annihilation_xlgDirected 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.


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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.

The Shape of Water

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.

Justice League

Directed by Zach Snyder who is best known for 2006’s 300 and 2009’s Watchmen, Justice League follows a long line of superhero comic book movies that ultimately falls short of reaching the more entertaining adaptations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the sixth installment in DC Comics Extended Universe that desperately tries to emulate the success of Marvel, the film is unfortunately only marginally better than the other critically unsuccessful installments, including 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2016’s Suicide Squad. Similar to The Avengers, the plot revolves around a group of famous superheroes who come together to fight off a villain trying to destroy the world. An alien creature awoken after thousands of years, Steppenwolf, along with his army of Parademons, is set on conquering Earth by locating three so-called Mother Boxes whose combined power would set off the destruction of the world. Eventually, Diana Prince who is better known as Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, is alerted to Steppenwolf’s malevolent goal and eventually joins forces with the superheroes Batman who is played by Ben Affleck, The Flash who is played by Ezra Miller, Aquaman who is played by Jason Momoa, and Cyborg who is played by Ray Fisher. After their first major battle with Steppenwolf in Gotham City, the team learns there may be a way to resurrect Superman, played by Henry Cavill, who died at the end of Batman v Superman and is universally mourned as one of the last great heroes. The ending is fairly formulaic because it involves the newly formed Justice League entering into one epic final battle with the villain Steppenwolf and the outcome has major repercussions for Earth and humanity. Overall, although it has many fine actors, the movie feels like a hodgepodge of several different superhero action flicks that includes several new characters that are not properly introduced for the casual filmgoer. It should have followed the extremely successful formula of 2017’s Wonder Woman in which the characters’ back stories are told in greater detail and thereby the audience feels a greater emotional connection.

The Mummy

A reboot of three different franchise series beginning in 1932, The Mummy is a fairly average Hollywood summer blockbuster action adventure monster flick that simply seems to be a money-making vehicle for the action superstar Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise portrays Nick Morton, a treasure hunter and mercenary for the U.S. Army, who, along with his wisecracking partner Chris Vail, played by comedian Jake Johnson, discover a large mysteriously secret Egyptian tomb in present-day Iraq. They soon realize with the help of the young and beautiful archaeologist Jenny Halsey, played by British actress Annabelle Wallis, that the mummy is a cursed Egyptian princess named Ahmanet, played by Algerian actress Sofia Boutella, who comes to life to make a pact with the evil Egyptian god Set. Morton finds himself possessed by the malevolent undead mummy princess and as a result survives a horrific plane crash in England with the sarcophagus. After battling reanimated corpses under Ahmanet’s spell, Morton and Jenny meet up with Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, who runs a secret organization known as Prodigium with the purpose of hunting down and destroying evil and supernatural forces. The organization’s soldiers are able to trap and keep Ahmanet prisoner in their underground base in London. However, her supernatural powers allow her to escape and wreak havoc on London with a dramatic CGI-enhanced sandstorm and creation of an undead army. At the end of the movie, Morton makes a drastic sacrifice in order to save Jenny and prevent Ahmanet’s further reign of terror. Overall, I found the so-called horror sequences not so scary and rather cheesy, and the film was less of an entertaining thrill ride like the most recent series starring Brendan Fraser that started in 1999. Its lackluster quality as a movie that did not really need to be rebooted and poor reception among critics and audiences is not a good starting point for Universal’s new Dark Universe movie series that wants to bring back the classic horror monsters.

Wonder Woman

Directed by the first female director of a superhero film with a female protagonist, Wonder Woman is one of the better comic book superhero movies that I have seen because it effectively blends action, humor, and drama, all underscored by a unique feminist approach. We first meet Diana, later known as Wonder Woman and played by the beautiful and strong Israeli actress Gal Gadot, as she grows up on the mystical island of Themyscira, which is home to the female warriors the Amazons, and begs her mother Queen Hippolyta to train as an Amazonian warrior. Her aunt General Antiope considered the greatest fighter, played by Robin Wright, secretly trains Diana to become one of the best warriors on the island. Throughout the first part of the film, we learn the back story based on ancient Greek mythology of the Amazons: they are a group of strong females created by Zeus to protect humanity against Ares, the god of war who murdered all of the gods except Zeus, and his corrupting influence on mankind to engage in war. Suddenly Diana’s idyllic life changes after she rescues Steve Trevor, played by the charismatic Chris Pine, who is an American pilot spying for the British whose airplane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. Eventually, Diana travels with Steve to help bring World War I to a peaceful end and prevent the use of a new deadly chemical weapon developed by the evil female scientist Doctor Maru, also known as Doctor Poison, under the guidance of the equally villainous German General Erich Ludendorff, played by Danny Huston. When Diana first arrives in London, the movie becomes more of a funny fish out of water story as she tries to understand feminine fashion and that she cannot carry a sword and shield out in public. Eventually, Diana and Steve along with Steve’s hodgepodge team, including Sameer the North African spy, Charlie the drunk Scottish marksman, and Chief the Native American smuggler, make their way to the Western front in Belgium in hopes of discovering Ludendorff’s weapons factory. In an unusual twist for the superhero genre, Diana is the one with super-strength and superhero powers who helps the male protagonists complete their mission and kill most of the bad guys. At times, Steve and other men are shocked and somewhat embarrassed when they see Diana outmaneuver and outfight them. The film ends with Diana facing an unlikely enemy and losing a newly loved one, but, otherwise, she successfully completes her mission to save human lives. Overall, I found the movie to lend a greatly refreshing take on the wildly successful yet male-dominated superhero genre by creating a strong-willed feminist superhero who can take down the bad guys herself without male intervention. The filmmaker is able to avoid the pitfalls of many recent DC Comics movies and craft a greatly entertaining action hero film, complete with realistic World War I settings and explosive CGI effects while subtly relaying a message of female empowerment and equality for Hollywood and beyond.