A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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Universe travelling and diverse storytelling are on show in Ava DuVernay’s big budget Disney film, but the grand visual pleasantries to look at don’t override the ambitious scope and its ineffectual handling of the subtext.

Distracted and struggling student Meg Murry (Storm Reid) misses her father, after he randomly disappeared four years ago. Dr. Murry (Chris Pine) was a brilliant scientist and had possibly cracked the notion of teleportation and our existence. One day, three powerful travellers of the universe appear and take Meg, her brother and a school friend to Uriel in the hope of finding Dr. Murry.

I’ll begin with the positives because there’s a lot of negatives I wish to cover. Firstly, the visuals are splendidly colourful and some of the landscapes the characters visit, are lush and rife with stunning cinematography that looks great on the big screen. I liked or perhaps appreciate the bold ideas stemming from the 1962 novel; these themes of family, spreading love and ridding hate are nice enough and espicially with the state of things currently, I found those ideals hold up well but they did feel forced and/or twee. A sequence on a beach with Michael Pena was pretty good with the most tension I absorbed but, alas it was short-lived.

The main issue, I feel, is that the movie never seems sure of what it’s projecting and it heavily flits between moments of science mumbo jumbo that most children wouldn’t grasp and saccharine annoyance that adults will tire of. It’s as if the writers and director were trying to mix childhood fantasy with profound statements on life and love together, which never succeeds, sadly.

Attempts at humour fall massively flat and again feel forced, costume and make up on display from the three astral beings are impressive but they change without reason anytime they shift location, like the movie is shooting for an Oscar nod for Costume Design and Make Up and Hairstyling next year. Meg’s adoptive brother Charles Wallace is mega annoying plus the fact they can’t ever just say Charles becomes grating. CGI in places is less than inspired and wholly distracting in a cheap way, which is odd considering the nine figure budget behind this production.

Generally, I was never by hooked any of the film. Scenes that were obviously going for tension never felt like they were raising stakes. Even with the dramatic altering of the sibling relationship, I still felt bored with the story. I for sure lost my patience fairly early on with this movie which is a shame because there could have been something very special and triumphant about it all, instead of the restrained, sickly sweet and messy feature it turns out to be.

Reid is by and large another one of the only other positives I got from this film, she’s a powerful performer with an evident understanding of this hard subject material and how to portray Meg as a difficult, somewhat stubborn but loving and brave character. Oprah Winfrey delivers messages of hope, light and typical Disney fortune cookie tid-bits in a way that stirs quite nicely. Reese Witherspoon plays Mrs Whatsit, someone without much tact and still learning, she showcases that well but is another annoying factor, as is the performance from Deric McCabe as Charles. Just Charles. Mindy Kaling plays Mrs Who, but is all but pointless in a turn that mainly has her spouting quotes from scholars, playwrights and Chris Rock. Levi Miller is Meg’s friend Calvin who is extremely pointless and I never understood why he was there.

This is a Disney dud that I’ll try and forget in a hurry. There’s only tiny wrinkles in the run-time that kept me engaged but the majority is frustratingly bad.

4.5/10

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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

 

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

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Dropped like something out of the sky; here comes a game-changer in terms of movie marketing and distribution, but that aside is this a good ‘Cloverfield’ movie?

Set in our future and aboard the Cloverfield Station are a crew from various countries who are hoping to perfect a particle accelerator; which could solve the energy crisis on Earth. As their mission finally catches a break, it seems not everything is good. The team become stranded, meanwhile life back on Earth isn’t looking safe and sound either.

So, after a few months of whisperings and internet talk about a new feature in the ‘Cloverfield’ series, we’re finally greeted with this big surprise release. It was due last year and then apparently again for an April 2018 cinematic date under the name ‘God Particle’ from Paramount Pictures, but as the sporting spectacle of the Super Bowl reached it’s halftime parade of expensive ads and new trailers, a teaser for this very movie was shown. Not long after the game itself the film was up on Netflix for all (subscribers) to see.

This I must admit is a bold move to make and pretty special to keep something under wraps. Having a $45 million movie on your hands and to maintain its secrecy and avoid the usual over hype of many trailers and TV spots is a fantastic achievement, if not one that disappoints me slightly because it’s final destination means it can’t be seen on the big screen. It’s a great film visually and the sci-fi element is explored quite well through the vacuum of space and a sleek revolving spaceship but Paramount mustn’t have had high expectations to forgo a cinema roll-out and leave Netflix to pick up the rights. This can be felt in a film that seems to have grown out of control to fit within the ‘Cloverfield’ universe.

It’s a mildly slow-burner of a science fiction to watch, there’s neat moments of burrowing unease as things start to go wrong; as they always do in these kinds of films. The back and forth between space and Earth feels like the parts where they re-wrote to segue in the movie monster tie-in and general spots do feel like a scrambled mess to keep that storytelling building.

Saying this, the dynamic of the crew is good and the moments of error, confusion and danger aboard the spacecraft are entertaining. I wouldn’t say exciting or wholly dramatic but they work well and keep the film going along nicely too. The main interest for me was in the construct of the shifting paradox and the problems arising from there, which is explored with both thrills and humour but not as deep as perhaps it may have delved. I feel one reason the film isn’t as successful as it could be is down to the distracting technique of its release and expecting the ‘Cloverfield’ monster/arc to keep rearing up.

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ was one of my favourite films from 2016 because it tied in the monster series nicely and felt like a creepily separate thriller at the same time. This is still a good film but nowhere near as great. It’s a film that perhaps, thanks to its many delays and streaming resting place, feels more like a somewhat enjoyable online flick but not a dazzling or suspenseful one.

5.5/10

 

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

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Well cor blimey, this film looks delicious up on the big screen. The visuals aren’t the only delights though; storytelling, acting, music and cinematography are all excellent features of this sci-fi sequel that in my tiny insignificant opinion may be just as good if not better than the original.

Possibly a first here as I won’t go into a usual plot summary paragraph because I feel that any info on what the story serves could be, if not a spoiler at least something that ruins the element of intrigue that you should enter this movie with. Suffice to say it’s 30 years after the setting of the first one and we follow K (Ryan Gosling) in dystopian LA following a case after discovering something potentially world changing at a farm.

Even though I hadn’t seen the 1982 movie at the time, once this film was announced with details of Denis Villeneuve attached I did squeal a little. This incredible visual and smart director gave me cause for excitement and he does indeed pull off an incredibly visual and smart film again. It’s a very intelligent movie with cause for thought and the whole dystopian set up like in the first one gives amazing room for creative space and design. Villeneuve keeps the tone similar but that doesn’t stop him from expanding on ideas and updating them to fit in the mould of what 2049 could bring.

A strong theme within both movies is the notion of identity. In a way I feel this thread is felt even more within this release thanks to the character of K and the freedom movement he is tracking. What makes us human and what does that mean are two powerful questions and they course throughout the film with constant but not overbearing presence. The whole hero idea is another one played with and K is an interesting character because he’s not exactly all out nice guy but that moral code sits within him. A film is always good or great I say when it leaves you thinking about what you’ve seen and immersing yourself into that world to think on possible answers.

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch have conducted a wonderful score that trickles along in the background adding suitable futuristic sounds and as Zimmer does best the rises and boom of music at times creates the tension within certain scenes. Better than the music though is the sublime work from director of photography Roger Deakins who deserves to finally win an Academy Award with the sheer beauty he gifted this movie. The lines and forms are stunning all the way through, for example the yellow shifting light and frames captured within Wallace’s headquarters are mesmerising.

I have to comment on the newer technological ideas implanted in the movie too; such as the memory maker aspect which was visually pleasing and a very neat idea. The ‘Her’ like sexual encounter with K and his girlfriend with help from someone else was another case of something visually different. A fight with the background holographic accompaniment of Elvis and some showgirls further boosts the creative visual flair.

This film may be a little long and at times the pacing, like in the original, feels at odds and can be a tad slow but the detective story-line and the stunning future world presented on a big screen makes this a science fiction movie to stand up on its own and not just as a follow up to the Ridley Scott outing. In fact because I got to see this in the cinema unlike the first one, that is possibly the reason I like this more, the atmosphere and scale of seeing it on the big screen is necessary for this movie.

7.5/10

Blade Runner (1982)

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Forgive me Movie Community for I have sinned. Today was the 1st time I’d seen this film in almost 27 years of existence. A cult classic and movie continually hitting Top film lists and finally I have watched it…mostly in preparation for the new flick but also to try and rectify a big list of classics I’ve not yet seen.

As a group of ‘Replicants’ (extremely strong and equally intelligent synthetic humans) arrive to Earth, Deckard (Harrison Ford) takes one last job to track them down and kill them. Things don’t go so easy though as he comes across Rachael (Sean Young) and eventually comes face to face with Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

The genre of this movie is something I can wholeheartedly get behind, the slick neo-noir vision is indeed special even to this day, so I can only imagine how it may have looked back in the early 80’s. The combination of futuristic science fiction vibes with film noir is most definitely cool and provides a great backdrop for not only the look of the world being created but the rich story too.

Based off a book by Philip K. Dick, who’s adapted work is further seen currently on Channel 4 which I really want to see, this film written by David Peoples and Hampton Fancher almost effortlessly blends the sci-fi genre of fantastical worlds, gadgets and futuristic elements with the layered and more interesting aspects of noir; the femme fatale, the questionable detective hero and moody lighting and moodier characters.

Not that far into the film I began questioning the central idea of clones and the Replicant possibility within the main character. I see now that it has been a topic of controversy for years. Not helping matters are the changes in various versions of this film that have been shown, released and updated. I watched the Final Cut and I must say that I did start thinking that Rick Deckard could very well be a copy and not human but I guess that interpretation idea makes for good conversations and a thinking piece.

Another controversy is my admittance that though I enjoyed the film and see it’s very very well made, I didn’t completely get behind the hype and amazement people have built it up to have over the years. It’s acted well in places, the music from Vangelis is stellar and the plot is interesting, quite complex and provoking but it felt like a lullaby in places and didn’t keep my interest as I wished it may have done. Perhaps I misunderstood it like people did upon it’s first release but the mystery of the narrative never gripped me and the pacing was slightly irritating.

Those are my only negatives, which I know could well have me shot. Aside from that I get that this film is a superb sci-fi and the ground-breaking hybrid and intelligent story-making on show is cause for this definitive status. I back that status and would recommend the film, I just wouldn’t put it on my Top 10 or Top 20 list of films. Forgive me again Movie Community.

7/10

 

Arrival (2016)

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Gladly, this is not your typical ‘alien invasion’ flick, it’s a much smarter story that totally immerses you into a situation filled with dread yet hope, understanding yet confusion. I came out of the film feeling a little lost but it’s a grower because as you think on it the whole idea becomes more interesting.

As 12 shells arrive on Earth and hover above different locations, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called into help the military. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) hopes that she can understand and translate the aliens’ talking and find out why they’re here. Together with scientist and maths man Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they start uncovering a complex world-changing language.

Coming from ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve, you can surely expect tension and smart movie story-telling and you’d be right to do so, as this sci-fi release is burning with clever ideas about language, time and humanity’s fight for survival and knowledge. Villeneuve doesn’t go for any last minute twist, he keeps his film going along and through shots or blurred flashbacks we begin building a picture of what’s to come. What he does well is ensure every scene has importance or emotion and gives moments with the aliens a nervous and affecting tone as we try to grip what may happen.

Eric Heisserer gives the story no cliches or over expositional content, aside from one line near the end of the film, everything we hear sounds plausible and brings you into this alien filled drama with ease. The way he adapts the short story and ensures the Heptapods’ speech is intellectual, so much so that it befuddled my mind but not enough to make me disengage from the movie. This language is a huge factor of the script, connecting to Louise and creating a rounded story that gives ‘Arrival’ fantastic depth.

Back to help Villeneuve is composer Johann Johannsson, who has a superb skill in building tension through music. The dread mounts and through deeper reverberations in the score we feel on edge as the characters go to encounter the Heptapods. A brilliant track comes in with some narration and is used again for the credits, it’s haunting and a chorus of voices makes it more impacting.

Amy Adams in her second November outing, is much more interesting to watch in this compared to ‘Nocturnal Animals’, that’s to say she has more to do and her character is excellent. The subtle flickers of tired emotion that fill her thanks to flashes of events or the way she gleefully acts when breaking ground with the aliens communication all make Louise a captivating role. Jeremy Renner is good also, his smart mathematician role bouncing off Louise very well. Whitaker is a great choice as the military superior, his calmness a good thing as he easily could have been the villain straining for violence. Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor, always doing good with what he’s given and here he grows as the film progresses.

It may still have me slightly puzzling over the whole grand scope of time but this is a science fiction that dazzles and if you like a movie to make you think then this is the perfect choice. Performances, writing, directing and music create something to blow your mind like not much before.

8/10