Tag Archives: tessa thompson

“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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“Thor: Ragnarok” goes for straight-up fun and it works

The previous “Thor” films were admirable action adventures, but lacked heart and individuality. It’s hard to make a serious film when your protagonist is a hammer-wielding god and the villains are weird space aliens. So Marvel has wisely decided to ditch the pretense and go straight past logic into pure fun. These films are better for it.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarok” features the titular character (Chris Hemsworth) trying to prevent the foreseen end-of-days. Despite his best efforts, his long-entombed sister and goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), emerges to destroy the nine realms. Trapped on an alien planet with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor must team up with the Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to escape his bondage from the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and save his home before Hela destroys it.

In lieu of trying to capture the serious tone and majesty of “Game of Thrones” or “The Lord of the Rings”, “Thor: Ragnarok” instead throws caution to the wind and tells a fanciful adventure-comedy that ties in to its predecessor’s mythology. Never taking itself too seriously and playing up the dynamics of the visuals, the film is a constantly enjoyable ride. Most answers to the plot seem to be as simple as why not. We want to see Hulk and Thor in a gladiatorial match. Why not. Wouldn’t it be cool for Jeff Goldblum to be in a Marvel movie just playing himself? Why not. No room for Natalie Portman in the story? Cut her. Why not. Let’s have Thor fight a literal Satanic creature. Why not. Let’s put in Dr. Strange for pretty much no reason. Why not. There’s something oddly commendable about such an approach.

For the returning characters of Thor, Loki, Banner, Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), having been with the franchise for so long, they have developed a comforting rhythm. The viewers know what to expect and they deliver their part.

It’s sad to write, but again, it’s the role of the villain that is a tad shallow and forgettable. Even with an actress with the chops of Cate Blanchett, there’s just not a lot you can do with a one-dimensional, evil villainess role. Her desire is to destroy the galaxy because she’s the goddess of death and hated her father. That’s not very interesting. Throwing in that she’s Thor’s sister does little to deepen their connection since they’ve never actually met before. If Thor and Hela remembered each other, if they used to play as children until Odin banished her for being evil or Loki tricked her into becoming goddess of death, that would have added some personal stakes. Thor would be remiss to kill his sister because he cared about her once. Perhaps Hela might have second thoughts about annihilating everything, but chooses to forge ahead regardless. But instead we get just another going-to-destroy-the-world story.

Regardless of that, the even humor and colorful visuals keep the story entertaining. Most other characters, no matter how insignificant they at first seem, are fleshed out, interesting, and given good character arcs such as the Grandmaster, Skurge (Karl Urban), Valkyrie and Korg (voice of director Waititi). It gives the film an intriguing ensemble usually lacking in Marvel films.

The film fully feels like Thor’s story as the stakes for him grow higher and the personal choices he has to make impact his character. Can he take his father’s throne? Can he make the hard decisions he needs to without corrupting himself as his father did? Can he bring Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie to his side? At the film’s conclusion, the weight of responsibility for his people is all that matters and his love for them drives his heroic nature. His story therefore, with actual stakes to the film, is memorable.

“Creed” so much more than just another boxing film

No one needs another “Rocky” film. How many sequels have there been? Seven? Eight? But director Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” is something different than the rather cheesy “Rocky” movies that preceded it. It is rooted in the real world, imbued with modern issues of desperation and cynicism, and it integrates elemental issues of regret, perseverance, dignity and acceptance. The result is a spectacular tour de force.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) serves as a mentor to young Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his late friend and competitor, Apollo Creed. Adonis is full of fight and anger, desperate to prove himself without his father’s name, but at the same time, to show he’s worthy of his father’s greatness. Rocky has retreated from life. His wife is gone, his friends are gone, his mentor is gone. The years have taken a toll on him and he’s looking at the scope of his life without much hope. Perhaps taking in young Adonis will provide him with some purpose.

Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are fantastic, displaying the full range of emotions associated with mentor and mentee. Rocky, seeing the fight in Adonis, tries to hone him towards a higher purpose and help him realize his potential, a surrogate father for a boy who has never had one. And Adonis in turn inspires Rocky to keep fighting for his own dignity. This give and take builds up to a beautiful climax in the boxing ring, as Rocky coaches Adonis towards fulfillment.

Bianca (Tessa Thompson) serves as Adonis’ girlfriend is a fluff role that serves no real purpose to the story. Similarly, Phylicia Rashad as Mary Anne Creed, Apollo’s widow, is not given a lot to do. Compared to the powerful relationship between Rocky and Adonis, neither character has much to offer to the story.

In this age of reboots and endless sequels, most films rip off more than add on to the films that came before them. “Creed” manages to be both its own film and a continuation of the Rocky story, respecting the previous entries without exploiting them in a gimicky way. For example, while it might otherwise have been hokey to have Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” in a film like this, it works well, harkening back to the optimism of the original film in a world that could use some old-fashioned hope.

An identity discovery as much as a boxing movie, “Creed” follows Adonis on his journey towards finding the glory within himself as he and Rocky reach a meaningful conclusion, exemplifying love, commitment and pride. The last shot, epitomizing the past and the future, friend and mentor, exemplifies it all.

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