If you’re not familiar with quirky writer/director/performance artist Miranda July, she specializes in a special kind of weird that borders on surreal and also a surprising emotional poignancy. It’s been 9 years since her last feature film, The Future, and she’s back with what might be her most narratively focused and accessible yet still wonderfully weird movie yet. We follow a family of grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as the parents) and their day-to-day struggle to con, skim, or steal enough money to get by to the next day. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is their only child, and her role in the family is thrown into question when a new member joins their team. Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) has connections to a raft of senior citizens so desperate for attention that, if they all pose as Melanie’s family, they should be able to con these old folks of possessions they can resell. From there, the movie becomes a push-and-pull relationship between Old Dolio and the influence of her shifty family, and she questions her place in this fringe unit and whether her parents actually love her or see her as another means to get a score. Kajillionaire is loose in plot but populated with interesting characters who feel fully realized by July’s writing. She’s so good at studying human behavior and capturing it that the quirky details all feel so genuine and meaningful. Even Old Dolio’s name is a reminder of her parents’ opportunism and problematic parenting skills. She was named after a homeless man who won the lottery under the hopes that he would be grateful and put her in his will (he ended up spending his fortune on experimental cancer drugs). That’s the difference with July. A silly name could just be a disposable oddity, but for her it’s a reflection of a character’s worth and history. There are moments in the movie that achieve a level of artistic transcendence where every piece is humming beautifully together, like one moment where a dying elderly man off-screen directs the grifter family to pretend to be like his own flesh-and-blood family. They play pretend at domesticity, each assuming a doting role, and the tranquil scene of a fake family feels beautifully attuned. The moments stand out more than the whole but July’s empathetic appreciation of human fallibility keeps her from ever condemning Old Dolio’s scheming parents too much. Even the very end finds a way to turn betrayal into a message of humility. Wood (Westworld) drops her voice several octaves, wears baggy clothing, and looks extremely awkward when it comes to human contact. Rodriguez (Annihilation) is the voice of the audience and her test of how far she’s willing to excuse the selfish behavior of this clan of cons. Her burgeoning friendship and maybe more with Old Dolio is a rewarding enterprise for the characters and the audience. Kajillionaire is a gentle little movie that plays at a low-key range of human emotions yet it can still be deftly funny and surprising and heartfelt on its own unique terms. With Miranda July, she makes weird entrancing and human.
Nate’s Grade: B+
At the start of 2019, there were an amazing three Hollywood remakes of foreign films released. It was a peculiar time where we had the American version of France’s global hit The Intoucheables (The Upside), the American version of Norway’s quirky and violent In Order of Disappearance (Cold Pursuit), and the American version of Mexico’s searing beauty pageant crime thriller, Miss Bala. The films didn’t seem like a studio dump job, the new regime quietly dropping doomed movies into the early months of the year to go hopefully unnoticed. The Upside was a $100-million grossing hit, once again proving the durable and international power of that story. The remake I was most concerned about was Miss Bala, which looked via trailers to have strayed so far from the original. It felt like a potent and tragic movie was being turned into an empowerment vehicle, pretty much flipping the artistic intent of the 2011 Mexican original.
Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a pageant makeup artist visiting her good friend in Tijuana. The nightclub they’re in becomes a scene of gag violence and Gloria is a reluctant witness to who was responsible. As a result, the cartel gang kidnaps her and forces her to do their bidding, including unwittingly driving a car full of explosives to a DEA safe house. Gloria is forced to be a DEA informant, a courier for the cartel, and all the while she’s searching to find her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). By the end this new “Miss Bala” (“bala” means bullet in Spanish) will be forged by fire and find her strength to fight.
This is a very different version of the Miss Bala story, and for the purposes of this review and critical clarification, I think it would be helpful to reprint my brief analysis of the 2011 film for easier comparison. So here is my 2011 review in full:
“Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film Oscar entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.”
That sounds like a pretty interesting movie, right? It is and is worth checking out regardless of your feelings for the 2019 Miss Bala. The original protagonist was simply a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result she became a pawn in a larger game of leverage between warring factions. Her entire goal was to simply escape the terrible danger she was in, but every refuge just put her back into the fray or used her for their own devious purposes. The protagonist wasn’t completely passive since she’s constantly reacting to the dangers and dangerous men around her, assessing her ability to escape, who she can trust and when, but she is decidedly less empowered.
That is the biggest divergence with the 2019 Miss Bala, making our protagonist an empowered woman who struts in slow-mo in a ball gown and an automatic weapon, the kind of image you’d see in any number of schlocky Michael Bay action thrillers. Over the course of her harrowing experience, Gloria becomes a Strong Woman, a Fighter Who Fights Back, whereas the protagonist of the 2011 film, Laura, was just trying to be a Survivor first and foremost. There’s a distinct difference in intention and execution there. One is curated with more realism and the other becomes a revenge fantasy. One is meant to disquiet and jar a crowd and the other is meant to be a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser.
I’ll admit there was less action in the 2019 Miss Bala than I had feared from the commercials. However, the action that does occur is indistinguishable from other bigger budget crime shootouts. You’ve got grenade launchers, exploding cars, nightclub shootouts, and other cliché moments handled in relatively cliché ways. There is a final confrontation between Gloria and one of her chief antagonists that includes the line, “I did what I had to do. We both did!” I’m stunned they didn’t feel the need to have the villain denote, “You know you and I are not that different.” Actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly certain this scene did exist between these characters, with the guy talking about his American upbringing as a means of making connections with her. What I’m ultimately saying is that 2019 Miss Bala kind of misses the point of 2011 Miss Bala. It’s like using the Iron Giant, a figure of pacifism (“I am not a gun”) into a weapon of war (ahem, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One).
But why don’t you judge the movie on its own merits instead of simply comparing it to its superior source material? That’s a reasonable argument so allow me to do so, dear reader. The new Miss Bala doesn’t work as the fist-pumping crowd-pleaser because it doesn’t know what to do to build its tension and escalation. Take for instance a scene after Gloria is taken in by a rogue DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and told she works for them now. She’s sent back to the clutches of the cartel and then alone in a bedroom with a leader. This guy tells her to start taking off her clothes. It’s certainly an uncomfortable moment, and the camera weirdly lingers on Rodriguez’s breasts as she’s about to remove her bra, but the scene is merely a scuzzy guy wanting to see her skin. What if she was wearing a wire or had been hiding something from the DEA, and then removing her clothes would put her in far more danger than being uncomfortable? To further hammer this home, we have a second scene where he acts sleazy to her, touching her and making her uncomfortable, so why do we need two scenes of this making the same point?
The Gloria of 2019 Miss Bala is also a bit too predisposed to be that figure of empowerment in the face of dismissive and dangerous men. Again, nothing wrong with this storytelling perspective, it’s just the film makes it so obvious and clunky at every turn. Within the first minute of screen time, we see Gloria apply her artistic skills at home, go to work, and be dismissed by a snooty male pageant worker telling her, “We’re not paying you to think.” So, as you can see, subtlety is going to be this movie’s strength. Within the next few minutes she travels to Mexico and gets a friendship bracelet from her BFF and she declares, “You are my family.” Again, subtle. Once the club attack goes down, Gloria’s mission becomes finding her missing friend who she assumes is still alive. In the original (here I go again), the protagonist was only interested in escaping and staying alive, and here we have a main character that must save others. The problem with this development is that the movie, like the above described scene, doubles down needlessly. Gloria is already threatened by the cartel that if she escapes they will harm her godson. Why does she need two personal reasons to stay in the thick of the cartel? She already has the DEA pressuring her to do their bidding or else she’ll never find her way back to the United States. The extra conflicts don’t feel like escalations but more like redundancies.
Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) is the best thing going with the 2019 Miss Bala. She is a luminescent actress with skills and was unrecognizable for her in Annihilation. The best thing director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) does is train her camera closely on Rodriguez’s face to gauge the pained, panicked expressions playing out across her very expressive face and glassy eyes. Rodriguez is a real talent who can carry herself in an action vehicle (her muscular turn in Annihilation was a genuine pleasure). She could headline an action movie, but this isn’t the one for her. Her desperation and fear gives way to a quiet confidence that loses the “quiet” part as she undergoes a slow-mo action hero transformation when the movie needs her to zip to the end of her character arc.
I would thoroughly recommend the 2011 Miss Bala for fans of thoughtful, intense, and affecting thrillers. The paranoia and dread were strong throughout that combustible movie that had more on its mind than some cheap thrills. Comparatively, the 2019 Miss Bala remake feels only designed for cheap thrills and a misguided empowerment message. As the main character is turned from a survivor into a fighter, the edges smooth out, the complexity gets distilled, and the movie becomes any other number of action thrillers where our fragile, scared character becomes an avenging angel by the climax. If that’s your recipe for an enjoyable movie, 2019 Miss Bala still has problems with its execution and poor development. You won’t regret watching the new Miss Bala but your time would be better spent watching the original film and hoping better for Rodriguez.
Nate’s Grade: C
Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.
Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.
Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.
Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.
One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.
Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.
I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Peter Berg is becoming the go-to director for inspirational true-life thrillers following the heroic exploits of everyday Americans thrust into danger. It began with Lone Survivor, it will continue this year with the Boston bombing drama Patriot’s Day, and in between there is Deepwater Horizon about the oil rig drillers and the culminating explosion that lead to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It’s a sober and reverent movie, with Berg and his screenwriters taking great care to educate the audience on the science of drilling, the technology, the geography of the floating rig, and just exactly why things went as badly as they did that fateful night. The windup lasts about half the movie but that’s because when the explosion hits there isn’t much plot left (the movie is barely 100 minutes). Deepwater Horizon becomes a full-tilt disaster movie by that point with Mark Wahlberg stalking hallways and looking for injured survivors. The tension prior to the blown pipeline can get genuinely powerful, and the action that follows is suitably rousing as the rig resembles a snapshot of hell. Flames and heat consume the rig and escape seems nigh impossible. The sound design is sensational. The characters are mostly stock roles, with Wahlberg as our blue-collar everyman, Kurt Russell as the irritable boss fighting for his workers, and John Malkovich as the villainous penny-pinching BP representative. Malkovich’s campy performance almost needs to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s visiting from another planet, the garbled Cajun representative. The lack of politics and curiously narrow focus (nothing about Halliburton, nothing about BP consequences, no environmental effects) does hamper any greater impact the film could have had. It’s a respectful slice-of-life drama that humanizes some of the lives lost that day but only by keeping to formula and stock action character development. It’s like a Towering Inferno-style Hollywood disaster movie, except one that treats its subject with stiff-lipped seriousness. In this new docu-action sub-genre, Berg and Wahlberg are kings.
Nate’s Grade: B