What We Learned This Week: June 10-16

LESSON #1: STATISTICS DON’T LIE, SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT— Riding the wave of examination and expansion for equality in the film industry, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative from USC revealed the results of a very telling data study that examined the demographics of movie critics.  To no surprise to anyone paying attention, 78% of the reviews written on Rotten Tomatoes were done by white males.  The news of that data ignited plenty of torches and hushed excuses. At an awards show, Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson spoke wonderfully on those statistics, how they do not reflect the movie-going population, how critical exposure matters (just ask Colin Trevorrow or the notion further expanded by this strong piece in The Lily by Monica Castillo), and how some films are made for certain audiences beyond white males and that fair and matching reviews are needed.  She wasn’t a bit wrong, and I say that as a white male movie critic myself. There is room for more and room for better. The questions become what steps can be made to create a better balance.  One encouraging example is seeing both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals designate 20% of their press credential assignments to minorities. We can’t grow film critics on trees, but we can look deeper into the forest and grant more opportunities in that way.  That said, this is still a competitive field and talent still wins. If a minority critic can earn those gets and those publishing spots, more power to them. Competition raises everyone’s game.

LESSON #2: WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT, MOVIES ARE A BUSINESS FIRST AND AN ART EXPOSITION SECOND— First Reformed star and upcoming Blaze director Ethan Hawke appeared and spoke at the Seattle International Film Festival accepting their annual Outstanding Achievement in Cinema award.  The buzziest outcome of that was his quote that movies are “an art form that’s completely eaten by business.”  I know this sparked a lively discussion in the Feelin’ Film Discussion Group on Facebook this week.  This longing for the art to shine over the monetary success comes up often and the wording of my lesson title is my usual reply to that topic or question.  From the day they started charging for tickets to see these things called movies, it was always from then on going to be about the business.  Once people made livings and livelihoods out of participating in this art form, those roots were going nowhere and now they’ve inflated to the millions and billions of dollars pumping through movies.  I know I’ve reached a point as both a mature movie fan and also an experienced consumer (make no mistake, we are all both) where I’ve become more selective with what I’m going to spend my money on and also more appreciative when I encounter something that stands out as the art form underneath the profit potential.  If we, as a collective movie-going public, ever needed to rebel against the business end to demand better from the art standpoint, the only way to do that is hit the industry in the wallet where it counts.  Don’t give garbage your money and every dollar given to a deserving piece of cinematic art supports their cause and future careers.  Indulge in this entertainment with that mindfulness and you’ll be a better viewer.

LESSON #3: DISNEY/STAR WARS WHINERS, BE THANKFUL YOU DIDN’T GET THE FULL GEORGE LUCAS— Likely still rolling in a Scrooge McDuck-level money pit filled with the billions of dollars he made selling off his properties, a George Lucas book quote made news this week because it shared what his post-Return of the Jedi sequels would have been based on.  Take a gander at his premise based on “a microbiotic world” and silly-sounding “Whills.”  Flawed as Episodes VII and VIII may be, if that stuff from Lucas sounds better than the compelling chapters of closure for old favorite characters competing with elevation of new characters from J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, then I’m sorry.  You can’t be helped and your inflexibility ruins it for everyone (see last week’s WWLTW because now you sound like those a-holes that bully on social media).

LESSON #4: GET ONE THING RIGHT BEFORE STARTING ANOTHER— I don’t think anyone at Warner Bros. knows what they are doing or how to properly make up their mind, including new DC Films President Walter Hamada replacing comic-connected favorite Geoff Johns.  They now have two Joker-centered films coming down the assembly line, a Jared Leto standalone extending the current DCEU and a low-budget 1980s-set origin story take coming from The Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips, producer Martin Scorsese, and starring Joaquin Phoenix.  Combine that with the reports that the upcoming Matt Reeves-directed The Batman will be a younger Batman likely eliminating Ben Affleck and you have to ask the WTF questions.  What’s going on here? Are we pushing forward post-Justice League or are we rebooting and trying again?  Both can’t exist credibly. Which one matters more?  Warner Bros. needs to pick a lane and stick with it.

LESSON #5: COMEDY IS THE MOST SUBJECTIVE FILM GENRE, PERIOD— An esteemed panel of film critics (including Scott Tobias, Bilge Ebiri, Brian Tallerico, and Amy Nicholson) collaborated for a list of the “50 Greatest Comedies of the 21st Century” for Rolling Stone magazine.  The results, topped by Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, could not be more all over the place between eclectic spirit and pretentious pandering.  The opening blurb of the article admits humor is a “seriously subjective topic.” Go right ahead and add the extreme hyperbole of “the most.”  This task was impossible without some criteria or metrics, which the list and article gleefully (and carelessly) neglect. The triggers for horror and even drama are so much more universal than the fickle tastes and randomness of comedy.  We may say laughs come easy sometimes but they don’t. Someone’s #1 film is going to be someone’s reviled trash of eye rolls or hate and everyone has an opinion.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson and also on Medium.com where he is one of the 50 “Top Writers” in the Movies category.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties on a podcast every now and then  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on FacebookTwitter, and Medium.

 

MOVIE REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)



GOING IN

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner holds a special place in my heart. Over countless viewings the film has continued to evoke emotional and intellectual responses from me, often times new and unexpected. It is the film that ushered in my love of a good artificial intelligence story, a sub-genre that today I consider my favorite. The ideas it brings forth and leads us to consider are hefty ones. It is brilliant in most every way and is firmly placed in my Top 5 favorite films of all-time. And now we have a sequel…

To be honest, I wasn’t excited when this film was announced. Part of what makes Blade Runner so fascinating is the ambiguity. Will a sequel ruin all of that, and could it even lower my enjoyment of the original? These are very real fears for me. Over time, though, I’ve grown more excited about this project. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have the vision and style to make them a perfect artistic fit.  The casting of Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto entice me, as does the return of Harrison Ford. This film couldn’t be in better hands. But the skeptic in me remains, and Blade Runner 2049 meeting my expectations may prove a difficult task.



COMING OUT

For once, Hollywood got it right. The studios worked very hard to encourage no spoilers be released from early Blade Runner 2049 screenings and that decision will result in a much better experience for filmgoers. The story being told is intriguing and provocative, a believable next step in the evolution of replicants that continues the original film’s exploration of what it means to be alive. As it should be expected, the question of who is and isn’t human lingers and gives rise to doubt. The concept of love and what role it plays in having a soul is also examined. A particular relationship between characters, one of whom is a holographic A.I., was among my favorite parts of the film and provided an emotional center that resonated with me.

That same A.I. is one of several new technological advancements that the world has seen in its 30 years since the original Blade Runner took place. Police Department cruisers are considerably cooler and now have enhancements like a detachable drone and weaponry. Synthetic farming is briefly shown and looks fascinating. Other new tech includes things like a portable replicant scanner and what serves as an upgraded Voight-Kampff machine that helps humans keep replicants operating between the lines.

When it comes to visuals, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is incredible. This is not the hard-boiled Blade Runner of the past that was filmed almost entirely in darkness. Everything here is shiny and futuristic. It is a gorgeous film to behold and I’ll be extremely surprised if Deakins isn’t raising a golden Oscar statue at the 2018 Academy Awards. It’s clear that he and Villeueve have a passion for the material and their artistic genius is without question.

But…

Thought-provoking as it may be, I had an incredibly hard time connecting emotionally with the primary plot. The themes were not deepened in a way that moved me and the entire world felt very cold. Numerous recreations of moments from the original film seemed cheap and were distracting. This is a long film and it feels long. Many will likely be bored, and though I wouldn’t count myself among them, I definitely felt many scenes could have been shorter without losing any of their impact. When I saw Blade Runner 2049‘s running time I expected much more in-depth world-building than actually exists.

VERDICT

Admittedly, I had high expectations for Blade Runner 2049 and in some ways those were met. This is a visually stunning film and for a while it was nice exploring new, but familiar, themes in this universe. Harrison Ford’s return was wonderful and most of the performances were perfectly fine. But what I didn’t find Blade Runner 2049 to be is particularly inspired. Villeneuve shockingly plays it safe and doesn’t expand on the world in any meaningful ways. Sure, there may be some meaning for a few characters, but larger implications are left completely unexplored and some plot lines just dropped as suddenly as if the film had run out of reel and nothing could be added. While I find the original Blade Runner to be infinitely re-watchable, as of this writing I don’t see myself desiring to revisit the long slog of Blade Runner 2049 again. When graded against science fiction films in general, Blade Runner 2049 is an above average entry. But this feels now more than ever like a sequel that we didn’t need, and when graded against its compelling and great source material, it sadly falls very short.

Rating:


UPDATE

Having now seen the film a second time, I feel it is important to update this review. Upon repeat viewing, divorced from expectations of what I thought the sequel should be, I was able to enjoy the film completely for what it actually is. Instead of finding the film cold and emotionless, I experienced quite a few moments of deep connection to different characters. The unique thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that it will not draw your attention to these moments through the use of manipulative music or exposition. You have to be paying attention, and if you are, the payoff is a powerful and moving one. I also had far less problems with the thematic content of the film. The new direction that Villeneuve has chosen to take this series is a logical step forward and though questions are once again left unanswered, they made me crave and yearn for more details, not less. Yes, the runtime is exceptionally long and it’s understandable that some viewers were yawning in my theater, but I was entranced and could have easily lived inside this world for another hour plus.

Sometimes expectations can thoroughly derail a filmgoing experience and I believe that is what happened to me. Discussing both that topic and the many emotional/philosophical story beats of Blade Runner 2049 on our podcast helped me to realize just how much I appreciate and adore this film. I love it. I cannot wait to see it again, and again, and again. I want more from Villeneuve. I want resolutions and new characters and new mysteries. Blade Runner 2049 is an exceptional work of art and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

New Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

What We Learned This Week: August 20-26

 RETURNING FROM SUMMER VACATION: I take two weeks off and all hell breaks loose!

LESSON #1: “MANSPLAINING” IS NEVER ENDEARING OR RESPECTFUL— For a guy who has fostered one “Strong Female Character” after another, including two of the greatest in Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, James Cameron sure missed the big picture of Wonder Woman.  In an interview with The Guardian (full context), the Titanic filmmaker stated “All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided” and adds “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards.”  Well now, Mr. Pott.  What color is the kettle?  Mr. Cameron is entitled to his opinion and slant (the film is far from perfect), but the fun thing is we all get one too.  Don’t worry Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins dropped the mic on him with this commandingly brilliant tweet:

LESSON #2: MOVIEPASS MAY HAVE FINALLY FOUND AN ATTRACTIVE PRICE POINT— Mitch Lowe, the co-founder of Netflix, made tsunami waves recently with a ballsy new business model for the mildly-received MoviePass program.  Reducing the $15-50 per-month rate with plenty of fine print and red tape for a tidy $9.95 fee with new fine print and red tape looks like a steal.  However, will customers buy-in and, more importantly, will theaters play ball at taking a possible haircut?  The AMC Theatres chain (more on them later) immediately pushed back threatening legal action and downright banning MoviePass customers.  You have to love that $10 price point, but how useful is it if the theater companies in your area don’t take it?  Compromise is needed.

LESSON #3: ALONG THE SAME LINES, THE VIDEO ON-DEMAND MARKET IS STILL TRYING TO FIND THEIR PRICE POINT— Some of you might remember that six years ago Universal Studios initially planned to release their tentpole Tower Heist on premium VOD for $59.99 three weeks after its theatrical release with the goal of putting more money in their pockets instead of splitting it with movie theaters.  The notion was met with instant boycott and dismissal (much like the film itself) and the studio backed off.  Here in 2017, media giants Comcast (parent company of Universal), Amazon, and Apple are all developing a new VOD delivery system that will put top-shelf movies out for rental 30-45 days after their theatrical debuts at a $30 price level.  Even with $30 being substantial savings compared to hauling an average family of four to the cinema, that price point still doesn’t work if the digital download and Blu-ray/DVD release windows of $20 permanent ownership (not a temporary rental) keep dramatically shrinking like they have been for a few years.  What used to be an industry-standard of six months or more between silver screen and small screen has been cut in half.  May theatrical releases like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 have arrived on August store shelves.  Why wait a month for a single high-priced rental when you can wait three and buy it for keeps for a lesser price?  I don’t see the viable premium VOD marketplace for average tight-budgeted blue collar consumers out there (and that’s not even taking into account the piracy market looming over anything VOD related).

LESSON #4: SURPRISE, SURPRISE!  DISNEY IS OUT TO MAKE ITS OWN MONEY WITHOUT PARTNERS— When you make billions hand over fist, you get to call the shots or, better yet, go out make your own game.  The Walt Disney Company will pull its lucrative movies off Netflix and launch its own branded streaming subscription platform in 2019.  They don’t need Netflix when they have the clout and fanbase to create their own exclusivity and keep all the money.  I can’t say I blame them and I stand by my prognostication from earlier in the summer for the day Disney/Marvel pulls out of San Diego’s Comic-Con and lets their own D23 be the one-way fan access point to that frenzy.

LESSON #5: NETFLIX IS NOT INVINCIBLE— From the outside looking in, casual observers (and this very column) have been exceedingly impressed by Netflix’s huge push in creating their own original television and film content.  They have thrown tremendous resources with the aim of attracting more customers and now have the $20 billion of debt to prove it.  Subscriptions are up an astounding 25% since last year, so the gamble is working, but how long can a company like that sustain those spending habits on top of Disney pulling out?  Expect an investment bubble to burst in some area (licensing fees with the studios) and, naturally, a raise in subscription rates passed onto us very soon to recoup that debt.

LESSON #6: HAS THE SLOW DEATH OF THE MULTIPLEX BEGUN?— Options like MoviePass, VOD, and Netflix have not come close to creating a new entertainment access monopoly large enough to overtake the big screen marketplace.  That said, even with price point challenges and debt issues, have the little dents and pin pricks started to add up to true damage?  I, for one, am beginning to at least wonder.   Blockbuster fatigue, thanks to poor performing duds like The Mummy, have taken their toll on consumer spending and confidence.  Multiple business outlets broke the news that AMC Theatres took a dramatic second quarter loss (and is staring at a third quarter one coming) that caused shares to fall 40% since the beginning of August.  The overall American box office is down a scant 4.4% from last year.  If that’s all it takes to financially wound one theatre chain, how are the other ones doing?  How are they sustaining 20+ screen multiplexes hawking bargain attempts and hokey incentives only to still sit empty on weeknights against growing operating costs?  I bet they’re not doing much better than AMC.  I have to think some form of internal, yet dramatic, contraction is coming.  Movies survived the invention of television.  They will survive digital and device shifts, but not without a shift or two of their own.

LESSON #7: I DON’T KNOW WHAT WARNER BROS. IS DOING WITH THE DC CHARACTER FILMS AND I DON’T THINK THEY KNOW EITHER— Spinning off of Wonder Woman‘s success as the #1 earner of the summer, Warner Bros. has the ambitious DC Extended Universe schedule of Justice LeagueAquaman, ShazamWonder Woman 2Cyborg, and Green Lantern Corps locked on the calendar through 2020.  It’s the slate after that has created a flurry of questions this week.  Matt Reeves made it known that his The Batman will be a standalone film outside of the DCEU and spread gasoline-dipped rumors of Ben Affleck being out at the Caped Crusader.  The WB brass then added the dreamy Martin Scorsese/Todd Phillips team-up announcement of a spin-off Joker solo origin story film without Jared Leto and on its own.  Confounding us even more a day later, the studio reveals they are concurrently planning a Joker/Harley Quinn film starring Leto and Margot Robbie that will be within the DCEU.  What is all this?!  Is Warner Bros. admitting defeat at building a Marvel-like universe and course-correcting to make focused films or are we watching greedy, hubris, and befuddlement? If so, why carry both? This DCEU timeline is going to start looking a clue board spider-webbed with red yarn from a police procedural or a Charlie Day meme.

LESSON #8: EWAN MCGREGOR OR NO ONE— I’ll bring the first fanboy torch and pitchfork to Disney’s announcement of an Obi-wan Kenobi solo anthology film coming in the near future.  Cast Ewan McGregor or no one at all.  After the flop of Alden Ehrenreich requiring an acting coach for Han Solo, cast some damn proven talent.  Call it stability as much as you call it justified fan service.

LESSON #9: LOOK TO ITALY AS THE OSCAR SEASON STARTS NOW— The prime third quarter film festival season kicks off with the prestigious Venice Film Festival beginning on August 30th and the top-shelf Toronto International Film Festival starting on September 7th.  The lineup in Venice includes first looks at Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, George Clooney’s Suburbicon, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of WaterJudi Dench’s crown in Victoria and Abdul, and the Redford/Fonda reunion Our Souls at Night.  I’ll share the killer TIFF lineup next week.  Get your coffee mugs ready to receive a pouring of Oscar buzz!


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

What We Learned This Week: June 11-17

LESSON #1: WHEN IMPORTANT DIVERSITY IS IN PLAY, EXTRA HYPE IS WARRANTED— Not understanding the important opportunities for diversity is equivalent to being tone deaf.  Recently some people tried to bash the female empowerment frenzy over the very existence of Wonder Woman, no matter if the film itself was any good.  After its trailer debut, pockets of ostriches with heads in the sand are doing the same with the new trailer for Black Panther and the fervid immediate and early hype from the black audiences.  Let me put it like this when it comes to Wonder Woman and Black Panther: “If you don’t understand why these films are important on principle alone, then you are part of the problem.”  The marketplace doesn’t just need these films, they deserve them.  Their importance assigned by their demographics and fanbases grants them warranted extra hype.

LESSON #2: NEW SOURCES WILL INVADE AWARDS RACES THIS WINTERIndiewire had a nice story recently talking about the Oscar chances of Get Out and Emmy chances of Netflix offerings.  I, for one, am all for it, but early-year films like Jordan Peele’s hit are going to need help coming November and December thanks to good old “out of sight/out of mind” syndrome.  More critics and voters need to keep these films in the conscientiousness of viewers and watchers.

LESSON #3: WHEN STEVEN SPIELBERG CALLS, YOU SAY YES— Speaking of the Oscars, just about everything the legendary Steven Spielberg touches becomes some kind of Oscar nominee or winner.  For his upcoming and fast-tracked December film The Papers (and no, it’s not about supplies from your weed guy), he is multiplying that Midas Touch with having fellow Academy darlings Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep headlining.  If that wasn’t colossal enough, take a gander at the supporting ensemble cast assembled by Spielberg behind Hanks and Streep.  If that’s not an eclectic “Murderer’s Row” of character actors, I don’t know what is.  The Spielberg clout is real.  Get Out and Netflix be damned, but say an early hello to your new Oscar frontrunner.

LESSON #4: STEVEN SPIELBERG APPARENTLY NEEDS TO CALL MORE WOMEN— Well-liked actress and emerging filmmaker Elizabeth Banks attempted to put Steven Spielberg on blast for not ever having directed a film with a female lead.  Her rant, which lead to a public apology, was quickly dispelled when she learned of The Color Purple.  That’s the only film it takes from Spielberg to negate the “never” in Banks’ words, but I think the crux of her argument remains fair.  Even when you add Sugarland Express and the little girl from The BFG, Steven is  more than a shade low in his percentages of female leading roles.  It wouldn’t kill him to rethink that.  Watch him follow in the footsteps of Banks and direct a Pitch Perfect sequel to shut everyone up.

LESSON #5: ARTSY-FARTSY PEOPLE APPARENTLY HATE JARED LETO— Academy Award winner and Suicide Squad actor Jared Leto was recently named the Chief Creative Officer of the film streaming service Fandor, pissing off film snobs everywhere.  Fandor fashions itself as a database for indie films, documentaries, international features and shorts.  Apparently to the high-end cinephiles, Leto has sold out and is not qualified.  People forget before he was Joker, the man won an Oscar and worked with off the beaten path with the likes of Fincher, Aronofsky, Malick, Toback, Mangold, Schumacher, Stone, Niccol, and Villeneuve.  Beyond his work resume, Leto has championed his own broadcast and social platform business VyRt for five years.  Dude, he’s quite qualified.  He’s not going to ruin the place.  In fact, watch it multiple with a driven guy at the helm.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.