Sully is a toothless tribute

Movies about recent events that use still-living people as their basis can be tricky, as its natural to try to celebrate their best qualities and not smear the name of anyone who’s still around to be upset. Sully, Clint Eastwood’s new film celebrating the Miracle on the Hudson and the pilot (Chelsey Sullenberger) who successfully ditched the passenger plane in the river, certainly paints a kind portrait of every person involved, from the crew of the jet to seemingly the entire city of New York. Its a hard movie to get upset about, but its also completely devoid of dramatic tension, and while it flirts with some thematically interesting  bits on gaslighting and hero worship, it ultimately has no more insight and asks no more questions than the news coverage of the event already did.

The movie doesn’t open with the actual events of the miracle on the Hudson, and for a moment it seemed as if it would trust its audience enough to not bother re-enacting them. However, halfway through, the movie flashes back to the incident, showing it through the eyes of the air traffic controllers, the boats on the river, the passengers, and the crew, but there’s no revelation in any of this. Since the movie has already told us that everyone made it out safely, there’s no dramatic tension even for those who know nothing of the real story. It doesn’t provide insight into Sully’s character, as the first act and the mere casting of Tom Hanks already tells us that he’s capable, relatable, and good-hearted. Instead, the main event is rendered a pointless sideshow that distracts from the only interesting plot point in the movie: Sully’s self-doubt. A safety board investigation runs throughout the movie, doubting whether Sully had to ditch the plane or if a safe landing was possible. There’s no doubt that the board will eventually see things Sully’s way, but there is very briefly doubt that Sully believes in himself. There’s just not enough material in that to mine for drama without allowing for a bit of bite, or at least a less hagiographic tribute to Sully.

Even at 96 minutes, it quickly runs out of things to say, ending on the equivalent of a rimshot and an “oh you!”. As a reenaction, Sully is at least well filmed. Eastwood stages some striking shots during the flashbacks, particularly once the plane is afloat, and its evocations of 9/11 are certainly no accident. Hanks is warm and likable, but its the kind of role he could play in his sleep. Aaron Eckhart is a nice presence as first officer Jeff Skiles, whose relative lack of fame next to Sully gives Eckhart a bit more room to maneuver. He exudes a low-key charm, and puts up a strong claim for Mustache of the Year. That being said, the positivity of the movie is refreshing, celebrating the coming together of a city and unqualified triumph in the face of disaster. It’s unchallenging and often hackneyed, but surely watchable, and an effective-enough time capsule of one of the most dramatic near-misses in aviation history.

C

sully_imax_trailer

Sully (2016)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney
Rotten Tomatoes (83%)

Sully is a toothless tribute

Arrival’s human elements outshine its speculative ones

Arrival is the kind of major Hollywood movie some sci-fi fans have been eternally asking for. It’s a story of alien vessels descending on Earth that doesn’t present itself as an excuse to blow up the White House, or immediately turn into a cheap thrill ride. Its main focus is on something technical (linguistics), and it doesn’t immediately turn into faux-mathy quantum-this relativity-that technobabble but instead lets it drive the plot. It involves nations colluding and high stakes, yes, but it also is consistently a very personal story that never loses sight of its main character. It leaves plenty of room for imagination while not resorting to magical excuses. But something’s still missing for me. Arrival is a sparse, thoughtful, beautiful film that I just can’t love, mostly because it’s payoff simply didn’t entirely work for me. To go on much further would be clearly spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the movie doesn’t cheat with any twists nor does it betray its tone. In fact, its payoff is incredibly affecting dramatically. While the viewer in me interested in human stories left satisfied, the world-investigating nerd in me felt a bit let down.

Arrival’s sparsity and humanistic elements come to the forefront immediately, starting with flashback’s to Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter dying young, and allowing the landing of the aliens to happen entirely offscreen. We only see what Dr. Banks sees, and only get a full-out effects shot once she’s brought in by the military as a linguistics expert. Twelve crafts have landed sporadically around the world, and while Dr. Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) try to figure out just what they want, they must work with the other eleven nations while also staving off aggression towards the visitors both foreign and on their base. It’s timely that international mistrust plays such a large role here, considering the current nationalistic trend in politics, but Arrival mostly shies away from that form of commentary. It has more sympathy for the aliens themselves, and condemns those who see mystery and respond with fear. Alt-right-esque commentators make brief unsavory appearances, panic spreads through a literal game of telephone, and when Renner notes that they’re having “Coffee with some aliens”, it’s possible to mishear as something very politically relevant today.

For all that it has to say about how we treat those deemed “other”, Arrival is more interested in it’s sci-fi elements than its political ones. And while they don’t entirely land for me, they take big swings and hit home emotionally. A lot of it’s successes have to do with its score, beautifully subdued and often incredibly sad, and Villeneuve’s command of mood, painting the movie in a washed-out blue haze on Earth and surgically cold blacks and whites on the vessel. Its alien design is fairly minimalistic, with the gravity-bending trick seen in the trailers as its lone flashy moment. Otherwise, it’s content with its giant black obelisks of vessels, remarkable for their unremarkability. Amy Adams gives a career-best performance in the middle of a fantastic career, important as the movie rests entirely on her shoulders. No amount of disappointment in the end result can erase the fantastic buildup, and if you’re able to go with it all the way, the reward is memorable and touching.

B

arrival2-640x271

Arrival (2016)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Forest Whitaker
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

SPOILERS BELOW:

Really, my only problem with the film is that its ending plays with causality in a way that felt a bit convenient. On a larger scale, I like that it’s willing to play around with a big idea like perception of time, but on a micro scale, the conclusion it presents us with is one where we have no free will. I’ve read elsewhere interpretations that, instead of choosing to perform certain actions in the hope of certain results, heptapods (and eventually Dr. Banks) choose whether or not to prevent certain events from occuring. This seems to open up a giant Grandfather paradox, which the movie never really addresses in a satisfying way. A many-worlds or timelines interpretation isn’t really humoured either, as then I would expect Dr. Banks would see visions of her life with and without Hannah. The fact that it leaves a lot to discuss is a good thing, and it doesn’t negate the fantastic buildup and film-making nor the dramatic impact of the finale, but it doesn’t feel like it fully explores the ramifications of its twist.

Arrival’s human elements outshine its speculative ones

The Accountant and Jane Got a Gun both rely heavily on their peripherals

Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Pride & Glory) released two films in 2016, and out of sheer coincidence, I saw them on back-to-back days. Jane Got a Gun recently popped on Netflix, after a considerable period in development hell and two years on a shelf. The Accountant is currently finishing it’s theatrical run. Neither film is a tour-de-force, nor an interesting enough failure, to warrant a full essay each. Both fail to rise above problems in their plotting and rely far too much on flashback storytelling, but The Accountant’s plotting is wonderfully over-the-top even if it’s completely overstuffed, whereas Jane Got a Gun is far too rote.

jane-got-a-got-01-fr-670-380

From it’s title, Jane Got a Gun announces itself as a feminist revisionist Western where Natalie Portman gets to deliver some frontier justice. Indeed, it starts out promisingly enough, with Jane’s husband Ham (Noah Emmerich) arriving back at the homestead full of bullets and barely alive, rambling about the Bishop gang, led by a mustachioed and otherwise weirdly indistinct Ewan McGregor,  being angry and on their way. Jane enlists the help of her ex-lover Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), and…immediately stops having much agency in her own story. Dan takes charge, flashbacks tell us how Ham saved Jane from Bishop in the past, and Jane herself gets lost in the shuffle. It’s not a terribly exciting shuffle either, with the action heavily backloaded as both the flashback and present-day storylines reach near-simultaneous conclusions. Noah Emmerich’s Ham is really the only character who makes much of an impression (aside from a quick nasty appearance by Rodrigo Santoro), and the climax of his flashback’s arc gives us perhaps the only memorable scene of the film. There’s potential here, but it never goes to the level of camp it’s title so richly deserves (despite the aforementioned Ewan McGregor stache), and falls flat because of it.

3059888-poster-p-1-ben-affleck-ditches-the-codpiece-for-a-calculator-in-new-trailer-for-the-accountan

The camp appeal of The Accountant is clearly on display, as it essentially answers the age-old question of “What if Rain Man was a badass?” Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a high-functioning autistic man who works as an accountant for criminal organizations and also can take on five armed henchmen when the need arises. It’s not particularly PC, but it never makes Wolff the butt of the joke. It recognizes that his condition is serious, but doesn’t rely on that as his only character trait, much to the credit of the script and Affleck’s low-key performance. However, the two sides of his criminal activities never quite gel completely, and the action scenes aren’t particularly well choreographed. The movie also runs a bit too long at 130 minutes, mostly because it keeps throwing in characters and flashbacks ad nauseum. While the flashbacks provide necessary context for Wolff’s odd combination of traits, far too much time is spent with a pair of mostly disconnected treasury agents. There’s a sense that the movie was throwing whatever it could at the script, although it doesn’t usually translate to a particularly wacky presentation. However, the characters and plot are interesting enough to make the movie immensely satisfying. Helpfully, while the movie is overstuffed, it’s stuffed to the brim with distinctive character actors, from JK Simmons to Jeffrey Tambor to John Lithgow to Jean Smart, who make even the most ancillary moments watchable. The Accountant is far from great, but it’s a neat take on the type of corporate-minded action movie the dominated the 90s that at least breaks the sequel trend effectively. It’s a shame that it just doesn’t stick the landing, throwing on more and more convolution rather than providing a satisfying capper.

Jane Got a Gun (2016)
Grade: D+
Dir. Gavin O’Connor
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, and Ewan McGregor
Rotten Tomatoes (40%)

The Accountant (2016)
Grade: C+
Dir. Gavin O’Connor
Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, and J.K. Simmons
Rotten Tomatoes (51%)

Comments:

  • The Accountant SPOILERS: So Jon Bernthal being Wolff’s little brother grown up has to be the most obvious twist ever, right? They didn’t foreshadow it as far as I can tell, but the laws of character usage economics and the lack of alternative grown-up Affleck brothers and other inexplicability of Bernthal’s screentime confirmed it a full hour-and-a-half before the movie finally did.
The Accountant and Jane Got a Gun both rely heavily on their peripherals

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange

The Marvel movies that exist slightly outside of the Avengers orbit have a bit of a tricky situation on their hands. They’re given much more freedom, and are less restricted by existing storylines, allowing us the intergalactic funk of Guardians of the Galaxy. However, their style can’t be too extreme, or else they’ll clash when they inevitably join the rest of the squad, as seen in the drab approach Ant-Man took to the material. Ant-Man may have benefited from a bit more crazy behind the camera, but Doctor Strange, the newest addition to the MCU lineup, cleverly gets around this by building the crazy right into the structure of its world. The style of the special effects is like nothing you would see in Thor or Iron Man, but it’s not presented as a trick of the camera; by allowing some batshit crazy magical powers, batshit crazy visual tricks still fit the house style. Unfortunately, while the fantastical moments are far-and-away the best reason to see the movie, they necessitate a deeply silly mythology, and greatly outshine the least interesting cast of characters in any major MCU release outside of maybe The Incredible Hulk.

Donning the cape is Benedict Cumberbatch, who essentially plays the role he seems to always play as an effortlessly competent and talented individual with contempt for those who can’t perform at his level (he insulting calls someone a “Bachelors degree” at one point). It recalls his Sherlock, obviously, but also Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who similarly started off full of hubris and has seemingly boundless intelligence just because. But where Downey’s sardonic Stark is lovably self-deprecating, Cumberbatch’s Strange is infuriatingly smug. Where Stark applied knowledge he gained from his engineering background in his superhero persona, Strange is simply adept at wizardry and neurosurgery because he’s brilliant. It feels very much like a Chosen One kind of story, and while his ego is shot down often by Rachel McAdams’ love interest and Tilda Swinton’s guru, his natural competence flies directly in the face of those criticisms. He does brilliantly all while being a self-absorbed elitist narcissist about it, without the charisma to offset it (Cumberbatch’s natural charm is majorly blunted by his forced and completely unnecessary American accent).

There’s little in the rest of the story to really add much interest. Swinton’s The Ancient One is perhaps the sole bright spot, a fantastically designed character who is granted the movie’s sole moving moment, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s fellow sorceror Mordo is underserved, Rachel McAdams is given a thankless role, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is an unfortunate addition to Marvel’s trend of uninteresting villains. A lot of this can maybe be attributed to how arbitrary the rules of the universe seem to be constructed. This is a world full of sorcerors, sure, but the extent of their powers is never clearly defined. The advancement of the plot relies often on one-upmanship and lines like “they’re more powerful in this realm”, more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than Harry Potter. Hands are waved around and sparks fly for particular reason, and it’s more difficult to just go with than a giant green anger totem or a patroitic supersoldier for whatever reason. It’s just too silly, like something two kids would come up with bored in a backyard. Sometimes, this works; Strange’s cape has a personality akin to the magic carpet in Aladdin, and is appropriately endearing. Sometimes its just stupid. As a particularly egregious example, a lot is made of separating the body and soul as “astral projections”. While this leads to the aforementioned tender moment between Strange and the Ancient One, it also leads to an absurd ghost battle that serves no purpose other than making sure five minutes don’t go by without some action.

After the requisite training portion of the film, it really does kick into a non-stop action mode, in not necessarily the best way. After a great opening scene, it stops dead for about an hour, and then dives headfirst into the conclusion. By the time the movie arrives at the final showdown, it feels like the act-two break is still to come. The bloodless mysticism and senseless competence of Strange keep the action scenes from having real stakes, but Doctor Strange is creative enough with its special effects and design to make these scenes the far-and-away saving grace of the movie. Cities fold, floors and ceilings tile out into fractals, and the flow of time is allowed to play out differently in the background and foreground action. It’s nothing absolutely daring, and it wears it’s debt to The Matrix, Inception, and Cyriak (of Cows & Cows & Cows fame) on its sleeve, but it still has capacity to dazzle. I’m not sure if it’ll still dazzle on a small screen, but while the effects don’t make up for the lack of investment, they’re certainly the key selling point for seeing it on a big screen in 3D.

C

doctorstrange_clip_sanctumbattle

Doctor Strange (2016)
Dir. Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Tilda Swinton
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange