Annihilation: A film that sucker punches your mind into stepping beyond its boundaries

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Alex Garland comes back with yet another intriguing science fiction blockbuster highlighting how sought after technological advancements can take a turn for the destructive. He creates a film that makes us re-evaluate our life choices, should we be encroaching upon curious territory? Should we be delving into the deep dark unknown of our modern world? These are the questions we glance over and sweep under the rug marking them as exaggerated anxieties. But they are real. Garland hits us straight in the mind and in the gut with a mind-blowing envisioning of supernatural life forms and their affect on mankind. With a stellar cast led by a league of superwomen,  Annihilation packs a steady, yet stinging punch in its story of five women entering a mesmerising portal of the unknown in search for answers that may or may not save humankind.

The story centres around a lonely Lena, (Natalie Portman) an ex solider turned biology professor. Her Special Forces solider husband, Kane, (Oscar Isaac) had been away for over a year, but makes a sudden, unnerving return, saying strange things and then falling ill. As a result, we are introduced to a top secret government mission into the ‘shimmer’ – an electromagnetic field within which mutated landscapes and creatures exist. Kane and his team ventured into the ‘shimmer’ to explore how and why it has formed, with just Kane returning, but not to safety. Falling into a comatose state, Lena decides she must enter the ‘shimmer’ in search for answers about her husband’s condition. She is accompanied by a group of women from different backgrounds of science – Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist and leader of the mission, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist and Cass (Tuva Novotny), a geomorphologist.

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The film has been marketed as not your average sci-fi blockbuster movie, it has its fantasy elements, its horror scenes and its psychological thriller breakdowns. But Garland takes it one step further with an unconventional use of time. We are introduced to Lena with a bang – a seemingly calm woman, having just tackled the ‘shimmer’ and won, being interrogated by a group of men in hazmat suits, close enough to unsettle, but far enough to not be in danger. It seems to mean much more than what the surface allows the audience to understand. The film jumps between this present-day interrogation scene, Lena and Kane, the happily-married couple, and the disturbing facts and revelations that lead to her entry into the ‘shimmer.’ With this he creates an atypical science fiction film, bordering on the dark softness a poetic festival indie would deliver. Although this is no coming of age film for one young, lost character, its a coming of age of mankind and planet Earth in the face of supernatural forces, or even a cautionary tale if you like.

The intense performances from the supporting cast are not ones to be missed in this film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. Gina Rodriguez plays Anya, a fiery paramedic, adrenaline pumping right down the barrel of her gun towards the ‘shimmer.’ Poles apart from her famed, golden-globe winning role as Jane in TV comedy-drama Jane the Virgin, Rodriguez showcases her acting skills as not just a funny, sweet girl next door. She stands out in this role alongside Oscar Isaac, though they share no screen time, who brings an effortless aura to his role as an untouchable soldier marred by the ‘shimmer’s’ abilities. He is the sole primary male character of the film, sharing secrets and unanswerable questions with the ‘shimmer’, and acting as the motivator for Lena’s descent into the ‘shimmer.’

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Another element of this film not to be missed is its different take on distribution. The film was released to multiplexes in the States but in a unique turn for a major blockbuster, the UK a d other international rights were handed to popular streaming service, Netflix. It was released a few weeks after its US cinema release, a tactic applauded by some for its embracing of the ever-growing streaming zeitgeist, but unappreciated by others, including the director himself. Garland expressed his disappointment, arguing this type of film was made to be seen on the big screen, but highlights this kind of strategic move can have its pros and cons, labelling it as ‘it is what it is.’ Unfortunately, us viewers and reviewers would see this, on face value, as an interesting move that is keeping with modern times, but we would be mistaken. In reality, a deal was struck between Paramount and Netflix to ease the tension between two producers with differing opinions of the films final cut. Maybe the time will come where Netflix or other online streaming platform releases will become a norm in one sense, but that is a story for another day, time and voice.

Garland envisioned VanderMeer’s novel on screen in an interesting way, moving away from the typical science fiction movie to create a psychological sci-fi horror forcing audiences to turn to their neighbour and question what is real and what is not. Taking a slower than usual pace and soft tone to begin with, Annihilation attacks the senses with a gripping thread from the opening scene to the final climax. Is this film the future that awaits us? Or is it simply an imagined vision we can overcome? These are the questions we are left with in that final scene, then it cuts to black and we return to reality, while a possible real league of female and male warriors out there try to make sense of these questions.

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The Greatest Showman: ‘A celebration of humanity’ in its truest most spectacular form.

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Stories circulating the stratosphere in this day and age of a Trump government are ones of political standing – where the concept of equality this world thought it prided itself over has been unveiled, undermined and simply undone as non-existent or at least unfulfilled. Film has the platform to give rise to the liberal voice, evidently it has been scandalised in the last few months by some of its most influential figures, but not all are in the shadow of those select groups. We can see the campaigns for gender equality coming to fruition with the new year ‘Times Up’ movement helmed by many strong and powerful women of Hollywood.

For a film like The Greatest Showman to be released in light of these socio-political movements, it brings forward the easy yet unacceptable oversight of many other leagues of people that suffer ridicule and inequality. Yes, the film is set many years back where the words/phrases ‘coloured’ and ‘the help’ were used without resistance and the primary cast are shunned as a result of their ‘oddities.’ But isn’t inequality all the same, despite creed, colour, shape, size, ability, inability – they all share the common fact that they have been discriminated against because they don’t fit the bill of perfection that once was. As the title of this article reads, a direct quote from the film, The Greatest Showman is a celebration of humanity, the most true and real and inclusive of people and communities.

The story revolves around P.T Barnum, played by the versatile Hugh Jackman, a poor man full of love who just wants to keep his wife and children happy. But with the shadow of the aristocrats looming over him – their judgemental stares and constant hammering that he is not good enough for his wife, the daughter of a high society family – Barnum sets out to create his own fortune and with that he creates a magnificent show of oddities and curiosities. A show that leads him and his family into the life he always dreamed to have, but not without its own darkness. The young boy who captured an affluent girls heart with a tatty tin light show as innocent children bought into the greed of elitism and lost his identity along the way.

He gave a show to the curious, but frightened people of old New York City and formed a family of different communities and walks of life through the art of ‘the show’ – one character of which gave a emotionally powerful performance, Lettie Lutz, otherwise known as the ‘Bearded Lady’ – played by Keala Settle. He battles against critics’ harsh words and the spite of yelling mobs but the only negative voice he cared enough to listen to was that of his father-in-law – a manifestation of all that he has strived to work against, from the woes of his poor childhood to his inability to provide for his family.

It wasn’t just Barnum’s character that had to struggle with the bourgeois high tea society of New York and whether or not he fits or wants to fit in, but also Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron in his return to the musical scene after Hairspray and the High School Musical trilogy – an accomplished, wealthy writer lost in the affluent world his parents, his legacy and his work has revelled. He’s made his millions and all know his name but what he looks for is bigger, and it literally leaps towards him in the form of love with Anne, a trapeze artist in Barnum’s show – played by former Disney star Zendaya who establishes herself as so much more than her portfolio suggests. But the forces are against them as their love takes centre stage as part of the films historical context of segregated America, leaving their budding romance and Carlyle’s identity struggle uncertain.

As Barnum descends deeper and deeper into the elitist silver spoon lifestyle, Carlyle takes the other road and finds himself having to fill his shoes. And with that new responsibility and distance from a life he has grown tired of, he realises love should not be hidden, nor should it be something shameful. With one obstacle overcome, the other sets out on his journey of self-realisation.

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With his underlying motivation to prove his father-in-law wrong, Barnum loses the great esteem his wife sees in him and he loses sight of what truly matters. He travels full circle to return to the moment where his life changed and finally realises where he belongs and what makes him feel like he belongs – family, love and the truth of his self. So when it came to standing for what is right and true he only realised later on that you don’t have to be a famed high society member to be happy, loved and surrounded by good friends – you just have to be true and kind.

With this message, The Greatest Showman, tells a story that resonates in all time zones, in all historical eras and in all minds and hearts – a story of acceptance, identity and love, which is delivered in a spectacular fashion through song, dance and most of all, a grand show. The premise is actually a simple requirement of humanity, yet it is something humans lose sight of in their journey for wealth, agency and recognition.

mother! is yet another example of Darren Aronofsky’s evil genius/mad scientist status in the film industry.

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The buzz surrounding Aronofsky’s latest has been, lets be nice, interesting, if anything. A film that doesn’t really fall under a specific genre, a poster that forces you to question what he thinks a mother is and a very harrowing comment by the star regarding a torn diaphragm. Hmm, interesting. (That last one is literally the only form of press I let myself look into.)

Yet despite all this I took myself down to my local multiplex, along with an unsuspecting cousin who is not too into films of this caliber, and proceeded to watch mother! The viewing experience itself was questionable….it was absolutely bizarre to say the least, the weirdest chain of events I’ve ever watched. I don’t think I have ever wanted to yell at houseguests in my life as much as I wanted to here…and it wasn’t even real.

*Coughs * get off the freakin sink!

And then everything became messy. That’s the adjective I’m going for, a very messy chain of crazy and disturbing events, but I’m going to be honest, I was waiting eagerly for it, and as soon as it did, my eyes were fixated on the screen. The last 30 mins or so, the films magnificently chaotic carnage of an ending sealed the deal for me and I left the movie raving about Aronofsky’s sheer genius.

Bardem’s character is the husband to Lawrence’s wife, a timid, yet toxic relationship the latter tries desperately to nurture, so much so that she re-built her loves home from nothing after a dreadful fire. When strangers, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, infiltrate their personal paradise, albeit for shelter, the inevitable cracks, both emotionally and physically – manifested by the house of their dreams – are revealed slowly, yet aggressively. Strange creaks, constant disappearances and an intrusive female polar opposite of Lawrence’s character all become the undoing of the small, quiet life they built for themselves away from civilization and void of reality.

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At first it seems the intrusive couple are just a representation of everything Bardem and Lawrence are not: intimate – both emotionally and physically – domineering, flamboyant, loving and here’s the kicker…parents. They are the epitome of the human cycle, the image of Adam and Eve; they communicate, they love, they consummate, they reproduce, But for what good? And that is where the horror reveals itself. Behind their image of a ‘normal couple’ are the destructive forces of their warring sons, selfishness and insecurities overpowering their sound judgment, the most typically damaging concept in families – money, and even bigger than that, entitlement. They are Cain and Abel, their parents Adam and Eve, and what does that make Bardem and Lawrence’s characters – at this point, we have no clue, we are experiencing the story unfolding with just as much confusion as the characters.

From there the story takes it turn towards something of substance, but only do we realize its significance once we ascertain the message within the walls of that doomed house, that of which is within the fingertip reach of its omnipotent owner. After those few days of intrusion and trauma, Lawrence and Bardem’s relationship jumps back to the plastic ‘happy’ it was at the start – he did as we wished and she insured he could, as comfortably and undisturbed as can be. And alongside a baby on its way…yes, the warm hope of Lawrence’s pregnancy as a result of, for lack of a better phrase, hate sex, changed their lives for about 9 months. She was happy to become a mother, and he to become a father. So they get to be the exact same as the ‘normal couple’, or so she thought.

A big, yet subtly referenced, part of the film and detail of Bardem’s character is his writing career. Suffering severely from a bout of writers block, Lawrence’s character leaves him to his own devices, and with the many intrusions, his rage is unlocked. But when the moment comes that he finally jots something down that can propel his career into stardom, he takes it and he triumphs. All the happiness in the world is at their doorstep, and that is the moment the film begins its hugely harrowing climax with the lightbulb moment that details why this film is sheer genius. About to enjoy a beautiful dinner, a heavily pregnant Lawrence become second fiddle to the many adoring fans of her husbands, admirers he cant seem to turn away even when they increase and increase to that of a manic, cult-like following, infiltrating and destroying their perfect paradise. It is happening all over again, Lawrence is left to deal with these strange people and their lack of care for her world as her husband revels in his need to be at the center of creation and adoration – figured it out yet?

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Lawrence goes into a traumatic labor and gives birth to a son, the son of her husband, the husband who believes he is the leader of these people, the one true creator. The undertones of Bardem’s omnipotence overshadows any recollection of his love and loyalty to his wife, and his narcissistic actions cause Lawrence’s mother to finally burst, and that is when death literally becomes her. At the end, her loving husband allows an onslaught of harrowing violence befall her and her newborn son, to the point of the audience wanting to look away but can’t, for their eyes are wide in shock and fixated in intrigue. The visual presentation of violence is so potent you feel yourself being pulled limb from limb alongside Lawrence – an immersive irreality of sorts. She and the house lost the will to live, her face battered and bruised, and the latter ready to crumble; Lawrence beat her husband’s vicious revelers to the punch and ended the massacre for them all.

Bardem’s character is the Dorian gray of them all – predicated on the self-narcissism of his work and his ‘fans’, he saw his world come to an end, he drove the woman who loved him and only him to her demise, and all for nothing. He is the true creator, the one and only Him, and his loving companion, mother to his Son, and mother to the surrounding nature and world became embroiled in his endless cycle of death and life, love and self-love and destruction and reconstruction.

This film speaks to the mind and shakes it awake to the multitude of problems our world is facing or has faced in its vivid & clever subliminal messages. The images on the surface may be traumatizing to watch but they show a scenario of lucid stability this world we live in is unfortunately becoming accustomed, in the face of many dangers and even the dangers they themselves harbor. It’s a cautionary tale aimed at each and every one of us and we don’t even realize it.

What a film!

Lion: An Inspiring Story reflecting on Hidden Hope and Love Embroiled in the Cruel Game of Life

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Lion, based upon the non-fiction autobiography called A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, is a story of finding your identity, an identity that faded away when one was in the system as yet another lost child. Lost hundreds of miles from home, and after months of living in poverty and government shelters, Saroo was adopted by a couple in Australia. When he grew up, he became determined to locate his family in India, to find his way back home, to find his brother, Guddu. But what he really yearned to find was himself. Lion is a truly heart-breaking account of a serious issue that is plaguing India, lost children, and Saroo inspires many with his story and the journey he embarked upon to no longer be a lost child.

 

The film begins in India, a peek into the life of a young Saroo whose childhood was so poverty-stricken that he and his family would have to share the smallest pot of milk and be denied seconds. Played by Sunny Pawar, a little kid who has stolen everyone’s hearts with his strong performance and happy-go-lucky persona posing on red carpets, Saroo hails from a poor background, the middle of three children abandoned by their father, forced to suffer the unknown fate of each of their days. The malnourished class of rural India suffers a great deal; cramped living conditions, little or no money, limited food and water, and just about no rights at all. Director Garth Davis doesn’t hold back, or trivialise these highly prevalent issues in demonstrating the true story of the lost Saroo, a little boy who cannot remember where he is from and how to get back, and the people or system he relies on to help him are unable to do so. Why is that? Because the system is flawed, his village could not be located, nor his mother and family. These are the negatives surrounding India, and they are not sugarcoated for the benefit of the films international audiences. All countries have their problems, and their setbacks, and Davis displays that clearly in this film, but he doesn’t forget to inhibit the wonder of such a nation in its aesthetics.

You can still see the beauty within the simplicity of Rural India and its culture; there is no grandeur in their homes or richness in their clothes, but the people find majesty in what they have, they find enjoyment in leaves and sand rather than material possessions. The artistry of the film shows this kind of man-made, self-sought out wonder, especially with young Saroo becoming mesmerised by a field of butterflies or when he mimics a man eating soup with a spoon he finds while living on the streets. There is a plain truth to the poor/rich divide, and that comes out in the sweet and innocent persona of a child who has practically nothing, loses it in an instant and suddenly has everything, and that truth is that it only takes one person to move past the corruption and extend some help to those in need. This story is a true showcasing of courage, determination and pure love within a time of isolation and turmoil, and the film does justice to it by running the thread of hope deep within themes and imagery we are saddened and haunted by.

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Dev Patel plays the older Saroo who travels along the Google earth images of India, retracing any steps he can remember, to locate his real family, to find the part of himself he has been lost to all these years. Nominated for all the major awards, including an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Patel gently drives his character to a point of almost no return after audiences see him in an array of emotions. Happy, sad, hopeful, distraught, angry, Saroo encapsulates all feelings, but remains grounded despite the probable reaction of loathing life and everything it has thrown in his lap. Patel brings a sense of realism to the role with his own background. His inability to speak the Hindi language, something the real-life Saroo forgot as he aged, works into his own grasp of the role and the non-Hindi speaking majority of the international audience are able to watch and experience with the character. Nicole Kidman, also critically acclaimed for her work in the film, embraced the role of the adoptive mother with a warm truth as she too has two children by adoption, correlating to her character. The bond lost between Saroo and his real mother, Fatima, was re-built between Kidman and Patel’s characters, a bond that wasn’t shaken or broken over time, nor was it forgotten after his pursuit of Fatima and his pre-lost child life. Lion does not only portray a bond between a person and his past, but also his present, that being the mother/son relationship, founded from the honourable, loving act of international adoption; giving a disadvantaged child a home.

The entirety of Lion felt like an immersive experience, we ran alongside young Saroo as he became lost, we travelled with him to Australia; we experienced everything as he did. By doing this, Davis allowed for Saroo Brierley’s story to remain hidden in the minds of Pawar and Patel as they enacted their roles as young and older Saroo – the audiences were not considered superior to the characters. Brierley’s A Long Way Home revealed itself page by page, just as a reader would experience and understand it, book in hand. We were watching a film, but we were also reading the story, not being told the story – the difference is key.

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The ending is the pinnacle of the story, the moment Saroo had been waiting for, the discovery of his family’s fate since he became lost. The climatic point of the film is truly a beacon of answers at the end of a character journey darkened by enigma, and while I have been praising the film for its theme of hope and mode of inspiration, you must know how it ends by now. Saroo finds his mother; he reunites with the little village he grew up in, his sister, a country he felt disconnected from. The artistry imbued within the scenes filmed in India returns at the end where Saroo envisions his brother, Guddu, like a guardian angel taking him back home, and fulfilling the promise he couldn’t keep when he lost his little brother. The inspiration and hope behind Saroo Brierley’s story melded with the final moment of tragedy tells the audiences that the movies cannot always be a form of positive escapist art, and films are made to relay an important message to the world.

Lion encapsulates the positive and negative sides to the cruel game of life, where the themes and motifs of journey, identity, hope and inspiration can be used to educate the world on the act of saving a soul, no matter how it is done. The Brierley’s saved young Saroo through adoption, older Saroo saved himself through courage using the apparatus of Google Earth, and Guddu saved Saroo through whatever memories Saroo had left of him.

La La Land: A Stunning Film for the Fools who Dream and their Dreams that can become a Reality…

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This romance musical is a nostalgic homage to Hollywood’s golden era where the likes of Gene Kelly and Humphrey Bogart expressed their truest feelings to Debbie Reynolds and Ingrid Bergman through the art of song and dance. Whiplash fame, Damien Chazelle, recreates the glamour of old Hollywood with his modern envisioning of two people falling in love as they pursue their dreams in Tinseltown. The film poses the age-old question almost all dreamers have to face in their lifetime – love or career? Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play the hopelessly in love couple with dreams and passions that propel them into the films namesake. The ‘La La Land’ that we find ourselves stuck in, where aspiration and ambition is key, but alas is not truly achievable unless you get your head outta the clouds? Well, Chazelle says otherwise.

Stone plays Mia, an on-studio barista who watches actors play out their aspirations day by day while she only experiences rejection and ridicule, and Gosling is Sebastian, the Jazz purist with the dream of opening his own club to keep the momentum alive, but is striking out against the raging 21st century “Jazz” the cool kids are listening to. They are both envisioning the good and bad side to living in the clouds – the romanticism of their Hollywood-esque relationship against the destruction they face if they don’t strive to fulfil their dreams. La La Land is all about making dreams a reality, and along the way reminding all that you cannot live in a fantasy.

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The film opens as most musicals do, a peppy dance number to put a smile on everyone’s face and transport us to the traditional musical world of film we adore. As the film goes on, we have parallels to past musicals, like Mia and Sebastian’s tap number, ‘A Lovely Night’ resembles Shall We Dance’s ‘Lets Call the Whole Thing off’, Sebastian and street lamp as with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, the dance against the starry background in the ‘Epilogue’ is reminiscent of Broadway Melody of 1940’s ‘Begin the Beguine and many others. It is Chazelle’s way of paying homage to what The Hollywood Reporter called an “extinct genre” – he put life back into a style of music most people only use, as Mia said, as background or elevator music. La La Land, and Whiplash have both reignited the power of musical styles that had fallen behind the new and contemporary avenues. To even counteract his own cultural message, Chazelle has made a contemporary version of something beloved by many, yet within the film he has written a character hopeful for the old age of Jazz to return and find its place in this progressive world of music. So what are we meant to take from this choice? Traditionalism is the way to go, or scrap the old age and build something fresh and original. You can do both. Just look at how it ends – some dreams are fulfilled, some are not, but that’s just it, a happy ending isn’t inevitable, but it is possible.

Aside from the music of the film, the love story is another attribute taking center stage. Mia and Sebastian fall in love, as one would dream, slowly, softly and beautifully. Their first meeting was the result of arrogance overtaking the magic, but as time went on, and after a spectacular evening spent looking onto the LA skyline, they became drawn to one another, and then magic took over the journey of their characters’ relationship. Beautifully crafted and filmed scenes at the Griffith Observatory and The Lighthouse Café aided in the development of their romance and the insight into their characters as dreamers in the truest form. Chazelle utilised the montage tool cleverly to show their fleeting journeys as these dreamer and lovers – the first was their initial dating, the second was their pursuit of their dreams while head over heels, and the third was the slow and sad unravelling of the bubble they had made for themselves where they have no time for one another or feel the greatest distance yet from their aspirations. And along this journey we the audiences take with them, we hear and remember the gut-wrenchingly beautiful theme song to their love in various tempo and the individually critically acclaimed song ‘City of Stars.’

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That is what the film, and possible theatre production since its commercial and critical success, teaches all the dreamers out there, the road will not be perfect or without struggle. There are potholes for a reason and it’s the truest test of your dream for you to overcome it all the way to fulfilment. Sebastian forces the downcast Mia to remember that, he urges her to not give up and she doesn’t. What happens next will be a massive spoiler on my part, so watch the movie, it is definitely worth it. The ‘magic of the movies’ vibe La La Land presents to its viewers acts as that much-needed escapism from ones daily life, but it also sends the message to those same people that why escape for one day, when you can make whatever dream you have a reality, whether it is in the arts like Mia and Sebastian or something vastly different. A dream is a dream, and only the person dreaming can fulfil it.