The Sunday Magazine: HBO’s Westworld

When I was fourteen years old, in 1973, I went to the theatre to see a movie called “Westworld”. I was fascinated with the idea of a theme park populated by robots where you could live out a fantasy in a specific era. In that movie besides the titular area based on the American Old West there was also Medieval World and Roman World which are what you might expect them to be. Of course, the movie is the story of what happens when the programming stops functioning and the safe robots become dangerous. It was one of the earliest movies to explore the idea of artificial intelligence growing beyond the boundaries of its internal code. There have been so many cautionary tales since then it is a wonder people are so comfortable talking to Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. The storytelling potential is so great that it has come full circle with the recently released ten-episode series called Westworld on HBO.

This new version tells the story of a theme park which only is set in the American Old West; no knights or togas in this version. It tells the story of the robots referred to as Hosts. The humans who come to the park as Guests as well as the humans who keep it all going. In the first episode, you realize this is not only going to be a story about the humans but the Hosts are also undergoing change. The remainder of the series is whether that change is evolutionary or programming.

This should have been something which I should have wanted to see every week as it came on but for some reason the story moved too slowly for me. There were moments of genuine surprise but they were between long stretches of characters repeating some of the same actions. There is a plot device to that but it began to feel like I was treading water more than I was moving towards something. One of the cleverer devices used to delineate specific chapters was a player piano which you would see catch and begin to play as the paper roll unspooled. What made it fun is sometimes the piano is playing a Joplin rag and sometimes it is not. In those times, it is foreshadowing of things to come.

Jeffrey Wright (l.) and Anthony Hopkins

While I have some quibbles with the speed of storytelling the performances greatly helped my motivation to keep watching. The two which interested me the most were Robert Ford as played by Anthony Hopkins and Bernard Lowe played by Jeffrey Wright. Ford was one of the original architects of the robots and has been at Westworld from the beginning. Bernard is his current Head of Programming. There is one scene at the end of episode seven which reveals exactly who is in charge at Westworld that stands out.

I really wanted this to be about two or three episodes shorter. I think there are moments when the writers are too enamored of the importance of the tale they are spinning that they become too repetitive in delivering the desired message. In my favorite moments of the series it is the times when a character is revealed to be something beyond their social or literal programming where it is at its best.

I’ll have to sit down with Siri, Cortana, and Alexa to get their impressions.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

There are times I am not ready to watch something when it is being shown on TV. That was the case about a year ago, when the FX cable channel began showing the miniseries “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story”. The beauty of the current day is when I am finally ready it is there to be watched. Over this long Holiday break, I went through the entire series to find something that was much different than expected.

My reticence sprang from having lived through the trial itself. We were on vacation in North Carolina when OJ Simpson led a police chase in a White Bronco on the LA expressways. From that moment, it was nearly impossible to escape the coverage. I found everything about the case and the attending media circus irritating even while it was being shown everywhere. Throughout the trial everyone involved were turned into two-dimensional caricatures who almost all came off as some differing shade of con man or fool. I don’t think there was anyone covered in glory when the “Not Guilty” verdict was read that day in the courtroom. I know it felt to me like the justice system had somehow become sullied. This was why sitting through ten episodes of television depicting this seemed like it was going to be depressing.

Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran

What The People v. OJ Simpson managed to do was to add in the nuance of personality to what were punchlines. Throughout the series, the people involved in this case mange to come alive in a way which recaptured their honor. Nowhere is that more apparent in the portrayal of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran by Courtney B. Vance and of lead prosecutor Marcia Clark by Sarah Paulson. The series showed these were people who not only believed in the idea of justice but their part to play in the system. It shows the flaws in both characters but it also shows the humanity which shaped both. Both actors deservedly won Emmy Awards for their portrayals.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark

The best episode is the sixth, titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” which concerns Ms. Clark and all that was going on in her life outside of the courtroom. One of the reasons I started watching this at all was a perfume reason. Ms. Paulson tracked down a 1990’s vintage bottle of Lancome Magie Noire to wear every day she portrayed Ms. Clark. In this episode Ms. Paulson truly does inhabit the psyche of Ms. Clark and turns that caricature into something to be admired.

By the end of the series the verdict was the same as it was in real life. Yet somehow it felt less like a pyrrhic victory for Mr. Simpson and more like redemption for everyone else. If you stayed away because of the subject matter, like me, I recommend giving it a try I think it might allow you to see something you thought you knew very well quite differently.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Favorite Non-Perfume Things of 2016

As we enter the final week of 2016 it is a time for lists of all kinds. I am no different and my year-end perfume lists will appear towards the end of the week. I’m also going to remember 2016 for some non-perfume things and in this last The Sunday Magazine of the year I thought I’d share those.

Favorite movie: Arrival– There was so much for the geek in me this year; Deadpool, Rogue One, Captain America Civil War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I had a veritable smorgasbord in front of me of these kinds of movies. The one which has stuck with me since seeing it has been Arrival which is about a couple of scientists trying to communicate with extraterrestrials who have just landed. Themes of how we communicate intertwined with how we fear have stayed with me since leaving the movie theatre. I also said it when I wrote about it but Amy Adams performance is beyond brilliant because there are so many nuances she must communicate wordlessly none more so than her final hug. If she does not get nominated for an Academy Award for this performance I will be very surprised.

Favorite Album: “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it” by The 1975– This is a band and album that snuck up on me. As I’ve mentioned I like looking back at the number of plays on my iTunes list. This was my most played new album of this past year. Ever since I downloaded it in March there has not been a week where I haven’t listened to it. It is a pastiche of so many 1990’s influences that I think that is what draws me to it along with the lyrics. “She Lays Down” is an amazingly insightful song about addiction and depression. Despite the material, I am always moved by this song and I’ve listened to it over 150 times this year. The 1975 exist on the perfect knife edge of indie and pop; I hope they never fall off.

Favorite Single: Cheap Thrills by Sia ft. Sean Paul– My song of the summer of 2016. Sia cuts loose with a song extolling the joy of dancing the night away which is what summer is all about. It is still in heavy rotation because I don’t want to admit the summer is over.

Favorite TV Show: Game of Thrones– This was the same choice as last year but I can say what the producers had to contend with in Season 6 was more difficult. For the first time, they had to forge ahead beyond the written words of George RR Martin. Which was a change for me because over the first five seasons I knew what was coming. In Season 6 Game of Thrones upped the ante with more epic visual storytelling culminating in the final two episodes of the season; “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter”. The former had an epic battle that would have done any major blockbuster proud. The difference for me is there were characters I had invested in over the books and episodes who were in real danger. By the time it was resolved I realized I had leaned forward for most of the final half of the episode. The latter has an opening twenty-minute sequence done with very little dialogue along with an ever-ratcheting increase in tension. The moment of release is cataclysmic in many ways. At this point I am happy to let the TV show take me to the end of the journey Mr. Martin started because they haven’t missed a step yet.

Favorite TV Performer: Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live– This was the year Kate McKinnon’s star went supernova as her impersonation of Hillary Clinton throughout the Presidential election was spot on. Her comedic timing with Alec Baldwin who portrayed Donald Trump was a highlight. She is also a MVP throughout the broadcast as every sketch she is in seems funnier. She is the reason I stay up late on Saturday night.

Favorite Book: Kingfisher by Patricia McKillip– The Hero’s Quest has become so codified the early going of every fantasy book can begin to seem the same. With Kingfisher author Patricia McKillip delights in turning this conceit on its head and shaking hard enough to empty its pockets. Modern technology exists next to traditional fantasy ingredients. It made me laugh while making me realize writers need to send the Hero’s Quest off the rails more often.

Favorite Spirits: Barrel-aged Gin– Gin is usually distilled and bottled fairly quickly. This year I discovered two versions in which the gin was aged in barrels after distillation; Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat and Russell Henry Dark Gin. The basic gin from both companies is unique in its own right but the additional aging in barrels adds off-kilter depth. I’ve enjoyed using these in my favorite gin cocktails like Aviations or Bee’s Knees but they shine best when used in a dry martini as the vermouth seems to interact with the wood spectacularly.

Favorite Wines: South African Walker Bay Chardonnays– I’ve been down on Chardonnay and the cynicism with which they have been made especially by the large American producers for years. Over the summer, I realized that in other parts of the world they were doing it without the cynicism. I tried a trio of South African chardonnays from the Walker Bay region; Ataraxia, Newton Johnson, and Hamilton Russell. They all share a crisp apple quality before heading towards a creamy finish. These are balanced, nuanced chardonnays and I had forgotten how nice that was to drink.

These are what brightened 2016 for me outside of the perfume world.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Rogue One- A Star Wars Story

I think it is almost human nature to be suspicious of big corporations. Especially when those business behemoths gobble up something we are quite fond of. The perfume industry is full of these stories with results both good and bad. Most of the time I hope for the best and brace for the worst. This was my attitude when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in October of 2012. Disney had done the same with another company beloved to me Marvel Comics three years earlier but by 2012 it seemed to be something where hope for the best was coming true. Lucasfilm was another thing entirely because Star Wars might just be the most beloved franchise on the planet. There was so much which could go wrong.

Disney announced fairly quickly after the deal was signed that we were going to get new Star Wars movies. First a new trilogy of Episodes 7-9. Hope for the best was again rewarded with last year’s release of Episode 7 The Force Awakens. Disney wasn’t done though they also announced an ambitious slate of movies that were going to come out in the years in between the main Episodes. They were calling these Star Wars Anthology movies.

Star Wars Anthology movies were meant to be standalone movies exploring a side story within the Star Wars universe. This was where my brace for the worst instincts kicked in. This was where it felt like maybe the Mouse Machine was trying to enact a cash grab on the affection of the fans.

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The first of these Anthology movies was released this weekend called Rogue One-A Star Wars Story. The plot is to visually explain everything we read in the opening crawl of the very first Star Wars movie released. If you need a reminder here is what the first thing anyone who viewed Star Wars saw.

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…."

Rogue One tells the story of how those plans were acquired. Director Gareth Edwards promised a war movie and Rogue One is the Star Wars version of The Dirty Dozen who are assembled to chase down the plans. The movie has a typical structure for these kinds of plots. We meet the fringe characters who have endured tragedy. The specialists who bring their specific skills to the job. The comic relief. All of those are here. I loved movies like Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, and The Great Escape when I was a kid. Rogue One fits in that tradition except it is also a full-blooded Star Wars movie too. What that means is it ties in to the other seven movies we have seen in ways big and small. This is where the difference really laid for me because at the end of Rogue One I really understood what it took for the Rebellion to win that first victory along with the importance of the plans.

I am not going to go much deeper into the plot and spoil any of the surprises in the movie but I do want to comment on one thing which was just spectacularly done. In the original Star Wars, George Lucas told how he was inspired by the old World War 2 dogfight movies. How he wanted the battles between Rebel X-Wings and Empire TIE Fighters to feel like that. The final battle of Rogue One has evolved that to the ultimate space dogfight footage in the entire series. The battle above the surface of the planet is as mesmerizing as the one going on below. It is this sequence that you want to see in IMAX 3-D.

As much as I dread prequels because as a viewer you know where it has to end; Rogue One foils that by letting you see the effort needed to reach that goal spoken of in the Episode IV opening crawl. I came home and watched
Episode IV after seeing Rogue One opening night and it changed the way I saw that movie now. If Disney can commit to this kind of filmmaking hope for the best is just the beginning.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Father Christmas by The Kinks

My Holiday playlist is a mix of traditional standards and songs which look at the Season with a different perspective. As much as I like a Christmas song which brings a tear to my eye; I am just as happy with one which brings a sneer to my lip. When it rotates around the song “Father Christmas” by The Kinks is one which does this for me.

The Kinks were one of the original British Invasion bands of the mid-1960’s. It is likely they would have risen to the heights of some of the other UK bands except they were so rowdy during their shows the American union which oversaw musicians hit them with a four-year touring ban. This effectively closed them off from one of the biggest markets from 1965-1969. It is one reason when many UK bands cited them as an influence many Americans were surprised. The Kinks evolved over the years but they always had a bit of the proto-Punk in their music. The Who and The Rolling Stones were the only other bands of the era to capture the sense of anarchy which would be tapped into in the second half of the 1970’s.

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It was during that time that the new bands kept covering The Kinks early songs which in turn drove interest in the band anew. This newfound popularity convinced the band they should release a Christmas tune. In true The Kinks fashion it was not sugar plum fairies and candy canes.

Father Christmas was written by band co-founder Ray Davies. It tells the story of a department store Santa who is surrounded by a group of street kids who want money instead of toys. In five lines the chorus captures the mood as this is what the kids sing to the Santa:

Father Christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
We want your bread so don't make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

That’s the part I curl my lip on when I’m singing along.

The arrangement is also fitting as it starts off with jingly happy piano before the guitars crash into everything. That happy piano returns near the end as the chorus provides a contrasting lyric to go along with it.

The Punk Rock movement in the UK arose out of the economic issues surrounding the younger generation at the time. While The Kinks were riding a nice wave of success in 1977 Father Christmas felt like it was a song which could have come from the streets. In the video above, despite the poor quality you get an idea of The Kinks at their anti-Establishment best.

Father Christmas almost acts as a palate cleanser when it shuffles to the top as it often can be sandwiched between Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. Even during the Holidays I need a few minutes when my inner Punk Santa can be allowed to sneer at things until the next song.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Holiday Lights

One of the great harbingers that the Holidays are upon us are the lights which go with them. Usually with the weekend after Thanksgiving in the US the first lights go up on homes and in cities. My fondness for Holiday lights came from a tradition as a kid growing up in the very warm South Florida. During the month of December, the large local bank had a tour of local homes with elaborate displays. In South Florida, these kinds of displays would tax the creativity of the homeowner. Depicting a wintry scene while the nighttime low was in the 70’s was not easy. One answer was to load up on the lights which was what many did. Those were always my favorites. Although the person who covered their lawn in cotton batting to simulate snow also has a soft spot in my heart.

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Snowflake on 5th 1984

As my education and career drew me northward I would begin to experience Holiday lights in different ways. I remember my first NYC holiday season in 1984. There were two new holiday efforts that have endured to today but at the time had their share of detractors. One was the snowflake at 57th St and Fifth Avenue. It was designed by the man, Douglas Leigh, who did all the lighting schemes on the skyscrapers. Like those designs the controversy around the snowflake was from a distance as you walked towards it the illusion was gorgeous. Once you got underneath it all of the wires and lights seen up close lost the magic as if you were somehow seeing the trick. The other new feature in 1984 was putting floodlights on the façade of Rockefeller Center behind the Christmas tree. The complaint was it made 30 Rock look like The Rock as you expected a spotlight from a guard tower to wash over you. Both have evolved tremendously over the years. In 2002 the conceptual snowflake transformed into a giant crystalline snowflake and has become the centerpiece of the annual UNICEF Snowflake Ball. The stark flood lights at 30 Rock have become less so as they have been softened into an icy blue which complements the skating rink in front of it all.

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Harvard Square "Galaxy"

When I moved to Boston I also presided over the installation of a new set of Holiday lights in Harvard Square. The large set of lights look like a version of the Milky way galaxy to me. To others a swirl of windborne snow. To others it was a secularization of Christmas. Those who felt that way would be mollified the next year when a star joined the swirl a year later. I walked past this every Holiday season going to and fro from work. One early December blizzard it was the beacon in the night to draw me towards the path home.

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Poolesville, MD Lights in front of the Old Town Hall

When we moved to the Washington DC area we decided to live in a small town called Poolesville surrounded by farms. What is amusing to me is after loving these grand exhibitions of lights I have been around over the Holiday season; the ones here make me the happiest. In our sleepy little town with one main drag the Holiday lights crisscross above the road through much of the town. Each year they add a few more strings extending it further. Within a few years, they will cover the entire town. For now, what is here does the trick for me as the twinkle of many light bulbs has the ability to put me in the spirit of the Season.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Family Man

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I am a creature of Holiday traditions. Those of you who have been following along with me over the years have seen me write about many of them in this column. Now that we have truly begun the Holidays one of the first things I will do in the next day or two is to watch the movie “The Family Man”. To me it is a movie which unabashedly celebrates the hope the season brings.

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The Family Man is not one of those universally loved Christmas movies. You won’t find it on many lists. It wasn’t well received when it was released in 2000. When I read back over those reviews I am always surprised to find that one of the more consistent flaws found in it was the happy, hopeful, ending. This is what I watch movies at this time of the year for. I think much of the reason for the tepid reception has to do with the director Brett Ratner and the star Nicolas Cage.

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Brett Ratner

Mr. Ratner had been one of those who had made the leap from music video direction to feature film direction. One of his first videos was for Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” in 1988. By the time, he had finished The Family Man he had a monster hit behind him with the movie “Rush Hour”.

Mr. Cage had been doing movies for nearly twenty years by the time he took on the starring role. By that point you were either a fan of Mr. Cage’s acting style or you were not. I thought casting Mr. Cage in the title role of The Family Man was a great choice because his method is to react broadly to situations which is an asset to a movie like this.

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Nicolas Cage as Jack and Don Cheadle as Cash (r.) in The Family Man

The Family Man tells the story of Wall Street mogul Jack Campbell who, when the movie opens, is in the middle of closing a big deal which will require his staff to work through Christmas. Fairly rapidly the movie sets up Jack as the man who has taken the path to business success at the expense of family. As Jack stops at a convenience store he runs into Cash, played by Don Cheadle. Cash is trying to cash a winning lottery ticket for $238. The clerk is suspicious of the ticket causing Cash to pull a gun. Jack using his negotiating skills offers to buy the ticket off of Cash. After the confrontation, Jack offers Cash his help. Cash smiles at him and tells him he doesn’t need his help but Jack is about to be taken on a journey into the path not taken. The next morning Jack wakes up in a house in New Jersey next to the woman he left behind when he went to London to start his career. He has two kids and works at the family tire store. From here the movie is the typical redemption story as Jack gets a glimpse into a man who chose family over professional success. By the end the natural order is restored but Jack is changed.

The Family Man is a beautiful parable on the value of family and friends played against the background of the Holidays. It never fails to scrub away the last vestiges of my crusty edges leaving me smiling broadly at the possibilities of the next few weeks. If you would like to find a new movie to add to your seasonal rotation I think The Family Man is a worthy addition to this time of the year.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

The genre of movies called prequels where the earlier history of a previous movie is shown have a checkered past. I could make the argument that the only truly successful prequel is one which also breaks the rule that sequels are also not as good; The Godfather Part II. That movie is simultaneously prequel and sequel which is why it not only works but it tells the entire story of which we saw the middle of in The Godfather. In the forty-plus years since most prequels suffer from the knowledge the audience has about where the story must go to mesh itself with what we previously experienced. That storytelling limitation has often been the reason why prequels fail. The element of surprise is mostly gone plus if there is a twist it can involve complicated logic sometimes making the originals less engaging. No better example exists than in the Star Wars prequels. In “The Phantom Menace” a decision was made to try and explain The Force biologically with something called “midichlorians”. In the theatre, the revelation was met with nervous giggling because it was so silly. Nearly every prequel suffers from this yet somehow I love these universes so much I want to believe I can re-enter them at an earlier point and still be entertained. This was where I was at going to see the Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”.

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This re-introduction to the Wizarding World does a smart thing by moving it to New York, in 1926. It is written by the author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, and directed by David Yates who was behind the camera for the last four of the eight previous movies. Another good choice is no character from the original movies shows up. Instead the story revolves around the arrival of magizoologist Newt Scamander to New York. Inside his magical case is a menagerie of magical creatures which you will be unsurprised to find a few escape from. As Mr. Scamander must locate his missing creatures he gathers up a group of two-legged associates. These will become the same as Harry, Ron, and Hermione were in the originals. The other three are a non-magical human, called no-maj, in America named Jacob along with two witchy sisters Tina and Queenie. Much as it was in Harry Potter there is much to root for here for all of them. The overall theme of this new set of movies is why should wizards hide instead of ruling the world. On the side of taking over is Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald who is mostly just a presence here as Voldemort was in the first movie for Harry Potter. Our group believes differently.

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(from l. to r.) Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler

I don’t know who does the casting for these movies but they are among the best. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander with a near-autistic level of introversion. He avoids eye contact while shying away from humans. Yet he will easily stand in front of a magical creature as big as a dinosaur with confidence. It is a wonderfully faceted performance. As is Katherine Waterston who plays Tina Goldstein a competent woman who was just busted from the Investigative branch. As so many women at that time she wants to prove herself. There is also a beguiling emotion underneath the tough exterior. One scene where she is facing her past while in danger of being killed is where she shines. Alison Sudol plays her sister Queenie and she can read minds. For something that could weigh you down Ms. Sudol plays Queenie as a ray of sunshine despite the worst things she knows of those around her. The last of our core quartet, Jacob, is played by Dan Fogler. As a poor non-magical human swept up in events he plays the role perfectly with incredulity and wonder at what he is seeing. Mr. Fogler easily makes it believable that Jacob is ready to let magic in to his life.

This is supposed to be the first of five movies. Based on some of what we hear in this movie and know from Harry Potter it seems likely we have an idea of where our heroes are eventually headed. What is nice is none of the things they are presumably headed towards have any ability to alter the way we see the Harry Potter part of things. Therefore, I am hoping the prequel curse might be broken by the magic of the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Arrival

Anyone who knows me understands I love my science-fiction full of epic space battles and starships. Those are sprawling entertainments which are satisfying for the running time of the movie. Then there are the few and far between science-fiction movies where nary a blaster is fired or alien attack fended off. These are the movies where the plot is like its own plasma rifle which embeds itself deep into your thought processes for days afterward. The new movie Arrival is one of those kinds of movies.

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Arrival is based on a short story by author Ted Chiang. Mr. Chiang is a science-fiction author who almost exclusively works in the compacter literary forms of short stories or novellas. His stories have always stimulated my thinking. The one on which Arrival is based upon “Story of Your Life” is one ripe for this kind of analysis. When reading Mr. Chiang’s stories I never imagined any of them would be made into a movie. It is not that they were particularly unadaptable but that these are stories of huge ideas and concepts. Not amenable to the typical movie audience. Recent years have shown there is a limited appetite for these kinds of movies but I imagine the studios take a cautious approach to green lighting them.

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Director Denis Villeneuve (r.) and Amy Adams on set in Arrival

It helped that director Denis Villeneuve is one of the rising directorial stars in Hollywood. He was casting about for a science-fiction property which also had a significant psychological component. When he saw Mr. Chiang’s short story he knew he had found his vehicle.

The story is told from the perspective of linguistics professor Louise Banks. Her life changes when twelve extraterrestrial monolithic ships set themselves up all over Earth. In the one in the US she is asked to lead up the communication effort with the inhabitants of the ships. Working closely with a theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly they begin the long process to being able to understand each other. The movie ramps up the tension as the countries first cooperate in sharing information then one-by-one begin dropping out of the cooperative. This sets up the equivalent of a long fuse as Louise and Ian feverishly try to confirm their understanding of the visitors’ intentions. The last act is where most of the thought-provoking material is revealed. By the time the final credits rolled it was achieved brilliantly. I have not stopped thinking about the ideas within Arrival in almost 48 hours since seeing it.

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Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival

For a movie which is relying on ideas instead of effect it falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the actors to draw the audience in. In this case the performance of Amy Adams as Louise is as good as I’ve seen this entire year. Mr. Villeneuve made an interesting directorial choice to spend a lot of time with Ms. Adams’ face front and center in the frame. There is a saying that great actors can emote with their eyes. In Arrival, there are three key scenes in which the critical information is delivered solely by watching Ms. Adams’ eyes. As much as this is Ms. Adams’ movie Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Ian provides the necessary grounding for Ms. Adams’ performance to have the right amount of resistance to deliver a great performance. When they hug at the end of the movie it is another moment which delivers an emotional wallop without a word being said.

One word of warning Arrival is a movie which requires a modicum of attention by the moviegoer. Mr. Villeneuve does not explain things twice and there is much here to understand. If you are looking for a thoughtful science-fiction film you cannot go wrong with Arrival. If you do see the movie and want some supplemental homework; in conjunction with the movie release there is a collection of Mr. Chiang’s short stories also out. It contains my favorite story by him “Division by Zero”.

Arrival is one of those two-for-one opportunities. It will introduce Mr.Chiang’s stories to a much broader audience which I hope will mean a few others will make it on screen. It also makes me look forward to Mr. Villeneuve’s next project even more eagerly. That next project is Blade Runner 2049 the sequel to one of the greatest science-fiction movies which also required your mind to be as engaged as your eyes. Everyone involved with Arrival is working near the top of their respective games.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Cliffhanger or Consequence

All forms of art live on imitation. When someone does something interesting others will take that technique and employ it. When it comes to episodic television the thing which has worn out its welcome with me is the cliffhanger ending.

The idea of watching television is to allow yourself to be manipulated by the actors and the continuing story they are telling. As of late the manipulation is happening with a capital M. The recent example which I think was the straw that broke this couch camel’s back was the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. At the end of season 6 almost all the major characters were seen kneeling in front of a villain who was going to kill one of them. The way the director shot the final scene was for us as audience to see the death blow from the perspective of the one receiving it. Leaving us a few months to speculate on who it would be. For a show about a zombie apocalypse The Walking Dead began to fall in love with the idea of cliffhangers throughout season 6. It became so common it reduced the stakes of the conflict because you wondered if they were just going to find a way to wriggle their way out of the dire situation.

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The Walking Dead #100 Cover

The interesting contrast is Robert Kirkman who is the writer and creator of the comic book by the same name as well as a writer on the TV show chose a different tack on the printed page. The same event shown in the show was the centerpiece of issue #100. Except on the final page of that comic we saw who was killed. We saw the consequence. I remember reading that issue and heading to the internet to commiserate and predict what that event would do to our other heroes. It was much more satisfying on the page than on the TV screen for me. It felt like the difference between being respected as a reader and made to feel a sucker as a viewer.

One of the things shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones get absolutely right is they ended their seasons showing the consequences of the characters’ actions. I spent countless months in between speculating on what those consequences would be. If you’re going to manipulate me then give me some release.

The other thing The Walking Dead got wrong with this cliffhanger is they diminished what Mr. Kirkman wrote in the comic book. By turning what is a harsh pivotal act in to some kind of macabre guessing game it lessened the impact of that selfsame death. After there was widespread discontent on social media with the cliffhanger ending the executive producer of The Walking Dead, Scott M. Gimple, he said he knew they had to “earn” the choice. That ability to make a bold choice like this means the resolution needs to be something unexpected. Unfortunately, it was one of the low points of the entire series. For the first time since I started watching I am skeptical of all that I see. The cast and crew of The Walking Dead has a lot of work left to do this season to “earn” my trust back. That’s a consequence of their overuse of cliffhangers.

Mark Behnke