‘Arrival’ Review

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Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Eric Heisserer

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Abigail Pniowsky, and Tzi Ma

Synopsis: A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications.

 

*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

Based on the short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (which I haven’t read so I’m basing this review off the film), Arrival is directed by one of my new favorite directors in Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario). The film had me hooked from the teaser trailer, and the film has been on my watch-list for a while and then hearing all the positive word of mouth from film festival and critics, I was finally happy to go watch it. While Arrival takes a while to get going, the film is definitely going to be one of those films you either get invested in or want to stay away from.

The film follows renowned linguist Dr. Louise Brooks (Adams), who is brought in by the government, more specifically Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker), to attempt to learn and decipher the language of the aliens that have just arrived on Earth. However, the aliens stay in the oval alien ships, called Shells by the government, so with a team that also includes scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner), they must figure out a way to communicate with the aliens before the world takes matters into their own hands.

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The plot synopsis there is a bit vague, and for a reason, since I don’t want to give too much away plot and story-wise. In fact, the less you know about Arrival the better. Thankfully the trailers and ads haven’t given too much away, so you can go in and just enjoy the ride the film lays out for you. However, you should know this film despite being an “aliens coming to Earth” film, this is a drama. So don’t go in expecting a random shootout or aliens running wild through New York (even though New York is never shown in the film). That being said, I liked the fact that the film is just a drama, and it really all lands on the leads.

Amy Adams is also someone you can rely on because you know she’s giving it all in her performances, and she does the same here. The film rests on her shoulders, similar to how Louise probably feels in the film. Everyone is counting on her and Ian to come up with some way to figure out a language that no one has seen before. Adams is pretty much in every shot in the film, and for good reason.

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When it comes to the rest of the cast, they do their part. Jeremy Renner has his moments, and for a good part of the film is like the audience in he’s in both awe and excited to meet aliens for the first time. Forest Whitaker plays the straight-laced, no-nonsense army colonel, but other than that he doesn’t really do much, but having Whitaker in your film never hurts. Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s someone you should get to remembering, plays an agent who comes and goes throughout the film and is somewhat antagonist to Louise and Ian, but for good reason. He’s basically everyone else in the world saying what if the aliens just decide to attack. Stuhlbarg also disappears from the film for a while, but when he appears his scenes carry weight.

One thing that, again, will divide people from potentially watching the film is Arrival is a drama, but more importantly a sci-fi film – there are aliens after all. The characters and film bring up interesting, thoughtful, and important questions that – if this really happened – we would hope anyone involved would ask and try to figure out. The film has things to unpack, but not enough to overwhelm you or make you wonder for long. The other nice thing is the film never tries to talk down or dumb things down for the viewer, which the film could have easily done, and I’m glad that writer Eric Heisserer didn’t do so.

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Also, for a film devoted to language, the film also – to steal a line that I read somewhere – speaks the language of film. The cinematography by Bradford Young is fantastic, especially the shot we get when Louise and Ian first see the Shell from a distance and the rolling in fog coming in from the mountains. The visual effects that combine with the production design are pretty top notch, and are mostly on display in the Shell with the aliens. Speaking of the aliens, their design is rather interesting to say the least, I won’t go into how they look, but the design was something I was not expecting. Finally, the score by Johann Johansson (who did the score for Sicario) really puts you in the state of mind of the characters and the environment. There are parts that equal fear and dread, but also moments of wonder.

All in all, Arrival will not be for everyone. In fact, I’m sure most will be heavily divided on the film. However, that doesn’t take away anything from everyone involved. Arrival takes the sci-fi alien genre and turns it on its head to full and great effect. The film could require multiple viewings to find deeper meanings and fully embrace the concepts and final act, but overall, Arrival is a film that will leave you leaving the theater and talking about it all the way home.

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Arrival

4.5 out of 5

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‘Lights Out’ Review

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Director: David F. Sandberg

Writer: Eric Heisserer

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, and Maria Bello

Synopsis: When her little brother, Martin, experiences the same events that once tested her sanity, Rebecca works to unlock the truth behind the terror, which brings her face to face with an entity that has an attachment to their mother, Sophie.

 

*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

Are you – or were – afraid of the dark? It’s okay, so was I. Luckily, we didn’t have a crazed entity coming after us, unless you did and if that’s the case, I’m very sorry. But let’s about the movie Lights Out shall we. The film is loosely based off David F. Sandberg’s short film of the same name, and Sandberg returns to direct a feature-length film that expands on his idea and gives us a story that is more than just a horror film. It’s also helps that he has, arguably, one of the best horror directors as a producer in James Wan.

The film has a simple enough premise. Rebecca (Palmer), who lives alone, finds out that her little brother Martin (Bateman) hasn’t been sleeping after his father – her step-dad – has passed away. However, it isn’t because he’s depressed, it’s because their mother Sophie (Bell) has been presumably talking to herself at night. When Rebecca, reluctantly does back to see her mother, she finds out that Martin has heard – and maybe even seen – someone she thought she was done with: Diana. Eventually, Martin and Rebecca soon find out that Diana isn’t just a figment of their mentally-ill mother’s imagination, but a real creepy – and dangerous – entity that only appears in when the lights go out.

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I have to hand it to Sandberg, who does a great job in his first big film, of course he had help with Wan as a producer, but Sandberg handled himself pretty well. He wasn’t afraid to take chances with his own work, and even managed to create a pretty well done iteration of his short film at the beginning of the film, with his original lead star in Lotta Losten, and Billy Burke.

While the trailers for Lights Out are all about making us afraid of the dark, there is a good family drama story in the film. Rebecca and her mother Sophie haven’t talked in years – a specific number isn’t given – and the only thing is holding them together feels like it is Martin. Once they come together, you can tell they don’t want to be in the same room. Surprisingly, it’s this aspect that I wish was expanded, considering the movie is only an hour and twenty-one minutes.

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That’s not to say the horror moments don’t work or aren’t effective, because they sure as hell do and are. Lights Out is based off the idea that when the lights go out, something is about to go down, and it does. The scenes are tense and nerve-racking that will make you look at every corner of the screen to see where Diana is going to pop out of. Sandberg and cinematographer Marc Spicer even put their actors in the thick of it as they used as much natural light as they could. This shows in the film because it feels like you are right there in the dark with the characters.

The cast also pulls everything together. Palmer’s Rebecca has a great arc in the film with her little brother Martin that has a good progression, and Gabriel Bateman as Martin holds his own, and isn’t the annoying little kid in most horror movies. Alexander DiPersia plays Bret, someone Rebecca is seeing, who brings some levity to the otherwise dramatic or horrifying scenes. Maria Bello is a bit wasted here, as she doesn’t have enough screen time as she should. Her character however is a tragic one. Her mental-illness makes her an easy character to feel for, but again, she’s rarely in the film until the final act of the film. Finally, Alicia Vela-Bailey plays Diana. It’s hard to tell sometimes when Vela-Bailey was actually on set, and when she was a CGI character, because of Vela-Bailey’s performance when she is actually there is so convincing and scary as hell. Every time she moves you can hear clicks and what may be bones readjusting themselves, needless to say, Diana is sure to give you nightmares.

Lights Out works on a lot of accountants, but it does take a misstep when it starts to cluck together a lot of exposition to explain why Diana is back and targeting this family. The reasoning is okay, but the way they went about it was mishandled.

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All in all, Lights Out is a scare-worthy horror film that is sure to make you afraid of the dark again. It does take a misstep trying to make sense of it all, but overall the cast and frightening and tense-filled horror moments making Lights Out a great directorial debut by the man that created the short film the feature-length film is based on.

Lights Out

4 out of 5