Sunday, March 19, 2017

Arrival



Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

While watching Arrival, it was hard not to be reminded of that classic Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man," in which aliens arrive on Earth and there's some miscommunication as to what meaning is intended by their use of the word "serve." Of course, we were too trusting and paid for it with a final twist revealing the episode title to actually be the name of a cookbook. What happens in Arrival could be described as practically the inverse of this, as well as a reflection of just how much has  changed since that episode aired in 1962. While the use of a skilled linguist like the protagonist at this film's center could have easily prevented that mishap, there's no protection against the cynicism, xenophobia and paranoia that surely would take over once the aliens arrive. If such an event were to occur and they were here to do us harm, there's a decent enough chance we'd destroy each other before having a chance at destroying them. There's no mistaking that everyone's default setting would now be one of fear and resistance.

Those are some of the many elements director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer get right with their cerebral adaptation of Ted Chiang's 1998 novella "Story of Your Life." It spends so much of its running time knee-deep in science and laying out a fairly plausible scenario that it's almost a shock that its final third is devoted to to huge metaphysical and spiritual questioning. But it shouldn't be, since recent sci-fi seems to have fallen in love with the emotional side of the equation, often to these films' detriments. The cynic in me suspects it's a monetarily driven, heart-tugging device used to get families into the theater. In Gravity, it was the memory of a deceased daughter. In Interstellar, it was the bond between father and daughter that broke the boundaries of time and space.

In Arrival, it's again the memory of a deceased daughter that figures heavily into the narrative, but doesn't quite hurt the film to the point of those other two. It's at least organically factored into the story in a way that it inspires thought, even if, like those aforementioned titles, it lays it on a little thick at the end. But it's really at its best when asking the big question: What are their intentions? In other words, to serve man or to serve man? Or maybe it's something else. Tourists just stopping by for a visit? Villeneuve deliberately goes about answering this in a cold, clinical style before opening the floodgates (and for some the tear ducts) in the final third to ask an even bigger, but not entirely unrelated questions about time, determinism and free will. But of the sci-fi films to attempt it, this proves most successful in at least having the brains and patience to satisfyingly follow through on those ideas.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist teaching at a local university who's frequently distracted by memories of her deceased adolescent daughter, who at some point succumbed to cancer. One of her classes comes to an abrupt end when news reports confirm that twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared to land in various locations across Earth. She's paid a visit by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who's recruiting her and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to head a team in deciphering the language of these multi-limbed visitors, referred to as "heptapods."  Despite Louise's initial hesitation, she and Ian are shuttled off to a military camp near one of the spacecrafts in Montana where they'll board and attempt to make sense of a very unfamiliar language, primarily consisting of complicated circular symbols.

For all the headway Louise and Ian make in communicating with these interlopers, the beaurucratic red tape and political unrest between nations make their jobs nearly impossible. Discovering an explanation of the aliens' motives and purpose on Earth proves challenging, unless all the countries' governments can selflessly get on the same page. Louise must also still wrestle with those very fresh, painfully vivid memories of her own daughter, whose life and death seems intrinsically tied to what's happening right now.

It wouldn't be inaccurate to say the film has a set-up that's both narratively and technically masterful, not to mention eerily restrained and realistic. From the moment these mysterious crafts make landfall, there's genuine suspense generated as to its contents, what the aliens look will look like and why  they're here. The story's entire framework is heady, relying heavily on visuals and sound effects once the action shifts into the investigation of the ship itself and possible means of communication. Those expecting another Independence Day will either be disappointed or elated that this shares absolutely nothing in common with an action-oriented project like that, more clearly taking its inspiration from more spiritually-minded SF like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And unless you count the familial themes of the former and inherent chilliness of the latter, it's still unfair to claim it closely resembles either of those.

There's real doubt as to how the emotionally fragile Louise will hold up under the physical and psychological pressures of the situation, and at least initially, these concerns are well founded. Heisserer's script makes no bones about the fact that she's a complete mess due to personal tragedy, which seems to be a common, if increasingly tired, affliction affecting female protagonists in sci-fi films. This at least bothers to put somewhat of a new spin on it in the third act, and Adams, the busiest and possibly most over-exposed actress working today gives one of her better internalized performances as Louise in a role that requires quite a bit from her since this isn't an actor's film by any stretch. In fact, the role's kind of subtle, flatlined quality could help explain how the Academy somehow excluded her in the glut of awards season.

Once communication is established to even a minimal extent, the film really soars, offering up fascinating revelations about not only how we'd decipher language in an unusual situation like this, but how we communicate with each other. And Villeneuve believably does all of this step-by-step. Taking a position of empathy and patience with these visitors, Louise fights an uphill battle with Whitaker's hard nosed Col. Weber who wants answer to their motives yesterday, ignoring the fact that charging ahead without the proper preparation and research could have potentially disastrous consequences. There are even points when you wonder why he hired her since he'll clearly do whatever he wishes regardless. Renner's Ian mostly provides a sounding board for Louise's ideas and moral support, until the exact nature of his involvement evolves considerably toward the final act.

This is French-Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve's biggest project yet, having previously directed the well-received Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. It's also unquestionably his most ambitious, working on a grander scale than we're used to seeing him receive and Jóhann Jóhannsson's buzzing, eerily Kubrickian musical score combined with Bradford Young's creepy, atmospheric cinematography and the Oscar-winning sound design help combine to create an experience that likely puts it a notch above most of his previous efforts, at least technically.

Reactions to the emotional territory it veers into will vary, but without giving too much away, the notion of time becomes a key component, or more specifically our perception of it. By daring to ask the question of whether it's worth forging forward with a happy, fulfilling life as planned knowing certain tragedy awaits, the screenplay cleverly subverts our initial expectations, forcing us to place ourselves in the protagonist's shoes. Of course, in doing so, it can't help but get a little mushy, veering away from the scientific angle that initially made the scenario so compelling. Still, it's impossible to deny that Arrival provokes serious thought and rises above most other entries in the genre by primarily relying on emotion and ideas rather than computer-generated theatrics.
 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Manchester By The Sea



Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick
Running Time: 137 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Bleak and almost relentlessly dour, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea will undoubtedly be a trying watch for anyone with an aversion to large helpings of depression and hopelessness in their cinematic diet. At over two hours and two tragedies later, you'll be reminded it's Oscar season again, if it wasn't already obvious. It's about real people struggling with real problems, but the plot doesn't always take the easy way out by connecting the dots between point A and point B or offering up a pat resolution. For the character Casey Affleck inhabits, there's no possible resolution available that could redeem him or allow him to look in the mirror in the morning without hating the man he sees. It's clear early on that he was involved in something, but even before we're filled in entirely, it's a given it was catastrophic, not only changing the course of his life, but everyone around him. At first he's quite and unassuming, prone to occasional bouts of rage that only intensify upon discovering the amount of responsibility he'll soon take on. He's not ready for it and may never be, but he's the only option left in a sea of bad choices.

While there's no mistaking that Affleck's lead turn is the big draw here, everyone else isn't just merely tagging along for a ride that can best be described as melancholy. Like the tortured protagonist at its center, it's introspective in a way likely to turn off mainstream audiences looking to escape to the movies for a good time. Usually, I'd scoff at the categorization of any film as being "for critics" but this comes closest to fitting the bill with a loose, free-flowing narrative sure to frustrate some. But unrelenting in its fleshing out of emotional pain, it's also intelligent and observant, taking its time telling a story about grief sure to touch, and possibly disturb, anyone forced to go through something even remotely similar, and the many more who haven't.    

Withdrawn, reserved handyman Lee Chandler (Affleck) is working in Quincy, Massachusetts, arguing with tenants by day while drinking and starting bar fights at night. But when Lee gets word from family friend, George (C.J. Wilson) that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suffered a heart attack, he rushes up to his hometown of Manchester, only to discover he's passed away. Staying a few days to handle funeral arrangements and break the news to Joe's teen son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee's informed by a lawyer that he's been named by Joe as the boy's guardian.

Unwilling to move back to Manchester and refusing to let Patrick stay with his estranged alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), Lee's insistence on uprooting the teen from his current life and dragging him back to Boston with him causes a contentious rift between the two. Making matters worse is Lee's penchant for acting out and starting trouble, frequently revealing a violent side that clashes with his outwardly quiet nature. Flashbacks to his once happy life with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three children in Manchester reveal a horrifying tragedy that both explains his refusal to return and the sad, bitter man he's now become. Through Patrick comes the opportunity to reconnect with someone who could use a friend and an uncle, as well as possibly reclaim at least a small piece of himself he lost years ago.

Reading only a description of the two main characters, it would probably be difficult to tell the adult from the child in the picture, at least when based exclusively on their behavior. Taking a somewhat different turn from what's expected, Patrick isn't an angry, rebellious kid acting out in the wake of his father's death. If anything, it's the exact opposite, as he's a really good kid who's surprisingly well adjusted and takes the news of his dad's passing as you'd imagine an understandably devastated but mature person would. Most people would probably be lining up to be this kid's guardian, realizing they could easily do far worse. Unfortunately, Lee's a complete wreck and the thought of him raising any child, even if it's just until he turns 18 in couple of years, is scary proposition given his current emotional state.

Lonergan builds up a good deal of suspense by slowly revealing through flashbacks drips and drabs of Lee's previous, more fulfilling life, all leading up to the incident that destroys everything.  Initially, we're given a peek into his relationship with his brother and nephew during happier times, perhaps providing evidence that he was at one point the ideal choice to look after Patrick should something happen to the long ailing Joe. But then it happens. The accident. Without giving too much away, it's just about the worst possible tragedy that could happen, with responsibility for it laying squarely at Lee's feet.

We already have a general idea what the event is, but once we actually find out, everything about his behavior starts more clearly coming into focus. It's a miracle he can even get up in the morning, much less function at all. And often he can't. Every interaction he has with another human being is strained in some way, with the possibility hovering that he could explode at any moment. There's a flashback scene at the police station following the event that's so difficult to get through it's almost unreal, as Affleck plays Lee as being in such a shocked trance that he's barely present. That is until he gets one piece of information that sends him flying off the deep end, as the realization hits that they'll be no one to punish him for his horrifying mistake but him. And if need be, he'll spend the rest of his sad, miserable days doing so. Calling what Affleck does in the film a "performance" nearly fails to do it justice, as this could more accurately be described as a compulsive study of human behavior in the throes of extreme grief.

With a hangdog expression permanently etched on his face, you can literally sense and feel Lee's pain with each exasperated line of dialogue. You're on edge the whole time, wondering when he'll snap next. Lee's truly given up, which is why his relationship with Patrick, is so crucial to both of them. There's the legitimate risk Lee could drag him down the same rabbit hole of grief and depression, if not for the fact Patrick processes things far differently, sharing few of his uncle's worst inclinations. Lucas Hedges brilliantly downplays what would have been your stereotypical "angry teen," understandably saddened and rattled by his father's death and frustrated by his uncle's inability to compromise on any level. Their interactions provide what might be the only levity and humor in the film, as does Pat's attempts at juggling his two girlfriends, Sylvie (Kara Hayward) and Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), with Lee in the house.

What initially appears to be extreme selfishness on Lee's part gives way to the truth that he'll never be able to live in Manchester with the specter of that life-destroying event hovering over him. In his own words, he just "can't beat it," and as much as he wants to make that sacrifice for his nephew, the guilt's too consuming, swallowing him up from the inside out. When he finally comes face-to face with ex-wife Randi, the result is the film's most emotionally brutal scene, with Affleck and Michelle Williams putting on a clinic of frustration, forgiveness and outrage as their two characters talk and scream over each other, completing each other's sentences and reading minds in the messy way that only two people who have been through what they have could do. While the scene lasts only a couple of minutes it feels like something that's been slowly simmering from the beginning with the payoff proving to be worth the wait, only further solidifying what we've now long known about the level of Williams' talent. 

A script-driven project if there ever was one, Manchester by the Sea is all about the writing and performances, with everything else falling into place to support that, except for maybe a musical score that seems unnecessarily obtrusive at times. Despite not being from the New England area, Lonergan clearly understands the setting and how its chilly, grey atmosphere enhances the visual storytelling, providing the ideal stage for complex characters who make realistic choices that don't seem to hinge on contrivances or obvious creative force pulling their strings. Spending this much time with characters and a subject that's as dark as it gets, it's somewhat of a miracle that it's this engaging. By no means an easy movie to wrap your arms around or even rewatch, it's ultimately a rewarding one, anchored in no small part by Casey Affleck's most complex, nuanced work to date.