Review of “Annihilation”

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and college professor dealing with the loss of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) a year earlier on a covert mission. While painting the bedroom Lena is startled to see Kane standing in the doorway. She is surprised and ecstatic to see him but he appears to be in shock and showing no emotion. She questions him about his mission, where he’s been and how he got home but Kane says he doesn’t know the answers to her questions. Soon Kane begins bleeding from the mouth and having a seizure. While being transported to the hospital via ambulance a military convey cuts them off and takes Lena and Kane. Lena is drugged and wakes up in a holding cell where she is met by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress asks Lena some of the same questions she asked Kane. She soon explains Kane is dying of organ failure and it may have to do with the mission on which he disappeared. Lena and Kane have been sent to a forward base that is just outside and area where Kane and his men were sent 12 months earlier. The area is surrounded by a translucent wall those studying it call the Shimmer. Every military team sent inside the ever-expanding Shimmer has been lost with the exception of Kane. As soon as they cross the boundary all communication is lost. In an effort to figure out what is going on inside the Shimmer, Ventress is leading a team of scientists plus a paramedic inside the anomaly. It is growing and may become a threat to more populated areas and possibly the entire planet. Wanting to know what happened to Kane, Lena asks to join the mission. Once inside the Shimmer, Lena, Ventress and the rest of the team will face plants and animals with enormous genetic mutations and the fear that they may be changing as well.

“Annihilation” is a film that challenges convention. It takes a staple of science fiction and turns it inside out (sometimes literally). It also doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions it poses letting the audience make up its own mind about what has just been seen. Many will not like having to do mental work when Hollywood so often spoon feeds audiences with simplistic stories and neat endings. That is likely why “Annihilation” didn’t exactly tear up the box office in its opening weekend; however, if this kind of film is something you’ve been searching for then you need to see it soon before it disappears from theatres.

Visually “Annihilation” is a masterpiece. From the prismatic effect of the boundary of the Shimmer to the mutations found inside to the look of the crazy ending, director Alex Garland has allowed his creative team to run wild and produce a spectacle for the eye. Part of what makes the film interesting is waiting for the next strange animal or plant to show up. Creatures that look somewhat like deer with flowers apparently sprouting from the antlers and a bear that absorbs the DNA of its prey and makes noises similar to their death cries are a couple that are featured with many more suggested. We also get a couple of ideas what can happen to humans in the Shimmer with some being more pleasant than others. The change to humans causes a somewhat predictable conflict within the team leading to one of the tensest and goriest scenes in the film.

Despite being telegraphed early on the conflict between the team members is understandable given the stressful situation. We are shown how everyone on the team is damaged in some way and that along with the effects of the Shimmer cause a level of paranoia. This adds to the tension felt practically from the beginning of the film.

That tension is heightened even more by the subtle and restrained performances by most of the actresses. Jennifer Jason Leigh is especially buttoned up as Dr. Ventress. Ventress appears to be paying a penance for her decisions in selecting the soldiers that initially entered the Shimmer. She is punishing herself by going into the anomaly and facing what the others have faced. Her cold demeanor rubs some of the other women the wrong way but she cannot be deterred from completing what she sees as a mission and a punishment of her sins.

Natalie Portman also is mostly reserved but she also expresses great pain as Lena. Her need to find out what happened to her husband and if there’s anything that can be done to save him hides guilt at some of her decisions in the past. We are shown flashbacks of those decisions and have a better understanding of what’s driving Lena deeper into the Shimmer.

Someone that is definitely not holding back is Gina Rodriguez as the Chicago EMT Anya. She expresses herself freely and to anyone within earshot. Rodriguez plays more of a type than a character but I don’t blame her for that. She is the representative for the audience, most of who would likely be screaming at the top of their lungs to get out of this crazy place. She is the common sense person every movie about crazy situations needs to keep it a little grounded.

While I enjoyed “Annihilation” a great deal I did have one problem with it: The movie fails to answer any questions the audience might have about what’s going on. I don’t mind a film’s story leaving a few threads dangling for possible sequels or to make the viewer leave the theatre with some questions; but “Annihilation” doesn’t answer any thing. Are we witnessing the beginnings of an invasion? What does the video Lena watch in the lighthouse mean for her future? Do the effects of the Shimmer last once it’s been left? There are more that would spoil the film but you get the idea. The audience has gone on a journey that is just under two hours and by the end we have no idea what any of it means.

“Annihilation” is rated R for some sexuality, language, bloody images and violence. We see a couple having sex but it is not graphic. There are a couple of bloody scenes including a soldier having a flap cut in his abdomen, a corpse with its throat ripped out and a person having their jaw torn off by an animal. Guns are fired on several occasions and there is a physical fight between two characters that becomes bloody. Foul language is scattered but strong.

Based on the first book of a trilogy, “Annihilation” covers only the events of that book. Perhaps, in the slim chance the others are adapted for later films, we’ll get answers to the questions this first film poses but I doubt it. With an opening weekend of $11-million at the box office and a troubled development with foreign distribution being sold to Netflix, it seems unlikely that any more of Jeff VanderMeer’s books from this trilogy will find their way to theatres. Perhaps I’m just one of those viewers expecting to be spoon fed tidied up story threads and happy endings. I like to think I’m more sophisticated than that but maybe I’m not. I still liked “Annihilation” but I just wanted more, and I hate this word, closure.

“Annihilation” gets four stars out of five.

Action and espionage are on the menu for movies coming out this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Death Wish—

Red Sparrow—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest in movie, TV and streaming news. Subscribe, like, rate and review wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Morgan”

Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a corporate troubleshooter sent to evaluate a unique program. Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the project. While being only five years old, Morgan is the size of a teenage girl. Her DNA is a mixture of human and synthetic and her brain contains nano-sized robots that have altered its development. She has precognitive abilities and is extremely strong and fast. A team of scientists has been working in secret on the project that led to Morgan for seven years in a house located deep inside a forest. Morgan used to be allowed outside but a behavioral scientist named Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie) took Morgan beyond the boundary of the compound and lead researcher Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) put an end to her field trips. Morgan is kept in an isolation cell and monitored by a rotating group of researchers. One of those researchers, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), brought Morgan her lunch and decided to eat with her inside the isolation cell but Morgan attacked her, stabbing her several times in the eye. This has led the corporation that is funding the research to send Weathers to oversee an evaluation of the project, including a psychological examination of Morgan by Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), and determine if it should be terminated.

There’s a good movie to be made out of the ideas in “Morgan.” Sadly, the movie I saw wasn’t it. It’s not terrible and there are good performances from Kate Mara and Anya Taylor-Joy but there are some odd choices made by some of the characters as the story progresses and there were a great deal of unanswered questions that nagged at me while I was watching the film.

“Morgan” takes a familiar concept and explores it fairly well. All the scientists see Morgan as a child trying to figure out her place in the world while Weathers sees Morgan as an “it” and something that can be discarded like a defective piece of plastic. That conflict is central to the plot and kicks off the carnage that makes up the last 30 minutes of the movie. My main problem with this part of the film is the willingness of the scientists to ignore all of Morgan’s past deeds and refuse to do what is necessary. One of the team even has a high-powered rifle pointed at her chest and still delays shooting long enough for Morgan to disarm him.

This is the same problem I have with most horror/thriller movies where characters make decisions that clearly go against their own best interests and what they know to be true. This logical misstep wasn’t in evidence during “Don’t Breathe” as even when the characters made a decision that kept them in peril it made sense and they didn’t hesitate to take action against their enemy although it wasn’t always as effective as they would have wanted.

“Morgan” is a victim of lazy storytelling. We’ve seen many of the ideas in the film in other better movies but here the script seems to be taking a “cafeteria” approach by picking certain elements and ignoring others. The script is trying to make a point about man’s arrogant belief that he can control nature but that gets lost in all the stupidity and carnage.

The movie also isn’t shy about telegraphing a twist that is revealed late in the film. Again, this is lazy storytelling since, in order for it to be a true twist it shouldn’t be painfully obvious early on. One particular shot in the film gives the surprise away with all the subtlety of a high rise building being imploded. It screams, “Hey! Look at this! You think this implies anything important about what’s coming later?!” While the specifics of the twist aren’t given away, the basic idea of what’s going to happen is clear.

There are things to like in “Morgan.” Kate Mara and Anya Taylor-Joy give intense and uncompromising performances. Taylor-Joy is given a particular icy look with her makeup and hair that give her character an otherworldly appearance. She is different on the inside and that is reflected on the outside. Mara is a no-nonsense business woman with a penchant for cutting through the niceties of everyday conversation and not worrying about hurting people’s feelings.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, some very good fight scenes exclusively between female characters. While it is never directly stated, Morgan appears to have been created as a living weapon as she is well versed in hand-to-hand combat and very good at turning everyday items into weapons. She has increased strength and endurance and is usually coldblooded in dealing with an enemy. Weathers is also good with her fists and with a weapon as well. These two duke it out on at least three occasions in the film and each one is intense. The research team’s physician is also good at fisticuffs. This comes from out of nowhere and feels again like lazy storytelling and a way to keep the plot moving forward.

“Morgan” is rated R for some language and brutal violence. When there is violence in the film it is usually bloody, sometimes very bloody. The movie starts with Morgan’s attack on Dr. Grieff and, while not bloody on film, the sound effects used are rather suggestive of gore. Foul language is scattered.

“Morgan” has some very interesting ideas that get bogged down in thriller clichés. It wants to be a creepy look at Man playing God but eventually turns into a predictable and nothing more than average monster movie. It isn’t the worst way to spend 90 minutes in a darkened, air-conditioned theatre with some good performances and fight scenes but it could have been a great deal better.

“Morgan” gets three stars out of five.

There’s a wide variety of movies opening this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Disappointments Room—

Sully—

When the Bough Breaks—

The Wild Life—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Reviews of “The Big Short” and “The Hateful Eight” 70mm Roadshow Version

The Big Short

Seeing the impending collapse of the housing market, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) creates a fund that bets against the massive mortgage funds sold by the biggest banks called a credit default swap market. Believing they will rack up huge fees and never have to pay off his investment, many major banks agree to the fund. Meanwhile, investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s fund and begins finding his own investors for the credit swap market. A chance wrong number phone call catches the interest of stock trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and he invests millions with Vennett. Two young investors, Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), see a prospectus for Vennett’s fund and approach friend and retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get in on the growing market betting on the failure of mortgage funds. Through greed, manipulation and lax regulation, the American economy and millions of home owners, retirees and small investors were about to lose trillions of dollars while a select few were reaping huge profits from their misfortune.

“The Big Short” is not a film for someone with a short attention span. The labyrinthine collection of funds, abbreviations and acronyms for various packaged mortgage debt is dizzying but essential to having a grasp on what’s going on in the film and why it led to the meltdown of the world economy. Director/co-writer Adam McKay (best known for his work with Will Ferrell) and writer Charles Randolph have done their best to explain what happened in the simplest terms and using Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez as themselves explaining the more complicated concepts directly to the camera in ways the audience can understand. It is a brilliant way to take a hugely complex issue and turn it into somewhat understandable nuggets with humor and a fair amount of rage.

The main cast is broken up into three segments with Bale’s Burry starting things off by figuring out the mortgage market was a house of cards with a time bomb ticking away at its base. Gosling and Carell get involved once the debt market is opened. Magaro, Wittrock and Pitt bring up the rear. While the three groups never interact, they are all dancing in the same financial ballet. The entire cast is pretty brilliant with Gosling and Bale delivering standout performances. Gosling is a slimy Wall Street investor with a slick pitch, spray tan and an utter disdain for his assistants. He berates them when they say anything during his sales pitch. He’s the boss from Hell that still manages to inspire loyalty. Bale has probably the most difficult role as he plays Michael Burry as if he was on the autism spectrum. In the film, Burry displays obsessive behavior, often staying up for days at a time, working in his office with loud heavy metal music playing through speakers or in his earbuds. His ability to focus on the intricacies of subprime mortgages and wade through mountains of reports allows him to see what others cannot. Bale makes subtle decisions with the character that keep Burry from turning into some kind of “Rain Man” caricature. While Burry clearly is wired differently from most others he doesn’t come off as someone who is completely out of place.

If there is any part of “The Big Short” that struck me wrong it was Steve Carell’s Mark Baum. Due to a personal tragedy, Baum is a constant ball of anger and frustration who can’t keep his opinion to himself. He has an investment firm with three other people and works directly with one of the major banks. It seems unlikely he could keep any of these business arrangements considering how quickly he flies off the handle. Carell does the best he can with the part and despite my finding his character grating, Baum is still one of the more sympathetic figures in the movie as his frustration at the impending collapse is based on his revulsion at how the system is so thoroughly corrupt; however, that doesn’t stop him from profiting from the suffering of others. Carell is also wearing an odd wig that looks like it doesn’t quite fit. I found his hair to be a distraction.

“The Big Short” is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity. There are two scenes involving strippers. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Much like a liquid medicine that has a flavor added so your first impression is pleasant then once you swallow the bitterness causes you to shiver, “The Big Short” wraps its message of utter contempt for the banking industry and those who oversee it in a humorous package. There are some decent laugh-out-loud moments in the film. Once you reach the end, that shiver begins to run down your back as you realize the sins of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s are probably being committed again as you read this. There’s a saying about learning from history otherwise we are doomed to repeat it, making “The Big Short” required viewing for anyone with a mortgage.

“The Big Short” gets four stars out of five.

The Hateful Eight

Eight people are waiting out a blizzard at a store/way station called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the mountains of Wyoming in the late 1800’s. John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter who has Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) manacled to his wrist. She is on her way to Red Rock to be hanged. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is also a bounty hunter with three dead outlaws strapped to the top of a stagecoach he was sharing with Ruth and Domergue. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) was picked up walking through the snow by that same stage coach. He claims his horse broke its leg as he was riding to Red Rock to be sworn in as sheriff but both Ruth and Warren have their doubts about his story due to his family history. Arriving at the store to wait out the storm, they find Oswoldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman for the territory, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy on his way to visit his mother for the holidays, General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general who is on his way to visit his son’s grave, and Bob (Demian Bichir), the Mexican handyman who is watching the store for the Minnie and her husband Sweet Dave while they go visit family on the other side of the mountain. Ruth is not the trusting type and suspects one or more of the people at the store are working with Daisy to kill him and set her free. Despite his reservations, Ruth enters an agreement with Warren working together to make sure Daisy meets her maker at the end of a rope.

I saw the much hyped 70mm version of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” The things you won’t get in the regular version that will play in most theatres is an overture before the film, some alternate versions of some scenes due to the way they will look on smaller screens and an intermission. What you may miss most is the intermission as even the shorter cut is still two hours and 47 minutes. “The Hateful Eight” is filled with beautiful scenery, long tracking shots of characters crossing the one large room in which most of the action takes place and buckets of blood with chunks of flesh added for realism. It is an orgy of set and costume design as well as special effects provided by Greg Nicotero, the man behind the zombies of “The Walking Dead.” And despite all the cursing and racial epithets, the script is something akin to poetry as Tarantino has structured each bit of dialog to be like a verse of a song, providing both information and entertainment. We learn a great deal about most of the characters in “The Hateful Eight” and often times we are taught in a humorous way. And, as with all Tarantino films, there are homages to the westerns of the past that shaped the director’s vision in his youth and, of course, he uses a soundtrack done by Ennio Morricone, the man behind the music for Spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone. This is probably the most “Quentin Tarantino” movie the director has ever made. Why then was I not that impressed.

Probably the biggest issue was the length. At just over three hours (overture and intermission included), “The Hateful Eight” is a film that takes its sweet time getting moving. Early on we get long views of snow-covered mountains and trees. There is a shot of a statue depicting Christ on the cross that agonizingly slowly pulls out to show us a stagecoach approaching the camera (this includes the opening credits but it still felt leaden). Later, there long dialog scenes that last an eternity. While I praised the script earlier, there are a lot of scenes that are unnecessarily long with Tarantino showing off how he can make his characters say awful things to one another, so much so that after a while it fails to have much impact.

The ending of the film I also found disappointing. After investing one-eighth of a day in watching these characters dance around each other and then endure an orgy of blood and viscera, the movie staggers to a conclusion that fails to deliver any kind of meaningful emotional payoff. It lays there like a fish out of water, the life slowly oozing from it as it gasps for a last breath. Tarantino asks a great deal from his audience in “The Hateful Eight” and he puts on, for the most part, quite a show; however, when he should have put forth his best effort, he seems to have done just barely enough to get to the closing credits. It’s like being on a plane for 18 hours thinking when you land you’ll be on the other side of the world but finding out you’ve just been circling your home airport. You’ve spent an awfully long time traveling but discover it really wasn’t worth the trip.

“The Hateful Eight” is rated R for strong bloody violence, some graphic nudity, language and violent sexual content. It’s a Tarantino film so the bloody violence is a given. I won’t give specifics as not to spoil it for you but there are numerous shootings with various degrees of bloodiness and goriness. Some limbs get separated from bodies at times as well as one head. One character is punched numerous times producing a great deal of blood. There is a scene showing a naked man walking through snow and there is full frontal nudity. A sex act is shown and graphically described. Foul language is common.

Tarantino has been interviewed numerous times in the run-up to the release of “The Hateful Eight” and has described in glowing terms how much better film is than digital photography. In the past, Tarantino has called digital projection “TV in public.” Having seen this film in 70mm widescreen, I would point out to the director I could see the graininess of the film. The print I saw already had nicks and scratches in it during what was only its fifth screening. Using a lens that hasn’t been on a camera since Charlton Heston’s “Ben Hur” was filmed is great for nostalgia but doesn’t really do anything to advance the art of filmmaking.

Tarantino loves old movies so much he bought a theatre in Los Angeles, CA and programs only the films he thinks should be seen and remembered. That’s great if you’re a rich director and need a hobby. As a moviegoer, I want directors to push the envelope and use all the tools science and industry gives them to create images and stories I’ve never seen before. While “The Hateful Eight” is a beautifully shot and impeccably designed movie, it lacks an emotional connection that Tarantino should be a master at creating by now. His desire to show just how good of a moviemaker he is has gotten in the way of connecting his story to his audience. It was nice to look at but I didn’t want to live there.

“The Hateful Eight” gets three stars out of five.

No new movies are opening this week so it will be two weeks when I review my next film and that is the horror movie, “The Forest.”

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.