Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland
The myriad of actors taking the place of Tom Clancy’s most popular character all have one thing in common: they never held the role for very long. Even off the heels of arguably the most successful series ever, Harrison Ford was only able to hold on for two films and was the record holder for it. You could argue now that the new Amazon reboot has dethroned the hallmark actor here just due to the sheer length of the season, eight or so hours compared to four-and-a-half. While I may say otherwise, it's clear that this series is going to live past the one season, not because of its quality, but because of the amount of money funneled into the project before the season went live. Amazon cut a number of different ads counting down the days, and the manner in which the season ends makes it clear they’re all in (sorry, spoilers right off the bat). As mentioned, the season will survive regardless of merit. For executive producers Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, it’s good news. For everyone, we get a middling eight-hour binge.
Where the show mostly fumbles is solely in the writing. The show is best described as one of the late seasons of 24 without the gimmick; but instead of perpetuating fear in Middle Easterners, it has a stupid amount of virtue signaling. The foundation of every episode seems built like most shounen anime: there must be an action sequence and a melodramatic reveal/plot twist. Jack Ryan feels like it's trying to constantly one-up itself, but from the first episode, the bar is set higher than it could ever achieve with the line “This could lead to the next 9/11.” What follows is, beat-for-beat, almost every counter-terrorist show that winds up on basic cable. It's the show you watch with no interest in quality, but because you just happened to turn the TV on after a long day, realized your dad left it on Fox (luckily, it's not on the news), and you are so tired you don’t care to change the channel.
Although there’s no fucking way this would wind up on Fox. The show dedicates a side story to a drone pilot who feels bad for what he's done. The character really had one purpose, and that was to provide a deus ex machina airstrike, but he sticks around for four more episodes and the show devotes ten minutes to watching him get wrapped in a couple’s cuckold arrangement. I shit you not. What was more head-scratching was the sequence in which he goes to Turkey to track down a family ripped apart from one of his strikes, but when he reaches the family and realizes they don’t speak English HE FUCKING PANTOMIMES AND TRIES DUMBING DOWN WHAT HE'S TRYING TO SAY. It’s hilarious how no else saw this during dailies and said ‘Yup, this is perfect.’ It’s just the kind of tryhard “progressive” shit the middle-aged white dude who wrote San Andreas and Rampage would conjure up.
If there's one thing the show gets right, its the titular character. Ryan, as played by John Krasinski, isn’t the gruff blank-slate character who mentions he's an analyst too much, but a pretty well-rounded guy with clear motivation, albeit revealed later than some would hope, that also still mentions he’s an analyst, but not as much. There’s also a charming aspect that I can only assume comes from Krasinski, or his previous looming role as Jim Halpert. It's easier to relate to Krasinski as Ryan than to any other previous actor, which is a nice change of pace for a character that previously was meant to be the audience’s vehicle into the narrative and nothing more. On the other hand, all the other characters are piss-poor. Every single of them has a single job, and as soon as they’ve proved themselves useful, get left behind. The only character this doesn’t happen to is Ryan’s boss. He gets his five minutes during the season and it’s supposed to establish who he is as a character, but it just falls flat.
Honestly, Jack Ryan is not worth watching. Any series that airs on CBS with a similar premise is comparable in quality, if not in budget. But at the end of the day, I can’t say I hated my time with it. It just wasn’t that interesting.
- Alex B.
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
2 years ago, I took a moment to highlight that the action genre and generally action in film was getting the proper treatment it deserved, specifically after a few decades of lazy filmmaking and riding the coattails of the innovative works of the 80’s. While it wasn’t all gloomy for the genre, the few standouts helped shape the landscape ahead. Since writing the piece and declaring we’d entered the second golden age of action, I haven’t felt like a film has taken every lesson and used them to its advantage.
Enter Mission: Impossible - Fallout.
Let’s do a quick rundown of all the other previous candidates. John Wick 2 is the predictable choice. It is, in fact, bigger and better than the first in its ravenous action sequences, but it still carries over the one issue that hindered the first: its story is kind weak. The world around Wick is incredibly fascinating, and getting a deeper glimpse is what we wanted, but the initiating event is simply Wick repaying a debt. The motive behind it all is that this expert assassin, who could take down an army if he wanted to, is afraid of someone killing him? And he sees it coming?
Baby Driver was an easy pick as well, but all it really does is present the action with a musical twist. There’s not much of interest in the rest.
It would be easy to level the same criticisms at Fallout going off the reputation of the Mission: Impossible franchise, but the theme hamfistedly conveyed in the trailer is far more compelling in context. For the last five films, Ethan Hunt has lived a rather episodic life, going from mission to mission with little carryover. Here, we finally see his actions sending ripples, as his choice on a previous mission to spare someone too dangerous to live directly affects this latest entry. On top of that is the Superman-esque conundrum of Hunt trying to save everyone all the time despite the chance that his failure means the death of everyone. The weight of these decisions finally catches up with him, and what we get is the first emotionally weighty entry into the Mission: Impossible franchise. It's another breath of fresh air from Christopher McQuarrie, who first took the director’s chair for Rogue Nation, and brought physical vulnerability to the character after Brad Bird made Hunt seemingly immortal for Ghost Protocol. In brief: Fallout does what Spectre couldn’t.
McQuarrie brings another level of honesty that has understandably evaded big blockbusters for years: the clumsiness of everyday hardware. There isn’t a heavy reliance on future tech with this entry as like in pre-Rogue Nation installments. The most notable films to do this same thing is the original Bourne trilogy. A compact in a city like Paris isn’t out of the ordinary, so it would make sense that the only vehicle Hunt and team have on hand was that, rather than the latest-and-greatest sports car. The same goes for using a box truck as a first-stage getaway vehicle. It doesn’t have the greatest maneuverability, but the level of skill needed to handle it professionally is appreciably spotlighted.
Which brings us to the meat of the film’s success. Tom Cruise is 56 years old and still pushing himself with every stunt. He deserves all kinds of praise. Other top-tier action stars aren’t making history with the largest filmed halo jump; learning how to fly a helicopter and performing a corkscrew that even experienced pilots avoid; jumping from roof to roof and breaking an ankle without breaking character and finishing the shot. If you’re wondering, yes, it's very obvious they used that take. Watching him hit the ledge just looks wrong, and as he runs off, you can clearly see that Cruise is limping in pain. Even after a film like Rogue Nation, which I thought was great, I still couldn’t quite get behind the argument for Cruise’s honorary Oscar. But Fallout single-handedly shows Cruise is in a class with Jackie Chan. Exhibit A: the final set piece in Kashmir, proudly shown off in the trailers and depicting Cruise climbing into a helicopter and piloting it to a showdown. Watching Cruise climb under the helicopter just isn’t like anything I’ve seen before, and for one good reason: he fucking did that. The subtle drop in camera quality, due to small mountable equipment, drives the reality that he is alone in this scene. It looks like an extreme episode of Fear Factor minus the safety rigging. The icing on the cake is the score cutting out to let what's on screen speak for itself. This is mastercraft.
Now, the use of comic relief, something very familiar in the franchise and other blockbusters, fall flatter than previously. It's hard to say if it’s because of the jokes themselves or because they conflict with the tone. The humor is sparing and kept out of large sequences, usually relegated to a cheesy quip here and there to cap a scene or thought. There aren’t many great wide shots a la John Wick, but the composition and editing keep things clear and focused, and neither the spotty humor or the lack of overtly “cinematic” camera technique detract from the film.
It's a shame that MoviePass has updated its policies so subscribers aren’t able to use it on new releases, because Mission: Impossible - Fallout begs to be seen on the biggest screen in town. See it. Given its current sratus at the top of the box office, there's a good chance you already have. But see it again. I’m going to use this time to my advantage and see this at least once more, probably in IMAX, while I can. You should do the same.
- Alex B.
Upgrade is the latest love letter to the phenomenon of 80s action movies. In this movie, we are taken to some time in a distant future where we meet a man named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who just witnessed a gang murder his wife (Melanie Vallejo) and permanently crippled him. After this incident, a young but intelligent boy Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) offers Grey the ability to function once more with a tiny piece of technology known as STEM. Soon after receiving the implant, Grey realizes that STEM can talk (voiced by Simon Maiden) and is incredibly efficient, recognizing small details that the police missed from the crime scene. This starts Grey on a journey to hunt down those who have took his wife, with Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) watching him closely. Thus, we embark on an hour and a half adventure filled with all sorts of blood, gore, and action.
The action scenes in this movie are absolutely impeccable. It’s been a while since I’ve seen fight scenes that are crafted this uniquely. STEM typically is in control of Grey when he is fighting someone, so all of his moves look as unnatural as possible; he looks like a robot that doesn’t fully understand its functions. It’s a fast-paced but coherent and beautifully-shot movie. With the first fight Grey gets into with a gang member, you can see how much care they put into crafting these scenes, and it only continues with each subsequent fight scene. Plus, you get a good dosage of blood and gore through these fights, so it’s pretty much everything you can hope for in an action movie.
Each character has their own personality and brings something special to the movie, even if they little more than archetypes. You have minor characters like the bartender at Old Bones who brings in a classic style of 80s comedy, bringing some levity to the film’s darkness. Grey is a pretty typical protagonist for this sort of movie, but comes to life when he is equipped with STEM. STEM is truly a masterful character, despite being a small piece of technology. It’s intelligent and has an amazing dry humor delivered in monotone. Characters such as Cortez, Eron Keen, and Fisk (Benedict Hardie) exhibit great character in the movie, especially as it races to the end.
The sets are fantastic, and unlike many movies that take place in a futuristic societies, most of the places we visit are very much “normal,” apart from some, say, Eron Keen’s home and some vehicles. Then you had your dark areas: neighborhoods that just never caught up with technology. Old Bones is very much like any other gross bar you’ve been to. The apartment building is a basic rundown apartment. This gap between the advancement of technology and the reality that many will simply not be able to keep up is something I feel that many dystopian-future films fail to address. Yeah, Blade Runner does this to some extent, but not in the same way as Upgrade, which is worth respecting.
The acting is sometimes shaky, which is really the only thing I can level against Upgrade. The beginning is a little weird. Grey’s wife Asha only ever refers to him as “husband,” which makes me uncomfortable; even though I like Eron Keen as a character, and that that character is supposed to be an awkward recluse, it really seems as if he might be reading off a teleprompter in the early portions of the film. His performance is a bit too awkward to believe at first, but once the plot kicks in, the issue improves immensely.
The ending makes up for absolutely everything. It manages to tackle the fear of technology in ways I feel films like Ready Player One couldn’t possibly address. In fact, it does a better job at showcasing the horrors of being stuck in VR in a single scene than Ready Player One did in two hours and twenty minutes. Even more than that, the film showcases both the positives and negatives of a world remarkably advanced by technology. The films ending brings this all together and reminds us to be careful with what we plot next. I am not going to spoil it here, but I will say that the final scene alone is worth a full ticket price.
Upgrade is one of the best action movies to come out in a very long time. It has that 80s charm to it while also presenting us something fresh. The beginning of the film simply has to be endured, but it’s entirely worth it. I never expected to love Upgrade as much as I do. The fact that this move was made on a $3-5 million budget and looks better than most, if not all the movies I’ve seen this year thus far, is incredible. Definitely make time to see this one.
VERDICT: I went into Upgrade expecting a fun action flick. I got much more than I could have imagined.
- Alex Brown
Annihilation - Alex Garland
Cresting a wave of high-concept, hard sci-fi entertainment at a fruitful time for the genre, Annihilation distinguishes itself from Arrival, Westworld, Ex Machina, Black Mirror, Amazing Stories, Blade Runner 2049, and others by 1) not being based on a Philip K. Dick story, and 2) by actually being based on a recent work of literature by Jeff VanderMeer: the eponymous novel is the first installment in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, an post-modernist sci-fi eco-horror that’s easier to class as Weird fiction, with a capital W, or New Weird, differentiating modern authors in the style from H.P. Lovecraft and authors like him.
Helming the movie is Alex Garland, who has quickly developed a reputation for intelligent, interesting sci-fi. His directorial debut Ex Machina is an objectively great first feature, but his writing credits stretch as far back as Dredd, 28 Days Later, and the underrated Sunshine, too; he’s been honing the skills he deploys in Annihilation for some time, and the truth of the matter is that no one in Hollywood was better equipped to take on the challenge the source material presents.
Alex and I watched the movie on opening night through different prisms. I had read the book prior (I’m wrapping up its sequel at the time of this writing), and Alex had not. Although we both agreed that Annihilation is a great movie, our perspectives differed, and we found those differences interesting enough to warrant two reviews: one for readers and one for viewers; one containing no major spoilers, and one with many.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biology professor, still reeling from the disappearance of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who vanished on a top secret mission with the military. After twelve long months, he returns with little to no memory of the mission or how he got back. He falls suddenly ill, but en route to the hospital, the military descend on the ambulance and take both the biologist and her husband to a mysterious facility known as Area X. Demanding answers, Lena learns her husband crossed an inexplicable boundary called The Shimmer and into a zone that many research team enter, but none leave. Lena gets a spot on a new team setting out into the Shimmer in hopes of understanding what is happening.
There's an immediate feeling that you can’t seem to shake, and it's a sense of unnerving anxiety that surrounds the mystery of The Shimmer. Everything is presented straightforward cinematically, but all the information you are given breaks down the further you get into the film. This instability can be communicated by something as simple as a jump cut. We see, firsthand, how the characters cross into this enigmatic zone and then suddenly “wake up’ only to realize they have lost four days. These sensory gaps become even more intriguing when we consider that the entire story is told from the perspective of the only surviving member of the expedition. How do know we can trust what she says? It's reminiscent of Arrival in that sole testimony, how characters seem to use select words wrong at times, and the actions of a certain individual during the finale. Their actions challenge the notion of the phenomenon that makes one question even further the preceding events.
On a technical level, I’m a bit torn. Little effort is present during downtime sequences, but the scenes that matter have just the right amount of concrete fundamentals as well as flair. Specific scenes that come to mind are a few animal attacks - for instance, there is a scene where a genetically altered bear slowly enters a room where our protagonists are in the midst of an escalating confrontation. Everyone has their back to the door and are afraid any movement will set it off. We can see the bear enter, but it's out of focus because no one has seen it clearly, and it's only when the it sticks its face between the crew that we catch a few focused glimpses of the creature. On the other hand, these creatures in action are one hundred percent CG and it wouldn’t bother me if some of them didn’t look like assets from a Playstation 2 game in 2004. In other scenes, there are great displays of prosthetics that are examined closely and you have a chance to take in the breathtaking work. The dichotomy between these effects took me out of the film momentarily, but only when they were on screen, and it's a testament to the intrigue around The Shimmer.
It's hard not to give Garland a hand for transferring a complex story into an accessible studio film. For the most part, it's seamless, but there are problems in the very last twenty minutes. Garland clearly respects his audience as well as the people who wander their way into the theater, unsure of what they're in for. The rules of the world are explicit and concise without getting too technical or too vague, which is understandable since the crew is made up exclusively of scientists. This level of broad tactfulness is honestly astonishing. Ex Machina was a quiet, exploratory, off-putting experience for many viewers, but seeing that he can handle a more conventional blockbuster-style movie has me excited for Garland’s future with bigger budgets and more creative freedom.
Brian's Review & Analysis
Annihilation is a little different on the page, so what follows is the summary transcribed directly from the back cover of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel. Note that in discussing both the movie and the novel, my references will swing freely between the two, and that although I will do my best to make it clear when I am talking about one or the other, I will almost inevitably slip.
The summary reads:
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.
The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers--but it’s the surprises the came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
At bottom, Annihilation is a deconstruction of the relationships between language, communication, and meaning masked as a straightforward account of an expedition gone wrong--a stray thought the biologist has early on, that we do not generate ideas but are colonized by them, doubles as the novel’s thesis. Garland’s film ignores it, choosing to preserve the aspect of an expedition and step up the ecological horror that makes up the novel’s periphery, altering enough details along the way as to fashion a completely different story. His Annihilation is like Solaris in the way it frames the sci-fi around an emotional journey, deploying instances of freakishness to pry into the psyches of its characters. Had the movie hewn closer to the novel, the result may have been like a nightmare version of Arrival, deriving its horror from the limitations of communication and the changeability of meaning. For example: one of the first things the biologist and her team encounter once inside Area X (in the novel, this is the name of the zone inside “The Shimmer,” rather than the facility from which the team deploys) is a manmade structure. We are explicitly told by the biologist that the structure is a tunnel. Rationally, she understands that it is a tunnel, and all of her senses agree, but she cannot bring herself to believe it is anything but a tower. Although we are explicitly told that this structure is a tunnel, the biologist can only thereafter describe it as if it was a tower, and soon, we forget the tunnel. We are colonized by the idea.
You will find more of this decidedly Weird content the deeper you go in the novel, and virtually none of the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of a woman in search of answers to the mystery that robbed her of her husband. The novel is a linear, first-person account intended as a scientist’s defense of her sanity, and her sometimes desperate need to be rational, factual, and clearly understood in response to phenomena that are not any of those things lends the novel a unique tension that would have been cumbersome to realize on screen. The additions of scenes between Lena and her husband, and the fact that he not dead before the movie even begins; that we are allowed to observe Lena’s fractured psyche in the wake of his disappearance, and how it leads her to infidelity, confusion, and emotional isolation; the ramped-up action, including a “bear attack,” and the greater focus on the scientific anomalies within Area X/The Shimmer: these things belong to the movie and are necessary to a more cinematic adaptation of Annihilation. We can applaud their execution and how they make the story more digestible. It’s a very, very good movie. At the same time, we can recognize how these things are clutter.
Toward the end of VanderMeer’s novel, the biologist discovers a mouldering heap of notebooks that appear to have been left behind by previous expeditions. It’s clear by the sheer volume of material that there were far more than eleven previous expeditions. She begins to comb through them in search of information. She singles out one notebook in particular, although it ostensibly contains no information--instead, it seems to be filled with nothing but repetitive, exhaustively-detailed descriptions of a type of thistle that grows within Area X. She reads it, but puts it down, unnerved, when she begins to understand that its singular focus seems to be less the product of mundane obsession than of terror--as if the author was trying to avoid something more horrifying, something he or she could not bring themselves to discuss. To some degree, this seems like a reflexive commentary on Annihilation itself, if not the very philosophy by which it was written. As a first-person account of an event of which only she was witness, we are subject to the limits of her imagination, the limits of her vocabulary, and the limits of her discretion--we have only her testimony, and there is plenty of reason to doubt that she is telling us everything, even when she swears she is, whether by choice or by pure limitation. What is she hiding? What doesn’t she realize she’s hiding?
This unreliability is translated into the movie’s classic flashback structure. Lena verbally recounts the events of the expedition to interrogators in hazmat suits, as well as an audience of Area X personnel lined up outside the glass walls of the interrogation room. It is also addressed in a scene exclusive to the film, when a member of the expedition ties up the others and accuses them all of a conspiracy, singling Lena out as its mastermind when she discovers that her husband was a part of the previous expedition. Setting aside the fact that her relationship to a previous expedition member is no secret in the novel (also, that the biologist does not harangue her way onto the team; she volunteers, and the other members are fully aware of her emotional investment in the expedition, and in fact train together for many weeks prior to entering Area X), this scene could be interpreted as a manipulative fabrication by Lena, a sort of built-in “proof” of the veracity of her story. Her truthfulness seems to have been tested by this confrontation while inside The Shimmer, but how do we know the confrontation, or any of her story, actually happened? She seems to have vindicated herself of doubt, but what proof do we have but her word?
The most glaring omission from the film is the expedition team’s voluntary hypnosis at the hand of the psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the movie; also, the director of the Southern Reach, a fact key to Annihilation’s follow-up, Authority). Early in her account, the biologist mentions that she has become resistant to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions, which she attributes to exposure to some of Area X’s plantlife. After a while, she is able to identify the commands in the psychologist’s speech by the emphasis the psychologist places on certain phrases, and the further the hypnosis erodes, the more she seems to understand about Area X. Again, there is doubt toward this assumption--she was, after all, contaminated by something which she refers to as a “brightness,” only as an approximation--but the larger importance of hypnosis in the novel, and its exclusion from the movie, is multilevel. In the novel, this language-activated hypnosis is a useful metaphor for the experience of reading; we are comfortable with certain writing and narrative tropes, without our native languages, and when they are subverted or eliminated as they frequently are in Weird fiction, we find ourselves lost in a wilderness of words without definitive meaning. Removing this element was the right choice for the film; it would only complicate the already dense analogies between Lena’s emotional arc and the escalating danger within The Shimmer. This hypnosis is also important to Authority, which means that to some degree, it is tool of foreshadowing that would have been useless to the film. Once again, it was necessary to cut.
However you choose to interpret the role of hypnosis in the novel, it radically shapes the reading. Taken literally, it shields the expedition from the more ungraspable anomalies within Area X, preserves their objective, and protects their sanity. Taken metaphorically, it draws attention to the formal elements of the writing--to the diction, grammar, syntax, and perspective--and opens the novel up to myriad interpretations in concert and in conflict with one another, creating an overlapping swarm of ideas that, not unlike those first flowers Lena observes in the film, are “stuck in a constant mutation.” In place of the hypnosis, I think Garland’s Annihilation does a very smart thing: it gives its role to the Shimmer, which, as Josie (Tessa Thompson) describes in what I still can’t decide is necessarily clunky or just clunky exposition, is a prism; a force that refracts the basic composition of everything it affects into ever-more kaleidoscopic configurations--leading to shark-toothed crocodiles, parroting bears, human-shaped plants--just as the emotional strain of separation, absence, and loneliness changes Lena over time; just like the movie’s flashbacks to the months since her husband’s disappearance radically alter the viewing and our understanding of Lena. Perhaps the movie is the Shimmer, delicately reconstructing VanderMeer’s story from the inside out; perhaps it’s the light-creature that’s taken up residence in the lighthouse (via projectile, as we see in the very first seconds of the movie), whose intention is neither to harm or to help, but simply to make something new.
The third act of Annihilation has attracted discussion, and with good reason--it’s weird as hell. The novel’s climax is, if anything, even more ambiguous and outlandish: the entity the biologist eventually encounters is described through a cascade of confusing imagery that makes it more unknowably alien than a shape-shifting, psychedelic orb of smoke and light could possibly be. With that caveat out of the way, it’s hard to argue that what happens in the lighthouse isn’t one of the most fascinatingly strange sequences in a movie of this budget and caliber we’ve seen yet, off-putting and enticing in equal measure, and in all the right ways. The sudden, sustained eruption of the score, absent for most of the movie, is glorious; in a well-equipped theater, when that ethereal snatch of melody present in the trailer slides in over a gut-rattling bass hum, it will feel as if you are floating out of your seat and into the screen like Lena’s blood drawn into the light.
The climax of the novel is a peek into greater mysteries, maybe more than the Southern Reach Trilogy can answer, lodging the chill of cosmic horror deep in the bones; in the movie, it’s a moment of mingled horror and catharsis as Lena confronts both the truth of what happened to her husband and what will happen to her, capped with the claustrophobia of the entity, assuming humanoid form, nearly crushing Lena against the lighthouse wall. It’s at once a terrifying facsimile of a hug, a rapist pose, and a futile effort at closeness, made more disturbing by the fact that it may not have even been aware she was there, as Lena later reports. And then, of course, the final Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist. There is precedent in the novel--the shine in her eyes when she embraces her husband’s replacement seems to represent the “brightness” the biologist feels inside of her, not quite a consciousness, not quite a light, but somewhere in between--and, in fact, it makes perfect sense according to the movie’s emotional logic. Lena is not who she was; Garland’s movie literalizes that.
Annihilation is a great movie and a bad adaptation. It can be both. It takes much of what’s superficial about Jeff VanderMeer’s novel and crafts a compelling movie out of it with a completely different agenda in mind, which is hardly a bad thing: Annihilation impresses on its own terms, with great performances and consistent internal logic. There are numerous little differences and deviations from the source material than can be bothersome, but ultimately cannot impede or detract from the movie’s ability to captivate. Garland’s Annihilation not a good representation of Jeff VanderMeer’s, but in a way analogous to the relationship between Stephen King’s The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation--and that, I think, is the highest praise I could possibly give it.
- Brian L.
Paco Plaza - Veronica
Streaming on Netflix
Holy shit. That’s all I have to say to start this review. If the name of the director doesn’t look all too familiar to you, you might recognize the franchise he has helmed in the past: REC. Plaza is no stranger to horror and proves yet again that he is a master of getting in your head and scaring the living shit out of you. Between his intricate script and Pablo Rosso’s beautiful cinematography, you are in for what could be one of the best paranormal horror movies ever.
15 year old Veronica, played by the wonderful Sandra Escacena, is tasked with both managing her social life at catholic school and being a mother to her siblings, since their actual mother is works all day and night. You’re greeted with a gripping tale of teenage exploration and supernatural ideas that might sound generic on paper, but is amazingly executed on film.
I think what amazed me the most about this masterpiece is that it was more than just a horror movie--which doesn’t mean it isn’t filled to the brim with scares of all different types, but that you also see this teenager struggle with the weight of the world and juggle all sorts of real-life hardships without losing her mind. You watch all of this psychological terror unfold over a simple botched seance, one she only participated in to get in touch with her deceased father. Of course, this is a horror movie, so that isn’t who she was contacting.
I went into this film on the strength of Plaza’s previous movies, and there was not a single moment where I wasn’t absolutely gripping the edge of my seat, even during the set-up portion of the film. There are scenes throughout that will make your skin crawl with nothing more than a well-framed shot or the movie’s diverse takes on foreshadowing. If there is one thing that stands out about this movie, it’s the fact that it’s really a tale of becoming what you are afraid of, and that sometimes you are your greatest fear.
“DEVILMAN Crybaby”- Masaaki Yuasa
Watch “DEVILMAN Crybaby” on Netflix
This review is as spoiler-free as possible. Unfortunately, it’s difficult not to spoil some of the major beats of the anime. Read with caution.
DEVILMAN Crybaby is a 10-episode Netflix original anime series inspired by the 1970s manga and anime, Devilman. The story revolves around a teenage boy named Akira Fudo, who lives a normal teenager’s life until his best friend, Ryo Asuka, informs him about demons returning to Earth to destroy it. Believing that the only way to defeat the demons is by combining a demon and human, Ryo fuses Akira with the demon Amon, giving Akira the power to eliminate the demons. However, Akira begins to realize that the demons may not be what they seem--they may, in fact, be more human than we think.
The execution of the story is incredible. I am not particularly fond of binging shows, but I just had to binge this one. The first five episodes are mainly spent developing the characters and their environment, leaving about five or so minutes per episode devoted to super violent action sequences. In the latter half of the series, more time is spent building up to the conclusion of the series. The animation can get choppy, especially during scenes of dialogue, but the action is always animated well. If you’re a fan of Elfen lied and Another, you definitely do not want to miss out. The shows sets up the kind of scenarios you just need to witness to believe, and DEVILMAN Crybaby goes above and beyond to give its dark, gritty tone purpose.
While it is very much in the style of Japanese animation, the series is not animated like your typical Shonen anime, but more in the vein of The Tatami Galaxy over DragonBall Z, which is something that might catch viewers off guard. My only issue is that mouths are sometimes drawn uncomfortably big; otherwise, the the show is packed with beautiful scenes, especially towards the latter half. I should also mention that the soundtrack is always on point; mostly synthwave with a dash of neo-classical, it’s well-suited to the anime’s mix of old and new tactics. There is an unfortunate freestyle rap by Wamu and his gang, but outside of that bizarre misstep, the soundtrack is phenomenal.
Thematically, the most important thing to focus on is the origin of the devilmen. They are created at raves, known ironically as “Sabbaths.” In the world of the show, raves are places of pure hedonism, places for humans to indulge their darkest impulses, allowing the demons to possess their bodies and lend them their powers. This is how Akira becomes a devilman. There are various other religious references as well that deepen the show’s thematic ambitions. Interestingly, the original Devilman is actually an anime and manga in Crybaby’s universe, and serves a pretty vital part in how Ryo develops.
DEVILMAN Crybaby has a lot of good things going for it, but it’s not without its cliches. Most of its character are not badly written, but only Ryo Asuka feels well-fleshed-out, with some ambiguity to his character. While his devilman forms are pretty neat, Akira’s character is as archetypal as anime protagonists get. He continually shouts out who he is and what he wants, and he cries every episode. I guess I should have expected that from the word “crybaby” in the title, but it doesn’t make it any less obnoxious. As for everyone else in the anime, none of them serve any more purpose than to progress the story, and while they do a fine job, I didn’t really care for their fates. I also wish some of the dialogue was better, especially in moments of more adult-oriented conversation.
Despite its problems, DEVILMAN Crybaby is easily Netflix’s best attempt at anime yet, and easily one of the best original shows that Netflix has to offer this year. The series improves as it goes along, balancing story and action well. The lead-up to the final two episodes is one of the most rewarding I’ve seen in anime. If you are a fan of violent, gory, and occasionally reflective anime, give DEVILMAN Crybaby a watch.
The Post - Steven Spielberg
If there's one thing I love, it’s awards season, when I can boast about my superior taste in film and how I don’t agree with any of it to all my family and friends.
In all seriousness, awards season sheds light on movies that either show real promise or put the spotlight on titles that wouldn’t otherwise find the mass appeal they deserve on its own. The Post is a great example of the former, considering the current tension between the public and the media.
In the early 70s, amid the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, a study was conducted from the ground on the progress of the conflict in the east. When the author of this study saw how the United States government was lying to its people and sending soldiers into a failing conflict, they made the decision to leak the four thousand pages of the study to the New York Times. This collective document was dubbed “the Pentagon Papers,” and was published at a time of financial crisis for the Washington Post; on top of that, they were in competition with the New York Times and facing legal action from the Nixon administration.
Spielberg has a tendency to make light of pivotal moments and tremendous stakes. For instance, Bridge of Spies used Tom Hanks’ charm and injected off-handed humor that diluted the tension of delicate U.S.-Soviet relations, despite being a decently-made picture otherwise. The Post does something similar with its sticky situation, although I was more often than not reminded of Snowden in the way Spielberg takes dramatic liberties for the sake of broad appeal. The story can stand on its own legs just fine without these kinds of gestures. For example: there are plenty of great examples of strong women in film, like Rey from Star Wars, or more recently, the excellent Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Both characters shows their strength and capability without extra work from their respective filmmakers. In The Post, there are moments when Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) takes walks proudly through women, and is commented on by other characters chime for verbally cutting a man down. These don’t feel like character moments as much as they feel like weak attempts to absolve the filmmakers of some imagined bias. What I will give Spielberg credit for is showing Graham’s personal growth. In the beginning, she lacks the confidence to say her rehearsed lines in a board meeting; by the end, she is making decisions she knows could land her and her team in jail.
The Post is a good film with big stars playing comfortable roles. Hanks in a supporting role doesn’t affect his performance, even if the character of Ben is often flat. Spielberg’s structural competency and shooting technique are wonderfully cinematic. As long as you watch the film as just that--a film--and not as a political statement, it has the potential to be the rare crowd-pleaser that also enlightens its audience to what goes on, and what should go on, behind that anonymous, catch-all term “the media.” It’s a reminder that the press shouldn’t work for the respect of the government, but to honestly inform the people, as a part of the many checks and balances present in our society.
But The Post is safe. It could have been scathing, it could have been revelatory, but it chooses instead to tell a story tailored to fit into the template of boilerplate social commentary we’ve seen since November 2016. I want to love it. I really do. A film about a government lying to the country and news outlets telling the hard and painful truth deserves more than being a podium for partisan bickery. But I believe that this really comes down to Spielberg realizing that he’s at his best making fun Hollywood blockbusters and not political statements Films like this are reason to question whether best films are behind him. How it’ll fair with the Oscars is up in the air. It may have gotten the nominations during the Golden Globes, but didn’t pick up a single win, and given the other hopefuls this year, I doubt the Oscars will be any different.
- Alex B.
Stranger Things 2 - Duffer Brothers
Last year, Stranger Things took the title of “most bingable Netflix original.” The ’80s drenched X Files-infused marathon of The Goonies made for a fun time and instantaneously spawned massive fandom. I pointed out in July of last year that, for all its entertainment value, there were still rough corners that only became more prevalent upon second viewing. Everyone's favorite D&D players weren’t as nicely fleshed out as some supporting characters, and the show feels more like a composite of pieces from other, better-known properties than a thoughtful blending of them. Regardless, that didn’t stop the second season of Stranger Things from being the most anticipated season of the year for most audiences.
Of course, spoilers for season 1 ahead. Season 2 spoilers will be separated from the general discussion.
The demigorgan is dead, Eleven is missing, Will is saved but he can see into the Upside Down, and coughed up some interdimensional slug. After almost a year from those events, Will’s visions are getting progressively worse: he’s now seeing a massive, tentacled entity, visible in the trailers for the season. As part of a deal made between the Byers and the shadowy institution behind the events of season 1, Will is brought into Hawkins Lab for various regular check-up. Despite the prying of his doctors, Will’s visions are swept under the rug. Meanwhile, Eleven finds her way back to Hawkins and, by chance, runs into Hopper, who shelters her in a secluded cabin for her protection. Mike and the gang induct a new member, Maxine (or “Madmax”), but her older brother proves to be a problem. Dustin finds the interdimensional slug, which is rapidly developing into something else. There's a lot, I know. It's not super elegant.
My time with this season feels like a third viewing of season 1. Once again, the show is entertaining, but the more I watch, the more the show’s flaws bubble to the surface. First, the positives: the banter between Mike, Dustin, Luke, and Will is just as light and fun as ever. I feared the dynamic would shift with the return of Will, but he’s mostly a quiet, fearful, blank slate. What makes this corner of the narrative a little more interesting is the introduction of Bob (Sean Astin), Joyce’s new boyfriend. Hes mostly a one-dimensional techie goober, but he has a few moments that will remind any tech-geek of themselves, making him somewhat more relatable than your average newcomer. It's just a shame he doesn’t have more screen time. Nancy, Steve, and even Jonathan mostly carry on their young adult love triangle from season 1, which ended with Nancy back with Steve. It's hard to justify this storyline since it boils down to fanservice in response to the unexpected reception to Barb last season. At the end of the day, it has no impact on the big picture.
One of the things I’m truly happy about this season is the Joyce and Hopper’s partnership. Their friendship is mostly the unspoken comfort they find in each other after having been through the shit. With that being said, the challenge that both characters face together are exactly the same as the previous season, and there's still a bit of unnecessary nativity just to play the audience. But Hopper now has to look after Eleven, which proves multiple times that things aren’t quite perfect. Eleven wants to return to Mike and the gang, Hopper doesn’t want Hawkins to pick her up again. He sees a bit of his daughter in her. As it is with this show, what could have had a beefy relationship is instead reduced to thin, surface level functionality.
Mechanically, this season is not up to the quality of the first season. The writer's hand is always visible, as every reveal is accompanied by multiple, frequent flashbacks connecting the dots for the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, it’s insulting. Yes, Duffer Brothers; I understand the slug that Dustin finds is much like the one Will coughs up. You don’t need to do multiple eye-line matches of Will looking worried, play overly-suggestive music, and try graphic matching it all. It doesn’t look good. It also seems as if the show hasn’t learned from the past year of horror, as it features an overabundance of easy jump scares and false scares. While present in the first season, they were not this cheap or numerous--I found myself progressively more annoyed every time someone touched someone's shoulder from off-screen and we have to hear that stock metal bang again.
Since it became the most divisive part the season, let's start with episode 7. Having seen a majority of diehard fans revolting against the episode, I was worried going in, but was surprised to see that it acts like the rest of the series, only with an overt fish-out-of-water story. It has the same strengths and weaknesses as any other episode this season, but the overriding fact is that it's ultimately a useless episode. It does three things: we’re shown Eleven harnessing her powers, with a scene more than a touch reminiscent of Yoda training Luke to lift an X-Wing with the Force. The problem is that we’ve already seen her do incredible things, many in high-pressure situations, but many more in moments of calm. The next is the moral hurdle she encounters facing a man who destroyed her mother's life. Eleven is ready to kill this man until she sees he has a family. So what does that mean for the people she killed in season one? She also had a moment in season one when she used her powers to separate Lucas and Mike in the midst of a fight, and even, then she showed instant regret. The last part is really a matter of personal taste, but why do we need to explore everything about Eleven’s past? We got what we needed last season, and what we get here is forced story. Eleven sees more than one kid in the rainbow room, so why does she go to Eight and call her sister? It seems unnecessary.
The last thing I want to talk about is the part that made me throw up my hands. From the season premiere, we are told that the main antagonist is the shadow monster, a hulking beast capable of devouring a town. It looms over every bit of promotional material. While it’s possession of Will is an interesting spin and makes for some entertaining sequences, the twenty minutes Eleven holds it off virtually on her own makes me question if this entire struggle is necessary. Look what changed from the beginning to the end. The gateway is closed. Eleven is reunited with the group. Nancy is with Jonathan. Steve is now the best babysitter. Bob is dead. At best, the shadow monster has only been temporarily delayed. I feel that the season almost invalidated itself in those last minutes, and Will’s struggle is now in vain.
I think down the road, this season will occupy the same space as season two of Mr. Robot. It’ll be referred to as the filler season, but at the very least, Mr. Robot had real character progression. I don’t see a lot of that here, outside of Steve, who isn’t all that important when all’s said and done. It’s entertaining to serve the lowest common denominator, and if you’re just looking for a show to veg out to, Stranger Things 2 is perfect. But if you want something with a little more quality, or even something closer to the first season, I’m sorry.
- Alex B.
Well, it’s Halloween!
This is the end of Metal Lifestyle’s 31 Nights of Horror, and we thank each and every one of you that’s taken the time to read or take our suggestions and add one of our recommendations to your watch list, and hope you have a blast tonight (or this weekend). I tinkered for some time with this entry, unsure of how I wanted to cap our first annual 31 Nights of Horror. Michael Myers is the once and future king of Halloween, and the Sanderson Sisters its queens; and while I doubt that will change anytime soon, that’s not to say it won’t ever change. Since 2007, Michael Doughtery’s Trick 'r' Treat has developed a cult following and snowballed--at least in my opinion--into the other must-see Halloween movie.
It’s an anthology movie of several interlinked stories told on a cleverly staggered timeline. In order of appearance rather than occurrence (a big part of the movie’s appeal is untangling all the narrative threads), these stories are: a couple returning from the night’s festivities; a principal with a dark secret; a virgin and her not-so-virgin friends on their way to a Halloween party in the woods; a group of kids collecting jack-o-lanterns; a vampire on the loose; and a stodgy old man drinking his way through the night. The common thread? A mysterious, sack-headed little figure named Sam.
Trick 'r' Treat’s festive atmosphere, braided narrative, and relatively brief 86 minute runtime makes it an easily-digestible movie with seemingly endless replay value. Every frame is packed with detail, and there are enough little nods, gestures, and clues to keep you entertained for hours. Above all, it’s the movie’s holiday spirit, somewhere between the autumnal chilliness of Carpenter’s Halloween and the silliness of Hocus Pocus, that makes it both a perfect bridge between the two and--arguably--the best of both worlds.
Happy Halloween from all of us at Metal Lifestyle!
I told you we’d come back to Australia to visit Sean Byrne one last time, and here we are: seven long years after making a splash with The Loved Ones, Byrne is back in his element with The Devil’s Candy, the movie Deathgasm can only dream of being. Yeah, it’s not good form to praise one movie by trashing another, but give The Devil’s Candy a watch and see for yourself the level this movie is operating on compared to Deathgasm.
A deftly-wrought horror movie, The Devil’s Candy is built on the complicated dynamics of a family that isn’t just a main character and kill fodder: protagonist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry, Late Phases) is both a father and an artist, struggling to balance his creative passions with the need for financial security and his family’s well-being, which means he sometimes has to paint butterfly murals for local banks, and sometimes can’t be there for his wife and daughter, Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and Zooey (the wonderful Kiara Glasco), who love him almost as much as he loves them. The Devil’s Candy, like Deathgasm, is a movie by metalheads, ostensibly for metalheads; but it’s clear from the posters in Zooey’s room and the stickers on Jesse’s car that Byrne knows his stuff far better than Deathgasm’s creators. His love for the genre doesn’t go unappreciated at Metal Lifestyle, and neither do those Cult Leader and Young and in the Way stickers on the back windshield of Jesse’s car. Most importantly, his characters aren’t completely defined by their music choices--it’s the family’s relationships to one another that define the movie and give it its beating heart, one that will weather a lot before all the supernatural maliciousness of their suspiciously dirt-cheap new home is through.
Sure, “new family moves into old house with a dark secret” is a familiar enough premise to warrant some skepticism, but The Devil’s Candy is one of those rare movies that truly upends old formulas in the spirit of his first feature The Loved Ones, blazing new trails in the pursuit of great modern horror. It movie carries absolutely no fat on its lean 79-minute body, cutting all the repetitive haunted-house and possession tropes to focus on its people, so that when the horror kicks into high-gear in the third act, the danger hits like an axe to the chest. Effortlessly balancing its dramatic weight on a tightrope of hardcore horror and light goofball comedy, The Devil’s Candy is unlike any horror movie this year, and is therefore unquestionably one of the year’s best.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.