Category Archives: Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Whatever its faults, Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. Director Villeneuve’s composition, Roger Deakins’s photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, all the CGI–the film is constantly gorgeous. It’s got nothing beautiful to show–the world of 2049 is a wasteland, all plant life is dead, the endless L.A. skyline is (while awesome) nasty, San Diego is a huge, inhabited dump. I mean, Jared Leto is a biochem industrialist who saves the world; like that world is going to be nice.

2049 spends a lot of time showcasing the achievements of that exterior setting. Interiors are sparer. Villeneuve’s direction is always good (or better), but the interior scenes lack something visually. Joe Walker’s editing can usually cover for it. Most of the interiors have lead Ryan Gosling wishing he was a real boy instead of a pretend one. He’s even got a pretend girlfriend (Ana de Armas as a holographic companion) who wishes she was a real one.

For a while, 2049 seems like it might be about Gosling and de Armas. But it’s not. Because even though Gosling is a Blade Runner, he’s not the blade runner 2049 cares about. Once Harrison Ford shows up, even when the movie’s from Gosling’s perspective, it’s not Gosling’s movie anymore. Maybe if the film had some great part for Ford, it would matter. But it doesn’t. It gives him a few minutes to get established, in a completely different context than his previous turn in the role, and then it keeps him around. Walker’s editing doesn’t cover for Ford like it does Gosling. Gosling sits around despondent in his affectless. Ford looks surprisingly genial and well-adjusted for a person who’s supposedly lived in complete isolation for the last thirty years.

Bringing me to talking about 2049 as a sequel to the original. Because there’s really nothing to it otherwise. There are a handful of sequel setups in 2049, but the way screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the first film) and Michael Green find a story from the first movie? They just retcon obtusely, trusting Villeneuve to be able to pull it off. And he does. He’s able to keep 2049’s narrative detached from the screenplay’s minutiae (for most of the film); Gosling helps, until the movie stops wanting him to help. de Armas helps. Robin Wright (as Gosling’s boss, in an underwritten, underutilized role) helps. Ford’s likable, which really isn’t enough (and might be completely inappropriate, actually). Villain Sylvia Hoeks doesn’t help. She’s shockingly underdeveloped. And Villeneuve’s direction of the genetically enhanced replicant fight scenes is wanting. He can do it when it’s inconsequential, but he’s not able to make the fights dangerous for the characters.

Possibly because of Gosling’s complete detachment in the third act of the film, which is when there’s all the “first movie” revelations (but not, rather events soon following the first movie revelations) and sequel setup. Gosling starts on a hero’s quest, then finds himself just an observer of one. The prologue to one. Villeneuve and company cover as best they can–making the narrative events as unimportant an aspect to the film as possible–but they can’t. Villeneuve can’t share the movie between Ford and Gosling, neither can the script. Everyone just throws up their hands.

Probably because Ford doesn’t need to be there. But if Ford doesn’t need to be there, maybe the direct ties to the first movie don’t need to be there; take those two things away and there’s nothing to 2049 except the gorgeous dystopia. Gosling and de Armas’s subplot, which the film ends up using mostly pragmatically, is red herring.

The music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is lacking. But maybe because the film uses it so sparing. 2049 is bold where it can excel–the visuals–and cowardly where it needs to create. The villains are exceptionally thin. Gosling loses his movie. Ford gets to retread a part made different to allow for a way too careful sequel.

It’s too bad, but–deep down–no one should’ve thought a Blade Runner sequel would work. Especially not with Ford forced back into it. It’s like they got the money for a sequel but no one with a real idea for one. Villeneuve’s direction is visually stunning, his direction of actors is usually strong, but he’s got no handle on the story. 2049 is about avoidance.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid a future where Jared Leto saved humanity.

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, and characters created by Philip K. Dick, Fancher, and David Webb Peoples; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Bud Yorkin, Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Sikes, and Andrew A. Kosgrove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Madame), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), and Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline).


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Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)

Stylist for hire. Stylist for hire. Denis Villeneuve is a stylist for hire on Arrival. He assembles a wonderful crew and they all do great work. Joe Walker’s editing is always assured, never flashy. Bradford Young’s photography is phenomenal. Arrival’s got a great color palette. Bored with its beauty or some such aesthetic. Excellent music from Jóhann Jóhannsson, even if it sounds a lot like Michael Nyman’s Wonderland score at times. And great production design from Patrice Vermette.

It’s a shame all this great technical work is on a cheap, manipulative narrative. Eric Heisserer’s got no understanding of narrative pacing, so he needs someone like Villeneuve who can assign tonal shifts to the narrative to move things along. I mean, there’s expository narration in Arrival because it’s got a somewhat lengthy present action for an alien encounter movie and a lot of science the film doesn’t want to make up in detail for the viewer. So, even with expository narration, Heisserer can’t make this thing move. It’s a boulder Villeneuve’s got to get going, then keep going. The style gets it through. The technical skill gets it through.

Until there’s a big reveal and the script gets worse. Arrival isn’t cheap and manipulative in terms of its plotting–actually, if the script worked, the plot would be fine–Heisserer’s cheap and manipulative in the detail, in the contrived events, in the lack of ambition or thoughtfulness. There are big logic wholes and not just because the film’s structured to hide the reveal. And that hide is an exceptionally manipulative–or potentially exceptionally manipulative–device on its own.

Arrival should offer Amy Adams an amazing role. It doesn’t. Worse, Villeneuve doesn’t seem to care. He’s concentrating on the filmmaking, not his actors’ performances. You can’t blame him–the actors have that script dragging them down, all Villeneuve has to do is expertly render it. Adams is fine. She’s good. She’s not great. It’s not a great role. It should be a great role and it isn’t.

Jeremy Renner practically deserves an “and” credit. He’s present but not active. Heisserer and Villeneuve ignore him. The second half’s pacing is wonky and, even though Renner gets the stop narration updating the ground situation, he doesn’t have much of a place in it. He needs a very big place in it given the twist and the hide. Villeneuve needed to deliver here with his two lead and he doesn’t.

Forest Whitaker’s awesome as the army guy who recruits Renner and Adams to talk to aliens. Oh, right; Arrival is about aliens coming to Earth. Whitaker can chew some scenery. It’s kind of a crap part given he doesn’t get any character development, even though its sort of promised. I can’t even get into how cheap Heisserer gets with the end of the second act events. If it weren’t for Villeneuve, they’d be big enough to jar you out.

Arrival is a big disappointment. Not just because of the talented people working on it, but because it’s a fine plot with a bad script and Villeneuve tries to mundanely stylize away that badness.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Joe Walker; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, David Linde, and Aaron Ryder; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Amy Adams (Louise), Jeremy Renner (Ian), Michael Stuhlbarg (Halpern), Tzi Ma (Shang), and Forest Whitaker (Weber).


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Enemy (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Enemy opens with an incredibly cruel and unpleasant scene. It's almost like a dare to the viewer to keep going. The film only runs ninety minutes and the first thirty or so minutes is summary. Sort of. Director Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullón spend this first third encouraging the viewer to guess where Enemy is going. As it turns out, that invitation is the film's only red herring–amid the litany of implied ones.

The film concerns an unhappy college lecturer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who happens to find he has a doppelgänger in an actor. Gyllenhaal's discontent has already driven his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) away; he fixates on this doppelgänger. The investigation is both Hitchcockian and not. Describing Villeneuve's style, which has as much to do with the sterile Toronto setting as it does anything else, is difficult and probably not particularly useful. It's exceptional filmmaking, but Enemy moves so fast, Villeneuve doesn't want the viewer to linger. Not because there are problems, but because lingering distracts from the film's purpose.

Once Gyllenhaal confronts the doppelgänger, the film's focus flips. Not to Gyllenhaal in the other role, but to Sarah Gadon as the doppelgänger's wife.

While Gyllenhaal is fantastic, Gadon is even better. The film never explains itself, but all of Gadon's thoughts and suspicions are discernible. Her expressiveness guides the viewer through the film.

The music from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Nicolas Bolduc's photography, Matthew Hannam's editing, it's all great.

Villeneuve, Gyllenhaal, Gadon, Gullón–they make something very special here.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Javier Gullón, based on a novel by José Saramago; director of photography, Nicolas Bolduc; edited by Matthew Hannam; music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by M.A. Faura and Niv Fichman; released by Entertainment One.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Adam + Anthony), Mélanie Laurent (Mary), Sarah Gadon (Helen) and Isabella Rossellini (Mother).


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Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Director Villeneuve takes a very interesting approach to how a thriller works with Prisoners. He ignores it. During the first act, there are quite a few flirtations with thriller standards. But the film almost always immediately dismisses them–like Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski are holding up a standard, tossing it away. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music helps them through these quick examinations, as does Roger Deakins’s photography. Villeneuve gets some truly astounding shots with Deakins. Many are so good one wonders how Villeneuve resisted showing off. He never does.

That restraint carries over to the performances as well. Prisoners is constantly difficult. In theory, the four primary actors should be Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard. They play two couples who have had their daughters abducted, they should be the leads. Well, them and Jake Gyllenhaal as the primary detective.

But no. And there’s another break–Gyllenhaal doesn’t have a partner. When’s the last time a movie cop didn’t have a partner. But Jackman takes matters into his own hands and the film juxtapositions his pursuit against Gyllenhaal’s. They aren’t alter egos; Guzikowski wouldn’t never be so simplistic. The script’s phenomenal.

Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal are amazing. Gyllenhaal wins out. He has a more complicated role and more screen time.

Great supporting work from Davis and Wayne Duvall. Bello and Howard have the least to do in the film, another of Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s plays on expectations. They’re both good. There’s no weak performances.

Prisoners is truly exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Aaron Guzikowski; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Kira Davis, Broderick Johnson, Adam Kolbrenner and Andrew A. Kosove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Zoe Borde (Eliza Birch), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover), Kyla Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O’Malley), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor) and Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn).


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