Natalie Portman

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

Jackie

24/01/17

Jackie Kennedy was a celebrated style icon when I was growing up but, I must confess, she’s somebody I haven’t given a great deal of thought to… until now.

Pablo Larrain’s somber and affecting film looks at her experiences during and just after the assassination of JFK. Framed by an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) it shows how her life was transformed and marginalised by her husband’s death. Indeed, within minutes of his demise, as his successor Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in, she suddenly, shockingly finds herself an outcast, a woman totally defined by her husband’s former role. Without him she is an encumbrance, an embarrassment, somebody deemed to be without value.

The film concentrates on her stubborn attempts to ensure that the memory of Jack Kennedy lives on. She insists that he is given a state funeral and that she be allowed to walk alongside her children behind his coffin in an elaborate funeral cortege – and she ruthlessly manipulates everything that is written about him and her.

In the lead role, Natalie Portman delivers an eerie impersonation, capturing Jackie’s style and her weird drawling voice with uncanny precision. It’s a barnstorming performance, one that is likely to win her a well-deserved lead actress Oscar next month. If the film itself does not quite measure up to that stellar performance, it’s nonetheless pretty assured, uncannily cutting between genuine historical footage and skilful recreations without putting a foot wrong. Just look, for instance, at the recreation of Jackie’s famous ‘tour of the White house’ television programme, which is chillingly accurate in every last detail. Most of the other actors have to be content with cameo roles but Peter Sarsgaard shines as Bobby Kennedy and there are winning turns from Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and from John Hurt as the elderly catholic priest that Jackie pours her heart out to in a couple of key scenes.

But make no mistake, this is Portman’s film and she absolutely relishes the opportunity to inhabit a role that allows her to stretch herself as an actor. If she does get to lift that Oscar statuette, it won’t be the night’s biggest surprise.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney