Telluride 2016: Arrival, Una reviews
Telluride Day 2 brought out the rain, followed by the sun and the stars. Walking down the picturesque mountain village’s bustling main thoroughfare, you could spot Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood (both in town for Sully) submitting for selfies, Faye Dunaway queuing up for the latest Isabelle Huppert import, and Casey Affleck standing outside of one of the town’s hot lunch spots before being honored for his career, which is hitting a new pinnacle with his performance in Manchester by the Sea.
But Telluride has always been more about movie love than celebrity worship. Although sometimes it’s hard to tell. Waiting on line for last night’s showing of Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams’ new sci-fi brainteaser Arrival, the director of the previous screening, Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, walked out of the theater to a loud round of applause, basking in his star-is-born moment. As for Arrival, when audiences walked out of that one, there was a mix of head-scratching puzzlement and swooning satisfaction of those who put together the film’s non-linear puzzle pieces.
After a summer of all-play-and-no-work blockbusters, there’s something refreshing about experiencing a film as ambitious and confident in its smarts as Arrival. It tries to reclaim sci-fi from its dumbed-down summer genre peers like Independence Day: Resurgence and elevate it back to the heady heights of 2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Interstellar. I say “tries to” because, although the movie is very good – and, at times, better than that – there’s something that’s a bit too chilly and abstract about it. It’s a brain-teasing Möbius strip of a movie, but I’m not sure its Aha! ending has the payoff it should. I admired it more than I loved it. Then again, I’m still thinking about it…so that’s something.
Based on Ted Chiang’s beloved 1998 short story Story of Your Life, Arrival stars Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a university linguistics professor dealing with a still-fresh tragedy in her past. On her way to the classroom one day, she notices mobs of students staring at TV screens, while the few students who do turn up to her lecture are quickly diverted by an urgent chorus of chirping and pinging of their cell phones. Something. Is. Going. On. She turns on the TV, and the cable news talking heads are on high alert. It turns out 12 alien space ships are hovering over Earth, spread out across the globe, including one in rural Montana. They look like giant, 1500-foot-tall obsidian eggs. Why are they here? And what do they want? No one has a clue. And whoever or whatever is inside of these monolithic spacecrafts isn’t in a rush to say. Global panic breaks out.
If these aliens do have a language and they are indeed trying to send a message, the military can’t figure it out. So they bring in Banks and Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly, to attempt to make first contact – to divine whether these travelers come in peace or want to annihilate us. Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director of last year’s crackling drug-war thriller Sicario, is on unfamiliar terrain, terra infirma. Which turns out to be an advantage since he brings a fresh perspective to his aliens. They don’t look like Spielberg’s ETs or Alien’s facehuggers. What they look like are enormous, seven-legged octopi who communicate via squid-ink pictograms that Banks and Donnelly race to decipher. The whole lead-up to the scientists’ first meeting with the “heptapods” is breathtaking, strange, and vertigo-inducing.
At the risk of going too much deeper, Arrival isn’t so much about, well, The Arrival as it is about how we humans react to this arrival. Partly, at least. Villeneuve also has some narrative sleight-of-hand tricks up his sleeve that are too audacious to give away. He may be biting off a bit more than his film can possibly chew despite its undeniable smarts and suspense, but by the end you’ll feel like you’ve sat through a magic trick. Whether it’s an illusion that leaves you truly dazzled or just with a smile on your face is a question left up to you.
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Turning about 180 degrees away from Arrival, this morning I caught up with writer-director Benedict Andrews’ bruise-black drama, Una. Adapted from David Harrower’s stage play, Blackbird, the film stars Rooney Mara as Una, a young woman seeking answers – and possibly revenge – a decade and a half after being lured into a sexual relationship as a 13 year old by a then-40-year-old neighbor (Ben Mendelsohn, perfect as usual). Through flashbacks, we see Una as an innocent girl who believed she was truly in love with Mendelsohn’s Ray. Now older, her psychic scars seem fresh, she’s hell-bent on promiscuous oblivion until she decides to finally seek out Ray (now out of jail) at his place of work to confront him. Her search for answers won’t wait any longer.
Una is a brutal, punishing film about reckoning with past traumas that won’t stay buried, and the inability to completely sever the link between these two shattered people (Ray wants us — and Una — to believe that he’s a victim, too). And, perhaps not surprisingly, Mara goes fathoms deep with her performance (I’m not sure she knows any other way, which I mean as a high compliment). She has a watchful mysteriousness that you always want to get to the bottom of. When Una finally meets up with Ray, Mendelsohn’s face goes white as a sheet. Una’s got him just where she wants him — where she’s wanted him all these years. But as their encounter plays out over the course of many hours, the power balance between the two gradually shifts back and forth like a see-saw until we’re not sure what Una wants. She may not even know.
While the back-and-forth between these two actors is hypnotic, the film’s desire to keep cutting to flashbacks gets to be a little much. I suspect Andrews wanted to strip his story of the play’s staginess and open it up. But just because a movie allows you to do that doesn’t mean you should. A little of these time-jumps goes a long way. Actually, as powerful as Una is, it probably would have benefited from being more stagey – an intense, claustrophobic two-hander between two heavyweight actors psychologically slugging it out. Like Room last year, Una isn’t a movie to seek out if you’re looking to be comforted. It’s full of harsh emotions and uneasy truths – not all of which are worked out in the end. But it’s a grown-up film that gives searching audiences something heavy to wrestle with. It may be the best-acted feel-bad movie of the year.