Tag Archives: Jennifer Jason Leigh

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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The Hateful Eight (2015)

31 Dec

There is a moment during The Hateful Eight where a character quietly explains the difference between “justice” – wherein the facts are weighed and criminals are given a fair and lawful trial – and, “frontier justice” – where criminals are often shot dead in a fit of rage. “Justice” is orderly and carried out with logic and ensuring the least amount of harm as possible, while “frontier justice” is brutal, chaotic, and fuelled by emotion.

It’s obviously clear Quentin Tarantino is an advocate of the latter kind. 

The writer/director’s 8th film appropriately titled The Hateful Eight is essentially three hours of his signature, in-your-face, badass-to-the-limit screenplay. You know, the kind where you can just feel the narrative tension escalate with each passing moment. Where you know – without a doubt – things are going to get ugly, but you can’t seem to guess how or when.

Taking the form of a post-Civil War western set along a snowy Wyoming trail, The Hateful Eight starts off with two bounty hunters who just happen to cross paths with each other. Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson at his best), who is en route to a town called Red Rock when his horse dies, seeks the help of cowboy John “The Hangman” Ruth (an equally impressive Kurt Russell) who is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she will be tried and likely hanged. Domergue has a pretty price on her head, explains Ruth. A whopping $10,000, which makes The Hangman suspicious by default of any passersby including Warren and a drifter named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new Red Rock sheriff.

In the world of the wild, wild west, one man’s word has a lot of weight, and the ability to trust fellow travelers or not can spell life or death on the frontier. Take into account the rampant racism between divided factions of the war that are still bubbling, and you have the ingredients for a suspenseful witch-hunt of a mystery. “One of them fellas is not what he says he is” says The Hangman as he tries to measure up each character’s motivations.  It’s in this climate of paranoia and racial tension where The Hateful Eight thrives. Every man (and woman) is looking out for him/herself and unlike Tarantino’s last film Django Unchainedit’s not so easy to tell the good guys apart from the bad ones.

There are essentially only two locations in The Hateful Eight: the harsh exterior of the winter trail, and Minnie’s Haberdashery, a sort of makeshift-inn for trustworthy travelers. In the hands of another director, this kind of a film with such minimal set pieces could feel like an eternity – especially with a running time of 3 + hours (case in point: The Turin Horse). Tarantino’s masterful writing however, flows effortlessly from one scene to the next. Though it clocks in at a whopping 187 minutes, Tarantino lets us get to know each character over the course of many small-talk conversations throughout the film’s first half. Quentin himself gives us a brechtian half-time voiceover, where he brings the audience to speed and chops up the narrative structure before throwing us headfirst into the film’s more violent and insanity-ridden second half. Such a postmodern interruption comes off a bit too jarring for a western, but part of The Hateful Eight’s fun lies within its unpredictable and often bloody surprises.

Shot in “Glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision” (an odd choice for such a minimalistic film), the film looks absolutely stunning in each and every shot. True, Quentin has scaled things back a bit from his epic and sprawling Django Unchained, but every frame here feels utilized within its 70mm space.  Performance-wise everyone is on-point, with Jennifer Jason Leigh being the lead scene-stealer. Supporting work by Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, James Park, Demian Bichir, and a few captivating moments with Zoe Bell, Channing Tatum, and Gene Jones are icing on the cake.

It’s true that all the major players in The Hateful Eight could have been instruments of “justice”, with all the criminals and do-gooders taking their rightful roles. But what Tarantino knows only too well is that watching everyone’s attempt at carrying out the good ol’ fashioned “frontier justice“, well…. it’s just a hell of a lot more fun.

Bottom Line: A throwback western that’s 100% Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is a heavily plotted, hitchcockian thriller that sizzles with anxiety and great performances throughout its lengthy runtime. 

Rating: 8/10

Film recipe: That opening scene in Inglorious Bastards – nazis + cowboys, + Seven Psychopaths + Rope + No Country For Old Men