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
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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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‘Toy Story 4’ review: Pixar’s iconic franchise is back and it’s warped, weird, and better for it

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Toy Story 4
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Let me tell you about Benson. Deep in the recesses of America, off a mysterious back highway, next to a carnival and a trailer park, there is an antique shop haunted by a doll called Benson. He marches around standing awkwardly erect, Frankenstein-style, and swivels his head 270 degrees like a demented owl. Benson performs impromptu surgeries on visitors to the antique shop. He never says a word. And there are four of him. He’s only a supporting character in Toy Story 4, but a symbol of where it’s gone: weirder, darker, more twisted. And more enjoyable for it.

First, it’s important to point out that this is a still Toy Story movie. It has a big heart beating inside, the same one that’s powered the three films before. With Andy and his sister grown, the gang of anthropomorphic toys we’ve come to know and love has been handed down to Bonnie, a shy girl who’s having trouble adjusting to kindergarten. Her newest comfort is Forky, a dirty spork with red pipe cleaner arms, popsicle stick feet, and some googly eyes. The problem is that Forky—voiced by Tony Hale, who delivers peak Tony Hale manic bewilderment—doesn’t think he’s a toy; Forky thinks he’s trash, and wants to get back to his “warm, cozy, safe” trash origins. Woody, dedicated to protecting Bonnie’s feelings, is determined to wrangle the despondent utensil, hoping to convince him that he is, in fact, a toy—and that Bonnie needs him. (Cue Randy Newman singing “I can’t let you throw yourself away.”)

As the trailer implied, Forky’s cartoonish, zero-waste life—and Toy Story 4 as a whole—is a meditation on existential purpose. Particularly, Woody’s. The aging cowboy reckons with letting go, his own obsolescence, and the tension of navigating between loyalty and personal happiness. Does Bonnie really need him, or does he just need to be needed? Does Woody deserve to run off with the love of his life, Bo Peep (Annie Potts)? Toy Story 4 doesn’t so much give an answer as some advice: listen to yourself, and you’ll know where you belong.

It’s a conventional message, delivered explicitly and often, throughout the movie. But Toy Story feels special because here, in its fourth go-round, because it gutsily wraps that motivational poster bromide in Benson-level absurdity. Besides the demented mute surgeon-toy, there’s Carl, the party boy action figure (voiced by Carl Weathers); Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil toy in the mold of Evel Knievel (Keanu Reeves); Bunny and Ducky, two carnival-prize stuffed animals attached at the hand (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key). These sideshow characters contribute sly sexual innuendos, brilliant meta jokes, elaborately violent fantasies. They espouse deep, absurd insecurities. (Try not to feel things during Keanu Reeves’—wait, Duke Caboom’s—emotional monologue about his former kid, Rajon.) As a whole, the freaky dolls and ruthless humor tug the Disney aesthetic toward Adult Swim territory, cutting through the sugar-sweetness with jolting acidity.

Which in itself feels a bit staggering. Rather than treat Toy Story as an investment portfolio that needs to be managed conservatively, Pixar heeded its own advice about what to do in moments of existential quandary, and listened to its heart. And Pixar’s heart whispered: get weirder.

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‘Men in Black: International’ review: You’ll want to erase this movie from your mind after its over

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Men in Black: International
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If Hollywood studios are content to cannibalize the vaults in search of new hits, the first thing they should remember is why the original films were hits in the first place. For all the bells and whistles that went along with the original 1997 Men in Black, with its cutting-edge alien effects, the reason it works is extremely old-fashioned, rooted in an effective cross-pollination between fish-out-of-water comedy and mismatched buddy comedy.

There were plenty of laughs in Will Smith’s knockabout reactions to a secret agency tasked with containing the alien underground, and more still in the back-and-forth between him and his crusty counterpart, played by Tommy Lee Jones. No matter how expensive films get, it’s the cheapest business that matter most.

Though the awful Men in Black: International is technically a sequel to Men in Black 3, it’s unlikely that many are immersed enough in the mythology to recall Emma Thompson’s Agent O as the thin connective tissue between them, especially without Smith or Jones in the picture. So it’s really more a stealth reboot with Tessa Thompson in the Smith role of a charismatic new recruit and Chris Hemsworth as the seasoned veteran in the Jones mold, though neither is doing an imitation. Their roles have been reimagined to where there’s hardly any sharp contrasts between them — her confidence is never buffoonish, his experience is never ornery — so the best they can manage is a little light teasing and the occasional moony glance.

Yet the true thrust of Men in Black: International is suggested by its title: What if there were MIB branches around the world? That would mean that the agents are not mere American beat officers, like the Smith/Jones duo, but globe-trotting James Bond types who get whisked from London to Paris to Marrakesh, Morocco, and back again. There’s nothing funny about the concept, but like a 007 thriller, there’s a generous assortment of fashionable outfits, souped-up luxury vehicles and the latest in alien-zapping weaponry, all managed by those cool translucent swipe-screen computers from Minority Report. More bells and whistles.

In a reversal of the Men in Black origin story, Thompson’s Agent M isn’t discovered by MIB. It is the other way around, as part of a 20-year quest to find the agency that visited her home as a child. Admiring her initiative, Agent O sends her from New York to the London branch, which is immersed in intrigue surrounding a threat called The Hive. Hemsworth’s Agent H and his former partner, High T (Liam Neeson), saved the world from this same alien species a couple of years before, and now their enemies have taken the form of Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), two shape-shifting siblings from Morocco who are on a trail of destruction. Agent H and Agent M are on the case, joined by a pocket-sized alien wiseacre named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), but they begin to suspect that MIB’s house is not in order.

There’s a lot of plotting in Men In Black: International, which makes room for a diabolical three-armed seductress (Rebecca Ferguson) and a compact weapon of planet-destroying power, but the more the story unfurls, the deeper the film sinks into quicksand. Director F. Gary Gray and his screenwriters, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, have made the crucial mistake of believing the franchise needs complex world-building instead of streamlined comedy. Even if the events in the film made any kind of sense, they were never going to matter as much as the good time Hemsworth, Neeson and the two Thompsons are supposed to be showing us. And yet that’s where the emphasis lies.

Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are a proven commodity, having teamed up briefly in Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps the funniest of all the Marvel movies, but they are too busy hustling around to expensive set pieces to spark off each other. Though Nanjiani’s super-cute alien seems like a leftover from Batteries Not Included, at least he has some room to toss around insults and witticisms, and improvise his way out of trouble. Whether the franchise can survive without Smith and Jones is an open question, but it can’t live on gadgetry and spy games and an influx of Mos Eisley cantina denizens alone. There has to be chemistry, too.

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‘Rocketman’ review: Elton John’s biopic is so much better (and gayer) than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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Rocketman
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I don’t want to ruffle any peacock feathers, rattle sequins, or get anyone’s codpiece in a twist, but it does have to be said: Gay people have sex.

Apologies if this isn’t news, but you wouldn’t know when heading to the cinema, in the year 2019, whether or not a movie about the life of Elton John in which he says the phrase, “I have fucked everything that moves,” depicts actual gay sex. Again, a movie about Elton John. Elton John!

Imagine having spent a lifetime delighting in the star’s flamboyant performances and reading the gossip rag stories about his life, then purchasing a ticket for a movie not expecting or, worse, not wanting to see gay sex scenes. Elton John!!!

Yet there was much talk leading up to Rocketman’s release this Friday over whether different parties that be—the studio, the actors, the director—were going to acquiesce to a late-stage panic about the film’s one explicit sex scene and tame it down, if not remove it completely.

It was an infuriating report about a movie about a LGBTQ rock icon being released so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody, which not only blushed at the idea of showing Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in the throes of passion with other men but treated his sexuality as a predatory gateway drug to a destructive lifestyle. It was also not a surprise, as that movie, despite and maybe because of this, went on to be a big fat hit and win Academy Awards.

Well, there is gay sex in Rocketman. That fact was heralded like a hosannah from the shores of the Croisette when the film premiered to a lengthy standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. The gleeful reaction was a breath of relief, but also, it turns out, an indictment of how little we’re willing to settle for and even celebrate.

There’s been so much press after Cannes breathlessly praising Rocketman for being the first studio movie to include a gay sex scene. That’s not entirely true, though this is certainly the biggest movie pitched to a mass audience to do so. And it’s all over one (very short!) scene in which Egerton’s Elton and Richard Madden’s John Reid, his former lover and manager, aggressively make out and begin stripping off their clothes. The camera shifts away just as they are about to have sex, giving a blink-and-miss-it view of a butt. Rude.

(Whatever “nude cuddle” was the subject of so many reports is not to be found.)

It’s hot, yes. It’s also so brief, and the lone example, to the point that when John later in the film boasts about having “fucked everything that moves,” you can’t help but think, has he though?

It’s a small point to complain about in a movie that is about far more than the sex this man had. Except that so much of the movie, which is centered around an addict at his breaking point looking back at all his vices and how they’ve shaped him, is very much about the sex this man had.

The most explicitly gay thing about the film is the character of Elton John thinking that he’s fat when he’s played by Taron Egerton. Still, the movie is sufficiently gayer than Bohemian Rhapsody—and, yes, that matters. It’s far more concerned with capturing John’s spirit than Rhapsody was with anything besides making the other members of Queen seem cool, certainly not doing right by Mercury.

Because of this, Rocketman is infinitely better in almost every way than Bohemian Rhapsody, to the point that people will inevitably wonder that, if it doesn’t perform as well at the box office, its “gayness” will be one of the reasons why.

The film opens with Elton John bursting through a door in a flaming-red bodysuit with flared bell bottoms, a headpiece with devil horns, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a pair of red wings so massive and ornate a Victoria’s Secret model would shed a single tear at the sight. He looks fabulous. It is the lowest moment of his life.

The glam-rock couture is brought down to earth by the fittingly sober surroundings: a group counseling session at a rehab, where John is finally checking himself in after a cocktail of addictions—alcohol, sex, cocaine, pills, and even shopping—has proven too potent for him to handle.

It’s a clever introduction to the film’s framing device: John at rehab answering counselors’ questions about his past relationships with his parents, lovers, and longtime writing partner and best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as a way of unlocking a series of flashbacks by way of fantasias. From there, we look back at his childhood, coming out, and surging career, each with surreal breaks from reality in which characters break into song, break the fourth wall, or, in some cases, break the rules of physics and gravity and start levitating.

The whole thing is fittingly unconventional, fantastical, and campy. This is a biopic about Elton John; it bloody hell should be.

But the visual tricks and dreamlike set pieces—an entire British suburb falling into step for a song-and-dance rendition of “The Bitch Is Back,” John floating above his piano, an entire number performed in a pool underwater—are an illusion. In terms of structure, storytelling, and cliches, this is very much your traditional biopic.Rocketman is proof that there can be all kinds of flair and flourish in the brush strokes, but a film can still be paint-by-numbers.

From the start, the beats are familiar. He’s a child music prodigy, and performance is his ticket out of a humdrum life. He has a mercurial, withholding father (Steven Mackintosh) who chastises him, “Don’t be soft.” His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) swills martinis and chases each gesture of love toward her son with a stinger. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” she tells him when he comes out to her, punctuating her initial insistence that she didn’t care with a dagger to the heart. “You’ll never be loved.”

All the substance abuse, the dysfunctional relationship with Reid, the outlandish costumes, the fake name (John was born Reginald Dwight), the sexual angst: It’s all because he doesn’t know what it means to be himself. “You gotta kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you want to be,” a musician he meets early in his career says. At one point, Reginald thought he knew who that was. All this fame and all these struggles later, Elton isn’t so sure.

That’s Rocketman’s revelation. Imagine an entertainer so boisterous and legendary, with that much bravery—rocking out in those costumes all those decades ago—and outlandish charisma, not being in tune with who he is.

The comparisons to Rhapsody are both maybe a little unfair but also entirely relevant. It would be reductive to measure the films against each other just because they are major rockstar biopics released close together, and especially egregious to do so just because their two subjects are queer.

But there is the unignorable trivia that Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in to finish shooting and rescue the Bohemian Rhapsody production after Bryan Singer was fired, inextricably tying the two films together. Then there’s the shared cultural impact of both, tapping into what made Bohemian Rhapsody such a phenomenon, and charging Rocketman with course-correcting the elements of that phenomenon that were so problematic.

To that regard, Rocketman lends a dignity to John’s feelings about his sexuality where Rhapsody disgraces and even demonizes Mercury’s struggle. And whileRhapsody manipulated facts of Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis to manufacture an emotional climax in the Live Aid finale, there’s no such bastardizing in Rocketman.

In Rhapsody, Malek made inhabiting Mercury seem effortless, wearing his physicality and magnetism with ease. If Egerton seems to be working harder in Rocketman, one might argue it’s because he is: He does his own singing! There are people in both camps when it comes to whether it matters that an actor records his own vocals when playing a singer on screen, but there’s no debating that what Egerton accomplishes here is nothing less than a sensational movie star turn.

It’s true that no number in Rocketman lives up to the exhilaration of that Live Aid performance. But it also doesn’t have to rely on the thrill of that ending to justify enjoying the rest of a sluggishly paced, superficial, and poorly edited production. Rocketman is a blast from beginning to end, boasting enough Baz Luhrmann-esquerazzle-dazzle and inventiveness to surprise and spellbound audiences who remember when rock was young—and still magical.

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