Annihilation – Film Review

As debuts go, Ex Machina was mightily impressive. An uncommonly engaging sci-fi parable that expertly matched stylish pup thrills with big ideas about men and the machines they make, it unquestionably marked Alex Garland as a director to watch. Annihilation is one hell of a follow-up. Loosely adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s women-on-a-mission novel, Garland has crated a dark, mystifying rumination on humanity’s impulse for self-destruction and reaffirmed his status as one of the most exciting directors working today.

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Natalie Portman is Lena, a biology professor numbed by the sudden loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared during a covert military operation. Then, a year after he vanished, Kane reappears at her door with no memory of what happened to him or how he got home. As his health rapidly deteriorates and he falls into a coma, the pair are taken to a secret military base where Lena learns her husband is the only survivor of an expedition into ‘Area X’, a mysterious zone on the coast of Florida surrounded by a soap bubble-like shimmer. With the zone rapidly expanding, Lena is persuaded to join a team of scientists (a psychologist, a geologist, a physicist and a paramedic) on a last ditch mission to find the cause of the phenomenon and stop its spread before it reaches human settlements.

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It’s easy to understand Garland’s frustration that this Netflix-backed movie won’t be seen on the big screen. Annihilation is bathed in breathlessly wondrous imagery throughout. That’s particularly true in the realisation of the grimly dream-like Shimmer, where mutated flora and fauna have a vibrant, otherworldly sheen and play host to hauntingly beautiful sights like a family of human figurines formed out of twisted, decaying branches. These moments of beauty are increasingly punctuated by bursts of brutal, bloody horror as the squad encounters mutilated beasts and distorted human remains, their trust in one another gradually unravelling as they draw ever closer to the mysterious lighthouse at the centre of the zone.

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This depth and complexity in the relationships and personal lives of the squad members is one of Annihilation’s most unexpected strengths. The expectation with ensembles is that at least one character get lost in the group, but here every member is given a clear, nuanced backstory to explain why they’ve signed up for what is essentially a suicide mission. That allows Garland to explore such weighty and challenging themes as grief, depression and terminal illness with a subtlety and sensitivity that never overwhelms the thrust of the story. And while the entire cast is superb, Portman is undoubtedly the standout, carrying the audience through this darkly perplexing world with a quietly resilient performance.

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It doesn’t quite stick the landing, though. The concluding scenes stretch too far beyond reality to sit comfortably within Garland’s otherwise grounded approach as he searches in vain for a way to wrap up the central mystery. Yet, for the most part, he offers no firm solutions to the myriad questions posed by the Shimmer. Instead, we’re left to piece the puzzles together in our own time as Annihilation rattles around our heads for days after. Very few directors can claim to have such an everlasting affect on their audience, but Alex Garland is undoubtedly one of them.

Runtime: 115 mins (approx.)
Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny

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A Wrinkle in Time

Ava DuVernay was an unexpected choice to direct A Wrinkle in Time. Not just because in doing so she became the long-overdue first woman of colour to helm a big budget tentpole; but also because the source material of Madeleine L’Engle’s bonkers children’s novel seemed so far outside her wheelhouse. Suddenly, a director best-known for hard-hitting dramas excoriating America’s ugly history with racism was tasked with wrangling fantastical creatures, eccentric characters and the devine presence of Oprah Winfrey into a cosmos-hopping sci-fi extravaganza.

Perhaps that’s why, despite DuVernay throwing every shred of her creative razzmatazz at the screen, the resultant film is a muddled, mawkish mess that feels untouched by its director’s usually stirring talents.

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Our heroine is Meg (Storm Reid), a gifted student who has drifted into a life a pre-teen rebellion and isolation in the four years since her scientist father (Chris Pine) vanished without a trace. Not even the efforts of her precocious little brother (Deric McCabe) or her infatuated classmate (Levi Miller) can drag her out of her malcontent, until the peculiar Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) turns up to tell them that Meg’s father is alive and stranded across the universe after a botched experiment with a tesseract.

With the help of Mrs Whatsit’s equally uncanny celestials, Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Winfrey), the three kids tear across the cosmos in search of Meg’s father, only to become caught in the crosshairs of an evil being of unparalleled darkness who will test them all to their very limits.

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DuVernay is undoubtedly at her most joyously inventive here. Wrinkle is infused with daft, off-the-wall humour, warm optimism and some truly wondrous visuals. Giant trees twist into the skies like verdant helium balloons. Towers of amber revolve and swivel, as if we’re watching an oversized game of CGI Screwball Scramble. A deeply disturbing suburb feels like it was ripped from a Tim Burton-directed version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

As astonishing as DuVernay’s boundless imagination is, though, you get the feeling it’s little more than an expensive distraction for the movie’s wayward plotting. DuVernay never quite settles on a comfortable tone, pinballing between saccharine family melodrama and quirky fantasy, while any sense of realism is swiftly swept up amid a melee of CGI-assisted landscapes and overblown set-pieces involving talking flowers and physics defying tornadoes.

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It’s a shame, because in Storm Reid’s Meg, A Wrinkle in Time has a character worthy of more attention. Haunted by the disappearance of her father, Meg’s self-esteem is in tatters. She feels abandoned by his departure and obsesses over how her supposed flaws might have driven him away, consuming herself with crippling self-doubt. Reid sells such a complex, troubled psyche with an absorbingly soulful performance, while those around her flounder with a script that favours mawkish sentiment over real character development. And it feels like such a missed opportunity precisely because Meg is exactly the type of conflicted, empowering charcter that DuVernay would usually excel at exploring… when she’s not overwhelmed by the demands of a 10ft tall Oprah Winfrey.

Runtime: 109 mins (approx.)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell
Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling

Tomb Raider – Film Review

Bleached hair. Chain wallets. Casual sports wear. Like almost everything from the 90s, Lara Croft hasn’t aged well. Once a pistol-toting cyberbabe who spawned a hit video game franchise and, with two Angeline Jolie-fronted movies, provided the basis for the highest-grossing video game adaptation in history, the turn of the century saw her become a cartoonishly sexualised symbol of ridicule.

Of course, Tomb Raider is not about that Croft – as Alicia Vikander’s Lara is at pains to point out. Instead, this reboot takes its lead from the 2013 video game of the same name, which successful retooled the intrepid explorer as a gritty and grounded heroine for a new generation. Gone are the implausibly pneumatic breasts and skimpy hot pants. In their place, is an angry, impulsive millennial who simply isn’t as fun as the original.

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We find Lara seeking greater relatability by abandoning her aristocratic inheritance for a flatshare in Shoreditch and a job as a bicycle courier. But when her long missing father (Dominic West) is officially declared dead, she discovers a puzzle box that may hold a clue to his whereabouts. From there, Tomb Raider largely parrots the plot of the video game as a raw and untested Lara sets sail for a hidden island off the coast of Japan in search of her father, only to find herself fighting for her very survival after she uncovers a clandestine organisation who are working to unleash a deadly ancient spirit buried beneath the island.

Directed by Roar Uthaug, whose Norwegian slasher movie Fritt Vilt unleashed all manner of horrors upon a game cast while atop the Scandinavian mountains, Tomb Raider similarly draws plenty of cinematic thrills from an unforgiving terrain. While some of the action swings towards the preposterous – Lara’s companion is a surprisingly skilled fighter for a drunk fisherman – Uthaug effectively executes plenty of pulsating chases and daring leaps as Lara is put through her paces on the island. Yet it’s let down by an uninspiring script that seems content to recycle the genre’s most obvious tropes – tombs are raided, temples are uncovered, puzzles are cracked – with a plodding predictability that saps much of the pace from the story.

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The cast at least try to instil some semblance of deeper meaning into their roles. Vikander reveals a soulful young woman behind Lara’s steely determined exterior, although her struggles during the movie’s attempts at light-hearted banter suggests she lacks the natural charisma to succeed as a leading action hero. Meanwhile, Dominic West is ideally suited to playing Lara’s refined rogue of a father and Walton Goggins does a good line in sweaty desperation as the movie’s ostensible baddie. But again it’s work that’s hampered by a script that hints at characterisation – Lara struggles to come to terms with the loss of her father; Goggins’ Vogel misses his daughters – but never bothers to probe any deeper.

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This darker, edgier take on the character might have all the makings of a 21st Century icon, but until her story is similarly refreshed, Lara Croft might be better off consigned to the archives.

Runtime: 118 mins (approx.)
Director: Roar Uthaug
Screenwriters: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott Thomas

Red Sparrow – Film Review

Following a conflicted ballerina-turned-Russian spy, it’s no wonder Marvel fans were hoping Red Sparrow could be the Black Widow origin story they’ve been longing for when it was first unveiled. But Francis Lawrence’s unflinchingly brutal thriller is not that movie. Rather, it’s a densely-plotted, punishing and often troubling watch that’s far removed from the brightly action-packed world of comic book blockbusters.

That being said, Lawrence certainly kicks-starts the action in eye-catching fashion, crisply cross-cutting between the final stage performance of gifted ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation) and CIA agent Nate Nash’s (Joel Edgerton) neatly choreographed meet with a government mole. It’s one of many slickly-paced set-pieces in a beautifully shot movie, operatically building tension towards a crushing crescendo that sees Nash scarpering to the nearest embassy while Dominika lays sprawled on the stage, her leg shattered.

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Struggling to pay her crippled mother’s medical bills and facing eviction from her apartment after the destruction of her dance career, Dominika reluctantly accepts an offer from her calculating uncle Ivan to become a government operative. She’s despatched to Sparrow School, a secret training camp where elite agents are taught to weaponise their sexuality to seduce targets and extract valuable information for the government. Her first mission: gain Nash’s trust and uncover the identity of his secret informant.

Arriving in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, the idea of an intelligent young woman being forced to commoditise her body in the service of powerful men will likely prove controversial for some. Especially when considering the film’s uncomfortably graphic depiction of sexual violence in several scenes. Dominika’s first steps into the seedy world of global espionage are particularly hard to handle as she’s subjected to a dehumanising training regime, forced to strip naked and perform sexual acts in front of her classmates. In these moments, she has no agency of her own – she’s merely a chess pawn at the mercy of domineering men.

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As the story develops, though, and Dominika grows coldly accustomed to her role in extracting information from willing targets, there’s a sense of her taking control, using her training to deceive both Nash and her government minders in order to survive in a cruel, unforgiving working environment. Whether such a muddy, complicated take on sexual politics can be viewed as satisfyingly empowering, will likely dictate your enjoyment of this movie.

One thing that won’t be up for debate is Lawrence’s mesmerising performance. Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) has adapted Jason Matthew’s novel (the first of three) into a tightly-woven, if slightly uneven, tale of double crossings and fraught alliances, but casting Lawrence in the lead role elevates an otherwise ordinary thriller into something truly compelling.

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Cooly enigmatic while remaining remarkably empathetic, Lawrence throws herself into the role and is utterly convincing – hammy Russian accent aside – as she teases her shifting loyalties between her country and the CIA. Meanwhile, Edgerton brings some much needed depth to the one-note role of dependable CIA agent Nash, forming a believable chemistry with his co-star.

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For the most part, Lawrence the director orchestrates proceedings with a cool detachment and clean camera work, but proves he’s more than capable of raising the pulse when required. A tense hand-over of incriminating floppy discs in a London hotel is confidently handled, while a later exchange set on a Hungarian airstrip sees Lawrence display an almost Hitchcockian mastery of suspense-building and dramatic reveals. It’s that kind of skillet that would make him an excellent choice to helm a Black Widow move… if Marvel ever gets around to making one.

Runtime: 139 min (approx.)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling