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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.

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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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ review: Rami Malek shines in this flawed, lackluster Queen biopic

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Bohemian Rhapsody Queen Bryan Singer
20TH CENTURY FOX

Sigh…If only this movie had been directed by Bradley Cooper and starred Lady Gaga.

Bohemian Rhapsody is the long-awaited Queen biopic that has been in development since 2010 with Sacha Baron Cohen originally attached to star as the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. After going through a multitude of changes behind the scenes, including a change in directors last December, the film will finally hit theaters on Friday. Unfortunately, this is just another example of wasted potential. One of, if not the, biggest band on the planet deserves to have an interesting and well-developed biopic about them—but Singer fails to deliver.

Bohemian Rhapsody follows the life of Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) as he meets a few musicians outside a club who happen to be looking for a new lead singer for their band. These small-time rockers go on to become one of the most influential and adored bands of all time: Queen. While Bulsara evolves into the extravagant showman known as Freddie Mercury, he struggles to fight off his own personal demons. Balancing his personal life, relationships, stardom, and sexuality all prove to be a challenge as Mercury’s extraordinary life unravels before the audience’s eyes.

Malek has proven himself in the past few years to be one of the most talented and versatile young actors. He was an incredible choice to portray Freddie and captured his essence beautifully. Malek was able to portray the nuanced tenderness yet outwardly flamboyant sides of Freddie throughout the different stages of his life. The chemistry between Malek and the other members of the band was fantastic as well. John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and Brian May (Gwilym Lee) were all integral parts in shaping Freddie into the legend that he is and the actors embodied their respective band members very nicely. The most emotionally believable performance, however, came from Lucy Boynton, who played Mary Austin, Freddie’s first true love interest. The raw acting in their scenes together, especially towards the end of their relationship, was so hard-hitting and truly showcased both Malek and Boynton’s talents.

The technical aspects of Bohemian Rhapsody were not nearly as satisfactory as the performances, though. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel was very underwhelming and had the potential to be much more creative, especially during the many concert and performance sequences. The editing by John Ottman, however, was mildly interesting. While standard in its function, it changed throughout the film depending on the stage of Mercury’s life; slower and more deliberate during his early years, then quicker and more unfocused once Mercury got into the drug-fueled party scenes. The costuming by Julian Day was very impressive too, giving a very accurate and aesthetically-pleasing feel to every character in every scene. Music obviously plays a large part in this biopic as well and was utilized decently, despite Malek not actually performing the majority of the songs, which is ironic considering there’s a scene where the entire band voices their strong opposition to lip-syncing.

When you watch a biopic about a particular musician or band, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll have left the theater having learned something new about them, whether it’s something to do with their personal demons or some other area of their private life that has been previously unexplored. Bohemian Rhapsody did not accomplish any of that. The information that was included about Freddie’s life was presented so haphazardly and did not go beyond the surface at all. Freddie’s battle with HIV and his relationships with his many partners through the years were a big part of his identity in the 1980s, but these aspects of his life were simply tossed aside as minor subplots. While the film did do its job of telling the basic story of Freddie and the band leading up to the 1985 Live Aid concert, it did not delve deep enough into either Mercury or the entire band to make the story remotely interesting. Again, this iconic band deserves so much more, and this film did not do them justice.

The most evident issue with this entire production was the directing from Bryan Singer. Despite all of the horrendous sexual harassment and rape accusations, Singer is a wildly mediocre director. He does not have any notable style, which is a bad choice for a film about one of the most exuberant bands in musical history. Singer brings along his experience with directing X-Men blockbusters to this film, which, again, was a huge mistake. This “grand-scale” mentality is suitable for some of the concert sequences in this film, but not at all for the more riveting, biopic parts. Imagine going to a concert for a band that you adore, only for them to not play your favorite song of theirs—that crucial part was missing.

Singer desperately attempted to squeeze in every last detail of Freddie and the band’s lives, but even with the painfully long 2-hour and 14-minute runtime, could not manage to do that. The story throughout was very unclear and could not decide between focusing on the story of Freddie or the story of Queen. There is not a single one of the band’s smash hit songs that were excluded from this film and while classic rock aficionados will be pleased, it felt much too stuffy. Many of the transitional scenes were simply recreations of legendary performances and because of this, it began to feel like a concert rather than a film. An exploration of Freddie’s life would have been far more interesting, but this movie has regrettably bit the dust.

Freddie Mercury deserves much better treatment than what he was given in Bohemian Rhapsody and, despite Malek’s royally zealous performance and an expectedly great soundtrack, this film provides nothing more than what a quick Google search could probably accomplish.

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‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ review: Drew Goddard delivers a wildly entertaining noir thriller

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Bad Times at the El Royale
20TH CENTURY FOX

A lounge singer, vacuum salesman, shifty priest, two strange sisters, and a cult leader walk into a bar. Or rather, a hotel. What happens next makes for one of the best films of 2018. Bad Times at the El Royale is Drew Goddard’s second film that he has both written and directed following 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. Reteaming with the latter’s Chris Hemsworth and bringing in a fresh cast of amazing talent, Goddard manages to deliver a wildly entertaining film that is certain to please any fan of the noir thriller genre.

The El Royale, an infamous hotel on the boundary of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe, is home to countless strange occurrences. This film follows the lives of seven strangers whose paths diverge during a heavy storm at the bi-state establishment. Aspiring singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), traveling vacuum salesman Laramie (Jon Hamm), and nervous bellboy Miles (Lewis Pullman) all cross paths one night as they check in to the hotel. While each of these characters brings their own peculiarities, things get weirder when two sisters Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny) show up, pursued by eccentric cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth). All of these guests aim to discover what really lies behind the walls of this eerie hotel, as long as they can survive until morning to find out.

Creative and original screenwriting is an art form that, nowadays, is quite rare to find in a filmmaker. The majority of large studio films tend to be style over substance, but luckily, this film has an incredible amount of both. Each film that Goddard has written tends to be completely varied in genre. From Cloverfield to The Cabin in the Woods to The Martian, he has made it clear how diverse his skill set is. Bad Times at the El Royale is a 70’s-set, Tarantino-esque, crime thriller that is not only self-aware, but cleverly references its inspiration. Goddard’s storytelling ability transcends many other modern writers and he does so by simultaneously paying respects to Tarantino while also poking fun at him. Many of the choices throughout this film seem like an homage to the infamous director, including the set design, flashback sequences, unnervingly upbeat soundtrack, and the transitional techniques. Yet the way this story plays out is more of a riff on the crime genre.

The characters’ motivations and their reasons for being at the hotel are not fully explored until the third act of the film and while this may seem boring to some, it only increased the tension that was built throughout. There were a number of twists and turns that had the audience in shock as they were hidden quite well. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is how its characters interact with each other. It is impressive that Goddard is able to write with such timely correctness, absolutely nailing the politics and mannerisms of different classes of people in the 1970s. The dark and dry humor that was utilized in the dialogue seems to be a defining aspect of Goddard’s scripts too, as he effortlessly combines well-written comedy in the drama of the story.

Goddard’s entire script was spectacular, but like most of the screenplays he has written, he has not been the director of the production. That should have been the case here as well. His ideas in his writing will always shine through, but his directing is not always impeccable, and the story did not flow as well as it could have had it been handled by a more experienced director. The pacing throughout the film was strange as the third act dragged on for too long of a time, introducing new concepts that were not given enough time to be fully fleshed out, despite how intense some of the revelations were. Granted, concluding the story of these seven strangers is no easy task, but the resolution could have been given a bit more attention. There were a few plot points that are never fully resolved but still manage to succeed in keeping the audience on their toes, even after the credits roll.

Carmen Cuba’s casting (say that five times fast) was absolutely fantastic. Each member delivered an exceptional performance and fit their respective characters flawlessly. The two best performances came from the young Pullman and the talented Erivo. Pullman played the fidgety bellboy Miles and brought an unbelievable amount of emotion to his role, while Erivo played the confident singer that carried a tense background with her at all times. The audience will undoubtedly find themselves rooting for these two the most and for a good reason.

Once again, composer Michael Giacchino strikes with a marvelously intense score, which paired wonderfully with the soundtrack’s lovely pop songs of the 60s and 70s. Seamus McGarvey’s single-room cinematography and Lisa Lassek’s extended editing were utilized excellently here as well. McGarvey nails the framing of the shots and Lassek incorporates exciting montages with long, dramatic, takes beautifully.

Bad Times at the El Royale knows no such thing as a sophomore slump. While this film has its issues with pacing, practically every other element was masterfully executed. Drew Goddard has truly proven himself as a modern master of the art of screenwriting, as he carefully intertwines his characters’ stories to keep the audience guessing. This satire of the crime genre is absolutely worth the watch and is guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.

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‘A Star Is Born’ review: Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-bound directorial debut is lavishly delightful

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A Star Is Born Shallow
WARNER BROS.

The skeptics scoffed when they heard Bradley Cooper had decided to make his directorial debut with yet another remake of A Star is Born. What could this relative newcomer to the Hollywood hierarchy possibly bring to one of show business’s Ur-myths of ambition, self-destruction and the cruel vagaries of fame? Admittedly, casting Lady Gaga as an unknown singer who becomes a pop sensation was a masterstroke. But would anyone seriously buy the boyishly handsome Cooper as a wasted, washed-up has-been?

It turns out Cooper is not only a judicious and instinctive storyteller behind the camera, but he also delivers one of the finest performances of his career in A Star Is Born, a well-seasoned, handsomely cured slab of showbiz schmaltz that hits all the right pleasure centers. With equal parts glitz and grit, Cooper has successfully navigated the most perilous shoals of making a classic narrative his own, managing to create one of its best iterations to date.

Appropriately enough, “A Star is Born” begins onstage, when Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, takes a handful of pills and a swig of gin to make it through a packed arena concert. Brandishing a stylish green guitar with scowling swagger, Jackson furiously tears through one of his signature rootsy, hard-driving hits. Filming the sequence in urgent close-ups, Cooper plunges audiences into the deafening world of stardom at its most engulfing peak, made all the more numbing by the cushioned silence of the limo that picks Jackson up after the show.

Desperate for one more drink, the rock star stops in at a little nightclub, where a waitress named Ally delivers a sensationally torchy version of “La Vie en Rose” in the midst of sundry drag routines. He’s smitten, and who wouldn’t be after the most adorable meet-cute of the year, during which a spirited Greek chorus of drag queens comment lustily from the sidelines?

Viewers familiar with previous versions of “A Star is Born” — whose narrative structure goes almost as far back as the medium itself — will already be bracing themselves for what’s to come. But Cooper allows the audience to revel in Jackson and Ally’s flirtations and courtship, which comes into florid bloom along with the tingly excitement of proximate fame, naked desire and unstoppable creativity. Part of the fun of “A Star is Born” is watching Ally, who lives with her starstruck dad (Andrew Dice Clay), pretend to be immune to the seductions Jackson has to offer, which are sexual but also aspirational. When she finally succumbs, the audience does, too. And when he brings her onstage for her big breakout, and Gaga lets loose with those pipes, the moment is electrifying.

Of course, nothing gold can stay. As Jackson’s and Ally’s fates intersect, collide and, finally, fatally diverge, “A Star is Born” lives up to the operatic tragedy hinted at by the arias that often play in the background. Cooper handles those tonal shifts with confidence as well, as sweaty immediacy becomes something more intimate and soul-baring. As an actress, Gaga may not yet possess the range she has as a singer, but with the help of editor Jay Cassidy, the film is shaped to make the most of her gifts. There are sequences in “A Star is Born” when it feels like a showdown between the best eyes in the business. It’s when she sings that she comes radiantly into her own, claiming the screen as totally as Ally claims the spotlight when her turn comes.

In a sly turn, Cooper seems to be doing his best Sam Elliott impersonation until the real Sam Elliott shows up, and it’s clear he’s delivering a performance-
within-a-performance, for reasons that become clear in a cleverly choreographed reveal. There are a few awkward transitions and slightly choppy patches in “A Star is Born,” but Cooper keeps the story on the rails, even when his characters are going off them.

And it’s not just Jackson who slips: As Ally becomes more successful, she starts to resemble a parody of a pop tartlet: one part Britney, one part Katy and no part real. As a study in artifice and authenticity, “A Star is Born” offers a suitably jaundiced glimpse of starmaking machinery at its most cynical, but also its most thrilling and gratifying. In many ways, it’s a paean to the frisson of discovering talent in its rawest, wildest state. And it’s a reminder that self-preservation is crucial to stewarding that untamed force. It’s Ally — and Gaga — who owns the spotlight, stage and screen by the end of “A Star is Born,” which Cooper has succeeded in making earthly convincing and lavishly, deliciously larger-than-life at the same time.

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