Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

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Source Code


Source Code

The sparks between Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal are nothing compared to the flames behind them.

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Cas Anvar, Russell Peters, Brent Skagford, Craig Thomas, Gordon Masten, Scott Bakula (voice), Frederick de Grandpre. Directed by Duncan Jones

If you knew you only had eight minutes to live, what would you do with them? Would you make every second count? What if you had to re-live them over and over and over again?

Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train. There is a beautiful woman, whose name he later finds out is Caroline (Monaghan), sitting across from him, making small talk. All very simple. All very ordinary.

Except Captain Stevens shouldn’t be there. The last memory he has is of flying helicopter sorties in Afghanistan. He doesn’t know how he got there or why this beautiful woman keeps calling him “Sean.” He doesn’t understand why when he looks in the bathroom mirror, he sees another face – the face of Sean Fentress (de Grandpre), the teacher he’s supposed to be. He’s disoriented and doesn’t understand what’s happening. Then the train blows up.

He finds himself in what appears to be a flight simulator leaking hydraulic fluid, being paged by a woman in a military uniform who he later finds out is named Goodwin (Farmiga), trying to find out from Captain Stevens who blew up the train. Captain Stevens has no idea. Finally someone in charge, Dr. Rutledge (Wright) lets him know; he’s in Source Code, an experimental technology that allows him to be projected into a human host during the last eight minutes of their life and be able to relive it. There’s an explanation as to why eight minutes and why him, but it would only make your brain hurt.

The reason Captain Stevens is being sent back over and over again is that this train bombing is the precursor to a much larger, much more deadly terrorist attack. Time is running out and Captain Stevens must get past his own deepening feelings for Caroline and his desire to save the people on the train who are already dead to find out who the bomber is so millions of lives can be saved.

This is the intriguing premise to Source Code, the latest science fiction opus from director Duncan Jones, the auteur behind Moon. Like that film, it is best that only the barest plot points be revealed as to not spoil the twists and turns that the movie takes you through. Unlike many time travel pictures of late, this one isn’t strictly about time travel since nobody actually travels so much as inhabits. Still, there are plenty of paradoxes involving alternate dimensions.

Like most time travel movies, there are lots of big old plot holes that kind of make you think “oh no that doesn’t work.” For example, every time Captain Stevens goes back into the memories of Sean Fentress, the situation changes. He is able to see people, places and things Fentress didn’t actually see. If he’s inhabiting someone else’s consciousness, wouldn’t he be limited to experiencing what his host experienced? That issue is never addressed, but then again, logical people like myself may not be the best audience for this movie.

Then again, I thought this was extraordinarily well-plotted and well-written, once you just sit back and let your suspension of disbelief take over. The characters are realistic and human rather than being iconic heroic sorts who save the day while admiring their reflections in the mirror. Nope; Captain Stevens has baggage and even though he is a heroic sort, he is far from blindly obedient.

Gyllenhaal has developed into one of the better actors working today. With his sister Maggie, they make the best sibling actors since the Cusacks. While Gyllenhaal’s line delivery tends to be laconic, he makes up for it for his facial emotions, which give him much more animation than other actors who use their voice nearly exclusively to let us see how they’re feeling. He also has great chemistry with Monaghan, which is at the center of the movie.

Monaghan is undeniably beautiful; she also is a pretty decent actress in her own right. She plays Caroline with a mixture of warmth and incredulity. She plays along although she doesn’t always understand what’s going on and Monaghan manages to give the character a sense of continuity from encounter to encounter. Her lines may vary slightly but her emotions don’t.

While there are some spectacular explosions and action sequences, by and large this isn’t a big budget spectacular sci-fi epic. This is an examination of a man trying to figure out what is real, what can be changed, who he is and where he fits in. That’s some pretty intense kind of questions to answer and of course they are to the extent that Colter Stevens wants them to be. However, it is the very questioning nature of Stevens that makes the movie more worthwhile than most of the other stuff that’s out there.

Some may find this a bit too cerebral for their tastes but quite frankly, there is an audience of people who love smart sci-fi who aren’t being serviced by Hollywood too often in favor of the big budget Tranformers and their clones. I’m all for space opera and big epic science fiction action movies, but there’s room for these kinds of films as well and this one is done particularly well. Jones, who once by the name as Zowie Bowie (he is David’s son), has a knack for these sorts of movies and it appears, from the rumors of what movies he’s considering for his next project, that there are more of them to come from him and to my mind, they couldn’t be more welcome!

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise that doesn’t fall prey to the same problems most time travel films fall to. Nice performances (and real chemistry between) Gyllenhaal and Monaghan.

REASONS TO STAY: Seeing the same eight minute-period over and over again can get tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty disturbing images of things and people blowing up or having been blown up. There is a little bit of bad language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Topher Grace was considered for the part of Captain Colter Stevens.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a big screen affair.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Death at a Funeral (2010)

Moon


Moon

Ground control to Major Tom.

(Sony Classics) Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice), Dominique McElligott, Rosie Shaw, Kaya Scodelario, Benedict Wong. Directed by Duncan Jones

As resources become more and more scarce here on Earth, it is inevitable that we will begin to look outward to fill our needs. Certainly mining on asteroids and on the moon seem to be logical solutions for those needs. It also seems logical that in such inhospitable environments, much of the work will be done by robotic machines. Where will humans fit in that equation and what will happen to them so far away from help?

Sam Bell (Rockwell) is getting near the end of his three-year contract. He is the lone caretaker and worker at an industrial mining base on the far side of the moon. His job is to maintain the remote mining vehicle that scoop up the rocks and refine them, and make sure that they are loaded onto unmanned vehicles that transport them to Earth.

He has no direct communication with home – because he is on the far side of the moon, the signal must be bounced off of Jupiter and sent back home, a process that takes several days. He exists on taped messages from his wife (McElligott) and interactions with the station computer GERTIE (Spacey) who shows emoticons to supply an emotional context to the calm, soothing monotonic voice that issues from the voice synthesizer.

When Sam has an accident on the lunar surface, he wakes up in the medical bay with no memory of the accident or how he got back to the base. It takes him some time to recover, but when he discovers that one of the mining vehicles isn’t working, he takes a trip out there to fix it and discovers something shocking.

Beyond that you don’t need to hear more. Suffice to say there are some plot points that are unexpected and give the movie a whole new twist. That makes it a very refreshing and unique science fiction film, one that doesn’t rely on monsters or mutants or spectacular spacecraft battles.

The look of the movie is very much influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Outland. The environment of the base is sterile and antiseptic but very much lived in, from the pin-up pictures on the walls to the dings and scratches on the surfaces of the walls and furniture.

This isn’t what you would call action-packed either. Instead, Moon relies on Rockwell to carry the picture and as he has proven in a number of recent movies, he’s perfectly capable of it. Much of the movie is Rockwell conveying the loneliness and frustration of being so near to returning home to his family; there are moments that are quite moving in that sense, but Rockwell doesn’t need to go over the top to get there, so he reins it in.

That’s a wise choice as an actor; this movie is not loud or obnoxious. It’s a quiet movie meant to inspire reflection and thought rather than visceral chest-pounding testosterone-inducing thrills. The movie has some points to make about the dehumanizing elements of industry and the inherent loneliness of working a dangerous job far from home.

The movie got a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance in 2009, and for my money, earned every bit of it. This isn’t the kind of movie that is going to set off fireworks and oohs and ahhs from the audience from its eye candy. Instead, it’s going to stick in your mind for weeks afterwards as you try to wrestle with your own ideas that the movie’s plotline leads you to. I’m not sure if it will qualify as a classic (something tells me that in years to come, it will be considered just that) but it certainly is the kind of movie they haven’t made since the era of Kubrick – hard science fiction. Guys like Larry Niven and the late John W. Campbell should take heart that the genre they made great is still alive and well.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie is certainly different than most sci-fi features we’re used to. It’s refreshing in that you never know exactly what’s going to happen next.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Much of the movie involves Sam interacting with the computer or watching old messages; in other words, not a lot of action or interaction here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty blue and there are some moments that might be too intense for youngsters, but this will be fine for teens that are into sci-fi.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son. While this is his first feature film, he’s directed a number of commercials in the United Kingdom.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Another science fiction short by Jones, Whistle about a contract assassin who uses satellite surveillance, is included on Blu-Ray editions along with a making-of featurette that includes director Jones answering questions at the movie’s Sundance Film Festival premiere and at a later screening at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Do watch the movie before seeing the featurette, however – some major spoilers are revealed during the featurette.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice