REVIEW: “Annihilation”

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Around the midway point of “Annihilation” one character says to another “We’re all damaged goods here.” This seemingly inconsequential line of dialogue is one of several keys to unlocking the secrets of Alex Garland’s trippy science-fiction mindbender. It’s one of several statements or conversations that offer meaning to what we see, yet unraveling the mystery is a bit tougher than it sounds.

Garland’s previous film 2015’s “Ex Machina” was his directorial debut and showed an affection for toying with sci-fi genre norms and conventions. Garland considers himself a writer first and his genre roots actually go back a bit to his time as a novelist and screenwriter. As with “Ex Machina”, “Annihilation” sees him handling both the writing and directing duties.

The film is loosely adapted from the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 Southern Reach Trilogy. Garland has called it an “adaptation of atmosphere” with a “memory of the book”. He takes concepts from the novel and gives each a good twist making his film very much its own thing. I also couldn’t help but see shades of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more recently Villeneuve’s “Arrival” just to name a few.

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Giving an introduction to the story seems almost pointless since the meat of it is found in the mystery and metaphors. But here goes: Shortly after a mysterious object from space crashes along the United States coastline, an amorphous anomaly forms. For three years the U.S. government have watched it expand and every military expedition into the anomaly has failed. The soldiers who enter immediately lose communication with the outside and have no sense of time or place. Even worse, none of the teams have returned.

Enter Lena played by Natalie Portman, a biology professor emotionally detached following the disappearance and presumed death of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). After a year away Lena is stunned when Kane suddenly shows up. But something is about him is off. He has no recollection of where he has been or how he got home. He quickly becomes violently ill. On the way to the hospital in sweeps the U.S. government to take Lena and Kane to a top-secret facility near the anomaly.

Lena is briefed by a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She learns the anomaly is called ‘The Shimmer’ and is slowly engulfing unpopulated swamplands. But concerns are that its growing blob-like borders will eventually swallow cities, states, and so on. Therefore a new team prepares to enter with the mission of reaching ground zero, acquiring data, and making it out alive. Learning of a connection between the Shimmer and her husband, Lena joins the expedition in hopes of finding some answers.

This time the team is made up mostly of scientists instead of soldiers and women instead of men. It’s an interesting assortment of characters. In addition to Lena and Ventress we get Gina Rodriguez as a Chicago paramedic, Tessa Thompson as a timid physicist, and Tuva Novotny as a protective geologist. Each woman fits the above description of “damaged goods” and each come into the Shimmer with their own unique perspective and purpose.

The film’s non-linear structure adds to the overall puzzle. Flashbacks and flash-forwards rich with meaning not only fill in story gaps but reveal some of the key themes. And it toys with time, not to make it needlessly complex, but to feed us narrative and thematic clues. I’m not sure how mainstream audiences will respond to the demand for attention and contemplation. It’s unashamedly cerebral and Garland isn’t interested in playing by genre rules. Sometimes he even breaks his own. For me that was a real strength.

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I found discovery to be a fundamental component both for us and the characters. Take the Shimmer itself – Garland and his crew visualize a truly fascinating off-kilter creation. The exterior emanates both beauty and menace. Think of light being bent through a detergent bubble. The soapy glow offers a stunning effect yet at the same time it’s both ominous and foreboding. The same contrast is seen inside – beautiful albeit unnatural flora mixed with terrifying animal mutations.

I really don’t want to say more because (as cliché as it sounds) this is a movie best experienced. The atmosphere alone was enough to suck me in from the gorgeously discomforting visuals and effects to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s unsettling score filled with moody tones and occasional strums of a folksy guitar. It’s all quite effective. Garland has said his intent was to make the Shimmer “truly alien”. Mission accomplished.

But it all gets back to the movie’s meaning, something Garland (thankfully) is unwilling to spoon-feed us. Some have pointed out its dealings with depression, grief, guilt, and the meaning of being human. I believe it speaks to all of those things. More than anything else I heard it speaking the loudest about mankind’s penchant for self-destruction. But one of the truly great things about “Annihilation” is the ambiguity, not for the sake of being ambiguous, but to allow us to mediate and consider what it is saying to us. That’s a special trait the movie has in common some of the very best science fiction.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

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Three years ago Marvel Studios ended ‘Phase 2’ of their cinematic universe with “Ant-Man”. It was a surprising investment considering Ant-Man isn’t what you would consider a top-tier Marvel superhero. What surprised me even more was how well it was received. “Ant-Man” wasn’t a bad movie, but its constant hit-or-miss humor along with its silly, paper-thin villain left me wanting more.

Film #20 in the MCU is “Ant-Man and the Wasp”, a sequel that had me curious and surprisingly optimistic. An entirely new group of screenwriters handle the script, but ringmaster Peyton Reed returns to the director’s chair doling out plenty of humor and unique superhero action. Both work better this time around. The sequel is funnier and the action has a delightfully playful flavor. And the stakes here are more personal. It’s a welcome departure from the normal catastrophic global threat we get in these movies.

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Paul Rudd returns as the immensely likable con-turned-superhero Scott Lang. He’s serving the final days of his house arrest sentence for helping Captain America during the “Civil War” storyline. Not only did he get in trouble with the government, but he also alienated Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) by sneaking off with Hank’s Ant-Man suit and exposing the tech to the world. With so many bad people hungry for the technology, Hank and Hope sever ties with Scott and are forced into hiding.

During their time in seclusion, Hank and Hope work on a contraption they believe can rescue their long-lost wife/mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm. But to do so will require them to mend fences with Scott. Their work also attracts a lot of unwanted attention. Walter Goggins is a hoot playing a black market peddler of quantum energy. He has a $1 billion buyer anxious to get their hands on Pym’s lab. Hannah John-Kamen plays Ghost, a woman whose ability to phase through objects is slowly killing her and Pym’s quantum research may be all that can save her life. Toss in the FBI and Scott’s dogged parol officer (played by a very funny Randall Park) and you have a lot of conflicts and storylines.

Thankfully Reed and company handle these numerous plot-strings nimbly and with smarts. They have no qualms with their movie being light, breezy and smaller scaled – all perfect fits for this kind of story. They know the type of film they are making and they seem to embrace the sillier side of the whole thing. That’s one reason Michael Peña’s character can work. He returns as Luis, Scott’s one-time cell mate and now close friend who basically serves as the never-ending comic relief. He was spotty at best in the first film, even annoying at times. This time he isn’t given as much room for improvisation and his dialogue feels more natural and unforced. He doesn’t land every joke, but he has some very funny moments.

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But the real highlights are Rudd and Lily. The two have a remarkable chemistry and it’s a lot of fun watching them bounce off each other. Both performances and characters nicely balance out – Rudd’s lovable, self-deprecating Scott, Lily’s fiercely determined Hope. Their personalities even carry over into the action. Hope’s Wasp is tough and tenacious. Ant-Man’s irresistible goofiness can’t help but bleed over into his action scenes.

While “Ant-Man and the Wasp” benefits from its lightheartedness, in a weird way it’s also held back by it. With the exception of the expected mid-credits scene at the end, the film does little to raise the stakes in the MCU. It also doesn’t clearly answer a big question I had going in: Where was Ant-Man during Infinity War? But let’s be honest, does it have to do these things to be a good movie? Certainly not. For my money there is plenty of room in Marvel’s every-growing big screen universe for smaller more tightly-knit pictures like this. I would even call them refreshing.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Avengers: Infinity War”

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There was never any doubt that Disney’s superhero goldmine “Avengers: Infinity War” would make a lot of money. The only suspense was in seeing how much. Turns out more than any other movie ever for an opening weekend and it should easily top $1 billion by its second weekend. That’s a lot of money.

With a budget of nearly $400 million, “Infinity War” is easily one of the most expensive films ever made. Marvel Studios swings for the fences in framing this as a through-and-through event picture – a culmination of their decade-long and nineteen movie strong Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a gargantuan production with as many moving parts as big special effects (and that’s a lot) and a massive cast that will require a scorecard and pencil for those not well versed in Marvel’s vast movie landscape.

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Anthony and Joe Russo are tasked with directing this juggernaut of a story based on the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The Russo brothers are a good fit as they helmed two of Marvel’s best films: “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War”. Markus and McFeely penned all three Captain America movies in addition to the not so hot “Thor: Dark World”. Thankfully “Infinity War” is much more in line with the Cap movies than their Thor misfire.

You could say all of the recent MCU movies have been setting up for this intergalactic crisis. Through various passing dialogues and end credits scenes we have been introduced to Thanos (Josh Brolin), a despot of unshakable conviction scouring the universe for the six magical Infinity Stones. The one who wields all six stones will gain unlimited power to bend reality with a snap of their finger. You could say this is Thanos’ movie and it seems that Brolin has more screen time than any other character.

“Infinity War” has a lot on its plate and a ton of narrative threads to bring together. That means characters crossing paths often for the first time. This can be pretty satisfying and a lot of fun for followers of the MCU. The aftermath of “Thor: Ragnarok”, decisions made in Wakanda, lingering tensions from “Civil War” are just a few of the past storylines that influence Markus and McFeely’s script. On top of that the film does a pretty incredible juggling act in giving each character their moments. Only a handful of characters are missing and the movie doesn’t do the best job of explaining their absence.

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The ‘Phase One’ big hitters are all here. Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and Chris Evans’ Captain America are major players (although Cap seems back-burnered a bit). Surprisingly the Guardians of the Galaxy have just as much screen time and play equally significant roles. Overall it’s cool to see characters like Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) all given meaningful story angles. But again, the true centerpiece is indeed Thanos and we are fed morsels of information which give form to his motivations and mindsets. Brolin is quite good presenting a villain with more on his mind than the generic quest to rule the universe despite what it may look like on the surface.

While “Infinity War” is plump with plot, the Russos offer just as much CGI-fueled PG-13 action. The scenes shift between feverish hand-held camerawork and bigger digitally enhanced polish. I can already anticipate complaints from those tired of the superhero genre and it’s big action formula. This film certainly doesn’t stray from that. But I go back to this being an ‘event movie’ and I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to being thrilled by some of the large-scaled battles and big character moments.

Another big piece is the humor which has become a signature of the overall MCU. “Infinity War” definitely has some big laughs and the audience I sat with really went with it. It does clash just a tad later in the film as things begin to get dire. Still this is where some of the characters really shine (Dave Bautista’s Drax is nothing short of hysterical).

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All of this is worthy of conversation, but what most people will be talking about is the ending. It’s truly a gutsy move by the Russo brothers and company but I’m a bit mixed on its effect. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil a thing, but let’s just say it felt unquestionably inevitable especially for a film clearly framed as the first of a two-parter. For me that has definitely effected the impact since first seeing it. Nevertheless, in those moments I was captivated and glued to the big screen.

The fact that “Infinity War” managed to pull off such a feat especially in the face of earth-shattering expectations deserves praise in itself. This is a mammoth-sized movie in every possible way and simply making it all coherent is impressive. “Infinity War” does much more than that. It’s a thrilling, funny, emotional, rip-roaring crowd-pleaser that serves as a fitting culmination of their decade-long buildup. Now let’s see if they can pull it all together in a satisfying way. We will know next May.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Quiet Place”

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From the very outset “A Quiet Place” develops a central conceit which it fully embraces throughout its tight, lean 95-minute runtime. But while it’s undoubtedly a genre flick, this John Krasinski directed horror thriller has more of an emotional punch than you would expect.

In addition to directing, Krasinski also co-writes and stars alongside his real-life wife Emily Blunt. They play Lee and Evelyn Abbott who live on a remote farm in a not-to-distant future. The human race has been ravaged by creatures with no sight who hunt via their heightened and lethal sense of hearing. The Abbott’s along with their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) are still coping with grief after a family tragedy while trying to survive in a world where the slightest sound could mean immediate death.

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The great trick of this film is causing us (the audience) to lock in to every sound we hear. We become much more attentive and attune to what we hear rather than what we see. Krasinski does a great job of leading us in that direction both with the sound design and some clever visual cues. It’s also seen in numerous details – trails of sand to silence their steps, crocheted Monopoly pieces, etc. The most everyday things take on a new perspective in this world.

It goes without saying this adds a natural tension to “A Quiet Place”. Even in quieter scenes (no pun intended) the dread of an accidental bump or the smallest sound constantly looms in the background. Krasinski leans heavily into it without going overboard. When sound is employed it can be pretty profound and Marco Beltrami’s score ratchets up the intensity by both adding to the stillness and accentuating the terror. Yet at it’s core you can see the film constantly tipping its hat to the silent film era.

The movie also works because of the small but superb cast who flesh out their characters despite having little dialogue. Kasinski conveys so much through his tired and concerned eyes. Blunt knocks it out of the park as an emotional anchor for her family. But there is also Millicent Simmonds, great in last year’s “Wonderstruck” and just as good here. The young actress (who is deaf in real life) is a fundamental piece of the story and Simmonds is asked to juggle a range of emotions. She does so magnificently.

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And this gets to where “A Quiet Place” scores the most points – the characters themselves and its story of family. Many have looked for more political meaning, but I find it most piercing when observing the family dynamic. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Krasinski’s Lee, a man who would do anything to protect his family, especially his children, yet on some levels struggles to connect with them. Blunt speaks to this particularly in one line where she says “Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.” These characters and their relationships matter. The film does a keen job of making us care about what happens to each of them.

You could call “A Quiet Place” an old-fashioned horror picture. It’s smart, light on gore, but heavy on tension. It knows its premise and fully embraces it. Never does it feel the need to give us tedious and uninteresting exposition nor does it overstay its welcome. There are a few instances where you could question the movie’s logic, but for the most part Krasinski cleverly covers all of his bases. In the end he delivers an exhilarating and surprisingly heartfelt experience that is a huge win for the horror genre as a whole.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “All the Money in the World”

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Ridley Scott’s “All the money in the World” was a fascinating news story before it ever hit the screens. Kevin Spacey was cast in the key supporting role of J. Paul Getty. But after several sexual assault allegations the decision was made to replace Spacey even though he had shot all his scenes and appeared in the early ad campaign. Christopher Plummer (Scott’s original first choice) was brought in just a month from the scheduled release to reshoot Spacey’s scenes. The movie’s release date was only knocked back three days.

It was a gutsy but principled gamble by Scott and company and it paid off. Plummer is outstanding and has already earned several nominations around the awards circuit. Plummer’s J. Paul Getty is the film’s the most compelling character.

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The story opens in Rome, 1973. Paul Getty (played by Charlie Plummer, no relation), the 16 year-old grandson of oil mogul and well-known ‘richest man in the world’ J. Paul Getty, is abducted by a van full Calabrian thugs. The kidnappers contact Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) and demand $17 million in ransom money. The problem is she doesn’t have it. A series of flashbacks reveals an ugly divorce with Paul’s father where Gail chose full custody of their children over the Getty’s money.

Gail approaches her cold-hearted ex-father-in-law but is stunned when he denies her the ransom money. At one point he says “I have none to spare”. A few scenes later he’s revealing plans to build himself another lavish estate. Screenwriter David Scarpa doesn’t give Plummer a ton of screen time but every scene he’s in has energy and bite. Ultimately this isn’t J. Paul’s movie. Gail quickly becomes the centerpiece and our emotional connection.

J. Paul won’t part with his money but he does send his oil broker, a former CIA operative, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlburg) to help Gail negotiate a release. In the meantime young Paul is taken to a remote countryside location in Italy where he gains the sympathy of his head captor Cinquanta (played by fantastic French actor Romain Duris). He and Gail begin negotiations but both sides are hindered by powerful outside forces driven by their own motivations.

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This “Inspired by True Events” story is based on John Pearson’s book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty”. Scott’s treatment starts a little slow and it takes some time to get its footing. But once it does it zips along and becomes a good suspenseful crime thriller with several cool touches. For example, Scott’s portrayal of the paparazzi instantly hearkens back to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”. There is also the undeniable 70s vibe that shines through, not just in look but also in the style of the storytelling.

Perhaps the biggest reason “All the Money” works is because Ridley Scott steps out of the way and puts his full trust in his actors and the script. There are fine performances throughout, particularly from Plummer and Duris. And Michelle Williams is more than capable of carrying a bulk of the story. As you would expect from a Scott picture the production is superb, and while the story is slow out of the gate, once it gets going it’s a pretty invigorating ride.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Alone in Berlin” (2017)

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For me the strengths of Vincent Perez’s “Alone in Berlin” are fairly obvious – a unique and heart-wrenching true story and two superb acting talents as its leads. That was more than enough the keep me attached to this slow-boiling World War 2 drama.

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson play Otto and Anna, a German husband and wife living in 1940 Berlin. The two are devastated upon receiving the news that their only son Hans is killed during battle. His death puts stress on their already dry marriage and each mourn in their own lonely way. But their loss also gives them a new perspective on the growing war unfolding around them.

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As the Nazi influence begins to reflect across Berlin the couple witness things that intensify their repulsion and disillusionment. Otto begins writing anti-Nazi messages on postcards and secretly leaving them all around the city. At first it’s a therapeutic emotional release to help him cope, but soon it also becomes about duty. And when Anna joins him, their dangerous quest expands while also bringing them closer together as husband and wife. It gets even riskier when the Nazi’s hire a principled German police detective (Daniel Brühl) to track down those responsible.

First the performances, it should surprise no one that both Gleeson and Thompson are wonderful. Gleeson conveys the emotionally worn Otto through his tired, somber eyes and dispirited mannerisms. Thompson portrays Anna as a determined woman but one who clearly feels the weight of her sorrow. Their performances are so rich and grounded that you never doubt either character or any of their motivations. Brühl is also good in a role that he has played before.

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For the most part the story steers clear of depicting the war’s atrocities. They are mostly handled from a distance. But in the handful of scenes where they do hit the screen, the impact is effective. Some who yearn for a harsher visual representation of the horrors may find Perez’s film too sanitary. It’s a response I’ve seen towards other films that sought to tell a more confined, individual story. I don’t agree. Perez keeps his focus on his two central characters and the film is better for it.

One gripe is that the film moves a bit slow at times and it often relies to heavily on its two leads. But that doesn’t make it any less inspirational and heartbreaking. “Alone in Berlin” tells a poignant story that is unique and authentic. As a fan of films set in this period, I was plenty satisfied with what Perez and company deliver and hopefully more people will give it a look.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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