Arrival

Arrival

So… what happens now?

I honestly don’t know what to say. I went into my viewing of Arrival only knowing just enough to know that I would be uncertain as to how to approach the film; I deliberately left most of the particulars unknown to me, because I’d known from what I’d read that the best way to see the film was knowing as little as possible. How could I have possibly known what this film was going to manage to do, how it somehow transcends linear storytelling and still manages to do it in a film that one watches from the beginning to the end? If it sounds like I’m unable to put into words what the experience of watching Arrival is like, that is precisely the case; I have personally not encountered a film that one must truly see for themselves like this in quite a long time, and I am unbelievably thankful for the experience I’ve had in watching it in this way for myself.

Amy Adams shows why she is one of the best in the business as linguistics professor Louise Banks, who is brought in by military colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make first contact with one of 12 alien crafts that have spontaneously appeared in 12 locations across the globe. As Louise and Ian try to make contact with the aliens inside and struggle with how to get the two species to understand each other’s languages, the nations surrounding the other crafts have their own potential conflicts with an alien intelligence to deal with, and it’s when agents of several nations end up crossing lines that Louise and Ian’s timetable is shortened, forcing everyone involved to try and crack the code before certain irrevocable actions are taken. As should be apparent by now, I’m being deliberately coy about the plot of Arrival, and really about the film in general; as I said in the opener, this is a film that demands one experience it for themselves. So what can I talk about? The stunning cinematography by Bradford Young? The beautiful score by Johann Johannsson? Denis Villeneuve’s assured and confident direction? Perhaps the script by Eric Heisserer, which I would happily read a book about how either he or the writer of the original novella he adapted this from came up with this story and managed to successfully write it? I could talk about any of these elements, some of which at great length. But I won’t. Again, I say; it simply must be experienced on your own.

What this film manages to accomplish in its short, almost-two-hour running time is nothing short of standard-shattering, and unfortunately, to try and explain why is to give away the film’s very essence, its gift to the cinematic audience. I try and think about it, try and put it into words, and it truly seems that my efforts in doing so almost seem to undermine what the film itself tries and succeeds in doing in terms of redefining the very language and linearity of cinema. This film could have been so much less than what it is and still succeeded as a damn good sci-fi, and that it doesn’t, that it not only manages to raise that bar for itself but still clear it with plenty of space to spare, makes me incomprehensibly grateful. This film is a boon, both to those that watch it and to cinema as a whole; it’s a monumentally rewarding experience, one that introduces a new way of thinking about storytelling and filmmaking, and that I honestly feel, at least to my fellow writers and filmmakers, makes us better for having seen and experienced it.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

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Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow

People can convince themselves anything’s real if they want to.

This is my reaction to another horror film being added to the list, and thus my being forced to watch another horror film: Hoo boy. Another horror film to sit through. To be honest, such a reaction isn’t entirely fair to Under the Shadow, the newest horror film on the list; it hasn’t done anything to me personally to warrant an immediate dismissal. Still, it took me a bit longer than I would’ve preferred to actually get to the film, purely because of my general disdain for the horror genre, stemming from my participation in several no-budget horror productions in film school which turned me off the genre almost entirely. Thankfully, it’s films like Under the Shadow that exist to show me that, yes, horror can still be a viable genre of cinema; when they’re done right, of course, and Under the Shadow is absolutely a film done right.

Shideh is a mother to a single daughter, Dorsa, in Tehran circa 1980 or so, right after the Iranian Revolution; elements of which are still in the process of being ‘resolved’, hence the air raid sirens and Xs of tape covering the windows of the apartment she shares with her husband. At the beginning, her husband, a doctor, is called into service near the frontlines, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone with a handful of neighbors in the same building; this is right after Shideh is informed her own doctoral studies cannot continue due to political activities she undertook while in university years earlier. One of the neighbor families has recently taken in a cousin of theirs, a young boy, who shows concern for Dorsa and gives her a charm to ward off evil spirits called djinn, which are said to take personal belongings of humans so they can haunt them without impunity. Naturally, small items of both Dorsa and later Shideh start to go missing, Dorsa comes down with a fever, and both women start having odd and increasingly scary nightmares, and Shideh, skeptical at first, is slowly convinced that the stories of the djinn may not be as ethereal and fanciful a folklore as they’d been led to believe. What Under the Shadow really gets right about being a horror film, aside from the actual tension and mounting sense of dread that slowly overcomes the main characters and us the audience by proxy, is using the horror setting to juxtapose against real world elements; specifically the post-revolution Iran setting the film takes place in. What did end up surprising me, though, was how generally effective this was as a straight-up horror film, juxtaposition either included or not. Another aspect I really enjoyed was how certain things, almost throwaway lines or events in the film, were later brought up again in ways that underscored how disturbing and out-of-place the horror elements of the film were intruding upon the lives of the main characters; items go missing and are of little consequence until they show up later in the wrong place, actions taken by or imparted onto characters have no meaning until they later rear their head in the worst way and in the worst possible moment. It’s the little touches like these that really cement the universe of the film, while simultaneously upping the ante as to what is going on with the two leads and what they may or may not be up against. Also, heads up; the film, on Netflix at least, defaults to English dialogue, dubbed over the actors’ original Persian, which gets distracting very quickly, so you might want to switch the audio and turn on subtitles if you head there to watch this one.

I still don’t think I’m going to come around to horror completely; not as long as low-to-no-budget horror films continue to be churned out that are of absolutely no value to the cinematic community, something that I don’t think will literally ever stop happening. But, as I said in the opener, it’s nice to be reminded that horror can actually be good and effective, and Under the Shadow is definitely one of those films. To those who might have similar misgivings about venturing into this one as I did, you really needn’t worry; for me personally, I counted exactly one jump scare in Under the Shadow, and the rest of the film still managed to unnerve and keep me on the edge of my metaphorical seat, especially during the last act when things ramp up considerably to near-unbearable levels. This is yet another one that I initially wasn’t sure why it got added to the list, but now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad it was if only for getting me to actually watch it, because this is definitely worth watching.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016)

How many lives is a man-cub worth?

With all the additions to the list this year, even with the innocuous ones, I don’t think I was more surprised by any one film being added more than this one. This past year’s version of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, is one of the latest in Disney’s newest fad of taking their older animated features and remaking them in live action, and it’s a fad that I’ve never been one to get behind, but that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, what with the box office returns for this one and the recent Beauty and the Beast being what they were. That said, this one does have one major thing going for it, and it was that one thing that I figured was more than likely why it got added to the list at all: the visual effects used to bring the animals and the jungle to life.

You probably know the story to this one already, but still: Mowgli is a “man-cub” found in his infancy by a panther, Bagheera, after the tiger Shere Khan killed his father (getting burned in the process by the adult man’s fiery torch, or “red flower”). Raised by the jungle’s wolf pack into his childhood, Mowgli’s life is upended when Shere Khan returns for him, and he is sent off by Bagheera to find his true place in the man village where he can be protected, all while other jungle creatures meet and try to waylay him for their own purposes. Now, the story for this one isn’t exactly that of Disney’s original version, so it might be a little confusing to fans of the original (especially, for instance, when the film decides to end its story and start rolling the credits), but this is still The Jungle Book, so you pretty much know what you’re gonna get with it. The standard Disney conventions are put to new and interesting ways, from the talking animals to the musical numbers, and it’s thanks to the film being a 3D, live-action version of the story that these conventions have some form of new life breathed into them. Still, the conventions are such for a reason, and that this version holds to them as rigorously as it does is probably why the film, visual effects aside, feels as unnecessary a remake as it does. The visual effects have drawn a lot of comparison to films like Life of Pi and Avatar, which this really does feel like a combination of those two films visually, but it is still in service to a story that doesn’t feel like enough time was put into it. Make no mistake, in contrast to my previous review, this is almost certainly a film to see to be wowed by the visual splendor and technical prowess on display, instead of one to watch for the narrative itself.

When I saw that this had been added to the list, I was surprised at first, but I chalked the addition up to the editors wanting representation for the film’s groundbreaking and Oscar-winning visual effects. Now that I’ve seen it, I feel my original assessment is a lot more solidified, in both positive and negative ways; this was absolutely added for the visual effects, but I can’t really find any other reason for this to be on there. Even with the slight modifications to the story, it didn’t seem enough to warrant another whole spot in the Book to me, and really, it was only by the barest of margins that I was kept entertained through the entire picture. Stunning visual effects, and some good voiceover work as well, but other than that, if you did skip this one when it came out last year, I guess I can’t entirely blame you.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I am a citizen; nothing more and nothing less.

As far as I know, the only Ken Loach film I’d seen before this one was Kes, so I didn’t have much of a handle on Loach as a director. Thus, in my usual bit of research into these films before I see them, I looked into Loach himself, who is apparently quite the political hotrod as a director in the U.K., which I hadn’t been aware of. Watching a film like I, Daniel Blake, however, this becomes readily apparent, as the film itself deals with the unemployment system in England and how all the red tape and bureaucracy dehumanize the regular working man instead of treating them like people and managing to help them. Seeing as I am not in the exact same situation as the Daniel Blake of the film, but understanding and empathizing with his circumstances, I was able to view this film from both angles; as someone who would be outraged at the treatment of Blake as the film puts across, while also being aware that this is a film that is deliberately trying to put this sort of thing across. That might not be Loach’s intention with his making this; he would likely rather that I be squarely in the former camp, but the specificity of the circumstances in the film unfortunately limits that possibility from happening, with me and with the general cinematic public as well. Even so, I, Daniel Blake manages to work as a pretty decent film, despite the limited range of the film’s genesis as a cinematic cattle-prod.

Daniel Blake is a hard-headed, decent-working man in northern England who’s just survived a heart attack, and wants nothing more than to get healthy again and go back to work. Being an average man in the system, however, he’s put through the bureaucratic runaround, seeing as one government agency says he’s fit to work and thus ineligible for employment assistance, and his doctor and physician are saying he’s not yet healthy enough to return to his job. It’s through his running around in the system that he happens to meet Katie, a young single mother just moved to the area who’s also stuck in the system trying to get a job, and the two end up befriending one another and trying to help each other get by, especially as Daniel’s case leads him toward appeal court through the same system that’s been treating him like a statistic or a number instead of as a human being. The first thing that becomes very apparent watching I, Daniel Blake is that this isn’t a film with the purpose of wowing you with how well-made a film it is; the technicals are enough to get by and get the story told, and little more than that. No, this is a film that has something to say, with well-constructed characters put into positions to get the narrative point across through their actions and what happens as a result of their actions. Chief among these assets is the main character himself, Daniel Blake, played by Dave Johns, who manages to keep Blake humane and relatable even and sometimes because of his short temper regarding his bureaucratic situation. Secondary in the constellation of characters Blake interacts with is Katie, who provides a sympathetic foil for Blake as well as a backup for his endeavors, which proves essential when the film gets into its endgame. Also, heads up on the accents in the film; it’s not nearly as indecipherable as Kes, but it’ll take a few minutes or so to get used to.

There’s really very little to be said about this film, which makes it of course a struggle for someone like me to try and write a review about it. If you can take to what this film says about its world and what the characters go through, it will be very affecting; if not, then it will only be mildly so, if that. That’s unfortunately all I’m able to scrounge up in regards to I, Daniel Blake, which is a bit of a shame since the film itself really wants to be a lot more than that, and the only reason it’s not is because of how specific its drive is towards what it wants to say. I’m actually a little surprised this managed to win the Palme d’Or, as stripped-down as it is, but I guess it just hit the right note with the jury that year. It hit a hard note with me as well, but again, as I am not essentially the same man as Daniel Blake, it didn’t hit that note as hard as it otherwise would’ve. And, to repeat a recurring statement with my reviews towards films like this, I’m not convinced this is really a must-see film, but (again) neither is it a poor watch should you decide to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Victoria

Victoria

“Are you scared?” “I’m never scared.”

Victoria seemed to be one of this year’s incongruous additions to the list, just unknown enough to make me wonder why the editors decided to add it… Then I looked up the film, and found out the gimmick, and it suddenly made sense. Victoria is yet another single-take film, where the whole film was literally shot in one take, with no cuts or video editing at all; a feat that would be impressive and novel had it not been done by other films before, including one that already made the list. So, why is the single-take film that is Victoria special enough to warrant another spot in the Book? I watched it with this question in mind, and the more the film went on, the more I began to wonder if my question would actually get answered.

The film starts out finding the titular Victoria, a Madrid-native uprooted and living in Germany, partying in a club in Berlin, in the early morning night-time hours. After leaving, she runs into a group of four guys, which includes Sonne, who takes a liking to Victoria and she to him. After they spend some time cavorting around Berlin, the group leaves Victoria to open the cafe where she works, implying that there is something the group has to do. Shortly after, however, they return, as one of their group is too drunk to help the others, and reluctantly, Sonne asks Victoria to step in and be the fourth in their group for whatever it is they have to do, and she agrees, sparking a wild and unforeseen series of events when the group finds out their mission. Obviously, the big selling point to this is the fact that the whole film is a single, unbroken take, and it is extremely impressive that the film manages to be so given everything that happens in the plot. But what’s probably most surprising is that the film still manages to tell a complete story even with its gimmick, though the point of the story might’ve been slightly lost the more the film decides to go on, as far as the ending is concerned in my opinion. Despite a large percentage of the dialogue being in English, there is still quite a bit of German spoken as well, and the version I watched did not have any subtitles for the German spoken in the film, which I was a little perturbed about in the beginning. The more the film went on, though, I actually started to appreciate the lack of translation; it got me more into the mindset of Victoria herself, as she spoke very little German herself and thus couldn’t understand the others when they spoke it, so we as the viewer can more readily put ourselves in her shoes as she goes through this wild experience for herself. One can always look up the full synopsis on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in the blanks as necessary, in case one decides to see this the same way I did.

Don’t get me wrong; Victoria is quite the experience, and that it is a one-take film certainly heightens the experience. But is this an experience one must have before they die? As I said in the opener, I viewed the film with this in mind, and even with the single-take nature of it, by the end I wasn’t convinced that it really needed to have been added to the list. I even reviewed the Book’s blurb about this one, which went on about how the eponymous character starts the film out one way and ends it entirely transformed, as if this big, massive character arc had taken place, and I was a little stymied as to how they arrived at such a conclusion, given how the film (to me) was largely about the actions performed and not really about why they were performed or what happens to the characters as a result of them. Mild spoilers aside, the drop-off nature of the ending in particular seemed to signal to me that the filmmakers, the more the film went on, were more and more amazed that the single take was actually working and less invested in what they actually wanted to say with the film in question instead of just getting the take on film and clapping their hands afterwards. This pretty much makes Victoria amount to a heck of a technical achievement, and little more than that. Still, it was watchable, if a little long in running time, so your mileage may vary with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without someone to outsmart.

I don’t really know what I was expecting with Hell or High Water; in all honesty, when I was making potshot guesses as to the other Best Picture nominees of this past year that stood a chance of making the 1001 list, I’d pegged Hacksaw Ridge over this one. I’d heard the good will towards this going into the Oscars last year, but didn’t really have any reason to want to see it, so to have it added to the list, essentially making me see it much earlier than I otherwise would’ve, I was nevertheless ambivalent when I actually sat down to start it. Now that it’s finished, I can understand my ambivalence a little better, as even though I’ve now seen the film, I still feel a slight bit of ‘nothing’ in regards to my desire towards watching the film. But, and here’s the key point for me, that is not to say that Hell or High Water isn’t a really solid film, all ambivalence aside.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are two Texan brothers who, at the beginning of the film, rob two branches of a Texas-based bank; Foster proving himself the wilder of the two, while Pine seems to be the cooler head, the brains behind what’s going on. It soon becomes apparent that there actually is something going on, a greater plan behind the brothers’ actions, especially as Pine’s character has no criminal record at all up to this point. To figure out what’s happening and to bring in the two brothers is Jeff Bridges as an old-hat, salt-of-the-earth Texas Ranger, who’s spending his last couple weeks or so on the job doing little but playfully belittling his Native American partner until the brothers’ case comes his way, and he and the brothers work their way in and around and toward each other as the boys try and get their plan wrapped down before Bridges’ ranger can work out where they’re headed next. If that plot summary sounds like I’m sorta fumbling around what actually happens in the film, I am; a lot of the film is poised such as to get us to wonder what’s going on, or what’s coming next, and there is a distinct air of mystery to the proceedings as we try and figure out along with the Rangers what the two brothers are really up to. I also tried to stress the Texas upbringing that the film is absolutely saturated in; this film is Texan in every which way, down to its very core. The whole experience comes across very much as a slightly watered version of No Country for Old Men; No Country’s eager if elementary little brother, so to speak, which, as a comparison, isn’t one a film like this wouldn’t necessarily want to strive towards, so to see Hell or High Water embrace this aspect of itself so fully is highly encouraging. The performances from the cast were also really solid, especially Ben Foster, who steals nearly every scene he’s in, but Pine and Bridges are up to the task of carrying the film themselves when they need to.

This film, for me, ended up being a good lesson in how to approach the worth or value of a film (provided the film itself has worth or value). A lot of films, especially on the list, are there because they are important in some way, or unique in some other way, or special in some third way, etc. That’s all well and good for something like the list, but it’s not really a good way of determining if a film, any film, is worth the time put into it. Hell or High Water is a great example of a film that is none of the above things, but still gets by on the fact that it’s just a really good film all around. Sometimes, a film doesn’t need to be important, or unique, or one-of-a-kind; all that really matters is that it be good – well-written, well-made, and well-performed, and Hell or High Water is absolutely all of those things. Now, I can’t say that a film like Hell or High Water is worth a spot on this list, or that it will survive future revisions, but I can be glad that it was added just for the fact that it got me to see the film; a film that may not seem like it at first, but ends up being worth your time in the end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.

I’d never heard of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan before Manchester by the Sea, and considering he’d only made two feature films before this one, that’s not as surprising as it might sound at first glance. Well, rest assured, whatever he might have on his docket next, it and he are squarely on my radar now. Manchester by the Sea was basically this year’s little-film-that-could at the Oscars, getting a Best Picture nom as well as accolades for the major players in front of and behind the camera, including a win for lead actor Casey Affleck. I’d seen the trailer and heard the hype coming from Sundance about the film, and actually decided to see it in theaters, so this ended up being my second viewing of the film, and it was no less inspiring and definitely no less heart-rending. Given the restraint that oozes out of every pore of this film, both from the actors and the filmmakers themselves, it’s amazing how affecting this film manages to be.

Lee Chandler lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, largely going through his day-to-day routine being a janitor and handyman at an apartment complex, until he gets a phone call that his brother Joe has passed away from a recurring heart defect. Driving back to his previous hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, he learns through Joe’s will that he has been named guardian of Joe’s now-fatherless 16-year-old, Patrick, and through several circumstances involving the funeral arrangements, Lee is forced to stay in Manchester until the upcoming spring; something that Lee is very wont not to do, due to the circumstances in his past that caused him to leave Manchester behind entirely. The film largely follows the narrative of Lee as he goes through this process pretty much in straight chronology, punctuated by skips backward in time as Lee remembers his brother and his previous life in Manchester, or rather as his memories intrude into his present, almost unwillingly so, from the way the editing of the film is put together. That right there is the beauty of Manchester by the Sea; this is the type of film where the narrative, while being there and solid, is there to hold up the characters, and specifically what they are going through due to the narrative, and it’s through Lonergan’s script and subtle direction, Affleck’s performance, and the way the film is constructed that what the characters are going through is so apparent and effective, even and especially because of all the restraint exhibited by all involved. I’ve been a fan of Casey Affleck’s since his nominated supporting role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and part of the allure of this film to me was the one quote on the poster up there, proclaiming Affleck’s work in this to be the stuff of giants. Needless to say, he does not disappoint; here, Affleck is a simmering pot of emotions, barely perceptible on the surface, but absolutely visible and discernible to us the audience due to Affleck’s skill and talent at making the internals of his character fully observable, despite his character’s tangibly holding himself back from feeling everything his body wants him to feel. Lucas Hedges also surprised and impressed me, especially because I’d previously seen him only in a much more quirky role in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, and here he shows that he’s got a real future ahead of him, if he keeps at it with roles like this one. Rounding out the major players is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randy, and Williams is good as well (though that’s to be expected of her by now), particularly in the film’s most gutting scene where Randy and Lee meet face-to-face after all they’ve been through, and Randy tries to apologize to Lee for all of it. Many Oscar noms have happened due to one particular scene for the actor, and I’d wager Williams’ nomination for this film is a result of that scene alone.

The thing I love most about this film is that, when you take into account the bits and pieces that make up the narrative and the characters, it really shouldn’t work, at least not as a Hollywood picture. The fact that it does, though, and that it does so beautifully, is in my opinion a testament to how versatile and effective cinema can be as a medium. You don’t need to follow the Hollywood formula to be a good or even great film, and Manchester by the Sea is only the latest example of such a picture that still manages to succeed in the popular and critical circles. I’m really enamored of this film, for many reasons, and that it works almost despite itself is probably one of the major ones. That said, if one doesn’t take to the particular type of entertainment value that this film has to offer, I can see why they would largely want to write this off, though they’d be making a very short-sighted mistake in doing so. This is definitely a film greater than the sum of its parts, and I got just as much out of it this second time around (perhaps more so) than I did the first time I saw it. That’s a great film by my definition.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10