Tag Archives: Science Fiction

CAPSULE: SYNCHRONIC (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides

PLOT: New Orleans paramedics discover that a series of bizarre deaths are linked to a new designer drug called “synchronic.”

Still from Synchronic (2019)

COMMENTS: The designer drug “Synchronic” is not “red marijuana,” as some (including us) had speculated, but comes in pill form and is passingly described as “bath salts.” The “chronic” in the drug’s name doesn’t reference weed at all, but has a different derivation, and the movie doesn’t have any relation to the story shared in Moorhead and Benson’s Resolution and The Endless. Synchronic is, instead, a slightly bigger-budgeted turn towards the mainstream for the pair, with two moderate movie star leads in Anthony Mackie (Marvel universe’s “Falcon”) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Gray).

Unusually, I found Synchronic‘s dramatic setup more entertaining than its sci-fi twist. Steve (Mackie) drinks a lot and pops codeine pills. Is he turning into a “junkie paramedic cliche,” as his partner fears, or is there a deeper reason? While Steve is an aging bachelor still playing the field, Dennis (Dornan) long ago settled down with a wife and kid. Each partner envies the other’s lifestyle just a little.  Dennis’ daughter, Tara, is a good kid but, like a lot of 18-year-olds, unsure what she wants to do with her life; right now, her passion is for staying out all night partying. Meanwhile, the two paramedics are called into scenes where they find zonked-out druggies with strange, sometimes inexplicable injuries—like the skull-faced voodoo practitioner who won’t stop laughing despite his compound fracture—all linked to a new designer drug that’s plaguing the city.

So the characters are likable, their situations dramatic and relatable, and they’re all set up for a speculative blast that will blow the hinges off. The problem is that when the sci-fi twist arrives, it’s basic and contrived, and not weird enough to compensate for its unbelievability. The drug’s mechanism is revealed in explicit detail less than halfway through the movie, taking away a potential source of mystery. If you accept the silly premise, what follows is logical—too logical. Even the characters’ emotional arcs are predictable. The trippy promise of the opener, with reality dissolving and reassembling as the synchronic kicks in on an elevator ride, never materializes. All in all, it’s like a run-of-the-mill episode of the “X-Files”; watchable, but nothing special. Synchronic would have been a promising debut film from a new director, but it’s a bit of a letdown from a duo who looked like they were pushing boundaries and getting weirder and weirder.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With believability being pushed too far, and the film’s direction needing a tighter pace, even the surreal visual effects and trippy weirdness aren’t quite enough to make it work.”–Zoe Margolis, CineVue (festival screening)

CAPSULE: POSSESSOR (2020)

AKA Possessor Uncut

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , ,

PLOT: In the near future, secret elite assassins carry out their work by possessing the bodies of innocent parties through a neural implant; Taysa, a top Possessor, has trouble on her latest assignment when the subject proves capable of sporadically suppressing her control.

Still from Possessor (2020)

COMMENTS: “This film has not been modified from its original version” is an odd notice to see on a movie in its first run. Releasing Possessor as Possessor Uncut is meant to play on the fact that Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature was refused an “R” rating, and the director declined to make the cuts (involving both sex and violence) required for the “restricted” rating. Thirty years ago that would have been a big deal, meaning no advertising in newspapers and boycotts by mainstream theaters (and Blockbuster Video). Nowadays, unrated movies—especially provocative art-house pictures and sordid genre films (Possessor fits both categories)—get theatrical releases all the time with little hoo-ha. Still, after watching a possessed hostess plunge and twist a knife repeatedly into her privileged white male target in Possessor‘s opening sequence, you will understand why they are making a big deal out of the “uncut” nature of this project. Possessor‘s violence is graphic, well-done, and fits the film’s disturbingly sociopathic tone.

Specifics of the technology that allows Possessor‘s assassins to ply their gruesome trade are left largely to our imagination. Some details are plot-important, however: possessors are psychologically tested to make sure their individual memories remain intact after a job, and technicians warn that it’s safe to inhabit the host bodies for only about 72 hours. Storywise, there is actually not a lot to follow: top hitwoman Taysa Vos (Risenborough, looking like she’s inhabiting the body of a young ) is feeling the stress of her lifestyle, spontaneously recalling scenes from her work life as she’s trying to re-establish her bond with her estranged husband and son. Her chillingly businesslike boss (Jason Leigh) calls her in for a lucrative job that involves possessing a man to murder his CEO father-in-law-to be as part of an extremely hostile takeover scheme. Things go badly, naturally, as Taysa finds that her neural connection with target Colin (Abbot) isn’t as steadfast as usual. The subject regains some measure of free will, complicating the job.

Like his father, Cronenberg fils knows when to ratchet up the unease with subtle touches (an establishing shot of skyscraper slowly spinning along the frame’s axis) and when to unleash the hounds. One of the odd features of this film is that our putative protagonist is, by necessity, off screen for most of the action. Her psychological motivations are equally absent; we don’t get any overt explanation as to why she does what she does, what makes her good at it, and why she’s willing to risk her family—and her sanity—for her distasteful job. This blankness makes her seem all the more of a monster, a perfect psychological parasite. The trippy sequences where she and her target battle for control of the body’s will feature images of molded mannequin heads melting and reassembling, and of Risenborough trapped in an ill-fitting mask. The imagery suggests not so much a Persona-styled existential crisis as it does a metaphor for a character battling for her own humanity. While not as aggressively weird as his unsettling debut film Antiviral (no celebrity steaks on offer here), Possessor is dark in the best/worst way, and will satisfy your desire for soul-freezing chills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This Cronenberg’s work is just as odd, bloody and twisted as that of his old man, but he’s not imitating the twistedness… whatever else it is, ‘Possessor’ feels authentically weird.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRUMBS (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: , Selam Tesfayie, Mengistu Berhanu, Tsegaye Abegaz

PLOT: A long-dormant spaceship hovers over an apocalypse-blasted earth, so Candy goes on a quest to secure himself a seat on board.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Plenty of post-apocalyptic movies capture the dregs of civilization as well as Crumbs, but no others that I can think of have a “raised-hand” spaceship, Michael Jordan the god, or Santa Claus inside a bowling alley ball-return.

COMMENTS: Smirking absurdism and epic pathos are in constant tension in Miguel Llansó’s directorial debut. This friction is perfectly encapsulated during an encounter near the end of Crumbs, when we watch the protagonist, Candy, unbutton his shirt—in a display of machismo directed at a burnt-out Santa Claus—to reveal the iconic “Superman” garb. Only, Santa doesn’t recognize it, saying “it looks like a Nazi symbol.” This quip cuts right to the chase: the “superman” was a Nazi ideal, and it was such displays of toxic machismo that brought about the nuclear war.

“Crumbs” aptly describes of what civilization has been reduced to: scavenging and subsistence-level survival, all man’s machines crumbled to rust. Crumbs intersperses its quest narrative with history-laced interludes courtesy of a pawnbroker to whom various wanderers try to sell their findings. A cheap plastic “Max Steel” sword toy is not, as is commonly presumed, from the great artist “Carrefor“, but by “Mattelo“; a Samurai Turtle dated “third century” was “worn by Molegon warriors as a lucky amulet”; “Dangerous“, by Michael Jackson—a third-century farmer—is a gift worthy for a wedding. These items, and more, are crumbs left along Candy’s path as he travels to find Santa Claus in an abandoned pond in the old city.

The narrative is triggered by ominous signs at the bowling alley which Candy (Daniel Tadesse) and Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) have adopted as their home, untold numbers of years after a hinted-at world war. Birdy is convinced that the spaceship—which had hitherto been idling in the sky—has begun to start its engines, and the magnetic field being emitted has triggered the alley’s lights to flicker and the ball-return machine to reactivate. Candy goes off to find the one man who can secure their place on board, while Birdy stays home. She regularly prays at their shrine to Michael Jordan, but is haunted by the voice coming from the ball-return. Investigating it, she finds Santa Claus inside, pacing around a display of toys, asking what her Christmas wish is.

While Llansó’s sophomore feature tickled with its high energy and zany surrealism, Crumbs is a more contemplative work. Its tongue-in-cheek tone is couched within a soft, dreamy tone. The natural beauty of Ethiopia’s wildlands, alongside decayed industrial hulks of machinery, is on full display at the hands of an able and loving cinematographer. Candy is an unlikely hero, a deformed (though not un-handsome) fellow trying to do right by his lover. The weight of Crumbs‘ reality anchors the absurdity until the final moments of the credits. The spaceship sails peacefully toward the æther as two men inside talk about vintage music; then it explodes. Even if reduced to crumbs, Earth is all we’ll have.

Crumbs is available for separate purchase, but it was also released as a bonus feature on Arrow’s 2020 Limited Edition Blu-ray of Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s hard not to succumb at least somewhat to this sci-fi whatsit’s strange, whimsical spell.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

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DEVELOPED BY: Travis Fickett, Terry Matalas

FEATURING: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, , Emily Hampshire, Todd Stashwick,

PLOT: In 2043, the world is decimated by a viral pandemic that occurred in the late 2010’s. Scavenger James Cole (Stanford) is recruited by Katarina Jones (Sukowa), a scientist heading Project Splinter, which can send a person back in time. Cole is sent back to 2015 in the hope that he can prevent the outbreak. He encounters virologist Cassandra “Cassie” Railly (Schull) and enlists her help. They discover that things are not easy, as their attempts to prevent the outbreak are repeatedly foiled by the “Army of The 12 Monkeys” and their leader, “The Witness,” who has a grander plan in mind.

COMMENTS: “The best adaptations of IP aren’t in slavish service to their source material but are inspired by that material to say something new — something personal, something genuine. I’ve come to learn that adapting doesn’t have to be an act of re-creation. Just gratitude. We wanted to take our love of Gilliam’s film and with the advantage of a longer form narrative, more deeply explore what it made us hope and believe about the nature of time.”–series co-creator Terry Matalas.

The “12 Monkeys” series was inspired by the feature film Twelve Monkeys (1995). Generally, no one looks forward to television series based on popular films, although it’s a long established TV subgenre. It’s hard enough making a GOOD film that can hold an audience’s interest; with a television series, one has to repeat that success on a weekly basis, AND maintain quality for several years—if things go well for everyone. Some get lucky & hit gold (“M*A*S*H,” “Friday Night Lights”) while most others crash and burn and end up in the cultural dustbin.

So when it was announced that there would be a series based on Twelve Monkeys on SyFy, the initial reaction wasn’t favorable. After all, the movie was directed by , who puts his distinctive visual style even on what would be considered “work for hire” projects—which Twelve Monkeys technically was (David and Janet Peoples’ based their script on ‘s 1932 short La Jetee). With Gilliam having no involvement whatsoever in the new show, it makes perfect sense that most fans would consider it a dubious enterprise.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to watch the first episode in January 2015 and not find it inept and horrible; in fact, it was interesting enough to wonder how long it could sustain itself before collapsing into The Suck. Fortunately, it never did. Over four seasons, “12 Monkeys” kept its promise to its audience to provide quality storytelling. They knew to leave at the top of their game, as opposed to Continue reading CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

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Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNDERGODS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Chino Moya

FEATURING: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, and ensemble cast

PLOT: “K” and “Z” drive their van around a clapped-out shell of a city collecting dead bodies and telling each other about their dreams.

Still from Undergods (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: The various stories in Undergods interlock with a dreamy (at times, literally) logic worthy of Luis Buñuel. The various future-creepy scenarios are haunting, unsettling, and puzzling, but anchored by two of the most pleasant corpse-haulers one could hope to meet.

COMMENTS: Only the most fragile of barriers protect civilization as we know it today form the looming dystopia of tomorrow. Undergods two guides, body collectors “K” and “Z,” illustrate this point through their narrative dreams, which occasionally bump into reality and each other. Our affable van drivers share a camaraderie forged by their grisly work and offset by their friendly banter and shared can of rum. Moya’s stories unfold and unsteady us in the finest tradition of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, and the Black Mirror television series.

Undergods opens with an ill-boding narrative about a mysterious 11th-floor neighbor, Harry, who is locked out of his apartment and crashes with Ron and Ruth for the weekend, distressing the former and romancing the latter. After a bender, Ron encounters the apartment’s superintendent and learns that he and Ruth are presently the building’s only occupants. Harry is a charlatan. Ron and Harry scuffle in the elevator. The superintendent begins a tour, opening the door to a father and daughter prospective tenants with Ron’s corpse on the floor.

And so it goes in Undergods. That segment segues into a bedtime story being told by that father to his daughter, a story that itself segues back into the world of van-men K and Z. Like a game of “Sammy the Snake,” the chain of narratives grows and twists until, Ouroboros-style, it feeds back into to the conversation about dreams. The vignettes are invariably sad. Perhaps the happiest event is Dominic’s promotion to “head engineer”–which is small comfort, seeing as his wife’s first husband, presumed dead fifteen years prior, has just been released from a prison facility (found in K’s and Z’s milieu) and now she wants to leave him (Dominic, that is, not her recently returned husband). Undergods‘ plot is just begging for a diagram; but unfortunately I don’t make art, I review it.

Even before the first fully-fleshed story unfolds, the dystopia is firmly established. I don’t know what wreck of an old Soviet town Moya filmed in, but it is beautifully run-down and oozing with creepy grandeur. Ashy snow (or snowy ash) falls continually over the nearly-abandoned streets. The film score feels lifted from an early John Carpenter movie, providing further alienation whenever the electro-pop tones sound off. Undergods never seems to stop moving forward, until we find we never left the van. That’s all right: it’s scary outside, and K and Z have rum to share.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chino Moya’s feature debut is a haunting, almost impenetrable film, one billed as a dark fantasy but that in reality resists categorization. It will leave you with more questions than answers, but if you let it suck you into its strange world, you might not end up minding that.” –Thomas O’Connor, Tilt Magazine (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE 2020: MINOR PREMISE (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

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DIRECTED BY: Eric Schultz

FEATURING: Sathya Sridharan, Paton Ashbrook, Dana Ashbrook

PLOT: Ethan uses his brain-mapping device to “massage” his brain to greater heights of intelligence, but a drunken miscalibration leaves his mind splintered.

COMMENTS: It’s ironic that Minor Premise gets saddled with the word “minor,” whereas the short film upon which it was based carried the briefer but more forthright title, “Premise”. This could suggest, perhaps, a comparative deficiency (and act as insurance against stroppy reviewers), but that isn’t for me to say—I have not seen the seven-minute short that became the germ of the ninety-five minute feature. What I can say with certainty is that the title Minor Premise suggests a greater degree of nuance—and there is nuance aplenty in this delightful Cronenberg/Nolan mash-up.

The Cronenberg aspect: Ethan (a bleary-eyed Sathya Sridharan, who seems perpetually covered with insomnia grease) is a brilliant-but-anxious scientist who has just about perfected his father’s memory-imaging machine. Bitterly drunk one evening and reading his father’s notes (mysteriously sent to him), he decides to go full-in with his R-10 machine and grow his intellect with a little synapse massaging. Unfortunately, Ethan didn’t learn an important lesson from eminent teleportator Seth Brundle: never, ever, ever, dive into your own machine while drunk and annoyed. (There’s a reason top scientists are given grad students, y’know?)

The experiment leads to the plot’s Christopher Nolan angle, specifically a conceit similar to his early masterpiece, Memento. Ethan suffered from blackouts prior to this experiment, but afterwards he is reduced to a mere six minutes of awareness for every… how long? As a man of science, he uses each of his six-minute slices as best he can determine what is happening the rest of the time. He is aided by another six-minute self whom he doesn’t remember, but who leaves behind helpful recordings, and also by a comprehensive array of security cameras throughout the house. Working from .mpg files, note scraps, and strange clues in the form of accumulating debris around his home and lab, Ethan discovers that he has “massaged” his disparate emotions into equal, but isolated, Ethan-entities.

It is all too infrequent to come across thoughtful science fiction, but Eric Shultz’s debut feature fits that bill nicely. Minor Premise never gets as dark as Cronenberg (this is not a criticism), and isn’t quite as clockwork-clever as Nolan (a criticism, perhaps, albeit a minor one). But it demonstrates that a new and exciting talent has entered this woefully underpopulated scene. Minor Premise would hold its own in a high-minded pentad capping off the (wonderfully) smarty-pants narrative marathon of The Fly, Pi, Memento, and Primer. Schultz’s movie ends on a happy—and ambiguous—enough note to pleasantly round out your long evening of chin-scratching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though avowedly minor, the premise of Schultz’s film … is certainly convoluted and conceptually challenging… If Schwartz’s film messes with people’s minds metaphorically, the R10 does so literally – and there is a next-generation version of this device on its way. This is where the otherwise locked-in Minor Premise becomes political: because in today’s world of corporate control and narcissistic, lying leaders, we all know, and some of us fear, what it is like to be manipulated, deceived and gaslit by a psychopath.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (festival screening)