Short takes: Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day & Brawl in Cell Block 99

Blade Runner 2049 —  It would have been interesting to see what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner 2049. He has had mixed results with expanding the mythology of the Alien films, though having them stacked up against his near-perfect original almost seems unfair. The way he has deepened the mythology, though, by focusing on the android characters, would make his updated take on the world of Blade Runner fascinating. Comparisons between Blade Runner 2049 and the original don’t hurt the quality of either movie, though that could be because I don’t hold the 1982 film in as high regard as some of Scott’s others.

The Blade Runner universe, which focuses on the “retiring” (killing) of human-made androids called replicants, is also a good fit for Denis Villeneuve. His 35-year-later sequel focuses on Los Angeles Police Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who is tasked with hunting down older model replicants, the ones who can disobey their programming and grow to have independent thoughts. His initial retirement of a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm for 20 years leads him down a rabbit hole that challenges his perceptions of what he does and blows open much of the debate that fueled the original movie. How human are the replicants? And how much do humans ignore that to get rid of the ones labeled as rogue?

Villeneuve is mostly successful at deepening the world of the first movie. It’s to his credit that many of the side characters could have easily carried the movie on their own. This is especially true of a doctor named Ana, who creates elaborate false memories for replicants. She holds a device that allows those memories to be projected on the world as she creates them, rendering a girl’s childhood birthday party and altering the type of cake and how many other children are standing around her. “There’s a little of every artist in their work,” she tells K. This scene is one of the most beautiful moments in any movie I’ve seen this year. Though 2049 occasionally stumbles through a somewhat undercooked story (I’m being as vague as possible to avoid spoilers), the movie’s world is a seductively bleak neon wasteland bursting with horrifying possibility. Grade: B-

Brawl in Cell Block 99 — S. Craig Zahler’s second feature is as equally grotesque and unforgettable as his directorial debut, the ruthless Western Bone Tomahawk. Like that film, his prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99 transforms into a surprisingly unhinged nightmare. Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a laid off tow truck driver who turns to drug dealing for money. Zahler makes it a point to show how quickly he’s able to turn things around by doing that; in just over a year he and his wife move from a modest one-story home (which Bradley calls a “piece of shit”) to a much larger, sleeker abode.

Their economic upswing is short-lived, though. After being jumped during a drug deal, Bradley kills the two double crossers while they are cornered by police. Because he saved police lives, the court sentences him to seven years rather than life. While at a minimum security prison to serve out the sentence, his now-pregnant wife is kidnapped and held hostage by the gang whose members he killed. He’s told to misbehave his way to a transfer to a maximum security prison and kill an inmate, or they will dismember his unborn child. Zahler imbues the somewhat familiar hostage set-up with gruesome details like that, revealing an uncompromising horror wiggling beneath his movie’s surface.

The max security prison Bradley is transferred to trades the gentler guards and softer blue and gray tones of his first prison for an imposing, harsh brick building with black and red uniformed guards who carry large rifles. This new home is run with dictatorial relish by Warden Tuggs (an excellent, cigar-chomping Don Johnson), who calmly explains to Bradley that all freedom at his facility is a privilege. The Cell Block 99 of the title, where Bradley’s target is presumably being held, is reserved for the worst of the worst. It’s shit covered and full of broken glass, more medieval torture chamber than prison. To say Zahler doesn’t flinch in depicting its head-cracking brutality would be an understatement. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is raw and angry, a sometimes stomach-churning movie that descends further and further into hell with each prison throw down. Grade: B

Happy Death Day — The main character of Happy Death Day doesn’t know who Bill Murray is, and she hasn’t seen Groundhog Day. Revealing this to a baffled love interest is the movie’s way of winking at its most obvious reference point. Christopher Landon’s take on the “repeating day” film centers around Tree (Jessica Rothe), an acidic sorority sister who is stuck in her birthday. She wakes up every morning in the dorm bed of another college student (Israel Broussard) she drunkenly went home with from a party the night before. Being forced to relive the same walk of shame every morning would be its own kind of hell. To add injury to insult, though, every night Tree is murdered by a baby-mask wearing, knife-wielding assailant. She thinks if she finds out who they are, she’ll be able to make it to the next day.

As she continues to repeat her birthday, she builds a list of everyone who could want her dead (among them are a guy she went on a date with and has been avoiding, the wife of the professor she’s sleeping with and the leader of her sorority).  She realizes, as she continues to get stabbed, blown up and pummeled, that some of the injuries apparently carry over.  It’s not a total reset every morning, and if she doesn’t find the killer she will eventually be permanently incapacitated.

This limitation is where Happy Death Day diverges from films with similar conceitsand it would have been better if it had explored this more. Instead, it’s something that’s introduced but remains too vague to have much of an impact on the outcome. That said, Landon’s film is still a fun, playful thriller; its cartoonish college world provides a comic backdrop that’s continually pierced by its sinister, baby-faced killer.  Rothe’s performance is also one of the movie’s strongpoints, tapping into the anger and sadness at Tree’s core and convincingly selling some of Happy Death Day’s lazier plot points.  Grade: C+

 

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