Alien: Covenant

M & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT.  Photo Credit: Mark Rogers. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen years after archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) encountered a parasitic species while attempting to chase down the alien origins of humanity, a colonization mission to Origae-6 goes awry when a radiation burst cripples the ship.

Like the previous expedition, funded by the eccentric Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the human crew is accompanied by an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender). Unlike his predecessor, David (so named for Weyland’s fondness for wearisome metaphor vis-a-vis Michelangelo), Walter’s intelligence is curbed. This seems peculiar, as it was Weyland’s intent to crew an android as a sort of HAL-9000 with an ulterior motive.

ALIEN: COVENANT is the second part of Ridley Scott’s prequel series to the 1979 horror film starring Sigourney Weaver as the protagonist, Ripley. While science fiction cinema has had elements of horror in its mid-century roots, ALIEN emphasized claustrophobia and terror as the primary elements, pushing the science fiction to the backdrop. Ridley Scott, however, hasn’t seemed to successfully move away from the tropes he helped popularize–namely, the Final Girl. Instead, he works backwards from them stuck in a kind of causal loop of intense mediocrity.

The surviving members of the crew are systematically picked off by the “neomorph”—like “xenomorph” but, you know, new… except this is a sequel, so shouldn’t they be protomorphs? Never mind. Scott’s modern Ripley, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming engineer aboard the Covenant, happens upon another android who leads them (unsurprisingly) to a trap.

THE SPOILER: Yes, the villain is David… In spite of escaping a completely unrelated star system, in all the vast universe, somehow the cosmic radiation accident led the Covenant to the exact place where David and Elizabeth landed. And yes, David is going to double-cross them. And yes, he uses a trick that would make Hayley Mills proud (or nauseated). To his credit, Fassbender invokes the same creepy ethical vacancy of Ash in the original ALIEN.  And maybe there’s something to reintroducing that 1970’s-era distrust of technology into cinema at a time when our own fears about the surveillance state are coming to fruition.  In a back room, H.R. Giger’s early concept designs strewn across a table, we discover that David is a eugenics hobbyist, synthesizing and curating the “perfect” being in an attempt to recast himself from servant of one species to god of another.

Sidenote: Fassbender also supplies a hint of homoeroticism or, perhaps, auto-eroticism… but it’s merely titillation, eclipsing that hint of Sgt. Lope’s (Demián Bichir) marriage to Sgt. Hallett (Nathaniel Dean).

A prequel could conceivably take any number of routes to get you to where you’ve been, but Scott seems to be repeating the same storyline again and again only peppering us with bits of mythology like the interesting clues that lead nowhere in the television series, LOST. In the end, they’re all dead anyway.

GET OUT of my Country

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in Jordan Peele's GET OUT.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in Jordan Peele’s GET OUT.

Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.

In 2016, writer John Metta published a sobering op-ed, originally given as a sermon, about the insidious nature of systemic racism titled I, Racist.  In it, he examines the difficulty, the fruitlessness, of having dialogues about racism with white people.   He wasn’t calling whites evil.  On the contrary, Metta’s piece examines the challenge of trying to get even the most progressive of whites to acknowledge the deeply embedded systemic privilege of which they are the primary beneficiaries.

In the era of Trumpism, the likelihood of liberal whites reconciling their own role in racism is even dimmer.  Headlines pepper the news cycle weekly, like the Olathe, KS, man who killed an Indian American and injured another, shouting, “Get out of my country.”

EDIT: Since starting this piece, a Sikh was shot in Kent, WA, by another white gunman.

We can’t examine where we are as a society if one half thinks the other half is the problem while the other half is idiotically preoccupied not so much with figuring out what to do with absolute power now that they have it, but perversely obsessed with figuratively and literally spitting in the face of immigrants, minorities, and anyone else that dares to challenge the privilege that both halves of white America enjoy.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla wasn’t challenging anyone.  He was having a beer with his coworker from Garmin, a GPS device manufacturer, at a bar in suburban Olathe, KS, when Adam Purinton shot and killed him.  As a Dallas resident, a United States citizen who immigrated from India and grew up in North Dakota, I’m no stranger to racial confrontation.  But this comes after an authoritarian President, who pandered openly to bigotry on the campaign trail, passed Executive Order 13769 which was used to deny re-entry to immigrant visa holders, lawful Permanent Residents, and even U.S. Citizens such as my fellow Indian American, NASA/JPL employee Sidd Bikkanavar, on no other basis than being from predominately Muslim countries.

The administration, having the lowest recorded approval ratings for an incoming U.S. President, lacked the courage of its convictions to admit the true purpose of what many have called the Muslim Ban (including Trump himself).  Instead, they hemmed and hawed until the Solicitors General of Washington and Minnesota appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court.

That’s what I want to say, but really, I can’t. I can’t say that because I’ve spent my life not talking about race to White people. In a big way, it’s my fault. Racism exists because I, as a Black person, don’t challenge you to look at it.

Racism exists because I, not you, am silent.

But I’m caught in the perfect Catch 22, because when I start pointing out racism, I become the Angry Black Person, and the discussion shuts down again. So I’m stuck.

Enter comedian and social commentator Jordan Peele.  Any time we have, as a society, found it difficult to break through and confront one another with inconvenient truths, comedians and satirists have taken pen to paper to show us how its done.

Peele’s debut film, GET OUT, opened two weeks ago, just as White House advisor Stephen Bannon was being decimated in the media for his blithely ignorant masturbation to Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, which Kirkus Reviews described upon its publication in 1975, “as a major event, and it probably is, in much the same sense that Mein Kampf was a major event.”

In GET OUT, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is invited to his girlfriend’s family estate, a liberal enclave.  The Armitages, Missy and Dean’s (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford cast in roles fitted neatly to each’s trope-ridden C.V.) facile embrace of multiculturalism immediately recalls the perverse, paternalistic slavery apologetics of Rudyard Kipling and Henry Morris.

GET OUT plays like a stylized, exaggerated tale in the vein of occult horror, yet its root is the horror that people of color live in reality: Viewed as objects of hatred or perverse obsession, rather than human beings with agency.  Here, Peele explores the concept of loss of agency literally, with callbacks to pre-Trump, coded allegory in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, ROBOCOP and the upcoming, tone-deaf remake of GHOST IN THE SHELL in which the reverse happens: an Asian is trapped in a white android for the sake of Hollywood grosses.

Kaluuya’s perfection of dissociation in the face of clear and present danger plays as well here as it did in his breakout television appearance in BLACK MIRROR (“Fifteen Million Merits”).  As minorities, we’re mostly inured by the larger shared illusion of freedom within the surveillance state.  But when our individual liberties are so directly attacked, and worse, by the current Presidential administration, it serves as a reminder that in the eyes of white America, we are not human.  We are a statistic, a talking point, for both white liberals and conservatives to volley back and forth as they fight over privileges we don’t even imagine are within reach.

Logan

© 2017 Marvel. TM and © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Hugh Jackman and Dafne Keen in Marvel/Twentieth Century Fox’s LOGAN.

Immediately evident in LOGAN’s dense backdrop of social commentary is the influence of Alfonso Cuarón’s CHILDREN OF MEN, a bleak future in which the fate of the species rests in the hand of one girl—in this case, a mutant of Marvel Comics lore.  Set a little over thirty years into the future, the titular superhero (Hugh Jackman) finds himself in the Clive Owen role, reluctantly guaranteeing a refugee child safe passage to Eden—a fabled sanctuary established for the the victims of multinational biomedical corporation Transigen’s eugenics experiments.

For the first two acts, LOGAN entrenches our emotions on three fronts:  1. The plight of Transigen’s child test subjects, each of whom the peculiar mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) recalls by name.  2. Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine’s struggle with extreme age… The deceleration of his inhuman healing; he ages far slower than the average person—given his involvement in the Civil War, he’s approaching 200 years, at least.  3. Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) neurological degeneration; now entering his 90’s, the loss of control over his Omega-class psychic powers causes what can politely be described as mindquakes with devastating consequence.

In each case, director James Mangold’s treatment grounds us in familiar terrors: U.S. exploitation of third world child labor; coping with the ravages of age; watching our loved ones disappear before our eyes as their minds break down, layer by layer, and their loneliness, their misplaced guilt of feeling burdensome on their families in their last stages of consciousness.

Hiding out at an abandoned industrial site in Mexico, Logan brings medications from America to help Charles control his destructive seizures, but cannot quell his loneliness.

Their exile is disrupted by Laura, whose rescuer leaves video of the inner workings of Transigen in the hopes that the last adult mutants will protect the children. Resembling a tiny Lukas Haas, Keen’s furrowed brow steals every scene from Stewart and Jackman. She doesn’t trust humans, and for good reason. Under the guise of a cancer cure, Transigen’s chief scientist, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), attempts to create mutants from scratch. It is exactly the allegory you think it is.

Amidst the action-heavy plot, Logan, Xavier and Laura hide out on a farm. While the scene infuses some relatable humanity into the franchise, we meet the farmer Will Munson (Eriq La Salle, long removed from his Soul Glo days) roadside on a freeway dominated by self-driving rigs. Here Mangold and screenwriter Scott Frank (MINORITY REPORT, THE INTERPRETER) pepper the dialogue with commentary on industrial farming and high fructose corn syrup which, in a nod to Monsanto and Cargill, turns out to be a delivery system for Transigen’s experimental, rage-inducing, mutant soldier serum.

Weakened somewhat by the dependency on third-act violence, LOGAN overall is a timely vision of what superheroes might be in a world as unsteady as the one we presently inhabit.  Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of Perestroika, recently said in a TIME Magazine editorial, “It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”

LOGAN show us the aftermath: the Earth we will depart, and the children who inherit the tragedy we are steadfastly determined to leave them.

Stan Lee: A Marvelous Legacy

©2016, Rubin Safaya and Cirqus Media.

The Man of the Hour at THE ROAST OF STAN LEE. Image ©2016, Rubin Safaya & Cirqus Media

Since Shel Dorf and others founded the San Diego Comic Con in 1970, the popularity of science fiction, comic book, and special interest conventions (commonly “Cons”) has grown immensely.  This past weekend, the Sheraton Dallas became host to the MARVELOUS NERD YEAR’S EVE convention.  Included among the myriad discussion panels, photo ops and meet & greets was  the celebration of Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee’s 94th birthday and several New Year’s Eve parties.

At a press conference on Dec. 29th, Lee opened, “What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York City in 1922.   Not by coincidence, some of his beloved characters, ranging from Spider-Man to Captain America, call New York home.   Among his personal heroes, Lee counts Errol Flynn, who rose to stardom with Warner Bros. 1938 picture, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  Apropos, Warners’ Robin Hood was perhaps the first cinematic franchise.  The following year, Lee toiled as an assistant at Timely Comics which would by 1960 become Marvel Comics.  In addition to rejecting the Comics Code Authority, Lee took a page from Campbell and, in stark contrast to Action/DC’s Superman, introduced us to relatable characters with a flawed humanity.

Whereas Lee and his creative partners at Marvel once held sway at the bleeding edge of the counterculture revolution in a manner not unlike the works of Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Cocteau and others of the French New Wave, the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, wholly owned by Walt Disney Studios, seems to have succumbed to what Kael called “The Numbers”.   In terms of box office alone, Marvel Cinematic Universe has pulled in $10.7 billion in a decade, compared to the $35 billion STAR WARS franchise that now spans 40 years.  One can feel the pressure… none of which is heaped upon Lee who casually dismisses the Cinematic Universe as a responsibility/property from which he is far removed.

Fandom in the twenty-first century has moved beyond examining the struggles of the white, Jewish immigrant in Protestant America.  As Washington Post contributor Michael Cavna noted in 2015, social media has shifted the dynamics of fandom to a point of gender parity, partly because nerd culture is pop culture.  Whatever the reason or catalyst, here we are and yet I find myself loathing the fifteen minutes or so of CLERKS star Brian O’Halloran’s misogynistic jokes at Stan Lee’s Birthday Roast.  Did he look out into the crowd to see the diverse audience to whom he’s playing?

Full disclosure: I’m the kind of nerd who had the Star Fleet Technical Manual schematics of every starship designed for the original series.  However, I never understood the individuals who failed to see the forest through the trees.  Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK was always about the human story.   Science fiction and comics, especially Marvel comics, were always a vehicle for getting social commentary past media and government censors in times of social oppression.

The ongoing backslide of social discourse has led us to this moment:  A narcissistic egomaniac whose own biographer deems a sociopath is now our President Elect.  He wants to roll back every bit of progress women and minorities have made.  Not so much out of any long-term vision for this country as bullet points to boast to his already-captive audience of intellectually bankrupt devotees.  As I chatted casually with STAR TREK screenwriter David Gerrold, I wondered, what role will conventions play in the twilight of the Republic and the dawn of new fascism?

When asked what his greatest wish at 94 was, Stan Lee replied, “To have a 95th!”  That’s something to fight for.  So is inclusiveness.  So are the values that elevated Marvel to prominence.  The arts and entertainment have always been vessels of social commentary, and to abrogate that responsibility is to resign ourselves to the belief that we, as humans, as fans of fiction, cannot live up to the ideals of our heroes… be they Captain America or Errol Flynn.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

@2016, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

(L-R) Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe in Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures’ ROGUE ONE.

When embarking upon a dangerous mission, blind Martial arts master Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) repeats his mantra, “The Force is with me, I am one with the Force.”  In a nutshell, this is how we feel as fans of the 39 year old STAR WARS franchise, plodding through this inspired yet lopsided jaunt through Lucasian lore.  After the eighth go around, it’s a difficult task to isolate the accumulated knowledge and think objectively about how a newcomer would receive Gareth Edwards’ ROGUE ONE.

Disney’s first attempt at expanding the sci-fantasy saga’s cinematic universe a-la Marvel proffers the story of the group of rebel spies/combatants who steal schematics of the super-weapon in George Lucas’ 1977 feature film.  Instead of a discrete prequel, this film’s appeal and its handicaps stem from writing prologue backwards from the familiar harrowing chase which effectively updated Kubrick’s USS Discovery sequence with lasers and explosions.

On the lush planet Lah’Mu, Imperial architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) takes refuge to protect his wife and daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose care he entrusts to rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Galen contributed to the design of the super-weapon, dubbed the Death Star, under the supervision of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn).  Jyn’s father, it turns out, betrayed the Galactic Empire by sending a messenger to reveal a structural weakness for the Rebellion to exploit.  Like a Biblical parable, we jump past the intervening years to the moment of Jyn’s liberation.

Edwards’ approach introducing locales and characters is refreshing; establishing shots have a moment or two to breathe.  Our fondness grows for the acerbic wit of a reprogrammed robot, K2sO (Alan Tudyk) and the bond between Chirrut and his protector, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).  The first act is well-conceived and well-executed if a little rushed.  But to set the bar at J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is an exercise in self-deprecation.  To not admit to one’s self, fan or not, that the second and third act aren’t exercises in circuitousness, is self-flagellation.

I debated showing my cards.  As a critic, you’re generally damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  So here goes: I know who Nien Nunb is.  I’m aware that gold medalist fencer Bob Anderson stood in for Dave Prowse for the better part of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  I know Salacious Crumb’s middle initial (“B”).  I know that Crix Madine’s hairpiece is a subject of much discussion.  My ears perk up when the dissolute Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) mentions the Whills, the mythical race of historians/chroniclers in George Lucas’ rough outlines for The Adventures of Deak Starkiller out of which STAR WARS was adapted.  I understand what the inscription on Darth Vader’s chest plate means.

If all that were required to make a movie meaningful were the coattails of a multi-billion dollar franchise, then this film handily delivers all the beats and gags (look for the disfigured fellow who’s got the death sentence on twelve systems) to amuse even the most learned of STAR WARS fans.  That too, is where inconsistencies begin to infuriate both the dedicated and the uninitiated.

When Darth Vader (voiced once again for the screen by James Earl Jones) makes his appearance, we finally see him at his most vulnerable.  But it’s a visual tease.  Nothing more is made of it, unlike our first glimpse at his scarred cranium in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK prefacing the conflicted character within, whose forthcoming redemption lay squarely in the hands of his son, Luke Skywalker.  Seeing Vader abandon his usual economy of words feels so off-balance it disrupts the feel of the second act.  What was set up to be an endearing struggle against tyranny suddenly becomes a hodgepodge of in-jokes occasionally offset by well-staged action scenes.

ROGUE ONE succeeds in many places that other STAR WARS outings failed.  Space battles follow action logically in contrast to the cacophonous “more is more” philosophy embraced in the STAR WARS prequels.  Also, the film serves as testament to the diversity of ideas:  Asians, Hispanics, Brits (including Riz Ahmed of Pakistani descent) lend uniqueness to the character performances.

Conceived by Lucasfilm/ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll, shot by Greig Fraser (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FOXCATCHER), produced by Kathleen Kennedy, the film is a kind of collaborative effort previously impossible to execute under the weight of George Lucas’ money/status.  You can sense the input of experienced actors like Yen, Luna and Mendelssohn, conducive toward natural line deliveries:  Mendelssohn’s Krennic suggests an eroded friendship with Galen; Yen’s Chirrut and Jiang’s Baze, a huggable bear of a fellow, may be more than friends.

But just as these virtues whet our appetites, appendicitis sets in.  The story becomes circuitous.  We miss the formative years of Jyn’s life—one moment Saw Gerrera abandons, then rescues her.  The Death Star plans are transmitted to Group One of the rebel fleet who departed from Base HQ at Yavin 4 only to send them on a ship back to… Yavin 4.   The film establishes faster-than-light communication; why didn’t they just radio HQ?   Learn to hate this word: retcon.

Then, the nods become the point, culminating in four or five cameos that go a few beats past whimsy toward groan-inducing.  Disney/Lucasfilm strongly emphasized the standalone nature of these anthology films, noting especially the departure from the Skywalker family saga and the absence of Jedi from ROGUE ONE.  It may have begun with an earnest desire to tell a unique story that departs from formula (you already know it’s a suicide mission, more or less), hobbled by built-in expectations of something STAR WARS.

The split-personality disorder is multiplied by Michael Giacchino’s (characteristically) anemic score, standing in for the superlative Alexandre Desplat who bowed out due to scheduling conflicts.  While John Williams is no Nino Rota, indiscriminately stealing from Holst, he does understand the importance of strong themes.  James Newton Howard and John Ottman easily crafted scores immediately identifiable with their key protagonists in UNBREAKABLE and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, following Rota’s and Elmer Bernstein’s emphasis on leitmotif.

Fraser’s cinematography is functional where it needs to be, yet falls apart where visual style is paramount.  While battles are choreographed with care, there’s no visual storytelling.  The coordination between production artist Ralph McQuarrie and DP Gilbert Taylor on A NEW HOPE produced callbacks to Westerns, sci-fi serials and jidaigeki just as Williams’ score cleverly referenced Elgar in the Throne Room ceremony.

In ROGUE ONE, the filmmakers’ consciously summon Darth Vader, ranked on AFI’s 100 Years list as the third greatest cinematic villain of all time, from a demonic lair more angular and a good eighty stories taller than Barad-Dûr.   Then, sucking all the wind out of that scene, they use wide shots.

Many great cinematographers hail from Poland, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s Peter Suschitzky is no exception.  The difference between the hero shot and, let’s call it, the villain shot, is that the hero looks down his nose at his opposition.  The villain, and especially Darth Vader, stares directly down into his enemy’s soul.  ROGUE ONE begins as an inspired concept, only to conclude with a soulless stare.

From the Editor: A Letter to Senator John Cornyn

Dear Senator Cornyn,

 

Your recent comments trivializing the potential interference in our democratic process by a foreign nation concern me deeply because you seem to be more preoccupied with party than country.  Why, if Benghazi was a priority for you, are you not pushing for all the facts to come to light?   Why do the American people not deserve to know whether or not our democracy is threatened by outside influence.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell has joined the call to continue a bipartisan investigation of the matter, and your social media people have tweeted as such.

 

You were the one who called for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s emails.  But you characterize this as “not news”.  How do you think that builds confidence in your constituents that you are in fact looking out for America? You are the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution.  As it stands, there are numerous questions arising about Donald Trump’s allegiance to the United States and his ability to carry out the Oath he will be administered on January 20th unless Electors deem he is unfit for office.  And they may. Two days after the election, I spoke with my elector Chris Suprun who I’m sure you know has decided not to cast a vote for Trump due to grave concerns about his fitness for office. That was before the CIA report. Mr. Suprun, like myself and other constituents of yours has in fact stated that he supports a deeper investigation.  Today, at least ten electors want to be briefed by the Director of National Intelligence prior to their vote on the 19th.

 

As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, you have no more important task than preserving the integrity of our election. Abortions can wait.  Obamacare can wait.  If you do not put this matter forward first, then what does that tell us about you? What legacy does that leave?  As I told Mr. Suprun before he made his choice: You have a choice.  You choose how you want to be remembered.

 

Thank you.

Arrival

© Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

(L-R) Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.

Adapted for the screen from Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the first shot of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL telegraphs the outcome in a way that’s visually stunning, even emotionally grabbing, yet narratively third rate.

University linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought onto a team to decipher the language of an alien race that has positioned 12 spacecraft in various locations around the world.  I commend the screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, for not placing the spaceships in direct proximity to tourist attractions.

The story centers around the team of scientists, including Dr. Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), attempting to establish communications with the aliens.  She discovers that writing, rather than speech, may crack the cipher.  The reasoning makes sense in the moment: they can demonstrate actions and show the writing, and probably reproduce the writing easier than they can the speech.  But this begins a series of gaps that undermine the narrative.

Bradford Young’s (SELMA) cinematography tells part of the story before we know it.  Shallow depth of field is reversed, focusing on backdrops instead of subjects.  It foretells in two ways I won’t spoil, only to say that the lens through which we see others is just as important as the lens through which we see ourselves.

The aliens are gargantuan heptapods whose speech sounds like the amplified bellow of iron pipes in an antique house.  They’re surrounded by a gaseous mist, thought to be their atmosphere though it likely is much more.  Dr. Banks makes significant progress communicating with the heptapods, discovering that time is absent from their syntax.  They perceive time all at once, rather than a linear series of events.  Their aperception affects also how certain words come across to Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly, as well as the  11 other teams studying them.

This leads to the film’s central conflict.  Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) announces that they want to exchange weapons technology, and this leads to a serious misunderstanding of the aliens intent.  To illustrate why, think of the idiomatic meaning of the word “weapon” when we describe knowledge.  The phrase “death process” may mean “killing”, or it could mean “dying”.

But it’s at the edge of this intensely fascinating intellectual problem that the film errs.  We sense that the aliens need to know that humans can work together; perhaps this is all a test?  But Villeneuve and his writer leave a number of loose ends without explanation.  Why, if the point is about cooperation, does the story take place exclusively from one team’s point of view (as usual, the Americans)?  How does miming with symbols work faster than miming with words?  If a computer can be taught to reproduce the nuances of their complex script, can’t it learn to reproduce their speech as well?  Don’t the humans understand that if the aliens actually wanted to destroy them they’d have done so?  Why attempt to destroy the contact between the aliens and the one team that seems to be making headway?  How can humans possibly comprehend anything about fifth-dimensional beings?

These all seem like elementary problems easily resolved for a film that aspires as highly as ARRIVAL does. Adding insult to injury, Forest Whitaker’s talents are wasted as the curt Colonel Weber.  He’s the Black Movie Colonel who doesn’t trust the very experts whose aid his mission is entirely dependent upon.  The Chinese are potrayed yet again in film as militaristic blowhards; contrast this with the Asian scientists in THE MARTIAN.  And finally, for a highly intellectual film it concludes on both a preposterous deus ex as well as a depressingly sentimental coda worthy of a Ron Howard picture, asking us to empathize with barely an outline of a character.  I understand the source material, but here’s one case where cinematically there’s a more interesting human story in the working relationship between Renner and Adams, who both acted beautifully.  It’s not a bad flick.  However, for a film about resolving communication gaps, ARRIVAL creates too many of them.

Moonlight

©2016, A24.

Photo: David Bornfriend.

 

There’s a scene in the first act of Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT in which the young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks his surrogate father, Juan (Mahershala Ali), two questions:  Is his mother on drugs and does Juan sell them to her.   In that moment, Chiron looks to Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to keep him honest.  After Juan cops to it, the fragile, taciturn boy whose detractors have nicknamed “Little”, leaves.  Juan breaks down into tears of guilt; he failed Little.

Adapted from Tarell McRaney’s semi-autobiographical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we are gifted a unique look into the life of a youth grappling with his burgeoning sexual identity.  “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan.  Juan replies that it’s a word used to slander gay people.

MOONLIGHT is structured classically as a three act play:  Little. Chiron. Black.  Chiron by birth, his friend Kevin nicknames him Black—the significance is never revealed but it does fit the internalization of Chiron’s emotions.  Between the bullies at school and the bully of a crack-addicted mother at home, Paula (Naomie Harris), Little avoids conversation, except with Kevin and Teresa.

In the second act, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) continues to struggle with concentrating in class while others bully him, particularly a much larger boy, Terrel (Patrick Decile).  Without spoiling this pivotal middle chapter, I call your attention to the next morning.  Chiron, incensed, enters the school.  Note his clenched left fist and deliberate pace.

When we meet the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in the third act, he’s embraced Black by name, but not yet in mind and body.  It’s not a journey without an implied destination, but it’s how Jenkins gets us there that is of import.  Notice the crown atop his car’s dashboard.  He is his surrogate father’s son.

Representation has been at the center of the discussion for the past year since #OscarsSoWhite trended.  Earlier this week, DOCTOR STRANGE director Scott Derrickson made the rounds whitesplaining the tough choices (!) between typecasting an Asian “dragon lady” versus whitewashing the Asian character, as if it’s impossible to write an Asian character well and cast appropriately.  On Twitter I expressed curiosity why Derrickson never once thought to consult Asian filmmakers and resolve the situation, rather than screw it up and take the slap on the wrist.  At the other end of the artistic spectrum, Jenkins does the impossible: He informs the viewer about the impoverished black experience in America whilst representing the broader experience of the adolescent trying to become secure in his or her identity.

Jenkins accomplishes a feat of narrative genius.  The three stories of Little, Chiron, and Black, could exist separately as shorts.   As Rhodes informed us at the Q&A, the three principals never met on set and never discussed each others performances.  Their interpretations of the character come entirely from the script and directorial guidance.  Still, we see them as one person in different stages.

Still, we draw comparisons, none more apt than when Black finds himself alone with Kevin after a reunion dinner made with such care you’ll cry the next time you look at a plate of Cuban garlic chicken.  In that solemn moment, Black accepts himself.  To be a gay man is one thing.  To be gay and black is a lifetime of rejection from your community.  Admitting his love for Kevin, we witness Black transform before our eyes into Chiron, into Little.  He always knew who he was, but now he isn’t ashamed of it.

A coworker nearing retirement once told me, “You have to start making decisions for your life, before your life starts making decisions for you.”  Two years later he passed away.  Inevitably, Black’s arc takes him from Atlanta back to Miami, to Kevin, now a cook after a stint in prison.  It’s a nine hour drive, my wife points out.  Black would’ve driven a week to be with Kevin.

“I look at love on a scale of one to ten, and I feel like we settle for sixes and sevens, which is why we have divorce.  But I feel like Chiron found his “ten” in Kevin when he was seven years old.” – Trevante Rhodes

Doctor Strange

©2016 Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE.

Like all comic book interpretations of gainful employment, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t merely a neurosurgeon but the most perceptive neurosurgeon in the universe.  That is, before he even develops any superpowers.  Following a car accident that causes extensive damage to Strange’s hands (but oddly not his legs, his arms, or his spine), he reaches out to various colleagues for a medical solution.  Then, he turns to mystics in Nepal, including The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who believes that Dr. Strange can help them defeat a fallen sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who plots to destroy the universe.  There go my lunch plans.

A quick study, Strange masters the art of sorcery inside of what feels like a week due to the director’s roughshod pacing.   Protecting the Earth from extradimensional evil are three temples located in major cities, one of which comes under siege by Kaecilius and his associates.  This incident thrusts Strange into the Role He Doesn’t Want To Play.

Sorcerers can cross dimensions, instantaneously travel great distances and make the world topsy-turvy in a literal sense.  Consequently, while director Scott Derrickson attempts to rationalize whitewashed casting (the aforementioned Swinton in a role obviously fit for Michelle Yeoh, an actual Asian martial artist), that’s merely a symptom of his bigger problem: a complete lack of imagination.  Marvel and DC’s comic book films invariably fall into an action/comic genre.  Comics are a medium, not a genre.  They’ve spanned many different genres in print.  One of the few standouts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is THE WINTER SOLDIER.  It was designed as a political thriller, inspired in part by 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.

Just as quickly as they branched, they returned to formula in subsequent offerings.  Some will argue this was due to economics but with international box office, video on demand, and other channels of distribution, every Marvel movie has been an overwhelming success.  They’re the biggest game in town, yet they refuse to take risks and drive better tastes.  I don’t believe for one second that Marvel couldn’t explore comedy, horror, drama, or any subgenre and turn a profit on it.  If grabbing the most cash possible is their only worry, they need only adjust production budgets accordingly.

If nothing else, the picture has a sense of humor.  Otherwise, DOCTOR STRANGE would be a dull walk down short-term memory lane, recycling their origin story formula: Affluent white guy gets knocked down a peg or two, gets rebuked by his girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) when he needs her support the most, has an epiphany at the hands of an (inexplicably white) eastern master, and re-emerges as a superhero: Doctor Peculiar.