Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation (B) is largely an incredibly absorbing sci-fi thriller about an army of women who venture behind a quarantined force field to resolve the enigma of the atmospheric abnormality going on inside. Natalie Portman is solid as the former military biology professor with a secret who discovers many of the chilling mutations and mysteries within “the shimmer.” The story is often hypnotic and the effects impressive, but the movie runs into some final act troubles. Some of the key characters are also underwritten, and there are myriad missed opportunities to more clearly articulate the film’s thesis, involving our cellular imprint toward self-destruction. The film is still smarter than your standard issue adventure, and like Christopher Nolan’s similarly ambitious Interstellar also overextends its reach.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel franchise, Black Panther (B+), is a regal rouser with a superhero who also presides as monarch of a fictional secret African nation. Chadwick Boseman is dashing as the lead in the globetrotting film set largely in his high-tech palace city, but (like Thor) he’s often upstaged by a moody, Machiavellian villain, played with swagger by Coogler muse Michael B. Jordan. A supporting cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker brings pluck to the proceedings, but the best actors in the bunch are Winston Duke as a reluctant warrior and Letitia Wright as the king’s Q-like kid sis. The film takes a while to accelerate into the throne room barn burner it becomes, but once it generates steam, there’s a deliciously delirious set of showdowns in Korean crime dens, atop waterfall cliffs, in battle meadows and aboard Tron-like light rail tunnels. It’s a vibrant adventure and a morally urgent political parable that delivers on a variety of levels.
Paul King’s Paddington 2 (B+) is charming family entertainment but with a marmalade tart wit and whimsy exceeding its simple premise. Voice actor Ben Whishaw and delightful actors such as Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back from the original film, joined by Hugh Grant in an unexpected tour de force as an unscrupulous out of work thespian who cheats the titular talking bear out of an antique book with clues to buried treasure. Much of the film takes place with wrongly imprisoned Paddington cheering up inmates while Grant’s nefarious villain tries on myriad disguises in an attempt to claim outrageous fortune. The film soars especially in moments with splendid flourishes when least anticipated and in tender and droll subplots which transcend the spectacle. Blending live action, CGI animation and a pop-up art vision of London, the film is a first class caper. Although not quite as crisp as the first film, it’s a boon companion.
The coming of age musical fantasy Saturday Church (B), written and directed by Damon Cardasis, is a balm for modern times as well as a bit of a love offering, with tender and affecting performances set to soaring music punctuating a meaningful meditation on what makes a family. Luka Kain is magnetic as the teenage protagonist exploring his sexual and gender identity against the backdrop of a home befallen by tragedy and mixed signals. Margot Bingham is superb as his absentee but well-meaning mom, and Regina Taylor plays effectively against type as a judgmental guardian aunt, but it’s the gender fluid ensemble providing their own brand of sassy youth fellowship at the real-life NYC haven of the film’s title who are acolytes for the movie’s inclusive glory. MJ Rodriguez is the film’s heart as the teen protagonist’s big-sisterly companion, and Marquis Rodriguez is a winning delight as a friend and love interest. Interior monologues become bursts into songs (it’s hard not to think of some of it as a mini-Rent without the artsy angst); and although many of the sequences overreach, the film is a minor miracle, unflinching in its depiction of runaways and discarded outcasts who cannot always live up to the “Conditions of Love” described in one of the standout songs of Nathan Larson’s score. The film felt like it was evolving into the Billy Elliot of drag, what with our hero finding new ways to express himself, but stops short of striking a penultimate pose. It’s a generous, entertaining and important film.