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Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival

It don't get much better than this folks.

Plot synopsis: When a number of alien spacecrafts appear all over the world, the United States government approaches brilliant linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, to try and make contact with the mysterious beings residing in the one hovering over an open space deep in the American heartland.

Review: Wedged between the slow burn of his brilliant crime drama, Sicario, and the audacious sequel to one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of all time, Blade Runner 2049, Arrival solidifies Denis Villeneuve as one of the most exciting filmmakers out there right now and as one of the few who may not make a total pig's ear out of the new Blade Runner film.

The basic plot of Arrival is even more stripped down than most "first contact" stories but the true brilliance of this immaculately assembled masterpiece is the way it uses the bare-bones simplicity of its fantastical premise to explore themes that are complex, profound and thoroughly human. It's not, technically speaking, particularly original as it draws on everything from classic Arthur C. Clarke stories (2001: a Space Odyssey and Childhood's End being particularly obvious influences) to Christopher Nolan's still quite underrated Interstellar but it sets itself apart both by just how liberally it throws out enough Big Ideas to fill a dozen other films and in its ability to keep all of its lofty ambitions firmly rooted in the emotional realities of the human experience.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is Marvel's most visually arresting movie to date but is it any more than that? Does it need to be?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

When Stephen Strange, an arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon, has his life and career brought to a screeching halt after having his hands mangled in a bad car accident, his search for a cure brings him to the doorstep of the Ancient One, an ageless sorceress who may be the one person able to do what the most advanced medicine could not. What starts off as a desperate last resort for a man who has always lived his life with no time for anything beyond a materialistic (in both senses of the word) view of the world is soon confronted with both a reality that challenges everything he knows to be true and something that may well give him a purpose far, far greater and far more selfless than just healing his hand.

What we thought

Created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1963, Doctor Strange wasn't just the duo's biggest creation outside of Spider-man (most of Lee's other well known creations were co-created with Jack “the King” Kirby) but one that was oddly prescient of the counter culture that would grip the Western world for a few short years in the mid-late-sixties. Right from the off, Dr Strange was something different to come from Marvel at the time; a character and a comic book that fully embraced (mostly) Eastern mysticism, magic and druggy psychedelia to stand in stark contrast to the relatively straight-laced science fiction concepts of early Silver Age superhero comics.

It might seem like damning with faint praise, then, that the only thing that really stands out about the Doctor Strange movie from Marvel Studios' seemingly endless parade of hit superhero blockbusters is its trippy visuals but that would be to misunderstand both the winning formula at the heart of Marvel Studio's critical and commercial successes and just how much Doctor Strange's visuals really do make it something special.

Hell or High Water

Bringing the classic Western to modern day America once and for all.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A divorced father and his ex-con brother go on a small-time bank-robbing spree to save their late mother's house from being foreclosed by the bank but even as their own fractious relationship threatens to corrode their entire enterprise, a pair of Texas Rangers come ever closer to catching up with them.

What we thought

Essentially a modern reinvention of the western, Hell or High Water uses its simple, bare-bones plot to explore a post-recession America, where greedy banks and everyday people feed off each other and the line between victim and criminal grows ever blurrier. Far more than just a polemical screed against banks, though, it's mostly an intimate character study of its four central characters, punctuated by a simmering tension broiling beneath the surface whose ultimate eruption into brutal violence is as inevitable as the two pairs of men on either sides of the law ultimately being drawn together for a final showdown. It's also dryly funny, quietly moving and, quite simply, one of the very best films of the year.

Working off a lean, witty script by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, director David Makenzie has taken his experience of working on small, interesting and largely ignored indie movies and poured it into a film so confident and so self-assured that it's all but impossible to imagine it not breaking him into the mainstream - even as it makes absolutely no concessions to that very Hollywood machine.
Hell or High Water is a complex, adult film that takes its time to tell its story without ever dragging its feet, instead pacing itself perfectly as it allows us to come to fully understand and sympathise with its characters and this strange, cruel and all too real world they inhabit. These are no cardboard cut outs but fully realised, lived-in characters and, though the film is smart and original enough not to suggest that, by definition, bankrobbers and lawmen are two sides of the same coin, the morality of these characters is inordinately complicated.