Memory: The Origins of Alien


You never want to mess with the furies.

2019) Documentary (Screen Media) Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Diane O’Bannon, Ben Mankiewicz, Ronald Shusett, Roger Corman, Roger Christian, Ivor Powell, William Linn, Clarke Wolf, Axelle Carolyn, Henry Jenkins, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Carmen Scheifele-Giger, Gary Sherman, Linda Rich, Mickey Faerch, Rhoda Pell, Shannon Muchow.  Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

 

One of the classics of its time was Ridley Scott’s Alien, which came out in 1979. While it wasn’t the first movie to meld horror and science fiction, it is certainly one of the best examples of both genres. Even now, 40 years after its initial release, the movie still terrifies and inspires.

Over the years there have been plenty of “making-of” documentaries about the film but few have taken the tack that this one has. Philippe, best known for his dissection of Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho in his documentary 78/52, looks more at the gestation of the film culminating in its infamous “chestburster” birthing scene which in 1979 caused audience jaws to collectively drop. Even today, new viewers of the film going in unprepared can be taken unawares.

Philippe does a deep dive into writer Dan O’Bannon’s influences to begin with; from his fascination with Greek and Egyptian mythologies to the loathing of insects he developed on the Missouri farm he grew up on to his eventual love for writer H.P. Lovecraft, no stone goes unturned in discussing where the ideas for Alien germinated. O’Bannon’s widow Diane (her husband passed away in 2009 of complications from the Crohn’s disease he lived with all his life) acts as something of a shepherdess, guiding us through his initial filmmaking foray (Dark Star which he co-directed with John Carpenter) through an abortive Dune project with Mexican surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky but which introduced him to the work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger and through the frustrating attempts to sell what would become his masterpiece. Giger’s influences are also briefly summarized as well as a lengthy discussion of painter Francis Bacon’s influence on the look of the chestburster scene (I would have preferred a little more time spent on Giger but that’s just me).

The documentary isn’t as comprehensive as The Beast Within, the making-of documentary that first appeared on the DVD edition of The Alien Quadrilogy which collected the first four films of the franchise along with an array of special features. In fact, some of the archival interviews from that feature appear here, projected onto video screens on a faux bridge of the Nostromo, a touch I liked very much.

There is a very intellectual approach to the film; there are interviews with respected critics and film historians such as Axelle Carolyn, Ben Mankiewicz and Clarke Wolf. There are also contemporary interviews with some of the cast and crew of the film including Cartwright and Skerritt (but interestingly enough, not Scott or Sigourney Weaver whose career essentially began with the film). There is discussion of how the politics of 1979 affected the film and how some of the social points are still relevant (the expendability of the working-class crew, for example).

In many ways, this is an excellent lead-in for those who haven’t yet seen the film although I can’t imagine someone willing to invest the time on a detailed examination of a movie they haven’t seen. Fans of the movie will no doubt enjoy this even though some of the on-set stories have been told elsewhere.

Almost by necessity there is an endless parade of talking heads although it is well-dispersed with footage from the film as well as behind-the-scenes footage, particularly when the examination of the chestburster scene finally arrives about halfway through. I don’t honestly know if this is the definitive documentary about the film – it really doesn’t examine the movie’s effect and legacy except in very broad terms. Still, fans of the movie will find the academic approach different and perhaps enlightening. It reminds me of the early days of DVDs and VHS home video releases when certain movies got documentaries that really gave great insight into the development of the film unlike the modern back-slapping love-fests that you see these days when you see anything at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely a godsend for fans of the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too detailed for the casual fan.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as horrific images from the original film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is one of the first purchases by the fan-owned entertainment company, Legion M.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Wallflower

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Corporate Animals


There is no “I” in team but there IS meat…

(2019) Comedy (Screen Media) Demi Moore, Jessica Williams, Ed Helms, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Karan Soni, Martha Kelly, Dan Bakkedahl, Calum Worthy, Jennifer Kim, Nasim Pedrad, Frank Bond, Wendy Meredith, Britney Spears, Courtney Cunningham, Chris Harding, David Phyfer, Richard Beal, Tobiah Powell, LynNita Ellis.  Directed by Patrick Brice

 

There is something inherently funny about corporate life. From the platitudes that are meant to inspire to the team-building exercises that are more an exercise in wasting time to the gorilla in a velvet suit venality of corporate politics, it’s a wonder that the subject hasn’t been mined more often for the comedy gold that is clearly there. Maybe it just hits a bit too close to home for most of us.

Lucy (Moore) is the high-strung platitude-spewing CEO of a company that makes edible cutlery. The corporate culture is supposed to be diverse and inclusive but below the surface of civility there is an awful lot of discontent. Perfect time for a team-building session, right? Of course, right.

Brandon (Helms) is their guide as he attempts to get the group to move a stone sphere that is clearly too heavy for the group to budge until the intern Aidan (Worthy) is injured, but that’s just the warm-up. The main event is spelunking in some deep caves in New Mexico. When the group comes to a fork, Lucy insists that they take the more difficult “advanced” route despite everyone else – including Brandon – trying to dissuade her.

At first, it looks like Lucy might have been on to something when the group reaches the majestic Cathedral Cavern but what little triumph the group can muster is quickly quashed when an earthquake buries them in the cavern and kills one of their number. Bummer.

Finding a way out doesn’t seem to be much of a priority for Lucy who is confident that there will be a rescue party finding them shortly; after all, she had left an itinerary with the ranger’s office and as soon as they’re listed as overdue the cavalry will be coming. When it soon becomes obvious that they are going to be trapped for more than a few hours, it becomes clear that the problem of survival is going to start with the fact they have no food and no water.

This is very much a dark comedy with elements of parody meant to take on the aforementioned subjects of office politics and corporate culture. Brice, who previously helmed the much better comedy The Overnight works off of a script by Sam Bain which is too scattershot for its own good. There are too many subplots, including the rivalry between Jess (Williams) and Freddie (Soni) who were both promised a big promotion by Lucy, Lucy’s sexual harassment of Freddie and the fact that Lucy’s incompetence has left the company nearly bankrupt, a fact her workers are ignorant of.

Lucy is definitely the centerpoint here and the movie could have used an actress with a deft comic touch. Demi Moore is a lot of things, but she has never been known for her comic timing. She ends up coming off as vile and venal, self-absorbed and arrogant who believes herself to be superior in all ways to those who actually do the work that keeps the company going. One has to wonder if Moore was cast because she had a similar role in the drama Disclosure which was also a far better movie than this one. One imagines that Ms. Moore cashed the check as quickly as she could and moved on to something a bit more challenging.

Someone who does have a deft comic touch is Jessica Williams who is note-perfect as the long-suffering assistant Jess who is far more competent than anyone else in the workplace. Anyone who has seen her in the Netflix film The Incredible Jessica James knows what Williams is capable of and the career path in front of her is bright and shiny indeed. I look forward to seeing her in more movies.

By necessity the movie is dimly lit over long stretches and while the cavern set is pretty decent, it also looks like a set. While apparently some of the film was lensed in the famed Frankfurt Caverns of Kentucky, the rocks look like papier machė. The movie would have benefitted from a little more focus and fewer subplots. The critics have pretty much savaged the film so don’t expect there to be much of an audience for it but adventurous readers who are interested can take a chance on it when it hits home video in a few months.

REASONS TO SEE: Jessica Williams is absolutely stellar.
REASONS TO AVOID: This has been done better elsewhere.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug and sex references, a bit of violence and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharon Stone was originally cast as Lucy but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. Demi Moore stepped into the role instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews: Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Severance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements

Liam Gallagher: As It Was


A rock star’s P.O.V.

(2019) Music Documentary (Screen MediaLiam Gallagher, Debbie Gwyther, Mike Smith, Paul Gallagher, JC Finan, Phil Christie, Drew McConnell, David Adcock, Peggy Gallagher, Sam Eldridge, Jay Mehler, Noel Gallagher, Christian Madden, Dan McDougal, Lennon Gallagher, Gene Gallagher, Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs, Mike Moore, Jo Whiley, Molly Gallagher. Directed by Gavin Fitzgerald and Charlie Lightening

 

Readers in their thirties or older will remember Oasis, the British pop group that dominated the British charts and earned praise and platinum record sales here in the States. Some might remember that they were led by the battlin’ Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel who on August 28, 2009 got into a huge fight backstage at a Paris concert which led to the cancellation of the remainder of the tour. Noel quit the band the next day and the two brothers have not spoken or seen each other since.

The remaining members of Oasis continued as Beady Eye for a few more years but were unable to recapture the same magic or chart success as they had with Noel and broke up in 2014. Liam, despondent over the breakup of his band and also of the dissolution of his second marriage, wondered if his career had run its course. He self-medicated with alcohol and drugs before getting into a relationship with his former assistant Debbie Gwyther who would later be named his manager.

He went on to record an album, As You Were which was a smash success (a follow-up is scheduled to be released later this month – September 2019) and while Liam has matured some from his bad boy days, he is still the foul-mouthed straight shooter he has always been. He says what’s on his mind and the consequences are not a priority, although he admits that he has some regrets over the things he’s said in the past that have hurt people.

This documentary covers the time essentially from the day of the Oasis break-up to the end of the tour for As You Were. There are plenty of interviews, with Liam’s partner, mother, his brother Paul, label executives for Warner Brothers UK (who released the album) and musicians who played on the album.

There is a hint of hagiography; this has the feel of a promotional film, or worse yet, an episode of the old VH-1 series Behind the Music. On the surface, there seems to be an attempt to make this “warts and all” but it also must be said that the filmmakers hammer the point numerous times that family is important to Liam, particularly his mother, his two sons Lennon and Gene and the daughter he only recently discovered he had, Molly. It’s hard to reconcile that, however, with his refusal to even broach the subject of a reconciliation with his brother.

Personally, I don’t understand it, particularly in light of how quickly and suddenly people leave this life. They’re mad at each other over what, a band? The two grew up in the same fracking bedroom, for effs sake. What do these disputes matter? Who cares which one of them mans up and makes the first step? It’s not a freakin’ contest to see which one is the most stubborn. One day, one of them will be gone and then where will the other be? Kicking his own arse at what a fool he was all his life.

Fatherly advice aside (as if Liam or Noel are ever going to read it), there is a lot of great music here – Liam’s last album was killer, make no mistake. Still, this isn’t a movie that’s going to do much digging into the soul and psyche of Liam Gallagher and pretty much whatever your opinion of the man or his music, assuming you have one, isn’t likely to change much. While I highly recommend this for fans of Oasis – there’s a lot of great footage here you’re not likely to see anywhere else – those looking for a hard-hitting documentary that explores its subject with some depth are likely to be disappointed.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely a must for Oasis fans.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit superficial, like an edition of VH-1’s Behind the Music.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Liam’s time with Oasis is extensively referenced, there are no Oasis songs on the soundtrack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Depraved

Cold Blood (La mėmoire du sang)


Jean Reno is hunting for an audience.

(2019) Action Thriller (Screen Media) Jean Reno, Sarah Lind, Joe Anderson, David Gyasi, Ihor Ciskewycz, François Guėtary, Samantha Bond, Robert Feldman, Kateryna Buriskova, Anna Butkevich. Directed by Frėdėric Petitjean

 

The mountains of the Pacific Northwest are a cold place, as cold as an assassin’s heart. With so much desolation, there are plenty of places to hide – hide from civilization, hide from society, hide from life. Most of all, to hide from one’s past.

A young woman crashes her snowmobile in a desolate part of the mountains. Badly injured, she manages to crawl to a cabin where a middle-aged man finds her. The woman is Melody (Lind) and she’s far from everything. The man is Henry (Reno) and he has a particularly bloody past. He nurses the woman back to health, but she is remarkably evasive when he asks her “What are you doing out here?”

In the meantime, Spokane police detective Kappa (Anderson) – recently transferred in from New York – is obsessing over the death of a wealthy industrialist, murdered in a sauna. Coincidentally, he was buried in Spokane where he was originally from. The trail for his killer has gone cold and all that is known is that he used a special kind of ice bullet that melts after impact, effectively wiping out any ballistic evidence there might have been.

It soon becomes clear that Henry was the ice bullet-wielding killer but what part does Melody have to play in all of this? Is she just the innocent traveler she claims to be, or does she have a hidden connection to Henry? I think you all already know the answer to that.

This Franco-Ukrainian co-production harkens back to the hitman action films of such genre geniuses as Luc Besson and Renny Harlin. As a matter of fact, one of the movie’s big problems is that it leans too hard into action films of the 80s and 90s, being absolutely infected with cliché dialogue and rote action sequences. As for plot, this is paint-by-numbers screenwriting with the big twist being impossible not to figure out well in advance of the big reveal.

Jean Reno deserves better. He is a terrific actor whose role in Besson’s Leon: The Professional essentially defined the role of the ice-cold hitman. Henry is essentially Leon; a little more grey in the beard, a little more paunchy but just as dangerous. Reno sleepwalks through the role with an expression that just screams “How the eff did I end up in this film?” I have to wonder the same thing. Nothing in the script gives me reason to suspect that this was something Reno really wanted to do. I imagine the money must have been right. That or he had a mighty yen to see the Carpathian Mountains, where most of this was filmed. Still, even when he is not at his best, Reno remains very watchable.

There are lots of plot holes here (the snow is a couple of weeks from melting but there are still football games on TV, for example) and small towns in Washington state are apparently full of people who speak with heavy French and Ukrainian accents. It is missteps like these and many others that characterize the film and make it a lot harder to watch than it needed to be. There are some decent suspense sequences and Anderson gives a performance that reminds me a bit of Tim Roth. The cinematography is mighty pretty if you like your woods snowy.

This is a forgettable movie that is one you are unlikely to want to see twice, even if you indeed are persuaded to see it once. This doesn’t even have the gift of being so bad it’s good – it’s just a movie that you will likely watch for 20 minutes before switching it off and looking for something else to watch unless you’re one of those optimistic sorts who are sure that it’s bound to get better. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Still, even a bad Jean Reno film isn’t completely unwatchable but I suspect only the most diehard of his fans are going to be eager to see this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Reno is at his best when he is in full-on grumpy mode as he is here.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are way too many plot holes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marked the first time in 14 years that a Wes Anderson film didn’t feature Jason Schwartzman in the cast (he did co-write the script).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews: Metacritic: 27/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Leon: The Professional
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Catcher is a Spy

Wonders of the Sea


It’s a squid bonanza!

(2017) Documentary (Screen Media) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Celine Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau, Gavin McKinney, Richard Murphy, Holly Lohuis. Directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jacques Mantello

 

The ocean is the mother to us all. From her depths all life rose including mankind. She absorbs more carbon than any other item on earth. She feeds us, gives us nourishing rain. Without the oceans, life on Earth would not be possible.

We have taken the oceans for granted. We dump our trash into it, leading to floating trash heaps of plastics. Through global warming, we have raised the temperature of the oceans to a degree where certain species have had to retreat further into the depths in order to survive. We have overfished, devastating the population of tuna, cod, octopuses and other sea creatures. In recent years we have begun to understand that the ocean as a resource is truly finite.

One of the earliest researchers into the ocean was the legendary French engineer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, who in addition to inventing scuba gear and the aqualung which allow us to explore the ocean more thoroughly, is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries inspired a generation of ichthyologists, oceanographers and conservationists.

His son Jean-Michel has carried on the Cousteau family tradition. On his ship the Pacific Monarch he has continued on the mission of exploration and education. This film is the culmination of his efforts and in many ways it is brilliant. Using cutting edge underwater camera technology, he is able to take breathtaking footage in the great depths of the ocean as well as in the shadows; many of the creatures he turns his lens on (as well as cinematographer Gavin McKinney) are tiny and rarely photographed.

And those images are amazing and breathtaking, from a night dive where bioluminescent creatures prowl the deep, to swarms of mating squid to the great biodiversity of the coral reefs, the images explode with color and wonder. In fact, they almost do their jobs too well as after awhile we begin to experience sensory overload.

If only the narration matched the images. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, not noted for his ecological leanings, does a passable job but the information he is relating is generally available in other films. The coral reef section which takes up almost half of the running time is at least comparable to what you’ll see in the Netflix doc Chasing Coral which has a similar message. There is also some banter from the Cousteau family – Jean-Michel and his two adult children, daughter Celine and son Fabien – that feels forced and a bit incongruous.

Another thing to consider is that this was filmed in and meant to be seen in 3D. I don’t have the capability to watch 3D movies at home and so it feels like I lost a good deal of the impact of the movie. Even to my not-always-discerning eye it appeared that 3D would give the viewer much more of a “you are there” experience.

Technically, this is a marvelous achievement. The images are enhanced by a beautiful score by Christophe Jacquelin. Those with kids in the family will likely enjoy the coral reef sequences, particularly if the kids are devoted to Finding Nemo as there is some really fascinating looks at clownfish.

Preserving our planet is a very important cause and one which should be stressed not only to our young people but to their parents and grandparents as well. As stewards of Earth, we are failing miserably at our jobs. At least Wonders of the Sea has the sense not to politicize the film and point fingers (although we all kind of know where blame lies) and if they get a little shrill from time to time, it’s understandable. This is very much a virtual aquarium with a window onto the deep and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with that at all. I only wish I could have seen it in 3D as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: The imagery is dazzling with a dizzying array of color. Cousteau lives up to his father’s legacy.
REASONS TO AVOID: After a while, it all begins to blur together.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five year period.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Lavender Scare

A Violent Separation


Carrying her across a different threshold.

(2019) Crime Drama (Screen Media) Brenton Thwaites, Ben Robson, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Claire Holt, Ted Levine, Gerald McRaney, Francesca Eastwood, Michael Malarkey, Peter Michael Goetz, Isabella Gaspersz, Lynne Ashe, Carleigh Johnston, Cotton Yancey, Silas Cooper, Jason Edwards, Kim Collins, Morley Nelson, Bowen Hoover. Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz

 

The backwoods hide its share of secrets. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing just right you can swear you hear the trees whispering about dark deeds done in the dead of night, of murder, mayhem and cheating hearts.

Ray Young (Robson) is one of those country boys whom trouble just seems to follow. He’s a man who likes to drink and has a hair-trigger temper, not a great combination. He’s done some jail time for petty crime and makes up “the usual suspect” in the small Missouri town he lives in. His younger brother Norman (Thwaites) couldn’t be more different; a straight-arrow deputy sheriff who is painfully naive, romantically awkward and a bit exasperated by his hot mess of a brother.

Ray is on-again off-again dating Abby (Holt) who is a single mom whose baby daddy is Cinch (Malarkey), a construction worker built in Ray’s mold – this girl sure can pick them. Her younger sister Frances (Debnam-Carey) is quiet, upstanding and of course the object of Norman’s affection, although much of what she jokes about goes sailing over his head. Abby and Frances live at their childhood home where they take care of seriously ill patriarch Tom (McRaney) who trundles an oxygen tank wherever he goes but is not above roaring his disapproval over one thing or another at the sisters, particularly when Frances has the temerity to take away his smokes.

After the four young people go out for a night of drinking an dancing at a roadhouse charmingly known as The Whispering Pig, Ray predictably makes out with a barmaid (Eastwood) and gets into a fight that Norman has to come to his aid for. Furious, a drunk Abby gets into her car and peels out of the parking lot, leaving the other three behind.

The next day a badly hungover Abby takes her dad’s pistol and lambastes an equally hungover Ray, nagging him to teach her how to shoot which he is reluctant to do. The two drive into the woods where a terrible accident occurs. Ray panics and calls his brother to help him cover up his involvement. In a moment of weakness, Norman agrees to.

The town sheriff (Levine) is a pretty smart cookie and he begins piecing together the crime from the few clues that have remained. Norman, as a cop, knows how to stage a crime scene and manipulate an investigation. While the Sheriff (and a few other people) are certain that Ray had a hand in what happened to Abby, nobody suspects Norman. As time goes by and the trail goes cold the romance between Norman and Frances begins to heat up. However, the guilt both brothers are feeling begins to bubble to the surface and threatens to expose what they’ve both done.

The brothers Goetz seem to be waffling between Southern Gothic and neo-noir when it comes to tone and ends up being neither. For some odd reason, they decided to set the film in Missouri but filmed in Louisiana an it looks like Louisiana – why not just set it where you filmed it? Nobody cares overly much. Secondly, most of the main cast (with the exception of Levine and McRaney) are British or Australian. Not that the cast members (mostly of basic cable and TV pedigree) from across the various ponds can’t handle these very American art forms, but it just seems a curious thing hauling them all the way to the backwoods of Louisiana.

Actually, the cast is pretty decent although it is the veterans McRaney and Levine who steal the show. Robson and Thwaites capture a brotherly dynamic that feels authentic; having directors who are themselves brothers probably has a lot to do with it. The movie is reasonably suspenseful as the brothers come closer to cracking, although the “twist” ending feels forced and much of the movie loses its punch because of the melodrama that tinges the entire production.

There are moments of cinematic beauty which are provided by cinematographer Sean O’Dea; however, Evan Goldman’s score is intrusive and a little bit annoying. Overall this isn’t all that bad but there aren’t enough good things about it that really make it stand out among all the other movies that are out there at the moment. Fans of the various shows the young actors are in might get a kick out of seeing them in very different roles than they’re used to but otherwise, this one’s pretty much a toss-up.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography has some lovely heartland images.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t add anything to the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Michael Goetz, who plays Riley Jenkins, is the father of the directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder by Numbers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Aniara

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