For various of us:
- It’s a long weekend.
- It’s the second round of the NFL Playoffs.
- It’s the weekend of the Cavs/Warriors rematch
- It’s a weekend that starts with Friday the 13th.
Let’s ignore all of that and talk movies. I’ve seen four this holiday season (minor spoilers for all follow. You have been warned.)
First, Rogue One. I wasn’t expecting anything more than a generic Star Wars flick, full of callbacks, lots of awwww moments, fun but forgettable. But this One surprised me. The characters are tough, gritty, the acting is top-notch, the atmosphere is dark and genuinely menacing.1 Glad I watched.
Next, Arrival, which is just brilliant. Again the acting is superb. And if you haven’t seen it or read the short story, and know only that it’s a First Contact story, you won’t be able even to guess what’s going to happen or what it all means. Don’t even try; just go along for the ride. You won’t regret it.
Manchester-by-the-Sea. More great acting, especially by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams.2 and a taut, highly intelligent script adds up to another film I recommend highly. And it’s nothing like the Silas-Marnerish setup (A troubled bachelor becomes responsible for raising a young man) would lead you to believe.
Last, Passengers. the only one I regret seeing. Again, the acting is fine.3 But there are no surprises in it. There are plot twists, but each one is set up and executed to contribute to the standard Hollywood emotional trajectory, on the way to a high-action, effect-driven climax and the standard happy ending.
There’s a common thread here, of course: which films were able to surprise the audience, and which was stamped out by the standard presses. Hollywood has gotten very good at figuring out what we’ve enjoyed in the past and giving us more of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: anyone who says that he likes being challenged all of the time is selling something. But it’s also great when an original voice can give us something we didn’t know we’d appreciate until we did.
- It’s still Star Wars, filled with conversations in which no information is exchanged or even mentioned. Is a plan a good one? We’ll hear about gut feelings and what the Rebels stand for and trusting the Force, but never a word about likely weak spots or alternatives.
- Coach Taylor is good in a supporting role, though it’s weird for him to have a New England accent.
- Chris Pratt is OK playing a more serious variant of his usual character and Jennifer Lawrence is always good.