Arrival: Proocative, Smart (overly?) Compex

ARRIVAL  (2016)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Paramount, 116 minutes, PG-13
* * * * ½

What if they came? What if one day a dozen 1,500-foot-high clam shell-shaped alien vessels were parked at various sites across the globe–many of them in nations that didn't like each other very much? Could Planet Earth cooperate with itself long enough to figure out what the travelers want? What would be priority number one: attempts to communicate, or reflexive military maneuvers? Good questions, but these are just the tip of the spaceship in this smart movie whose only real flaw is that it raises script complications that are hard to resolve clearly.

Okay–so a sci-fi film based on the premise that humankind might not be a welcoming species is a genre staple. So too is one in which a few intrepid scientists try to keep the dogs of war at bay because they detect no indication of hostile intent. In this case, our clear thinkers are Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a Department of Defense scientist. And, yes, it's another movie in which it never occurs to leaders that maybe it's not a good idea to piss off visitors whose technology is rather obviously superior to that of Earthlings. Is there any reason to see still another First Contact movie, especially one centered on a beat-the-clock scenario? (Banks and Donnelly need to crack the communication code before China and Russia launch preemptive strikes against ships on their soil.) Add American exceptionalism to the clichéd parts of the film. Why is it only American scientists—not one in Pakistan or Somalia, for instance–who think they should be sure before raising the specter of an intergalactic war? 

You should see this film because everything else about it is fresh, smart, and provocative. Although it's often beautiful to watch, Arrival is much more than easy-to-digest eye candy. It asks a lot of other questions that stretch the boundaries of the sci-fi genre. Think of the long human quest to understand other species on Earth. How would we communicate with aliens about whom we know nothing? How would we ask non-humanoid aliens this simple question: "What is your purpose?" What does the word "weapon" mean? These aliens don't communicate by speech; they spray a sort of squid ink that forms symbols that must be decoded and many of them seem to be metaphors that add another level of complexity. I like this. Most sci-fi films resolve the communication conundrum by postulating some sort of direct communication becomes possible–either in language (Babel fish anyone?) or via common understanding of universals principles of mathematics or physics (Close Encounters). Here's a question for you: Universal for whom? Einstein tried to tell us that time is relative, and Arrival dares push this a step further and presents us with aliens not subject to human limitations of time and physics. Perhaps, on an empathic level some of us get that. Toss in a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut; Louise Banks seems to be unstuck in time. So much so that her most vivid memories are of things that haven't yet happened to her! She's not a space/time traveler in any sort of 2001 Space Child sort of way–more like a person who dips in and out of an incomplete not-always-linear dream. Why not? If time is relative and humans can have flashbacks, why not flash-forwards?

The best way to view Arrival is to suspend judgment and don't assume that what you see is what is happening in the conventional sense. (It's akin to Interstellar in that regard.) Surrender to the likelihood that at some point you'll be a bit lost because the film paints itself into an intellectual corner and tinkers with space, time, and reality until some of the logic frays at the edges. Look up the term "zero sum game, as it factors into the movie, though more as an idea than as a clearly defined reciprocity principle.

You can enjoy Arrival on less lofty levels as well. It's gorgeous to behold and the use of stark contrasts makes it more so. The alien ship in the U.S. hovers over Montana, whose rolling landscape and majestic mountains are the painterly counterpoint to the dark, barren interior of the alien ship and the bland khaki/camo of military personnel and their encampment. Ms. Adams herself is a comely contrast to the gigantic heptapod aliens. Pay close attention to the frenzied patterns sprayed by the aliens during a key late moment in the film; in two fantastic pieces of closing sequences cinematography, you will find echoes of these patterns. You'll also discover that some of the film's sentimentality isn't as simple as you first thought.

You can also enjoy very fine performances from Adams and Renner. Adams is more than pulchritudinous; she's also a serious actress. In Arrival she strikes the proper balance between terror and fascination, fragility and competency, intuition and deduction, and vulnerability and sophistication. Renner triumphs by playing against macho stereotypes. Enjoy it also because it's no E.T. offering easy-to-swallow palliatives and warm, fuzzy worldviews. It is unsettling, but not a Doomsday message; it messes with our heads. And it's way better than most of what else is on cinematic offer at present. Whatever "present" might mean!

Rob Weir


William Merritt Chase at the MFA and Other Exhibits

William Merritt Chase
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Through January 16, 2017

The Young Orphan
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is a hard painter to pigeonhole. He's often listed as an American Impressionist, but the painters he most resembles in style (and often, content) are James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. In his protraiture,  Chase unabashedly borrowed poses from Old Masters such as Hals, Velásquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens. An exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts displays 80 of Chase's works and when you leave, you've no better idea how to label him than before you entered. Chase frustrates art scholars seeking consistency or a signature style, though his versatility might ultimately be his chief virtue. Or is it his command of color and mood?

Hide and Seek
One can't help but think of Whistler when gazing at The Young Orphan (1884), except Chase poses his languid figure in a blood red chair set against an orange-red wall instead of bathing her in shadows. He saves the dark shadows for works such as Hide and Seek (1888), a work highly reminiscent of Sargent, albeit imbued the sort of innocent sweetness that skirts the boundaries of sentimentality. His portraits make one wonder why he's considered an Impressionist—a work such his portrait of Lydia Field Emmet is more Old Master in style.

Lydia Field Emmet
The Emmet canvas departs from European Impressionists in other ways as well. Unlike them, Chase was never a struggling artist. Like Sargent (1856-1925), he came  from a middle-class background and supped at bourgeois tables. He was famed in his lifetime, sold numerous canvases for handsome prices, and had an equally lucrative teaching career. He was the founder of the Chase—now Parsons–School of for Design. Among his students: Georgia O'Keefe, Edward Hopper, and the aforementioned Ms. Emmet. He did, however, paint en plein air and some of his waterscapes are evocative of Impressionists such as Gustav Loiseau or Alfred Sisley. One of his more outstanding Impressionist ventures, in my view, is "Wash Day," an everyday subject in which Chase captures the chaotic/serene dual nature of the ordinary.

Therein lies a tale; Chase was all over the artistic map. He created in oils, watercolor, and pastels and his subject matter included the haute bourgeoisie and plebeians, formal portraits and casual seascapes, the banal and the enigmatic, landscapes and still life. His tastes were catholic, but he never feared repetition. Of his dabbling in still life, he once joked that he would be remembered as a "painter of fish" for the number of plattered piscatorial delights he depicted. Chase was said to possess a big ego but I enjoyed his flourishes of self-deprecating humor. Unlike many of contemporaries who painted their studios as if they were advertising cards with works in sharp display in the background, Chase puckishly shows his own work as doodles and mess. 

Wash Day

Chase reminds you of a lot of other artists; add Manet and Monet to those already mentioned. I understand the raps against him, but I left the MFA more enamored of him. I can't say I liked everything on the wall, but his eclecticism made it easy to while away an hour and leave the gallery satisfied.

Rob Weir

Other MFA Notes;

"Satisfied" is not an adjective I'd use to describe my experience in the MFA's exhibit "Uh-Oh: Frances Stark 1991-2015." Stark (born 1967) is a contemporary writer/artist whose work left me cold and bored. Maybe it was how the art was displayed—the venerable MFA simply doesn't 'get' contemporary art and I wish it would stop trying–but Stark's work also falls into a category I find dull: compositions that mix shapes, words, and symbols. Much of what was on display was loaded with words that I suppose blur the lines between assemblage and poetry. Sorry, but if I want to read poetry I'm not going to strain my neck to read 10-point type on a museum wall. Other works struck me as seeking provocation as a junior high school boy might do by dropping F-bombs. Stark has been described as the "visual poet laureate of the Internet age." I don't know enough of her work to evaluate that, but the MFA exhibit did not make me wish to linger long enough to form any opinion other than, "I'm done here."

Far more successful is a small photography exhibit featuring Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), with heavy emphasis on her botanical subjects. Cunningham captured in black and white the sort of sensuality that Georgia O'Keefe captured on canvas. There are also several fine portraits, including one of Martha Graham off stage and in street clothing–something one seldom sees. There is also the wickedly funny 1974 shot Imogen and Twinka that was snapped by one of her assistants. Great stuff!   

The MFA's recent Frida Kahlo purchase, Dos Mujeres, has been cleaned and restored and is the centerpiece of a poorly named exhibit titled "Kahlo and Her Circle." The small exhibit is sublime, as is the Kahlo, but it's a bit of museum switch-and-bait as it's the only Kahlo in the gallery and should have more properly been named "Diego Rivera and His Circle," as his is the work most prominently on display. I'd be the first to say that Kahlo deserves more attention and Rivera less, but where is the line between being politically correct and false advertising?

If you've not already, see the small display that pairs Picasso and Jackson Pollock. It's just over a handful of paintings that, in their unique ways, show how Modernism shattered the way we perceive subject, line, color, and texture. And make sure to watch the small video in which side by side films show each creating a work on glass, which we view from the underside. Call it Picasso the effortless genius versus Pollock the cyclonic soul.


Fantastic Beasts a Movie with Little Magic

Directed by David Yates
Warner Brothers, 133 minutes, PG-13 (loud action, violent situations)
* *

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a quasi-prequel to J. K. Rowling's acclaimed Harry Potter series. First, a confession: I am not a devotee of the Potter Universe; in fact, I pretty much gave up after the first book and movie. For me, it was no Lord of the Rings and I tagged it a 'tween fantasy not intended for my eyes or mind. My wife, Emily, on the other hand, was totally hooked. She convinced me to go see Fantastic Beasts, which I found to be much ado about very little. But my critique is more than a Muggle's muddle; neither of us liked the film.

Those who thrilled to every word of Harry Potter will delight in pre-Potter references. The film is set in 1926, but Hogwarts Academy, you will recall, is ancient. Magic wands abound, as does Muggle fear of magicians–so much so, in fact, that the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) maintains a strict code of secrecy between its members and the No-Maj (Muggle) world. The veil is rent by a series of wanton destructive acts in New York City, including the murder of New York Senator Henry Shaw, Jr. MACUSA suspects these acts to have been the work of Gelbert Grindelwald, a name Potterians will recognize as a legendary dark wizard. MACUSA also has its Aurors at work tracking down dark wizards of all sorts. Public displays of magic are pretty much forbidden.

Enter Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a member of the British Ministry of Magic and a magizooligist, who just happens to arrive by steamship to see New York City before proceeding to Arizona to set free a magic beast. He will, of course, be in the middle of the ensuing mayhem. He's also the source of our first glaring logical inconsistency. Newt arrives carrying a well-worn leather case that is stuffed with magical beasties. When a platypus-like gold-hoarding Niffler escapes, his playful thievery is just another crack in the MACUSA cone of silence–and makes Newt a suspect. Why would Newt be carrying his entire menagerie? Insofar as I can determine, this rather curious logic error occurs so Ms. Rowling can give us a visual Bestiary of the Magical World. It is an  encyclopedic display that takes us from Ashwinders to Thunderbird by way of Billywigs, Erumpents, Graphorns, and Murtlaps. The film introduces us to Bowtruckles, stick-like tree guardians that are like Jiminy Cricket without a face. If you're already lost, avoid this movie.

The narrative arc of this film is more like a series of ruined bridges. Subplots–such as the rampage of a randy Erumpent– are often thrown in mostly for comedic wonderment and are often incidental to the story. There are so many similar departures that I can't imagine a child will be able to follow much of the story. Or, maybe there just isn't much of one. As it so happens, a powerful Obscura (Say what?) is loose in the city and Newt will be drawn into the chase, along with a demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a No-Maj cannery worker/baker wannabe Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Tina's bombshell flirt of a sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who also happens to be a Legilimen, something like an empath, I gather. Now are you lost? If not, there's also the fanatical New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group of No-Maj extremists headed Mary Lou Barebones (Samantha Morton), who is also the proverbial wicked stepmother to three adopted children: Modesty, Chastity, and Credence (Ezra Miller), the latter a sad sack in whom Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) has taken avuncular interest. Now sit back and watch things go awry and blow up. The film is exceedingly loud and the action mirrors the chaos of the script.

It's pretty well acted, though I found Redmayne essentially re-channeling the same awkward shy/fay qualities he exhibited in The Danish Girl, and many of his soft-spoken mumbles were lost on my impaired ears. Waterston and Fogler steal the screen from him, as Sudol would also have done had her part been less fluffy. There are also juicy cameo roles for actors such as Johnny Depp, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, and Jon Voight. In the end, though, this is pretty much a standard action film with magic wands instead of big guns. It's little more than the latest Big Budget Pic in which all of the money was spent on splashy thrill-a-minute f/x and the script reads like an extra credit project from a first-year college writing class. And this isn't just the judgment of a Muggle. Emily's verdict: "There was nothing magical about it."

Rob Weir