Annihilation. A movie review.

Alex Garland’s new science fiction movie, Annihilation, is now available on Netflix in Australia (part of Paramount’s current risk management strategy is to recoup production and distribution costs in smaller markets by going directly to streaming).

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a Cellular Biologist with an Army background, whose army husband Jake (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year. One day he turns up, but he seems like a different man. He also starts vomiting blood. On the way to hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by government vehicles. Lena awakens and discovers the government has a secret watch post overlooking an area called the ‘Shimmer’ – a hazy and colourful border of light that frames the site of an alien meteor that hit a lighthouse on the coast. The Shimmer is expanding. Several military teams have been sent in, but none have returned, and the Shimmer prevents radio communications. Lena joins a group of female scientists, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, to attempt to get to the lighthouse and discover what’s going on. Inside the Shimmer everything is mutating—plants, animals, the environment itself. It isn’t long before the scientists find out what happened to the last team and the implications for them…

Annihilation-movie-poster

Annihilation is a slow-moving thriller, with generally subdued acting (except when things get a little crazy). The special effects are exceptional, with the Shimmer almost hallucinogenic at times. None of the characters are particularly likable, but then, this is a movie about a concept, rather than the people involved. There’s a fair bit of explicit violence as well, so be prepared.

Annihilation has been hailed by some reviewers as both revelatory and confusing. I wasn’t confused, but not because I’m particularly smart. Annihilation is a movie you need to pay attention to and some viewers just won’t get it. I don’t believe that Annihilation is as ground breaking as some think. It is, however, a well-directed, intelligent, slow burn sci-fi movie, with a great concept and a nice twist at the end.

I enjoyed Annihilation. It’s not as good as Arrival, another recent thought-provoking sci-fi movie which provided a greater emotional connection with its characters, but it’s still an enjoyable concept film.

Rating: B-

American Assassin. A Movie Review.

Minimal spoilers. But it won’t matter much, because you know what’s gonna happen before it happens anyway.

I was dragged along to see American Assassin. My best mate paid for the ticket, and it got me out of the house, so I couldn’t complain.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) watches his girlfriend and lots of people killed at a Spanish resort by Islamic terrorists. He dedicates the next 18 months of his life training (18 months? That’s not much. Bruce Wayne spent 12 years becoming Batman) to infiltrate and take out the terrorist cell. He’s picked up by the CIA, sent to covert ops specialist Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to be part of his assassination team. Rapp has issues with authority, is a loose cannon, blah, blah. Soon they have to stop one of Stan’s best students (oooh, didn’t see that coming. Yeah, you did) from using a nuke to take out a bunch of Americans.

american assassin

American Assassin suffers from the weight of numerous clichés, from characters to story to stunts to dialogue. It’s not the worst action movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s not memorable and not a movie I would recommend—you’ve seen all of this before with better scripts and direction.

Michael Keaton, as always, is great, but his role lacks depth and so he does what he can with the material he’s given. Dylan O’Brien looks alternately depressed and angry, but doesn’t muster much in the way of leading man charisma. The bad guy (Taylor Kitsch) is just an average bad guy.

My advice is save yourself the price of a ticket and see something better. This is one to stream on Netflix or rent on DVD (can you still do that?).

Rating: D

Manchester by the Sea. A movie review.

Thar be spoilers ahead…

Manchester by the Sea is a depressing movie. Even with the great dialogue and character performances, it leaves you wondering what just happened. In truth, not much did. Kenneth Lonergan’s script, from his play, won the 2017 Oscar for best original screenplay; he directed as well. But a story is supposed to show the protagonist (in this case Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler) learning something and moving forward in some kind of constructive way. This is not the case in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck’s restrained performance won him the best actor Oscar and it was well deserved. He plays a loner with repressed anger and grief issues. He’s a man who has never recovered from the loss of his children in a house fire he was responsible for. When his brother dies he returns to his home town and finds out he’s been made the guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. What ensues is 131 minutes of Affleck not coming to terms with his grief. Everyone is excellent in this film, from Kyle Chandler, who plays Lee’s brother in flashback, to Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife, who has moved on and had a new baby with another man, to Lucas Hedges as Patrick, the nephew, caught up in his own pain and self-absorbed lifestyle.

But by the end of the movie Lee admits that he can’t face living in Manchester anymore. The hurt is too great. There is no endearing moment or uplifting ending: Lee gives up and moves to Boston to work in another janitor job. This leaves the audience (well, me at least), feeling a bit miffed that Lee doesn’t have a proper character arc. Yes, I know real life doesn’t work out. But we go to see movies to be entertained. If I wanted to see a character not going anywhere I’d take a look at my own sad life. I want to see the protagonist make some sort of worthwhile change, no matter how minor. This movie doesn’t do that.

Manchester by the Sea has wonderful writing and performances. It does tend to drag a bit in places (as you would expect from a low key drama), and there is no real resolution to Lee’s issues. So if you’re looking for escapism, steer clear of this movie. But if you like to get a bit teary and enjoy great acting, Manchester by the Sea is for you.

Rating: C+       

Baby Driver. A movie review.

Ain’t no spoilers here

Edgar Wright has made some spectacular movies: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End, and one of my Top 10 faves, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Having read several positive reviews, I went to Baby Driver with high expectations that this would become one of my all-time favourites. I was surprised, then, when what I saw was not what I expected.

What I saw was a slick, well-directed, edited and acted, but straightforward crime drama with fantastic live driving scenes (no CGI – take that Fast and the Furious). A movie aimed at a young audience, with the two leads Ansel Elgort (Baby) and Lily James (Debora) displaying some great chemistry on screen. Some great acting by Kevin Spacey as the kingpin mastermind, Jamie Foxx as the crazy and violent Bats, and Jon Hamm as Buddy, the smooth cokehead bank robber. Enough character development to keep things interesting. So why did it leave me cold?

Baby is a driver – one of the best. He listens to music constantly due to tinnitus, caused when his parents died in a car accident when he was a child. He’s working off his debt to Spacey by being a getaway car driver for Spacey’s heists. He meets Debora, a waitress, falls in love, plans to get out of the game, but when he’s even with Spacey he still can’t escape. One last job…

Baby Driver is quite different from Wright’s previous movies. The critics have generally loved it, and audiences have responded well. So why didn’t it appeal to me as much? I guess I was expecting more of the quirky humour of Wright’s previous films. There were two jokes in the entire movie—most of the time the movie was incredibly serious. The driving scenes were amazing. But as soon as the bank robberies and driving were over, the movie started to drag. I don’t think pacing was actually an issue, it was probably more me waiting for some amazing Edgar Wright moment to happen. And unfortunately it never did.

After the first incredible drive/chase scene, there was a continuous shot of Baby walking down the street to get coffee while manoeuvring amongst traffic and pedestrians to the sounds of Harlem Shuffle in his headphones. It showed signs of some of Wright’s quirky genius shining through, but then faded into convention again. There are some great ideas at play in this movie, but by the end I hadn’t connected with any of the characters. Maybe I set my expectations too high.

Baby Driver is a well-executed heist movie with great acting, fantastic driving scenes, incredible music soundtrack and great editing, that doesn’t make you care for any of the characters. I didn’t leave the theatre saying “that was a great movie”. I left saying “that was pretty good”. I expected more from Edgar Wright. Maybe next time.

Rating: C+

Guardians of the Galaxy – the Marvel formula strikes again…A movie review.

No spoilers here…

I’ve seen all the Marvel movies and generally I love them (Incredible Hulk was a bit meh, but that’s okay, you can’t have everything). The last few have bordered on a bit average, though. So why is this? Is it because I’m basically seeing more or less the same film every time, just with different characters? Is the music basically the same every time, forgettable (don’t believe me? Can you remember any of the music from Dr Strange? Thought not). Maybe my love affair with Marvel movies is coming to an end. Maybe the first wave of characters were the ones I really liked the most. Maybe…

Which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy, vol.2 (GotG). Another Marvel blockbuster, filled with likeable characters, humour, huge explosions, crazy-ass comic book moments, and team-bonding experiences. So why did I come away from the theatre thinking, “that was pretty good”. Pretty Good?! Not, “that was mind blowing”, but “pretty good”.

GotG has lots of humour. Drax is the standout, with his complete lack of tact stealing the entire show. Every character gets their little bit of screen time (with the exception of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, whose plotline with Celestial “Ego” takes up the majority of the story). Every character gets some sort of emotional struggle to contend with (Gamora and her sister, Rocket Raccoon and his need to be loved, Star-lord’s daddy issues, etc.). There is a major character death (although by the end of the movie you’re struggling to feel much about it—and this from a guy who cries in movies if someone breaks a glass). The special effects were amazing, as would be expected from a film with a budget bigger than some small countries (far too much reliance on CGI, though). I loved the 80’s soundtrack, but it wasn’t quite as catchy as the first time around. The orchestral soundtrack, as usual, was cookie-cutter forgettable.

So, what was the problem?

I think we are seeing so many of these movies and their sequels every year (and now DC is in on the act, as well), that unless there is something new in the story, tone and feel of the movie, then we become a little jaded. At least I do.

So GotG was fun, but it didn’t have me wanting to talk about it afterwards (not in the way Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight movies had me discussing implications for days afterwards with my wife). We live in dark times, with economic stresses, rampant terrorism, crazed isolationist governments, growing homelessness and a host of other ills. People want movies that make them forget about serious problems. So, this movie achieves that. At least while you’re in the cinema. But it doesn’t give you anything meaningful to attach to it, to stick with you beyond the initial viewing. I’m sure many will disagree with me. Feel free.

I’m looking forward to Thor: Ragnarok later this year. Hopefully I won’t come away feeling the same.

Rating: C

Lion. A tear-filled movie review.

This review contains spoilers.

I never got the chance to see Lion in the cinema. In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s a movie that guarantees I’m going to cry, and I don’t want to be going to the movies with a mate and tear up (it’s a bloke thing). If I ever have a girlfriend again (and if you’ve ever read one of my dating posts, you’ll know the odds of that seem ever remote), then I will gladly accompany her and blubber away like a baby.

I borrowed my Mum’s copy (as you do when you’re poor) and watched it by myself (why don’t you go to the cinema by yourself, I hear you say. My life is sad enough already without going on my own, thank you very much).

Lion is, without doubt, the best movie I have seen all year. That’s a pretty big statement to make, so I guess I better back it up.

Lion tells the story of a five-year old Indian boy called Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar), who is separated from his brother and ends up on a train that takes him thousands of miles away from his Indian home town to Calcutta, where he is lost. Eventually he is relocated to an orphanage, and from there is adopted by Australian parents and raised in Tasmania. Later on, he discovers he can track down his mum and brother by using Google Earth, and does so.

The story sounds pretty straightforward, but it doesn’t prepare you for the sheer emotional rollercoaster this movie puts you through. From the squalor and heartbreak of the living conditions of Saroo’s family, to the plight and serious abuse of street kids in Calcutta; you are overwhelmed by incredible anger and profound sadness, and I was on the verge of tears throughout the first act in India. Saroo’s adopted brother is profoundly affected by the abuse he’s received, and this is a theme carried through part of the film’s second act in Australia.

Dev Patel is magnificent in the role of the adult Saroo, who suffers from PTSD as a result of the separation from his family. His adoptive parents are played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman (in possibly the best role I’ve ever seen her in. In Australia, Nicole falls into two camps: ‘national treasure’, or ‘can’t stand the frigid cow’. I quite happily sat in the second camp, until I saw her in this movie. Wonderful performance, glowing with warmth and intensity).

As expected, Saroo finds his mother and is reunited. Tears all around.

It’s not a perfect movie: there are times when the pacing drags, the secondary characters are often underdeveloped. But the cinematography and music are excellent, and the leads more than make up for anything else that is lacking.

I found this movie mentally and emotionally overwhelming to watch. But it was also profoundly uplifting. I challenge anyone to not feel for the characters and their situations. This is a movie you should see, even if you hate tear jerkers, if only to remind yourself that you are better off than you think you are.

My movie of the year. If I judged movies based on the number of tears I shed while watching, it would be movie of the decade.

Borrower.

This is a uni piece I wrote a few months back. It was actually the first appearance of Alpha Girl, Beta Max and Me. I’ve removed the academic references and included one of my discussion thread responses from that week. NOTE: This was back when I used social media. Nowadays I only use it to promote my blog, which makes me even less well informed then I used to be. 

I haven’t read a newspaper in well over a year. It’s not that I don’t like newspapers; it’s not like I don’t have a ready supply of them each day. It’s just that I’m not really bothered to read them when I get my news through social media and television.

(“Are you on Twitter again?” says Beta Max.

“No,” I reply, quickly changing to YouTube.)

So, I was a little surprised when I read the Insider Movies section of the Sunday Telegraph and found a number of well written movie reviews by Vicky Roach, the reviewer in residence.

(“Why are you reading the paper?” says Alpha Girl.

“Research,” I reply.

“Why can’t you be normal like other people?” she says. I extend my tongue.)

When I read through Critical Review in my uni course notes, I thought to myself: “this is a bit clunky – I don’t recall reviews being this structured.” Identification of work, Context, Description, Assessment, Identification of reviewer – it all seemed a bit robotic to me. I got to the bit about “blending the elements”, and was somewhat relieved. Heaven forbid I’d have to write a review in such a stilted way.

So, back to the newspaper: Ms Roach reviewed four movies: Passengers, Assassin’s Creed, Rosalie Blum and Paterson. I really enjoyed her approach. She was knowledgeable about the art form (script and director techniques, for instance), had a good understanding of the plot and themes of each movie, and raised relevant points and criticisms insightfully. Her comments about Assassin’s Creed succeeding on a “kinetic level”, but failing to deliver in the end due to the character’s “moral ambiguities” and a lack of viewer investment in the outcome, struck home with me as I was planning to take my son.

(“We’re still seeing it,” says my videogame-loving nerd.)

Ms Roach obviously loves the film medium. You can tell from the way she crafts her reviews. (I love women who write well about things they love, especially when it’s a subject I know and love as well. It’s a bit of a turn on. Um, that probably was more than you needed to know.) As expected the smaller “art nouveau” films like Rosalie Blum and Paterson rated better than the big budget movies. Is this a thing with reviewers? “I will always take art over fluff!” I happen to like a little fluff with my art.

(“It’s like chocolate, marshmallow and vegemite sandwiches,” says Beta Max. “They shouldn’t work, but somehow really, really do.”)

Each of Ms Roach’s appraisals captured the essence of the five ingredients of a review, including context and a witty summation of each movie in the legend (for example: “French crowd-pleaser sure to leave audiences blum-struck”, with an attempted pun, no less). I especially liked the intro headline for each movie, in punchy prose – for Passengers: “Sci-Fi romance has too much space in its plot”. For Paterson: “Story of a secret poet has its own rhyme and reason”.

So now I have to read the newspaper every week, just to check out the movie reviews. And maybe read some of the other stuff: news and the like.

(“Are you finished with the paper” says Alpha Girl.

“Not much longer,” I reply.

“Buy your own,” she says.)

 

One of my responses to the discussion thread:

Hi

I, too, like short reviews. I think it’s a measure of a “real” reviewer to be able to do a review in a short format and not leave anything out; to be able to capture the essence of a movie, book or CD in a short, almost perfunctory way.

I have to admit that I’m not good at short. I think I’m a bit verbose at times (read: boring). Maybe I should try writing reviews as Haiku – that way I’m deliberately restrained by the form:

Assassin’s Creed film
Started well but ended bad
Little investment

Could be onto something here. I’m just going to rush out and patent the Haiku movie review concept.

Cheers

Steve

Splitting Hairs – “Split” Movie Review

*** Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie “Split”, If you’re planning to see it, stop here and come back afterwards to see if you agree with my review ***

I saw Split today, the new M. Night Shyamalan movie. Having it fresh in my mind, I thought I’d do a little movie review, as I haven’t done one before, and felt that I needed to.

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s first two movies, Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Every movie he’s done since has fallen a little flat, failing to capture the verve of those two.

Split is a horror/thriller on a par with his later movies. Marginally better, but not by a lot. It’s a shame, because right through the movie I was thinking “Come on M. Night, you can do it with this one, you can make a really good movie.” But as more time elapsed my fears were realised.

Let’s talk about the story. The main character, Kevin, has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), with 23 distinct personalities (called the Horde) brought on by child abuse. Three of Kevin’s personalities, a heavy handed, obsessive compulsive male called Dennis, Patricia, an upright, schoolmarmish woman, and an insecure 9 year old called Hedwig, have taken over the other personalities, fuelled by a belief that a 24th personality, known as the Beast, will come forth with the power to protect them all.

The Dennis personality has been stalking two girls, and kidnaps them along with Casey, another girl who is a survivor of child abuse. Dennis locks the girls away in a room (and later, separate rooms) in his underground haunt, planning to use them as “sacred food” for the Beast.

Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychologist, Doctor Fletcher, who is an expert on DID, is contacted by email by some of Kevin’s other personalities, because they object to what the three dominant personalities have done. Dennis tries to put Dr Fletcher off the scent, but the good Doctor is wise to this, working out that Denis is trying to hide something.

Dr Fletcher has posited that Kevin’s DID personalities can enable physical changes in his body to match each personality (one of the female personalities is diabetic, for example), and that they may be a potential next step in human evolution. It’s a bit X-men, but you get where the director is going with this.

Eventually, Casey, the final survivor, confronts the Beast, who exhibits unusual strength, wall climbing and an ability to shrug off conventional attacks. The Beast identifies that Casey is a victim of long term abuse like he is (she is “pure”, he says), and escapes.

A surprising scene takes place at the end. Via a slow dolly through a roadside diner as the news reports discuss the outcome, a girl at the bar remembers a similar case from years before with a man in a wheelchair. She can’t remember his name and the camera ends on Bruce Willis, who says his name was “Mister Glass”. Anyone who has seen Unbreakable, will remember that Bruce played an invulnerable man who faced off against Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister Glass. So in effect, Split is a semi-sequel to that movie, and the ending is no doubt setting up a proper sequel to Unbreakable. Say franchise, anybody?

So what was it that didn’t grab me about this movie? It was well directed, with Shyamalan’s Hitchcock obsession apparent in his scene compositions and shots, it was edited well with a suitably eerie soundtrack. James McAvoy was excellent as Kevin (although a little over the top by the end), as was Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey. But something was missing.

I think the problem was the script. Only McAvoy’s and Taylor-Joys’ characters have any meat to them, and even then the scenes are almost ham fisted in their approach. As a result the two girls are killed and we as an audience don’t feel the loss. Although audiences can sympathise with Casey’s abusive past and current plight, by the time she confronts the Beast any concern we should feel is lacking. All the amazing pan shots and skillful edits in the world won’t make up for audience emotional disconnection.

While Casey uses her past as a victim of horrific abuse to advantage over Kevin, it never really leads anywhere. Any form of empowerment she has is whisked away by the end, as she sits in the police car and her abusive uncle arrives to pick her up. There is an expectation that she will do something now, but it fades along with the shot. Any potential transformation for Casey, as a result of both her abusive past and the kidnapping she’s experienced, falls flat.

The Bruce Willis scene seems, on face value, more the case of a director who has reached the end of the road, saying “hey, look! This is like a sequel to one of my good movies.” It’s like Shyamalan admitting he is out of ideas.

And Split is not scary. At no point did the dramatic tension get to a level where I was worried about Casey. In fact, many of the outcomes were telegraphed from early on. I expected the other girls to die. I expected Casey to survive, and I expected her abuse to be the reason why she did.

Split was a disappointing return for M. Night Shyamalan. I expected more, I wanted more, I so wanted this to be good. With the exception of that closing scene setting up the sequel to one of my all-time favourites, the movie ended up being purposeless. It had the potential to make some lasting and important statements about child abuse in modern society and the impact of serious mental health issues, but in the end these became mere plot points (and almost tacky ones at that), with any gravity lost by the time of the b-grade horror movie finale.

I’m hoping that Unbreakable 2 will be a lot better. It better be. I don’t want yet another of the movies of my youth being vandalised by a terrible sequel.

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