Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.

Underwater

[2.75 stars]

From three minutes into this movie it’s just a suspense run. Not a particularly surprising one, but fairly well engineered to keep you on the edge. Of course, that’s often mucked up by the challenge of figuring out who’s in trouble when and where since so much of the time they’re in heavy gear, but that’s a different aspect to discuss.

Certainly, at least, Kristen Stewart (Charlie’s Angels) provides a relatively strong lead. She’s even somewhat believable as the mechanical engineer “sciencing the shit” out of stuff to survive. OK, really more Macgivering it, but you get the idea. The others… well, you do have to wonder why the hell the company even allowed them on their multi-billion dollar rig in the first place. I couldn’t figure out their value-add or purpose even by the end of the movie.

Her colleagues are a diversity panel’s dream, for no particular reason. They all do fine with what they have, but what they have isn’t a lot. Vincent Cassel (Jason Bourne), Mamoudou Athie (The Front Runner), Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist), and even the cypherish John Gallagher Jr. (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) create characters with some depth and sympathy, if not credibility. Only TJ Miller (Deadpool) is less than a complete person, serving entirely for comic relief that feels very out of place and makes him seem a fool.

Basically, this is a bit of Abyss meets Cloverfield meets Alien meets, oh, figure it out for yourself if you dare. It’s a 90 minute romp with a  lot of fun effects, some good scares, and an absurdly thin plot. Director William Eubank (The Signal) didn’t really bring what talent of his I’ve seen before, other than the pacing. And the script by Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) just didn’t hold together well. But it may be enough to get you through.

And, yes, my rating is splitting a lot of hairs, but I just couldn’t live with giving it three stars given all the plot and other issues. What I will say, however, is that it’s certainly a story of heroism and drive; for that it got to survive. And the “Live Bunny Montage” on the extras is definitely worth the viewing after the flick.

Away

[3.5 stars]

Movies of all types have been trying to capture the challenge of space travel for years… and, for some reason, even moreso in the last few years. From Passengers, to First Man, to Ad Astra, or even Aniara, they all run into the same challenge: being in space may be pretty, but it’s boring. This is what Dark Star tackled decades ago, though with a great deal more tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t to say that these movies were bad or boring, but that they manufactured tension to embrace and carry that basic reality. And only Aniara comes at all close to the truth, though aspects of the others include it.

With that as prologue, consider Away. There is a lot about its science that is, let’s just say creative, but they try to capture that trapped sensibility and the challenge of the time of flight. The result is mixed and just a tad soapy. Even with some really good performances carrying it along, and some nicely mirrored plots Earth-side and on board the ship, it all feels forced and improbable in the results. Which doesn’t make it bad, just not particularly accurate much of the time. For instance, even an international coalition is going to be sure that the crew all get along and are solidly stable, because they want it to succeed.

In between tense, potential disasters that are manufactured each week, the story revolves around several relationships. Primarily  it is around Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) and her husband, played nicely by Josh Charles (Freeheld). In a world of entertainment where married couple stories are about marriages at odds, this is a supportive relationship that is strained by their very concerns for each other. Their daughter provides a young-love perspective as well, which Talitha Eliana Bateman (Geostorm) and Adam Irigoyen (The Last Ship) navigate to varying degrees of credibility.

The rest of the crew have both inter-personal challenges and revelations of their past. Vivian Wu, Ray Panthaki (Colette), Ato Essandoh (Tales from the Loop), and Mark Ivanir each get their moments and without whom the rest would have been boring.

But ultimately the real question is: Is it worth taking the journey with Away? And, generally, I’m going to say, yes. Even with the “adjusted” science and forced events, it’s a tense, but entertaining 10 episodes delivered by a talented cast and some unexpected maturity in the relationships. And it is a rare, solid example of near-term science fiction. It also definitely feels like something new and different, and it can stand on its own or go forward. Frankly, I kinda hope they will leave it as a stand-alone event series and not try carry the story any further. It made its point and can only get repetitive or become pale reflections of other shows and movies that have come before. If they chose to leap forward a number of years, there are possibilities, but I’m not sure what it planned.

Freaks: You’re One of Us (Freaks: Du Bist Eine Von Uns)

[3 stars]

I love that we are looking more and more at the dark side of superhero-dom. Mind you, we’re in danger of getting as swamped with those kinds of movies as we are the more earnest versions. But it’s nice to have some balance.

And Freaks is a bit more than just an anti-superhero tale. It’s a bare philosophical metaphor for mental illness and otherness in general. The argument can be made that almost all superhero stories are about otherness, but they often bury it or ignore it entirely in their stories, leaving it to critics to make the case. Freaks makes it front and center.

Though it is played for honesty, particularly by Cornelia Gröschel in the lead as a struggling, young parent, it drifts into a rather arch confrontation and events. Her counterpart, Tim Oliver Schultz, in particular, spirals pretty far afield from the grounded beginning. The result ends up being more like a TV pilot than a movie. That doesn’t make it bad. It’s very entertaining and relatively well thought-through. The approach does, however, make it less than it could have been.

The TV feel to the overall shape is partially due to director Felix Binder, who’s spent most of his career in the smaller venue and pushing shows. He made a lot of choices that were reflections of that experience. On the other hand, some of the success to the result also goes to writer Marc O. Seng, who wrote several of the episodes for Dark.

Basically, Freaks is a fun distraction for an evening. It trods well-known ground, but finds a way to keep it feeling fresh and provides characters to keep us interested.

Red Dwarf: The Promised Land (series 13)

[3 stars]

Way back in 1988, an outrageous show began with the spilling of a bowl of gazpacho. 32 years and 13 series later,  it’s still carrying on with a fan base to help it stay on its feet.

In their latest series, much like series 9’s Back to Earth, it’s a single, movie-length story rather than a bunch of episodes. Is it brilliant? Well, no, but it is a solid callback to its roots and with their particular vein humor that you’ll recognize.

Sure, you can write some of the dialogue before it’s even spoken, but that’s part of the comforting charm if you’re a fan. And comfort comedy is something very necessary these days. So heat up a vindaloo and pull up a seat for an evening of fun and silliness; if you’ve been looking for a Red Dwarf fix, this will scratch that itch. And if you’ve never found Red Dwarf, go back to the beginning and enjoy the ride… this will be waiting for you when you’re ready.

Red Dwarf Poster

Biohackers

[3 stars]

Germany is really producing some fun TV lately (think Dark). This newest, high-concept scifi conspiracy tale really works well… till near the end, when it’s a bit rushed and predictable. But up till then, the plot is nicely pushed along organically and without too much manipulation.

Luna Wedler, in the lead, manages to convey an intelligent adversary to her target, the coldly manipulative and driven Jessica Schwarz. And, of course, there’s a band of misfits helping it all along. And while Jing Xiang and Sebastian Jakob Doppelbauer are hopelessly silly through part of it, they are also entertaining as heck. Xiang, in particular, handles piles of monologue wonderfully. On the other hand, the more serious connections for Wedler are bit less clear in their motivations. Though they have depth, neither Adrian Julius Tillmann nor Thomas Prenn are entirely believable in their actions.

On the upside, this story was renewed, so we’re not to be left hanging on the final moments of the 6 episode wind-up. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty good ride, told in a way that didn’t put my teeth on edge with people being willful-stupid about those around them, or not speaking up when they should. In other words, most of the characters had some clear intelligence and lived in our world (science aspects aside). Definitely worth an investment of your time if you like these kind of shows.

Bloodshot

[3 stars]

For a distracting bit of action silliness, with some potential, this isn’t awful. It isn’t great either, but that has much to do with Jeff Wadlow (Truth or Dare?) and Eric Heisserer’s (Bird Box) somewhat bumpy script more than anything else.

This movie is the poster child for the challenge of where to begin a story. It has a 13 minute lead-in before the credits, which was an immediate alarm bell. Ultimately, I understood their choice, but it didn’t help the credibility of the movie. However, they did manage to get it to hold together, even if the flow of it (and some of the dialogue) were rough. Frankly, given their talent, I was little surprised by the end result.

The center of it all, as if you couldn’t tell, is Vin Diesel (The Fate of the Furious), who’s been searching for a new franchise and chasing the ghost of his first action-(anti)hero Riddick since he broke out. He’s never quite nailed another character that well, even taking Fast and Furious into account. He has the charisma and the attitude to carry this story, but he’s surrounded by uneven performances that range from mustache twirling to outrageous.

In the former group, Sam Heughan (Outlander) is the major offender. Guy Pearce (A Christmas Carol) comes in a close second, but his performance is more nuanced at times. In the latter, though he works in a weird way, is Lamorne Morris (Game Night) thanks to his comedy chops.

I imagine that first-time feature director Dave Wilson (Love, Death, & Robots) thought he could afford the extremes at the edges with Diesel and Eiza González (Paradise Hills) holding it together calmly in the center. He was wrong. It almost worked, but comic book adaptations are a challenge to start, and they only work in earnest. The second you give into the crazy, you distance the audience…unless that is the entire style of your flick.

All that said, I had fun and was entertained. It isn’t brilliant and won’t ever be the franchise Valiant or Diesel hoped for, but it isn’t a total waste of a night if you want a new story or enjoy the actors involved. Just keep the popcorn handy and be prepared to groan a bit till you understand the story… and then groan some more as it tries to wrap it all up.

An odd assortment for many tastes

Here’s a potpourri of material for all kinds of tastes. Though, admittedly, not all are easy to get your hands on.

Mysteries:

Ultraviolet
Not the movie (which isn’t so good), nor the vampire series (which isn’t so bad), but a Polish mystery series. It’s not quite a cozy series, but it isn’t a deeply effective procedural. The mysteries drive it along, but it’s just as much about the band of misfits solving crimes as it is the criminals. They also take a nice sharp left at the end of first season and into the second that shows they were working hard to keep it going. And while the second series isn’t a complete cliff-hanger, we’re still waiting to hear if it is renewed to continue the tale. Even so, there is enough closure that it is entertaining and gets better as it goes along.

Van Der Walk
A 2020 reboot of the 1970’s series, with Marc Warren (Revengers Tragedy, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) in the title role. The mysteries are interesting, but not brilliant. It’s the characters and the interplay that keep it intriguing.

McDonald & Dodds
Another amusing detective odd couple story, with a few overwrought characters thrown in. Dodds, played by the wonderful character actor Jason Watkins, is the absolute center of these stories…all by being quiet and steady in the midst of chaos. Paired with relative newcomer Tala Gouveia, the two navigate a strained relationship into something quite a bit more interesting. Were it not for their Super, James Murray (6 Underground), being written like an outright fool, the show could really fly. As it is, the two episode inaugural series is fun, and I look forward to its return, but I hope they get the writing more under control.

YA Science Fiction: 

The Cul de Sac
This is a far from perfect Kiwi YA fantasy/sci-fi adventure, but with a nicely evolving mystery and characters. It’s still written for tweens, so don’t expect brilliant plotting and complex emotions, but do expect some amusing dialogue. The first two series built on each other nicely. I’m hoping the third series will wrap it all up nicely, though I suspect it won’t entirely. It will likely be a year before it is available to stream or buy as they seem to be being trickled out after their wrap in NZ a couple of years back. As a short distraction, at 6 ep. seasons/22 min. each, it’s entertaining.

Documentary:

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Do you know who Freestyle Love Supreme are? Well, this will tell you something of them, but not really showcase their talents. It’s a docu best seen by fans of the improvisational rap group or, individually, like Lin Mañuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns). It is really more a tale of how  show comes into being, with some insights into what it’s like to be a performing theatre creative in NYC.

The Go-Go’s
On the other hand, this music documentary is really very good and engaging. I wouldn’t have thought that the rise, and fall, and rise of the Go-Go’s would be able to keep my attention. But Alison Ellwood’s documentary is cleverly edited, and and the band are very open about their journey. In addition, Ellwood puts it all in great, historical context, following these young women and their influences and influence. This is a story about young women as well as about the music industry. It also is surprisingly reflective of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains–or, perhaps, not so surprising, though that movie was completed before The Go-Go’s even hit their peak.

Project Power

[3.5 stars]

It ain’t perfect, but it is a great ride and tightly put together by Nerve duo Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. (The two were also responsible for the unexpected docu Catfish.) The story is an alternating tale of high-octane and quiet exchanges tied up in a nice riff on the superhero genre.

While Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Snowden) and Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) top line the movie, and they’re both great in their parts, it’s relative newcomer Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give) who is the spine of the film. She is quietly and wonderfully in control, even when put off-balance. There is a real sense of survival and savvy in the way she talks, moves, and commands the screen. And the woman’s got flow.

The movie also has levels, though unlike See You Yesterday which takes on some of the same societal scope and perspective, this is done in pure earnest. It’s a straight-up sci-fi actioner with all the pluses and minuses that can include. You just have to buy the science and enjoy the silly that ensues. Interestingly, up till this year I would have thought the loose tale that holds it all together with Amy Landecker (Beatriz at Dinner) at the head and Rodrigo Santoro (Focus) as her lackey, was utterly absurd. But, I can’t say that anymore. That isn’t a credit to up-and-comer Mattson Tomlin’s script so much as the timing, but it still works.

For some big screen distraction on your small screen at home, this will do. It’s fun, funny at times, interesting, and set up for sequels without feeling like it was unfinished. It also plays with the comic book sensibilities of the superhero craze in some refreshing ways. No one in this movie is wholly good or evil, even when their goals are laudable or not. Well, OK, the evil are pretty much just evil, but the good guys are a lot grayer than usual. If both sides had been handled that way, it would have been a truly great film, but I’ll take entertaining.

Project Power Poster

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (finale series)

[4 stars]

Ever since Agent Coulson went to TAHITI in The Avengers, his history and his involvement with SHIELD was a deep well of interest. Actually, it really began back with Thor, but we didn’t know what was coming at that time for his character.

Many shows will do a retrospective for their finale, recapping and calling back to the full run of their series. SHIELD did them all one better by taking their entire last season to walk through their history…and remake it even as they paid homage to it. It was a ballsy move, but one well within the parameters they had set up over the previous runs. To their credit, the choices also filled in and answered issues, particularly around the end of last season, which was quite the wild ride in and of itself. But that finale, as fun as it was, felt more than a little forced and manipulated. Now we know why.

Admittedly, the series as a whole itself is uneven, and has more than a few issues over its 7 seasons. But, generally, it was a great ride and fed into a desire for more things Marvel…that were tangential to the massive movie monster that dominated the last 12 years of cinema. It’s highly rewatchable and covers a huge range of styles, plots, and character development. And what more do you want from a genre series? You want to be transported. You want to be surprised. You want to be entertained. And you want characters you can invest in, root for, and root against. It had it all. It also had a wild arc from beginning to end that constantly had me trying to anticipate where they were going, and almost always getting it wrong (at least in the specifics).

I’m sorry to see the show go, but I’m glad it went out on a controlled high-note. And I’m looking forward to start watching it again down the road.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Poster