An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


Arrival. What could be less likely than a cerebral thriller about space aliens? Is there such a thing? Ted Chiang wrote a story; Eric Heisserer did the screenplay, and Denis Villeneuve directed. Yes, it features space aliens but instead of the expected battles in the sky against monstrous beings, the story focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an accomplished, respected linguist in the academic world.

Twelve space pods have landed in various parts of our world, and the world is scared. Ignoring the temptation to become a blockbuster cliché, Amy Adams plays Dr. Banks as the serious professor determined to approach the aliens peacefully. She and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are summoned by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to use her language skills to discover whether the spacemen have come for peace or war.

As the movie cuts frequently to newsreels of a country hunkering down in fear and preparing for battle, Banks is determined to discover motivation before the politicians assume deadly intentions. When she succeeds in coaxing the aliens to come closer and they respond, we’re hooked. Credit the filmmakers with extraordinary inventiveness in creating the aliens and their language as art forms instead of monstrous images. This is something different, and it is good.

Although most space movies unfold in the world of the impossible, this one hits different chords because recent scientific advances are already planted in our heads. A recent PBS documentary about the possibility of visitors from other planets said the probability is high for visits within five years. That surreal possibility injects a morsel of reality that makes the arrival a symbol for global interaction and quiet negotiating rather than military strength and tests of will.

In the early scenes, Director Villeneuve made sure we knew the degree of Dr. Banks’ experience with languages and Amy Adams never undercuts the image of the serious linguist in any way. She creates a grand study of an expert challenged beyond her field with nothing less than the safety of the world at stake. For probably the first time, an audience is actually at the shoulder of a subtle, intelligent actor as she explores contact with an alien culture. Nothing happens on screen to undercut the feeling that we will one day be edging up to this situation in real life. This is a space fantasy with one root planted deeply in the ground.

This movie is a grand combination of fun, curiosity, and adventure that plants a whole new attitude about space stories. Some very inventive minds put it together and it would be a shame to skip it as I almost did when I thought it would be another monster bashing explosion in the sky.

The creators of this film have made a plea for understanding that global communication, not global war, will one day be our essential tool. Let’s hope an Amy Adams is on hand to help us.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Arrival
Word count : 492
Running time : 1:56
Rating : PG-13
Date : December 11, 2016


A Bigger Splash

Pleasure or Doom?

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

A Bigger Splash

The easiest course for a reviewer caught in a dilemma is to resort to description. In that vein, I can report with ease that A Bigger Splash is filmed in glorious color on the beautiful Sicilian island of Pantelleria where Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) are vacationing. She is a rock star rendered speechless by a throat problem; he is a filmmaker who is her lover. They are experiencing the luxury of making love whenever they choose in a beautiful place and that’s what they do – in bed, under water, in the sand, whenever and wherever they are moved by love and freedom.

Their idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a record producer and Marianne’s ex-lover who has on his arm Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the young blond he has recently learned is his daughter. The pool that is their playground is inspired by David Hockney’s 1967 pool painting ‘The Big Splash’. For more than two hours we watch four people canoodling on a gorgeous volcanic outcrop in various combinations that hold the seeds of the inevitability of some awful form of doom.

But that is not all that director Luca Guadagnino and writers David Kajganich and Alain Page had in mind. The graphic sensuality is accompanied by fragments of conversation that promise to answer the questions bubbling up in the audience, but we soon realize we are not watching a story unfold. There is no story. The dialogue is mere accompaniment to four people indulging their impulses in a place removed from any demands their lives may make of them at other times. The dialogue offers conversation that goes nowhere. Just try to follow any threads.

It is not unlike the theory of Zen Koan which holds that the process between riddles and their Zen answers leads to enlightenment, a process where the answers to the riddles usually make no sense to literal minded thinkers. Director Guadagnino has given us a series of riddles that have no answers. The best way through this annoying confusion is to ignore the meaningless dialogue and concentrate on the actors.

Ralph Fiennes leaves his Shakespeare at home and hits the island with hurricane force, rarely pausing as he talks, dances, and sings his way to rekindling his romance with Marianne. Matthias Schoenarts is appealing and accessible as Paul – at first one half of a contented pair who suffers desolation as Fiennes’ storm blows all beauty and peace apart.

It is Tilda Swinton who is the riveting focus. Take speech from an actor and she must convey everything through gesture and grace. Swinton is masterful as she walks, runs, and slides in her superb Dior clothes or in silent nakedness.

After leaving the theater, we agreed that none of us liked the movie. Then we went on to talk about it for hours, looking for that Zen enlightenment. Why did a movie we all disliked hold us for so long?

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : A Bigger Splash
Word count : Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time : 2:05
Rating : R