ARRIVAL (2016)

November 12, 2016

arrival Greetings again from the darkness. Our cinematic love affair with aliens goes back decades, and these films typically fall into one of two categories: evil aliens attack earth, or aliens come in peace and humans react poorly. We’ve seen aliens trying to provide us with righteous advice (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951). We’ve connected via a few musical notes (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) and radio frequencies (Contact, 1997). And we have certainly had our share of surprise and unwanted meetings (Alien, 1979; The Thing, 1982). Leave it to cutting edge director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies) to find a new, more head-and-soul approach for the genre.

This high concept project is born from Eric Hiesserer’s screenplay of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” … a title that makes sense by the end of the movie, but one a bit too blah for a big time production with Oscar hopes. Five time Oscar nominee Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist and interpreter. There is an interesting and well done sequence at the beginning of the film that provides the back story for her character and the foundation for the final reveal.

A dozen oddly shaped spaceships have docked (mid-air) at various points around the globe. The one in the U.S. is hovering over … no, not Area 51 … Montana of all places. Forest Whitaker plays the military officer charged with assembling the team that will try to communicate with the aliens. He chooses Dr. Banks due to her remarkable track record with languages. She is joined with uber-Science and Math guy, Physicist Ian Donnelly played by Jeremy Renner.

We do see the aliens and their artsy style of communicating (a touch of Rorschach), but this is about so much more than learning a new inner-galactic language. It’s about how the military reacts, how the general populace reacts, how the world leaders work together (or not), and even how the military, intelligence agencies and academia coexist. It’s about smart people working out a plan when the problem isn’t even clear … a between-the-ears head-scratcher.

Mr. Villeneuve utilizes what appear to be flashbacks in helping us better understand Dr. Banks, but the element of time may not be what we typically accept in story-telling. The story, characters, cinematography and score (one of the best matches of music and movie all year thanks to composer Johann Johansson) work together to provide an engaging, nearly hypnotic movie going experience. Plus, I’m fairly certain this is the first alien movie to reference Abbott and Costello and crack a Sheila Easton joke. This is beautiful filmmaking that is also thought-provoking and encouraging of some species self-analysis (our species).

watch the trailer:

 

 


MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

March 19, 2016

midnight special Greetings again from the darkness. Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols serves up some of the familiar themes of spiritualism and parenting seen in his first three films: Mud (2012), Take Shelter (2011), Shotgun Stories (2007), but this time he goes a bit heavier on the science fiction … while maintaining his focus on the individual.

An exceptional opening scene kicks off the story, and Nichols makes sure we are alert by forcing us to absorb and assemble the slew of clues flying at us … an Amber alert, cardboard on the windows of a cheap motel, a news report tying us to San Angelo, Texas, duct tape on the peep hole, a duffel bag of weapons, two anxiety-filled men, and a goggled-boy under a white sheet who seems extremely calm in an otherwise hectic environment. We learn a lot, yet many questions remain.

As the boy and the two men speed off down the backroads, the setting switches to an eerily calm Calvin Meyer (the always great Sam Shepard), who is the leader of a religious cult similar to the Branch Davidians. “The Ranch” is desperate to get the boy back, and we learn they worship the numbers and words the boy has “received” from above. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) leads the raid on the compound and takes us to an interrogation of Calvin by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Alternating between sci-fi special effects and an “on the run” story line, we slowly pick up more details about the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as well as the men with him – his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It’s not long before they reunite with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and we really start to comprehend just how different and special Alton is.

It’s easy to see the influence of such films as Starman, E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We are reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. But it’s Shannon who captures the protective determination of a father trying to do the right thing for his son. Shannon again flashes the best ‘pained’ expression in the business, but it’s young Lieberher (so terrific in St. Vincent) who allows us to accept the father/son story in spite of the bright white lasers shooting from his eyeballs.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – not the least of which is, how did two “normal” parents end up with this “special” son? The visuals near the end are impressive to see on screen, but don’t appear to have much impact on the final questioning of Lucas or our understanding of how it all happened. It should also be noted that the piano score is especially impactful during both the quiet and thrilling moments. Director Nichols is a talented idea man, but he does leave us wanting more details.  (That’s his brother singing the song over the closing credits.)

watch the trailer:

 


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

December 23, 2015

star wars Greetings again from the darkness. In what can justifiably be termed a cultural event, director J.J. Abrams brings us Episode VII in a film franchise (developed by George Lucas, now owned by Disney) that date backs almost 40 years. While I was one of the lucky ones who waited patiently in line to see the first Star Wars on opening day in 1977, I can only be described as a series fan rather than a Star Wars geek. My bond is with Han Solo and Chewbacca, so I’m not here to debate the minutiae of costumes, timelines and weaponry.

What I can happily report is that Mr. Abrams (he’s also directed Star Trek and Mission Impossible films) has found just the right blend of nostalgia, science-fiction, and geeky gadgetry to appeal to the widest of all audiences. The film is an honorable tribute to the previous six in the series, yet it’s more than entertaining enough to stand alone for new comers.

As we expect and hope for, the screen is filled with fantastical visuals that somehow push our imagination, while at the same time, feel realistic to the story and action. The aerial dogfights are adrenaline-pumping and spectacular in their vividness, and the more grounded action scenes feature Stormtroopers who have clearly had lots of target practice since the previous films.

You need only watch the trailer or read the credits to know that some of the old familiar faces are back: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and of course, our old pals C-3P0 and R2D2. Also back is the remarkable composer John Williams – likely to receive his fiftieth (yes, 50!) Oscar nomination for his work here. In addition to the familiar, new faces abound: John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kyle (don’t call me Ben) Ren, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Hux. There is also the magic of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, and an all-too-brief sequence featuring Max von Sydow. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, and there is an impressive list of other cameos available online if you are interested (Daniel Craig being the most eye-raising).

Abrams along with action cinematographer extraordinaire Daniel Mindel take full advantage of all available technical aspects in creating stunning visuals and spine-tingling sound. It’s a film made to be watched on the biggest screen with the best sound system, so ask around if you aren’t sure. If you are a long-time fan of Han and Chewy, you’ll enjoy catching up with old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the Star Wars galaxy, this latest will hook you into the force.

watch the trailer:

 


THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

martian2

 

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


LUCY (2014)

July 28, 2014
lucy Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Luc Besson has a track record of mixing stylistic visuals with more traditional action: La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element. This time he tries to mix those components with fantasy, sci-fi and neuroscience. His hope was that Scarlett Johannson in a snug t-shirt and Morgan Freeman as an on screen narrator (guiding us through the maze of info) would sufficiently distract viewers from the international drug-muling mess.  Scarlett’s new found expertise as action hero (thanks to The Avengers) has her cast here in a role that previously would have gone to Anjelina Jolie.
We have all fantasized about expanded brain power, and many films have touched on this: Transcendence (Johnny Depp), The Matrix franchise, and Limitless (Bradley Cooper) to name a few. Omnipotence may not be everyone’s goal, but it sure seems to be difficult to pull off in in movies. This time around, there is a Korean drug syndicate led by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) who has synthesized a drug that takes the human brain to a new level. To buy into this, you have to accept the premise that humans only use 10% of their brain … a claim long ago disproved.  Still, it’s a movie, so let’s roll with it.
There are some nice moments in the film, but the pieces just don’t fit smoothly together. Circumstances are such that Scarlett finds herself experiencing the effects of the drug – first by dancing on the ceiling ala Lionel Ritchie or Linda Blair (your choice), and then with the most awkward phone call to mom in film history. Soon enough her telekinetic powers are so advanced, she mows down the heavily armed bad guys with a flick of the finger. If that makes no sense to you, you’ll have to follow along with Professor Morgan Freeman’s charts and graphs. His lecture spells out each of the steps that Scarlett will go through and the interconnected scene cuts makes sure all movie goers can keep up … even those who don’t use 10% of their brain.
My biggest complaint is that if a movie about extraordinary intelligence is to be made, then the movie itself should at least be  smart … or witty. What the movie tells us is that expanded brain access allows us to medically diagnose our friends through a hug,  instantly change hair color while strolling through the airport, and create invisible force fields to trap our enemies. We also learn that really smart people drive the wrong way on one-way streets. In Dallas, we typically refer to those people as idiots … or at least horrible drivers. Evidently the joke is on us – those are the enlightened ones!
This movie should have been a lot more fun than it was. A tip of the cap to Mr. Besson for casting Choi Min-sik and Amr Waked (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), and for the global trek from Taipei to Berlin to Paris to NYC … and finally two things rarely seen in the same movie … a dinosaur and a flash drive. It was kinda nice to see the script attempt to make the point that smart people use their minds, while lesser beings resort to violence … though it could have been interesting to see good vs bad while ON this fancy new drug. Although Scarlett’s character remembers the taste of her mother’s milk, I expect the memory of this film will fade quickly.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a couple of impressive Scarlett action sequences and some Besson visuals are enough to carry you for 90 minutes
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have difficulty buying Scarlett’s vacuous facial expression as an indication of extraordinary brain power
watch the trailer:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVt32qoyhi0