Synchronic


Two EMTs shooting the breeze.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAAnthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ionnides, Bill Oberst Jr., Natasha Tina Liu, Martin Bats Bradford, Devyn A. Tyler, Betsy Holt, Lawrence Turner, Shane Brody, Walker Babington, Sam Malone, Hawn Tran, Carl Palmer, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Adam J. Yeend, Ramiz Monsef, Matthew Underwood, J. Lamb, Sophie Howell. Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

 

One of the advantages of being a mainstay in the MCU movies as Anthony Mackie is, is that he has the option to fill his down time between MCU epics with movies of his choosing. The downside is that people might see him more as a second banana instead of a lead, so when he does spectacular work as a lead, people might be surprised.

They shouldn’t be. Mackie has been a terrific actor for years now, and he shines in just about every role he takes on. Here he plays Steve, a New Orleans EMT, working the night shift with his partner Dennis (Dornan). Steve is a bit of a party animal, never forging any kind of relationship save with Dennis; Dennis, on the other hand, is a family man with a wife (Aselton) who is becoming exasperated with Steve, and teenage daughter Brianna (Ionnides) who is growing more difficult by the day.

The two have been seeing an increase in gruesome deaths which are connected with the designer drug Synchronic. At the same time, Steve receives some bad news and is forced to face his own mortality. And when he discovers that Synchronic has an unexpected quality that has to do with the disappearance of Brianna, Steve realizes he is the only one to get his partner’s daughter back home.

I’m being deliberately vague here about the nature of what Synchronic does and how it shapes the plot because, quite frankly, the less you know going in the better. I will say that a healthy suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary, and a willingness to accept some lapses in logic. That said, the plot is a doozy and the concept a thoughtful one.  Mackie shines here in a bit of an anti-hero role; Steve is a bit of a curmudgeon and an equal bit of a jerk, but when the chips are down he’s as loyal as they come, so there’s that.

The cast is rock solid and the special effects are, considering the low budget, pretty impressive, but it is Mackie that is the reason you’ll want to see this. It’s fairly thought-provoking sci-fi but as I said there are some “huh?” moments which do bring the movie down some. Benson and Moorhead excel at creating an atmosphere and there is a definitely desperate vibe here, but the movie does take it’s sweet time getting going and the ending is a bit of a groaner. That said, though, this is a pretty solid mid-fall film that is likely to get traction once word gets out about it.

The movie is currently available in select theaters around the country. A VOD release will be coming soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Mackie channels Will Smith in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth directorial collaboration between Benson and Moorhead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jacob’s Ladder
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

LX 2048


Driving with the top down in a hazmat suit – how very 2020!

(2020) Science Fiction (QuiverJames D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Juliet Aubrey, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Linc Hand, Ronin Zaki Moshe, Majus Motiejus Prokopas. Directed by Guy Moshe

 

You can tell the state of a society by how it perceives the way the world will end. Our society, chronically depressed and stressed, turns out apocalyptic movies that have no explosions, no meteors, no heroic astronauts…just a world where everyone plays on a virtual Realm waiting for things to come to a close.

Adam Bird (D’Arcy) sees the end coming sooner. He works for a virtual reality hardware firm that supplies the hardware necessary to enter The Realm, the virtual reality utopia that everyone is plugged into. He can see the company’s future and it is grim – the hardware will soon be rendered obsolete by an implanted chip that will do the same thing faster, more efficiently, and less expensively. Adam is a voice crying in the wilderness – quite literally. He’s the only one to actually go into the office. Most people work from home and attend meetings via The Realm (sound familiar?)

But that isn’t even the worst news in Adam’s day. His doctor (McKee) has informed him that his heart is failing, and soon. But no worries – he has three kids and because he and his wife Reena (Brewster) bothered to procreate (most people don’t) he is eligible for Premium 3 insurance, which in the event of the death of either him or his spouse provides for a clone replacement, with all their memories intact. The two spouses even get to tweak their genetically enhanced replacement mates with characteristics that are more in tune with what they want – more attentive, sexier, less annoying and so on.

It’s a pretty bleak world – one of the reasons nobody goes out to work is because sunlight has become toxic, likely due to the erosion of the ozone. The population copes by taking state-mandated tranquilizers – LithiumX – which numbs them to the fact that life has become an absolute cluster muck. And Adam being something of a rebel, refuses to take his medication. So when Reena catches him having a go at a virtual sex doll, she blows a gasket and tosses him out on his tush. But with the company in danger of failing, Adam knows he has to figure out a way to keep it afloat long enough for the insurance to cash in and support his estranged wife and children.

There’s an awful lot of concepts thrown into the mix here, and one has to give the filmmakers credit for trying to tackle them all. There’s an intelligence to the movie that is more often than not missing from science fiction movies, and that’s refreshing. That doesn’t mean the movie is always successful in what it’s trying to do.

D’Arcy actually does a pretty bang-up job as Adam, and the movie totally rests on his shoulders so that’s a good thing. Often, he is having conversations with people who are online; we aren’t invited to The Realm so mostly what we see is Adam shouting in an empty conference room. It is a bit disconcerting, but I suspect that given the situation we’ve all been in the past several months we all feel a little bit like that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The problem here is that Adam is not really a pleasant guy. There’s a reason everyone’s on Lithium; it’s just too much for the psyche to handle, and Adam with everything going on – his marriage failing, his health failing, his business failing, the world failing – is losing it and not just a little bit. He’s desperately trying to have a conversation with Reena trying to express his fears but she isn’t having it, and so his attempts to reach out degenerate into shouting matches and vicious put-downs. “I can’t believe I ever loved you,” he cries out during one such exchange.

The movie tries to take a sharp left turn late in the movie but this is ill-advised. There really is enough going on to keep the discussion group going for ages without throwing in a final twist. The last 20 minutes virtually (no pun intended) undoes all the goodwill that the first eighty minutes generated. That’s a shame because despite being a low-budget affair, the production design is pretty aces – it looks like it has a budget probably 10 to 20 times what it actually had, and the ideas that it’s grappling with are very relevant right now, with climate change, online addiction, drug addiction, the deterioration of relationships in an increasingly plugged-in world and the ethics of medical technology exceeding our maturity to handle them.

I almost forgot to mention Delroy Lindo who has a small but crucial role as a reclusive scientist, and all I can say is that even his less visible roles are intriguing. Delroy Lindo is undeniably a cool mofo, and we are reminded of that every time he pops up onscreen.

In any case, this is a movie with lofty aspirations that occasionally achieves them, but ultimately shoots itself in the foot when it tries to insert a twist that wasn’t really needed. Fans of thoughtful science fiction will find much to chew on here. Those who prefer their movies a little bit less crammed with ideas might find it indigestible.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of great ideas – almost too many.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characters are all so contemptible it’s hard to root for any of them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D’Arcy is best known for his work in the MCU playing the human Jarvis in the Agent Carter miniseries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gattaca
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Artist’s Wife

Attack of the Unknown


Don’t look behind you.

(2020) Science Fiction (Gravitas) Richard Grieco, Tara Reid, Robert LoSardo, Jolene Andersen, Tania Fox, Douglas Tait, Robert Donavan, Ben Stobber, Scott Butler, Margo Quinn, Gerardo de Pablos, Dee Cutrone, Tamara Solomson, Mia ScozzaFave, Paul Gunn, Navin P. Kumar, Johnny Huang, Elizabeth Noelle Japhet, Al Burke, Rachel Christenson. Directed by Brandon Slagle

 

I’m not sure when H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds or when Orson Welles broadcast a version of it on the radio that they realized that someday there would be several alien invasion movies every year of varying production values and quality. I sort of doubt it. And had they known, they might well have had a good laugh.

Vernon (Grieco) is the taciturn, tough-as-nails leader of an elite SWAT team of the LAPD. They have staked out cartel leader Miguel “Hades” Aguirre (LoSardo) and after a bloody gunfight, capture the drug lord. Their triumph is tempered by the loss of one of their members and the sudden intrusion of the Feds who insist on taking over the case.

The day gets worse for Vernon as his wife serves him with divorce papers and to make matters even worse, he receives word that he has terminal myeloma. What’s next, an invasion of bloodthirsty aliens hellbent on sucking the blood of every last human being in Los Angeles?

Funny you should mention that. It’s exactly what happens, to everyone’s surprise except for maybe Vernon. He holes up with the remains of his team and a few civilians, including Hades in the detention center which is not as well-stocked with guns and ammo as you might think. They know that they can’t stay there but there’s a possibility of getting to a nearby high rise for a helicopter rescue, but first they’re going to have to fight their way through a swarm of seemingly indestructible aliens.

On paper, it sounds like the genesis of what could be a wild and fun ride, and certainly that was what director Brendan Slagle was after – at least, he has a lot of elements that are working in that direction, from a frenetic, breathless pace to a marvelous Clint Eastwood on Zen-like performance by Grieco, who is grizzled enough now that the one-time 21 Jump Street babyface has a shot at a new career doing gritty action films like this one.

Like most B-movies, this one has a budget that would cause Kevin Feige (the producer of Marvel movies, for those wondering who he is) hysterics. The best-known actors are Grieco and Tara Reid, who is in a blink-and-you-missed-it flashback of a previous alien invasion – apparently there were no Sharknado movies in production at the time. The CGI is okay, not great but the aliens are actually laughable; guys in felt suits with headpieces left over from This Island Earth that Ed Wood would have loved.

There are a few needless subplots that probably should have been jettisoned to streamline this a bit more, but as they say, it’s all in good fun and it’s mostly harmless, unless you object to seeing bad things happen to good cops. This isn’t going to make anybody forget Independence Day but if you like your sci-fi cheesy, gritty and violent, this might just be for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Cheesy in kind of a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The aliens are really unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence, some nudity and sex, as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Slagle took several concepts in the film from a short story he wrote in middle school called “Blood is the Cure.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Psychomagic: A Healing Art

The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

Alita: Battle Angel


Angels in battle.

(2019) Science Fiction (20th Century) Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Lana Condor, Idara Victor, Jeff Fahey, Elza Gonzalez, Derek Mears, Leonard Wu, Racer Maximilliano Rodriguez-Avellán, Marko Zador, Rick Yune, Hugo Perez, Casper Van Dien, Elle LaMont. Directed by Robert Rodriguez

 

Alita: Battle Angel has been a passion project for director James Cameron for nearly two decades; unfortunately, his ambitious projects were time-consuming and it has only been recently when the technology caught up to Cameron’s vision for the legendary Japanese manga this is based on.

Scientist-by-day, bounty-hunter-by-night Dr. Edo (Waltz) discovers a deactivated cyborg in a garbage dump. Realizing what she is, he reactivates her, leaving her without memory of her past. Alita (Salazar) is eager to discover who she is, how she knows virtually every fighting style known to man and what’s to become of her. Dr. Edo wants to keep her hidden and safe, but there are forces who are aware they can make a fortune off of Alita, led by the nefarious Vector (Ali). Complicating things is Hugo (Johnson), who becomes the main squeeze of Alita, who dreams of leaving the poverty of Iron City for the paradise of Zalem, the cloud city where the well-heeled hang their hats.

With Cameron busy directing the Avatar sequels, he handed the reins to veteran genre director Rodriguez, remaining with the project as a producer and mentor for Rodriguez. Rodriguez’ strengths lie in action sequences, making him a wise choice. Cameron, perhaps the best director of special effects extravaganzas in history, definitely had a hand in the vision here. There was some controversy regarding the eyes of the Alita character, which are CGI with the oversize that is typical of Japanese manga. Some found the digital effect distracting and creepy, while others found it to be a nice touch regarding the source material. You pretty much get used to it during the course of the film, so I found it to be a non-issue. In any case, the special effects are nonetheless spectacular, even overwhelming. There is definite vision when it comes to the visuals. The motorball sequences, a kind of cross between roller derby and jai alai (and not unlike the sci-fi staple of Rollerball), are easily the best in the film.

But this is where movie theaters are truly missed; without the complete immersion of 3D with Dolby sound, the movie loses something. It simply isn’t as impactful on the home screen. That makes the run time, close to two hours, a little more wearing. And while non-manga fans may be able to get into the film, it really helps to have at least a general knowledge of the artform and non-fans may find themselves turned off by it – and more knowledgeable fans may nit-pick the details.

This is definite eye candy and if you’re missing the summer blockbusters this year, it does make a decent substitution, but at the same time it might make you long for the theatrical experience as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great visual effects, although they tend to get overwhelming after a while. The motorball sequences are like cinematic crack.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long. May not appeal to non-manga fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action violence and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Waltz was recommended to Rodriguez by Quentin Tarantino, a close friend who worked with Rodriguez on the Grindhouse project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost in the Shell
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Guest of Honour

IO


Not the bright future we were hoping for.

(2018) Science Fiction (NetflixMargaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie, Danny Huston, Tom Payne (voice), Justin Andrew Jamieson, Teagan Johnson, Emma Fitzgerald (voice). Directed by Jonathan Helpert

 

In times such as these it isn’t hard to imagine the world as we know it coming to an end. In this Netflix sci-fi ecological apocalypse flick, something has turned the Earth’s atmosphere toxic; millions are dying and there doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the process. The human race is leaving in droves, for a space station circling the Jovian moon of Io.

One of the few people remaining on earth is Sam Walden (Qualley), daughter of scientist Henry Walden (Huston). She lives on a high plateau which still has a breathable atmosphere, although it doesn’t seem likely that it will stay that way for long. She tends to a colony of bees that she hopes – as her dad did before her – will pollinate plants and kickstart the eco-system. She relays the results of her work to Elon (Payne), her boyfriend on the orbiting Io station.

Then out of the sky drops Micah (Mackie), out of a makeshift dirigible. He’s there to see Henry – except Henry’s not available. And that’s just the beginning. Both Micah and Sam are keeping secrets from each other, secrets that can have major ramifications. Meanwhile, time is ticking down before the last shuttle leaves Earth, stranding whoever is left behind there forever.

This is what’s called a “high-concept” science fiction film. It’s not that an ecological apocalypse has never been done on film before – Roland Emmerich made a living at those sorts of films in the last decade – but this one seems to be taking a more sober, science-based approach. At least, so it seems on the surface. The closer you look, the more the science doesn’t really bear scrutiny.

But the production design is nice, which I’ve been saying a lot more often about films lately, but we’ve seen some impressive leaps in that arena of film over the past half-decade. Sadly, though, there is zero chemistry between Qualley and Mackey, and quite frankly, Qualley emotes here like she’s making a YouTube film rather than a fairly major production.

There are some worthwhile moments here, but the movie is its own worst enemy, with stupefying dialogue and bizarre character choices. I found my attention wandering during the last half of the film, never a good sign. Fortunately, as this is only available on Netflix, you can always pause it to take a nap. It’s up to you, however, if you want to continue watching after you wake up.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: A less-than-scintillating execution.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elle Fanning and Diego Luna were originally cast in the lead roles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Interstellar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Mnemophrenia


The revolution will be digitized.

(2019) Science Fiction (Indie Rights) Freya Berry, Robin King, Tim Seyfert, Tallulah Sheffield, Jamie Laird, Robert Milton Wallace, Dominic O’Flynn, Angela Peters, Anna Brook, Michael Buckster, Gary Cargill, Steve Hope Wynne, John Morton, Cally Lawrence, Lisa Caruccio Came. Directed by Einni Konstantinidou

 

What is real? Is it what we perceive it to be? Experts will tell you that memory can’t really be trusted; we tend to remember things through our own peculiar filters, often changing the nature of those memories or omitting important context to them altogether. So if memories are unreliable at best, would artificial memories and the inability to tell that they were artificial be such a bad thing?

Mnemophrenia is a portmanteau of mneme and schizophrenia; it is a condition posited by writer-director Konstantinidou (an academic at the University of Essex making her feature film debut) in which memories made in virtual reality environments take on the status of living memories, even though we didn’t experience them in the real world.

The story is told through three different time periods. The earliest takes place in the near-future in which Jeanette Harper (Berry) has memories of a summer with a nearly perfect man named Douglas (Seyfert) which only occurred in a virtual reality environment. Nevertheless, she fell in love with him and held all other relationships to his standard, which led to a failed marriage and a feeling of emptiness. She is engaging in group therapy for other sufferers of the condition, and making a documentary about the process.

Her grandson, Nicholas Morgan (King) is developing a next-gen virtual reality environment called Total Cinema, which will allow a much more complete VR experience. He and his assistant Will (Laird) have some misgivings that the system seems to trigger mnemophrenia in those not generically pre-disposed to the condition. Nicholas, who was born with the condition, is acutely aware that others will perceive that should the product be released to the marketplace (and the release date is hurtling towards them with terrifying speed) that he will be accused of creating the condition on purpose, since he is on record as believing that mnemophrenia is not a condition to be feared but embraced, which goes largely counter to society’s disdain of those who suffer from it. However, the corporate bigwigs are having none of it, not caring what the potentially catastrophic effects of releasing this product to market would be so long as they get return on their investment.

The third story takes place in the far future when terminally ill academic Robyn (Sheffield) is studying the effects of an implanted chip that would allow her to experience the memories of both Nicholas and Jeanette as an “empathy study,” while her husband Charlie (Wallace) has misgivings that this would change his wife into another person entirely.

Considering the budget the film had to work with, the visuals are impressive. The mid-period story of Nicholas utilizes impressive graphics that give the viewer the experience of viewing the world through the Total Cinema environment. The film stands up with science fiction films with budgets many times larger than this one must have had.

The concept is a thought-provoking one as we enter an era in which VR is becoming increasingly prevalent; there are many who foresee it as the medium of the future, replacing film, television and gaming entirely. Are those memories that we create in virtual environments any less real than those we create outside of them? Will we be able to distinguish between the two? This is no less a study of the war that is waged between technology and naturalism. Even the score reflects that dichotomy, blending the real with the synthesized.

The acting is above par for an indie feature; there are no “name” actors to anchor it, but all of the cast do their jobs well and to a certain extent, the relations Jeanette, Nicholas and Robyn even have a faint resemblance to one another.

This is the kind of science fiction that academic sorts love; it explores the possibilities of the human experience and forces us to confront what makes those experiences real to us. While we haven’t gotten the technology to the point where VR avatars seem real to us, that day is coming and soon. One wonders if living in a virtual reality might not be preferable to existing in the real world.

REASONS TO SEE: An imaginative, intelligent concept. Nice special effects for an indie.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the film was improvised, Konstantinidou believing that would make the characters more realistic. To facilitate that, she shot the film in chronological order, so that characters in succeeding time periods would have the “memories” of previous time periods to use as a base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Vice

Bumblebee


A girl and her bug.

(2018) Science Fiction (ParamountHailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Landeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Megyn Price, Rachel Crowther, Grey Griffin, Gracie Dzienny, Peter Cullen (voice), Len Cariou, Marcella Bragio, Steve Blum, Vanessa Ross, Glynn Turman, Kirk Bailey, Jon Bailey, Kevin Kent, Michael Masini, Fred Dryer, Mika Kubo. Directed by Travis Knight

 

After a decade of Michael Bay’s sturm und drang Transformers movies comes a different take in the franchise’s first spin-off…or is it prequel? I guess either appellation works.

With the Decepticons having overrun the Autobots in their ongoing war (if you don’t know what that sentence signifies, you should probably go no further and look for something else to rent), Bumblebee is sent by Optimus Prime (Cullen) to Earth to protect the human race. Unfortunately, he’s tailed by a couple of Decepticon warriors who basically kick the gears out of him, disabling his vocal functions and leaving him nearly dead. He makes like a VW Bug to hide from the evil robots, who are looking hard for him so they can find out where the Autobots are hiding and destroy them once and for all.

But teen Charlie (Steinfeld), mourning her late father, takes a liking to the Bug when she spies him in a scrapyard and decides to rebuild him. You can imagine her surprise when he rebuilds himself. The trouble is that those evil Decepticons have managed to convince the American government that Bumblebee is a threat and the gov’mint sends out iron-jawed Agent Burns (Cena) to locate the wayward Autobot and take him down. All that stands between the human race and total annihilation is a badly damaged robot and a plucky teenage girl. How much more 1987 could you get?

Quite a bit, judging from the wonderful soundtrack here. Still, this is a refreshing tonal change for the series which had fallen into self-parody with the last movie, Transformers: The Last Knight. While the movie starts out with a Bay-esque scene of mayhem and massive robot carnage, the movie abruptly shifts gears and becomes something of a buddy movie. Steinfeld is a very talented actress and not many could pull off doing a buddy movie with a car, but she does it pretty well, playing the 80s tomboy despite not having been born until the following decade.

But it’s the mayhem that most people buy tickets to these movies for, and there’s plenty of that. Knight, who has mostly worked with stop-motion animation with Laika, has a good sense of how to stage an action set piece but also has a good sense of balance with character development and plot. He even manages to inject a little pathos and humor into the mix, something Bay wasn’t known for.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent action sequences. Steinfeld gives an affecting performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fair number of clichés are present.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steinfeld was born nine years after the movie was set, so she had to be taught how to use some of the props such as the Walkman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Hero 6
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Union Bridge

Mortal Engines


A dystopian vista.

(2018) Science Fiction (UniversalHera Hilmar, Hugo Weaving, Robert Sheehan, Jihae Kim, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Mitchison, Regé-Jean Page, Menik Gooneratne, Frankie Adams, Leifur Sigurdarson, Kahn West, Andrew Lees, Sophie Cox, Kee Chan, Sarah Peirse, Mark Hadlow, Caren Pistorius, Poppy McLeod. Directed by Christian Rivers

 

Bigger, as we have all come to learn, is not necessarily better. More often than not, bigger is just…not as small. When it comes to movies, we do love our big loud blockbusters, but sometimes we take a gander at the trailer, mutter “I can’t even” and move on to another podcast.

Based on the four-book young adult series by Phillip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set a millennium into the future when the surface of the earth has been razed by wars. Cities have become motorized literally – they are on wheels – and roam the landscape like pirate ships, absorbing smaller cities and using their innards for fuel. Think the opening sequence of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life but on a grander scale

Young Hester (Hilmar) lives in the dystopian future and she has a thirst for revenge against London’s heroic leader Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving) and attempts to assassinate him but is foiled by historian Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan) who discovers Valentine’s terrible secret. For this he is ejected from the city along with Hester, both of whom are left to make their way in the blasted landscape. The two hook up with swashbuckling Anna Fang (Kim) while trying to elude homicidal cyborg Shrike (Lang).

The images here are fantastic and the premise is imaginative, if impractical and somewhat illogical. Peter Jackson co-wrote this and was a producer on the project which explains it’s nine figure budget. Unfortunately, the plot is so convoluted and full of outright thievery from other franchises (Star Wars in particular) that once you get past the overwhelming visuals you are left with a plot that isn’t very good and characters that aren’t very interesting.

While I admit to being a junkie for Hugo Weaving (and he does elevate the movie significantly), he is offset by Hilmar who is the lead. She has almost no personality which is the fault of the writers, and no charisma which she has to look inwardly for. Putting a young person at the forefront of a big budget tentpole is always risky, but in this case that risk didn’t pay off.

This is still wonderful eye candy but little else. It the writers had put as much creativity to the story and characters that the special effects teams did to their craft, this would have potentially the start of a bold new franchise. Instead, it will go down in the annals of Hollywood as one of the biggest flops of all time.

REASONS TO SEE: The visuals are impressive and imaginative. I’d see Hugo Weaving in anything.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is nonsensical and borrows too liberally from Star Wars. Hilmar has almost no presence whatsoever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leila George, who plays Katherine Valentine, is the daughter of Vincent D’Onofrio and Greta Scacchi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of Ember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Welcome to Marwen

The Predator


There’s predators and then there’s prey.

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century FoxBoyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski, Brian Prince, Mike Dopud, Niall Matter, Javier Lacroix, Gabriel LaBelle, Nikolas Dukic, Lochlyn Munro, Alisson Amigo. Directed by Shane Black

 

A buddy of mine is a huge fan of Shane Black and with good reason. Black has written some of the best action films of the last few decades. Now, he tries his hand at a franchise that he has a history with – as an actor.

Sniper Quinn McKenna (Holbrook) has a run-in with a Predator in Mexico (why they seem attracted to Latin America I have no idea) and after a debriefing by the military, is locked away in a sanitarium to keep him quiet but not before he FedExes some alien tech to his ex-wife (Strahovski, sadly underused) and autistic savant son (Tremblay) who sets off a beacon that brings down a hunter after his family. Along with a group of misfits also in the military prison, Quinn must escape and save his family – and by extension, the rest of the human race – before it’s too late.

I will say this; the movie does have the courage of its convictions. It sets you up as being a gore-fest and that it remains from beginning to end. Nobody writes tough guy dialogue like Shane, and he outdoes himself here. However, this isn’t one of his finer works as the plot is exceedingly derivative – do we really need another brilliant but emotionally challenged kid to save the day – and by the end of the movie has become so ludicrous that your best bet is just go with it and don’t try to think too much about the logic behind what you’re seeing.

 

The cast is pretty star-studded and for the most part delivers satisfactory performances, or at least about what you would expect for a movie like this. Some of the CGI is a little grainy and likely won’t bear up under the next generation of UHD screens. Holbrook in the lead is no Arnold Schwarzenegger – I thought the movie might have been better served if he and Thomas Jane would have switched roles.

Still in all, this makes for some mighty decent popcorn entertainment. And that, my dear reader, is something we can all use more of in these stressful times.

REASONS TO SEE: Gleefully entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot points way up there on the ludicrous scale.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of gore and persistent profanity including crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Black wrote Thomas Jane’s character with Tourette’s syndrome because Black has Tourette’s in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Predator v. Alien
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Chichinette: The Accidental Spy