Benedict Wong

What We Do in the Shadows (2019) s02e01 – Resurrection

So, there’s a lot to say about “What We Do in the Shadows”’s return, like how they figured out an amazing way to keep growing Harvey Guillén’s vampire hunter arc (as he is a vampire’s familiar) and how the show uses a time jump (summer is over, so we get some exposition—unclear if the show was supposed to air in a fall or it’s just a plot device), but the big deal of the episode is Haley Joel Osment.

Osment plays Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou’s new familiar—their last ones kept getting killed off—and he’s a terrible coworker for Guillén. Osment plays on his phone while Guillén does all the work. Guillén is up all night every night killing off the Max Schreck Nosferatu assassins who are after Berry, Demetriou, and Guillén’s master, Kayvan Novak, for some shenanigans last season. And hiding it from them because then they’ll know he’s a vampire hunter.

There’s this great bit about him eating chocolate covered espresso beans to stay up, which Novak thinks are his dried turds. It’s really funny. Excellent script from Marika Sawyer.

Anyway, the setup isn’t Osment being a crappy coworker to Guillén but Osment dying—just like all of Berry and Demetriou’s familiars, only instead of just burying him in the yard, they take him to neighborhood necromancer Benedict Wong.

Wong’s hilarious, selling tchotchkes in his shop and scatting through his incantations to bring Osment back. Now, Demetriou believes in necromancy, but Berry doesn’t, so there’s a bunch of griping Berry, which is wonderful as always.

Only Wong’s legit and Osment’s risen…

Only he’s a zombie.

And none of the vampires believe Guillén. So there are all these chase sequences throughout the house, with Osment just as funny undead as alive. He’s not a regular familiar who wants to be turned into a vampire, it’s just a cool side gig while waits for his 0.5% ownership of a microbrewer to pay-off. Like, it’s awesome stuff. Sawyer gives Osment all this great material and he nails it all.

So good.

It’s downright lovely to have the show back. Just what it needs to be. Novak, Demetriou, and Berry are all great too but it’s really Guillén and Osment’s episode.

Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.

Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.

Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.

We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.

She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.

Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.

Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.

At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.

Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.

Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.

Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Garland; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Lena), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), David Gyasi (Daniel), and Benedict Wong (Lomax).


Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)

Moon is quite good.

Moon’s not the most impossible film to talk about without spoiling… but some of its goodness is wrapped up in its plot developments. The viewer should get to enjoy Moon without knowing about them in advance.

I have to be very careful in terms of those developments. I’ll try to avoid talking about all of them.

While the film’s good, Sam Rockwell movies sometimes get to be about marveling at his acting skills. The film isn’t necessarily superior; his performance is startling. He’s always fresh, never resembling anything anyone has ever done before.

Jones does an excellent job directing the film, which isn’t easy since he’s awakening the quality sci-fi genre from its dormant state. His influences are visible—a clear one is Alien, but I won’t spoil it—but he ranges from 2001 to Outland. Moon feels like a return to that late sixties through early eighties sci-fi genre picture. Even the film’s unfortunately traditional conclusion makes it fit.

At a certain point, Jones loses track of the film’s successes. It’s too bad; at times, Moon is singular (again, I can’t say too much without spoiling).

The hipster music—from Clint Mansell—fails. Though I suppose a lot of Moon is, depending on how much you want to read into it, hipster. But there’s a solid core to the picture.

While it is a promising debut from Jones, Moon’s mostly just another great Rockwell performance.

It’s too bad it’s not a great film.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Duncan Jones; screenplay by Nathan Parker, based on a story by Jones; director of photography, Gary Shaw; edited by Nicolas Gaster; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Tony Noble; produced by Stuart Fenegan and Trudie Styler; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Kevin Spacey (GERTY), Dominique McElligott (Tess Bell), Kaya Scodelario (Eve Bell), Benedict Wong (Thompson) and Matt Berry (Overmeyers).


Frankenstein (2007, Jed Mercurio)

“a monstrous creation ; especially : a work or agency that ruins its originator”

Frankenstein. (2008). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Retrieved October 2, 2008, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Frankenstein

I wish I could use the OED, but it doesn’t seem worth thirty bucks.

Especially ruins. Two important words for a Frankenstein adaptation. Jed Mercurio does a future Frankenstein, set in the near future–after a super-volcano covers the world with ash, presumably to allow for nighttime shooting and a small number of outdoor shots. What his Frankenstein, here a Victoria (played by Helen McCrory), does different than her filmic predecessors is create her monster for a reason–she needs to farm its organs for her dying son, William. William’s father is Henry Clerval (James Purefoy).

Purefoy is the only character, besides Neil Pearson’s Professor Waldman, whose surname the script verbalizes. The words Frankenstein are never spoken in the television movie’s ninety minutes and they’re only seen on screen briefly and half distorted. Discovering how Mercurio is going to bring familiar elements into the effort is one of the more interesting things. Because lots of the stuff is neat–a female Frankenstein married to Clerval, neat. Mercurio makes frequent homage to the 1931 film and maybe even some of the Hammer ones (I really wouldn’t know, I try to forget the Hammer Frankenstein movies).

But Mercurio’s neatness–his cuteness–is eventually problematic. Bad guy scientist Lindsay Duncan is revealed, in the end credits, to be Professor Pretorius. During the film, everyone just calls her Jane. So her status as a bad guy is disguised through a trick, but it’s also indicative of where Mercurio goes wrong. He comes really close to making something new, but fails because he’s not adapting the novel or even using it as a starting point… he’s making a neatly put together, kind of Frankenstein adaptation, one where cute homages overpower the story.

Mercurio introduces a lot of entirely new ideas to the standard–a female Frankenstein, a motive for creating the monster, a lack of responsibility (Duncan and Pearson are the ones who take over the project)… not to mention the good doctor putting her dying son’s DNA into the monster. With the rather adult romance between McCrory and Purefoy, Mercurio’s Frankenstein could go places and, until the twist ending, appears ready to plunge into the deep end. I trusted Mercurio to pull off the ending right, which might explain some of my displeasure. He copped out. He didn’t just cop out of a proper adaptation ending, he copped out of ending the story he told well. His ending is as sensational as a television movie with an obviously limited budget (the monster only gets one close-up) can get.

I think Mercurio was going for a stab at reality, but it’s unclear.

McCrory is good, though her determination in the first act is poorly paced. At ninety minutes, Mercurio’s script feels like a solid stage adaptation rather than a filmic adaptation. He’s restricted to certain sets but he doesn’t spend enough time on them. Purefoy starts out stumbling, but eventually turns in a respectable performance. Both Pearson and Duncan are goofy villains, never once believable as scientists working in academia. Benedict Wong is great as McCrory’s assistant–Ed Gore, get it? It’s cute, but it’s also only in the credits.

I wasn’t expecting much from Frankenstein–I thought it was the BBC holiday special from last year; it isn’t–but it had a lot of good material in it. But Mercurio got lost in all his busyness and didn’t concentrate on what was working right. I mean, there’s a whole subplot with the cops on the monster’s trail. It’s silly.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jed Mercurio; screenplay by Mercurio, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Wojciech Szepel; edited by Andrew McClelland; music by John Lunn; production designer, Will Hughes-Jones; produced by Hugh Warren; released by Independent Television.

Starring Helen McCrory (Dr. Victoria Frankenstein), James Purefoy (Dr. Henry Clerval), Neil Pearson (Professor Waldman), Benedict Wong (Dr. Ed Gore), Matthew Rault-Smith (William Clerval), Fraser James (Joe), Lindsay Duncan (Professor Jane Pretorius), Ace Bhatti (Dr. Dhillon), Julian Bleach (The Monster) and Cally Hamilton (Little Girl).


Dirty Pretty Things (2002, Stephen Frears)

At some point during Dirty Pretty Things, maybe the half-way point, I didn’t check, I realized the film’s non-traditional approach was holding it back. It’s ironic (or maybe not, I’m sure I’m using the word wrong) since the third act is the most predictable thing I’ve seen in recent memory. I sat and waited for my predictions to come true and all of them did… even the last few moments, which were straight from a Hollywood playbook. Being straight from that playbook isn’t even a bad thing, necessarily–yes, I realize I just said not playing from it was holding Pretty Things back–but changing… modes of transport (I was going to go metaphor, but got too self-conscious) handicaps the thing. What starts as a good, solid different film becomes everything it wasn’t at the beginning. It preaches, which is one of the great things the first two acts do not do.

I thought, when the film got going, it was going to be an interesting, hotel-set mystery. It isn’t. It’s half traditional thriller, half character study. The character study eventually loses. Very little happens in the first twenty or thirty minutes and, once it does, a lot of the film’s charm disappears. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is astounding. The poster I remember is the one with Audrey Tautou’s name above the title and the definite suggestion of a thriller. Obviously, American (especially Miramax) marketing of foreign product tends to be bullshit, but in this case, it’s an incredible slight against the film. But I’m glad, since I went into it knowing Ejiofor was good in other stuff and getting to see him–unexpectedly–in the lead. Tautou’s supporting, nothing more. She’s in it more than most of the other characters, since she’s the McGuffin in many ways. Any time something happens, it’s somehow because of Tautou (and occasionally because of Ejiofor’s concern for her). Sophie Okonedo is in it a lot less, but she has a lot more of an impact, just because of how her character shows up in the film. She tends to be in scenes where Ejiofor is defined through his actions, rather than his reactions to Tautou. Not to say Tautou’s performance isn’t good. It’s fine. It just doesn’t resonate very well… she doesn’t embody her character enough to make the character’s sometimes unlikely story fly.

As the villain, Sergi Lopez is excellent.

Frears does a good job throughout, maintaining an off-putting atmosphere to the film. He only really slips a couple times. Once with the Jaws dolly zoom and again in the film’s last few shots, when he inexplicably loses the distinctive color palette. At that point, however, the film had turned into the inspirational tale of an illegal immigrant instead of a story about a human being.

A few more words about Ejiofor. In many ways, since he is in most scenes, Dirty Pretty Things is a fantastic showcase for his ability. He gets to display a wide range–even though the script does him the disservice of trying to make him ominous, which is an absolutely ludicrous device (maybe the worst in the film), and even then he works through it. The only downside is how infuriating it is when the script makes him have to do (or say, especially say) something stupid.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Steven Knight; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; produced by Tracey Seaward and Robert Jones; released by Miramax Films and BBC Films.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Okwe), Audrey Tautou (Senay), Sergi Lopez (Sneaky), Sophie Okonedo (Juliette) and Benedict Wong (Guo Yi).


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