Tag Archives: Alex Garland

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

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MOST ANTICIPATED 2018

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.

MOST ANTICIPATED FOR 2017

2 Jan

So he were are. 2016 is history and as we look back on the best films of the year, we can also look towards the future and what’s coming down the cinematic pipeline. Here are my top ten most anticipated films -(provided we make it far enough in the age of Trump to actually watch them).   You can check out last year’s most anticipated here.

 

10 – Molly’s Game 

What’s it about? A young skier who get’s her own FBI investigation after creating an international poker series.

Why is it on the list? Aaron Sorkin is stepping into the director’s seat here, adapting a memoir by Molly Bloom. One of the finest screenwriters of our time, I’m curious to how Sorkin does behind the camera. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba costar.

Release date – Unknown 

 

 

 

9 – Annihilation  

What’s it about?  All we know at this stage is that the plot has something to do with a team of scientists heading into the jungle for a secretive experiment of some kind.

Why is it on the list? Because Ex Machina was one of the most wholly original and singular sci-fi films in recent memory and Alex Garland has teamed up again with Oscar Issac. Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Natalie Portman round out a dream team of actors.

Release date – Unknown

 

8 – Wind River 

What’s it about? A Native American reservation becomes a murder scene which prompts an FBI investigation led by a veteran tracker.

Why is it on the list? Another accomplished screenwriter making a directorial debut. Taylor Sheridan‘s scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water were both brilliant and I’m curios to see the acting duo of Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in a non-superhero context.

Release date – Unknown for now, but I’m hoping to catch this at Sundance.

7 – The Bad Batch 

What’s it about? A blood soaked love story of sorts set in Texas. Also, cannibals.

Why is it on the list? I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian-western-vampire coming of age story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but I was intrigued enough to see she had major directing potential. This new effort seems to have a Tarantino-influenced vibe and features a slew of great character actors including Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves, Giovani Ribisi, and Diego Luna.

Release date: Though it’s played a few festivals, a widespread release date is unknown.  

6 – I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore 

What’s it about? A revenge thriller about a women tracking down the thieves who burglarized her house.

Why is it on the list? Fresh from his role in Jeremy Saulnier’s excellent, white-knuckler Green Room, actor Macon Blair takes a shot at directing his own original script. The premise sounds gleefully Coen-esc.

Release date: February 24 

5 – Mother  

What’s it about? “…a couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home…” – IMDB

Why is it on the list? Because it’s Darren Aronofsky’s first film since the interesting-but-ultimately sub-par Noah.  Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Domhnall Gleeson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris star.

Release date: Unknown 

4 – Dunkirk 

What’s it about?  “Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II” – IMDB

Why is it on the list? Christopher Nolan is one of the rare few directors who can effectively blend pedestrian blockbuster fare with an inspired artistic vision.  This has potential to be one of 2017’s biggest critical and commercial hits.

Release: July 21 

3 – Lemon  

What’s it about? A boy gets dumped by his blind girlfriend.

Why is it on the list? Though Lemon is her first feature, Janicza Bravo has one of the boldest directorial voices in indie film today mixing awkward sensibilities reminiscent of films like Napoleon Dynamite and the works of Todd Solondz and Wes Anderson. Check out her short Gregory Goes Boom!  (NSFW) which also stars Michael Cera and Brett Gelman to get a taste of what we might expect from Lemon.

Release date: Unknown 

2-  Blade Runner 2049 

What’s it about? A sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. 

Why is it on this list? Though most modern sequels/reboots don’t hold a candle to their origins, the fact that this is being helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Arrival) and shot by cinematographer legend Roger Deakins (1984, No Country For Old Men, Skyfall, and so, soooo many more) might be reason enough to make an exception. The icing on the cake is a top-notch cast consisting of Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robyn Wright, Mckenzie Davis, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto and Barkhad Abdi.

Release date: Oct 6

1 – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

 

What’s it about? “A teenager’s attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family takes an unexpected turn.” – IMDB

Why is it on the list? The Lobster was unexpectedly my favorite film of 2016 and, I’m itching to see what Yorgos Lanthimos is cooking up.

Release date – Unknown 

 

 

Ex Machina (2015)

28 Apr

In 1958, Stanislaw Ulam, one of the greatest mathematicians to ever live, talked about a technological event called The Singularity.  Ulam theorized that with the ever-increasing advances in computing technology, creating a super-intelligent computer system that would outperform a human brain was inevitable.  Ex Machina, starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander documents the psychological and ethical implications of such an event by highlighting the various aspects of having super-intelligent machines interacting with humanity.

Caleb works as a programmer for a tech company called Bluebook (another word for Google Inc), the world’s most prolific search engine. The company’s owner, Nathan, lives in an isolated, high-security luxurious home which doubles as a state-of-the-art technological research facility. Caleb is lucky enough to win a lottery that gives him the chance to spend a week living with Nathan, as he embarks on a mysterious task for Bluebook.

Caleb is your seemingly typical white-skinned blonde-haired computer nerd; he is self-conscious, reserved, and humble. Nathan on the other hand, is virtually on the opposite side of the spectrum. Incredibly charismatic, social, and sexy, the party boy is usually seen with either a barbell or a bottle of vodka in hand. The interactions between the two awkwardly authentic. It soon becomes clear what Caleb’s secret task is: to test an artificial intelligence program named Ava. Essentially, Caleb is tasked with figuring out if Ava has a mind of it’s own, or if it’s rather just acting off a simple pre-programed structure. What follows is a mental tug-of-war between the trio, as the various characters try to unspool each other’s true intentions.

Ex Machina is a brilliant exercise of psychological anxiety fueled by sexual tension and technological paranoia. Layers of personality are gradually stripped as the film progresses revealing the startling and disturbing psyche that is behind each person/machine. It’s a complex and deeply freudian approach to the thriller genre, and remains unpredictable just when you think the story ventures into familiar territory. First time director Alex Garland really has crafted a remarkable and textually rich film. The aesthetic appeal of Ex Machina is hard to resist as well; stunning exterior shots of waterfalls, glaciers, and forests are clashed against Kubrick-esc takes of dim interiors, and the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is sure to be one of the year’s best.

Bottom line: Ex Machina is a layered and complex take on the robot sub-genre that proves to be both emotionally and psychologically stimulating.

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe: Under The Skin (2014) + Moon (2009) + Enemy (2014)