Annihilation

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Writer and director Alex Garland has proved he knows how to make a good Sci-Fi. Primarily known for his writing, Garland took a shot at directing his first film, Ex Machina, in 2014. With its huge success, he chose to direct his next precious baby, Annihilation. The short form of what’s in store for you is Arrival meets Alien meets Prometheus. You’ll find a lot of crossover in films…”wait where have I seen this before?!” Borrowing isn’t a bad thing – think of it instead as a sounding board to new, bigger and better ideas. Its key similarity to Arrival is the overall plot, and comparable to Alien in the developing revelations, and aesthetically like Prometheus in that it’s next level visually impressive.

The majority of Garland’s films fall into the Sci-Fi genre. His scripts have been unique since Day 1…The Beach, a classic Leo DiCaprio film. Annihilation is no different – a strange, unfamiliar region materializes on Earth and appears to be spreading. A group of female scientists volunteer to head into “the shimmer” in the hopes of finding out what lies within. The expedition is no walk in the park. Shocker! The twists and turns will cause spikes of adrenaline, not always in welcomed ways so expect to cover your eyes. Be warned: this ain’t for the faint of heart. The writing takes unusual turns, developing into an incredibly complex story that’ll have you scratching your head for days.

Directing your own script, thus knowing the story inside and out gives Garland the freedom to bring his vision to life exactly how he originally intended it to be. From the start he sets the tone with dark frames and creepy POVs of the characters, sometimes up close and personal, to instigate an uneasy feeling. Mission accomplished dude. The feeling was palpable in the theater – everyone on edge, shakin in our boots (seriously winter, times up). He’ll have you questioning where we’re headed next, all the while teasing bits and pieces of the future where the questions are answered, but never shows enough to make it predictable. This tactic will have you guessing up until the very end. Once their mission begins, those dark frames transition into a gorgeous, vibrant, almost Avatar like setting. He juxtaposed the peculiar and evil personality traits of the women in contrast to the deceptively gorgeous environment within. The stark difference between the outside and the inside only further adds to the fear of what’s to come.

Garland worked with a lot of the same experts from Ex Machina, seeming to be a well-oiled team. Cinematographer Rob Hardy’s camera movements are steady, letting you observe and digest the surroundings and get to know the characters. Music composers are largely to blame for our tense emotions during creepy and eerie films. Just as they did in Ex Machina, music composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow did exactly that.

Although not a lead, Garland also cast a familiar face, Oscar Isaac, from you guessed it, Ex Machina. Annoyed yet of hearing that name? If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you’re curious now, huh? Isaac’s creepy facial expressions and mannerisms hinted from the first second that the film was going headed in a sinister direction real quick. Lead actress, Natalie Portman who clearly knows the true meaning of a disturbing role after winning an Oscar in 2011 for Black Swan only further demonstrated her depth as a phenomenal actor. She led the pack of her badass girl scouts comprised of Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) and Tessa Thompson (Creed). These ladies were all chilling in their own right, embodying their characters both physically and mentally to no end. Here we see a film led by women, but not just any women, but SCIENTISTS. Look at that – we’re being shown as smart too. Wow look at you Hollywood!

Bottom line: If you’re not down to feel anxious and on edge, stay away. If you can stomach it, it’s worth it, as Annihilation has it all: thought provoking story, striking graphics, and one kickass cast. Here’s the only caveat – you’re highly likely to have some graphic, bizarre and perhaps even disturbing dreams, but it’s worth a sleepless night.  

Black Panther

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You may be thinking to yourself, “is Black Panther as good as everyone says?” Yes, yes and yes, definitely a must-see. Marvel has yet to disappoint since their first film in 2008, Iron Man. However, Black Panther stands out from the rest with a predominantly black cast AND women portrayed as head-honchos. This reflects the movement in the Entertainment industry to write and produce more films for women. About time! Writer and director Ryan Coogler (Creed) jumped at the opportunity, nailing it. He has proven there's an appetite for stories like this. His success will only propel this movement futher, I’m sure of it. Based on the comic, T’Challa is the newly appointed King of Wakanda, played by Chadwick Boseman (42), but with fresh blood comes envy and jealousy. An outsider, Michael B. Jordan (Creed) challenges his throne with intent to control the African nation. 

Writers Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s (American Crime Story) writing structure introduced this exciting new Marvel superhero story very successfully. It’s sophisticated in that every character has extraordinary powers, and yet are also every day people, in other words humanized. It’s not often you see an African nation shown as technologically advanced with smarts and capabilities other countries can only dream of. What’s more, women lead the army and protect the citizens, and all the remarkable innovations are created by yup, women. It’s great that the film is kid friendly so that younger generations are exposed to these notions and come to see this as the norm. Coogler and Cole have the power to influence young moviegoers' perspectives in strong ways, and this is only the start. Besides these serious undertones, the film is fun and entertaining.

The laugh out loud moments are well timed and hit the right tone. Marvel’s films intertwine comedic relief in between the adrenaline inducing action. They don’t take themselves so seriously unlike other superhero films…cough DC Comics. Newcomer Letitia Wright (The Commuter) and Boseman couldn’t have been a better dynamic brother-sister duo, each one playing off of the other’s wit. There was a 50/50 split between serious star power and newcomers. The familiar faces include Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland). The new kid (I mean girl) on the block was standout badass Danai Gurira (All Eyez On Me). The cast looked like they had a blast making this film, which in turn sets the mood for the audience. It was contagious!

The film is pretty much perfect and I haven’t even gotten to Coogler’s phenomenal directing alongside cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Morrison was recently nominated for an Oscar for Mudbound as the first female ever. With heavy CGI and VFX the film was visually stunning and eye catching, shockingly predominately filmed in Atlanta and South Korea. Fun fact: most every Marvel film is shot in Atlanta. Who’da thunk it?!

Bottom line: The hype is real. You won’t be disappointed. See it in theaters, undoubtedly worth your time and money.  It’s ideal for any occasion – a fun night out for a couple’s retreat, a girls' night out, or an outing with the family. Already counting down the days to the sequel (always series faithful). Remember to stay until the very end of the credits to get a sneak preview of what’s to come. I hope you enjoy the best film of 2018 thus far! 

Fifty Shades Freed

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By now, we’re all familiar with the Fifty Shades trilogy, based on the best-selling novels written by E. L. James. If you haven’t read them, someone you know has, or at the very least you’ve seen a woman or two glued to it on your morning commute. It’s been 7 years since the series was published and 3 years since the first film was released. Since then the films have evolved to let’s put it this way…a raunchier level. The story is absurd, unsophisticated and certainly far-fetched. If you put all that past you and don’t take it so seriously, they’re fun and one hell of a guilty pleasure. All you have to do is show up and director James Foley (House of Cards), and actors Dakota Johnson (How to Be Single) and Jamie Dornan (The Fall) will do all the work for you.

Fun fact: the screenwriter, Niall Leonard (Fifty Shades Darker), is married to E. L. James so her precious babies were on a tight leash. Fans of the novels say Leonard uses everything from the source material, a reader's dream. If you’re looking for a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, keep walking. It’s no secret these are poorly written and laugh out loud funny, but E. L. James and Leonard have figured out what women want. For those of us who haven’t read the novels, the first film introduces the couple, the second dives deeper into Mr. Grey’s complicated history and how it affects their relationship. The final installment shows what happens after Mrs. Grey gets her happy ending. Add some drama like a sexy realtor, an obsessive ex, and a boss turned stalker turned murderer and you’ve got yourself a cookie cutter formula.

Go big or go home. This time Foley went bigger than big. He doesn’t waste any time, jumping right in, leaving little to the imagination. He gets up close and personal in every sex scene of which there are plenty. This one went from 0 to 100 with more nudity than the others. Just like the novels, this won’t be an Oscar nominated film. Foley’s transitions are choppy, forced and rushed. It’s as though he felt pressed for time. However, the music is SO good and matches the vibe perfectly thanks to music composer Danny Elfman (Spider-Man). Foley tugs on our emotions, taking us down memory lane with a montage of the most memorable moments from the series. It’s okay to giggle, blush, and smile from ear to ear hopeless romantics. It’s a heartthrob, sure to spike your adrenaline

Speaking of heartthrobs, Mr. and Mrs. Grey, Dornan and Johnson respectively, were on fire. Dornan must be eating his wheaties every morning and pumpin’ some serious iron because the man looks very, and I mean VERY, good. Johnson isn’t too shabby herself, looking stunning per usual. Their chemistry is better than ever, each scene wilder than the one before it. Rumor has it they don’t get along in real life. Could’ve fooled me! Best friends or not, these can’t be easy to film. They’ve both reached their climax, and now it’s time to move on. TBD on what roles they land next. Films like these have tendencies to pigeon hole you…

Bottom line: If you're embarrassed to admit that you’ve read the books or seen the films, let it go. Get on board, become series faithful, and grab your friends for a girl’s night out. Aren’t you in the least bit curious how it ends? Parting is such sweet sorrow :(

The Post

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Honesty is the best policy, but when it comes to politics, a different code seems to apply. The Post is an example of this. In 1971 when President Nixon was in office, The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers, top-secret intelligence about the Vietnam War, hidden from the public through four U.S. administrations. Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep (Iron Lady), the country’s first female newspaper publisher, made this happen, along with her courageous staff, played by a long list of actors you’re sure to recognize. It's another must-see Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) film, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight), who will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

First time writer, Liz Hannah, came up with the idea for this film AND wrote it. Did I mention she’s 33 and now her first screenplay is a Spielberg film? It’s safe to say she’s going to have a killer career. Without the delicacy of Hannah and Singer's writing, the film could’ve felt overwhelming, having spread itself too thin, with too much information. Luckily, it was anything but. The background provided, which covers 12+ years, was both necessary and helpful to understand the magnitude of the real reason for the film, the papers. Hannah and Singer drop the bomb and launch into the who, what, where, when, how and why at full speed ahead. You’ll walk out feeling like an expert. Surprise – you’ll also learn about the newspaper industry and how it functions, bricks, press, print, the whole shebang!

Spielberg, well he’s Spielberg. Dull lighting, with subtle spotlights on the highlighted characters during interior scenes let the audience know who the big man on campus was in the room. In a film where there were oftentimes many characters in one scene, this was certainly helpful to direct our focus. During these scenes, there was heavy dialogue, but they served as a break in the drama where Spielberg gives you time to listen and digest the information thrown at you. In between each of those interior shots, the camera would follow the characters walking briskly or running to get to the next big thing in the story. As the film went on, the stakes naturally got higher. Music composer, John Williams (Star Wars), makes that tension possible. The score is fast and exciting, making your adrenaline levels soar through the roof. Spielberg’s direction, editing, and score make for an exciting and beyond entertaining film with incredible acting by his entire cast.

There’s a whole lot of star power packed into The Post, hello Streep and Tom Hanks (Castaway) alone, wowza. Streep is a badass boss lady, the kind of character we need more of in Hollywood right now. Her character development was shown through the transformation of her clothing. Take notice of her business-like attire, suits, etc at the start, but by the end her outfits are more ladylike, showing she’s a confident woman who's the boss in a room full of men. Hanks, who plays Ben Bradlee, the executive editor, is one of those men who shows her the respect she deserves. He has gumption and authority when around his team, but when in a room with Streep, he noticeably tones that down to show them whose boss, Katharine Graham. Fun fact for all you history buffs: Bradlee and his wife were best friends with John and Jackie Kennedy, but that's a story for another time. Check out The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee on HBO; it's fascinating! In such a dramatic film (in the positive sense), the actors overcame the urge to over act. Bare with me, the list is long, but they all deserve a shout out: Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Tracy Letts (Lady Bird), Bradley Whitford (West Wing), Bruce Greenwood (Double Jeopardy), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Alison Brie (Glow), Carrie Coon (Gone Girl), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) and David Cross (Arrested Development). I wasn’t kidding...

Bottom line: The Post is interesting, action packed and well worth your time. Juicy, juicy gossip you’ll want to know – after all it was kept from us for far too long! Be sure to catch it before the Oscars, I smell a Best Picture nomination. 

Molly's Game

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There were high stakes on the table for Aaron Sorkin’s (The Social Network) directorial debut, his reputation as a renowned writer was on the line. It was well worth the risk, as Molly’s Game, is definitely a must-see. It’s skillfully crafted for those familiar or not with poker, compelling, adrenaline inducing, and with no less than the best, Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) who is just as badass as the character she plays, Molly Bloom. 

Sorkin is hit or miss for some. His scripts are dialogue heavy, which if taken at face value are brilliant considering what a great writer he is, but can be feel preachy. The dialogue is always fast paced and thorough, requiring your eyes and ears to be wide open or else you’re sure to miss a thing or two. Molly’s Game has the same game plan, different story. Sorkin tells Molly Bloom’s story, Olympic skier gone “Poker Princess,” known for running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game in the early 2000’s. At one point the buy in was $250,000 to put it into perspective so this woman didn’t f*** around. The rest is history.

The film doesn’t skip a beat. Sorkin structured the film such that we learned along with Chastain, about poker and how to run a game. Now don’t think for a second you’ll walk out an expert, but point is, the film is very informational, even though your brain might explode. Sorkin gives your brain a break once she begins to run her own game, only to attack your heart next. You do the math on how you’ll feel when men lose $100 million a night. While this fact is true, there are certain parts of the film that aren’t exactly true to life, but it’s understandable why Sorkin felt the need to fudge the facts for dramatic purposes. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed, especially with a certain someone’s performance.

It’s hard to picture anyone but Chastain playing this role. She’s Molly’s doppelganger, looks, speech, and the whole nine yards. Her character development is phenomenal: obedient athlete to sly assistant to confident independent businesswoman. She’s a whole different animal by the end. These transformations felt like their own characters – Chastain played each so well so when there’s a sudden flip of a switch on to the next one, it feels invigorating and exciting. It wasn’t just her personality that altered over time, but also her fashion, essential to her character, ultimately becoming a convincing woman with all the chips. Her counterpart, Idris Elba (Luther), who plays her lawyer (another Sorkin fictional character), brought laughs to the party and had just as much of a presence as Chastain on screen. The same goes for Michael Cera (Superbad) who plays one of the high stakes players. Fun fact: Cera plays Tobey McGuire (Spider-Man), renamed “Player X” for privacy purposes, one of many Hollywood stars who joined in on the fun. Molly had quite the line up: Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Ben Affleck (Argo), as well as athletes Pete Sampras, and Alex Rodriguez.

Bottom line: For diehard poker sports fans and non gamblers alike, Molly’s Game is entertaining as hell – story, pace, and needless to say, killer acting all around. Sorkin played the long game as a writer, joined when the table was hot, went all in, and boom full house…officially able to call himself a director, and a good one at that! 

Phantom Thread

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When arguably the best actor to date prematurely decides to retire, it’s a big deal. Audiences have come to love and deeply respect 60 yr-old Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), but for him his retirement is long overdue. And while he likely will not bring home the gold for his performance in Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), he’s going out with a bang.

Anderson became a director to watch after his 1997 film, Boogie Nights, about a young porn star. Overtime his films have become more and more intangible, taking on a life of their own, as stand alone pieces of art. Phantom Thread is the perfect example. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a famous dressmaker in the 1950s, known to be meticulous workwise, but fickle in his personal life. He meets Alma, played by Vicky Krieps (Hanna), his latest muse, who turns his world upside down. The film is not based on a true story. There was no house of Woodcock, but the great Cristóbal Balenciaga loosely inspired Anderson’s story. Let’s assume for a second Anderson’s films have a subject (a dressmaker) a theme (misogyny), and a message (how to overcome the power struggle between men and women). Anderson doesn’t think in those terms as a writer/director. He only cares about what his films are, the rest is unimportant, hence the elusive and frustrating nature of his films.

At the start, the film is whimsical. The imagery is as detailed as the dresses themselves, coming through the screen clear as day, as though you yourself are stitching the fabric. The soothing, classical score pairs beautifully with the imagery. That is until an indescribable shift occurs, a sort of jaggedness that interrupts this fanciful world with Day-Lewis’s abrasive, uncomfortable and extremely harsh presence. Anderson piggybacks between these two feelings, until the latter overwhelms you to a point of no return.

Day-Lewis is the only actor to ever win three Best Actor Oscars. It’s no secret he is a method actor, becoming his characters in every sense. In the case of this character, dressmaker Reynolds, he worked closely with the costume designer Mark Bridges (The Artist) in preparation for the film, as well as throughout, to stay in character. While studying fashion, he learned to cut, drape and sew, at one point recreating a Balenciaga dress as practice. There’s a reason why he’s known as the best method actor ever. Reynolds is supposed to be extremely controlling and obsessive compulsive with little nuances you’ll become accustomed to like his obsession with every snap, crackle, and pop in a room. These characteristics take on a life of their own resulting in erratic behavior that is terrifying to watch, and will definitely cause some spikes in adrenaline. Day-Lewis’s eyes and emotions feel so real, making it hard to imagine he is anything but, in real life. Anderson’s close up shots during these moments create a subtle claustrophobic feeling when interacting with his wife, Krieps. Talk about a timely depiction of a hopelessly romantic woman put down by a powerful man who could be violent at any moment. Round and round Anderson’s story went, contributing to the confusion of what his end game. This remains an unsolved mystery in yet another one of his films.

Bottom line: Day-Lewis will be sorely missed – a departure that leaves a void in Hollywood, hopefully to be filled one day. Phantom Thread is a must-see not only to witness Anderson’s genius, but to also say goodbye to a true artist.

All The Money In The World

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Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can certainly buy you things, lots and lots of things. Welcome to John Paul Getty’s world. At the height of his success, after founding the Getty Oil Company, he was known as the richest man in the world. Yet somehow that amounted to nothing when it came to the important things in life like, well everything else. And so goes the story of All The Money In The World, written by David Scarpa (Cleopatra) and directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), with a focus on the kidnapping of his grandson, then 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, in 1973.

Let me first address the elephant in the room. Originally Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) was cast as Getty. His much anticipated, potentially award-winning performance disappeared into thin air. We all know why… Not even a week after the news broke about Spacey was he replaced by Christopher Plummer (Beginners). The cast and crew of the film unanimously decided to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes so by the end of November the film was complete, and ready to be released on its original date, Christmas Day. V impressive! Spacey’s loss was our gain.

Getty is a fascinating character, a terrible man in fact. I mean seriously who refuses to pay their grandson’s ransom, an amount that wouldn’t even put a dent in his massive fortune. Plummer plays this emotionless, merciless and cowardly character well. Getty was ruthless both in business and in life. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) plays the mother of John Paul Getty III, Gail. This isn’t her best role, but it’s good enough, showing the desperation of a mother, and her willingness to do anything to get her son back. The misfit was Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter). He appeared too modern for the role. He wasn’t bad by any means, just not the best choice.

Scott tends to make movies of epic proportions, but this is no such film. Adrenaline inducing yes, but it lacked consistency. Just as Wahlberg was too modern for a film set in the 70s, so was the imagery. In the beginning, it was convincing, but as the film went on it lost its grip on the 70s period, and started to look more like present day. There were also holes in the story. Most notably, the absence of Gail’s three other children. Why didn’t they appear more? Were they not just as concerned as their mother was? Scott’s films are pretty lengthy, but this time he didn’t give the audience enough credit.

Bottom line: With a story as intriguing as this one, and with such a stir around the recast of Spacey, All The Money In The World doesn’t quite live up to its hype; thrilling at times, but not quite as good as advertised. The story itself and Plummer's good shot at gold make it worth your time, but not one worth running to amongst the other A+ films this season. 

 

The Darkest Hour

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Churchill. What a legend! Over the years, there’ve been many depictions of the iconic figure, played by numerous actors in both television and film. This year alone he appeared in the Netflix series The Crown, played by John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun); a film called Churchill (clever name), played by Brian Cox (Her); and then there’s The Darkest Hour. It’s not to say one is better than the other, but there’s something special about this one and that is Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight). He is the movie and the reason why this is a must-see.

Churchill is a controversial figure in history no doubt about it. There were many ups and downs in his career, but this film in particular focuses on one of his greatest achievements. Set in May 1940, in the early part of World War II, when he was newly appointed Prime Minister, he was faced with a life changing decision, not only for him, but also for the rest of the world. Nazi forces had cornered the Allied army on the beaches of Dunkirk, and over the course of four weeks Churchill changed the fate of Western Europe. You’ll have to find out the rest for yourself. What was particularly great about this screenplay is the condensed timeframe, rather than the typical coverage of his career over a span of several years. Writer Anthony McCarten’s (The Theory of Everything) script tactfully broke down the four weeks into carefully chosen segments to highlight the vital moments during this trying time. It’s so educational, but not entirely accurate, as the majority of the scenes are behind closed door conversations, so naturally those weren’t documented. It’s the overall picture that does the trick.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) used big, in-your-face time cards to create the suspense and urgency of the situation, adrenaline check! He used dark lighting to set an ominous mood. Wright’s recreation of the locations, including Churchill’s quarters and the famous bunkers, which appeared as claustrophobic as they are in real life, were uncanny. It’s not so much the movie as a whole that will take your breath away; instead it’s Oldman’s performance. Holy cow!

With five hours of prosthetics and makeup daily and one hour of removal at the end of the day, all thanks to Kazuhiro Tsuji (Planet of the Apes), Oldman became unrecognizable. He was Churchill incarnate – appearance, mannerisms, speech, you name it. His delivery was perfection, demanding respect from all, especially during each of his speeches. The 60-year-old actor hesitated to accept this highly grueling role, but luckily he did, as this is his best performance yet. He brought life to a complex character that’s one tough egg to crack.

Bottom line: If you’ve already seen Dunkirk, another Oscar contender this year directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), which shows the perspective from the battlefield, then The Darkest Hour will be all the more fascinating, as it depicts the ins and outs from behind the scenes. The film isn’t mind blowing, but Oldman is and could likely earn him Best Actor at both The Golden Globes and The Academy Awards. Bravo Mr. Oldman, oh I mean Mr. Churchill.