Annihilation is interesting and weird, slow and methodical, and dare I say, bordering on boring. Hyper-sensitive fans of the film may ream me for not fully grasping or appreciating the deeper meaning, the metaphors, the beauty in the bizarre, yadda yadda yadda. But that’s okay. I didn’t love Arrival either. Annihilation is a cerebral sci-fi horror flick from Alex Garland (Ex Machina) based on the “Southern Reach Trilogy” by Jeff VanderMeer. If you’ve read the books, you’re probably ahead of the game and more likely than most to love this movie. Here’s the gist: Natalie Portman plays Lena, an Army veteran and cellular biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was believed killed in action during a secret military mission. He reappears a year later, extremely ill, with no memory of what happened. Government agents nab the newly-reunited couple and take them to “Area X”, an unspecified locale that borders a mysterious “Shimmer” that’s been expanding along the U.S. coastline.
Kane is the only known person to have ventured beyond The Shimmer and made it out again. So Lena decides to check it out for herself, in the hopes of finding a way to save the hubby. She joins an all-female expedition crew tasked with getting to a lighthouse at “ground zero” and gathering clues on how to contain, or even destroy, the phenomenon. The team includes a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist (Tuva Novotny). Each has her own motivations for embarking on a likely suicide mission. Annihilation feels a bit like an expanded Twilight Zone episode featuring a land filled with mutated landscapes and creatures that threaten the lives and sanity of all who dare enter. It has an excellent cast, plenty of originality, and some impressive cinematography. But by the time it finally wrapped up (as much a cerebral sci-fi thriller that’s part of a trilogy can), I was more than ready to put a dimmer on the shimmer. Enter at your own risk. You may love it. Or your head may hurt.
Arty Chick weighs in: Director Alex Garland got a lot of love for his first film Ex Machina, though I thought it over-hyped at the time. Annihilation has the same cerebral pretensions that kept me from caring about the characters in that one. Natalie Portman’s #GirlPower Lena keeps you watching, but the story is a fairly standard horror trope, people running towards rather than away from something they know will probably kill them, only this time instead of darkness the locale is bathed in rainbows and flowers. And one by one they’re picked off until our hero stands alone and saves the day. Or does she? This film also suffers from a lot of hype. I think if you go in thinking it isn’t going to be the best sci-fi movie of the year, you might like it more.
Game Night – If you’ve ever spent a few hours at bar trivia (special shout out to my ol’ teammates at Manuel’s in Atlanta!) or participated in a friends’ Game Night (I’m talkin’ to you, Jennifer and Alan!), then you’ll have a bit of fun at this R-rated comedy-action-crime-mystery movie that is silly, stupid, and entertaining enough for a 90-minute cinematic escape in February. The directing team that brought us the really bad Vacation remake and the not-so-horrible Horrible Bosses scores a minor victory with Game Night. It’s a formula movie that manages to break the pattern of predictability with a few unexpected twists, bloody surprises, and occasionally-witty dialogue peppered with relatable pop culture references. Here’s the gist: Affable actors Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a suburban couple who bonded over their love of competitive trivia. They host regular game nights with a group of friends including: Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dimwit who usually brings an equally-dimwitted leggy blonde as his date until he finds a potential game night ringer in his smart and attractive coworker Sarah (Sharon Horgan); and Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a couple that has been together since middle school, except for a brief break during which time she may or may not have slept with a celebrity. The gathering used to include creepy cop neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), but they stopped inviting him when his wife left him and he got even creepier.
When Max’s uber-cute and successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives in town, he insists on hosting Game Night at his palatial rented digs and aims to kick it up a notch. He hires actors to stage a kidnapping and murder mystery and promises a valuable prize to whichever couple cracks the case first. But then real bad guys come along and the lines between reality and gamesmanship get blurred – putting everyone in danger. Unlike Annihilation, this is not one to over-think or analyze. That would be a trivial pursuit. Just go with it. Or wait for the rental.
The Party is a quirky dark comedy that feels like a one-act play ready-made for Broadway or the West End. The 70-minute film, written and directed by Sally Potter, is shot entirely in black and white and takes place within the confines of a London flat over the course of a single evening. Here’s the gist: Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is hosting an intimate gathering of friends at her London home to celebrate her political ascension to Minister of something-or-other. Her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) is drinking and preoccupied, and suddenly announces he is terminally-ill and having an affair. The soiree begins to unravel as secrets are revealed. The guests include Janet’s acerbic and cynical best friend April (Patricia Clarkson); April’s on/off partner Gottfried (German actor Bruno Ganz); a lesbian academic named Martha (Cherry Jones) who is feeling threatened by the pregnancy of her girlfriend Jinny (Emily Mortimer); and Tom (Cillian Murphy), a wired, sharp-suited banker who shows up with a stash of cocaine – and a gun. The Party is a bare-bones film that invites the viewer along as a fly on the wall as a sophisticated little shindig goes terribly wrong. It’s for the arty crowd.