REVIEW: Life (2017)

8 07 2017

I fell in and out of sleep during Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” a fact I feel comfortable sharing because it did not seem to have any bearing on my comprehension of the film. As it turns out, I could zone out for 10-15 minutes at a time and jump right back in feeling like I had not missed out on anything.

This is probably attributable to two factors: 1) I’ve seen “Alien,” the seminal space horror film from which “Life” cribs heavily, and 2) a line of expository dialogue recaps any major development, including big action sequences. As loud and technically complex as these set pieces are, I found myself drifting off during them with stunning ease.

“Life” (not to be confused with the James Dean quasi-biopic from 2015) takes a familiar premise – discovering life in space – and fails to take it anywhere new. “Calvin,” as their amoeba-like alien foe is named by a young schoolgirl back on earth, proves a dangerous foe for the astronauts on board the International Space Station. There’s no particular joy in watching him outsmart the crew because he adapts to surmount their weaknesses at light-speed. Not even a sardonic Ryan Reynolds or a laconic Jake Gyllenhaal can bring some – wait for it – LIFE to the screen. C

Advertisements




REVIEW: Okja

27 06 2017

Director Bong Joon Ho took oblique shots at social malaise through allegory in his films “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” but he goes in for a more direct kill shot with his latest, “Okja.” The film is a blistering sendup of multinational corporations’ hunt for profit and the ridiculous measures they take to appear responsible while pursuing policies that cause harm.

The story is a bit disjointed, but that seems to be by design. After a brief prologue introduces the Mirando Corporation’s bio-engineered “superpig” program to the world, Bong cuts to ten years later where a well-adjusted creature, Okja, lives happily with her owner Mija (An Seo Hyun). The idea, perfectly engineered by company public relations, is to lease out these new creatures to farmers across the world who can raise them humanely. Then, the bells and whistles of sleekly-produced, insidious infomercials featuring Jake Gyllenhaal’s reality TV star  Johnny Wilcox – essentially Steve Irwin on smack – will convince the public that the meet made from these animals is safe for consumption. And delicious, to boot!

The farm-to-slaughterhouse pipeline gets disrupted when an animal rights group intervenes to save Okja. They call themselves the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and establish their non-militancy before their ideals, a hilarious sendup of politically correct protest culture. These young idealists involve Okja and Mija in their plan to inflict economic damage on the Mirando Corporation and its CEO Lucy Mirando, played by Tilda Swinton as a woman who talks like she’s forcing every word with the energy of someone trying not to drown.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Nocturnal Animals

4 12 2016

Did I outsmart “Nocturnal Animals,” or is it just a fairly surface-level psychological thriller? Both – or neither – may be true. But the longer I sat watching Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow taking in the manuscript of her ex-husband, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Edward Sheffield, the more I wondered if this was really it.

Director and adapter Tom Ford names both Kubrick and Hitchcock as influences on the film, and it shows in his meticulous attention to the organization of the frame and the calibrated cutting between them, respectively. He deftly cross-cuts between three storylines: the events leading up to the relationship fissure between Susan and Edward, the visualization of Edward’s novel that blows up the essence of their acrimonious split into a Western revenge tale centered around the taunting and torturing of an emasculated family man, and then Susan reading the text and carrying the weight of those words through her jaded days as a Los Angeles art dealer in decline. When the biggest problem is selling the 36-year-old Gyllenhaal and 42-year-old Adams as old enough to have been split for 20 years, that’s a good sign that a lot is working correctly.

But once the connection becomes clear that the novel is a roman à clef about the effects of the divorce on Edward, the pressure mounts for “Nocturnal Animals” to do something more with its intertwined narrative. For the most part, Ford keeps it fairly straightforward. The beautiful surfaces do say so much about the characters, particularly Susan’s sterile, well-coiffed home and wardrobe that reflect the belying calm facade she presents to the world.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Demolition

8 04 2016

DemolitionDirector Jean-Marc Vallée might not receive an editing credit on his latest film, “Demolition,” but his fingerprints are as visible in the rhythm as they were in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.” (Vallée was credited under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy for the two films, which he also directed.) In many ways, the effort feels like the closing of a loose thematic and visual trilogy for him. Each film replicates the emotional landscape of a character who gets shaken up by the realization of their own mortality and thus makes a drastic course correction in their own life.

For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, that abrupt discovery comes about when his wife dies tragically in a car accident – while he, in the passenger seat, escapes virtually untouched from the wreck. The cliché that normally follows such a traumatic event is the overwrought, grief-stricken husband schtick. “Demolition” goes in the opposite direction. Davis feels absolutely nothing. That’s not to say he feels hatred of his late wife or excitement over her passing (a la “About Schmidt” or, heaven forbid, “Dirty Grandpa“). He’s just numb.

Vallée does not shy away from the challenge of portraying such entropy and attempts to replicate that sensation of feeling desensitized and unresponsive to all the cues that one’s surroundings can throw. In “Demolition,” that looks a lot like destroying the “scene” as it is commonly known. Shots bleed into each other, but they also break off mid-thought and even jump wildly to a tangent. Each successive time Vallée has employed this impressionistic style, it becomes less a service to the story and more of a replacement for it. In other words, reactions likely vary based on feelings towards the character or story.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Everest

16 09 2015

EverestTowards the end of the lengthy expository section of “Everest,” journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Why Everest?”  The film recounts a harrowing climb under the tutelage of mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads a group that does not necessarily look a typical band of sport climbers.  Knowing what exactly motivates them to reach the planet’s highest peak is a reasonable thing for an audience to wonder.

In this one moment perfectly set up for characters to bare their souls – the writer makes for a reasonable excuse to pose such an inquiry – “Everest” pretty much whiffs.  When accomplished scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy cannot deliver on an obvious occasion to answer what deeper meaning this mountain has, it cannot help but disappoint.

So, in the absence of a satisfactory answer to Krakauer’s question, I would like to pose it myself – albeit with slightly different punctuation and inflection.  Why, “Everest?”

Why, “Everest,” must you include a maudlin, manipulative score that tells us exactly how to feel when we should feel it?  Granted, at least they got Dario Marianelli, so it sounds pretty.  But as I watched the film, my mind often drifted to thinking about how much more intense and visceral the experience would be with the score for “Gravity.”  Such impressionistic sounds and frightening dissonances could make the environment seem dauntingly alien.  The music meant to represent climbing the world’s tallest mountain should not resemble the score for any old drama.

Why, “Everest,” must you stubbornly insist on just portraying things that happen to people?  As Hall’s group summits, they face treacherous weather conditions that put their lives in peril.  But the snowstorm is just a snowstorm.  The film lacks any sort of overarching structure of conflict, like man vs. nature or man vs. man, to imbue the challenges with deeper meaning in the mold of “127 Hours.”  The struggles remain in the realm of the personal, not tapping some greater sense of collective fear.  It’s danger without any sense of dread for the audience.
Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Southpaw

15 08 2015

Jake Gyllenhaal trained hard to get ripped and toned for his role as boxer Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” yet the physical transformation may not represent most impressive facet of his performance.  Underneath the chiseled six-pack of abs and behind the battered face does not necessarily lie the spirit of a champion.  In fact, Hope most resembles a pitbull backed into the corner of a cage.

Gyllenhaal makes the truly courageous choice not to play his character with some kind of rough-hewn heart that always finds a way to break through his hardened exterior. Hope came up through the New York City foster care system, never making peace with his parents before they passed and ending up incarcerated more than once.  To boot, he lacks some basic literacy skills (he’s unable to spell the word “incarcerted” with his daughter) and needs the firm support system provided by his wife, Rachel McAdam’s Maureen, to make even the most common-sense of decisions.

In Gyllenhaal’s hands, Hope becomes borderline unsympathetic.  If his character were dropped into the self-destructive drug addict role that Christian Bale played in “The Fighter,” we might not root for him.  Plenty of times in “Southpaw,” I questioned whether my desire to see him triumph came simply from the fact that writer Kurt Sutter made this character the protagonist.

When tragedy hits Hope, we feel pain not because we watch a good man drawn into a maelstrom of grief and anguish.  We feel pain because Gyllenhaal makes sure we know that this a person clearly ill-equipped to come to terms with the enormity of his wealth, power, and standing. A 43-0 record in the ring has not transformed Hope in any way. He’s still the same kid from the shelters who did not have the smarts to stay out of trouble.

Read the rest of this entry »