Saturday, March 10, 2018

WOMB: a review of "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)

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.

Monday, March 5, 2018


Soulful and soul stirring. Stately yet sluggish and sleepy.

These adjectives are never mutually exclusive concerning the annual Academy Awards telecast but even so, I just wish that there was some way to make this show at long last leap over what has been its greatest obstacle time management.

Yes, it has been achieved in the past--most notably, when Ellen DeGeneres hosted in the year of the now iconic "selfie" moment. That particular year, the Oscars flowed in the way that it should. It was celebratory event. It was a party for all involved at the show and for all of us at home watching. But this year, yet again, the Oscars dragged on and on and on for almost four full hours and for the life of me, I cannot understand how a presentation like this is unable to find a rhythm, a level of momentum to keep the proceedings as exciting as the cinema they are honoring.

And so it goes....

I have no fault whatsoever with Jimmy Kimmel,  who again proved himself to being undaunted with a show of such massive scale. He felt to be right at home. He was relaxed. His stunts worked overall (LOVED the Jet Ski). His sharp opening monologue which dove head first straight into the sexual harassment controversies, the #MeToo and #Time'sUp movements, and themes of inclusion was as blisteringly on point as it was genuinely funny. And yet, the energy from the jump was low key at best.

I guess my issue is that while the show indeed possessed quite a number of powerful moments, not hing coalesced into a full experience other than being yet one more overlong Oscar program. Now, I still stick by my feelings that the musical numbers should be removed just to keep the show moving along faster. But truth be told, some of the most moving sections of the night were found within those performances, most notably Keala Settle's shattering vocals and piercing emotion of "This Is Me" from "The Greatest Showman" (even the formidable Mary J. Blige looked visibly shaken by Settle's power). 

While that song is not really my cup of tea, so to speak, Settle's performance, where it looked as if she had brought herself to ears while singing, spoke to the full core of the evening in regard to the consistent and essential messages of inclusion and representation in our arts and entertainment. As actor/co-writer Kumail Nanjiani of "The Big Sick" expressed during one segment, "Some of my favorite movies are by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now you can watch my movies and relate to me. It's not that hard. I've bee doing it my whole life."

Amen to that.

It is a statement like that one that truly solidifies why Writer/Director Jordan Peele's historic win in the Best Original Screenplay category was so powerful for me, as he is now the first African-American to ever have won in this specific arena. To have Guillermo del Toro win for Best Director and Best Picture with "The Shape Of Water," an adult fable that is entirely about a collective of marginalized individuals coming to the aid of the most marginalized creature any of the have ever witnessed, was also more than telling. To have Frances McDormand's unrepentant throwing down of the gauntlet where she brilliantly demanded that all female nominees stand up in the auditorium and then further demand that they each take their respective crafts and ideas straight into the offices for developmental meetings post haste as they all have stories to tell (and of course, all of which need financing), felt like nothing less than that artistic brick being thrown through the glass window of the establishment. But, even so, we have to wait and see what happens from here and I sincerely hope that what we have seen recently as well as last night is not just another moment...for I really wish to witness a movement this time. 

Very recently on an episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher," Maher, filled with scornful disdain, essentially proclaimed that we have no need for future filmmakers, a statement to which he admittedly stated was indeed "conservative," a statement that I decry, frankly, as "bullshit." It really takes a person so deeply entrenched into their own status of White privilege to even make a statement like that.

Going back to Jordan Peele's win, as wonderful as it is, the greater truth is sobering. That in 90 years of the Academy Awards, only ONE African-American writer has ever won in this category. Think of ALL of the potential African-American writers over 90 years who could have but were not given the opportunity to even try and make a film. To that end, how many women and other people of color, the full variety of minorities and ethnicities who happen to love the movies have also not had the opportunity.

To have more artistic voices, regardless of race, creed, color or gender, become a filmmaker or visual storyteller is to be able to not only continue, but to enhance, enliven and forever enrich the art of storytelling, one of the most crucial fabrics of the human condition that we all possess. To have the opportunity to create, deliver and then, receive a story from a perspective that is wholly different than our own is a tremendous tool in helping us to begin to understand each other. We need more filmmakers, not less,. And furthermore, we also need to be IN THE ROOM WHERE IT ALL HAPPENS, to become the gatekeepers, the executives, the studio heads who will not only help to instill creativity and idiosyncratic artistic visions to go alongside the blockbusters but to bring more creative voices into the fold.

The Oscars represented that hop, from the films of resistance that were nominated to the sentiments of the nominees and winners of the evening. I felt that represented the program at its best while it did essentially stumble over and again as an entertainment program.

Better luck next year...and hey, toss my vote into the hat asking that Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph take the reins next year! 

Oh yeah, as for my Oscar predictions, I was 100% correct all the way to the Best Picture category and for the second year in a row, I could not have been happier to have been wrong!

Thursday, March 1, 2018


After the majestic brilliance of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and the anticipation for this weekend's Oscar telecast, what can be done for an encore? Well...for me, the new film from Writer/Director Wes Anderson will hopefully prove itself to be a perfect cinematic event.

"Isle Of Dogs," the new film from Anderson, as well as his second foray into stop motion animation after "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009),  is a film that I have been practically salivating to see ever since my eyes first popped after witnessing the indescribably visions within the film's trailer. Yes, I'll have to wait until near the end of the month before it is released but even so, this is my major new film event. 

And then, there is also...
Director Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time" is a film that I am pulling for even though I am more skeptical about it. While I loved DuVernay's "Selma" (2014), I haven't been entirely won over by the film's trailers.  That being said, I hold nothing but the best of wishes for this film for a number of reasons aside from just wanting to see a good-to-great movie. I want DuVernay to knock it out of the park just as Ryan Coogler accomplished with "Black Panther," especially as she is the FIRST African-American and female director to ever command a motion picture with a $100 million dollar budget. Much more than box office receipts are riding high for this film to succeed and I hope that she can deliver the goods.

Aside from those two films, I am honestly not sure what will be upon this blogsite but when it happens, I hope that you will be an interested to read and share as you have been so far.

Until then, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!