I wanted so so badly to love Kajillionaire, and I tried many times but each new plot turn, scene of impenetrable human behaviour and sequence of forced eccentricity drew me further and further out of it until I felt wholly excluded from its brand of off kilter weirdness, an unearthly indie timbre that I could personally find no rhyme, reason or discernible profundity in. It’s sad because there’s four wonderful actors and an attempt at some kind of story full of existential meandering and humour drier than a soup cracker left in the sun, but simply none of it landed for me. Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger play a couple of terminally odd career petty thieves who have raised their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) to be just like them, and as such have a strange, stilted codependency dynamic. They rent out an empty office space next to a, um, ‘bubble factory’ and called their kid Old Dolio after a homeless dude of the same name as part of some legal con. They live a bizarre outsider’s existence until a newcomer they meet on a plane (Gina Rodriguez) drives a wedge between them all as the parents recruit her for their latest scheme. Wood plays her role with a husky voiced, awkwardly tomboyish approach, someone who is clearly the product of unconventional parents who didn’t raise her quite right. Rodriguez, so effective in stuff like Annihilation and Deepwater Horizon, is lovely here and the closest we get to a real human performance but she’s mired in obtuse dialogue, brittle character interaction and the overall deliberate strangeness of the narrative. Nothing quite makes sense, none of the people speak, act or intermingle like actual human beings would and it all just feels… off. There’s something in here about how stiff pragmatism and emotional coldness can derail a life and how it takes someone with an actual personality to ground someone back to planet earth, as we see in the sometimes sweet, sometimes brusque but ultimately perplexing relationship between Wood and Rodriguez but it’s lost in a sea of puzzling acting choices, nonsensical dialogue and peculiar editing. In attempting something along the lines of a quaint Wes Anderson-y, Michel Gondry-esque bit of whimsy, filmmaker Miranda July has wandered into a dimension whose vernacular, cosmic laws and artistic language I could simply not identify with and as a viewer I felt stranded in a void. I’m sure to many this dimension rang true to and they were able to get enjoyment from it. I certainly hope so, but it sadly did little for me.
Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a stunning, incredible, awe inspiring and strikingly unique piece of work. It’s the kind of film that has you leaving the theatre and wanting to run up to strangers on the street passing by, shout how great it is in their faces and promptly buy them a ticket of their own. It’s reassuring that smart, dazzling big budget science fiction still thrives in Hollywood, and projects like this build upon and terraform the preexisting genre to produce things previously unseen, stories that wear their influences upon their sleeve whilst simultaneously hitting you as something you’ve never conceived in your wildest fever dreams. It’s also not the film you might be expecting from trailers and descriptions so far, in the best possible way. Is it about a team that heads off into a strange, quarantined area to investigate a possible extraterrestrial presence? Yes, but not really. Is it a clever blend of Alien-esque horror and trippy, delirious cosmic futurism? Sort of, but that’s just the tip of a very large, very deep iceberg surrounded by a wall of scintillating effervescence dubbed ‘The Shimmer’ by wary scientists and the military. It’s into this enshrouded no man’s land that biologist Natalie Portman and a team of professionals with nothing to lose venture, and where the film really kicks off. Every character has some kind of inner trauma which has caused them to self destruct in their own ways, an unnerving theme that Garland holds up to his audience like a prism and explores with equal scrutiny. Portman has never been better, changed by the disappearance of her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) and eerily drawn to The Shimmer. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Ventress, coldly stoic and freakily collected as team leader. Tessa Thompson caught my eyes with her fiery work in both Westworld and Thor: Ragnorak, she’s purely haunting here as the detached, withdrawn and highly intuitive Josie, nailing her final scene with earth shattering poise. Gina Rodriguez burst onto the scene with her excellent work in Deepwater Horizon and is pure dynamite here as Josie, the emotional firebrand of their troupe, giving the character’s eventual meltdown scene a remarkably authentic edge. These four actresses pull the tapestry of the film’s narrative together with their collective and individual work ; they’re nothing short of superb. Garland has found a way to express otherworldly phenomena in an artistic and scientific way that no other filmmaker has yet achieved. The images are breathtaking, the visual effects beyond top tier, the ideas are ambitious and reach full on for the stars, and the whole deal should be the gold standard of genre films at the multiplex. I’ll say no more, and let you discover it for yourself. Oh but I have to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, an indescribable auditory experience that reaches dreamy levels of expressive percussion in the third act. Ok, I’m done, just go see it right now.
Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon floored me. Combining stirring heroics, meticulous procedural reconstruction, thundering big style special effects and a rock steady, salt of the earth cast who fire on all cylinders, Berg and team have successfully sent one of, if not the best films this year down the pipe (oily pun intended). The 2010 disaster aboard the mammoth Deepwater Horizon oil rig was a tragic, foolish and achingly avoidable event that was the product of carelessness, stupidity and resulted in the unnecessary death of eleven souls. Berg clearly weeps for the loss, and every frame of his film is filled with empathy and compassion, a reluctant condemnation of the Big Oil company men whose actions led to life lost, a rock jawed testamenr to the blue collar heroes who gave shot rays of hope through the darkest day with their brave deeds, and a celebration of the rip roaring set pieces possible in telling this story. Mark Whalberg has never, ever been better, playing the engineering honcho of te Deepwater, madly in love with his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter (Stella Allen) The early scenes build their relationship with near effortless interactions and a thoughtful, compassionate eye. From the minute his chopper touches down on the rig and it becomes clear that safety protocol has been grossly neglected, he is a bundle of nerves and fears for every life on board above his own. Kurt Russell is right alongside him as a dogged senior operative with a short rope and no time for the headstrong, greedy and unprofessional actions of Big Oil honcho John Malkovich, giving his best, and insipid work in years as a guy who plainly and simply doesn’t care, putting everyone in harm’s way in the process. The best and most surprising performance of the film comes from Gina Rodriguez though, an actress who has mostly swam under my radar up until this point. Playing another senior engineer, her raw terror and naked uncertainty in the face of looming calamity and possible death is rough to watch, uterly convincing and made me want to just give her a big hug. If her work here is any indication of where she’s headed, make way folks, because we’re in for great things. The cast also extends into terrific further work from Ethan Suplee, J.D. Evermore, James Dumont, Dylan O Brien, Berg himself in a quick cameo, and many more. 2010Berg wisely wraps the story up not with one final action sequence, but with a hair raising emotional gut punch that tallies the loss of life and psychological damage of such an event with the care required. There is one final action beat to then story, but it’s swift, necessary and sensible, never feeling overblown. The story is kept wisely focused on the people trapped aboard this explosion waiting to happen, their struggles and efforts in the forefront. When the fireworks do show up, they’re not to shock and awe the audience, or for cheap thrills, they serve only to illustrate such an event in a minimal fashion, which is still a deafening roar. My kind of disaster/procedural story, and one of the best so far this year.