Reviewed by Alicia Glass
A family on the verge of breaking apart becomes embroiled in the cutthroat domestic robot business when a brand new super-bot escapes and imprints on the youngest of them.
Who hasn’t seen ‘I, Robot’ or any number of other robotic works based on the writings of legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov? The show begins by detailing out the three main laws of robotics as set down by Asimov himself: robots may not harm humans, robots must obey human orders, and yes, robots have a right to protect their own existence so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two laws. These 3 Laws present no end of conflict in both the existences of said robots, and the humans trying to take advantage of and keep a firm reign on robots they themselves are building.
In present-day Russia, the cybernetics company known as Cronos is the main contender for all robotic concerns in Moscow and beyond. Head of the company Victor Toropov (Aleksandr Ustyugov), is beset on all sides by serious issues – his wife teeters on the edge of insanity after the death of their only child Boris, and even the secret replacement Victor provided her isn’t really cutting it anymore. Vic’s father-in-law Alexei Losev (Sergey Sosnovskiy) is a strong shareholder in Cronos and makes no bones about barking orders at Vic for everything, including the best way to fix his wife, Losev’s daughter Svetlana (Irina Tarannik), by making her pregnant so they can have another child and solve everything wrong in their marriage that way. Vic’s partner and best engineer Maslovsky (Pavel Vorozhtsov) happens to be dipping his wick in the company ink, as it were, and disapproves of a great many things Vic does, but he doggedly continues to share his concerns aloud, take his verbal abuse in return and follow orders – until he doesn’t. And to top it all off, the brand new state-of-the-art top secret Chinese-made robot that Toropov had smuggled into the city for all kinds of nefarious purposes, has gone missing.
But that is far from all. That self-same one-of-a-kind robot Arisa (Paulina Andreeva), in the space of being left alone with the wrong users for a short period of time, managed to protect her own existence by committing a murder, escape her confines smoothly and without further incidents, and imprint indelibly on a little girl. This vivacious and unabashed daughter of George Safronov, Sonya (Vitalyia Kornienko), takes to Arisa like girls have done to pets, to friends, and friends that became family, since time immemorial. And so from the first flush of independence, Arisa the top secret next-gen bot everyone is after, knows love and compassion, from a little girl who is loved by all around her, even as her family wounds each-other with their dramas and pride.
Elder son Egor (Eldar Kalimulin) is a little teenage rebel, or likes to think he is. He certainly wants Jeanne, the cocky street girl he wants desperately to hook up with, to think so. Jeanne (Vera Panfilova) has concerns of her own, mainly the ones involving her brother Bars and his gang of would-be revolutionaries, the ones against the robots taking over their jobs and especially against the Early Retirement Act, they call themselves Liquidators, for that is what they do to bots. Gangs of aimless teenage thugs and miscreants, the lost searching for a cause, gather and storm unsuspecting bots, any model they can get their hands on really, and despoil and destroy them in a rather ‘Lord of the Flies’ fashion. And brother Bars (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) is their leader. This means, at least initially, Bars is the one Egor needs to impress if he wants to be with Jeanne.
Poor Safronov (Kirill Karo) is off trying to deal with his devious plotter of an ex-wife Lara and her attempt to take both children and her new husband off to Australia from under his very nose, when the final, a bit anticlimactic but certainly relevant, meeting and final imprint happens between Georgy and Arisa.
Having a bot who sees your ex-wife as a rival and is trying to convince you to go on dates with her between you and your past enemies who are now rearing their ugly heads again in the search for Arisa, has to be strange for Safronov. Georgy does manage to keep his cool a fair amount of the time, but then he starts yelling and even Arisa lets him finish. The hunt for Arisa begins to intensify as the people are trying to push through the government the Early Retirement Act and a contest of finest bot between China and Russia will go down, with Arisa slated for the main star of Moscow’s finest. The cops and especially Major Varlamov (Jonathon Fahn), are cracking down hard in the search too – for whatever they can use to prove, finally, that Victor Toropov is a murderer.
Excellent acting on all parts concerned, but of course main applause has to go to Paulina Andreeva, who played Arisa beautifully, in multiple believable bot-awakening-like displays of raw emotion. All good sci-fi dramas remember to layer mysteries in with emotional displays, and here again ‘Better Than Us’ does not disappoint, deftly leaving some answers right for the end, keeping you watching and fascinated. The question of robotic existence-cum-life versus the apparently declining value of human life is presented staggeringly well from every angle, including some unexpected ones. It is mildly strange to be listening to all of them speak Russian, but really, the production values were great and all the practical effects worked quite well.
In the finest Asimov tradition, give the show a chance to prove it truly is, ‘Better Than Us’!
Midnight Mass: The Blood of Life
The isolated island community of Crockett receives a mysterious new head priest, full of secrets and a brand new testament under a very unusual Messenger of God.
Meet poor Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), freshly released from prison and wracked with guilt over what got him there, a stupid drinking accident that caused the death of his ex-girlfriend. The last thing he wants to do is go back to Crockett and the judgment of the mostly religious community there, his disappointed family, and the nightmares of his ex’s death that plague him. But where else would have him? Resignedly on the ferry, he goes.
Riley’s dad Ed (Henry Thomas) isn’t the kind of man who talks very much at all, much less about his feelings, or his very real disappointment in his elder son. Riley’s teen brother Warren (Igby Rigney) has no idea what to say to him either, and just generally keeps mum. Riley’s mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is accepting and loving, hesitant in how to help her eldest son but never wavering in her faith in the help of our lord Jesus. Mom seems to think a good heaping dose of the Church would set Riley right but is surprised to learn that the old priest of the Parish, Pruitt, has taken an extended leave of absence from the island, and his newcomer replacement Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is young, charismatic, and bursting at the seams to tell the whole island about the gifts he brought them, most especially what he claims as a new testament under a messenger of God.
We’ll get back to that whole ball of issues in a moment, the other interesting characters of Crockett Island. Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the nightmarish overly polite and gently, almost lovingly condescending neighbor Christian woman you’ve ever loathed, the kind of person who explains away every last thing her Church may do wrong or contradictory because, after all, God works in mysterious ways. Pfft. Of course, Bev immediately ingratiates herself as the second to the new Father Paul in their services and is the first to start covering up his transgressions as they become more rampant.
Newcomers to Crockett Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) present a burgeoning problem to the plans of Father Paul and his shadowy companion, for they are both practicing Muslims. The practical side of investigating these so-called ‘miracles’ and strange happenings falls on Hassan’s shoulders, as he already struggles with barely-concealed racism and suspicion from his fellow islanders, and of course his son is being wooed away from him by the promise of actual, tangible miracles, but from a different whole faith and God. Father Paul definitely does not practice a traditional Christian faith and relies far too much on making use of the eucharist, the ceremony of the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ turning into bread and wine and, well, consumed.
Wade (Michael Trucco) and his wife Dolly (Crystal Balint) are lifers of the island and both in general interested in one thing, the advancement of their own family, specifically their daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who happens to be in a wheelchair. And that happens to be the canny Father Paul’s first real miracle-with-a-cost that he demonstrates to the astonishment of the parishioners, after a heartfelt and rousing sermon, Father Paul commands Leeza to rise, to stand, and to walk. And lo, she does. What parents wouldn’t wholly dedicate themselves to a cause after seeing this happen to their beloved precious daughter? The fringe benefits of healing, and power, the ones that come at a mighty, currently unnamed, cost, are simply a nice bonus.
Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is the town drunk, and while his reasons for drowning his sorrows in the sauce might be understandable, absolution wears a very different face when it comes from Father Paul. While Leeza might be willing to forgive Joe, and even as Joe begins attending the newly-formed Al-Anon meetings on the island of course hosted by Father Paul, redemption might’ve been better sought from medical professionals, and not this newfound method of religious worship.
Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is the islands’ kind of all-around medic, and this is how she and Riley’s old friend Erin (Kate Siegel), also newly returned to the island, a few months pregnant but traveling quietly alone, met when Erin comes to the Doc for obstetrics. Sarah’s older mother Mildred Gunning (Alexandra Essoe) has many medical and mental issues, and Sarah struggles in their shared home, to take care of her addled mom and balance her own life. Then Father Paul takes it upon himself to visit one of his oldest parishioners, bringing the sacred host and wine with him to give directly to Mildred, who starts looking and acting so much better under his loving care.
The show is very much a slow slow burn, with a lot of the actual action taking place in the last two episodes. Much of the beginning and middle episodes feature two people just sitting alone, having quiet and seriously in-depth conversations about heavy subjects – grief and repentance, what happens when we die, the disasters that come as a result of addictions, how our actions’ consequences reverberate to those we love around us, faith and the foibles of man, and of course, the giving of oneself over to a higher power, for strength, and guidance, and love.
Except, for the higher power that Father Paul brought back with him, to share with his beloved flock of Crockett Island, while it may be extremely powerful and full of what could be considered miraculous magic, everything comes at some kind of a cost. And when the Messenger of God is finally revealed to the shocked denizens of Crockett at Easter Mass, with Father Paul rapturing on about rebirth as the bloody massacre begins in earnest, it’s faith, not in any kind of God or religion, but faith in each other, that may save a few hardy souls.
Question the wisdom of your religious leaders along with the rest of us in a fine slow-burn addition to the Flanaverse, Midnight Mass is on Netflix now!
Saw X: It ain’t brain surgery!
Legendary executioner Jigsaw returns to exact revenge on a cadre of scam artists who promised him a bogus cure for his cancer!
First off, be aware, that this is what I call an interleaved sequel, a movie set between previous films in the franchise. In this case, Saw X occurs after the events of the very first Saw film, and before Saw II. Everybody got where we are? Good! Into the madness, we dive!
So, as we all know, John Kramer’s been diagnosed with cancer, very aggressive brain cancer, and likely doesn’t have much time left. And he’s tried everything under the sun, doing a ton of meticulous research, we’d expect nothing less from our master of the art of murder, and not one thing has worked. Yet one man from the support group for cancer sufferers, Henry (Michael Beach), offers an off-the-books supposed miracle cure, and John jumps at the chance.
Why does this nonsense always sound too good to be true? Because it is. Deleted scenes from the first Deadpool movie already told us why traveling to Mexico for any kind of medical cure is a sublimely stupid move, but Kramer is desperate. And while he might be sick and dying, John Kramer has never been what anyone could call stupid. So the villa out in the Mexican countryside, the affable cab driver Diego (Joshua Okamoto) professes surprise at Kramer being highjacked for his good, the nervous muttering from assistant Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), the side-eyeing from little housekeep Gabriela (Renata Vaca) and her tequila, and most especially the smooth and smarming reassurances of head “doctor” Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), all leave a kind of sour taste in John’s mouth.
The whole cluex4 scene is done in the style that the Saw films are known for, where we the audience are treated to cut-together explanatory scenes in a flip-flash fashion of usually about two minutes, for poor John when he realizes he’s been hoodwinked and just how badly, seems a little contrived. But then it’s entirely possible that we the audience truly expected our genius mastermind of the infamous Jigsaw murders to have realized what was happening sooner, and got enraged along with Kramer. And cheered as he prepared to take his bloody and ultra-violent revenge!
First up in our grand guignol of executions is the return of Jigsaw’s first protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). And despite her avowed reverence for Jigsaw and his proven “therapy”, Amanda does waver a bit when the scammers are put through the paces of their specially-made Saw traps, and they shriek and blubber and bleed out. The appearance of the ringer of the bunch, Parker (Steven Brand), doesn’t even slow our beloved engineer of the damned down, because we knew Jigsaw would have his other apprentice waiting just off stage, the deliciously vicious Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Even the monkeywrench of involving little-boy soccer fan Carlos (Jorge Briseno) in the traps, is just another cog in the machine that is the brilliantly plotting mind of John Kramer.
A fine addition to the Saw legends, showcasing a return to the beloved style and panache of the original Tobin Bell-starring Jigsaw films, Saw X is splashing gore and gallons of blood in theaters now!
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Netflix’s latest series, is a rollicking journey through the world of video game culture, blending nostalgic references with a fresh narrative twist. Centered around Scott Pilgrim, portrayed with magnetic charisma by Michael Cera, the show skillfully integrates gaming elements into its storytelling, creating a delightful homage to the video game subculture.
The series cleverly employs pixelated graphics, power-up animations, and game-like sound effects to bring the virtual world to life. These visual cues, reminiscent of classic video games, enhance the storytelling and resonate with audiences familiar with the gaming landscape. The attention to detail in recreating iconic gaming moments is commendable, creating a visual and auditory treat for enthusiasts.
The exploration of video game culture goes beyond mere aesthetics; it becomes an integral part of the characters’ identities and interactions. The script intelligently weaves gaming terminology and tropes into the dialogue, effectively blending the real and virtual worlds. The series navigates the challenges and triumphs of the characters through the lens of gaming, making it a unique and engaging experience for both gamers and general audiences.
The ensemble cast, including standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, and Chris Evans embraces the gaming theme with infectious enthusiasm. The chemistry between the characters is palpable, adding emotional depth to the series.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” successfully taps into the zeitgeist of video game culture, offering a nostalgic yet contemporary take on the gaming phenomenon. It’s a must-watch for those who cherish the pixelated roots of the gaming world while providing an accessible and entertaining narrative for a broader audience. The series takes off not only in its title but also in its ability to soar within the ever-expanding realm of Netflix originals.