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.

 

 

Room

Red bells

room_stillIt’s a bit problematic that many internet reviews of Room refer to the ordeal of the characters as “outrageous,” considering how often stories like this appear in the news (with a much less happy outcome, more times than not), and how important it is to realize that abductions of the kind presented here are a very real problem.  Nevertheless, Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, manages a few impressive feats: creating a realistic, terrifying/magical look at a very specific type of bonding; doing it without a single trace of “missing white girl syndrome,” and in the process giving Brie Larson the pivotal role she’s deserved from the beginning.

Joy Newsome (Larson) has been a captive of a monstrous man she calls Old Nick (named after the Devil and played by Sean Bridgers) for seven years.  Her family has long given up the search, having no clue that she’s been in a local man’s shed, nor that she has a four year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never left the shed (referred to as “Room” by the pair) and is completely unaware that there is a world outside of it.  Whether or not biology helps soften the blow he’s about to receive when they inevitably escape, we don’t know.

It’s no “spoiler” to say that the duo makes it out, as the film is not about a victim’s battle against a predator, but about all of the possible directions a relationship between a mother and son can take when they’ve been incarcerated for nearly a decade and have never been apart from one another, and about which direction that relationship ultimately takes.  There’s depression involved.  There’s a lot of confusion.  There are things none of us think about, such as having to accept the fact that “real people with faces” exist, or that stairs are a thing.  The mental trauma doesn’t end with the escape, which drives Joy into a downward spiral of frustration and resentment even though she’s not in danger of being recaptured.  Her father (William H. Macy, once again playing a character we want to feel bad for, but can’t) cannot handle the fact that he has a grandson, nevermind that he’s already accepted that his daughter was deceased, and refuses even to look at Jack during dinner.  Joy’s high school friends, little more than memories in photos, have all moved on and away, now college grads with full lives.  Joy explodes at her mother, even blaming her for the original kidnapping (“If I didn’t have your voice in my head saying ‘Be nice,’ maybe I wouldn’t have helped the guy with the sick fucking dog.”)

Jack’s personal development is difficult to track, his being a child and all, but he’s actually the narrator of the story, and his take on being a prisoner is one nobody else would think of: it’s whimsical.  His monologues about what Room means to him, if put on a pamphlet, would make one think it were the most wonderful place in the world.  And naturally, these sections devolve into kid-babble that seemingly has nothing to do with the story (and frankly, it doesn’t, but that’s the great thing about kids: they haven’t yet been brainwashed into thinking that everything has to be plot-related), such as “I’m the best at running, and jumping, and everything!”  Young Tremblay, while actually closer to nine years old when playing the role, is a marvel.  Not once does he seem like he’s acting – how often is he?  Y’know, considering how often child actors are simply expressing their real emotions (every time a child cries on Boardwalk Empire?  Actual trauma!).

Brie Larson, deserving of the suitcase of awards she’s carrying away this season, plays Joy as a complicated woman now living two lives – the free-spirited one that was abruptly cut off by an evil rapist, back when the entire universe was open to her, and the one she must face now, as a mother in the world, after a third, middling life – the one in Room, a fantasy life that no one but she and Jack knew – has likewise been cut off.  Those who would question the motivations behind Joy’s various post-Room decisions are exactly the ones who need to understand (hopefully by the end) why she makes them, and that she cannot be blamed for any of it.  Larson’s performance is so nuanced and honest that I’ve finally come to terms with her exclusion from the final season of Community in order to film this – we needed this movie, and what’s even better is that the people in charge of moving money and golden statues seem to realize it as well (as oblivious as they may be to other issues).

220px-room_posterRoom (2015); written by Emma Donoghue; based on her novel; directed by Lenny Abrahamson; starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

 

 

 

 

A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.