Close Encounters with Arrival – a review

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Although Star Wars will remain the apex of my formative years as a young writer and dreamer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays a close second. At the risk of blasphemy, the latter film was significantly superior to the Lucas’ space western, offering insights into humanity and our possible place in the Universe that I couldn’t begin to fathom until later in life.

Such films are rare.

Arrival, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened widely this week, is one of those films and is a worthy successor to Close Encounters.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, a man better known for horror films like the reboots of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arrival opens with the arrival of 12 alien space craft—looking a bit like fat Pringles—at strategic positions around the globe.

Almost the entire story is told from the perspectives of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and shows their efforts to communicate with the aliens under the watchful eye of military commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), as scientists and military commands near the other 11 craft attempt the same.

While the trio works to simply comprehend the existence of the aliens, let alone try to communicate with them, the outside world falls apart as fear and a sense of insignificance grasps at the hearts of populations being told largely nothing, feeding the paranoid darkness that resides within all of us.

Without giving key aspects of the story away, the movie deals with broad metaphysical questions about existence and time, while at the same time, providing insights into our species at both its greatest apex and deepest nadir. And at its very base, it encapsulates the importance of trust in our evolution as individuals, as a society and as a species.

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Amy Adams channels Richard Dreyfuss in her awe at the miracle before her

This is Amy Adams’ movie, and so all of these concepts are displayed through her fears and growth. She must learn to trust her human colleagues. She must learn to trust her alien counterparts, adorably nicknamed Abbott and Costello. And most importantly of all, she must learn to trust herself despite flashes of what seems like madness.

To tie back to Close Encounters, Adams is this movie’s Richard Dreyfuss, and she embues her character with both the same manic trepidation and child-like wonder as Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary.

Renner and Whitaker, for their parts, are incredibly subdued in this film.

Renner’s Donnelly is an emotional anchor for Adams. Coming from the academic world, his tone is at once familiar and playfully combative.

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The photographic focus on Adams is representative of Renner’s role in this film.

Whitaker’s Weber is authoritative and yet unthreatening. He is the calm in the intellectual storm, grounding the two academics for what they are about to witness and becoming increasingly appreciative of the miracle that unfolds before him.

What I found particularly interesting about Heisserer’s story was that the antagonist of the film was Fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of mortality. Fear of our own insignificance. And more importantly, our deepest fear that as individuals, we simply don’t measure up.

And breaking the rules of screenwriting, this fear was not embodied in a single antagonist, but in all characters, and it was only in fleeting moments that any individual character acted upon his or her fear. And yet, as fleeting as those moments were, each was vital to the evolution of the story and the critical relationships to their next stages.

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Connection relies on trust

Again, these moments fed back to the question of trust, particularly in the face of betrayal.

To assure everyone that this film isn’t simply a cerebral exercise—although it is beautiful in what it does accomplish—there is also a very deep emotional thread that runs through this movie, again centering on Adams. And from the opening, it seems like this personal journey is completely disconnected from the sci-fi plot.

But as the story unfolds and we begin to explore what is possible in an infinite cosmos, we begin to realize that the external and internal journeys are one and the same. There is no distinction. The line between physical and emotional is an artifact of our choices as humans and society.

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Arrival continues the saga that started with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Will Arrival be to adolescent minds today what Close Encounters was to mine in 1977?

Probably not.

It is a much more adult film that its predecessor, with many fewer action sequences to engage the eye. And Villeneuve’s views and sensibilities are very different from Steven Spielberg’s.

But Arrival is the closest thing to those seminal films that we have seen in a generation or more. And for the more engaged child or adolescent, it will open a window to another plane of storytelling.

See also:

Movie Review: Arrival (Danny F. Santos)

Amy Adams supplies emotional core of alien invasion film “Arrival” (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Amy Adams has a sublime word with alien visitors (The Guardian)

The Man Who Knew Infinity – a review

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In another life, I might have been a mathematician; in part, because I prefer to contemplate my universe in solitude, but perhaps more importantly, because there is a simplicity and elegance in math that simply cannot be matched by any other discipline.

It is the voice of God. It is the description of all existence and all possibility.

Thus, I greatly look forward to films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, which opened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and this past week on Netflix.

Based on true events, it is much like A Beautiful Mind, in that it tells the story of a man who could see things intuitively that others could not even with the greatest of effort, but in this case, without the mental health issues.

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a poor mathematician living in Madras, India, burdened with an overwhelming fountain of knowledge and understanding of the maths. As one movie character so aptly put it, every positive integer is Ramanujan’s friend.

Frustrated by an oppressive society in India that sees him as an over-reaching Wog, Ramanujan reaches out with the aid of an understanding British diplomat to mathematicians in the United Kingdom. And he eventually catches the notice Cambridge University professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who brings Ramanujan to England.

As exciting as this is for the younger man, Ramanujan quickly becomes frustrated with his mentor. Rather than explore the mathematical cosmos, Hardy reins Ramanujan in, forcing him to develop mathematical proofs for his grand visions. Why, the younger man asks, do you need to prove the truth, the very word of the gods?

It is in answering this question that the movie becomes a love story between two driven men. These men change the face of mathematics, their work echoing to this day.

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Jeremy Irons is achingly poignant as mathematician G. H. Hardy

Despite the title of the film, this movie is more about Hardy than it is Ramanujan, who interestingly remains something of a mystery even into the story’s epilogue.

Intellectually brilliant in his own right, Hardy yet has to work to understand the universe, whereas Ramanujan is “given” the answers to great mathematical concepts. And despite any overt signs of jealousy, you have to wonder if this isn’t part of the reason Hardy fights so hard to rein in his mentee.

That said, as their relationship slowly blooms, Hardy risks his own expulsion from the college to push for Ramanujan’s acceptance at Cambridge as a fellow. So again, it is about Hardy’s relationships with his colleagues and the university establishment with Ramanujan as his raison d’etre.

The movie is visually beautiful and the story amazingly told.

Irons continues to be an actor of outstanding elegance no matter how curmudgeonly the character. His portrayal of a man who achingly wants to reach out to touch the face of God and yet cannot, is emotionally wrenching. This is a man who is afraid to believe in anything, but is presented with a glory that comes but once in a lifetime.

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Dev Patel portrays the anguish of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who speaks the voice of the gods only to find ignorance

Patel, likewise, offers a stirring performance. His confusion at the insanity of the world around him is palpable. He knows that he stands upon a great mountain, spouting the wisdoms of heaven, and yet finds himself spat upon and held back. He is very much a Christ figure to Irons’ Saul of Tarsus.

But as beautiful as this film is, I found it lacking in one very big way.

I never felt like I got to understand the titular character Ramanujan.

I have not read the similarly titled book on which the movie is based to know if there is more about Ramanujan there (its subtitle would suggest yes), but the film starts with fully formed Ramanujan scraping mathematical formulas on the stone floor of a temple. In looking for work to support his mother and new bride, he presents his efforts to bureaucrat after bureaucrat, only to be rejected.

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What is never explored or explained, however, is how this supposedly lowly man learned how to write in the language of mathematics, and because of this, I feel like I watched only part two of a much larger story.

There is a beautiful moment late in the film between Ramanujan and Hardy that touches on the divine spark of mathematics, and we see the two men finally express their common love and fears. But for me, this wasn’t enough. It fulfilled an emotional requirement, but not the intellectual. I want to better understand Ramanujan and his gift.

Despite this rather large gap, however, this is a movie that I could watch again and again for its sheer beauty. And I can only hope that it just one of many such films—math-centric or otherwise—to be made in the coming years.

The Voices gets a hearing (a review)

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Not one to generally participate in the Toronto International Film Festival, it was a rare evening in which I found myself standing in a rush line to see a movie, but a friend of mine wanted to see the latest Ryan Reynolds film called The Voices. This is not your typical Ryan Reynolds film.

Reynolds is Jerry Hickfang, a good-natured if skittish guy who works in the shipping department of a bathroom fixtures company in Milton, the derelict remains of a town in Nowhere, USA. Jerry is a nice guy, who lives above a derelict bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. And of course, Jerry has the hots for office cupcake Fiona, a misplaced Brit with a craving for bigger things, played by Gemma Arterton. For her part, Fiona finds Jerry a little creepy, but is not above using his puppy lust to get a lift during a rain storm.

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) struggles to understand Mr. Whiskers' advice

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) struggles to understand Mr. Whiskers’ advice

Oh, and the other thing you probably need to know about Jerry is that he is in court-appointed psychiatric treatment, isn’t really good about taking his meds, and has a family history of hearing voices, but that’s not something he likes to talk about.

So far, so harmless. But after a literal run-in with a deer who begs Jerry to finish him off, the blood-letting never really stops and the rest of the movie becomes a giant slip-and-slide of mostly implied blood and offal.

So, The Voices is a thriller…and a drama…and a comedy…and a farce. You squirm in revulsion (never really reaches horror) as often as you LOL.

Director Marjane Satrapi (who brought us Persepolis) attended the screening and describes the story as completely fucked up. She said she was mesmerized by the screenplay and desperately wanted to meet the man who penned it to see what messed up human could conceptualize such a story. So she was surprised when she met Michael R Perry, a tall normal-looking fellow.

Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi

As Perry explained, he wanted to look at the life of someone of multiple personality disorder from their perspective rather than society’s. And in that, he succeeded.

With Satrapi’s help, the two clearly crafted the oddly idyllic yet troubled world within Jerry’s mind, giving the audience only the briefest glimpse of how the rest of the world saw things. With Jerry, it was all perfect love and butterflies. To the rest of us, it was squalor and pain.

Where the story fell down for me was in explaining why everything went wrong so suddenly. In writing circles, we talk about “Why today?” Why does your story begin today, at this moment, and not 6 weeks ago or 5 months from now? In this case, what was the event that caused Jerry to go from lovable schmuck to… Some might suggest it was the deer accident, but even Mr. Whiskers called that bullshit

The other place I felt let down was that the conflict never escalated, it merely accumulated. Rather than find interesting ways for Jerry’s mania to manifest itself, the writer simply repeated the same event over and over, as though each of the characters voluntarily walked into a wood chipper.

And I don’t know if the ending was presented as written or was something that blossomed out of Satrapi’s mind, but it was lazy and bordered on the ludicrous. It was a bad after-taste on a film that had merits.

Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick

Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick

On the plus side, Ryan Reynolds was amazing to watch…this was not the charming goofball romantic comedy, although Jerry was sadly charming when he wasn’t obviously tortured by his snarky brogue-spewing cat. (NOTE: Bosco and Mr. Whiskers easily have the funniest lines in this film.)

Gemma Arterton’s Fiona was a delight. She was delicious to watch as the voluptuous vixen whose biggest fear in life is being bored. Problem solved!

Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), as tier-two love interest Lisa (see, the writer even repeated this beat), was largely wasted. Her character was pretty two-dimensional. As nice girl looking for a nice guy, her function was to have Jerry explain his condition to the audience (exposition disguised as opening up).

The Voices is definitely worth seeing, if only for what it attempts to do. I can’t help feeling, however, that if they had rewritten the screenplay a few more times, they would have achieved their goals much better than this.

My recommend (and that of my friend) is that this is a Cheapie Tuesday movie (or whatever your local half-price day is).

 

PS I was unable to find a trailer for this movie, so I offer the following interview with Satrapi at Sundance London…I will warn you, however, that it does include a lot more info about the plot than I gave above.