Annihiliation

A film that does the big things well and messes up the small things.

The world-building is beautiful – the shimmer, the flora, the fauna. The ideas present are fascinating – the notion of cells multiplying and spreading, the doppergänger, the unreliable narrator, the ambiguity. The notion that we are self-destructive beings one way or another.

These parts I loved.

But then it goes and forgets that there has to be a plot that makes sense. It doesn’t have to be totally explained, and it can leave unanswered questions. But it can’t be stupid.

Example.  If I had just encountered a huge mutant alligator, the very last thing I would do is immediately go out on the river in a tin boat. That’s just daft.

And can we please have a little more to the characters than biologist, psychologist, addict, self-harmer – the labels did these women no favours at all.

 

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The Godfather Part III (1990)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

Oh. I knew this wasn’t in the same league as the previous two, but I had remembered it as a bit better than I found it this time.

Clearly Ms Coppola (as Michael’s daughter Mary) is a massive weak link, and her relationship with Andy Garcia’s Vincent is absolutely terrible and a huge mis-step.

But what makes this even worse is the amount of shadowing, mimicry and call-backs to the previous films. Yes, we need to know it’s in the same world, but it’s almost a pantomime.

Una Mujer Fantástica – A Fantastic Woman

The word is dignity.

Daniela Vega imbues Marina with such dignity, and it makes beautiful viewing. It’s a stunning, delicate performance which deserves all the plaudits it is receiving.

The film is rooted in the truth of Marina’s situation, the resilience she finds to deal with her travails and the choices she makes as to when to comply and when to stand up for herself. The ordinariness of her life exists side by side with the extraordinariness of her situation, and director Sebastián Lelio has woven a beautiful, fantastic tale about a very fantastic woman. It was an honour to meet her.

The Shape of Water

Such a beautiful, nuanced performance from Sally Hawkins, an actress who, in the past, I’ve found a little too gurn-y for my linking. But here she is perfect as Elisa, a woman who doesn’t speak yet can convey her feelings with the tiniest of gestures.

In much the same manner as Pan’s Labyrinth, director Guillermo del Toro uses a fairy tale to tell a darker story. Acceptance of otherness is the theme here, with most of the characters finding ways to reach out through their loneliness to make connections with people.

 

Lady Bird

With a sigh of relief I can say that this wasn’t as bad as I anticipated.

That may sound a bit odd given the acclaim with which it has been received, but I have struggled to enjoy Greta Gerwig in front of the camera, and had a really hard time watching Frances Ha, so I was actually dreading watching Lady Bird.

What I have concluded is that for me, Gerwig is much better behind the camera than in front.

Although I didn’t connect with the story in the same way that many have (Lady Bird’s circumstances and relationships aren’t mine and I think you have to have a similar experience to get the full impact of the story), I can appreciate what’s going on.

And while we all love Timotheé Chalamet, please give Lucas Hedges something good to do – I really like his work.

Mute

I love Moon and so desperately wanted Mute to be good as we had waited so long for it.

You’ve probably already work out then that this unfortunately fell well short of expectations.

What starts out as a futuristic neo-noir with Leo searching for his missing girlfriend abruptly turns in to a very different film about some nasty people in whom we have nothing invested. There are also several strangely flapping loose ends which concerned me. Where has Leo’s family gone? Why does he choose his current life style in neon technology land given that he is still clearly attached to his Amish upbringing (and does the fact that he is Amish even matter? It isn’t explored at all.)

The two strands kind of meet up towards the end, but it’s too neat.

I wish someone had had a quiet word in director Duncan Jones’ ear about the way his female characters are portrayed. ‘Characters’ is a bit of an overstatement, really. Leo’s girlfriend Naadirah, who goes missing early on, works as a waitress in a lap-dancing club wearing only her underwear. Most of the women are dancers, waitresses or sex workers, and wear very little. There is a gratuitous shot of Naadirah in the shower, and completely unnecessary views of young girls wearing very short skirts bending over. There is no sophistication to it, and it actually makes Blade Runner feel like a feminist tale.

The world-building and technological ideas are beautiful, and the sly nods to the fact that it is the same universe as Moon are nicely done. But I had so desperately wanted to like this film that the disappointment was difficult to shake off.

Red Sparrow

In Jennifer Lawrence’s fourth collaboration with director Francis Lawrence (previously having worked together on three of the Hunger Games films), Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova – a highly talented Russian ballet dancer who also cares for her sick mother. But her career is cut short by a terrible injury, and her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers to help her find a new way to make a living. Trouble is, Uncle Vanya works for a Russian secret intelligence service and has manipulated her into training as a spy. With no obvious way of backing out safely, Dominika must work out how to use the situation to her own advantage – if that is even possible.

We follow Dominika through a perverse and sadistic training regime (“whore-school”, as she calls it) until she is ready for her first mission, which brings her into contact with American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). From that point on, the narrative takes so many twists and turns that it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers, but those twists really keep the audience on its toes so that although we know what’s going on, we’re never quite sure why, which side everyone is on, and who to trust. It’s very well done.

Those who wondered if this was the origin story that Marvel’s Black Widow should have had will discover that not to be the case at all. The violence and attacks are much more brutal than anything in a Marvel film. A couple of times this coward had to look away as something too gruesome was on screen. It’s clear that, when she’s in control of the situation, Dominika can take care of herself. But there are times when she appears to be the victim of violence, particularly sexual violence, for little reason at all and these parts made for more uncomfortable viewing.

However Jennifer Lawrence acquits herself well while showing an unnecessary amount of side-boob, and this time her ‘romantic’ interest (Edgerton) is only 16 years her senior. One day she’ll be paired with someone nearer her own age.

Joel Edgerton himself does a good job as the CIA agent, but he has little to work with really. And the Russian trio of Zakharov (Ciarán Hinds), Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) ham it up nicely in the corridors of power, with Schoenaerts in particular serving up his character with a side order of chilling, sleazy malevolence throughout.

Special mention to a small but key role played by Mary-Louise Parker who turns up and steals the show with her two scenes.

And so despite some of the strong violence, I had a much better time watching this than I had any right to expect, although its 2 hour 19 minute runtime could definitely have used a little edit here and there. There were certainly enough cutting tools on screen to have helped out in that department.

A version of this post first appeared at www.themovieisle.com

I, Tonya

It took a while for it to dawn on me that many people, including I, Tonya’s star and producer Margot Robbie, would be unaware of the real life events that inspired this darkly comedic portrayal of one of the greatest scandals in sport. In the build-up to Olympic figure skating selection in 1994, Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan was viciously attacked, and suspicion immediately fell on Harding and her entourage. The scandal followed her for years.

Building on interviews with Tonya Harding (Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the story focuses less on whether Harding was complicit or even involved in The Incident, and more on presenting a profile of her as a product of her very troubled background, and how she became the best in her field as a result.

Margot Robbie does a fabulous job as Tonya Harding, but I have mixed views about the rest of the film. By the end, there is no doubt that we have huge sympathy for Harding, and this is a definite highlight. Harding is not only the hero of her own story, she is also very much a victim of life, circumstance and the people who surround her.  It’s felt the most pointedly at the end, when the consequences of ‘The Incident’ hit Tonya harder than anyone else in her circle. It’s just not fair. Tonya just wants to be loved. For a fleeting moment she had that in her career but things conspired to take it all away.

Covering huge swathes of Harding’s life to give the audience background to her world view, the film steps away from a more traditional biopic approach. It recreates interviews with the real life characters, interspersing these with the dramatic action and a sprinkling of fourth-wall breaking thrown in for good measure. It is this combination which keeps the narrative moving along at a pace, and manages to keep things light, despite the clearly appalling events.

But this is not without its problems. I felt very uncomfortable laughing at a film with such a heavy proportion of scenes of domestic violence – sometimes the comedy falls even as the abuse is playing out on screen. Tonya suffers physical abuse from a number of quarters from a very early age, and while balancing the darker side of the story with comedy allows the difficult parts of the narrative to be more easily absorbed, it can lead to an uncomfortable juxtaposition and lessen the impact of the abuse.

The musical choices also tread a fine line between being smartly perfect and just a little on the nose, and I suppose the fact that I noticed means that I fall on the less positive side.

But what can’t be argued over are the performances of not only Robbie, but Alison Janney as Tonya’s outrageously pushy mother LaVona, and Paul Walter Hauser as ‘bodyguard’ Shawn Eckhardt.

It’s a movie which balances its lighter and darker sides very precariously, and I guess the extent to which the viewer likes the film will depend largely on how far they are willing to go along with that balance. Personally, I felt uncomfortable, but appreciative of the effort.

A version of this post first appeared at www.themovieisle.com

Black Panther

Hail King T’Challa!

The Black Panther character was an exciting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War and his appearance headlining his own story does not disappoint.

The opening scene beautifully sets out the story of Wakanda with some gorgeously crafted imagery to aid the story-telling. Wakanda is a beautiful country. It has rolling fields ideally suited to agriculture, snow-capped mountains, and cascading waterfalls. It is a peaceful nation, with its five tribes putting their differences aside and working together to maintain a civilisation that is largely untroubled by violence. It is also a technologically advanced society, untouched by colonial invaders, which has chosen to keep its technology to itself rather than run the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. As a result, Wakanda has gone to remarkable lengths to keep its true potential hidden, allowing itself to be regarded globally as a third world nation.

What is especially pleasing about this set up is that none of the above information is required from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Black Panther can be enjoyed as a standalone movie in its own right, although it does touch on enough references for the knowledgeable audience to see where the connections are.

The cast is extremely strong. Chadwick Boseman is every inch a leader as T’Challa – charismatic, honourable, but perhaps flawed. He commands allegiance. His nemesis (or at least, one of them) is Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan); also charismatic but slightly less honourable. It’s a sign of good story-telling that the ‘villain’ here has understandable reasons for wanting his revenge, to the extent that it’s not a great stretch to accept that some people might even take his side.

The threads of kinship and culture, bondage and oppression are woven throughout the story, as parallels between Erik’s childhood experiences in California and the African peoples enslaved are drawn.

I’ll admit that I am deliberately skirting around the obvious talking point here. The buzz around how important this film is with regard to its black cast, its messages of anti-colonisation, anti-slavery, anti-oppression and empowerment, is not lost on me. But I genuinely feel that it’s not my place to even try to convey the significance of this; as a white person who has clearly no idea of living a black experience, I don’t feel qualified. I’ll leave that to those who can more eloquently express the impact this will undoubtedly have.

Where I do feel I can lend my voice though is in delivering praise for the writing and portrayal of the female characters. Not one of them is there for purely decorative reasons. Although there are vague romantic connections these are not the main reasons why the women are there. They are all strong in their own right, with well-defined roles, purpose and agency. It’s hard to choose a favourite – it could easily be Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, an intelligent spy and kickass warrior. Or it could be Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of King T’Challa’s bodyguard and fiercely loyal to Wakanda. (Also, she goes out for the evening anticipating having to fight – and wears flat shoes like a boss!!) It could even be Angela Bassett just for being Angela Bassett (T’Challa’s mother Ramonda). But the woman who brought me most joy was Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s scientifically gifted younger sister. She is enthusiastic, funny, clever and kickass, and always has just the right comment at the right time. She’s kind of like a cooler version of Bond’s Q and I loved her.

If I’m being very picky, I thought some of the CG was a little lacking in places – mostly during battle scenes, where there didn’t always seem enough physical weight to the fighters. I also missed some of the Black Panther’s feline moves which seemed to be more prevalent in Captain America: Civil War.

This is, though, a very different snapshot of the Marvel Universe. There is very little movement around the world in Black Panther; the majority of the story takes place inside the borders of Wakanda, and spending so much time there makes it feel truly real. Ryan Coogler has carved himself his own niche in the MCU, and it is a joy to behold.

A version of this post first appeared at The Movie Isle

Нелюбовь – Loveless + Q&A

A week in advance of the official UK release, Manchester’s leading independent cinema (and my own personal favourite) HOME brought the cinema-going citizens of the region a preview screening of Loveless followed by a Q&A with director Andrey Zvyagintsev and producer Aleksandr Rodnyanskiy. Loveless is nominated for an Academy Award this year in the ‘Foreign Language Film’ category and is the director’s second nomination – his first being three years ago for Leviathan.

The film follows a mother and father – going through an acrimonious divorce and both already with other partners – who find themselves thrown back together when something terrible befalls their son.

We spend time first with one parent as they navigate the working day and then move on to their evening date, and then the other parent, picking up clues as to why their relationship has failed along the way – and realising that neither one is probably entirely to blame. We’re not meant to take sides. Love – and the ensuing failed relationships – are complicated. Complicated enough for the adults at their centre. But in one short devastating shot, we see just how traumatic the breakup is for the couples’ son. It’s brief, but plunges a dagger into the heart.

While there is no doubt that the film’s title is an apt one, pockets of the full audience laughed quite heartily at some moments which occasionally puzzled me – until it became obvious during the Q&A that these were Russians, or people who know Russia well, and who were clearly picking up on cultural references which just didn’t come across in the subtitle translations. I love that kind of thing – it always brings something extra to a screening.

Zvyagintsev said on more than one occasion during the Q&A that he did not regard himself as a political film maker. And yet I have the impression he was being a little crafty in his responses; I see no way that political commentary on contemporary Russian life is not present in this film. It’s there in the disinterest of the police, the proliferation of vanity and consumerism among the rising middle classes, radio broadcasts of events in Ukraine. While the official public authorities are next to useless in the crisis, a group of local volunteers does the most to help and support the parents. It’s also interesting to note the amount of times technology intervenes in, or sometimes gets in the way of, communication. Selfies, Skype and cell phones abound, serving to emphasise the distance and often coldness between friends and relatives.

Wrapped in some beautiful, glacial cinematography, Loveless is a personal story with a political undertone which haunts long after the final image.

A version of this post first appeared at The Movie Isle.