Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Arrival (2016) [PG-13] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on November 9, 2016.

The scenario presented in Arrival isn’t new - motion pictures have been dramatizing an event of this sort almost since moving images first flickered on a big screen. We wonder about it, dream about it, imagine it, and write about it. Popular television series have been devoted to it. The mythology of one locale in Nevada has been built up around it. I’m referring to extraterrestrial contact. There are those who would argue that it has already happened but, whether their claims are to be taken seriously or not, there has never been an undeniable encounter when humankind has come face-to-face with incontrovertible evidence that, as Steven Spielberg put it, we are not alone.

Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, the majority of first contact stories involve danger, invasion, battle, and destruction. Even a classic like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is about the threat of annihilation. More recent film additions into the genre include Independence Day (1996), Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), Transformers (2007), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), Oblivion (2013), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), to name just a few. It’s a rarity for a first contact movie to have a thoughtful, measured tone and to be concerned with realistically exploring how such a scenario might play out and what it might mean for the human race if the visitors were so different from us that communication and comprehension were significant barriers to interaction. Arrival is a great experience not only because it thoughtfully and intelligently dramatizes such a situation but because it assumes that audience members are thinking and paying attention as they watch it. That’s a welcome change-of-pace for a mainstream film and, if Arrival succeeds at the box office, it will shine as a beacon in favor of not dumbing down every production to appease the distracted and disinterested masses.

The aliens arrive not long after the movie begins - huge, oblong ships that hover just above the ground at twelve seemingly random locations around the globe. No one knows whether they come in peace because communication thus far isn’t possible. Although they permit people to board their ships and allow humans to see their seven-legged forms, the language of each species is unknown to the other. So, although the aliens show no hostile inclinations, a race as naturally suspicious and warlike as ours can’t help but plan for the worst.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a world-renowned professor of linguistics with a tragic past. As she wanders around her beautiful house overlooking a lake, she remembers the beloved teenage daughter she lost to cancer. This experience has shaped her life, making her reserved, taciturn, and a little sad. The government, in the person of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), comes calling, needing her help. They invite her to join a first contact team and, paired with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she boards the alien ship and begins the laborious process of deciphering the basics of the alien language.

There’s more to Arrival than this but to write at any length about where the movie goes and what revelations occur would be to spoil the viewer’s journey. Although communication may be at the heart of the film, the narrative segues beyond that. And human/alien exchanges aren’t the only kind of communication Arrival investigates. There’s also intra-species communication as nationalistic and xenophobic impulses create fractures in information-sharing.

The source material for Arrival, Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning 1998 short story, The Story of Your Life, might not seem filmable at first, but director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have found a way to do it. The essential themes about time, determinism, and language remain intact. The movie examines the intricacies and differences between spoken and written language in a manner that is not only lucid but interesting.

During a career that has spanned 17 years and garnered five Oscar nominations, Amy Adams has played a variety of quirky and serious roles, but perhaps only her character in Doubt has rivaled Louise for psychological complexity. Villeneuve intentionally deceives us about a few salient facts where Louise is concerned and Adams is complicit in this deception. It’s brilliantly conceived and executed and Adams’ performance is critical. Louise is no icon. She’s strong and independent but her hands tremble and her breathing comes in heaving gasps as the moment of truth approaches. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker provide solid support but this is Amy Adams’ movie.

I can think of only four other movies made in the last 40 years that have a similar level of sophistication and intelligence in their approach to connecting with the unknown: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Abyss (Director’s Cut, 1989), Contact (1997), and Interstellar (2014) Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, and Nolan - not bad company for French Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve, for whom Arrival represents a distinct change-of-pace from his previous outings, Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario. In its own way, this is just as challenging although not as grim. There’s hope in the answer to a very simple question that lies at Arrival’s core. The movie is so perfectly assembled and expertly paced that it’s impossible not to imagine Villeneuve getting an Oscar nomination. Based on the strength of his resume, and Arrival in particular, there’s every reason to be excited about his next project: Blade Runner 2049.

We don’t see serious science fiction like this nearly enough. The movie’s opening presents a credible scenario for first contact, not only in the way the aliens approach but in the way the world reacts to them. The international cooperation might at first seem refreshing but it’s littered with mistrust and parochial interests. Communication with the aliens provides a puzzle that needs solving but, as she gets closer to the truth, Louise is forced to look deep into her own soul. Why are the heptapods here? What do they want? The mysteries in Arrival run deeper than is initially apparent. Add to that a paranoid group of fanatics determined to thwart all the progress Louise makes and there’s a lot going on here.

The movie doesn’t end with Bill Pullman giving a rousing speech and a makeshift air force attacking alien ships (Independence Day). This resolution is more sublime and satisfying. Although Arrival is about first contact with extraterrestrials, it says more about the human experience than the creatures from another world. This is a singularly powerful movie, without question one of 2016’s best. [Berardinelli’s rating: **** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, mystery, sci-fi, space-time, thriller

Arrival plot and movie ending explained (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Passengers (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on December 21, 2016.

Passengers is an art-house science fiction movie that somehow got made by a major studio with A-list stars. The film owes more to castaway stories than traditional spacefaring tales and, at least during the first half, it’s ripe with existential angst. Passengers isn’t afraid to venture into dark territory; a choice made by the main character could charitably be considered morally dubious. Nevertheless, as questionable as his actions may be, they are entirely human and are handled with tact by director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, for which he was Oscar-nominated). The movie’s failings come during its final act when contrivances and an adherence to big budget conventions transform Passengers into a less compelling experience than what it starts out as.

This review will contain spoilers. It’s impossible to write intelligently about the film without giving a few things away. The action transpires sometime in the distant future. No date is given but, based on the level of technology, it’s closer to Star Trek than modern day. On board the Homestead II spaceship, 5000 passengers and 200+ crew members are in cryogenic sleep for a 120-year voyage to a distant colony. The ship, which is like a Titanic in space (unsinkable), encounters difficulties when it collides with an asteroid. One sleep pod malfunctions and mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) finds himself alone and awake 90 years before the ship reaches its destination. He spends one year trying to find a way to improve his situation but learns there’s no way for him to go back to sleep. He will die of old age before the ship reaches the planet or anyone else awakens. If he wants to salve his loneliness, he will have to wake someone else up.

Initially, Jim resists the impulse. But he is drawn to one woman, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and begins a form of stalking. He watches videos she has made and reads everything she has written. As the months go by, Jim becomes increasingly unstable, even considering suicide. Finally, he takes the decisive action to awaken Aurora, thereby condemning her to the same limbo existence he is enduring. He pretends it’s an accident. For a while, she believes him.

Jim is deeply flawed but the script goes to great lengths to present his actions sympathetically. Passengers doesn’t ask viewers to agree with what he does but it allows us to understand the state of desperation that leads him to act. In his situation, can any of us say with certainty we would ignore the constant temptation of companionship and live out our remaining 50 or 60 years in isolation, with only a bartender android named Arthur (Michael Sheen) as a companion?

Once Aurora is conscious, the movie plays out like a romance. These two mismatched souls are understandably drawn together. Once she acknowledges that her hopes and dreams have been shattered, she allows herself to fall in love with Jim. For his part, he basks in the glow of her presence but guilt gnaws at him. The secret eventually comes out (although the manner of its revelation is one of several facile screenwriting shortcuts that diminish Passengers) and the results are predictably devastating.

It almost feels like the final 40 minutes were written by someone other than the man who penned the first 75. They are clumsy and the character-based focus of the early sequences is swapped out for clichéd save the ship action-oriented scenes. A deck officer (played by Laurence Fishburne) briefly appears to move the narrative in a specific direction and provide an exposition dump. Sadly, much of what Passengers accomplishes using sound and fury could have been achieved through less ostentatious, more satisfying means.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence make a strong couple. They have good chemistry and Lawrence is able to plumb the conflicting emotions that drive Aurora. Imagine waking up a and realizing your life as you envisioned it is gone and the only other person you’ll ever know is this rugged stranger? Then, after having accepted things and fallen hopelessly in love him, you learn of his betrayal? Pratt, for his part, is much better when working with another actor. His alone scenes lack the depth of emotion and introspection we have seen from performers like Sam Rockwell (Moon), Tom Hanks (Cast Away), or Matt Damon (The Martian).

Part of the marketing problem for Passengers is that it’s difficult to classify. It is science fiction but lacks the Star Wars-flavored action audiences have come to expect. It’s a romance but the love story is at times uncomfortable. Early on, the film’s pace is slow (an asset, in my opinion, but some will find it boring) but aspects of the final act seem as rushed as they are unlikely. Passengers is an odd movie but its central questions and dilemmas are compelling and there’s enough here of substance for the impressions to linger. Problems aside, it’s a journey worth taking. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: This is one of those films where the critics were negative while the viewers were positive. Honestly, I thought this was a terrific film. If you enjoy sci-fi adventure stories like Gravity (2013), Oblivion (2013), Interstellar (2014) or The Martian (2015), you’re really going to like Passengers.

Labels: adventure, drama, romance, sci-fi

Monday, May 22, 2017

La La Land (2016) [PG-13] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Dec. 8, 2016.

La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s much-anticipated follow-up to his stunning 2014 feature debut, Whiplash, illustrates the magic that can result when a director is fully committed to a vision. Chazelle doesn’t just want to tell a story (although he does). He doesn’t just want to enrapture an audience (which he also does). And he doesn’t want to rely on nostalgia to make his story work (although it plays a big part in the overall experience). La La Land isn’t just the best made-for-the-screen musical to reach theaters in a very long time, it’s arguably the best (non-animated) cinematic musical of any kind since 1986’s delightful Little Shop of Horrors. Yes, it’s more vibrant than Chicago, more heartfelt than Les Miserables, and more successfully staged than a chorus of other contenders.

To make La La Land, Chazelle has turned back the clock. The style, approach, camerawork, color palette, and viewpoint are all straight out of the 1950s. The lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, can frequently be caught channeling Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ginger Rogers. Chazelle and his cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, love long takes and perhaps none is more ambitious than the opening one - a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers exit their cars and use singing and dancing as an antidote to road rage. The filmmakers’ love of the Golden Age Musicals emerges most forcefully in numbers like this but it permeates every frame of La La Land. With the exception of a few profane utterances (probably incorporated to avoid the worrisomely tame PG rating), there’s not an element in this film that couldn’t have been found in something made in 1952. The setting is modern day but the feel is old-fashioned (and that’s not in any way a bad thing).

Chazelle doesn’t only love classic musicals, he loves jazz. That much was clear from Whiplash but he makes doubly sure we know it here. The male main character is a frustrated jazz musician and a key aspect of the plot involves his passing on his love of music to his leading lady. Chazelle isn’t shy when it comes to exposing the viewer to all types of jazz - from the classic style that evokes the greats to the commercially viable modern variation used to attract a younger generation. John Legend comes along for the ride as a spokesperson for the latter. When it comes to addressing the tension between the two camps, Chazelle avoids condescension as Legend brutally lays out some hard truths about why die hards are killing jazz by holding tight to the great men of the past rather than innovating for the future.

La La Land is divided into five acts that follow the progression of the seasons - Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Although it starts out trading on our memories of old musicals, it eventually gains its own identity. Thematically, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. It’s a boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-fall-in love, boy-loses-girl kind of story that reminds us that following a dream demands a price. La La Land is a fairy tale but it has a realistic edge. Instead of embracing the happily ever after ending in which all things are possible, La La Land uses a kind of inverted It’s a Wonderful Life to show how things might have been in another film.

Chazelle requires tremendous range from his leads. They have to sing (which they do well enough) and dance (which they do better than well enough). They have to be able to handle drama and comedy. And they have to strike sparks when they look into each other’s eyes, hold hands during a movie, or kiss. These are adept actors (both are past Oscar nominees) but in this tale, chemistry is as important as acting, and there’s no deficiency there. And, although there are times when Gosling and Stone’s singing is found wanting, they occasionally surprise. (After an uncertain start, Stone nails Audition.) Chazelle has opted not to go the Marnie Nixon route, allowing his actors to do their own vocal stunt work, favoring authenticity over polish. (This is one area in which his approach is decidedly unlike that of his 1950s predecessors.)

When we first encounter Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), they are trapped in the opening traffic jam, although neither participates in the song-and-dance block party. Their lives, like their cars, are crawling along. Their dreams seem far away, perhaps unattainable. Sebastian wants to open a jazz club but he’s trapped playing Christmas carols on a piano in a high-end restaurant for a grouchy J.K. Simmons. Mia is one of many - a wannabe actress who is forced to work as a barista to make ends meet while waiting for elusive audition calls and even more elusive call-backs. These two are getting nowhere fast until they meet. It takes three times before things click. As summer arrives, they’re in love but, as with the seasons, the height of warmth augurs the start of a predictable decline.

La La Land offers moments of unabashed euphoria but it’s never saccharine. That’s the key to its appeal - it allows us to dance with the characters but never feels manipulative. Its dramatic moments are more genuine than is often the case in musicals. Chazelle is as interested in developing a compelling, character-based romance as he is in selling soundtracks. And, although not all the songs are instantly memorable, at least two of them (Mia’s theme, Audition, and Sebastian’s theme, City of Stars) linger. They aren’t generic songs that get lost in a miasma of same-sounding tunes. There are five or six original compositions (music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), none of which fall into the instantly forgotten category.

It seems that every Oscar season offers viewers a new musical or two. Many of these are well-produced, masterfully choreographed, and impeccably staged. None of Hollywood’s recent offerings has lifted me up with the potency and grace of La La Land, one of the year’s most effervescent samples of pure entertainment. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, music, musical, romance

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Snowden (2016) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Sept. 15, 2016.

Few would debate that the story of Edward Snowden’s life is as compelling as it is controversial. Based on Oliver Stone’s biopic, Snowden, it would also seem to be inherently non-cinematic. By opting to go with a straightforward account of the title character’s adult years (spanning roughly a decade from 2004 to 2013) rather than a more innovative approach, Stone provides what amounts to a big-screen Wikipedia article. For a director whose reputation is built on aggressively in-your-face subjects and styles, Snowden stands as a strangely inert outlier, a project that lacks passion although not perspective.

Stone is a left-leaning filmmaker and his political viewpoint often informs his work. Snowden is no different. The movie is not inherently dishonest but, like all films that promote a specific outlook, it ignores some inconvenient facts that don’t fit the narrative. Unlike JFK, however, which created an alternative history in order to accommodate the wild conspiracy theories of Jim Garrison, Snowden stays grounded. If it’s guilty of anything, it’s making the lead character too noble. But this isn’t meant to be an objective biography; it’s intended to tell Snowden’s side of the story, which has been largely ignored by the media. And, although its presentation of Snowden may be too good to be true, it makes some salient points about his importance to recent history and the technology he exposed. Right or wrong in how he obtained the information, his efforts put him closer to the whistleblower category than the traitor one. We may not agree with Snowden’s methods but, in an end justifies the means scenario, it’s hard to argue with his results.

Snowden’s wraparound story transpires in June 2013 with the protagonist (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) holed up in a Hong Kong hotel dispensing thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). During his interview with the two men and one woman, his reminiscences about the past result in flashback accounts of key moments in his life. These include his 2004 Marine basic training; meeting his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Wills (Shailene Woodley) in a café following an on-line flirtation; interactions with his CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans); growing misgivings about the Big Brother aspects of the NSA and CIA’s surveillance; and his eventual decision to take action to make the public aware of the situation.

Stone tries, with limited success, to imbue the Hong Kong portions of the movie with thriller characteristics. However, since anyone with knowledge of current events will be aware of the end game, there’s not much suspense here. The film regurgitates things that were presented in a more compelling fashion in the documentary Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ account of her meeting with Snowden. Snowden, despite solid performances from all the cast members, rarely comes to life dramatically. By the end of the film, I felt I had learned a few things about the facts of Snowden’s life but I didn’t know the man and I hadn’t found his story especially interesting. This is a failing in the filmmakers’ choices.

The cast is intriguing but the supporting players leave a more lasting impression than the lead. Joseph Gordon-Levitt intentionally underplays Snowden (apparently a true-to-life approximation) but that makes it easy for him to be upstaged. In the hotel scenes, he’s the least energetic member of the quartet. In the domestic scenes, Shailene Woodley exhibits more passion, and there’s little evident chemistry. Rhys Ifans is a scene-stealer as the frighteningly charismatic Corbin O’Brian, Snowden’s Svengali. In a small part, Nicolas Cage reminds us that, when he’s not desperately chasing a paycheck, he can turn in a good performance. Here, his function is to open Snowden’s eyes to what’s really going on in the CIA think tank.

On a practical level, Stone gets some things chillingly right. Snowden’s easy-to-follow explanations of what the NSA can do should set off alarm bells. This really is Big Brother. In one scene, a proprietary search program sifts through billions of personal e-mails, blogs, etc. to identify language that could be deemed threatening toward President Bush. There are also claims that the intelligence agencies can activate any webcam, even one that’s turned off, and track any cell phone. Paranoia about the government’s oversight becomes understandable when one compares what it can do with what Snowden proved it did do. Snowden may not fully succeed in dramatizing all the factors that led to the lead character’s change in perspective (from right-wing patriot to disaffected whistleblower) but it offers evidence about how amoral and ruthless the government can be when acting out of self-preservation. Intelligence agencies don’t exist to protect citizens; they exist to protect their own secrets.

The film concludes with an intriguing switcheroo. In the final scene, as Snowden is speaking, a laptop cover briefly obscures his face as the camera passes in front of it. In that moment, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is replaced by the real Edward Snowden. Anyone wondering what the movie’s subject would think of Stone’s recreation of his life is left with no doubt. While Snowden’s endorsement stacks the deck politically, it doesn’t diminish the importance of the man’s revelations as presented here. Snowden could have been an important film. It certainly contains important elements. Sadly, unlike its subject, it’s unremarkable and easily forgotten. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, thriller

Deepwater Horizon (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on September 28, 2016.

Despite the based on a true story label, Deepwater Horizon is structured not so much as a fictionalized chronicle of actual events as it is an old-fashioned disaster movie. Although the genre has recently been overrun by apocalyptic scenarios, Deepwater Horizon hearkens back to when disaster movies were more intimate affairs with double-digit body counts (think The Towering Inferno). While it might be easy to cry exploitation! here, the involvement of survivor Mike Williams blunts the charge. Additionally, the movie is respectful to all the characters except those who wear a BP name tag.

Although engaging, Deepwater Horizon ultimately offers a mixed bag of an experience. The setup is considerably better than the payoff, front-loading the experience. The main characters are well established and director Peter Berg does a good job building tension toward the historically inevitable cataclysm that kills 11 people and wrecks the drilling platform. After that, it’s all fire and chaos and there’s surprisingly little suspense as characters try to escape the burgeoning conflagration.

Deepwater Horizon marks the second time in a month when a recent, real-life story of heroism is the focus of a major motion picture. Like Sully, the events related in Deepwater Horizon played out as the #1 story on the nightly news in the not-too-distant past. The explosion that reduced the Gulf of Mexico drilling rig to debris occurred on April 20, 2010 and was followed by a catastrophic oil spill that took nearly three months to cap. This movie is about the events of April 20, although the film’s waning moments acknowledge the environmental disaster that was to follow.

The protagonist is Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), a veteran worker who has just arrived on Deepwater Horizon for another tour of duty when things start going wrong. He barely has had time to change into his work clothes when the rig’s boss, Jimmy Mr. Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), is ordering tests over the objections of a sour-faced BP exec, Donald Vidrine (played with relish by John Malkovich). The Transocean employees who run the rig, including Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien), and Jason Anderson (Ethan Suplee), are deeply concerned by some of the readings and indications they’re getting, but the BP guys, more concerned about the project being 43 days behind schedule than the red-zone pressure indications, force them to forge ahead. Then, as Mike is video-chatting with his wife (Kate Hudson), and Mr. Jimmy is taking a shower, all hell breaks loose.

As with most disaster films, it’s not enough for The Disaster to be the villain - there must be a person (or persons) to oppose the protagonist. In Deepwater Horizon, John Malkovich fills this role, although there’s an historical reason for the demonization of BP. Although by no means solely at fault for what happened, BP assumed the lion’s share of the responsibility after making safety a secondary concern to profit. There’s ample evidence that the disaster could have been mitigated (if not avoided altogether) had BP advocated a measured approach. Malkovich makes a deliciously nasty devil so his neutering around the movie’s midpoint (he’s hardly in the second half) plays into the diminishing entertainment value of the final 45 minutes.

Mark Wahlberg is ideal for this kind of role - the man of action who is burdened by just enough dialogue to establish his character. It’s not a deep role but Wahlberg brings out the likability and heroism of his character, which is all that’s necessary. Kurt Russell is a welcome addition to the cast; his presence almost always elevates any project in which he appears. This is his first time acting alongside his adopted daughter, Kate Hudson (although Hudson is, to put it kindly, underused and she and Russell share only a single scene).

When Deepwater Horizon works, it has a lot to do with verisimilitude. The reconstruction (and eventual destruction) of the rig is exacting and the special effects lack the artificiality that comes with overdone computer generated imagery. A lot of the explosions and fires are real. This is yet another workmanlike endeavor for Peter Berg, whose resume boasts titles like Friday Night Lights, the underrated The Kingdom, and Lone Survivor (where he first collaborated with Wahlberg).  Like Sully, Deepwater Horizon takes a news story nearly everyone is familiar with and elaborates on details that didn’t make it into the nightly recaps. By focusing on the humanity of the protagonists as well as their heroism, Deepwater Horizon gives us characters who are more like people than icons. That’s a crucial element in what makes this particular disaster film work where so many others fail. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: action, drama, thriller