Oscar Isaac

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).


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel and Ethan Coen)

Just over half way into Inside Llewyn Davis, there’s a moment where lead Oscar Isaac looks into the face of responsibility–weighs it, weighs the consequences of not accepting it, makes his decision. Until that moment, the Coen Brothers hadn’t candidly identified the film as a character study. It happens in the middle of an epical sequence–the film splits into three (really, five) sections–and they don’t stop the existing momentum. It just changes, ever minutely, how Isaac is going to relate to the viewer. The film acknowledges the viewer wants to make a judgement of the protagonist–as one well should given the protagonist’s name is in the title and that title can easily be seen as an invitation–but refuses that judgement. There’s no need. After all, the film has up until that point warned the viewer and the training wheels are then off.

So with the rest of the film, the Coen Brothers do a lot of different things. They give Isaac some more excellent moments, they craft a really spectacular third act and denouement. They even acknowledge they’ve taken quite a journey–a bigger one than the viewer (or Isaac) realize–and they fit all their many pieces back into the box they so carefully unpacked in the first act.

The film concerns Isaac’s early sixties Greenwich Village folk singer and his callous behavior and interactions with other people, both in the folk music culture and out. Isaac’s performance is outstanding, as are many of the supporting performances. It’s a character study so Isaac’s is the most important and he hits every moment, ably assisted not just by the Coen Brothers’ script and direction, but the fine editing from Roderick Jaynes, who knows just how to cut a talking heads scene for emphasis.

Davis beautifully recreates the period–Jess Gonchor production designing–and Bruno Delbonnel’s crisp photography makes it all even more vivid. It’s a quiet, precise film. Many of the actors–Carey Mulligan and John Goodman in particular–speak in short monologues. The sound is phenomenal, not just because it’s about music, but because of the tone the Coen Brothers get out their cast’s deliveries amid such static, aching quiet.

Isaac’s great, Mulligan’s great. Excellent support from Justin Timberlake (no, really), F. Murray Abraham and Jeanine Serralles. Phenomenal composition and editing from the Coen Brothers (with Jaynes’s assistance, of course).

Inside Llewyn Davis is awesome–big when it needs to be, small when it needs to be. It’s a beautiful extinguishing of hope and, better, watching as Isaac experiences that extinguishing. It’s also phenomenally plotted; I don’t want to forget about that element. The script organically layers the revelations throughout the narrative, forcing the viewer to not just identify–willingly or not–with Isaac, but also with his protagonist’s particular point of view.

It’s a singular character study.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel; edited by Roderick Jaynes; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Scott Rudin, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; released by CBS Films.

Starring Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), Jeanine Serralles (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson) and F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman).


Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams)

It’s very easy to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens as an event. Or maybe just talk about returning stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher and even Peter Mayhew (who gets actual scenes with Ford this time, for the first time ever). But those avenues aren’t the most interesting, because the window dressing–all of it pretty good looking (with real sets), a lot of it sounding good (John Williams’s score is successful forty percent of the time)–just distracts from what director Abrams accomplishes.

He hands off the franchise. Not just from Ford and Fisher to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, but from George Lucas Star Wars to Walt Disney Star Wars. Abrams is making the latter, but in the style of the former. The script, credited to Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (presumably writing all of Harrison Ford’s dialogue to get the cadence) and Michael Arndt (who scripted a version for Lucas, pre-Disney), is a bit of a disaster. The movie flows great. It goes very long, but only because there needs to be a cliffhanger and a bit of audience pay-off. Abrams knows how to play for the viewer, whether they be sixty-five, thirty-five, twenty-five or five. He certainly should show off more than he does, given that accomplishment.

But Abrams’s success comes not from his script (obviously) or his direction. It comes from the casting. Abrams understands how to cast. Ridley, Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac (the trio model becoming a quartet, what with Ridley actually available to all of her male co-stars). They’re all good, all occasionally great. Driver’s the best. Can’t say why without spoiling, but maybe the neatest “geeky” part of the film is catching where Abrams is playing with familiar, distinct conventions.

Ridley’s really good too. She both does and doesn’t get enough to do; as one of the leads, yes, but not as an actor.

Ford and Fisher are both good, though Abrams can’t figure out how to shoot them. He keeps his distance and looks like he’s keeping his distance. It’s hero worship. And it’s also supposed to look like hero worship. Abrams has to acknowledge it. It’s pandering. But it’s also Abrams just not knowing how to do it. And Fisher isn’t in it enough (the messy pace sacrifices everyone but Ford).

The film is never organic. Everything is forced into place, whether for narrative reasons, commercial reasons, Hasbro reasons, cast reasons. It’s should be a Frankenstein, but it isn’t. Abrams holds it together, because he’s knows how to tell a story, knows how keep characters’ stories simultaneously compelling. Even if he does cheat at it a lot.

The only bad performance is Domhnall Gleeson and it isn’t even his fault. It’s Abrams’s fault, one of the times he tries and fails. He’s wrong about something (but, note, it’s something new, not something retro).

In the end, Abrams knows how to fly Force Awakens casual. Though, really, Williams’s score isn’t okay. They need to either fire him or get him to actually work.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Daniel Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Darren Gilford; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Abrams and Bryan Burk; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Adam Driver (Kylo), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux) and Andy Serkis (Snoke).


Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)

It’s amazing how much mileage Drive gets out of its soundtrack–not Cliff Martinez, though he does a great Tangerine Dream impression, but the licensed songs from Kavinsky and College. They deserve opening titles billing.

Drive is an eighties L.A. crime thriller with a slight seventies sensibility and some ultra-violence. It’s unclear why director Winding Refn thought it needed ultra-violence because, after the first instance, everything else pales. He even goes too far with a later scene of Carey Mulligan discovering the violence her Romeo, Ryan Gosling, is capable of. Otherwise, Winding Refn does an excellent job. He’s aping eighties Michael Mann (Drive was better when it was called Thief and starred Jimmy Cann) along with some John Woo, not to mention Walter Hill’s The Driver.

While there are some slightly unpredictable details, Drive is utterly predictable. There’s one question to the entire film–is Gosling going to make it? He’s a precise, successful criminal who breaks the rules because of his emotions. Of course things go wrong. Of course he turns out to be tougher than John Rambo.

Since it’s not an exercise in originality, Drive‘s mostly just a good excuse to be impressed with Gosling and Albert Brooks. Ron Perlman’s great in it, but he’s playing Ron Perlman. Mulligan’s okay, though somewhat unbelievable as the wife of a dumb criminal. She’s too delicate. Bryan Cranston is utterly wasted.

But Gosling and Brooks? They’re both outstanding.

Drive‘s not bad, but Winding Refn has nothing original to say.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Matthew Newman; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Beth Mickle; produced by Michel Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt, Gigi Pritzker and Adam Siegel; released by FilmDistrict.

Starring Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Kaden Leos (Benicio) and Ron Perlman (Nino).


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