2018 Movies

Annihilation

Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre, but one must be open-minded about art. You never know what may end up being a great film. 2014’s Ex Machina was a film that I assumed I’d dislike, and I actually ended up really enjoying it. When I learned Annihilation not only featured one of my favorite actresses in Natalie Portman, but also that Ex Machina’s director Alex Garland was responsible, I was convinced it was worthy of a Movie Pass swipe.

Portman (Jackie) stars as Lena, a biologist and professor recently widowed. Or is she? Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has been missing in action for over a year. He never returned from a recon mission that took him inside of a mysterious visible, moving force field dubbed the “shimmer.” Meanwhile, Lena is stuck in a holding pattern, going through the motions of daily life, continuing to teach. But her grief persists, compounded by a lack of closure. Then, one day, Kane reappears. It’s apparent that something is different about him now, from the vacant look in his eyes to the decreased cognition. Eventually he has to be rushed in for medical treatment, quarantined in a nearby government facility. There Lena encounters a team of women, the latest doomed collective to be sent on a virtual suicide mission inside the shimmer. Lead by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Amityville: The Awakening), the small band includes scientists and rescue personnel.

The bulk of the film is told in extended flashback. Lena and Dr. Ventress’ team enter the shimmer, and while five enter, it’s not clear that all five will make it out. We switch back and forth between the present, where Lena is recalling what happened inside the shimmer, and their actual time inside. The shimmer covers a wide, remote area and has moved slowly over time, drifting closer to population centers. Within its depths a unique ecosystem has developed, giving rise to beautiful foliage but also deadly hybrid creatures. Lena is the central figure of the story, and it is through her perspective that most of the action is filtered. Despite the fragility brought on by recent events, she’s surprisingly courageous within the shimmer, boldly facing unknown dangers, including bizarre creatures and supernatural energy. She starts off well with the others at first, but camaraderie gives way to fear and mistrust as they face one threat after another. Undeterred, Lena persists in hopes of getting answers about what happened to her husband.

Annihilation was an okay movie, but that’s the extent of any praise. Although the shimmer’s premise allowed for some cool visual elements and fantasy-driven concepts, the story didn’t have a satisfying resolution. During one weird scene, I took a moment to survey the faces of those around me, to see if they were exasperated, engrossed, or disengaged all together. They seemed to be enjoying it, so perhaps I was missing something. Science fiction is unconstrained by convention, and I think its freedom in storytelling sometimes results in suspect plot development. The performances were more than adequate, and I enjoy both Portman and Issac in mostly everything. Moreover, I was glad to see Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) continuing her recent campaign of worthy notches  – but the film felt unremarkable. Perhaps more suited for sci-fi enthusiasts, it fell flat for me. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a fan of the genre.

Grade: C

Red Sparrow

No actor is immune from making a bad movie; even some of the best have been guilty. However, a string of bad films might be cause for concern in an industry where the latest “It” girl can change from one year to the next. I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence (Mother!) has anything to worry about, as she’s been the toast of Tinseltown for a few years now, a bonafide megastar. But Red Sparrow marks her second consecutive disappointing feature (last year’s Mother! was an esoteric mess), and now I know that her presence alone doesn’t necessarily elevate a bad movie.

Red Sparrow intrigued with me its premise, the story of a Russian ballerina who becomes a spy. That’s all I gleaned from the trailer, and I imagined Black Swan meets La Femme Nikita or something. Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorovo, a ballerina with a promising career but meager finances and an ailing mother.  When she suffers a catastrophic injury on stage, she is presented with an opportunity to become a “sparrow,” a covert operative deployed by the Russian government in matters of espionage. Her training commences, and Dominika is subjected to a series of tasks and rituals designed to break her psychologically and emotionally. The film’s first act was its best, and I found it fascinating to witness their methods of training and subjugation. Veteran actor Charlotte Rampling (Assassin’s Creed) is featured as the “Matron,” subjecting the recruits to such humiliation as public nudity and intercourse.

As the film shifted into its second and third acts, the plot veered to and fro, with nothing but Jennifer Lawrence and some nice visuals holding the movie together. Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) has shown from his music video beginnings a deft ability to capture stunning visual imagery of his subjects and their environments, and the film’s cinematography was one of its few bright spots. About midway through, Joel Edgerton (Bright) appears as an American spy to whom Dominika is assigned. He attempts to turn her and recruit her as a double agent, and it was all downhill from there. I can’t tell you much else about the film, because at that point I simply didn’t know what was happening anymore.

Jennifer Lawrence is a really good actress. American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone all prove it. I’m not sure if Red Sparrow seemed like a good script when she initially read it, but I found writer Justin Haythe’s screenplay muddled, meandering, and confusing. Perhaps the source material was richer, but its interpretation left much to be desired. Jennifer Lawrence is better than this? Scenes that were intended as provocative and edgy came across as lurid and trashy instead. I can appreciate the alluring surface qualities, Lawrence’s beauty and the rich decadence of the environment, but that’s where my praise ends. Wait until this one makes its way to HBO.

Grade: C

Black Panther

About three years ago, Marvel announced a solo Black Panther movie. The news was met with enthusiasm, but the energy was largely confined to Marvel fans. Fast forward a couple of years later as buzz builds towards a Black History Month release date, and the masses have been whipped into a collective frenzy – myself included. I said that regardless of my opinion, I would be honest in my review of Black Panther. I told myself that I wouldn’t succumb to groupthink, as I admittedly did in my final grade of Moonlight. I needn’t have worried about that, because Black Panther met every expectation, living up to the hype in a dazzling display of Afro-futurism that left me swelling with pride. And while the film will undoubtedly appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers, there is something uniquely dope about Black Panther that resonates with Black folks particularly.

Chadwick Boseman (Marshall) returns as T’Challa, heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda after the death of his father King T’Chaka. Although the throne would seem T’Challa’s birthright, he still must compete for it, if challenged. In two exhilarating scenes T’Challa competes in tribal battle as inspired Wakandans look on, their shoulders rising and falling rhythmically in ritual witness to the spectacle. Untouched by European imperialism and Western civilization, Wakanda is a thriving bastion of technology due in part to its rich natural supply of Vibranium. Mined from a meteorite that landed thousands of years ago, Vibranium is used for everything from powering transportation to advanced weaponry. In fact, T’Challa’s younger sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright, The Commuter) has harnessed its properties brilliantly, unimpeded by Western ideals about traditional female roles.

T’Challa is an empathetic and even-tempered leader. He seems almost reticent to assume the throne, fueled by a sense of responsibility rather than hubris. He has lionized his father his entire life, but as Wakanda confronts new threats, T’Challa must contend with the harsh realization that T’Chaka had moral shortcomings that would prove dire. Enter Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Creed), wayward son of Wakanda with questionable origins. He has aligned himself with Wakandan nemesis Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), one of the few outsiders who are aware of Vibranium. Very few people know that Wakanda is a thriving epicenter of technology and innovation; most Westerners think it is a primitive, third world country, and it is that fallacy that has sustained Wakanda’s existence. People cannot colonize or exploit that which they do not know exists. But will T’Challa continue the path of isolationism that has sustained Wakanda until now, or will he step to the forefront of the global stage and reveal its greatness?

Black Panther was larger than life. I could fill page after page with praise for the entire cast, including writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed), who gave the latest Marvel entrant an added layer of cultural significance while putting his signature Oakland twist on the story. He was my quiet favorite after his debut Fruitvale Station, but after pairing with Michael B. Jordan for a third time, the two are charting a relationship on par with DeNiro or DiCaprio and Scorsese. That may sound like lofty praise right now, but I think we are just scratching the surface. The film’s cultural impact cannot be overstated, and the power of film as a medium cannot be denied.

Marvel fans will enjoy the accurate interpretation of the Black Panther and his origins, while many Black moviegoers will recognize the film as a defining moment in the culture. The beauty, strength and power of African people was on glorious display throughout, and the film’s casting reflected a deliberate representation of beautiful, strong dark-skinned actresses like Lupita N’yongo (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Danai Gurira (All Eyez On Me) – a stark contrast to most mainstream movies. The film hinted at the greatness and untapped potential of the continent, and challenged its viewers with powerful themes that served as metaphors for the current state of our communities. At the risk of turning this review into a dissertation, I’ll conclude my thoughts by saying: Black Panther was flawless, and should be etched in the pantheon of Black cinema as required viewing.

Grade: A

Hostiles

Versatility. Range. To me, these are the hallmarks of great acting – and they have served Christian Bale (The Big Short) well, from The Fighter to American Hustle. Hostiles marks his return to the Western, his first since 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. One would hope that the genre has evolved enough to be devoid of stereotypes, while maintaining historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t sacrifice artistic merit. Hostiles didn’t break new ground within the genre, but emotional dramatic turns from Bale and co-star Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) make it a worthwhile film.

Set in 1892, the film depicts a rough and tumble American landscape of centuries past. Bale stars as Joseph Blocker, an Army captain tasked with a final mission before retirement, which he begrudgingly accepts. He must transport a dying Apache chief and his family back to their home state of Montana, as the elder is riddled with Cancer and has been granted mercy to die on his homeland. Violent and racist, Blocker’s visceral contempt for Native Americans could not be more obvious, and he pleads in futility to be excused from the mission. His superior officer ignores those complaints, and Blocker leads a small party of soldiers in the transport of Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, A Million Ways to Die in the West) and his family, including his adult children and grandson.

Historical accuracy is important, and while it is true that some early Native Americans terrorized White settlers expanding West, it is equally true that White colonizers terrorized the indigenous populations already here. Be that as it may, the film did an effective job in its first act, presenting both sides of a philosophical coin in its depiction of brutality. In a riveting opening scene, a Comanche tribe descends upon a family to steal their horses. They slaughtered them all, save for Pike’s character Rosalie, now a grieving mother and widow. Blocker and company encounter the woman en route, and she joins their small, weary procession.

Hostiles is quite simply a movie about a journey from point A to point B. The strength of the film is in the richness and depth of the characters and the performances. The Captain is a figure whom you can’t quite root for or against. Initially Blocker is cruel, failing to see the humanity in his charge. However, in moments with the soldiers under his command and in his interaction with Rosalie, we see genuine affection and tenderness, a reminder of the complexity of human nature and the duality that lies within all of us. He is an effective leader, engendering loyalty that is met with a deep and loving gratitude. As they encounter peril in their journey, circumstances force Blocker to amend his dealings with Yellow Hawk and to forge a new, albeit begrudging respect as they face a common enemy together.

An air of sadness hangs over the film, giving it a somber tone throughout. I was moved by its theme of reflection, as several characters bleakly assessed their own careers and lives, burdened by the weight of loss. I was particularly struck by a poignant scene between two lieutenants, as the younger (Jesse Plemons, The Post) reflects on his first killing. The contrast between the two men was powerful, the older immune to regret over certain lives but not others. This emotional compartmentalization exemplified the cynicism of war and of life generally, and it was portrayed beautifully.

My critique of the film boils down to a matter of taste, of whether or not one can get past the limitations of the genre and the fact that it isn’t a “feel good” movie.  Hostiles was a fine film, featuring another excellent performance by Christian Bale, and a rich emotional turn from Rosamund Pike, which may be enough for some moviegoers.

Grade: B+

The Post

In today’s climate, fake news and misinformation abound. Now more than ever, we should be able to rely on the press to disseminate truthful information. The Post hearkens back to a time in American history when the public still had trust in the fourth estate, and news publications prided themselves as gatekeepers: the last line of defense between the average citizen and a (potentially) corrupt government.

The Watergate scandal has been well-documented, but some may be unaware of the precursor to that tumultuous time, when public trust in our nation’s highest office previously began to be eroded. Incomparable director Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) brings us The Post, an account of The Washington Post’s controversial publishing of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Initially the classified information was brought to light by The New York Times, but The Post published a lengthier excerpt shortly thereafter. Specifically, The Pentagon Papers were a detailed report written by the Department of Defense revealing that the U.S. was essentially involved in a war that it knew it could not win. At least four administrations, including Kennedy and Johnson – had not been truthful about the Vietnam War with the American public – while still sending our young people off to die in a foreign jungle.

Tom Hanks (Sully) stars as editor Ben Bradlee, while his boss is owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash), whose father owned the paper before her. In a sign of the times, her father willed the paper to his son-in-law and Kay’s husband rather than to his own daughter. This apparent invisibility in male-dominated spaces would require Kay to assert herself in courageous ways, and the film’s subtle depiction of Graham’s timidity in that sphere was spot-on. The strength of The Post is two-fold: Spielberg masterfully impresses upon us the weight of the classified information, and lends an equally deft hand to the agonizing dilemma with which Graham is faced: to publish or not to publish?

It was interesting to see an iconic newspaper such as The Washington Post depicted as a fledgling underdog but remember this was before Woodward & Bernstein. Hanks and Streep were effective, with the former showing the dogged tenacity of a grizzled vet and Streep delivering a quietly brilliant performance. Some Hollywood names are all hype, but Streep is as good as advertised. Kay Graham could’ve been imprisoned for publishing The Pentagon Papers, but she did so anyway, in bold defiance of the male members of the Board of Directors, blazing a new trail for the paper and positioning it as a bastion of truth through diligent investigative reporting.

The Post was deliberate, sharp and compelling. Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep elevated the film by virtue of their presence/involvement alone, which was enough of a draw for me. The accolades are well-deserved. I also enjoyed the limited screen time and supporting performances from Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) and Matthew Rhys (Burnt). My only criticism of the film is less of a ‘ding’ and more of an observation. It’s an important film but it’s not an exciting movie, and for that reason I recommend this movie to those who are fans of Hanks and Streep and to those who try to check out the Oscar contenders every year. I enjoyed The Post and hope it’s indicative of the films to come in 2018.

Grade: A-

Molly’s Game

The saying goes, if they wrote a book about your life, would anyone read it? Part of what makes the human experience beautiful is its variation. Two wildly different lives can both be compelling. For instance, Nelson Mandela and Al Capone don’t have much in common, but I’d watch a movie or read a book about either one of them. If you reduce a film to its most essential element, what you have is a story, and Molly’s is simply a great one.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper’s Wife) was a competitive skier and former Olympian, an amazing feat by most standards. Like many Olympians, her father (Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures) doubled as coach/mentor – wielding influence that was instrumental to her success, yet stifling in its effect on her psychological makeup. The problem with many athletes or other uber talented people is that they run the risk of tying their entire self-identity to this one facet of their being, their gift. When it disappears, they’re often left asking, what now?

 Written by the incomparable Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Molly’s Game is replete with the auteur’s smart, succinct dialogue, often delivered through rapid-fire, omniscient narration. The film begins with the pivotal moment that changed the trajectory of Molly’s life, the last day she skied competitively. Through flashback Sorkin depicts her tragic final run, one that ends in a crash at the bottom of a hill instead of the medal podium. This opening scene was critical in establishing Molly’s relentless drive, type A personality, and her resilience. Not to mention it was just a fascinating look into a sport I know very little about. I always feel a bit smarter after watching Sorkin’s work, and Molly was expertly fleshed out from the beginning.

Forced to reinvent herself, Molly charts a new course, delaying law school to move to Hollywood. There she takes a job as an office assistant and moonlights as a cocktail waitress. Her boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong, The Big Short) runs a poker game for a collection of celebrities, including actors, rappers, athletes and titans of tech. He recruits Molly to assist, and soon she’s collecting hefty tips from rich gamers and rubbing elbows with A-listers. Her voracious intellect demands that she learn everything about poker, from the terminology to player “tells.” After a rift with Dean, she uses her newly acquired skillset to begin running her own games, and soon Molly’s game is the hot ticket in town.

By carefully skirting illegality, Molly was able to keep her nose clean. But when circumstances dictated a different clientele for the games, she runs afoul of the FBI. Again, Sorkin effectively uses pace and sequencing to paint a picture, establishing certain crucial events and expounding upon them later in the film. Chastain was endearing as the flawed Bloom, seeming to act out of necessity rather than greed. She relished the success of the game, but it never felt like she wanted more than what was owed and fair. It could be said that she facilitated people’s addiction, but can’t the same be said of casinos? She didn’t take money for the games (known as a “rake”), she didn’t employ muscle to collect from people who couldn’t pay up, and she even tried to talk the more degenerate amongst them from gambling their lives away.

Chastain is joined primarily by Costner and Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok) as her attorney Charlie Jaffey. The two actors buttress Chastain with earnest, warm performances – Costner as the domineering yet regretful father forced to revisit his mistakes in parenting, and Elba as her sympathetic advocate. Chastain rightly received a Golden Globe nomination and I’ve been impressed with her since 2010’s The Debt. This film is a bit dialogue heavy to be totally rewatchable, but it was superbly written and performed.

 Grade: A-