Aliens land on Earth, and a linguist must determine how to communicate with them.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forrest Whittaker
Review by Jon Kissel
Steven Soderbergh's Contagion remains one of my favorite films of the 21st century because it so perfectly mixes the rational and the emotional. In its well-researched and coherent vision of what a deadly pandemic might look like, it perfectly balances the what-if exercises of the head with the human drama of the heart. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival attempts to replicate that finely-tuned mixture, as applied to an alien encounter. It eschews Soderbergh's global approach for a localized one in which a team of US scientists tries to establish contact with the visitors. The events of Arrival feel ripped from the pages of a history book, and that verisimilitude should make it a can't miss for this lover of competence-porn in many of his favorite films. However, Arrival’s strength towards the head is mucked up when it tries to go for the heart. Villeneuve frequently has this problem, where a provocative premise is fouled when he fails to expand it from the specific to the universal. Of his English-speaking works, this film contains his baldest pitch towards emotionality, but like Prisoners and Sicario, there's a chill in spite of the considerable filmmaking powers on display.
Hayao Miyazaki released his ultimate homage to the wonder of childhood in 1988 with My Neighbor Totoro, but he wasn’t finished dissecting the first phases of life. A year later, his follow-up Kiki’s Delivery Service provides a melancholic look at adolescence, smuggled in amongst an adventure story about a witch establishing herself in a new city. It’s not surprising that Miyazaki and his fellow artists at Studio Ghibli would add depth to their films, but it is surprising in this particular package, an underappreciated gem compared to the recognition of Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Kiki’s Delivery Service is another of Miyazaki’s low-stakes stories without an antagonist, but when a studio makes some of the best hang-out movies in cinematic history, who needs major conflicts?
In Spirited Away, the most critically acclaimed film in Hiyao Miyazaki’s extensive and oft-praised career, the most powerful and memorable image isn’t of wonders like a multi-armed spiderman operating a bellows or a dragon fleeing from a swarm of paper birds. These, and many others, fill Spirited Away, but an early shot wins out. It’s simply a broad-shouldered man, shot from a low angle, walking confidently forward. Through the eyes of pre-teen protagonist Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragai), daughter to the man, the whole world is captured in her gaze as she watches her father lead her into an unknown future. Her parents can lead her to the enchanted spa she finds herself stuck in, but she has to be the one to get out of it. That shot is so self-evidently loving, that it is enough to want Chihiro to escape a truly incredible place, one of cinema’s great fantasy locations. It’s the fulcrum on which the film is balanced, and it powers Miyazaki’s masterpiece as surely as that aforementioned spiderman powers the spa.
The sixth film by animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki provides the master Japanese director with a vehicle to explore one of the things he seems to love the most. For Miyazaki, flight is a repeated motif, from the gliders in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to the air force in Howl’s Moving Castle. His most mature, non-fantasy films, Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises, are about pilots and aeronautical engineers,, though at this stage of his career, some fantasy is still required. Porco Rosso turns the old idiom on its head, putting a pig in a plane and making it seem like the most natural thing in the world. As his titular pilot flits around the Adriatic in Depression-era fascist Italy, the meticulous hand-drawn animation that Studio Ghibli is renowned for boosts a story that, disappointingly, is the thinnest of Miyazaki’s career. In using his medium to make a stock mid-century romance/adventure, he only succeeds in gussying up a boring genre.
Enacted in WWI nationalistic fervor, the Espionage Act is a blunt tool that the government can break out whenever it wants to bring the hammer down on leakers, including those who expose crimes by the US government at home and abroad. In the War on Terror era, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are only the most well-known conscientious leakers. Amongst many others, Daniel Hale, descendant of Revolutionary icon Nathan Hale, released documents about the drone program, John Kiriakou disclosed information about torture, and Terry Albury exposed the surveillance and infiltration of American Muslim communities. These men weren’t trying to sell out the government to foreign adversaries, but inform the American public of crimes done in their names and felt there was no alternative way to do so that precluded them serving jail time. Reality Winner is an interesting addition to this clan of whistleblowers, as what she gave to the press was malfeasance from a foreign government towards the same government that tapped Angela Merkel’s personal phone. It’s harder to feel righteously indignant about her actions, understandable as they might be. Who wouldn’t find it difficult to be in a position to shut up Sean Hannity and do nothing? Tina Satter’s Reality, adapted from a play that is itself adapted from the FBI transcript of Winner’s initial interrogation, doesn’t portray Winner in the way Oliver Stone portrayed Snowden. She’s not wracked by guilt over what her bosses are doing, but is a little too trusting and a little naïve and tired of hearing bloviating conservative voices. Reality is a character study and a smaller film befitting Winner’s more impulsive actions, but the insignificance of her actions doesn’t stop her from looking like a nail to the government’s hammer.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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