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tv/film review

'Arrival' is a Conceptually Ambitious and Technically Sound Sci-Fi Story

TV/Film ReviewLuigi MorenoComment

Early film festival screenings of Arrival generated a lot of positive buzz for director Denis Villeneuve’s latest picture in the months leading up to its release, making it one of the more highly anticipated movies of the year. This, of course, led to some pretty sizable expectations; Plenty of people will go into this movie expecting something great and, for the most part, they will not be disappointed.

The central conflict of the movie is fairly straightforward; When twelve gargantuan alien spaceships land throughout the globe, several teams of experts are gathered to make contact with the beings inside of them. Arrival mostly focuses on the American team, led by linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). These twelve teams must work together to find a way to communicate with the aliens and find out the reason behind their presence on Earth.

Amy Adams delivers one of the best performances of her career as Louise, and that's saying something. She’s the emotional center of the film, and she carries this weight in a very understated fashion. Everything that the viewers experience is seen from Louise’s point of view, and a lesser actress could have been too over the top to be believable as this character. In a movie that almost entirely hinges on the viewer relating to the Louise’s mental goings-on, that would’ve been catastrophic. The supporting cast is adequate, lacking any other real standouts, but also comfortably without any unbelievable performances that would take one out of the story.

Arrival also deserves a good amount of praise for its technical aspects. The directing literally places the viewer inside the head of Louise, and this is complimented by some truly incredible cinematography resulting in visuals that tell the story as much as the script does. The shots in which we see Louise enter both the military lab and the spaceship for the first time show how anxious and overwhelmed she is during those scenes being a standout example.

The production design also deserves to be lauded, with the incredible design of the aliens, their spaceships, and their language never feeling campy. Much like the directing and cinematography, these elements all help tell a story through the visuals only; This is a movie that one could watch on mute and still enjoy. Watching it without sound, though, would deprive viewers of experiencing the score and sound design, both of which are top notch as well. On a technical level, Arrival passes with flying colors.

The film, however, is not without flaws. There is a storytelling device (the explanation of which would spoil crucial plot points) that the movie goes to way too often, resulting in a slow pace at time and choppy storytelling at others. Even though that device conceptually fit the film and sets up the big reveal in the climax, the execution of it was a bit shoddy, hurting the overall flow of the film. Pacing is the movie’s biggest issue, with certain parts of the second act and the resolution of the movie unfolding too slowly.

There are also some issues with characterization, as Jeremy Renner, whose Marvel Cinematic Universe character Hawkeye is often mocked for being there without any real purpose, gets the same treatment in this movie. His character is underdeveloped and is almost extraneous to the plot except for the one moment when he figures something out on his own. Renner does a solid job with the hand he’s dealt, but the script does not really give him much to do.

Still, Arrival is overall an extremely original, conceptually ambitious film that is definitely worth seeing. There will be some bumps, but this superbly crafted sci-fi drama is ultimately a technical masterpiece with a world-class performance at its heart.

'Moonlight' is a Tender and Crushing Film About the Unseen American

TV/Film ReviewPatricia TancrediComment

After an eight-year hiatus from directing feature films, Barry Jenkins returns with his sophomore release, a beautifully executed tale of an unseen American. Moonlight shares the life of a poor, black, gay man, a member of intersecting minority groups often pushed aside and labeled outcasts of society. Jenkins takes a character that feels that he could disappear without a trace and expertly shares his struggle.

Adapted from Tarrel Alvin McCarne’s play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Barry Jenkins breaks down the evolution of a man’s life into three parts. The film follows Chiron, a black man growing up in a poor community in Miami, as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Divided into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we catch glimpses of pivotal moments in Chiron’s life. In childhood, we get our first look at the bullying Chiron experiences and the unstable home life that shapes his future relationships. In adolescence, we see the progression of that bullying and his first and only experimentation with intimacy. In adulthood, we grasp the long term effects of the mistreatment Chiron endured throughout his childhood and teenage years.

The atypical structure of the film hints at its stage influence, but nothing about the film channels over the top theatrics too often found in film adaptions of plays. It is subtle and patient in its delivery creating constant tension throughout. The transitions between the three sections are seamless, and create a true evolution of character. Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert give jaw dropping performances as adult, teenage, and child Chiron, respectively. Hibbert’s portrayal of six-year-old Chiron has the same depth and pain as Sanders’ and Rhodes’. The consistency in emotion and sensibility is chilling, unnerving, and crucial in understanding Chiron’s lifelong internal torment. The lack of dialogue and human interaction emphasize Chiron’s loneliness and alienation while the dizzying sensations, captured by cinematographer James Laxton, during the rare instances Chiron finds himself surrounded by groups of people highlight his inability to fit into the societal expectations of black men.

Jenkins does an impeccable job of aligning the audience with Chiron. The shots linger on his face capturing every emotional shift in nonverbal communication, all the sounds are subjective and emphasized according to how he perceives them, and the color blue saturates the screen acting as psychological insight into his constant introspective behavior. And while Jenkins touches on universal themes such as solitude and identity that help garner empathy toward Chiron, his story and position in life is unique, a reality unknown to most people.

The criticism of toxic masculinity and the way race, class, and sexuality influence the opportunities presented to men are placed front and center, but their delivery never feels overwhelming or forceful. Jenkins’ film is restrained and silent yet powerful filled with both tender and crushing moments, resulting in a triumphant and masterful stride towards diversifying the storylines we see in media. 

Ron Howard's 'Eight Days a Week' Is a Sweet, Slightly Empty Treat for Beatles Fans

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

How do you even begin to break down the immense mythology of a group widely considered to be the greatest of all time into something digestible and accessible but also still reverent? The eight years of musical, visual, historical, economical, political and social impact The Beatles left behind looms like a giant block of marble that should only intimidate any author or documentarian foolish enough to try and mold it into a singular experience that does the group justice.

And yet in truth, it’s insanely difficult to craft a bad movie around the story of the Fab Four. For all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the band’s legacy, any filmmaker who deigns to cover the band’s story essentially has the perfect subjects: four of the most affable, down-to-earth, creative and interesting people who ever walked the Earth. The filmmakers have a smorgasbord of every kind of song imaginable at their disposal to set a mood or tone, a majority of which are already in pop music’s pantheon of greatest ever. So really you’ve only got yourself to blame if you can make a bad film with all of that at your disposal.

With that said, at this point in history it is much easier to make a boring film about The Beatles. After so many books and documentaries covering every inch and aspect of The Beatles’ career, at some point a hardcore fan can only get so much out of a “new” interpretation a storyteller tries to craft out of that eight year marble block without some hint of what’s already come before.

And Ron Howard’s latest documentary begins dangerously on that cusp of blandness, threatening to turn into just a shiny new coat of paint on the same storyline even the most casual of Beatles fan is conscious of. The montage of those rough n’ tumble nights in Hamburg coupled with their subsequent haircuts/suits that led to Please Please Me’s chart-topping overnight success... it threatens on yada-yada-yada territory before the real fun actually begins.

Where Eight Days a Week begins to differentiate itself is in making you feel the absolute and all-consuming chaos of an event that was The Beatles’ touring years. A treasure trove of great concert material has been carefully remastered and restored for this documentary (a perfect justification for the film’s existence if you really needed one) and the footage of swaths of young people screaming their heads off, rushing stages, and evading police makes you feel just how singular an experience the Beatles were in history. Nothing had ever happened like this before and nothing would ever again.

The baby boomer generation was desperate for a way to express themselves, and these unassuming, charming lads with similar haircuts and incredible songwriting and vocal abilities came along and changed everything,These four young men were at the center of the world’s biggest cultural maelstrom and somehow trying to maintain their own sanity. The film runs you through the elation of Ed Sullivan and Shea Stadium all the way through to the bitter end at the KKK rallies in Memphis and the miserable Candlestick park final gig.

Their cheery and cheeky demeanor on that electric first tour of America heartbreakingly contrasted with the weariness of the magnifying glass is the film’s biggest success. It makes the mere existence of any Beatles music that followed the madness of their touring years seem like a God-given miracle.

The film wisely chooses to focus on the band’s overwhelming unity during these progressively trying times and puts a sunny disposition on the group’s overall dynamic. It’s nice to have a Beatles documentary that pits The Beatles against the world when so many others like to focus on their internal battles that came later. Those touring years, as Ringo mentions in the film, were when The Beatles had to look out for each other first and foremost. So while it may feel dishonest to exclude the turmoil of their later studio work, it’s impossible to deny the bond the Fab Four shared with one another.

There’s a few glaring omissions in terms of Beatles lore, in particular manager Brian Epstein is paid an abysmal amount of lip service considering how especially important he was to the success of this period of the Beatles career and in terms of interviewees, there’s hardly much on offer that hasn’t been stated better elsewhere (for instance the only real archival interview footage with George comes from the superior if exhaustive Beatles Anthology), and a few subjects may leave you scratching your head about their inclusion but overall it’s good fun and good-natured even if it doesn’t forge a brand new vision of history.

While hardcore fans familiar with most of these intimate details may not find anything revelatory here, it’s worth the price of admission for the glut of restored and remastered footage of some classic Beatles concerts and if you’re able to see it in theaters, the entire Shea Stadium concert plays following the movie, fully restored in 4K with remastered sound. It goes down like a smooth, soothing ale for those of us already under the Fab Four’s spell, while still providing those looking for an accessible entry point to the Beatles’ early career with a satisfying result.

'Carol' Is a Gorgeously Filmed Portrait of Love and Loss

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

Set amidst a hazy glow of 16mm, Todd Haynes' Carol is a beautifully devastating piece of melancholia. Returning to the familiar '50s backdrop of his tribute to Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, Haynes focuses his unusually soft lens on a timid but curious young shop girl named Therese (Rooney Mara) and her affair with the mysterious but intriguing socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett).

Adapted from the Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, Carol takes its time in carefully constructing the forbidden romance at the center of the film as something genuine. By taking the time to let it grow, the effusion of romance becomes more cathartic and the heartbreaks become even more achingly painful.

Mara is pitch-perfect as the young Therese, a girl who thought she knew what she wanted until it all comes tumbling down. Her ambitions to discover what she truly wants in life are subverted by her own shyness, and in a role where she's meant to be such a mild-mannered piece of wallpaper, it truly speaks to Mara's talents that she's able to imbue Therese with just the right amount of both optimism and anguish. The scene in which she confesses to Carol she has no idea what she wants because she "says yes to everything" is one of the film's most powerful.

Blanchett too is astonishing as the titular Carol, infusing her elegant socialite airs with a sense of pain, especially in her moving interactions with her young daughter. Blanchett gives Carol this queer sense of aloofness, and even when it seems she is closest to Therese there is still a mysterious "otherness" to the older woman character. Yet once the dramatic punch of the second half hits, she drops all airs of fragility and evolves into something more touchingly humane, giving Carol a sympathetic sense of desperation in her loving pleas.

Seemingly lost among the awards chatter however is the perennially underrated Kyle Chandler as Carol's estranged husband Harge, a man so torn apart by the futility of his marriage but so desperate to make things normal in his life again. When at first it seems his role is simply "the evil ex-husband," it was a pleasant surprise to watch him evolve into something wonderfully more complex, as his love for Carol grows increasingly more strained against the circumstances of her sexuality. 

Forsaking the crisp sharpness of digital photography, cinematographer Edward Lachman opted for the beautiful simplicity of 16mm film and it lends Carol a strikingly gorgeous haze and grit. The breathtakingly composed shots are given the dreamlike qualities of memory, as if groggily recalling the nostalgic minutia of romance: the lingering gaze of a lover, the offhand smile, the squeeze of a shoulder. It's a rush of color but also of feeling, and it makes Carol a truly sensual experience in every sense of the word. 

Todd Haynes beautifully captures the flourishing romance between star-crossed lovers, but also deftly illuminates how tragic this kind of affair felt back in 1951. It's a portrait of the outsider in a way that can truly break your heart, even if it leaves with a sense of optimism, and a gorgeously orchestrated piece of filmmaking with a tender ache that won't fade quickly. 

'The Big Short' Is Smartest Movie of Year

TV/Film ReviewSean McHughComment
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Well, it’s happened. The man most famous for being a frequent Will Ferrell collaborator, Adam McKay, has made (arguably) the smartest movie of 2015. The Big Short is a derisive satire based on the 2010 best-selling non-fiction book of the same name, focusing on a handful of key players on Wall Street and across the country who not only predicted the inevitable housing crisis of 2008, but looked to capitalize on the looming crash quite handsomely.

McKay and Charles Randolph adapted the screenplay from the Michael Lewis’ book that chronicles the real life series of events that lead to a respective group of money managers (Steve Carell and his motley crew), investors (Christian Bale and Brad Pitt), and Wall Street types (Ryan Gosling) who looked to bet against the wildly profitable sub-prime mortgage industry. Seems like a tough sell, right? A movie that revolves around a bunch of rich white guys in their offices outsmarting all the other rich white guys sounds hardly interesting, or original (see: Gordon Gecko). That’s where the combination of McKay’s comedic prowess and ingénue along with the A-list arsenal of acting immersion lift The Big Short into unparalleled satirical standing.

The Big Short is grimly funny – opening with an uncanny (and later on, intermittent) fourth-wall break a la Wolf Of Wall Street from Ryan Gosling, whoops, in the movie he’s Jared Vennett, a hotshot Deutsche banker. Vennett takes the viewer through a brief montage on the history of the real estate, mortgage, and various other large-scale financial industries in a fun and expository manner. Despite the light and playful nature of Vennett’s historical run down, the overall sardonic tone is established, allowing the film to become much darker and fuel itself with clever wit and rage.

The players introduced in Vennett’s expository homily are as follows: all around acting chameleon Christian Bale as the glass-eyed, hermitic M.D. turned San Jose investing consultant with a penchant for drumming, Michael Burry, Steve Carell as the New York corporation-condemning neurotic misanthrope Michael Baum and his troupe of equally maladjusted money managers (one of the films truly unexpected highlights) portrayed by Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong. Brad Pitt not only stars as Ben Rickert, a despondent Wall Street banker turned political activist/guiding light to a couple young gunners from Denver (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro), but also lends a hand as a producer on the film. Finally, the film’s pseudo narrator, docent, fit fanatic, Jordan Belfort-lite, antagonistic protagonist, resident “burn” distributor, Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling in a jerry curl.

Due to the magnificent People magazine fodder the exceptional cast actually is, the film takes a couple beats to fully commit to the characters within the story. That being said, Bale disappears into Burry’s anti-social, atypical nature seamlessly almost instantaneously, with Carell’s well-intentioned, yet cynical portrayal of Michael Baum not far behind.

Rather than give a full recount of the film’s synopsis, the reader may be better served with focuses on the unique and clever aspects of the film instead. The film operates in multiple parts - documentary, farce, drama, satire, etc. – with each aspect being highlighted in various capacities. Gosling’s Vennett serves as a wonderful narrator for the more historical, expository asides, while Carell and Bale offer more dramatic performances within the film. Pitt’s role in the film is mostly ancillary, but provides a lens that inevitably makes the viewer question the protagonists’ moral standing as a whole.

The A-list cast certainly carries the film, but perhaps the most notable aspect of the film as a whole is the manner of which complex real estate and mortgage terms are explained in layman’s terms by the likes of Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler, and Selena Gomez.  When key terms and complex mortgage phrases are introduced, Gosling inevitably throws a quick cut to a cameo. Each cameo is essentially an informational vignette that gives both a humorous and informative explanation of the term. Again, instead of reproducing each individual informative vignette, just know that one involves Margot Robbie in a bathtub (eerily similar to Wolf of Wall Street), Anthony Bourdain in a kitchen, and arguably the best of the three, economist Richard Thaler and pop star Selena Gomez explaining synthetic CDO’s (Collateralized Debt Obligations) and the “Hot Hand Fallacy” over a game of blackjack.

The Big Short is the smartest movie in 2015. It’s sharp, divisive, engaging, and humorous, without sacrificing any ounce of information in the name of Hollywood dramatics. It is a movie that focuses on subprime loans, something so complex, even the banks that doled them out failed to fully grasp exactly what they entailed. McKay manages to take a bewildering piece in history and craft it into a digestible package that does not sacrifice any wit or edge so audiences can understand more clearly. The Big Short observes and utilizes the events (24-hour celebrity news cycle) that obfuscated the eventual recession, and in turn illuminates the situation so viewers can make their own decisions on what went wrong, and who (if anyone) is to blame.