Writer: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (short story)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Release date: November 10th, 2016
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 116 minutes
Best part: Adams’ compelling performance.
Worst part: Some dodgy CGI.
In Hollywood, aliens typically come in two forms. Sometimes, they are tentacled monsters hell-bent on obliterating humanity (Predator). Other times, they remind us about peace and love (ET: The Extra Terrestrial). The movies either resemble popcorn-fuelled blockbusters or more calming fare. Arrival undoubtedly falls into the latter category.
Arrival leaps away from stereotypical alien-invasion material. The movie, vying for critics’ recognition over box-office dollars, is worth the largest audience imaginable. It’s worth extended hours of discussion and contemplation. The plot follows university linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) stranded in the present. crushed by her daughter’s loss and ex-husband’s neglect, her cynicism reaches breaking point. However, on a seemingly normal day, twelve extraterrestrial spaceships hover over key sites around the world. Nicknamed ‘shells’ by the US military, the ships do little besides open their doors every eighteen hours. Their reasons for landing are wholly unclear. Louise is recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to form a team to clarify the aliens’ intentions. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the team studies a shell hovering in Montana.
Besides 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, viewers must travel back to the 1970s and 80s for a truly engaging and interesting invasion epic. Arrival resembles the type of cinematic masterpiece seldom replicated by filmmakers or seen by audiences today. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer grasp short story author Ted Chiang’s original material (Story of Your Life). The two deliver the year’s most thought-provoking blockbuster; a movie with enough to do and say simultaneously. Villeneuve and Heisserer’s shared vision immediately kicks into gear. The deliberate pacing and tone may deter wider audiences looking for shootouts and explosions. Here, conversation and action are equally important. The story explores the values of incisive decision-making and processing. Louise and Ian, continually entering the ship and contacting aliens ‘Abbott’ and ‘Costello’, craft a plan to understand the otherworldly language. Its professionals-doing-their-jobs narrative is utterly compelling.
Villeneuve’s atmospheric direction delivers some of 2016’s most compelling sequences. His version of time travel works wonders. Unlike similar fare (Interstellar), the leaps in time and space are never distracting. Louise, experiencing flashbacks to her daughter’s slow demise, sees a puzzle forming in her mind. By the third act, she compellingly connects the dots to find her way. The movie develops several well-rounded perspectives. Along with Louise and Ian’s glowing optimism, we see wise alien beings, careful military types (led by Weber and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg)), fearful, right-wing soldiers and foreign military prowess. Like his previous works, Villeneuve draws phenomenal performances from Hollywood élite. Adams, with this and Nocturnal Animals, earns serious Oscar contention as the movie’s heart and soul. Renner and Whitaker deliver likeable turns in smaller roles.
Villeneuve and co.’s vivacious approach separates it from all other 2016 blockbusters. Arrival is a bleak yet optimistic dissection of humanity. Right now, like the movie’s events, the world is on the brink of anarchy and despair. If there was ever a need for intelligent discussion, it is now.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
Release date: December 18th, 2014
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 126 minutes
Best part: The tender love story.
Worst part: The obvious symbolism.
Technology – the first world would crumble without it. It drives human endeavours, basic living practices, and overwhelming paranoia. With capitalism and globalisation driven by exponential technological achievements, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have become gods among men. I could proceed with this preachy commentary on technology’s societal and cultural impact for all eternity. In fact, this review is aided by my shiny new Apple Mac. However, occasionally, people need to stop, go outside, and inhale some much-needed fresh air. This theme, prevalent in a significant number of sci-fi flicks over the past 20 years, is grasped at, wrangled, and controlled in the latest sci-fi romantic-drama Her.
Her, throwing the audience into an alluring, soulful, and realistic love story, delivers an infectious and thrilling commentary on life itself. With its strong performances, kinetic direction, and punchy script, this ambitious drama speaks out against our infatuation with love, lust, technology, and anti-social behaviour. Influenced by enrapturing romantic-dramas like Lars and the Real Girl, Ruby Sparks, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless mind, Her is an engaging movie fighting to survive this year’s Oscar race. With 12 Years a Slave and Gravity overshadowing this modest sci-fi effort, this drama deserves infinitely more credit. Lacking similar Oscar contenders’ obvious Oscar tropes and manipulative gut-punches, Her becomes a bizarre, sincere, and creative experiment. Revelatory romantic-dramas, including Her, kick-start by immersing us into their peculiar and recognisable universes. Here, we become alienated outsiders – restricted to witnessing these interesting and confronting events. Opening with a close-up of Theodore Twombly(Joaquin Phoenix)’s face, Her introduces to a relatable and beguiling lead character. As the opening scene expands, we discover he’s an employee at Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com. This particular publishing house relies on uniqueness and emotion. Writing heartening messages for paying customers, Theodore reaches into others’ subconsciousness’s to craft pitch-perfect love/Dear John/other-important-event letters. Forced to help complete strangers achieve happiness, Theodore retreats to his attractive apartment at shifts’ end. In addition, he’s divorcing childhood sweetheart and soulmate Catherine (Rooney Mara).Continually running into his neighbours, married couple Charles (Matt Letscher) and Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore pushes himself to interact with people outside his small social circle. With phone sex and blind dates turning into disastrous nightmares, he purchases a state-of-the-art operating system to improve his existence. The OS, built to emotionally connect with its users, converses with Theodore. Calling itself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the OS organises his loose threads, cluttered livelihood, and internal quarrels. Forming a surreal bond with the system, Theodore realises that an exhilarating lifestyle is wholly valuable.
Deconstructing Hollywood romantic-drama conventions and mechanics throughout its significant run-time, Her is an important and enlightening sensory assault. Relaying important life lessons, the movie examines each viewer whilst providing guidance, empathy, and inspiration. Fortunately, director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) masterfully constructs several fascinating narrative and thematic structures. Analysing well-known principles, ethics, spiritual guides, and moral quandaries, Jonze continually creates impassioned and cinematically-compelling dramas. Jonze’s artistic endeavours place mirrors in front of his lead characters. In doing so, he necessarily establishes bewildering conflicts and revelations. With his characters facing doppelgängers, parallel universes, and epiphanies, Jonze provides spiritually-and-ethically-motivated concepts for each project. Part of the enthralling 1990/00s American indie-drama auteur movement, Jonze constructs Her with stylish decadence and deft touches. Like with his previous efforts, Her‘s quirks and kinks develop a relevant and thought-provoking examination of humanity, chaos, control, freedom, and regret. Relationships, as Her suggests, become gangrenous if left untreated. For sci-fi aficionados, the parallels to Phillip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov’s seminal works ring alarmingly true. Artificial intelligence, anthropology, human biology, and wisdom are Her‘s greatest endeavours. This romantic-drama, despite injecting lively comedic bursts at opportune moments, wallows in self-pity. With love guiding humanity’s existence, we see several promising and doomed-to-fail relationships here. Theodore’s story becomes a slice-of-life tale about redemption, heartache, and acceptance. Drastically improving upon his life’s work, the curmudgeonly Theodore becomes a shining light in the midst of his friends’ debilitating issues. This romantic-drama embraces such cognitive aspects as meet-cutes, honeymoon phases, jealousy, and argument-fuelled conflicts. Though inevitable, this sci-fi drama places us in Theodore’s shoes. Reflecting upon modern-relationship mechanics, the movie clutches onto its heartening subtext. Ruled by screens, headsets, and holograms, Her‘s universe becomes a recognisable and frightening vision. Theodore, looking beyond the camera, almost begs us to save Earth from this anti-social and misanthropic future. Appropriately drenched in sunlight and neon-lit vistas, Theodore’s emotional and moral transformations deliver tangibly effecting moments.
“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.” (Amy (Amy Adams), Her).
As red as roses, Jonze’s style, however, occasionally veers into obviousness and sugar-coated tyranny. With colours, images, and messages flying across each frame, Heralmost descends into sappy Oscar-bait territory. Thankfully, despite the first-two acts’ cynical outlook on relationships and humanity, Jonze’s intricate direction crafts a soulful, influential, and identifiable masterpiece. Shattering movie-making conventions and tiresome clichés, Jonze deliberates on the ever-frustrating film production process. Tackling this gargantuan challenge, without screenwriter Charlie Kaufman or director Michel Gondry’s assistance, his eclectic screenwriting and eye-catching direction reach full potential. Treading fine ground throughout, his direction echoes Lost in Translation‘s ghostly charm. The movie, like its main character, looks beyond the horizons for purpose and visual splendour. With Theodore’s apartment drenched in technological advancements and expensive decor, the direction reflects the characters’ dark and hollow psyches. The movie’s cold yet immersive veneer illuminates the narrative’s brutal conflicts. Despite admiring this universe’s Ikea-like clutter and enviable settings, Theodore’s cynical outlook delivers a degraded and distant aura. Jonze’s electrifying composition lends patently distinctive identities to specific scenes. Jumping between flashbacks and relevant story-threads, slight details separate light-hearted moments from dark, reflective sections. In addition, our characters push this courageous and insightful story into overdrive. Theodore, despite the silly exterior traits, is a realistic, charming, and likeable man. As an average Joe, this fearful and gracious figure becomes an unlikely avatar. His interactions and reactions highlight his zany and exhilarating personality. Phoenix delivers yet another mannered and appropriate turn as a broken and reckless individual. Johansson delivers a touching performance by overcoming obvious restrictions. Phoenix and Johansson’s chemistry speaks wonders for this fascinating premise. Adams and Mara showcase intensifying range and charisma in supporting roles. Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, and Brian Cox are magnetic in breath-taking minor roles.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Hertells a familiar story in an intensifying, apprehensible, and complex manner. Unlocking Theodore’s heart with devastating screen-wipes, Jonze delivers an ambitious character study and subtle sci-fi drama simultaneously. Love, hatred, sex, and philosophy, like Theodore, must be tested before being declared useful and sufficient for all mankind. Her takes one step toward a more enlightening future.
Verdict: A heart-warming, empathetic, and detailed sci-fi drama.
Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner
Release date: December 13th, 2013
Distributors: Columbia Pictures, Entertainment Film Distributors, Roadshow Entertainment
Running time: 138 minutes
Best part: The entertaining performances.
Worst part: The alienating plot turns.
In one of American Hustle‘s more pivotal scenes, Christian Bale’s Character Irving Rosenfeld asks Bradley Cooper’s character Richie DiMaso the movie’s most important question: “Who’s the master? The Painter? Or the forger?”. Despite being the trailer’s most valuable moment, the query still efficiently sums up this crime-drama’s raw edginess.American Hustle, safely landing into Academy-Award-contention territory, is one of 2013’s most puzzling yet entertaining movies. Its top-flight cast, enigmatic plot, and dizzying set pieces deliver multiple rewards.
Christian Bale & Bradley Cooper.
Despite presenting itself as a “For Your Consideration…” Oscar trap, American Hustle is an honest and adept crime-drama. Today, we rarely become witness to such ground-breaking yet kinetic movies. Despite facing stiff competition in this year’s Oscar race, American Hustle wouldn’t care if it won, lost, or drew. Acclaimed director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) is obviously his own man. Given his fiery on-set temper and inspiring talent, O. Russell achieves the near impossible – delivering a stylish, convoluted, and enlightening crime drama free from pretentiousness and overblown moments. Despite my glowing recommendation of American Hustle, I understand the movie’s already-discomforting-yet-minor backlash. It’s certainly not for everyone. At least, I can try to win people over by describing the movie’s terrific yet dicey plot. Rosenfeld (Bale) is a despicable businessman running several companies within New Jersey. With his dry-cleaning and glass-installation businesses in tip-top condition, he becomes a slimy yet clever small-town hero. However, Rosenfeld’s world is rocked by seductive beauty Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). With Prosser becoming Rosenfeld’s mistress/business partner, their greatest plans kick into gear. Embezzling large funds from gullible investors, the terrible twosome expand their vast riches. Thanks to Prosser’s alter ego ‘Lady Edith Greensly’, their schemes and romance blossom into something dreadfully beautiful (or beautifully dreadful, it’s difficult to tell). However, Rosenfeld is bewitched by his bi-polar wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adrenaline-and-cocaine-fuelled FBI agent DiMaso (Cooper). Forced into the FBI’s clutches, Rosenfeld, Prosser, and DiMaso forcefully work together to take down corrupt yet well-meaning Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).
From there, allegiances, plans, and ideologies are warped, tortured, and eviscerated. It may seem diabolical, but the dramatic beats liven up this talky crime-drama. Depicting the late-70s’ ABSCAM scandal, American Hustle delves into the true story’s intricate webbing and most enigmatic elements. With its opening title card saying: “Some of this actually happened”, the movie pokes fun at Hollywood’s stranglehold over inspirational yet unbelievable true stories. After biting into ABSCAM’s saucy yet dangerous secrets, the movie sporadically delves into its own fantastical and larger-than-life adventure. I’ll admit, the convoluted plot-strands and alienating exposition become this cognitive structure’s most problematic elements. However, these inane moments hurriedly brush past the audience. Its most memorable moments are worth the admission cost. Here, ABSCAM’s most confusing aspects are insignificant titbits stuck in an increasingly formidable conflict. Before and after the scandal is brought up then brushed aside, the characters take control of the movie’s electrifying and alarming narrative. Within the first ten minutes, American Hustle takes us on a discomforting, sexually appealing, and comedic journey. Thanks to Rosenfeld and Prosser’s shared narration, these characters introduce and describe themselves. O. Russell, continually choosing controversy over convention, makes several brave choices within the first act. Beyond the schizophrenic narration, the narrative jumps from one influence to another. Despite the movie’s overt self-indulgence, O. Russell displays a glowing affection for such influential crime-drama directors as Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Sidney Lumet. The tonal shifts, ever-changing perspectives, and debilitating plot-turns are derived from Goodfellas and Casino. In fact, like those pulsating movies, American Hustle graciously explores the criminal mind’s most fascinating intricacies.
Despite the engaging narrative, the plot occasionally gets away from O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer. Highlighting the true story’s most baffling parts, the movie locks onto its comical and distasteful characters. Despite this, the movie’s sickening comedic touches quickly launch into overdrive. With the wild characters embracing this pressing situation’s absurdity, the biting and ironic humour comes thick and fast. Stuck between rocks and hard places, these dim-witted heroes and villains bumble, wine, and cuss through every dangerous conflict. With lives and reputations at risk, insults fly across each swanky setting. In particular, Rosalyn’s nasty insults and abrasive attitude hit with gut-punch-like effect. Credit, obviously, belongs to O. Russell for the movie’s pitch-black humour and cynical outlook. Despite the punchy tone and zippy pacing, O. Russell’s work hurriedly descends into darkness and chaos. With his filmography covering the gulf war, mental illness, and fallen sporting heroes, his misanthropic perspective casts a detailed shadow over each unique project. American Hustle, his most violent and zany effort yet, illuminates similarities between 70s, post-Vietnam USA and post-economic-crisis Earth. O. Russell, giving fraudulent miscreants second chances whist looking down upon important government agencies, develops several truthful yet misguided opinions. Like Catch Me if You Can and The Informant, American Hustle‘s criminal/lawman conflict supports the anti-hero and flips-off the villainous yet untouchable government fat-cats. At least, O. Russell’s work says what we are all thinking. Beyond that, O. Russell bravely pokes fun at the American Dream. Deliberating on race, gender, and class, the movie makes middle class, suburban living seem like a torturous adventure. Setting household appliances, inventive schemes, and aspirations alight, American Hustle is not for the faint-hearted or ignorant.
“Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, *but* you had to survive?” (Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle).
Thankfully, for less-opinionated viewers, the visuals develop a kinetic and entertaining sensory experience. Sporting elaborate costumes, hair-dos, and personalities, each character sustains exterior and interior quirks. With these characters’ schemes as outlandish as their skin-flashing outfits, the costume design lends American Hustle a pulsating and tangible sheen. In addition, each character – whether they be rich, poor, innocent or slimy – balances stupefying hair-dos atop their attractive facades. DiMaso’s perm, Rosalyn’s beehive, and Polito’s road-kill-like hairstyle are enlightening distractions. Opening with Rosenfeld pasting a bizarre toupee atop his bulbous scalp, American Hustle‘s characters are defined by styles and substance. The mis-en-scene, plastering ugly colours, swanky interior designs, and elaborate patterns across every frame, lends verisimilitude to this otherwise sketchy and kooky narrative. O. Russell, infatuated by overt 70s icons, pumps up the catchy soundtrack at opportune moments. Wings, Steely Dan, The Bee Gees, and Elton John elevate certain tension-inducing sequences. However, credit belongs to the A-list actors draped across every sizzling frame. Their determination and courageousness, tested by O. Russell’s punishing direction, pushes them through each discomforting scene. Like O. Russell’s previous efforts, the shouting matches develop each puzzle piece and flawed character. Swiftly increasing each interior setting’s temperature, the pithy dialogue and loud voices reveal each character’s ugliest qualities. Bale, carrying a belly and comb-over, transforms into a seedy, depraved, and quick-witted figure. Cooper steals his scenes as the incessant and manic agent. Adams, falling boob-first into every scene, is revelatory as the slinky yet tough mistress. Renner and Lawrence provide big laughs and immaculate performances. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro, Louis CK, Alessandro Nivola, Jack Huston, and Michael Pena contribute commendably.
With his energetic direction, elegant screenplay, and Fighter and Silver LiningsPlaybook alumni, O. Russell has pulled off a stunning hat-trick. Despite minor quarrels, American Hustle peels back several purposeful layers over its 2+ hour run-time. Unlike American Gangster, American Psycho, and American Pie, this crime-drama discovers that particular word’s immense ironic twang.
Verdict: A funny, scintillating, and engaging crime-drama.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Release date: September 14th, 2012
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 138 minutes
Best part: Dynamic performances from Phoenix and Hoffman.
Worst part: Amy Adams’ underused role.
With religion a major part of our current social status, the debate of fact versus belief is regularly explored and discussed. Religion has been one of the past decade’s biggest talking points. Whether it is the positive words of a controversial celebrity follower or the criticisms of a sceptic, modern organised religion will always fight an uphill battle against the media. Influential director Paul Thomas Anderson(Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia)’s film The Master explores the creation of one of the world’s most controversial institutions. He has created a touching, opaque, delicate yet explicit character study from the outsider’s perspective.
The story follows embittered WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an inappropriate, angry and immoral man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He seeks to expel his demons through alcohol, violence and sexual encounters. His ongoing troubles inadvertently lead him to nuclear physicist, spiritual leader and family man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Leading a tour across America, Dodd brings the fractured Quell into his home, hoping to change him for the better. Joining his controversial cause, Quell’s detailed initiation process will either make or break him for good. Encountering Dodd’s unimpressed wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and sceptical son Val (Jesse Plemons), his dreams of a life away from war and sickness will hopefully cure his violent quarrels.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The Master is a subtle and meditative look at the birth of religion and the tenuous process of induction. The story is supposedly based on the exploits of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson has found a way of objectively discussing the differences between religion, cult and freedoms associated with democracy. Quell is a symbol of a United States that has left its veterans behind. Drinking concoctions made up of film chemicals, medicine and missile fuel, Quell is a seemingly immortal man lost to the temptations of power, hormones and alcoholism. His initial downfall effectively illustrates the harsh problems associated with both the military and organised religions. Finding a temporary yet uncomfortable solace through violence and day labour, Quell is a lost soul eager to change for the better. He is a disgraceful yet colourful character, journeying toward breaking the bonds of a bleak establishment. His character however never truly believes in the science-based practices of Dodd. He never seems to change throughout the course of significant events, despite his desire to settle back into Middle America. The Master sadly fails to create a satisfying character arc for this lost soul and twisted individual. Phoenix however delivers an Oscar-calibre portrayal of a common man poisoned in more ways than one. Providing a return to form after his controversial run of incidences, Phoenix places his body on line with every word straining to escape his crinkled facial features and gangly figure.
Phoenix also provides a mix of sensitivity and intensity in many scenes, providing the same alluring presence as he did with his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Anderson creates a strong and almost homoerotic friendship between Quell and Dodd, a theme prevalent in the majority of his films. Similar to Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano’s relationship in Anderson’s previous film There Will Be Blood, Quell and Dodd represent the positives and negatives of control, capitalism, and self-assured freedom. Both characters reign over others, but to differing degrees of effectiveness. Whereas Quell lashes out at people attacking Dodd’s word, Dodd is a deranged character determined to keep his unstable side locked up. Hoffman’s turn as the Untrustworthy yet charming leader proves why he is currently one of Hollywood’s best actors. He is enrapturing and unnerving as the enjoyably boisterous patriarch of his own special family known as ‘The Cause’, while suitably intense in many of his interrogation scenes with Quell. Quell, obsessed with picturing naked women in certain situations, is a character in desperate need of a stern father figure. His relationship with Dodd may become is saving grace, trusting a man all too eagerly convincing the world of his own strange practices.
“If you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy. And I will show you no mercy.” (Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), The Master).
Hoffman & Phoenix.
The supporting cast however is underused in pivotal roles. Adams is effective as both the icy queen of Dodd’s feuding household and cautious follower of his work. Plemons is charismatic in his few scenes, providing a thought provoking stand against a man who considers himself a god. While Laura Dern is a suitable presence as one of Dodd’s most important followers, believing every word of Dodd’s theories regarding past lives and time travel. Anderson has continually proven how to depict a cynical yet detailed look at Middle America at its most vulnerable. Effectively capturing the steamiest part of America’s sex life in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood‘s oil tycoon blinded by arrogance and a lack of self-control, Anderson here develops every possible opinion in a 1940s America beginning to evolve past WWII. Anderson’s unflattering look at humanity, captured through multiple shots of average faces, illustrates an aura of disgust with certain individuals looking down upon the mentally unstable or anarchic. Illustrating the subtle yet noticeable differences between religion and cult, Anderson’s detailed discussion of unusual practices and preachings is a profound insight into the vast differences between truth and personal belief. One blackly comedic scene reveals Dodd’s disgust with anyone openly disagreeing with his peculiar religious statements.
Verdict: A thought-provoking and visceral religious discussion.