Variety highlights April’s picks

The films this month are two Oscar winners, a Sundance independent film, a variation on the western formula, and the recreated version of a news event.

Arrival

Although no conclusive evidence exists, so far, that the earth has been visited by aliens, the effects of such encounters have been favorite subjects for books, movies, and even radio shows. From the novels of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne through early silent films, Orson Welles’ panic-inducing broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” the glut of invasion and monster films in the paranoid ’50s, and more recent television shows and movies, the earth has been invaded multiple times, usually by violent, bestial creatures who want to plunder the planet’s resources and slaughter its inhabitants. Occasionally, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the aliens bring a warning or offer a more positive approach. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve combines these two themes as the scientists (and some of the U.S. military) try to understand the aliens while the armed forces of China, Russia, and some of the United States, gear up for war. The film is based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning 1998 short story, “The Story of Your Life,” and his original title has more to do with the film than might at first be obvious.

Villeneuve’s new film, Arrival, explores what happens when extraterrestrial space ships appear at 12 locations scattered around the world, and the earth’s military and scientific community try to understand what they are facing.

The main character in Arrival is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a single female linguist who has helped the military decipher some Farsi documents in the past. When the huge ships appear, Banks is asked to attempt communication with the enormous ovoid floating 12 feet above the ground in Montana. (References to previous science fiction films scattered throughout Arrival imply that the similarity of the ovoids to the black blocks of 2001 is not coincidental.) Early shots of Banks are intercut with shots of a daughter who dies as a teenager, establishing some sort of back-story for her.

Every 12 hours the aliens permit people to enter their spaceship, and Banks, together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a group of guards, find themselves in a zero-gravity cylinder with a transparent wall at one end. Behind this wall are the heptapods, tentacled creatures whose fog-enshrouded appearances tap into primitive human fears.

The sounds they emit are like underwater rumbling and screeching or like whale songs. How can Banks begin to understand why the aliens are there or what they want? When the creatures approach the opposite side of the wall, they extend a long digit (like E. T. on a bad day) and ink shoots from it, making a circle, with marks around the edge, that remains hanging suspended in the fog. Gradually, Banks deciphers that the heptapods communicate not through sound but through the inky circles, each sign being a word or a concept. But how long will it take her to crack the code of this language? Time is critical because the Russian and Chinese military want to attack and strike a decisive blow before the aliens start the attack which the military takes as a given. Further complicating matters is that Banks manages to translate a couple of words, and one of them is “weapon.” But finally, she deciphers enough of the circles to realize why the aliens have arrived, what they want, and what they are offering, a breakthrough which enables her to convince the Chinese general to abandon his attack mode.

The film turns on the concept of how our language affects the way we see the world, and in this case, how we see time. After Banks understands this, it changes her view of the aliens. Further, once the audience understands this concept, it has to loop back to the very beginning of the film and reinterpret what we thought we knew and understood. Arrival requires a little more intellectual effort than the average shoot-the-aliens sci-fi extravaganza, but it’s well worth the effort.

Amy Adams has collected five Oscar nominations so far, and with the help of Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, she picks this film up and walks off with it, giving one of her best, most subtle performances. It’s rare for this kind of science fiction film to explore realistically what might happen if aliens did arrive, but Arrival covers the bases seamlessly. Villeneuve is set to direct Bladerunner 2049, and Arrival makes that prospect very exciting. Arrival was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Sound Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Film Editing, and Sound Mixing; it won for Best Sound Editing.

Manchester by the Sea

Describing Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is complicated; it’s easy to say too much because it’s a big, complex film, with secrets that it reveals at its own pace, but it’s also important to try to convey the emotional power and psychological honesty of this film. Lonergan, a playwright, is a relatively new director, and while his first film, You Can Count on Me, was highly regarded, his second, Margaret, was bogged down for years in legal squabbles before finally being released in a truncated and compromised version. Manchester demonstrates that Lonergan knows exactly what he is doing and more than fulfills the promise of these earlier films.

The opening scenes show Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) working as a janitor in an apartment complex in Quincy, a suburb of Boston; he shovels snow, paints walls, plunges toilets, fixes leaky faucets, and refuses to engage with the tenants. Sullen and so closed-in that he scarcely speaks, he goes to a bar after work most nights, drinks too much, and gets in fights before staggering home to his dismal basement apartment.

Cut in are flashbacks showing Lee on a fishing boat with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his nephew, where he jokes and rough-houses like a normal young man. In other scenes he is shown with a wife and two small daughters whom he cuddles. Clearly something has happened between that time and the present. While shoveling snow one day, Lee gets a call that his brother, who suffers from congenital heart problems, is in the ICU in a Manchester hospital, and Lee packs his car and drives north. By the time he arrives, his brother has died, and he must break the news to his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now 16. The dialogue here and throughout the film strikes just the right note of authenticity without being trite, as Lee tries to explain to the boy what to expect when they visit the morgue: “He just looks like he’s dead. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping or anything. He doesn’t look gross, either.”

Because Lee is the only adult left to handle it, the next scenes deal with the mundane process of details that are routinely necessary after a death—signing papers, arranging funeral services and coping with the well-wishers. The ground is too frozen for burial, and Patrick is upset that his father’s body will have to be stored until the spring thaw. When his brother’s will is read in a few days, Lee is horrified to find he has been appointed Patrick’s guardian, but he is unable to convince the lawyer that it was a mistake. “I was just backup,” he argues. But no one else is available since Patrick’s mother fled the scene after her husband’s first heart attack. Lee is now left with two equally unpalatable options: he can move Patrick to Boston to live with him or he can move back to Manchester and face his past there. Patrick is a sociable high school student who is on the hockey team, plays in an awful basement rock band, and juggles two girlfriends who do not know about each other; he does not want to leave. But something hovers over Lee in Manchester; when he goes to pick up his nephew, one of the hockey coaches nods and says to the other, “He’s that Lee Chandler.” Finally, at about the halfway point in the film, a flashback to a party at Lee’s house shows the overwhelmingly awful thing that happened to crush Lee into the man that he now is.

The rest of the film follows Patrick and Lee as they try to solve their problem, and eventually they do, but don’t expect this to be one of those films where two people, thrown together by accident, bring out the best in each other and emerge stronger for it. In Lonergan’s view, life doesn’t work that way. Some things you may never get over. The rest of the film has several memorable scenes as people cope with their reshaped lives, including a brief one between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) that is stunning, as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does. There’s also an interesting scene between Patrick and his mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), who has now remarried and is leading a very proper life.

Despite all the death and depression, the film has several humorous scenes and witty dialogue. Patrick persuades Lee to talk to a girlfriend’s mother to distract her while he’s upstairs hopping into bed with the daughter, but Lee is so morose that the mother is quickly bored.

The acting is extraordinary throughout, and Affleck deserves his Oscar; Williams and Hedges also received supporting nominations. Manchester by the Sea is not a film to see to brighten up the day; it’s about loss, suffering, guilt, penance, and even some macabre humor over how we deal with the business of dying. But it’s one of the most emotionally powerful films of the year and not to be missed. Manchester by the Sea was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Leading Actor (Affleck), Supporting Actress (Williams), Supporting Actor (Hedges), and Original Screenplay; it won for Best Leading Actor and Original Screenplay.

Other People

Other People is based on a year in the life of Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, who wrote and directed this Sundance film. With his mother dying of cancer, his writing career on hold, and his recent break-up with his New York boyfriend, 29-year-old gay comedy writer David (Jesse Plemons) returns home to Sacramento to lick his wounds and to help his mother through the last year of her life. Things that he thought always happened to “other people” are now happening to him.

The film opens with his mother’s death and then flashes back a year to David’s arrival from New York. The mixture of sadness, comedy and realism is apparent in this opening scene in which the family weeps at the deceased’s bedside until a phone call interrupts and then kicks over to the answering machine. A friend is leaving a message for the person who just died.

The film follows a predictable path through this last year that David spends with his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon), his homophobic father Norman (Bradley Whitfield), and his two sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty). David connects with his mother, but his father, even after 10 years, refuses to accept David’s being gay and declines to enter the apartment that he shares with a boyfriend. Although the film drags in places, as most first films do, it has some amusing and effective episodes. J. J. Totah plays a precocious 14-year-old who performs a completely inappropriate drag routine in a room of conservative adults, where it is cringe-inducing but funny. Molly Shannon’s scene, when she meets the teacher who will replace her after she dies, seems painfully real. Not all of the scenes work, but most have a kind of authenticity that lifts them above the level of the typical film about dying, and some of them are quite funny. It’s a solid independent film with “Sundance” written all over it.

In a Valley of Violence

This western is a variant on the “dangerous drifter” theme used by everyone from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo through George Stevens’ Shane to Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood films. It possesses all the icons: the decaying, corrupt town of Denton; evil bullies controlling the law; a beating that the hero endures; his return for vengeance; and the final shootout. Paul (Ethan Hawk) is the loner trying to get to Mexico but forced to detour through Denton. Gilly (James Ransone) is the over-the-top bully who, together with his sheriff father (John Travolta), runs the town. Throw in two sisters who are on opposite sides in this conflict (Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan), and the battle lines are drawn after Gilly kills Paul’s dog. The acting is solid, especially Travolta’s.

While honoring the stock Western characters and situations, director Ti West sneaks in some humor, as in the screaming fights between the sisters, or Travolta’s repeated warning to his son, “I said not to do that!”

In a Valley of Violence is not a great western but it has a lot of fun playing with the western’s traditional tropes, and that quality, together with the acting, raises it above the average film.

Sully

Most people know the essentials of how, after birds were sucked into the engines, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York City, thereby saving 155 people, including himself. In this filmed version Clint Eastwood captures the plane’s landing on the water, bringing a vivid reality to the news stories, and to the aftermath in which passengers evacuate the plane to huddle on the wings until rescued.

Tom Hanks, in his traditional “everyman” role, brings the pilot to life, showing him to be a seasoned veteran who felt he was simply being the professional that he was trained to be. The most surprising part of the film and, other than the landing, the most suspenseful part is the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation in which they try to demonstrate that Sully’s plane had enough power to return to LaGuardia or to land at nearby Teterboro Airport. Matching multiple computer simulations against the recorded pilot’s comments raises questions that had plagued Sully himself. But even though we know most of the answers, the film keeps our interest and rounds out the details of a very unusual airline situation. Sully was nominated for an Oscar for Sound Editing.

— Leonard G. Heldreth

Editor’s note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org

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