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Stories that spring from the dangers of distance have always fascinated us. Whether they are journeys into the wilderness, across the sea or into the heavens, the perils of separation from those who might help us should emergencies arise can make for compelling drama.

Stories of space travel have largely supplanted those of treks into the wild or over the waves; so many space stories – particularly ones that seek to hew relatively close to the realm of the plausible – revolve around the idea that help will not and cannot come. In space, you’re more or less on your own.

“Stowaway,” the new film directed by Joe Penna from a script that Penna co-wrote with Ryan Morrison, is the latest exploration of the unforgiving nature of the unknown and the emotional consequences that can come with being forced to make impossible choices.

It’s also a crackerjack space movie, one in which care has clearly been taken to maintain a degree of verisimilitude that exceeds that of all but the most meticulously-crafted near-future sci-fi. It’s a taut thriller, one that mines tension from moments that could have felt flat and/or mundane in the hands of another filmmaker.

Published in Movies

Is it weird that there have been enough time loop movies recently for it to kind of feel like we’re in a time loop? And I say this as someone who digs the subgenre almost universally. Seriously – gimme an unstuck-in-time protagonist trying to solve their personal repetitive infinity and I am here for it.

The big daddy of them all is “Groundhog Day,” obviously, borne aloft by the brilliance of Bill Murray and Andie McDowell and Harold Ramis and – let’s be real – the delightful Stephen Tobolowsky. It’s the grandaddy of them all, the OG.

Is it weird that there have been enough time loop movies recently for it to kind of feel like we’re in a time loop? And I say this as someone who digs the subgenre almost universally. Seriously – gimme an unstuck-in-time protagonist trying to solve their personal repetitive infinity and I am here for it.

Of course, our most recent entry into the canon was the excellent “Palm Springs,” which set Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti loose in a delightfully loopy love story. It’s the freshest and most timely effort we’ve seen in ages.

Is it weird that there have been enough time loop movies recently for it to kind of feel like we’re in a time loop? And I say this as someone who digs the subgenre almost universally. Seriously – gimme an unstuck-in-time protagonist trying to solve their personal repetitive infinity and I am here for it.

Thank you – I’ll be here all week.

That dumb bit is in service of “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” currently streaming via Amazon Prime Video. The film – directed by Ian Samuels from a screenplay that Lev Grossman adapted from his own short story – is yet another riff on the time loop trope, adding a high school love story into the mix that gives it a little distance from some of the more well-known entries into the genre (entries that the film itself is unafraid to reference to humorous effect).

Now, this movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The filmmakers have a clear understanding of what makes these types of narratives work; they lean into the repetition and embrace the comedic possibilities therein. I’ll grant that such an approach limits the film’s ceiling, but it also assures a high floor. This leaves us with a movie that, while not necessarily great, is a pretty good viewing experience.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 14 February 2021 18:43

‘Little Fish’ a smart sci-fi love story

So much of how we relate to the world rests on a foundation of memory. But what if that foundation were to crumble? How can a society survive without remembering?

How can love?

“Little Fish” – directed by Chad Hartigan from Mattson Tomlin’s screenplay – is a look at what might happen if the world started to forget. A young couple is just starting out on their life of love when their future is threatened by a global pandemic (yes, I know), one that threatens the very memory of their time together.

It is a thoughtful and emotional engagement with the idea of what it means to be connected to one another and how much of what binds us together is shared experience and the ability to return to those times through memory. Without that tether, we simply float away. And yet … perhaps love can transcend that tether and form a tie of its own.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 10 February 2021 12:37

Set adrift on memory – ‘Bliss’

What if the life you know isn’t the whole story?

Few science fiction tropes offer the kind of narrative oomph that you get from parallel worlds. It’s an ideal way to introduce that “what if?” vibe that can make for such an interesting story. A more recent evolution of the concept is from the notion that we are living inside a simulation – an idea that seems to be steadily be gaining more real-world traction.

Of course, the fact that it CAN be effective doesn’t mean it always WILL be effective. And that potential for effectiveness means that we see it used a lot; unfortunately, that high volume doesn’t necessarily translate to consistent quality.

“Bliss” – the latest film from indie genre auteur Mike Cahill – attempts to explore some of the potential ramifications that might come from learning that what you believe to be real … isn’t. And while it does find room for some interesting ideas and a couple of sly subversions, it unfortunately becomes rather tangled in its own construction, to no one’s benefit.

Cahill, who wrote and directed the film, has a history of doing a lot with a little, crafting a pair of marvelous genre gems in “Another Earth” and “I Origins.” He’s venturing into familiar territory here, but despite some big ideas and strong performances from his leads, the film never quite clicks, particularly in its chaotic and vaguely unsatisfying third act.

Published in Movies

The end of the world has long been a mainstay of speculative fiction. Or at least, the end of the world as we know it. So many stories have been written about the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, something that has destroyed civilization, or at least radically altered it. You’ve got your post-apocalyptic stories, your dystopian stories – so many of them spring from that singular (and sometimes literally) Earth-shattering event.

What we get less often is the story of what leads up to that event, the tale that goes from the beginning of the end to the end.

That’s what Claire Holroyde’s debut novel “The Effort” (Grand Central Publishing, $28) gives us. It’s a story of mankind’s attempt to stave off the extinction-level event heading their way, all while dealing with the harsh reality of what it might mean when the fact that the end is nigh becomes widely known. It’s a taut, thrilling story of people committed to saving the world even as the world turns against itself.

Published in Style
Monday, 18 January 2021 16:37

‘Outside the Wire’ offers so-so sci-fi

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: In a relatively near future, a human and a robot or forced to team up with the fate of the world at stake, but not all is as it seems.

Sound familiar? Then you’re well-equipped for “Outside the Wire,” a new sci-fi action film coming your way via Netflix. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom from a script co-written by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe, the film is an uneven mashup of familiar genre tropes that sports that unmistakable Netflix sheen.

Basically, if you’ve seen even one human/robot partnership movie, there aren’t likely to be many surprises for you here. “Outside the Wire” is essentially a collection of predictable plot points punctuated by action set pieces and lots of explosions, without even the headiness of ideas that make some of its spiritual predecessors conceptually engaging as well as viscerally.

Published in Movies

The end of the world has always been a subject of fascination for storytellers. The visceral nature of apocalyptic thinking makes for high stakes that bring out the very best and very worst of humanity. Some of these endings are loud and others are quiet, but all of them show us reflections of ourselves.

“The Midnight Sky” – directed by George Clooney, who also stars – is one of the quiet ones, a film that views the end of the world from a pair of very different perspectives. Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s excellent 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” it’s a story of isolation and desperation, a tale not of saving the world, but of accepting the fact that it cannot be saved.

Yet it also manages to be a hopeful story, one in which we see people doing what they believe to be best even as they accept the truth that their actions likely won’t matter in the end. Featuring some stylish visuals and compelling performances, “The Midnight Sky” shows us the different ways in which mankind chooses to escape the trappings of Earth by turning its gaze to the stars.

Published in Movies

I’ll admit to having had some fun at Gerard Butler’s expense over the years. He’s made some interesting choices, particularly in recent years, from the increasingly outlandish “[Something] has Fallen” series to ridiculous genre offerings like “Geostorm” and “Hunter Killer” to the outright execrable “Gods of Egypt.”

Quite the resume, no?

That being said, I’ve always derived enjoyment from these movies precisely BECAUSE they’re so flawed. Butler has carved out a niche as the guy you call to star in your nonsense movie. He’s good at it, lending an unearned gravitas to projects (I personally prefer him in his natural accent, but his generic American works just as well) that otherwise would sink unnoticed to the bottom of the VOD seas.

“Greenland” – directed by Ric Roman Waugh from a script by Chris Sparling – is a perfect example of the kind of B-movie sensibility to which Butler has hitched his wagon over the past near-decade, a straightforward end-of-the-world movie that nevertheless manages to engage on a more individualized level. It’s a film that embraces its budgetary limitations, giving us a film that is heavy on the human element rather than CGI pageantry.

Now, is it a great movie? Of course not – this is Gerard Butler we’re talking about. But it is an undeniably fun movie, one that manages to prove surprisingly moving in moments despite the general outlandishness of its plot machinations. We’ve seen a lot of apocalypses play out on the silver screen over the years, and while “Greenland” certainly isn’t the best of the bunch, it is far from the worst.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:40

Words like violence, break ‘The Silence’

When we’re talking about the best American writers of the past half-century, everyone’s going to have a different list, but there are certain names that will likely appear on most of them. One of those names is Don DeLillo, who has written some of the most impactful literature of his generation. Books like “White Noise,” “Underworld” and others are significant parts of the 20th century canon.

And he’s still going strong.

DeLillo’s latest novel – his 17th, but who’s counting? – is “The Silence” (Scribner, $22), a slim volume that takes a look at what it might mean for our precarious and codependent relationship to technology to be unceremoniously ripped away, leaving nothing but the quiet echo of our own thoughts. How has this proliferation of tech impacted our ability to engage with one another – and are we able to get back what was lost.

“The Silence” is a lightning-fast read – just 128 pages – but no less engaging for its brevity. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a quick-hit of a novel one assumes is intended to mirror the bite-sized rapid consumption encouraged by our current relationship to media both old and new.

Published in Style

Who doesn’t love a good filmmaking duo?

Yes, the individual auteur tends to get most of the attention – the singular visionary driving all aspects of a film – but there’s something special about a good collaborative team. The best of them are complementary pieces, individuals whose talents mesh in such a way as to elevate one another, resulting in work that is deep and rich, rendered all the more engaging through the combined viewpoints.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead might not have reached that top tier just yet, but give them time – they’re just getting started. And if their latest offering is any indication, they’re going to reach that level sooner rather than later.

“Synchronic” – co-directed by the two, with a script by Benson and cinematography by Moorhead – is a wonderful piece of well-constructed storytelling. It’s smart, taut science fiction, using the trappings of genre to craft a tale of love, loss and the deep and abiding power of friendship.

Published in Movies
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