Arrival (2016)

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Gladly, this is not your typical ‘alien invasion’ flick, it’s a much smarter story that totally immerses you into a situation filled with dread yet hope, understanding yet confusion. I came out of the film feeling a little lost but it’s a grower because as you think on it the whole idea becomes more interesting.

As 12 shells arrive on Earth and hover above different locations, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called into help the military. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) hopes that she can understand and translate the aliens’ talking and find out why they’re here. Together with scientist and maths man Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they start uncovering a complex world-changing language.

Coming from ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve, you can surely expect tension and smart movie story-telling and you’d be right to do so, as this sci-fi release is burning with clever ideas about language, time and humanity’s fight for survival and knowledge. Villeneuve doesn’t go for any last minute twist, he keeps his film going along and through shots or blurred flashbacks we begin building a picture of what’s to come. What he does well is ensure every scene has importance or emotion and gives moments with the aliens a nervous and affecting tone as we try to grip what may happen.

Eric Heisserer gives the story no cliches or over expositional content, aside from one line near the end of the film, everything we hear sounds plausible and brings you into this alien filled drama with ease. The way he adapts the short story and ensures the Heptapods’ speech is intellectual, so much so that it befuddled my mind but not enough to make me disengage from the movie. This language is a huge factor of the script, connecting to Louise and creating a rounded story that gives ‘Arrival’ fantastic depth.

Back to help Villeneuve is composer Johann Johannsson, who has a superb skill in building tension through music. The dread mounts and through deeper reverberations in the score we feel on edge as the characters go to encounter the Heptapods. A brilliant track comes in with some narration and is used again for the credits, it’s haunting and a chorus of voices makes it more impacting.

Amy Adams in her second November outing, is much more interesting to watch in this compared to ‘Nocturnal Animals’, that’s to say she has more to do and her character is excellent. The subtle flickers of tired emotion that fill her thanks to flashes of events or the way she gleefully acts when breaking ground with the aliens communication all make Louise a captivating role. Jeremy Renner is good also, his smart mathematician role bouncing off Louise very well. Whitaker is a great choice as the military superior, his calmness a good thing as he easily could have been the villain straining for violence. Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor, always doing good with what he’s given and here he grows as the film progresses.

It may still have me slightly puzzling over the whole grand scope of time but this is a science fiction that dazzles and if you like a movie to make you think then this is the perfect choice. Performances, writing, directing and music create something to blow your mind like not much before.

8/10

 

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Miles Ahead (2016)

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I’m going to plead ignorance here, but I went into this film not knowing anything about the musician Miles Davis. Upon exiting this American biopic I feel I know more about his lifestyle but if anything it didn’t really explain much for the common place audience member. It’s as if it didn’t really capture all essences of who this man was and how he got there.

Apparent Rolling Stones writer Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) is interviewing famous jazz icon Miles Davis (Don Cheadle). This leads us back to how they first met and what Dave discovers is that Davis has a mix-tape (reel) of new material after a long absence. Everyone wants it but Davis doesn’t want to hand it in to Columbia Records, he starts thinking back on his music and his relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as everything racks up.

Now, I honestly don’t know what of this movie was real, based on real events or typically altered hugely by the big Hollywood machine. Maybe this sounds stupid but I think this could have dealt with including more pandering to help push along people like myself who don’t know anything about Miles Davis. Because for all I know, what I saw in the heated action and gun fighting of trying to get a mix-tape (reel) is 100% accurate. Also the ending in an obviously now I realise poetic way for his legacy states Miles’ name, then 1926 -, as if he’s still alive, which after checking I can verify he isn’t. So it makes me wonder how much of this admittedly stylish and interesting movie was over exaggerated. Not a good point for a biographical movie.

Don Cheadle is a sturdy War Machine as director, actor, writer, additional composer and producer for this 2015 New York Film Festival closer. He does a great job in all fields and so much so as the director. The way scenes meld into each other or cut sharply into a later/earlier version of Miles or Dave is seamless and cool. It helps the story move along nicely and keep this gangster-esque vibe at sleek levels. It’s mostly a flashback and we flash further back in places, each time arriving with a piece of audio or image that effortlessly transports us to the next moment, which in a way stands for a brilliant statement of Miles Davis’ timeless persona.

It’s not like other biopics I’ve seen before which both is a good and bad thing. It’s good because it’s engaging and not boring, unlike the more conventional ‘Jersey Boys’. It has a musicality at all times, I swear there was a jazz or brassy beat behind all scenes which gave it a coffee shop lift. Then on the flip side, having it flick back and forth and meld possible untrue sequences makes it difficult to buy into and I still feel like I know zilch about the trumpet player, heck even one moment near the end made me think he couldn’t even play the instrument.

Cheadle is a powerhouse as the man behind the golden trumpet, he brings a swagger and electric edge to the role, his physicality dominating the screen and making Miles feel like a force of nature as well as music. The times when he’s more subdued and reminiscing are played nicely, showing the more broken side of Davis. Ewan McGregor is a fun part of the cast, playing a Scots fraud with a buzz kill side in the hope to scoop some story on Miles, but he plays the likable factor well as their odd friendship grows. Emayatzy Corinealdi is beautiful and human as the least cartoonish figure. She provides the drama and shattered dreams of life to great heights that help show the damage Miles can create. Michael Stuhlbarg is once again a fascinating watch, his moustached Harper Hamilton being shady and like a 1920’s honcho with a tricksy manner in his voice and look.

The plot may be hard to jump on board with and it skids off into a weird bio-pic wasteland of trying something new but it’s got style and Don Cheadle rocking the house with an expressive and enjoyable performance.

6/10

Trumbo (2016)

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By the books but still fascinating, this biographical drama tells us about a man that some may know but plenty won’t have. I like films…a lot but I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Dalton Trumbo and the prejudices he was put through. This is a good looking film with a proper good lead but it’s not always engaging.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is a well voiced member of the Communist Party of the USA along with 9 other writers. Though it being 1949 and Russia no longer an ally thanks to threats of Cold War, Trumbo is soon blacklisted and imprisoned for his stance though that won’t stop him writing some of the most loved movies of the classic Hollywood era.

John McNamara has a lot of history with television writing and producing and perhaps that’s why this feature feels or rather, sounds like a TV movie. It has all those elements as we follow Trumbo in the beginning, see his political views, watch him interact in jail and then flourish even when he should be waning thanks to his blacklisted status. It’s an interesting film to a point, mostly in learning about this incredible man but it’s never grand or romantic or captivating like ‘Spartacus’ or ‘Roman Holiday’ are. This work about Dalton Trumbo doesn’t ring like a cinematic gem, more a small screen network filler.

Jay Roach directs this drama well, the centre focus is of course on Trumbo and how he behaves which is at a point great because it connects us to him but even when they attempt to show his flaws, they’re never fully formed making him too pushed onto us. It’s not like they’re showing one side of the story as we all know about Communism but we don’t all know about that when located in the Hollywood industry. Sadly we never really see the truth of Trumbo’s defending of brutal ideals as everyone on his side is painted as innocent. Of course I never knew what he said or what other figures never said, e.g. the case of Edward G. Robinson, but I looked into the people of this movie because of how easily likable they made the Communist side which is a little too simple.

Roach does give this film a good twist of lightness even amongst the darkness of Trumbo’s forced secretive writings. There is a spectacle involved as we see him journey to typing Oscar winning movies and how that effects people on either side of the party he belongs to. But for me the strongest element of the movie isn’t the factual elements needed to be told but the charisma and heart located in the acting department.

Bryan Cranston embodies the hunched writer with moustached aptitude, he is the true decorative trophy on this film’s mantelpiece. Cranston does great things in making you look past the uneven tone of the film and the televisual atmosphere it presents because he has energy, a spark of wit and talent just like the real life Trumbo. Michael Stuhlbarg shines as Edward G. Robinson, looking the part and giving dramatical urgency in his call up to reveal damning (if inaccurate) truths about who he knows. Diane Lane is the sturdy rock of this film, always being there even when she fears the man she loves is turning. Lane deserves more credit because though she’s not always on screen she keeps the family image believable. Louis C.K is smart and funny as the light balance to Trumbo’s persona though weirdly he’s a fictional character which doesn’t help in making this film feel less terrestrial. Elle Fanning steps in as the grown up daughter in a moment that really stuns as to how someone so short and different to Fanning grew to become Fanning but that moment aside she is a bright face to this starry cast and she notably displays the same motivation and active behaviour of Trumbo. Helen Mirren wavers in her accent, sounding British from time to time but she never drops in being the bitchy headline writing queen and almost steals the show with her ever-changing hats.

So, where the poster quote from Deadline reads that this is “one of the year’s must-see pictures”, I’d say that it’s only recommendable for people that admire the cinema and behind the scenes talent that produced the sparkle of Hollywood of old, otherwise it’s a film with great acting but a pedestrian TV vibe.

6/10