Life (2017)

Rebecca Ferguson

One of the protagonists in Life is a doctor who has grown to hate people because he’s seen the worst they are capable of – at one point he dismisses the planet as 7 billion [expletive]s – and this misanthropic opinion is clearly shared by the film’s creators who have served-up one mean movie. That said, it is a mean movie that is a lot of fun to watch. Just don’t go to the theater expecting a meditative cosmic thriller à la Gravity, go expecting Friday the 13th in space.

The beginning of the movie – and its rather lofty title – rose my expectations for the thematic punch Life had in store. The space probe sent to mine Mars for life is call “The Pilgrim” and the organism the astronauts discover is christened “Calvin” after President Calvin Coolidge. These monikers come with interesting connotations: The early European colonizers who fought and displaced Native Americans and the president hundreds of years later who granted citizenship to America’s indigenous people. With names like these, one might expect an exploration of the complicated mixture of curiosity, fear, violence, and cooperation that occurs when one form of life slams into another. However, just as the first handshake between man and Martian rapidly devolves into a gruesome appendage-pulverizing attack, the film quickly abandons all thematic heft and goes full space slasher instead.

Calvin is described as “all-muscle, all-eye, all-brain” and Life is all-muscle and all-eye; the action and the visuals are great, but the brain – any intellectual message – gets lost. As a horror film, it works. Calvin is a genuinely scary threat and the stakes of being anywhere near him are made clear. The alien has Michael Myers-esque invincibility, but the ridiculousness of this horror trope is lessened because Calvin is not unkillable due to some ineffable dark magic, he is unkillable because the astronauts at his mercy know very little about him, including how to kill him. The decision-making in Life also raises it a bit above the average slasher film. The circumstances under which the characters find themselves continually facing the monster they are fleeing are never as frustratingly contrived as in most horror pictures.

The film is fast-paced and exciting, and director Daniel Espinosa often uses the ambiguity of hectic action scenes to increase the audience’s unease. Fast cuts, flashing lights, and exploding set pieces become disorienting and we find ourselves in the shoes of the crew – not entirely sure what’s going on. Occasionally, this frenetic direction gives way to pure confusion. Sometimes it’s not clear where things are in relation to other things, and I may have blinked and missed an explanation, but there is a big rat in a little vest that the camera continually cuts to with no hint as to where the rat is or what information it is supposed to be conveying.

The disorienting direction pays-off big in the thrilling final minutes of the film, but as the credits role and the excitement wanes, there remains the lingering aftertaste of mean-spiritedness. What did these people do to deserve this? The characters in this film are only ever motivated by their best intentions – never by selfishness or power or hubris – and yet they are continually punished with graphic, horrifying violence. Is this what humanity deserves for being curious or cautious or caring? What message is the audience meant to take home? As near as I can tell, the most salient message is this: if the little organism you found on Mars is hibernating, let it hibernate.

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Review — Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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The latest Beauty and the Beast is a realistic, fleshed-out version of its cartoon predecessor, and not just because it’s live action. Characters in this iteration have solid motivations and are surprisingly believable considering half of them are pieces furniture.

Belle, brought to life by Emma Watson, is a more active participant in her story than her animated counterpart. She does not simply lament her place in a narrow-minded small town, but seeks to improve her circumstances. For instance, she invents gadgets that afford her more reading time and attempts to broaden minds by passing her love of books on to other young women. Her intrepid character and longing for adventure are so thoroughly established that the viewer buys it when she finds herself held hostage in an enchanted castle and doesn’t run screaming every chance she gets.

Keeping her at the castle is Beast, played by a charming Dan Stevens. Ostensibly, she stays as his prisoner, but honestly she is intrigued by him (if she got something pointy to deal with those insatiable forest wolves, she could be out of there in a hurry). This film does something to develop a romantic relationship that a lot of movies fail to do. Beauty and Beast — who fall in love — have SIMILAR INTERESTS. Too often people in movies fall in love because they are the two main characters in a movie. In Beauty and the Beast the two leads begin to develop feelings when they discover a shared love of literature. Eventually, they discuss their mutual loneliness and loss of a parent. Because they have real things to bond over, the viewer doesn’t get hung up on the fact that Belle is into a guy with horns and a tail.

The castle’s other occupants are also easy to love. Intricate and clever character design makes for a delightful supporting cast. Cogsworth is particularly endearing, with a consistently aghast expression and wide-bottomed waddle. Mrs. Potts and son fall a bit short aesthetically, as their faces are simply painted onto their inanimate forms, but Emma Thompson bridges the gap with a warm performance. The viewer may be surprised to find themselves verklempt at the plight of this furniture so skillfully imbued with life.

The familiar songs are in place but kept fresh and appealing with a few new lyrics and a stippling of more complex sentiment. “Something There” is a song made all the more enjoyable with the foundation of deeper characterization, while “Gaston” hits some homoerotic notes that weren’t as prominent in the 1991 film (though the “gay moment” making headlines is frankly underwhelming). There are a couple wholly new songs that can’t quite compete with the classic numbers, but are not unwelcome. Occasionally, the vocal performances are a touch overproduced, but avoid Glee-like soullessness.

While Beauty and the Beast is certainly worth the price of admission, shelling out the cash for 3D isn’t necessary. In fact, a lot of the 3D is a bit of a headache. One sequence in which fine filigree vines dissolve into gilded flecks and swirl around in the air sends the eyes into a panicked search for a focal point. There are a few gimmicky projectiles fired right at the audience — some plates and a snowball — but no thrills worth the extra money.

If you are a fan of the magic in Disney’s first Beauty and the Beast, but also dig a character with sensible motivations, this latest installment should not disappoint.

Review – Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island follows some scientists, some soldiers, an anti-war photojournalist, and a world-weary tracker as they explore (read: blow-up) an unmapped tropical island that is home to a myriad of massive fauna. Unfortunately, I was not mystified by the enigmatic jungle, but by the construction of this weird, weird movie. The writing and direction in Skull Island are more at odds than Kong and his nemeses, the big bony lizards.

The plot and dialogue in this film unmistakably belong to a blockbuster action flick. There are three writers credited – Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly – and at least one of them was on a mission to drop a stock action movie line into every interaction. At one point, the lines “Come on, you son of a bitch!” and “Come on, you bastard!” were spoken by two separate characters within a five minute period. Every cliche is accounted for, even an obligatory self-sacrifice (I promise you this is not a spoiler, it has nothing to do with the plot or its characters and may even be a joke, I just can’t be sure). That said, I like a dumb action movie now and again, if the writing had been allowed to inhabit the right space it may have worked, but the direction is not that of an action movie.

The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, just never gives us the amount of “cool” it takes to make goofy action writing work. The shots jump between the very wide and the very close. The wide shots show the awesome scale of the beasts and the minute stature of the people, while the tight shots generally peer right into the eyes of human and ape alike. Yet, there is nothing resonant to be found in those eyes, and the scale of the beasts and the people does not elicit any kind of existential or emotional response because the writing simply doesn’t support it. The visuals would bolster an introspective war drama’s script, but that isn’t what was written.  Breakneck paced editing attempts to stitch the direction to the writing but succeeds only in making it hard to know exactly what is going on at any given moment – one of many reasons this film never succeeds in engrossing the viewer.

Skull Island features a tribe of people that have nothing to say, and I am not referring to the silent island natives. Not one of the bafflingly large group of castaways undergoes a character arc or personal growth. The viewer is given no reason to become attached to any of these characters, they are too flimsy (though John C. Reilly puts up a good fight and supplies us with some human moments and the only decent laughs). The biggest factor in each character’s decision-making process seems to be how cool an action will look in slow-motion. Why not grab a katana and a gas mask and charge into a toxic cloud to slice up some pterodactyls?

There is almost an interesting allegory at work, painting Kong as a metaphor for wanton warfare. The monomaniacal, chip-on-his-shoulder Lt. Col. Packard makes the ape an enemy because he is looking for one, and his soldiers needlessly lose their lives and have several “just following orders” moments. This metaphor is muddled-up, however, by the reptilian skull crawlers who I guess are the actual enemies in a movie that waxes philosophical about imagined enemies and fruitless fighting for two hours. Really the skull crawlers are just there so that Kong has something big and ugly to punch. Which, admittedly, is sometimes fun to watch.

All told, Kong: Skull Island was a letdown. I’d like the next movie in this cinematic universe to feature Godzilla and Kong teaming-up to squash all these woefully underdeveloped human characters and clobber Ghidorah without any of their melodramatic interruptions.