Annihilation (2018)

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Arriving on Netflix, is this bold and engagingly strange science fiction from Alex Garland. It’s arguably one of the finer films of this genre I’ve ever seen, questioning the audience with its intelligent themes of rationality and life.

After a figure from Lena’s (Natalie Portman) life comes back into the fold, she ends up at a government facility close to a glistening barrier known as The Shimmer which is expanding. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and three others into this weird anomaly to try and stop it reaching civilisation and to hopefully uncover exactly what it is.

Alex Garland has been writing screenplays since 2002 and after his blistering debut directorial work on 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’, this was a movie I was eagerly awaiting. Garland has managed to capture the traumas and oddities of a strange new world from within Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. As this film goes along, there’s a fantastic sense of slow-burning tension that doesn’t always need to pay off with big action because he directs in such a way that chills to the core and makes this environment feel visceral.

A sci-fi with plenty of intrigue and interesting ideas aren’t always common to come by, so gladly this is an exception, in the same vein as the smartly concocted ‘Arrival’. It’s a film that I think deserves to go down as a classic in its genre, as it grips like a row of razor sharp teeth sinking into you, as you get hooked onto the creepy air of unease and confusion that roams this altering landscape.

The Shimmer itself is a world of melding possibilities leading to some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, ones that I utterly wished I could have seen on the big screen, but again Paramount offloaded one of theirs to be released by streaming juggernaut Netflix. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is sublime and truly keeps you on the edge of your seat as we trek through somewhere, that is at once stunning and dripping with mystery.

There are some unnerving moments within ‘Annihilation’ which I won’t divulge any further as to avoid spoilers, but I will say, what lurks in The Shimmer certainly builds a scary level to the back and forth narrative with Lena. Also, the final act is absolutely incredible. My mouth was agape for the duration and my skin was layered with goosebumps, in a lighthouse set sequence I can only describe as hauntingly glorious and terrifying in a way that seems to burrow into your very being.

Natalie Portman is a strong presence from start to finish, her character background aptly aids her through this lush yet dangerous world of lost memories and trepidation. Portman easily acts that sense of forceful wanting and knowledgeable progression. She also carries an empathetic sadness and regret throughout, which makes her an interesting character to follow. The entire team are a formidable squad of females with enough drip fed information about their lives, to give us understanding of their choices and motivations. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all neatly display the fraying of their minds as they descend further into The Shimmer. The latter gets a crackling turn to shine in a scene that sees her burst with an intensity, adding to the ferociousness of what happens.

‘Annihilation’ is a masterful movie and one I will definitely be watching again. It carries a quiet menace as the unknown is explored and identity is questioned more and more.

8.5/10

 

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Anomalisa (2015)

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Entrancingly sombre and creative; Charlie Kaufman is back but with stop-motion to add to his unique repertoire. It’s a wonderful new layer on top of a beautifully thoughtful story, which even though it isn’t his strongest, it becomes more engaging because of the way everything looks. As if an anomaly itself, this is a movie that deserves the praise and award nominations because it is such a distinct animated sensation.

Self help customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is staying over at a Cincinnati hotel for one night before the next day’s book reading. However everyone sounds and appears the same to him, that is until he encounters Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he falls for and wants to run away with.

I have been aching to see this film for ages, from the first time I saw the trailer and got captivated by how Kaufman it looked. As an added bonus it was stop-motion which is an art form I love and admire for the patience people have to make it happen. Thankfully I have now seen it and can say it was worth the wait. It’s a surreal watch at times with a squinted comic edge that works so well, as things fail around Michael you can’t help but laugh at the awkwardness or typical human elements of what’s happening.

One of the best qualities of this movie lies with the dialogue, for where the plot doesn’t go places the conversations and detail in Kaufman’s writing is smart and personal. There’s an assured vulnerability to both the main characters as they tangle into each other’s lives over one night. The way they talk to each other is full of insight and you end up looking past the puppetry animation and buy into Michael and Lisa as real and lonely people.

Duke Johnson who co-directed this film must be commended for his astonishing and somewhat eerie puppet designs that fill this feature. It’s even more fascinating to realise that these characters were 3D printed, which does give them this special look, with slitted marks defining their faces and making them identifiable to this film. On top of this, the puppet idea is taken a step further than ‘Team America: World Police’ as we see fellatio and sex happen between stop-motion figures in what could be the funniest yet sweetest scene this year.

Musically, this film is handed a lyrical and soft finesse by Carter Burwell who helps the movie sound effortless and hypnotizing, as if we too get lost among the hotel corridors and taken aback by the similar sounding civilians surrounding Michael. The nightmare sequence is both scored greatly and is a fantastic idea to play around with, though from Kaufman I wished it had have been real, manifesting the story a little more as Michael questions his own identity but that’s not his story! Also Leigh performing two versions of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is hilarious but poetic.

I can only say that the big fault for me was the plot, story-wise I was a bit saddened to not have something more unique. The visuals and dialogue were incredible but the narrative was a little ‘Lost in Translation’ and nothing else. It’s only one negative I could find because Kaufman usually comes up with something inventive whereas this was a more conventional love story, at least for Kaufman it’s more normal than you’d expect. That being said, the story of two people lost and finding hope to be short-lived is such a tragic and subtly dark tale which I like a lot.

David Thewlis voices Michael in such a British way, being klutzy yet smart in what he knows and how he approaches the vastly different Lisa. It’s pretty much the perfect voice for this puppet. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings innocent comic timing to her worrisome role as Lisa, which bounces off Michael Stone greatly. She’s shy, naive, goofy and comes alive thanks to Leigh’s magical vocals. Tom Noonan who voices everyone else, male or female brings a great one-tone level to his performance that makes all other characters spookily bland and unremarkable in the eyes of Michael.

It’s a very original animation that is crafted masterfully from the puppetry to the written word. Kaufman strikes again, making love a haunting special backdrop to despair into.

8.5/10

 

The Hateful Eight (2016)

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This is a proper film’s film, the way it sounds to how you breathe in the richness of the scenes makes you marvel at the way a movie can still be fun yet creative, dark and most of all; a reel substance that pulls you back into a time where films were over the top, part of studio systems and genre specific.

On route to Red Rock is infamous John Ruth the Hangman (Kurt Russell) shackled to his prisoner in the form of Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their carriage is slowed by an oncoming blizzard and unpredictable bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). It becomes apparent at halfway stopoff Minnie’s Haberdashery that five new faces may be in league with Daisy to spare her life and kill anyone that gets in the way.

I had the awesome pleasure of seeing this film as intended by the visionary mind of Quentin Tarantino. Leicester Square was projecting the feature in glorious 70mm and it truly was a glorious sight to behold. It adds such a stunning texture and cinematic experience to the story that needs to be seen if you’re any fan of movie-making or Tarantino. The overture sets up the mood with goosebumps and then flickers over the first frame thrust us into that incredible touch of classic film quality. The 12 minute intermission arrives at a perfect point and by the credits I felt like I had taken part in a roadshow experience.

Tarantino shows off as many tricks in the book, for our pleasure and of course his too as you just know he laps up the idea of film and movie history and this movie effortlessly portrays that. The way each scene is carefully set up to linger on characters not only in the foreground but ones doing their business in the background adds the unease and mystery of the narrative. Tarantino also has barrels of fun as we shift into the uncovering aspect of the plot as barrels of fun and blood…lots of blood, spill into action to make us laugh, possibly wince but most of all; realise we’re watching a film that’s all about being entertaining.

Quentin Tarantino as we all know writes his directorial gigs and this screenplay is a marvel to behold. The characters are so well drawn out that even if we don’t ever connect to them we can understand them. They flit in and out of each other’s own backgrounds with interesting purpose and the balls out courage to shoot most of a story in one location really helps the drive of this film as eight untrusting folk get cooped up together knowing death may be around the corner.

As mentioned it’s a proper filmy film, with over the top violence, chapters, narration and slow-motion snippets packaging it as a near perfect Western movie to watch and not take seriously. Yet there are some serious moments amongst the madness and these scenes are executed with gripping tension that gleefully pull us into the plot before stunning us back into reality with a hilarious piece of dialogue or splatterings of deep red blood.

It also looks marvellous, even when we’re panning or cutting back and forth in the haberdashery, there’s a magical and enriched vision to the setting. The details of every corner in this shop/cabin are stuffed full that cry out for repeat viewings so you can not only try and look over characters but the items in the shot too. When we do get outside we get treated to snowy landscapes wonderfully captured by Robert Richardson who gives this harsh wintry environment a breathtaking touch that you don’t want to move away from. I said it over and over last night but the opening shot that slowly moves around and pulls back from a detailed carving of Christ on the cross is one of the most hair-rising and exciting pieces of imagery I’ve witnessed in the cinema for a long time.

Adding with this beautiful curtain raiser and cast/crew credits is a strong and gripping score from big Western composer Ennio Morricone who comes back to the genre for the first time in over 30 years and wow is it worth the wait as every note of the soundtrack tingles with suspense and something looming whilst being playful and true of the Western tropes at the same time. It deserved every inch of the Golden Globe it picked up last night as this film drips with intrigue and only more so because of Morricone’s sublime score.

Samuel L. Jackson eats up the scenes with a comedic character layered with vengeance and race motivated anger, his delivery of QT lines are always smacking the bullseye and it helps give the film zip and zany feelings along the way. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fascinating watch as she is subjected to cruel words and actions but still demonstrates power as she holds a secret over the room and therefore us watching. She’s funny also but driven and a scene with her, a guitar and a song is greatly placed. Kurt Russell displays fine walrus facial hair and gritty performance playing this gruff hangman who wants to keep to his own alive not dead rule, Russell with Jason Leigh are like a handcuffed married couple that bicker and fight adding a weird sense of mutual hatred yet harmony as they suss each other out and act like children at points. Tim Roth is the man who for me got the best laughs and engagement, I loved his spiffingly top notch turn as Oswaldo Mobray. Walton Goggins starts off annoying but soon becomes a priceless addition as his stab at playing a sheriff becomes more and more interesting. Michael Madsen is the character you may want more from but his gravely voice and brutish cowboy silence slot so well into this ensemble piece.

It’s what you’d expect from Tarantino, indulgent, over the top, brilliantly sharp in writing and class in direction, fun and violent and with this there’s an extra bonus of a murder mystery and single setting to satisfy your cinema taste-buds.

8.5/10

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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This is a bodacious high school comedy and coming of age story that captures the youth and dramas of teens, that feels exciting and has good, not overly long winded touches of emotion concerning the growing pains of these characters. This film also succeeds in creating a world you want to jump into, it makes me wish I experienced that American school year lifestyle, especially the 80’s party swinging atmosphere shown in this movie.

A brilliant first directorial outing for Amy Heckerling who manages to shine a magnifying glass over work, play and studies of a small core of high schoolers, from weed and surf obsessed slacker Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) to the will they won’t they awkward attentions of Mark ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) and Linda (Phoebe Cates). Mixed up in that is the strained career hopping of Brad (Judge Reinhold) and the confident talkers/sexual partners that are Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

All the characters have believable traits and you can invest in their trials and tribulations whether you like them or not, that’s a sign of good writing and kudos Cameron Crowe for taking his novel and adapting it into a fun yet accurate portrayal of high school lives. Each character has a moment or two to step out and take the spotlight leaving you learning something extra about them, even the teachers have a chance to get some funnies or crack wise, Mr. Hand is a prime example of showing how a high school film doesn’t need to take one side, pupils and teachers both have a need to get their sides shown. The only slight negativity is the way that ‘Rat’ and Mike resolve the icky sticky situation that occurs and I would have liked to see more of Stacy….not in that way, there’s hints that blossom slowly about her character thanks to interactions with other people involved with her and it would have been nice to see a softer more true side to her, letting the facade drop could have been a fantastic dramatic option to give but it doesn’t happen sadly.

It’s a very well made and cool film with comedy playing a central and key part to the developments of these people as you both laugh at them and laugh with them. Imagery at certain times are brilliant, the awkward first date between ‘Rat’ and Linda is cringe but fantastic, even just the opening sight of seeing them both dwarfed by humongous chairs in the restaurant to the non-diagetic noises of terror as the waitress comes for the bill with a worried Ratner wallet-less. Their are some great lines of coaching or sharp observation that stem from either Stacy, Mike or Mr. Hand. Then there’s the visual and acting comedy of Penn as Spicoli who encapsulates the layabout student so much that it made me remember the sounds and sights of my time in school with certain slackers in mind.

It’s an energetic soundtrack to work with the frantic bustle of the Ridgemont Mall and the hustle of their school, from the emphatic percussion and squeals of The Go Go’s’ ‘We Got the Beat’ that runs over the pacy opening to the funny snippet of a Led Zeppelin track that Rat uses to try and be smooth. It’s a collection of songs that blend with the action so well that it becomes part of the film never really making you realise it’s there, a good thing I believe as it doesn’t take us out of the movie.

Sean Penn is so in the zone as Jeff Spicoli that it makes me wonder whether he went method and actually got high for the part or is just Penn and a great actor truly making you think he’s a skiving stoner. It’s a gnarly performance to watch though he flips the comedy of Jeff as a dumbnut on the head with certain looks in his eyes making you feel that he realises he’s doing wrong or not helping himself that stops just shy of making him a tragic character. Jennifer Jason Leigh looks utterly gorgeous in the film and sells the sure and sex smart character of Stacy beautifully that it feels like some twist or crash in the plot when you come to see she might not be so educated. The same goes for Romanus as Mike who is cocksure, excuse the word choice considering his character’s journey but then he displays that other angle of human emotion making us see beneath the show and see a more frightened unsure guy. Every player in this film works as their character really well to make the film come to life.

Apart from it not being as astounding as there was room for, I thoroughly enjoyed it and if you compare it to the coma inducing film that is ‘Dazed and Confused’ then this film is an ace in the pack. The end credit what happened next titles for the characters are naff and not funny to be honest, some character work could have been explored more but all in all this film is classic, sensitive and funny.

7.5/10