Tag Archives: Mystery

Cinema-Maniac: Annihilation (2018)

When it comes to science-fiction very few films can ever surpassed the sheer stupidity that was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) which I consider the dumbest science fiction film I’ve ever seen. I prefer sci-fi films that try to explore complex ideas about human nature over space epic. With this in mind I also understand science-fiction, like all genres, can be molded into what the storyteller so desire. So not every sci-fi is going to be smart, even though smart writing is what I typically look for in sci-fi. Annihilation ditches the advance technology in favor of being a hard sci-fi film with elements of psychological horror, and mystery thrown in. Resulting in a movie that has something to say, but doesn’t know to say it, nor combine all of its different elements into a single working piece.

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Missing in this image, intelligent life forms.

Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), and her team exploring a mysterious zone called the Shimmer that is ever expanding in order to seek answers. As far as science fiction movies goes there’s little in the way of advance technology to be found here. The movie certainly could have used some of that advance technology because you’ll have very little in that regard in the film’s writing. For starter, let’s start off with the fact the film is incapable of creating psychological horror with shallow characters. With the exception of Lena, everyone else who explores the Shimmer are clunkily developed in one exchange of dialogue. Having little to go on for these characters prevents there from being any tension building up. Lena who is fleshed out must face the more self destructive side of her personality in the few attempts the Shimmer makes to create things, and remind her of things she regrets in her past. Why the Shimmer does is not answered beyond it can refract DNA, and maybe read people’s subconscious, or mind. That last part is never confirmed. Instead of being mysterious you’ll be confused by why the story takes the direction it does.

Lena character is the only one in the movie that gets fleshed out properly, and it still finds a way to ruin that. She has a destructive behavior ruining her perfect looking marriage, and exploring Lena’s guilty conscious is the only thing the movie has to make anything compelling out of. Sadly, it’s all written, and expressed in a emotionless way devaluing any emotionally resonate this storyline could of had. The writing wants you to sympathize with her as a tragic character, and sadly it doesn’t work when everything is portrayed in a cold, disinterested manner. Detaching the emotion from the idea so to speak.

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in movies, but the internal logic has to function properly either by the genre it’s most bound by, or the logic within the world it takes place in. Already having establish the world mostly resemble ours lets go over the major oversights. Starting with the obvious if its establish every team who explore the Shimmer has died with the only person to have return coughing up blood, and now quarantine. You would think with this ever expanding mysterious field taking the lives of several trained military personnel that the government would make sure nothing from the Shimmer makes its way into any public area! On top of that, the military evacuated the public from this area under the pretense of a chemical spill. Within three years no one in Maryland (where Blackwater National Park is located) suspected there was something fishy going on. Everyone just believes it’s a chemical spill.

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They look like people? Nah, must imagining things.

The biggest oversight is something that shouldn’t have been overlooked in the first place. So when the only survivor from the Shimmer is placed in a quarantined area, and people wearing hazmat suit implies that survivor is contagious. Except when Lena (and possibly dozens of other) team goes to explore inside the Shimmer without any sort of protection. More questionable is the survivor made it into a public area so who knows how many people the survivor possibly infected. Maybe none since the movie is very selective on how science works. It’s almost as baffling as not having military trained personals besides Lena joining her team of scientists. With the stated gravity of this Shimmer expanding, and possibly destroying life the government sure are some serious cheapskates, or this military just have people who are complacent about all life possibly being killed by this ever expanding mysterious field!

Once the team actually gets inside the Shimmer it’s even slower moving than it was before. The opening sequence does the Shimmer investigation a disservice by revealing who survives, and briefly establishing the fate of the other team members. With that in mind you’ll just be waiting for them to slowly get killed off. There’s a scene at a military base at night time, and all the characters are taking turns guarding the team sleeping in the lookout tower. They decide to have someone on guard hundreds of feet away from the lookout tower they are sleeping in. With a stairway leading up to the sleeping team members being unprotected they intentionally placed themselves in even more danger for no reason. They have night vision goggles, and a lookout tower that’ll give them a broader view of the area if they guard the stairway. I would worry about them, but when they can’t see a giant mutated bear point blank in front them is about the point I gave up on them! Granted this happens at night time; however, the person who gets attacked is right next to the other members of the team when she gets attacked by a giant mutated bear. Oh yeah, can’t forget to mention everyone on Lena’s team we follow are some sort of scientists. I can’t buy into that when they’re hardly seen taking notes insider the shimmer.

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Perfectly describes this move in a single sentence

Without spoiling any specifics the climax resolution is sure to make your IQ drop to double digits. This is because of how easily the Shimmer itself, and everything it created gets destroyed in the film. Making it laughable that the first teams who explored the Shimmer when it was just in inside the lighthouse didn’t bother using any sort of flammable weapons to destroy it. Then comes the ending which takes it sweet time getting too. The climax which takes place in the lighthouse where the Shimmer originated goes on for too long. All that happens is Lena gets some vague answers leading to a name drop, a grenade like weapon pin gets pulled, and conflict resolved. This all takes longer than it should play out. Padding the sequence by having Lena slowly move around the lighthouse. Once the final shot of the movie cut to black I stopped caring about the fate of humanity in this film. If it was that easy for them to eliminate the threat, and the fact these stupid characters are the ones that did it is quite the feat it pulled off in dumb writing.

Annihilation is written, and directed by Alex Garland. I already bashed his poor writing skills on the story front, but as a director he doesn’t know how to give his actors good direction. The only one who manages to pull of anything well is Natalie Portman. She takes a broken character, and subtly displays constant self doubt in her. When she sounds detach speaking about herself, or her husband it come off naturally for the character to be speaking that way. Her co-stars on the other hand have a leash around them preventing them from showing too much emotions. Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers the most from this looking bored in several scenes. Garland, for some reason, wrote her a character who doesn’t display much emotion in the first place. So when Jennifer Leight is suppose to start losing it she acts no differently from when she was sane. The muted colors don’t help either, but having everything be so detached from emotion when you’re attempting to be psychological is counter intuitive.

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Only one thing could have done this. Man Bear Pig!

So without expressive actors the only other way Alex Garland tries to keep his audiences awake are through the brief moments of blood, and gore. One scene involving Oscar Isaac cutting through a soldier stomach with a knife has some convincing practical effects. It then gets ruined by fake looking CGI intestines. In general, the special effects are pretty good, especially the gore. There’s also another scene where a mutated bear attacks our tied up team in a house. The audio is so badly distorted that Garland to advise his actor to spell it out for the audience one of the team members mutated. Not only that, but this sequence involving the mutated team member in a house is pretty lame. When all it takes is a single clip from automatic gun to the head to kill a mutated bear how is there supposed to be tension. If the Shimmer distorts DNA, and this is the worse in terms of dangerous distorted lifeforms the team is going to be alright.

Annihilation is a hallow film detached from anything resembling human empathy. Attempting to have a broad psychological scope gets derails quickly through stupid writing, dumb characters, and a disinterested visionary. When you write a scene involving a team of scientists traveling by boat through a swamp after being attacked by a mutated alligator, you need to go back to the drawing board, and spend time tweaking around with simple logic before tackling anything complex. Alex Garland had good ideas, and a good cast to pull off something good, but it’s all goes to waste in this misfire effort.

Rating: 3/10

Cinema-Manaic: Voice Without a Shadow (1958)

Regardless of the medium, mystery/pot boilers centered stories I don’t check out frequently. When I think of a mystery story I think about someone trying to solve a crime, or find answer to an unexplained incident. For me, they all feel like they play out the same in the general way; main characters attempt to look for answers, eventually hit a dead end until finding the one clue that brings everything together, and finally explaining to the viewer how it worked out. Usually having me forget about its characters the next day.  Movies like these I get the appeal, but if I’m not going to get engaging characters than everything else surrounding them has to make up for it. Voice Without A Shadow does exactly that, even if it’s nothing outstanding by the end of it.

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Reporter Notes: There was a murder at the crime scene, and someone is responsible.

Voice Without A Shadow starts out unconventional before becoming formulaic with its storytelling. You’re introduce to Asako Takahashi (Yoko Minamida), a telephone operator who who dials the wrong number one night, and hears the voice of a murderer. You would be wrong to assume that Asako would be the focus, and the rest of the movie would be her trying to help the police find the killer with her unmatched hearing. Stated in the movie to be able to differentiate, and recognize hundreds of different voices like no other person. The initial setup is fascinating using sound in a technical aspect to enhance put us in the same position as Asako. Making certain everyday activity sound louder to Asako, and in turn the audience watching. Unfortunately there is a time skip to three years later where we’re told the case has gone cold. This occurs in the first few minutes where it eventually takes another turn to where Asako does little in the effort to prove her husband’s innocence in a murder that transpired.

 

Within the first act of the movie, twice it does away with the initial setup before falling in the familiar territory of a pot boiler mystery. Towards the end of the first act newspaper journalist Hiroshi Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) who might as well be a detective since that his purpose in the movie. Putting the actual police force to shame when he’s able to put clues together that the police force overlooked. Something as simple like a bag being dry on the day it was found when the day before it was raining is one of many simple details the police force don’t think about. There is one detail in particular that is outrageous that the police force didn’t even considered. Without spoiling the actual movie, it would basically be the equivalent of someone filming a murder scene, and the police having to be told by someone outside the force the camera can record things, and therefore must have recorded the murder. This movie does the Japanese police force no favors in making them out to look incompetent at their jobs.

Shifting the focus to Ishikawa means you get the familiar routine of him interviewing people on the night of the crime, being at his wits end trying to solve the murder, having a near death encounter the closer he gets to solving the crime, and getting the one clue he needs to piece everything together. When in this state the movie plays out mechanically safe to fall into your expectations. Doing so by sharing a understanding why a familiar formula is so effective even after hundreds of usage. It’s biggest bright spot in this routine are the dead ends Ishikawa comes across during the case. They’re presented in a logical way with some detail that makes the case itself more complicated than it appears. Every time Ishikawa believes he got a lead there’s something that pushes him back further from finding any answers. Leading to many good head scratcher moments when attempting to solve the case alongside Ishikawa.

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Even in a still image, Jo Shishido character is still hateable

My biggest issue with the movie is the lack of depth to the characters. They’re treated more like plot devices which means generally delivering expository dialogue after expository dialogue. Showing very little personality in its writing. At it best, the character writing is great when characters are talking about their past, and the rare comments about love. Ishikawa is the most interesting of the cast of characters with a colleague of his wondering why he’s solving a mystery for woman he knows won’t love him back. These moments when the characters don’t talk about the murder case are a highlight since they don’t happen often. Ishikawa gets delved into a fair amount showing his dedication to journalism, and seeking the truth. Being the only one in the cast to come out unscathed from the writing other issues.

 

There’s a good attempt to present some complexity to some of the suspects, but it sadly goes into the “we’re bad” category of writing eventually. A shame too since the movie does a good job not making the suspects obvious to Ishikawa even though the audience knows a bit more than he does. Asako side of the story attempts to create some paranoia through the usage of sound whenever she’s relevant. It doesn’t quite work like the writing intended because at random points it’ll switch characters perspective. Leaving little time for any paranoia to creep in. Once it finally comes together at the end the viewing experience is made worthwhile. What few character arcs it actually have reach satisfying conclusions. The answers to the mystery itself are mostly logical, and seeing the case itself being solved it a high point itself. Executing the familiar elements of a mystery just right to leave a positive impression.

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(Not) Very subtle with the devil mask

Taking the charge for most of the movie is Hideaki Nitani. His biggest hurdle is the dialogue he’s given. Being unable to make it sound natural, but he does a decent delivery job delivering it. Nitani best moments of acting are surprisingly the sparse instances where the camera closes up on his face, and is able to express an array of emotions within his character. These more quieter moments displays greater potential in his acting abilities. Yoko Minamida is the standout in the cast. Despite the film minimizing her role the longer it goes she elevates whatever scene she’s in. Perfectly getting across the fear, and turmoil her character struggles through. Jo Shishido makes an appearance in a small role as a sleazy businessman. Give whatever character you want to Jo Shishido, and he’ll find a way to play the character naturally. Suitably obnoxious, and hateable he eases his way in a simple role. He ain’t in the film for much of it, but he will leave an impression. Toshio Takahara is mostly made out to be pathetic, but sympathetic at the same time. Sadly, he’s not given much to do beside look worried. The actors who play the suspects are good in their small roles with some able to make an impression.

 

Director Seijun Suzuki doesn’t spice things up in terms of writing, but on the technical side shows restraint in his style, and eagerness to make the most out of a scene visuals. One of these includes having an entire flashback sequence being entirely filmed in dutch angles. Creating a distorted look to the film in this sequence. Another stylistic choice are involves moments when it’s in first person, and appearing as if the characters are talking directly into the camera. It also briefly uses some tracking shots as well to set the mood accordingly. In one scene, Suzuki faintly has a shot of Yoko Minamida trying to sleep, and faintly faded visuals of her co-stars playing mahjong in the scene, and playing around with the audio to make the noticeable noise of mahjong moving around be become loud. Stylistic choices like these prevent the movie from being visually mundane.  Music is fine, but nothing memorable. It sounds like a dozen other pot boiler mystery movie score.

Voice Without A Shadow represents the general appeal of a pot boiler mystery, and also the lack of investment towards the characters involved. It might play things safe for a majority of its run time, but there is effort to make something good out of it. It succeeds more than it fails playing into your expectations. 

Rating: 7/10