REVIEW: Arrival

13 11 2016

Fantastic Fest

Sometimes great films do more than change our thoughts. They change our way of thinking. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is one such film, reorienting our relationship with time and communication to jarring, enlightening effect. The only other recent comparison possible is a Christopher Nolan film: “Memento” or “Interstellar.”

The film attempts an ambitious coup that should be experienced, not described. But it spoils little to say that the ingenious storytelling from Eric Heisserer, adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, disorients a viewer to a point where entire sections of the film can come under reconsideration. By way of Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with figuring out how mysterious aliens express themselves, “Arrival” engages the brain while also raising questions about how that same organ processes information.

Much of the film unfolds rather plainly – Louise and a team of military personnel, including Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, insert themselves into the belly of a “heptapod” that has landed in a Montana meadow. (Many others also situate themselves across the planet.) Through a series of experiments, Louise attempts to crack an extra-terrestrial Rosetta Stone of sorts. Picture the climax of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” stretched to feature-length, and that is somewhat akin to “Arrival.”

Louise has few luxuries as she carries out her work. Time, of course, is of the essence. Many of her collaborators consider linguistics a pseudo-science, dismissing the seriousness of her mission. And with each successive trip into the heptapod, the world moves closer to the brink as media blowhards push a campaign to save the species.

With stakes this high, the average moviegoer might anticipate a massive shootout or intergalactic battle as “Arrival” heats up. Nothing of the sort happens. Villeneuve never relies on spectacle to sell the film; instead, he patiently lays the groundwork for a finale that reveals the firing of synapses in our brains as something worth celebrating and considering. This science-fiction tale has an optimism rooted in humanism, and that is something to celebrate. B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 29, 2016)

29 09 2016

polytechnique posterLong before there was Columbine, Virginia Tech or Newtown, there was the 1989 massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. Unknown to many (myself included), a shooter opened fire in an engineering school and shot 28 people, killing 14. His rationale recalls that of the 2014 shooter in Santa Barbara: an angry, entitled rage against the feminist ideology that threatens his comfortable dominance.

Denis Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique,” a feature-length reenactment of the events that transpired, makes a worthy exploration into the complex web of issues raised in this shooting. The film correctly places the shooter’s mentality into a larger cultural pattern of misogyny and male hegemony. Words and attitudes do the same damage to the mind and spirit that bullets do to the body.

For example, the masculine supremacist attitudes of the shooter are echoed by an interviewer at one point. When Valérie (Karine Vanasse) goes to apply for an internship in mechanical engineering, the man at the other side of the table register his surprise. It’s harder to raise a family when choosing mechanical over civil engineering, he reminds her. None of this explains the killer. But it does contextualize him.

Though the actual killing rampage is indeed frightening, Villeneuve ensures that we fear a pathology and a set of twisted tenants far more than any isolated violence. The film’s focus on the lasting scars from the realization that such hatred can exist leaves a lingering sensation of unease. While Villeneuve might overload the metaphors on occasion (Picasso’s Guernica painting, a lecture on the dangers of entropy), the overall effect is chilling enough to make this a pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” The fact that he achieves such a sensation in a slender 70 minutes runtime only adds to the wonder.

REVIEW: Sicario

30 12 2015

SicarioIn Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” the border is not a mere setting. It is the very subject of the film.

And not just the U.S.-Mexico border, either. Of course, that line serves as a shorthand for a number of the film’s dialectical battles: chaos vs. order, civility vs. barbarism, domestic vs. foreign. But none of these provide any easy demarcations like the fence does; these divisions prove far more permeable.

The uncertainty, and even dread, that comes with such free exchange gets echoed in every aspect of “Sicario.” It starts in the script and gets amplified in the direction, the acting and even the photography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins tells the story primarily through two contrasting shots: hovering aerial landscapes and tightly-held close-ups. The first showcases a vast, unfeeling terrain that dwarfs all human activity. The second, though a smaller canvas, provides an equally robust commentary on the men and woman traversing the territory.

Though mere chess pieces in a much larger board game, the minute details of how each characters processes information and suppresses emotions provide a second layer of story running throughout “Sicario.” No face receives more attention than that of Emily Blunt, who plays the film’s protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer. Practically every scene in the film happens twice, first as it unfolds and then again as reflected through Kate’s face.

Blunt’s performance is screen acting at its finest. Villeneuve and Deakins maximize ability of the camera to pick up the smallest of twitches and motions, which might otherwise be imperceptible to the naked eye. Rarely has the quiver of a lip as it gulps down the smoke from a cigarette registered so much. Blunt makes her character the farthest thing from a blank slate, ensuring that each infinitesimal shift of her face reveals her fast-racing mind. To that end, Kate’s big, explosive scene unfolds in a shot taken from a great distance where her emotions remain obscured. She’s a compass, steadfast but still a little shaky.

Read the rest of this entry »

REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars


21 06 2014

EnemyIn a discussion about the film “Enemy” a few days after seeing it, someone referred to it as “a particularly accomplished thesis film.”  To a certain extent, I do have to agree.  Denis Villeneuve’s film seems fixated on communicating mood and tone, doing so with such an intensity that it could easily be mistaken for his first time playing with it.

“Enemy” is far more successful at making you feel an overarching sense of gloom than it is at making you connect with its characters.  But that unrelenting dread in and of itself is a pretty remarkable achievement.  It’s more than just an atmospheric score recalling “Taxi Driver,” or the grays and faded yellows that dominate the color palette.  The film is the cinematic equivalent of a yoga pose held for 90 minutes straight, something to be admired for sheer poise alone.

Villenueve also manages to compliment his visual style with an equally controlled and subdued performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.  “Enemy” follows a meek history professor Adam Bell as he discovers an actor who looks exactly like him, Anthony Claire.  Both characters are played by Gyllenhaal, and they each feel distinct in demeanor as well as in the way that the events affect them.

The film is the definition of a slow burn, and Javier Gullón’s script keeps revelations rolling out at a similar pace.  Even when “Enemy” doesn’t have you completely emotionally engaged, it keeps you tense with its smoggy disposition and cryptic imagery.  Not that Villeneuve ever really loosens up in the film, but he does channel David Lynch on a few occasions.  So now that he’s accomplished this film, maybe it’s time to dabble in the surreal.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Incendies

2 10 2013

IncendiesIt’s hard for me to figure out which foreign films to see in any given year; that’s why I’m so glad for the Academy Awards to come along and give me a list of five must-sees.  From their five yearly nominees, I’ve discovered “A Separation,” “In a Better World,” “Waltz with Bashir,” “The Class,” “The Lives of Others,” and “Amelie,” among many others.

Occasionally, though, this list produces a few movies that I’d consider duds.  “Incendies” is one such movie.  Though wildly acclaimed, I found Denis Villeneuve’s movie to be rather dull and tedious.  I definitely saw aspects deserving of the praise they received, however.  For whatever reason, I was just in no mood to put up with the pacing of the film and its painstakingly deliberate plot.

And I’m willing to put up with the fact every once in a while, I’ll disagree with the Academy picks.  I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t like “Incendies” because on paper, it sounded like a movie totally in my wheelhouse.  Dead mother, mysterious will, two children left to fulfill its strange requests – sounds like the stuff of compelling drama!  Instead, I wasn’t operating on this movie’s wavelength from the get-go.  I was perpetually bored by it, and lord knows I tried to engage in it.

A part of me was seriously contemplating turning it off, but I kept watching just to see how it ended.  Maybe in a few years, I’ll watch it again to find what everyone else seemed to think was so special about “Incendies.”  C2stars