(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) It’s rare to see first-class science fiction movies gets as weird and eerie as Annihilation—although, considering the source that is Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, it’s not that unexpected. The film clearly heads out to Stalker/Solyaris territory in presupposing a zone of strange phenomena and a group of explorers tasked with understanding some of what’s going on. Headlined by a power group of gifted young actresses (Nathalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson in glasses and curly hair—yes!), this film gets more and more unsettling as the group gets closer to the source of the anomaly, and it takes them apart in very literal ways. The really good production design and rainbow-hued cinematography give justice to the uncanny visuals and troubled subject matter—the film is not interested in theatrics (or even understanding what’s going on) as much as in studying grief, terminal melancholy and self-destruction. Everybody has a bad past in this film, and it’s that past that challenges them more than the alien presence at the heart of the zone. Compared to the writer/director Alex Garland’s previous Ex Machina, Annihilation is more subtle, more hermetic, more suitable to a range of interpretations (what’s with the tattoo thing?) than its preceding nuts-and-bolts nightmare. It’s just as thought-provoking, however, and a good example of the avenues that filmed Science Fiction has not yet fully explored.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) The obvious hook for describing Where the Heart Is remains “Pregnant girl lives in a Wal-Mart,” but as it turns out that only explains the first third of a film that covers quite a bit more ground. (Also: While it’s satisfying to condemn a film for offering a big spotlight to Wal-Mart, I’m wondering when realism trumps anti-corporatism: If you had to live somewhere while homeless in a small town, Wal-Mart would be a good option.) (Independently of this movie, which I only discovered recently, I came up years ago with a party question that went “If you had to spend thirty days living in a store, which one would you choose?” and the answer was nearly always Wal-Mart.) Nathalie Portman stars as a young woman who ends up marooned in a small town after her boyfriend’s abandonment during a road trip, and the story covers roughly the six following years of her life, through various personal and small-town troubles. Ashley Judd is featured as her new best friend (she gets the film’s best lines), with a few other name actors such as Joan Cusack and Stockard Channing in supporting roles. Since the film is adapted from a novel, this gives Where the Heart Is a more freewheeling quality in terms of plotting and subplots—in particular, following the no-good ex-boyfriend through an abortive musical career. On the other hand, the film does feel unfocused and messy as a series of crises loosely held together chronologically. Several viewers will be allergic to the blatant product placement, not just for Wal-Mart, but for what the characters are drinking as well. It could have been a TV movie with lesser actors. While Where the Heart Is does deal with lower-class white people, it’s not always clear whether it has sympathy for them, as it sometimes milks laughs out of some stereotypes. It doesn’t make for a particularly good film, although the premise could have been developed in a far more interesting way.
(TMN Go streaming, May 2017) I recall learning about Anne Boleyn and the dramatic imbroglios of her time in high school, and it frankly seemed far more dramatic than The Other Boleyn Girl’s overcooked yet dull melodrama. Despite the bright green dress on nearly every poster or cover of the film, the film is colourless both in visual richness and narrative effect. Despite high drama, a mad king, suggestions of incest, death and impossible choices, this is a costume drama that seems to rely too much on telling a sideshow rather than the big story. As much fun as it can be seeing Scarlett Johannsen and Nathalie Portman playing historical characters, The Other Boleyn Girl goes through the motions without engaging the viewer. It doesn’t help that even as it doesn’t succeed as a dramatized portrayal of events, it fails as a nominally accurate portrayal of real events—the list of historical issues with the film seems longer than the plot summary itself. It all amounts to a significant disappointment—made even worse by the richness of the historical material, which the film seemingly can’t use effectively. When classroom material is favourably compared to a movie … there’s a problem.
(In French, On TV, May 2017) Let me tell you what a bad trailer is: A bad trailer spoils the movie so thoroughly that you can anticipate how it ends even eight years later. Now, I can’t account for the quirkiness of my brain given that it forgets when I’ve put my car keys while remembering a decade-old trailer for a mostly-forgotten movie, but the point is: I sat down to watch Brothers and kept waiting for that police confrontation scene … which comes at the end. It doesn’t help that the film is frankly dull, dealing with two brothers and what happens when one of them comforts the wife of the other while he’s missing and presumed dead in Afghanistan. You’d think that the question of whether the brother sleeps with the wife would be an interesting one, but Brothers is so limp and tedious that it’s a let-down when he doesn’t. From a narrative standpoint, there isn’t much to Brothers, making it feel even longer as the same plotlines are laboriously developed. It does fare batter as an acting showcase, given how it features Tobey Maguire in one of his most animated performances, the always-reliable Jake Gylenhaal as the problematic brother, and Nathalie Portman in a down-to-earth performance. Fans of straight-up drama will appreciate, although others may start eyeing their watches not long into the movie.