Tag Archives: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Box Office Report: ‘Jumanji’ holds strong as ‘The Post’ expands wide

In its fourth weekend of release, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle topped the box office with an estimated $27.035 million. The film has traversed a bizarre path, opening in December with $36.169 million, jumping up the following weekend to $50.051 million, falling only 25.6% to $37.233 million in its third weekend before dropping another minuscule 27.4% this weekend. Even with the holiday break, the numbers are absolutely outstanding, especially its past two weekends as normal fall off usually hits between 40%-65%.  Jumanji currently sits at $283.17 million from the US and Canada, making it the 8th largest domestic grosser released in 2017. With further success, it could even pass Thor: Ragnarok at $313 million.

The Post took second place with an estimated $18.6 million after three weekends in limited release, which is an expectedly plentiful expansion considering the involved talent of Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The film made roughly $4.5 million and now has a domestic total of $23.089 million. It is expected to earn multiple Oscar nominations next week.

In third was the Liam Neeson action film The Commuter, earning approximately $13.45 million. The reviews have been subpar, but, as a January opening, the film should ultimately find success.

As horror films tend to, Insidious: The Last Key held strong with a take of $12.135 million. Worldwide, the film has made $92.575 million on a $10 million budget, turning a massive profit.

The Greatest Showman has stuck in the area of $10 million each of its four weekends of release, seemingly put off by those visiting Jumanji or Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But with its $11.8 million weekend for a worldwide total of $194.673 million, the Hugh Jackman musical has likely crossed even off of an $84 million budget.

Speaking of The Last Jedi, the eight Star Wars episode pushed closer to becoming the sixth film to ever cross $600 million domestically after its $11.275 million earnings this past weekend. While the film is lagging behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is still one of the most financially successful films of all time.

*All weekend numbers are domestic, meaning that they’re from theaters in the US and Canada, and are also estimates, reported by Box Office Mojo, with actuals coming out in the next few days.*

 

Featured image via Columbia Pictures

Ranking the Star Wars films

Star Wars films hold the top two spots for the biggest opening weekends at the box office, and are two of only four films to have crossed $200 million in their debuts. While it doesn’t hold the record for the largest worldwide gross, Star Wars: The Force Awakens easily stands with the largest domestic gross, nearing $1 billion, where Avatar is nearly $200 million less and only three other films have ever hit $600 million. And Star Wars: The Last Jedi will very easily join this group, perhaps even beating Avatar’s domestic gross, in due time.

The financial success of Star Wars today is a testament to the power it’s built since 1977. Star Wars films define an entire generation, and have worked their way into not only everyday popular culture, but culture in general in ways that few other pieces of art, in general, ever have. The original trilogy pushed so many of those ‘70s children to become the next great filmmakers, or storytellers of any kind, even defining much of the non-Star Wars art we see today.

To say that Star Wars is special is an incredible understatement. George Lucas’ little $11 million film channeled something in people across the world for decades and certainly many decades to come, something that we may not ever fully understand.

What’s intriguing, though, is that, in our opinion, out of the nine films of the Star Wars universe, only three are truly great films. Then, there are four varying types of good, and two we don’t like to talk about. There’s no doubting these films’ significance in culture — yes, even the bad ones — but taking an analytical deep dive into how they work as movies and how they compare to one another is absolutely fascinating, and will likely be entirely controversial. But here we are, ranking the Star Wars films from worst to best:

9. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Lucasfilm/Courtesy

Well… what can we say about the worst Star Wars film and, honestly, one of the worst written (at least from a dialogue standpoint) big budget films? This is an actual line of dialogue in the film, played with utmost seriousness by Hayden Christensen’s Anakin to Natalie Portman’s Padme: “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.”

While Christensen gets a bad rapt for his performances in the last two prequel films, he’s not the main problem with Attack of the Clones. The issues really come from Lucas’ insistence to stay committed to (not great) CGI — instead of the practical effects that made the originals so memorable — and from his poor dialogue (not even the standout Ewan McGregor can make the dialogue sound believable) and overall plotting. While the film features some (necessary to stay awake) thrilling action sequences, Attack of the Clones is the closest thing to a total misfire within the Star Wars series.

— Levi Hill

8. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

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The prequels, as concepts, are brilliant, but Lucas’ elaboration on the concepts and his particular direction of the them are terrible. And Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, while not as terrible of a film as Attack of the Clones, represents the stink perhaps more potently.

The strange, boring political machinations embarrassingly bog down the plot. The performances of nearly every member are laughable, and even Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who, based on acting alone, do a decent job, cannot make up for the horrific dialogue. Much of the Star Wars mythology is damaged by concepts such as midichlorians as well as the over-indulgence in the idea of fate, something that was handled so well in the original trilogy. The style of the worlds and the action is so over-the-top and negatively diverting to a point where features such as lightsaber battles feel like some kind of sick joke. The CGI, while revolutionary at the time for what it could accomplish, is overwhelming and poorly used. And the film is genuinely racist in the many characters who are clear and offensive stereotypes.

As said before, the basic story concept of the prequels is fantastic. But the execution is so botched, so damaging to the universe, so terrible on a technical level that it’s no use to even make the case for the concept.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

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Say what you will about the prequels, but Revenge of the Sith is genuinely a good (not great) movie that gives some needed gravitas and weight to the prior two (near disastrous) additions to the Star Wars saga. Christensen is, thankfully, given his first chance to actually show off some depth as one of the most fascinating characters in Star Wars — Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader and the father of Luke.

And dare I say, Ewan McGregor actually gives an awards worthy performance as the willing-to-do-good Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is also conflicted about is young padawan’s brewing dark side. The ending of Revenge of the Sith may be predictable — I mean, the first three films (or IV through VI) are where we’re headed — but that doesn’t mean the film is any less powerful when we see the final transformation of young Anakin Skywalker into Lord Vader.

— Levi Hill

6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first standalone film, perhaps had to take the same approach as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, grounding us in the familiar — the mission of the Rebels that kicks of the events of A New Hope — before taking us where we’ve never been.

And the film kicks off with a fascinating question of morality and cost that this type of story requires, as we’re introduced to Cassian (Diego Luna) murdering a fellow Rebel for the sake of the mission. In fact, all of the characters add dimensions to who the people of this universe can be. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is our first reluctant hero, hiding due to the pain of her childhood. Chirrut (Donnie Yen) takes the Force-as-religion concept to a whole new level. Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) offers another take on the defector narrative. And K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) continues to expand on why droids are the most hilarious characters in Star Wars.

Director Gareth Edwards does an admirable job in setting up these morally ambiguous characters; it truly does feel like fresh ground. And Edwards also directs the hell out of action sequences, imbuing them with a wartime grit due, in part, to Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography

But the film ultimately only goes so far, and that’s not enough. Jyn’s character arc is handled very sloppily as the film flips between careful development of a reluctant hero and sudden moments of heroism. While plenty of the battle on Scarif is outstanding, much of the specific retrieval of the Death Star plans, in the interior tower, feels lazily conceived and lazily executed. Finally, the film is too often hampered by fan service. Fan service doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but it ends up being so when it takes away from the efficiency and effectiveness of the film, such as much of the Darth Vader work and plenty of references.

— Kyle Kizu

5. Return of the Jedi

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There’s a darker, more thematically committed version of Return of the Jedi beneath the one we ended up getting. The confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine is fittingly epic and a gripping payoff to the buildup that the first two installments set forth. The clash of these characters in one room, battling it out both physically and mentally, indulging deeply in the classically simple light vs. dark conflict, is pulled off with grace (in the original version, not the special edition re-release) and gravitas.

The characters of Han and Leia are also given new ground to explore, some of the action sequences are the epitome of Star Wars entertainment and Endor is rendered a visually dynamic new world.

But Endor is also where Return of the Jedi falls. It’s been said a thousand times, but Ewoks had no place in this film, or at least how they’re depicted serves little purpose. Essentially, director Richard Marquand offers the most kid-friendly version of Star Wars, and the most silly version. It’s a happy, joyous ending to our characters’ journeys, which is a nice note in retrospect. But there’s no reason that that note could not have been reached by taking the opportunity to conclude this story a bit more seriously.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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That Star Wars: The Force Awakens successfully revived such a monumental franchise buried in such monumental crap is an achievement in its own right, and genuinely a framework by which to judge the film. While the tone and story beats may feel familiar, they fluidly situate us into a galaxy decades removed with new types of characters. On closer inspection, JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt take an assured storytelling approach that, in its specifics, is rather different than the original Star Wars.

And those characters are exactly where The Force Awakens shines so brightly. Luke had stories of his parents that turned out to be lies. Rey has nothing, but Daisy Ridley gives her a lively vigor that so many can identify with and adore. Her performance is explorative and searching, and while her pain may be under the surface, we can detect it in her yearning for journey and purpose.

The defector origins of Finn (John Boyega) are an immensely fascinating starting point that immediately allow us to latch onto him, and Poe (Oscar Isaac) is truly the closest a Star Wars character has ever gotten to being as badass as Han Solo. Then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is, essentially, a successful version of the young, manipulable, emotional, light-dark conflicted character that failed so spectacularly with Anakin Skywalker. And the context of his parentage and mentor renders him one of the better villains in recent blockbusters.

Throw in an actually committed Harrison Ford, a quieter, more subtle, but equally as brilliant score by John Williams and some traditional, refined filmmaking, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, despite its familiarities, is a welcome and entertaining entry that does work outside of itself that most of the other films didn’t have to.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Star Wars

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There would be no Star Wars without the original, which is, arguably, the most purely entertaining film and the most memorable from start to finish. From Alec Guinness’ Oscar-nominated turn as the wise and monologue-heavy Obi-Wan Kenobi, to the star-making turn from Harrison Ford, to the sheer imagination on display (seriously, holy shit), Star Wars (now called A New Hope) is a landmark moment in cinema. Not only did it help create the blockbuster era we are still experiencing (remaining the largest and most successful film franchise in the world), but it proved to be a real turning moment in film, where the rules felt like they could once again be broken down and built up again. George Lucas created a storytelling (and marketing) titan, and we are all indebted to the first film in the series. In fact, it wasn’t until The Last Jedi that a film was as willing to match this original’s unbridled ambition.

— Levi Hill

2. The Empire Strikes Back

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“No, I am your father!” declares Darth Vader in one of the most iconic of all cinematic moments, setting Empire Strikes Back as the standard bearer for the largest franchise in the world, but even more so as the de facto comparison that any sequel has to live up to. And not many do.

Both expanding on the Star Wars mythology and increasing the amount of spectacle, The Empire Strikes Back finds its true power in its intense focus on further developing the characters. We see Luke Skywalker struggle to find his place and temper his ambition. We see Han Solo become more than just a wisecracking sidekick and smuggler; we see him become a person who’s trying to do well for those he cares about. Then, Leia is given the required depth through her passion for the rebellion, her will to do well, even if challenging norms, all the while balancing her (odd, in hindsight) love triangle between Luke and Han.

While critically mixed during its day, The Empire Strikes Back stands rightfully at the top of most Star Wars rankings.

— Levi Hill

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Yes, it may be a tad premature to rank The Last Jedi, which just opened this past weekend, as the best Star Wars film yet. And, according to some fans, we may be crazy for even suggesting that this film is canonical. But here we are, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi easily topping our list.

What makes Episode VIII our pick as the best, though, is actually due to many of the reasons that other fans have written it off: that it breaks the rules, rewrites what “a Star Wars film” entails, puts an emphasis on humor and heartbreak and, ultimately, paints a political portrait that fits next to the anti-Vietnam/Nixon-era politics that George Lucas has said influenced the first film.

Because the film is still fresh in people’s minds and not-yet-seen for others, we’re going to keep plot details to a minimum. But essentially, much of the buildup from The Force Awakens veers into drastically different territory than what many expected. Yet, all decisions are in favor of the populist, “we the people” message Rian Johnson so thrillingly achieves with The Last Jedi. Even outside of just the message, though, The Last Jedi features some of the most engaging action sequences on the big screen, the most dynamic use of lightsabers and, for what it’s worth, the most badass final 45 minutes in a Star Wars film. For further elaboration on the film’s specific brilliance, read our full review.

Call us crazy, but yes, The Last Jedi is already the best Star Wars film.

— Levi Hill

 

Featured image via Lucasfilm.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Review: A humanist, subversive, new kind of ‘Star Wars’ story

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most signficant franchise in popular culture awoke from a deep slumber. However, it did so with a sense of familiarity that, while perhaps necessary, hurts the film in hindsight.

But Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes another necessary step, that of subversion of the very things that The Force Awakens hinged on. And in doing so, The Last Jedi breathes urgent purpose into the new trilogy, purpose it had yet to prove.

What’s immediately evident about The Last Jedi — through a nailbiter of an opening sequence, which includes an absolutely hysterical bit that tops Poe’s opening of “who talks first?” in The Force Awakens — is that this film is interested in people. While some large scale action films focus on the spectacle, writer-director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s camera situates us with the fighting, the sacrificing and the dying that fuel those battles.

When it comes to his focus on our main characters, Johnson succeeds in giving them all heavy, deeply personal character arcs. Finn needs to learn how best to fight for the Resistance. Poe needs to learn leadership that thinks ahead of the enemy, that thinks of everyone that a potential failure in leadership might affect. And John Boyega and Oscar Isaac inject the same kind of charismatic vigor into their characters that made them so lovable in the first place.

But Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, this mammoth figure in pop culture, is the film’s most dynamic feature. And that’s because Johnson takes him out of the familiar, out of what we know him to be. Essentially, Johnson dissects “the legend” of Luke Skywalker, questioning that title by focusing in on Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side years prior while at Luke’s Jedi school. It gives Mark Hamill new space to explore, as a rehash of pure heroism would’ve failed to be profound, and Hamill offers up a hilarious, pained, tired and tender performance. Though the trilogy jumps decades, we still get to feel the weight of those decades because Hamill bares it tangibly and beautifully.

Johnson intertwines Luke’s arc with those of Rey and Kylo in a way that challenges Rey’s almost original-trilogy-Luke sense of purpose, and in a way that cuts straight to the heart of Kylo’s light-dark conflict. It’s a brilliant framework, as the film adds new layers to Kylo, not only in the context of his turn but in the context of his purpose moving forward. Adam Driver ingrains those emotions deep into his performance, rendering him as one of the more complex villains in large scale cinema.

The framework also places Rey at the forefront, mainly through her search for identity now that she’s been thrust into the world of the Force. The film’s answer is decidedly feminist, fitting into Johnson’s overall idea of who heroes are, and Daisy Ridley capitalizes on the material, delivering a performance that is, appropriately, searching, yet also gripping in its painful anger and raw vulnerability.

The film is truly an ensemble piece, even more so than most typical ensembles as there’s a sense of individualized growth within nearly every character. And the performances of the rest of the cast are wholly committed, including vibrant work by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, a towering presence from Laura Dern and a brave turn by the late Carrie Fisher.

This is, however, where the film slightly falters, as it becomes, at times, too stuffed with so much character work happening at the same time and in different places, which impacts the film’s pacing. Certain moments, such as when the plot needs to catch up, happen too quickly or conveniently and other moments, such as those of thematic significance, feel a bit too drawn out. The film also has four acts, which is not unusual, but it requires an extremely careful sense of flow and progression, perhaps exemplified by The Dark Knight. And while the flow from the third act into the fourth isn’t terrible, it’s unbalanced.

But the film, despite its flaws, is genuinely stunning. Johnson choreographs action — both in space and on the ground — with such rhythmic intensity and fluidity, but also with an underlying grit informed by the film’s humanism. And the settings within which that action takes place are so singular and transfixing, often due to Rick Heinrich’s spellbinding production design and Steve Yedlin’s soaring and awe-striking cinematography, especially in his long shots. 

The story, while not perfectly executed, also holds beauty. As said before, this film is about people. And Johnson engages with the political, shedding light on the First Order’s impact on the poor and forgotten, on those that come from nothing but a little bit of hope. Fascinatingly enough, however, Johnson, while portraying the Resistance lovingly, doesn’t shy away from critiquing the larger notion of the “machine” of the Resistance.

But it’s those like Rose Tico (Marie Tran), someone who works alone in the dirty underbelly of a Resistance ship and is not really a part of any “machine,” who can embody a heroism in the face of tyranny that leaders of the Resistance have yet to fully understand. It’s heroes like Rey who can represent the greatest that hope can stand for.

In that sense, The Last Jedi is a new kind of Star Wars story. Along the way, the film challenges a lot of what we’re familiar with, especially in regard to the mythology of the universe. At points, the film almost feels satirical in how it critiques what we expect a Star Wars film to be.

Therein lies the film’s value. More of the same, especially in a wasteland of traditional, unengaging hero stories, would’ve been a shame. It was necessary for The Force Awakens, for that film to care about what we thought of it.

But The Last Jedi believes in a new kind of hero and, thus, a new kind of Star Wars.

Grade: A-

 

Featured image via Lucasfilm.

Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

Paramount/Courtesy

Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

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This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

‘Blade Runner 2049’ Review: Sci-fi sequel is a masterpiece that questions the constitution of humanity

What does it mean to be human? Is it the capacity to feel emotions? To feel sadness? Happiness? Fear? Is it the ability to live with a purpose? To die? To remember your past?

If so, then can replicants be the next evolution of mankind?

These are all questions the landmark 1982 Blade Runner wisely posed, but refused to answer in simple measures. This year’s follow up, Denis Villeneuve’s visual masterpiece Blade Runner 2049, brings all of these questions back to the forefront, only to magnify the stakes, in an event that multiple characters either say will “break the world,” or be a “miracle.”

Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with getting to the bottom of this event, slowly uncovering the hidden truths from the world. Gosling, in full Drive-mode, stoic and commanding for the entire run time, carries this complex, intellectual film with ease. With a performance that starts as closed-off from portraying emotions (a battle-hardened blade runner), he, over the course the film, sells his character’s quiet, but moving arc about a man placed in a burgeoning war between man and its closest competitor: the replicants.

In fact, all of the actors bring their A-game, with Ana de Armas (War Dogs) and Carla Juri (Wetlands) making the most of their relatively small screen-time. However, outside of Gosling, it really is Harrison Ford — reprising his role of Deckard — who steals the show. Where Ford’s performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pure fan service, his role in BR2049 is much more demanding, much more emotional. In every scene Ford inhabits, the camera and the other actors are as glued to him as the audience is, watching this withering, soul-crushed character coping with memories lost in time. Whether it’ll gain awards traction or not is a different debate, but seeing Ford this committed to bearing his heart and mind is stunning.

What else is stunning is the incredible craft work on display. The production design, the score, the sound and the editing, despite its nearly three hour run time, are consistently spectacular. Yet, it is Roger Deakins and his mastery of light and composition that dominate the film. It’s arguably his most showy cinematography ever, yet it’s all in service of the film’s controlled atmospherics. With straight line designs, piercing rays of light through the darkest of locations, or an extended take involving a crashing vehicle, BR2049 is inarguably the showcase for all of Deakins’ exquisite powers behind the camera. After 13 Oscar nominations and no wins, it appears it’s finally his time.

Regardless of awards though, Blade Runner 2049’s insistence on posing the biggest of big existential questions, and powerfully refusing to offer simple answers, makes this a modern science fiction masterpiece. Denis Villeneuve, much like Christopher Nolan, takes his spot alongside the pantheon of great cinematic artists who push big budget filmmaking to another level — finally making blockbusters “more human than human.”

Grade: 9.6/10

 

Featured image via Warner Bros./Columbia/Sony.

J.J. Abrams brought back to write and direct ‘Star Wars: Episode IX’

In a move that not many expected, but that seems as in line with Lucasfilm’s most recent decisions as any, J.J. Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has been hired to direct the final installment of the new trilogy from a galaxy far, far away, announced via a press release on StarWars.com.

A week ago, Lucasfilm and previous director Colin Trevorrow parted ways. Trevorrow had been on the project for over two years and had written the screenplay with his writing partner Derek Connolly. But rumors began to surface, especially after the critical failure of Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry, that Trevorrow could be ousted. Last month, Jack Thorne, co-writer of the upcoming Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay film Wonder, was brought on to rewrite.

It seems as though the script will be overhauled, as Abrams has been tasked to write Star Wars: Episode IX with Academy Award-winning writer Chris Terrio. Terrio won the Oscar for the Ben Affleck-directed Argo, and has written scripts for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the upcoming Justice League. Abrams co-wrote The Force Awakens with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt.

In the days after Trevorrow departed the ninth episode, fans and critics offered up potential replacements. The internet seemed to come to a consensus that they wanted Ava DuVernay, director of Selma13th and the upcoming Disney film A Wrinkle in Time. Rian Johnson, director of eighth episode Star Wars: The Last Jedi, popped up in serious rumors, so much so that the director ended up explicitly saying that he had no plans to return.

But it was likely that Abrams was already hired, or at least just had to sign on the dotted line, by the time Lucasfilm came out to announce Trevorrow’s exit. This will be Abrams’ first film since The Force Awakens and he will produce through his production company Bad Robot.

In the press release, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy made this official statement:

“With The Force Awakens, J.J. delivered everything we could have possibly hoped for, and I am so excited that he is coming back to close out this trilogy.”

In an announcement on Twitter hours later, Lucasfilm has officially pushed back the release of the film from May 24, 2019, to December 20, 2019. The seemingly large script revision likely meant that production couldn’t start as early as Kennedy had hoped. Now, Abrams will have 27 months to complete the picture instead of 20 months, and the December release will fall in line with the releases of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The film will now compete with the second weekend of Wonder Woman 2, which is set to release on December 13, 2019.

Featured image via Gage Skidmore.