Friday, 24 July 2020

Coronacinema - Blader Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Edward James Olmos, Robin Wright

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Available on: Amazon Prime

Upon its release in 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was unloved and misunderstood, a strangely sedate sci-fi actioner that felt too subtle, too angular and too unwilling to reveal its inner workings to multiplex audiences. 

In the years since, of course, that perception has changed. Significant revisionism and a number of newly cropped versions, including Scott's definitive 'Final Cut', would establish Blade Runner as one of the finest films ever created, a seminal and profoundly important piece of work. Thus, it took 35 years to conjure a sequel deserving of the name. 

And Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of visionary Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners; Sicario; Arrival), is just that: a glowering dystopian epic of quite breathtaking scale and ambition. A broader opus than its predecessor — more accessible yet no less profound or wondrous  2049 is, nevertheless, as worthy a new chapter as it is a singular masterpiece in its own right. 

Ryan Gosling takes the lead as the titular bounty hunter, Officer K. Like Scott's protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), K works for the LAPD, locating and eliminating rogue replicants 
— sophisticated androids once designed to provide off-world slave labour. Their endless lifespans and capacity for free thought ultimately rendered them undesirable, however, and the grim irony of Deckard's journey, finally established by subsequent interpretations of film one, is that he, too, was a replicant. And so it is with K, whose provenance is obvious from the beginning.

While tracking a suspect, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K stumbles upon a relic of the past — in this case, a direct link to Blade Runner — and the implications of that discovery represent an existential crisis for humanity. Acting on orders from his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), K seeks answers, a quest that sees him probing the limits of mankind's evolved existence and eventually entering the orbit of the fugitive Deckard.

An impressive mystery plays out against this backdrop and, as K's pursuit of the truth eats at the core of his sense of self, questions around his own origins come into focus. Are the memories implanted in his manufactured brain as synthetic as he imagines? What of the recollections of a childhood he believes to be little more than constructs crafted to mimic the synapses of the human mind?

These weighty themes drive K forward and, in Gosling, the picture possesses a lead at the peak of his powers. Villeneueve's compatriot boasts a reserved inscrutability that seldom cracks. In spite of his placid exterior, Gosling's famously benign expression is underlaid with curiosity and even a sense of humour. When called to act with extreme prejudice, K is a lethal weapon, his economy of movement almost mechanical in its composition. 

Ford, meanwhile, hits the emotional beats denied Deckard's younger, cockier self. While the veteran is grizzled and aching, the sharpness of his mind is undimmed and whatever beats beneath his chest is scarred with the torment of a future once surrendered. Ford's real-life persona may now be one of a particularly ornery septuagenarian but he leans on his famous harassed charisma here, turning in a layered and often beautiful reboot of one of his most famous characters. 

A varied supporting cast also delivers. Wright is steely yet kind as Joshi, someone who grasps the dangers around her in short order. Ana de Armas's sensitive Joi is the holographic girlfriend who heralds K's return home each night, her wistful expression surely tailored to the latter's stunted desire for something approximating a deeper connection.

Elsewhere, Jared Leto is suitably magnetic — if somewhat ancillary  as Niander Wallace, a blind mega-industrialist with a God complex and a penchant for delivering rich monologues in a voice of molten gold. Edward James Olmos even makes a brief return as the dandy, origami-obsessed Gaff, one of a number of pronounced nods to the original movie. 

Aesthetically, 2049 is a peerless accomplishment, every inch of the screen exploding with cinematographer Roger Deakins's searing visuals. Los Angeles remains a nightmarish canvas, buffeted by rain and snow, clothed in murk; its outer edges are more abstract than real, its cracked shell revealing, here and there, the sickly neon glow of the urban hell beneath. Deckard's sanctuary — a deserted and irradiated facsimile of Las Vegas — is peaceful by comparison, populated by faint husks of mighty statues and grand palaces, and painted in a vivid burnt sepia.

The soaring (and iconic) score, too, appears like an old friend, its Vangelis-inspired, synth-infused glory calling forth the ghosts of days past. Remarkably, even the soundscapes of Scott's masterful progenitor have returned, from the delicate echoes rippling through Wallace's shimmering edifice-like headquarters (the successor to the Tyrell Corporation, Blade Runner's now defunct replicant manufacturer) to the booming, hissing, groaning hubbub that swirls up and down the avenues of the looming megatropolis. 

A hefty running time and dense, though not impenetrable, plot will challenge the casual viewer. That said, this is certainly worth the effort. Villeneuve's endeavours are exquisite and astounding, at once operatic, elegiac and steeped in the essence of all that has gone before. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Coronacinema - Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams (1989)

Starring: Kevin Costner, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan

Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Available on: Netflix

There is no shortage of cinematic paeans to baseball, a peculiarly American sport marked by contests that are too long and too numerous. That said, few are as imaginative or poetic as Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams, an exquisitely realised adaptation of W.P. Kinsella's 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe. 

A melange of fantasy, sporting and dramatic tropes, Field of Dreams conjures an elegantly nostalgic tale of lives and hopes lost and found. In drawing on elements of the culture war, the seminal impact of the sixties on American society and mankind's unfulfilled yearning to re-write the past, this towering picture delivers a profoundly affecting emotional experience.

Kevin Costner plays New York native Ray Kinsella, a neophyte farmer who, while surveying his harvest one evening, hears an ethereal command whispering through the Iowa corn: "If you build it, he will come." 

Naturally, Kinsella concludes that the instruction can only be fulfilled by ploughing a chunk out of his field to build a baseball diamond, thus enabling the ghost of his dad's sporting hero, legendary Chicago White Sox outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, to play out eternity in the serene surroundings of this Midwestern Shangri-La. Jackson was a tragic and conflicted figure who, along with seven teammates, received a lifetime ban from the sport after accepting money to throw the 1919 World Series.

Kinsella's hunch proves correct — Jackson (a typically edgy Ray Liotta) and his condemned colleagues find their way to Iowa. However, further mysterious commands upend Kinsella's sense of accomplishment, compelling him to seek out reclusive writer, and erstwhile social justice warrior, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), someone he believes to be in need of salvation. In doing so, he leaves sparky wife Annie (Amy Madigan) to stave off her brother Mark's (Timothy Busfield) attempts to buy the debt mounting against their property and sell it out from under them.

Field of Dreams's middle portion sees Kinsella undertake an extended cross-country odyssey set to a playlist of throwback rock and roll. This quest is ably assisted by Mann and the doughty duo encounter Burt Lancaster's old ball player along the way, his respectable beat an elegiac trove of regal Americana. 

And, yet, this is no road movie in the strictest sense. The Kinsella farm, a confluence of strangely compatible puzzle pieces — swaying crops and humble sporting arena  is the film's home plate. Robinson downplays the fantastical nature of it all with an unfussy approach that allows the magic to speak for itself. Jackson and friends emerge from the corn, like pilgrims in the New World, their laddish jostling and muscular, old-fashioned jocularity a thing of wonder to those surveying them from the modest pinewood bleachers. The director colours it with an endless azure sky that gives way to a golden dusk, descending like a warm blanket. 

In the lead, a scruffy, likeable Costner excels as the faithful hero. Goofy and self-effacing in equal measures, he carries an air of indefatigable childlike innocence that sustains even as he battles the spectre of a ruptured relationship with his dead father. Given Costner's gruff latter-years turn, this performance is as charming as it is amusing. The dynamic constructed with Madigan oozes mutual affection, their Berkley-infused shorthand and beatnik sensibilities bridling in conservative, book-banning flyover country. 

Meanwhile, Mann, replacing the source material's J.D. Salinger, serves as the narrative conscience. Armed with Jones's proud bearing and oaken tones, Mann, the old revolutionary, is a worthy chronicler of the universal American story. He perceives that not everything must change: baseball, aged of spirit and resistant to upheaval, is a crucial tether to the past in a country prone to rapid and mercurial transformations. 

A beautifully staged finale suggests that in its rawest, purest form, sport is something that binds us together, even as the shape and meaning of life twist with the coils of time's memory. 

Monday, 6 July 2020

Coronacinema - Atonement

Atonement (2007)

Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Saoirse Ronan, Juno Temple 

Director: Joe Wright

Available on: Netflix

The intertwining taboos of class and sex run through meridians of Atonement, Joe Wright's heartbreaking and achingly beautiful adaptation of the seminal novel by Ian McEwan. 

Wright's vision is a sumptuously crafted meditation on the treacherous mercuriality of the English caste system, as well as a tragic tale of the friction between the adult realms and late childhood precocity.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy occupy the nominal starring roles yet it is Saoirse Ronan who excels as the story's anchor character, Briony Tallis, narrator, antagonist and repentant sinner. Armed with an air of watchful curiosity and that burrowing stare, Ronan is a revelation. She elevates Briony from frivolous younger sibling to herald of woe with the merest flicker of an expression, placing her actions somewhere in the grey space between deliberate and naive. Played out over the course of the picture's opening act, hers is the fire burning most destructive. 

The setting is an English country estate in the stifling summer of 1935. Aspiring writer Briony, older sister Cecilia (Knightley) and housekeeper's son Robbie Turner (McAvoy) pass the time in the exquisite grounds of the Tallis manor, the latter pair having recently graduated from Cambridge. When, from a bedroom window, Briony witnesses a moment of sexual tension — the culmination, one suspects, of years of furtive glances and suppressed feelings — between her sister and Robbie (the object of her own girlish affections), she misconstrues the exchange. She fixates on a vague version of reality, her juvenile mind assailed by events she barely comprehends, and, in doing so, seals the fates of those in her orbit.

Wright delivers the fatal emotional punches. He creates a work of tonal dichotomies; its initial stages are lusciously captured in rich pastoral shades and infused with a sultry ambience. However, a strangely frenetic pace drives it forward, more than one character finding an outlet in the thumping certainty of a typewriter. One scene in particular, a passionate tryst in a darkened library, is masterfully constructed filmmaking, at once violent and romantic, ripe with tension, desire and whispered ecstasy, its execution lent extra potency by the wildly divergent ways in which the moment is interpreted by the players.

From here, Atonement gives way to something far bleaker: an often graceful war-time elegy of how destinies can pivot on even the smallest of cruelties. The stand-out sequence is an astonishing depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation. Robbie, now transported to the battlefield, is pitched into an anarchic circus of military ill discipline. 

Instead of blasted heaths, the men of the British Expeditionary Force sing and squabble, booze and brawl among seaside carousels and bandstands. In a single five-minute shot, Wright follows Robbie through this dystopian hellscape, weaving between and betwixt the madness: dead horses, beached ships and mangled machinery  the flotsam and jetsam of conflict. In the background, a ferris wheel winds lazily in the fading light. 

On the home front, a cowed Briony (now played by Romola Garai) contends with her guilt while working as a nurse in Blitz-era London. Garai capably mirrors Ronan's prim bearing while reaching for redemption wherever she can find it. Hers is a heavy burden that haunts every step.

Briony's future is, of course, indelibly bound up with the happiness of her sister and Robbie. The latter pair eventually settle on some kind of mutual understanding as Hitler's advances erode the social stratums and both McAvoy and Knightley turn in powerful performances fuelled by rage at a future upturned. Knightley's usual cut-glass confidence wavers in the face of the charismatic Robbie, whom McAvoy's skills render not only edgy, but inherently good. 

They are ably supported by Juno Temple, as teenaged Tallis cousin Lola, and Benedict Cumberbatch, a chocolate magnate armed with crap marketing slogans and a quietly leering interest in the coquettish adolescent. Theirs is a coupling that conjures a grubby chemistry very much at odds with the central dynamic, although it is no mere sidebar. 

An extended coda sees Vanessa Redgrave inhabit Briony's ageing shell, old wounds and offences drawing the life from her eyes, leaving only cynicism where once there was raw remorse. No action, after all, is ever free of consequence but truth need not be the master of what is right.