Monday, February 26, 2018

[Review] Annihilation

Following the excellent future-shock piece Ex Machina, director Alex Garland returns with another heady and provocative sci-fi flick. It's pointedly called Annihilation, and it's a film that constantly confounds and mesmerizes until the very end, and long after that.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier. After her husband (Oscar Isaac) is presumed dead on a top-secret mission, Lena is taken to a compound called Area X, where she's tasked with studying a strange and dangerous prism called "The Shimmer", which rests beyond an effervescent wall of plasma that looks like soapy water mixed with gasoline. And things get weird.

The narrative moves at a patient pace, but it keeps us on our toes as we attempt to wrap our heads around what the heck is going on. Commendably, this is a script that presents just enough exposition to cue us into this world, while mysteriously leaving us in the fog as this strange journey unfolds, or should I say -- unravels. Even the look of the film itself is hazy and splashed with lens flares, as if it were a surreal afternoon dream that you've drifted into on a cloudy day. And when our crew enters The Shimmer, this mind-boggling spectacle warps into a truly sublime experience. The Shimmer is crawling with beautifully exotic plantlife and mutated creatures -- some majestic, and some ferocious. It's utopian and dystopian all at once. Okay, it's probably more dystopian than utopian. In fact, sometimes this thing feels like a straight-up monster movie - with its nasty beasts and jolting surprises, as well as the gruesome and grotesque and squirmy (like, really squirmy) visuals.

Portman is great in the leading role, delivering another delirious performance that thrives on emotional baggage and hysteria. She's joined by a great supporting crew too, including the always impressive Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez in a part that's vastly different from "Jane the Virgin", Tessa Thompson (Creed, Thor: Ragnarok), and Tuva Novotny. There's an interesting dynamic between the team of characters -- what type of comradery or friction occurs when you're abruptly cast together and thrust out into what seems to be a suicide mission?

It's difficult to decipher what everything in Annihilation means, especially toward the ending, which might leave you baffled. It's essentially a big, cinematic WTF? Along the way, the story ruminates on complicated themes of self-destruction, environmental science, cells and DNA, time lapses, extraterrestrials, the choices humans are faced with, and whether or not God makes mistakes (according to Chris Rock's new standup special, he does). It's a lot to grasp, but it's totally worth diving into... the movie, of course. It's probably best to stay away from The Shimmer.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, February 19, 2018

[Review] Black Panther

After helming the devastatingly raw indie film Fruitvale Station and the sensational Rocky spinoff Creed, director Ryan Coogler has now taken his talents to Marvel with the massively-hyped blockbuster that is Black Panther. And what he's crafted here is a sharp, awe-inspiring, and thoughtful fist-pumper, as well as a straight-up fun superhero movie with a significantly strong sense of identity and culture.

Welcome to Wakanda, a beautiful and highly advanced African nation that's hidden away from the rest of the universe. Ruling the kingdom is T'Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who first appeared in Captain America: Civil War. His country happens to be home to a powerful metal called vibranium, and the status quo is threatened when a pair of antagonists want to get their hands on it. One is a wily crime-lord played by Andy Serkis (known for his brilliant motion capture performances), and the other is a vengeful character who goes by Killmonger (played by Coogler's frequent stalwart, Michael B. Jordan).

The penchant for world-building is astounding here. Wakanda's geography sprawls with picturesque plains, mountains, townships, and sci-fi stations -- it's to the point where it would be cool to navigate a virtual map of the place. What also pops is the colorful costumes and exquisite production design. The vivid, tribal-infused aesthetic is wonderfully shot, and the visuals are steeped in tradition as much as they are stunningly futurist. And it's just nice to finally get to know more about who Black Panther is and where he comes from. His character is representative of inner and outer strength -- with or without the armor. And it's all about what type of king he wants to be in a conflict-driven narrative. Boseman is a stoic and charismatic lead, but the true scene-stealers are his slick warrior women standbys Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), as well as his spunky younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who leads Wakanda's technology and innovation headquarters, and she also delivers some of the script's funniest lines ("WHAT ARE THOSE?!"). Yes -- even with all the film's high stakes and operatic gusto, the open tone allows for a decent amount of humor and amusing spectacle along the way (there's even a joke about mixtapes and Soundcloud!).

And then there's Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, rendering himself as the best MCU villain to date (and he has the best haircut, too). Not only is he absolutely ruthless, but he also possesses a certain level of depth and a notably well fleshed-out backstory, and I mean that in more ways than one -- his history is physically branded on the skin. The rest of the supporting cast is stacked too, including the likes of Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), and Sterling K. Brown ("This Is Us").

Like you'd expect from any Marvel movie, Black Panther is packed with thrilling setpieces -- from the splashy combat scenes on the waterfall's edge, to the crazy car chases and shootout sequences in the neon-lit streets of Busan, South Korea (this scene might make the Fast and the Furious movies a bit jealous). There are even some big, charging field battles that feel reminiscent of Lord of the Rings (I mean, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman are both here).

Black Panther is a thoroughly prideful and entertaining journey that you don't want to end. It's one that's worth seeing multiple times in theaters, and it's worth raving about. It's worth celebrating.

* 9/10 *

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

[Review] The Ritual

Netflix's The Ritual is a deeply intriguing horror flick that's set out in the unpredictable wilderness. It definitely brims with the disturbing, shocking, wicked, and mysterious cult-ish activity that you'd anticipate from a film called The Ritual, while still managing to completely freak you out and defy expectations. In fact, Netflix should've put more behind this one because it's a much better genre piece than the massively hyped dud that was The Cloverfield Paradox.

The story revolves around a group of four guys (played by Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton) as they embark on strenuous trek in the foggy mountains of Northern Sweden. On the way back, they decide to take a shortcut through the forest (dun dun dun dun...), and it isn't long before they begin running into some bad signs -- like the gutted animal lodged up into a tree (dun dun dun dun...). It's best not to give too much more away, but let me just say that things get really weird and really scary.

From beginning to end, The Ritual is consistently engaging and surprising in the best ways. The dark, woody setting serves well as the film is cloaked in a constant sense of ominous dread and paranoia, especially as the crew begins to hear faint growls and rustlings in the bushes, and as they begin to experience hallucinations and episodes of some sort of bodily possession. At this point, seeing a bear would actually be a relief! And the terror doesn't only come from outside threats, but also from within the group of hikers themselves. Their tight-knit friendship is fractured under such stressful circumstances, and feelings of resentment and harsh truths come to the surface. Amidst all the paranormal mania is a narrative packed with themes of guilt, grief, sacrifice, redemption, and facing fears.

With echoes of films like Kill List and The Witch, The Ritual methodically escalates to a creepy, chilling, evil-entrenched, and wildly entertaining ending -- even if it leaves some things up in the air.

( 8/10 )

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

[Review] Winchester

If you're like me, you've learned a lot about the infamous Winchester Mystery House aka "The House that Spirits Built" from various haunting/paranormal shows on the Travel and History channels. Now, the legend has been taken to the big screen, and despite collapsing toward the end, it's a pretty well-constructed haunted house flick.

Helen Mirren plays Mrs. Winchester, a grieving widow to the treasurer of the famous gun manufacturer. She believes she's cursed and is being haunted by all the victims of the Winchester rifle, so she takes the mass fortune she was left with and uses it in order to build onto her ever-sprawling mansion -- because that's what the spirits tell her to do (hence - The House that Spirits Built). In turn, a doctor (played by Jason Clarke) is called upon to assess Mrs. Winchester's sanity. Is she losing her mind? Or does she have a point about the ghosts occupying her home?

Jason Clarke is commendably convincing here, especially for a character in such a peculiar situation, and it's intriguing as he begins to question his own sanity. It's no surprise that Helen Mirren is as solid as can be, selling this eccentric role with a stern and spiritual gusto, while playing it with more depth and intuition instead of just being some kooky old cranky lady. But as good as the main cast is, it's truly the house that becomes the grand attraction. The film has a great sense of atmosphere and setting, and it's cool to see such a place come to cinematic life. First of all, the mansion is COLOSSAL -- the maze-like structure is filled with trap doors, staircases that lead to nowhere, and a prominent motif of the number 13 runs throughout design. Safe to say, it's a creepy place to wander around at night, and that's putting it lightly. The mansion is essentially a hot bed for a plethora of ghouls -- strange noises emerge from every direction, and you never know what you're going to run into around any given corner, or what lurks within the home's countless number of rooms. This makes for some jarring jump scares. And I mean JARRING.

Of course, things lurch into ridiculous and over-the-top territory toward the final act, and unfortunately, the story loses some of its initial mystique. It's as if the filmmakers themselves couldn't build to a proper conclusion and ended up pounding themselves into a wall. This is the type of film where subtlety could've gone a very long way. Still, everything that comes before is quite sturdy and serviceable.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

[Review] The Cloverfield Paradox

2016's greatly tense, apocalyptic hostage thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane unfurled an expanded Cloverfield universe in a stunningly unique way. This past Sunday, while people were digesting the frenzy of the Super Bowl (and perhaps preparing for "This Is Us"), the highly secretive third piece of this monstrous world -- titled The Cloverfield Paradox -- had a surprise launch on Netflix. Now, I'm not going to go too deep into the release strategy, but I will express what I think about the film on its own terms. And unfortunately -- it's a major letdown. It isn't a film that lands with a thud... because it doesn't land at all.

Following a clunky opening, we're introduced to a crew aboard an elaborate space station. The ensemble is made up of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Chris O'Dowd, Aksel Hennie, and Zhang Ziyi. Their mission is to solve the Earth's energy crisis, but after experiencing a system malfunction, stumbling upon a mysterious passenger (who's stuck in the wall??), and dealing with an infestation of worms, the team must figure out how to survive and avoid mass disaster.

Like 10 Cloverfield Lane, this film is essentially its own contained story - just with some loosely connected tentacles to the growing Clover-verse. But unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane, this thing never pops with the same sort of intrigue, engagement, or craft. It's a perplexing bore that's laughably bad at times, and I don't mean in the amusing way -- I mean in the wow this is BAD way. Much of the film's problems begin with the dreadfully mediocre, unfocused, and tedious script. The plot feels like a slipshod patchwork job. A poorly executed pilot for something. An incomplete episode of "Black Mirror". It's a derivative mess that lacks any spark of originality or shred of a distinctive identity. In fact, it's resoundingly similar to last year's creature-in-space film Life -- except if there was a "Who wore it better?" contest, The Cloverfield Paradox would have to be the one to go home and change. Instead of a must-see event, it's more like a fake movie that Abed from "Community" would be watching.

The cast here is undeniably stellar though, which is why it's so disappointing that none of the characters are developed past one-dimensional 'people working a space station' types. Aesthetically, the film is visually unspectacular, even for a sci-fi space setting -- and I'm not just saying this because it's not on a gigantic movie theater screen. We're met with cheesy schlock, a mostly monotonous backdrop, and a production design that never feels tangible. It's almost as if you can sense the actors not knowing what to do with their hands. It's just difficult to care about anything going on here.

And then there's the ending. It's so incredibly cheap, shoehorned, and random that it might leave you rolling your eyes, blinking with disappointment, and scratching your head all at the same time. At least that's what I did.

( 3/10 )

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

[Review] Tragedy Girls

Directed by Tyler MacIntyre, the buzzing new VOD flick Tragedy Girls is a wildly subversive riff on the slasher genre as well as high school horror tropes. It shocks, it grinds, and it might make you smirk with guilty glee.

Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp play Sadie and McKayla, a pair of savvy teens who also happen to have an obsession with true crime that goes way beyond watching "Dateline" episodes. After capturing the town's masked murderer and holding him hostage, the girls -- in a sadistic twist -- start carrying out the murders themselves...wait for order to increase their followers on Twitter and Instagram!

This thing wastes no time getting crazy, as it cranks up with a genuinely great opening scene that immediately sets an audaciously macabre and playfully irreverent tone. What transpires is a demented and deranged psycho-romp that's doused in a splatter of pitch-black humor. The film's graphic visual spike is a spectacle to behold as the kills increase in outlandishness -- think Final Destination meets Mortal Combat fatalities (a scene in the school's woodshop is particularly bonkers...and really bloody). And it's difficult not to think of certain parts here as a modern ode to Carrie, and I'm not talking about the recent remake.

The terrifically diabolical performances from the two leads Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool, and Fox's surprisingly awesome series "The Exorcist") and Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse) make the madness work as they nail a fitting balance between prissy and sociopathic. The plot also adds another interesting layer as a hostile rift forms between the two besties. As far as the supporting cast, the usually banal Josh Hutcherson attends with his most amusing role to date, and even Craig Robinson shows up for a couple of comical scenes.

In the end, Tragedy Girls is a winking commentary on the public's fascination with serial killers, a meta take on our cravings for horror cinema, as well as a hyperbolic and spastic satire on the desperation and lengths one will go for popularity on social media. Hashtag death.

( 8/10 )

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