Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Close Encounters with Arrival – a review

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Although Star Wars will remain the apex of my formative years as a young writer and dreamer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays a close second. At the risk of blasphemy, the latter film was significantly superior to the Lucas’ space western, offering insights into humanity and our possible place in the Universe that I couldn’t begin to fathom until later in life.

Such films are rare.

Arrival, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened widely this week, is one of those films and is a worthy successor to Close Encounters.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, a man better known for horror films like the reboots of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arrival opens with the arrival of 12 alien space craft—looking a bit like fat Pringles—at strategic positions around the globe.

Almost the entire story is told from the perspectives of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and shows their efforts to communicate with the aliens under the watchful eye of military commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), as scientists and military commands near the other 11 craft attempt the same.

While the trio works to simply comprehend the existence of the aliens, let alone try to communicate with them, the outside world falls apart as fear and a sense of insignificance grasps at the hearts of populations being told largely nothing, feeding the paranoid darkness that resides within all of us.

Without giving key aspects of the story away, the movie deals with broad metaphysical questions about existence and time, while at the same time, providing insights into our species at both its greatest apex and deepest nadir. And at its very base, it encapsulates the importance of trust in our evolution as individuals, as a society and as a species.

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Amy Adams channels Richard Dreyfuss in her awe at the miracle before her

This is Amy Adams’ movie, and so all of these concepts are displayed through her fears and growth. She must learn to trust her human colleagues. She must learn to trust her alien counterparts, adorably nicknamed Abbott and Costello. And most importantly of all, she must learn to trust herself despite flashes of what seems like madness.

To tie back to Close Encounters, Adams is this movie’s Richard Dreyfuss, and she embues her character with both the same manic trepidation and child-like wonder as Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary.

Renner and Whitaker, for their parts, are incredibly subdued in this film.

Renner’s Donnelly is an emotional anchor for Adams. Coming from the academic world, his tone is at once familiar and playfully combative.

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The photographic focus on Adams is representative of Renner’s role in this film.

Whitaker’s Weber is authoritative and yet unthreatening. He is the calm in the intellectual storm, grounding the two academics for what they are about to witness and becoming increasingly appreciative of the miracle that unfolds before him.

What I found particularly interesting about Heisserer’s story was that the antagonist of the film was Fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of mortality. Fear of our own insignificance. And more importantly, our deepest fear that as individuals, we simply don’t measure up.

And breaking the rules of screenwriting, this fear was not embodied in a single antagonist, but in all characters, and it was only in fleeting moments that any individual character acted upon his or her fear. And yet, as fleeting as those moments were, each was vital to the evolution of the story and the critical relationships to their next stages.

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Connection relies on trust

Again, these moments fed back to the question of trust, particularly in the face of betrayal.

To assure everyone that this film isn’t simply a cerebral exercise—although it is beautiful in what it does accomplish—there is also a very deep emotional thread that runs through this movie, again centering on Adams. And from the opening, it seems like this personal journey is completely disconnected from the sci-fi plot.

But as the story unfolds and we begin to explore what is possible in an infinite cosmos, we begin to realize that the external and internal journeys are one and the same. There is no distinction. The line between physical and emotional is an artifact of our choices as humans and society.

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Arrival continues the saga that started with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Will Arrival be to adolescent minds today what Close Encounters was to mine in 1977?

Probably not.

It is a much more adult film that its predecessor, with many fewer action sequences to engage the eye. And Villeneuve’s views and sensibilities are very different from Steven Spielberg’s.

But Arrival is the closest thing to those seminal films that we have seen in a generation or more. And for the more engaged child or adolescent, it will open a window to another plane of storytelling.

See also:

Movie Review: Arrival (Danny F. Santos)

Amy Adams supplies emotional core of alien invasion film “Arrival” (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Amy Adams has a sublime word with alien visitors (The Guardian)

The Force Awakens…to a Khan job (SPOILERS)

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J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

That statement alone should tell you everything you need to know about my experience with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Ep. VII).

As background: I am old enough to have seen Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep. IV) in theatres as a young teenager. And I was so impressed by the film that I immediately came home from the theatre and wrote a sequel…400 hand-written pages of a screenplay. My first screenplay, in fact, at the ripe maturity of 13 years.

Star Wars is my birthright. I will defend it tooth and nail.

Thus, J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

After the underwhelming prequels (Ep. I-III), I looked forward to Abrams’ take on the saga. I was a big fan of his reboot of Star Trek, although I had a bit of a nagging doubt after the reboot sequel Into Darkness. But if anyone had a sense of the epic, almost operatic scale of the Star Wars universe, it should have been Abrams.

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And to some extent, he fulfilled his end of the bargain.

Shivers went down my spine when we scaled across the vast deserts of Tatooine…I mean Jakku.

I worried when R2…I mean BB-8, was captured by the Jawas…I mean scrap metal scavengers.

I bounced happily with the music of the Mos Eisley cantina…I mean the Takodana cantina.

I cheered when R2 successfully arrived at the Rebel base…I mean BB-8 arrived at the Resistance base with the vital information.

I sat back in awe as I saw the might of the Death Star…I mean Starkiller Base, for the first time.

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

To get back to Star Trek: Into Darkness, briefly, we all knew that Abrams was rewriting the story of Kirk’s greatest nemesis Khan Noonien Singh. And the movie didn’t disappoint in its grand opening flourishes and early Starfleet intrigue.

But then, at some point, it was like Abrams had run out of ideas and so simply inserted the last 20 pages or so of the original Wrath of Khan screenplay, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

The least tweaked moment of overlap between the two movies was the scene between Spock and Kirk across the glass as one dies from radiation sickness. Abrams simply swapped the positions of the two characters.

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Some might consider this an homage to the original. A friend of mine, in discussing The Force Awakens, called it alt-universe mirroring. I call it bullshit, and lazy bullshit at that.

Now, Into Darkness was not intended to be a prequel to any of the older Star Trek movies, so I can buy into the alt-universe idea a bit. But The Force Awakens is Ep VII of a saga. It is not an alt-universe but the same freaking universe 30 years later.

An homage is the holographic chess set. An homage is NOT a beat-for-beat repetition of Ep IV, even if jumbled up a little bit and with a few scenes from Ep V and Ep VI thrown in.

The spell of childhood memories faded rapidly as The Force Awakens played out on the screen, and I spent much of movie sitting with an attitude of “Really?”

And as I walked home from the theatre…a 40-minute walk…I just got angrier and angrier as the volume and sheer audacity of the parallels continued to sink in.

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

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“You’re pretty bang on, but it’s what I was expecting,” explained a friend whose ear I bent. “It’s the old ‘the same, but different’.”

“I saw it more as a mirroring of the previous six films; a device to draw in new fans and satiate old fans,” another friend said.

I call bullshit…not of my friends, you understand, but of the idea that The Force Awakens needed to remind us of the saga up to now or reinvigorate fans.

Please, how could anything from the Star Wars saga fail to draw box office records?

I know I’m in the minority here. Most fans won’t clue into any of the parallels but instead simply wrap themselves in the old familiar or marvel at the new spectacle. Cool, I am glad they enjoyed the film.

Even I will likely see it again as my first viewing was in regular 3D—strange to think of that as a thing—and not in IMAX or AVX.

And as much as I would buy Henry IV, Part Three if Shakespeare wrote a sequel to his first two Henry IVs, I will eventually add this movie to my Star Wars collections.

But J. J. Abrams is on my shit list, and I will approach any of his future movies with suspicion and cynicism.

And that, more than anything, I am saddest about.

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InterOkay – review of Interstellar

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I can forgive writer-director-producer Chris Nolan for naming his movie Interstellar as few would be inclined to go see a movie entitled InterOkay and yet, that is what I thought of the movie. It was okay.

Not brilliant. Not amazing. Not a cinema-changing moment. Just okay.

Set in the near future, the Earth has suffered through a variety of crop blights and other unnamed disasters that has humanity at the brink of extinction. As one school principal puts it, the human race has become a caretaker generation, simply trying to manage the status quo in the hopes that something better might show up later.

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Drop into this failed world the character of failed-astronaut now failing farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who struggles to protect his family—dutiful son, frustrated pre-scientist daughter, sage father-in-law—from the ravages of dust storms and drought. Through a series of odd events, driven by daughter Murphy, Cooper learns of a mission to explore planets in other galaxies in hopes of finding a new home for humanity. They will get there via a wormhole that suddenly appears near Saturn, sent by a mysterious ‘They’.

To get deeper into the plot of the movie here would be to trip all over spoilers and I don’t want to do that. It would also require that I better understand the various plot points, which would likely take a second or third viewing…call me when Interstellar makes it to Netflix.

In an acknowledged homage to every movie that has come before it—Grapes of Wrath meets Top Gun meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets The Right Stuff meets Waterworld meets Prometheus meets The Black Hole meets…you get the idea—Nolan and his cowriter brother Jonathan Nolan have woven together a vision of human spirit that is broad in scope, deep in meaning and soul-defining in spirit. Or at least that seemed to be their intention.

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

On paper, the most meaningful speeches seem to come across as cliché, trite or in the most offensive cases, Pablum. And it is only because the Nolan boys have put these speeches into the mouths of some great actors—e.g., John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain—that the movie is not laughed off the screen. Only actors of this quality could breathe life into these leaden lines and hoary speeches.

For me, possibly the worst example of this is scientist-cum-astronaut Amelia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) attempt to explain love as a higher dimension of existence, as something that transcends space and time and should thus be counted as at least an equal in making logistical decisions. I’m not saying that her argument is wrong (or right) but rather that the material comes across as angst-riddled teen melodrama, made all the worse because it’s coming out of the mouth of an adult.

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Where I have to give the movie massive credit, however, is in the visual treatments. (Thank you, Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.)

This is a visually stunning film where each image is inspired. You feel parched while witnessing the death of the American heartland and your eyes itch with the approaching dust storm. The other worlds are crafted with such realism that you sense the dampness or the cold. And for all its darkness, a black hole seems anything but black.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the story line challenging in some respects because it felt like the Nolans wrote a relatively short screenplay and then every time they asked someone to read it, they were asked “Yeah, but what about…?”

At least three times during the film, I caught myself thinking that this must be the end, only to have Nolan scream “plot twist” and have the movie spiral in another direction to tie up a loose end. Even as the credits rolled, I had the sneaking suspicion they would get half-way done and we’d have more scenes.

And the very last scene before the credits was either “Oh shit, we forgot about…” or was a ham-fisted attempt to set up the sequel (of which I have heard nothing).

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As friend and fellow blogger Danny F. Santos suggested to me recently, he thought the movie might have been better served by converting it to a mini-series and I can definitely see his point. Some aspects of the film seemed rushed, despite its lengthy running time of 169 minutes. (Danny’s blog)

Given the importance of the replacement Earths to the conceit of the story, however, amazingly little time was spent on these worlds. I appreciate that the Nolans may not have wanted to make it longer, but that just lends credibility to Danny’s idea (or they could have done a Peter Jackson-Hobbit impersonation).

To their credit, the Nolan boys have woven an incredible tapestry of plots and subplots, tapping into several deep questions about humanity, the explorer’s heart, interpersonal commitment, abandonment, the purpose of science and complicity in our own demise.

Unfortunately, they used so many strings that they seem to have suddenly found themselves with a lot of loose ends that they either tied off with a bow or tied to another string. For the latter of those methods, I am confident that they wanted me to experience a revelatory “Oooooh!” but too often I was left with a confused “Eh?”

For all my issues with plot points and dialogue, however, I do have to admit that the movie passed my butt test. At no point did I find myself squirming uncomfortably. As the credits rolled, I found myself comfortably rested and satisfyingly entertained.

Unfortunately, for a movie of the scale and scope of Interstellar, “rested” and “entertained” are an indictment, not praise.