Friday, 16 March 2018

Film Review: Science fiction rarely comes as paradoxically human and alien as Annihilation

There's nothing more exciting than the reinvigoration and golden age of a genre. What with Arrival and Interstellar and The Last Jedi and Blade Runner 2049 (which I did eventually come around on), it's exactly what's happening to science fiction right now. While these are all terrific films, what each of them lack is ambiguity - despite the complicated shenanigans going on, everything is ultimately explained on screen. A big part of me has been longing for a film to bring back the unavoidably alien enigma and mystery of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey (the defining science fiction film of all time) and hold that tone until the credits roll - it's a big ask, I know, but I wanted something to give it a go. Annihilation, the second film by Alex Garland, takes a deep breath, gives it a shot and only goes and lands the bloody thing.

To put it simply, a meteor landed on Earth three years ago and the crash site has since been engulfed by a bizarre barrier referred to as The Shimmer. Task forces have been sent in, but none have returned besides one man - soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is hardly in a fitting state when he resurfaces a year later. Biologist, and Kane's wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), along with a group of other women - paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) - are tasked with entering the Shimmer for a research expedition in an attempt to work out whatever the Hell is going on inside.

It becomes clear very early on that Annihilation is building to something, but we're never able to figure out quite what it has its sights on. Garland, who also wrote the film's script, handles the build up impeccably, knowing precisely when to drop hints and gives answers, and when to hold back his real hand. The gorgeous cinematography from Rob Hardy is accompanied fittingly by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's score, an arrangement that makes use of both quietly disconcerting string pieces and screeching electronic synths. It's a mash of styles that feels both familiar and foreign, something that Annihilation itself can also lay claim to - we rarely get a scenic shot of the Shimmer's natural environment without some form of mutation lurking within the frame, reminding us that, while we remain firmly on Earth, we're not entirely in our own world anymore.

It creates an eerie, nightmarish atmosphere that snaps into play the moment Lena steps into the Shimmer and doesn't cut out until the film ends. Much like how Annihilation feels both human and alien, the film also plays with other contradictions - the atmosphere we find ourself in is unmistakably nightmarish, and yet the film's slow pacing and colourful scenery is more reminiscent of a dream you don't want to end. Annihilation is endlessly dreamlike and, as our characters venture further into the unknown in search for answers, it's not difficult to view Garland's film as a metaphor on the journey into the subconscious, to a place where answers await us without us actively seeking them out. Both Lena and Dr Ventress talk frequently about wanting answers, something the film itself remains hell bent on not giving us until we work them out for ourselves.

Annihilation is most concerned, though, with the concept of self destruction, and the ways in which we interpret and process our pain and suffering. In a beautifully played scene, Cass talks with Lena about how each of the women on the mission is hurting from something, a broken marriage or suicidal tendencies or the loss of a child. As the film progresses it strengthens and complicates its interpretation of self destruction further, but to go into too much detail would be to ruin a final act rich with surprises that should remain unspoiled. Garland begins to look at the duality of the self, at humanity as fragmentation - a scene in which Lena quite literally battles herself begins with unadulterated horror, shifts into something uncomfortably beautiful, and finally lands on a thematic metaphor that could be too on the nose but instead feels entirely justified. Garland's control over his film is breathtaking, the confidence and ambition he displays in just his second feature is truly commendable - even more so because he actually pulls the damn thing off.

Rather surprisingly - and, initially, frustratingly - Annihilation is wrapped around a flashback structure. We meet Lena in the present, are made aware that she survives the mission, and watch what happened as she tells the scientists debriefing her. It's an unusual narrative choice for a film of this nature, as it innately robs Annihilation of a source of tension since we know Lena survives any danger she finds herself in - although, a sequence involving a mutated bear is sickeningly intense enough for you to forget that. In any other film I'd perhaps consider this form of narrative structure a gimmick, a weakness even, but the rest of Garland's film is comprised of such surefire precision that I find myself looking at this framework differently. Are we to trust what we see here? After all, we're only watching Lena's retelling - and, thus, her version - of these events, why should we believe her? It adds a layer to the film that will provide endless speculation and interpretation, especially as Garland drops just enough logical abnormalities for us to not quite buy into what we're being told. Again, his control here is masterful.

Annihilation must also be commended not only for its mostly female cast, but for its tackling of such an element. The film never sells itself as female science fiction or acts as if what it's doing is progressive, it instead uses its cast to complicate its characters and enrich the dynamic between them - it's immediately tough to imagine the film working this well with a core cast of more than one gender. Natalie Portman leads the way with a performance likely to grow in stature as the film is remembered, her emotional distance and stunning physicality in the film's finale is reminiscent of her work in Aronofsky's Black Swan, yet here she presents us with less clarity - it's both a more focused performance and a more withholding one. The rest of the film's cast are uniformly excellent, each actress given her moment to sell herself, but it's Portman the film belongs to - her work in the film's final act is sure to cement her place among the short list of classic female sci-fi performances.

Annihilation will prove divisive, but cinema of this wavelength should strive for such a response. No one made a classic by catering to easy triumphs, no film is remembered for how well it plays by the rulebook. Garland's first feature, Ex Machina, was gritty sci-fi with a soul, but Annihilation is a colossal step forward in every regard. It's more ambitious, it's more conceptual, it's more thought provoking and narratively complex and thematically dense. This is science fiction that will be remembered, the kind of film that will hopefully inspire a new generation of film makers to make what they want to make, not what people want them to make. It is bold, dizzying stuff from Garland, and likely to keep his name in the headlines for the rest of his career. Good luck topping this one, 2018.

In A Sentence

Anchored by a bold performance from Natalie Portman, Annihilation is modern science fiction that shatters expectation and refuses to simplify its meaning, resulting in a film as unnervingly beautiful as it is ambiguously cerebral.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Best TV Episodes of the Decade

I figured it was high time I updated this list. We'll dive straight into this one as it's bound to get rather long. I've limited it to one episode per show, for obvious reasons, and beware - there are spoilers...

20. "Modern Warfare" Community (2010)

I wasn't a huge lover of Community as a show. In fact I gave up with it around the midpoint of its second season, but even the show's biggest naysayers would struggle to deny the ingeniousness of season one peak "Modern Warfare". Spoof episodes are a tough beast to crack, but Community made it look easy - everything plays out with a hilarious seriousness, and as the episode's events snowball into a conclusion it somehow brings the season's romance subplot front and centre too. It's the kind of episode not many shows could get away with, but one so perfectly suited to Community's hyper-meta self awareness that it's tough not to have a total blast with.

19. "The Reichenbach Fall" Sherlock (2012)

Sherlock has, by nature, always been a plot heavy show - it's part of what caused its downfall by season three. The once great series peaks in its second series finale with "The Reichenbach Fall", an episode that makes a solid claim to be one of the smartest stories British TV has ever seen. It permanently feels incredibly personal to its characters but plays out with global ramifications, creating a story as emotionally explosive as it is jaw-droppingly intelligent. That it also ends on a cliffhanger that genuinely got the country talking merely feels like a bonus - Sherlock had already put in all the necessary work to make "The Reichenbach Fall" a surefire classic in waiting. 

18. "Twilight of the Apprentice" Star Wars Rebels (2016)

Star Wars Rebels may not be a consistently great show, but every time it tackles something major it absolutely nails it. "Twilight of the Apprentice" remains Rebels' greatest hour, a phenomenally intense and emotionally rich season finale that boldly abandons half of its central cast in favour of providing a vehicle for its equally as interesting supporting characters. It's the show's best looking episode by a long mile, and one of the rare TV episodes that genuinely comes coupled with a sense of "nothing will ever be the same again" - felt most effectively in the episode's stunning concluding montage. The following season ultimately dropped the ball and frustratingly wrote its way around some of the game-changing developments "Twilight of the Apprentice" makes, but the episode itself still remains flat out terrific.

17. "Possession" Penny Dreadful (2014)

You don't see many flat out, all out horror television shows - they usually come attached to another subgenre or don't really prioritise being scary. Penny Dreadful fits that trend nicely, but in the penultimate episode of its debut season it gave us exactly what we wanted: flat out, all out horror with scares firmly in its eyesight. Eva Green's performance borders on revolutionary for both the genre and the medium, and the episode itself unfolds with an uneasy sense of dread before launching into an explosive, horrifying finale. "Possession" is essentially an hour long exorcism with a hell of a lot at stake - TV doesn't come scarier than this. 

16. "Who Goes There" True Detective (2014)

The show's second season may have fallen off the rails a bit, but it's tough to argue the brilliance of True Detective's first run. "Who Goes There" is already a stellar episode of the show, packed with first rate dialogue and surprising narrative developments, but when it wraps on a six minute unbroken tracking shot that follows two characters through a suburb-wide shootout, you kind of get the feeling you're watching something special unfold. The scene is executed with both chaos and clarity, and by the time it's all over you'll probably feel physically drained by how intense the whole thing was. The show is back for a third season later this year, but anything it serves up will struggle to dethrone this as its finest hour.

15. "Beryl" The Crown (2017)

Arguably the best thing about The Crown's best episode to date is that it very rarely actually feels like an episode of The Crown. By nature the show has to be somewhat emotionally distant, it frequently discusses why too, but Princess Margaret's season one subplot reaches a stunning, moving endgame in the season two episode "Beryl". Vanessa Kirby is electrifying here, completely selling Margaret's spiral into depression and ultimate rejuvenation through finally finding someone to love, and the shift away from Elizabeth and Philip's A-plot is satisfyingly refreshing. The episode is stripped bare emotionally and surprisingly seductive, it's like watching a 1950s royal melodrama on steroids - it's everything The Crown usually isn't.

14. "Kissing Your Sister" Veep (2016)

I don't wish to get too carried away with hyperbole here, but Veep's "Kissing Your Sister" is probably the funniest episode of TV ever written. After spending a whole season with Katherine filming odd moments in the background, the Emmy winning series finally goes full mockumentary and lets us watch the doc Katherine has made over the course of season five. The episode re-contextualises old scenes, uses an interview framework to deepen its characters further, and allows this first rate cast to experiment a bit and play themselves a little differently. That, and it's just endlessly, painfully hilarious for every second of its runtime - I've since watched it countless times, and I never laugh any less.

13. "The Bicameral Mind" Westworld (2016)

After an astonishing nine episodes, the success of HBO sci-fi Westworld's debut season hinged entirely on its finale. To no-one's surprise, it paid off. "The Bicameral Mind" is everything you could want from a season finale: it's big, loud and action packed; it seamlessly rounded off the first act of development for its terrific characters; it provides jaw dropping twists that send you diving back in for a re-watch while providing a new framework for the next run of episodes. Westworld felt "big" as a concept since the moment it started, but "The Bicameral Mind" shatters the very definition of the word - what we'd just seen was only the beginning, and that couldn't prepare us for what comes next.

12. "Thanksgiving" Master of None (2017)

One of the biggest strengths of Aziz Ansari's Master of None has always been its ability to take minority figures and tell their stories on simple but deeply emotional levels. The show's best episode is "Thanksgiving", an episode that hands the reins over to the endlessly loveable Denise (played beautifully here by Lena Waithe, who also co-wrote the episode with Ansari) to tell the story of how a young black girl came out as gay to her religious family. It touches on familiar thematic beats, but it never feels any less than stunningly personal, acting as a window into a very much real family that we probably wouldn't see on any other show. The concept of unfolding the episode over various Thanksgiving dinners over the years is quite simply a masterstroke in coming-of-age storytelling, and when the episode concludes with Denise's family sitting down for dinner in full acceptance of her sexuality for the very first time, you'll feel more moved by the whole story than you expected you'd be.

11. "Total Rickall" Rick and Morty (2015)

Rick and Morty, sometimes, can be too smart for its own good. It's the rare show that knows how good it is. "Total Rickall" is the show's best episode because it walks the line effortlessly: it's ridiculously clever, but it never slips into smugness. It's perhaps elevated by being far and away the show's funniest episode to date - from Mr Poopybutthole to Reverse Giraffe, from Sleepy Gary to Summer's kitchen encounter with a Morty who very much thought he was home alone - and the nature of knowing your real family through your bad memories of them is paradoxically both dark and strangely hard-hitting. It's everything Rick and Morty usually is, but somehow it's just a little bit more than that - in a show of endless intelligence, it might be the one episode I'd call ingenious.

10. "Michael's Gambit" The Good Place (2016)

If you want to know how to pull off a good plot twist then watch "Michael's Gambit", the season one finale of The Good Place, because boy oh boy does it pull off one hell of a plot twist. After a debut season that ended nearly every episode on a cliffhanger of sorts, The Good Place saved the best until last. Not only is it entirely self destructive - it literally blows up the premise it's so carefully laid out over the preceding twelve episodes - but it makes perfect sense, both narratively and thematically. You'll kick yourself for not guessing it sooner. The show's second year was full of even more shocks and surprises, but nothing the show ever does will outdo the brilliance of this game changing season finale. Michael, you clever, clever sod.

9. "One Last Ride" Parks and Recreation (2015)

I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that, with "One Last Ride," Parks and Recreation served up the greatest finale of all time. As well as just being a brilliantly funny episode in its own right, "One Last Ride" uses a flashforward framework to allow us a glimpse into the futures for all the characters we've come to love over the show's seven season haul. Parks boasted some of the most interesting, loveable people on TV for quite some time, so there's just something indescribably emotional about seeing everything turn out okay for every last one of them, before cutting back to the present and watching them set off on their journeys to get there. 

8. "Blackwater" Game of Thrones (2012)

At its best, Game of Thrones fluctuates between being an explosive, thrilling action series and a confidently character driven one. The show has served up bigger (and arguably better) battles than that of "Blackwater" but none of those come coupled with the character focus that this episode represents. The show's first real foray into action film making is undeniably impressive - that wildfire explosion is unforgettable - but it's the moments between the fighting that resonate the most. Cersei drunkenly terrifying Sansa, her maternal instincts kicking in to pull Joffrey from the front lines yet her fear of capture leading to her attempted poisoning of young Tommen. It's perhaps the only episode of Game of Thrones to so effectively combine both breathtaking action thrills and gripping, complex dialogue - the two things that define what this show can achieve when the pieces really fall into place.

7. "" Mr Robot (2017)

How many episodes of TV can lay claim to being almost a 50-minute montage and never losing focus? Not many, but Mr Robot nails such a daunting task with confidence. In "Kill Process," Mr Robot finally landed on the conclusion it had been building towards for two and a half years, and the gut punch it pulls in its very final moments - when you realise everything Elliott had been working to prevent was still coming, but a whole lot worse because of his own actions- is the rare plot twist that hits both the heart and the gut at once. You know what it means for both the characters and the future of the show itself, so when the episode cuts to black after its finest hour to date, you're left to sit in silence, wondering how anyone can come back from what you just witnessed.

6. "International Assassin" The Leftovers (2015)

Across its heartbreakingly short three year tenure, The Leftovers served up episode after episode of masterworks - but it never quite topped "International Assassin". It's an episode that takes place entirely in a world and a dimension that isn't our own and yet the stakes feel more real than ever. In order to banish the ghosts he sees, Kevin is forced to take a trip to the realm of the undead and is there presented with an impossible task. Aesthetically, "International Assassin" feels like being plunged into the concept of abstraction itself - the score, production design and cinematography all feel both classically human and unnervingly alien - and emotionally the episode perhaps lands on its darkest ever material. "International Assassin" may be the show's most divisive hour, but it's also the one that most perfectly demonstrates the crazy, visionary nature of all that The Leftovers was.

5. "The Law of Non-Contradiction" Fargo (2017)

Narratively speaking, "The Law of Non-Contradiction" is an entirely pointless hour of TV - and we know that from the outset. Gloria Burgle's trip to L.A. can not and will not aid her investigation, but she thinks it will; she doesn't have the information we have. Rather than an episode that furthers the mystery or the plot, then, we have one that becomes a profound, complex analysis of futility and pointlessness. An episode that argues that meaning can be derived from randomness, that purpose can be drawn from coincidence - we don't always need to find the answers we seek in order to gain deeper understanding. Gloria's plot is engaging enough as it is, but it's the episode's little cutaways to the animated tale of The Planet Wyh that push Fargo's efforts here into true greatness. "I can help!" says little robot MNSKY repeatedly, to everyone he comes across. Yes you can, buddy, but not the people you realise, and not for a very, very long time indeed.

4. "Heaven Sent" Doctor Who (2015)

Steven Moffat, regardless of what you think of his writing, made Doctor Who a notably more cinematic show. Peter Capaldi, regardless of what you think of his character, lent a gravitas to Doctor Who that the show hadn't felt before. When you combine and isolate their respective efforts, you get "Heaven Sent" - an episode written by Moffat, starring only Capaldi, and probably the greatest episodic achievement the show will ever have. "Heaven Sent" is gorgeously conceived and jaw-droppingly ambitious, but it nails its high wire concept purely because every last component is functioning at peak capacity - the writing, direction, score, editing, cinematography and Capaldi's performance come together like clockwork to craft an episode that endlessly threatens to get so big that it can only collapse. Collapse it doesn't, though. Instead, it wraps with a montage so intense, so stunningly powerful that our very interpretation of the episode is shattered before our eyes. It'll blow your mind and break your heart - two things Doctor Who does quite often, but very rarely at the same time.

3. "San Junipero" Black Mirror (2016)

If you can find an episode of television more beautiful and more emotional than "San Junipero" then I'd like to see it. Here's the thing: Black Mirror never has a happy ending. Not until now, not until Yorkie and Kelly. "San Junipero" unfolds its real intentions slowly, through some of the most intricately penned dialogue you'll likely ever hear, but when it reaches its final act and you come to realise the emotional gravity of what's at stake, that's when the ingeniousness of this episode truly strikes. Just this once, everything turns out okay - and yet, it doesn't. "San Junipero" is the definition of bittersweet, the happiness of its ending only exists because of lifetimes of pain and emotional suffering. It's a visually and emotionally beautiful piece of storytelling, and one that, I'd argue, could work to redefine how we see love stories for years, even decades to come.

2. "Mizumono" Hannibal (2014)

Hannibal's "Mizumono" is a perfect season finale, and yet it very rarely comes across like an episode of Hannibal. It's violent, artistic and endlessly gripping like most Hannibal episodes, but it seems to strike a tone unlike any other - after a full season that felt like time was running out, "Mizumono" lands as if the clock expired ages ago. There's a breathless urgency to the episode as we wait for it to land on the flash-forward sequence that opened the season, and amid all the bloodshed and emotional trauma (and, believe me, there's a lot of it) "Mizumono" somehow finds time to bring back a character we long thought dead only to kill them off again for real. It's bold, it's brutal and it's blindingly intense - the perfect capper to a phenomenal season of TV. 

1. "Ozymandias" Breaking Bad (2013)

If the last two episodes of Breaking Bad felt slower and less explosive than what came before, that's because they're really the epilogue: "Ozymandias" is the show's finale. The episode that concluded five years worth of plot and character development, "Ozymandias" begins with an emotional sledgehammer to the gut, and the blows just don't stop coming. It's a devastating, almost unwatchable hour of television for how cruelly it takes down every last shred of hope we as viewers had, and yet every beat feels organic and, well, just right. It features a bullet to the head that sends shockwaves down your spine, a sequence inside a family home that shakes you to your core, and a resolution that makes you question why you ever wanted to watch the damn thing in the first place. "Ozymandias" is a masterpiece of both story and character - I can't ever say that I enjoy watching it, but it is completely, unequivocally brilliant.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Film Review: The Jennifer Lawrence fronted Red Sparrow is a thriller devoid of thrills

There's something to be said for a film as dedicated to its intentions as Francis Lawrence's Red Sparrow. It's precisely the kind of film that knows in microscopic detail what sort of tone it wants to hit, what form of story it wants to tell. It's unafraid of its potential controversy, willing to indulge itself in dark, sinister moments. It assembles an all star cast and travels around the world, setting scene after scene in stunning, picturesque environments. So, I ask, why does it never leap off the screen?

Red Sparrow is more of a spy film than a thriller one, which may not quite be what the trailers sold us with but we live in an age now where such a thing is common. Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina who is coerced by her Uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) into joining a Russian intelligence operative group known as the Sparrows. Her task is to infiltrate CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and learn the name of his contact inside the Russian government. It's hardly a revolutionary narrative to begin with, comprised of spies and moles, infiltrations and double crossings. I have no gripes with the film remaining content to tell such a simplistic story, but it immediately puts pressure on Red Sparrow to find its identity elsewhere.

Ultimately its identity seems to stem from its depiction of violence, predominantly rape. Wisely, director Francis Lawrence never takes his actions too far, but the film's reliance on such an assault to build character and advance plot feels misjudged. Haven't we seen this enough times by now? It doesn't quite derail Red Sparrow, but it holds you at a distance. It makes you question if you can trust such a film to ultimately put its characters ahead of its violence. Lawrence's film never quite reaches that stage, both Egorova and Nash are compelling enough on screen (thanks mostly to the actors behind them) but they never really become people we're invested in. Red Sparrow is too infatuated with violence and plot mechanics to let its leading faces blossom into something worth our time.

The film relies heavily on atmosphere and performance to hold our interest, a risky move for a feature that clocks in at 140 minutes. Against all odds it does sustain itself, if barely. Red Sparrow is a peculiar film in that I felt compelled for every minute I spent with it, but it never quite shifted into something I found especially interesting. I waited and waited for the moment to come, but it never arrived. It spends a long time on gratuitous and frankly boring torture sequences before landing on a climax that isn't so much unsatisfying as it is underwhelming. The film seems to congratulate itself for such an ending, though, as if it feels its double bluff trickery has paid off - it really hasn't, most people will see this coming a mile off. The ending itself works because it makes sense, but that's precisely the same reason you'll work it out long before it happens. It's really just about the bare minimum.

Holding most of this together is Jennifer Lawrence, here given the chance to reduce her usual flamboyance to something quieter and colder. Her take on Dominika Egorova is a quiet one, one imbedded with subtle nuances and short, snappy punches of emotion. It's her steely-eyed gaze that stays with you the longest, fluctuating Russian accent aside it's another excellent performance from Lawrence. Edgerton isn't tasked with much but he convincingly sells Nash's determination to complete his job, and while the two lack chemistry the lustless rapport between them effectively shifts back round into working in the film's favour. Red Sparrow is all about lies and deceptions, holding their connection at a distance is some neat trickery on the film's behalf that I'm still not entirely sure was intentional.

Red Sparrow is the definition of a film that simply gets the job done but never aspires to be more than the sum of its parts. Francis Lawrence's direction is sturdy but unspectacular, the film's script laces doubt into its characters but never fully explores them, the story is serviceable at very best and the resolution is obvious but still satisfying. It's a frustrating film to review, as I can confidently say I'm glad I saw Red Sparrow but I'm not sure it's one I could recommend, not knowing that the spark of interest I waited to be ignited was never lit. It's a competent film with more that works than doesn't work, but it won't be making any waves any time soon. As far as films titled after coloured birds go, a certain balletic melodrama from a few years back certainly trumps this one.

In A Sentence

Despite a reliably committed performance from Jennifer Lawrence, Red Sparrow never turns its various assets into anything greater than a serviceable, cheaply satisfying espionage thriller.