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Toronto Film Review: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

With Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve communicates the wonder of a Steven Spielberg alien movie within a decidedly hard sci-fi milieu.

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Toronto Film Review: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

However you feel about Denis Villeneuve, you have to hand it to the Quebecois director: He knows how to start a film. His latest, Arrival, balances two significant, image-driven arcs in its first few minutes. The first concerns the tragically brief motherhood of linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who we see in a montage giving birth to a daughter and raising her all the way through the girl’s death as a teenager from a rare disease. The second shows the sudden appearance of UFOs in various corners of the globe, kicking off a worldwide frenzy of fear. Louise finds herself deputized into service by the military’s attempts to deal with the situation, brought in to try and decipher a language of guttural roars and hisses to facilitate communication between humans and aliens.

Approaching the alien invasion genre from this angle, Eric Heisserer’s script offers Villeneuve his most cerebral subject matter yet. Despite the grandiose scale of its set design and the narrative’s massive stakes, this is arguably Villeneuve’s most aesthetically simple film. Many scenes play out in interactions between giant, squid-like aliens on one side and Banks, mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and a handful of military personnel on the other. No visual élan is needed given that all of the focus lies in the complexity of exchanging even basic ideas, particularly given that the aliens’ written language is nothing more than circles of ink whose words can only be discerned in subtle variations in blotches and streaks within the circles. The leftfield construction of this language is ingenious, and watching Banks and her team gradually learn to discern sentences and even write back is more thrilling than nearly any action set piece in a blockbuster this year.

The interspecies communication occurs against a boilerplate, The Day the Earth Stood Still-esque narrative of global political anxiety, in which civilians around the world riot and create resource shortages in mass panic and nations like China and Russia prefer first-strike responses to attempts at understanding. That the alien language is so abnormal to any human alphabet also makes Arrival the highest-profile film yet to explore the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the grammatical rules and descriptive nature of a language determine the worldview of its speakers.

The latter narrative thread helps to resolve the escalating tensions of the former, albeit with a laughable deus ex machina device that reduces the majority of Arrival’s final act to a recursive lark in which every problem is solved as soon as it presents itself. It’s just a montage in recapitulation of Banks’s maternal arc, and in a manner that’s supposed to be moving, but comes off as trite and emptily manipulative. Nonetheless, the film’s clever linguistic narrative is too compelling to shrug off, and Villeneuve has achieved the rare feat of communicating the wonder of a Steven Spielberg alien movie within a decidedly hard sci-fi milieu.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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