Blade Runner 2049: Visually stunning but unnecessary

By Ezra de Leon

Philip K. Dick, the author of the novel that inspired the original Blade Runner, often dealt with heavy themes in his books, such as the nature of truth and reality. Blade Runner 2049 raises a lot of questions too, such as:

  • Why was this movie made?
  • If millennials are the ones most likely to go to a movie theatre, why make a sequel to a movie that came out before they were even born?
  • For someone who’s been in countless action scenes, why does Harrison Ford not know how to throw a punch?

I can only provide answers for the first two and guess at the third – it’s because Ford is ornery and doesn’t listen to stunt directors.

The first movie was groundbreaking and ushered in “futurism” in sci fi. It was film noir in a dystopic Los Angeles, full of pollution, neon lights, and a moody atmosphere. Clocking in at nearly three hours, 2049 ditches the neon but doubles down on the atmostphere. There’s a constant feeling of loss and sadness which is hammered in by the arresting visuals. Who knew grey skies and garbage dumps could look so beautiful? Quebec director Denis Villeneuve certainly did amazing work here.

As you may remember from the original, human-like “replicants” are used as slaves in the future. Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant who “retires” his disobedient compatriots. Without going into too many details, in his duties as a “Blade Runner”, K unearths a mystery surrounding some long-escaped replicants, a mystery with disturbing implications. Jared Leto has a suitably creepy cameo as the owner of the corporation that makes replicants.

K’s investigation eventually leads him to an irradiated Las Vegas and to the original’s Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The first movie ended on an ambiguous note, with many interpreting it to mean that Deckard was himself a replicant. 2049 leaves this question unanswered but it brings up many callbacks to the first movie. One doesn’t need to have seen the original to understand 2049 but certain scenes gain more poignancy if you can understand the callbacks. However, that still brings up why someone shouldn’t just watch the original instead.

You may have seen articles saying that box office earnings have been going down and this past summer has proven especially dire. Because of the economy, people are less willing to spend money on entertainment. Fearing for its profits, the movie industry has been producing works they consider “safe”, such as remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations. Blade Runner was a game changer and a movie executive probably thought nostalgia would bring in the big bucks. (And it was probably a man, considering the gender breakdown of Hollywood). Unfortunately, no one was exactly clamouring for a sequel, especially one that doesn’t bring in anything new.

I’ll end on the question that all reviews must answer: Is the movie worth leaving the house for and paying $12 ($18 for 3D)? Not really. Wait for it on Netflix if you must.

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Kingsman/TIFF’s next act

By Amee Lê
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This past weekend, the 2nd installment of Kingsman hit theatres in Canada. A big fan of the first one, I was curious to find out what the critics had to say just before I saw the film. Either way, I had accepted that this would be no Godfather II, and like most sequels, it would struggle to keep up the uniqueness of its predecessor, or to find new ideas to stand on its own. The critics did not appear to love it, which made sense. I was surprised, however, to see them critique the film’s politics, something about its right wing support and its cynicism with regard to world politicians. As a woman of colour, I definitely can’t see Kingsman as anything more than a white boy’s fantasy, you know, super spies and Swedish princesses who are open to anal sex. Like seriously, LOL, why would anyone want to take this film more seriously than that?!

What I loved about the first one was Matthew Vaughan’s superb synthesis of visuals and sounds. I can see he tried to replicate this in the second one. But no way the Take Me Home, Country Roads climax, despite the touching performance from Mark Strong, was anywhere near the Pomp and Circumstance head explosion climax of the first film. It had neither the tight beat, nor the poetic irony. Not to mention the new villain’s sidekick and his ultimate fight scene with Eggsy were far inferior to Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle and her kick-ass moves set to KC & The Sunshine Band’s super funky and disco-y Give It Up. It was absolute pleasure for my eyes and ears. So those critics who chose to focus on the second film’s politics, and not style, sorely missed the point of these films.

Speaking of pulp fictions that are all style, and almost no substance, the recent “exposé” of internal struggles at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) by the Globe and Mail definitely came to mind. Coming out on the last day of the festival, the article titled TIFF’s next act was super entertaining with so many plot twists & insiders’ info that I read the entire 6300-word article in one sitting. Like Kingsman, TIFF’s next act was more concerned about the exploitative bits designed to satisfy the sensation-craved minds. I loved it. In this age of information bites, it still captured my attention way more than the posts on my Instagram feed. Unlike Kingsman‘s critics, I wouldn’t judge the article’s political acuity. However, I want to use it as a pretext to talk about Canada’s lack of public funding of the arts and its infrastructure.

The root cause of TIFF’s problems is the same as of many other arts organizations’ in Toronto: the working conditions that breed self-exploitation from art professionals, the confused identity between corporate sexiness and artistic independence, senior management that is probably more cliquey than business-savvy. This is all nothing new. So, should we talk about the options TIFF has in the context of the Canadian art scene? Is this fair to critique TIFF’s sponsor-friendly programming, membership models that are based more and more on privilege and access (e.g. TIFF Noir), or ticket prices that are less and less accessible? Sure. It’s also fair however to point out that its public funding only accounted for 25% of its revenues in 2008, and decreasing to a little under 12% in 2016 (i.e. almost CAN$ 5 million out of 40.5-million total revenues). Berlinale, its counterpart from Berlin, for example, received 30% (i.e. €7.2 million out of 24-million total) of its funding from the government in 2017. French Cinematheque, perhaps TIFF’s Cinematheque’s equivalent of France, received almost €20 million of its 25-million total revenue, i.e. a whopping 80%.

So no wonder TIFF “sucks” and its employees are leaving when their penchant for self-exploitation is maxed out. But again, TIFF is not alone. So until the provincial government gets rid of its loan (i.e. be the pioneer in bailing out cultural institutions instead of banks) and their public funding goes back up to at least 25%, then we can talk about how TIFF needs to transform itself?

Shortsighted – The Birdman

Shortsighted
A series of reviews on short films that are available online.

The Birdman (Jessie Auritt, 2012)
By Hadiyya Mwapachu
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The documentary The Birdman follows the owner of an independent record store called Rainbow Music. It is one of the few local music stores that is still open within the East village in New York City. The store is amassed with CDs, tapes and DVDs filled from the floor to ceiling, the people who visit the store balk in proportion to the music materials. This is a potent metaphor for the way the store functions.

In one sense, this is a collection of music that is not catalogued or organized through any recognizable system. Thus it can only be discovered through individual discovery or through the owner who has memorized every item in the store. Music and its materiality in the form of objects to look through, inspect and hold is privileged over how much space the buyers have to move around. In another sense, it is illustrative of how these once popular sites are visited by dwindling numbers hence Rainbow Music accommodates 20 to 30 people instead of the past where 100-150 a day who would frequent the store.

The owner known as “Birdman”, used to work in the stock market in his youth, only to stop at 35. He characterizes himself as a former “whizkid”, now at 70, he operates the store without a cash register or a cellphone and does all his work by hand. The store is arranged by having the best selling CDs up front, albums by the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls and The Beatles are easily found. Everything else is located by the Birdman, his mind appears to echo the store by functioning as this labyrinth consumed with history and cultural maps.

He speaks to the corporatization of the neighbourhood which is filled with corporations such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Pinkberry. Birdman’s voice serves as an overlay whilst the camera centers on these stores. The intimacy, structure and capacity for interaction between the corporate stores and Rainbow Music is evident and haunting. Birdman puts aside new music for his customers and has their phone numbers in order to make them aware of things they would like. Unlike the multiple copies of the franchises that dominate the community, the relationships that are cultivated in Rainbow Music can not be replicated. Birdman points outs how stores like his perish amongst the larger ones.

However the documentary does not seek to romanticize independent stores. Whilst Birdman reflects on “the barbershops and delis” from his youth where “they used to be able to charge you stuff and you pay at the end of the week”, he notes that in the present “you can’t do things like that because most people wouldn’t pay it back”. The reality of the economic downfall is clear in the series of empty stores and the fact that those who struggle, include the people who used to work on Wall street who now “sell their CDs just to survive”.

Although Birdman has financial security, his store functions for the community. The emphasis is not on profit but on the recognition and exchange of mutual interests from films to the stock market to antiques, alongside providing discounts for those who can’t afford to give the full price.

The film locates the loss of culture in the East Village as the punk and metal communities are no longer visible. The removal of these communal spaces promotes an accumulation of places that do not mirror the vitality of communities. Birdman puts it simply when he says “they do not add anything to the community”.

The uprootedness that gentrification creates is readily visible in the closing of beloved sites. It is more difficult to speak to the sense of alienation that is fostered as a result. The documentary is both a eulogy for the vanished places and a celebration of the ones that remain.

beyond the silence

By Traci Mark

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Roda and Asha Siad’s thought provoking documentary Beyond The Silence (2013) begins with a series of statistics from the United Nations Health Organization indicating that not only almost 500,000 women worldwide die from breast cancer every year; more revealingly, breast cancer screening is especially low among immigrant and minority women compared to their white or native born counterparts.

I immediately knew it would be difficult to write an objective review of this doc. I couldn’t help but think of all the important women in my life, and how it never occurred to me that any of them could possibly contract this deadly illness. I was born in Canada, same with my sisters. But our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents all hail from the Caribbean. Has our heritage made us blindly assume that breast cancer would not be a disease we could get? Was it because most of the women I see in advertisements for breast cancer did not look a thing like me? Somehow innately I thought the pigment of my skin would exclude me.

Beyond the Silence interviews four women, one father, medical professionals, and careworkers in Alberta, who have dealt with breast cancer personally or known someone who has.  Most of the women interviewed hail from Asia, the Middle East or Africa. With each women having moved away from their home countries, their children are the ones that now come first.  “My life finished a long time ago. I am alive for my children,” Marthaya Abdullah says when talking about her fear of breast cancer. Taking care of their children and attending to their needs remains a priority.  One segment that particularly resonates with me is when Zainab Saleh Taleh, a Somali woman that moved to Canada in the late 80s explains that the word “breast” alone is a difficult thing for people in her community to say.  Let alone saying the words together: breast cancer.

As a community we are so used to seeing a certain demographic or race of women being diagnosed with this deadly illness.  When do we ever see a person of African, Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern or any minority descent advertised when it comes to breast cancer? Almost never. This is a fact that I did not realize until it was blatantly pointed out in the film.  But does that mean that we don’t need to protect ourselves? No one but Caucasian women get breast cancer? Of course not.  Organizations such as the Breast Cancer Health Initiative for Newcomers, The Women’s Centre in Alberta offer support to these women who may not have the courage or may be embarrassed of their health issues, as shown in the short.  These clinics promote that a women’s health should come first and help is readily available.

“Our task is to find out how to encourage them, how to make it easier for them to seek help,” Dr. Tam Donnelly says in one of the closing segments about women of minority races.

Shortsighted – Jonah

Shortsighted
A series of reviews on short films that are available online.

Jonah (Kibwe Tavares, 2013)
By Hadiyya Mwapachu
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The short film “Jonah” by Kibwe Tavares transplants the biblical story of Jonah in Zanzibar. Jonah was a great hit at Sundance where it premiered in competition this year. The film integrates magic realism and 3D animation to capture the environment with startling beauty along with scathing social critique. The story follows two young men, Bwana and his friend who spend their days reliving the same routine where they aim to acquire “tourist dollars” through various schemes. Although the beach is littered with numerous tourists, Bwana asserts “the tourists we have are not enough, we need to something wild here”. They trade examples of monuments they could recreate “Buckingham Palace, Taj Mahal”.

After a giant fish is captured on camera, they put their grand schemes into practice as Zanzibar is turned into a hypereal tourist spectacle where people travel to see the giant fish and Bwana becomes known as “the fish man”. The 3D animation illustrates the transition of Zanzibar from a town filled with classic architecture to one accosted with billboards and colorful marquees. In one sequence, the city resembles a futurist landscape similar to the decadence of Las Vegas.

The film’s strength is its ability to encourage the viewer to reflect on the implications of mass tourism and the economic instability that drives it. One billboard is labeled “the sea stock exchange”, over a short period of time, the fish becomes the largest island commodity but we do not see this improve the social circumstances of the people on the island. It is evident that a privileged few benefit from economic mobility. The film asks us to contemplate its themes through witnessing the changes in the landscape that are made with alarming speed.

As a film viewer who is Tanzanian, I was excited to see a film that delivers a dynamic take on Zanzibar beyond the various texts that mediate on the Island’s beauty. The island is often structured as an ancient place due to its architecture, notably the Stone Town area. However it is a site that has seen an influx of tourism for many years, which has led to tensions surrounding the social impact of this presence. Although the director and writer Jack Thorne are not Tanzanian, they address these tensions with a degree of nuance. I was distracted by the inaccuracy of the accents that the two young leads spoke in, however they deliver strong performances. The cast member who we meet in the final part of the film embodies the character with a haunting efficiency that speaks to the notions of time and regret.

rebelle

By Traci Mark

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So the first post. We only thought it only appropriate to review the film War Witch, or under the French title Rebelle (clever huh? We thought so.) Alright, on with it.

War Witch (Kim Nguyen, 2012) tells the story of fourteen year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) who is kidnapped by the rebel army in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is forced to join the rebel army and trained to kill indiscriminately, starting with her own parents. With Komona narrating her own story (initially at the age of 12), we follow her on a journey for the next two years. After being given sap with hallucinogenic properties, Komona begins seeing spirits of the dead that warn her of approaching enemies. She is given the title of “War Witch” and is kept by the side of the chief commander of the army. This keeps her safe for a short while until she escapes the camp with her only friend, an albino boy called Magicien (Serge Kayinda) .The middle portion of the film gives a sense of euphoria and lightness when the two fall in love. Montrealer Kim Nguyen highlights this with African pop music and shots of the two together. After a brief period of happiness Komona learns in a very brutal way that all good things must come to an end.

The film does not shy away from showing the atrocities of war from the point of view of a young girl. War Witch does not ask you to sympathize with the characters and their situations, but instead, understand and be privy to the bleak conditions that most of us might never have first-hand experience of.

It’s not all dismal though. Nguyen balances the film well, with an ending that will leave audiences somewhat hopeful. A perfect example of transnational cinema, War Witch joins the list of films that do not necessarily contain “Canadian” content but instead clearly feel at ease depicting stories about people across the globe (Deepha Mehta’s elements trilogy, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2007) just to name a few…). This, I think, is one of the most positive things coming out of Canadian cinema and a wonderful addition to the variety of films being produced here.