Life almost finds a way

Everyone wants to come up with an original idea for a movie, but good execution can usually make up for a lack of innovation. After all, many genre classics came from following popular trends or aping the revolutionary works that came before them. This is the problem facing Life, a film that does so much well that it’s flaws tend to hold it back further from greatness.

One part Gravity and one part Alien, Life is a horror film that tries to pair fantastical horrors like murderous extra terrestrials, with the real threats of living in space. The film’s environment is a living character, with corridors darkened by the blackness of space and the constant threat of losing oxygen creating a palpable tension throughout most of the film. Earlier scenes help illustrate the strenuous mental and environmental challenges that astronauts face, giving an early sense that even routine things could place the crew further at risk. The crew behind the film seems to have paid close attention to making sure the space details were as accurate as possible, and their efforts add a lot to films sense of isolation and tension.

Life is often at its best when it focuses in on the science part of science fiction, thanks in part to its efforts to ground the films creature (lovingly dubbed “Calvin”). The first act explores the finding of biological material from the dirt on mars, uncovering an organism and exploring the environmental factors that such a creature needs to live in. The staging of these scenes help the audience and cast of the film learn about Calvin at the same time, heightening the intrigue surrounding the creature, and the film benefits from taking time to explore the biology behind Calvin. Once things take a dangerous turn for the worst, the film calls back to these early moments of learning how Calvin survives to help ground it with some rules that add a semblance of realism to even something as fantastical as alien terrors.

With so much of the film hinges on its portrayal of Calvin, it’s the strong CGI that ultimately holds Life’s stronger elements together. Calvin is beautifully realized, with each different form animating differently enough to distinguish them, but share small   Traits between the forms to Get a real sense of progression. The design also benefits from several sources, such as aquatic life and a few influences from other popular alien films, that help Calvin stand out from similar creatures. The space effects hold up fine as well, but Life is first and foremost a creature feature, and the effort put into the effects reflects this accurately.

Sadly, the cast stuck with Calvin aren’t able to stand up to the same level of quality. No one necessarily delivers a bad performance, but the cast never gets the chance to break out of their cliche’d roles. Ryan Reynolds once again plays a charming smartass, Jake Gyellenhall is intense throughout, while the rest of the cast serves only as fodder for Calvin. The situation they are in is interesting, as is their alien antagonist, but nothing the cast gives ever matches this. What results is there not much to attach yourself to emotionally, making the deaths feel less tragic, and it ultimately harder to be worried for anyone’s fate.

These problems with the cast are only amplified when paired with Life’s biggest issue, it’s script. For all the attention and detail the films script gives Calvin and the space details, there’s little in the way of memorable dialogue or surprising twists. Outside of one twist death early on, it’s easy to predict which characters are going to bite it, and often in what order. Further hindering the film is the lack of explanation towards Calvin in the second half, with the script never explaining the creatures actions, likely holding out for a sequel to explain major plot points. This not only is lazy writing, but it ends up hurting the film’s best element, Calvin, by switching from a grounded creature to a nondescript threat that does whatever the writers want it to.

Life could have been another Source Code or 10 Cloverfield Lane, genre films whose strong production aspect help ignore the familiarity inherent in their plots. But such things require a film fire on all cylinders, rather then rest on its few achievements. Wether it’s the barebones characters, or the script lacking in surprise or intrigue, Life sadly misses the praise it clearly thinks it deserves. But it can still be an enjoyable Creature Feature that’s not devoid of entertainment, even if it’s unlikely to grow on you over time.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 7 Asshole Calvins out of 10

“Kong” is Not King, But Still a Wonder to Behold  

It’s hard to judge Kong: Skull Island without comparing it to its many genre bretheren, specifically 2014’s American remake of Godzilla. Movies about giant have been guilty of focusing exclusively on shallow violence, but the 2014 remake didn’t even deliver on that. With the need to surpass Godzilla’s action, as well as give audiences something new in the king’s 8th film to date, expectations are high. But whether you’re looking for a starting point for future monster mashs, a reinvention of the franchise or just a fun action film, the film succeeds through an abundance of style and action, if not substance. 

Not following in previous iterations of the well-known Kong story, Skull Island‘s post-Vietnam setting helps distinguish itself throughout. No longer concerned with the mystery of Skull Island, the film instead explores the many threats that inhabit the island, boasting plenty of sylized monsters throughout large portions of the film. These aren’t the same dinosaurs and big bugs from previous films either, with even simple ideas like giant spiders given plenty of unique details and visually touches to add to the more fantastical tone of the film. The effects team should also be commended for putting most of these scenes during the day, putting their work in clearer view for the audience, and further showing off their great work. 

Those unique monsters help keep each action scene to feel distinct from one another. Highlights include a palm tree attack from giant spiders, helicopter air assaults on Kong, and the military’s first encounter with the Skullcrawlers, which serve as the main antagonists. With the human action scenes playing more as horror/chase scenes, the Kong fights instead focus on brutal hand to hand combat between Kong and various creatures. For an 2 hour movie, about half the film is a non-stop action thrill, all complimented with stellar direction and cinematography from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Speaking of Kong, Skull Island’s interpretation falls more in line with the 2014 Godzilla film, more then it does with previous Kong films. He’s now less of a gorilla, and more of a guardian like figure, standing upright and watching over the island and protecting its people. Less concerned is place on empathizing or connecting with Kong emotionally, rather giving a sense of awe at his mere presence, much like the characters in the film. It’s the kind of action film where the audience can probably guess how it’ll end, so the film instead tries to have as much fun as it can getting there, and succeeds as a throwback to classic monster flicks of the 70’s and 80’s. 

But while the monster and visual elements are at the top of their class, it seems almost everything else faulters in some way. There are far too many characters, and with so little time spent between them, you go through the film caring only about a handful of the 20 or so involved. John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson get a lot of material to work with, and they manage to be their usual good selves. Meanwhile, Tom Huddleston and Brie Larson add almost nothing to the film, outside of visuals and very basic character arcs of “I don’t care about anything” to “I care about something.” For everyone else, the large cast just serves as overqualified cannon fodder for the creatures, with big name actors coming in only die for the audiences enjoyment. 

This problem becomes paramount anytime a character opens their mouths, with most of the side characters being given awfully written dialogue. Over reliant on cliches and unfunny jokes, you simply don’t care about anyone (outside of Jackson and Goodman), and aren’t affected in any way by their deaths. The only exception to the bad comedic elements is John C. Reily, who you can tell is enjoying his time on set throughout, and remains a constant source of energy and fun in even the most grim and serious scenes. 

There’s also an issue with the afdormentioned style, as it often shines further problems on the film’s script. The film leans heavily on Larson’s photographer character to create artificial scene transitions, giving us 4-5 separate times of her taking pictures of people and scenery, none of which makes any impact on the plot. It’s interesting the first time, then quickly grows tiresome, and just serves to inflate the films runtime. And while the post-Vietnam is an interesting backdrop for the events of the film, the constant callbacks to the eras music borders on excessive, with musical transitions in the double digits. 

With those problems being said, there’s something unmistakably fun about Skull Island that previous films haven’t come close to grasping. Consistantly vibrant, visually engaging and overflowing with creativity, Kong: Skull Island gets everything a monster flick should get right, even while succumbing to some of genre’s shortcomings. But, much like Skull Island itself, you should come for the inhabitants on the island, not the people visiting it. 


Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8 Weirdly Cute Giant Stick Bugs out of 10

Logan is a Brutal, Depressing Masterpiece 

Back in 2000, the original x-men was the first step back to legitimacy for super hero films, removing the campiness that long plagued the genre. A big part of that was thanks to  Hugh Jackman, who’s leading man performance helped humanize Wolverine, a character many fans considered one note. After 17 years, Jackman is finally saying goodbye to his most popular role in Logan, bringing with it the violence and tragedy that  often accompany the best Wolverine tales. Though an aggressively sad and brutal tale, it also pays off for new and old fans alike thanks to fantastic performances, stellar action, and an apporpriately heartfelt sendoff for the man who’s the best at what he does, even if it isn’t very nice.

Much of Logan’s best elements come thanks to the films hard R rating, seeing as most of wolverines best stories are bloody, more somber tales when compared to his comic book contemparies. Unlike the comedic levels of violence found in last years’ Deadpool, Logan delivers a realistic, haunting kind of brutality that you really think is the kind thing a man with Knives for hands is capable of. At no point in the film does it try and show this in a more enjoyable/fun light either, keeping a consistently somber tone throughout that keeps the bloodshed shocking and prevents the fatigue that befalls similar films. And while the action usually comes down to copious amounts of stabbings, the set/ups for each scene add enough to differentiate between each other and keep the action exhilarating.

The R rating is rightly reflected in the films tone as well, with the film often tackling serious issues the characters face in their broken state like alcoholism, hopelessness and even suicide. Logans body is slowly dying, and every shot he takes and hit he endures hurts that much more to watch. Even beacons of hope from previous films like Professor X (Patric Stewart) are dragged down to their lowest points, and watching these figures that have insupired many over 17 years only serves to further illustrate the sense of hopelessness that persists through most of the film. It’s a risky move on director James Manigold’s part, and one that he thankfully never holds back from, taking what could have been another super hero film and instead creating a thoughtful, if at times pesemistic, look at the purpose and place of characters like Wolverine in the real world.

The breakout star for many is likely to be Dafne Keen as X-23, a murderous child trying to understand what it means to be more then a weapon. Most of the dramatic moments in the film hinge upon her performance, and she never faulters to keep up with veterans like Jackman and Stewart. Her fight scenes are likely to disturb some viewers, as her character doesn’t shy away from much of the violence either, and it never tries to make scenes of an 8 year old slaughtering soldiers come off as anything more then disturbing. In an age where child actors are hard to come by, that Keen can do so much through her visual performance alone is commendable, and she’s certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the coming years.

Yet, even with so much to Praise, Logan is at its best thanks to the phenomenal work put in Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. Jackman takes his role of Logan to dark places the previous film never allowed him, and his performance shines throughout. While previous portrayals of Wolverine were more likely to wisecrack then they were to have an emotional moment, Logan‘s version is a tired, broken man, trying his best to not just give up under the weight of the tragedy that is his life. It’s hard to not empathize and feel sorry for him, even if this is your first time seeing this character, and Jackman does incredible work that outshines even his best work in previous x-men films. Likewise, Stewart’s Xavier is a heartbreakingly lost interpretation of Proffesor X, trying to remain a teacher and inspiring figure to those around him, while also trying to keep losing all sense of self. As far as exits for characters go, Logan is as respectful and beautifully done as they come, and Fox would be foolish to try and return to these characters any time soon.

Logan isn’t for everyone. It’s dark, violent and never tries to be enjoyable for the audience. But what it lacks in mass appeal, it more then makes up for in maturity, delivering a film that is willing to go to depressing and tragic places in service of great characters, an emotional story, and realistically-handled violence. whether you attatch it to existing source material, or enjoy it as a stand alone piece, Logan is the best X-Men film to date, and is likely to stick with you long after the final “Bub” is said.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9.5 Fucking Bubs out of 10

Collide is an Outdated Mess

When deciding what films to review, it’s sometimes hard to gage what I think people will respond to. On one hand, there are obvious blockbusters like Logan, Get Out and the upcoming Kong: Skull Island that are already on peoples minds; at the same time, when bad films come out, a critic should watch and inform people on why they should avoid them. But sometimes you get a film like Collide, a generic and downright lazy action film that bombed at the box office this past weekend. I know no one has seen this film, and I know no one will go see this film, but if there was even a chance that someone was interested in seeing Collide, allow me to sum up this movie for you: it sucks.

Everything about Collide is unlikable, in a story where our protagonists are the worst kind of young idiots who are in love. This idea of “anything you do is okay, if you do it for love” is constantly thrown at the audience as almost an excuse for all the mistakes and people our character hurts along his journey to steal money for his girlfriend, and it never works. Throughout the film, Casey (Nicholas Hoult) gets into car chases that run into innocent crowds of people, is responsible for several people getting killed who had nothing to do with the gang he stole from, and rationalizes his criminal activities with the logic that “if i’m doing this for my girlfriend, its not that big of a deal.” Considering the film spends so much time trying to get you to empathize with Casey, the constant disregard for anyone around him makes him come off as less of a romantic hero, and more of a sociopathic douche.

As for the aforementioned romance, none of the supposed feelings our characters share are displayed on screen, with most of the characters moments of growth coming through music-heavy montages. We never understand why Casey quits his job to be with Juliette (Felicity Jones), and most of the time the two spend together sees them arguing with one another. Casey goes through hell to try and pay for Juliettes medical treatments, yet she always acts ungrateful and downright made at him for it. What’s worse is that the two characters don’t ever talk about what they are feeling, residing to giving one another the silent treatment, and prolonging the film even further. If the movies characters aren’t invested in the relationship that stands as the motivation behind all the films actions, then why should we be?

It hurts even more to see veteran actors like Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins show up in this, knowing they’re above this subpar material. Kingsley overacts his way through a bad cockney accent, spouting off so exposition, that it feels like he’s reading straight off cue cards. Hopkins, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his monologue-reciting villain archetype that he’s done better in projects like Westworld and the Hannibal films, often appearing bored and uninterested in the events of the film. Admittedly, bad dialogue can drag down any performance, but its not a stretch to believe that Hopkins and Kingsley could breathe more life into their scenes if they tried harder.

Chief among Collide‘s problems is the general feeling of being outdated, both in style and substance. The film employs camera angles, musical choices and plot details more common in lesser 90’s action films, and that modern cinema has long since moved past. Things like car chases, shootouts and young action stars were enough to propel things like the original Transporter films, but that was 15 years ago, and even then those films felt dated. Likewise, there are constant outdated references throughout to things that have no relation to the films immediate plot, such as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and the musical Grease, further obscuring just who exactly this film was made for. The film is already boring, and these attempts to feel current only distract in as much as feeling out of place in an already lackluster film.

Collide is the kind of boring, bad film that becomes harder to write about the further I go, because there is just so little to say. It’s not bad in the way Suicide Squad or BVS are bad, where theres a substantial discussion to be had on what it gets wrong, or why certain decisions might have been made. It’s not even bad in the way London has Fallen or Gods of Egypt are bad, where theres something legitimately bad or harmful in it that should be addressed and called out on. Collide is just a bad film with nothing to say about it, even when looking at its laziest elements, and in many ways thats even worse.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 2 Cars Going Nowhere out of 10

John Wick: Chapter 2 is Simultaneously Classier, More Cartoonish

Like many, I missed the original John Wick in theaters, due in part to weak marketing and it looking like your typical action movie, at least from the outside. And, while not without its problems, the original quickly became a sleeper hit among fans thanks to its emphasis on style, well choreographed action sequences, and being a great throwback to 80’s action films from before. Chapter 2 tries to expand and improve on the originals strengths, with more bloodshed and secret assassin material throughout, but results in the film taking a radically different tone than its predecessor. Its an equally fun movie as the original, but may suffer from a lack of excess overall.

What little story exists in Chapter 2 is your standard fare, relying on the standard tropes of our hero being pulled in for one last job, betrayed after the job is finished, and going after the person who betrayed him. The first film wasn’t a behemoth in the plot department either, but it hid its lack of story well enough thanks to introducing this new world of secret assassins  and finding ways to logically interweave them into our own reality, adding a sense of logic to the film. The sequel never even attempts to keep this up, with hitmen and assassins on every street corner, expert craftsmen who can make suits that allow characters to get shot dozens of times and not be hurt, and the common occurrence of very public shootouts somehow going unnoticed by the public. This never hurts the film, but it does diminish the stakes; where the first film was grounded and treated John like a normal man, Chapter 2 makes john out to be this terminator-like badass, never once making the audience worry if he’ll make it out of this alive.

Adding to this over-the-top feeling are the performances. While Keanu Reeves still does well with the quiet-badass, says-little approach to John, it often feels that he is in a different film from the other actors, taking the material perhaps too seriously. Meanwhile, everyone else tends to go overboard chewing up the scenery, with every scene with Ian McShane leading to an extravagant speech, and newcomer Lawrence Fishburne delivering an enjoyably hammy performance throughout. What’s fascinating about this is that none of these performances are necessarily bad, most often being at least enjoyable; the problem is that they don’t come together naturally. This division in tone creates a film that at times feels at odds with itself, trying to both adhere to the gritty style of the first film, and the more extravagant nature of the sequel itself, and never completely meets in the middle.

But, in all honesty, story and acting aren’t what the original was remembered for, and it’s absolutely not what the sequel strives to excel in. Chapter 2’s focus is exclusively on its action, and its clear that every dollar has been put on screen. The cinematography and choreography on display are at the top of their class, delivering a better looking, more intense action film then what we see even in most summer blockbusters. Gunfights are brutal, and hand-to-hand sequences are filmed well enough that you can see every punch and kick perfectly. Unlike the first film, there’s also a greater variety of action sequences, from car chases, to shoot outs, and a particularly well done knife fight in a subway car. The finale’s set piece of a gunfight in a mirror-filled art installation will likely invite comparisons to the iconic finale of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, but enough attention to detail and stylized camerawork has been added on to avoid feelings to direct copying. With the exception of a cavern shoot out that’s too dark at times to fully appreciate, the action on display is among the best in recent memory, creating a new benchmark to compare future films of the genre.

It’s hard to say anymore about John Wick: Chapter 2, partly due to avoiding spoilers, but mostly because it’s not a film you can really talk about. Rather, this is a visceral action movie that is the best at what it does, but not much else. After a few days, you’re likely to forget completely about what actually happened in the films plot, but the action and filmmaking on display make it hard to care. It’s an extremely focused film, electing to do what it’s best at very well, while not putting much time or effort into other parts. Some may be turned off by this different approach, but Chapter 2 will likely remain a thoroughly enjoyable action film to most.

 

Arbitrary Nu

Get Out is a Modern Horror Classic

It can be hard to determine what makes arbitrary concepts like fear universal. Likewise, it can be hard to portray something like racial discrimination and fear in a way that anyone can understand and be afraid of. To film one of these concepts well would be impressive enough, but doing them this well simultaneously is certainly no small feat. such is the case for first-time director/writer Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a film that is at times uncomfortably frightening, uproariously hillarious and socially relevant.

More then just a gimmick, Get Out‘s racial horror is shocking, most often in untraditional ways. While the film does offer plenty of gore and scares, the lasting uncomfortable moments come from situational comments and moments that the film layers throughout. Placing the audience into the shoes of Chris (Daniel Kaluuyah) forces us to aknowledge the objectification that often comes with racial stereotyping, and the uncomfortable/downright scary feelings that get associated with it. The films most telling moment of this, the party at Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents house, explores how stereotyping and labeling can harmfully lead to objectifying a whole race, and smartly points out how even “positive stereotypes” like “black men are better in bed” dehumanizes people. It’s an uncomfortable element that shows men and women like Chris are responded to by the identity of “black”, rather then the character of who they actually are, making Get Out‘s subtext that much more socially relevant.

For those looking looking for more straightforward horror elements, however, the film doesn’t disappoint. While the term “hitchcockian” has certainly been overused in recent memory, Get Out stands as a prime example of this idea, a film that is as much about its mystery as it is in scaring people. The films plot twist is slowly revealed, never giving the audience more information then the characters, and ramps up in both tension and intensity once the 2nd act twist is revealed. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener do tend to chew up a lot of scenery, but they do so with just enough subtlety to make it seem believable that Chris wouldn’t suspect their actions completely until it was too late. The last half hour is as tense as horror conclusions come, thanks to plenty of shocking moments, great surprises and a lack of reliance on horror tropes like jump scares or excessive gore.

But what about the comedy? Due to Jordan Peele’s involvement, some people may be expecting Key and Peele-stylereferential  humor, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film smartly remains self-contained throughout, keeping most of the comedy centered around the situations the characters find themselves in. Actor LilRel Howery gets most of the best material, in a role that basically puts him in place as the audience, constantly questioning why no one else sees the clearly messed up stuff going on to hillarious effect. The film is also covered in uncomfortable humor that points out racial stereotyping that often occurs in certain cultures (namely the afformentioned party scene), that’s likely to make audiences think about how they may act in certain situations.

If I have any major complaint, it’s in the films’ balancing of comedy and horror. Without spoiling anything, a major part of the horror aspect of this film is brought to the forefront, but is then followed up by a side scene of comedy. This cutting back between comedy and horror occurs for a good portion of the film, until the final act begins, and it’s unfortunately distracting. The scares are still present, and the comedic notes are all hit wonderfully, but it loses a bit of balance in these moments that I felt may pull certain audience members out of the film.

Despite this minor complaint, Get Out is a horror film that excels at showing the terrifying realities of racial prejudice and stereotyping in our society. For every extreme moment you know couldn’t happen in real life, there are just as many uncomfortable things that likely happen to black people every day. And even if you aren’t looking for a film to make you think about all of these things, everything from the scares, comedic and performances are among the best in recent memory. An absolute must see, for non-horror and horror fans alike
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9.5 Deer Heads out of 10