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Annihilation, director Alex Garland’s film starring Natalie Portman, bills itself as a science-fiction/fantasy flick.

It is indeed sci-fi/fantasy—but on top of that, it is one of the scariest movies you will see this year. It’s also a legitimate horror film.

This alien-invasion movie, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, explores themes of self-identity and love (as did Garland’s 2014 debut Ex Machina) while mixing in environmental terror involving nightmarish creatures and transforming landscapes. It also features a startlingly brutal take on the ravages of infidelity. And did I mention it’s freaking scary?

There’s a lot going on in this movie—yet Garland and company balance it all out to make it a stunning piece of brainy entertainment.

In an opening sequence reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, an object enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes to the planet. The zone surrounding the crash site becomes something known as The Shimmer, an environmental phenomenon featuring a visually swirling, bendy, translucent barrier no one can figure out. Numerous expeditions into The Shimmer have resulted in the loss of many people—but one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac), does return a year after his disappearance.

Kane is the husband of Army biologist-turned-professor Lena (Portman), and he doesn’t seem all there when he sits down at the kitchen table shortly after his mysterious return. He starts convulsing and spitting up blood, which prompts a trip to the hospital. Agent types overtake the ambulance, and Lena wakes up in a strange facility next to The Shimmer, in the care of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Before long, Lena is following Ventress into The Shimmer, accompanied by Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (the increasingly amazing Tessa Thompson). Carrying guns and rations, their mission is to reach a lighthouse near the Shimmer’s origin; collect data along the way; and, unlike most who have preceded them, return with their observations.

Fat chance: It’s crazy in The Shimmer, unkind in so many ways to those who enter. Among its horrors: terrifying videos left behind by former explorers; messed-up wildlife, including mutated bears and alligators; and a general tendency to make those inside it batshit crazy. There are at least three scenes in this movie that made me want to die rather than watch them, because they were so damned scary; I was uncomfortable during a good chunk of the running time. That’s high praise for a horror movie.

To go with the dread, Garland adds a layer of sci-fi and mixes in some scary elements involving the Lena-Kane marriage. The results are a movie that goes to great lengths to challenge your mind—as much as it freaks you out.

Portman is great—Isn’t she always?—as a person determined to find out the root cause of her husband’s illness, so much so that she will endure psychological and physical fuckery. As her cohorts, Rodriguez, Novotny and Thompson all have shining moments, while Leigh provides a nice anchor. While he doesn’t have much screen time, Isaac (who also starred in Ex Machina) makes the most of his moments.

While he’s only two movies into his directorial career, Garland is proving he’s capable of many things. He’s a first-rate sci-fi auteur; he’s no slouch with pure drama; he captures stellar performances. And, without a doubt, he possesses some major horror chops. You think I’m exaggerating, but there are moments in this movie that will make even the most die-hard horror fans cringe and squirm. I would love to see him do a ghost story or pure monster movie.

Annihilation owes a lot to Ridley Scott (Alien), John Carpenter (The Thing) and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—yet it also feels very original. It’s 2018’s first masterpiece, a rare film that is a shining example within many genres.

Annihilation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Robert Pattinson continues his daring post-Twilight career with his best role yet in Good Time as Connie, a small-time crook who gets his mentally handicapped brother, Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed the film with brother Josh), imprisoned on Rikers Island.

The movie is a dark and twisted adventure as Connie tries his darndest to free his brother from prison and take him far away from society. His efforts include pulling the wrong guy (Buddy Duress) out of a hospital; Connie thought the guy was his brother, but he’s actually a messed-up dude who jumped out of a moving car while on acid. He turns out to be an unreliable accomplice as they try to recover some lost drugs, intending to sell them and post bond for Connie’s brother. Things don’t go according to plan.

The film plays as a nice homage to Martin Scorsese without feeling like a rip-off. The Safdie brothers know how to get good laughs out of bad situations, and they’ve caught lightning in a bottle with Pattinson and Duress. They also managed to get Jennifer Jason Leigh on set for some great scenes as Connie’s extremely insecure friend.

While Benny Safdie’s screen time is limited, he portrays someone truly heartbreaking in Nick. It’s the sort of performance that should get him some acting recognition—on top of his fine directorial work.

Good Time is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

While Luke Scott has definitely inherited some directing chops from his dad, Ridley, his feature-directing debut is hampered by a derivative script.

Morgan shows that Luke Scott knows how to produce some major visual flair (his dad is a producer, by the way) and has an ability to draw good performances from his cast—but the movie itself is a pastiche of other science-fiction and horror films, most notably his dad’s own Blade Runner.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an artificially created humanlike being. She’s only 5, but she looks like a teenager and has superior intellect and physical skills. She’s been genetically engineered to age quickly, and while she is basically a well-meaning entity, her behavioral wires get a little crossed up sometimes—resulting in violent “errors.”

Morgan goes ape shit when she’s not allowed outside. This results in Dr. Kathy Grieff, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, being on pain meds for the whole movie while she wears bloody gauze on one eye. The “corporation” that helped create Morgan sends out an icy company woman, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to assess the matter and recommend a course of action regarding Morgan.

The setting for the film is visually pleasing; it’s an underground laboratory in the middle of a pine forest. This setting also gives the film a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing (minus the snow). Morgan is always monitored through a glass wall and video cameras (shades of Ex Machina).

Giving another great 2016 performance (after The Witch), Taylor-Joy gives Morgan some dimension. Dressed in a grey hoodie and sporting a silvery skin tone that makes her look like a skater girl with terrible makeup skills, Taylor-Joy rises well above the conventionality of the role. She delivers a tragic android who probably would’ve led an interesting life had her personality dials been turned down just a tad.

Mara’s presence always feels a little off, something that the story eventually explains in a fashion that isn’t as shocking as screenwriter Seth W. Owen wants it to be. Paul Giamatti shows up as a behavior therapist who intentionally pushes Morgan’s buttons during a personality test. His fate is rather easy to predict.

The cast is peppered with a few more greats, including Toby Jones as the lead scientist who has a big, unnatural attachment to his creation. Michelle Yeoh also shows up as another scientist and Morgan’s mother figure, while the aforementioned Leigh has a few scenes that she imbibes with her usual reliability.

It all looks good thanks to stellar work from cinematographer Mark Patten, who worked in the “camera department” while not leading the shoot for Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s an impressive debut for Patten, while Max Richter provides an excellent soundtrack.

These good performances, great visuals and slick sounds make it more of a bummer that the movie feels a bit stale. I, for one, was not at all happy with the payoff—a big twist that felt completely unnecessary and cheap. Had the movie wrapped up on a more original note, it could’ve been decent-enough genre fare.

Morgan is a near-miss. A few too many scenes play out in a way that will have you correctly guessing what happens next. Scott will be constructing a scene with major tension, but then it will fall flat due to that predictability. It does continue the promising career of Taylor-Joy, who almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. She’s not done with horror films; she will headline the scary looking Split from the mildly resurgent M. Night Shyamalan next year.

As for Luke Scott, he’s a director worth watching. Daddy just needs to find his boy a better script to play with the next time out.

Morgan is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

While making my choice for 2015’s best film, it came down to Leonardo DiCaprio getting his face ripped off by a bear in The Revenant, or Charlie Kaufman’s daring stop-motion animation effort, Anomalisa.

I ultimately went with Leo and the bear, but on any given day, I could find myself thinking that Anomalisa is last year’s best film.

It’s certainly the year’s most original movie, and it’s definitely the year’s best animated film. It’s also the weirdest; Kaufman—who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, does weird so well.

Anomalisa takes a rather mundane day in the life of rich businessman Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) and somehow turns it into a wondrously imaginative journey. Utilizing stop-motion figures, Kaufman and his team come up with a way to make animated facial expressions that is nothing short of mind-blowing. These figures are creepily human, and never anything short of amazing.

The voice cast also includes Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan. I don’t want to give away too much about what Noonan does, because I’d be giving away one of the film’s great surprises. Let’s just say Noonan gets a major opportunity to expand his vocal-acting horizons.

The film’s main plot: Michael goes to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement and takes a room in a hotel. Yes, that sounds fairly routine for a stop-motion animation movie, and it is. Yet Kaufman and crew capture so much detail in that little hotel room that it’s just as impressive as if they had re-created all of Manhattan.

In the subtlest of ways, Kaufman (who wrote the script and the play on which it is based) shows us that Michael is having some sort of breakdown. His marriage is lacking spark, and he has an abnormal obsession with a former lover with whom he’s trying to reconnect. Eventually, he gloms on to Lisa, a young fan of his staying at the hotel.

Michael finds something incredibly unique about Lisa, and he is beyond smitten. They ultimately share a night of lovemaking that rivals only Team America: World Police in the realm of puppet sex. Kaufman also gives us that night’s aftermath—and there’s something very human about this movie, even though dolls portray the action.

Michael’s view of the world is, to say the least, disturbing. Actually, Michael is a really, really disturbing man. There are moments in the film when he totally loses his grip on reality, and those moments are startling. When it comes down to it, Michael is probably one of the more despicable characters to occupy a movie in 2015. He’s as pathetic as a human being can be. And he’s a puppet.

That’s how good this movie is: You start believing you are watching a human story, not just a bunch of puppets jabbering at one another. These action figures possess amazing depth, and the script is brilliant. It’s Kaufman at his very best. His core idea for this story is so grim that it’s an achievement that the film still manages to be enjoyable, let alone entertaining. But entertaining, it is.

I have never felt such joy watching somebody’s ice bucket get filled up at a hotel before. It’s the little details in this movie that just take the breath away: little ice cubes, packs of cigarettes, coffee makers, rolling luggage. They all combine to make a movie miracle.

Anomalisa got edged out by Pixar’s Inside Out at this year’s Oscars. I loved Inside Out in a way that had me believing it couldn’t be beaten for that award when I saw it. But then I saw this movie. Without a doubt, this one should’ve taken home the prize.

A hundred years from now, when film historians are putting together lists of films like no other, Anomalisa should be near the top.

Anomalisa is now playing as part of a double-feature with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342). It’s also available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

Quentin Tarantino returns to form after the just-OK Django Unchained with yet another masterpiece in The Hateful Eight, a grandiose Western that boasts his best dialogue in years—and an Oscar-caliber performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

I didn’t dislike Django, but the film was a little sluggish and not quite up to Tarantino’s usual standards. I thought he had a better, grittier Western in him—and this film proves he did.

Many Tarantino regulars return, including Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Kurt Russell. Russell, who delivered his career-best work in Tarantino’s Death Proof as Stuntman Mike, gets another chance to go to town with a Tarantino script, and he embraces it with much enthusiasm. Russell plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter renowned for bringing in prisoners alive so that their necks can meet the noose. Riding in a stagecoach to Red Hook—with the notorious Daisy Domergue (Leigh), his latest bounty, chained to his arm—he comes across another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson). This is where the fun begins.

The party rescues future Red Hook Sheriff Chris Mannix (an outstanding Walton Goggins) from an oncoming blizzard. The stagecoach heads for Minnie’s Haberdashery as a means of shelter, where they meet the rest of the cast—and tensions soar. Ruth deduces that one or more persons in the party aim to stop him from reaching Red Hook with Daisy Domergue and her huge bounty.

Russell is doing his best John Wayne here, and he’s scrappy fun, still sporting his mustache and chops from his other 2015 Western effort, Bone Tomahawk. Jackson hasn’t gotten a chance to be this devilish since Pulp Fiction, and he goes off.

However, the performance likely to make the most waves is that of Leigh as Daisy. John Ruth elbows and punches Daisy in the face throughout the movie, and the looks Leigh gives him are proof that this lady is not to be messed with. Leigh’s Daisy is definitely full-bore crazy, but she also gives us something to sympathize with in her plight. She’s a marvel in a role that almost went to Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence is a great actress, but Leigh proves she was the right woman for the role.

The film is being offered in a 70-millimeter Roadshow version, complete with an intermission, for those of you willing to take a drive to see it in the old-school format. The impact and beauty of the film will not be lost in the digital projection, I assure you.

After expressing some anger with how Tarantino used his music in Django Unchained, composer Ennio Morricone re-teams with the auteur for a soundtrack that will more than likely put him into Oscar contention. The film is drawing some comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing, which also contained snow, group paranoia, Kurt Russell and a Morricone score. That score, along with the camerawork of Tarantino mainstay Robert Richardson, makes this perhaps Tarantino’s best-looking and best-sounding movie.

With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino finds his rhythm with editor Fred Raskin, who replaced the late Sally Menke on Django. Menke had edited all of the previous Tarantino films, and her presence was sorely missed on Django. As things turned out, Django was a decent warm-up for Tarantino and Raskin, because every beat is on the mark in The Hateful Eight. There’s a beautiful sense of tension from the first frame through the three-plus-hours running time.

Tarantino has been saying he will retire from filmmaking in the classic sense after 10 movies. If you count the Kill Bill movies as one (as he does), The Hateful Eight is his eighth movie. That would mean that there are only two left, which means modern cinema could take a serious hit two Tarantino films from now.

The Hateful Eight is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Miles Teller delivers his breakout performance in The Spectacular Now as Sutter, a partying high school senior who everybody loves, but nobody takes seriously—until well-balanced Aimee (Shailene Woodley) comes along.

They start a complicated relationship that is ill-advised at both ends—although sometimes, that can be the best way to start a relationship. Teller is a marvel here, turning Sutter into something far from your average high school screw-up. Woodley, so good in The Descendants, is proving to be one of cinema’s great young actresses.

The film is one of the more unique and intelligent takes on growing up that you are likely to see. This is directed by James Ponsoldt, who about a year ago piloted Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears here as Sutter’s sister. Ponsoldt is officially a force to be reckoned with, having made two of the best films of the last two years.

Others in the cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, and Kyle Chandler as his idiot dad. While he only has a couple of scenes, Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Sutter’s tolerant employer.

A plot synopsis of this film may make it seem ordinary—but it’s spectacular indeed.

Special Features: There are more than 20 minutes of deleted scenes, some of them quite good. One notable one includes Sutter giving a kid a ride home from a quickie mart and revealing some stuff about his alcoholism. You also get some short making-of featurettes and a commentary with the director.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Miles Teller delivers a breakout performance in The Spectacular Now as Sutter, a partying high school senior who everybody loves, but nobody takes seriously—until a well-balanced girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), comes along.

They start a complicated relationship that is ill-advised at both ends—but sometimes, that’s the best way to start a relationship.

Teller is a marvel here, turning Sutter into someone who’s much more than your average high school screw-up. Woodley, so good in The Descendants, is proving to be one of cinema’s great young actresses.

The film is a unique and intelligent take on growing up. This is directed by James Ponsoldt, who piloted last year’s terrific Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears here as Sutter’s sister. Ponsoldt is officially a force to be reckoned with, seeing as he’s now made two of the best films of the last two years.

Others in the cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, and Kyle Chandler as his idiot dad. While he only has a couple of scenes, Bob Odenkirk is terrific as Sutter’s tolerant employer.

The plot synopsis of this film may make it seem ordinary—yet that’s not the case. It’s spectacular indeed.

The Spectacular Now is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews