Alex Sitaras: This month brings Annihilation, Alex Garland‘s followup to his directorial debut Ex-Machina. Annihilation is also a sci-fi film, this time not centering on artificial intelligence, but rather exploration into an environmental disaster zone that is known for its dangerous and supernatural qualities. The film is an adaptation of a novel written by Jeff VanderMeer as the first part of a trilogy. The plot bears some similarities with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Stalker, but visually the film looks distinct, the “Area X” of Annihilation appearing much more lush and vibrant than Tarkovsky’s “Zone”.
Matt Schlee: Garland proved his chops in terms of creating genuinely thoughtful and intelligent science fiction with Ex-Machina. Annihilation has the look of another thought provoking film. The trailers do give the impression that it may be more fast paced than Garland’s previous film. I find it odd that it’s taken four years for Garland to follow up after Ex-Machina, given its popularity upon release. Still, with a pretty outstanding cast and what look to be outstanding visual effects, he has a shot to build a serious reputation as a sci-fi director.
Alex: I’m not really too sure what to expect when seeing this film. Supposedly it is “too intellectual” for audiences and will be having a Netflix release abroad as a result, and the trailers paint the film almost as an action adventure or horror film. My curiosity definitely is a factor in voting for this title to be one of our Most Anticipated films.
Oscar Isaac returns to work with Garland in the film as a man who survives an expedition into Area X but returns ill. Natalie Portman stars as his wife and the lead of the film who volunteers to go on an expedition in order to hopefully find out how to heal him. If the film doesn’t follow the book closely, there isn’t much indication in the trailers of how the film proceeds from there.
Matt: I’m a big fan of Oscar Isaac’s work so I do hope that he’s involved in the plot in a greater capacity than the trailer implies. I’ll admit that the idea of Natalie Portman as a sci-fi hero brings back cringe inducing thoughts of Star Wars performances.
Another movie I’m looking forward to is Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx. The biopic observes the early years of Marx and the rise of the socialist movement. I was a big fan of Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Peck has shown a propensity for progressive politics, so I wonder if he will use The Young Karl Marx to make a statement about socialism. My biggest concern about the movie is the possibility that it could simply be a standard biopic.
Alex: At the very least, the film will be an anomaly for Western audiences in that many of us probably have never seen a film with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as protagonists. The trailer does paint it to be a biopic, but it is hinted that numerous scenes will take place in a factory, perhaps leading to revolt and a potential source of social commentary from Peck. Also of note, Vicky Krieps, the Phantom Thread breakout actress, stars in this film across August Diehl as Karl Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen.
The last new film I wanted to bring up is Golden Exits. Alex Ross Perry, a collision between Noah Baumbach and Todd Solondz, makes films that are challenging to enjoy. Not that he lacks talent, but rather that the characters in his films are insufferable and difficult to empathize with. There’s always an assurance when viewing his films that he did exactly as he set out to do, but watching his films isn’t really a wholesome experience in itself. His films rightfully do earn criticism for being pretentious. Golden Exits stars Emily Browning as the lead, a foreigner who arrives in Brooklyn and disrupts the life of two families. The film reunites Perry with Jason Schwartzman who previously starred in Perry’s Listen Up Philip as a narcissistic novelist.
Matt: I must admit that I have no particular familiarity with Alex Ross Perry, but taking a look at the trailer for this film combined with your comparisons, he seems to be something of your typical indie writer/director. Even just in the trailer you can see that quirky and cynical style of humor so often seen in these types of low budget independent films. I am a big Jason Schwartzman fan so I’d view that as a motive to make this my first Perry film.
Next I’d like to bring up a film that Criterion is releasing this month, and you’ll have to forgive me for gushing a little but this is one of my most beloved films. Louis Malle‘s Elevator to the Gallows is a French noir starring the lovely Jeanne Moreau. The film is impeccably shot and features one of the most stunning film scores of all time, by legendary jazz musician Miles Davis.
I had the opportunity to see the new restoration of the film when Janus toured it last year, and watching Moreau walk in the rainy streets of Paris to Davis’ spectacular score blasting through theater speakers was one of my best cinematic experiences.
Following typical noir behavior, the film takes many twists and turns, resulting in a convoluted and complex series of events. Coincidences and misunderstandings lead the characters down a path they never could’ve imagined. Every time I watch this film I’m stunned that it was Malle’s first directorial effort, as it has every dressing of an experienced filmmaker. It is no surprise that it was the first sign of a tremendous talent.
Alex: Now that you mention it, the film’s use of misunderstanding and coincidence reminds me a bit of Blood Simple, also a debut film. Elevator to the Gallows was released in ’58 and is in many ways a precursor to other French New Wave films in its portrayal of youth. Admittedly, this film was not on my radar until Criterion announced the restoration and I saw you commented on the r/criterion announcement thread about the film. It’s a restoration many are anticipating and for good reason- it’s a fun, tense, grim romp of a crime film.
Matt: Another new Criterion release I’m really looking forward to this month is Kon Ichikawa‘s An Actor’s Revenge. My familiarity with Ichikawa’s other work ends with Tokyo Olympiad, which is a documentary and wouldn’t have much stylistic bearing on this film. However, there’s a sort of ghostly feel in the trailer that reminds me a bit of Kobayashi‘s Kwaidan. The film is a revenge story and definitely looks like it has a powerful visual language. I’m really looking forward to checking this one out.
Alex: Agree with you in regards to the visuals. Shot composition, framing, and color usage definitely seem to be strengths that this film has. It’s one of Ichikawa’s lesser known films (had to Google to find a good trailer- there wasn’t one I could find easily on YouTube) and Criterion definitely favors his work, An Actor’s Revenge being the sixth film of his they’ve added into the collection. The film is a revenge story about an orphan who becomes an actor. When his troupe visits the town where his parents’ murderers reside, he is faced with the decision whether or not to murder them in revenge. The film is also narrated by a thief, which helps craft the tone of the story.