Arrival

arrival

We wanted to see a movie. We checked out the titles against the ratings in IMDB. Arrival came out top by quite a distance. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, it’s a movie about the first contact with aliens. Twelve huge spaceships appear simultaneously in different sites around the world. Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Adams) is recruited to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. Everything is set up for an interesting piece of entertainment. Instead, I found it slow, drawn-out, and implausible. I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that the central rationale for what is going on the movie did not work for me. In a word: disappointing.

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The Martian

martian-movie

I finally saw the film of The Martian (in Hebrew: To save Mark Watney) earlier this month, but am only now getting round to noting my reaction.

First, the film stays pretty close to the book. So the storyline is like this: because of a horrendous storm, astronaut Mark Watney is separated from his Mars crew, who return home without him. Everyone thinks he’s dead, but he isn’t. So, can he survive? And if so, how? And can he be rescued? And if so, how? To quote from the film:

“In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option, I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

Second, the film delivers a thoroughly engaging experience, with nary a dull moment. The acting is rock solid, though those of us who saw Damon as the shipwrecked astronaut in Interstellar might have been tempted to wonder if he was becoming typecast! The script is excellent, in the main, with good dialogue, good pacing, and no flab.

Where it falters, slightly, has to do with part of Watney’s escape route that the book covers in some detail. Presumably the film makers thought that would be too boring or difficult or both for a cinema audience, and so the detail is replaced with what seemed like an aside: “So, I sorted out that problem.”

There’s also another detailed point that the film changes, getting the science wrong. (When Watney tries to make water.) But that just highlights how much more difficult it is for a film to render a scientifically accurate picture of Mars, never mind the survival program which Watney carries out. That having been said, these details – and they are details – will go unnoticed by many, and are well within the reasonable limits of suspension of disbelief. In other words, believe what is on screen for the best experience. (Or check IMDB for an impressive analysis of wayward science in the film. The book is tighter in that regard, though not without its faults.)

Third, the cinematography is top notch. There’s plenty of visual enjoyment on offer.

All in all, a good night at the movies. Well worth seeing. If you have to choose, read the book. If you have time, read it before you see the film.

Incidentally, I have no idea why the Hebrew title was changed. (It did make it more of a challenge to find the film online when trying to book a seat.)

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Vin Diesel, The Last Witch Hunter, and Dungeons & Dragons

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There’s a new film on the way – The Last Witch Hunter – starring Vin Diesel. This is him talking:

“Let me go way back. For the 30th anniversary Dungeons and Dragons the company at the time asked me to write the foreword for the book. [In it] I talked about my experience growing up playing Dungeons and Dragons religiously. I even talked about a character that I had named Melkor — a name that obviously I stole from The Silmarillion — and [how] that character was a witch hunter.

[Then] about four years ago I met with a writer name Cory Goodman and we started talking. Someone put us together because he was a D&D player. [Afterwards, Cory] went off to write a whole film around my character Melkor. Just the very fact that I’d be playing a witch hunter speaks to how nerdy I was about the game, how committed I was to D&D because witch hunter [wasn’t a] class by TSR at the time. It was a character that you could get from a third party book of characters called The Arcanum. There were a few characters that started there that eventually Dungeons and Dragons took over; one of those characters was a witch hunter.”

So the film exists because Vin Diesel is a D&D player, and set off a creative train of thought. Hmmm. I may have to go and see the film. (And I may have to rethink what I feel about Vin Diesel.) You can read the article from which the above is taken, here. The film’s official site is here.

[Thanks to Lee for the spot.]

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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This is the modern cinema experience at its best and worst, simultaneously. Here’s a film that gives you cardboard characters, a creaky plot, and a swathe of destruction and death that is just plain daft. But it also gives you two hours of escape from the real world, with a high energy, all action adventure. In short, simple escapism.

Some of the stunts were terrific, and the film even had its moments of comedy dialogue. Simon Pegg did himself a lot of favors with a performance that somehow managed to exceed the role and the setting, projecting himself as more flexible and talented an actor than he is often credited as. The rest were largely unremarkable – not unusual given the strictures of the environment, but I’d like to think bit player Hermione Corfield has a bright future, and that both Jeremy Renner and Sean Harris won’t have their careers dented by appearing in this film.

Finally, the action moves across several countries and yet somehow manages to avoid getting the number and quality of decent scenic shots you might have expected. Nothing, it appears, must challenge the action.

Fun to watch, but it won’t linger long in the memory.

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Southpaw

southpaw
This is a sports film that follows a well worn formula, and thereby courts the possibility of being cliched and of little value. However, primarily due to the superb, peerless performance by Jake Gyllenhaal (as Billy Hope, world Light Heavyweight boxing champion) it is a cracking character study, a tale of violence, redemption – Believe in Hope! – and love, and engrossing entertainment. It’s also a real tearjerker.

Warning: Spoiler ahead!

In brief, Billy (complete with wife, child, and entourage) is at the top of the world and his profession. But a moment of madness sees his wife killed before him, and that sparks his fall to the bottom of the pit. He loses his way, his self-respect, and his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence).  Oh, and he loses his house, his cars, his superstar lifestyle, and his boxing license.

In the fall, we see Billy’s character exposed with many of its failings. He is quick tempered, violent, impatient, and intoxicated. He is also deaf to reason.

One of his hangers on remains a true friend, and steers him in the direction of salvation: a gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker).  And so, slowly, the crawl back up begins.

Gyllenhaal was a thin wimp in the excellent Nightcrawler. Here, he seems to have undergone an amazing workout regime; he looks like a real boxer. Further, somebody who knows the sport has ensured that he moves like a boxer. It is an incredible commitment to have been made by the actor, but it pays dividends for us viewers. And the icing on the cake is that his acting is simply spot on. It’s a fine, fine performance. It’s not Raging Bull, but it’s close. I’m beginning to think that any film he does will be worth watching.

I should also commend Forest Whitaker. Although I think he is just playing Forest Whitaker at times, he has a presence and a quality that adds to the film’s depth. That having been said, I thought the belated bonding of the Hope and Wills characters was the weakest part of the film. It appeared to me that the editing may have been to blame, as the whole episode was uneven.

And then there’s Oona Laurence and Rachel McAdams (as BIlly’s wife). Both are good, though I thought Ms Laurence grabbed her opportunity with the more extensive, endurable role of the daughter, and she and Gyllenhaal were pretty near perfect together.

The fight sequences are tense, sometimes hard to watch, but gripping. You may squirm with some of the punches.

The story is a tad predictable, but holds together. You are not watching this for the plot twists, but the experience. And it is an experience well worth having.

[Footnote: the Hebrew title is literally “Without Gloves.”  I guess there’s no direct translation for southpaw, but Without Gloves doesn’t do it for me.]

 

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This is a gentle comedy drama about the expansion plans of an Indian hotel owner, Sonny (Dev Patel) and his British partner Mrs Donnelly (Maggie Smith). The hotel is home to ex pat elderly Brits, played with vim and vigor by the classy cast (Judy Dench, Diana Hardcastle, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy and Ronald Pickup).

The potential US investors in the expansion warn that they will send someone out to check the operation of the existing hotel. So, the arrival of two new guests into the normally quite and settled hotel environment – Richard Gere  & Tamsin Greig – inevitably sets off a chain of events. At the same time as this is happening, Sonny is about to get married.

The film covers, with varying degrees of seriousness and reflection, growing old, love, loyalty, and life. There are moments when it teeters on the edge of sickly sentimentality, but recovers just in time, rescued by a smart line, a gentle laugh, and a fresh push in a new direction. However, there are also some scenes that are straight up, serious, and thoughtful. That may be why, occasionally, the film drags. It’s not material, and it does not spoil the enjoyment, but it’s not a smooth, uninterrupted journey. In other words, not a master work, but a nice film with an uplifting message.

There are only a few instances when I was taken aback by the beauty of the scenery. This may have been a deliberate decision, for fear the wonders of the east may have outshone the acting. That would not have happened, as while the direction very occasionally stutters, the performances – across the board – are near perfect. In other words, it’s not only the stars who deliver. The less well known Indian actors are damn good, and Sonny’s fiancee (Tina Desai) deserves a meatier role.

This is not a film I would have chosen to see, but I am glad I did. I found it to be good old fashioned, crafted, intelligent, entertainment.

 

 

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Mystery Road

Susan and I watched this on TV (video on demand) as it ticked a couple of boxes – crime drama, Australian setting, decent synopsis – and had mixed opinions. It’s not a must see, but offers an authentic looking view of a part of Australian society that does not get enough attention, and definitely has its moments. For example, the film’s climax – albeit it was a long time coming – was a sharp piece of action cinema.

The back story is straightforward: an indigenous (read ‘aboriginal’) policeman returns home and is thrown in to the investigation of the murder of a young aboriginal girl. He is surrounded by a white male police force that cares little for such victims, and an aboriginal community that doesn’t trust him because he is a policeman. And, to complicate matters, his ex-wife (now a domestic violence victim courtesy of her new partner) and daughter are in the picture. His daughter knew the victim and may know more than she is saying. His ex-wife drinks and condemns him in equal measure.

Our noble detective tries to do his job, even if one of his fellow policemen was mysteriously killed a short time before his return, and another colleague seems to be warning him off.

It’s a dark, dusty, dangerous world on the fringes of Australian society.

The major strike against the film is that the director was so intent on building the backdrop (excellent) and atmosphere (equally good) he forgot he had a story to tell. In other words, it’s too long. At two hours, by my reckoning it’s half an hour longer than it needs to be. If you can spare the time, you may be better disposed to the movie.

The lead role is played by Aaron Pedersen, and he does it well. Hugo Weaving is on auto pilot, but still has that edge of threat that will forever follow him around since his Matrix role. The rest of the cast are fine, but with no stand outs.

There are some raw edges to the movie and, be warned, some loose ends. But that, I suspect, is deliberate, as it’s part of the ambiance the director is trying to let you experience. It’s worth seeing, if only to get a glimpse of a whole world away from Hollywood.

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Boyhood

The most boring film and biggest disappointment in a long, long time. If you haven’t seen it, do not bother. It’s slow with a drab story – hey this kid grows up! – and unattractive characters. What conflict there is, is understated and soporific. I can only recommend this film as a cure for insomnia. Yes, it is that bad.

 

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Kingsman

This is part action film, part spoof, part unknown – in short, a strange cocktail of a film that veers from the sublime to the ridiculous too often. It’s great entertainment in that the time sure flies past fast, but it’s neither smooth nor sophisticated, and jars somewhat.

Plot: there;s a super secret spy body of gentlemen. One of them is killed mid mission, giving his life to save that of his fellow operatives. Fast forward 18 years and his son, who has gone somewhat off the rails, is offered a chance to join the gentlemen. At the same time as he is undergoing the rigorous selection process, a super villain is progressing his plan for world dominance.

So, think Bond mixed with a bit of Our Man Flint, Austin Powers, and Mission Impossible. Be warned: the violence – and there is a lot of it – goes from gruesome and nasty to Tom & Jerry style. It is not a quiet film; rather it’s a bawling, screaming cannonball. Quite an irony given the gentlemanly theme.

There are some good moments, and the actors – Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson, especially – do a credible job of suspending disbelief among viewers. But, overall this was more disappointing because of the lack of a firm directorial hand that was needed to keep the film on one track, and stop it trying to be all things to all men. All gentlemen, that is.

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