Blade Runner 2049 3D (2017)

Rewatchathon 2018 #5
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK, Hungary & Canada / English, Finnish, Japanese, Hungarian, Russian, Somali & Spanish | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

With its home media release comes my second viewing of Blade Runner 2049 (my review from the first is here); and, I must confess, it kinda makes me wish I’d gone back to see it on the big screen again…

First things first, though, what the title of this post promises: the 3D. Blade Runner 2049 was shot in 2D, but that’s commonplace for 3D releases nowadays — post-conversion has reached the point where its quality and, I presume, cost effectiveness means that it’s seen as the preferable option by studios (who’d’ve predicted that in the format’s early days? Some people still blame the bad post-conversion jobs on films like Clash of the Titans for damaging 3D’s prospects as a popular format). In the case of this film, however, I presume it was an artistic decision as much as a practical one: cinematographer Roger Deakins is, I believe, no fan of 3D. Indeed, he’s publicly expressed that his preferred version of Blade Runner 2049 is the 2D one — and the regular 2D version at that, not the one specially formatted for IMAX. Nonetheless, he also personally supervised the film’s conversion to 3D. I guess that’s some kind of dedication.

Distance

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, then, that this is not a film designed to show off in 3D — but that’s not to say it’s bad. Rather, what it most often offers is a subtle, believable delineation of space. Confined rooms and the distance between objects within them all feels very real, very plausible. In some respects that just ties into the film’s overall style: it’s a beautifully shot movie, no doubt (give Deakins the bloody Oscar!), but only occasionally does it do that in a heightened way. Think of the scenes in K’s apartment, for instance, or his boss’ office, or several other locations along those lines. They look very naturalistic, which is surely part of the point.

Now, there are other times when the added emphasis of depth highlights things — Wallace’s little drone whatsits make their presence more known, for example; how see-through Joi is at times becomes more apparent (the fact the background is ‘peeking through’ her is understandably clearer when you’re able to sense how far away that background is). At other times, wide-open scenery stretches far into the distance. One of the most visually standout locations was the old furnace that K’s memories lead him to — the size of the space, plus all the levels of pipes and gantries, makes for a lot of depth markers.

Another was the office / seclusion chamber of the memory-maker — another large space, albeit empty this time, but I thought its isolating size felt clearer in 3D. That’s the kind of thing that can make quantifying the effect of 3D hard, especially for laypeople: sometimes it’s creating an effect that you don’t immediately notice (because it’s not poking you in the face or whatever), but if you directly compared it to a 2D version you’d see what it’s adding. I’m not going to argue Blade Runner 2049 is a demonstration piece for that particular quality, but one wonders how often it’s a factor.

K's journey

Setting the 3D aside, this was (as I said at the start) the second time I’d watched the film, and I found it to be almost a weird experience. Blade Runner 2049 is not a film that’s just about the answers to its own mysteries; but, nonetheless, knowing those answers, and knowing where the story was going and how long it was going to take to get there, made the second viewing a very different experience to the first. For one thing, it doesn’t feel like such a long film at all — it’s in no hurry, but the pace is measured, everything happens for a reason, unfurls with the space it needs. (I’d still be fascinated to see the reported four-hour cut though, or at least the deleted scenes from it.) Knowing the answers also refocuses your attention. K’s often-silent reactions to what he uncovers are a big part of the film, and that feels different when you know how things will pan out versus when you’re discovering them alongside him.

Finally, swinging back round to the purely visual again, watching this particular movie at home came as a reminder of why the big screen can still matter. Deakins’ magnificent photography still looks incredible, of course, but those horizon-stretched vistas, or the tall city streets with their looming holographic advertisements, don’t have quite the same impact when they’re not being shown at more-or-less life size. I bet the IMAX version was a wonder…

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is released on DVD, Blu-ray, limited edition Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, limited edition 3D Blu-ray Steelbook, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, HMV-exclusive 3D & 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Steelbook, and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray gift set (not to mention being available from all good digital retailers) in the UK today.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

2017 #132
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

Last weekend, a film about an android negotiating an existential crisis when he learns he may actually be human, told over almost three hours with a slow pace in an arthouse style, topped the US box office. Put like that, Blade Runner 2049’s debut sounds like a stonking financial success. Alternatively, it’s a widely-advertised critically-acclaimed $150-million-plus effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle with a pair of movie-star leads, in which context its $33 million opening weekend only looks remarkable for how poor it is. For those of us who did bother to see it (and us Brits turned out — it did good numbers on this side of the pond), such concerns are almost immaterial. In creating a belated sequel to an innovative, influential, and beloved classic movie, 2049 has (to borrow a phrase from another unexpected big-screen sci-fi sequel) done the impossible — because it’s really bloody good — and that makes it mighty.

Set 30 years after the original movie, 2049 introduces us to new characters and a new mystery: when blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) makes a shocking discovery at the home of a Replicant he’s just retired, it starts him on a mission to find something previously thought impossible that could have world-changing implications; something with connections to the events of 30 years earlier. While unfurling this mystery/thriller plot, 2049 is also about K’s personal development/crisis as a character. Although they kept it out of the marketing, it’s only a mild spoiler to say he’s a Replicant (as if the single-letter name didn’t hint at that already, it’s also mentioned casually within the first couple of scenes), and the case he works causes him to question his place in the world.

Buried secrets

This is a movie with a lot to think about. It doesn’t do the thinking for you either, instead leaving space for the viewer to interpret not only what themes they should be thinking about but also what they should be thinking about those themes. This seems to have been a little too much for some viewers — I’ve seen anecdotal reports of people falling asleep or walking out. That’s not necessarily just because they were asked to do some work, of course: it could also be the pace and length. It’s definitely a long film — a shade under 2 hours 45, though obviously there’s a fair chunk of credits — and, watching it with a grotty cold, as I was, it certainly felt long. But I would also put that entirely down to the cold. It’s not a mile-a-minute thrill ride of a movie, but I think it’s the length it needs to be. It leaves room for ideas to sink in.

Not only that, it allows you time to luxuriate in the visuals. This is possibly one of the finest-looking films ever shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, we all know this, but if he doesn’t finally earn it for 2049 then there is no justice. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know the kind of thing to expect. When people say “you could hang any frame of this movie on your wall” it’s usually a ludicrous overreaction, but here it’s as true as it ever could be. (Also, having complained in several reviews recently that I think my cinema of choice is showing films too dark (a not unheard of problem — they run the bulbs too dim to save costs), 2049 looked absolutely fantastic. Maybe it’s just that other filmmakers aren’t as good as Deakins.)

Hot robot-on-robot action

It’s not just the film’s technical merits that recommend it either, as there’s an array of superb performances here. Gosling has a difficult job as K: he starts out almost as a blank, an emotionally reserved Replicant but also a character that we need to identify with, and later struggling with his innate programming as he’s presented with challenging ideas. It might be easy to do this in a very outward manner, all handwringing and moistened eyes and so forth, but Gosling keeps it low-key — in keeping with the overall style of the film, of course. I guess some will find him cold, but I still thought he was a relatable, likeable character.

Elsewhere, Harrison Ford is definitely a supporting character, despite his prominent billing. That’s okay, though. He gets some great, meaty material — surely the best stuff he’s had to work with in a long time, and he delivers on it too. Deckard isn’t as obvious a personality as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, but it doesn’t really matter how much Ford does or doesn’t feel like his role of 35 years ago: Deckard has a place and a function and a story in this new narrative, and that he sells. As a fan, it’s impossible not to think of the long-standing debate from the first movie: is Deckard a Replicant? 2049 manages to smartly dodge this question that you’d’ve thought it has to answer. If you’re watching out for how it handles it, it’s an impressive bit of work. And the debate does still rage: as shown in a recent joint interview, Ridley Scott still thinks Deckard definitely has to be, but Denis Villeneuve disagrees. You can make up your own mind (if you think it even matters).

Blade Runner 79, more like

Among the rest of the supporting cast, the stand out for me was Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s hologram girlfriend. You may’ve seen some reviews that say 2049 has a “a woman problem”, and maybe it does, but I still thought Joi was an interesting, nuanced character. Her role is very much in how she affects K, that’s true, but that the film tackles a love story between a robot and an AI is fascinating in and of itself. Maybe theme trumps character. Maybe they contribute to each other.

Really, it’s no surprise that 2049 has struggled at the box office. Despite trailers that emphasised the action, reviews were keen to point out it isn’t an action movie. Although they’ve mostly been glowing, maybe people looked beyond the star ratings to the content, which highlighted the truth: it’s a slow, considered movie; one that makes you think, rather than simply entertains. It’s not for everyone. All of that said, it’s kind of surprised me how few people it’s for: I’ve not even seen reviews pop up from many of the blogs I follow that routinely review new releases. (If you’ve posted one and think I’ve missed it, feel free to mention it in the comments.) One I did see is by long-time Blade Runner fan the ghost of 82, which is more spoilersome than this piece and so digs deeper into some of the film’s questions.

Shoot to retire

Now that it’s ensconced as a classic, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the original Blade Runner wasn’t massively popular with critics and didn’t do well at the box office back in 1982. It started out with a cult fanbase, which grew into the more widespread esteem it enjoys today. 2049 isn’t doomed to the same fate, but perhaps it’s destined for a similar one. Mainstream audiences might be ignoring it right now, but this is a movie that many people are going to be thinking about, talking about, rewatching, thinking and talking about some more, and being influenced by, for years — decades — to come.

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now. Go see it.

My review of the film’s 3D version can now be read here.

It placed 1st on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

100 Favourites II — The Next 30

Last week, my ranking of 100 favourite movies I’ve seen in the last decade began with 40 films that ranged from screwball comedies to spectacle-fuelled blockbusters, from gritty crime thrillers to artistic animations, from gory horrors to melodramatic epics…

This week, my typically eclectic selection continues with the next 30 picks.

#60
The Nice Guys

8th from 2016 (previously 11th)
Convoluted criminality is rendered hilarious in Shane Black’s spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. More…
#59
Arrival

7th from 2016 (previously 6th)
An intelligent, adult drama about humanity, which also happens to be a science-fiction mystery. More…
#58
His Girl Friday

6th from 2010 (previously 7th)
Sharp, fast, intelligent, hilariously funny — they don’t make films like this anymore. More…
#57
The Story of Film: An Odyssey

8th from 2015 (previously 21st)
Mark Cousins’ history of the movies wasn’t to all tastes, but I found all 15 hours to be fascinating and enlightening. More…
#56
The Night of the Hunter

7th from 2013 (previously 7th)
Charles Laughton’s only film as director is a masterpiece of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty. More…
#55
M

5th from 2010 (previously unranked)
Fritz Lang’s proto-noir serial killer procedural still has the power to thrill and chill. More…
#54
Inglourious Basterds

3rd from 2009 (previously 1st)
Killin’ Natzis, Tarantino style. History re-rendered in terms of pure cinema. More…
#53
In Bruges

2nd from 2009 (previously 2nd)
“There’s never been a classic movie made in Bruges, until now.” More…
#52
Byzantium

7th from 2015 (previously 5th)
These vampires aren’t glamorous or sparkly, but damaged and discarded in a seedy seaside town of tarnished charms. More…
#51
How to Train Your Dragon

8th from 2011 (previously unranked)
Glorious animation, with soaring flight sequences and an emotive connection to its characters, both human and dragon. More…
#50
Dredd

6th from 2013 (previously 6th)
Sharp, efficient sci-fi action with impressive gun battles, dry humour, and Karl Urban nailing the title character. More…
#49
Steve Jobs

6th from 2016 (previously 3rd)
A gripping character drama with a surprising corporate thriller vibe, magnificently written by Aaron Sorkin. More…
#48
Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro

7th from 2011 (previously 4th)
Described by no less than Steven Spielberg as “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time”. More…
#47
The Shining

8th from 2014 (previously 3rd)
Eliciting dread and almost-primal fear, it’s the most excruciatingly and exquisitely unsettling film I’ve ever seen. More…
#46
X-Men: Days of Future Past

7th from 2014 (previously 9th)
Surprisingly deep characterisation rubs shoulders with witty and inventive action in this all-eras X-Men team-up. More…
#45
Predestination

5th from 2016 (previously 5th)
Thought-provoking science-fiction in this time travel mystery that tackles issues of gender and identity — how timely. More…
#44
The Revenant

4th from 2016 (previously 4th)
Starring Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, this gruelling survival Western is primarily told with visuals and so becomes a work of pure cinema. More…
#43
Oldboy

6th from 2014 (previously 7th)
Mixing a straightforward revenge thriller with weird, almost surrealistic touches, Oldboy is kinda crazy, kinda disturbed, but kinda brilliant because of it. More…
#42
Hanna

5th from 2013 (previously 5th)
A teen coming-of-age movie… with hard-hitting action sequences, surreal imagery, long single takes, beautiful cinematography, and a pulsating Chemical Brothers soundtrack. More…
#41
Stardust

5th from 2008 (previously 4th)
A truly magical film, packed with wit, action, delicious villains, a star-studded cast, a stirring score, and genuinely special effects. More…
#40
North by Northwest

4th from 2013 (previously 4th)
Almost everything you could want from a movie: pure tension, action, humour; a mystery, a thriller; a dash of romance. Unadulterated entertainment. More…
#39
The Three Musketeers

6th from 2011 (previously unranked)
Sword fights galore in this riot of swashbuckling fun, with a lightness of touch that makes for pure entertainment. More…
#38
The Grand Budapest Hotel

6th from 2015 (previously 10th)
A film full of delights, from the hilarious performances, to the clever dialogue, to the inventive design, to the controlled camerawork. More…
#37
Mad Max 2

5th from 2015 (previously 2nd)
Post-apocalyptic Australian Western that climaxes with a balls-to-the-wall multi-vehicle chase, one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. More…
#36
Sicario

3rd from 2016 (previously 1st)
A dark and morally questionable thriller, incredibly shot by Roger Deakins, artfully helmed by perhaps the best director currently working, Denis Villeneuve. More…
#35
Rise of the Planet of the Apes

3rd from 2012 (previously 7th)
An intelligent science-inspired drama that just happens to link up to a big studio sci-fi/action series. More…
#34
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

5th from 2014 (previously 4th)
The sequel to the prequel to the Planet of the Apes presents a fully-realised ape society and a story of interspecies relations that reflects our own times. More…
#33
Django Unchained

3rd from 2013 (previously 2nd)
Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western homage is an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking, rewarding, and thoroughly cinematic experience. More…
#32
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2nd from 2013 (previously 3rd)
One of the most underrated films of the ’00s, Andrew Dominik’s historically accurate movie is a considered, immersive, complex, intimate, epic Western. More…
#31
Mad Max: Fury Road

4th from 2015 (previously 6th)
Action filmmaking elevated to a genuine art form, but alongside the mind-boggling stunts there’s a surprising richness of theme and character. More…

Next Sunday: the penultimate 20.

100 Films @ 10: Great Scenes

Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie was simply “three good scenes and no bad ones”. For today’s list, I’m focusing on examples of the former.

There’s no set average for the number of scenes in a feature film, but a good rule of thumb is that a typical movie scene lasts two or three minutes — which means I’ve probably seen in excess of 48,000 scenes as part of this blog. That’s rather a lot to recall, so I’m not presuming to say these ten are the very greatest from that lot. What they are is ten that stuck in my memory particularly, for one reason or another. Even if they’re not the greatest, they are great.

10
The Swimming Pool

from Let the Right One In

The bullies that have plagued young Oskar throughout the film corner him in a public swimming pool and, brandishing a knife, inform him that if he can’t hold his breath for three minutes he’ll lose an eye. They push Oskar under the water. The seconds tick by. Then, we reach the real reason this scene is here: as the shot holds on Oskar underwater, we hear the muffled sounds of breaking glass, then screams. Feet run backwards across the water. Heads and limbs drop into the pool. The water begins to turn red. This could’ve been a brutal action climax like any other, but by staging it in a brightly-lit swimming pool, by not showing us the meat of the action, and by achieving it all in one shot, director Tomas Alfredson creates a sequence of supernatural force that is eerily grounded.

9
The Opening Shot

from Touch of Evil

Long takes are all the rage nowadays, made even easier by advances in digital cinematography and editing, but this hails from a time when they were a bit more special. It remains one of the most famous because of its content: we see a bomb planted on a car, then follow it as its unsuspecting owners drive through the streets. When will it go off? And, beyond that, Welles’ preferred soundtrack — overlapping snippets from multiple sources as the camera moves through the town — helps establish the melting-pot world of the film about to follow.

8
The Train Robbery

from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Another opening scene where the photography is the star. This time, it’s the work of the great Roger Deakins, as a gang of crooks await a train in a forest at night, lit only by the orange glow of lanterns. Then the train itself arrives, its stark headlight throwing sharp relief on the shadowy trees. Deakins himself has said it’s his best work, and who are we to disagree? The effectiveness is only heightened by the slow, deliberate, tension-mounting pace maintained by director Andrew Dominik.

7
The Superfreak Dance

from Little Miss Sunshine

After all the trials and tribulations of the movie, the Hoover family finally make it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and little seven-year-old Olive gets up on stage… where she dances a striptease-style routine to Superfreak. It neatly satirises and pillories the ludicrous sexualisation of these beauty pageants. Then the sequence only gains in stature when the officials try to pull Olive off stage early, which ends up with the whole family throwing dignity to the wind and dancing with her — the previously disjointed family finally united.

6
The Tanker Chase

from Mad Max 2

I already discussed this at length in my review, so to quote myself, it’s “an almighty action sequence […] a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it ‘an action sequence’, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just ‘the climax’, it’s ‘the third act’, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film.” It’s so good, they later remade it as an entire movie. And if you want to see something equally awesome, here’s the Mad Max 2 scene re-scored with music from Fury Road.

5
The Henley Royal Regatta Boat Race

from The Social Network

You could cut this 100-second sequence out of The Social Network and it would have no impact on the film’s plot, but it would also rob us of one of the most striking sequences in the CV of director David Fincher — and considering his continued visual mastery, that’s saying something. The tilt-shift-style photography came out of necessity, as the sequence was shot just months before the film’s release and they had to shoot the close-ups somewhere else entirely, but it gives the whole thing a unique visual style that, particularly when combined with a version of In the Hall of the Mountain King from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is something very special.

4
The Poem

from Skyfall

Whoever thought we’d one day find moviemaking artistry in the James Bond series? Skyfall isn’t even the first time that happened (see: the opera escape from Quantum of Solace), but the reason this sequence is even better is the way it sums up the film’s themes. As I described it in my review: “Bond races to an inquiry where M is giving evidence, in pursuit of Silva who is intending to finalise his revenge, with the soundtrack sharing only Judi Dench’s voice delivering a reading from Tennyson: ‘though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,’ she says, cementing [the] themes of what the role of the secret service (and, indeed, Britain) is in the modern world; and continues, ‘heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ as a weakened, past-it Bond races to her rescue. It’s so perfect it could have been written for the film especially.”

3
The Truck Flip

from The Dark Knight

Pure spectacle seems hard to come across in movies post-CGI, where anything that can be imagined can be created on screen by even relatively small-scale movies. But when you combine the first time a narrative feature film had been shot in IMAX with an incredible stunt performed for real, you’re reminded of the magic of cinema. It’s the most memorable part of a car chase sequence that is exceptionally well executed on the whole, too.

2
The Montage

from Requiem for a Dream

To quote my review: “I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes [at the end]. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.”

1
The Basement

from Zodiac

When I first thought of this idea for a top ten, this was the first thing that came to mind. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive investigator Robert Graysmith visits the home of a suspect’s friend. The pair are alone in the house, and they both go down into the basement to see something… when Robert hears someone upstairs. Describing this scene does it no justice — it’s one of the most hair-raisingly chilling in screen history.

Tomorrow: New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about… film music.

Sicario (2015)

2016 #126
Denis Villeneuve | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

SicarioFighting a losing war against Mexican drug cartels in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is keen to be enlisted to an interagency task force run by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Taken along for the ride but kept in the dark, Macer becomes increasingly concerned that all is not as it seems — especially when it comes to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious task force member whose motives seem to be a big secret…

Much like his previous film, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve here takes a storyline that could fuel a run-of-the-mill genre picture (a war-on-drugs action-thriller) and instead turns it into something altogether classier. In this regard, I’m tempted to invoke the work of directors like Hitchcock and Fincher. Sicario isn’t necessarily a film I could picture either of them making (maybe Fincher), but the way it takes a “genre movie” and elevates it artistically has a certain similarity. That said, like those directors at their best, Villeneuve here works primarily with tension and suspense — words I’m about to thoroughly overuse in this review, but they encapsulate the feeling of watching Sicario so well.

Any viewers seeking simple action thrills will not be satisfied with the sequences offered here, but the way the scenes rely on suspense rather than bullet choreography makes for a supremely tense movie; one that can grip you like a vice and only occasionally let up, letting you catch your breath before it doubles down. As viewers, we’re positioned alongside Macer, kept out of the loop and so unsure who to trust and what exactly is going on for much of the movie. In that respect the plot demands a certain level of attention, because it isn’t always spelled out in nice bitesize chunks of exposition.

Arguably, the film loses its way a little when it does reach that point. Answers are forthcoming eventually, and the third act occasionally abandons the conflicted and complex world that came before it for more straightforward and satisfying turns of events. Fortunately, the film survives such wobbles thanks to the strengths it’s already established, and with an even deeper dive into moral greyness even while it seems to be offering a simplistically fulfilling climax.

Blunt is excellent as Macer, an outwardly tough-as-nails tactical specialist who is hiding a less assured core. If that sounds almost trite then it doesn’t play that way, afforded greater subtlety by Blunt and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Macer is a capable agent, but is she capable of operating in Graver’s world? The only other character and performance that really stands beside Blunt is Del Toro’s Alejandro. Around 90% of Alejandro’s dialogue was cut by Del Toro and Villeneuve before shooting began, and it works to everyone’s favour. He’s an unreadable presence in his silence, seeming both brooding and almost bored, like he’s fed up waiting for the task force’s duties to get him where he wants to be. His silence is threatening, even after his demonstrated skill-set is (to Macer, anyway) a kind of comfort. It’s only fitting that the final scene — the real climax of the movie, hitting hard on its emotional arcs even after the plot is done — is a two-hander between Blunt and Del Toro, loaded with as much tension and suspense as any other part of the movie.

Brolin may be a headline lead alongside those two, but his character is given little to work with beyond being a son-of-a-bitch who keeps Macer onside with (deceitful) charm. He’s fine but unremarkable in that role. Perhaps the sequel will give him more to work with. More memorable is Daniel Kaluuya as Macer’s FBI partner, Reggie Wayne. More time spent with Macer and Wayne working together wouldn’t go amiss. Jon ‘the Punisher’ Bernthal also pops up in a small part, imbuing what could’ve been a sketchy plot-driver with more believability.

The film’s other real stars are behind-the-scenes. First, the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed at first, as the film starts in the flatly-lit daytime world of the Southern US / Mexico region. Not that it’s poorly shot, just that very little of it struck me as particularly remarkable. As the film transitions to more nighttime settings, however, Deakins’ work comes vibrantly to life, starting with some majestic golden-hour shots of ominous cloud-darkened skies, which seem to visually overwhelm Macer as she begins to realise she’s out of her depth. Later, the task force descend into tunnels, and the film presents a mixture of ‘regular’ photography — so dark that only certain things can be glimpsed in the patches of light — and both thermal- and night-vision shots. I guess it’s a cliche to say the use of headcam-type footage puts the viewer there with the characters, but here it really does. Most extraordinary are the thermal shots: captured for real with a thermal vision camera, rather than a post-production special effect, they look like some heightened-reality video game, their eeriness only adding to the tension.

Tension is definitely the name of the game when it comes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which was also Oscar nominated. Dominated by elongated, heavy strings and pacey, heartbeat-emulating percussion, it makes the threats lurking in every corner feel tangible; makes the sense that everything is doomed and liable to go south at any moment palpable. It’s a major contributor to the film’s mood.

It may have familiar genre building-blocks at heart, but between Sheridan’s focus on character, Blunt and Del Toro’s nuanced performances, Deakins’ fantastic imagery, Jóhannsson’s intense music, and Villeneuve’s skilful orchestration of every aspect, Sicario emerges as a film that exceeds the artistic and emotional effect you’d typically expect from a “genre movie” without sacrificing the thrills that should be inherent.

5 out of 5

Sicario is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

It placed 1st on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^