“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.

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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

Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

From the beginning, it’s clear how desperately The Force Awakens wants to prove to you that it’s bursting at the seams with the same magic the films whose shoulders it stands on did, at times to its detriment, others to its benefit; but after the sugar high wears off, you’re left wondering if you’ve watched a Star Wars film, or Star Wars.

Yes, what you’ve heard is true. The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope given a new wardrobe, a polish job and $200 million of the best special and practical effects you can buy. And not unlike countless other derivative sequels, no amount of window dressing can alter the lack of originality at its admittedly well-intentioned heart.

Speaking just on craft, though, it is a brilliant remake; ebullient, sparkling and rife with that scintillating movement that immortalized the first one nearly four decades ago. In fact, this movie’s so well done on a technical scale that had it been the very first of the series, it might very well have been considered an untouchable classic of cinema (though it’s hard to say; trying to project modern cinema without Star Wars is like trying to project what Earth would look like if that asteroid hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs).

The new cast flourishes. Boyega commands the screen, and Ridley, while wooden at times, shines when needed most. Their characters, Finn and Rey, represent a refreshing attempt at making the world of Star Wars look much like our own, and their arcs, while not perfect, are satisfying enough to make me interested in Episode VIII. Oscar Isaac’s typical rogueish charm flairs up in the form of hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron, a sure-to-be favorite of the new protagonists. And while he’s not technically human, the humans remote-controlling the new droid, BB-8, deserve praise; he more than fills the considerable shoes of R2-D2.

By far the most intriguing of all the new characters, though, is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. He is this film’s Vader analog, and one whose near-fourth-wall-breaking awareness of that role drives his entire narrative. While he is undoubtedly a villain, he has a magnetic vulnerability that makes him unlike any other Star Wars baddie we’ve seen.

Harrison Ford makes a pleasantly surprising turn as Han Solo, who, unlike many of the venerable actor’s recent roles, actually appears on screen rather than the man playing him. Fisher’s solid return as the now General Leia rounds out the old cast, as Mark Hamill barely has time to get his pants on before the film is over.

And that is one of the cracks in this loving homage’s armor: the story. Without trying to spoil too much, Hamill’s Luke Skywalker acts as the driving force of the movie, a human MacGuffin who remains mostly in the shadows. Sounds interesting, right? Did to me. So, what’s the issue?

Well, imagine Dorothy getting to the Emerald City, opening the Wizard’s chamber doors — and thats it. The screen cuts to black. Other story flaws include the film going out of its own way and defying its own internal logic to remain a near-carbon copy of A New Hope in its second half, a move that distracts from the engrossing propulsive force that drove its first hour. You’ll understand my frustration at missed opportunities that could have made a solid film into a good if not nigh-great one. Major, story-buttressing questions are left unanswered, and in that, this go-around does not succeed on the same level as its original predecessors, which managed to both present self-contained tales and be seamless parts of a larger whole.

It doesn’t help that, in what I cannot deny is a stirring climax, internal logic is discarded in favor of catharsis. The Force Awakens is not the first to commit this sin, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was an easy mistake to fix, and one that will only become more glaring once the afterglow of the movie’s feverishly-hyped release fades.

Fear not, though: the pulpy spectacle, as usual, is here in full force. As is the series’ unmistakable brand of self-effacing comedy. John Williams crafts a suitably Star Wars-y score, and JJ Abrams’ pure, simplistic direction jives well with the franchise’s past.

So, will you like it? If you want to safely and comfortably return to a galaxy far, far away simply to see hot shot pilots shoot bad guys out of the sky and red and blue lightsabers clash, without regards to originality, The Force Awakens might be your favorite movie of the year. If you want to see a new Star Wars movie thats, well, new . . . you might have to wait for Rian Johnson’s crack at it come 2017.

6.5/10