Critics Rave Over Paramount’s Annihilation, “The Finest Sci-Fi in Years”

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

Anchored by a visually stunning fantasyland setting, a cerebral cocktail of plot and theme, and a fierce cast of women warrior-scientists, Paramount Pictures’ Annihilation hits U.S. theaters today to a flood of positive critical reaction.

“In just about every respect, it’s the finest cinematic sci-fi in years—or, at least, since [director Alex] Garland’s prior Ex Machina,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager, echoing the popular sentiment for this adaptation of  Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name.

The premise is simple enough: a meteorite crashes into a Florida lighthouse, unleashing a mysterious rippling force field dubbed the Shimmer. This dancing wall of color and motion slowly expands, and the zone within changes, like a puncture in reality, filling with enormous genetically mutated animals, overgrown plants sized and shaped like humans, and other oddities alternately novel and terrifying. Eleven expeditions have entered – only one person has returned: Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of ex-soldier/biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). He is diseased and dying and has been reduced to a sub-human state of mumbling and fear.

Partly in hopes of saving him, Lena joins an all-woman expeditionary force – led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and also including another doctor, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) – on an exploration and recovery mission. Within the Shimmer, they lose communication with the outside world. Their compasses and other instruments fail. As they trek through the increasingly wild landscape, the DNA mutations transforming the forest creatures infest their bodies, their memories fail, they lose their sense of space and time.

What happens between there and the final wrenching scenes has critics elated. “Annihilation is a ferocious, feral, female-centric update of fearsome monster classics like The Thing and Alien,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter.

Here’s a deeper look at what the critics love most about Annihilation:

It’s smart

“This is a serious, considered film,” writes Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair.

And it is. At once a thriller, a science fiction thought piece, a horror flick, and a tale of environmental catastrophe – while hinting at humanity’s ultimate helplessness against a huge and ruthless universe – Annihilation manages to accomplish many things at once with an expansive and intricate plot.

“For those willing to put in the effort, Annihilation achieves that rare feat of great genre cinema, where audiences are not merely thrilled … but also feel as if their minds have been expanded along the way,” writes Peter Debruge in Variety.

It’s beautiful

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Wandering this other-Earth burbling dreamlike within the Shimmer, the explorers amble over a landscape that resembles some videogame fantasy world, where predators roar with the screams of past victims and the intensifying light elides the distinction between illusion and reality.

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SpongeBob SquarePants Delights Critics in Broadway Debut

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

Following an audience-wowing run in Chicago, Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants The Broadway Musical officially landed in New York City last week, greeted by captivated fans and an ocean’s worth of critical praise.

“Skeptics better tie themselves to the mast if they want to survive this tempest of effervescent candy-for-the-spirit,” writes Vulture’s Sara Holdren. “Even if you venture into the Palace feeling Squidward  -ish, it’s a truly gloomy soul who’ll be able to leave without mirroring the dopey grin with which the show’s absorbent yellow hero responds to his buddy’s existential angst…”

The Tina Landau-directed story, in brief: while the ever-more-fiercely trembling Mount Humungous threatens to bury Bikini Bottom beneath a tsunami of lava and ash, a number of subplots playfully expose the absurdity of contemporary real-world issues in the non-animated realm in which we all dwell. Sandy the squirrel faces land-animal xenophobia from her sea fellows. Plankton’s attempts to win business through hypnosis has echoes of an online fake-news sales job. “Tidal warming” threatens to upend daily life.

With music from an all-star jukebox’s worth of musicians, a riotous set and costumes perfectly channeling the cartoon’s manic aesthetic, and a cast preternaturally suited to their undersea identities, the show is a complete work, tuned both to its obvious target audience of children and to theatergoers entranced by the spectacle of big-time Broadway productions.

Critics, many of whom expressed only a vague familiarity with the show prior to stepping into the Palace theater, were delighted. Here’s a sampling of what they liked:

The set design

Twenty years in, SpongeBob fans are well acquainted with the whimsical animated set pieces that constitute Bikini Bottom. But even long-time observers will be delighted by the maritime decor, a boldly colored and meticulously curated bazaar of pool noodles, floaty-devices, and the discarded effluvia of the consumerist human world above – shopping carts, umbrellas, surfboards and more.

“[Set designer]  David Zinn, a master designer, seems to have been fed an herb meal before devising the set and costumes that transform the noble old Palace into a trippy mindf!ck that’s equal parts Rube Goldberg and Electric Circus,” writes Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard. “I doubt there are any colors on view that exist in nature, or that you or I have seen since black light met ingested pholiotina cyanopus.”

Sesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton (center) and company. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.

The costumes

Bikini Bottom is crowded with characters of odd shape and dimension, and Zinn, who in addition to set designer is also the show’s costume designer, does not try to interpret this cartoon fantasyland literally. Instead, the actors’ decidedly human-proportioned outfits match their character’s familiar color palette, evoking their essence while individual performances complete the profile.

“The production smartly shuns prosthetics to match the characters’ looks from the animated series. Instead, undersea denizens are given human form but retain telltale traits,” writes Joe Dziemianowicz in The New York Daily News. “It’s a smart decision that broadens accessibility — fans and non-fans, adults and kids.”

Pictured: The company of SpongeBob SquarePants. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017

The music

SpongeBob’s Broadway debut packs an outsized catalogue of that key element to so many big-time stage productions: music. The play brims with songs – many of them originals created for this production – by a deep well of musicians: Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, T.I., David Bowie, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley.

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Jordan Klepper Ramps Up for New Late-Night Show By Solving Guns

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

The debate seems to slice like the Mississippi River through the center of America: you are either pro-gun or anti-gun. In this version of reality, you either want the Second Amendment repealed or you want to gear up like Rambo every time you step out to the mailbox.

Certainly, these extremists exist. But standing somewhere near the center is a huge percentage of the nation, individuals who support both a right to bear arms and some level of restrictions on that right.

It is this middle ground that seasoned Daily Show correspondent (and future late-night Comedy Central host) Jordan Klepper deftly pursues and, eventually, defines, in Jordan Klepper Solves Guns, a hilarious zig-zagging quest across the United States.

Despite its comedic undercarriage, the show is a thoughtful exploration of an important issue. “Klepper, ever the funny man, produced a serious piece of journalism filled with hard facts and relatable experiences for gun owners and anti-gun activists alike,” writes Paste’s Jacob Weindling. “It’s a special that doesn’t preach to us how similar we are, but it shows us. It is a feat of investigative journalism that is complemented by Klepper’s unique brand of humor.”

While Klepper starts his quest as a cavalier self-styled New York liberal elite promising to “solve,” guns (likely a poke at President Trump’s promise to “solve” North Korea), he is actually well-positioned to fairly explore the firearms debate. He grew up in Michigan, a politically mixed and moderate state, and his grandfather took Klepper out shooting often in his youth. His cousin Pete is an enthusiastic hunter and is featured prominently in the special.

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Armed Senior Citizens, Animated Hijinks, Political Protest: Broad City Is Back

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

We see New York City shrouded in winter. We see lots of high-fives. We see RuPaul, Steve Buscemi and Wanda Sykes. We see a smoke-exhaling protest against anti-abortion protesters. We see Florida senior citizens bristling with firearms. We see cartoon eyes popping from Abbi and Ilana’s skulls. And we see a whole lot more of both of them in the season four trailer for Comedy Central’s Broad City.

“In short, it is both very perplexing and very amazing,” writes Rachael Vaughan Clemmons at Metro of the new trailer.

Decide for yourself:

Uproxx’s Andrew Roberts sums the trailer up nicely: “The ladies look full of energy, like they’re prepared to take the show to weirder places than they have in the past — or maybe the same amount of weird but just with different scenery.”

While we don’t have much detail about overall plot lines or character development in the coming season, the show’s creators and titular characters have hinted that it will be more current-events focused than previous seasons, particularly in regards to politics. “I think it’s our responsibility to optimize the platform of Broad City to keep pushing things left and keep resisting the current administration as much as we can,” Glazer told The Daily Beast’s Matt Wilstein while in San Francisco for Comedy Central’s Colossal Clusterfest this past weekend.

The trailer previews what will be the first new episodes since last spring, serving the pent-up appetite of the show’s anxious fanbase. “But if we’re sure of one thing, it’s that co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson must have a good reason for making us wait this long,” writes Glamour’s Krystin Arneson. “And judging by the very first glimpse of the upcoming season … our long wait for more of their characters’ debauchery will be more than worth it.”

The fourth season of Broad City will air Aug. 23 on Comedy Central. The show has already been renewed for a fifth season, though no premiere date has been announced.

Get ready.

via GIPHY