Review of reviews: Film & Stage
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
An alien landing tests the global order.
“If big-screen sci-fihas been searching for a genre-defining moment, it has finally arrived,” said Bryan Bishop in TheVerge.com. Succeeding where Interstellar fell short, this alien contact drama from the director of Sicario is as heartbreaking as it is thrilling and cerebral. Amy Adams plays an expert linguist who’s mourning her teenage daughter’s death when the government contacts her for help. A dozen spacecraft have landed across the planet, triggering a crisis. Together with a military scientist (Jeremy Renner), Adams’ academic must decipher the aliens’ language and communicate with them before China and Russia start an international war. The plot sounds familiar, but “Arrival instantly distances itself from most alien invasion movies,” said Germain Lussier in io9.com. Indeed, “there’s rarely a moment in the film that’s predictable.” Instead of firefights, it builds toward big ideas, like the need for global communion and the power of language to change perception. “The pacing is methodical, the story captivating, and the filmmaking beautiful. Arrival is the kind of science-fiction film we dream of.” Sure, it can push too hard for profundity, said Stephanie Zacharek in Time.com. Still, its music, story, and images come together in a seamless whole, and that whole is “big, somber, and grand.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Directed by Ang Lee
A nation of football fans fetes a war hero.
Chalk Ang Lee’s latest up as “an admirable misfire,” said Matthew Jacobs in HuffingtonPost.com. An adaptation of Ben Fountain’s celebrated 2012 novel about an Iraq War hero returning to the U.S. to be feted at a Dallas Cowboys game, it’s “a pioneering piece of art” done in by “stilted” performances and a weak script. For a story that mixes harrowing combat action with stadium-size pomp, it has “little emotional resonance.” At least its young star, Joe Alwyn, “makes a strong impression,” said Benjamin Lee in TheGuardian.com. And Kristen Stewart adds a couple of strong scenes as Billy’s anti-war sister. But Lee shot the movie at an unprecedented 120 frames per second— or about five times the normal film speed—and the resulting ultra high-def images are jarring. Whenever an actor misplays a moment even slightly, “it falls with a thud.” Because few theaters can screen the high-def format, most moviegoers may see the movie differently, said Owen Gleiberman in Variety. They might not like what Lee has to say about the disconnect between the brutal reality of war and our cultural appetite for bowdlerized versions of it. But he’s put onscreen “a highly original, heartfelt, and engrossing story.” It “has the potential to be a revolutionary film.”
The Public Theater, New York City, (212) 967-7555
Lynn Nottage’s appraisal of the parlous state of working-class America feels “breathtakingly” timely, said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. Though Sweat is mostly set in 2000 and was written well before Donald Trump announced his bid for the White House, this “deeply humane drama about real people and real problems” perfectly encapsulates the issues that powered his populist campaign. The action mostly takes place in a bar in the Rust Belt town of Reading, Pa. Its patrons work at a steel-tube factory that’s about to be relocated to Mexico, a cost-cutting move made possible by the North American Free Trade Agreement. The workers are terrified, “not just because they’re out of work (or about to be) but because their jobs are their lives, a fundamental source of their identity.”
Nottage clearly did her research, said Jesse Green in NYMag.com. But she is so determined to show it off that she saddles her characters with a checklist of working-class woes. “The opioid epidemic among the unemployed? Check. The proto-Trumpian political anomie of white people without college degrees? Check.” The issue of race relations gets a workout, too. When the factory announces plans to hire a new manager from the floor workers, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), who is black, applies, as does her white friend, Tracey (Johanna Day). The women pledge to stay true friends no matter what happens, but it’s immediately obvious that whoever gets hired, “some barely subcutaneous racism will soon erupt violently.” Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize winner, knows how to generate tension, which she does masterfully with scenes that flash forward to 2008 and focus on the women’s adult sons. If only she had allowed her characters to “fight for their own agendas instead of hers.”
But the camaraderie between the characters feels anything but manufactured, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. You can sense the closeness that has developed between them after years of working and knocking back beers together, but also “how fragile their relationships are when conflicts arise.” As Sweat “drives to its disturbing climax with the headlong speed of a train reeling out of control, you may feel that you know where it’s going.” Nottage, though, has “a dark surprise” waiting. The essentially good-hearted, hardworking characters in this superb play need change. Sadly, though, when change comes, it is “not likely to be for the better.”