ARRIVAL Movie Review & Analysis

This week I review ARRIVAL.  The movie stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited to help communicate with aliens who arrive in 12 cities around the world.  She’s joined by scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.  Forest Whitaker also stars.  Denis Villeneuve directs this Oscar-contender.

ARRIVAL is a fairly quiet film without a lot of fanfare that’s more reflective than action-packed.  The screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer who is known for movies such as FINAL DESTINATION 5 and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. ARRIVAL is a different type of movie entirely, though.  It’s mind-bending and self-reflective and contemplative in its themes and storyline.  The screenplay is well-written in that it doesn’t get in its own way with too much unnecessary dialogue.

The big theme here is time and the motif to represent it is the circle.  If you look at traditional interpretations of them, they represent wholeness, eternity and timelessness.  Louise tells us herself that the movie is about time and that these circles are no coincidence.  In the opening lines of the movie she says “I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”.  Circles are everywhere in this movie.  One of the first shots in the movie is of Louise’s hand with her gold wedding ring on it.  It’s a simple, unbroken band of continuity and time.  Circles are everywhere—the hallway in the hospital is curved like the side of a circle, the student tables in the hall where Louise lectures are curved facing her like a circle, the quilting on her jacket later in the movie looks like waves up close but from further away looks like giant embroidered circles.  Ian, the scientist Louise works with at the alien site in Montana, wears a watch with a large circular face.  The circular face stands out in particular during a scene when he looks at the alien transport vehicle with binoculars, themselves a set of circles.  The door to the alien ship opens every 18 hours—even the choice of 18 involves two stacked circles.

For more about the themes and symbolism in ARRIVAL, take a look below:

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This week I review JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK.  It’s the sequel to the 2012 movie JACK REACHER also starring Tom Cruise in the title role.  This time around he teams up with Major Susan Turner, played by Cobie Smulders (“Agents of SHIELD”, “Avengers”) as they both try to clear their names after they’re wrongfully accused of crimes they didn’t commit.  It’s directed by Edward Zwick and also stars Danika Yarosh and Aldis Hodge.

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK is a bit like the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise only more violent. It has a grittier feel to it, but otherwise it’s Tom Cruise doing what he does best. There’s a plot that’s vaguely understandable, but it’s almost beside the point. This is action and adventure. This is not suspense; I never once worried that Jack Reacher would get hurt, and I don’t think anyone in the movie did, either.

There are definitely some laughable plot points and things that don’t add up quite right, but it’s a go-along-for-the-thrill type of movie and they don’t have to. In fact, they probably even make slightly more sense than other movies in this genre.

There was an interesting theme of family in the movie that I hadn’t quite expected. There’s a subplot with Samantha, who may be Jack’s daughter, and she runs around with him and Susan during their adventures. The threesome make a ragtag family; it’s the quintessential allure of turning the loner into a family man.

Speaking of family man, there was something else that stood out to me as well and it may sound surprising but it was that this movie was very much a feminist piece. There were three main characters who were all women who played key roles. They didn’t use sex appeal to get them anywhere even though there was a scene with both Jack and Susan walking around shirtless for no particular reason. There was even a scene in which Samantha, the teenager, asks Susan if she’s a lesbian because she thinks all women in the military must be. Susan’s response that it’s just like real life where some are and some aren’t is pitch perfect. Susan and Samantha aren’t wallflowers who wait to be rescued by Jack and they’re not there simply to cater to his every whim. They’re smart, they fight, and they talk back to him. Out of all the movies that try to be feminist or try to make a point, here comes JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK quietly leveling the playing field.

This is also the perfect jumping off spot for a product placement discussion once again. If you’ve followed my reviews , you know that I used to work in the field and so let me share something about Tom Cruise. He knows what brand endorsements are worth and how much his face is worth connected to them, so he is one of the few actors who is powerful enough to make sure that he’s absolutely not connected to any brand he doesn’t want to be seen with. Pay attention in the movie to how hard the prop master and set decorators have to work in order to keep brands out of his hands and out of the shot with him. Just as brands never appear by accident, they also don’t disappear by accident. In this movie, you can watch for a couple scenes in particular that emphasize just how far Tom will go to make sure he’s not indirectly endorsing any brands.

For more about JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, take a look below:


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MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is based on a trilogy of the same name written by Random Riggs. It’s about a boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield) who discovers his late-grandfather’s tales of children with unusual talents and stories about a woman who can turn into a bird are all true. The children are hunted for their powers and Jake steps in to help. Tim Burton (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BIG EYES, BIG FISH, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND) directs this adaptation.

However, this is less ‘adaptation’ than it is ‘very loosely inspired by’ as the entire second half of the movie is different from the books.  The pacing of the movie is actually remarkably similar to the books: slow.  The action sequences feel muted and the expected build in intensity never happens. Most of the movie is shot with a blue filter, so everything feels very cold and stark, though the filter also gives things an almost heightened sense of reality, which also work to slow the passage of time.

For more about MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, including notable performances of cast and crew, take a look below:



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QUEEN OF KATWE Review & Analysis

QUEEN OF KATWE is based on the true story of a girl named Phiona from the slums of Uganda.  She learns to play chess and uses it as a means out of poverty. It stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as her mother, David Oyelowo as her coach and introduces Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. It’s directed by Mira Nair.

The theme of this hero’s journey is one that spans cultures. While it’s an inspiring and interesting story about Phiona herself, the message translates to anyone. You don’t have to be a certain color or gender to connect with this story and the deeper messages that even the small can become big. Many of the words of wisdom come from Phiona’s chess coach who says things like: if you use your mind and follow your plans then you can find safe squares; losing does not mean you’re a failure it takes time and stamina is the key; and sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong, which is one of director Mira Nair’s recurring themes.

Mira Nair is a fantastic director and a lot of her work is about feeling out of place, which is the situation each of the three main characters are in. There’s Phiona, a young girl who learns about a life that she never ever knew existed. She struggles as she’s torn between world that she wants to be part of with the one that exists. Like the real Phiona, the film version’s Madina  Nalwanga also grew up in the slums of Uganda. This is her first film and she conveys such a subtle depth of emotion with her eyes that I was ready to hand her an Oscar. Her performance was utterly moving.

Lupita Nyong’o, plays her mother, and David Oyelowo, as her chess coach, were also amazing. One of the things I loved was that while this is the story of Phiona at first glance, the characters of her mother and Robert were treated equally. They each went through their own evolution and weren’t strictly relegated to cardboard supports. Too often there are supporting stories that can compliment the main one but which are never fully realized and these were. Having these three circle the same theme of self discovery made the film that much more successful.

The style, the locations and the saturation of color and sound make it feel like you can walk directly through the screen and into this world!

For more about QUEEN OF KATWE, take a look below:


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SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Review & Analysis

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU depicts the first date between President Barack Obama and his now-wife, Michelle. The roles are played to perfection by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, respectively. Regardless of political affiliation, this romance is a movie that won’t disappoint.

A romance is a romance and that’s the ultimate take-away from writer/director Richard Tanne‘s SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU.  The movie depicts President Barak Obama’s first date with his now-wife, Michelle.  Regardless of your political affiliation, this is a romance that won’t disappoint.  It’s well made and well acted.

One of the qualities I appreciated the most about SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is that there weren’t big moments added for dramatic tension.  A lot of times indie movies with real stories translate ‘real’ to ‘misery’.  Rather than going that route, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU provides an escapism movie threaded with meaning, themes of forgiveness, learning what you want from life, not judging, and striving for more even if you don’t know what that ‘more’ is at the moment.

Tika Sumpter stars as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barak Obama and it’s their chemistry that carries a film which is otherwise walking and talking.  As the movie unfolds, viewers get to enjoy how the pair get to know each other, prickle at each other and see the best in each other.  It’s truly like going along on a good first date.

For more about the film’s themes and eagle eye details to watch for, take a look below:


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GHOSTBUSTERS Review & Analysis

There was a lot of buzz leading up to the release of the new GHOSTBUSTERS movie. It stars comedians Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth. It’s directed by Paul Feig, who was the creative mind behind BRIDESMAIDS. Does this update/remake have what it takes to go the distance? Also included: an exclusive interview with original GHOSTBUSTER Ernie Hudson!

The GHOSTBUSTERS trailer on YouTube is the most disliked video ever on the site.  However, I wanted to reserve judgement about the movie since it comes with impressive credentials: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are all great comedians and actors.  The director behind GHOSTBUSTERS, Paul Feig, was the creative mind behind BRIDESMAIDS.  In short, these people know comedy.

Unfortunately, while they may know comedy they didn’t quite hit the mark this time around.  It could have been the high expectations going into this update/remake, or it could be that magic just doesn’t always strike in the same place.  Regardless, GHOSTBUSTERS missed the mark.

Tone was the biggest issue for GHOSTBUSTERS and if it had been ironed out then a lot of the other issues would have been addressed.  While it was clearly a comedy, it also asked viewers to respect the main characters as impressively credentialed scientists and the way those two aspects of the movie were handled made them incongruous with each other.

Kristen Wiig plays Dr. Erin Gilbert, a ditzy klutz, which was hard to reconcile with the her impressive background as a doctor of science at Columbia University. Kate McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzman was the most confusing since she alternated coming across as intelligent and completely strange.  I realize that in real life people can easily embody more than one of these qualities. But, in a movie like this which doesn’t seek to flesh out well-rounded characters it felt like they were trying to go in too many directions at once.

I was disappointed by Melissa McCarthy’s Dr. Abby Yates as well. While I’m not generally a fan of Melissa McCarthy’s brand of physical comedy—which, incidentally, didn’t flow as strongly through GHOSTBUSTERS as I’d expected–I respect her acting ability since she commits wholeheartedly to all of her characters. This time around, though, I got the impression that she didn’t believe in what she was doing anymore than I did. Strangely, the only time I really bought her role was during a part that’s in the trailer when she’s possessed by a ghost.

There were two things I loved in particular. First was the music and how the original GHOSTBUSTERS theme song progressed from the original one to a more modern version as the movie went on The second thing I really liked were the effects, the ones at the very beginning in particular.

For more details about GHOSTBUSTERS, including a more in-depth analysis about the music and effects, as well as an exclusive interview with original GHOSTBUSTER Ernie Hudson, take a look below:


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THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS seeks to answer the question: “What do pets do when we’re not home?” It features a talented voice cast including Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper and Kevin Hart. The animation is not as technologically advanced as Pixar’s FINDING DORY, but it offers up plenty of laughs.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS, the latest animated offering from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment (MINIONS, DESPICABLE ME, THE LORAX) purports to answer the question “What do pets do when we’re not at home?”  Bookended at the beginning and end of the movie are the (very funny) answers to that question: a bird turns on the television and a fan and pretends to fly in the great outdoors, a cat named Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell) fits herself into the smallest containers possible, including a box and a fishbowl.  The movie shines the most when we get to see the very believable behaviors of a menagerie of animals in New York City.

When a small terrier named Max (voiced by comedian Louis CK) gets a brother in the form of rescue dog Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet of MODERN FAMILY fame), the pair find themselves fighting to the point that they escape from their dog-walker and wind up on an adventure in the city.  Their adventure includes a run-in with animal control, a gang of cats, and a motley crew of animals who hate humans, led by a deceptively cute rabbit (voiced by comedian Kevin Hart).

The middle portion of the movie offers a very different film from what’s presented at the beginning.  It turns into a violent comedy reminiscent of the Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird and Tasmanian Devil cartoons.  Thought there’s a theme about learning to get along and supporting your friends, it’s truly a platform for the set up-prank-repeat that recurs.

Other voice actors include Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper and Jenny Slate, who steals the show as a Pomeranian named Gidget who manages to dispel small, fluffy dog stereotypes as well as those for helpless women.  My favorite character, though, didn’t have any lines at all.

Find out which character I loved the most as well as other ways that THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS was reminiscent of “old school” cartoons and eagle eye details to watch for in my full review below…


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THE BFG Review & Analysis

Book-to-movie adaptations are tricky work.  What works in a book may not translate well to screen and that’s where Steven Spielberg‘s THE BFG stumbles.  Each individual element of the movie seems like it should work, from the two time Oscar winner production designer Rick Carter to last year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Mark Rylance as the title character.  The music is beautiful as well.  However, bringing realistic-looking giants to life when they eat children is a tricky proposition since visuals like that take the movie squarely out of the “family friendly” camp.  THE BFG lacks the darker elements of the story, and that’s part of what makes it a bit dull.

The young girl who plays Sophie, Ruby Barnhill, doesn’t quite mesh with Mark Rylance‘s Big Friendly Giant.  Their cadence is different and at times they seem to talk at each other vs with each other.  The character of Sophie who worked well in the book comes off in the movie as a slightly unlikable know-it-all.

For an in-depth analysis of the themes in THE BFG, take a look below:

–>Direct link to the video footage:


When INDEPENDENCE DAY came out 20 years ago it was groundbreaking.  It was the first time we saw the White House get destroyed on film, along with a host of other International landmarks.  The effects were at the top of their class and the movie was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning in the Visual Effects category.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE picks up in real time 20 years later.  Roland Emmerich returns, helming this film as creator/writer/director with Dean Devlin partnering up again.  Although Will Smith did not return, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Vivica A. Fox and Judd Hirsch are all back, joined by Liam Hemsworth and Singaporean actor Chin Han who was named by CNNGO (a subsidiary of CNN) as one of Asia’s 25 Best Actors.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is the type of movie where you get exactly what you expect.  It’s not plot driven and despite the actors’ fine pedigrees, no one will be winning any awards for their work.  However, it’s the quintessential popcorn movie where you go for two hours of mindless entertainment.  So often we look down on movies that seek to entertain, but it’s not a bad thing.  With busy lives and horrors in the news, a bit of fluff entertainment is exactly what hits the spot sometimes.

For more about INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, including some eagle-eye details to watch for and behind-the-scenes information about what it was like on set, take a look below…

–>Direct link to the video footage:

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