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





REVIEW: Deadpool

9 03 2016

Deadpool” begins with an opening credits sequence that lists each member of the creative team not as people but rather as their archetypes – along with plenty of gratuitous winks to star Ryan Reynolds and the celebrity culture at large. The montage more or less represents the film as a whole: clever but not ingenious, distinct but not original.

Reynolds struts around the film like he is the first person to don a superhero suit and not fit the mold of a straight-laced all-American macho man. The foul-mouthed average joe act was done in 2010’s “Kick-Ass,” and the relentless smart-ass routine has been beaten into the ground by Robert Downey, Jr. beginning with 2008’s “Iron Man.” There’s nothing particularly novel about the “merc with a mouth” (that stands for “mercenary,” apparently) although Tim Miller and his band of four credited screenwriters certainly try their best to convince audiences otherwise. The level of self-satisfaction and self-effacement proves irritating to a fault, though.

For all the Deadpool character tries to subvert the superhero cliches, his story sure plays out a lot like one. “Deadpool” is a garden variety origin story, from Wade Wilson’s humble beginnings to love interest (Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa) down to acquisition of special power and, ultimately, mastery of that gift. The film relies on formula as a narrative throughline so it can indulge in self-referentiality and humorous sideshow diversions. If “Deadpool” is a reaction to the banality of the genre, it does little to improve upon the recognizable flaws.

That also goes for the character of Deadpool, supposedly a more “progressive” superhero with his ambiguous sexuality. But he speaks with a higher voice. He totes around a pipe cleaner penis. He makes frequent Freudian slips about anatomy. For heavens’ sake, HE PLEASURES HIMSELF WITH A STUFFED PONY. This is not the introduction of a pansexual hero. “Deadpool” just repackages old prejudices and appeals to homophobic instincts by making any non-normative behavior from Wade into the butt of a joke. It’s comedy as con artistry. C+2stars





REVIEW: Mississippi Grind

29 11 2015

Mississippi GrindEarly on in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Mississippi Grind,” a small detail stood out to me. As Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry sits down on the can to relieve his bowels, he reaches for something to wipe – and realizes he’s at the end of the roll of toilet paper. While most films, admittedly, avoid portraying such activities in the first place, how many of them bother to include this kind of widely shared frustration?

Boden and Fleck’s film, which they both co-wrote and directed, has one of the most thoroughly lived-in feels of any recent film. The way they capture the loneliness of a locale like an Iowa bar with such specificity comes across as so effortless that it might go unnoticed. But those who know to look will find a highly considered setting for an entertaining story.

“Mississippi Grind” takes the familiar form of a road trip between two buddies, although the pair in this movie only meets when the narrative begins. Gerry has many years of gambling under his belt (and plenty more in debt) before Ryan Reynolds’ younger Curtis comes along and strikes up a chummy rapport. The two head off towards New Orleans for the least Hollywood-like bender of booze and betting.

The favored cliché when describing any road trip or travel story is “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” That may apply to many movies, though it rings especially true for “Mississippi Grind.” Boden and Fleck are not building towards any kind of giant showdown in The Big Easy. Rather, it’s just the natural end point for the duo. The joy of the film comes from watching their little side trips and micro moments, grappling with their troubled pasts and bracing for the uncertain future. B+3stars





REVIEW: Self/Less

10 07 2015

The central conceit of Tarsem Singh’s “Self/Less” is effortlessly appealing, if not incredibly novel.  A new technological breakthrough allows for the transfer of a nimble mind from a decaying body into a more spry figure.  As Matthew Goode’s well-coiffed scientist Albright puts it, think of what Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs could have accomplished with a few more years.

The man who receives this revolutionary soul transplant seems to share little in common with those three luminaries, though.  Ben Kingsley’s Damian Hale simply amassed a fortune as a real estate baron.  When he sheds his cancer-addled body and reemerges in the toned physique of Ryan Reynolds, Damian uses the new lease on life not to help humanity but rather to please himself.  In pursuit of nothing but hedonism, he beds plenty of women and never once shows why he deserves an extension of his time on earth.

Beyond Damian’s clear lack of merit to receive the shedding treatment, “Self/Less” suffers from plot holes and shallow thinking aplenty.  Writers David and Alex Pastor do add in a few complications to the concept, mostly resulting from the incomplete erasure of the mind that used to inhabit Damian’s new frame.  (Side note: Why not just clone these new bodily vessels?)  The ethical questions surrounding who really owns a physical body or a life are fascinating ones indeed…

…that will have to be answered by another movie, because “Self/Less” would much rather just cut to a mindless car chase than linger on a mindful discussion.  The Pastor brothers placed their fingers on a topic that could inspire meaningful, relevant debate.  Perhaps if they were able to complete two or three more drafts of the screenplay, they might have stumbled on something really profound.  But as is, the potential for a great movie gets squandered to produce a merely passable one.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Woman in Gold

4 04 2015

Woman in GoldA few months ago, upon seeing the trailer for “Woman in Gold,” I made the snarky suggestion on Facebook that the film was “Philomena” meets “The Monuments Men.”  The calculation wound up being correct, though thankfully the hybrid resembles the Judi Dench charmer more than Clooney’s bomb.

Helen Mirren stars as plainspoken Maria Altmann, an aristocratic Austrian émigré turned Angeleno shop owner.  Back in the 1940s, she fled the Nazi incursion after her cultured family found themselves the target of pointed hostility from the Third Reich’s plunderers.  Maria left before they could take her pride – but not before they confiscated artwork that was rightfully hers, including a portrait by Gustav Klimt that was commissioned by her uncle.

Fast forward half a century, and that same portrait, widely hailed as a national treasure, hangs on the walls of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum.  Maria, meanwhile, hangs her head in despair after the loss of her dear sister.  On a whim, she reaches out to the down-and-out son of a family friend, Ryan Reynolds’ lawyer on the rebound Randol Schoenberg, to see if he can assist her in a restitution claim.

Neither, however, realizes the many personal and cultural nerves they will hit in their years-long quest to right a historical wrong.  Austria’s restitution began as a PR stunt but quickly became a Pandora’s box of past grievances coming back into the light.  “Not everything is about the Holocaust,” opines one upset citizen when spotting Maria after an intense session in court.  The line resonates not only given the recent explosion of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe but also in a more global sense, where those who did not suffer from past discrimination still cannot fathom grappling with its present-day effects.

“Woman in Gold” provides a very satisfying watch, even though it is definitely far from perfect or groundbreaking.  Director Simon Curtis achieves a feat similar to the one he achieved on his feature film debut “My Week with Marilyn” by providing a consistently engaging, entertaining story with stakes worth the price of admission.  This film, though, does suffer from some less than ideal casting (Reynolds and his on-screen wife Katie Holmes) as well as some unmotivated cutting back to Maria’s backstory as a young woman in Vienna.  Still, I would not hesitate to recommend it for anyone looking for a drama that will not sap all their cognitive energy.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Voices

9 02 2015

The VoicesThe Voices” takes a protagonist plagued by mental illness, as in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and combines him with the unsuspecting, mild-mannered murderer like in “Bernie.”  The film’s Jerry, as played by Ryan Reynolds, is an outwardly cheery factory worker whose schizophrenia makes him subject to violent impulses.  He can mostly suppress these urges, yet the invented voices of his cat and dog begin to lure him into violence against the women of his company’s accounting department.

As he knocks off characters played by Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick, director Marjane Sartrapi aims for a tone of black comedy that never really sticks.  Sartrapi showed with her Oscar-nominated “Persepolis” that she can make a character with only two dimensions feel as whole as any actual human, so the film’s lack of depth feels especially disappointing.  She does not deserve all the blame, though; Michael R. Perry’s rather bland, unfunny script does not set the stage for her and the cast to succeed.

Not to mention, the humor of “The Voices” also falls victim to forces outside the movie.  Sartrapi obviously does not condone murder, but placing a character who commits them at the center of a story does make identification and sympathy much simpler.  By making Jerry the protagonist, the film does glorify his exploits to some small extent.  In a time where mentally disturbed people come unhinged and tear holes in communities like Aurora and Newtown, serving as a party to their crimes just feels inappropriate.  Laughing at them seemed downright wrong.  C+2stars





LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!