Film Analysis: “Arrival” ★★★★★ (5/5)

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Denis Villeneuve’s elegant sci-fi thriller, “Arrival”, contains one of the most deeply thoughtful messages of any film this year. Like Villeneuve’s breakthrough masterpiece, “Incendies”, the central message is a desperate call for solidarity. While “Incendies” addressed how absurd it is to hate on one another based on religious differences, “Arrival” pleas for the unification of humanity through world peace among nations and races. The film couldn’t be timelier.

This isn’t your ordinary alien invasion film. In fact, “Arrival” is more interested in asking questions about ‘us’ than ‘them’. So many world conflicts stem from miscommunication. The slightest misunderstanding could have dire consequences, be it between races, nations, individuals, or in this case, intergalactic visitors.

Instead of jumping to conclusions and taking action, the film argues we should converse more clearly. Emotional transparency is vital in creating a deeper connection amongst one another. What I find most fascinating is how Villeneuve communicates the importance of clarity of language through the universal and visual language of film.

Much of the film revolves around the public’s desperate need to finding answers regarding the nature of the arrival. Are they tourists, invaders, or educators? As the mystery drags on, the world begins to fall into complete chaos. We live in a world that demands immediate answers, for we fear the unknown. Villeneuve sophisticatedly practices this notion by integrating it into his masterful filmmaking. He understands that less is more, and what we don’t see is often scarier than what we do see.

It takes the film nearly thirty minutes, for example, to reveal the alien spacecraft and its occupants. By teasing viewers with what is left out of the screen, Villeneuve grips viewers and forces us to use our imagination. We become as eager and impatient as the desperate characters in the film. When we do finally meet the extraterrestrials, it comes with a sense of wonder and awe.

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Amy Adam plays the linguistic specialist in charge of communicating with the aliens. Both the character and the actress herself understand the importance of body language in communication. Adams’ performance evokes so much emotion without relying too heavily on dialogue. The subtly of her acting gives this nuanced film a cumulative resonating emotional power.

If she’s the heart of the film, then Jeremy Renner is the brain, and Forrest Whitaker, the muscle. The former actor plays the role of a theoretical physicist, and the latter, an army general. Through their interactions, we encounter distinctively different approaches to a given situation.

Apparently, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer created a fully functioning visual language for the aliens. Everything about the film feels plausible and well thought-out. According to astrophysicist, Andy Howell, the film does a great job at depicting physicist, linguists, and possible alien life. Grounded in reality, the devastating pace succeeds at unraveling an overwhelmingly awe-inspiring spectacle, which is no easy feat with genre audiences exposed to right about everything nowadays. I was reminded of the first time we took a glimpse at a dinosaur in “Jurassic Park”, the first appearance of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and the sweeping shot showcasing the “Titanic” from bow to stern. The poetic cinematography accompanied by Johann Johansson’s haunting score is a thing to behold.

What I found extraordinary about “Arrival” is how everything comes together nice and neatly at the end (or beginning). Let me explain. The structure of the plot itself is very well rounded, and I mean that in a very literal sense. The film explains how the alien’s perception of time is evident in the way they construct sentences and words. Unlike our linear way of writing, the aliens in the film write sentences in circular fashion. What that means is, the sentence has no beginning or end. Their awareness of time is correspondingly circular. Time for them is like a flat circle that constantly loops. There is no past, present and future.

The genius of Villeneuve is how he applies that to the structure of the actual film. “Arrival” has no beginning or end. Notice how the story begins where it ends, and ends where it begins. The film not only discusses complex theories about time, but also exemplifies it by creating a circular sequence of events. Embarking on the mounting steps of Villeneuve’s hypnotic structure is assured to leave viewers spellbound.

 

The 20 Best Films of 2015

Any list should be useful in containing films you’re not familiar with. In that sense, the purpose of this list is not to list movies in order of preference, but rather function as a suggestion to seek out significant films that might have flown under your radar. The goal is to call attention to movies you might have missed in a year where blockbusters overshadowed smaller productions.

For that reason, I have excluded “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, even though it deserves a place on this list. But let’s face it; we’ve all seen J.J. Abrams’ retro throwback. Another film I greatly admire, nowhere to be found here, is Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups”. Technically, Malick’s film doesn’t open nationwide till March of 2016, which disqualifies it from inclusion. That said, had it been released in 2015, I would easily call it the best film of the year. You can read my review of “Knight of Cups” here. Without further ado, the best films of the year in no particular order:


The Look of Silence
(Indonesia)

Joshua Oppenheimer follows his bizarre, “The Act of Killing”, with another brutal documentary focusing on the aftermath of a genocide. During the 1960’s Indonesian genocide, Ramli Rukun was one of millions accused of being a communist by the military dictatorship. He was taken to a nearby river where executioners repeatedly stabbed him, chopped off his penis, and drank his blood before dumping his body in the water. Decades after this horrific ordeal, Adi Rukun confronts the group of men who killed his older brother.

At first, the killers brag about their killings with nationalistic pride. “I know from experience, if you cut off a woman’s breast, it looks like a coconut milk filter, full of holes…it doesn’t matter. If they’re bad people you can hack them.” At the end of each interview, Rukun reveals to the former killer his identity, and the camera captures the most extraordinarily reaction shot, the look of silence.

 

The Lobster (Greece/UK)

“The Lobster” is a love story set in a dystopian future where single people are arrested and transferred to a hotel. There they are obliged to find a matching mate within 45 days. If they fail to meet the deadline, they are transformed into animals and released into the woods. This bizarre synopsis alone should be enough to tickle your curiosity. Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark comedy is an exercise in absurdness. It also happens to be the funniest film of the year.

If it were up to me, I would’ve awarded it the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the prestigious prize. The most original film of the year mocks the many facets of society from our universal obsession of finding a compatible spouse to reproducing. “The Lobster” is pitch-perfect satire that ridicules modern dating obligations. Colin Farrell delivers one of the most underrated performances of the year.

 

Victoria (Germany)

Victoria is the most suspenseful German thriller since “Run Lola Run”. Sebastian Schipper notably shot the entire film in one single take clocking in at 134 minutes. Last year’s “Birdman” may have stolen the spotlight of this feat, but unlike “Birdman”, “Victoria” does it for real, without any smart transitional editing tricks.

Victoria is a young Spanish pianist who quickly finds herself in the midst of a heist with a group of friends she just met. Set within a single night in Berlin, the film grabs you by the throat from the get-go, and keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end. “Victoria” is pure cinematic fineness. Schipper neatly develops his characters within the first half of the night, before thrusting the characters we grew to love into realistically portrayed danger. The film also features a magnificent musical score by Nils Frahm.

 

When Marnie Was There (Japan)

 Pixar’s “Inside Out” may have the brains, but Studio Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There” most certainly has the bigger heart. Studio Ghibli is synonym with quality animation. The truth is, every Studio Ghibli review is most likely to contain the same descriptive words, breathtaking animation, fleshed-out characters, beautiful music, and a heartwarming story.

“When Marnie Was There” is no exception. The studio’s first film since Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement is an exceptional work of art. The film tells the coming-of-age story of a young introverted foster child with asthma who is sent to the countryside by her guardians. Soon she runs into Marnie, a ghostly friend at the big mansion across the river. Through their friendship, she learns many things about herself. As for the viewer, we learn about traditional Japanese values: forgives, family, and harmony.

The Big Short (USA)

Adam McKay figured out a way to make a film centered on the credit and housing market collapse of 2008 entertaining, and that’s no easy feat. It is the strongest film explanation of the global financial crisis to date. The reason it works so well is because it takes financial concepts that are hard to grasp by the general public and packages it as a comprehensible “Wall Street Banking For Dummies” nutshell.

“The Big Short” is surprisingly light footed for a subject matter so heavy- the greatest economic tragedy since the Great Depression. McKay managed to translate finance into plain English and make it all engaging thanks to a script that boasts comedic one-liners from an all-star ensemble. Yet, the film is as unsettling as it is entertaining. It possesses the energy of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the investigative enthusiasm of “Moneyball”.


Listen to Me Marlon (UK)

After watching Listen to Me Marlon, the first thing I did was walk over to the ticket booth to buy another ticket for the next showing. Stevan Riley dissects Brando’s life using nothing but audio recovered from tapes the actor recorded himself. He also utilises a 3D digital version of Brando’s head that the actor got made in the 1980s in order to be part of future digital performances. It’s a first documentary of its kind.

The end result is the best-documented film on, not only the most influential actor ever, but on acting itself as an art form. Riley paints Brando’s words with corresponding visuals that perfectly encapsulate the meaning behind the spoken word. Like Brando’s many monumental performances, Riley has figured out a way to showcase a portrait in a way that has never been done before. To watch this documentary is to not only understand why Brando is regarded as the greatest actor of all time, but it is to grasp the undeniable fact that he was truly one of the most remarkable human beings to ever walk this planet.

 

Tu Dors Nicole (Canada)

At one point, Nicole mentions she plans on visiting Iceland with her best friend; to which her brother’s buddy replies, “What are you going to do there?” She then thinks about it for a second and answers, “Nothing. We’ll do nothing, but we’ll be doing nothing somewhere else. Nice nothing.”

I can see viewers watching this gem and complaining that nothing really happens throughout the film, but it’s the nice kind of nothing. Besides, by watching all this beautiful shot black and white nothingness, so much can happen to the viewer.

 

Bridge of Spies (USA)

Steven Spielberg’s sharp espionage thriller is a marvelous exercise in classical-virtuoso filmmaking. “Bridge of Spies” feels like it belongs to a different era of films. Tom Hanks’ performance has Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” written all over it, and Spielberg’s classical directing cements him as a modern day Frank Capra. This is a fine piece of vintage Hollywood moviemaking.

Fans of Spielberg will find many of his signature trademarks, from the classical musical score, to the suburban family setting, great iconic set pieces, and the common theme of ordinary men achieving extraordinary tasks. The term traditional can perceived in a negative light, here I mean it in a positive way. At times when every filmmaker is trying to break new ground, the old-fashioned “Bridge of Spies” paradoxically feels rather refreshing.

 

Anomalisa (USA)

Like every Charlie Kauffman film, “Anomalisa” exposes the melancholy of the human condition in spades. However, what distinguishes it from his past work, and really any stop-motion animated film to date, is its deliberate use of that form of animation. Stop-motion and voice acting in particular serve the plot dynamics as opposed to being a filmmaking gimmick.

“Anomalisa” is a slice-of-life animation that couldn’t have articulated its message in any other form. Voice-over acting serves as a narrative plot device metaphorically symbolizing the act of falling in love. “Anomalisa” is just as much about falling out of love, as it is about falling in love. Nevertheless, what makes “Anomalisa” truly stand out is not what it is about, but how it is about what it’s about.

 

Ex Machina (UK)

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, our two main characters examine a drip painting by Pollock. They articulate how the artist made his hand go where it wanted but didn’t plan his every move. The piece of art would never have come to be if you preplanned every stroke. Consciousness exists in the gap between randomness and deliberated action, so as long as an AI is programmed to do automatic actions, it can never be regarded as truly conscious. In order for it to be regarded as an equal, we would have to somehow prove that it acts through random chaotic impulse.

“Ex Machina” is a study of what it means to be conscious/human. With its release, I’m convinced more than ever that we are in the midst of a British New Wave in science fiction cinema. The film challenges the intellect by putting humankind, artificial intelligence, and our inevitable future together under the microscope.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/USA)

I think by now, it’s quite clear that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the blockbuster spectacle of the year. It has been discussed to death. With a strong feminist undertaking, mastermind George Miller pumps up his post-apocalyptic trilogy with a nitrous oxide charge of marvelous cinema.

This recklessly fast-paced motion picture is quite possible the greatest stunt film since Buster Keaton took over a locomotive in “The General”. The fact that it tackles contemporary issues such as gender equality, climate change and the inevitable water wars to come is just the icing on top – or shall I say the shooting flame on an electric guitar?

The Assassin (Taiwan)

Some critics have likened the viewing of this film to watching paint dry. But when the overall canvas resembles a scenic museum piece, you don’t really mind the slow pace; the paint can take all the time it needs to dry. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first feature in eight years won the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival, and with good reason, it is a feast to the senses, a moving painting if there every was one.

That said it’s not for everyone. Students of film will appreciate “The Assassin” more so than regular moviegoers. Hou creates an anti-wuxia film, replacing generic wuxia fight scenes seen in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, and “House of Flying Daggers” with soothing compositional elegance. “The Assassin” floods us with one picturesque sequence after the other. The camera often peeks at characters through thin layers of fabric curtains, ultimately unveiling the most beautifully composed film of the year.

Son of Saul (Hungary)

A Hungarian Jewish prisoner involuntary assists Nazis with operating the mass extermination inside a concentration camp. One day, as he’s forced to burn his own people, he comes across the body of young boy he takes for his son. We’ve seen one too many Holocaust films, but “Son of Saul” takes us closer to the horrors of Auschwitz than most films.

Laszlo Nemes shot the film almost entirely in close-ups sculpting a claustrophobic documentation of how a concentration camp operated. It is one of the year’s most important films. Not only does it accurately depict the horrific procedural mechanics of a concentration camp, but it also manages to use exceptional framing to trap viewers inside one of the most horrific places ever constructed by man.

 

Winter of Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Ukraine)

Witnessing the Ukrainian revolution is bound to bring back memories of the Egyptian revolution. Watching how dictatorships similarly react to peaceful demonstrations is absolutely fascinating. In late 2013, Ukraine erupted after president Victor Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement to join the European Union, and resorted to hardening an alliance with Russia instead. “Winter of Fire” covers the almost 90 day uprising period that led to Yanukovych’s resignation.

Netflix scored its first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary in 2014, and two year later, the streaming service is emulating that success with a deeply involving look at the Ukraine situation. While “The Square” took a micro look at the Egyptian revolution by following a small group of protesters, “Winter of Fire” uses a macro bird-eye perspective look at the whole situation. Some of the images of footage presented in this documentary should send shivers down your spine.

Sicario (USA)

Denis Villeneuve takes a tactical filmmaking approach to explore morality in the violent world of drug cartels. “Sicario” fumes with chilling photography. This comes as no surprise when you have 13-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Richard Deakins added to the mix. The film also boils with nerve-wracking tension, thanks to a thunderous score by Johann Johannsson, and Benicio Del Toro’s powerhouse performance.

Few actors demand the viewer’s utmost attention like Benicio De Toro. With only a few lines and limited screen time, Del Toro completely dominates the film from start to finish. Much like Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”, and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”, one can feel Del Toro’s towering presence hovering over the whole film, even when he’s off-screen.

 

It Follows (USA)

“It Follows” is a near-perfect horror film. When I first watched this terrifying film, I was looking over my shoulder the whole way back. It very much follows you long after the credits roll. David Robert Mitchell has perfected a nerve-racking tale that is both intelligent in its use of metaphoric plot points and hypnotically terrifying, the like of which we haven’t seen since Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.

Layered with an STD subtext where sex has metaphysical implications, the film promotes the behavior as much as it feasts on sex-related fears. This is the type of film made for drive-in theatres, and if this were to screen in a drive-in, you would more likely be glued to the screen in absolute terror than undressing your partner sitting next to you. Everything about “It Follows” is perfectly executed, from the haunting Disasterpeace original score, to the dreadful atmosphere reminiscent of the work of John Carpenter. It’s very much an impeccable exercise in pure terror.

 

Room (Ireland)

What would it be like to experience the world for the first time? “Room” tells the extraordinary story of a mother and her five-year-old child’s escape from captivity. Much of the film takes place inside a small room. This portion of the film plays out like a suffocating version of “Panic Room”. Both main characters and the camera never leave the confines of the room, which is a remarkable technical achievement in itself.

However, the film’s dark first half is perfectly balanced with a heartwarming second and third act. “Room” has the power to make us look around, and notice the little things we often take granted in life. Lenny Abrahamson practically opens a window to the world. This dark room shines with uplifting performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

 

Inside Out (USA)

Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece has steered viewers, both young and old, to take a deep look inside their own minds. Much of the film takes place inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl dealing with joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. The film is full of insights about the nature of how we process emotions. More importantly, it demonstrates how we are essentially the sum of our past experiences.

Memories from different points of our life shape who we are and how we behave. We learn that every outer-experience dictates an inner emotion, and suppressing emotions like sadness won’t do any good. In fact, it is important to acknowledge and get fully immersed in every emotion to lead a healthy life. “Inside Out” compresses the universal fundamentals of humanity in a fun journey to the core of child psychology.

 

The Revenant (USA)

Alejandro González Iñárritu continues his campaign of experimental filmmaking with “The Revenant”. Iñárritu always had a flair for pulling off impossible feats. His first three features, “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams” and “Babel”, were exercises of nonlinear interconnected narratives. ”Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” appears to have no editing whatsoever, and came from the realization that “we live our lives with no editing”.

His latest entry in a very impressive filmography practices natural lighting. “The Revenant” uses no artificial lighting techniques whatsoever. Iñárritu’s dedication accumulates to an anti-revenge flick simultaneously breathtaking and brutal. In a film with standout action-packed cinematography endeavors, my favorite scene is surprisingly the film’s quietest moment. Hugh Glass encounters a lone Native American butchering a wild beast in the middle of nowhere. For the briefest moments, two individuals from opposing sides, strip themselves of titles and skin color. At desperate times, they become simply men sharing a meal.

 

45 Years (UK)

“45 Years” portrays the devastating effects of keeping secrets in a long marriage. After an incident from the past gets uncovered, we witness the old couple attempting to recapture youth in a desperate attempt to cling on the grounds they’ve built over 45 years of marriage. The film speaks of the difficulties of sustaining a relationship so long and taming retrospective jealousy. At the end, one can’t help but recognize the fragility of relationships, no matter how long-lasting.

Charlotte Rampling commands the screen with a tragic performance sizzling with subtle nuances that expose an avalanche of emotions. It is a case study in refined acting, and perhaps the most powerful female performance of the year. The final moments of “45 Years” makes very strong use of musical lyrics, helping the protagonist, and the viewer, arrive to a heartbreaking revelation.


Honorable Mentions:

“Phoenix”, “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Charlie’s Country”, “Macbeth”, “Mustang”, “Carol”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Hard to be a God”, “Steve Jobs”, “Theeb”, “Youth”, “Spotlight”, “Queen of Earth”, “Brooklyn”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “The Martian”, “Chriaq”, “The Russian Woodpecker”, “James White”, “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, “Straight Outta Compton”, “Paddington”.

 

 

 

 

 

The Improbable Death of “The Cinema”

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As the means of how we attain movies evolves, enthusiasts busy themselves with various concerns about the bleak future of cinema. Studio executives, theater owners, filmmakers, and film critics distress about new emerging threats that menace the foundations of the way we consume cinema. The “death of cinema” drumbeat erupts every few decades, but the thunderous echo of that alarming sound eventually vanishes into thin air.

The first tidal wave to threaten to sweep traditional movie-going experiences came with the sudden breakthrough of home video in the mid 1970s. Yet as years went by, home entertainment and traditional movie theaters found a way to coexist in harmony. The latest so-called threat to cinema is the growing popularity of, both legal and illegal, online streaming services. Despite repeated concerns, scrutinising both film history and emerging data proves that the aforementioned developments are merely fluctuations in an evolving industry where the grounds are constantly shifting.

The film industry brims with theories on what makes millenials tick, and Hollywood’s worst fear is that younger generations are drifting towards online streaming as an alternative to old entertainment consumption patterns. However, despite the youth getting seduced by the ease of online streaming, box-office numbers show they are not shying away from multiplexes for the bigger movies.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Universal Studios single handedly shattered all records collecting $5.77 billion as of August 2015 and these numbers are bound to grow with four months to go until the end of the year. The same report states that global and domestic theater attendances are spiking for other studios as well.

Ironically, Netflix’s first cinematic release in their initiative to push the boundaries of their capabilities was a major commercial flop. Beasts of No Nations performed below expectations grossing only $50,699. Yet, when it comes to producing and distributing their own films, Netflix are relativele newcomers. The low box-office turnout to an otherwise critically praised film can be attributed to the fact that viewers had the option to stream it at home. Just as Netflix struggles to break into the studio system, Hollywood studios are having a hard time establishing their presence within the online streaming platform.

BGR reports that 21st Century Fox, NBC Universal and Disney, the owners of the rival streaming service, Hulu, are finding difficulty landing on a common strategy, because “the three companies are already fiercely competitive with each other.” Cinema isn’t witnessing its own demise; we are in the midst of a continental drift within the film industry, where both Hollywood studios and streaming services awkwardly attempt to coexist.

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Perhaps the most logically accurate analysis of the current state of cinema comes from The Guardian’s Fred Wagner; “at the cinema, movies cater to groups of people, and thus try to appeal to plus-ones and tag-alongs as well as natural fans. That is why kids’ films have storylines for adults, and why romcoms go out of their way to attract men. But the Internet is different. As viewers are watching alone, films can be made exclusively for certain fanbases and still be confident of finding an audience.” Wagner predicts a splintering of the industry, where films are either made for the movie theatres or for other mediums.

A more compelling argument would be that streaming video is only directly affecting its home entertainment predecessors, as in physical discs such as DVDs and Blu-Rays. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu reach a combined annual viewership of around 3.5 billion compared to an estimated 2.4 billion disc views. So in a sense, streaming video is only affecting the industry within the boundaries of home entertainment. Digitally streaming films will hammer the final nail in the coffin of movies in physical form, the same way Laserdiscs killed VHS tapes.

In a similar fashion, going to the movies in a picture house is only affected by technological advancements within the evolution of the movie-going experience. The one thing that did exist from the very beginning is the movie theater. It is practically as old as film itself, but it too evolves and constantly changes. Before nickelodeons and movie theaters, there were vaudeville houses displaying live acts, each lasting between five to ten minutes to an audience.

When the Lumiere brothers arrived to the United States, they hooked their cinematograph to the magic lantern and projected short films to a live audience in these vaudeville houses. Later on, nickelodeons came along igniting the birth of the modern theater. Deluxe theaters were built and they became the go-to place for film fans holding a capacity of up to 6000 seats. There was the casual weekly change of program and each week the decorative exterior would light up a new movie title in colourful light bulbs.

Deluxe theaters also offered a better service with ushers walking customers to their assigned seats. S.L. Rothafel is often credited for making deluxe theaters such a pleasant environment, for his motto was to treat the audience like kings and queens. He later added a cooling system and theaters were air conditioned for the first time in history. These deluxe theaters made motion pictures the dominant form of entertainment. Today, deluxe theaters are getting run over by multiplexes and IMAX cinemas projecting digital as opposed to celluloid.

The notion that streaming video threatens to kill cinema can only be viewed as a misconception, for history and data prove that home entertainment and cinemas exist within different realms of the entertainment industry. They affect preceding technology as opposed to crossing over to eliminating one another. Whenever the line between cinema and home entertainment come up, leading Hollywood filmmakers take out their chalk and draw a sharp distinctive line between the two industries by introducing a new “immersive” selling point. This long feud with home entertainment has produced innovative technological advancement such as 60 frames per second projection, 8k digital restorations, and 3D. Today, even 35-70mm film-reel projections attract art-house fanatics towards indie cinemas.

 

In Savoring a Century of ‘The Cinema’, Roger Ebert wrote “books and plays can provide us with stories. But the movies uniquely create the impression that we have had an experience. The key word is we. I have seen a lot of movies by myself, but the experience is not the same as seeing a film with a large group of strangers. The greatest movie-going experiences of my life – the premieres of Apocalypse Now and Do the Right Thing, both at the Cannes Film Festival – were great not just because of the movies but because nowhere else do more people gather in the same theater to see them. Together, we – a cross-section of humanity – had an experience, and because it mirrored our shared humanity, it was somehow spiritual; we were giving witness.” If film history taught us anything, it’s that audiences going to the movies in large masses always prevails.

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Film Analysis: “Knight of Cups” ★★★★★ (5/5)

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There’s enough spiritual clarity in “Knight of Cups” to make viewers blinded by sorrow or depression see beauty in life. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter… It is not the sitter who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.” If there is any truth to Wilde’s words, then there’s no denying that director, Terrence Malick, is a man of goodwill and exquisite character.

This comes as no surprise, for Malick kicked off his career with two milestone films that promised the world the arrival of the next Kubrick, Shakespeare, or Mozart. His debut came in 1973 in the form of “Badlands”; today, it is regarded as a bona fide classic, and one of the greatest cinematic debuts of all time. Five years later, Malick teamed up with cinematographer Néstor Almendros and the rest is history.

During production of “Days of Heaven”, cinematographer Néstor Almendros was going blind. It is said that before each shot, he would have his assistant photograph the shot with a Polaroid camera. After that, he would view it under a high-powered magnifying glass. I can only imagine that the thought of “Days of Heaven” being possibly his last chance to cement the magnus opus of his career drove Almendros to achieving what he did. The end result was a film universally accepted among film critics at the time to be the most gorgeously photographed film ever made.

It takes one great work of art to be remembered in history, one film to gain the reputation of a master of your craft, Malick had two of those and he was just getting started. What followed is the stuff of legend. The always-reclusive Malick disappeared off the face of the earth for two decades leaving hungry fans starving for more.

While Malick had a distinctive photographic eye from the get-go, it wasn’t till the second renaissance of his career that he found his unique cinematic voice. The so-called painter was revealed with the release of “The Thin Red Line”, “The New World”, “The Tree of Life”, “To the Wonder”, and “Knight of Cups”. The aforementioned films are set in different time periods. They take place during World War II, the European colonization of the Americas, the birth of the universe, and the modern world. Yet with subject matters so far apart in time and space, they are stitched close together through a seamless therapeutic tone. The thread binding Malick films together is the look and feel of a master who has fully realized his own unique style, abstract beauty.

I have written about the painter, now it is time to explore the sitter, a screenwriter called Rick played by Christian Bale in the wonderful colored canvas that is “Knight of Cups”. Malick’s signature-floating camera trails the screenwriter as he searches for meaning in his life. Rick is surrounded by everything anyone could dream of in the glamorous extravagance of Hollywood; yet, he couldn’t feel more alone.

I was reminded of a scene in another Malick masterpiece, “The Thin Red Line”. Two soldiers have a very brief yet extremely intimate exchange of words in an empty abandoned house. “Do you ever get lonely?” one asks. A brief moment of silence follows, before the other answers, “only around people.”

As with all Malick films, the viewer drifts from one narrated philosophical thought to another, leaving the film in its full form open for interpretation. However, viewers will be able to reach a solid understanding of the message by examining the unique film poster of “Knight of Cups”.

knight of cups

The title refers to a tarot card embodying a very specific character. Rick represents the “Knight of Cups”, an intelligent dreamer with high principles who also gets easily influenced by others. The film’s core theme is encapsulated in the artwork of the poster, which refers to the work of Jacob Bohme, a German philosopher who believed that humans fall from grace, and that in order to find God again, they have to go through hell first.

Malick, a Harvard graduate in philosophy, injects more ideas in his film than most directors achieve throughout their entire filmography. At one point, Rick narrates a very significant story, which goes like this: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the east, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.”

Much like the prince, Rick, constantly tries to remember his true purpose and place in this world. “All those years living the life of someone I didn’t even know,” he narrates. “I can’t remember the man I wanted to be.” Another character tells him to find his way “from darkness to light…remember.” We also hear him whisper “wake up” to himself, which directly references the deep sleep state of the prince.

The search for our place in the cosmos doesn’t only plague Rick’s mind, but that of viewer’s as well, especially whenever Malick cuts to breathtaking exterior shots of Earth rotating in a sea of darkness. We are all lost princes searching for our identity, place and role in the short time we have on this planet. We long for something we have no recollection of, so instead, we find a way to escape our suffering.

For Rick, taking a deep dive into the stimulating world of lust and partying seems to momentarily satisfy his existence. In one scene, a bystander mentions escaping the harshness of reality by attending ketamine parties, an escapist drug of this generation. Malick also randomly cuts to picturesque shots music festivals where thousands of ravers swirl around in artificial ecstasy induced by drugs. This is a master at work; rather than spoon-feeding his message through dialogue, Malick paints it with poetic visuals.

With the release of “Knight of Cups”, at the age of 72, I’m positive that Terrence Malick is more in tune with the mindset of the current generation than any young filmmaker working today. This concurrently puts him far ahead of all veteran filmmakers attempting to regain the glory days of the pinnacles of their past.

Another character, Elizabeth, played by Natalie Portman, has a different way of escaping. She tells Rick that to avoid sadness, she goes to sleep. When she wakes up, for the briefest of moments, she doesn’t recall her troubles. Then of course she does remember and sadness flows back into her conscious. That moment of emptiness or forgetfulness before recollecting the gravity of her situation is bliss for her; it’s also another way of escape or fooling one’s self.

This all may sound a bit bleak; yet somehow Malick turns it into an extremely uplifting journey. In fact, one of the film’s most powerful moments flips a negative into a positive. A man of God explains that the people that hurt us most in our lives are simultaneously the ones that love us most. We should be grateful for this hurt, for the suffering they send us ultimately elevates us to a higher place- we become wiser better versions of ourselves. Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” is philosophical fiction at its finest.

Film Review: “Listen to Me Marlon” ★★★★★ (5/5)

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In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Brando elaborates the effect an actor should have on his audience. “Hit ‘em. Knock ‘em over…with an attitude, with a word, with a look! Be surprising! Figure out a way to do it in a way that has never been done before. You want to stop that movement of the popcorn to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. You do that with the truth.” I can see director Stevan Riley listening to those very words for the first time through his headphones, the vibrating wavelengths travelling beyond his eardrums and taken to heart. Riley implements that exact same Brando technique on the making of his documentary.

After watching “Listen to Me Marlon”, the first thing I did was walk over to the ticket booth to buy another ticket for the next showing. Stevan Riley dissects Brando’s life using nothing but audio recovered from tapes the actor recorded himself. He also utilizes a 3D digital version of Brando’s head that the actor got made in the 1980’s in order to be part of future digital performances. It’s a first documentary of its kind.

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The end result is the best-documented film on not only the greatest and most influential actor to walk this planet, but on acting itself as an art form. Riley paints Brando’s words with corresponding visuals that perfectly encapsulate the meaning behind the spoken word. Like Brando’s many monumental performances, Riley has figured out a way to showcase a portrait in a way that has never been done before.

“When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage; your face is the proscenium arch of the theatre, thirty feet high, and it sees all the little movements of the face and the eye and the mouth.” _Marlon Brando

While the film is an intimate portrait first and foremost, it is also many other things. Much of the film feels meditative, much like the work of Terrence Malick. Brando reflects on life with personal and philosophical commentary without it steering away from being a posthumous autobiographical film. The viewer learns about the method of the quintessential actor, but we also get a peak at the man himself. This is as close as we’ll ever be to seeing the world through the eyes of Marlon Brando, a deeply thoughtful artist if there ever was one. This isn’t merely Brando on Brando; it’s Brando on life and the world, as we know it.

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“Don’t bring anything into the present that doesn’t have the past.”_Marlon Brando

One part I found interesting is when Brando is asked if the roles he picks reflect his life and he replies yes. His powerhouse breakthrough as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” is so real and authentic, because what we’re really seeing is Brando slipping into the shoes of his abusive father. In fact, the documentary makes a strong argument for the auteur theory. It establishing it as a legit theory of film.

The auteur theory is possibly the most interesting theory in film for the simple reason that there is no true definition to fully explain the theory. The thematic link between films of an individual artist reveals a view or outlook the author or auteur has on the world. The auteur is an individual who has something to say to the world, and through his work, the viewer discovers his statement. An auteur doesn’t necessarily have to be the director; in fact, it may be a director and an actor working together, each displaying his own vision. Each film can have more than one auteur.

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If we carefully examine the films of Marlon Brando, you’ll find the one thing that binds them together is rebellion. His characters are often individuals fighting for a cause be it Terry Malloy fighting mob corruption on the docks in “On the Waterfront”, or his motorcycle led rebellion as Johnny Strabler in “The Wild One”. Other notable roles of characters fighting an establishment include Emiliano Zapata in “Viva Zapata” and of course his turns as Mark Anthony in “Julius Caesar”, Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and defected Colonel Kurtz who went rogue in “Apocalypse Now”. Brando’s latter choices as an actor are presented as a protest against the Hollywood studio system.

Brando very much practiced what he preached as is evident in some of pivotal activism chapters in his life. He supported many causes most notably the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and various American Indian Movements. The latter was a point of much discussion when he protested the Oscars by declining to accept his second Best Actor Academy Award for the misrepresentation of Native Americans in Hollywood westerns. “Listen to Me Marlon” feels like an extension to his acting and activism; the film allows the legend to deliver a message to the world from beyond the grave.

As a film critic, it is my duty to guide eager viewers to the right movies, because money and time is a luxury. I can’t remember the last time I felt the urge to show a film to everyone I know, as strongly as I did walking out of “Listen to me Marlon”. To watch this documentary is to not only understand why Brando is regarded as the greatest actor of all time, but it is to grasp the undeniable fact that he was truly one of the most remarkable human beings to ever walk this planet.

The 15 Best Films of 2015 (So Far)

The year is off to a great start with triumphs in both blockbuster films and independent filmmaking. Like all my lists, it’s not organized in any particular order, with the exception of “Tu Dors Nicole” taking the top spot for being a clear personal favorite of mine. After that, all the listed films are scattered in random order. The list excludes critically acclaimed films I still haven’t seen such as “Inside Out”, “Timbuku”, “Love & Mercy”, “White God”, and “Far From the Maddin Crowd”. Whether or not any of the films survive to make it to my end-of-the-year list remains to be seen.

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At one point, Nicole mentions she plans on visiting Iceland with her best friend; to which her brother’s buddy replies, “What are you going to do there?” She then thinks about it for a second and answers, “Nothing. We’ll do nothing, but we’ll be doing nothing somewhere else. Nice nothing.” I can see viewers watching this gem and complaining that nothing really happens throughout the film, but it’s the nice kind of nothing. Besides, by watching all this beautiful shot black and white nothingness, so much can happen to the viewer. “Tu dors Nicole” is probably my personal favorite film of the year so far.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIEf5T3U2YA

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In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, our two main characters examine a drip painting by Pollock. They articulate how the artist made his hand go where it wanted but didn’t plan his every move. The piece of art would never have come to be if you preplanned every stroke. Consciousness exists in the gap between randomness and deliberated action, so as long as the AI is programed to do automatic actions, it can never be regarded as truly conscious. In order for it to be regarded as an equal, we would have to somehow prove that it acts through random chaotic impulse.   “Ex Machina” is a study of what it means to be conscious/human. With its release, I’m convinced more than ever that we are in the midst of a British New Wave in science fiction cinema. The film challenges the intellect by putting humankind, artificial intelligence, and our inevitable future together under the microscope.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PI8XBKb6DQk

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I think by now, it’s quite clear that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the blockbuster spectacle of the summer. It’s only been out for a month, yet everything about this film has been discussed to death. With a strong feminist undertaking, mastermind George Miller pumps up his post-apocalyptic trilogy with a nitrous oxide charge of marvelous cinema. This recklessly fast-paced motion picture is quite possible the greatest stunt film since Buster Keaton took over a locomotive in “The General”. The fact that it tackles contemporary issues such as gender equality, climate change and the inevitable water wars to come is just the icing on top – or shall I say the shooting flame on an electric guitar.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woHTUsl66BY

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According to Roy Anderson, the film’s 72-year old Swedish cult filmmaker, merely watching this film from beginning to end will make you a smarter person. This is his third installment in a philosophical trilogy about what it means to be a human being. However, like “Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living”, it works as a stand-alone film. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” is beautifully sad, and humorously bizarre. It will more likely find its audience in a museum than a multiplex.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGwGyo5Ywpo

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“It Follows” is a near-perfect horror film. When I first watched this terrifying film, I was looking over my shoulder the whole way back. It very much follows you long after the credits roll. David Robert Mitchell has perfected a nerve-racking tale that is both intelligent in its use of metaphoric plot points and hypnotically terrifying, the like of which we haven’t seen since Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. Layered with an STD subtext where sex has metaphysical implications, the film promotes the behavior as much as it feasts on sex-related fears. This is the type of film made for drive-in theaters, and if this were to screen in a drive-in, you would more likely be glued to the screen in absolute terror than undressing your partner sitting next to you. Everything about “It Follows” is perfectly executed, from the haunting Disasterpeace original score, to the dreadful atmosphere of a small-town that recalls the work of John Carpenter. It’s very much an impeccable exercise in pure terror.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaRx7iR9kXg

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Damian Szifron’s Academy Award nominated film is the most entertaining film on this list. The film is composed of six revenge tales with twists and turns at every scene. Not all of the stories here are great, but they’re all certainly engaging. One thing they all have in common is the directorial chef; Szifron peppers his stories with dark humor and a thread of wicked irony. “Wild Tales” grabs it viewers by the balls from the brilliant opening scene and doesn’t let go till the credits start rolling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUnXv6R2HI8

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Oliver Assays blurs the lines between fiction and reality as art intertwines with actuality. This Bergman(esque) character study revolves around a legendary actress who accepts to star in a film where she revisits the role that made her a star twenty years ago. However, she has been chosen to play the role of an old veteran actress who gets practically walked over by a much younger talent. Things start getting out of hand when script starts to reflect reality. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Moretz deliver a trio of in-depth performances that fearlessly dig into the female psyche. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is in many ways a female-centered “Birdman” with European flair.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L-9rcEhGm4

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Technically, “Charlie’s Country” made its festival debut in 2014, but the film just opened in selected theaters across the US, which makes it qualify to land on my list. It is said to be the first film ever to be spoken in Yolngu, Australia’s indigenous language. The sad reality is that the film could also very well be the last of its kind. Once rulers of their land, the Yolngu only make up 1% of the current Australian population. I can’t think of a better film to preserve the roots of Australia’s native population than “Charlie’s Country”. Legendary Australian actor, David Gulpilil carries the whole film on his shoulders with a heartbreaking performance that is at times both witty, and comical. “Charlie’s Country” is a fine piece of Australian cinema, perhaps even, the most important Australian film yet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpcfNQ6tiiE

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“Slow West” is as close as we’ll ever get to see what a Wes Anderson western would look like. Writer and director John Maclean combines a somewhat similar visual style with offbeat humor in a story that follows a young man’s journey across the frontier in search for the woman he loves. Midway through, he stumbles upon a mysterious cowboy who offers him road protection. This isn’t by any chance a masterpiece, nor is it one of the genre’s best, but it’s a fun little gem of movie that works in unexpected ways. Michael Fassbender shines as always as the outlaw with a heart of gold.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFfsTsdJfF8

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“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is based on the rock star’s diary entries, art and home videos, and the end result is as intimate as a music documentary could get. In fact, some of the material shown here is so personal, the viewer might feel uncomfortable prying into the artistic mind of artist. Brett Morgen uses beautiful hand drawn animation to retell key chapters of Cobain’s life that ultimately led to his sudden demise. It is an emotionally wrenching cinematic portrait of Kurt Cobain the person as opposed to the icon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqyPMyC2T0s

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The funniest and most violent action film of the year comes from “Kick Ass” director Mathew Vaughn. Colin Firth stars as a secret agent who could probably pistol-whip James Bond to a pulp. Imagine if “Pretty Woman” was re-written as an R-rated superhero film about spies, and you’ll probably end up with “Kingsman: The Secret Service”. The film consciously spoofs both the “My Fair Lady” type of film and the espionage genre. Everything here is over-the-top from the hyper action scenes to the abrupt violence, the foul language, even the product placement is in your face. On paper, none of this should work, but somehow the sheer absurdity of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, and the director’s awareness of it, makes it one of the most entertaining films of the year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl8F-8tR8to

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“The Tribe” is presented entirely in sign language, without any translation, subtitles, or dialogue. It is a first of its kind in all of cinema and that alone warrants it a place on my list. The film follows gangsters in a school for the deaf as they spread anarchy whether they go. There’s a lot of sex, drinking, smoking, fighting, and unlawful criminal behavior committed throughout the film. It isn’t an easy film to watch, and it’s not because of the lack of dialogue and soundtrack, but because of the disturbing nature of their acts. A new cinematic communication is born with this film. “The Tribe” is a testament to the power of visual storytelling, and proves that gestures, facial expressions and body movement are all you need to tell an emotionally powerful story.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xboxgEm-ucU

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“Jurassic World” is composed of every ingredient you would expect in a generic summer blockbuster, but what makes it work is the fact that the whole spectacle is a big homage to the far superior original, “Jurassic Park”. Much like an actual roller coaster, the film is a roaring thrill ride from beginning to end. And even though one of the theme park’s managers tires to justify creating a new genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur by declaring, “people are bored with dinosaurs”, the most electrifying moments mount from the appearances of the very dinosaurs that made the original the classic it is today. “Jurassic World” lacks the wonder and awe of “Jurassic Park”; but it’s still the best sequel within the franchise so far.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP-sUUUfamw

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Academy Award winning director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) masterfully crafts a film about the consequences of a lie. Following a beach incident, the mysterious disappearance of Elly leads a group of vacationing friends to lie. All lies bring forth suspicion, and with each question asked, the lies snowball into more fabrications. What we end up with is a study of group mentality and the psychological/emotional motivations behind the occasional painful necessity to lie for greater good. “About Elly” reaches its audience nearly six years after its initial release, and it cements Farhadi as one of the finest filmmakers working today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdqMICWhxuA

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Warm, charming, and absolutely delightful in every sense of the word, “Paddington” is the surprise hit family film of the year. Paul King stuffs his film with British charm and all things English. Like the “Harry Potter” films, both adults and kids alike can enjoy “Paddington”. The simplicity of the self-contained story will make you remember how wholesome it felt to hug a stuffed teddy bear.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxeBdrGGU8U


Honoroable Mentions: “
5 Broken Cameras”, “Red Army”, “Mojave”, “Spring”, “Shaun the Sheep”, “The Driftless Area”, “Duke of Burgundy”, “Heaven Knows What”, “Blackhat”

Nutshell Review: “Under the Skin”

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In an earlier review for Under the Skin, I wrote that I wasn’t sure if I would ever watch it again. I’ve re-watched the film five times since making that statement. With over a hundred years of cinema, filmmakers recycle, remake, and try to improve upon originals with lesser sequels, etc. Rarely do I stumble upon a film that shows me something new, something I’ve never seen before. Under the Skin did just that. The music, sound effects, cinematography and art-direction are so fresh and different; it almost feels alien, much like its protagonist, an extraterrestrial being played by Scarlett Johansson. She terrorises the streets of Scotland seducing pedestrians; much like the visuals seduce the viewer. Through our protagonist’s development from an “it” to a “she”, we slowly grasp the fundamentals of what it means to be human. On another LEVEL, victimising men with the promise of sex will give male audiences a taste of what it’s like to walk down a dark alley as a woman in a man’s world.