Tag Archives: movies

“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.


“It” features strong characters and silly jump scares

The original “It” is a campy yet well-remembered miniseries that created the distinctly memorable Pennywise (originally Tim Curry). Adjusting for modern day standards, the possibility to create a new terror clown for a new generation is ripe with potential. The filmmakers behind the new “It” hit most of the right marks whether or not their intention was pure horror.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, “It” tells the story of a small Maine town called Derry, where a demonic, transforming creature hunts and devours children. After his brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappears, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) struggles with coming to terms that Georgie in fact may be dead. A loser in the town, he, along with his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), are bullied and tormented by older kids and misunderstood and disrespected by their parents and the adults around them. When they meet new girl in town Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and discover the secrets of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), they must band together despite their past and fears to stop him.

The characters are fleshed out and strong. Each of the kids has a distinct personality and arc that contributes to the overall story. Their harsh parents admonish in some cases abuse them, really reflecting author Stephen King’s sensibilities and tone. The kids’ bond is so strong because of their lack of upbringing and support. With no one else to turn to, their friendship is their only hope. Adults and adulthood are toxic and this is represented by Pennywise, a manifestation of the fear of growing up.

Skarsgard excels as the demonic clown, bringing new terror to an already iconic role. He manages to make Pennywise his own creation quite different and more extreme than the previous version. He is scary, campy, funny and disorienting.

The scares of the film are where things fall either positively or negatively depending on your experience. For those genuinely frightened by modern-day jump scares, the film will be terrifying. For those who find such tactics hokey and pedestrian (writer included), there is little terror and indeed several instances of laughter. But in a film such as this, it’s okay if not everything is not taken very seriously. It is a story about a demonic clown after all. Much like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise is so fantastical that the ingenuity of his terror is fun. In a way, this can be construed to show us how silly our fears really are in the grand scheme of things.

The film is a bit too long, but a beating heart at the core of the story powers the narrative through to its conclusion. It is definitively Stephen King’s original work brought to life onscreen.

“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.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.

“Paterson” a beautiful story

Very few films are made about everyday life. Most movies are about “super” people: spies, politicians, doctors, heroes and the like. But writer and director Jim Jarmusch has always been interested in the “lesser” told stories about everyday folks and “Paterson” is such a simple yet unordinary story.

“Paterson” is about a bus driver, Paterson (Adam Driver), who writes poetry. He takes an active interest in the conversations and lives of those who ride his bus and the people he meets on the streets. His girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is an eccentric who keeps trying to find herself through various hobbies such as baking and artistry.

The film doesn’t have a concrete plot and seems to wander from encounter to encounter, all done with a purpose but seemingly as random as the flashes of a rolling river shown onscreen. All the characters are trying to find their way in life and Paterson sees their struggles mirror his own in a way, but his outlet of poetry helps him find meaning in a life that on the surface doesn’t seem to be too interesting.

The film is a beautiful tale of seeking an avenue of expression in a world full of stories. We just need to take the time to listen and observe those around us to find meaning in our own lives and realize our full potential of love.

“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.

“Toni Erdmann” a strange, heartfelt familial story

Written and directed by Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann” tells the strange story of a father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who sneaks his way into his daughter’s life, Ines (Sandra Huller), by creating a character named Toni Erdmann and pretending to be her life coach.

A critical analysis of the business world, “Toni Erdmann” is immersed with strangeness and abnormality. At times comedic and at other times despondent, the film is likely to affect people in different ways, some immediately connecting with it and others just not getting it.

The film is long and at times wandering. Some of the moments hit their mark and others don’t. The characters however are strong and the film is certainly memorable. Just thinking back on it, I recall three or four striking scenes that make me sit back and think, geez, what did that mean? Perhaps nothing at all. That is the mark of an interesting if not quite engaging film.