Thursday, 24 November 2016

Arrival



Wow!

Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite Canadian directors (one of my very favourite directors, period), has made another classic, this one very different from his previous films (all of which I also loved). Arrival is a quiet intense sci-fi film about the sudden arrival of aliens on earth. It’s impossible to write a review of Arrival without at least a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, stop reading now and go watch the film, knowing only that it will be the third Villeneuve film in seven years (Incendies and Sicario were the other two) to make my list of top ten films of the year. I will add that, unlike most of Villeneuve’s films, there is almost no violence in this one.

Okay, so now you’ve seen this wonderful film, which is based on a short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and written by Eric Heisserer, and I can share some of the reasons I loved it.

Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, one of the top linguists in the U.S., who is called in to help the American government (military) communicate with the aliens who just landed a giant black ship in Montana. Eleven other ships have landed around the world and linguists are also trying to communicate with the aliens inside them, but only Banks will achieve major breakthroughs. Helping her with this is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist who works for the military. Both Banks and Donnelly are under the command of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the man who recruited them for this unique mission.

The aliens communicate only through ‘written symbols’ (produced by ink generated by their ‘hands’) that take a lot of effort to interpret, making this mission a long slow process. But linguists around the world are working together with Banks, and progress is made, be it ever so slowly. Until, that is, one of the linguists translates an alien word as ‘weapon’ and suddenly the communication between countries is cut off, while plans are made to attack the ships before the ships attack earth. This is an example of what happens when you put first contact with aliens into the hands of the military - the military is always in defense mode, viewing everything it doesn’t understand as a threat. 

With all her efforts coming up short, will Banks find a way forward before all hell breaks loose? I’ll leave it there, but let’s just say that what happens next is a very far cry from Independence Day

From beginning to end, Arrival belongs to Adams and she is terrific (I see an Oscar nomination coming) in a role that exemplifies precisely what I was asking for in my controversial review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In that review, I asked why strong female characters in action films need to show that they can be as violent as any man, instead of offering an alternative to violence. Unlike most of the men around her, who quickly panic and reach for their guns, Banks dismisses violence out of hand and, to the last, seeks alternatives. That seeking requires a tremendous amount of courage and determination, as well as intelligence, empathy and compassion, making Banks a far better role model than most ‘action’ heroes. This is the second film in a row in which Villeneuve has featured a strong and thoughtful female protagonist who is surrounded by men who like to shoot first. It’s also Villeneuve’s second film in row that challenges the military mindset. I like this guy!

All I’ve said so far, however, just touches the surface of Arrival. This thought-provoking film goes much deeper, with questions about life that touch on many other issues of our time. For example, it takes a unique look at the power of language and what it means to communicate effectively with others without automatically reacting in fear or with militaristic actions. Another example: if you could see every moment of the rest of your life, with all its joys and sorrows, would you be able to embrace it anyway and not change anything (if given the choice), regardless of the consequences? And did I mention that Arrival is primarily the story of  a mother and her child?

Or is Arrival primarily about time? In a sense, it’s a time-travel film with scenes that, in lesser films, would have had me shaking my head incredulously at the contrived solutions to the paradoxes involved. But Arrival’s way of handling time is so unique that it’s almost impossible to challenge. 

Arrival is a simple, elegant, moving, wise and poetic sci-fi film (though not in the Tarkovsky sense). There are elements of Malick here, with a definite focus on the right side of the brain, but the narrative is strong (even if profoundly complex). The film reminds me of sci-fi classics from my younger days, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. The cinematography and score, meanwhile, are excellent. Arrival gets an easy **** and will likely be found in my top five films of 2016. 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Accountant



I had no intention of watching this film, if for no other reason than because it stars Ben Affleck, who is better behind the camera than in front of it, but also because it was getting very mediocre reviews. But then three people I was talking with told me how much they loved The Accountant and I noted that my favourite living major film critic (Gareth doesn’t quite qualify), Kenneth Turan, liked the film a lot, so I decided to give it a chance.

As a result, I saw a couple of very fine performances from the two women who had major roles in the film (Anna Kendrick and Cynthia Addai-Robinson; the latter, and the role she played, were the best things about the film). And, um, uh, nope, that’s it. 

I’m not going to waste my time or yours telling you about the plot of The Accountant, because the story isn’t worth telling. To be more precise, the story isn’t worth telling because the film revels in its graphic violence, especially that perpetrated by the nonstop killing machine who happens to be the protagonist. I watch lots of violent films, and I watch lots of films where violence is clearly meant to entertain, but rarely have I felt as dirty watching violence as I did in The Accountant. Why? Because the accountant (Affleck) is supposed to be a sympathetic guy and we’re supposed to applaud his brutal slaughter of one bad guy after another in a very different way than we applaud James Bond. 

There was no excuse to make this film, though the premise might have worked in better hands (and with another lead actor). ** My mug is down. Don’t waste your time on this one.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Denial



Denial, which is based on a true story, stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, a history professor who specializes in arguing against Holocaust deniers. One of those deniers is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a man who has written WWII history books claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. When Lipstadt slams Irving in her most recent book, Irving takes her to court for libel. But since he’s British, the trial happens in London and it’s up to the defence, led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), to prove that Irving deliberately falsified his facts in order to make his claim.

Denial, which was directed by Mick Jackson, is written by David Hare, a writer and filmmaker I admire very much, but he seems to have missed an opportunity here. In other words, the story in Denial has the potential to make a very good film, especially given the quality of the actors (and the acting was excellent, by far the strongest feature in Denial), but it fails at a number of levels.

The biggest problem for me is that the straightforward almost made-for-TV presentation failed to captivate me. Primarily, this was because I could never understand why I should care about this story at all. Despite being a big event in the news, I don’t see why the story of a sad Holocaust denier is a story worth telling. It might have been worth telling if we got to know more about Irving and his motivations or if we were told why this event was important, but neither is the case. 

Then there’s the fact that, while it’s often repeated that the trial is not about whether the Holocaust happened or not, the film takes us to Auschwitz and reminds us again and again that it did happen and that the survivors need to be heard. This would make sense if we need to be reminded that the Holocaust really did happen, but I have never heard anyone seriously question this and have certainly never doubted it myself, so why is this necessary? 

What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t understand why we would take Holocaust deniers seriously enough to make a film about one. 

Finally, there’s the fact that Lipstadt has a slightly irritating voice and personality. I have no doubt that this was deliberate, but it makes Denial difficult to sit through, especially given my complaints above.

As with The Girl on the Train, my review sounds more negative than the end result might warrant, because I did think Denial was worth watching, so will let it slide over the line to ***. My mug is up, but low expectations are in order. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Girl on the Train



Directed by Tate Taylor and based on the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, the girl on the train. Rachel takes the same train to Manhattan every weekday, passing the home of her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), his wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby daughter. It has been a very difficult divorce (Tom was having an affair with Anna for years before the divorce) and Rachel has not been able to let go, drowning herself in alcohol and self-pity. She drinks so much that she frequently can’t remember what she did when she was drunk, (a fact which lies at the heart of this psychological thriller). 

Recently, Rachel has been obsessing about Megan (Haley Bennett), the young woman who lives two doors down from Tom and Anna and has become their nanny. Rachel looks at Megan from the train and sees a perfect marriage (with Scott, played by Luke Evans), the kind of marriage she had always wanted, until one morning she thinks she sees Megan kissing another man. This infuriates Rachel and she goes straight to the bar, where she gets drunk and then goes to the neighbourhood where Tom and Anna and Megan live. The next morning, Rachel wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of what happened to her the night before, and discovers that Megan has gone missing. The mystery begins. 

While Rachel is the central character in The Girl on the Train, we also get to see pieces of the story from the view of Megan and Anna. This is very much a film about women (and probably made for women, given that 90% of the audience of 80 people in my theatre were women). Perhaps this explains the odd choice of style, which moves from a dreamlike, poetic Terence Malick to various forms of Hitchcock (there are clear resemblance to Rear Window and Vertigo). I occasionally appreciated the style but it heightens the sense of melodrama that seems out of place in a thriller like this. This might have been forgivable if the film had had more character development, but this was lacking. 

When the film heats up near the end, it kind of falls of the rails (yeah, I had to), feeling too clever for its own good. 

This review sounds very negative, so let me say that I found The Girl on the Train very much worth watching, if for no other reason than to see Blunt’s terrific performance as Rachel. Few actors could make such a pathetic character sympathetic, but Blunt pulls it off. Ferguson and Bennett are also very good, but the male actors could have done better. 

As you know, I’m a fan of quiet, low-action psychological thrillers, so even with all of its flaws I enjoyed watching The Girl on the Train and especially Blunt’s performance. A solid ***. My mug is up.