Arrival is an intelligent, engrossing science fiction film. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, The Enemy, Nightcrawler) Arrival presents a plausible look at humanity’s first meeting with alien life forms.

When 12 alien space ships appear over 12 locations throughout the world, expert linguist  Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the aliens aboard the ship hovering over Montana in the United States. Assisting her is a theoretical physicist (played by Jeremy Renner). Rounding out the cast is Forrest Whitaker as US Army Colonel Weber who is leading the American effort to find out what the aliens’ intentions are.

Arrival is a slow-moving film. Tension in the plot revolves around whether or not Dr. Banks can interpret what the aliens want. But more importantly, even if humanity is successful in communicating with the aliens, humanity still fails at communicating with each other. At first the 12 different groups cooperate with each other, sharing information about the aliens. But as time goes on, relations break down and it appears as if a human attack on one of the alien ships is imminent. Arrival captures the paranoia and distrust very well: humanity turns on itself as the inferred threat of the aliens looms ever present.

As always, humans are quick to assume ill intent on the part of the aliens despite the fact that the aliens have traveled light years to get to earth in spaceships that defy human understanding. If the aliens truly meant harm to humanity, it is unlikely the anything could be done to stop such a sufficiently advanced life-form.

Worth a look if you like intelligent, thoughtful science fiction films.

Skip it if spacecraft dogfights and laser-gun battles are more your thing.

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Cerebral Movies: Anomalisa

anomalisaAnomalisa is an odd film. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) Anomalisa is an animated film, but it is not for children. And despite being animated, it seems more real than some films with live actors in them.

Michael Stone (voiced by British actor David Thewlis) is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but doesn’t realize it. He is the quasi-famous author of a book on how to increase sales through excellent customer service. He is married with a child, but clearly unhappy.

He is to be the keynote speaker at a customer service convention. On his way to the hotel from the airport, a cab driver tries to engage Michael in conversation, but the banality of it irritates Michael.

Michael checks into the Fregoli Hotel,  which is an allusion to the Fregoli delusion, a rare disorder in which a person believes that everyone else is the same person who is either in disguise or changes appearance. Even worse the delusional person feels persecuted by the person in disguise. This theme is developed by most everyone having the same voice (and the same face). In fact, there are only three voices in the movie: Michael, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and everybody else (voiced by Tom Noonan).

Michael can’t stand the boredom and subsequently calls an old flame from a relationship which ended badly. They meet at the hotel bar; it is an awkward encounter with a predictably bad outcome.

On his way back to his room he hears something remarkable: a female voice that sounds different from the rest. He follows the voice to another room on his floor where he meets Lisa and her friend, who happen to be staying at the hotel for the conference. They say they are huge fans of his and looking forward to hearing him speak. Lisa tries to impress on Michael that her friend is the more attractive of the two, and men usually go for her. But Michael is enchanted by Lisa’s voice and subsequently only has eyes for her. They begin a relationship which begins to quickly disintegrate right after it starts.

As with many films of this type, interpretation is left up to the viewer. The director provides clues, but does not coddle or spoon-feed the audience. Those looking for simple answers to themes posed in the film will be disappointed; a second or third viewing might be in order to get the gist of what the film is really trying to say.

Anomalisa is not a feel-good film. The themes of isolation, loneliness, infidelity, and banality of life make this film hard to watch. Michael’s depressing world-view is pervasive throughout the film, and he never really changes. He’s trapped in an isolated, lonely hell of his own making with no hope of ever escaping it.

Where the film shines is the realistic stop-motion animation. The puppets were made with a 3D printer which makes them look more realistic than if just modeled in clay. The realistic animation, graphic sex scene and pessimistic outlook make for a jarring, unsettling film viewing experience. The film is not for everyone.

Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

Worth a look for the stunning, realistic stop-motion puppet animation.

Skip it if you don’t like depressing films.

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  • Steve


Cerebral Movies: Predestination

predestinationPredestination is a modern-day adaption of Robert Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies.”  The story revolves around a character played by Ethan Hawke named The Barkeep. It seems he is a Temporal Agent whose job it is to travel through time to prevent atrocities before they happen. He never seems to be able to catch one elusive criminal who always seems to be able to set off a bomb which ends up killing thousands.

One night in the past, The Barkeep strikes up a conversation with a character who looks like a man, but is named The Unmarried Mother (played by Sarah Snook.) She tells him the fantastic, almost unbelievable story of her life.

As the fantastic story unfolds, The Barkeep finds his fate inexorably intertwined with that of the Unmarried Mother. The truth emerges and builds to a horrifying conclusion.

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Worth a look if you like heady, time-travel stories.

Skip it if you don’t like science fiction.

– Steve


Cerebral Movies: The Congress

MV5BMjE5MTUzNDk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTUwNTQ5MTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_The Congress is the story of an aging actress (Robin Wright, ostensibly playing herself) who is given a last-chance contract: the studio will scan her emotions and physical presence.  She will remain forever young when her scanned likeness is used in movies, but she herself cannot appear in any movie or play for the length of her 20-year contract.

Wright reluctantly signs the contract, partially because she knows it might be her last chance at continued stardom and partially because she needs the money to treat her chronically ill son.

The movie jumps ahead 20 years to the expiration of her contract. Wright shows up at the animated Abrahama, the illusory animated world created by the Miramount Nagasaki corporation At this point the movie shifts from being live action to animation. Wright is animated as an attractive elderly woman, but no one recognizers her because the Miramount Nagasaki corporation owns her likeness, which has been turned into a international superstar but is perpetually 33 years old.

In the preceding 20 years, the Miramount Nagasaki corporation have made advances in chemistry allowing them to turn Wright’s scanned likeness into a chemical formula, which may be ingested by individuals. It is the next step in the evolution of cinema: each person has their own private, self-generated illusory world (represented by animation.)

But the illusory world is not as wonderful as it seems: rebels soon invade and disrupt Abrahama. This intrusion allows Wright to break free from the animated illusion and allows her to ultimately transit back to the real world, witnessing firsthand how the chemicals have actually enslaved humanity.

The Congress explores the nature of reality. It also poses the question, is it better to be free and see reality for what it truly is in all it’s unvarnished horror?  Or is it better to be trapped in an illusion where everyone is happy, but enslaved? The Matrix and Dark City explored these same themes.

The Congress is not a perfect movie; it can be hard to follow in spots and does not make sense in some places. But overall, it is a thought-provoking movie and an interesting meditation on the nature of reality.

Worth a look if you like mind bending, cerebral movies which make you think.

Skip it if you like coherent, easy-to-follow story lines.

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The Congress

– steve


MV5BMTU4OTQ3MDUyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTA2MjU0MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Whiplash at its core is about greatness and the lengths that ambitious people will go to achieve it.

On the one hand, there is Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the role. He truly deserved it as he delivers an electrifying performance. Fletcher, a brilliant but nefarious instructor,  leads the jazz band at one of the country’s best conservatories. He drives his students hard to achieve greatness. He is looking for the next Charlie Parker and will do anything to bring this out in a student. Often, he crosses the line with verbal, emotional and physical abuse.

On the other hand, there is Andrew (played by Miles Teller.) He is ambitious and talented. He is a student and wants to achieve greatness in jazz drumming, but lacks focus. His hero is Charlie “Bird” Parker, a giant among jazz musicians. (Parker unfortunately died a drug addict at the age of 35.)

Fletcher discovers Andrew one day after hearing him perform with another band at the conservatory. Fletcher senses greatness in Andrew and invites him to play in the most prestigious band ensemble in the school. Almost immediately, Fletcher starts to berate Andrew. He goads Andrew, pushing him to the limit with insults and physical assaults.  He capriciously replaces Andrew with other drummers to make him work harder to keep his position in the band.

The movie is stark and brutal in its depiction of Fletcher trying to bring out greatness in Andrew using extreme methods; at times it’s hard to watch. Andrew puts up with abuse because he senses greatness in himself and feels that only by pushing himself will he be able to achieve greatness. But pushing himself too hard eventually costs him: his hands bleed from practicing his drumming for extended periods; he gets into a car wreck because he is frantic to make a performance. (His hand is so banged up from the accident that he fails the performance miserably as he can’t hold onto the drum stick.) He breaks up with his girlfriend because he believes that she will only hold him back and even come to resent him for placing his dream of greatness ahead of her.

Whiplash is a fascinating (if brutal) look into greatness and the lengths that people will go to and the abuse that they will endure to achieve it. The movie is non-committal as to whether browbeating and/or abuse is the best way to bring out greatness in a performer. The film ultimately leaves this up to the viewer.

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Worth a look for a fascinating look into jazz, and what it takes to excel in that world.

Skip it if you are sensitive to verbal and physical brutality.

– Steve



Cerebral Movies: A Most Wanted Man

MV5BODY2MTA0MjYzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE3NzE4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_A Most Wanted Man has the dubious distinction of being Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. Fortunately, it is a well done film with fine performances.

Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann the head of a German security agency tasked with stopping domestic terrorism. When a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant (brutally tortured by the Russians) shows up illegally in Hamburg, looking to acquire funds left to him by his Russian father, Bachmann (and other security agencies) take notice. It becomes a race against time to figure out if he is a victim or a terrorist bent on revenge.

Bachmann wants to turn the immigrant into an asset, hoping that he will lead them to the real men in power.  But the other agencies, including the CIA, want to capture and punish him. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse with each agency jockeying for dominance. Although all the agencies ostensibly want the same thing, they all have different methods for realizing their goals.

Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright and Willem Dafoe round out the cast as a sympathetic lawyer, a CIA analyst, and a German banker respectively.

A thought-provoking and cerebral film, based on a novel by John le Carré,  A Most Wanted Man illustrates post 9/11 spy craft and how various security agencies use different methods to achieve their goals. Often times, these agencies are at odds with each other how to achieve these goals.

The film is about 2 hours long, but it never feels overlong, or boring. The directer did an excellent job pacing the film to keep the viewer’s interest.

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A Most Wanted Man

Worth a look if you like cerebral films or realistic depictions of spies and espionage in the post-9/11 age.

Skip it if 007 is more your thing.

– steve



Cerebral Movies: Enemy

MV5BMTQ2NzA5NjE4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjQ4NzMxMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Enemy, based on the novel The Double by José Saramago, stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as Adam and Anthony. It is a cerebral movie in that not much is explained. The director, Denis Villeneuve leaves little clues as the film unfolds, but ultimately any meaning is left to the viewer to decipher. It is a compact, dense film and every object, every scene has meaning. However, the meaning is oblique and not fully explained. Careful watching of this film will reveal a story which is much more than it appears to be on the surface.

Adam Bell, a history professor in Toronto, doesn’t seem to be happy. He always has a disheveled appearance, his apartment is unkempt, and his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) seems to be unhappy with him. He is in a rut in his classes; we see him delivering the same lecture several times to different students.

He sees his identical twin in a bit part in a movie which was recommended by a co-worker. He tracks down the actor whose stage name is Daniel Saint Claire and whose legal name is Anthony Claire. Adam meets Anthony and things go bad. Anthony seemingly is better off than Adam. Anthony has a beautiful, pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), dresses well, has a nice apartment, and seems to have a lot of money, despite being a bit-part actor. But he doesn’t appear to be any happier than Adam.

Isabella Rossellini has a small role as Anthony’s mother. Again, careful viewing and listening to the scenes she is in will be rewarding in understanding what the movie is about.

The ending of this movie is confusing if you haven’t been paying attention, but packs a startling punch if you have.

Worth a look if you like cerebral movies which make you think.

Skip it if you like your movies explained and wrapped up in neat packages.

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