Arrival (2016) Review

Arrival (2016) Director: Denis Villeneuve

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★★★★★

Sometimes the science fiction genre feels tired, cliche, played out –but Arrival is a surprisingly fresh take on the alien invasion trope. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

The plot is based on a 1998 short story by Chinese-American author, Jeff Chiang, entitled “The Story of Your Life.” In the film version, a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called up to investigate a bizarre situation. Several large alien spacecraft (massive “pods”) are hovering over disparate places on the earth and are displaying strange signs. As Banks studies the signs from her two aliens (affectionately named “Abbott and Costello,” we learn her backstory. She once had a daughter who died at a young age. She works alongside her counterpart, Ian Donnelly. Meanwhile, China misinterprets one of the alien symbols as a “weapon” rather than a “tool” or a “gift.” Armies mobilize into a hostile stance and the ships move slightly further away from the earth, and several soldiers secretly plant a bomb that injures one of Banks’s aliens. In despair, Banks travels alone to the ship and learns that their language is non-linear -it is a gift to humans allowing for ‘memories’ of events which have not yet transpired. In essence, it allows humans to foresee the future. Using this foresight, Banks returns to earth and prevents the Chinese from launching a war agains the aliens. She and Donnelly fall in love, despite the fact that she now knows they will have a daughter, she will die, and Donnelly will leave after her death. She must learn to see the future, and love her own fate (Nietzsche’s amor fati). Is it truly a gift from the aliens?

Arrival is a surprisingly powerful film. It inverts the War of the Worlds narrative. In this case, the aliens bring a gift, but humanity interprets it as a hostile act and begins war preparations. However, in the age-old debate between arms and letters, the latter wins out in the end of Arrival. The complex linguistics in this film are extraordinary, and the twist-ending is powerful. Language is essential to understanding the movie, as is the nature of grief. The tone of the whole film is bittersweet, mournful, even reflective. We spend most of the movie trying to understand the aliens, when in truth, we discover something more profound about ourselves in the end.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) Review

How Green Was My Valley (1941) Director: John Ford

How Green Was My Valley is the film version of Richard Llewellyn’s popular 1939 novel of the same name. He claimed the story was autobiographical, but this was proven to be untrue after his death. Instead, he interviewed a number of families from Gilfach Goch, where Llewellyn’s grandfather lived in South Wales (the beautiful set for the film was actually constructed and shot in the hills surrounding Malibu in California).

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★★★★★

How Green Was My Valley is an affectionate and beautiful tale. It is Hollywood at its best. Is it excessively sentimental? Perhaps. But for those of us who appreciate a great film that hearkens back to an imagined time of simple, hard-working people and their families, How Green Was My Valley is a near perfect film. There can hardly be a dry eye in the house at the end of the picture when the lifeless body of Gwilym Morgan is slowly raised out of the coal mine. Released on the heels of the United States entering World War II, this film recalls the innocence of youth, heartbreak, loss, and the powerful desire to return to a simpler time. Later in life, John Ford apparently remembered this movie as among his personal favorites.

The story is about the Morgans, a poor but humble family living in a coal mining town in South Wales. The time period is during Queen Victoria’s reign in the late 19th century. The main character and narrator is Huw Morgan -we experience the beauty of his valley through his young eyes. He is the youngest of several Morgan children -his older brothers work in the coal mine with their father, Gwilym Morgan, and Huw also has an older sister who is in love with the town preacher. Consider the beautiful opening lines of the film:

I am packing my belongings in the shawl my mother used to wear when she went to the market. And I’m going from my valley. And this time, I shall never return. I am leaving behind me my fifty years of memory. Memory. Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago – of men and women long since dead. Yet who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are still a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge round Time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my Valley as it is today – and it is gone – and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful.

The beginning of the movie is pastoral: the hills are green and the townsfolk are friendly. As the film progresses, the plot becomes episodic and we experience a number of small changes in the Morgan family, but the most significant shift in the plot occurs when wages are cut at the local coal mine. The elder Morgan is unable to persuade the owners to pay fair wages so the workers strike, despite Mr. Morgan’s objections against “socialism.” Eventually, the coal mine reopens, but not all the workers in town may return to work. They become more despairing from this point on. Several of the Morgan boys leave to find work in America. Huw’s older sister submits to a loveless marriage for her own security, despite her true love for the town preacher. And Huw attends a school where the boys and the teacher are abusive. Things begin to fall apart for the Morgan family and their beautiful valley. In the end, Gwilym Morgan dies during an accident in the coal mine, devastating the town and the Morgan family.

The film closes with fond reflections and beautiful imagery from a much older Huw (as in the beginning):

“Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.”

How Green Was My Valley rather infamously beat Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1941. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won five, including a Best Director award for John Ford, a genius who is typically celebrated for his Western genre films. The film brings together the fiery relationship between directorial genius, John Ford, and Fox producer, Darryl Zanuck. With How Green Was My Valley, 20th Century Fox initially intended to create another massive epic akin to Gone With the Wind, shot on location in Wales, but the outbreak of World War II made that dream impossible.

From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love (1963) Director: Terence Young

The upper centre of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights, and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

★★★★☆

The second James Bond film was again directed by Terence Young (he was the director of several early Bond films). After the tremendous success of 1962’s Dr. No, United Artists quickly pushed for a sequel to be released by Eon, and the film was rushed to completion by October 1963. Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name was his fifth Bond novel, actually preceding the novel for Dr. No (and fleming thought it might be his last at the time). He wrote it at his “Goldeneye” estate in Jamaica. His typical writing pattern was to write for three hours in the morning, and then again for an hour in the evening. He never looked back at what he wrote or did much editing prior to finishing the book, and that way he could write about 2,000 words per day. It was only after the book was complete that he went back and edited the text. The novel was published in 1957. President John F. Kennedy once named From Russia With Love in his top ten of all time (as published in Life magazine) which was a top inspiration for creating the film. It was also the last film President Kennedy saw at the White House before he left for Dallas and was then tragically assassinated.

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The story for From Russia With Love is a Cold War classic. The film opens at a vast estate – Bond is on the run through a hedge maze until he is attacked and caught by “Red Grant” (played by Robert Shaw, famous for his portrayal of Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons and Quint, the old shark-hunter in Jaws). “Red Grant” is a ruthless assassin employed by the criminal organization known as SPECTRE (called “SMERSH” in the novels). The training grounds for SPECTRE in the film were inspired by the set of Spartacus. The lights come up and we learn this is merely a drill, with a man in a mask pretending to be Bond in a training exercise. A global chess master and top leader at SPECTRE (named Kronsteen but called “Number 5”) has devised a plan to steal a Lektor (the machine was ironically called “spekter” in the novel), a cryptographic machine, from the Soviets and sell it back to them while luring Bond and taking revenge on him and MI6 for killing their agent from the previous film, Dr. No. The Chief Executive of SPECTRE (“Number 1” who we later learn is the infamous Ernst Blofeld) devises an espionage plot to be carried out by the sadistic “Number 3” or Rosa Klebb, a former Soviet military leader. Klebb then hires the assassin “Red Grant” (from the outset) to tail Bond and then kill him after retrieving the Lektor device, and she also hires a Soviet clerk from Istanbul named Tatiana Romanava, played by Italian actress, Daniela Bianchi, most famous for this role and whose accent was so thick it required over-dubbing throughout the entire film. Back in London, M informs Bond that Romanava has defected to Great Britain but will only defect directly to Bond. He senses a trap, but he travels to Istanbul anyway. A wild attack scene ensues with the Bulgarians (Bond is saved by a secret sniper shot from Grant) and then Bond and Romanava begin an affair (in which she rapidly falls for him). Bond tails Romanava to the Hagia Sophia and (thanks to Grant killing the Bulgarian operative so that Bond would receive secret plans) Bond takes the secretive consulate plans. In a great train scene, Bond and Romanava escape aboard the Orient Express with the Lektor they have stolen. In a surprise to Bond, the assassin Grant (now undercover on the train) drugs Romanava at dinner and then overpowers Bond in a great hand-to-hand combat scene. Grant explains that the whole plot was not a Soviet plot, but rather the plan of SPECTRE. In a somewhat silly and unbelievable move, Bond tricks Grant to open his suitcase which he has booby-trapped. Bond stabs and strangles Grant, and then escapes with a barely-conscious Romanava into the getaway car that was supposed to be for Grant.

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Back at SPECTRE, “Number 1” (or Blofield) confronts Klebb and Kronsteen for their terrible failure. Kronsteen is surprisingly executed on the spot with a poison-tipped switchblade hidden in a shoe. Klebb is offered one last chance to redeem herself and recapture the Lektor. Meanwhile, Bond and Romanava are escaping via Grant’s planned escape route. They destroy a helicopter and commandeer a boat off the coast of Croatia and destroy several SPECTRE boats in a dramatic boat chase scene. Bond and Romanava reach a hotel room in Venice, but Klebb suddenly appears disguised as a hotel maid. She tries to steal the Lektor but, still believing Romanava is working with her and the Soviets, Romanava betrays Klebb by shooting her. Bond and Romanava float away on a romantic gondola, as Bond tosses the intended blackmail film from Grant into the canal.

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The film is notably the first to officially feature Desmond Llewelyn as Q, a role he would reprise for 30+ years in every future Bond film (save for two) until his death at the time of The World Is Not Enough in 1999. From Russia With Love was the second of seven Bond films to star Sean Connery, the greatest of all the James Bond actors. The same actor who played the mischievous R.J. Dent from Dr. No also plays the infamous “Number 1” in From Russia With Love. Rumors abound regarding a secret cameo of Ian Fleming in the film appearing outside the train in a grey sweater, as he once visited the set and saw the Orient Express. The theory has never been confirmed nor denied. Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock was originally considered to direct the film, but after Vertigo tanked at the box office, they looked elsewhere for director -imagine that! There is an amusing underground fan theory that Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond is actually “Red Grant” reborn (based on their similar appearances).

The plot is difficult to track at times with the competing narratives of MI6, the Soviets, and all the double-crossing between them and the secret organization known as SPECTRE. However, From Russia With Love is a wild and entertaining Bond film, one of the best of all time. In the film, we only see the back-side of “Number 1” or Blofield as we learn in later films, the infamous, cat-petting Bond villain and executive of SPECTRE who is satirized as Dr. Evil in Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series. Critically, From Russia With Love is often considered the best, or at least one of the best Bond films of all time, along with Goldfinger and Dr. No. It is rumored to be Sean Connery’s favorite Bond film, and it was the last Bond film released while Ian Fleming was still alive.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) Review

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) Director: Frank Capra

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★★★★☆

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is Frank Capra’s masterpiece, the natural parallel to his earlier Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). This was Jimmy Stewart’s fifth film, and certainly his career-defining breakthrough, after the prior year being also cast alongside Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a remarkably patriotic film, almost unheard of in our present day and age, however at the time it was frowned upon as it was released near the outbreak of WWII and the notion of portraying the American congress as corrupt was not favorable. The story is based on an unpublished story called “The Gentleman from Montana.” Jimmy Stewart plays a young and idealistic man who hopes to get something done in Washington DC, after being elected thanks to other men pulling the strings to get him elected so that he will play into their puppeteering. The plot highlights his departure from a small town (unnamed) and contrasts his provincialism with Washington’s slick way of doing business. He shocks and amuses the press, but he decides to stick to his principles to secure funding for a boy scout (in the film called “boy rangers”) camp in his hometown -a popular policy among the local boys, and his secretary falls in love with him. In the end, he filibusters and collapses on the senate floor

Capra’s film received a slough of Academy Award nominations. Stewart sadly did not win the award for Best Actor, but he was given the award in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story, often viewed as a consolation for his loss in 1939. The film was originally intended to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, with Gary Cooper reprising his role.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an absolute classic, a gem of the 1930s and classic Hollywood. One bit of criticism is the nauseatingly unbelievable naiveté of Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film. His embarrassing goofs drag on and on, but the narrative of the film reinforces a sense of patriotism and nobility that is all too often absent in the halls of congress. It is a wonderful movie.

Stagecoach (1939) Review

Stagecoach (1939) Director: John Ford

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★★★★★

Stagecoach brought about a revival in the Western genre, which had largely fallen out of favor in the late ’20s and ’30s. The Western is a mythic depiction of the Western country and prairie, a largely historically untrue heroic story of courage and goodness in an amoral land of savages and wilderness. It reaffirms the American cultural mythology of hard work and rugged individualism. In the late ’20s, after the end of the silent era, Westerns had lost popularity as a flood of “B Pictures” came in and brought about a kind of cheapness to the Western genre. John Ford’s previous silent Western was 3 Bad Men in 1926 (he also made the notable The Iron Horse in 1924). He didn’t return to making Westerns until he made Stagecoach in 1939.

The plot of the film is based on a short story called “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox, an American Western writer. Ford purchased the rights to the story shortly after its magazine publication in 1937. It tells the story of a group of strangers in the 1880s who each board a stagecoach for a dangerous trip from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The tight narrative keeps the Chaucerian purpose from wandering too far. Two riders (one a Cheyenne) approach an army camp from out of the vast and desolate terrain of Arizona/New Mexico. A telegraph arrives with only one word: “Geronimo,” the vicious Apache warlord. The scene casts a dark shadow over the film. Each character plays a classic Western trope, an archetype we think we understand, but in Stagecoach, not everything is as it seems. Each character has considerably greater depth than initial impressions allow. The rugged outlaw “Ringo the Kid” only ever killed to defend his family, the high society woman who gives birth to a child that the prostitute ends up being the best caregiver for, the shady gambler is actually descended from a high-class Southern family, the drunkard who is a doctor who winds up sobering up to deliver a baby and stand up to the Kid’s enemies; the pillar of the community banker winds up being an untrustworthy thief; the hard-nosed marshal changes his tune at the end of the film with the doctor by letting Ringo escape to his ranch in the name of true love.

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The film is a vision of a unified America – in which Americans of all classes and backgrounds with differing perspectives on the Civil War or morality – can join together against a common enemy and reach their destination. All characters are complex, none are above ill-repute. They are all a part of civilization with different reasons for embarking on the journey. It is a film of redemption, told by reframing the heroes of the Western genre. In the end, the U.S. cavalry overcomes their duty to return to Tonto and they rescue the stagecoach from impending doom against attacking Apaches, bolstering the American value of the “greater good” (i.e. the cavalry managed to overcome their social demands and limiting bureaucracy to defend those in need). Ringo kills his enemies in Lordsburg, and he is freed by the marshal with the doctor so that he may settle down with his paramour, the call-girl turned caregiving wife, while the banker is arrested for thievery. As Ringo rides off into the sunset, the doc says: “Well they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” In the end, only the timid salesman, whose name no one seems to remember (“Peacock”), is shot by an Apache arrow, and Hatfield, the son of a former Confederate judge is killed (moments before he attempted to mercy kill the high-class lady with his final bullet, thus sparing her of torture by the Indians). This notion of chivalry is another common theme in the film – each of the characters (men of all persuasions) greatly avow and respect chivalry toward women, the Confederate toward the high-class woman, and the outlaw for the prostitute.

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It was the first of many films shot by Ford in the “Monument Valley” in Arizona, close to the border with Utah. Ford had a difficult time re-introducing the “Western” genre which had gone out of fashion in the ’30s, and he was obstinate in his demand that John Wayne play the lead, who was largely unknown at the time despite acting in other movies. It was a request that Ford’s producers were not fond of. He also requested Claire Trevor, who was paid nearly five times as much as John Wayne for the film. Ford followed Stagecoach with Young Mr. Lincoln, also released in 1939, as well as The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 (read my review of the film here) and How Green Was My Valley in 1941 (read my review of the film here).

Stagecoach is surely one of the greatest movies ever made (a tag that can be given to a number of films made in the year 1939). Orson Welles claimed it was a textbook-perfect film. He preferred the “old masters” meaning John Ford, John Ford, John Ford. Ford’s style was simple, moving the camera sparingly, shooting only what was necessary. Dialogue is limited in the film, as Ford prefers to let the action tell the story, with long shots of panning the camera, or extended shots of actors’ faces. Gordon Douglas attempted an inferior remake of the film in the ’60s.

Visages d’enfants (1923) Review