Son of Monarchs


We all yearn thttps://sonofmonarchs.com/o emerge from childhood as a beautiful butterfly.

(2021) Drama (Warner Media/150) Tenoch Huerta, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, Juan Ugarte, Electra Avellán, Angelina Peláez, Emily Keefe, Jay Potter, Jarod Lindsey, Wendy Heagy, Daniel Fuentes Lobo, Gadi Rubin, Rich Miglio, Gisell Rodriguez, Maia Vogel, Fernanda Rivera, Maria Luiza Ceglia. Directed by Alexis Gambis

 

Butterflies are creatures of intense beauty and fragility. Their colorful wings delight us, and their migratory patterns can astound us. Butterflies have always been used as a metaphor, a desire that we harbor to emerge from our chrysalis – whatever it may be – as a beautiful, bejeweled butterfly and (hopefully) not as a dull, drab moth.

The parents of Mendel (Huerta) must have had great expectations for their son, naming him for a Czech scientist, but they didn’t live to see it happen, dying senselessly during a flood. This left Mendel and his older brother Simon (Hernández) orphaned, to be raised by their grandmother (Peláez) and a assortment of uncles. Mendel eventually left the tiny village nestled in the mountains of Michoacán where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter to study the butterflies as a biologist for a lab in New York. Simon stayed to work in the mines and raise a family; Simon hasn’t forgiven Mendel for leaving Mexico and leaving Simon alone to cope with the grief.

But Mendel returns for the funeral of his grandmother to find that while most of his family is overjoyed to see him, particularly his niece Lucia (Avellan) who wants very much for her uncle to return for her wedding later in the year. Her father, Simon, is less happy to see Mendel and can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when his brother is around.

Back in New York, Mendel is introduced to Sarah (Rasmussen) who works for a non-profit and is a recreational trapeze artist (is that really a thing?) and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Mendel can’t get over the ease with which Sarah flies through the air; this must be what it’s like to be a human butterfly. He also begins to experience vivid flashbacks of the horrible day in which his parents perished.

Although Mendel is reluctant to return to Michoacán, he eventually decides to do so, knowing that he and his brother must confront the things separating them that keep them from soaring through the winds like the brightly colored insects they both love.

Gambis, who is not only a filmmaker but also holds a PhD in biology, has a lyrical bent that is shown at various times in the film, as when a young Mendel is covered in a sea of orange and brown monarchs, or showing the beauty of the landscape surrounded by desolation wrought by the greed of men.

His script has some interesting points, but has a tendency to get bogged down on minutiae, so there isn’t the kind of flow you would like to see in a film like this. He is constantly throwing in dream sequences and flashbacks which also disrupt a film that needed a gentle rhythm. Finally, the whole use of butterflies as a metaphor is overused to the point of dreariness.

And these are large issues indeed, but not insurmountable ones and in fact the movie more than makes up for them with compelling performances by Huerta and Hernández, whose chemistry as two brothers, once close but now wary of each other and unsure not only how they got to this point but whether they can get back to what they once were at all. The two have a confrontation near the end of the film that is absolutely riveting and highly emotional; it is the highlight of the film and the centerpiece for it in many ways.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia fills the screen with bright butterfly-like colors, while Cristóbal Maryán contributes a score that is delicate and beautiful. The simplicity of life in the village is alluring when contrasted with the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple, although some may find that more to their liking. I found myself succumbing to the charms of the film despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them. This is a very impressive first film for Gambis.

The movie is in the midst of a brief limited run in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other cities. It will arrive on HBO Max on November 2nd.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, beautifully scored. The heat between Huerta and Hernández is realistic and powerful. The sequences of village life are lovely. A wonderful examination of the difficulties for even legal immigrants in America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leans a little bit too much on flashbacks, butterfly metaphors and dream sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is given annually to the festival entry that focuses on science as a central theme or scientists as central characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (starting November 2nd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identifying Features
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

Annihilation


A team of women enter a brave new world.

(2018) Science Fiction (Paramount) Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, Sammy Hayman, Josh Danford, Kristen McGarrity, Bern Collaco, Kumud Pant, Richard Clark, Hiten Patel, Bobby Mahmi, Helena Holmes, Mairead Armstrong, Crystal Clarke, Odette Mitchell, Honey Holmes. Directed by Alex Garland

 

Sometimes we wonder what other worlds look like; are they beautiful like ours or barren and dismal? It stands to reason that worlds that are like ours will have some differences of flora and fauna. But if the intelligent species of those worlds decided to invade ours, wouldn’t they have to remake it in our image?

That seems to be the case. In a zone called The Shimmer, a state park has been surrounded by a force field that people can pass through. Those who have passed through however, have never returned. That includes Kane (Isaac), the husband of Lena (Portman) who is a medical doctor, a biology professor who like her husband has a military background. A year has passed by since his disappearance. Then, something happens that throws her life into disarray.

Now she needs to know what happened to Kane in the Shimmer. She meets with Dr. Ventress (Leigh), the project leader in trying to find out what the Shimmer is and what it means for humanity. Is it the beginning of the end? Is it a natural phenomenon? An invasion? A portal into another dimension? Inquiring minds need to know.

So a team of women are sent into see if they can find the answers, led by Ventress but including Anya (Rodriguez), Cass (Novotny) and Josie (Thompson). What they will find inside the Shimmer is not what they were expecting, but it is nonetheless a dangerous place that they can’t let their guard down not even for a moment. Not against the environment – and not against each other. After all, what would a sci-fi film be without at least some of the characters bearing deep dark hidden secrets?

This could easily have been a run of the mill creature feature (and there are several creatures to be found in this film, some damn frightening) but that’s just not the way Garland operates. This is a thinking person’s sci-fi, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It is the first book in a trilogy, which is probably what attracted Paramount in the first place – the potential for a franchise. That’s not exactly what they got, which is probably why the studio’s financial department demanded changes in the film (particularly the ending) because it was “too cerebral.” Producer Scott Rudin, who had the final cut negotiated in his contract, refused and the movie went out as Garland wanted it.

There is certainly some allegory here, both in the sense of how our own planet’s environment is changing and the lethal consequences that will arise as part of that. There are a few logical holes that I really can’t go into without spoiling the plot so I won’t and the movie runs just shy of two hours which is about a half hour too long. I like the intelligence of the script but I could have done with a little less travelogue.

The visuals are absolutely breathtaking and highly imaginative; there are images here that are going to stick with you for a long time to come, the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. The performances are a little hit and miss; at times Portman doesn’t seem to be in sync with what’s going on although it is true that her character does have a lot on her mind. However, Leigh gives a stellar performance that reminds us that she is an Oscar-nominated performer who is one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood.

Whether you like this or not is going to depend heavily on whether you prefer to use science fiction as an escape or as illumination. Those who prefer the latter will find rich material to mine here; those who prefer the former are going to end up with a headache. I’m sort of in the middle on this one; it’s certainly flawed but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough here to check out, particularly if you like your movies to challenge you. This one does that for certain.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are spectacular. Leigh gives a stellar performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed. The film runs way too long, maybe a good 40 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and some bloody images, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Mizuno worked with Garland on his previous film Ex-Machina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

Life


Ryan Reynolds in space.

(2017) Science Fiction (Columbia) Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, Haruka Kuroda, Alexandre Nguyen, Woong-sin Hiu, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Naoko Mori. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Space, by definition, is lifeless. Space movies shouldn’t be. The best science fiction movies allow us to see ourselves through a window of “what-if.” I suppose that’s true of movies, period.

The International Space Station is on a mission to retrieve a robotic spacecraft returning from Mars. Knocked off of its trajectory by space debris, it hurtles towards the ISS which will have just one opportunity to grab it or else the soil samples and data it collected will be lost forever. Astronaut Rory Adams (Reynolds) snags the spacecraft and brings it into the space station. There, biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) makes a startling discovery; there is life in the Martian soil. Single celled, maybe, but life nonetheless. The living organism becomes a sensation back at home as the astronauts study it and a naming contest among schoolkids bestow upon the creature the name “Calvin.”

As anyone who has ever seen this kind of movie knows, this doesn’t end well. When Calvin goes dormant, the supposedly brilliant scientists on the space station – presumably with the blessing of colleagues on Earth – decide to use an electrical current to wake up the organism. That’s a pretty rude thing to do to a guest, don’t you think?

Certainly Calvin thinks so and he reacts to the rudeness with homicidal mania. Wouldn’t you? In any case Calvin holds a few xenomorphing surprises up his sleeve…well, he doesn’t have sleeves exactly but you get my meaning. In any case he starts picking off the astronauts one by one and it becomes horribly apparent that the crew must keep Calvin from heading to Earth at all costs – even at the cost of their own lives.

This was originally slated for a summertime release before it was knocked back to March and for good reason; this is a seriously flawed film. For one thing, it follows Ridley Scott’s Alien virtually note for note. I’ll be honest, it’s better to rip off a classic film than a mediocre one but nonetheless the writers don’t offer anything new; it’s just a different kind of xenomorph than the original and it takes place closer to home in both time and place. You could do a pretty decent mash-up with the two movies and never lose a beat.

Espinosa has gotten himself a stellar cast for his movie. Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are two of the most popular stars out there and Reynolds brings the wise-ass persona from his most recent films onto the ISS here. It works rather nicely. Gyllenhaal is a bit more workmanlike, but nonetheless holds the attention of the viewer with his own intensity. He’s a little bit miscast but pulls it off nonetheless.

Most of the rest of the cast is fairly colorless which is a shame because the actors while lesser known than the two leads are solid in the acting department, particularly Sanada and Ferguson. The characters are essentially disposable, meant to be death bait for the CGI alien who is apparently much brighter than the humans because the humans keep putting themselves in situations that are way more dangerous than they have to be. Astronauts are supposed to be smart and in The Martian they were; here, they’re just good looking.

A movie like this is going to live and die on its CGI and the graphics here aren’t bad. Calvin shows up pretty early on and while he morphs into a succeeding variety of creatures each more deadly than the last, we don’t get the mystery we got from the original Alien where the creature wasn’t revealed until much later in the movie. This is a bit of a technical error on the part of the filmmakers. The first part of the movie when we’re meeting Calvin in his initial forms is far more interesting than the bug hunt portion of the film at the end.

I don’t mind films borrowing from other films. There is nothing new under the sun (or apparently under the stars) after all. I just wish there would be just a little bit more variance from the source material. Everything here is way predictable including the ending. This is basically a poster child for wasted opportunity. The idea behind Calvin was a good one; if only they had surrounded him with a story worthy of that imagination

REASONS TO GO: The alien creature is pretty nicely accomplished. Reynolds is on a roll and this kind of film is just tailor-made for him.
REASONS TO STAY: There is definitely a been-there, seen-that feel to the film. The second half of the movie loses what good will the first half builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a modicum of sci-fi violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skydance Media, the production company primarily responsible for the film, has been based at Paramount for seven years; not only is this their first film for a distributor other than Paramount, it is also their first R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Buster’s Mal Heart