Annihilation

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.

Alex Garland maybe one of the greatest names in contemporary science fiction cinema. As a screenwriter he has given us the likes of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, and Never Let Me Go. His directorial debut, Ex-Machina, was adult sci-fi at its best, and showcased how his flair with a camera was equal to his skill with a pen. For me, the big shame of Annihilation is that I didn’t see it in the big screen. Rumours are that the studio behind it thought it was too intellectual to sell to modern day cinema goers, so sold it to Netflix instead. It’s a shame as much of the joy of the movie lies in the details, which are harder to spot if you’re watching on your phone. Yes, I did end the film confused about some things, but that’s the point of a film like this, you’re supposed to question what you saw, it’s supposed to provoke discussion. Too often are audiences treated as dumb, so it’ll be a shame if this becomes the norm for studios.

Annihilation is the story of Lena, played by Natalie Portman, an ex-soldier who is now a teaching academic in the field of biology. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is still a soldier, and has been away for two years. Lena fears the worst, but one day Kane shows back up out of the blue. He has no idea where he has been, or how he got home. He starts to become ill and falls into a coma. A government agency soon step in, and tell Lena that Kane was a part of a team who entered The Shimmer, a permeable membrane that has settled around a national park in Florida and is slowly expanding outwards. Kane was the only member to come back. In order to find a solution to what is wrong with Kane, Lena joins a team of three other women scientist to enter The Shimmer.

Annihilation is an ambitious movie. There are ideas in this film that go beyond the normal blockbuster. It follows themes of self-destruction, and re-birth, and explores what it is that drives us as humans. It’s not a perfect film though, it juggles its ideas well for the most part, but doesn’t pay everything off at the end. The thing about it though, is that I saw it last night, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Maybe, it’s too soon to write a review for it, because it really is a film that needs to gestate in your mind. I think this might be my first review with slight spoilers, as it’s a hard film to write around.

It’s a truly feminine film. I mean that in the sense that it’s a feminine story. Nothing happens in this film for no reason, so the fact that it’s four women scientist going into The Shimmer is important. Each moment of this movie is like a puzzle piece, and you need them all to unlock the film. I’ve seen a lot of people who’s questions after the film seem to be on the nature of The Shimmer, on whether it’s an extra-terrestrial weapon or not, I think that misses the point. The questions I was asking were about identity. Is Lena still Lena? I honestly believe the answer to that is yes, and no. Sticking with the themes of destruction and re-birth, Lena isn’t the same Lena as the beginning of the film because she has gone through something, and is now irreversibly changed.

The film is gorgeous to look at. The dreamscape that is The Shimmer, looks incredible. At points being fantastically beautiful, and at other points being terrifyingly hideous. Both the production design and the cinematography are incredible. The special effects can leave something to be desired, especially at the climax of the film, which almost lets the whole thing down. Portman is terrific in the central role, but too many of the other roles feel underwritten. There’s one moment where another character tells Lena all of the groups secrets, and that seems to be it for their development. I’m still mulling over some of the science, and I can’t quite believe it holds up, which isn’t usually a problem as it is just a film, but the ideas of this film are rooted in their science.

Garland has stretched himself, and his budget, and created a fascinating watch. It’s ambitious, but doesn’t always nail it’s ambitions. It’s definitely a film that will stay with me, and that’s what I want from my sci-fi. It’s an emotional story that didn’t quite connect with my emotions. It’s a cerebral film, which will keep you thinking.

7/10

After thoughts: Spoilers Ahead

– The thing that bugs me most is the tattoo. It’s obviously important. It switches from character to character, and Portman has it on her forearm at the end of the movie. If this tattoo is supposed to represent that she’s a doppelgänger then why did she have it before entering the lighthouse. Does that mean she was already a doppelgänger before she entered? I could be part of the DNA being refracted, but Tattoos aren’t programmed into our DNA.

– My overall feeling is that the Lena who came out The Shimmer is the original Lena, but also completely different. The way our body works is that cells constantly replicate and die. So the person you are in five years time is still you, but every cell will be different. Lena’s cells had started to replicate with the mutation so by the end she is a completely different person whether she is a doppelgänger or not. This is a physical manifestation of the battle she is having with herself, and how what she goes through changes her, echoing Sheppard’s dialogue when she talks about the death of her daughter, saying she mourned for two lives, her little girl, and the person she once was.

– The film can be read on many levels. The two I like the most is as a metaphor for cancer. In particular cervical cancer, which is mentioned at the beginning of the film, and which I think ties into the design of the tunnel at the lighthouse. The other way is it looking at it in a very Jungian fashion. Karl Jung talks about how we have to deal with trauma in the sub-consciousness in order to over come it, well this film could be looked at as journey into Lena’s sub-conscious where she has to battle her own self-destructive behaviours in order to overcome the mistakes she has made.

Unsane

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, and Amy Irving

 

Thank the fates that Steven Soderbergh came out retirement. The indie superstar director who came to prominence with Sex, Lies and Videotape, and became a big player in Hollywood with the likes of Erin Brockovich and Oceans 11, would be sorely missed in the current cinematic landscape. It’s hard to pin point Soderbergh’s particular style, from Contagion to Magic Mike the director is always trying something new. My favourite film from Soderbergh is the two part biopic Che, which of course is a million miles away from the romp that is Logan Lucky. Unsane is mooted as his first horror movie, although it shares a thematic thread with Side Effects, both films dealing with the issue of not being able to trust your own mind. What has made Unsane stand out is the fact that Soderbergh decided to shoot the whole film entirely on an IPhone. It’s a decision that for the most part works, and for this movie feels like a smart creative choice, rather than just a gimmick.

Unsane is centred around Claire Foy’s Sawyer Valentini, a young woman who has just moved to a new city to start a new job. She’s cold with all those around her, not looking to become friends with any of her new work colleagues, and asking dates for one night stands, no strings attached, and definitely no contact afterwards. We soon find out that Sawyer has been a victim of a stalker, and that the reason behind her move was to get away from him. She still sees him everywhere though, so she decides to get herself some help. She visits a councillor who asks her to sign some papers. Signing without reading, Sawyer soon finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Things get worse when she starts seeing her stalker as an employee of the hospital.

As Sawyer Valentini, Claire Foy gives a tour-de-force performance. Fresh off her role as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown, Unsane gives her a chance to really show off her range, and she gives it her all. From hysterical, to cold, to obviously seductive, this is a role which could come across as unlikeable, but Foy taps into some raw emotions which have you rooting for her all the way through. The way she starts at a place of such stead-sureness, and how she lets the inner doubt slowly creep into her face is an acting masterclass. She creates a character that is entirely believable, and helps us feel like she could be any one of us. Joshua Leonard does well in the stalker role, walking the fine line between threatening and pitiful. Jay Pharoah is great too, instantly likeable and charasmatic as Sawyer’s only friend in the institute. There is a suprise cameo too, but that felt a little distracting.

The use of an IPhone works really well. It makes everything in the frame seem tight and claustrophobic, perfect for a film about someone who feels trapped. The slight change in focus, and the auto white balance also add to a sense of uneasiness. If the aim of the film is to make us question how sane Sawyer is, these factors are an effective dynamic in telling that story. Technology is also a big part of stalking these days, so seeing everything through an IPhone lens does feel fitting. There is also some nice touches of social commentary, especially in regard to how private mental health clinics work in the US. Soderbergh does well to almost strip Foy of her humanity the second she steps into the hospital. She becomes just another number, or just another product on the production line.

If Soderbergh does mount some tense moments, the film doesn’t really hang together as a whole. The pacing is a little off, and some scenes feel like they go on forever. It’s also a little too predictable, it plays with the idea of Foy’s mental health without ever really paying it off. I’ve had this problem with some of Soderbergh’s over films, like Contagion. You leave feeling like you’ve had an amazing starter, but not like you’ve had a full meal. It also, for me, wasn’t scary enough. It’s tense and unsettling in parts, but I didn’t feel like the tension was ratcheting up, again probably more of a pacing issue. I think it also stumbled whilst balancing on the line of scary because it could happen to you, and just downright unbelievable. Too many moments where characters are in shock because they thought something like this could never happen, but as an audience member you’re thinking “nah, this really could never happen.”

Unsane is worth watching to see how Soderbergh utilises the IPhone camera, and for a huge performance from Claire Foy, but really offers little else. It’s tense in parts, but never lives up to the sum of those parts. It shows a lot of promise early on, but kind of meanders into nothingness.

5/10

Mom and Dad

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Brian Taylor

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert T. Cunningham, and Olivia Crocicchia.

 

Nicolas Cage is hit and miss, but you can’t deny that he always swings for the fences. He always goes big. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s glorious, and when it doesn’t it can make terrible movies much more entertaining. It’s been awhile since his 90’s heyday, but every now and then Cage delivers a barnstrormer of a performance, such as his great Adam West impression in Kick-Ass. Here he teams up with director Brian Taylor, best known as one half of the director duo that bought us Crank, Gamer, and has previously worked with Cage on the disappointing Ghost Rider sequel. Taylor specialises in high energy, high concept films designed to offend, and they don’t come more high concept or offensive than Mom and Dad.

 

Mom and Dad is a very simple concept. It centres around parents Brent and Kendall Ryan, played respectively by Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair. They’re both going through their own version of a mid-life crisis, worrying about growing old, and dis-liking the people they’ve become. They have two children; teenage daughter Carly, played by Anne Winters, and young son Josh, played by Zackary Arthur. When American parents start randomly killing their own offspring, Cage and Blair are affected as well, and will do anything to murder Carly and Josh.

 

The aim here is to make a zombie movie, or a horror movie along the lines of The Crazies, but instead of the undead it’s parents after the kids. It combines elements of the Dawn Of The Dead remake, with Stephen Kings Cell, and a streak of satirical black comedy. It doesn’t hit the same heights as the former film, but is much more entertaining than the adaptation of the latter. I found there’s almost two films to review here, the first half of the movie, and the second half. The first half is terrible. Focusing on the relationship between Selma Blair’s Kendall and her on screen daughter Carly. The characters aren’t particularly likeable and the dialogue is generic, bordering on cheesy. There’s an attempt to give these scenes some kinetic energy with some fast paced editing, but it’s jarring, grating, and annoying.

It takes Taylor awhile to settle on a tone, trying to invoke 70’s exploitation movies, but the first half comes across as a stale horror movie. The satirical comedy is either just not funny, or too obvious. Wow, teenagers like iphones. The high bar for this kind of movie is still Shaun Of The Dead, and this film doesn’t come close.  The worst thing is the soundtrack, annoying and distracting in equal measure, it’s even more inconsistent in tone than the film. There’s also a distinct lack of Cage in the first half of the movie.

 

Its in the second half of the movie that you really get what you came for. If you’ve seen any of Taylor’s previous films you will know his style, innapropriate camera angles, quick cuts, and an almost over-exposed colour palette. Its bold, brash, and crude. The first half of the movie hints at violence but you don’t really see it, the camera cutting away at the last minute. In the second half Taylor really embraces the schlock factor of this b-movie. There’s an intense scene in a hospital room, which will thrill and offend in equal measure. We also get a lot more Cage, with him and Blair becoming a really good onscreen duo. Cage dials it up to 11, and the film is all the better for it. The films last half an hour is a great cat and mouse game between the parents and their kids. It’s fun, tense, gory, and funny. It’s in this last half hour that the film starts to really deliver on its premise.

 

This film isn’t great. If you’ve seen the trailer you kind of know what you’re going to get going in. It’s a shame that the movie takes so long to deliver on the promise of the trailer. It’s not for the easily offended, but if you can make it through the first 50 minutes, there is a lot of fun to be had in the last 30 minutes. Especially, a great overblown performance from Nic Cage,

 

4/10

Winchester

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. The Spierig Brothers

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, and Sarah Snook.

I was looking forward to seeing Winchester. I’ve been interested in the story of the Winchester house ever since learning about its influence on The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. I had also taken an interest in The Spierig Brothers after seeing Predestination and Daybreakers, both intelligent sci-fi movies which seemed to announce interesting new voices to the genre. They had returned last year with Jigsaw which was serviceable, but going into Winchester I was hoping for a smart, good looking horror, which bought something new to the genre. Eh…

Winchester tells the story of Dr. Eric Price, played by Jason Clarke, who is asked by The Winchester Repeating Fire Arms Company, to psychologically evaluate the company’s majority shareholder Sarah Winchester. The widow of the man who invented and sold the Winchester rifle, she is wracked with guilt over all the death the rifle has caused. Her mansion is a sprawling house of non-stop construction. Dozens of rooms that make no logical sense together, stairs that lead nowhere, cupboards which are secret doors. This is the most eccentric house ever. Sarah Winchester believes she is building the rooms that the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester Rifle need in order to move on. Dr. Price must decide whether she is mentally fit to run the company still, whilst battling demons of his own.

This film is a let down from start to finish. Pitched as a Victorian gothic ghost story, it’s full of familiar images, and well worn set pieces, which don’t offer audiences anything new, and don’t really amount to anything either. The film jumps from set piece to set piece, held together by the thinnest of plot threads. Yeah, there are some decent jump scares, just enough to fill a good trailer, but the film lacks any sense of escalation. The jumps at the start are exactly the same as the jumps at the end. It’s a monotonous film which keeps playing the same note until it outstays its welcome. It’s not a long film, only 1 hour 39 minutes, but I couldn’t have watched another 10.

The film feels like a wasted opportunity. It introduces some good ideas, but throws them away too soon. What is Sarah Winchester’s mental state? Let’s not really explore that. Are Jason Clarke’s encounters hallucinations bought on by his drug addiction? Who cares? Instead you get an hour of Helen Mirren walking around the house in a black veil, a creepy looking kid, and tons of shots of people slowly walking towards the next telegraphed jump scare. The biggest waste is the use of the house. The Spierig Brothers set all their scenes in about 7 different rooms, and shoot them in such an incredibly traditional manner, that as an audience member you are never once disorientated. The film never once wrong foots you, and in a house famed for doors that open to brick walls, and stairs that lead to nowhere, it feels like that’s the least it should be doing.

There are a ton of stories related to the Winchester House, and The Spierig Brothers have decided to tell the most by the numbers version of it. When the film isn’t being unintentionally funny, it’s just downright boring. It’s a huge disappointment from the talent involved. They also use a didgeridoo in the score. Who puts a didgeridoo in a horror film set in America?

2/10