Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)


The latest film from one of the most interesting directors in the world right now is playing at the Grand Illusion for week starting this Friday. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of such key Japanese horror films as Pulse and Cure, as well as award-winning dramas like Tokyo Sonatawas last seen here at SIFF in 2016 with Creepy, though his Daguerrotype was also released on VOD last fall. The new one is a science-fiction film about an alien invasion, and while its conclusion veers dangerously close to sappy, the path it takes to get there is anything but.

The aliens’ scout team consists of three “people” who take over the bodies of a trio of Japanese people: a teenage girl, a young man and an older married man. Before the invasion can begin, they have to learn everything they can about the people of Earth, but language gets in the way so the aliens have figured out a way to steal “conceptions”, the preverbal ideas which are the Platonic forms of things like “family”, “work”, “ownership”, etc, directly out of human’s heads. This has the unfortunate side-effect of completely removing the concept from the victim, leaving them forever without any conception of self or otherness or what have you.

In theory this amount to a kind of philosophical state of nature experiment, wherein you remove these basic ideas from our understanding of the world to see how we behave and what kind of society we’d build. The aliens have no understanding of these concepts until they take them, and we can see their behavior change when they learn what family is, for example, which ultimately contributes to their downfall. They enlist two “guides” along their way: the married man’s wife, who honestly likes him a lot better once he’s possessed by a malevolent creature from beyond the stars, and a tabloid journalist from a weekly news magazine, who agrees to help the aliens in hopes of staying alive long enough to thwart their plans, though his run-ins with the government forces pursuing the same goal and reexamination of his own life see him wavering in his loyalty to humanity.

Kurosawa’s direction is crisp and fluid, with snaking long takes, eerily upbeat music and unexpected cuts giving everything a comic, off-kilter vibe that meshes nicely with the film’s not quite satirical, not quiet earnest message. There’s even a healthy dose of violence and mayhem to keep things moving. A genuinely weird, light, and funny movie, a perfect tonic after all the dreary self-importance of recent Hollywood science-fiction.

Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)


A sparkly meteor screams across the sky and crashes into a lighthouse. Three years later, Oscar Isaac shows up in Natalie Portman’s house. He’s her husband and has been missing for three years, is acting oddly and suddenly becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, the two are captured and brought to a secret location, the edge of a shimmering wall of. . . something. Isaac escaped from the something and Portman heads into it, part of a team of women led by Jennifer Jason Leigh and including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. What they find in there is both easy to figure out (stuff is mutating), beautiful and scary and weird (stuff is mutating) and inexplicable (most of the why and a bunch of other side mysteries), explored in a mostly unsatisfactory blend of arthouse stillness and genre thriller scares, part of a burgeoning subgenre of sci-fi films that I suppose function as a counterweight to the more populist nonsense of superhero sc-fi. Director Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina, is a prime example, along with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (and his Blade Runner too, probably, I haven’t seen it) and so on. These films give an aura of respectability and complexity to an otherwise disreputable genre, and Annihilation is basically Predator for people who think Predator is dumb, but without any of the qualities that actually make Predator good (structure, pacing, action, coherence). Or Stalker for people who think Stalker is too arty and obscure.

While Annihilation is following its women on a weird mission plot, it’s mostly pretty good. The environment is new even if the situations are not: the group will of course be picked off one-by-one, either by unexpected creatures or their own tendency toward madness. Interspersed are flashbacks to Portman’s former life with Isaac, before he went on his mission into the unknown, which are mostly useless, designed to ground her character in the boring pyschology of Hollywood screenwriting convention, where women are only allowed to be motivated by something involving their role as wife and/or mother. These are actually flashbacks within a flashback, as the entire film is actually a dramatization of the story of her experience told by Portman to a team of radiation suit investigators led by Benedict Wong. How reliable a narrator Portman is, though, is not explored, potentially destabilizing the whole film, if not outright rendering the whole thing pointless. Is everything we’re seeing in her head, or is it what she’s telling Wong? Are the flashbacks real and the other stuff fake? Is she telling Wong about her relationship with her husband? Is it all phony, a story designed to satisfying her inquisitors but not actually the truth? I guess we’ll find out in the sequel? There are a lot of these little “mysteries” in Annihilation, things left unexplained that I suppose one could expend some brain energy trying to figure out, but I don’t know that it would be worth it, since the central mystery is both easily guessed and not that interesting, and it’s probably rendered moot by the film’s ending anyway. I’m curious about the tattoo that Portman and Rodriguez seem to share, for example, but I’d have to watch the movie again to try to solve it. But that’s probably not going to happen.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson, 2016)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
                               —William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”


The long-awaited sixth film in Paul WS Anderson’s survival horror saga has finally arrived, and it’s everything his believers could have hoped for. When the last film in the series came out, Anderson attracted a lot of attention in certain quarters as a symbol of so-called “Vulgar Auteurism” sparked by comparison of Resident Evil: Retribution with The Other Paul Anderson’s The Master, released the same week in September of 2012. The White Elephant/Termite art comparisons were irresistible to the wags of film twitter, and thus a movement was born, or at least a trend piece. The next six months or so were abuzz with discussions pro- and contra- Auteurism such as the film world hasn’t seen since the heady days of the Paulettes and the Sarrisites, a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of blog posts and tweet threads. Not above drifting with the winds myself, and binging on contemporary action cinema in a desperate attempt to keep conscious while caring for a newborn, I wrote a multipart essay on the Resident Evil films, Anderson and Auteurism in general, using the director and his films as raw material for an application of the critical method as Andrew Sarris initially described it back in the 1960s. I concluded that Anderson hadn’t quite reached the highest echelons of Sarris’s scheme, because he hadn’t yet established the kind of tension between himself and his material that marks the nebulous “interior meaning” that is the hallmark of personal filmmaking. I therefore placed him in the “Lightly Likable” category and wrote:

Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.

Well, it’s four years later, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that statement.

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