Out on Friday 11 November
Amy Adam makes Contact. Agata Buzek is a nun of faltering faith. Ewan McGregor tackles Philip Roth with mixed results.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Arrival, The Innocents, American Pastoral, 100 Streets, Francofonia, Napoleon, and Revolution: New Art for a New World.
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When the aliens show up in Arrival, it’s not with your typical invasion-movie bombast. The first sign of something unusual comes when a symphony of smartphone notifications ripples round a sparsely attended lecture by language professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
Attendees are alerted to the news story that’s about to dominate the globe: enormous, pebble-shaped spacecraft have arrived, and they’re hovering in the air at 12 random locations around Earth.
It’s a typically understated start to a super-smart sci-fi that’ll blow your mind and have you on the edge of your seat without recourse to explosions or souped-up fighter jets. Take note, Independence Day: Resurgence…
That it grips from its first moments is thanks in part to a superb opening montage, in which we’re introduced to Banks and the daughter she loses to illness; it’s a heartbreaking précis that plays like Up’s tearjerking opener. Banks now lives alone in a remote cabin, continuing her work as a language expert, clearly keeping most other humans at arm’s length.
She’s drawn into the larger story when Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits her for her language skills: turns out the alien pods open their gates for a small window of time every 18 hours, and the US government wants to send her onto the one floating above Montana, along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to start a dialogue with the extra-terrestrials on-board to find out why they’re here. Across Earth, other nations are plotting their own interactions with the ships.
A combination of language studies and global politics sounds dry, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As the plot unfolds and the visitors’ motives begin to come into focus, director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) ensures it all plays out with clockwork precision; even when the jargon gets a bit technical, it always manages to sound like it’s making sense (it helps that it’s frequently leavened with humour).
Banks summing up the difficulty in getting the ‘heptapod’ aliens to understand one simple sentence is a delight. It’s not easy to turn the creatures’ subtitles on: their language takes the form of inky black spores that form patterned circles. How do you clarify the distinction between a weapon and a tool with a species that talks in shapes? In this case, Google Translate won’t quite cut it.
Amy Adams is, as ever, superb, ensuring you believe the character’s heartache and authority, acting as the audience’s unpatronising entry point. It’s a strong month for Adams, who has another impressive turn in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, so expect her to add more Oscar nominations to her collection (of five) when awards season rolls round. Jeremy Renner provides sturdy support in a role that requires toning down the tough-guy Avengers act to pleasing effect, though this is very much Adams’ film.
The themes Arrival toys with get bigger and bigger – from language, to love, to the nature of time – but they’re handled with such dexterity that you won’t be struggling to keep up; it never scrambles your brain like the final act of Interstellar. Villeneuve is clearly operating at the very top of his game. A lot of films have to make a choice between blowing your mind and melting your heart. Arrival doesn’t.
While it won’t be off-putting to those sceptical about sci-fi, the film contains plenty to delight genre fans. The gravity-shift boarding of the spacecraft recalls visuals from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alien creatures feel organic and believable, even if the CGI isn’t always perfect. DP Bradford Young (stepping in for Villeneuve’s Prisoners/Sicario/Blade Runner sequel cinematographer Roger Deakins) elegantly captures the scale of the visiting craft and the claustrophobic corridors of the military basecamp at which Banks and Donnelly are stationed. Sparely used flashbacks have a haunting quality, and are given heart-stabbing heft by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s painfully poignant score.
Fascinating as it is to watch Banks and Donnelly’s developing interactions with the heptapods, the tension ratchets up as the 11 other sites grow antsy of waiting too long to uncover the meaning behind the arrival. Have they come to get us to work together, or to drive us apart? Of particular concern is China’s military leader General Shang (Tzi Ma), who is itching to go on the offensive. Without hammering its message, Arrival’s advocacy for communication across all boundaries couldn’t feel more timely.
Like the best sci-fi, Arrival lodges itself in your head for days, and will be sparking conversations long after its moving denouement. That Villeneuve so seamlessly wrangles thought-provoking ideas with awe-inspiring visuals and a very human story bodes extremely well for his upcoming Blade Runner 2. Although following this means that sequel now has even more to live up to...
THE VERDICT: An intelligent, eloquent and stirring sci-fi that grips from start to finish, Arrival is up there with the year’s best movies.
Director: Denis Villeneuve; Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma; Theatrical release: November 10, 2016
In this handsome, quietly moving drama, a French Red Cross doctor (a stoical Lou de Laâge) finds herself secretly aiding a group of Polish nuns who are pregnant after WW2 atrocities. Based on a true story, it’s directed with beautiful, painterly restraint by Anne Fontaine (best known for pretty pieces such as Gemma Bovery), who lets powerful performances by Agata Buzek (as a nun of faltering faith), and fearsome abbess Agata Kulesza power the story.
Echoes of Ida and Of Gods and Men sound in its stark, unsparing theme of war battling with belief, despite the odd hopeful plot twist.
Director: Anne Fontaine; Starring: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza; Theatrical release: November 11, 2016
Adapting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was always going to be a tall order for any director. In first-timer Ewan McGregor’s hands it’s entirely unwieldy. The family saga feels soapy when it should be an epic dissection of the American dream, as Seymour Levov (McGregor) evolves from high-school hero to hollowed-out family man.
It never quite comes alive, but what disappoints most is the acting: McGregor coasts on his natural charm, but Jennifer Connelly (as Levov’s trophy wife) and Dakota Fanning (as his unruly daughter) are wildly OTT.
Director: Ewan McGregor; Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Uzo Aduba, Molly Parker, David Strathairn; Theatrical release: November 11, 2016
Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton, together, naked! That’s a sell, right there. But for the less shallow viewer here’s one of those multi-stranded London dramas following randomly colliding characters, in which Elba’s washed-up rugby player and Franz Drameh’s conflicted gang member both have some growing up to do.
It’s not Altman, but its heart is in the right place and Drameh impresses.
Director: Jim O'Hanlon; Starring: Idris Elba, Gemma Arterton, Tom Cullen, Franz Drameh; Theatrical release: November 11, 2016
Aleksandr Sokurov’s (Russian Ark) thematically chewy if visually choppy film essay on the Louvre’s chequered history demands close attention. At its heart is a beautifully dramatised story of how an unlikely friendship stopped Hitler pillaging France’s treasures. Around it is wrapped a thumpingly metaphorical strand about an art-bearing ship in a heavy storm.
Still, the portentous narration, restless visuals and whimsical ghost characters (an unexpected Night at the Museum-style Napoleon) combine to make a thoughtful case about the inevitable interweaving of art and war.
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov; Starring: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth; Theatrical release: November 11, 2016
Charting 30 years of Napoleon’s life over five-and-a-half hours, Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic demands serious commitment.
That’s nothing, however, to the dedication of historian Kevin Brownlow who’s spent years piecing together fragments of this much-chopped biopic to create the astounding document we have today, climaxing with a battle so spectacular it needs three screens to capture it.
Director: Abel Gance; Starring: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daele; Theatrical release: November 11, 2016
Revolution: New Art for a New World
This is a fascinating doc on 20th Century Russian avant-garde art. Featuring the voices of Matthew Macfadyen and Tom Hollander, it looks at the artists who flourished in the wake of the revolution before Stalin, who detested this arty business, packed many of these ‘enemies of the state’ off to the gulag.
Eye-opening stuff, in every sense.
Director: Margy Kinmonth; Starring: Margy Kinmonth, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, James Fleet, Eleanor Tomlinson, Daisy Bevan; Theatrical release: November 10, 2016