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Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Jason Leigh’

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Two: you know, the fact that You Were Never Really Here is (famously) only showing at four Odeons in the UK neither surprises nor concerns me, particularly – both the film and its director have art-house critical darling written all over them. What it says about our culture, that we are so ready to accept that such a superbly talented artist is essentially only of interest to a niche audience, is another matter and probably too substantial to be resolved on a humorous film review blog.

What is, perhaps, slightly more worrying are signs of a tendency for films to bypass cinemas entirely and get their first introduction to the world via the bold new frontier of streaming sites. We are here – and I find myself obliged to abandon my usual principled circumlocution and refer to the site by name – in the world of the Netflix Original. Now, some of Netflix’s own films are cheap-ass potboilers, and even when they do spend a lot of money the results are not always impressive (Bright, for instance, apparently had a budget of $90 million). But this is to some extent a whole new ball game, for – unlike a traditional studio – Netflix is not concerned with individual ticket sales, and they seem more prepared to take risks.

Which brings us to the strange case of Paramount Pictures, Netflix, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The story goes as follows: Paramount agreed to back Annihilation, an SF-horror movie based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, to be directed by Garland (also responsible for the well-received but – if you ask me – slightly overrated Ex Machina). $55 million was spent; the movie was made, and previewed to some punters. The punters had issues with it, and Paramount demanded changes. The film-makers refused (I suppose there’s another discussion to be had about the pernicious influence of preview screenings on films: I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if they’d preview-screened Casablanca, no-one today would remember it at all).

At this point Netflix swooped in and a deal was struck: Paramount would distribute the movie in cinemas in the US and China, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Annihilation would effectively be a Netflix Original, despite having been made with that big-screen experience in mind.

Certainly I would imagine seeing Annihilation on the big screen would be a memorable experience, for this is a visually lavish movie, if nothing else. Natalie Portman plays Lena, an ex-soldier-turned-biology-professor (go with it) who as the story starts is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) on a classified mission some time earlier.

But then Kane returns, apparently from the dead, seemingly a changed man, unable to say much about his experiences, and rapidly falling extremely ill. The armed forces descend and both Lena and Kane are taken into custody, under the oversight of Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The truth is explained to Lena: an uninhabited region of swampland on the southern coast of the USA is now host to ‘the shimmer’, a mysterious, rapidly expanding zone which appears to defy the normal laws of physics. Numerous teams of soldiers have been sent into the zone to try and find the source of the phenomenon; Kane is the only one to return.

Lena joins another mission heading into the zone, a primarily scientific one led by Ventress herself. But the zone is a realm of mutation and chaos, where the laws of nature seem to be breaking down – can the team members even preserve their sanity, let alone their lives?

Annihilation is clearly the work of the same sensibility as Ex Machina: it takes some classic, maybe even well-worn SF tropes, and handles them in a stylish, cerebral way. Garland’s familiarity with classic science fiction has been clear ever since his script for 28 Days Later, which is in many ways loosely adapted from The Day of the Triffids; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 Judge Dredd movie. While Annihilation is ostensibly based on VanderMeer’s novel, suggestions that the movie draws on a range of other sources seem to me to be on the money.

It seems to me that Gareth Edwards’ Monsters has had some influence on the film, with its scenes of weirdly-hybridised ecosystems and urban desolation; you can also, perhaps, discern a more distant inheritance from the likes of The Thing. The film certainly sits comfortably within a wave of modern SF films which are visually striking but somewhat obscure in their storytelling – here I’m thinking of movies like Under the Skin, Midnight Special, and The Signal.

A number of people have said that Annihilation has at least as much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space as it does with VanderMeer’s book, and this strikes me as a very good call. The short story in question concerns the fall to Earth of a strange meteorite, and the insidious and gradual effects it has on the ecology of the surrounding area, to say nothing of the inhabitants. In addition to having very similar premises, both stories have the same queasy feeling of wrongness, of a world being twisted out of shape.

That said, while Annihilation does feature some interesting viscera, it is hardly visceral – as with Ex Machina, it is altogether too cool and measured for genuinely powerful emotions to manifest themselves. There’s no real feeling of tension of threat; even though the team are very likely heading into the zone on a suicide mission (no-one else has returned), there is no apprehension or foreboding involved.

(I suppose I should comment on the fact that the exploration team is made up entirely of women, although this is one of the elements inherited from the novel rather than an innovation of Garland’s. Does it feel like the movie is trying to make a slightly ostentatious and contrived pitch to a certain type of progressive audience? Well, maybe; for me it may just be that it feels a bit odd that the members of a science team are all packing assault rifles, as if this is necessary in order to make it clear that they are strong and independent women – I find the ass-kicking warrior woman to be as tedious a stereotype as her male counterpart. I suspect the film would feel quite different with differently-gendered characters; there is a lot to unpack here. I must further note that despite the predominantly female cast, the film has still been criticised on the grounds that Portman’s character should be Asian, and Leigh’s should be partly Native American, which if nothing else is a reminder that there is no-one more relentlessly uncompromising than the virtuous.)

Apart from its spectacular visuals, Annihilation‘s main virtue is its icy weirdness, for it never quite gets you where you live, and there’s not enough going on for it to qualify as an action-horror either. It is a film of ideas, and most of those ideas are fairly rarefied ones, about the nature of identity and what it means when this starts to disintegrate. Opinion, I suspect, will be divided by this film, especially by the closing section, which will either be a bravura exploration of complex themes or a borderline-absurd piece of pretentious artiness, depending on your point of view.

Has the cinema-going world beyond the US and China been deprived of a treat, given that Annihilation is only available over the internet? Um, well, maybe: certainly this film is frequently stunning to look at, and that would only be emphasised on the big screen. Worse films than this one will certainly get a major cinema release this year. But then it’s not really an issue of quality, is it, but rather one of how commercial a movie should be. Annihilation is somewhere on the outer limits of mainstream genre cinema, and I think it might have struggled to find an audience if it had received a conventional release.

I suppose in the end it is just the nature of cinema as a commercial undertaking: films are defined as successes or failures by their box-office take at least as much as by their creative achievement; studios don’t produce films to support the arts, they do so to make a profit. I suppose it is preferable to have the film-makers’ cut of Annihilation available to a wide audience by whatever means, than for it to be loitering on a shelf somewhere, or slipped out direct-to-DTV as a famous flop, or savagely recut to turn it into something more comfortingly conventional. I don’t think Annihilation is a truly great film, but it is well-made, full of ideas, reasonably well-performed, and has a very strong sense of what it wants to be; we need more films like this, and less designed-by-committee lowest-common-denominator movie-making. The fact that Annihilation hasn’t got a cinema release is a bit of a shame; if it came to be the case that films as quirky and unusual as this could only get an internet release – well, that would be very bad news indeed.

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I think it is reasonably well-known now that at one point in the late 1970s Tom Baker was trying very hard to make a Doctor Who movie, to co-star Vincent Price, but struggled to get the funding (as Baker co-wrote the script himself, it is perhaps for the best that the thing never got produced). At one point, he jokingly suggested his adoring public should send him five pound notes so that he could pay for the film that way. The result was, of course, that Baker had to spend even more money posting all the fivers back, as this was not an approved method of film finance. These days, of course, this sort of thing is all the rage, we just call it Kickstarter, and there are indeed people financing their films by asking people to send them money. One of them – and the first one I have seen – is Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.

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On paper, the plot of Anomalisa sounds deceptively straightforward for a Charlie Kaufman movie. David Thewlis plays Mike Stone, a customer service expert due to address a conference in Cincinatti. He is not a happy man, with all sorts of emotional issues weighing heavy on his mind, and an attempt to reconnect with an old flame concludes disastrously. Then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman planning on attending his presentation the next day, and the two of them shuffle towards the sort of intimacy perhaps only found by strangers who have very little in common but their choice of hotel.

However, the first thing you notice about Anomalisa is that it is an animation, not a live-action movie: and not just CGI, either, but painstaking stop-frame animation using miniature puppets. Whatever else you think of this movie – and I can imagine a wide range of responses, to be perfectly honest – the level of technical skill and attention to detail on display is more than a little mind-boggling. The film-makers never seem to be taking the easy option, with anything up to a dozen puppets on screen at any given moment, all fully animated.

There is of course a sort of instant disjunct between the film’s medium and its message, as two strangers having a brief encounter of dubious wisdom in a hotel suite is not exactly the stuff of your typical animated movie, and to begin with I thought that the film had hit upon a new way of making people think about the small details of life – things you wouldn’t think twice about in a live-action movie do take on a whole new cast when you see them being done by puppets. I thought this was actually the point of the film, because the significance of its most important conceit – the fact that every other character apart from Mike and Lisa has the same face and voice (that of Tom Noonan) – took a while to sink in.

Before that, I just found myself slightly bemused by the spectacle of puppets going to the bathroom, ordering room service, smoking cigarettes, and so on: there’s a sort of studied insignificance to a lot of Anomalisa. And then… well, I was put somewhat in mind of my trip to the bunraku in Japan – a traditional Japanese puppet show, rather distinguished by its high quotient of misery and ritual suicide amongst the puppets. You don’t expect ritual suicide from puppets, but then neither do you really expect a fairly graphic depiction of oral sex, and yet this is where the film ends up going.

Some things in life do not make great spectator activities, I would argue, and this is one of them, whether it’s being done by puppets or not. But opinions clearly differ on this topic, as Anomalisa won the (presumably much coveted) (wait for it) ‘Best Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction’ gong from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Hmm. Charlie Kaufman’s films are usually stuffed with odd moments but they don’t normally feel quite as self-conscious as this one. You can almost feel the film-makers’ sense of delight at doing something so bold and unexpected with this mode of film-making – but it’s almost as if they’re setting out to shock, which is never a very impressive ambition. Plus, I can’t help thinking that if Nick Park set out to make a stop-motion blue movie it would probably have better gags than this one.

Well, as you can probably tell, this is a fairly weird film in many different ways, and it’s not one that wears its weirdness lightly: it’s clear virtually from the start that this is going to be a film of Significance and Substance. This is not a lightweight or disposable film: if anything it is a gravitic Anomalisa (I feel obliged to apologise for that much-more-than-typically contrived and obscure pun), and not especially easy going. A lot of the drama seemed to me to be a bit short on the old objective correlative, too: at one point we’re clearly supposed to be delighted and moved by the burgeoning emotion and tenderness between the characters, but all that’s happening is someone singing ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ a capella. For the contrast between the style and the substance of the film to really work, the drama has to be convincingly naturalistic, and it just isn’t. (And in places it’s hard to tell whether it’s being intentionally odd or not: Lisa’s friend tells her that Mike is ‘gorgeous’, which is somewhat odd as the nature of the puppet means he looks rather like a cross between Commander Data and Jacob Rees-Mogg.)

That said, other than a brief interlude of typically Kaufmanic institutional absurdity – a visit to a functionary whose office is so huge he’s laid on a golf cart to ferry visitors from the door to his desk – this is a tightly focused story, even if the subject of that focus isn’t immediately obvious. Things which look like just being odd stylistic conceits actually turn out to be rather important to the message of the film, which is something to do with how we interact with each other as human beings.

I don’t think Anomalisa is quite as clever or profound as it thinks it is, and the film remains peppered with odd little moments and creative decisions which are ultimately rather obscure and often a bit baffling, but it’s still one of the smartest films I’ve seen recently, made with obvious care and attention to detail, and the central metaphor carries considerable power and emotional truth. I can’t honestly call this a great movie, but it’s never less than interesting to watch.

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