November 10, 2016
Arrival (** ½) PG-13
From a cinematic storytelling standpoint, some subjects are just hard to make compelling. To cite one example, a film about decoding symbols would be one of the last things I would have on my short list of go-to film subjects. Unfortunately, director Denis Villenueve’s latest film, Arrival, spends a good chunk of its running time depicting a scientist, capably played by Amy Adams, doing just that very thing. To be fair this is a science fiction film of the more intelligent variety. Going through the machinations of trying to figure out what a race of advanced space aliens may or may not be trying to tell us would obviously entail some sort of subplot involving translating messages, so it isn’t unwarranted. It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling time at the movies and that’s one of the problems I had with Arrival.
Now having gotten all of that out of the way I’d like to make it clear that there’s good stuff sandwiched into the film. The opening, for instance, is a real grabber as it depicts the stages of a life cut short, from birth to death, and all the precious moments contained therein.
Amy Adams & Jeremy Renner in Arrival
It’s an incredibly arresting and emotional sequence that grabs you and makes you pay attention, wringing out the viewer on an emotional level in a matter of mere moments, leaving you wondering what else the film might have in store. If only the film didn’t get bogged down in a grade B, military versus aliens subplot later on, taking the viewer out of the film’s emotional realm and into more conventional waters.
The character at the heart of the film would be Dr. Louise Banks (Adams). She’s a linguistics professors who’s in mourning, having recently buried her teenage daughter. Scenes from the relationship between Banks and her daughter are sprinkled throughout the film and these are some of the film’s best moments, serving to remind the audience the preciousness of time spent with those we love.
Banks, due to her well regarded status in the linguistics field, is summoned by the government when aliens of the outer space variety arrive on the scene. It eventually becomes Banks’ task to decode their message and possibly save the world before a Chinese general begins blasting away at the aliens. Banks is aided in her task by a physicist (Jeremy Renner) who serves as a sidekick at first but eventually grows emotionally closer to Banks.
Arrival is a film best summed up as being the kind of thing whose parts are better than the whole. Some of those parts are breathtaking to be sure but the less compelling parts, unfortunately, keep the film from soaring as it should.
Dr. Strange (** ½) PG-13
Dr. Strange is a fitting title for the latest Marvel Studios movie, based on the comic book character of the same name that first appeared on the scene in the early 1960s. This is a decidedly strange movie, especially for a studio as conscious of its brand name as Marvel has proven to be. But the problem is that strangeness doesn’t always equal a quality film. Here is a super hero movie featuring all sorts of hallucinatory pyrotechnics on display during its unveiling and, admittedly, it’s arresting at times. I’m sure that fan boys/girls are going to lap it up but I couldn’t help but wonder if the eye popping visuals were just a way of disguising the fact that Dr. Strange really is just a case of the emperor having no clothes. Yes, it’s the same old story and it’s a sentence I’ve written too many times relative to these films. It has all the state of the art effects that money can buy but there’s no denying that Dr. Strange has some serious problems in the storytelling department.
You can’t fault the film in its casting. Especially, in the decision to have Benedict Cumberbatch essay the title role, a gifted and capable actor who gives it his all. It’s clear he’s well suited for the material or what little material with which there is to work.
The film’s first hour contains all of that typical expository stuff that we’re used to seeing in these Marvel films.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange
By the way, I keep wondering why we can’t have an introductory superhero film that doesn’t always rely on the origin story as its backbone but I digress. This take on Dr. Strange, however, (it’s the second as there was an earlier TV movie in the late 70s) follows the well-worn path of the origin story for its first hour and it, more or less, works.
The good doc of the film’s title is actually Dr. Vincent Strange, a gifted surgeon, who takes for granted the good life he has until it all comes to a screeching halt courtesy of a car accident. Strange loses the use of his hands—a death sentence for someone in his field—and his life ceases to have its purpose. After receiving a tip from someone who successfully recuperated from a similar injury, the injured doc heads to foreign lands to seek out ‘The Ancient One’ (yep, that’s how the character is actually billed in the credits) who is played by Tilda Swinton. This Ancient One teaches Strange the ways of mysticism and he eventually learns to essentially control the fates of the universe with his mental prowess. If this description sounds silly then wait till you see it.
The final hour of the film is basically just a showcase for the computer rendered special effects and the film nearly collapses from the weight of all the CGI overkill. The film does have a welcome dose of humor every now and then and there’s a quasi romantic subplot involving Strange’s assistant, played by Rachel McAdams, which sort of works. Still, it’s not enough to disguise the fact that this is one Marvel Comics film that could have benefited from one more pass at its lackluster script. At least it’s approximately half a good movie, as it stands.
Both movies are playing at the Carmike in Hickory and all around the area.
Questions or comments? Write Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.