3 1/2 (out of 4)
After penning poignant efforts in 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go and directing one of the best science fiction films of the decade in 2015's Ex Machina, novelist, screenwriter and now writer-director Alex Garland has returned with an even more ambitious, disturbing and thought-provoking picture in the psychedelic, lovecraftian sci-fi thriller Annihilation.
Leading a cast of several strong female characters and Oscar Isaac, Natalie Portman does her best as cellular biologist Lena, the only one of five women to survive an expedition into the Shimmer (including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny), an ever expanding area as the result of a mysterious meteor crash, from which nothing returns yet will engulf the earth if nothing is done.
The framing device, in which the story is recollected through Lena's questioning after the fact, lends a Willy Wonka-like plot progression as each of the five main characters is picked off one by one. This leaves Annihilation with a dark yet deflated structure, an otherwise great film’s only true flaw, apart from moment or two of uninspired dialogue.
The screenplay's delicately layered themes touch on duality, cancer and the unknown, and the intelligent scripting usually forgives any flat acting or excessive exposition. The digital photography is also sublimely sickly to behold, especially in its wordless, visually ambitious and subconsciously surreal climax. The final act of Annihilation is a beautiful payoff to superb mounted anticipation as the film officially enters a constant state of mind-bending strangeness and shocks as the movie barrels toward its conclusion.
Fearlessly weird and fiercely creative, Annihilation is confident and original enough to remain on the lips of critics until the end of 2018 even if doesn't presently connect with audiences.
3 (out of 4)
As the streamlined sameness of Marvel movies becomes more repetitive with each successive film, these slightly more daring solo stories – 2016's Doctor Strange was radical by the studio's standards – break up the humdrum even if they still strictly follow the checklist for Disney-approved capeshit. So is Black Panther the greatest movie ever or just a competent blockbuster? Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a box office performance set to outpace the original Avengers for the highest grossing MCU film, seem to place that obvious rhetorical question into a serious light for some people.
Black Panther gets several things right, putting it more than a cut above your usual Marvel flick. The performances have dramatic weight, and the humor is kept to a minimum; the world-building, while flaky and not fleshed out, is interesting when it is in focus; and most importantly, there are no pointless connections to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the after the credits. The action is sparse, leaving room for an array of new heroes and conflicts – the fight sequences, though nothing more than filler, are better in general for how much the film commits to characters above all else.
Should Black Panther earn bonus points for diversity though? On some level of course, but no matter how many POCs are included, that alone cannot elevate Black Panther as filmmaking. As much of a cultural moment this film is for its inclusivity on the Hollywood blockbuster stage, it'll never resonate through the years as a watershed superhero film like The Dark Knight or the first Spider-Man by just being pretty good otherwise.
Black Panther is assuredly one of the best Marvel film's to date, and yet it's forgettable, predigested and predictable – impressive in its own context but overall nothing worth carrying on about so much.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Adept and engaging enough to please youngins all around, Early Man sadly does not possess the universality or subtle humor that can entertain all ages equally like the best of Aardman's claymation films.
That isn’t to say that the handcrafted visual delights and predictable yet speedy script won’t elicit many a chuckle from any viewer. The typically ugly, wide-mouthed characters and particular details of this prehistoric comedy are frequently amusing. But the satire of primitive man that makes up the movie’s highlight moments and funniest jokes are undone by an underdog sports movie structure that plays out free of any surprises.
Though the effort behind these projects is always easy to appreciate, the simple structure and basic emotions of Early Man make it hard to recommend when the likes of Laika are putting out little masterpieces with every attempt. The talented voice cast completely disappears behind our bug-eyed characters despite the big names like Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Timothy Spall making up our main character. Only Richard Ayoade voicing a husky caveman character continually embarrassed by his mother stood out to my ears.
Effortlessly diverting but less than stimulating, Early Man is still the best children's film you will see for some time when the likes of Peter Rabbit are the alternative.
To keep it brief...