Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, 1h 56min
Right from the start you know that Louise Banks’s beautiful young daughter is afflicted with an incurable disease and dies. The little girl’s life and death are shown in quick clips, but very little is revealed about Louise, other than her heartbreak.
From that sad start, you see Louise (Amy Adams) in her life as a language teacher. Her class is interrupted by a worldwide alert about the arrival of 12 pods that seem to be from outer space.
Louise is asked by the Army to help communicate with the aliens and is paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a nuclear physicist, who initially dismisses Louise’s value to the mission. Louise and Ian, along with Army personnel, are brought inside the weightless pods. The creatures look like upright octopuses. Since they have seven tentacles, the scientists dub them “heptapods.”
The creatures are behind a glass wall and squirt seemingly random ink onto the glass. What follows is a fascinating reconstruction of the elements of language, that allows Louise to establish a rudimentary level of communication with the strange beings. Ian is impressed, and they draw closer.
Distracting her are the visions she has of her and a daughter that, at that point, she knows nothing about. Ian and Louise determine that these visions may be glimpses of the future. They begin to understand that her exposure to the pods is giving her special abilities. When global politics causes a disagreement over whether to engage or fight the invaders, Louise gains enough confidence to help avert catastrophe. She also begins to understand what her visions mean.
Along with the solid performances by Adams and Renner, Arrival gives us the best of sci-fi. It raises questions about how a change in our basic reality would affect the human condition. Ultimately the film asks, “If you could see the future, would you change it?” Very cosmic!
Silence, directed by Martin Scorcese, 2h 41min
Another film, more inscrutable questions: What is the meaning of faith? Is there one true way?
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is, as you might expect, a big, beautiful film and unafraid to take on the most basic elements of man’s belief system. The film is certainly ambitious, but its success will may depend on whether you can maintain an interest in these questions, as well as its harrowing adventure story, over the course of more than 2 ½ hours.
The plot revolves around two young Catholic missionaries, Rodrigues (Adam Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) who are sent to find an older mentor, Father Ferreira (at last, a serious role for Liam Neeson) in Japan. The Portuguese hierarchy has heard a tale they can’t believe - that Ferreira has denied the Faith - and they want the young priests to find out the truth. Rodrigues and Garupe realize the search will be dangerous because Japanese warlords are violently persecuting converts and missionaries.
They find small cells of recently baptized Catholics. They are hidden in caves and under constant fear of being betrayed to the evil Inquisitor, who will torture them unless they renounce their new religion. Kichijiro, a young fisherman with a drinking problem and a murky past, agrees to be their guide.
The bulk of the movie is a game of cat and mouse with the gleefully sadistic Inquisitor. Time and again Kichijiro betrays them to save himself. Since they need his help to find Ferreira, they always find reasons to forgive him.
As the violence and death mount, Rodrigues’s faith is tested. As despicable as the warlords are, he sees that they are just as bound to Buddhism as he is to Catholicism. He finally does find Ferreira, who has denounced the Church and even has a Japanese wife and daughter.
Rodrigues is confronted with the choice he has dreaded. Ferreira counsels him that faith doesn’t need to be expressed “one way or the other,” and it’s hubris to insist that the Catholic Church is God’s only salvation. For Rodrigues this is like wrestling the Devil.
The filming of Silence is just as sweeping as the philosophic ground it covers. The beauty of the ocean vistas and the Japanese landscape are in sharp contrast to the cruelty of the Inquisitor and his men. Scorcese is at the top of his game in this regard, but the film, like so many others, is too long. We understand quickly what the missionaries are confronting and the search for Ferreira seems endless. But when Rodrigues does find him, the resolution feels rushed, as if the director realized he needed to wrap things up in a hurry.
There are two outstanding performances. Andrew Garfield is able to be both a true believer and a reluctant skeptic, but rugged enough to convincingly withstand the physical and mental abuse by his Japanese foes. Yôsuke Kubozuka gets you to sympathize with the wily Kichijiro despite his despicable betrayals.
Silence is a fine film in many ways, but Scorsese’s ego as an auteur let him run too long in some places and skip rich ground in others. It’s still worth seeing for the cinematography alone; even more if you are intrigued by the thorny questions of belief it poses.
This very funny, eventually poignant German movie has been deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Film. Don’t be put off by the length. With so many humorous scenes, it flies by.
Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek) is the practical joking alter ego of Winfried Conradi. He likes nothing more than donning false teeth and an ill-fitting wig to the delight of some family members and to the everlasting shame of Ines (Sandra Hüller), his driven daughter, who is a consultant for the oil business.
Not surprisingly they have been estranged, but, after the death of his dog, Winfried decides to reconnect with her as Toni. He follows her to her office in Bucharest, and she begrudgingly lets him into her life. At a disastrous embassy party he asks his uptight daughter, “Are you human?” She counters, “Do you have any ambition beyond getting people to sit on a fart cushion?” At this point he agrees to leave Bucharest.
But not really. He shows up at a bar and introduces himself to her and her friends as a “life coach” and, crucially in Romania, a friend of "Tiriac," the one-time Davis Cup tennis player, and now successful entrepreneur.
She clings to her stressed-out demeanor, but he starts to wear her down. The first sign is when she laughs in the middle of a presentation to a Romanian oil executive. Toni has met some locals and told them he is the German ambassador. They know he is lying but invite him to a party anyway. He convinces Ines to come along, and, after she has a couple of drinks, he cajoles her into singing “The Greatest Love of All" (made famous by Whitney Houston). She starts hesitantly, but then launches into some off-key screeching, proving how Toni is getting through to her. Her metamorphosis is complete with the hysterical party she hosts at her apartment for the people who work for her.
Simonischek is priceless as Toni. He is funny throughout but also gives you glimpses of a thoughtfulness just below the surface. Hüller has a much more muted role, but is completely convincing as the depressed daughter distancing herself from a crazy parent.
After the party Toni, now really Winfried, counsels her, “If life is just about getting things done, it will pass you by.” Good advice in our breathless world.