The Man with the Magic Box (Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem)


Did you hear the one about the star-crossed lovers?

(2017) Science Fiction (Artsploitation) Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Staniewicz, Helena Norowicz, Wojciech Zielinski, Bartolemej Firlet, Bartosz Cao, Anna Konieczna, Agata Buzek, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Bogdan Koca, Roma Kox, Bartosz Bielenia, Bartosz Adamczyk, Kamil Tolinski, Modest Rucinski, Marcin Sitek, Piotr Farynski, Kasia Koleczek, Maria Patykiewicz. Directed by Bodo Kox

 

There are movies that spell things out for you and then there are movies that force you to figure things out. I don’t have a problem with the latter kind of cinema but there’s an occupational hazard that the film can lead you down the primrose path without giving you the payoff you deserve for your efforts.

Adam (Polak) wakes up in 2030 with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing in Warsaw. He is given a job as a janitor in a high-tech office building where good-natured Sebastian (Staniewicz) shows him the ropes. It is at work that he encounters Goria (Boladz), a beautiful but somewhat aloof manager – at least she seems to be as she is one of the few who has an “office” of her own – and with whom he falls deeply in love. At first she rebuffs his advances (somewhat caustically, I might add) but during an explosion and fire in a neighboring building causes the panicked workers to flee their own building, the two engage in sweaty, manic sex.

Adam stumbles upon an old-style radio that picks up mysterious broadcasts which might be coming from the year 1952. He also begins to have visions of that era, visions that he struggles to understand. As it turns out, like Billy Pilgrim, he is unstuck in time and whether he will stay in a past ruled by dictatorial communists or in the dystopian future ruled by a KGB-like secret police but which includes Goria, is anybody’s guess.

I’m not 100% sure that this synopsis does the plot justice. Bodo Kox has created a future that looks very lived-in although to be blunt, the technology seems a might more advanced than ten years hence seems likely to produce. Water is severely rationed (which given the situation with climate change seems like a distinct possibility) and privacy is non-existent (which given how little privacy we currently have given that everything we do is recorded). People live in fear of a secret police that are aware of everything they do. It’s not the sort of Brave New World that we signed up for.

The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is a bit complicated; at times there is a genuine bond apparent between them but at others there’s a distance that’s just as tangible. That chemistry is central to the success or failure of this film and I can’t say that it works completely. This is the film’s most glaring flaw; there are also some logical missteps in the story.

I have to give the filmmakers points for trying to deviate from standard time travel and dystopian future formulae. The script could have used another go-round of polish and the leads maybe recast although to be honest I’d keep Boladz; she has star quality. Polak is a bit bland, leading one to wonder what the Polansky she sees in him. Cerebral sci-fi fans should give this one a look.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design depicts a lived-in future.
REASONS TO AVOID: The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is inconsistent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for two Polish Oscars in 2017, for Best Production Design and Best Music Score.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Incredibles 2

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Pacific Rim: Uprising


Giant robots are inherently cool.

(2018) Science Fiction (Universal) John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Burn Gorham, Charlie Day, Jing Tian, Max Zhang, Rinko Kikuchi, Karan Brar, Wesley Wong, Ivanna Sakhno, Mackenyu, Lily Ji, Shyrley Rodriguez, Rahart Adams, Levi Meaden, Dustin Clare, Chen Zitong, Calvin Yu, Qian Yongchen, Zeppelin Hamilton, Jiaming Guo, Lyric Lan. Directed by Stephen S. DeKnight

 

This sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 giant robots versus giant aliens Japanese cult film lovefest Pacific Rim isn’t going to overtax your intellect nor excite your imagination much; rather it operates on a completely visceral level, relying on eye candy special effects and chest-thumping militaristic dialogue from every action film ever.

]Set ten years after the original, the world is emerging from the invasion of the kaiju behemoths that nearly wiped out humanity. The fleet of giant robotic jaegers, piloted by two humans with minds linked by a neural bridge, are largely for show as the world rebuilds. Then, a rogue kaiju shows up and the world is woefully unprepared. Not only that but there is a giant conspiracy afoot. What is a war-weary world to do?

\Most of the cast of the original is absent, notably lead Charlie Hunnam whose character is mentioned in passing. Boyega plays the son of the first film’s Idris Elba character. Kikuchi, Gorham and Day are the only returnees of note. More importantly, Del Toro was off winning himself an Oscar and therefor had no time for the sequel.

The first film did boffo box office in China, rescuing it from red ink so the sequel is set mainly in China and has a predominantly Chinese cast. Fair enough. However, there is a Chinese reliance on oversold humor and shouted dialogue. This is a very loud movie indeed. It is also predictable as it seems cobbled together from a variety of movies. Having four writers will do that to a would-be blockbuster.

The special effects are what rescue the film; they are indeed impressive. You also can’t go wrong with giant robots battling Godzilla-like creatures. However, this sequel gets perilously close to doing just that.

REASONS TO SEE: The special effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sadly predictable and goes completely off the rails in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action violence and a bit of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the supporting actors appeared in the Spartacus series, including DeKnight who created the cable TV show.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu,YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transformers: The Last Knight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Bored in the USA

Tangent Room


Seeing double.

(2017) Science Fiction (Epic) Lisa Bearpark, Håkan Julander, Jennifer Lila Knipe, Daniel Epstein, Vee Vimolval. Directed by Björn Engström

 

The universe is a complicated place and we know jack about how it works. As a species we’re not unlike infants trying to grasp the linguistic rules of Sanskrit, or in this case, quantum mechanics – literally.

Four internationally renowned scientists are brought to a Chilean astronomy station into a basement room. They are honored to be there because they have been invited by Dr. Wahlstein (Epstein), a brilliant but somewhat neurotic scientist. Each one of the invitees have a different specialization in matters of understanding the cosmos from mathematics to physics. They wonder why they have been brought there and where their host is.

That is cleared up quickly when Dr. Wahlstein appears on a video screen and tells them that he is dead and so shall all of them be by 10 pm that very night. In order to save themselves – and indeed the whole world – they must solve the riddle of a variety of numbers. I don’t want to tell you about what catastrophe is occurring – suffice to say it involves parallel universes occupying the same place – but as the scientists at first think they are the victims of a colossal practical joke begin to realize that their dilemma is all too real and all too dire.

It is a locked room conundrum movie but also that is precisely not what this is. If I sound like I’m talking in circles, I’m trying to be deliberately vague as to not spoil what happens in that locked room too much. The problem is, if I break it down to its very basic level, Tangent Room is about four scientists in a locked room bickering and that sounds about as fun as a root canal. Tangent Room, however, is anything but simple.

This is an intensely cerebral science fiction movie, maybe the most academic you’ve ever seen. It leans very hard on science and while one critic groused that it had its mathematics and physics wrong, I can’t really take that on faith as I don’t know what the guy’s qualifications are to judge that. It wouldn’t surprise me though; cinema has never been shy about sacrificing accuracy for the sake of story.

The performances are decent enough but first-time director Engström (and the film’s writer) doesn’t really have enough time to give the characters actual personalities beyond that of argumentative academics. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain ran into much the same problem but managed to give us characters worth caring about so when the excreta hit the fan the viewers actually worried about them.

This is going to appeal to physics professors, scientists and academics pretty much exclusively, unless watching four scientists bicker about various aspects of cosmology are your idea of a fun evening out. That doesn’t mean this is a bad movie – it isn’t by any means – but with a little more creativity this could have hit both the gut and the brain but to be honest, anything that affects the brain these days is more than welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally red-shifts into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fermat’s Room
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Extra Innings

Aniara


A glimpse of a bleak future.

(2018) Science Fiction (Magnet) Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Emma Broomė, Jamil Drissi, Leon Jiber, Peter Carlberg, Juan Rodríguez, David Nzinga, Dakota Treacher Williams, Otis Castillo Ǻlhed, Dante Westergårdh, Elin Lilleman Eriksson, Agnes Lundgren, Alexi Carpentieri, Unn Dahlman, Laila Ljunggren. Directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja

 

We like to think we pretty much have a handle on our lives. We more or less know what we want, where we’re going and what we want to do along the way. We know we have a world of endless possibilities to explore. What happens though when we don’t?

In the future, climate change has made Earth unlivable and the human race is moving to Mars. Giant transport ships – essentially city-sized cruise ships – ferry passengers from the dying world to the new one. The Aniara is one such ship, loading up with passengers many of whom have family awaiting them on the Red Planet. The three-week journey is made easier by the presence of 21 restaurants, many more bars and nightclubs, a luxury spa, a massive mall – all the amenities of home.

Mimaroben (Jonsson) whose name is often abbreviated as “MR” runs the virtual reality room MIMA which essentially scans the brain waves of the users and picks out pleasant memories for them to relive. At the beginning of the journey she isn’t getting many customers. She shares a cabin with the Astronomer (Martini), a jaded science officer who doesn’t have much use for people.

But what is to be a routine voyage becomes something completely different in a heartbeat. A field of space junk debris penetrates the hull and forces the crew to jettison the fuel for their nuclear propulsion system. Without it, they are unable to steer or slow their momentum, leaving them to drift through space. Captain Chefone (Kananian) puts a brave face on things and tells the passengers and crew that there will be a delay in getting them to Mars – about two years instead of three weeks – but get there they will because they have a plan to use a celestial body as a slingshot to put the crippled ship back on course to Mars.

As it becomes clear that the Captain is lying through his teeth and that the Aniara is doomed to drift endlessly through space going nowhere, things change aboard the ship. The captain becomes paranoid and power-drunk; MR starts of a relationship with Isagel (Cruzeiro) and suicides become a big problem. Several cults are formed, some hedonistic, most fatalistic.

This is a beautiful film to look at with superb special effects and clean production design. I’ve seen the movie described as Passengers if it had been directed by Ingmar Bergman and it’s not that far from the truth. The tone is extremely fatalistic – it’s Scandinavian, after all – and bleak as all get out. There is some commentary on the excessive consumerism of modern society but in essence, the main theme seems to be that without a destination firmly in mind there is no point to life. I don’t know if I can agree with that.

The film isn’t helped by the bland personalities of the main characters. They are all somewhat one-dimensional, especially MR who is pushed and pulled by the eddies of life without apparently much care as to where they are taking her. She certainly doesn’t seem inclined to do any swimming of her own. While Kananian physically resembles Clive Owen, he’s no Clive Owen and gives the Captain again a fairly one-dimensional portrayal.

There is a lot of intellectual content to unpack here and those who are into cerebral sci-fi are going to find this a big win. Those who prefer their science fiction to be space operas may take some delight in the production design but are going to be bored silly – as many of the passengers are. This is the kind of movie that will appeal to a fairly narrow band of moviegoers but those that are inclined to like it are likely to like it a whole lot.

REASONS TO SEE: The special effects are stunning. The filmmakers get the herd instincts of the passengers right.
REASONS TO AVOID: The main characters are devoid of personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity, graphic sexual content, some drug use, a few disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a poem by Swedish author Harry Martinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Nona

Clara


Clara with stars in her eyes.

(2018) Science Fiction (Screen Media) Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Kristin Hager, Ennis Esmer, Jennifer Dale, Will Bowes, R.H. Thomson, Dwight Ireland, Bethanie Ho, Samuel A. Harding, Jillian Katsis, Tammie Sutherland, Pierre Simpson, Gabrielle Graham. Directed by Akash Sherman

For the moment, humanity is all alone in the cosmos. It might be teeming with life out there but we have no way of knowing it…yet. As it turns out, NASA is very keen on answering the question “Are we alone?” and is sending up into space a pair of telescopes that stand a good chance of finding extraterrestrial intelligence.

Equally obsessed is astrophysicist Isaac Bruno (Adams). He teaches a course in the subject at Cal Tech and also works with a scientist who is looking at exoplanets. However, the prickly Bruno – who when confronted by a student regarding the importance of love delivers one of the nastiest scientific debunking of love ever recorded – is far too impatient for his own good and when he hijacks a telescope he was supposed to be using for his boss’ research, he is suspended from the university and denied access to the laboratories in which he was chasing his dream.

Far too driven to be bitter about it, he decides to carry on his research from home with the somewhat tentative encouragement of his pal and fellow scientist Dr. Charles Durant (Esmer), he advertises for an unpaid assistant and the only respondent he gets is Clara (Bellisario), who has no experience with science other than painting a mural of a black hole in the lobby of the Space Sciences building and has nothing other than a few items of clothing and a dog named Eve.

At first Isaac is almost insulted by her lack of experience and expertise but after allowing the dog inside his home for a drink of water, he relents and gives the girl the position which is paid only with room and board. It turns out that Clara has a knack for sifting through data and finding promising exoplanets that might be worth a closer look by the James Webb Telescope which is going to be launched shortly and has the ability to determine if life is present on a planet.

Isaac is also soon smitten by his new lab assistant but both of them are hiding devastating secrets. Can Isaac see the life that’s right in front of him or will his obsession for life elsewhere take precedence in his life?

Readers of science fiction have for years complained about science fiction in the movies and television as being dumbed down space operas and to a real extent they are right, although there has been some very thought-provoking sci-fi in theaters and on TV as of late. Sherman, a second time feature filmmaker whose previous outing The Rocket List was also of a similar bent, is apparently very passionate about the science. There is a good deal of dialogue in which the scientists converse that is going to go pretty much above everyone’s head that isn’t an astrophysicist. While authentic sounding – I don’t have the expertise to really judge if it is or isn’t and I’m afraid I’m fresh out of acquaintances who are also astrophysicists – it can be challenging for the average layman to make heads or tails out of any of it.

The heart of any story should be the human heart and there appears to be at least an attempt on the part of Sherman to look at love versus science as a thematic exercise but sadly he really drops the ball. Adams and Bellisario have plenty of chemistry – they are married in real life, after all – but Isaac is so myopic, so involved with his own obsession that he fails to acknowledge what’s going on inside himself. Yes, Isaac has a very good reason to be so clinical and so unfeeling (and no points if you figure it out before the big reveal) but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. The title character is vivacious and free-spirited but that’s a currency that’s all too common cinematically speaking these days so Clara ends up not really standing out as much as she might.

The ending is a bit florid for my taste but the rest of the film that precedes it at least has the courage to allow itself to be thoughtful. A lot of films tend to focus thoroughly on the heart and none on the brain to the point that you feel like you’ve lost ten or twelve IQ points after having seen them; you won’t have that problem here. In fact, your IQ might actually go up a little if you are willing to learn. Clara is a very flawed film for sure but it’s at least smart enough to know that it will attract a niche audience of science geeks, academics and cinephiles. If only it’s heart was as well developed.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart, savvy sci-fi that doesn’t apologize for being cerebral.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit overwrought and the love story is given short shrift.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, some sensuality and minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bellisario is the daughter of noted television producer Donald Bellisario whose Belisarius Productions were responsible for, among others, Quantum Leap, Airwolf, Jag and NCIS.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Radium Girls

Patient 001


What’s more beautiful than a new mom and her baby?

(2018) Science Fiction (Random Media) Jason Dietz, Gabe Doran, Rosie Fellner, Noah Fleiss, Michel Gill, Michael Hayden, Ezra Knight, Ian O’Malley, Steven Ogg, Alexandra Rhodie, Jenna Stern. Directed by Katie Fleischer

 

I have heard it said that there is nothing more insistent than a woman’s urge to become a mother. It claws and rends from the inside out and never lets go like a puppy with a chew toy. For some women that urge is more irresistible than in others.

Josie Kingman (Fellner) is deep in the grips of the urge. However, she has a problem; she wants to have a child only with her husband Leo (Hayden) and her husband lies in a coma, the victim of a terrible accident. She resorts to having sex with her unconscious husband, much to the bemusement of the hospital staff who watch her gyrate on top of him.

Nothing works and Josie is getting more desperate by the day. In her despair she is approached by Dr. Alec Jameson (Gill) who offers to help but not in the conventional way. Taking some DNA from the sleeping Leo, he essentially creates a clone, inseminating Josie with the cells which will eventually become Leo 2.0. She gives birth and wonder of wonders, Leo wakes up nearly immediately. At first Josie’s joy is without compare but then clouds begin to appear in the bright blue sky of her life. Whenever the baby and Leo get together, he has blinding headaches, terrifying visions and his personality becomes rage-filled. Eventually, Josie is faced with a terrible decision and she makes it but like many life-altering decisions, her choice will come back to haunt her.

We have seen movies about the consequences of cloning before and those consequences are almost always terrible. I don’t know what moviemakers have against clones, but they are almost always evil and have psychic powers. The clone here is no exception and like many movie clones, he is in full possession of the sins of the father – and by extension, his obsessions. Let us just say that the movie is a bit of a nod towards Oedipus and let it go at that.

It’s a low budget film and while there are some fairly artistic images for the most part the film is fairly standard for a movie of its genre in terms of story and production design. In other words, the look and the tale itself are nothing to write home about. Sadly, the acting is not up to par in a lot of cases; most of the performances seem forced and stiff. The exception is Fellner who not only is exquisitely beautiful and super sexy, she also commands a bit more natural charisma than the others. She has a thankless job that at times has her doing things they probably never told her about back in high school drama club but she at least goes at it like a trooper and acquits herself well.

That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie per se but it isn’t a very good one. There are a few good elements here, especially Fellner but not enough for me to recommend this movie unreservedly. If you’re looking for a hidden gem, this really isn’t it. However those who have an obsession with cloning there are worse films on the subject out there.

REASONS TO SEE: Fellner has some potential in the screen presence department.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story isn’t super compelling. The acting is on the stiff side for the most part.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence as well as sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Phillip Seymour Hoffman was set to executive produce the film until his untimely death.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Replicas
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Hunter

Solo: A Star Wars Story


“Chewie, I’ve got a bad feeling about this..”

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau (voice), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (voice), Erin Kellyman, Linda Hunt (voice), Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anna Francolini, Andrew Woodall, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Anthony Daniels, Charlotte Louise. Directed by Ron Howard

 

Prequels can serve one of two purposes; to give insight to an established character or franchise, or to forever tarnish them. The much-anticipated Solo: A Star Wars Story could go either way…or both.

Han Solo (Ehrenreich) is an orphan committing crimes for a kind of reptilian Fagin named lady Proxima (Hunt). He and his best girl Qi’ra (Clarke) plan to get out of the life and find a life of their own but their plans go awry and the two are separated. Indy..I mean Han…resolves to come back for her and joins the Imperial Stormtroopers as a pilot. Eventually, he meets scoundrel Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) who along with his squeeze Val (Newton) are planning a big heist, one which may finally get him the opportunity to finally rescue his girl. First he will have to avoid the wrath of the crime boss Dryden Vos (Bettany) and meet up with future allies Chewbacca (Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Glover).

This is a movie in which the sum of its parts exceeds the whole. An underrated cast, writer Lawrence Kasdan who wrote arguably the best installment in the series (Return of the Jedi) and one of Hollywood’s most respected directors (Oscar winner Ron Howard). Still, despite exceptional turns by Harrelson and particularly Glover (who at one time was rumored to be toplining a Lando Calrissian movie of his own) the movie feels curiously flat. Perhaps it was because Howard was brought in late after much footage had already been shot by departing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were (depending on who you ask) shown the door or found it on their own after artistic differences with Disney brass. More likely, it’s because Ehrenreich who is a very talented actor, was given a no-win situation in which he was given. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is one of the most iconic roles of the last 50 years and most people can’t see anyone playing Solo except Ford. I will say that Ehrenreich does his level best but for whatever reason his performance didn’t resonate with me. Great effects, great pacing and great cinematography can take a movie so far but it also has to connect, to inspire and amaze. Solo does none of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Glover and Harrelson do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO STAY: The film left me feeling flat and was overall a disappointment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction-type violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fertility idol from the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark can be seen on a table in the meeting room of Dryden Vos, the villain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Then Came You