Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Men in Black: International

[3 stars]

First you have to ask yourself: Did we really need another installment in this universe? We didn’t. The original trilogy, while never great writing, relied heavily on character over plot to make it work. And, more importantly, it wrapped up nicely. OK, moving on because they did make it…

This latest offering is entertaining, but feels more like a knock-off than a solid relaunch, despite some really good comic work by the Avengers duo Chris Hemsworth (Bad Times at the El Royale) and Tessa Thompson (Creed II). In fact, even with the addition of Emma Thompson (Lear), Liam Neeson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Rebecca Ferguson (The Kid Who Would Be King), and Rafe Spall (A Brilliant Young Mind) there is nothing really new or surprising here. That’s saying something with that kind of cast pile. And, again despite Thompson’s work, there is nothing like the characters that Smith and Jones created in the original material to draw us in both emotionally and plot-wise. I will admit that Larry and Laurent Bourgeois (aka Les Twins),  were done quite well, however. That high point was thanks to a combination of the actors with some excellent CG to make them both fascinating and menacing.

But the mediocre results aren’t just down to writing. There is also a major flaw in the structure of the movie…and I suspect it came down to a decision by director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) trying to find a way to kick the story into gear immediately rather than ease into it. It was a mistake. The opening starts 3 years in the past, then jumps 20 years in the past, and then comes to the present. The time shifts are not only mind bending to track but they also make it difficult to figure out what character is intended as the focus. It’s supposed to be Thompson, but the opening diminishes that. It could have been fixed by interleaving the two important plot points, but presented as two chunks from frame-open, it was a bad mistake.

That said, for some popcorn distraction this isn’t bad it just isn’t great. Compared to a lot of the sequels this summer, it’s actually a cut above. But I kinda wish they had just let the property die and done something new instead. Or at least found a new story to tell. If you like the universe, do catch this at some point. Sure it’s more of the same, but it will provide good distraction. It’s also certainly f/x heavy and will play better on the big screen if you have the time and desire. But if you’re not chomping to see it or don’t have the time, later on disc will probably do.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

[2.5 stars]

How often do you get a second bite at the apple? Even with all the time-travel in the X-Men universe, I never thought we’d get a chance to see Dark Phoenix after the horrible rendition of it in X-Men: The Last Stand. I mean, it was done, they’re not going to go back and pick it up again, right? Better to leave it buried and forgotten.

Well, nothing is ever really dead and gone in the MCU (or apparently Star Wars either). But why do you give this last of the pre-merger Marvel films to a basically untried director, Simon Kinberg? He may have a lot of producing and writing credits, including the previous two First Class films, but there was a lot to make up for after Apocalypse that no amount of Logan (or even Deadpool) was ever going to wash away.

So what we’ve been offered, as a wrap up to this cycle of X-Men, is a great idea with a talented cast, and some of the worst direction I’ve seen in a major in years. When Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), James McAvoy (Glass) and Michael Fassbender (The Snowman) can all come off as disingenuous, or worse: wooden, the director has failed them. (At least Lawrence managed to deliver the best line in the movie.) Even returning and proven up-and-comers Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Alexandra Shipp (Spinning Man), Evan Peters (Pose), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) felt disconnected from their previously portrayed versions of these younger X-Men. Sheridan, in particular, just had no leadership qualities whatsoever, and no chemistry with Lawrence.

Only Jessica Chastain (Woman Walks Ahead) and Scott Shepherd (Bridge of Spies), who were integral but not amongst the major characters, gave us any kind of performance. Neither was a brilliant performance, but at least they felt real. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), in the title character, was somewhere between the ineptitudes of her younger colleagues and these established two. In better directorial hands, she may have actually, fully delivered.

The story of the Dark Phoenix is legend, and Kinberg’s script had some really good ideas and structure…even some good dialogue. But the final delivery and handling of the material was amateurish, at best. The result isn’t quite as bad as Last Stand, which killed the franchise for years, but the damage is done. Should the X-Men be folded back into the Marvel Universe now that they’re all under the same banner again, they’ll have to wait for the disappointing taste of this movie to fade before they try again.

Ultimately, if you like this storyline and these characters, you do have to see this final installment (for now). It isn’t unwatchable, but it is lacking in the humor and emotion of the previous movies that made them work so well. It feels like they filmed a dress rehearsal rather than a full performance, with some characters just hitting their marks and saying their lines rather than acting. This all comes back to Kinberg who directed the takes and selected the edits. He just wasn’t ready for this kind of challenge, no matter how familiar he was with the story and involved with the earlier movies. I wish I could be more enthusiastic…I waited a long time only to be disappointed again. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.

Replicas

[1.5 stars]

How do you ruin an interesting idea? Well, first you throw a weak director at it, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who’s entire sense of credited science fiction is The Day After Tomorrow. Then you pass him a script by Chad St. John, who’s most recent flicks, Peppermint and London Has Fallen, were painful at times. And to top it off, put Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3: Parabellum) in the lead.

Reeves works in some roles, especially those where stoic is the anchor word for the character. But he requires a strong director to help him navigate a script with real emotion. He had no such help here and it shows. Even Alice Eve (Iron Fist) and John Ortiz (Peppermint), who have some proven range, can’t get past the bad stewardship of this story. Only Thomas Middleditch (The Final Girls) manages to come off as somewhat credible, but only because he’s playing himself…and he is more natural than credible in the role.

The movie is full of bad choices and contradictions, stupid decisions and ridiculous science. I mean REALLY ridiculous science that had me yelling at the screen. And it doesn’t just hit that science once as a Macguffin and run away. Oh no, it harps and harps on it, building upon shaky foundations with even more outrageous claims. And yet, with all that, the script doesn’t even attempt to get to the interesting aspects of the issues it raises, though it manages one clever choice in its 100ish minutes. This isn’t a horror tale masquerading as science fiction, nor is it philosophical conversation of the possibilities, like Ex Machina, it is simply a badly written, weakly executed waste of your time.

Brightburn

[3 stars]

Is there anything scarier than a 12-year old going through puberty? How about one with untried superpowers? The result is really more a horror flick than science fiction. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, if Keven were Kal-El, more than Carrie with a guy.

Jackson A. Dunn’s Brandon Breyer isn’t so much an anti-hero as anti hero. He plays it nicely deadpan, but with enough confusion about  his new “feelings” to make it recognizable. Elizabeth Banks (The Happytime Murders) and David Denman (Puzzle) struggle as his parents to deal with his oncoming adulthood, as every parent does. Their concerns are essentially the same, but the price of failure and miscommunication are just higher. Watching them navigate the situation is as much fun as watching their son begin to come into his own. It makes Brightburn at once a tense trainwreck of a horror film and a darkly funny metaphor for adolescence. And the costuming for Brandon’s alter ego is a wonderful and subtle gift.

Brightburn isn’t exactly drawing in a wide audience. In some ways, it is timely in the superhero glutted days of movies as counterpoint. But we, as a population, flock to superheros when things are bad and we need hope. Is it surprising that during today’s struggles most people want their heroes to be heroes rather than … well, not? Go to this for the evil glee and mayhem that it offers. It isn’t brilliant in script or direction, but it is solid and delivers what it intends without the stupidity on the part of characters that most horror films provide and rely on. Frankly, I had fun with it, even as I found it disturbing as heck.

Prospect

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help but think of Dark Star while watching this film, even though Prospect has much more action and story. The reason, I think, is that Prospect, like Dark Star, tries to show real life for the grunts out in the universe. In other words, it isn’t particularly quick-paced. However, it’s not a comedy, dark or otherwise. Prospect is a character-focused drama that takes place within an interesting world and set of challenges.

It is also, basically, a Western in space. Pedro Pascal  (Equalizer 2) doesn’t even try to hide that…in fact, he leans into it massively. Pascal uses Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s first feature (as writers and directors) to deliver overblown homilies and colorful language that seem at once self-conscious and, somehow, wholly believable thanks to Pascal’s consistency and talent.

But it is really Sophie Thatcher, in her feature debut, that holds everything together as we get to know her and her abilities, not to mention rooting for her survival. She is a strong female character who has layers we discover over time. At first, with her father, Jay Duplass (Beatriz at Dinner), Thatcher is the supportive, if frustrated, daughter. But it becomes apparent rapidly that she has much more going on.

As I said, this isn’t a fast film, despite its action. And it isn’t a great film, despite its ambitions and delivery. However, it is a good film if you trust it. Enjoy the characters and the complicated world that is presented. Caldwell and Earl don’t insult you by explaining too much and they allow the actors to shade in their stories around the edges of it all. You do have to be a science fiction geek to want to spend the time, but if you are, it is worth it. I’d love to see what they come up with next; it is so rare to see a story like this that isn’t ham-handed in its world-building.

Stargate Origins: Catherine

[2 stars]

Stargate was a fun and long-running show. Even its spin-offs managed to be entertaining, if not long-lasting. They never quite found the chemistry of the first show again, try as they might. So, when it ended, there was a sense of relief (much like when Enterprise finally died).

But studios are loathe to give up properties they think they can milk, and so Origins was born as a way to sell one of the first digital streaming services. This movie is a compilation of the that one-season attempt of 10-ish minute episodes. It is…well, not very good.

The story picks up a well known storyline from the original series and movie, and shoe-horns in a tale that, by the skin of their teeth and with obvious tricks, manages not to entirely blow up canon. But the acting is cardboard at best. The story is forced and retreads a lot of different aspects of the shows that came before. It is far from satisfying on its own, and leaves little sense of how they could build on the story. Especially true given how many of the holes have already been filled through our time-travelling and flashback buddies over the years in the previous series.

What is clear is that the brains and abilities that provided over a decade and three series of shows were nowhere to be seen. The look is similar and the background established, but the talent is a gaping void. In other words, the only reason to torture yourself with this movie is a sense of complete-ism. Expect to grit your teeth a lot and to feel you haven’t learned much of anything new or, for that matter, of value to the original series.

Stargate Origins: Catherine

Star Trek: Discovery vs Orville (Round 2)

[3 stars]

It is really impossible to talk about either of these shows without referencing the other. They are both reactions to the previous decades of Trek and are being run by competing ex-Trek production staff with (clearly) different visions. Their first seasons established unique directions and sensibilities from what we knew as Trek and from each other. However, both Discovery and Orville somewhat lost their way in their second series. Oddly, while at opposite ends of the spectrum (dark action vs satire), they both moved more centrist. In doing so, they both lost their edge and uniqueness but never quite gained the chops to carry off their more standard action/adventure sf intentions. And what makes them even more comparable again is that they tackled similar uber-arcs to their seasons, which I won’t discuss, but certainly stood out for me.

Let’s start with the official franchise. Discovery has drifted slowly and deliberately from its very bleak prequel universe. That darkness had really set it apart from previous series and allowed for some good characters, all of whom have now become somewhat bland. Worse, the move for the series was from a female dominated to a male dominated one; very disappointing. Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) is still the focus of stories, but she has taken a backseat to new arrival Anson Mount’s (Inhumans) Pike and other men on board rather than being the main driver of the action and plots. Her Vulcan-ness has likewise diminished, though I can see an argument for that choice. There was a drive for the first several episodes to inject wry humor to balance the sturm und drang, but it was often tossed off and felt forced, or simply got lost amidst more important information. Eventually, they just gave up. Basically, it has become more standard Trek and less something unique. In fact, in some ways this season as a whole could simply be titled The Search for Spock.

I have to admit, I had trouble letting go of the dark roots of Discovery’s first season’s going into the next iteration. And make no mistake, season two  is a whole different animal. In some ways I love the tight banter and wry humor, even if the audio mix often made it challenging to hear clearly. I like that they didn’t just forget season one, but grew on it, even though they remade the show entirely and left a lot of what made it something new, something not standard Trek, behind. Bryan Fuller’s vision for Discovery was refreshing for me. Even if he didn’t get to see it through, you could feel him in the bones of season one.

And then there was the season finale, which was unforgivable. Loaded with, and led to by, stupid choices and bad writing. It also had a critical element only from the Short Treks, which I’d not seen. The frustration is that if you’re going to make something an integral element of the season, it should be part of the season. Otherwise, it is fine to have nods and gifts from the other material (SHEILD and others have done this), but nothing core as not everyone would have the information necessary.

I will grant that the scope of the season, in terms of the overall plot and ongoing arcs, was impressive and gripping. It managed to be somewhat episodic and still have a much larger story pulling it along. But as a rehash of Enterprise’s failed attempt at the same idea it is full of the same kinds of plot holes and issues. It also took a stab at the now standard trope of revisiting the original series that began with the Tribbles episode in DS9; but they didn’t manage it effectively or with any real emotional weight.

But worse, depending on how they resolve the finale in the next season, the reset of the universe was more than a little cheap and frustrating (both in choice and method). I don’t quite know how they follow up this season in a satisfying way…but they have succeeded in bringing what was a brave new show back to the well-trod Trek center, and making it a lot less interesting.

The Orville has swung in from the opposite direction, trying to become more Trek and less satire of that genre. It essentially gave up what made it unique and left us with middling writing and lackluster plots for most of the season. However, a lot of that middling slog was worth it to get to Menosky’s Sanctuary, which picks up the Moclan tale from season one (Ja’loja) in earnest. It is loaded with guest stars and great moments and hits the exact balance of honest and satire that made the first season so much fun. It is also one of the few MacFarlane didn’t write this Sophomore season.

The final few episodes of the Orville season redeem it…right up through the finale. I am hoping that it indicates a recognition of where they drifted from their mission and that they will return renewed and refocused. Orville may never have been great, but it was entertaining and a good escape. Sure it catered to the geek crowd, especially in its humor, but it had potential. Making the Trek-like universe something a bit more realistic instead of aspirational in its society is not only a rising trend in the written genre, but a hunger in the audience who are tired of the sanitized worlds that had been on offer for decades.

Yes, I will be back for both of these shows, assuming both are back. Only Discovery is officially renewed as of this writing. There is potential in both and both shows have a willingness to take chances and change. I just hope they learned the right lessons from this past year.

Avengers: Endgame

[5 stars]

Who would have thought, watching that first tag at the end of Iron Man 11 years and 22 films ago, that today we’d be here? Talk about delayed gratification.

I didn’t rewatch all the films again, but I did rewatch all of Phase 3 in prep. Still an amazing trip. Thor is certainly the odd one out in flavor and Black Panther is still not my favorite (though its resonance has changed for me again in the last year with our own political mess), but as a whole the sequence continues the huge landscape and story. It has to be said, though he left after Age of Ultron, the success and structure of this audacious and incredible ride owes a huge amount to Joss Whedon’s grand vision of architecture.

And that is where this movie shines. Christopher Markus
and Stephen McFeely, writers of the entire Captain America sequence and Infinity War, landed this saga beautifully. It is a tight three acts loaded with humor and drama, and the biggest sequences since The Hobbit or Dunkirk in terms of battles. The Russos did a great job directing it all, never losing the pacing nor the sensibility of the characters. I can’t recall the last time an audience had so much spontaneous applause and tears.

Despite being over three hours, the movie doesn’t feel long at all. Every character gets their moments and resolutions and nothing is easy. And even the forced moments work because you want them to be there. Markus and McFeely also, almost, manage to get out of it all without a paradox, gap, or gaff. Just don’t pick at it too much, there was no way to avoid some of the issues they ran into. If there is any real ding on Endgame as a film, it is that it doesn’t and can’t stand on its own. Without the lead up (forgetting even the Infinity War cliffhanger) it would be obvious something is going on, but not what. That isn’t a bad thing for a finale, it just is being honest.

Anticipation couldn’t have been much higher for this movie, which concludes the emotional and character arc of Phase 3 of the MCU for so many characters and marks a change in direction for the stories. What that change will be remains to be seen in the official end to the Phase in Spider-Man: Far From Home. It has been floated that the overarching stories aren’t going to continue, though some characters are getting series on Disney+. I have to say, I am worried that they cannot sustain the franchise with that approach and thinking. It shows a lack of comprehension of what made the last 11 years one of the grandest adventures and experiments in movies.

I did see Endgame in IMAX 3D for this first go-round. It was worth it. The story is huge and gorgeously shot. The 3D is subtle rather than cheap most of the time. Most of the f/x are seamless, though some of the Hulk’s moments are a little threadbare. But definitely the way to go with this movie, at least once. Now, get yourself out there and see it before you get the story spoiled. You’ll only get to experience it once without knowledge, enjoy the surprises. And while there are video tags during the credits, there is an audio tag that is causing much discussion and little confirmation as to the meaning.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.