Natalie Portman

March 3, 2018

Movie Review: Annihilation

What do extra terrestrials have in store when they finally come to Earth to check the place out, enslave us and take over for us since we’ve done such a great job. That’s a question that’s been asked in books, radio theater, video games and films for over a century. Whether they are benevolent visitors like “E.T.”, curious visitors from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” or killing machines on the hunt in “Predator,” the idea of aliens and and their relationship with Earth has been an interesting one to say the least.

Our latest odyssey into extra terrestrials and their fascination with the Earth comes in the form of “Annihilation” directed by Alex Garland, who brought us our impending nightmare we’ll face with Artificial Intelligence in “Ex Machina.”

Based on the “Southern Reach” trilogy of books by Jeff VanderMeer from 2014, in which a meteor lands and the land surrounding begins to re-claim itself and continues to expand. “Annihilation” is based on the first book in the series where a squad of tough women enter what is called Area X to explore and find the reason for the expansion of what is called “The Shimmer.”

What works for “Annihilation” is that it never holds your hand or tells you what is happening. You also have some very strong performances for the entire cast which includes Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, all of which comprise most of the squad who enter “The Shimmer” for answers on why previous expeditions have disappeared to never return with the exception of one person, played by Oscar Isaac.

The female leads all come from different background, yet share a commonality; they are flawed in either a physical or psychological way, which eventually leads to their breakdown and eventually succumbing to “The Shimmer” There are a lot of blink and you miss it moments which gives you a reason to watch this film over and over to pick up the subtle nuances that Garland throws in.

Where “Annihilation” might lose some people is once again, the same way it will bring people in. Garland isn’t interested in spelling things out for the audience. None of the characters are painted as either protagonists or antagonists, they are all searching for meaning, just like us, the audience.

“Annihilation” can be read into as much or as little as you feel necessary. Is it a standard sci-fi film where aliens are taking over slowly? Sure. Is it a film about becoming one with nature again, becoming self-less, and giving yourself up to something that might be bigger than you? Sure. There are so many ways to read this film, and that’s what makes it great, and where it leaves the audience come the end opens up more conversation for, hopefully, the next two films to complete the trilogy.

While I love the bright shiny colors and psychedelic trip Garland took me on, I especially love the attention world he creates and the conflicts it creates within the characters. It reminds me of what I love about “The Thing,” Sure, the creature effects are great, but give me conflict and something with stakes.

As far as I’m concerned, Garland is two-for-two in the directors chair and if this trilogy is allowed to be seen through, I could see it as some of the most epic science fiction in the last 20 years or so. So please don’t judge “Annihilation” yet as it’s still incomplete week as far as I’m concerned.

November 4, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (DJ’s Take)

MIGHTY

The first Thor film was a charming and clever way to introduce the idea of gods and monsters to the relatively grounded Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Director Kenneth Branagh didn’t shy away from the absurdity of gods/aliens from a magical kingdom visiting our planet/realm.  He dove headlong into it and used dry humor to take some of the edge off the skepticism. (Are you paying attention DC execs still trying to make a Wonder Woman film?)  After Thor’s moderate box office success and a great deal of believability groundwork laid by Branagh and Joss Whedon in 2012’s The Avengers, audiences were prepared to pull back their cynical blinders to see even more otherworldly spectacle.  Alan Taylor, an untouchable don from HBO’s Game Of Thrones, grabbed the reigns for the sequel Thor: The Dark World.  And I am happy, and relieved to say that Taylor keeps the character and the series on an upward track.

Thor: The Dark World brings back The MIGHTY Avenger Thor and pits him and the people of Asgard up against a race of creatures called Dark Elves who intend on bringing back infinite darkness to the galaxy with the help of a mystical substance.  To put it more simply, Thor: The Dark World is a mcguffin film.  It is a mcguffin film much in the same way Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers was.  However, I appreciate that Alan Taylor and writer Christopher Yost used the trick of turning a character, who would be useless otherwise, into the mcguffin.  Jane Foster would typically serve the purpose of being the character who asks questions that trigger all of the expository explanations.  But here, her reasons for asking are vital to her character’s immediate survival.  (I’m looking at you Man Of Steel)  The stakes are high, the action is intense, and the scope is much bigger than before.

Alan Taylor is right at home on a medieval battlefield, and it shows.  There is an invasion scene that began to remind me of the one in the Pitch Black sequel The Chronicles Of Riddick.  However, the danger and destruction seemed to hold more weight.  The battle was more visceral and imaginative.  Taylor offers the same comforting feeling to the Asgardian material as Branagh did.  The only place where Taylor seemed a little out of his depth was in the scenes shot on modern day earth.  The scenes with normal people.  It was reported that Joss Whedon was flown in to help fix a few scenes in the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they involved Dr. Selvig, Jane Foster, and Darcy Lewis mucking about.  Thankfully, these scenes are minor bridges in between the battles and bedlam of the story.  Taylor should also get credit, though I’m not sure how much, for the great performances in the film.  None more so than that of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.          

Here is a little peek behind the curtain.  I usually choose a picture for my reviews that best personifies what I hated or, in this case, loved about what I’m reviewing.  Those two Asgardian gentlemen up above, and the arc their relationship takes, serves as the main reason to go see this film.  Their chemistry was a bit clumsy in the first Thor film.  Something I attribute to the rush in explaining the origins of these strange characters.  Since then, Thor and Loki’s scenes together have become better and better.  This film displays the apex of their relationship thematically and performance-wise.  There is so much subtext in every interaction and argument they have.  It is obvious that these two actors not only have a perfect rapport, but they actually enjoy working with one another.  Natalie Portman’s character of Jane Foster is less ditsy and naive then she was before.  However, Portman’s talents still feel a bit wasted with this character.  If we didn’t live in the generation of impatience, another half hour could have allowed more time to focus on Jane Foster’s hinted rivalry with Lady Sif for Thor’s affections.  All the other supporting characters come to play and seem to revel in every moment of screen time.  

Now don’t let my praise of the Thor: The Dark World lead you to believe it is perfect.  There are a few flaws the audience has to get through.  The story takes a minute to truly get going, some of the well delivered dramatic moments and gravitas are occasionally short circuited by an ill timed joke, and there are some minor plot holes to navigate.  But the biggest weakness of the film, and I never figured I’d say this, is its antagonists.  The villain of the first Thor film was primarily Loki.  An almost perfect morally gray character with varying complexities and nuances.  A villain so rich in character, most fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now cheer for him.  Hell, he all but dominated Comic-Con in a way usually reserved for people with the initials RDJ.  Malekith is a menacing and believable threat to Thor and even Odin.  However, he has about as much complexity and nuance as Inspector Gadget’s nemesis Dr. Claw.  He’s evil for evil’s sake.  We learn little about him other than he and his people want the universe draped in darkness.  I may just be a bit bitter because with a character as deadly as Malekith, played by an actor the quality of a Christopher Eccleston, I expected more depth.

Thor: The Dark World is a rare sequel.  A sequel you’ll love if you loved the original, and a sequel you might be more inclined to like even if you hated the original.  The characters are more focused and free to be who they are, the plot is more daring, and the scale is much larger.  Coming off of the mildly disappointing and geek enraging Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World is a terrific cleanser of your comic book movie pallet.  Prepare for battle…watch out for rock monsters…and nude scientists…behold it…then tell me I’m wrong.

February 9, 2013

London Calling: V For Vendetta

FORGOTTEN

With the Oscar season here and the summer movie season fast approaching, I wanted to talk about a film I think fits into both.  Now comic book films are usually shrugged off as just popcorn fluff.  Most times, they are.  To this day, however, there hasn’t been a comic book film that has challenged me intellectually more than V For Vendetta.  It is one of the most intelligently made, beautifully shot, well performed films of the genre.  But sadly for some reason, it is FORGOTTEN.
V For Vendetta plot revolves around a knife wielding masked terrorist/freedom fighter trying to take down an oppressive British government in the not too distant future.  I put terrorist/freedom fighter because the film blurs the line between the two.  It makes you question the difference and presents the perspective of people on either side of the chaos.  Some would argue that the character of V is clearly the hero and the government is bad.  However, when you really get into the specifics of V’s acts, it is hard to paint him as a true blue hero.  Even an antihero for that matter.  Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.  V is out for vengeance, admittedly so.  He kills in cold blood.  He kills innocents.  He kidnaps.  He tortures.  He does whatever it takes to accomplish his goals.  You might say the ends justify his means, but his acts seen through a different spectrum can easily be construed as terror.  That is why I love this film.  It can be dissected and analyzed even to this day.  The Avengers is my favorite comic book movie of all time, however, V For Vendetta is much meatier when it comes to substance.
Comic book legend Alan Moore is famous for angrily dismissing and disavowing any adaptations of his work.  This is thanks primarily to the abysmal League Of Extraordinary Gentleman.  I wish he’d take a slightly lighter stance on this though.  It might be easy for me to say but, films aren’t bad solely because the filmmakers take liberties with the source material.  I detest Michael Bay’s Transformer films and Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man not just because they changed things.  I detest them because they are poorly written, horribly performed, lowest common denominator catering tripe.  Their changes weren’t done to add anything new or stimulating to the material.  They were made for convenience sake.  The same cannot be said for V For Vendetta.  Yes, V is a warmer character in the film than he was in the comic book.  However, I think that makes him even more complicated when compared to the coldness of his methods.  Yes, the fascist vs. anarchist theme was more liberal vs. neo-conservatism.  However, that is a lot timelier for today’s political atmosphere and still has the nod to the fascist’s ideas of purity from the comic book.  My point being that the alterations made in V For Vendetta do not weaken it as a story.  It merely updates it. 
The Wachowskis, the source material meddlers in this case, exist in a weird place for me as a film fan.  I was highly disappointed with their conclusion of The Matrix trilogy, but still respect the fact they always take crazy chances.  They entrusted the directing duties to long time collaborator James McTeigue, while staying on to write and produce.  However, their fingerprints are still all over this picture.  Finding and concentrating on the heart of their cinematic worlds is a common Wachowski m.o..  Where a film like V For Vendetta could have just fallen into the basic action vehicle cliché, the Wachowskis don’t let it.  There are genuinely moving moments in the film that still stun me.  The action scenes are terrific, but always serve as a tool to tell the story.  Not the other way around.
Before The Dark Knight came along, V For Vendetta was my choice for best ensemble cast performance in a comic book film.  Strange category, I know.  However, it is always a relief and a thrill for me when I see great talent trying to do great work in a genre film such as a comic book movie.  It thrilled me in History Of Violence, it thrilled me in The Dark Knight, and it thrilled me in V For Vendetta.  It is still a common misconception that the genre should be treated the way Schumacher treated Batman.  But there can be some amazing work turned in with the cape and cowl subset.  For example, this is by far my favorite performance by Hugo Weaving.  Yes, even more than his iconic Agent Smith.  Odd, seeing as we never see his face and that he was a last second replacement for James Purefoy.  Despite his Oscar, I’d put Weaving’s V right up there with Ledger’s Joker.  To accomplish the subtleties of V’s rage, anguish, humor and theatricality through an emotionless mask with only a voice is no small feat.  Portman, who I’ve loved since Leon: The Professional, seems to be playing a stereotypical damsel at first.  Much like she did in Thor.  However, Evey has the strongest arc in the film.  Her performance highpoint happens during the film’s big twist.  Her emotional journey during the four minute long scene hints at the Oscar caliber performance she had in her in the years to come.  Other than the leads, you have stellar supporting performances from John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Roger Allam, and the unsung anchor of the film, Stephen Rea.  There is absolutely no phoning it in here.
V For Vendetta doesn’t get nearly as much love as it should.  Even from it’s creator.  It seems to get misplaced amongst it’s lesser comic book movie brethren   For me, however, it is a film that shall never be FORGOT.  Remember, remember…to watch it….then tell me I’m wrong.  

October 5, 2012

31 Nights Of Halloween, Let Me In

CRAFTY

Okay, listen.  I mean the following statement in the most uncreepy way possible.  And that statement is….I absolutely adore Chloe Grace Moretz.  If someone asked me who I think will be the next great female actress, I’d quickly and easily point to Moretz.  Most know her as Hit-Girl from the amazing film Kick-Ass.  And though it is her signature role, Moretz has proven in all her roles to have the one thing child actors rarely have. The same thing Natalie Portman possessed at 13 when I first saw her in Leon The Professional.  That thing is range.  The distinct ability to perform an array of human traits and emotions convincingly.  Most people thought that Dakota Fanning was an amazing child star because she was a little girl talking like an adult.  However, that is pretty much all she could do.  She didn’t have anywhere near the range of Moretz or even her younger sister Elle.  Moretz can play a believable (BRITISH!) girly girl as she did in Hugo.  She can play a dry witted, mature for her age tomboy as she did in 500 Days Of Summer.  She can play a manipulative con artist as she did on 30 Rock.  And as we watch her…we believe every moment.  What makes her performance as Hit-Girl so great is that we can see the little girl in there.  She knows you can see it and uses that to her advantage.  But she can also switch on a dime to a badass and we believe that too.  She recognizes the different subtleties of human behavior.  And she’s recognized it before one note actors twice her age.  Legally I’m not allowed to gush over her anymore, but suffice to say Chloe Grace Moretz is the sh*t. (I’m sooo getting served a restraining order)  So allow me to talk about one of the few films I hadn’t seen her in.  The 2010 film Let Me In.

Let Me In is a remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In.  Writer/Director Matt Reeves follows the blueprint in making a classic horror film perfectly while still presenting something new and fresh.  Blood?  Yes.  Gore?  Yes.  But Reeves doesn’t throw it in your face like most horror films do now a days.  He hides and obscures the gore in some instances and lets the viewers imagination fill in the blanks.  But I don’t see this as just a basic horror film.  And that is where its CRAFTY.  Let Me In is a touching…truly touching…adolescent love story that just so happens to be between a boy and a vampire.  Chloe’s character Abby could have been an alien or an angel or a ghost and the story between them could have played out pretty much the same.  A relationship solely based on trust.  Reeves takes his time and lets you see their relationship grow.  For the climax of the film to seem believable, you really have to feel and see that happen.  It is something that modern slasher/horror films would have quickly rushed through.

Chloe is, once again, marvelous.  However, the performance of Kodi Smit-Mcphee should be applauded.  His chemistry with Chloe feels entirely genuine and the range he shows…there goes that magic word again…throughout the film is great.  The expression on his face while examining an old photo strip in Abby’s apartment stands out to me.  We can see him realize he’s staring at his possible future.  A small but solid performance is also given by the always interesting Richard Jenkins.

If Chloe Grace Moretz is my favorite actress of the future, Michael Giacchino is probably my favorite composer of the present.  The man has done a litany of iconic scores in his career that differ wildly, yet still are all reminiscent of each other.  He should be mentioned with Elfman and Zimmer and Williams. His score in Let Me In not only sets the mood of the piece, but tells so much of the story as well.   Giacchino turns a very gruesome scene on a hospital balcony into probably the most moving moment in the film.  You learn everything about the relationship of those two people on that balcony, and only four words are spoken.  Giacchino did a lot of that.

Of the three of us here at Simplistic Reviews, I’m probably the least big a fan of the horror genre. Possibly because I’m a gigantic fraidy cat.  Possibly because the majority of horror films tend to be the most clichéd and stereotypical of any other genre.  So when I find a film that is smart and different and well crafted while still containing the elements of horror, I go out of my way to praise and recommend it.  Let Me In is worthy of that distinction.  Turn the lights out…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

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