Tag: netflix

MOVIE REVIEW Annihilation (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

There are two things that stick in my craw about this film, and both detract from how good it is.

Okay, so Annihilation is a pretty great science-fiction/horror movie; the latest film written and directed by Alex Garland – who was behind the incredible Ex Machina – and based on a book series by Jeff VanderMeer, the film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who is recruited to a rescue mission into a mysterious (and otherworldly) area called The Shimmer, the same area where her recently-returned husband also went missing a year earlier.

Accompanied by a team of scientists – played by a stellar cast of women: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny – Lena ventures further into The Shimmer to discover its origins and find out what happened to her husband (who, as mentioned earlier, returned) and the rest of his team (who did not).

The mission leads Lena to a lighthouse, where The Shimmer was first observed, and she discovers that the phenomenon is being caused by an extraterrestrial being – but not before losing the rest of her team, encountering an alligator with shark teeth, fending off a bear-crocodile-human hybrid, and watching one of her teammates turn into a plant.

Honestly, you need to watch this film to get the full effect – Annihilation is one of the most inventive science fiction stories I’ve seen in a while, and boasts a fantastic cast and a truly visionary director with an eye for dramatic, unique visuals (as well as a vibrant and engrossing score, courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury). And the good news is that if you have Netflix, you can watch it right now because they released the film on Netflix.

Well, except for in the USA. For some reason – and this is the first thing that sticks in my craw – Paramount Pictures commissioned the film with a not-small-but-also-not-big budget of around $50 million (USD), then held test screenings that showed it may be “too intellectual”, then a Paramount financier, David Ellison, demanded changes from the production team (including changing the ending), at which point they were met with a “hell no” since producer Scott Rudin held final cut approval and backed director Garland.

In response, Paramount Pictures announced in early December that they had sold the international distribution rights to Netflix, who released the film everywhere (except for in the USA) on March 12. If you think this sounds like the movie-making equivalent of throwing your toys out of the cot, you’re not wrong.

“But, Chris,” you may be saying, “this is all business, why do you care where it’s released? You got to see it!”

Well, for two reasons. First, and least importantly, I would’ve loved to see this on the big screen. It seems like a great number of the years biggest upcoming films have a science-fiction bent – just in the next three months, Avengers: Infinity War will surely traverse the galaxy, Solo: A Star Wars Story will delve into the Star Wars universe, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom promises more genetically-enhanced dinosaurs than you can shake a lysine supplement at.

But very few films released into cinemas could be described as thought-provoking, smart science-fiction. Annihilation is that rare film which offers visual spectacle on the level of any of those films and a storyline that actually dares to be profound.

And secondly – and this is the second thing that sticks in my craw – the cast is insane. Natalie Portman is great in the lead role, Jennifer Jason Leigh is in the middle of a renaissance following her supporting turn in The Hateful Eight, Gina Rodriguez is an award-winner for her role on Jane The Virgin, and Tessa Thompson is having a moment thanks to roles in Creed, Thor: Ragnarok and TV’s Westworld.

And in the era of #metoo, why wouldn’t Paramount Pictures wide-release a smart, thoughtful movie with a cast led by incredible women, that totally bucks the trend of everything Hollywood is accused of being?

It astounds me that Paramount cut their losses and allowed a bad test screening or two to determine how they handled this film. And in doing so, they missed the chance to be ahead of the curve, to be talked about as a a dynamic and diverse studio that is one of the first to embrace the direction of New Hollywood.

Annihilation is an astounding film. It just bugs me that nobody releasing it seemed to see that.

Annihilation is written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, and stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong. It is available to view on Netflix now.

REVIEW The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

There are any number of angles you could use as an entry point in to discussing The Cloverfield Paradox, the third film in the Cloverfield universe (a term used loosely, the way someone might describe a handful of mismatched dining chairs as a “suite”) that was released on Monday a mere two hours after the premiere of its first trailer during the Superbowl.

Directed by Julius Onah, The Cloverfield Paradox started life as a little film titled God Particle, and follows the crew of a space station – boasting the considerable acting chops of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz and Zhang Ziyi – using a particle accelerator to perform experiments in renewable energy.

However, one of the experiments goes wrong, kicking off a chain of devastating effects for the crew, while the husband of one of the crew finds that something terrible has arrived back on planet Earth. As a direct sequel to the first Cloverfield, I’m sure I probably don’t need to spell out what that something terrible actually is.

When it comes to this film, you could talk about the release strategy –  you could actually write at length about how revolutionary Netflix is for purchasing this film, then holding back any information about it, then premiering a trailer and releasing the film on the same day. And it is a ballsy move, one that should surely terrify traditional theatre chains.

In fact, I’d argue that – regardless of how good or bad the film might be – this was the perfect film to try this out with: a mid-level budget sci-fi with a better-than-needed cast that ties into an established franchise. I don’t know if this was the right way to release a film on Netflix, but I was very excited when it happened.

The other effect here is that it renders critics completely irrelevant. The role of critics in a film release is simple: critics attend preview screenings then they (and by extension aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes) provide an opinion on a film ahead of release that gives an idea of the collective thought on any title. Occasionally they can’t do this because critics are held back from viewing a film until release, which generally indicates that the film is not good.

By releasing the film the same day they announce the film, Netflix has bypassed both these stages and made the critical response irrelevant. Most viewers would have no idea going in that the film has a 19% critic score on RottenTomatoes.

If release strategies bore you, you could talk about the notion of requisitioning an existing film and adjusting it to fit something else, even if the original property doesn’t necessarily fit what you’re already trying to do.

As you watch The Cloverfield Paradox, it becomes clear that you’re watching two movies: one that was made before it was added to the Cloverfield line-up and one that was made after, with the space station stuff part of the former, and a few wedged-in references to the name – plus the handful of scenes on Earth – firmly part of the latter.

I’ve talked at length about franchise film-making in the past; this is most definitely not the way to go about it.

Look, if you’re talking interconnectivity, the best franchises are those that are planned well in advance. Look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the Star Wars universe, both of which are meticulously planned so that they make collective narrative sense. Or look at something like the Fast & Furious franchise, or even the Die Hard franchise. You don’t see the best buying finished (or half-finished) films and forcing them to fit a larger picture. Franchise films must be made to fit from Day 1.

If franchising bores you, you could discuss the cast. This is a very strong ensemble: Bruhl continues to impress, even though he didn’t have much to work with here, and Mbatha-Raw is an absolute star deserving of far more leading roles than she is getting offered. O’Dowd provides some much needed – albeit fairly wooden – comedic levity. And a later appearance by Elizabeth Debicki provides a spark that lights up the back half of the film.

You could even talk about the story. The Cloverfield Paradox purposely leaves us with a vague ending that ties back in to the start of this franchise, giving viewers the opportunity to spend their post-film time discussing what the ending means, how exactly this film fits, where in the timeline this film fits, what caused the events of the first film … a dozen discussion threads on Reddit are testament to the fact that this is already happening.

The Cloverfield Paradox provides so many talking points that it is easy to overlook one thing that not many are talking about: guys, the film just isn’t that good. The release strategy excites me, and I love the cast, but it’s all in service of a story that makes little sense and – worse – doesn’t really offer anything unique; it’s a kind of hodge-podge of outtakes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Event Horizon and Aliens, with visual cues from Alien, Gravity and Mission To Mars.

To borrow a phrase I read over the weekend: as a new way of bringing content to audiences, The Cloverfield Paradox is an interesting experiment in release strategy – and as an engrossing and entertaining sci-fi film, The Cloverfield Paradox is an interesting experiment in release strategy.

The Cloverfield Paradox is directed by Julius Onah, from a script by Oren Uziel and Doug Jung, and stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz and Aksel Hennie. It is available worldwide on Netflix now.

REVIEW Stranger Things 2 (2017)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

Among the many, many, MANY criticisms of Ghostbusters 2 – the 1989 sequel to the legendary supernatural comedy – maybe the most damning is that it had no teeth. Consider the hallmarks of the original: the sequel lacks the biting comedic (and somewhat satirical) tone, and trades in the spooky Zuul and the ominous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man for a kinda-creepy painting and some animated goo powered by the collective negativity of the city.

The sequel has no stakes. There is no threat. And where the original embraced the supernatural and saw it defeated by a group of unlikely heroes, the sequel trades it in for a cute story about the inherent goodness of people overcoming evil.

Of course, eight year old me didn’t care about any of that. I was just excited to be seeing a grown-up movie with my Dad.

I was thinking about the Ghostbusters films as I tried to evaluate the second season of Stranger Things. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the second season is a lot like that sequel. It has no teeth.

Okay, sure, it was a pretty good season of television. While I didn’t like it compared to last year, Stranger Things 2 was still a joy to watch, and came to life when it embraced what works, particularly the interpersonal dynamics of that amazing cast (side note: how amazing is Noah Schnapp, who was only a bit-parter last year as Will but was able to rise to the challenge this year and do so much more with that character).

But I felt like the show took a serious misstep in three key ways:

The villains didn’t seem as threatening.
Last season we had the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired demagorgon, a bipedal, fast-moving monster with the head of a venus fly trap if it was designed by HP Lovecraft. This season we had … like, smaller dog versions of that? Demadogs? Either way, the fact that they got the Gremlins treatment – ie we were introduced to a tiny, completely non-threatening version first – meant that they didn’t seem too ominous. And as for the Shadow Monster, a multi-tentacled tornado that looms over the town, I just felt the show didn’t do a great job of establishing what that creature was or what it wanted.

The new characters didn’t add much.
Ask yourself this: if you remove Max from the show and replace her scenes with more involving Eleven, and if you remove Billy from the series and replace his scenes with Steve with scenes of Steve-Nancy-Jonathan, is that a considerably better show? I say yes. Aside from that, I guess the other new characters were fine. Brett Gelman’s eccentric conspiracy theorist Murray seemed to serve a singular purpose, which was somewhat disappointing. Sean Astin’s Bob was kind of a dullard who was introduced purely so the writers didn’t have to kill a main character; the show is better if you give the Bob-Joyce romance storyline to Hopper-Joyce, with the added nuance that Hopper is hiding Eleven from Joyce too. And I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I wish the writers would have killed a kid.

(Note: I thought Paul Reiser was fine – and in fact, I liked that they pivoted away from the ominous G-Man that Modine played last year. #BringBackOwens)

Eleven was completely mishandled.
“Okay, guys. We have this amazing and mysterious character, played by easily the most talented actor on the show. What shall we do with her this season?” “Ooh, how about we lock her away in a cabin for half the season, then give her a terribly-timed bottle episode, before she shows up to conveniently save the entire main cast?” “There’s no way that will annoy our fanbase. Let’s do it.”

As I say, I still enjoyed Stranger Things 2 immensely – it will likely still be one of my favourite genre shows of the year. But it all felt a bit lacklustre compared to last year, and I think the hype and the hyperbole around the show has drowned out any meaningful analysis of what the show actually is: just a pretty good spooky drama, not an all-time television great.

Stranger Things 2 was created by the Duffer Brothers, and stars Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery and Joe Keery, with Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Sean Astin and Paul Reiser. It is available to view on Netflix now.

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