Arrival – A Movie Review

I could keep this review pretty simple by saying this is one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite some time and it also brought me to tears.

Not enough for you?  Okay, I’ll keep going.

The premise of Arrival is that twelve alien ships have arrived across the planet’s surface.  The ships are monolithic.  They look like giant rocks.  They defy every preconceived notion of “space ship” that we have previously employed.  Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics and written communication expert.  She is recruited by the military to take point on trying to talk with the aliens.  Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly, and he’s a mathematician partnered up with Banks to try to make sense of what the visitors want from humanity.

This is a quiet, understated film with almost quaint special effects when compared to all the star wars and super heroics we’ve witnessed.  Though technically science fiction, the movie deeply explores the ideas of time and space, communication, the modes by which we communicate and how that influences communication in and of itself, and ultimately the human condition (hence, the crying).

I appreciate this movie because it introduced fresh takes on old ideas.  Yes, we’ve seen movies about aliens landing on our planet and humans trying to figure out what they want.  But I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a movie quite this personal.  I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a movie with a linguist actually explaining important ideas about oral and written communication.  At one point, Louise actually begins to diagram a sentence.  On screen.  For several minutes.

The film also defied expectations in regards to the aliens themselves.  It recognized that life forms existing outside of our planetary environment would likely look, act, and sound nothing like us.  To even assume an alien would have eyes, a nose, ears, or a mouth in the conventional sense is awfully presumptuous on our part.  To believe that aliens will speak the way we do and write the way we do is probably childish.

Nuanced, touching, smart, though-provoking, and beautifully executed, I could easily see Arrival earning a “Best Picture” win.  It’s that good, albeit unobtrusively so.  I absolutely recommend this movie to anyone who loves a good story.

At this point, I’m going to discuss some issues concerning the movie that will unquestionably ruin it for you if you haven’t yet seen it.  I implore you to watch it now and come back to finish this piece if so inclined.  Do not forge ahead without having seen the movie, though, I implore you.

Last warning.

Arrival delved into some very serious aspects of the human condition.  It demanded we investigate the philosophical aspects of love versus duty, happiness versus heartbreak, selfishness versus selflessness.  In the end, I drew the conclusion that there is no real distinction.  We endure all of those things all the time, just as the aliens existed perpetually at all times outside of our own space and time continuum.

The movie broke my heart in the beginning when it seemed that Louise previously lost her daughter to illness.  Juxtaposing the line “Come back to me” when the child is born and then when the child dies reduced me to tears.  But when we learn that Hannah is not of the past, but rather of the future, Louise’s plight becomes all the more heart-rending.

When Louise ultimately grasps the visitors’ language, she gains their ability to access consciousness throughout an entire existence.  This gift from the aliens allows Louise the knowledge necessary to help the world avoid catastrophe, but it also informs Louise as to her exact future, and that her future daughter will die an awful death.  She learns that Ian will be the father of that child, and that Hannah’s terminal illness will drive husband and wife apart.  Yet, she chooses to love.  She opts to hang on to the fleeting moments she knows she will have with both Ian and Hannah.  She decides the time she has with Hannah will be all the more precious with the awareness she’s been granted.

For her to take on that pain, to accept a child’s death, to willingly endure such calamity … it drove me to tears.  I can’t lie—I hid in the shower and wept like a baby.  I can’t imagine ever having to make such a decision … Yet, Louise chose love.

However, today, as I kept thinking about the movie, I grew angry at Louise.  There’s a moment in the film when Louise is explaining to Hannah why Ian is looking at his daughter differently (this is after they’ve separated).  Louise explains that Ian is angry because she made a decision without his involvement.  We’re to presume that when Louise accepted her future, when she reciprocated Ian’s love, she did not tell him that this would lead to a child that was destined to die far too young.  I think withholding that sort of information would detract any marriage.  So I became angry with Louise.  First and foremost, I disliked her for being so selfish—for choosing to enjoy the brief time she has with Hannah rather than to never experience Hannah at all.  Hannah never had a choice.  (Nor do any of our children.  They are all the victims and/or beneficiaries of circumstance.)  For her to put Hannah through such torment … to thrust her child into a broken home and a terminal illness … it made me furious.  Also, to make that choice on Ian’s behalf and to preclude him from having a voice in the matter … that upset me as well.

Can you tell I’m a father of two children whom I love more than anything in this world?

However, upon further reflection I realized Louise never had a choice at all.  I say this for two reasons.  The first reason is simpler than the second, and it is the fact that if she didn’t follow through with the prescribed future revealed to her then she would not have gained the knowledge that she used in the moment of the film’s story to circumvent disaster with the Chinese and the visitors.  Each moment of the future exposed to her must occur in order for the present to survive.  Without the present, there will be no future.  She never truly had a choice.  She chose her own suffering, Hannah’s suffering, and Ian’s suffering, rather than make the world suffer.

Yet, the second reason negates the first.  The visitors say they have a weapon for us, which they actually intend to mean “gift.”  They say they will give us this gift so that in 3,000 years we can help them in return.  For the aliens, our perception of linear time has no value.  They live outside the notion of our “beginning, middle, and end” time stream.  Like their language, everything is happening, has happened, and will happen at the exact same moment.  They see all, know all, and experience all in the same moment.  Keeping that in mind, once Louise attained their unrestricted sense of perception, she lost all power of choice.  Future Louise exists in tandem with present Louise, which makes the latter powerless to change the course of the former.  I suppose some would call it a sort of “predestination.”  When looked upon through that lens, I cannot be angry with Louise any more than I can be angry with my own future self.  My only advantage is that I have no idea what glory or tragedy awaits, whereas Louise knows exactly what’s in store for her.

It’s been awhile since a film moved me as much as Arrival.  I hope it means as much to you as well.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

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La La Land – A Movie Review

You’ve probably seen La La Land by now, but just in case you haven’t, I’m here to tell you it’s a fun movie.  It’s a great date movie.  Also, there’s no denying the sheer charisma of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.  It’s impossible not to like them individually.  Together, they are a force.

But does it live up to the hype?  After all, according to IMDB, it’s won 153 awards out of 218 nominations, and that’s just so far.  We’ve still got the Academy Awards coming up.

Well, to be honest, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Allow me to explain before you “x” out of here with extreme prejudice.   Like I said, it’s a really enjoyable movie.  My wife and I had a great time seeing it together.  It’s rare there is a movie playing that we are equally enthusiastic to view.  Both of us, though, didn’t quite understand the rave reviews.

La La Land is a modern day throwback to a bygone era.  It wears its heart on its sleeve in that regard.  Jazz is an extended metaphor for the movie itself, and just as Gosling’s character must realize that Jazz needs to be reinvented in order to survive, this movie seems to be trying to do the same with the musical comedy.  But, here’s the thing, very little in this movie is a surprise.  You’ve seen it all before, especially in the old classics that it yearns to emulate.  For a movie that tries to bring to light the importance of originality, it’s awfully traditional.

Here’s what really troubles me – this is a love letter to Hollywood.  If La La Land wins Best Picture, I’ll argue it’s for the exact same reason Birdman won … Hollywood loves itself.  There are so many references to old Hollywood in this film—visually, in the dialogue, even in the story beats.  I imagine it will win Best Picture, but in the same way the coach’s kid wins MVP at the end of the season.  Hollywood always votes for Hollywood.

Yikes.  It sounds like I didn’t like the movie, but I really did find it very engaging.

Yet I can’t lie.  I love Emma Stone, but her character came off as fairly cliché.  We have the “damsel in distress” moment when she only decides to forge ahead after the gallant knight sacrifices himself.  Her character remained inconsistent through the whole film.  One minute she is a rock of fortitude, the next she’s throwing in the towel.  So much of her storyline is totally dependent on Gosling’s.

Gosling got a little meatier role than Stone (shocker), but even his character struck me as more “cool” than “complex.”  I liked him, but some of his choices made no sense to me, especially near the end of the film.  I won’t spoil it, but there was definitely a point where I asked myself, “Um … why not?  Go ahead and go!”  Everything he does is for Mia, until it isn’t.  Or is it?  Wait, what?

The camera work proved really amusing, and there were moments I caught myself laughing at nothing particularly funny, just in delight at the interesting angles and viewpoints.  I also loved the singing, though neither Stone nor Gosling are fantastic singers (as they are the first to admit).  The dancing certainly stole the show.  I loved the little moments Stone and Gosling danced together.  Here’s the problem, for a musical, there wasn’t a ton of singing, and there wasn’t enough dancing.  I really could have gone for a lot more singing and dancing!  (I can’t believe I just typed that.)  The last third of the film got quite a bit more into the drama of their relationship and the singing, dancing, and fresh camerawork faded into the background. And, as I said, that whole relationship story of theirs has been done many, many times.  The last third of the film lost a lot of steam.

La La Land is overrated.

And before you tell me to back off, it’s just a musical, let me remind you that this movie is nominated for Best Picture against films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester By the Sea, Arrival, and Hell Or High Water.  You can’t play the “just a musical” card in that kind of company with that kind of competition.  Against pictures like those, La La Land seems to be a reproduction of past glory, a retread done with all the new effects.  It’s good, yes, very good, but is it great?  Is it the best?

All right, I’ll be blunt.  I mean, if you’re still around by this point, you must be willing to humor me.  Like with Birdman, I can’t decide if La La Land is a copy, a love letter, a fresh take on an old style, a tongue in cheek piece of metafiction, or just the creators trying to be clever.  I don’t know, and that’s what bothers me.  When I say this movie has been done before, the creators can say, “Well, it’s meant to be nostalgic, a love letter if you will to old Hollywood.”  I don’t like that, because they’ve always got a cop out at the ready.  It’s like they were hedging their bets a bit with La La Land.  They’re not dumb—they knew what they had with the chemistry between Stone and Gosling.  They knew those two guaranteed a hit.  If the critics hated it, they could say, “We’re simply paying homage to those films that inspired us!”

That sort of ambiguity irritates me.

Furthermore, that ending.  This is slightly “spoiler” territory, so you may want to stop now …

I’ll give you time to walk away …

Still here?

Of course you are.  My wife and I are the last two people to see this thing …

Without giving it all away, there is a brief montage of “what could have been,” and through the whole thing I thought to myself, “Wow, I much rather would have seen this as the ending.”  Maybe some feel that’s the whole point, but I think that the movie had a real chance to break out on its own if it had gone down the imagined path.  So much about the actual ending makes no sense to me at all in terms of characterization.  So much of the ending has already been done many, many times.  That alternate ending would have been a fresh resolution to a clichéd tale.

Astonishingly, I do recommend La La Land.  For the most part it charmed and regaled me.  I’d actually recommend it even more if it wasn’t receiving all of these awards.  I think I’d be less critical of it if that proved the case.  As it stands, though, I just can’t get past this movie being about how wonderful and heartbreaking show business can be and Hollywood lapping it up and saying it’s the best thing this year.  It all seems far too self-serving.

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An Open, Encouraging Letter To Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck, the rumors are swirling that you want to give up playing Batman.  Please don’t.

The Internet can be a beautiful, wonderful place full of information, inspiration, and innovation.  Unfortunately, it can also be a putrid pit of negativity.  It certainly seems as though only those with vile complaints take the time to make their voices heard on the Web.

Well, Ben Affleck, it’s time to spread some positivity.

I’m a lifelong Bat-fan.  As a forty-year-old high school English teacher (and, yes, I am working on a novel—it’s mandatory), Batman has been a constant in my life since 1980.  For the English teachers out there, that’s thirty-seven years.

I’ve enjoyed Batman teaming up with Scooby-Doo, I loved the Super Friends, Adam West will always hold a special place in my heart, Michael Keaton and Tim Burton blew my mind, The Animated Series proved itself a masterpiece, Frank Miller scared me while aweing me, Val Kilmer didn’t scar me, George Clooney kinda did, and then Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan took Batman someplace both old and new in a way that felt important.

But you, Ben Affleck, you’re doing something that’s never been done before.  You are laying the groundwork for a cinematic Batman that must play with others.  No one else had the guts to do what you guys are doing.  No one else dared put Batman’s dark costume on the same screen as the Flash’s, Wonder Woman’s, or Superman’s only slighter less dark costume.  You dared take Batman back to his vigilante roots, and you are brave enough to depict his evolution not only into a team player, but the heart and soul of the Justice League.  Batman has endured a long and illustrious cinematic life, but you are truly breaking new ground.

I know the trolls have been really tough on you.  I understand you are sick and tired of fielding questions about a movie you haven’t even started filming yet.  I recognize that the expectations are impossible to meet.  In the here and now, you have a thankless job.  But please keep the big picture in mind.  You have a vision for where you want to take this character.  You see the end result, though it may be years away.  In time, people will appreciate you and your efforts.  You will win over the haters, trust me.

How do I know this, Ben Affleck?  I’m a diehard Batman fan, and you won me over immediately.  I am being totally honest when I say that I loved Batman v Superman.  I acknowledge it as the initial step in a marathon.   Of course Batman and Superman wouldn’t get along at first!  But, with his death, Batman realizes the great ally he’s lost, and with Superman’s eventual return, both men will recognize even further the good they can do.  In a way, Justice League will echo The Lego Batman Movie – Batman is ultimately a family man.   The orphan always builds his own family.  He has an army of Robins and a multiverse of teammates.  The aloof Dark Knight is nothing of the sort.  You are depicting the advancement of a brooding cynical man believing in heroes again and leading those heroes to a better tomorrow.  In the end, everyone will see that.

So, please, don’t step away.  Don’t interrupt the journey you’ve begun.  Anytime you’re feeling blue, get in touch and I’ll build you back up.  Want to know why you’re my third favorite Batman?  (Sorry, you’ve yet to top Adam West and Michael Keaton.  You’ve got to win over my inner child with those two guys and I just don’t know if that’s possible.)  First of all, you’re big, man.  I mean, you’re a really big dude.  Batman is also a big dude.  And, please don’t take this the wrong way, but you can deliver the smug, arrogant Batman/Bruce Wayne for which we’ve all been pining.  There’s an intelligence behind your eyes that make us believe this is the world’s greatest detective.  You ooze charm, both with the mask on and off.  You can look intimidating as hell one minute, and then project a heart-breaking inner turmoil the next.  You’re able to take every dimension of Batman that we love and combine it into your performance.  Furthermore, you’ve got great chemistry with Gal Gadot, and Batman must always have chemistry with Wonder Woman.  It’s geek law.

Ignore the hate, Ben Affleck. Persevere.  Know that you’ve really struck a chord with Bat-fans everywhere.  Sadly, as a society, we’re slow to heap praise.  Well, I’m heapin’, baby!  I believe in your vision, your performance, and your interpretation.  I believe, in the end, you will be the Batman for generations to come.

Of course, this could all just be a power play to gain leverage on the studio for some reason.  In which case, I wish you luck.  Whatever the case may be, my sentiments remain unchanged!

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The Lego Batman Movie – A Movie Review

Lego Batman is the equivalent of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report.  Much of Lego Batman’s humor derives from the fact that he absolutely believes he is the epitome of all things awesome, and, like Colbert, he’s not afraid to say it.

Can that sort of humor sustain a complete movie?  Yes … and no.

On the one hand, this “I’m a bad ass and I know it” Batman continued what he started in The Lego Movie.  His egocentric, egotistical personality provided joke after joke after joke until … it wasn’t funny anymore.  And that’s when the movie shifted gears slightly.  If you are even the slightest bit familiar with Batman, you know what Robin, Alfred, and even Batgirl come to mean to Batman, and that’s what ultimately sustained the final act of the film.  Is the ending as poignant as The Lego Movie?  No, not by a long shot.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t see The Lego Batman Movie.  I took my two daughters (8 and 4) and they enjoyed it even more than I did.  As a Lego Batman fan, you will love the silliness of it all.  There is over-the-top action, tons of fun Lego vehicles, more classic Batman villains than you can imagine, and even some unexpected antagonists from other popular Warner Brother franchises, all in their Lego glory.  And, like The Lego Movie, this Lego Batman does not pretend to be anything other than what he is—an awesome Lego minifigure.  Don’t come here looking for Christian Bale or Ben Affleck.

However, that’s not to say The Lego Batman Movie does not acknowledge its source material … ALL … of its source material.  It managed to poke fun at every iteration of the cinematic Batman ever, and I do mean ever.  (True Batman fans are thinking back to the old serial days, and yes, they went there.)  They struck a great balance, though, of poking fun at Batman’s long history without making fun of Batman.  Amidst the insanity, it all felt very tenderhearted.  I got the impression that the filmmakers love Batman just as much as we do.

Will Arnett manages to perform a feat of alchemy by combining GOB  from Arrested Development and Stephen Colbert to create the sound and persona of Lego Batman.  His gravelly voice is perfect for the role, and his deadpan delivery is always hilarious.  He just sounds so convinced that he is awesome.

Michael Cera actually managed to avoid sounding like George Michael Bluth, also from Arrested Development, which was a welcome change.  His Robin utilized a naiveté and unblemished joy that made the character endearing.  I’m not sure if Dick Grayson fans are crazy about this interpretation of the original Robin, but we live in a world now where we all get the kind of Batman we want.  More on that later.

Rosario Dawson did well with Barbara Gordon, though I wouldn’t say she made it her own in any significant way.  I could say the same of Ralph Fiennes as Alfred.

I loved the cameos originated in The Lego Movie of Channing Tatum as Superman and Jonah Hill as Green Lantern.  In fact, if you’re an old school Super Friends fan, prepare to be briefly delighted.

Zach Galifianakis actually disappointed me a bit with his Joker role, but only because it was pretty straightforward.  After Hamill’s iconic take on Joker’s voice from the animated series, as well as Ledger and Leto’s unique approaches, Galifianakis really didn’t do anything to stand out.  They tried to explore the Joker/Batman relationship in an interesting way, but I couldn’t ever quite figure out if they were being sincere with it or trying to make us laugh at the homoerotic subtext.  (This is usually reserved for the Batman/Robin dynamic, but they thankfully worked hard to avoid that old nugget.)

It should be noted that several other actors really got a chance to shine with their cameo voices, even if only fleetingly.  Some of the casting proved really funny, such as with Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face, Doug Benson further mastering Bane, and Ellie Kemper getting the best role of all (which will be kept top-secret).

Like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie barrages you with constant visual stimulation.  It actually started wearing on me after a while.  It’s probably me, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but these movies give you a lot to look at constantly without mercy.  There is literally an onslaught of moving parts.

I’d also like to say that I love that we live in a world where we can have several different Batmans existing all at once.  We’ve got Ben Affleck’s Batman, we’ve got a resurgence of Adam West’s Batman, we have video game Batman, we have Justice League Action Batman, and that’s not even getting into all of the past animated, television, and cinematic versions.  There is truly a Batman for everyone, but none are as funny as Lego Batman.  He is the humorous version we’ve been waiting a long, long time to see.  My gosh—it’s nice to see Batman smile again.

Do I recommend you see The Lego Batman Movie?  Absolutely, especially if you’re looking for a family excursion.  It is very funny, to be sure.  It will tickle the historians with all of the obscure references, it will charm the uninitiated with the bawdy, ridiculous humor, and the action will keep the kids glued to the screen.  But it’s not perfect.  I found myself getting impatient for the end to arrive, which tried to achieve the uplifting note of its predecessor.  It missed the mark in that regard because the finale did not prove especially original or surprising.  All in all, though, a fun movie outing for the family.  My oldest daughter says it’s her new favorite film.  Of course, she says that about every new movie she sees …

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Meet Me At Graham Crackers Comics On February 18th

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It is my distinct honor to appear at Graham Crackers Comics in Normal, IL, on Saturday, February 18th.  I’ll deliver a brief talk entitled “We Can Be Heroes!” followed by a reading from my science fiction novel, Andropia.

If you have not yet visited Graham Crackers, this is the perfect opportunity.  I am consistently impressed with the clean, friendly atmosphere and the incredibly helpful staff.  This will be a family friendly event, so bring the kids!

Hope to see you there, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Learn more about Graham Crackers Comics HERE.