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Friday, February 23, 2018

REVIEW: ANNIHILATION is other-worldly but uneven

On paper, Annihilation is everything I want from a movie. The film stars a group of female scientists and explorers - a biologist, physicist, psychologist, anthropologist, and paramedic - venturing into an unknown phenomenon dubbed "the shimmer." Once inside the glimmering sphere that blankets a small piece of land in Florida, they reflect on the circumstances that led them each to accept the risky mission and confront the physical horrors that stalk them through the bizarre, mutated landscapes.

Much like the perilous creatures that attack the expedition at every turn, Annihilation has faced a number of challenges before its release. To start with, there's the inherent difficulty in an adaptation of the other-worldly source material. Director Alex Garland (Ex-Machina) penned Annihilation's script, which is a film adaptation of the novel by the same name from writer Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. When I read the book, it was hard for me to fathom how it'd ever translate to the big screen. The easy answer is that, for the most part, it doesn't - the movie feels more of an inspiration from the novel than an adaptation, which is probably for the best. But Garland's choice to cast Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in roles that were described in later books as being of Asian and Indigenous descent sparked controversy.

Once made, the film ran into post-production woes when Paramount sold its international rights. The decision was reportedly made after the film tested poorly in screenings with general audiences, and results in a fairly unusual release schedule, which gives Annihilation a theatrical release in the U.S., but a Netflix release only 17 days later outside of the U.S.

So, in spite of all those challenges, does the film deliver? Not completely.

That's not to say Annihilation doesn't have a lot going for it. Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny make up a mostly-stellar cast, particularly Rodriguez. The film's last 30 minutes are some of the most daring, original, and intriguing I've seen in years, and that alone may be worth the cost of admission. And above all, Annihilation maintains a unique psychological atmosphere a la The Thing, hovering somewhere between science fiction and horror. It's easy to compare it to films like Solaris and The Fountain.

Those above qualities are so exemplary, it's all the more painful to feel like the film doesn't entirely  live up to its potential. Where Annihilation let me down was in its characters, who are described as "broken" but barely given enough room to develop. The novel takes a fairly unique approach in designating each team member by her role: no one has a name, only a function within the team, like "biologist." It felt like the movie traded that approach for a lesser one: the characters get names, but beyond that, each character is labelled with a self-destructive behavior (e.g. alcoholism, self-harm). While the movie showcases external conflicts and bizarre visuals, mostly in the form of strange and mutated creatures or plant life, I would have gladly traded some of that to spend more time mid-movie with the characters' internal struggles as they take in the mission through their own lenses, rather than a bit of expository dialogue to label each of them in a matter of seconds. The movie felt like it had a lot to say about depression and mental illness, but it also barely scratched the surface with anyone but it's lead character.

Which brings me to the most difficult element of Annihilation for me. I don't have strong feelings about Portman's abilities as an actress, save for enjoying her in Black Swan. But something about her performance in this movie felt off from the start and only got more distracting as the film went along. There were moments where I felt like she was still in character as Jackie Onassis but was suddenly wandering an alien-like terrain with a gun in hand. It was a very theatrical performance that somehow registered as insincere. As a result I only ever saw her as Natalie Portman Acting and never as the story's protagonist, and the emotional connections  didn't land.

I've also seen this mentioned from other critics, and it's worth noting: Annihilation is not easy to watch in a crowded, restless theater. While those around me were mostly engaged, the film's somewhat uneven pacing and more unusual visuals provoked a lot of mid-movie discussion among viewers around me. About halfway through the movie, I began wishing I had the option to watch on Netflix instead, but the visuals are better served on a big screen. If you've got the option to see it in a fairly empty theater, that's probably your better bet.

My expectations for Annihilation were probably too high, but I wish it'd taken a little more from the spirit of the book and spent less time on CGI'd landscapes and creatures lurking in the night. The film's second act spent a little too much time on the external threats, sacrificing character development as a result. But days later, I'm still thinking about the film's ending, which was provocative, bizarre, and engaging.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The GeekRex Podcast Episode 151: The 2017 Rexies!

It's that time of year, folks! The most coveted awards of the season are here, the Rexies. We run down our nominees in comics, TV, and movies and before the night was over, there were a couple big surprises–including our first unanimous pick! Here are our nominees, but you'll have to listen to the episode to hear who has won the highest prestige awards around!

  • Baby Driver
  • Call Me By Your Name
  • Lost in Paris
  • The Shape of Water
  • The Square

  • American Horror Story: Cult
  • Bojack Horseman
  • The Good Place
  • Legion
  • Twin Peaks: The Return

  • Aubrey Plaza - Legion
  • Jennifer Lawrence - mother!
  • Michael McKean - Better Call Saul
  • Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water
  • Tiffany Haddish - Girls Trip

  • Black Hammer
  • Kill or Be Killed
  • Klaus and the Crisis on X-Masville
  • Mister Miracle
  • No Mercy

  • Dustin Nguyen - Descender
  • Ed Piskor - X-Men: Grand Design
  • Mark Russell - The Flintstones
  • Rich Tommaso - Spy Seal
  • Tom King - Mister Miracle

You can listen below, or subscribe on iTunes to never miss an episode! If you like the show, or have any comments or ideas, we'd love to hear them! Check us out on Facebook or Twitter. See you next week for our annual Oscars predictions episode!

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: BLACK PANTHER is a piece of history you really want to be a part of

We’ve been through a lot together, Marvel Studios and I. The end of two presidencies, the changing face of how summer blockbusters are formulated – everyone needs a shared universe these days, after all. But for all that time and for all those movies, little has changed at the core of most Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
Hollywood has had an ongoing and regrettable history of playing it as safe as can be, with the idea that the only bankable stars are, with some rare exception, one default setting – and that’s something that I think has nagged Kevin Feige for some time in his otherwise pretty miraculous tenure at head of Marvel Studios. In a pretty conservative environment, to some degree Marvel is about as reserved as it gets, despite how visionary these interconnected films are on paper. They have increasingly diverse casts (see: Spider-Man: Homecoming and others), but they always center on the heroes journey of a very specific type of character, both in-story and in their real world context. When I reviewed Doctor Strange last year, I believe I mentioned at some point Marvel’s “Han Solo problem”, in that a large swath of their lead heroes have a very snarky, rogue-ish quality to them (yes, Steve Rogers is the exception). These heroes also undergo pretty much the same heroes journey, where they arrive as flawed men, but carry around the weight of destiny until they eventually fulfill it. They’re also all white guys. After a while the tedium with this consistent return to the same well really does start to wear one down.
Black Panther, much like last year’s Wonder Woman, provides a bit of a new spark. Though while Patty Jenkins’ big superhero standout last year was more effective as a rallying cry than any real innovation on-screen, Marvel has turned the keys over to Ryan Coogler, and in so doing, he gets an opportunity to turn their formula inside out and in some ways produce what is surely their most vital origin picture.
Coogler’s debut feature with the studio picks up where Captain America: Civil War left us, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) taking over the reign of Wakanda after the murder of his father at the hands of Zemo. After being crowned king, his advisers inform him that Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) will be making a black market deal selling Vibranium to a North American buyer in South Korea. With the assistance of his tech-wiz sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), spy ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the General of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the hands-on monarch heads out on a very James Bondian-style mission to bring the newly empowered Klaue, who has long been a wanted fugitive in Wakanda, to justice. But what T’Challa doesn’t know is that the villain is in league with a mysterious young assassin named Erik (Michael B. Jordan) – who has long-planned for a confrontation with the king, and may very well destroy everything the hidden nation has built.
Speaking of that nation, let’s start there. One of the most striking narrative backbones of Black Panther is how well conceived Wakanda is as a living, breathing place. While Marvel and other studio’s superhero films have produced fictional fantasy lands before, they’ve typically been not much more than paper-thin excuses for very good actors to wear a variety of garish costumes, but there’s little else there of real worth. On the other hand, this afro-futurist nation is altogether something different. Granted, Wakanda is benefited by the sheer amount of time we spend there (80% of Black Panther is set within its borders), but it’s the first comic-originated land that has a sense of place and scale. I can’t tell you the first thing about the customs of Asgard beyond their group dinner practices, but within the first 20 minutes of Black Panther, we meet Wakanda’s various tribes, their rites of passage, and the technology that’s so woven into their lives it’s even sewn into the very clothes they wear. If the film did nothing else, its formulation of a setting so rich is something to behold.
One of the key focal points of T’Challa and what sets him apart from the rest of the Infinity War gang are the relationships that come built-in before the first act even kicks off. Every important aspect of his life is driven by a woman. The protector of his body is Okoye, who is one of the fiercest characters within the Marvel canon and advises him in matters of international import. The keeper of his heart is Nakia, who is his undercover operative and a source of conscience – while fortunately also not being the thankless model of standard love interest. In terms of his brain, there’s Shuri, who is basically the Q to his 007, providing new exciting tech, suit upgrades, and occasionally hopping into the action in an incredibly fun virtual fashion, while his mother, Ramondo (played by the always incredible Angela Bassett) is his source of inspiration and strength. In a genre dominated by how women are driven to decisions in order to support the men at the center of things, it’s incredible to see an example of a man completely shaped by the women who have made him. Frankly, they are the only thing that keeps him alive. There’s a form of compassion and tenderness within T’Challa that sets him apart from the brusquer, usual Marvel protagonist, perhaps informed by those very sisterly ties. In a sense, he’s more vulnerable, and more human.
On the other side of the coin is Erik, or Killmonger as he’s known. I can say this with full confidence he is the best villain Marvel has introduced in their canon. Yes, better than Loki. His layered, nuanced threat is accomplished not only through a stunning performance by Jordan, but also in how he is weaved into the grander themes of the story. This is a tale of fathers and sons and the legacy the former leaves for the latter, and while that shapes T’Challa in one direction, it takes Erik somewhere completely different. He is brutally vicious via a lifetime of being treated as a human weapon, but at the same time, he is honed by grief. There’s one particular moment in Black Panther that really drills down the latter notion, and I think it might be the most artful sequence this studio has ever produced. There are even brief beats where you find yourself even sizing up his rationale and thinking…”hey, perhaps this guy does have a point”, before you’re snapped back to reality. There is a sense of density here that I’m not sure I’ve ever felt with a comic book antagonist, certainly not in recent memory. If Coogler and Jordan want to keep making films together until the end of time, I will gladly support them in that mission.
It’s a moving tale, well told, and more accomplished structurally and thematically than any of Marvel’s “first films”, but it does come with a few quibbles that fall under the usual pains of the studio. The CG is a bit rough-hewed, with a few floating head moments that pull you out momentarily, and one too many battles where the Panther himself falls victim to the rubber-band man issues that always plague the Spider-Man movies. There’s just something about a lithe, acrobatic superhero that Hollywood just can’t quite crack the code on yet. And, like almost every film within the MCU, the third act is too big and too much all at once, with a need to make sure the toys are put back on the shelf; whereas it’s hard to shake the feeling that Coogler had more of a story to tell here, rather than wrapping it all up in about 30 minutes. Still, there’s a pair of final scenes that make that sacrifice easily worthwhile, especially when one of the protagonists delivers a very relevant last bit of dialogue that hammers the entire mission statement home.
While we can rue the usual misgivings inherent in these films, those minor flaws are dwarfed by the staggering historical importance of Black Panther: a major blockbuster courting all demographics almost entirely made up of black actors and creators. This is a cinematic tidal wave, that between its well-deserved critical plaudits and what is looking to be a rapturous run at the box office, has the potential to further change how these projects are conceived and who ends up behind and in front of the camera. This is a piece of history you really want to be a part of.

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Kyle's Comics Picks - February 21, 2018

Back at it! I haven't been all that terribly excited about superhero comics lately, probably because I feel like the Big Two are collectively running out of steam and currently awaiting the next big set of launches. Marvel has been in the ditch for well over a year now, and DC's Rebirth-rebranded line has finally started to wane to the point where the books where I'm most excited to read are everything that's within the fringes (Young Animal, The Wild Storm, bits and pieces of the Hanna-Barbera stuff). So to make up for it, I've started delving into manga for the first time really. I've had some dalliances in the past, mostly a read of Goodnight Pun Pun or something that just really caught my eye...but now I've fully started to embrace the potential of the medium a little more. I cracked open Pluto and Monster by Naoki Urasawa and I am very much hooked. I also nabbed a copy of My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, the big indie manga sensation and the first two volumes of My Hero Academia..and of course, I also have a gigantic box of Akira to get through (currently on page 300). This adventure is only just getting started I think!

This week's picks:

Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye/Swamp Thing #1 - Milk Wars has been a lot of fun and one of the best comics crossovers in some time. This issue looks to be the most plot-focused of the bunch, steering Cave and his crew towards the events that led to his broadcast to the rest of the Young Animal lineup. Also, Swamp Thing! The cover alone, by Rian Hughes, has me very excited.

Comic Book History of Comics #3 - I discovered this series late in the game, but it's so very good and pretty educational for hitting the high points in the medium's history. This one covers Manga, what good timing for me!

Black Panther Annual #1 - Just after this past weekend's excellent Black Panther film, here comes an annual featuring three of the character's most iconic creators (Don McGregor, Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin). I'm usually not one to go in on annuals like this, but that's a lineup that's hard to turn down.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 215

Death Bed #1
by Riley Rossmo

Dept H #23
by Matt Kindt

Ice Cream Man #2
by Martin Morazzo

Batwoman #12
by Michael Cho

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Monday, February 12, 2018

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 214

 Black Monday Murders #8
by Tomm Coker

Bloodshot: Salvation #6
by John Bivens

 Gotham City Garage #9
by Dustin Nguyen

Rumble #3
by Toni Fejzula and Marta Garatea

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #29
by Erica Henderson

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

Here are some brief thoughts on all 15 of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. 

Starting with Live Action there is DeKalb Elementary, a film that starts tense and barely lets up. It’s based on a real 911 call that took place after an unstable young man wandered into an elementary school office with an automatic weapon. From there, it’s up to a scared but collected secretary to try and calm him down. The secretary part is very well performed. Overall, it’s a nice piece about empathy. It’s unfortunate that a black woman has to coddle a white dude, but that kind of reinforces the message. On a side note, I’m 99% sure this was shot at my kid’s school, which didn’t alleviate any of the inherent intensity.

My Nephew Emmett isn’t any lighter. It’s the tragic story of Emmett Till told from his uncle’s perspective. The best part of this short is how it captures the horror and terror the uncle feels when he merely hears what Emmett has allegedly done. He instantly knows what’s coming and that in the world he inhabits, he’s helpless to stop it. Beyond that, it felt like the story deserved to be bigger and stronger. Some of the acting isn’t that great and some of the lighting choices aren’t much better. This year’s Mudbound is a perfect counterexample of how to impressively tell this kind of story.

The shortest and best of the nominees is The Eleven O’clock. It contains a perfect short film hook. A psychiatrist is about to see a new patient. Hilariously, one of his symptoms is that he thinks he’s a psychiatrist. A snappy screwball comedy unfurls from there. It’s sharp, funny, and quite brilliant. It doesn’t overstay the premise or reach for something profound. It settles for being perfectly executed.

The Silent Child is solid for most of its runtime. It’s about a deaf little girl and her new teacher. The girl’s mother isn’t convinced that sign language is the best path forward for her kid. She’s also more than a little jealous of the new bond she sees forming between her daughter and the teacher. The film stays quite muted. It’s bolstered by a strong performance from Rachel Shenton as the teacher (she also wrote the script). But it never really adds another layer. It’s just sad, and ultimately a propaganda piece created solely to raise awareness for proper deaf education. On one hand it’s successful, I just wish it was a more dramatic success.

And then there’s Watu Wote (All of Us). It’s based on the true story of a bus in Somalia being attacked by terrorists. The terrorists demand to know who is a Christian and who is a Muslim so they can execute the correct infidels. It’s an intense scene but it takes forever to get to it. It’s meandering and then over too soon. It’s also distractingly similar to another short nominee from 7 years ago, Na Wewe. That older nominee was about a van attacked by terrorists in an African-country who demanded the passengers split into two groups, and it was made by Europeans who seem way too proud of themselves. It’s familiar and it’s fine.

Moving on the Animated Shorts, PIXAR returns with Lou. This one played in front of Cars 3 and it’s a cute and heartwarming CG short. It’s about a lost and found bin at school coming to life to teach a bully a lesson. It spins its wheels in the middle with an okay chase, but it is fun enough. It’s not pushing any new tech or experimenting wildly and that’s okay too. Garden Party is probably my favorite animated short of the group. It’s an almost plotless film innocently following around frogs outside a giant mansion. Slowly it reveals its more sinister intentions and its audacious and dark sense of humor. I’m kind of in awe of what it pulls off and of how beautiful the CG animation it creates to pull it off with. It’s nuts. Revolting Rhymes is from the same previously nominated studio that made The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It’s a polished adaptation of Roald Dahl’s fairy tale twists. But it just never feels fresh enough to justify another go round with Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs. The house style is nice, but not that special. Negative Space is a weird little stop-motion film. It’s a narrated poem about how packing for trips was the only way a boy could bond with his dad. What starts as a giant “who cares” deftly turns existential and beautiful. An impressive feat of brevity. Dear Basketball has absolutely no business being nominated. It’s Kobe Bryant’s self-produced ode to himself. Kobe clearly knows the right people in town. It is hand drawn by a legendary Disney animator and scored by John Freakin’ Williams. So yes, it’s easy on the eyes and ears. But if you set aside Lakers fandom (yes, I am a fan, and I assume local animators must be too for this to have made it in), and the questionable past allegations, especially at this moment in time, you’re still left with a piece that has no business anywhere else but inside Staples Center.

This year’s least interesting Documentary Short is Edith + Eddie. It’s about interracial nonagenarian newlyweds and the family squabbles that interfere and conspire to separate them. The short doesn’t have much to say about them or their situation. At first it’s just neat. The kind of story you used to see get 500 words in your local paper. Then it starts to feel like we’re eavesdropping on someone’s very personal business. The 5-minute stretch of black with audio only, because the cameras were forced off, only emphasizes this feeling. Love is powerful. I get it. Try as it might, this film doesn’t strengthen that old cliché. Traffic Stop is a little better. It takes on the racial prejudice of the local police. It uses the case of Breaion King whose YouTube video you might have seen on the news. Thankfully her case didn’t end tragically like so many others, but it’s still gross and shocking how she was treated. The most disturbing part being when a different officer who wasn’t involved with her assault begins “rationally” explaining that black people have violent tendencies. However, the film doesn’t really do a whole lot besides let you get to know the victim. She gets to tell her story, share some of her life, and reclaim her time. It’s extremely one-sided, and there just isn’t 30 minutes of material here.

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is as strange and hard to understand as its subject matter. It’s about Mindy Alper, an LA artist who makes weird sculptures and strikingly odd drawings. She recounts her life story but because she is clearly mentally ill, the film jumps around, overshares, drops other details, and forgets to fill out the whole picture. For instance, the film is well into the story before we even know the artist’s name. We get a lengthy explanation of all the medication she’s on, but we’re never told what specifically is wrong with her. Is this how she’s always been? Did she used to be better? How does she take care of herself? The only context we’re given is if she gives it to us and she’s clearly an impaired source of information. The art is fascinating and she’s a compelling character but the movie could stand to be clearer.

The best two doc shorts are Heroin(e) and Knife Skills. The former is about the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. Rather than a doom and gloom story about death and societal failure, the film chose instead to follow 3 women who are out there trying to do something to better their community. There’s a fire chief who can barely sit down for an interview without being pulled away for another 911 overdose call. There’s a judge running a special “drug court” to help convicts with rehab. And there’s a good Christian who started a program that hands out food to prostitutes living on the streets. Hollywood could instantly turn fire chief Jan Rader’s story into a dramatic feature film starring Jodie Foster. It’s very compelling, and the whole short is structured wonderfully. It’s an inspiring and balanced look at a real issue without falling victim to histrionics. It’s impossible not to root for real fucking heroes, unassumingly just doing the work. Finally, there’s Knife Skills. It’s about a restaurant/culinary school in Ohio that runs a program to help train and hire ex-cons. It plays out like a cross between MasterChef and The Wire. It knows just how much kitchen drama to mix in with all the hard knocks. It could use a little more context and background on the program as well as the man who runs it. For instance, how much if anything are the employees paid? Or does the government assist the program in any way? No matter. This and Heroin(e) are really smart and interesting stories of people trying to help people.

And now I try to make some predictions. 

For Live Action, I find it difficult to go with anything other than The Eleven O’clock. It’s clearly the best and maybe since it’s the only comedy and the shortest that’ll help it win too. For Animated, PIXAR won last year and Lou is hardly a top tier work from them. I’m left thinking the unique Garden Party ends up standing out amongst the rest of the field. And for Documentary, it seems to always be pick your pet issue: opioids, criminal justice reform, Black Lives Matter, old people. I think Heroin(e) gets an extra boost for being widely seen on Netflix and feeling the most refined. I realize I just went with my favorites, which I hate to do, so I’m guaranteed to be wrong. Oh well. Go see the films for yourself. They’ll be in theaters starting February 9th.

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