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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Downsizing (2018)

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A film about a huge idea has never felt so small and yet so long.

Earth is facing more climate change issues and the devastating toll of overpopulation sees Norwegian Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) invent a procedure that shrinks humans to be inches tall. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) sees this as a chance to live a better life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but she runs scared from the downsize and leaves Paul to look differently at his way of life, with this newly gained perspective.

This was a movie that initially had me very intrigued and excited. The trailers and Alexander Payne credit gave me good reason to see this as a neat and quirky release but upon seeing the film a few months later, I must say that’s it’s far from the kooky gem it could have been. There’s an unshakeable mundane quality to the storytelling and the majority of the movie left me switched off and yawning.

To its credit, this is a fun idea to play around with but the idea never really gets played around with that much. It’s within the set up and initial thirty or so minutes, that the visual humour of small scaled people with large props works well. Leisureland; a community especially designed for the downsized is a cool idea and all the notions around that are executed very well. It’s just a shame that the movie feels like a split from one half to the next and this shrinking set story from Payne and Jim Taylor becomes one devoid of comedy and stretched to uninteresting ends.

The main problem, I feel with this film, is that almost all the characters left me bored. I never connected to them or felt engaged by their progression. The way they talked was uninspired and certain actions made by some of the characters, between Paul and Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc felt truly out of place. This idea of a love blossoming like a big yellow rose didn’t ring true. I didn’t really see them as loving each other at all and a lot of the characters; Paul, Audrey, Dave, Dusan and others are cartoonish almost unbearable people, so to follow them for over two hours left me wanting the film to shrink away.

Matt Damon is meant to be a pathetic character and he does carry this constant feeling of uselessness to his role and then manages to turn just upon seeing this inspirational cleaner turn up after a drug fuelled party. It’s the mostly dull and pathetic moping to his character that becomes annoying; to emphasise my point I want to mention Oscar Isaac in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ who is a talented musician but a pathetic man who never gets anywhere, that is a film and performance where you still feel connected and engaged, Damon and ‘Downsizing’ are not. Kristen Wiig is made out to be a villain of the piece after ditching her husband but you never really know enough about her to care. Christoph Waltz is an actor I do like watching but recently he’s appeared in some bad films and that’s no exception here, he’s still going with the shtick he’s been pigeonholed into but with extra arrogance. The MVP of the whole movie is Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran who seems to be the only one with emotion and shows some connection to the film she’s acting in unlike everyone else.

It’s the sheer disappointment of what could have been, that lets down this movie massively. The premise has some good moments to start but becomes lost very quickly. I haven’t felt so unenthusiastic or uninterested for quite a while.

5/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The saga returns and the 2nd of the new Star Wars trilogy whams into the cinema with director Rian Johnson ensuring he gives fans a lot to be pleased about whilst gifting the starry sci-fi blockbuster some neat stylish additions of his own.

Continuing on from Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) island meet up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi. Meanwhile Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is desperately trying to evacuate the Rebel base as the First Order try and diminish hope from the galaxy and wipe out the chance of Luke’s return. As they keep trying to escape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is at odds with his place in all this, not helped by visions that unwillingly connect him to someone else.

Rian Johnson ensures the Star Wars aficionados can enjoy seeing certain characters, screen wipes and the charm of space opera good versus bad as the ever central theme. Hope and the notion of crushing that ideal is what drives the franchise and this is no exception but gladly the director after J.J. Abrams hands this outing some stylistic moments; ones that almost step out of the comfortable SW bubble, that I thoroughly enjoyed. These choices keep the film fresh and help it look exciting but more brooding than ‘The Force Awakens’. A sequence with endlessly mirroring a character, the salted planet of red surface and crystal critters and an extremely amazing breathtaking snappy edit of a soundless explosion are some examples of the visual splendour Johnson and his huge crew have created, which keep the galaxy alive with big screen wonder.

There are some points, mostly that lay within the story, that can feel utterly safe and predictable. Obviously I’m not wanting to spoil anything in this review so I’ll keep hush on the negatives I had but sufficed to say there are space filled deus ex machinas abounds and little character events that I expected straight away which sort of took me out of the immersive thrill. Also, some writing choices they give the action and/or characters felt cheap or not wholly unnecessary and without spoilers I really felt no need for a kiss that comes at one time.

Luke’s island hideout is rife with creatures and one species is the well advertised and product placed Porgs that clearly strike for the kids and the cute factor. Granted they can be quite fun but the clear merchandise cash in that they are and their constant gaping mouth wide eyed shtick becomes less amusing and ever tiring. Aside from a couple of story gripes and these puffin-esque beasties this movie has a good amount of twists and turns that keep the narrative interesting, a mission on a casino centred Canto Bight is rich with wealth, class differences and a couple of fun cameos. Another positive is John Williams returning with a score that’s safe but swells and simmers with the fan buzz of familiar sounds to satisfy all. I also love that a lot of the creatures you see are handled with animatronics which look much better and charming than the sheen of CGI.

Mark Hamill gets his teeth into much more screen time and it’s nice to see Luke Skywalker back, though he’s getting to play well with the bitter side of things. Hamill delivers enough emotion into his journey of who he is now and why he’s left the Jedi Master qualities behind with a tinge of will he/won’t he be a bad egg. Both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher lift the film with an explainable grace that probably stems from the nostalgia of their presence amongst the whirlwind of desperate escape tactics. Fisher herself still carries Leia as a beacon of hope and strength, she’s good and efficient and Fisher performs this effortlessly filling the General shoes with ease. Adam Driver gets to slowly break away from his angsty teen fits and dramatics and the conflict in his path is nicely evident in the performance. Daisy Ridley manages to keep up the brave and strong qualities of Rey, a hero through and through but one where Ridley nicely plays with the pressure of balancing her place in the Force and the pull of the dark side. Domhnall Gleeson amps up the villainous panto switch with sneers aplenty. Supreme Leader Snoke gets more screen time and has more depth and a constant creepy shadowy presence thanks to the mo-cap work from Andy Serkis.

It’s definitely a long film and this is a long review to almost reflect that. It’s the longest one yet but luckily it never feels a slog; it may not zip on by but it’s a well handled and well paced space adventure that feels like a grand step up from Episode 7 and one that has humour and stakes around every corner.

8/10

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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Storming onto the big screen with the X-Men of the 80’s, this film is a Beast of CGI but doesn’t soar like a Phoenix, in fact it feels to me at least, more Rogue than the two movies that came before with the McAvoy/Fassbender line-up.

In Ancient Egypt, the almighty En Sabah Nur or Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is re-born but trapped. Shuttling through a time tunnel to the 80’s we have an Xavier school for mutants doing well and Professor X (James McAvoy) wants to expand on this university ideal. However Apocalypse believes he is the one God and wants to rid the world and start anew, so he brings together his Four Horseman, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to kill mutants and humans and take over Earth.

Bryan Singer is back as director and the glossy ensemble look of his films is still as true as before. There’s a lot of character back and forth and backgrounds assembling, blowing up or changing. This, his fourth X-Men feature seems to be missing the threat level, I mean people will say that destroying the planet is a threat, but I mean this movie feels sorely lacking of any grit in the tension department. Everything passes through, scene to scene and the stakes don’t feel raised.

So, however explosive the film may look at times and what with the sleek costumes of Apocalypse’s henchpeople and the new gear of the X-Men, we feel thrust into a visually detailed movie but I felt less than thrust into a detailed narrative. Simon Kinberg’s screenplay doesn’t conjure the Days of Future Past thrills or First Class joy, it just sits there throughout the runtime in a meh sort of way, which isn’t great considering the talented cast involved.

It just gets muddled with too much character and action work, Apocalypse; whose name is never mentioned that way is a seriously bland villain which is a huge shame. The Four Horseman pose in the background and don’t do much else. The less than surprising snarly cameo is a blood soaked sequence of little excitement and this theme of standing together never stands well. I honestly found this movie boring, there’s a lot of talking and not many sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments. There’s like 2 main fight scenes and they’re not long or impressive like you’d hope.

The saving graces for this superhero outing are the return of the brilliant and better than Avengers version of Quicksilver, who rockets around in his fantastically sound-tracked adventures of slowing time due to his speed. A forested scene with Magneto and his family is a grey and surprisingly dark point of the film that works. Apart from that I can’t think of any other parts that help the film because the new characters are hurried and so you don’t feel for them, know them or care about their fate, the older characters get dull arcs and the big baddie is a big bad dud. Jean Grey is right when she comments on third movies being the worst.

McAvoy is committed as ever and sells Charles Xavier as the caring good Professor wanting to help his school out. He’s subjected to balding, wheelchair issues and a final act dilemma and the actor plays it well. Fassbender is still tormented by the now boring to and fro of Magneto being good then not, yet he’s stern and unbroken for the darker side of Magneto which is all you can ask for. Jennifer Lawrence turns heads in the Berlin cage-fight scene and becomes her shady shade of blue, slowly meandering on the thoughts of Magneto yet still wanting to help Charles. It’s a very human performance but she has little to do, like Oscar Isaac who is smothered in vocal effects and make-up that his excellence is little felt. That plus the fact that the villain is poorly executed and holds no damning threat. Sophie Turner is a neat addition, the Game of Thrones actress is Jean Grey through and through. Evan Peters is the silver streak of the film, when he turns up backed by The Eurythmics everything feels right in the world.

Slightly entertaining but mostly not, this is an average X-Men release that sadly holds no tension or little fun but looks good, it looks just fine.

5.5/10

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Better late than never, I finally got myself around to seeing this spectacular addition to the Star Wars franchise. The feel of the movie is nostalgic and that classic wonder runs throughout even with the injection of new faces and special effects.

As the scrolling yellow text states, this seventh Star Wars feature sees the First Order risen from the Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is on a mission to find the map leading to Skywalker’s location. He doesn’t count on Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) teaming up and discovering both the Resistance and the Force.

Scale wise this movie is immense, from the aerial dog-fights between TIE fighters and X-Wings to the planets visited along the way. All of this really sucks you into a new and exciting world still in that memorable Star Wars galaxy. It’s this glory of old that makes this film so good, the look of the new bases and villains speak out as classic Death Star/Vader imagery, the introduction of the Force by a tiny creature is akin to master Yoda and the humble yet potential filled beginnings of Rey draw up hopeful connections to Luke Skywalker. This film does brilliantly right what all three prequels did wrong, it shoots back to the feel good simplistic story telling of good versus evil and doesn’t rely heavily on CGI. Of course it’s there but it aids the scenes and it boosts the vision of the spectacle.

The special effects are quality, gone are the days of obvious green screen and in come detailed and lush worlds, fantastic immersive motion capture performances and explosions that serve purpose and not a Michael Bay wet dream. The little things like the sound and lights of the lightsaber spark nerd delight as the Luke blue bolt shines up, the new tweaks also excite even if the red hilt of Kylo Ren’s weapon could be self damaging. I guess for me the only CGI that gnawed at my head was the overbearing hologram of Snoke which felt perhaps too overbearing, more like a LOTR character than anything else.

J.J Abrams pulls back on lens flares and crafts a near perfect entertaining blockbuster. The way the characters interact and the stories meld are directed efficently leading us to further buy into the continuing saga. It’s his direction that adds a new quality, an almost shakier dark tone that helps a lot, of course the screen wipes and smooth panning shots over deserts raise a smile but the hand-held camera on Stormtroopers or the pacy back and forth cutting during battles makes everything more dramatic and energetic. He has managed to retrieve the joy of Star Wars and lets hope the new directors for 8 and 9 can continue that feeling.

John Williams rightly gets a nod for Original Score at the Oscars because his control and music making is always reliable for bringing in the hair raising emotion. The moment you hear the classic score you feel right at home. The brooding factor is there also as we meet new villains Kylo Ren and General Hux. Sound design too needs a mention as robotic bleeps from old favourite R2-D2 react with what will be the stand out point for most in rolling dude BB-8.

I didn’t expect the movie to make me laugh as much as it did. Obviously it isn’t a comedy but there a lot of moments that truly make you chuckle out loud. There’s an endearing push towards the lighter moments that work in making this a bold and exciting family film. A lot of the laughs emenate from Boyega’s turn as Finn who is a riverting addition and the writing for his character is believable and comedic. The moment a pair of Stormtroopers turn and walk away from a raging Kylo Ren is also classic Star Wars humour which made a lot of the audience audibly cackle.

Daisy Ridley has been plucked from virtual obscurity and thank goodness because she’s a breath of fresh air as this driven scavenger with a talent for something bigger. She’s powerful, not a damsel in distress, stunning and interesting in seeing what’ll happen next. John Boyega is fantastic, like a lad born out of an evil past he brings the funny as I wrote but also develops into a more frustrated and vulnerable character which is acted well. Adam Driver is fantastically despicable as Kylo Ren and luckily he does get the chance to remove the mask so we see into his fleeting troubled eyes before the true villainy sets in. Oscar Isaac is a great watch as he shuttles into the opening and proves his worth as untampered Resistance fighter. Harrison Ford may do a lot of bad things but coming back as Han Solo is not one of those, it feels as if he never left even if he is older. The wry and arrogant manner is back but there’s fear in the mix too. Carrie Fisher makes her comeback too and does well as a general and leader but a worried mother also. Mark Hamill is the actor I was most looking forward to as he shies away from the limelight now but his late reveal is very much the wait in what can come. It’s a sizzling ensemble cast of actors either live action or in mo-cap they all work together in creating a delightful starry universe.

It’s more than worth a watch because it shows how CGI and 3D can be done right and that the Star Wars saga is nowhere near dead. Disney but more importantly Abrams and his unknown actors have revamped this franchise with the satisfaction of retaining what we all adore about the first three.

8/10

A Most Violent Year (2015)

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Perhaps not as outstanding or in depth with explosive tension as the trailers suggest which is a slight shame, but this film still harks of classic Godfather crime thrills and the moody city setting makes for a gritty journey into what is right and wrong to get ahead.

New York, 1981 and during winter, heating oil boss Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) try to deal with increasing business dilemmas from truck-jacking and the DA snooping on files. As Abel keeps hoping to stay on the honest way his company and employees are tested more and more.

The whole American Dream angle is neatly done, with them coming over and succeeding in a short of amount of time as the go to oil company. Like ‘Scarface’ and Tony Montana the characterisations of groups as gangsters is quite clearly felt, though here, the lead guy doesn’t want to become that typical gangster stereotype and his method of business is to try and keep clean. Of course as with most American Dream movies, fractures inevitably appear and the clouding of the law floats in with intrigue and grit as we see whether Standard Oil can survive.

J.C. Chandor after successfully giving Robert Redford a strong role in ‘All is Lost’ comes back with his stylish writing to weave together a story of money, warring businesses and honesty. This theme of a flawed path of power comes across a lot as we get Anna or Abel repeatedly telling each other or outer parties that they’re doing good. Abel Morales’ name itself is a play on being able to do the correct thing and morals. The continued idea of right and wrong does get bandied round a lot but it’s nice to stick with a character that is likable, he’s never bad, possibly shady or misty eyed in intentions but he wants to keep a clear name for himself. Chandor’s script is detailed and immerses us into the cold world of early 80’s NY with ease, the moment of dialogue about jumping when it’s most scary is apt and suits the strong atmosphere of this movie well.

The look of the film is also in tremendous keeping with the moody dread of what could happen at any moment. Bradford Young has a neat eye for capturing the snow fallen streets and sun trapped skylines giving it a cold yet beautiful edge. The high angled shot of Abel on car tracked sludge was another perfect frame and stood out for me. The cinematography matches the suspense and threat laced structure and in particularly as an oil truck is shadowed on a brief chase through a smoky atmospheric tunnel. I think in general this film does look more moody than the plot actually is though.

The costuming is on point and Chastain got an all Armani tailored wardrobe as her character, the late 70’s/early 80’s vibe hitting every bullseye as she keeps a glamorous vision to Anna. The jacket over Abel’s shoulders is sharp and keeps with the look of this film damn nicely too. A nice and funny link of colour is used too in the orange coat and car character combo. It certainly feels the part this film, if sadly not truly gaining the substance I was hoping it would muster.

Oscar Isaac is an actor I now love watching and thank the lord for ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ for introducing me to him. He gets the charismatic and weighty role of Abel right and you’re connected to him through his attempts to keep his business going. The pairing of him and Chastain is fiery and great to watch. Her passionate written plea to Chandor to use Isaac gave the film a lift and he’s excellent to watch. Jessica Chastain too gets her teeth into Anna, not as much to do but there’s slivers of troubling don’t mess attitude in her character that she hints on enough but not too much to overpower. The forceful woman helping without making it known gives Chastain enough to do to make her memorable.

A film that handles the personal side of problems really well, bringing in family as well as business to see how trouble is dealt with. It’s not wholly violent as expected and not as brilliant as hoped though still much better than ‘The Drop’ which shares the same sort of look. Enough tension and drama to keep the intrigue high in a cool crime flick to simmer between the bio-pics of awards season.

7/10

Ex Machina (2015)

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Tremendous, impressive, gorgeous and worrying, this sci-fi thriller is an astounding debut feature for Alex Garland and every second is worth the watch. Tech and futuristic developments are scratched away slowly but surely leaving the fundamental elements of troubling reliance on robotics for all to see.

At work one day, coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out he’s won a lottery, entitling him to visit the quarters of his company’s CEO director, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). There he has the chance to sign a contract letting him see a wondrous new creation of A.I crafted by Nathan. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is there as a test but what other things will Caleb uncover in his week long stay?

I swear that every frame in this movie is beautiful, whether Rob Hardy fills moments with the entrapping progression of Nathan’s home or lovingly squares on lush green landscapes, this film is magnificent to look at. Considering it goes into the thriller genre, it has a calming influence running throughout, a soft almost blur like quality that can be taken as welcoming you into a false sense of security and also in matching the perfect softness of Ava’s design.

This film can draw relations to other movies, as I’m sure it will and as I too shall do. This by no means takes anything away from the story as it does it’s own special thing but the undercurrent of tension and playing God feels the same as ‘The Skin I Live In’ and the far away resort and tech savvy world feels akin to ‘The Machine’. This film however takes these moulds and makes a more interesting take on the motive of generated technology. The will to survive is examined through meetings with Ava and stirring dialogue about power, Turing tests, playing people along or not and the possibility of loving something not human.

The direction is precise and builds to a bubbling and great crescendo, where the end is satisfying, at least I felt it was the right way to have this film go. Alex Garland who has background experience in suspense and thrills from scripting the work of ’28 Days Later’ uses his knowledge to build tension while keeping some seductive romanticism to it all. The film is as smartly constructed as the screenplay is and Garland is to credit for both. A behind the camera presence to keep an eye on for sure.

The way characters are studied, not just the robotic element of Ava, is fascinating to watch. The flaws of us as people are stunningly done and both Caleb and Nathan are subjects of science in seeing how they work against one another. Ava is amazingly executed and the visual effects of her body are glorious, the make-up team behind this work must be applauded, their prosthetic achievement gives Ava a unique look making her a sci-fi character to remember.

Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are to credit for a skin-crawling score that can switch from placid and misty, echoing the other wordly lush mountains surrounding Nathan’s building, to a more buzzing troublesome sound as the film twists into the horror realm. It’s certainly plays on the electronic element and as the music rises at points it puts goosebumps over your arms.

The only little weakness that I came away with is, that a couple of developments in the script are predictable. It doesn’t lose the cleverness it just lost any shock factor a better twist could have given. But this is honestly the tiniest of critiques, the story is just as thrilling and thoughtful knowing the danger around the corner.

Domhnall Gleeson gives a great performance in this ‘Black Mirror’-esque tale of suspicion in technology. Facial tells and held gazes all play into his role as he begins the journey of discovery into what an A.I can do to someone. The more nervous side of things plays nicely against the muscular scheming Nathan. Oscar Isaac is powerful and keeps giving off degrees of menacing intent through his towering way of trying to charm. The silent glances or flips in how he speaks to Caleb make him a worrying Dr. Frankenstein figure to witness. Alicia Vikander is a star to look out for, her quiet approach to Ava makes her instantly likable and her plight as the real victim is played brilliantly, though the unflinching stare and half smile of Vikander never make you forget the unpredictability of her desires.

This dystopian sci-fi has many subtleties to admire as the tension of tech terror is explored. A sexy, intelligent tale with three riveting performances and a creative shifting tone from debut director Garland.

8/10