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

Black Panther (2018)

Black_Panther_film_poster.jpgFor some Black Panther might be a stellar actioner, consequently, brought to us by a visionary director, Ryan Coogler. It’s top-tier as far as Marvel movies come; there’s little doubt. For others, I completely understand if Black Panther rocks their entire paradigm because there’s so much of note here. The box office seems to confirm that just as much as the dialogue that has been created in its wake.

What’s so revolutionary about this addition to the cinematic landscape is that this is not simply a superhero movie created by a predominantly black cast and crew but that their very heritage is so crucial to the roots of the story. The identity and complex history of Africans and African-Americans is wrapped up in the very sinews of the narrative. A whole diverse patchwork of ancestry and generations of culture is meticulously infused into the African nation of Wakanda.

Many may have forgotten that in an earlier Marvel installment the king of the 3rd world nation of Wakanda was killed in an act of terrorism. His son T’Challa proved to be next in line to the throne as long as no challengers arose from any of the five tribes that encompass the country. In such a case the two warriors take part in a ritual combat.

Far from just having intricate primordial traditions, the nation has also long-harbored an immense secret. Under the pretense of an archaic nation, they have built a technologically advanced empire around the versatile metal vibranium. In order to keep its properties protected, they have foregone sharing it with the world at large. Already you begin to see one of the primary themes running through the film. With great power comes great responsibility. How you choose to wield it is of vital importance especially when the world around you is hurting.

I have long been a fan of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan and the partnership continues to impress. Coogler somehow managed to take a Marvel franchise film (which we’ve had too many of) and turned it into a radically personal picture. It works on both levels — arguably catering to all audiences.

His female characters are imbued with tenacity and still a capacity for great good. Lupita Nyong’go is a perfect example as the lifelong sweetheart of the ascending king T’Challa because she has left her homeland to help the oppressed in less fortunate lands. She jokes that she would make a phenomenal queen one day because she’s stubborn but it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, the king’s mother (Angela Basset) is stately; caring deeply for her children while his sister (Letitia Wright) is feisty and blessed with the ingenuity of an inventor. She’s the Wakandan Q if you will. And there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira) the fearless leader of the all-female royal guard. Far more than an assassin, she is guided by a sense of honor and loyalty that splits her right down the middle.

Many people will be happily surprised by a soundtrack that synthesizes original music by Kendrick Lamar with a score by Ludwig Goranson (Community) infused with distinctly African instrumentation. It makes for a satisfying marriage in music. But no less impressive are the intricate costumes and set designs which develop this appealing aesthetic of the old with the new. Coogler’s team seems to have a very keen awareness of both which is refreshing.

When Black Panther falters at all the problem is simply due to repetition. After 17 other entries, we can hardly blame a film like this for doing something that’s seemingly derivative even momentarily. It’s inevitable. Because if you’ve seen one fight scene between two agile, armored superhumans you’ve seen them all to some extent.

And yet this picture does so much more within that framework that’s moving because there’s a certain ambition and an innate understanding of what movies are capable of. They can help us cull through crises while still maintaining the exhilarating guise of a superhero action flick. It’s true that at times it feels like we are watching a Bond film only rejuvenated with more diverse characterization.

Like the best films in that franchise or any other really, the villains are noticeably tempered in a very particular way that is stimulating. Yes, multiple bad guys and when I say that I mean that each has unique shading giving us different looks. Andy Serkis is the chortling international arms dealer who seems small scale and yet he’s made dangerous. There’s a distinct edge to him.

Even more important is Erik Warmonger (Michael B. Jordan) because he acts as T’Challa’s character foil. As we find out, they have a lot more in common than they would have been led to believe except Warmonger has more sinister intentions. The joy of Jordan’s performance is that the character is high-functioning, charismatic, and actually poses a threat as we see on multiple occasions. But no matter how twisted or misguided he might seem there’s still some level on which we can understand his lifelong resentment. Also, let me just say it now. From his clothes to his swagger, he just looks cool…and supremely confident.

Meanwhile, fellow tribesman such as M’Baku (Winston Duke) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) do not necessarily have sworn allegiances staked out and so that gives them some agency to shift the tectonics of the story this way or that. Again, they have a certain amount of power that gives them an undeniable presence.

Like The Winter Soldier or Civil War (arguably my favorite Marvel entries thus far), the villains are compelling because they invariably feel planted in the real world or better yet they’re made up of friends and family. There’s nothing more disconcerting than people who aren’t villains at all and yet they still go in opposition of you.

Thus, Ryan Coogler has succeeded in constructing a layered story that might be one of the few Marvel films I would gladly pay a second viewing to. It hinges on so many issues with consequences for our contemporary landscape. Again, with great power comes great responsibility.

It deals with the afterlife as represented by the ancestral hunting grounds where first T`Challa and then Erik commune with their fathers to receive insight. For the former, it means reconciling with his father’s own failures during his lifetime so he might not make the same mistake. For the latter, it means connecting with his own father about their joint Wakandan heritage which Erik never knew first-hand living in America.

Black Panther calls into question themes of isolationism as much as it does a complicated history of colonialism. Look no further than the African artifacts exhibit in the History Museum and you can plainly see that we are still grappling with the same issues planted in the same past. Far from dismissing it, we would do well to continue to entertain a dialogue. The roles that museums, archivists, and archaeologists play in all of this are important too. Suddenly, even for a brief instant, I’m starting to second-guess Indy’s obdurate assertion that artifacts belong in a museum. Where do we draw the lines on such an issue while not unwittingly promoting colonialist traditions? I don’t quite know.

The final words of Warmonger linger in my mind as well:

T`Challa: “We can still heal you…”

Warmonger: “Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

His words sting, as they should because so much truth dwells right there. I have always struggled to reconcile those very things because for being a nation made of immigrants the African-Americans are nearly the only ones who did not come to The Promise Land of their own volition. The handprints of such a reality can still be spotted in our world today.

There are deep roots that are set in place. In the History Museum corridors you see documentation of a muddied past of colonialism. Then, in Oakland (Coogler’s hometown) along with basketball and Public Enemy you see obvious signs of social decay and problematic issues of drugs and gun violence.

That it is actually put out there is nearly a relief and a necessity. However, and this is a big however, there seems to be an underlying hopefulness that we can somehow live together. Marcus Garvey once proposed blacks recolonize their native country and that in itself brings up other issues of cultural identity.

Erik Warmonger is right at the center of that with African descent and yet longheld ties to American society. What do we label him? I’m not sure we can. I’m not sure we need to. That’s for the individual. Regardless, it’s a work in progress. Messy no doubt but hope is still present.

Like Fruitvale Station (2013) before it, being rich in black culture by no means that the film is completely exclusive in the same regard. Far from simply being a token white person Martin Freeman is allowed to be a hero just like his counterparts and anyways maybe for once it’s okay for the Caucasian characters to take a momentary back seat if only to allow other voices to speak.

What we are left with as King T’Chala addresses the United Nations is not the sense that one people group is better than another or the new should overthrow those who have long been in power but that we should find those points of intersection — the things that unify us.

“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

It’s a fitting summation because this is a film that draws up different tribes, turns people against each other nearly in an instant, while constantly rearranging factions and who holds the keys to the kingdom. If it’s resolved in the end it’s only a fragile peace at best and if we are to maintain that we need far more than vibranium. We need a heavy dose of human understanding and empathy.

We can acknowledge our past failures as a society but must never allow them to shackle us for good. Mistakes are meant to be learned from. It’s when we’re not willing to learn and to change that dire straits look inevitable. I hope for our sake that the film’s call-to-action might still stand true.

But the film itself is also an imperative to take deep abiding pride in your heritage and who you are as a human being — unique just as you are. Thus, it seems utterly misguided to desire a future world where we do not see color but instead, we might yearn for a day when everyone can look at the rich strains of human diversity and proclaim “It is very good.” Where we can survey that same world and see that every color, creed, and tongue is finally one tribe instead of many.

4/5 Stars

Platoon (1986)

platoon_posters_86It’s a rather interesting parallel that Charlie Sheen is playing much the same role his father did in Apocalypse Now. At least in the sense that they become our entry point into the mire of war, specifically in Vietnam. But where Apocalypse seemed to belong more so to Brando or even Duvall, Platoon is really Willem Dafoe’s film. At least he’s the one who makes it what it is. His final moment is emblematic of the entire narrative.

But it is also striking that the film opens with an excerpt from Ecclesiastes as follows, “Rejoice young man in your youth…” But the latter half of that same verse has major implications that will come into play later.

For now, these soldiers muddle their way through their tours of duty the best they can. Smoke, beer, and Smokey Robinson is the perfect way to combat the insanity and humidity right outside your tent.

Oliver Stone conjures up themes of politics and government conspiracies. The first word is uttered several times throughout Platoon but in the general sense. When you get a group of people together vying for positions and attention there’s bound to be politics. As for government conspiracy, Stone doesn’t quite scrape that barrel, although to be sure as a Vietnam veteran himself perhaps he has a lot to be disgruntled about.

Instead, he has a cast of characters who get to reflect all the angst and disillusionment for him and it’s a fairly impressive bunch. Aside from Sheen and Dafoe, John Bergener, Keith David, John McGinley, Forrest Whitaker, and even Johnny Depp make appearance wading their way through Vietnam.

It’s been far too long since I’ve seen Apocalypse Now to draw too many comparisons. However, although Platoon is a perturbing film it’s not the same type of expansive labyrinth that I recall from Coppola’s epic.  Charlie Sheen’s voiceovers attempt to add an introspective tinge to the entire narrative, but that is not where the strength of the film lies.

Platoon also has its share of pyrotechnics, in fact, it succumbs to them too often but that’s not the reason the film is affecting either. It’s the aftermath of those explosions. The carnage that is left in the wake of the barrages of RPGs. The bodies maimed and the images that haunt these young men.

And as audience members, it’s hard not to feel something. Repulsed. Angry. Frustrated. Confused. Perhaps that is the film working — giving even a zenith of the taste of what it was to be in the jungles of Vietnam back in 1967. This is one of those experiences I cannot take too often because it’s almost too much.

My initial hope was that Stone would not inject this film with his own brand or message and I will say that when I watch Platoon I am not left with the feeling that I am listening to Oliver Stone but instead I am watching something terribly volatile unfold. That’s certainly a testament to this film. In the end, Platoon is bolstered by its sheer intensity.

But back to Ecclesiastes, the earlier verse ends “and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things.” And it’s this final bit that is important in suggesting that young men are laid low due to their joy. But it’s hard to make that type of assertion. If anything, a film such as Platoon is perplexing because the answers are unclear and the reasons the world works the ways it does are not known to us.

Young men will continue to walk through life naively and he will struggle through life questioning the presence of God as much as this seemingly apathetic indifference towards the suffering in the world. Whether Stone was grappling with those same questions is up for contention but the beauty of film is that it very rarely works on a singular level. It can mean many things to many people. So it is with Platoon.

4/5 Stars

Rogue One (2016)

Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngFor so many, there is a deep connection to Star Wars that started at an early age. As I have alluded to on numerous occasions, I am no different. And if I feel that way about even the prequels, it’s exponentially greater for the original trilogy, as I can imagine it is for legions of others. Thus, when I watch Rogue One I do not linger on its shortcomings, though they most certainly exist, instead, I’m fixated on that very same suspension of disbelief that overtakes me every time I enter that world, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

If Rogue One had been an unredeemable, thoroughly bad film I would have been the first to say so. Perhaps it sounds crazy (or to fans maybe not so much) but I am deeply protective of Star Wars. I only want fanservice if it’s logical, fits the parameters of the world, and so on. I’m not a voracious fact checker of every Star Wars Wookieepedia page known to man and yet I might as well be. I was one of those who was deeply defensive when Disney looked to shake up George Lucas’s original canon. Though I digress…

But even as it stands as a mediocre story with vague contours at times, Gareth Edward’s Rogue One is propelled by fun characters, space opera entertainment, and, of course, A New Hope nostalgia. For those very reasons, it’s invariably easy to lend a heavy dose of grace to this standalone entry. And that’s what I will do.

We are introduced to Jyn Erso at an early age which gives context to her later exploits. In fact, when the story flashes forward after traumatic beginnings she (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner — not on behalf of the Rebel cause — and she has no plan to help the Rebels anytime soon. But in this way, she becomes one of their unassuming champions receiving news from her father (Mads Mikkelson) that the Death Star must be destroyed and she must spread the word.

It leads her to join forces with Rebel scoundrel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid co-pilot K2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). The bottom line is that all the various trips to planets and skirmishes with the Empire lead to a final showdown on the planet of Scariff where the ragtag group of Rebels lands a sneak attack on their unsuspecting enemy led by Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelson). Meanwhile, a space battle erupts in the skies above and Jyn looks to transmit the vital plans to the Death Star before it is too late — so that hope might live on in the galaxy — and she does.

Not surprisingly, Rogue One has its share of callbacks involving the likes of Ponda Baba, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa all returning to the Star Wars cinematic universe. And unused footage from the original film of Gold Leader exchanging callsigns is repurposed in the final offensive sequence as well. Although Grand Moth Tarkin and Princess Leia (the late Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher returning from 1976) somehow look like carbon copies of their prior selves, they nevertheless sound vaguely different, giving off this peculiar sensation that they are CGI constructions and not the real thing. Still, it’s a remarkably impressive piece of work.

Obviously, the main objective of Rogue One is simple from a narrative perspective. The Rebels must obtain the plans to the Empire’s Death Star because without those, A New Hope would not be possible. But in order to get there, there are other necessary outcomes that feel a touch more suspect. I can see the need for finding Jyn’s father since his work is so critical to the Rebellion’s objective. However, the idea of a main switch to open up communication, her father’s hologram, Jyn’s final push to broadcast the vital schematics by reaching an antenna, and yes, even Kyber crystals, all seem like easy fixes to explain away the need for certain plot outcomes. I am, however, still trying to come up with an explanation how that is any different than the Force, aside from the very fact that its balance is crucial to the entire galaxy. I’ll get back to you on that one…

Furthermore, the idea of hope comes center stage in Rogue One. In fact,  even despite the influences of eastern monism, Star Wars’ mythology reminds me of the Biblical text that reads like so, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” The same could be said of the Rebels. And people might scoff but in its resolution, the film even takes a page out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That’s what makes this idea of hope so important because there could very easily be none at all with so much death and destruction.

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates like the return of another Jar Jar Binks.

That is my major concern with Rogue One because with the absence of an opening crawl, what it really did was signal a changing of the times, a new seed has been planted as the extended Star Wars universe continues to germinate and grow. Time will indicate if it flourishes or sucks all the nutrients out of the vibrant creations that were given so much vigor by the likes of George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, John Williams, and so many others. Only then will we see if this franchise is one with the force and the force is in it. Because with so many films, it’s difficult not to falter. Being both critical and an avid fan, I care all the more deeply about its fate. But for the time being, enjoy Rogue One and afterward slip in A New Hope again to be reminded exactly why Star Wars remains a cultural landmark.

4/5 Stars

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

4eba0-good_morning2c_vietnamGoooooooood Mooooooorning Viiieeetnammm! I’m a little late to the party I know, but I wanted to take a look at a film that in many ways personifies Robin Williams. In the last months, I have gotten to read a lot on William’s as a comic and as an actor. When I watch this film which showcases his many skills, I am especially drawn to what I call his bipolar comedy. Let me explain. On the surface, he seems like a pleasant-faced average Joe with a little twinkle in his eye. Maybe there are even moments of emotion or sadness that make their way out. Then, bing pow! The lights go on, the sirens sound, and all chaos breaks loose.

Adrian Cronauer is the perfect embodiment of William’s quick wit and off the wall antics. He has a constant supply of new voices and old reliable ones, not to mention cultural and political jokes. It all gets thrown in so fast you hardly get to bat an eye, and he does it all with that rye smile and one defiant attitude.

This is yet another nostalgic 1980s classic directed by Barry Levinson. The story begins in 1965 with the jockey getting shipped in from Crete, and soon he is the hero of all the underlings especially his young compatriot Private Garlick (Forrest Whitaker). Immediately the power dynamic is rather odd. The General overseeing everything loves his zany, sometimes crass, take on comedy. His two immediate superiors are less than pleased with his early showings of insubordination. If the General is any indication, Cronauer’s mix of humor, (censored) news updates and groovy rock n’ roll prove insanely popular.

In his spare time, Cronauer pursues a young Vietnamese girl while teaching an English class to locals. They soon enjoy his more slang-based approach to English, and he befriends a boy named Tuan. He also has some time to start a brawl at a local hangout and eventually see it blown to smithereens. It’s after this one occasion where he gets fed up with the censors controlling what he says because it doesn’t seem right. It seems too regular army, and he is certainly not that. Cronauer is suspended but during his hiatus, he gains a new found zeal performing for the boys in the field.

Due to popular demand, he gets reinstate,d but his superior, who has always had it in for him, connects him with a wanted South Vietnamese terrorist, and Cronauer soon gets the boot with an honorable discharge. The former disc jockey realizes Tuan lied to him all along, but after confronting the boy he fulfills one last commitment with his English class. Cronauer flies off into the wild blue yonder, but not without leaving a gift with Garlick for all the boys. Gooooodbyeeee Vietnaaaam!

This was a grade A performance by Robin Williams and the soundtrack was absolutely superb, full of big and small hits alike. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” was especially impactful due to the images that were juxtaposed with it. Furthermore, just as much of what Cronauer was lost to his students, I feel like many of his cultural quips might get lost to newer generations. I sincerely hope they do not and his political commentary will always swirl around like any of the controversy surrounding Vietnam. The magic of the character is his ability to make men laugh despite their circumstances. The magic of Robin Williams is that he was a man who made us laugh in all circumstances.

4/5 Stars