The Killing of A Sacred Deer Review

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I’ve only watched two of Lanthimos’ films including this one, but among those works I’ve noticed a sort of singular obsession of his. In both The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer we see him cast different forms of relationships in a brutally cynical light. While The Lobster tackles our inherent fear of dying alone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer functions as an all-out assault on the nuclear family. Perhaps by itself that’s not entirely a unique concept in film, but given Lanthimos’ bizarre screenplay and direction, it certainly becomes a work of its own.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer stars Collin Farrell as a middle-aged heart surgeon named Steven Murphy with a beautiful house, and a well-adjusted, pampered family. Murphy spends a good deal of his time with a high school aged boy named Martin, who we come to find out was the son of a previous patient. As Martin attempts to bring Murphy closer into his family it is immediately obvious that there is something very wrong with this high schooler, thus beginning the surrealist nightmare the Murphys must endure.

This being a Lanthimos picture we once again are subject to his idiosyncratic writing style, casting his characters as broad ideas rather than actual people. Instead of communicating like regular human beings, these people speak plainly and directly, encompassing archetypical character types in an oddball presentation. These characters don’t get traditional arcs; instead they are stripped down until they’re nothing but vessels of pure self-interest. There’s a systematic brutality to this family’s descent. While their method of speech feels alien and awkward at first, they seemingly become more human as they begin to lose all sense of decency.

One of the most interesting aspects of the picture is that it is a horror movie that thoroughly exists outside of the genre’s trappings. As a matter of fact, the writing and shot composition are so similar to The Lobster, an absurdist comedy, that the only way you can tell it’s a horror movie for the first 30 minutes or so is because the soundtrack keeps telling you it’s the case. This doesn’t hold true past the first act, but unsurprisingly it’s a thoroughly unconventional stab at the genre. The horror on display here isn’t in the form a chilling monster, a blood thirsty serial killer, or some other sort of otherworldly being. The horror is instead defined by how this idyllic family is pulled apart by their fear of their own mortality, selfishly turning on each other.

However, even as an avid fan of weird pieces of media, sometimes the film’s stubborn refusal to obey film making conventions feels arbitrary. The previously described artificiality of the dialogue and acting makes it difficult to feel emotionally invested in the Murphy family. While it works as an abstract indictment of the bonds of family, and while the Lanthimos point is well articulated, it’s tough to be invested in the literal story we’re being told. Because as Martin would say, “It’s metaphorical”.

Rating: 4/5

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Blade Runner 2049 Review

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A labyrinth of grimy steel and ghostly neon expands endlessly in every direction. Asymmetrical monoliths cut a silhouette in a murky gray sky. An industrialist nightmare joined with commercialism and cultural diffusion. This is the world of Blade Runner, a dystopian vision of the future which has captivated film-goers for the last 35 years. While Ridley Scott’s 82’ masterpiece originally opened to a dismal box office performance and lukewarm critical reception, its cyberpunk vision of the future has proved to be a visual touchstone for creators ever since. Much how the look of George Miller’s specific Australian motorhead post-apocalypstic vision Mad Max has become synonymous with those depicting the end times, Scott and his production team created an influential aesthetic which has permeated into countless other stories over the previous decades. The film’s visual style helped present a neo-noir plot concerning one of the biggest questions of all, what makes us human? Although this question has been tackled ad-naseum, the otherworldly set design, morally ambiguous plot, moody soundtrack, and tight direction made Blade Runner a classic.

Luckily, after many years of rumors and development we finally have a sequel, and one that lives up to the lofty reputation of its predecessor. Villinueve’s Blade Runner is every bit as morally hazy, and mystifying as its predecessor. Its nightmarish take on a vision of LA is bristling with detail, a landscape of hallucinatory visions of commercialism, futurism, and crippling poverty.

Taking place 30 years after the original film, the world has further slid into the clutches of an all-consuming corporation, as Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a blind magnate who has taken the helm at the previously defunct Tyrell Corporation, has solidified his control over the future of humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner and replicant, begins an investigation into the possibility of replicant pregnancy, with the ultimate goal of destroying a being that would spark war between the replicants and humans. Wallace also desperately seeks to uncover the result of this replicant pregnancy, with the goal of producing a legion of replicants to pioneer the stars.

2049 is every bit as dour as its predecessor. The opening scenes feature K grimly hunting down his own race, seeking transient moments of solace in his barren apartment couched within a seedy part of town that is thoroughly hateful of his kind. His relationship with his holographic AI girlfriend rings bittersweet, her preprogrammed responses being juxtaposed with her seemingly genuine nature. If the replicants aren’t consider human, how can K reconcile his feelings for a being that is even farther removed from humanity than him? As fitting with noir protagonists, he is initially consumed with feelings of nihilism and disquiet which drives him on his quest for answers and purpose. Gosling is well cast here; his trademark wistful and quiet acting complements a film that is largely driven by long sequences of sparse dialogue and reliance on visual storytelling. Similarly Hans Zimmer’s emulation of Vangelis is near-perfect, the haunting synth soundscape perfectly accompanying the overall aesthetic and mood.

While the structure of the film could be reductively assessed as standard detective scavenger hunt faire, it is largely the outstanding visual execution that helps deliver on the loneliness and demented majesty of K’s journey. The Deakins, Villenueve pairing has unsurprisingly once again led to a picture that manages to evoke more emotion is many still frames than many other films can conjure in an entire run time. Shots like when an aging replicant steps into his kitchen to see the silhouette of K, bathed in shadow, a look of distinct regret and displeasure coming into focus in his melancholy eyes, instantly characterizes K with the use of the camera. The frequent compositions featuring that distinctly miserable LA skyline, with buzzing invasive ads encircling from all directions are evocative of a world that sorely needs to change. The set design and sense of futuristic fashion is similarly engrossing, extending a world that is similar in broad strokes, but ultimately alien to our own.

Although the plot undeniably falls into a series of narrative “and-thens”, K’s quest for purpose in a barren and meaningless world is enrapturing. His plight is amply defined as the constant prejudice and general rottenness of the world are well explored. From blatant references to slavery in the grandiose form of the pyramid-esque Tyrell buildings, to the frequent epithets flung his way, K is given more than enough motivation for his actions.

Blade Runner 2049 is a wonderfully realized sequel that makes its own mark on the cinematic landscape with its evocative imagery and emotionally resonant story. It’s not perfect. The middle feels somewhat overlong, and Wallace is relatively underdeveloped and overacted. That said, it works both as a continuation and expansion of one of the most singularly distinct worlds ever captured on camera. A vision of our society’s most undesirable elements; prejudice, self-destructive capitalism, and police overstep, rendered with striking clarity.

Rating 5 Stars (*****)

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – The Master Trials Review

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The opening hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are a revelation. You emerge into the world, a weakened pup. Your only weapon is a stick, and your only clothing is a pair of shrunken pants. As you timidly creep into your first combat encounter, you are quickly crushed by a single blow. It is communicated that the world is full of danger. You must be clever and resourceful to survive, utilizing bombs, environmental advantages, and health management if you want any hope of overcoming the odds.

Once you finally escape the constraints of the initial area, the wide expanse of Hyrule stretching before you, there is a perfect balance between the punishing combat, and the exploratory elements. But as you grow stronger from conquering shrines and Divine Beasts, the fear of the world begins to dissipate. One of the game’s biggest flaws is armor damage is calculated by simple subtraction. If your armor rating is 10 and an enemy with 15 damage attacks you, you will take 5 damage. This is why the early game is so punishing, you have a small health pool, and limited armor. The alternative to this is to make armor protect against a percentage of damage, which scales much better at later armor levels (ala Dark Souls). While on the one hand it is important to reward player progress, the armor system completely undermines the late-game difficulty, making combat more of a chore than an exercise in tension.

The Master Trials DLC undoes this problem by offering three levels of combat gauntlets which completely strip Link of of all of his weapons, armor, and food items. The reward is great, a permanent upgrades to the Master Sword which increase its attack power by 10 for each beaten arena. In the Master Trials the player is set back to square one, and the only hope of survival is to rely on ingenuity, clever tactics, and runes that have likely been tossed to the wayside in favor of powerful end game weapons.

By performing this reset, and by forcing the player to restart the entire trial level if they die, the tension of the game’s early hours returns with a honed precision. Each floor of the trials isn’t merely a combat arena in which enemies are thrown at the Hylian meat grinder that is the player character. These levels instead employ novel concepts, such as being sniped at by elemental archers as your raft drifts closer to the enemy homebase, or an area where cold resistance items must be maintained to avoid freezing to death. I felt myself returning to long abandoned tactics, such as attempting to draw out enemies one-by-one, and setting up bomb traps to knock enemies into precipices. I utilized bow headshots to split up enemies and knock them into magma. I used my weapons and health items with great care. And I’ll admit it, I cheesed from time to time. I hid in trees, lobbing bombs at the defenseless Mokoblins, their noodley bodies flying through the air from force of my pyrotechnics (The rag doll in this game really never gets old).

While the combat in BOTW is still one of its weaker links, I felt the inclination to once again experiment with the different weapon types. I had previously resigned myself to mostly using small swords, simply because the defensive capabilities of a shield are always useful. However, here I found myself using spears for larger groups, big weapons for fighting single enemies, and small swords for everything else. I carefully parried the deadly Guardian lasers, taking care to not waste a perfectly good shield. I made these adjustments because of the stakes, and suddenly the game’s relatively simplistic combat became rewarding again.

The difficulty presented by these trials feels measured and fair. This is largely because BOTW has already educated the player on the varying enemy types, and because it is likely that the player has already sunk a great deal of time into the game’s systems. Each trial takes about an hour or so to complete, but in my case, I died once in the first and third trial, increasing the play time.

With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo had once again struck gold in the game design department. They had married light survival game elements, with a vast open world that could be explored through the masterful climbing and gliding mechanics. They had made a Zelda game that was once again difficult. Although this difficulty eventually dissipated, the Master Trials revitalizes the strain of early game combat. The level design is tight, health items are distributed at a reasonable pace, and the combat encounters never feel completely overwhelming. While the Master Trials originally felt like a side dish to placate season pass holders until the Champions DLC comes out at the end of the year, it proves to be a worthy piece of content in its own right. By once again returning to vulnerable beginnings, we once again get to partake in the desperate fight for survival.

Rating: 8.7 / 10

Note: For the purpose of being thorough, the DLC also comes with armor, which can be discovered fairly easily. Although the Korok mask offers the useful trait of being able to find the little golden turds more easily (it starts making weird noises once you approach a hiding Korok), the rest of the armor sets offer little more than cool homages to previous Zelda games. Since its likely that much time has been dedicated to upgrading other armor sets, there is little purpose in dumping time into these. That said, I will now forever wear Tinkles armor because every time you approach a NPC they recoil in terror, which is endlessly hilarious.

Dunkirk Review: A Lesson in Empathy

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As the distant whine of a Luftwaffe dive bomber enters earshot, we see a crowd of boys crane their heads towards the skies. The plane draws near, the mounting fear in their shell-shocked visages becoming more pronounced. Although the shot is wide, the details are clear because together they form a collage of pure human terror.

This is a recurring image in Dunkirk, Nolan’s war epic meets survival tale. It’s a film that is both grand and intimate, depicting one of the most important events in modern history through the myopic lens of those who are simply doing their best to not die.

Although this scene of an approaching dive bomber plays out multiple times, tension never subsides because these sounds and sights are presented with such emotional acuity that the viewer is in a constant state of distress. The soundscape is designed to rupture eardrums; the sharp whiz of bullets, hellish whine of falling bombs, and agonized cries of men being crushed form an apocalyptic symphony. The shells seem to take an eternity to reach the earth and rip through the defenseless Allied soldiers, some of which ineffectually fire their rifles at the sky in a desperate attempt to feel some semblance of control over their fate. Bullets rip through steel and flesh with an auditory punch that made me fear I was going to develop a hernia. Through the whole thing Hans Zimmers’ score rages silently, a discordant buzz of nightmarish strings that embodies the constant tension of doomed encirclement. When deliverance finally occurs the score morphs entirely, amplifying the sense of catharsis.

There is a shot where Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, attempts to bury his head in the sand like an ostrich, as wave of bomb after bomb tears through his compatriots. It’s a sequence that demonstrates the helplessness of being a fish in a barrel. It makes us see and feel the horrors of war not through gore and viscera, but instead through empathy. The cast of Dunkirk does not speak often, but their bleary vacant stares make us understand their inner machinations perfectly. Whether its Mark Rylance’s stoic performance as the quietly lionhearted Mr. Dawson, Branagh’s personable Commander Bolton (God when his eyes well with tears), or the surprisingly pretty good Harry Styles performance, the entire cast makes the most of their sparse dialogue.

Beyond the powerful subtly of the performances and writing, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s fantastic cinematography brings the war-zone to life. The muted blues, browns, and grays of the French beach captures not only a clash between people, but also a clash between people and nature. The all-consuming sea is a character of its own, swallowing up husks of warped metal ships and men all the same. The camera presents us with harsh angles that make the capsizing boats appear otherworldly, and whenever characters drown it is presented with disorienting, claustrophobic shots. There is such ferocity in the myriad scenes of people drowning that the stakes are laid abundantly clear. This is what death looks like, deftly expressing why our characters on the beach are scrambling towards any semblance of safety. There is a marked realism that allows for immersion, embodied in the largely first person dog fights between Farrier (Tom Hardy) and the Luftwaffe. By ditching the modern technique of shaky cam combined with frantic cutting, we are treated to patient aerial battles that are based around tension instead of bombast. And although the events depicted are inherently bombastic and delivered in 70mm, it is these grounded characteristics that allow the film to be so resonant despite its grandeur.

This is Nolan at his most poetic and minimalist. Instead of Spielbergian grand displays of heroism and sacrifice, we get hundreds of scared boys on a beach, waiting to die. However, even with its constant reminders of human fragility and cowardice, it still manages to convey the inspirational quality of this event. Because it routinely rejects simplistic notions of heroism, this makes its displays of selflessness all the more profound. The sacrifices of the British every-men and fighter pilots are depicted in heart wrenching detail; producing one moment in particular that is perhaps the most singularly beautiful moment in a Nolan film. (Spoiler/Hint: A landing plane)

With a narrative that unceremoniously cross cuts between three seemingly discrete asynchronous chunks, a dearth of dialogue, and a reliance on using the camera to deliver the narrative, Dunkirk is strikingly non-Hollywood take on the war epic. It manages the herculean task of depicting hundreds of thousands of human bodies on an enormous frame, while also being a thesis statement in empathy. It engenders intense feelings of fear, desperation, and loss to depict the thin limbo between life and death, and the intrinsic human fear of entering the void. And yet even against the nameless and faceless forces of encroaching death, there is always a reason to persevere.

Thanks Nolan, looking forward to the next picture.

Rating: 5 Stars (*****)