Review: Arrival

Directed by: Denis Villenueve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien
Released: November 10, 2016
Grade: B+

When it comes to aliens and science fiction, one of my all-time favourite movies is Contact, the 1997 release starring Jodie Foster and directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Instead of portraying a full-blown alien attack and relying on huge action sequences (like Independence Day), it was a more dramatic film that looked at what would happen if a peaceful alien race was looking to reach out to humans and make “first contact”.

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), has been made from the same mould.  It begins with a world changing event.  12 alien vessels have descended upon Earth and are hovering above different parts of the planet.  There doesn’t appear to be any pattern to their locations but one has parked itself in a grassy, isolated field in Montana.

It’s one of those moments where time seems to stop and the world comes to a standstill.  We see footage from a university where a normally packed lecture theatre is almost empty.  Everyone else is huddled outside watching the news on their phones and television screens.  The days that follow become more and more troubling.  Citizens panic, grocery stores are looted, gas stations run out of petrol, and the government is forced to impose a night time curfew.  It’s a tense time.

Based on the short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is told from the perspective of Dr Louise Banks (Adams), a renowned academic who lectures on language and linguistics.  Having previously performed translation work for the U.S. military, she is called in by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to help make contact with the alien lifeforms.

It’s a situation that requires Louise to take more than a few deep breaths.  She is taken aboard the spacecraft where she comes face-to-face with the alien creatures.  The only thing separating them is a thick sheet of glass.  It’s clear they want to communicate but Louise needs to work out how.  Is it best to attack the problem by speaking or by using words and visual imagery?  Also helping is a scientist (Renner) who specialises in mathematics.

Action junkies may be disappointed but this is an interesting exploration of how humans would react if presented with a similar real life situation.  If a more advanced alien race did visit Earth, how much could we learn from them and how big an impact would it have on our own existence?  Would it alter science in a radical way?  What would religious leaders have to say?

The film also delves into the darker elements of human nature.  It taps into the theme that the biggest danger to our planet is not aliens but rather, it is us.  We see governments around the world divided on how to approach the situation.  Are the aliens truly friendly and how much should be shared with them?  Further, how much should be revealed to the nervous public who are thirsty for information?  As rumours spread and the conspiracy theorists weigh in, it all becomes harder and harder for the U.S. government to control.

I love the concept of this movie but it’s a little clunky in how it gets its message across.  It’s trying to pack a lot inside of two hours and parts are rushed.  The best example is the deteriorating relationship between some countries as the days and weeks drag on.  We know there’s tension but we hardly see any interaction between their representatives.  Would a country actually be serious enough to sever all forms of communication with others? 

Perhaps the reason this area doesn’t get the focus it deserves is because this is a film with Louise at the centre.  It’s about the effect the aliens have on her and how she has a role to play in helping advance humanity.  That becomes apparent during the later scenes and Amy Adams deserves credit for another emotive performance.

Complete with another blaring film score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (who worked with Villeneuve on Sicario), Arrival is going to divide audiences.  Don’t go in thinking you can sit back, relax, and enjoy some action-heavy entertainment.  Your mind will be put to work. 


Review: Nocturnal Animals

Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer
Released: November 10, 2016
Grade: A

Nocturnal Animals
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is going to cave in.”  It’s an iconic quote from Sam Mendes’ Oscar winning American Beauty but it could equally apply to the films of Tom Ford.  This is only the second release from the fashion designer turned movie director (following 2009’s A Single Man) but he’s already developed a unique cinematic fingerprint.  From the cinematography to the costume design to the music score… Ford finds a way to make you pay attention and soak it all in.

As his sophomore film, Nocturnal Animals taps into a common theme – the struggle to escape one’s past.  Ford gets his message through by skilfully weaving three timelines together.  The story begins in the current day and is centred on 40-something-year-old Susan Morrow (Adams).  At a first glance, Susan epitomises the American dream.  She is married to a successful businessman (Hammer), she lives in a stunning home in Los Angeles, and she runs an highly regarded art gallery.

Susan is quick to acknowledge the success in her life but she doesn’t come across a bubbly, chirpy, content individual.  She confides in a close friend that she feels “ungrateful not to be happy.”  She bored at work and she’s grown increasingly distant from her workaholic husband.  It’s clear that whatever she wants out of life, she’s not getting it.

Her world gets an unexpected jolt when she receives a delivery in the mail from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal).  The pair got married back when they were college students but divorced not long after and haven’t spoken in 19 years.  Edward had always wanted to be a writer and the package contains a completed manuscript which, as per the inscription on the front page, is dedicated to Susan.  Battling a mix of emotions, intrigue comes through strongest and so she sits down to read Edward’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’.

It’s at this point where the narrative fractures into its three parts.  The words on the page come to life and we are shown a visual representation of Edward’s fictitious novel through Susan’s eyes.  It’s the tale of man (also played by Gyllenhaal) consumed by revenge.  He seeks a group of thugs (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who abducted his wife (Fisher) and daughter while travelling on an isolated road in Texas.  He is assisted by a local police detective (Shannon) who promises to “look into things around here”.

As we follow the novel and Susan’s reaction to it, the final timeline takes shape – that of the relationship between Susan and Edward two decades earlier.  To understand why Edward wrote the novel, you have to understand their past.  Without giving too much away, it’s this important piece that connects the other two narratives and leads to the film’s powerful conclusion (and also one of the year’s best).

Just as he did in A Single Man, Tom Ford has extracted quality performances from his high profile cast.  Amy Adams is superb as the film’s troubled protagonist and Jake Gyllenhaal distinguishes himself by playing two subtly different roles.  Michael Shannon has been tipped as an award season contender and it’s easy to see why with his portrayal as the scraggly police detective with a steely determination that burns within.

Evidenced by its eye-opening opening title sequence, Nocturnal Animals is also to be admired for its colours, lighting and imagery.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) provides a dark, colourless perspective of Los Angeles and a contrasting view of the Texas deserts.  Having also worked with Ford on A Single Man, composer Abel Korzeniowski has crafted another bold film score and editor Joan Sobel has laced the overlapping storylines together with precision.

Most of us would struggle to justify the high cost of a Tom Ford suit but when it comes to the ticket price of a Tom Ford movie, I can’t recommend the later more strongly enough.


Review: Doctor Strange

Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Released: October 27, 2016
Grade: B+

Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is the fourth and final Marvel comic book movie of 2016.  It follows on the back of Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men Apocalypse and sets up a few storylines that will be relevant in movies to come.  Another 9 Marvel flicks are slated for release over the next 3 years.  If you’re suffering from superhero burnout, you might need to attend a couple of foreign language film festivals to freshen up.

It’s apparent that Doctor Strange isn’t your standard superhero.  This is best articulated during a scene where a comparison is made with The Avengers.  They tend to fight with their fists and other man-made weapons they’ve created.  In the case of Doctor Strange, he fights with his mind.  He can harness powers within that allow him to teleport to other locations and create strong force fields.  He can also alter the path of time.  They add up to cool group of party tricks.

The purpose of these powers doesn’t become relevant until the film’s final act.  The first half is all about character development and backstory.  We learn that Dr Stephen Strange is one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons.  That success has brought out some of his not-so-great qualities.  He wastes money on frivolous desires (such as expensive cars) and he treats many of his hospital colleagues with disrespect.  This includes Christine Palmer (McAdams), a fellow surgeon that he expects to be at his beck and call.

Strange’s life is forever alerted when badly injured in a car accident.  His hands are rendered useless and his days as a neurosurgeon are over.  It’s a massive adjustment for self-reliant Strange who is accustomed to being in control and having power.  He now must rely on the support of others as part of his long rehabilitation program.

His efforts to regain his independence lead him to a secluded house in Nepal that is home to the Ancient One (Swinton), a mystic who sounds crazy but is actually quite knowledgeable.  She speaks of spells, sorcery and other worlds that exist but are kept hidden from the eyes of most humans.  Her motives aren’t 100% clear but she agrees to help Strange and it’s not long before he’s doing things he never dreamed possible.

This is an interesting origin story but Doctor Strange is more likely to be remembered for its impressive visual effects.  Director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil) has borrowed a page from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and created a dream-like world where buildings move, streets fold over, and the laws of gravity are thrown out the window.  It sets the stage for unorthodox fight sequences.

The script successfully straddles a number of genres.  The action scenes are creative, the drama is easy to follow (except for a few complex character names), and there are a few well-timed laughs to add a necessary dose of comedy.  Cumberbatch portrays Strange as the reluctant hero who offers a few quizzical, sarcastic comments but quickly realises his value in saving the world.

Tilda Swinton has fun with a typical Tilda Swinton performance.  The same can’t be said for Rachel McAdams who is woefully underutilised as Strange’s quasi love interest.  I can only hope she’s given more to work with in future instalments.

Providing a finale that doesn’t rely on explosions and drawn-out punch ups, Doctor Strange earns points for being a little different.


Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Ryan Corr, Richard Roxburgh
Released: November 3, 2016
Grade: B+

Hacksaw Ridge
Sitting in the director’s chair for the first time in a decade, Mel Gibson’s latest tells the real life story of Desmond T. Doss (Garfield) – a United States solider who fought against the Japanese during the Battle of Okinawa in May 1945.  For his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty”, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honour by President Harry S. Truman.

What distinguishes this film from other World War II movies is the unusual set of eyes through which it has been told.  Doss was a “conscientious objector”.  Born and raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, he refused to kill another individual and refused to carry a weapon of any kind.  You might ask your question – why did he voluntarily enlist for the army?  His intention was to become a medic that would be “saving people rather than killing them.” 

This school of thought didn’t sit well with his fellow soldiers who saw him as a coward and a major liability.  There’s a scene where an army sergeant (Vaughn) warns the others not to look to Doss to save them because “he’ll be too busy wrestling his conscience.”  What’s the point of going into battle against the well-armed Japanese if the solider standing beside you doesn’t even know how to hold a gun?

It seemed that everyone wanted Doss to quit.  He was criticised by his parents (Weaving, Griffiths) who didn’t want to lose another son to the war.  He was beaten by other soldiers until bruised and bleeding.  He was imprisoned by Captain Glover (Worthington) for not completing training and following orders.  He even missed his own wedding because of his steadfast refusal to quit the army.

The early stages of Hacksaw Ridge feel a little drawn out.  I gained a quick understanding of the character and was ready for the narrative to progress.  The screenplay delves into Doss’s past and analyses the relationship he had with his abusive father (Weaving).  His mother feebly attempts to justify her husband’s actions by saying “he don’t hate us, he just hates himself sometimes.”

The film makes its impact in the second half when Doss is sent to the frontline and the troops try to wrestle control of Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese.  It’s a bloody, powerful sequence that is both tragic and uplifting.  Andrew Garfield speaks with a slow drawl and comes across as a touch dopey but it’s a good fit for the character.  He is a man driven by his beliefs rather than common sense.

The nominations for the 2016 AACTA Awards were unveiled last month (the Australian equivalent of the Oscars) and leading the pack with 13 nominations was Hacksaw Ridge, the latest effort from director Mel Gibson (Braveheart).  It’s an announcement that couldn’t be better timed given its release in Australian cinemas this week.


Review: Hell or High Water

Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey
Released: October 27, 2016
Grade: A-

Hell or High Water
Having made roughly $30m, Hell or High Water is one of the highest grossing independent films in the United States this year.  A clear point of attraction is the quality cast.  If you’ve got a total production budget of $12m, you’re doing well if you can get the faces of Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster on the poster.  Names aren’t everything though.  Audiences have also been lured by the strong word of mouth and having now seen the film, it’s easy to see why.

Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe), Hell or High Water begins with a robbery.  Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster), two middle aged brothers from West Texas, steal a small sum of money from two banks.  These heists are well planned.  They’ve picked quieter banks with easy getaway routes.  They wear gloves and ski masks to help conceal their identity.  They only take small bank notes ($20 and under) as they are much harder to trace.

These guys aren’t driven by greed.  They’re not looking to steal millions of dollars and then move to a beachside mansion in Cuba.  Toby is after revenge and redemption.  His mother recently passed away and title of the family ranch was transferred to him.  Unfortunately, it’s subject to a reverse mortgage and the bank will be seizing ownership if the outstanding debt is not repaid within a few days.  It’s no coincidence that he’s stealing from the same predatory banks who had been harassing his mother up until her death.

Toby doesn’t want the property for himself.  Having failed to pay child support to his ex-wife and two sons for several years, Toby sees this as a way of making things right.  He intends to set up a trust whereby his children get ownership of the ranch to ensure they won’t grow up poor like he did.  Tanner, fresh out of a lengthy stint in prison, has been promised nothing from the transaction but is keen to help is brother out of a sense of loyalty.

The film offers a second perspective which is given equal weighting.  Marcus (Bridges) is a soon-to-be-retiring Texas Ranger charged with the investigation of the robberies.  He is assisted by his partner, Alberto (Birmingham), and their playful, comedic banter provides a nice break from the film’s otherwise dark tone.  They get the sense that the perpetrators have other banks in mind and need to predict their next move.

This is a damn good film and your feelings about the characters will oscillate throughout.  Toby and Tanner are committing crimes but they’re doing so out of a sense of desperation.  It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for their plight.  They’re far from perfect though.  Tanner makes several errors of judgement (such as early scene where he hits a bank manager with the butt of his gun) that threatens their plans and “nice guy” personas.

With a thick, muffled Texas accent, Jeff Brides (Crazy Heart) delivers the film’s standout performance.  His character is a little reminiscent of the one played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men.  He has a relaxed, laid-back attitude on the outside but a shrewd, calculator demeanour on the inside.  His experience in these situations is invaluable.

Sheridan’s screenplay deserves praise for not always succumbing to convention.  There are a few “red herrings” that are more about developing the characters rather than furthering the storyline.  This is typified in a scene where Marcus and Alberto are waiting for something to happen outside a dingy café.

The string-heavy music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Lawless, Far From Men) will stick with you as the credits start to roll.  So too will the finale which ends on a poignant note.


Review: The Accountant

Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Written by: Bill Dubuque
Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow
Released: November 3, 2016
Grade: B-

The Accountant
I confess to being a little more interested than the average moviegoer when it comes to The Accountant.  It’s what I do as a day job as film criticism doesn’t quite pay the bills.  The film opens with the traditional view of what accountants do.  Christian Wolff (Affleck) operates out of a small, gloomy office and is helping an elderly couple with their annual tax return.  They’re worried about a hefty tax bill but Wolff is bending the rules and strongly suggesting they throw in a few creative deductions.

Don’t fret.  This isn’t a two hour movie about capital gains tax and negative gearing.  Writer Bill Dubuque (The Judge) puts forward an intriguing scenario.  We know there are horrible people in the world who are involved in terrorism, bribery, trafficking and espionage.  Who maintains their financial records though?  It makes sense that even bad guys need a Chartered Accountant to keep tabs on their money.

That’s where Christian Wolff makes most of his fees – by helping out large criminal families and organisations.  He maintains the lowest profile possible but Wolff’s actions have finally caught the attention of Raymond King (Simmons), the Financial Crimes Director for the Treasury Department.  He has assigned one of his senior analysts (Addai-Robinson) the difficult task of locating Wolff and compiling enough evidence to put him behind bars.

Adding another layer to the narrative is the fact that Wolff suffers from severe autism.  We are shown footage of him as a child where he hates bright lights and hates being touched by others.  He completes a complicated jigsaw puzzle but then becomes distressed when one piece is missing from the box.  This helps us understand the Wolff we see today.  He expresses no emotions, he struggles with human interaction, and he cannot stop once he’s started a particular task.

To borrow the words from the Home Shopping Network – “but wait, there’s more!”  The Accountant seems to have more storylines than an entire series of Game of Thrones.  Wolff is engaged by a person on the phone with a muffled voice (subplot #1) to perform a forensic accounting assignment for a large robotics company (subplot #2) where he meets a young accountant (Kendrick) looking to know more about him (subplot #3) while being pursued by hired goons (subplot #4) and haunted by memories of his father (subplot #5).

I like being challenged as a filmgoer but there’s too much going on here.  The finale includes a lengthy monologue from J.K. Simmons that is only necessary because of the many plot gaps needing to be filled.  Without giving away some of the key plot twists, there are parts to the story that lack credibility and a scene in a well-armed house towards the end is a good example.

The film’s most positive quality is its exploration of autism.  It’s a condition we don’t see often on the big screen – especially in a big budget action-thriller.  For those not familiar, it will provide insight into those dealing with the lifelong development condition and the effect on those around them.  For those already familiar, it provides confirmation that those diagnosed with autism can contribute to society in the same way as everyone else.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), The Accountant bites off more than it can chew but at least it’s adding a bit of excitement to the accounting profession!