Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie Reviews: Arrival, Jackie, The Edge of Seventeen, Certain Women, Fifty Shades Darker,

Arrival: Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner star in this wonderful, smart, thoughtful sci-fi contact movie written by Eric Heisserer based on a short story by Ted Chiang. Instead of the missiles, bombs, and guns we get in most first contact movies, this one is about a) trying to communicate, and b) how a new way of thinking may change us.

Arrival is a slow, tense thriller that reveals itself like a murder mystery without a murder. The missile and bomb throwers are impatient, so the linguists have to figure out what's going on quickly. In the meantime, multiple layers of relationships, communication, and memory are explored. The ending confused me for a good hour after the movie ended until I finally figured it out. Beautiful on so many levels. Beautifully scripted, beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted.

This is this year's Interstellar, but different. Worth watching on a big or small screen.

Jackie: Natalie Portman is front and center in nearly every shot of this heavy, ponderous exploration of Jackie Kennedy over the course of several time periods, but mostly the week following the assassination of her husband. One story line is a recreation of the White House tour television special in which she appeared. Others are the assassination itself, wandering the white house over the next week, planning the funeral, a walk and talk she has with a priest, and an interview she does with a reporter looking back on many of these periods.

Everyone in the film acts impeccably. The sets and costumes are phenomenally put together. Cinematography, sound, and light are great, although Natalie's Jackie face fills the screen in closeup for a good portion of the movie, and it gets to be a bit much. But the movie didn't work for me.

It suffers from two major problems. The first is that the story is really about very little - it's mostly 100 minutes of watching Jackie suffer on screen. In closeup. I've seen other movies based on similar ideas, but those movies had other things to say; this one doesn't. It's pretty much 80 minutes of Natalie wandering around in a daze and 20 minutes of funeral planning / interviewing. That's just not enough for more than a vanity acting exercise. The second is that the movie jumps around from period to period with no apparent flow or sense. While this may help to heighten the distracted sense of chaos that Jackie experiences, as a viewer it wrecks the tenuous threads of story that surely lie within the various periods. Plenty of movies do the flashback narrative well, but they work when you can follow the story threads in parallel. Here, you can kind of follow the funeral preparation story as it picks up in the last third of the movie, and that's it. The rest of the movie is just a jumble. I would be interested in seeing the movie again with all of the scenes playing in chronological order.

I can't say that I recommend it, which is a shame because there is so much to like about the movie. I just wish it were a bit more interested in its story, and less in itself as a movie.

The Edge of Seventeen: A pretty good coming of age comedy about a depressed seventeen year old (Hailee Steinfeld) and her teacher (Woody Harrelson). Hailee's father, the only person she could really relate to, died in a car crash some time ago, and now her best friend has started sleeping with her brother.  She is attracted to an oblivious boy (Alexander Calvert), while an awkward boy is attracted to her (Hayden Szeto). Her teacher is semi-supportive when he wants to be, and he likes her well enough. Many of Hailee's problems are of her own devising, and she is more loved than she is able to see, which makes the movie both frustrating and good.

It's one of the better movies of this genre. Worth watching if you like this kind of movie. Nothing to knock your socks off, but it works. It's often funny, and it's well acted and scripted, but it's pretty depressing until about midway.

Certain Women: Three vignettes from middle America about bored, exhausted women and some short scenes from their average lives. Something like a mini-version of a Robert Altman movie, the main characters' lives overlap in tiny, insignificant ways. It was well acted. But I didn't really see the point. None of the characters were interesting (although they were played well), and none of the stories were interesting either. Each of the three parts would make a fine beginning for some other movie.

The cinematography is as beautiful as compositions of bleak landscapes and bleak lives permit.

Fifty Shades Darker:  All right, settle down. I reviewed the first entry in this series, and I didn't find it to be nearly as bad as most of the critics did. Not that I thought that it was great. It just wasn't a boy's movie. Too bad.

Unfortunately, this entry is worse. Rather than being darker, this one is simply less interesting. Christian and Anastasia have little to say and do. They are trying a relationship again, a vanilla relationship (except when Anastasia suggests something a little kinkier), but Anastasia's boss, as well as some characters from Christian's past, show up to bother them. It is as deep as a jello dish, and about as filling. There's barely a story arc.

Un-artfully plotted, shallow, and dull, it may have made a decent hour television drama. Maybe half an hour. I guess it's shot and directed well. It has one hot sex scene (with barely any nudity) and some average ones. Good soundtrack. Unlike the first movie, there are no badly represented moral power/domination issues in this movie, so there is really nothing to be up in arms about.
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