Movie Review—‘Arrival’

[Arrival Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Arrival’ (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Drama | Mystery | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Paramount Pictures
PG-13
Log Line: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It’s not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing ‘Arrival’ the first time the other night, I couldn’t wait to put it on again. I’ve always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Julie & Julia.’ She’s one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won’t recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you arrive at the end, you can see.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise’s eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren’t difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can’t fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she’s trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people’s paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens’ purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, ‘Arrival’ could have turned into ‘Independence Day.’ Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.

You can find this review at IMDb. Now, check out this featurette.

More Reviews
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Movie Review—‘The Keeper of Lost Causes’

[The Keeper of Lost Causes Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

The Keeper of Lost Causes’ (2013)
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard
Writers: Jussi Adler-Olsen (novel), Nikolaj Arcel
Stars: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Per Scheel Krüger, Troels Lyby
Crime | Mystery | Thriller
Denmark-Germany-Sweden
Not Rated
Log Line: Chief detective Carl Mørck and his assistant Assad become involved in a five-year-old case concerning the mystery of politician Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance—a journey that takes them deep into the undercurrent of abuse and malice that lurks beneath the polished surface of Scandinavia.

Okay, so I’m late to the game. I had no idea Nordic Noir was a thing. I’ve been enjoying dark Scandinavian movies like the Millenium Trilogy (‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ etc.) for years and am thrilled someone decided to actually categorize them. Yeah, thrilled. Anyway, I caught another one on Netflix the other night—a Danish film with what is probably the worst title ever—‘The Keeper of Lost Causes.’ I don’t know, maybe it sounds better in Danish.

Don’t let the crappy title fool you, though. This is an outstanding film. And like a Nordic winter, it’s cold and spare, with a protagonist who is as dysfunctional and people-averse as they come. I’m not prepared to reveal any spoilers here. Let me just say that, as police procedurals go, this one really stands out. The main character, Carl, is himself dark and unapproachable. But in the best tradition of antiheroes, he is driven to seek out Truth—no matter what that may mean for his languishing career as a homicide detective.

This film features the usual cast of Scandinavian loonies—especially the blonde and creepy Lasse—with a wonderfully empathetic performance by Carl’s sidekick, Assad who, when asked why he isn’t following orders, claims his Danish isn’t that good. Nice touch!

I can highly recommend this film. Though there’s little on-screen violence, it’s creepy as hell as sucks you in like a Scottish peat bog. And here’s the best part: Netflix also has the two ‘Department Q’ sequels, ‘The Absent One’ and ‘A Conspiracy of Faith,’ both which I plan to catch very soon.

Will the ‘Ghostbusters’ Reboot Live up to Its Name?

[Ghostbusters Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Guest Post by Elizabeth Rose

In 1984, when audiences first heard the chilling word “Zuul”! emerge from Sigourney Weaver‘s refrigerator, and a guardian of Gozer crashed Rick Moranis’s flat party, they immediately got the chills. From the opening library scene, an air of real doom was present. Don’t forget that this was the movie season when Freddy Krueger invaded dreams, Gremlins took over a town, Indiana Jones explored the Temple of Doom, and the crew of the Enterprise championed the modern environmental movement. The world was completely taken with the supernatural, but ‘Ghostbusters’ added a fresh comedic way to tackle the “other side.” Based on fan reactions to trailers and reviews, however, the 2016 reboot may not come anywhere close to enthralling moviegoers like the original and its sequel.

The reason ‘Ghostbusters’ I and II were such iconic creations is that they only used comedy and hip cultural motifs to hold an audience captive, while the main characters saved humanity from a force bigger in scope than the stresses of modern life. Like their box office counterparts, they were delightfully original successes at hero-building (both of the originals are streaming on Netflix and DTV at the moment, if you want to be reminded).

Every character in the first two ‘Ghostbusters’ films had qualities with which the common person could identify. Three struggling scientists and another friend play off each other’s eccentricities to confront the inexplicable. A goddess from the underworld is trying to manifest on Earth, and she chooses New York City as her home base. Of course, angry and preoccupied New Yorkers pay no attention. The destruction of the planet doesn’t compare to the chaos of rush hour traffic.

As more and more supernatural events occur, the city’s mayor recruits the newly-formed Ghostbusters “agency” to calm the nerves of the city. Throughout the movie, audiences are treated to absolutely terrifying demon guard dogs, a conveyor belt of endless masterful catch phrases, larger-than-life apparitions, a wide spectrum of emotional underpinnings, and the ultimate solidarity of a city full of people who refuse to kowtow to their fears.

The ‘Ghostbusters‘ reboot, hitting theaters in July, is a complete reversal of the original movie’s intent. It’s like reversing a charged particle stream, and just as dangerous! The remake hijacks all of the familiars associated with the original films, but uses them only as portals to interject loose contemporary social commentary.

There’s no doubt that the new Ghostbusters are composed of a very talented group of comedians. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones are the female alter egos of Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), respectively. Director Paul Feig and writer Katie Dippold make sure every physical and ethereal element of the original has a cameo in the remake. This includes Slimer, the Ecto 1, the old firehouse and containment unit, and endless views of New York City.

Unfortunately, it’s the trite treatment of what’s familiar that makes this movie fall flat as entertainment. Every entity in the original movies was animated with minimal digital resources. Of course, this is due to the era. Computer animation was new, but the ghosts had to be convincing. The ghosts of the first two movies seemed so real that an audience member had the distinct impression they could get slimed in their seats. The animation in the new movie is neon, wispy, and similar to the graphics of a lower tier PlayStation game.

What is evidently putting off fans of the original the most, is the obvious politicizing of one of the most revered storylines in movie history. Instead of men, four women are now the heroes. Costumes and equipment are sexualized (watch for the proton gun in the official trailer). One of the larger entities is a ghostly Uncle Sam. Does this imply America’s symbols are just old, dead, evil relics? The feminist take on the script makes vulnerability impossible, so the new ghosts have to be able to magically possess people, and instead of Sigourney Weaver’s legs, viewers now must behold Chris Hemsworth’s bare chest.

None of these gimmicks are totally new. The originals had a bit of sultriness and kitsch, but there always existed a degree of import. The StayPuft Marshmallow Man got fried because he stepped on a church, and the Statue of liberty came alive to save the city in ‘Ghostbusters II.’ On top of all this, who can forget the Billboard success of Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song, and the New Year’s party positivity of Howard Huntsberry singing “Higher and Higher”? The ‘Ghostbusters’ remake features (surprise) a remake of the original theme song with a depressing industrial vibe.

There are innumerable parallels between the America of 1984 and 2016. People of both eras are experiencing social and economic changes that are frightening and seemingly too big to overcome. The original ‘Ghostbusters’ movies used the supernatural to embody these fears. They were eventually defeated with innovation, lightheartedness, and the necessity of human fortitude. The remake seems to hold wonder and fantasy in contempt, and tough situations only as opportunities to promote the self. This movie will probably be very funny, but instead of trying to build on a cinematic monolith, it’s likely summer audiences will have to watch a theory on how the ladies from ‘Bridesmaids’ would deal with the underworld.

About the Author

[Elizabeth Rose]

Elizabeth Rose is a film and entertainment blogger who was born and raised in Chi Town, Illinois. She especially favors fantasy, as well as sci-fi and other fiction genres. You can connect with her on Twitter.

‘The Conjuring 2’—Hell on Parade

[The Conjuring 2 Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

The Conjuring 2’ (2016)
Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by Cary Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, David Johnson
Horror
Stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe
Warner Bros.
Rated R
Log Line: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

For years, I’ve been telling people that the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen is ‘The Exorcist.’ Well, all that changed after watching ‘The Conjuring 2.’ All I can say is, Wow! James Wan, who I’ve been following since his 2004 feature ‘Saw,’ has shown amazing growth as a purveyor of the demonic. And his understanding of the intrinsic nature of evil from a Catholic perspective rivals that of William Peter Blatty, who I have greatly admired since reading his novel The Exorcist, upon which the movie was based.

Demons Are Real
Now, I enjoyed ‘The Conjuring’ which, like the sequel, is based on a paranormal case by real-life investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. After seeing that movie, I began researching the Warrens and learned about the case in England, where the story of ‘The Conjuring 2’ takes place. The fact that these are actual cases and involve demonic possession both intrigues and horrifies me. As a Catholic, I believe in Hell. And I believe that demons like the one featured in ‘The Conjuring 2’ have walked the earth long before man. Perhaps this is why, for me, the film is so frightening.

Flipping around the dial the other day, I happened across the ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ reboot from 2010. Though well made, it wasn’t scary. I know Freddie Kreuger is a fantasy character and, despite the sharpness of his homemade claws, he’s just another homicidal killer. And I feel that way about most horror movies involving monsters. ‘The Babadook’ is a great example. Yes, he’s paper-thin and creepy. But that’s about it. I was more moved by the exasperated, sleep-deprived Amelia and her lonely, desperate attempts at creating a normal life for her troubled son, Samuel. Conversely, when the demon in ‘The Conjuring 2’ takes on the form of The Crooked Man, I ended up halfway out of my seat—which is a tribute to the genius of James Wan.

Becoming a Believer
Like most folks, I believe horror movies do well because people like to be scared. It’s a rush similar to riding a roller coaster. And when it’s over, you’re relieved. But every once in a while a film comes along that disturbs the viewer to the core, its aftereffect lingering for days. ‘The Conjuring 2’ is just such a movie. And an estimated $40M in box office receipts at the time of this writing—this kind of story sells.

Now, I’m not saying that a film like this will turn an atheist into a believer. But it might make those who are on the fence about God, angels and demons think twice before picking up the planchette from that Ouija board collecting dust in the corner with those other games. My advice—just say no.

‘Crimson Peak’—A Movie for Another Time

[Crimson Peak Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Crimson Peak’ (2015)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Drama | Fantasy | Horror | Mystery | Romance | Thriller
Stars Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Universal
Rated R
Log Line: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds—and remembers.

Don’t get me wrong—I liked this movie from the great Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker I have admired since his amazing ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ And similar to that film, ‘Crimson Peak’ is beautifully crafted, like the china teacup Lucille uses to serve Edith her questionable tea. Unlike del Toro’s earlier effort, though, this movie felt distant and terribly formal to me—the Noble Style vs. a rollicking square dance. And, speaking of dances, there was no better scene to illustrate this aloofness than the one in which Thomas waltzes with Edith in front of her father.

There’s Horror and There’s HORROR
To me, the best horror is visceral, not mannered. Referring back to the Hollywood classics of the 1930s, ‘Crimson Peak’ felt closer to ‘Wuthering Heights’ than ‘Frankenstein.’ Sure, we get to see abominable CG apparitions, but even they are distant. They never really engage with Edith in a way that would induce sheer terror in a cultured young woman. Of course, I realize they are there to warn her, rather than scare her. But still … By now, movie audiences have been exposed to such fare as ‘Saw,’ ‘The Human Centipede’ and ‘House of 1000 Corpses.’ Pretty hardcore stuff, don’t you think? To my way of thinking, resurrecting gothic horror was a bit of a risk for everyone involved. Why did they do it?

That Damned Red Clay
I’ve seen a lot of horror movie devices over the years, but never clay. Usually, desolate places like Cumberland are filled with moors floating in a dense white mist. But clay? This didn’t really work for me. Sure, it was red and resembled blood, but …. They never really did anything with it—even when they had their chance in the cellar, which held huge wooden vats of the stuff. Maybe those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. And as long as we’re talking about missed opportunities, what about Edith’s so-called writing? She managed to bang out one story and never really writes another word during the rest of the film. Okay, the movie is not about her writing, but the story would have worked just as well without it.

The Audience Has Spoken
‘Crimson Peak’ did not do well at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned $75M worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, with a production budget of $55M. Compare that to Warner Bros.’ 2013 hit ‘The Conjuring,’ which to date has grossed $318M worldwide, with a production budget of $20M. To me, ‘Crimson Peak’ was a movie for another audience in another time.

In the trailer, the quote “Gorgeous and terrifying—it electrified me” is attributed to Stephen King. Terrifying? Really? Come on, Steve. I can’t imagine that anything short of an alligator chewing your fingers off one at a time would be terrifying to you. And certainly not this movie. Disturbing, yes—especially concerning the twisted relationship between Thomas and Lucille. Henry James would be proud. As I said, I liked ‘Crimson Peak’ but, sadly, I went into the thing wanting to love it.

‘Maggie’—A Poignant Family Drama

[Maggie Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Maggie’ (2015)
Directed by Henry Hobson
Screenplay by John Scott 3
Drama | Horror | Thriller
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
LionsGate
Rated PG-13
Log Line: A teenage girl in the Midwest becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that slowly turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father stays by her side.

You see, the thing about zombies is, they’re incredible boring. I’m pretty sure that’s why George Romero always chose to marry the “ghouls” in his stories with political commentary. I had to learn this lesson myself with my own horror-thriller trilogy. You cannot expect readers to embrace three novels—nearly three hundred thousand words—if all they have to look forward to is a bunch of drooling braineaters on the loose.

Forget Zombies
‘Maggie’ is not a zombie movie—not in the normal sense. Yes, there are zombies in it—in particular, the title character, played by Abigail Breslin. But these are not the undead we are used to. They are victims of a plague that has swept the planet and has made ordinary people sick—slowly. They may no longer eat, but they can still talk and think and love. They don’t shuffle, and neither do they move ultra-fast as in World War Z.’ They are simply people who are dying.

Against this backdrop you have a father, played beautifully and with quiet strength by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is determined to keep his daughter not only alive, but safe for as long as possible. In doing so, he drives away his wife and their two small children, manages to earn the scorn of the police and quite possibly risks his own life. Because when the day comes that Maggie “turns”—and that day will come—he will be forced to either take her to a quarantine facility, where they will end her life with a death cocktail, or deal with her in his own way at home.

Family Is What Matters
If there’s one lesson that ‘Maggie’ teaches us, it’s that family and friends matter—especially in times of crisis. This movie didn’t have to be about zombies. Wade and his daughter could have ended up exactly in the same situation as a result of worldwide famine, cataclysmic climate change or End Times. It doesn’t matter. For me, the poignancy is most present in those quiet moments when Wade and his daughter are sharing a memory or a laugh. It’s when he desperately tries to get her to eat something to keep up her strength. And it’s when she’s starting to turn and he exhorts her to fight and stay human.

Box Office Fiasco
‘Maggie’ bombed at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned only $187,112 domestic, according to BoxOfficeMojo. And that’s a shame. I think perhaps LionsGate may not have known how best to market this film. I sympathize, though. As soon as you say “zombie” and Arnold Schwarzenegger, audiences are going to have certain expectations. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking guns, brains, and lots and lots of blood. Too bad. This movie is not that.

I’m really hoping ‘Maggie’ does well on video. It deserves an audience—the right audience.

Gilligan’s Zombie Island

Photo Courtesy of IMDb
[Gilligan’s Island Poster]So, I’ve been thinking about that old TV show, ‘Gilligan’s Island’—don’t ask me why. Writers do that sometimes. Anything to occupy our minds so we don’t have to sit down and actually write. Anyway, I’ve been thinking it’s time for a reboot. Only now, instead of concentrating on a small band of survivors simply stuck on island with no way to escape—never mind that you’ve got a Professor who supposedly can invent anything out of coconuts and vines, but cannot seem to fix the friggin’ SS Minnow …

Getting back to my idea. I’ve decided it would be cool if you added zombies. So now, these guys are stuck there. But instead of being undone by their own petty fighting and incompetence (mostly on the part of Gilligan himself), they have to fend off the skin-crawling, slavering advances of the undead. Wouldn’t that make for a great show? Of course, it would.

First off, though, the eternal question—namely, who really would survive in a zombie apocalypse? I can tell you right now, the Howells are out. What, Mrs. Howell is going to hit some dead sailor dripping with gore with her purse? The old man is going to break out a 9 iron and hit the rotting thing in the face? And by the way, why did those two even pack all that stuff for a one-day trip?

The professor is a given. He is pretty smart, though naïve. And what about Skipper? Sure. Why? Because, in the words of Napoleon Dynamite, he has skills. Same goes for Mary Ann. I mean, come on, she grew up on a farm. She knows how to grow food, cook and keep livestock. Maybe should could capture a few wild boars and raise them for meat.

Now, Ginger. Yes, she’s beautiful. But in a zombie apocalypse, beauty will not help, my friend. Not unless you plan on seducing the zombie. So she’s out. And here’s my thought about her character. I think in this reboot that I am already casting, you need to replace her character with a slacker played by Aubrey Plaza. Can you imagine it? Every time a zombie takes a hunk out of someone, she’s off making these caustic remarks like a one-woman Greek chorus. Yes, the more I think about it, Aubrey Plaza would be awesome.

That leaves Gilligan himself. Okay, the guy is a boob. He has no skills and no brains. He’s a mouth-breather from way back who should have been dead a long time ago. But you know what? He’s lucky. So, I say keep the schlemiel—the show will work better.

And like the old show, every once in a while you can have over-the-hill guest stars like Erik Estrada and Loni Anderson land on the island and get eaten while Aubrey Plaza provides the sarcastic commentary. Hey, this thing practically writes itself!

So what would you like to see in this new show? Anyone? I’ll be standing by, awaiting your comments.