Schultz reviews: "Annihilation," "Every Day" and "Game Night"
By Carl Schultz
Daily American correspondent
“Annihilation” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 115 Minutes, Rated R, Released Feb. 23:
People don’t seem to know exactly what to expect from “Annihilation.” And the six or so horror movie trailers which precede screenings don’t really tell the whole story, although they’re certainly an indication. Is "Annihilation" science fiction? A horror movie? An adventure? Yes, to all the above.
In the very near future, a transparent otherworldly force field settles into the swamp lands of southern Florida, sequestering a section of the everglades all the way to the coast. Called "the shimmer" and resembling an enormous soap bubble, with a bubble’s swirling, rainbow-colored film swimming around on the outside, the force field is found to be penetrable and accessible, like pushing through a wall of Saran Wrap.
Two teams of American soldiers are sent inside to investigate, and are either killed by aliens or driven insane and kill each other — nobody's quite sure which. Only one team member returned alive, and he’s not talking. Somnambulant, in an almost trance-like state, the surviving soldier doesn’t remember what happened inside, or claims not to.
The military assembles a third team to access and explore the area within the force field. All are professionals employed in the sciences — a psychologist, a medic, a physicist, an anthropologist and a biologist. And since the members of the previous teams were all male, all of the members of the new team are women. Unknown to the others, the biologist is the wife of the solitary soldier who returned alive from a previous expedition. Only when the team meets and begins to talk among themselves do they discover that each experienced a recent trauma which has left her emotionally vulnerable.
"Annihilation" has an ominous tone from frame one. But as soon as the team arrives inside the shimmer, matters turn worse, early and often. They can’t remember how they got there, the environment grows more alien than Earthly, they can’t communicate with the outside, and the jungle terrain begins to seem increasingly more toxic, like a polluted Pandora in an alternate "Avatar."
Worse, the team keeps finding artifacts pointedly left behind by the previous doomed missions, presumably as a guide to future expeditions. Are they signposts pointing the women to what lies ahead? Warnings to get out quick? The team members can't agree, despite finding increasingly horrifying videos from their predecessors, a la "The Blair Witch Project" from a generation ago.
"Annihilation" delivers the thrills and chills in a grand fashion. Also scoring as compelling human drama as well as provocative science fiction, it's really a horror picture/monster movie, the next step in the cinematic evolution which began with the alien invasion movies of the 1950s.
Based on an award-winning 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” was adapted to the screen and directed by Alex Garland, a filmmaker considered by critics to be a key voice of Generation X, responsible for such films as 2002’s “28 Days Later” and 2015’s “Ex Machina.”
“Annihilation” also marks a return to science fiction for “Star Wars” star Natalie Portman, playing the team biologist. Others in the expedition are Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and a superb Jennifer Jason Leigh as the psychologist. Oscar Issac, the star of Garland’s “Ex Machina,” contributes a smaller performance here as Portman’s husband, the survivor of the previous expedition.
Released into 2,012 theaters across the United States, “Annihilation” is earning generally favorable reviews from critics, including an 87 percent approval rating from 128 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 80 percent from 46 others on Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore are less enthusiastic, grading “Annihilation” with a C.
Not to reveal too much of what types of creatures the team encounters inside the shimmer, but at one point the psychologist finds a reason to ask the biologist if it’s possible for a shark to be crossbred with an alligator. The answer is no, but that’s sure what it looks like. And that’s just at the beginning of the expedition — wait until you see the bear.
With its nauseatingly graphic special effects, this movie works hard to earn its R rating. There aren’t any scares to cause you to jump out of your seat, but plenty of scenes that’ll make you want to crawl under it.
All-in-all, you might not like where "Annihilation" takes you, especially after you arrive there. But you can't deny that the journey is challenging, exhilarating . . . and very, very entertaining.
“Every Day” Distributed by Orion Pictures, 95 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Feb. 23:
Fantasy is an exceedingly difficult style of movie to achieve with success. When a filmmaker tries and fails, the results are often laughable. But when an attempt is successful, the film which results is often a wonderful experience, and sometimes even becomes a perennial, such as “The Wizard of Oz,” or the 1945 postwar classic “The Enchanted Cottage,” for years a staple of Christmastime television viewing.
One picture which attempts fantasy and succeeds admirably is the new film “Every Day,” which opened on Feb. 23 in 1,625 movie theaters in the U.S. “Every Day” takes an unusually complex story and weaves it into a film so compelling, sensitive and entertaining that you might not realize until later how provocative it is.
“Every Day” concerns an untethered spirit — that is, a human consciousness unattached to any living person. Calling himself “A,” each day the spirit is somehow assigned a temporary host body for 24 hours only, from midnight to midnight. Always placed into a teenage host and never inhabiting the same body twice, when “A” is evicted each midnight from his temporary corporal home, the host has no memory of the experience — only a hazy vagueness.
One day, “A” inhabits the body of the venal and shallow boyfriend of an insecure 16-year-old high school student named Rhiannon. And during that inhabitation, the boyfriend behaves toward Rhiannon with kindness, affection and consideration. Rhiannon, unfamiliar with such affectionate behavior and from her boyfriend, revels in the attention, emotionally blossoming in the unaccustomed warmth.
But after the departure of “A” the following day, Rhiannon’s boyfriend returns to his brusque and indifferent manner, not remembering the previous day’s events. Rhiannon is crushed by the resumption of the boyfriend’s usual emotional remoteness.
“A,” however, remembers the events of the previous day just fine — he’s fallen for Rhiannon. And in his next host body, “A” seeks out Rhiannon in a desire to interact with her again. And then again the following day, in his next incarnation. And again the next day.
Eventually “A” feels a compulsion to confess the details of the unusual situation to Rhiannon. Skeptical at first, after a while the insecure young girl overcomes her initial disbelief and begins to welcome and even cherish her daily interactions with the homeless spirit, in his ever-changing variety of incarnations. Before long, Rhiannon has fallen for “A,” too. She dumps her boyfriend in favor of the disembodied “A.” And that’s when everything becomes even more complicated.
Although maintaining a monogamous relationship with “A,” Rhiannon by all appearances is pursuing friendships, emotional attachments and even romantic relationships with an ever-increasing daily series of partners of all genders and sexualities, ethnicities and racial distinctions — a notion the picture presents, but neither judges nor actively pursues.
“Every Day” instead makes an eloquent statement on the potentially-provocative situation with its non-commitment to any one of a variety of choices it presents — the notion being that we are all equally deserving of love despite outward appearances or distinctions of gender or race. Instead of preaching, the filmmakers trust in the audience’s intelligence to decide how to process and digest the information they present. As Rhiannon notes at one point in the picture, “We all change.”
Unfortunately, the mysterious relationship between Rhiannon and “A” does attract more than its share of attention among her high school friends . . . and enemies. During one scene the former boyfriend, suspecting lasciviousness on Rhiannon’s part and seeking emotional vengeance on his former girlfriend for dumping him, attempts to incite a “slut-shaming.” Although in her insecure past such a humiliation would undoubtedly have destroyed Rhiannon emotionally, fortified by the spiritual support she receives from “A” she endures the insult with stoicism, courage and dignity.
And in fact, the kindness, affection and mutual support from “A” is performing miracles in Rhiannon’s emotional life: She begins to repair her damaged relationships with her single-minded and ambitious mother, her scatterbrained and unfocused older sister, and her gentle, reclusive, artistic father, whom Rhiannon has never quite forgiven for a mental health episode which nearly rendered their family homeless.
And there’s much, much more story to cover and explore before “Every Day” somehow manages to tie together all plot lines and wrap up the picture in an unbelievably brief 95-minute running time. Only at the very end does the movie rely briefly on broad characterizations and telescoped events before quickly righting itself in time for a satisfactorily diplomatic, and possibly even slick, happy ending.
Perfectly cast in “Every Day” is the talented young Angourie Rice as Rhiannon. A native of Australia effecting a persuasive American accent, Rice breaks the hearts of the audience with her sensitivity, and then astonishes viewers with her range as a performer. Previously seen in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and Sofia Coppola’s remake of “The Beguiled,” young Rice likely has a bright and busy future as an actress.
That the performances of some two or three dozen talented young actors and actresses can be combined into one seamless and compelling characterization as “A” is a testament to the adaptation by Jesse Andrews from the original novel published in 2012 by author David Levithan, and the sensitive, unobtrusive and remarkably persuasive direction by Michael Sucsy.
With hardly any advertising campaign outside of a generic poster and a trailer which seems to aim “Every Day” toward a teenaged audience, Orion Pictures has opened the picture in only about half the theaters which usually present a new motion picture release. Mostly the new film is playing in smaller auditoriums in cineplexes, indicating that “Every Day” isn’t expected to last long in its initial release. And that’s not fair, to either the film or the audience.
Unfolding like a good book, “Every Day” depends on the audience’s intelligence, and rewards with a warm hug those viewers patient enough to stay the course. If you can find this bittersweet little movie in a theater near you, it’s well worth the extra effort. Your mind might be chewing on the premise for quite a while after leaving the theater . . . but your heart will give “Every Day” a standing ovation.
“Game Night” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 100 Minutes, Rated R, Released Feb. 24:
“Game Night” exists in the awkward and uncomfortable area where social comedy, slapstick humor and black humor converge. The result is a movie which delivers laughs in equal numbers with cringes, winces and grimaces. Not that there aren’t funny moments present in the picture. But the people sitting in the audience will likely be laughing during different moments.
The premise is better that anything you’ll find in the picture: A married couple who are highly competitive in board games host a weekly game night with their friends. When the husband’s highly successful and fabulously wealthy older brother, visiting from out of town, unexpectedly drops in and insists on hosting the following week’s game night at his luxurious rented home, the others reluctantly agree.
Upon arriving at the brother’s home the next week, the friends learn that the evening’s game will be a particularly realistic murder mystery. But when the evening’s game coincides with an actual home-invasion and kidnap-for-ransom of the wealthy brother, the others seek clues to his rescue, believing the crime to be part of the game. In the process the friends unwittingly find themselves interacting with especially ruthless criminals, while also bickering among themselves about a variety of relationship issues.
“Game Night” stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as the married couple and Kyle Chandler as the wealthy older brother. Considering Bateman’s origins in wholesome family entertainment, it’s tough to believe he’s become such a specialist in anarchic adult humor. And it’s equally tough to believe the talented McAdams and Chandler are appearing in “Game Night” at all. Each contributes a good performance, but actor Jesse Plemons steals the movie with his performance as an obsessive, humorless and emotionally-disabled police officer.
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team who wrote the 2011 hit “Horrible Bosses” and its 2014 sequel. “Game Night” is the type of movie The Three Stooges used to perform to perfection in 20minutes flat, with infinitely more grace and subtlety. And as they say, you just can’t improve on perfection.
Released to a whopping 3,488 theaters across the U.S., “Game Night” surprisingly is earning mostly positive reviews from critics, including 81 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 66 percent from Metacritic. Possibly what they’re really thinking is that there are no other live-action adult comedies opening in theaters this week. The more realistic exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture an average grade of B.
“Game Night” is rated R for violence, some of it graphic . . . including at least one “laughable” gunshot wound.