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Film Review: Annihilation

October 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Annihilation (2018; Directed by Alex Garland)

Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the first book of a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. Like his criticially praised debut Ex Machina, one of 2015’s best films, Garland doesn’t seek to illuminate the hurtful pathologies of modern politics or current affairs but the deeper drives and urges of the human race. Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence.

Annihilation presents a varied yet all-female expedition-team quintet of damaged individuals probing into the pervasive cellular-resequencing properties of a region known as Area X while also probing at their unseen internal wounds, often of their own making. Created by a meteorite strike on a lighthouse deep in a coastal American state park, Area X is surrounded entirely by a undulating rainbow-prism curtain known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer’s border is advancing gradually but inexorably, and unless halted will eventually consume the entirety of the surface of the planet. Given that everyone who has penetrated the Shimmer has failed to cross back out, figuring out Area X’s secrets and rigging a fix for its all-consuming threat takes on existential proportions.

Our protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a university biologist and former soldier mourning the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of her Marine husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) as well as dealing with the guilt of an affair with a colleague that may have speeded his mission departure. When Kane returns home unexpectedly (in what presents in initial exposure as a grief-led dream sequence before becoming more tangible) as Lena symbolically repaints their bedroom to the tune of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” (which becomes Garland’s metaphoric anthem for the elusive longing of human desire and connection), Lena’s joy at reunion with Kane is quickly turned to sour confusion at his monosyllabic obtuseness and then sudden, blood-coughing violent illness.

Whisked out of an ambulance by armed troops, Lena and Kane are brought to a facility at Area X where he is treated and she is filled in on the Shimmer by a cryptic and slightly hostile psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kane, it turns out, had disappeared on a mission into the Shimmer and is the first person to ever emerge from it alive, albeit possibly mortally worse for wear. Driven by both a scientific curiosity about what happened to Kane inside as well as her own continuing guilt at poisoning their relationship with adultery, Lena joins Ventress and three other women – scrappy paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), fellow scientist Cassie (Tuva Novotny), and the fresh-out-of-post-grad Josie (Tessa Thompson) – on a mission into the Shimmer with the lighthouse, and a final discovery of what is happening inside the curtain, as their goal.

What they find is strange and disorienting, sometimes gorgeous but often extremely perilous. They lose days of time as soon as they enter the woods with no memory of what has happened, find strange rhizomatic vine growths with numerous species of flower and plant growing from them, and encounter aggressive Lovecraftian predators like an enormous crocodile and a disturbing, deadly bear (their confrontation with the latter in an abandoned house at night is the film’s highlight sequence of tension, dread, and dark invention). They also learn by degrees that whatever alien life force is directing the Shimmer and its effects is re-sequencing and even duplicating DNA and cells like a spreading cancer, a process Josie calls refraction (as of light through a prism). Locating the eerie, womb-like source of this cancer at the lighthouse, Lena will also uncover a troubling truth about the escaped Kane and pass along an essential self-destructive element of human nature to the extraterrestrial beings that will prove an unlikely salvation for life on Earth.

Annihilation is a tremendous visual experience from Garland, a confident expansion of effects-aided imagination from the excellently-conceived but above all limited chamber-piece vision of Ex Machina. Wonder and terror and the uncanny intermingle inside the Shimmer, as when the team comes across eerie funereal humanlike forms of plant growths created by the refraction process, standing frozen in pastures like the petrified remains of the victims of Pompeii or the nuclear wall-shadows of Hiroshima. The Bechdel Test-exploding squad of warrior scientist women are uniformly superb, with Leigh’s febrile flintiness and Thompson’s mix of keen intelligence and neophyte’s shock standing out particularly. Portman’s brittle strength marks the actress, famous for playing ballerinas and First Ladies and spritely girlfriends, as an unlikely action hero, but she makes the leap ably while also nailing down Lena’s halcyon days of happiness with Kane and her traumatized, haunted interrogation by Area X officials (mainly one called Lomax played by Benedict Wong) after her escape that forms the film’s narrative frame.

What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty. Annihilation also concludes its narrative with powerful finality and thematic closure as Ex Machina did, while further injecting a note of ambiguity and mystery-box uncertainty in its final moments, although the oft-misread doppelgänger suggestion of its stinging last shot is probably more accurately interpreted as a suggestion of Lena’s hard-won acceptance of the necessity of change through her experience in the Shimmer, as an Alt Shift X explainer video suggests. However one interprets Annihilation‘s ideas, it’s an involving, intelligent and compelling visceral sci-fi cinematic experience, a further triumph from the talented Garland and an expansion of his abilities as a film storyteller.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Coco

October 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Coco (2017; Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina)

The production process on big-budget animated features like Disney/Pixar’s Coco is longer than your usual Hollywood movie, if you didn’t know. So this eye-poppingly colourful and touchingly respectful fantasy of Mexican cultural traditions, family memory, and embracing creative artistry could not have been conceived and mostly made with the foreknowledge of how much more political urgent it would feel upon its release in 2017.

To be certain, even though immigration to the United States from Mexico specifically has waned in recent years even as migrants from elsewhere in Latin America (particularly refugees often fleeing for their lives from the volatile nations of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) have picked up the slack, Mexican cultural influence and political currency remain the most prominent Stateside of any Latin-American country. Americans (particularly White Americans) have simply become more accustomed to viewing Mexicans as the representative migrant group among Latin-Americans, to witnessing those people’s established and rooted communities (some of which, lest we forget, pre-dated white settlement in parts of the country) subsisting alongside their own. For a nation supposedly defined by constant change and frontier-pushing redefinition, America can be as loathe to shift its pre-conceived and well-set notions as any number of less apparently adventurous national consciousnesses.

This prominence has made Mexico, Mexican migrants, and settled Mexican-Americans one of the prime targets for xenophobia, racist fearmongering, and ramped-up border protectionism, even before Donald Trump’s particularly crude amplification of these ugly forces helped to lift him most dispiritingly into the White House. But it has also made Mexican-Americans an increasingly important media demographic, worthy of being pitched a culturally-sensitive and celebratory nine-figured-budget movie from what is perhaps Hollywood’s most consistent and revered studio assembly line of original popular narratives and emotional values. And so Coco stands with more defiance than it might otherwise have done, defending the rich culture and values of a diverse nation of 123 million people from weaponized prejudice and rampant stereotypes, from smears of criminality and children’s detention camps, from “Build the Wall!”

This position is probably far more than this movie has asked for, and if it holds up against the hostility of these forces then that’s because it’s tightly constructed, thematically strong, stunningly beautiful, and even touching (in that heavily-workshopped, factory-of-feelings way that Pixar films set out to move us in emotional terms). Set on and crafted around the traditions and observances of the well-known, visually rich, syncretic Catholic/pagan Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, Coco follows a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) on a multichromatic quest into his family’s history. Miguel’s family runs a hard-toiling, hereditary shoemaking workshop, but further in its past, his great-great-grandfather was a travelling musician. After this man was accused of abandoning his young family to pursue dreams of stardom by Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), all music was banished from the family, a practice which has continued down to Miguel’s day. Although Miguel loves his clan dearly, this familial tradition causes him great consternation since he cherishes secret dreams of becoming a musician himself, like his idol and hometown hero, the late Mexican superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Driven to desperation for a guitar with which to play a Día de Muertos talent show in the village plaza after his strict grandmother (Renée Victor) destroys his own instrument, Miguel steals into de la Cruz’s memorial chapel and shrine and snatches the master’s distinctive white guitar. This act sets in motion a fantastical voyage to the Land of the Dead, a glowing rainbow-spectrum stacked afterlife metropolis inhabited by departed people turned into living skeletal calaveras. By the rules of this world, the dead endure as long as someone in the world of the living remembers them, which makes the Day of the Dead, with its ofrenda altars of memory festooned with decoration and mementoes of deceased loved ones, the most important day of the year in the Land of the Dead. The dead are screened through customs gates (a familiar bureaucratic barrier fraught with its own ambivalent cultural memory for generations of Mexican-Americans) and, if ofrendas to their memory have been erected, they may cross an arched bridge made of orange flower petals (one of those lovely poetic images that have become the trademark of Pixar works) to visit invisibly with their living descendants until sunrise ends Día de Muertos.

Miguel is unable to obtain a blessing from his calavera ancestors (including the implacable Imelda) that will allow him both to return to the living realm and to continue to play music. Thus, to avoid becoming a skeleton-person himself or returning to his life without any hope of music in it, Miguel enlists the aid of a shifty, ill-remembered outcast rogue character named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who, in exchange for a ofrenda photo placement to keep him from being forgotten, promises to bring the boy to de la Cruz, a prominent figure in the Land of the Dead as well and potentially the mysterious great-great-grandfather who left Miguel’s family decades before, in search of a music-empowering blessing. What Miguel finds will challenge his family’s traditions and, subtly, his own sense of himself.

For all of its grounding in Mexican Día de Muertos traditions, Coco (written by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote most of the Latin-pop songs and was given a co-director credit with Pixar vet Lee Unkrich) also takes pains to make itself thematically intelligible to the more general audience for Disney/Pixar releases. Hence, the comical animal sidekicks, namely Miguel’s Xolo dog tagalong Dante and Pepita, Imelda’s multicoloured winged tiger spirit animal, or alebrije. Hence, the careful and sanitized but still slightly bold approach to adult themes in a children’s (or at least all ages’) cartoon, namely deaths in the family. Hence, the sneaky wink-and-nudge jokes for the benefit of chaperone parents or young-at-heart adult viewers, namely Miguel’s encounter with Skeleton Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and her side-splitting stage designs for de la Cruz’s annual Day of the Dead concert: a giant papaya that dancers crawl out of, towards their mother “who is a cactus, who is also me!”

Miguel’s core conflict in Coco, however, animates a more identifiable concern for a more bourgeois creative class segment of Pixar’s large audience. Forbidden from the dangerous, homewrecking passionate pursuit of music by his strict but close-knit family, Miguel views his pre-ordained future as a toiling proletarian artisan with barely-disguised distaste. The suggestion that he be brought into the family workshop to cobble shoes all day until the day that his body quits on him is one that fills him with horror. The assumption that pursuing the life of a musician is superior to manual labour is a general one contained within Coco, not merely applicable to Miguel’s motivations and desires, and this is a very recognizable anxiety for Pixar’s majority white upper-middle-class audience (to say nothing of its creative forces).

Coco also evokes a very contemporary phenomenon of the prominent public figure falling from lofty grace and into lowly infamy due to an unforgivable past transgression (not to spoil it entirely, but let’s just say that Ernesto de la Cruz did not fully earn his musical legacy, and that Héctor’s pariah state is a profound injustice to him). Indeed, such themes are more at the forefront and active in the bones of the story than any conceptions of Mexican nationalism or Latin-American cultural solidarity of the course-correcting sort detailed in my introductory paragraphs. It’s simply a statement to the dehumanizing vehemence towards poor and vulnerable immigrants (refugees fleeing for their safety, many of them) among the xenophobic American right that a fond and lively portrait of colourful Mexican culture and passionate family connections like Coco can feel like a nearly-revolutionary position-taking.

But it’s precisely by whittling away the implacable ideological diminishment of the rights, agency, and feelings of the marginalized with empathy and emotional understanding that the fractious and hostile polity can mend and heal itself. Coco is a manufactured delight in the best Pixar tradition, but if it rises above that to any extent, it’s probably because it engages in this grander discursive project of fairness, comprehension, and maybe, more distantly, justice and co-existence.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews