Three Identical Strangers

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Directed by: Tim Wardle

Significant spoilers follow.

Documentarian Tim Wardle stunned the Sundance crowd earlier this year when he premiered Three Identical Strangers, the remarkable true story of a set of triplets separated at birth who by sheer chance were reunited at the age of 19. Call it one of life’s greatest plot twists. You might even call it a real-life fairytale. But do all fairytales have a happy ending?

Level One

It all began when a curly-haired Robert “Bobby” Shafran stepped foot back on campus at a community college in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. It was his sophomore year. A day that started as any other quickly turned surreal when seemingly everyone kept mistaking Bobby for some guy named Eddy (last name Galland), a former high school football star who was attending classes there the semester prior but had since transferred. It wasn’t until Bobby met his roommate that he would get an answer as to why girls he had never met before were walking right up to him and kissing him. The roommate, a Michael Domitz, knew Eddy had left the college and yet Bobby was so strikingly similar looking he had to ask a couple personal questions to potentially satisfy a theory. Were the two related in some way?

Turns out, both of Michael’s roommates shared the same birth day and year, and both were adopted — through the same adoption agency, no less. How many instances of coincidence does it take for someone to become convinced they aren’t coincidences? After an eerie phone call to someone whose voice was a perfect echo of his own, Robert took off for Long Island in the middle of the night. He had to meet this Eddy and immediately. Michael tagged along too. Four hours later, Robert found himself staring into a mirror — minus the actual mirror. The two had the same smile, the same bearpaw-like hands, the same curly hair. They spoke with the same cadence and laughed each other’s laugh. They instantly knew they were brothers and they acted like it. It was if those years, all that time spent in ignorance of each other’s existence, never were.

Level Two

Their story quickly gained national attention and the pair toured the country, making appearances on all the major talk shows. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Kellman happened upon a picture of the two in a local paper and was struck by their resemblance not just to each other, but to himself. America was already falling in love with this saga about long-lost twins being found. When it was learned there was actually a third, the narrative shifted from heartwarming to truly unbelievable. In this film there are so many things you will try to deny even as the subjects themselves graciously invite you into their lives. And as they explain more, it paradoxically becomes harder to accept.

Three Identical Strangers is a pure joy to behold, a spectacle of families coming together and expanding under the most unlikely of circumstances. It really is like a fairytale, until it isn’t. That isn’t an indictment on the way Wardle handles the material. There is a reason he considers the triplets the “single greatest story” he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second. In that way, there is this bipolar quality to the film’s emotional trajectory, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.

The triplets, along with their respective foster parents (one an upper-class couple, another comfortably middle class and the third blue collar) had more questions than they had answers — the most pressing of which were directed at the adoption center that split them up at birth and irrevocably altered their lives.

Level Three

The jaw-dropping revelations don’t end with the three brothers finally together and taking Manhattan by storm. In fact I’d argue this is where Wardle really goes to work. And where Three Identical Strangers goes from feel-good to “I feel sick.” As it moves into its unforgettable third act, interviews with curious journalists and scientists alike begin steering the narrative in a direction that is altogether surprising and deeply disturbing. What was before a celebration of life and love curdles into a desperate search for the truth and, ultimately, an infuriating ethics debate.

How were the three boys never told by their foster parents they were triplets, separated at birth? Did the parents themselves know? What about their birth mother? Why were they put up for adoption in the first place? I really want to answer some of those questions right here, right now. But you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Believe this though: Three Identical Strangers is one of the most breathtaking documentaries you will ever watch. It exposes an existential crisis the likes of which you and I will never experience, while questioning the nobility of scientific experiments in which the lab rats look alarmingly like us.

the triplets star in a brief cameo in the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Recommendation: Three Identical Strangers is the epitome of a film best experienced going in as cold as possible. Ideally, you’ve read my spoiler warning up top and skipped right down to this section. I guess it doesn’t matter when words don’t really do this story justice. It is just an insane true story and you have to check it out to draw your own conclusions. And please do so before Hollywood botches it by turning it into a narrative feature. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Release: Friday, July 6, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers; Paul Rudd; Andrew Barrer; Gabriel Ferrari

Directed by: Peyton Reed

You’ve read it everywhere: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a refreshingly lightweight summer adventure that offers up more laughs than big character moments. It’s more of a superhero side dish than an entrée. But that’s okay for viewers like me, whose stomachs are starting to get pretty full with all the superhero shenanigans.

Is it me, or does “quantum entanglement” sound more like the way scientists fall in love rather than an actual problem they must solve? (“Hey everyone, I’d like you to meet my Scientist Girlfriend — we just recently got quantumly entangled.”) Alas, this isn’t a joke. Getting stuck in the quantum realm is quite serious, I assure you. Granted, not as serious as what we all went through a few weeks ago when Thanos snapped his decorated little fingers and turned half the audience into a sobbing mess. Mercifully, this is a new, pre-war chapter that gets away from all of that and returns us to a time when the superhero stakes weren’t so tiresomely dramatic.

The follow-up film to the Phase 2 finale finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) growing restless under house arrest. On the one hand, this has provided him an opportunity to spend some quality time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). On the other, his careless actions at the airport two years ago (you know, when Steve Rogers blamed Tony for losing his luggage) have created a rift between him and his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They’ve gone on the run in an attempt to keep their miraculous shrinking technology a secret.

Scott has only a few days left to finish out his sentence, but that’s a large enough window for him to find trouble. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t go looking for it; it finds him. He spends his time trying not to go insane in isolation, kept on a short leash by his parole officer (Randall Park, enjoying himself immensely). When Scott experiences a vision of Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) still stuck in the quantum realm, his former allies seek him out in an attempt to retrieve her from the abyss to which they believed she had been forever lost.

It’s a ridiculous leap of faith following a simple voicemail but hey, there are worse plot mechanizations out there. Solving the problem of returning safely from the microscopic world isn’t the only challenge ahead of them, however. Because Scott in effect went public with his little stunt in Captain America: Civil War, a number of competing third parties are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to benefit in some way from Pym’s genius.

There’s the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who sees the potential profit that can be made from getting into the quantum business. He gets into a little bit of a struggle with Hope over a parts deal that sours just as Ava Starr/”Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) appears out of nowhere. Ava is a young woman who seeks a cure for her gradually weakening physical state as a result of — and let’s not get too personal here — her unstable molecules. On top of that, we are introduced to a former colleague of Hank, a Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), whose life work blahdee-bloodee-blahblah. He has a few reasons to make things more difficult for Ant-Man and the gang.

If anything, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about a family coming back together. That’s kind of the perfect scope for a film following one of the most financially successful (and costly) cinematic events in history. Like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating the ex-con receives from Hank and Hope. This sense of family extends to Scott’s friends over at X-Con Security, a consulting firm he and his ex-con friends — Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris) — started up in an attempt to go legitimate. Though these personalities don’t get much time to do their thing, you still feel the support system they provide for their perpetually-in-trouble pal Scott.

Of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really achieve any of these things without Rudd anchoring the movie. Never mind the fact he offers up a pretty wonderful example of fatherhood, he is just so effortlessly likable in the suit that he has quickly become a favorite of mine, in spite of how minor that role really is in the grand scheme. For my money, he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Reynolds in terms of infectious personalities. You have to squint to see him but he’s there, standing on the shoulders of giants while slowly but surely becoming one himself.

“Honey, I shrunk everything I cared about.”

Recommendation: Ant-Man and the Wasp is the beneficiary of Paul Rudd and a really likable all-around cast of characters. In a time when browsing through the back catalogue of the ever-expanding MCU feels a lot like shopping for flavors of Gatorade, it’s nice to have a superhero film that is not quite as preoccupied with furthering, deepening, expanding, extrapolating, implicating, duplicating, redacting, whatever-ing that all of the other chapters seem to be about. The more I think about the simplicity of this film the more I like it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Well, the ’60s were fun, but now I’m paying for it!”

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

In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking


It is a heavy beyond leadened heart that has moved me to create this post. One of the brightest lights in our universe has eked out its final flicker. The iconic physicist Stephen William Hawking died today at the age of 76. His family says that he passed away peacefully in his home in Cambridge, England. He leaves behind a daughter, Lucy, and two sons, Robert and Tim.

The enigmatic Mr. Hawking will be remembered for so much more than enduring over half a century with a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease that over the course of decades slowly denied him physical movement, and for his tireless efforts in and stunningly resourceful methods for working around the many obstacles the results of a progressively devastating neurological disease threw his way.

Mr. Hawking was a man whose intellectual capacity was only matched by a boundless ability to inspire and excite. Who honestly would not get giddy whenever they came across a headline stating something about his theories about the future of mankind — or its possible origins? The prospect of going on without him, living life without Stephen Hawking guiding the way, flagging up signs of potential trouble with increased intelligence in human-engineered A.I. — that kind of loss has an impact not unlike that of the strange and (potentially terrifying) cosmic phenomenon known as the Black Hole.

supermassive blackhole Dave as ‘Gargantua’ in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci fi epic Interstellar

It is immature of me to say, but this just isn’t fair. The inevitability of his succumbing to an ailment that he lived with far longer than any doctor might have expected is, I suppose, an easier pill to swallow than the sheer shock created by the randomness of John Forbes Nash and his wife or Princess Diana being involved in fatal car accidents. But life does and has to go on. And so does the work of the scientific community, and the millions upon millions whom he has inspired and instilled a thirst for knowledge and truth. The question is, to what corner in the cosmos do we point in our backyards at night whenever we want to have little private sounding boards with one of the great minds of our time?

Where is our fascination with artificial intelligence leading us? Will our future really look like it does in Blade Runner 2049? Or will we revert back to tribal living, and worshipping shit like the sun and the clouds and the trees? What is the actual value of life? Is it measured scientifically, or is love all we are here to find and feel comforted by? I’m quite sure I don’t have answers to any of that, but I know that whenever Stephen Hawking said something either speculative or that held scientific weight, I listened. I am going to dearly miss that soothing voice of wisdom.

I think if Mr. Hawking were still here he’d urge us all to carry on these discussions ourselves. To never stop thinking about the possibilities. As long as we keep pushing for answers, not even the sky is the limit. And when you’ve lived like this wonderful, brilliant man has lived, you’re the kind of light that actually has a chance of surviving a black hole.

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking. 1942 – 2018


Click here to read my review of The Theory of Everything, a 2014 romantic drama which detailed the personal life and career achievements of Stephen Hawking.

Science-y/otherworldly films worth talking about: Under the Skin; Interstellar; The MartianEx Machina; Arrival; Blade Runner 2049; Annihilation


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Photo credits: http://www.huffingtonpost.com; http://www.interstellarfilm.wikia.org

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?”

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

Life

Release: Friday, March 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

I love how nihilistic Life turns out to be and the irony of it being so totally NOT life-affirming. While the characters in Daniel Espinosa’s zero-gravity-set thriller often demonstrate a lack of tact and intelligence, their incompetency only serves to underscore the arrogance of man and is, probably contrary to the opinion of everyone who said ‘meh’ to the movie, quite intentional. The goal here is to inspire caution rather than awe and in that the movie succeeds.

Life is an original science fiction feature that finds a team of six Noble Astronauts aboard the International Space Station anticipating the results of soil samples they’ve recently retrieved from Mars. American engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is the man tasked with capturing the returning craft, while British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) finds himself poking around in the Martian soil in hopes of stimulating the single-celled organism apparently contained within. He’s at the center of a groundbreaking discovery: life does indeed exist beyond our planet.

Along for the ride also are Japanese engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Russian commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, also British), and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s familiarly nonchalant Dr. David Jordan. Each actor is believable in their roles even without having much in the way of personality. They’re just human enough to create a sense of camaraderie before chaos is inevitably unleashed.

I put emphasis on ‘astronauts’ up above because I get the feeling Espinosa doesn’t much care for their little field trips to the very edge of deep space. At the very least he is disturbed by the obstinacy seemingly required for such pursuits. In science fiction new precedents seem to be established with each new entry, so why can’t this many brainiacs screw up so epically? After all, to err is human and in a film like Life, where coexistence sadly doesn’t seem possible, where it’s our survival instinct pitted against that of a rogue alien life form, it’s essential we recognize our imperfections.

In this context, Derry is patient zero. His series of screw-ups, while defying conventional wisdom that tells us these people simply don’t make these mistakes, are intended to illustrate a concept rather than fulfill some quota calling for realism. Life, penned by Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, cautions that our curiosity for what’s out there could well be one of our downfalls. And it won’t just be the cat that gets killed. To further destroy the proverb, cats will be no more should the team fail to contain and isolate the threat. In Life, the “we have no protocol for this” line proves a perfect alibi for much of what goes down.

Life paints a pretty bleak picture and I found that refreshing. This space disaster doesn’t necessarily champion the ambitions of NASA or the collective optimism we hold for there being other forms of life elsewhere in the universe. This dark and dangerous passage feels totally divorced from the likes of The Martian and Interstellar. Those movies suggest the vastness of space isn’t something to outright fear. Life actually shares more in Ridley Scott’s pessimism when it comes to displaying the ignorance as well as the arrogance of man’s desire to make more of the unknown, known. And the kills were giving me flashbacks of a certain John Carpenter horror classic fueled by paranoia.

Espinosa’s film may not be as sophisticated as Alien in showing us what terrifying possibilities lurk out there in the black — and it’s light-years away from being as morbidly gross as The Thing — but it gets its point across and fairly compellingly. It helps that brand-name actors sell the fear of not just dying but dying in some very miserable ways, and while there’s a valid argument to be made against the concentration of foul-ups made in the middle third, the central conceit is both entertaining and disturbing. If anything, the queasy feeling Espinosa’s final frames leave you with confirms the notion that life really is precious and is something worth clinging on to.

Recommendation: Life effectively plays into the viewer’s fear of what lurks beyond our atmosphere and does so with more than a little panache. Well-acted and hauntingly beautiful, another film benefitting from the perpetual evolution of filmmaking technology, it operates both as a popcorn-friendly thrill ride and a thoughtful reflection on the preciousness of life, though it’s more effective as the former rather than the latter. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “You’re finally a daddy. There’s gonna be a big custody battle over this one.”

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

Assassin’s Creed

assassins-creed-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Lesslie; Adam Cooper; Bill Collage

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Assassin’s Creed is simply not interesting enough for those who never played the game. You might fairly ask me why I would choose to sit through a movie based on a video game I never played. Um, I was expecting the acting pedigree behind the film’s trio of stars to carry more weight. Or for acting to matter at all in the film. I was hoping I could use what I learned here as a springboard for me getting into the games later. Here’s the best advice I can offer to those in a similar position: don’t do that.

I DON’T HAVE A CREED, SORRY

Everything is going to be okay, despite what Rotten Tomatoes says (yikes). I wonder how seriously game enthusiasts take film critics when they review game adaptations. Like recent releases inspired by gaming phenomena — Warcraft, Resident EvilMortal Kombat — the film has a substantial enough built-in fan base that will ensure a sequel or three will get the green light. So if you actually use the tomatometer as a measuring stick for what you want to watch, you might take a close look at how audiences are responding instead of reading my list of grievances against a pretty dull film.

The film doesn’t completely alienate the outsider, but it hardly gives you a warm fuzzy. Director Justin Kurzel’s reverence for the game’s well-established, sophisticated lore is apparent. We are effortlessly transported to a quasi-romantic/dystopian universe, one split between 15th-Century Spain and an hyper-stylized approximation of the present day. The film’s gorgeous in its steely griminess, a wardrobe tailored to the actors’ shape while remaining faithful to the ornate designs of the source material’s costumes. Assassin’s Creed clings to this façade with desperation, a large portion of the footage dedicated to overemphasizing said wardrobe. And an onslaught of skywards shots of our heroes parkouring the hell out of a city is presumably intended to invoke the sensation of being involved in this mission.

The narrative draws upon the mythos established in the original game, now a decade old, but instead of retracing familiar steps for those who have long been in control of Desmond Miles’ destiny, it opts for an origins story involving a completely new avatar. And while much of the film succumbs to the same issue that plagues many a video game adaptation — a confused or uninteresting point of view that just leaves viewers cold — at least the action scenes, particularly the furious hand-to-hand combat sequences, make an attempt to include the  average paying customer (the APC*).

Assassin’s Creed introduces everyone to Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a career criminal who at the start of the film is preparing to be executed. Then he “wakes up” in what seems to be . . . um, Heaven’s waiting room? No, that can’t be right; capital murderers don’t get a pass. So this is Hell’s foyer, then? Wrong again. This is actually a sterile room within a remote Abstergo Industries facility, a modern manifestation of an ancient underground society known as the Templar Order. Callum is first greeted by a scientist named Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), the daughter of visionary Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), who proceeds to inundate Callum with a few orientation materials. Like letting him know that he no longer exists in the world. That he is about to be repurposed.

SOME PHILOSOPHICAL SHIT

In 2007 Ubisoft engineered a stealth adventure for the thinking gamer. I can appreciate their popularity as these games have been able to separate themselves by blending heady science fiction with historical settings and events. Unfortunately the complexities pose a problem from a cinematic storytelling perspective. The task falls upon Cotillard to shoulder an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition because, let’s face it: there’s just too much world-building to be done beyond the physical, and no one is going to sit through a three-hour long movie based on a video game. Cotillard does what she can, but there’s only so much a great actor can do with such clunky, uninspired writing.

Through one of Sophia’s many monotonous monologues he learns he has assassin’s blood in his veins, and that one of his ancestors was Aguilar de Nerha, a noted assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who had for years been in pursuit of the Apple of Eden. This apple is not so much a fruit as it is a piece of technology that contains man’s original sin. It also possesses the very fabric of free will itself. (The more I write the stupider it all sounds, which is the very phenomenon that occurs the more these people talk.) Across centuries these assassins have had to contend with the Templars who don’t share their views on the future of mankind. While the Templars believe global peace is achievable, albeit only through control, assassins hold that man’s free will is a gift that cannot be touched or tampered with. On paper, all of this sounds like some pretty fascinating, philosophical shit, doesn’t it?

On screen, however, very little of said philosophical shit translates enthusiastically. Or creatively. The film looks great but the whole thing concludes in the same numbing state in which it began. If you’ve made the mistake of coming to the picture for the acting, prepare yourself for Fassbender’s first on-screen performance following the lobotomy none of us knew he had. Yes the action scenes are good, but everything else is so disappointing it seems almost farcical.

Assassin’s Creed stunningly wastes an opportunity to present an intellectually stimulating, challenging cinematic excursion. There’s a fixation on the god complex that is just begging to be explored in greater depth. The assassins we see early in the film prove their unwavering test of devotion via blood sacrifice. Callum’s body being manipulated by The Animus — a giant mechanical contraption that has undergone some physical alterations so the film, supposedly, avoids comparisons to The Matrix‘s own psychosomatic technology — often finds the character in Christ-like poses as he soars into the air and flails around. The script also tends to harp on the phrase “man’s first disobedience.” And Rikkin’s ambitions of uniting mankind under his thumb, well. That’s pretty obvious.

For all of the obsession with sinning and human imperfection the irony of how Kurzel and company have themselves ended up committing one of filmmaking’s greatest sins by producing one of the year’s most disappointing and boring movies becomes painful. I don’t know. Maybe I just need some secret codes or something.

* Synonyms include (but are not limited to) ‘loser,’ ‘heathen’ and ‘deplorable.’ 

michael-fassbender-in-assassins-creed

2-5Recommendation: Disappointing video game adaptation squanders the massive talents of its leading trio in Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. Of course, this film could have gotten by with some average performances if the story were presented more compellingly. The longer the film went on, the sillier it all seemed. Damn it, this should have been really good. I am so bummed out and I haven’t ever played the games. I still might, though. These universes are just too cool to ignore. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “We work in the dark to serve the light. We are assassins.”

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.”

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

Paul G — #8

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul had turned to the dark side in the animated wonder The Little Prince, playing the part of a harsh(ly shaped) Academy instructor who enjoyed scaring children into becoming workaholic machines. This month let’s turn our attention to . . . well, another role in which he’s playing a rather confronting individual. This time, much more so. In keeping with last month’s theme of talking about stuff he’s recently been in, I’m going to be diving into a role that’s hot off the press, his turn as a psychiatrist brought in to help a corporate risk manager decide whether or not a scientific experiment is still worth pursuing or must be shut down.

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Paul Giamatti as Dr. Alan Shapiro in Luke Scott’s Morgan.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Sci-fi drama/horror/mystery

Plot Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being.

Character Profile: Arrogant psychologist Alan Shapiro has an important job to do: he’s charged with evaluating the mental state of Morgan, the brilliant but potentially dangerous end product of an advanced scientific project that has created a human-like being out of synthetic DNA. After a violent outburst revealed Morgan’s capacity for anger, the corporation responsible funding the project orders a psych evaluation. In walks Shapiro, initially taken aback by the fact the scientists at the lab would ever have him try to communicate with Morgan behind a glass wall. At his insistence, they allow him to have a face-to-face in the same room as a potential killer. Shapiro opens a line of communication fairly casually but before long he is diving headlong into an intense interrogation, wanting to know what Morgan actually thinks about her “life” and her living conditions, about being stuck in a holding cell. He challenges her further, asking what she would do if he recommended that she “be terminated.” Still believing he has things under control, the doctor begins to scream at Morgan, borderline threatening her. What will Morgan do?

Why he’s the man: In a film that generally fails to mine the best out of its talented cast, Paul Giamatti shines the brightest here as a rather confronting (borderline chilling) psychologist who manifests as a major catalyst in determining the kind of fate Morgan and her “captors” await. He may not have much time on the screen, and yet it is stunning how quickly his character is able to get under your skin and chill your blood. Morgan isn’t a film with many happy or pleasant characters, and Dr. Alan Shapiro is a particular stand-out, lighting the screen up with incredible intensity, a seething disdain for the government project that sits before him. It’s really strong work from one of the most reliable character actors we have right now.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.foxmovies.com 

Morgan

'Morgan' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth W. Owen

Directed by: Luke Scott

No movie, especially one dabbling in the science fiction genre, has an obligation to make the viewer feel all warm and cuddly inside. You can be both the coldhearted bastard and The Year’s Best Movie, but if you plan on being as brutally dispassionate as this year’s attempt at Ex Machina-ing the AI subgenre back to life, you better have something interesting to say.

Morgan‘s got nothing. What it does have though are 90 of the most unpleasant, uninteresting minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year.

There were only four of us in my 3:45 screening and the film played out as though it were anticipating as much. You might attribute the film’s disinterest in engaging the viewer to Scott W. Owen’s thoroughly unoriginal screenplay, a story about the dark side of cutting-edge science so bland you sit there realizing that you’re thinking about how bland it is. Annoyingly that meta thought begets another. And then another, and soon enough, twenty minutes have gone by and still nothing’s happened. Oh, look. Time to refill the coke and popcorn. (Spoiler alert: do it in the first 45 minutes because you won’t miss a thing.)

Unfortunately though it’s a real team effort, as the son of the great Ridley Scott doesn’t steer the project in any meaningful direction with an uninspired vision that substitutes substantive scientific and/or philosophical questioning for grisly and pretty cruel action sequences. There are so many questions. What makes Morgan special? Why should we believe she’s the AI creation of the cinematic year? What is her true potential, what is her purpose? Can she really be controlled? Should she be? And the million dollar one: why should we care, about her or this world she inhabits?

If foreshadowing doesn’t destroy Morgan‘s shot at profundity, then it’s a lack of depth and substance. There’s no extrapolation as to what this says about where we are in society, only easy answers — solutions tailor-made for this specific narrative. All the bloody hand-to-hand combat reserved for the ending is an overt solution to the problems introduced in this dreary, monochromatic world. What makes Morgan special? This karate chop! That crazy look in her eyes. (It sure isn’t that fucking boring hoodie.) Why should we believe she’s the year’s coolest AI creation? Because she’s a murderer, with a lust for blood not seen since Ted Bundy. What is her true potential? To be more Ted Bundy than Ted Bundy. Why should we care? Um . . .

The story takes a more political/business approach to the world of scientific endeavors, one of its few distinctive features. Morgan focuses on the tension between a corporate entity seeking total control and the idealistic virtues of those working directly on the company-funded Morgan Project. It pits Kate Mara‘s supremely unfriendly risk manager Lee Weathers against the strangely more sociable project overseers, a group that includes doctors Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), husband-and-wife duo Darren and Brenda Finch (Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson), Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), and Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh). After an incident in which Morgan attacked another scientist, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the second role this year that has required her to cover her face in physical-abuse make-up, Lee is called in to assess whether the project is one still worth pursuing or if it needs to be terminated.

Mara may not look the part, but she kind of does feel like The Terminator, and Leigh’s bedridden scientist even calls her “a goddamn assassin.” She’s here on business and won’t leave until that’s finished. From the moment she appears Mara delivers each of her lines in the same monotone, several inflections away from sounding like a real person. It’s actually a pretty terrible performance from a reliable thesp. (But not as terrible as the ending.) Corporate red tape wears out its welcome quickly with Ziegler and his colleagues. Perpetually on the defensive, the team continues trying to justify Morgan’s sudden outburst as anomalous. Morgan describes it as “an error.” Nonetheless, a psychiatrist is brought in for an evaluation. It’s Paul Giamatti, so at least you know what you’re going to get out of him. And he surely delivers, pushing Morgan to the limits as he questions why she thinks she is alive. Why she thinks the people around her are her friends.

Judged through a tedious first section and an even slower second act, Morgan isn’t very eventful but it’s well-crafted. A reasonable amount of tension is generated from our ignorance to what Morgan is capable of doing or what she is actually going to do to her captors once she gets loose. (An event we await with bated breaths.) Mara is a constant bummer but the rest of the characters are fairly likable in their restricted capacities. Anya Taylor-Joy (the break-out star from this year’s The Witch) is for some time empathetic and her distinctive features make for a suitable alien-like presence. Boyd Holbrook plays a hunk with serious culinary skills. Because we needed that for levity, I guess, but I’ll take it if everyone else is just going to be a misery to be around.

But when we’re exposed to what the filmmakers have in store for us having waded through a lot of nothingness, the wheels fall right off the wagon, spectacularly. Who had M. Night Shyamalan on speed dial for that big reveal? It has his fingerprints all over it. In fact his sense of atmosphere and ability to maintain tension makes it feel like Morgan doesn’t have any Scott blood running in its veins at all. Slavishly adhering to structure and with no personality of its own, this Ex Machina wannabe has been conditioned to not think for itself.

Recommendation: Slow, unoriginal and featuring an uneasy mix of cerebral meditation and shocking violence, Morgan gives me too many reasons to call this just a total freaking mess. As I personally wasn’t hugely anticipating it, calling it a disappointment might be a stretch but it certainly is disappointING that good actors and a reliable premise, granted a thoroughly worn out one at this point, aren’t enough to bring it around. Film also finishes on one of the lamest notes I have seen since Now You See Me, so unless you’re willing to risk leaving a movie wondering why you even bothered, I’d have to say keep a respectable distance from this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “There was joy in her heart, before we shoved her back into that box.”

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Photo credits: http://www.screenrant.com; http://www.foxmovies.com 

Experimenter

'Experimenter' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Almereyda 

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

When all is said and done Experimenter feels like a strange dream you had one night, some semblance of ideas and imagery that hits you kaleidoscopically. Michael Almereyda’s biopic about controversial American social psychologist Stanley Milgram is hypnotic, and to a fault, but it still manages to encourage a terrific performance out of its star, the underrated Peter Sarsgaard.

It’s a film that lives up to its title, blending a number of stylistic flourishes together to create an experience that is as experimental as it is unique. From the fourth-wall-breaking narrative to bizarre set designs — most notably the deliberately cheesy green-screens and stage-like sets — and curiously stilted performances from the supporting crew, Experimenter is one you’ll remember if for no other reason than just how odd it is. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.

Well, maybe not entirely. Acknowledging the rise in popularity of meta films in today’s market is just another reality we must accept and if you’ve ever taken the time to soak up Charlie Kaufman’s punishing Synecdoche, New York, you’ll be prepared for the surrealistic imagery and have some sort of grasp on Sarsgaard’s place in this similarly sardonic world. Visual aesthetics aside, Almereyda’s work is far less ambitious and emotionally taxing. That doesn’t mean the film is appropriately less effective, although, confusingly enough, it is a film that becomes noticeably less compelling the longer it drags on.

Stanley Milgram was best known for his Obedience Experiments conducted at Yale in the 1960s. Milgram, a Jew born to Romanian-Hungarian parents in the Bronx, became obsessed with understanding and evaluating the institutionalization of violence, à la the systematic annihilation of millions during the Holocaust. So he designed a set of tests that would measure participants’ willingness to obey commands delivered by a man in a lab coat, commands that would ultimately inflict pain upon one of the subjects. One participant would assume the role of Teacher, while the other would become the Learner. For every incorrect response that was given by the Learner, who was separated in an isolated booth, the Teacher would have to deliver an electrical shock, and the severity of the shocks would increase each time they responded incorrectly.

What resulted was not so much a predictable human response — far more participants continued to obey even knowing that they were delivering multiple, potentially lethal shocks to the stranger on the other side of the wall — but rather a disturbing revelation about human psychology. Milgram found many were unable to justify why they continued, why they obeyed a man in a lab coat rather than honor the requests of the Learner to stop. Throughout the process he would take note of the myriad reactions of those in the role of Teacher: some would get fidgety and scratch their foreheads, others would show deep remorse, others still nervously laughed. But an overwhelming majority of the subjects “completed” the test by inflicting the maximum punishment (450 volts) despite their complaints and obvious discomfort.

Milgram went on to conduct other renowned experiments as well, the most notable being The Lost Letter Experiment and his Small World Phenomenon studies — the former being a way to evaluate how willing people are to help strangers who are not present at the time, as well as their attitudes towards certain groups; the latter, seeking a way to expound upon the theory that all persons in this world can be linked to one another through no more than five intermediary contacts. (The term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ is often associated with Milgram’s work but incorrectly so; although, strangely, Experimenter has no qualms with embracing that false reality.) Interesting as these pursuits were, the Obedience to Authority tests proved to be both Milgram’s greatest endeavor and his greatest struggle.

Milgram all but became a pariah of the social psychology community following waves of criticism that accused him of the unethical treatment of subjects, and that his experiments were designed with deception in mind rather than revealing truths about sociological tendencies, even patterns of behavior. He was challenged, scornfully, to take the Obedience Experiment to Europe, Germany in particular. “It would feel more authentic that way.”

Experimenter is a tale of two halves — or maybe thirds — with a large chunk of the narrative dedicated to his years at Yale, and the remainder accounting for the fall-out, both publicly and professionally, that resulted from his Obedience tests. While sad and often bizarrely frustrating — Sarsgaard‘s cold, monotonous delivery of lines drenched in scientific jargon makes for a character that’s pretty hard to empathize, much less identify with — the second half (okay, the last two thirds, really) is predictable and quite tedious to get through. It’s the story of geniuses spiraling into madness, only without the obvious madness.

Throughout, it’s Sarsgaard who compels us to keep participating in this experiment, becoming a thoroughly burdened and disheveled-looking man come the late ’70s and early ’80s (he would pass at the age of 51 from a heart attack, his fifth). Winona Ryder plays his dedicated and theoretically equally intellectual wife Sasha, though she’s relegated to a near-silent role without depth. She does help mold the family unit around this man who starts off seemingly dispassionate and of the type you’d assume would later prove villainous. No such trickery here.

There really are no twists after we move beyond Yale, and that’s kinda the problem. After such a strong, deeply involving and uncomfortable opening Experimenter turns to more conventional tactics as his life’s work threatens total irrelevance after several board meetings that don’t go well, a failed attempt to gain tenure as a Harvard professor, and the attendant circus surrounding the TV-movie The Tenth Level, a dramatization of that most infamous experiment. The frequency of bizarre set designs increasingly intrude as well, making for a watch that becomes much less about the actor carrying the burden of portraying such an intelligent yet embattled individual, and more about the ornate, lavish decor.

None of that is to say that Experimenter ever approaches banality. It just becomes less rewarding the more you seek answers and a clear path through to the end. Almereyda has a clear admiration for the guy, and the intricacies of his latest film are married perfectly with the innate complexities of this intriguing life. It’s still a journey well worth taking.

Recommendation: Followers of Peter Sarsgaard’s work should take some time out of their day to track down Experimenter, a unique and puzzling quasi-biopic about controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Acting as a kind of time capsule in its quaint stage-like production design, Experimenter rewards those with a lot of patience and a thirst for intellectually stimulating cinema. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “Human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.”

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