Life (2017) Film Analysis: Cool Space Stuff with a Predictable Story

Life is an R-rated movie set in space starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. For me this film is a perfect example of mindless entertainment. It’s a film with a clear goal: to gross you out and keep you on the edge of your seat. If you bought a ticket for this movie, you most likely knew what you were going to get. While this film does not offer much in the way of life-changing insight, it is still worthy of analysis.

The story of Life is one that has been recreated countless times in film and television. A crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life on the planet Mars. As the crew begins to research the alien, they discover that the alien is a lot more dangerous than they initially thought. The alien life form, named “Calvin” by school children on Earth, grows rapidly and focuses on killing the astronauts using its strength and ingenuity. We watch as the astronauts’ structured routine devolves into complete chaos as the alien tracks down and kills the crew members one by one.

It’s clear that Life is a low-budget script delivered in a high-budget fashion. Life makes up for its lack of narrative substance with gorgeous visuals and special effects. My favorite thing about Life is how realistically it depicts astronauts aboard the ISS. The entire film takes place in zero gravity and camera sometimes appears to be floating itself. If you watch films as visual art, then you will not be disappointed by Life. At times you can simply marvel at the images you are seeing on the screen in front of you.

Life is unabashed about its story from beginning to end. It is almost as if the creators of this film decided early on to abandon any hope of developing a complex narrative. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to film making. The murderous alien formula is tried and true at this point but it says something that most of our movies about alien contact devolve into gore-filled chaos. This is fun to watch but I would like to see more experimentation with this kind of story

It’s strange to me that Life employs such expensive actors given its B-movie narrative structure. In an age where companies like Blumhouse specialize in producing successful movies for as little money as possible, you would think that other companies would catch on to this strategy. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to see Reynolds cracking jokes and Gyllenhaal commit to a haunted war veteran persona but I can’t help but think that other actors could portray these characters just as well for much less money.

Life is not a film that provides profound insight insight into the human condition. While many movies challenge you to look at things from a new perspective or to change your beliefs about something, Life delights in doing exactly the opposite. I can watch a movie like Life and enjoy it for what it is but I can’t help but think that a similar and more effective movie could have been made for less money.

Silence is a brutal examination of Faith and Humanity

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is beautiful to behold yet difficult to digest. Rather than look for meaning in the assurances of faith, Silence examines the absurdity and failure of priests to bring Catholicism to shogun-era Japan. At times the film is difficult to watch but it is undeniably a masterpiece from one of the most talented filmmakers of our time.

The plot centers on two Jesuit priest who journey from Portugal to Japan in the 17th century to locate another priest and spread Christianity. The priests travel to several small villages to facilitate the conversion of the locals to Christianity. Their task is complicated by government soldiers who terrorize the village and its residents for practicing Christianity yet the priests never back down from their mission because they truly believe that converting the inhabitants of rural Japanese fishing villages to Christianity is a worthy endeavor. The priest named Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) is captured when a fisherman named Kichijiro betrays him by luring him into the hands of the soldiers. Rodrigues is then brought to Nagasaki where he “the Inquisitor” explains to him why Catholicism does not have a place in Japan. Rodrigues also meets with his old mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who encourages Rodrigues to give up his mission because he believes that it is a lost cause. Ferreira has assimilated into Japanes culture since he believes that continuing to convert the Japanese people to Catholicism will only result in more suffering for the Japanese and the Catholic priests. Eventually Rodriuges gives in to Ferreira’s request and commits apostasy by stepping on an image of Jesus.

In Silence nothing is automatically right or wrong. There are many characters with ideas of what is right and what is wrong, but the film itself never seems to formally recognize any ideas as being better than others. The only true thing about this film is that the world is complex and often there are no easy answers to questions about humanity. People believe that everyone should be Catholic but actually trying to convert people in a foreign culture to Catholicism when another religion already exists is a task fraught with difficulty. The priests in Silence are flawed by their belief that Christianity should exist in every part of the world.

In addition to its intellectual strength, Silence is also breathtaking at times and features fantastic cinematography. Its great that Scorsese’s latest films are so long yet entertaining. It’s as if Scorsese was so used to making films the old way that making films nowadays is like going from safety scissors to actual scissors. Scorsese continues to hit home runs every time he steps up to the plate.


Manchester by the Sea is Tragic, Hilarious Oscar Bait.

Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a janitor who must become the guardian of his nephew when his brother dies of a heart attack. The film is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.

The film begins with Lee Chandler’s daily janitorial routine. Chandler comes across as quiet yet competent. However we also see Chandler’s dark side when he loses his temper with a customer and he gets into a fight at a bar. One day Lee learns that his brother Joe has died of a heart attack so Lee moves in with Joe’s teenage son Patrick.We learn through a flashback that Lee accidentally caused the deaths of his three children when he drunkenly forgot to place a screen in front of his fireplace. Lee and Patrick must figure out where Patrick will live following the death of Patrick’s father.

Manchester by the Sea is an easy watch due to the strength of its characterization. It’s the kind of film that makes you uncertain whether you should be laughing or crying while watching it. I’m always impressed by movies that can pull off this kind of tonal balance.

While Manchester by the Sea is clearly successful at what it attempts to do, I find myself questioning how much I should champion this film. The film is being marketed as an award-winning film and it looks the part. Manchester by the Sea is the type of film that fits so easily into an award ceremony. If it doesn’t win at least a few awards, then it will at least garner several nominations. For this reason I feel that I should avoid giving Manchester by the Sea more credit than it will most likely seem to possess during award season.

Manchester by the Sea is a great film with some serious emotional gravity. It will feel incredibly powerful while you watch it but it will disappear from your memory shortly after you leave the theater. The more I think about Manchester by the Sea, the more I want to conclude that the movie is fluff, a simplistic story that fits into an existing system that fails to present anything new or noteworthy. Manchester by the Sea is not a film that will challenge you or make you aware of something from a new perspective. Its film that knows exactly what it needs to do and does so in a workmanlike fashion, catering to your desires like a butler in a rich man’s house.


Arrival (2016) Analysis: Denis Villeneuve is Today’s best Filmmaker.

Denis Villeneuve creates films that stay with you long after the credits roll. Now that his fourth major film has hit theaters, I am convinced that Villeneuve is the most significant filmmaker we have today. His film Arrival is a stunning masterpiece of science fiction, one of those rare films that is thought-provoking and a downright pleasure to behold.

Arrival stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor tasked with translating the language of aliens who have recently arrived on Earth. Arrival begins with a sequence depicting the life and death of Banks’s daughter who dies at a young age. Banks is invited by an army colonel, played by Forest Whitaker, to Montana where she enters the shell-shaped vessel of the aliens and encounters their language for the first time. The rest of the film follows Banks’s journey to understand the aliens language amidst rising military tensions due to the possibility that the aliens are dangerous. This is about as far as you can go describing the film’s plot without spoiling anything. If you have read this far, be aware that I am going to spoil many parts of the film in the rest of my piece.

I should give props to Ted Chiang because Arrival is based on a short story he wrote. Many elements of Arrival such as the design of the Aliens’ language come from Chiang’s short story. This means that Villeneuve does not deserve all of the credit for Arrival’s awesomeness. Much of the material is shamelessly taken from Chiang’s story but this most likely occurred with Chiang’s permission. Villeneuve does deserve credit for Arrival’s incredible visuals, the casting of Amy Adams and the choice to adapt Chiang’s story in the first place. Arrival is an example of what happens when multiple creative geniuses combine forces on one project.

A major source of mystery in Arrival is the aliens’ reason for being on Earth. This is the main question Banks wants to answer in her meetings with the aliens. When the question is answered, it almost happened too quickly to comprehend. The aliens purpose is to give the gift of their language to humanity because learning the language enables the user to see the past and future. The aliens claim that they will need humanity’s help in the future so that is why they are giving humanity their language. This plot point is unfortunately not fleshed out enough in Arrival. There is no discussion of what this means for anyone other than Louise Banks. I wish that the movie had at least made an attempt to explore the larger implications of a language that enables the user to see the future.

Arrival is a much more personal movie than it appears. While the stakes are large, the movie ignores those stakes in favor of the smaller stakes related to Dr. Banks. Ultimately its unclear why the movie chose to focus so heavily on her story when greater possibilities were available. Despite this problem Arrival is so far my favorite movie of 2016. The film achieved what few other could. It kept me transfixed for the entire time I was in the theater. At this point it is safe to say that this is Villeneuve’s specialty. His ability as a filmmaker is unparalleled in today’s cinema landscape.

Hell or High Water Review

Hell or High Water is written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. While I am unfamiliar with Mackenzie, I know that Sheridan wrote the script for Sicario which is one of the best films of last year. Once I knew that Sheridan had wrote the script for Hell or High Water, I rushed to the theater to see the film. That was the first time I had been to the theater in several months.

Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two brothers who rob banks to pay banks. Pine plays the quiet and intelligent brother while Foster is more of loose cannon. The brothers’ plan is to steal only a few thousand dollars during each robbery so that the FBI will not get involved. Jeff Bridges plays a nearly retired cop who decides to investigate robberies with his partner played Gil Birmingham. We spend significant amounts of time with both duos and the dynamic between both is quite entertaining. The brothers’ goal is to pay the debt on a reverse mortgage so that their mother’s home will not be foreclosed. This honorable intention justifies their illegal behavior in my mind and provides a commentary on the difficulty of surviving in the United States where debt slavery is a very real problem. I was definitely on board with the brothers’ goal.

One of my favorite things about Sheridan’s writing is the realistic quality of the dialogue. Everyone from Pine to the most ancillary character sound incredibly realistic. The most attention grabbing scenes in the film are not the heists but the interactions involving everyday people living in Texas. Truly this is a testament to Sheridan’s abilities as a writer. As a psychology and linguistics nerd, these scenes are by far my favorite in the film.

Hell or High Water does not contain an agenda. The film simply presents a realistic story and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. I find this kind of film so refreshing because it seems the majority of films in theaters these days are needlessly complicated. Hell or High Water is as entertaining as film gets for me. While I could nitpick certain elements that bothered me, I would much rather celebrate the movie for what it accomplishes than degrade it for minor personal annoyances. I would hope to share my appreciation for this film so that others can understand and share in my love for it.

Hell or High Water is an interesting second step for Sheridan. Sheridan has made a film with more local color that seems more personal than Sicario. With Hell or High Water, Sheridan has transitioned near seamlessly from one project to another.

There Will be Blood (2007) Review

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will be Blood came out in 2007, I saw it in a theatre with some family. I was sixteen at the time and I definitely begged my parents to take me to the rated R film. I sought out films such as There Will be Blood because I hoped to become a writer of serious fiction and There Will be Blood felt like the type of thing I wanted to make.

Watching There Will be Blood is an experience unlike any other. The way that the film is shot, the performances of the actors, and the subject matter all contribute to its uniqueness. Daniel Day-Lewis is unsurprisingly phenomenal as Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oilman bent on gaining wealth by any means possible. Paul Dano surprisingly holds his own as Eli Sunday, a clergyman whose own trajectory parallels Plainview’s. We watch as Plainview’s business expands while his body and mind become weaker. Seeing There Will be Blood is worth the price of admission solely for Day-Lewis’s insane performance. Plainview is willing to say whatever to enact his will and control those around him. All he cares about is expanding his empire and isolating himself from all other people. Its a frightening character.

Eli Sunday is also a very complex character. He pretends to be caring and soft-spoken but he relishes torturing Plainview when given the chance. While he claims to be focused on religion, he is equally motivated by money. Sunday approaches Plainview several times asking for his money and at the end of the film, he has been reduced to this sole purpose. Sunday is the perfect counterpoint to Plainview. The men are so different yet so similar. Both possess the same goal but their methods of achieving it are different.

This is not the kind of movie that makes you laugh. This is a movie that demands and rewards attention and reflection. So much of this movie depends upon visual interpretation. This is a movie that doesn’t care for its audience. From the beginning its clear that this movie has something on its mind in a way that few movies do. Watching this movie is like being in a room with a caged gorilla. You’re never sure what its going to do and its easy to project your own thoughts onto it but the gorilla is controlled by its own force.

I watched this movie on Netflix but I recommend watching it on as large a screen as possible. The film is beautifully shot. Say what you will about Paul Thomas Anderson but the man knows how to make a film look amazing. It’s a dark movie and there is a essentially zero moments of levity. If you can stand to watch it, this film is absolutely worth your time. I look forward to growing old with this movie and watching it at some point in the future. It’s not the kind of movie that you can watch very often but each time I revisit it, I find myself coming away with a different feeling. This is one of those movies that grows stronger with age. It features a rare glimpse of some amazing actors and an amazing filmmaker working together before we really knew who any of them were. As such it will become more worthy of analysis as the people involved in it become more famous over time.

They Live Analysis: The most Relevant Film of the 1980s

They Live is a science fiction action horror film written and directed by John Carpenter in 1988. It stars Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster. Roddy Piper plays a drifter, called John Nada in the credits, who discovers a secret ruling class of aliens by wearing sunglasses. They Live is famous for having a great fight scene and great cheesy lines. Carpenter has called They Live a documentary because the world it depicts is so similar to the world of today.

I watched They Live because it was featured on an episode of The Canon podcast. This podcast is a great resource for film nerds. I could tell from Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson’s thoughts on the film that it needed to be seen sooner rather than later. I don’t usually see every film that they talk about so this one was different. When this film came out, I had yet to be born so how would I have any knowledge of its existence?

One of my favorite things about this film is hard to describe. There’s a certain vibe or feel to some 80s movies that adds to the experience. I wasn’t alive in the 80s but I can feel what it was like to live there from movies. John Carpenter’s films feel particularly grounded in their historical time and place. I find myself wishing that I had lived during the 80s to experience the decade’s great films firsthand.

The premise and ideas of They Live are more relevant today than they were in 1988. The world of They Live is the world of today, except for the aliens. The United States is ruled by money and those with money do everything they can to maintain their power at the expense of those beneath them. The lower classes are kept in check by their need to obey and consume. The truth is painful in They Live. Wearing the sunglasses gives John Nada a headache because reality is physically painful to experience. It is so much easier to succumb to the wishes of those in power. But there is so much to gain from attacking the system. The part of They Live where John Nada and Frank Armitage infiltrate the aliens’ base, shooting them left and right, is such satisfying cinema. It’s the ultimate power fantasy for anyone who has ever suffered from being abused or exploited.

TV is the enemy in They Live. It is the most useful alien tool in keeping the lower classes at bay. Somehow destroying a broadcasting signal reveals all the aliens in their true form. The final scene of this film depicts a woman looking down as the man she is having sex with has been revealed as a ghoul.

I recommend seeing They Live as soon as possible.

If you have any recommendations for great films from the 80s, let me know.


Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

I have not been going to the movie theater lately. This is because there are not many interesting movies in theaters right now. There are a couple of interesting films here and there but nothing that really grabs me. Everybody Wants Some!! is an exception to the tendency of mainstream films to be unappealing. I am surprised that my local Century theater is even showing the film. Perhaps living in Portland means that movie theaters must show more lesser known titles.

Everybody Wants Some!! is about college baseball players in the year 1980 on the last weekend before school begins. The movie feels like one big party. I loved it. The protagonist of the film is Jake, a pitcher and freshman who is wise beyond his years but still behaves like a typical twenty-something dude. He lives in a glorified frat house with the rest of his teammates. You get to watch these dudes in their unending search for booze and female companionship, which is a lot of fun in my opinion. Being a former baseball player I could relate to these dudes pretty easily and I found many of them likable personalities. The best thing about this film is the fully realized nature of its characters. The film lacks a clear character arc. Linklater is clearly trying to make a fun movie. Much like Dazed and Confused was following one night of shenanigans, Everybody Wants Some!! follows a weekend of shenanigans. You could look for moments of change in the characters but that would be missing the point. This film is meant to be fun and it doesn’t ascribe to typical techniques of storytelling.

I wish more movies were made like this one. It’s the perfect escape from the struggles of daily life. You can briefly escape to the world of these baseball players and look at them sort of like animals in a zoo. That may be a strange way to phrase it but thats how watching the movie felt for me and I loved every second of it. I could see this movie would be grating to some who would find the behavior of these dudes unpleasant. Everybody Wants Some!! is not for everyone.

I recently discovered Richard Linklater after watching Boyhood. I realized that he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and I consider myself lucky to be living while he is making films. Linklater has reached Tarantino status where his films are given mainstream exposure despite their lack of mainstream appeal. Linklater makes whatever he wants and we watch it because he is Richard Linklater, a filmmaker deemed important by the relevant authority. It’s easy to envision an alternate world where Linklater’s films never caught on but he would probably create the exact same films under those circumstances. It never feels like Everybody Wants Some!! is catering to you in the way that so many films do nowadays. The point of creating is to make things that you want. A prioritization of the Audience’s desires over the filmmaker’s is the defining feature of commercial art. I am happy that Linklater has not sold out despite his popularity.

Brooklyn (2015) Analysis

I heard a little bit of buzz about Brooklyn while it was playing in theaters but not enough to get a clear picture of the movie. Brooklyn is an Irish-Canadian-British drama directed by John Crowley and written by Nick Hornby, based on a novel of the same name. The novel was somewhat successful overseas but not exactly a huge cultural hit in the states. Brooklyn flew under the radar for me in 2015. I began to get a better idea of whether I would like the film when I saw clips of it during the 2015 Oscars. Wow, the protagonist has an Irish accent. Maybe I would enjoy this movie. Well, I enjoyed Brooklyn quite a bit. The following is my analysis of the film and celebration of what makes it great (spoilers lie ahead).

The protagonist of the film is Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in southeast Ireland with her mother and sister. Eilis works on weekends but her boss is mean and Eilis doesn’t really like Irish men because all they do is play rugby so Eilis decides to try her luck in America. She goes to Brooklyn where she lives in a boarding home with other Irish women and works at a department store. At a dance Eilis meets an Italian man named Tony with whom she develops a relationship. At this point life gets a lot better for Eilis because Tony makes her feel like Brooklyn is home. Unfortunately Eilis must go back to Ireland when her sister dies to comfort her mother. This is where the major tension of the story becomes apparent. Eilis finds that Ireland could possibly be a better place to live than America. A very eligible bachelor is interested in her and she is needed to take her sister’s job. It’s possible and perhaps likely that moving back to America would be a mistake. After talking with her old boss, Eilis remembers why she moved to America in the first place, because there are no secrets in Ireland. The film ends with Eilis and Tony reuniting happily.

Eilis is a great character and the primary reason why this film succeeds. I rooted for Eilis the entire film because she is relatable and a good person. She doesn’t smoke or wear makeup be she is respectful, religious and intelligent. She’s the kind of person that raises up the people around her. Tony is not a particularly attractive person but Eilis sees his good nature and that is enough for her. She is also genuine and able to maintain her cool in tough situations. What’s interesting is that despite all her strengths, Eilis’s life is still very difficult. When Eilis finally feels comfortable in America, life throws her a curveball, forcing her to go back to Ireland. When Eilis starts to feel comfortable in Ireland, again life throws another curveball, reminding her why she left in the first place. No matter where Eilis ends up there is going to be good and bad. The question boils down to what Eilis wants personally, not what other people want for her. I think there is value in looking at how Eilis handles the ups and downs of her life.

I also want to touch on this story’s ending. From a filmmaker’s perspective the ending is the most difficult part of the story to create. How a movie ends says a lot about the intentions behind it and how it wants the audience to feel. Brooklyn ends on what appears to be a very happy note with Eilis realizing that she belongs with Tony and the couple embracing in the streets of Brooklyn. The films wants you, the audience member, to leave with a sense of possibility, the feeling that the future is bright for Eilis and Tony. Being the misanthrope that I am, I find it difficult to accept this ending at face value. Eilis is clearly superios to Tony in several ways. She is smarter and will have many more opportunities in life than Tony, who may have great ambitions but I imagine him having difficulty making those ambitions real. The film leaves the possibility of misfortune open. Many people will accept the happy ending because the want to feel happy themselves. I entertain the possibilities of both happy and sad endings to learn more about life.

Brooklyn is certainly a movie worth watching twice or three times. It takes place in the 1950s but its themes and characters can exist in any time period. It is profoundly human and I look forward to watching it again in the future.

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Anomalisa Analysis

At long last I watched Anomalisa, the new Charlie Kaufman movie with stop-motion characters. This is a weird movie. Thankfully its weird in a good way. The way that makes you think about something harder rather than dismiss it outright. As soon as I finished watching it, I searched desperately for what other people had to say about it. You should watch this movie more than once and you should watch it on as big a screen as possible.

Here’s the setup. Michael Stone is a customer service self-help writer of some acclaim. He travels to Cincinnati to give a speech where he stays at a hotel called The Fregoli, a nod to a psychological delusion that plays a role in the film. Michael Stone sees everyone as having the same face and voice. We as the audience see the world in the same way that Michael Stone does. It’s likely that the other characters don’t suffer from the same delusion. In his hotel room, Michael hears the distinct voice of a woman and frantically searches for her. He finds her and takes her to the bar for drinks. Soon Michael and the woman, named Lisa, are in Michael’s hotel room where they have sex. The next morning Michael starts hearing Lisa’s unique voice as the voice of everyone else. Instead of running away with Lisa, Michael decides to return home to his wife and son.

This movie requires attention to detail for it to be analyzed. There are a lot of very subtle signs that may or may not reveal larger thematic ideas. To properly analyze this movie, one would ideally have taken notes while watching it and possibly rewinded the movie during key scenes to watch them again.

This film could be analyzed from a material perspective. That is to say, what meaning can be found in how the film was created. The film walks a line between reality and fantasy. The events that take place could easily exist in the real world, so why did Kaufman use stop-motion animation for this particular story? Who really knows? Is the animation style merely a gimmick?

Not every story needs to have a lesson. I am somewhat familiar with this idea. Many stories exist to be didactic, meaning they have a specific lesson or moral. Often an entire story can be distilled into one specific lesson. This is true of fairy tales and stories in the Bible. I would say that the moral of Anomalisa is to look for beauty in other people, the basic gist of Michael Stone’s customer service speech. Empathize with other people. Everyone has pain and everyone is a unique being. Smile because it requires little effort and could potentially make someone else’s day a lot better. Anyone who has worked in customer service already knows this. It’s not a radical new idea. Everyone claims that Michael Stone’s book greatly improved their business, yet his advice seems obvious. He is telling people obvious ideas that they should already be implementing.

Also, Michael sees every other person as having the same face and voice so why would you take his advice. He literally treats all other people the same because they are all the same in his mind. Michael is also the kind of guy who immediately attempts to cheat on his wife the second he arrives in Cincinnati. His credibility is suspect. Maybe his advice works for other people, but his own life is certainly a disaster.

Later in the film, Michael remarks to Lisa, “Sometimes there’s no lesson. That’s a lesson in itself.” I really like this quote despite its circularity. No lesson is a lesson to people who expect lessons from stories/experiences. This might be the major theme of Anomalisa. This is also a depressing idea to think about. One can always look for a lesson so why deny someone this ability? I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I suppose I like lessons sometimes, so I’m not willing to accept a scenario where there are no lessons, especially in a movie where everything is seemingly littered with meaning. Humans are predisposed to find and create meaning wherever they can. To me meaning and lessons are practically interchangeable. If there’s no lesson at all in Anomalisa, then what’s the point of watching it?