Blade Runner 2049
There is plenty to admire and even enjoy for noir and sci-fi fans alike in Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, the hugely anticipated sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner—even if you haven’t seen the original in many a moon (as is the case for his intrepid reviewer).
The intelligent (if lengthy) screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green pays homage to the original without requiring your utter fealty to it. The sets and the striking cinematography (Roger Deakins) hauntingly evoke a futuristic Los Angeles suffused in grays and browns and awash in perpetual rain or snow. In a quietly riveting opening scene, Ryan Gosling’s K, a new model replicant (as in a bioengineered human—redesigned to be ultra-obedient) as well as a “blade runner” (one who hunts and “retires” older replicants) apprehends and terminates a replicant farmer, Sapper Morton. However, before he has to complete his duties K almost pleads with Sapper to come quietly—of course this is not what one does in these films, and in his few minutes of screen time, Dave Bautista’s Sapper is so commanding a presence that the audience, as well as K, might regret the inevitable outcome. But before Sapper departs, he hints at undiscovered miracles, and K’s investigation of some remains found on the farm lead him on a quest that puts him in conflict with his immediate superior (Robin Wright), the leading powerful replicant manufacturer Wallace (Jared Leto) and Wallace’s lethal enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).
It should also come as no surprise to those who have seen the posters that Harrison Ford’s Deckard is also an integral piece of the puzzle—and for those waiting to see Ford recreate his original role, one can say that grizzled though he may be, Ford’s Deckard proves more than a match for Gosling’s increasingly conflicted and disconcertingly human K. Their scenes crackle with tension, which is more than welcome since their encounter comes at a time when the film, as visually impressive as it is, begins to feel a tad protracted. Aside from Gosling, Ford and Wright (who manages to convey some humanity into what might have been a one-note role), the breakout performance comes from Ana De Armas as Joi, Deckard’s only form of company, a hologram designed to provide K with whatever comforts he needs—and who forms a human connection with K as poignant as any “human” relationship on display in cinemas this year.
The visuals may be impressive, but at least this Blade Runner doesn’t forget to convey its soul.
Battle of the Sexes
I remember watching the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match and am happy to say that Battle of the Sexes not only does it justice (truth be told, it wasn’t particularly great tennis as it was a cultural event) but provides an entertaining and sometimes incisive look at gender inequality, the American dream, sports, and even the complicated nature of love. A superb Emma Stone portrays Billie Jean King as intelligent, proud and tenacious, quick to strike out on her own with her formation of a women’s tennis league--but also quite vulnerable in terms of her sexual identity and her position with regard to the narrow-minded men who run the sporting world (personified by Bill Pullman). King’s decision to face former pro (and current gambler/hustler) Bobby Riggs (an excellent Steve Carell) on the tennis court is an attempt to show the world that women athletes can be just as competitive—and worthy of financial rewards—as their male counterparts.
Aside from the drama on the courts, Battle of the Sexes deftly presents both athletes at a time of personal upheaval. In the film, King and her attractive hairdresser (Andrea Roseborough) strike up a connection that leads to something more—and which could undermine her career if it were discovered. Meanwhile Riggs’ wife (Elizabeth Shue doing more than justice to the role) would like him to stop gambling and hustling—in essence, have him stop being what defines him. In an excellent scene at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, Carell’s Riggs rails against the meeting’s purpose, as well as the attendees, whom he sees as giving up the qualities that make them alive. Battle of the Sexes enables you to sympathize with both opponents, and aided by sterling performances, not only in the lead roles, but in key supporting roles (I haven’t forgotten Sarah Silverman is sheer delight as King’s manager/confidante/champion). It also reminds us that we were not always as enlightened toward women’s rights as we are now—or at least are capable of, on our better days.