Director: Denis Villeneuve (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Prepare yourself for an epic close encounter in this cerebral sci-fi creature feature. It’s an astonishingly involving, wonderfully acted, technically dazzling and breathtakingly beautiful paean to the pain of existence.

Superb in every department, the intelligent design and gorgeous cinematography are graced by sympathetic editing which reflects the themes of the film. The storytelling of this masterful work constantly wrong foots our expectations to provide this years most profound emotional kick.

I staggered from the screening, aping exactly the stunned expressions of stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner after their first contact with alien lifeforms. I was not quite believing of the intensity or meaning of my experience, but I knew it was somehow glorious.

The arrival of an alien fleet on Earth causes global panic and the US government calls a state of emergency. Adams is tremendous as Dr. Louise Banks, a gifted linguist who is recruited by the US military and represents humanity’s best hope. Her mission is to communicate with the extra-terrestrial visitors and ascertain their purpose on our planet. She is aided by Renner’s theoretical physicist, Ian.

The lengthy first view of the monumental alien craft has a gobsmacking power. Humans are pitifully fragile before the enormous alien shell-like ship which gently hovers yards above the ground. This is merely a light jab to soften our senses before the hefty emotional punches Villeneuve lands on us later.

Inside the grey giant egg of a craft, the aliens appear through a shroud of mist,separated from their guests by an invisible wall. The giant squid-like beings have an elephantine hide, and their seven fingered form has echoes of some of the startling imagery in director Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013). They communicate through a sign language composed of inkblots, reminiscent of rorschach tests.

However time is running out as the Chinese and Russians rattle their sabres in the face of the perceived threat. Plus the anxious trigger fingers of the US military are ready with radiation suits, rifles, helicopters and high explosives.

The relatively few action moments are given power by a sharp script which touches upon our understanding of love, language, memory and time. There are elements of the Cold War stand-off and biblical allusions to the tower of Babel and Moses ascending Mount Sinai.

Along with her lead in Tom Ford’s masterful thriller Nocturnal Animals (2016), Adams has two of the plum lead roles of the year, a singular achievement for a forty-something actress in a notoriously youth-orientated Hollywood.

As her scientist sidekick, Renner demonstrates why he’s Hollywoods finest second fiddle. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg offer strong, understated support as a US Colonel and an FBI Agent.

With communication and time key ideas, Arrival appropriately conducts its own dialogue with cinema. Combining the majesty of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the humour and humanity of Spielberg’s Close Encounter Of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival is a far more successful blend of the two masters than Spielberg’s own mesmerisingly flawed A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). As well as his own films, Villeneuve includes a call back to the cult sci-fi Cold War thriller War Games (1983). This is the film Christopher Nolan can only dream of making.

The next film by Villeneuve is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner (1982), and it’s good to know it’s in the safest possible pair of hands.

But first you absolutely must see this one.




Captain America: Civil War

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo (2016)

Hard on the heels of the showdown between Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice  (2016) comes another super-powered spandex smack down.

This time it’s Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. facing off as Captain America and Iron Man.

Although nominally the third stand alone Captain America film, it plays like a third Avengers movie and deals with the fall out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

But Civil War lacks writer/director Joss Whedon’s ability to build a strong narrative and offer a spotlight for each major character.

Although the Russo’s bring a harder edge to the action, they haven’t Whedon’s grasp of group dynamics or comedy. They seem unable or unwilling to nurture interesting female characters, which is Whedon’s absolute stock in trade.

Here the blunt banter and sparse stabs of humour seem forced rather than growing organically out of character.

Many jokes seem parachuted in by executives and there are more than a few about gags about ageing. They lend the movie the stale air of a spandex version of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables franchise.

The ferocious and superbly choreographed opening action scenes are at the very top end of Civil War‘s 12A certificate.

But the story is cluttered with too many minor characters. New ones are introduced to flag up their own stand alone solo movie and there’s a much herald appearance of a rebooted favourite.

Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle return respectively as sidekicks War Machine and The Falcon. The Hulk and Thor are noticeably absent.

Young Brit Tom Holland steals the film with his wide eyed chatterbox take on Peter Parker.

It’s a shame his Spider-Man CGI alter-ego is so poorly rendered, all the more puzzling as the generally the film looks fantastic in its IMAX 3D version.

A great deal of time is set up the Black Panther (2018) movie. Marvel seem so eager to involve and so self pleased at promoting a black character they haven’t looked too closely at how he’s presented.

Removed of the cowl and claws of Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman is fine in the undemanding role as the urbane and irony free African prince T’Challa.

However he’s prone to beginning sentences with ‘in my culture..’. Maybe people do speak like this but it reminded me of Ron Ely era Tarzan. His dialogue and demeanour seem freshly minted from the preconceptions of the white New Yorkers who created him back in 1966.

William Hurt and Martin Freeman are introduced as part of the Black Panther thread.

While Jeremy Renner gives the most lacklustre performance of his career as Hawkeye, Paul Bettany does some lovely work as the Vision.

The script can’t work out what to do with him or his ill defined powers, so opts for ignoring him whenever it can. Notably during the fighting.

Dragged down into the melee and still without a film to call their own, the only two female heroes are Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.

At heart Civil War wants to be a hard hitting action thriller. The tone is suitably subdued as the script deals with politically compromised ideals, murdered parents and revenge.

Then it remembers the audience and bursts into blasts of candy coloured action.

Remorseful at collateral deaths of civilians during an Avengers mission, the once independent Iron Man is ready to accept UN oversight of The Avengers team.

Bizarrely for a soldier, Captain America doesn’t agree with operating under a hierarchal command system.

A UN conclave are about to sign an accord to will curtail superhero activity when they suffer a terrorist attack.

Number one suspect is Captain America’s friend turned terrorist agent Bucky Barnes. AKA The Winter Soldier.

Despite being played by the physically impressive Sebastian Stan, he remains an irritatingly anonymous figure.

Captain America is convinced Bucky is innocent and sets off to find him before the CIA do.

This puts him at odds with Iron Man, leaving the rest of The Avengers team to decide with whom they stand.

As allegiances shift and romance blooms across the barricades, loyalties are stretched and snapped.

Meanwhile there’s a sinister plot involving Daniel Bruhl’s shady scientist and a super enhanced elite death squad.

Easily the best part of Civil War is the promised punch up between the host of heroes.

It’s an imaginatively conceived and entertaining executed bout which leaves the heroes damaged and divided.

Unfortunately it happens about half way through the running time, so the rest of the film feels very anti-climactic.

And after two and a half hours of spandex clad action, I was beginning to chafe.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Director: Christopher McQuarrie (2015)

With the face-changing spy team returning to action for the fifth time, latex masks are once again the essential fashion accessory of the blockbuster season.

The evergreen Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt, top agent of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF). It’s an enjoyable but fleetingly thrilling action adventure.

A terror network of former spies called The Syndicate are causing global chaos. Their elusive leader is the husky-voiced Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

After escaping from a torture cell Hunt is injured and alone in London. But a US government committee has dissolved the IMF and bull-headed CIA boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants Hunt arrested.

Hunt has to round up his usual suspects, err, operatives Benji, William and Luther (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames) before tracking down Lane.

As they try to locate a data stick containing vital information, we’re offered chases, fights, assassinations, kidnappings, double-crosses and betrayals.

As the action bounces from Washington DC to Vienna and Morocco, there’s a night at the opera, an underwater break-in and a high speed pursuit through the desert.

Fistfights are surprisingly vicious but there’s no swearing or sex. Where British agent James Bond is rewarded with a kiss, Hunt receives a warm hug.

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson steals the film as agent Ilsa Faust. She’s an intelligent, tough and glamorous addition to the cast.

Baldwin tiptoes on the chasm of camp while Renner flexes his funny bone more frequently than his muscle.

Pegg and Cruise share a fraternal chemistry; they’re the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis of international espionage.

Cruise is prepared to take a beating, smash a car, crash a bike and even hang off a military transport plane during take-off – just for your entertainment.

So it’s a shame he’s put overall control in the hands of workman-like writer/director Christopher McQuarrie.

A longstanding Cruise collaborator, they previously paired up to make the weak Jack Reacher (2012). And McQuarrie has further scripted the Cruise-starring Valkyrie (2008).

He’s also responsible for the scripts of the poor Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) and The Tourist (2010). Yet back in 1995 – the year before Cruise began the MI movie franchise – he won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects (1995).

Here his direction is rote not inspired. Action scenes are impressively staged on an epic canvas but fail to generate much tension.

With it’s great theme tune, glossy locations, outrageous stunts and glorious gadgets, the IMF owes a huge debt to 007 James Bond.

With Cruise having played Hunt for nearly twenty years and more times than most actors have played Bond, perhaps it’s time to refresh the MI franchise.

They should give the next mission to Ilsa.

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell (2014)

This brilliantly acted sleazy and greasy 1970s caper crackles with sexual tension like a cheap nylon suit.

The stellar cast consisting of three Oscar winners (Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro) and three nominees (Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams) is on excellent form in this slick, funny and dynamic crime comedy.

The fine performances combine with aggressive camera work, expert editing, a brilliant soundtrack and freaky 1970’s fashions to amp up an electric atmosphere ever higher.

Bale has rarely had so much fun with a role. He plays the balding, bearded, paunchy Irving Rosenfeld, a conman way out of his depth trapped between the mob and the FBI.

Rosenfeld and his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Adams) are arrested by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) and compelled to assist him in cleaning up corruption in the new Atlantic City casino development.

The investigation expands to include expensive hotel suites, video surveillance, $2million in a suitcase and a Mexican who is posing as a fake sheikh.

The operation is threatened by Rosenfeld’s loose-lipped, loose-cannon of a wife Rosalyn – a dynamite performance by Lawrence.

They target passionate Carmine Polito (Renner), a corrupt mayor who is plagued by divided loyalties.

Russell even manages to squeeze a decent performance out of Robert DeNiro – something we haven’t seen for while.

Every character is forced to manipulate, lie, cheat and re-invent themselves as allegiances shift and con is built upon con but it’s not really interested in the plot as much as enjoying throwing the characters together and twisting the audience around it’s finger.

Deep down it’s also a critique of the film industry and of society’s cynical surrender to the power of capitalism – but don’t let that stop your enjoying the relentless ride as the toe-curling tension increases.

The scam continues to the very last line of the film.

Kill The Messenger

Director: Michael Cuesta (2015)

Despite a plot of international significance featuring political corruption, money laundering and drug dealing, this real-life thriller is surprisingly weak and muddled.

It’s a busy dramatisation of the fall from grace of investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). Uncertain of tone it begins as a courtroom romp, rifles into an astonishing hard news story then dissolves into a dull human interest feature.

Renner hides behind a goatee bristling with self-righteous rage but his taciturn everyman act lacks charisma. His two Oscar nominations (The Town, The Hurt Locker) seem ever more indebted to strong direction than any tremendous ability.

A scruffy family man with a penchant for British cars, motorbikes and music, Webb works on the small San Jose Mercury newspaper.

In a 1996 newsroom teeming with now unimaginable numbers of staff, Webb is indulged by young editor Anna (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and avuncular executive editor Jerry (Oliver Platt).

One day the glamorous Nicaraguan Coral (Paz Vega) drops a folder of confidential information into his lap. The first of many characters to pop up before being forgotten, she uses an unwitting Webb to have her boyfriend’s court prosecution collapse.

Following the info in the folder, Webb is soon interviewing incarcerated drug-dealer Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams). He claims the CIA turned a blind eye to Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez) importing industrial quantities of cocaine as it served their foreign policy purposes. The enormous sums of cash raised funded the Contra’s attacks on the communist Nicaraguan government.

It’s a doddle for Webb to bribe his way into a Nicaraguan jail to meet fearsome drug baron Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia). Everybody is happy to tell the journalist exactly what he needs – which means there’s no tension or drama to his story-gathering.

Publishing his story online (a novelty at the time) attracts nationwide attention. Webb is nominated for journalist of the year but quickly competitors line up to challenge the story, mostly by pointing to his conspicuous lack of evidence.

Now painted as a conspiracy theorist, Webb himself becomes the story. He’s convinced the CIA are in cahoots with the Washington Post to discredit him and the pressure affects his relationship with wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and teenage son Ian (Lucas Hedges).

Blinded by his indignant anger to the realities of the world and consumed by a martyr complex, Webb is demoted to a backwater department but keeps obsessively working the case.

Government insiders Fred Weil and John Cullen (Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta) appear in cameos to confirm Webb’s theories. They could well be figments of his imagination.

As his paranoia increases Webb sees prowlers in the dark and enemies everywhere. When his bike is nicked he stupidly smashes up his own car and harangues passes-by. As Webb’s mental state deteriorates his attire becomes progressively sharper.

Webb suffers a tragic end but the film fails to provide sufficient evidence to support it’s theory as to why.