Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: Life

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
In space, nobody can hear you yawn. Daniel Espinosa's "Life" takes a solid cast of leading and character actors and makes them suffer through a creaky "Alien" ripoff that has a few genuine moments of tension and a whole lot of the same old thing you'd expect from a film of this type. And to make matters worse, it features one of those - sort-of spoiler alert - nihilistic types of endings that tend to go better with grim horror movies.

As the film opens, a group of scientists and engineers are aboard a space station as they await a capsule that possibly contains proof of life on Mars to arrive. Once it does, they discover a life form that they come to refer to as Calvin for reasons with which I won't waste your time. The characters are given meager introductions - there's space cowboy Rory (Ryan Reynolds), a pilot with Major Tom Syndrome named David Jordan (Jake Gylenhaal), intelligent Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), obligatory Russian Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya), brainy and paralyzed scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) and tech guy Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Hugh is fascinated by Calvin and takes an interest in playing with the life form, which starts out small before becoming a large tentacled creature with a creepy face. But while attempting to get a reaction out of the creature by prodding it with electricity (bad idea), things suddenly run amok.

It's at this point that the film goes full "Alien" as the crew members attempt to survive as Calvin - referred to as all muscle and brain, no doubt making him a popular match on Tinder - attacks and attempts to feed off them. Most of the obvious steps are attempted and scenes utilized - a failed quarantine, a sequence during which an astronaut is trapped outside the ship, another in which the creature has made its way into a character's body, etc. You know the drill.

Unlike such heady, recent trips to the cosmos - "Gravity" and "Interstellar," for instance - Espinosa's film has no intention other than to be a B-movie and acting as a possible means of tiding over genre junkies until the new "Alien" film gets released in May. But it's a pretty mediocre substitute. There are a few skillfully made sequences during which the crew members attempt to outwit Calvin, but "Life" is mostly, well, lifeless.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Song To Song

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
Terrence Malick is one of cinema's most unique poets. There are no other films quite like his - other than, that is, those that rip off his trademark style. His films are visually gorgeous, increasingly experimental in nature and seemingly attuned to a realm that could best be described as spiritual.

The reclusive director hit a creative peak with 2011's "The Tree of Life," which at the time I called the most ambitious American film since "2001: A Space Odyssey," at least in terms of the film's attempt to ponder our place in the world and universe. Prior to that, the director was responsible for no less than three other masterpieces - his brilliant debut, "Badlands"; the visually rapturous "Days of Heaven" and the remarkable war picture "The Thin Red Line."

In the years since "The Tree of Life," which stands as one of the decade's very best films, Malick has been uncharacteristically busy. He's released four films in the past four years and while there have been many things to praise regarding his recent work, they have been less coherent than his first five films (which also includes the very good "The New World").

"To the Wonder" was, as usual, visually stunning, but at the time I wrote that it was my least favorite of his films. But the two films that followed - the highly experimental "Knight of Cups" and the kinda IMAX documentary "Voyage of Time" - were even less successful. However, I still recommended all of these films because their visuals were stunning and they still felt, to an extent, of a piece with Malick's previous work, albeit on a lower tier.

"Song to Song" is the first Malick film that I can say just did not work for me. It has some breathtaking shots - an early morning sunrise, numerous scenes of people walking through gorgeous scenery, a few inspired concert shots - but it never comes together.

The film's cast is full of beautiful people - Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Ryan Gosling - as well as cameos from some faces we haven't seen in a while (Holly Hunter and Val Kilmer) and some rock icons - most notably, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith - but they are left with little to do other than wander around and ponder via voiceover in the manner one would expect in a Malick film.

Although story tends to come at a minimum in Malick's films, it's particularly sparse here. Fassbender, a record producer, and Gosling, a musician, vie for the attentions of Mara, that is, until Gosling becomes involved with an older woman (Blanchett) and Fassbender falls for a waitress (Portman). Meanwhile, the South By Southwest music festival seems to be on a never-ending loop in the background. A death occurs (or, then again, maybe it doesn't), relationships end (often without any reason) and friendships sour (but are later intact, again without explanation).

The film's title may be a reference to the Bible's "Song of Songs," which celebrates sexual love. And there's plenty of that to be found in "Song to Song," where gorgeous actors kiss, fondle, cuddle and fornicate all over the place, albeit in a Malickian manner.

Malick's previous three films have all been set in the present and, at the same time, been his least effective. His next project follows the story of a conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis and my hope is that the film finds him back in top form. "Song to Song" has some elements that deserve praise - terrific camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki and some inspired cameos - but it never worked for me in the way that Malick's finest features have.

Review: T2: Trainspotting

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
The saying you can't go home again isn't exactly right. You can go home again, but it won't be as you remember it and you'll likely be unable to successfully relive the past. This is certainly the case for Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the star of Danny Boyle's 1996 classic "Trainspotting," as he returns home to make amends with his mates, from whom he stole a boatload of cash following a drug deal in the previous film's climax. As this new movie opens, we find Renton running again, but this time on a treadmill. He suffers a heart attack and collapses and we next see him arriving in the Edinburgh airport, ready to face his past.

Boyle's original film - which was the director's second and a UK answer to "Pulp Fiction" - followed the adventures of everyman heroin abuser Renton; his best pal, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who now goes by Simon; sad, sweet Spud (Ewen Bremner), putting his emotive face to terrific use in this sequel; and psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle, terrifying as ever the second time around). In "T2," the drug usage is significantly dialed down - Spud is an on-again, off-again addict, Simon snorts cocaine and Begbie, in one of the picture's funnier jokes, uses Viagra. However, the film - while itself nostalgic, deftly utilizing footage from the original picture - makes the case that nostalgia can be just as addictive as heroin.

As three of the lads pay a visit to the Scottish hillside during one scene, Simon tells Renton that he is a "tourist in his own youth." Renton looks back fondly on his past, but Simon is quick to remind him of some of the darker passages of their youth - in response, Renton recalls a particularly harrowing moment for Simon.

And early in the picture when Renton returns to his childhood home, he drops the needle on the record and just as the first licks of "Lust for Life" rev up, he shuts it off. The song plays again near the film's end, but in a more slowed down version - Underworld's iconic "Born Slippy" also pops up, but also in a slower mode at several points. In the original film, Renton and his pals had youthful vigor - despite all the drugs they put into their systems - but now, they have slipped into a middle age with little direction and life has worn them down.

After an expected brawl early in the film between Renton and Simon, the two make amends and Mark admits that he is in the middle of a divorce, childless and has flimsy job security. Simon has a Bulgarian girlfriend named Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova) - to whom Mark takes a fancy - but makes his money blackmailing men who sleep with her. His dream is to open a brothel, a scheme into which he ropes Renton and Spud, who nearly commits suicide at the film's beginning before being saved by Renton.

Meanwhile, Begbie escapes from jail and, upon arriving home, attempts to school his teenage son in the criminal lifestyle, although the boy is more interested in attending college to study hotel management. After tracking down Simon, Begbie plots to find Renton and kill him for betraying him 20 years prior. Kelly Macdonald pops up in a cameo sequence as Diane, Renton's former girlfriend, but she is now a high powered lawyer, while Shirley Henderson returns for a few scenes as Gail, Spud's ex-wife, on whose face can be seen the hardship of years spent with a junkie.

All of the actors effortlessly slip back into their characters, although it's Bremner who is the most effective as Spud, who takes Renton's advice to channel his addictive behavior into something more productive, so he takes up writing, chronicling the stories from the earlier film that we can expect will turn into the novel "Trainspotting."

To get this out of the way - no, "T2" is not as good as "Trainspotting," most likely due to the fact that lightning rarely strikes twice. However, living up to the first film is a tall order and Boyle's sort-of sequel is still quite good. The first "Trainspotting" was a wild, stylish and morbidly funny breakout film by a young filmmaker, while "T2" is a somber and thoughtful follow-up from a director who has put some years on the books. So, I can say without hesitation that, yes, you should most definitely choose "T2: Trainspotting."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
"Kong: Skull Island" has an impressive cast and some decent special effects - so, it's a shame that the former often get lost within the latter. No, this is not your grandfather's "King Kong" movie. Littered with special effects from nearly start to finish, the picture looks good and has a vibe slightly different from other pictures of this type - mostly due to the period in which it is set - but there's too much going on at once on screen and much of it is digitally created.

The picture opens in 1973 and features President Richard Nixon's announcement that the Vietnam War is being wound down. Two good laughs can be found during this scene - the fact that the number of protesters seen outside the White House during the scene is unlikely as the anti-war movement had all but thrown in the towel at this point and a quip by John Goodman that is directed right at the camera regarding his thoughts on how Washington will never likely be in as much turmoil as it was then. If he only knew.

Goodman's scientist convinces a senator (a brief appearance by Richard Jenkins) to fund a trip to a remote island where strange things are apparently afoot. He rounds up a group of soldiers who are about to be shipped home from the war - led by Samuel L. Jackson's Preston Packard (where do they come up with these names?), a commander who's not quite ready to give up the fight - a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), photo journalist (Brie Larson) and several other scientists.

The group makes a crash landing on the aforementioned island, where they are greeted by an angry King Kong, who smashes up some of the group's helicopters and incurs the wrath of Packard. Since this is a blockbuster movie, the characters are all separated and must find their way back to the rallying point to escape. In the meantime, Hiddleston and Larson stumble upon a village of natives, where a downed World War II pilot (John C. Reilly) has been living for years.

Outside the village lies danger at every turn - gigantic spiders and ants, nasty lizard-like beasts, massive creatures that look like mules and, of course, Kong, who is the island's protector - in other words, he prevents the lizards from taking over. In terms of plot, the film is thin. As for period ambience, it's not too bad - or, at least, it features a soundtrack with tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, The Stooges, The Hollies and others. Larson's anti-war commentary fills in the rest.

"Skull Island" is, for the most part, a means of cashing in and an apparent attempt to revive the gigantic monster genre (I'm pretty sure there's another Godzilla movie on the way, a King Kong vs. Godzilla picture and, who knows, perhaps Mothra will have his day in the sun as well). In other words, it's not particularly high on inspiration, that is, unless you count the collection of dividends.

That being said, there's some nice work from some of the cast - Jackson does his thing and some of the supporting players (Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann, for example) have some solid moments. But it's Hiddleston who fares best, although his character is mostly a caricature. Regardless, he makes the case as an action movie leading man.

And the special effects, as I've mentioned, are good enough - however, there are just too many of them. If you've seen one digitally enhanced battle between gigantic creatures, you've seen them all. The actors mostly find themselves running from flying objects and monsters in pursuit. Dialogue is shouted - most of it is either "look out!" or "run!" It's not a bad blockbuster - in fact, it earns points for its period backdrop and great casting - but it doesn't exactly break the mold either.

Review: Personal Shopper

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
In their second collaboration, director Olivier Assayas and actress Kristen Stewart have created a mysterious, spooky and cerebral horror movie that not only concerns itself with things that go bump in the night, but also loneliness, grief and the need to escape oneself. "Personal Shopper" might frustrate those looking for a more straightforward genre exercise that purposefully doesn't wrap its storylines up in neat bows and culminates in one of the great open ended finales of recent memory, but filmgoers seeking a thought provoking, distinctly European and often creepy horror movie will be duly rewarded.

As the picture opens, Stewart's Maureen is pulling double duty as she examines an abandoned country home in France. Maureen is a medium and she's scoping out the place for potential buyers who don't want to live in a haunted house, but she's also attempting to make contact with her twin brother, Lewis, who died several months prior in this particular house due to heart problems. When asked by others what she is doing in France, Maureen cryptically answers, "I'm waiting," and we know that it is a sign from her dead brother for which she is holding out hope.

However, what Maureen is technically doing in France is working as a personal shopper for a high maintenance model named Kyra (Nora Von Waldstatten), who is hilariously introduced in the middle of a phone call in which she is bickering over a plan to save endangered gorillas. Maureen travels to high end stores in France - and even London - to pick out expensive outfits for Kyra and, despite being told not to, trying them on herself when no one's looking.

Maureen has a boyfriend who is currently working in Oman and she occasionally takes part in video chats with him. She also has a few other friends who are practicing mediums. Otherwise, Maureen is primarily alone, despite being surrounded by faceless strangers as she walks - or often rides via scooter - the streets of Paris. "Personal Shopper" is a ghost story, but in more than one sense of the word - Maureen is haunted by the death of her brother, the non-present Kyra (who only makes one appearance) has an apparitional presence in the story and Maureen herself is clearly ignored by Kyra as she were a spirit.

In Assaya's previous film, the marvelous "Clouds of Sils Maria," Stewart also played an assistant to a well-known person - in that case, an actress played by Juliette Binoche - and approximately two-thirds of the way into that film, her character literally vanishes into thin air. In "Personal Shopper," Stewart may be tracking a ghost - or more than one, for that matter - but she's spectral herself.

A number of elements come into play to possibly throw the viewer off guard - Kyra's boyfriend pops up in an early scene where he appears innocuous and a later one where he's sinister, a brutal murder takes place and, during one of the picture's most ingenious moments, a ghost may or may not be riding a hotel elevator and exiting its front door.

But the film's centerpiece is an epic length conversation carried out via text between Maureen and a mysterious figure. Could it be the ghost of Lewis finally making contact with Maureen? Or has she summoned another otherworldly presence? Perhaps it's neither, but rather a real-life stalker who appears to be tracking her every move.

Although one of the film's storylines appears to come to a conclusion, it also opens the door for the film's mysterious ending, which possibly changes the nature of the story if taken literally or adds further depth to the picture's themes of solitude and mourning if taken figuratively. The final line that Stewart half-whispers halfway around the world from where the movie began will, regardless, leave you with much to ponder.

Assayas is one of French's finest filmmakers, from his 1990s output ("Irma Vep" and "Late August, Early September") to his more recent pictures ("Sils Maria" and the remarkable "Carlos"). "Personal Shopper" bears some similarity to his jet-set thrillers "Demonlover" and "Boarding Gate," but it's also unique in that it's a rare example of the director directly taking on genre material, albeit blending horror scares with some of the themes that have long been present in his work.

And Stewart's work here proves that she is a long way from "Twilight." Between her work here and her previous role in "Sils Maria" - for which she became the first American actress to win a Cesar - it's clear that Stewart is a gifted actress and a terrific muse for her French collaborator. This is a fascinating film for the cinematically adventurous.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review: Logan

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
James Mangold's "Logan," the umpteenth "X-Men" sequel and a sort of postmortem on the series, is a comic book movie for people who are past the point of fatigue with the genre (that would be me). And one of the reasons why this one works so much better than many of the other recent superhero movies is that it feels less like a comic book picture and more like a western - in fact, "Shane" is name checked twice and the final credit scrawl includes a Johnny Cash tune.

On the other hand, yes, superpowers are flaunted, from razor sharp claws popping out of knuckles to mind controlling an entire casino, but "Logan" is up to something other than the typical fistfights and set pieces, although there are still plenty of those.

Set in the nearish future - 2029, I believe - the picture finds the titular character (Hugh Jackman) looking as if he were leaving Las Vegas, if you know what I mean, acting as a limo driver (no explanation for that), drinking a fair amount and caring for an aging and elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, great as always). The pair are hiding out in an abandoned spot in the west and, since this "X-Men" film is the first to nab an R rating, swearing up a storm.

Their relative peace is interrupted by the arrival of a woman (soon to be killed) and the young girl whom she is protecting who, suffice it to say, bears some similar traits to Logan. A group of government spooks show up and a series of extremely bloody battles ensues.

And much like J.J. Abrams' recent "Star Wars" contribution, viewers may be surprised to see very familiar characters bite the bullet. During one particularly unsettling sequence - which borders on being a step too far - a kindly family gets mauled to death by one of the picture's lead villains.

The film plays less as a blockbuster film and more as a dysfunctional father-daughter road drama, albeit one that includes a lot of throats getting ripped out and limbs being lopped off. In the same way that superhero movies were never quite the same again after Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, "Logan" feels as if the genre is breaking new ground. Comic book movies are starting to feel less and less like movies about guys fighting crime in spandex and more like crime dramas (in the case of "The Dark Knight") or westerns ("Logan"). It's a welcome change.

I'm not sure whether there will be further X-Men films, although I'm nearly positive that if this one makes a lot of money it'll be difficult for studios not to attempt to make the case for another one. However, "Logan" feels like the end of something - and should it be the last of the series, a fitting one.

Review: Table 19

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
On paper, "Table 19" might have sounded like an intriguing concept - a group of strangers who are obviously pariahs are stuck together at a table during a wedding and they must each figure out how they came to be seated there. It also helps that those characters are played by the likes of Anna Kendrick, June Squibb, Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, Tony Revolori and Stephen Merchant, all likable. So, why is it that, for at least the first two-thirds of the film, it feels so flat?

While there are reasons why the various characters aren't wanted at the scene of the wedding by some of the minor characters, the problem with "Table 19" is that, at times, it appears that the actors don't appear to want to be there either.

The characters are mostly threadbare - a jilted young woman with a secret (Kendrick), a former nanny who has been forgotten (Squibb), a bickering couple (Robinson and Kudrow), a young man looking for female attention (Revolori) and a prisoner who has been - let's say, surprisingly - let out to attend the wedding. If anything keeps the film chugging along, it's the personalities of the various actors portraying them.

Much of the film's drama revolves around Kendrick's Eloise, who has been dumped by the bride's brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell) and wants to either get back at him or get back with him. Needless to say, this doesn't make for the most compelling drama and an early scene in which Eloise is nearly swept off her feet by another character only leads to a dead end.

Even more vague is the drama between Kudrow and Robinson, who own a diner in Ohio and are both apparently suffering through a loveless marriage. Revolori's travails involving his failed attempts to attract women are meant to be funny, but are not particularly. And Squibb's storyline involving two children who have forgotten that she was once their nanny feels too minor. In fact, it's only Merchant's plotline involving his taking up the tasks of the wedding's waitstaff after donning a jacket that makes him appear to be a waiter that gets a few laughs.

The film's final third aims to inject the various plot threads with more gravitas and emotion and, on occasion, it succeeds in doing so. But the problem is that these threads were neglected during the first two-thirds of the movie and, therefore, their impact is blunted. "Table 19" is a brief (at 87 minutes) and occasionally amusing, but mostly forgettable, wedding dramedy that that never lives up to the potential of its setup.