Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

About two decades ago, Contact ticked me off when Jodie Foster supposedly traveled to some distant place in the universe—merely to have a chat with her dead dad. It was a trite storytelling letdown.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival also approaches the subjects of aliens, parentage and everlasting love, but it’s a much, much better movie.

Villeneuve is emerging as one of the best visual and pacing directors in the medium today. Arrival follows Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the vastly underrated Enemy (2013) as another movie of definitive vision, style and grace. No doubt about it: This man knows how to make a movie.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics teacher crippled by visions of a daughter who died of a rare illness. She lives a life of seclusion; the only things she really does are teach her class and mope around her lakefront home. (Man, that must be one abnormally high-paying teacher’s gig.) During class, a bunch of phones go off; a student instructs her to turn on the TV; and—bam, that’s how she discovers the planet is seemingly getting visited by an alien force.

Strange giant pods have parked themselves all over the planet, and nobody knows the intent. A solemn military man (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office and informs her that the world needs her. She has a sense of purpose again.

It isn’t long before she’s inside an alien ship trying to talk to the “Heptapods,” large elephant-like aliens with seven legs. She’s joined by a science officer played by a surprisingly low-key Jeremy Renner.

The aliens communicate visually with symbols that look like coffee-ring stains. They seem to say a few words that get parts of the world a little worried—and it looks like Earth might find itself at war. It’s up to Louise to decipher the code-like language and find out if the Heptapods want to harvest us, War of the Worlds-style, or give us a helping hand.

Adams could find herself in the Oscar race for this one. This is one of the year’s best performances thus far. (She’ll appear in another highly touted film, Nocturnal Animals, this month.) Louise doesn’t have many happy moments in this film, and other actresses could’ve made her a drag, but Adams makes her shine, even when she’s in despair. It’s some of Adams’ very best work.

Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is profound in a way similar to Interstellar: This is another science-fiction film taking a theme like universal love and making that aspect just as interesting as the gadgets and alien creatures. The movie, while challenging on a scientific level, definitely scores major emotional points.

The film was budgeted around $50 million, so it’s not a special-effects extravaganza. The scenes with the aliens are engrossing, but there’s nothing whiz-bang about them. Dare I say: The movie is rather laid back. I must give high props to cinematographer Bradford Young for shooting a movie that never seems anything short of very real. Those visuals are assisted by often Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson’s excellent score.

The movie is drawing comparisons to films like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, if you are looking for some sort of action pic, you will not find that with Arrival. It’s a movie that gives itself time to breathe, and while it does have a few action scenes, it is, for the most part, intellectual fare.

Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the Ridley Scott classic and another sci-fi effort. Based on his work with Arrival, I’m really looking forward to the Blade Runner sequel.

Arrival is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who deals with kidnappings, inadvertently finds herself in the middle of a Mexican drug-cartel war after being enlisted by a shifty government type (Josh Brolin).

After she finds a houseful of dead bodies, Brolin’s character shows up, has a little meeting, recruits Kate and puts her on a private jet with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious man who seems to be some sort of consultant. After being told she is going to Texas, she winds up in Juarez, Mexico, and eventually needs to fight for her life in a border gun battle.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) keeps things intense, especially when Del Toro is on the screen. The real reason for his character’s presence, revealed late in the film, is a real kicker. Brolin is great as the crusty agent who wears sandals to meetings and sleeps on planes.

In the end, this is Blunt’s movie, and she is dynamite as Kate. It’s another action-intensive role for the versatile actress (she was great in Edge of Tomorrow)—and she’s an early contender for a Best Actress Oscar.

Sicario is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Enemy features an awesome performance from a great actor playing somebody who might be a little sick in the head.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a college-history professor who reeks of insecurity and has a guilty vibe about him. He has a beautiful girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) with whom he seems to be having a few sexual problems. He’s having bad dreams in which the arachnids show up, and he seems depressed most of his waking hours.

When Adam watches a movie in an effort to cheer up, he spies what appears to be himself playing a bellboy. Weird. A little research reveals that the bellboy is Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal), a bit-part actor who is Adam’s doppelganger.

Anthony is married to Helen (Sarah Gadon), and while full details aren’t given, it seems as if Anthony has been unfaithful in the past. Unlike the confused and sad Adam, Anthony is very regimental and bold.

Denis Villeneuve’s film is far superior to Prisoners (in which Gyllenhaal co-starred), a film that started strong and spun out of control. Enemy remains morally and thematically twisted throughout.

While the DVD isn’t due until June for this one, you can download it via iTunes, and get a making-of documentary along with it. Oddly enough, even though it is available for purchase on and iTunes as a download, no Blu-ray release has been set yet—only DVD. This is just another sign of the changing landscape in home video releases.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Prisoners, the new kidnapping thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is one of those movies that is impressive while being watched—but it loses some of its power upon reflection.

By the time I got to my car after the screening, my head started going “Wait a minute … that part didn’t make much sense, now did it?”

I enjoyed the film on many levels. It’s 2 1/2 hours long, and the time went by fairly quickly. The two leads are at the top of their games, and you just can’t go wrong with the visuals when Roger Deakins is working the camera.

But somewhere around the third act, the kidnapping-mystery element starts going a little haywire. Director Denis Villeneuve and his writer, Aaron Guzikowski, are so determined to trip viewers up that the movie traipses over to the ridiculous side. This doesn’t derail the film, but it downgrades it a bit.

Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace, (Maria Bello), are having a Thanksgiving get-together with friends Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when both of the couples’ daughters go missing. Keller’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) saw a messed-up looking RV near the house earlier in the day, and he reports it.

Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) is called away from his Thanksgiving dinner at a greasy spoon when the RV is spotted. They arrest Alex Jones (a freaky Paul Dano), a man with an IQ of a 10-year-old, on suspicion of kidnapping.

Loki does his best to get info out of Alex, to no avail. The suspect is released due to a lack of evidence—and Keller goes ballistic. He takes matters into his own hands, resulting in Keller kidnapping Alex—and leading to some rather harsh torture scenes. Dano spends much of the film under heavy gore makeup.

Up until this point, Prisoners is a movie that focuses on the dilemma of what lengths a parent would go to in order to find a child. Keller brings Franklin to the torture chamber, and the two put Alex through hell. The victim keeps dropping possible hints, with no real solid info—so the torture amplifies. It’s brutal, and credit goes to all three actors for convincingly conveying the humiliation, fear, regret and sadism that must go with such a situation.

Det. Loki is in what sometimes feels like another movie; he’s trying to solve the kidnapping while stumbling upon other crimes along the way. Around the time he was uncovering bloody storage bins full of snakes, the movie started losing a bit of its cohesiveness. Still, Gyllenhaal is rock-solid as Loki, a quiet man laced with a bad temper that gets him and others into trouble.

The film is set in an often gloomy, gray, rainy Pennsylvania where everything looks plain and safe—but dark things are happening in those old houses. Villeneuve and Deakins use this setting to maximum effect, and the film is always interesting visually. (Film geeks know that Deakins is the go-to cinematographer for the Coen brothers.)

The film successfully keeps viewers guessing as to the identity of the kidnapper/kidnappers until late in the film. Everybody in the cast behaves suspiciously enough at one point or another, meaning almost nobody can be dismissed as a possibility.

This ambiguity hurts the film in many ways, as the film strays from a core moral message and becomes a preposterous whodunit. The eventual revelation struck me as a letdown—perhaps even a copout.

Stretches of this film will draw comparisons to the 1988 Dutch classic The Vanishing (Spoorloos). Unfortunately, stretches can also be compared to the crappy 1993 American remake of The Vanishing in which Jeff Bridges took a shovel to the mouth. At least Prisoners has a great final moment, so it ends on a good note.

The film contains some of the year’s best acting and best visuals, and it maintains a fierce intensity for much of its running time. That said, I can’t deny its flaws. With a slight rewrite and tighter editing, this could’ve been one of the year’s best pictures. 

Prisoners is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews