Life

The days are long gone when all Martians are little green men who come in peace, a notion that Life further exemplifies.

Even if it feels like a high-concept piece of Alien fan fiction, this taut and stylish thriller generates some solid intragalactic tension during its battle between humans versus extraterrestrials, in which we’re the visiting team.

The story follows six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, on a mission to retrieve soil samples from the surface of Mars. After Rory (Ryan Reynolds) accomplishes that feat, an analysis of those samples reveals a tiny living organism.

The group begins some experiments, feeding the creature glucose and adopting it almost as a mascot, named Calvin. But after the shapeshifting alien outgrows its test tube and gains strength and intelligence, the curiosity of the astronauts quickly turns to fear.

As their colleagues begin meeting Calvin’s wrath, the resourceful David (Jake Gyllenhaal) and resilient Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) realize they must stifle its growth by depriving it of oxygen without endangering themselves, or their chances of eventually returning to Earth.

It’s pretty derivative stuff that manages to rise above the fray thanks to some credible performances, visual flourishes, and an attention to science more than just cheap scares.

As directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), the film manages to prey upon common fears, whether the unpredictability of the rapidly evolving intruder or the claustrophobic confines of the space station itself. The camera glides through narrow corridors in a way that emphasizes the tight quarters and zero-gravity environment on board.

The uneven screenplay by the tandem of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) throws around enough knowledge of microbiology, astrophysics, and outer-space travel to make the scientific discovery hold audience interest. There’s even a cool sequence in which Calvin suffocates a mouse.

However, the intellect steadily declines in the second half of the film, both in the script and among the characters, as the proceedings descend into a chaotic fight for survival — complete with monster-movie clichés and a gimmicky twist ending.

Life might be inferior to other stranded-astronaut movies in recent years, but at least this latest addition to the science-fiction subgenre isn’t completely lost in space.

 

Rated R, 103 minutes.

Wilson

It’s not the biopic about the volleyball sidekick from Cast Away that we’ve all wanted, but Wilson still is full of hot air.

This character-driven comedy wallows in the middle-aged misanthropy of its title character who discovers a soft side beneath his hardened shell of resentment and hostility as he navigates a would-be heartwarming path to redemption.

We might hate to admit it, but most of us know somebody who resembles Wilson (Woody Harrelson), a neurotic loner — outspoken about his aversion to technology — whose only friends are his loyal dog and a neighbor (Brett Gelman) ready to move out of their Minnesota apartment building.

Around the same time, Wilson learns his father is dying, which sparks an effort to reconcile some personal affairs. He tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-wife (Laura Dern), a former drug addict who didn’t have an abortion 17 years ago, as Wilson had always suspected. Instead, she put their child up for adoption.

After irritating some old acquaintances, the duo embarks on a misguided attempt to reconcile with the disenfranchised teenager (Isabella Amara) and figure out whether their family would have worked after all.

Gradually, details are revealed about Wilson’s troubled past that have prompted his bitterness and cynicism. yet director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) struggles to give the material a consistent tone.

His transformation doesn’t provide the intended payoff because Wilson’s redemption is given and not earned. The strategy here is to make the protagonist excessively off-putting so the subsequent sentimentality is more impactful. But it loses touch with reality along the way.

Despite a portrayal by Harrelson that brings depth and complexity, his character doesn’t deserve sympathy. After all, he goes out of his way to make those around him, even total strangers, share in his misery. The film is hardly convincing in its attempt to pass off his behavior as stemming from some sort of extreme social awkwardness or residual trauma from failed relationships.

The screenplay by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) — adapted from his graphic novel — also offers a half-hearted exploration of arrested development and surrogate families. However, the result is neither consistently funny nor poignant.

Instead, the quirky periphery characters provides many of the scattered big laughs, while Wilson himself is more creepy than cuddly.

 

Rated R, 94 minutes.

Capsule reviews for March 24

Bokeh

If it’s the end of the world as they know it, then strangely enough, Riley (Matt O’Leary) and Jenai (Maika Monroe) do seem to feel fine — relatively speaking. This science-fiction drama finds a young American couple vacationing in Iceland when they awaken one morning to find themselves completely alone in a foreign land. From there, the film takes them through the expected reactions, from curiosity to euphoria to spiritual awakening to fear about the future. The result never generates much narrative momentum or profound social commentary, although it takes full advantage of the gorgeous Icelandic locations. Narratively speaking, it feels stretched at feature length. (Not rated, 92 minutes).

 

I Called Him Morgan

Lee Morgan’s name and accomplishments might not be well known outside of ardent jazz aficionados, but this stylish documentary should change that. It chronicles a music career that began as a teenage trumpet prodigy in Philadelphia during the 1950s, but primarily focuses on his wife Helen, who shaped his affinity for performing yet was responsible for their relationship ending in shocking tragedy. Swedish director Kasper Collin generously salutes the music while providing interviews with some of Morgan’s acquaintances, along with some period artwork and photography. The stylish result is an elegiac glimpse not only into the life of its subject, but the work he left behind. (Not rated, 91 minutes).

 

Mean Dreams

The late Bill Paxton shines as a corrupt small-town cop in this otherwise mediocre coming-of-age story in which he plays the abusive single father of a teenage girl (Sophie Nelisse). It’s no surprise, then, that he doesn’t take kindly to the poking around of Jonas (Josh Wiggins), a boy whose family just bought the farm down the road. Jonas hatches a plan to steal some drug money and run away with his first love to escape their family troubles. As directed by Nathan Morlando (Citizen Gangster), the well-acted film works best in its quieter, character-driven moments, which are overwhelmed by clichés and contrivances along the way. (Rated R, 104 minutes).

Beauty and the Beast

Both parts of the title apply in equal measure to the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, a fundamentally unnecessary exercise in style over substance that coasts on its abundant charms.

It’s beautiful in terms of the visual extravagance that fills every frame, making the hand-drawn simplicity of the original 1991 musical masterpiece even more colorful and vibrant. And it’s also a beast, bogged down by a meandering script that’s much darker than its predecessor.

For those needing a refresher, the fairy-tale romance takes us back to France, where a superficial prince (Dan Stevens) is placed under a spell, turning him into a hideous beast and his staff into anthropomorphic household objects, from a clock to a candelabra to a teapot.

Belle (Emma Watson) is an eccentric small-town bookworm being pursued by an arrogant brute named Gaston (Luke Evans). Instead, she lives a quiet life with her inventor father (Kevin Kline), until he’s stranded in the forest. When a panicked Belle follows, she winds up a prisoner in the beast’s castle, where the ragtag sidekicks see her as the key to breaking their curse, if only they can play unlikely matchmaker.

Taking advantage of his great source material, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) assembles some dazzling eye candy, with lavish costumes and sets, seamless visual effects, and terrific choreography. The beast is more menacing than ever.

When combined with the memorable songs, it’s a feast for the senses. The reimagined production numbers are certain to elicit huge grins, while Watson is endearing as the smart and strong-willed heroine.

The screenplay is reverent to the first film, although it adds some new subplots and characters that emphasize the moral complexity in the central relationship. It significantly extends the final act with mixed results, leading to an overwrought finale.

While Hollywood has never shied away from regurgitating past successes, Beauty and the Beast could signal a troubling trend. Hopefully with its live-action technological resplendence, it won’t render a classic into obscurity, especially with hand-drawn artistry in general having sadly become a relic. A live-action Dumbo is in the works, too.

However, taken on its own terms, this remake is enchanting even in its darkest and most foreboding moments. After all, it’s fine to appreciate this follow-up while sparking a renewed affection for the original. Even if you already know this “tale as old as time,” it’s worth revisiting.

 

Rated PG, 129 minutes.

T2: Trainspotting

It’s been more than two decades since we were introduced to the depraved junkies in Trainspotting, and the world has become a much different place since then.

So while T2: Trainspotting offers a unique perspective compared to most big-screen sequels, feels like a class reunion — where everyone gathers for some nostalgic laughs about past transgressions and realizes they’ve mellowed out considerably in middle age.

Maybe that’s exaggerating a bit, since we are talking about the Scottish heroin subculture. Yet like its characters, this affectionate follow-up feels more technically polished than the original, which in this case isn’t necessarily a good thing.

In the film, Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his gentrified Edinburgh neighborhood after 20 years to make amends with those he wronged during the first film’s cycle of drug-fueled mayhem. His former cohorts aren’t as well-adjusted by comparison.

Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still struggling to kick the habit after his relationship fell apart. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) has inherited ownership of a fledgling pub but feeds his cocaine habit through more underhanded means. And hot-tempered Begbie (Robert Carlyle) uses Renton’s visit as motivation to engineer a prison escape, after which he’s hell-bent on revenge.

From there, they spend considerable time reconciling past and present, which sufficiently recaps the original film for newcomers. Each of the actors effortlessly slides back into their roles.

Its predecessor became a breakout success in 1996 and helped to launch the careers of McGregor and returning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). This stylish effort seems caught between its attempts to appease fans of the first installment — for whom some phrases and locations will feel familiar, along with the pivotal role of a toilet in a key sequence — and to blaze new territory.

The first film’s sense of anarchic, hyperkinetic mischief gets lost along the way. Returning screenwriter John Hodge launches his impetuous, carefree rebels into a melancholy story of regret and redemption that provide a somewhat awkward fit.

Taken in that context, the film manages some powerful imagery (courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) and tense confrontations. But it mostly feels like a ride we’ve already taken, serving to remind us of the vastly superior film that spawned it. Instead of its sequel, choose Trainspotting.

 

Rated R, 117 minutes.

Kong: Skull Island

With whom would you want to be stranded on a tropical island? Definitely not any of the characters in Kong: Skull Island, human or otherwise.

There’s not much rooting interest within this effects-driven saga that positions itself as an origin story about the massive ape, but really is just another excuse to revive the venerable movie monster for another big-budget confrontation with some hapless Homo sapiens.

In this case, it’s a 1973 expedition led by an eccentric scientist (John Goodman) and his young apprentice (Corey Hawkins) to an uncharted island in the South Pacific. Although not forthright with their suspicions, they secure government funding and a military escort from an irascible colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) and his young charges.

Also lured into the unknown are a disenfranchised former soldier (Tom Hiddleston) and a war photographer (Brie Larson). When they arrive on the island via choppers, it doesn’t take long to meet the title character. Kong’s intimidating initial encounter with the intruders whittles the group down to a handful with divergent motives, bickering about what they’re up against while awaiting rescue.

They later encounter a fellow American outcast (John C. Reilly) who’s remarkably well-adjusted and good-natured considering he’s been practically alone for decades. He paints a more sympathetic portrait of Kong as a sort of gentle giant, and points instead to the dangers from other inhabitants, such as oversized insects, lizards, and water buffalo.

Along with the stylish direction from Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer), Kong is brought to vivid life through some impressive creature effects, as he’s menacing both in appearance and through his familiar roar.

Plus, with its Vietnam War backdrop, Kong: Skull Island tries to keep itself grounded in true-life historical events, including a half-hearted subtext concerning political discord and wartime discontent.

Yet those efforts are compromised by the insufficient character development in a formulaic screenplay that bears some thematic resemblance to Jurassic Park. It hints at an exploration of the conflict between the value of ecological discovery and the detriment of human intrusion into nature, but instead merely engages in narrative stall tactics prior to a final showdown filled with mayhem and destruction.

There’s some comic relief and some mild tension along the way. However, amid the contrivances and anachronisms, the characters conveniently lack common sense. “This is a bad idea,” is brought up more than once, although nobody heeds the advice.

 

Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.

Capsule reviews for March 10

Brimstone

Some stylish visuals and intriguing genre flourishes aren’t enough to overcome the ponderous pace and narrative gimmicks of this ultraviolent feminist Western from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven. Taking place on the 19th century American frontier, the fragmented plot follows a mute young midwife (Dakota Fanning) who runs afoul of an intimidating preacher (Guy Pearce) with some antiquated views about religion and gender politics. With much of the story told in reverse chronological order — which causes some issues with character development — the film sidesteps conventions but isn’t as provocative or spiritually enlightening as it aspires to be. Instead, the pretentious result is bleak and bloody. (Rated R, 148 minutes).

 

My Scientology Movie

What it lacks in original insight, this documentary compensates with an amusing dose of mischievous audacity. British filmmaker Louis Theroux chronicles his investigation of the notorious Church of Scientology, in which he partners with whistleblower Marty Rathbun in an attempt to infiltrate the compound of Scientology head David Miscavige, only to meet with resistance from random followers at almost every turn. It takes a more lighthearted approach from the recent Going Clear, which covers the same subject, exploring not only the inner workings of the church itself, but the struggles of those trying to break free from it. Theroux’s confrontations with fanatics only reinforce his points. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

The Ottoman Lieutenant

A historical romance that has little value either historically or romantically, this earnest melodrama takes place at the outset of World War I, when a young American woman (Hera Hilmar) leaves her sheltered upbringing to join a doctor (Josh Hartnett) working at a clinic in Istanbul under a cynical doctor (Ben Kingsley). Her humanitarian effort meets with the realities of religious and political conflict when she falls for an officer (Michiel Huisman) in the Ottoman Army. Perhaps its intentions are heartfelt, but the film features uneven acting and oversimplifies the details in its true-life historical backdrop for the sake of cheap sentiment and overwrought emotional payoffs. (Rated R, 110 minutes).

 

Raw

This feature-length advertisement for vegetarianism might become best known for its startling and disturbing sequences involving cannibalism. And indeed, that gory shock value tends to overwhelm the character-driven aspects of this low-budget French drama about a teenage veterinary student (Garance Marillier) who endures hazing rituals that include the consumption of raw meat — something to which she’s vehemently opposed. After urging from her sister (Ella Rumpf), her feast begins a downward spiral of uncontrolled hunger that threatens her relationship to a classmate (Rabah Nait Oufella). Genre aficionados might appreciate the throwback vibe confidently steered by rookie director Julia Ducournau, even if the overall impact is muddled. (Rated R, 99 minutes).

Logan

© 2017 Marvel. TM and © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Hugh Jackman and Dafne Keen in Marvel/Twentieth Century Fox’s LOGAN.

Immediately evident in LOGAN’s dense backdrop of social commentary is the influence of Alfonso Cuarón’s CHILDREN OF MEN, a bleak future in which the fate of the species rests in the hand of one girl—in this case, a mutant of Marvel Comics lore.  Set a little over thirty years into the future, the titular superhero (Hugh Jackman) finds himself in the Clive Owen role, reluctantly guaranteeing a refugee child safe passage to Eden—a fabled sanctuary established for the the victims of multinational biomedical corporation Transigen’s eugenics experiments.

For the first two acts, LOGAN entrenches our emotions on three fronts:  1. The plight of Transigen’s child test subjects, each of whom the peculiar mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) recalls by name.  2. Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine’s struggle with extreme age… The deceleration of his inhuman healing; he ages far slower than the average person—given his involvement in the Civil War, he’s approaching 200 years, at least.  3. Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) neurological degeneration; now entering his 90’s, the loss of control over his Omega-class psychic powers causes what can politely be described as mindquakes with devastating consequence.

In each case, director James Mangold’s treatment grounds us in familiar terrors: U.S. exploitation of third world child labor; coping with the ravages of age; watching our loved ones disappear before our eyes as their minds break down, layer by layer, and their loneliness, their misplaced guilt of feeling burdensome on their families in their last stages of consciousness.

Hiding out at an abandoned industrial site in Mexico, Logan brings medications from America to help Charles control his destructive seizures, but cannot quell his loneliness.

Their exile is disrupted by Laura, whose rescuer leaves video of the inner workings of Transigen in the hopes that the last adult mutants will protect the children. Resembling a tiny Lukas Haas, Keen’s furrowed brow steals every scene from Stewart and Jackman. She doesn’t trust humans, and for good reason. Under the guise of a cancer cure, Transigen’s chief scientist, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), attempts to create mutants from scratch. It is exactly the allegory you think it is.

Amidst the action-heavy plot, Logan, Xavier and Laura hide out on a farm. While the scene infuses some relatable humanity into the franchise, we meet the farmer Will Munson (Eriq La Salle, long removed from his Soul Glo days) roadside on a freeway dominated by self-driving rigs. Here Mangold and screenwriter Scott Frank (MINORITY REPORT, THE INTERPRETER) pepper the dialogue with commentary on industrial farming and high fructose corn syrup which, in a nod to Monsanto and Cargill, turns out to be a delivery system for Transigen’s experimental, rage-inducing, mutant soldier serum.

Weakened somewhat by the dependency on third-act violence, LOGAN overall is a timely vision of what superheroes might be in a world as unsteady as the one we presently inhabit.  Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of Perestroika, recently said in a TIME Magazine editorial, “It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”

LOGAN show us the aftermath: the Earth we will depart, and the children who inherit the tragedy we are steadfastly determined to leave them.

Before I Fall

Teenage bullying is a serious issue among contemporary adolescents, but you wouldn’t gather that from Before I Fall, which overdoses on angst-ridden brooding in a strained effort to be taken seriously.

This dramatic hybrid of Groundhog Day and Mean Girls for the social-media age might have good intentions buried beneath the surface, but seems more intent on watered-down pandering and self-help preaching.

A time loop causes Sam (Zoey Deutch) to keep repeating Feb. 12, known as Cupid Day at her suburban high school, where she’s one of the popular crowd with her three best friends. The plans call for the usual mischief at school, followed by a house party filled with drinking and debauchery.

For the cliquish quartet, their playful teasing of an outcast named Juliet (Elena Kampouris) becomes more mean-spirited, of course, and is really just a method of masking their own insecurities and shortcomings.

When Juliet tries to spoil the festivities with some ill-timed revenge and a slew of insults, it leads to a perilous confrontation on a nearby highway. Except that the next morning, Sam wakes up back in her bed, forced to start the same day over apparently until she gets it right.

As directed by Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), the film’s gimmicky plot mechanics aren’t helped along by the heavy-handed existential narration or by the cutesy female-bonding subplots — although there’s a refreshing authenticity to their interactions with fellow classmates.

The screenplay by Maria Maggenti (Puccini for Beginners), adapted from the young-adult novel by Lauren Oliver, seems moderately tuned into contemporary high school social circles, and appropriately conveys the misguided priorities of its female protagonists who might as well be interchangeable.

However, beneath its stale platitudes about being a nice person and living every day like it’s your last, the film doesn’t offer much meaningful exploration of its moral complexities. And it too often relies on a convenient lack of common sense to drive the narrative.

The underlying message is worthwhile — and should resonate with fans of the source material — yet the result winds up almost as shallow and superficial as its characters. Despite its modern vibe, Before I Fall starts to feel like something we’ve already seen, over and over again.

 

Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.