Movie Review ~ Life (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: On the drive home after the screening of Life, I ran afoul of my partner after repeatedly referring to it as an ‘odd, little movie’.  At first thinking I was just lazily falling back on a casual turn of phrase, I began to agree with myself that for all its A-List star power, occasional scares, and well-executed special effects the film was a strange, small endeavor for all involved.  Not tiny enough to be a direct-to-video tax write-off and not big enough to be a major player in the summer months (though it was intended for a May 2017 release until Alien: Covenant moved its release date in close proximity), Life fits decently into the grey area between Oscar season and the mid-year blockbuster event films.

In an unusually long pre-title sequence, we meet the crew occupying the International Space Station as they intercept a satellite returning from Mars containing a specimen from the red planet.  As the camera glides from person to person, it feels less like an introduction and more like a location tour to help orient the audience for the action to come.  Macho Rory (Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool) is the wise-cracking dude of the team, Army vet David (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) is about to break the world record for most consecutive days in space which worries quarantine officer Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation).  They join commanding officer Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare, Jupiter Ascending), and pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada, 47 Ronin) in marveling at the extraterrestrial life discovered when the Mars sample is thawed out.

Fascination turns to horror as the specimen, dubbed “Calvin”, begins to grow rapidly in mind and body, eventually escaping the confines of the lab and hunting down the crew one by one.  It’s Alien-like premise aside, there are a few surprises to be had in Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s script for Life as it takes some turns you may not be expecting.  Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) is no Ridley Scott, however, and the workmanlike way Life is compiled and its odd pacing gives it the feeling of a movie that desperately wants to be better than it is.

When Reynolds, Ferguson, and Gyllenhaal signed on, I’m betting they were counting on this being a summer release but truth be told the way the film is structured and performed it feels more like an art-house alternative to a sci-fi horror tent-pole picture.  Reynolds is on cruise control as his usual cool as a cucumber self while Gyllenhaal surprisingly rests a bit on his laurels and goes only halfway in crafting the haunted character he’s perfected in films like Enemy and Nightcrawler.  Only Ferguson seems to lock into her role, never over-doing the “company man” attitude or under-selling her rising terror that this creature may somehow find its way back to earth.

Had the movie only had three characters, it may have felt a bit less cramped…and been a bit easier to understand.  Dihovichnaya & Sanada’s thick accents make it difficult to understand them at times, which becomes a problem anytime they’re tasked with delivering key bits of information.  There’s an attempt to give Bakare an interesting back story in a briefly mentioned tangent as to how the wheelchair bound man is living out his dream of mobility in the anti-gravity playground above earth.  Alas, any deeper development is jettisoned in favor of more scenes of peril inflicted by the bloodthirsty fast evolving being that’s taken over the ISS.

While there are some solid special effects sequences that take place outside of the station, anything that happens inside had me alternately rolling my eyes and raising my eyebrows.  Calvin flirts between an animated starfish-like object and a questionably created CGI monster that looks like an evil cousin to the benign alien creatures from The Abyss.  Espinosa films so much of the movie in tight close-up or without any establishing shots that it’s often hard to tell where anyone is in relation to each other and voiceovers are used as a cheap gimmick to tell what they can’t show.  I definitely got a couple of guffaws from the way the astronauts kept bobbing up and down (some more violently than others) as a way to show the zero-gravity atmosphere.

So yeah…it’s an odd little (big-ish) movie and while it may carve out some decent box office numbers by being released in a movie climate that’s been largely earthbound, Life isn’t going to be on the calling card for anyone involved.  It’s bound to be forgotten entirely by the time Alien: Covenant is released in two short months.  Perhaps this will find greater value on Netflix which, come to think of it, would have been an ideal release platform instead.

Movie Review ~ Deadpool

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A former Special Forces operative turned mercenary is subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers, adopting the alter ego Deadpool.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Ed Skrein, Brianna Hildebrand

Director: Tim Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:

The Silver Bullet ~ Deadpool

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Synopsis: A former Special Forces operative turned mercenary is subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers and adopts the alter ego Deadpool.

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Thoughts:  Ho-hum…I think my original feelings at seeing the Deadpool trailer are clouded in a sea of extreme superhero fatigue after being subjected to so many similar films in the past year.  I don’t think my brain can really get excited for anything with anyone in a costume that resembles a crusader right now.

I will say this for Deadpool, it’s certainly doing well with establishing itself as the anti PG-13 superhero film.  Releasing a gory and more profane trailer at the same time as a more tame option for the pearl-clutching crowd, it’s clear that Deadpool won’t be shying away from broken bones or spilled blood when it’s released in February…hopefully by that time audiences (and this critic) will be less weary when it comes to ass-kickers in skin-tight attire vanquishing bad guys.

Movie Review ~ Woman in Gold

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Tatiana Maslany, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Frances Fisher

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:

Review: For Oscar winning star Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold probably looked like a sure bet.  Here was a true life tale of a woman battling painful memories from her childhood in her quest to take back what is lawfully hers and teaming with a young upstart lawyer to do so.  Throw in some courtroom drama and a lovely series of period-set flashback sequences and the Dame was likely flashing that wickedly smug smile of hers to any passerby on the street.

So how does Woman in Gold come across so phony, so airless, so totally beneath her talents?  It’s all in the surroundings, my friends…all in the surroundings.

As an attorney introduced to Maria Altmann (Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey, RED 2) by a mutual acquaintance (his mother, played by Frances Fisher, who hopefully pocketed a nice paycheck for her five minutes of screen time) Ryan Reynolds (A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted) spends the first half of the film playing second fiddle to Mirren’s old biddy of a client.  She wants to reclaim a series of paintings by family-friend Gustav Klimt, the well regarded artist responsible for the painting known as Woman in Gold.  Maria knows the titular character as her aunt Adele, a beauty that died tragically young but with a visage immortalized in the gold leaf heavy work.

Forced out of her home and homeland by Nazi invaders, she came to know that the paintings that adorned the walls of the stately apartment owned by her wealthy family were seized and later displayed in one of Austria’s most renowned galleries.  As a way to retrieve some semblance of a family legacy, Maria joins the famous legal battle in the late 90s that sought to restore the countless works of art stolen by the Nazis to the Jewish families they originally belonged to.

No doubt about it, all the elements for a finely tuned drama were available to everyone involved but what a mess they make of it.  From the tin-earned dialogue courtesy of Alexi Kaye Campbell to the ham-handed direction of Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) the final product is a teeter-totter of a film with some very good elements unable to overcome the larger weaknesses that weigh the whole thing down.

The first problem is Mirren’s co-star.  Reynolds has never been what you’d call an emotional heavy in his roster of roles up until now, trading on his good looks and frat boy “charm” in place of lines delivered with any semblance of sincerity.  Reynolds has carved a nice little career in comedies and the occasional superhero bomb film (Green Lantern, X:Men Origins: Wolverine) but his dramatic roles have been scarce.  There’s clearly a reason for that.

A bizarre party of random familiar faces dot the supporting cast, most of whom can’t make heads or tails of their roles which are little more than walking plot devices for Reynolds and Mirren to do their thing.  I have to believe that most of Katie Holmes’s role was removed in editing…how else can you explain her character (Reynolds’s wife) dropping in only to have the occasional child and reciting lines that, and I’m paraphrasing slightly here, “Here’s what you’re going to do.  You’re going to drop me off at the hospital so I can have this baby and then you’re going to Washington D.C. because it’s the right thing to do.”  The scenes between Holmes (Batman Begins) and Reynolds are awkward to sit through because they’re meant to be emotionally driven yet the film never establishes anything about them as a couple so we don’t care about what they’re going through.

Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Elizabeth McGovern turn up as various judges that Mirren and Reynolds appear before.  Pryce is supposed to be a member of the Supreme Court but for the life of me I can’t figure out which one.  McGovern, the wife of the director, obviously did her husband a solid and donned a robe for her brief, yet enjoyable, cameo.  There’s also Brit Charles Dance (Dracula Untold) doing the most head-scratching Kentucky-fried accent you’ve ever heard and several minor doughy-faced European males feebly sketched as villains that won’t relinquish Maria’s beloved painting.

The good news is that a good chunk (though not nearly enough) of the run time is devoted to Maria’s flashbacks to her youth when she’s played by Tatiana Maslany (The Vow).  Not only does Maslany look strikingly like Mirren but she makes it feel like Mirren modeled her performance off of Maslany and not the other way around.  These flashbacks are where the real gold lies in a film that’s otherwise very paint by numbers.  Another positive to mention is that these flashbacks are almost entirely in German, resisting Hollywood’s penchant for being afraid of using subtitles.

Had the movie been set in the past with brief glimpses of the present, Woman in Gold may have been an overall better film.  Saddled with weak performances (Maslany and Mirren notwithstanding), a hokey-pokey script that feels like the first draft of an intro to screenwriting assignment, and a director that can’t make lemonade out of these lemons, it’s a pure pyrite affair.

The Silver Bullet ~ Self/Less

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Synopsis: An extremely wealthy man dying from cancer undergoes a radical medical procedure that transfers his consciousness into the body of a healthy young man. But all is not as it seems when he starts to uncover the mystery of the body’s origin and the organization that will kill to protect its cause.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: Here’s something interesting, a futuristic sci-fi yarn that isn’t based off an idea that sprang from the mind of genre favorites Philip K. Dick or Robert A. Heinlein. I must admit I’m a sucker for these kinds of far out fantasy films that pose questions about where our technology and scientific advances are taking us, exploring how each new boundary broken carries its own set of disadvantages. I’m a fan of director Tarsem Singh (his visually arresting but otherwise wretched Mirror, Mirror notwithstanding) but find it curious this is being deposited smack dab in the middle of a highly anticipated summer season. Perhaps it will provide a nice bit of brainy counter-programming to the bombastic sure-fire blockbusters headed our way.

Movie Review ~ The Croods

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman

Director: Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I decided against seeing The Croods in the theater because when it was released last March I didn’t feel like I could stomach another frenetic computer animated comedy…much less one that features a character voiced by Nicolas Cage (Valley Girl) at his most manic.  If the film hadn’t been nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it’s highly likely I never would have seen this prehistoric family comedy…and that would have been my misfortune.

Surprisingly, this was a fast-paced but skillfully well balanced blend of comedy and adventure painted with a palette of bright colors and warm earth tones that ranks as one of the best animated films I’ve seen in recent years.  Though the plot and its developments are fairly familiar, they’re given a nice spit shine from screenwriters Chris Sanders, Kirk De Miccio, and Monty Python’s John Cleese.

Cage is the voice of a caveman daddy that is overprotective of his small clan, never letting his children out of his sight long enough for anything bad to happen to them though he’d just as soon his mother in law played by, who else, Cloris Leachman took a night walk all by herself.  With the ground shaking more often and the arrival of a boy (Ryan Reynolds, Turbo) that catches the eye of his there’s-gotta-be-something-better-than-this-cave daughter (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man) the family dynamic shifts just as the tectonic plates get moving.  Now the family that sticks together needs to dig in to survive and make it to higher ground.

Earning its PG rating for several scary sequences, this probably isn’t one to take very small children to but if your kid can handle it this is one you’ll probably find yourself responding positively to as well.  Even the adult humor doesn’t totally go over the heads of little ones, making it possible for tykes and adults to laugh at the same joke but for different reasons.

Overall, this was a pleasant surprise of a film and one that I’ve added to my collection for repeat viewings.  Now that computer generated films for families are becoming more standard and easy to produce (see the middling The Nut Job as an example) it’s nice to see the rare occurrence of a family friendly film that may not break new ground but manages to build a nice house on top of work that has come before it.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ R.I.P.D.

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Synopsis: A recently slain cop joins a team of undead police officers working for the Rest in Peace Department and tries to find the man who murdered him.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: After watching the trailer for this summer’s 3D sci-fi action comedy R.I.P.D. I have some good news and I have some bad news.  Ok…bad news first.  Though it’s an interesting concept this looks remarkably like a reboot of the Men In Black series and even though Men in Black III was a nice diversion I don’t think we need something so similar so soon.  Now the good news: I think the cast might just save this one with Oscar winner Bridges letting his hair down and allowing his accent to do most of the work.  Mary-Louise Parker is always an interesting addition to any film and she’s re-teamed with her RED director Robert Schwentke who knows his way around a tongue and cheek energized flick.  Ryan Reynolds hasn’t quite yet made it to proven leading man status and this might be the litmus test for how he fares in the future. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Turbo

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Synopsis: A freak accident might just help an everyday garden snail achieve his biggest dream: winning the Indy 500.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: Animators are never at a loss for choosing which ordinary, run of the mill garden variety creature to make the star of a big summer film.  Dreamworks is betting on a snail to keep them in the race as the only true competitor with PIXAR…and they may just be on to something.  Though Dreamworks isn’t exactly hurting for a hit, the competition is getting stiff with other studios jumping on the cutting edge animation bandwagon.  Admittedly, though the teaser for Turbo is largely unremarkable I’d like to throw some confidence their way because I can see potential in this tale, especially considering its diverse vocal cast including Ryan Reynolds, Maya Rudolph, Snoop Dogg, Ken Jeong to name but a few.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Croods

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Synopsis: The world’s very first prehistoric family goes on a road trip to an uncharted and fantastical world.

Release Date:  March 22, 2013

Thoughts:  I guess I kinda liked it better when it was called The Flintstones.  Well ok, the family of Neanderthals featured in The Croods may be a little pre-Flinstonian time but there’s a strange déjà vu feeling about this that doesn’t hold much appeal.  Even the vocal presence of Cage is annoying, proving that being heard and not seen can’t save his plummeting star status.  The one thing that may tip the scales on this one is a script with contirubtions from John Cleese and (aside from Cage) a nice voice cast with Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, and Cloris Leachman.