Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Knight of Cups

'Knight of Cups' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Terrence Malick

Directed by: Terrence Malick

The cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick continues in his cryptic Knight of Cups, an offering that may well epitomize everything his admirers adore and everything detractors feel scorned by for not ‘getting.’

I know how pretentious that sounds but truth is I land squarely in the middle when it comes to both understanding and appreciating his work.

I don’t know what he was like pre-Tree of Life but admittedly I was more ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ over the visual grandeur rather than being pulled in to deep meditative thought (as I was probably supposed to be). And then To the Wonder came out and the same thing happened: I struggled mightily to relate to the relationship woes and the characters involved but the cinematography once more seduced me.

So when it started happening a third time during Knight of Cups, an experience I’d liken to hypnosis rather than just another trip to the movie theater, I had to wonder: is it enough to think highly of a movie just based on how it looks and how the aesthetics make me feel? (And I ought to differentiate that from how the product as a whole makes me feel.) What does that say about me? What does it say about the film? How can I like something without first understanding it?

It might help to first gain a general understanding of what Malick is basing his latest evocatively-titled production on. The Knight of Cups is one of many tarot cards — played in 15th Century European card games, now more commonly used by mystics to predict outcomes as related to divine intervention — and is considered the “most feminine of all the knight [cards],” representing someone very much attuned to their own emotions and intuition. (Here’s where the comparisons between the two knights Christian Bale has now played abruptly end. Although, interestingly enough, both turn out to be fairly broken men who struggle to relate to or even interact with others.)

In what can only be described as an incredibly introspective performance — most of what little dialogue he has is restricted to ethereal voiceovers while his physical being drifts nomadically between the bright lights of L.A. and the people-free sprawl of Elsewhere, California — Bale’s introduced as a shell of a man searching for love and true contentment in a world where the only thing that matters is what you see on the surface. He plays a screenwriter named Rick, a man so lost within himself no one, including his crazy father (Brian Dennehy), his lonely brother (Wes Bentley) and a slew of beautiful women, can awaken him from his stupor.

In case you’re wondering — no, it’s not as simple as finding the handsome prince (or in this case, the beautiful princess) and having a simple kiss break the spell. Sleeping Beauty this ain’t.

Knight of Cups starts out pretty lethargically but then starts to spite even the most patient viewer’s best efforts to adapt, the deliberately disorienting nonlinearity as Malick-y as it gets. It’s a journey into the psyche of a man who seems to have it all but finds very little comfort in his abundant material possessions. To complicate matters further, we don’t really get any context clues about the genesis of his misery. (As if this was ever going to be an easily relatable character anyway.) Rick’s had a successful career, evidenced by his upscale apartment in the glitzy downtown area. He has access to all the swanky parties, a byproduct of his connection to a superficial industry.

A rare insight comes at the very beginning, where we’re informed via a deeply-voiced, god-like narrator that Rick has recently suffered something of a fall from grace, some internal pain that has created a numbness to not only the life he leads but to the world in general. Of course, Malick prefers the metaphorical (I can appreciate that about him): we’re actually told the knight has fallen from his horse and lost his cup. That he no longer acts as though he realizes he is a Prince, and that his privileges are vast but constantly fleeting.

We watch as he tries desperately to reconnect with the world that is simultaneously at his feet and in constant motion, either away from or around him. Well, it’s more like we watch the revolving door of women interact, or attempt to interact, with a distant Rick as they come and go in a series of vignettes that simultaneously bemuse and bewitch. Delia (Imogen Poots), the first girl we sort of get to know, is a playful, adventurous ball of energy who disappears as quickly as she appears in Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving frame. We later meet the quieter, gentler Isabel (Isabel Lucas) and later still a fun-loving stripper played by Teresa Palmer. Of all the women we see him with it’s his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) who seems to leave the most lasting impression. That is until we meet Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a girl who comes in to the story later but with whom he’s been earlier in his life and whom he has apparently wronged egregiously.

It’s his many escapades with women, be they in his apartment or on sun-kissed beaches, that save Knight of Cups from being totally devoid of structure, and thus from being totally free-form and inaccessible (not unlike this unfocused review). It’s divided into eight chapters, all of which bear the names of other tarot cards, minus the closing chapter — ‘Freedom’ — and a prologue. While the titles seem to make sense, the material contained within each set vary from slightly random to downright inexplicable: watching a kaleidoscopic frame of a girl doused in black paint means little to me even if it looks really cool. Then, the repetition begins to set in. Dare I say it, a sense of fatigue. Even if Lubezki’s serene camerawork creates the kind of imagery you can only dream in, there’s little hiding the fact Malick is dealing in a narrative that’s no denser than a piece of paper.

Because the objective — I think — is to coax the audience into the same head space the protagonist is damned to, Malick has the unenviable task of emphasizing the psychological process of internalizing thoughts and feelings we generate in response to daily interactions with the world. In other words, he has to rely heavily on highly abstract concepts to do much of the steering. Things like longing for a way to mend the wounds his brother and his father share after the death of another family member, or a way to make himself feel love rather than being motivated by the idea of love. Very little of that translates to something that viewers can consume on a visual or aural level. Hence my spending large chunks of the film somewhat detached, mesmerized almost exclusively by Chivo’s consistency behind the lens.

Seriously. It’s like the guy didn’t just recently win his third consecutive Academy Award.

Malick might be a genius. Paired with the record-breaking Chivo, he’s a force to be reckoned with even though the man needs perhaps more help than any working director today in bringing his unusually high-concept visions to life. But he also might be crazy. Many say the two are inextricably linked — the gap between creativity and sanity seemingly widening the higher up the ladder of creativity you climb. I’m more comfortable describing Knight of Cups as a crazy leap of faith taken on his part, requiring so much of his audience while giving them so little to work with on any sort of practical level.

So in the end . . . was it third time’s a charm with Knight of Cups? For me it certainly wasn’t. This is perhaps the most alienated I’ve felt by his directorial approach but I also left the theater lost in thought about the world outside of that very building. I was accounting for my physical presence for a much longer time than was really necessary. I might have been talking to myself. I can’t decide if what happened to me in the aftermath made any sense or if that just makes me sound crazy but I do know it is such a rare thing to come out of a movie and keep thinking about it long after you’re back home. Even if those thoughts ultimately leave you exasperated.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.51.50 PM

Recommendation: One of the infamously strange Terrence Malick’s strangest and least satisfying efforts, Knight of Cups is a tough sell to anyone unfamiliar with the name. In fact it’s been a pretty tough sell to anyone, even those Malick fanatics. (Are there many of those?) Consider yourself a fan of abstract filmmaking? Signing up for this wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do but word on the street is there’s another Malick offering coming right down the pipe this year so it might be best to wait for something even MORE new and even MORE shiny.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Jane Got a Gun

'Jane Got a Gun' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Brian Duffield; Anthony Tambakis; Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Call it a troubled production but don’t call it a complete misfire. Though it may be a few shoot-outs short of a memorable western, Jane Got a Gun still gots a job to do and it does it rather well all things considered.

It’s a film that has seen a revolving door of cast and crew come and go, with Warrior director Gavin O’Connor squeaking in at the last second after the original helmer dropped out on day one of shooting. Joel Edgerton was supposed to be playing a villainous role but Ewan McGregor got it instead, filling in for Brad Cooper who was filling in for Jude Law . . . who was filling in for Michael Fassbender. Cinematographers were also replaced.

Some part of my appreciation for this movie‘s inextricably linked to my sympathy toward Natalie Portman here. Playing a game of musical chairs with the actors you’re potentially going to share a screen with can’t be much fun. Indeed if you look close enough in a few scenes you can almost feel if not confusion, then the frustration that the actress is clearly experiencing out of character. And if it’s not Portman being underwhelming then surely it’s the script; its heart wasn’t really in this either.

At film’s open we’re staring down the barrel of a fairly standard revenge western. Jane is a strong and capable frontierswoman who finds herself nursing her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) back to health after he returns home one afternoon bloodied and riddled with bullets. Bill warns her that the notorious Bishop brothers are coming after them, prompting Jane to take their young daughter to a faraway homestead to which she promises to return once this situation has been ‘handled.’ (It’s not quite Clint Eastwood promising/threatening justice/revenge, but Portman’s confidence doesn’t go unnoticed.)

McGregor is almost unrecognizable as the bloodthirsty John Bishop. He too is a product of a watered-down script, a cartoonish villain as if by design. McGregor is smarmy and he has his moments but this is more Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless  than a man we should really take seriously. Boyd Holbrook plays younger brother Vic. He’s kind of just there. With such a cultivated physical appearance, I was sort of surprised to see what a bunch of lame-o’s Bishop’s entourage really was.

Joel Edgerton digs his hands into the dirt sportingly as Jane’s ex-husband Dan Frost, a gunslinger who enlisted in the Civil War and left it only to find his wife had moved on. Now she seeks him out for extra protection from the incoming attack(s) and, although bitterness isn’t very becoming, it somehow suits Edgerton and he all but confirms the technique will never disappear. That’d be okay if it’s used more subtly than it is in this movie. Dan’s easier to pull for when he inevitably returns to the frame because . . . well, when Edgerton plays a good guy, how can you not root for him?

So Portman isn’t the only one fighting an uphill battle, saddled with an underdeveloped character as well as an unambitious screenplay. The trio of Portman, Edgerton and McGregor fair the best and each of them succeed in overcoming the dryness aridness of the writing. As Jane, Portman is one of the year’s first strong female leads and her intensity in the final scenes certainly sets an impressive benchmark.

It’s her persistent toughness and intermittent vulnerability that gets us through a deliberately (bordering on tediously) paced two acts before bullets truly start flying in the much-anticipated, chillingly shot climax. (Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the production is undoubtedly Mandy Walker’s warm, vibrant photography.) By and large the film is beautiful to look at and on a visual level it succeeds in evoking the classics. Jane Got a Gun does show signs of a lot of wear and tear, the story isn’t as focused as it ought to be and many edits are questionable but even given all of its faults this one’s difficult not to like. Not pity, but actually like.

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in 'Jane Got a Gun'

Recommendation: The film won’t really ‘wow’ anyone, yet there’s enough here to more than recommend a watching at home (it’s heading out of theaters so quickly the wait won’t be long) with popcorn and your caffeinated beverage of choice. Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are great reasons to see this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “My life’s worth isn’t your concern. Hasn’t been for years.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.actucine.com