Directed by Alex Garland who is best known for the 2015 Oscar-nominated film Ex Machina, Annihilation is a visually dazzling and thought-provoking sci-fi movie notable for its rather strange and frightening story and a terrific performance from Oscar-winner Natalie Portman. Based on the acclaimed 2014 novel of the same name written by Jeff VanderMeer, the plot revolves around Portman’s character Lena who is a biologist and former American soldier that unexpectedly becomes involved in a highly classified mission to study and prevent the spread of a scientifically unexplained phenomenon known as The Shimmer located along the American coast in a rapidly expanding region known as Area X. After her husband Kane, played by Golden Globe nominee Oscar Isaac, mysteriously returns a year after going missing on an expedition into Area X, Lena is recruited to go on another mission to study The Shimmer and determine whether it is earthly or extraterrestrial. It is a particularly dangerous operation because no one besides her husband has ever returned after that many failed attempts. Led by the stone-faced psychologist named Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the all-female group of scientists is comprised of a paramedic named Anya, played by Gina Rodriguez, a physicist named Josie, played by Tessa Thompson, and a surveyor and geologist named Cass, played by Tuva Novotny. Immediately after venturing into Area X, Lena and the rest of the team notice that things are very abnormal, including the plants and animals exhibiting perplexing biological mutations. The filmmaker mystifies the audience through the realistic and often beautiful depictions of these strange creatures; towards the end, reality and the laws of nature become further blurred as emphasized by the ever increasing mind-blowing imagery witnessed by the characters. Not just purely science fiction, the film contains several suspenseful and often terrifying moments that could come from a horror flick, especially the scenes involving mutated animals and the psychoses experienced by the team members. Overall, I found it to be a riveting and creative work of science fiction that surprisingly delves deep into philosophical issues of humanity and our relationship to the environment, while also catering to fans of sci-fi and horror with its mesmerizing visual effects and creation of horrifying creatures.
A follow-up to the successful 2014 original film based on the classic British children’s character Paddington Bear created by Michael Bond, Paddington 2 is a wonderful children’s movie appealing to all ages with an abundance of charm in storytelling and visuals that makes for a feel-good moviegoing experience. Taking place several years after becoming a member of the Brown family in London, the plot revolves around the lovable talking bear Paddington, voiced by Ben Whishaw, trying to find the perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy back in Peru but somehow finds himself entangled in a mysterious crime. He discovers at an antique shop run by his friend Samuel Gruber, played by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, a marvelous pop-up book about London landmarks and decides to take out several odd jobs to pay for the expensive book as a birthday gift for his beloved Aunt Lucy. However, the pop-up book is stolen by a mysterious thief, and Paddington is accused and convicted of the crime. He is sent to prison where he befriends several inmates, including the cook known as Nuckles and played by Golden Globe nominee Brendan Gleeson. In several funny scenes, Paddington helps to bring cheerfulness to the prison with a large helping of his favorite food: marmalade sandwiches. His human family headed by insurance agent Henry Brown, played by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, and the sweet Mary Brown, played by Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, try to solve the theft in order to prove Paddington’s innocence. Suspicions are raised about a local narcissistic actor named Phoenix Buchanan, played by a superbly villainous Hugh Grant, who has an unusual habit of dressing up as his most famous costumed characters. Once Paddington and the Browns discover the true culprit, they are led on a wild goose chase brimming with British charm and wit. Somewhat reminiscent of a Wes Anderson production, the filmmakers pay great attention to detail in creating stereotypically British and whimsical sets and an overall cute atmosphere. Overall, I thought it was a magical and clever movie with a heartfelt story and full of excellent British actors that feels quintessential British and is overflowing with lighthearted charm.
Directed by Scott Cooper who is best known for 2009’s Crazy Heart and 2015’s Black Mass, Hostiles is a beautifully shot Western with terrific acting performances from the main protagonists and provides a more nuanced view of the violent struggles between Native Americans and the American government. Set in 1892 at the height of the Indian Wars, the story follows U.S. Army Captain Joseph Blocker, played by Oscar winner Christian Bale, who is ordered to take the recently imprisoned Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk, played by the wonderful Cherokee actor Wes Studi, and his family back to their home in Montana. Blocker who is notorious for his brutal tactics against Native Americans is at first very hesitant to follow orders to help an Indian who was responsible for the death of several of his comrades in the past. Accompanied by a group of other American soldiers, the group are unexpectedly joined by Rosalie Quaid, terrifically played by Rosamund Pike, whose family was just brutally murdered by a group of Comanche in New Mexico. Along the perilous journey, the party must grapple with the violence and injustices perpetrated by both white Americans and Native Americans. Both sides have lost many lives, and the usually hardline Captain Blocker eventually comes to terms with the fact that the United States’ vicious and sustained campaign against Native Americans may have caused many of the problems between the two fighting groups. The challenges shared by everyone on the expedition helps create bonds between Blocker and his soldiers, Yellow Hawk and his family, and Quaid despite their justifiably grave misgivings about each other. Although there are several violent episodes, most of the film is almost a meditative experience for the characters as they cross spectacular Western scenery on horseback and come to understand one another. Overall, I found it to be a well-crafted movie with some of the most beautiful cinematography and gives a very important message about reconciliation between enemies during a very violent point in American history.
A follow-up to the popular 1995 film Jumanji starring Robin Williams, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fun and surprisingly clever adventure movie that successfully recreates the creativity of the original. The story begins when the Jumanji board game is discovered in the 1990s and a young man is sucked into the magical world of Jumanji. Then, the plot fast forwards to today when a group of high schoolers find themselves in detention and discover the game Jumanji that has been transformed into an old video game. Unaware of its powers, each teenager chooses a character to play in the game and are sucked into the jungles of Jumanji. The nerd in the group Spencer becomes the strong archaeologist and explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, the popular jock “Fridge” becomes the scrawny and squeamish zoologist and weapons valet Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, played by the hyperactive comedian Kevin Hart, the pretty popular girl Bethany becomes the obese middle-aged archaeologist and cartographer Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, hilariously played by Jack Black, and the shy unpopular girl Martha becomes the attractive commando and martial artist Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan. With all their practical skills and only three lives before they actually die, they must work together to navigate several challenges to finish the game and return home. They have to fight off the villain Van Pelt, played by the devious Bobby Cannavale, who wants to take control of Jumanji by possessing the mystical jewel “Jaguar’s Eye.” Defeating him and his army of mercenaries is the only way they can escape Jumanji. Eventually, they receive help from a pilot and adventurer named Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough, played by Nick Jonas. There are several unexpected moments of hilarity that makes for a truly entertaining movie, especially the scenes with Jack Black’s character who talks like a flirtatious teenage girl and freaks out at the littlest things. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find the movie to be a light-hearted and fun-filled comedic adventure that goes beyond simply rehashing the original movie without much imagination.
Following in a long line of successful Disney and Pixar productions, Coco is a terrifically well-made CGI-animated film geared for kids that also delights adults for the dazzling visuals and creative story about family and loss. Voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, the main character Miguel Rivera is a 12-year-old Mexican boy living in a small town in Mexico who dreams of becoming a musician. However, his large family forbids anyone in the family from playing music after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his great-great-grandmother Imelda and his great-grandmother Coco so that he could become a musician. Miguel decides to secretly participate in a local talent show on the Day of the Dead in hopes of becoming just like the most famous Mexican musician and guitar player Ernesto de la Cruz, voiced by Benjamin Bratt, who is from Miguel’s hometown and lived in his great-great-grandparents’ time. The night of the Day of the Dead, a special Mexican holiday when families visit their dead relatives’ graves to celebrate their lives, Miguel along with a friendly stray dog named Dante is magically among the dead spirits and travels to the Land of the Dead. He must get the blessing of one of his dead relatives before sunrise in order to go back to the Land of the Living. However, he discovers that he must speak with Ernesto de la Cruz to receive the proper blessing. On his adventures in the Land of the Dead, Miguel befriends a lonely trickster named Héctor Rivera, voiced by Golden Globe winner Gael García Bernal, who is trying to be remembered by his family so that he can visit his grave and see his beloved daughter. Towards the end, we learn that not everything is as it seems, and Miguel develops a greater appreciation for his family and perhaps will be able to be a musician. Besides the beautifully emotional plot, the movie does a remarkable job creating the Land of the Dead as a brightly colorful and whimsical world in which the dead depicted as skeletons are not scary and ghoulish. Overall, I found it to be yet another memorable Pixar film that uses its visual appeal to engender a story full of heart while also celebrating Hispanic culture, particularly Mexico and such traditions as the Day of the Dead.
Directed by Rian Johnson who is best known for 2005’s Brick and 2012’s Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a terrific follow-up in the Star Wars saga film series that effectively recreates the magic and creativity of the original trilogy in addition to creating an entertaining epic story with emotional heart. It takes place immediately after the 2015 installment Star Wars: The Force Awakens with the appearance of Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, who lives a solitary life on a remote island when he is visited by the Resistance fighter Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She urges him as the Last Jedi to help the losing cause of the Resistance against the First Order led by the Supreme Leader Snoke, played by Andy Serkis, and the powerful Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. As Rey struggles with the reclusive Luke, the relatively few remaining ships of the Resistance led by General Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher, with the help of the stubborn X-wing fighter pilot Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, are under siege by the First Order and General Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson. In what could be the last hope for survival, the former Stormtrooper and now Resistance fighter Finn, played by John Boyega, joins forces with the unlikely hero and mechanic Rose Tico, played by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, on a secret mission to prevent the destruction of the Resistance’s fleet. Besides the spectacular CGI action sequences characteristic of a Star Wars movie, the filmmaker also employs intimate interactions, particularly the philosophical relationship between Luke and Rey, to engender a powerfully emotional story. As such, it is also able to provide a touching and fitting farewell to Carrie Fisher who tragically passed away before the film’s release. In an ode to nostalgia and the legion of Star Wars fans, the movie additionally works beloved characters into the story, including Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2, while developing such new and adorable creatures as porgs and crystal foxes. Overall, I found it to live up to the original trilogy first released 40 years ago and exceeds the expectations set forth by the well-crafted first reboot of the series in 2015. With thrilling action and rich storytelling, the latest Star Wars movie will definitely please die-hard fans and casual moviegoers alike.
Directed by critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who is best known for 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2004’s Hellboy, The Shape of Water is a beautiful and strange fantasy drama benefiting from evocative cinematography and terrific acting performances from a stellar cast. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, the story follows Elisa Esposito, played by the always brilliant Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins, who is a lonely and compassionate mute woman working as a janitor for the mysterious Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her life dramatically changes when a new so-called Asset arrives at the laboratory after being discovered by the vicious Colonel Richard Strickland, played by the remarkably creepy Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon. Primarily living a quiet life alone with the exception of her charming coworker Zelda, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and eccentric neighbor Giles, played by Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, Elisa develops a very close and warm relationship with the Asset, a sea creature that somewhat resembles a human. Strickland along with his overly officious boss General Hoyt, played by Nick Searcy, only see the Asset as a scientific experiment who can possibly help with space technology and allow the United States military to have a competitive advantage over the Soviet Union. Fully aware that the military leadership has plans to exterminate the Asset so that it cannot fall into the hands of the Soviets, Elisa devises a plan to free the Asset from the laboratory with the help of Zelda, Giles, and the secretive scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg best known for his role on the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire. Although it is a very peculiar story and features a somewhat grotesque fantastical creature, the movie becomes something much more than simple fantasy; the dark and mysterious setting created by the mesmerizing cinematograph blends with the powerfully poignant emotions of the characters to create a very special movie. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year despite probably being one of the weirdest movies that the audience will see; even though the subject matter may not be for everyone, it is definitely a very worthwhile cinematic experience.