Movie reviews: Unpredictable space flick 'Life' ratchets up the tension
Published Friday, March 24, 2017 6:30AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 24, 2017 9:53AM EDT
LIFE: 4 STARS
Best selling romance writer Jude Deveraux declares that there are no new stories, just interesting, inventive ways of taking the journey with characters. “In romances,” she says, “the characters are going to fall in love with each other; you know that when you see the syrupy cover. It's how they get there that's the fun.”
The new monster-in-space flick “Life” would seem to prove this theory. It hits theatres on a mighty gust of déjà vu courtesy of “Alien” and “Gravity,” two movies that share its DNA and several plot points.
Headliners Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds are David Jordan, Miranda North and Roy Adams, three of six astronauts (alongside Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada) aboard an International Space Station. Their mission involves intercepting a shuttle containing a space specimen from Mars. In the beginning the microscopic alien, nicknamed Calvin, is benign, an inert collection of cells.
“We’re looking at the first proof of life on Mars,” says head honcho scientist Hugh Derry (Arlyon Bakare).
What could have been one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, however, changes when Derry feeds Calvin a glucose meal. The snack changes the organism from extraterrestrial to extra-terrible as it grows into some kind of jelloy-gremlin-Martyian-hellbeast, gains intelligence and goes on a homicidal rampage. The astronauts says things like, “We can’t let that thing in here!” and “You don’t know what it can do!” as they fight, not only for their own safety but also the survival of Earth. “If it is between letting it here,” says Miranda, “or letting it down there, we let it in here!”
If the story sounds familiar it’s because it is, but is Ms. Deveraux right? Is the journey enough to keep the audience interested? For most of the running time the answer is yes.
Director Daniel Espinosa keeps things wound tight as he ramps up the danger and the stakes for the characters. Unlike most space operas, “Life” is an ensemble without a clear hero. The small cast are all equally important, and all equally expendable which adds an air of unpredictability that ratchets up the tension. As Calvin’s powers increase the movie’s powers decrease slightly, changing from finely tuned thriller to space caper.
Near the end, with just minutes to spare, characters (I will not tell you who, no spoilers here) have an extended moment of solace. A time of reflection and for a discussion about procedure and from that point on it’s a by-the-book Got-To-Kill-The-Space-Monster flick.
By the time the end credits roll, however, “Life” will have subverted your expectations enough to earn it an “all systems go.”
POWER RANGERS: 2 STARS
What do you expect from a movie called “Power Rangers”? Multi-coloured, helmeted heroes, that’s what. Instead we’re treated to an hour-and-a-half of troubled teens before it finally becomes morphin time.
The new brood of Power Rangers are the most diverse group yet. After meeting at a Saturday afternoon detention filled with “Misfits, weirdos and criminals”—sort of like “The Breakfast Club” for aspiring superheroes—former football star Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G.)—are turned into mystical earth-saving warriors after discovering ancient glowing coins at a mining site.
Trained by wise cracking robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and ancient great big head Zordon (Bryan Cranston), the Rangers learn to battle armies of stone golems called Putties and perform some tricky martial arts, but will they be able to come together as a group and learn the most important Power Ranger trick, the mighty morph from teens to besuited heroes? If not the five Morph-a-teers and the world will fall prey to 65-million-year-old former Green Ranger Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) and her giant golden monster sidekick’s plan to spread fear and destruction.
There will be a certain portion of the audience made misty by mentions of the Zeo Crystal, Goldar and Megazord but those not so inclined may find the origin story rough going. “Go Go Away Power Rangers!” From an alien life form called Rita to the “milking” of a bull (don’t ask) “Power Rangers” is a strange mix of grounded character work with out and out bonkers story elements. Banks has fun chewing the scenery as Repulsa but the movie never fully embraces its cheeseball roots, so we’re left with a movie that is simultaneously sincere and silly.
When the main cast aren’t training in Zordon’s underground lair they have regular teen problems. In fact “Power Rangers” may be the first superhero movie to feature LGBTQ and autistic heroes. That’s good stuff but good intentions don’t make for good movies.
Painful dialogue—“The door is open,” says Billy. “That's because it's open, Billy,” replies Jason.—and a habit of repeating everything just to make sure we get it—i.e.: We see Kimberly cut her hair before a disembodied voice says, "Kimberly did you cut your hair?"—makes this a bit of a slog.
Add to that Krispy Kreme product placement that's more annoying than the sugar rush that follows chowing down four Glazed Kreme Filled donuts at lunch and an orgy of cut rate special effects and you’re left with a movie that will leave you pining for the relative pleasures of the original 90s television show.
It takes an hour-and-a-half to get to the Power Rangers’ signature look, the red, pink, blue, yellow and black costumes and get to the good stuff—fights with people in rubber suits. The final thirty minutes delivers most of what you expect from “Power Rangers.” It’s a few minutes of good, retro fun that should provide an adrenalin blast of nostalgia but doesn’t make up for the ninety minutes of drudgery that preceded it.
CHIPS: 2 STARS
From 1977 to 1983 California Highway Patrol officers Jon Baker and "Ponch" Poncherello kept the highways and byways of Los Angeles safe with a mix of motorcycles, Brut cologne and wholesome machismo. “CHiPS” was a big TV hit and is now a big screen movie starring Michael Peña and Dax Shepard as unorthodox motorcycles cops. The Brut and the wholesomeness are gone in this raunchy update but the motorcycles and machismo survived.
Shepard, who also wrote and directed, stars as Jon Baker, a free spirited ex-motorcycle daredevil. His marriage is on the rocks, but he hopes if he becomes a police officer his wife will fall back in love with him.
Baker is teamed up with a seasoned FBI agent working undercover as Frank 'Ponch' Poncherello (Peña). Seems the feds needed two outsiders to infiltrate the California Highway Patrol and bust some dirty cops who robbed 12 million dollars in a daring daylight robbery.
The unlikely duo don’t hit it off right away, but Baker’s skills on the hog and Ponch’s experience make them an effective, if untraditional team. Cue the chase scenes and sex jokes.
In Shepard’s hands “CHIPS” is a mix of motorcycles and masturbation, homophobic jokes and gratuitous nudity. It’s hard to know exactly how to categorize “CHIPS.” It is a remake of a TV show although Erik Estrada, star of the original series and who also appears in the film, took to twitter to blast the remake as “demeaning” to long time “CHiPS” fans.
It could also be filed under the comedy category although I’d suggest the action sequences are more successful than the attempts at humour.
To recap: It’s a remake, a comedy and an action film and yet it doesn’t quite measure up to any of those descriptors. It’s a remake in the sense that Shepard has lifted the title, character names and general situation but they are simply pegs to hang his crude jokes on.
It’s a comedy—there is a paparazzi joke that made me laugh hard—but it’s a lowest common denominator comedy. I like a poop joke as much as anyone, but there have to be peaks and valleys. Shepard aims low, then goes lower. If you like a certain amount of shame with your cheap laughs then “CHIPS” is for you.
When the movie isn’t commenting on Ponch’s bathroom habits it is laying rubber. The crime story isn’t terribly complicated or interesting but the guys tear up the pavement with a handful of pretty good chase scenes. They are frenetic and it’s not always possible to tell exactly who is who, but the scenes add some zip to the story.
“CHIPS” is not your father’s “CHiPS.” It’s a kinda-sorta action comedy that revels in its rudeness at the expense of paying tribute to the source material.
PERSONAL SHOPPER: 4 STARS
Ghostbusting is supposed to make you feel good. If that’s true, why does Maureen (Kristen Stewart) appear so miserable all the time? Perhaps it’s because the spirit she is trying to bust is that of her brother Lewis, a twin who died of a heart attack in a rambling, old Paris house.
Maureen is an American in Paris working as a personal shopper for pampered jet setter Kyra Hellman (Nora Von Waltstätten). Her job is to pick up and deliver Kyra’s glamorous clothes and jewellery from fashion houses all over the city. When she isn’t choosing filmy Chanel dresses or weighty Cartier necklaces for her boss Maureen spends time trying to contact her dead sibling. They had a deal, whoever died first would send the other a sign. Lewis was a medium, a person able to contact the dead. “I'm not a medium,” she says. "I have to give his spirit, whatever you call it,” she says, “a chance to prove he was right.”
This is a ghost story, so things take a strange turn when Maureen’s phone lights up with mysterious texts while she’s on a quick Chunnel trip to London. “R U real? R U alive or dead?” she writes, replying to the Unknown texter. “Tell me something you find unsettling,” comes the response, opening the door for Maureen to begin exploring her fears, phobias, digging deeper than she ever has.
Spines will be tingled during “Personal Shopper.” The computerized ghostly spirit that visits Maureen from time to time isn’t spooky, but the atmosphere director Olivier Assayas cultivates throughout sure is. Tension and unease build slowly as Maureen’s life slowly takes a turn to the surreal.
Stewart gives a career topping performance, brittle yet calm in the face of mounting terror. This isn’t a showy performance. Instead Stewart opts for naturalism, at least as natural as possible given the subject matter that highlights the deep sense of loneliness she feels in the wake of her brother’s passing. There is a detached feel to the performance that recalls the remove Hitchcock’s leading ladies often projected as she navigates through personal tragedy and supernatural mystery.
“Personal Shopper” doesn’t feel like a horror film. Assayas has made a moody psychological thriller that is about the absence of a loved one as much as it is about thrills and chills.
WILSON: 2 STARS
Wilson, the titular character of the new Woody Harrelson dramedy, is the kind of unfiltered curmudgeon who calls his oldest friend a, "toxic, soul destroying vampire."
He's the kind of guy drives too slow on the highway and complains when people honk at him. "Everyone is in such a rush," he harumphs.
He's the kind of exasperating person who sits next to you on an empty train and then proceeds to ask deeply personal questions.
He's the kind a guy who has probably been punched in the face, a lot.
But is he the kind of guy you want to spend 90 minutes with in the movie theater?
My answer would be no, but it really depends on whether you call his unfettered behaviour “open and fearless” or just plain rude.
Wilson is a square peg in the world of round holes, a man left alone and friendless when his father died and his only pal, Robert, moves away.
Convinced he must find a companion he tries to re-enter the dating pool. A couple of disastrous dates puts him on the trail of his ex-wife, a woman hasn't seen in 17 years.
When she tells him she had their baby and put the little girl up for adoption, he insists on hunting her down in an attempt to form a lasting relationship. She is his legacy but her adoptive parents aren't keen to have Wilson in their daughter's life.
There's more, but it would only lead you down the rabbit hole of Wilson's off beat existence. No spoilers here.
“Wilson,” written by Daniel “Ghost World” Clowes and directed by Craig “The Skeleton Twins” Johnson, never quite finds the sweet spot between world weary versus depression, comedy versus tragedy. Harrelson and Co. play it at a heightened tone, only allowing dribs and drabs of real life to invade Wilson’s made up world.
The film trades on the theme that as people we are a fleeting, temporary presence in the world, soon to be forgotten.
“We want people to love us for who we are,” he says, “but that's not possible because were all too unbearable.”
But just as that theme settles in Wilson, the man in the movie, shifts into a feel good mode that makes everything that came before seem a little like an elaborate but meaningless set up for some happy-making redemption. Everybody likes a happy ending, I know, but keeping true to Wilson's crabby character and his journey would've been a more satisfying ride.
THE SECOND TIME AROUND: 3 STARS
As the title suggests “The Second Time Around” is about taking another kick at the can. In this case it is a late-in-life chance for romance between widowers Katherine Mitchell (Linda Thorson) and Isaac Shapiro (Stuart Margolin).
Katherine is a woman of a certain age obsessed with the music of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart. When a broken hip lands her in an assisted care facility, her dream of visiting the La Scala Opera House in Milan is pushed to the background. As she recuperates she meets Isaac, a grumpy old man and former tailor. A shared love of music and dancing brings them together, but the side effects of aging conspire to keep them apart. Is love, as Frank Sinatra sang, “lovelier the second time around,” and will they fulfill Katherine’s dream of seeing an opera in Milan?
“The Second Time Around” is a gentle romantic drama made special by performances from seasoned pros Thorson, Margolin who bring chemistry and empathy to their characters and Jayne Eastwood in a supporting role.
They give spark to a story that radiates a certain warmth but is, nonetheless, on the predictable side. Combatting the narrative’s unsurprising trajectory is director Leon Marr’s stylistic flourishes. He takes his time with the story, allowing Katherine and Isaac’s reminisces room to breathe in long, uninterrupted takes. His lip-synced recreations of operas are slightly surreal but amply display Katherine’s love of the music.
Those touches, coupled with solid performances and a realistic view of old age give “The Second Time Around” resonance.