El Angel

Argentine filmmaker Luis Ortega’s stylish crime thriller El Angel set in Buenos Aires during the early 70s is based on the true story of a notorious 17-year-old baby-faced thief and killer with a fondness for burglarizing luxury suburban homes of the wealthy.

Eventually joining a crime gang, Carlos Robledo Puch aka El Angel was known as the Angel of Death for his innocent looking childlike demeanor and blond curly hair with a tendency to be quick on the trigger, casually robbing and killing innocent people while capturing the fascination of the Argentine media.

An all-star cast of well-known Latin American actors give solid performances and an especially riveting standout performance from newcomer Lorenzo Ferro in the title role of sexy serial killer Carlitos Robledo Puch.

Like El Clan (2015) from Argentine director Pablo Trapero three years earlier, this period in Argentina’s history is fertile ground for stories of intrigue, intimidation and crime foreshadowing the country’s right-wing nationalist mentality and government corruption during the dictatorship era.

Carlitos comes from a middle-class family; his father, a vacuum cleaner salesman and his mother a home maker from German descent, try to raise him with good working-class values. But Carlitos has other ideas. He doesn’t believe in ownership like everyone else. He says in the film “I don’t believe in this is mine, and this is yours.” And he has a knack for breaking into places. At first he steals whatever takes his fancy and either keeps or gives them away as gifts to gain friends.

When he meets a schoolmate who he finds attractive, Ramón (Chino Darin), who comes from a crime family, he gains his friendship, quickly becoming partners, and proves himself to be a daring fearless thief but, to the alarm of Ramón’s family, also a loose cannon. He and his new crime family are soon pulling bigger and bigger jobs which invariably lead, almost casually at first, to deaths and murders that draw the attention of the authorities.

The 60s and 70s set design, consistent pacing, and vintage music give the movie an appealing authentic feel. Like the enigmatic character of pretty boy Carlos who loves to savor the time he spends while robbing magnificent posh estates, the movie presents us with the opulence and lavish lifestyle of the rich, then slowly as Carlos’ covetous greed grows and he becomes increasingly psychotic, his surroundings become decayed and empty reflecting his state of mind.

El Angel rocks with 70s fashion style and a stunning sensual performance by Lorenzo Ferro as Carlos who carries the film convincingly, showing us an intense portrait of a young merciless teen killer intoxicated with the power of his outrageous criminal acts. There is a palpable erotic tension between the two young thieves Carlos and Ramón that eventually turns deadly.

Ferro looks strikingly similar to the real Carlos as seen in pictures from that time period. The real Carlos Puch is still alive and is now famous for being the longest serving prisoner in Argentina’s history.

Produced by K&S Films and Pedro Almodovar’s company El Deseo who also gave us Wild Tales (2014) and The Clan (2015), Luis Ortega’s El Angel succeeds in giving us an aesthetic experience that’s daring, disturbing and highly entertaining.

JP

Blindspotting

Based on the actual experiences of co-writers and co-actors Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs while growing up together in West Oakland and the Bay area, the film follows Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) as childhood buddies who are struggling with the loss of their beloved neighborhood as new affluent hipsters are rapidly infiltrating and changing the dynamics of the city and ultimately throwing their relationship into turmoil.

Blindspotting starts out as a buddy comedy but eventually becomes a serious social commentary on race relations, police brutality and the effects of gentrification by throwing together a mix of people with very different values and experiences that see the locals changing their perspective on their old community.

The independent gritty drama opens with a split screen montage of West Oakland, California and the Bay area ghetto street life set to Verdi’s opera "Libiamo Ne' Lieti Calici Brindisi", starting the film off with a fun celebratory vibe juxtaposing old and new images of a city in flux between what it used to be and what it’s becoming.

This low budget buddy drama about the friendship between Collin, a soft spoken quiet young black man, and Miles, his hotheaded fast-talking white friend who grew up having to adapt to the predominantly black cultural hub of West Oakland, takes place during the last three days of Collin’s probation period, but Miles’ volatile temper keeps threatening to violate Collin’s strict parole terms.

When Collin witnesses a police shooting of a black man one night while driving home, it affects him more than he realizes and we quickly suspect that his last few days serving his probation as a convicted felon could easily end with him back in jail and losing his freedom.

Meanwhile the strange transition and metamorphoses of his community into unrecognizable people and places, and the innate police prejudices toward young black men are making his plans to leave a life of incarceration behind more difficult than he imagined.

Blindspotting refers to a psychology term called Rubin’s Vase where two images exist simultaneously but depending on one’s background and experiences, we only see one image while missing the other until it’s pointed out to us. The film thus shows how we are unconsciously biased toward one perception of certain people until we are shown another.

Using unique Bay area vernacular and slang that was prominent in West Oakland, Collin and Miles who are longtime Oakland locals and real-life rappers often communicate in rap verse and poetry slams throughout the film. The performances are superb all around including the two main leads who have a genuine chemistry and comradery as they are childhood friends in real life.

A passion project that was ten years in the making, Blindspotting is the culmination of years of planning and went through many iterations over the years, but despite its long incubation period the film feels remarkably current, dealing truthfully with today’s extremely topical issues.

Blindspotting is a tough hard-hitting reflection of urban inner-city life that has a good heart and no small amount of humor mixed with tense drama. It’s an amazing tribute to the affection and determination of the filmmakers that this fun visual record of a period in transition from old school boom box to new digital cell phone apps nostalgia has been brought to the screen with such honesty and flare.

JP

Rashomon

Before he became world renowned as the leading figure in Japanese art cinema and stunned audiences with such influential cinematic masterpieces as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), The Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980), and Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa first burst to international attention with the highly unique and unconventional art film Rashomon (1950).

The film is based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa which is set in 11th century Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, at a time marked by devastating earthquakes, fires, famine and plagues. During a pelting downpour, three figures shelter under the ruined remains of the largest entrance gate to the city.

While huddled together under the protection of the crumbling two-story Rashomon gate, a priest and a woodcutter describe the disturbing details of a recent crime to a concerned commoner. An aristocratic woman and her samurai husband traveling by horse had been attacked by a thief/bandit (Toshiro Mifune). The woman was raped in the forest and her husband murdered. While recalling the testimony of the people involved in the crime at the local tribunal courthouse, the film shows the events in flashback from the perspective of the three participants; the bandit, the woman, and the murdered husband (through a medium), and one witness, the woodcutter.

But in each retelling of the same events, the story changes significantly according to the person telling it. Eventually we realize that the truth is unknowable because people are self-serving and motivated by fear, greed and vanity. They all have reason to tell their own version of the events so everyone’s story is suspect.

It was important for Kurosawa to give audiences a moral perspective on life in Japan after the horrors of the second world war choosing stories like Rashomon and Stray Dog (1949). Japan at this time was lawless, undergoing extremely difficult times. The country was devastated by the war and in a state of complete destruction. People had no food or means of survival and returning soldiers were looked down upon by the starving civilians. Stealing and crime rates were extremely high and Kurosawa wanted to remind people that to rebuild society for our children Japan must hold itself to a new moral standard that would not be easy in these dark times but would eventually improve life for everyone.

When Kurosawa’s regular film studio Toho was reluctant to produce his new project, he turned to another film studio Daiei Tokyo Studios, where he was able to work with renowned cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa for the first time on Rashomon. His use of lighting and sophisticated visual style was so hypnotic and powerful that it captivated audiences with its sense of stunning realism reminiscent of the silent cinema aesthetic mixed with mythic storytelling.

Kurosawa loved instilling his films with a palpable sense of the atmosphere and the environment in which his scenes took place, and you can see how he uses powerful images of weather, wind and heat to get across the feeling of being in those places. The collaboration of Kurosawa and Miyagawa on Rashomon produced a beautiful artful aesthetic that gave the film a whole new magical quality not seen in Kurosawa’s previous films and audiences in Japan and abroad were enthralled by it.

This was only the fourth time that Kurosawa choose to work with a young talented actor who he loved for the energy he brought to a scene. The amazingly versatile and riveting Toshiro Mifune as the bandit would go on to star in many of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest films eventually becoming one of the all-time most prolific and successful director/actor partnerships in cinema history.

Rashomon went on to be a commercial hit for the studio in Japan and overseas winning many international awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign film. The success of Rashomon redefined Japanese film for western audiences and opened up opportunities for other Japanese directors of the time like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

JP

Hearts Beat Loud

This Sundance Film Festival favorite will melt the hearts of all but the most jaded of viewers. It’s a profoundly touching crowd-pleaser if ever there was one that wears its heart on its sleeve using a combination of original songs and lyrics performed by a father and daughter musician duo jamming together to creatively express their inner torment.

A hipster widower Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) who runs a vinyl record store in the Brooklyn NY neighborhood of Red Hook, and his singer songwriter daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) who wants to go to medical school, are struggling with the loss of his wife and mother to Sam.

It’s the end of an era for single father Frank as he deals with issues of his aging mother, the regrets of his youth, losing his record store, and now his daughter who is about to go off to UCLA to attend medical school to become a doctor.

When Frank submits one of their jam session songs onto the free online music streaming service Spotify, the song becomes a hit on a popular indie mix, and Frank suddenly gets visions of touring with his daughter across the country and becoming famous as a live band act. But his dream of rekindling his former life as a successful pop rock musician is fading fast as he tries to convince his talented daughter to put aside her “childish dream” of becoming a doctor for a life as a musician.

Hearts Beat Loud starts out as a low key comedy focusing on the daily drama of its charming characters and gradually, like the music in the film, crescendos into a devastatingly heartfelt emotional explosion on multiple levels.

The film is a sad commentary on coming to terms with today’s new social and economic realities, the disparity between art and commerce, and nostalgia and regrets of past glories. But the film also emphasizes the power of the creative process to renew our hopes for the future.

This musical drama follows in the tradition of such recent let’s-start-a-band indie films as Once (2007), Begin Again (2014), Sing Street (2016) and Band Aid (2017). I also loved how we were exposed to some high-tech gadgets that help musicians create music in this new age of social media and computer-generated synthesizers that have changed the music industry.

Not only do we get the outstanding musical talents of the main characters, Kiersey Clemons is a real-life classical jazz singer, and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation (2009) is hilarious as a man-child dealing with adult responsibilities with his deadpan humor while trying to elicit reactions from his daughter, we also get an excellent supporting cast of characters; Ted Danson, Sasha Lane from American Honey (2016), Toni Collette, and Blyth Danner.

Director Bret Haley shows a sensitive touch with the realistically awkward and complicated relationship between a vulnerable father and daughter who start a band to deal with their real-life issues.

Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful if sometimes sappy sentimental feel-good film we could all use in these harsh divisive times of intolerance.

JP

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo, the second stand-alone Star Wars anthology film from Disney/Lucasfilm since Rogue One (2016) features a young Han Solo that’s set exactly ten years before the events of A New Hope (1977) and his famous encounter in the Mos Eisley alien cantina with Luke and Ben Kenobi who hire him to pilot them to Alderaan to meet their destiny.

It’s also ten years after the end of the Clone Wars when all the Jedi have been killed or exiled by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious and his fallen Jedi apprentice Darth Vader. It’s a lawless time when powerful crime syndicates like Crimson Dawn are competing for resources and a few pockets of resistance are starting to rise up against the Empire’s authoritarian rule.

Solo is a solid coming of age adventure ride that harkens back to the Old West/cowboys-in-space vibe of the original films, taking us on a hyperspace journey through the darker underbelly of the Star Wars universe; from the industrial shipyards on Han’s home world of Corellia, to a war zone on the mud planet Mimban, to the dingy gambling hide-out of Fort Ypso on the snowy mountain planet Vandor,  to the oppressive spice mines of Kessel, and ultimately a stand-off at a deserted oceanside refinery on a sand dune wasteland called Savareen.

Much has been made in the media about Solo’s production problems and questions of the need for a film about Han Solo’s backstory, but in the end none of that matters because the movie, like Solo himself, beat all the odds and works amazingly well showing no evidence of the behind-the-scenes turmoil. The story is exciting and emotionally engaging, giving us new insights into the Star Wars universe with many fun nods to the classic films and the expanded universe books.

Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are of course major characters in the Star Wars saga, and we get to see how these two iconic characters bonded and became synonymous with the Han Solo legend. For Chewbacca fans, we haven’t seen the Wookie fuzz ball get this much action since The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Solo, which I suspect will be the first in a series of Han Solo adventures, stays generally, if loosely, faithful to some of the Han Solo lore that was established in the various expanded universe novels while also exploring new directions. It’s encouraging that Solo is proving new filmmakers are still able to find inspiration from the Expanded Universe stories and are not completely ignoring the non-canon books.

I’m happy to say that Alden Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Han Solo is in perfect keeping with the tone and spirit of the character created by Harrison Ford. He embodies the younger space pirate wonderfully giving a solid fun performance as the charming ambitious idealist smuggler who wants to make his mark in the universe with plenty of swagger. 

Another standout performance comes from Donald Glover as the suave gambler and entrepreneur Land Calrissian. Glover was able to channel Billy Dee Williams smooth attitude with uncanny resemblance. In fact, the duo of Ehrenreich and Glover have great on-screen chemistry.

One of the coolest side-splitting sequences in Solo was the filmmakers’ attempt to explore droids’ rights issues, given that androids are generally treated as slave labor in the Star Wars galaxy. One droid in particular plays a fantastic role in Lando’s navigational co-pilot L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge who has more personality than we’ve ever seen from other Star Wars droids.

The music score by John Powell ties Solo most closely with A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with John Williams’ familiar themes being re-used here and there to instantly recall situations from the earlier films.

For fans, Solo has a revelatory ah-ha moment with the re-appearance of a popular villain long thought to be dead and who was resurrected in the CG Animated tv series The Clone Wars (2008 – 2014) that will be discussed for years to come and promises more intriguing stories in future episodes. 

Solo can also be enjoyed immensely by the casual viewer as a retro/futuristic adventure heist film set in a galaxy far, far away that feels like a Western in space with memorable characters who seem strangely familiar. So, bring your best Wookie roar, your quickdraw blaster and enjoy the ride.

JP

Han Solo gets his own trilogy

Han, Chewie, Lando and the Millennium Falcon are some of the most iconic characters from the Original Star Wars trilogy. Longtime fans of the Star Wars saga will remember reading about the adventures of the galaxy’s most notorious space pirate before he met up with Luke, Leia and Ben Kenobi through the character bios and many Expanded Universe books that have been written about them, including A. C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures

Well, now we finally get to see for ourselves these mythic events and characters brought to life on the big screen for the first time when Solo: A Star Wars Story opens in cinemas worldwide on May 25th.

Fans will finally get to witness the legend of Solo’s humble beginnings and shady past as an orphan growing up on his home world of Corellia. How he and his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca first met, how he joined a gang of thieves running scams under the mentorship of their leader, and how he eventually won the famous Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, from his sometime friend Lando Calrissian in a card game.  

Most of us have heard how Han escaped his life of crime on Corellia to joined the Empire as a TIE pilot only to be disillusioned and discharged from the Imperial navy when he refused to participate in the enslavement of Wookiees and saved the life of one such Wookiee named Chewbacca, whose custom was to swear a life debt to Han. Together they became one of the most notorious partners running spice for the Hutt clans, one of whose members was Jabba the Hutt.

It will be interesting to see just how much of this original backstory of Han Solo is kept in the film as much of the Expanded Universe books are no longer considered canon by Disney when they bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise. But from the evidence seen in the new trailers for the film online it would seem that much of Han Solo’s legendary life remains intact although we will see how much of it was altered and where new directions are explored.

As we have seen in Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017), some of the vast non-canon material produced for the Expanded Star Wars Universe could eventually end up being used in a Star Wars film somewhere in the future, thus returning it to canon status.

Solo:  A Star Wars Story reportedly features a mud planet called Mimban, which was first introduced by Alan Dean Foster, the ghostwriter of the first Star Wars novelization, in the very first expanded Star Wars novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye back in 1978, which is a non-canon novel continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa shortly after the events of A New Hope. Mimban will now make it’s feature film debut in Solo.

First reports of the Premiere showing of Solo in Hollywood and at Cannes last week are very encouraging with many people proclaiming it a fun fast ride with plenty of surprises that will satisfy the hard core faithful followers of the saga. 

By all accounts the decision to bring in longtime friend of George Lucas and veteran Oscar winning director Ron Howard half way through production to finish the project on time has paid off and saved the film from potential disaster. (or at least from a delayed release) The important thing now for fans to remember is not to dwell on the production woes but to judge the finished product on the screen. 

I’m looking forward to seeing a different kind of Star Wars movie we haven’t seen before from the point of view of beloved characters not associated with the Force or the Jedi Knights. Han Solo has no special powers, he’s the quintessential cynic loner with a conscience who stumbles through one pitfall after another while selfishly pursuing riches. He never imagined he would one day meet a princess who would convince him to join a rebellion to defeat the tyrannical Empire he was once a part of.

JP

Padmaavat

Reportedly the most expensive Indian film ever made, Padmaavat lives up to expectations of a visually spectacular mega mythological/historical epic of feudal India. Drawing on its rich history of legendary figures that have invaded and influenced Indian culture over thousands of years, Padmaavat is the Bollywood equivalent of Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Troy (2004). If you’ve never experienced a Bollywood blockbuster this would be a great place to start.

Padmaavat depicts the staggering opulence of 13th century medieval India where good versus evil, heroes and villains are shown as larger than life. In typical Bollywood fashion there are grand palaces, vast armies clashing in full armor, over-the-top drama, a massive city siege, dazzling luxuriant costumes, and grandiose musical dance sequences that puts Hollywood’s golden age to shame. 

Loosely based on the Hindustani epic poem by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Padmaavat is the story of Padmini (Deepika Padukone), a princess from the Kingdom of Singhal in Sri Lanka whose reputation as the most beautiful woman in the world eventually reached Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the ruler of a Rajput warrior clan in Rajastan occupying the largest and strongest fortified city in India called Chittor, built on top of a high cliff hill. 

Ratan Singh, known for his proud ancestry, honour and strong warrior ethic, travels a long way to meet Padmini who he soon learns is not only beautiful but also strong and intelligent. While hunting one day in a dark dense forest filled with wild animals, Padmini accidentally shoots the King Ratan with an arrow while he is admiring her from the bushes wounding him in the shoulder. While recovering from his injury at her father’s palace they fall in love and marry, eventually returning to live together as the new King and Queen of Chittor. 

Purdah, or the seclusion of women to protect them from the eyes and harassment of other men, was a custom of the Rajput nobility, so when a court musician is caught spying on the couple during an intimate moment, Ratan banishes him from his kingdom. The musician travels to Delhi where a ruthless Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) has just conquered the Delhi Sultanate.

He tells Alauddin of the extraordinary beauty of the new Mewar Queen of Chittor, Padmini, knowing he will do anything to conquer her and thereby gain his revenge on the Rajput King for banishing him. Alauddin who is known for his brutal reign of terror from 1296 – 1316 collecting precious birds and women, now decides he must possess Padmini and immediately gathers his army and lays siege on the impregnable fortress of Chittor.

The movie has become highly controversial in India among Hindu nationalists who have made attempts to sabotage the film because of its depiction of the disturbing Rajput practice of Jauhar; the Hindu custom of mass self-sacrificing of royal women who set themselves on fire to avoid capture and enslavement by foreign invaders.
 
Written, produced and directed by one of the most widely acclaimed directors working in India today, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is no stranger to controversy. His films have won critical praise and garnered many awards both at home and internationally. He is known for his large scale mega musical dramas like Devdas (2002), Black (2005), Ram-leela (2013), and Bajirao Mastani (2015) all of which have achieved mega box-office success despite the controversies surrounding them.

Padmaavat is both historical and entertaining, filmed on real locations with stunning cinematography and strong characters with a heightened flare for the dramatic. Throw in a few wild mind-blowing musical numbers and you will gain a new appreciation for Indian history that’s as epic as any Homeric poem.

JP

Loveless

A middle aged Russian couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) in the midst of an ugly divorce is completely oblivious to the effect their cruel toxic fights are having on their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). They both work and each have moved on to other more blissful relationships as they can’t stand to be around each other. But as we later learn, they have chosen more strategically beneficial relationships with people that will in some way increase or maintain their class status in society.

The performances are as surgically precise as the subject is devastating and we get no redeeming characters. The husband Boris has chosen a much younger fiancé with whom he had an affair and who is now pregnant with his child. He is worried that the company he works for will find out that he is divorcing as they only hire married men. The wife Zhenya, looking out for her future comfort is now with an older and much wealthier man than her husband.

Unknown to them while neglecting their own son’s needs, Alyosha has decided to run away and his absence goes unnoticed for days. The rest of the film focuses on the two parents as they reluctantly come together to enlist the services of state departments in search for their missing boy.
Loveless turns into a kind of procedural as we are introduces to various government agencies and search parties are deployed in a number of desolate wintery landscapes and abandoned buildings. The parents become increasingly distraught and we discover more details about their past relationship as the search drags on with no results.

This evocative tragic drama by acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – Leviathan (2014) is like looking through a dark icy crystal. The people in it are as bleak and dour as the silent barren landscape that the camera lingers over. Visually stunning, Loveless has a distinct austere beauty reflective of the soulless, morally corrupt characters in it. 

The connection between the harsh humanist subject matter and the grim landscape is tangible. Taking place in a suburb of Moscow, it seems class divisions have created a population motivated only by achieving quick and easy self-satisfaction while ignoring more compassionate parental responsibilities.

The visual design is stunningly arresting and darkly desolate as we progress from modern antiseptic interiors to frozen lifeless exteriors, and increasingly more hostile environments leaving us emotionally cold to the stern reality of the film. It’s a somber and brutally honest drama that focuses its shocking story on the darker part of human nature and parental relationships with a visual bravura and stark beauty that will leave you with a cold admiration.

Andrey Zvyagintsev is an important new voice in Russian cinema and a gifted auteur who has been revealing contemporary problems of modern middle and lower class Russians since his first acclaimed film The Return (2003). 

Loveless is Russia’s Oscar entry and now with its Best Foreign film nomination is a strong contender at the 2018 Academy Awards airing on March 4, 2018.

JP

Blade Runner 2049

When we left Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the futuristic cop who hunts down bio-engineered humans called Replicants at the end of the original Blade Runner (1982) some 30 years before the events of this first sequel, he had eluded the authorities and escaped with a female Replicant named Rachael who he had fallen in love with. Racheal we learned was a special experimental model made by Tyrell Corporation without an expiry date, whereas all previous Replicants had a fail-safe four year life span. Now retired, Deckard intended to live the remainder of his life in hiding with her. 

Hampton Fancher, writer of the original screenplay was passionate about the Philip Dick novel on which the movie was based. He felt strongly about the characters and his screenplay, but when Ridley Scott officially signed onto the project as director back in 1980, his script would go through many changes as Ridley visualized the world of Blade Runner. It was a nightmare for Fancher as tensions between him and the director increased, but Ridley had his own ideas and needed to find a visual esthetic based on the leading edge futurist visions of sci-fi artists at the time.

Naturally when it finally came time to write the long awaited sequel to what has become the seminal dystopian future noir thriller, Hampton Fancher, just as passionate about the story he helped bring to life 35 years earlier, was once again consulted about how the story should progress into uncharted territory now that the look of the world had been established and engrained in the culture.

The story has been smartly and logically projected into the future in an exciting way that leaves the possibility for more chapters in this fascinatingly bleak future world of a discarded earth. Visually stunning and still as relevant as ever, the central themes of what it means to be human in the original film are still very much in the forefront of the modernized sequel Blade Runner 2049, directed by acclaimed French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve - Arrival (2016), Sicario (2015), Prisoners (2013), Incendies (2010).

Earth is now a vast wasteland of garbage, a giant landfill of sorts for the waste from off-world colonies as a backdrop for a potential revolutionary tinderbox when we learn that in the intervening years between 2019 and 2049, the bio-engineered slave class of humans have been secretly working to gain their freedom and right to live among humans and possibly replace them. 

The Replicant Freedom movement was formed by a new class of advanced robots who eventually learn something no one thought was possible and which has the potential to eventually free them from human oppression. The Tyrell Corporation who had produced the synthetic humans in the original film is now bankrupt and replaced by a more menacing company Wallace Corp. that builds new advanced and more obedient versions of the Replicants. 

The young agent in the Blade Runner unit of this film, Agent K, (Ryan Gosling) is now actually a Replicant himself working for the LAPD to find and ruthlessly retire rogue Replicants. He’s regarded with contempt by the rest of the department. Using Replicants to find Replicants is risky but makes sense since Replicants are faster and stronger than humans.

In the first film Replicants were portrayed as evil but we eventually gained a kind of reluctant sympathy for the Nexus 6 Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) after we saw him redeemed while his life expired and he decides not to kill Deckard in his final poetic moments. In Blade Runner 2049 there is an effort to make us feel much more empathy for the discriminated Replicants who want nothing more than to live with dignity and in peaceful coexistence with humans.

The neon noir-ish melancholic mood of the original film has been preserved for this follow-up with expressive synthwave retro-electronic music by Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer, darkly resonating with the original Vangelis soundtrack. 

Likewise, as you would expect, the ground breaking visual style of the original has been enhanced successfully, adding many modern touches by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, in what could be some of his finest work. The dreamlike color saturated environments will linger in the mind long afterward; a testament to his staggering talent. 

Roger Deakins is best known for his work on the films of the Coen Brothers before he worked on films like Sicario (2015), and Prisoners (2013) for Denis Villeneuve, as well as a visual consultant on many computer animated films including Rango (2011) and Wall-E (2008). He is expected to win a long overdue Oscar for his extraordinary body of work.

Music and images blend so well together in Blade Runner 2049 to create a total immersive otherworldly experience, it’s a good bet to pick up some hardware for technical achievement at the Oscars this year and will not disappoint the many fans of the original cult classic.

JP

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There seems to be a disparity of opinions between many Star Wars fans, and movie critics who unanimously admire the latest episode in the beloved fantasy saga Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the second film in the third trilogy. The reasons why many of the hardcore fans are complaining about The Last Jedi are the very same reasons the critics are praising it.

Yes it’s true, here as with The Force Awakens (2015), classic characters are being killed off to make way for new ones, which can be disappointing for older fans. But The Last Jedi still feels as epic and nostalgic as the previous films, integrating many familiar elements from both The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) but giving them a fresh new vibrant look and feel. 

This film may not be the best in the series but it comes close. There are problems and some story elements did not quite work for me, but let’s not forget that Star Wars is an evolving franchise and all the films had their own unique problems that didn’t quite work for everyone. The Ewoks for example were loved by younger fans and hated by others.

What made the original films so compelling to generations of kids and adults was the human story and the rare pairing of the three lead cast members Mark Hamill (Luke), Carrie Fisher (Leia) and Harrison Ford (Han) who created such a strong chemistry between them that has never been matched since. This new sequel trilogy and the previous prequel trilogy inevitably suffer from the lack of anything approaching that kind of chemistry, and the older versions of the original characters are not given enough screen time together to rekindle that magic. 

But having said that, The Last Jedi does get enough things right; revisiting iconic lore while taking some big risks by introducing us to new characters and expanding our understanding of Jedi concepts and powers, to make it more than a worthy entry in the saga. As a sequel to The Force Awakens it does an excellent job of advancing the story into new directions. As the middle part of the sequel trilogy it leaves our heroes and the Resistance in a precarious and diminished state barely escaping annihilation at great cost.

Much like The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Last Jedi is a bittersweet experience with startling revelations and a darker tone from the previous film. It starts with the hurried evacuation of the Resistance hidden base when they are discovered by the First Order. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has left the Resistance base to find Jedi master Luke Skywalker to learn more about the Force and it’s left up to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and BB-8 to defend the Rebel fleet.

New characters are introduced in the form of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance technician and new love interest for Finn, DJ (Benicio Del Toro) a code breaker who will work for anyone who pays him, and enough new aliens to satisfy the most hardcore geeks.

The Last Jedi also leaves us with many unanswered questions as to the fate of the First Order and The Resistance, both sides having lost important leaders in their cause. It will be interesting to see what direction the story will take in the next and third part of the trilogy.

Visually writer/director Rian Johnson - Looper (2012) successfully captures the look and feel of the best of the original films being filmed in actual otherworldly location around the world; The Island of Skellig Michael, Ireland, Dubrovnik, Croatia and the salt flats of Bolivia.

One of the problems that some fans have pointed to in the film is that the film tries to do too much in an attempt to please everyone. The Last Jedi is a clever balancing act that takes dramatically heavy and sometimes sad moments and quickly downplays them with terse visual jokes, some would say to the detriment of the seriousness of the moment.

Overall though, The Last Jedi has great pacing and incredible visually stunning set pieces that will thrill and satisfy most viewers with excellent performances from Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver as well as the rest of the cast.

JP

Goodbye Berlin

The new film from acclaimed wunderkind Turkish/German director Fatih Akin who is credited with reviving German auteur cinema with his landmark award-winning film Head-On (2004), and other cross cultural clashes such as The Edge of Heaven (2007), Soul Kitchen (2009) and In the Fade (2017), is Goodbye Berlin (2016), a hilarious joyride which ultimately becomes a revealing and touching coming-of-age story that looks at teen angst through the eyes of an unlikely pair of socially awkward misfits who find friendship on a playful transformative road trip through the German countryside.

A soul searching comedy that has the heart-felt sincerity of Kikujiro (1999) and the free-spirited hijinks of Northern Soul (2015), Goodbye Berlin follows two outcasts from a high school in Berlin at the beginning of the summer vacation. It starts out looking pretty dismal for the 14 year old Maik Klingenberg (Tristan Göbel), who’s bored out of his mind playing video games in his divorced parent’s empty house. His alcoholic mother is in rehab and his father goes on a business trip with his young secretary who is old enough to be his daughter. 

To top it all off, he’s the only kid in the class not invited to Tatiana’s big birthday bash, the girl he has been admiring from a distance all year and who doesn’t even notice him while his classmates make fun of him. Into this depressing mess comes Tschick (Anand Batbileg), a strange Russian migrant student just arrived at the school who is even more  pathetic than he is, in fact, apart from his Asian looks, Tschick stands out like a homeless person who cares nothing for what people think of him. His intimidating half-conscious snarl keeps the other students at a distance. 

But Tschick finds a shared connection with Maik, and when Tschick shows up at his house with a beat-up old Lada, he catches Maik at just the right time to start on a crazy adventure and finally be noticed by Tatiana in a way she will never forget. But what they discover on their wild journey reveals more about each other than they imagined and will change them forever. 

The innovative visual aesthetic, which has become a hallmark of Fatih’s films, finds us following our teen heroes through a variety of visually disparate locations while they are essentially living moment to moment surviving by their wits as they push their boundaries in a raucous road movie that’s engaging and enjoyable to watch from beginning to end. Fatih makes excellent use of the drone camera to create beautiful high pan-out shots that hover over stunning country landscapes giving us a bird’s-eye view that adds to the sense of freedom the boys are experiencing. 

Music has always been an integral part of Fatih Akin’s films, a component that he’s passionate about and this one is no exception. Here the soundtrack is especially remarkable and well integrated into the story with an eclectic mix of German rap, hard rock, 80s pop, and classical music.

Based on the bestselling novel Why We Took the Car by German author Wolfgang Herrndorf, the story’s themes of societal and cultural outsiders coming together to overcome their differences and form a strong bond through shared experiences, attracted Fatih Akin immediately into making a film from it.

What makes it so much fun is the clear chemistry of the two lead characters Maik and Tschick who are totally believable as the odd pair of outcasts and who learn from each other the possibilities of a world beyond their school and transforms Maik into a new person who people will notice and admire.

It’s a positive hopeful film that’s thoroughly enjoyable on many levels. We feel that the director was clearly enjoying himself a great deal while making this film. Goodbye Berlin is a must see that hits all the right notes and has all the elements of a coming-of-age film put together in just the right way.

JP

Village Rockstars

Bollywood’s loss is our considerable gain when Rima Das who left her remote Indian village to find work as an aspiring actor in the Hindi film capital of Mumbai, finally came to the realization that if she were to make it in the movie industry, it would not be in front of the camera but rather behind it bringing her own visions to the screen. 

Village Rockstars is self-taught filmmaker Rima Das’ beautiful charming coming-of-age story and stunning visual homage to her hometown of Chahaygaon in rural northeast India, and a love poem to remote village life and its people struggling to survive the yearly floods. 

Opting for a more realist experience very much in the spirit of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), we follow a playful ten year old girl Dhunu (Bhanita Das), living an idealic childhood as a tomboy who loves to run and roughhouse with the village boys climbing trees, walking to school and pretending to be in a rock band with her friends using Styrofoam cut-out guitars.

Dhunu and her widowed mother are managing without her father who died in an accident during one of the previous floods and her mother gently teaches her daughter to be independent, allowing her the freedom to enjoy her childhood. But once puberty strikes there is pressure from the villagers to keep this free-spirited girl out of the trees and indoors.

When Dhunu finds a real guitar for sale at the local market, she dreams of the fame and fun she and her friends will enjoy as a village rock band and tries to find a way to make enough money to buy the guitar. First she consults the wise village elder who gives her the idea of helping the neighboring villagers with little favors and tasks that they cannot do themselves; like collecting fruit too high to reach by climbing tall trees and shaking the branches. This way she’s able to eventually save enough money and also make valuable friendships in the process.

There are some striking similarities with another touching coming-of-age film, Wadjda (2012), also about a savvy ten year old girl living with her mother in suburban Riyad, Saudi Arabia who also finds some crafty ways to make money to buy a bicycle she wants so she can ride to school with the boys. In much the same way that Wadjda learns to use her natural skills as a young entrepreneur, Dhunu also learns that with determination, she can achieve her dreams.

This is the kind of life that director Rima Das had grown up in and lovingly rediscovered again in her adulthood after returning from Mumbai as a failed actor. While following and getting to know this group of rambunctious children as they go about their daily lives spontaneously enjoying playful activities in their natural environment, even allowing them to participate in the actual making of the film, Rima gives us a real sense of what life is like for these people as we witness them struggling with nature, animals and weather. 

It’s a remarkable achievement as the film is totally self-financed using a non-professional cast of characters from her own village, and a documentary style of filming. With very little dialogue or story, Rima Das is able to create the kind of experimental minimalist neorealism pioneered and championed by legendary filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami.  

Village Rockstars’ heartfelt story and authentic organic locations are so fondly visualized in such intimate detail and evocative vignettes; we can feel the mud huts baking in the sweltering heat, and the coolness of soaking in water pools among the grass fields. It’s an absolute gem, the kind of crowd-pleaser that will most certainly enjoy universal appeal.

JP