Annihilation (2018)

★★★★★

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Science fiction, at its best, is about bending the rules just enough to expand the mind. Refreshing the realm of possibility through intellectual pursuit. Often, drawn against the backdrop of humanity, be it human suffering, exploration, or endurance. In Annihilation, it’s a bit of all three. The first, painted across the expression of just about every character we meet, from Benedict Wong’s frustrated interrogator to Natalie Portman’s uncertain solider-biologist-spouse. The second, on both a physical and metaphysical level, as we watch a group of female scientists explore an ever-changing realm while debating its ever-changing properties. And the third, endurance, a necessary attribute displayed by the quintet throughout their navigation of this new world, as well as the one left behind.

Portman plays Lena, a biologist specialising in the behaviour of cells, who is surprised by the sudden reappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). An army specialist, Kane was presumed dead by Lena who lived with the weight of his vanishing, and more, for at least a year. Circumstance lands her in Area X where she learns about her partner’s exploits in The Shimmer, a creeping electromagnetic fortress with rainbow walls and a penchant for harming those who enter. Enchanted by the unknown, Lena joins four other scientists, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a fact-finding mission inside.

The film blends dread with intrigue, often evoking that feeling of dangerous wonder, where you know you’re watching something uneasy unfold but can’t take your eyes off the screen. This is Alex Garland’s second feature as director, following Ex Machina, and his grasp of tone is already excellent. Annihilation is less clinical than Ex Machina, more subservient to the fluidity of nature, but it exudes that same sense of simmering tension. We feel it from the beginning, the tension increasing as the five women enter The Shimmer embodying that sense of dangerous wonder, fully aware their survival chances are slim. (They enter anyway.) Self-destruction drives the film and there are many moments of violence and anguish, but there are also discreet moments of hope. Maybe ‘beauty’ is the wrong word (though the film does look stunning, another reason to be angry at Paramount for not giving it a theatrical run here in the UK), but characters find relief amongst all the despair and regret, and we do too.

Thus, The Shimmer is a bi-functional venue: A faux refuge, a place where our scientific group go to escape the woes of reality or to chase answers, both with varied results, and also a Rubik’s Cube that seeks to change the face of physics and natural order. The narrative itself is fluid, morphing from present to past through flashbacks with no clear time-stamp, designed to further flesh out the emotional states of those on-screen. In and of itself, these flashbacks don’t defy cinematic convention, but by interspersing them at various points along the group’s excursion, Garland brings The Shimmer’s bending of natural order beyond the fourth wall.

The film owes a little to the horror genre, certain visual moments capturing that hair-raising creepiness common in the genre greats — I’m thinking of the way the camera foregrounds and backgrounds people and space in a certain sequence towards the end (reminiscent of Mike Gioulakis and David Robert Mitchell’s efforts in It Follows). Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow contribute to similar effect via a metallic, invasive score that climaxes with a now infamous four-note sound that unsettles and compels in almost equal measure. You really do have to hear it.

I alluded to Annihilation’s Netflix-only release here in the UK, which was a consequence of a dispute between Garland, supported by producer Scott Rudin, and Paramount bosses who felt the film was both too complex for audiences and that Lena lacked sufficient moral clarity. Conversely, it is to the film’s credit that we have a female protagonist who isn’t vilified for poor decision-making, and whose greyness is an enriching attribute. Garland’s screenplay, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is challenging, but not any more than Eric Heisserer’s work on Arrival, which more than quadrupled its production budget at the box office. Portman, by the way, is brilliant in the role, never overplaying her character’s internal heartache. She isn’t lovable but we’re with her every step of the way, which is a credit to both actor and filmmaker. Her partners in expedition are also great, particularly Gina Rodriguez as Anya.

It all leads to a unique conclusion, a final half hour that draws a line in the sand, challenging another filmmaker to conjure up something as enthralling, as spooky, as wonderfully disconcerting. I hesitate to deify a film I’ve only just seen and haven’t had the chance to fully digest, but Kubrick’s 2001 springs to mind as far as third act feats go. Garland downright refuses to answer your questions — there must at least three “don’t knows” uttered in the final 10 minutes — and whether or not this delights you or makes you tear your hair out will depend on what type of moviegoer you are: Someone who loves mystery, or someone who needs definitive truth. (Psst! Either is fine.) That may be the greatest thing about Annihilation, that it implores you to think about it, and then watch it again, and then think about it some more, and then watch it again. Timeless? A sci-fi classic? Maybe.

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: 15

Runtime: 1hr 55mins

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Science fiction

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson

Images ©: Paramount Pictures, Netflix

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

★★★

Beasts of No Nation PosterDirector: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Release Date: October 16th, December (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

Beasts of No Nation, concocted almost single-handedly by Cary Joji Fukunaga — or that guy who brought us True Detective season one — has been touted as potential player at next year’s Academy Awards. The catch? It would be the first Netflix original to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s elite on their golden night. Its online distribution platform may well be the future of entertainment (hopefully not exclusively), but the film itself is rooted in the past and present, telling a story of violent civil war in West Africa.

Fukunaga (director, screenwriter, cinematographer) patiently paints youngster Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family with endearing strokes: once a teacher, his father is now a humanitarian clearing land for refugees; his mother evokes a loving aura, carrying out maternal and manual tasks with a smile; and his aloof big brother is your typical teenager, obsessed with muscle mass, girls, and having a laugh. Agu himself is smart egg, a kid full of sneaky creativity. He deconstructs his father’s TV and rebrands the empty frame an “imagination television” hoping someone will fork out some cash or food for it.

Granted, there is a significant military presence in the unnamed village and displaced groups are struggling to find a place to settle, but life for Agu is fairly good given the circumstances. That is, until war truly makes its presence felt. “Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing,” narrates Agu. And everything does change, horrifyingly so. Separated from his family, Agu finds himself lost in the bush and about to unwillingly travel down a path paved in unethical stone. For at this point Idris Elba’s Commandant swaggers on-screen, an eerily charismatic rebel leader who hypnotises with words, poisoning the minds of those too inexperienced to think for themselves. Elba suitably commands, persuasive in posture and delivery.

Head of the Native Defence Force, his followers parade a faux-macho exterior, wagging weapons and wearing the surrounding landscape as a battle uniform. Agu, now with nowhere else to go, falls in line and begins his training as a child soldier. As words such as “family” and “father” ring out, you can see Agu’s resistance collapsing and his loyalties shifting towards Commandant’s bloody policy. The latter trains his young army to understand stringent battle formations and inflict uncompromising punishments, all the while a soundtrack of propaganda wails out in the background. The soldiers also play football, albeit more aggressively than normal, a fleeting reminder of their humanity.

Once in battle mode, the situation turns to abhorrence: one particular execution is horrid, but thankfully (admirably) Fukunaga doesn’t gratuitously linger on the visual. It’s not that type of film. Rather, Beasts of No Nation wants to convey the very real dehumanisation of children via war and mind-warping. The sieges that we see are so impersonal, so chaotic, that it is difficult to tell who is killing and who is dying — and that’s the point. One such invasion is painted red even before blood has been shed, ominously predicting the inevitable while also projecting the drugged-up mindsets of the invading adolescents.

Fukunaga’s lens work gives character to the jungle; shots of mossy foliage landscapes wonderfully signify the denseness of the locale, parading this idea that there is no escape, not even for the rebels. It is a notion best captured early on as Agu attempts to escape a band of gun-toting killers: Fukunaga pulls his camera back, carefully revealing the contrast between the vibrant jungle ahead and the smoke-filled decimation in the youngster’s rear view. The environment transcends reality: the aforementioned coaching sequences, engulfed by mist, are loosely reminiscent of those swampy Dagobahian sessions in The Empire Strikes Back.

Blood Diamond is a clear cousin: the setting, the narrative, the relationship between Agu and his family — these are all shared characteristics. But Fukunaga’s piece doesn’t have said outing’s heart. While the lack of direct Western involvement is entirely justified (character or plot-wise), the lack of a determined, soulful saviour hurts. In Blood Diamond, that saviour is Djimon Hounsou. He plays the father of a young child solider and his stunning performance imbues Edward Zwick’s film with hope and humanity, traits that are somewhat lacking on this occasion. You find yourself yearning for a Hounsou-esque force in Beasts of No Nation, particularly as Commandant’s poisonous grip over Agu gains momentum, but there simply isn’t one.

There is also very little grace — some might argue rightfully — and this causes you to pull away from proceedings. Without a father figure valiantly attempting to save his son, there is nothing really to tow you back in. Abraham Attah is a true revelation as Agu, his transformation from bright boy to corrupt soldier disheartening, but also lacking in any semblance of goodwill. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye is equally as good as Strika, another fighter with whom Agu bonds, yet unfortunately the duo don’t share enough screen time to truly generate a sense of collective humaneness.

I think the film is too long. Scenes reap repetition by the 80-minute mark, though this could be a measure employed intentionally to emphasise the gruelling nature of war. Fortunately, it does begin to incorporate some political elements in the third act; we hit an urban centre where Commandant engages in a verbal joust with another NDF head honcho. As they barter back and forth over payment, leadership, and resource deployment, The Last King of Scotland springs to mind. Had Fukunaga cherry-picked a tad more from his aforementioned genre ancestors, he could have been onto a classic.

Beasts of No Nation - Elba & Attah

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): NetflixBleecker Street

Man Crates: Horror Movie Survival Guide

Scream - Randy Meeks

There is a sequence in Wes Craven’s Scream where local horror buff Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) takes centre stage before a group of apparently in-the-know teenagers and explains to them the various rules of scary movie survival. “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie,” he exclaims with hilarious passion. Be a virgin. Don’t announce your imminent return. And damn it, everyone is a suspect!

Taking inspiration from the lovely people over at Man Crates, I reckon it’s time we shifted our collective focus away from the reactive and towards the proactive. Let’s stop worrying about who the killer is and start worrying about how to conquer said killer. A zombie apocalypse? Forget wearily looking around for fresh water, we ought to start stocking up on the good stuff now. Below is a list of must-have possessions, things everybody should own in the event of a horrifying disaster. Let’s not kid ourselves, in a few years The Walking Dead will probably be eligible to win Best Documentary Series at the Emmys.

You check out Man Crates’ numerous crate combos here — my personal favourite is the Retro Gamer edition. The crates are primarily aimed at guys (we’re notoriously indecisive when it comes to gift wish lists) though I reckon many women out there would be interested too. Crowbars at the ready.

The Walking Dead - Michonne

1 — Water (lots)

Given I’ve already mentioned it, this one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Apparently us humans can only go around three days without water — unless you’re Frodo Baggins who, along with his mate Sam, went something like a week without H2O replenishment. Hoarding water is just common sense. You might even be able to recycle it too, though I’m certainly no expert.

2 — Michonne’s sword (and Michonne)

A weapon is essential, and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a chainsaw all day and night. A gun would be excellent for a while but you would be snookered when the ammo runs out. I always fancied myself as a bit of an archer — on Skyrim, anyway — but arrows numbers would eventually diminish too. I reckon you’d want something long in length to avoid any close combat, and a Katana blade perfectly fits that bill. Perhaps it’d be best just to hire Michonne as your personal bodyguard.

3 — Notepad and pen(s)

You’d need something that would help pass the time in between any monster-evading exploits, and since technology requires power (which, presumably, would be difficult to garner in a world ravaged by villainous creatures), I reckon the old notepad and pen combo would do the trick. Us film fanatics could write. Arty folk could draw. Gamers could play noughts and crosses. Endless fun.

4 — Netflix

I know I said earlier technology would be a moot possession in an apocalyptic landscape, but who am I kidding? It’s 2015. Us Millennial lot can hardly survive a day wrapped up in bed without the wonders of Netflix. Chances are the big baddie at large — be it the Xenomorph from Alien, Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Ghostface him/herself — would end up addicted to Orange is the New Black anyway.

5 — Bear Grylls

He is basically humanity’s version of a pocketknife. Bear can hunt for food, he can seek out accessible shelter, create fire without equipment, built rafts to cross rivers etc. Even the world’s most powerful man, Barack Obama, trusts him (though according to the President, Bear’s culinary skills leave something to be desired). And besides, if you can’t survive a real life horror movie with a guy called “Bear” by your side, your survival chances were probably null upon arrival.

Bonus — Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility

This isn’t cheating, is it? You could sit peacefully, sword in tow, guzzling water, jotting down notes in between episodes of Twin Peaks, Bear Grylls camped by your side, and remain hidden from the atrocities of reality. I suppose if we are venturing down the magical route, Hermione’s Time-Turner would be a better option.

There you have it. Some words of advice, free of charge. What more can you ask? If you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

The Walking Dead - Walkers

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Dimension Films, AMC

Reeling Them Off (June 2013)

Today I am going to talk about a few random bits and pieces — from film news to upcoming releases to recent movies I have watched. I reckon I will do this type of thing more often, rather than relentlessly bore you with four or five separate blog posts. About once or twice a month sounds about right.

“There goes my plans to do a live-action Garfield The Cat movie.”

Sony recently announced that, not only will we be getting The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but we will also be given extra helpings of the franchise by way of a third in 2016 and even a fourth at some point in 2018. Talk about optimism, eh? Well perhaps rightly so, because I think it is safe to say that, just like last year’s Spidey reboot which garnered over $750 million at the box office, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is likely to line many a pocket come next year, vindicating the somewhat premature announcement of a further two instalments.

One of the main problems with telling your audience that there will be another two films after the upcoming one, is that it sort of diminishes the importance of the next Peter Parker saga. Surely a Spider-Man film is not a Spider-Man film without Spider-Man, which would more or less exterminate any suspense during upcoming potential death scenes, as we know Spider-Man cannot die (at least, not yet)? Of course, there are ways around this — Alien: Resurrection being a somewhat distant example — therefore I guess the impending, or lack thereof, death of Spider-Man is not a huge issue going into part two. I have every expectation that the outing will be a solid one, much like the first, and will hopefully continue what is shaping up to be a successful reboot of the previously fledgling franchise.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is scheduled for release on the 18th April, 2014 in the United Kingdom.

Sticking with the subject of upcoming films for a moment, I would like to talk briefly about a few on the horizon. Firstly, the premier trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street — where Leonardo DiCaprio plays New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort — hit the internet a few days ago and, to be honest, it is not exactly what I had expected beforehand. My vision of the film was that it would be one focused far more on drama, with a more serious tone (who knows, this may well still be the case) however the trailer seems to give off a refreshingly comical ambience. This sits well with me as, being a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and his previous work with Scorsese, I reckon it will be interesting to see the two delve into a more comedic setting for the first time together. The trailer certainly made me laugh, and we are in the more-than-capable hands of a wonderful director and an exceptional cast, so this one should not disappoint.

The Wolf on Wall Street is set for release on the 17th January, 2014 in the United Kingdom.

“It’s good to be The Rock.”

Time for a dip into the rumour market and it turns out that the most electrifying man in sports all of entertainment, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (or just The Rock to all the cool people, like me) is being touted as one of the stars of the upcoming Terminator 5 film. The Rock, as he shall be known from here on out in this post, has had an excellent past few years in the film industry, and these have been capped off by a simply outstanding first half of 2013. In fact, the semi-retired professional wrestler, who’s four films this year have already grossed over $1 billion combined, has had a movie in the US box office top ten for the past seventeen weeks in a row — stretching all the way back to late February — and this run does not look like stopping any time soon with Fast & Furious 6 still going strong. The Rock has become something of a franchise resurrect-er recently, having taken stagnant franchises such as Fast & Furious, G. I. Joe and Journey to the… and giving them the shot in the arm required to reinstate themselves again. Being a massive professional wrestling fan myself, I have loved The Rock for over a decade and hope to see his acting career continue to thrive.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars in Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which is due for release on the 25th July, 2014 in the United Kingdom.

Just a quick note before I continue. Even though I have never watched The Sopranos (I know, I know) it is always extremely sad to hear about the passing of an actor, let alone one of such significance to the world of television. One day, i do hope to watch The Sopranos in order to truly appreciate James Gandolfini, but until then I do not think it is really my place to talk about the man as an actor — although I am sure I do not need to anyway, having read about his greatness on my Twitter feed. All I will say is may he rest in peace.

The other day I re-entered the realm of Netflix, something that was long overdue. I decided to watch a film titled The ABCs of Death, based on what I had heard about it. To begin with, The ABCs of Death is not a film — it is a collection of 26 short stories, each of which convey a depiction of death based a word associated with a letter of the alphabet. The ‘film’ is directed by 26 different directors from all over the world, and thus there is no real narrative to it and the audience already knows the eventual outcome of every short-story — death. There were a few entertaining letters, such as Q and T, and a number of the clips made me laugh due to their sheer ridiculousness — I am thinking H in particular — but on the whole the clips just did not make much sense and some of them were a bit too over-the-top in terms of violence and, well, other stuff. It is one of those things where you kind of have to watch it due to the intrigue, but afterwards — if you are like me — you will probably be regretting wasting over two hours on it.

“Chairs are for wimps.”

I finally got around to watching a few films I had wanted to see for while — The Breakfast Club, A Few Good Men and Broadcast News — and I loved all three of them, particularly The Breakfast Club. John Hughes has a way with making films which ensures they remain relevant so many years on: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles are two classics which more than hold up in 2013, and The Breakfast Club is no different. For a courtroom drama, a type of film which can sometimes venture dangerously close to the boring mark, A Few Good Men kept me grasped throughout, with the tension slowly bubbling as the film progressed, and it boasts a number of excellent performances from the likes of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. I watched the television show The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, last summer and in anticipation for this summer’s upcoming season two, I decided to watch Broadcast News, a film about three colleagues and their relationship with each other and their job. It struck me how similar the two are, even though they are created on different platforms, as both contain vibrant, witty scripts and bubbly, likeable characters (Holly Hunter and Emily Mortimer’s characters are incredibly similar).

Oh, and I also got around to seeing Die Hard. I now get the hype surrounding Alan Rickman in this film, although I do not quite get the hype surrounding the film itself. Maybe I should have watched it ten years ago, before being lambasted with similar “Cowboys and Indians” (“in The Towering Inferno,” as Mark Kermode likes to put it) type films over the last decade.

Anyway, I think that will do it for today. If you have any comments just write them below and I look forward to doing some more of these in the future!