A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival
Louise Banks: Amy Adams
Ian Donnelly: Jeremy Renner
Col. Weber: Forest Whitaker
Agent Halpern: Michael Stuhlbarg
Capt. Marks: Mark O'Brien
Gen. Shang: Tzi Ma

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Based on a story by Ted Chiang
Cinematography: Bradford Young
Production design: Patrice Vermette
Film editing: Joe Walker
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Like his film Sicario (2015), Denis Villeneuve's Arrival seems to be torn between two aims that don't merge comfortably. On one hand, it's a fairly conventional first-encounter sci-fi thriller, with plucky good guys at odds with the bureaucracy and the military, and an 11th-hour, 59th-minute rescue of the world from self-destruction. On the other, it's a provocative exploration of some big ideas about language and time and the nature of humanity. Villeneuve's natural inclination seems to be toward the latter, which may be why so much of the film is dark -- not just tonally, but visually, so that we only begin to see much of the action in full light toward the end. Cinematographer Bradford Young's cameras seem to be stopped down to the point that I often had trouble discerning what's happening. Presumably this gradual emergence into light is a metaphor for the illumination that comes to linguistics professor Louise Banks as she learns to communicate with the aliens and to understand not only why they are visiting the Earth but also what it means for her own life. It's a good, chewy film with some fine performances, and I welcome any sci-fi movie that makes its audiences work to comprehend its ideas. But I also wished for more exploration of those ideas, and how Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly, our heroes, came to arrive at them. The film stints on dramatizing the process of discovery for the sake of building suspense and making some obvious points about media hysteria. It gets in a nice dig at conspiracy charlatans like Alex Jones, and even at certain cable news outlets, as when Louise tells her mother she shouldn't be watching "that channel." But I wanted more specifics on how the teams of linguists and mathematicians began to decode the language of the heptapods, a close encounter of the word kind. Still, any movie that valorizes thought is welcome in these days of comic-book-based blockbusters aimed at the gut.

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