Rogue One

(watched in flight)

I wasn’t expecting much, given the generally mediocre reviews, but I thought this Star Wars prequel was surprisingly good.  The story is simply told — young girl abandoned in childhood searches for her father, who has an important secret.  She meets other people, who offer to help her, and her quest winds up helping them as well.

As may be apparent, the movie doesn’t stray far from the George Lucas universe.  There are new planets and new characters, but they’re mostly just variations of people and places we’ve seen before.  On the other hand, the George Lucas universe is no bad place to be, And if the movie doesn’t have some of the thrilling flights of imagination of Lucas at his best, it also avoids the moral confusion and weird storylines of Lucas at his worst.

The special effects are pretty good, but not over the top, and work well even on the small screen. There are enough references to previous Star Wars movies (the blue milk, dancing holograms, some iconic lines) to make long-time fans happy, but enough new plot twists that those fans won’t think they’ve seen this movie before (looking at YOU, Force Awakens).

What sets this movie apart from most other Star Wars films, though, is the presence of quality actors.  Felicity Jones is very good as the protagonist, and the supporting cast, including outstanding actors like Mads Mikkelson and Forrest Whitaker, is excellent as well.  The movie gives a glimpse of what the Lucas prequels might have been like with a more actor-focused director.

Advertisements

Travelers

Scientists in the future, seeking to avoid some unspecified calamity a few years from now, send travelers back through time to try and prevent it.  The travelers jump into the bodies of folks who are about to die, in order to carry out a variety of missions designed to change the past.  Although scenario is somewhat similar to Twelve Monkeys, here we never see the future dystopia — virtually all the action takes place in the present day.  And here there are hundreds of travelers, scattered in small teams around the globe.  The travelers, despite their advanced technology, encounter unexpected difficulties — one guy discovers, for example, that his “host” was a drug addict, with a physical addiction that he has to deal with.  And it quickly becomes obvious that the future government in charge of designing time-changing missions may be making other mistakes as well, and risk actually making the future worse.  A large part of the plot deals with how the travelers struggle with how far “off-book” they can, or should go.  Very well done.

Series 1 currently available on Netflix. Series 2 will be available later this year.

Twelve Monkeys (Amazon / Syfy)

A few years from now, an epidemic kills some huge fraction of Earth’s human population, leading to the virtual collapse of human civilization.  A small group of scientists develop time travel, and sends individual travellers back to our era to try to stop the epidemic.  Changing the past is hard.  And if you do manage it, other stuff happens that you might not expect, and that you might not like

The show is based on the same book as the 1990s movie, and follows the same basic story line, with a few tweaks.  In the movie, the Army of the 12 Monkeys was basically a McGuffin; here, it’s an important part of the plot. And the character played by Brad Pitt in the movie is played by a woman here.  But where the movie ended with the death of the original traveler (Bruce Willis), here, the traveler survives to try again.  And again.  It’s more interesting than you might imagine, although some of the episodes are better than others.   Like many sci/fi programs without big budgets for special effects, the show spends more time on plot and character development, to good effect.  The writers also have a refreshingly light touch in dealing with this bleak scenario — I’m pretty sure they set a series of episodes in the 1940s just because the costumes would be cool.

Series 1 and 2 available for purchase on Amazon.  Series 3 premieres at the end of April on SyFy.

The Expanse (Amazon/Syfy)

This series uses a classic near-future sci/fi scenario, where Earth has colonized other worlds in the solar system.  The Mars colony has become independent, but Earth still operates (and oppresses) mining colonies in the asteroid belt.  As the story begins, a Belter ship answers a distress call from another ship outside the normal shipping lanes.  Things do not go well.

The series is part space detective story, part political thriller, and part speculative fiction about a Bladerunneresque society in the Belt.  One of the things I like about this program is that all this future technology, while advanced, doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. The Belter ship is held together, more or less, with the 22nd Century equivalent of duct tape — there’s even a rat onboard.  The special effects, particularly the spaceships, are surprisingly good, considering that it’s TV.  But the money spent on special effects was not at the expense of plot or character development.  There’s even a bit of humor — the detective who always wears a hat (even on a world with no outdoors), and a Mormon elder trying to bankroll a ship capable of interstellar travel — still looking for Planet Kolob, I guess.  Best of all, the show follows a conventional narrative structure — beginning, middle, and end.  There are some flashbacks, but you always know what time period you’re looking at.  Highly recommended.

Series 1 available on Amazon (free for Prime subscribers).  Series 2 currently running on SyFy, and available for purchase on Amazon.

Humans (AMC)

The first season of this British TV program about androids designed for robot-like service, a few of whom accidentally develop consciousness, aired in Britain two years ago.  The second season has just started airing in the US on AMC.  In between, HBO aired a big-budget series called Westworld which covered much of the same ground.  This show is better. As is often the case, working with a lower budget forced Human’s  developers to focus on character and plot instead of relying on special effects to build an audience.  As a result, you have a wonderful collection of complex characters and interactions.  Humans have a range of responses to the conscious androids (they’re not all perverts), and the androids have a variety of responses to various humans too.  Best of all, the story follows a single timeline and all the action is presented as factual — a traditional method of storytelling which has become all too rare in an era of multiple timelines and unreliable narratives.

Check it out.

Arrival

I enjoyed this movie, and was tremendously moved by the ending, even though, having read the novella, I knew what was coming.

The story is simple enough — a dozen alien space ships suddenly appear above the earth.  Why are they here?  Various governments put together teams of specialists, from linguists to mathematicians, to attempt to communicate.  Stuff happens.

Amy Adams, as the master linguist, gives a wonderful performance.  It didn’t attract Oscar attention — Oscars tend to go to actors who play damaged people who undergo dramatic transformation.  Here, most of Adams’ character transformation takes place in her head.  But whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her.

Where the film really shines, though, is in its astonishing visual imagery.  It’s not merely pretty — although there are plenty of dramatic vistas. Nor is it merely a matter of special effects — although they way they depict the alien gravity field is remarkable.  It is a tour-de-force of visual imagination — from the odd-shaped “how can that possibly exist” alien spacecraft, to the weirdly beautiful pictograms, even to the fractal earrings your eye barely register.  I guess it’s not that surprising that the director is French, a country whose best art has always been visual   (Not all cultural stereotypes are false.)

Highly recommended.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

The second season, now available on Amazon, goes far beyond Phillip K. Dick’s book, which makes sense, since PKD didn’t really provide an ending.   The three protagonists — Frank, Juliana and Joe — follow their own story arcs this season.  Each character faces his own moral dilemmas,where the “right” decisions — either morally or operationally — are not immediately apparent.  We get a glimpse of life in 1960s Berlin, where the children of the elite dabble in forbidden music and psychedelic drugs.  Meanwhile, the younger generation of Americans is intent on being even better Nazis than the original Germans.

The Japanese trade minister, a hero of the first seasons, spends much of Season 2 wandering around in an alternate universe, which is startlingly like our own.  What’s more, he’s not the only one.  And there may be more than two worlds.  I’m not sure what the alternate universe storyline adds to the overall mix, but unlike certain other recent programs (cough, cough, Westworld), at least when you’re watching it’s pretty clear what timeline you’re on.

One of the strengths of this show is in the interesting, morally complex characters.  You might find yourself more sympathetic to the Japanese police chief than the ethically-challenged, “ends justify the means” Resistance.  Another strong point of the series is the set design. The folks who put this show together really thought about what an America in the 1960s, whose cultural development was retarded by a repressive government, might look like.  In large part, that means technological progress (solid state TVs, supersonic planes) far ahead of its time, but music, art and fashion stubbornly stuck in the early 1950s.  They come up with a look that is very similar to the world we know, but subtly just different enough, much like Battlestar Galactia.  (Speaking of BSG –  three members of the anti-Japanese resistance are played by actors who were human/Cylons on that program).

Mr. Robot (USA Network)

Elliott is a quiet computer security expert by day, crusading hacker by night — we first meet him bringing a child porn purveyor to book.  But when the firm’s biggest client removes Elliott’s  friend from their account in a particularly humiliating way, Elliott is disturbed.  And when he meets a curious character on the train — the eponymous Mr. Robot — who offers him the chance to bring down the Evil Corporation, and maybe the world financial system to boot, Elliott is all too willing to go along.

We know, right from the beginning, that something is not quite right with Elliott.  He lives alone, has no social life, takes carefully controlled levels of opiates, and visits a psychiatrist, apparently under duress.  But since we see most of the action from Elliott’s point of view, it takes us a while to figure out just how messed up his view of events really is.  He’s the ultimate unreliable narrator.

As has become traditional, pop culture references are scattered around the episode like Easter eggs.  Most of these are based on music I’ve never heard, or cult films I’ve never seen, and so go right over my head.  But every once in a while there’s an Easter egg aimed directly at me.  1994 World Series?  Never happened.

Rami Malek, best known to mass audiences as King Tut in Night at the Museum, does an outstanding job as the enigmatic Elliott.  The supporting cast is very good, too, particularly Christian Slater as Mr. Robot.  And, unusually for a low-budget cable production, this is a show set in NY that is actually shot in NY (at least the street scenes).  A number of scenes are set in Coney Island which, however seedy it may be during a NY summer, is strangely beautiful in the winter.

I haven’t figured out whether this quirky, unusual show is good or not.  But it sure is entertaining.  And it’s certainly not predictable.

Star Wars — The Force Awakens

First the good news — this is a worthy successor to the original trilogy.  JJ Abrams understood what it was about the original films that made them most broadly appealing — characters you could root for, a story line that was easy to follow, and action sequences in unusual settings.  And robots.

On these metrics, the movie delivers.  Some beloved old characters return, and are joined by (mostly) appealing new ones.  It’s good to see Harrison Ford finding his inner Solo again, instead of playing HARRISON FORD MOVIE STAR.  The newer actors are good, too, especially Daisy Ridley as Rey — a feminist heroine who wears pants, and sometimes the pants).  There’s even a new robot, BB8, who successfully straddles the line between R2D2 dougthiness and terminal Ewok cutesiness.   And there are enough “Easter Egg” references to the prior movies to please everyone from the casual fan to the total geek.

Abrams made a good decision to use hand-built sets and models instead of relying on CG for many of the action sequences.  This helps to keep those action sequences in human scale — they never overwhelm the picture.

My reservations are less about the film that is actually on the screen — a marvelous piece of entertainment — than the better film that might have been.

The plot, for example,  is not so much straightforward as simplistic.   it’s a significant improvement over the hot mess story lines of the prequels, but for a true Star Wars fan, it’s overly predictable.

For me, though, what the film was really missing was — George Lucas.  Creating alien landscapes is more than just designing strange-looking buildings.  Lucas had a gift for inserting the small detail that turned an alien landscape into something both more comprehensible, and yet immeasurably stranger — the  double moons of Tatooine, the ice planet so cold people froze as they walked, the thousand-points-of-holographic-light Parliament of the old republic the underwater cities of Naboo, the diner with the roller-skating robot waiters, the hoverboards in the fire pit where Anakin and Obi-Wan have their fateful encounter.  There’s none of that Lucas genius in the new movie.

This movie can best be seen as high-quality fan fiction.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s already making boatloads of money, and filming on the second installment of the proposed trilogy will begin soon.  But, without Lucas’s mythic imagination,  it lacks the emotional resonance of the first two films.  I wonder if, had these films been first, we would still been talking about “Star Wars” all these many years later.

These quibbles aside, though, I highly recommend seeing the film.  But see it soon.  It’s that rare thing in the modern cinema landscape — a film which which really is better seen with a large and enthusiastic group.  If you wait too long, you might find all the surprises in the film are spoiled by the kids in the audience who have seen it 10 times already.

Weird Fact:  Luke Hamill is now a year older than Alec Guiness was when he appeared in the original Star Wars film.  Sigh.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

Four episodes in, I’m willing to call this adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel a winner.  In Dick’s dystopian vision, the Nazis develop the bomb first and win the war.  The US is divided up into Nazi territory (basically everything east of the Continental Divide), a Japanese co-prosperity sphere on the West Coast, and a Rocky Mountain “neutral zone,” where refugee Jews, people of color and random malcontents survive as best they can.

As our story begins, it is 1962, and there is about to be a leadership change in Berlin.  The Japanese are worried that the Nazis, having rolled up the rest of the world, will turn to them next, starting with San Francisco.  Most Americans have figured out how to get on with their lives, although there is a low-energy resistance movement on both coast.  Two would-be revolutionaries, however, are heartened by the discovery of a movie showing an alternate history — one where America won the war.  They go in search of the mysterious Man in the High Castle, somewhere in the mountains.

One of the show’s real strengths lies in the visual depictions of the fictional alternate universe.  Nazi America has ultramodern public transportation and supersonic planes, but no interstate highways (no Eisenhower), and no rocket fins on the cars (no Cold War, no Sputnik, no space race).  Family life in uncomfortably close to Leave it to Beaver, except the Beav wears a Hitler Youth armband, and there are no people of any color.  In Japanese America, they have solid state TV, which shows Japanese sumo wrestling, and rich Japanese buy American cultural artifacts to bring home.  Guns and Bibles are, of course, illegal everywhere.

All of this is fun, but the show’s creators didn’t  forget the important stuff.  The writing is pretty good — they’ve made a few changes to the original, but nothing outrageous.  The acting, with a cast of mostly unknown actors, is pretty good too.

Highly recommended.