Friday, November 9, 2018

Sci Fi Short Theater: Apocalypse Now Now, Anthem, The Cycle, and More

Apocalypse Now Now

Description: Baxter Zevcenko might be a serial killer. His girlfriend, Esme, is missing, and he’s the prime suspect. To clear his name, he’ll turn to Cape Town’s grizzliest, drunkest bounty hunter, Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin. Little does he know that Ronin is a supernatural bounty-hunter, and that he’s about to be dragged headlong into a deep, dark Cape Town underbelly full of monsters and myth, shadowy government forces, bloodthirsty crow-men and a conspiracy across time and space. (More about the film at this link: www.bephatmotel.com/projects#/apocalypse-now-now/

Credits: Michael Matthews (Director), Sean Drummond (Writer)

Starring: Garion Dowds, Louw Venter, Faniswa Yisa

Comments: This is a proof of concept short based on the Charlie Human novel of the same name and I certainly hope they expand this one into a full film. It's Quentin Tarantino does the supernatural apocalypse and it has all the right pieces to make a decent movie.




Anthem

Description: Aliens sift through the contents of a time capsule as flashbacks show the last few minutes of the people who left behind the mementos shortly before the world ends.

Credits: Jarrett lee Conway (Director / Writer)

Starring: Ossie Beck, Sam Feuer, Christina Robinson, Thomas Phillips

Comments: This is a poignant short film that uses its premise quite well, though I would have liked to have seen it expanded a bit further (not necessarily feature length). I notice in the comments on YouTube that some assume that the film has a particular political point of view, but I think they are missing the point.




The Cycle

Description: An apprentice of magic finds out, that she herself is her greatest enemy. This video is a student short film, made in Berlin.

Credits: David Schuster (Director / Writer)

Starring: Marie Bebber, Steven M. Gilbert, Lucas Wija

Comments: This is an enjoyable fantasy short that could be fleshed out into a full film. The CGI is not the greatest, about video game quality, but it is still pretty decent considering this is a student film.




Pets

Description: The future is clean and easy, with the intelligent spheres guiding you through. This video is a student movie, made in Berlin.

Credits: David Wunderlich (Director / Writer)

Starring: Steven Preisner, Almuth Jabs, Frank Rungwald, Carole Lunt

Comments: This is an interesting little sci fi film that might just make you wonder who is really in control next time you look at one of the your smart devices.




Embers and Dust

Description: For a curious young boy, The War of the Worlds is just the beginning. On the evening of October 30th, 1938 Orson Welles’ voice traveled far across the radio waves, bringing word of an invading alien army from Mars. The theatricality and delivery of the performance, along with recent memories of the Hindenburg disaster (one year prior), sent many listeners into a panic. Unfortunate coincidence would fall upon the town of Concrete WA where, at the height of the invading alien attack, a power transformer blew out sending the entire town and surrounding areas into darkness.

Credits: Patrick Biesemans (Writer / Director)

Starring: Joel Nagel, Virginia Logan, Henry Gagliardi

Comments: A nice piece of retro-sci fi with a very cinematic feel to it. Seems almost like it could have been part of a larger Spielberg-type film and I'd like to see this one expanded to feature length.

Friday, October 12, 2018

TV Review: Manifest

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This Lost-lookalike has some interesting ideas but does not appear to be built for the long haul.

NBC’s new series Manifest follows the passengers and crew of an airplane that disappears for over five years then mysteriously reappears and lands with no explanation for the absence.  For those on the plane, it only seems like a few hours have passed.  But the rest of the world assumed the plane had crashed and all aboard were lost.  And if this premise is starting to sound a bit like Reverse-Lost, that appears to be exactly what the show is going for.  Mysteries upon mysteries abound, and we are introduced to more and more people from the plane who all seem to share an uncanny connection.

After three episodes, though, the creative team has failed to demonstrate that they grasp what made Lost a must-watch show when it first debuted (and throughout its six-year run).  The veteran show gave us interesting, colorful, and diverse characters amongst its principals, each who had a well-developed backstory.  We became engaged in the characters right away, and the mysteries of the island just added to the intrigue of the show.  Viewers were drawn back each week to learn more about this cast of characters while also putting together the clues for the over-arching mystery.

Manifest, on the other hand, has so far loaded up on stock television characters and stories while throwing in bits of mystery relating to the disappearance and how it has affected those from the plane.  A few of the characters step away from television stereotypes, particularly Cal (played by Jack Messina) and Saanvi (played by Parveen Kaur), but the rest seem to fade into the background, including the show’s leads Michaela Stone (played by Melissa Roxburgh) and Ben Stone (played by Josh Dallas).  Add to this procedural storylines with plenty of soap opera asides, and you have a mish-mash of genres that never really distinguishes itself.

There is perhaps an intriguing storyline here and the show could start to find its legs after a few more episodes, but without interesting enough characters and more original ideas, it seems like diminishing returns will set in pretty quickly.  Manifest reminds me very much of FlashForward, The Event, Alcatraz, and other Lost-wannabes in that it has some potential but it is mired too much in television tropes and attempts to substitute unresolved mysteries for stories.  Sci fi fans like myself are likely already losing interest in the show, and the general television audience will probably start tuning out when they grow frustrated with the murky storylines.

Ratings-wise, this one has actually done quite well for NBC through its first three episodes.  But I personally am ready to tune out considering there are so many better options for viewing in the Peak TV era.  If Manifest continues on its current path, my guess is that the audience will erode and this will end up as another one-season-and-done Lost-imitator like the shows mentioned above.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Sci Fi Short Theater: The Looking Planet, Final Offer, Adagio, and More

The Looking Planet

Description: During the construction of the universe, a young member of the Cosmos Corps of Engineers decides to break some fundamental laws in the name of self-expression.

Credits: Eric Law Anderson (Director / Writer)

Starring: Samuel Hery, Joe Capalletti, Cindy Robinson

Comments: This film may not fit well with the theories on the creation of the universe in your science text book, but we'll call it an alternate explanation. Beautifully animated, this one is rather poetic and great fun as well.




Final Offer

Description: A down-on-his-luck lawyer awakes in a doorless room to find he's been selected to negotiate on behalf of the human race.

Credits: Mark Slutsky (Director / Writer)

Starring: Anna Hopkins, Aaron Abrams

Comments: Sometimes those legal technicalities can work in your favor as this fun little short proves. This one makes good use of the talented Anna Hopkins who has appeared on The Expanse, Dark Matter, Arrow, and more. Aaron Abrams also does a good job and he has previously been seen on Blindspot, Hannibal, and more




Adagio

Description: A young man sacrifices himself for the lives of a thousand, but will he come back? Based on a story by Robert Heinlein.

Credits: Christian Doran (Director / Writer)

Starring: Matt Popp, Mary Musolino, Rob De Fries

Comments: This is a very moving and well-done piece of science fiction. I've not read the short story it is based on, so I don't know how well it sticks to the source material. But what Doran has done with it here is quite good and I would like to see more work from this director.




Wire Cutters

Description: A chance encounter proves fateful for 2 robots mining on a desolate planet.

Credits: Jack Anderson (Director / Writer)

Comments: This is a nice bit of animated fun with quite excellent CGI. Would love to see them do some more shorts with the same robots.




Hope

Description: With the world ablaze, a lone survivor must preserve all life before meeting his fate. Hope follows Dr. Jacob Thorn's final act to ensure humanity's future after all life is wiped out by an asteroid impact. High above Earth in a space station built solely for this task Thorn has to cope with unimaginable loss as he carries out his mission. More info on this film at this link.

Credits: Frank Anderson (Director / Writer)

Starring: Troy Halverson, Amor Owens, Sheena Wiley

Comments: This is a nice piece of apocalyptic sci fi with a bit of hope to it (thus the title). And the CGI is quite good as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Anti-Blockbusters: Ex Machina

Rating: 4 ½ out 5 Stars

Bottom Line: In the tradition of the best science fiction movies, this near-flawless film uses its sci fi elements to address moral dilemmas we face in our current social setting.

This movie begins as programmer Caleb Smith, who works for the very Google-like company Blue Book, learns that he has won a one-week trip to the home of the company's reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman. Once Caleb arrives there, he finds that Nathan has built a very human-like robot who he has named Ava. This robot has already passed a Turing test--which determines a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior--and Nathan wants Caleb to continue to test it to prove that it truly possesses artificial intelligence. Through the process, though, Caleb starts to develop feelings for Ava. And when he learns that Nathan plans on upgrading her, which will wipe out her current personality, he decides to try an save her current version from being destroyed.

This movie was written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Annihilation) and it was his directorial debut. He does an excellent job with both the script and helming the film and delivers what I believe should be counted as a new classic among science fiction movies. The pacing is slow but never plodding as the story unfolds carefully but does not proceed quite how you may expect. I'm trying to be as spoiler free in this review as possible because the film has plenty of twists and turns which are what truly make it into a great movie.

It's no accident that Nathan's company is analogous to Google because the film addresses issues that impact us due to the rise of tech-giants like that company and others. Artificial intelligence definitely is one of the moral quandaries tackled, but also the constant monitoring and surveillance as well as the extensive data collected on all of us that use their products. In the tradition of the best science fiction tales, this movie looks at how technology impacts us with all of the dilemmas that entails. And that sinks in pretty hard when Caleb comes to an important realization later in the film (again, no spoilers).

The cast is minimal with four actors taking up the vast majority of the screen time. Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan, went on to play Poe Dameron in the Star Wars films, but the other three actors are not well known in the States. Still, they are more than up to the challenge of carrying this film and work quite well as an ensemble. Isaac probably has the most dominating presence, especially early on, but Alicia Vikander as Ava ends up stealing plenty of scenes, particularly toward the end.

The special effects are none short of excellent, though judiciously used. The majority of the visual effects are used on Ava's machine body and these are flawless. But unlike the typical Hollywood blockbuster, this film does not give us an excess of CGI, nor does it live and die on its visuals alone. Ex Machina has a carefully crafted script that employs good sfx to take it to that next level, but the story and the actors are what truly set it apart. It is not a mega-budget film delivering non-stop action and CGI-overload. It is a much more somber piece that uses its science fiction premise to raise questions very important to our present social situation as well as the direction we are heading. That's what good sci fi movies do.

Available from Amazon.com:

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The X-Files Cold Cases and Stolen Lives (Audio Dramas)

The X-Files: Cold Cases and The X-Files: Stolen Lives are two audio dramas produced exclusively for Audible that brought back the original cast to voice their roles from the show.  They are adapted from the comic book series The X-Files: Season 10 that was published by IDW and written by Joe Harris (Locke & Key) with an assist from Chris Carter.  The series begins by revisiting the lives of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully who have been in hiding and under FBI protection since the events at the end of the ninth and final season of the television series.  Deputy Director Skinner seeks Mulder's help and Scully in kidnapped which leads to a re-opening of the X-Files and kicks off a series of adventures for our favorite FBI paranormal investigators.

These two audio dramas are great fun, providing the perfect return to the X-Files universe and a much more satisfying continuation of the series than the recent revival which has aired sixteen very uneven episodes thus far.  Joe Harris understands the nostalgia value that the original series holds and he makes great use of that, but he also knows how to tell a decent story, and these dramas draw as much on that as fond memories from the original show.  He gives a plausible explanation for where Mulder and Scully have been since the events of the TV series wrapped up in 2002 and why they are now coming back out in to the light of day.  He also brings back many of the favorite characters (and characters we loved to hate) from the show, with reasonable justifications for the presence of those who died off in the series.

Much like the original series, this is comprised of several stand-alone stories as well episodes that are part of a bigger story arc that draws everything together. And it does a good job of recapping much of the mythology from the showing, giving a refresher for returning fans and a catch-up for new listeners.  The television revival should have drawn heavily from the Season 10 comics (which spanned 25 issues), at least for the basic setup, because it is much more faithful to the original series.

As for the audio adaptation, it comes off quite well as expected considering the high-power cast it has on hand. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back in the leads along with Mitch Pileggi as Skinner and many of the original actors from the series (I won't list them all because quite a number count as spoilers). Even Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish show up as Doggett and Reyes, though their participation is minor. I only have one nitpick and that is that the audio dramas could have used a narrator. There are several times where the actor's dialogue tells the audience what they are doing ("I am walking into the house. I am opening the door to the room. I am walking into the dark room.") and it sounds rather stilted and unrealistic. Other times, you just have to guess what is going on based on the sound effects, which is often times difficult. But apart from that, this is a first rate production.

These two audio dramas are must-haves for long-time fans of the show and are well worth the time you will spend listening to them (both clock in at around four hours). They are only available through Audible that this time, but if you sign up with their two free books promotion (see link below), then you get them both for nothing. And Audible does have the largest selection of audio books out there if you do want to continue your audio adventures (unfortunately they do everything in their proprietary format, though). If you still have a bad taste in your mouth from the revival series, these audio dramas just might be the perfect thing to wash that away. They offer good stories that are faithful to the original series and that are well-performed. X-Files fans will definitely not be disappointed by these.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Anti-Blockbusters: Europa Report

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This movie does a good job of merging the found-footage technique with a strong science fiction story.

This found-footage film came out in 2013 and did a very good job of adapting that filming style to a science fiction tale. The movie follows a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa which is believed to be the most likely place to find life in our solar system. A technical malfunction causes the astronauts to lose contact with Earth, but they decide to go forward with their mission. Once they arrive at the Moon, they face additional challenges, but they are not deterred because of the potential for the scientific revelations this moon may hold. The story is told through footage from the cameras onboard the ship and the astronauts’ suits. It is presented in a somewhat disjointed style, but it all comes together at the end.

The found-footage style has worked quite well for horror films,--obvious examples being The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity--but it has not been used too often for science fiction entries. Apart from 2008’s Monster and 2009’s Distict 9, I can’t remember any other science fiction films that have employed the found-footage technique (I’m counting movies like Cloverfield and Apollo 18 as sci fi / horror hybrids). But Europa Report is a straight science fiction film without any supernatural elements and only a slight bit of horror. Basically, imagine the Jupiter mission from 2001: A Space Odyssey as a found-footage film and without the trippy ending, and that is what you have here.

Europa Report can be a slow film, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It builds its story at a steady but never plodding pace and relies heavily on realistic science for its premise. Classic examples that it would compare to are 2001, Andromeda Strain, and Silent Running, and a more recent comparison would be 2009’s Moon. Europa Report stands up quite well in this company, though I don’t know that it quite achieves must-watch status. Still, it is an excellent science fiction film that treats its material with intelligence and does not employ the typical and hackneyed Hollywood hooks to keep its audience engaged.

The film was made on a budget of around $10 million and does a hell of a good job of stretching that to its limit. It never looks cheap and actually delivers some striking visuals at times. Films like these prove that the $100 to $200 million budgets of Hollywood Blockbusters are more bloat than brawn and that a good movie can be made with much less money. Europa Report also makes good use of its cast as it is very much an ensemble drama carried forward by solid performances from all involved. No one actor really stands out above the others, but each makes their mark.

My only gripe is that it probably could have been edited better. The story jumps around from present to past events (all caught on the cameras) and can be confusing at times. But as I mentioned above, it does come together quite well by the end, so consider this just a nitpick as Sebastian Cordero’s directing keeps the story moving along. Apart from that this is a solid science fiction entry that offers a good respite from the non-stop action and CGI-overload from the mega-budget films Hollywood regularly throws at us. It is a throwback of sorts to more somber filmmaking that adds in the more recently popular found-footage gimmick, but it combines these masterfully and delivers an engaging and well-made film.

Buy Europa Report on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.com:

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Sci Fi Short Theater: Cockpit, FTL, Hybrids, and More

Cockpit

Description: In the midst of a deep space war, Carrier Captain must decide if it is worth risking the security of Earth to save a suffocating pilot who may or may not have been corrupted by the mind controlling aliens.

Credits: Jesse Griffith (Director / Writer)

Starring: Ronny Cox, Hellena Taylor, Karl Champley

Comments: This space adventure is quite a good and tense bit of sci fi. The sfx appear to be a combination of practical effects and CGI and can be somewhat cheesy at times, but I rather liked them. This was done in 2012 and has been on the festival circuit for a while winning several awards. The director plans on eventually doing a feature length film based on the concept. You can read more about the film at its website cockpitthemovie.com.




FTL

Description: A lone astronaut testing the first faster-than-light spacecraft travels farther than he imagined possible.

Credits: Adam Stern (Director / Writer)

Starring: Ty Olsson, Karin Konoval, Aliyah O'Brien

Comments: This is a nice bit of sci fi with excellent CGI animation. Definitely worth the fifteen minutes it takes to watch it.




Hybrids

Description: After the death of her daughter ex-special forces soldier seeks revenge on the aliens that committed brutal murder.

Credits: Patrick Kalyn (Writer / Director)

Starring: Daniella Evangelista, Kaitlyn Bernard, Lee Tomaschefski

Comments: This is a nice bit of sci fi action with a touch of depth to it. It has a strong female lead and I liked the CGI for the aliens. And it is a decent enough premise that it could continue into a web series or a full-fledged film.




Sol 87

Description: On his isolation cycle to Mars, Astronaut Commander Stephen James inadvertently discovers the darker side of the planet. This Science fiction thriller explores what a mission to Mars could look like in the near future.

Credits: Justin Kruse (Director / Writer), James McDonald (Writer), Quddus Ajimine (Writer)

Starring: James McDonald

Comments: This is a very well down sci fi film with impressive special effects and a nice use of landscapes. It starts out very reminiscent of The Martian, but quickly takes a darker turn. Would love to see this one fleshed out into a feature length movie.





R'ha

Description: Caught in a large-scale and endless war, the sophisticated and utterly unstoppable machines seem to be winning the battle against their adversaries: a proud alien species. As a result, a technologically perfect robot interrogates a captive alien with the intention to locate the rest of his race's survivors, pressing on with more and more unrelenting and horrible tortures. But the alien knows that he holds his species' last chance of survival and he won't go down without a fight. IMDb.com

Credits: Kaleb Lechowski (Writer / Director)

Starring: David Masterson

Comments: The CGI animation in this short film is quite good and it delivers an interesting story of man (make that alien) vs. machine. A nice little piece of sci fi.