Category Archives: dramedy

“Annihilation” is bizarre, challenging and awe-inspiring

Writer and director Alex Garland made a name for himself with his brilliant film “Ex Machina” (2015). As one of the bright new names in science fiction, expectations were sky-high for his follow-up film. Even if no one really went to see it, “Annihilation” is something you’ve never seen before in a big Hollywood production: a sci-fi film with brains, macho feminism and big ideas that challenge the viewer long after the experience.

After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a combat mission and proceeds to convulse after behaving strangely, Lena (Natalie Portman) learns the backstory to where he’s been for the past year. A strange area of land in the Northeast United States has been enveloped by a strange entity called the Shimmer. Her husband is the only survivor of an expedition that went in, sent in by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head of an organization called the Southern Ranch. With the area growing, the concern is that the Shimmer will overtake the world before they can stop it. A new team, led by Ventress herself, is set to take the next mission inside and reach the lighthouse, the hub of the Shimmer. Lena, looking to learn what happened to her husband, joins the team with Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Anya (Gina Rodriguez).

Based off a book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film is a mix of science fiction and horror, and the audience is never really sure what is going to happen next and what to believe. The result is a nerve-wracking mind melt that challenges you throughout the story. For audiences who like everything explained to them and a plot that goes from point A to B to C, it’s a difficult experience, but for those willing to think through the film as they watch it, it’s a rewarding science fiction journey. It’d be interesting what a repeat viewing would reveal and whether it would reinforce your first notions of what the film represents or contradict them.

The film is set apart by its visuals which, considering it’s $40 million budget, are spectacular. Whether it’s the shimmer, the lush foliage or the exotic, horrific creatures, the film is a beautiful, terrifying work of art.

Dealing mostly with the abstract, the story is meant to be absorbed and analyzed more than related through with a standard protagonist. Does it represent the duality of nature? Our interconnectedness with the universe? The perverseness of time and space? It might be different for every person.

 

Not for the faint of heart, “Annihilation” is an exhilarating tour-de-force, a sci-fi epic that’s imbued with more terror than most horror films.

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“I, Tonya” a searing portrait of “truth”

Tonya Harding is one of the most infamous characters of the 1990s, but what is the real story about her and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Was Harding involved? Is she a villain or a victim? “I, Tonya” tells the story from Harding’s perspective, but with a wink about the nature of truth.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script written by Steven Rogers, the film starts with a young Tonya (Margot Robbie) as she grows up under the fierce tutelage of her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who verbally and emotionally abuses her. She marries the violent Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who keeps pushing her to excel on the national and international stage. Her connection to him leads to a bizarre series of events that culminates with a crying Nancy Kerrigan, a public evisceration and years of scandal.

The film is organized around a “Goodfellas” style of voiceover, intermittent interviews and talking to camera. By framing the story around the words of those who were directly involved in the events, the issue of what is truth takes center stage. Tonya tells one story, her mom tells another, her ex-husband tells yet another. And then they change their minds about what happened. And on top of that, the media quickly comes to their own interpretation and defines the story regardless of the facts. It’s an interesting examination similar to “Rashomon”, but with a distinctly American feel. The film dares you to examine your own preconceived notions about the crime and examine if you what you believe is still what you believe.

All of the actors, particularly Robbie and Oscar-winner Janney, excel and the script motors along at a brisk, never-boring pace. You really feel for Harding as she is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a villain. Whether or not that is true is up for debate, even by the film. But this is Harding’s story by Harding. Whether we take it as vindication for her past is up to us.

“The Big Sick” an engaging romance story

Many call “The Big Sick”, directed by Michael Showalter, a romantic comedy, but there are deeper issues involving family, partnership and connections that push the film more into dramedy territory, more a true romance with comedic elements. The result is a strong story about how families, no matter how different they appear, are the same because of the love they share.

Based off a true story written by its actual subjects, Kumail Nanjiani is a stand-up comedian who falls in love with grad student Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). When she contracts a mysterious illness that puts her in a coma after a big fight, Kumail connects with her parents whom he has just met, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). As his own family pressures him to marry an Indian woman, Beth and Terry help him learn the ups and downs of a long marriage, and he sees how their suburban culture is so similar to his Indian upbringing, showing him how love can transcend culture.

In a film that doesn’t shy away from the fear of death or the pain of disappointing family, “The Big Sick” manages to be an uplifting story of love that digs beneath the surface farther than many other films of its ilk. The characters are all charming in their own way, the way you love a family member despite their deficiencies, and the character arcs for each is moving and important to the overall story. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano carry the message of the film through their interactions with Kumail and drive the emotional spine.

A criticism may be that the film becomes a bit schmaltzy near the end and the story is very by the numbers, sticking closely to plot point A, plot point B, rising action, etc. and not deviating in a surprising fashion, but for a film that tries to incorporate different themes into this type of story, being overly formulaic is not a true detriment.

The film is about the passing of knowledge about love, across cultures, from one generation to the next and recognizing that finding your own path no matter where you came from is the most important thing in life. It’s a beautiful, timeless story set against a millennial backdrop.

‘Lady Bird’ a well-made, if familiar coming-of-age tale

Greta Gerwig’s impassioned look at youth coming of age in 2002 is being hailed as one of the best films of the year. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it is certainly a very well-made movie.

Lady Bird’s real name is Christine (Saoirse Ronan), but she refuses to go by it. She spends her final high school year arguing with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), trying to find the perfect boyfriend and fitting in with the ‘cool’ kids in the rich neighborhood. In a Christian school, she yearns to break out of her Sacramento upbringing and hit the East Coast. As the pressures of life mount, it seems as though she is trying to be anyone but herself.

Saoirse Ronan is terrific in the lead role, totally encapsulating the angst, desire and anguish of youth. Her confrontations with her mother are heated yet loving.

There are some chuckles throughout a story that primarily focuses on the bonds we have with others and have they influence us. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, father, brother, best friend, the cool girl at school and various boys all test the boundaries of how she defines herself. It is a very universal story of acceptance of oneself.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but it is not really anything we haven’t seen before. There’s great writing, strong directing and powerful acting, but not much in the way of original ideas.

“Battle of the Sexes” a solid crowd pleaser

“Battle of the Sexes” details the 1973 tennis match between professionals Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Dubbed as “man versus woman” as the feminist era was growing, the contest garnered national attention and illuminated feminist ideals in a changing world.

The film fully illustrates the personal lives of Billie Jean and Bobby, showing how their relationships with the men and women around them influence their tennis-playing ability. For the married Billie Jean, will her budding lesbian relationship with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) distract her and doom her chances? For Bobby, will the separation from his wife over his gambling addiction drive him to failure? For a film that is really all about the final 20 minutes, it does a good job of building the pressures up to that moment with filler that has purpose.

Carell and Stone are solid as Bobby and Billie Jean. Both have excelled in the past in these types of roles so it is no surprise to see Stone accentuate Billie’s determination and Carrel to highlight Bobby’s goofiness. As two of the premiere actors working today, they are at the top of their game.

The film mixes equal bits humor and drama. It is very much the type of movie you expect it to be. It doesn’t try to be flashy or wow your socks off. It just tells its story, imbued with a pertinent sense of feminism. You could maybe wish for a little bit more jazziness, but you can’t really ask for anything more.