Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Annihilation, director Alex Garland’s film starring Natalie Portman, bills itself as a science-fiction/fantasy flick.

It is indeed sci-fi/fantasy—but on top of that, it is one of the scariest movies you will see this year. It’s also a legitimate horror film.

This alien-invasion movie, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, explores themes of self-identity and love (as did Garland’s 2014 debut Ex Machina) while mixing in environmental terror involving nightmarish creatures and transforming landscapes. It also features a startlingly brutal take on the ravages of infidelity. And did I mention it’s freaking scary?

There’s a lot going on in this movie—yet Garland and company balance it all out to make it a stunning piece of brainy entertainment.

In an opening sequence reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, an object enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes to the planet. The zone surrounding the crash site becomes something known as The Shimmer, an environmental phenomenon featuring a visually swirling, bendy, translucent barrier no one can figure out. Numerous expeditions into The Shimmer have resulted in the loss of many people—but one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac), does return a year after his disappearance.

Kane is the husband of Army biologist-turned-professor Lena (Portman), and he doesn’t seem all there when he sits down at the kitchen table shortly after his mysterious return. He starts convulsing and spitting up blood, which prompts a trip to the hospital. Agent types overtake the ambulance, and Lena wakes up in a strange facility next to The Shimmer, in the care of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Before long, Lena is following Ventress into The Shimmer, accompanied by Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (the increasingly amazing Tessa Thompson). Carrying guns and rations, their mission is to reach a lighthouse near the Shimmer’s origin; collect data along the way; and, unlike most who have preceded them, return with their observations.

Fat chance: It’s crazy in The Shimmer, unkind in so many ways to those who enter. Among its horrors: terrifying videos left behind by former explorers; messed-up wildlife, including mutated bears and alligators; and a general tendency to make those inside it batshit crazy. There are at least three scenes in this movie that made me want to die rather than watch them, because they were so damned scary; I was uncomfortable during a good chunk of the running time. That’s high praise for a horror movie.

To go with the dread, Garland adds a layer of sci-fi and mixes in some scary elements involving the Lena-Kane marriage. The results are a movie that goes to great lengths to challenge your mind—as much as it freaks you out.

Portman is great—Isn’t she always?—as a person determined to find out the root cause of her husband’s illness, so much so that she will endure psychological and physical fuckery. As her cohorts, Rodriguez, Novotny and Thompson all have shining moments, while Leigh provides a nice anchor. While he doesn’t have much screen time, Isaac (who also starred in Ex Machina) makes the most of his moments.

While he’s only two movies into his directorial career, Garland is proving he’s capable of many things. He’s a first-rate sci-fi auteur; he’s no slouch with pure drama; he captures stellar performances. And, without a doubt, he possesses some major horror chops. You think I’m exaggerating, but there are moments in this movie that will make even the most die-hard horror fans cringe and squirm. I would love to see him do a ghost story or pure monster movie.

Annihilation owes a lot to Ridley Scott (Alien), John Carpenter (The Thing) and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—yet it also feels very original. It’s 2018’s first masterpiece, a rare film that is a shining example within many genres.

Annihilation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Terrence Malick has shit the bed with his third consecutive film: His latest cinematic effort, Song to Song, is a joke.

I am a card-carrying, Malick-worshiping super fan who is in pain watching one of my directing heroes lose his way. After the triumph that was The Tree of Life, Malick shot To the Wonder and Knight of Cups out his film-making butt—and I hoped that would be the worst of it. Alas, Song to Song, which is supposed to be about people having love affairs amidst the Austin music scene, is Malick’s worst … by far.

For starters, I just have no idea what the fuck is supposed to be going on in this thing. Rooney Mara plays some kind of groupie who hooks up with a record producer played by Michael Fassbender. Then she starts dating wannabe musician Ryan Gosling. Then Gosling dumps her. Then Natalie Portman drowns. Then Mara becomes the guitar-player in Val Kilmer’s band, strumming away and looking like an idiot. Then Kilmer cuts his hair off onstage with a big knife. Then Mara starts dating Gosling again. The fucking end.

There’s no script; this film simply features a bunch of aimless, good-looking actors and actress walking around with nothing to do. If you can’t tell, I’m pissed about how much this sucked! And for a film about the Austin music scene … it doesn’t really have any music!

Still … I will be the first in line for the next Malick effort. He’s a master filmmaker who has already made his mark. He can screw up 100 times now, but he’s still made some of the greatest, most-beautiful films ever made. Song to Song is far from being one of them.

Song to Song is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In Jackie, director Pablo Larrain addresses the terrible times following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the eyes of Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), the closest witness to the gory death of her husband. The film addresses notions never really discussed in film before, such as Jackie’s decision to march in the open air at her husband’s funeral.

Portman, after a little career lull, comes roaring back with an amazingly accurate portrayal. (She nails that beautifully strange accent.) Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as a justifiably angry Bobby Kennedy, as is Billy Crudup as a journalist doing an exclusive interview with Jackie soon after the shooting. The film accurately captures the look of the early 1960s, right down to Jackie’s pillbox hat.

Of all the films made about the assassination of JFK, this one is the most personal, and it does an admirable job of showing what an influence Jackie was while examining her icon status. Portman will most certainly get an Oscar nomination for this one—and it will be deserved.

Jackie is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

You can smell the fresh paint on the holiday toys while watching Thor: The Dark World, an enjoyable yet highly commercialized entry in the Marvel cinematic universe.

The latest installment is a step below Kenneth Branagh’s goofy and grand first installment. While the sequel is not likely to piss off superhero-film fans, director Alan Taylor is not going to blow many minds, either. It’s an OK placeholder flick while we wait for the next Avengers movie, due out in 2015.

Chris Hemsworth returns as the incredibly handsome man with long hair, a big hammer and impossibly silly dialogue. After the events of The Avengers, he’s fighting a war in some land seemingly named after a Sigur Rós album, while Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is trying to date new dudes back on planet Earth.

As for bad brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who owns the role), he’s doing dungeon time in Asgard (a land seemingly named after a mini rock opera by Rush), largely because of what he did to New York City.

Things come to a head when ancient villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, who looks silly here thanks to his makeup) awakens from his slumber and seeks out a powerful dark force called the Aether. With this power harnessed, Malekith looks to cause some deep trouble during an event called the Convergence of the Nine Realms, which sounds like it could be the title of a secret third side to Yes’ Close to the Edge.

OK, I’ll stop making progressive rock jokes. 

Jane, inadvertently, gets herself involved in the universe-threatening activities, and Thor takes her to Asgard, where she meets the parents, Odin and Frigga (Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo). Odin wants his son to become king and marry a goddess, as most kings of the universe would want for their children. Frigga seems indifferent and happy to have some girl time.

Hiddleston might actually be out-cooling Robert Downey Jr. in the Marvel universe. He’s a great talent, managing to make a malicious bastard someone who we strangely find ourselves rooting for. When Thor must call upon his nasty sibling for help in fighting Malekith, it’s one of those, “Oh, goody, goody!” moments that will have you rubbing your hands together with a sly grin on your face (perhaps confusing the person sitting next to you in the theater).

Minus Hiddleston’s excellent work, Thor: The Dark World wouldn’t be much of anything. Hemsworth is capable enough, but he’s starting to feel like more of a supporting player in the Thor movies.

I have read some fan chatter criticizing the relationship between Jane Foster and Thor, declaring that they have no real reason to be pining for each other. Here are a couple of good reasons: Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, the most handsome man on Earth, and the tremendously beautiful Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster! I, for one, see no further explanation for why these two would want to see each other naked. Makes sense to me.

The credits, in keeping with Marvel tradition, contain two additional scenes—one a few moments into the credits, and another at the very end. One of them features Benicio Del Toro, and it is very weird. The other is actually the real end to this movie, so it is essential that you stick around.

As for post-Avengers Marvel movies, Iron Man 3 is far superior, because it did new things with its character and messed around with the format. Meanwhile, Thor: The Dark World, while worth seeing, is part of a franchise that has lost a bit of its heft.

Thor: The Dark World is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews