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Manchester By the Sea

What’s to like?

It can throw you off, as a critic, when a movie’s themes hit close to home. Will everyone be affected this way, or is it just me, I ask? Casey Affleck, playing Lee in Manchester by the Sea, has to travel from the big city back to the smaller community where he grew up when life gets crazy. But as specifically parallel as that experience is to my life, it’s also universal–even archetypal–in its relatability. So let’s go ahead and chalk that one up in the plus column. Same with Lee’s small but meaningful growth from a person looking out only for number one to a person who realizes he’s happier if he considers what someone else wants. Hell, come to think of it, at this rate I guess we’ll call this an age-old tale. Continue Reading

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Arrival

What’s there to like?

Arrival is a good ol’ fashioned thought-experiment style sci-fi story. One of those that begins by asking what if? and playing things out. In this case, the what-if is about aliens visiting the Earth–with all the confusion, uncertainty, and fear that would entail–and humanity’s struggle to communicate with them. Always nice to have some thought provoked.

For those of us who love language, this is a wet dream. Who knew a linguist could save the world? Don’t you dare tell me my liberal arts degree won’t come in handy!

The performances are good: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker all breathe life into their characters and represent their sometimes conflicting, sometimes converging interests. Adams and Renner–Louise and Ian–have solid chemistry. Renner in particular I found riveting–he subtly surprised me with some of this choices, showing some range compared to his other work.

Director Denis Villaneuve and writer Eric Heisserer construct a nice story, with a twinge of horror-like tension, and an earned payoff that’s set up nicely.

What’s not to like?

Two things, mainly. Although I’ll tip my cap to the buildup to the plot’s reveal, there’s a mystical component to how things play out. I’m not opposed to that kind of payoff in principle, but it’s a delicate needle to thread, and this one doesn’t satisfy my need for coherence, even if I’m trying to be generous to forces we don’t understand.

The other thing is that Ian, though played ably by Renner, is an inconsistent and contradictory character. His stated purpose–representing the scientific approach to learning about the aliens–is minimized or tossed aside for the most part. He didn’t need to be a scientist at all to play his part–just had to be a nice, reasonably smart dude supporting Louise’s greatness. What’s that– you’re trying to tell me it’s just a gender role reversal and normally the woman is defined by being the helpmate? Yeah, I won’t say you’re wrong. Still, I’m marking it down as a con rather than a pro or even a neutral.

The Verdict

Arrival is an enjoyable sci-fi movie, well-executed and widely accessible. It’ll get you thinking, and keep you entertained with taut story and solid acting. Hell, some may even like the twist more than I did. It’s certainly a thumbs up from me.

Recommended

 

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The Neon Demon

What’s there to like?

Before anything else, it’s important to note that The Neon Demon is one of those artsy(-fartsy), experimental films that takes itself rather seriously. A lot of people aren’t into that. I get it.

BUT, I often get a kick out of movies like this, and I found Nicolas Winding Refn’s current flick fascinating. It’s about the connection between vulnerability and beauty, and simultaneously, paradoxically, between beauty and power. (Elle Fanning deftly brings out all three qualities in the lead role, Jesse.) It’s about how people can be affected by them, and how hard it can be to distinguish those whose reactions are benign and those become more predatory. A little heavy on the English-lit homework angle? Maybe, but I loved it. Continue Reading

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Maggie’s Plan

What’s there to like?

Maggie’s Plan is what just you want from an indie: it’s different. It’s a New York-/Brooklyn-based story that feels kind of like a Noah Baumbach (maybe While We’re Young or Frances Ha), but director Rebecca Miller adjusts the dials a bit to decrease the self-seriousness and increase the fun. We’ve got the same white urban dwellers and great feel for the city, but the tonal balance kept me enjoying myself the whole time. Continue Reading

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Warcraft

What’s there to like?

You may not know this, but I’m a fairly serious World of Warcraft player. That makes this is a tricky review, because my take will obviously be different than that of those coming new or relatively new to the Warcraft universe. I think we can do it, though.

There are definitely some things to like, even if you don’t know this lore. The motion-capture orcs look gritty and cool (props to Toby Kebbell as Durotan–probably the most compelling character in the movie), and the spells the mages cast are also pretty. There is a lot of rich lore here, as well, that the film draws on. The characters’ backstories are extremely filled out, which helps. Continue Reading

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Sing Street

What’s there to like?

You know how in most musicals characters just break into song in the middle of a conversation, or walking down the road, or . . . whenever? For the most part, we don’t mind–that’s just how musicals are. Except John Carney musicals. They’re not very much like that at all. Like Once and Begin AgainSing Street is about musicians. And the thing is, musicians’ lives have a lot of music in them. I love traditional musicals and all, but it’s pretty cool the way the music makes so much sense in the context of a Carney movie. Continue Reading

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The Lobster

What’s it all about?

The Lobster, a quirky independent film, is certainly stranger than most quirky indies we get to see. Its first setting–presented with an understated nonchalance, like most everything else in this movie–is a hotel where the divorced, widowed, or otherwise unattached are checked in and receive a final chance to find a partner before they are written off and turned into an animal of their choosing. The hotel staff and guests all treat this state of affairs quite seriously, leaving its absurdity for the viewers to appreciate. Continue Reading