Life (2017)

 

Released: March 24, 2017. Directed by: Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds. Runtime: 1h 44 min.

A crew at the International Space Station – two Americans, two Brits, a Russian and a Japanese dude – are tasked with retrieving a sample from Mars that could contain the first proof of extraterrestrial life, and the first evidence of life on Mars (hence the title of Life).

After it gets on board, things go awry – and they still have to get it home because of what it means for science. The cute little guy does look like the parasite at the beginning of The Faculty, and the life-form is given the name Calvin by an elementary school.

Sounds cute enough, right? Don’t let names fool you because it becomes quite frightening when it starts bulking up.

The British biologist on the crew, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the only one who actually calls the little thing Calvin, as he spends his time studying it. He nearly seems fatherly to it, which brings up interesting dynamics because others are extremely wary of it. They’re afraid of the unknown thing – and for good damn reason.

I liked Hugh’s story because there’s a heartwarming aspect that he’s wheelchair-bound on Earth, but when he’s in space he can float around and do almost anything his heart desires.

The rest of the crew includes Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American medical officer, whose story is cool, too, because he likes the hum of space. The other American is system engineer Rory Adams, played by Ryan Reynolds.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Britain’s other representation Miranda North, who’s in charge of keeping the specimen in quarantine. Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) is the Russian crew commander of the International Space Station. The crew pilot is Sho Murakam and is played by Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada.

Life - Ryan

Ryan Reynolds in Life. (Source)

The cast assembled makes an impressive ensemble. So much screen time is shared that they’re all supporting performers more than leading, even though Gyllenhaal, Ferguson and Reynolds are the most recognizable of the bunch. Gyllenhaal and Ferguson also offer the most compelling performances. No one’s wearing the redshirt from Star Trek per se, but there are people who feel more expendable. Talents don’t get wasted – but some are less utilized than others. Naturally, the cast’s chemistry is good since they’re stuck on a space station together.

They all have nice banter and the dialogue’s well-written. It’s witty and best fit for Ryan Reynolds since it’s from the minds of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (writers of Deadpool and Zombieland). The writing pair also bring in a smart amount of scientific dialogue that’s so nerdy, you’re thankful that some characters dumb it down for us.

The story of Life wears its homage to Alien on its sleeve and while it is nothing new, it’s an entertaining and unnerving ride. It takes a hardcore horror route and it’s surprising in its brutality and it packs relentless, edge-of-your-seat thrills. It’s quite scary, and that’s what helps it be a great addition to the trapped in space genre.

The premise is just so terrifying, when they’re trapped with something they can’t permanently escape from, and it’s a hell of a long phone call away from Earth. It’s just freaky that they can’t be helped, and it shows how much can go wrong in the limitlessness of space. Some of the cinematography’s a bit too dark to see some aspects, but otherwise the visuals are great.

The only part of the writing that doesn’t compel is the beginning because it’s plainly trying to get into the story, but it’s helped by smart dialogue. When the carnage begins, it comes with a force that doesn’t let go. It makes at least an hour of this a lot of fun and scary, and the writers find a way to breathe fresh life into a premise we’ve seen before.

The writers can do it all when it comes to foul-mouthed superheroes, zombie horror comedies and now bat-shit craziness of astronauts being trapped in space with Calvin. He might not go down in the same infamy as the Xenomorph from Alien, but he’s memorable and I won’t be going to space anytime soon.

Score: 75/100

Enemy (2014)

EnemyReleased: March 14, 2014. Directed by: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent. Runtime: 90 min.

You should really see Enemy with a friend. At least do yourself a favour and have a designated discussion partner to talk about the film. If you think too hard and try to figure out this puzzle of a film by yourself, you might find it to be a bigger challenge. The film follows Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bored and highly disinterested history professor at a university in Toronto. He can’t even get himself intensely interested in his beautiful girlfriend Mary (Laurent). One day he rents a film based on the recommendation of a colleague. In the background of one scene, he spots a person that looks exactly like him; an actor named Anthony Clair, also portrayed by Gyllenhaal. Bell decides to seek out his “double,” which put of their lives on a collision course. 

In some of Bell’s lectures, he talks of dictatorships and how some use a lack of education to limit individuality – and, to a further extent, power over our actions. He also speaks of repetition. The first time something happens, it’s a tragedy; the second time it happens, it’s a farce. It’s a thought-provoking idea to ponder. It’s one of the many ideas the film proposes. The thematic duality is also enjoyable. I think the idea of a doppelganger is a fascinating one. It’s a concept delved into by many cultures. Spanish writer Javier Gullón adapts José Saramago’s 2002 novel called “The Double.” I’m not sure how faithful this film is to the novel, but Denis Villeneuve (director of the phenomenal Prisoners) tells the story with surrealist imagery, which he utilizes to great effect. This film is a dream come true for any fan of surrealism. 

Not one image of Villeneuve’s style is not arbitrary, even though it might seem it at the time. It contributes to the story in some way, even if you forget the image by the end of it all – and have to watch this again. Granted, at the time, some images might strike viewers as empty and meaningless. Villeneuve realistically captures the urges and tendencies of men, as well. Some paths he takes are dark and ominous, which sets the tone and atmosphere for the film. It’s a movie that proves the unexpected is so damn satisfying. If I were the filmmaker here, I’d probably just take the route of finding my doppelganger so I could play jokes on my friends. That would be a much shorter film than the engaging, intricately written 90 minutes at hand, that actually goes by fairly quickly. At times the film is sexy, unsettling, violating, haunting and all too memorable. 

Denis Villeneuve truly knows how to absorb his audience’s attention. With blending imagery of something like a Darren Aronofsky film (at times I was reminded of Black Swan), and a scope and atmospheres that remind me of some of David Fincher’s films, he is able to create a unique visual style and an enthralling mystery. His fascination with creepy crawlies makes an appearance in symbolism. The film all-around fascinates. Sometimes viewers may not be able to make heads or tails of things that occur on-screen – at least in first viewing – but I willingly went along for the ride. Even if surrealism isn’t your favourite thing in the world, you’ll probably be able to appreciate what Villeneuve sets out achieve. Some symbolism could have a stronger focus, granted, but ambiguity is intentional at times. The intention is to provoke thoughts and discussion – and it’s done so in spades. 

I cannot end this review without mentioning the phenomenal work from the cast. At times the women take a back seat to the Toronto landscapes and imagery. That is mostly Laurent as Mary, who is largely unbeknownst to Adam’s mission to find his double. She does great for what she is asked to do. Sarah Gadon’s character of Helen is in the thick of the plot and I think she has an interesting role. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a tour de force performance. He is up to the challenge of portraying these two very different characters. One is a timid, often distant character; the other a confident, intense and tempted character trying to figure out this whole mindf!#k of a situation. Join the club, Gyllenhaal number two. The character is driven by these two, and the one strong actor, who play with individuality and duality.

Warning: Try not to focus on just one, sole concept. Viewers with an attention to detail will benefit from that greatly. Villeneuve creates an intelligent and spellbinding experience with Enemy. He compels viewers from the beginning, to the final, absolutely haunting image. Good luck trying to forget that image. It’s what helps this become so memorable – and what is helping Villeneuve become one of Canada’s most exciting filmmakers. 

Score: 88/100

Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersReleased: September 20, 2013. Directed by: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard. Runtime: 153 min.

Thought-provoking and engaging, “Prisoners” represents a type of film that I I love. It asks the question: What would you do if your child was kidnapped? What lengths would you go to get them back?

Thanksgiving for the Dover and Birch families start out like any other, but takes a horrifying turn after dinner. When a young daughter is taken from each family (Anna from the Dover clan, Eliza from the Birches), it is hell on earth. They call the police and, later, the RV their children were playing by is found. After a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is released by police because he has the IQ of a ten year-old, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) must take matters into his own hands. He is convinced this man has kidnapped his daughter and her friend.

Meanwhile, the lead detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is following leads and attempting to find the girls before time runs out. Dover is doing the same, but with a different form of vigilante justice.

As an ethical exploration, “Prisoners” is fascinating. As a kidnapper-revenge crime story, it’s dark and complex; if predictable at times. There are plot twists upon plot twists, but many are “Ooooh, I shoulda known.” It is an enthralling ride, either way.

The ethical questions raised throughout are how far would you go to get your kids back? It’s a story about parental instincts, but the mothers take backseat roles in the film. Viola Davis portays Nancy Birch, who learns of the drastic plan Keller has hatched later on. Maria Bello, who plays Grace Dover, has the smallest amount of screen time out of the primary cast, as she is popping insomnia pills like they are M&M’s throughout the movie.

So, to many, it might seem as if the film is predominantly about fatherly instincts. Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover) represents the desperation of fathers who will be the backbone behind a drastic plan, and wish to see it through to the end as to see his baby girl again. Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch) is the father who is a bit more reluctant to going to these illegal heights at seeing his child again. Most fathers will go through this plan, but he just represents the fathers who will be a bit more heartbroken about it… But won’t stop it. Personally, my fatherly instincts might be a bit more akin towards Howard’s.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Loki is the only main male character who doesn’t have a child. He represents the rational law-man, who’s fighting for what’s right. His heart goes into this case, as well. This situation is intense for him, but it’d be much scarier if he had children. His contribution to the story is leading the case; but Keller thinks he could be doing his job a helluva lot better.

Those of us in the audience without children, can understand the lengths Keller and Franklin would go through to get their children back. It’s unsettling and heartbreakingly shocking. What is a heartbreaking aspect to it is that, even though we might not be the one doing the beating, all humans with a heart will go to these lengths to see their child again. This is what makes these characters so real. The only unrealistic part of the film is the recurring cop cliché of who the hell needs back-up or partners?

The Controversial Oscar Nominee Squad Beating On A Villain (that’s what I like to call them) aspect of the film makes us sympathize with a potential villain. Paul Dano plays the softly-spoken Alex Jones, a suspect in the case – and a character who will keep you guessing on how much he knows about the girls’ disappearance. Another memorable performance is from Alex Jones’ aunt, Holly Jones, portrayed by Melissa Leo in a nearly unrecognisable role.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski knows what solid storytelling is all about, and director Denis Villeneuve knows how to create a intricate and dark atmosphere, coupled with great imagery. It seems as if he’s been taking a tip or two from David Fincher; as this feels as intense as “Zodiac” in more than a few scenes; making me think of this as one of the more suspenseful films of recent memory. Villeneuve also knows how to get incredible performances out of his talented cast.

No matter how small the performances of those involved, they are emotionally involving and, most importantly, believable. Gyllenhaal is great as Detective Loki, relentless and powerful in his pursuit of the girls. He continues to play a believable detective. Jackman’s emotions are believable because many fathers will react the way he does. His mind is focused on seeing his daughter again, and the way he remains strong under this extraordinary pressure, and how he breaks down under his desperation is heartbreaking. He is one of the only people staying strong when others are crumbling. Jackman is phenomenal because he pours his heart and soul into this film. There might just be another Oscar nomination for Jackman on the way.

What is impressive about the movie is its truly emotional impactful story. It’s engaging in so many ways. There’s a lot of power when a movie can be simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking. It’s phenomenal at 153 minutes, but I wonder how much better it would be if it were about ten minutes shorter. It’s a really fascinating puzzle to piece together, that’s certain. Unforgettable and hard to watch; the ethical debates people will have about this film is what cinema is all about.

Score95/100

End of Watch (2012)

End of Watch

Release Date: September 21, 2012

Director: David Ayer

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick

Runtime: 109 min

Tagline: Watch your six, September 21

This follows the relationship of Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, who are two best friend police officers. Soon enough, the two young officers are marked for death once they seize a small cache of money and firearms by a notorious cartel, all during a seemingly routine traffic stop.

Writer/director David Ayer brings us some of his best work since 2001’s Training Day. He once again took both good actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, and made those guys great ones. There’s something about independent films, or found footage films like this, that make the actors’ performances so genuine. The characters of Brian and Mike are so real, because they love like real people, laugh like real people, and get scared like real people. Their characters feel so real, that, they could very well be sitting in the theatre with you. They could also very well be eating popcorn out of your bag. Even though, you would probably know if they were doing that. If you didn’t know they were, you may very well be blind or have a mental retardation of sorts.

You may want to not know a whole lot of the plot going into this, because it has a slower-than-traditional pace for such a film, because it didn’t really feel like it got into the heart of the plot until at least the first hour-mark. That’s at least when they physically find the coveted cache of cha-ching and AK-47’s like the one you see Peña holding in the film’s poster. Even though it takes so long to get to the beating heart of the plot, you probably won’t mind. There’s just a lot of emotional, funny, exhilirating content to keep you intrigued and going the whole way. The most exhilirating moments are when they are on duty and when they get to a crime scene, which is a vast majority of the flick; and the last twenty minutes. The ending does feel abrupt, but it still does leave a smile on one’s face, so you probably won’t feel deprived of a great ending. The whole feature is superbly written.

You can tell that it’s found-footage by the first camera shot from the windshield of the car during that car chase which makes it feel like they’re in a good game of Need for Speed or Grand Theft Auto. Also, there are some nice gun-point views, to make it seem like they’re going to shoot bad guys in a game of Call of Duty. If any film deserves to be found footage other than a low-budget horror, it’s this. Yeah, move over Project X, you sucked. If it wasn’t found footage, their characters may not have felt so real. It feels like a lower budget, and the director certainly didn’t say, “Okay, guys. Act like stupid Hollywood stars, and I’ll give you a nice paycheck.” Other great performers in here are America Fererra (even though her role is petite), Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez.

End of Watch does for cops what Ladder 49 did for fire fighters, but it’s about twenty-six times better. It’s told to us smartly, and isn’t dumbed down for a purely Hollywood audience. It shows the dangers of the job of being an officer, the obstacles they must go through to protect us, some stress the family members must go through each day, and the general, very real lives, of the officers involved.

Watch is superbly written, has a list of great performances, and carries itself quite well. Some may say the ending was quite abrupt, and in ways it may have been, but for the majority would be satisfied by the ending. It ends off on a good note, and the finished product is generally impressive.

80/100

Celebrity Birthdays: October 15 – 21

Sorry for the delay, I got my days mixed up.

Bailee Madison (October 15)

Happy 13th birthday to Bailee Madison. She is a great young actress. At only the age of 13, she has worked with Robert Patrick (in Bridge to Terabithia); Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire (all in Brothers); Hilary Swank (in Conviction); Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston (in Just Go With It); and Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, and the writer Guillermo Del Toro (in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark).

Jon Favreau (October 19)

Happy 46th birthday to Jon Favreau, director of the Iron Man films and the (apparently) disappointing Cowboys & Aliens. I’m not a really big fan, but his films seem good for those super hero fans.

Viggo Mortensen (October 20)

Happy 54th birthday to Viggo Mortensen. He is best known for performing in A History of Violence, and playing Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings series. He frequently works with director David Cronenberg, their collaborations include: A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method.

Danny Boyle (October 20)

Happy 56th birthday to Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, 28 Days Later… and Trainspotting. He looks a bit like a tall version of Golum from the LOTR films, doesn’t he? (I say jokingly.) I liked Slumdog Millionaire, but not really 127 Hours.

Other Birthdays: Oct. 15, Larry Miller (59). Oct. 16, Tim Robbins (54); Brea Grant (31). Oct. 18, Zac Efron (25); Freida Pinto (28). Oct. 21, Carrie Fisher (56).

Who is your favourite actor/actress on this list?

My reviews of films they have starred in: 

Bailee Madison: Bridge to Terabithia (2007)