HONEST THIEF – FORMULAIC BUT ENTERTAINING ACTION ADVENTURE

SHORT TAKE:
Keeping in mind that I LOVE cookies, Honest Thief is a cookie cutter Liam Neeson action adventure. So, while it’s not Shakespeare, a fun time was still had by all.

WHO SHOULD GO:
Mid teens and up for language and some TV cop show level violence. But no sex or outright blasphemy, (though God’s name is used in vain twice it is not as a profanity), which, in today’s culture puts this film above a lot of other offerings.

LONG TAKE:

Before we get started – is it me or do the Neeson action adventure posters have a theme going – streaking lights at odd angles with Neeson torso and a gun? No? OK.

SPOILERS

On Calvary there were two thieves – one on either side of the crucified Christ. One was repentant, received forgiveness from Jesus and the promise that he would be with Our Lord that very day in Paradise. I’ve always been especially touched by this moving scene and wondered if the repentant thief, of all people, was the first soul to enter Heaven after Jesus opened the Gates for the first time since Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace. The Bible does say that there is more rejoicing in Heaven over a single soul who has mended his ways than over 100 who were not in need of such contrition.

One of the aspects of this story that warms my heart is the fact the good thief did not ask for any such promises. He simply admitted his guilt, accepted his punishment and merely asked to be remembered. In return he received far more than he had expected.

Such is the case for Liam Neeson’s Tom, a bank thief so successful and clever, he has achieved a certain begrudging respect and legend amongst the police who seek him. He is properly, a thief, not a robber, for he enters and departs the bank, seemingly like magic, in secret, and has never physically harmed anyone.

Tom, by chance, meets and falls in love with Annie (Kate Walsh) who is led to believe he is a bank security analyst – which is “kind of” true? LOL Wanting to spend his life with her with a clean slate, he plans to admit his guilt to the proper authorities and to Kate, return all the money, accept his punishment and hope for the best from his lady love, expecting nothing more than to be able to tell her he has repented. Given his non-violent criminal record and the fact he is able to return all of the money, he reasonably plans to be able to cut a deal with the police. Problem is he can’t get anyone to believe he is the semi-legendary mystery pilferer of millions. A second string team with few scruples and even fewer brain cells Agents Nivens and Hall (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) are sent out and Tom’s plans become…complicated.

In other hands this could have turned into a comedy (on purpose or by accident) and there were moments when I thought it might stand on that knife edge. But this is a straight up action adventure thriller and works on all points as such, though it does retain a certain wry Neeson humor, lightening moments as a bit of creamer does strong coffee.

Liam Neeson, OBE (Order of the British Empire) used to be best known for classy bio pics of real and fictitious characters such as Les Miserables (the prose version), Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, Michael Collins and The Mission. The last couple of decades he has made a name for himself as an action hero in edge-of-your-seat adrenaline rushes like The Grey, the Taken series, Non-Stop and Run All Night.

Director and co-writer, Mark Williams, makes sure Honest Thief continues in that latter vein. Fast spaced, with Neeson comfortable in his likeable laid back but quietly strong character, he has nice chemistry with Walsh.

Courtney and Ramos are suitably menacing bad cops, though I wondered at their stupidity given they thought they could get away with this kind of blatant embezzlement and a murder of one of their own, when they work for the very people who ferret such out. Jeffrey Donovan is the clean cop trying to get at the truth with his partner Sam Baker, played by Robert Patrick.

As a piece of irrelevant trivia, both Jai Courtney and Patrick were in the Terminator series, albeit with their roles reversed – Patrick was our first glimpse at the terrifying shape shifting Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Courtney rebooted Kyle Reese in the much maligned Terminator: Genisys.

Mark Isham’s soundtrack favors sequences featuring a long suspenseful note, usually strings, overlayed with a melancholy tune, breaking forth with startling and focused aggression during action scenes, reflecting Tom’s naturally calm and thoughtful personality, which you would be well advised not to test. Isham has worked on an impressively ecclectic list of movies – from the whimsical Nell (in which Neeson also starred), to the sci fi Next, the Stephen King horror The Mist, the reboot musical Fame, the Jackie Robinson bio pic 42 with the late Chad Boseman, the action adventure about an autistic hitman in The Accountant, the charming family film A Dog’s Journey and the ridiculous Bill & Ted Face the Music.

The cinematography isn’t especially inventive but more than adequate for the needs of this fast paced action thriller.

Though Neeson claimed 2019’s Cold Pursuit was his last action adventure, he has not only successfully continued his smart tough guy roles with Honest Thief but has signed on to film yet another action flick – about a man stuck, with his two children, in a car wired with an explosive which will detonate if he does not obey his “captor”.

Neeson is a fine classic actor, who seems to have created a successful  niche for himself in the popcorn genre where the good guy can drive fast backwards in traffic, while successfully shooting at the bad guys and avoid harming any bystanders. Good for him. Personally there is a place for good old reliable formula movies. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back with a bag of M&Ms and enjoy a movie where the righteous (or at least repentant)  man is going to win.

ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING – CUTE BUT FORGETTABLE SIMON PEGG COMEDY

SHORT TAKE:
Broadly comic, but largely forgettable morality tale of what happens when a well meaning schlub gets a shot at ultimate power.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:
Mostly more MATURE audiences for: language, some nudity, and high school level sexual humor, though no sexual activity is ever seen.

LONG TAKE:
If you take Bruce Almighty, (albeit without the brilliant theological underpinnings), add a page or two from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, add a touch of The Twilight Zone’s amusing “Mr. Dingle, the Strong”, a smidgeon  of Bedazzled and package it all in Simon Pegg’s unique brand of wry humor, you get Absolutely Anything…. I don’t mean you can get “absolutely anything” as a description of the literal resulting outcome of this combination, but refer to the title of the movie: Absolutely Anything.

Despite disagreeing with much of Mr. Pegg’s philosophical opinions, I am a fan of his witty banter in his often clever film ideas (except for the occasional temper tantrum religion bashing, like Paul). Most of his repertoire, such as Shaun of the Dead, Run Fat Boy Run, his tech expert Benji in the Mission Impossible films, his Scotty in the reboot “Kelvin” version of Star Trek movies, his alcoholic desperate-to-relive-his-youth Gary King in the bizarre sci fi The World’s End, his adorable voicing of Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and even his stint as The Editor in the Eccleston incarnation of Dr Who in “The Long Game” as well as many others, all benefited from Pegg’s gentle, self-deprecating, comic-timing master persona.

Pegg excels best when he portrays a nobody who rises to the challenge of a truly bizarre situation to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds: a fat layabout in Run Fat Boy Run, who trains for a marathon to convince the mother of his child to stay in country.A burnt out idle human parasite who pulls himself together to defend his friends from invading robot aliens in The World’s End.

In Absolutely Anything, directed by Monty Python veteran Terry Jones and written by Jones and Gavin Scott (the latter of whose resume consists mostly in kids’ versions of classic stories), Pegg’s Comic Champion once again plays out as reliably as Bruce Willis’ one-note but reliably entertaining Action Hero – nothing new or particularly surprising but an expected and fun formula, as satisfying as a tub of movie theater popcorn – nothing especially substantial to digest but delightful of which to partake.

SPOILERS

Pegg’s Neil is a well meaning, average, albeit lazy teacher who longs to be a novelist and pines unrequitedly for his next door neighbor Catherine (Kate Beckinsale).

A group of bizarrely colorful aliens voiced by the surviving members of the original Monty Python’s Flying Circus:John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, decide it is Earth’s turn to be tested for existence-worthiness by choosing a random human to see what he will do with complete power for 30 days.

If he chooses wisely Earth will not be destroyed. If he does not perform the way they think he should ……

Mayhem quickly ensues when misspoken, imprecise and casual remarks suddenly become reality, such as his frustrated snarky wish for the extraterrestrial destruction of the unruly middle school children he is assigned to teach, or that his love-smitten friend, Ray, (Sanjeev Bhaskar from Paddington 2 and Drunk History) acquires the devotion of the girl of his dreams. Of course, at first, thinking he is going insane, he can’t decide whether he should give up drinking or take up a LOT more of it. But, it doesn’t take long for Neil to begin testing his new “gift”.

It’s a one trick pony joke stretched out to a feature length movie. The special effects are B grade, it’s filmed like an uninspired TV movie, and the music sounds like it was pulled off a shelf of standards for fluffy comedies: forgettable light background phrases, bassoons for the punchlines – nothing particularly memorable or identifiable.

It is Pegg’s comic timing and lovable putz persona, the delicious ad-libbed nature of the Python-ized aliens and the complete balmy silliness of the situation that make this movie watchable.

Disappointingly, Robin Williams, in his last film appearance, is truly wasted as the voice of Pegg’s dog, Dennis. Unlike William’s genius Genie, or his merry Mork, or his dubious Doubtfire, or most any one of dozens of other roles, Dennis is sweet but uninspired and could have been done just as well by any of a hundred other comics. William’s unique brand of quick witted brilliance was simply missing. Not that he was bad in the role but he just wasn’t – Robin Williams.

But what Absolutely Anything truly lacks is what made Bruce Almighty such a worthwhile piece of memorable cinema – the learning curve for the protagonist that wisdom comes from humility. The awareness that absolute power in the hands of the limited creatures that we are leaves us with – absolutely nothing.  That what will bring true happiness is genuine altruistic love for others of God’s Creatures, and submission to a power greater than ourselves, submission to God, who loves us infinitely … and who is a LOT more qualified to handle absolute power than we are.

Now while there IS a moral – as such – in Absolutely Anything, it is short-sighted and focused mostly on Neil’s recognition that HE isn’t really the person to wield this much ability. Sort of the way liberals portray Socialism to us – not that NO human being should have this much power over others but that it’s just the RIGHT people have not yet bludgeoned the rest of the world with it.

The “moral” espoused in Absolutely Anything is Neil’s recognition that HE is not suitable, implying that it just is not in the right mortal hands. Dennis, actually makes the decision which gets closer to the truth.

While Bruce Almighty is the far worthier choice in a comic examination of whether humans are fit for “God-like” power, if you’re just looking for a brainless, fairly harmless 85 minutes of forgettable adult silliness, you could do worse than Absolutely Anything ——— and I mean the movie, not as advice.

WAR OF THE WORLDS – LAKE CHARLES-STYLE

SHORT TAKE:

Wonderful radio show production of Lake Charles’ version of the Orson Welles’ radio show broadcast of H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds, brought to us by Lake Charles Little Theatre, McNeese State University and KBYS (88.3 FM)

BUT IT WILL ONLY BE BROADCAST AGAIN ONCE MORE ON OCTOBER 31, 2020 @ 6 PM ON KBYS 88.3 FM.

WHO SHOULD LISTEN:

Anyone and EVERYONE!!!

LONG TAKE:

On October 31, 1938 Halloween night, one of the greatest and most famous hoaxes in history took place – and it wasn’t even intentional.

The famous auteur film writer, actor, producer and director Orson Welles, the writer and director of what some consider the most important and best movie ever made – Citizen Kane – wrote and performed a radio show broadcast of H.G. Welles’ novel War of the Worlds, updated to Welles’ contemporary time period between the two HUMAN contested world wars and geographically moved from England to the United States.

Despite it being advertised, interrupted for commercial breaks and re-identified periodically as a radio broadcast of the famous novel, people tuning in casually believed it to be a real broadcast of an invading army of extra terrestrials. Panic was let loose in pockets all across America. As funny as it seems now it wasn’t terribly amusing to those first hoaxed listeners. Though one can’t help but think that through: a deficit of listening attention and a lack of literary education, they did it to themselves.

Safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of people in this area are familiar, not only with this iconic story but with the original source material, KBYS hosted a production in collaboration with both McNeese State University and Lake Charles Little Theatre, and with the cooperation and permission of the Welles’ estate to re-create this radio show with updates to move the referenced locales to Lake Charles and surrounding areas and landmarks, both current and historic.

The voice actors were our own acting luminaries: Professor Charles McNeely Director of McNeese State University’s Theatre department, radio personalities: Heather Fazzio Partin, her husband Randy Partin, John Bridges, and Gary Shannon, Lake Charles’ mayor Nic Hunter, and Matt Young, director of cultural affairs at Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center.

The broadcast was a triumph and a delight. AND it will be REBROADCAST TOMORROW ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT SATURDAY, OCTOBER 31, 2020.

So tune in to this entertaining, cleverly edited, and nostalgic radio trip to our version of this famous Orson Welles’ production of WAR OF THE WORLDS – LAKE CHARLES-STYLE.

DEATH BECOMES HER – FOR THIS YEAR’S CINEMATIC HALLOWEEN TREAT

SHORT TAKE:

Great, adult humor, Halloween appropriate movie, about the mayhem which results from a magic youth potion and homicidal rivals for the same man.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Language, sexual conversational references, a quick shot of full back female nudity, and comically grotesque violence makes this mature fare only. However,  the excellent performances, sly jabs at the modern shallow pursuit of youth, and its strong moral life lesson makes this worth your time. Not to mention the fact it is just plain old fun to watch.

LONG TAKE:

Having been through 2 major hurricanes this year which, when added up together total a CAT 7, there’s just not a lot that would frighten me right now. So with Halloween approaching I thought I’d take a more comic shift and recommend one of my favorite, deep dark-humor comedies – 1992’s Death Becomes Her.

This movie has amazing star power. And all three leads play against type. Streep is more known for sweet vulnerable characters in serious dramas or touching musicals, such as her parts in Sophie’s Choice, The Deer Hunter and Mama Mia.

Goldie, starting with Laugh-In in her youth, is better known for breathy brainless characters in light frothy comedies like Overboard, Cactus Flower and The Out of Towners.

And, of course, Willis is usually synonymous with John McClaine’s Yippie-ky-yo-kay-yay smart aleck action heroes in heart pounders like Die Hard or Red or The Expendables or The Whole Nine Yards.

In Death Becomes Her, these performers are delightfully unrecognizable from their established trade mark personas. Bruce Willis is meek, gullible and easily manipulated plastic surgeon, Ernest Menville. Meryl Streep is Madeleine Ashton, a character which would have appalled even her steely Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wore Prada. Goldie Hawn is Madeleine’s opponent, Helen Sharp, who goes through two major transformations to appease her vengeful bitter personality.

The movie also features the stunningly beautiful Isabella Rossellini, who looks more like her mother, the cinema icon Ingrid Bergman, with each passing year.

The story revolves around the aptly nicknamed “Mad” and “Hel” as they spend 20 odd years tussling over Willis’ character the way two dogs might play tug-o-war with a toy. Not because either really wants it but because they don’t want the other dog to have it. And the result is not all that good for the tug-o-war toy. A sorceress’ magic potion, a castle full of dead celebrities (watch for cameos), and a few scenes of comically gory violence all make this appropriate for the Halloween season.

The topics, language and violence make it appropriate for a mature audience only.

The very dark humor which chides the shallow pursuit of youth at any cost, the excellent straight faced performances despite the bizarre goings on, and the surprisingly philosophical and moral message structuring the backbone of Willis’ character arc makes this a movie well worth your time.

The clever script was written by Martin Donovan, whose resume is cluttered with 1970’s TV shows, and David Koepp, whose pedigree includes both Jurassic Park and the movie version of Mission: Impossible. Directed by Robert Zemekis whose genius guided Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, this is one of those rare movies which will make you laugh and think at the same time, pondering the nature of what makes life worth living.

The soundtrack is by Alan Silvestri, who artfully penned the musical accompaniment of a wide variety of movies from: Infinity War, Avengers, Back to the Future, and Van Helsing to Parent Trap and Stuart Little. Silvestri’s composition here brings to mind the tension under laced with comic flair that Bernard Hermann brought to Alfred Hitchcock’s treasure trove of suspenseful movies flavored with a dash of dark whimsy.

So for this year’s All Hallows’ Eve film, instead of the mindless cotton candy of a slasher movie, I recommend Death Becomes Her for a multi-course cinematic meal, which will supply the table with: a healthy portion of thrills, a fairly large helping of gore, a generous splash of magic, some well tossed laughs, and finally a satisfying aperitif of well served justice.

Bon appetite.

her – modern commentary on our self imposed solitary confinement

SHORT TAKE:

Spike Jonze’s quirky and occasionally disturbing tale of a man’s love affair with his – computer’s operating system.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adults only for language, verbally graphic phone sex (you heard me right), and at least one instance of a crudely vulgar sexual drawing.

LONG TAKE:

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson are two of my favorite actors. Their ability to be personally engaging and draw the audience in to their characters is exquisite. So it is ironic that they play characters who are each, in their own way, completely and almost totally isolated from the rest of the world.

SPOILERS

her (the lack of capitals is the accurate spelling of the title of this movie) is the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), devastated from a badly disintegrating marriage and resultant separation, who has withdrawn from the world with the exception of: his married childhood friend, Amy (Amy Adams), his creepily awkward coworker Paul (pre-Starlord, Chris Pratt), and the occasional contact with anonymous and very weird phone sex partners (Kristen Wiig whose peculiar brand of demented humor has her on SNL’s crew).

To displace him one step further from real human contact, Theodore’s job is to write psuedo-intimate letters on behalf of other people: between lovers, from grandchildren to their elder relatives, thank you notes, congratulations. So not only does he keep himself at a tent pole’s distance from interacting with real people but his job is to facilitate the same for dozens, if not hundreds, of other clients. And it is additionally disturbing that the demand for this service is such that Theodore can afford a rather high end apartment.

Enter Samantha, an operating system powered by an artificial intelligence. More than HAL from 2001, Samantha has intuition, insight and sensitivity (or at least she would pass the Turing test with flying colors). And it’s understandable, even predictable, that desperately lonely and imaginative Theo would develop an extreme attachment to this disembodied empathetic new presence in his life.

Lest one scoff at this sort of relationship, think hard about what item would cause you the most panic if lost and how many times have you heard people say their phone had their whole lives on it. Pictures, calendars, access to worldwide information, communication with distant friends and relatives, banking transactions, movies, college classes, Youtubes – all there and more at your fingertips through the window of this small box. It is a very tiny leap to imagine that a next generation Alexa, devised with sufficiently complex programmed personality, might become the object of affection by the growing multitude of the isolated and socially displaced, in our emphatically electronic virtual culture. This self-inflicted dysfunction, close to the surface in 2013 when her was released, has been dramatically exacerbated by the misanthropic Wuhan rules which require the kind of social desolation normally associated with extreme penal punishment and Mengele-style brainwashing techniques intended to deliberately create psychoses.

The music by Arcade Fire is composed mostly of single notes and dissonant electronic chords, played slowly and mournfully with tiny hints of variation, like a subdued victim of deep depression, who is occasionally distracted by someone else’s smile or a brief flash of color.

And speaking of color, blue is almost completely avoided as Jonze thought that color too cliche in a science fiction movie. The resulting red tinge creates an uneasy subliminal visual, as though Theo was constantly bleeding out the pain from his heart.

Johansson shines with just her voice as the female protagonist/computer. She is enchanting, vibrant, funny, soothing and delightfully elfin, despite the significant disadvantage of never being seen.

Phoenix is at his most subdued as Theodore, and as such is mesmerizing, saying more in long pauses and subtle changes of expression than most actors can in pages of dialogue and open physical emoting. His performance is like studying a beautiful classical portrait. Johansson’s is like listening to a human musical instrument as her voice changes from sultry to child-like at the turn of a phrase.

Amy Adams’ part is small but touching as another character who is heart broken and dislocated from the human race, set adrift by the sudden separation from her husband.

I applaud Spike Jonze, writer/director, for addressing this unsettling trend head on. While it is quaint for people to wax whimsically about pre-text and pre-email communication, the rest of the world is not content to patiently wait days for a response, as was the case when the handwritten letter was the norm. Computerized electronic information access and transmission is now expected and essential but a gateway to the creation of these chasms between personal contact. So this issue is not likely to go away any time soon. I love the instant response of telecommunication too, but need to remind myself, as should you, to occasionally put down the electronics and speak directly to the people around you. They will give you an instant response too if you give them a chance.

While not wanting to give too much away I will encourage you, of the appropriate demographic group, to watch it, by saying there is a hopeful ending. Suffice it to say that while an artificial intelligence might enchant you with a virtual representation of anything you could imagine, there really is nothing that can replace the simple touch of holding another human being’s hand.

THE BOYS – BAD SUPER-ANTI-HERO SHOW

SHORT TAKE:

Cynical and gratuitously perverted view of super hero concept, following The Boys – a human led group, bent on vengeance against the evil enhanced and the corporation which produces, protects, promotes, and profits from them.

WHO SHOULD WATCH

Not fit for human consumption – nor for non-humans neither.

LONG TAKE

The idea of humans seeking to uncover corrupt behavior of enhanced people is an interesting one. After all: “Power corrupts and absolute power — ”

The possibility of a rogue super hero is not a new one. The comics have explored this, especially concerning the almost invincible Superman in stories about everything from alternate universes to the random effects of red Kryptonite. And in the Justice League comics Batman carries green Kryptonite in his utility belt — just in case. And that’s not even bringing up the extremely disturbing Brightburn.

But The Boys takes it too far. Whereas Superman’s darker side manifestations are aberrations, in The Boys the incidents of drug abuse, sexual depravity, disregard for non-enhanced human life, murder and rape are par for the course with The Seven, a corporate sponsored set of “supes” whose public persona is a thin veil over people whose abuse of powers are quite literally – nauseating. From group orgies to the unrepentent liquification of a human when run through by a variation on The Flash, these are nobodies idea of heroes.

The Boys is an underground organization of humans, occasionally helped by a few supes with a modicum of conscience, who seek to expose and end both the supes and Vought International, a corporation which not only promotes and profits from these scum in supes’ clothing, but may have created the supes with a drug called Compound V.

There are no good guys in The Boys. No one and nothing to cheer for and no moral center.

Karl Urban (Lord of the Rings) chews a lot of scenery as Billy Butcher, the ringleader of The Boys with a personal ax to grind against the supes. He is aided by Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid – son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) bent on revenge for the death of his fiancee by A Train. Elisabeth Shue (the second Jennifer in the Back to the Future trilogy) plays Madelyn Stillwell, the scheming corporate PR/VP at Vought. The supes are played by actors with unnotable resumes including soap operas and bit parts. The resulting ensemble performances are nothing to write home about.

The most love the creators gave this misbegotten insult to the genre is the special effects rendered for the gore and powered perversion.

Anyone can write to play down to the lowest level of human impulses. But it takes thought and decent writing to craft a story which strives to teach lessons which ennoble the human spirit and encourage our better angels. This was the original intent of the creation of characters like Superman – to be the embodiment of our better natures and examples for, well, Truth, Justice and The American Way.

The Boys is just the next acid bead in the continuing drip drip of denigration oozing out of the anti-culturalists, those who would sneer at American traditions, including patriotism, religious affiliation, respect for the marital union and even the dignity of innocent unborn life.

And it’s not even good quality. Give The Boys a — super — wide berth.

AGENTS OF SHIELD – SO LONG, FAREWELL

SHORT TAKE:

Popular TV show spin-off from The Avengers movies, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finishes with class and grace after a seven year run.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Most episodes are appropriate for any age. But there are a few which include: loose sexual relationships, scenes of violence and/or death of regular characters, and disturbing familial dysfunction. So, as always, more mature guardians should be the gatekeepers here, though expect that most shows will be family viewing.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS AND SPOILERS – IT’S INEVITABLE WHEN DISCUSSING A SHOW THIS LONG RUNNING

My father was a science fiction fan extraordinaire. He had closets full of paperbacks, all alphabetized for easy reference. He had an incredible collection of really old large format pulp magazines from the 1930’s and 1940’s like Astounding and Amazing. They were not made for longevity but quick sales and even though he lovingly preserved them in zip lock bags, by the time I was around they were so brittle, just turning their pages risked their crumbling to pieces.

My Dad could rattle off and speak with some authority on authors like Heinlein, Asimov, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and Burroughs. And he would always have one of his favorites, like Smith’s Skylark or Lensmen series, in his back pocket to pull out and keep him company. They would companion him in a dental waiting room or while eating lunch or stuck in traffic or even just drifting off to sleep at night. He said re-reading these classic gems were like “visiting old friends”.

There are sci fi shows I feel this way about too, such as Tennant’s Dr Who, and Star Trek both TOS and Next Generation. Another one of those series which has, over the years, garnered both my respect and affection is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. A spin off show based upon the secret organization officially led by Nick Fury (the eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson from The Avengers) but managed, in fact, by the ultimate super hero wrangler –

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Coulson “died” in The Avengers. Coulson was, to quote Coulson “shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini” (referring to Tom Hiddleson’s Loki), and his purported death was used by Fury as a catalyst for the unification of the disparate, bickering mighty warriors. The murder of their “mascot” inspired them to forge a united front which was breakable only from within their own ranks later in Civil War.

However, the character of Coulson was so popular among fans that the brothers Whedon decided to create a show with him in the lead. AOS was clever, occasionally self-aware, followed storylines that had to scramble to keep up, sometimes at the “last minute” in the wake of the Marvel super hero movies, and accommodate to the needs of their big screen siblings – such as the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. after the Sokovia Accords and the discovery of HYDRA agents embedded within S.H.I.E.L.D. AOS rolled with the punches. It featured inventive bad guys, martial arts women in leather outfits, space ships, laser weapons, alien artifacts, dangerous A.I.s, clever quips and a flying car. But their greatest strength was never taking themselves too seriously. One of the opening scenes of the pilot helped set the mood for the rest of its seven year run. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), while interviewing Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) for a position with S.H.I.E.L.D. asks Ward what S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for. He replies: “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” She follows up with: “And what does that mean to you?” To which Ward quips: “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “S.H.I.E.L.D.”

AOS dealt with the unlikely to the ridiculous: from gravitonium powered anti-heroes to the supernatural

Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna). From mutants with super powers to Nazi hold overs. From aliens to time travel. And the writers never backed down from even the most preposterous situations. They addressed them head on, usually with some pithy comments from Coulson. They respected their material and treated the situations seriously but never ignored or took for granted the fact that sometimes the circumstances were, indeed, bizarre.

While their strength was in humor their charm was the familial feel they brought to their team. While Coulson was never without a “Dad joke”, appropriate for the paternal figure he came to be, he ensured there would be fairness and discipline in the ranks.

Coulson’s right hand, stalwart back watcher, friend and sometimes Jiminy Cricket conscience was the beautiful but dour faced Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen). Reluctantly carrying the nickname “The Cavalry” she was the protector, and S.O. or supervising officer for the new recruits.

Then there was Fitz-Simmons, actually two geniuses:

Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons (respectively, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), a techie and a biologist, best friends since school whose relationship later blossomed into romance.

Ward was the big brother muscle and

Sky (Chloe Bennet) the little sister with more skill than common sense. At least this is how they started.

Another virtue of the show is they never let their characters stay put. Lack of routine was the norm. True to the Whedons – never get REALLY attached to any character as you will eventually lose them in surprising and shocking ways – either from death or personality development, but that is part of the creative attraction to the show. You were never allowed to get comfortable with a character, even if they DIDN’T do a Whedon and get killed off unexpectedly.

Reliable, boring, by-the-book,

Ward turned out to be a

double agent for HYDRA (the bad guy new age Nazis) barely holding his psychosis in check.

Fitz, the mousy tech hid a ruthless

Mengele-like aspect to his personality, inherited from his father and which, in one time stream, led him to be a megalomaniac super villain and in another time line, a savvy pragmatic leader.

Sky started out as an anti-establishment computer hacker,

who turned out to be the daughter of a powerful enhanced villain but then used her new found powers to become a top agent in the organization she initially tried to expose.

The enhanced

Jeffery Mace (Jason O’Mara), who led S.H.I.E.L.D. briefly after Coulson stepped down, turned out to be a chemically boosted fraud intended as a PR stunt.

Mack (Henry Simmons), the devout Christian mechanic, happy with being in the background, later became the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Elena “Yo-Yo” (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), a mistrustful independent street fighter whose hyper human speed would have given Flash a run (literally) for his money, became a cyborg and one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agents.

And then there’s Coulson.

Coulson just kept – well, coming back. He was stabbed through the heart and brought back with alien blood. After succumbing to a degenerative side effect FROM the alien blood he then returned as the subconscious embodiment of an invading alien scout. Cut in half by Melinda May he returned as an L.M.D. (computer A.I.). Blown up he appeared once again in a digitized fashion as a

Max Headroom homage, then was graced with a new

L.M.D. body courtesy of Simmons. He died dozens of times during a time loop but because he, alone, could remember all of the loop incarnations was able to stop that merri-go-round. Talk about not being able to keep a good man down! As Coulson put it: “Dying, it’s kind of my super power.”

Then there were the characters who worked their way into the group but then were snatched away by the writers, by death or unavoidable circumstance: the optimist Trip, the unlucky Rosalind (Constance Zimmer) Coulson’s romantic interest, the Koenig triplets, the married

Bobbie and Lance Hunter (Adrienne Palicki and Nick Blood) who, while devoted to each other, made the Bickersons look happily married.

AOS went on for seven seasons. Like any show it had its good and bad installments. But overall AOS, when looked at all in one piece, was a single story of: fortitude in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, self-sacrifice, altruism, protection of freedom, and defense of the weaker and innocent. Basically the fundamental motto of the Grandaddy of all Superheroes – Superman: Truth, Justice and the American Way.

And I loved the fact that, like the characters in Galaxy Quest, they believed: “Never give up! Never surrender!” And like Kirk and Spock, characters from (assuming you could be from another galaxy yourself and not know who they are) the Star Trek Universe, (the show on which Galaxy Quest was based), the characters on AOS never accepted a no-win scenario and never lost faith in the possibility of an alternative solution no matter how dire the situation.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plays out like one long – very long (99 hour) – movie. Each season has a distinct arc, mission to accomplish, challenge to overcome, and puzzle to solve. And no matter the unusual challenge:

enslaved by Kree in outer space, trapped in a virtual evil alternate universe, or simply dealing with an “epidemic” of new “enhanced” people, the core characters remain familiar but never grow stagnant or stale. They grew and evolved, like a kaleidoscope whose colors are always the same but evoke dynamic patterns.

The science fiction is solid, relying on the tech we have now but anticipating advances,

like “icer” guns which are more advanced tazers, androids and Chronicoms which anticipate human looking A.I.s, and planes which can negotiate space as well as atmosphere.

The theme music and soundtrack by Bear McCreary and Jason Akers, brass heavy and heroic, have the familiar Marvel Universe feel.

The final season was a doozy. Knowing they were winding up almost a decade of storylines, the writers

Joss and Jed Whedon, and actors simply had WAY too much fun. Time travel was the name of the game and with each passing decade the show immersed itself in wonderfully eccentric ways with tongue VERY firmly planted in cheek. For example,

the show set in the 1930’s was black and white with accompanying narrative, the affectation ultimately given a scientific explanation.

The season set in the 1970’s not only featured the tacky clothes and grainier film quality particular to that time period but adapted its intro to include the trademark cheesy technique of actor-turn-reveal-pose-credit used in every show from The Love Boat to Perry Mason and spoofed at the end of Galaxy Quest. The 1980’s featured a song in a not so subtle but simultaneously nostalgic and funny way.

There’s even a split second nod to Back to the Future.

One of the most distinctive elements of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the way the cast radiated a sense of fun. Every character was given moments to shine and each conveyed a sense of loving their character and running with the often crazy new aspects to their characters. Nothing deterred these guys. They faced death, acquired superpowers, were absorbed into a virtual world within a computer model made of the hopes and fears of the agents, traveled time, encountered the supernatural, and in a couple of notable scenes even met Nick Fury himself.

There were side characters compelling enough to deserve their own shows, but sadly, never got them: Bobby and Hunter – the married and bickering killer agents, Enoch

the put upon android (Joel Stoffer) who wanted to fit into this ersatz family, Deke (Jeff Ward) the under appreciated tech genius sucked out of an alternate timeline who was (probably) Fitz-Simmons’ grand child,

Calvin (Kyle MacLachlan) Sky’s mad scientist father who was contented with a mind wipe and job as a veterinarian,

Sousa a heroic figure rescued from a historic death and whisked off secretly in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s time traveling ship,

Trip (B.J. Britt) who endeared himself to everyone then was summarily Whedonized, Ward who was transformed into an alien supervillain, a set of identical triple agents (Patton Oswalt), Mike (J. August Richards), a cybernetically enhanced father who longed to return to his son, a stranded Asgardian, Chronicoms, the supernatural Ghost Rider, and an evil Russian agent who became a disembodied head remotely operating an LMD version of himself, among many others.

I wish I had time to mention all the entertaining cast members that popped into AOS over 136 episodes but there were literally hundreds of supporting members of the company, most of whom made an interesting impression.

This was a show to look forward to but never have to take seriously. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a world of fantasy which rarely succumbed to the political correctness so debilitating to creativity today. I shall miss the prospect of new shows but think they went out with class and style, completing character arcs and homaging the heck out of their and other universes but never losing sight of the themes of: family, patriotism, heroics, courage, self-sacrifice, constantly striving to do the best with the gifts God has given you, coping with massive challenges, and a “Never give up, never surrender” (thank you again Galaxy Quest) attitude.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a world any superhero would have been proud to call home and a place, I think, my Dad would have enjoyed visiting.

So long, farewell.

TENET – NOLAN’S TIME TRAVELING SPY THRILLER DAZZLES — AS LONG AS YOU DON’T LOOK TOO CLOSELY AT THE PLOT

SHORT TAKE:

Christopher Nolan’s most recent mind bender. Bond meets Back to the Future.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Really for adults only for violence, some profanity, and a poisonous bad guy who indulges in everything from torture and pursuing world domination to domestic abuse.

LONG TAKE:

It is a cliche to say that something started off ”with a bang” but in the case of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, that’s a pretty accurate description.

Without credits or explanation you are abruptly thrown into a high risk hostage situation with all the preparation of a Shanghai sailor enlisted into an open sea battle. Guns blazing we follow the main character as he negotiates a field of terrorists and SWAT team members in a sea of innocent victims. You can’t even be sure for whom one should be rooting – except … that the guy you are following is called The Protagonist (John David Washington from The Book of Eli) and works for a super secret organization endeavoring to prevent the end of the world. But even this you do not find out for some time. To make it all the more challenging, in these opening scenes, which time is usually spent introducing you to the home team, everyone is in full helmeted armor and the only hints we get about the participants in this war zone is their actions. Some have no problem shooting at unconscious captives, others try to spare them.

Tenet is best enjoyed as a full emersion experience. I hesitate mightily to even hint at the plot as it would be as rudely revealing as blurting out the name of the killer in the middle of an Agatha Christie movie.

So I will content myself in providing as much advisory information as I can based upon the features of the film.

To begin with the special effects are pretty spectacular. Not in an Independence Day way but in the cleverness with which Nolan exposits his time travel McGuffins. I anticipate a much deserved Best Special Effects, and Best Editing awards going Tenet’s way.

The soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther and Mandalorian) is fitting and channels Hans Zimmer. If you did not know this was a Nolan film, you would recognize the heavy hand of deep resonant sound which underlies, creates and builds on the tension, much like the so-familiar-it-is-now-parodied brass blare from Inception.

Nolan, the masterful auteur writer and/or director of Interstellar, Inception, Dunkirk, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Memento, LOVES to play mind games with his audience. Even Washington has admitted that he is STILL not entirely sure what happened. This is NOT meant as a criticism. Far from it. I admire and appreciate the fact Nolan respects his audience enough to give them room (and rope enough) to find their way on their own, contemplate meanings, and ponder the reasons certain things happen the way they do. In other hands this could be seen as a cop-out but Nolan provides plenty of evidence, bread crumbs and titillating detail. It’s just that there are a number of ways these particulars can be interpreted.

Nolan’s films are a LOT of fun to watch.

However, while, again, I will not reveal the plot, I will warn you that the plot does not always and completely hold together. Unlike the tightly written Back to the Future trilogy or the Infinity War stories, or even Groundhog Day, explanations in Tenet are muddied and subscribe to the philosophy that if you cannot dazzle them with brilliance, baffled them with …LOTS of action. Nolan even speaks to the audience through one of the minor characters who, while trying to explain certain … events … to The Protagonist, ultimately tells him not to try to understand it but, instead, “feel” it. This, I think, is more advice for the ticket buyer than our investigating spy.

In addition, despite the Draconian Wuhan Virus related regulations causing the shut down of theaters around the country, and despite the money foregone in not simply releasing Tenet to streaming services, Nolan stuck to his guns and INSISTED on a theatrical release. He was quite open about the reason. He did not want the audience to have the opportunity to stop the movie, take a break from the 150 minute bladder burster, or be interrupted by a phone call. He wanted Tenet to be embraced in one swell foop – a single experience which, like a roller coaster will take you on a wild ride, leaving you little chance to catch your breath, figure out or, Heaven forfend, try to ANTICIPATE the next move. I suspect Nolan knew full well that some of his exposition would not completely hold water and that there are plot holes and contrivance contradictions.

The acting is really excellent. Washington is as compelling, cool, and convincing as any Bond hero.

Michael Caine has a small but delightful expositional part. Mr. Caine’s appearance was one of many highlights even though Mr. Caine was almost completely in the dark as to exactly what machine he was a cog in. Nolan kept the story so under wraps that Sir Michael was only given his part of the script to read. This, in fact, actually helps. Caine’s character would NOT have known even a fraction of what was going on within the Universe of the story. But Sir Michael is so gifted a storyteller that he could be given a grocery list to read and I’d still pay money to listen.

Robert Pattinson has come a LONG way since his Twilight phase. While I am likely one of the few grown ups who have advocated in favor of that film series due to its promotion of chastity and pro-life, I never said they were particularly skilled cinematic efforts. SEE REVIEW HERE But Pattison does himself proud as the suave but slightly slovenly, mischievous but mysterious ally to Washington’s main character.

Elizabeth Debicki is sympathetic as Kat, the damsel in distress who has a surprise or two up her sleeve. Debicki might look familiar to sci fi fans, but many will have trouble placing her without her Gold Finger paint job from Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2’s Ayesha.

But the trump card belongs to Kenneth Branagh as the malevolent criminal mastermind. I HATE when Branagh plays villains. For one thing, he is just so likeable in general it is almost painful to accept him as the one to beat. Even Branagh’s evil characters are hard not to side with — at least a little. His Iago in Othello, for instance, was often amusing and so openly willing to confide to the audience that you couldn’t help but understand his frustrations, even as you could be dismayed by his betrayals of those who trusted him.

For another, he’s just too darned GOOD at being bad. In Tenet, Branagh’s Sator (Saytr? Satan? Combo?) is a truly ruthless and malignant person. And yet – there was a compulsion in watching Branagh as he unveiled this persona. I knew it couldn’t be sympathy and then realized it was Branagh’s powerful portrayal of Sator as a man so convinced of his own rightness and entitlement to the outcome of every plan he makes that you are compelled to see through his eyes, even as you are horrified by what he does.

The language was a bit rough in spots but often during action scenes where the music and sound effects were so loud it was hard to make out.

Tenet is not a perfect movie. It does not even bear harsh scrutiny in the afterglow without revealing some major flaws and inconsistencies. In places, the plot is so threadbare you could read – a script through it.

But who cares? The acting is great, the action sequences fascinating, the special effects creative and the story moves along at such a pace that the lines blur enough to give the IMPRESSION of a tightly woven story. If you’re looking for Agatha Christie – wait for Branagh’s turn as the hero in Death on the Nile. But, if you are looking for a great Theme Park-like roller coaster of a movie this is your ride.

THE OLD GUARD – PRESUMPTUOUS AND FORGETTABLE ACTION FLICK WITHOUT A PROPER ENDING OR POINT

SHORT TAKE:

Gratuitously violent action adventure about five semi-immortal mercenaries who fight for “good” guys who can find and afford them.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Only for adult fans of graphic novel genre stories which take themselves way too seriously. Inappropriate for the usual superhero demographic crowd because of: violence, profanity, disturbing images of prolonged suffering and overt same sex attraction relationships.

LONG TAKE:

Pray for rain, plow the field. Despite the unfortunate lack of genuine prayer life in most filmmakers’ lives nowadays, (the Kendrick and Coen brothers, respectively, being the most prominently laudable mainstream exceptions), movie makers sometimes demonstrate a, shall we say, unjustified amount of optimism regarding sequel-likelihood for their movie. I’m not talking about tried-and-true established film franchises justifiably confident in their future audience, like: Marvel, Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m talking about movies that come out of nowhere but blatantly setup endings which require a sequel for an adequate conclusion, ending in what can only be thought of as a cheap way to dodge coming up with a satisfying finale to a tricky plot conundrum.

One example is the campy old classic 1975 Doc Savage: Man of Bronze whose final scene showed Doc (Ron Ely) whisking off in response to an answering machine message about a threat to millions of lives. 45 years on were still waiting to find out what that was all about.

Another is the woefully underappreciated campy old 1980 classic, Flash Gordon. Even the inclusion of: Shakespearean Timothy “James Bond” Dalton, Academy Award winner and auteur Ingmar Bergman darling Max Von Sydow,  Branagh’s “go to” Shakespearean stable performer Brian Blessed, music by Queen, and production by Dino DeLaurentis (whose filmography includes 184 films), could not save this light and fun swing at the action adventure hero genre at the box office. Flash “concludes” with the destroyed evil Emperor Ming’s ring being picked up by an unidentified someone’s hand and the Emperor’s wicked laugh sounding against the end title of  “The End ?” I think we can safety answer – yes, it was the END of that movie.

Another is 1969’s The Italian Job, (not the 2003 sequel which is quite different) which ended with our intrepid antiheroes literally hanging in a bus over a cliff with a massive fortune in gold causing them to teeter towards the abyss and Michael Caine’s character’s last words: “Hold on lads, I’ve got an idea,” ringing in our ears.

SPOILERS

The Old Guard is an action adventure fantasy starring Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde, Tully, Mad Max Fury Road, and, coincidentally, the 2003 version of The Italian Job) as Andromache “Andy” of Scythia which posits the idea of a small band of almost immortal warriors who make a living performing impossible good deeds for a price. While the premise is interesting it never really carries through with the most obvious question which the characters themselves ask over and over throughout the movie, which is: “Why?”

Why are they immortal? What is the reason? They are apparently just born this way, and their only similarity is that they all tend to either be or gravitate to a warrior existence. The most obvious structure should have lead us to some kind of ultimate good towards which they were all moving. While a sort of vague impulse to do good lies at the heart of their raison d’etre, there does not seem to be a focus or long game.

Filmmakers now have such an aversion to the idea of an Intelligent Creator that even when it is the most obvious conclusion to the very setup they have created it is a Third Rail. I might have been interested in a sequel which headed toward answering this mystery. Instead we are treated to the appearance in a pre-end credit scene in which Booker, temporarily outcast for reasons I will not spoil here, encounters another quasi-immortal about which we have only seen briefly in flashbacks

Frankly, I thought it rather presumptuous of them to so obviously stick us with an unfinished conclusion, assuming a following they have not yet earned. Overall more time is spent watching the characters fight and bemoan their immortal existence than examining what could have been a very interesting philosophical question structured within the body of an action adventure movie.

The movie is based upon a comic book/graphic novel mini series. But the first issue having been published in 2017 there is not a lot of traction to warrant the conviction of a sufficient following to support a second installment.

Keep in mind Doc Savage was a comic book too, with 181 issues published between 1933 and 1949, and an established following of kids who were now adults when the 1975 clunker hit the big screen like a bug on a windshield. And Flash Gordon was a comic strip which ran from 1934 to 1992 in multiple countries around the world. But that didn’t save its 1980 butt from being thoroughly kicked with critics and audience alike.

In addition, The Old Guard violates one of my demonstrably relevant rules of successful movie making. They don’t have a sense of humor. Even the characters in Aliens found a few legitimate, albeit “whistling in the dark” chuckles despite their dire circumstances. (Hudson, a male soldier trying to antagonize Vasquez, a female soldier: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Vasquez: “No, have you?” After their rescue ship crashes Burk quips: “Maybe we can build a fire, sing a couple of songs, huh? Why don’t we try that?”) But in The Old Guard they don’t even try. Aside from some bleakly pessimistic sarcasm there is no genuine lightness to their lives.

They see no real upside to their longevity, but only moan a lot about the downsides – which admittedly are considerable. And while it’s true that they will outlive everyone they love, and there is always the possibility they could be trapped somewhere for an interminable amount of time without the escape hatch of death, you would think, with possibilities available to them which are not for the rest of us mortals, they could find some positives. They have all seen significant chunks of history play out. They will not get cancer, suffer overmuch from even catastrophic injury, become bald or even get cavities! Over the centuries they have done great good but never stopped to appreciate it. To them immortality just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I get that. But that is not the button that should be pushed repeatedly throughout the entire movie.

I became impatient with their collective inability to count their considerable blessings. They would have done well to watch Groundhog Day (a few times LOL) and learn what it means to be blessed with the opportunity to save lives and prevent pain. Although Phil’s  temporary immortality came in a repeat loop and The Old Guard’s is more linear and arguably should have been more satisfying, Phil came to appreciate his altruistic duty. I suspect the difference is in Phil’s basic footing in a faith in God, hinted at in moments such as when Phil looks up to Heaven as the elderly man he is trying to save dies – again. Phil came to accept that he, Phil, is not in control, but is only meant to do the best he can with the unique position he is in.

There is no such similar water shed moment in The Old Guard but just a constant, low level, bitchy undervaluing of the tremendous gift they have been given, without ever considering the possibility that maybe they have a reason and a purpose.

Despite the wishful thinking from gushing, almost syncophantic reviewers, The Old Guard is already being referred to as a “quick kill blockbuster”. A quick kill blockbuster is a movie with so much hype, star power and anticipation before it comes out, that it makes a big splash, only to sink pitifully to the bottom of the pool fairly quickly. The Old Guard’s financial demise will be hidden for a while both by the inertia it has going into the public mainstream based on Charlize Theron’s involvement and its alleged comic book origin appeal, and by the fact that “box office” returns have been reinterpreted due to the Wuhan virus government regulation cataclysm keeping theaters closed.

Collecting “box office” revenue has been replaced with counting “streaming hits” and no one has adequately interpreted the conversion factor for those yet. But it is easy to guess that what would otherwise have been a box office bomb can be covered by the “film” (if you will excuse the pun) of references to “excitement” over its release and the number of “hits” it gets on its home media of Netflix. Since a subscription to Netflix gives access to anything within that system without extra cost, it is impossible for the average observer to tell how many of those “hits” resulted in a full screening or just a casual taste which is quickly discarded after a few minutes of fading interest.

It’s just not a very good or engaging film. The characters mope about in a miasmic funk of self-pity when they are not precision “target shooting” their opponents or leaping about in martial arts choreography we’ve all seen done often and better in any of the Infinity Saga movies.

That’s not to say it is a terrible movie or not a good popcorn flick. It’s got a number of redeeming qualities to it, not the least of which is at least a nod to Judeo-Christian faith of the newbie character Nile, as well as a truly interesting concept, albeit one which is not well explored. But it is just nowhere near strong or creative enough to merit the kind of confidence which demands the movie-going public must commit to another movie in order to resolve the plot twists which had been hinted at throughout the film’s already over long two hour and five minute run.

Theron does a credible job as Andy, head and oldest of the band, artistically fighting her way through hordes of bad guys and occasionally with colleagues. But she bringing nothing much more to her character than a smoldering gruffness, which prominent personality characteristic she has brought to many of her other movies like Atomic Blonde and Mad Max. I understand her tough guy/girl persona does not lend itself to lightness and fun but even in Tully SEE REVIEW HERE, where she plays a wife and mother, why does she have to look so GROUCHY all the time??

Harry Melling’s evil pharma king Steven Merrick fully channels Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther in Batman v Superman.  This is especially notable as Merrick, the skinny hyper megalomaniac, is portrayed by the same actor who played dumpy, spoiled but, at the end,  gratefully good hearted Dudley in the Harry Potter movies.

The ever delightful Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Dr. Strange and The Martian) plays Copley, the researcher who unearths and exposes the band and whose motives are mixed and complex.

Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, Red Sparrow SEE REVIEW HERE, and The Laundromat) is a sympathetic Booker, Andy’s favorite, whose convoluted motives provide some three-dimensional flair to the proceedings.

Relative newbie Kiki Layne is refreshing as Nile the newly emerged mostly immortal.

Veronica Ngo (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has the unenviable position of Quynh, whose character is more referred to by the other characters than ever seen but who promises to be in the sequel if one ever  is filmed.

And whether it is yet another victim of the Wuhan virus regulation cataclysm or if this slow moving action flick is using the pandemic response overreach as an excuse, the earliest that The Old Guard 2 is even being considered is 2022. So, as fans of Flash Gordon and the first The Italian Job could tell you – don’t hold your breath. And honestly, while the movie is mildly entertaining, never getting a resolution to it would not be much of a loss for this fairly arid outing.

MOON – AN EXAMINATION OF WHAT IT IS TO BE HUMAN

SHORT TAKE:

Thoughtful, low key and intriguing sci fi exploration of the definition of a human.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adults only for language, graphic depictions of radiation sickness and the topics of death, loneliness and the marketing of human life.

LONG TAKE:

Sam Rockwell is an amazing actor. I have sung his praises in other outings like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, (SEE RADIO SHOW HERE and the REVIEW HERE) and his stint as Bob Fosse in the miniseries Fosse/Verdun. But my favorite performance of his will always be the first one I ever saw him in, Galaxy Quest, the parody / love letter to Star Trek.

SPOILERS BUT AS FEW AS POSSIBLE

So I was duly intrigued by a story that would see Rockwell go back out into space. In Moon he does just that. Moon is a tour-de-force, almost a one man show.

I warn you I’m going to be a bit disingenuous about this movie because I do not want to spoil it anymore than I have to for the sake of the following analysis. Moon is about a man and a clone. I will tell you that the cleverly written script leaves “Easter eggs” around giving hints.

Set in 2035, the story initially explores an examination of how one copes alone on a solitary mission for an extended period of time. Moon then, by turns, becomes an examination in psychology, a mystery, a buddy movie, and eventually a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be a human with the soul. This last led me to realize that Moon could easily be, whether that was on the mind of the filmmaker or not, an analogy for the in vitro created embryos, especially those abandoned as excess or unwanted by the sperm and egg donors who should have accepted their responsibility as parents.

Sam Bell is alone on a space station. His mission contract is for 3 years, monitoring the mining output of extremely valuable *helium-3 from the Moon.  Sam’s only connection to Earth is from one-way video messages of his wife and baby daughter. His only companion or foil for his comments is GERTY who looks more like a Welcome Wagon than even a robot and is voiced by the now infamous Kevin Spacey, who’s measured tones, (giving the devil his due), attempt to offer Sam what limited comfort of which it is capable.

Unlike other writers who agonize over choosing just the right name for their characters, Jones did not, apparently, give it much thought. Lest you were wondering, GERTY is not an acronym but just a name, perhaps, as has been speculated by admirers of the film, chosen for Christopher E Gerty, a NASA aerospace engineer, or perhaps for its similarity to the first five letters on the top line of a standard keyboard – QWERTY.  Sam, the main character’s first name, is the actor’s first name. The harvesters are named after the four authors of the Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which one might think brings a gravitas of meaning, but Jones, himself, has said they were only chosen because he wanted four names that went together.

Sam Bell becomes desperate for any kind of human interaction, longing for personal communication, but forgets that one should be careful for what one wishes as information can be as heartbreaking as it is educational.

Rockwell does a terrific job, even landing his performance in a list of one of the top 10 most egregious Oscar snubs. Rockwell’s Sams are at once the exact same but completely different. One Sam is simply further down the road than the other and Rockwell does a magnificent job of making them completely distinguishable, while at the same time leaving the door open for alternative interpretations, such as: is Sam Bell really only losing his mind? (Rest assured, the movie will eventually answer all the pertinent questions). But during the course of the movie Rockwell’s dynamic performance leaves all possibilities viable (pun intended).

The scenes on the surface of the Moon are well done and very believable, especially when considering Moon‘s mini budget of $5,000,000 and scant shooting schedule of 33 days in Shepperton Studios. The director/writer Duncan Jones preferred models to CGI so employed Bill Pearson, the supervising “animator” for Alien, who was happily at loose ends because of a writers’ strike, to create the rovers and harvesters .

First time feature director, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones’ only other claims to fame up to this time were being a commercial director and the son of famous rocker David Bowie. The film even opens with the line: “Where are we now?” the title of one of his father’s songs.

Jones wrote Moon as a vehicle for Sam Rockwell. Jones had been interested in casting Rockwell as a villain in another film, Mute. While Rockwell liked Mute and was tempted, he was tired of playing bad guys. So Rockwell challenged Jones – that if Jones wrote something of the same quality which would trust him, Rockwell, in a leading role, he would do it. So Jones did — and Rockwell agreed.

The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is reminiscent of Philip Glass. Dissonant string chords, heavily rhythmed but mostly without regular tempo, are occasionally interspersed with simple childish tunes which would be at home in a child’s jewelry box. The effect is one of both low level, anxiety driven tension and what a quiet but hostile space environment might sound like were it anthropomorphized to conduct an orchestra. The overall result is both unsettling and lulling.

In philosophizing about where on the spectrum of humanity lies clones, there must come a reckoning as to the significance of other “artificially” created human life. As the conclusion in the favor of those not “born of woman” becomes more and more obvious, there is an inevitability for any thought conscientious person to reach the same judgement concerning those children whose conception took place in a petri dish – the in vitro embryos bred and then left discarded as “extras” and “backups” then ultimately … forgotten to death. The “where” one obtains life is not important. They – both clones and science-driven and conceived embryos – are undeniably human.

When Edward Rutledge protests against John Adams’ assertion that slaves are Americans, John Adams points out, appropriate to that particular historic juncture, in the brilliant musical 1776: “They are people, and they are here. If there’s any other requirement, I haven’t heard it,” regardless of how they arrived. Similarly, I would point out, the only prerequisite to being considered human, with all of the attendant God given rights and dignities, is to be — a human. Doesn’t matter how you arrived: sexual interaction, artificial insemination, petri dish, cloning, or (in the case of extended sci fi examples) transporter accidents – a human is a human and should be treated as such.

Moon makes this point beautifully and with great understatement. And Rockwell is the classy and compelling purveyor of that message. So to paraphrase Horton: A person’s a person, no matter how he got here.

*Helium-3 is a real thing – also called tralphium or helion, it is a light stable isotope of helium which is rare on Earth but is speculated to be more abundant and mineable from the Moon.