Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Identicals

I don’t mind weird, but I need a little bit of conclusion with my weird to make it pay off. This really didn’t have that.

Simon Pummell’s first fiction feature has the makings of something intriguing and the trappings of a solid, hard science fiction tale, but lacks answers as it spins out the story. It certainly was visually interesting, though his accompanying script was either cleverly minimal or purposely obtuse. The overall result was…head-scratching.

The film is driven by three main actors, of which Nora-Jane Noone (Brooklyn) is the only one who turns in any kind of performance. It isn’t a brilliant performance, but it has levels and change to it. The two main men, Nick Blood (Bletchley Circle, Agents of SHIELD) and Lachlan Nieboer (Charlie Countryman) are wooden at best and never particularly sympathetic. On the other hand, Tony Way (Edge of Tomorrow) turns in a bit performance that lights up the screen briefly.

Ultimately, this story is either hard sf or purely an allegory about inner struggles. It could be both in better hands, but neither manages to come together. Honestly, save yourself the time unless you really like experimental film that leaves you hanging. Mind you, I don’t think this was intended as experimental. I think Pumell over-cut or under-shot to make his point and got left with a movie without meaning.

Identicals

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead)

There is an interesting story somewhere in this script (and probably on the cutting room floor), but it doesn’t really come together on screen. The largely unknown cast is led by Dan Mor as a brooding rebel with mixed and muddled motivations. Pretty to look at, he doesn’t create a character we can invest in or root for because we never understand him or what he wants and needs to do.

Writer/director Jesse O’Brien really attempts to tackle the difficulty of bringing hard science fiction to the screen…with a healthy does of science fantasy on many points. I applaud him for not treating the audience like idiots, and for some interesting moments and storytelling. But, he needed a few more “connect the dots” revelations to help us put together the story he intended to tell. What we end up with is a nihilistic opening chapter in a larger tale about some kind of galactic war that never quite makes any sense. 

I did watch the whole film, because there was just enough to keep teasing me along that there would be answers. Frankly, I’d skip this. But if you are a real fan of Australian science fiction or want to sample a new director and see what he may be capable of down the road, it isn’t entirely unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying.

Alien Arrival

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes is the first of this rebooted series that I actually went to the theater for. Like many, I was massively dubious when Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit screens back in 2011. Why bother remaking what was a wonderful, if campy, bit of social science fiction from the 70s? And, like many, I was massively surprised by the result (even with its one really huge leap of logic).

Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback’s  script for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued to build on the world and characters, while improving the writing, and I got a bit more hooked. So I was willing to gamble on this third in the series, which had another Reeves/Bomback script, especially as the reviews were coming out massively positive prior to the release. And they’re not wrong.

This may be an action movie, but it is a movie first and action second. It is an intense piece of commentary on what it is to be human, what the value of war is, and how fundamentalist and biased beliefs, of any kind, on any side, only lead to destruction. Despite its 2.5 hour running time, it doesn’t feel long. And the final hour leading to the climax fairly bolts along. But without the heart beneath the skin of this film, it wouldn’t have worked.

Andy Serkis’s (Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens) Caesar is interesting to watch. Technology aside, it is about the directing by Matt Reeves and Serkis’s efforts. Caesar’s voice is practically flat through the film. His emotion is all in the eyes, mouth, and gestures, which is an interesting choice. It keeps him alien but accessible. We understand his emotions even if we don’t necessarily understand how he thinks all the time. It was a clever choice. It is also in direct opposition to Steve Zahn’s (Captain Fantastic) highly recognizable, and entertaining performance as Bad Ape. Or Karin Konoval’s emotive turn as Maurice.  

Wood Harrelson is the lone performance in this movie that I had trouble with. He isn’t quite intense enough, and yet also not laid back enough to feel believable. It is just a shade off, but it made him more a stock character, despite his rich backstory, than the charismatic leader he needs to be. It works, but I think they missed an opportunity for something truly impactful with him.

But this isn’t just about what’s new in the Apes universe. The movie is loaded with nods to the original series, which are fun to spot. The script never forgets it is a riff on something we might know well and it manages to reference major points without pulling you out of the tale they are telling. And their riff is a clever one indeed.

Something else to realize is that the film is definitely crafted for the big screen. It is loaded with wide, beautiful shots for both background and action scenes. It is also the kind of film that deserves to be supported because it is good; it isn’t just a hollow summer film. You’ll definitely have fun, be entertained, and even a bit touched. It completes the story begun in Rise, but allows for there to be future tales as well. Apes has everything you need and it is a step above a lot of the drivel summer usually throws at us. So get out and see this on the big screen. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Spider-Man: Homecoming

So here we are: the third bite at the apple for Sony. Say farewell to the Rami trilogy and the misfired Amazing Spider Man duo. I have to admit, when I heard this was all in the works, my enthusiasm was low. The trajectory of the character has been driven at Sony more by the drive to hang onto the rights than to make good films. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The fact is this reboot is really quite good and finally has a young kid playing Peter Parker at the right age for a change.

From the casting of Tom Holland (The Secret World of Arrietty) to starting off with The Ramones for the soundtrack to kick it all off, this co-release with Marvel really hit all the right marks. Holland is young enough to really feel like a gangling 15  year old who, limbs at all angles, fearlessly swings around NYC and environs trying to do good. He isn’t an antihero like Deadpool, but he isn’t the typical superhero either.

And this is where Marvel and the six credited writers (yes, six) really deserve some applause. They know that we’re fatigued with these films. They know that we find it all just a bit silly. They play into that idea, allowing Peter Parker to be both superhero and little hero. He bumbles around and is more an Everyman than ever before. It really helps sell the movie as both a fun ride and as something relatable. But they also weave him into the Avengers universe with clips from Captain America: Civil War so that we have context. It works wonderfully. But, most importantly, it isn’t entirely predictable. It keeps throwing in curve balls and surprises, and of course, humor. I have no idea who to really credit with all that given the number of people involved, but that it all works together with that many cooks is a feat unto itself.

Along with Holland are some great, supporting roles. Michael Keaton’s (Robocop) role is particularly nuanced. He starts in the prologue with solid motivation, and then, like many things, it morphs into something else. And the prologue is worth mentioning as it winds back the clock to just after the first Avengers movie, in a world shattered and newly aware of aliens and superheros. Spider-Man can play-out in parallel to the movies that followed, though the Civil War reference gives them a bit of a time paradox problem, but just blink through it and it won’t bother you too much.

There are other main adult roles. Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is sadly underused in this movie, though she definitely has some important moments, and is there in Peter’s mind at all times. Jon Favreau (Chef) however, gets a bit more screen time and his own little subplot through the movie. And Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets some moments as well. The biggest surprise in the adult cast for me was the very nice turn by Donald Glover (The Martian). I’ve like the actor for a while, but he delivered this part, small as it was, with great skill. There are other surprises as well, but I won’t expose them here.

The film really focuses, rightly so, on the younger cast. Jacob Batalon quietly carries a lot more of the story than you expect. Laura Harrier and Zendaya add some nice confusion and, let’s say goals for Peter Parker to focus on. Only Tony Revolori (Dope), really feels forced in this group. Here I mainly blame director Jon Watts (Cop Car) for not holding him in check.

This is a rocket-fueled adventure, but very much from an adolescent’s eyes, even if there is plenty for adults to both relate to and enjoy. It is a great addition to the Marvel Universe, but I am dubious that Sony will recognize what they have and keep their mitts off of it. We’ll see if they can sustain the franchise this time. They have made it clear it is only leaving their hands when they’ve turned to dust, so that means a movie every three years, regardless of quality or value. If I sound concerned, suffice to say that whispers from the industry already suggest that the future is heading off the rails, which would be a damned shame. They really have something here, and a star that can sustain them for a good long while before he’s too old to play the part. Here’s hoping they see that and protect it.

Meantime, go and give your summer a kick to get it rolling again after several weeks of disappointing releases.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Doctor Who (Series 10)

I have to say, despite how much I liked Sherlock, I’m glad to see Moffat quit of it so he could concentrate on Who and his final season of show-running here. While series 9 acquitted itself reasonably, and Doctor Mysterio was amusing, series 8 has still left a bad taste in my brain. Mind you, he is still not a great show-runner, but 8 suffered so badly from his distraction that having him focused was a better option.

Generally, there were a lot of echos from the first season of the reboot through the first half or more of this series. In some cases, clear steals and references, which was an interesting choice. There was also a clear purpose building through the season… though some of it was spread out rather frustratingly and sparingly. Given that The Doctor and Nardole are supposed to have been in their current positions for decades at the top of the season (which has some odd implications) the slow burn of the bigger arc is understandable.

The addition of our latest companion, Bill, was a nice choice on a lot of levels. She has attitude and smarts and, most interestingly, a life outside the Doctor in a way we’ve not seen before. But it isn’t a series that feels very complete, by the end. Despite some nice structures and some fabulous moments, as a whole it is middling. Peter Capaldi (World War Z) seriously attempts to elevate it all with his talents, which are considerable. But he was handed some very weak scripts, so he could only do so much. He and the, basically unknown, Pearl Mackie make a nice duet, with the returning and redoubtable Matt Lucas (Alice Through the Looking Glass) at their side. But there is an unfocused energy between them all that never quite finds its target.

Overall, it is an enjoyable season, but not brilliant. It tries very hard to be so, but falls short do to its ultimate trajectory. What follows are my reactions as the series ran, rather than as retrospective. As noted, they are spoiler rich, so watch the season first if you don’t want to know anything.

By the Episode (with spoilers)

The Pilot
A strong and interesting opening with a lot of potential. The introduction of relative newcomer, Pearl Mackie, to join Peter Capaldi is not a bad one. She comes in whole cloth, but with enough mystery to drive stories and interest. She is energetic and intelligent. Interestingly, it also unabashedly echos a lot of Rose, the first of the series reboot from 12 years ago.  Perhaps the title is a subtle wink to that as well? Pearl Mackie as Bill has a lot in common with Piper’s Rose; primarily class, sass, drive. The use of the alarm clock sequence, in particular, evokes that launch explicitly. Adding some diversity to the new story was good, even if it feels a little forced (not just female, but black and lesbian). I think the most fun of the episode is the nods all the way back to the show’s roots with Susan’s photo making a prominent appearance (and doesn’t that raise possibilities).

The tale of the episode itself is minimal and, typical of Moffat, thin on reason, but it is clearly all about setting up the series arc. I can live with that if they pay it off. I’m certainly interested to see where it goes and what the heck is in that vault and why. Eventually, it would be good to know why the Doctor singles her out as well (wild guess is that she is Susan’s descendant). For the moment it has been dismissed, but I suspect it has a more pivotal aspect to it. And, one hopes, we’ll understand the reason for the retention of Matt Lucas’s Nardole as having a continued role in the Doctor’s life as the series continues.

Smile
Continuing with allusions to the original Rose arc, we are now in the far-future of humanity after starting with near term. However, with this episode, something new becomes clear. Where previous seasons were episodic, this series appears to be a single, long, unending story. Each, at least for now, tale picks up from the last moment of the previous. The original series did this often, and even some of the reboot, but usually as bridges into the new tale, not like they’ve just moved to the next line in the script. It will be interesting to see if this continues and how it develops. It certainly will affect the pacing.

The story of Smile is intriguing and fun. But another aspect of this series is exposed in how the tale is told. We aren’t really meeting the affected parties and getting to know them much. We are just focused on Bill and The Doctor. Sure they are trying help others, but in the first two episodes, no secondary characters really become important or take shape. It makes the stories feel thin and the pace feel rushed. It may still even out, but it is an interesting change from the recent past (classic often did this). Those secondary characters fill out each new world for us. We also seem to be back to the TARDIS is lost in space in time again, but that may be a short feint.

Thin Ice
With this episode, the series seems to be hitting its stride. We get a nice balance of secondary characters to invest in, and a bit more of the overall mystery of the vault, or at least a tease about it. Bill also gets to fast-forward through a lot of the Doctor’s reality regarding his past and the spectre of death that does seem to dog him thanks to the situations he puts himself in.  This aspect has been a main plot driver for several of the companions, stretched over a season.

The episode is still oddly locked to the Rose season, however. Rather than Dickens (in person) and ghosts for its third episode, we end up with Oliver Twist and monsters. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this quite yet, but I’ll keep tracking it. But there are certainly resonances with previous seasons, down to the last moment with the knocking (think The Sound of Drums and the final Tenant episodes).

Knock Knock
Wow, really? The only thing of value in this episode, other than getting to see David Suchet (Poirot), was the final tag back at the vault. But to the episode first. It is a bit of a stretch to claim the parallels with Rose’s first season continue. While they are tracking to time period (we’re back in modern London with Bill bringing the Doctor into her life as Rose did in Aliens in London), the tale is somewhat different, though the personal fallout might not be. The episode itself was a weird cross between The LodgerThe God Complex, with a bit of Ghost Light (from the Classic series). Really didn’t much care for the whole haunted-house-but-really-aliens thing. Far too overdone at this point and they brought little new to it. More importantly, this episode didn’t much advance Bill and the Doctor’s relationship, though he dropped some hints on regeneration and such for her sake. Not an unwatchable episode, but not a memorable one either. It makes me wonder why they bothered with the enhanced sound release of it… though interesting and well done, I can’t say it made it particularly better.

Back to the vault…So, guessing at this point at Missy or Susan in the vault (both for reasons unknown). We shall see.

Oxygen
There is some solid stuff in this episode, though it really all about working toward a rather hard to earn a solid (if cringe-worthy) pun: working for the suits. It is another, literally, breathless episode with the terror and danger starting near the top and driving through… mostly so you won’t think too much about the facts. In the midst of all that, we get some good moments, particularly with the blue alien, but we don’t really get to know any of the secondary characters (again) and the faked death of Bill was cheap, even if it was obvious. The episode is really more about Nardole and The Doctor debating about and sparring over the vault and his “duty.” Honestly, I’d prefer little end tags to pull this along as the embedded bits are feeling rather forced and tacked on to stories pitched in a vacuum to the larger arc.

We are drifting more from the direct season one framework, which is good. The essential of this episode is for Bill to realize just how dangerous it all is (about on par with when Rose comes to the same discovery). Of course, if you realize that this season will have only 12 episodes rather than 13, we are in direct sync (as this would map to Dalek). Perhaps I’m stuck too much on this idea, but it was such a strong parallel at the top, I’m not quite ready to give it up. Sound continues to be a challenge for me… between the speed of the dialogue and the timbre of their voices, a lot of what the Doctor and Bill say is getting lost. BBC sound mixing has always been a challenge for my ears, it is just more so with this series.

Extremis
Well, first: Yippee, yes it was Missy! Not that I’m overly thrilled to have the Mastress back in the game (though I do like Missy quite a bit) but I do like being right even if I prefer to be happily surprised. As to this set-up/reset episode, I guess I can’t blame Moffat for doing exactly what Davies did on his last run: put everything at stake. As we’ve drifted off the Season 1 structure fairly completely now (unless Bill is somehow a Bad Wolf surrogate and this new enemy is stands in for the Daleks which hit series one at this point) we are seeing more the compression of Davies first 4 seasons forced into a single series.

I do have to say that I object to the ongoing blinding of the Doctor. Feels like Moffat is trying to do a Death of Superman thing, but suspect it is more about redeeming Missy unequivocally through some form of major sacrifice or merging of the last two time lords (though they aren’t any more, are they?). In any event, it is a good and creepy sort of premise. Nothing new, but interestingly laid out even if the baddy allowed the Doctor to monologue and send his email (sloppy writing).  And I have to admit the opening teaser was a beautiful misdirect, though ultimately a cheat (it was just a dream… sort of). We’re halfway through and now we have what appears to be the major arc. We’ll see what comes next.

Pyramid at the End of the World
We’re finally into something new in this series. The vampiric Monks (or that’s how I think of them at present) are intriguing and creepy. The rules around them aren’t well known yet and this episode is very much incomplete, leaving Nardole dying, infected, on the Tardis floor and, of course, Bill having made a deal with the devil. And to that latter bit…it didn’t feel very real to me. One of the disadvantages of the pace of this season is that we aren’t getting the relationship building time and appreciation between the Doctor and Bill. She’s been very much on the outside of things due to the vault, etc. So for her to sacrifice not just herself, but the entire world on the assumption that the Doctor will get them back out of it? Nope, not buying into it right now. At least the Doctor can see again (somehow) but guessing Missy is gong to be necessary to free the Earth. All that said, there are some clever bits to the story, we’ll just have to see how it plays out and for how long… are they really going to stretch this to the finale? Or is Moffat saving Missy for something bigger down the road?

The Lie of the Land
This episode gets a huge pass for many of its faults for the climactic “Welcome to Fake News Central,” nailing home unequivocally its political agenda and commentary. Absent that, it is the few, spare moments with Missy that sell this tale (and the small tipoff to the series finale in the teaser), because the rest is rushed and so hand-wavy as to frustrate the heck out of me, though I did like the setup of Bill’s mum being paid off.  There is no real logic or good explanation of how the Monk’s machine works or how it is defeated. There is no explanation as to why or what the Monk’s get from conquering a world. There is no reason given why, after investing so much time watching the “threads” of possibility that they would stop doing that and be so easily defeated. I was expecting this thread to carry forward a bit longer, so now I’ve no clue what comes next, other than more Missy and the possible redemption of the Mastress. Clearly Moffat is going big for his final series…  With only four to go, I’m looking forward to seeing if he can pay it all off.

The Empress of Mars
I never really felt the need to revisit The Tomb of the Cybermen, but this Mark Gatiss (Denial) take on the idea with the Ice Warriors has its moments. Few, admittedly, but a few. One of the nicest aspects is the guest spot of Anthony Calf (The Man Who Knew Infinity). With very little screen time, he provides you a complete character and story. Frustratingly, no one else really does, including the Doctor and Bill. The final moment, and the return of Alpha Centauri (including the original voice of Ysanne Churchman), was a nice nod to the Peladon sequence, though I do wonder if this didn’t break that bit of history in some way. However, really the whole excuse of this episode is to get Missy out of the vault… and perhaps next week we’ll know why the Tardis went nutty when Nardole went into it. This is the breath before what I expect to be the final run to the series and Moffat finale. We’ll see if they can redeem Missy and give the Doc a good send-off (cause, even if you didn’t know it, it has become obvious he’s about to regenerate — nicely tipped at the top of the previous episode).

Eaters of Light
Easily the best episode of the season so far. It had characters, scope, depth, humor, and sure the crow thing was wonderful, surprising, and silly all at once, but it worked. And, yes, the time sense of in the portal and out got a bit mucked, but loved the idea and resolution. They even got the full regeneration statement in this time; so even if you didn’t know what was coming, you know what is coming now. This is the Doctor I miss. Great stories and characters. And even though the Missy bit was a little squeezed in, it was a wonderful scene. With only two left to go, I’m really hoping this is indicative.

World Enough and Time
Seriously, did you need any more hint than the title? OK, then the opening moments should have sealed it. How those moments relate to the story that followed…I’ve no idea yet. In fact, I was somewhat annoyed that we started there and then looped back. Again. OK, annoyance aside, the setup of the tale with the time dilation is fabulous. Great idea and it starts off wonderfully. Wasn’t crazy about Missy’s dialogue, funny as it was, because she just didn’t feel ready, so why would the Doctor have sent her out there with his companions? But conceptually it was great.

John Simm’s (Doctor Who 6) as, initially, the Zathras-like character is a hoot. Also, pulling off the reveal like the old Classic Master (the ripping away of the disguise) was also a nice touch. I do have to admit I was waaaaay ahead on where it was generally going having recognized the face coverings from the first incarnation of the Cybermen. I feel like this rewrites the history of Mondas, but I honestly don’t recall what the genesis story of them was. I’m sure some geek will dig it out and call Moffat out on it if it exists.

Of course, the top-line story here now is the 2 Masters. Not sure how I feel about that yet. Probably necessary to get Missy redeemed. She literally has to battle herself. And the fate of Bill is very much in the air as we know of no way to reverse the process she’s been through (based on 50+ years of the show).

So, we know what’s coming now, without question, in the next episode. These new elements raise the stakes and muddy the waters all at once. We are no longer just worried about Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor…the focus is primarily about the Doctor and the Master.  Certainly there were enough speeches about who Time Lords could be friends with over the last season (even if that is a feint). Hoping Moffat doesn’t pay for his surprise by blowing his final season by losing track of the heart of the Doctor. We shall see…

The Doctor Falls
And if the last titled show wasn’t enough, this makes it clear from the outset what is coming. And yet it wasn’t. I’ll come back to that. First I do want to say it was nice to see The Pilot come back, even if making her a Deus Ex Machina to save Bill was cheap and not provided enough foundation…and they’ve set up the Doctor to have a similar possibility. The rest of the episode, however, was so rushed.

We start again with a tease (different to the previous episode), loop back, and ultimately find ourselves unsatisfied and without an ending. There is no basis for Capaldi’s wonderful speech of “not wanting to change anymore.” The Masters, though they have a fun confrontation, don’t resolve Missy’s plot-line nor her redemption. The final moments of the Hartnell look-alike are just painful. And I’m pretty damned sure that the evolution of the Cybermen and the storyline violate galactic history as we know it.

Basically, it was a confused mess, even if it had some nice moments. You can’t keep teasing an audience with a regeneration and then not deliver. It is bad entertainment and breaks the contract. Now it seems we have to wait for the Holiday episode to see what and (W)ho happens next, which is a change as well. The holiday was usually used to bridge the series and, when needed, the new Doctors. I can’t say I felt fulfilled by this finale, but I will be glad to be quit of Moffat next year. He has never understood how to run an uber-arc in a story, even if his individual scripts can be quite good. And now he has really ticked me off and lost the last of my trust.

Doctor Who

Okja

I have to say, I was glad I had a meatless dinner before seeing this movie, and I suggest you do the same. Like his previous Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong has written and directed another ecological warning, and done so with style and a critical eye on both sides of the conversation. In many ways it is the perfect melding of Snowpiercer and his previous The Host. Okja is one part Disney animal adventure, one part E.T., and one part Delicatessen.

Unlike Snowpiercer, however, Okja takes place pretty much in our world, with a mild twist, which makes it all the more disturbing when it wants to be. It follows a young girl, Seo-Hyun Ahn, as she fights for her friend with a bit of outside help from Paul Dano (Swiss Army Man), Steven Yeun (I, Origins), Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), and others.

Driving the plot, Tilda Swinton (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) creates another unusual character, but not one as outlandish as some of her previous roles. Her twins are just this side of normal, though clearly at the edge of sane behavior. On the other hand, Jake Gyllenhaal (Life) creates a broken ex-star struggling with his choice of survival. It isn’t his most compelling turn, though it is an hysterical send-up of Geraldo Rivera. There is also the irrepressible Shirley Henderson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) as Swinton’s assistant trying to tread water in an ever-changing environment.

The movie is full of fun and adventure, but it pulls no punches about its targets. It is also willing to beat up its leads with a bit more realism than you may be used to for a film with a child lead. You are never quite allowed to just sit and relax, but the messages are all buried in the story. By the climax, which hits hard and unapologetically, you are on board and seriously considering what to do about it all in your own life. The story even continues to unspool through the final moments and one bit after the credits, but it doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Okja was every bit worth the wait. Beautifully filmed, it will deliver on small or large screen, but finding it on the large screen is unlikely. So tuck in with Netflix and enjoy this newest Joon-ho Bong adventure.

Okja

Blame!

Director Hiroyuki Seshita (Ajin) re-paired with his Knights of Sidonia writer, Sadayuki Murai to deliver this latest manga adaptation. It is full of the same cinematic animation and action you’d expect, given his past efforts. The story is rich…or at least implies richness, and this is where it weakens.

Blame clearly has a much bigger world and story to tell. This 105 minute movie is forced into its short frame in order to tell one small section of that. However, to do so there are a lot of assumptions and many gaps in explanation. It is still engaging, but I think I felt more curious about the world when it ended than when it began. Though, from what I’ve read so far, the manga by Tsutomu Nihei may be just as incomplete story-wise. I have to admit, I am curious to seek it out now to see how the two may come together better than either alone.

While definitely a beautiful piece of anime, don’t expect complete satisfaction from the movie. That said, if it is the first of a set of installments, it may be a great launch to a series of films in this world.

BLAME!

iBoy

Every story is allowed one really big lie. I’ve said it before, but it is really necessary to restate for this movie because it has one really big leap you have to make in order for it all to happen. Happily, once it does, it is actually a reasonable tale of teenage heroics and recognition that the world, very often, just sucks.

Director Adam Randall’s sophomore outing of writer, Joe Barton’s (Humans) adaptation is definitely aimed at a younger audience. Despite that, it is willing to (lightly) tackle some tougher subjects.

Bill Milner (Broken) carries the film well. We watch him come into his own as a young man, though not quite adult. His story, as a physical metaphor for adolescence, is actually pretty good. Silly at times, but good. In the other young lead, Maisie Williams (Doctor Who)  continues to broaden her cv away from Game of Thrones. Her performance here is compelling, but is certainly held back by the material from exploring all aspects and reactions to her situation. But, again, this is for a younger audience, so I gave her a pass on that.

Thrown into this mix of young folks surviving the projects are two main adults: Miranda Richardson and Rory Kinnear (Man Up). Without them, the story would have ended up feeling  like a comic book. They add just enough from the real world to make the story feel almost possible.

For a fun distraction with action, humor, and some fanciful leaps of faith, it really is a good distraction by some solid talent.

Miranda Richardson in iBOY

The Discovery & 13 Reasons Why

Both The Discovery and 13 Reasons Why ask the same two questions: What is life? Why stick around for it? They come to roughly the same answers, though by very different routes.

The Discovery does this through the lens of science fiction. It asks: What if we knew there was something after death? And then it goes on to explore the impact, but tries to remained focused on the smaller stories. It is a rumination on “what if,” bordering on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in feel.

13 Reasons Why does this from the 7th circle of Hell, otherwise known to most people as: High School. 13 Reasons tries to expose the realities of teenage perspective by offering up multiple stories and, potentially, the different variations of truth to them as we learn more. Ultimately, this is more a tale in the vein of Veronica Mars than it is a deep psychological expose, more structured as entertainment than open discourse, but it manages to make its points.

Their overlapping discussions of suicide make them a natural and topical pairing.

In The Discovery, suicide becomes a real, and less scary option for many people. Frankly, I think probably on a much bigger scale than the show posits. The script doesn’t try to simplify the risks or answer questions unequivocally, but it does nicely, if narrowly, follow enough characters to explore the idea.

Robert Redford (Pete’s Dragon), Jason Segel (The Muppets), and Rooney Mara (Lion) topline this intellectual thought experiment. With such a great cast, and a neat premise, it could have been so much more. But it is still engaging and thought provoking. And the ending is anything but passive for the viewer.

13 Reasons Why has a number of strong performances, but the primary standouts are Kate Walsh, Katherine Langford, and Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps). Walsh delivers a solidly heart-breaking performance of a mother dealing with loss and guilt. Langford lays out a progression of decisions and emotional fractures that help you follow her path, if not totally agree with the results–all the more impressive as it is her lead acting debut. And Minnette is a perfect “every kid” lost in the political tides of adolescence and inside his own head.

It is the confluence of these presentations that makes them so interesting to me. Either alone would have been something to notice. But two major releases, and even other shows like Transparent jumping onto the suicide depiction train (and there are many, many more, like Collateral Beauty), speaks to a subject in the air that needs dealing with in some way. Perhaps the documented rise of clinical depression over the last six months, particularly in women, is part of the explanation.

Regardless of the deeper zeitgeist, both of these streams deserve your time for their performances and their ideas. As to the bigger picture…time will tell.

The Discovery 13 Reasons Why