Happy Death Day: Movie Man Jackson

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is birthday time for “Tree” (Jessica Rothe), a college student and sorority girl who pretty much epitomizes the worst of those stereotypes. She’s awaken from a drunken night in the bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), an old classmate. So college.

Her birthday takes her through the basic minutiae of any other day: Walks across campus, house meetings with her equally witchy sorority members, and a visit to see her professor for after-hours study. Being her birthday, it culminates with her going out to celebrate…only she doesn’t make it because she’s slain by a masked buck-toothed, baby-faced assailant.

But the next day, Tree wakes up—in the same bed of Carter’s—to the same alarm. The cycle repeats itself, with Tree dying again and again and again to the same assailant. To get to tomorrow, she’s got to solve the mystery as to why someone wants to kill her and possibly reexamine herself while doing so.

Starting like every other piece that will be posted, you can’t watch Happy Death Day without thinking about Groundhog Day. The time loop narrative is well-worn at this point, but at the same time, it is a narrative that honestly always seems to have some juice. Throw in a murder mystery with repeating the same day over and over, and Happy Death Day makes for a perfectly enjoyable movie that doesn’t care to ascend to lofty heights but rather content to be a fun, in-the-moment diversion of time.

Blumhouse Productions, the predominantly horror movie studio which sometimes whiffs and other times knocks grand slams with its horror movies (but always does so on a budget designed to maximize profit) is the home of Happy Death Day. Fright-wise, their latest installment pales in comparison to their own recent productions such as Get Out and Split. Happy Death Day itself is only a horror for, say, the first 30 minutes of runtime. While there are some extremely basic yet passably effective jump scares set up by director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Happy Death Day evolves more into a mystery/thriller and even comedy the longer it goes on.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds. Horror-wise the PG-13 rating, in this case, does sanitize any substantial scares that could have been present (the trailer did no favors, either). On the mystery front, however, Landon and writer Scott Lobdell do present enough characters with legitimate motivations to offing Tree to keep the audience guessing until the actual reveal. The reveal itself, even for a film that is as self-aware as this, is a little underwhelming and even disappointing. But as it is often said, the journey is better than the destination. A caveat, though: Like Groundhog Day, do not expect any proper explanation as to why this day repeats.

Like that film, the day existed to serve as a redemption of sorts for its lead character. The same approach follows here. Despite the short runtime, writer and director do a good job in delving into Tree’s backstory and allowing her to grow organically in the midst of a bizarre scenario. This allows lead actress Jessica Rothe to showcase her burgeoning talent. Rothe does a lot, transforming from insufferable to comedic to emotional and bringing the audience in and along each moment of the way. She pairs nicely with the likable Israel Broussard; their friendship creating an unforeseen emotional aspect that keeps Happy Death Day enough on the straight and narrow path and providing Tree a reason worth living for. As for the rest of the cast, most fall into sometimes entertaining but mostly par-for-the-course side characters who slide in and out as the pieces in Tree’s day of death are altered.

 

In a specific subgenre in which every movie always gets compared to the Bill Murray original classic, Happy Death Day doesn’t reinvent the loop. But, it does add a fun wrinkle or two within it.

B-

Photo credits go to joblo.com, newsweek.com, and commonsensemedia.org.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Wind River: Movie Man Jackson

Welcome to Wyoming. Wind River, to be exact. In this Indian Reservation lies a lot of cold, snowy weather and a constant air of misery for many who live here. US Fish and Wildlife Service agent/tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is called on to look into a situation that involves local cattle being killed by another predator. Upon his investigation, Lambert stumbles upon a frozen corpse, a corpse that wasn’t prepared for the harsh outside elements. Foul play is suspected.

The corpse is identified as Natalie Hanson, an 18 year-old resident of the reservation. Now a murder mystery, FBI rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called into the Wyoming setting to investigate. Ill-prepared for Wind River, Banner must rely on her instincts and the guile of Lambert to solve this case and bring justice to Natalie and her remaining family.

It’s clear that the modern day Western genre bears little resemblance to the Westerns of yesteryear inhabited by John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and the like. Instead, today’s movies that could be classified as Westerns take inspiration from that genre but homogenize with others; think SicarioHell or High Water, and now Wind River. All three of these movies share a common tie: the writing credit of Taylor Sheridan. With Wind River, Sheridan gets the opportunity to direct what he writes. The result is a crime feature that doesn’t quite match the brilliance of his most recent writing, but shows more than enough to see Sheridan mentioned in the same future conversation as his directing contemporaries.

Wind River is a little bit of a slow burn—almost agonizingly so—at least in the early going. Sheridan’s first act introduces a few details, but overall, it seems to serve as an environment setup more than real story setup. However, Wind River does kick into gear around the time the awesome Gil Birmingham comes into the frame. Unlike his somewhat light character in Hell or High Water, Birmingham plays a somber, detached Native American father trying to cope with what happened to his daughter. From here, the straightforward story finds its groove.

While not as thematically complex as his prior work, Sheridan uses Wind River, inspired by true events, to shine light on—albeit not without legitimate white hero controversy—many Native American reservations and the hopelessness/negligence that they may carry. They may not resemble the traditional looking ghettos, but the mental and draining effect this environment has on many of the movie’s characters is entirely the same, pushing them towards bad things or paralyzing inaction.

The environment is more of a living and breathing character than almost all in the movie. Technically, Sheridan isn’t perfect yet; some aforementioned early pacing issues exist. A prolonged flashback, although filling in what exactly happened, sort of comes out of nowhere. But, an old-fashioned Mexican standoff that evolves into a big set piece, and a mid-movie suspect visit stand as some of the year’s most tension-drenched moments.

Wind River does come up short in one half of the lead character department. That’s no indictment on Elizabeth Olsen, she makes the most of what is presented to her and carries enough chemistry with Jeremy. This is Renner’s movie, however, and credit goes to Sheridan for writing a very detailed lead in Cory Lambert with gradual backstory revealed that draws the audience closer to his personal journey. It would have been easy for Renner to play this as a Liam Neeson knockoff, but Renner doesn’t, instead opting for a realistic and everyman approach. He’s a cowboy without the gusto, but a believer in frontier justice. His work here is a reminder that Renner’s is more than just a 2nd team Avenger.

The water isn’t particularly deep or 100% purified in Wind River. But ultimately, it is compelling as a simple pseudo-Western crime feature.

B

Photo credits go to collider.com, cinemavine.com, and bleedingcool.com.

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Atomic Blonde: Movie Man Jackson

How…does it..feel? Cold. As in the Cold War, the year being 1989. In Berlin, the war is winding down, but political unrest is winding up. After a high-ranking secret agent is killed in the streets, the MI6 sends in their best, agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). Her mission is to track down Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson), who not only killed agent Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), but is in possession of a list that is trouble for everyone who doesn’t have it.

To retrieve it, she’s paired with station agent chief David Percival (James McAvoy). The two must traverse the shady, seedy city of Berlin to prevent major worldly damage from occurring. But in the world of espionage, no one can ever truly be trusted, and everyone knows more than they’re letting on.

There are some movies that earn their keep almost entirely on one scene. In Atomic Blonde, that one scene is an amazing stairwell fight scene that rivals some of the best American action movie scenes in recent memory, namely, John Wick’s red circle club shootout, that movie being co-directed by David Leitch. He’s on his own here, and in this one scene, it’s tightly constructed, highly unpredictable, and impeccably choreographed. Honestly, it along with the production is probably worth the price of admission alone. That doesn’t absolve the rest of the movie from its mild-at-best storytelling and script. But Atomic Blonde brings enough hot aspects to offset them ever so slightly.

Atomic Blonde is bathed in style from the get-go, employing a cool and neon-hued color palette that makes the locale of Berlin and that of its many hotspots pop off the screen. Based on a graphic novel known as The Coldest City, Leitch seems to draw inspiration from that medium in the way some scenes are shot and presented. In addition to the technical achievements, this film features a moody, industrial score by composer Tyler Bates (yet again, another John Wick connection) and an easy-listening, new-wave/synth pop soundtrack. He even manages to craft a central theme that will surely be used in any subsequent sequels.

And yet, Atomic Blonde’s probably closer to being a bad movie than a great one. At least script-wise. The espionage plot can more or less be summarized by “everyone twists everyone.” Even the characters who are rarely seen, if at all, are twisting everything. Leitch uses an interrogation by an unreliable narrator that frames the events of the story. At times this method works, but other times, little is added, or rather, the natural flow of the story is broken. A conventional telling would likely make things more comprehensible.

With multiple watches, it is a possibility that the numerous pieces, curveballs, and turns fit better and make some sense. Problem is with Atomic Blonde, it’s hard to actually want to go back and immerse into this world any deeper than surface-level. Watching an espionage movie already conditions the viewer (or at least, yours truly) to distance themselves from the characters who make up it. If everything is going to be flipped on its head, what’s the point of getting invested into anything or anyone?

Still, there’s a ton of talent on hand in the film that keeps it afloat. Charlize Theron, of course, can do it all. A dangerous and debonair dame, she’s perfectly cast in the role of Lorraine. An ass-kicker, but takes her share of getting her ass kicked, strong, yet vulnerable. Her dynamic with James McAvoy, having mass amounts of fun being a complete wild card, is compelling. Due to the twisty nature of the genre, however, no characters are given much weight; everyone is disposable to some degree. John Goodman and Toby Jones, while nice to see on screen, play roles anyone could play as nothing is asked of them. Outside of Lorraine and Percival and maybe Delphine (Sofia Boutella), all other characters might as well be a jumbled mass of indiscernible people who sound the same with similar-sounding names.

Looking for a brunette or redhead? Go elsewhere. Atomic Blonde is light and ditzy on characterization and solid storytelling, but high on direction and sensory fun. Blondes do have more fun.

C+

Photo credits go to cinemavine.com and landmarkcinemas.com

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It Comes At Night: Movie Man Jackson

So…what is It? Whatever it is, it’s best to stay inside. The world has suffered some unknown catastrophe, one in which it is easy for people to contract some mysterious disease that reduces individuals to a gray, sickly, unresponsive zombie-like state. Living in the woods is a family of three—patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), matriarch Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr). They only go out when absolutely necessary, and rarely at night.

The whole structure of the family gets thrown out of consistency when an intruder, Will (Christopher Abbott) comes into the family’s home. After initial distrust, Paul and company show Will hospitality when it’s determined all he’s looking for is a little food and shelter for his own family—wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). However, hospitality eventually turns into hostility when doubt begin to creep into each person’s head as to how safe they ultimately are. Whatever’s out there at night isn’t comparable to what’s going on in this home.

It Comes At Night. Surely, that means that there’s something in this film that terrorizes the main characters at night, right? Well…not exactly. The latest feature from the little studio that could in A24 has become quite the polarizing one, critics appreciating it yet audiences being let down by it, evidenced by a “D” Cinemascore. Is it deserving of all of this audience criticism, much of it seemingly founded on bait and switch trailers?

From a production standpoint, It Comes At Night is damn impressive, possibly even spectacular. Sophomore director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) clearly is a rising name in the genre of horror, possessing a great eye and technique for all that unnerves. And it isn’t blood and gore and demons and whatnot. Along with cinematographer Drew Daniels, the most unforgettable moments are ones like where only an electric lamp illuminates the path that Travis walks through in the isolated cabin, and lingering shots of an ominous red door. Plenty of long and methodical takes exist in this movie that only amp up the claustrophobia, along with a minimalist score courtesy of composer Brian McOmber.

It Comes At Night comes from a very personal place and experiences of of writer/director Shults. The underlying trepidation, and general unease of how the two families—almost tribe-like—interact with each other comes from personal experiences and inspirations of its director. It feels fresh. Humanity is the main question posed with a family dynamic essentially asking “How far would you go to save yours?” “Can a person go too far in doing so?” The ending, much talked about, works for me when looking at it through the prism of family and sticking by one another. Hopefully without spoiling, I compare it to a parent who deep down knows their kid is wrong in some matter, but refusing to believe so despite all of the evidence points against him or her.

All that being said, It Comes At Night is a mystery that mostly does well in leaving matters up to the viewer. This is a world that the characters know little about, as do we as the audience. Still, the storytelling and details deliberately left out can sometimes be frustrating. Certain plot points are introduced, but never go anywhere beyond their initial introduction. Some of the final act comes off as a little too vague and shapeless. Not a complete detriment to the film, but, even just one to two more moments of clarity for these respective parts in the film would be beneficial to the finale.

The cast works wonders together. Joel Edgerton is rapidly becoming one of those actors who can seemingly do no wrong, gravitating to smaller, ambiguous pictures. He’s a forceful alpha father presence in this one, who co-exists with Christopher Abbott, also playing an alpha patriarch. Scenes the two share together are full of tension. Can’t diminish the work Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keogh, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr contribute, either. Granted, there aren’t really any character arcs or characters to really latch onto, but this isn’t a story about characters; rather, it’s about people and basic human nature when confronted with massive unknowns.

Not as completely polished as it could be, nevertheless, It Comes At Night is an overall strong, well-put together and acted feature. Freaks may not come out at night, but fear and paranoia certainly do and that’s more than enough here.

B

Photo credits go to indiewire.com, highsnobiety.com, and cinemavine.com.

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The Dinner: Movie Man Jackson

This stuff never happens during brunch. The Lohman family—politician Stan (Richard Gere), his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), Stan’s brother Paul (Steve Coogan), and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), are getting together one night for dinner at an upscale restaurant. It’s a busy time for Stan, who’s hoping to get a bill passed and retain his public office role.

But, matters need to be attended to that involve the respective sons of these families. They’ve done something that can land not only themselves in hot water, but undo all of the goodwill and public standing the Lohman family has. Over the course of a few hours, a five course meal is served, but that’s merely a backdrop for a conversation to ascertain what actions—if any—should be taken with their children.

First World Problems? White Privileged? These could also be titles for The Dinner, albeit pointed ones. Director Oren Moverman takes a look at a family in disarray, while asking some questions about parenting, affluenza, and even mental health. These are elements that could make up a compelling movie overall, but, The Dinner isn’t really so.

It’s no surprise that The Dinner is driven by dialogue. Dinner tables have often served for many uncomfortable conversations, and Moverman nails that quality very easily, using the upscale locale and dim lighting to create a stuffy atmosphere. The atmosphere, pretentious and artificial, comes to serve as the representation of the bulk of the four characters. At the actual table is where The Dinner is most intriguing and a tasty bite.

 

Whenever The Dinner leaves the table—not literally, but figuratively—is where the film loses its storytelling and structure. Based off a Dutch novel with the same name, I imagine certain plot points and moments come off better in written word compared to the silver screen. As stated, the mental health of one particular character is a pretty important piece of this film, and at times, the story is told from this character’s viewpoint.

There are a lot of prolonged flashbacks that are designed to give context to characters, but end up breaking the pace and flow. Maybe Moverman was going for a disjointed approach to mirror the mental health issues the character was having, narration is occasionally used as well, but it becomes hard to follow. One flashback in particular involving a Gettysburg memorial visit may be up there as one of the more painful scenes in recent memory, making one question why it was left in the final cut (and it goes on and on and on). The Dinner also seems to struggle a little with point of view, initially beginning with one character, but switching to another in the final act. With that said, the ending isn’t bad, but it would have been nice to see a little more aftermath of it.

The Dinner may be arriving in theaters with little fanfare, but, it does possess an impressive cast to boot. Sadly, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall can do much more than what they’re gifted with here, which essentially amounts to entitled ice queens. But, each does get a moment or two in the last act to show off their talents. Much of the meat belongs to Richard Gere and Steve Coogan. Gere should run for office; he’s easy to buy into as a politician, and is the one character out of the foursome who garners some sympathy from the viewing audience. Coogan, who may be known more for comedy in some circles, does good as darker details are revealed about his Paul. But the biggest issue may be simply finding one person to truly side with in this morality story, and no amount of solid acting can overcome this.

All of this leaves The Dinner feeling like it should have been prepared more in the kitchen before being served on a plate. Some aspects on it are tasty, but most others are overcooked/undercooked.

D+

Photo credits go to IMDB.com, YouTube.com, and Ew.com

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Phoenix Forgotten: Movie Man Jackson

Some things seen cannot be forgotten. March 13th, 1997. Bright, odd lights appear hover over Phoenix, Arizona. No one knows for sure what they are attributed to, but some in the city believe them to be UFOs.

One of those people is Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts). He, along with friend Mark (Justin Matthews), and love interest Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) decide to take it upon themselves to find out exactly what happened. But, the three go missing days after the sighting, with nary a sign as to what happened. Now in 2017, Josh’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is committed to solving the mystery of what happened to her brother and his company, going off of the documentary-style tapes that were left behind.

The most noteworthy thing about Phoenix Forgotten, a movie American moviegoers probably didn’t forget but rather, just not cared for based on the box office reports, is one of its co-producers being the legendary Ridley Scott. The producer connection seems to be in name only, going no further than an Easter egg featuring the Xenomorph on a poster. So that leaves Phoenix Forgotten as a traditional found footage movie more or less, not scraping the bottom of the genre barrel but not exactly leaving an imprint, either.

Almost any film in this genre ilk is going to be compared to The Blair Witch Project, fairly or unfairly. Really though, the story presentation of Phoenix Forgotten is a little Sinister-lite with mockumentary style injected, so not entirely found-footage delivered. In his first full-length feature, director Justin Barber toggles the first 40-50 minutes of the runtime between the present and the past, having Josh’s sister play her missing brother’s tapes and trying to piece together what exactly happened. The present-day scenes are adequate, but the fun exists (for a little while) in seeing the late 90’s recreated through the granular tapes and audio effects. To an extent, the particular story with these three teenagers does feel like it could have actually happened, which is a credit to Barber for balancing an actual real event with mostly fictional characters.

After around this 50 minute benchmark, Phoenix Forgotten transitions fully into the mode one expects it to. The film’s final act isn’t without a few thrills, but in the process ends up casting its main character/narrator aside and never brings her back. Which is odd, if only because the movie teases the question that what the audience is viewing cannot get out to the public, only for that possibility to go nowhere. As such, Phoenix Forgotten ends with a “That’s it?” type of feeling.

Barely being 80 minutes doesn’t really allow for signature character exploration. Phoenix Forgotten looks more at the idea of conspiracy obsession and the basics of how a family, especially a husband and wife, can be pulled apart after a terrible incident. Playing the father and the mother, respectively, Clint Jordan and Cyd Strittmatter do an excellent job of portraying parents who struggle to cope everyday with a missing child.

Although relatively brief, their character work is noticed. However, the four crux characters are surprisingly pretty forgettable—in part due to the lack of aforementioned runtime—but also in part because the cast playing them does so in the most bland of fashions. Outside of a few impressive moments from Chelsea Lopez, it’s hard to see anyone in this foursome getting increased high-profile work from their work here.

Even with a little of successful early movie genre subversion, Phoenix Forgotten doesn’t rise, as it eventually settles into the same repeated ashes and clichés that make up the genre it belongs to.

C

Photo credits go to comingsoon.net, buzz.affcart.com, and blastr.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Get Out: Movie Man Jackson

getoutstub

Tell em, Jojo.  Meeting the parents is always a nerve-racking moment for any couple. That time has come for Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris is Black, Allison, White. Not a big deal, but Chris, nonetheless, is nervous about what her parents may think.

Immediately upon setting foot on their estate, something doesn’t seem right. Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener), are overly accommodating to Chris to prove they are fine with their daughter dating him. And then there are the “keepers” of the land, each African-American, which looks a little suspect despite Dean giving reason why they are there. Could it all be in Chris’ head? Or is there legitimate reason for him to Get Out of this place immediately?

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No matter what color a person is, race and effects of it exist on a daily level, especially for minorities. Occasionally it is overt, but it often isn’t. The comedy sketch show Key and Peele did a lot of interesting and hilarious things, one of them being race relations and the minuteness of matters, especially from the perspective of black men. Now, first time director Jordan Peele takes a prolonged aim at black/white race relations in Get Out, using the horror/thriller genre as a lens for satire. It’s very well done as a whole, even if it falls short of top-notch greatness horror genre greatness.

In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, it’s evident from the first shot that he knows what he is doing. Key and Peele consistently featured a high level of camera work and cinematography not often befitting of a sketch comedy show, and though Peele himself never officially directed, what he was exposed to technically carries over here. He builds a bevvy of memorable scenes with minimal cuts, a harp-heavy score (fitting, actually), appropriate camera angles, and good lighting. Get Out couldn’t be called a pure horror, but for two-thirds of it, there is a real notable atmosphere and mystery (and the requisite jump scare here and there) that compels the viewer to keep watching and feel uneasy.

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From a true horror movie sense, the scares that will keep someone up at night don’t really exist in Get Out. From that sense, it is a little of a disappointment. But, it is frightening in a sense because the scenario Peele exhibits is rather spot on. It’s a fear aspect. Relating just a bit to the main character, the small things, like being the only minority in a room, representing an entire group, or people saying how much they like something to appeal to one’s emotion registers the most—well—emotionally. Serious look, but also a legitimately humorous one that utilizes a good mix of humor and thrills for much of the runtime.

But, then there’s the last act. While still very entertaining, it comes off as feeling pretty Key and Peele-ish. Less like a feature film in this part, and more of a sketch. Again, this does not take away from the film’s enjoyment—especially in a packed house—it just prevents it from being truly classic in my opinion.

There are a couple of star-making performances in Get Out. Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington is a great protagonist, written with a nice backstory. He’s asked to do a lot more than trailers and TV spots would indicate, selling the psychological toll that this place may or may not be having on him. There are some really difficult moments that Kaluuya pulls off easily. His chemistry with Allison Williams doesn’t feel cheap or forced, either. Williams, especially, does a job that may go unappreciated until after multiple watches. Tons of analysis can and will be written with regards to her.

Everyone contributes to the humor, written of course by Jordan, but don’t underestimate the delivery and timing aspects that can mar good humorous dialogue if executed poorly. Wouldn’t be surprising if Lil Rel Howery went on a Kevin Hart-esque run after this, he steals scenes whenever he’s in front of the camera. Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Keith Stanfield, and Milton Waddams himself (okay, Stephen Root) may not have big time roles, but they do not take away from the movie. They keep the focus on Kaluuya but always maintaining presence.

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A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Thankfully, Get Out doesn’t waste the viewer’s. Impeccable horror it’s not, but biting social commentary (with some horror thrills mixed in), it is.

B+

Photo credits go to BET.com, blumhouse.com, and bollywoodreads.com

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Arrival: Movie Man Jackson

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We come in peace? In peace we come? Peace we come in? They all mean different things! Out of nowhere, large opaque oblong spacecrafts come out of the sky, hovering over 12 cities across the world. They look threatening, so they had to have come to bring destruction to Earth. But, they just hover there, idly…

But idle cannot be assumed to completely mean peaceful. The fact of the matter is, someone needs to figure out what the point is of these extraterrestrials’ Arrival. That task primarily falls to linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). As both soon figure out, these beings operate with a higher sense of knowledge and communication than we do. Perhaps it isn’t them they should be concerned about, but rather, whether all parties across the world can collaborate with each other to figure out the meaning of their arrival.

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Few directors have had the critical success that Denis Villeneuve has experienced. Not counting Incendies (a film I so desperately need to see), he has helmed some of the best films of this decade in a relatively short time period with Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario. He’s hit must-see status…even with a weaker offering in Arrival. 

Don’t take that opener as disdain for Arrival. This is still a good movie, one in which Denis Villeneuve has firmly cemented himself as appointment viewing, up there with the likes of Christopher Nolan , David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. After delving into abduction, surrealism, and the cartels, the director tackles humanity and cooperation this time around. This is actually the first surprise—rather, misdirect—of Arrival. 

Despite having obvious elements of the science-fiction genre, it can be easily argued that Arrival isn’t much of one as a whole. Which is perfectly OK. The study of linguistics and how each and every culture can interpret meaning differently is fascinating, and it is an idea that is rendered wonderfully from a visual and auditory sense. If one ever wanted to see what a Rorschach test looked like on the silver screen, Arrival is probably the closest movie to capturing that. Arrival isn’t as striking as Sicario or as bizarre as Enemy, but even being more minimalist, there’s a tension (Villeneuve truly knows how to wield a camera to show this) that exists from the jump to the end of the second act. It only helps that the wonderful Johann Johannson provides moody musical cues that get at the extraterrestrial aspect of the story.

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So Arrival, script source material taken from the novella Story of Your Life, is undoubtedly cerebral. Where it falters, for yours truly at least, is tugging at the heartstrings. The rest of this paragraph can essentially be summed up as the super basic statement “It just didn’t do it for me,” but I’ll try to elaborate without spoiling. Perhaps I have no one else to blame but myself for expecting something that wasn’t there. It just feels that, however, something else could have, should have, been there. For all of the tension that is generated in the the initial acts of the movie, the reveal has sort of a flat feeling tied to it. It’s at this point when Arrival moves into full on heartfelt drama. Drama that, while structurally sound when held under a microscope, is a little uninteresting.

There are three performers billed on the movie’s poster, but one that gets all of the good material. That one being Amy Adams, who is always a captivating presence. The biggest reason why the cast works is that they are easy to buy into as their roles. All of Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker possess roles moreso than meaty characters (though Adams figuratively gets a full character circle, if you will), but this is a feature that requires actor and actress to be believable in delivering theories, calculating math, and delivering orders. When the three or some combination of the two are on screen together, they all work well with each other and the dialogue is worth listening to.

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At the very least, Arrival is worth a watch, not just for the impressive direction, but because it is unique, and films like this should be supported regardless of genre. Even with yours truly ultimately feeling a tad underwhelmed with the story aspects and endgame of this film, if it wasn’t clear before, it’s crystal clear now that Denis Villeneuve has arrived as a top-level filmmaker.

B-

Photo credits go to vox.com, nerdreactor.com, and rollingstone.com.

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The Girl on the Train: Movie Man Jackson

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I’ll stick with taking the A train. Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) has lost everything. Her marriage, home, and career are all gone as a result of her drinking problem. Her former husband Tom (Justin Theroux) has moved in the woman he cheated on Rachel with, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and they have a newborn. The only enjoyment she gets out of life these days is when she’s riding on the train, drawing pictures and visualizing a perfect life through voyeuristic eyes of a married couple, Meghan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans). Coincidentally, they live right down the street from Tom and Anna.

That perfect dream life dissolves when Rachel sees something that suggests infidelity. She takes it upon herself to inform Scott, who has his reservations about taking a stranger’s word for fact, but acknowledging that a psychiatrist his wife has been seeing could be the other man. The matter of possible infidelity becomes even more serious when Meghan goes missing, with nary a lead—except for Rachel waking up with gashes and a noticeable amount of blood. Surveillance and witness account put Rachel in the neighborhood hours before Meghan was last seen. And so questions are raised: Did Rachel actually see infidelity occur? More importantly, could she, in a drunken stupor, have more to do with this disappearance then she believes?

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Yours truly had an awfully tough time writing the opening summary to The Girl on the Train, the silver screen adaptation to one of 2015’s most popular novels. And I don’t believe I did a good job in doing so. Some books are simply difficult to carry over into big screen success, and I believe that is where most of the problems of The Girl on the Train arise from.

Let me explain. The great thing about novels is the fact that chapters, entire sections, etc., can be chunked out, separated, and given the requisite time needed to learn and know the characters, the background, the relative timeline, and how each person fits into the proceedings. This can be done in movies as well, but the trouble is that so much of the novel’s information has to be condensed to fit time, and in the case of The Girl on the Train, it feels like there’s a lot of information that isn’t delivered in a way that makes narrative sense.

From the first line of spoken dialogue, director Tate Taylor’s (The Help, Get on Up) feature just seems a little off, getting extending openings for each lead female character without, aside from maybe Rachel, really understanding them. The pace truly does meander for the first half, whether moving straightforward in its storytelling, or backwards and then forwards. As a whole, the execution in storytelling is lacking, with flashbacks being used generously but without focus. It is difficult to ascertain when they end and when events are unfolding in current time. Even the visual style and technical aspects come off as a little cheap and something one could see on Lifetime, despite the starpower attached and the fairly sizable budget.

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The story does find its groove somewhat in the 3rd act (as flashbacks become minimized), but unfortunately, it is a little too late to care about the payoffs by that point. No favors are done either with a twist that is pretty obvious about halfway through with a certain line of dialogue, which is saying something because I’m usually terrible with predicting those types of things. Overall, The Girl on the Train is very cold, darn near impossible to get invested into any one character.

The character that comes closest to evoking a emotional response is Rachel, played greatly by Emily Blunt. She’s been on the up and up for a while now, and roles in movies like Edge of Tomorrow and Sicario have proven her to be a scene-stealer capable of owning a feature. Her character is not the most well-written, and her arc is sort of rushed, but Blunt has a presence that is impossible to take eyes off of. As for everyone else, though there are no true bad performances, characterizations are so light (whore, womanizer, devoted mother, hard-nosed cop) that those in the roles have no real opportunity to do anything with them.

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Seemingly destined to be the next great film based on a wildly popular adult novel, The Girl on the Train gets derailed with lackluster directing and a slow moving story that struggles to flow. All aboard the D train.

D+

Photo credits go to collider.com and thefrisky.com.

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Jack Reacher: Movie Man Jackson

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He who drifts is not directionless. Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a former U.S. Army Military police officer living away from society more or less. He’s impossible to find or locate. However, he’s drawn out of the shadows by by an old acquaintance who needs his help.

A man by the name of Barr has been accused of murdering five innocent people, and all of the evidence points to him. While not surprising to Reacher in the fact that Barr is the main suspect, something doesn’t exactly sit right with him. Along with Barr’s defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the two work to uncover the case, the killer’s motives, and of course, the right killer.

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It may feature the same star, but the silver screen treatment of the Jack Reacher character from the novels is far from what one (a.k.a me) might initially expect it to be. Mission: Impossible, this is not. Jack Reacher is perfectly content being a little more lowkey.

After the marvelous (and very, very unnerving) opening sequence with the sniper setting up shop, one of the first things noticed about this Christopher McQuarie feature is how it looks. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why, but Jack Reacher feels like a movie that would be right at home in the 90’s or the 80’s, maybe even the 70’s through camera angles, lighting, score, etc. Despite the heavier tone, I immediately thought of movies like Speed and Beverly Hills Cop when watching this.

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Plot-wise, Jack Reacher is sort of like a poor man’s The Bourne Identity. The few action sequences are well-filmed, with the highlight being a great car chase midway through. But this is more committed to telling a mystery, or, more accurately, at least how Reacher solves it. It starts off well enough, but by the midpoint, it is a tad tedious and the finale couldn’t come sooner.

As time wore on, one might find that they’re not watching the film for its plot but for Tom Cruise. Or at least, I was. The fun lies in the character, not the mystery that devolves into common corruption and foreign baddies. The wrong actor could have made this Reacher movie a big disappointment, but Cruise keeps it at a consistent quality level. Reacher’s a wise-ass who knows exactly how everything went down or didn’t go down in CSI fashion just because he’s that good, a hardened soldier, a ladies man, and a vigilante who isn’t pure good or bad, among other things. And Cruise embodies all of this, even with his diminutive height. Didn’t know it was an issue until some of the notes about the casting were read. Author Lee Child stated it best: “With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. With Tom, you’ll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height.”

The rest of the cast predictably comes nowhere near Cruise, but aren’t major detractors to the movie, either. Usually derided in much that he appears in, Jai Courtney is actually a pretty good, albeit generic, menacing antagonist here, much better than Werner Herzog’s character, who lacks intrigue and any real fear aspect. Rosamund Pike fits well with Cruise, and David Oyelowo is sound as an agent who doesn’t know what to make of Reacher. Robert DuVall’s gun owner character doesn’t appear until the middle and then becomes the wily sidekick of Reacher. Not that he isn’t entertaining, but the choice comes out of nowhere. It never feels like Reacher is that close enough with him to employ him as backup.

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Jack Reacher is a prime example of a true movie star elevating basic, cliched, and possibly boring in the wrong hands, material to something of a pleasing watch. Do I ever want to see Jack Reacher again? Sure, as long as Cruise is involved.

C+

Photo credits go to aceshowbiz.com, topgear.com, en.wikipedia.org, and cinemablend.com.

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