Blade Runner 2049: A Review in Pictures

I notice that Blade Runner 2049 is getting short shrift on many pick lists for best films of 2017. I’ve made clear where I stand, and here’s my bonus homage: a review in pictures.

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The Best Films of 2017

This was a good year. The worst movie I saw was the over-hyped It, and I didn’t even bother with the Flatliners remake, which had a whopping 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes during its first week of release. Blade Runner 2049 was the masterpiece, and mother! the hidden gem.

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1. Blade Runner 2049. 5 stars. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only problem are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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2. mother! 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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3. Logan. 5 stars. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

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4. Detroit. 4 ½ stars. When Hollywood goes after racism and injustice, the end product is usually ruined by overblown sanctimony and high-horse preaching and mawkish conclusions. Kathryn Bigelow is a gifted director who eschews that nonsense, and — as in her Middle-East masterpieces The Hurt Locker ans Zero Dark Thirty — delivers a drama so unpleasantly real it needs no leftist screeds. The film is about the Detroit riots that took place in 1967, and focuses on an awful night during which innocent African Americans were terrorized in a hotel. The cops rounded them up and lined them against the wall, yelling at them, humiliating them, pretending to shoot some of them, really shooting others; all because someone in the hotel fired a toy gun out a window. The actor in the above photo does a particularly good job of portraying a security guard caught between his ethnicity and his job, as he tries mediating between the police and the suspects, and, predictably, earning hate from both sides for his efforts. True to life, the film ends on the court trial in which the racist cops were acquitted. I always look forward to Bigelow’s films, and her documentary-style realism is searing as ever.

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5. Call Me By Your Name. 4 ½ stars. I wanted to rank this higher, to spite the idiots who are unable to handle eroticism between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. Some have actually accused this film of promoting pedophilia, which is not only nonsense but grossly irresponsible. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to accept the huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). What happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is no manipulation or abuse of any power on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12. Critics have praised Call Me By Your Name for every good reason. As a sexual coming of age story, it’s one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind.

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6. The Last Jedi. 4 ½ stars. I had high hopes for this installment given the director Rian Johnson’s work on other projects like Breaking Bad, and his talents pay off, though not quite to the insane degree implied by the critics. This isn’t the best Star Wars film since Empire (that honor goes to Rogue One) but admittedly a close second. Where The Force Awakens plagiarized the hell out of the past, The Last Jedi breaks new ground in impressive ways and delivers some of the most dramatic scenes of the franchise. The only real offenses are the porgs and Leia using the Force to fly. (The latter is almost as bad as the Doctor Who scene in Forest of the Dead, where the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to fly down the shaft of a planetoid.) The best performance is Mark Hamill’s, who in the classic trilogy was a poor actor who played a whiny bitch. This chapter finally justifies Luke’s existence. He’s that good, and even outdoes Han Solo in the previous film. See my rankings of all the Star Wars films; I place The Last Jedi at #3, after Empire (#1) and Rogue One (#2).

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7. Get Out. 4 stars. As a rule I avoid comedy-based horror films, and I was even more wary of Get Out when I heard comparisons to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Horror isn’t the place to preach about racism any more than it is to crack jokes. I was surprised on both counts. Not only does the humor work, the portrayal of racial tensions feeds directly into the plot — and that plot is a whopper — without sermonizing. A black college student visits the parents of his white girlfriend, who are liberal racists, the well-meaning kind who only think they’re colorblind. (Practically the first line out of the father’s mouth is a patronizing assurance that he “would have voted for Obama a third time”.) It turns out this family loves black people in a seriously wrong way: they have been kidnapping and lobotomizing African Americans out of “reverence” for them — turning them into household slaves, and even sex slaves. Get Out is a brutal satire on liberals who fetishize that which they admire, and is the film this year I was most pleasantly surprised by.

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8. Dunkirk. 4 stars. I wish I’d seen this in IMAX, because Christopher Nolan’s films tend to be enhanced in IMAX by a factor of five. (Dark Knight, I’m looking at you.) Swerving Spitfires, boat tippings, and soldiers dropping to the sand as planes scream overhead must have a nerve-wracking experience to see in this format; I was impressed enough on my home screen. At the same time, Dunkirk is a bit overrated by those who call it one of the best war movies of all time. It wouldn’t make my top ten (though it would probably make my top fifteen), as it amounts to an impressive spectacle without much interest in character, which for me is critical to the greatness of a film. The characters are really just ciphers for cannon fodder. There’s minimal dialogue, and while that strategy can sometimes pay dividends, I’m not sure it was the right approach for Dunkirk. But there’s no denying the films strengths, and the justice it does to the civilian rescue on the French coast.

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9. Wind River. 3 ½ stars. This film proves that Taylor Sheridan is a better screenwriter than director. He wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, both excellent films, but in the case of Wind River he directed what he wrote, with results that are mostly decent but nothing exceptional. The story involves an FBI agent who enlists the help of a wildlife hunter in looking for the murderer of a Native American Indian on a reservation. The hunter is dealing with grief, as he lost a daughter who was half-Indian and divorced from his Indian wife. The mystery unfolds in a rather straightforward fashion, and end in a nail-biting shoot-out. Somewhere there is a message about grief, revenge, and cultural enlightenment. Definitely worth seeing, but probably only once.

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10. Free Fire. 3 ½ stars. Another film worth seeing once is an anarchist action comedy. It’s a stripped-down blow out between arms dealers and gangsters who meet in a warehouse, and soon start shooting each other to smithereens when tempers explode. The whole film takes place in the confined warehouse setting with the dealers and gangsters cursing and firing, while the mediator hilariously uses her gender to advantage in avoid getting shot by either side. Free Fire comes across as a Reservoir Dogs wannabe, and it does have its brilliant moments.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)

Call Me By Your Name

Some people are upset about Call Me By Your Name. It has a critical approval rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the fact that it portrays an erotic relationship between a 17-year-old teen and a 24-year-old man has ignited the inevitable controversy. Some — many actually — have accused the film of promoting pedophilia. I’m not kidding.

It would be laughable if not so sad. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to know there is a huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). What happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is nothing predatory on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12.

As a sexual coming of age story, Call Me By Your Name is one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind. It’s probably my second favorite after Blue is the Warmest Color, which told of a high school girl and a college woman falling in lust and love. Both films capture what it’s like to be a teenager living in many worlds at once. Like Adele in Blue, Elio interacts with his friends on one level, his parents on another, while something more primal is happening to him on another front. Before meeting Emma, Adele lost her virginity to a classmate; before becoming entangled with Oliver, Elio loses his virginity to a local girl. Those disappointing initiations are soon forgotten when the teens find a better match in someone older and more intellectually rewarding. Both films end on heart-ache (Emma finds another woman; Oliver gets married), and the romance is handled so well that the ache lasts long after you’ve left the theater.

The critical acclaim for Call Me By Your Name is well earned. It’s one of the best films of 2017. Don’t let any moral tight-asses tell you otherwise.

Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Darren Aronofsky Ranked

Here’s a new installment in the favorite director’s blogathon: Darren Aronofsky. I finally saw mother!, which I consider his best, though I understand why it’s so polarizing.

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1. mother! 2017. 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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2. Requiem for a Dream. 2000. 5 stars. Considered by most to be Aronofsky’s best, and for obvious reasons. The performances are staggering. I’ve worshiped Ellen Burstyn ever since The Exorcist, but she completely outdoes herself here, playing an unhappy widow (Sara) who gets swallowed by the forces of drug addiction. Sara sits alone in her apartment and does little more than fantasize about being a guest on talk-show TV. Obsessed with her figure, she become addicted to weight-loss amphetamines, and descends into a spiral of psychosis. Meanwhile her son (Harry) and his girlfriend (Marion) become heroin addicts as they chase the unrealistic dreams of youth. All are crushed in the end, with Sara becoming a near vegetable from electroshock therapy, Harry getting his needle-infected arm is amputated; and Marion becoming a sex slave to make ends meet. The film itself is a bad drug trip, and one I find myself revisiting almost against my will.

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3. Noah. 2014. 4 ½ stars. Widely dismissed as Aronofsky’s most commercial effort, I find it a fascinating work for the way it marries gnostic myths with the biblical accounts. It’s the story of the flood served up Lord of the Rings style, and it works since the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth, the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. But it’s also a very serious film that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide, and it has the balls to portray Noah as a merciless figure when he seeks to carry out the Creator’s will (as he sees it) by intending to kill his daughter’s babies. Noah is far better than cinephiles would have you believe, and it has plenty to say along with other great religious films.

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4. The Fountain. 2006. 4 ½ stars. This is one of those box-office bombs that later acquired a cult following — like Blade Runner and Event Horizon. It meditates on love and death, and speaks to mortality better than most films that dare try. The narrative follows three stories set in different timelines: in 1500, a conquistador (Tomas) during the Inquisition searches for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for his queen (Isabel); in 2000, a neuroscientist (Tom Creo) studies brain tumors and tries to save his dying wife (Izzi); and in 2500, an astronaut (Tommy) drifts through space to a dying star. Hugh Jackman plays all three “Tom” roles, and Rachel Weisz takes on the role of Queen Isabel and Izzy. Through these threads, what emerges is that acceptance is the only way to defeat death, and fighting to keep that which you love does more harm than good.

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5. The Wrestler. 2008. 4 stars. The mundane style of this film is unique in the otherwise surreal Aronofsky canon, and some consider it his best effort after Requiem for a Dream. I don’t think it’s that good, but I will say that Mickey Rourke’s performance is extraordinary. He plays a professional wrestler deteriorating in health (thanks to body-building drugs), losing his fan base, and who must work in a supermarket to supplement his income. On top of this he is hated by his daughter who he can’t ever make time for, and Rachel Evans’ performance is as good as Rourke’s. The film treats the subject of wrestling and all its absurd fake elements in the honest way that makes you actually appreciate the sport and the toll taken on professional wrestlers. If I find it slightly overrated, I can’t deny I end up caring deeply for Rourke’s character.

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6. Black Swan. 2010. 3 ½ stars. I adored Black Swan when it first came out but it hasn’t aged well on me. Like The Wrestler it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and half-succeeds in drawing me into its subculture, showing an individual who is willing to die for sport or athletic art. But where The Wrestler was grounded in gritty realism, Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes, and sometimes too much for its own good. On repeat viewings these elements seem less profound. Natalie Portman’s performance is impressive, however: Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life. It’s a forceful look at a damaged woman, but not one of my Aronofsky favorites.

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7. Pi. 1998. 3 stars. First efforts are often amateurish, and Pi is no exception. It’s the film that Aronofsky needed to build experience on for his later gems. The editing is rough, and the performances are entirely forgettable. It succeeds more by its concepts though not entirely. If math is the language of the universe, Pi suggests, then nature can be expressed in numbers and mathematical patterns, which could be used to predict almost anything (such as the stock market). Ideas like that were too grand for Aronofsky’s limited skills at this point in his career. His reach exceeded his grasp.

Ten Great Science Fiction Films

With the release of Blade Runner 2049, it’s time for a sci-fic pick list. Here are my ten favorites. There are no Star Wars or James Cameron films here, just to get that out of the way.

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1. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. When I saw Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. And the scoring is genius, with earworms as compulsive as the themes of True Romance. It’s set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the sun’s core, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission is one calamity after another, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. One crew member is roasted by the sun’s rays when he goes EVA to repair ship damages. They respond to a distress call from another ship, which leads to more disaster, and to being stalked by a disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with (which is my #2 pick, below). Captain Kaneda’s death scene captures the visuals, scoring and dramatic intensity of the film, and a good illustration why it’s my favorite sci-fic film.

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2. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Even after decades and so many viewings I’m still terrorized by Alien. It’s a horror film with science-fiction dressing, and a ’70s product in every way, nothing like the quickfire plotting of the inferior sequels (making some allowances for the underrated Alien 3). Cameron’s sequel was an ’80s film in every way, an action blockbuster that made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens the eggs come from a queen, but Scott had envisioned a horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. It’s a film crafted with the care and discipline that’s rare these days, and it delivers genuine terror. Kane’s chestbursting remains the most pulverizing scene in the history of sci-fic cinema.

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3. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic. It has the ambitious concepts of the original, and it takes them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only criticism you can make are the plot holes which leave glaring coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography — as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Objectively I would call this the best sci-fic film of all time. I doubt there will ever be another as culturally significant. It’s a visual piece; in its two hours and 19 minutes, there are less than 40 minutes of dialogue. Kubrick said he wanted to reach a wide spectrum of people and make them think about humanity’s destiny, its role in the cosmos and its relationship to higher forms of life. I continue to marvel at the interplay between the start and finish. The Monolith appears among the primitive apes radiating its terrifying noise; they surround it, worship it, and learn to kill with intelligent purpose. At the end Bowman is transfigured into the Starchild, suggesting another evolutionary step. In between we are subjected to a visionary epic plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. There are shots of pure genius — like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century — the sort of inspirations that come once a decade in film making. I can think of one film only — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — that has come close to doing what Kubrick did here, in showing humanity humbled by celestial mysteries.

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5. Gattaca. Andrew Niccol, 1997. This film flew under the radar when it was released and it deserves more recognition. It’s not set in space at all, for space is the wishful fantasy of its lead character. He is barred from pursuing that dream on account of bad genes. In the world of 2022 (scary to think that’s only five years away now), it’s not white heterosexual men who are the superior elite, but rather the bioformed. Men and women of all ethnicities are born in test tubes to be engineered for ideal health, high IQs and a long life-spans. People who are born naturally are called “In-Valids” and consigned to a life of menial labor. Vince is one such In-Valid who refuses to accept his lot on life, and manages to work out a deal with a crippled elite. He uses Eugene’s genetic samples to get past Gattaca’s daily security checks, and undergoes training for a mission in space. Gattaca explores privilege by genetic purity in the context of Vince’s personal family baggage, and it’s a very moving drama.

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6. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho, 2013. The film is many things: post-apocalyptic sci-fic, a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. (To get an idea as to how insane, just watch this scene.) It’s set in 2031, long after an attempt to counteract global warming backfired and brought down an ice age. The only survivors boarded a train called the Rattling Ark, and after 17 years it keeps people alive in an extremely perverse state of affairs. The train is powered by a perpetual motion engine that travels a circumnavigational track (around the globe). The wealthy elite live in the front cars and the “low-lives” live in the back cars, in hideous conditions, under watch by guards, and given only protein bars to eat. Each carriage forward presents a deadly challenge for the protagonist who aims to get to the front and put things to right. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller with plenty of rapid-fire action, but also intelligent artistry and off-the-scales craziness.

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7. Event Horizon. Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. I would call this the most terrifying sci-fic film I’ve seen (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil. I watch it almost every year.

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8. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, 1982. It’s hard for me to rank Blade Runner, because the question is which version. The theatrical cut was cobbled together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers; it also contained voiceovers from Deckard to explain his backstory, which in my view condescends to the audience. In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear (a plus), as does the happy ending (a plus), and restores the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates (a big plus). But now there are scenes which call into question whether Deckard is human; he may actually be a replicant. I continue to have mixed feelings about this. Deckard’s humanity was never in question in Philip Dick’s novel, and the only reason Scott ran with the idea is because of a fluke — one of his film crew suggested the idea off-the-cuff. The Final Cut is the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and also happens to align with the tone and style of the sequel Blade Runner 2049; it includes some more violent scenes that were left out. That’s the best version, but weighing all them together, I put Blade Runner at #8. It’s a great film in any case.

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9. Europa Report. Sebastián Cordero, 2013. This came out the same year Gravity did. It was a good year for outer-space dramas, but Europa Report went unheard of, while Gravity got all the praise. It should have been the other way around. It takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t fear the “found footage” format. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a piece like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame (see above image) will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon. It’s that powerful in transporting you.

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10. The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers, 1999. Few people know that The Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with Tom Baker in Doctor Who. That story is The Deadly Assassin, which first aired in 1976, and the Matrix is even called that in the story, functioning exactly like the model we know — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. The Doctor subjects himself to the Matrix and enters a horrifying virtual reality to learn the identity of a political assassin. The Wachowski brothers took the idea and made a blockbuster franchise from it, but if you ignore the trashy sequels, the first Matrix still holds up well. The idea that we’re nothing more than batteries powering machines who rule over us (see above image), and that our lives are just dreams, is something I’ve found eerily plausible.

Retrospective: Crossroads

I went to bed last night pondering the idea of music as a weapon, and paid for it. In my dreams I was assaulted by guitar-wielding psychopaths whose riffs crushed my will and forced me to sink neck deep into the earth. That’s not what happens in Crossroads (1986) but it’s what happens when you watch it with an overheated imagination like mine. The film is almost unheard of these days, which is too bad. It mixes The Devil and Daniel Webster with Huckleberry Finn, throws in homages from underdog dramas, and finishes on a blistering guitar showdown inspired by the “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. And yet for all the pastiche it still feels original after 30 years; it’s certainly aged better than most films I saw in high school. Watching it last night was rewarding, the subsequent nightmare notwithstanding.

The plot involves a guitar student named Eugene, who attends Juilliard on a scholarship. He’s a prodigy of classical music but wants to play southern blues instead, and so tracks down the legendary harmonica player Willie Brown in a nearby nursing home. The two strike up a curious relationship. Eugene is star-struck, and Brown is a bit of an asshole with a mean temper. He’s openly contemptuous of this New York kid who has the balls to call himself a bluesman, since real bluesmen, as he sees it, come from the Mississippi Delta. But he’s also amused by Eugene’s passion and makes a promise to teach him a lost song written by Robert Johnson, in return for breaking him out of the home. Eugene agrees and they hobo all the way down to Mississippi, having some interesting road encounters. They hook up with a girl who is on the run from abusive parents. They go into segregated bars and get fistfuls of southern racism. It’s an introspective film that seems more ’70s than ’80s, and unassuming in what it tries to accomplish. It has a natural charm that draws you in to the southern blues subculture, even if you don’t like blues music (as I don’t).

Eugene’s tutelage under Brown is one of musical instruction and insulting put-downs in about equal measure; at one point Brown even belts him in the face for giving him lip. On top of that, it turns out that the “lost song” is a lie, and that Brown has just been using Eugene to get back to his old stomping grounds. This shatters the kid, but a friendship grows between them despite all this, which they will need for the final act.

Brown’s reason for getting back to Mississippi has nothing to do with settling down and teaching a protégé how to be a new Robert Johnson, far less nostalgia for his own roots. Just the opposite: he needs to re-find a crossroads where he made a deal with the Devil, cancel that deal, and then leave the south forever. As a young man he sold his soul to become famous, and while he got the fame, he’s been in torment for it. Eugene makes light of this crossroads “folklore” whenever Willie brings it up (which is why he gets slapped in the face), but it’s a good thing he thinks it’s bullshit. It will allow him the confidence he needs in the final showdown.

The crossroads is located somewhere between Yazoo City and Vicksburg, and when they arrive the Devil appears as a wide smiling African American in a suit and tie (see left), speaking the local accent. This modest incarnation of Satan somehow manages to be more diabolical than some of the devils seen in horror films. He needs no supernatural supplements to exude menace; everything is conveyed in a predatory smile and lean sarcasm. Brown begs him to tear up their contract and set him free, to which the Devil replies, “Now why on earth would I do that?”

This is where things get interesting. Eugene doesn’t believe this man is supernatural, let alone the Devil, but he can see the tormenting effect he has on Brown and so steps into the conversation to help. The Devil turns on him and offers a challenge: If Eugene will attend a special concert and win a guitar battle, then Brown will get his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene’s soul is forfeit to the devil just like Brown’s. Brown strenuously objects to the proposal, but Eugene tells him not to worry, because he’s just calling the guy’s bluff as he sees it, not realizing the hell he’s just thrown himself into. He and Brown suddenly find themselves in a music hall, awaited on stage by a heavy metal-blues guitarist named Jack Butler, (played by, yes, Steve Vai).

What commences is an extraordinary performance that resembles less a contest and more a lethal duel. The guitars of Eugene and Butler seem weaponized as they alternate their riffs, then play at the same time, get in each other’s faces (though this is more Butler than Eugene), and desperately try to one-up the other’s notes. They get assistance from the floor: a woman leaps and dances and shakes her ass around Butler, cheering him on; Willie whips out his harmonica and plays to Eugene’s music. Finally, Butler lets loose a furious solo that seems impossible to top, but Eugene is able to do so in a stroke of genius, by falling back on his classical training and blending classic and blues in a way that Butler tries to outmatch but utterly fails. It’s worth nothing that while Butler’s performance is real (he’s played by Steve Vai after all), Eugene’s is staged, but his finger work on the guitar looks so goddamn real that I once thought Ralph Macchio was a professional guitarist. (You can watch most of the duel here.)

With the challenges of portraying music as a dangerous force, the Devil as a southern black, and an unbalanced friendship that ends with appropriate payoff, Crossroads does a remarkable job — far better than its reputation suggests. It bombed at the box office, but then I was never surprised by that. It was a mainstream effort that dealt in issues outside the mainstream. Eugene’s odyssey is one of hard lessons and heartbreak; Willie’s torment owes to a myth no one believes. The triumph of the former and liberation of the latter are well earned.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

The Massive Failure that is It

I admit I was seduced by the hype, but It was a major disappointment. Saying that it improves on the TV version from the ’90s gives new meaning to damning with faint praise. The mini-series was an abomination. Muschietti’s film is an abject failure. Trying to elevate the latter by comparing it to the former is like eating mud to chase down feces.

There are two problems with the film. First is that it’s not scary at all; it fails its own genre. The critic at Pop Matters nails it:

“There are no scares in It. None. Think about how hard it is to make a clown not scary. Pennywise might be the most ineffective murderer in the history of murderers. He jumps, he chases, he concocts elaborate puzzles for the kids to navigate, but he struggles to deliver the coup de grâce. That’s pretty amazing, considering he can do anything. He can change shapes, he can impersonate anyone, he can possess people, he can stretch his mouth wider than a freaking python, AND YET… he has a tough time actually murdering people. It’s hard to feel genuine fear when a horror movie sounds more false alarms than a low-battery smoke detector.”

Georgie dies at the start of course, and in the end we see plenty of corpses floating around in Pennywise’s lair. But for some strange reason, the characters we are invested in are impervious to the clown’s murderous designs, despite the fact that he can invade them in the most private areas of their homes, pounce and grab them, and get up in their faces and show a mouthful of obscene teeth. On the other hand, he kills Patrick Hocksetter with complete ease; but then Patrick is a bully, and thus an easy throw-away character.

Even the favorable reviews (88%) at Rotten Tomatoes come with caveats, acknowledging that it’s not the most effective horror piece but works as a coming of age story. But even that’s not true, and here the second problem: The kids are just single-note ciphers. They are defined by virtually nothing beyond their loser-traits. Eddie is a hypochondriac, Mike a black outsider, Richie an (admittedly amusing) vulgar insult machine, Stan a sensitive Jew, Ben a heavyweight (called “Tits” by one of the bullies), Beverly an outcast tomboy, and Bill a speech freak. Unlike the kids in Stranger Things, the Losers aren’t fleshed out so that we can engage with them. Eddie whinges, Richie drops F-bombs and wise-ass remarks (with lame humor coming even in places that should be terrifying but aren’t), Bill stutters, etc., but that’s all they do. Beverly gets some added depth in the scenes with her abusive father, but that issue is handled so ridiculously (she, an 11-year old, easily dispatches him when he makes advances on her) that it would have been better to omit it altogether.

It’s not that these kids do a poor acting job; just the opposite. They are talented for their age — especially Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, and Jaeden Lieberher — and do fine enough with what they are given. They’re certainly a vast improvement on the kids used in the unspeakable mini-series from the ’90s. But they’re not given much to care about.

I admit that I’m jaded and hard to scare, but seriously, anyone who is frightened by Muschietti’s film shouldn’t be watching real horror films at all. Shame on the studio for not supporting Cary Fukunaga. He directed Jane Eyre and the brilliant first season of True Detective, and judging from his original It script leaked online, the film could have been great. Instead, the studio played it safe — with loud bangs, cheap thrills, and underdeveloped Losers who don’t matter to us.

(Actually, what we really need is a director and studio willing to shoot the sewer orgy scene — but that’s a whole other story.)

Rating: 1 ½ stars out of 5.