Alex Garland

Men

01/06/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

What is it about writer/director Alex Garland? He’s a man who continually comes up with great ideas, but from his collected works, I’d be hard pressed to pick out one film that’s truly satisfying. Men is a good case in point. For a good two thirds of this atmospheric folk horror tale, I’m absolutely loving it.

But then…

Harper (Jessie Buckley) has recently been through a tough time. She’s mourning her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), and is haunted by the idea that he’s committed suicide because she wanted to divorce him. Badly in need of respite, she heads off to a remote country guesthouse in the hope that a bit of solitude will help to heal her wounds. There, she is greeted by the owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a plummy, officious sort who playfully chides her for helping herself to an apple from his tree when she arrives. ‘Forbidden fruit and all that.’

Harper decides to take a walk in the countryside, (in a glorious extended sequence that really shows off the skills of cinematographer, Rob Hardy) and begins to think that she may be on the road to recovery. But then she has a spooky encounter in an abandoned railway tunnel and shortly thereafter, is terrorised by a naked man, who she thinks, may be stalking her.

As she encounters more of the local population (nearly all of them male), she begins to realise that this isn’t going to be the peaceful sojourn she’s been hoping for…

You’ll already have read that the film’s big conceit is that every male character (except for James) is played by Rory Kinnear – and played brilliantly, I might add, his creations ranging from a deliciously sinister local priest to a troubled teenage boy. Buckley too is terrific, in a challenging role where she is obliged to do most of her emoting in silence.

The film’s subtext would be perfectly clear even without the massive clue offered in its title. All of Kinnear’s characters are examples of toxic masculinity, the essence instilled from birth and manifested in different ways – in sarcasm, in outmoded chivalric beliefs and, sometimes, in outright violence. These men all stem from the same poisoned root. The idea is perfectly expressed in the film’s first two thirds and no viewer will be in any doubt about Garland’s intentions.

So why, I ask myself, does he decide, in the film’s final stretch, to double down on the message, presenting an extended body-horror climax that tells us pretty much what we already know. I feel as though I’m being bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with the same premise, as though I can’t be trusted to appreciate its meaning.

And then, there’s the final bit, which without any warning throws a handful of doubt into the mix, obfuscating that message and ensuring that I leave the cinema feeling confused.

At any rate, it’s a disappointing conclusion to a film that has me hooked from the start.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Annihilation

16/03/18

Another day, and another movie goes straight to Netflix. After Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox, this is starting to feel like a trend, though in the case of Annihilation, writer/director Alex Garland has been very vocal about his displeasure in learning that his brainchild would not be receiving a theatrical release. The reason he was given by Paramount? The film was ‘too intellectual.’ More likely, perhaps, is the fact that too many big-budget science fiction movies have failed to put bums on seats over the past year.  Whatever the explanation, the film’s expensive credentials are evident and it must be said that some of the more eye-popping effects sequences really would have looked a lot more impressive on a big screen.

Soldier-turned-college-biology-lecturer, Lena (Natalie Portman), is in a bad place in the film’s early stretches. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is a soldier, missing in action for over a year after being sent away on a secret mission – but she hasn’t quite given up hope that he will return. Then, quite unexpectedly, he does come back, acting very strangely, shortly before collapsing into a coma. On the way to the nearest hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by soldiers and Lena and Kane are rushed to a secret facility in Florida, where Kane is put on life support. Lena meets scientist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells her about ‘The Shimmer’ – a strange, shifting dimension that has established itself in the Everglades after a mysterious meteor strike. The Shimmer appears to be constantly expanding and Ventress tells Lena that Kane was part of a team sent in there to investigate. The other members have all disappeared without trace. Ventress explains that she is planning to lead an all-female team in there in a few days’ time and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lena elects to go with them.

Once inside this unknown dimension, things begin to go very weird, very quickly. The team soon establish that here, species are getting their individual DNA all mixed up with others. This can be as enchanting as flowers sprouting multi coloured petals from the same stem, or growing into the shape of humans – but it can also be as sinister as a huge alligator which seems to have merged with a shark, creating a creature you most definitely do not want to spend any time with. As the team make their way closer and closer to the site of the meteor impact it begins to look as though their chances of surviving this mission are growing perilously slim…

Annihilation is a decent sci-fi movie, if not an exceptional one – and it’s nowhere near as effective as Garland’s previous effort, the criminally underrated Ex Machina. It’s refreshing though to see an action film that is predominately led by female actors, even if I really didn’t learn an awful lot about their respective characters – and there’s one particular sequence in here, featuring a mutated bear, that really did push the throttle headlong in the direction of terror. There’s an interesting conclusion too, which will doubtless prompt some discussion after the credits have rolled.

In the end, it’s hard to say whether this film would have done much business at the cinema. I actually doubt it. And, judging by what I’ve seen on social media, it’s getting plenty of  viewings on Netflix, even if most of the resulting comments are far from complimentary.

One thing’s for sure. It’s an easy matter to tune in and judge for yourselves.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ex Machina

06/03/17

There’s always the one that got away, isn’t there? I somehow managed to miss Ex Machina’s all-too-brief appearance on the big screen and I’ve been trying to catch up with it ever since, largely because I’d heard such good things about it. Discovering that it’s now available on Netflix was therefore great news.

Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, is a deceptively simple affair, pretty much a four-hander, laid out with cool clear linearity. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he has won the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to the remote hi-tech hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the CEO of the world’s biggest internet company and to spend a week with him, getting a sneak preview of his latest creation. This turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander) an AI, and one so convincing that Nathan challenges Caleb to apply the Turing Test to her – designed to examine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Is she good enough to pass?

Caleb goes to work and soon establishes a powerful rapport with Ava – but, as he constantly asks himself, is she genuinely interested in him, or simply using him as a way of staying alive? Because, as Nathan makes all too clear, if she fails the test then she is destined to be replaced by a newer, better model. Nathan, meanwhile, is prone to drinking himself half to death and dancing around the apartment with his live-in housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). As the story develops it becomes apparent that nothing in this  state-of-the-art home is quite what it appears to be… and soon even Caleb is questioning his own existence.

The beauty of Ex Machina is the way in which it expertly unfolds its intriguing story, constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, until you don’t really know what to expect next. Vikander offers a fascinating performance in the central role, and Gleeson, Isaac and Mizono are all totally believable. If like me, you missed this film first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. It’s really rather good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney