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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Sense8: Sci-Fi, Un-Reality and Festive Fun…

A look at the new virtual reality craze of the genre and a review of the latest chapter in the Sense8 story.

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The age of television is changing almost every second, with new ways to watch, new content to watch and new people to create what we watch. Despite this widespread notion of diversity and variation, stories are still boiling down to one form or sub-genre if you wish to call it so, one that transcends boundaries, blurs your perception of reality and allows you to escape into a fantasy, imagined, possibly even re-imagined world of the un-real or even real, but is too progressive and futuristic for the human mind to comprehend (even when we are now in 2017) Fantasy and Science Fiction have been dominating our small screens for a while now, with shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek, Red Dwarf and The X Files. Today’s, lets say, “version” of these forms/sub-genres are more rooted in the archaic or the historic like Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful and Outlander, and then you have the supernatural creatures joining the race with The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and True Blood. While these examples remain in good spirits, whether its because they are still broadcasting or being kept alive in fans’ memories, other forms of these popular styles of television have surfaced, and they are like no other. Like I said, we are in 2017, and technology is still developing and advancing to new heights, and one of the biggest gadgets to come out of the market recently has been virtual reality, a massively blurred conception that has already made its way into the stories of a TV drama, in the example of Westworld.

Now this was a brief history of fantasy and science fiction television, with a lot of name-dropping, but the one show I am going to discuss here has not been mentioned yet. It complements a previously addressed sci-fi notion, it is helmed by what some may call sci-fi royalty and it adopts a freshly incoherent and untraditional method of storytelling. Sense8, created and written by the Wachowski’s, Lana and Lilly and J. Michael Straczynski, is a Netflix-distributed drama centering around 8 strangers from different corners of the world who find themselves connected in visions, within thoughts and through actions. It is the ultimate sci-fi; destroying what you think you know, distorted reality, expansive extent of ones imagination type of story, and it is insanely good. If you loved The Matrix, then I suggest you watch – 12 episodes and a Christmas Special. I estimate half a day and you will be done and waiting impatiently for season two…in MAY. If you couldn’t tell already, my impatience is wearing thin. I need my Sense8 fix despite just watching the Christmas Special.

Now, about that so-called ‘special’ episode, I was under the impression that season two itself was to be released in place of it. A cheeky Facebook reveal told Sense8 audiences that we must wait 5 more months to delve deeper into the lives of the sensates and how they will overcome the adversities of their powerful connection. A Netflix original is an exciting venture for so many reasons, the progression of streamed entertainment, the freedom of creativity and the downright sass of not having to abide by bogus censorship laws. But, alas one thing overshadows all the good things…the wait. Some say the wait is needed to build the adrenaline for the story’s future, while others rip their hair out the second the end credits roll, wanting the next chapter right that second. I am absolutely, most definitely the latter.

Enough context, exposition and downright ranting.And here begins the review of the Sense8 Christmas Special…

After I finished season one, my mind was blown away by the interesting, unfathomable yet exciting aspects of this TV show. With all its larger-than-life content, it still managed to have heart. Sensates felt a romantic connection, they felt the power of their consciences, they learnt how to handle their connection and all the while they carried on with their own lives, highs and lows in all their glory. There was a story. The Christmas Special picked up where season one left a selection of enigmas and ambiguities, but I found the only significant beats of the 2-hour long episode was Will and Whispers’ tense standoff towards the end, which ultimately acted as an empty basket with the tiniest egg to be cracked in May’s second season, well he hope at least. The rest of the special was unnecessary festive partying, sex and yet another giant orgy. Do we learn anything important and different about the sensates and the progression of their story, possibly?

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The sensates are paired up in this episodes; Kala with Wolfgang, Sun and Capheus and Riley and Will, with a small relation between Nomi and Lito. By forming these duos, the story is able to run smoothly especially when it is confined to two hours. Each pairing takes on a theme or motif to push their stories along; Kala and Wolfgang’s toxic love story, Sun and Capheus’ friendship, Riley and Will’s isolation and Nomi attempts to help Lito in his coming out and the repercussions. Sun and Capheus present a beautiful image of friendship, most notably being there for a complete stranger with whom you strangely connect, a similar storyline to that of Nomi and Lito. Lito suffers at the hands of regressive attitudes in terms of his sexuality after he comes out as gay. These 4 characters present a warm shift from the tumultuous journey Will is undergoing after being seen by their maker, Whispers. They act as the best friend who is willing to be the shoulder their friend can cry on, or in this case, they are the mind the friend can escape to. And that is one of other reasons why this show appeals to its audiences, because as a viewer you can watch the escapism from reality both on your screen, forgetting that you yourself are doing the same thing.

Having said that, I’m not sure escaping into the turmoil of Kala and Wolfgang’s toxic relationship is the best way to take your mind off things. Anyhow, lets discuss…Kala is married, Wolfgang is silently pining for her like the typical man he is, she doesn’t want to lose her virginity to her basic, but sweet husband and when she tries to, she drops into Wolfgang’s mind as he is in the middle of sex. If sex scenes weren’t awkward already, have them make conversation with a nervous bystander, no, its not even a tasteful sex scene, more like soft porn, no actually probably just regular porn. (This is where the lack of giving a shit comes in handy, no to censorship, yes to that 18 and above rating that MUST be abided by) So while Kala tries to seduce Rajan, she awkwardly chats to her former love interest while his one night stand moans naked on top of him. Once you move past the sheer shock of it, the scene is actually quite funny and significant to why Kala and Wolfgang will, sadly, never be able to be a couple. She is vanilla and he is an amalgamation of every other flavor, though I’m still rooting for them after that cute snow fight scene.

Moving on to the next pairing that takes center stage…Will is suddenly a junkie! Will was the good, sweet, fly to Iceland to save some random chick in his head, kind of guy. Although, at least the writing hasn’t strayed too far towards motifs characterized by vice as we are still on the right page with the follow-up to Will being seen by Whispers. They have really tugged on the strings with the spiral his character is tumbling into, good son/cop forced to hide his mind from an Omni-present lunatic by losing it to the blurs of heroin. A sad, brutal path, but artistically written and portrayed. I didn’t appreciate Riley’s role as becoming lost in Will’s lucid states either, she was so lost at the start of season one, we were introduced to the reason behind her lost persona and that gave her some power to then help Will as he realized he will too be lost to a higher force of supremacy. But the Special sees her drop too far down into that guiding light role, she almost becomes his keeper, the woman caring for his needs, providing him with intimacy, drugs and constant reassurance so he doesn’t lose his mind to Whispers. It is admirable to an extent, but the unexpectedness of this change in character remained present in my mind. Now I understand one can only transform characters and develop a story so much within a 2-hour special, but lets hope Riley and Will can escape the haze of their secret Icelandic shack in the second season.

Aside from keeping in theme with the progression of the story, this Christmas special adheres to its title very much – the celebration of Christmas and New Years Eve. Despite being a show embroiled with heavy sci-fi elements and notions, the story allows the sensates to sit down and enjoy the festive holidays with their loved ones, remembering that as long as you are with someone or a group of people who are their to love, guide and support you, life is good. They find it within their families, in different ways; Capheus, Lito and Nomi who considers Amanita’s loved ones as her own, Riley convinces Will to talk to his dad, Wolfgang’s best friend finally awakes from his coma, Kala has a warm moment with Wolfie and Sun finds comfort in her cellmates. While the holidays does bring people together, this special also made for entertaining TV and the progression of the story into season 2. The special still ends on a sour, cliffhanger style note with Wolfgang at the heart of a gangster brawl, summoning the help of his fellow sensates before uttering the now probably infamous words: ‘happy fuckin’ new year.’ Of course, it can’t end all happy and wondrous; it is a Sci-fi TV Drama at the end of the day. So for my final verdict, there is only one thing left to say…May couldn’t come any sooner!

 

Ones to Watch in 2015

The buzz on Birdman, The Theory of Everything, Into the Woods, American Sniper and Ex Machina.

  1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifinakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts.

Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo

With an ensemble cast, a director that brought us Babel, in 2006 and a cleverly eccentric plot, Birdman has reached great heights since its October release in the States, with Globe wins, and SAG and Oscar nominations, not to mention festival and box office acclaim of $34.2 million gross worldwide. I already have my slot lined up, ready to watch in awe. Critics have been rampantly praising it, with the Telegraph calling it ‘a Dark Knight of the soul’ and Michael Keaton’s portrayal of lead character Riggan Thompson has been credited as bold and ‘soaring in this electrifying character study’, as reviewed by online entertainment site Digital Spy. It’s a must-see psychological and darkly funny drama that I have had my eye on ever since that odd teaser of a half-naked Keaton jogging through a busy (its always busy) Times Square.

  1. The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh.

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis and Harry Lloyd.

Written by Anthony McCarten.

Biopics have been making their mark in recent years, from the likes of My Week with Marilyn, Lincoln and The Kings Speech, all faring well at the box office and garnering critical recognition and success. Well, the life and work of Stephen Hawking is the next biographical venture for film, headed by James Marsh, from Man on Wire and Project Nim fame. Adapted from Hawkings’ first wife, Jane’s, memoir, ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’, Marsh touches upon themes of science, romance, and ultimately, life during the time of Hawking’s biggest achievement till date. Eddie Redmayne fresh from his Golden Globes win for Leading Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, and Felicity Jones’ portrayal of the Hawking couple has been met with praise and appreciation by The Guardian, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, as well as cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and Jóhan Jóhannsson’s score receiving acclaim. If you like learning as well as being entertained, this scientifically-driven romantic drama about Stephen Hawking is just right for you.

  1. Into the Woods

Directed by Rob Marshall

Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, MacKenzie Mauzy and Daniel Huttlestone.

Written by James Lapine

Another ensemble cast of brilliant acting abilities, who can hold a tune, which is exactly what Stephen Sondheim and Rob Marshall wanted for the film adaptation of the former’s classic Tony-award winning Broadway show. Sondheim and Marshall team together to bring us a beautifully dark big screen version of the Brothers Grimm tales entwined into the fictional story of a baker and his wife. If its $120million and over worldwide gross is anything to go by, I’m sure the public were raving to see this movie. With many surprising performances and awe-dropping vocals of the younger stars, families across the world who have a love for fairy tales will turn out to watch and enjoy this fantasy musical. Meryl Streep takes centre stage as the frightening Witch, but I am sure nobody will care if she looks ugly and old, her voice alone will steal the show.

  1. American Sniper

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

Written by Jason Dean Hall.

Since that teaser was released of Bradley Cooper’s character, Chris Kyle, a United States Navy SEAL, silently and calmly in the midst of a sniper attack, I was intrigued to know more about this film. We know Cooper can do comedy well, he can do romance well, and since Silver Linings Playbook, he can let audiences into a more dramatic depth of personality, so I was under no impression of negativity when he was cast as the lead in this Clint Eastwood production. My surprise came from its many Academy Award nominations, but with Eastwood for a director, and after his many successes with Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, this is not his first dance at the Oscars. Based on the memoir of Chris Kyle, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, this biopic tells the mentally and physically tumultuous tale of a man torn between his love of the job or his true love at home. The sedate darkness of Eastwood creations with a harrowing story of the American Sniper is a match I would like too see.

  1. Ex Machina

Directed by Alex Garland

Starring Domhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.

Written by Alex Garland.

This eagerly anticipated British Science Fiction production is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, known for his writing abilities in the Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, about a man unknowingly becoming involved in the investigative challenging of the powers of humanity in the latest Artificial Intelligence experimentation, Ava, portrayed by Vikander. Gleeson’s character Caleb and Isaac’s Nathan go head to head in this thriller-esque reconfiguration of typical Sci-Fi to stimulate our minds into either accepting the unsettling notion of a new mechanically engineered world or undeniably fearing the lengths one would go to, to succeed in such a task. With his previous roles in the shadows of other actors, Gleeson comes into the forefront as the face of good against the aesthetically unnerving and formidable characterisation of Isaac, recently famed for his portrayals in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. Still in post-production, the film is set to storm the UK and US film industries, elevating the Science Fiction genre to new heights of mysterious emotional instabilities.