These are strange days in Hollywood, as the world faces a moment in which women are rising up and taking a stand against the abuses perpetrated against them. As the #metoo and #timesup movements are shaking the entertainment industry, it will be interesting to see how their newfound power takes shape and affects the landscape of film and television.
The new movie “Annihilation” was shot in 2016, long before the expose of Harvey Weinstein’s sickening behavior was exposed, but it might provide an early insight into where things are headed. An alien space thriller built around Natalie Portman as a former soldier who leads a group of women on an expedition to find out what is behind a mysterious force that has the potential to endanger the entire planet. The film relies on smarts and emotions as much as scary moments — before annihilating most of the goodwill it’s built up with an absolutely maddening ending.
The film opens on Portman’s Lena shown in mourning over her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs), whom she believes has been killed while on a covert ops mission since she hasn’t seen or heard from him in an entire year. But after a powerful montage of memories, Kane suddenly appears in her home with an utterly vague explanation of where he’s been— only to suddenly start bleeding internally.
As Lena races to a hospital in an ambulance with Kane, they are suddenly stopped by a team of government operatives on the highway and taken into custody. Waking up in a mysterious cell on a government compound, Lena finds Kane strapped to a gurney on life support.
A psychiatrist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells her that Kane had been on a mission to discover what was inside a lighthouse that a mysterious force that the feds have termed The Shimmer has centered its power on. The Shimmer appeared out of nowhere three years before and has been slowly growing and consuming everything in its wake, forcing every creature in sight to mutate into disturbing new life forms.
Kane may have returned from his mission a bloody and deranged mess, but he was the only one in his team to come back at all. Driven by a need to know what happened to her husband, Lena, an Army veteran and a badass with a machine gun — insists on joining Dr. Ventress as she leads a team of female scientists into The Shimmer in the hopes of stopping it once and for all.
Much of what follows is a masterpiece of mood, emotion and atmospheric tension, as writer-director Alex Garland (adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer) avoids easy shocks to really dig into the sadness that is motivating each woman to risk their very lives for this cause. That slow-building sense of dread pays off terrifically when the few key action sequences do appear, with the women fighting off vicious mutated beasts like a giant crocodile with multiple rows of massive teeth or a giant bear whose roar sounds like the dying screams of the team member it slaughtered earlier.
Portman delivers an amazing performance, moving from the throes of grief to impressive resolve repeatedly throughout the film, and Leigh has her best role in ages as Dr. Ventress (yes, she’s even better here than in her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hateful Eight.”) But ultimately, the movie falls apart as Portman makes her final advance against The Shimmer, with an utterly inscrutable and bizarre ending that left the entire audience gasping with frustration and talking angrily on the way out of the theater.
Even if I wanted to give away the ending, it would be impossible, because it completely lacks any sense. Writer-director Garland has crafted other challenging films that paid off all the way through (“Sunshine,” “The Beach”), but he blows it all here in the closing moments. Let’s just hope this doesn’t annihilate the careers of its fine cast.
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan
Length: 134 minutes
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
The first major superhero movie centered on an African-American character debuted to record box office and is a rocket blast of fun, with the Afrocentric perspective infusing freshness into everything from music and costuming to narrative point of view and reinvigorating a genre that was in danger of being shopworn. Grade: A
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Length: 132 minutes
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
An utterly pretentious, overlong piece of drivel that could have told its very basic story in 12 rather than 132 minutes. Centering on a so-called “romance” between a 17-year-old boy who looks 12 and a 24-year-old man who looks 30, it’s creepy to the core and undeserving of its hype. Grade: F
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
A laughably pretentious tale of a top British fashion designer ridiculously named Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and his extremely slow-building and utterly implausible relationship with a female underling (Vicky Krieps) amid 1950s-era repression. The film is being sold as a gift to viewers since it’s Day-Lewis’ final film, but viewers will want to take it back. Grade: D
Stars: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Length: 121 minutes
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
This darkly comic biopic of disgraced US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding explores both funny and harrowingly sad aspects of her childhood into adulthood, with Janney providing a wicked turn as Tonya’s abusive and foul-mouthed mother. A powerhouse movie that is turning into a huge sleeper hit and a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars. Grade: A
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s latest epic fantasy leads the Oscar race with 13 well-deserved nominations. Sally Hawkins delivers a uniquely silent performance as a meek mute woman who works as a janitor in an early-1960s government facility and falls for the mysterious creature that scientists are studying and about to kill. Achingly romantic, beautifully shot, and downright exciting, this is as close to perfect as movies get.