Friday, December 23, 2022

Redspace Rising: challenging and rewarding sci-fi

Greetings, commiees & sci-fi fans!

A few years ago I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Brian Trent's novel Ten Thousand Thunders. Today I am reviewing another sci-fi hit Redspace Rising.


Harris Alexander Pope is the man who ended the Partisan War on Mars. All he seeks now is solitude and a return to the life that was stolen from him. Yet when he learns that the worst war criminals are hiding in other bodies, he is forced into an interplanetary pursuit.

Teaming up with other survivors eager for their own brand of vengeance, Harris begins to suspect a darker truth:

Maybe what he remembers about the war isn't what happened at all...

My thoughts:

Let me start by saying that Brian Trent's sci-fi is not for beginners. If you have never read a high end space opera novel before, I recommend getting a few under your belt before you tackle this masterpiece. Better yet, watch a few film adaptations of sci-fi classics to gain a visual point of reference. It's not an easy superficial read by any means. You have to prepare to engage you attention and any cumulative knowledge of the genre. This author has a high standard - for himself and his readers. He does not talk down to his audience by overexplaining and giving too much exposition via third person omniscient narrator. You are expected to figure out the rules of the universe he created as you go. Be prepared to backtrack and reread certain passages. Trust me, it's worth it. You will come out a better reader, thinker and, possibly, writer. 

As in his prior novel "Ten Thousand Thunders" he explores the timeless topics of deconstruction and resurrection. Human beings and worlds are broken apart to be reassembled, given chances for redemption - only to become corrupt and vulnerable again. The cycle repeats. No matter where humans go in the universe, no matter what memories they lose and what new skills they gain, they take their human nature with them. We bring the best and the worst to every corner of the galaxy we visit. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Level 16 - "A Handmaid's Tale" meet "Repo! The Genetic Opera"


Just because October is over, it doesn't mean that Halloween cannot continue. If you have Prime, there is no harm in watching Level 16, a dystopian thriller about a group of teen girls who are trapped in a mysterious and cruel boarding school that hides a dark secret. I would not call the principle of this movie particularly original - it's really hard to come up with anything truly ground breaking in this genre - but it does a decent job weaving some of the classic dystopian tropes. 

My thoughts:

"Level 16" is what you get when you expect a spin on "A Handmaid's Tale" and end up with "Never Let Me Go" (2010) or "Repo! The Genetic Opera" (2008) instead. The emphasis on "feminine virtue" and subjugation and dehumanization of girls/women leads you to believe that gender politics will be at the core of the movie. Yet the plot goes in a different direction, leaving all those references to "cleanliness" as the proverbial gun that is never fired. Their internal qualities end up irrelevant, because in the end, the only thing that matters is the quality of their skin. Their virtue is literally skin-deep. 

"Level 16" is like a beautiful slice of Swiss cheese in terms of holes. There are so many unanswered questions. Not sure if the writers deliberately wanted to leave a bunch of loose ends for the sake of creative ambivalence or pure negligence. We are not told much about these girls' back stories. How old were they when they ended up at the school? Do they have any memory of their biological families? How did their concepts of friendship and loyalty form? These girls look forward to being adopted, so the idea of a family is part of their value system, yet they are told that the school is their family. 

And of course, no dystopian thriller would be complete without some Slavic henchmen. The cartoonish enforcers speak some broken pseudo-Russian gibberish. Not sure if it's a tribute to some Cold War trope or the location is supposed to have some significance. 

All in all, I feel this plot would have worked better as a mini series that would allow the writers to explore the back stories and the motives of the characters. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The Surrogacy Trap:

Greetings, commies!

October is a pregnancy and newborn loss awareness month, so it only makes sense that I should review a movie that touches upon this sensitive. The affected audiences would benefit from a realistic depicture of the surrogacy process. Instead, Lifetime came up with an implausible wannabe thriller full of legal and logistical loopholes. The writers of The Surrogacy Trap did not do their homework.  


After losing hope of conceiving a child on their own, Christy and Mitch turn to surrogacy in hopes of creating the perfect family. However, their confidence is quickly shaken when they discover that the young woman might not be as perfect as they first thought.

My thoughts:

I realize that Lifetime doesn't always aim for accuracy, but this movie contains a few pretty gross factual errors. I am pretty sure it's a uniform rule that the surrogate must have at least one biological child - for good reasons. She needs to prove that she is at least capable of carrying a pregnancy through. Second, they really prefer women who are "done" having their own children, as surrogacy can potentially lead to infertility.

The couple comes across as unsympathetic and shallow, not to mention hypocritical, as they reject a more experienced surrogate for using the program as her main source of income and serving as a "professional incubator". Well, duh! What do they think a surrogate is? They wanted to a a "virginal" and altruistic surrogate who also looks like a supermodel?

Nobody specifies what sources of income Mallory has, yet she is able to afford a pretty fancy apartment. But that's to be expected in most TV productions. People live in apartments they would never afford in real life.

The cops look extremely naive and slow-witted. There were a few pretty close calls. Amazing how one psycho can totally outsmart the police department.

So, if you want to view this movie was a psycho fantasy, it you will be satisfied. But if you know the specifics of surrogacy, you will be rolling your eyes at the inaccuracies.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Kept Woman: "The Collector" meet "Stepford Wives"

Greetings, commies!

If need more moderately satisfying guilt-free guilty, not too mind-numbing pleasure, consider Kept Woman, a dark dark comedy exploring nightmares and gender stereotypes


Jessica and her fiancé finally move out of the city and into their dream home on a quiet suburban street. When their strange and mysterious new neighbor lures Jessica inside his home, she finds herself imprisoned in a meticulously decorated 1950's bunker.

My thoughts:

Many of the reviewers already brought up the classic novel by John Fowles "The Collector" as the genre-setter. It's impressive that the novel is still read and remembered. "Kept Woman" is a satirical take on the hostage trope. Do not take it as a straight drama. It's a dark, dark comedy. No, it's not a feminist manifesto. It doesn't put down the work of homemakers. But it does make fun of stereotypes. It's also an allegory. The characters represent movements and ideologies. The dynamic between Jess and Robyn kind of busts the myth that women, when facing the same ordeal, will stick together. The only thing that seemed implausible is the naivete and stupidity of some of the characters. If you suspect that your neighbor is a murderous creep, why do you go into his house unarmed or alone? The cop who took it upon himself to confront the antagonist should have known better than going into his house alone. Same for Jess. She acts like a curious 12-year old schoolgirl. One would expect someone her age to be more cautious and savvy.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Voyeurs: a guiltless guilty pleasure

Greetings, commies!

You don't have to wait for Halloween to enjoy a creepy treat. For some of us it's been political Halloween for the past 7 months. If you want to take a break from WWIII, consider streaming The Voyeurs


A young couple (Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith), find themselves becoming interested in the sex life of their neighbors across the street (Ben Hardy and Natasha Liu Bordizzo). What starts as an innocent curiosity turns into an unhealthy obsession, after they discover that one neighbor is cheating. Temptation and desire cause their lives to become tangled together leading to deadly consequences.

My thoughts:

"If you see something, say/do something." Right? Not necessarily. Modern culture is filled with mixed messages and moral ambivalences. If you see "something" that "looks like something", what do you do? How do you decide if it's your place to step in? Are you truly following the call of your conscience to expose lies, or are you merely gratifying your idle, obscene curiosity? By the way, there is no such thing as "innocent curiosity" when it comes to other people's sex lives. I felt strangely dirty and guilty myself for watching a movie about voyeurs. I would call it "guilt-free guilty pleasure". 

A few words about Sydney Sweeney. I saw her in "Nocturne". She does a decent job playing a "good girl" with a few pesky demons who suddenly grow on her and take over her life. She has an expressive face and can go from innocent to psycho in a few seconds. 

Alas, the absolutely implausible ending cheapens the movie. If you can cut out the last 5 minutes, you will find yourself much more satisfied. I am not going to dismiss the movie altogether, because it does raise many valid questions in the realms of ethics and social norms. Take it as a cautionary tale about dark impulses masked as good intentions. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Brimstone: a religious thriller


Greetings, commies!

In a mood for a light summer flick? Not a chance! I don't watch or review those. Brimstone is an excellent choice guaranteed to give you nightmares. It's billed as a "A gritty revenge western, about a young woman in a frontier community who must go on the run when she is targeted by a diabolical preacher."

Not every film set in the West qualifies as a "western", and not every plot that contains elements of revenge automatically becomes a "revenge" piece. "Brimstone" is more of a multi-layered religious thriller. It helps to have some understanding of the Scripture to appreciate the structure of the film, all the theological references. If you are a totally secular viewer without any interest in the Bible, you will view this film as yet another attempt to make Christians look bad. If you already have an aversion to organized religion, this movie will not change your position, certainly. But this film is so much more than just another criticism of the hardcore evangelical movement in the US. The cinematography is stunning, horrifying and stern. The plot is blood-chilling. The antagonist is so repulsive, that you forget that he is a minister. You don't focus on his position in society. That kind of fades into the background. One thing that put me off is the idealized depiction of less than ideal women. Of course, they are depicted as agents of compassion and solidarity in this harsh, male-dominated world. I wish there had been more ambivalent female characters, capable of backstabbing and manipulation and cruelty. These acts should not be reserved to men alone. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Act: a toxic family drama enough to make you paranoid

Greetings, commies & mommies-dearest! 

As many of you are preparing to send your kids back to school, you are, no doubt, getting all sorts of complaints "Do I HAVE to go back". If your kids accuse you of being "mean", if they wish they had a different mommy/daddy, you can always say: "At least your mommy is not like Dee Dee Blanchard." Based on a real harrowing case of Munchausen by proxy, The Act is a must see for all wholesome (or not) families. As kids, many of us have feigned symptoms to gain sympathy and avoid going to school (come on, own up!) But imagine if the roles are reversed, and it's your parents who are doing the feigning, trying to convince the world that their precious child suffers from a string of mysterious maladies. 

I have to say, having worked in child protection services, I am a little paranoid and prone to scrutinizing certain families. We are trained to see abuse, neglect and toxic parenting everywhere. So it's amazing that the characters in the series had managed to keep up the act for such a long time. Dee Dee Blanchard, brilliantly portrayed by Patricia Arquette, fools the most skeptical and hardened of neighbors. 

A post-menopausal Arquette, is no longer a sex symbol. In the past she had played some dark vixen characters. And Joey King, God bless her, will never be a sex symbol (not that Hollywood needs more of them). She is a few plastic surgeries away from being a generic, mainstream beauty. I hope she never goes the Jennifer Grey route, gets a nose job and loses her quirky appeal. In "The Act" she flipflops between the wounded ugly duckling and a fetish worthy almost-swan. Not many young actresses would have been able to pull that off. 

So, if you think your family has problems, splurge on "'The Act". 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ammonite: a speculative same sex romance

Greetings, commies! 

It's Pride month, so I thought it would be fitting to review a film featuring a same sex love story. If you are in a mood for a beautifully shot slow burner, check out Ammonite, starring my two favorite actresses, Kate Winslet and Saiorse Ronan. 


1840s England, acclaimed fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.

My thoughts:

I said it before about the French film "Portrait of a Lady On Fire", and the same idea applies to this review. A same sex love story should not be used as an excuse for lazy writing. Imagine if this was a heterosexual love story. Would you feel cheated out of a richer, more engaging plotline and character development? Some writers think that just because the story is about two women, that alone should carry the weight of the film. 

First things first, the social context. Some may not realize, but in Victorian England, two women in love could get away with much more than their male counterparts. It was not uncommon for women to form romantic friendships, live together for periods of time, and not be suspected of "immoral behavior". A spinster and a young wife spending a lot of time in each other's company would probably not raise any eyebrows. Public hand-holding, embraces and kisses were regarded as tokens of tender affection. Women were believed to be "too pure" for any kind of deviant behavior. So the two lovers in "Ammonite" were not exactly endangering themselves. 

Yes, the cinematography is sublime. The ambience is moody and brooding. But there is only so much the finest of actresses can do with a dull, unimaginative script. There are too many narrative gaps, too many proverbial guns that were never fired. One of such guns is the infamous Mr. Murchison. He is not even two-dimensional - he is an empty shell, a sketch of a character. I can certainly appreciate leaving to the viewer's imagination, but his character was just left in its embryonic form, and that's a shame. He is reduced to a cold, patriarchal talking head. There could've been so much more to him. Why is he so reluctant to engage with his wife in intimacy? Could he be struggling with some same sex attractions as well? I wish he had been developed more. 

Now, the much-anticipated love scenes. I found them a little too ... "expert"? These two women are supposedly unversed in the art of same sex love. It must be new and awkward for both of them. Yet they seem to know what to do right off the bat. 

Nobody expected a happy ending, but its bitterness was a little unconvincing. The main character pretty much throws away her chance at happiness. There is really nothing standing in their way, no harsh conventions. We have Mr. Murchison, who is immersed in his newly found hobby, who has no interest in his wife. Yet Mary harshly rejects her young lover's attempts at building a future together. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Home: a compilation of religious stereotypes

Greetings, commies!

Glory to Ukraine! (First and foremost). If you want to take a break from the horrific news in the real world, consider killing 90 minutes of your time on Home, a supernatural horror flick from 2016.


Carrie, a young religious fundamentalist, must learn to overcome her own fears and believes to save her little sister from a haunted house.

My thoughts:

The makers of this C-list clearly had a crude, blatant liberal agenda. It's clear that whoever wrote the screenplay had not bothered to research contemporary Christian beliefs and practices. The protagonist, Carrie, is billed as "fundamentalist", yet she wears a cross and makes a sign of the cross - both practices more in line with Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. It's a shame that the character is portrayed as a series of Christian cliches, including her self-righteous homophobia. At the same time, her mother and her new wife are depicted as atheists. Newsflash: not all gay couples reject religion altogether. The writing could have been much more sophisticated and nuanced, if not for those stereotypes. The manifestations of the malevolent demonic force are also rather cartoonish. A few times I caught myself laughing instead of gasping with terror. Not to spoil the ending, but the writers took away a few elements from "The Sixth Sense". If you are a film student looking for an example of lazily executed horror movie, give "Home" a go.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Ulster Lament: an Irish tune ... sung by the English

Greetings, chaps!

The situation in Ukraine and the various humanitarian missions have kept me so busy, I somehow missed the release of my own novel. It's not quite as bad as locking your dog in a hot car, but still. Ulster Lament touches upon many topics that are perpetually relevant and near and dear to my heart: nationalism, imperialism, perverted loyalty. 

Ulster, Co. Antrim, 1903

Born with a limp, unsuitable for military service, Peter Greenwood knows that he is an embarrassment to his father, an officer in the British army. At seventeen the youth travels to Belfast to study journalism. New friends help Peter find a job at a conservative newspaper The Empire.

His first assignment is to publish the memoirs of a retired captain Evan Pryce, a veteran of the Transvaal campaign. At the very first meeting Peter recognizes a broken, bitter man, who is not proud of his past. Molly, the captain's feral and uncouth daughter, takes a liking to Peter and shares a few family secrets that do not quite tie with the patriotic spirit of the newspaper.

The Pryce family has a sworn enemy, an Irish nationalist hungry for vengeance, to which Peter becomes a witness. Even though his own life is spared, it now belongs to the rebels. He must use his literary skills to cover up their crimes.

Ulster Lament, a bewitching folk melody sung by the ringleader, infects Peter's thoughts and makes him question his loyalty to the crown. He starts sympathizing with the rebels and believing that their rage is justified. Will he turn against everything he was taught to hold sacred?

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Titane: a winsome mix of sickness and sweetness


Alexia suffers a terrible skull injury and has a titanium plate fitted into her head. When she gets out of the hospital, she rejects her parents and embraces passionately the car that almost killed her. The coming years she has problems with her sexuality and meets Vincent. Vincent is a tortured man who tries to preserve his strength by injecting steroids into his aging body. Will they find a way to deal with their emotional problems?

My thoughts:

We saw this movie on a big screen when it came out in the fall of 2021. "Titane" is sick in a sweet way, and sweet in a sick way. Agathe Rousselle really puts herself through hell to play the role. This actress is no great beauty - but the roll doesn't call for it. Her androgynous angular features really lend themselves to creating this creature beyond gender or flesh. Rousselle creates a whole twisted universe inside herself - and around herself. The film features a whole slew of unique, grotesque, memorable faces. Wounded, twisted, emotionally disfigured people have a way of finding solace in each other, and that's the message of this film.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

1944: a small nation caught in a global war

Greetings, commies!

Leave it up to me to find some obscure but stellar WWII film. Today's feature gem is 1944 about the events that took place in Estonia towards the end of WWII.  


In the year 1944, Estonia faces advances from both the Russian Red Army and Nazi forces. Families are torn apart across enemy lines and soldiers are forced to make difficult choices to preserve a small nation caught in the middle of a global war. Estonia's Official Submission for the Academy Awards.

My thoughts:

I really hope this gem gets more exposure, because it's so though provoking. Rarely do you get a WWII film filled with such empathy.  Estonia is a small country in northern Europe (no, it's NOT a part of Russia!) so you are not likely to read about it in most high-school history textbooks, namely what was going on there during WWII, how the population was divided politically and ideologically. Some fought on the side of the Red Army, believing the alliance with the Soviet Union to be more beneficial, and some fought on the side of Hitler. The latter was a sort of "hold your nose" type of alliance. They ridiculed Hitler openly and harbored no illusions about his promises to "grandfather" the Estonians into the Aryan race. You cannot help but feel empathy for this small unique country trapped between two toxic giants. You see these young people forced to choose sides and realize that they cannot win, regardless of whose side they take. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Evil Boy - weaving Slavic folklore, religion and philosophy

Greetings, commies!

Another foreign horror film to get your blood pumping (or chilling). Evil Boy capitalizes on every parent's greatest nightmare - the unexplained disappearance of a child. How far would you go to bring back the kid you lost? What lies are you willing to tell yourself?


Several years after their son's disappearance, a grieving couple adopts a feral boy, who begins to eerily resemble their child more with each passing day. While the mother believes they have found their son, her husband is certain he died. As strange accidents begin happening around the boy, the pair soon wonders whether they've adopted something not entirely...human.

My thoughts:

Russian generally doesn't generate a ton of horror movies, but the ones that do come out tend to be potent and well-plotted. I wish the original title had been kept -  it translates like "spawn" or "castaway". "Evil Boy" just sounds too campy, almost grindhouse. The movie is anything but grindhouse. It weaves the elements of Slavic folklore, Eastern Orthodox mysticism, sci-fi and psychology. Of course, most horror movies employ the same universal message: don't mess with nature, don't try to bring back the dead, accept loss/defeat. The theme is not necessarily unique, but the execution is extremely effective. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Bremen Town Musicians: a Soviet hippie adaptation of a Brothers Grimm tale

Greetings, commies!

Today you are in for a special treat - a Soviet version of "Yellow Submarine". I cannot think of a better way to describe The Bremen Town Musicians. You can see it on YouTube with subtitles. Loosely based on a Brothers Grimm tale, the story features four anthropomorphic farm animals - a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster - under the leadership of a handsome troubadour. The adaptation downplays the grisly backstory of the animals - all four were elderly, abused and/or prepared for slaughter by their heartless owners. It was a classic case of outcasts finding solace in each other - a staple of many timeless tales. The cartoon opens with the quintet traveling to perform at a king's palace. 

This cartoon, produced in 1969, is culturally significant and groundbreaking, because it showcases some unabashedly western elements - in contrast with the somber Soviet ideology. The score is rooted in rock-n-roll. The opening song could have been straight out of swingin' London. If you listen to it, you will understand why the score, released on a vinyl, became an instant bestseller. They lyrics were so memorable, and the tune was so hummable! The wild popularity of the cartoon and the soundtrack was met with resistance from the reactionary, anti-West fraction. Some were scandalized by the mod inspired outfit of the Princess and lamented the "toxic influences of the west". 

Clearly, the resistance from the reactionary wing did not prevent the sequel from coming out in 1973 - On the Trail of the Bremen Town Musicians. That one actually flirts with the musical tradition of Broadway! 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Beast: Mad Max meets Moby Dick

Greetings, comrades!

Every once in a while you uncover a gem, just when you think you have seen all great movies in the genre. The Beast came as an absolute delight. 


A Soviet tank and its warring crew become separated from their patrol and lost in an Afghan valley with a group of vengeance-seeking rebels on their tracks.

My thoughts

It's mind-boggling that this gem did not get more exposure. The Soviet-Afghan conflict hits home, as I have lived through it in the 1980s. I am generally wary of American movies about Russians and Russian movies about Americans - having lived in both countries and experienced both cultures, I can pick up on certain subtleties and inconsistencies (like replying "yes, sir" instead of "yes, comrade"), but this movie surpassed all my expectations. Rarely do you get casual graphic brutality and fragility tugging at the viewer's nerves. The screenwriters do not take sides. Modern audiences might be taken aback by how sympathetically the Mujahadeen were depicted. The film was produced in 1988, at the tail end of the Cold War, so it's not surprising that the Soviets are not portrayed in a heroic light. At the same time, they are not portrayed as caricatures either. The characters on both sides have a surprising amount of depth, the kind you do not necessarily expect in a military film. There is a decent amount of philosophy, psychology and theology woven into the action scenes. The cinematography holds pretty well and doesn't have a "dated" feel to it. Definitely a worthy addition to your war movie collection!

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Star: a predictably decent Russian WWII flick

Happy New Year, commies!

I started 2022 by binge watching some war films. There is still a decent military history selection on Prime. Definitely check these movies out before they are removed. I've always been interested in the evolution of the Russian language WWII movies. Some directors like to experiment, while others prefer to play it safe. The Star is one of those "safe" movies, like a good chicken breast sandwich at your local deli.  


World War II, 1944. Based on a novelette of the same by Emmanuil Kazakevich. The Star is a call-sign of a reconnaissance detachment behind enemy lines. Their task: to reveal the German army's plans and find armored troops. At the cost of their lives, the soldiers inform headquarters about a massive, forthcoming attack.

My thoughts

This is not an artsy, experimental, thought-provoking or particularly character-driven WWII piece. Predictably stiff dialogue. Predictably gorgeous countryside and believable combat effects. You know what you get. If you know WWII history, you know how it ends. Decent production quality, predictable like a meal at a chain restaurant. I don't think this film was intended for a global audience. Its primary audience is the Russian speaking population, viewers whose ancestors fought on the Eastern Front. More "Rah, rah, thank you Grandpa!"