Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nosh 41: 'Arrival,' 'Christine' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Arrival and Christine
The alien thing arrives in Arrival above the sweeping hills of Montana. Maybe faithful, Republican ranchers look up and think, “Lordy, let’s ask President Trump to build us a wall.” The un-earthlings (coming from where, for what?) are suspended some yards above ground in a huge craft, like an oval Magritte egg shelled in baked iron or basalt. In a smoggy haze they emerge as tall “heptapods” (seven standing tentacles). U.S. forces form a security base including a glass barrier, and the aliens flatten starfish-like digits on the glass to write in what look like circular spews of calligraphy. You’d think the Chinese, facing an alien ship near Shanghai, would have a cultural edge on translating this, but they start turning hostile.

Fortunately we have a genius linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). It is she who figures how to bridge the divide by deciphering the symbols. Her dear face is the best ambassador we could have. Without Adams, so subtle and emotionally open, Denis (Sicaria) Villeneuve’s big show would be out-to-sea on a desert planet. Math wiz Jeremy Renner backs Adams with his thoughtful hunkiness. Forest Whitaker is the gruff military brass, sternly by-the-book. We never quite grasp just how Banks interprets the alien signs. The movie’s vague, lofty concepts are, for many sci-fi fans, a literary load that lacks fireworks.

Adams is excellent, and some images are scary-special, but the aliens are so radically Other that it’s hard to imagine any kind of mutual future. Seeking humanization, the story fishes back to early scenes of Banks and her adorable daughter, a cancer patient. Dreams and memories blend into a murky elegy of family values, and the goo-goo is cosmic. Arrival remains fairly cerebral, and often visually oppressive. Bring back the radiant wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the oddball wit of Strange Invaders, the giddy satire of Mars Attacks!, the poetic surprises of Midnight Special.

Christine Chubbuck, a ’70s TV journalist, is not Mary Tyler Moore or Ron Burgundy or, for sure, Nicole Kidman’s Suzanne Stone in To Die For. In Christine she is just herself: lean and lonely, a virgin at 29, living with mom, stuck in a low-rated TV station in Sarasota, Florida, without even Teleprompters. Her boss Michael (superbly played by Tracy Letts) scorns her fiercely pursued but often dull contributions as a reporter. His new mantra is “If it bleeds, it leads,” and in response to that pulpy vision Christine provides. On July 15, 1974 , she kills herself “live,” on air, using a pistol. This is a reality-based story (unlike quite a lot of TV news), and Christine’s fateful decline parallels Richard Nixon’s downfall on big, important TV.

Director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich have made an absorbing, unpleasant but credible film. Chubbuck was no star, but Rebecca Hall stars with unerring focus, variety, detail and concentration of effect. The Brit (best known for Vicky Cristina Barcelona) nails down an American accent to wring every hurt,  angry, naggingly neurotic aspect of a woman who put an awful spin on feminist ambition. With fine period touches but no hint of nostalgia, Christine takes us deep into a shallow but human life. Finally, despondently, Christine made the news – her exit even helped inspire Paddy Chayefsky to write Network.

SALAD (A List)
The Best Space Visitors Movies, in order of arrival on our planet: The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960), The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978), Strange Invaders (Michael Laughlin, 1983), Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996), Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997), Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). And for all Earth kiddies: E.T. (Spielberg, 1982). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In his minor but enjoyable thriller The Stranger (1946), Orson Welles plays the Nazi fugitive Kindler, hiding out in a New England college town as Prof. Rankin, and married to sweet, clueless Loretta Young. When a character points out that defeated Germany had a liberal tradition, mentioning Karl Marx, Rankin fixes him with a Herr Professor gaze and gives away his hidden, chilling secret: “But Marx wasn’t a German. He was a Jew.”

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Nicole Kidman always had a stellar edge, including “a bonus factor: skyscraper elevation (5 feet, 11 inches). To the reporter Gaby Woods, she was like ‘a trick of perspective. When I meet her, she is draped over an anonymous hotel sofa … her glossy legs stretching out endlessly towards crocodile heels.’ The low point was at the press junket for Nine. Journalist: ‘You’re very tall in this film.” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, ready for wine in Sideways (Fox Searchlight 2004; director Alexander Payne, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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