November 28, 2016
The opening scenes of the new sci-fi film “Arrival” cover familiar territory, as we see enormous spacecraft hovering over cities on our troubled planet Earth.
But soon the film reveals that it’s not going to be like other alien movies. The spaceships have no weapons. Our hero is a linguist. Cerebral narrative puzzles take shape. A procession of subtle and intriguing ideas ultimately blossom into a story of profound insight and hope.
“Arrival” is the best sci-fi movie of the year because it does what science fiction does best: It encourages thoughtful conjecture and lateral thinking. It asks us to project our hopes and anxieties out to some notional event horizon, then see what develops. In the choppy wake of this terrible and divisive election season, it’s the one movie you should take the time to see, and process and talk about afterward.
Warning: There are some moderate spoilers ahead, but nothing much past what you can see in the trailers, and I’ll stay far away from the film’s central mystery.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the U.S. government to communicate with the aliens. Twelve spaceships — ovoids that suggest seed pods, significantly — have descended over countries around the world. The aliens show no signs of aggression, but the world’s nation-states respond with varying defensive postures, scrambling jets and aiming weapons at the ships.
Banks is partnered with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who hopes that the language of numbers will help in establishing contact with the aliens. Each day, the ships’ portals open briefly and Earth sends its various delegations aboard. Inside the ship, director Denis Villeneuve creates a minimalist marvel of art design, an extradimensional space with sideways gravity. It feels like a prehistoric cave, those sacred spaces where our species first experimented with language and art.
We see the aliens, eventually, but they’re cleverly obscured and the visuals underline a storytelling strategy used throughout the film. “Arrival” isn’t really interested in the aliens; it’s interested in our reaction to the aliens. How will we reach out to this new entity, this ultimate Other? What will we choose to communicate, and how?
In the end, “Arrival” is all about communication. “The language we speak determines how we think,” Louise says, referencing a fierce debate in the field of linguistics. Without spoiling too much, the aliens present us with a new kind of language, a new way to communicate. It’s a language that imparts meaning directly, does not represent sound or speech, and is not bound by time.
It’s so nice to be treated as an adult by a science fiction movie. This is a film that asks us to think, and presents delicious mysteries concerning ideograms, palindromes, game theory and the significance of the number 0.083.
It’s said that providence moves in mysterious ways, as does Hollywood, and the timing of “Arrival” is auspicious. The film addresses that nagging suspicion, perhaps you’re familiar with it, that the promise of the Digital Age is fading fast. Our precious devices and networks aren’t bringing us closer together. They’re driving us apart. We sit in public spaces, staring into the tiny screens in our palms. We gather in online cliques and echo chambers with those who share our history and opinions.
Despite our space-age communication technology, we’re not talking to each other — not really. We’re projecting digital versions of ourselves. We aren’t connecting in the important ways. We’re fractured and divided, as evidenced by the world’s escalating conflicts and even our own domestic elections and referendums.
Thoughtful science fiction like “Arrival” can help us approach this existential dilemma from a sideways vector. As a genre, as a mode, sci-fi provides us with the opportunity to think laterally about ideas and issues. Movies are one of the ways we process change, as a culture, on some unknowable level of collective consciousness that transcends rationality and intent. When a movie like “Arrival” comes along, we should pay attention. We’re telling ourselves something.
November 28, 2016
from Indy Week
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I suspect that, for a while at least, it’s going to be difficult to avoid processing every halfway applicable film through the nightmare lens of the recent elections. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, opens with a montage of headlines. “Anti-Wizard Sentiment Sweeps America,” reads one swirling paper as we’re introduced to the setup.
In the movie’s alternate history, it’s 1926 in New York City, and hateful fringe groups are agitating for the deportation of all witches and wizards, the current threat to Our Great Nation. At one point, the newspaper headlines switch to German, then we fade to an image of the Statue of Liberty. Goddamn it, is every onscreen scenario like this going to make my stomach hurt for the next four years?
Moving on: Fantastic Beasts, an original script by Rowling adapted from the 2001 footnote to the Harry Potter series, returns us to her richly imagined world of wizardry and witchcraft. Eddie Redmayne takes the wheel as our new hero, Newt Scamander, an eccentric British mage who has sailed to America with his marvelous, magical suitcase.
Newt is an animal advocate of extreme passion, and that suitcase is filled with all manner of, yes, fantastic beasts. The extra-dimensional realm within Newt’s luggage is one of the film’s many visual extravaganzas. There’s a whole world in there, packed with magical creatures from the savannas to the mountains.
The trouble begins when several of these creatures escape into old New York, prompting urban adventures with demoted American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and profoundly confused Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an aspiring baker who’s along for the ride of his life. Our heroes soon run afoul of the American wizarding authorities, who are debating their own public policies in regard to Muggle relations. There’s plenty of allegory in Beasts, if you want to tune in …
Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter movies, brings a lighter tone to the new movie, which is entirely welcome—those last few movies were awfully grim. Redmayne is a compelling new hero, and his performance here is a delight of oddball physicality. He walks like a duck, for one thing. As the eager and kindhearted auror, Waterston (daughter of Sam) is completely engaging; she reveals many layers, and may be concealing more. Tina’s younger sister Queenie, played by musician Alison Sudol, is also delightful. But Fogler really steals the show as the lovable sad sack Kowalski. He’s got all the movie’s best laughs.
I’m genuinely looking forward to following these new core characters through the Beasts series, now planned for five films. This group of childlike adults can plausibly fit into the shoes of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But I’m not looking forward to figuring out future story lines, if they’re as confusing as what we’re given here. Rowling’s expansive myth making can easily get unwieldy, as evidenced by the resolution of the Potter books, which very nearly collapsed under their own weight. Beasts starts out confusing, then stays that way for two hours and thirteen minutes. Look, red herrings are fantastic beasts, too, but they need to be properly deployed. At the film’s halfway point, I realized I had no idea who the villain was. By the end, things weren’t much clearer.
Still, Muggles who appreciate the grand modern mythology that Rowling has bequeathed to us—I’m one of them—should not miss Fantastic Beasts. It’s a promising start to the new series, packed with imaginative ideas and fabulous visual flourishes. If the political allegory is a little heavy-handed, maybe that’s a good thing. Evidently, a good portion of the U.S. electorate has trouble spotting the actual existential threats to our country.
from Indy Week
Has anyone on this planet aged as beautifully as Iggy Pop? Still rocking in the free world at the age of sixty-nine, Iggy continues to look impossibly good in his natural habitat—onstage, shirtless, wielding the mic like a weapon. His deeply lined face is a road map of hard living, but those crystal blue eyes still sparkle with mischief and mojo. Blur any image of Iggy just a little and it’s 1971 all over again.
The estimable Mr. Pop, aka James Osterberg, is the subject of Gimme Danger, director Jim Jarmusch’s adoring, impish documentary on Iggy and the Stooges, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever convened. Iggy and Jarmusch are pals (the singer has appeared in several of the director’s films) and the movie has the relaxed feel of a mellow evening reminiscence. Relatively mellow, anyway—Iggy tells his stories while sitting on a throne-like chair framed by mounted skulls. But that seems about right, doesn’t it?
Anyone likely to seek out Gimme Danger will already be familiar with the Stooges’ legacy as Detroit’s proto-punk prophets of rage. The most interesting bits of the film address the periods just before and just after the band’s initial arc of success in the early 1970s. We learn that, before assembling the band, Iggy was hip to a wide range of musical influences.
“I was the Stooge who knew who John Cage was, or Sun Ra,” he says. A cascade of album covers appears onscreen, detailing Iggy’s list of heroes: The Wailers, Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Velvet Underground, John Coltrane, the Ventures. Throughout the film, Jarmusch employs such playful visual devices to illustrate Iggy’s storytelling, maintaining an aesthetic that evokes mimeographed fanzines and fuzzy analog television. Toward the end, he parallels that first list with another avalanche of records by the bands the Stooges inspired: The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Bad Brains, Black Flag, Gang of Four.
What’s particularly cool about Jarmusch’s doc—and “cool” is this filmmaker’s métier—is how the focus stays squarely on the Stooges and their glorious flash-and-fade from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. Iggy’s subsequent solo success is largely ignored, and Gimme Danger ultimately celebrates the original band’s spirit of collectivist anarchy—all amps and guitars and oil drums and mallets.
“Fast as lightning, kicks like a mule,” Iggy says. It’s poetry, really.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Fast as Lightning, Kicks Like a Mule.”
November 28, 2016
from Indy Week
The young, delicate Lady Hideko has never left the mansion she was raised in from childhood. Her Uncle Kouzuki is grooming her for marriage—to himself, so he can plunder her inheritance. Until then, he keeps her in gilded captivity. Meanwhile, the teenage Sook-hee, an orphaned street urchin, runs with a Dickensian pack of thieves and pickpockets. Its leader, Count Fujiwara, is a savvy con man who plans to seduce Hideko, elope, then declare her insane and inherit the fortune. To facilitate the con, he arranges for Sook-hee to infiltrate the household as Hideko’s handmaiden.
The year is 1930, the place is Korea, and the movie is The Handmaiden, the latest from director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). But if the setup sounds a little Victorian, it is—or was. The script is based on Fingersmith, a novel by Sarah Waters, set in nineteenth-century England. Park shuffles elements of the original story into a charged erotic thriller with ingenious narrative twists. Nothing in this film is as it seems.
On one level, it’s a layered storytelling con, broken into three parts that retell events from different characters’ perspectives. It’s also a psychosexual suspense thriller with scenes of escalating weirdness. There are whips, and ritual readings of classic erotica, and an octopus.
On another level, it’s a puzzle-box mystery in the key of Hitchcock, who is alluded to in playful visual puns. But the pulsing heart of the movie belongs to Hideko and Sook-hee, whose fierce passion blossoms amid all the treachery and deception. The unrated film’s sex scenes are graphic indeed; they are at once intensely erotic and fundamental to the story. If the English language had an exact antonym for gratuitous, I’d use it here.
It’s beautiful to behold a film this finely crafted. The pacing is brisk, the performances are perfectly pitched, and there’s even a sustained note of goofy humor running through it all. Park is a renowned visual stylist, and he delivers virtuoso camera moves and compositions.
Ultimately, The Handmaiden is a story of liberation, sexual and otherwise, and the climactic revelations in the final scenes are enormously satisfying. If you can spot the expertly concealed plot twists coming, you’ll have outdone me. I spent the first third of the film intrigued, the second third confused, and the final third filled with giddy admiration. This is one of the best films of the year.
October 16, 2016
Rachel Watson is a mess. Two years after her husband left her (for the real estate agent!), she’s unemployed, deeply depressed, and drinking vodka out of thirty-two-ounce water bottles. Every day, she rides the commuter train into Manhattan, pretending to have a job. She looks wistfully out the window at the passing houses of Westchester and the life she used to have.
To be clear, Rachel, as played by Emily Blunt in the new thriller The Girl on the Train, is literally looking at the life she used to have. As it happens, the train route goes right past her old house, where she regularly spies on her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Rachel also keeps an eye on another house, a few doors down, where young newlyweds Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans) live a seemingly idyllic life.
One fateful evening, an extremely drunk Rachel decides to disembark at her old stop. What happens next will be the nexus around which the rest of the movie revolves. The lives of all the principal players intersect, and by the next morning, young newlywed Megan has gone missing.
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October 16, 2016
from Indy Week
Deepwater Horizon, the dramatic thriller based on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill catastrophe, could have gone wrong in a hundred different ways. By reducing events to a disaster movie template—The Towering Inferno on water—the filmmakers take a conspicuous risk.
But in the hands of director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), the movie never feels exploitative. In fact, the narrow focus serves the film well. This is a story about the human drama of rig workers who survived the worst oil disaster in U.S. history—and those who didn’t.
It helps tremendously that Berg doesn’t dumb things down. The story’s first half is packed with flat-out fascinating numbers and details, presented both visually and through rat-a-tat dialogue. We learn that the thirty-story-tall rig—not a fixed structure but a ship—operated a drill pipe that went down 5,000 feet to the sea floor, then another 13,000 feet to oil. For comparison, consider that the world’s tallest building is around 2,700 feet tall. Rig workers called it “the well from hell.”
from Indy Week
It’s easy to be cynical about a movie like Bridget Jones’s Baby, a sequel that was clearly assembled from the ground up as an entertainment industry product—a guaranteed payday for its stars and studio. This is a movie that’s already been made twice, and the third installment is essentially an exercise in brand awareness, dutifully adherent to a commercially viable blueprint.
It’s also true, however, that Bridget Jones’s Baby is a pretty good time at the movies. It’s got plenty of laughs, a hopelessly lovable central character, and a script that is occasionally smarter than it strictly needs to be. “Occasionally” is the critical term here. For every sharp gag from the writing team, you’ll need to sit through five or six scenes that play like outtakes from a particularly witless Sex and the City episode.
Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger), now a forty-three-year-old London TV producer, is talked into attending an outdoor music festival to get what’s left of her groove back. In an improbably glamorous yurt, she enjoys a one-night stand with Jack (Patrick Dempsey), who turns out to be the billionaire inventor of an online dating app that matches couples via algorithm.
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