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Arrival (2016) movie review

Grade: A-

As I watched the movie Arrival I couldn’t help but thinking I’ve seen this all before. The main concept of the story here, that aliens have arrived on the Earth and it’s up to a group of scientists to communicate with them to discover if they’ve arrived with good or bad intents is a standard sci-fi trope. There’s been loads of TV series like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind that have dealt with this before.

However, just because this has all been done before doesn’t mean Arrival isn’t one heck of a good film and the plot even twists this well-worn concept enough to make the story new and fresh.

Here, seed-shaped spacecraft have arrived over twelve points across the planet and it’s up to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and army officer Weber (Forest Whitaker) to find out why. The aliens written language consists of these wobbly, almost painterly circles, and as Banks slowly figures the language out she finds more mysteries than answers. And when the Chinese military begin plans to attack the craft hovering over their territory when they don’t like the answers they’re given by the aliens, the question is if Banks can decode the meaning behind the language fast enough, and if her translations are correct before the US military follows suit.

Arrival has gotten a lot of buzz since it was first released and has been nominated for eight Academy Awards. All of which is simply amazing for a story that I can’t imagine would have ever been made as a movie even a few years ago before the current sci-fi boom. I liked most of Arrival, the first half is good enough if a bit typical sci-fi. But the last half, especially the ending, is pure genius. The ending takes Arrival into a completely unexpected direction, taking a so-so story and elevating it to a whole new level.

Arrival is one of those movies that when it ended I felt like I needed to watch again just to see everything I’d missed the first time through, even if everything I missed was hiding in plain sight all along.

World War III (1982) movie review

Grade: A-

World War III is a made-for-TV mini-series movie that I remember seeing when it first aired 35 years ago. I was pretty young when I first saw it and don’t remember too much about it other than its setting and ending, but watching it again decades later I was surprised as to just how well this film held up over the years.

Hidden in the shadow of other 1980s nuclear apocalypse TV films like The Day After and Threads and almost totally forgotten today, World War III takes a different approach to showing how a conflict between the Soviet Union and the US would unfold by showing both the upper-levels of how each government deals with the unfolding crisis and the troops on the ground doing the actual dying in the opening days of WW3. Here, the Soviets have sent a small team of special forces troopers into Alaska to seize an important pumping station for the Alaskan pipeline. They’re going to hold the line hostage until the US agrees to life a grain embargo they have against the Soviets which is crippling that nation. But it just so happens that a small group of Alaskan National Guard troops are in the area training, and when Col. Jake Caffey (David Soul of Starsky & Hutch and the Salem’s Lot mini-series) is sent to investigate, it’s up to this rag-tag team of soldiers to hold the pumping station in order to give the President (Rock Hudson) time to negotiate with the Soviets.

I think part of what makes World War III work so well is this dichotomy between the soldiers on the ground and the officials dealing with the crisis in the governments. With the governmental officials, each side thinks that the other will back down before going too far which allows the crisis to stumble along as each side goes to their next level of war readiness and gets more and more troops and equipment ready to fight even though each says they want peace. And for the soldiers on the ground who really don’t want to be there they realize that it’s their job to fight each other and sometimes die over something as inconspicuous as a pumping station in the middle of nowhere whether they like it or not.

I was surprised just how well David Soul played the part of Caffey in World War III. I’m familiar with his work on Starsky & Hutch and Salem’s Lot but the role of Caffey is something he plays to perfection. At the base Caffey isn’t so much a screwup, but someone unwilling to bend to the system in order to advance his career. But in the field is where he shines, knowing just what to do and when as the Soviets cross the Alaskan frontier and close in on his men as he sets them up in a defensive position in order to stop the Soviets.

While World War III starts off a bit slow, as the movies progresses and as the tensions rise and each side follows the other in the next step towards all out nuclear war while the soldiers on both sides in Alaska jockey for position as they slowly wipe each other out, World War III becomes a very effective thriller that I’m not sure has ever been repeated in tone or structure since.

There are a few things that don’t quite work with World War III. One of those is a slow beginning. It does take a while for the story to get moving — especially since the movie is actually two separate hour and a half long films which were originally shown over two nights in 1982. And there’s also an odd sort of odd love story between Caffey and colleague Maj. Kate Breckenridge (Cathy Lee Crosby) which seemed out of place, especially to my modern eyes. I suppose maybe 35 years ago the character of Caffey being irresistible to the ladies might have seemed perfectly normal in a TV movie, but today it seems odd especially since the Breckenridge character is shown to be indispensable in fighting the Soviets later on.

Still, for this movie being made in 1982, and seemingly mostly on sound stages doubling for the wilds of Alaska unless my eyes were playing tricks on me — World War III is one taught, effective film.

Midnight Special (2016) movie review

Grade: B

Midnight Special is an interesting film about a young boy with special powers who a cult sees as a prophet, the government sees as a threat and who’s parents just want to help him get away and get back home again. The movie is good if it seems like it’s a mashup of other movies that have come before with writer/director Jeff Nichols trying to insert a bit of depth to the whole thing while removing some of the fantastical/sci-fi elements. But I think this is what keeps Midnight Special from being a great film and instead makes it simply a good one.

Midnight Special almost starts in the middle of the story, with the beginning bits of why the characters are on the run and what powers the kid has being revealed via characters interactions and dialog. Here, father Roy (Michael Shannon) and son with powers Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) along with Roy’s old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run from the cult both were raised in all the while trying to get to some location Alton needs to get to with Amber Alert’s and police dodging them along their way. Alton is an odd boy who’s sun phobic and wears googles and earmuffs all the time. But he can also do things like pull and decrypt signals out of the air, literally drag satellites out of orbit and with these weird glowing eyes to “show” people things. Along the way they pickup Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and come under the scrutiny of NSA analyst Sevier (Adam Driver) as the government races to find the boy before he causes even more damage.

Midnight Special is essentially an update of the John Carpenter Starman movie but with a 21st century vibe. Both movies feature an otherworldly person, played by Jeff Bridges in Starman, and a few regular people racing across the country to try and get to a location before it’s too late. Now I’m not saying that Midnight Special is a copy Starman, but they both have essentially the same underlying plot.

I’d say Midnight Special is a good movie if at times there’s a few too many things going on at once. Like there’s members of the cult chasing Alton’s group and they seem to be important characters in the movie, until they’re not anymore and are gone from the story. And the whole Sevier government agent story seems to get the short shrift too, even if it’s one of the more interesting parts of the movie with Driver being great in the role. I think Midnight Special would have been a much better movie if it would have just concentrated on either the religious aspect OR the government one. Otherwise, it’s one too many things going on in a movie that at times feels like there needs to be more explanation while at the same time seemed to drag in places.

Spectral movie review

Grade: C-

In the Netflix movie Spectral, Delta Force soldiers from Seal Team Six using DARPA weapons confront frightening and menacing creatures on the urban battlefields of Eastern Europe. These things look like people but are actually monsters made of energy who can kill with a touch. Or something, I was never quite clear as to what exactly was all going on in Spectral.

Borrowing elements from a lot of other movies like Aliens; little kids in danger, soldiers inside an APC running away from the creatures, a commanding officer who watches events unfold from the APC, Predator; soldiers being hunted by an invisible foe, Black Hawk Down; special forces soldiers in combat in a ruined urban environment and more, Spectral is a bit of a mishmash of concepts and styles. Which can be a good thing, lord knows that sometimes all I want out of a sci-fi movie is a mishmash of things from other movies. But I think where Spectral fails is that it never really sticks with any one concept long enough before dashing onto the next borrowed idea.

If the first half of Spectral is this slightly sci-fi story about special forces soldiers in the near-future fighting these weird energy creatures, then the end turns into this big sci-fi movie about these same special forces soldiers trading in their modern looking combat gear for futuristic power-suits and their machine-guns for energy weapons. It’s almost like if the first half is of Spectral is Black Hawk Down and the second half suddenly shifts to Starship Troopers where the first half is part I of the movie franchise and the second part II.

I think that if the creators of this movie would’ve stuck to a few ideas rather than many and made the story of the first half of Spectral the entire movie it would have made for a much more satisfying experience.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Grade: B-

I probably haven’t seen the Star Trek: The Motion Picture movie the whole way through in 30 years and it’s possible that until now I’ve never actually had the patience to sit through the entire movie. When I was younger I remember watching it on TV and being quite bored and I doubt that it was ever something that I’d have rented on VHS ever. But after having read the part about Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the book The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years I decided to check it out again. And I was surprised at just how bad Star Trek: The Motion Picture WASN’T. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not a bad one either. In fact, out of the 10+ movies that were released based on Star Trek series, I’d say that Star Trek: The Motion Picture sits comfortably in the middle of the pack.

Cast members on set of Star Trek: The Motion PictureReleased 37 years ago today, Star Trek: The Motion Picture follows the crew of the starship Enterprise who must intercept and stop a colossal something that’s destroying everything in its path and is on its way to the Earth. But what they find in this destructive “cloud” is something no one on the ship is prepared for.

First off, the main problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that there are several scenes that go on way too long. Whenever there’s a bit of technology involved, be it the first view of the Enterprise, Spock’s shuttle or the Vgr ship minutes upon minutes of time are spent gliding over these things. It seems silly at first, then becomes ridiculous at the amount of time being spent on this tech before finally delving into boredom. Easily five or 10 minutes of screen time could be cut out of these scenes. (And reading on the film it seems like this was addressed in the special director’s cut of the movie released a few years ago.)

However, other than that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a pretty solid movie that looks nothing like anything else Star Trek. Here, crew members of Starfleet wear different versions of the costumes not seen in any of the other series or movies and sport a more utilitarian, drab look that’s actually quite interesting. Since this is the only live-action Star Trek series to exist in the 1970s it’s interesting to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture is rooted in the aesthetics of that decade.

And while the storyline of Star Trek: The Motion Picture seems like its just a long episode pulled from the TV series, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Other than the aforementioned “lingering” shots, the plot of the movie flows well and, even knowing the “twist” ending I thought it held up well nearly 40 years after its release.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of those movies the fans of the franchise deride as being the worst Star Trek but I really disagree. I mean, there’s The Search for Spock, The Final Frontier, Nemisis and Into Darkness that aren’t half as good as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and some of which are actually bad.

If you do decide to checkout Star Trek: The Motion Picture for yourself just be aware that the theatrical cut at least takes a while to get going and when it does get going there are long stretches of the “spaceship porn” to get through. But I think if you can keep an open mind about the movie you’ll be as surprised as I was as to just how interesting Star Trek: The Motion Picture really is.