by Philip Price
There is a lot to say about “A Quiet Place,” the third directorial effort from John Krasinski starring real-life wife Emily Blunt in their first on-screen collaboration (and as a married couple no less), but more than anything this is a movie that encapsulates the equal amount of unexpected fear as compared to the expected amount of joy that comes along with becoming and being a parent. It is something society doesn't often prepare you for and that you don't hear much about when embarking on this chapter in your life. People tell you how it will change your life, certainly, and how it will do so for the better as well as how tough things will be at different times for different reasons, but no one ever seems to warn expectant parents just how much fear will encompass their lives and in what are otherwise seemingly normal of situations. This isn't what “A Quiet Place” is about outright, but as the father to a three-year-old daughter that is what “A Quiet Place” is most explicitly about to me. It is a summation and tense execution of what it feels like to solely be responsible for the lives of those that are dependent upon you whether they see it that way or not; they simply expect you to be there for them because that has always been your role without a second thought to the worry and fear that role might encompass and carry. A child's perspective is difficult to re-adjust to the point they understand the full spectrum of various emotions we as human beings are capable of experiencing, but there is something inherent when becoming a parent where your brain automatically switches to all-of-a-sudden be weary of any potential dangers to your child while at the same time coming to the realization your strengths and abilities might not be enough to protect them from whatever the world throws at them. Granted, “A Quiet Place” is this times 57 and represents the worst-case scenario of what are most of the time internalized fears, but that is what makes the film so effective and ultimately, so moving. At the center of the story is a family unit that has been fractured by grief in the midst of having to adjust to this new way of life thanks to an extra-terrestrial threat whose origins remain a mystery sans some quick glances at a few newspaper clippings, but the context doesn't matter as much as the concepts that bound forth from its simple, but intriguing premise. Through all of this, Krasinski hones in on what makes the premise work so well, that being the grief, necessary coping, and inherent fear that inevitably comes with making ourselves vulnerable enough to care so much about others. Realizing these emotions and this feeling of need to protect and shelter those you are responsible for even when you have no idea how you might accomplish as much into a tight, ninety-minute actualization that will have you holding your breath and remaining as still as the reflections we see on screen.
In what is one of the more impressive opening sequences to a horror film in quite some time, Krasinski sets the stage for our expectations of this world as well as the rules of such through what would otherwise be a forgettable trip to the local drug store. In this small, deserted town we are witness to a couple of children sifting quietly through the aisles while their mother attempts to locate a specific type of medicine in the prescriptions that have been left behind (a menial task made even more tense by the sounds these small, but noisy bottles make). She is searching for something to give to her son, Marcus (Noah Jupe), who needs to be brought back from the edge of what is seemingly a terrible sickness while her other children, the pre-teen Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Beau (Cade Woodward) who is just clearing the finish line of toddler-hood, are the ones who tip-toe quietly through the store. Through these actions and this environment, we come to a quick understanding of this world we're now existing within and that silence is, for one reason or another, of paramount importance. So much so that as Krasinski's Lee enters the store he is immediately frightened by the prospect of what could happen if the toy in his youngest son’s hands went off as, for one reason or another, batteries were included with this toy. I mention the issue with the batteries because there are a handful of reasons as to why this abandoned rocket ship sitting in a store in an abandoned town might already have batteries in it, but it is also something that is easy to pick apart in regards to convenience and how the film doesn't always acknowledge aspects that would seemingly make sense for Lee and his family to follow. At one point, later in the film, Lee and Marcus take to the woods so that the father might teach his son how to fish and provide for his mother and siblings should something ever happen to him. During this excursion Lee enlightens his son to the fact that if he ever needs to let off a little steam or even just hear himself talk that the best way to do so is behind the coverage of an even louder sound that these invaders have apparently become accustomed to in nature i.e. a river or waterfall. If this is true, why doesn't Lee simply move his family closer to a waterfall you might ask? Well, other than the fact you aren't the only one that's likely thought of that and thus such areas have no doubt become populated and therefore ultimately a bigger risk for attracting attention there could be any number of reasons Lee chose not to do this. It's made clear Lee is a smart, big-picture guy who is doing all he can to protect his family and figure out the best steps moving forward, but “A Quiet Place” also keeps its story very contained leaving little room for outside influence or overly-long explanations and in turn opening it up for unnecessary scrutiny.
Taken simply on the terms in which it states, “A Quiet Place” is a masterclass in how to pull as much as one can out of what are a limited number of resources. The story is so contained that, outside of the opening and single scene in which Lee and Marcus go fishing, the film takes place completely in a single location. It is in this farm house that we're not sure if the Abbott family resided in prior to the alien invasion happening or not that Lee has rigged up lights to signal things are safe or not as well as countless booby traps, but most of his efforts seem to have gone into developing an underground bunker of sorts where eventually his family will be able to live something resembling normal lives and where he is able to continue his research of these creatures as well as try and make contact with fellow survivors. There are hints of other known communities and/or families surviving quietly around the Abbott's, but this isn't a story a la “The Walking Dead” and is instead solely focused on this single family's ever-evolving dynamic matched by their will to survive. The movie doesn't need to be about anything else though, and it doesn't need to be. In this, Krasinski shows his focus as a director who wants to explore how these people react to and deal with these circumstances that are horrible and beyond their control. In this context we are witnessing the Abbott's still figuring out how to deal with this new-found scenario meaning they have in no way found a routine but are still learning the best ways with which to deal with these antagonists. And from these situations and the necessity of the premise, this undeniable tension is born. There is rarely a moment throughout “A Quiet Place” that doesn't feel earned in terms of shock or scares as everything that occurs contributes to the overall sense of dread that deals in potentially slipping up and making the slightest sound that will trigger the sensitive ears (or whatever organ it is on these things that allows them to hear so well) of these creatures. And so, while the premise sets up these inherent moments in which tension, stress, and anxiety naturally bound forward it is how Krasinski executes these moments that really elevate “A Quiet Place” into something special. For instance, there is one scene that-if you picked up on the context clues in any of the trailers-you will at the very least be suspecting and if you know what I'm referring to already trust that you are correct in your assumptions and know that it fully delivers on the horror of that scenario. It is in this sequence that the film achieves the most success with its visual storytelling and largely silent atmosphere by effectively using these tools to not only make you simultaneously want to look away while not being able to peel your eyes off the screen, but by delivering on this notion of how terrifying it is to be the sole barrier between the life and death of this human being that depends on you.
The biggest challenge a film like “A Quiet Place” was always going to face though, was that of how does it continue to pursue it's fantastic and original premise throughout the full length of its runtime rather than simply devolving into something more generic? This was a chief concern of mine shortly after the screen went dark following that breathtaking opening sequence when the thought immediately became, "Well that was as great as it was horrifying, but where does it go from here? What more does it have to say?" That opening sequence is nothing less than a precisely executed and legitimately frightening short film, but given the small elements of the family dynamics set-up within the fact the film then jumps ahead from what is "Day 89" of this new life to day 400-and-something tells us that not only will adjustments and discoveries have been made, but also that the ramifications of that day will undoubtedly still be felt. It is in this throughline of this fractured family and the stakes that have been immediately set-up that both the concept and the emotional beats and themes can play out through the remainder of the film making it more than just a repeat of that opening for 90-minutes, but something that evolves and has something to say. The screenplay from Bryan Woods and Scott Beck that received a revision once it hit Krasinski's desk is so tightly structured and translated into a picture that is so eloquently paced it makes the final act and acts of the characters that much more impactful and frankly, kind of beautiful. Again, this may be going back to the fact I took the movie to be about something explicitly applied to my life whereas others will see it purely as a great horror premise that is played for scares, but even with that perspective going in it would be hard to deny the emotional weight “A Quiet Place” ultimately carries. When a genre film such as this is able to transcend the boundaries of such it's always fascinating as it is something that is unexpected and expectations determine everything, but outside of “A Quiet Place” getting extra points for being able to make me feel something other than scared or terrified “A Quiet Place” feels like this great achievement because not only does it become what could be construed as a metaphor for being a parent or member of a family where that responsibility for another life is chosen or placed upon ones shoulders, but because it also does so much with so little in regards to the art form and does so in a successful manner. The fact this has become a mainstream hit and largely praised while featuring very little dialogue and minimal use of score and other sounds is enough to suggest the quality of technique at work and this is all without even mentioning the performances. Everyone is doing what the story requires from them, but Simmonds (who is deaf) and Blunt are especially in an element all their own. The expressions both can conjure and convey using only their facial features are remarkable and, if everything else about the film hasn't already driven home the combination of constant suspense and truly affecting ideas, their performances will.
by Philip Price
“Rampage” is the happy meal version of a movie. It's cheap and easy and you walk away mostly satisfied even if there was no nutritional value whatsoever. It's a strange world where Dwayne Johnson can still be seen in theaters in his last big-budget action adventure that involves a jungle and then the first time we see the chrome-domed former wrestler in “Rampage” he just so happens to once again be making his way through a similar environment; it’s as if the star is guiding us out of one movie and into the next. As we are welcomed into this new world of “Rampage” by The Rock himself we are introduced to his Davis Okoye, a primatologist AKA someone who studies nonhuman primates, who works at the San Diego Zoo and has essentially fostered one of the last remaining albino gorillas to be his own. George, as played through motion capture by Jason Liles, is a seven-foot-tall, 500 plus-pound primate who can communicate with Johnson's Davis with as much ease as a deaf child might be able to communicate with their hearing enabled parent and who also has a good sense of humor about himself and his circumstances. The one thing “Rampage” does better than it has any right to do is develop this relationship between the two biggest stars on screen meaning Johnson is just that good at making audiences believe he is the coolest guy around. Not everyone could make befriending a monkey cool and inspiring as opposed to the weird and off-putting looks most would get, but the guy does it; acting as if it's the most normal thing in the world and oh yeah, he was also part of an anti-poaching military force once upon a time too, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. And sure, the fact it’s The Rock that is both this intelligent and extremely fit guy who clearly has a streak of compassion with an especially soft spot for animals is part of the appeal in “Rampage” as it is the ability The Rock brings along with his presence that makes a movie as ridiculous as this work as well as it does…even if it probably shouldn't. That said and having never played the video game on which this is based, I expected the latest from director Brad Peyton to be a little more fun than this ends up being. Yes, there are moments of pure outrageous bliss, but they are too few and far between to make “Rampage” feel like the large-sized combo it was advertised to be. Rather, “Rampage” is drenched in that Happy Meal feeling from its quick and easy delivery to its processed if not convenient conclusion.
While it was somewhat striking to, upon introduction, see Johnson again making his way through the greenery of a lush jungle after just re-visiting his massive ‘Jumanji’ sequel that arrived on home video less than a few weeks ago, “Rampage” begins quite a way from our planet. On a space station owned by the inevitable evil corporation that is a part of the plot-this time around and run by the diabolical Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her stooge of a brother, Brett (Jake Lacy), nasty things are happening. The Wyden's highly unethical company, Energyne, has apparently been conducting genetic experiments in space as the movie opens with a giant rat chasing down the only surviving astronaut on board (Marley Shelton). Shelton's character makes it through to the escape pod where she has safely secured samples of the chemical toxin that turned the lab rat into the dino rat, but while the escape pod appears to get away just in the nick of time it may have sustained too much damage to survive re-entry. The samples, however, do (with this convenience being defended by a throwaway line from Claire) and end up landing at different points on Earth where they infect a rogue wolf, an alligator, and Davis' extraordinarily intelligent, silverback gorilla. George begins to grow rapidly and get angrier and even more vicious as opposed to the tame and rather compliant beast we've witnessed thus far. Naturally, Davis is concerned with what is happening to his friend and his first instinct is to figure out what happened and how to fix it. Things become slightly more complicated when former Energyne employee and genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) shows up claiming to be the only one who knows how to cure George, but seemingly has an agenda of her own and even more complicated when an off-the-books government agency led by self-proclaimed cowboy Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) struts in to try and take control of the situation. As Davis and Kate team-up to try and track down the cure and only hope of saving George, Harvey informs the two of them that George isn't the only newly-minted monster tearing across North America. It turns out, George and his new pals have made a b-line for picturesque Chicago due to the fact Claire has placed some type of homing beacon atop she and her brother's billion-dollar company's flagship office building and are drawing the monsters there to try and evade any connection to these mishaps. It doesn't make too much sense but is more an excuse to execute a monster attack on a big metropolitan area to honor the source material as much as possible. It's nonsensical, but it does what it promises.
And this brings to light the biggest issue to be taken away from “Rampage” in that it does what it promises in earnest, but the experience never builds to be as fun or entertaining as those promises would lead one to believe. Yes, Johnson makes a lot of this work better than it should and better than it would have without his reliable presence on board and to give credit where credit is due Peyton is a pro when it comes to staging massive action sequences and presenting them in a clear way to the audience in terms of understanding where one giant gorilla is in relation to Johnson (who is apparently as indestructible as his primate pal) in relation to the giant alligator that is coming for both of them. This is all well and good and despite the visual effects having something of an inauthentic sheen to them as the monsters jump from skyscraper to skyscraper the animal's themselves-well, mainly George-look fantastic among the otherwise live-action elements of the film. The sequence in which the giant wolf is introduced that features a short-lived appearance by Joe Manganiello is at one point the most lifeless sequence in the entire film due to the lack of weight afforded by the digital creation, but as it culminates with this giant creature leaping out of the wooded area in which it has been shrouded thus far and devouring a helicopter as if it were a treat it was owed “Rampage” is certainly something; something enough to make this movie-goer wish there was a local IMAX screen to have experienced the film on. Come to think of it, the experience of this sequence is akin to the experience of the movie overall as Peyton and his team can balance out the tawdrier elements of the thin story and even thinner premise with some jaw-dropping spectacle, but whereas the quota for each feel even by the time the credits begin to roll. There is also this sense of relief that they were all able to make it just past the 90-minute mark with something resembling a coherent motion picture forcing the movie to never be able to move past the basic requirements of a blockbuster into something more or necessarily special. The thrills and fun are there in moments, but when compared to how self-aware and earnest the movie is it’s disappointingly average in the enjoyment department. To compare, during “Rampage” going through its motions it was unavoidable to not compare it to the similarly staged “Pacific Rim” sequel a few weeks back where things were equally cartoonish and had a fair amount invested in its characters, but also managed to make the sometimes overly convoluted plot a ton of fun to witness. It's understood from the get-go we're not here for anything deep, but if “Rampage” was only going to be about the hubbub in the city it needed to deliver on this scope in a more sprawling fashion.
What is clear from seeing “Rampage” take over the big screen though, is that Peyton and his four screenwriters(!!!) were intent on making this as light and as much dumb fun as they could and as noted before, there are moments within the chaos where as much is accomplished. And so, what is it that makes “Rampage” work in ways that show its full potential here and there? First and foremost is the obvious factor of Johnson whose contributions have already been discussed and trust when it is said that Johnson's appeal is in full effect here for, despite the main event being the two plus-sized carnivores and Davis' herbivore duke it out with skyscrapers (I guess we know how Johnson's next tentpole will begin, eh?), it is Johnson who has to carry both the weight of the story as well as the emotional heft of the film that begins and ends with Davis' connection to George and his maintaining of George's innocence in everything that goes down. It would seem inevitable that each of these animals who have been unjustly turned into monsters would all ultimately meet the same inevitable fate, but as with the film's villains “Rampage” dares to surprise you in ways even if they don't always make complete sense. Speaking of those villains, “Rampage” wouldn't have been complete without the evil corporation-types devising a dastardly plan and both Akerman and Lacy play up these personas with pure bliss. The arcade version of “Rampage” is actually sitting in the Wyden's office and can be seen in some of the early scenes featuring the duo and it's as if the siblings have such a fondness for that original video game and that time in their lives when it was first released (1986) that they grew up to embody the baddies of the Saturday morning cartoons they experienced during that same phase. Why they have decided to try and "edit DNA" for the purposes of war or some such nonsense is never really made clear and their plan to draw the monsters back to their base of operations in order to get what they want and clear their names makes even less sense, but most of this is easy to forgive due to the sheer amount of fun the two actors are having playing into these archetypes. And while it is unfortunate that Harris (an Oscar nominee for her performance in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”) is largely used as a supporting character who exists to spout exposition and fill in the gaps where Johnson's primatologist isn't as experienced or knowledgeable (breaking into Energyne, locating the serum, etc.) Morgan is arguably given less to work with but makes the most out of it. His southern swagger never tires, and the joke isn't given enough screen time to get played out, but instead these short injections of humor help contribute to that balance that makes “Rampage” only the slightest bit memorable. Morgan is cheesing through so much of his role in fact, you would think he'd just finished scarfing down a happy meal and throwing away the cheap toy inside the bag. You know, just as you'll do with your “Rampage” experience.
by Philip Price
A year ago on this weekend a reboot of the nineties hit show “Power Rangers” was released and embraced a more moody and grounded tone than that of its source material. This year, with “Pacific Rim: Uprising” what we have is what that movie might have been had it decided to go another route and play up the more cartoonish aspects of that super hero series. This is to say that “Uprising” is so bombastically cheesy in its reliance on knowing exactly what it is and delivering on exactly what it promises that it's genuinely hard to fault the film for doing what it sells itself to be. “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is a five year-later sequel that no one in particular was necessarily looking for, but is here given the amount of dough that original ended up making in China ($411 million globally on a $190 million budget, $111 of which came from China-almost $10 million more than the film made domestically). Of course, with this kind of sophomore slump effect weighing on the decision of whether or not to even continue the would-be franchise this second installment has come to us not from "visionary" and now Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro nor does it star Charlie Hunnam or Idris Elba, but instead is co-written and directed by Netflix's “Daredevil” season one showrunner Steven DeKnight and enlists the fresh talent of ‘Star Wars’-breakout John Boyega as the son of Elba's fallen character from the first film. ‘Uprising’ jumps a decade into the future and intends to reboot “Pacific Rim” the opposite way that “Power Rangers” movie did the original series last year. Meaning, while the first “Pacific Rim” was a little too self-serious given its story and a little more moody than might have been necessary, while more visually detailed to be sure, ‘Uprising’ plays things a little more straight-forward and is exactly the kind of movie I would have loved when I was seven or eight years-old; it's big, it's colorful, and it has robots fighting robots and robots fighting monsters. That isn't to say this is a better film than its predecessor-I don't think I'd go that far as del Toro still enlisted a fun enough tone and built an entire world from which ‘Uprising’ benefits-and ‘Uprising’ maybe complicates things a little too much with its story whereas that initial film was so cut and dry in that aspect it was almost shocking, but the important thing is that ‘Uprising’ is a fun if not ultimately forgettable slice of entertainment that plays to its B-movie strengths.
Speaking to the unnecessary convolutedness of the story, ‘Uprising’ at first hits the ground running introducing the audience to Boyega's Jake Pentecost as it's made clear the son of war hero and saver of the known world, Stacker Pentecost, is not exactly following in daddy's footsteps. Rather, Jake-who we are told was once a promising young Jaeger pilot himself-has turned to making a living off the stealing and selling of Jaeger parts on the black market. Ten years on and the need for Jaeger pilots is not as vital as they once were, but more the world has resigned to re-building large portions of its biggest cities while in other areas-not changing a thing. In the rubble of one of the remaining ruins Jake comes across a young, orphaned girl named Amara Namani (a charming Cailee Spaeny) who has also been scrapping together Jaeger parts on her own and has assembled a functioning albeit much smaller robot warrior than the military ones that once roamed the coastlines. When both Jake and Amara are arrested for stealing parts and going on the run in their own Jaeger the two are only rescued thanks to Jake's namesake and the fact his adoptive sister, Mako Mori (the returning Rinko Kikuchi), who is now the General Secretary for the "Pan-Pacific Defense Corps" gives Jake a choice between prison and returning to the PPDC as an instructor. Naturally, but begrudgingly, Jake accepts Mako's offer to return to the PPDC as Amara's innovative tendencies are rewarded by being recruited into the training program that is currently overseen by a former co-pilot of Jake's and his apparent nemesis in Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). Simple enough, right? The newly restored Jake, his protégé, and the pre-existing recruits along with Nate run into some new Kaiju threats and have to set aside their differences in order to protect the world once again. That would seemingly be the case, correct? Not so much. To this point, it's nice that ‘Uprising’ doesn't necessarily go the simple route or the way most audiences likely anticipate it will, but at the same time where it does go isn't exactly convincing as it follows the trope of an evil corporation desperate for power that becomes so outlandish we have a Saturday morning cartoon that flirts with ideas of man playing God rather than just man fighting monsters. It's a mixed bag.
Maybe the most egregious example of the movie going about something interesting in completely the wrong way is that of how it utilizes Charlie Day's character from the first film, Dr. Newt Geiszler, to accomplish as much. At the risk of spoiling too much let's just say that I was happy to see Day back in his role as his and Burn Gorman's Dr. Hermann Gottlieb provided some of the more interesting and enlightening aspects of the original especially in regards to how the Kaiju operated and the massive repercussions the world was facing because of their presence. Here though, neither Dr. Geiszler nor Dr. Gottlieb are able to contribute in these suggestive ways as they are more used to further the plot than comment on it. What is safe to say is that Day's character goes in some pretty strange directions. In the decade that has passed since the previous film, Dr. Geiszler has gone on to work for the Shao Corporation as run by Tian Jing's Liwen Shao who, along with Geiszler, has developed a Jaeger drone program and looks to push to replace Jaegers piloted by two-person teams. Our group of protagonists are naturally threatened by such a proposition, but it makes sense and I'm glad they brought this up as it was one of my personal big plot hole questions in the first film: if we have the technology to construct these giant robots, why can't we just control them remotely? Though ‘Uprising’ doesn't necessarily explore this question directly i.e. it never fully justifies why the "neural handshake" is a stronger, more reliable way to pilot a Jaeger than it might be to do so from behind a keyboard what it does move towards is maybe a more layered approach, but a seemingly stupid one until we find out all of the layers that need to be pulled back in order to see the bigger picture in the clearest fashion. Point being, ‘Uprising’ wants to have its cake and eat it too in regards to being a blatant example of a "big, dumb, fun" action movie that holds onto nothing more than its rogue-ish lead character and its bread and butter that is big robots fighting massive monsters from another dimension while simultaneously drowning the audience in so much plot and back and forth between what the viewer believes to be happening and what is actually happening that it isn't until the final climactic battle of the film that both the audience and the movie realize we haven't actually witnessed a Jaeger versus Kaiju fight. It's a double-edged sword, really, as it would have been too easy to believe the breach conveniently opened up at this time when our new protagonist finally decided to get his act together, but at the same time that's what people are paying to see and while ‘Uprising’ eventually delivers on this promise one has to wonder if it could have taken a more carefully considered route to get to its inevitable destination.
Taking as much into consideration, ‘Uprising’ mostly still coasts off the charm of being just that: a big, dumb, and most importantly-fun-action movie. The score from Lorne Balfe, taking over duties from original composer Ramin Djawadi, is cool in the sense that it's mostly a traditional orchestral score, but with flares unique enough to make this audience member take note. Sure, Balfe riffs on the main themes composed by Djawadi to maintain that connective tissue between the two films, but there is enough of a fresh take on that material present that one can feel the difference in tone and approach. This mostly deals in it being a lighter approach which applies to the more vibrant color scheme of ‘Uprising.’ Whereas del Toro shot the majority of his robot on monster action in the dark and in the rain, DeKnight seems to have been intent on setting all of the film’s major action beats at noon or when the sun is at its highest point in the sky as we see multiple Jaeger's bathed in the sunlight in this thing. It's kind of astonishing how great and sleek this thing looks overall though as I expected the budget to be dropped somewhat significantly (and it was, a cool $40 million), but there is a tactile nature to the Jaeger's that was present in the first film and that I expected to be washed out here thanks to the sun and the budget cuts, but is rather embellished because of this change of scenery. DeKnight and his production team certainly knew where to spend their money and by that I mean when three battered Kaiju are tethered together by little insect Kaiju into one massive Kaiju (yes, that happens) it looks fantastic and despite knowing how silly it is one can't help but be a little giddy due to the fact it's so easy to admit how much this movie is just going for it. There is something to love and admire about that kind of balls to the wall methodology and if “Pacific Rim: Uprising” deserves to be remembered for anything it is just that. And last but not least, let it just be said that Boyega is seemingly having the time of his life bouncing in between ‘Star Wars’ films to B-movie bonanzas such as this while simultaneously leveraging his career with solid work as displayed in last summer's seemingly underappreciated “Detroit.” As our lead, Boyega displays his boyish charisma in spades and makes the sometimes laughably on-the-nose dialogue work by bringing his sense of humor to a character that, for the first time since what feels like “Attack the Block,” allows him to use his natural British accent. It also seems time we all admit Scott Eastwood isn't a good actor and has zero to no screen presence. I'd love to see the guy prove me wrong, but his work in picking up the pieces in these already established franchises makes him feel like little more than a bat boy. Still, as much as this could easily be written off as mindless monster fun there is a charm to ‘Uprising’ in that you may forget about it soon after seeing it, but you won't mind re-watching it every now and then to be reminded of why you didn't mind it.
by Philip Price
Director Steven Spielberg has a way with not only bringing the viewer into the spectacle but making them appreciate the aura of the spectacle he has concocted on screen. We're not just in awe of what we're seeing on screen, but we're in awe of how it makes us feel. Spielberg is a master of this kind of spellbinding visual storytelling, but as the filmmaker has grown older his filmography has naturally become more serious. It’s been a decade since that fourth Indiana Jones movie and while Spielberg has co-directed a motion-capture ‘Tintin’ movie here and an adaptation of “The BFG” there the majority of Spielberg's latter filmography consists of more "adult" projects. With his latest, “Ready Player One,” Spielberg returns to that era he helped define with films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park” and even “Hook” as “Ready Player One” mines the kind of wonder each of those films elicited as they were all, in some fashion, told from the point of view of a child who was allowed to run wild with and fully indulge in their imagination. Some may state that this is the very thing wrong with “Ready Player One” in that it is a little too indulgent in such imagination; reveling in the nostalgia of pop culture rather than relying on its own inventiveness to make it stand apart yet feel familiar. And yet, the way in which “Ready Player One” utilizes these aspects to tell a brand-new story is so creative and so striking in its relatability-especially to a movie-goer-that it feels rooted in a truth that movies were afraid to discuss until now. It may be due to the fact that I came of age in an era where the site of that T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” was something that couldn't have been realized in such life-like fashion prior or because I grew up re-watching “Hook” to the point those lost boys became an integral part of my childhood, but the fact of the matter is “Ready Player One” doesn't just utilize the same tone and a barrage of references to trick audience members who might have an affection for any one of the many cameos this thing trots out in order to make them feel an affinity for this new product, but rather it takes the real world into account, advances it into a hyper, but all too probable reality, and then comments on how it's nice to indulge in our imaginations and appreciate what others have given us with theirs, but that-as with everything-balance is key and it requires real world interactions and relationships and experiences to allow those imaginations to grow. It's not a groundbreaking thesis, but it's executed so well and is such a fun journey to go on the fact its ideas aren't brand-spanking new isn't a deal-breaker. If nothing else, it's a comforting reminder told from the perspective of a filmmaker with fresh (or at least re-invigorated) eyes.
If you're like me and wanted to read the novel, but never made it around to doing so this positive review might comfort you in knowing that even going in blind you are sure to get as much out of the experience as the person sitting next to you who may have actually invested the time to read Ernest Cline's novel. In fact, it is because “Ready Player One” would work with or without its this basis or its vast library of pop culture references that makes it so good and compelling. Cline, who is credited as a co-screenwriter on the film alongside Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), created a world from that of his childhood-a place where he and all his fellow Buckaroo Banzai-loving friends could hang out and play games, race their favorite vehicles, and explore the environments of their favorite movies, video games, and TV shows. To be honest, walking into “Ready Player One” I was somewhat preparing myself to not understand many of the references as the visual style of the avatars within this world of the Oasis resembled something from a Japanese anime (of which I have no knowledge) with many of the supporting characters and worlds resembling those from a multitude of video games (of which I have minimal knowledge), but while I'm sure there were plenty of things I didn't catch or even understand that will maybe enhance the viewing experience for others, the adventure the story takes even the most clueless of viewers on is worth taking for its pure inventiveness and fun. There is a strong story here-and one that is so expertly structured and executed it will be interesting to go back and read the source material to see how they compare. Having never been one to do that, but instead being one to typically make a point of reading the book prior to seeing the movie I enjoyed “Ready Player One” to the point there is a desire to see what more the world of the Oasis has to offer and how it compares to what Spielberg has created for the screen.
“Ready Player One” is set in the not too distant future of 2045 and follows the orphaned and largely alone Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he navigates his way not so much through life-no school, job, or aspirations are ever mentioned-but more through who he imagines himself to be in the Oasis. In this future it's also as if the world itself has stopped caring about structure as the only corporation to seemingly remain is that of Innovative Online Industries or IOI as run by the evil Nolan Sorrento (an always menacing Ben Mendelsohn) who looks to take control of this virtual playground known as the Oasis and turn it into a cash cow. This would of course be at the behest of its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who passed away five years prior to the events of the film, but who left multiple challenges for the many players of his game to decipher and if successful could garner full control of the Oasis and Halliday's trillion-dollar fortune. In the beginning, Watts AKA Parzival as he is known in this virtual world, is simply looking for an escape from his rough reality where he lives with an Aunt who seems to have been physically and verbally abused by a string of bad boyfriends among a mountain of mobile homes referred to as the "stacks", but in joining forces with other rogue players including his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), their comrades Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), and the mysterious Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) they become the unsuspecting leaders of Halliday's revolution; piecing together the mysterious creator's clues and gaining access to three different keys that unlock the ultimate Easter egg.
The key word here is fun. “Ready Player One” is the first Spielberg film in quite some time where it feels as if the director wasn't weighed down by his material, but more that he found something new and interesting to invigorate his senses with. As solid of films as “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” and “The Post” are there is this sense with each that Spielberg was going through the motions of these interesting, but safe projects where he knew exactly how to accomplish what he needed to accomplish before a single frame was shot. With “Ready Player One” there is this sense of discovery in the fact of how big and overwhelming it feels to be as audience members and so to try and imagine how Spielberg and team must have felt when coming to terms with having to bring such material to life in the first place must have made for a scary but welcome challenge. This may sound like pure speculation but witnessing this film on the big screen it's impossible not to gravitate towards this sense of necessary imagination to make these events spring to life in the way they do. By allowing the film to take its time in the first hour, establishing the world as Wade experiences it if not who Wade really is within it, as well as all the players within the game not to mention the weight of the story that forms the backbone of the Oasis that concerns Halliday and his partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), we are granted a peek into this future that we can't help but to become invested in despite a fair amount of our heroes being little more than thinly drawn archetypes. Is Wade anything more than your typical hero? Not really, but Sheridan makes what is a blank slate of a guy someone with an endearing drive who isn't out to necessarily prove anything or anyone wrong, but more to simply try and make connections in ways that are meaningful as no such relationships in his life exist. The more interesting character is that of Cooke's Art3mis or Samantha as she's known in the real world. We are only given a single line of dialogue that hints at her motivations for doing what she's doing, but from the moment her avatar shows up in the Oasis alongside Parzival's DeLorean Art3mis is as intriguing to us as she is our hero. Aech is a fine example of supporting comic relief and Mendelsohn knows how to walk the line between camp and palpable intimidation and demonstrates that sense of awareness keenly throughout, but for my money's worth the most interesting dynamic the movie hints at is that of the one between Morrow and Halliday and how it informed the tasks and challenges our present heroes must overcome in order to win the game. The truth that “Ready Player One” isn't really about the characters, but the journey they take us on becomes irrelevant when discussing Halliday and Morrow because without them there is no adventure and there is no meaning to this sequence of events. This kind of mythical friendship is glimpsed just often enough to maintain its mystery, but still offer the right amount of answers to hammer home that thesis. To this point, Spielberg elicits another stellar performance from Rylance.
Sure, the movie has some issues with character development or lack thereof and it is maybe a little too long when it could have shaved a solid ten minutes off, been all the more subtle for it, and therefore slightly more effective as a result, but given the target audience it is understandable as to why Spielberg felt the need to spell things out more than he might have were he making this in the vein of one of his more "adult" pictures. Still, it's hard to find fault in the film's running time when spending as much time as is done in this world is pure joy. For starters, the way the title card is positioned is fantastic-classic Spielberg (which I'm a sucker for anyway), the soundtrack is fantastic without being overbearing, especially early on when we venture into Aech's workshop for the first time and she's blasting "I Wanna Be Your Lover" not to mention Alan Silvestri's score that compliments the nostalgic-inducing tone perfectly as the composer elicits inspiration from some of his own “Back to the Future” movements. Spielberg can lean on his friend Robert Zemeckis often as not only does he borrow the score and iconic elements from that filmmaker's prized trilogy, but also his name as "The Zemeckis Cube" is a tool to be purchased in the Oasis that allows a player to rewind any moment in time 60 seconds. This goes back to the point that "The Zemeckis Cube" could have been anything and still functioned as it does for the sake of the story, but the fact it gets to function the same while making a nod to a piece of well-known pop culture only makes it even more fun if not admittedly a little cute. After this first hour has embedded us into the Oasis the audience really begins to understand the crux of the story and are fully on board for the adventure Parzival and Art3mis are on. We begin to understand that the game is all about coming to better understand not only Halliday and his love for all things eighties pop culture, but who he was and who he desired to be as a person. While there are plenty of things it seemed, Halliday wished he might have done in his lifetime the moral of the story seems to be that of being aware of the moments we exist within and being able to stop and experience them as they are. This light at the core of all the CGI wizardry and non-stop adventure is who Halliday was as a person and what he desired to stand for or at least convey to all those eager to follow in his footsteps. “Ready Player One” is an extremely well-structured film with the caveat of maybe moving through each of the challenges a little too quickly given the game had been stagnant for five years prior, but during unraveling these challenges Spielberg places on full display his ability to craft some truly classic cinematic moments. This can be seen in how naturally the clues for the final challenge are layered in and executed, but more in a sequence that takes place in the middle of the film that will, let's just say, inspire new generations to discover Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining.”
On top of character, story, and theme “Ready Player One” is just a ton of fun and that can't be emphasized enough. For starters, it is genuinely and consistently funny in ways that were unexpected while also finding clever ways in which to integrate those much-discussed references. The CGI, of which I was concerned-especially since the movie seemingly relied on the avatar characters for the majority of the runtime-are so lifelike and natural in their movements it's astonishing such visual effects are even possible. The look of the film is spectacular in all regards as the sheen of the Oasis is naturally intriguing, but the live action sections contain a grain to their aesthetic that places us in the mindset of watching so many of the movies “Ready Player One” references that Spielberg isn't only inducing nostalgia through references, but through as many senses as he can. In other words, everything about the film just feels cinematic. And so yeah, one could look at “Ready Player One” as another movie where a corporate asshole tries to corrupt the purity of an artist's endeavor that is meant to make humanity a better place and leave it at that, but being done in this fashion where every aspect truly does feel as if the time was taken to ensure it was conveyed in the most creative way possible while still remaining intriguing throughout is what gives the movie this sense of life; this heartbeat that is impossible to suppress. We all inherently have these incredible imaginations as children but depending on where and when we go to school, what style of parenting is enforced upon us, and what friendships we make there inevitably comes a time when we begin to limit that imagination or begin to shape it. While it's easy to forget we can use that imagination in our day to day grind to survive it is always there and it is always ours and it's kind of magical. “Ready Player One” reminds those whose imaginations might have went dormant some time ago of this possibility and for those who were lucky enough to have that imagination cultivated the movie reminds us of what is possible with this magical part of the brain. In using our imaginations, we tap into other imaginations and both Cline and Spielberg have tapped into something special here. I loved the little details at play-Sorrento's very telling password, Parzival's ThunderCat belt buckle, the expert use of their single F-bomb, and the expert use of Madballs, but underneath all of that is this subtext that life was never meant to be a single-player game and that, in the end, our relationships with those we love and respect are what come to mean the most. That may sound like kind of a groaner, but it works and “Ready Player One” will work on many levels for many kinds of viewers. A true sign of transcending the art form and coming to stand as something larger in our society. In this regard, “Ready Player One” should accomplish that which it so unabashedly idolizes, but only time will tell if this is to be.
by Philip Price
The newly re-booted and freshly grounded “Tomb Raider” from Warner Bros. isn't necessarily bad, but it is pretty bland. There is a constant back and forth as one experiences the final product given there is real promise in what is essentially the entire first act as the viewer gets to know this younger, more inexperienced Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) and the mysteries surrounding her father's disappearance as well as the issues she has been working through because of such. It is when the movie goes from slyly intriguing to full-on what the target demographic expects from a “Tomb Raider” movie that most of the intrigue disappears and what we're left with is a series of action sequences that look like the actual video game that inspired the movie. The more reliable and realistic visual effects become the easier it will be to lean on them and while this seems to have become more and more apparent over the last few years it seems especially glaring when the source material for an effects-laden blockbuster is that of a fully digital world. Once our titular protagonist gives into the life she was always meant to have, despite who she was when trying to make a living on her own accord being more interesting, Croft is quickly swept off to Hong Kong and then to the next level, I mean act, of the movie where we continue to go through stage after stage of Croft getting closer and closer to her end goal, which in this movie, has something to do with an ancient Queen that was said to command the power over life and death. Why someone would want to seek out much less break open the tomb of an ancient spirit that can kill people simply by touching them is beyond me, but that is the quest we're sent on and the tomb we're meant to raid and so that is what unfolds. Naturally, there are layers and bad guys along that way that make this journey a little more interesting or at least a little more dramatic, but it no matter how much “Tomb Raider” wants to feel like a fun adventure tale it is far too gritty and routine for its own good. Unlike last week's “A Wrinkle in Time,” which didn't necessarily work, but was at least trying to do something fresh and innovative with the material it was based on “Tomb Raider” instead works as a coherent whole in terms of style and tone but does nothing with these features to accentuate them in any special or meaningful way.
To be fair, the movie does come back around to explain why Croft's father, a wealthy aristocrat with his own holding company, desired so strongly to keep the location of this tomb a secret and seek it out for himself so that the powers within didn't fall into the wrong hands, but still...they may as well have made it so that at least Croft was seeking a rare artifact or something to really play up the female Indiana Jones angle, but whatever you say, world-builders. From what I've gathered concerning this re-boot this latest Croft film is based almost exclusively on a video game from 2013 that also took on the prequel story of our heroine and made the character more dimensional by making her a little less dimensional, know what I mean? None of this really matters though unless the story itself is interesting enough or the characters become endearing to the point of genuine investment. Obviously, with a potential franchise-type character one would want the characters to be appealing enough to the point that whatever adventure Croft goes on it doesn't really matter if the viewers want to go on those adventures with her. This is the strongest quality of director Roar Uthaug's film as the best thing Warner Bros. could have done was cast a quality actress in the role rather than leaving this to feel like the second-tier franchise it is. By placing a pedigreed actor such as Vikander in the role there is this inherently draw to her presence and what she might do with such a commercial role that pulls the viewer into Croft's plight and in the two opening scenes this couldn't prove to be more true or more charming in the sense that despite the fact Lara Croft is known for being this badass female action hero we see her get her ass handed to her at the boxing gym and then in a really cool chase sequence that lays the foundation for her skill-level and ambition while showing that she's not this unstoppable or immortal hero, but rather that she is a fallible human being. The boxing scene is more one to display Vikander's chiseled physique (cue those who want to complain about her lack of curves, but any way you cut it the girl is gorgeous) and to endear us to her somewhat goofy personality whereas Uthaug stages the chase scene that entails Croft attaching a fox tail and a can of paint with a hole in it to the back of her bicycle to be chased by a horde of other cyclists who are trying to retrieve the tail for a cash prize in a way that is both exhilarating and visually interesting setting a precedent he unfortunately can't uphold throughout the rest of the film.
Soon after being jailed for her "fox run" stunt Croft is bailed out by an old associate of her fathers and the woman who now runs her father's company, Ana Miller (the always formidable Kristin Scott Thomas). Miller informs Croft that if she doesn't soon sign the papers to claim her inheritance that her family will lose their estate. Signing these papers and accepting said inheritance though, means accepting the fact her father truly is gone forever and Vikander's Croft just isn't ready to accept that truth just yet. It has been seven years since her father, Richard (Dominic West), disappeared after travelling to the mysterious island of Yamati. Upon Croft showing up at Croft Holdings to follow through on Miller's recommendation she receives a gift from the family lawyer (Derek Jacobi showing up for no more than two scenes) that she is told was to be given to her only after her father's death. Through this gift Croft discovers a coded message with a key that leads her to a hidden office her father kept a secret on the grounds of the family estate. Within his office, Croft finds maps and plans concerning Yamati, but most importantly-a video message-from her late father telling her to destroy all his research concerning Himiko, the ancient queen, but given Croft's pension for following rules and her desire to better get to know who her father truly was, she decides to investigate further. It is at this point that the movie begins globe-trotting as we travel to Hong Kong where Croft tracks down the son of the deceased sailor whom her father chartered a ship from when he originally traveled to Yamati and whom she asks to do the same for her. Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) makes something of an amusing foil for Croft as his character is more than paper thin, but his intentions are as noble as could be given the context of their circumstances. On top of this, Wu has a natural charisma to him that makes his Lu more memorable than the script seems to want to make him. From Hong Kong the two children of the two men who presumably died making this same journey seven years prior set out to try and figure out the fate of their fathers and what made leaving them behind worth it. Naturally, this trip leads to another would-be engaging action sequence were it not for the audience having to suspend their belief not in the physics of how far Croft can jump, but more in the fact that it doesn't feel like either of these characters are ever in any real, tangible danger-at least in this sequence. Granted, there were no doubt large tanks of water used to accomplish this sequence, but for a guy that directed a micro-budget movie about an 85-meter high violent tsunami one would imagine this would be the most thrilling sequence of the movie rather than the least of what “Tomb Raider” has to offer.
This is all to say that by the time we reach Yamati and are introduced to the exiled Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) AKA the pre-determined baddie even though we come to find out the guy is really just a dad who wants to get back home to his kids, but can't until this dead queen's soul is unleashed, that we've already been delivered a handful of moments that have sent us back and forth on whether we're in for the long haul with this franchise or not. Over the course of the next hour or so it only becomes more and more clear that whatever Uthaug was going to bring to the material was brought in the first half of the film as the second is a series of more than competent, but ultimately routine action sequences where Vikander's determined title character makes her way through gunfire and booby traps in hopes of beating her newly sworn enemy to the punch. It's not hard to see where the story is going and worse, it's not hard to know where the franchise hopes to go should this re-introduction make enough money. The worst part of this though is the fact the screenplay was co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet in her first writing credit ever. How she landed such a big job for her first gig remains to be seen as she is now also writing the most current draft of “Captain Marvel” as well as having a handful of other major upcoming projects on her IMDb page. This idea that an up-and-coming female voice landing all these major jobs in Hollywood would first be glimpsed with this new “Tomb Raider” film was maybe the most exciting aspect of a “Tomb Raider” re-boot, but that is what also makes this so disappointing as there is no singular voice to be heard when it comes to Robertson-Dworet and Uthaug's collaboration as “Tomb Raider” more or less hits the beats we expect it to, takes us through the motions just as we expect it to, and then lands with a quick post-title card shot of Vikander looking more like the iconic images of Croft than she has the entire film. So yeah, “Tomb Raider” is one of those prequels where, by the end the audience gets a glimpse at the hero they know and love, but unfortunately this movie isn't good enough to convince everyone they needed to see how Lara Croft became Lara Croft. Coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't really play video games and has never played a “Tomb Raider” game, I could care less what is faithful and what isn't; all I really want is a good movie and while “Tomb Raider” is passable with a few moments that hint at what might have been it is largely an exercise in adequacy made all the worse by those passing opportunities where Uthaug, Robertson-Dworet, and team could have really lent this some style and flavor.
by Philip Price
This one is a hard nut to crack. Both for this reviewer and the filmmakers as Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel that serves as the source material for this latest Disney live-action adaptation has been said to be unfilmmable. “A Wrinkle in Time” was always going to be different though, in that this wasn't a Disney live-action re-make in the vein of one of their treasured animated films from their golden age or renaissance period, but rather the Mouse House had enlisted “Selma” and “13th” director Ava DuVernay to bring this much beloved material to the screen. On the other end of this review is myself who somehow made it through grade school without finding L'Engle's novel despite being an avid reader and fan of all things science-fiction/fantasy. “A Wrinkle in Time” is one of those cases where my intent was to in fact read the book prior to seeing the film, but that intent never led to any kind of fruition and so I walked into DuVernay's adaptation of this seemingly complex yet still kid-friendly source material last night with little to no expectation as to where the story might take me. What I did know was that the trailers hinted at some pretty spectacular imagery as well as some intriguing ideas that would be interesting to see worked out through a narrative. First things first though, “A Wrinkle in Time” misses a huge opportunity to inject a rather epic title card (which, if you've read my reviews before, is kind of a thing for me), but more so by the third or fourth scene it's clear there is a stiffness to the events that have unfolded thus far and that there is a certain flow most movies settle into that A “Wrinkle in Time” isn't finding. It's a weird kind of phenomenon that either happens or doesn't and most of the time, especially with movies such as this AKA big-budget spectacles produced by Disney, there is such a reliability factor that we as viewers automatically settle into the groove and/or movement of the environment the movie invites us into, but this speaks to what is the biggest weakness of DuVernay's adaptation in that it's never sure enough of itself. Where this apprehensiveness comes from in terms of movie language doesn't necessarily seem to come from DuVernay's filmmaking skills as anyone who saw “Selma” can attest to her talent, but there is a more deep-seeded issue at the heart of this big-budget spectacle and I don't know whether it comes from the seeming compression of the original text or the inability to materialize the countless words L'Engle put on the page, but 2018's “A Wrinkle in Time” is essentially a concept that possesses these larger than life ideas as reduced to their simplest form.
Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell's (“Bridge to Terabithia”) screenplay may be at the root of this problem as, by the second act of the film where we are indeed deep into the adventure despite not feeling like we really know these characters, there seems to be no sense of structure, no stakes or rising action despite events undeniably taking place. It is in this lack of character investment and the consistently evident pacing issues that plague the entirety of the picture that we find fault in DuVernay's direction. The trailers have hailed the filmmaker as being "visionary" and the visuals present in “A Wrinkle in Time,” at least some of them, may warrant this adjective above her name, but if we're talking about someone who sees the entire package, the big picture, it doesn't ever feel as if DuVernay earns that title in this film given that unease that seeps into nearly every scene. Individual scenes are moving, individual sequences are fun and interesting, but on top of one another they never build to anything worth caring about or anything that is as interesting as these characters seem to believe their situation is. This begins by keeping Mr. and Mrs. Murray's (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) scientific ambitions rather vague. Sure, they want to travel across time and space without rocket ships and think they've discovered a way to potentially do so, but the scene given the most exposition around this also plays up what a quack the audience listening in on Mr. Murray's lecture thinks he is by the time he comes to the end of it. Keep in mind, we are also only given such exposition after Dr. Murray has been gone for four years-disappearing without a trace and leaving his wife, daughter, and newly adopted son behind. And sure, it's cool to want to try and accomplish these insane things and to crave the knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but why? Why do Mr. and Mrs. Murray, both seemingly respected scientists otherwise, want to achieve this or prove the possibility of such? What is the personal angle? What is their drive other than validation? Unfortunately, we never become privy to such insight because Mbatha-Raw and Pine are essentially small supporting characters in this children's adventure that ultimately comes to reinforce the simple lesson of love conquering all rather than exploring the philosophical questions inherent in good versus evil and why as much exists in the universe as that would seem the more fulfilling territory. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate this is a rather strange and pretty trippy movie unabashedly made for younger audiences, but that isn't an excuse to not make it mesh as well as it should or be as compelling as it so easily could have been.
Furthermore, this vagueness within who these characters truly are extends even into our trio of main characters as beyond the fact she misses her father and has let her grades and mood deflate because of it we don't really know why Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is so disconnected from those around her save for her younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who is beyond pretentious and a little grating in the way he comes across via the child performer. Reid comes across as an endearing enough presence and we want to root for her Meg, but while she is supposedly not as ready to experience or understand what Charles Wallace has more easily taken to we never fully comprehend why this is such a difficult transition for Meg to make when her biological father of all people is the one to have discovered and fulfilled its potential (it being the ability to "tesser" across space and time into other parts of our universe). There are hints of Meg feeling inadequate and unsure of herself as there are bullies at school who are kind of beyond cruel for no apparent reason (as led by Rowan Blanchard), but this aspect only seems present so as to show that bullies more often than not are coming from a place of their own pain. Still, while bullying and her father's disappearance may play into Meg's inability to feel worthy of the possibilities and opportunities she is presented with shortly thereafter there is never a strong enough sense throughout the rest of the film as to why the solution to her insecurities is that of being herself and being okay with being herself other than it feels like the right message to send to the many kids who will be seeing this movie. That isn't to say this wasn't the same message that was conveyed in the novel, I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but if so I have to believe it didn't feel as blatantly bland as presented in this new adaptation. Meg is a character who, as we come to learn, is meant to become one of the great minds of our human race alongside Einstein, da Vinci and Gandhi, but there are no glimpses as to why Meg would be positioned as such given Reid's portrayal of the character other than the fact she learns through the coaxing of these three celestial beings that she has more to offer than she gives herself credit for. And it may be unfair to come down on a character who is on the cusp of her teenage years for not fully knowing who she is or what she wants to be yet, especially after dealing with a traumatic experience, but while Meg seemingly should be this surrogate for so much of what DuVernay wants to say she ends up feeling as empty as the spectacle that surrounds her throughout much of the (what feels like abbreviated) runtime.
Speaking of those celestial beings, how do they play into the proceedings and is there more weight to them than their extravagant wardrobes? Well, somewhat. In many ways, they are the most engaging characters in the film as they offer this doorway to these galaxies and planets we've never seen before and while Reese Witherspoon is delightfully eccentric in her first appearance as Mrs. Whatsit she is given very little room to spread what are very clearly very wide wings any further other than in a sequence where she morphs into a CGI leaf creature with a face that exists solely for the visual spectacle of it all as well as to introduce the audience to the antagonist of the piece in a planet referred to as Camazotz and the "IT" which, as I understand it, is the disembodied brain that controls all the inhabitants of Camazotz or the embodiment of evil on this planet. Sounds menacing, right? Too bad it looks like something akin to Parallax in 2011's “Green Lantern” (yes, that awful Ryan Reynolds comic book movie) which brings me to how, despite a handful of stunning shots, this feels nowhere near as stunning as it should. Anyway, if Witherspoon has the most to do out of the three celestial beings and already feels limited one can only imagine then how expendable Oprah and Mindy Kaling's Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who must feel despite being inherently intriguing. As Mrs. Which, Oprah more or less does her Oprah thing and spouts inspirational adages that are meant to give Meg just enough insight to figure out what she really needs to possess within herself in order to defeat the "IT" and free her father without spelling it out whereas Kaling's Mrs. Who only speaks in quotations from famous thinkers and writers which leads to the most unbelievable moment in a movie with a flying lettuce monster where Calvin (Levi Miller), a 13-year old white kid in 2018, knows an Outkast lyric by ear. So many of these elements are fascinating on their own terms and would likely be more effective were the narrative compounded in a way that gave the audience any real interest in where this journey was taking them, but as it unfolds on screen “A Wrinkle in Time” more feels like a series of events with no real connective tissue which is never more apparent than in the scene featuring a fun, but ineffective Zach Galifianakis. Even in the climactic sequence, the visuals in which DuVernay chooses to illustrate these large ideas and lessons her characters are supposed to be learning feel more basic than they do cinematic; as if something out of a commercial rather than that of the mind of a visionary director. Ultimately and unfortunately, much of “A Wrinkle in Time” comes to be rote and recycled rather than fresh and inventive. It's a flat and uninvolving mess of a movie that needed to take its time to figure out where all of its individual parts stood before beginning their collaboration.
by Philip Price
“Red Sparrow” is at once a movie that feels so calculated and well put-together that it should be obvious it knows what it is and yet this thing can't help but to feel all over the place. It knows what it wants to be, but doesn't accomplish as much. It has style for days and the feel of an epic spy saga, but the events that actually occur within these constructs couldn't feel more mediocre or forced. This is terribly disappointing considering the talent and money behind such a large, original production, but something about director Francis Lawrence's (“I Am Legend”) latest never clicks in the way it should. “Red Sparrow” is one of those films that asks you to settle into it; where the viewer becomes so entrenched in the proceedings it should feel as if the viewer is still in the world of the film when walking out of the theater, but “Red Sparrow” never hits a stride in such a way that the audience is able to make this transition from spectator to participant. Instead, “Red Sparrow” quickly shows all of its cards by letting us know this thing is going to be as bleak and brutal as one can possibly imagine and then some. “Red Sparrow” is a film that takes advantage of its star's status and places Jennifer Lawrence in this role where she is trained to use her sexuality in ways that are to the advantage of the men controlling her (timely, eh?). Lawrence's Dominika as well as the movie itself consistently relay that she's doing what she's doing to regain this feeling of being special that she's recently lost, but this quest holds no weight due to the fact she's the star of the film and we more or less can guess this aspiration is going to be fulfilled even when the odds are stacked against her. All of this is to say that “Red Sparrow” may as well be known as the movie where J-Law learns to expertly cover up domestic abuse with top-of-the-line make-up rather than the one where she kicks ass and takes names because, as was noted earlier, there is very little that occurs here that lives up to the style and scope on which it is operating. Likely the biggest mark against “Red Sparrow” though, is the fact this opinion is coming from someone who generally basks in the dark and gritty tone of movies that like to take themselves seriously. “Red Sparrow” takes itself seriously, no doubt, and it has spurts of tension that compel as well as several locations and shot compositions that are downright breathtaking, but in the end the final product tries so hard to twist social expectations that it ends up feeling like cheap shock rather than frightening truth.
This level of disappointment likely comes with the level of excitement that was brought to the film as Lawrence, the director, tends to guide his big budget tentpoles into interesting areas if not always the most successful ones. The look and tone of the film as conveyed in the promotional material couldn't help but intrigue and to have Lawrence, the actor, tackling something so overtly adult and so drastically different than anything in her filmography thus far only seemed a risk worth taking a chance on. As the opening shot appeared on screen without any sign of a title card it seemed safe to assume Lawrence had something up his sleeve as he interwove the necessary origin stories of Dominika as a famed Russian ballerina who supports her sick mother and Joel Edgerton's Nate Nash, a CIA operative working in Moscow. And while Lawrence does indeed take advantage of these eloquent prologues to an extent he doesn't go for it in a way that justifies the scale of what the viewer has just witnessed therefore hinting at the problems with the film as a whole. In this introduction we see Dominika experience a career-ending injury in a moment that literally made this reviewer squirm in his seat. On the other side of the coin we are made privy to the fact that Nash has an asset in Russia with whom he is set to meet, but that he fears has been picked up on by local authorities. Nash acts out of instinct so as to protect his informant and puts himself on the radar of Russian intelligence more so than he already was. Nash's superiors, the always welcome Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey, force him to return to the U.S. where they hope to establish a new contact with Nash's asset. This is all well and good to begin with as the focus on both sides becomes establishing communication with and/or discovering the true identity of Nash's asset. Dominika's uncle, the brother of her deceased father, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a high-ranking official with Russian intelligence alongside Colonel Zyuganov (Ciarán Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons). After her aforementioned career-ending accident Egorov persuades his niece (more than once, in fact) to the fact that she has what it takes and is well-equipped to handle the kind of jobs he needs assistance with. More or less backing her into a corner, Dominika has no choice but to follow her uncle's wishes and attend "spy school" where she is to become one of the titular sparrows AKA an agent of mother Russia that is specifically trained to utilize her ability to sexually manipulate her victims into giving her what she wants and what her country needs.
It is at about the 40-minute mark, as the first act comes to a definite close, that one will likely decide whether they are in or out on this long and sometimes sordid affair as the first act, while undeniably intriguing, is also the most cringe-worthy section of the film as Charlotte Rampling (trying her best to make this work) is forced to be taskmaster to all of these potential sparrows, but the training is so incessantly sexual that it's as if screenwriter Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”), working from a novel by real-life CIA agent Jason Matthews, thought there was no other interesting angle from which to approach the material. Haythe does give Rampling some juicy dialogue such as, "The Cold War didn't end; it shattered into a million dangerous pieces..." or, "The West is drunk on shopping and social media," that convey a certain attitude and further serve to reinforce the tone, but never does anything come of these aphorisms. Rather, Dominika's sole lesson to learn is that of tricking her body into not being repelled by the subjects she will undoubtedly encounter and have to use it with as her body is seemingly her only weapon. After what feels like a rushed montage of as much and little to no progression on our protagonist's part the film decides to outright tell the audience it has been three months so that it may extract Dominika from the institution and send her on her first mission that has her cozying up to Nash after he has convinced his superiors to let him return to Budapest given his informant will talk to no one but him. By this point though, it has become apparent that no matter what it seemed “Red Sparrow” might have desired to be that it just doesn't have the will to execute as much in terms of how far it is willing to take the complications of the plot which feels weird to say given there is plenty of crossing, double crossing, and triple crossing that takes place. There are also the sections in which it seems the film is actually about to hit that plane it has been building to the entirety of its runtime, but just as long as it took for “Red Sparrow” to reach this point it seems it peaks just as fast. The movie does this weird thing of hitting these strides and essentially forcing the audience to sit up and pay attention, the viewer wanting to be enthralled, and while there are sequences that encapsulate all that Lawrence was aiming to accomplish and that Haythe was seemingly working to convey they are simply too few and far between to offer a wholly satisfying experience.
There is some credit to inherently be given to 20th Century Fox here for rolling the dice on what is a two and half-hour, R-rated, extremely violent and (again) incessantly sexual spy drama, but while the titular sparrows are supposed to be capable of performing tricks on the minds of others almost every scenario and conversation Lawrence's Dominika is confronted with is so pointedly sexual that the movie feels as if it only has so much to say about what a woman in such a position would be capable of and goes no further to try and explore this material beyond that of the woman's body as a tool or object. There is a line spoken in the film that goes something along the lines of, "If you don't matter to the men in power, you don't matter," in which it almost feels like the movie is trying to serve as some kind of analogy for women in Hollywood and while this may be true to some degree and is admirable it doesn't change the fact that “Red Sparrow” fails to be as consistently engaging as it should be given the genre and story with which it comes packaged. All of that taken into consideration this review thus far has largely reflected on the shortcomings of the film as they overshadow the many positives that “Red Sparrow” has to offer as well. First and foremost is James Newton Howard's understated score that the ear will pick up and rely on without cognizant knowledge of doing so until certain refrains are repeated. It fits the early nineties era in which a movie like “Red Sparrow” would have flourished feeling classically epic in its execution. And then there are the performances most notable of which is of course Lawrence who takes some major risks here and while the movie as a whole maybe doesn't payoff what is glimpsed through her capability to carry this thing on her own shoulders should be more than substantial. Sure, you've heard about her accent and how it may or may not flow in and out from scene to scene, but unless you're an expert in Russian accents you're not going to be bothered much. And sure, you've probably heard Lawrence does her first nude scene in the film, but it is (probably intentionally) the furthest thing from being sexy-in fact, the point of the scene is to prove how sex isn't about the image presented, but the attitude. More than these two noted aspects of her performance though, Lawrence allows the audience to buy into this scared, uneasy mentality Dominika possesses throughout much of the film while being able to layer it with how outwardly confident she has to be in order to remain alive. Edgerton is fine as well if not a particularly well-matched love interest for Lawrence while the supporting cast-especially Schoenaerts and a single scene-stealing appearance from Mary-Louise Parker-all turn in committed showings. “Red Sparrow” is beyond brutal, often squirm-inducing, but equally as hollow in large respect and still, when the final moments came the conclusion was surprisingly satisfactory even if the idea the film ultimately relays is that of how our world is often one big, ugly circle of running and reaping what we sow.
by Philip Price
When your movie opens in Oakland you automatically enlist this inherent cool factor that appeals to this child of the ‘80s, especially considering I've watched “The Defiant Ones,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Boyz n the Hood” in the last week. Opening the film with a brief history of the fictional nation of Wakanda, its origins, and how the Black Panther came to be a symbol for the monarchy that reigned over it and a hero to the people who resided within it director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) then drops us into this unsuspecting setting of Oakland, Calif. in the early ‘90s where we are served a series of events that establish the basis for what will fulfill the drama that occurs in Marvel Studios' “Black Panther.” This is a smart move on the parts of both Coogler the director and Coogler the co-writer who, along with Joe Robert Cole roots the beginning of his film in the zeitgeist of hip-hop; when rap was finding its footing and when the world began to take notice of what was being said within the genre. This is most definitely intentional as Coogler no doubt means to draw the comparison to confirm any doubt that “Black Panther” isn't a movement within itself. Though there have been black super hero movies before (in this analogy “Blade” would be your Sugarhill Gang) “Black Panther” is more than a defining moment as there has never been anything this explicitly black in or about a super hero movie before. “Black Panther” doesn't just star an African-American in the lead role as the titular hero, but it is about black culture, about black heritage, and conveys the highs and lows, the good and bad of this world of which I have no rightful place to really speak and so I will trust that when the many black people I do know who have seen the film say it is a real *moment* for their culture and for society in general I will trust that it indeed is. On the other hand, the question is how does “Black Panther” rank in terms of being a piece of entertainment despite Coogler inherently making this about more than just entertaining the masses? Well, it's another in a long line of reliable if not completely singular Marvel movies that tend to only break the mold occasionally. Granted, Marvel has been on something of a hot streak lately mixing up the genres of which inspire their fare (2017 was especially strong) and “Black Panther” is no different in this regard as it, by default of its source material, feels fresher than anything the genre has had to offer in some time even if the potential of all the positive factors going on within the film never seem to be fully realized.
As “Black Panther” is the next in a series of Marvel Studios pictures one would expect the film to have strong ties to at least “Captain America: Civil War” as it was that film that introduced audiences to Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa and his alter ego, Black Panther, but other than a few flashbacks to the death of his father, T'Chaka (John Kani), and the presence of arch nemesis Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who showed up in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” a few years back, “Black Panther” is more or less (and by that I mean more) a standalone story surrounding that of the transition of both T'Challa from boy to man, from prince to king, and that of Wakanda's transition from being a country of closed borders and secrecy to that of sharing their gifts and discoveries with the outside world. What is presumably not too long after T'Challa has taken Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes back to Wakanda to give them safe refuge he and his right-hand bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) venture outside the walls of Wakanda to retrieve Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) a Wakandan spy on mission in another area of Africa as well as being T'Challa's ex-lover whom he wants present for his coronation as king. While Okoye is the ever-loyal soldier of Wakanda Nakia represents the voice in T'Challa's ear that is telling him times are changing and that it is time for Wakanda to change as well; time to stop hiding under their guise of being a third-world country and while not necessarily sharing with the world their advanced technology for the purposes of weaponry rather using their resources to assist in the aid of those suffering around them. This sense of internal conflict is made clear from the earliest moments in “Black Panther” as Wakanda is described as housing five tribes and in the ceremony where T'Challa is to be made king when spiritual leader Zuri (Forrest Whittaker) asks for any challengers to the throne the Jabari Tribe's leader, M'Baku (Winston Duke), makes a play for the crown in ritual combat. In showing us this, Coogler is building the world of Wakanda, immersing the audience in it, while at the same time drawing on events within this setting and highlighting their traditions to create palpable drama and the necessary thematic material that will further support the main conflict as it arises. Speaking of which, on the other side of the world we are introduced to one Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who is working with Klaue to steal a vibranium artifact from a London museum to sell on the black market. When made aware of Klaue's activity, T'Challa, his sister and tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), Okoye, and Nakia inadvertently team-up with CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to stop the deal, but Killmonger has bigger ambitions than simply fattening his bank account.
Speaking to the dramatic and thematic elements of “Black Panther” is to speak to the film's strongest elements. It is in these moments of pure, raw human emotion that bubble to the surface consistently throughout and in between the obligatory action sequences that “Black Panther” displays its greatest strengths. Though we are unsure the circumstances that are taking place in the opening sequence we can sense there is a feeling of great conflict and of drastic decisions. Fast-forward to the present day when T'Challa is getting set to take his father's place and we can again sense the apprehension in Boseman's performance as the titular hero who may not actually be as bold or as fearless as his previous appearance might have led us to believe. One of the most surprising threads in “Black Panther” is that of T'Challa not necessarily being afraid to take on the mantle of king, but more his fear of leading a life without the guiding light that was his father. It isn't the pressures that come along with filling this position, T'Challa still has the aid of his sister and mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), but it is more the fact he will have to move forward in life, making decisions that will no longer be guided by the man he could always look to for advice. These kinds of small feeling, but hugely impactful themes no doubt stem from Coogler's strong ties to his own father and the influence he had on him as a man and as a filmmaker and have thus manifested themselves in the form of the basis for the way in which T'Challa views the world and his sense of self. It is mid-way through the film when this picture, this belief that T'Challa has in his father is altered by a truth revealed via Killmonger's identity and while our hero is forced to face the reality of the situation and the threat Killmonger poses it is the fact that T'Chaka might not have been all his son imagined him to be that hits T'Challa the hardest. Furthermore, Coogler doesn't make it easy on the audience to choose sides making Killmonger's agenda as compelling, deeply personal, and even understandable to a degree even if he goes about trying to accomplish what otherwise might be a justified end in unspeakable ways. Jordan's Killmonger has a right to be angry and a right to want to seek revenge against the Wakandan monarchy while Boseman's T'Challa is understanding of Killmonger's position and even agrees with the injustice of the actions Killmonger finds anger and rage within, but it is in the way the two express themselves and execute their ideas that the true heroes and their rightful legacies are defined; Coogler echoing a Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X type match of philosophies between our protagonist and antagonist. The film’s movement retains its importance and gravitas thanks to these deep-seeded themes and ideas that emerge through the film's somewhat unconventional structure despite the overall product devolving into a predictable mash-up of CGI non-wizardry.
This brings me to the biggest complaint I must lodge against “Black Panther” and it is unfortunate that it is completely out of the hands of Coogler and his crew of actors and department heads that contribute to a majority of what we feel coming across the screen. What is unfortunate is that the majority of what we see on screen is at fault for being the most underwhelming aspect of “Black Panther” and who is to blame is not a single person, but a conglomerate of people and reasons. First and foremost, it is the reliance on CGI that is the real issue here as a film, with a reported budget of $200 million (that's $30 million more than the first “Guardians of the Galaxy”), should not have special effects that look as unfinished and phony as “Black Panther” does. Much of this might have to do with the workload and insufficient number of people available to do such work in the multiple animation houses that bid on such projects for revenue, but there is also the fact that $200 million should maybe be spent more wisely by Marvel Studios on things such as real sets, practical effects, or at least a better sense of merging the practical with the CGI as early action sequences in “Black Panther,” namely the one where T'Challa extracts Nakia, feel tangible and raw as compared to the final, climactic battle between our titular hero and Killmonger that is like watching an actual video game on screen as the underground railroad setting (I see you, Coogler) as well as the two individuals the action is centered around are completely computer generated creations that possess no weight and no real life consequences as a result of the fact. The large battle going on outside on the plains of Wakanda is only marginally better for the more natural looking landscape, but the CGI rhinos and plastic-looking weapons that might as well be what are on the shelves of Wal-Mart's right now make what should feel epic instead feel rather cheap and therefore the audience, rather cheated. At least, I did. With the drama this rich and the thematic elements sky high one could only hope Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who shot the incredibly gorgeous “Mudbound”) might match as much with their visuals, but while Wakanda itself is fully realized and lived-in with the set and production designers more than excelling at the small parts of their jobs they were actually allowed to construct-not to mention the detail-oriented and jaw-dropping costume designs by Ruth E. Carter-the majority of “Black Panther” reveals the ugly truth of the over-reliance Marvel Studios has on computer generated effects (this was apparent in “Thor Ragnarok” as well) to the point it detracts from the overall experience of what could and should have been as monumental looking a film as it certainly feels like this is for a lot of people. That said, Black Panther does manage its large ensemble cast well-with Daniel Kaluuya deserving mention for his role as W'Kabi, Serkis going all-out in what can only be interpreted as a plea to let him do more work without sporting a mo-cap suit, and Jordan just oozing swagger with every move he makes. There is a lot to love here just as much as there is a lot you wish Coogler and co. might have fought for to make it that much better, but while the action is subpar the drama is fantastic and the movie's heart is absolutely in the right place which ultimately makes for an experience that is enthralling if not always visually is at least more often intellectually than not; a genuine rarity in blockbuster filmmaking these days.
by Philip Price
Everything about writer/director Alex Garland's (“Ex Machina”) latest film, “Annihilation,” is subtle; it more alludes to everything than it does outright tell you what it wants you to think or what you should believe. This is key as “Annihilation” still presents a very specific set of circumstances and specific set of details around what is happening within these weird circumstances, but if you're going in for the creature effects and twist endings don't be surprised if you walk out disappointed on both accounts. In fact, as the credits began to roll in my screening the first thing I heard from a viewer seated behind me was a disdainful, "...okay?" as if they were more than a little unsatisfied by the conclusion Garland delivered. It's not hard to see why this might be case though, as most viewers and people in general have been set-up and conditioned to expect explicit answers and resolutions from our mainstream entertainment, but it was clear after Garland's 2015 directorial debut that the filmmaker wasn't interested in pleasing the masses, but more in pondering the possibilities. “Annihilation,” in many ways, is a movie that explores this very phenomenon of what our minds create when prompted and how so often what is imagined is greater than anything the reality of a situation could ever deliver. Each of the leading women who participate in the expedition that takes place in “Annihilation” have certain ideas of what they might encounter when entering "The Shimmer", but none of them really have a grasp on what they're getting themselves into or what lies ahead prior to their journey; each has no doubt imagined what might lie ahead of course, and it is in these ponderings that the reality of what they encounter comes to be so frightening. There is likely a large metaphor of some kind and/or a deeper meaning to the film at large that my limited mind has yet to comprehend, but after an initial viewing what is going on in Garland's latest is more than what can be comprehended in a single viewing. In fact, I almost wanted to re-watch the film again as soon as it finished because I knew what I'd gathered from that first viewing barely scratched the surface. “Annihilation,” I think, is largely a movie about self-destruction with the catalyst of "The Shimmer" serving to personify whatever type of self-destruction the individual viewer might relate to most, at least that's what I'm going with now.
To describe the events of “Annihilation” is to make it sound much more straightforward than it is. In the opening moments of the film we see something akin to a meteor hit a lighthouse and begin to immediately expand. We meet Lena (Natalie Portman) who is a biologist at John Hopkins University where she is presently lecturing a class based on all life on the planet which is to say it is a lecture about cells. We will get many shots of cells dividing throughout “Annihilation,” but this is the first of those that is meant to emphasize "small beginnings". Lena is approached by a fellow professor, Daniel (David Gysai), inviting her to a garden party he and his wife are throwing that weekend that informs the audience Lena's husband is gone and has been for quite some time, that she is still not able to move past this loss, and a slight-more intimate than it should be-gesture from Daniel suggests a history of some sort between them. Lena turns down the invite in favor of re-painting her bedroom over the weekend where, seemingly out of the blue, her husband returns. There is something different about Kane (Oscar Isaac) though, as he seems disoriented and doesn't know how he arrived at their house. During Lena trying desperately to extract even the smallest amount of information from him about where he's been for the last twelve months Kane shows signs that all is not well-with his mind or with his body. In being transported to the hospital a police escort surrounds the ambulance and takes both Kane and Lena to a classified location where Kane is essentially put on life support and Lena is made privy to the details of her husband's last mission that included venturing into "The Shimmer" along with the fact Kane is the only one to have ever made it back out. Lena is updated on what is known about "The Shimmer" via Doctor Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who tells our protagonist that there are many theories around what this mysterious force field of sorts encompasses, but very few facts. Lena subsequently meets the team of Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Radek (Tessa Thompson) who, along with Ventress, are preparing to enter "The Shimmer" themselves as Ventress has watched for three years as she's put together teams just to send them on expeditions and never see them return. Lena, feeling she owes something to Kane, also volunteers to go with the group and so we watch as Lena and Radek's scientists, Thorensen's former EMT, and Ventresse’s psychologist venture into the unknown hoping to find something they don't know to look for.
With a film like “Annihilation” it is easy to get bogged down in the themes and meanings of it all and while this is certainly one of the greatest strengths of such a movie, there is an abundance of other choices that are worth being noted as well. First and foremost is the production design that has been created for the film. If “Ex Machina” surprised everyone a couple of years ago by winning the Best Visual Effects Oscar at the Academy Awards, “Annihilation” has every right to that Production Design trophy in 2019. There is also the facet of pairing this more rural and earthy score with these surreal images that registers a response that recognizes the juxtaposition but isn't sure what to do with it. Back to the production design though, this is very obviously for what is seen within "The Shimmer" and while I hate to talk too much about what we see and what becomes each member of the team's perceived realities when inside "The Shimmer" it is the risks taken here so as to not go overboard and the balance that is found between the revoltingly grotesque and the beautifully ornate that Garland and his team, including Mark Digby (“Slumdog Millionaire”), somehow manage to pull off. Nearly every shot in “Annihilation” has that same color scheme as puddles on the road do when it rains and drops of oil float on the layer of water creating those distinct bands of color. Like the water itself, these images feel translucent in that they are allowing the light in to be projected and for the audience to make them out, but this quality always makes what we're seeing feel as if it's bouncing off something else or refracting which, as you'll see, comes to be a major point in the film and its story. Taking this production design to another level entirely is the way Garland sees these confusing, but intriguing designs that have been created to bring his vision and original book author Jeff VanderMeer's world to life. Garland, though he fancies himself more a writer than anything else, is certainly a director as he consistently finds interesting places to put his camera or even more interesting ways in which to view the events that are taking place in front of us. Never does this really distract from those events as it in fact has the opposite effect of bringing us more into what might have otherwise been a more routine scene. This is especially true early on when Kane first returns home and he is unable to answer any of his wife's questions despite her desperate attempts to reach out to him. At one point, Lena literally reaches out and grabs her husband's weightless hand, but instead of capturing this in a typical two-shot, Garland focuses in on the two hands through the distorted lens a glass of water provides hinting at the importance distortion and refraction will play in the narrative.
Small touches such as this make it feel as if everything Garland writes and shows us in his movies serves some type of purpose. That may sound like an obvious statement or that as much should be the case with every movie, but obviously that's not the case and with Garland, there is a stronger feeling of intent behind this action. Throughout much of “Annihilation” I would watch with the mindset of wondering what the aesthetic choices and colors might mean and/or represent as well as what significance certain lines might hold, but in doing so I likely stopped myself from basking in the bigger picture by focusing so much on these details. I don't know this for a fact, but this inherent realization no doubt had something to do with my urge to re-watch the film immediately after it ended my first time through. So, what is “Annihilation” about exactly? It's a modern parable of sorts it seems-in this volatile age filled with abundant amounts of transparency thanks to social media “Annihilation” is a parable about figuring out who we are, where we belong, what our true desires are, and how to figure out all those things without first self-destructing. There is a scene in the film where Leigh's Dr. Ventress and Portman's Lena discuss how almost no one commits suicide, but almost all of us self-destruct in some way and to different degrees. That these tendencies are impulsive as well as being a part of our biology, they are "built into each cell," Ventress tells Lena. As it turns out, each of the women who venture into "The Shimmer" including Lena have their own reasons for doing as much and while each are performed reliably and endearingly by the talented cast of Thompson, Rodriguez, and Novotny it is no surprise the fates that await each of them as Garland is so confident in his narrative that he informs us at the top of the film what happens to the others on Lena's expedition team. This further emphasizing that “Annihilation” is not about the details of the plot and that its tension isn't held in standard devices such as death as much as it's pointed toward this question of how do we continue to live a fulfilling life as this formation of cells without self-destructing when even the God that made us has the ability to make mistakes; aging being a fault in our genes. Of course, that last sentence could easily set-off a firestorm of counter-arguments based on different interpretations of the word "mistake". Is aging really a mistake if it allows us to better understand and appreciate the best moments and parts of this life we've been granted? Maybe? Maybe not? The point is, with “Annihilation” Garland seems to want to try to find a way to describe the unfathomable and to a certain extent he perfectly captures what it feels like not to be able to explain that very thing he's chasing. Which is probably the point of it all anyway.
by Philip Price
“The 15:17 to Paris” is not a good movie and likely never should have been a movie in the first place.
Prior to “Gone Girl” coming out in 2014 there was an interview with director David Fincher where he stated regarding the adaptation process that, "The book is many things. You have to choose which aspect you want to make a movie from." This is likely what writer Dorothy Blyskal should have done were she to stand the chance of making a compelling picture out of the lives of the three young men that saved a passenger train full of people from being killed by a terrorist in 2015.
There is no disputing what these guys did was heroic and that, if their story was going to be turned into a feature film, that it deserved to be a compelling one, but “The 15:17 to Paris” is not that movie. No, “The 15:17 to Paris” isn't much of a movie at all despite the fact it could be looked at as one of great risk and ambition.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Blyskal's script decides to tell the broad story of the friendship between our three protagonists whom Eastwood decided to cast with the real heroes themselves rather than having actors portray them. Unfortunately, Blyskal not choosing an aspect of these guy's lives to zero in on and make a movie out of essentially separates the picture into two distinct halves: one being the military recruitment ad the first half functions as while the second 45 minutes may as well be a European travelogue with the event we're all in the theater to see being tacked on in the last 20 or so minutes.
This final sequence is the only part of the film that holds any real tension, any real drama, or hint of any real style that resembles that of a film produced by a major studio and made by an Academy Award-winning director. Of course, just as “The 15:17 to Paris” probably never should have been a feature film it was never going to be a feature film in the traditional fashion, but more one that solidified Eastwood is now making statements with his efforts rather than simply pondering and contemplating with his art.
For Eastwood, “The 15:17 to Paris” is the definition of heroism; no qualms, no frills, no debate about it. That's fine and I can appreciate the choice but defining a certain quality doesn't automatically make that representation of the same quality. Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos are heroes, no doubt, but their movie is (unfortunately) terrible.