Since I’ve moved to Los Angeles it has actually been pretty hard to sit down and write. I have been very busy, and by busy I mean that I have been sitting in traffic for the majority of my time here. LA is a parking lot. A dirty parking lot. But, I have seen some movies since I’ve been here, and I will share my thoughts on three of them below.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 116 min
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
In a different movie, when mysterious, black obelisks appear floating above the earth, we would be waiting for the explosions. This isn’t that movie. Arrival, from the director of Sicario and Prisoners, is a quieter kind of alien invasion film. The aliens do not attack and are not aggressive. Instead they seem timid, waiting for the right person (Amy Adams in an award-worthy performance) to approach them and say the right thing. Figuring out what to say is the crux of this film.
Adams plays a linguistics professor who is chosen by the government to translate the language of the heptapods. The whole world is anxious to find out why these creatures are visiting — are they evil or just here to say hi? The real reason is a total mind-blower that turns the whole movie on its head. The implications sink into you and grab hold of your heart, squeezing until it breaks and the tears start to flow. I can’t spoil it here. All I can say is that when I realized what exactly was happening in this film I was a mess. The editing, the cinematography, the sound… each choice is a deliberate one that adds to the experience. Filmmaking as measured and confident as this doesn’t come around often. Arrival is one of the most beautiful stories I have seen on the big screen in a long time.
The elements of this film work together in a way that create a sense of unease that I felt for the duration. Even in the quietest moments I was on the edge of my seat. This is a thriller that forces you to dissect the concept of language, not just spoken language, but the language of filmmaking itself. Arrival is inspiring, heartbreaking, mind-blowing, bombastic, soft, fun, thrilling, and is truly one of the best science fiction films I have seen in a long, long time.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Runtime: 115 min
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton
Marvel constantly surprises me. They continue to handle their ever-expanding roster with grace, and introduce new characters with ease. As audiences settle in for the ride they are able to take more risks and have earned the right to get… strange. The implications Doctor Strange has on the rest of the series are huge, and Cumberbatch has the ability to be a great addition to the team… I’m just not so sure he nails it here.
Stephen Strange is a dick. He’s cocky, unpleasant, rude, and thinks he’s hilarious. I don’t like him. He’s like Tony Stark without all the charm. This is a shame because I know that Cumberbatch is capable of being incredibly charming, but this version of the character doesn’t get to see that. He does have an arc that sees him improve by trying last-minute to be a better person, but I don’t think it feels entirely earned. The Cloak of Levitation is more likable and full of more personality and it’s just a cloak. The rest of the cast does a good job, but Doctor Strange isn’t about the characters and story as much as it is about the dazzling visuals.
Psychedelic imagery, kaleidoscopic fury, and M.C. Escher are thrust together with fantastic results. I never thought a Marvel film would be so playful with visuals, as the rest of the films are pretty stale on that front, but I can confidently say they were the best part of the movie. The end of the film has a great and hilarious final showdown with an out of this world villain that is particularly inspired.
If the rest of Doctor Strange was as adventurous as its best sequences, it would rank among Marvel’s best. However, poor characterization and some cringe-worthy humor weigh it down just a bit. Still, it’s great to see Marvel taking risks and I can’t wait to see how the doctor shakes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Director: David Yates
Runtime: 133 min
Cast: Eddie Redmaybe, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller
My hopes were high for this one. The Harry Potter series is perhaps the greatest franchise of all time. I read the books growing up and have seen the movies a thousand times. I was as excited as I was scared. However, my fears were abated when I learned that JK Rowling would be penning the screenplay. The creator of this series would surely turn in a wonderful script, right? Not quite. This is her very first screenplay and it shows. Why on earth did no one help her?
Rowling is a brilliant writer and the Wizarding World is so rich and full of great ideas, all of which are still on display here. But this story is so disjointed and tonally confused. Is this a fun adventure about wizards and a No-Maj (non-magical person in the USA) on the search for escaped magical creatures? Or a tale about an ever-growing evil, born of child abuse and magical suppression? Fantastic Beasts is equally both, and it suffers due to this split. There are inspired moments in each, such as Newt Scamander attempting to coax a lava-horned rhino back into his magical case or the dread induced by a creepy young girl singing about torturing witches. The individual moments are good, but the tonal whiplash here drags the film when it should be charging forward. The structure of a film versus a novel are entirely different. I hope Rowling employs a co-writer with experience to help with the next film.
Another problem with Fantastic Beasts is the direction by David Yates. Yates was at the helm for the last four Potter films, and I thought he did a fantastic job. This time, however, the world feels hollow. This could be the fault of the script, but I cast blame on Yates because the frame is often static, with characters who are equally as stiff. I found myself disracted during sequences that should evoke wonder and awe, which could only be the fault of the filmmaker.
It’s disappointing that this film isn’t better, but I am still hopeful for the future. There are four films to come in this series and there are enough good ideas on display to keep me excited. The magical creatures are well designed, the characters are likable, and a story that all Potter fans have been curious to hear will be explored in the upcoming films. Unfortunately, this first entry feels like all set-up, and it’s difficult to see how Newt Scamander and friends will play into it all in the sequels. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Bring on Young Dumbledore.