Friday, November 18, 2016

"Arrival" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Arrival" as well as DVDs "The Legend of Tarzan" and "Indignation."  The Book of the Week is Jeffrey Toobin's take on the Patty Hearst kidnapping "American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst."  I also bring you up-to-date on "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with the French classic "The Wages of Fear."]


When 12 space ships land in various locations around the world, an American linguist is recruited to try to communicate with the aliens to discover why they have come.

Space ships that look like giant contact lenses have landed at various locations around the world.  There appears to be no rhyme or reason for why they landed where they did nor have the aliens inside announced why they have come or what they want. Task forces in all of the countries where a spaceship has landed have been formed and are in contact with one another, but each country differs on what should happen next.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a college languages professor who, through a montage, we learn has lost her young daughter to a disease.  Louise lives alone and appears to be very lonely.  Because she is a leading linguist and had worked with the government before, when the space ships arrive, she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to be a part of the task force to try to communicate with the aliens.  She and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are transported to Montana, where the spaceship has landed in the U.S. and the U.S. military has set up camp.

The aliens don't appear to be hostile and allow the humans to board the spaceship every 18 hours for a 90 minute session with them behind a transparent wall, but since the humans don't speak alien and the aliens don't speak human, these have not been very productive sessions.  Hence we have Louise. 

The aliens are heptapods, which means they have seven legs and look like very tall jellyfish. They communicate by throwing out circular symbols, each circle being just enough different to indicate different words.

Louise starts the arduous task of trying to communicate with the aliens and to break the code of their language.  She holds up a sign that says "Human," points to herself, holds up another sign that says "Louise," points to herself, that kind of thing, and through these painstaking methods, Louise and Ian are able to begin to crack the aliens' language code and communicate with them.  However, it's a very slow process and they still don't have the vocabulary to find out why the aliens have come. 

For a time, all of the countries work together, but as time goes by, the other countries, who have also been trying to communicate with their particular aliens, are getting antsy, and, when one of the communications from the aliens seems to use the word "weapon," China decides it is time to blow their spaceship up.  Time is of the essence and the pressure is on Louise and Ian to avoid a war against the aliens, with whom Louise and Ian have formed a bond, and who they have dubbed "Abbott and Costello."

With a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang which won a Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2000) and directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed the well-received "Prisoners" and "Sicario," this is not your typical alien invasion film.  If you are expecting an "Independence Day" type of alien film or even "Close Encounters of a Third Kind (which this film resembles early on), you might be disappointed.

Yes, this film is about spaceships and aliens...but it's much more that. This is more of an intellectual film and more of a sincere human story, more of Louise's story and what she learned about herself while working with the aliens. It's about loss and grief and time and the future and will have you reaching for a hankie at the end. 

However, despite the sincerity of this film, I have to say that I was disappointed, not because I was expecting a typical alien movie which is not my forte anyway, but because I found it to be too slow to get going, and it had too many "huh?" moments for me.  It also plays with time, and I am not a big fan of those kinds of movies, probably because I never understand them. I'm a very linear thinker or maybe I'm just not that smart. Whatever.  I can't say much more about the plot, or I will give it away, because there is a big payoff at the end that will tug at your heart strings, but for me, it just took too long to get there.

However, that said, I would venture to guess that Adams will get an Oscar nod for her performance, because it's very, very good, and Villeneuve could very well get a nod for his direction and/or the film could get a Best Picture nod because it's a beautifully made picture and lovely to look at.

Jeremy Renner is believable as the scientist foil for Louise and Forest Whitaker, is, well, Forest Whitaker.  Does that guy never smile?  I think he has always been like that.  When I saw "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" recently, where he played a high school football player in what looked to be one of his very first film roles, he didn't smile in that one either. 

Now, you might ask, how could I like a kind of silly film like "Mascots," which I reviewed last week, and gave a good review and have qualms about this one, a serious film with a message?  Well, here is my answer. 

First of all, I find Christopher Guest to be a brilliant satirist and commentator on popular culture, but that aside, I hold certain films to a higher standard than others.  My standard for a comedy?  Did I laugh?  My standard for a drama or message film?  Did it accomplish what it set out to do?  Did it move me?  In my opinion, this film did not. Though I could appreciate the acting and the production values, and though I felt something at the very end, most of the film left me cold, and it also left too much unexplained for my taste. 

But I certainly didn't hate it.  It just didn't blow me away like I think it wanted to.  However, others out there are raving about it and loved it, so I am not going to discourage you. I was in the minority on "The Martian" too, so this is one of those films I will not make a major pronouncement about and let you make up your own mind.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Amy Adams' performance is worth the price of a ticket, but as for the film experience, I am going to leave this one up to you. You will either love it or not, so let me know what you think


***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!


The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgaard) has already turned into a posh Londoner since being reunited with his family and his title as Lord Greystoke - real name John Clayton - (you remember he was brought up by apes, right?), but he is compelled to go back to his former home in the jungle to find out what is going on with some mining activities that threaten the environment and his friends.

It's 1884 and Tarzan is now living his rightful life as a lord of the manor in London with Jane after being discovered living amongst apes in Africa.  Remember?  There was a shipwreck, his mother dies, his father is killed by apes, but little baby Greystoke was rescued by a mama gorilla who raised him as her own. 

If you don't know that story, you get a bit of it in the film through flashbacks - the film jumps back and forth between Tarzan's life in the jungle and his life now - but that's mostly so we can see Skarsgaard with his shirt off.  It doesn't dwell much on the original story. So if you want to know more of the backstory, you should probably read the books or go back and see some of those old Johnny Weismuller films.  This film concentrates more on Tarzan's life after he was discovered living in the jungle so you won't get to hear him say, "Me Tarzan. You Jane."  I was very disappointed by that.

Anyway, Tarzan was brought up in the Belgian Congo (by apes, yada yada yada, we know all of that), and now the Belgian King Leopold who runs the Belgian Congo, is dead broke.  He sends his trusted advisor Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz (does he ever play anything but one note villains these days?) to the Congo to find a famous diamond which, if found, will solve the King's financial issues. When they arrive, Rom and members of the Belgian army engage with the natives, and Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who doesn't like our Tarzan very much (in fact he hates him and we find out why later), tells Rom that he can have the diamond if he brings him Tarzan.  So Rom concocts a plan to lure Tarzan back to Africa. 

OK, I already have a question. 

How is it that Mbonga speaks English or can talk to Rom? 

Second question - why did Mbonga and his men kill all of the Belgian soldiers and not Rom? 

Obviously my mind is wandering, and I'm already starting to lose interest. 

Anyway, Rom lures Tarzan to the Congo by saying that the King has invited him to tour Africa.  At first Tarzan declines, but Dr. George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) just happens to be visiting from America and entreats John to go to help him find out if King Leopold is using slavery to keep the Congo running, because everyone knows he doesn't have a dime (this character is actually based on an actual person).  Dr. Williams goes with Tarzan, and so does Jane (Margot Robbie), who manages to talk Tarzan into letting her tag along, much to Rom's chagrin.  He thought Tarzan was going to be alone and easy pickins' but think again Mr. Rom!

Tarzan does get captured but escapes so then Rom kidnaps Jane and now the race is on to save Jane. Naturally Rom lusts after Jane and when she struggles he tells her he admires her spirit. 

Question #3: Why is it that movie bad guys, who lust after beautiful heroines, always say they admire the women's spirit while the women are struggling, spitting in their faces and trying to kick them in the you-know-whats? You would think they would prefer women who wouldn't be such a problem.

Anyway, those kinds of cartoon clichés abound.

However, on the up side, we also get to see Tarzan swinging from the trees and running really fast like the Six Million Dollar Man.  The trio does discover the slaves and when they are finally confronted by Mbonga, Williams entreats him to join forces with them to try to ruin Rom's plans and you can probably figure out how it's all going to go. All in all, nothing new here.

I liked Skarsgaard in "Diary of a Teenage Girl," so he's a good actor with a lovely accent but here his performance is so wooden he sounds like Liam Neeson (in his "Taken" films) playing The Rock

Question #4: So I have to ask. Alex, can I call you that?  What happened?

Robbie is gorgeous as usual and is always good, but doesn't get to do much here.  Samuel L. Jackson actually smiles benignly, as if he is really happy, which kind of shocked me.  I was trying to remember if I have ever seen him truly happy in a film, in a good way (as in not evil gloating). 

Question #5:  Sam, have I?

Directed by David Yates, there is a score that is lush and moody -- almost too lush and moody - and the set design and cinematography are all very dark and atmospheric.  The CGI animals are impressive: there is a wild buffalo stampede, alligators, gorillas, lionesses who Tarzan gets to nuzzle (old friends of Tarzan's). Everyone and everything gets into the act. So the movie is pretty to look at, but that's not enough to save the story itself, written by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, which is pretty preposterous. 

But to be fair, this is one of those films that I think was meant to be seen in a movie theatre where you could revel in all of that CGI and beautiful jungle scenery and Skarsgaard's abs and not think too much about the story.  It wasn't meant to be seen on the small screen in our living rooms. 

(Yates is most famous for directing many of the Harry Potter films, which I enjoyed, and most recently the Harry Potter prequel "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," which opens in theatres today and which I also hope I will enjoy because I am reviewing it here next week).

But here is my main question: Why did we need another Tarzan movie?  And if we are going to have another one, where is Cheeta

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you love all things Tarzan, you might enjoy this, but I have to ask again: Did we really need another Tarzan movie?

Indignation (2016)

Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a young working-class Jewish boy from New Jersey, has a scholarship to a Midwestern college and is able to escape the draft for the Korean War but can't escape cultural differences and his own sexual repression.

The film begins in a nursing home where a woman is sitting in a catatonic state.

Flashback to a battlefield in Korea where an American soldier is being pursued by a Korean soldier.  Shots are fired.

Flashback yet again for the funeral of a young Jewish soldier in a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey. Marcus Messner is attending the fumeral with his family.  He is a sheltered Jewish boy getting ready to go off to college in Ohio on scholarship, thus saving him from being drafted into the Korean War. His mother worries that he won't be able to keep kosher there and his father, the local butcher, worries that he will get into trouble cautioning him that the tiniest misstep can lead to tragedy. The pressure is on for Marcus to hold up his end of the family name.

Marcus is all work and no play, even shunning the Jewish fraternity that wants him.  But then he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful blonde girl who is actually interested in him.  Olivia is far more worldly than Marcus and when they go on a date and she performs a sex act on him, he is shocked, judges her and ultimately tries to avoid her, starting a chain of events that show the kinds of sexual repression at work in the 1950's.  Because she did that with him, she must have done it with other boys, right? Olivia is beautiful and worldly, but it becomes clear that she is fragile. She admits to Marcus that she had tried to commit suicide and spent some time in a mental hospital.

When Marcus gets in a fight with his roommates, he asks for a single room, which leads Dean Caldwell (Tracy Letts) to meet with Marcus because he is worried about his isolation and fitting in poorly, a clear nod to the cultural differences at work here. Marcus is indignant that the Dean would dare lecture him and challenges the Dean, saying he has the right to socialize or not.  They also argue about religion (there is a requirement at the college that all students attend 10 chapels per year and Marcus bridles at this because he is an atheist), and the two develop an adversarial relationship where the Dean stands for the rules of the college and the mores of the times and Marcus stands for the freedom to choose one's own way in the world. 

Unfortunately, this adversarial relationship and the seemingly small choices that Marcus makes leads to tragedy, reminding us of what Marcus's father cautioned him about.  At the end of the film, we learn who the woman in the nursing home is, and that she is not catatonic, she is remembering.

Based on a book by Philip Roth and written for the screen and directed by James Schamus, the film feels more like an Arthur Miller play than a movie, but that's not a bad thing. This is a coming of age tale indicative of Roth's usual themes of religion, the sexual mores of the 50's and 60's and the difficulties in connecting to others. 

The actors are largely young unknowns, though Lerman made his mark as Percy Jackson and later in "Fury."  He is one of those actors who underplays and seems like a young Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." He is very endearing.  Sarah Gadon as Olivia is also wonderful.

My only complaint: Why is it that when a male writer or filmmaker wants to show us a damaged girl in the 1950's, she almost always shows her angst by being sexually promiscuous? I'm just asking. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...a lovely small film, beautifully acted and presented, that will remind you of "Atonement."


***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

226 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

Wages of Fear (1953)

In a dusty South American town, four men are recruited to transport barrels of nitroglycerin over treacherous roads.

Unemployed men from various parts of Europe populate an unnamed South American town. Yves Montand is Mario, a Frenchman, who spends his days sitting around talking with other expats, drinking, trying to make a buck here and there and flirting with the local floozy, Linda (Vera Clouzot), who appears to be the only young woman in the whole town and the only one who is overacting like mad (it should be noted that Vera is the director's wife so that explains a lot.  But I will give her a pass.  It was her first film). 

One day Jo (Charles Vanel) arrives by plane, and being another French guy, he and Mario quickly become friends.  Jo is on the run from something and hopped the first plane that would take him $500's-worth away from where he was.  Both Jo and Mario are dead broke, so they try to figure out how to make some money and no matter if it's illegal or not. 

Meanwhile, a big fire breaks out in an American oil field 300 miles away. Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs), the American owner of the local oil business, needs some men to drive some nitroglycerin over a mountain pass to the burning oil field so the workers can set off dynamite to staunch the fires.  Mario and Jo are first in line.  It's a dangerous trip over 300 miles of rugged, mountainous roads where the slightest bump could explode the nitro.  The trip needs to be done quickly and, despite the danger, the men in this town are desperate and willing to risk their lives to make this trek for the money.  And O'Brien is happy to exploit these men because they are considered expendable if something bad happens - "No one will come around causing trouble."

Two trucks will make the journey with two men in each truck.  Mario and Jo are in the first largest truck, with two other lost souls, Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lilli), following as back-up in another.  As Jo tries to start the truck, it won't start, clearly an omen of what's to come. T

Thus begins the second half of the film: the tense journey with all kinds of obstacles that need to be overcome.

I am constantly amazed and happy by this little (or big) project I have undertaken (to see all of the movies in the book "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"), because I am introduced to some really wonderful movies I would never have necessarily wanted to see...and this would be one of them.  As I always say, I don't really like movies about a bunch of men doing manly stuff, but I have to say this film is riveting.  The characterizations are superb (except for Linda) as is the script, and the black and white cinematography is exquisite.

For a two and a half hour movie about guys driving trucks on a dangerous South American road, the film moved along fast and furious and kept my attention throughout.  The ominous music added to the tension and you find yourself rooting for these guys, even though they are not very nice guys, but you do it because they are clearly being exploited (by American oil interests) because of their desperation. The suspense lies in the question, "Will they make it?" And with the money they will make, will they get out of that hell hole of a town?  Where will they go?  What will they do?  Will they turn their lives around? Or will it all be for nothing?"

This showcases some of Yves Montand's early work before he became known as a suave leading man. This role is a far cry from the French bon vivant he became in romantic comedies where he romanced Marilyn Monroe and then broke her heart, and it's a wonderful performance.

(Director William Friedkin remade this film in 1977 ("Sorcerer"), once again getting my dander up about American remakes of perfectly wonderful foreign language films. Difficult to believe that remake could be as wonderful as this film...and it wasn't).

Why it's a Must See: "A withering depiction of greed and the corrupting influence of capitalism disguised as an adventure film, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear is possibly the most tension-filled movie ever made."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you like beautifully made, tense macho films with lots of twists and turns (literally), or even if you are just a fan of TV shows like "Ice Road Truckers," this is for you.  You will find this film fascinating. 
(b & w, in English, French and Italian with English subtitles)


***Book of the Week***

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin (2016)

On February 4, 1974 Patricia Campbell Hearst, a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley and heir to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a group of self-styled revolutionaries. Her kidnapping and later decision to become one of them gripped the nation. 

Patty Hearst was engaged to a college professor and living a quiet life when she was kidnapped by the SLA.  Over the course of her capture, she appeared to go over to the side of the revolutionaries and become one of them. She put out communiques to the press calling herself Tania (after Che Guevara's lover and fellow revolutionary) and was seen holding a sawed-off shot gun during a robbery of a San Francisco bank. The group demanded that her father, Randy Hearst, feed the poor people of Oakland and San Francisco to secure her release. He did but Patricia was not released.

When most of the members of the group were killed in the largest police shoot-out in American history and the first breaking news event to be broadcast on live television across the country, Patty and the two remaining SLA members, Bill and Emily Harris, went on the run, helped by other ragtag left-wing groups, until they were all captured a year later.  When Patty was captured, she went on trial for her perceived crimes. Though when she was captured she was unrepentant, spouting radical rhetoric, she later said she had been forced to cooperate with the SLA. Was she a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome or a willing participant in the crimes the group perpetrated?

Jeffrey Toobin, whose book about O.J. was the basis for the Emmy Award- winning miniseries "The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" turns his excellent eye and writing narrative to the story of Patty Hearst and her involvement with the SLA.  Based on more than 100 interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, this book captures the radical nature of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the 1970's - so many that the news media stopped reporting on them).

Many of you are too young to remember this event, but no doubt you recognize the name. The story was a headline one for many years.  Did Patty become an SLA member on her own or was she brainwashed or coerced?  That is the question Toobin tackles.  He also brings us all up to date on what Patty's life has been like since her capture and trial and his views on the Presidential pardon she received in the 1990's.

I was living in Berkeley at the time of the infamous shoot-out and watched in real time on TV.  It was shocking but also a time when many young people were sympathetic to these kinds of self proclaimed revolutionaries, especially in Berkeley, so it was extremely interesting to relive it all 42 years later with more facts and insight than we all had back then.

I favor nonfiction, especially well written nonfiction, and Toobin is right up there with the best. 

His research is excellent, starting with Hearst's own book "Every Secret Thing," followed by his reading all of the trial testimony and FBI summaries, his viewing press interviews and media appearances and directly interviewing people who knew Patty or who played a major role in the events.  After his release from prison, Bill Harris had obtained the legal and investigative files from the defense teams in all of the prosecutions of the remaining SLA members and their associates, and Toobin was able to purchase those files from Harris.  Those files comprised over 150 boxes of material.

This is no puff piece about Patricia Hearst or an apologist view of the SLA. 

In fact, Toobin appears to not be a fan. Needless to say, Hearst did not cooperate in the publication of the book, though Toobin tried to contact her.  He is also clearly not in support of the Presidential pardon Hearst received in the 1990's. 

"Patricia Hearst was a woman who, through no fault of her own, fell in with bad people but then did bad things; she committed crimes, lots of them...To be sure, following her arrest in 1975, she was unlikely to commit these kinds of crimes again.  If the United States were a country that routinely forgave the trespasses of such people, there would be little remarkable about the mercy she received following her conviction.  But the United States is not such a country; the prisons teem with convicts who were also led astray and who committed lesser crimes than Patricia.  These unfortunate souls have no chance at even a single act of clemency...Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia's conviction."

Where is Patricia Hearst today? 

Today she is 62, a mother and a grandmother and a widow who likes to show dogs.  Her shih tzu named Rocket won top dog in the toy division at the Westminster Dog Show in 2015.

And such is life.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Baby Boomers will remember this story and Toobin does it justice, vividly bringing it back to life and giving the events context.  Nonfiction at its best.  Highly recommended!

Thanks for reading!
See you next Friday 

for my review of



The Week in Reviews

(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)

 and the latest on

"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project." 


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  1. I gave it a 5.5 of 10! Slow slow slow. I was also bothered that Amy Adams was similar to Sandra Bullock in her space suit where half of their scenes were this weird breathing thing. So annoying.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jan. That's my biggest complaint - how slow it was - and yes, it reminded me, too, of "Gravity." But I think we are in the minority. I belong to a Fantasy Movie League and they were all raving about it.