In Theaters

Many of us probably like to believe that we have reality figured out, that we know how it works and how the process of its unfolding takes place. But do we? Are we sure that the rules we believe apply are true across the board, in all situations and permutations? And what happens if something comes along that challenges those seemingly rock-solid assumptions? How do we explain these anomalies? What’s more, can we cope with such puzzling, unexplained phenomena, particularly if they significantly differ from our established worldview? Those are among the considerations raised in the gripping new sci-fi saga, “Annihilation” (web site, trailer).

When something unknown and otherworldly crashes into a lighthouse in a remote state park, conditions in the surrounding environment begin to change drastically. A phenomenon that comes to be known as “the Shimmer” encompasses the area, and, by all accounts, it appears to be slowly growing, consuming everything nearby. Bounded by an energy field characterized by an ethereal, rainbow-like glow, the Shimmer is a genuine enigma, one that top-secret government investigators desperately want to understand before it’s too late.

To get a handle on the nature of the phenomenon, the investigators establish a research facility known as Area X on the Shimmer’s perimeter. But, because the Shimmer distorts the operation of their monitoring equipment, they’re unable to obtain any meaningful readings about how it functions or what’s going on inside it. Thus the only way to find out about it is to send special ops military reconnaissance teams inside to gather data. The problem with that, however, is that all the teams that go in never come back.

Lena Kane (Natalie Portman), an intrigued biologist, is on the verge of discovering mind-blowing new insights about the nature of existence in director Alex Garland’s riveting new sci-fi adventure, “Annihilation.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Circumstances change, however, when something unexpected happens – one of the team members from the most recent expedition, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac), mysteriously returns after a year’s absence, long past the time when he was presumed missing and dead. Kane is now different, though, seemingly disoriented and suffering from memory loss, not only of his time in the Shimmer but also about much of his life before he left on his mission. This proves seriously disturbing to his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier turned biologist, who’s stunned by his return and can’t fathom his current state of mind. But, then, that’s not entirely surprising, given that she knew nothing of the nature of his mission before he departed. Nevertheless, she would still like answers about his disappearance and how he came to be how he is now.

Lena has little time to get her answers, though, as Kane quickly falls seriously ill, hemorrhaging severely. She contacts paramedics, who rush him off to the hospital. But, along the way, the ambulance encounters a convoy of black SUVs that force it off the road. Kane and Lena are forcibly removed from the ambulance and whisked away to an unknown location.

Biologist and former army specialist Lena Kane (Natalie Portman, left) is puzzled by the mysterious return of her missing husband (Oscar Isaac, right) after a year’s absence on an enigmatic classified mission in the captivating new sci-fi saga, “Annihilation” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Upon awakening from an apparent involuntary sedation, Lena finds herself in Area X. She’s met and questioned by a cryptic psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress asks Lena about her husband, the circumstances of his return and his confused state of mind, but she’s unable to offer much in the way of insight. And so, with that, the mysterious doctor decides to inform Lena where she is, showing her the unexplained phenomenon that looms just beyond Area X’s perimeter.

After seeing the Shimmer, Lena is captivated, despite the disappearance of virtually all members of the previous expedition teams. Ventress says that she and her colleagues believe the mission specialists were either killed or went mad and killed themselves, a circumstance that makes Kane’s return that much more mystifying. Ventress also reveals that she’s organizing a new team to enter and explore the luminous spectacle, one this time made up entirely of scientists, including herself, anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). Given her expertise in biology and her vested interest in a hope for her husband’s recovery, Lena asks if she can join the team, to which Ventress readily agrees.

Within days, the team embarks on its journey into the Shimmer – and the vast unknown. What they find defies virtually everything they know about science and the nature of existence, presenting them with an even bigger puzzle than anything they’ve encountered up to that point. To say more would reveal too much about the mystery of the Shimmer and what it represents, but suffice it to say that the discoveries that come out of the expedition will turn all of our theories about evolution, physics and even metaphysics upside down and inside out, presenting an entirely new way of looking at the nature of existence. The boundaries between science and spirituality will become blurred – and fused – in utterly remarkable ways, providing stunningly brilliant and insightful revelations about what actually constitutes creation – and annihilation – and what it means to experience them firsthand.

A team of intrepid scientists, including (from left) psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), biologist Lena Kane (Natalie Portman), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), embarks on an exploration of a mysterious luminous phenomenon known as “the Shimmer” in director Alex Garland’s latest release, “Annihilation.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Annihilation” is a mind-blowing, sophisticated sci-fi tale masterfully brought to the screen by director Alex Garland, who has upped his game considerably here, even outstripping the success of his previous work, “Ex Machina” (2014). The film’s richly layered, deftly nuanced script, combined with gorgeous cinematography and an inventive production design, make for riveting viewing. Note, however, that this is not a picture to be watched casually or when easily distracted. An attentive screening is sure to reward viewers, providing endless captivation and much to think about in the film’s wake, possibly forever changing one’s views on the heady subjects it so eloquently addresses.

As wondrous as we already believe existence to be, it has the potential to be far more astounding than we can possibly imagine, and “Annihilation” skillfully opens the door to give us but a mere glimpse of what’s potentially in store. Admittedly some may find these notions somewhat jarring or upsetting, but, for those who appreciate and willingly embrace the opportunity to expand their consciousness, this film provides the means to adopt a glorious – and entirely new – worldview. 

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Something To Celebrate?

Celebrations are supposed to be festive occasions, times for us to enjoy ourselves and recognize the accomplishments of others. They’re a good time to let our hair down, to open ourselves up to others and, one would hope, to have a good time. But sometimes we might expose our inner selves a little too much at these events, revealing more than we originally may have planned. So it is for the guests at the darkly satirical new comedy of ill manners, “The Party” (web site, trailer).

When Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a newly appointed Minister of Health, hosts a small celebratory reception for a select group of friends in her London home, she approaches the soiree with the best of intentions. She attends to every detail, including making the food herself. But handling the arrangements on her own comes as no surprise, given that Janet’s woozy, withdrawn husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), a university professor, is preoccupied with obliviously imbibing on wine and spinning an eclectic selection of classic rock songs on the living room turntable.

Such is the setup when guests begin to arrive, including April (Patricia Clarkson), Janet’s outspoken cynical best friend, and her hopelessly cheerful boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a life coach steeped in seemingly every New Age discipline conceivable; Martha (Cherry Jones), a women’s studies professor and colleague of Bill’s, with her young partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), in tow; and Tom (Cillian Murphy), a manic, uptight, cocaine-snorting high-finance professional who obviously has some sort of issue on his mind, especially when he removes his suit jacket, revealing a pistol and holster.

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas, right), a newly named Minister of Health, and her best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson, left), confront a guest at a social affair gone awry in the new black-and-white satire, “The Party.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

With all but one guest – Tom’s tardy girlfriend, Marianne – present, April proposes a toast to Janet’s good fortune. But Janet’s success is only one of several pieces of news revealed at the party. At the risk of stealing the host’s thunder, Martha announces that her partner is pregnant and that the couple is about to become the proud parents of triplets. But, if that weren’t enough, Bill has an announcement of his own, too – the revelation that he’s terminally ill, news that helps to explain his uncharacteristic behavior – and that puts quite a damper on the festivities.

Needless to say, Bill’s announcement shocks everyone, but it’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In short order, he makes additional unexpected declarations, setting in motion a chain reaction of revelations – some intended, some not – among all of the guests that take the event in directions no one, least of all Janet, ever saw coming. Some of these pronouncements involve the disclosure of individual secrets, while others unwittingly expose previously unknown involvements among the guests – connections that no one ever knew anything about.

Uptight high-finance banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) has anything but a good time at director Sally Potter’s latest offering, “The Party.” Photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

As more and more secrets are revealed, relations among the guests become strained as the event’s prevailing tone grows increasingly shrill. With nerves frayed, raw emotions emerge, prompting this band of intellectuals to quickly chuck their logic and rationale in favor of more base feelings. As everyone attempts to sort out his or her reactions, Gottfried tries to intervene, serving as a sort of impromptu sounding board or father confessor. But even his attempts at being a calming force are no match for the uncensored sentiments swirling about. And, as viewers need to bear in mind, as the stakes get raised, a gun is still present on the premises.

So how do things get so out of hand? Listen to what the characters have to say about themselves and how they conduct their lives. The seemingly more restrained statements they make amidst the cavalcade of emotions are quite telling, revealing them to be far different people from whom they claim to be. Keeping up such façades takes considerable effort on their part, not unlike the strain placed on a seawall holding back an overwhelming volume of water that’s just waiting for one small crack to emerge and spring a leak. In this case, though, there has been so much held back for so long that it’s unclear whether the flood can be contained once unleashed. “The Party” thus illustrates what it means to be authentic – and what can happen when we’re not.

Despite some occasional pacing issues and a few instances where cynical satire spills over into outright nastiness, this wry, witty account of a celebration gone terribly wrong features an excellent script, a marvelous ensemble cast and stunning, poignant black-and-white cinematography. There’s plenty to chew on with this offering, from the incisively written dialogue to the razor sharp insights to the big laughs that result from many of its one-liners. While this project would probably work better as a stage play, it nevertheless generally delivers the goods in its on-screen format and does so with a positively wicked sense of humor.

Partners Martha (Cherry Jones, right) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer, left) wrestle with issues regarding the impending birth of their triplets in the revelatory new satire, “The Party.” Photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Towing the party line – be it of a political nature or of the personal images we envision of ourselves – can require much effort, especially if we go about it in an inauthentic or hypocritical way. Sooner or later, such discrepancies and/or lack of integrity will surface – and probably at an inopportune time, when we least expect it. And there’s nothing to celebrate in any of that.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

The Cost of Not Caring

How we treat those close to us often speaks volumes about how we care about others in the wider world, even if the parallels aren’t patently obvious. The compassion, caring and courtesy – or lack thereof – that we show them is quite telling, even if we can’t or don’t want to see it for ourselves. Whether such concerted attentiveness or deliberate slights occur on an individual or collective scale, their presence and expression are nevertheless undeniable, as seen in the troubling new Russian drama, “Loveless” (“Nelyubov”) (web site, trailer).

When Zhenya and Boris Sleptsov (Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin) plan to divorce, the upwardly mobile Moscow couple meticulously plans the dissolution of their marriage with one exception – what to do about their 12-year-old son, Aleksey (Matvey Novikov). In many situations like this, couples often squabble over custody, namely, who gets the child. But, in this case, there’s a twist – neither of them wants the boy, and they each look for ways to pawn him off on one another or a third party. (Some parents.)

Of course, it’s probably hard to plan for your son’s well-being when you’re busy with other, more pressing concerns. Zhenya, for example, is preoccupied with running her salon and spending time with her new boyfriend, Anton (Andris Keyshs). Boris, meanwhile, quietly tries to figure out how he can hold on to his job, given that he works for a company owned by Christian fundamentalists obsessed with employing only happily married workers. He’s also concerned how he’ll provide for his new girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasileva), especially now that she’s carrying his child. Indeed, there’s so much to do that tending to Aleksey’s needs just gets in the way.

Twelve-year-old Aleksey Sleptsov (Matvey Novikov) faces an uncertain future when his parents divorce in the gripping new Russian drama, “Loveless” (“Nelyubov”). Photo © by Anna Matveeva, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

However, the divorcing couple’s attitude changes drastically when Aleksey goes missing. Suddenly Zhenya and Boris are worried – not so much about their son’s safety but about how his disappearance will affect them. The thought of a police investigation and all of the potential implications associated with it send shudders through the parents, each concerned that their hopes and plans for the future will be irreparably disrupted. Authorities assure Zhenya and Boris that Aleksey is likely a runaway, upset over the deteriorating conditions at home, and that he’ll probably come back in a few days, a scenario seen quite often in their experience. But, after those few days pass, there’s no sign of Aleksey, raising more troubling concerns.

With no sign of the child, Zhenya and Boris take additional steps to find him. They reluctantly pay a visit to Zhenya’s beastly mother (Nataliya Potapova) on the off-chance that he may have run away to live with her in the Russian countryside. They speak with Aleksey’s friend Kuznetsov (Artyom Zhigulin) to see if he knows anything. And they seek assistance from the coordinator (Aleksey Fateev) of an organization committed to conducting searches for missing children. But, for all these efforts, nothing turns up.

So where is Aleksey? That’s a good question. However, considering the treatment he received during the waning days of his parents’ marriage (and, apparently, even before that), who would realistically want to continue living under such conditions? And, faced with the prospects he was up against, who would want to return? That doesn’t definitively explain his disappearance, but it’s not entirely implausible, either.

Soon-to-be-divorced, self-absorbed salon owner Zhenya Sleptsov (Maryana Spivak) dreads having to care for her 12-year-old son, hoping to be free of the responsibility after she’s on her own, as seen in the Oscar-nominated drama, “Loveless” (“Nelyubov”). Photo © by Anna Matveeva, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

This scenario naturally raises the question, how did circumstances get to this point? Well, when one sees Zhenya’s mother, for example, it’s obvious Zhenya didn’t learning anything about effective parenting from the woman who raised her. What’s more, when one looks at the unrestrained materialism that Zhenya and Boris pursue, it’s apparent that the responsibilities that come with being parents aren’t nearly as entertaining as all the shiny new toys that their affluence now affords them. And, when one takes such unconcerned, self-absorbed attitudes and enlarges them from an individual to a collective scale, it’s easy to see how they would come to plague the downtrodden of an entire community, a sentiment echoed in the film through periodic news reports about the inadequate response to the plight of ethnic Russians living in nearby Ukraine. With attitudes like this, is it really all that surprising to see how events transpire as they do?

“Loveless” sends a pointed message about the fallout of what comes from a deliberate lack of compassion. It presents a raw, cold treatise on the perils of self-absorption, one that’s sometimes difficult to watch and sometimes hard to believe but all too often right on the mark when it comes to its depiction of the slow but relentless erosion of qualities like courtesy, consideration and compassion. The pacing is a bit slow at times, and some of the cultural references are likely lost on non-Russian audiences. But the overall message is clear and undeniable – and not limited to the film’s country of origin.

Despite the picture’s daunting nature, it’s truly powerful, something widely recognized during the recently completed awards season. “Loveless” earned best foreign language film nominations in the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Independent Spirit and Academy Awards competitions. It also received a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the event’s Jury Prize. In addition, the National Board of Review named the picture one of 2017’s top 5 foreign films.

Boris Sleptsov (Aleksey Rozin), a soon-to-be-divorced father, is more concerned about keeping his job than the welfare of his 12-year-old son, a worry addressed in the new Russian drama, “Loveless” (“Nelyubov”). Photo © by Anna Matveeva, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The cost of a lack of compassion can be considerable, often in ways we may not initially see. But, if left unchecked, the price in the long run can be quite high, in many ways – one that we might not want to pay. 

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here. 

My Oscar Scorecard

Which of my Academy Award predictions came true? Find out by reading “How’d I Do on This Year’s Oscars?” by clicking here.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.