Review: The Florida Project

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In the three Sean Baker films I’ve seen, he’s dealt with people on the margins. In Starlet, it was an adult film actress, in Tangerine (famously shot with an iPhone) it was drag queen streetwalkers, and now in The Florida Project it is the occupants of welfare motels within spitting distance of Disney World. All of them have been empathetic–as I stated before, Baker loves his characters, roots for them, and you will, too, even though they may not be the people you think about every day.

The Florida Project centers around Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Haley (Bria Vinaite), barely more than a child herself. They are on some sort of public assistance, as the only work Vinaite does is buy wholesale perfume and sell it outside the swankier resorts. She also occasionally will turn a trick, which risks both her residency at the motel (ironically name The Magic Castle) and the descending of child services upon her.

The manager of the motel is Willem Dafoe, in a wonderfully subtle performance. We’re used to seeing Dafoe in intense roles, but this one, as a man who is doing his job but also looking out for his tenants, is one of great skill. He may get angry at Prince and her friends for shutting off the power, but he also chases away a pedophile and has paternal feelings about them.

Prince, who must be about six or seven, is also terrific. I wonder at children this age if they are really acting or just behaving–at the end of the film she breaks into tears and I hope it wasn’t because someone told her dog died or something. But then again, all acting is really just behaving, isn’t it? No matter, because she appears perfectly natural as a scamp who gets into trouble because there really isn’t anything better to do. When she and her friend Scootie burn down an abandoned house (they don’t get caught, but Scootie’s mother can see the guilt in his face) she breaks things off with Vinaite. She works, and even among the residents there can be a social strata.

The location, of course, is ironic in and of itself. The motels are candy-colored, and the kids are around gifts shops and ice cream stands. When Vinaite and Prince walk to the better hotels they go by Seven Dwarves Lane. But all of this Magic Kingdom stuff is meaningless to these kids, who could never hope to go there.

My only complaint about the film is the very ending, which takes the film out of the realistic and plunges it into magic realism (I won’t give it away, but there are a couple of “wait a minutes” in this scene). Otherwise, The Florida Project is one of the best movies of the year.

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Review: Mudbound

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Mudbound is an odd word, but a perfect title for the film directed by Dee Rees and based on a novel by Hillary Jordan. The landscape, farmland in Mississippi, is frequently muddy, the characters, until a dramatic ending, are metaphorically stuck in mud, and the opening scene has two brothers digging their father’s grave in mud, one of them almost buried in it. They find the skull of a slave, and one brother notes that their father would hate it if he knew he’d end up in a slave’s grave.

Set right before, during, and after World War II, Mudbound deals with race. It is a bit like The Best Years of Our Lives as written by William Faulkner. Two families, one white, one black, will intersect. The black family are sharecroppers who have worked a farm for years and not gotten any closer to owning their own land. Their patriarch is Hap (Rob Morgan), a decent man who knows his place in society, and his dutiful wife (Mary J. Blige). He has a passel of children, the oldest being Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who goes off to war and becomes a tank commander under Patton.

The white family are the McAllans. Henry (Jason Clarke) has purchased the farm that Hap and family work. He has dragged his cultured wife (Carey Mulligan), who was well into spinsterhood when married, to rustic surroundings. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garret Hedlund) goes off to war and becomes a bomber pilot. The boys’ father (Jonathan Banks) is an unrepentant bigot and all around horrible human being.

Mudbound is good in fits and starts, but suffers from some failings. One is the excessive narration. I’m not like Robert McKee, who believes there should be no voice-over narration in a film, but Mudbound’s is far too much, and you can tell it comes from a novel. At one point, Mulligan pays for a doctor for Hap, and Blige, in a voice-over says something to the effect that she had never realized all white folks aren’t the same. This is totally unnecessary, as Blige’s face says everything we need to know. In most cases, if the acting, directing, and editing are good enough, voice-over isn’t needed.

Secondly, this is well-trod ground. Does this film say anything new about racism and pre-civil rights America? Except for a post-war friendship between Hedlund and Mitchell (which gets them both in serious danger) not really. Mitchell finds that he is treated better in Europe than America, but we’ve seen that before in many forms. The last act, which is gripping, is nonetheless familiar, as the Klan hoods and noose come out of storage.

The acting is wonderful here, especially Mitchell, who I didn’t recognize as the same man who played Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton, and Morgan. Banks is a superb villain, if one-note. Interestingly, I found Clarke and Mulligan’s characters to be underwritten and therefore their performances wasted.

Mudbound was produced by Netflix. It will be interesting to see how much attention the Academy pays to it.

HAGEBOC 2017 – WEEK FOUR

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Scores as of 11/20/17
Rob +18
James +14
Slim +8
Filmman + 6
Juan +2

HAGEBOC WEEKEND OF NOVEMBER 24TH, 2017

  1. What will Coco earn this weekend?
  2. What will Justice League earn this weekend?
  3. What will Wonder earn this weekend?
  4. What will Roman J. Israel, Esq earn this weekend?

Answers are due on Wednesday November 22nd by 11:59 PM EST. Good luck!

Review: Wonderstruck

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I was a bit wonderstruck watching Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’ latest film. One will immediately make comparisons to Hugo, which is only right, since they are both based on books by Brian Selznick, who writes the screenplay here. They are both films that approach magic realism without quite getting there, and romanticize places–in Hugo it is the Paris train station, in Wonderstruck it is The American Museum of Natural History, or more precisely, museums in general.

Wonderstruck tells two parallel stories about deaf children on the loose in New York City. The earlier is about Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who lives in Hoboken in 1927. She idolizes a movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and sees that she is going to be appearing live so she hops on the ferry for her first visit across the Hudson. She finds Moore, and a bit of a twist is revealed, but then leaves and looks for her brother Walter, who works in the Natural History Museum and has authored a book, called Wonderstruck, about the history of museums.

The later story is of Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977, who has been orphaned by his mother’s death in a car accident (she is played briefly and luminously by Michelle Williams). She has never told him about his father, which seems cruel. Nevertheless, after he loses his hearing while being on the phone in an electric storm (the rumors are true!) runs away to New York based on a clue that he finds tucked inside a book–you guessed it, the book written by Walter.

The momentum of the story is finding out how these stories will connect, which is the weakest part of the film–the story is predictable and very thin. Also, having two deaf characters requires a lot of writing, which I suppose works fine in a book but is awkward in a film.

On the plus side, and it’s a big plus, is the look of the picture. The 1927 portion is especially fantastic, with costumes by Sandy Powell and stunning black and white photography by Ed Lachman. Watching Simmonds explore the city creates an almost vicarious feel (Simmonds is actually deaf, but has a face that would launch a thousand ships). Often scenes of her looking at something in the museum are cut with Fegley looking at the same thing, still there after fifty years. His segment, in which New York was in not such a great shape (although I still think the Port Authority looks like that now) are in a kind of uncompromising color, but he finds a friend whose father works for the museum, and they hide out there in the night (sadly, nothing comes to life).

The ending, which winds up at the site of the World’s Fair in Queens, isn’t as poignant as it thinks it is (it involves a true life event that I won’t spoil here, but if you know your New York history you’ll figure it out). When Moore appears as another character in Ben’s segment, it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.

See Wonderstruck for the visuals, or for the nostalgia for old New York. Try to overlook the simplicity of the story.

Opening in Las Vegas, November 17, 2017

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The big opening this week is Justice League (46), getting bad reviews and perhaps not making as much as its studio would hope. I suppose I’ll see it, out of some kind of masochistic need to see all these comic book films. But I still haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok. This is Las Vegas Weekly’s take: “The action is rote, the special effects are surprisingly poor and the character interactions are only occasionally entertaining.”

A much better film to see would be undoubtedly be Lady Bird (94), which is not about the first lady but a coming of age film written and directed by Greta Gerwig. All indicators point to a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress nomination for Saorsie Ronan. I would love to see Gerwig get nominated, too.

Interestingly, Last Flag Flying (66) is based on a book that is a sequel to The Last Detail, the 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson. But director Richard Linklater severed the connection, apparently to its detriment. Steve Carell plays a Vietnam vet who enlists two of his comrades in arms to bury his son. They are played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, and my first problem is these guys don’t seem like the same age. Carell is younger than I am, and the Vietnam War ended when I was 12.

I’ve not only read Wonder (65), but I’ve taught it to my students, so I have a curiosity about the film version. But there’s so much else out there to see that I may not get to it before the DVD release. Getting decent reviews. A very good book, hard to see how they could improve it with film, especially since the main character’s disfigurement is better imagined than seen.

The Star (43) is an animated film about the birth of Christ that seems suspiciously like the old TV Christmas special The Little Drummer Boy.

 

 

HAGEBOC 2017 – WEEK THREE

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Scores as of 11/13/17
Rob + 14
Filmman + 4
Slim +4
Juan +2

HAGEBOC WEEKEND OF NOVEMBER 17TH, 2017

  1. What will Justice League earn this weekend?
  2. What will Justice League earn from Thursday PM/Midnight shows?
  3. What will Wonder earn this weekend?
  4. What will The Star earn this weekend?

Due to the time sensitive nature of Question #2, answers are due on Friday November 17th by 10:00 am EST. Good luck!

Opening in Las Vegas, November 10, 2017

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The Oscar bait films, as well as some Christmas trash, open this week.

I’m eager to see two films. One is The Florida Project (92), from Sean Baker, who made a good film with a smart phone (Tangerine) and now gets to use 35mm. It’s about poor people who live in motels near Disney World, and from all indications seems to be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, as well as one for Willem Dafoe, the only professional actor in the cast.

I’m also dying to see Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (72). Here’s the summary from Metacritic: Ben and Rose are children from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out on quests to find what they are missing that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry.

In the I’ll pass category, there’s Murder on the Orient Express (53), perhaps the most pointless film of the year. This is the fourth filming of one of Agatha Christie’s most popular books. Anyone who has seen the film with Albert Finney need not see this one, as I understand the solution to the murder is the same.

Tragedy Girls (58) is kind of a Heathers for the social media age, as two girls go on a killing spree to get more hits. This subject could be the making of a good black comedy, but apparently this isn’t it.

And then there’s Daddy’s Home 2 (29). We’ve noted here that Will Ferrell’s career is in the crapper, as he seems to be only interested in the paycheck now.

Opening in Las Vegas, November 3, 2017

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After a couple of weeks of doldrums the box office is set to pick up this week with a film from Marvel and a sequel to a popular films. It also (gasp!) has the first Christmas movie of the season.

The third Thor film, subtitled Ragnarok  (73), is getting decent reviews, mostly because of its comic nature (it is directed by Taika Waititi). I’ve always found the Thor features the weakest of the MCU, perhaps because Thor just isn’t that interesting. Every film gets stolen by Loki.

Bad Mom’s Christmas (42) is the yuletide sequel to a popular comedy. I didn’t see the first one, and have no desire to, so unless I’m kidnapped I won’t be seeing this one. From what I heard from people I know, a lot of women went to see the first one.

I’m very much looking forward to The Killing of a Sacred Deer (75), Giorgio Lanthimos’ follow up to the wildly original The Lobster. The reviews are disappointing, but I’m up for anything he has to show. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Alicia Silverstone (!)

Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, has been quite visible in films and plays lately, from Tom Wilkinson in Selma to Bryan Cranston on Broadway. Now comes LBJ (54), with Woody Harrelson as the president. This seems unnecessary, as indicated by the meh reviews. Another dud from director Rob Reiner.

Streaming on Netflix: Alias Grace (82), another adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel. It’s about a murder in the wilderness back in 1843. I’ll definitely watch it.

For you in America, don’t forget to set your clocks back one hour!

 

 

HAGEBOC 2017 – WEEK ONE

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2m2e7oz1Welcome to HAGEBOC 2017!  Please join me in celebrating the holiday season by guessing how much money Star Wars and a few Oscar-bait dramas will earn between now and early January!

No change in the scoring system this year (4 points awarded to the person with the closest guess, 2 to the runner-up.  A 2 point bonus for being within 500k.  Bonus questions are worth 1/2 point each).

Answers are due on Friday, November 3rd by 3:00 pm EST.  Good luck!

  1. What will Thor: Ragnarok earn this weekend?
  2. What will A Bad Moms Christmas earn this weekend?

Oscar 2017: Best Actress

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By my count, Oscars have gone to actors playing mute or deaf characters four times–Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter, Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, and Holly Hunter in The Piano. You can also add Jean Dujardin for his (almost) wordless performance in The Artist. If all the advance word is true, a another may be added this year. It seems Oscar loves performers who don’t speak.

But it’s still early, so things may change. This is how I see the Best Actress race at the end of October. In alphabetical order:

Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Will Annette Bening ever win an Oscar? She’s playing a juicy role, that of Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame. The question is whether this film will be released this year. It’s been pushed back all the way to December 29th. One thing is for sure–she won’t lose to Hillary Swank again.

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water. The front-runner, playing a mute woman who falls in love with a strange creature. The film is sci-fi, so it has something of an obstacle to overcome, but the advance word is great.

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film has been a hit at festivals, and judging by the trailer McDormand is given some memorable lines. She’s been nominated four times before, so seems to be an Academy favorite.

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya. She received a Gotham Award nomination, so apparently the film is not a joke. Tonya Harding certainly is a role full of comedy and drama, and Oscar like performers who play real people. Would Tonya Harding attend the ceremony?

Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel. Woody Allen is always good at getting women Oscar nominations. This would be Kate’s eighth total, for what is said to be a meaty role of a woman living on Coney Island during the ’50s.

Also possible: Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project; Meryl Streep, The Post, Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul; Saorsie Ronan, Lady Bird; Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game.

Review: Suburbicon

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suburbiconGeorge Clooney’s second film as director in 2005 – ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ – was one of my favourite films of the 2000s. Concise, sharp, riveting and intelligently done; it was fully deserving of the critical praise and Academy Award nominations it got. At this time it seemed certain that Clooney would be a director of note for decades.

Alas the films he’s directed since have largely been critical disappointments and his latest film – ‘Suburbicon’ – is such a woeful misfire that one can only conclude that ‘Good Night, And Good Luck’ was a fluke exception to the rule.

Set in 1959 American suburbia, the home of middle-class Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is invaded by two thugs whose actions lead to the death of his wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Everyone in town is shocked by the event and supports Gardner and his family. But when Gardner’s young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) sees his dad & Rose’s sister Margaret (also Moore) fail to ID the two culprits in a police lineup it’s clear there’s much more to this than meets the eye.

Suburbicon fails on multiple levels. One reason is that it seems to treat the fact that seemingly affluent and content 1950s Middle America was – gasp! – in fact full of hypocrisy, contradictions and complacency as something fresh and insightful. Somehow Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov (working off an old Coen brothers screenplay) seem to have ignored the endless TV shows and films documenting this in recent decades that have made that assumption a well-worn cliché by now.

And in anycase, the film does virtually nothing interesting with this assumption as it’s all lazy surface-detail observations; apparently mentioning the central family is Episcopalian numerous times is as far as it goes for insight. The central character of Gardner is a total void as we never begin to understand his motivations as to why he behaves the way he does. Dealt with such an empty vessel of a character, Damon struggles haplessly.

As well, Clooney’s is aiming for the skewered crime-noir that original writers and his regular collaborators the Coen brothers are famous for but he’s simply not up to the task. Especially in the early segments, his direction is telegraphed and heavy-handed and what should be an intense and compelling crime mystery feels tedious and dreary. The home invasion scene early in the film is one of the least-interesting types of those scenes I can recall and feels twice as long as it should be.

But the film’s biggest error is a subplot awkwardly inserted in (which has no real connection to the main plot and could’ve easily been excised from the film) is about the arrival of a black family in the all-white neighbourhood. Reactions go from initial bemusement and shock (the local postman presumes the wife is the house maid) to outrage and a violent and vicious mob.

This subplot is so cartoonish and relentless that its impact is zero. An early scene of a town meeting where local residents voice their disapproval at non-whites being part of their town feels like a meeting of overt virulent racists from the KKK as opposed to what many 50s white suburbanites would be like. The film’s racial commentary is so heavy-handed that it makes ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’ seem like a subtle take on race relations.

There are a few positive aspects to the film. A scene where in response to Nicky’s displeasure Margaret turns from a sweet and sunny persona to someone full of deviousness and manipulation is well done and acted. Also the scene where an insurance investigator (well played by Oscar Issac) interrogates Margaret is atypically riveting. And the 1950s style and visuals are pleasing on the eye. But in truth this film has very few pleasures or satisfaction to offer.

There has been talk in social media that the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and Damon & Clooney’s associations with the disgraced producer ensured this film was doing to be DOA at the box office when it opened and perhaps that’s true to an extent. But even if that scandal hadn’t occurred ‘Suburbicon’ would’ve sunk anyway as it doesn’t succeed on any level.

Movies Opening and Streaming in New Jersey and Surrounding Environs and Worldwide – Weekend of October 28th, 2017

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Jigsaw – I’m not a horror movie fan, but you can’t deny the staying power of a movie where people cut their limbs off that has lasted eight installments. But then, Medea is on her second Halloween movie already, so there’s that, I guess. And yes, I’m still at the point where I can watch Medea much more easily than I can watch people cutting off their own limbs. Is this one even about people cutting off their limbs, or are they treating it like romantic comedies? Does Jigsaw have a kid with someone he’s torturing or something?
 
Suburbicon – I have to admit I’m a fan of Clooney’s directorial efforts. I don’t remember much about the Gong Show movie but I can’t really remember why (maybe it was because Sam Rockwell was in it?) and Good Night, Good Luck was so well done, and I was so impressed that Clooney directed it, I still remember it fondly. I’ll have to revisit it soon. This stars Damon and has a home invasion and black humor, apparently, thanks, likely, to the fact the Coens co-wrote it. I can’t imagine the low-key direction of Clooney will mix well with the Coens, but what do I know? And I’m wondering if the current Weinstein imbroglio is going to harm Damon’s career – more than his current movie choices have, of course. But it’s currently at 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and Ebert reviews gave it a 1.5, so maybe the Weinstein kerfuffle won’t make any difference.
 
Thank You for Your Service – What is this? Ah, a movie based on a book about service members returning home from service. Will it delve into the reasons for the war in question? Or does the marketing team not want to incur the wrath of trolls who would bag the movie for getting political? Who knows. If this is your kind of movie, I hope you get something important out of it, and it enhances your life somehow. Who’s Miles Teller? What has he been in?
Notable Streaming Releases –
 
Creep 2 – Our own James says Creep 2 is pretty excellent, it’s doing great on Rotten Tomatoes, and the first review I read says Creep 2 is ‘strange and wonderful’. It, however, stars and was co-written by Mark Duplass, so this is all I will say about this movie, as I will not be seeing it. But if you’re gonna watch this, hope it’s as good for you as it was for James and the reviewers.
 
Stranger Things 2 – By far the biggest event of the weekend. I can’t add anything to this part of the post that hasn’t been discussed already. But I will say that man, you have to be awfully cynical (or under 25 because, you know) to think Stranger Things is, you know, bad, and not the masterfully-crafted homage it is to all the things that made entertainment so fun and interesting and watchable in the 80’s.
 
The Center Will Not Hold – I decided to add this one because it’s a fantastic look at a fantastic woman, Joan Didion, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. A fantastic look at a certain time and place through the lens looking through the eyes of a national treasure and one of the most important American writers ever. It’s uplifting and enlightening and tragic and worth it. Watch it.

Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Okay, a few things to get out of the way: I have seen the original Blade Runner, but it was a long time ago and I don’t remember much of it. That might have helped some while watching Blade Runner 2049, the long-simmering sequel, which is all about replicants, bio-engineered beings that resemble humans in almost all ways but are not, though in what ways we really don’t know.

There’s a title card that tells us that replicants in the year 2049 are new and improved, and always obey (this is sort of like Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot). The older models, the ones who did not obey, are hunted down by blade runners. One of them is Ryan Gosling, and he’s a replicant. The opening scene has him “retiring” an old model, then finding another one buried on the property.

It turns out this replicant had a baby. In the world of this film, it is earth-shaking news that replicants might be able to breed. The head of the company that makes them, a weird cat played by Jared Leto, wants this baby, who would now be about 28 years old, found, so he can figure out how it was done. Gosling, working for the police, is also assigned to find it. So we get a classic noir tale, as Gosling follows clues wearing a knee-length trench coat and a day’s stubble (replicants can grow facial hair, I guess) to figure out who that baby is grown up to be.

Though the film is structured as a noir, of course it is also science fiction. Turns out we have flying cars in 2049, and I hope I live long enough to get one. Of course, the world is a bleak place. The cities are still like the original film, with huge advertisements and holograms (one of them is for prostitution and is naked about fifty feet tall). For companionship you can have a hologram for a partner, as Gosling does (Ana de Armas), who he can talk to, but physical contact is tough.

Leto’s assistant (Sylvia Hoeks), also a replicant, is the bad-ass who is chasing down the baby and creating mayhem wherever she goes. We also meet a woman who is responsible for creating the memories that are implanted into replicants, and a human prostitute who fills in for de Armas to make sex possible (this reminded me of the scene in Her where this attempted). The future is not so bright.

The trailer gives away an important plot point that is used as a surprise in the film–the return of Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, who was the original Blade Runner. If you’ve been arguing about whether Deckard was a replicant or not, the film answers it definitively. We also get a brief return of Sean Young, who is really nothing but CGI.

I’m kind of avoiding saying whether I liked the film or not. I did, but I’m not sure why. The look is tremendous. Roger Deakins is the cinematographer–will be finally get his Oscar? The sets are beautiful in their bleakness, while Leto’s inner chamber is awash with reflected light off of a pool that is mesmerizing. But a few things bother me–the rules of what replicants can and can’t do bother me. They are created, without souls, but little seems to separate them from humans. They can bleed, feel pain and emotion (some are always crying). I would have liked more specificity.

Also, since the lead character is basically an android, what does he want? The first thing you learn in writing drama is that a character must want something, and must be always trying to get it. Gosling, because he plays a non-human who is programmed to do his job, is simply following orders through most of the film. At a certain point he takes on the ability to do his own thing–how did that happen? Replicants can also clearly love–he loves his hologram, for instance. How does that interfere with their obedience?

This film creates a lot of interesting questions and doesn’t answer all of them, which is okay. The lack of box office (the first film didn’t do great business, either, not in its first release) would suggest that any further sequels are unlikely, even though they are set up. I suppose fans will just have to argue about this one for thirty years until Blade Runner 2082 is released.