Monday, November 21, 2016

A Failure to Communicate

Hollywood loves alien movies, be it the apocalyptic mayhem of a full blown invasion from outer space or the idea that aliens are harmless and virtually everything in between.  From ‘War of the Worlds’ to ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ aliens have been portrayed as brutal conquerors to sinister infiltrators to benevolent beings who just needed our help to go home (not just ‘ET’ but ‘Starman’ and ‘Paul’).  Just when you think you’ve seen them all, along comes ‘Arrival,’ French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve’s fascinating and rather introspective look at how we might realistically react and behave in a “First Contact” scenario.
Based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Story of Your Life,” ‘Arrival’ centers on linguistic professor Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) attempt to communicate with “Abbot” and “Costello,” two Heptapod alien creatures whose highly advanced giant elliptical spaceship hovered above the plains of Montana.  Along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she was tasked by the US government to determine what the aliens want.   The simplicity of the question belies its very complexity in execution, as Louise and Ian try to decipher the aliens’ highly complex and enigmatic written language and come up with a way to effectively communicate with them.
If you’re expecting the typical dumbed-down alien fare we’ve seen all too often from Hollywood, you will no doubt be disappointed.  Quiet and poignant in tone, ‘Arrival’ is a hard sci-fi film that’s cerebral and deep, delving not only into the scientific but also the metaphysical.  Like 1997’s ‘Contact,’ ‘Arrival’ seeks to answer some of our most pressing questions through the personal experience and journey of its main protagonist as opposed to simply provide mindless entertainment.

Grade: A 
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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Conscientious Medic

For whatever reasons, World War II movies on ground combat in the Pacific Theater lag well behind their ETO (European Theater of Operations) counterparts in popularity and impact.  There were a couple of early notable ones to be sure, like ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ and ‘Halls of Montezuma,’ but it wasn’t until Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ in 2006 that managed to give audiences something good after such misfires as ‘Windtalkers’ and ‘The Thin Red Line.’  However, that film told the story strictly from the Japanese perspective.
Mel Gibson’s latest directorial feature, a remarkable and faithful (in more ways than one) biopic on the life of Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, finally gave us a “grunt movie” set in the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific worth gushing about.  You may have seen the trailer of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ but are debating whether to see the movie or not because you suspect Gibson may have gone cuckoo for cocoa puffs.  I don't blame you because that too has crossed my mind.  But let me assure you that he is back in top form and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ represents his best directorial effort since ‘Apocalypto’ and perhaps even ‘Braveheart.’    Imparting Doss with a certain small town country boy charm, Andrew Garfield delivered his best performance yet as the medic who was awarded a Medal of Honor for saving numerous lives during the pivotal battle on Okinawa despite being labeled a coward because he refused to carry a weapon into battle.  Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths were also great as Doss’s deeply religious but dysfunctional parents, but my favorite character in the movie is arguably Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), whose most memorable contribution in the movie isn’t training the raw recruits or even leading them into battle himself but making us laugh our asses off.
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ doesn’t sugarcoat the horrors of war or pull any punches in its depiction of war as a brutal and gory hell-on-earth, but as a biopic it is a powerful and inspirational portrait of courage under fire and selfless sacrifice as well as the convictions of one's deeply held religious beliefs.  Hallelujah, the “lesser” theater has finally found its own ‘Saving Private Ryan.’

Grade: A
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When You're Strange

The latest film from Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bit “strange.”  I have to admit, Doctor Strange is one of those characters from Marvel who isn’t familiar to me because I’ve never read his comics in my youth other than maybe a couple of cross-overs.  Not that I dislike him or anything; it’s just that there are so many superheroes and characters in the Marvel and DC universes that I simply don’t have the time to cover them all even if I had the allowance to buy every comic book of every title.  
In a way this is refreshing because, as in the case of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ I don’t have to wait impatiently for the familiar obligatory origin story to be told, in this instance that of a brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon played by Benedict Cumberbatch who’s vain (not stupid) enough to attempt multi-tasking with a tablet while driving his speeding sports car in the rain on a slippery mountain highway, which proved to be a fatal mistake and his undoing as a surgeon.  The “unfortunate” accident also proved to be fateful and maybe even fortuitous, however, as it placed him on a path to enlightenment and becoming part of a group of mystical warriors entasked with protecting our world against magical and mystical threats, much like The Avengers protect earth against physical threats as the first among them known as the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton) succinctly put it during his orientation.
While it is derivative and borrowed liberally from oriental Buddhist traditions and mysticism as well as the good-pupil-turned-bad soap operatic tragedy of ‘Star Wars’ and other stories, ‘Doctor Strange’ nonetheless managed to be yet another solid addition to the MCU that is mind-blowing, entertaining and smart.  The reality-bending special effects (which is best viewed in IMAX 3-D) are reminiscent of ‘Inception’ with its topsy-turvy skylines but are fun to watch.  My favorite scene is probably the one at the end of the movie when Doc Strange insists on striking a bargain with “Dormammu,” a malevolent god-like being from the Dark Dimension, which serves as a perfect example of never-say-die (no pun intended) persistence.

Grade: A
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