The Foreigner (Campbell; 2017)

To say that Jackie Chan has a specific signature style is an understatement.  At age 63 now, though, he can’t do the death defying seemingly superhuman stunts he was once capable.  He is still in remarkable shape, but a lifetime of stretching your physical capabilities to the limit, punishing your body, and just simple age mean that he has to change the way he approaches his roles.  In The Foreigner he does just that, and while there are still quite a few action scenes Chan does nearly a 180 degree turn from his usual frantic, comic, action based performance and attempts something more serious and thoughtful.

An IRA bombing of a bank kills 58 people and injures 21 in the opening scene of The Foreigner, and among the dead is Fan (Katie Leung) the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh.  Since she was the last family Quan had left in the world, he is struck particularly hard and also is able to leave everything else in the world behind as he seeks justice and revenge.  His search leads him to Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan) a former member of the IRA who is now reformed and is a prominent Irish politician.  Quan is convinced Hennessey knows who performed the bombing and the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two as Quan does whatever he feels is necessary to get the names from Hennessey, and Hennessey in return seeks to stop Quan in order to protect both his career and his family.

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The screenplay for The Foreigner is based on a book called “The Chinaman”.  I have never read the book, so I can’t give a comparison, but I can say the story of The Foreigner is an intelligent and intricate one, but the characters are so thin as to be more plot devices than actual people.   It makes for a somewhat irritating experience because you can truly get swept up in the story, and be honestly surprised as well as impressed by its thoughtfulness and realism, but despite that not a single character in the film has a single character trait beyond events that happen to them.  No one is funny, or gullible, or dour, instead they are a man who has lost his family, a mysterious politician, a nephew with military experience, a wife who doesn’t like her husband, and so on.  What this does is make for a film which can be appreciated, but not enjoyed as you never empathize with anyone on screen.  It’s hard to even say there are protagonists or antagonists in the film, let alone heroes and villains, just a bunch of people whose actions weave together to form a story.

That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not this turn of Jackie Chan’s is a good one.  He shows here that he is still capable of some fun action scenes, damn he is still in great shape, and that he can frown and squeeze out a tear here and there instead of constant smiling and laughter, but with no real personality traits to express we just get a Chan who is much more calm than we are used to rather than a true performance.   The same can be said of every performance in the film, though Chan’s is the only one most are paying close attention to since his is the only great departure from his usual style, there is nothing particularly wrong with the acting, it’s just that there is no character given to the actors to portray.

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The camerawork in The Foreigner never reaches artistic nor impressive levels, but is still very solidly pulled off.  The film has a lot of moving pieces which have to followed, and at no point does it ever become difficult for the audience to do so, though on a handful of occasions it does become a bit awkward to do so with some quick editing which is necessary but comes out of nowhere and could almost certainly have been handled in a better fashion.  Aside from those handful, and they really are rare which is probably why they are so jarring, we get a film that is easy enough to watch that you can forget you are watching things through someone else’s eye, and if you aren’t trying for a visual art piece, that is one of the best things to accomplish in a film’s cinematography.

The pacing of the film is on the slower side.  There is a lot of talk about the past, or about what people should do, or about plans, but there is very little direct action taken by the characters for the vast majority of the film.  This makes for a movie that seems far longer than it actually is, and while the realistic constant twisting of the story is enough to get you to stay until film’s end since you just have to know what’s really going on and you need that sense of closure, you will also find yourself wishing to yourself that they could just move things along already for quite a bit of the running time.

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Final verdict:  The Foreigner is a very mediocre film which also happens to have fantastic plotting.   If political thrillers or revenge stories are really your thing then I would say to give The Foreigner a look, thought not necessarily in the theater.  If characterization is important to you, though, expect to be disappointed, and if you are looking for an over-the-top hilarious action packed Jackie Chan flick then avoid The Foreigner at all costs, or at least seriously reconfigure your expectations to the near exact opposite.  The Foreigner had a lot of potential, but poor character writing kills it for this critic, making it difficult to sit through despite its wonderful story.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve; 2017)

Making a sequel to the classic 1982 Harrison Ford science fiction film Blade Runner is either tremendously gutsy or stupid or both.  While it initially bombed at the box office, it has always been a critical success and it didn’t take long at all after its theater run for word of mouth to make Blade Runner a film which is now considered one of the greatest films ever made by many, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made by so many that even its few detractors have to admit it’s something special.  In 2013, Denis Villeneuve caught the attention of smart filmgoers and Hollywood executives alike with Enemy.  Two years later he repeated his success in a more acceptably mainstream way with Sicario.  Then Arrival in 2016.  Denis Villeneuve finally gets his career making or breaking job with Blade Runner 2049, and not only is it certainly a career making job it’s one that cements him as one of the finest working directors and a man with the potential to be spoken about alongside the likes of Kubrick, Scorcese, and Hitchcock as one of the best directors of all time for giving us intelligent but also thrilling cinema.

Blade Runner‘s tone is instantly recognizable, yet also a little hard to grasp and explain.  It seems like it should be an action movie, yet it takes its time spacing the action far apart and getting it over with quickly.  It seems like mainstream science fiction, but it has camera work that so lovingly frames its painstakingly built world it’s more an art piece.  It seems like a simple good humans versus evil robots presence, but it’s really a treatise on what it means to be human.  Blade Runner 2049 understands all of this, and not only repeats it but manages to add more to the experience while also raising it to the next level.

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The tone and pacing which was the make or break element in the original Blade Runner for most is repeated in Blade Runner 2049.  Once again, we have a film which takes its time establishing its settings in silence before moving ahead with the action, a film which isn’t afraid to linger for a moment longer than usual on an empty room or a skyline.  While most appreciated this aspect of Blade Runner, there are those who say it makes the film boring.  Blade Runner 2049 uses this same style while also adding 45 minutes to the running time, so if you are in the Blade Runner is dull category, you will most likely feel the same about the sequel.

You’ll notice I didn’t do my usual brief plot summary of the film, and that is because to say anything about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 would be to spoil more than I like.  But, just like the original it is a story integrally tied to its themes.  It’s also a story which piggy backs both its plot and themes directly from the original in a way which both flows naturally and yet is also an entirely original creation.  In Blade Runner we were asked to think about what it means to be human and what our creations say about us, in 2049 we are asked again, and more dealing with memory, success, and the idea of our creations themselves becoming creators.

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The Vangelis soundtrack of Blade Runner was essential in establishing its unique dreamlike tone, and Blade Runner 2049 mimics that original soundtrack excellently with a gorgeous score from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer.  Just like the story, the score mimics in exactly the way it needs to, yet still sets is self apart as its own entity showing us that the music just like everything else in Blade Runner 2049 is an evolution not a copy.

The cast of Blade Runner 2049 does the incredible job you would expect from this group of talented veterans.  Ryan Gosling in the lead, point of view role of “K” the replicant Blade Runner, does a fantastic job of portraying the artificial cop torn between doing what he was created and programmed for and his Pinocchio-like journey of self discovery and fulfillment which conflicts with his duties.  Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, now confirmed to be a replicant, and gives us his best stuff despite being very vocal in the past about not liking nor truly understanding the first film.  Robin Wright is excellent as Ks boss/owner in the police department who brings a new twist to the role of hard ass cop with a soft spot for her subordinate, and relative newcomer Ana de Armas is a true revelation and a wonderful surprise in her part as K’s holographic companion.

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The crowning glory of Blade Runner 2049, though, is its visuals.  The special effects, art direction, and cinematography combine to make every frame a work of art.  The original Blade Runner practically invented the visual aesthetic of what we call cyberpunk, Blade Runner 2049‘s advanced technology and bigger budget takes that world we largely viewed from a distance and puts us right in the middle of it.  We get to look out the windshields of the flying cars as we weave between buildings, we interact with the larger than life holographic advertising which fills every available empty space, and we get to walk along streets then into alleys then through doorways filled with the desperate people of an overpopulated resource plundered world.  All this taken in and framed with the eye of a true auteur who makes the dystopia somehow beautiful and haunting and you have a masterpiece of visual artistry.

Final recommendation:  If you found the original Blade Runner overrated and dull, then you are not the audience for its sequel.  If you call yourself one of the millions, if not close to billions, of people who are a fan of the original, though, what you are getting in Blade Runner 2049 is more than just a continuation of the original story, much more than just an homage.  Blade Runner 2049 takes everything that made the original one of the greatest science fiction films of all time and somehow brings it to a level even greater.  Its themes are explored with even more nuance and depth, its characters more three dimensional and fascinating, its story even more gripping and surprising, and its visuals are of the sort that not just win awards, but which are shown off as examples which revolutionize the art of film making.  Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, a more than worthy successor to the original, and of course I recommend it as wholeheartedly as is possible.

 

The Eagle Huntress (Bell; 2016)

In the mountainous wastelands of Mongolia live groups of nomadic tribesmen that have passed down the secret of bonding with and training the eagles that live in these harsh conditions to hunt the arctic animals indigenous to the area for food and fur so they can survive the brutal winters.  These secrets for generations have been passed down from father to son, but when the patriarch of the Kazakh family sees that his young daughter Aisolpan is a natural drawn to the art of eagle hunting he breaks with tradition and decides to train her.  He invites scorn and resistance from the elders of all the local tribes.  If this sounds like a fairly conventional story with the only truly unique take being the involvement of eagle hunting, you would mostly be correct, but this story has one more major difference – it’s not fictional, this is a documentary.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Eagle Huntress is that it is absolutely gorgeous.  The landscapes, while barren and harsh, are nonetheless beautiful to look at, the cinematography is artful and I can’t imagine how much footage had to have been taken and pored through to find a movie that looks as if every shot was planned and posed even when you know that can’t have been the case most of the time considering the subject matter, and the eagles themselves are truly awesome to see in action.  While I was given a real glimpse into their life, and saw the harsh conditions these people live in every day, the beauty of this movie and the connection these people still in this time manage to have with the nature around them made me wish I could be an eagle hunter.

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A connection with nature so intense, the people and the birds start to look alike.

The Eagle Huntress is also a story about the overcoming of long held prejudices.  Even the most far away tribespeople who have clung to long held traditions cannot escape the culture of the modern world, for better or for worse, and the changing of mindsets toward “the fairer and weaker sex” is spreading even to the remote area of Bayan-Olgii.  People can look at a young girl and recognize her as something more than a person who will be raised to cook, have babies, and care for the household while the men are off hunting (in fact, I believe the movie tricks us slightly as to how resistant men are to the idea of Aisholpan learning to hunt with eagles, but more on that in a little bit).  Aisholpan’s father doesn’t care that she’s a girl, he just cares that she’s been staring at the eagles her whole life and recognizes that she has a natural bond with them and decides that she is to carry on his legacy with no thought to anything else other than her happiness and her talent.  To see this bond between father and daughter, to see her confidence nurtured by her supportive family and her own natural talent, and to see her put to bed all doubts that a girl can do the same thing generations of only men before her can is the real heart of this piece.

I admit to having a few doubts as to the authenticity of the implied level of resistance to Aisholpan’s training that people feel throughout the film.  We are told over and over again that people would react harshly to her and that she would have to prove herself above and beyond what any man could do, but aside from a few harsh glances here and there and some raised eyebrows and quick laughs, most of the people in the film actually seem more intrigued and impressed with Aisholpan’s abilities than angry and resistant.  I wonder if the producers of the film just didn’t feel there was enough story without some form of antagonist, and so cut film and perhaps even staged a small handful of scenes in order to give the illusion that there was more anger at what Aisholpan and father were doing than actually existed.  I have no doubt that there were plenty of people with a “girls can’t and shouldn’t do this” attitude, but in the more obviously candid parts of the film I never saw much indication that people held much, if any, contempt toward Aisholpan or her father and actually seemed quite helpful and impressed.  While I don’t know for sure, I think the anger toward Aisholpan was mostly manufactured for dramatic purposes, and maybe to add to the girl power themes present in the film, and if that’s the case it really is too bad, as the story of a 13 year-old girl capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle in this incredibly harsh terrain is drama and girl power story enough on its own, in this critic’s opinion.

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Or maybe the outrage is real, and people just couldn’t tell Aisholpan was a girl right away underneath all those layers.

Often, the best documentaries aren’t those that teach a lesson or give a point of view, but manage to capture just the right slice of life at just the right time to give us a story as dramatic as the best fictions.  The Eagle Huntress is a coming of age story, a man vs nature story, a story about girl power and overcoming prejudices, a feel good movie, and a family drama all rolled into one, all with gorgeous images to look at and a fascinating culture to learn about.  And, the eagles, the majestic, gorgeous eagles that are so breath taking I don’t care that this is an incomplete sentence.

Rating:  8.0 out of 10