Movie Review: The World’s End (2013)


Title: The World’s End
Release Date: 19 July 2013
Director: Edgar Wright
Production Company: Relativity Media | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Big Talk Pictures | Dentsu
Summary/Review: After Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this is the third in the trilogy of Three Flavours Cornetto genre comedies directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Pegg plays Gary King, a 40-year-old manchild whose greatest memory is the night in 1990 when he finished school and did a famous pub crawl in his hometown of Newton Haven. Since Gary and his friends made it only to 9 of the 12 pubs, he feels that he will only find satisfaction by getting the group back together for another try.  His friends are now all successful professionals in stark contrast to Gary’s endless childhood.  The group includes Andy (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and they are also joined by Steven’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike).

The movie is good contrast of youthful ambitions to middle-age concessions.  Amid the great comic moments are some really great moments of these men opening their hearts about their troubled lives.  And if that wasn’t enough, there is the strange alien feeling of returning to one’s childhood hometown to find that everything seems different and no one remembers you.  In the case of this movie, it’s because Newton Haven has been taken over by actually aliens who have replaced the populace with android duplicates.

The movie blends together the science fiction story perfectly with the comedic beats and heartfelt moments.  It also has a great soundtrack of early 90s Madchester tunes, including the perfect deployment of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” in the denouement. If I have one criticism it may be the cast is too large and a friend group of 3 or 4 may have been more manageable than 5.  But it’s a small criticism in highly-entertaining movie that may just be my favorite of the trilogy.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)


In the final installment of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s, the aliens come and discover us!

Title: Arrival 
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Lava Bear Films | 21 Laps Entertainment
Summary/Review:

A dozen strange spacecraft arrive in various parts of the Earth.  One of them is in the United States in a remote part of Montana.  The US Army recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned professor of linguistics, to help them learn the aliens’ language so they can communicate.  With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks races to create some rudimentary form of communication the giant squid-like creatures before the more military-minded in the US and abroad take defensive action.

I like how this movie has a slow build.  We see the arrival of the alien ships from Banks’ perspective as it goes from a news story that interrupts her work day to something she’s personally involved in. The design of the ship and how the alien “heptapods” interact with the human scientists has brings a nice level of strangeness.  I’m sure actual linguists can poke lots of holes in how linguistics is used in the movie, but it works as a plot device for novices like me.

The basic premise of the film is one that goes back at least to The Day the Earth Stood Still, in that aliens are trying to help humanity from our own self-destruction.  Having recently watched Gravity and Interstellar, I also see a lot of common plot points, expressing our present-day concerns.  One weird overlap between Arrival and Gravity is that the lead woman character is grieving the death of a daughter (although that plays into a plot twist in Arrival).  The movie rests on a terrific performance by Amy Adams and the interesting direction and design of the spacecraft and aliens.  The rest of the cast doesn’t get to do much and various subplots are kind of “meh,” which keeps this from being a great film, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)


Here is part two of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s!

Title: Interstellar
Release Date: November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Warner Bros. Pictures
Legendary Pictures | Syncopy | Lynda Obst Productions
Summary/Review:

In the near future, the Earth has reached a crisis point and after a population crash, the surviving humans focus on raising food while facing blight and Dust Bowl-like conditions.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot forced into farming who raises his children to be intellectually curious about science, especially his daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy).  Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper to pilot a space mission along with his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway).

Their goal is to explore a wormhole that sentient beings have opened near Saturn that may lead to habitable planets that humanity could escape to.  Because of relativity, Cooper and the crew of the Endurance, which includes a couple of weird looking robots named TARS and CASE (operated by Bill Irwin, of Mr. Noodle fame), age at a slower rate that the people on Earth.  So while Cooper and Dr. Brand are making contact with previous explorers who identified promising planets, an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works on a gravity propulsion system that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.

This movie feels a lot like science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s than the flashy sci-fi movies of the 2010s. It’s also reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it tells a story mostly within the parameters of hard science, although like 2001, the denouement is fantastical.  McConaughey delivers all of his dialogue in a gravely near-whisper, which gets grating at times, but it’s a different role for him than say Dazed and Confused or How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysInterstellar felt overlong as a movie, although I could see it being fleshed out into a successful limited TV series. Overall, Interstellar is an interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining film of adventure and human drama.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)


Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.

Title: Gravity
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj
Summary/Review:

The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission.  Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.

I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months.  I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film.  In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long.  It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.

I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film.  I’ll have to watch some more of his films.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery (2020)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 3
Episodes:13
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review:

Picking up from the cliffhanger end of Season 2, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of the USS Discovery successfully travel 930 years into the future.  Their mission to save the universe is a success, but they find new troubles in the future.  Specifically, sources of dilithium for warp travel through space have dried up and an event called The Burn additionally destroyed many starships.  Unable to travel long distances, the Federation has dwindled in size while pirates and mercenaries operate freely in many systems.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Star Trek:Discovery and continue to do so.  Season 3 is definitely the best of the three seasons thus far, and I continue to like the cast and the characters they play.  Sending Discovery to the future helps in that the show can finally shake off being overshadowed by the original series and can feature more futuristic technology without it looking anachronistic.

Some other highlights of Season 3:

  • introduction of Book (David Ajala), a courier or smuggler from the 32nd century who becomes a love interest for Michael Burnham
  • introduction of Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio), a teenage human who is bonded with a Trill symbiont. They have a Wesley Crusher teen genius flair to them (NOTE: I know in some quarters of Star Trek fandom, Wesley is hated, but I’ve always liked the character so this is a compliment)
  • there feels to be a lot more exploring of “strange new worlds” in this series although it is tied to the season-long arc.  Seeing this far into the future of the Star Trek universe is fascinating in of itself
  • a completely bonkers call back to the Guardian of Forever
  • fleshing out of the bridge crew characters that we learned little about in the first two seasons, especially Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Joan Owesekun (Oyin Oladejo)
  • Grudge the cat
  • the final three episodes are a highwater mark for story, action, and direction.  These episodes are the first the really feel like they are made in the same spirit as the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. We even get to see Doug Jones in a rare performance as Saru without prosthetics

There are also a few downsides:

  • the continued presence of the evil Mirror Universe Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) is a drag.  Yeoh is a great actor but she’s saddled with two much air time that could be dedicated to more interesting things. Georgiou does finally depart the show (for a planned spinoff series), but not before we have to sit through a two-parter that brings us back to the Mirror Universe for gratuitous nastiness. The other characters fawning over her at her memorial service seems more like a tribute to Yeoh than to Georgiou who everyone rightly would’ve hated
  • while the show has gradually shed being grimdark for grimdark’s sake over the course of three season, it’s still baked into the show with crazy plot twists often substituted for good storytelling.  And there’s too much gratuitous violence, even in the good episodes where Burnham chokes a person to death with her legs.
  • while I generally like Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as Michael Burnham, I feel that the writers are overdoing it by having her be central to every story in every episode.  Even Kirk and Picard were left out of smattering of episodes in the old shows. As the series ends, Saru is apparently leaving the show and Burnham takes over as captain. The loss of one of the best characters and the further centering of Burnham makes me a bit uneasy about the future of the show.

But as I said earlier, this is the best season of Discovery so far and with it finishing so strongly, I do have high hopes that the show will continue to improve and earn a place in Star Trek lore.  My subscription to Paramount+ runs out before season 4 premieres and I don’t know if and when I will re-subscribe, but I expect somewhere down the road I will watch future seasons of the show.  In the meantime, I’m inspired to go back and rewatch Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation and finally work my way through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.  This will take some time, for sure.

 

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Book Review: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2020)
Summary/Review:
Favorite Passages:
Recommended books:

Timothy Zahn introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn as the Imperial antagonist to the New Republic in his 1990s trilogy of Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command.  A more recent trilogy gives us a Thrawn origin story of sorts as he is found by the Empire, presumably in exile, and then rising up the ranks of the Imperial navy in Thrawn, Alliances, and Treason. Chaos Rising begins a new trilogy of books that go even further back in Thrawn’s life to his rise in the military of his own people, the Chiss Ascendancy.

The novel tells two intertwined stories.  The main narrative set in the “present day” deals with a new threat to the Chiss Ascendancy. Thrawn is tasked with rooting out the new enemy.  His tactical genius is impeccable but Thrawn is not skilled in dealing with the internal politics of the isolationist Ascendancy and the infighting among and within its Nine Ruling Families.

Thrawn’s ventures into the mysterious region of space called the Chaos bring him in touch with the old Republic during the Clone Wars.  In fact, a scene from Thrawn: Alliances is retold from a different perspective. Chiss ships navigate space with the help of force-sensitive girls who are known in the Chiss language as “sky-walkers” (a funny coincidence). This novel introduces former sky-walker, Thalias, now an adult, becomes the caregiver for the sky-walker on Thrawn’s ship.  Thrawn sees Thalias’ talent and their collaboration on the mission is a central part of the story.

Chapters entitled “memories” tell the story of the early days in the military of Thrawn and his mentor Ar’alani.  Both stories tie together in a captivating adventure and thriller, and Thrawn remains one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars universe.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Last Command by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: The Last Command
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012) [Originally published April 1, 1993]
Summary/Review:

The finale of “The Thrawn Trilogy” is an exciting culmination of the shaky New Republic’s stand against the cunning plans of Grand Admiral Thrawn to reestablish the Empire.  It’s great to have Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio all working together.  Then there are wild cards like Mara Jade, a tentative ally who is sworn to kill Luke for her former master Palpatine, and the mad Jedi clone C’baoth who believes that he rules the Empire instead of Thrawn.  The book could be trimmed of some of the excessively talk parts, and I could do without all the subplots involving Talon Karrde and other smugglers, but it is a satisfying conclusion.

I still think this books could be the inspiration for movies set after the destruction of the Second Death Star.  They would have to be animated movies, because of the age and deaths of the cast members.  But I think you could make a good story with elements such as Thrawn, Mara Jade,  and the Noghri.  Things would have to be adjusted to fit into the Sequel Trilogy, such as Leia giving birth to one child instead of twins.  I’d also dispense with C’baoth and anything to do with cloning since clones were already central to the Prequels and Rise of Skywalker.  But there’s a good kernel here for a fun film trilogy or maybe a Disney+ series.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Star Trek: Picard (2020)


TitleStar Trek: Picard
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 1
Episodes:10
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Weed Road Pictures | Escapist Fare
Roddenberry Entertainment | CBS Studios
Summary/Review:

Beloved character Jean-Luc Picard, played by the even more beloved actor Patrick Stewart, returns to the small screen nearly 20 years after his last appearance in Star Trek: Nemesis (the only one of the 10 films in the original Star Trek film series that I’ve never watched). The premise of the series is that 14 years before it begins, Admiral Picard was active in relocating the Romulan people before the star near their home planet went supernova. After synthetic life forms carry out a devastating act of sabotage on the Federation’s facilities on Mars, the Federation calls off the relocation project and ban all synthetic life.  Angry at these two betrayals, Picard resigns from Starfleet.

In the present day a young woman, Dahj (Isia Briones), seeks out Picard’s help after realizing that she is an android created from the remains of Picard’s friend Data (Brent Spiner) .  Romulan spies kill Dahj, but not before Picard learns that she has an identical twin, Soji, working at a Romulan outpost on an abandoned Borg cube called The Artifact.

Picard puts together a crew to help find and help Soji.  This includes a friend and colleague who helped with Romulan relocation, Raffi (Michelle Hurd), who struggles with substance abuse. Raffi finds a captain with a ship, La Sirena, Chris (Santiago Cabrera) who has a traumatic background in Starfleet.  They are joined by Agnes (Alison Pill), a synthetic life expert who is naive about space travel.  Along the way they pick up Elnor (Evan Evagora), a samurai-like Romulan who  was raised by a sect of warrior nuns to provide protection. To please the fans, familiar characters from the Star Trek franchise make appearances, including former Borg Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), and Picard’s crewmates from Enterprise, Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi ( Marina Sirtis).  Brent Spiner also returns to play Data in dream sequences and Altan Inigo Soong, the son of Data’s creator.  One of the weird aspects of the show is that Picard not only quit Starfleet, but hasn’t kept in touch with any of his friends which is both out of character and used to create artificial tension.

In the early episodes, the show moves slowly, setting up Picard’s current situation and introducing the new characters.  There are elements of mystery and spy thriller with Picard thrust into the role of detective.  It was a refreshing change from the fast-paced action for action’s sake of Star Trek: Discovery.  By the end of episode 3 when we finally see Picard on the bridge of a starship and hear him say “Engage!,” it is a cheezy moment for the fans but one that is well-earned.  Unfortunately, during the second half of the season the show goes off the rails.  All the worst instincts of Discovery for shocking twists are indulged and a lot of drama is forced from the characters making bold choices to raise the stakes that seem irrelevant a few scenes later.

For a show called Picard, the title character seems lost in the crowded cast.  And yet, we don’t really get to know the new characters all that well either.  Sometimes they seem to do things that are out of character, but then their characters never seem to be developed well enough to know in the first place.  I loved Star Trek: Generation as a kid, but the level of graphic violence and profanity in Picard that makes it “gritty and dark,” makes me not want to share it with my kids. There was some promise in Picard, and maybe it will be fulfilled in the upcoming two seasons that are in production, but right now I don’t feel compelled at all to want to watch them.

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