Monday, November 28, 2016

Arrival (2016)

You may have noticed that I have this tendency to compare compelling science fiction to Inception. In fact, in the case of Big Hero 6, Looper, and Transcendence, I usually draw a straight line back to 2010. This inclination, I admit, is somewhere between hagiography and tracking cultural influence, for few will deny that I am a disciple of Christopher Nolan and that the post-2010 science-fiction line-up does have a lot in common with Inception.

However, I’m not going to say that Arrival has much to do with Inception. (Nor am I going to spoil anything, promise.) Instead, I’m going to draw the connective tissue a little closer to the present, toward Nolan’s most recent film. Arrival is essentially a moody, Kubrickian Interstellar, without much in common with Inception beyond the same pleasant mental gymnastics as we follow along with the film’s very smart plot.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistic professor whose loose affiliation with the United States government puts her at the top of the list when twelve alien spacecraft arrive on earth. Drafted to help translate an alien language in order to understand the spacecrafts’ purpose on our planet, Dr. Banks works with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) and a wary colonel (Forest Whitaker) to piece together the mystery of the arrival.

Not just because both films utilize Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” to great effect (and affect), there are parts of Arrival that feel very much like Martin Scorsese’s underrated Shutter Island (perhaps not coincidentally, also 2010, a real important year for me as a filmgoer). Somewhere between Arrival’s fog-bound aesthetic and its depiction of resilient optimism in the face of a crumbling world, a belief that ultimately things will make sense if we study them hard enough, I was reminded of Shutter Island and its similarly determined worldview. In both films, we have a “detective” of sorts, whose dogged pursuit of a graspable truth – in whose existence very few of the other characters actually believe – plays out amid dreary weather and mournful violin solos which suggest the intangibility of truth and the inherent sorrow therein. However, in Arrival as in Shutter Island, the truth is out there, if only we had eyes to see it.

In Arrival, those eyes belong to Louise Banks, and thank heavens we have Amy Adams to play the part. In a just world, Adams would be in the running for Best Actress, because her portrayal of the linguist is stunning and powerful, conveying much with a frown or a furrowed brow, and her earnest desire to understand the aliens is something that comes through even as we see just how scared she is of the possibilities presented by life beyond our little blue world. We have all these other dudes in the film – and yes, Adams is pretty much the only woman in the film, which can’t be accidental – but they take a backseat to Adams’s performance.

For as small and intimate as the film’s focus is on Louise Banks, the film has a simultaneous grandeur to it that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The twelve alien ships, several stories high and hovering above the ground, recall Kubrick’s black monolith, suggesting perhaps shared common ground in both films’ treatment of mankind’s future and our place among the stars. There are moments in Arrival that feel a bit as though Stanley Kubrick is directing an adaptation of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff is an immense being at which we can only marvel, slack-jawed, while we attempt to comprehend. But where Brontë left Heathcliff somewhat inscrutable, where Kubrick might have left him to the dimension of the metaphorical, Arrival takes the occasion of immensity as a moment of contemplation. Louise begins in fear of the aliens, but track her evolution throughout the film.

Arrival isn’t a puzzle box like Inception, where we have to struggle mightily to keep up. Rather, it’s more akin to the scientific affect of Interstellar, in which mystery elements fit together thematically, not solely by virtue of their ability to clear up the plot. Rather than comprehend, we understand; we feel it. Arrival has a depth to it, a sense of truth and a very valuable point about geopolitics and the need for a utopian perspective. Louise Banks has that utopian vision, that belief that her work has purpose, direction, and possibility, where others see only futility and predetermination. It’s to the film’s credit that it convinces us to see things her way, and in a brilliant third-act reveal, teaches us how to do it, too.

Director Denis Villenueve – we at The Cinema King remember him fondly from Prisoners – is slated to direct the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049, and while I’ve never thought that film needed a sequel, seeing Villenueve at the helm of a compelling and grand science fiction film has me rethinking my tune.

Arrival is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” Directed by Denis Villenueve. Written by Eric Heisserer. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

I’m not sure how much cache a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival has to the world at large, but to me it says that a film is worth a look. And while a ten-minute standing ovation is difficult to fathom for most anything (I put more stock in rewatches and DVD sales), Hacksaw Ridge is a compelling war film that seems primed for a place of prominence when the Oscar calendar closes in a few weeks.

Andrew Garfield stars in the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who nevertheless enlists in World War II as a combat medic, refusing to carry a rifle and earning the ire of his commanding officers (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington). Throughout, Doss refuses to compromise his values, even amid the challenges of his Great War veteran father (Hugo Weaving) and new bride (Teresa Palmer).

What surprised me most about Hacksaw Ridge was the way that director Mel Gibson unites two very disparate tones in a way that’s surprisingly compelling and which makes the second half all the more effective. The film begins feelings very much at home in the 1940s, reminiscent of something like Sergeant York or The Best Years of Our Lives, with a very simple romantic plot arc that’s almost syrupy sweet. This nearly naïve worldview is thrown into stark contrast to the horrific fog of war in the film’s second half, in which Doss’s wide-eyed beliefs are tested in the most intense crucible imaginable. That the film doesn’t feel like two disparate halves is perhaps Gibson’s greatest achievement here.

When it comes to directing combat footage, Gibson’s no slouch, either. In this respect, the film has been compared to Saving Private Ryan (which, full confession, I still haven’t seen), and there’s a certain brutality to the war scenes that succeeds all the more because of the false sense of security into which the film’s first half lulls us. But even taken in isolation, Hacksaw Ridge has a grisly intensity in its war sequences that is both disconcerting for its gore and frightening in the number of jump moments Gibson manages to navigate. We truly feel, as Doss must have, that we are out of our element.

Garfield’s earnest portrayal of the peaceable country boy goes a long way toward selling the central conceit of the film, and I have to wonder if we’ll be looking at a Best Actor contender when the next Academy Awards roll around. (I also wonder if Gibson’s cactus-hugging days are behind him and if he’ll be up for Best Director, as well.) Garfield plays Doss as a man of conviction, a man for whom his decisions don’t come easily. When his father chastises him for wrestling with his conscience, it’s not a revelation for the character; we’ve already seen these conflicts play out on Garfield’s face and in the quaver of his voice. Even if he’ll always be a Spider-Man to me, Garfield proves himself capable of a range wider than my typecasting gives him credit.

It’s really a Gibson/Garfield show through and through, although the film wisely cedes the floor to the real Desmond Doss just before the credits roll, letting us see the real soldier on his own terms and revealing that the film doesn’t exaggerate much about his humility and his religious devotion. It’s these real-life clips which confirm the truth of the story that the film tells us, and in so doing it solidifies my belief that Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most powerful war films in recent memory. Uncompromising in both its wartime gore and its dedication to the true story of a remarkable hero, Hacksaw Ridge is a strong contender for early award buzz, and it’s entirely well-deserved.

Hacksaw Ridge is rated R for “intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.” Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Based on a true story. Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, and Hugo Weaving.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

Blend Iron Man with Guardians of the Galaxy, stir in a liberal portion of Inception, and season lightly with Grey’s Anatomy, then bake for two hours in the classic Marvel Cinematic Universe formula, and you can imagine something pretty close to Doctor Strange, Marvel’s fourteenth and latest film which introduces magic and interdimensionality into the narrative tapestry of the MCU. While some have used the word “formula” derisively, Doctor Strange is an excellent example of why we don’t fix that which is not broken.

Benedict Cumberbatch joins the MCU world as Stephen Strange, an arrogant and narcissistic surgeon whose fate changes after a grisly car accident ends his medical practice by shattering his hands. In search of answers, Strange travels to Kamar-Taj, where he learns from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her pupil Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the magic of the mystic arts. As rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) breaches the boundaries of reality to invite discord, Strange must choose between his old life and the new responsibilities he learns in Kamar-Taj.

Director Scott Derrickson has to introduce a lot of new things to Marvel with Doctor Strange, and he does a deft job of taking the universe into a new direction. While some of the magical aspects of the film resonate with Thor: The Dark World’s convergences and Ant-Man’s microverse, Doctor Strange is the most overtly mystical Marvel film to date, but a thrilling opener in the Mirror Dimension convinces the audience that this is all of a piece with what’s come before. Derrickson certainly owes a debt to the extra-gravitational imagery of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, sharing with the 2010 film a fondness for bending cityscapes and rotating corridors.

Derrickson also has to shuffle Benedict Cumberbatch into the MCU, and it’s honestly a little shocking that a star this big had to wait eight years to break in. But boy, does he fit right at home. Cumberbatch plays Strange as startlingly unpleasant in the film’s first act (with a particularly brutal one-liner to McAdams, which might be the MCU’s meanest line to date), and his sincerity in scenes laden with special effects goes a long way to selling us on the inherent strangeness (no pun intended) of the film’s conceits.

While I might not have intended to make a joke just there, Doctor Strange intends several, with a brand of humor that is more akin to the quirks of Guardians of the Galaxy than the snappy one-liners of Captain America: Civil War. (The librarian Wong, in particular, reminds one of Dave Bautista’s Drax.) Indeed, for all the high-concept magic and interdimensional strife at play in Doctor Strange, the film is surprisingly funny, lighthearted in the way we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Even characters like The Ancient One have their wry jests, and in that sense Doctor Strange’s sense of humor is more unexpected and therefore more successful. (Humor, after all, relies on the collision of the expected with the unexpected.)

As fantastic as Civil War was, reminding us of all the things we’ve loved about the MCU, Doctor Strange has me excited for the future of the universe, showing what can be done when the film tries something a little offbeat, something new about which the audience might not already have a preconceived notion. With Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the horizon, Marvel is setting up for a few new tricks, but if Doctor Strange becomes a kind of Iron Man for the future (both in setting tone and in installing an iconic star as the figurehead), I’m on board for fourteen more.

PS - Be certain to check out a 3D screening. I can't imagine the film working halfway as well in two dimensions.

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence.” Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill. Based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.