Movies Reviews

‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Nightmare with an Acute Perspective on the Interconnectedness of Life’s Recurring Patterns

Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hours 55 minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson

We all watch films for our own reasons. What seems like a masterpiece to one may just as clearly seem like a disaster to another. The inherent subjectivity of film is founded in the multitude of ways we the viewers determine value in the art form. For me, the best films are like dreams – they vividly articulate a compelling vision by means of rich narrative, prevailing tone, and effective execution. My particular criteria for great cinema is why my favorite film of 2017 was Darren Aronofsky’s extremely polarizing mother! and it’s why Annihilation is likely to be my favorite film of this year.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez (pictured left-to-right) prepare to enter “the shimmer”

Annihilation, directed by secret sci-fi auteur Alex Garland, takes after the common genre trope of specialized-team-confronts-a-mysterious-event-horizon, with the “team” here headed by Lena (Natalie Portman), a former US soldier turned college professor seeking answers as to the circumstances of her husband Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) peculiar return from a covert expedition into “the shimmer,” an other-worldly energy mass that’s slowly enveloping the planet. Rather than Kane’s return being a miracle due to the fact that no one has ever entered and returned from the shimmer, his unexplained escape from the quarantined zone raises more questions than answers, compelling Lena to tag along on the next expedition inside to discover what happened to her husband. Lena is joined by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cass Shepard (Tuva Novotny), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), each with their own personal motives as to why they’ve volunteered for this suicide mission. When Lena and company finally enter the shimmer, they soon learn the fates of prior expeditions’ and the nature of the shimmer itself.

Director Alex Garland has openly professed his interpretation of the film’s source material, the first book in the “Southern Reach Trilogy” by Jeff VanderMeer, as being like a dream, and that’s exactly how he made his film. Every frame of Annihilation feels like a fleeting memory of the dream you had the night before. Every detail of the production is hypnotically surreal, from the imaginative visual effects to the earthy cinematography to the unsettling film score. The shimmer itself is radiant and lush with life and beautiful scenery, but the haphazard nature of the mutations to the environment and the living creatures (and humans) within it, gives the alien habitat a nightmarish aesthetic that can only be described as such.

“The shimmer” is equal parts terrifying and stunningly beautiful

Like all good science fiction, Annihilation is about a lot more than just its high-level premise. Garland uses the original source material, as a guide to explore what makes humans succumb to their self-destructive ways. But what I find most interesting about the film’s allegory is its presumptions of self-destruction as a biological inevitability. In other words, what if our tendency to sabotage ourselves is not merely a consequence of worldly circumstances, but instead an outer manifestation of cellular, biological mortality. Early on in the film, Lena (Portman’s character) defines the eventual death of the living cell, the moment mitosis stops, as a universal flaw – a flaw that if corrected, would render death obsolete. And that’s what “the shimmer” ultimately does: it addresses that flaw, albeit with unpredictable and often times deadly results.

Annihilation is the genre at its best: mixing a compelling mystery, unique visuals, and genuinely insightful themes. Like last year’s mother!, some may not be as impressed by the film as I was, and that’s perfectly fine, but if you’re a serious fan of science fiction, it would be criminal to pass this film up.


Movies Reviews

The ‘Fifty Shades’ Experiment Accomplishes What Set out To

Fifty Shades Freed
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hours 45 minutes
Director: James Foley
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, and Marcia Gay Harden

The Fifty Shade of Grey films have been consistently dragged through the mud in both critic and fan circles for the past 3 years when the first book adaptation was realized in 2015. And after those 3 short (or long depending on who you ask) years, the controversial trilogy has come to an end with Fifty Shades Freed, an objectively dreadful film. However, while the film and its predecessors are truly awful, the franchise has its redeeming qualities when considered from a different perspective – one that sees the absurd frivolity not as your typical film, but as the hyper-realistic fantasy it is.

Newly weds Christian and Anastasia Grey continue to swoon over each other

The Fifty Shades saga follows the “carnal” relationship between a shy, aspiring writer Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and sexual deviant Billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The most recent and final film, Fifty Shades Freed opens with Anastasia and Christian’s wedding, and is about their new marriage, Anastasia coping with her newfound riches and responsibilities, and the impending confrontation with Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Anastasia’s predatory boss whom she had fired who also happens to share an unexpected past with Christian. If any of that sounded genuinely exciting in any way, I can assure you, it isn’t.

The plot of this film (and really the whole series in general), if you can call it that, is nothing more than forgettable filler in-between sporadic moments of contrived drama, pop songs, and repetitive sex scenes, which is bad for an edgy romance that’s main selling point is the promise of hardcore BDSM. Yet despite all of that, I found myself enjoying the experience, if not only due to the sheer hilarity of the film’s badness. But even more surprisingly, I came to appreciate, and kind of respect, what the film trilogy tried to be: a mindless, female fantasy.

Please don’t interpret that as patronizing or condescending. By female fantasy, I mean a made-for-women fiction grounded in a version of reality where a random woman can escape her boring, conventional life to fall into a sex-crazed fling with a young, attractive billionaire. There are countless films catering to common male fantasizes from getting in orgies with 30 hot chicks to saving the world from alien invasions; while the films intended for female viewing (i.e. romantic comedies) are almost always confined to the familiar reality with which women are unable to escape from even in the movie theater.

It’s fitting that the Fifty Shades novels, from which the films are adapted, originate from a Twilight fan-fiction because, while the films and novels are indisputably terrible, the franchise and what it represents is well intentioned, and entertaining enough to earn its spot in the pop culture canon.

Objective Score: 2/10
Qualified Score: 7.5/10

Reviews TV

‘Mr. Robot’ Season 3 Lays the Groundwork for the Revolution

Mr. Robot
Season: 3
Platform/Network/Channel: USA Network
Episode Count: 10
Starring: Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, Martin Wallström, and Bobby Cannavale

Perhaps the single most underrated, yet still iconic show of the post-Breaking Bad TV-scape is Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot. A show that, after a stellar freshman and understated sophomore outing, wrapped its third season at the end of 2017.  Much like HomelandMr. Robot belongs to the class of shows that was once at the forefront of pop culture for their initial seasons, but subsequently fell out of spotlight, and that’s a real shame because while Mr. Robot is a show about hackers trying to take down “the man”, it has a lot to say about socialization in contemporary late-stage Capitalism aside from the obvious revolutionary aims of its protagonists.

Elliot (Rami Malek) looks on at the result of his failure

**Spoilers ahead** Season 3 of Mr. Robot picks up immediately after the cliffhanger finale of Season 2, where Elliot (Rami Malek) was left shot and bleeding out by Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) after trying to thwart the next phase of “their” plan to blow up the building in the heart of New York City housing the final paper records of financial debt owed to E-Corp, effectively nullifying the conglomerate’s global power. We are quickly introduced to the newest player in the game, Dark Army-employed “fixer” Irving (Bobby Cannavale), and are just as quickly made aware of the narrative scope of season. Angela (Portia Doubleday) has declared her allegiance to the Dark Army, the Chinese hacker group lead by Whiterose (BD Wong), while Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) has been apprehended by the FBI and taken under the wing of Agent Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer). Upon recovering from his gunshot wound, Elliot and his dueling personality, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) begin to behave as direct adversaries, with the other actively trying to counteract the other. This tug-of-war plays a pivotal role in the course of the season, both narratively and thematically, as Elliot fights to stop the execution of “Phase 2” and the ensuing aftermath and implications of what comes after.

The first portion of the season (episodes 1 – 4) is very much reminiscent of the show’s understated second season, with a lot of time spent establishing character allegiances, motivations, and trajectories. Elliot and Mr. Robot, now antagonists to the other, cease to communicate with the other as they have for seasons past – Mr. Robot working with the Dark Army to destroy E-Corps’ debt records once and for all, and Elliot working to preserve the records. Darlene is forced to become a kind-of-FBI informant after the Dark Army murders her boyfriend and she is subsequently identified as the leader of fsociety. Angela fully commits to helping the Dark Army manipulate Elliot/Mr. Robot to Phase 2’s completion based on the misguided belief that Whiterose will right her mother’s wrongful death. Lastly, Tyrell Wellick, under delusions of grandeur, purpose, and the desire to reunite with his wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) and newborn son, falls out of love with Elliot/Mr. Robot and must find a way to circumvent the sporadic obstacles created by the bizarre duo.

FBI agent Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer) is seemingly the only agent in the agency that is on to the Dark Army’s involvement in the nationwide chaos

Episodes 5 and 6 sees Phase 2 in action, and it does not disappoint. Taking the series’ usual bold visual aesthetic to the next level, the entirety of episode 5 is filmed as a single continuous shot (ala Birdman) as we follow Elliot in his last ditch panic to stop the Dark Army from blowing up the E-Corp data storage center in the city, and with it all the innocent E-Corp employees unfortunate enough to be caught there. Meanwhile, as the Dark Army’s “distraction” comes to a head in the form of a riot inside of E-Corp headquarters, Angela digs deep and maneuvers her way through the deadly chaos to complete an essential task imperative to Phase 2’s success. Upon completing the covert task on behalf of the Dark Army, Angela, just now beginning to understand the gravity of her involvement, comes face to face with an Elliot who has just learned of her betrayal from his sister. Episode 6 returns to the show’s conventional structure as Elliot races against the clock to defuse the “bomb” at the storage facility while Mr. Robot periodically assumes control of their body and tries to prevent him from doing so, which plays almost identically to the climax of Fight Club where Edward Norton literally fights himself/Brad Pitt. At the last second, Elliot and Mr. Robot are able to come to a truce (via Notepad) and stop the impending explosion, or so they think as it’s quickly revealed that Tyrell, Angela, and the Dark Army had completely circumvented Elliot/Mr. Robot by instead blowing up the ~70 E-Corp data warehouses scattered across the country that Elliot had redirected the paper records to, in unison. Devastated by his failure, Elliot visits his psychiatrist and in a panic recedes into the recesses of his mind, leaving Mr. Robot at the wheel. Despite being willing to blow up a single data center, Mr. Robot is personally offended that Tyrell, Angela, and the Dark Army would dare act behind his back in “his Revolution”. Looking for an explanation, Mr. Robot confronts Irving (Cannavale), who delivers a bitter truth that each character is forced to cope with by season’s end: that Mr. Robot may be the architect the revolution, but no matter how brilliant he is, it will only ever succeed with the support of an elite like Whiterose, the very people he’s trying to expose.

The rest of the season primarily deals with the aftermath of episodes 5 and 6, and sees the return (and departure) of season 1 and 2 characters Mobley (Azhar Khan) and Trenton (Sunita Mani), who are detained by Dark Army enforcer Leon (Joey Badass), Elliot’s surprise protector from season 2. They are quickly framed as the ones responsible for the data center attacks and murdered. However unbeknownst to the bad guys, Trenton had a fail-safe for this very scenario that sends an email to Elliot with the information needed to reverse the initial hack that deleted the digital debt records in the first place that involves getting access to a FBI file network, effectively turning everything back to normal.

Irving (Bobby Cannavale) isn’t afraid to show he’s primal side when the situation arises

Angela suffers a complete mental breakdown in the wake of Phase 2, forcing Philip Price, E-Corp CEO and once-thought villain of the show, to eventually intervene and reveal his true identity as her estranged biological father, which will undoubtedly change the show dynamic moving forward. Darlene is temporarily shunned by Elliot for hacking him on behalf of the FBI and seeks redemption with Elliot by attempting to seduce agent Dominique DiPierro (I’ll call her Dom for short) in an effort to steal her work badge for Elliot to recover E-Corps’ data. Darlene almost succeeds but is caught just before she’s able to get the badge, forcing Dom to arrest her, which unexpectedly draws the attention of Agent Santiago (an undercover Dark Army operative revealed earlier in the season), who tries to abduct Darlene under Irving’s orders. Being the inquisitive mind she is, Dom confronts Santiago as he tries to slip away with Darlene and winds up getting punched out and thrown in the car too. Meanwhile, Leon finds Elliot in his apartment to escort him to the same secluded outpost that Tyrell was held in episode 2. There, Elliot reunites with Darlene and Dom as Irving and his entourage arrive. Irving orders Santiago to take Dom outside to the chopping block, presumably to execute her, but instead he uses the occasion to murder Santiago for his failures and establish Dom as the Dark Army’s new FBI mole. As Irving finishes up, another Dark Army operative present throughout the season, Whiterose’s right-hand man Grant (Grant Chang), arrives to personally carry out Elliot and Darlene’s execution. Irving and Grant share some antagonistic words, hinting at Irving’s deeper relationship to Whiterose than previously let on, before Grant enters the barn to tie up the final loose ends. However, things take a turn when Elliot makes a last second plea to Whiterose, who is listening through a microphone in the room, that he can do what the Dark Army has failed to: quickly transport Whiterose’s mysterious project around the world. Elliot’s plea works, and Leon swiftly kills all of Grant’s men before a stunned Grant yields and tells Elliot to “take care of her [Whiterose]” before shooting himself. Alive to fight another day, Dom grants Elliot access to the FBI system to retrieve the information he needs to recover E-Corp’s data, and in the final moments of the finale, he does just that.

Mr. Robot (left), Elliot (middle), and Darlene (right) await their fates

Mr. Robot has always been upfront with its anti-Capitalist message, but season 3 explores a new nuance seldom explored in popular media: the woes of an individualist economy. Our modern culture of individualism has its pros and cons. On one hand, people are widely encouraged to embrace what makes them unique from everyone else and decide for themselves how to live their lives. However on the other hand, the endearing, empowering quality of internalized existentialism has spawned a dark variant of individualism where begging for attention is mistaken for expression and one’s ego supersedes one’s empathy. There’s a reason why you can’t go onto a Facebook or YouTube comments section without witnessing a shit show of strangers trying to one-up each other as the smartest-person-in-the-comments-section – modes of production. That is, contemporary habits of socialization are directly determined by the underlying relationships of economic production, or to put it simply, the Capitalism that Elliot/Mr. Robot have set out to dismantle. But as we see in the last half of the season, our protagonists are not immune to the social vices they are trying to destroy.

In one of the final episodes of the season, there is a rare interaction between Mr. Robot and Philip Price, whom is also under Whiterose’s thumb and therefore privy to Mr. Robot’s intentions to destroy him and his peers. Still determined to expose the likes of Price and Whiterose, Mr. Robot threatens Price that, even though his first revolution was ultimately hijacked, he has no intention of quitting his revolution. Much like how Irving attempts to convey the futility of trying to change the status quo, Price dismisses Mr. Robot’s threat as the naive dream he sees it as, but goes the extra mile by sharing some wisdom as to the real reason why Mr. Robot’s single-handed efforts to save the world have and will continue to fail by the way he’s approaching it: his lack of leadership. Sure he has the help of Darlene, fsociety, Tyrell, and the Dark Army, but for the most part, Mr. Robot has always been in the “me-versus-the-world” mindset. It’s that egotistical impulse that prevents Elliot and Mr. Robot from cooperating throughout the first half of the season, henceforth causing the deaths of thousands of people and the ensuing fallout. It’s that egotistical impulse that even drive’s Elliot/Mr. Robot’s desire for a revolution, albeit a noble one. But noble or not, if Mr. Robot wants his revolution to succeed, he can’t treat it like a computer program and throw commands at it, he has to lead. And that means amassing a following.