Tag Archives: sci-fi

227 – Southland Tales

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

A film many have heard of and few have seen, Southland Tales is writer-director Richard Kelly’s infamous difficult second album. Six years after his eventual cult hit Donnie Darko, this sprawling, confusing mess of an end-of-days parable was released to thunderous bafflement and almost no box office. We dive in and find that perhaps all we needed was to give it thirteen years to breathe.

There’s no defending much of the film’s execution. Kelly’s visuals are functional at best, almost never expressive, and rather obvious, there’s an abundance of plot that feels at once over- and under-developed, and there’s no emotional way in to significantly connect with any character. But Southland Tales is chock full of ideas and ambition, and there’s much to respond positively to. José considers how its critique of American culture continues to resonate today; Mike suggests that alongside M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, it captures the state of mind of post 9/11, pre-financial crash, perpetually warring, deeply conservative and fearful America. Kelly may show little instinct for visual expression, but his ability to cast well and get the best out of his actors is remarkable, and for José, Justin Timberlake and Dwayne Johnson have never been better. And we consider the use of Revelations in the voiceover, and wonder where Seann William Scott has been for the last ten years.

For a Saturday night in, it’s tough to recommend Southland Tales. As a sizzlingly ambitious attempt to combine just about every worry it was possible to have in mid-2000s America into a grand work of sci-fi satire, it’s fascinating and worth your time. Its reach far exceeds its grasp, but that’s so much more appealing than the other way round.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

220 – Commando and Predator

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Hollywood action in the Eighties was a world unto itself, and we look back on two specimens of one of the genre’s icons, Arnold Schwarzenegger. One a delightful, over-the-top romp, the other a macho, moody sci-fi, we compare and contrast Commando and Predator.

We’re in agreement that Predator is the better film, but that Commando offers the better time. José describes this era as his awakening to the fact that heterosexual men were checking out each others’ bodies – Arnie and co. are put on display, made to flex their muscles in absurd ways, their bodies painted in glistening sweat, for the pleasure of a straight male audience. We discuss how Arnie’s extraordinary body means entire films have to built around it: elsewhere cast as a pseudo-Greek hero and android killing machine, in Commando and Predator he’s theoretically human, but still a G.I. Joe male fantasy inhabiting similarly oversized films. Similarly, his accent always needs at least a hint of acknowledgement – the films taking a line of dialogue here and there to reassure us, don’t you worry, we also know he sounds odd.

We also think about the fact that these films have simply lasted. Commando in particular is not a very good film, but 35 years after its release it retains a loyal audience, and has to be considered a classic of a kind. Though dated and easy to critique in all sorts of ways, there are still pleasures in this cinema, and Arnie in particular.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

203 – Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

(Our two-part discussion on the previous Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is available here and here.)

The Star Wars saga ends – for the third time – with The Rise of Skywalker, a return to J. J. Abrams’ whimsical ways, following Rian Johnson’s creative and dramatic work in The Last Jedi. Disney and Abrams have clearly taken the vocal response of the franchise’s self-appointed guardians seriously, overwriting everything we liked about Johnson’s film, offering us mild, defanged plot developments and characterisations, but once we accept that, we find a lot of fun in this closing chapter’s sense of adventure and melodrama.

It’s clear from five minutes in, having been told three times that Rey’s parents, revealed to be nobodies in The Last Jedi, are actually hiding a secret that makes them very important indeed, that The Rise of Skywalker intends to do away with everything that made the last film so interesting and challenging. It’s a disappointment, but in declaring its intention to simply continue the soap opera and gallivant around the galaxy, the film needs to at least do a good job of that. And it does, José remarking upon how pleasurable it is to see a film of such high production values, and Mike finding that Abrams manages here to really capture the adventurous spirit of the original trilogy that he succeeded only in imitating in The Force Awakens, those core ideas of quests and gangs and brand new planets all working smoothly here. It’s an arguably surprisingly beautiful film too, light and dark dramatically interacting in geometrically precise shots that emphasise scale and power. And that melodrama between Kylo and Rey that we so loved in The Last Jedi, returns and develops here, the bond between them creating shared, tangible, intimate spaces just for them.

On the negative side, not only does the sense of corporate damage control never go away in the film’s refusal to make anything of The Last Jedi‘s developments, but weak, insulting attempts at inclusivity and representation also rankle, a gay kiss especially conspicuous for just how momentary it is, a shot of two extras crudely implanted within the film’s celebratory denouement simply drawing attention to its own tokenism. José suggests that the return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando is a similarly insincere and lazy effort at racial representation, as his is a minor character in the original trilogy, undemanding of the send-off given here to Luke, Leia and Han, but as the only non-white character in Star Wars of any significance whatsoever, he’s brought along for the ride. And underneath it all, a real character, a big part of the gang in Episodes VII and VIII, Rose, has her role reduced to almost nothing here, an obvious response to the truly vile behaviour of the fans towards actor Kelly Marie Tran.

It’s a mixed bag overall, a film to watch with one eye earnest and one cynical, but we’re thrilled with its action, adventure and spectacle, and its central melodrama is evocative and rewarding. A good conclusion to the saga… until Episode XII, of course.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

160 – The Matrix

The Matrix, the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking, iconic sci-fi, is twenty years old this year, and we catch a one-off screening of its 4K restoration. Mike can’t believe he’s old enough for a film he watched as a kid to have a restoration, but this is the world we live in. Or is it?

Well, what an experience The Matrix remains. None of its pleasures have diminished with time, and with the benefit of the years that have passed since its initial release, we see it with fresh eyes. Mike looks at it as part of a late-90s cyberpunk/rave culture era that acts like a time capsule, comparing it to films such as eXistenZ, The Beach, and Johnny Mnemonic, films born of the same culture and dealing with similar philosophical themes, and asking why only The Matrix has stood the test of time. José notes how the film is a product of its time in terms of technology – landline phones are not only everywhere but have plot functions, the computers are large and clunky, the text they display neon green.

We remark upon the film’s slow, noirish start, its willingness to flit between ideas and motifs, dropping them as quickly as it picks them up, and of course, the extraordinary action scenes, as thrilling today as they ever were. José considers the sustained, if not indeed increasing, appeal of Keanu Reeves, and the world’s affection for him. Mike asks whether Neo and Trinity’s love story really works, offering that he found the emotional core of the film to instead be the Oracle scene, and in particular the extraordinary warmth and humour that Gloria Foster brings to it. He also bangs on for a bit about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and assorted other shite. (He would also like to add here that his phone background has for years been an image of the Matrix’s ‘green rain’, and he may, in fact, believe that he is the One.)

What an unadulterated thrill it was to see The Matrix again, on the big screen where it belongs, after so many years. It may be bizarre to think of it as an old film now, but time makes fools of us all, and it’s a true great.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

139 – Alita: Battle Angel

A tweeny sci-fi based on a manga, Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a young cyborg found on a scrapheap and given a new lease of life by a kindly doctor. She doesn’t remember who is she or where she came from, but takes to the dystopian world around her, finding excitement and energy in it, quickly realising an aptitude for combat and inclination to explore, and developing a relationship with a young man who seeks escape to a floating city that promises a better life. Oh, and she’s completely CGI in a live-action world.

Neither of us is too enthusiastic about the film, though José is far less interested in it than Mike, who finds things worth praising, particularly how Alita’s attitude to her body can be read in terms of transgender experiences. But the world-building is weak, relying on simple tropes, and Mike decries the sequel set up, convinced that the story it’s likely to tell could and should have been a part of this film. We vaguely agree that the action is enjoyable, José holding the reservation that he felt no connection to the characters, and Mike picks up on a tonal imbalance, suggesting that a film so clearly aimed at tweens should be less comfortable with swearing (something he also notes about Marvel, though to a lesser extent).

Mike is at pains to point out that despite acknowledging flaw after flaw, he had a good time. José has no time for such nuance, finding almost nothing in it he liked.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

67 – 2001: A Space Odyssey

A classic returns to cinemas for its 50th anniversary and we receive it in rather a muted fashion. José’s never seen it on the big screen and Mike’s never seen it at all, so it’s an interesting experience for both, but both come away with reservations.

Much of the discussion revolves around context. 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released in 1968 and our repeated use of the phrase “of its time” becomes a coded criticism as much as an honest descriptor – the film simply doesn’t work today as well, or in the same ways, as it did half a century ago. We discuss its editing, novelty value, depiction of the future and technology and more, perhaps unfortunately but probably unavoidably never being able to escape the historical lens. It’s true to say that we’re both very glad we took the opportunity to see it, but both left feeling that while its influence is even more tangible than one could imagine and its legacy is not in question, its greatness is today a touch overstated.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

66 – Solo: A Star Wars Story

We find much to mull over in Solo, which José finds the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back and Mike finds overlong and depressingly dull. Our discussions take in the merits and flaws of the film’s visual design, its relationship to the saga’s history and fans, Ron Howard’s earnestness, the way the film builds a lawless world to develop and reconfigure Han Solo, and how on Earth an $84m opening weekend is considered a flop. One thing’s for sure: Rush is a great film.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

61 – Avengers: Infinity War

The first part of Marvel’s ending to the unendable story wallops us with two and a half hours of punching and planets. Mike is even more gullible than usual. José stays cynical and rightly so. The film leads to discussions on whether we can actually find themes in it, the leaps of faith necessary to buy into it, the way in which we can’t help but buy into the story logic in the way we talk about it, and the nature of even trying to talk about corporate assets this enormous. It all gets quite meta. José mentions the state of modern America again. We bring up Call Me by Your Name somehow.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

57 – A Wrinkle in Time

José can’t handle the bad costumes, pap morality, and smug tone. Mike considers the age of the intended audience a mitigating factor but largely agrees. A Wrinkle in Time inclusively opens the big-budget Hollywood fantasy film to new audiences, but while we agree on the positivity of that aim, we find the film flawed and overly simple.

The film invites comparison with The Wizard of Oz, but as José demonstrates, it’s a comparison in which it comes off far worse. Mike fondly remembers the Macaulay Culkin film The Pagemaster and recommends people watch that instead.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

53 – Ready Player One

Ready Player One is a strange beast, crammed full of energy and references on the one hand, amounting to nothing on the other. José dislikes it. Mike kind of likes it. To say it’s flawed is understating it, but there are interesting ideas to probe. Who is the film aimed at? How does it have its cake and eat it? Is it making interesting decisions, mistakes, or both simultaneously? What can we make of a film that references other work not as Easter eggs but as the very cloth from which it’s cut?

Mike wishes it was more cutting, more biting, about the ideas it raises and the nerds it seeks to please. José just wants it to end.

Also: It was shot in Birmingham! Mike even went to go and see it during filming just one road over from his flat. What he saw was a couple of cars driving, once, and almost nothing else of note. He would never admit that though. As far as he’s concerned, he is best mates with Steven Spielberg.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.