Friday, February 23

Annihilation Review


Dir: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac 

Science fiction offers a medium to explore the fantastic, the extraordinary elements that compose advancements in tech, explorations into space, and numerous other insights that pose humanity against the unknown. 

Director Alex Garland challenged the concept of humanity and artificial intelligence with the exceptional, one of the best films of 2014, “Ex Machina”. Mr. Garland returns to science fiction with the new film “Annihilation”, an astounding science fiction film that refuses to play toward expectations or succumb to easy explanations. It’s exactly what science fiction should be.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist who is mourning for her husband (Oscar Isaac), a military solider, who did not come home from his latest mission. Unexpectedly her husband returns, but he’s different. Before he can give any explanation for his disappearance he becomes extremely sick. While rushing to the hospital a group of government vehicles stop the ambulance and take Lena and her husband to an undisclosed location. When Lena awakens she is at facility, Area X, that is researching an unexpected event known as “The Shimmer”, a growing translucent bubble that has surrounded a small community with peculiar, deadly consequences. 

Alex Garland has already, with just a few films, demonstrated his undeniable skill with crafting atmosphere. “Annihilation”, amidst some stunning and startling imagery and some beautiful landscapes, somehow creates an environment of that oozes with dread and menace. There is uneasiness that is composed in nearly every scene, you can’t help but feel concerned for the group of women who have entered this chaotic, confusing world that is filled with mutated plants and animals. Garland deliberately paces the film with natural suspense, the world in the “The Shimmer” is alive and every place the women explore continues to prove more dangerous. 

The narrative never tries to easily explain away the ideas it proposes, it’s thought provoking concept driven theories add an interesting depth to the script. Also surprising here is how the film handles the emotional connection between characters, it creates aspects concerned with love, loss, indifference, change, and evolution. It does this while fluctuating between the genres of horror, romance, and suspense. Mr. Garland understands that the science fiction genre can sometimes create the strongest metaphors for life; with “Annihilation” you can feel the heartfelt connections associated with disease, death, and the mourning process. The director knows exactly what he wants and how he can manipulate it to lead the viewer into different places.

The cast is a nice combination of female actors, however the film mostly belongs to Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Ms. Portman is the emotional core of the film, the character that continuously tries to find reason with what is going on around her. Portman’s performance grounds the film with some kind of reality that keeps the heady material and intense imagery from becoming distracting. Ms. Leigh is the opposite, she is somewhat emotionless and cold towards the journey, operating purely for the reason of finding out what answer exists at the end. 

The film is based on a trilogy of books from Jeff VanderMeer, however those passionate about the source material may be surprised with the direction Alex Garland takes with the story. Still, what he does with the film is craft a unique vision that never takes the easy route. “Annihilation” is beautiful, ingenious, horrific, and deeply heartfelt filmmaking, a science fiction film that embodies everything that the genre should be defined as.

Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

Friday, February 16

Black Panther Review

Black Panther

Dir: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis

There are more than a few moments in director Ryan Coogler’s superhero feature “Black Panther” when the real trials and injustices of the past converge with the fictional lives of the characters living in this superhero universe, it displays a world unlike any world portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s refreshing, unexpected, and altogether necessary considering the divided world we live in today. “Black Panther” imbeds culture and tradition into every single frame of the film, displaying a Black world filled with rich environments, conflicted characters, and complicated scenarios all surrounding and socially aware of race, gender, social class, and history. 

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new King of Wakanda, returns home to the technologically advanced hidden African nation to oversee rule. However, T’Challa quickly realizes that rule in his country comes with obstacles, many from factions within Wakanda. The country has a material called vibranium that allows them to develop technology that far exceeds anyone else in the world. This brings two enemies into the conflict, both wanting to utilize Wakanda’s resource for their own deadly plans.

Mr. Coogler, who brought back the Rocky Balboa saga with the standout “Creed”, composes a Marvel film that has all the familiar  and cliché sequences one would expect in a comic book movie; fast cars, explosions, flying costumed characters with super capabilities are all on clear display. However, it also does something wholly different from most recent Marvel films; it explores the mythology of a culture that thrives with tradition and emphasizes it’s uniqueness in the modern world; the wardrobe, the ceremonies, the design of Wakanda all have strong visions influenced by African and African American imagery. It’s beautiful every time it’s on display.

The film understands the power of gender, utilizing female characters that not only support the male hero at the forefront but form the foundation for everything that T’Challa stands for. By his side, saving his life a few times throughout the film, is General Okoye (Danai Gurira) who is a strong, tough-as-nails woman that is the definition of fearless. Ms. Gurira has an exceptional presence in the film. Making the gadgets is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a smart young woman who knows exactly how to put her older brother in check. Ms. Wright is simply fantastic, a star turning role for the actress. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a spy who challenges T’Challa in understanding the role he has as King of Wakanda. To call her the “love interest” is a disservice to the role that she really encompasses. Nakia, played with passion by Ms. Nyong’o, is the connection to the real world, to the world that still struggles, to the people that still fight for the most basic human rights. 

Mr. Coogler separates his film from the Marvel Universe in another way by composing a villain that actually feels threatening, one that feels more than just another bad guy looking to destroy the world. Erik Killmonger is operating with a purpose, one that is directly connected to the past that helped in building Wakanda and completely influenced by the future that T’Challa is trying to protect. It’s great character development for Killmonger because it comes with realistic complexities such as the mistreatment of African American’s throughout history and the hope for a future where oppression will finally be challenged. This is the best composed Marvel film villain in some time.  Michael B. Jordan exudes confidence and has an intensity that shines when his character comes face to face with the Black Panther. Assisting Mr. Jordan’s character is another steady performance from Andy Serkis who is having all kinds of fun chewing the scenery as Ulysses Klaue. 

Race is of great significance in this film. It’s the pivotal narrative element that separates “Black Panther” from the other Marvel films because it is handled in such a multifaceted manner. We are provided a film that understands the affect of the past, how history has treated a people in unfair and unjust ways, and how the abuse of power has threatened an entire cultural way of life. That alone makes any film thrive with a quality that resonates far beyond the barriers of any genre, the fact that a superhero film embodies this element on a mainstream platform is a wonderful, and important, achievement. 

Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Friday, February 9

Streamathon - Black History Month


Black History Month (February 2018)

Preface: This is part of an ongoing blog series of curated movie marathons that are thematically or otherwise tied together. The other common factor tying these films together will be their availability to watch them all from the comfort of your own home on various streaming platforms. The goal is that writing this blog will somehow justify the excessive number of streaming platforms I subscribe to. The films will be found on some combination of NetflixHuluAmazon Prime VideoMubiFilmStruckShudder and/or Fandor. These titles will be available for the month that the blog is published. All of these subscriptions offer free trials so feel free to dive in and follow along… Have fun. Just don’t message me for my login information.

By: Emery Martin-Snyder

The celebration and observance of Black History dates all the way back to 1926. 50 years later, it would change from a week to a month. So I thought that this would be a good opportunity to look back at some great films made by Black filmmakers. While researching the subject, I had no intention of only including films that have race and race relations as their themes. I was genuinely just looking for good films made by Black directors. It turns out that these themes were unavoidable. I’ll let my readers extrapolate whatever sort of deeper meaning there could be to this fact…. In the meantime, just watch these flicks. 

The Stream

CHI-RAQ (2015
Directed by Spike Lee - Streaming on Amazon Prime

There are a lot of different ways that the story of Chicago’s high violent crime rate could be told. I’m so glad that Spike Lee decided to tell it this way. It’s flamboyant, audacious, colorful and beautiful…. And oh yeah, it rhymes. Its story comes from a Greek comedy by Aristophanes called ”Lysistrata” about the women of the Athenian and Spartan soldiers withholding sex in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. Lee uses this story to illustrate present day systematic injustices and take jabs at the politics of privilege that have led to the violent landscape that Chicago finds itself in.

Directed by D’Urville Martin – Streaming on Fandor

The New York Times once called this film the “Citizen Kane of Kung Fu pimping movies.” And although I’m not sure I really agree with the comparison, this flick is one hell of a ride. It’s full of continuity and other technical mistakes (you can clearly see the boom mike in one shot).  But I’m going to appreciate any story about a pimp who sends his prostitutes to “karate school”.  This film was made on a $100,000 budget and written and directed by its stars. D’urville Martin, a common fixture in both Blaxploitation and mainstream Hollywood films alike directed it and starred as the antagonist, Willie Green. The original screenplay was written by supporting actor Jerry Jones and adapted by Dolemite himself, Rudy Ray Moore. This is impressive because a lot of the most well-known Blaxploitation films were not actually made by African Americans. Jack Hill and Larry Cohen made a good career making these films in the 70’s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hill’s FOXY BROWN (’74) and I think that Cohen’s BLACK CAESAR (’73) is a masterpiece. But those films were exploiting a very different type of gaze than what we find in films like DOLEMITE or Melvin Van Peeples’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (’71). 

SIDE NOTE: SWEET SWEETBACK is also currently streaming on Fandor. But, if you’ve never seen a Blaxploitation film, please don’t start there. Somethings you just have to ease your way into.

Directed by Ryan Coogler – Streaming on Netflix

Before you hit up the multiplex to see Ryan Coogler’s addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, check this impressive gem of a directorial debut. This is the story of the last hours of Oscar Grant before he was shot and killed by B.A.R.T officers on his way home from celebrating New Year’s Eve. As tragic as this story is, I absolutely applaud Coogler’s instinct to tell an honest account and refrain from the type of hero worship you might have expected to find. Oscar is portrayed as a troubled and very flawed young man that was most likely true to his actual character. What is showcased most beautifully in this film are the relationships he shares with his girlfriend, his mother and his young daughter. This is the type of depiction that is seemingly necessary to remind some that his life mattered. 

Directed by Raoul Peck – Streaming on Amazon Prime

“White people are astounded by Birmingham. They are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars.”

This documentary tells the story of Black Americans through the lens of activist James Baldwin’s writings. Baldwin was a contemporary of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King and I think he took a far more poetic approach to race relations than those two. His perspectives are challenging and unapologetic and they tear at the very core of even the most progressive of us all. Essentially, we are asked to acknowledge and confront the very fibers that have woven together this nation. 

Directed by Kathleen Collins – Streaming on FilmStruck

This is the most cerebral film on my list. It’s a deep and intellectually philosophic look at the nature of relationships, art, race and gender as well as how those things interact with and inform each other. Collins’ script never takes on specific political or social leanings. Rather, it opens up the subversive causation of said leanings in the way that an artist husband and his philosophy professor wife would most likely discuss these things. 

Directed by Sabaah Folayan – Streaming on Hulu

This documentary covers the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown. I’m kind of a media junkie…. especially these days. This film kind of knocked me on my SJW ass. I was absolutely flabbergasted at the amount of coverage and information that had been missing from the bird’s eye view coverage of even some of the most left leaning publications. It’s composed primarily of footage taken from the streets during the protests with a healthy dose of interviews sprinkled in for perspective and context. I’m not quite sure if this was even the overall point the filmmaker was attempting, but I felt that this was just as much about media bias as anything else.