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‘Annihilation’ Is Visionary Sci-Fi at Its Iciest

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There’s a good chance you won’t like Alex Garland’s new science fiction thriller, Annihilation. I don’t say that to suggest that you shouldn’t see it (you absolutely should) or that it’s not a very good film (it’s often astonishing), but it’s a hard movie to develop an emotional attachment to. Garland has created another film of ideas and fascinating concepts, similar to his last project, Ex Machina (2014), but far more ambitious. Annihilation keeps the audience at arm’s length like other great science fiction films have in the past. (For an example, check out some of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s original reviews.) It may take more than one viewing to warm up to, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Natalie Portman anchors the film as Lena, a biologist who was originally nameless in Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel. She is in the midst of a great loss — her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for months after participating in a mysterious expedition. Yet one day he arrives in their home with no explanation and barely any memory of where he has been or what he has done. He convulses and falls into a coma shortly after, the victim of some kind of sickness contracted during his mission.

Natalie Portman & Oscar Isaac in Annihilation

Kane was part of an expedition into a rapidly expanding plot of land known as Area X, though most of the characters refer to it as the Shimmer. A kaleidoscopic barrier has encircled the area, which looks as if it might have originally been in the everglades, though the location is never specified. The Shimmer radiates the colors of an oil slick — purples, greens, and blues which obscure the terrain contained within. Lena agrees to join a follow-up mission into the Shimmer, led by a psychologist with a chilly demeanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuvo Novotny round out the group in roles greatly expanded from VanderMeer’s original conceptions.

Garland’s version of the Shimmer is vibrant and mysterious. Strange, alluring flowers in every color imaginable have begun to spring up in the marshy forest. They’re beautiful, yet the sight of deer with these flowers growing out of their antlers also suggests the flowers are some kind of parasites. As Lena’s group ventures further into the heart of the Shimmer, they encounter more chilling creatures. There’s a horrifying scene briefly referenced in the trailer involving a bear-like creature that has stuck with me since seeing the film. It shouldn’t be spoiled, other than to say it is without precedent.

At an advance screening for Annihilation, Garland explained that he read a pre-publication copy of the book, and proceeded to adapt it from his memory of the story, rather than returning to the page constantly. The film benefits from that hazy sense of adaptation, as what was barely concrete in the novel becomes even more abstract and disturbing (although it also opened up Garland to some bad faith claims of whitewashing). Garland has changed many of the book’s set pieces, replacing them with ones of his own. This might be frustrating for fans of the novels (which are worth your time), but they’re logical choices for the film Garland is trying to make. His half-remembered version of Annihilation is its own self-contained entity — not just the setup for a series of sequels.

Natalie Portman in Annihilation

Garland’s characters have more emotional depth than the people in VanderMeer’s books, who seem to lack energy and empathy, yet they’re still cold and distant most of the time. It’s a calculated choice that displays Annihilation’s clear debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Stanley Kubrick. It’s established wisdom among some critics that characters must be fully-fleshed out in order for a film to be compelling, but Garland wisely ignores that bromide. The audience doesn’t quite understand any of these people, including Lena, which makes it impossible to game out the film until the very end. The goal isn’t to make the audience feel sorry or scared for her; without the safety of having Lena as an audience surrogate, the film’s shocks and discoveries act directly upon us, rather than being displaced on the protagonist. By distancing the film from Lena, Garland paradoxically makes it more immediate.

The echoes of Kubrick are also felt in the film’s mechanics. In the opening scenes, Garland favors medium shots with Lena directly in the center of the frame. In most films, characters are placed off to the sides of the frame, but putting them smack dab in the center emphasizes their displacement from the world around them. Whenever someone has a conversation while framed head on in the center, the other party is necessarily left off screen, further emphasizing a failure to connect and integrate with the world around. It’s a kind of framing Kubrick used throughout his career, most effectively and disturbingly in The Shining (1980). In this case, Lena is unable to connect to the people around her in her cushy university position. Only when she enters Area X does she become a fully connected part of the landscape.

Garland shows off his devotion to other films, particularly with a gruesome mural of sorts that shares some of the disturbing grandness of Alien’s mysterious space jockey. Where Alien (1979) was a haunted house movie in space, Annihilation is sometimes a haunted house movie in a forest. The sections devoted to horror are done masterfully — Garland excels at creating suspense — but the film’s greatest strengths are when it explores the creation of Area X, which Garland does with a grim sense of wonder.

Annihilation, thanks to the vagaries of movie distribution, will only have a theatrical release in the US, Canada, and China. All other territories will have access to the film immediately on Netflix. Though the move will far expand the film’s reach, it also diminishes the film’s impact. Garland has crafted a work of art that deserves to have its horrors and wonders tower over us on a big screen.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’

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1917 Review

War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.

Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.

It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.

Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.

What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.

It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.

1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.

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With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks

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In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.

Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”) 

Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did. 

Road to Perdition

When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him. 

Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son. 

Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s. 

The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall.  Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor. 

Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do. 

Road to Perdition

Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later. 

Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work. 

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Festival du Nouveau Cinema

‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror

Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019

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Color Out of Space Review

Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.

Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.

The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.

Color Out of Space

Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not. 

Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.

There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.

Color Out of Space

Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.

Color Out of Space Review
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