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Sci-fi

Ad Astra

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Ad Astra

Ad Astra is a work of art that is singularly beautiful but structurally flawed. Writer/director James Gray, working here with cowriter Ethan Gross, attempts a tone of cosmic mystery in his space epic set in the near future. It’s about the personal connections humans make even as we search for extraterrestrial life.

For the most part it works; I found myself falling into the rhythm of Ad Astra even as certain of its elements continued to irritate me.

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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Twenty years ago this week, I was caught up in the spectacle of the biggest pop culture event I had ever seen in my short two decades on earth. The triumphant return (according to all the promotional materials) of George Lucas to the franchise that changed movies forever was cause for feverish celebration. I remember seeing the headline of a review for Episode I in the days after the film’s opening that dared to disparage the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years. It called the origin story of Anakin Skywalker The Phantom Movie.

I scoffed. I was having none it. As a die-hard Star Wars fan, the fact of The Phantom Menace’s existence was proof of its greatness. There was no way to convince me that the movie wasn’t anything other than what was promised: the greatest, most exciting movie event in a generation. After a stint in film school, twenty years of studying movies, and a hard-fought effort to refine my critical thinking skills – not just about movies, but everything – it’s no surprise that I don’t look at The Phantom Menace in the same way that I did a long time ago in a small town far, far away.

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The Predator

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The Predator

There’s been a lot of movie geek hype over the fact that cult icon Shane Black is at the helm of the latest Predator reboot, a beloved middle-aged white dude franchise. Black is the writer of late 80s/early 90s action fare like the first two Lethal Weapon pictures, The Last Boy Scout, and Last Action Hero, which, despite its disastrous theatrical run, has turned into a treasured cult artifact.

Black returned with a critical hit in 2005 when he not only wrote but also directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He had a full-on career resurgence in the mid-2010s when he did the same with Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. His brand of gritty action and snappy, foul-mouthed dialog has huge cachet among those middle-aged white dudes I just mentioned – a subgroup that includes your humble reviewer. (Although the OED defines “middle age” as being 45-65. I’m 38, so maybe I’m not quite there yet? Maybe?!? But I digress).

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Sorry to Bother You

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Sorry to Bother You

Hip-hop artist, music producer, teacher, and political activist and agitator Boots Riley has new talents to add to his resume: screenwriter and director. His electric film debut, Sorry to Bother You, announces a fresh and singular new voice in American cinema. The movie uses biting, politically charged satire to comment on a myriad of social justice concerns. Riley skewers issues like race, class, labor rights, toxic capitalism, and selling out with an outlandish and exhilarating premise that gets stranger with every passing minute. I can sum the movie up with one word: bonkers. The last time I used that word to describe a film I wrote about was over three years ago. The inventive science fiction (for lack of a better term) feel and unique sense of humor Riley employs in Sorry to Bother You makes it the first bonkers movie event since Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Sense8: Amor Vincit Omnia

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Sense8: Amor Vincit Omnia

The title says it all. The grand finale for the Netflix original series Sense8 is called Amor Vincit Omnia, the famous Latin phrase that translates to Love Conquers All. If you know anything about the series, you know how well that phrase describes the show as a whole. It’s a fitting title for the last adventure in a series about extraordinary human connection, empathy, and above all, love.

For the purposes of this review, I’m treating Amor Vincit Omnia as a standalone movie, instead of an episode of television, because that’s really what it is. The series, while critically acclaimed, didn’t garner enough viewers for Netflix. The scope of the show required a larger-than-usual budget for the streaming service. The huge costs and small audience caused Netflix to cancel Sense8 after two seasons, consisting of 23 episodes.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.

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Pacific Rim Uprising

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising is the follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s bonkers 2013 special effects extravaganza about giant robots battling giant interdimensional sea monsters. A good way to predict what you’ll think of this sequel is to take your feelings about the original movie and downshift them by about 30 percent. If you loved Pacific Rim, like I did, Uprising will seem like a slightly stale but enjoyable enough retread of the first movie. If the original didn’t do much for you, this one will probably be unbearable.

The most tedious thing about the movie is that it telegraphs to the audience a deep desire to become a franchise. More than that, its creators and studio want to fashion another – and here I have to suppress my gag reflex – Expanded Cinematic Universe. Uprising’s director, Steven S. DeKnight, has said as much in interviews. In fact, one of the movie’s four credited screenwriters, T.S. Nowlin, is involved in the so-called MonsterVerse. That’s the upcoming ECU involving crossovers between the baddies in monster movies like the 2014 reboot Godzilla and last summer’s Kong: Skull Island. So, why not get the giant monsters in Pacific Rim to battle King Kong in a spin-off movie?

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A Wrinkle in Time

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A Wrinkle in Time

The highest praise you can bestow on a kids’ movie is that adults can enjoy it, too. Is that just us grown-ups being selfish? Not really, because if a movie is aimed at children, but is sophisticated enough for adults, that usually means it’s not talking down to its target audience. It gives kids credit for their own level of sophistication. See just about every Pixar movie for the best examples of this sort of filmmaking.

A Wrinkle in Time truly is a kids’ movie. It’s not meant for me, so it feels mean-spirited to beat up on it too much. There are perhaps millions of kids out there who might have a cultural earthquake happen inside them when they see this picture. But, the movie does a disservice to the kids it wants to entertain. Aside from the gigantic budget and the production value that goes along with it, A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer its audiences (either the kids or the adults) much sophistication at all.

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Annihilation

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Annihilation

With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.

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In Praise of Schlock: The Cloverfield Paradox

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In Praise of Schlock: The Cloverfield Paradox

At about 30 minutes into The Cloverfield Paradox, I had one of those moments that often comes along when I’m watching an entertaining bit of genre filmmaking. I took a moment to appreciate how much I was enjoying the experience by mentally telling myself, “I am really into this.” Then, as is often the case with most storytelling, the plot of the movie had to kick in, and things started to go a little haywire. By the end, it was clear just how much of a disaster this movie was. Its plot is nonsensical to the point of being moronic. At least some of Paradox’s coherence problem was made worse because the producers – most notably J.J. Abrams – decided to tie this stand-alone sci-fi movie into the Cloverfield series during filming. This led to the film’s writer, Oren Uziel, penning new scenes and rewriting others, and the director, Julius Onah, shooting those changes in order to make Paradox – originally titled God Particle – fit into the Cloverfield universe. The result is an utter mess of a movie.

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The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water

Every frame of The Shape of Water seems to live and breathe with a magic that’s only possible on screen. Whether it’s the heavily saturated and precisely chosen color scheme, or the gritty, grimy feel of every location, the movie is full to bursting with visual inventiveness. It’s also very full of ideas. This is a fable about our not so distant past, and it also has something to tell us about our present.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Water takes place almost exclusively in two locations. One is a top-secret government laboratory, the other is the apartment of our hero, the mute Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a janitor working the night shift at the lab. The Cold Warrior scientists and military personnel working there have a new project. It’s a creature the U.S. military discovered in a river in South America. They refer to this creature, which looks like a hybrid of amphibian and human, as “the asset.”

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Rarely have the first 15 minutes of a movie given me more conflicting emotions than those at the start of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. My reservation during the opening crawl gave way to the thrill of a taut, explosive opening action sequence. The source of my initial unease stemmed from a sense of déjà vu.

The exposition contained in the iconic floating paragraphs for writer/director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars adventure is a little too similar to that of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fascistic First Order, under the control of evil Supreme Leader Snoke, is ruthless in its pursuit of the Resistance, lead by General Leia Organa. The First Order is attempting to crush this rebellion so it can solidify its power and rule the galaxy unchallenged.

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Blade Runner 2049

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Blade Runner 2049

When the original Blade Runner was released in the summer of 1982, it did respectable business at the box office. It wasn’t a smash like Star Wars, but it wasn’t a complete disaster, either. Mostly, it left a lot of people (critics and general moviegoers alike) scratching their heads. This slow paced, philosophical movie was sold as an action/adventure. The production design was meticulous, with dazzling special effects that still look great 35 years later. As critics began praising the movie after repeated viewings, Blade Runner also found a sizable cult following through home video release (a relatively new phenomenon itself at the time).

Director Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker who has listed Blade Runner as a major influence on his own work, is imagining this intoxicating world anew in the sequel, Blade Runner 2049. The question is, since its predecessor’s vision is now the rule rather than the exception, will it have the same impact as the original?

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Short-Film Review- The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape

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Short-Film Review- The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape

Effective world building is one of the hardest things to do in movies, especially in science fiction. So many layers have to come together to encourage the audience to suspend their disbelief and enter the fictional world of the filmmaker's imagination. The new short film by director Christopher Carson Emmons, The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape, never really builds a world that feels wholly real, but it's not for lack of trying. 

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War for the Planet of the Apes

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War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes chronicles more than the struggle for species supremacy. This is the latest film in Fox’s popular franchise depicting a world where apes evolved from men. It gives us an internal war, one which rages within our hero, the ape Caesar. In War, we see a very personal loss, plus the ravages of constant battle, take its toll on the weary leader who was willing to go to great lengths for peace. The brutality that he and his kind face sparks a descent into rage and a thirst for vengeance in Caesar that is both uncharacteristic, yet completely understandable. This film is the culmination of a meticulously crafted character arc; it’s at once mournful and dark, but rich and satisfying. One near fatal tonal misstep aside, every aspect of filmmaking comes together in War to conclude the tragedy of Caesar in grand style.

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Alien: Covenant

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Alien: Covenant

A great thing about the early entries in the Alien franchise is that they are exciting and scary good fun. Alien: Covenant is too obsessed with its own mythology to be much of either. Director Ridley Scott had the perfect opportunity to pull a George Miller. That filmmaker revived his Mad Max series with the fresh and inventive Fury Road. Miller wasn’t concerned with what he did in the past. With Fury Road, he gleefully started from scratch, and as a result produced a rip-roaring action film, one of the best of the decade. Alien: Covenant is the first true Alien movie in 20 years. Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus was a sort of spiritual sequel to the franchise, taking place in the same universe, but centered on its distant origins. Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus. Instead of surprising us with the possibilities of a clean start, Scott and his writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, give us that sinking feeling with Covenant that this is someplace we’ve already been.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The most enjoyable thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is exemplified in its very first action sequence. An alien race called The Sovereign have hired the guardians – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Racoon, and Groot – to protect some highly powerful and very valuable batteries from a giant space slug. An epic battle ensues as a backdrop to the opening credits. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle special effects work and camera trickery in this sequence, to be sure, but the real focus isn’t the fight at all. Groot, the 12-foot tall extraterrestrial tree-creature, sacrificed himself in the first Guardians film, and regenerated as a tiny seedling now known as Baby Groot. Obviously, he’s not much help in this fight. Instead, director James Gunn has him avoiding danger by showing off some hilarious dance moves to Electric Light Orchestra’s classic hit Mr. Blue Sky.

It’s a clever, goofy way of launching directly into the oddball sense of humor that made the original movie from 2014 so entertaining.

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Colossal

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Colossal

If all you know of the movie Colossal is its marketing campaign, then all you know is a complete lie. I rarely ever talk about the marketing or trailers of films I’m writing about because I view all of that as superfluous. What really matters is what happens between the production company logos and the final credits. The team in charge of selling this movie, though, are responsible for a bait-and-switch of such unbelievable scale that it’s impossible not to mention. What I thought I was getting into and what I actually saw were completely different, and that made me wrestle with Colossal in a way I wouldn’t have if I had known nothing going into it.

The elevator pitch premise – and what the trailer would have you believe – is that Colossal is a quirky, comedic twist on the giant monster movie genre (called Kaiju in Japanese cinema). The twist is that our hero Gloria, a down-on-her-luck-just-moved-back-to-her-hometown woman in America, actually controls, with her body movements, a strange creature that materializes in South Korea whenever Gloria steps into a children’s playground at exactly 8:05 a.m.

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Passengers

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Passengers

Passengers is a great movie. At least, it’s a great movie if you hate thinking. The makers and marketers were clearly aware of this. Razzle and dazzle ‘em enough, they must have thought, and they’ll look past the fact that it's deeply flawed on a basic, storytelling level. It’s true enough. If you mentally check out, Passengers is a pretty enjoyable experience.

The tale of two interstellar space travelers, who wake up from hibernation 90 years too soon, is packed with gorgeous special effects and tense action sequences. The two leads have a heavy burden, and they pull it off in grand style. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, semi-stranded like Robinson Crusoe, are on a lonely craft adrift in the vast ocean of space instead of on a deserted island. Almost the entire movie rests on their shoulders, and they prove themselves capable of the task. But they do all that in a movie so clunky and half-baked that it’s easy to forget; the film’s rightful destiny.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The opening crawl is missing. The opening crawl is missing! Those famous paragraphs that follow “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in every Star Wars movie – one of the most iconic things about the series – are absent in Rogue One. I don’t know if that set off shrieks of rage around the internet. I purposefully avoid that sort of thing, but it’s not hard to imagine the internet outrage machine losing their collective minds about this when the mere mention that the next James Bond might be portrayed by a black man nearly broke the internet forever.

Director Gareth Edwards took the opportunity of ditching this de rigueur element as a way to set his entry in the Star Wars franchise apart, while also including a sly nod to it, if you’re paying attention. The opening action is set on a planet like Saturn, complimented with a series of rings. Edwards’ camera drifts in space, looking at the planet, and tilting up to reveal the majestic rings above. In an ingenious touch, the special effects department gave a funny quality to those rings. In a way, they look just like blurry, upside down, and backwards text. We, and the film, Edwards is intimating, are just underneath the events of the official “Episodes” that make up the main story arc of the Star Wars universe. This movie doesn’t have an Episode number, after all. Its full title is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

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