Thoughts About STAR WARS

Instead of just diving into a review of the new Star Wars flick, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019), I thought I’d look back on the series as a whole first, since the franchise has been in existence for a large chunk of my life. I’ll share my thoughts about each installment, leading up to what is supposed to be the last entry in the Skywalker Saga.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLES CONTAINS LOTS OF SPOILERS

THE FIRST TRILOGY

STAR WARS (1977)

I was 14 when this movie came out. The perfect age to experience it. There was a huge wave of hype; this one was destined to be a humungous blockbuster before it even came out. It was described as a B-movie with an A-movie’s budget, and was considered cutting edge for its time. This is the one that introduced us to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Darth Vader (David Prowse, the bodybuilder from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was under the mask, with a voice by James Earl Jones). Also, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). It was also cool to see Hammer Studios veteran Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. In 1977, STAR WARS was something brand new, and exciting. It was a phenomenon right from the start. A huge movie.

I refuse to call it A NEW HOPE, since when I saw it in a theater it was just called STAR WARS.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

I saw this one in a theater in Pennsylvania, visiting friends. There was big anticipation for it. I remember liking it, but not as much as the first one. I remember this one most for introducing us to Yoda, which bummed me out because he was so obviously just a muppet. They didn’t even try to make him look realistic. He even had Fozzie Bear’s voice (Frank Oz). It kind of lessened the magic for me. We also get to hang out with Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), who was never used as much as he should have been, and we met Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). We found out that Vader was Luke’s father, which I guess was a really big reveal at the time. The bad guys win, which was a cool way to end it, but it’s also such an obvious cliffhanger ending that it never felt like a whole movie to me, just something to hold the place until the next installment. I liked it, but already I was getting a little disenchanted with the series.

RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Emperor Palpatine has a bigger role (he was introduced in EMPIRE, but actor Ian McDiarmid was uncredited). This time he’s just credited as “The Emperor.” I really liked the storyline about Jabba the Hut. But then we visited the planet of the Ewoks, and it all fell apart for me, even if one of them is played by Warwick Davis, who would go on to star in WILLOW (1988) and the LEPRECHAUN movies (1993 – on). If I hated how Yoda was so obviously a muppet, I hated the Ewoks even more. Even though they were obviously inspired by H. Beam Piper’s novel “Little Fuzzy.” Obviously the Ewoks, those cute little living teddy bears, and Yoda, weren’t really meant for me; they were there to draw in the kids. But they made the story a lot less exciting, and a lot more…silly.  This is when it started to go downhill for me.

THE SECOND TRILOGY (THE PREQUELS)

THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

This is when I first noticed the movies getting numbers in their titles. THE PHANTOM MENACE is Episode One, of course.

I remember there had been rumors of a new trilogy for years, and then people started to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Sixteen years later, George Lucas finally got off his butt and made a new one. You’d think the promise of a big payday would be enough to make him more productive. This was the most anticipated movie of 1999, when it finally came out. It also was the first time I saw a Star Wars movie get negative reviews. A lot of people didn’t like it, which astounded me. All that waiting, just to be disappointed. By the time this one came out, I was already far from being a Star Wars fan anymore. I just didn’t care. I didn’t even bother to see this in a theater. When I started to hear the negative buzz, I just avoided it. I didn’t actually see it until 2004.

This one introduces us to Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who is universally hated and only shows up in brief cameos after this movie. Frankly, the fact that he is so loathed makes me kind of like him. This one also starts the storyline about the origin of Darth Vader, here a kid named Anankin Skywalker, played pretty badly by Jake Lloyd. Vader as an annoying kid? I definitely was not the target audience for this one. We also get a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (now played by Ewan McGregor, the junkie from TRAINSPOTTING, 1996, a movie I enjoyed a lot more than this one), along with a new Jedi knight named Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson, and the young Queen Amidala, also called Padme (Natalie Portman, fresh off THE PROFESSIONAL, 1994). This one also has Samuel L. Jackson in it as Jedi Mace Windu (motherfucker!). Palpatine, younger here, but still played by Ian McDiarmid, is just a Senator, not yet having achieved the title of Emperor.

This movie also introduces us to Darth Maul (portrayed by Ray Park, with a voice by Peter Serafinowicz). Darth Maul looks very cool, like a devil, and  and even has a double-bladed light saber. Everything about him visually is impressive. They promote him pretty heavily in the advertising, but when I finally see the movie I find out his big scene is pretty short, and he’s hardly used at all. A complete waste of probably the most exciting new character to the series.

ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

After the fiasco that was PHANTOM MENACE (at least among Star Wars fans), I also avoided the next one, ATTACK OF THE CLONES. I did not see it in a theater. When I finally did see it, Vader, my favorite character from the series, has changed from being an annoying kid to becoming a boring adolescent played by Hayden Christensen. Everyone seems to hate Christensen, and I get to see why a few years later. We find out that the stormtroopers are clones and all look like Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison, who was in the much better ONCE WERE WARRIORS in 1994).  Senator Palpatine has been promoted to Supreme Chancellor Palpatin. This time, the bad guy is Count Dooku (also known as Darth Tyranus, according to the credits), played by the great Hammer Studios actor Christopher Lee. Twenty-five years after Peter Cushing was in the first one, they finally get around to having Christopher Lee in one of these films. Lee being in this was a BIG deal, at least to me; too bad his character is so underwhelming (and Dooku, what a stupid name!).

2004 OR SO…

The hype machine goes into overdrive before the release of the next installment, which is promoted as being the movie where wimpy Hayden Christensen finally becomes Darth Vader. Since I’m still a bit of a Vader fan at heart, I go back and watch the previous two films – finally – on video after having avoided them for a few years. Neither film is as completely awful as I expected. Both have some good moments, and the story is interesting enough. But they don’t make me a fan again. I just want to play catch-up before the big transformation comes out and we finally see the origin of Darth Vader.

REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I actually went to the theater for this one. There’s a big showdown with Count Dooku (at least Christopher Lee got to be in two movies!). In a scene that was a bit reminiscent of the classic FRANKENSTEIN (1931), an injured Anakin Skywalker is transformed into Darth Vader by the evil Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Like the previous two, which I delayed seeing, I thought it was okay, but not spectacular. In fact, I remember feeling disappointed by the time I left the theater. The second trilogy isn’t as awful as everyone said it was. But it wasn’t all that amazing, either.

At this point, I haven’t been a fan of the series for awhile now, and the second trilogy does nothing to change that.

THE THIRD TRILOGY (THE SEQUELS)

THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

George Lucas takes his sweet time coming up with the next trilogy (right from the start he said this story would be made up of three trilogies). The fans start to get grumpy. Not only did they have to wait 16 years last time between Trilogy 1 and 2, but most seemed pretty disappointed with the second trilogy.

Disney decides to speed things up, buying the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilms. George Lucas gets a monumental payday, yet he still grumbles a bit about losing control of the series. Disney hires director J.J. Abrams, who became a hot commodity on television, producing and co-creating shows like FELICITY, ALIAS, and the biggest of all, LOST. After he hits it big in movies, directing popular installments of the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise, and bringing STAR TREK back to the big screen, he has enough Hollywood clout to get the nod from the Mouse.

This time, we meet a lot of new characters, including Rey (Daisy Ridley, since in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017, and OPHELIA, 2018), a girl from humble means who is destined to become the next big Jedi; a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega, previously in ATTACK THE BLOCK, 2011) who leaves the Empire to join the good guys (I guess not all stormtroopers are clones anymore); and Poe Dameron, a cocky fighter pilot played by Oscar Isaac (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, 2013, EX MACHINA and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, both 2014). The new bad guy is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver (previously on the HBO series GIRLS, and currently in the Netflix drama MARRIAGE STORY), who works for Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2011, and Gollum in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies, playing another creepy CGI character). Along for the ride are plenty of old characters from the very first trilogy, including Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Chewy. While I’m a big fan of Adam Driver, his Kylo Ren never seems to be completely evil, or formidable like Darth Vader was. He just doesn’t have his heart in it. We find out that Kylo is really Ben, the son of Leia and Solo. Kylo even goes so far as to kill his own father (the Star Wars franchise sure has father issues)—which didn’t bother me in the slightest since the old timers here aren’t all that compelling this time around—but I’m still not convinced he’s a hardcore villain.

Some people accuse Abrams of pandering to the fans this time around, and there’s some truth to that. This movie, while well made, seems to be assembled just to make the fans who have been waiting 10 years for this movie happy. To the point where it seems way too safe. If Lucas’s movies were uneven, at least they weren’t completely predictable. You got a surprise once in awhile. There don’t seem to be too many surprises in THE FORCE AWAKENS. Of course, it goes on to make tons of cash anyway, so who cares.

THE LAST JEDI (2017)

Disney decides to make up for lost time, getting the next movie ready to come out just two years later. In the meantime, they even come out with some spin-offs: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) – which goes back in time to show us previously unknown characters who took out the Death Star from the original trilogy – I won’t go into any detail about this one, because I thought it was the most boring entry in the franchise – I didn’t care about the story or the characters. By the time SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018), about the adventures of a young Han Solo, came out, the money started to thin out, and word was that maybe Disney was pumping these movies out a little too quickly, oversaturating the market. I’m not sure if that was the case, but I didn’t bother to see SOLO.

Back to THE LAST JEDI.

This time the director is Rian Johnson, who previously directed some interesting smaller films like the high school noir flick BRICK (2005) and the imaginative sci-fi time travel flick LOOPER (2012). I thought Johnson was an interesting choice for a big franchise movie. He also refused to play it safe, not necessarily coloring within the lines when he got his chance to carry on the story from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This time, we get more of Rey, Finn and Poe. More of Luke and Leia. And some new characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and Benecio Del Toro as a dude named DJ. We get to see more of the tormented Kylo Ren, who still tries to be a badass, but always has this chunk of vulnerability that makes him seem uncommitted when it comes to being truly evil. He just never seems all that dangerous. We see more of a psychic rapport between Kylo and Rey, making them easily the two most interesting characters in the new trilogy. This one is memorable mostly because it has a lot more for Luke Skywalker to do (yay, Mark Hamill!), and there’s a character played by Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Holdo), who seems more dynamic when she’s onscreen than anyone else in the cast.  In fact, she’s so charismatic, that of course they kill her off before the movie’s over.

Another so-so installment in the series. So far the new trilogy isn’t exactly wowing me.

And now, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019).

Forty-two years after the first film, we finally get the conclusion to this mighty epic. Except it’s not all that mighty anymore. There was a lot of controversy about some of the things Rian Johnson did in THE LAST JEDI, so they bring J.J. Abrams back for the big finale. I went in thinking this one would be catering to fans (I think the word is pandering, actually) to the same degree that THE FORCE AWAKENS was, and while there is a bit of that, I thought RISE was a better movie, overall. Which isn’t saying a lot.

We finally get some closure involving the whole Rey/Kylo Ren dynamic. Poe and Finn help save the day. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is back! Richard E. Grant plays a suitably sinister General Pryde. Keri Russell pops up as mercenary from Poe’s past Zorii Bliss, except we never see her without her helmet, so how can we be sure it’s her? Turns out that Emperor Palpatine is pulling the strings, as he was from way back, and he’s got something called The Last Order that plans to put down all rebellion forces and  reinstate the glory of the Empire. Luke comes back as an avenging ghost to help Rey. Kylo makes the ultimate sacrifice to prove he wasn’t completely evil afterall (but we already knew that). While I guess some things are technically surprises, they don’t ever feel very surprising.

I could go into more detail, but frankly, I don’t feel like it. By this time, I’m just so not a fan anymore that you could almost call me an anti-fan. It’s all just familiar faces and voices and great pronouncements, and to me, it’s a whole lot of noise signifying nothing.

Once again Rey and Kylo Ren are the only characters I find interesting at all, and when they’re not onscreen, the story lags. Poe Dameron is probably the most boring character in the final trilogy, with Finn not far behind (so much for the new breed). I went in expecting to hate it, and left thinking it was…okay. “Meh” might be the perfect description. Better than expected, but still no great epic. This series ran out of truly creative juice a long time ago, and now just seems to be retreading the past with different names.

And so we come to the end of the three trilogies. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of many of these characters. We already know there are going to be plenty of spin-offs, and one-shot “Star Wars Story” films, and there’s already a new trilogy in the works, involving different characters in another part of the galaxy. And STAR WARS, as a brand name, will probably go on forever.

But, for me, it’s done. The three trilogies that George Lucas originally envisioned are over. The story has come to a close. Whether it was satisfying or not, I’ve somehow endured the whole thing and reached a point of closure.

And that’s my complete STAR WARS experience in a nutshell. For most of my life, these movies have been playing in the background, continuing to keep the myths alive and the fans hungry for more. I stopped really caring awhile ago, and whatever spell these movies cast on me at age 14 has long worn off.  But I stuck with it to the end. I’m not entirely sure why I stuck with it.

But it feels great to finally say that.

The end.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

Review by LL Soares

If you enjoyed IT (2017), based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, there’s a good chance IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019) will bring things to a satisfying conclusion for you. CHAPTER TWO expands on the previous film by showing us the Loser’s Club, who defeated the demonic clown Pennywise in the first film, now as adults 27 years later, brought back to their hometown to take on the monster once again.

The strong cast includes Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh (she was played by Sophia Lillis in the first film), James McAvoy as Bill Denbrough (he was previously played as a kid by Jaeden Martell), Bill Hader as Richie Tozier (previously played by Finn Wolfhard from STRANGER THINGS), Isaiah Mustafa as Mike Hanlon (previously played by Chosen Jacobs), Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom (previously played by Jeremy Ray Taylor), James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak (previously Jack Dylan Grazer), and Andy Bean as Stanley Uris (previously Wyatt Oleff). Even though this is the adult part of the story, we still get flashbacks to the kids once in a while.

It turns out most of them moved away from Derry, Maine, and lived lives independent from their childhood trauma, but not everyone has made the most of their second chances (after not getting killed by Pennywise as kids). For example, Beverly is married to an abusive jerk, while chubby kid Ben has grown up into a handsome and successful businessman. It also turns out that, the more time they spent away from Derry, the less they remember living there, and the monster clown they united against. The one person who stayed behind is Mike Hanlon, who might be the saddest character in the film, because he never got a chance to forget it (having never left) and his life is sort of a shambles. He lives alone in a room above the town library, where he collects clippings of anything nefarious that sounds like old Pennywise is back. He also consulted with a local shaman for ways to prepare for the demon’s inevitable return. But really, there’s no way to prepare for Pennywise.

Mike is the one who calls everyone back when Pennywise returns from whatever hibernation he was in and starts killing again—making it clear that their mission is not yet done. Everyone comes back home, if reluctantly, except for one of them (I won’t say who). Immediately upon returning to Derry, each of them is singled out and confronted by Pennywise in various disguises, creating illusions that are meant to overwhelm them and scare them half-to-death. The objective is clear, Pennywise wants these people to leave, since they almost finished him off last time. But they’re not going. Despite their combined sense of fear, they also get strength from one another, and realize they have to finish the job they started.

It’s clear that, with 27 years between the two films, the adult versions find it hard to believe that they were able to defeat Pennywise the first time, and doubt that they could do it again. But they have reservoirs of courage that they haven’t tapped into yet.

The big showdown underground, while action-packed, feels a bit like a retread of the similar battle that capped off the first film. But it mostly works. And the cast is strong. I especially like Chastain here, and Hader, in a rare dramatic role, steals just about every scene he’s in. And Hader’s Richie plays well off hypochondriac Eddie throughout.

I still find this version of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) kind of fascinating, as he alternates between acting child-like and innocent one moment, and all teeth and murder the next. It’s definitely a different take than Tim Curry’s when he played Pennywise in the 1990 TV miniseries based on the same book. It just wouldn’t have worked if Skarsgard just imitated Curry’s much-loved performance, and I like what he does with the character.

The sequel, like the first film, is directed by Andy Muschietti, who does a fine job here. The script this time is by Gary Dauberman (the first film was written by Dauberman with Chase Palmer and Cary Joji Fukunaga), based on King’s novel. And Stephen King himself has a cameo in the film as a shopkeeper when Bill Denbrough stops to buy a bike that looks just like the one he had as a kid.

At two hours and 49 minutes, IT: CHAPTER TWO is almost three hours long, and there are times when it feels it (in comparison, the first film was a measly two hours and 15 minutes!). Strangely, there was also a kind of childhood magic that imbued the first film, which is clearly lacking here. Not all of the characters are as interesting as adults as they were as kids. McAvoy, in particular—an actor I normally like a lot—didn’t feel like he had a lot to do in this one. And, while it does a good job showing us what comes next, there was something lacking about CHAPTER TWO that made it slightly less enjoyable for me than the first one.

I’m sure fans of King’s novel will have problems with some of the differences between the book and the movies, but, as I said in the beginning, if you were happy with the first film, chances are good you’ll like the second. It’s not perfect, but it’s a solid conclusion to the previous film’s story, and it has some terrific moments (and some tedious ones). I give it three and a half knives.

LL Soares gives IT: CHAPTER TWO ~  3 1/2 knives!

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© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

Review by LL Soares

In space, no one can hear you yawn.

That said, movies set in space definitely don’t have to be boring – especially coming from the Marvel Universe. Just look at GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (I’m talking the 2014 original here, I kinda hated the second one). And of course AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018, which I think is underrated). Which brings us to Carol Danvers, the hero at the heart of the new Marvel flick, CAPTAIN MARVEL!

I think actress Brie Larsen is great, and I was really happy to hear she got the role, back when they were announcing the casting decisions. And I knew Samuel L. Jackson was going to have a sizeable role as Nick Fury (and young Nick Fury at that, with youthful good looks – thanks to CGI – and two eyes!). What I didn’t count on was a fairly boring script.

We begin with Carol Danvers—super-powered but not yet Captain Marvel—as part of a team of space soldiers called “Starforce” (and with this, the generic space stuff begins). They’re defenders of the Kree, one of Marvel’s major alien races, who are identified by their blue skin. Except Danvers—referred to as Vers by her Kree comrades (it all makes sense later), is clearly not Kree. But she’s not really sure where she’s from. She has weird flashes of memory of a seemingly different life, but she can’t make heads nor tales out of it. She gets a little more clarity when she is captured by the Skrulls (the other big alien race in Marvel Land, who are green and sort of lizard-like, and who have the ability to shape shift to look like anyone they want to). In captvitiy, Vers is subjects to a machine that plunders her memories, in the process making them much more vivid, and ramping up Vers’s curiosity about her past even more.

The Skrulls use her memories as a map to a planet called C-53 (aka Earth), where something important they want is. Vers pursues them there. Back on home planet Earth, Vers starts experiencing major déjà vu, because, yes, she’s been here before.

S.H.I.E.LD. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) (and if you don’t know what S.H.I.E.L.D. is, you need to watch more Marvel movies) get called in when Vers crash lands into a Blockbuster video store. It’s the 1990s, and none of the Marvel superheroes we know and love have shown up yet, so the super-powered Vers is something of an anomaly. In fact, Fury doesn’t even believe she’s from another planet at first, until he gets caught up in the Kree/Skrull conflict, thanks to his boss being impersonated by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelesohn). Vers takes on the Skrulls herself, with help from Fury, while her Starforce team, led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is a Kree warrior but, like Vers, isn’t blue (something that is never explained) hurries toward Earth.

This movie kind of lost me from the start, with the generic space opera of the “Starforce” team going to an alien planet to extract one of their spies from a Skrull stronghold. I thought this whole segment came off as Star War-lite and that wise-cracking Vers seemed to be the only Kree soldier we meet who has any kind of real personality. The rest of her team is pretty forgettable, even Djimon Honsou as Korath, and Jude Law—a normally terrific actor—is forced to play bland sci-fi commander Yon-Rogg. It’s not until Vers get to Earth that things get interesting at all, thanks for Fury, a cat named Goose (one of the best characters in the movie, without saying a word), and Ben Mendleson as Talos, and even that wasn’t exciting enough to get this movie out of the breakdown lane. Speaking of which, a generic car chase scene just smacks of cliché.

Basically, I liked Brie Larsen as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but this is yet another weak origin story and her character didn’t get interesting at all until the very end. Annette Benning is okay as a scientist from Danvers’ past (as well as the Kree AI overlord The Supreme Intelligence, who looked so much cooler in the comics), Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are good as Maria Rambeau, Danver’s best friend from her past, and her daughter, Monica, respectively. And it’s always good to see Jackson and Gregg. But the script is like an hour and forty minutes of boredom and 24 minutes of adrenaline, which is way off balance. At least our “Captain oh Captain” is set up to make a big splash when she returns in AVENGERS: ENDGAME next month (April 26th, to be precise).

For those who are scratching their heads and wondering, “Isn’t Captain Marvel a teenage boy who turns into a Superman wannabe?” You’re not losing your minds. Back in the 40s and 50s, Billy Batson said the secret word SHAZAM! and turned into the first Captain Marvel, but then DC Comics sued Charlton Comics, saying the Captain was too much like Superman, and so he disappeared. Afterwards, Marvel got the rights to the name Captain Marvel, and ran with it (several characters have born the name “Captain Marvel” since 1969, including Ms. Danvers) and then DC bought the rights to the actual character we knew as Captain Marvel, calling him just plain SHAZAM (and there’s a SHAZAM! movie coming out April 5th from DC , to make things even more confusing).

CAPTAIN MARVEL is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously gave us such indie films as the baseball drama SUGAR (2008) and gambling drama MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015). They also worked together on the excellent “teacher with a drug habit” flick HALF NELSON (2006), which Fleck directed alone and Boden co-wrote the screenplay for. The screenplay for CAPTAIN MARVEL is by Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertston-Dworet, and is “based on a story” by Boden, Fleck, Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. That’s a lot of writers for a script that’s so bland.

I hate to say it, but despite a good cast, a cool lead character, and a lot of potential, CAPTAIN MARVEL is a disappointment. And kind of one big yawn. It could have been so much cooler. But, as it is, I give it two knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives CAPTAIN MARVEL ~ two knives.

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ANNIHILATION (2018)

(NOTE: Annihilation was my choice of my favorite film of 2018. Here’s the review for those who missed it)

A “Cinema Knife Fight” Review by LL Soares

(THE SCENE: An abandoned building in the middle of an alien forest. Plant life is abundant and grows everywhere, but is in mutliple vivid colors that just aren’t common in nature, as we know it. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach the house, which is completely overrun with vines and flowers)

LL SOARES: We made it to the first checkpoint.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are we still on Earth? It looks like another planet.

LS: I know! Everything is so strange since we entered “the shimmer.” It’s disorienting.

(They enter the building and immediately something grabs MA and drags him up to the ceiling. LS shines a flashlight up at a giant SPIDER, covered in bright flowers, which proceeds to spin a web around MA, wrapping him up tightly for a later meal)

LS: Did you have to grab him so soon? We were reviewing a movie.

SPIDER: I’m awful hungry.

LS: Okay, okay. Don’t start whining.

SPIDER: Why don’t you review the movie now, for me? You’ve got a captive audience, and I’m sure Michael can still hear you.

LS: Okay. This week’s movie is called ANNIHILATION. I was pretty excited about this one because it’s the new movie by Alex Garland, who previously gave us the very cool EX MACHINA (2014), which was his directorial debut. But Garland was no newcomer to movies. His first exposure was THE BEACH (2000), which he didn’t write the screenplay for, but which was based on his novel of the same name. But that led to him writing screenplays for the Danny Boyle movies 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and SUNSHINE (2007), as well as the movies NEVER LET ME GO (2010) and DREDD (2012).

EX MACHINA, which he wrote as well as directed, starred Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with Alicia Vikander as a self-aware Artificial Intelligence, and it was such a strong, self-assured debut, that I was eager to see his next movie as a director, and ANNIHILATION is it.

One thing about paying to see a movie just like everyone else (instead of going to preview showings), and posting our big movie review of the week on Monday is that I get to hear a lot of the critical buzz before my review goes up. I avoid all other reviews until I’ve written my own, but sometimes you can’t help but hear what kind of reaction a movie is getting, and from what I could tell, ANNIHILATION was getting a very mixed reaction.

So, I’ll start out by saying I didn’t have mixed feelings about this one at all. I knew exactly how I felt leaving the theater.

SPIDER: So, what did you feel about it?

LS: I’ll keep you in suspense a bit longer.

ANNIHILATION is the story of a strange event that changes a part of the world. The event is a metor which comes down and strikes a lighthouse. Immediately, the lighthouse and its immediate environs are changed. But it doesn’t stop there. The area affected is growing, and from the outside it looks like some weird oozing barrier, which scientists are calling “the shimmer.” They’ve sent several teams of soldiers and scientists into the shimmer, and none have come back. That is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously shows up in the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), who is a biology professor at John-Hopkins University. He has been gone almost a year, and since it was a top-secret mission, he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything about it.

Lena is overjoyed to see her husband again, but he’s definitely different. When he also suddenly becomes very ill, things get compicated. Lena and her husband are abducted and brought to a lab on the outskirts of “the shimmer,” and Lena finds herself part of the next team going inside. This team is all women and includes psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person Lena meets at the facility, as well as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and soldiers Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).  It’s not really clear why the team is comprised solely of women (because previous teams were all men and they’re grasping for straws?), but right away these are characters who are believable and sympathetic.

Once they go inside the shimmer…well, I’m not really eager to talk too much about that.

SPIDER: Come on! Gimme a clue!

LS: I avoided learning too much about the plot before seeing ANNIHILATION, and it was one time when I was glad I hadn’t read the book beforehand. I really wanted to go into this one blind, not knowing what to expect. I wanted their journey into the shimmer to seem as alien to me as it was to the women exploring it.

I will say that the idea of a meteor or something extraterrestrial coming down and changing things it comes in contact with isn’t new. We’ve seen similar plotlines in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), which was in turn based on the novella THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H.P. Lovecraft. In J.G. Ballard’s wonderful novel, THE CRYSTAL WORLD, something is changing all organic life into lifeless crystal, with no end in sight (it would make an amazing movie). And, for another take on it, there’s John Wyndham’s classic THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (adapted for film in 1963). But ANNIHILATION has a completely fresh spin on the idea, and the movie (and I’m assuming the novel) offers some very fascinating results of such an occurrence.

SPIDER: So, did you like it.

LS: I did. One of the main problems some people have had with the the movie is that they claim it’s confusing. But I didn’t find that at all. I thought most of it made clear sense. And here’s where I want to bring in the movie THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) for a comparison.

SPIDER: Oh no! Do you have to mention that one?

LS: I do, but to make a point. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is a severely flawed movie, but the basic concept is that, by coming into contact with another dimension, our heroes face some people and things that are decidedly alien. While the movie failed to use this concept in a compelling way (it was more annoying than compelling) the basic idea of alienness was something I could appreciate. How do you portray such a thing in a believable way?

ANNIHILATION shows us another situation where alienness is not fully explained, and yet, I fully accepted it and embraced it, because if we came upon a truly alien entity or environment, there’s a good chance we would not really understand it. Unlike THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, ANNIHILATION takes this idea and runs with it, and gives us a movie that fully exploits the concept of pure alienness.

I think it’s a major achievement. Where THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to give us something new and different, and just gives us something confusing, ANNIHILATION gives us a solid, powerful exploration of something that is truly outside of the human experience.

There’s some wonderful stuff here. First off, the acting is impeccable.

Jennifer Jason Leigh had a big career in the 1980s and 90s, and then seemed to disappear for awhile. The truth is, she was working steadily the whole time, maybe just not in as big budget movies as she once did. The result is that there seemes to be a resurgence in her career right now, based on praise she has gotten for roles in movies like ANOMALISA (2015), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and as one of the  villains in the new Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS (2017). I couldn’t be happier that she’s doing so well right now, because she’s a brilliant actress. Typical for her, Dr. Ventress is not a completely likeable character, but Leigh shines at giving us characters who can be unlikeable, but are no less human for it.

Gina Rodriguez is probably best known for playing the title character in the series JANE THE VIRGIN (2014 – Present), and she plays completely against type as the hard-as-nails soldier Anya Thorenson here. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, previously in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) is also very good as Cass Sheppard. Tessa Thompson, whose career is also on an upward trajectory right now, in movies like CREED (2015) and THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), as well as the current HBO series WESTWORLD, plays a more sensitive, thoughtful character as physicist Josie Radek. All are terrific here.

Oscar Isaac has the smaller role of Lena’s husband Kane. But, as always, he’s very effective.

Natalie Portman is terrific here as the lead character, Lena. I first became aware of her way back when she was a kid in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), and it’s been cool watching her grow into a terrific actress, in movies like CLOSER (2014), V FOR VENDETTA (2005), BLACK SWAN (2010), and JACKIE (2016), she’s just, simply, one of the best actresses around today, and she’s the strong, determined heart of ANNIHILATION. Not once do you question why she feels the need to do what she does. Not once do you feel that she’s lost her way, even when she’s in an environment completely foreign to her. She soldiers on throughout.

The effects, mostly CGI, are well done. This is the kind of movie where CGI offers some distinct advantages, since some of things they depict are so foreign to us. Sure, there might be a few moments where something looked a tiny bit fake (this always happens in CGI, I’ve never seen any movie using it that is completely convincing throughout), but for the most part, the computer images are above average.

I also want to praise the movie’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Instead of trying to manipulate the audience, their soundtrack actually enhances the experience.

The direction by Alex Garland is also impeccable, at times reminding me of giants like Stanley Kubrick (especially toward the end of the movie), and Garland’s script is solid (based on the celebrated novel by Jeff VanderMeer).

I didn’t ever feel completely lost or confused while watching ANNIHILATION, because with Garland at the controls (and Portman as our guide), I never once felt that I wasn’t in the hands of a complete professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Is everything that happens completely coherent and understandable? No. Because we’re not supposed to understand everything. None of the characters, not even Portman, fully understands what they’re experiencing. So why should we?

To be truly alien, events have to be outside our realm of experience, outside our comfort zone, and Garland and Company achieve this admirably.

I found myself enthralled throughout, and still thinking about what I’d seen long after the movie ended.

February has been a very good month for movies, and I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER as well. It was one of the best superhero movies made so far. But ANNIHILATION is something else entirely. It’s not just a well-made, smart science fiction movie. It’s the first movie masterpiece of 2018.

I give it four and a half knives.

SPIDER: Wow, you really liked this one a lot!

LS: Yes, I did. I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.

SPIDER: Well, maybe I’ll go see it sometime. Right now, I’d say it’s time for dinner.

(MA opens his eyes, waking up from his coma-like state, and struggles in his web cocoon)

SPIDER: Do you want to stick around and watch me eat?

LS: I’ll pass. I’d better get back to civilization. I’ve got to get the word out about this movie.

SPIDER: Ta ta!

(LS EXITS)

MA’s VOICE: Come back here, you bastard!

-END-

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares give ANNIHILATION – 4 1/2 knives!

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GLASS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

The comeback of M. Night Shyamalan continues…

After the peaks (THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999) and valleys (THE HAPPENING, 2008) of his earlier films, Shyamalan was once again fulfilling his promise with a little found-footage horror movie called THE VISIT (2015). He followed that with the horror film SPLIT (2016), where James McAvoy delivered a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 23 distinct personalities, collectively called “the Horde, one of which was a superhuman creature called “The Beast” (not to be confused with Marvel’s Hank McCoy) who’s only desire was to kill (to protect the core personality, Kevin). At the end of that movie, we got a surprise. The ending revealed that SPLIT, aside from being another successfully Shyamalan production, took place in the same world as his 2000 film, UNBREAKEBLE, and was kind of a sequel to that film.

And now we have GLASS (2018), the sequel to SPLIT, which brings it all full circle. And, at this point, it is no longer a comeback. Shyamalan is here.

GLASS takes its name from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who called himself Mister Glass in UNBREAKABLE, and revealed himself to be a highly intelligent villain, albeit one with a serious condition —his bones were incredibly breakable, making his body as fragile as glass.

But GLASS does not begin with Mister Glass. It begins with the Beast still on the loose and having recently kidnapped four cheerleaders, keeping them captive in an abandoned warehouse. Meanwhile, it turns out that David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the hero of UNBREAKABLE, has been busy since we last saw him, handing out vigilante justice with the help of his now-grown son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) who uses technology to be David’s eyes in the city. David still wears the raincoat we saw him in in UNBREAKABLE, but now the press has dubbed his alter ego “The Overseer,” and he’s a sensation on YouTube (of course).

When Dunn tracks The Beast down, they have their first big showdown, which looks a little clumsy compared to the super-choreographed fight scenes in a Marvel or DC blockbuster, but that’s the point. This story is supposed to take place in the real world. Or at least something a lot closer to reality than a universe where superheroes are overabundant.

Their battle is cut short by armed police, and the two of them are taken into custody.

But they are not brought to matching jail cells. Instead, they are brought to a mental hospital, where one whole wing has been adapted to contain them. Cameras are everywhere, and clearly someone has been watching them closely, because their weaknesses are used to control their behavior. For Dunn, it is pipes that shoot water into his room if he gets out of line (playing upon his weakness from UNBREAKABLE), and, for Mr. Crumb, a hypnotic series of lights is used to flip his personalities like a television remote channel surfing, thus quickly getting him out of a particular hostile personality if it should arise.

When they meet their “jailer,” her name is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), and her particular psychological field of expertise involves people who think they have superpowers. She plans to prove that these powers are not real, and rid them of their delusions. It’s here that the titular Mister Glass joins the storyline. He’s been an inmate at this same hospital for years now, and has been kept heavily sedated, but because his “delusion” of being a mastermind super villain, he shares a mania with our two other characters, and is moved to Dr. Staple’s new wing, to partake in some intensive group therapy.

At the same time, we get to see more of each character’s primary family member, as they come to the hospital to meet with Dr. Staple. This includes David’s son, Joseph; Mister Glass’s mother, Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), who clearly does not see her son as some kind of patient or a villain, but as a very special human being; and, since Kevin Wendell Crumb has no family that we know of, we see more of Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenage girl who was previously kidnapped by The Beast (in SPLIT), but who somehow managed to survive the ordeal. She is actually empathetic toward her former captor, seeking to help the tormented Kevin, who she sees as a sympathetic victim of his illness. It’s Casey’s support that I have the hardest time getting my head around, but I go along with it, and with Shyamalan’s story.

And so the stage is set, as Dr. Staple goes about trying to prove her theory. But who is she working for? Surely, if she is just using these people to prove her own hypothesis, she would need access to powerful people in order to acquire a whole wing of a mental hospital for just three patients; a wing which has been elaborately prepared for their particular needs and weaknesses. An entire wing that could have been used by a lot more patients in need of help. This isn’t something a person does on a whim. Also, she has been able to do an awful lot of research on these people, and has clearly been watching them for a while now. Is she right that their powers are simply figments of their imaginations, or are they real?

And what of our three superhumans? Going in, we’re led to believe from the previous movies that their powers are real, and that their being brought together will have to result in some kind of major showdown. If so, how long will such a prison be able to hold them?

A long time ago, before UNBREAKABLE, I had the idea for a story involving a superhero in the real world. What would that be like? Now, it would be more of a cliché, but back when UNBREAKABLE made the concept a reality, it was something fresh, and I’m a big fan of that movie. GLASS takes this to the next level. The reason why these movies are so interesting is that they mash up comic book tropes with a world that is a bit more “real” than the one we usually see in the big-budget, larger than life, comic book movies.

Some people have had issues with the movie’s third act, but it worked for me. Not only does it offer a satisfying resolution to the suspense we feel throughout, but it takes the entire storyline and cranks the volume up to 11. By the time the movie ends, a door has been opened, and there is potential for the concept to grow further. Mr. Shyamalan has done his job.

Which is something I’m happy to say. I was a fan of his through his earlier films, and it was fun to see what he would come up with next. When he seemed to lose his mojo, I found it depressing that such a talented director hadn’t lived up to his potential. But he’s back in the saddle now, and I’m excited about his career again.

I liked this movie, and while it’s been getting mixed reviews, I thought it did a good job mixing real-world issues with the kinds of powers that we read about in comic books. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives GLASS ~~ 3 knives

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THE ENDLESS (2017)

Movie Review by LL Soares

The first time I saw THE ENDLESS was on July 4th of this year, on Amazon OnDemand, and I wasn’t very impressed. I’d been eager to see it, since it was directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who also made RESOLUTION (2012) and SPRING (2014). I’m especially a big fan of SPRING, and was eager to see what they’d come up with next. But my reaction was mixed, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to review it here.

Then I went to a horror writers convention, and the movie people were talking about most seemed to be THE ENDLESS. So, I figured I should give it a second chance. Not something I normally do, but hey, these are the guys who made SPRING, so it was the least I could do. Besides, there had to be some reason why people liked it so much.

I have to admit, I liked it better the second time around.

First off, some critics have been saying that you don’t need to see their first feature film as co-directors, RESOLUTION, first, but I think it helps. There are characters and themes between the two movies that overlap, and I think if you watch them in chronological order, RESOLUTION does a good job of setting things up so that THE ENDLESS makes maximum sense. For my review of RESOLUTION, just click here.

THE ENDLESS introduces us to brothers Justin Smith (co-director Justin Benson) and Aaron Smith (co-director Aaron Moorhead). They clean people’s house for a living and are just about scraping by. They also don’t have much of a social life. There’s something a little off about these guys, and it’s because they were in a “UFO death cult” as kids, and escaped, and are now trying to go about living normal lives.

Except, it’s not really working out for them. Justin, the older brother, is trying to look out for his sibling and give them a decent life, but Aaron is severely unhappy. He remembers the time in the cult as being happy and isn’t sure if he fully believes the stories Justin tells him, like the fact that cult members are eventually castrated, or that they were planning to kill themselves when the time of the apocalypse was upon us. This is emphasized by the fact that Aaron receives an old videotape in the mail, from the “cult” (they prefer to call themselves a commune), where one of the members, Anna (Callie Hernandez) is talking about their leaving soon to go somewhere. Justin immediately believes it’s code for a mass suicide. Or so he says.

But it’s hard to know how much he believes that, because Aaron’s reaction to the video is that he wants to go back, if only for a day, to visit their old home and the people they knew, before they “go.” Justin resists at first, but eventually gives in, considering how depressed his brother has been. If he really feels going back is dangerous, then why would he give in so easily?

When the two brothers escaped the commune as kids, it was a news-worthy story, and even now, they’ve been going to see a therapist regularly for sessions they call “deprogramming.”

So, on the weekend, they drive back to the commune. First, they stop off at a memorial site where their mom died. A place where people still leave drawings and flowers. She died in a car crash when they were kids, and it was the commune that found them and took them in.

Next stop, the commune, and things haven’t changed much. The first person they see is Smiling Dave (David Lawson Jr.) at the gates, a guy in a suit who smiles all the time (he’s got some kind of brain damage). Then they come across the spokesman for the commune, Hal (Tate Ellington) who welcomes them and sets them up with a place to sleep for the night (a shack with two bunk beds), and food (Aaron makes a point to say how good the food is, since back in the “real world” they were always broke and ate Ramen noodles a lot). There’s also Tim (Lew Temple) a quiet, bearded guy who brews craft beer, which is the commune’s main source of income; Lizzy (Kira Powell), a resident of a local mental hospital who came to stay with the commune (and who says the commune is much healthier for her); and Anna, the girl in the video, who knew the brothers as kids, and who makes most of the clothes for the commune members.

When asked what made the guys come back to the commune, they say it was because of the video they sent. But Anna and Hal insist they never sent a video.  (This mirrors the beginning of RESOLUTION, where Mike receives a mysterious videotape in the beginning of the movie of his friend Chris, that Chris says he never sent).

With the comraderie and games, Aaron finds himself really enjoying being back, and wants to stay another day. It’s so much better than their depressing life back home. Justin is more hesitant, but gives in to one more day. And then things get weirder.

First off, there are two moons in the sky at night. The commune people explain it as some kind of natural phenomenon, having to do with reflections and magnetic fields, but that doesn’t explain when a third moon begins to show up, first as a crescent, and then fuller as time goes on.

Justin can also feel something watching them, even if he can’t fully explain it.

And there are the time loops. At one point, Justin goes for a walk and gets lost, and he comes upon a guy named Shitty Carl (James Jordan) who lives alone in the woods, and who talks about how his life keeps repeating. When he attempts to commit suicide, he shows Justin how real his claims are. Justin also comes across two guys in a cabin, Chris (Vinny Curran) and Mike (Peter Cilella) – yes, the two stars of RESOLUTION – still trapped in a time loop of their own. (Younger versions of Justin and Aaron also appeared briefly in RESOLUTION, as Mormon-like kids in buttoned-down white shirts who Mike met in the woods and who asked him to come worship with them – which we find out was back when they were originally in the cult. So how long have Chris and Mike been in that time loop, anyway?

Will Justin get back to the commune in time to save Aaron, or will they end up in a similar predicament? And just what is going to happen when that third moon becomes full? And just what is the thing that is watching them and communicating through weird photographs and videotapes (just like in RESOLUTION)?

THE ENDLESS is a good example of “quiet horror,” there’s no graphic violence or gore, but there is an overwhelming sense of dread and danger. It’s a subtle film that failed to completely “grab” me, and yet, it has grown on me, and I do appreciate it more now. I’m still a big fan of Moorhead and Benson, and can’t wait to see what else they have in store for us (maybe they’ll finally make the Aleister Crowley biopic which they originally intended to make after SPRING).

THE ENDLESS got a very brief theatrical release before going to streaming video. Where I am, it played for less than a week in a local art theater. So, chances of you seeing it on the big screen are slim. While it was unveiled in film festivals in 2017, I consider it more of a 2018 release, since that’s when most people have seen it.

I recommend watching it as a double feature with Moorhead and Benson’s RESOLUTION, and watching RESOLUTION first, since it will set things up nicely. RESOLUTION is currently available on the streaming service SHUDDER. THE ENDLESS is available for streaming, and has also come out on DVD/Blu-ray.

THE ENDLESS is a strange, subtle little film and I think people should check it out. The first time I saw it, I wanted to like it more than I did, but the fact that I enjoyed it more the second time gives me hope. Over time, I wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion of it grows. It’s that kind of movie. I give THE ENDLESS, three knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

ANNIHILATION (2018)

Review by LL Soares (with a guest appearance by Michael Arruda)

(THE SCENE: An abandoned building in the middle of an alien forest. Plant life is abundant and grows everywhere, but is in multiple vivid colors that just aren’t common in nature, as we know it. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach the house, which is completely overrun with vines and flowers)

LL SOARES: We made it to the first checkpoint.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are we still on Earth? It looks like another planet.

LS: I know! Everything is so strange since we entered “the shimmer.” It’s disorienting.

(They enter the building and immediately something grabs MA and drags him up to the ceiling. LS shines a flashlight up at a giant SPIDER, covered in bright flowers, which proceeds to spin a web around MA, wrapping him up tightly for a later meal)

LS: Did you have to grab him so soon? We were reviewing a movie.

SPIDER: I’m awful hungry.

LS: Okay, okay. Don’t start whining.

SPIDER: Why don’t you review the movie now, for me? You’ve got a captive audience, and I’m sure Michael can still hear you.

LS: Okay. This week’s movie is called ANNIHILATION. I was pretty excited about this one because it’s the new movie by Alex Garland, who previously gave us the very cool EX MACHINA (2014), which was his directorial debut. But Garland was no newcomer to movies. His first exposure was THE BEACH (2000), which he didn’t write the screenplay for, but which was based on his novel of the same name. But that led to him writing screenplays for the Danny Boyle movies 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and SUNSHINE (2007), as well as the movies NEVER LET ME GO (2010) and DREDD (2012).

EX MACHINA, which he wrote as well as directed, starred Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with Alicia Vikander as a self-aware Artificial Intelligence, and it was such a strong, self-assured debut, that I was eager to see his next movie as a director, and ANNIHILATION is it.

One thing about paying to see a movie just like everyone else (instead of going to preview showings), and posting our big movie review of the week on Monday is that I get to hear a lot of the critical buzz before my review goes up. I avoid all other reviews until I’ve written my own, but sometimes you can’t help but hear what kind of reaction a movie is getting, and from what I could tell, ANNIHILATION was getting a very mixed reaction.

So, I’ll start out by saying I didn’t have mixed feelings about this one at all. I knew exactly how I felt leaving the theater.

SPIDER: So, what did you feel about it?

LS: I’ll keep you in suspense a bit longer.

ANNIHILATION is the story of a strange event that changes a part of the world. The event is a metor which comes down and strikes a lighthouse. Immediately, the lighthouse and its immediate environs are changed. But it doesn’t stop there. The area affected is growing, and from the outside it looks like some weird oozing barrier, which scientists are calling “the shimmer.” They’ve sent several teams of soldiers and scientists into the shimmer, and none have come back. That is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously shows up in the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), who is a biology professor at John-Hopkins University. He has been gone almost a year, and since it was a top-secret mission, he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything about it.

Lena is overjoyed to see her husband again, but he’s definitely different. When he also suddenly becomes very ill, things get compicated. Lena and her husband are abducted and brought to a lab on the outskirts of “the shimmer,” and Lena finds herself part of the next team going inside. This team is all women and includes psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person Lena meets at the facility, as well as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and soldiers Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).  It’s not really clear why the team is comprised solely of women (because previous teams were all men and they’re grasping for straws?), but right away these are characters who are believable and sympathetic.

Once they go inside the shimmer…well, I’m not really eager to talk too much about that.

SPIDER: Come on! Gimme a clue!

LS: I avoided learning too much about the plot before seeing ANNIHILATION, and it was one time when I was glad I hadn’t read the book beforehand. I really wanted to go into this one blind, not knowing what to expect. I wanted their journey into the shimmer to seem as alien to me as it was to the women exploring it.

I will say that the idea of a meteor or something extraterrestrial coming down and changing things it comes in contact with isn’t new. We’ve seen similar plotlines in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), which was in turn based on the novella THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H.P. Lovecraft. In J.G. Ballard’s wonderful novel, THE CRYSTAL WORLD, something is changing all organic life into lifeless crystal, with no end in sight (it would make an amazing movie). And, for another take on it, there’s John Wyndham’s classic THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (adapted for film in 1963). But ANNIHILATION has a completely fresh spin on the idea, and the movie (and I’m assuming the novel) offers some very fascinating results of such an occurrence.

SPIDER: So, did you like it.

LS: I did. One of the main problems some people have had with the the movie is that they claim it’s confusing. But I didn’t find that at all. I thought most of it made clear sense. And here’s where I want to bring in the movie THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) for a comparison.

SPIDER: Oh no! Do you have to mention that one?

LS: I do, but to make a point. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is a severely flawed movie, but the basic concept is that, by coming into contact with another dimension, our heroes face some people and things that are decidedly alien. While the movie failed to use this concept in a compelling way (it was more annoying than compelling) the basic idea of alienness was something I could appreciate. How do you portray such a thing in a believable way?

ANNIHILATION shows us another situation where alienness is not fully explained, and yet, I fully accepted it and embraced it, because if we came upon a truly alien entity or environment, there’s a good chance we would not really understand it. Unlike THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, ANNIHILATION takes this idea and runs with it, and gives us a movie that fully exploits the concept of pure alienness.

I think it’s a major achievement. Where THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to give us something new and different, and just gives us something confusing, ANNIHILATION gives us a solid, powerful exploration of something that is truly outside of the human experience.

There’s some wonderful stuff here. First off, the acting is impeccable.

Jennifer Jason Leigh had a big career in the 1980s and 90s, and then seemed to disappear for awhile. The truth is, she was working steadily the whole time, maybe just not in as big budget movies as she once did. The result is that there seemes to be a resurgence in her career right now, based on praise she has gotten for roles in movies like ANOMALISA (2015), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and as one of the  villains in the new Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS (2017). I couldn’t be happier that she’s doing so well right now, because she’s a brilliant actress. Typical for her, Dr. Ventress is not a completely likeable character, but Leigh shines at giving us characters who can be unlikeable, but are no less human for it.

Gina Rodriguez is probably best known for playing the title character in the series JANE THE VIRGIN (2014 – Present), and she plays completely against type as the hard-as-nails soldier Anya Thorenson here. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, previously in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) is also very good as Cass Sheppard. Tessa Thompson, whose career is also on an upward trajectory right now, in movies like CREED (2015) and THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), as well as the current HBO series WESTWORLD, plays a more sensitive, thoughtful character as physicist Josie Radek. All are terrific here.

Oscar Isaac has the smaller role of Lena’s husband Kane. But, as always, he’s very effective.

Natalie Portman is terrific here as the lead character, Lena. I first became aware of her way back when she was a kid in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), and it’s been cool watching her grow into a terrific actress, in movies like CLOSER (2014), V FOR VENDETTA (2005), BLACK SWAN (2010), and JACKIE (2016), she’s just, simply, one of the best actresses around today, and she’s the strong, determined heart of ANNIHILATION. Not once do you question why she feels the need to do what she does. Not once do you feel that she’s lost her way, even when she’s in an environment completely foreign to her. She soldiers on throughout.

The effects, mostly CGI, are well done. This is the kind of movie where CGI offers some distinct advantages, since some of things they depict are so foreign to us. Sure, there might be a few moments where something looked a tiny bit fake (this always happens in CGI, I’ve never seen any movie using it that is completely convincing throughout), but for the most part, the computer images are above average.

I also want to praise the movie’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Instead of trying to manipulate the audience, their soundtrack actually enhances the experience.

The direction by Alex Garland is also impeccable, at times reminding me of giants like Stanley Kubrick (especially toward the end of the movie), and Garland’s script is solid (based on the celebrated novel by Jeff VanderMeer).

I didn’t ever feel completely lost or confused while watching ANNIHILATION, because with Garland at the controls (and Portman as our guide), I never once felt that I wasn’t in the hands of a complete professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Is everything that happens completely coherent and understandable? No. Because we’re not supposed to understand everything. None of the characters, not even Portman, fully understands what they’re experiencing. So why should we?

To be truly alien, events have to be outside our realm of experience, outside our comfort zone, and Garland and Company achieve this admirably.

I found myself enthralled throughout, and still thinking about what I’d seen long after the movie ended.

February has been a very good month for movies, and I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER as well. It was one of the best superhero movies made so far. But ANNIHILATION is something else entirely. It’s not just a well-made, smart science fiction movie. It’s the first movie masterpiece of 2018.

I give it four and a half knives.

SPIDER: Wow, you really liked this one a lot!

LS: Yes, I did. I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.

SPIDER: Well, maybe I’ll go see it sometime. Right now, I’d say it’s time for dinner.

(MA opens his eyes, waking up from his coma-like state, and struggles in his web cocoon)

SPIDER: Do you want to stick around and watch me eat?

LS: I’ll pass. I’d better get back to civilization. I’ve got to get the word out about this movie.

SPIDER: Ta ta!

(LS EXITS)

MA’s VOICE: Come back here, you bastard!

-END-

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives ANNIHILATION ~ 4 1/2 knives

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