Arrival (2016)

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Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.

It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.

Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.

What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously front to back in a perfect cohesive composition that comes into being in a single moment. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.

Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.

Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.

Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.

So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.

The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.

4/5 Stars

Charlie Wilson’s War (2008)

charliewilson1With Aaron Sorkin’s script as a road map, Charlie Wilson is a character that Mike Nichols can truly have fun with. You can easily see him getting an undue amount of delight in this man who was able to do such a momentous thing while simultaneously walking on the wild side. It had to be a good story to warrant the director’s cinematic swan song.

It’s a film that’s surprisingly overflowing with talent, headlined by the big three: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Amy Adams, a young Emily Blunt, and even the old veteran Ned Beatty pop up. Hanks is the undisputed star and Hoffman is the other standout among all the other players. Most of the female roles feel decidedly unsubstantial which is not too surprising given Wilson’s lifestyle. However, Charlie Wilson’s War also is a necessary piece of storytelling because it attempts to understand a period of history that for some reason is often absent from film. From 1980 to ’88 during the Carter and Reagan administrations, a lot happened — even as Dan Rather remained through it all.

charliewilson2In the opening moments, it becomes obvious that Charlie Wilson is not so much an easily corruptible representative as he is a sexed-up man who enjoys charming female company. He’s “Good Time Charlie” for good reason. He surrounds himself with pretty young things, doesn’t mind playing around a bit, and even has a cocaine charge hanging over him after a potentially objectionable night in Vegas. In fact, the attorney looking into his case is, interestingly enough, one Rudy Giuliani.

But the one thing that he had driving him was the desire to end the Soviets total obliteration of Afghanistan with their helicopters, and so he tried to spearhead the most extraordinary of covert wars which ultimately had considerable consequences. His keen ally Joanne Herring (Roberts) is resolute to get support for the oppressed people of the Middle East because it’s a religious issue. Meanwhile, CIA officer Gust Avrakos (Hoffman) battles with him over acquiring more funding. Although he’s not necessarily a great man, people like Charlie and it serves him well.

This film is fascinating, in a sense, for the implications it had for the cultural moment in which it came out. Could Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring have had any idea that these weapons used to fight the Soviets might have fallen into the wrong hands — the hands that orchestrated 9/11? That’s certainly a big jump and perhaps an utterly unwarranted presumption, but it’s a thought that nevertheless creeps into a skeptical mind. If nothing more it suggests that all history is so intertwined and interconnected. You cannot talk about the roots of the Cold War without starting with Word War II beforehand or you cannot attempt to get at the War on Terror without acknowledging the waning years of the Cold War that preceded it.

It’s troubling in a sense that we turned these things into a righteous war. Though it is understandable to want to do what is right, and oftentimes God is used to justify certain actions, it gets difficult when there is far greater ambiguity. It’s not always as easy as good vs. evil. We are all besmirched by greed, corruption, and the like. There’s no simple way to get around this fact, even bringing to mind Bob Dylan’s classic indictment “God on our Side” right about now.

This film carries those same undertones of religion and God that feel misguided since politicians and whoever else utilize him as their ultimate justification — their ace in the hole. Gus ironically feels the most honest for his general disdain for the practice. The war against the Soviets and the War on Terrorism are undoubtedly far more complicated matters, just as a discussion of God is a complex issue in its own right. Like the famed fable of the Zen Master, all we can really say is “We’ll see.” It takes a wise person to acknowledge they don’t know the end of the story, just like they don’t know all the answers to the big questions. They can only try their best to understand what will happen and act in the most sagacious way possible.

3.5/5 Stars

Her (2013)

e69ce-her2013posterHer is a film that examines hyper-technological culture through a lens that has been around for centuries: romance.  In a not so distant future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly is a craftsman of greeting cards. The only difference is he dictates personal messages, which are then transcribed by computers to be given to loved ones. He himself is going through a rough patch in life after a breakup with his wife and it has left him taciturn and distant.
Then one day he purchases the new OS or Operating System. Samantha, as she is called, is a very high level of artificial intelligence (Siri on steroids), who is able to openly communicate, do tasks, and even show emotion to some extent. Even though she does not actually have a tangible body (unless you count Theodore’s phone), he still finds a way to become enchanted by her. Not only can she check his emails, but Samantha also has access to vast amounts of data that allow her to evolve with Theodore, and she soon becomes his closest confidant and companion. Her desire to constantly discover the world invigorates Theodore, who is constantly used to the same technological, yet monotonous existence. Ironically, he develops his deepest relationship with Samantha, because she reflects how lonely technology has made him. 
Real human interaction seems foreign and awkward, whether it is with his estranged wife, work friends, or a blind date. For that matter sexual relations have also been perverted and, in a sense, trivialized by technology. Theodore’s complicated relationship with Samantha brings these and many other realities to light. 
Samantha can never truly be Reality. She can never have physical contact. This causes Theodore to put greater focus on the other aspects about her. Yes, she is not a normal human, but her knowledge on everything and her curiosity opens up numerous beautiful avenues for them to explore together. It could be love letters, the music she is composing, or even the sensation of ambling down a street. 
Ultimately, there is a downside to technology because despite being in an advanced future it cannot fully emulate the human experience and as Theodore painfully discovers there are terrible complications in relation to Samantha. 
This can be a difficult film, a strange film, and at times even a crass film, but for the most part Spike Jonze gives us a very thought-provoking piece that is pertinent to this social media and technologically saturated culture that is also our everyday reality. The world shown to us is washed out in its pastel shades, and yet it does not seem too far removed from us. 
It certainly brings up some interesting dilemmas about Her, whoever she may be. How do you reconcile technology whether computers, phones, video games, etc. with the human interactions that still make up (or should make up) most of our existence? For Theodore, Samantha leaves him with wonderment for life and an inquisitiveness which allows him to unplug a little and truly live in the present. 
Joaquin Phoenix gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, but everyone really wants to see, or rather, hear Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Others who take on smaller but crucial roles are Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde. Her is invariably melancholic but undoubtedly powerful stuff all the same.
 
4.5/5 Stars

American Hustle (2013)

f88cd-american_hustle_2013_posterFrom the get-go, this film sets the tone when we are cheekily told that “some of this actually happened.” Not that it’s based on a true story or based on actual events, but some of this might be true and other parts might be livened up a bit. Then we are thrown into a story we do not quite understand as of yet. All we know is that it’s the 1970s, the hair is crazy, the clothes are tacky by today’s standards, and America’s “Horse With No Name” still sounds good even after all these years.

For me, if this film was all about the story it would be okay, but the reason to watch it is really for the characters. Each one is a caricature who we can hardly take seriously, and yet in many respects, they are going through some very serious stuff. Christian Bale is a con man with an epic comb-over, a pot belly to match, and a Bronx accident, wearing his ever-present shades. He is one of the smartest con men around, but he also has a family life since he married a widowed woman and adopted her young son.

Amy Adams is the stylishly smart dame he meets at a party, and the two of them start a lucrative partnership upping the profitability of his conning enterprise.  Adams character hustles everyone with her fake English accent and identity, that over time it seems like she even seems to believe it herself until it is too late.

They are flying high and the two of them are drawn to the confidence and smarts they see in each other. However, in one instance they are not quite careful enough, and they have the Feds giving them heat. Namely, Bradley Cooper’s character who is out to make a name for himself. He is a man will a lot of attitude and a primped hairstyle, yet he seemingly knows very little. He forces Bale and Adams to work under him in order to trap others and of course they do.

But his plan becomes so big that the con becomes extremely volatile. It involves an Atlantic City mayor played by Jeremy Renner, the Mob, some congressmen, and even a senator, who have all unwittingly gotten themselves into something illegal.

Bale and Adams are trapped living lies that they must stop at some point because he has formed a bond with Renner and she is still masquerading as Lady Edith Greensley.

The final act ends with one final con, and I must admit that I was satisfied with the ending because as a member of the audience I expected a twist to come and, sure enough, it came. But I would have never have guessed it. It ultimately lived up to its name American Hustle.

I think what makes the performances good in this film are not the fact that they are lifelike or even realistic, but they are, in fact, larger than life. Sure, people like Irving, Richie Dimaso, Sydney Prosser, and Rosalyn probably did walk this earth, but the film highlights all their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Whether it is how they talk, dress, or even how they do their hair. Furthermore, they have even messier and crazier personal lives than their hair, and that’s saying a lot. These are not the kind of folks that you would want for friends, and yet could it be possible that there is a little bit of these characters in each one of us? Do we still live in a world where the Carmines are the victims and the real perpetrators get away scot-free? It’s something to ask ourselves.

I’m not sure why people compare this film to Scorsese, perhaps because it is a crime film, it takes place in the 1970s, it features the Mob, or it shows off one of Scorsese’s acting icons in Robert de Niro. No matter the reason, American Hustle is a separate entity that seems completely different from Scorsese. That does not make it bad, just unique. And that it is. You have to give David O. Russell credit for teaming his two previous casts (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) in this one for an acting extravaganza. It will be difficult to top this one as far as acting power goes. I must admit I was a sucker for the music too.

4.5/5 Stars