Tag: Surreal

Beyond the Black Rainbow review

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Writer: Panos Cosmatos

Cast: Michael Rodgers, Eva Allen, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Norry, Rondel Reynoldson

Release date: December 3, 2010

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Beyond the Black Rainbow is a flawed, yet interesting and very unique film. It was the debut of Panos Cosmatos, the director and writer of Mandy. A science fiction horror film, it is about a young woman with psychic abilities who is being kept captive at a secretive institute by a creepy doctor played by Michael Rodgers.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is the kind of film that doesn’t make your viewing experience easy. It’s a very deliberately paced, clinical film in the vein of Stanley Kubrick; with characters that don’t particularly come off as emotional or human, except for one. Its plot is very minimalistic, requiring viewers to slowly piece together what exactly is going on. A lot of people will come away from it thinking that it’s boring, but sticking with it is a rewarding experience.

The film’s aesthetics are its strongest attributes; thanks to its direction, cinematography, and score. As mentioned above, Cosmatos was clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick. His cold and calculating direction giving me flashbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every shot of this film is masterfully framed and beautiful to look at, yet also gives a haunting vibe. There are scenes and images in this film that will not leave your brain when you see them. The standout example being a flashback in the middle of the film that is surreal horror at its finest. The uncomfortable synthesizer soundtrack doesn’t exactly help either. Nothing comes across as quite human or natural in its neatness. The same can be said of the characters and their actors’ performances. Michael Rodgers as our antagonist is quite frightening throughout; first in an understated way, and then in a way that is the stuff of nightmares. Our protagonist named Lena is the sole sympathetic character in the whole film. She’s a captive in a cold, uncaring facility that she wants to escape. It would not surprise me if Cosmatos was inspired by Elfen Lied, nor would it surprise me if this film inspired the Duffer Brothers during the creation of Stranger Things.

Despite having great elements, Beyond the Black Rainbow is held back from being a great film. The plot is extremely bare bones, to the point of near non-existence. Its mostly just a series of events that happen, with the one flashback in the middle of the film to give events some more context. The third act is when things at last come together, and the film’s surreal horror kicks into high gear. Also, while beautiful, the film will linger on shots too long at times; coming across as pretentious.

It’s a flawed gem, and many will walk away from it feeling they had their time wasted. Regardless, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a nice throwback film that justifiably has a cult following. For all its faults, it was the arrival of a genuinely talented filmmaker with a unique style and vision. Anyone looking for a more unconventional horror experience should give it a shot.

Score: 7/10

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Annihilation (movie) review

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac

Released: February 23, 2018

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I had some high hopes for this one, and it didn’t disappoint. Support this film to show that science fiction films like these can still succeed at the theater.

Annihilation is the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, directed and written by Alex Garland. I have some familiarity with Garland’s work. He wrote 2012’s Dredd, which was really good and I’ve heard high praise for his first film from 2015, Ex Machina. Annihilation just further cements his status as a guy to keep an eye on when he’s attached to a project.

The story is about Lena, a female biologist played by Natalie Portman whose husband played by Oscar Isaac has come back home after a year of being presumed dead from a military op. It quickly becomes clear something is very wrong as he can barely remember anything, and becomes deathly ill and is taken and quarantined by an organization known as the Southern Reach. Lena, wanting answers as to what happened to her husband, decides to join an expedition of all female scientists into a closed off area of land known as “The Shimmer”. As the mission goes on, they encounter unexplainable phenomena, and must try to finish their mission.

My previous review was for the original novel so I can comment on how this film is as an adaptation of its source material. Quite frankly I not only think it’s a great adaptation but I think I prefer it to the novel. The original novel was a top tier sci-fi read with great atmosphere and a chilling plot, but its characters were rather thin with very little actual emotional investment for us to give. They didn’t even have names, not even the protagonist. The movie fixes that by giving the characters names, added personal life details, personalities and backgrounds that serve as motivation for why they’re on the mission, and gives them a sense of comradery which makes the story more tragic. It also removes some details that would drag the film’s narrative down so as to streamline it more to fit the runtime. Last and most importantly, it preserves the novel’s spirit of Lovecraftian fear and desire to know the unknown. The only change that I don’t think they needed to make was change the name of the area itself, but that’s a very petty thing to knock it for and at least the new name sounds cool.

The technical aspects of this film are exquisite. The special effects are extremely convincing with creative creature and set designs, aided by gorgeous cinematography and stellar direction. The film is simply beautiful, no two ways about it. Garland managed to bring to screen the haunting beauty of Area-X VanderMeer put to paper. Even as beautiful as the film is, there is still an uncomfortable feeling lingering in the back of your mind. Even as you get lost in the beauty of the environment, what you don’t see may kill you. The spin-tingling moments of tension in the film is aided by the film’s chilling musical score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The performances from the cast are all really good, especially from Natalie Portman as the lead and Tessa Thompson pulling of a pretty sympathetic and complex role.

Annihilation’s plot is hard to get into without risking giving spoilers away. The trailers have done a good job of keeping the plot as vague and detailed as it needs to be, and I’m going to try to do the same but fix a misconception some may have from the marketing. The plot is not your traditional sci-fi horror story you’ve seen from Alien or The Thing. It’s a much more cerebral, slow-burn plot dealing with heavy themes such as humanity’s tendency to self-destruct, the apathy of nature, and the fear of the unknown that all culminates in one hell of a climax and ending. All of this is aided by an emotional hook from the characters all having damaged personal lives and differing traits that set them apart from each other. That’s all I’m going to give away concerning the plot and characters. If you want to know more, go out and see for yourself.

It’s not a movie whose flaws can be totally forgiven in spite of its outstanding qualities. I didn’t mind the slow pacing because I just got lost in the beauty and wonder of the film, but it probably could’ve gone a bit faster. Nevertheless it at least didn’t get boring. Also some characters are more fleshed out than others and while the special effects are outstanding 99% of the time, there is that 1% that just doesn’t quite work.

Annihilation is a smart science fiction film that deserves to succeed at the box office. It’s definitely a movie that will leave you pondering what it all meant, especially the shocking last act. It isn’t a masterpiece like Blade Runner 2049 or Under the Skin, but it’s a damn good movie that can be viewed in the same light. I highly recommend you give it your money.

Score: 8.5/10

Annihilation review

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Published: February 2014

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Well isn’t this a surprise, I’m reviewing a book this time. Specifically, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I first heard about this book when I saw the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation from Alex Garland. I liked what I saw and figured I would read the source material before I see the movie. I didn’t even know it was the first of a trilogy. I started reading it about two days before writing this review, and managed to finish it hours earlier today. It has been a long time since I’ve read something this engaging and well written.

Annihilation is just like a good Lovecraft story, if Lovecraft had managed to write a full book instead of just short stories. Its story is about an all female team consisting of a psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and our protagonist a biologist as they venture out into Area-X, an area of land which seems to defy the very laws of science. As the team investigates, things quickly fall apart, but that’s all I’ll say about the story without going into spoiler territory.

Like I said earlier, this has all the trappings of a good cosmic horror story written by H.P. Lovecraft. It involves a group of people dealing with an entity that their minds cannot fully make sense of, no matter what technology they have or investigative tools they use. Area-X is one of the most fascinating, realized locations I’ve witnessed in years. It’s strange, disturbing, and defies any attempts to make sense of it. It is as if it exists in a plane of reality outside of the rest of the Earth. The laws of nature as we know them are not followed in Area-X, with one of the books most memorable scenes being one where our protagonist witnesses some dolphins with a very peculiar trait their species should not have, and numerous ones that takes place in a “tower” that goes underground. Everything in Area-X simply should not be.

On the character side Annihilation doesn’t excel but it works. None of the characters are given names, not even our protagonist, and she’s the only one we’re ever given any insight into. She has a rather unconventional, and at times unsympathetic personality. She’s antisocial, wrapped up in her work, and just seems not to care about the people around her. The novel is entirely from a first person perspective, so we learn about her, and only her. The other characters’ pasts are unexplored. We also only have the protagonist’s knowledge of the area and its wildlife. This is a good way of adding to the fear of the unknown the book has. By the end, the protagonist doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do we.

Annihilation’s single greatest attribute is easily its atmosphere, which is thanks to VanderMeer’s excellent writing. He manages to bring to life the vast loneliness the protagonist feels during the plot, the sadness and isolation given off from the remnants of humanity found in Area-X, and the surrealism of its ecology. While it builds atmosphere, the novel still manages to have an excellent pace to it. Nothing feels padded on or unnecessary, and when I was finished I felt breathless and wanting more.

For all the good things I have to say, Annihilation is not for everybody. While it’s only 195 pages in total and I managed to read through it fairly quickly, it can be a tad confusing at times and the characters aren’t really the focus of the story. You also are left with unanswered questions by the end, which will no doubt leave at least one person feeling cheated. I personally did not mind this because the protagonist finished her own personal journey and since the story is framed as her recounting her experiences, it immerses us into her mindset and maintains the book’s Lovecraftian horror traits.

Annihilation is a great read and has left me feeling even more excited for Alex Garland’s film adaptation. I’m nervous and excited to see if he can make a movie out of such a surreal novel, but if he has to take some liberties to make it happen, then let him do so. It works both as a standalone work, and as the first of a trilogy. I’m eager to read the other two books of the series as soon as I can.

Score: 8/10

The End of Evangelion review

Director: Hideaki Anno

Writer: Hideaki Anno

Studio: Production I.G.

Released: July 19, 1997

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Warning: spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion since this movie is the finale meant to finish the original series

While I think they’re pretty good, the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion left many people feeling cold and disappointed. So many questions and plot threads were left unresolved, and the fanbase was demanding a proper finale. The movie The End of Evangelion was intended to be the definitive finale to the series, a “final draft” if you will of the concepts and events introduced in the last two episodes, and boy it did not disappoint.

The End of Evangelion begins with the immediate psychological aftermath of Shinji killing Kaworu. He’s in a predictably awful state, and its implied he tried to commit suicide via drowning but failed. He then follows this up by accidently exposing a comatose Asuka’s breasts and…does something absolutely despicable (watch the movie). That is the state of our “hero” throughout the majority of the movie: a self-loathing, wallowing in self-pity, selfish and despairing wreck who cares barely about himself and even less for the people around him. It gets better: the shadow organization SEELE decides to make their move and begin the apocalyptic event of Third Impact that will assimilate all of humanity into one consciousness, consent be damned. What follows are a series of events that bring our characters to their lowest, to self-realization, death, and not even necessarily in that order. Have fun!

In all seriousness, The End of Evangelion is phenomenal. Both as a finale to the original series, and as a movie in its own right. Having the budget and resources of a movie elevates the animation to new heights that still looks great to this day. Those awesome fight scenes in the original? They’ve got nothing on the mecha battle that happens in the first half of the film, which is easily one of the best animated fight scenes of all time, with an outcome that will leave your jaw on the floor. And the visual delights don’t end there, because The End of Evangelion boasts some of the most creative and memorable visuals not just in the series but in anime and cinema in general. Love or hate the plot and characters, but you can’t deny the imagination and creativity on display here.
Speaking of plot and characters, it wouldn’t be Evangelion without an…interesting resolution to the series. It’s not as confusing as the original series’ was, and it leaves off on an overall satisfying ending, but it will still leave you scratching your head as to exactly what happened. Shinji once again is confronted by the inner depths of his subconscious and must finally come to terms with his character flaws, stop running away from people in order to avoid getting hurt, and is given a choice regarding the fate of the entire human race.

One gripe I had with the original was barring a few exceptions, I didn’t think its music was anything special. Well this movie totally fixes that! The music for The End of Evangelion is nothing short of fantastic, and is without a doubt one of the best in anime history. Komm Susser Tod (Come Sweet Death), Hajimari He No Touhi (Escape to the Beginning), and Yume no Sukima (Opening of a Dream) are my three favorite musical scores of the entire movie. The first playing during the most surreal, horrifying, and memorable part of the movie that viewers will never forget, the second featuring the most epic chanting ever, and the third being one of the most melancholic piano pieces I’ve ever heard.

The two flaws of The End of Evangelion are that it cannot be viewed without watching the original series. If you do, you will be hopelessly lost. Now I can give it a bit of a pass because it was never meant to be viewed as a standalone work, but it still was released as a full length feature film that requires knowledge of the original’s characters and plot. Lastly, regarding the ending, while I love it and think it gives great closure for the original, did leave me confused on one aspect of it. It’s on one hand arguably a plot hole, but to this day provokes discussion and debate. I have mixed feelings about it overall. Other than those two things however, I have no major issues with it.

The End of Evangelion is the grand finale that the original series deserved. It’s thought provoking, daring, and beautiful. While it fails as a standalone movie, it never was meant to be one, and serves to elevate the original Neon Genesis Evangelion. If you did not like the original, this will not change your mind. If you did however, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

Score: 9/10

Neon Genesis Evangelion review

Director: Hideaki Anno

Writer: Hideaki Anno

Studio: Gainax

Episodes: 26

Aired: October 4, 1995-March 27, 1996

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I’ve had Neon Genesis Evangelion on my watch list for a long time, and it’s about damn time that I decided to check it off my list. It’s one of the most debated anime of all time, some calling it a masterpiece, others calling it overrated, pretentious tripe. My opinion? It’s a classic that deserves just about all the praise it gets.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is the confusing, surreal mecha deconstruction anime from the mind of Hideaki Anno and the talent at Studio Gainax. Set in Tokyo years after an apocalyptic event known as Second Impact changed the face of world, three young teenagers named Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley Soryu, and Rei Ayanami are chosen to pilot giant synthetic mechs known as Evangelions to fight giant monsters known as Angels to prevent Third Impact, an even greater apocalyptic event that would result in the complete extinction of all of humanity. As the series goes on, the inner motives and psychological torments of the pilots get taken under the microscope and Evangelion goes from merely an anime about robots fighting giant monsters to a dark, psychological character study about the inner boundaries between people and the collective human desire for acceptance.

The aspect of Evangelion most worthy of praise then and now is the characters and their development. It might seem unremarkable now but at the time, a cast with such deep, crippling flaws like these hadn’t been seen before in anime. Shinji Ikari is no badass, escapist protagonist. He’s whiny, self-critical to a fault, and arguably a coward at times. He’s a character whose very human flaws make him sympathetic, but not necessarily likable. Asuka Soryu is an examination of the tsundere character archetype, and what kind of trauma a person would have had to suffer to turn out like that, and what effect it would have on them and the people they care for deep down, but have trouble showing. Rei Ayanami is…well that would be going into spoiler territory that I don’t want to go into, but Rei’s character is mysterious, struggles with her identity, mortality, emotions, and feelings regarding the two most important people in her life, and her past is tied intricately to the overarching plot of the series. Those are just the three main characters. The side characters are just as well developed and psychologically complex. Shinji’s commanding officer and guardian, Misato Katsuragi, is on the surface a confident woman with issues keeping a tidy house, but is just as damaged on the inside as Shinji is. No character is overlooked, and the show takes the time to show you what they’re like on and off the job, and the events that made them the people you see in the anime.

Complementing Evangelion’s great characters is an extremely well written and intriguing plot. The first half of the series is an entertaining and well directed but overall played straight mecha anime, but the second half is where things really get interesting. The series takes a much darker shift in tone, and the focus shifts from giant robots fighting monsters to examining the psychology and motivations of the characters, and dealing with themes examining depression, suicide, identity, love. At the same time we slowly learn the truth about the Evas, NERV, Second Impact, and the goals of the secretive organization SEELE. All of these elements make for what is quite frankly one of the most memorable stories in anime.

I had heard that Evangelion had problems with its animation budget and that Gainax had to cut corners and get creative to compensate for this. After having watched the series, I think there is at least some truth to this, but it’s been exaggerated. The mecha battles in Evangelion look awesome the majority of the time, and still hold up today. The non battle scenes with the characters just talking and doing their daily activities have some clunky animation once or twice, but nothing seriously detrimental. Even in the scenes featuring limited animation, the stellar direction by Anno keeps them engaging visually.

The battle scenes in Evangelion are never repetitive. There is always a unique solution that the pilots have to figure out in order to win, and even when they do, victory will sometimes come at a great sacrifice and leave them scarred mentally and physically. The second half of the series increases the tension and stakes of them with the Angels invading the pilots’ minds and forcing them to confront their deepest insecurities. They never feel stale and are always coming up with new ideas to remain exciting.

Watching the series in English was an interesting experience. While the first couple of episodes can be grating, to the point I was considering switching to the Japanese audio, but by the time Asuka shows up in episode 7, they begin to grow on you. I can’t imagine anyone other than Spike Spencer being the voice of Shinji Ikari, or Tiffany Grant and Amanda Win-Lee as Asuka and Rei respectively. The standout performance of the cast, in my opinion, would have to go to Tristan MacAvery as Gendo Ikari, perfectly capturing the character’s cunning and mysterious nature and his cold, yet still human personality.

Other worthy editions of note are the unique visual designs of the Evas and Angels, and the opening and ending themes being extremely memorable and catchy. Unfortunately, I can’t really recall the rest of the soundtrack being particularly memorable except for some great usage of Hallelujah in episode 22.

The final two episodes

I won’t go into spoilers here but I am going to devote a whole section of this review try to justify the most divisive aspect of Evangelion: the last two episodes of the original series. Episodes 25 and 26 are what can be considered a rough draft of The End of Evangelion movie, which I view to be the definitive finale of the series. They both deal with the same events, serve to wrap up the plot, and spend a large deal of time psychoanalyzing Shinji, but the final two episodes do so with leftover animation, still frames, and monologues from the characters.

The result wasn’t perfect but they still managed to give the episodes a surreal atmosphere and finish Shinji’s character arc. The episodes also still take time to fully psychoanalyze the other characters, and 26 features a charming sequence of what their lives might have been like if they did not have to pilot the Evas. Not great, but not terrible either and you’ll remain transfixed by what you are watching. I recommend you watch these episodes, then move on to The End of Evangelion movie so you can have a better appreciation for them.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is flawed but still a masterpiece. Whatever flaws it has can’t take away from all that it does so well and even after all these years, it still holds up. Any fan of anime, or just a fan of well written and compelling fiction should watch this series.

Score: 9/10

Bakemonogatari review

Directors: Tatsuya Oishi, Akiyuki Shinbou

Writers: Yukito Kizawa, Munemasa Nakamoto

Studio: Shaft

Episodes: 15

Aired: July 3, 2009- June 25, 2010

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I’ve been especially struggling with how to start this review. I really don’t know where to begin with Bakemonogatari. It’s an anime that has been difficult to convey my thoughts on due to its sheer unique nature. I really haven’t watched anything quite like it. I can say it’s a very love it or hate it kind of anime. Either someone will think it’s a unique, visually amazing and atmospheric show with an unconventional way of telling its story, or someone will think it’s nothing more than pretentious harem garbage. I am the former person, because while not perfect, Bakemonogatari is an engrossing, unique watching experience.

Bakemonogatari is the first anime that is based on a popular series of light novels called the Monogatari series from Japan by author Nisio Isin. The anime covers the events of the novels titled Bakemonogatari. The plot is…well there really isn’t an overarching plot to this anime, just a series of episodic events that become slightly more interconnected by the end. The “plot” is that high school student and partial vampire Koyomi Araragi solves the supernatural oddities such as invisible snakes and cat spirits going on in his town amongst different girls he encounters. That’s it really. Story arcs will introduce a new girl with a spirit that is causing them problems, Araragi with the help of his semi-mentor Meme Oshino will exorcise it, and the girl will become his friend and/or admirer. The final arc has the closest to what the anime’s main antagonist will be. If you’re looking for a story with original ideas writing-wise or one with more singular focus, then you’ll be disappointed. Bakemonogatari isn’t concerned by what story it’s telling but how it tells a story.

Bakemonogatari’s biggest strength is its unique visual style and direction. The usage of color, especially red is extremely striking amongst often grey backgrounds. Nearly every scene in the anime is incredibly beautiful to look at due to scene being shot at creative angles that create a surreal atmosphere that you would expect to see in a Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch film, which should be expected of Shaft’s famously unique visual style and director Akiyuki Shinbou would go on to create and direct the darkly beautiful and subversive Puella Madoka Magica. Many times, conversations between characters will be interrupted for brief seconds with stills of text from the original light novels. Flashbacks will have a film reel sound effect playing in the background, with some using live action stills. Settings will be entirely empty of people save for the main characters, as if the city is a ghost town. The surreal atmosphere is further enhanced by Bakemonogatari’s blending of genres, strange cast of characters and dialogue. Araragi, our protagonist is the most normal character in the anime, and he’s partially a vampire that can heal from any wound! The girls he aids have their own personality quirks, such as the first girl Hitagi Senjougahara being disturbingly cold and prone to threatening violence on Araragi. This is because Bakemonogatari is both an urban fantasy mystery and a busting of the harem genre. The character Senjougahara is outright called a tsundere in the anime, and she very much is one, she’s just a darkly comedic parody of one. The other girls are on the surface character types you’d see in your usual anime harem show, but are truly the archetypes given substance and depth. To top it all off, we are given an utterly beautiful soundtrack that is wide in range from as creepy, strange and mysterious as the world and characters of Bakemonogatari to surprisingly chipper and calming.

This is an extremely self aware and meta anime. It takes jabs and makes observations of itself and anime conventions as a whole. It straddles the line between endearing, and obnoxiously having its head stuck up its ass. It definitely flirts with the latter, but luckily has the sense to stay closer to the former. Nonetheless, the anime definitely has a huge amount of pretentiousness and smug satisfaction in its own admitted cleverness that can be a bit distracting. Less tolerant viewers will probably be rolling their eyes at its hubris.
Bakemonogatari’s other inescapable flaws are the cultural boundaries between its native Japanese and English speaking audiences and its story feels like you missed a previous season. This is because in the Monogatari series timeline, Bakemonogatari is not the first story for a number of these characters. Now the original light novels were published in an out of order timeline as well, so it is entirely possible that this problem is mitigated in its original format, but this creates a sense of confusion that can easily cause someone to turn away from the anime after the first episode. The former flaw is that Bakemonogatari has a great deal of wordplay that will likely go over some of the heads of a number of English speaking viewers, myself included. While there were plenty of scenes I understood the humor, I’m sure there were moments that I didn’t get which is both my fault and the anime’s.

As for voice acting, everyone does a very good job and brings their characters to life. There’s even one very humorous scene in one of the anime’s later episodes where one character proceeds to vaporize the fourth wall and use the fact they have voice actors and actresses to hilarious effect. Just watch it, the moment completely catches you off guard and is a moment of genuine cleverness.

Bakemonogatari would probably be a masterpiece if it weren’t for its own occasional arrogance, some of the humor being lost in translation, and being a bit too vague and hard to follow at times for its own good. Yet it’s also the kind of show that begs for a re-watch sometime in the future so you can see what you missed and dissect everything. It’s a hard recommendation due to its unorthodox nature and hard to penetrate story, but I would ask that you do watch it even if you find yourself disliking the very first episode. It’s an anime that dares to make its viewer confused and downright uncomfortable at times and if nothing else, you’ll certainly never forget it, love or hate it.