Wednesday, January 25, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: Spectral

2016, Nic Mathieu -- Netflix

Moldova is a real country? I thought it was one of those countries made up for movies, when they need a basically westernized country (cities, old technology) but with exotic, Soviet-era look & feel. But no, she's real and I guess that rather than be off-colour by setting this war-based movie in currently forgotten about Ukraine, they chose a close neighbour. Anywayz, the movie starts with American forces fighting in the ruins of a Moldovan city, a new war torn region America is involved in. The soldiers encounter something mysterious and deadly, and we cut back to James Badge Dale, a talented engineer and researcher, currently doing imaging work for DARPA. The encounter in Moldova had an enigmatic, invisible aspect to it. His expertise could be of help.

This movie is all about the Boys With the Toys, the practical effects team going all out in their weapons and tech add-ons. My other personal speculative joy, along with the glass cell phones I have mentioned before, is HUDs for military use. I have spent a lot of time playing FPSs. While much of this movie is your familiar marine team six trying to survive against a ghostly enemy, I got swept along with the tech and the weapon design. And the ghosts, the monsters or Bad Guys, are really decently depicted, something new in the field so often explored by Aliens and Pitch Black and all its lesser copies.

But it wasn't just that, where Kill Command failed on the lazy acting and directing, there is something here. Sometimes I think it's just a genuine joy in the material that shows through, I cannot discount skill. This may be Mathieu's first movie, and it is rough around the edges, his skill does show through. James Badge Dale, who is usually stuck playing soldiers or bad guys, gets to be The Scientist with Skill. This movie is not going to get him any nods, but it does expand his repertoire solidly. I genuinely liked this movie a lot.

P.S. Terrible poster; c'mon guys, I know it was straight to Netlflix, but you could have dished out something more than a thumbnail.

Monday, January 23, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: Morgan

2016, Luke Scott -- download

Speaking of low rent, how about low rent Ex Machina ? To be honest, when I first saw the trailers for Morgan I was expecting more. Yes, I saw the mashup between Species (grown, from DNA) and Ex Machina (artificial girl, behind glass) but I thought it would be more than a Frankenstein analog. I didn't realize how pedestrian the final production would be.

Morgan was grown from a successful combination of artificial and biological material. She is sort of a fast grown hybrid that all the team is told to call "it". She is not a she, though all the determining factors for female are there, being that she is played by the beautiful Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch), and no this is not a movie that goes into the discussion of what gender means. The movie focuses on the arrival of Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a low rent Rick Deckard here to see all the fuss this artificial human has created. The fuss is that she attacked her guardian in a violent "tantrum". The rest of the team feels a lot of mixed emotions towards Morgan, understanding she is stronger, faster and better than all of them, but also fearing her. Kate is there to make sure the funding company's much more than six million dollars is turning out to be a viable product. Everyone resents her.

Now, that setup would make for an interesting movie, lots of talking, lots of eerie questionable actions, lots of people doing shit they know they shouldn't do, because Morgan is not a normal human being but one they have grown to care for. But nope, the movie jumps almost immediately head-long into a murder-fest as Morgan reacts negatively to her upsetting psychological evaluation. She rips the psychologist's throat out. And then she begins to kill the rest. Auditor Weathers pulls out her gun and goes after Morgan. Now she is even more low rent than Michael Madsen was in Species, and that is saying a lot. As the movie winds down to a close, either killing Morgan or having her run into the wild, we are given a twist, one that basically was telegraphed from the beginning, by a very telling scene, but I will let you decide if you want to waste some time on this one.

Side note. In all the trailers, I swore she was a bald kid. But no, her blonde hair may be thin, but it is pulled back in a pony tail, though often hidden in a hoodie. I wonder if I am predisposed now to beautiful, artificial women being bald?

Saturday, January 21, 2017


2016, Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) - cinema


From the get go, you could tell the producers took a miss-turn revealing the core premise of this scifi drama and turned the wheel towards a more manageable romantic thriller. Do you remember the early trailers, where they reveal that Chris Pratt's Jim Preston wakes up Jennifer Lawrence's Aurora Lane because he is lonely? Once the Internet Outrage Machine took hold of that, it had to be hidden. And all subsequent trailers went the way of two people up against great odds while alone on a spaceship, a hundred years from its destination.

So, that. In a distant future, faster than light travel is still not possible. The big starship Avalon on its way to Homestead II, and will take about 120 years. The passengers sleep while the robots and massive computer keep everything clean and working. But the ship suffers a bumpy ride, malfunctions and wakes up Jim. Only Jim.

Jim is an economy class passenger. Breakfast is cereal, lunch & dinner are Mexican and AYCE sushi. His berth is tiny. But all it takes is a crowbar to find a bigger bed.  Those first few months on the ship are like the first few episodes of The Last Man on Earth minus the Margarita Pool. Jim does as he pleases, eventually succumbing to the no-shave, no-cleaning despondent lifestyle. Eventually Jim gets lonely and then fixates on Aurora, a writer from NYC, who is a first class passenger. After some months of painful deliberation, he wakes her up.

And there is the rub of it. In a more thoughtful movie, he might wake up a handful of people which would generate all the different opinions for and against what Jim has done. While the movie doesn't entirely shirk away from the moral implications of what he has done, but it doesn't fully embrace them either. This is a December-January release movie, which means it has to be accessible and likeable. So, we get enough to know Jim feels bad about what he has done, but not bad enough to not have done it.

And the movie is a romance. No, really. And it does a good job of realizing it, of allowing it to happen slowly, probably another year? They are alone, they entertain each other, the entertain together, they get drunk together (Michael Sheehan plays the programmatically affable robot bartender) and eventually they fall in love. C'mon, its a buffed up Chris Pratt and a gorgeous white blonde Jennifer Lawrence. Who wouldn't want them to get together.

And of course she finds out. And of course she freaks out.

Again, a better movie would have focused on the ramifications, both of what he had done, and the nature of what comes next. There is one scene where he wakes to find her on top of him, pounding away with fists. He lets it happen. Amusingly enough, I think Jennifer got an actual punch in there, as earlier in the movie, they do a bad job of hiding a black eye on Pratt.  But once the movie does a requisite amount of hatred and tears, it shifts the goal to saving the ship. As a Hollywood blockbuster, it does a good job of giving them a reason to be together, even after everything they go through, after everything he has done, and how she has reacted. But a better movie would have focused more on the, "This is our life now, so now what...."

Monday, January 16, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: Kill Command

2016, Steven Gomez (visual effects guy) -- download

Kill Command also called Identify in the UK, begins with a high tech corporation employee learning of something nefarious going on in the matrix. A "programming anomaly" has happened at a military training facility and she is assigned to deal with it. We get the feeling that Mills is not quite human, or maybe not even human at all, as she interacts with the high tech computer systems via overlaid retinal imagery. Cyborg or killer android, we are given to immediately distrust her. So when she is assigned to the low rent Aliens marine corps to investigate the facility, we buy into their worry.

This movie comes from a special effects guy, a guy whose credits include terrible fake mermaid documentaries and a docu-sideshow about bugs infesting people. I was hoping he might be the producer of one of those CGI heavy shorts you see on YouTube or Vimeo, usually involving a post-apocalyptic soldier going up against a alien robot. The trailer and the image of the Big Bad Robot in the movie caught my attention, but soon in, this was very obviously all retread stuff. The marines are by the book, no not the military book, but the military science fiction book. Only Vanessa Kirby as Mills, the cyborg, we soon confirm is dancing  a little outside of her boundaries.

Mills leads the soldiers onto the island, one used to train human soldiers to go up against machine soldiers. We get the impression the soldier life is waning, as more and more machines do their killing for them. These are not Chappie style humanoid soldiers, but rather lame looking Johnny Five on treads mobile gun platforms.  Well, except for the Big Bad, who I admit, I rather liked. Its too bad they only got so much budget because a couple of designs is all we got. The programming anomaly Mills is there for turns out to be the "best way to learn how to kill humans is to kill humans" idea of Machines Go Evil we see so often. But she also gets the idea her company is behind this, so she does her best to keep these guys alive. Well, some of them.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Over 3 Paragraphs: Arq

2016, Tony Elliot (writer Orphan Black) -- Netflix

It's like Groundhog Day meets ___________.

Fuck, I hate that comparison. ANY movie with a time loop involved gets compared to Groundhog Day, like there were never any other stories of such produced before Bill Murray got caught in his moral dilemma. But yeah yeah, I know, appeal to the masses. But what I liked so much about Arq was that it was NOT a mass appeal movie!  This is an obvious low budget scifi movie, but not in the way you think. The production values and attention to detail are quite high, they were able to keep the budget low because of the inherent plot -- a "single" location and small cast that just keeps on being used over and over and over and over. The end result was incredible!

But I may be biased, as I love time travel stories.

Renton (Robbie Amell; The Flash) wakes up in bed with Hannah (Rachael Taylor; Jessica Jones); before he fully awakens, three men smash their way into the room and take the two hostage. Renton dies trying to escape. And then he awakens again, with vague recollection of that intro loop. What continues, loop after loop is an intrigue of corporate dominance, terrorism, technology gone wrong and personal history. Each loop reveals a bit more, as Renton learns what he can accomplish. And then, when he brings Hannah into it, things go awry.

This movie takes place in a world 20 minutes into the future. A massive corp called Torus owns everything, a terrorist / revolutionary group called The Bloc fights against them. The ARQ is Renton's machine, one made for endless power supply. Both sides want it. That is why Renton and Hannah keep on waking up in a bedroom as some invades his house, well why is the fatal flaw in the design of the ARQ. It's not that Renton wants the Evil Corp to have the power, but he's a scientist in love with his machine. The Bloc invaders are not exactly without their own agenda, not merely seeking the ARQ for the Good Guys. Renton has to play each loop to reveal a bit more, to determine what he can accomplish, before they decide to turn off the machine and end the loop, or not.

Monday, January 9, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: Comet

2014, Sam Esmail (Mr Robot) -- Netflix

It doesn't happen very often these days, but while watching Mr. Robot I couldn't help but wonder what else Esmail had done.  Well, only this. I always wonder how someone can come onto the scene with such acclaim but only really have one property under his name. Then again, it might just be that blog writers, who cannot hope to always be dialed-in, are afraid of missing out on being aware of someone, so when hit with a mystery, will just pretend they know who he is.

So, yes, from acclaimed writer & director, Sam Esmail, comes his first writing & directing deal -- a quirky, otherworldly, incredibly talky film about two lovers who are connected no matter which universe we peek into. There isn't a story here, there is just a relationship, shown in a totality of 6 years. We see it out of order, in flashbacks, in flash-forwards, in views into What Could Have Been and views into What Never Was.

I love this movie, because I love a movie that demands our attention. No, not the catch phrase (because we know most of my writing is about catch phrases) but the actual desire to pull our attention away from our phones even when we are sitting on the sofa. The dialogue, the actual topics these two very intelligent (if somewhat shallow) people discuss requires focus. And the conversations, as extensions of their personality, change depending on which reality we peek into. What is the point of all this otherworldly voyeurism? At the heart of the story (see) it's how Dell (Justin Long) sees him always have been meant to be love with Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) and seems to have vague memories of things that never happened.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


2016, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) -- cinema

My unwritten novel starts with cello music the same way this movie does, beautiful haunting and appropriate to the lonely locale. In a way, the music set the tone for the movie much more than any visual did. This looks like a Villeneuve movie, from his architecture shots to his not entirely sharp way of building wide shots. Sharp, as in exquisite camera shots. When someone like Michael Bay shoots a movie, most on the screen is CGI that comes out incredibly focused, so everything around it has to be shot as such. For Villeneuve, it's more about the story, so the mood has to be set. I am more appreciative of this camera work these days, as I find it very hard to view a very sharply shot movie, because.... well, focus, both visually and emotionally. Villeneuve made it so very easy for me to do both. He helped me hunch in my seat, ignore the people checking their phones and just be absorbed.

Aliens have arrived in big disks, like they always do. And like they always do, these disks float over our cities, but sometimes just over big empty fields in Montana. Unlike other alien movies, this is not just happening in the US, and there is not just a team of smart people in the US. There are smart teams everywhere and for them all to be smarter, they work together. Like many alien visits, the heptapods leave heavy lifting of First Contact to us. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are tasked with trying to understand & communicate with the Montana disk. Amy is language, Renner is physics. Forest Whitaker is the army colonel in charge of all this, because we know the military will always be in charge of it.

Everyone highlights how this is a smart science fiction movie, about smart people doing smart things. True, not denying it, but it's not what the movie is about.  In The Martian, much of what the movie was about was showing the smart science. The linguistic science of Arrival is presented only briefly under the microscope, and then becomes the backdrop to what our main character is experiencing. This movie is not about one person being the only useful one in the room, though it definitely starts that way, but about choosing the right path (in this case, science & understanding) vs the wrong path (fear and mistrust).

Arrival is a very beautiful movie, at its heart.

Amy Adams plays a character that just wants to connect with these visitors and she cannot conceive they are here to do harm, because if they wished to, they would have already. But the beauty doesn't really come from her drive, not entirely.


The core beauty of this movie comes with the reveal of exactly how different the aliens are from us. As Adams' character explores the language structure of these creatures, she begins to experience things, dreams and memories that seem, at first, like they are influencing her to remember and feel things she is repressing, memories of a daughter lost to cancer, on an uncaring husband who is not there. These memories distract her, overwhelm her, but don't deter her. The more she works the more the experiences these jarring happenings. Until a final confrontation with the alien she calls Costello (as in, Abbot and...) explains to her that the aliens feel time as a whole, not as a past, present and future but always as a whole now.

For them, a life is made up entirely of all of its parts. In much the way we faintly recall our past, they must faintly recall their future. So, the message to humans is for them to live life fully, to see all of it as beautiful, to accept the good and the bad as part of the joy of living.

OK, the aliens don't explain that, they are not platitude serving gurus leaving us with text over scenes of sunsets to post of Facebook, they just offer us what is theirs to offer. But the core (for me) is that, if you knew you would see hints of your consequences, that you could be tortured by your choices yet to be made, in much the way many of us are tormented by our past, wouldn't you start making better choices? You would see life as a whole, as  a long but finite period of time that is better filled with good memories (even those yet to happen) than painful ones.

Think of it this way. You are re-reading a book you really really enjoyed. It was filled with great parts, both painful and joyful. You cherish every bit of the book. And, as you re-read, you know what is going to happen but it doesn't diminish the act of re-reading, not experiencing the sad parts you know are going to happen, not experiencing the joyful parts.

Now, add in the mind bending time travel aspect that you can subtly influence what will happen by knowing what has happened, you can understand how this knowing this understanding of a new way of thinking is the true gift from the alien visitors. And this, this is what was so beautiful to me, that we can still offer a hopeful vision of a First Contact. We need a lot of hope right now.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

3 Short Paragraphs: The Magnificent Seven

2016, Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw) -- download

Speaking of Ethan Hawke in westerns, we have a remake of a classic western with Hawke as a gunfighter with a dark, damaged past. I could get used to him doing such roles. The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1960 movie of the same name, which in turn was a cowboy remake of The Seven Samurai.  The core premise is that a group of leaderless men (gunfighters/ronin) is hired / inspired to take on a land baron even though the odds will be sorely against them.

The seven are as follows. Denzel Washington is Chisolm, a bounty hunter with airs of being a better man but who truly is seen as The Man in Black. Chris Pratt, the gambler looking for some personal redemption, or money, or both. Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, the ex-Army man (The South) with trauma about how many men he killed. Byung-hun Lee is Billy Rocks, friend and sidekick to Goodnight. Vincent D'Onofrio is a bear of a mountain man. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is Vasquez, who Chisolm has promised not to hunt, if he joins. And finally, Martin Sensmeier is Red Harvest, a Comanche who joins because... well, I don't really know why he joined.  Haley Bennett (and no it's not Bryce Dallas Howard, in case the trailer caught you, like it did me) is the heroine, the woman who goes to Chisolm and convinces him of the righteousness of this job.

Really, it's hard to screw up a western, but it's also as hard to do a good western, kind of like chicken wings. The templates are all there, so following them is expected, but surpassing them is a challenge. I am a Fuqua fan but of late he doesn't seem to be able to merge his style with the story telling. In The Equalizer he had some incredibly wonderful stylish scenes, but the story lacked. This movie is all story, and the style is just familiar --- not bad, just capable western. I was hoping for ... more. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I was hoping it would rise to the glory of the originals.