The Mitchells vs. the Machines


Cellphone armageddon.

(2021) Animated Feature (Netflix/Columbia) Starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigan, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Doug the Pug, Jay Pharaoh, Melissa Sturm, Doug Nicholas, Jeff Rowe, Madeleine McGraw, Ellen Wightman, Sasheer Zarmata. Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe

 
We have let the tech genii out of the bottle, like it or not. The generations that have grown up with in the digital age are more comfortable looking at a smartphone screen than they are into the eyes of another human being. I suppose that might be perceived as a knock, but at the risk of being offensive, it’s just an expression of the way things are. Whether you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing or not a thing at all, it is the way it is.

Katie (Jacobson) is a proud online card-carrying member of the smartphone generation. An aspiring filmmaker, her joy comes from making short comedy films starring the family pug (Romé lives!) which eventually gets her accepted into the filmmaking school at CalArts (not for nothing, but that is the alma mater of many of the heavyweights in modern computer animation, as well as my own sister who is a graphic designer).

Predictably, her pragmatic father (McBride) doesn’t understand her – “You can make a living at that?” he asks incredulously when informed of his daughter’s intended major – which his wife (Rudolph) gently (or maybe not so gently) nudges him in the direction of spending time with his daughter before losing her forever. His solution is to drive his little girl to college as a family road trip, which he doesn’t realize is stressing her out because she will lose time getting oriented with her new tribe with whom she has already connected with online.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley where the chips always land where they may, PAL CEO Mark (André) is unveiling a new AI replacing the old one (Colman) who doesn’t take kindly to being cast aside. She decides to take matters into her own non-existant hands and reprograms a fleet of service robots to capture humans and imprison them in “fun pods,” conquering the Earth in the name of Big Tech. I imagine a few QAnon believers might think this could actually happen.

The family is blissfully unaware of all that is happening until they see fleets of robots kidnapping humans and realize that the apocalypse isn’t going to be brought about by zombies, but by robots. That’s right, pop culture fans – Robert Kirkman lied to you. Get over it. As it turns out that they become one of the last few families that hasn’t been captured and of course, one of mankind’s last remaining hopes when Katie figures out a kill code that could shut down the technology overthrow. But can they input it into the system in time?

It is perhaps ironic that a movie exhibiting a healthy distrust of technology is told in computer animataion on an online streaming platform. To be fair, the movie was meant to come out in theaters, but the coronavirus ad other plans. After a couple of delays and title changes, the movie was finally sold to Netflix and released online this past April (assuming you’re reading this before March 31, 2022). However, that might be fitting in that the clear target audience for the movie is the ones who feel more comfortable streaming movies at home rather than actually going to a movie theater.

The movie is full of pop culture references ranging from Furbies to Star Wars to Greta Gerwig to SNL. Although PAL is meant to be an amalgam of Apple and Amazon (a terrifying thought if ever there was one). It also has fanboy cred in that is produced by the white hot duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who neither wrote nor directed this, although their influence on the film is as plain as the nose on my face.

The main drawback here is that other than Colman, who seems to be having the time of her life as the homicidal AI, most of the voice cast is oddly subdued and bland which considering the kind of cast they have is mystifying. There are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments but other okes may leave you flat. They are exploring a real disconnect between generations, and things that millennials and younger viewers will get may fly over the heads of older viewers and vice versa. And perhaps that is part of the movie’s overall point.

I have to admit I was left a little bit cold by all of this, although I grant you that perhaps I was not in the right space to watch this movie. It HAS been a big critical success, although the numbers released by Netflix don’t have it necessarily up there with some of the other would-be theatrical releases that were forced into streaming platforms when it became clear that it would not be getting a favorable release date anytime soon, and a movie like this has a definite shelf life – many of the references and depictions here will be archaic by the time 2022 comes along and I won’t even consider how dated it will seem in five years. But that’s just the nature of the world we live in now.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The voice cast is surprisingly lackluster.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of kidflick action and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, was a story consultant for the film. Rowe and Rianda both directed for the series.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Honey

Mnemophrenia


The revolution will be digitized.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radioflash


The production went underwater quickly.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin, Sean Cook, Arden Myrin, Max Adler, Lance Valentine Butler, Juli Erickson, CJ Legare, Shawn Law, Jerry Basham, Amir Abdullah, Ryan Shrime, Eryn Rea. Directed by Ben McPherson

 

There’s no doubt that our society functions on technology. It is both a blessing and a curse; it has allowed us to lead lives more comfortable than any of our predecessors but at the same time, what would become of society if all our technology suddenly was no longer available to us?

Nothing good, posits this film. Reese (Sharbino) is a bright teenage girl with superior problem-solving skills. She lives with her dad (Monaghan): both are still grieving the death of Reese’s mom from cancer a year earlier. When the power flickers out, it’s no big whoop at first. After all, power outages are a function of life as our devices suck more and more juice from the grid.

But the power doesn’t come back on and soon it becomes apparent that it won’t anytime soon. Reese’s survivalist grandpa (Patton) has been preparing for this all his life and he urges Reese and her pa to gather up as much gas as they can get hold of and head out to his place in the mountains before things turn to anarchy back in the city. They are just shy of too late.

At that point, the movie goes off the rails as Reese is kidnapped by Maw (Flanagan) and her brutish son Bill (Filipowich) and grandson Quinn (Collin) and the film takes a wide left into The Hills Have Eyes territory. The movie seemed really promising at first, with Reese being set up as a modern heroine who is smart, savvy and strong but she is essentially reduced to a typical damsel in distressed, trussed up in a burlap sack or locked in a basement. Her problem-solving skills we see early on are nowhere to be found.

Faring slightly better is Monaghan who plays the dad well; we’ve seen him as a irresponsible hobbit and a drug-addled rock star but he excels here as a devoted but sad-eyed dad. The film is bolstered by some beautiful Northwestern vistas, often mist-shrouded but McPherson is unable to generate a whole lot of excitement or suspense, leaving audiences indifferent to the fate of the characters. Considering the introduction he gave Reese, it’s a damn shame; I would have liked to have seen her less in peril and more in charge. Patton, a veteran character actor, is given little to do, showing up in brief moments to show concern and worry, for the most part.

This is one of those frustrating films where you see that if the filmmakers had just taken a certain direction that the movie had tons of potential to be something more than it turned out to be. While there are some worthwhile elements here, overall it ends up being a mediocre thriller that doesn’t quite do the job it’s supposed to do.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan does a crackerjack job in a type of role he’s not known for.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really generate a lot of excitement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McPherson has partnered with the Conservative View and Glenn Beck on short film projects, and co-writer Matt Redhawk is the founder of a survivalist supply company.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Synonyms

Black Panther


King T’Challa surveys the kingdom of Wakanda that the world sees.

(2018) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, David S. Lee, Nayibah Be, Isaach De Bankolé, Connie Chiume, Dorothy Steele, Danny Sapani, Sydelle Noel. Directed by Ryan Coogler

 

It is not accidental that Black Panther was released during Black History Month. It is a movie that has gone on to make history and brought huge crossover appeal to the segment of African-American audiences who aren’t necessarily going out to see superhero movies – although obviously a large chunk of them are. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is Shaft in spandex though – this is a superhero movie that is going to set the bar for superhero films that follow it.

T’Challa (Boseman), King of the African nation of Wakanda, also carries the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of his country who is mystically endowed with superpowers. He inherits a country that is technologically advanced but has chosen to hide its true nature so that they don’t become targets. Their isolationism is a sticking point with Erik Killmonger (Jordan), nephew of the recently deceased King, who was raised in America after the murder of his father. He sees things from a much more global point of view and thinks Wakanda should be sharing their technology – particularly their weapons – to help oppressed people of color to rise up and throw off the yoke of colonialism.

There’s a lot more to the film than that but this is a short review. Sure, it’s got the eye candy and jaw-dropping action sequences we come to expect in a superhero film – and they are well done here, make no mistake about it – but also, they are not the be-all and end-all of Black Panther. Rather, they are a jumping off point to discuss more weighty matters – racial relations, colonialism, turning a blind eye to suffering, sexism – things not normally a part of the superhero film equation. It should also be mentioned that the Dora Milaje – the King’s army – are all women and  are the most badass fighting force to turn up in a superhero film ever, even more so than the Amazons of Wonder Woman.

It should also be mentioned that this might be the most talented ensemble ever in a superhero film. The crème de la crème of African-American actors do their thing on this film and none of them turn in anything less than their best. Gurira from The Walking Dead brings the badassery of Michonne and bringing onto the big screen and giving it an African twist. Nyong’o plays a spy and the ex of T’Challa and she plays a fine love interest. Whitaker lends gravitas to his role as T’Challa’s mentor. Best of all though is Wright as the king’s kid sister – a scientific genius responsible for many of the gadgets used in the film. She steals nearly every scene she’s in.

All in all, this is a movie that lives up to the hype and re-confirms that the superhero genre is not just for fanboys but for fans of all sorts. Just for the record, Black Panther isn’t a great superhero film because it has an African-American hero – it would be a great superhero film no matter who the lead was. Come to think of it, Black Panther isn’t just a great superhero film – it’s a great film period.

REASONS TO GO: This is a benchmark for all superhero films. Jordan and Boseman are both terrific in their roles. Coogler hits the director’s A list with his big and bold vision.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, superhero and otherwise, as well as a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan has appeared in all three of the feature films directed by Coogler to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Lear
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Workshop

TiMER


TiMER

Emma Caulfield ponders her romantic future.

(Tribeca Film) Emma Caulfield, Michelle Borth, John Patrick Amedori, Desmond Harrington, JoBeth Williams, Bianca Brockl, Eric Jungmann, Scott Holroyd, Mark Harelik, Nicki Norris, Kali Rocha, Celene Lee, John Ingle, Cristina Cimellaro, Muse Watson. Directed by Jac Schaeffer

Finding love is a tricky thing, particularly true love. There are certainly no guarantees any relationship will work once entered into. What if you could find a way to find out without a shadow of a doubt the person you are MEANT to be with, guaranteed?

A new technological breakthrough has allowed a tech company to develop an implant that measures a certain hormone that….well it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this implant counts down to the day that you will meet the person you’re supposed to be with, your One and only. If that person also has a TiMER (which is what these implants are called) also, that is. If they don’t, your TiMER doesn’t display a time.

Oona (Caulfield) is an orthodontist who is, to say the least, a bit uptight. Her TiMER is blank and she’s almost psychotic about finding her One. Her mother (Williams) and father (Watson) had split up years before and her mother had remarried using the TiMER and is an absolute zealot regarding the device. Oona’s stepsister Steph (Borth) shares Oona’s birthday but is far more cynical about things. Her own TiMER reads that she is going to meet her One when she’s in her 40s and she’s filling her time until then with meaningless sexual encounters, an attitude she’s trying to convert Oona to.

In the meantime, Oona meets Mikey (Amedori), a bag boy at the grocery store. He is likable enough and the two of them hit it off but Mikey’s TiMER indicates that he will meet his One in about four months. Oh well.

As Oona becomes more and more drawn to Mikey, she begins to question her long-held belief that the device is truly the route to true love. Will she take a chance on the possibility, or wait for the sure thing that the TiMER provides?

The TiMER is a charming conceit and writer/director Schaeffer wisely keeps the tone sweet and light. Caulfield is an engaging enough actress (as those who remember her in her days as Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer will attest) and while her character is a bit too neurotic at times for my tastes, it’s still easy to get engaged.

Some of the performances, particularly in the smaller roles, are a bit flat, like the actors aren’t really invested in their roles. And the McGuffin of the TiMER itself seems a bit too far-fetched for me; I can see the appeal of a device like that but the human heart is so complex that it can’t be measured, quantified or digitized; therein lies the heart of the problem for this movie. If you can’t believe in the TiMER, it becomes hard to believe in the movie.

Still, there is enough charm and enough sweetness to make this movie heartwarming. I can recommend it for those who think romance can’t be predicted in any online test, no matter how thorough, because that seems to be the gist of the film. In that sense, I’m on board with the concept. Nonetheless, for those who are dissatisfied with the formulaic romantic comedies that seem to be the only sort of rom-com that Hollywood is capable of churning out these days, this will be a breath of fresh air for you.

A quick note: this film is part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s novel and innovative Tribeca Film Festival Home series, in which 12 of the movies screening during the festival are being made available on the On Demand video on demand series. Most of them are being released by the new distribution arm of the Festival, Tribeca Film and include some pretty seriously interesting films. We saw TiMER this way and it only cost us $5.99, although rates may vary depending on your cable/satellite service. In any case, it gives people who can’t make it to New York a chance to participate in the Festival. It’s a great idea and hopefully some of you will take advantage of it.

REASONS TO GO: A charming and sweet movie that gives some insight into the foibles of love and relationship-building.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit implausible with its McGuffin and some of the supporting performances were a bit flat. A little neurotic goes a long way and there’s a lot more than a little here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language and a couple of scenes of sexuality, some of it explicit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is writer/director Schaeffer’s first full-length feature.

HOME OR THEATER: A nice intimate romance perfectly suitable for a date night in front of the TV.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Prophet