Arrival (2016)


Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sangita Patel, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowski, Mark O’Brien, Jadyn Malone, Ruth Chiang, Anana Rydvald, Julia Scarlett Dan, Nathaly Thibault, Leisa Reid, Frank Fiola, Russell Yuen, Pat Kiely, Larry Day, Joe Cobden, Julian Casey, Carmela Nossa Guizzo, Andrew Shaver, Genevieve Sirois. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

We take language for granted. After all, despite the many languages on the planet, we are basically aware of all the various alphabets and pictographs that make up written language. We are also the same species and can communicate non-verbally if necessary. What happens when we encounter an alien species with whom we have no basis for communication?

Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguist teaching at a fairly well-known university. One day her class – already sparsely attended – is interrupted by the students all getting excited texts over the phone. At last Louise, watching her students abandon her classroom, finds a television set and discovers that an alien spaceship has arrived in Montana. As it later turns out, it is one of twelve positioned all over the world.

Of course, the big question is “what do they want?” When the military in the form of Colonel Weber (Whitaker) knocks at her door, she takes the opportunity. What scientist wouldn’t want to be among those making first contact with an alien race? Certainly not Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist who is also on the team whom Louise meets on the way to the landing site, although landing is perhaps a misnomer; the alien vessel floats majestically 28 feet above the ground. It’s not as if Louise has anything holding her at home, as she is completely alone. She often thinks about her teenage daughter Hannah who passed away of what appears to be cancer.

As it turns out, the aliens appear every 18 hours like clockwork but nobody has been able to communicate with them yet which is of course why Louise was brought in. The team enters the spaceship via a scissor lift which gets them to a certain point; after that the aliens thoughtfully manipulate gravity so the team can make it comfortably the rest of the way.

They appear behind a glass barrier with swirling white mist. The aliens, gigantic grey beings with seven limbs are dubbed “heptapods” as they somewhat resemble octopi with a missing limb. Louise discovers that the circular shapes that they conjure up in the mist is their written language. With eleven other scientific teams also working to make contact in places like Siberia, China and Venezuela, the scientists work overtime trying to interpret the alien language. Louise begins to make breakthroughs, understanding that the squiggly circles all represent concepts rather than letters of an alphabet.

However, differences in opinion over what the squiggly circles mean begin to raise tensions between the various nations. The Chinese are certain that the aliens are trying to give them a weapon and their leader, General Shang (Ma) has cut off communication with the other teams. The CIA type (Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is inclined to believe the same thing. Now the race is to prove that the aliens are not out to start a war or destroy humanity utterly and it’s a race that Louise is not sure she can win.

This is based on the story “The Story of Your Life” written by scientist and science fiction author Ted Chiang and from what I understand the movie is remarkably faithful to the short story. Villeneuve went to great lengths to insure the scientific accuracy on his production which also deserves kudos. This is most definitely not for those who think sci-fi movies should be full of lasers and space battles and sleek spaceships. The spacecraft used here resembles a contact lens more than anything and is pretty much bare and featureless. Villeneuve purposely made the alien environment foggy and grey with almost no color whatsoever. Some might find that boring.

Those who like their sci-fi cerebral won’t find this boring. The concepts brought up by Chiang and Villeneuve include our perception of time, the importance of language, and of course our perspective on our place in the universe. There are also themes of loss, grief and faith. Villeneuve doesn’t really spoon-feed you anything; he sets you up with an idea and allows you to process it however you choose. Not everyone will like that; my lovely wife felt that she was condescended to although to be truthful I didn’t feel that way at all.

Adams who is already one of the top actresses in Hollywood today moves to another level here. Her Louise is surrounded by an air of sadness and regret. There is already much Oscar buzz around her performance here and she will certainly merit consideration for a nomination. It is a layered performance that is both emotional and smart. Roles that change the way you think about an actor are few and far between; this is one of them.

It is always refreshing to see a movie that really isn’t like any other. Sure, first contact films have been done in many different ways but none quite like this one. Denis Villeneuve has put forth a bold claim to being one of the best filmmakers of this era; his filmography certainly backs it up. Arrival may be the best movie the French-Canadian director has done and given what he has on his resume that’s saying something.

REASONS TO GO: The script is profound and thought-provoking. The filmmakers don’t skimp on the science. Adams gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Arrival shows out of the box thinking on nearly every level of filmmaking.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too cerebral for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity is briefly uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Renner and Adams previously co-starred together in American Hustle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contact
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: All We Had

Advertisements

Diablo


Scott Eastwood is smoking hot.

Scott Eastwood is smoking hot.

(2015) Western (Orion/Momentum) Scott Eastwood, Walton Goggins, Camilla Belle, Samuel Marty, Danny Glover, Adam Beach, Roberto Franco, Diego Diablo Del Mar, Nesta Cooper, William Belleau, Morris Birdyellowhead, Tzi Ma, Greg Lawson, Yaniv Bercowitz, Rohan Campbell, Joaquim De Almeida, José Zuñiga. Directed by Lawrence Roeck

There isn’t anything a man won’t do when one of his loved ones are threatened. He’ll find them if he has to go to the ends of the earth to do it. He’ll take on any odds; do whatever it takes to bring them home safe and sound, even if it means doing things that may damn his soul.

Jackson (Eastwood) emerges from a burning home and barn to discover that his wife Alexsandra (Belle) has been taken by a group of desperadoes who speak Spanish. Once he rescues his horse from the barn, he takes off through the wilderness to find her. While in the mountains he meets up with Ezra (Goggins), an outlaw who takes great pleasure in killing indiscriminately. He also has an encounter with Ishani, a young Native (Marty) who fires a couple of arrows at him, but when Jackson realizes he’s just a boy spares his life.

The trail is hard and with the relentless Ezra stalking him, Jackson eventually ends up injured and cared for by Ishani’s tribe particularly his father Nakoma (Beach). However, not everyone in the tribe thinks that Jackson is necessarily the good man he seems to be and it is urged that he be given peyote and put into the sweat lodge. There, Jackson has a vision of his younger brother with whom he went to the Civil War to seven years earlier and it certainly seems that Jackson may have a few skeletons in his closet after all.

There are elements of classic Westerns in this movie, particularly in the first two thirds of it although there are elements of the Westerns of Peckinpah and Leone as well. I think the movie is going for an overall gritty feel, which isn’t a bad thing but it feels like Roeck is forcing it a little bit. There is lots of violence (some of it gruesome) and some pretty rough customers here traveling the byways of the West (mostly filmed in beautiful Alberta). Veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey outdoes himself here, giving us beautiful Rocky Mountain vistas that are absolutely dazzling, truly one of the highlights of the movie.

Goggins, who has been getting more high profile roles lately, does sterling work as the amoral Ezra. The costume helps a lot as he looks a bit like an undertaker but there is a cheerful malevolence to him that is scarier than a Snidely Whiplash type of villain. He is becoming quite a capable character actor; while the jury is out on whether he has lead role screen presence, I think it’s quite likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the near future. Eastwood’s career is also picking up; he has some high profile features on the horizon, but here although his physical resemblance to his father is significant, his screen presence isn’t as developed as his old man’s.

The movie has a serious drawback and it involves the plot twist. It’s not a bad one – don’t get me wrong on that point – but they reveal it way too early and it changes the entire nature of the movie. I can kind of see why they did it that way, but frankly it doesn’t work. It’s the kind of thing that would have best been revealed during the climactic scene.

Westerns have been making something of a comeback lately; there have been some very high quality ones that have been released in the last few months, but this isn’t one of them. That’s too bad because it has some very good individual elements, but it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole. There’s enough here to make it worth a look, particularly for those who love Westerns and those who love Clint Eastwood in particular, but even those worthies may be well-advised to play one of Clint’s classic on the home video player instead.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Goggins makes a malevolent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The twist is revealed too early. Tries too hard to be gritty.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, most of it in the style of the Old West, and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood has purposely avoided Westerns to avoid comparisons to his father even though he receives by his count more than 50 scripts every month; this is the first one he has actually agreed to do.
BEYOND THE THEATER: iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, M-Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pale Rider
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 5th Wave

Million Dollar Arm


Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Disney) Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Darlshan Jarlwala, Gregory Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma, Rey Maualuga, Bar Paly, Al Sapienza, Jaspaul Sandhu, Lata Shukla, Harish Shandra, Yashwant Joshi, Mike Pniewski, Suehyla El-Attar, Autumn Dial, Gabriela Lopez. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball, that most American of all sports, has gone global. Asian teams routinely win the Little League World Series and there have been Major League players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Latin America has long been a pipeline of major league baseball stars. There are even European players in the Majors. One of the places that have gone largely untapped, however, is India.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is a sports agent. He’s a pretty good one, good enough to buy himself a good life; a beautiful house, a Porsche, a downtown L.A. office and a steady stream of models to date. He’s also cocky enough to think that he doesn’t need the big agency he works for, so he strikes out on his own with his partner Aash (Mandvi). There he finds out that things aren’t quite so easy.

In fact, they’re near impossible. With his agency nearly bankrupt, they are relying on signing a high-profile NFL linebacker named Popo (Maualuga) to save their bacon. However, when he is swept away by the omnipresent agents from a big corporate agency, they and their receptionist Theresa (Rachel) are left to ponder what to do next.

For J.B., the answer comes at him like a bolt of lightning. He is sitting at home, binge drinking beers and aimlessly switching back and forth on the channels of his satellite TV between Indian cricket and the talent show Britain’s Got Talent when it hits him – India has more than a billion people that don’t follow baseball. If they could find a couple of pitchers from India, guys used to bowling in cricket, it might open up a brand new market much like Fernandomania did in Mexico.

He pitches it to a Chinese-American gazillionaire named Chang (Ma) who likes the concept and decides to invest. JB wants a major league scout to go with him. Aash can’t find one but does find a retired scout named Ray (Arkin) who might just have narcolepsy but who really knows his stuff. Aided by a laid-back Indian handler named Vivek (Jarlwala) and a baseball-obsessed translator who wants to be a coach someday named Amit (Pitobash), he goes on a tour of India, setting up tryouts for the show which proves to be quite popular. Out of the tryouts he finds two prospects – Rinku (Sharma) who is gangly and graceful with an odd ritual before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Mittal) who is a powerful thrower with control problems. The two winners accompany JB back to America.

There they will be as bewildered and confused by American culture as JB was by theirs. Working with former major league pitcher Tom House (Paxton) who now coaches at the University of Southern California, they know nothing about the game and have to be trained in the basics of fielding and batting, not to mention having their throwing motion worked on (incidentally, neither one of them played critic and both were ambivalent about the game both in the film and real life). JB kind of leaves them to the wolves.

That doesn’t sit well with Brenda (Bell), who rents the back unit of JB’s house and has gotten to know the boys. She knows they need to know he cares about them; that they feel lost and alone and without support. Of course, you know she and JB will develop a relationship but can these two raw talents from India beat the odds and get signed to a major league contract?

This is a Disney true life sports underdog movie so you can probably guess the answer to that question (and if you can’t, you can always Google it). Like a lot of these films that have come from Disney of late, this follows pretty much the same formula. Fortunately, there are some things that set it apart.

The sequences in India are colorful and amazingly shot. You get a sense of the chaotic conditions in that country, from the traffic to the lack of hygiene to the kind of crumbling colonial infrastructure that remains in a titanic bureaucracy. All that’s missing is the distinctive odor that, as Hamm puts it, comes and goes.

Lake Bell, so good in In a World… continues to develop into one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actresses. She’s smart, pretty and can be glamorous when she needs to be but seems much more comfortable in scrubs than in fancy dresses. She makes a fine foil for the likable Hamm who is looking for life after Don Draper. His role is surprisingly complex; he’s been able to get by on his charm and a grin, but that is no longer the case and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it. He also can be a bit of a jerk although he’s basically not a bad guy. In short, like most guys.

They do have Arkin amongst the fine supporting cast but he spends most of the movie literally asleep, which is a waste of the talents of a guy like Arkin. Mandvi, one of the funniest guys on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is utilized mainly as the straight man here and while he gets his share of comedic moments, again this isn’t really what he’s best at. The two young Indian actors garner empathy, but they aren’t developed well enough to go much farther than “fish out of water” status.

This is decently entertaining; you won’t go wrong by spending your ten bucks on it at the multiplex, but it isn’t anything that you’ll go home wanting to see again. While the Indian sequences certainly looked pretty marvelous on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting to catch this on home video, but as I said, there are things that elevate it above the sports film cliches that it is desperately trying to cling to. All that’s missing is Hamm screaming “Show me the money!”

REASONS TO GO: Hamm and Bell are endearing. India sequences are quite enjoyable.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Arkin is wasted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few mild swear words and some suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real J.B. Bernstein wasn’t an agent. He was (and is) a sports marketer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Blended

Formosa Betrayed


Formosa Betrayed

James Van Der Beek goes in guns blazing.

(2009) Political Drama (Screen Media) James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, Tzi Ma, Will Tiao, John Heard, Tom Jay, Chelcie Ross, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang, Adam Wang, Mintita Wattanakul, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Tonray Ho. Directed by Adam Kane

Most people are woefully uninformed. For the most part, it’s simply because we don’t want to be but even if we did we rarely get much truth from either the media or our governments. The way things appear to be are often not the way they are.

It all starts with what appeared to be a robbery gone bad. Professor Henry Wen (Foronda) is shot and killed by what appear to be ordinary carjackers. However, things begin to go sideways. The police discover that Wen was an outspoken opponent of the current regime in Taiwan (this movie takes place during the Reagan administration, by the way). The suspected killers appear to be Taiwanese nationals. The FBI is called in and Agent Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) is assigned to the case. When the suspects flee to Taiwan, Kelly is sent after them – but as an observer, not a participant. The actual capture of the killers is left to the Taiwanese police.

This much is made clear by the starchy Susan Kane (Crewson), a liaison from the State Department. Kelly is immediately thrown into a curious charade that simply extrudes intrigue. He is sent to parties celebrating his arrival; the police are remarkably uncooperative when it comes to letting him in on any real investigation. Kelly begins to suspect that something is rotten in Formosa.

Kelly is contacted by friends of the late professor; Ming (Tiao) takes him on something of a tour of Taiwan’s underbelly, where the face of democracy is replaced by a corrupt military dictatorship. Ruthless and repressive, it soon becomes evident that the murder of the professor was in all likelihood ordered by the Taiwanese government. This is not good news; it would be a diplomatic nightmare if word got out that a United States citizen (Wen was of Taiwanese descent but was a citizen of the U.S.) had been murdered by a foreign government, particularly one we didn’t recognize.

I am pulled in different directions by this movie. On the one hand, it is about something that is not reported on often in the United States. For that reason, I admire the film’s content. However, the execution leaves much to be desired. The setting is done as a standard thriller with many of the clichés of the genre, with car chases, shadowy figures, shoot-outs and lantern-jawed heroes.

Van Der Beek, who is best-known as Dawson Leary from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” is actually more than satisfactory in the FBI agent role. He gets across the character’s competency as well as his idealism while remaining a professional demeanor. It seems to me that an actual FBI agent in a similar situation would act with the same demeanor as Van Der Beek’s Jake would; however, his actions going all cowboy on the Taiwanese does seem a bit far-fetched, although it’s the kind of thing that gets forgiven in other movies with traditional action heroes in them. Crewson does a pretty good job as the diplomat who starts out by the book but ends up sympathetic. Heard is also a good fit as Van Der Beek’s superior.

I suppose because the subject matter was so compelling I wanted the rest of the movie to match up to it, and simply put, the writing seems a little bit formulaic to me. The actors try to work through it and do at least decent jobs in roles that are pretty much by-the-numbers, but the movie is rescued by a compelling story that is at least partially based on actual events, which makes the movie even more fascinating in my eyes.

WHY RENT THIS: Casts some light on events not well reported in this country.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfortunately, makes the setting a rather poorly executed potbroiler.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some of it unexpected and jarring. There is also a torture scene that some may find disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released on DVD in Taiwan on November 10 and proceeded to set records for single-day and single-week sales in Taiwan.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $326,034 on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Fighter