Avengers: Infinity War(4/28/2018)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

Shortly after I went to a Saturday afternoon screening of Avengers: Infinity War I went onto Twitter and tweeted the following: “#AvengersInfinityWar All I’m going to say is, if you’re invested in the MCU you’re going to want to see this and do so before the spoilers get to you” and I’d say that’s still more or less what I have to say about the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.  Truth be told I’ve found writing reviews for MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as if anyone is looking for advice as to whether or not they should see them is pretty delusional.  That isn’t to say that these movies are “critic-proof” as I do think truly negative reviews of them could take their toll if the movies suddenly took a real dip in quality, but while they continue to live up to expectations the people who are interested are simply going to keep going and this notion that anyone is waiting for little old me to weigh in before they put down their money would be even more egotistical than it would be for most of my reviews.  So, after this paragraph (and the perfunctory summery after it) this review is going to just dive in and talk about everything that happens in this movie and what it means to this whole enterprise and things will probably be a little more informal than usual.

The film picks up right where Thor: Ragnarok left off with the Asgardian refugees spaceship running into Thanos’ giant space base.  The Asgardian ship is quickly boarded and Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appears to have gotten a hold of the Power Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy, makes quick work of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleson), and even The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Thanos then takes the Tesseract, which had been at the center of The Avengers and was re-stolen by Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, and proceeds to kill Loki on the spot and take the space stone from the Tesseract.  Heimdall (Idris Elba) is also killed but as he’s dying he manages to use the bifrost to teleport Bruce Banner back to Earth.  The Asgardian ship is destroyed but Thor, being a god, survives in the vacuum of space and is rescued by The Guardians of the Galaxy, who are chasing down the distress signal that the Asgardian ship was sending out.  From there He, Groot (Vin Diesal), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decide to seek out a weapons forge while Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) go to The Collector (Benicio del Toro) to try to find the Reality Stone from Thor: The Dark World.  Meanwhile, Banner finds himself having been teleported back to earth, where the Mind Stone is in the hands of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Time Stone is in the hands of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after the events of his film.  Banner immediately seeks out Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and shortly after warning him and Dr. Strange about Thanos finds New York under attack by Thanos’ minions.

That above summery is a good example of why this is a hard write a normal review of this movie.  It’s a paragraph that will make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t already seen eighteen movies that preceded this one, and if anyone has already seen eighteen Marvel movies why the hell would they skip this one?  There are other Marvel movies that you can go to and more or less enjoy without worrying about how they fit into the overall story, but this certainly isn’t one of them.  This also isn’t a Marvel movie that’s trying to be some kind of Marvel infused take on some other genre.  It isn’t trying to be a blockbuster take on the high school movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, it isn’t trying to be a comedic space opera that so happens to fit into the universe like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was, and it isn’t trying to be a politically charged science fiction film like Black Panther.  This is, at its heart, purely and simply a Marvel movie.  Of course it does need to bring in disparate elements from all those other movies and at times while watching the movie I was almost reminded of the early episodes of Marvel’s Netflix crossover series “The Defenders,” which gave the audience the impression that they were flipping between four different TV series.  Certain sacrifices are of course going to be made.  For instance The Guardians of the Galaxy are generally not accompanied by the 70s music they’re associated with and the trippy visuals associated with Dr. Strange are a lot more restrained here but for the most part the Russo Brothers do a pretty good job of bringing all these characters together efficiently while still providing all the action and witty banter that people expect from these movies.

All in all the movie plays out exactly as most audiences are expecting it to play out in grand entertaining fashion… and then everybody dies.  Now this is an ending that’s going to play out very differently to different audiences.  Personally I kind of saw it coming.  I had vague memories of hearing that something like that happening in the comic books and leading up to my screening I saw a lot of headlines in the early reviews talking about the “shocking ending” in ways that probably seemed vague to the people writing them but which were pretty easy for someone who pays to much attention to this stuff to put two and two together.  It’s also going to be less shocking to the over-informed simply because it’s a lot easier to be cynical about how permanent any of these deaths are likely to be if you know too much about who has what contracts.  We already know that there’s going to be a third Guardians of the Galaxy so there’s no way those characters are really dead and that Sony is trying to build a Spider-Man cinematic universe which ensures that that character is coming back and that there’s no way in hell that Disney is going to let the Black Panther money train movie end here.  However, it is maybe worth taking a couple steps back and considering how that played to the vast majority of the millions of people who are going to see this thing.  While I’m sure a lot of them will also have a hunch that some of these characters are coming back they probably didn’t see this cliffhanger coming and Marvel has done a pretty good job of downplaying the fact that another Avengers movie is coming next year with the general public.  In particular I wonder how the children in the audience would react to seeing the bad guy win and kill a bunch of their heroes.  Is that going to be traumatic to them?  I certainly hope so.

Anyway, the other thing about the movie I want to talk about has less to do with the ending itself so much as what led up to it.  Thanos was really only able to enact his insane plan because a lot of the heroes make a lot of selfish decisions.  Thanos only learns the location of the Soul Stone because Quill fails to follow Gamora’s instructions to shoot her rather than let her be captured and interrogated by Thanos, Gamora makes the same mistake herself by giving Thanos the location rather than see her sister tortured, Dr. Strange ostensibly only gives up the time stone to save Iron Man, Quill screws up yet again by losing his cool when the other heroes are about to take the gauntlet, and of course the possibility of that unhappy ending easily could have been cut of right from the beginning if Scarlett Witch had just yanked the mind stone from Vision’s head and wrecked it.  Absolutely none of these decisions can be justified on any logical level.  The whole damn movie is like a precession of so-called heroes making wildly selfish choices where they put the lives of their friends and family above the lives of literally trillions of other people and in doing so.  It’s like the anti-Casablanca, no one seems to realize that the lives of a couple little people does not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy universe where a madman wants to wipe out half of the universe’s population with the snap of the fingers… and yet thematically this series of events is not an accident.  The emotional and arguably selfish actions of all these characters stands in stark contrast to Thanos’ philosophy, which takes the notion of “the ends justify the means” to a deranged extreme.  Thanos is willing to kill trillions “for the greater good” and the heroes often can’t even kill one person “for the greater good,” presumably there’s a middle ground somewhere to be found and we’ll have to see if they address this in the as of yet untitled next Avengers movie.

So I guess the last question is why this movie works so well despite theoretically having all the same problems that Avengers: Age of Ultron had.  I called that movie an over-stuffed mess and on paper this movie is even more “stuffed” than that movie was, but it still manages to flow a lot better.  It also manages to find a lot more time to develop its villain than that earlier movie did.  In fact I was kind of shocked at how much effort they put into giving Thanos, a character I expected to have something of a Dr. Evil quality, some real motivations and personality.  Above all I think what makes this work so much better than Avengers: Age of Ultron is just that it has a purpose.  The surrounding solo Marvel films simply hadn’t been building towards Age of Ultron, it was a movie that largely just existed because they needed an Avengers movie in “phase two,” the movie those solo movies had been building towards pretty much since the beginning had been Infinity War and the fact that they actually managed to deliver on that promise and deliver on it this well is quite the achievement.  Now granted, a lot of this movie’s overall legacy is going to depend on whether they stick the landing in the follow-up and that remains to be seen, but if the goal for now was to make us excited for the finale then mission accomplished.

**** out of Five

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Annihilation(2/21/2018)


He’s taken an odd route to Hollywood success but the English novelist Alex Garland has somehow managed to work in movies for over fifteen years and doesn’t really have a bad movie on his resume.  Beginning with the sale of his novel “The Beach” Garland began a working relationship with Danny Boyle which led to Garland writing screenplays for the Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which both had their flaws but which were nonetheless very solid movies and then he went out on his own and wrote the screenplays for the under-rated Never Let Me Go and Dredd but he really became a force of his own in 2015 when he stepped into the director role and made the small scale science fiction film Ex Machina.  That was a movie I was kind of lukewarm on when I saw it but which in retrospect I think I was a bit too hard on.  That was an original science fiction movie made on a mid-budget, which is a kind of movie critics get really excited for but are also often disappointed by and Ex Machina managed to deliver and even somehow managed to get a visual effects Academy award despite being made on a relatively small budget.  He’s now been allowed to make another science fiction film and this time with a bigger budget and despite being made in a major studio his new film Annihilation is just as uncompromising as Ex Machina.

Annihilation begins with the sight of some kind of object crashing to Earth and hitting some kind of lighthouse.  From there we flash forward and meet a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and military veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing since going on a classified special forces mission a year prior.  That ends one day when he suddenly shows up at her door and begins behaving strangely and can’t explain where he’s been and shows signs of deteriorating health.  Later that day they’re both stopped and arrested by government agents and brought to a secret facility that sits outside a national park that has been taken over by a strange phenomenon called “The Shimmer” which has encompassed the park (which has been evacuated under pretext of a chemical spill) and seems to be expanding outward.  Kane is apparently the only person so far to have returned from The Shimmer and as such Lena convinces a lady named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to let her join the next team to enter The Shimmer in hopes of finding answers.

One of the reasons I was a little cool on Ex Machina originally was simply that I was a little tired of the whole “how human are robots” question that science fiction has been batting around for the last hundred years.  With Annihilation avoids this problem, in part because it’s a lot less cut and dry about what it’s trying to say or even what questions it’s asking in the first place.  In broad strokes it’s pretty clear what “the shimmer” is insomuch as it appears to be some sort of alien terraforming effort but the exact reasons for its creation and the full extent of what happens there is less defined.  The area is plainly reminiscent of “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that it’s this seemingly earthly area where few people opt to venture because of the strange things that happen there.  Also like Tarkovsky’s film the mission that Lena and her compatriots go on seems less like an adventure and more like a grim inevitability they’re driven to by various personal demons.  Unlike Stalker though Annihilation has some more conventional genre thrills along the way.  I don’t want to give away too much of what goes on inside of “the shimmer” but the is a horror element to it including some creature effects that are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing and some of the group dynamics as the trip into “the shimmer” reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project.

In short, Annihilation is quite a trip.  It’s a thoughtful science fiction movie but one with imagery and structure that make it an entertaining viewing.  The most obvious recent touchstone for the movie would likely be the 2016 film Arrival, which was probably the last intelligent science fiction movie to really catch on with the public.  Both films are about women tasked with making contact with aliens who have appeared on Earth for mysterious reasons, but Annihilation is a little more visually adventurous and a little less generous in doling out its meaning.  This is a movie that’s going to keep people guessing and theorizing for a while, maybe not as long as one of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, but certainly longer than most of the movies that Hollywood gives us.

****1/2 out of Five

Atomic Blonde(8/20/2017)

The summer of 2017 sure seemed like a great one for Hollywood. Marvel kept doing its thing, DC actually seemed to get things back on track a little, franchises that had delivered before kept delivering. Granted, there was some crap like Transformers 5 and The Mummy out there, but no one really expected much from those and the movies people actually had high hopes for really did deliver. In fact, by the time Dunkirk came out Hollywood had managed to go four straight weeks putting out really high quality big budget films like Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes. Fun as it all was, it sure seemed to come to an abrupt and early end. In fact, August has been downright dismal. We’ve mostly been treated to disappointing bombs like The Dark Tower and unambitious nonsense like Annabelle: Creation. Clearly someone in Hollywood got their papers mixed up as they clearly should have spread out their solid July movies a bit more evenly across the summer. It’s in this vacuum of options that, late in August, I decided to go back and give a shot to a film that had been out for a couple of weeks already called Atomic Blonde which hadn’t seemed overly interesting in the film’s advertising but which had its clear defenders who had mentioned a couple of cool action scenes that I felt like I needed to give a look.

The film is set in 1989 right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the film opens a British agent named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent named Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a microfilm he was carrying which contained a list of all the active field agents in the USSR. The film then cuts to ten days later, after the main events of the film, to a framing story where our protagonist Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed on her mission to retrieve this list by an MI6 leader named Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). From here she tells a story about her interactions with Britain’s head agent in East Berlin named David Percival (James McAvoy), a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi defector known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).

The first thing that strikes me about Atomic Blonde is that it isn’t as action driven as its advertising, credit font, and silly title would have you believe. At its heart is a fairly gritty espionage story that takes the cold war pretty seriously and seems to be heavily inspired by the writing of authors like John le Carré. The film is also really confusing. It’s the kind of twisty spy story where people are constantly double and triple crossing each other and you’re never really sure who’s on what side and quickly lose track of what the McGuffin is and why you care about it. I’d be lying if I said I kept it all straight on one viewing, and I do think some of that confusion is on the movie. Director David Leitch (one of the duo of directors who made the first John Wick film) seems a bit out of his element here and doesn’t really tell this complex story with the same skill and clarity of someone like Brian De Palma making the first Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, I think there are elements in this script that genuinely don’t make a lot of sense. For example, as far as I can tell this list everyone is chasing around is an MI:6 list that had fallen into KGB hands and needed to be retrieved lest the KGB use it to murder all of Britain’s undercover assets. So why the hell does Broughton end up spending a great deal of effort trying to move an asset who’s memorized this list out of East Berlin? Would it not be in her interest if this guy died? Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of ensuring the Russians never get the list that’s confined to this guy’s memory?

Whether or not it makes sense for Broughton to be smuggling this guy out of East Germany (a country that will cease to exist a week later, making this mission seem… premature) there’s no denying that it provides us with a great action scene. The film is clearly at its best when it drops any pretense of being a serious cold war thriller and just lets Charlize Theron kick some asses. I’m not usually one to prefer mindless violence over storytelling ambition but its plainly obvious that David Leitch is more in his element when our heroine starts fighting fools than when she’s tracking down sources and determining the loyalties of the people she encounters and I don’t think he has quite the touch to make this the stylish 80s movie he seems to want it to be either. At the end of the day this is a movie that’s undone by the fact that its style and genre ambitions are at odds with its screenplay. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s something that escapist action films desperately need to pin down. That said there are things to enjoy here. That aforementioned fight scene is awesome and so is a car chase that follows shortly thereafter. For some that dessert will be worth the at best middling main course.

Alien: Covenant(5/21/2017)

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Having original opinions can be lonely sometimes.  That’s especially true now that we live in the era of the bandwagon and the pile-on when it comes to the popular opinion on movies.  Maybe I’m just being wrongly nostalgic but I feel like there was a time when opinions about movies used to spread a bit more organically whereas today it seems like consensuses are basically built by instantly posted reviews by critics two days before a movie comes out and are then either confirmed or slightly tweaked after a weekend of tweets.  There might be a backlash sometime around a week after the film comes out and maybe a backlash to the backlash the next week but for the most part the die seems to be cast for a movie pretty fast and if you’re on the outside of the consensus you can easily find yourself in a pretty lonely place.  One movie that got pretty cruelly shot down in this environment was Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien which sought to expand the series beyond its horror roots and use it as a platform to examine scientific and philosophical ideas.  It also had a couple of plot holes and script problems, and as such it was quickly torn apart by the consensus.  Personally, I rather liked it.  I could recognize its problems but felt like they were more than outweighed by its visual grandeur and ambitious storytelling and while the film does have other defenders they’ve been pretty well drowned out too by the sometimes kind of nasty wave of negativity that hit the film. Now four years later Ridley Scott has come out with a follow-up called Alien: Covenant and it may well rekindle all the arguments that raged around the previous prequel.

Despite what the title may suggest, this is very much a sequel to Prometheus and picks up about 15 years after that movie’s conclusion.  We are once again following a rather ill-fated space voyage, this time of a colonization ship called The Covenant which is headed for an uninhabited planet which could serve as a base for a new society.  At the film’s start everyone on board except for the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, playing a different robot from the one he played in Prometheus) is in stasis when a sudden accident hits the ship killing a handful of the sleeping colonists including the captain.  The rest of the crew is woken up and needs to immediately stabilize the ship.  With that done they suddenly realize that they are actually close to another planet that may well be an inhabitable alternative to the planet they were initially headed to.  Deciding that they need to explore this world before they think about waking up the rest of the colonists the new acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to lead a landing party despite the objections of his second in command Dany Branson (Katherine Waterson).  When they land they suddenly realize that this planet has had other visitors previously and strange things happen when they run into a mysterious black substance on the ground.

Prometheus was in many ways a pretty bold movie.  It was Ridley Scott rather defiantly making the statement that Alien was a series that wasn’t defined by Xenomorphs so much as it was defined by an aesthetic, at least when Ridley Scott was making it.  Scott proceeded to use that world and aesthetic to explore what humanity is willing to do in order to find the meaning of life.  While doing that, it also proved to be kind of clumsy when it sought to also be something of a monster movie.  Critics certainly seized on the movie’s questionable moments and used them to dismiss it, which is a reaction that was on one hand understandable and yet on the other hand a bit dismissive.  In many ways it felt like the film was being punished for its pretension and for the raised expectations that it had elicited with its promising trailer and highbrow title.  For the sequel Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox seem to have realized that and done everything they could to signal that this is in fact a very much a monster movie.  It’s put the word “Alien” in the title and it has a xenomorph front and center in in pretty much every advertisement for the movie.  However, despite what the title would have you believe this is still very much a sequel to Prometheus in terms of storyline and also tries to retains many of its sensibilities while also functioning as a monster movie and the results can be rather schizophrenic in terms of tone.

Prometheus ended with what appeared to be the creation of the first xenomorph through the combination of an Engineer and a squid-like monster that was implanted into the Noomi Rapace character and removed using a medical station.  This is pretty much ignored if not re-coned out of existence by Alien: Covenant and we are instead given a new interpretation of how the xenomorph came to be.  This is the most Prometheus-like element of the movie.  I don’t want to give too much about this away but let’s just say that it involves a mad scientist, interesting imagery and Percy Shelly quotes.  Prometheus was also plenty pretentious but it seemed a little more earnest about it, here it almost kind of just feels like the new writing staff is a lot less interested and are just doing their best to throw a few philosophical ideas because that’s considered to be part of the franchise now.  That isn’t to say that a couple of these ideas aren’t without interest, but they seem weaker and they sometimes clash with some of the more base genre elements that are here as well.  These genre elements are… alright.  There’s certainly some nicely gooey looking gore here and a few interesting set-pieces, but a lot of them seem like they should be a lot more exciting in theory than they actually are.

The movie certainly isn’t as suspenseful as Alien, not by a long shot, and it also isn’t anywhere near as thrilling and action packed as Aliens.  In fact the Alien movie is most reminds me of might actually be Alien 3.  Like that movie this tries to go back to the “one or two aliens versus multiple humans” but less effectively than the original, and like that movie it does have a few decent kill scenes, and like that movie it has a slightly undercooked but potentially interesting element of character study.  Needless to say, that isn’t the Alien movie you want to be compared to but to be fair it is better than being compared to Alien: Resurrection or one of the Alien Vs. Predator movies.  Ridley Scott does remain a solid craftsman and the movie does share a lot of the solid design work and cinematography that made Prometheus work as well as it did even if they don’t seem as fresh and interesting this time around, but it also carries over that movie’s tendency to have its characters do remarkably stupid things to get themselves killed, and frankly I think this movie is way worse in that regard.  In many ways it’s a movie that just carries over a lot of its predecessor’s flaws while also minimizing a lot of its strengths to almost be the worst of both worlds and it’s only through Ridley Scott’s skill and hutzpah that it isn’t a much bigger disaster than it is.

2_zpsouqiyr54

20th Century Women(1/21/2017)

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It’s amazing how useful a high concept can be, at least when it comes to spreading the word about a movie.  For instance, Arrival can easily be described as “a woman must learn an alien language in order to save the world” and while that is a gross oversimplification it certainly gets the attention of the person you’re talking to and gives them an idea what they’re into and makes them want to hear more.  It works for movies that are basically grounded character studies as well, for instance the fact that Moonlight has that tryptic structure gives it a distinctive little hook that makes it easier to convey something that’s special about it real quick.  When a movie doesn’t have a catchy little hook things can get a little harder explain.  Take the new film 20th Century Women for example: when someone asks what that’s about you stuck fumbling though this long explanation about how it’s this movie set in the late 70s with this unconventional family with a single mother and a tenant and this teenage son who feels things and… etc etc.  That’s a mouthful and I suspect it will limit the movie’s audience, but it is a movie that’s worth considering so give me a minute to explain all of this.

The film is set in Santa Barbra in 1979 and focuses in on a mother and son.  The mother is named Dorothea (Annette Benning), who had her son relatively late in life and divorced her ex-husband not long after.  She has something of a free spirited attitude and raises her son in a somewhat unconventional way.  That son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is now fifteen and entering into that age when teenagers generally withdraw from their parents and she begins to worry about his well-being after an incident where he’s hurt taking part in a dangerous choking game.  In response she approaches his childhood friend, who is emphatically not a girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning) as well as a tenant living in the house whom Jamie admires named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and asks that they sort of help out in his upbringing in certain ways.  This is a rather vague and unusual request and the two react to it a bit differently.  Also in the mix is a guy named William (Billy Crudup) who has been helping with some construction on the house, and he sort of interacts with the characters in various ways as well.

20th Century Women was written and directed by Mike Mills who is probably best known for helming the 2010 film Beginners.  That movie is probably most notable for a performance in it by Christopher Plummer, which earned the veteran actor a long overdue Oscar.  Otherwise though, I found that movie to be fairly forgettable and I can’t say I was expecting a whole lot more from Mills’ follow-up.  However, 20th Century Women seems to be something of a refinement of the style that Mills explored in that previous movie.  Both employ vaguely wistful voice-overs and both also use cutaways both to fill in past events and also to give the film a vaguely collage feel at times.  All of that is handled a lot better this time around and the film adds to that an interest in rich period detail.  The movie makes a very big point of the fact that it’s set in 1979, which seems to be a year that was very carefully chosen.  This was after all the year Kramer Vs. Kramer came out, divorce was slowly becoming a fact of American life but it wasn’t quite the norm yet and a family like this was still certainly a bit outside of the absolute mainstream.  What’s more that hippie spirit was still sort of alive, certainly in Santa Barbara at least, and the punk scene (which was decidedly post-punk at this point) was still providing something of a counter-cultural voice albeit a lot more faintly than it used to.

The film thrives in its ability to create unique characters and give them interesting dynamics between one another.  Central to the movie of course is the relationship between the mother and the son.  Dorothea is introduced as a child of the depression who is in her 50s as the movie opens.  She’s way less judgmental and more permissive than you’d expect from someone of that generation and has a bit of the hippie to her.  There are limits to this open mindedness however and she can be a bit smothering at times and Annette Benning does a solid job of hitting this balancing act.  Under her guidance her son has grown to be a fairly open minded if somewhat passive teenager, albeit one with the usual angst for someone of his age.  Then there’s the Abbie character who is involved in the punk scene but also has a bit of a depressive side to her as she’s recovering from cervical cancer as the film begins.  Her attempts to help “raise” Jamie are interesting if a touch comical at times like her decision that he needs to read her copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves.” Gretta Gerwig, an actress who has somehow managed to avoid playing a girlfriend in a superhero movie thus far, gives one of her best performances here and breaks with the borderline typecasting she was starting to fall into.  Finally there’s Elle Fanning’s Julie, who has an interesting relationship with Jamie in that she insists on being “just friends” with him despite the fact that he clearly has a crush on her and she interacts with him in semi-intimate ways that a “just friend” normally would not.

At times 20th Century Women started to feel like it was going to just be a collection of really well drawn characters with no real movie to actually fit them all, but I do think it ultimately comes together at the end and justifies itself.  In many ways the movie seems to be presenting a vision of a world where everyone sort of behaves exactly the way third wave feminism wants them to: the women talk openly about their inner womanly thoughts (often to the point of oversharing), the men listen intently and spend a lot of time thinking about the women’s feelings, no one is slut shamed, and single motherhood is only a moderate challenge.  It seems like a pretty pleasant world, but it also kind of rings a little false at times; like a vision of an imagined utopia rather than the real world where people don’t share all their feelings like this and people aren’t as receptive of advice.  In this sense the film is almost like a vigorous defense for building a pleasant bubble around yourself and your family (whatever form that may take) even if it can only last so long.  The film is breezy but impactful and it was ultimately a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with these people.

4

Arrival(11/14/2016)

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Science fiction is more popular right now than ever… at least if you’re willing to have a sort of loose definition of what the genre covers.  Six of the top ten highest grossing movies of last year could be called science fiction if you’re willing to expand the genre to include films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Inside Out, but even though those movies involve killer robots, DNA manipulation, and symbolically technological manifestations of the mind none of them quite have that sci-fi smell to them.  Even the more unambiguously futuristic of these sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 ultimately feel more like action movies than like true ruminations on humanities future and its relation to technology.  Movies that really truly feel like pure science fiction rather than a sci-fi twist on some other genres are pretty rare.  The only noteworthy movies from last year which would seem to fit the bill are The Martian, Ex Machina, maybe Tomorrowland and possibly ChappieEx Machina in particular seemed to be the real standard bearer for “thinking man’s sci-fi” and while it was made on a very small scale it seemed to have a pretty remarkable cultural impact for what it was.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the kind of brainy sci-fi that a certain kind of slightly nerdy cinephille craves is pretty rare so when one actually gets made it tends to be a pretty big event, and that’s why movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are so hotly anticipated.

Arrival appears to be set in the present or very near future and begins when twelve large cylindrical alien spaceships suddenly arrive on earth and begin to hover over twelve separate and seemingly random places on earth including one ship that stopped in a largely uninhabited location in Montana which is quickly cordoned off and isolated by the military.  The ships do not show any overt signs of aggression but cause great amounts of worry among the populace just the same.  All this is shown from the perspective of a linguist working at a university named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who seems to be overcoming a great loss as the film begins.  Shortly after “the arrival” she is contacted by a US Army Colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker), who knew of her from some previous top secret translation work she did for the military.  After some convincing Weber agrees to bring Banks out to the site and see the UFO for herself.  There she learns that the military has been able to board the ship periodically and see the aliens but have no real way to speak with them in their rather unusual language, but think that Banks and a scientist she’ll been working with named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) might have what it takes to break through and determine what these aliens want.

Arrival is directed by a guy named Denis Villeneuve who’s made a number of movies recently that I’ve been less enamored with than a lot of people.  I thought Prisoners was kind of ridiculous, that Enemy was rather ill-conceived, and that Sicario wasn’t as smart as it thought it was.  However, most of my complaints about all those movies tended to be leveled more towards the various writers involved than at Villeneuve’s direction.  I’ve always held out hope that when Villeneuve finally found the right script that he could pull off something special and with Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival, which is based on a Nebula winning novella by Ted Chiang, I think he’s finally found material that’s worthy of his talent.

The film clearly resembles Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact in that it presents something of a procedural exploration of how the world would react to a potential first contact situation with an alien intelligence but there are also hints of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the way the government struggles to communicate with the aliens and in the way the characters take their encounters fairly personally.  What follows is an exploration in the difficulties of communication as the Amy Adams character tries to figure out how to get through to these aliens while the world goes mad around her.  Adams, who rarely disappoints, continues to does a great job of anchoring this movie.  In the last couple of years she’s done a great job of transitioning from her early “adorkable” roles into a more well-rounded actress who can really carry a movie.  Jeremy Renner is also a solid co-star, though I’m not quite sure what Forrest Whitaker doing with his accent in this.  Villeneuve also has some solid collaborators behind the scenes like his longtime composer of choice Jóhann Jóhannsson but I was a lot less impressed with the film’s cinematography by Bradford Young.  Young is a young (no pun intended) DP who is viewed as something of a wunderkind by the media, but I don’t really see the appeal.  His movies all look like they’re being played on TVs that have had the brightness jacked up with all the blacks being diluted into greys.  Given the setting this isn’t quite as distracting as it was in Selma but I still don’t really care for it.

Arrival is kind of a difficult film to talk about without going into spoilers.  As you can probably guess there’s something of a twist about three quarters of the way into the film which makes you rethink a lot of what came before and it’s certainly something that takes a minute to wrap your head around.  I’m not going to take a deep dive into it right now but it is a twist with implications that are at once both fascinating and not entirely logical but I think I mostly liked it.  I don’t see Arrival going down in the annals of great science fiction as a classic of the genre, but it is solid, certainly smarter than what you’d usually expect from what looks like a very expensive movie from Paramount Pictures.  Maybe that says something about the low standards of Hollywood right now… or maybe it suggests that we’re a little spoiled from all the truly excellent science fiction we’ve had in the past and the very high standard that was set by movies like The Abyss, The Day the Earth Stood Still or the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact.  Either way, it’s definitely a movie worth seeing even if it kind of falls into a strange middle ground between summer blockbuster and award contender.

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