Movie Review ~ Annihilation

The Facts

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annihilation (Teaser Trailer)

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Release Date:  February 23, 2018

Thoughts:  Here’s another interesting project to look forward to in 2018.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman  (Jackie) stars in this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the first in a trilogy.  Portman has had some high highs and low lows in the years since she won her Oscar for Black Swan but add director Alex Garlad (Ex Machina) in the mix and I’m officially intrigued to see how this one plays out.  Paramount seems to have thrown a bunch of money at Garland, though in the past he’s been known to do a whole lot with very little.  This first look at Annihilation is a nice teaser trailer that hints at some of the horrors that await Portman and her crew sent to investigate an abandoned zone disconnected from civilization known as Area X.  Co-starring Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Creed), and Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon), all eyes will be on this one to see if VanderMeer’s two other novels will get a similar Hollywood shine.

Movie Review ~ Jackie


The Facts

Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

The Silver Bullet ~ Jackie


Synopsis: Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Release Date: December 2, 2016

Thoughts: No matter how much people try to predict it, the Oscar season is always filled with twists and turns. A few months ago, Jackie wasn’t even on the radar for many pundits but it’s sneaking in at the last minute and could upset an already full Best Actress pool.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman’s (Thor: The Dark World) performance of the former first lady is getting raves but I’m already seeing the late night sketch shows parodying her Jackie accent. She’s dead-on with it, no question, but it takes a while to get used to. Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), and John Carroll Lynch (Hot Pursuit), look for Jackie to be part of the conversation as we move toward peak award season buzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knight of Cups



Synopsis: Unknown (and the trailer won’t help you)

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: Director Terrence Malick doesn’t play the Hollywood game so it’s interesting that his newest film seems quite focused on the California lifestyle of the Tinsel Town elite…or does it? It’s hard to say because plot details are scarce and any attempts at figuring out who Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) is playing could provide you ample amount of head-scratching time. Though only Malick’s seventh feature film since 1973, his style is instantly recognizable and it’s intriguing to know that it was mostly improvised. People either love or hate Malick; there’s no halfway camp (hello, Tree of Life bashers!) but even in his most obtuse the man knows how to frame a scene to make ordinary images seem extraordinary. Co-starring Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Natalie Portman (Thor), Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment), Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), and Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop).

Movie Review ~ Thor: The Dark World


The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

The Facts

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World


Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.