Tag Archives: Alex Garland

Annihilation

Kane’s been missing for a year when he suddenly turns up at the home he shares with his wife, Lena, hemorrhaging blood. He’s been deployed on a top-secret mission that Lena can’t fully understand even as she’s recruited to join the next one. Of the dozens of men deployed, Kane is the only one to return, and he’s just waiting to die of organ failure.

Three years ago, something mysterious happened to a nearby lighthouse, which has been enveloped in a “shimmer”, a danger zone inside which terrible things are happening and from which no one returns. The zone is growing daily, and their own city will be overtaken if they don’t figure it out soon. So Lena (Natalie Portman) joins the next mission, the first one to be all-female, an expert biologist but also just a wife wondering why her husband would sign up for a suicide mission. She joins a group of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) highly trained but with nothing to lose as they enter what is likely to be their last mission.

63a7237ca43826d1507503b739fc4d55Inside, every living thing has been transformed. Mutations have made some things astonishingly beautiful, and other things the stuff of nightmares (imagine an alligator-shark hybrid). And now those things are also taking on human DNA.

Director Alex Garland took on human uniqueness in Ex Machina and further explores the subject here. When they are reflected back on us in other living things, which of our traits make us truly special, truly human? It’s a scary question. Garland continues to excel in the creepy, quiet moments between the splashier, gorier stuff. His style throws us off-kilter even as the visuals delight. The audience is continuously confronted with questions to chew on while scary monsters breathe down our goose-pimpled necks. Alex Garland is clearly a talented sci-fi film maker, and even if you leave the theatre confused, you won’t be able to let it go.

For fans of the novel, by Jeff VanderMeer, don’t go in too attached. Garland chose not to re-read the book before embarking upon the script, so the movie turns out more a distant cousin of the book rather than a faithful adaptation. In fact, the details I remembered most from the book were absent; clearly Garland and I latched on to different themes. But the essence remains, the terror remains, the curiosity remains. Annihilation doesn’t exist just to scare you, it wants to challenge you. This is a bold film that doesn’t fit inside any comfortable Hollywood mold. The studio is crapping its pants because it think the movie’s too “cerebral” for us folk. But you know what? Embracing the unknown can be freeing. And exploring these concepts with women as our protagonists, free from macho bullshit, allow us to also experience these things for their beauty and their terror at the same time. Portman’s character is remote, unreachable. Rather, Thompson and Rodriguez provide the most emotional heft as their characters contemplate the most gorgeous and familiar of mysteries.

I left this movie shaken.

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Sunshine

50 years into the future, the sun is a dying star, and Earth will die along with it. We send a ship of astronauts to bomb the sun back into shining but the team goes awol somewhere out in the million miles of space. So we send another one, but this IS IT. Mankind’s last hope. We’ve officially mined all of Earth’s resources for this motherload. No pressure!

sunshine02The new team includes Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, and Cillian Murphy. They’re clearly already under stress when we meet them several years into their trip to the sun, but shit’s about to get a whole lot messier. Just as they’re approaching the most dangerous part of the mission, they receive a signal. It’s a ping from the lost ship. It’s been 7 years since anyone’s heard from them…they can’t still be alive, can they?

The crew debates whether they should divert their mission to find out. But this is not a democracy, the captain reminds them. They’re scientists, and he gives the decision to the person most qualified to make it, the ship’s physicist, played by Cillian Murphy. No matter what he decides, he’s fucked. No matter what he decides, his crew will hold him responsible for the lives and the mission he’s risked. Classic lose-lose scenario. Fun!

Okay, fun is the wrong word. Writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle are reteamed after Sunshine_spacesuitbring us The Beach and 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle has more recently done Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Steve Jobs. Alex Garland wrote Ex Machina. These boys don’t do fun. They do: harrowing, intense, suspenseful. Sun-psychosis. The closer the ship gets to its goal, the more things fall apart. Fall apart literally and psychologically. And philosophically.

It starts out as an interesting, cerebral sci-fi adventure, on the lower end of the action scale, but not without daring stunts. But in Sunshine, getting closer to the sun is like getting closer to god. And reality unravels a bit like we’ve seen in Interstellar. Sunshine is ambitious. Boyle and Garland are asking us to consider some hot and heavy questions. Big Questions. Boyle manages to put story and character ahead of special effects, making this a very worthy, brainy, thoughtful entry into the sci-fi genre (and likely his last – he found this film to be extremely draining). The film makers actually want to make us understand what it’s like to get so close to our most glorious star. The increasingly fractured and subliminal scenes are almost reminiscent of some of the more hallucinogenic stuff from Boyle’s Trainspotting days, and the glimpses from inside sunshine-murphy-sunthe helmets of the striking gold space suits clutch at your throat. I had some very real autonomic responses to this film and I swear I could feel the heat. Boyle wisely uses actors who can take the heat and radiate some of their own. He even more wisely stays away from the love triangle cliché and sticks to things that feel very real for a set of humans staring into the sun and seeing their own deaths. There’s fear and panic and bravery and resolve.

If this movie was American, it would doubtless be a bunch of American cowboys being sent up with fireworks and catch phrases, but Sunshine includes an appropriately global response, which helps to underline the fact that in space, with human extinction on the line, there is no race or culture. It’s about those decisions to make sacrifices, to act for the greater good, to reach beyond which you think yourself capable. Sunshine stumbles in its final act – things get so weighty it seems to buckle a bit, but this remains a movie that is criminally underrated. Many thanks to my fellow film bloggers who pointed me toward this, and I hope maybe I’ve done the same for some of you.

Director’s Guild Awards

Drum roll please! This weekend’s prestigious Director’s Guild Awards, hosted by the effervescent Jane Lynch, made history when Alejandro G. Iñárritu took 2016dgaw001home top prize for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for his brilliant work on The Revenant. This is the first time in the Guild’s history that a director is rewarded in back-to-back years (he won last year for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)). The nice thing about these awards is that directors are the first to admit that they do not work alone. There are lots of people sharing in Iñárritu’s win. His directorial team includes:

Unit Production Managers: Drew Locke, James W. Skotchdopole, Doug Jones, Gabriela Vazquez

First Assistant Director: Scott Robertson, Adam Somner

Second Assistant Directors: Megan M. Shank, Matthew Haggerty, Jeremy Marks, Trevor R. Tavares, Jasmine Marie Alhambra

Second Second Assistant Directors: Brett Robinson, Kasia Trojak

Who are these people and what do they do? Excellent question! A unit production manager (UPM) is hired by the producer to do the fun admin-y stuff to manage a film’s budget. Based on the shooting script, the UPM will create a working budget related to the physical production. The producer stays on top of “above-the-line” expenses, ie, the creative stuff that gets the ball rolling pre-production: securing the script, writers, actors, directors, budgetproducers, that kind of thing, fixed costs that no matter what scene is cut or special effect is scrimped on will still be paid the same. The UPM gets tasked with the less glamourous crew, the “below-the-line” costs, contracting with gaffers, makeup artists, sound engineers, all the “little people” who turn up and work hard to actually turn good ideas into reality. Plus he or she will be negotiating deals for location, equipment, etc.

An assistant director on a film has a full schedule: they track daily progress against the almighty production schedule, take care of logistics, prep the daily call sheets, check in with cast and crew, keep order on a busy set, and make makeupsure everyone’s safe. The first assistant director (1AD) is directly responsible to the director and runs the floor or set; they have to accurately estimate how long it will take to film a scene – whether several pages will be shot quickly, or one emotional paragraph may take all day. The 1AD is the communicator on set: all directions to the rest of the crew from the director will run through him or her. The second assistant director (2AD) creates the call sheets and then makes sure that all the cast is ready to follow through, revenantputting them through make-up and wardrobe. The call sheet tells cast and crew what scenes and script pages are being shot today, and where. They will provide exact start times (which rarely turn out to be all that exact), and addresses of shoot locations, and transportation arrangements so everyone can actually get there and maybe even park legally. It should also have contact info for the important crew, safety notes, maybe weather reports, sunrise\sunset times, and where to find the nearest hardware store when you inevitably need another extension cord. The second callsheetsecond assistant director (22AD) (yes, that’s their real title) comes on board when the production is big and\or complicated.  You can be sure the 2AD is checking on Brad Pitt’s mustache while the 22AD is making sure there’s a dozen ladies in hoop skirts behind him, or a thousand extras in zombie makeup, or that all the parking meters are fed. This really frees up Alejandro Iñárritu to laze about in his director’s chair fantasizing about Leo’s frosty breath, or Wes Anderson to deliberate between Egyptian blue and Ultramarine, or Steven Spielberg to play another practical joke on Tom Hanks.

2016dgaw002I’m also crazy excited to tell you that Alex Garland won for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director. Recognize his name? He’s the man behind 2015’s break-out indie success and seriously one of my favourite films of the year, Ex Machina. Remember the name, he’s only getting started. His directorial team includes:

Unit Production Manager: Sara Desmond

First Assistant Director: Nick Heckstall-Smith

Second Assistant Director: Ray Kenny

Also noteworthy: recipient of Outstanding Directorial Achievement in2016dgaw011
Documentary, Matthew Heineman for Cartel Land.

These three directors may be men, but you’ll have noticed there are lots of females sprinkled in amongst their support teams, which I can only hope means the ladies are movin on up. Here’s a lovely lady worth highlighting – Mary Rae Thewlis was the recipient of the Frank Capra Achievement Award, given to an assistant director or unit production manager in recognition of career 2016dgaw013achievement. Thewlis worked under Martin Scorsese on The Age of Innocence as a DGA trainee. She worked on the Tupac Shakur movie Above the Rim as the key second assistant director and under director Jon Avnet as second second assistant director on Up Close & Personal and then spent a lot of years at Law & Order originally as Second Assistant Director and eventually First Assistant Director. Kudos to her, and may she be an inspiration and example of hard work to aspiring young film makers everywhere.

A director is only as good as his or her team, so pick wisely, folks. It’s not just true of the movies. Find talent and nurture it.