Alex Garland's 'Annihilation' is a new sci-fi classic - Silver Screen Beat
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‘Annihilation’ review: Alex Garland’s latest effort is destined to be a new sci-fi classic

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Annihilation
PARAMOUNT PICTURES

It’s truly a shame that international audiences will not get the chance to experience Alex Garland’s moody, cerebral sci-fi thriller Annihilation on the big screen, the way it is meant to be seen. Then again, though, after reading about all of the drama that was happening behind the scenes of this movie, and then actually getting the chance to watch it, it’s easy to understand why Paramount decided to let Netflix handle the film’s distribution overseas.

Annihilation is loosely based on the first book in the acclaimed best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. If you’re expecting a faithful adaptation, you’re likely going to walk out of the film feeling rather disappointed, among other things, though there are many aspects of the book still intact in Garland’s script.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and former soldier who’s still grieving the presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared on a secret mission a year ago. Well, that it is until he returns home again, but something about him just isn’t right. He shows little emotion to his wife that he hasn’t seen in months, and the things he’s saying just aren’t very making very much sense. And then there’s a little blood. And then he says he isn’t feeling very well. And then there’s a lot of blood.

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Soon enough, Lena and Kane find themselves somewhere along the Gulf Coast where a meteor strike has produced a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding rapidly, mutating both the landscape and creatures within it. They call it the Shimmer, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Lena is determined to find out what’s on the other side of the phenomenon, as is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is planning to lead an expedition of female scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) into the Shimmer after several other expeditions, primarily military men, failed to return, with the exception of Kane, of course.

Much like Ex Machina, Annihilation is filled with plenty of disturbing imagery. From the blood spewing out of the mouth of Kane, to a man’s stomach slowly being cut open to reveal his intestines, Annihilation is not always a fun movie to watch. From the moment the film begins, there’s this certain sense of unease, a nightmarish feel that sticks with you, even long after the film has ended.

There’s one sequence in particular that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Not because it was grim or grotesque, but rather visually spectacular, and even mesmerizing to a certain degree, thanks in part to Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography, Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects, and, most of all, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s pounding, pulsing synthy score. It’s too bad we didn’t get to hear more of that weird little melody from the trailer throughout the film, but when it does show up, it’s a real spooky treat.

Annihilation leaves you with a lot to unpack once it’s over and it’s unfortunate that I have such little time to even write this review, as I’m still digesting much of the film and need a little more time to piece together a few, key aspects of it in mind. That’s a good thing, though. Garland isn’t a filmmaker that spoon-feeds you anything—his movies are meant to be thought-provoking. And, while it’s not nearly as polished and structured as much as his previous effort, there’s no denying that Garland has crafted an ambitious, new sci-fi classic with Annihilation.

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‘The House With a Clock in Its Walls’ review: Jack Black unsurprisingly steals the show

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House with a Clock in Its Walls
QUANTRELL D. COLBERT/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, step right up and meet… Eli Roth? Wait, what’s going on here? Yes, as bizarre as it may seem, the taboo-flouting director of the torture-porn Hostel movies has tapped into his inner Hufflepuff for what has to be one of the oddest career change-ups in Hollywood memory. Odder still, it kind of works.

Adapted from John Bellairs’ 1973 YA mystery fantasia, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is like a mash-up of Harry PotterThe Addams Family, and the Goosebumps saga, but busier, noisier, and more exhausting. It’s mostly giddy, ghouly fun — even if you walk away with the impression that it might have made a slightly better Universal Theme Park attraction than a film.

Owen Vaccaro stars as Lewis, a 10-year-old orphan who moves in with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and his daffy neighbor (Cate Blanchett), who just happen to be a warlock and a witch trying to find a mysterious clock with dark powers hidden somewhere in his magical, haunted Victorian mansion.

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Spells are taught, life lessons are learned, bravery is found, and evil is vanquished — all in a swirl of playful CGI pixie dust. Black, no surprise, steals the show, manically hamming it up like Harry Houdini on laughing gas, while Roth tries to keep the breakneck pace of his phantasmagoria going. As someone who was growing bored with Roth’s gory shockfests, I say: “Welcome to the kiddie table, Eli.” B-

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‘Mandy’ review: Nicolas Cage delivers the midnight movie freak-out you’ve been waiting for

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Mandy
RLJE FILMS

Imagine, for a moment, that you left a copy of Heavy Metal magazine to rot in a vat of acid. After fishing it out and reading it while high on the drug of your choice, you decide to put King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King on the stereo, and turn your television to random scenes from Hellraiser. I have no earthly idea why you would want to do that, but perhaps you sought to approximate the experience of watching Mandy and had no access to a nearby screening.

If that’s the case, go for it, although I highly recommend utilizing any means necessary to seek out the real deal, as Panos Cosmatos’s cult-movie bonanza is the most bewildering film-going experience of the year – and we didn’t even get to how it stars Nicolas Cage, king of the movie freaks. Here, Cage plays Red, a logger in 1983 who just wants to live in the woods with his beloved Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). But then, as I suppose happens, a cult of hippies and their demon-biker drug dealers come along and destroy everything Red holds dear. As Red extracts bloody revenge, Cosmatos displays a fervent love for all things extreme, culminating in a chainsaw battle for the ages.

Mandy is, if it’s not clear yet, not for everyone. But for those who think nothing of staying up past midnight to devour the strange and fantastic, it hits the sweetest of spots.

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‘A Simple Favor’ review: Blake Lively steals the show in Paul Feig’s twisty comedy thriller

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A Simple Favor
LIONSGATE

Is there a working filmmaker who loves actresses as much as Paul Feig evidently does? No other studio director seems as intent on creating showcases for his muses: Melissa McCarthy in BridesmaidsThe Heat, and Spy; Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters; and now, Blake Lively in the twisty comedy-thriller A Simple Favor. If you’ve only ever thought of Lively as a leggy blonde du jour—an impression I’ll regretfully cop to, though her failed effort to profit off the “Allure of Antebellum” certainly didn’t help—give yourself over to the pleasure of being outrageously wrong. A Simple Favor reintroduces Lively as a character actress—a sexy, funny, award-worthy revelation.

Female friendship is the cornerstone of all the films above. But here, Feig, adapting Darcey Bell’s novel of the same name, explores the darker, more volatile fringes of such relationships. If Lively is the surprise, Anna Kendrick is our stalwart, playing the suitably named Stephanie Smothers, a Modclothed mom with a parenting vlog who’s so together and sweet she inspires eye-rolls from the other parents (Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla, and Kelly McCormack). After a gasping Stephanie is introduced in slo-mo to Emily (Lively), a flawlessly tailored vision in a hepcat ladysuit, patterned Louboutins, and what might as well be Humphrey Bogart’s fedora, her long pre-Raphaelite tresses somehow deflecting the rain, the prim PTA mom and the barb-tongued fashionista become unlikely best friends. From the film’s flash-forward prologue, though, we know that Emily, after leaving her kindergarten-age son (Ian Ho) in Stephanie’s charge, will soon go missing. When that happens, Stephanie resolves to discover what happened and how the latter’s husband Sean (a smoldering Henry Golding), a one-hit-wonder of a novelist, might be involved—all while contending with her own history of making catastrophic decisions while grieving.

The mystery mostly holds together, but A Simple Favor’s early scenes are still its best, as Emily, the head of public relations for a designer brand, (mostly) platonically seduces widowed homemaker Stephanie with her wit, glamour, confidence, sophistication, and bracing honesty about her family’s dire financial situation. The acidic bon mots that Emily tosses in Stephanie’s direction during their martini-soaked afternoons in the married woman’s glass box of a living room—a painting of the lady of the house’s pubic triangle hanging over the duo at all times—are where Lively shines most. (The one-liners in Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay are consistent and sharp—sometimes disturbingly so. Responding to Stephanie’s fears of dating online, Emily offers her life philosophy: “If your head’s gonna end up in a trash can, your head’s gonna end up in a trash can.”) Kendrick, too, shows off her range in the richest role she’s gotten in years. The co-stars’ banter, which occasionally reaches a screwball staccato, colors Stephanie and Emily’s shifting relationship with an emotional iridescence. Does Emily want to share her knowledge of London gin brands, or is she trying to get Stephanie liquored up? Is Stephanie just nursing a girl crush on Emily, or is her admiration tinged by a callous envy that mushrooms after her friend’s disappearance?

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Feig sets up a tonal tightrope for himself, and he mostly manages to skip across it. A Simple Favor lacks the emotional depth of Spy and Bridesmaids, his masterpieces, but it still glints with wicked fun. The whodunit taxes our patience with one detour too many, and the recurring mommy-vlogger bit feels a bit desperate for relevance, but it’s hard to begrudge any individual leg of the trip. A sense of collaborative thrill—between noted suit aficionado Feig, costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, and fashion plate Lively, who’s wowed with three-piece menswear before—suffuses Emily’s wardrobe of achingly chic suits. (It’s impossible to choose a favorite, but the cropped tux with scarlet-leather gloves that Emily dons to pick up her son from his play date at the park is hard to beat.) In a mini–Freaks and Geeks reunion between Feig and one of that show’s stars, Linda Cardellini gets to indulge in the kind of raw-nerves role we seldom see her in anymore. And despite his underwritten character, comedian Bashir Salahuddin threatens to steal several scenes from a stellar Kendrick as the detective on Emily’s case.

But there’s no doubt about it: The movie belongs to Lively, who’s fiercely missed as soon as she exits from the screen. The script, full of unreliable narrators, never has a precise handle on how untrustworthy Emily is, and so her ultimate fate carries with it a minor disappointment. But Lively is knowing and anguished and dazzling and inviting, finally unfettered by her unconvincing everywoman leading roles. Her beauty and charisma weaponized, she’s ready to pounce. Welcome to the Blake-aissance.

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