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Review: “Annihilation” is Trippy Transcendence

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Alex Garland proved he knows how to conceive smart, gorgeous, and intense science fiction with Ex Machina, but with Annihilation, he demonstrates that he isn’t just a flash-in-the-plan director. His follow-up film contains another heaping dose of profound characters, intelligent dialogue, and enough gorgeous and psychedelic sci-fi imagery to make the eyes refuse to blink. Even though Garland’s film is based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, he approaches the material as though he read a mountain of European sci-fi comics, binge-watched Fantastic Planet, or went on the best acid trip of his life. The results are nothing short of transcendent.

Earth has been hit with a strange meteor that collides with a lighthouse in Florida. From its arrival, an expanding barrier referred to as The Shimmer starts to claim the area around the state. Many teams enter to find out what is causing this phenomenon, but nobody comes back. Enlisted for the latest expedition inside is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier. When her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only survivor of the last mission and not in the best of conditions, she decides to venture inside to find a reason for the alien season. She’s accompanied by the all-female team of the shrill psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the kick-butt soldier Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the glasses-wearing tech Josie (Tessa Thompson), and the stoic volunteer Cass (Tuva Novotny).

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Naturally, weird stuff starts happening to the group once they enter The Shimmer. They start losing track of their memories, forgetting when they first set up camp for the night. They uncover exotic foliage and plant life, otherworldly in how it grows and contorts the environment. And, of course, some nasty mutations go on the offensive, including alligators and bears that don’t quite seem to act like alligators or bears. One by one, the crew is picked off the further they trek through the oddly infested lands to reach the lighthouse and uncover the mystery.

Garland is so confident with this story that he not only shoots it non-linear but even begins the movie with the ending, stating outright who died on the mission before we even see it. The visuals slowly ease the viewer into its worlds, both the internal conflict of Lena’s strained relationships and the weirdness of the Shimmer land. This is no mere monster island of creepy critters that want to repopulate their species or dominate human life. Without giving too much away, the entity causing the Shimmer has more in common with light refraction than little men from Mars that want to kill us.

But how could I possibly spoil the film’s unbelievable and mostly dialogue-free third act that is pure cinema ambrosia? What the entity turns out to be and the real intentions are revealed in a vivid experience of the most surreal, beautiful, and frightening of a dreamlike sequence. To even describe beat for beat what goes down won’t even come close to spoiling the visual splendor and chilling discovery of trying to figure out this puzzling picture. Any assumptions one might have had about where this story goes will melt away at this point in the film. I spoke with another critic on this ending who responded that he turned to his wife and stated that he hadn’t been this high since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And it’s an apt comparison for a finale that invites the audience to come closer with its weirdly intoxicating examinations of mysterious forces and our place in the world.

Annihilation encompasses so much of what makes science fiction creepy, emotional, and mind-bending. There’s been talk that Paramount had wanted to rework the film, fearing that it would be too intellectual and complicated for wider audiences. Perhaps it is, but it’s a film worth taking a chance on for Garland’s astounding vision that was not tampered with on the final cut. It is a shame that other countries will only be seeing this film on streaming services as opposed to the theater. A movie this grand and beautiful deserves to be seen on the big screen as Garland intended. Going back to the comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I heard tell that Stanley Kubrick’s classic would garner repeat viewings from audiences that would get high around the theater during intermission and come back inside to lay on the floor during the film’s mesmerizing second act. Is Annihilation that good? Let’s just say I wouldn’t venture into the alley behind the theater, but that I’d be finding a seat closer to the screen.

[author title=”About the Author” image=”http://popstermedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/mark_mcpherson-300×221-150×150.jpg”]Movie Reviewer Mark McPherson has been all about movies since working at a video store in his youth. His talents range from video editing to animation to web development, but movies have always been his passion to write about.[/author]


Box Office

“The Grinch” Steals Box Office, “Overlord” and “Spider” Left With Scraps

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The holiday Christmas movie season starts early as it usually does in November. Just one week after The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, along comes Dr. Suess’ The Grinch, the theatrical animated adaptation of the classic children’s novel, helmed by Illumination Studios of Despicable Me fame. The animated comedy raked in $66 million for its first weekend, well on its way to conquering its $75 million budget as the holidays roll on. Given Illumination’s track record with comedy among kids, expect the film to stick around for the next two months.

The rather high box office of Grinch stole the thunder of the other two films debuting this weekend. Overlord, a Nazi zombie action/horror romp, debuted at #3 with a domestic gross of $10.1 million, which is not exactly a strong opening for a film with a $38 million budget. But it could’ve been worse as The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, the action sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, premiered at #5 with a box office take of only $8 million on a $43 million budget. Don’t be surprised if you see these darker, violent films take a tumble coming into the holiday season that seeks more PG-13 genre films for the families to venture out to the theater for.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic, is holding firm at #2 on its second weekend with a weekend gross of $30.8 million, bumping its domestic total up to $100 million. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, however, isn’t doing so well in its second weekend. The Disney fantasy adventure only made $9.5 million over the weekend, a 53% drop with a domestic total sitting at a meager $35 million. Not a very strong take for a Disney Christmas fantasy that cost $120 million.

It’s no surprise, however, that David Gordon Green’s Halloween took the biggest dip of the weekend at 64%. It’s surprising the horror film is even still here at #9 in the box office, the domestic total now sitting at a very pleasing $156 million. Also holding firm once again at #10 is The Hate U Give, having made $26 million for only being in 1,100 theaters.

View the full top 10 box office weekend results below.

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch ($66,000,000)
Bohemian Rhapsody ($30,850,000)
Overlord ($10,100,000)
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ($9,565,000)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story ($8,015,000)
A Star is Born ($8,010,000)
Nobody’s Fool ($6,540,000)
Venom ($4,850,000)
Halloween ($3,840,000)
The Hate U Give ($2,070,000)

Next weekend will feature magical beasts versus dysfunctional families versus women robbers. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second film in the new Harry Potter spin-off series, will debut in 4,000 theaters. Instant Family, a family comedy starring Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg, will hit 3,000 theaters. Also debuting in 3,000 theaters will be Widows, the all-star heist picture directed by Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis.


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Review: “Overlord” is a Gritty, Gory Genre Mash

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Overlord is one of those delicious genre blenders that delivers World War II action and viciously gruesome body horror into a beautifully bloody cocktail of entertainment. In the same way that From Dusk Till Dawn convinced you into watching one type of film before switching gears, so too does this war film that soon mutates into an equally as frightening tale of science experiments gone wrong. And although the subgenre of Nazi zombies is a fairly small one, this is by far one of the most fun.

Starting loud and explosive, making great use of IMAX, we’re quickly thrown into the action with an interesting ensemble of soldiers tasked with taking down a Nazi control tower in French territory. Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is fearful of combat and reasonably so when everyone is shooting at you when making a rocky landing and losing more than half his comrades. His methods of choosing the least lethal options clashes greatly with the ruthless Captain Ford, played by a stellar Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell who has that same great level of grit in his performance. Meeting up with a handful of other soldiers, they secretly make their plans in a Nazi-occupied French village to assault the tower where the Nazis have established a base.

Though Boyce is prepared to take down the target, he’s not prepared for what he discovers underneath the base. The Nazis have a classic mad doctor hard at work on breeding the ultimate race of super soldiers. These monsters are not ready yet and Boyce, unfortunately, happens upon the stepping stones of mangled corpses, howling undead, and decapitated heads begging for death. Of course, this is all helmed by a nervous mad scientist, Dr. Schmidt (Erich Redman), and a sneeringly sinister overseeing Nazi Officer Wafner (Pilou Asbæk).

While the Nazi experiments are in desperate need of improvement, Overlord shoots straight for the guts with gusto when it comes to the action and terror. The US soldiers are portrayed as a lot of colorful characters, including the nasally joking Tibbet (John Magaro) that provides vital comic support. The Nazis are seen as unhinged evil, never wasting an opportunity to shoot a civilian in the streets or rape a woman when she is cornered. And the monsters all feel like brilliant works of terrifying body horror, where necks snap open and chunks of flesh fall off the face. Consider how when the French civilian of Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) gets in on the action; she quickly goes from fearful sister looking after her ailing aunt to a flamethrower-touting badass.

But what’s most remarkable about all this is how it never feels the need to blatantly wink with its theatrics, shying away from trying too hard to seem badass. This movie is badass and it knows enough not to amp up the humor when setting undead zombies aflame or watching someone’s body contort in unnatural ways. The tongue is buried firmly in cheek, chewing on its meaty set pieces of blood and explosions to stand firm without a knowing nod to the audience. Such earnest seems almost rare in films that want to replicate that grindhouse flavor of filmmaking.

Overlord more than earns its brutal showdown of fierce fights and abundance of firey blasts, putting in all the grunt work of a capable war and horror film. With the relatively fresh direction of Julius Avery, it’s a film that is smart enough to have faith in its grit of the disturbing elements from both genres that it never feels the need to spice it up too high with self-consciousness. And in its own weird way, it’s serious and subtle enough that we can buy into the fantasy of a Nazi zombie story told straight with character and cunning. After all, we’ve already had the over-the-top angle with Dead Snow. The time has finally come for this subgenre to be taken seriously. Or about as seriously as it can be taken.


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Big “Bohemian Rhapsody” Opening While “Nutcracker” Trails

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In weekend box office battle, it’s Queen who is king. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddy Mercury and Queen biopic, came in at #1 making $50 million domestic. With a $52 million budget, this is a very successful opening for the film, despite the mixed critic reaction. Falling just behind it with less than half the take is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s latest fantasy adventure debuting early for the Christmas season. The film did poorly with critics and even poorer at the box office, bringing in only $20 million which is not a good debut at all for such an expensive epic. Also just behind is Tyler Perry’s new romantic comedy, Nobody’s Fool, taking in $14 million, strangely low for a Tyler Perry movie, especially when you consider that higher budget of $19 million.

Since Halloween is over, it’s natural to see that David Gordon Green’s Halloween would dip in the box office and it certainly fell the lowest this week with a 64% drop. Falling sharply from #1 to #5, the film made $11 million for the weekend but it’s not a huge concern given the film has already made $150 million on a budget of $10 million. Almost tying with the picture is A Star Is Born, the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga musical drama that has proven to be a box office darling, earning $11.1 million over the weekend with a $165 million domestic gross. And still sticking like goo to the box office is Venom, Sony’s solo villain picture starring Tom Hardy, making another $7.8 million for a domestic total nearly at $200 million.

Aside from A Star is Born being the smallest drop of the weekend, it also tied for the lowest drop with Smallfoot, Warner Bros animated comedy that is proving to have modest legs to stick around. The animated film with the voices of Channing Tatum and James Cordon made $3.8 million for a $77 million domestic gross. And The Hate U Give, the racial drama, is still hanging in there at #10 with a domestic total now sitting at $23 million, rather strong for a drama that slowly rose up over the course of October.

Bohemian Rhapsody ($50,000,000)
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ($20,000,000)
Nobody’s Fool ($14,000,000)
A Star is Born ($11,100,000)
Halloween ($11,015,000)
Venom ($7,850,000)
Smallfoot ($3,805,000)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ($3,700,000)
Hunter Killer ($3,525,000)
The Hate U Give ($3,400,000)

We hope you’re ready for Christmas because those movies are going to start early. Next weekend will see the 4,000 theater debut of The Grinch, the latest animated comedy from Illumination Studios based on the classic Dr. Seuss book. But it’ll have some adult competition with The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story opening in 3,000 theaters (the sequel to 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Overlord, a Nazi zombie action picture, opening in 2,500 theaters.


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