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Annihilation

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The new film from Alex Garland (Ex Machina) is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jeff  VanderMeer, but its roots go deeper than that. Aficionados of sci-fi horror, of which this is a sterling example, will doubtless recognise the influence of John Carpenter’s The Thing on this story of a group of scientists who have to contend with the alien and dangerously uncanny, but really Annihilation smacks of horror grandmaster HP Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space, first published in 1927, which tells of a wilderness area affected by a strange meteor that causes strange mutations in the local plant and animal life.

Here the area is a vast stretch of Floridian swampland, the effect is called “the shimmer” for the pearlescent quality of the atmospheric barrier that separates the afflicted zone from the rest of the world, and Lena (Natalie Portman), a cancer specialist and army veteran, is one of a group of five women (the others are Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Nuvolny, and Tessa Thompson) sent in to try and learn anything about the weird goings-on. They’re not the first team of investigators sent in, and they know it’s probably a suicide mission. Each has their own motive for volunteering.

Lena’s is guilt; her affair with a colleague prompted her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) to volunteer for a prior expedition, and he is the only explorer to return thus far, terribly ill, emotionally numb and on the brink of death. The need to find out what has happened to him drives her on, even as she and her team are confronted with missing time, mutated predators (the shark-toothed alligator seen in the trailers is not the worst), and mounting evidence that whatever is changing the local wildlife is also changing them.

Garland, who also wrote the script cannot directly translate VanderMeer’s famously oblique and elliptical novel directly to the screen, but he does take it as the basis for a remarkably effective horror movie that practically drips eerie atmosphere as thick as the swampy humidity of its setting. And it is, beyond doubt, a horror movie, complete with grotesque creatures and some unusually high-end gore, including one scene of evisceration that is particularly hard to forget.

However, like all the best horror, Annihilation is steeped in character, mood, and ideas. The acting across the board is top notch, with each of the women in the squad granted distinct personalities and tics in a scenario that pretty much defines them by their jobs (indeed, the source book doesn’t even give them names). For all that the blood and the monsters are effective, it’s the film’s foreboding, relentless tone that lingers in the mind – the sense of the alien intruding into and poisoning the mundane world. Ravening alligators are one thing, but it’s the way Garland shows the natural landscape changing that really disturbs: in one scene we see deer with floral antlers; in another, shrubs that have taken on the semblance of human form.

Our characters are changing, too, including our nominal point of identification, Lena, and Annihilation pulls some clever tricks messing with our understanding of what we are seeing. The whole thing is told in flashback, as Lena is questioned by a bio-hazard-suited interrogator (Benedict Wong), and canny film-goers know this is shorthand for “unreliable narrator”, but the film goes further than that. As things get weirder and more dangerous as the expedition heads deeper into the shimmer, a semi-plausible rationale for what’s happening is foregrounded, but little supporting evidence is offered, suggesting rather tantalisingly that while the characters can make inferences about the phenomena they’re witnessing, they’re simply filtering what they’re experiencing through their own preconceptions; any semblance of concrete truth or verifiable fact drifts further out of reach as their own subjectivity is stressed by the shimmer. As each character’s understanding of what is or might be happening veers further away from the others’, paranoia begins to take hold and, inevitably, violence. It’s incredibly unsettling, and perhaps the first time an onscreen alien encounter has felt actually alien since, well, Alien (or, you know, The Thing).

It’s hard to say right now if Annihilation is worthy of being set alongside those worthy films at so close a remove but if it doesn’t, it comes oh-so-very close. At the very least it’s a rock solid, strikingly effective sci-fi horror movie constructed with rare skill and absolute commitment to its own guiding ethos, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

 
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Good Time

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When you consider Cosmopolis, The Rover, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, The Lost City of Z and now this, who would have guessed that some of the most interesting and original films of the last decade would come from the two leads of the Twilight series? Robert Pattinson’s come a long way since then, and Good Time further solidifies him as one of the most exciting actors working today.

Here, his physical and behavioural transformation is scary. He plays the kind of guy you never want to cross paths with; fearless, violent, and surprisingly charming when he needs to be. He somehow manages to be likable even after doing things that will utterly disgust you.

Writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie (who also directs with his brother Ben) waste no time setting up the narrative. Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who along with his mentally-challenged brother Nick (also played by Ben Safdie), is in the business of robbing banks. Connie is protective and nurturing,  but also carelessly dragging his brother  down a very unsafe path for someone in his condition – and that’s where things go horribly wrong. Nick panics in front of police and gets himself caught, and the remainder of the film revolves around Connie’s desperate attempt to raise $10,000 in one night for Nick’s bail.

What the Safdie brothers (Heaven Knows What) have done really well is to construct an almost real-time feature that doesn’t lose momentum throughout its entire 100-minute runtime.

Despite his scumbag appearance, Connie is quick-thinking and highly resourceful, which allows the film to move from one scene to another in a believable manner. Sure, some of the supporting characters and plot devices aren’t introduced very subtly, but they do regularly shift the entire course of the film to keep you on your toes.

This is some of the most intense filmmaking you’re likely to experience this year, and much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, incorporates very clever audio and editing techniques to raise anxiety levels – most important of which is the penetrating score by Oneohtrix Point Never.

While it isn’t as stylish as Drive, clever as Run Lola Run or disturbing as Irreversible, Good Time is a remarkable feast for the senses.

Click here for nationwide movie time for Good Time.

 
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Atypical

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Created by sitcom veteran Robia Rashid, best known for her work on How I Met Your Mother, Atypical strives to offer an authentic portrayal of the autism spectrum. As shown through Sam (played superbly by Keir Gilchrist), we get a series of embarrassingly awkward social situations coupled with an all-too-familiar need for independence and love. His mannerisms, mainly his fixation on his favourite topics and his very to-the-point way of talking to others, ring true of my own experiences. I was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and through all the support groups and social gatherings I’ve been a part of, I’ve met more than a few people that would see something of the familiar in Sam. Consulting real professionals in the medical industry for reference, Rashid creates Sam as a depiction of autism that may come across as a caricature, but carries enough of his own character to make it fit. He’s unflinchingly honest, to the point of inducing cringe comedy with his matter-of-fact statements in almost every scene, but nevertheless, this rings true.

However, more so than the accuracy, it’s the fact that his condition informs his character, rather than solely being his character, that deserves praise. Representation of people with autism in the mainstream still has a long way to go in terms of proper acceptance, given how the mostly erroneous stereotypes attached to the term ‘autistic’ still exist, but it seems that Rashid’s intent has paid off.

If only the rest of the show was as finely-tuned. For a show literally called Atypical that has a tagline of ‘normal is overrated’, it is quite frustrating that this show feels as tired as it does. Outside of Sam, the rest of the cast is populated by stereotypes that have been regular staples in film and television for a very long time by this point. The overworked mother, the distant father, the abrasive and bratty sister, the best friend whose dialogue is 70% sexual innuendo, the high maintenance girlfriend; after a while, it becomes less a show about autism and more a standard sitcom that an autistic character just happened to wander into.

To make matters worse, the fact that such a frank and honest depiction of autism is sided with so many characters that rarely feel connected to the same level of reality induces cringe in the worst way possible. Any scene that doesn’t involve Sam’s sister (made into the most watchable character of the lot thanks to Brigette Lundy-Paine’s performance) ends up feeling like this is a show that wants to understand autism but apparently still hasn’t figured out basic human interaction itself yet. Then again, when your comedy reaches the point of comparing people with autism to meth addicts, chances are that human interaction wasn’t on the cards in the first place.

Atypical, for as faithful and (mostly) considerate that it is concerning autism, is swimming in too much of the same old junk to really stand out.