Arrival (2016)


Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sangita Patel, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowski, Mark O’Brien, Jadyn Malone, Ruth Chiang, Anana Rydvald, Julia Scarlett Dan, Nathaly Thibault, Leisa Reid, Frank Fiola, Russell Yuen, Pat Kiely, Larry Day, Joe Cobden, Julian Casey, Carmela Nossa Guizzo, Andrew Shaver, Genevieve Sirois. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

We take language for granted. After all, despite the many languages on the planet, we are basically aware of all the various alphabets and pictographs that make up written language. We are also the same species and can communicate non-verbally if necessary. What happens when we encounter an alien species with whom we have no basis for communication?

Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguist teaching at a fairly well-known university. One day her class – already sparsely attended – is interrupted by the students all getting excited texts over the phone. At last Louise, watching her students abandon her classroom, finds a television set and discovers that an alien spaceship has arrived in Montana. As it later turns out, it is one of twelve positioned all over the world.

Of course, the big question is “what do they want?” When the military in the form of Colonel Weber (Whitaker) knocks at her door, she takes the opportunity. What scientist wouldn’t want to be among those making first contact with an alien race? Certainly not Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist who is also on the team whom Louise meets on the way to the landing site, although landing is perhaps a misnomer; the alien vessel floats majestically 28 feet above the ground. It’s not as if Louise has anything holding her at home, as she is completely alone. She often thinks about her teenage daughter Hannah who passed away of what appears to be cancer.

As it turns out, the aliens appear every 18 hours like clockwork but nobody has been able to communicate with them yet which is of course why Louise was brought in. The team enters the spaceship via a scissor lift which gets them to a certain point; after that the aliens thoughtfully manipulate gravity so the team can make it comfortably the rest of the way.

They appear behind a glass barrier with swirling white mist. The aliens, gigantic grey beings with seven limbs are dubbed “heptapods” as they somewhat resemble octopi with a missing limb. Louise discovers that the circular shapes that they conjure up in the mist is their written language. With eleven other scientific teams also working to make contact in places like Siberia, China and Venezuela, the scientists work overtime trying to interpret the alien language. Louise begins to make breakthroughs, understanding that the squiggly circles all represent concepts rather than letters of an alphabet.

However, differences in opinion over what the squiggly circles mean begin to raise tensions between the various nations. The Chinese are certain that the aliens are trying to give them a weapon and their leader, General Shang (Ma) has cut off communication with the other teams. The CIA type (Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is inclined to believe the same thing. Now the race is to prove that the aliens are not out to start a war or destroy humanity utterly and it’s a race that Louise is not sure she can win.

This is based on the story “The Story of Your Life” written by scientist and science fiction author Ted Chiang and from what I understand the movie is remarkably faithful to the short story. Villeneuve went to great lengths to insure the scientific accuracy on his production which also deserves kudos. This is most definitely not for those who think sci-fi movies should be full of lasers and space battles and sleek spaceships. The spacecraft used here resembles a contact lens more than anything and is pretty much bare and featureless. Villeneuve purposely made the alien environment foggy and grey with almost no color whatsoever. Some might find that boring.

Those who like their sci-fi cerebral won’t find this boring. The concepts brought up by Chiang and Villeneuve include our perception of time, the importance of language, and of course our perspective on our place in the universe. There are also themes of loss, grief and faith. Villeneuve doesn’t really spoon-feed you anything; he sets you up with an idea and allows you to process it however you choose. Not everyone will like that; my lovely wife felt that she was condescended to although to be truthful I didn’t feel that way at all.

Adams who is already one of the top actresses in Hollywood today moves to another level here. Her Louise is surrounded by an air of sadness and regret. There is already much Oscar buzz around her performance here and she will certainly merit consideration for a nomination. It is a layered performance that is both emotional and smart. Roles that change the way you think about an actor are few and far between; this is one of them.

It is always refreshing to see a movie that really isn’t like any other. Sure, first contact films have been done in many different ways but none quite like this one. Denis Villeneuve has put forth a bold claim to being one of the best filmmakers of this era; his filmography certainly backs it up. Arrival may be the best movie the French-Canadian director has done and given what he has on his resume that’s saying something.

REASONS TO GO: The script is profound and thought-provoking. The filmmakers don’t skimp on the science. Adams gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Arrival shows out of the box thinking on nearly every level of filmmaking.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too cerebral for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity is briefly uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Renner and Adams previously co-starred together in American Hustle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contact
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: All We Had

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Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice

Incendies


Incendies

Lubna Azabal wants a bigger percentage of the gross - and she's not going to take no for an answer!

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulim, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allan Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Yousef Shweihat. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Our relationships with our parents can be complicated to say the least. Often we forget that they too are flesh and blood people who lived lives before we were even a gleam in their eyes – that they were once young and passionate, and lived through times both good and bad. Sometimes, we just don’t know our parents at all.

Twins Simon (Gaudette) and Jeanne (Desormeaux-Poulim) are summoned to the office of their late mother’s employer Jean Lebel (Girard), who happens to be a notary. He has, he informs them, been named executor of their mother’s will. She has asked to be buried naked and face down without a headstone or a name plate. Instead, the twins are given two envelopes – one addressed to the father they thought was dead, the other addressed to the brother they didn’t know they had. Once those envelopes are delivered, then she could be properly buried.

Simon, who obviously has some issues with his mommy, refuses to play her games but Jeanne, who is a graduate student in mathematics and deals with insolvable problems, has to fill in the blanks that have suddenly appeared in her life. She decides to retrace her mother’s steps, back to the unnamed and fictional Middle Eastern country (that is most likely based on Lebanon) where her mother was born.

There we find that her mother, Nawal Marwan (Azabal), was born a Christian in a country where Muslims and Christians don’t really play together well. She falls in love with a Muslim who gets her pregnant which is a no-no. After giving birth, she is forced to leave her village and stay with her uncle in the city of Daresh, where he is a newspaper editor and she attends university while her newborn is left in an orphanage. Years later when civil war breaks out between the Christians and the Muslims, she goes on a journey to find her son, one that will take her through as much suffering as it is possible for a human being to witness.

This may sound like a very dark tale and certainly it is grim in places, but it is also very uplifting. The movie is driven by the things that divide us, but the powerful element of forgiveness is also very much present.

Villeneuve proves himself to be not only an adept director, but potentially an elite one with his marvelous storycrafting here. The movie begins with a somewhat scattered feeling and as the movie continues, the threads begin to emerge into a pattern until at last the big picture comes into focus. The twist that brings it all together is a doozy; there were audible gasps at the screening I attended.

Azabal is a tremendous actress who starts out very emotional, wearing her feelings openly but becoming more guarded as the movie progresses (it’s a defense mechanism). That’s the opposite of how movie characters usually progress, and kudos to her and Villeneuve for pulling it off. Nawal is a complex women, one who has been through a great deal of trauma, who has seen men at their worst (Christian militiamen with pictures of the Virgin Mary on the butts of their guns massacring a busload of Muslim women) and yet manages to find a way through to grace, which she achieves near the end of her life and by sending her children on this journey, allows them to achieve it as well.

There are certainly socio-political elements to the movie as well, with a good hard look at the prejudices and hatreds of a region that seems doomed to wallow in it forever. Yet, there is great beauty there, and the warmth of family and hospitality that makes watching the country descend into the madness of religious civil war all the more heartbreaking.

This is one of the most provocative movies you’ll see this year. It was the favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, although it wound up losing to In a Better World – both movies are about equally as good, to my mind and both deserved it. This movie, however, gets a bit of an edge when it comes to the issues raised and the character of Nawal, who is as extraordinary a woman as you’re likely to meet in the theater this year.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and terrific images.

REASONS TO STAY: It takes a bit of patience to get on board.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some pretty intense violence not to mention a good deal of foul language and a twist with an extremely adult theme.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The stage play that the movie is based on premiered in France on March 14, 2003 in France and the title translates to “Scorched.”

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this on a big screen if you can find it.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: An Education