Wednesday, June 6, 2018

‘Bluray or Bust’ - ANNIHILATION

‘Bluray or Bust’

When I first saw the trailers for writer/director Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION, I was intrigued by the auteur’s idea.  After all, his Academy Award winning 2014 EX MACHINA was a lovely, mechanically violent ballet that ended on a hopeful note for Skynet and all the other evil machines that want to send robots to kill all mankind.

But it was also a film that closely followed a prior iteration of the same concept, the British film THE MACHINE.  That film was about scientists accidentally creating a robot that became aware of itself—a female robot, one which was designed to kill, yet grew a conscience. Garlands’s EX was about a dude creating sex robots and AI.  Which may not seem like much of a similarity, until you address the fact that the machine in each film had the same freaking name: Ava.

EX MACHINA was not a bad film—on the contrary, it netted newcomer Alicia Vikander several award nominations for her portrayal of the robot.  Caity Lotz of “Arrow” fame also received no small amount of attention for her portrayal of Eva in the other female robot movie.  I’m not dropping any accusations here; there are oftentimes when I watch a film that I think it could have been better had the writer taken the story in a different direction.  I won’t say that MACHINA was better than MACHINE (do I need to point out the similarity in the titles?  Anyone?), as both were terribly good films.  Yet comparisons beyond what I have pointed out could be made.

What intrigued me about ANNIHILATION is that the film’s premise looked eerily similar to 2016’s ARRIVAL: something alien in origin plants itself on earth in a remote setting, a barrier goes up, stuff starts getting weird, and heads start getting screwed with.  While ARRIVAL seemed more concerned with the moral dilemmas presented by the arrival of aliens, ANNIHILATION seemed more of a monster movie on the surface.  Like, aliens show up and create this barrier, and after you go through it you never come back because something eats your face off.  Remember the barrier in ARRIVAL?

Okay, really, not trying to point out the obvious here (both movies also have one word titles), as I’m not throwing any accusations around (and both of them start with the letter “A”)—hell, I’m a hack movie reviewer/critic/jackass that never finished college—but while watching ANNIHILATION, you almost get the feeling that Garland saw ARRIVAL and thought “yeah, but wouldn’t it be better if someone got their face eaten off?”, and then sat down and started writing.

Nothing wrong with that, kids—we all have those thoughts, we all sometimes wish a film or a book or one of our teenagers would maybe go in a different direction.  It doesn’t mean there is any plagiarizing going on here, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Garland was trying to re-do something Denis Villeneuve already did.  ANNIHILATION is a strong enough film on its own, just as EX MACHINA was.  The writing is strong, the acting stronger (a mostly female cast led by Natalie Portman and the nearly emotionless Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the visuals are stunning.  There is a consistency in Garland’s detail that you cannot help but notice, most importantly the use of color in the scenes once the cast crosses into The Shimmer, that aforementioned barrier that seems to be encompassing more and more of our planet as the days go on.  There are bright hues and colorful prisms in nearly every shot.  And when it is compared to our drab earth, it is a shock meant to make you think ‘what if?’, as in ‘what if they just let this alien stuff take over… at least everything would look like it had been assaulted by Skittles, and everyone loves freaking Skittles’.

Even if this isn’t a case of “could be better if they did this instead”, Garland creates images and sequences which may stick with you.  And don’t judge the rest of the film by this complaint/observation, but the true form of the “alien” could have been better executed, meaning (slight SPOILER ALERT) better sound effects and please, for the love of the Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus, less dubstep.  Seriously.

At any rate, you should check the film out on Blu-ray—those visuals are quite lovely, and the score, which is occasionally difficult to distinguish from the audio effects, is rich enough to utilize the base in your surround sound.  There are four informative docs, including an interesting look at the half-sunken fishing shack, and how they shot the film sequentially—not something every filmmaker has the opportunity to do.

Don’t ignore this film just because I, jackass extraordinaire, made a couple of silly comparisons.  But I will most certainly use it as a platform to get you to go watch THE MACHINE.  Just because.     

Grade: B+
Special Features: A-
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, May 31, 2018

“SKumm’s Thoughts” - SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

“SKumm’s Thoughts”

While I consider myself a fan of the STAR WARS franchise, I am not one of those die-hard fans.  You know the ones I’m talking about; they have read every book, studied the scenes in every film, watched all the cartoons, and argue with other die-hard fans with the same passion usually reserved for Amway salesmen and strung-out meth heads over facts and trivia that other folks would consider borderline stalking.

Not that there is anything wrong with that—I feel the same way about ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, and have read the Harry Potter series at least as many times as I’ve watched the films (we’re talking about a disturbing number of times here, kids).  So, the biggest problem I have with the latest Star Wars installment has nothing to do with the acting, the pacing, the casting, etc.

But more on my personal issues later—first, a quick synopsis: a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a thief that hooks up with a team of crooks led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), all in an effort to get back to his home with enough money to rescue his love, Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke, aka “The Mother of Dragons”).  Keep in mind this is all pre-Jabba the Hut and his later adventures with Luke Skywalker and the gang.  Along the way, he meets his BFF, and makes ‘nice’ with the charismatic Lando Calrissian.

It is at this point I find it necessary to pause, and let you all know that Donald Glover is my new Go-To-Gay-Guy.  He has dethroned Michael Fassbender, who dethroned Sherlock, who stole the top spot from Denzel Washington.  (Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too.)  Mr. Glover, also known as “Childish Gambino” in the music biz (I recommend “Sweatpants” and “This Is America” for starters), is a man of many, many talents.  You may remember him as Rich Purnell from THE MARTIAN; he captured social anxiety like no other actor in recent history, creating a character whose genius was not overshadowed by his lack of social normality, even if it was an apparent trait of his personality.  Watching him as Lando, whose personality is the exact polar opposite of Rich Purnell’s, should give you a true appreciation for what a talented artist is capable of.  Not only does he become the character initially portrayed by Billy Dee Williams, but he does so in such a way that you are comfortable with how he stretches that character’s boundaries.  He is the epitome of suave, even when he has no right to be.  Nothing against Mr. Williams, but Mr. Glover makes you want to know more about the character’s history, gives you reason to pine for a (pun certainly not intended) solo film based solely on Lando’s past exploits.

Which is one of the aspects of this film in which the viewer feels that perhaps the focus should not lie entirely on the title character.  Chewbacca is given a glancing backstory, whose friendship with Solo is initially one of necessity rather than camaraderie.  And yes, Ehrenreich does a well enough job as our titular hero—he gets enough of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms down to lend the viewer some familiarity with the character.  But he is no Donald Glover—again, it is almost enough to make you wonder if they didn’t make the wrong movie here.

The action is well executed and surprisingly effective.  I say “surprisingly” because this is, after all, a Ron Howard film, and the last movie he directed that had notable extended action sequences was APOLLO 13, and that was two decades ago.  Mr. Howard is unflappable in every scene, and the brilliant eye of cinematographer Bradford Young (ARRIVAL) helps immensely.  The score by John Powell is effective, and not as over-bearing as you would expect.

But that issue I have… again, as someone that isn’t a rabid SuperFan, perhaps I can be forgiven for not being as excited as I perhaps should have been at the big reveal at the end of the film.  As a fan that has seen every film in the series in theaters (yes, kids, I’m THAT STINKIN’ OLD), should I really be meant to feel left out just because I also haven’t seen every episode of the cartoons?  Granted, The Big Reveal can probably be appreciated without having to read and see every single thing Star Wars related.  But the nod/reveal/obvious tie-in with other media seems more a reward for those aforementioned SuperFans, more so than it is an “ah-ha moment” for the rest of us.

Next up in the “Star Wars Story” universe is a rumored stand-alone film for Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Ewan McGregor would be reprising his role.  I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that the Big Reveal IS NOT Obi-Wan, however it would indicate that the next logical step would be in that particular direction.  Or, it could be that I’m totally talking out of my hind-quarters, as I haven’t read every one of the graphic novels.  Let’s just hope there’s more to the Lando Calrissian story, and that Disney decides to ride Mr. Glover’s well-tailored cape into the next film.

Grade: B+

-- T.S. Kummelman