Movie Review—‘Arrival’

[Arrival Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Arrival’ (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Drama | Mystery | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Paramount Pictures
PG-13
Log Line: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It’s not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing ‘Arrival’ the first time the other night, I couldn’t wait to put it on again. I’ve always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Julie & Julia.’ She’s one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won’t recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you arrive at the end, you can see.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise’s eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren’t difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can’t fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she’s trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people’s paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens’ purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, ‘Arrival’ could have turned into ‘Independence Day.’ Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.

You can find this review at IMDb. Now, check out this featurette.

More Reviews
Did you enjoy this review? Check out my other movie reviews here.

Movie Review—‘The Keeper of Lost Causes’

[The Keeper of Lost Causes Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

The Keeper of Lost Causes’ (2013)
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard
Writers: Jussi Adler-Olsen (novel), Nikolaj Arcel
Stars: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Per Scheel Krüger, Troels Lyby
Crime | Mystery | Thriller
Denmark-Germany-Sweden
Not Rated
Log Line: Chief detective Carl Mørck and his assistant Assad become involved in a five-year-old case concerning the mystery of politician Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance—a journey that takes them deep into the undercurrent of abuse and malice that lurks beneath the polished surface of Scandinavia.

Okay, so I’m late to the game. I had no idea Nordic Noir was a thing. I’ve been enjoying dark Scandinavian movies like the Millenium Trilogy (‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ etc.) for years and am thrilled someone decided to actually categorize them. Yeah, thrilled. Anyway, I caught another one on Netflix the other night—a Danish film with what is probably the worst title ever—‘The Keeper of Lost Causes.’ I don’t know, maybe it sounds better in Danish.

Don’t let the crappy title fool you, though. This is an outstanding film. And like a Nordic winter, it’s cold and spare, with a protagonist who is as dysfunctional and people-averse as they come. I’m not prepared to reveal any spoilers here. Let me just say that, as police procedurals go, this one really stands out. The main character, Carl, is himself dark and unapproachable. But in the best tradition of antiheroes, he is driven to seek out Truth—no matter what that may mean for his languishing career as a homicide detective.

This film features the usual cast of Scandinavian loonies—especially the blonde and creepy Lasse—with a wonderfully empathetic performance by Carl’s sidekick, Assad who, when asked why he isn’t following orders, claims his Danish isn’t that good. Nice touch!

I can highly recommend this film. Though there’s little on-screen violence, it’s creepy as hell as sucks you in like a Scottish peat bog. And here’s the best part: Netflix also has the two ‘Department Q’ sequels, ‘The Absent One’ and ‘A Conspiracy of Faith,’ both which I plan to catch very soon.

‘The Conjuring 2’—Hell on Parade

[The Conjuring 2 Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

The Conjuring 2’ (2016)
Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by Cary Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, David Johnson
Horror
Stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe
Warner Bros.
Rated R
Log Line: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

For years, I’ve been telling people that the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen is ‘The Exorcist.’ Well, all that changed after watching ‘The Conjuring 2.’ All I can say is, Wow! James Wan, who I’ve been following since his 2004 feature ‘Saw,’ has shown amazing growth as a purveyor of the demonic. And his understanding of the intrinsic nature of evil from a Catholic perspective rivals that of William Peter Blatty, who I have greatly admired since reading his novel The Exorcist, upon which the movie was based.

Demons Are Real
Now, I enjoyed ‘The Conjuring’ which, like the sequel, is based on a paranormal case by real-life investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. After seeing that movie, I began researching the Warrens and learned about the case in England, where the story of ‘The Conjuring 2’ takes place. The fact that these are actual cases and involve demonic possession both intrigues and horrifies me. As a Catholic, I believe in Hell. And I believe that demons like the one featured in ‘The Conjuring 2’ have walked the earth long before man. Perhaps this is why, for me, the film is so frightening.

Flipping around the dial the other day, I happened across the ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ reboot from 2010. Though well made, it wasn’t scary. I know Freddie Kreuger is a fantasy character and, despite the sharpness of his homemade claws, he’s just another homicidal killer. And I feel that way about most horror movies involving monsters. ‘The Babadook’ is a great example. Yes, he’s paper-thin and creepy. But that’s about it. I was more moved by the exasperated, sleep-deprived Amelia and her lonely, desperate attempts at creating a normal life for her troubled son, Samuel. Conversely, when the demon in ‘The Conjuring 2’ takes on the form of The Crooked Man, I ended up halfway out of my seat—which is a tribute to the genius of James Wan.

Becoming a Believer
Like most folks, I believe horror movies do well because people like to be scared. It’s a rush similar to riding a roller coaster. And when it’s over, you’re relieved. But every once in a while a film comes along that disturbs the viewer to the core, its aftereffect lingering for days. ‘The Conjuring 2’ is just such a movie. And an estimated $40M in box office receipts at the time of this writing—this kind of story sells.

Now, I’m not saying that a film like this will turn an atheist into a believer. But it might make those who are on the fence about God, angels and demons think twice before picking up the planchette from that Ouija board collecting dust in the corner with those other games. My advice—just say no.