Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Boss Level

[3 stars]

It’s  been a long while since we’ve had a Joe Carnahan (The Grey) directed film to enjoy. His last two major credits were just his scripts: Bad Boys For Life and Death Wish. The man knows suspense and action. I do wish he knew how to cast and direct actors a bit better, but you can’t have everything. Boss Level is a high-octane ride from start to finish, delivering a sort of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets Palm Springs.

The base weakness of the film is its lead, Frank Grillo (Disconnect, Avengers: Endgame). While Grillo is a great action actor, he doesn’t quite have the charisma and rakish charm necessary to be the leading man in a flick, even when that flick is mostly gritty action. It’s not a slam so much as a simple reality: some actors have “it” and some don’t. More the problem, after other darker anti-heroes like Deadpool, expectations are pretty high on how the character has to control the screen.

But the story is fun. Carnahan shares credit with Chris and Eddie Borey for the script. And it is nicely constructed, if a little late to the party on time-loop action tales. A shame, really; if it had come out sooner, it would have felt more unique.

Fortunately, with Naomi Watts (Ophelia) and a, surprisingly, contained and menacing Mel Gibson (The Expendables), there are some solid framing performances to hold it all down. Additional roles with Will Sasso (Klaus) and a much under-utilized Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) help things along as well.

Boss Level was originally intended for a feature release. I think the shift to stream will actually gives it a better and longer life in the movie firmament. On screen it would have bombed, but as a stream, it better meets expectations and certainly entertains.

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Proxima

[3 stars]

I honestly wanted to like this movie more than I did. It has a lot going for it, but it also has some uncomfortable flaws for me.

On the high side, it was nice to be reminded that science fiction simply means that the story cannot happen without an aspect of science holding it together. Proxima takes some of the themes we’re seeing now in tales like Away and Gravity and really focuses on the personal challenges of space travel without disaster as the background to drive it forward. It even takes place almost entirely before the mission rather than during it.

And, also on the plus-side, Eva Green (Dumbo) makes a relatively credible astronaut in training…relatively. And here is the turn. Some of her decisions would seem to make her psychologically unfit for the position, but her effort and focus in the face of the training and toxic male attitude from colleagues like Matt Dillon (The House that Jack Built) are impressive.

Then again, the problem is primarily with Alice Winocour’s (Mustang) script more than her direction of the story. Green is even saddled with an asshole of an ex-husband in Lars Eidinger (Dumbo, High Life) as the father and Zélie Boulant as the over-indulged and petulant daughter. If I sound judgmental on this, I am. I understand the desire to create tension for the characters, but given that this is a tale intended to be in our future rather than the past, the issues feel both forced, and Green’s reaction too accepting of the situation, rather than pushing against them. And, honestly, the character needs some serious parenting skills and a better divorce attorney.

And then there were the penultimate scenes leading to the finale, which really is more of a coda. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with the story as it was finally laid out. It was effective narratively, but bordered on the absurd.

Ultimately, the story tries to look at the conflict between dreams and family, as well as the cost of space travel and the kind of people and commitment it takes for it to happen. But what we get is a questionable statement of what it is to be a woman generally, let alone in a male dominated industry. We get no counterpoint or balancing commentary. The tension of motherhood versus career has been around for centuries, but some careers do have particular requirements, and any story that tackles those spaces should get it a bit closer to accurate.

All of my frustrations aside, again mostly focused on the end rather than the journey, Winocour does create an interesting tale. And Green delivers a smart, driven character (again, with certain qualifications). Given her previous efforts, I actually am a bit surprised by Winocour’s choices. Still, this film is worth seeing for a number of aspects, and your reaction to the resolution may be less intense than my own.

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Synchronic

[3.5 stars]

Some writer/directors have a signature to their work; a flavor that identifies their efforts but that can be executed in many different ways. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are such a pair. They have returned with another brainbender in Sychronic. Their previous couple of movies, Spring and The Endless, were solid proving grounds for pulling together this much more mature piece of film. They keep learning with each release how far they can push ideas and how much they can leave unexplained. They also managed to snag a talented cast to pull it off.

In the primary role, Anthony Mackie (Outside the Wire) drives the story. Mackie has had wide-ranging taste in his recent roles, but they’re always characters with an inner strength and sense of morality. Synchronic, despite its dark overtones, is no exception to that list. And, in this case, the script and story are actually a match for his efforts. Opposite him is Jamie Dornan (A Private War) who anchors the story, quite literally, for the drifting Mackie. The two long-time friends and co-workers butt heads but they are a solid pairing against the dark and seedy life of being New Orleans EMTs.

The story, like Moorhead and Benson’s previous offerings, slowly reveals itself, though not in a straight line. It teases and plays with you. And, more importantly, it tries to cover all its bases as it goes. We learn with the characters what the issues and possibilities are. And, in the end, we are left with a sense of wonderfully incomplete completeness that is sure to generate conversations while the credits roll. It also has to be called out that the cinematography and edits are in beautiful support of the story.

I wasn’t sure what Synchronic would be when I started it. And that is probably the best way to go into it. Just enjoy the ride. The road is dark, but the destination holds  warm fire, friends, and family at the end, even if in unexpected ways.

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bliss

[4 stars]

There is definitely something brewing in the zeitgeist these days. What arguably began when The Matrix released (though it wasn’t a new idea then, and it isn’t now; it was just a fun and inventive adventure) has expanded and grown in the media. With stories like Devs, Upload, and others coming out with increasing frequency, people seem even more intrigued with the central questions of “what is reality”? The latest is Bliss, which tackles the same base questions and adds in addiction as a subplot. We know all of this within the first 5 minutes of the movie, but it is how it all plays out and plays with us that makes the next 100 minutes fascinating.

The journey is really just a dance between three characters. Salma Hayek (The Hummingbird Project) and Owen Wilson (Wonder) are the main core. We experience the world primarily through them. But Nesta Cooper (Travelers) adds a third axis to the story that is unexpected as it develops. Her performance is also extremely well controlled and modulated in a heartbreaking way. The three together create a pathway through the story that is as gripping as it is dark and wonderous.

I will say that the “truth” such as it is, is definitively presented and laid out by writer and director Mike Cahill (I Origins). But the resolution and choices are what the movie is really ultimately about. So even if you miss the clues, it really doesn’t ultimately matter. Cahill accomplishes what I honestly had wished the Wachowski’s had with their classic…which while fun, never was really willing to tackle the deeper and scarier questions about the world as a simulation. Of course, this also means Bliss doesn’t have super-fast pacing, but it is brimming with tension and suspense. At least it was for me.

Give Bliss a try, but don’t expect big effects, though there are some very subtle ones throughout (keep an eye on the background particularly through the first 15 minutes). The production is also beautifully designed with great care to enhance the ideas. And do expect some challenging science fiction and social questions. In other words, check it out when you want to think a little while you’re being entertained.

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Life Like

[3 stars]

I’m recommending this flick based on its potential, not its delivery. Josh Janowicz’s first feature script and film is full of ideas and style choices, but it doesn’t quite work for all its effort.

For example, the choice to have James D’Arcy (Hot Zone) costumed to suggest him being a priest. Or to have Addison Timlin (Odd Thomas) and Drew Van Acker (Pretty Little Liars) speak in a very forced, shall we say robotic way by design (at least I hope it was by design), while Steven Strait (The Expanse) speaks more “humanly.” I get the points, but it’s a lot to sustain for a feature film.

Life Like plays in the same area as Humans, though with its own points and twists on the subject. But the human core of it all is very distanced. The main couple are uber-rich. Timlin’s character acts like the worst kind of white, middle-class, suburban privileged idiot you can imagine. While some of her clunky choices are intended to show the cracks in the relationship, both spouses come off very unsympathetic and unlikeable. That is not the position you want the audience in given the main points the movie intends. And while Strait actually delivers a subtle performance, it also doesn’t quite get you where you need to be with him by the end. However, while the resolution of the story is a bit rushed and forced, it isn’t uninteresting. It is also a little contradictory if you listen to all the sides, which makes you wonder about the world at large that these people live in…and you don’t get that explained.

As a bit of a side bar, the story also feels almost dated, because of  the locations and choices (like not using cell phones, connected devices, or tablets for, well, anything). This too may have been a design choice, but it lands oddly.

So why recommend this at all? Well, as I said, the ideas are there. The acting, within the constraints of the script, has its moments. Janowicz manages to buck general trends when it comes to whose skin he shows the most of. The boundaries of the relationships are nicely fluid, even if not quite as complex as they could have been. In other words, I wasn’t sorry I watched it even if I wish it had done so much more. As a first feature, it isn’t without impact and merit. And, at 90 minutes, it isn’t a huge investment to make if you’re curious on any level. But, in the end, it’s basically, your call whether you want to invest in it.

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2067

[2 stars]

You’re allowed one big lie in a story to get it going. This is especially true in genre fiction. 2067 decided to go for three…starting with an absurd premise about “synthetic” oxygen. And I might have bought into that without the misunderstandings about fusion or the biggest McGuffin of them all: time travel (and, in this case, a conscious decision to create a paradox).

And OK, maybe I could have even gone along with all of that if Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Dark Phoenix ) hadn’t whined through so much of the action that he sounded like a 5 year old. At least Ryan Kwanten (The Hurricane Heist) balanced out the shrill noise, but he didn’t have much to work with. Smit-McPhee just didn’t have any chemistry with anyone, including his supposedly devoted wife, Sana’a Shaik, who seriously tried to make it all look believable.

Writer and director Seth Larney, who is more commonly behind the camera, stepped a bit closer for this release. Unfortunately, he really just didn’t have the story under control. There was no sense of pacing and no real tension after the first scene (which was rather well done, science aside). There are some interesting ideas and conundrums in the tale, and a reasonable resolution. However, it would work better as a short story than it does as a flick because so much of it relies on clearly the internal struggle of Smit-McPhee’s character.

I honestly can’t recommend this, despite the effort, ideas, and the production values. It’s overlong and just not particularly engaging. Larney has some ability, however. If he can learn from this, I’d be curious to see what’s next.

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Mid Winter(ish) TV

I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…

Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.

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Mr. Mayor
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.

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Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.

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B Positive
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.

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The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.

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Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.

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Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

[3.5 stars]

When we left off series 12, there was a major cliff hanger and change was very much in the air. And, I will admit, that my opinion of this current season has improved a little after rewatching it in prep for this holiday special, which also serves as the technical end to the 12th series.

I’m going to have to be brief here as almost any discussion is going to be full of spoilers…and I’ve some really intriguing ideas of where this all may be going. It isn’t the best of the specials, but it is definitely a bridge to what’s to come.

And, like so many of the specials, the show landed a special cast to help spice it up. Harriet Walter (herself) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Soulmates) were fun additions. And the return of  Chris Noth reprising his series 11 character was initially concerning, but it ends up working in some fun and cheap ways. And, of course, John Barrowman finally making good on his earlier promise was a hoot. Honestly, he’s the best recurring character in the Who-verse. And, other than the Master, may be the most recurring.

But the real question is was it any good? The answer is mixed. This is neither a stand-alone nor a completely integrated episode. After taking another look at the rest of the season that leads to it, there is a certain amount of completion and resetting for the Doctor. Not all aspects of the story are dealt with in depth, or even believably in some ways, but she has to come to terms with all the new information and her own sense of self. And, frankly, there was a lot to take in. Time became meaningless and her isolation/imprisonment became a gift for her. But it is all solved pretty easily and the main plot, the Daleks, is ultimately a Macguffin (and a bit of a mirror) without a lot of teeth, despite some nice battle effects.

Who, as a series, is still going through its transition with Chibnall pulling hard on the reins taking her to a new path. And Chibnall is still learning how to be a show-runner at this level. I can see a destination that would blow people’s minds, but I honestly don’t know what he has in mind. The show is definitely playing a long game. I do continue to be on board to see what it may be. Most importantly, Jodie Whittaker continues to be entertaining and able to add depth to a character that has been around for over 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next series brings.

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Soulmates

[3 stars]

Soulmates starts with a fabulous premise: what if you could identify your soulmate? How would that affect current couples? How would it change how you date or your expectations. It doesn’t make life as simple as it would seem on the surface.

Unfortunately, after the great premise, and admittedly some interesting situations and events, frankly the show fails to meet expectations. In trying to be the answer to Black Mirror, and to stay in the mainstream, it also avoids all the other lovely complications that, say episode one of Weird City was more than happy to tackle, or even Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers. That said, the main writers/creators William Bridges (Black Mirror: USS Callister) and Roy Kent (Ted Lasso) are both very talented. I just don’t think they had the freedom or, perhaps, the guts to really tackle the possibilities.

Fortunately, the episodes are chock full of talent to carry off the stories they did offer. Some highlights are Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami), Malin Akerman (Rampage), Sarah Snook (Winchester), Bill Skarsgård (It: Chapter Two),  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Utopia), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things),  Tom Goodman-Hill (Residue, Humans), and Steven Mackintosh (Rocketman). You may have noticed a number of Europeans in that list… and you’d be right. It is part of the odd feel of the series as they are almost all playing Americans (or North Americans, at any rate).

I’m not saying avoid this series. It’s definitely thought provoking and often clever. It just didn’t quite meet the expectations it set for me given the writers involved and the foundation of the premise. But I’d love to see if they could grow on what they’ve started and really expand their thinking and risks in a second series. And, in the meantime, we get these six stories to whet our appetite.

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