Review of “Arrival”

Are we alone in the Universe? It’s a question that has been asked practically since the first conscious human looked up at the night sky filled with stars. Throughout history the answer has varied between “we are alone” to “maybe there’s someone out there.” Now after the discoveries of thousands of planets orbiting other stars by the Kepler space probe the answer is almost certainly “there must be other intelligent life out there.” With hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe each with hundreds of billions of stars the probability of at least one world with intelligent life must be high. It makes speculating about what that life might look like, how it would communicate, how far has their technology advanced and the myriad other questions rather overwhelming. Just as head spinning is contemplating how our world would react to the sudden appearance of intelligent extraterrestrial creatures landing in various locations around the planet. Would we welcome them with open arms? Would we prepare for war? Would there be panic in the streets and suicides of those that see the visitors as harbingers of the End Times? With the vast distances between stars and the apparent impossibility of faster than light travel we’ll probably never know for sure if there’s someone up there looking back in our direction wondering if there’s anyone else in the universe. But what if that question was answered for us with the appearance of 12 otherworldly spacecraft showing up in random places around the world? What would we do?

The world is thrown into a panic by the appearance of 12 unidentified flying objects landing in 12 different areas on the planet. Every 18 hours a door opens at the bottom of each craft allowing access to the interior. A breathable atmosphere and appropriate gravity is provided for those that wish to enter. One of the spacecraft has landed in Montana and the Army and CIA have set up a research base nearby. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by the Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the government decipher the strange language of the aliens. They bring her and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the site and tell them to get to work on figuring out why the aliens are here and what they want. Starting slowly with simple words and concepts, Banks and Donnelly begin to figure out the complicated symbols the aliens use for communication. Other countries around the world are also working to figure out how to communicate with the creatures, referred to as Heptapods because of their seven legs, and all the scientists are connected and sharing information. When the Chinese translate a message from the Heptapods as “use weapon” they take it as a threat and plan on destroying the ship. Other nations also begin preparations for an attack and communications is cut off amongst all the scientists. Banks believes the alien language is far more complicated and “weapon” could mean “tool” depending on the context. Banks is also experiencing vivid dreams and hallucinations. She must work fast to decipher what the aliens mean in order to prevent a possible war.

“Arrival” is a complex film that almost defies description. This is in part because too much information about the story will ruin what is a deliciously complex narrative structure. While it seems perfectly normal to start, the longer the movie goes the more confused you may get. All I can do is encourage you to stay with it and pay attention as the payoff of all the twistiness is well worth it.

“Arrival” has no death ray guns and no space battles but what it does have is the kind of speculative and smart science fiction that is difficult to pull off and far too rare. This is the kind of movie that knows it will split the audience into two camps: Those that love it and those that hate it with very few people in the middle and I definitely fall on the love it side.

For all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the story is far more personal and down-to-earth than one might expect. The focus of the film is how this experience is taking an emotional toll on Banks and in a broader sense the rest of the world. Banks is buried in her work and ignoring all the political pressure building around her until the world is about to boil over in violence. Fear of the unknown other also affects the soldiers at the base leading to an act of violence. It is a less than subtle metaphor for the political situation in some countries forced to deal with the realities of Syrian civil war refugees, terrorism and the rise of nationalism. If filming hadn’t taken place in mid-2015 you’d think it was a product of the times.

Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are all fantastic in their roles. None is flashy or over the top in their portrayal of people faced with a situation for which none of us could be prepared. The acting is subtle, controlled and believable. You may not like the decisions or attitudes of the characters all the time but you can’t argue that any of them behave in a way that isn’t consistent with the story or with what we know about them.

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. There is only widely scattered foul language.

I like how the story of “Arrival” doesn’t explain everything even when we reach the end. There are questions to contemplate about how any of us would deal with the outcome of our first alien encounter as well as the larger questions posed by the movie. A person in the audience at the showing I saw asked the people she was with, “What was this movie about?” If she had asked me I would have said it’s about practically anything your mind wants to construct from what you’ve seen. For many far less well constructed films that would be a negative; but with “Arrival” it is a compliment. It’s the kind of film that could have multiple meanings figured out with each viewing. A movie that makes you think beyond its running time: What a bizarre concept.

“Arrival” gets five guitars and I insist you see it immediately!

There are five new movies in theatres this week running the gamut from coming-of-age angst to post-war stress. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—

Bleed For This—

The Edge of Seventeen—

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—

Moonlight—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is tracking a worldwide terrorist organization called the Syndicate. He believes they are responsible for political assassinations around the world that all looked like tragic accidents. Each of these acts also led to political upheaval in the countries where they occurred. CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) believes Hunt is creating conspiracies in his mind and wants the IMF defunded and absorbed into his agency and convinces a Senate subcommittee. Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) now works directly under Director Hunley but still tries to protect and help Hunt where he can. Hunt is captured by the Syndicate; but just before he’s going to be tortured by Janik “Bone Doctor” Vinter (Jens Hulten), Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) helps to kill the guards watching him and set him free. Ilsa appears to be a deep-cover agent working within the Syndicate for another intelligence agency. She stays behind to protect her cover. Hunt contacts Brandt to tell him what he’s discovered and is informed the IMF is no more. Hunt decides to stay in the field despite now being declared a target of the CIA. Hunt covertly contacts electronic intelligence expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) to help him track down the leader of the Syndicate: A man he’s only seen once killing an innocent woman. The chase will lead Hunt, Ilsa, Brandt, Dunn and fellow agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) around the world in an effort to take down a terrorist group that seems to have eyes, ears and assassins everywhere.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” has the slick and polished look of the most recent “James Bond” movies but has a decidedly lighter tone. While the fate of the world is equally at risk in this film series based on the TV show that ran 1966-1973, the characters are allowed to make a degree of fun of the situation that Bond is rarely allowed. While Bond is a lone figure with minimal support from his agency, Ethan Hunt is part of a larger and much more active ensemble. Hunt is frequently saved by one of his fellow agents, either directly or remotely, setting this view of espionage apart from its British counterpart. Each approach has its merits and the M:I series gets a bit more narrative mileage from the comradery of its characters.

Much has been made from the well-publicized stunt of strapping Tom Cruise to the side of a plane and filming him as it took off. The advertising for the film certainly didn’t bury the lead as this is the first scene in the movie. While it is probably the biggest stunt in the film, there are plenty more that occupy a great deal of the film’s over two hour running time. Whether sliding down a rope from the roof of the Vienna Opera House or holding his breath for six minutes to film an underwater scene in one take, Cruise delivers big thrills at great personal risk to himself and his multimillion dollar paychecks.

Whether the acting is any good is kind of beside the point in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” but it is good. The entire cast is spot on with particular praise for Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Without giving too much away, her loyalties are always in doubt as she never plays her role with too many clues as to which way she might go. She also looks good in a silky yellow dress as she prepares to carry out an assassination. Ferguson is also adept at physical stunts, performing more than a few wild and vicious moves.

Simon Pegg is always reliable for some lighter moments as tech genius Benji Dunn; but these lighter moments are actually a set up for some dark times near the end of the film. Audiences don’t like seeing the smart, friendly characters face mortal danger. It gives us even more stress than when we watch the characters that we expect to be at the edge of death. We have learned Ethan Hunt can extract himself from every situation; but Benji is far more adept at hacking a security system, not beating up a security guard. After all, his name is Benji…like the dog.

Alec Baldwin also provides a secondary heavy that is almost as detestable as the leader of the Syndicate. Baldwin’s CIA Director Hunley shares many attributes with Baldwin’s “30 Rock” character Jack Donaghy: Both are decisive, ruthless and like to talk in a low growl when they are making a point. Baldwin doesn’t have that much screen time but he uses it to full effect. Hunley is portrayed as a bit of blowhard that talks a good game but has trouble delivering what he promises. Baldwin tackles the role with an intensity that says Hunley might be a bit of a braggart but he means business. It’s a very good performance.

If there’s anything I can complain about in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it’s the omnipotent villain trope that has played a part in nearly all this series. The Syndicate seems to be everywhere and always prepared no matter what Hunt or his colleagues do. The story elements seem to require someone on the inside of the CIA and IMF in order to be as well informed as they appear. I guess this would be a spoiler so prepare yourself: No one is exposed as working with the bad guys. A couple of red herrings are dropped here and there but none of them ever converts into a double agent. The leader of the Syndicate is supposed to be the product of a friendly government’s intelligence agency that goes rogue and creates his own organization to commit chaos around the world. It would seem that he is far better trained than any of the people trying to stop him as his presence is unknown to every other spy agency in the world. It’s all a bit too neat and tidy to occur in a world where every email, phone call and Internet search is collected by one organization or another for analysis. I would hope someone sifting through all that metadata would notice something that would tip off the CIA. I suppose this is yet another example of me thinking too much about a movie plot but it always strikes me as odd when a bad guy can gather so much material and so many operatives and fly completely under the radar.

All in all, this is a minor complaint as everything that is good about “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” far outweighs the bad. From the cinematography to the action to the interplay between the characters to most of the story, the film is a huge love letter to fans of the series.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action & violence and brief partial nudity. There are several fist fights, a knife fight, car chases, car wrecks, motorcycle chases, motorcycle wrecks and shootings in the film. There is far more blood in the trailer for the new “Hitman” film than there is in this entire movie. The brief partial nudity is so brief and partial I’m surprised it was mentioned. It is the back of a woman as she takes off some wet clothes and puts on dry clothes. Foul language is brief and scattered.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” opened at number one at the box office but with the lowest opening of any of the previous four films. Some news stories attribute this to the bad publicity Cruise received from the HBO documentary on Scientology. That seems unlikely. Perhaps the public is just tired of big budget, big action flicks; especially the fifth in a series. Aside from strapping Cruise to the side of a plane (that everyone with an Internet connection could see as many times as they wanted), what was really different about this version of M:I? The answer is nothing. This is a really well done version of the thing we’ve seen four times before. If people decide not to go should we really be that surprised?

The film is doing well worldwide so we can expect a sixth M:I to be released in two or three years as Cruise has already agreed to star in it. If the studio and Cruise don’t mind a little free and unwanted advice, may I suggest you figure out some twist or variation on the spy genre that will surprise people and drive them to tell their friends about what a unique experience the next M:I is. Otherwise, even the rest of the world may start staying home.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” gets five stars.

Two new films open this week and I’ll see at least one of them.

Fantastic Four—

The Gift—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

While raiding a HYDRA base in the small eastern European country of Sokovia to retrieve Loki’s mind control scepter, the Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in the form of the Hulk, encounter the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen).  He possesses super speed while see can manipulate minds and emit energy pulses.  Their powers have been enhanced due to HYDRA experimentation that has killed all other test subjects.  The raid is ultimately successful and the scepter is recovered but Wanda plants the nightmarish image of all the Avengers dead in the mind of Stark.  This leads him to restart a program to create, in his words, a suit of armor around the world.  The Ultron program was stalled due to software issues but Tony believes he and Banner can use the mind-control stone in the scepter to rewrite the program and create an automated defense system.  Tony’s helpful computer program J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) continues working on various configurations of the program and it comes to life.  Confused, J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to aid Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in understanding his existence.  Ultron quickly overwhelms J.A.R.V.I.S. and takes control of Tony’s robotics lab, creating a rudimentary body for himself.  Ultron has misinterpreted Tony’s intensions and decides the only way to protect the Earth is to destroy all human life.  During a celebration party in the Avenger’s tower, Ultron makes his presence known and attacks the team but they are able to defeat him; however, the program of Ultron escapes into the Internet and finds facilities to create more versions of himself.  Ultron also approaches the Maximoff twins about helping him destroy the Avengers.  The pair has a particular hatred for Tony as their parents were killed by weapons from Stark Industries.  They agree to help and the three, along with several robots, head to the African nation of Wakanda to meet with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who possesses a huge amount of the super strong metal vibranium.  The Avengers show up as well and a major battle ensues.  Wanda is able to place spells on nearly all the Avengers and each is shown devastating images of either their past or their greatest fears.  Banner is transformed into an out of control Hulk causing him and Tony, in his Hulk-Buster armor, to battle and nearly destroy a Wakandan city.  The world is turning against them due to all the property damage they cause, the team is in shambles and questioning if they can still be an effective fighting force and if they can defeat Ultron.

If you see “Avengers:  Age of Ultron,” strap in and leave the large soft drink at the concessions stand as you are in for a 140 minute rollercoaster of action and special effects.  You may also want to bring ear plugs as the film is quite loud with all the metal clanking and various things exploding nearly all the time.  It is a visual spectacle that works well within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); however, if you are looking for meaning on a deeper level you may be disappointed.

The early trailers made it appear “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” would be a dark and serious affair.  That worry is unfounded as the trademark banter between the characters is fully on display even in more serious moments.  Each character has a chance to lighten the mood with the interplay between Stark and Rodgers delivering the most lighthearted moments.  Thor, Natasha, Barton and Banner also get opportunities to make the audience smile and chuckle.  Even the newly added Maximoff twins get a chance to throw off a quip.  It can’t be considered a full-on comedy but the film is much less dour than first looks suggested.

The quality of acting is about what you expect in any Marvel film but having Spader provide the voice of Ultron raises the quality of the villain’s performance.  James Spader gives Ultron a level of gravitas that might have been missing from another actor.  Ultron’s commanding baritone voice ringing with condescension, his ease in dancing verbal rings around Stark and the others and the cold calculation of his ultimate plan puts him head and shoulders above most other Marvel villains.  Plus, the robot Ultron is literally twice as tall as anyone on screen.  That physical dominance of the frame only adds to Spader’s voice acting.

The acting of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo is put to the test in the film’s biggest flaw:  The will-they-won’t-they romance of Natasha and Banner.  While an unknown length of time has passed since “The Avengers,” the notion of these two becoming a couple seems a bit out of left field.  Perhaps this is writer/director Joss Whedon’s attempt to humanize these bigger than life characters.  Since we know very little of their lives outside of teaming up to fight a world-threatening evil, this might have been an effort to bring these demigods down to our level.  Quite frankly, it feels a bit tacked on.  Banner and Natasha are probably the two most dangerous members of the team.  She has been trained practically since birth to be an assassin and he fears he will hurt innocent people when he transforms into an out of control rage giant.  The two of them together strike me as a disaster waiting to happen.  It also doesn’t help that she was flirting with Rodgers in “Captain America:  The Winter Soldier” and in the comics has been romantically connected to him and Barton.  Of course, I don’t understand how anyone could turn down the affections of Natasha who is probably the sexiest woman in any of their lives, but that’s just me.  While the romance sections of the movie pay off by the film’s end, they tend to bring the story’s momentum to a halt.  They probably could have been incorporated in a different way to fit better within the narrative.

Then there’s the problem with all the Marvel movies and superhero films in general:  The concept of meaningful stakes for the characters.  So far, nearly every MCU film has followed a predictable pattern of a worldwide threat bringing out the hero or heroes, that threat nearly defeating the hero then with one final effort the hero wins.  Marvel has a slate of films mapped out over the next decade that involves these characters.  Since we know they will be around in 2018 for whatever sequel, where is the danger to the protagonist?  It simply isn’t there.  We know Iron Man, Captain America and the rest will live to fight another day since they have a contract calling for them to appear in however many more movies.  The only mystery is how the villain will be defeated and that’s not nearly as satisfying as truly being in doubt as to if the hero will survive the final attack.  This formula make get a shakeup in coming films as both Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are nearing the end of their contracts.  Also, the next Captain America film is based on the comic book storyline of a battle between factions within the superhero community where not everyone survives.  The fiscal realities of increasing star salaries and actors desire to work on different projects may be what puts some real threat into the evil plans of the villains.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and some suggestive comments.  There are fights throughout the film between robots and Avengers, Avengers and Avengers and Avengers and others who are not robots or Avengers.  It is all fairly mild as film violence goes.  There is very little blood and no gore unless you count the robot guts that are displayed when one is destroyed.  During the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, a building under construction is demolished, some people in an elevator are nearly killed and the Hulkbuster suit has a piston-action fist that repeatedly punches the Hulk in the face.  All the suggestive comments are between Natasha and Banner except for one ancient reference by Stark during the scene where each Avenger tries to pick up Thor’s hammer.  Foul language is widely scattered, very mild and used as the set up for a running joke.

The weirdness of business agreements between companies is on full display in the film.  In the comics, the Maximoff twins are the children of main X-Men villain Magneto; however, since Marvel sold the movie rights for the X-Men and the use of the term mutant to Fox, their heritage could not be mentioned.  You might wonder how the characters could be used at all.  It comes down to the fact that the pair has been in both the X-Men and the Avengers so the lawyers decided both companies could use the characters.  Clear as mud, right?  Then, here comes Spider-Man who had been the cinematic property of Sony but can now appear in both Marvel and Sony movies.  It is enough to make one’s head spin; but if the complicated storylines of superhero movies don’t induce vertigo then legal issues between movie companies should be a piece of cake.  What does this have to do with whether “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is worth your time and money?  Nothing, I just thought it was interesting.  Since most Marvel movies are critic proof, it really doesn’t matter what I think.  I will offer this one bit of advice:  Don’t pay for the 3D.  There is a few times it makes items on screen really pop out but most of the time it is hardly noticeable.  See the standard version and enjoy the ride with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.  It isn’t art but it’s fun.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” gets five stars.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Just a couple of new films this week and both are comedies.  Maybe I’ll review one of them or maybe it’ll be another film.  Stay tuned.

D Train–

Hot Pursuit–