December 30, 2016

The Best Movies of the Year, 2016 Edition

2016 was horrible in ways we never dreamed it could be. But in the midst of all the chaos and sadness and terror that was this year, there were the movies, offering us brief respites from the insanity. With that in mind, I want to recognize what may have been my favorite performance of the year: Kathryn Hahn’s crazy, all-bets-are-off turn in the otherwise mediocre comedy Bad Moms. Hahn’s delightful energy was the stick of dynamite that both Bad Moms and 2016 needed. Just seeing Hahn in the above photograph makes me giggly, and for a moment, it's as if this year never even happened. Unfortunately, it did. But hopefully Kathryn Hahn will keep making movies, and a year that produced films like Moonlight can’t be all bad.

So now, here are my ten favorite films of 2016:

10b. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!—Who would have guessed that a film about college dudes hanging out could be so charming and endearing? Writer-director Richard Linklater makes his dudes human, and invites us to laugh at their worst qualities without ever turning mean-spiritied. It’s a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, set four years later (1980), that feels authentic and rich. 

10a. THE WAILING—A chilling, funny, ambiguous horror film from South Korean director Na Hong-jin, about a plague of mass murder being visited upon a small town. A film that never ceases to surprise with its many layers.

9. THE MEDDLER—Susan Sarandon gives a great performance as a mom who can’t accept that her grown-up daughter (Rose Byrne) no longer needs her, until she does. A film that moves in all kinds of unexpected directions. Directed by Lorene Scafaria. 

8. DE PALMA—Filmmaker Brian De Palma gabs about his movies for 100 minutes. It’s a master class from a great if arrogant filmmaker, and anybody who loves movies should see it. Directed by Noah Baumbach. 

7. LITTLE MEN—Ira Sachs’ film about the friendship of two boys, which is jeopardized when their parents become embroiled in a real estate dispute. Charming and funny and heartbreaking. 

6. LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP—Jane Austen at her smartest and sharpest, distilled by director Whit Stillman, a modern-day Austen if ever there was one, and featuring delicious performances from Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. 

5. ARRIVAL—A somber yet beautiful alien encounter movie, starring Amy Adams as a linguist, recovering from personal tragedy, who’s enlisted to help US military officials decipher the language of an alien race. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. 

4. A BIGGER SPLASH—A movie about four volatile people spending too much time in each other’s company, set on the beautiful Italian island of Pantelleria, and featuring a captivating, mostly non-verbal performance from Tilda Swinton as a singer who’s lost her voice. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. 

3. LA LA LAND—Director Damien Chazelle’s ode to Hollywood musicals, and to Los Angeles, has its problems, but there’s no denying its enchanting hold over you.

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA—Kenneth Lonergan unfolds yet another heartbreaking but often darkly funny family story for us, featuring powerful performances from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and newcomer Lucas Hedges.

1. MOONLIGHT—Barry Jenkins’ hauntingly beautiful story of Chiron, a gay black man growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami. 

Honorable Mentions: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Hell or High Water, Sing Street, The Edge of Seventeen, and American Honey.

December 29, 2016

Sleeping Beauty Ethics

If you could start your life over on a new planet, even if it meant going into hibernation and sleeping through 120 years to do so, would you? That’s the premise of Passengers, a new science fiction thriller which borrows from classics of the genre but reduces everything to the basics: a big, expensive ship, some pretty advanced robots, two humans in love, and a race against time. But instead of fighting aliens or evil corporations, they’re fighting technology, and not a malicious technology, but a malfunctioning technology. In reducing the science fiction drama to such a simply structured story, Passengers does what few of its ilk remember to do: it breathes. This is a movie that allows us to soak in the peculiar, mind-bending grandeur of being alone in outer space. But the film has a much bigger problem: its creepy Sleeping-Beauty ethics. (More on that later.)

That sense of the vastness of space permeates the great sci-fi movies, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and Alien: the power of these films lies in their ability to make us feel like we’re there, partaking in the trippy mysteries of the cosmos. So often, contemporary movies are afraid to invoke such feelings of awe and mystery. Instead, they hurl shiny, fast-moving images at us like we’re infants, easily entertained and just as easily bored, always subduable under the tyranny of the next, shinier, newer object. But Passengers has the patience to linger, and so we spend a lot of time alone with Jim Preston, the mechanic-hero played by Chris Pratt, and the first of the passengers to be wrested from hibernation. 

Jim comes off as a loner, someone predestined to leave Earth behind and spend the rest of his life alone on a spacecraft. He’s supposed to be the kind of guy nobody will miss, but of course, the movie must then convince us that he’s utterly missable, especially to Aurora, the fellow passenger (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who, while asleep, catches his eye (in a none-too-subtle reference to the “Sleeping Beauty” tale). When Jim watches her video interview, which he unearths through the passenger log, he's smitten. (Loneliness is a factor, but then again, she is being played by Jennifer Lawrence.) 

We see Aurora, a writer, explain her reason for leaving everything behind for a new, unknown planet being colonized by earthlings. She will travel 120 years, observe and write about this exciting new colony, and then return to earth in another century, having aged nary a year. It’s the story no other journalist will have, assuming journalism still exists in 250 years. (I’d be afraid that the world as we know it will have completely died out by then.) 

This greatest-scoop-ever is a clever gimmick to tempt a smart young woman into an otherwise ridiculous scenario. And these characters aren’t particularly well-developed. Aurora utters writerly pap such as, “I think we tell each other stories to know we’re not alone.” And Jim, when he realizes his predicament, telegraphs it for us: “I woke up too soon!” It sounds almost like the smarmy little kid in Home Alone who declares, “I made my family disappear,” only minus the smirking. 

Much like Jack Nicholson's character holed up in that big spooky hotel in The Shining, Jim cannot handle the isolation. (He's alone for over a year, and grows out his beard so that he resembles Kurt Russell in The Thing). The movie smartly revels in the knave-like scumminess of Jim's decision to wake Aurora, condemning her to his own fate and stealing her life, just so he won't be alone anymore. But then the movie goes out of its way to defend Jim, to endorse his love for her as somehow truer than the horribleness of this betrayal, and moreover, it tries to convince Aurora that she ought to surrender to love. Sleeping Beauty, rescued by this modern-day prince, ought to be grateful. She's awake, after all. 

Passengers would have been a terrific movie if not for this troubling development. Perhaps director Morten Tyldum fancies himself a romantic, although the scenario he and screenwriter Jon Spaights provide us is more on the level of Overboard, that 1987 romantic comedy where Kurt Russell convinces the amnesia-afflicted Goldie Hawn that she’s his wife and the mother of his unruly brood of boys, all for revenge. (I do love Overboard, but it's a problematic movie.) Ah, the timeless theme of men ruining the lives of women for their own gain; and the women, they may put up a good fight at first, but these movies always wear them down in the end. Surrender is inevitable. 

So, if you turn off your ethics, Passengers is an entertaining secondhand science fiction movie, bolstered by the presence of two of our most appealing young stars. And it’s effective and well-made, too. That’s the shame of it, that a movie can get so much right technically but proffer such disturbing views of the world. 

With Laurence Fishburne, giving the film some class as one of the briefly revived crew members, and Michael Sheen, giving the film some levity as the charming bartender-robot.

December 22, 2016

Elation and Fatigue in "La La Land"

The new musical La La Land, from Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of 2014’s Whiplash, is this year’s answer to The Artist. It’s a throwback to Old Hollywood, steeped in nostalgia. Musicals are so rare these days that many viewers may think of them as artifacts from a forgotten age, which they kind of are, and even when a musical does surface occasionally, it’s often of the self-conscious variety. As entertaining as La La Land is (and I’m placing it on my ten best of the year because I had such a good time at it), there’s something artificial about it, something artificial beyond the fact that it’s a musical and beyond the fact that it’s set in Hollywood. La La Land may be the cinematic equivalent to a day trip to DisneyLand: You’ve made the drive, paid the fare, and you’ve assured yourself you’re going to like it; and everything about the place—the sets, the characters, the costumes, the music, the rides—is practically screaming, “Love this, why don’tcha?” La La Land is charming to be sure, but if you think about it too much, it could fall apart. 

In the opening musical number, hundreds of motorists, stuck in a traffic jam on the 10, jump out of their cars and erupt into a cheerful, upbeat song about the L.A. sunshine, and it’s clear that these are all would-be showbiz people, who’ve packed up their belongings and moved to Los Angeles, or some suburban area on the outskirts of Los Angeles, hoping to fulfill their dreams. That’s where Chazelle’s millennial roots are showing. Singin’ in the Rain focused on silent-film-era Hollywood insiders having to prove themselves anew as the movies were making sound for the first time; in La La Land, they're all outsiders, constantly preening and rehearsing and marketing and networking themselves, because you never know what studio suit might be at that party, or which audition might be the one that garners a callback, or which bit part on a television series could lead to something more. La La Land is about possibilities in a world inundated with possibilities and choices, which is the reason that the romance between its stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, must be tinged with uncertainty. In La La Land, your dreams represent trade-offs. Maybe it’s a depressing sign of our modern cynicism, but if the movie let them have it all, it would feel like a cheat. 

The greatest thing about La La Land isn’t its musical numbers but its wistful musical tone, which is upbeat on the outside and melancholy on the inside: there’s a lovely, lachrymose theme that Ryan Gosling—who plays the struggling jazz pianist Sebastian—keeps picking away at on the piano, and it’s so entrancing and beautifully maudlin that it draws Mia (Emma Stone) into the piano bar where he’s performing, and that’s how they (sort of) meet. Indeed, La La Land experiences its emotions most fully in these songs (even when the emotions are canned, like in "Another Day of Sun"). And the songs aren’t particularly memorable or grand (although I’ve had "Another Day" stuck in my head all week); but they feel familiar and they have life in them, even if that life is distilled in a recycled and repackaged and shrewdly calculated form. 

That's where the film’s artificiality works for it: this is a secondhand musical, so we know the language, and Chazelle knows that he doesn't have to spell the emotional beats of the film out for us. He can focus instead on wooing us with the music and the gorgeous visuals, and the chemistry between Gosling and Stone, actors who play off each other marvelously, who convey tenderness or uncertainty or that over-the-moon feeling you get at the beginning of a romance, with just their eyes, or in the way Gosling flirtatiously pretends not to be into Stone, or the way Stone lets him woo her, fully knowing what he's up to. 

They’re lovers who don’t know they’re in love yet, and the pleasure is in watching how it will unfold. (Chazelle does keep us wondering if it will last, as dreams turn into opportunities that threaten to keep them apart.) In that big traffic sequence at the beginning, Sebastian honks at Mia because she’s distracted by her phone and isn’t paying attention to the road; she flips him off as he whizzes past her; later, in the piano bar, he breezes past her again, just as she tells him how beautiful his playing is. It's not until they meet a third time, at one of those apparently standard (and insufferable) industry parties, that sparks fly. As they’re walking to their cars in the purple-blue twilight, Gosling coos (his voice low like Dean Martin's but timid like Ricky Nelson's when they sing together in Rio Bravo) and Stone purrs in response (her voice is light and airy, but it grows). We could never fall in love with each other, they think, and the song lies, “what a waste of a wonderful night.” That’s the kind of lie we paid for, because we know it’s going to be proven false in about three seconds, when even the song happily loses its convictions.

Ryan Gosling, who’s started to grow on me as an actor (see his terrifically funny performance in The Nice Guys), has always displayed a certain indifference that to me alienates him from the audience. He embodies the blasé indifference of a Method actor, like James Dean but without Dean’s ambiguous persona, or like Brando without his electric energy. But in La La Land, Gosling’s subdued, hipsterish aversion to displaying emotion works to his advantage. It makes his eventual success seem almost inevitable, and it makes us less annoyed with his stubborn resistance to new ideas, if only because we don't take him seriously. (He’s a jazz traditionalist, wooed briefly into John Legend’s character’s band where he’s forced to play synthesizers and attend obnoxious photo shoots, and play the part of an L.A. music product.)

And there’s something flat in Gosling’s voice when he waxes on about the excitement of making your own art, without compromise. Does he even believe what he's saying? Or is it so obvious and assured for him, that he doesn't need to say it with conviction? Gosling's just as artificial as the movie. Fortunately, Emma Stone is never anything but genuine. Stone is the one we’re invested in: she’s clearly magnificently talented, but will any one of those agents or executives notice? Mia has attended one too many humiliating auditions, where rude, distracted studio execs stare blankly into their phones while she works herself into an emotionally wrenching state, showing off her acting chops to nobody. (As if anyone could ignore her.) And when Stone bats those big eyes of hers, it’s as though she’s Cupid, lassoing our hearts to the heart of this movie. We really ought to know better, but it’s like going to an amusement park: the elation and the fatigue become blurred sooner or later. 

December 21, 2016

Spare us, Kirk Cameron.

Recently, I hate-watched parts of Kirk Cameron’s 2014 “film” Saving Christmas (which you can find in full on Youtube). To call it a film would be somewhat misleading. It’s more of a treatise, in which Cameron, sitting by a crackling fire and donning a bright-red sweater, waxes sentimental about all the reasons he loves Christmas: “the fire, the lights, the presents, the carols and hymns, the children, the tree, even the hot chocolate!” 

Based on the title, you would think that Cameron is saving Christmas from the atheists and the liberals, who, according to many fundamentalist Christians, are trying to destroy Christmas. Cameron vaguely refers to these folks as one of the two “camps” trying to harsh his Christmas mellow, but he doesn’t use specifics, which frees him from the burden of supplying facts for his thesis that Christmas is under attack. But Cameron’s real target for this “film” is Christians who dislike the commercial elements of the holiday season (basically all the elements). 

In the movie, Cameron’s angry brother-in-law, subtly named “Christian,” is portrayed as a real Grinch because he dislikes how Christmas has been co-opted by pagan rituals and Capitalism. Kirk finds Christian hiding in the garage because Christian’s wife is throwing a Christmas party, and he just can’t handle all those people not getting Christmas right. Cameron proceeds to mansplain to Christian that he’s wrong: the tree is a symbol of Jesus’s death on the cross, and the giving of gifts a symbol of Jesus’s body being wrapped in cloths, and Santa Claus was actually a Christian who gave stuff to the poor and needy. No pagan shit here!

Saving Christmas dramatizes the thing I hate most about Christmas: the pressure to be happy, placed on us by arrogant, myopic blowhards like Kirk Cameron, who have wrapped their two favorite religions—Christianity and Capitalism—into one big dogma they can then valiantly “save” from non-existent threats. (I forgot Americanism, their other religion, which I guess turns it into a trinitarian dogma.) 

When religious entities like Liberty University (who helped fund this piece of shit) tell us that Christmas is under attack, and then tell us that consumerism is totally fine, and here’s a biblical justification for it, I want to reject their religion altogether. If these people are right about things, I don’t want to spend eternity with them. That sounds like hell to me. 

December 19, 2016

De Palma gabs, an Irish high school band apes Duran Duran, and a 1960s witch casts a Technicolor spell on the 21st century (and other reviews).

Below are short reviews of movies I never got around to writing about. 

De Palma. Legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables) sits down and gabs for 100 minutes about his career: the early days of the 1960s, making anti-establishment films and working with De Niro, the 70s, when he was at his peak as a filmmaker and working alongside Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and others during the most exciting period in American films, the shift his career took in the 80s, including some of his biggest successes (e.g. The Untouchables) and most humiliating disappointments (The Bonfire of the Vanities). De Palma also talks about other directors, including Hitchcock, a major influence on his work, and gives us a sense of how a director can truly be an artist, or how the corporate nature of Hollywood can destroy a director’s vision. Of course, it’s all coming from De Palma himself, a man who’s honest but not a little arrogant (a character trait we expect from great Hollywood directors). I’d love to see a sequel with actors, producers, writers, and crew members discussing De Palma. This movie’s a delight for any film lover, and you can rent it on iTunes.

Florence Foster Jenkins. Meryl Streep, playing the insane, syphilitic Florence (a woman who thought she could sing, and since she was rich and crazy, was allowed to), warbles and croons her way to Carnegie Hall. We could almost suspect that Darling Streep was making fun of herself, if it weren’t for the fact that she treats even this role like a dissertation. She’s done her homework, studied the most accurate and realistic way to be a terrible singer and a happy loon. Somehow, a studied performance of this kind rings false, and Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t good, but isn’t bad enough to be really amusing as a failure. It’s just Streep being artfully ridiculous, and suddenly, Ricki and the Flash doesn’t seem all that bad. 

The Handmaiden. Park Chan-Wook’s mesmerizingly produced but cold adaptation of Fingersmith, the trendy neo-Victorian thriller by Sarah Waters. The cinema police have declared it a masterpiece, because it is beautifully made, with many exciting shots and an elaborate and impressive production design by Seong-hie Ryu. But as beautifully hip as The Handmaiden is, the film never grabbed me. The story involves an impoverished girl named Sook-hee who becomes embroiled in a scheming young cad’s plot to marry a naive rich girl for her money. But there are plot twists upon plot twists, as there are in Waters’ novel. (The film is mostly faithful, except of course that it updates the setting from 19th-century London to early 20th century Japan). But Waters’ writing has always turned me off: she’s aping the Victorian style in a calculated way, and imposing her modern-day literary sensibility (one I find mostly unreadable) on the sensation fiction that was popular at the time, much of which was delightfully disposable. But with Waters, every word is steeped in meaning, like tea that’s become impossible to drink. The Handmaiden makes the same mistake: every object has been deified, and we’re suddenly not lost in a movie but trapped in a museum, with a numbing feeling that we’re supposed to be having a good time. 

The Love Witch. Anna Biller’s throwback to 1960s B movies and Technicolor (it was filmed on 35mm), laced with a little psychedelic occultism and some kind of anti-feminist feminism, in which Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, a self-described witch who’s got a yen for men, but can’t seem to keep them alive. It’s those love potions she keeps making in her witchy bachelorette pad in a big, gabled Victorian house that looks like the one Mary Richards lived in, if Mary Richards had been a spell-casting nymphomaniac. (And who knows what Mary did on her off-days.) When the film opens, we see Samantha driving in her convertible along the Pacific Coast highway, and it feels like an old movie just blew us a kiss from Cinema Heaven. The Love Witch goes on for two full hours, which is too long (the movies it imitates were all like an hour and some change), but it’s a canny, fun, strange, at times hilarious movie about women consumed with their need to be loved. When Elaine and her boyfriend—a strapping detective named Griff—are walking in the woods and stumble across some kind of traveling Medieval circus run by Elaine’s occultist friends, I’m reminded that we should never lose hope in the movies if somewhere, Anna Biller can make a movie as deliriously nutty as this one. 

Sing Street. John Carney, director of the 2007 musical Once, offers another music-obsessed film, in which a group of high school boys form a band called ‘Sing Street’ (named after their oppressive Catholic secondary school). It’s set in the 1980s in the wake of MTV, and Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who’s never really been interested in making music (unlike his older brother Brendan, a has-been college-dropout, played with heart by Jack Reynor), takes a liking for a beautiful young model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). (This movie, incidentally, is the first time I've seen a defense of MTV as the purveyor of a new art form, the music video, rather than the death knell of rock 'n' roll.) The band is his attempt to impress her. But when he teams up with Eamon (Mark McKenna), a musical prodigy who wears big glasses like John Lennon, the band becomes more than just an after-thought. Sing Street has its flaws (when the boys seek out the only black kid in their school because they assume he’s musical, they’re right, and they welcome him into the band, but the movie never fleshes out his character, which makes their tokenism John Carney’s tokenism). But what I love about Sing Street is its exuberant love of its characters and its reminder of why people first fall in love with the creative process: it’s a way to express our rage at the world. And who could resist a movie that channels its rage into something as charming and fun as this?

Too Late. A disappointing L.A. noir starring John Hawkes as a private eye looking for a missing girl. The film plays around with time and narrative, acting like a Modernist novel, and reveals its big plot points early and then shows us how those things happened. Writer-director Dennis Huack shows some promise as a filmmaker: he clearly has a vision and a desire to subvert genres, but he’s maybe too influenced by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and other “hip” filmmakers, and less attuned to what makes a film noir really work. The fragments of meaning and truth Huack gives us in Too Late seem less important when the movie’s soap-opera-like plot comes fully into the light, and suddenly, “playing around with narrative” feels less like a literary device and more like an amateurish gimmick.

December 10, 2016

"Nocturnal Animals": A cautionary tale about the dangers of marrying bad writers

At first, Nocturnal Animals feels like a riff on movie thrillers: It’s set in Los Angeles, where Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, the owner of a hip (and bankrupt) L.A. art gallery, and the opening sequence features various, nude, obese middle-aged and elderly women, dancing and flaunting their jiggly bodies with audacious confidence: Edith Massey on the outside and Marilyn Monroe on the inside. (Edith Massey was the snaggletoothed, ditzy, delightfully mad older woman who appeared in many of John Waters’ early films, including Pink Flamingos and Polyester). During the show’s after-party, Susan makes conversation, spilling her guts (about her frustrated marriage) to a funky-looking artist-friend, whose big curly hair and long, flowing dress and big earrings seem pickled in the 1970s: she looks like the kind of gaudy woman who’d end up stabbing someone to death in a Dario Argento horror film. There are shades of Brian De Palma, and even whispers of that delightfully awful 1994 film Color of Night, the worst erotic thriller ever made (one that is incredibly watchable in all its glorious badness). 

These impressions might spell a derivative but lewdly entertaining movie, especially in the hands of writer-director Tom Ford, who first worked as a production designer and whose eye for beauty is so keen in the not-entirely-successful but gorgeous 2009 film A Single Man. But Nocturnal Animals makes a number of disappointing structural blunders. Much of the film dramatizes the novel Susan is reading, a manuscript she receives from her ex-husband, Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Susan’s marriage ended badly, because she cheated on Edward (with her current husband, played by Armie Hammer), and the movie emits a grim energy, as though this novel, which is violent and disturbing and clearly borrows from Edward’s past with Susan, is some kind of revenge fantasy. (He even dedicated it to her.)

The novel and its dramatization are nasty and unappealing to Susan, and to us. The story involves a family being accosted by three psychopaths in an isolated part of Texas in the dead of night. The husband, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), is left for dead, his wife and daughter are raped and murdered, and the killers vanish without a trace, until a dogged, lung cancer-afflicted investigator (Michael Shannon), helps Tony track them down. 

Because she has nothing to do but read a book, Susan's only active participation in the story must occur in flashbacks, where we see Susan and Edward, once childhood friends, falling in love, against the will of Susan’s Southern-belle mama, played by Laura Linney, with her hair all poofed up and a delightful Blanche Devereaux-esque accent that I could listen to for days. (Tom Ford clearly has an affinity for brassy, bossy women, yet Linney’s character gets minimal screen time, and Susan Morrow is practically a blank.) Mama didn’t approve of Edward because he was poor and sensitive, but Susan married him anyway, and now, everything her mother said would happen has happened: “The things you love about him now are the things you will hate about him in a few years,” she says softly, her threatening prophecy steeped in matronly tenderness. 

When a movie makes its main character passive, it better have a darn good reason. Jimmy Stewart, confined to a wheelchair in Rear Window, turns into a neighborhood snoop, out of boredom, and when he witnesses a murder, enlists his girlfriend Grace Kelly and his physical therapist Thelma Ritter to help him prove it. Thus, Alfred Hitchcock made Stewart’s character active by proxy. But Nocturnal Animals doesn’t know what to do with Amy Adams’ character. There’s nothing compelling about Susan, which makes her passiveness all the more dull. Thus, for Susan, everything hinges on the narrative revealed to us in flashbacks, but those aren’t compelling either. She essentially becomes unhappy with her current husband, and ditches him for another one. 

And so Nocturnal Animals alternates between blandness and nastiness. Laura Linney’s performance, as well as the performances of Shannon and of Aaron-Taylor Johnson (as one of the killers), give the film some vitality, but it’s not enough to save the film from its own bad plot. The final scene, when Susan goes to meet Edward for dinner and he stands her up, should be an emotionally powerful moment. But Susan hasn’t been enough of a cold bitch to warrant our hate, and she’s not sympathetic enough for us to care about her. Moreover, Susan’s judgment has really gone downhill: She criticized Edward’s writing when they were together, but now she raves about this crappy novel in an email she sends him. Then again, she agreed to meet with Edward for drinks in the first place, another sign that her judgment is not to be trusted. Anyone who dedicates a novel like this to you, should be avoided at all costs. 

December 09, 2016

"Manchester by the Sea" is the feel-sad movie of the year.

With Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan returns as the master of the sad family drama, although after you watch a Kenneth Lonergan movie, you start to wonder if there’s any other kind. What sets Lonergan apart from so many other filmmakers is his deep commitment to the moral failings of his characters. We want them to wake up, to change their lives for the better, to say “I’m sorry” and “I love you”, but so many of them “just can’t beat it,” as Lee, the main character in Manchester, finally admits. 

Lonergan’s directing debut, You Can Count on Me, was the gem of 2000, a supposedly bad year for movies, that featured wonderful, heartfelt, and delightfully nutty performances from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as a dysfunctional brother and sister coming to terms with the tragic deaths of their parents—when they were small children—and so many other things that have happened to them in the subsequent twenty years of their lives. Manchester By the Sea likewise hinges on several tragedies, one of them in the present (the death of Lee’s brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler in flashback), and one from the past, rearing its head like a specter and consuming Lee apparently for good.

As Lee, Casey Affleck gives a heartbreaking performance. In an early scene, he’s drinking at a bar and erupts in anger at two strangers, because they're staring at him. The chip on Lee's shoulder weighs him down, and anger is the only emotion he can produce; it wells up uncontrollably and spills out into the lives of everyone around him. But we get the impression Lee’s always been sort of an asshole, even before all the funerals that have left him emotionally dead. He’s a gruff, tough, wise-talking blue-collar boy from Manchester, Massachusetts, and when he’s called back to his hometown (now he’s a handyman living in Quincy, just outside Boston) because of Joe’s unexpected death, everyone knows him, and quite a few people mutter under their breath, “that was him. Lee Chandler.” 

The film revolves around the relationship between Lee and his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, giving a funny, salty, and sharp performance). Lee reluctantly assumes guardianship over his nephew, and the two of them eke out some kind of existence, although Lee keeps threatening to move them back to Boston, despite the fact that Patrick’s life—his two girlfriends, his athletics, his rock band, and his dad’s boat, which has been left to him—are all there in Manchester.

But there’s too much life in Manchester for Lee, or too much death, rather. As the two of them drive to a neighboring town to arrange Joe’s memorial, they pass a graveyard, and Lee remarks to Patrick, “there’s no funeral home in Manchester, but the cemetery’s here.” Manchester itself becomes a monument to Lee’s grief, and to the life he once had with his children and his ex-wife Randi (played by Michelle Williams, whose performance is so good she even wrings a few tears out of Affleck’s hardened Lee). 

And even though Manchester by the Sea is sure to squeeze the moisture out of its audience by the gallon, the film isn’t just a somber tearjerker. Lonergan is too invested in the humanity of his characters to leave out humor, even at its darkest, like when, in a flashback, a doctor tells Joe he has congestive heart failure. “It’s a bad disease,” the doctor says, trying to be honest and sounding too glib; “What’s a good disease?” Joe asks, and Joe’s wife, Elise, storms out of the hospital room, unable to laugh at such a frightening moment. Patrick, though grieving his father's death, doesn't stop being a teenage boy: his multiple attempted conquests with one of his girlfriends comes to mind, or the moments when he scolds his uncle for being socially awkward, or when, during Joe’s funeral, we can hear the vibrations of Patrick’s cell phone from a text he’s receiving, layered under the classical piece that scores the entire sequence. 

Lonergan masterfully curates the music for certain dramatic sections of the film, including the afore-mentioned funeral, during which Lee and Patrick greet numerous guests, among them Randi, who's remarried and expecting another child. Just about any dialogue Lonergan might invent would probably be trite or at the very least repetitive; the music in these scenes (he uses Handel, Massenet, Albinoni, and Poulenc) speaks something truer than words, on an emotionally true level that deepens our own response, letting these composers' music fill in the emotional beats: such juxtapositions could easily veer toward the self-important or the histrionic, but Lonergan knows the line of tragedy and comedy and he and his actors walk it with an astonishing finesse. And in the process, the film becomes all the more personal to the viewer. These characters don't do what we expect them to in movies; they do what they do, because they've become as human as anyone we know in real life. That's what makes the hurt so good. 

Indeed, Manchester by the Sea will tear out your heart and put it back and stitch you up. It won’t tell you it loves you, but it will love you in its own way, perhaps with its remarkable mixture of brutal honesty and tenderness. There’s no better film to see during the Christmas season, when the pressure to be happy is unbearable, and you need a beautifully made, perfectly structured feel-sad movie to keep you company. I loved it. 

With Gretchen Mol, C. J. Wilson, Matthew Broderick, Kara Hayward, and Erica McDermott.

December 05, 2016

"Allied" may be a calculating WW2-era romance, but it's hard to care when the film is so marvelously effective.

Allied, a World War II-era romantic thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as spies from Canada and France, is a film with a split personality. In the first third or so, Allied plays like a conventional adventure-romance, something akin to Casablanca—and indeed the movie makes obvious references to the great Bergman and Bogart love story, such as the fact that it’s set in Casablanca in 1942. But then the film shifts in tone, becoming something darker and more somber for our spy-heroes, after fate twists their fake romance into a real one, and questions of nationality and loyalty become blurred in the name of love.

The movie opens with a hell of a shot: Brad Pitt, as Max Vatan, a Canadian spy working for British intelligence, parachuting onto the Moroccan desert. Pitt knows how to make an entrance, and the scene feels like something out of a James Bond. Upon arriving in Casablanca, Max quickly finds Marianne (Cotillard), who’s lunching with some French and German friends, all of them Nazi sympathizers. Marianne introduces Max as her husband, a character for whom Marianne has already amassed an array of details, even taking the time to furnish a wardrobe for him. Max is happy to play along, even beyond the typical calls of the job. That night, on the roof of their apartment, Marianne kisses Max, and the act of playing at love ignites the real thing. Of course, their mission also fuels their passion: Nothing binds two people together quite like assassinating a Nazi ambassador: Allied accepts the premise of every Bond movie that espionage is an aphrodisiac.

But Allied isn’t a James Bond movie. Director Robert Zemeckis, working from a script by Stephen Knight, goes for our emotional jugular, an act which is both cruel and satisfying. As a protegé of Steven Spielberg (who in his early career especially could transmute pop into art that moves us), Zemeckis instinctively wants to give us an emotionally big thriller, and the movie goes down some dark passages to fulfill that desire. Zemeckis lunges for significance with big themes and big emotions. You may feel like you're being manipulated, and yet, that may be half the fun.

Brad Pitt's performance jostles between effective and insufficient. At times he lacks the equipment to handle the emotional ups and downs of Max Vatan's life. However, at 53, Pitt is in terrific shape, and he's still convincing when he brandishes a machine gun or pilots an airplane or punches somebody's lights out. And to Brad Pitt's credit, he doesn't resort to histrionics, as though he were forcing himself into a more emotional performance, when a scene turns dark. Instead he turns stoic, like a pillar of marble. And maybe that's the right instinct of a star who knows his strengths and his weaknesses.

And then there's Marion Cotillard, dark and brooding, who also evokes that Old Hollywood star quality, and who has a vivid, almost palpable spark of life inside her. Cotillard commands our attention with those dark eyes and red lips and her somberly romantic expression: She can appear tragic even when she isn’t; she's alluring, deceptive, mysterious, like a modern-day Ingrid Bergman, so how could anyone--including Brad Pitt--resist her? In a sense, Pitt belongs in the first version of this movie, the one that keeps the tragedy of the war at an arm’s length; Cotillard, we sense, has been living inside the other movie all along, waiting for the tables to turn.

But the two work marvelously well together, fortunately, and even if Robert Zemeckis is a calculating director, meticulously assembling all the right elements, his stars twist the material back into something with heart. Zemeckis smartly knows that we must care about them in order to care about this movie. His calculations pay off, too, when the relationship between Max and Marianne collides into worldwide conflicts, like in a tense party scene at their home in suburban London, in which the city is besieged by a Nazi blitz, and a German fighter plane turns into an infernal torpedo and descends right toward their house. Never has the blitz felt more terrifying to someone who wasn't alive when it actually happened. And if Allied is calculating and cruel, it's also magnificently entertaining and, in the end, sobering.

With Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, Lizzy Caplan, Anton Lesser, August Diehl, Simon McBurney, and Camille Cottin.

November 27, 2016

On 'Moonlight' and 'Spotlight': Two of the decade's best films reveal something deeper in light of each other.

Last year, Spotlight emerged as one of the great films of 2015 and of the decade, the All the President’s Men of our time. Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters investigating sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese. Their investigation led to the exposure of not one, but hundreds of American priests who raped children over the last fifty years, and whose deeds were repeatedly covered up by Church leaders. Spotlight is a great movie because it tells a big, urgent story with specificity, clarity, and conviction. Moonlight, which may be the best film of 2016, tells us a small but no less moving story with as much specificity and clarity and conviction and is, I think, a great film too. And while these movies have tangential connections—both of them deal with children, one way or another, being abused or neglected—it’s in their ability to unearth beauty and truth in the face of lies and sheer ugliness that these films emerge as great, moving, powerful, important works of art, movies that deserve to be remembered in the years to come. 

Moonlight, the second feature film of writer-director Barry Jenkins, is a film about identity that speaks with particularity, and therefore, uncovers something universal: The people and circumstances in our lives shape us for better or worse into the people we become, and the most tragic thing about life is the hope that almost materializes but is snuffed out like a spark under a heavy foot. And yet, Moonlight wages a fierce hope for its main character, a man struggling with his identity and his sexuality, a man whose childhood sears him with an eternal silence, because speaking up isn’t in the cards.

When I walked out of the theater last week, I felt elated, completely lifted out of myself and into the world of this movie. It’s a hard world, riddled with tragedies big and small, but Jenkins unearths a great deal of beauty too. When we first meet Chiron, a young black boy growing up in the Miami hood, he’s running from bullies who keep making fun of him for being gay, a word he doesn’t yet understand at the age of seven. But Chiron doesn’t only run from mean kids at school; he runs from home too. Chiron’s mother Paula (the marvelous Naomie Harris) is addicted to drugs, and thus totally unpredictable. Sometimes she’s loving and sympathetic, and other times, when she’s strung out on crack, she turns into a screaming, ranting lunatic, and Chiron never knows which version of his mom he will meet when he crosses the threshold of their apartment. 

The film traces Chiron’s journey from childhood to manhood, and is thus divided into three parts, with three different actors playing Chiron: Alex Hibbert as “Little” (Chiron at 7 or 8), Ashton Sanders as just Chiron, age 16-17, and Trevante Rhodes as “Black,” a grown-up Chiron who’s become harder and more guarded after a childhood of questioning and struggle and disappointment, but who’s offered a moment of grace in the rekindling of a relationship with Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland), a childhood friend who one day betrays him. 

One of those disappointments is the feeling of betrayal Chiron experiences when he discovers that Juan, his father figure (played by Mahershala Ali) sells drugs for a living. Juan is tender and compassionate, not the qualities we imagine when we think of drug dealers, but Jenkins pushes that conflict to the forefront of the movie: When Juan discovers Paula smoking crack with some unknown male friend, he scolds her for being an irresponsible mother, but she throws his hypocrisy right in his face, and screams at him, “Are you gonna raise my son?”, her voice defensive and defiant and desperate all at once. 

And yet Juan is compassionate. It’s clear to everyone that “Little” (Chiron) is gay, but Chiron doesn’t understand his sexuality, nor is he equipped to deal with the cruel jeers and torments of the schoolyard. “What’s a faggot?” 7-year-old Chiron asks Juan, his face long with shame and ignorance. Juan pauses before answering: “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” The tragedy of Moonlight is that this important relationship is compromised and ultimately short-lived. Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, and in a perfect world, Juan could teach Chiron how to live, how to be a man, how to be secure in his own skin. But Chiron cannot reconcile the fact that Juan sells drugs, that he is symbolically if not literally connected to his mother’s drug addiction. 

Spotlight asks us to look honestly at the institutions we hold dear; it never asks us to give them up, only to be honest, to seek justice. Moonlight asks us to merely look as it unfolds a particular story for us, of a particular boy’s life, and one that viewers like me have likely not seen enough of in movies or in real life. True, these films are about two different things. Chiron isn’t sexually abused by priests; but he is a young poor black boy, someone who’s liable to be abused in other ways if not sexually, someone who’s liable to become a statistic in the same way that thousands of children were mere statistics to the leaders in the Roman Church. So ultimately, they’re about the same thing: the ways that power affects people at the most basic levels. Spotlight gives us the devastating numbers, and it puts the hammer in the hands of people who, confronted with the truth, must act according to conscience or remain complicit; Moonlight is the poem that breathes vitality into the statistics and the facts. We may not walk away seeing the connection between these two films, but inevitably, the connection is there to be found: Society cannot look itself in the mirror without asking if it’s done right by the “least" among us, the kids so often forgotten.

What is all the more beautiful about Moonlight is its humanity. In the end, Chiron isn’t a statistic, or a tragedy, or a lesson about society’s ills. He’s a man, with a beating heart, with a destiny, with faults and little tragedies of his own, tragedies he must bear and overcome, and with desires he must learn to live with, confront, and lean into.

With Janelle Monae, as Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend and the only stable mother Chiron has ever had. Music by Nicholas Britell.

November 23, 2016

Can we stop telling stories about Howard Hughes now?

What is so fascinating about Howard Hughes that he deserves so many movies about his life? On the surface, Hughes did lead an interesting life. He was a zillionaire, a movie mogul, a daredevil in an airplane, a real ladies’ man (he was an epically bad boyfriend to many a Hollywood star) and a complete eccentric: all the ingredients required for a typical American “character”, and we sure do love “characters”. But every time someone makes another movie about Howard Hughes, the result is insufferably dull and uninspired (Scorsese’s The Aviator). And now Warren Beatty has ventured into Hughes territory with Rules Don’t Apply, which Beatty wrote, directed and stars in, as the aging eccentric himself. The film takes place mostly in 1959, with Hughes in his prolonged mental illness phase, except that he was still trying to achieve new levels of greatness as a filmmaker and an aviator and a tycoon.

Howard Hughes, like all the other memorable characters to come out of Hollywood’s golden era, is the closest thing to royalty we have: an heir to oil like a British monarch is an heir to royal blood. But there’s no lack of obtuse valentines to old rich white men in this country, and Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t break any new ground in its quest to understand, or mock, or merely exhibit, Hughes’s eccentric life. Warren Beatty, who did excellent work in films like Shampoo (1975), made a common mistake of many an actor-turned-director (starting with Reds in 1981): he turned to “important” material (in the case of Reds, the Russian Revolution) as a way to elevate his filmmaking, forgetting that much of the best American filmmaking of the 1970s eschewed the effrontery of prestige. Rules Don’t Apply makes a similar error, refusing to contain its man-obsession with Howard Hughes, who was essentially a real-life Jay Gatsby, the kind of man we’ve been trained to idolize: self-made and rich and eccentric, yet not really self-made, because in Jay Gatsby’s case, he resorted to organized crime to earn his millions, and in Hughes’s case, he inherited his first big swath of cash (just like our new President). 

As a film, Rules Don’t Apply is beautifully made, and every costume, every prop, every wall, seems to have been designed with care and precision. But it's also frustratingly uneven. Hughes was known for being stubborn, unpredictable, and erratic. The movie’s tone and rhythm somehow internalize these Hughesian qualities, and as a result, we never feel confident or secure in the narrative that Beatty is trying to tell. Movies should be unpredictable, but they shouldn’t feel so shaky that we question the very competency of the storytelling, as though the movie itself is Howard Hughes, and we’re Frank, the dutiful assistant played by Alden Ehrenreich, who incidentally gives the film’s best performance. Ehrenreich has star appeal: a pleading look in his eyes and a sense of daring-do beneath that handsome face, like he could easily turn into a rascal or a hood if called upon. (He’s been cast to play a young Han Solo in some new Star Wars offshoot.) 

The plot involves Hughes’s coterie of starlets, impressionable would-be actresses he’s set up in Hollywood bungalows with a salary of $400 a week and a driver at their beck and call, not to mention vague promises of a screen test. The main starlet in question is named Marla Mabrey (played by Lily Collins), a stuffy fundamentalist girl from Virginia, who doesn’t drink. Collins gives an earnest performance, but she never satisfies in this movie about stars, because Marla isn’t really star material. Indeed, Marla displays refreshing honesty about her prospects as a movie star. At one point she says something to the effect of: “I can’t sing that well, I don’t have big bosoms, and I think too much. I know how this business works, and that’s not what they’re looking for.” At least she’s self-aware, and the choices Marla makes leave her with her dignity mostly intact. And, star or no star, Marla does catch the eye of Frank, her driver, but their budding romance is complicated by Hughes’s draconian rules: his girls aren’t supposed to engage in any extracurricular activities with Hughes’s employees. (Their love story is, finally, the most compelling thing about Rules Don't Apply; it's the thing that keeps us watching.)

As Hughes, Beatty gives an impressive performance, but even that is marred by the film’s tonal incongruities. We never know if Beatty’s adoration for Hughes is totally sincere, or tongue-in-cheek. He’s certainly nowhere near the dark, critically poetic level of Orson Welles, depicting the empty, selfish life of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane. And after multiple scenes where the camera closes in on a dimly lit shot of Hughes crying about his daddy, viewers may decide they’ve had enough of Hughes, even if the relics of Hollywood haven’t.

With Candice Bergen, reduced to playing a secretary and given nothing interesting to do or say; Anette Bening as Marla’s paranoid, fanatical mother; Matthew Broderick, as one of Hughes’s yes men, who has an amusing outburst after he’s taken all he can take from his boss; and featuring brief appearances by Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Paul Schneider, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, and Hart Bochner. 

November 20, 2016

"The Edge of Seventeen" will ring true at 17, and 37, and probably 107.

Movies like The Breakfast Club resonate with us when we’re young because they validate our emotions without even a hint of criticism or irony. But when we look back on these films as adults, we may find they no longer speak to us in the same way: the problems that seemed large and insurmountable at 16—distant or demanding parents, alienation from peers, confusion about our identities—may have faded into the background of our lives (or maybe not); and while those problems mattered and do matter, their teeth aren’t as sharp as they used to be, or we’ve grown tougher and more resilient, and gained some valuable perspective, with age. The Edge of Seventeen, a new comedy-drama about teen angst, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, succeeds marvelously at sympathizing with its main character, the unhappy high school girl Nadine (played by Hailee Steinfeld), without pandering to young people. It’s clear from the beginning that while Nadine’s problems are real and difficult, she isn’t the center of the universe, and, by extension, nor are the young viewers who might find in The Edge of Seventeen their own version of The Breakfast Club. Part of Nadine’s emotional journey, in fact, is recognizing that it’s not all about her.

The heart of the story involves the giant rift between Nadine and her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who unexpectedly falls in love with Nadine’s charming, seemingly perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Nadine only has one friend, and all the important high school gods—of good looks, of popularity, of Straight A’s, of athletics—have smiled on Darian, and half-heartedly smirked in Nadine’s direction. She’s got her personality—which is funny and intelligent when she’s not terribly self-conscious, which is almost never—and her humor, which tends to irritate rather than amuse. Nadine is also dealing with the unexpected death of her dad, and the subsequently strained relationship with her mom (Kyra Sedgwick), who relies too much on Darian now that her husband is gone. 

Steinfeld, whom readers probably remember as the fiery, determined young heroine of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010), gives a funny, big, yet controlled performance. Nadine is by turns irritating, gauche, impulsive, and ultimately, lovable. She also cannot control the things that come tumbling out of her mouth. In multiple scenes, Nadine chides herself for her awkward behavior, and screams at herself, “Why do you say these things?” Those of us who, like Nadine, weren’t coasting on our good looks in high school (although Hailee Steinfeld is certainly a lovely young woman), can probably relate to this. We had to work at developing our personalities, and anytime we spoke, it was like we were taking our driving tests without any practice. The art of saying the right thing at the right time takes a lot of work for most of us, and before we perfect it, we’re all falling flat on our faces most of the time. (Now of course, these moments of verbal awkwardness are seared into the permanent record of social media and Youtube.)

Woody Harrelson gives another of the film’s standout performances, playing Nadine’s history teacher Mr. Bruner. During lunchtime, Nadine frequently sits in his classroom and dumps all her problems on him while he tries to savor his 30 minutes of peace. The teacher obviously cares about Nadine, but he often responds to her woe-is-me attitude with smart-ass quips. When she shows him an explicit text message she accidentally sent a boy on whom she has a crush, Bruner reads it aloud and then chides her for using run-on sentences. Their relationship is a prickly one, a kind of love-hate tennis match, and one more unexpected delight in a movie that repeatedly goes against the conventions of teen movies.

Sometimes, I think about what Ally Sheedy says in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies,” and I feel that John Hughes cashed in on a huge lie: that life peaks during adolescence, and that the big emotions we experience in high school have to define us. Our hearts don’t die just because we become more able to deal with problems, and the things we said and did and experienced in high school do not have to define us. Kelly Fremon Craig understands this, and, perhaps that is why she doesn’t reduce the teenagers and parents in her film to good guys and bad guys; nor does she reduce young people to stereotypes. And while I still love all those 80s teen comedies because they’re my nostalgia, I’m not sure I would have loved them if I’d seen them as an adult when they first premiered. The Edge of Seventeen is sharp enough and honest enough to appeal to both a teenager and a grown-up, and while it may mean something different to the 17-year-old girl who falls in love with it and the 37-year-old woman she becomes, I think it will always ring true.

Note: I'd be remiss without citing the performance of Hayden Szeto, who plays Nadine’s friend Erwin, a budding young filmmaker. (The short film he makes is absolutely delightful.) Erwin is just as awkward as Nadine, and the friendship—and romance—that develops between them feels real and lasting.  

November 12, 2016

'Arrival' emerges as a great science fiction movie, and it comes just in time.

Arrival, a new alien-encounter drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, could not have arrived at a better moment. As the nation both writhes in despairing agony and luxuriates in triumphant glee (depending on your politics), Arrival, which unsentimentally champions global unity, offers a balm, a glimmer of light in the morass of darkness and ugliness that has hovered over the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. In the film, Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who lives in Seattle (or what appears to be Seattle). One day she walks into her classroom and begins a lecture on Portuguese, despite a surprisingly low turnout of students, but is interrupted by frantic news reports of an alien invasion: Twelve “spaceships” have landed in various parts of the world, the nearest one somewhere in Montana. 

But these aren’t the spaceships of War of the Worlds or any schlocky 1950s sci-fi classic. They’re enormous, monolithic, Stonehengey shell-like vessels that silently, stoically hover over the ground. As the military might of various empires reacts with knee-jerk panic and paranoia, Louise becomes a pawn in the U.S. government’s attempt to communicate with our visitors. (Forest Whitaker shows up as a grim but sympathetic colonel, trying to appease his superiors but also trying to listen to Louise’s theories about how to communicate with these alien beings.)

But these tall, grey aliens, which stand on four rail-thin legs and have long, tendril-like tentacles on their heads, use a language no one understands, and Louise, who teams up with a scientist named Ian (played by Jeremy Renner), must slowly figure out a few words and teach them some of her own. Meanwhile, various other world powers scramble to do the same, and become increasingly afraid when they do begin to understand the language of these other-worldly creatures.

Arrival opens with a  gloomy shot of Louise’s living room, perhaps at dusk, because we see two wine glasses and a half-empty bottle on a little table in the corner. Her house overlooks what appears to be the Puget Sound, and the shot is remarkably silent, until the music—an elegy of sustained strings—ushers in feelings of sadness we do not yet understand. 

The movie ends in that room too, yet now the image swells with meaning because of what’s happened in between. And everything that happens in Arrival feels right, nearly flawless, from the images of the humans making contact, to the global tension that builds as widespread fear takes hold. Arrival emerges as a great science fiction movie: a big, smart, mass appeal kind of film that succeeds marvelously as a genre piece, as a meditation on life and death and time and the nature of language, and as a movie that plays with time in surprising ways. 

The director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and the scenarist, Eric Heisserer, don’t use time manipulation as a gimmick. Rather, they question the nature of time and how we understand it, without getting bogged down in overcomplicated language. Arrival is more poetry than theory. The movie builds toward something powerful, inevitable, and shattering: that’s the kind of grand emotion, which comes from the careful accumulation of smaller, subtler emotions, that we should expect from and delight in particularly from major films. 

Perhaps Arrival will be too slow-moving and thoughtful for some who might be expecting a more action-packed movie. But Arrival isn’t Independence Day. This is not a movie about malicious creatures from outer space: it’s a movie about the malicious pervasiveness of bad information, and how assumptions and breakdowns in communication not only paralyze us, but pit us against one another, often with grave consequences. This is The Day the Earth Stood Still for the 21st century, but it’s also Solaris (1972), Tarkovsky’s pensive, somnambulant masterpiece about space and time and death. 

Like the scientist Kris in Solaris, who has lost his wife but keeps seeing her on the spacecraft, Louise is haunted by tragedy too: the death of her daughter. We see mother and daughter in flashback, shards of a happier life that we know is doomed: them playing in the backyard, wading in a pond, the little girl doing her homework, the little girl becoming a teenager and wondering about why her parents split, the teenager receiving a shattering diagnosis, and then, the agony of the hospital bed, and Louise bending over her daughter’s lifeless body in despair. 

Amy Adams immediately draws us in as someone who’s suffered the kind of loss you don’t really get over. And unlike the Sandra Bullock-vehicle Gravity, which was a sumptuous but indulgently sappy entertainment, Arrival doesn’t withhold this dead-child information to be used against us later. Louise’s loss is known to us virtually from the start, and while it certainly shapes her character, it is not a plot device on which the emotional beats of the movie hang. Nevertheless, as Louise throws herself into her daunting linguistic project, the recollections of her child keep breaking through, sometimes in dreams that are increasingly affected by her interactions with the aliens, whom Ian has nicknamed Abbot and Costello. 

Some science fiction movies grasp for greatness and, against all odds, become masterpieces (like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is simultaneously pretentious and brilliant). Others fail, like Interstellar, which is an expertly made but overblown film, one that tries very, very hard. When we can feel the effort, and when the results are so earnest yet incomprehensible, our reaction (or mine at least) is to pull away. Even at its most ponderous moments, a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind reaches into us and pulls us out of ourselves. 

That’s the work that great science fiction can do, and Arrival indeed makes that kind of personal contact with its viewers. We are breathlessly pulled into the story; we delight in the ways this movie surprises us; we feel the emotions as palpably as if the stories were our own. And in the darkened theater, this story belongs to us.