The Films of Denis Villeneuve
August 32nd on Earth (November 10/16
Denis Villeneuve's debut, August 32nd on Earth follows Pascale Bussières' Simone as she emerges from a car crash with a burning desire to have a baby - which, given that she's not seeing anyone, prompts her to ask a friend (Alexis Martin's Philippe) to be the father. Writer/director Villeneuve has infused August 32nd on Earth with an offbeat, surrealistic feel that, naturally, prevents the viewer from embracing the material, with the deliberateness with which the slight narrative unfolds certainly compounding the movie's less-than-engrossing atmosphere. It's just as clear, however, that Villeneuve's stylish visual choices go a long way towards keeping things (relatively) tolerable, with, especially, a striking sequence set at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats certainly standing as an indicative example of Villeneuve's penchant for memorable images. There's ultimately exceedingly little to sustain the viewer's interest for more than a few minutes at a time, however, and it's apparent that Villeneuve's freewheeling, French-New-Wave sensibilities are exacerbated by an ongoing emphasis on aggressively aimless interludes (eg Simone and Philippe are abandoned by a cab driver in the aforementioned salt flats, Simone and Philippe discover a rotting corpse, etc, etc). August 32nd on Earth, in the end, a sporadically intriguing yet mostly self-indulgent first film from a director who would go onto much better things, although the movie is, admittedly, a far sight better than one might've anticipated based on the oppressively off-the-wall opening stretch.
Polytechnique (December 8/10)
Polytechnique tells the true-life story of the bloody massacre that occurred at Montreal's École Polytechnique after Marc Lépine (Maxim Gaudette) opened fire on the institute's female population, with the film subsequently unfolding from the perspective of two students (Karine Vanasse's Valérie and Sébastien Huberdeau's Jean-François). Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has infused Polytechnique with a stark, consistently captivating visual style that's heightened by Pierre Gill's black-and-white cinematography, which does ensure that the lack of context and character development within Jacques Davidts' screenplay is subsequently not as problematic as one might've initially feared. It's also worth noting that the dreamy atmosphere hardly prevents the film from boasting an impressively suspenseful feel within its opening half hour, as Villeneuve does a superb job of slowly-but-surely building the tension in the time frame before Lépine begins his assault - with the attack itself handled quite well and effectively perpetuating the movie's white-knuckle vibe. Villeneuve's decision to disrupt the narrative with a flash-forward into Jean-François' post-Lépine existence proves rather disastrous, however, as the sequence, interesting as it may be, effectively hijacks the movie's momentum and results in a final third that fizzles out in a disappointingly demonstrable way. The exploration of both Jean-François and Valérie's reaction to the events is simply not as intriguing as the event itself, given that the two characters aren't developed to the point where the viewer is able to work up any real interest or enthusiasm in their respective fates. The end result is a film that's often more compelling in terms of its visuals than in its narrative, yet the undeniably stirring nature of Polytechnique's first half ultimately compensates for its pervasively uneven atmosphere.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies follows twin siblings Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) as they're forced to delve into their family's mysterious past after their mother passes away - with the film subsequently detailing Jeanne's ongoing efforts at uncovering the truth. (The movie also boasts a series of flashbacks revolving around the wartime exploits of Jeanne and Simon's mother.) There's little doubt that Incendies does demand a great deal of patience from the viewer, as director Denis Villeneuve has infused the movie's opening half hour with a deliberately paced sensibility that's exacerbated by a lack of clear context and exposition (ie one's attempts at figuring out just what's going on or what's at stake for the characters tend to fall flat at the movie's outset). It's only as Incendies crosses into its engaging midsection - triggered by an absolutely riveting sequence aboard a bus - that the film begins to morph into an unexpectedly engrossing drama, with the slow-but-steady emphasis on revelatory instances of exposition ratcheting up the viewer's interest on a progressively consistent basis. And although the film seems to hit its emotional peak with about half an hour left to go, Incendies concludes with a last-minute twist that effectively compensates for its slightly overlong running time - which, in the final analysis, cements the film's place as a compelling and downright powerful piece of work from one of Canada's most promising up and coming directors.
Prisoners (October 19/13)
Denis Villeneuve's first American film, Prisoners details the chaos and violence that ensues after two small children are abducted one fateful afternoon - with the movie following Hugh Jackman's frustrated father and Jake Gyllenhaal's obsessed cop as they attempt to separately solve the case. Villeneuve, working from Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay, has infused the early part of Prisoners with a palpably ominous and unsettling feel that proves impossible to resist, with the movie's tense atmosphere heightened by Roger Deakins' moody cinematography and the uniformly stirring performances. (In addition to Jackman and Gyllenhaal's powerful work, the movie boasts striking turns from, among others, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello.) And although the inevitable investigation into the aforementioned disappearance is, initially, quite engrossing, Prisoners, at a running time of 153 minutes (!), suffers from a midsection that is, unfortunately, rife with overlong sequences and needless subplots - which slowly-but-surely deflates the movie's suspenseful vibe and undercuts the effectiveness of certain spine-tingling moments. The compulsively watchable atmosphere, then, is due mostly to the actors' stellar work and the growing emphasis on the narrative's deepening mystery, with the inclusion of several unexpected (and downright shocking) twists in the film's third act paving the way for an unexpectedly engrossing final stretch. The end result is a striking yet uneven effort that could've benefited from some judicious editing, which is too bad, really, given the promise of the movie's setup and the strength of its powerhouse cast.
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Sicario (December 2/15)
A rare misfire from Denis Villeneuve, Sicario follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she's enlisted to join a team dedicated to finding and taking down a deadly Mexican drug cartel. Filmmaker Villeneuve, working from Taylor Sheridan's screenplay, admittedly does a fantastic job of grabbing the viewer's interest right from the get-go, as Sicario opens with a tense and thoroughly thrilling sequence involving a raid on a suspected kidnapper's home - with the movie, immediately past that point, segueing into a dry, deliberately-paced midsection that never quite manages to achieve liftoff. The most obvious problem here is Sheridan's persistent (and stubborn) refusal to offer up elements designed to lure the viewer into the narrative, with the lack of character development for any of the movie's many figures compounded by a storyline that remains aggressively impenetrable from start to finish. It does, perhaps inevitably, go without saying that Sicario's various action-oriented sequences, though incredibly well done, are unable to pack the visceral punch Villeneuve has surely intended, and there's consequently little doubt that the director's continuing efforts at creating anything even resembling momentum fall completely and hopelessly flat. The arms-length atmosphere is, to be fair, reflective of the central character's state of mind - ie Kate often seems just as baffled as the viewer - but the filmmakers' total disinterest in cultivating and maintaining a watchable (or even coherent) narrative is nothing short of infuriating. And although the movie closes with an absurdly over-the-top (and thoroughly entertaining) action set piece, Sicario is ultimately so obsessed with the minutia of its subject matter that it's often as engrossing as a day at the office.
Arrival (November 10/16)
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival follows linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she's enlisted to communicate with visiting aliens alongside a brilliant physician (Jeremy Renner's Ian Donnelly) - with the movie detailing the pair's ongoing efforts at discerning just what the mysterious creatures want (or expect) from humanity. It's perhaps not surprising to discover that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has infused Arrival with an often excessively deliberate pace, as the movie, written by Eric Heisserer, generally comes off as a subdued character study that just happens to transpire against the backdrop of an alien visitation - with a good chunk of the narrative devoted to Adams' character's tragic past and the degree to which it informs her current efforts. There is, as such, little doubt that Arrival, though consistently watchable, is rarely as compelling or engrossing as one might've anticipated, with the movie instead only wholeheartedly grabbing the viewer's interest and attention on a rather sporadic basis (eg Louise and company's first contact with the aliens is nothing short of electrifying). (It's clear, too, that the arms-length atmosphere is perpetuated by Bradford Young's often distractingly hazy cinematography.) The movie's art-house vibe, however, is admittedly a refreshing change from the CGI-and-action-heavy nature of most science-fiction blockbusters, and it's certainly difficult not to embrace the almost aggressively cerebral bent of Heisserer's occasionally impenetrable screenplay. (On the other hand, the film's quiet, internal atmosphere ensures that the emotional revelations of the film's final stretch are, to put it mildly, muted.) It's ultimately impossible to either entirely embrace or completely dismiss Arrival, with the film's polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it execution sure to provoke arguments and discussions long after the end credits have rolled.