Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

Directed by: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman

A Review from the Perspective of a Spider-Newb

A cornucopia of visual delights that rivals the best of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, two of the giants in the world of animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has taken Sony Pictures Animation to a whole new level. The combination of painstakingly hand-drawn and slick computer-generated imagery is something you can’t help but marvel at. All of the little stylistic flares — splitting the screen into panels, the employment of thought bubbles and of lightning bolts indicating a Spidey sense tingling, the minutiae of lighting textures — work in concert to make the viewer feel like they have “walked right into a comic book.” And then of course there’s a sense of timeliness. The recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee adds poignancy to what is already clearly an ode to a legacy. The rich detail and emotional resonance makes Into the Spider-Verse the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s handwoven quilt.

I’ll say it once and I’ll probably say it several more times before we’re done here: I can’t get over how good this movie looks. The visual language contributes so much to the film’s energetic personality and individuality. Yet what’s maybe most surprising about Into the Spider-Verse is how fresh and engaging this yet-again origins story feels. Its self-aware and occasionally self-deprecatory humor, courtesy of Phil Lord — the brilliantly quick-witted writer/producer of high-octane adventures such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — helped me buy back in. This is only like the 167th time we have seen an ordinary kid get bitten by a special spider but only the first in which we have been able to laugh along with those involved at how many big-screen iterations of the web-slinger there have been in recent years. More to the point, this is the first time we have seen someone other than the iconically average Peter Parker become Spider-Man.

Yes, of all those versions that have preceded it Into the Spider-Verse is the most inclusive one yet. The film offers seven Spideys for the price of one and while comics readers will be getting the most value from their dollar as they pluck out all the myriad Easter eggs hidden inside, the story graciously makes room for Spider-Newbs, taking the idea of an ordinary individual gaining unusual abilities and extrapolating that to the general populace. That any one of us holds the potential to become Spider-Man is a conceit juicy with possibility. It also seems a logistical nightmare from a writing standpoint. How will all these characters coexist within one story? Is it even one story? How many and which villains do we go with? How many Mary Janes? (Sorry for the spoiler, but there can only ever be one of those.)

In bringing this ambitious project to life, three different filmmakers are charged with directing, with Peter Ramsey handling the action sequences, Rodney Rothman overseeing the comedic aspects, and Bob Persichetti supplying what Lord describes as the “poetry” of the story. Indeed this is a real team effort, with the writers (Lord, alongside Rothman and a whole host of credited character developers) fixating upon the emotional maturation of a new Spidey-in-the-making, one Miles Morales (Dope‘s very own Shameik Moore), a New York kid of Afro-Puerto Rican descent trying his best to please his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. He attends a private boarding school where his parents hope he will aim for great heights. Oh, the irony. He has a close friend in his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles to keep pursuing his artistic passions, frequently taking him to a subway station where he graffitis beautiful expressions onto the otherwise lifeless walls.

When a ridiculously rotund baddie named Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempts to use a particle accelerator to access alternate dimensions for personal reasons that won’t be revealed here, beings from those other worlds are inadvertently thrust into ours. This opens up a quasi-anthological narrative that brings in different Spider-People to inform the central conflict — Miles’ inability to own his newfound . . . well, abilities. Multiple character arcs are provided along the way, each different Spider-Person explaining how they won the mutated-genetics lottery, all while Miles’ internal struggle — that oft-referenced grappling with power and responsibility — remains front-and-center. More impressive is the way all of it unfolds at a breakneck pace without ever becoming convoluted and difficult to keep up with.

What really perpetuates the flow of the narrative is this revolving door of different characters. There is always something new to latch on to, like swinging through the corridors of Manhattan from building to building. Chris Pine is in as the one-and-only Peter Parker, and while the role is small he does something we haven’t seen Peter do in any of the live-action adaptations. Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, by contrast, is an over-the-hill, jaded crime fighter whose sweatpants-and-protruding-gut look suggests he isn’t overly concerned with image these days. He is perfectly charming in all of his 9-5 day job blasé. Then we have Hailee Steinfeld taking up the mantle of Gwen Stacy and while her trust issues are a cliché the actress/singer makes her reservations not only believable but emotionally satisfying when it comes to the main protagonist’s development.

From there it gets a little more obscure, with SNL’s John Mulaney lending his voice to Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (and here is a perfect example of my ignorance; how dare I limit my imagination of what Spider-Man can be to just human beings) while Nicolas Cage, of all people, becomes Spider-Man Noir. Last and most definitely least interesting (again, to me) is Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker, a Japanese incarnation who apparently made her Marvel Comics début only a few years ago in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (2014). She’s got some weird robot-machine thing named SP//dr with which she telepathically communicates and uses to properly engage with the enemy — a device that also apparently links her to the ominous OsCorp.

There are familiar faces and characters scattered throughout as well. The older, more cynical Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) has a pretty important part to play as the many Spideys set about trying to find a way back to their own worlds while Miles tries ever more desperately to prevent Kingpin from destroying New York and, on a more personal level, help his father overcome his anti-Spidey bias. Secondary villains appear in the form of Doc Ock/Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hann adding a female twist on Alfred Molina’s interpretation from Spider-Man 2), and Prowler, whose unmasked identity is best left masked in writing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is sure to have long legs at the box office, and it deserves them. Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, this is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I have had in 2018 and in a year in which I have had to absorb the blows of Infinity War, endure the cold loneliness of being First Man and try to survive the completely unknown in (my personal favorite) Annihilation, that is some accomplishment.

“I think, therefore I am . . . Spider-Man?”

Recommendation: Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, a heartbreaking plot-twist and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. I don’t know if this is literally “the best Spider-Man movie ever made,” but I am fairly confident it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. Your move, Marvel.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “That’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

 

Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Blade Runner 2049

Release: Friday, October 6, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Hampton Fancher; Michael Green

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve proves himself a worthy heir to Ridley Scott with his hauntingly beautiful and poetically told Blade Runner 2049, a narratively and emotionally satisfying expansion of Scott’s 1982 classic. It proposes an even darker version of an already grim future reality in which a potential war between humans and an advanced race of A.I. known as replicants could break out after an unlikely discovery is made on the property of a farmer.

Over the better part of the last decade Villeneuve has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise to prominence resulting from a string of blockbuster-level successes. From his award-winning debut film curiously titled August 32nd on Earth in the late ’90s to last year’s awe-inspiring Arrival, the Québécois has been riding a wave of momentum à la Britain’s very own Christopher Nolan, delivering consecutive heavy-hitters in Incendies (2011), Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Villeneuve has entered a point in his career where he just might have forgotten how to truly disappoint an audience. The man has a knack for detailing heavy, sometimes profound stories with genuine humanity. Which brings us to the Blade Runner sequel.

It went virtually unnoticed at the box office, taking in roughly the same amount as The Emoji Movie in the U.S. — thus confirming reality is far more depressing than any dystopian future, even one imagined by Philip K. Dick. Yet there’s no denying Blade Runner 2049 is a seismic sequel, one that not only justifies the ambition but all those years spent waiting (or not waiting). Hampton Fancher returns to screenwriting duties and is joined by Logan scribe Michael Green on an original collaboration that expounds upon key themes and introduces a few compelling new characters. Fortunately at this point in the calendar I’m somewhat less terrified of possibly revealing spoilers so it’s also time to mention how a big part of the experience is the way in which Harrison Ford returns like a childhood memory — though, if you’re like me and it took the news of a sequel being developed just to see the original, maybe it’s more of an implanted memory.

We are returned to a rotting carcass of a planet that, through the lens of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, suffocates under blood orange skies dripping their silver acid down upon the lonely and the damned. The Los Angeles of 2049 continues to play host to a claustrophobic theater of misery, its streets crammed to the curb with imposing edifice and huge holograms. Away from the über-metropolis we have turned to worm farming as a source of protein — it’s important to maintain a sense of nutrition even post-apocalypse — and it’s over these mechanical monstrosities of desperate agriculture we initially swoop in, to arrive at a critical point in the saga.

A few important details first: In the interim, the job of the blade runner (or LAPD officer of the future, if you prefer that vernacular) has been updated. There’s a new level of discretion being applied to targeting suspects as the majority of the replicant population has been integrated into the rest of society and given “purpose” as slaves and servants. These updated Nexus models are the scientifically and aesthetically perfected products of new-sheriff-in-hell Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seeks a way of expanding intergalactic colonization. This new sinister figure has of course risen out of the ashes of the fallen Tyrell Corporation.

Meanwhile, a young blade runner named ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is preparing to interrogate a Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista in a fantastically nuanced performance), one of the last remaining old-model replicants who have apparently gone rogue in the aftermath of a nuclear blast some time in the 2030s. There on Morton’s worm farm he finds the remains of a female replicant who apparently had died during childbirth, and after some digging learns that the child is in fact still alive. His commanding officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), fearing an all-out war between the two factions, orders K to destroy all evidence and find a bullet-shaped solution to the problem. Will he succeed, or will an even more interested party get there first?

Blade Runner 2049 is nothing if not itself a beneficiary of major technological advancements. This is a much sleeker, sexier presentation that feels somehow more lavishly detailed than its predecessor. We may have lost the scrappier, more primal aesthetic of old, but this is nevertheless the Sistine Chapel of modern science fiction cinema. Villeneuve also is afforded a longer leash than most when it comes to introducing computer-generated graphics — in part because they are so convincingly integrated into their environment but more importantly because they have purpose and are sparingly used.

None are more the beneficiary of that kind of movie magic than Ana de Armas portraying Officer K’s live-in girlfriend, the attractive product of a mathematical algorithm designed to keep citizens from feeling quite so hopeless. The Wallace Corporation has manufactured entire lines of robots suited to meet your every need. The Cuban actress may be confined to a supporting part, but her fleeting performance does more to advance the plot than her official movie credit would suggest. Her warmth offers dramatic contrast against an otherwise bleak landscape. De Armas has described her character as something of a cheerleader for Gosling’s beleaguered blade runner. I see her avatar as something more: a spirit guide for those who roam seemingly without purpose.

In taking over the reigns from Sir Ridley Scott, Villeneuve digs further into the fascia of what makes us who and what we are. In Blade Runner 2049 we are beyond the days of primitive experiments like the Voigt-Kampff Test. They are no longer helpful in separating the flesh from the synthetic. The facsimile has in fact become so convincing we hire real people as surrogate vessels (like Mackenzie Davis‘ Mariette) to live out our fantasies. The question is no longer “what makes you believe you are real?” It is now: “what reality makes you feel less alone?” As K inches ever closer to an understanding of his role in the larger scheme of things, Gosling increasingly appears to inhabit the soul of his wizened co-star. His enigmatic qualities suit this role perfectly, while the trajectory he fulfills offers a compelling new wrinkle in the narrative.

“You’ve never seen a miracle,” Sapper Morton sighs before succumbing to the inevitable. I’d beg to differ Mr. Rogue Replicant, sir, because Blade Runner 2049 is something of a miracle for those of us who carried in a healthy skepticism of sequels, both as a rule and specifically when it comes to updating a veritable classic. While some of that fear is actually confirmed in the sequel — for all the ambition, Villeneuve’s predicative never quite strikes the emotional depths of what was offered more than three decades ago, particularly in the closing moments on that rooftop in the rain — this is a logical next step that proves there’s much more story to tell. Indeed, I have seen things in this movie you people wouldn’t believe.

Recommendation: A science fiction sequel that does the brand justice. Packed to the gills with visuals that will haunt you for days and a star-studded team of accomplished actors wholly devoted to the cause, Blade Runner 2049 does the almost unthinkable in becoming not only a worthy spiritual and physical successor but as well suggesting that perhaps the greatest hurdles still lie ahead. An exciting-in-the-extreme entry for lovers of smart sci fi.   

Rated: R

Running Time: 164 mins.

Quoted: “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Moonlight

moonlight-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

naomi-harris-in-moonlight

5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Arrival

arrival-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Cemetery of Splendor

cemetery-of-splendor-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Vimeo]

Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul 

Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul


My  first review of a Thai film is brought to you courtesy of Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. James is the guy running the show over there and he graciously made this incredibly unique and moving film available to me. Please check out his site if you have a few moments. 


The transition from movie back to reality is rarely as jarring as when you are forcibly removed from the most recent effort of (judging by one film) cinematic poet Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), the Bangkok-born filmmaker’s eighth directorial credit, plums the depths of the soul in a meditative and meandering narrative that simply defies categorization.

Let’s get one thing clear: if you’re searching for the literal, the low-hanging fruits of traditional storytelling — a conflict that arises that must be resolved, barriers to that attempt to overcome, resolutions that, tidily or not, seal the deal in one fell swoop — you’re probably going to hate Cemetery of Splendor. I mean hate it. On top of that, patience is absolutely key; this is a very deliberately paced production. At times it can be testing. It might be evident how radically different an experience we’re in for judging merely by the way Weerasethakul starves us for the very first image in an unusually protracted cold open — heavy machinery digging a big hole adjacent to a hospital in the Thai village of Isan — and how deliberately the vast majority of his shots remain static, filmed at a distance such that viewers must pick and choose what it is in the frame that interests them most.

This makeshift hospital is where our journey begins. We’re not traveling far and wide; rather we’re delving into the human consciousness, into the dreams of a man who has been struck with a mysterious sleeping sickness and who gains the friendship of a kindhearted volunteer named Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner). In this hauntingly quiet space we see several cots lined up with bodies in each one, all on the drip and seemingly lifeless. They’re soldiers but they’re not dead, nor do they seem like they’re suffering from physical ailments. Instead they’re sleeping — all day and all night. The camera eventually settles on one man all the way in the back corner, a man named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) who has had no visitors. Jen decides she will take care of him.

This seemingly innocuous facility — a school that has been converted into a temporary clinic — has been said to possess ethereal power, having its foundations built directly upon the graves of ancient kings. The juxtaposition some believe is the very cause of the soldiers’ sickness: their strength in the real world is being manipulated by these kings who remain engaged in an eternal spiritual war. The clinic’s staff, housewives who are volunteering perhaps for no other reason than out of the goodness of their heart, have taken numerous approaches to ease their suffering. The most striking and perhaps most abstract method is their light therapy technique in which vertical tubes of neon light are placed beside each bed, the colors ever so slowly transitioning between red, green and blue.

Theoretically each color holds some sort of cultural and/or political significance (red symbolizes national pride; green represents Thailand’s military forces and blue indicates royalty and privilege), though if anything their application in this film contributes most apparently to the physicality of the experience. As Cemetery of Splendor opens up, these colors begin bleeding into the film reel itself, affording a psychedelic quality to proceedings. Even more experimental than this technique is Weerasethakul’s bold decision to have his actors reenact the process of communicating with the spiritual world. Early on we are introduced to a young woman named Keng (Jarinpratta Rueangram), a medium who helps visitors reach out to their loved ones — those soldiers imprisoned by silence. She decides to use her extraordinary gift to help Jen interact with Itt.

In one of the film’s most ambitious sequences, Jen and Keng take a walk about the quaint village, through a wooded park that’s more like a relic of a forgotten history than some place families go to take a stroll. And so develops a scene in which words simply do not do justice; in fact to actually detail what happens here would be ultimately to spoil its essence. Suffice it to say the moment is seized brilliantly by all involved, the actors bravely trusting in their director that they won’t look silly demonstrating what could arguably be the most complicated and most abstract concept any filmmaker could imagine recreating.

Here we have our best shot of actually witnessing the spiritual and the physical world colliding, at least thematically speaking. The young soldier, vicariously through Keng’s gentle mannerisms, “reveals” to Jen — whose American husband, by the way, has been intentionally kept out of sight throughout most of the narrative to give the impression Jen’s personal life is a wee bit complicated — precisely what he’s experiencing in his sleep. It is also in this protracted scene where we find out the devastating truth behind Jen’s physical deformity. One of her legs is significantly shorter than the other, which has prompted her to get around on crutches and with a specially-fitted shoe to help her balance. Heretofore the issue has gone unaddressed, but Weerasethakul has patiently waited for the right moment to drop the bomb.

In the name of hyperbole, words will inevitably fail me when a friend asks what this movie is all about. I’m of a mind to tell them that it’s about everything. That’s simultaneously the least satisfying and the most accurate (and most concise) way of putting it. Unsatisfying in the sense that it’s hardly a descriptive response and it seems cheaply broad; accurate in that Cemetery of Splendor opens up so many doors for viewers to walk through and interpret things as they see them. This is going to be a different film to different viewers. Or I could be completely wrong and Weerasethakul actually has a much more specific, narrowed focus. I, a Westerner, might just be the guy who came before King Arthur who tried to wield Excalibur.

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Recommendation: An exquisitely complex, psychosomatic kind of experience that I am hesitant to say is one of the best films of 2016. I hesitate only in the sense that not everything in this Thai film will translate well (if at all) for international audiences. But Cemetery of Splendor is undoubtedly one of the most unique and entrancing films I’ve yet seen. Even if I don’t personally fully grasp it. This is nevertheless an incredibly profound piece and further confirmation that some of the most original works really do stem from foreign markets. If I were pressed to make comparisons, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn come to mind.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “I’d prefer a European husband. Americans are too poor. Europeans are living the American Dream.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.recentmovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com

Embrace of the Serpent

embrace-of-the-serpent-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Ciro Guerra; Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Directed by: Ciro Guerra


This  review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give a shout-out to James for allowing me to talk about this unique cinematic experience. 


Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de La Serpiente) was Colombia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards, proving that for director Ciro Guerra the third time is the charm. His first unsuccessful submission happened to be his very first feature, the 2004 drama Wandering Shadows, and the second in 2009 for The Wind Journeys. Guerra of course lost to Son of Saul director László Nemes, but he shouldn’t have. In fact this is the kind of experience that just begs the question, why can’t foreign language films also be eligible for Best Picture?

Guerra’s epic excursion through the beautiful but harsh Amazon rain forest is not just last year’s best picture (and by a mile), it’s one of the most raw, most vital experiences you are ever going to have. It’s a religious experience (quite literally in some senses) — an unforgettable journey whose spiritual and cultural pulses are so tangible the film ceases to be a film and instead becomes a snapshot of a reality many of us have conveniently forgotten. Though the account is fictional, portions of the narrative have been inspired by the experiences of early 20th Century western explorers and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The drama is so authentic it induces pangs of despair that only documentaries on harrowing subjects like genocide and other forms of persecution are able to. Of course this film, at least tonally, isn’t quite as heavy as something like Son of Saul, but it touches upon a subject that is just as heartbreaking: the devastation of native populations in the wake of western expansion.

Embrace of the Serpent, shot in a seductive grayscale, follows two stories set roughly 30 years apart. The first finds German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) searching for a cure for a serious illness he’s come down with having spent many years in the Amazon. The scientist’s actual journal entries form the basis for Bijvoet’s outstanding performance and they also play a prominent role in the narrative itself. Said diaries are filled with illustrations and scribblings he fully intends to bring back and use as a communicative tool between vastly different societies. In his quest to avoid dying a miserable, jungly death Theo seeks the help of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his own tribe. As a younger, more hostile man he is portrayed by Nilbio Torres in a performance you simply must see.

That a white man has encroached upon his territory unsettles Karamakate deeply and he’s unwilling to help until Theo makes it clear he isn’t here to profit like most westerners have by extracting the rubber from rubber trees, a practice that has led to the enslavement, torture and eventual diminishing of “savages” across numerous western outposts. Theo has been traveling by canoe with a more westernized local, a twenty-something named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) who is constantly chastised by Karamakate for betraying his own people by adopting western customs like wearing a tee shirt and pants. Everyone is on edge and it is in this state of utter distrust we beat a path through the dense jungle, in search of the (fictional) yakruna plant, whose hallucinatory powers are considered Theo’s best chance for survival.

Guerra entwines this saga with Karamakate’s experiences in 1940 with American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). He’s hoping to continue Theo’s work by similarly documenting his travels. He too holds an interest in the yakruna plant, only Karamakate claims he can’t remember where it can be found. Thirty-one years older and that much further removed from the customs and rituals of his people, he is portrayed as an impossibly lonely and broken man by Antonio Bolívar. His lowest moments confirm that sometimes the most powerful evocations of human emotion come in the form of the quiet sob.

There’s a brilliant symmetry to the way Guerra has chosen to structure the piece. The earlier timeline firmly establishes the tenuous trust-building process while the latter proves specifically how that trust can be so easily violated (there’s something we don’t quite buy into with the American explorer; Theo somehow seemed more genuine). The split narrative also affords the internal conflict churning inside Karamakata room to breathe and become an almost unbearable weight. He doesn’t give the outside world direct access to all he holds dear just the once; he goes against his better judgment twice. Embrace of the Serpent, then, becomes more about his resilience and his perspectives. He’s not exactly a man without flaws and his occasional misgivings about the white man can sting deeply (not all of us are monsters). Even so, the way the film concludes leaves little doubt as to where our sympathies should ultimately lie.

Guerra’s vision is distinctly his own. Embrace of the Serpent is an entirely immersive experience that taps into primal human behavior, one that is as cerebral as it is physical. One of the main concerns of the older Karamakata is not being able to recall his ancestral history because of past actions he himself has taken, while Schultes laments not being able to dream because of his work. But it’s not all about suffering. There’s a lot of beauty to be found as well, particularly in the visual aesthetic. Crisp black-and-white photography lends a sense of timelessness and an ethereal quality to the jungle. It’s an artistic flourish that contributes immeasurably to the sense of insulation we feel as we make our way towards the striking round domes of the Cerros de Mavecure, where the yakruna can be found.

Of course this would not be a proper review without discussing the serpent itself. Guerra restrains himself impressively in terms of how he allows the serpent’s mythological symbolism to influence his narrative. Derived from Latin (‘serpens’), the most obvious metaphorical application is the duality of good versus evil. In truth, you can apply it as metaphorically or as literally as you like: Guerra uses the birthing of a snake in an early scene to remind us that snakes are indeed a very real and dangerous entity, while Karamakata later describes the birth of creation as the descending of a serpent from the skies.

Spiritual connectedness also features prominently. At one point Karamakata is shown a picture of himself and, rather than recognizing the image as a moment frozen in time, he believes it to be his ‘chullachaqui,’ a hollow spirit form. Throughout we’re reminded once and again of a complex belief system thought to maintain order in this otherwise hostile and unpredictable environment. We’re never asked to embrace it but we are challenged to respect it. Karamakata believes Westerners are limited by their own ignorance (scientists can only think in terms of facts and observable phenomenon; those who seek riches can only think in terms of money and material possessions, etc.), whereas the native inhabitants of the jungle are much more attuned to the grander hierarchy of existence. This in and of itself is enough to open the flood gates for lively debate.

Embrace of the Serpent isn’t just a memorable watch, it is a significant cinematic achievement. Guerra’s assured direction and the mesmerizing performances from his small cast combine to form a visceral, challenging experience that simultaneously defends a dying way of life and homages some great survival/adventure films. Flavors of The Jungle BookLord of the Rings and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo — even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto — are all sampled, but a part of me feels that this particular film reaches some psychic level that none of the aforementioned quite managed. It reaches far higher than the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have in recent years.

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Recommendation: Utterly compelling stuff and hands-down one of the most extraordinary things this reviewer has ever watched. (Interestingly, in a year that has given us a lot of disappointments . . . A LOT . . . I have also been able to find two films that might make my all-time greats list, the other being the delightfully bizarre indie Swiss Army Man.) Embrace of the Serpent is a film whose dialogue is delivered primarily in native tongues but eight other languages factor in as well. Don’t let the subtitles scare you out of this. You simply just have to get your hands on this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 125 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.vox.com

Hell or High Water

'Hell or High Water' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: David Mackenzie

The day after you’ve watched something is probably not the time to proclaim that thing an instant classic. It would be wise to allow the infatuation phase to run its course before declaring your undying love for your partner. Unfortunately for me, I trade in hyperbole and sensationalist journalism so I have a very hard time calming down when I see something as enjoyable and well-crafted as David Mackenzie’s hybrid post-modern western/heist thriller.

Contrasted against a fairly weak summer slate of cinematic offerings, perhaps Hell or High Water is destined for a spot on the top shelf it might not have earned in another year but there’s no denying this is a film crafted with care and precision and featuring some of the year’s most enjoyable (read: believable) performances in a leading trio featuring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges as surly West Texans caught in a fascinating, morally complex game of cat-and-mouse (okay, cops-and-robbers if you want to be more accurate).

Two brothers — the divorced Toby (Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Foster) — set into motion a master plan to save their family’s farm from foreclosure by relieving a string of Texas Midland Bank branches of large sums of cash. These are the very banks that have been slowly but surely milking the Howard clan dry for decades. Despite their efficiency and a knack for finding new getaway vehicles, they soon find themselves on Marcus Hamilton (Bridges)’s radar, a local ranger on the verge of a long-overdue retirement. He’s hungry for one last chase and strings along for the ride his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

All goes according to plan until the brothers Howard hit a bank in Post, where the locals aren’t so submissive, despite Tanner’s best efforts to terrorize. (An unsettling yet frequently amusing psychopathy renders his criminal history entirely unsurprising. In this world there aren’t good cops/bad cops, there are good robbers/bad robbers and Tanner is decidedly more the latter.) Unprepared for resistance, they find themselves scrambling to escape a bloody scene that turns a once-righteous deed into an unintended murdering spree. All the while the rangers remain only a half-step behind, distracted only by the fact Marcus is fated for a rocking chair and greener pastures come the end of the week. The two narratives, compelling in their own right, eventually coalesce into a spectacular, oft unpredictable showdown that eschews traditional heroics and villainous archetypes. Think No Country For Old Men meets Robin Hood.

In a film filled with stellar acting turns, Pine’s quasi-transformative, ski-mask-wearing thief might just outshine the rest as his bedraggled countenance bears the brunt of the film’s moral quandary. Toby’s obligations to family — a financially struggling ex-wife and two teen boys — trump any obligation to abide by the law of this crumbling wasteland, a place where old granny’s fixin’ to blow ya off the front porch with her 12-gauge just for trespassin’. (That particular scene doesn’t happen but you can imagine it happening.) A place where the hustle and bustle of cities like New York and L.A. may as well be happening on another planet. Captain Kirk Pine finds much room for personal growth in a script that believes in full-bodied characters and thoughtful story development. His devotion to his sons may justify a few smooth robberies, but does it justify the violence later on? How far should a person go to protect the ones they love?

Hell or High Water isn’t simply a case of an amateur robbery gone awry, although there is very much an element of bumbled professionalism at play. Think of these guys more as skilled amateurs, dabbling in the art of robbing from the corrupt and redistributing to those who are destitute. What inspires their actions is very much an indictment of corporate America and how that unstoppable locomotive frequently flattens any poor sod who happens to be standing on the tracks (i.e. anyone who has been unfortunate enough to put their trust in banks who consistently loan money, their money, to others who can’t possibly afford to repay the debt). Indeed, if you wish to dig deeper into these scenes juxtaposed against a rugged, wildly unpredictable American west, you’ll find hints of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes as well. The pain. The outrage. Tension’s palpable, manifested especially in Toby’s final confrontation with a ranger who thinks he has him figured out.

Hell or High Water is impeccably performed, a reality reinforced by the brilliance of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that allows the entire cast to put their best cowboy boot forward. Even bit-parts such as a stubborn waitress who refuses to hand over her $200 tip as evidence because she has a roof to keep over her and her daughter’s heads and an elderly local who ain’t threatened by “thugs” become precious commodities. Bridges doesn’t really need the pampering but he’s par excellence. Amidst a rather bleak mise-en-scène, Sheridan finds ways to wring out a kind of naturalistic, borderline farcical sense of humor that assures levity while never distracting from the more shocking drama that awaits in a climactic stand-off. A bickering repartee between two sheriffs drives the entertainment value sky-high, while Foster runs away with his role and in all the best ways.

You might describe the portrait as stereotypical of the image non-locals have already painted in their mind of a place they perceive to be backwards and lawless. This place is hostile and the people tough, resilient and pretty stand-offish. But the film isn’t  so reductive as to parody life in these parts. It focuses upon real people living out real lives in the only way they know how, desperate to make something work in a nation described in the Pledge of Allegiance as undivided, with liberty and justice for all. The ever-captivating mystery invites us to form our own opinions of these people and communities. And suffice it to say, and while difficult at times, it’s best to reserve judgment until the very end.

My judgment is thus: Hell or High Water is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and satisfying films 2016 has to offer. By turns nostalgic for a bygone period in cinema — that of the classic John Wayne shoot-em-up — and hungry to forge new frontiers with a riveting story that, while not categorically unpredictable, explores boundaries few films bother exploring anymore. It’s a grand adventure, something that will undoubtedly offer up something new to discover upon repeat viewings. This is how you make movies, folks.

Jeff Bridges in 'Hell or High Water'

Recommendation: Hell or High Water, an uncommonly (and unexpectedly) solid bit of modern western action, refuses to stoop to the lowest common denominator of reducing drama to bloody gunfights and cheesy quips. It’s a heist film executed almost to perfection. Fans of the cast are sure to love it, particularly Pine who continues to show he has more talent than just fulfilling an iconic leadership role on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is undoubtedly his best work yet, slurry southern drawl and all. And I hate to keep making Star Trek comparisons, but on an entertainment scale, Pine’s misadventures here are far worthier of your time. This goes beyond where many modern westerns have gone before. Two Roger Ebert thumbs up.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: ” . . . go f**k yourself.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Swiss Army Man

'Swiss Army Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

There are some movies that just simply take your breath away. Ones where you’ll remember what theater you saw it in, where you were sitting, how many people were in there with you when you experienced THIS movie. Swiss Army Man is that kind of movie. It’s not even really a movie, it’s a religious experience . . .

. . . for those who appreciate a good arthouse picture.

I say that not with the slightest bit of remorse but rather with an air of caution. There’s a caveat to enjoying what writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels,’ the duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2013 hit music video ‘Turn Down For What’) have conjured here. I say that because the warning label should be clearly on display. When early word pegged their debut feature as the most surreal, offbeat adventure audiences are likely to ever experience it was hardly a hoax. Here is a narrative quite literally powered by flatulence and guided by erections. Absurdity. Madness. Despair. Love. Weird, sweet, de-sexified love.

Shifting the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry several feet closer to neutral on the Scale of Quirkiness, Swiss Army Man wastes no time as it opens with the striking image of a young man, Hank (Paul Dano), preparing to hang himself on a desolate island. Perched atop a small cooler with the fraying rope running to the top of the small cliff, he’s all but ready to commit to his decision when he suddenly spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. It looks lifeless but Hank’s curiosity is piqued when he hears it farting. A lot.

Approaching the body with caution he notices, unsure if he’s hallucinating, that the gastric releases are only intensifying. He’s not hallucinating; this thing is literally sputtering to life like an old car. That’s when Hank discovers he can actually use this to his advantage, converting the bloated corpse into a kind of water vessel that will allow him to get back to the mainland. But it turns out methane-powered human jet-ski is only one of the ‘corpse”s many functions. He can also produce clean drinking water, and his seemingly jointless limbs come in handy for slicing and dicing things. He can also be used as a rocket and a grappling gun, and his erection functions as a compass, too — how fun!

Dismissing Swiss Army Man as little more than crass comedy is going to be too easy but that’s the same sword wielded by those who view the indie/arthouse crowd as nothing but hipsters. Or those who presumed everyone who went to see the Harry Potter movies were all bookworms. Despite frequent trips into puerile territory, this movie politely and perhaps all too quietly requests to be taken a little more seriously than the average Adam Sandler fudge pile. (In reality I’d compare this more to Rob Reiner’s timeless buddy-adventure Stand By Me.) Underpinning all this crudeness lies an aching despair to return to normalcy, to reconnect with what most of us would consider civilized society, to feel alive again after inexplicable bouts of being marooned delete you from existence.

The journey to get back home will be fairly easy in physical, practical terms given the endless supply of miracles “Manny” (as he apparently self-identifies) seems to provide. Even though he propelled them both back to shore with his ass, they’re still a far cry from home, and there are more complicated ideologies and dynamics to contend with as well. It doesn’t take long for Manny to question whether Hank is just using him for his own personal gain or if he actually cares about him, and for us to ponder just whether the two are fated for a really awkward fairytale ending, or something . . . darker.

Swiss Army Man is a movie in pain. Dialogue is sparse but it often delivers hard blows from which we take some time to recover. Conversation is often confronting and unnatural, yet it’s this entrenchment in brutal honesty that saves us from pretense. Primitive discussions about why people masturbate eventually find their place in the greater narrative. While conversations may start trending intellectual a little too prematurely for those who view proceedings as a more cut-and-dry buddy adventure, those conversations open up endless avenues for discussions of our own.

Hank is worried he’ll never have the confidence to make an impression on the woman he sees every day on the bus. Manny doesn’t understand why he is so pathetic, but then again, why would he? After all he’s just an undead, farting, bloated, water-logged dummy who washed up on shore, probably on accident. He once had a life too, but he can’t remember it. Presumably it too was filled with glorious tales of how he once masturbated.

As the adventure evolves we’re pulled further into a strikingly intimate world by a pair of mesmerizing performances. Dano is again in top form here but Radcliffe truly soars, creating a character for the ages. It doesn’t exactly announce itself as such, but Manny represents an achievement in acting and the Brit deserves to be considered in the discussion of best performances of the year. Never mind the fact Radcliffe had a stunt dummy doing most of the heavy lifting. The psychological and emotional components far outweigh the physical, and it’s in the quieter moments — around a campfire, up in a tree, face-down near a pile of animal feces — where we see a soul (and the occasional butt-cheek) exposed.

Dano is reliably weird, though his greatness is more expected as the actor continues defining his niche as an off-kilter, often unlikable enigma plagued by social outcastism. For his peculiar acting sensibilities Hank is, in a word, perfect. Much like this gloriously, obstinately, unabashedly strange little film. The farting corpse movie you’ll be telling your children all about years down the road.

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Recommendation: An absolute must-see movie! Thematically Swiss Army Man isn’t a movie you haven’t seen before, but in execution, I feel pretty confident saying you won’t find a thing like it this or any other year. It’s simply a marvel and a joy to watch unfold, offering up one of the finest performances of the year in Daniel Radcliffe, the poor lad who just can’t ever get away from having to make some comment on his latest role’s relation to his days in Hogwarts. This oddity, however, just might do the trick. For now. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.awardsdaily.com 

About Elly

'About Elly' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, April 8, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Asghar Farhadi; Azad Jafarian

Directed by: Asghar Farhadi


This film originally debuted in Iran in 2009 but American markets did not get it until last year, hence the film qualifies as a ‘recent’ release on this site.


Asghar Farhadi is an extraordinarily perceptive filmmaker with a profound ability to distill the ‘ordinariness’  of the human experience into cinematic form. Whereas even the most discerning of dramas manifest as art imitating life, About Elly sits on a lonely shelf above, becoming life itself and told artfully through an empathetic lens.

Heartbreaking and thrilling in almost equal measure (it’s certainly more the former), Farhadi’s fourth effort simultaneously explores tenets of Iranian culture — honor, loyalty, family values — while cutting the shape of humanity’s oh-so-imperfect design. Even with the best intentions at heart, we are still capable of such remarkable destruction. In this case, destruction of a most personal and emotional nature. At its core, About Elly is about a lie or a series of lies that start off as minor omissions of facts but quickly swell to potentially world-shattering cover-ups. And then, the revelations.

Here is a complex mystery that smartly leans on fundamentals: powerful performances and engrossing storytelling. About Elly sees a trio of middle-class couples, the majority former law school friends, taking a weekend trip to a seaside villa in northern Iran, an excursion that goes horribly awry after the sudden disappearance of Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young schoolteacher who is brought along by her friend Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). The resultant turmoil whisks viewers far away from the bon mot of its beguiling beginnings and towards a wholly befitting if not still surprising conclusion. Along the way some brave directorial decisions are made that, in retrospect, make the experience what it is.

The discovery process is so utterly immersive the lack of music of any kind goes unnoticed until the closing credits where a suitably melancholic ode to the titular character strikes the heart with a note of bittersweet finality. That absence isn’t a case of careless oversight; Farhadi seems to subscribe to the notion that if a story is good enough it should sustain itself on its own merits. He isn’t denouncing soundtracks and scores as frivolous, unnatural embellishments as aural stimulation plays a crucial part in generating and sustaining tension. (As one character claims late into the affair, “I want to go back to Tehran. The sound of the waves is driving me crazy.”)

Also missing are major dramatic setpieces, save for one sequence that, once explained, would diminish the impact of the experience. Suffice it to say the drama is kept low-key, with Farhadi choosing to emphasize the physical and psychological changes in his performances as things go from bad to worse. And on the subject of acting, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a rather unknown group of contributors who do finer work than this particularly attractive but otherwise convincing collective of Middle Eastern performers. It is their collaboration that lends this puzzle its density — their feeding off of one another’s rapidly deteriorating optimism as the mystery as to Elly’s whereabouts intensifies. You can almost disregard the English subtitles: context clues are less than subtle. It’s not difficult to see these people are reeling in the shock of how a fun trip could turn out so miserable. Finger pointing begins and won’t stop until all possible assumptions have been made.

About Elly has a bleeding heart for humanity. Subtle social faux pas become pivotal plot points. How one’s trust in another can be so easily betrayed; how a careless laugh might upset someone else who doesn’t understand the joke. How manners and customs seem completely alien to another person — this isn’t a direct reference to the western viewer of course, although that certainly applies as well — while also appearing roughly congruent to those of another society’s. (Familial love and acceptance, religious faith and civil obedience isn’t exactly a regional thing.)

That may be me reaching for themes that aren’t necessarily priorities for Farhadi, but extrapolation is totally a function of his ability to convince us this is all too real. Sure, it’s a product of Iranian culture but there’s something much more universal about the design. Even if the film took its sweet time to earn an international distribution, the quality of its contents more than justify why it absolutely deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

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Recommendation: Thought-provoking, deeply involving and emotionally devastating, About Elly is a rare breed of drama that places emphasis on humanity rather than melodrama. An absolute must-see for those trying to diversify their tastes in world cinema. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 119 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com