Annihilation


Viewed – 18 March 2018  Netflix

As much as I’m a fan of Natalie Portman, I confess to not really seeking out her stuff since the acclaimed Black Swan … strange when I consider that one of the best movies of the last ten years.  So I jumped at the chance to check out this latest Netflix Original movie.  Portman plays a biological scientist who following the mysterious disappearance of her military officer husband (Oscar Isaac) gets recruited by a government organisation headed by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  You see, a strange alien encounter has occurred affecting a now closed off area where a strange vapour has cut communications and anyone who has ventured inside, has not come back.

Annihilation

This gritty and scarily-convincing sci-fi drama is helmed by Alex Garland, the man who made Ex Machina, another great thought-provoking piece of sci-fi.  This guy clearly understands his subject and has delivered another very effective experience.  The entire movie has a tone to it that’s rather dream-like and sometimes messes with one’s head; trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.  Add to this flashbacks exploring Portman’s and Isaac’s relationship, with several revelations along the way and this proves a meatier story than it first appears.  The alien ‘presence’ and how it effects the female scientists who go looking for answers is also handled imaginatively and gives an interesting spin on the whole alien-encounter subject, with truly unnerving possibilities.

It takes a while to get going, and is marred by some questionable CGI, and the logic behind the expedition left me a tad puzzled.  However, with strong performances across the board, especially an excellent Portman – this is well worth checking out … especially if you’re after something that will leaving you really thinking afterwards.

Verdict:  4 /5

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Star Wars: Episode VIII


Viewed – 20 December 2017  Cinema

The Last Jedi

After what I’d call the triumphant success of Episode VII: The Force Awakens for re-establishing a much loved franchise and resurrecting it from the ashes of George Lucas’ mostly misguided prequels – I awaited this follow up in the proposed trilogy with no small degree of anticipation.  What would Luke Skywalker say to Rey on top of that mountain?  What would Kylo Ren do in wake of what he did to his own father Han Solo?  I was about to find out…

Following the destruction of star-killer base, Kylo Ren and General Hux lead the First Order in an assault against the resistance to restore rule over the galaxy. Rian Johnson (Looper) takes over directing duties and has delivered what largely looks like a Star Wars movie, has the action and confrontations you’ll expect from a Star Wars movie, but offers up a decidedly different feel than expected following Force Awakens and Rogue One.  This is a much more lighter in tone movie with what appears to be a stronger focus on a somewhat child-friendly audience with as a result, a surprising lack of menace.  Almost every serious situation is sprinkled with humour, sometimes well judged, sometimes out of place.  When two of the main bad guys end up coming off like a squabbling comedy double act, something seemed a little off.

Kylo RenThankfully we do get what we came for, especially Rey (a more mature Daisy Ridley, settling into her role) finding herself getting reluctantly trained by a world-weary and cynical Luke (Mark Hamill), and discovering a telepathic link with Kylo Ren (a still slightly bratty yet complex Adam Driver).  This as expected turns out to be the movie’s beating heart, with the myriad of space battles and daring missions onto enemy starships proving less enthralling (especially that casino sequence).  Finn (John Boyega) again sits awkwardly between hero and bumbling buffoon, with Po (Oscar Isaac) taking a (much appreciated) larger role at the forefront of the dogfights and fancy X-Wing piloting.  However the late Carrie Fisher seems to get put on a pedestal (be it intentionally or following reshoots after the iconic star’s passing) and is bizarrely given a rather God-like stature with one scene in particular just coming out of nowhere, leaving me baffled. She’s great, but her character doesn’t seem to fit in with what we’ve previously known.

That’s ultimately where Episode VIII falls a part.  Characters that we’ve grown to know and love, are poorly handled (Luke included), add to this a Saturday morning cartoon vibe to action, performances and situations, and although I still gasped at certain moments and got the feels where it counted … I also didn’t get all that invested – and I really should have.  For it’s pluses and minuses, this is still a fun, visually spectacular and at times exciting sequel.  Yet as a long time Star Wars fan, it leans closer to those prequels than either the earlier movies or the recent ones … and that’s slightly worrying.

Verdict:  3 /5

X-Men Apocalypse


Viewed – 08 November 2016 Online-rental

An ancient Egyptian mutant, said to be the very first mutant finds himself resurrected in the eighties after thousands of years and is hell-bent on rising up against humanity. However when Dr Xavier stumbles upon his plot, a somewhat disbanded collection of X-Men must unite to save the world.

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

I wasn’t expecting much from this and wasn’t the biggest fan of the previous movie, Days of Future Past which everyone seemed to love (?). However presented with a rather formidable villain from the off and with plenty of colourful and recognizable characters I soon found myself enjoying an X-Men movie again.  Director Brian Singer seems to have swapped that rather convoluted time travel plot-device this time around in place of a more coherent good versus evil battle with a threat of global genocide thrown in for good measure.  It works much better having a simpler narrative in such a complicated universe with so many characters and their various back stories.  Yet the movie cleverly weaves in nods and often funny references to past movies and the comics without beating the viewer over the head.  It made for an experience that was more comfortable and easier to simply enjoy.

Cyclops and Jean GrayThe story took time to build tension, focus on key characters, explore individual motives and convincingly bring them together when required.  Standout performances came from Jennifer Lawrence who this time is more character driven and less kick-ass as Mystique and James McAvoy as the always fascinating Xavier.  I also enjoyed Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse, perhaps his first bad guy role and he nails it – sinister, powerful and visually bad-ass.  It was also fun to see an origin story of Cyclops and to an extent Jean Gray (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner – still not much of an actor, sadly).  However Michael Fassbender’s Magneto whilst good has a character ark that purely services the plot and doesn’t entirely ring true, and well the whole end of the world stuff is particularly clichéd. Yet with often stunning action, some excellent CGI and plenty of energy this 2hr 20min+ movie still zipped along.  For me it’s the best in the franchise since X2 … and probably the most satisfying blockbuster of the year.

Verdict: 5 /5

Star Wars: Episode VII


Viewed – 22 December 2015  Cinema

The Force Awakens

So much will already have been said, written and tweeted regarding this much hyped and highly anticipated seventh episode in the once beloved saga, that my opinion will matter little … but hear me out because to say I have been looking forward to this movie all year, is an understatement.  It’s one of those movies that surely can’t meet the giddy expectations I and many others have bestowed upon it or recapture that wonder and magic I felt on seeing the classic trilogy as a child.  Or can it?

StarWarsTFA

The story follows primarily two characters, that of storm trooper Fin (John Boyega) who has a moment of uncertainty that causes him to flee the first order (the new evil villains in place of the empire), and that of scavenger farm girl Rey (Daisy Ridley – a fantastic find).  The two unwittingly get thrown together and stumble upon wonderfully cute and attitude-filled droid, bb-8 who has a map that could lead to an in-hiding Luke Skywalker’s location.  New bad guy Kylo Ren is searching for him to prevent any possibility of the Jedi’s turning up and wrecking his plans for galactic domination.  Along the way the two would-be heroes find help from two familiar faces, namely Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca.

StarWarsTFA2Now let it be said this movie plays heavy homage to the original three movies, especially the first 1977 classic, with clever in-jokes, subtle nods and a few plot similarities.  However it also manages to sprinkle the old with many fresh ideas of it’s own and with a script that has clearly been written with genuine care for it’s characters whilst ensuring it all feels like a Star Wars movie, I came away from this very impressed indeed.  New faces Fin & Rey do a perfect job of giving us someone new and interesting to invest our time in whilst leaving them mysterious enough to build on in later sequels.  Han Solo, Chewbacca and (formerly Princess now General) Leia (Carrie Fisher) all feel vital to the plot also, with Han especially helping drive the story alongside his younger co-stars.  Add to this a villain with real depth in the shape of Darth Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren and all the ingredients are in place.  Director J J Abrams has done a stellar job, capturing the correct feel and tone and also filling the movie with spectacular action, yet making sure there was all the depth and believable characterisation that had been (for the most part) missing from the prequels.

StarWarsTFA1

I’ll add a few nit picks that are simply that, as this is a movie that does nearly everything right and fixes many issues the prequels (and to an extent) even the original trilogy had – but Supreme Leader Snoke just wasn’t very scary or intimidating and just looked like an out-dated CGI effect (made all the more jarring considering the movie’s otherwise reliance on practical effects).  Also, considering the hype surrounding Kylo Ren’s bad-ass three-pronged light sabre in the trailers; this guy is wielding it every chance he gets (even during a couple of tantrums) and so the build up to him actually using it in a duel is watered down due to over-exposure.  Also the many nods to A New Hope are a bit too blatant at times (and did we really need another death star?).

But … like I said small things in what is easily the best movie in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back.   The Force truly has awakened.

Verdict:  5 /5

Ex_Machina


Viewed – 29 January 2015  Cinema

Simply, a single image made me want to see this.  A girl’s pretty face but with a transparent neck where a mechanical bone structure and wires were visible within.  I love science fiction, but there’s been too many movies that have just been throwaway pop corn fluff with sci-fi wrapping that haven’t really got me thinking about the possibilities of technology and what it could mean for our future.  Thankfully this is one such film that really massaged my imagination.

Ex-Machina-Movie-Official-Trailer

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson)  is a coder at a renowned internet company (think: Google) who wins the chance to spend a week at the home of the company’s reclusive CEO and discover just what he’s been working on behind closed doors.  Once there he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who soon tells him he will be involved in a series of tests with an artificial intelligence called ‘Ava’.

I loved this premise, a single albeit beautifully high-tech (homes of the future) setting and three characters all very different and complex.  Ava, played by the exquisite Alicia Vikander is a revelation – human but subtly artificial, brought to life by not only Alicia’s vulnerably sexy and nuanced performance but also a ground-breaking special effect – she really does look like half girl / half machine with a stunning design with transparent arms, legs and stomach etc.  It harks back to I-Robot with a hint of ‘Hal’ out of 2001 A Space Odyssey and even Hayley Joel Osmet’s performance in A.I.  I loved every moment she was on screen.  Domnhall’s Caleb is equally complex and fascinating, the kid in the candy store but unaware of just what he’s getting himself into … should he find Ava attractive?  Should he really befriend her?  What will the tests all mean for her eventually?  Isaac’s Nathan is less appealing however – a drunken, somewhat clichéd ‘damaged’ genius who clearly is a bit of a bastard, but his presence still fills the movie with an uncertainty, beings as he’s the only one who really knows what’s going on.

I was puzzled by Caleb’s lack of amazement on first seeing Ava … his reaction to such a technological achievement more ‘ok, that’s cool’ – like he sees such like every day.  I’d have also liked to learn more about him too, apart from his parents being in a car crash – what made him really tick?  Nathan is also a pretty blank canvas.  So that leaves Ava, who thankfully doesn’t need a back story – she’s a robot after all, but probably the strongest light in this very different and at time freaky movie.  As a directing debut this is a bold and gripping story from Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) and shows he’s a voice (and visionary) to really take note of … who has probably delivered one of the best true science fiction tales we’ve seen in a long time.

Verdict:  4 /5