Gemini Man (2019)

gemini man poster

An aging assassin (Will Smith) runs into trouble with his government bosses when he decides to retire. The best there’s ever been, who could hope to take him down – except, perhaps, the younger version of himself. Just as well a shadowy figure cloned him 20 years before, hmm?

Actually, that time gap is one thing I approved of in this movie: I’m fed up of the sci-fi trope of ‘instant clones’, where people have a double there and then. This part of the science is closer to real, with the cloned child raised at the normal pace. Let’s not delve too deeply into the cloned personality, tastes, abilities, etc etc.

As a premise, it’s not too awful, if you’re minded to suspend disbelief for a bit. As an action movie, this works pretty well, with some cool rooftop and motorbike chases and Will Smith fighting with himself. The CGI for the de-aged duplicate is so-so: occasionally pretty darn good, sometimes so dreadful as to look unfinished (I imagine the DVD release will see improvements!).

However, the story is bland to the point of forgettable, which is a lot of a shame. It starts okay – who is chasing Will, why does he look like him (except, the audience already knows, so zero tension), etc etc. But, character motivations are murky, some change for no real reason, and the baddy ends up being totally one dimensional. I suppose there is a bit of ‘what if’ – how would you interact with your younger self, could you change their path, that sort of thing.

Overall: I think this is only about the special effects, which aren’t so impressive as to make up for the lack of interesting story. It’s well enough made, just lacks any real… anything, tbh, apart from action. Still, inoffensive popcorn fluff, the no-longer-so-fresh Prince adds a certain degree of quality – and he’s aging pretty well, I have to say!

Released: 10th October 2019
Viewed: 18th October 2019
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10 – forgettable, soulless popcorn fluff, but reasonably well-made

Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain cover

“‘Tell me what you think you saw.'”

Following on immediately from the events in Revenger, usual warning that even mentioning characters that made it to the sequel can be a kind of spoiler. And my opening lines are definitely book 1 spoilers…!

Okay with that? Then read on!

Having won and renamed The Revenger, the Ness sisters are free of Bosa Sennen – or, are they? Did Adrana’s time being groomed as her successor leave its mark or did Arafura’s rescue come in time? And what of Fura – she had to change to beat the galaxy’s biggest evil, does that leave an even bigger mark? The two have clearly grown up – it’s tough to remember they’re supposed to be 18-ish, even more to remember Adrana is the elder – and their objectives have changed. Not wholly through choice, though, as escaping the shadow of Bosa is harder than they thought…

I’d reread Revenger in preparation for this, and as such it came as a bit of a surprise to find the first person narrative switching from Fura to Adrana. In fact, I found it so hard to switch mental gears, that I put the book down and read something else first!

It is clear from the story why the viewpoint had to change, but it takes a while to feel not-weird. Whether that was my brain adjusting, or the writing developing a more distinctive tone – not sure.

It also helps immensely when the action gets going, and by the time the crew land on-world the descriptions of the decaying, corrupt place were spot on.

Overall, there are enough mysteries to keep you guessing – with a few more explanations for some of the world-building, like the genesis of the Congregation (they did *what* to Earth, Mars, et al?!) – but none more so than wondering about the motivations of the characters.

Still, as enjoyable as this was, for me it doesn’t live up to Alastair Reynolds’ other work. The difference is writing for (I believe) more a YA audience, and something in the tone just didn’t work as well for me. I will look out for the third volume of the trilogy, though, as I’m intrigued enough to see where the Ness sisters end their story…!

Hardback: 488 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Revenger book 2
Read from 1st September – 10th October 2019

My rating: 7/10

Ad Astra (2019)

ad astra poster

Short review: vastly over-hyped, massive disappointment.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of the most heroic, lauded astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones) that ever was. Alas, McBride senior disappeared sixteen years into a mission to the edge of the solar system, to try to track down intelligent alien life. Twenty-seven years later, the Earth is in terrible peril from energy surges that seem to come from.. yup, the edge of the solar system. Space Com, a company with worryingly large amounts of power, suspects Roy’s father is to blame – but, that would suggest they have reason to think he’s alive…

So far so good. There were many paths that the filmmakers could have taken this story, at least one of which was suggested by the trailer. But, this is not that movie. I am rather stunned by the fantastic reviews this film is receiving; based on those, I would think I was watching a different movie! Yes, it looks gorgeous, but it’s slow, mopey, full of highly irritating inaccuracies and stupid actions, the story makes no sense, and that voice over – eeep! And please don’t tell me that I just don’t ‘get it’ – the whole void of space vs void of inner life blah blah needs to be paired with something that didn’t make me want to roll my eyes, cringe, or nod off.

One comment I’ve seen in a few reviews is how ‘realistic’ the space stuff is. Urm, absolutely not! There’s not enough gravity on the moon to make dust hang in the air like that; lighter gravity on non-Earth planets isn’t shown; you CANNOT get a ‘boost’ from a shockwave in space like that, and antimatter doesn’t… oh, I give up. Each and every one of these had me cringing. The so-called ‘deep and introspective’ nature of our astronaut ‘hero’ was no excuse for pouting, stupid behaviour, and moments that clearly defied all training. The thing is, if you’re going to make a film set in space I think you either need to go big and silly (e.g. Flash Gordon) or you need to live up to the claims of being ‘realistic’ – this halfway nonsense is just a mess.

And still, y’know, I could have forgiven a lot if the film wasn’t full of randomness that didn’t really fit. The attack by ‘space pirates’ – what was the point of that? Killer baboons! And, why was that research being carried out so far out into space? Other characters flit in and out, and it sort of fits the theme that they are largely meaningless (poor Liv Tyler should have learned from Armageddon), but still. Grrr.

I sat through the mess, thinking this was the kind of film that pulls everything together in the third act, suddenly enlightening the audience and making the slog worth it. No. As seen throughout the movie, there’s a lot of build up to… nothing. And oy, don’t get me started on the total lack of repercussions for anything!!!

Okay. Deep breath. Mostly I am just stunningly disappointed in this film. There are small things that are really well done: the opening disaster; the use of silence (if only Gravity hadn’t gotten there first); the brand names on the moon, the $125 for a pillow and blanket – little nods to the future state of mankind were intriguing. But overall, I think this was just a damp squib, trying to be ‘intellectual’ and failing miserably, and quite frankly too much of an irritating mess to be worth seeing even for the possibility that you’re going to be one of those raving about it.

Released: 18th September 2019
Viewed: 23rd September 2019
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 4/10 – it looked great, but… everything else o.O

Lost and Found – Orson Scott Card

lost and found cover

“Ezekiel Blast liked to walk to school alone.”

Ezekiel Bliss has an unusual ‘gift’: he is aware of lost objects around him, and has an urge to return them to their owners. Sounds useful, right? But who wants a stranger approaching them with a muddy scrunchie? And if someone approaches you with a valuable, lost item, how else could they have known it was yours unless they’d been the one to take it, right?

Shunned and mistrustful, Ezekiel plods through life as best he can, until the day a girl decides she’s going to walk to school with him. Soon they pair are caught up in a kidnapping case, and part of a research group looking into ‘micropowers’ – things like Ezekiel’s finding ability.

I’ll start by saying this: Lost and Found has nothing in common with OSC’s most famous work, Ender’s Game. The sci-fi element is as low-key as the micropowers being used and investigated, with the plot being centred more around the group – Ezekiel, Beth, FBI Agent Shank, and Mr Bliss – being pulled into the search for a missing child. However, the story is probably more about relationships and loss, and navigating life when you’re a bit too different.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and overall I wasn’t entirely blown away by the mystery or world-building – micropowers are interesting, but they aren’t really explained or deeply explored beyond being the central plot device. But I was sucked into the story almost from the get-go, mainly by the dialogue-driven character interactions. I liked that the grown ups are pulled into the quest, it’s not just the kids. And those kids are smart and self-deprecating, very not-annoying!

Overall, a decent read – nothing earth-shattering, but held my interest despite feeling vaguely familiar, either plot-wise or maybe just in tone – I couldn’t put my finger on it. But while I’m not branding it a ‘must-read’, it won’t disappoint if you do find yourself picking it up.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 10th September 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th-31st August 2019

My rating: 7/10

Blade Runner – Vangelis

blade runner OST cover

If you’re talking about film scores, the name Vangelis really should come up eventually, and nowhere better than his ground-breaking work for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Blade Runner.

The movie has *the* sci-fi noir (practically-invented-the-genre) feel going on, and the score captures and enhances that perfectly. It includes dialog from the movie, heavy use of synthesizers (from when electronica was still rather new), clever ‘alternative’ percussion, but an underlying orchestral feel, too. And a random 1920s-esque ragtime jazz song, actually written for the movie, but totally jarring with of the rest of the mood – and yet somehow fitting perfectly because of that.

Different tracks conjure different moods. Blade Runner Blues is appropriately wistful and lonely, as is the nostalgic Memories of Green. Tales of the Future, however, has Arabesque-chanting that brings an exotic flavour married with unsettling windchimes and minor chords that just oozes atmosphere. The End Titles are sci-fi action series, dun-dun-dun-dun and everything, almost at odds with the delicacy of the rest.

Rachel’s Song, for instance, features an ethereal voice, plinky almost water drip electronica, and I’d swear I’ve heard meditation music that sounds 90% the same. It’s one of my favourites on the album, full of pathos and very otherworldly, in a mystical kind of a way. It’s followed by the much warmer (bar a few chillingly electronica chords in the middle…!), more contemporary (saxophones, really?) Love Theme – but, when you remember the awkward ickiness of one particular scene of the movie, the sleazy lounge room vibe is all the more appropriate.

Oddly, most of the score doesn’t actually conjure up scenes from the movie for me – not surprisingly, I find, as it was written somewhat independently of the visuals (but not the themes and mood). But then the dialog inclusions tie it wholly back again, particularly at the end with the futuristic electronica rebuffed with the poignant Tears in the Rain speech; a gentle, uplifting finale.

It took 12 years for an official release of the score to appear after the movie came out. There are now more special releases than I’ve counted, perhaps fittingly for a movie that also has so many versions. It still sounds futuristic, still utterly atmospheric, and still very worth a listen.

My rating: 9/10

Genre: sci-fi noir
Released: 1982 (movie) / 1994 (official score release)
Length: 57:53
Number of tracks: 12

Track listing:

  1. Main Titles
  2. Blush Response
  3. Wait for Me
  4. Rachel’s Song
  5. Love Theme
  6. One More Kiss Dear
  7. Blade Runner Blues
  8. Memories of Green
  9. Tales of the Future
  10. Damask Rose
  11. End Titles
  12. Tears in the Rain

Avatar – James Horner

avatar ost cover

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) received mixed reviews. 3D had never been used so well, it all looked amazing, but was the story a cliche – or worse? Whatever your opinion on the film, the score fits perfectly – in my opinion – with the look and feel of the piece, becoming a regular in my listening rotation.

There’s an expansive, eerie sound to the opening that fits perfectly with the distance travelled across the emptiness of space, and can send a tingle up my spine. The second track includes the first use of a motif of major chords in ascension, that convey a swelling of joy, or hope, that again fits well. It then picks up an action pace with a tinge of other-worldliness that I don’t even have to read the title to know is Jake taking his first steps in his ‘avatar’, and into the world of the Na’vi.

Pure spirits of the forest introduces an ethereal quality, as the name sort of suggests. Can’t you just picture the scene of the light-fantastic creatures floating around Jake and Neytiri? The horns then come in and everything gets a bit more majestic, and bit more fierce.

If there are complaints to be made, it might include the fact that James Horner has a recognisable not just style, but set of sounds. I wasn’t quite as familiar with his work 10 years ago when this came out, but I have since listened to a lot of his other work and yes, there are bits that seem ‘lifted’ wholesale. Still, that doesn’t matter if you only listen to this one, and even otherwise the re-used sounds still ‘fit’ well where they are here.

I like this score when I’m in the mood for something uplifting, a little bit other-worldly, and somewhere between sci-fi and wild nature – in other words, exactly what the movie represented.

As a weird aside, I was standing at the train station not so long ago, and the noise of the incoming train sounded almost exactly like the long ‘aaaaahhh’ vocalisation used throughout this soundtrack. Weird!

My rating: 8/10

Genre: sci-fi
Released: 2009
Length: 1:18:52
Number of tracks: 14

Track listing:

  1. You don’t dream in cryo
  2. Jake enters his avatar world
  3. Pure spirits of the forest
  4. The bioluminescence of the night
  5. Becoming one of ‘The People’, Becoming one with Neytiri
  6. Climing up Iknimaya – the Path to Heaven
  7. Jake’s first flight
  8. Scorched earth
  9. Quaritch
  10. The destruction of Hometree
  11. Shutting down Grace’s lab
  12. Gathering all the Na’vi clans for battle
  13. War
  14. I See You (Theme from Avatar)

Stranger Things (season 3)

stranger things 3 poster

Since the first season arrived in 2016, Stranger Things has been one of the highlights of TV viewing. The mix of horror and mystery, weird and nostalgia, all hit a sweet spot.

Usual warning: even mentioning names could be a spoiler for who survives series 1-2, so read on at your own peril!

We already knew that the wrap-up of season 2 wasn’t necessarily tied with a pretty bow, so it isn’t really a surprise that the ‘Mind-flayer’ isn’t as dead or trapped as the residents of Hawkins might wish. And when we find out that there’s a Russian operation to open a doorway … yeah, you know this isn’t going to end well!

Despite rave reviews, I think season 3 is the weakest so far – although still very good and very worth a watch. But, perhaps lower your expectations just a little.

There is a lot to like here. In particular, the continuing reinvention of Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington sees him spend the whole season in a cutesy sailor outfit, which is hysterical. We also meet a new character, Robin (played by Uma Thurman’s daughter, which is who she reminded me of all series!), and the interaction between the two is some of my series highlight.

The younger cast members are growing up fast – a few flashbacks remind us just how young they looked 3 years ago – and we’re subjected to the sight of new young love, awkward and vaguely embarrassing, and played with humour that juxtaposes the darker elements of the show. Still, these are the scenes that didn’t do much for me through the whole – tbh, I just wasn’t fond of most of the child characters, let alone their personal struggles.

The mix of horror and laughs remain a strength. Hopper’s struggles with parenting. Joyce’s pained expressions. Dustin singing. The hope for comeuppance for a new slimey character, played by new cast member Cary Elwes. And on the other side, murderous slime, exploding rats, and so much worse.

Still… the story isn’t complete. Perhaps I was hoping for more answers, and that’s not what this is about. I’m very glad series 4 has been announced – things have changed in Hawkins, but it’s not over yet!

First broadcast: July 2019
Series: 3
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10