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.