Archive for Denis Villeneuve

Less Human Than Human

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2017 by dcairns

One line of thought. Probably spurious. On seeing Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL right after the 2016 presidential election, I was struck by how it felt like an optimistic statement — despite our stupid differences, humankind manage cooperate among ourselves and with the strolling heptapods — a movie aimed at that branch of the multiverse where Hillary won. BLADE RUNNER 2049, arriving hot on its heels (how did he manage that?) — with its polluted, post-nuclear police state, is aimed squarely at the Trump Parallel. Since escapism sells, it was ARRIVAL that was the hit.

It’s like somebody said about Kubrick: 2001 was the future we could have had; CLOCKWORK ORANGE was what we were going to get.

As shot by Roger Deakins — excuse me, Roger A. Deakins (where did the A come from?) — 2049 looks really good — I mean, REALLY good — and the performances are excellent, with a very committed Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford and an interesting bunch of relative newcomers supporting them. Poor Robin Wright has to find a new way to play an ice queen, but ever resourceful, she does it. And the story is OK — it avoids the Damon Lindelof approach of simply reconfiguring the original elements and rehashing them out of sequence with the roles switched. But we were vaguely engaged without being particularly excited by the movie.

We’d just seen a bunch of movie trailers and they were ALL for sequels, two of them superhero franchises, one of them the JUMANJI reboot (which seemed to show the most originality, grading on a curve). And BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a superior sort of belated sequel — it’s largely faithful to its source, and not only reproduces familiar design elements (the recurring Mayan kitchen) but concocts new ones that seem quite in keeping as well as being beautiful in themselves (dustbowl Vegas, Dave Bautista’s brown lounge). It has a precise sense of the original’s sick, slightly kinky violence, gialloesque, chilling and inventive. But we didn’t care too much.

There are clever touches — the ads for Atari and Pan-Am that “date” the original film are repeated, and a “Product of CCCP” logo confirms that this is an alternate future, so that it doesn’t matter that Leon’s incept date was 2017 in the first movie, and yet artificial Brion Jameses are not available in the shops this Christmas. The Peugeot and Sony signs are pure product placement, though — I only hope the well-documented (by me, right now) Curse of Blade Runner will swoop down and send those corporations spiralling into administration the way it did to the games company and the airline. But clever touches don’t necessarily make us care about a movie’s characters or story or even themes.

Impossible to explain such a visceral thing, and I’m not certain our response is of any use to anyone else — best to provisionally accept the positive things listed above and see it for yourself. It’s worth seeing.

I guess one problem is that the movie does seem to aim for a fairly straightforward kind of emotional appeal in its ending, and that somehow didn’t come off for us. And even if it had, I think it would have been less interesting than the original movie. Ridley Scott’s films tries halfheartedly to be about Rick Deckard but comes to life when dealing with Roy Batty, a much more original hero with a more pressing problem to solve. The fact that his methods are “questionable” just makes him more interesting. And while the movie’s attempts to find an emotional arc for Deckard are so ineffectual that the subsequent director’s cuts (two of them?) can chop off his last scene and nobody misses it, the emotions it rouses for Batty are, though conflicted, huge and operatic — that’s why I used a frame grab of the elevator scene in my previous BR post. Batty has just killed his father — God — and is breathing deeply of the strange new possibilities around him — while at the same time falling, falling, away from the heavens.

To get anywhere near that, 2049 would have to have been about its own most interesting, scary and transgressive character, Luv, ferociously played by Sylvia Hoeks. But she is very far from being even the chief antagonist — she’s a henchwoman for Jared Leto. And Leto’s wacko billionaire is the film’s most hackneyed element, and nonsensical to boot — always complaining that replicants are too difficult to manufacture, while randomly killing perfectly good replicants every time we see him.

The first film is about all kinds of stuff, but as Batty’s story resonates most deeply, it seems to mainly be about mortality. The second film seems to be almost straightforwardly about slavery — an important subject in the first movie too, but a less universal one. And in the original, since the replicants are escapees when we first meet them, slavery is relegated to backstory and is less an active theme. Death is the problem. In this sequel, our hero is a slave — maybe we need more convincing information about how he breaks his programming? But the story of his gradual growth beyond the limits imposed on him should be touching. I do actually hold out hope that this may kick in more on a second viewing.

2049 is a kind of replicant movie — beautiful, complex, elegant, closely resembling what it’s modelled on and undeniably made with enormous skill — but crucially lacking some important, indefinable inner ingredient. If the first film is cold — and it is — but possessed of some kind of weird, nameless Wagnerian emotion of its own — the sequel tries to do something commendable but less interesting — tell a touching human story — and doesn’t really quite manage it. (The two times I did feel some emotion: early on when we see Gosling’s K being the victim of prejudice; when he loses his cyber-partner; when he sees her porno billboard Doppelganger. Which suggests that Ford’s excellent performance is essentially a distraction from what should be Gosling’s movie.)

“I suppose that was the best BLADE RUNNER sequel we could ask for,” mused Fiona, doubtfully. But we never asked for one. “Well, maybe if they’d hired the OTHER writer,*” I mused, just as doubtfully.

*David Peoples, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER, also co-wrote THE UNFORGIVEN and 12 MONKEYS. Hampton Fancher, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER and 2049, is a former flamenco dancer once married to Sue Lyon, which is also pretty cool.


Into the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by dcairns


Having enjoyed ARRIVAL, we went back in time and watched director Denis Villeneuve’s previous hit. SICARIO. It’s very impressive, but we were less convinced by the “human killing machine” tropes which climax it than we had been by the hellish drug war developments of the first two acts. Shot by the always-impressive Roger Deakins, it has a more classical style than ARRIVAL (Deakins weaned the Coens off the wide angle lens, and seems to have drawn Villeneuve away from extreme depth of field long lens stuff, but I’ll have to see even earlier Villeneuves to know if my guess is accurate) with several of the impressive dusk scenes that distinguished NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (cartoon violence by comparison with this). The above image is just about all we see of a harrowing torture scene — imagination does the rest.


And then there’s this one, which recalls the closing shot of FULL METAL JACKET. The deceptive approach to perspective is an incidental pleasure which may not mean anything: the foreground figures’ bulk emphasises their closeness, but the low angle and silhouette effect makes them seem to be the same distance away as the line of smaller figures. Giants and dwarfs walking together. A Wellesian defiance of space, in the service of graphic impact.


But the fact that, as the figures advance, they sink below the horizon line, swallowed up by the same liquid darkness they’re composed of, gives the sequence a doom-laden quality, as if the men are descending into the Underworld, or beneath the surface of a dark ocean. Chills.


Abbot and Costello Go To Earth

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by dcairns


ARRIVAL is a thing of beauty. If you’re in need of a shot of hope, a movie that acknowledge’s humanity’s gross collective stupidity while holding out some possibility for improvement, it may do you some good.

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur. Tricks with gravity also allow images to be inverted or tilted ninety degrees, calling to mind the “familiar object photographed from an unusual angle” round of questions from Ask the Family. Add smoke and other atmospheric effects, and a lot of discordant yet eerily beautiful music — including the de rigeur terror honks heard in nearly every large-scale sci-fi/psychological horror film in recent years. (I think David Lynch may have invented the terror honk as a film music device, in WILD AT HEART. Would be interested in earlier examples.)


We know how good Amy Adams is. Here she seizes the opportunity of playing a character freaked out and terrified for the whole movie. While Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY is specifically frightened of the exact situations she’s faced with (already nervous about being in space, she has to face cosmic debris, oxygen starvation, the absence of George Clooney), Adams seems generally nervous and lacking in confidence. Part of the job of a good dramatic screenwriter is to use situations to test character — so it’s often a good idea to put the worst possible character in the situation, forcing them to tackle their weaknesses and uncover their strengths. Or you can find the worst possible situation for an otherwise capable character, as with Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. It gets more subtle when the lines are blurred ~


Adams plays a linguist called in to help translate the speech of a race of visiting aliens, the heptapods (we meet two, nicknamed Abbot & Costello). She’s an awesomely skilled linguist, faced with a problem nobody has ever had to tackle before. The aliens have two distinct languages, one for speech (various echoing rumbles and clicks and digitial didgeridoo drones) and one for writing (forms resembling a cross between a Rorschach test and a coffee cup stain). She also has to deal with politicians and the military, who don’t understand the task she has been set, or anything else, really. One can imagine her role played with a lot of acidity and aggression, because she has to deal with fools, and at times it’s even written that way, but by playing this woman as a character for whom that doesn’t come easily, Adams raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting. That’s what you want from an actor.

Also Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, very good.


Abbot and Costello are admirable too. Convincingly alien and strange, combining qualities of squids and hands, they are never not alarming. I wasn’t so keen on the spaceships — they are unusual and odd, and reveal different qualities from different angles, but are somehow not awe-inspiring. It’s a difficult brief. The huge craft of INDEPENDENCE DAY were impressive (in a terrible film) because they filled the sky. These long, bean-like things, which turn out to be scooped almost hollow at the back, don’t have any menacing weight. Their defiance of gravity puts me in mind of Magritte’s wondrous painting The Castle of the Pyrenees, but they’re not bulky enough so they crucially lack the sense of heft defied.

Is this a golden age of science fiction dawning? This one is clever. It feels very rewatchable, too. See it big.