Monday, November 14, 2016


It took Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters to work out how to communicate with the aliens. Before that they just spoke English and got down to the business of planet acquisition. The tv series V in the early '80s had its reasons for Anglophone E.T.s and they made sense. The goopies from the deep in The Abyss spoke in slideshows that even alpha-oaf Ed Harris could understand. So what happens when you get apparently peaceable aliens hang above the Earth in seamless hollow boulders waiting for someone to say hello? You get Amy Adams whose thousand and one ways of facial control allow her to emote intellect.

Coming from the tragedy of losing her daughter to cancer, Adams' Dr. Louise Banks finds her linguistics class interrupted by news of the aliens landing. Soon enough Forrest Whitaker's Colonel Weber knocks on her office door to give her the job of outreach. The language she is presented with is more like industrial noise and she begs off. A visit to her rival later and she is whisked off at midnight to the American landing site (there are eleven others around the world linked by two things, one intriguing and the other intentionally hilarious). There she meets the team and ascends in a beautifully realised transition to the giant stone craft to have a crack at communication.

Meanwhile the world of international and perhaps even intergalactic politics tenses up as this place heads for conflict with the newcomers and that place falls into chaos. The race is on for the world's good guys to find out what the visitors are doing in the backyard. Louise uses some nifty logic to scratch the surface of the language barrier through the use of an extension of human language.

From this point they will or won't find the answer and the Earth will or won't be either conquered by hostile aliens or plunged into self destruction. And that's where this film's problems begin.

First, just when Louise gets her break and digs into the problem solving we are robbed of a scene or even a montage of her getting further to the point where she can communicate in real time. We do get a montage but it's narrated. From this point, were it not for Adams' screen magnetism, we would be cast off from the film's dock. The narration isn't complex. The points it makes are clear and logical and bring us to the next major point but we feel as we might in those re-released films with reconstructed passages made of meagre newly discovered footage and onscreen notes. Except there's a reason for those to look gaffer taped together. Here it just feels like the other side of the too-hard box. The rest of the film must struggle to regain its sense of wonder and the tension of its moment.

There is a clever idea on the way but by the time we get to it we've already guessed most of it and the lost impact at its revelation weighs heavier than the moment we should be hoisted by. Actually, by that point the film starts feeling like a Christopher Nolan epic (albeit about a month shorter) in which the human story at its heart is shown to be what was important all along and everybody feels nice. The idea is still clever, mind you, it's just buried under a stack of warm pancakes.

Arrival is not so much about the alienness of species or even races but the alienness of language itself, how different translations can mean the difference between war and peace both between and within languages. This premise is given with an effortless compulsion by the film (even the few lines about the strangeness of Portuguese among its neighbouring languages, given as a scene instensifier, are compelling). The road to discovery about the language of the aliens has a dark momentum to it which is given such thrilling weight in the gravity shifting scene of the first interspecial encounter we see (initially announced by a quick shot of a tablet whose screen rotation is lost and starts spinning like a fan). If we thought this was going to be a tough assignment before this moment we now know how tough. It's cinematic greatness. And then it gets vacuum-packed into a montage with a voiceover and we start floating on the Zoloft of the bigger picture.

Director Denis Villenevue has done so much to impress already. He's good with actors and concepts. And the flair for cinema he has shown with Incendies, Enemy and Sicario has assured him a place among the best of his generation. Whether he's wresting stark allegory into a story of deep existential horror (Enemy) or coolly drawing the slippery connections between pragmatism and corruption (Sicario) he conquers the screen with them. And he does so with an eye to the comfort demanded by a mainstream audience. Here, as in Prisoners, he seems to have dropped a strange looking pebble to pick up a shiny coin. I can only hope he doesn't believe the hype building around him and turn into the next Christopher Nolan ("Your movie took four hours of my time to tell me THAT? You are not Tarkovsky!) Maybe he should try a musical next, something that will make him work. I'm serious.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Nude obese women writhe and gyrate against a red background. In slow motion we can see every square centimetre of excessive flesh. Are we being invited to judge them? Once the credits have passed the final directorial byline we roll back and see that this is a backdrop for an exhibition. Young, slim and beautiful Los Angelenes mill around risers bearing either the women from the projections or latex sculptures of them, a kind of Patricia Piccinini confrontation.There are many viewers but this is an exhibition opening and they're not looking at the art they are looking at each other. In their midst sits a detached Amy Adams as Susan using her expertly expressive face to tell us that her mind is elsewhere.

Later, back home she confronts her husband for not turning up to the opening and gets a generic response about work demands. The dinner party they go to mixes talk of genital frankness with anodyne life advice. Husband absconds to New York halfway through and Susan is again left in her world of architect interiors, affectless conversations, like a feature in one of its many artworks. But she is haunted. She has received an envelope containing the manuscript of a novel written by her first husband and dedicated to her. It is a crime thriller, heavy on the violence and a theme of revenge.

From this point we will weave in and out of a cinematic realisation of the novel, the cold emotionless world of Susan's L.A. and a play-through of how she met author and ex Edward and how they parted ways. This weave will progressively tighten until united by the pattern they are part of and the final blow can be administered.

Tom Ford has created a work of impressive design here. Present-day Susan might be lodged into the scarlet of her past with Edward or lost at a work meeting in a white infinity. Crime victims are juxtaposed with the posed bodies of the living in different timelines. From the perfect architecture of the present day to the dust of the novel's Texas setting to the New York winter wonderland of the recalled romance we are given easy cues to orientate us in the complex structure which readies us for the grip and weight of the climax. It is heavily designed but if that term brings images of Peter Greenaway's tableaux vivant it shouldn't. This is cinema by industrial design a seamless mesh of form and function.

And Ford has assembled a cast of some of the most compelling talents of the last fifteen years. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams can be watched closely in anything and there is even a scene in which these two gorgeously screen-filling heads actually do fill the screen and it is a delight. But there's also the wizened Texas detective by the great new heavy on the block Michael Shannon. Aaron Taylor Johnson, so impressive in Kickass and Nowhere Boy lives in his unwashed redneck chaos. Laura Linney appears as a queen bitch mother and even Armie Hammer as a trophy husband letting go of his marriage impresses. So, why didn't I care about this film?

The design is heavily draped, yes, but it is inventive rather than cloying. The cast is stellar. But the characters are almost all repugnant. The hand of craft that felt it needed the colour of the weave perfectly in line with the place of each thread in the scheme did its job so well that we cannot feel anything for these people more than to admire their expert incorporation into the pattern. Even the potentially humanising failings of Edward as a shapeless lost would be novelist and Susan who recognises art but knows she can never create it just carry them into preciousness rather than despair.

The sense that no one is really losing anything important or lasting is so strong that the heightened stakes of the dramatised novel can do nothing but expose this. We are left with the feeling, which we shouldn't be, that this internal story should have been the movie. Then we would have had another redneck noir like Blood Simple; fine but why now? We need the shell around it as that is where the question has been placed, the philosophy we must engage with. What a pity, then, that the polish that gives that shell its beautiful pink gleam works so dully against its hold.