Arrival

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2.5/5

One thing I love about movies is when they make me think. I don’t necessarily have to agree with their conclusions, I just have to be compelled to examine or question something I may not have otherwise. Arrival is a film that attempts to do that to its audience. It incorporates complex themes about how we view life, how we communicate, and what’s truly important. However, it didn’t leave me thinking about those things. It left me thinking about what aspects of the movie made the least amount of sense. While its acting, cinematography, and visual effects are all suitably gripping, Arrival suffers as a story, starting off with potential, but doing more to confuse its audience than answer any of their questions.

In order for me to explain, I will have to discuss certain aspects of the film’s plot. So, consider this a spoiler warning. If you have not yet seen this film, read at your own risk.

Arrival is the story of Louise, a linguistics expert who is contracted by the federal government to decipher the language of an alien race that has landed on earth. When she is unsuccessful at figuring out their spoken language, she attempts to communicate using written language. She discovers that the aliens’ written language does not work the same way as humans’ language does. Instead of having words arranged in linear sentences, the aliens express an idea or sentence in one complex circular symbol. While this is an interesting aspect on its own, the film takes it a step further. We learn that the aliens’ conception of the world, and specifically time, is the same as the way they use written language. By that, I mean that in the same way they can see the whole message in one symbol, they can see their whole life at once. They can see the future. But the movie doesn’t stop there. When Louise learns their language, she gains the ability to see the future, too. This is based on a concept called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This hypothesis says that the structure of a person’s language affects their view of the world. While this idea is interesting, the lengths to which Arrival takes it are absurd. The idea that learning a language could give a human the ability to see the future is so unrealistic that it destroys all suspension of disbelief in anything else the film presents. Now, in another movie or show, an idea like this could possibly work. For instance, in the show Doctor Who, The Doctor famously says, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.” Now, Doctor Who is a comedic show that isn’t meant to be realistic. The makers of the show know that nothing in it could really happen, and they expect their audience to know this as well. Arrival, however, is supposed to be a realistic science fiction movie whose concepts are ostensibly based in real-world science. It’s supposed to be grounded in reality.

In addition to the aforementioned problem, Arrival suffers from some other issues. The climactic moment of the film, the part that is supposed to be the most revelatory, is actually the most confusing. The central question of the film, why the aliens are on earth at all, is only superficially answered. Basically, they want to help humanity so that eventually, humanity can help them. However, it’s never explained why advanced beings that can see the future and travel across light years of space in self-sustaining floating pods would need humanity’s help. In addition, it’s not clear how the aliens help humanity. The film’s explanation is that the aliens help humanity by giving humanity the aliens’ language, but it is never really explained why the the aliens’ language would be helpful, other than that it would let humanity see the future. While some might think this would be a good thing, many others would view the ability to see the future as a curse. Arrival never explores this idea, and simply assumes its audience will find it a good thing. So, the aliens came to earth to trade the ability to see the future for some unknown thing they will inexplicably need later. That’s the climactic revelation, which to me, seems incredibly anti-climactic.

Now, during all this, some other countries where the aliens landed, such as China, are planning to attack the aliens, thinking that they are hostile. Louise uses her future-seeing powers to figure out the Chinese general’s phone number, and then calls him. She is able to convince him to hold off the attack by telling him something he told her in her vision of the future, a future that could only happen if the Chinese hold off their attack. This is clearly a paradox. Neither event can exist without the other.

Despite what you may be thinking right now, there actually were elements of Arrival that I enjoyed. On a personal level, I enjoyed the way the movie intelligently deconstructs and explains different aspects of language, since I am a person who is passionate about the English language. Arrival also anchors its complex intellectual themes with emotional ones, particularly a daughter of Louise’s who dies of cancer, and a husband who leaves her. At first, you think this is actually in the past, but eventually it’s revealed that this happens in the future. Louise knows all this will happen, but she still chooses to marry and have her daughter. The message of the movie seems to be that even though life, and human relationships, are fleeting, they are still worth living and having.

On a technical level, Arrival excels. The actors, cinematography and music are excellent as well, making the atmosphere suitably tense and gripping. However, the film tends to jump around between different scenes, which left me confused at times as to what was going on.

Denis Villeneuve is an extremely talented director, and his skill definitely shows in Arrival. It’s visually engaging and technically proficient. I’m sure it will be up for multiple awards at the Oscars. However, when I see a movie, I want it to make sense, and I want to be able to understand it. Arrival is a confusing story that demands to be taken seriously while assuming its audience will blindly accept concepts that are, frankly, ludicrous. It’s a movie that wants to make you think, but will probably just leave you perplexed.

Information:

Release Date | November 11, 2016

MPAA Rating | PG-13 (For brief strong language)

Director | Denis Villeneuve

Distributor | Paramount

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The Accountant

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My rating: 3.5/5

I never really know what a movie is going to be like until I watch it. Some movies grab my attention and present an intriguing premise and riveting characters. Others have a thoughtful message that challenges the audience into thinking about things in a way they might not have otherwise. Still others are full of convoluted plot developments that make less and less sense as the film goes on, leaving the viewer utterly frustrated. There are even movies that seem completely pointless, almost as if the filmmakers didn’t know what they were trying to convey.

Then, there are movies that do all of those things.

The Accountant is just such a movie. It starts out with an original premise and fascinating main character, compellingly brought to life by Ben Affleck, but ultimately amounts to little more than a generic action movie.

The titular accountant is Christian Wolff, a man who practices creative accounting and money laundering for criminal organizations, as well as being a lethally trained fighter. He also has autism, which is probably the most interesting aspect of the film. As an autistic myself, I am always skeptical about movies that tackle the subject, since few, if any, do it accurately and without stereotyping. However, the makers of The Accountant apparently did at least some of their homework, because the film’s message regarding autism is generally one of neurodiversity and acceptance. In an early scene, Christian’s parents are recommended not to attempt to make him normal, but to accommodate his needs and allow him to develop at his own pace. However, his father disregards this good advice, and decides to try to over-stimulate him as much as possible to force him to overcome his perceived challenges. This approach is shown to be abusive, even causing Christian to resort to extreme coping methods in adulthood, but the film almost suggests that this abusive approach worked. After all, it apparently gave him his fighting skills and we don’t really see many negative side effects, such as the post-traumatic stress disorder that many autistic adults struggle with in real life. There are also some stereotypical elements to Christian Wolff’s character. He’s a math savant, for instance. Can anyone think of an autistic movie character that wasn’t a math savant? Neither can I. In addition, he’s uninterested in a romantic relationship. While I find any movie without a romance to be a refreshing change, (way too many movies have unnecessary romances) it may be seen as problematic to some autistic viewers because it reinforces the popular misconception that autistic people are either uninterested in or incapable of romantic relationships. Otherwise, Christian Wolff is a character I really like, and a character I can relate to. He’s extremely intelligent, but socially awkward, and he has trouble understanding the not-always-obvious meanings of what other people say. In addition, he uses his gifts to his advantage while coping with his challenges, and the viewer is never given the impression that he would be better off without his autism.

On an artistic level, The Accountant starts out well, and kept me engaged for at least the first half. After that, I started noticing some problems. One problem is Christian’s propensity for killing his opponents. While the film thankfully never links this to his autism or a lack of empathy, (another misconception about autism) it does call into question Christian’s moral character. The film tries to convey that he has a moral code and only kills certain people, such as murderers, but the ethics in play are vague at best. Additionally, there are far too many disparate plot threads, and overall the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. The main plot is about Christian uncovering a scheme involving a company he did accounting for, but nothing especially interesting is revealed, there are almost no personal stakes for Christian, and his motivations are never as clear as they should be. The plot only gets worse as the film goes on, with the climactic scene being disappointingly lacking, and the ultimate resolution seeming too quick and easy. There is also a subplot involving a U.S. Treasury agent that adds little to the film.

Aside from the problems with the plot, the film is pretty entertaining. The actors are all well-cast. Ben Affleck is great in the lead role, making his character likable and generating empathy from the audience, despite being mostly anti-social in the movie. He’s easily the best thing about the film. Anna Kendrick plays an employee of a company that hires Christian, and the only person in the film who really befriends him. She also gives a good performance, and the dynamic between the two characters created some entertaining and humorous situations. As a U.S. Treasury Agent, J.K. Simmons once again proves his acting ability, but was largely underused. Jon Bernthal as one of the villains is another standout. Other high points in the film are the action scenes, which were well-staged and executed. The technical aspects of the film were also competent.

Ultimately, while The Accountant is an entertaining film with an intriguing premise and a great central character, it has too many problems to be much more than an action film with a twist and nothing to say. The final scene tries to make a statement about how autism is ultimately just a difference and we should all be more understanding, but nothing in the film really supports or leads to the statement. While it’s a great statement, it seems tacked on. The film also tries to suggest that while Christian’s actions are illegal, and sometimes wrong, it’s okay because he’s a good person and does some good things. That’s a message I can’t fully get behind. It would be one thing if the film presented a flawed character and asked you to try to understand him. It’s quite another when it seems to be trying to excuse his flaws. However, I have to give the film points for its better-than-average treatment of autism as well as Ben Affleck’s performance as one of my new favorite movie characters. All this adds up to a movie I really like, but can’t help being deeply frustrated by.

Information:

Release Date | October 14, 2016

MPAA Rating | R (For strong violence and language throughout)

Director | Gavin O’Connor

Distributor | Warner Bros.

People like Donald Trump are the Result of Rape Culture

A video from 2005 has recently surfaced in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump crudely brags about sexually assaulting women. While I have provided a link to the video, I will not repeat his words here. After widespread criticism, Trump apologized in a video posted to social media, saying, “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.” While these words probably do reflect who Trump is, that is not what I would like to discuss.

I believe they reflect a large part of American culture. They reflect rape culture. Even if they wouldn’t admit it, many Americans are just as guilty as Trump, when it comes to how they treat women. And so as not to commit the fallacy of assuming that sexual assault only happens to women, I’ll say it: men get sexually assaulted, too.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), while sexual assault has fallen 74% since 1993 (an encouraging figure), it still remains high. One in six American women has been sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and the same goes for one in thirty-three American men. In addition, most assaults, 55%, in fact, happen near the victim’s home, and three out of four assaults are by someone the victim knows. However, only around six out of every one-thousand perpetrators end up in prison.

I firmly believe that the only cause of rape is rapists. Even if there are factors that make it easier for rapists to rape, they are still fully responsible for making a fully conscious choice. (That’s not to say victims shouldn’t defend themselves, but that’s another discussion.) Many people believe that the primary way to solve rape culture is to teach people not to rape, but if people can be taught not to rape, then it stands to reason that they were taught to rape in the first place. Who taught them to rape? Well, to answer that question, all you need to do is look in a mirror. The things we as a society value contribute to rape culture, and essentially teach people to rape.

I could talk about how obsessed with sex we are, or how we teach people that their sexuality is the most important thing about their identity, or how we’ve normalized any kind of sexual activity to the degree that even sexual assault is considered normal, or how we excuse sexual assault every time it happens, but I’m not going to. Instead, I would like to point out what I believe is one of the worst, and least thought about, ways we teach people, particularly men, to rape: emotional repression.

Men are taught from the earliest possible age to hide their emotions, or even better, to not have them at all. Men are taught to be tough and stoic at all times, and any display of emotion results in ridicule and social rejection. Consequentially, most men are extremely reluctant to be vulnerable with anyone, including friends, family, and even romantic partners, and socially restricted from intimacy of any kind. However, there is one kind of intimacy they are allowed, in fact, encouraged, to participate in: sex. Sex is the one societally acceptable way for men to be intimate. In fact, men are taught that having sex enhances their masculinity: it makes them more of a man, whereas having less sex makes them less of a man. It’s not difficult to follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion.

Now, does this in any way excuse men (or women) who commit sexual assault? Absolutely not. Not in the slightest. But if we believe rape is wrong, why have we created a society that encourages men to do it?  We should be teaching men to value people and relationships, not sex. We should be teaching them that women are human beings, not sexual objects. We should be teaching them that their masculinity is not defined by their conformity to arbitrary societal constructs or by how much sex they’ve had. If we truly believe that sexual assault is wrong, then we need to stop fostering an environment that encourages it. We can’t have it both ways.

A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this blog, not to mention beyond the scope of my qualifications. However, for further reading on these topics, I have provided some resources below.

Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005

‘This is rape culture’: After Trump video, thousands of women share sexual assault stories

RAINN

Get Over It. Men and the Cost of Emotional Repression

Emotional Repression: What Happens When Men Repress Their Emotions

What Drives Men to Rape?

What is Rape Culture?

Autism Awareness: When the World Tells You That Being Different is a Disease

Imagine if the world saw you as a problem. Not because you’ve done anything wrong. Not because you choose to live a certain way. Not because you choose to believe certain things. The world sees you as a problem because you were born a certain way. I am not talking about racism, or sexism, or any of the more well-known forms of discrimination. This one is far more pervasive than those. I am talking about autism awareness. April is considered Autism Awareness Month. Every year, big corporations and so-called “non-profit” organizations such as Autism Speaks pour massive amounts of money into campaigns aimed at stigmatizing, dehumanizing, and eventually, eradicating people like me, people who are autistic. Worse, most of the world goes along with it.

Let me explain. Autism is a neurological condition. People who are autistic are different than people who are neurotypical, which is a word used to describe people with a typical neurology, or, in everyday vernacular, “normal” people. Because of this difference, autistic people and neurotypical people often have difficulty understanding or communicating with one another. Autistic people often communicate differently than neurotypical people. We often learn differently. We often express ourselves in different ways. In addition, we often have difficulty doing things that may be easy for others. In contrast, we may be better at doing things that others have difficulty doing. 

If that sounds to you an awful lot like normal human experience, that is because it is. Autism should be considered normal. Everyone is different, and autism is one of those differences. People always have to work to understand each other and accommodate each other’s needs. It is just part of being human. We are all different. However, many people do not believe in other people’s right to be different. As a result, they believe autism is a disease, or a disorder. They believe autism is something to be cured, and that autistic people are inferior to neurotypical people. 

There are many ways that this plays out. One way is the kinds of therapies that large organizations such as Autism Speaks recommend for parents of autistic children. One of the most popular therapies, Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, is mistreatment at best, and child abuse at worst. In fact, I would refer to ABA as psychological torture. It is done in the name of making the child “indistinguishable from their peers” by forcing the child to stop behaviors that are considered abnormal and do behaviors that are considered normal. The parents are usually lied to by the therapist, told that the child will not be able to succeed in life unless they can “fit in.” The therapy consists of using punishments and rewards to coerce the child into behaving in a way that is considered normal by the therapist. The therapies are non-stop, and are usually recommended to be forty hours a week. Because of the grueling, exhausting nature of the therapy, and the complete lack of privacy and rights for the child, people who have been subjected to ABA often develop post traumatic stress disorder later in life.

In addition, autistic people are not seen by society as fully human. This is most evident in cases of tragedy involving autistic people, especially the incredibly tragic, and tragically not uncommon scenario in which an autistic child is murdered by their parents. In news stories about such incidents, all of the sympathy goes to the parent, who is often portrayed as driven to the end of their rope by the “burdensome” autistic child. The article will often ask the readers for “understanding” for the murderous parent. The child, on the other hand, is portrayed as subhuman, unable to make their own decisions, and someone whose life was so terrible that it was a mercy that their parent ended their misery by killing them. Even if autistic people did lead miserable lives, it would still be wrong to kill them. However, the truth is that autistic people do not lead miserable lives, and if they do, it is not because they are autistic. While it can be difficult to raise an autistic child, (it can be difficult to raise any child) that is never a justification for murder. Autistic people are people. We have the same rights as everyone else, including and especially the most sacred and foundational of all rights: the right to life.

However, even to people like me who never went through therapy or were the victim of abuse, autism carries a stigma. People treat us differently than they do other people. We are patronized, looked down upon, and generally ignored. It’s harder for us to get jobs. It’s harder for us to make friends. The rest of the world sees us as a burden, as problems to be fixed.

So, this April, and any other time for that matter, please do not go along with those who wish to silence, marginalize, and destroy us. We don’t need people to simply be aware that we exist. We need people to accept that we are people, to accept that we have rights, and to respect our rights. Autism does not speak, but autistics do. Not always with actual speech, but with whatever method of communication we use. Do not listen to those who claim to speak for us. Listen to us. 

Giving Up our Right to Privacy Does Not Make Us Safer

Most people who have been following the political cycle recently, and many who have not, are probably aware of the court case involving Apple and their refusal to create software that could allow them to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook. Even some of the presidential candidates have weighed in. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both declined to take a side in the debate. Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump believe that Apple should comply with the order, with Trump, who apparently thinks he is running for king and not president, going so far as to say he would force Apple to comply if he were elected. Marco Rubio stated that Apple should “voluntarily comply,” but also warned of the possible dangers if they do. Former candidate Rand Paul, on the other hand, said that Apple should not be forced to comply.

Specifically, what the FBI wants Apple to do is to create two different kinds of software. Farook’s iPhone 5c is locked with a four-digit passcode. If entered incorrectly enough times, the phone will lock down and the only way to restore it is to reset it to factory settings, erasing all of its data. The first piece of proposed software would eliminate this factor, allowing codes to be entered indefinitely. The second piece would allow a computer to enter thousands of codes at once. If both were implemented, the user could unlock the phone and recover all of its data without knowing the passcode.

What’s interesting about those who are defending the FBI is that they argue that if created, this software’s use would stay relegated to a single phone. If history has proven anything, it is that no weapon ever created has ever been used only once, and before you accuse me of calling the proposed software a weapon, please realize that yes, I am absolutely calling it that. Once Apple creates this software, there will be no going back. It would reverse decades of Apple’s progress in creating almost impenetrable encryption. Any hacker who got their hands on it could unlock any iPhone, even remotely, and steal someone’s information. However, that’s not the worst danger. The worst danger is that the government will use it to spy on citizens. If the software is created, this danger will become an absolute certainty. The government already collects emails, Internet records, and phone records from citizens. Does anyone really think they will not do the same with iPhones?

Some people argue that they need to know citizen’s private information in order to keep us safe. If we can’t preemptively stop terrorism, they argue, people will die, and how will we know who the terrorists are without searching people’s private information and finding out? The problem with this argument is that not only have no terrorist attacks ever been stopped in this way, but the right to privacy and being left alone is a fundamental human right. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution says that in order to search someone’s property, a warrant needs to be issued by a judge on probable cause that a crime was committed. People need the right to live their lives freely without government intrusion.

However, there is also an argument to be made from the First Amendment. Apple has contended that being forced to write code they disagree with violates their right to free speech. Should Apple be compelled to do something they believe is wrong?

Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated that, if necessary, he will take the case to the Supreme Court, and that possibility seems extremely likely. For the good of the country, let’s hope they make the right decision. The rights of every American hang in the balance. 

Inside Out

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My rating: 5/5

Over the years, Pixar Animation Studios has proven that it is one of the most daring and original production studios in Hollywood. Despite the fact that their most recent films do not fully live up to that reputation, their latest film, newly out on DVD and Blu-Ray, proves that their best days are not yet behind them. Inside Out is a stunningly smart and original story that combines exciting action and humor with deeply moving pathos and drama, creating a film that ranks with the best of Pixar’s classics. The film is set inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, and the characters are her emotions, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. The emotions live in headquarters and basically guide her through her daily life. The interactions between what the emotions are doing, what happens in Riley’s mind, and what happens to her on the outside are nothing short of brilliant. The cleverness of the film considerably ramps up after Joy and Sadness are accidentally stranded outside headquarters and must find their way back. Try as they might, the other emotions simply cannot keep Riley emotionally stable. Most of the film is about Joy and Sadness’s journey back to headquarters, and their adventure is probably what will most appeal to kids about this film. It is fun, exciting, funny, and expertly paced. Adults will appreciate the humor and sophistication of the story. All the voice actors are excellent as well, the standouts to me being Phyllis Smith as Sadness, and Lewis Black as Anger. What I like best about this film however, is its originality, from its setting and characters, to its conflict and resolution. I cannot give away the details of the latter, but suffice to say that the climactic scene is one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen in a recent film. The film takes the idea of emotions and executes it in the best way possible, and it does so in such a way that both adults and children can enjoy it. The animation is beautiful. The plot balances fun and adventure with depth and maturity. It will make you laugh and cry. It will keep you on the edge of your seat and force you to think about what you have seen. Inside Out is truly like nothing you have ever seen before.

Information:

Release Date | June 19, 2015

MPAA Rating | PG (for mild thematic elements and some action)

Director | Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen

Distributor | Disney

Steve Jobs

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My rating: 5/5

I honestly cannot imagine what the world would be like without Steve Jobs. As I write this on my MacBook, with my iPod in my pocket and my iPad next to me, it is easy to see his impact on the world. But beneath his public persona of brilliant innovator who invents the future, what was Steve Jobs actually like? Who was he, really? What motivated him to change the world? The creators of the film Steve Jobs, a dramatized examination of the titular technology mogul, try to answer these questions with one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking, and entertaining films of the year so far. A compelling and fascinating character study of an influential figure, Steve Jobs is a dynamic showcase of brilliant writing, acting, and directing. While leading actor Michael Fassbender may not look like Jobs, he absolutely nails the role, giving a performance that is equal parts calculating genius and tortured antihero, a corporate dictator who hides his flaws and vulnerabilities beneath an exterior of steel. He powers his way through the film, completely dominating every scene with his formidable presence. The rest of the cast is excellent, as well, especially Kate Winslet as Jobs’s assistant, Joanna Hoffman, and a surprisingly good performance from Seth Rogen as Jobs’s former partner Steve Wozniak. Of course, a great actor is nothing without a great writer. Once again proving himself to be one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin (who won a much-deserved Oscar for his work on The Social Network) has crafted a screenplay that is as cuttingly sharp as it is electrically energetic. Structured into three acts, each set at a different product launch, the script is less focused on what Steve Jobs did as it is on who Steve Jobs was. As a result, it may leave some viewers behind, especially those who were hoping for a more documentary style approach. However, anyone else should be more than satisfied. Adapting a script like that for the screen is no easy task, but director Danny Boyle pulls it off with élan and visual stylishness. The cinematography is impressive, the editing is smooth, and the music by relative newcomer Daniel Pemberton is an elegant balance between classical-sounding orchestra and more modern electronic elements. However, the remarkable craftsmanship of the film only complements its complexity. Here we do not see the Steve Jobs most people think of. Here, he is a charismatic and innovative dreamer who built a digital empire, and an egotistical driver ready to steamroll anyone in his way in order to achieve his goals. Anyone wanting a typical, inspirational biopic will be disappointed. For everyone else, however, Steve Jobs is a unique and brilliantly crafted masterpiece that will surpass your expectations and make you think about it long after you have left the theater.

Information:

Release Date | October 23, 2015

MPAA Rating | R (For language)

Director | Danny Boyle

Distributor | Universal