with lenses from the 1880’s; a rejection of modern technology in favour of authenticity to a wanting audience.

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1880’s inspired camerawork of Roger Deakins. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” 2007,

The proof is in the pudding. From their inception in 1928 to 1989, the western had only produced one Best Picture winner. Then despite Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven winning in 1990 and 1992, not one western was nominated between 1993 and 2004. Compare that to 2005 onwards where Brokeback Mountain, No Country For Old Men (Winner, 2007), There Will Be Blood, True Grit, Django Unchained, The Revenant, and Hell or High Water were all contenders. Even Crash’s 2005 win over Brokeback Mountain is largely considered to be one of the great misjudgements of the academy and director/producer Paul Haggis later said his film did not deserve to win.

WESTERN “BEST PICTURE” CONTENDERS
1928-2004                                                     2005-2017
13 Nominations                                           7 Nominations
3 Wins (1931, 1990, 1992)                    1 Win (2007)

Of course the return of the western has been significantly aided by the increasingly casual nature of cinema, so it’s no surprise that the current top grossing films are mostly modern franchises or summer blockbusters. Hollywood’s recent formulaic success of producing billion dollar films is a huge factor. There is now a lot more money in studios to allow (relatively) smaller budget pictures like westerns. We also live in an age where the cinema is reaching more people and more frequently. Inevitably, any film released nowadays would make significantly more money than one made 50 years ago.

There are now countless films that are a cowboy hat short of being a western and the influence has never been stronger. Mad Max: Fury Road, the John Wick series, Drive, even box office behemoth Marvel has cashed in on the success recently with Logan. Modern television has not escaped either, Breaking Bad, Westworld and Deadwood among the most popular shows today. A further sign of the times, Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” novels are currently being adapted for film, the first of which is set for release this week despite having been around since 1998. Bizarrely, critics have even begun to see Heaven’s Gate in a new light, as recent interpretations of the 1980 disaster are far more favourable. Is Hollywood’s rekindling with the genre now rewriting history? Or much like the films themselves, are we just romanticising the past?

How much further the western will develop before the cycle repeats, only time will tell. But for now, this is a genre that the public and critics both want to see, because they’re exciting, romantic, picturesque, historic. You name it, they can do it. The western is a versatile storytelling vessel that pits the good against the bad in the most basic form and continues to be loved for that reason, evidently never more than now.