Sunday, April 8, 2018

BOW WOW!!!: a review of "Isle Of Dogs"

"ISLE OF DOGS"
Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13

Four years ago when I reviewed Wes Anderson's previous feature, the extraordinary "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014), I remarked that for his eighth film and one that had followed the exquisitely realized worlds of an eccentric prep school in "Rushmore" (1998), the John Irving styled novel universe of "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001), the underwater fantasy of "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (2004), the Indian dream world of "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007) and the nostalgic early adolescent campground romance of "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012), it was a creation of such unrepentant imagination and creative liberation that it felt as if Anderson was just getting himself started!

And now, we arrive with his astonishing ninth film, "Isle Of Dogs," his second stop animation film and a work that is positively bursting at the seams with such a boundless sense of invention and imagination that it makes his previous stop animation film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009) almost look like an archaic Rankin-Bass production.

As with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Wes Anderson has again delivered a work of art that feels as if it has captured every fantastical thought that entered his head and magically, meticulously rendered all of them upon celluloid for our viewing pleasure. It is a marvelous achievement that urgently speaks to the intense need we all have for cinematic storytellers who possess a completely original vision, especially during our current motion picture era where seemingly every film is shouldered with the pre-requisite of being attached to a pre-existing work, be it novel, comic book, toy, or the next installment in an on-going franchise. Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is connected to absolutely nothing that has emerged before and is only beholden to the dreams  inside of  his fervently creative brain. We are all the better for it that a film like this even exists as there is absolutely not hing else like it in theaters at this time. If you wish to be swept away by something truly unique, this is the film unquestionably. 

Set in a dystopian Japanese society some 20 years in the future, Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" centers around the landscape of Megasaki City, which is run under the authoritarian leadership of the cat loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura).

As a dog flu virus has run amok throughout the canine population, the Mayor signs a decree that all dogs will be evacuated from the city and abandoned to the isolated Trash Island, despite the protests from a scientist named Professor Watanabe (voiced by Akira Ito), who proclaims that he could devise of a complete cure. Regardless, the first dog to be banished is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the dog that belongs to the Mayor's orphaned nephew and ward, the 12-year-old Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin). 

Determined to find his dog, Atari sets off for Trash Island and is soon in the company of a pack of mangy, sickly dogs including Rex (voiced by Edward Norton), Boss (voiced by Bill Murray), Duke (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), King (voiced by Bob Balaban) and the mercurial, scruffy, former stray Chief (voiced beautifully by Bryan Cranston) who all eventually join forces to find Spots.

While what I have described is the film's basic plot, it is a film that grows increasingly complicated as it also includes Japanese folktales, flashbacks and non-linear narrative structures, an American exchange student freedom fighter named Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), government conspiracies, cannibalistic dog packs led by Gondo (voiced by Harvey Keitel), a messenger black owl, kidney transplants, a wise and wonderful narration performed by Courtney B. Vance and whatever else tickled Wes Anderson's fancy and yet, it all makes blissful sense and flows richly, with the core of the love story between humans and their canine friends housed at the center.

Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is a resounding triumph, an ocean of unfiltered creative lovingly and painstakingly created and fully realized. The visual splendor is astounding, so much so, each and every frame of the film could easily be created into still photos to be hung and framed. The level of detail, color, depth, architecture, and structure contained within both the dog and human characters is jaw dropping, making this film the precise sort of visual feast that you want to see all over again just to soak in every single element.

The film's story is one to find oneself lost inside of, again as if Anderson had written the  most engrossing, enveloping novel as this is a beautifully written film. All of the voice performances--from Wes Anderson's fleet of usual suspects to a host of Asian actors and performers--contain the trademark Anderson deadpan, droll delivery. Plot elements certainly recall the teenage adventures of "Moonrise Kingdom" plus the doomed dogs that occasionally arrive in Anderson's films, from "The Royal Tenenbaums as well as the aforementioned "Moonrise Kingdom." And yet, even with a story that simply soars on fantasy, Wes Anderson again injects a serious gravity to the proceedings that provide the film with a powerful melancholy, longing and even a sense of urgency and tragedy.

For those of you who may be curious to take your small children to this film due to its existence as being an animated feature, I would strongly advise you to give pause as "Isle Of  Dogs" is decidedly not a children's film. In fact, compared with the brighter, more playful style and tone of "Fantastic Mr. Fox,"  this new film is a profoundly darker affair, which does touch upon themes of climate change and the perils of excessive waste, and it even includes a plot thread that threatens full canine extinction.

Most of all, I really felt that the bonds between Atari, Spots and Chief plus the painful memories of the now captured and isolated dogs from their human friends to be more than palpable, especially as Trash Island is essentially an interment camp and the realities of families ripped apart do convey a powerful sadness, especially in one funny yet painful sequence as the canine quintet all discuss their favorite foods while living with their human families as they are now subjected to maggot ridden leftovers and garbage. But further and deeper, just regard the gorgeously detailed eyes of Atari and the cast of dogs as they come together and remember the loved ones lost and even though this is an animated film, I really felt it went quite a long way in acknowledging that our animal companions deliver to us everything that we give to them, making love fully and deeply reciprocated, with all areas of joy and pain ever present within this fantasia. 

As with the animals in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson utilizes the dogs to explore various stages and levels of human frailties and eccentricities, all the while allowing the philosophical and the primal to clash humorously as well as with a healthy amount of pathos. The character of Chief explicitly endures quite the considerable amount of soul searching as he reluctantly befriends the boy Atari and also builds a relationship with the purebreed Nutmeg (voiced by Scarlet Johansson), as he simultaneously desires and rejects emotional closeness because, as he often states plainly and plaintively, "I bite."

At this time I do feel necessary to address the bit of controversy the film has been receiving as of late in regards to the charges of cultural appropriation on the part of Wes Anderson. While I do feel that the topic is worthy of being discusses, explored and debated, there are times in which I do tend to feel that in our pursuit of representation, inclusion, justice and fairness as we attempt to evolve, we can go a bit overboard at times. Simply stated, "Isle Of Dogs" is a stop motion animated film starring a collective of talking dogs, so let's gather some real perspective if we're going to address the topic of perceived racism. Nevertheless, we are here at this point and here is my take.

Wes Anderson has made a full career building one cinematic universe after another that are all unapologetically artificial, especially when he wishes to travel the world. With India as presented in "The Darjeeling Limited" and Eastern Europe as depicted in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," we are certainly not being given anything approaching these locales as they exist in reality. This same tactic is executed in "Isle Of Dogs," as Anderson himself has professed in recent interviews that his film is in no way is representative of a real world Japan. His version of Japan is essentially a representation of the Japan that he has experienced within the films of Akira Kurosawa and "Isle Of Dogs" was purposefully designed to exist as an homage to Kurosawa's films. So, if  movies are dreams then "Isle Of Dogs" is essentially a cinematic dream within a cinematic dream and who can  honestly find fault with that? 

Criticism has been lobbied against the Caucasian Tracy Walker character as being sort of a "White savior" to the goings-on in the film and to that, I again disagree wholeheartedly as well, as her efforts plus those of the Japanese Atari are of a combined force for the good of the dogs and to Japan itself. Finally, it should be noted (and it is even noted within the film itself), that while all of the dogs do speak English, all of the human characters speak within their native languages, the Japanese characters often without the use of any subtitles. Again, if that is not showing a certain sensitivity or reverence, then I am not sure of what else Anderson could have done to ensure audiences that he is not being culturally inappropriate.

Frankly, dear readers, while we do need to take great care of how we represent others who are not like ourselves, I could not imagine a world where our artists are stifled so severely that they have to always remain in their respective lanes, so to speak. Should White artists only ever create stories about White characters in predominantly White populations? Going further, should male artists only ever write about men? Certainly not. If we are to learn anything from Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" regarding this issue, perhaps it is how Anderson him self was wholly inspired by another artist of another race and generation, an inspiration that eventually led him to make this film in the first place. Just imagine if aspiring filmmakers and film viewers are inspired by "Isle Of Dogs" to go and discover Kurosawa and other filmmaking points of view? Isn't that something to be encouraged and therefore, celebrated?

Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is undeniably cause for celebration. For filmmaking, for storytelling, for being able to delve into a world of blissful creativity and pure imagination and just seeing where it takes you. And of course, for those of you with dogs--and for that matter, for any of you who count themselves fortunate to have an animal companion in their lives--it is cause to celebrate the bonds that we have each forged between the species in admiration respect and love.

Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" is easily and already one of 2018's highest achievements.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR APRIL 2018

And everything is now coming to a head in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a tad sooner...

"Avengers: Infinity War," from Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, was originally scheduled to arrive in the first week of May, but all I can gather is that the powers-that-be are either extremely happy with the results or wish to strike at those "Black Panther" dollars sooner or both because the long in the works epic is arriving in the last week of this month...and of course, I am more than ready to discover if the Russo brothers have been able to successfully pull off what has been teased as a game changer for this series.

In addition to the collective of Marvel superheroes, I have to admit that I am more than curious about...
"A Quiet Place" from actor, co-writer and director John Krasinski arrives this month and features a horror tale in which the concept of sound itself is the key that unlocks the door to the terrifying monsters out to get you. Now, as I have expressed many times on this site, I am not one to typically choose to see a horror film. Yet, with one that has as interesting a concept as this one, I just  might brave it (maybe I'll take some ear plugs for those inevitable sonic jump scares).
Don't get me started on the absolutely ridiculous release schedule for Wes Anderson's latest film "Isle Of Dogs," but I am hoping the film will arrive in my city very, very soon as I am still anxiously awaiting to experience it.

With that, I think I have a more than full cinematic plate on my hands for the month, or at least, a plate that has room for some more if possible.

So, as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!

Friday, March 30, 2018

GAME OVERKILL: a review of "Ready Player One"

"READY PLAYER ONE"
Based upon the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Screenplay Written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline
Produced and Directed by Steven Spielberg
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

When it comes to the nature of homage in regards to the artifacts of the past, there is a very fine line between innovation and simple exercises in nostalgia.

Around the original release of Ernest Cline's debut novel Ready Player One, his science fiction adventure which served as a travelogue and tribute to the pop culture of the late 20th century between the 1970's and 1990's, it was a book that I had picked up and placed down in bookstores many, many times as I was unsure as to how that aforementioned fine line would be treated. Even excited recommendations for the book from treasured friends did not move me terribly much in this case as I feared that the work would essentially be an exercise in nostalgia and not much else.

By the time the novel hit paperback status, I finally picked up a copy and read. My reaction to the novel was mixed at best for while I did think the story itself was quite clever, its overall execution less so, especially with the book's dialogue, which frankly, to my sensibilities was quite awful. The novel of Ready Player One indeed felt to me to be an excuse for Cline to hang his fanboy passions upon, and while there was a certain inventiveness to his story and I did appreciate the questions of our culture's adherence to fantasy in virtual worlds vs. reality in our actual flesh and blood existence, when it was all said and done, it was fun but empty--a collection of pop culture name droppings at the service of characters that had no soul. Essentially, if the pop culture of the '70s, '80s and '90s never happened, this book would not exist.

Of course, a book like Ernest Cline's was practically screaming to be made into a big budget feature film and when it was first announced that none other than Steven Spielberg would take the helm, it felt to me more than perfect as this man was the architect of so much of the tremendous output of the past that Cline honored in his narrative. Now that the film is here, ready to be experienced, and I have now seen it for myself, I have to say that I really wanted to love it but just as with the book, it was an experience that felt to be terribly lacking in any sense of depth, soul and oddly enough, storytelling innovation.

Now don't get me wrong. This is Steven Spielberg we're talking about and there are quite a number of moments and sequences in the film that are dazzling but let's be honest, Steven Spielberg made more innovative films in the 1980's than anything presented here. Yes, dear readers, I do not wish not be a killjoy, but I have to call 'em as I see 'em, Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One," while beautifully made, is precisely an empty example of nostalgia and 21st century CGI bombast desperately in search of a purpose.

Just as with the original novel, "Ready Player One" opens in the year 2045, where much of the planet has become desolate due to over-population, climate change, corruption, pollution and all manner of societal ills. Humans have turned to the expansive virtual universe of the OASIS as refuge and as a location for education, work and endless entertainment under the guises of whatever and whichever avatar they wish to exist as.

Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, an 18-year-old based in Columbus, Ohio who lives in stacked trailer slums with his aunt yet spends every possible waking hour inside the OASIS as his avatar Parzival, getting into one adventure after another with his best (virtual) friend, the hulking, mega muscled mechanic and male avatar Aech (played by Lena Waithe and whose character's name is pronounced as "H"), the ninja styled avatars of Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Akihide Karatsu), as well as Art3mis (a terrific Olivia Cooke), the one whom our hero houses a massive crush, even though he has no idea of who she is in the real world.

All five eventually team up and name themselves the "High Five" as they, and seemingly the rest of the world are all on the hunt for a series of three virtual keys that will lead them to the Easter Egg of the OASIS as designed and planted by OASIS inventor, the now deceased technological genius and social misfit James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who has filled this virtual universe with the complete and labyrinthine amount of the late 20th century pop culture (books, movies, games, music, etc...) he adored.

Retrieval of the Easter Egg will award the winner with complete control of the OASIS, and after five years of searching, Parzival and his friends have found two of the keys, a feat which has alerted them to the conglomerate of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and the nefarious CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), whose corporate based fleet of gamers are also on the hunt with IOI's intention to control the OASIS themselves.

As real world identities of OASIS avatars are soon discovered,  the real world lives of Wade Watts and his friends are all in the balance.

As previously stated, and as with the original source material, Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" houses an extremely clever story, essentially a mash up of say  Steven Lisberger's "Tron" (1982), The Wachowski's "The Matrix" trilogy (1999/2003) and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) with the character of James Halliday serving as this tale's Willy Wonka and everyone else in the pursuit of those Golden Tickets, so to speak.

Also, as previously stated, it is a beautifully made film in which Spielberg performed the Herculean task of creating two visually distinctive worlds to play around in, from the drab, dour impoverished environment of the real dystopian world--itself not too terribly removed from some locales witnessed in Spielberg's own "Minority Report" (2002)--and the eye popping, vibrantly hyper-kinetic universe of the OASIS, which is bursting at the seams with any and every conceivable reference from the 1980's that you could think of...that is except from Spielberg's own films as he did not wish to inadvertently create a vanity piece--although the T-Rex from Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993) and the DeLorean from Robert Zemeckis' "Back To The Future" trilogy (1985/1989/1990), which Spielberg produced, make notable appearances.

Spielberg injects "Ready Player One" with an enthusiasm and exuberance that he has not been at liberty to display in recent years due to the nature of his recent films' subject matter. His obvious joy at just being able to play again is evident with his speed-of-light pacing in the film's spectacular opening OASIS car chase starring all manner of pop culture vehicles plus the arrival of King Kong himself, an absolutely brilliant tribute to Stanley Kubrick (I just can't spoil that for you), a swirling flight of fancy dance sequence set to the likes of New Order's "Blue Monday" and of course, The Bee Gee's "Staying Alive" and even more. Spielberg is having fun again, popcorn movie fun, that is and it is a sheer testament to the mastery of his powers with filmmaking craft and filmmaking genre that he has been able to arrive with this new film mere months after his previous and stylistically opposite experience with "The Post" (2017) 

The visual effects are resplendent. The music selections are often spot-on and I enjoyed the performances from Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg, who portrays James Halliday's one and only friend and former business partner Ogden Morrow. Also, as with the source material, I did appreciate the inclusion of themes pertaining to the dangers of living one's life completely on-line and to the detriment of making connections within the real world with real people. And, also without delving into spoilers, I also appreciated the film's sly critique of purely White, male fandom as pop cultural gatekeepers.

But again, I did not love this film and in fact, over the course of its two hour and twenty minute running time, I found myself growing less involved than I was at the film's outset, definitely during its strong first hour or so.

For all of the visual dynamism, and dual universe helter skelter, "Ready Player One" is a dangerously over-stuffed film that ultimately is not about terribly much of anything and does not really go anywhere significant. It doesn't help whatsoever that the film's primary heroes and villains are sadly underwritten and developed therefore making nearly all of them equally bland and characterless, with only Olivia Cooke's Art3mis, and possibly Lena Waithe's Aech to a lesser degree, making any sense of an impression.

I just find it strange and more than a little troubling that the leading character of Wade Watts is especially less than paper thin thus giving Tye Sheridan absolutely nothing to play or attempt to become other than simply being wide eyed and that is not nearly enough to even begin to base a character upon. If we are being given this story in which five years have passed in the pursuit of the three virtual keys, shouldn't we know something more about Wade's character that makes it possible for him, out of a world of gamers to be the one and only one to figure out Halliday's puzzles?  Is it just that he is "pure of heart," or something? Granted, there's not much to him in the book either but even so, I would think that it would have to be more than his nature as a fan to fuel his success. But none of whatever that could be is ever seen or experienced at any point in the film and the results were lacking considerably.

Now, if I had been at all skeptical about this film before seeing it, it was based entirely in the notion of the movie existing as much as an exercise in nostalgia as the original novel. Well...that was actually not the main problem I had with the visual/conceptual presentation. In fact, the film and special effects are, again, so overstuffed and over-crowded and the proceedings fly by so rapidly it would be impossible to catch every single reference on first viewing--itself a canny way to get audiences to plunk down more money to see the film over and again and play "Spot The Reference." But all of that is painfully superficial as far as storytelling is concerned...even when the pop culture essentially is the story.

It can be done,  however, and has been done before and to levels of cinematic brilliance and provocativeness. For instance, I still feel that Edgar Wright's superlative, spectacular yet profoundly under-appreciated "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" (2010), contained some of the most imaginative, inventive, creative special effects in years while also presenting a clean yet complex and enormously entertaining narrative that explored a young man's arrested development and fear of real world relationships, thus sparing himself real emotional pain if he just treated life as if it were a video  game.

Additionally, I was also reminded of Cameron Crowe's polarizing, challenging "Vanilla Sky" (2001), which delved into more disturbing territories centered around the dangers of virtual reality and defining one's being through the pop culture they adore and treasure, making life a veritable dream world from which there is no escape.

"Ready Player One" does touch on those concepts but they are indeed all lost in the deluge which eventually dissolves the film into a series of characters just running around, either chasing or being chased, and we ultimately don't care terribly much about any of them at any time. The film's final "storm the castle" grand battle is also deflating as it is just yet another CGI bludgeoning that signifies nothing at all other than the massive budget the film received.

But worst of all is the story itself, which elements have been changed drastically from the novel--most egregiously, having characters' real identities that were revealed at the end of the book being revealed early in the movie--thus also deflating the slim emotional connections we would have otherwise felt between these virtual and real world characters. So, with that element taken away, all that is left is to watch the pretty pictures and that is just not enough to recommend this film as far as I am concerned.       

Dear readers, at times, when I have had conversations with younger friends, young enough to not have experienced the artifacts of the past firsthand as I did, I often express the following sentiment: "I am old enough to remember a time when there was no such thing as 'Star Wars,' "Indiana Jones," or "Ghostbusters.' But then they came into the world and it was AWESOME!"

I was a child in the 1970's and a teenager in the 1980's and as I look back at those period, specifically through the lens of pop culture, I think I admire those times even more now as an adult as I did back then. For now, we are living in sadly derivative times as well as times w hen the gatekeepers are so afraid at trying anything that is not based upon something, anything that is not already part of the pop lexicon. To think, someone out there could possibly have that next whatever that can change the game forever but would we ever even see it because it is unknown? Are so-called "new" stories which only exist because of the past going to be what passes for innovation from now on?  I hope not.

Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One" is fun. It is...to a degree. But even so, and especially from a legend like Spielberg, we expect more. Something fresh, something new, something that doesn't feel like a shiny new trip through an old yearbook.

THIN ICE: a review of "I, Tonya"

"I, TONYA"
Screenplay Written by Steven Rogers
Directed by Craig Gillespie
**** (four stars)
RATED R

By the end of the cinematic year, the new releases arrive so fast and furiously that it is indeed impossible to keep up with their pace, especially as the window in which one is able to see them due to the increasingly brutality of the box office closes that much more rapidly. There is only so much time, and truth be told, the frequency does often make it difficult for this film enthusiast to keep those creative fireworks going at full capacity. In short, I just can't get to them all.

That being said, when I am able to catch up on some releases months later, every so often, I will run across a film whose excellence was so high that I end up kicking myself for not having seen it sooner in the movie theater. In the case of the biographical drama/satire "I, Tonya," directed with uncompromising verve, heft, skill, dynamic flair and freight train energy and confidence by Craig Gillespie, who previously helmed the comparatively sleepier and frankly, annoyingly quirkier "Lars And The Real Girl" (2007), I am indeed kicking myself!

Dear readers, Craig Gillespie's "I, Tonya" was not simply an unexpected surprise, it was filmmaking excellence to such a degree that if I had indeed seen the film during my end of the year rush, it would have made the creation of my personal Top Ten favorite films of 2017 list that much more difficult to compile. For whatever reasons, I guess I just had no desire to see a film adaptation of a  wild yet woefully pathetic media circus that I actually remember witnessing when it originally happened. But what Gillespie achieved with his film was remarkable and downright sensational, perhaps just as much as the real events themselves.

In a performance that feels tailor made to in crease her star wattage and acting credentials, Margot Robbie stars as the infamous Tonya Harding, whom we regard from her childhood ice skating beginnings circa 1978 Portland, Oregon to present day interview sequences and with the equally infamous 1994 attack upon skating rival Nancy Kerrigan and Harding's subsequent Olympics ice-skate shoe string meltdown as the centerpiece.

Told in a fractured narrative which ranges from documentary styled interview sections, more straightforward docudrama, blistering satire and cinematic flourishes like the often breaking of the fourth wall where the audience is addressed directly as well as the on screen events, which are commented upon in real time, we are given the voices of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Shaw), Tonya Harding's abusive husband, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Jeff's dimwitted best friend who bizarrely professes to being an expert in counter-terrorism, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya's skating coach, and finally, in true unrepentant volcanic fury, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), Tonya's chain smoking, brutally vulgar, relentlessly abusive Mother. 

Craig Gillespie's "I, Tonya" is unquestionably the most visceral film I have seen in quite some time. Seemingly inspired by the speed and force as we have seen in iconic final third of Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990), Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" (1997) and Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (2014), Gillespie grabbed my attention instantly, kept me upon my toes from beginning to end and upended my perceptions persistently and brilliantly via the knife's edge Cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, Editing by Tatiana S. Riegel and definitely, the pitch perfect soundtrack which culls select songs from the 1970's-1990's with such tremendously creative flair that fully accentuates Gillespie's storytelling and the themes of Tonya Harding's odyssey.

It seems more than fitting that "I, Tonya," with its collective of completely unreliable narrators, has fueled a story which merges and mashes the themes of the White working class, female empowerment and the cycle of abuse so thoroughly and disturbingly that it would be impossible to simply take one conceptual thread and stretch it out by its lonesome. The themes are irrevocably intertwined and fueled with an unforgiving viciousness that any potential attempts of a "when they go low, we go high" narrative, especially within any notions of feminism, are going to emerge bashed and bruised...much like several of the characters themselves.

Beyond its barrage of emotional and physical violence displayed throughout, Gillespie has also utilized the band of unreliable narrators, none of whom we ever fully trust or believe at any given moment or sequence as they all purposefully contradict each other, to create a blistering commentary upon America's "build-it-up-tear-it-down" culture, therefore making "I, Tonya" a perfect entry into the Court Of Public Opinion, as we are all left to devise for ourselves not only what may be valid, but who deserves our sympathy and/or vitriol. And to that end, the film also serves as a document within our so-called "post truth" era of Trump's America, where facts are non-existent and reality is based upon whatever one happens to be feeling or thinking within any given moment. As Tonya Harding exclaims near the film's end, "There's no such thing as 'truth'."

"I, Tonya" is a searing rush, a violently turbulent ride indeed and thankfully, Craig Gillespie has infused his film with considerable, yet dangerously teeth baring, humor, that never belies its characters or subject matter but indeed makes the film almost deliriously entertaining when it would otherwise be unbearable to view.

Margot Robbie is absolutely sensational in the title role. Now granted, I was skeptical about her as she is definitely an actress that is more than striking to regard, making me wonder if she was, frankly, too pretty for the role. And while she doesn't undergo as drastic and complete of a transformation as Charlize Theron underwent in her terrifying performance in Patty Jenkins' "Monster" (2003), Robbie hits a grand slam as she just nailed the essence and core of Harding's petulance, her sense of entitlement, her rage, her pride and self-righteous sense of self-pity, her complete inability to admit to any fault, and her ferocious determination to the one and only thing she was ever talented with.

While I can't say that I grew to have any more sympathy, so to speak, for the real world Tonya Harding, I was certainly given a front row seat to understanding her in a fashion that I never could have in the past. For all of the blood, fire, spit and fury in her performance, Margot Robbie perfectly depicted a figure who was indeed the product of her environment and was thus forced to engage with the outer world in the only way she knew due to the abuse launched at her from childhood through her marriage to Jeff. And I do have to say that her courtroom scene near the film's conclusion really affected me, for how would you feel if you were not allowed to engage in the only thing you were ever successful with? Margot Robbie, who certainly hung on for dear life in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (2013) and lived to tell the tale, has truly arrived in "I, Tonya." She is the real deal.

As terrific as Margot Robbie is, Allison Janney fully deserved her Oscar win as LaVona Golden. She delivered a mountainous, monstrous performance so unrepentantly vile that it would make Faye Dunaway from Frank Perry's "Mommie Dearest" (1981) run away and cower in the corner. The mastery of Janney's performance not only lies in the fact that she is wickedly hilarious in the role while never subjugating her wretchedness, her self-loathing and her unspeakably horrific parenting. Janney's mastery is somehow still providing LaVona with a sense of mystery, a hidden quality of her full motivations that undoubtedly makes her an enigma.

Why is LaVona so determined to ensure that Tonya becomes a professional ice skater in the first place? The film never seeks to even begin to answer this question, which only adds to the film's overall mystery. Might it be a quest for vicarious fame? Redemption for her awful parenting? Hoped for transcendence from her specific station in life? A chance to at last be the star in her own life story? Whether all or none of the above, whatever churns through LaVona's wires and is seemingly exhumed through every cigarette laced breath, like a forever simmering dragon just waiting to explode into flames of destruction, Allison Janney is compulsively watchable.

Craig Gillespie's "I, Tonya" is masterful and malevolent. Written, filmed and acted within an inch of its, the effect is absolutely exhilarating and inits own way thrusts a vehemently enraged middle finger proudly in the face of all of the prestige pictures that were released at the same time. And perhaps, that is exactly what we all need sometimes. A film to wake us up, slap us around and not be terribly concerned with pedigree, while scaling the heights of cinema in the process. A film that is ready and unafraid to roll around in the dirt or take that body slam face first onto the ice.

Perhaps that possibly explains why as a culture we were so engaged with the original controversy and the infamous figure of Tonya Harding in the first place.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

LET'S GET SMALL: a review of "Downsizing"

"DOWNSIZING"
Screenplay Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne
* 1/2 (one and a half stars)
RATED R

For this next installment of the "I'll Give Points For Trying" category, I turn to the film "Downsizing" from Writer/Director Alexander Payne, who, for the majority of his 20 plus years in cinema, has created an uncommonly gifted streak of cinematic excellence that includes nothing less than "Election" (1999), "About Schmidt" (2002), "The Descendants" (2011), and his undeniable masterpiece, the middle aged male arrested development, wine country travelogue film "Sideways" (2004).

Alexander Payne is a cinematic storyteller that has specialized greatly within the satirical to be certain, but has also probed an astounding level of empathy and soul into his explorations of the male psyche often merged with some aspect of a simultaneously physical and existential journey, but one thing he really quite has not been is a cinematic stylist. For "Downsizing," I will give Payne those aforementioned points for devising of a film that is easily is most conceptually and visually ambitious and widest ranging thematically despite the diminutive size of most of the film's characters.

It is a film of enormous humanity but also one of surprising inertia, as the film plods along in a manner that is akin to a depressive sludge. For all of the attention the film achieved pre-release with the prevalence of its trailers, I was indeed stunned that "Downsizing" essentially vanished from theaters in a heartbeat this past holiday season. Now, after having seen it for myself, I am not the least bit surprised. Consider this a well meaning attempt that just didn't realize its own potential, therefore earning Alexander Payne his weakest film to date by a long shot.

In a world so very much like our own with all manner of environmental crises and over-population, the world of "Downsizing"  opens with a scientific miracle discovered by the ingenious Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard), the ability to shrink human beings down to a height of five inches, a process that could potentially save the planet as the reduction in size could further cause a reduction in waste.

Nearly 15 years after the introduction and success of the downsizing process to the world, Omaha, Nebraska based Occupational Therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are facing continued financial issues as they reside in the house that Paul grew up in, his Mother passed away in and furthermore, he has just completed paying off his student loans. As you can see, they are just unable to get ahead. While attending their high school reunion, Paul and Audrey have an enlightening conversation with former classmates Doug and Carol Johnson (played by Jason Sudekis and Maribeth Monroe), who has themselves downsized and are now living in the downsized community of Lesure Land, a location where, as Doug informs Paul, the benefits are outsized as one's finances will translate astronomically upon being shrunken.

After considerable deliberation, Paul and Audrey decide to go through the downsizing process themselves and move to Leisure Land, yet Audrey backs out of the process at the last minute ( i.e. NOT a spoiler as this is shown in the film's trailers), leaving the already downsized Paul alone in an unknown existence.

From here, Paul attempts to devise the true purpose of his life as he encounters a variety of colorful characters including his Serbian playboy neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), Dusan's partyboy companion Joris (Udo Keir), Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese activist who was jailed and shrunken against her will by the government, and yes, even the good Dr. Asbjornsen himself, who carries even deeper plans for humanity's survival.

As I stated at the beginning of this posting, I do applaud Alexander Payne for trying. In our age of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and all manner of new material being based within pre-existing material, it is almost a minor miracle that anything remotely original is even able to be made anymore. With "Downsizing," Payne has indeed achieved the creation of a new project that is indeed original. Furthermore, I also deeply appreciated the fact that this film is like nothing else in his own filmography, especially as "Downsizing" arrives f our years after his previous film, the well meaning but torpidly redundant "Nebraska" (2013), a film that played like Payne's warmed over greatest hits instead of offering something new.

"Downsizing" is certainly new and is awash in subtle, clever special effects throughout upon its surface while delving into topics no less than the world's over-population and excessive wastefulness plus climate change, liberal guilt, societal avarice, White privilege, spiritual decay, and the potential end of the human experiment, if not the world itself. So, as you can gather Payne was certainly attempting something much grander than a simple, quirky comedy. But just because one can devise of an ambitious concept, that does not necessarily mean that one knows exactly how to bring it to life.

Alexander Payne's execution of "Downsizing" is precisely what sinks it. It is an unfortunately dry experience with a dangerously meandering tone. While Payne's films typically carry such a meandering tone, they are always at the more than appropriate service of the film's characters yet with "Downsizing," it too often felt like Payne was trying to figure out how to film his story while on set each day in real time, with cast and crew fumbling alongside him not certain what to do, what tone to establish, which emotions should be played and so on.

The film has its moments of course. For instance I did enjoy how Payne kept injecting a certain realism into his fantastical concept as characters debated issues about whether downsized people should have the same voting rights as normal sized people. Do they pay the same in taxes? Are normal sized people subsidizing the downsized, therefore keeping normal sized people in financial straits? And then, there is the lengthy downsizing sequence itself, which is surreal and more than a little creepy. But aside from those aspects and a few more scattered here and there, "Downsizing" just could never figure out what it wanted to be, therefore making the drag itself to its own finish line.

Matt Damon clearly did not have a good cinematic year last year with decent yet unmemorable work in George Clooney's dark yet awkwardly presented crime thriller/black comedy/racial drama hybrid "Suburbicon" (2017)--which I did not review--and now, in "Downsizing," Damon elicits a performance that looks and feels sad and tired. Yes, this quality is partially due to the service of his character, a caretaker who is constantly at the service of every one other than himself and the existential crisis he finds himself in.

Mostly, Matt Damon just looks miserable, as if he felt he signed onto a great idea that was not panning out terribly well, and now, he was trapped into soldiering onwards regardless. I have no idea is that is what he was feeling during the film's production. But that is how he appeared to me. Damon was listless, and possessed a significant and surprising lack of energy that contributed heavily to the film's poor, sluggish pacing. In a way, I guess I could say that he looked to be a bit depressed and frankly, I gradually felt t hat state of being more and more as the film continued.

Perhaps it was intentional. Perhaps not. But considering the film's grim subject matter, it is easy to  gather that there would be some depressing aspects to the proceedings, considering this is the end of the world we're dealing with. But even so, that does not mean the film itself needs to continuously feel as if we are immobilized in sadness due to a lack of storytelling momentum.

There were some moments late in the film that reminded me very much of Lorene Scafaria's elegant, devastating and so sadly underseen and undervalued "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" (2012). Yet where Scafaria succeeded greatly was not just in her establishment of character and her tightrope tonality, which wavered between biting satire, aching romantic comedy, the road film and the existential terror that accompanies impending extinction. Her storytelling focus was masterful in its crystal clarity, so that she knew precisely when to push, to ease, to bring us into the romance only to whisk us back into the film's reality of the world reaching its final seconds, all the having us understand exactly what she was expressing about our larger humanity.

For "Downsizing," I do not know if Alexander Payne essentially wanted to have a film that was so seemingly nihilistic. Yes, the good doctor does indeed create the downsizing process with the pure hopes of saving the world but once humans do begin to downsize, all we see are human being's worst qualities of avarice, greed, hedonism, and self-preservation run amok. Was this the point of the film? I am honestly not terribly certain. Damon's character is certainly the one who continues to seek for meaning in this insane miniaturized world, but once it is all said and done, the hedonists continue to be hedonists, the greedy remain so as well and even if we do help our fellow man, the world is going to end anyway. So...why am I watching this film if it doesn't seem to know what it wants to say about...well...anything?

And then, there is the disturbing matter of  Ngoc Lan Tran...

While again, the character of Ngoc Lan Tran, the Vietnamese radical unjustly maimed and shrunken by the government and who soon becomes Matt Damon's character's greatest confidant, is compelling, the Golden Globe nominated performance by Hong Chau is disastrously less so.

Look... I really have no idea of what members of the Asian community felt about Chau's performance and portrayal but for me, the entire escape felt to be inappropriate at best and inexcusable at worst as her indecipherable barrage of shrill Pidgin English smacked so horrifically of caricature rather than something tangible or realistic. In fact, it sounded as if this was Chau's first attempt at discovering her character's voice and Payne just filmed it as is, making it something that was not too far removed from Mickey Rooney's inhumane spectacle in Blake Edwards' "Breakfast At Tiffany's "(1961). Yes, at least from my perspective, Hong Chau's performance is that misguided, taking an already wandering film down some deeply disturbing paths--and unintentionally so, I would gather--a bout race and representation in the movies.

And so it is with Alexander Payne's "Downsizing," a film that exists much like the invention within the film by the good scientist. It is an exceedingly well meaning film, one with the best of intentions, but you know what has been said about those good intentions. Sometimes that goes for the movies too.

Monday, March 19, 2018

THE WARRIOR: a review of "A Wrinkle In Time"

"A WRINKLE IN TIME"
Based upon the novel A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Screenplay Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell
Directed by Ava DuVernay
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG

Earlier this afternoon, as I took in a screening of Ave DuVernay's adaptation of the classic Madeleine L'Engle novel, A Wrinkle In Time, I was subjected to what felt like an endless cavalcade of trailers promoting a slew of upcoming movies being released to general (i.e. family) audiences...and when I say "subjected," trust me, I am being more than kind.

Now dear readers, if you have been regular visitors to this site, you are already more than aware of my emotions concerning consistently gloriously shiny yet completely mercenary and ultimately disposable motion picture entertainment that is geared to children and families, so there is no need for me to prattle on about it allover again. Even that being said, the sight of one exceedingly, painfully crass and classless looking feature disheartened me, making me wonder again about the films that can entertain with the dickens yet still aspire and inspire.

With "A Wrinkle In Time," while not perfect and does possess some minor flaws to my sensibilities, the boldly inventive Ava DuVernay has largely succeeded with creating the very type of children's film that is in shockingly rare supply. Operating within the same creative, conceptual universe as with what Ryan Coogler masterfully achieved with "Black Panther," DuVernay has strongly ensured that her film does not solely exist as a romp through flights of fancy and fantasy as she has created an experience that was more head spinning and soul stirring that I would have first imagined after just seeing the initial trailers. You know, I never should have underestimated the director of "Selma" (2014) but I guess the starkness and grounded nature of her work made me skeptical if she could tackle adapting a work that has been claimed to be "unfilmable."  Strangely, and beautifully, it feels as if Ava DuVernay has been precisely the right person to take the challenge after all.

"A Wrinkle In Time" stars the terrific Storm Reid as Meg Murry, a 13 year old caught in the throes of grief and loss after the unexplained disappearance of her beloved Father, Alex Murry (a continuously impressive Chris Pine), an Astrophysicist housed with ambitions to discover the secrets of the universe and existence itself.

Four long years after his disappearance, Meg, also gifted with skills in Science and Math, has fallen behind in her studies at school, grown increasingly sullen and belligerent and is the target of a gaggle of bullies, making her an escalating cause of concern for her Principal (Andre Holland) and worry for her Mother, also a scientist Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who was adopted two years before Alex's vanishing. 

Just as mysteriously as Alex exited, Meg and her family, plus Meg's schoolmate Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller), who houses a crush upon Meg, are introduced to a trio of astral travelers: the loquacious Mrs. Whatsit (an absolutely delighted Reese Witherspoon, who seems to be relishing the opportunity to at long last be portraying a Fairy Godmother), the quotation delivering Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the oldest, wisest, and most formidable Mrs. Which (the inimitable Oprah Winfrey).

The trio of travelers inform Meg and her family plus Calvin that her Father is indeed alive yet he is imprisoned upon the planet Camaztoz, itself under the control of the malevolent force known only as The It, an entity determined to engulf the universe. Through the use of a tesseract, the three Mrses with Calvin, Charles Wallace and a most reluctant teleport to the planet Uriel to begin the quest to rescue Alex Murry.

I have to first inform you that I have not read the source material so with that in mind, I am unable to tell you of how faithful this film version happens to be. But what I am able to say is that this film is filled end to end with childlike wonder, a dazzling array of psychedelic journeys, and a palpable inner journey from self-doubt to empowerment which makes Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time" a visually ravishing and emotionally satisfying adventure that certainly resonates and reverberates long after leaving the theater. Again, by nature of the proceedings being a children's film, there are those "children's film" qualities that did not sit terribly comfortably with me as an adult but may be just perfect for younger viewers.

Yes, I felt Composer Tobias A. Schliessler's bustling score to be intermittently effective as it was more than an insistent presence through its wall-to-wall usage and sadly did not augment the film as much as direct the audience's emotions unnecessarily.  But, that quality is indeed a trademark of the children's film and I gather that viewers that happen to be somewhere between 6-10 won't mind a whit.

Additionally, being a children's film, we are given platitudes upon platitudes upon platitudes over and again, all of which are indeed designed to inspire Meg upon her journey, and while that lack of subtlety rubbed against my adult sensibilities the wrong way from time to time, for children, it just may be precisely what is needed for repetition is key. I guess I had some minor issues with two of the children's performances in the film from both Levi Miller and Deric McCabe, who each seemed to be a tad stiff and stagy (although McCabe was stronger in the film's darker, later half) but again, for younger viewers, they don't necessarily need Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. These young actors deliver just what is needed to make you buy the fantasy and I have a feeling that children will not need much at all in order to be superbly whisked away.

I firmly believe that Ava DuVernay knew exactly the kind of tone she needed to establish her film, and it is indeed one that finds stronger footing the longer the story develops and the stranger and darker the story becomes. In fact, DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time" is impressively multi-layered, to be taken at face value as an interstellar voyage and as metaphor exploring themes of love, loss, mourning and renewal in addition to realizing the fullness of one's potential.

Most of all, the film feels strikingly personal despite the mega budgeted razzle dazzle. It is as if we are receiving a greater trip through DuVernay's wires than ever before with a work that feels to conceptually honor Neil deGrasse-Tyson and the late Stephen Hawking as it does the metaphysical musical musings of Funkadelic on selections like "Maggot Brain" and "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts."  Essentially, and again like Coogler's "Black Panther," Ava DuVernay has utilized "A Wrinkle In Time" to deliver her deeply substantive slice of Afro-Futurism and passionate demands for Black excellence and the effect does indeed build to a certain esoteric euphoria by film's end.

"A Wrinkle In Time" extravagantly exudes special effects wizardry throughout yet so thankfully, Ava DuVernay deftly escaped all of the traps that even the likes of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi could not wrestle themselves from with their terribly bloated and impersonal to the point of being anonymous entries for Disney with "Alice In Wonderland" (2010) and "Oz The Great And Powerful" (2013), respectively. By contrast, what DuVernay has devised, while CGI heavy, feels much more akin to more thoughtful, awe inspiring and at times, disturbing imagery that would not feel terribly out of place in works from Terry Gilliam or Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" (2009).

And...truth be told, once the three Mrses depart the story for the film darker second half, when our heroes are left to their own devices to navigate the universe alone on the dangerous Camaztoz and the domineering influence of The It (as voiced by David Oyelowo), DuVernay creates one gently nightmarish sequence after another. A creepy, primary color drenched cul-de-sac filled with Stepford Wives and strange children bouncing red, rubber balls in unison. A sinister beach where delicious delicacies taste like sand. A race through an exploding forest before it disintegrates entirely. As we bounce from one set piece to the next and rapidly so, Ava DuVernay flies by the speed of her own imagination with a joyous fearlessness that suggests the work of the late Ken Russell.

These sequences and more, and in addition to the whimsical, fantastical flights of the film's first half showcase DuVernay's determination to not allow the visuals to just become impersonal wallpaper. For these special effects have character and purpose--visually, conceptually and emotionally--as DuVernay threads the realms of the cosmic and the psychological, all the while allowing her "Freak Flag" to fly higher and higher, as well as with a certain amazement that she is able to create with this type of a cinematic canvas (especially as DuVernay is indeed, the very first African-American female director to command a motion picture of this scope and $100 million budget--a bit more on this later).

For a film such that is often as bizarre and arcane as it is unapologetically innocent, it is crucial that  as far beyond the universe the film reaches, Ava DuVernay never lets go of the through-line so to speak, which are Meg's connection to her Father and her growing connection to herself. With that, each landscape Meg visits in the film feels like another corner of her own brilliant, growing mind as she is confronted with a problem or seemingly insurmountable obstacle and has to believe in herself enough to problem solve her way through in order to continue her personal ascension. Again, what we have is another telling of the mythical, eternal hero's journey but through a lens that we are not  typically accustomed.

As I have been writing in recent years and as what I am certain so many of you have been reading elsewhere and perhaps feeling among yourselves, representation and inclusion means everything!! From the entirely of having the first female director of color to command this mega sized project to the film's diverse casting to the sheer audacity if having our main protagonist exist in the form of an African-American girl in the first place because in this regard, when was the last time you have seen a young Black female in the lead of a major motion picture?

Even for myself, my own memories are slim and the ones that I am able to think of right in the moment are films more relegated to independent films or the art houses. I think of Zelda Harris in Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" (1994), Keke Palmer in Doug Atchison's "Akeelah and the Bee" (2006) and definitely Quvenzhane Wallis in Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" (2012). But in a mainstream, big budget science fiction fantasy adventure from the wonderful world of Disney? Nope. I am unable to think of even one.

Yet, for "A Wrinkle In Time," DuVernay has given us the mightily named Storm Reid as Meg, a young actress who more than lives up to her powerful name with a magnetic screen presence that instantly draws you into her interior world of insecurities and fears, pain and sorrow, as well as her growing determination. Just having a young actress of color in the leading role, of course, is not going to make the film in it and of itself. So, it is terrific that Reid delivers the goods with a performance that easily makes you root for her solace and evolution. 

Even further, I really think that DuVernay's casting of Storm Reid holds an even deeper agenda for which she is challenging each and every one of us in the audience who has been exposed to all manner of pop culture from films, television, music videos, pop stars and so on, where the principals are predominantly White. DuVernay is challenging the very idea that when we all read fiction how our minds just may automatically default to "White" as we envision characters to ourselves, unless they are described as being otherwise. Because why can't Meg Murry be an African-American girl? Why not? Why can't a young Black girl save the universe for once? Just once?

Ava Du Vernay, with this film, has already delivered an impassioned change in the perception of what a hero can be plus what it even means to be heroic in our shoot-em-up, blow 'em up real good culture. Meg Murry doesn't use weapons. This film is not about a war of the worlds. The It is not a being but a representation of the darkest thoughts that we all have that impedes our own individualized progress. Returning to my Funkadelic comparison, The It represents "the maggots of the mind" and "A Wrinkle In Time" presents how Meg just may overcome her own inner demons.

Meg Murry's power is her own mind, her intelligence and her heart and love to connect with and inspire herself to change her fate as well as attempt to reunite with her Father. Love will change and save the universe as well as herself for she is not the same at the end of the film as we see her at the beginning. Ava DuVernay has challenged and changed our perceptions for at the beginning of "A Wrinkle In Time, " as we are witness to a young, bespectacled Black girl enraptured in scientific discovery and by film's end, she is literally flying through the astral dimensions of time and space...and really, when have you ever seen a young, bespectacled Black girl flying in the movies?

For all of the worlds, dimensions, and adventures we are given, what Ava DuVernay asks us to hold onto the greatest with "A Wrinkle In Time" is the following: the sight and vision of a young, bespectacled African-American girl who is a Scientist and Mathematician and is given the opportunity to change the universe through the brilliance of her intelligence, the belief in herself and her abilities and gifts, the strength of her convictions and character and the unshakable purity of her heart. If that is not heroic, then I do not know what is.

Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time," even with the aspects that kind of grated upon me, is a testament to the reality that children's films do not need to be mercenary, disposable works that treat their core audience as product and not as people wholly deserving of the best that can be offered. DuVernay has helmed a film that is appropriately child like and child friendly while also being sophisticated, artful, free flowing with its imagination and forthright with its messages of believing in oneself.

Just imagine is simply seeing someone who looked like you save the universe just through being smart, tenacious and loving. Just imagine how many could be inspired.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

WOMB: a review of "Annihilation"

"ANNIHILATION"
Based upon the novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Written For The Screen and Directed by Alex Garland
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED R

Dear readers, I now introduce you to a film that has only grown in power since I have seen it, its images, concepts and feelings insinuating their way into my sub-consciousness disturbingly so.

Writer/Director Alex Garland's "Annihilation," his adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel, is a sinister affair, to say the least. With a presentation that is unhurried in tone, making for an experience that is purposefully somnambulistic, Garland's film may leave you scratching your heads or even curiously wondering just what the point of it all was...just like a fading dream, and not a particularly calming one.

"Annihilation," as if you could gather from its title, is a disturbing dream of a film but not quite in the way that the title or science-fiction genre may suggest, for this is not a film about explosions or even a war of the worlds. In fact, what Garland has achieved is possibly even more unsettling than yet another tale of alien destruction, because instead of blowing everything into oblivion, what happens to us when something inexplicable is being created right within our midst. Alex Garland's "Annihilation" takes a deliberately paced and deeply cerebral yet primal dive into the mystic and emerges with one of 2018's most compelling films. A grand statement to make this early in our cinematic year to be true, but my sentiments rest in the full endorsement of a lavish and challenging film that more than deserves your attention.

"Annihilation" stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a Professor of cellular biology and former U.S. Army soldier who joins a team of military scientists--paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and group leader/psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--on a perilous journey into a mysterious quarantined zone known as "The Shimmer," a landscape in the throes of constant mutation and time manipulation, where all previous scientific expedition teams who have entered inside have never returned...except for Lena's husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has returned one full year after his disappearance and with no memory of what occurred.

This is all that I feel that I am able to reveal to you about the film in regards to its plot without presenting copious spoilers, but what I am able to tell you is that Alex Garland's "Annihilation" is precisely the type of science fiction experience that we have rarely seen over the years but just might be making a sort of a comeback. It is a work that could easily fit in leagues with the likes of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" (2014) and even Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" (2016) and "Blade Runner 2049" (2017) as it is also a dark dream of a film that is exceedingly more concerned about ideas rather than action and adventure, although Garland does certainly supply several sequences designed to shake you up considerably and viscerally.

While the film's trailers suggest an experience akin to something more designed for science-fiction/horror hybrid, I think that what Garland has accomplished is quite an accomplished bait and switch, so to speak. By utilizing a structure that could feel like something we have seen within Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979), with the characters disappearing from the film one-by-one, "Annihilation" reels us in. Yet, what Garland delivers is something considerably more esoteric and as murky as an enveloping and still haunting bad dream.

Working in terrific collaboration with Cinematographer Rob Hardy and especially the innovative and disturbing score from Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, Alex Garland's film weaves a creeping, disquieting experience that felt most like what I saw in Jonathan Glazer's impressionistic, nightmarish "Under The Skin" (2013), which starred Scarlett Johansson as an alien who attracts, seduces, and collects a series of men in Scotland, and then imprisons them in a bottomless black liquid after which she will harvest their skins.

"Annihilaton" exists within this type of a cinematic science fiction neighborhood, where the atmosphere--complete with a seemingly endless trek, glowing irises, holes in the ground leading to new lands, and a mysterious lighthouse-- tells as much of the story as the plot, characters and dialogue. Of course, there is quite a lot of material that provides that suspenseful and even terrifying visceral kick--a sequence starring a mutating, sightless bear which carries the screams of its previous victim as a lure to its next victim is especially intense. But the real terror of the film is much more existential, more arcane, and exceedingly more primal than what one may be expecting, especially during the film's extended and nearly wordless climax.

Without delving into those spoilers, I can say that I wish for you to think about the nature of the life cycle itself--how things are born, how they grow and develop, strengthen, age, decay and then die. With "Annihilation," the title itself suggests that we are witnessing the end of something.  But in fact, what we are witnessing in this film is something more simultaneous, for when something comes into  being, then what is soon becomes what was, essentially the price of evolution itself.

It is as if The Shimmer exists as a womb, where all of the mutations of within plant, land and animal  life combined with the manipulations of time in the minds of our team of scientist soldiers represent existence on Earth shifting into something new and inexplicable. Equally inexplicable is what occurs  during and after the transformation. What becomes of us?  What is our identity, before and after? Do we exist or have we become obsolete and would we even know anyway? With these concepts sitting at the soul of the film, Alex Garland's "Annihilation" owes much more to Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick than something more whiz-bang and the effect is powerfully lingering as I have not been able to really shake this film a full week after having seen it.

At this time, I do feel it necessary to comment upon the latest controversy concerning "Whitewashing" in regards to this film. What has been stated is that the characters portrayed by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the film are actually Asian and Native American, respectfully, within the original Jeff VanderMeer novels, which constitute a trilogy, of which this film is based upon the first novel. Garland has addressed this issue and has explained that when he first read the novel (and in manuscript form at that), the first novel contained no character descriptions, ethnicities or even names--all of which never appeared in print until the second novel. So, Garland approached the material as he wished and VanderMeer voiced his approval. So, with that, and with no disrespect to those who do have issue, I fully accept Garland's words and therefore, found no issue with the film myself in this area.

All of that being said, I think the controversy has greatly overshadowed what I feel is a superior achievement of Garland's film, and that is the fact that "Annihilation" entirely rests upon the shoulders of five women, all of whom are presented as serious and strong minded as well as scientists and soldiers. and all of whom are never objectified or sexualized (save for one flashback sequence) in any fashion. In fact, "Annihilation" never even makes note of the fact that this team is made up of women in the first place--they are five scientist soldiers on a perilous, life altering and potentially life ending mission who just happen to be all women. Frankly, I think that is something to be celebrated, especially in a genre that leans more heavily towards males, within the story and the audience.

Now, I don't wish to sound like I am treating this aspect of the film as a novelty but it is notable to say the least and I also don't wish for any controversies to eclipse what is already so positive about this difficult, challenging yet superbly artful film that is more than worthy of your attention, time and thoughts which will be provoked.

Alex Garland's "Annihilation" does indeed burrow under the skin and is unquestionably a strong credit and conceptual push to the science fiction film genre.