Movie reviews: Arrival, Moscow Never Sleeps, The Land of the Enlightened

Arrival 4/5
Moscow Never Sleeps 4/5
The Land of the Enlightened 3/5

The alien invasion movie is a time-honoured Hollywood staple, but Arrival (12A) offers an intriguing variation. 

When an alien craft touches down in remote Montana — one of several spaceships to appear on Earth overnight — the American military turns to Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams, in what is arguably her finest role to date), a specialist in linguistics, in a bid to communicate with the alien species and discover whether they come as friend or foe. 

Aided by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks sets out to ‘talk’ to the squid-like creatures, despite having no idea of how to establish a common language.

The theme of Arrival resonates strongly in these fractious times, although the message is also a timeless one: jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, no matter how clear and present the possible danger. 

Directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Eric Heisserer, the story evolves as a painstakingly charted ‘dialogue’ between species with no common ground, in the process offering a fascinating glimpse into the science of linguistics, not least when Banks tells us that the language you speak defines how you think. 

Meanwhile, the experience of interacting with the aliens appears to confuse Banks’s perception of time and memory, so that Banks experiences impossibly vivid re-enactments of her memories of her dead daughter. 

It’s a haunting tale with a powerful emotional undercurrent as Villeneuve offers a compelling post-Close Encounters tale about the tantalising possibility of inter-species communication.

Written and directed by Irishman Johnny O’Reilly, Moscow Never Sleeps (15A) is an ambitious multi-character tale that takes place over a 24-hour period against the backdrop of Moscow’s ‘City Day’ celebrations. 

Businessman Anton (Aleksy Serebryakov) battles entrenched corruption as he tries to break away from the bribes and backhanders that greased ‘the old way’ of doing business; his mistress Katya (Eugenia Khirivskaya) aims for pop stardom and a better life than her old lover Ilya (Oleg Dolin) can give her; Ilya’s father Valeriy (Yuriy Stoyanov), a beloved TV comedian now dying of alcoholism, breaks out of hospital craving one last day of indulgent freedom. 

The characters’ stories are slickly intertwined as O’Reilly directs at a cracking pace, their mini-tragedies underpinned by black Russian humour and fuelled by heroic quantities of vodka. 

Cinematographer Fedor Lyass does a superb job of capturing the newly brash and confident Moscow with his wide-angle shots of a gleaming cityscape, the fabulous backdrop contrasting sharply with the claustrophobic and rundown confines of the characters’ flats, old folks’ homes and hospitals. 

It’s a fine collective performance from the cast, although Yuriy Stoyanov provides the standout turn as the sad clown Valeriy, a man who is cheerfully determined to drink himself to death. 

Indeed, Valeriy personifies the film’s underlying theme, which concerns itself with the way in which the old Russian values are being swept away in the headlong rush to ape a Western culture previously considered decadent. 

It’s an absorbing tale, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of contemporary Russians as they learn to live with the uncertainties of the new world order.

The Land of the Enlightened (15A) is a complex and occasionally opaque documentary set in Afghanistan. 

There are hints that the film is an abstract investigation of Afghanistan’s history, suggesting the contemporary war is just another uneasy episode in the country’s troubled history. 

A platoon of child soldiers listens to news that Obama plans to extract American troops, busy calling in air strikes on snipers from their bunker in the Kumar Valley, while a narration culled from a mythical tale tells of a king worried about the imminent invasion of Mongol hordes. 

The country will get through this, director Pieter-Jan De Pue seems to say, just as they did Genghis Khan and the Russian invaders. 

But this message tends to get lost in the tangential nature of the docu-drama, with De Pue (who shot the film over seven years) losing the narrative thrust in the everyday trappings of being a soldier in a war that’s little understood (the child soldiers relieving passing caravans of their opium cargo, while their grownup counterparts do what they can to stave off boredom) — if there is an overarching story it’s the child soldiers’ de facto commander attempting to sell on the stolen opium so that he has a dowry for a girl back home. 

That said, the gorgeous mountaintop backdrops make it all look ravishing (Afghanistan is described as ‘God’s Garden’), and De Pue certainly deserves credit for crafting a narrative that takes us some way off the beaten track.


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