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Fiction, Film, Science Fiction

Film: Arrival

November 23, 2016

new-arrival-movie-poster-615813Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” is one of science fiction’s most lauded and memorable works, and  Arrival (2016) adapts it beautifully for the big screen. This is a smart, thoughtful, and hopeful science fiction film that couldn’t be more timely.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a brilliant linguist who answers the call when a world-shaking event occurs: twelve alien spaceships appear across the Earth, causing an international crisis. Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join the American first-contact team entrusted with opening communications with the aliens. Along with theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise meets — under disorienting circumstances — the aliens, and undertakes the arduous process of trying to decipher their language, not to mention their entirely alien mindset. The work is only made more difficult by time pressure, as the various governments involved in cracking the language slowly buckle under political pressure, fear, and uncertainty. It’s up to Louise to diffuse the escalating tension, but can they make the necessary breakthroughs in time?

Arrival is an understated, thought-provoking science fiction film that creates an immersive, gripping atmosphere of scientific mystery and simmering political tension. Its thematic focus on communication, cooperation, and understanding otherness in a world that often pits us against each other is a timeless message, but it couldn’t be more relevant to the current political climate. This makes it both an important and a difficult watch, depicting as it does an environment of international, multicultural cooperation in an era that seems to want to slam the door on that kind of endeavor forever. For some, this will make the film an emotionally charged dagger to the heart. I, for one, found its worldview sad but beautiful, an image of a better, fictional world that inaccurately reflects the fractious and hateful state of affairs in our own.

But Arrival also never loses sight of its smaller, human story, which, while playing out quite subtly underneath the broader narrative action, is just as powerful. This angle was, for me, the true source of the film’s hope and optimism: an effectively rendered message of perseverance in the face of perilous personal circumstances. On this score, Amy Adams is the film’s best asset: she delivers a flawless central performance, perfectly nuanced to execute the film’s impressive narrative strategy, which involves a jaw-dropping emotional reveal. The message of her character’s life journey is a powerful one, and one many of us most likely need to hear right about now.

In summary, Arrival is first-rate SF, a fiction that converses powerfully with the truth, delivering sense of wonder, thought-provoking concepts, romance, drama, and hope. Science fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

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Film: Death in Small Doses

November 20, 2016

death-in-small-doses-movie-poster-1957-1020197288Even the B movies of the 1950s have a quiet, modest artistry to them, a compliment that certainly applies to Death in Small Doses (1957), an unspectacular but enjoyable mix of film noir and drug panic PSA. In an early leading role, Peter Graves stars as an Federal Drug Administration agent who goes undercover as a truck driver to bust up an amphetamine ring on the west coast. Preliminary intelligence sends him to an LA boarding house run by Valerie Owens (Mala Powers), the first step in his quest to eradicate a “benny” epidemic plaguing the trucking industry. His subsequent long hauls up and down the coast put him into contact with the web of users and dealers that help him crack the case.

With its modest budget and simple plot, Death in Small Doses is far from dazzling, but its prosaic filmmaking techniques are effective enough to provide a certain charm. Weirdly, it’s based on a Saturday Evening Post article, which adds a rather quaint and old-fashioned addiction alarmism to its potboiler trappings. Graves shows early signs of the leading man charisma that would serve him well through the early years of his career, while Powers makes for a compelling femme fatale. Also along for the ride is Chuck Connors, who turns in an animated performance as “Mink,” a sketchy trucker junkie. Fans of this sort of old-school noir will find it an inessential but pleasant diversion.

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Film: Mascots

November 16, 2016

mascots-movie-posterLet’s say you’ve had a rough week *ahem* and you want to take your mind off the world’s troubles. You could do worse than to watch Christopher Guest’s Netflix comedy Mascots (2016), the latest in his trademark line of semi-improvisational ensemble pieces. Following the model of Best in Show, Mascots focuses on a peculiar niche passion — in this case, sports “mascottery” — and zooms in on a gathering of its goofier practitioners as they gear up for its annual competition.

Folks who have been following Guest’s work stretching all the way back to This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman will recognize the traditional mockumentary format he helped to pioneer, as well as the usual band of repertory suspects from previous projects, back again to take a ridiculous subject way too seriously. Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Chris O’Dowd, and more Guest veterans turn up — including Guest, reprising his Guffman role as Corky St. Clair. But it’s the newcomers who steal the show, this time: Zach Woods, Susan Yeagley, and Tom Bennett are among this one’s funnier and more memorable oddballs.

Occasionally there’s a mildly mean-spirited, punching down quality to Guest’s work, poking fun at the simple pleasures of quirky, unsophisticated folk. Mascots has a little of that, marred by a handful of cringeworthy bits, but overall its subject is so ludicrous that it’s easy to turn off the critical filters and enjoy the absurdity, and the often inspired comic buffoonery of the competition sequence that winds down the film. Mascots isn’t quite up to Guest’s classic stuff, but it’s still pretty good, and it turned my brain off for an hour so, which is a high bar to clear these days.

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Film: The Last of Sheila

November 6, 2016

last-of-sheilaFrom the classic screenwriting team of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (?) comes The Last of Sheila (1973), which at first glance looks like a grubby B movie but is actually a solid, cleverly plotted whodunit with an A-list cast. The set-up is a travelling bottle show: Hollywood producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) invites six of his closest industry friends to his yacht for a Mediterranean pleasure cruise. The guest list includes struggling screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin), his wealthy wife Lee (Joan Hackett), spirited agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), has-been film director Philip (James Mason), starlet Alice (Raquel Welch), and her husband, aspiring producer Anthony (Ian McShane). Greene, an avid gamer, requires everyone to participate in a puzzle-solving contest: he hands out cards that provide each guest with a different “secret identity,” and at each port of call, the goal is to uncover a different person’s identity. It’s all fun and games, at first, but the cheerfully abusive Greene has a hidden agenda, and it most certainly involves the mysterious, long-ago death of his girlfriend Sheila.

The Last of Sheila feels like an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery, revamped for cynical, 1970s film-making sensibilities, which makes it something of a double relic — in a good way, I think. Alas, it looks like the film stock was run over by a truck, and the cinematography is middling, somehow making its European location work look dirty and unappealing. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining ensemble piece with an engaging puzzle-solving core, and lots of nice, twisty layers to its plot. Both the acting and the editing are fast and chaotic, contributing to a usefully disorienting pace, and the performances are fun, especially from Cannon and Coburn. Its unique brand of “Hollywood ending” is pretty satisfying, too. A fun throwback diversion, especially for fans of such obscurities.

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Film, Spies

Film: Avalanche Express

October 31, 2016

avexPart twisty spy thriller, part ludicrous disaster film, Avalanche Express (1979) is a fun, disposable lark that feels like a movie from three different decades: a smidge of the technicolor 1960s, a pinch of the shaggy, edgy 1970s, and a portion of bonkers 1980s spectacle. And it’s got “Joe Namath as Leroy.” How could I resist?

The adventure begins when a high-ranking, traitorous KGB officer named Marenkov (Robert Shaw) reaches out to the west for exfiltration: after years of providing the U.S. with valuable intelligence, his luck has run out and it’s time to defect. A crack team of agents lead by Colonel Harry Wargrave (Lee Marvin) swoops into Europe to spirit him out of Switzerland, but their successful lift operation is just the beginning. Marenkov has a scheme in mind to simultaneously expose a network of Soviet deep-cover agents in western Europe and lure a rival KGB spymaster named Bunin (Maximillian Schell) to his doom, thereby hobbling a major Soviet plot to unleash biological warfare against the west. The plan: reveal to the enemy his “secret” escape route on the Atlantic Express, a train that will carry him from the Alps to Holland, to bait Bunin and his assets into an attack.

Extensive location shooting makes the opening scenes of Avalanche Express an attractive, broad-canvas international thriller with a focus on slick, dialogue-free action and visual storytelling. At first it looks like classic spy-fi “competence porn,” with Marvin and Shaw heading up a team of supremely confident agents that includes Mike Connors (perfectly cast as a high-level espiocrat) and Linda Evans (merely along for the ride, alas, as an age-inappropriate love interest). But as the film advances, their impossible mission soon reveals itself as little more than an excuse to deploy extensive model work in a lengthy avalanche setpiece — a sequence that springs from the same school of disaster blockbuster film that brought us The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. The slick, cerebral spy thriller it might have been is therefore abandoned, replaced by a brainless, if occasionally diverting and impressive, action spectacle. As such it falls into that weird category of films that age both poorly and well at the same time — silly and quaint from one angle, but classy and charming from another, depending on your tolerance for the film-making proclivities of the era. I got a kick out of it, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend it.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Defector

October 25, 2016

the-defector-movie-poster-1966-1020209546Notable as Montgomery Clift’s final performance, The Defector (1966) is another obscure espionage relic from the Warner Archive. Clift plays James Bower, a brilliant physicist recruited by a scheming CIA agent named Adams (Roddy McDowall) to venture into East Germany. His mission: to retrieve a microfilm of valuable intelligence from a scientist behind the Iron Curtain whose work Bower translated. Despite initial reluctance, Bower undertakes the assignment, which immediately goes off the rails thanks to a scheming state security officer named Heinzmann (Hardy Krüger). Soon Bower’s focus shifts from the mission to mere survival, with only the assistance of a nurse — and western asset — named Frieda (Macha Méril). Will Bower escape alive?

The Defector is an understated, dry, and cynical puzzler with a distinctly European filmmaking flavor, happy to linger in fraught silences and grimy, muted settings. Its dreary depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain is convincing, helped in no small way by authentic German location work, and there’s a great atmosphere of Cold War paranoia. It’s missing that certain something, alas — a spark of energy, perhaps — and Clift, while interesting, makes for an inscrutable protagonist. The result is a film that’s difficult to get invested in, holding the viewer at a distance. Two similar, far more picturesque films leap to mind as contemporary competitors: Torn Curtain (with which it shares a certain structural similarity) and The Looking Glass War (which has a similarly dire worldview). It’s easy to see, then, why this one might be overlooked, despite its more realistic trappings, and a pair of memorable sequences: one an unsettling, New Wave-y interrogation sequence, the other a suspenseful Great Escape-like flight for the border. In the end, this is yet another film that spy-film aficionados will probably enjoy more than general audiences; it certainly worked for me, despite its flaws.

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Film, Spies

Film: The Double Man

October 23, 2016

double-manAs unexceptional spy films go, The Double Man (1967) is a fun oldie, with gorgeous location scenery and a certain B-movie charm. There are reasons you haven’t heard of it, but you could do worse for a harmless weekend matinee.

When his son dies in a skiing accident, CIA Assistant Director Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) journeys to the Austrian Alps to attend the funeral and claim the body. Once he’s handled this tragic business, he’s supposed to return to Washington straight away — but when he discovers evidence of foul play in his son’s murder, he decides to extend his stay. Clearly an enemy operation is in motion, and he’s the target, but who’s baiting the trap, and why? Perhaps his retired old friend from MI5, Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill), is involved, or it could be innocent-seeming witness Gina (Britt Ekland), who may be part of a Russian honey trap. Suspicious of everyone, Slater defies the orders of his superiors, determined to get to the bottom of the enemy operation, and smash it.

With the look and feel of an old Mission: Impossible episode, The Double Man is an occasionally ponderous affair, thanks largely to the stone-faced Brynner’s rather taciturn performance as a difficult-to-like character. The mystery builds slowly, and the major plot reveal is highly telegraphed. But Slater’s unsympathetic nature does help paint a classic picture of the intelligence business as a place where trust and optimism go to die, serving the film’s reasonably well handled themes. Occasionally cheesy rear-screen projection notwithstanding, the location work is stunningly photographed. So is Ekland, who straddles the line between ingenue and femme fatale effectively, contributing to the intrigue. On points it’s a mediocre film, with a plot that fails to surprise and a less-than-convincing Hollywood ending that misses an opportunity to say something more powerful. But fortunately it’s my kind of mediocre film, a harmless diversion with comfortable genre trappings.

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Film, Spies

Film: Sicario

October 18, 2016

sicario-new-posterThe most powerful spy films, I think, are the ones that wrestle with the ethics of the business. On that score, Sicario (2015) is a great spy film, and it also benefits from suspenseful setpieces, a deftly layered structure, and dynamic lead performances. Refreshingly, it also tackles an under-explored subject: the war on drugs.

Emily Blunt headlines the cast as Kate Macer, an exceptional young FBI agent who specializes in kidnap scenarios. Her most recent assignment clues her in to the ruthlessness of a Mexican drug cartel boss, giving her just the motivation she needs to volunteer for an interagency task force that’s planning to take him down. Lead by cagey good old boy Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and haunted DOD consultant Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the task force blends shifty high-level scheming with boots-on-the-ground combat swagger, and their missions — to which Kate and her promising partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are only partially briefed — turn out to be nerve-wracking, dangerous operations straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. As the work progresses, the surface pretexts are gradually peeled away, revealing the true motives and dark objectives underneath.

Alas, Sicario doesn’t strive much to buck certain annoying Hollywood trends: namely, Blunt is the only significant female character, and racial stereotypes abound. But if you can get past that, the film is a well oiled machine that builds a chilling early mystique before ramping into a twisty, realistic thriller. Blunt is convincing as a formidable FBI agent whose conscience undergoes the supreme test when she enters a secret world that requires a whole new level of ruthlessness. Brolin and Del Toro are just as good as shifty veterans of that posturing, testosterone-filled world, while effective supporting work comes from Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, and others. Director Denis Villeneuve leverages the dry, desolate landscapes of the southwest to excellent effect, selling the bleak message of this dispiriting business, and the unforgiving expediency of how it’s carried out. A tense, hard-hitting watch.

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Film, Music

Film: Eat That Question

October 11, 2016

eat-that-questionThe complex, unforgettable music of Frank Zappa has long been a formative influence for me, but the documentary Eat That Question (2016) is a reminder that so is Zappa, the person. The film is comprised of numerous interview clips, spanning his storied career from the 1960s to the early 1990s. It’s not entirely sequential, but “conceptual continuity” and careful organization make it feel like a linear narrative, telling the story of Zappa’s life as it reveals his singular personality.

Identifying with Zappa is, on some levels, a troubling thing; at times his attitudes, particularly about women, are questionable at best. But the documentary does a good job of zeroing in on what made Zappa unique, not just as a rock musician, but as a composer, an entertainer, and a thinker. From the very earliest clip — an appearance on The Steve Allen Show, wherein a clean-shaven, shockingly polite Zappa teaches Allen how to play the bicycle — Zappa comes across as someone who sees the world from weird, zany angles. There’s a contrarian streak to his eloquence, and the sense of a celebrity buying into his own bullshit. But he’s also a fiercely intelligent social critic, whose off-the-cuff responses to interview questions are always spirited and entertaining, and sometimes delightfully weird. Both his outlandish humor and deadly serious views on art are the product of a mind that’s sitting off to the side of the world, observing with a mix of baffled amusement and cock-eyed disgust. As the interviews move from his irreverent rock touring days into the 1980s, the humor gets more scathing, particularly during his angry appearances on Crossfire and facing off against the PMRC during Congressional hearings. His concerns about the future effects of right-wing, Reagan Era Republicanism are positively prescient. It culminates in a heartbreaking, late interview, wherein he is clearly losing his battle with cancer — and being defiantly cavalier about it.

Alas, Eat That Question doesn’t always focus on the best of Zappa’s music; the musical segues are sometimes necessarily tied to the interview material, but I could have done with less of the crass mockery of “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” and more of Zappa’s intense and fascinating melodic instrumentals. Also, true Zappaphiles will see a lot of material that they’ve seen before from various concert films and videos. But overall it’s a worthwhile compilation of footage, providing insight into the mind of a truly one-of-a-kind artist.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: ARQ

October 10, 2016

arq-poster-smallNetflix original science fiction film ARQ (2016) lacks a novel premise and doesn’t have much of a budget, but it does have confidence, energy, and subtly integrated SF world-building. Warning: this review will “spoil” its very familiar structural premise, so for those of you who like to go in without expectation: ARQ is inessential but clever and pretty entertaining. For the rest of you, read on!

Ren (Robbie Amell) is an engineer who used to work for a massive worldwide corporation called Torus. He awakens one morning with old flame Hannah (Rachael Taylor) in bed beside him, but the calm tableau doesn’t last: a trio of violent thugs break into his safehouse searching for money and food. In the resulting struggle, Ren “dies” — only to wake up in bed, at the same time, with Hannah again beside him. That’s right, he’s caught in a time loop, and one that seems to be connected with the perpetual motion energy machine in his garage: the “ARQ,” which he developed during his Torus days before fleeing the conflicts of the wider world to his current hideout. Ren faces off against the intruders, cycling through multiple ill-fated iterations trying to outwit them and save himself. But as further layers of intrigue are revealed, the game board keeps changing, and the survival strategies become more fraught and desperate.

Written and directed by Orphan Black veteran Tony Elliott, ARQ feels recycled: it’s yet another variation on the Groundhog Day concept, slotting into the canon alongside Edge of Tomorrow, Time Lapse, the 12 Monkeys episode “Lullaby,” and probably more that I’m missing. Mashing that concept together with a Desperate Hours home invasion makes for a film that inspires more than its share of deja vu…which is fitting, when you think about it. That said, it’s a skillfully executed take on the idea, thanks to a well structured script, convincingly frenetic performances from Amell and Taylor, and best of all, immersive and thoughtful dystopian world-building. As ARQ hurdles through its expected structural obstacles, it also gradually layers in the details of a grim, skiffy backdrop, ultimately painting a vivid picture of a corporate-owned, ecologically collapsing future. It may not be the most original SF film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a diverting dystopian thriller that neatly ties its premise into a theme of hopeful persistence.

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Film: The American Side

September 19, 2016

the-american-side_poster_goldposter_com_1If you want to get me to watch a movie, just make it a neo-noir detective story set in Buffalo, New York. That was my initial take on the core elements of low-budget indie film The American Side (2016), and it delivers on them, but it also throws in some real surprises, like a world-altering retro-skiffy MacGuffin and an unexpected secret history feel, all surrounding famous inventor Nikola Tesla. What an odd concotion!

Scruffy gumshoe Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr) is a PI working the back alleys of Buffalo. His unscrupulous collaboration with a stripper, who helps him set up marks in adultery schemes, backfires when his latest victim, Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), dies in what may or may not be a suicide. Soberin’s death entwines Paczynski with Nicole Meeker (Alicja Bachleda), a young scientist connected to Soberin — and sitting on dangerous secrets. Soon Paczynski’s twisted up in intrigues involving corrupt businessmen, the Serbian mafia, and shady government agents, among other things. And at the heart of it all lies a schematic that could change the world.

The American Side makes an iffy first impression, with its low-rent soundtrack, budget-conscious look, and a hero that’s hard to love. But the Buffalo location work carried me past these flaws, and the film improves as Paczynski’s bull-headed pursuit of the truth leads him further and further into hot water. Is the script structurally coherent? Not really. But the scenes are peppered with catchy noir crime lingo, all classed up by a cast that includes Camilla Belle (the requisite femme fatale), Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster, Janeane Garofalo, and, remarkably, Robert Vaughn in a spirited cameo. Meanwhile, Stuhr (who cowrote the script with director Jenna Ricker) eventually grows on you, his stubborn, lowbrow detective conjuring an incongruous seventies vibe. And his throwback personality isn’t the only nod to the past, as historical references — involving Tesla, science in general, and the city of Buffalo — are scattered throughout the script.

The result is surprisingly fun, with a unique pulp genre flavor in a story that looks quirkily backwards at yesterday’s futurism. I suspect the western New York easter eggs were part of the attraction for me — everything from scenes set at Niagara Falls to the protagonist quoting the catch phrases of Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret. But this one should also fill a niche for other viewers, particularly those with an interest in indie films, neo noir, and madcap takes on science history. A peculiar, enjoyable film.

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Fantasy, Film

Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

August 23, 2016

kuboThe opening of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is so moving and magical, and the film so full of visual wonder throughout, that I was surprised by my overall impression: I was underwhelmed. An animated feature drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, the film revolves around Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives a simple, hardscrabble existence, caring for his ill mother and supporting them as the village storyteller. Kubo is a lively and imaginative boy who possesses a magical power: the ability to animate and control his origami creations. But he also has a troubled origin: he and his mother fled their mean-spirited extended family in the wake of violent conflict, which is about to be reignited. When Kubo’s evil aunts come to collect him, Kubo is forced to flee with Monkey (Charlize Theron), a statue come to life to serve as his guardian. Together they undertake a quest to recover three powerful artifacts that will protect Kubo from his horrible grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

The first twenty minutes of Kubo and the Two Strings are utterly beautiful, bursting with powerful visual story-telling and splendorous imagery. And I was more or less onboard for the duration, enjoying its engaging action setpieces and amusing dialogue. In many ways it’s a refreshing change of pace from the increasingly familiar beats and tropes of big-budget animated cinema. But there’s something missing, or many somethings: a logical basis for the item-gathering plot, a coherent thematic focus, an assured handle on its messaging. There are many elements and ideas at play, but the script struggles to pick and choose how and when to deploy them, and they don’t work in perfect harmony. That doesn’t detract from the journey’s many great moments, but there are also distancing lulls, and a muddled climax.

In the end, I’m disappointed, largely because the film doesn’t deliver on its early promise. Those beautiful early passages create such an evocative, immersive mood, and it was a shame to watch that fall away. Even so, it’s a beautifully made and charmingly different film; I’m happy to have seen it, all the same.

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