Thursday, March 23, 2017

Life Review (2017)

I’ll give Daniel Espinosa’s new alien thriller “Life” credit for this: it gets off to a slick and thrilling start.

After a few awe-inspiring establishing shots of space and earth, we’re gently guided into the interior of the International Space Station, where we’ll be for the rest of the picture. Through a gracefully choreographed single take shot/scene, the camera glides carefully down the dark corridors, familiarizing us with the all the various nooks and corners of the station. Then we’re taken to the main area and introduced to the crew, who are in the midst of an exciting retrieval mission. An organism has been discovered on Mars and it’s being sent to the station for examination. The crew consists of David Jordan, (Jake Gyllenhaal) Miranda North, (Rebecca Ferguson) Roy Adams,  (Ryan Reynolds) Kat, (Olga Dihovichnaya) Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Following that single take introduction, we learn a little more about each of the crewmembers, some brief background on the mission and the extraterrestrial organism itself, (a fast growing thing that looks like a cross between a jellyfish and the H. P. Lovecraft created Leviathan Clthulu) and the characters get to trade some light banter with one another. But before long the crew pisses off the mysterious creature who then proceeds to wreak havoc. All of that happens within the span of ten or fifteen minutes; the set up is concise, fast paced and engaging, only giving us the bare necessities in terms of exposition.

Unfortunately after that breathless introduction things begin to slowly unravel. When the creature escapes captivity, “Life” turns into a straightforward Sci fi horror/survivalist film -- a second rate pulpy genre piece that combines the fluid, panic inducing visual style of “Gravity” with the gory thrills and “and-then-there-were-fewer” structure of “Alien” without reaching the quality of either of those films.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this simplistic approach, in fact often times with horror the simpler things are the better but “Life” gets to be so clunky and muddled in execution. Jon Ekstrand’s symphonic score is blaring and overwrought, calling more attention to itself than aiding the film’s tension and terror. “Life” constantly suffers from “characters-narrate-obvious-plot-developments-and-events” syndrome and Espinosa quickly loses track of the space station’s geography. Often times it feels like the creature can travel at light speed or literally pass through walls as he slithers from one end of the station to another to conveniently surprise an unsuspecting crewmember. And the action culminates in a big, chaotic and choppily edited climax (gone is the fluid coherence of that opening shot) involving a lot of numbing ship destruction and hastily recited technical mumbo jumbo that causes one’s mind to wander and eyes to glaze over. “Life” sacrifices claustrophobic terror for explosions, floating debris and spectacle.

The characters themselves are, for the most part, brooding and one note. Reynolds’ is the only one who has any sort of personality and that’s just because he resorts to his usual snarky comedic persona. Ferguson, who stole Tom Cruise’s thunder in the most recent “Mission: Impossible,” is wasted and I can’t remember the last time Gyllenhaal was such a nonentity, devoid of any charisma or raw intensity. He looks like he’s half asleep.

Worse than that, “Life” drowns itself in unintentional cheese. Truly awful introspective moments and ham fisted “calm-before-the-storm” back and forths (in a shabby attempt to add dimension to the characters and shove the film from point A to point B) cause the action to come to a screeching halt. Jordan remembers his experience watching The Challenger shuttle explode, with his overall point being: “It’s really hard to watch people die.” Wow…that’s true! At another scene, North randomly remembers her father and how he was the one who got her interested in space and that she misses him. And best of all, Jordan reads the children’s book “Good Night Moon” out loud during a tense, somber moment of uncertainty. You know, as you do. It’s a scene that’s played so sincerely but I couldn’t stop laughing. Ultimately these silly, unaware moments undercut the film’s terror and suspense.

Still, there are some simple, visceral pleasures to be found in “Life.” Whenever the creature scurries around on screen or latches onto someone you can’t help but perk up and giggle maniacally. Ultimately, “Life” may a silly, forgettable “Alien” rip off but it’s never a flat out terrible viewing experience. Unintentional cheese is still delicious and with a brisk pace and hour and forty three minute run time the film never overstays its welcome. Put that ringing endorsement on the DVD case, I guess.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Personal Shopper Review (2017)

“Personal Shopper,” the hypnotic and quietly unsettling new film from French director Olivier Assayas, asks us to consider the concept of ghosts in more of a subjective sense rather than an objective one. Ghosts aren’t empirical beings that wander around the land of the living on their own but entities born from our own emotional state of mind. That’s why some people claim to experience ghostly presences while others don’t. They’re projections of our fears and anxieties, our guilt and sorrows, our regrets and even our curiosity. Ghosts can be a source of terror and torment but they can also be a source of self-help. Someone who goes to a Medium or Psychic to make contact with a deceased loved one does so for his or her own well-being, for a sense of emotional closure. Perhaps that person feels guilty for their loved ones death or they just haven’t accepted that they’re gone.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart), the protagonist of “Personal Shopper” hasn’t gotten over the death of her twin brother Lewis. So she waits patiently, hoping to make contact with him. She currently lives in Paris (where he lived) and works as a personal shopper for a fashion model to pay the bills, a job she hates but does well. Maureen’s been there for a little over three months and little progress has been made. She’s beginning to grow restless and agitated, struggling to keep her mental composure. It’s at this point that she starts conversing with a mysterious ghost via text message as she travels around Europe on various shopping excursions.

The ghost is a peculiar one to say the least. Sometimes it teases and toys with Maureen, other times it acts like a psychiatrist, asking her tough questions and forcing her to confront repressed feelings. And sometimes it can be erratic and intimidating, snapping at her like an unstable stalker. The ghost is a manifestation of her distraught, unbalanced state of mind that finds her at the right time. In her interactions with this entity, Maureen is able work through her problems; she comes face to face with her deep seeded anxieties and insecurities, not just in regards to her dead brother but in regards to her own sense of self purpose and uncertain future. Right now she’s on a clear mission, (to make contact with her brother) a mission that guides her and gives her purpose. Though once she makes contact, what then? What’s will she do next? What will her purpose be? And when she does make contact with Lewis will that really bring her closure? These questions (and others) haunt Maureen at all times.

The tense, sometimes humorous, sometimes tender text message conversations are among the best scenes in the entire film. Watching Maureen’s progression (from initially resisting the ghost’s digital beckons, to slowly giving into its games and interrogations and ultimately opening herself up emotionally) is endlessly absorbing. “Personal Shopper” is a poignant and thoughtful portrait of personal grief and acceptance with the exhilarating slow burn pacing and structuring of a psychological thriller. Assayas lets the plot unfold with a subtle, unassuming tension and doesn’t spoon-feed the audience. Details concerning character and background are revealed organically, often times through casual conversation and some things are even left unstated.

Though “Personal Shopper” wouldn’t work nearly as well without Stewart’s understatedly magnetic performance. Her natural, low-key onscreen presence is both comforting and hypnotic—she’s in nearly every frame of “Personal Shopper” and you can’t take your eyes off her. As the resilient but damaged Maureen, Stewart exudes an unshakable confidence and put-together-ness that allows her to function in her life as a personal shopper and also masks an internal emotional fragility threatening to overtake her. The brief moments where she allows herself to breakdown and succumb to her overwhelming grief are heart wrenching. In her interactions with the other characters she can be calmly snarky and quietly compassionate. Through her nuanced work here, Stewart continues to prove she’s one of the best working actors.

“Personal Shopper” stumbles a bit when it deals with a murder mystery subplot.  It’s fun to watch in the moment  (Assayas treats it with the same tautness as the rest of the picture) but it ultimately fizzles out, making you wonder why it was there in the first place. Then again, I could be wrong about that, in fact I could be wrong about my overall summation of the film--in regards to how it views ghosts/spirituality. Assayas wisely doesn’t make any definitive statements when it comes to the events and ideas in the picture, meaning you can interpret it any number of ways. “Personal Shopper” is a deceptively complex, intense and emotionally rewarding experience.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Beauty and the Beast Review (2017)

With all due respect to Beauty and her Beast, I wanted to see a new “Beauty and the Beast” movie as much as I wanted someone to drive a power drill through my temple. I’ve seen the original Disney animated film and I like it just fine. Don’t be shallow. I get it. True love is based on internal beauty, not external. Wonderful. Belle and Mr. Beast tenderly waltzing in a ballroom while talking teacups, candelabras and clocks look on. Cute. I still had little interest in seeing a live action/CGI remake.

Ultimately, I attended the press screening for Bill Condon’s film because its one of the first big motion picture events of the year and because the studio showed it to Seattle press two weeks in advance, which is usually a sign of confidence. Having now seen it, I can say that the world didn’t need another “Beauty and the Beast” movie, especially another Disney produced “Beauty and the Beast,” but you can do a whole lot worse. Much like Kenneth Branagh’s live action remake of “Cinderella” from a few years ago, “Beauty and the Beast” is an unnecessary if still charming affair. All of the pieces, while familiar, are executed with enough exuberance and wit to make it a pleasant watching experience.

After a brief prologue, we’re transported to a small village in France, where the sweet and bookish Belle (Emma Watson) lives with her oh-so-sweet dad Maurice (Kevin Kline, such a comforting and genuine onscreen presence). Everyone else in the town thinks Belle is weird because she likes to read, which struck me as both amusing and sad. As we see later on in the explosive finale, these people aren’t the sharpest and are easily swayed by fear and Fake News. In this regard, the film makes an urgent case for the value of literacy.

Anyway, due to circumstances I don’t want to bore you with (and you know) Belle is captured by The Beast, (Dan Stevens) a former Prince who was transformed into a big hairy Buffalo looking thing for being too shallow and selfish. As you can imagine, this has made him into a sad and volatile creature. Belle is kept in his old, decrepit palace, where his helpers and friends also live. They’ve been transformed into various household objects—dressers, candelabras, clocks etc. Things are rocky at first but as the days go on Belle and Beast begin to take a liking to each other. The beast isn’t as scary as he seems. It’s Disney’s “Stockholm Syndrome,” with talking teacups and upbeat musical numbers.

I don’t need to go on because you know the plot. The biggest problem with this rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” is that, like most big studio remakes, there’s little in the way of new. The narrative beats are all the same, making the film relatively free of surprises. There isn’t even an attempt to make this one tonally different from its predecessor (giving the tale a darker spin, for example). Condon’s film is a cheerful, colorful live action rehash of the animated film. Considering it had a whopping one hundred and sixty million dollar budget it would have been nice to see some innovation and deviation.

What keeps the film afloat is the lively and witty work by the cast. There isn’t a flat or phoned in performance to be found, even in the minor roles. While it takes her a few scenes to adjust, Watson ultimately creates an engagingly plucky and independent heroine. Even as a kidnapping victim she refuses to be passive and scared. Meanwhile, Stevens’ performance gets drastically better in the second half—as The Beast loosens up and becomes more sensitive, his performance gains more dimension.

However, the best work comes from the supporting cast. The Beast’s helpers and friends (made up of a strong and diverse cast including the likes of Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, and Ian McKellen) make for a vibrant comedic chorus. Through their constant, affectionate bickering you can feel a genuine bond and sense of shared history between them. I also got a kick out of the way they would frequently undermine The Beast’s authority and brazenly mock him. They know him too well. I could honestly watch an entire movie about these chatty animate objects. Luke Evans is surprisingly good as the overly cocky and cowardly Gaston, The Beast’s romantic rival and main villain. He takes what should be a one-dimensional bad guy and totally owns the role—giving a delectably arrogant and rotten performance. Overall, these enthusiastic characters greatly enhance the central narrative, making its redundant and cut and dry nature easier to tolerate.

From a technical standpoint, “Beauty and The Beast” is dazzling. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is richly textured and detailed while Tobias A Schliessler’s cinematography is glossy and kinetic. The way his camera fluidly swoops in, out and around the various sets and lavish musical numbers is exhilarating. I don’t think this version of “Beauty and the Beast” has the legs to stand the test of time but in the moment it's an entertaining and well-executed diversion.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Kong: Skull Island Review (2017)

“Kong: Skull Island” takes a classic cheesy monster movie premise (a group of explorers encountering a new land/frontier and having to fight its strange, vicious inhabitants in order to survive) and infuses it with the turbulence and “war-is-hell” mindset of the Vietnam War/ counter-culture movement era. The picture is set days after the war’s conclusion and tension is still in the air. There are anti- war protesters demonstrating in Washington and returning soldiers are still haunted by the horror’s they’ve experienced.

We observe this post war disillusionment most clearly in Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson), a bitter, slightly deranged, battle worn colonel who isn’t quite over the war. He’s been tasked with escorting a group of assorted travelers (made up of fellow soldiers, scientists, photographers and mercenaries) to a recently discovered Island in the Pacific wherein a variety of undiscovered monsters reside, including the titanic gorilla Kong.

This is an intriguing concept that sadly doesn’t hold together from a tonal standpoint and its execution is so sloppy and bland that you’re bored to tears when there isn’t a monster fight going on or a gnarly death scene.

The heavy-handed screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly talks down to us like we’re eleven years old. Everything-- plot, exposition and major themes, is explained and over explained to the point of tedium. The opening fifteen minutes, as expedition leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) rounds up his rag tag group of travelers, consists of one boring and contrived expository scene after another. For example, we first meet tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddelson) when he gets into a random scuffle with a switchblade wielding punk in the middle of a Bangkok bar while “While Rabbit” plays in the background. Later on, in a lame attempt to build anticipation and tension, the team has to fly through a CGI storm to reach the island.

Any interesting Vietnam/anti war subtext (the idea that war is hell, the idea that war can numb you to the point where seeing a giant gorilla isn’t very shocking, the idea that “the enemy” is a subjective construct) is violently pulled up to the surface during every scene through painfully clunky dialogue exchanges. Little is left for the audience to interpret or discover on their own. During one scene, in which war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Conrad talk about the negative effects of the conflict, Conrad says bluntly: “I suppose no man really comes home from the war.” Yeah. Cool. Thanks James.

Though it isn’t just the Vietnam/anti war stuff that’s heavy-handed. Any and all basic plot/expository developments are sounded out for the viewer. In a later scene, when the team encounters a ditch containing the bones of other giant apes, island inhabitant Hank Marlow (John C Reilly) remarks that they are “the remains of Kong’s parents.” Gee, Hank, I think the other characters (and the audience) can come to that conclusion without your interjection. And Weaver then saying that she’s seen “enough mass graves to recognize one” further emphasizes just how little nuance/subtlety there is in the storytelling. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts rarely just lets the images speak for themselves.

Speaking of characters, with the exception of Packard and Marlow, the explorers are entirely unmemorable-- they’re empty vessels used to explain plot points and themes to the audience…or get killed. Somehow the film manages to waste Brie Larson, Tom Hiddelson and John Goodman, an impressive and somewhat depressing feat. In fact, there are long stretches of time where Goodman is absent from the film, making you forget he even exists. It’s a sin for a movie to make you forget about John Goodman. For shame “Kong.” For shame.

Tonally, “Skull Island” is constantly at odds with itself as it tries to balance comedy and drama. While there’s nothing wrong with mixing drama with comedy, the tonal shifts here almost too abrupt and the comedy is played too broadly. Extremely silly screwball exchanges are immediately followed by intense, “war-is-hell, man!” moments. A stirring, unsettling homage to “Apocalypse Now” (this movie quotes excessively from Francis Ford Coppola’s film) is followed by a ludicrous, out of left field sequence in which a Samurai sword wielding gas mask wearing Tom Hiddelson charges in slow motion through a cloud of poisonous gas slicing and dicing some creepy-crawlies. Reilly, playing a bumbling and eccentric castaway, can be a hoot to watch but it feels like he’s in an entirely different movie. Most of the time the comedy grinds the action to a halt rather than propelling it forward. And ultimately, it undermines the Vietnam/anti war material—rendering it facile and cartoonish.

In the end, the only material that consistently works involves the monsters. It’s exciting and occasionally absurd--there are a number of memorable character deaths and man vs. creature (or creature vs. creature) fight scenes. You’ll be bored to tears one minute as characters take turns explaining the plot to each other and then suddenly someone will get carried off by a flock of winged reptiles or getting eaten by a giant lizard, making you perk up in delight.

But then the characters will go back to explaining the plot and you’ll wish you were the one who got carried off by winged reptiles. Much like “Jurassic World,” when the monsters are onscreen causing mayhem and killing people, “Kong: Skull Island” is watchable. Otherwise, the film is a powerful sleep aid.