Movie Review: The Arrival

thearrival The Arrival is the intelligent person’s alien invasion film. Light on explosions but heavy in emotion and exposition, it’s a movie I enjoyed, that I expect to win awards, but have a hard time recommending.

Directed by Sicario helmer Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, The Arrival opens with a montage of scenes that slowly reveal Amy Adam’s linguist professor character Dr. Banks recently lost her daughter to a terminal illness. As she’s apparently coming to grips with that, aliens make first contact. Landing on Earth with 12 ships in 12 countries around the globe, she’s selected by the American government to attempt to learn the alien’s language and make intelligent contact with them, to determine the all-important answer to the question “Why are you here?”

Hawkeye co-stars as Ian Connelly the theoretical physicist, and Ghost Dog plays the usual military mid-level manager tasked with keeping the civvies on-track. Of course, not all the world’s governments want to share information about the visitors or even play along at all. And naturally, everyone is worried about what might happen if this extraterrestrial visit turns out to have a sinister motive.

And that’s really all I can say. The film has some interesting twists and turns in the third act, as Banks figures out why the aliens are here and how to stop the conflict that arises from that revelation. To talk about this movie’s particular Deus Ex Machina would be to ruin it. Yet, it’s that unique plot device that brought me down at the end. It’s sort of the same problem I had with the recent Marvel film House: Magical Doctor; once you let a character eclipse a certain level of power their choices stop mattering and all danger and consequence drops away. The Arrival attempts to combat that by making one particular choice matter most of all, and it’s here that it falters for me. Yet, this is the same polarizing decision that’s going to bring the awards. Bank’s final choice wants to come off as profound, and I understand that, but it just didn’t work for me.

For an intimate movie mostly about the intricate nature of language, The Arrival is smart and captivating through most of its run time. Yet for a movie so smart, it loses its brain after a particular sci-fi trope is introduced, and for me, it was downhill from there. Still entertaining, yet doesn’t quite reach the heights it attempts. [easyreview title= "Review of The Arrival" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.5" overall= false]

Review: Her

Her

Director Spike Jonze’s latest science fiction/romantic comedy is a not only a fun and interesting premise, but a sharp piece of societal onlooking. Taking on the idea of a man who falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system that runs his computer seems like a easily dismissed topic, but in the hands of Jonze the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

We start with an awkward anti-social type named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He works, ironically for a company that writes heartfelt letters for those who can't do it themselves. The film takes place in the not so distant future where computers and artificial intelligence are now common place. Theodore's life is fairly mundane and routine, his letter writing is his only outlet. His job plays well as a juxtaposition of his own lack of ability to express himself to the outside world.

When walking down a public corridor, Theodore happens upon an ad for the OS1, a new operating system that promises a fully functioning custom artificial intelligence experience. Soon thereafter we see the unveiling of sorts of the OS1. Prompting unusual questions such as ones about Theodore’s personality and parental relationships the system begins to go fully online and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. Immediately you can’t help but to notice her ability to speak at a normal human cadance. This helps to get the audience through the premise of the man and machine connection. Samantha is no HAL9000 nor is she Siri. The breathy voice of Johansson lends to the notion of a real person just on the phone far away; making Samantha that much more valid. I found myself many times almost completely forgetting that this isn’t a person in this world, there would be no reveal in the end, no wizard behind the curtain. Instead, Samantha is as present and fully weighted as any other character in the film.

During Theodore and Samantha’s budding relationship we see some of his real life friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher) working through their own marriage, which seems at times to not be as even footed as a man and an operating system. This of course leads to the largest social on look of the film. Her asks the basic question of “what defines a relationship?” Its up to the audience to decide if what they have is valid. JOnze provides some breadcrumbs to move you along, but ultimately the decision is yours.

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is simply beautiful in the greatest sense of the word. Two people who are trying to navigate the murky waters of what life has to offer, together. While Theodore is slowly recovering from his pending finalized divorce from his emotional train wreck of an ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Samantha is learning the infinite space in which she resides. Both growing as people together at completely different rates and possibly directions.

Jonze has truly reached auteur status with this film, and there is no turning back now. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema. His flair for dramatic imagery and positioning is as close to perfect as I’ve seen in a quite a while. Spike Jonze really impresses with long and deliberate shots of thought provoking silence, tasteful sex scenes with only your imagination at work. He brings you into both Theodore, and equally, Samantha's perspectives. Phoenix has often been cited as one of the best currently working actors in Hollywood. Her, amongst his many previous works, makes that claim again...with purpose. Last, but certainly not least, Scarlett Johansson is fantastic as Samantha. She is able to exude a naiveté and curiosity of a child in parts, and the maturity of a woman coming into her own in others. Her lack of physical onscreen time is never an issue. She makes her presence known from the beginning and it never lets up. Her joins a group of absolutely stellar films in its release year. Run, don’t walk to see Her.

[easyreview title= "Review of Her" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: American Hustle

american-hustle-posters-sony I love movies that run you through a series of emotions and aren't afraid to bring humor to thrilling drama. I love movies that seem like the roles were written for the people who ended up casted in them, a great combination of smart writing and stellar acting. I love movies who blur the lines between heroes and villains and have you completely invested in the story from start to finish. American Hustle does all of these things and does them in expert fashion. It's a terrific movie and is a wonderful coda for cinema in 2013. American Hustle is directed by David O. Russell of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook fame. It tells a tale (loosely based on a true story; as it says at the beginning of the film: "Some of this stuff actually happened.") of two low-level con artists loving life in New York in the late 1970's. Things are going great for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) until they get pinched by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper): an ambitious FBI agent looking to make a name for himself. DiMaso's grand plan is to use the couple to help take down a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) desperately trying to revitalize Atlantic City. The three quickly find themselves over their heads and struggling to keep control of the unraveling events, the least of which isn't helped by Irving's estranged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who gets roped into the plot and becomes its biggest wild card.

The first thing that has to be said about American Hustle is that Russell and co-writer Eric Singer do a wonderful job at developing these characters. All of the principal characters are firmly anti-heroic, yet you find yourself feeling a great amount of sympathy for them throughout the film. A great example of this comes in the portrayal of Richie DiMaso: a guy that is meant to come off as an asshole, yet there is a scene in the movie that explains in about 2 minutes his motivations and immediately changes how you feel about him, even if just for a brief period of time. The dynamic between Rosenfeld, his mistress, and his wife, which doesn't even really get delved into until the latter half of the movie, is pulled off in such an impressive manner by the actors involved. It's quite ironic that the most noble character (relatively speaking) in the movie, Renner, is the one you end up feeling the least amount of desire to see succeed. Lawrence in particular deserves special mention for the job she did. Her ability as an actress has never been questioned, and it's a cliché to say something along the lines of "this role is like you've never seen Jennifer Lawrence before!", but there is truth to that sentiment here as she delivers in a role as complex as she has ever had to play (note: I do say this having not seen Silver Linings Playbook, which I have heard she is equally excellent in).

Much needs to be said also about the intangibles in the film, which is another area where Russell excels. The cinematography is dynamic and adds so much to the source material. Equally great is the soundtrack selection which seems perfectly tailored to the film. It felt very Tarantino-esque. I love when directors pay so much attention to the little things, and seeing American Hustle makes me want to run out immediately and watch Russell's other directorial endeavors. There are also a couple of really fun cameos here that I won't spoil, Richie DiMaso's boss at the bureau especially (don't cheat by looking on IMDb!), that were unexpected and actually added a lot to the movie. My only real criticism of the movie is the fact that is was a slow starter. It was a necessary evil to really give the exposition needed to understand the relationship between Bale and Adams' characters, but it drags on a bit especially when compared to the breakneck pace of the latter two-thirds of the film.

All in all, American Hustle was just fantastic. Whether or not you are a fan of Russell's other films, it's just such a well-done movie that you owe it to yourself not to miss it.

[easyreview title= "Review of American Hustle" cat1title="Brad's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Man of Steel

Man of Steel

Comic book movies have had such a successful run over the last number of years. The sub genre has become mainstream and is beginning to feel like a genre all its own. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman was unprecedented, but since then we have seen three direct sequels and a fourth unsuccessful pseudo followup in 2006. Superman is by far the most well known comic book character around the world. Even people who have never read a comic know his basic origin story. Being such a known character has made his onscreen adaptations difficult to tackle. Director Zack Snyder attempts such a task with this year’s Man of Steel.

The challenge in adapting Superman to film is making him relevant in modern times. The character was created in 1938, and has a dated look, morality code, and worldview. In an age of violent villains and brooding heroes, can the flying boy scout still impress us?Director Zack Snyder worked with producer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy) and writer David Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) to create a movie that works to bring the “granddaddy of superheroes” back to the world of the living. To say that Snyder and his team delivered is a vast understatement. Man of Steel gives us a heartfelt take on a story we thought we already knew, outrageous characters, and action that rivals some of the biggest and best Hollywood has to offer.

The aforementioned origin story is relatively the same as we’ve seen in past films. We are treated to the added bonus message about free choice in a society. I am not sure if this was a metaphor for some modern day political issue or not, but to me it had some weight. Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is the early focus of the movie and plays to adding a serious level of gravitas to this classic character who was originally played by Marlon Brando. Jor-El works early on to warn of the impending danger to his homeworld of Krypton. Opposite Jor-El's ease and heroism is brutal and myopic General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod’s soul purpose is to protect Krypton at all cost. Like any automaton, Zod goes too far when his “programming” conflicts with what’s happening around him. He decides to make a go at taking over Krypton.

Flash forward to Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) as an adult on Earth and we see his interactions with Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, respectively). Intercut with moments of Clark as a child, the movie does a great job of not just rehashing the story everyone knows. The relationship between Clark and the Kents is very well explored and gives you a real sense of where Superman gets his moral center. For the first time in any Superman movie real exposition is given for Clark Kent/Superman’s struggle to adapt to living with his powers. The struggle to just be normal is a thread throughout his childhood. There is even time taken to give the audience a look at how Superman literally sees the world around him. A perspective not touched on ever in previous big screen outings.

Throughout his time in secret Clark is being pursued by the famous journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who is tracking his good deeds around the world. Lane has some interactions with him and she becomes obsessed with the very idea of an alien being. Eventually Superman in all his glory debuts himself to the world and Snyder does a great job of asking the question of “how would humans react to seeing a god show up on Earth?” This is yet another thing not explored in previous films. Once the world is put in danger Superman begins to make a myriad of sacrifices for the common good. From this point on a struggle ensues and we are treated to ~40 minutes of pure action. The sequences were heavy CGI-ed, but looked clean. The fight pace was insanely quick as you’d imagine. Jumping from one end of the screen to another and back again was common. Fighting through buildings and other urban landscapes was pretty par for the course after a while; this is not a complaint. The scope of the fights felt massive and lead to the the understanding of how powerful these characters were. Even smaller roles like Faora (Antje Traue), General Zod’s right hand woman was given a time to shine. I found myself grinning from ear to ear when she was onscreen battling. I cheered, smiled, and even chuckled as this was the Superman movie I’ve been waiting for for many years.

Henry Cavill’s Superman is a the classic good looking farm boy from Kansas that we all know and love. Cavill brings a nice guy innocence to the roll, but nothing really Earth shatteringly new. He is competent in the character and does no harm. His interactions with Lois Lane were on the weaker side, and was a rather decent hindrance to the overall flow of the movie. I wanted more from the two of them. Lois is fairly underwritten here, even as a damsel in distress character. A stronger definition for who she is would have helped greatly. The chemistry just wasn’t there this go round. When it came to Cavill taking on the big shoes and challenging Shannon face to face he delivers and you can't help but root for him. Cavill is my generation’s Superman, and I think we will be happy to have him. Michael Shannon shines as General Zod. Taking up about the massive mantel that Terrence Stamp left behind Shannon works his best just under the surface crazy personality style to the max. From calm General to foaming at the mouth psycho, Shannon runs the gamut.

All and all, Man of Steel is the movie I’ve been waiting for and I think modern movie goers will love it just the same. Warner Bros/DC have had some great moments with The Dark Knight Trilogy, but also had some false starts like Green Lantern. With Man of Steel it appears that they might just have got their footing back and are ready to start running full speed. Taking the route of a grounded world in which these fantastic characters live is the proper move for Warner Bros/DC and they seem to be taking it. What’s next for them is hard to say, but if they keep this up there is no end to the possibilities. The tagline for the 1978 Superman film was "You'll believe a man can fly." In 2013, you can believe again!

 [easyreview title= "Review of Man of Steel" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve Did you know that when you get old things change? Well in Robert Lorenz’s first solo directing gig we get to see a character experience this eye opening event. Trouble with the Curve explores Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) as he transitions into his twilight years. That is the simplest explanation, however that’s not completely fair. While no masterpiece, Trouble with the Curve is more than a fancy unofficial addition to the Grumpy Old Men movie franchise. The first 15 minutes of Trouble with the Curve are spent poorly walking us through Gus’s life as a grizzled elderly professional baseball scout. Between the kicking of tables and defining yoga as some type of voodoo I couldn’t help but hate the movie. We get it, Clint Eastwood is old! We saw the guy talk to an empty chair for 12 minutes! As I began to write the movie off something happened. Enter Amy Adams, who plays Gus’s daughter Mickey. The fast talking lawyer on her way to becoming a full partner at her firm is single minded career focused. However when Gus’s eyes begin to fail him she is forced to drop everything and tend to the father, emotionally, she never had. Gus and Mickey’s relationship consist of sitting quietly in a dinner watching seemingly endless baseball footage, a really riveting relationship. As she meets up with Gus in North Carolina, we are greeted to more old man angst. Heavy handedly, Robert Lorenz shows how much Gus doesn’t want Mickey’s help. Much like most of the movie’s larger points, this is pretty cliche and predictable. These standard movie beats really hold it back from having any heart. While on “vacation” from her law firm in Atlanta, Mickey meets Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake). A former professional pitcher, who was scouted by Gus himself. Johnny takes an immediate liking to the sassy Mickey. Predictable! The tension between the two is obvious and with that the pursuit is on. The backdrop of all these intertwined relationships is Gus’s scouting of a young arrogant amatuer league ball player while in North Carolina. Gus is going blind but his sense of the game is as sharp as ever. Can he make the right call while barely being able to see? Well I won’t give it away here, but remember what I said earlier about predictability.

The most interesting portion of Trouble with the Curve is the tenuous relationship between father and daughter. The slow reveal of why both characters are so emotionally inept is fascinating and one of the most ‘out of left field’ moments, no pun intended, in the movie. However, it’s not the most bizarre twist, that comes towards the end.

All and all Trouble with the Curve is a nice, sweet, and non-offensive movie. Unlike in Gran Torino, Eastwood’s aging process isn’t peppered with racial epithets. Eastwood does have a conversation with an inanimate object, but its not embarrassing this time. Eastwood does old and emotionally dead better than most, and for that he is entertaining. Timberlake is endearing and gets some of the better quips. With great support from John Goodman the cast is well rounded, with the exception of Matthew Lillard who I thought was more like a cartoon villain than anything else. Ultimately, what saved this movie from being a complete throw away for me was Amy Adams. She somehow is able to pull out a heartfelt performance from a fairly shallow script. She seems to embody the dichotomy between balancing career and family for the upwardly mobile modern woman. I look forward to her take on the iconic Lois Lane in next year’s Man of Steel for the very same reasons.

[easyreview title= "Review of Trouble with the Curve" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.0" overall= false]