“Arrival” Review

“Arrival” Review

Memory is a fickle thing. That may seem like a cheap observation here, considering the film review it’s introducing, but it’s a crucial one nonetheless. The way our minds categorize, process and understand time is nearly impossible to truly distill into an image. But Dennis Villeneuve – the talented mind behind Sicario – does an admirable job in Arrival, the latest in a recent streak of high-concept sci-fi fodder to make splashes during awards season.

In the picture, linguist Louise Banks, physicist Ian Donnelly and Army Colonel Weber attempt to make sense of the Earth-shattering revelation that we are not alone in the universe. As bits and pieces of the aliens’ reason for coming begin to cohere, tensions and camo-fatigued hackles predictably rise. But despite some brief forays into the anti-militaristic soapboxing typical of the genre, Villeneuve keeps most of the focus on Louise’s study of the visitors’ language and her battle with vivid and disjointed flashes of her daughter.

As in Sicario, Villeneuve excels at balancing the intimate and the awe-inspiring, giving the inexorable forces of nature at play their due while maintaining the personal, human heart of the story. Just as the lilting violin and jittery close-ups begin to veer into oversentimentality, Villeneuve tempers the mood with a breathtaking vista or orchestral crescendo.

But like the massive changes that we blithely accept in our dreams, these shifts don’t seem out of place while watching the film. Rather, they make it all the more immersive. We’re enraptured by Louise, willing prisoners in her head as we watch her mind fracture and churn about. And while it’s certainly not a revolutionary idea in science fiction, the notion that, the more closely one examines an alien civilization, the more one’s own humanity is thrown into sharp relief is played to perfection in her narrative.

That’s in no small part because of Amy Adams’ performance, one that clearly displays the value of subtlety as a means of expressing profound emotions. Her aching ruminations are more moving than any of the Oscar-bait soliloquies that dominate cinema now.

That’s not to say that the generally tight script doesn’t have some flaws. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer gives in to the temptation now and again to break up a more suitable silence with a would be show-stopping play on words, but the outstanding cast more than picks up the slack. And those flaws do nothing to diminish a frisson-inducing final sequence that I won’t presume to spoil for you.

And that’s really what Arrival is: one extravagant frisson-fest. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. It’s a delectable, chill-inducing portrait of memory, thought, the human mind itself, and all its gaffes and glories.

Game of Thrones Review: Season 6, Episode 2: “Home”

Game of Thrones Review: Season 6, Episode 2: “Home”

I thought I might as well write a weekly Game of Thrones review, seeing as I watch the show religiously. Be warned, this review is dark and filled with spoilers, so I’d advise you to read it only if you’ve been subjected to the mind-meltingly fast-paced and eventful storytelling that was last night’s episode.

 

In many ways, this show has screwed itself over. It’s set a new standard for episode endings that can’t possibly be matched every time. But that’s a problem for future D and D to deal with. For now, they’ve outdone themselves. Finally, something has happened! Scratch that, MANY things have happened! And we weren’t even able to touch on every single storyline currently still running, despite us hopping around all of Westeros and Essos in an almost dizzying whirlwind of violence and bloodlust. I’ll be honest, last season was bogged down by exposition and a dull lack of movement. It was essentially this show’s version of getting all its affairs in order, all its ducks in a row. It was slowly pushing a momentous boulder up a small hill, until it sat at the edge of a precipice at season’s end. The potential energy was there, but the kinetic wasn’t.

 

This episode gave that boulder the thunderous kick it needed, sending it down the cliff side in a decidedly bloody manner. Some main players were killed, one was saved, and the world this show inhabits will never be the same for it.
Before we get to the most obviously mind-blowing portion of the show, let’s knock off some of the smaller players.

 

Ramsay Bolton has pretty clearly taken Joffrey’s stead as the lightning rod for all hate in Game of Thrones. That much was clear almost as soon as he came onto screen, so brilliantly detestable was the performance given by Iwan Rheon, but it’s never been more baldly the intent of the showrunners than it is now. I mean, it doesn’t get much worse than stabbing your father, the man that gave you all your power (also unfortunately my favorite of the GoT baddies), before feeding his wife and newborn son alive to your dogs. It’s inevitable that he’ll get his comeuppance at some point down the line, but how many more truly vile things the showrunners will make him do (and therefore how satisfying that eventual comeuppance will be), remains to be seen.

 

Over in Mereen, everyone’s favorite dwarf decides – in a not unusual fit of drunken genius/stupidity – to unchain Dany’s remaining dragons himself, thereby proving to them that he is their friend, and not just another human who thinks he can use them as a tool. I’ll confess, I wasn’t nearly as on my toes as I probably should have been for this part of the episode, as I thought it pretty obvious that the showrunners weren’t going to kill off the most well-liked character in the entire series (at least, not for long, as what happens later in this show so aptly demonstrates). Regardless, it was a touching and effective scene. Tyrion’s reverence for dragons has been well-documented, so this was an understated but massively important and cathartic moment in the beloved character’s journey.

 

Next we go to King’s Landing, where everything seems to be in motion, and beautifully so. Tommen is questioning his mantra of peace and deferment that he so steadfastly stuck to all of last season, while Cersei is torn between anger at her son for keeping her from her daughter’s funeral and fear and near-surety that, like her other two children, he will be taken away from her. Also, it would seem that, for the first time in a while, the king of Westeros is again under Cersei’s control. Also, Jaime’s faceoff with the Sparrow in the sept is just another resounding instance of this show’s mastery of tense and augured storytelling.

 

In Bravos, Arya remains both blind and the resident punching bag for the Waif. Even those who were rubbed the wrong way by her in the early goings of the show must feel a deep-seeded pity for her now. Her heartbreaking hesitance after Jaqen Hagaar tells her that he will give back her eyesight if she only says her name is a wonderful and powerful moment, one that acts a narrative benchmark stating unequivocally that the Arya Stark we once knew is truly long gone.

 

And for the first time in what feels like forever, we see Bran Stark. Now, it would seem, he is a nearly fully-realized Warg. He’s already able to, with a bit of the Three-Eyed Raven’s guidance, see into and explore the past. It’s an undeniably touching moment when he sees his father teaching his namesake (uncle Brandon) how to duel in the very same place and in the very same manner that Jon Snow taught him in the first episode in the series. We also see him walking on his own two legs (albeit in a dream world of sorts) for the first time since said episode.

 

From what we were shown in that sequence, it seems pretty clear that Lyanna Stark, whose name has been mentioned many, many times in previous seasons, will continue to play a larger and larger role in the series as it progresses, which is something many of us expected, and is something that acts as the perfect segue into the last section of this review:

 

Finally. Yes. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. The one we knew was coming – just not exactly when. Again, this is spoiler territory, so tread cautiously. I’m going to dive in deep with all of the possibilities this moment implies, and how they work into what many believe is George R..R. Martin’s vision for the book series and D and D’s vision for the TV series as a whole.

 

Jon Snow lives. They made us wait until the very last second of the episode to know for sure, but let’s be honest, we knew the second that Davos implored Melisandre to work her devilish magic on Snow’s corpse that that Chekhov’s gun was going to be fired by episode’s end. And boy, was it ever. In a delectably torturous silent few seconds, it seems that Melisandre, Davos and company were justified in their disappointment. But then he opens his eyes, and good Lord (of Light) are they terrified. Who knows what they’ve seen? We’ll have to wait an equally torturous week to find out, but for now, let’s do some delicious speculating.

 

In my and most of those who’ve read the book series’ view, Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, who were wed in secret and harbored a forbidden love for each other. He is the eponymous “Song of Ice and Fire,” being a child of ice (the Stark bloodline) and fire (he Targaryen bloodline), and as such is the heir apparent, in truth, to both the throne of Winterfell and King’s Landing.

 

Being the true main character of the series, Jon remaining dead wasn’t really an option. Doesn’t mean that him waking up all zombified wasn’t any less satisfying, though. It remains to be seen just how is resurrection will be taken by both his devoted friends and those who betrayed him, and whether or not he will even remain with the Night’s Watch (as technically, his oath has been fulfilled – he remained with the Night’s Watch until death), but I think it’s safe to say that some more revelations will be coming down the pipeline, and quickly. Jon’s ancestry, and the implications therein (like, when will he ride a dragon in the series?) will pretty clearly provide the propulsive force that sends the final eight episodes along in a season that’s already covered more ground than its predecessor did entirely.

Favorites: “Captain America: The First Avenger” Review

Favorites: “Captain America: The First Avenger” Review

The first time I saw Captain America, I walked out of it thinking, “Okay. That was a solid period piece/superhero film. A decent set up for The Avengers.” The more I’ve watched it, though, the more it’s grown on me. And The Winter Soldier only helped its standing in my personal superhero cinema pantheon. First Avenger sews story seeds that, while not exactly unfulfilled, come to bloom in its sequel, making me appreciate it all the more.

That’s not to say that I’m for films being rife with unanswered questions. It’s more that I enjoy films whose questions are answered satisfactorily, and then expanded upon in their sequels in ways you hadn’t imagined. First Avenger is a prime example.

It’s also a highly enjoyable romp in its own right. A loving, fairly straightforward homage to a gilded, bygone era with rousing action, witty banter, and some genuinely touching moments. Essentially, other than the blue, otherworldly cube of death that acts as its MacGuffin, this movie clearly harkens back to films of the age its story takes place in. Rollicking tales with distinct lines between good and evil. Of course, those lines get muddied up in Cap 2, but for this film, at least, the focus is entirely on the goodies kickin’ some bad guy butt. I mean, the hero is the prototypical All-American man dressed in red, white and blue fighting a Nazi warlord who is – literally – a bloody skeleton. Doesn’t get much more clear-cut than that.

Chris Evans is a pitch-perfect Captain America. Square-jawed, beefed up but not too beefed up, and filled to the brim with a good ol’ boy charm that doesn’t come off as superior or trite, which is a feat unto itself. He’s surrounded by a stellar cast, each of whom have their moment to shine: Stanley Tucci as an insightful and kind scientist, Tommy Lee Jones as a militaristic hard-ass (which at this point you’d think would come off as tired, but it works, and well), Sebastian Stan as Steve Rogers’ imperfect but nonetheless steadfast friend, and Hayley Atwell, who convincingly makes her character a force to be reckoned with in a male-dominated sphere.

Joe Johnston directs this picture with a deft touch, infusing it with a retro, bordering-on-cornball vibe that makes the film’s last sequence that much more affecting. It jives perfectly with Alan Silvestri’s stirring score and is enhanced spectacularly by the stunning visual effects, not the least of which is the job they did at creating a small, frail, pre-serum Captain America. The fact that this film didn’t at least get nominated for an Academy Award for that achievement alone is baffling.

Simply put, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, funny, exhilarating, good-hearted movie, permeated with an all-too-rare sense of wonder. It doesn’t attempt to tackle anything more complicated than it can handle, and that evident self-awareness allows you to enjoy its camp, its comedy and its surprising poignance. Repeat viewings do nothing to diminish that. In fact, as I said earlier, you’ll come to appreciate its restraint and ability to lay thematic groundwork for the stories to come.

8/10

Favorites: “The Dark Knight” Review

Favorites: “The Dark Knight” Review

In the lead-up to Captain America: Civil War, I’m reviewing my favorite comic book films, the foremost of which is among my favorite films of all time, period. And while some harbor a stigma against superhero flicks that precludes them from judging The Dark Knight with a measured and objective eye, I think of it as an opus of filmmaking – a masterclass in tension-building, character developing, acting, writing, storytelling, pacing, editing, cinematography, music, choreography . . . the list goes on.

Many try to characterize this picture as a superhero movie parading as a crime saga, when in fact it is the opposite, and so much more. It’s an intricately-woven ensemble-driven crime epic that happens to feature a character named Batman as its lead. Of course, director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon understood this.  It transcends traditional comic book movie strictures and becomes an engrossing depiction of good, evil, and the muddy sphere in-between that surpasses fellow masterpieces like No Country For Old Men and The Departed. 

And here. We. Go.

What makes The Dark Knight so successful, above all other things, is its delectable ability to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension simmering underneath its surface. From the very first shot to the very last, there isn’t a frame in this film where you’re not poised to run for your life. Every inch of the story is dripping with a sinister pulse.

And you know the story. You’ve seen the film. But for the sake of providing context for this review, let’s run through it.

The movie sets Gotham City’s tenderfoot triumvirate of sorts in Commissioner Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and self-appointed city guardian Batman, against a villain, the Joker, that defies expectations and exists to promote only one thing: chaos. And the beautiful thing about the Joker is that he says as much multiple times throughout. But despite him wearing his decidedly anarchic heart on his purple sleeve, he remains baffling to both his opponents and to us, the viewers.

Other subplots revolve around Bruce’s relationship with Rachel Dawes, how that affects his relationships with her beau Harvey and his mentor/best-friend Alfred, and the clearly-laid-out – but not hamhanded – decisions he must make on utilitarian morality. The Joker takes all these characters – as well as the seedy, incestuous underbelly of Gotham – for a roller coaster ride, and even he doesn’t know where they’re going to get off, which adds to the fearful sense of mystery that feverishly propels that ride forward.

That fear pervades this picture, welling in your chest as you watch it. It informs everything in the film. The city is chilled with it. The characters are weighted with it. The cinematography, the lighting, the color palette, all feed off of it. It provides the movie with a beautiful corrosiveness that lingers with you and haunts your thoughts hours, days, and even weeks after seeing it.

The film is almost a chain of bravura moments, one applause-worthy, mike-drop level scene, sequence, and line after another. And while it is tiring, it’s an entirely good kind of tiring. It leaves you with the runner’s high of moviegoing, a savory breathlessness that makes you want to put your head in your hands and try to process everything that’s been thrown your way. It’s unrelenting, torrential cinema.

And, of course. Yes. I will obviously address the acting. You know what I’m talking about. Heath Ledger’s frenetic, almost epileptic take on perhaps the most iconic villain of all time. His attention to detail is mesmerizing. The way he licks his lips like a doll-eyed iguana. How he frantically parts his stringy hair and then musses it up as he delights in some ruin he’s caused. The fractured effervescence he infects every scene with. He’s the centerpiece of the movie.

So, if it weren’t clear already, I think this is a pretty good film, to say the least. It rings true on all fronts (even the few, calculated times it injects humor into the proceedings, it knocks it out of the park). It is far-and-away the greatest superhero picture ever created, and reaches the stratospheric heights of the other crime genre greats. My highest possible recommendation.

10/10

“The Jungle Book” Review

“The Jungle Book” Review

I can’t claim to have read any of the Rudyard Kipling stories that serve as the source material for both the movie I’m reviewing now and its beloved predecessor, the 1968 animated Disney classic. But even still: I felt, palpably, the whispers of his original tale emanating from the screen at points in this film, this film, which is a marvel to behold and a glory to listen to. Never has such a talented and charismatic voice cast been combined with such a spectacle for the eye. Never.

That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws in Jon Favreau’s take on the well-known legend. The pacing is a tad choppy, the dialogue a bit saccharine at times. But those are merely rough edges on the sumptuous tapestry that the Iron Man director and his effects team have woven here. And those effects are perhaps the most astonishing since Avatar forever altered the cinematic landscape over six years ago.

But before we get to the main course, let’s not forget the delectable side dishes and appetizers. The story, of course, is that of Mowgli, the orphaned “man cub” raised by wolves and an oddly soft-hearted black panther named Bagheera (voiced by the incomparable Ben Kingsley). The novice Neel Sethi plays him admirably, and, in some scenes, actually steals the show with his deliveries (something made even more impressive when you remember that he delivered said lines on a green-screen sound stage to thin air). His performance has dips and potholes, sure, but that’s to be expected of an actor of his age and in his circumstances.

The rest of the cast predictably shines. Bill Murray infuses Baloo the bear with his bubbly, lopsided charm, Lupita N’yongo aches as a mother without her child, and Idris Elba, perhaps the most perfectly cast as the bunch, practically growls through every word he says as Shere Khan, Bengal tiger and de facto king of the eponymous jungle.

And this jungle is not the one you might have visited in your childhood. The movie is peppered with deeply dark moments, many of which echo almost to the frame another Disney masterpiece that heavily features big, talking cats: The Lion King. In that way, it’s not the whimsical, fluffy 90-minute musical number that its namesake is. It’s a juicy, mature meal that parents can sink their teeth into as well. This movie’s King Louie, in particular, is a deliciously scary iteration of the clownish character that pranced about on screen almost a half-century ago.

And not to beat a dead horse, but all of the above is made possible by the nothing-short-of magic that Weta Digital and Movie Picture Company have put to screen. Every hair, every speck of dust in the air has clearly been meticulously crafted to give the film an undeniably immersive feeling, and that immersion serves the story well in both its comedic and – more commonly – gravely serious moments.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of lighthearted fare and physical humor to keep the children entertained. But this movie isn’t a one-trick pony. It goes above and beyond the scope of the cartoon original and becomes an engrossing – and many times legitimately haunting – epic.

8.5/10

“10 Cloverfield Lane” Review

“10 Cloverfield Lane” Review

10 Cloverfield Lane is a worthy and, in many ways, superior successor to its spiritual predecessor, Cloverfield. Replete with fine performances, solid character development and a simmering tension that gets its due in a few exquisitely spine-freezing moments, the film isn’t anything groundbreaking. But it’s not trying to be.

The story has three players: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr., and John Goodman, the last of whom might deserve Oscar consideration come awards season. He perfectly plays a man awash in ambiguity: ambiguity of mental state, ambiguity of moral inclinations, ambiguity of personal history. His character, Howard, therein provides the main platform for all of the questions that drive the film’s plot: What is this bunker that Michelle (Winstead) finds herself in? What is Howard’s relationship with Emmett (Gallagher Jr.)? Is there actually an apocalypse happening just feet above their heads? Who is this Megan that Howard keeps mentioning?

A film like this is dependent on achieving a deliberate, pitch-perfect pacing. And novice director Dan Trachtenburg’s slow burn approach to answering the above questions does just that. The mystery uncoils from scene-to-scene, using each answer to the last question as the foundation to answering the next. And despite its modest length (100 minutes), the film finds time to infuse breath and lyricism, moments of quiet reflection that add to both the uneasy atmosphere of claustrophobia that pervades the picture and the growth of the few characters it boasts.

Technically, the film is superb. The camerawork, editing, score and so on all contribute to the above-mentioned qualities that are so key in a film like this, where there is really one location. The talent behind this camera is clear from the get-go.

The climax does provide a satisfying-enough answer to the main rub of the movie, though I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped for a bit more. And it’s also not quite clear whether this film inhabits the same universe as the first Cloverfield, though I’m inclined to say that it isn’t.

But more than anything, this film is worth seeing because of the near-sliceable tension that runs thick in every frame during the 85% of the picture that takes place in the bunker. And for that alone, though it’s not the only attraction, I can definitively recommend it.

8.3/10

“Star Wars” Snags $153.5 Million Second Weekend

In what is now only worthy of a quotidian, ho-hum news bit, The Force Awakens earned an insane, record-demolishing $153.5 million in its second weekend go-around. To put that in perspective, that number breaks the previous record by a massive $46.9 million. To shovel even more perspective onto this “Star Wars” love fest, if this number holds, the movie’s second weekend box office is now the tenth-largest in cinematic history. No other film owns two weekends in the all-time top 30.

The movie’s cumulative domestic total now stands at a boggling $545 million. Avatar‘s domestic record is essentially in the bag now, and, if the film continues to hold as well as it has been for the next couple months, $1 billion domestically is not necessarily out of the question. Even adjusting for inflation, that would make this picture’s performance an undeniable landmark in cinema. Adjusting for inflation, population, and moviegoing trends, it would likely fall into the top 10 most popular films of all time.