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Rating History

Annihilation (2018)
10 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Annihilation is many things. Beautiful. Otherworldly. Unsettling. Terrifying. Bizarre. Any many more. But above all it is brilliant. As horror, action thriller, high concept sci-fi and deeply introspective psychological study it works on every level. It's not a movie for the casual filmgoer, or one that is easy to wrap your head around. But for experienced viewers prepared to have their minds blown, Annihilation is a real treat.

The premise is that Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist who has lost her husband and travels into an area of altered reality called "the Shimmer" to learn what happened to him. No one knows to expect when they go in, because only one barely conscious person has ever returned. But nothing could prepare them- or the viewer- for what they find inside.

They're on Earth. There are touches of the familiar all around. Abandoned shacks, bayous, alligators. But at the same time the inside of the Shimmer is in many ways a beautiful and alien as Pandora. It's not often you feel compelled to comment on the vegetation in a movie, but the flowers and trees they encounter are simply gorgeous, filling the screen will a whirl of colors completely at odds with the film's tone. The creatures on the other hand are pure nightmare fuel. They're recognizable animals but twisted in horrifying ways that hint at the deeper corruption all around them.

Most of the best horror movies work because they stand as a metaphor for our deepest and most common fears. Alien was Rape. The Babadook stood for overwhelming grief. And Annihilation is about guilt, paranoia, and utter mental and emotional breakdown. It's fascinating and more than a little unsettling to watch how each of the main characters slowly become unhinged as they try and fail to come to terms with what they're experiencing. Some display an ever-growing sense of fatalism. Others flat out denial, or overpowering suspicion. In a movie where so much is utterly alien, their breakdowns are surprisingly realistic and nuanced. This could have worked solely as a psychological horror film.

But of course the filmmakers weren't content to stop there. There's extremely frightening imagery and bits of gore, used sparingly enough to retain their full impact. The found footage from a previous expedition is literally stomach churning and will probably be too much for many viewers. There are even good jump scares. And oh, how the movie can build suspense. As they go deeper into the Shimmer the tension builds and builds and is held so long as to be almost unbearable.

And the ending is simply beyond anything most viewers have ever seen. There are no words to adequately describe it, and to even try would spoil it. Suffice it to say that you will be in a state of utter wonder and bewilderment. There are many things about it I don't understand. But then they're probably not meant to be understood, or even possible to understand. The final act of this movie is Akira level mind-bending. It makes 2001 or Inception look simple and unambiguous.

I have my own interpretations of some parts, which I think are what filmmakers intended. But for so many aspects there are no firm answers, only endless possibilities and the questions they create. And that may be the true genius of this movie. For all the terror, the wonder, and the wonderful acting, perhaps what Annihilation succeeds at the most is how much it will make you think.

The War of the Gargantuas (Furankenshutain no kaijū: Sanda tai Gaira)
18 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Here we have it; another Japanese movie where guys in rubber suits fight each other and destroy Tokyo! Now I'm actually something of a fan of this genre, and I consider the original Godzilla to be a masterpiece. War of the Gargantuas doesn't even come close to Godzilla. It is an exercise in pure camp. But camp of course has an appeal of its own.
The plot is pretty standard Dekakaiju fare. A smuggling vessel is attacked by a giant squid. Then a hairy green giant appears, fights the squid, and sinks the boat. More sightings follow up and down the coast. Scientists dismiss speculation that this is the same monster they had raised years before (more on that later) at one point attributing a report from a group of tourists to a bad LSD trip. Soon, the not-so-jolly green giant comes to shore and begins wreaking havoc. The army drives him up into the mountains, where they nearly destroy him- but then a second, brown giant comes to his rescue!
The two Gargantuas, as they're called throughout the movie, spend several days lounging around a lake, until they have a falling out over the morality of eating humans. Spurned by his 'brother', the green giant makes a beeline for the ocean- looking like a mutated track star as he runs headlong across the countryside. Inevitably, the two duke it out again, devastating much of Tokyo in the process, and are both killed by an underwater volcano.
This film is a semi-sequel to incredibly lousy Frankenstein Conquers the World, although there's little continuity between the two. The word 'Frankenstein' is never used never used here. And when the scientists flash-back to the monster's early years, instead of seeing footage from the previous film, we're treated to new footage in which the infant Frankenstein/Gargantua looks completely different than he did in the other movie. There's also the fact that he's at least doubled in size, but never mind.
Of course the scientists tell everyone they can that the brown Gargantua poses no danger, and of course no-one listens. There's also the usual theory about the monsters' origins. It's conjectured that a piece of the brown Gargantua was somehow cut off, and when exposed to a source of protein, grew into a second, green Gargantua. This means that if the army blows them up, there could be hundreds of them! This information is by turns taken to heart and ignored by the generals.
Plus there's a fairly interesting bit about how the green Gargantua is frightened by bright lights. This results in the citizens of Tokyo turning all of their lights on during attacks, and allows the army to repel him with searchlights. Later, he loses this fear because he realizes that there tends to be food (i.e. people) near light sources. Personally, I think he stops being afraid of the light because the plot requires him to.
And when our heroes go to the lake to find and hopefully study the monsters, there are numerous hikers, campers, and even boaters enjoying themselves. If I heard that a man-eating aquatic giant was last seen nearby, I'd pick another fishing spot, but hey, that's just me. The only thing more ridiculous than the sight of all these tourists is the speech we get about "youth flourishing in the face of evil."
Overshadowing the not unexpected problems of continuity and logic, there's also the matter of the acting. The acting in most Kaiju (Japanese monster) movies is a bit stilted, perhaps a little too broad. What we have here is much worse. The American scientist (*** filling in for the late Nick Adams) strikes the wrong tone in every scene. He's cool and laid back when he should be tense. He's cracking jokes when he should be terrified. And he never once sounds like the kind of guy who spends most of his time in a lab. He comes across more as a playboy or a wise guy.
But it may actually not be the actor's fault, for this movie contains the worst dubbing job I have ever seen. Rather than try to describe it, I will give examples.
One villager on seeing the green monster emerge from the sea cries out "Hey, look at that!"
The scientist, planning their search for the monsters- "I'll go to the Japan Alps." "And I'll go to the beach." "Good." With a plan like that, the monster is as good as found.
Asked about the risks posed by their research, the head scientist assures the crowd that "We experiment only when it is safe."
The army publicly states that their attacks are meant to "prevent him from escaping to the sea- and to destroy him of course." It would appear that the Japanese Self Defense Force has placed Captain Obvious in charge of public relations.

After all the time I've spent listing this movie's failings, I would like to say that there are good reasons to watch it. Because the monster costumes are much lighter than those in other films, and allow more freedom of moment, the final battle between the Gargantuas is actually very well staged. I'm told that Quinton Terantino showed the actors in Kill Bill footage from Gargantuas before having them perform their combat sequences.

More importantly, this movie is simply so bad that it's kind of good, in its own goofy way. Most of the time I was more bemused than annoyed by the movie's flaws, and towards the end I found myself enjoying the experience. It seems that in its adaptation for American audiences, War of the Gargantuas was transformed from a fairly standard monster movie into a minor gem of unintentional comedy. It's a bad movie sure, but it's a Good bad movie.

Molly's Game
Molly's Game (2018)
43 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Molly's Game is as smart and stylish as any movie now in theaters. Part poker movie, part legal drama, part biography, it tells a deeply intriguing story about a fascinating woman, and is all the better for being mostly true.

Jessica Chastain gives a wonderful performance as Molly. She's smart, fierce, often funny, sometimes deeply vulnerable, and above all sympathetic. She makes you really root for a poker millionaire who by her own admission knowingly broke federal gaming laws. And why not? She lost her Olympic dreams to a freak accident, was repeatedly screwed over by her male associates, nearly killed by the mob, and after all that refuses sell out any of her clients for a better deal. The movie may work too hard to remind us too often that's she's a good girl who made some mistakes, but Chastain's performance sells it.

There's also some very good work by the supporting cast. Kevin Costner is cast well as Molly's insightful and supportive, if sometimes overbearing semi-estranged father. Idris Elba makes a real impression as her lawyer. Strait laced and honest to a fault, he makes a great foil to Molly's eccentric stubbornness. And it's his attempts to understand his seemingly irrational client that make her and her story unfold. And Michael Cera plays very strongly against type as Player X, a top Hollywood celeb and A grade jerk who plays not for money or love of the game but because he "enjoys destroying peoples' lives."

The screenplay and editing are superb as the acting. Molly's Game makes heavy use of flashbacks to slowly unwind its story, jumping from her career ending run on the slopes to her arrest, then back and forth from Molly's meetings with her lawyer to the games she ran. The structure really adds to the tension and keeps the audience guessing, while the frequent changes of scenery help it maintain a brisk pace. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin also does an excellent job of setting the tone. He knows when to be funny and when to be dramatic, or even scary. Surprisingly little time is actually spent in courtroom or talking to the feds, but the film still generates as much tension as the best legal thriller.

And the poker scenes are very good. Fast paced, boisterous, and featuring Molly's constant observations, they hold your attention and flesh out the minor characters without stealing the focus from the larger narrative. Watching this movie makes you feel like you almost know something about poker. A complete novice will learn just enough to keep track of the game while still being duly impressed with its speed and complexity.

At times there is a feeling at the back of your mind that maybe this is a somewhat sanitized version of events. I wonder if her adamant refusal to name names is purely a matter of principle, or from fear of retribution- legal or otherwise. I also find it somewhat hard to believe that someone of her smarts and sophistication wouldn't know to steer clear of big spending Russians from Brighton Beach. But then again, I suppose it's possible that someone on as many drugs as she was could make that mistake. And the fact that she didn't realize another regular was a federal informant lends credence to the idea.

Either way, there's no denying that this is a highly entertaining and very well-made film, and as true as anything from Hollywood ever is. If you're looking for something better than the average January fare and don't mind an R rating, then this is your movie.