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The desire to disconnect is very real. So much of our lives are lived in the online realm, leaving us tethered to and reliant upon our devices. The current circumstances being what they are, we’ve only become more dependent on all of it, so there’s genuine appeal in breaking loose, if only for a moment.

But what if, in the midst of your big disconnect … the world as you knew it came apart?

That’s the foundational premise of the new movie “Save Yourselves!” The film – written and directed by Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson – is a weird and weirdly prescient story, a low-key look at the apocalypse that also manages to shine a satiric spotlight on tech-obsessed self-involvement at the same time.

It is a strange and funny slow burn, a film that plays with a lot of ideas without ever losing track of the hilariously skewed yet still somehow honest relationship at its center. “Save Yourselves!” is goofy and dark, turning its traditionally bleak speculative subject matter into something driven by quirky hilarity.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 02 September 2020 16:01

Time is (not) on my side – ‘Tenet’

Christopher Nolan has clout. And he’s unafraid to use it.

It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about Nolan’s position as the last bastion of original idea-driven blockbuster filmmaking. Yes, the cinematic landscape is defined by the ebb and flow of franchises now. Hell, Nolan understands that better than anyone – he did his franchise turn with Batman, after all, though those films are obviously superhero outliers. But he’s the guy who can get a nine-figure check to direct his own non-IP script.

He’s at it again with “Tenet,” currently in theaters. I’ll be real with you – I’m not at all sure how to talk about this movie to people who haven’t already seen it. But hey, that’s the gig, right?

There’s obviously a lot of baggage here. Nolan’s insistence that the film be experienced in a theater turned it into a bellwether, leaving it to assume the burden of expectation with regard to theatrical reopenings writ large. That pressure can’t help but inform the way audiences experience the film. Add to that the outsized expectations that always accompany the filmmaker’s work and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment.

Thankfully, Nolan’s skill is such that he largely manages to sidestep that potential letdown. “Tenet” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is the sort of meticulously-constructed blockbuster that we’ve come to expect from the director. It is massive in scope, a challenging puzzle box of a film that works both as pure spectacle and as something a bit more thoughtful. The complexities of the plot skate right up to the edge of confusion, but anyone sitting down to watch a Nolan movie should probably expect some sort of chronological convolution.

And boy, do we ever get some of that.

Published in Movies
Friday, 17 July 2020 13:39

Close encounters – ‘Skyman’

Daniel Myrick knows a thing or two about portraying a fictional story as something real. As one half of the duo that made 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and fundamentally altered the course of horror cinema, he has some experience with presenting fiction as reality.

His new movie “Skyman” isn’t quite the same thing – styled as a full-on faux documentary rather than found footage – but it does capture some of the same energy. It’s a look at a man whose life has been spent chasing an obsession, springing from an encounter with an alien that took place in his childhood. The time since has been spent quietly trying to make sense of that moment, even as most people around him express wary skepticism. It’s about the ideas that take hold of us and simply refuse to let go. It’s about what happens when the world views as false something you absolutely know to be true.

And with a cast of relative unknowns and a documentarian’s stylings, “Skyman” reads as the real thing (or close enough to allow us to embrace the conceit anyway).

Published in Movies

As someone who considers himself a bit of an action movie connoisseur, I’ve got a special place in my heart for high-concept action. I enjoy the broad strokes and tropes of the genre, but I particularly dig it when there’s an interesting idea serving as the framework.

Obviously, when I hear tell of a film with just such a framework, I look forward to seeing it. I have certain expectations, of course, but they are expectations I believe to be quite reasonable. My bar in terms of pure enjoyment is relatively low … and yet some films still manage to undershoot it by a frankly astonishing degree.

So it is with “The Last Days of American Crime,” a film that limbos so far beneath my reasonable expectations as to bury itself in a not-so-shallow grave. The film – directed by Olivier Megaton and currently streaming on Netflix – commits egregious cinematic sins almost too numerous to name, working its way through what almost seems like a deliberate checklist of poor choices and worse execution.

Seriously – this movie is a bad time. It is staggeringly overlong, yet still manages to feel dull and uneventful. The dialogue is laughable, the performances are wooden and/or off-kilter and the character motivations are either nonsensical or nonexistent. The action sequences feel rote and uninspired and it is shockingly tone deaf in spots. Just … not good.

Published in Movies

Few men have had as outsized an impact on recent world history as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. As the director of the Manhattan Project, he led the massive team of thousands of scientists and others in their single-minded mission to develop the atomic bomb. And in 1945, this incredible, terrible aim was achieved, bringing World War II to an end. By all accounts, the reality of Oppenheimer’s contribution left him riddled with guilt and doubt.

But what if that project led to the discovery of an even greater potential threat – one existential far beyond the actions of even the most power-mad governmental regime? A threat whose cataclysmic impact could only be combatted by the continued collaborative effort of the world’s greatest minds? Who but Oppenheimer could administrate such an effort?

That’s the gist of “The Oppenheimer Alternative,” Robert J. Sawyer’s latest book (and the first new novel in four years from the Canadian author). It’s an alternate look at the scientist’s life, one that hews closely to his early years before veering into an entirely new realm as he’s forced to confront a bleak discovery – one that could, even more than his weaponizing of the atom, result in the end of the world if he and his fellow scientists can’t stop it.

With typical stylistic verve and a remarkable degree of research, Sawyer has crafted a world that is an apt and accurate reflection of our own while also folding in the shifts and changes that create this alternate reality. It is a compelling portrait, both in terms of who the man was … and who he might have been.

Published in Buzz

When we think of sci-fi movies today, we tend to think of big, effects-driven events. We’re thinking about nine-figure budgets aimed mostly at either advancing franchises or originating them, the odd name director standalone project notwithstanding. These films allow for grand visual, visceral representation of the futuristic/alien/whatever worlds of their stories – and that grandness can cover up a lot of flaws.

But there’s a whole other tradition of cinematic sci-fi, one that can tell a commanding story without the bells and whistles. These films are the one that convey science fiction narratives through ideas, finding ways to engage and entertain without the trappings of spectacle. They are smaller films, with far less room for error – there’s no massive effects budget to distract from any missed choices. These indie offerings are much more warts and all.

“The Vast of Night” – newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video – falls very much into the latter category. The film, directed by first-timer Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig Sanger, is a retro sci-fi delight telling the story of a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico where two young people find themselves in the midst of a mystery unlike anything anyone in their small town could ever have imagined.

The film leans heavily into its lo-fi high-concept underpinnings, going so far as to use a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show called “Paradox Theatre” as a framing device. This isn’t about visual flourishes – though Patterson shows his clearly considerable stylistic talent in a few spots – so much as density of storytelling. The dialogue is thick and the pacing is deliberate, all in service to a narrative that unfolds in enigmatic quietude. It is atmospheric and creepy – and very good.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 29 March 2020 15:41

Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

Published in Buzz
Friday, 20 March 2020 16:30

Food for thought - ‘The Platform’

Sometimes, films choose to utilize subtlety when it comes to presenting underlying messages and themes. They gently and delicately weave their ideas into the fabric of the story, leaving the viewers to work things out for themselves.

Other times, films are brutally overt with their messaging. These are films that wield their meanings with loud impunity, performing their ideological surgery with an axe as opposed to a scalpel. They are conceptual blunt force trauma.

“The Platform” – Spanish title “El Hoyo” – is new to streaming on Netflix; the film marks the feature debut of director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. It’s a bleak and compelling piece of genre fare, one that uses its limited but undeniably effective dystopian setting to deliver some far-from-subtle thoughts on the nature of class divide and a powerful condemnation of the top-down economic model that dominates the world today.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 14:13

Tech-22 – ‘Zed’

Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say. From the very beginning, sci-fi has used its trappings to examine and explore the (sometimes harsh) realities of the real world. It reflects and refracts, commenting on where we are and where we might be going.

We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous and a handful of people sit in control of the vast majority of the resources behind that technology. Those people, perhaps more than any elected official, are the ones who hold our societal destiny in their hands. But as we grow ever more reliant on the various forms of tech to live our daily lives, as it infiltrates every aspect of our everyday existence, we must ask ourselves – what happens if those people lose control? What happens if this omnipresent technology stops working the way it is supposed to?

That’s where Joanna Kavenna’s “Zed” (Doubleday, $27.95) takes us. This darkly comic dystopian novel imagines a world not too different from our own, a near-future in which a single company has risen to the top of the food chain and extended its influence into every aspect of society. This company provides the technology on which seemingly the entire world runs. And something’s wrong…

With a biting wit and a discomfiting plausibility, “Zed” offers up a portrait of what might happen if everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – was dictated by algorithmic whims … and what happens if those algorithms should start to crumble, leaving those at the top to make panicked choices aimed more at protecting themselves than the world around them.

Published in Tekk
Wednesday, 15 January 2020 14:09

Depth charge - ‘Underwater’

The ocean can be scary.

Specifically, the deep ocean. We’re talking Mariana Trench deep. Challenger Deep deep. Miles down where the pressure is so intense that only particular brands of strange and strong life can exist. In many ways, the ocean floor is as alien to mankind as the moon. Perhaps more so.

As such, it makes sense that such a place would inspire some sci-fi/horror storytelling. The latest offering in that vein is “Underwater,” directed by William Eubank and starring Kristen Stewart. One might suspect that it’s your usual mid-January fare, but don’t be fooled by the release date – it isn’t a great movie, but there’s enough here to warrant a look from sci-fi fans.

There are shades of other, better films here – classics like “The Abyss” and the very obvious influence of the first two “Alien” movies – and “Underwater” occasionally wanders into the realm of the derivative. Still, the film is stylistically interesting, and Stewart is surprisingly engaging in a role that’s a bit of a departure for her. Again, not great, but not terrible either.

Published in Movies
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