Directed By: Alex Garland
Written By: Alex Garland (based on the novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez 


What comes next after pulling apart the distinctions between human sentience and A.I sentience? Surely pulling apart the distinctions between human beings, nature, time, and the universe as we know it.

Alex Garland’s 2014 directorial debut Ex Machina, by means as exhilaratingly visceral as they were intellectual (as is the penchant of the best science fiction cinema), honed in on sexuality and ego to brilliantly collapse the emotional boundaries delineating humans from their artificial counterparts. Not one to take a backwards step, for his next existential musing (Annihilation) Mr Garland has dropped us in the sort of trippy milieu that sci-fi lives for—“the shimmer” as it’s known in this particular instance— an ever-expanding alien ecosystem growing out of the U.S’ Southern coast which many have entered in the vain hope of unlocking its mysteries, but from which only a single soul has ever returned.

Oscar Isaac is that soul, a military man named Kane who arrives back at home after a year of MIA to meet his weeping wife (biologist Lena who had assumed him dead, played by Natalie Portman) in the bedroom the two used to share—or has he? Something is evidently off. To any questions Lena logically asks, Kane can only respond “I don’t know”, words we’ll hear often throughout the film—a telling refrain for a film that so courageously refuses to place its viewer on steady ground.

There are very few certainties offered in Annihilation, but what we do know is that  “the shimmer”, after Lena teams with four other women as part of a research expedition earmarked for the alien territory, is a sub-world populated with all manner of impossibly cross-bred flora and fauna. It’s an arena through which Mr Garland audaciously deconstructs the boundaries between humanity and nature, (like he did humans and androids previously) commenting along the way on man’s inextricable bond, and thus obligation to, his environment. That would be one reading at least. Perhaps what Alex Garland is actually commenting on is humankind’s propensity for self-destruction; or perhaps he’s commenting on the notion that evil is predicated on difference; or, more simply, on the randomness of the universe; I can’t say for sure, nor could anyone, which is tantamount to the film’s success.

Annihilation isn’t short on boldness then, tossing up as many questions as it does gut-wrenching thrills, and underlining it all with an ostentatious ambiguity. I can’t tell you a great deal about what happens in the film, partly of course because of spoilers, but chiefly because it’s just not possible. To borrow Winston Churchill’s description of Soviet Russia, Annihilation is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma— a film that is as compulsively watchable as it is intellectually evocative, taunting us with its incessantly cryptic demeanour as though it’s daring us to extract our own morality and meaning from the spectacular, immersive, macabre tableau it presents.

It’s difficult to banish thoughts of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, or, from more recent times, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! when viewing Annihilation, films which make similar use of ambiguity to both stimulate and herald a perverse funhouse effect— Garland’s enigmatic narrative is an exhibition in sustained unease; to watch Annihilation is to feel as though you have woken from a walking slumber inside a blackened house in which you’ve never been before.


It’s not all seamlessly executed. It’s one thing for a film to champion dread, it’s another to eschew humanity for portent. What troubles Annihilation is that it succumbs to its own severity and strains for profundity to enrapture us as fully as Lynch’s or Aronofsky’s best.It’s a portentousness which comes to plague the film’s characters as much as its narrative, the mutually damaged quintet of women who embark on the expedition (alongside Portman stands Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) are each so brooding and joyless that they inevitably make for pretty miserable, and, more problematically, tiring company. These characters can’t help but pale in interest compared to their mission.

But what Annihilation lacks in humanity it more than caters for in intrigue— a stunning exercise in white-knuckle suspense, bolstered by Garland’s keen eye for arresting visuals; his alien world a catalogue of stunning vistas and Frankenstein-like creatures as malevolent as they are striking, all lensed by ­Ex Machina photographer Ron Hardy who amalgamates elegance with ghostliness.

And anchoring it all is that challenge which Garland so daringly insists upon, the director urging us to feel our way through his film’s ethos, to find our own way to our feet after he has whirled us away and hurled to the floor in the most unfamiliar of settings, as though he were some Kansan hurricane. Alex Garland doesn’t merely task us with finding the answers, he tasks us with finding the questions, allowing Annihilation to provide the one-two punch that streams through only the most ambitious and effective science fiction thrillers— socking the stomach whilst sparking the mind.




Black Panther

There are a string of inevitabilitiesBlack-Panther-poster-main-xl tethered to every new instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Vast box-office receipts are a guarantee (Marvel has accumulated such a devoted fanbase that any director could sleepwalk to a three-hundred-million-dollar hit.) An elite, top-of-its-game ensemble is another. There’s a level of quality control too, below which it has become seemingly impossible for Marvel’s cinematic projects to sink below.

But flip the coin and one will find less flattering inevitabilities: a certain element of beaten path adherence, of structural routine and formula as sure-fire as a Stan Lee cameo, and the forever looming fear that each MCU instalment has the prescribed fate of dazzling fleetingly before consigning to the role of a cog in the larger machine.

How could each individual stroke of the brush not be awash in the larger canvas, when said canvas is this dense? We’ve had eighteen MCU movies now, all in quick order. Sure, James Bond has had 24 instalments, but at least they’ve been spaced out over nearly 60 years. Marvel’s self-produced series of movies have all come in less than ten.

The question then, is how a director can leave their fingerprints on a cinematic cosmos that dwarfs any one person. Taika Waititi made a valiant effort with his kinetic, off-kilter comedy in Thor: Ragnarok. James Gunn fared even better with his unabashedly nostalgic treatment of Guardians of the Galaxy (both volumes.) But no one has accomplished that unenviable task to the degree of Ryan Coogler, who, with Black Panther, has made for mine the finest MCU movie yet.

Here is a film that feels alive and new, paying its debts to the larger franchise that houses it, whilst standing discerned upon its own two feet. More than a Marvel movie made by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is a Ryan Coogler movie made with Marvel resources, touting a look, sound and centricity on character that begets unprecedented shades of originality in this ever-expanding cinematic tapestry.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Coogler is such a fine fit for the job— he’s both a natural custodian of the onscreen black experience (an integral ingredient of Black Panther’s unique identity; never has a superhero movie immersed itself in black culture as this film does), and a natural at breathing fresh life into seemingly exhausted material, ala Creed.

Where the fresh life in that prior movie manifested itself in a staggering cinematic flair, an injection of new personalities and a reconfiguring of old ones however, Black Panther’s manifests itself in the grafting of an entirely original landscape that is populated with faces that are as engaging as they are pleasantly unfamiliar.

Wakanda is the setting, a third world African country to the naked eye, but one that underneath its guise is the most advanced nation in the world. The cornerstone of Wakanda’s secret advancement is vibranium, the most valuable, dexterous material in the world which happened upon the Wakandans via a meteorite crashing into their turf some centuries ago, and which the natives have subsequently laced throughout their technology and infrastructure to build a super civilisation.


And it’s a pretty cool civilisation to look at. Think of Wakanda as Earth’s very own Asgard, rife with shimmering neons and labyrinths of towering skyscrapers, interspersed with stretches of lush green mountainsides and cascading waterfalls. It’s a sleek futurism carefully imbued with parcels of ancient Africana, where the tribal and space-age cross; an indelible blend. Imagine Blade Runner meets David Lean meets Madagascar. And the soundtrack follows suit, Ludwig Goransson’s score niftily underlining contemporary hard-edged hip-hop with primitive tribal rhythms. Even at base level, this is a film with a flavour all its own.

One element that is somewhat familiar is the Black Panther himself, who we first brushed shoulders with in Civil War. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, the man inside the suit and assumer of Wakanda’s throne, continuing Marvel’s implacable habit of note-perfect casting. Boseman serves as a model of quiet nobility and understated intensity in the title role, whilst lightly dashing that steely demeanour—“I never freeze” T’Challa tells his sister before embarking on an assignment, insulted he wold have his level-headedness queried—with the faintest traces of vulnerability as he grapples with his new duties as head of his people.

Boseman mines considerable vitality from T’Challa, but the truth is there isn’t all that much to the character outside of his proficiency in combat and his wrestles with Kingship. A less intelligent screenplay mightn’t have known exactly what to do with him. Thankfully Coogler, who co-wrote Black Panther with Joe Robert Cole, does. Together the two writers open-up their narrative’s field of vision to situate T’Challa in the drama not as a focal point, but as a central figure in a larger ensemble populated with characters who can each command the story when needed.

Letitia Wright plays Shuri, T’Challa’s kid sister and the Q to his Bond, running circles in the tech-savvy stakes around even Marvel’s own Tony Stark. She’s also a perennial scene stealer, her firecracker energy and budding sass allowing her to own the camera at will.


If Shuri’s the brains, then fellow women Nakia and Okoye offer much of the brawn. Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Guirira play the warriors respectively, the former a spy and T’Challa’s ex-lover, the latter the head of Wakanda’s special forces unit, both bearers of a finely tuned moral compass and a penchant for bad-assery. These are women not to be messed with, and characters who Coogler isn’t afraid to task with much of the story’s heavy lifting. No need for assistance from the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers here.

Daniel Kaluya (Oscar nominated for Get Out) has a more volatile moral compass, torn by his duty to Wakanda and his malice for colonialists. But no one intrigues more than Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Marvel’s most compelling villain to date, a fierce warrior in his own right who invades Wakanda to irreparably up-end the nation’s status quo.

Rare is the action film that extends its villain this degree of empathy. Not only is Killmonger a viable threat to our heroes, but he’s also a man with an ethos and a scheme born out of an understandable logic. It’s certainly true that the violent means outweigh the end, but this is an end that, at least in small part, is to be sympathised with, ushering  with it a racial consciousness that film’s of this nature seldom have the nerve to hold—a complete subversion of the evil for evil’s sake antagonists even Marvel’s  most thoughtful writer’s so regularly resort to.

Not since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has a comic-book film so seamlessly reconciled blockbuster and art-house sensibilities; has a filmmaker reconciled their own artistic ambitions with their studio’s. If there’s one demarcating factor for Black Panther, it is that; that breadth of vision, that scope of character, that leaving an auteuristic impression on a film that is inherently corporate in conception. Black Panther, more than a box-office venture or a precursor to the next Avengers movie, is a Ryan Coogler film; a sophisticated character study with its hands and feet locked in moral considerations. Black Panther is also as much the new MCU benchmark as it is a watershed moment for the genre in all. Suffice to say, Infinity Wars has its work cut out for it.




Obligatory Oscar Prediction Blog Post (2018)

With the Oscars only days away, and now that all of our major award show indicators are out of the way, I suppose it’s time for another obligatory Oscar Prediction Blog Post in which I endeavour to get inside the Academy’s head and forecast who will take home what is alleged to be cinema’s top prize.


Before I do, as always, it’s worth stating that awards and art aren’t always the most natural bedfellows. As many have said before (most recently Sam Rockwell who is earmarked for his own Oscar this year,) there’s no rational way to determine who is objectively the best in a form where everyone is striving towards a different goal, is appealing to different tastes, and was created under different circumstances.

Movies aren’t like sports, in which competitors aim to cross the line first or score the most points, and if they do then it reasons to stand that they were fundamentally better. How can you put a wordless performance like Sally Hawkins’ from The Shape of Water against a towering, diatribe-laden exercise in fierceness like Francis McDormand’s turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and say who did it best. Did what best? They were asked to do different things. If you truly wanted to gain an objective insight as to who did it best, you would have to get 5 actors/actresses to play the same exact role and evaluate from there. And even then, it’s still a matter of taste. Come to think of it, why do the Academy even segregate men and women in the acting categories? They don’t in any other field, and last I checked biology has little to do with artistic merit. But that’s beside the point.

Irrationality aside, I can’t pretend I don’t love watching the Academy Awards, cheering on my favourites to win and spitting the dummy when they don’t. If nothing else, at least the Oscars give us a reason to celebrate movies, and it gives me another reason to talk about some of 2017’s best films.


On to Best Picture prediction

Lady Bird

Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Written By: Greta Gerwig 
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein

lady_bird_ver2There’s a beautiful line about midway through Lady Bird in which a paper, written by
our eponymous character, is remarked upon by the school principal as showing a great love and care for Lady Bird’s much maligned hometown of Sacramento. “I guess I pay attention” Lady Bird replies, playing cursorily polite contrarian. “Don’t you think they’re maybe the same thing?” the gentle and wise Sister replies. “Love, and attention?” It’s the chief insight in a film teeming with insights, each gorgeous and evocative in their own unique way. It’s also a notion which permeates the making of Greta Gerwig’s solo writing and directorial effort, as much as it does its in-story dogmas.

Greta Gerwig is someone who has obviously paid close attention in life, to the people and settings which have shaped her. We know this because there is a stunning perceptiveness to her filmmaking, a raw humanity that brims with affection for the world, even as it mocks the inscrutable characters and abundant injustices, big and often small, which comprise it.

Like Annie Hall and Boyhood before it, you’d swear that Lady Bird was an autobiographical work, that it’s events were lifted from Ms Gerwig’s own personal diary, so rich and full and steeped in specificity they are. I’m not sure exactly how autobiographical Lady Bird is, there are certainly basic overlaps between the life of the protagonist and the life of her creator that are apparent (Catholic school, Sacramento, a gravitation to the arts, the period in which they cusped on adulthood—the film is set in 2002.) But what’s certain is that lushness of detail is there indomitably, paving the way for an emotional honesty that films rarely attain. It also allows Lady Bird in the process to effortlessly exceed the coming-of-age Hollywood trappings its screenplay flirts with.

The rhythms of fiery, angsty, self-contradictory 17-year-old Christine McPherson’s life (aka Lady Bird, played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan) aren’t all that different from the litany of coming-of-age undertakers before her. There’s the obligatory contrived strain for identity, hence the ardent rejection of her birth name—“Lady Bird? Is that your given name?” one teacher asks of our on-again-off-again heroine. “Yes. It was given to me by me.” There’s the boy trouble, firstly in the form of the neat and well-to-do nice guy harbouring hidden troubles (played with poignance by Lucas Hedges); and then in the form of the not-so-nice and fantastically pretentious Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) who reads literature as he sits upon car hoods and laments society’s enslavement to technology and capitalism. There’s the bid for popularity at the expense of one’s true self, where Lady Bird opts to trade in her most trusted compatriot Julie (a bubbly innocent played by a luminous Beanie Feldstein) for a bitchier, sleeker, more socially accepted model (Odeya Rush). There’s the episodic familial spats, which run cyclically and predictably, like they’re tuned to a clock; and the inevitable, unenviable task of planning for adulthood, chiefly expressed here as Lady Bird applies for East Coast colleges, hoping they’ll be her means of liberation from the monotonous drear that is Sacramento.


These episodes are ostensibly familiar, but Gerwig’s delicate nature and generosity of spirit breathe unique life into them. They are not so much bumps on Lady Bird’s road to coming-of-age, as they are their own overlayed miniature movies, chapters which play out not sequentially, but concurrently. Most films adopt a structure in which they firstly arrange their pieces, build the tension, then conclude with the emotional release. Lady Bird is a film in which all of life is happening all the time, each episode rendered with its own emotional peaks and valleys, its own brand of indelible wisdom, its own gut-punching, heart-tearing, uproarious emotional catharses. Those episodes are also comprised of their own ensembles, Gerwig looking beyond Lady Bird’s field of vision to pay those who surround her a level of attention that Lady Bird herself so often neglects to extend.

I wish I could rattle off a list of the film’s key moments and lines, the big and the small, like when Lady Bird’s melancholic, unemployed father (Tracy Letts) offers the most minute but loving gesture of selflessness to his son at a moment crucial to both of them; or when the school drama teacher initiates an exercise with his students to see who can cry first, like he’s searching for a context in which he can let it all out; or when Julie informs Lady Bird, with poetic succinctness, that not everyone is built happy. Not wanting to be too selfish, I’ll stop there. What’s salient is that Lady Bird has a stunning breadth of soul and heart that will at times sweep you up in waves and leave you crumpled on the floor, and at others will whirl you into a joyous frenzy where you’ll want to scream it all out of your system to the sky, much like Lady Bird herself does when she shares her first kiss.

The through-line in the narrative, the constant article, is Lady Bird’s turbulent relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf, every bit as perfect as Ronan), a nurse who works double shifts to keep her family’s collective heads above water. When we first see Marion and Christine together they are sharing tears over a John Steinbeck audio book. Mere seconds later Christine would have hurled herself from a moving car to escape her mother’s diatribes—this relationship is beyond volatile, liable to explode even out of the calmest breath.


The two clash over most everything—college applications, finances, clothing—with a toxicity born out of their similarities, cut from the same fiery, headstrong cloth as they are. These are also two decidedly imperfect people; fascinating about their dynamic is that Gerwig never feels obliged to give either the higher moral ground. They can be cruel, unsympathetic, they regularly say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Marion is overcritical. Christine is nasty. They wound each other. “I wish that you liked me” Lady Bird says to her Mum as she’s trying on dresses for prom. “Of course I love you” Marion replies. “But do you like me?” is Lady Bird’s anguished response. One senses that if these two didn’t live in such close quarters they might have been the best of friends, but as it stands their affection for each other subsides in an unexpressed love that underlines their union palpably. They’re profoundly flawed, and thus profoundly human, with Ronan and Metcalf bringing an untempered honesty and truthfulness to their so often unflattering roles, without ever alienating us from their charms.

Together, Ronan and Metcalf are embodiments of Lady Bird’s magic—unapologetic, real, wryly funny, sometimes poetic in their insights (without ever tipping into scripted Hollywood artifice), but always irresistible. It’s those qualities which make Lady Bird not just a quietly original coming-of-age dramedy (no mean feat), but one of the season’s absolute highest achievements.



Molly’s Game

Directed By: Aaron Sorkin
Written By: Aaron Sorkin (based on the memoir Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong

It’s perhaps no great surprise, or mollys_gamecritical insight, to remark that Aaron Sorkin directs like he writes. Aaron Sorkin is a man who lives and dies by the power of the spoken word—he champions it as the foremost tool in any dramatic arsenal, and he inhabits that ethos with a fullness of force that gives way to an apparent phobia of silences.

It’s a familiar if timeless routine by now (assuming it’s performed correctly)—acerbic wit, total breathlessness, punch, panache, and an excess of energy. Sorkin’s alacritous style works for many (Emmys for The West Wing— an Oscar for The Social Network) and is just as surely a great frustration to others. I find myself somewhere in between, Continue reading “Molly’s Game”

Phantom Thread

Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

There’s a scene in Paul Thomas Phantom_Thread_PosterAnderson’s latest outing Phantom Thread, in which elite and urbane British courtier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sits at a hotel restaurant and orders the most extravagant, labyrinthine of breakfasts: Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top (not too runny), bacon, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, scones, butter, cream, and jam (not strawberry). And some sausages, tacked on the end of the order like some cursory condiment. The warm, compulsively smiling Alma (Vicky Krieps) is the waitress tasked with Reynolds’ order, and she must do it, per the request of her customer, by memory. She does, and as if in premeditation of Reynolds’ asking her to dinner afterwards, she has Continue reading “Phantom Thread”

I, Tonya

Directed By: Craig Gillespie
Written By: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian11-tonya-harding-margot-robbie-at-the-1994-olympics-in-i-tonya-courtesy-of-neon-and-30westh Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser

Never have I seen a film based on a real-life story, make such a point of knowing so few of the facts.

I, Tonya, the tragicomic recounting of the improbable rise and calamitous fall of former figure skating champion Tonya Harding, is a film which has a peculiar relationship with “truth.” From the outset, Steven Rogers’ dexterous screenplay aims to deconstruct truth’s viability in a sleazy, pop-culture sphere; “there’s no such thing as truth” Tonya narrates to us at one point. For Tonya, truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; “everyone has their own.”

Tonya’s truth is that her role in the attack on fellow skater Continue reading “I, Tonya”

The Shape of Water

Directed By: Guillermo del Toro
Written By: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg

The fact that The Shape of Water is so SoW_posterdifficult to pin down is the first suggestion of its enormous, captivating power. Overviewing the plot is the easy part, a kind-of Beauty and the Beast for adults in which the most unlikely of romances flourishes between a mute female janitor working at a government laboratory (Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins), and the half man, half fish, possible deity that is being studied there (Doug Jones)— dredged from the Amazon by the U.S military in the hope that it/he might prove an “asset” in the escalating Cold War conflict with Russia. It’s a creature to whom Elisa is firstly sympathetic, and then enamoured of.

Inspecting the style with which director Guillermo del Toro embraces this Continue reading “The Shape of Water”

Darkest Hour

Directed By: Joe Wright 
Written By: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup

1$_Characters AW_G Oldman Darkest Hour

I came across a peculiar statistic recently: nearly a quarter of all Britons believe Winston Churchill— former Prime Minister and poster-boy for the world’s resistance to the Nazis— to be a fictional character. In a sense, I suppose it’s almost understandable. It’s easy to forget that Churchill, given the enormity of his character and the historical standing to which he has laid claim, was made of the same stuff—skin, bone, muscle— as the rest of us.

Take a look at his perceived personality, a crude amalgamation of a gruff, belligerent grandfather likely to hog the couch at Christmas, and Superman. It’s one that appears purpose-built for pop media in its eccentricity and bombast, reflected in Churchill’s finding a de-facto home on Continue reading “Darkest Hour”

The Post

Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson

If awards were given on pedigree post_ver5alone, The Post would be the winningest film of this millennium. The story attacks with a two-pronged socio-political blitzkrieg, on one hand polemicizing governmental censorship of the press, and on the other hand defying the alleged inability of women to hold power in the workplace. It’s a narrative based on fact too, a recounting of how The Washington Post sought to deliver the most veiled of truths to the American public, and how the government scrambled to preserve that veil—a narrative that is uncanny in its timeliness, seemingly a gift from the gods in this maligned period of fake news and alternative facts (the production was in fact streamlined to cash in on the story’s Continue reading “The Post”