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Posts Tagged ‘Alex Garland’

I have recently published my top ten movies of the year.  I only included films I saw at the cinema, however, film distribution is changing; more films are being released online at the same time, or instead of theatrically.  Netflix original productions, and exclusive distributed movies have stepped up a gear employing A list actors and directors.  Below are the movies by the most significant of these directors.  For the record, Roma would have made my top ten movies of the year if eligible.    

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) – Mexico City 1970/71, an upper middle-class family is going through a time of transition, told from the point of view of their housekeepers, who has her own issues to deal with.  After spending time in space, the future and the wizarding world, director returns to his native Mexic for the first time since 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También, it was worth the wait!  The family drama shot in beautiful black and white immediately invokes thoughts of Yasujirô Ozu, Roma is that good, it sits comfortably in such auspicious company.  There is little in the way of plot, the film just drifts along evoking a dreamlike feeling.  As in life, there are smaller resolutions but no real conclusion, the story goes after the lights go down.  Simply shot, often with a fixed camera, but always beautiful to look at.  Cuarón employs a deep-focus to great effect, there is always something going on in frame.  The same is true of the incredible sound design.  This leads to my only criticism, IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SCREENED IN MORE CINEMAS!Roma

Annihilation (Alex Garland) –  A meteor hits an area of Florida swampland and is now surrounded by what the film calls the shimmer, it blocks all contact with the outside world, and all expeditions into it have failed to return.  Cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) joins an all-female team in.  With a great track record as an author and screen-writer, Alex Garland hit the ground running with his directorial debut Ex Machina.  The cast is first rate, particularly Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac, but it is often Tessa Thompson that steals the show.  Elements of the movie will draw comparisons with Arrival, it sadly isn’t that good, but that movie set a pretty high bar.  This is still an excellent film.  Drowned in the mythology of the genre(s), the film asks some big questions in a very bold way, but has the intelligence and the restraint not to answer them. annihilation

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen) – Portmanteau western consisting of six stories: A guitar-playing gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson).  A bank robber (James Franco). A travelling theatrical show owner (Liam Neeson). A prospector (Tom Waits). A young woman on a wagon train heading west (Zoe Kazan).  Five strangers on a stagecoach (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross).  The western is as old as cinema.  From Ford (and before) to Eastwood and Costner, via Peckinpah and Leone the genre has established and reinvented itself countless times, but it still has its beats, its clichés.  With the western filmmakers have told every story imaginable, from the birth of America (and tried to justify the more unseemly aspects  of it), to a nations loss of innocence, and so much more. With True Grit and No Country For Old Men, The Coen Brothers have demonstrated their understanding and appreciation of the Western.  Here they have taken the archetypes of the genre and subverted them, in the process both embracing and exposing the absurdities of filmmaking.  The result is a film that you can take as disposable fun, or a thought-provoking meditation on the mythology of the western movie, I chose to take both!The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

 22 July (Paul Greengrass) – True story of the atrocity on the island of Utøya in 2011, and its aftermath.  Paul Greengrass has an uncanny ability to bring real life stories to the screen making them cinematic, and entertaining without losing the humanity, and sensitivity.  Take exhibits 1 to 3: Bloody Sunday, United 93, and Captain Phillips.  The brilliance of the story, is that although terrorist Anders Behring Breivik is front and centre, it isn’t his story.  It is the victims story, the survivors story, but most importantly Norway’s story.  The film is a little on the long side and could lose some of the middle section where the metaphors are a little heavy-handed.  This is a small quibble for a very powerful movie. 22 July

Bird Box (Susanne Bier) – Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two young children embark on a river journey wearing blindfolds.  We learn in flashback what got them to this point, and about the mysterious entity that once seen drives you to suicide.  Bullock and the supporting cast (including: Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Tom Hollander, Jacki Weaver, and BD Wong) are all fantastic.  The characters representing a microcosm of society are a little clichéd, but that is the necessary shorthand of a film, and doesn’t stop you empathise with them.  The best thing about the film is the concept and the story, that shows just enough, and leaves so much more for the audience to wonder.  The direction is taught making the over two hour runtime seem like 100 minutes. DSC04279.CR2

Hold the Dark (Jeremy Saulnier) – A young boy goes missing in a small town on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness.  The boys farther (Alexander Skarsgård) is away, fighting in Iraq.  His mother (Riley Keough) hires a wolf expert (Jeffrey Wright) to track and kill the animals responsible.   Jeremy Saulnier’s first two movies Blue Ruin, and Green Room are not happy affairs, but they are positively shiney and glowing in comparison to Hold the Dark.  The film is cold, dark and oppressive.  I describe, Roma as having a dreamlike feeling, this movie has that same quality, but this is a far less pleasant dream, this is the type of dream that you wake from with a feeling of hopeless despair.  It is a far better, deeper and more intelligent film than many have given it credit for, but it’s a really hard film to like or enjoy.  I am really glad I watched it, and really need to see it again to better understand it, I’m just not sure I want to watch it again.Hold the Dark

Apostle (Gareth Evans) – A troubled young man (Dan Stevens) travels to a remote island to infiltrate a cult who have kidnap his sister.   After the success of the Raid movies, Welsh born director Gareth Evans returns home to the UK for a rather unusual and brutal horror.  Comparisons with Wicker Man are inevitable, while it fails to come close to the contestant feeling of dread invoked by that film; it isn’t a laughable mess like the 2006 remake.   What it lacks in dread it makes up for in downright eerie and creepiness.  To its credit, the story doesn’t always go where you expect it to, it is however a little saggy toward the middle and would have benefited from a fifteen-twenty minute trim off the runtime.  More a film for horror fans than those of Evans earlier work, I certainly enjoyed it. Apostle

Mute (Duncan Jones) – Berlin, 2052. A mute barman (Alexander Skarsgård) is searching for his missing girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh).  The story overlaps with an AWOL U.S. military medic (Paul Rudd) who with the help of fellow surgeon and all-round sleazebag (Justin Theroux) is trying to acquire fake ID and travel papers to get back home.  Duncan Jones bust onto the scene just under a decade ago with the excellent Moon (2009).  The follow-up Source Code (2011) is and underrated gem, even the bonkers video game  Warcraft (2016) isn’t bad.  Mute, however, is a strange beast.  The Blade Runner inspired idea of a hardboiled 40’s detective in a future setting is good, but the film is a mess.  The balance between the two stories don’t work.  It would have been better if the Justin Theroux character were dropped completely and the Paul Rudd story reduced.  That said, Skarsgård is a good lead if a little lacking in dimension.  Clint Mansell’s electro-synth score is excellent.  And for fans of Moon, there is a nice Easter egg , we get to see what happened to the Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) clones. Mute

 Netflix have also released: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (Andy Serkis), and Outlaw King  (David Mackenzie).  As well as Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side Of The Wind that has been in some sort of limbo for the past four decades.  I am yet to see any of these. 

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Annihilation

Before I say anymore, let me nail my colours to the mast; the cinema is the best place to watch films, I watch over a hundred films in the cinema and have done so for the past twenty years.  Regardless of how good a home setup is, it isn’t the same, therefore home viewing is a last resort! Why am I telling you this?

I have recently watched Alex Garland’s new movie Annihilation at home, and not at the cinema, not by choice, but because short of a transatlantic flight it wasn’t possible for me to see the film as the director intended.

To give a little context, this is not a direct to video release in the traditional sense, made by Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin Productions, the film was intended for a cinema/theatrical release.  Then a financier at Paramount got cold feet when test audiences described the film as “too intellectual” and “too complicated”.  Said financier was then kind enough to spare us stupid audiences the embarrassment of being confused by the film, what a hero!  The studio decided to release the movie properly in the US and China but sold the rest of the world rites to Netflix for their streaming service.

I suspect anyone reading this will know who Alex Garland is.  For those who don’t, he is a bit of a Renaissance Man.  I first came across him in the late 90’s when he wrote his début novel and cultural touchstone The Beach (1996), that was later turned into a far better than it is given credit for movie.  His next novel The Tesseract (1998) was equally as good; it was also turned into a film but was far too abstract to work on screen.  His final (as yet) novel The Coma (2004) featured fantastic woodcut illustrations by his father, Nicholas Garland.Alex Garland Novels

Garland then turned to screenwriting producing a mixture of adaptations and original stories for: 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012).Alex Garland screenwriting

He then made his directorial début with one of the best, and most intelligent movies of 2015, Ex Machina, the film that also introduced most of us to the brilliant Alicia Vikander.  This brings us up to date and to Annihilation.   As you may expect from all this background, I loved Annihilation and am greatly disappointed that I did not get to see it as intended on the big screen.Alicia Vikander Ex Machina

A brief synopsis: A lighthouse in Florida is hit by a meteor.  The area is quickly overtaken by a “shimmer” that blocks all communication with the outside world.  For reasons that happen in the first act, but I don’t want to spoil, a biology professor (Natalie Portman) joins an expedition led by a doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to ender the shimmer.  Things get a little strange from here.Annihilation

I went into the movie knowing about as much, possibly even less than I have described above and think the film is the better for it.  What follows works on so many levels.  The film is loosely based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, it is reported that Garland read the novel once, then wrote a script based on it without refereeing back to the book.  Without reading the book, which I haven’t it is impossible to tell how much of the subtext is Garland and how much is author Jeff VanderMeer.  The strongest themes that come out are grief and depression, but this is all overshadowed by a compulsion to dominate and destroy.  Does this refer to the West’s interference in the rest of the world, our refusal to accept integration, or simply our destruction of the environment?  Probably a mixture of all of the above! Its strength comes not from the answers it gives, but from the questions it asks, thus making the film not about black and white absolutes, but about what we the audience bring to it.  I have heard comparisons with  Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival; while the subject matter has little more than a passing resemblance, the mood very similar.Annihilation

As well as the brilliant, and aforementioned Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the cast also includes Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac, all of whom are excellent.  The subject of the largely female cast is broached and dismissed brilliantly within the narrative.  However, I can’t help the sad feeling that at least part of the studios lack of confidence in the project stems from the shortage of Y chromosomes!  I can only assume that Netflix paid all or most of the budget, reported to be around $50million, why else would the studio take such drastic action, they would have almost certainly made its money back.  Interestingly, it is actually Netflix that come out of this looking best following the critical mauling they have recently received for their Sci-Fi, “Netflix Originals” needed a credible movie.  What Happened to Monday was good but lacked any buzz on release the way it would have given a cinema release.  David Ayer’s Bright, and Duncan Jones’s Mute were both better than reported.  The Cloverfield Paradox’s surprise-release certainly got people talking, but not in a good way, I haven’t seen it so don’t know if the reaction is fair.  With Annihilation, Netflix have a degree of credibility, and have also got people talking, this can’t be a bad thing for them.Annihilation

We are in a strange time for cinema as technology is moving faster than the film industry can understand.  It may be a period that ends with films being simultaneously released for both home and theatrical release as advocated by film critic Mark Kermode.

This all adds up to a brilliant film, that should be seen on a big screen, a screen we measure in feet not inches!

 

 

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Dredd 3D V Judge Dredd “I’ll Be the Judge of that”

Judge Dredd first appeared in the British science fiction comic book 2000 AD in 1977. In 1995 he made his first screen appearance in the movie Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone. This was the first mistake, in casting a megastar Dredd spent most of the movie without his helmet, Dredd’s face has never been seen in the comic book. They could have got away with this given a great script, unfortunately they didn’t have one. The story wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very Dredd and it played things too funny and camp. Again they may have gotten away with this, but Rob Schneider as a sidekick was the movies final proverbial nail. Diane Lane, Armand Assante and Max von Sydow provide good support but this is a drop in the ocean in comparison to all the films problems. So how does this new version compare? Surprisingly well.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie judge who may not be cut out for the job but is being given a chance because of her unprecedented psychic abilities. The pair attend a triple homicide at “Peach Trees” a 200-story slum tower block (essentially a small town/city within a single tower block) controlled by ruthless drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). When they become trapped in the building the judges suddenly have more to contend with than just the assessment as they have to fight for survival.

The beauty and dare I say it the brilliance of the movie is its simplicity. Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd went through an epic story with a large but ultimately uncharacteristic character arc. The development of the character as portrayed by Karl Urban is tiny and only exists as a reaction to Anderson whose character is constantly developing and evolving throughout the movie. Judge Dredd had a budget of around $90million (around $135million adjusted for inflation) the new movie was made for a more modest $45 million. With financial constraints come artistic solutions. Dredd does this by confining the plot to a single tower block, think more The Raid (2011) than Die Hard (1988), and like these two movies it is set over a single day (and night). As a day in the life tale, the events are more significant to Anderson than to Dredd who is portrayed as an established character. The casting is good, with Karl Urban (or at least his chin) making a convincing Dredd. Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey are also good. The rest of the cast is as disposable and insignificant as you would expect in a movie like this. Written by Alex Garland who is a self-confessed fan of the comic book and has ideas in place for a trilogy based on existing 2000 AD Dredd stories. As well as a striking look the production and costume design make for a more believable movie universe that the first film. Only enough information about the city and the judges is explained for the plot to make sense leaving the viewer wanting to know more.

It has its problems, the 3D is jus as pointless as you would expect it to be. The film is really well shot with artistic style and flair, but the 3D hampers rather than improves this. Looking down the 200-story tower block does not give the same sense of acrophobia that we got from the Burj Khalifa scenes in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The “Slo-Mo” drug and the effect it causes are overused within the plot without the appeal of it as a recreational narcotic been explored. The action scenes are well choreographed and films but lack originality or finesse.

So back to the original question, how does it compare to the 1995 version? It is better in every way. Knowing just how seriously to take itself and focussing on being fun not funny it isn’t a classic but it is an enjoyable movie full of good ideas and with an unexpected visual flair. I don’t expect everyone to like it, I actually know a lot of people who will hate it. I would recommended it to any fan of action movies or comic book movies but they may be better served waiting for the DVD where they don’t have to suffer the 3D. You’re probably thinking “I knew you’d say that!”

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