Arrival (2016)

2016 #179
Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

This review sort of contains spoilers.

Arrival

An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

We're only human after all

Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

Majestic

Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

5 out of 5

Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

* Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

2017 #55
Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nocturnal Animals

In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

Shocking reading

To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

Who's who?

Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer can choose how to read as they see fit.

Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

5 out of 5

Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Big Eyes (2014)

2016 #39
Tim Burton | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Big EyesAfter a smidgen of early awards buzz that pegged it as a dark-horse major contender (which obviously never materialised into anything), everyone seemed to stop talking about Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s latest, and the first thing he’s made in over a decade that doesn’t instantly strike you as an obvious Burton-esque choice.

It’s the true story of Margaret (Amy Adams), an amateur artist who ends up marrying Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who also dabbles in painting. He manages to get their art publicly displayed, but while people don’t care about his French scenes, they love her huge-eyed waifs. For various reasons Keane claims them as his own, and before the couple know it the paintings are a pop culture phenomenon du jour, loved by the masses but despised by the critical establishment. Nonetheless, Keane reaps the fame and fortune of ‘his’ art — which Margaret is stuck at home churning out for her increasingly demanding and abusive husband…

It’s certainly a bizarre tale, and given even more of an otherworldly edge in Burton’s hands. He’s reined in here compared to his more fantastical leaps, but even when he does the real world it’s not quite our world (see also: Ed Wood). Nonetheless, it makes what could have been a slight tale more interesting than it would’ve been as a straight-up clean-cut biopic, even though it still runs a little long in the middle — the most interesting parts are the “how did that come about?!” setup and the famed denouement, where a court case culminates in a paint-off.

There’s thematic meat that could’ve filled the sandwich between those establishing and climactic, er, pieces of bread(?) — the tastes of critics versus the general public, and the disparity that exists there and what it means; or the inbuilt sexism of the era (though maybe everyone thought Mad Men had that covered) — but I’m not sure Burton was interested in such matters, at least not as much as he is in the kooky tale of some unusual characters and the odd turns of events that shape their lives.

It makes Big Eyes a very watchable and often diverting film, but not one to linger long in a viewer’s affections. A bit like the transitory impact of an artistic fad, then, which is at least apt.

4 out of 5

The Fighter (2010)

2016 #80
David O. Russell | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar-winning true-story drama that relates the early career of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a coulda-been-a-contender type held back by the training of his half-brother, ex-boxer turned drug addict Dicky (Christian Bale), and the management of his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), not to mention the cadre of harpy-ish sisters. Micky gains some confidence after entering a relationship with barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who’s prepared to stand up to his family. He breaks away from them and gets better opportunities, but soon realises that to win he’ll need to combine the best of both worlds.

I swear, written like that it sounds much cheesier than it plays.

I don’t normally care for boxing movies (I even gave the sainted Raging Bull just 3 stars), but I rather enjoyed this. Perhaps that’s because it’s about the familial drama as much as it is pugilism, but then the same could be said of Bull, so who knows — maybe I’m just becoming inured to the sport. Heck, I even found myself invested in the outcome during the climactic bout.

Nonetheless, the film’s real meat lies in the dysfunctional family drama that informs events in the ring. Kudos to whoever had the cojones to focus on the story of Micky Ward establishing himself as a world-class boxer, leaving out the three later fights that really made his name (talk of a sequel covering those seems to have died down, I guess because this film wasn’t a blockbuster so presumably didn’t do sequel-justifying box office numbers). Maybe the story behind those fights forms a good narrative too, but there’s plenty enough here to merit the focus and form a neat narrative — it doesn’t need a fourth act covering three more fights.

Although this is technically Ward’s story, it’s as much about his older half-brother, washed-up fighter turned part-time trainer and full-time crack addict Dicky Eklund. It’s another of Christian Bale’s extreme weight gain/loss roles (in this case, loss), but there’s more to it than such physical exertion. Bale inhabits the character, and a brief clip of the real Dicky during the credits suggests he’s done so very accurately. His performance is mesmeric and definitely worthy of that Oscar. For the rest of the cast, Amy Adams holds attention equally in a less showy role, and even Marky Mark isn’t half bad. Melissa Leo also won an Oscar for her performance, which I forgot until I read so after — it was the one she controversially funded her own ad campaign for. I guess that paid off.

David O. Russell stages things with a kind of documentary-esque realism, down to capturing the fights on period-authentic SD video (according to IMDb, they used actual HBO cameras from the time, No-style, rather than just degrading the footage). In trying to figure out why The Fighter worked better for me than Raging Bull, I was left wondering if this was part of it… until I re-read my Bull review, which specifically noted that the “camerawork […] seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism”. There I called it “boring”; here, I felt that gritty, almost happened-upon rather than performed style seemed to suit the seedy world of boxing and the rundown lives of these people. Clearly I’m clutching at straws — my distaste for Bull does not boil down to “I thought it was shot wrong”.

The Fighter isn’t without its faults, though. There’s a certain element of cliché to the story arc — whether that’s just fact emulating fiction, or the screenwriters imposing familiar shapes on to what really happened, I don’t know. It could also stand to lose a few minutes here and there, especially when it goes round in circles about whether Micky should be trusting his family or not. And talking of movie clichés and comparisons to other films about fighting, watching it in close proximity to Warrior just highlights the other film’s outright manipulation and definite use of cliché, especially in its climax. I’d say this is the better film, with a more interesting, plausible depiction of fractured family dynamics, and a climactic result that didn’t feel telegraphed from act one.

It’s fair to say that I primarily chose to watch The Fighter so I could tick it off lists of “films directed by David O. Russell” and “Best Picture nominees”, and wound up rather liking it. If they ever get the sequel off the ground, I’d certainly be up for it.

4 out of 5

American Hustle (2013)

2014 #93
David O. Russell | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
10 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design.


American Hustle“Don’t put metal in the science oven!”

If you’ve seen that bit, you’ve seen the most successful thing American Hustle has to offer. Possibly a victim of hype, it’s an over-long disappointment.

The plot sees a pair of con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) forced by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to help take down some corrupt politicians (primarily represented by Jeremy Renner) and possibly the mob (led by a ‘surprise’ cameo). Occasionally throwing a spanner in the works — or some foil in the microwave — is the conman’s histrionic wife (Jennifer Lawrence).

As the uncommon four acting nominations attest, it’s all about the performances. Christian Bale got fat, Bradley Cooper wears funny hair, Amy Adams has frequently distracting cleavage, Jennifer Lawrence says something amusing about a microwave, and there’s the surprise cameo that everyone discussed and gave the game away. Jeremy Renner is also in it.

The con is on, the bras are offI never connected with the characters, so consequently never felt their predicaments, either romantic or professional. A halting chronologically-challenged start gives way to a middle that ultimately drags, before a “gotcha!” ending whose straightforwardness means it lacks the memorable punch of the best con movies.

Killer soundtrack, though.

3 out of 5

American Hustle debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm.

The Muppets (2011)

2013 #18
James Bobin | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

The MuppetsHow I Met Your Mother’s Jason Segel (I believe he’s also in some movies from that Judd Apatow chap) co-writes, exec-produces and stars in this revival for the once-beloved puppet-y puppets.

Art mirrors life in the story: the Muppets have been all but forgotten, their old studios fallen into ruin, but when Segel’s brother (who happens to be a Muppet) overhears an evil developer planning to knock them down for good, they set about getting the old Muppets back together for a last-hurrah TV special to save their studio, and in the process restore their popularity. I say “art mirrors life”, because this is the first Muppet movie for twelve years, and it seemed to result in a wave of nostalgia and appreciation for the puppets (including a forthcoming sequel).

Segel — alongside British director James Bobin — has created a film that embraces the Muppets’ anarchic nature and old-fashioned entertainment style, while also integrating them into the modern world, to one degree or another. Things like the small-town roots of Segel, his brother and girlfriend (Amy Adams) are consciously dated, based in a movie-reality rather than the real-world, where the whole town might break into a song-and-dance number… but they know they’ve just done a song-and-dance number. Such breaks of the fourth wall abound, and constitute most of the film’s best bits.

Between a straightforward ‘get the band back together’ plot, some standard subplots about acceptance and growing up, and a host of celebrity cameos, it’s tempting to say the film must have written itself; A bird, a plane, or a Muppet?but the skill lies in making it all seem so effortless, when I’m sure it was anything but. There’s an awful lot going on for such a simple tale, which keeps things moving and means the next delight is never more than a few moments away, be it a surprise cameo, a witty film spoof, or one of the entertaining songs (one, Man or Muppet, managed to get an Oscar. I didn’t even think it was the best.)

Some viewers and critics seem to have fallen head-over-heels for this Muppet reboot. It’s not that good. But it is an entertainingly irreverent hour-and-a-half-and-then-some, just as likely to win new fans as please old ones.

4 out of 5

Enchanted (2007)

2008 #80
Kevin Lima | 103 mins | DVD | PG / PG

EnchantedYou’ve probably heard about Enchanted: it’s the one that starts out as a traditionally animated Disney film, before The Normal Girl Who Will Marry A Prince is thrown into a Magic Portal by The Evil Stepmother and finds herself in present-day New York. It’s one of those concepts so good it just makes you think, “why haven’t they thought of that before?”

Thankfully, they pull it off. It’s very funny, riffing on many recognisable elements from Disney’s considerable library of classics, and manages to produce a number of catchy songs of its own. Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role, managing to be infectiously sweet rather than sickeningly sugary, while Susan Sarandon has a whale of a time in her boundlessly camp (though disappointingly small) role. The rest of the cast are good too, especially a wonderfully vacant James Marsden as The Prince.

The plot is ultimately predictable, but no more than you’d expect considering the target audience — certainly, kids will likely go through all the requisite emotions, and it would probably be more disappointing if they did try anything truly shocking. Still, it’s crammed with more than enough fun invention and new ideas to make up for any unsurprising plot beats.

Quite simply, Enchanted is a fantastic concept, beautifully executed. A veritable success.

4 out of 5