Arrival

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Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

I Origins

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Release: Friday, July 18, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I would like to conduct some research and find out the origins of the eye-roll. I wonder who the first person to do it was, and how such a subtle gesture came to signify “Oh my god, I don’t believe this for a second.”

A science-based drama whose fictional elements are of a highly serendipitous nature, I Origins requires a radically high level of suspension of disbelief. And even if you are willing to put that effort in there’s a good chance you won’t be rewarded for your patience and — pardon the expression — good faith, as the story often times ditches emotional attachment in favor of trying to impress with biology jargon and fancy rhetoric.

The director of the curious sci-fi fantasy Another Earth ushers into cinemas another potentially profound conversation starter — “hey, did you know that eyes really are the windows to the soul? No, I’m not kidding. You should check out this movie called. . .” — but unfortunately you’d be left with just one “good” opening line and not much to back it up. If you dared venturing any further with what you know of the movie, you’d be sitting there trying to explain to your date, who now shifts pretty uncomfortably in their seat, why particular iris patterns probably means Charles Darwin was onto something.

In other words, all this profound shit can be romantic, but to a point.

If you somehow haven’t yet rolled your eyes in response to this overblown set-up to my review, then I’ve achieved something perhaps just as miraculous as the finding of a little girl in India, a special individual who just happens to possess the exact eyes Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) has been on the hunt for for years. He and his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling) have been working on the theory that the complexity of the human eye is a major indicator of evolution as opposed to intelligent design being the work of a superior being.

To counter all the cold, calculating world of science, Cahill then presents a French woman named Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) whom Ian happens upon at a party one cold evening. An enigma whose views on God and the afterlife are initially as wrapped in mystery as her skin is by layers of winter clothing, Sofi ultimately embodies that part of us which is concerned with a higher power. When the two fall into a deep and passionate love, flavors of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet are hinted at as I Origins quickly goes off on a romantic tangent. Oddly enough, this won’t be the last time a comparison to modern fairytales can be easily made, though it might be the last positive one.

Sofi is a role with dual purposes. While serving as a refreshingly down-to-Earth religious individual, she’s also the emotional core to the film. That’s an achievement both accidental and through the direction of a man with big ideas. By design, Sofi’s a tragic character, our emotional attachment to whom we’ll pay dearly for roughly an hour into the affair. It’s purely through less assured writing we feel only something for her and barely register any empathy for any others. (Well, barring one particular event.) Neither Karen nor Ian have been blessed with much personality. Then again, the pair spend most of their waking hours in a lab under fluorescent lighting.

But really, these are minor issues when compared. What is a bigger deal is the fact that I Origins exudes confidence when it really shouldn’t. The smoke and mirrors tactic gets old in a hurry once we realize the stack of happenstance situations are merely byproducts of a clumsy, seemingly rushed script and not more evidence of God moving in mysterious ways.

The fact that Ian Gray encounters the child he needs to, where he needs to; his crazy billboard strategy — which is his desperate attempt to lure ‘the eyes’ to a central location to force this search to have even an ounce of realism — and the fact it even works at all, are all symptoms of a script that is jumping to conclusions too fast. We’re not sure if these moments are incidental, or if they have something to do with the (dis)connect between religion and science.

By the time the film arrives in India it’s too much set-up and not enough proof. There is something to be said for failed experiments. But what of the positive things are there to say? Unfortunately this time, there aren’t that many.

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2-5Recommendation: If you’re fancying something on the intriguing side, you could do much much worse than this semi-spiritual, semi-scientific approach to an age-old debate. Very chicken-and-the-egg type of argument that unfortunately loses its footing as it plods onward. Viewers who have seen Another Earth might be more attracted to the director’s sense of style and his dreamy visuals but anyone else might find themselves underwhelmed. Especially for those looking for a believably thought-provoking discussion.

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “What would you do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs?”

All content originally published by Digital Shortbread and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Particle Fever

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Release: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Time to bust out those nerdy glasses, kids, because today we’re going back to school to talk a lot about the Large Hadron Collider, henceforth referred to as the LHC! (YAY!) Some of you may be looking for a quick exit already. That’s okay, I’m pretty sure there’s a support group for people who don’t mind living in ignorance, right down the hall. Should be on your left, you can’t miss it.

For everyone else with an open mind, let’s jump right into a quick analysis of this highly intriguing documentary, Particle Fever.

Everyone recalls the construction (or at least the completion thereof) of the world’s largest particle accelerator, located near Geneva, Switzerland. Harbored deep within a subterranean, concrete-reinforced tunnel at the Franco-Swiss border, the LHC today looms among the world’s largest and most complex machines ever built by human hands. One lap around this puppy is a 17-mile jog. ‘Ambitious’ is a term that doesn’t even begin to describe the size of both the device itself and the project requiring its use. Design, construction and operation of the LHC involved the decade-long (1998-2008) efforts of approximately 10,000 scientists and engineers, and due to it’s immense implications, far more eyes than those of the scientific community were turning towards this little corner of the globe.

When it comes to explaining just what the LHC is supposed to do, it might be easier to start explaining exactly what the thing isn’t supposed to do. Understandably, with an event of this magnitude, great speculation surrounded the whole enterprise. . .almost to the point where the LHC became a mythological construct. The ultimate plaything.

At the time of the machine’s first day of operation — in the scientific world, September 10, 2008 was known as the day of ‘First Beam’ — newspaper headlines the world over announced that we were officially one step closer to better understanding conditions present at the time of the supposed ‘Big Bang,’ a singular event that is thought to have spawned everything that has ever been. While the sensational claim isn’t entirely false, it is misleading, if only because general interest news articles tend not to delve particularly deep into the details of the genius of this machine and of the people who designed it.

Avoiding going into excessive detail is a tactic that Mark Levinson uses to great effect in his behind-the-scenes peek at some of the individuals involved in this massive project. Levinson likes to keep things simple, and though the documentary’s subject matter is anything but, he succeeds in creating a film that doesn’t require a deep understanding of particle physics for viewers to keep up with the discussion. Rather, interviews with a variety of scientists from all over the world offer up a kind of collage of dialogue that viewers can sift through and try to identify from their own point of view. None of these scientists condescend, nor do they ever break from stereotype, either. Sure, a dance party themed out as a tribute to the collider is a bit dorky, but what else should we have expected here?

Particle Fever catalogs major events on a timeline that’s in its infancy. Beginning with the days leading up to the aforementioned ‘First Beam,’ a day where only a single particle was sent through the circuit as a way to test the very most basic functional aspects, the film moves on to cover many triumphs and setbacks, including the infamous breakdown that occurred a mere week-and-a-half after the first test — a day that gave the world media and the skeptics additional fuel in their arguments against the LHC’s being a tool for the betterment of mankind. When the LHC proved almost too powerful for its own good on that fateful day, those doubting whether science was really trying to push knowledge forward (as opposed to trying to kill everyone on earth by accidentally creating a black hole in the middle of the planet — remember that little laugh?) came flooding out of the woodwork. It was, for all intents and purposes, a day of science fiction for the brainiacs gathered in Geneva.

However, despite setbacks, the conversation constantly shifts to excitedly discussing more and increasingly greater successes. What really lies at the heart of this experiment, as you may or may not recall, is a little theoretical particle called the Higgs boson. So, if the truth is to be told to the public eventually, the question becomes “what are we missing from the big picture?” rather than merely “what is the big picture?” Fortunately, and thanks to the brilliant design of the LHC, the particle is no longer theoretical. The Higgs particle is viewed as the long-missing piece of a puzzle that the mainstream media were quick to label the ‘God particle,’ based on the almost miraculous nature of its discovery. Of course, scientists pooh-pooh the term, as its a little too sensational.

In July of 2012 a convention was held to officially announce that the Higgs particle indeed existed, thanks to the efforts of one seriously expensive piece of equipment. By way of this groundbreaking presentation, the global scientific community were also honoring and congratulating the two men who were credited for the Higgs’ initial discovery, Dr. Peter Higgs and Belgian physicist François Englert. The pair’s efforts would receive their ultimate affirmation with their sharing of the 2013 Nobel Prize.

The documentary is a strong testimony to the power of the human mind, as it almost exclusively revolves around the lives of a few scientists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (otherwise known as CERN) who dedicate themselves entirely to ensure the LHC not only works but helps provide new answers to age-old questions. The gamble is an absolutely crazy one, since the possibility of the LHC revealing no new information would be largely viewed as a catastrophic step backward for science. I would reveal more myself, but what’s left unaddressed here will only be more powerful when it’s revealed for you on the big screen. I guess what I am saying is. . .class dismissed boys and girls!

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3-5Recommendation: Insightful, Particle Fever may seem a pretty niched topic for a film but it holds information of a very general appeal. The discussion ongoing is very profound and important to consider at least on some level for everyone at some point. Hard to imagine most viewers walking around everyday with all of this information constantly crowding their thoughts, but if that’s the case, then this film should be even more fascinating.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “This could be nothing, other than understanding everything. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.pbs.org