Last Words


Everything Old Testament will become New again.

(2020) Science Fiction (Gravitas) Nick Nolte, Kalipha Touray, Charlotte Rampling, Alba Rohrwacher, Stellan Skarsgård, Silvia Calderoni, Maryam d’Abo, Osemwenoghogho “Victory” Wilfred, Vincenzo Del Prete, Giovani Trono, Jun Ichikawa, Fiorenzo Madonna, Cosimo Desil, Adreina Liotti, Roberta Mattei, Ivan Alfredo Manzano, Nicolas Sacrez, Giulio Esposito, Fabiana Guarino, Valeria Golino. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter

 

Contemplating the end of mankind is never a pleasant thing. This dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi film from noted documentary filmmaker Nossiter does just that. It’s not so much Waiting for Godot as it is Waiting for The End.

It is 2086 and Kal (Touray) is the last man standing – or sitting, or lying down – on Earth. He wants to leave a record of humanity’s last days. An unnamed catastrophe has devastated the planet, leaving the water toxic and plant life pretty much obliterated. Those that remain sustain life on bottled water and canned goods. Kal and his sister who is pregnant live in what’s left of Paris until an encounter with a gang of feral kids leads to a most horrific offscreen death of his sister. Kal then heads to Italy, where he finds Shakespeare (Nolte) holed up in a cave with the last remaining celluloid, keeping himself entertained by watching movies.

Shakespeare comes up with the idea of constructing a movie camera and manufacturing film (into which Kal hand-punches the sprocket holes) and heading off to Greece, where it is rumored a last remaining settlement of humans remains, in a patch of Earth still capable of sustaining life. After an arduous journey, sure enough they find one, headed up by the resolute Dr. Zyberski (Skarsgård) and the hyper-sexual Batik (Rampling). There the two reacquaint the survivors with the wonders of motion pictures while counting down the days until The End.

The first half of the picture is dominated by Nolte and he responds by giving a performance that actually carries the movie. Nossiter plainly has a love for all things cinematic and Nolte is able to capture the essence of that love without being too maudlin about it. The cast has a few interesting performers like Rampling, Skarsgård and d’Abo, but mostly what we have here are extras who are going through the motions, which makes some sense – when confronted with the end of everything, a certain amount of numbness is likely to occur.

Try not to think too much about inner logic here; Shakespeare claims to remember the Sixties first-hand but hey, it’s 2085 and that would make him – even if he were a kid in the Summer of Love – well over 120 years old, and considering that he’d spent the last twenty years or so living off of what canned food and bottled water he can scrounge up, a lifestyle and diet not conducive to long life.

The plot feels a bit all over the place and nonsensical at times, which perhaps is the point. Still, this is a hell of a downer of the movie, unrelentingly bleak and depressing. This is not a movie to show to anyone who is clinically depressed, or even to fans of intelligent sci-fi. The message here is that things are going to end with a whimper or even more likely, a simple shrug of the shoulders. It doesn’t say much about humanity, or Nossiter’s opinion of it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nolte gives a truly strong performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and joyless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, nudity and violence, including a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Skarsgård and Rampling both appear in the recent remake of Dune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Quintet
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers

The Matrix Resurrections


Love what they’ve done to the place.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Jessica Henwick, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Christina Ricci, Lambert Wilson, Andrew Lewis Caldwell, Toby Onwumere, Max Riemelt, Joshua Grothe, Brian J. Smith, Eréndira Ibarra, Michael X. Sommers, L. Trey Wilson, Mumbi Maina. Directed by Lana Wachowski

Back in 1999, The Matrix redefined action movies and took science fiction cinema in a decidedly cyberpunk direction. Two sequels were spawned in short order but although the trilogy was complete, still fans clamored for more. The Wachowski sisters, originators of the films, seemed little-disposed to returning to the Matrix, but Lana after more than twenty years of radio silence has returned to the franchise (her sister Lily chose not to “return to something I’ve already done,” as she put it).

Thomas Anderson (Reeves), whom we all know as the Messianic figure of Neo from the first trilogy, is working as a game designer whose masterwork is a game about an alternate reality called The Matrix which is a computer-generated panacea built by sentient machines to keep their human slaves docile while they harvested the bioelectricity to keep the machines running. Sound familiar? But Thomas continues to have odd dreams – or is it flashes of memory? – that have him talking to a shrink (Harris) who seems a bit unsympathetic as psychiatrists go. But something is not right. This all was supposed to have happened already, but it’s different. And why doesn’t Trinity (Moss) recognize Neo? Why is she married with two kids and going by the name of Tiffany? And why does Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen) look so much younger than he used to? And the same for Agent Smith (Groff), but Niobe (Pinkett Smith) looks so much older? Makes you want to take the blue pill this time.

The plot is convoluted and overbearing, and sitting through more than two hours of it is certainly a test of endurance. The visuals remain spectacular – Wachowski has always shown a flair for imagery – but the plot bounces all over the place and even the most focused viewers will have a hard time following it. And making the movie without Hugo Weaving (who apparently declined to participate) and Lawrence Fishburne (who wasn’t asked) was a serious misstep; the two of them constituted some of the most important elements of the earlier films. Abdul-Mateen is a fine actor, but he lacks the gravitas that Fishburne possesses, and Groff doesn’t have the slick and unctuous villainy that Weaving projected in the earlier films.

At the end of my review for The Matrix Revolutions I wrote “I’m more ambivalent about the idea of a fourth Matrix installment than I was about the second two,” and the thought of a fifth Matrix chapter is not something I’m particularly excited about – given the reception to the film, both commercially and critically, no decision has yet been announced about the series continuing and it seems at this point unlikely that it will – it feels like a movie that Wachowski didn’t quite have the passion for that she did for the first two films. It’s confusing, indecipherable and possesses an overabundance of nwhite noise from a plot point of view. Some critics are recommending that you simply turn off your brain and watch this for the plain ol’ fun of it, but that wasn’t anything like the first two movies of the sequel were like; they meant to get you thinking. The visuals continue to impress but at the end of the day, maybe it’s time for the rabbit hole to get filled in.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful visuals throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Far too much style and not enough substance.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Trinity’s alter-ego Tiffany is married to Chad, who is played by Chad Stahelski, who was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, as well as his director in the John Wick trilogy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until January 21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pixels
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Last Words

Infinite


Mark Wahlberg threatens to get all samurai on your ass.

(2021) Science Fiction (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Cookson, Jason Mantzoukas, Rupert Friend, Toby Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Liz Carr, Kae Alexander, Tom Hughes, Joana Ribeiro, Wallis Day, Alicia Charles, Mark Fleischmann, Lloyd Griffith, Jack Roth, Leon Annor, Nabil Elouahabi, Jumayn Hunter, Melissa Neal. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The movie industry has for a very long time now been franchise-oriented. That’s the bread and butter of the major studios; that’s where they sink the bulk of their investments. The negative aspect is that franchises often can be overly repetitive, and so the need to add new, fresh franchises becomes paramount (no pun intended). The problem with that is that franchises rely on a first film that not only sets the stage for future films, but kicks butt at the box office or ratings.

The makers of Infinite (based on a novel by D. Eric Maikranz) were dealt bad cards from the beginning. The pandemic took what was envisioned to be a summer blockbuster and left it to debut on the Paramount Plus network, which was at the time freshly re-christened from CBS All-Access and had yet to make Netflix-like subscriber numbers (it still hasn’t). I think they were hoping to use the film as an enticement to get subscribers, but it didn’t really happen in the kind of numbers I think they were hoping for. Part of the problem is because not many knew much about the film.

The film (and book) posits that there are a group of people who are reincarnated retaining all the knowledge and skills from their past lives; these are called Infinites. The Infinites are at war; the bad guys, the Nihilists led by Bathurst (Ejiofor) want nothing more than to die and be at peace. Since dying only means they’ll get reincarnated once again, the only way to ensure that they’ll Rest in Peace is to wipe out all life on Earth, which seems a little extreme. Opposing them are the Believers who are led by Garrick (Carr), a wheelchair-bound strategist.

The Nihilists had developed a device called the Egg that would destroy all life on Earth, which seems to be redundant since the McRib is capable of doing the very same thing. An agent of the Believers named Treadway (O’Brien) has managed to steal the Egg and hide it away, but he is killed before he can reveal the location to his fellow Believers.

Years later, Evan (Wahlberg) has been diagnosed with schizophrenia due to the voices he hears. He often has vivid dreams that when he wakes up, leave him with a skill he didn’t know he had – like forging samurai swords, for example. The Believers think he might be the reincarnation of Treadway; so, unfortunately, does Bathurst (Treadway and Bathurst sounds like it should be the name of a legal firm that represents corporate polluters), and both want Evan very badly because locked in his memory is the location of the Egg One of the Believers, Nora (Cookson), has a very personal connection to Evan; she believes that the Egg can restore Treadway, who was her lover.

The movie reunites Wahlberg and Fuqua, who was his director on The Shooter. Fuqua has helmed some very good films, including Training Day. This, sadly, won’t be remembered as one of his best. While the original concept is pretty compelling, the execution here is faulty, largely because of the convoluted plot and minimal character development. Like many action films that have many working parts, the characters here are given short shrift, often reduced to a single personality trait (one has a bad temper, one is confined to a wheelchair, one is a smart alec and so on and so forth).

I get the sense that much of the backstory was left for future installments and indeed there is a lot of world building going on here. I would have preferred a smaller team with fewer characters, but better developed ones. There is a lot of CGI as you might expect – for the most part it is better than average, although there are a few exceptions. The fight scenes and action set pieces are uneven; some are absolutely mind-blowing, while others are merely okay.

Wahlberg, at fifty, is a bit long in the tooth to be starting a potential franchise like this, but then again that would leave the door open for a surprise death and reincarnation, much like Doctor Who. He is in spectacular shape (and gets shirtless to let us know just how spectacular that is) and I like his casting here; he is very much a working class Joe and reacts to things as a working class Joe.

This is a movie that got a lot of bad breaks. The pandemic led to multiple delays which eventually led to it not getting a shot at a theatrical release. It became a tentpole release for the fledgling Paramount Plus network, but didn’t generate the kind of response that got people enthusiastic about subscribing, nor is there any enthusiasm for a potential sequel. It’s just another would-be franchise film that didn’t connect with a wide audience.

REASONS TO SEE: Better-than-average SFX and action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really pushes believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence (occasionally bloody and disturbing) and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan gets the same reincarnation test that is given the Dalai Llama.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Paramount Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/01/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews; Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Old Guard
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Off the Rails

The Tomorrow War


Tomorrow isn’t looking quite so bright.

(2021) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovsky, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Matthews, Edwin Hodge, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Keith Powers, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell, Jared Shaw, Alexis Louder, Rose Bianco, Seychelle Gabriel, Alan Trong, Chibuikem Uche, Dave Maldonado, Kasandra Banfield. Directed by Chris McKay

 

Among the pandemic’s casualties was this film, meant to be one of Paramount’s tentpoles in the never-to-be-forgotten (no matter how hard we try) summer of 2020 but relegated to the indignity of direct-to-streaming the following year.

High school biology teacher Dan Forester (Pratt), a former Green Beret who has felt unfulfilled since returning home from the Iraq War, is trying to find a research job without success. His wife Emmy (Gilpin) and daughter Muri (Armstrong) believe in him, but he still feels like he’s missing something. Perhaps it’s his estranged dad (Simmons), a no-nonsense macho sort who has become an anti-government hermit living off the grid.

But his life – and everyone else’s – is turned upside down with the appearance of time travelers appearing at a soccer game with disturbing news; earth has been invaded by aliens and 20 years in the future, mankind is on the verge of becoming extinct. The future needs soldiers and they’ve come to the past to recruit them.

The survival rate is appalling, but Dan knows he has to go and despite the objections of his wife and tears of his daughter, he knows that this is the war he was meant to fight. On the jaunt back to the future he befriends fellow scientist Charlie (Richardson) and soldier Dorian (Hodge), the latter of whom is entering his third seven-day tour. Oh, that’s right, I forgot to tell you – they can only spend seven days in the future before being bounced back to their own time.

He also meets a hard-boiled colonel (Strahovsky) who has a nagging familiarity to her (and only the most dullest of intellects won’t be able to figure out why). He faces the aliens – all tentacles and teeth, shooting bony white projectiles from their tentacles, which nets them the name “White Spikes.” But even the infusion of cannon fodder from the past isn’t making much of a difference as the aliens are too many, breed too quickly and are too blamed hard to kill. Mankind may well be doomed – unless someone can come up with a solution to nip the problem before it rears its ugly multi-tentacled head.

This sci-fi action/war movie has elements of alien invasion movies like Skyline and sci-fi war tales like Starship Troopers and falls about in the middle of those two films in terms of quality. Pratt is a bright spot, one of Hollywood’s most consistently successful stars since emerging in the MCU as Star-Lord nearly a decade ago. This doesn’t feel like another franchise film for him; while he excels in the action sequences, he sometimes falters when the scenes are more dramatic in nature. He has always tended to do better with a bit of a smirk than with a bit of pathos.

Strahovsky is a capable actress who should have become a big star after Chuck ended, but hasn’t gotten the kinds of roles that would elevate her there. Simmons shows off his buff bod, astonishing for a 66-year-old man, but is given little else to do. Richardson and Hodge supply good support – Richardson as comic relief, Hodge as resident badass support – but it’s clear that the centerpiece are the CGI alien and action set pieces.

What bothers me most about the movie is the plot inconsistencies. People from the past are sent forward in time to essentially serve as cannon fodder; doesn’t that affect the future if they die in the war, leaving them unable to return to the past and live out the lives they were meant to? It also seems somewhat odd that we are able to invent time travel and yet we have made no significant improvement in armament. Most wars tend to lead to breakthroughs in military technology but nothing here seems to be terribly advanced.

Still, there’s plenty of action, plenty of carnage, plenty of nasty aliens and plenty of Chris Pratt. Chances are this would have done only middling business in the theaters had their not been a pandemic, and likely would have lost money but the sale of the movie from Paramount to Amazon meant it will at least break even for the studio, although whether that translates to profit for Amazon is anyone’s guess.

=REASONS TO SEE: Pratt has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some oddball plot inconsistences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and carnage, as well as some profanity including sexually suggestive dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt is married to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:
Amazon
CRITICAL MASS:& As of 11/28/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Black Friday

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


Filmmaker (left) and author, out for a stroll on the beach.

(2021) Documentary (IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston (voice), John Irving, Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Adams, Jerome Klinkowitz, Morley Safer, Sidney Offit, Nanny Vonnegut, Dan Simon, Steve Adams, Valerie Stevenson, Gregory Sumner, Rodney Allen, Mark Vonnegut, Jim Adams, Joe Bleifuss, Dan Wakefield, Peter Adams, Ginger Strand. Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott

Very often before writing a review of a film I’ve recently seen, I like to read the reviews written by other critics. Not because I want to steal their prose, although once in a while I find that we’re thining along the same lines. It’s mainly curiosity that motivates me; why did this critic rate the movie so highly, or so low? What did they see that I didn’t? When it comes to documentaries, I am often surprised that critics seem to write negative reviews because a documentary didn’t meet their expectations of what they thought it should cover. I suppose that I’ve probably been guilty of the same sin myself – it’s extraordinarily, brutally hard to evaluate one’s own work – but I at least try to review what’s up there on the screen rather than what I think should be up there. That just seems logical to me.

So I suppose that those who love the work of Kurt Vonnegut – author of classics like Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions – might well be disappointed because the movie, shot over a forty year period by his close friend Robert B. Weide (an Emmy winner for Curb Your Enthusiasm), doesn’t dwell very much on literary analysis. This is a biography, told in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, much as Vonnegut’s best works are written.

It does spend a lot of time examining the facts of his life; how he served in World War II, eventually being taken prisoner and housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden where he witnessed firsthand the terrifying firebombing of that city, and was afterwards forced to dig out corpses from the smoldering ruins. The events were chronicled in his most famous book that was also his commercial breakthrough, Slaughterhouse Five,

Weide and co-director Don Argott go through the main highlights of his life, from his upbringing in Indianapolis to his marriage to Jane Marie Cox, his adoption of his sister Alice’s four sons after she died of cancer (and likely a broken heart) just two days after her husband perished in a horrific train accident, adding her children to the three he and Jane already had (one of her sister’s children would eventually move out after a year to be raised by relatives on his paternal side). It also reports on how he divorced Jane, leaving her for the photographer he was having an affair with, which did alienate him from his children for many years.

Weide talks to a lot of people, from his children (Jane, who passed away in 1986, is not heard from, curiously) to academics and admirers, biographers and people who also knew the author. We see him at personal appearances, reading from his books; he is an engaging speaker, as funny in person as his prose is on the printed page.

But it’s his relationship with Weide that really takes center stage in the movie. We see informal footage of the two chatting together, hear answering machine messages from the author that Weide saved, and hear him talk about anecdotes that Vonnegut shared with him. We learn, poignantly, that Weide keeps a dictionary above his desk that was published before the author’s death in 2007. The entry reads “Kurt Vonnegut (1922-    ), American author.” In that way, there was a source at Weide’s desk that lists his friend as still being alive. At the end of the film, Weide gently pencils in the date into the author’s entry, perhaps signifying that the completion of the documentary, which took Weide forty years to complete, is the appropriate place to let go.

The film is engaging and sometimes sentimental. For those unfamiliar with the details of Vonnegut’s life, there is a lot here to unpack – although nothing that doesn’t appear on his Wikipedia page, so from that standpoint, it’s not going to surprise those who are more familiar with the author’s life. And for those looking for insight into the author’s work, there’s really not a lot here that you wouldn’t find in your average 10th grade American literature course. Like all authors, Vonnegut was a product of his times. His experiences at Dresden made him passionately anti-war, and in the Seventies he became something of a counterculture figure for a brief time. There is something almost professorial about Vonnegut, from his bushy moustache to his corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows, to the ever-present cigarettes – one thing that annoyed me about the movie that in still photos in which Vonnegut is smoking (and there are MANY of those) Weide adds digital smoke to the point it becomes distracting.

Other than that, this is a well-made look at the author’s life through the lens of his friend’s eyes. From that standpoint, there is nothing remotely impartial about the film. In fact, the fact that the filmmaker obviously had a great deal of affection for his subject actually makes the movie a lot more enjoyable than something else that would have been dry and insufferable – the very antithesis of what Vonnegut was as a writer.

REASONS TO SEE: A moving tribute from one friend to another. Some insight into one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, particularly for those not familiar with the details of his life.
=REASONS TO AVOID: The digital smoke from the cigarettes is overused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vonnegut introduced the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. The character would recur in many of Vonnegut’s works.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28), Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; =Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

Dune: Part One


Paul Atreides’ catwalk is in the desert.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine, Souad Faress, Golda Rosheuvel. Directed by Denis Villaneuve

 

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic novel Dune has very much informed the landscape of science fiction; its themes crop up in the Star Wars saga as well as in literally dozens of movies thereafter, including Tremors and even Game of Thrones. The novel was largely considered unfilmable, although visionary Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowski attempted it until the production fell apart of its own weight, and David Lynch finally succeeded in getting a version filmed in 1984 which he has since disowned; the studio cut it to shreds, making the film nearly incomprehensible, even to people familiar with the book. A 2001 SyFy miniseries fared somewhat better, but many feel it still didn’t capture the essence of the novel.

Acclaimed director Denis Villaneuve is the latest to attempt a shot at Dune. He takes the familiar story, but in a perhaps wise move, elected to divide the novel into two parts. Part two wasn’t greenlit at the time of the movie’s release, although it has since, so there was no guarantee that the sequel would ever be filmed, which was taking a huge risk, but it eventually paid off.

Young Paul Atreides (Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Isaac) and the duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Ferguson) has been having dreams of a blue-eyed warrior woman on a desert planet. Paul is aware his father, head of the House Atreides, has been ordered by the Emperor to take over spice production on Arrakis, a world known more colloquially as Dune. It is a lucrative offer; the main rival of House Atreides, House Harkonen, has held onto Arrakis for more than 80 years and has amassed an immense fortune. Spice, you see, is the drug that prolongs life and allows space navigators to fold space, which makes interstellar travel and commerce possible. The drug is found only on Arrakis.

But Duke Leto smells a trap and he’s right. Baron Vladimir Harkonen (Skarsgård), a devious corpulent man with an anti-gravity belt, means to put paid to his enemies the Atreides with the aid of the Emperor’s own troops. Arrakis is therefore a trap, and Harkonen has an ace up his sleeve.

That’s just a VERY rough outline of the plot, which is much more intricate and confounding than I make it out to be. Most of the really interesting performances are coming from characters with more or less minor roles with the exception of Rebecca Ferguson, who is absolutely superb as the regal Lady Jessica, who schemes to deliver to the Bene Gesserit order of space witches the Galactic savior the order has long prophesized about, but that also exists as a legendary deliverer on Arrakis.

Describing the movie would really take up more time and space than you’d probably be willing to peruse; suffice to say that the scale of this movie rivals essentially anything you’ve ever seen in a cinema before. The sets are massive and absolutely gorgeous and each planet, like the stormy ocean world of Caladan where House Atreides is based to Geidi Prime, the iron caverns where House Harkonen schemes and Arrakis itself, have distinct personalities in architecture yet each retains its own individual grandeur. It is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at, made even more impressive by a large-format movie screen (or even a regular movie screen). The sandworms are spectacular, so let’s get that straight; so too are the spacecraft which Villaneuve uses comparative scaling; in space they are tiny but on the planet surface they are enormous, the size of a small city. The scale of this movie is unbelievable.

The trouble with epic movies is that often something has to get lost, and here there are so many wonderful characters and actors, many of which are onscreen for only a scene or two, that they get lost in the shuffle. Jason Momoa, as sword master Duncan Idaho, brings a larger-than-life presence to the part which barely was featured at all in the 1984 version. Charlotte Rampling has little screen time as the imperious Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam but is impressive in it for the brief time she’s around. There are a number of other actors who have moments that resonate but are quickly dispatched or fall out of the story.

The story revolves around Paul Atreides and indie film darling Chalamet does a fairly decent job in the role, although I found him a bit too doe-eyed and pretty for the part of a young man who was also supposed to be an outstanding warrior; his fight scenes are particularly unconvincing. It is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks (but not it’s biggest one; see below).

Truth be told, I always had a soft spot for the 1984 version, even though I recognize that it was flawed. It wasn’t the movie that Lynch wanted to make, which was a blessing and a curse; the movie he wanted to make may well have ended up bloated beyond all recognition. Fans have been clamoring for a director’s edition of that Dune for decades but it will never happen; Lynch isn’t interested in revisiting it, and even if he was, I doubt that Universal would even allow it, given that Warner Brothers holds the rights to the property now. The legal ramifications would make even Frank Herbert’s head spin.

In any case, if spectacle is what you’re after, this movie has it in spaces. It is slow-moving in places and the plot can be pretty convoluted which is really going to put some people off, but it is a lot more easily understood than it’s 1984 predecessor. Is this going to be the definitive version of Dune? Probably. At least I’m looking forward to Part 2 when it is released in October 2023. After that there is a whole series of novels based on the Dune universe written both by Herbert and his son, after the author passed away. Potentially, this can be a franchise filling the coffers of Warner Brothers for decades to come. Let us hope so.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the most epic movies (in scope) of the past decade. Terrific work by Momoa and Ferguson.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving during the first half and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it graphic), disturbing images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first trailer for the film used composer Hans Zimmer’s orchestral version of the Pink Floyd song “Eclipse.” This was a nod to the aborted Jodorowski version in which the Mexican director had planned to have Pink Floyd score his movie.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Silent Hours

Reminiscence


Life is no carnival in the near future.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Mojean Aria, Brett Cullen, Natalie Martinez, Angela Sarafyan, Javier Molina, Sam Medina, Nono Nishimura, Roxton Garcia, Giovannie Cruz, Woon Young Park, Han Soto, Rey Hernandez, Gabrielle Echols, Andrew Hyatt Masset III, Nico Parker. Directed by Lisa Joy

 

I guess that it makes sense that when you have nothing to look forward to, one’s attention will turn to what came before. In a world where climate change has wreaked havoc, the citizens of a half-drowned Miami find solace in reliving their own memories.

This is the world that Nick Bannister (Jackman) finds himself. A former military man in the border wars that erupted when the oceans rose, he makes a living with a machine that was used to extract information from the memories of military prisoners but he now uses it on civilians who want to relive their favorite memories – a wedding day, playing with a beloved dog, a romantic evening and so on. He also has a side business using his machine to interrogate prisoners of the Miami DA (Martinez).

He has a pretty good life, all things considered – his partner Watts (Newton), although a high-functioning alcoholic, keeps him fairly honest. Until Mae (Ferguson) walks in. She’s lost her keys and needs help locating them. The Reminiscence machine might just be the trick she needs. While in her mind, Bannister discovers that she is a chanteuse, singing a song (“Where and When”) he has fond childhood memories of. He initiates a relationship with her, and for awhile it is summer in Miami.

But then she disappears, and he just can’t believe she up and ran out on him. Using his detective skills, he discovers a dark conspiracy with which Mae may or may not have been involved. At the heart of it is a wealthy developer (Cullen), his mentally ill wife (de Tavira), a corrupt cop (Curtis) and a New Orleans-based drug lord (Wu). Despite Watts’ skepticism, Bannister is convinced that Mae is an innocent caught in events beyond her control, and he will stop at nothing to find her – and the truth.

This is the motion picture debut of Lisa Joy, best known for being co-creator of HBO’s Westworld series with her husband Jonathan Nolan (yes, that makes her Christopher Nolan’s sister-in-law and there is no little of his influence felt here). The world that Joy has created here is melancholic and believable. The overall feel is very much like an old noir movie with a healthy dose of romance injected in, as well as some innovative production design and strong visuals. She definitely has a very cinematic eye, from the images of a partially submerged Miami, to a grand piano sinking into the waters during the climactic fight scene.

The noir elements become overbearing, particularly in the overly florid narration which is overused. Joy seems so taken with it that she utilizes the opening monologue twice which I suppose is meant to lend emphasis but instead lends repetition. I get that the elements of the story lend themselves to a noir retelling, but in a lot of ways it feels kind of gimmicky here.

That doesn’t extend to the script which has some pretty interesting ideas throughout, and the production design brings many of them to life. The overwhelming feeling is resignation; people are growing restive at being pushed into soggier and soggier environs while the ultra-wealthy stay largely dry, but the feeling is that we’re on a downward spiral and we might as well just accept that and live in the past because it’s so much better than what we have in store. Not the most heart-warming of messages.

But Joy does coax some strong performances, particularly out of the ever-expressive Jackman who generally does better when his characters are drowning in their own dark sides; while his chemistry with Ferguson (a strong actress in her own right) is oddly flat, it might be due to the somewhat incomprehensible accent she takes on from time to time. It’s jarring and sounds absolutely phony.

Critics have absolutely savaged this movie, and there is some reason for it – the film is definitely flawed, but the visuals are compelling and as I said there are some interesting ideas developed here. Sadly, the insistence on turning this into a Raymond Chandler adaptation instead of letting the story stand on its own really hurts the movie overall, although I will say if you hang in there, the final 30-45 minutes do pick up.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of interesting ideas and visuals here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The noir element is heavy-handed, particularly the florid narration.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and profanity, some sexual content and drug content throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackman and Ferguson previously starred together in The Greatest Showman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 9/20)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Good


					

Toxico


An image that is no longer far-fetched.

(2020) Science Fiction (Level 33) Jazmin Stuart, Agustin Rittano, Victoria Cabada, Sebastián Carbone, Marcelo D’Andrea, Miriam Elizabeth de Luca, Betiana Frias, Martin Garabal, Lucila Garay, Francisco Gutiérrez, Alejandro Jovic, Carlos Lin, Lucila Mangone, Silvia Estela MIerez, Marcelo Mininno, Claudio Molfino, Gabriel Horacio Pallero, Santiago Podestá. Directed by Ariel Martinez Herrera

 

It may sound familiar at first glance. A massive pandemic; stores being denuded of their wares by a panicking populace; people in increasingly bizarre masks; rumors of conspiracies and suspicion of possible cures. It’s hard to believe that the screenplay for this film was written in 2016 and the movie sat on the shelf for a year before being released in 2020.

Laura (Stuart) and Augusto (Rittano) are a couple caught up in a pandemic. Rather than causing respiratory issues, this disease causes massive insomnia, leading to mass psychosis. The two decide to get in their motor home – which might be an ancestor of the TARDIS as it seems much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside – and get out of Dodge while they still can.

But their relationship is a stormy one and a revelation by Laura turns their trip on its ear. In the meantime, the streets begin to empty out and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell reality from insomnia-induced hallucination. Is this the end?

There is a good deal of symbolism (the movement of a turtle, symbolizing the slow flow of time in a quarantine) as well as a surreal sense of humor. This Argentine film is well-acted, with Stuart and Rittano giving their characters just enough authenticity to seem real. Both are fallable and don’t alwys act heroically and from time to time their bickering can lead to an awkward feeling as you might get when you go to a dinner party and the host couple gets into an argument. You get that feeling that you want to be anywhere but there, and that’s not always a good feeling when you’re watching a movie.

There is a lot of interesting surreal imagery – a guy in a hazmat suit shreds on electric guitar; another hospital tech weeps uncontrollably while a doctor searches for some paperwork and then throws himself out of a window – which make for interesting asides but don’t always contribute to the overall whole.

I’ll admit that we’re talking personal taste here, but overall the movie is a bit too out there for me, but I get that for some folks that’s more of a recommendation than a caution. For those of you who like their movies different and challenging, this might well be a hidden gem for you. For those whose tastes are a bit more mainstream – like myself – this might be a tougher sell.

REASONS TO SEE: A surreal piece that the pandemic-weary might relate to.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too oddball for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Herrera’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contagion
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Escape from Mogadishu

Settlers


Is this what a Martian will look like?

(2021) Science Fiction (IFC Midnight) Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brooklynn Prince, Nell Tiger Free, Jonny Lee Miller, Matthew Van Leeve, Natalie Walsh. Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller

 

The pioneers of the American west learned brutal self-sufficiency out of necessity. There was nobody close by to help if they got into trouble; they had to learn to do for themselves. So it was then; so it will be when the time comes to colonize Mars.

Reza (Miller) and Ilsa (Boutella) are eking out a life on a desolate Martian plane. Earth, as Reza explains to their young daughter Remmy (Prince), is not what it used to be. In the meantime, they go on feeding their pigs, raising what vegetables they can in a small hydroponic garden. They entertain themselves with word games and singalongs. It isn’t much of a life, but it’s a life.

Then one morning they awake to the pigs squealing in terror. On one of their windows the word “LEAVE” is written in bold red paint. Remmy’s reports that there were strangers nearby, which her mom and dad had discounted, suddenly seems much more likely. Then comes Jerry (Cordova), a soldier who claims that the land was his and that Reza and Ilsa are squatters living in the home that is rightfully his. The couple are ready to defend their home with knives and guns; it doesn’t end well for them as Jerry kills Reza in a shoot-out.

Reza moves in, allowing Ilsa and Remmy to stay and at first it seems that he is trying to make a better life for them, much to Remmy’s anger. Ilsa seems more inclined to accept the presence of Jerry than her daughter, although at first, she is just as wary. But as Remmy grows into becoming a young woman (Free), Jerry begins to look at her much differently.

This is a different kind of sci-fi movies. There is an elegiac feel here, a feeling that humanity is on its last legs, but there is also a sense of realism; these are the obstacles that colonists on the Red Planet would face; this is what a Martian farm would look like. The production design, Noam Piper, does a bang-up job here.

Rockefeller does a credible job here, but the story is a bit long-winded and the movie a touch too long. One gets the sense that Rockefeller is trying to make a point about colonialism, but I’m not sure if he’s successful on that front. Mostly, this is a movie about relationships, about loneliness, about doing what one has to in order to survive. Jerry seems to genuinely trying his best to be fair and kind, but he’s no saint and towards the end of the movie a darker side is revealed.

The problem here is that the pacing is very turgid, to the point where it seems like nothing of note goes on for ten, fifteen minutes at a time. Living on a Martian colony is, no doubt, hard. Watching a movie about it shouldn’t be. However, Rockefeller gets points for trying to do something a little bit different, and while we watch billionaires like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos heading off into space to promote their own commercial ventures there, it reminds us that when actual colonization comes, it won’t be the wealthy feeding their own egos that will accomplish the feat; it will be ordinary men and women who will give everything, to struggle and die far away from out ancestral home, who will make our first footholds on other planets actually stick.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive production values.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well-intentioned, but ultimately dull.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert, subbing for Mars.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Martian
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Joe Bell

Chimera Strain


Shades of sci-fi.

(2018) Science Fiction (Vertical) Henry Ian Cusick, Kathleen Quinlan, Erika Ervin, Jenna Harrison, Karishma Ahluwalia, Jennifer Giulameti, Raviv Haeems, Kaavya Jayarm, Lawrence Sampson. Directed by Maurice Haeems

 

There exists a jellyfish (Turritopsis) in nature that is virtually immortal. Poor scientist Quint (Cusick) is desperately trying to harvest the secret of the creature’s immortality in order to save his wife (Ahluwalia) and children from dying of a rare genetic disorder in a hard science sci-fi film (which went under the title Chimera during its initial festival run) from first-time writer-director Haeems.

He allies himself with Masterson (Quinlan), a billionaire who wants to save her own dying husband and is willing to see that Quint finishes his research, despite the fact that some of the research he needs – into stem cells – is forbidden by law. As Quint becomes more desperate, he begins to descend into madness, having long conversations with his comatose wife while his patient colleague Charlie (Harrison) looks on. Can Quint save his family and find the secret to immortality? And what price will he pay to find it? How far is he willing to go to save his wife and kids?

This is the kind of movie that wants to be a thinking person’s sci-fi film, but forgets that you need to have a viable story. Characters act against type and engage in tangential conversations that are ultimately meaningless to the plot other than to deliver philosophical broadsides to the audience. The movie looks nifty enough with a kind of world-going-to-the-dogs look to it, and lord knows the actors are doing their very best but they often look puzzled, as if they can’t figure out the dialogue they’ve been given to speak.

There are a lot of really deep concepts here (some cribbed from sources as diverse as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Modern Science), but sadly Haeems only gives them lip service rather than a deep dive. With a more experienced writer this might have been a really compelling science fiction opus.

REASONS TO SEE: Ideal for those who love esoteric science fiction.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many platitudes, not enough character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The names of the characters were all taken from the classic Henry James story Turn of the Screw
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Redbox, Roku Channel, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Replicas
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin