Annihilation (2018)

23 Feb

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation cements director Alex Garland as one of the most ambitious talents in contemporary sci-fi. Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Benedict Wong, the film tells the story of Lena and Kane (Portman and Isaac, respectively), a military couple who become caught up in investigating a government-restricted ecological disaster zone titled “Area X,” where a series of mysterious events have been puzzling authorities for the past several years.  Things go from bad to worse as Lena, a microbiologist by trade and academic by profession, gradually discovers the horrific details of failed missions designed to mine Area X for clues explaining its perplexing nature.

Alex Garland, who previously wrote and directed 2015’s superb techno-thriller Ex Machinadisplays much more confidence the second time around. As with his first feature, Garland plays heavy into big philosophical ideas about the nature of mankind, only now things feel bigger, less sterile and more experimental. In the film’s first half, you get a strong sense that individual scenes have a chimerical and visionary purpose to them, one that gradually builds up to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and dread. There is a slow, meditative transition from fantasy towards nightmare in Annihilation, as characters slowly realize – along with the audience – that things in the environment aren’t quite right. Though most of the film is subtle in its examination of psychological unease, parts of the film’s latter half go into full-bore survival horror with surprisingly effective results.

Performance-wise, almost everyone is solid with Garland’s script, and thankfully many of the scientist-type movie tropes are left aside. Isaac, who previously starred in Ex Machina, is fantastic and Portman might be even better. The weak character moment comes with Jennifer Jason Leigh – an actress I’d long associated with energy and flamboyance – playing Dr. Ventress, the subdued and jaded government psychologist who is supposed to be seen as some sort of character foil to our emotionally-driven protagonist. Even more out of place is the film’s bizzare score which mixes subtle synth-work with… folksy blues guitar? Whatever shortcomings the film has on the audio side are more than made up for with Annihilation‘s unique visuals which, at times, boast some of the best sci-fi production design and visual effects since Under the Skin. 

Garland has obviously shifted away from the science-based, tech-conscious realism of Ex Machina towards something more transcendental and abstract. While I think I would have appreciated it if the film were more grounded in its dialogue, the story is wildly imaginative and itches that sweet spot in a way that only great cinema can.  Annihilation is a terribly ambitious film that was designed to inspire – and it hits the right notes more often than not.

Bottom Line: Annihilation feels a bit too weighted in fantasy rather than the gritty realism it’s aching for, but the film’s atmosphere, visuals, and ambition prove director Alex Garland has raw talent for telling engaging, thought-provoking sci-fi. 

Rating: 9.2 /10 

Film Recipe: Stalker (1979) + Arrival + The Fountain + The Thing


Sorry To Bother You (Sundance 2018)

11 Feb

After spending years in development hell, rapper-turned-director Boots Riley‘s dark satire Sorry To Bother You finally hit the big screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of the buzziest titles of the festival.

Set in a not-too-distant-future of Oakland, the film follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they try to save up cash with plans to finally move out of Cassius’ uncle’s garage. Cassius takes up a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles to make sales until he discovers the magic secret: putting on his “white voice” when talking with potential customers.  Cue the post-Obama racial satire as Cassius quickly climbs the ranks of telemarketing and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets brought on by corporate figurehead Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer).

Shot on a minimal budget and produced with the self-described “stone-soup” method (every new crew member brings something big to the table to collaborate on) Sorry To Bother You has a renegade punk vibe embedded within its DNA. Thompson and Stanfield both give incredibly bold performances and help the more outlandish lines of dialogue seem grounded within the film’s unique reality.  A supporting cast with Danny Glover, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and voicework by Patton Oswalt and David Cross help create the vividly colorful world the film lives in.

It becomes apparent during the first 15 minutes that writer/director Boots Riley has stacked his script full of details that lift the film above a cultural pedestal and into a world of its own. The story goes from being socially provocative to radically ambitious to levels of Charlie Kauffman-esc meta-satire referencing everything from social activist culture to gentrification to celebrity status in the digital age to the meme-ification of fake news to the ever-present display of corporate America. Seriously, there are more ideas floated around in the first act of Sorry To Bother You than you will find in the most viral of Ted Talks.  Not all of the cultural commentary sticks however, and some ideas feel senselessly shoehorned into the plot for little or no reason. Still, Riley clearly has a passion for his chaotic mess, and even in its most confusing or cartoonish moments Sorry To Bother You thrives off its ever-emanating creative energy and ambition. Coincidentally, this unique gem ends up being a lot of fun in the process.

Bottom Line: While Sorry To Bother You makes more sense as a haphazard cultural collage than a narrative film, the ideological soup the film creates is impressively ambitious and wildly entertaining. 

Rating: 8.2/10 

Film Recipe: Get Out + Being John Malkovich + Office Space + Dear White People

Mandy (2018 Sundance)

3 Feb

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere in the 2000’s or perhaps 2010’s there was a collective cultural reawakening and renewed appreciation for the actor Nicolas Cage. Perhaps it was due to the broadening of meme culture and prevalence of GIFs as a viable communication tool. Perhaps it’s entirely due to the infamy of Neil LaBute‘s unnecessary remake of The Wickerman which is often cited as being one of the best (worst?) of the so-bad-it’s-great horror collection. Or maybe it had something to do with fan-made “greatest hits” video mashups of the thespian’s most outlandish moments. Whatever the reason, the Chuck Norris of the internet age had gone from acclaimed dramatic actor to C-movie superstar with roles in such abysmal works like Knowing, Drive Angry, and Left Behind.   

And then we get to Mandy, the follow-up from the elusive director of Beyond the Black RainbowPanos Cosmatos. Premiering in the Midnight section at the Sundance Film Festival, Mandy is exactly the sort of thing that the best midnight movies are made of. Cage stars alongside Andrea Riseborough (playing the titular character Mandy) as a woodsman hauling trees somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The two appear to be husband and wife, and have settled themselves comfortably away from civilization in a remote mountian lodge.  One day as Mandy is out for a morning jog, she crosses paths with an eclectic group of self-identified “Jesus Freaks” who then kidnap poor Mandy to be used as some sort of cosmic, ritualistic sacrifice.

Mandy is essentially two separate hour-long films; the first half being the more surreal, psychedelic, visually-impressive storytelling that we are familiar with Cosmatos doing so well in Beyond the Black Rainbow. Scene by scene, the pulsating music, visuals, and 80’s aesthetic become so overwhelming that one becomes simultaneously distanced and hypnotized by the dreamstate that unfolds.  Characters ramble on and on about cosmic deities and philosophical musings and destiny and the nature of good and evil. Things make absolutely no narrative sense but you don’t really don’t care because Cosmatos believes so intensely in his unique drug-fuelled vision and the vivid details carry the film far above its C-level script. One becomes increasingly less-concerned with why and more transfixed with how things happen as the film progresses.  This part of Mandy looks and feels like a painting lifted straight out of a 1992-era Dungeons & Dragons game manual and the scenes are crafted with such Kubrickian-like artistry rarely seen in cinema today.

Eventually one part of the story bleeds into the next and the hallucinatory effect of Cosmatos’ cinema-drug starts to wear off as various images emerge and dissipate. A burned body….. cloaked figures chanting in a circle…. and….. is that Nicolas Cage forging a battle axe?!? Suddenly the lucid dream we were experiencing comes to halt and we are snapped into a vicious action story centered around a vodka-infused character (Nicholas Cage) out for blood.  Here the film completely embraces Cage’s legacy as the gaudy cult-icon he has become and events go from mildly absurd to full-bore bonkers as Cosmatos turns the Outrageous dial up to 11.  Mandy never enters full on camp territory however, even as Nic Cage breaks the fourth wall to stare directly into the camera and give his signature “You Don’t Say” face (soaked in blood this time, of course); Cosmatos is so committed to his vision that things still feel cemented in a serious story – even when moments become outlandishly bizarre.

By the end of Mandy, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted. This film takes you on a journey and steeps its way deep into the subconscious long after viewing. It’s definitely not for everyone, but those inclined toward midnight genre fare are in for a treat.

Bottom Line: While some might have a hard time with the film’s slower, more metaphysical first half, Mandy rewards patient viewers with an all-out assault on the senses that culminates into a truly original and exciting viewing experience. 

Rating: 7.6 / 10

Film Recipe: Enter the Void + The Evil Dead pt II + Beyond the Black Rainbow + The Visitor 

I, Tonya (2017)

6 Jan

There are competitive athletes. There are olympic athletes. And then there is Tonya Harding. The infamous American figure skater (played brilliantly by Margot Robbie) gets her own story in Craig Gillespie‘s explosive new film. Based on true events, the film follows Tonya as she first learns to skate and quickly becomes a project of sorts for her neglectful mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson). Shown with a real talent for moving on the ice, Tonya quickly moves up the ranks of early figure skaters – despite her aversion to “play the part” of a skating champion and dress or act like someone she is not. Eventually, Tonya falls in love with her abusive neighbor Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and the two quickly form a toxic, codependent relationship with one another.  This is where the film really kicks into high gear, and we see the couple spiral out control with drugs, booze, money – and eventually – federal crime.

I Tonya is delivered to us in a pseudo-documentary format with characters looking into the 90’s era VHS camcorder reliving certain events, as if they are testifying to authorities exactly how the story of Tonya went down. It’s a refreshingly Brechtian approach to the true-sports-story model, but at times it feels too jarring and uncomfortable. As if the docu-VHS bits weren’t enough –  in the dramatic scenes we occasionally see characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, ala House of Cards style.

This film is so loud (it’s no stretch of the mind to imagine every word of dialogue in Steven Roger’s script being in all caps) and constantly trying to outdo itself. I, Tonya seems to take place in a universe where its characters can’t go 5 minutes without throwing expletives (or sometimes sharp objects) at each other; characters on screen seem so bombastic and dramatic that after a while they begin to feel less like real people and more like characictures. You can’t help but wonder what this story would be had it been written with a bit more character nuance.

One of the great strengths of the film comes with it’s clever use of absurdist comedy. I, Tonya is painfully funny and even the dullest bits of melodrama get sewn in with a clever joke or two.  Compellingly crafted, the film seems designed to appeal directly to the ADD, short-attention-span viewer, and the ferocious editing job keeps the entire thing from spinning off the wheels. Again, I would have appreciated a bit more restraint with the storytelling, but the narrative never becomes dull or disinteresting; somehow the 2 hour runtime feels like minutes. Perhaps I, Tonya deserves some kind of medal for that.

Bottom Line: With an overdose of teenage vitriol, I, Tonya is a firecracker examination of class division and a metaphorical middle-finger towards the cultural ideal of American celebrity.

Rating: 6.9/10 

Film Recipe: Bernie + The Big Short + The Bronze


2 Jan

After looking back on last year, and with the Sundance Film Festival right around the corner, it’s time to look ahead and see what stuff is on the horizon helping to establish 2018 as another great year in cinema. Here are the top ten films that I’m looking forward to seeing. You can check out last year’s list here.

10 – Untitled Suspiria remake/sequel 

Why? As an avid fan of the original I was one of many who rolled their eyes at the idea of yet another classic horror being remade (you can thank 2012’s The Thing, 2013’s Evil Dead and Carrie, 2015’s Poltergeist, among others). But then I heard the new project was being directed by Italian arthouse favorite Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) and it’s allegedly not so much a direct remake as it is a new take on something “inspired by the same story”. Color me intrigued.

Principal Cast: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth

Release Date:  TBA 

9 –  The Nightingale 

Why? After terrorizing audiences with the surprisingly-great Babadook, director Jennifer Kent is back with another horror thriller up her sleeves. This one is supposedly a revenge tale set in 18th century Tasmania.

Principal Cast: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin

Release Date: August 10

8 – Isle of Dogs 

Why? Everyone and their dog loves Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore) and based on the trailer, we can expect another bone-fide crowd pleaser. Get ready for a barking good time.

Principal Cast: Greta Gerwig, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray probably.

Release Date: March 23

7 – Piercing 

Why? Just when I thought I had become desensitized and jaded towards genre films, Nicolas Pesce comes along with the beautifully haunting Eyes of My Mother. While on paper this looks like another great entry into the 2018 horror slate, my gut tells me this might end up being more on the artsy side. Both Mia Wasikowska and Chris Abbot have a solid repertoire with these types of indie films and the fact it’s playing in Sundance’s Midnight section gives me solid hope.

Principal Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Chris Abbot, Laia Costa

Release Date: Sundance

6 – The Irishman

Why? Netflix is hosting the long-awaited reunion of Scorsese and De Niro (It’s been 20+ years!). While the streaming giant doesn’t have the greatest reputation of quality when it comes to original movies (looking at you Bright and War Machine), this mob drama looks like it has all the neccisary ingredients to become a major awards contender.

Principal Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannevale and other associated wiseguys

Release Date: Late 2018 or early 2019

5 – Widows 

Why? After directing one of the most powerful films of the decade (12 Years a slavebritish auteur Steve McQueen is back with a script co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).

Principal cast: Liam Neeson, Viola Davis, Robert DuVall, Colin Farrell

Release date: An awards-friendly November 16

4 – The House That Jack Built 

Why? Because it’s a Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville) film about serial killer(s?). Count me in.

Principal Cast: Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough

Release Date: TBA 

3 – Hold the Dark 

Why? Because Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) and Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore) have proven to be THE most badass team of genre filmmakers working today.

Principal Cast: Riley Keough, Alexander Skarsgard, Jeffery Wright, James Badge Dale

Release Date: TBA

2 – You Were Never Really Here 

Why? After seeing We Need To Talk About Kevin and having my soul sucked out, I was convinced Lynne Ramsay was one of the best and boldest in a new wave of dramatic directors (along with Denis Villeneuve, Michael Haneke, Steve McQueen and Paul Thomas Anderson) whose sensibilities lie somewhere in the uncomfortable middle of European neo-realism and arthouse psychodrama. Her latest received nothing but rave reviews out of Cannes where it premiered and it’s always refreshing to Joaquin Phoenix in his post-hip-hop-career.

Principal Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola

Release Date: Sundance, and then everywhere April 6

1 – Annihilation 

Why? Ex Machina became the surprise sci-fi mindmelter and one of my favorite films of 2015, and so I’ve been eagerly waiting for whatever director Alex Garland does next.  A stellar cast and intriguing premise make this an absolute must see.

Principal Cast: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Release Date: Feb 23

Of course, 2018 will likely be filled with surprises and many great unknown films I’ve yet to hear about.  Let me know what you are looking forward to seeing this year in the comments.

Molly’s Game (2017)

30 Dec

Entering the 2017 awards season landscape just in time this year comes the debut feature from renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.  Molly’s Game is based around the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former olympic athlete who enters the seductive and dramatic world of high-stakes poker. After dropping out of law school against her parent’s wishes, Molly moves out from her childhood home in Colorado to a small Los Angeles apartment for what she terms “a fresh start” and quickly gets a job hosting a few weekly poker games. What starts out as a side gig to help make rent quickly turns into a obsession for Molly as she discovers the secret to hosting a great poker game is to bring in the game’s most elite and richest players. This includes a variety of Hollywood stars, Silicon Valley CEO’s, Wall Street investors, and – eventually – the Russian mafia. Things get messy.

Sorkin’s film is presented in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards (often narrated by Bloom), allowing us to simultaneously see the events before and after her poker-hosting career.  The narrative cuts here are fast and ruthless, keeping pace with Sorkin’s signature style of fast-talking characters. This is used to achieve a dizzying and something jarring effect, but the film has a lot of fun in letting us know we are watching a movie about a story of a true story (Sorkin’s script is loosely based off Molly’s own book).  A writer known for his impressively glib dialogue, Sorkin’s directorial skills unsurprisingly bring a sense of glitz and gaudiness to the screen. Unfortunately, having such cynically facile storytelling in the film’s first half means that scenes in the latter parts of the film don’t quite have the emotional weight behind them that they should.  Two scenes in particular (one involving a violent criminal act and the other an intimate conversation) feel so artificially shoehorned in, complete with the expected melodramatic score sounding right on cue.  At a bloated 140 minutes, Molly’s Game doesn’t feel nearly as epic as it does exhausting.

Despite it’s setbacks, the film is still a really compelling watch. Narrative moments whiz by at a TV spot’s pace and Chastain’s confidence and resolve in her character keeps you glued to the screen. Equally as good is Idris Elba as her last-resort attorney (it’s not a Sorkin script without a good legal scene in there somewhere) and the two work magic together. It may lack the emotional sincerity of other films Sorkin has penned, but it runs just as smooth and flashy.

Bottom Line: Ferociously entertaining but ultimately shallow at points, Molly’s Game is a 2+ hour onslaught of witty, compelling, and silver-tongued moments glued together by top-notch editing and solid performances.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Film Recipie: The Big Short + A Few Good Men + Rounders


22 Dec

Another year, another list.

With the end of 2017 comes the close of another solid year in cinema. Here is a video counting down my personal favorites from the year:

A few observations:

  • Altogether I saw 92 “new” films this year (not including stuff I saw at Sundance that hasn’t been released yet or older stuff I discovered released from previous years).
  • I only saw 13 documentaries and 12 foreign-language films this year.
  • The actor to appear the most times across the board was Caleb Landry Jones who appeared in 3 movies (Macon Blair, Amanda Warren, Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Kathryn Newton each appear in 2).
  • Of course, I didn’t get to see all I wanted to from this year e.g. Lost City of Z, Song to Song, Kong Skull Island, Downsizing, John Wick 2, Girls Trip, Battle of the Sexes, Spiderman Homecoming, Flag of Our Fathers, Lego Batman, A Fantastic Woman, Greatest Showman, Coco, Stronger, Darkest Hour, Murder on the Orient Express, and the documentaries Risk, Step, Jane, and Faces Places.
  • As far as distribution goes A24 had another stellar year with 6 entries cracking my top 25. Netflix and The Orchid each had 3 and Magnolia and Focus Features each had 2.
  • Including my honorable mentions, 10 films directed by women made the list this year – the idea of quality filmmaking being a boys-only club is total bullshit.
  • Only in 2017 can an Adam Sandler movie be good.