(Video on Demand, February 2017) The last few years have been a boon for fans of cerebral big-budget Science Fiction, and here comes Arrival to continue the streak. As someone who’s quite familiar with Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life short story from which Arrival is based, I can’t say that the film had a lot of conceptual surprises in store. Still, that makes it easier to appreciate what was a difficult writing exercise: adapting a non-linear story of understanding and loss into a film that is, at times, thrilling, majestic, mind-expanding and deeply felt. Adding quite a bit to the short story without betraying its core, Arrival manages to take a borderline-ridiculous concept and boil it down to an intimate story for a woman who couldn’t be farther away from the action-hero ideal. Amy Adams is terrific in the lead role, sympathetically incarnating a brainy scientist abruptly thrust in the middle of a tense first-contact scenario. Arrival does nearly everything very well, but it’s notable in the way it presents an initially-familiar scenario (aliens land!) in a way that feels grounded in reality. By the time we’re in non-linear gravity-shifting mode, the film has earned the right to wow its audience. Most assuredly the best Hollywood Science Fiction film of 2016, Arrival gives a bit of hope back that Hollywood can still make great movies when it wants to. Best of all, it’s another celebrated entry in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s filmography—and now he’s taking aim at Blade Runner and Dune.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) As far as hard unflinching thrillers go, Sicario is a cut above the average. Featuring a merciless look at the increasingly uncivilized war between governments and drug dealers on both sides of the US-Mexico border, this film takes viewers into darkness and doesn’t allow for much light at the end. Our gateway character is a competent police officer drawn into a murky universe in which answers aren’t forthcoming and may be harmful to the soul. Director Denis Villeneuve once again manages a spectacular-looking film: with the help of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario revels in the bleak gorgeousness of the desert and its menacing twilight. The “bridge sequence” is a terrific thrill ride, while the almost-cryptic lines of dialogue do much to suggest an entire universe beyond the words. Emily Blunt is good in the lead role, but Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin end up stealing the show at times. Heavy in macho rhetoric against which crashes our protagonist, Sicario has the heft of a big thriller, the likes of which aren’t seen too often in today’s studio environment. Still, it’s not quite a perfect film: The morbid reality of its vision can weigh heavily at times, but the script appears half-polished in the way it switches protagonists during its third act, doesn’t quite maximize its own strengths and occasionally seems unfinished. I wanted to like it a bit more than I did by the end. Still, Sicario stand tall as one of the big thrillers of 2015, and should be good enough to make adult-minded viewers happy with their evening choice.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) In some ways, it’s fitting that Enemy should be the last film I’ve seen in 2014, given how my reaction to it is in many ways a reflection of where I am in my cinephile’s journey. Because Enemy is one of those movies where an enigmatic plot ends up being a metaphor for a deeper meaning that may not be fully apparent from a superficial viewing. Here, a mild-mannered college professor discovers that he has a doppelganger, an extrovert actor. When the two men meet, issues of fatherhood, relationships and intimacy all come up, in an enigmatic mixture of mystery, fantasy and allegory. Anyone watching the film for plot will be frustrated, especially if they expect stated answers by the end of the film. There is a lot to decode in the film, starting with the issue of whether there is a doppelganger and whose doppelganger it is. Now, as it happens, I’m at that stage in my movie-watching life when I can recognize the deeper levels of interpretation –but can’t be bothered to care. Purposefully-enigmatic films that revel in ambiguity (all the way to the director remaining coy about what it all meant in press interviews) are more annoying than anything else, and my ultimate reaction is to opt out: I refuse to put the puzzle together. So what’s left in Enemy for us refusniks? Fortunately, a well-crafted film. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve does really well in this second (chronologically first) collaboration with Jake Gyllenhall, leading a carefully designed film bathed in the kind of gold light that makes Toronto looks either cool or creepy. Gyllenhall himself gets a plum pair of roles as a split personality playing off himself. The film may be quiet, but the second-to-last shot is a pure shocker, fit to send even forewarned viewers climbing the drapes while shouting HOLYCATS, WHATWASTHAT?!?!! Too bad that the film wants to be so maddeningly mysterious. It asks a lot of its audience, so it shouldn’t be surprised if many won’t play along.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I approached Prisoners reluctantly. Sure, it got great reviews… but it also came along with the reputation of being a dark and unpleasant thriller. I kept putting it off, constantly reasoning that I wanted to see something lighter in my short free time. Well, now that I have finally sat down to watch Prisoners, can I acknowledge that I was wrong in delaying watching it? This has to be one of the finest films of 2013. Sure, it’s dark. Really dark, as stories about child abductions and psychopath criminals usually are. But it’s temporary darkness at worst: The film wraps up to a fine conclusion that strikes a perfect balance between hard-earned light and unforgiving consequences. There are a few unfortunate coincidences within the plot, but much of Prisoners has the satisfying heft of a good crime novel. (Remarkably enough, it’s an original screenplay.) Moral dilemmas abound, and the sense of barely-repressed darkness is constant. As a no-fun crime drama, it allows actors to shine: Hugh Jackman turns in one of his best performances as a grief-stricken family man taking justice in his own hands when the police won’t hold a suspected abductor while his daughter is missing. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal also has a career-best role as a driven investigator trying to make sense of a convoluted web of back-stories and shadowy criminals. Paul Dano is also remarkable as a punching-bag character. Still, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve gets the credit for a film that manages a satisfying conclusion out of a bleaker-than-bleak film. (Significantly enough, the film either takes place at night, or during overcast/snowy days.) The film may not be fun, but it is strangely uplifting and shows what happens when viewers are trusted to handle more than the usual Hollywood pap.