Short takes: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and more

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Arrival — Arrival feels like the more hopeful and optimistic prequel to the 2009 sci-fi film District 9, a movie about the destructive, Apartheid-like aftermath of an alien spaceship’s sudden presence on Earth.  As in that movie, the large, ominous vessels in Denis Villeneuve’s film loom large over an otherwise standard landscape.  A dozen or so of the big, black ships pop up around the world, in places like Siberia, Sudan and Montana, where much of the movie is set. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is called there by the U.S. military to try and communicate with the aliens and translate their messages.

If it weren’t for the strategic establishing shots with the spaceship, Arrival would feel like a much smaller movie, one that largely unfolds in an ominously foggy room inside one of the ships or in the close quarters of a temporary military base just outside it.  Its use of practical effects and news footage widens its scope and enhances the drama rather than distracting from it.  The movie focuses on a select few characters, but their actions are seen to have a huge and wide-ranging effect on how the rest of the world will respond to the crisis. Arrival builds to a moving, surprising climax, one that is both hopeful and heartbreaking.  Grade: B

christine

Christine — On July 15, 1974, local TV reporter Christine Chubbock shot herself in the head during a live broadcast at her station in Sarasota, Fla. Chubbock, as played here by Rebecca Hall, struggled with a debilitating depression in a world that didn’t seem to know how to handle it, or didn’t want to acknowledge it.  Hall’s performance is exemplary, and carries Christine past some of the script’s overbearing conversations about the state of the TV news.  Her body language is fine tuned to Chubbock’s internal anguish, the way she tenses up and then unleashes bursts of emotion at her co-workers or her mother (J. Smith-Cameron).

Christine spends only a few minutes on the infamous broadcast and its aftermath.  Director Antonio Campos and the cast do something crucial, though: they demystify it.  He doesn’t ratchet up the suspense, instead showing it from the point of view of Chubbock’s mother, who is watching on TV at home, and Jean (Maria Dizzia), one of her few friends at work who is watching from behind a camera. Chubbock is seen from above slumping from the desk and is then whisked to the hospital in an ambulance, where close-ups of both her pale, nearly unconscious face are countered with Jean’s weeping.  The movie doesn’t overindulge in Christine’s suffering, but it doesn’t shy away from it, either. Grade: C+

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Hacksaw Ridge — Mel Gibson’s first directorial outing in 10 years is a film of vast and fascinating contradictions.  In telling the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II medic who became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, Gibson taps into both the character’s religious conflict and in the primal, gory ravages of war. Hacksaw Ridge’s battle sequences are astonishingly crafted and visceral, a chaotic visual assault of fire and mud, blood and bone.  The American soldiers’ push to take Hacksaw Ridge, part of the Battle of Okinawa, takes up much of the second half.  The first is devoted to establishing Doss as an unassuming young man in rural Virginia who lives with his parents (Hugo Weaving, who plays his tormented veteran father, is astonishing) and brother.  He becomes infatuated with a nurse (Teresa Palmer), who gives him books that help further his aptitude for tending wounds.  Right as the two are falling in love, he enlists in the Army.

Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, signs on as a medic because he refuses to use or even touch guns.  This makes for an unsurprisingly hellish experience at boot camp, where the drill instructor (Vince Vaughn) routinely announces that the extra drills for his unit are because of his objections.  This stretch is the movie’s weakest, and it would’ve been better served condensing it and moving to the Pacific theater sooner.  Still, Gibson crafts a potent and often moving drama out of the clashes and intersections of Doss’ patriotism and his religion.  It would not be as effective without Garfield, who renders empathy and emotional clarity out of the overly blunt script.  Grade: B-

certain-women

Certain Women — In Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt weaves together three quietly wondrous and moving tales of women living on the Montana plains.  The stories rarely overlap directly, but are connected by both the setting and the filmmaker’s meditative yearning.  The first story focuses on Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer drawn into a hostage situation after an unstable client gets bad news about a case.  Prior to the standoff, which has to be one of the most relaxed of its kind I’ve ever seen in a movie, she had been trying to dissuade him from suing.  After 8 months of trying to get through to him, it takes a male lawyer telling him he doesn’t have a case for him to believe it.  Her frustration is palpable, but doesn’t overshadow her compassion.  She brings him a milkshake in jail.

The middle segment, the movie’s briefest, is about Gina (Michelle Williams), who is camping with her husband and daughter in the woods.  We first see her finishing up a jog while sneaking a secret cigarette.  From there, she and her husband go and meet an elderly man to try and convince him to sell her a pile of old sandstone. They are planning to build a house in the area, and want the old bricks to make it look authentic.  The man, who seems to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, is hesitant, but ultimately agrees.  It’s a deceptively straightforward segment; Williams’ eyes give away her character’s true feelings and desires even as she tries to exercise near-constant restraint.

Lily Gladstone anchors Certain Women’s third and most heartbreaking segment, giving a breakout performance as a rancher inexplicably drawn to a lawyer named Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart).  Elizabeth drives 4 hours one way to teach a school law class two nights a week in her town, and Gladstone’s unnamed character comes just to sit and watch.  Before Elizabeth makes the daunting trek back home before her day job starts at a law firm, the two bond at a local diner.  Reichardt’s use of close-ups in this segment are devastating, and draw out a profound yearning in Gladstone’s face. Certain Women is filled with moments of performance that are so finely calibrated that I found myself thinking about it for days afterward.  Grade: A-

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