Based on the results of her first foray into feature film writing, it's possible that a creatively blocked J.K. Rowling strolled into the London Library one afternoon to ask about fantastic screenplays and where to find them. I imagine her pouring over outlines for Carrie, Annie, Men in Black, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Ghostbusters while sipping hot cocoa and munching Bertie Bott's Beans. Maybe she sprinkled some enchanted dust on the pages, fashioning a "new" story based on her own book, a non-narrative encyclopedia of magical monsters. The end product dazzles with special effects and truly exemplary creature designs, but is almost undone by a theme-park-tour story that never gains the momentum our endearing guide (Eddie Redmayne) assures us has already picked up. I'll stick around for the first sequel, but we've got four more two-plus-hour movies on the way--which sounds more like a curse than a spell.
Meaningful imagery abounds in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The most significant shot involves a grid of video feeds from the command centers of Earth’s superpowers. As panic sets in over a vague message from the alien pods dotting our planet, the panels begin to go dark. In real time, humankind concludes that trying to decipher an utterly foreign language is futile, and that our chances of survival are much greater if we silo off and armor up. In the real world, we don’t have the Job-like persistence of linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who decodes the E.T.’s coffee-ring alphabet and reels us back from the edge. But we have Arrival, a lovely love-letter to language that celebrates the often frustrating and sometimes impossible-seeming work of communication. The film’s tagline could very well be, to borrow a popular phrase, “Stronger Together”—with an underscored, italicized, and outsized emphasis on “Together”.
Listen to Kicking the Seat Podcast #167 for an in-depth discussion of Arrival!
Bad Moms is a gender-swapped, mostly successful clone of Todd Phillips' Old School": Mila Kunis plays the Responsible Mom, who's just kicked out her cyber-cheating, man-child husband; Kathryn Hahn plays the Wild Mom who sips, snorts, and sleeps with anything that moves; Kristen Bell plays the Repressed Mom who's secretly even more unhinged than Wild Mom. Christina Applegate's Evil PTA Queen doesn't approve of the trio's "Hey, whatever" approach to raising their kids, and the Ove Gloves come off in a fierce war of pranks, reprisals, and public speeches about the joys/horrors of parenting. Co-writers/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore provide more heart, laughs, and visual flair than you might expect, but the tin-eared screenplay depicts every man on screen as absentee, airheaded, or abusive (except for Responsible Mom's hunky new love interest, of course). When Todd freaking Phillips claims the high ground in Objectification Valley, you know things are...bad.
Mel Gibson seems to have taken a cue from Mad Max creator George Miller, working practically off the grid in Australia and returning to major-league prominence with a brutal, timely, and profoundly American war movie. Hacksaw Ridge tells the real-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II army medic who refused to carry a rifle. Despite ridicule, threat of court martial, and the horrors of actual combat, Doss became a hero during the Battle of Okinawa, single-handedly escorting seventy-five wounded soldiers to safety. Gibson fashions his story after the same kind of rah-rah propaganda pieces that lured young men into service with a righteous cause and zero inkling of the psychological or spiritual price tag. One of the year’s best, most important films, Hacksaw Ridge’s fourth-wall-smashing meta-escapism rips away the veil of war-as-abstraction by drawing narrative and formative parallels to the West’s disconcerting new-century womb of distraction.
Listen to Kicking the Seat Podcast #166 for an in-depth discussion of Hacksaw Ridge!
To combat Comic Book Movie Fatigue, Marvel has prescribed a maximum-strength amphetamine called Doctor Strange. Scott Derrickson’s mad metaphysical mélange gives genre fans everything they’ve seen before (arrogant playboy/reluctant hero; secret societies working to defend/destroy the world; portals opening over major cities), but played with slightly different rhythms than we’re accustomed to. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a neuroscientist who barely masks his near-villainous callousness with magnetic charisma. When a car accident destroys his hands, he embarks on a healing quest that lands him at the feet of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She introduces Strange to an ancient order of spiritual Avengers, who protect against the dark god Dormammu and his acolytes. Doctor Strange teleports the MCU into realms where metal suits and radioactive strength are useless, where playing origami with buildings is a sidearm to the nuclear bomb of infinite time loops. Fatigue? Hell, Marvel’s just getting started.
Listen to Kicking the Seat Podcast #165 for a raucous roundtable discussion of Doctor Strange!