Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

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Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

The Muppets

Mahna Mahna

Reminiscing aside, James Bobin and Jason Segel’s 2011 The Muppets is not so much a reboot as it is a long-time-coming sequel.  The film, featuring the classic Muppets mix of celebrity cameos, witty humor, and bold self-awareness, manages to deliver one of the best Muppets stories in the series, not quite rivaling Muppet Treasure Island or The Great Muppet Caper, but a close third, and the motley cast of live actors (who may never have shared the screen otherwise) occasionally let slip a pining, glowing expression, as though just realizing they’re onscreen with characters they watched as children.

The story follows Gary (Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams), as they travel to Los Angeles for their tenth anniversary.  Gary brings his brother, Walter, who looks (and grows) like a Muppet.  How they are biologically related is never explained.  Walter, a lifelong fan of the Muppets, dreams of visiting the Muppet studio, but soon learns that not only have the Muppets not put on a show in years, but an “evil oil baron” aptly named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans on demolishing the studio to reach the resources beneath.  The Muppet characters (Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, The Great Gonzo, and all the rest) band together for one last show, which they hope will raise enough money to save the studio and preserve their legacy.

Throughout the adventure (with musical numbers abound), everyone from Jack Black to Emily Blunt to Rashida Jones to Sarah Silverman appear (along with half the cast of NBC’s sitcom lineup), in roles of various sizes.  The Muppets themselves are juggled well in terms of screen time, with most of the focus on Kermit and Walter.  Statler and Waldorf (my personal favorites) prove once and for all that their cynical pseudo-gentlemen humor will hold up unto the latest days (“I always dreamed we’d be back at Muppet Studios.”  “Dreams?  Those were nightmares!”), and characters such as Rolf and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem get their due appearances (Animal even has his own side plot featuring an anger management group led by Kristen Schaal).  The film also features a group of bad-egg Muppet impersonators called “The Moopets,” who quickly antagonize themselves (Dave Grohl appears as their drummer, “Animool”).

The tale is fun, well-paced, self-conscious, and quite often very sweet.  My only gripe is that a musical film in which Jack Black and Neil Patrick Harris both appear doesn’t feature either of them singing.  Seems unforgivable, though it only occurred to me in retrospect.  Additionally, there is a serious deficiency of the always-hilarious Sam Eagle, though I understand how much they had to cram into this script, and Sam does make a brief appearance, so no foul.

For those born in the 80’s and before: don’t miss the end credits.  That’s all I can really say.

The Muppets (2011); written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; directed by James Bobin; starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Rashida Jones and Chris Cooper.