Monday, November 14, 2016

Arrival Review

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast Headliners: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker
Original Release Date: November 11th, 2016

                 Without much prior pomp or circumstance, Arrival … arrived into theaters to resounding critical praise. Based upon Ted Chiang’s short story, the movie is about an aliens coming to modern day of our planet. But unlike many films of its type, there is no laser battles or an immediate race to save the world. The film is a puzzle to be solved through a philosophical journey that is not without its sequences of awes and excitement. This all happens from an interesting lens and logical perspective that is not often seen in movies of the genre.
                The film follows from day one as 12 “shells” (black obelisk type floating alien mega aircraft) descend onto the world in various locations. The world feels a sense of panic but moreso in the form of uncertain dread.  Into this situation, Dr.Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a brilliant linguist is tapped by the US military under Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to solve the mystery of the shells and the alien organisms within.  
                The film does a fantastic job at creating a mysterious atmosphere as the shells and their denizens are met and explored. The majority of the film only, and effectively, takes place at one shell site in Montana.  The alien ship feels very real inside despite its almost weird magical properties. So too are the alien “heptapods” mysterious in every encounter, awe inspiringly giant squids that moreso invoke beautiful awe than any more than minimal terror.
                The movie’s themes tackle some fascinating and likely true points. If aliens came to our world, how would nations react? How would human beings react to literally meeting intelligent beings from another world? There’s are explored with deft and sense.  But the core, intriguing idea is to involve language. Whereas many sci-fi films would tap some form of military person or special agent, Adam’s Louise solves the important process of language through surreal visual puzzles. This is a true concern not just for extra-terrestrial cultures but for those on our own world. The movie has powerful themes of the importance of communication.  It’s very neat to see how the puzzles are solved, and while it can be a bit repetitive and lulls in the middle as compared to the first expedition and exciting climax, it does make one think and go “ah!”
                It’s a joy to see Adam’s performance as Louise, as she brings sincerity and wit to the role. The work takes a toll on her, and we see glimpses of lost loved ones to raise the dramatic stakes. Likewise, Renner’s Ian offers slight comic relief and plentiful friendly charm and answers as he works alongside. Most of the cast isn’t anyone notable within the film itself or in casting. Government tie ins in Whitaker’s Colonel or CIA Agent Halper (Michael Stuhlberg) make things serious but don’t show up often. The same can be said for the slightly, but perhaps purposefully disconnected, “antagonist “ in China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma).  The movie does well when it focuses on the core group of the two main leads and their aliens.
                The deep narrative gets better and better as the film goes on. Director Denis Villenueve weaves together news footage, CGI yet realistic creations, flashbacks, and other time lapses to tell the tale. The music also adds well to the ambience, sounding alien in its use of vocals with its orchestrations.  It has a solid level of cinematography and visual craft. However by the end, its twist have an emotional resonance but in retrospect is derivative of such works as those by Christopher Nolan (particularly Interstellar and Inception) but this doesn’t reduce their drama.

                For a film about the language of aliens, the movie tells a very philosophical tale of the relationship of humans.  It’s a mostly unique and interesting ride, and for fans of the genre is worth the time if they have it to spare.  8.45 out of 10

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange
Director: Scott Derickson
Cast Headliners: Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Chiwefel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong
Original Release Date: November 4th, 2016

       Just as with 2015's Ant-Man (and to a extent some of the supporting players of this year's earlier Captain America Civil War), the MCU is dipping deep, deep into obscure comic lore. It's surreal (no pun intended) that Dr.Strange has finally gotten a film. The Sorceror Supreme himself, master of magic and dimensions..... somehow exists in this same world but after the past few cosmic adventures, that's no surprise. Benedict Cumberbatch leads his first truly blockbuster film in the lead role, filled to the brim with action and magic, ups and downs.

The movie starts with an often seen trope of (Thor 2, Avengers 1) background setup and action. Quickly and effectively if bit chaotically showing the motivations of villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a fallen dark former apprentice of The Ancient One(Tilda Swinton). After giving audiences a crazy surreal taste (we'll get to more on that later) of the zany magic dimensional combat of the film, things come to a slightly drastic tonal shift.

As with most origin movies, and at first the film falls victim to its tropeyness and stereotypical flow/feel (ahem see Iron Man 1 / Batman Begins did this long first) we meet the civilian life of neurosurgeon Dr.Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who needs no secret identity with what he can do. His arrogance and slight humor at first are decent alongside partner and slight love interest fellow doctor Christine Palmer(Rachel McAdams). A tragic event ruins the use of Strange's hands, leading him to spiritual journey of rebirth and healing.
Much like his character arc, Cumberbatch's performance takes some getting used to and warming up but improves by the end. Although it's an extremely questionable decision, the actor trades his trademark rich British accented natural voice for a very fake sounding American accent. When he's dealing with his doctor prologue stuff, it makes the film feel a bit like a cheap ER show with nobodies. He only improves as the situations get more fantastical. After the event, there are many deep, emotional dramatic scenes which Benedict is great in. And he even becomes decently witty and fearsome in his abilities that one forgets his accent entirely as he becomes “Superheroic” and blends into the tapestry of all. One cheers for him in the end, and will be left anxiously waiting for more of his intelligent witty charm and awesome magic force/dimension warping abilities in future Marvel films(seriously, he makes Vision and Scarlet Witch seem like smalltimers).

The supporting cast is mixed degrees of great to forgettable. McAdam's Christine never quite gets too emotional, deep, or more than some “oh this is all so crazy” reactions towards the weaker end of the spectrum of MCU love interests. As too is Mikkelsen's Kaecilius. Sure him and his evil minions look cool and fierce but there's very little motivation besides some random dialogue bits and he barely gets to interact with the main cast, or even have screentime at all. He's vague , generic, and and decently evil and dangerous in fights but far from anything more than a blip in the film. Consider him at the tier of say Malekith from Thor 2 (though luckily the film is much more varied and quality crafted) and his plans/scenes with his ultimate master Dormammu(also Cumberbatch, Hobbit trilogy style) are more effectively evil.

It's fortunate that once Strange finds the place of magic he finds the film's best supporters as well. Swinton's The Ancient One is a great performance, and a powerful and mysterious character. As always she lives this role,transforms into something one of a kind and fills the movie with deeper, spiritual moments which might inspire even the audience. Mordo(Chiwefel Ejiofor) is a cool and tough teacher of magic, and his character goes through a fascinating arc fitting of the actor's usual intense performance. Wong(Benedict Wong) leads to most of the film's great use of humor in his interactions with Strange, though the film has some pretty solid writing overall.
The story has some really clever scenes of dialogue and events to make viewers understand all this crazyness. Strange's arc of redemption and growth is cool to see unfold, and while it's noticeably too rushed between when he is still learning to going about saving the world it's cool to see the stakes unfold and learn about the deep crazy lore.

Which leads to the highest, majestic highlight of the film... the otherworldly, other dimensionally CGI efffects, panaromas, and visuals. There's so many scenes that use fantastic special effects that are larger than life but it works. There's scenes that are indescribable, setting a bar for psychelia like never before, right out of the 1970s comic glory days. These mind bending “visions” and magic reality bending translate over to the action scenes as well. These scenes are peppered in through the earlier parts but once they get picking up the end is quite amazing and intense. If held back a bit by Marvel film trademarks, the action is, like Ant-Man and some others, wholly, intensely, and greatly unique and “strange” apart in its greatness. Director Scott Derickson must be praised on that.

It takes a bit to get going, and makes some mistakes in character usage and logic. But the great aspects are really good and sets up a benchmark for wanting more in the future. It's a wild , magic ride very worth seeing on the big screen, if the wacky wizard dimensions premise seems appealing. Marvel has another solid one, and although it doesn't rewrite the book its a fun ride, and to a fan of the character a pretty solid adaptation. 8.6 out of 10