LIFE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Written by: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare & Olga Dihovichnaya

When I first saw the trailer for LIFE, I thought it strongly resembled a certain 1979 horror classic. I’m sure that some studio executives felt the same way, because they quickly swapped the film’s release date from May to March in order to avoid competing with a prequel to that 1979 horror classic. My hopes weren’t exactly high for this film because it seemed derivative and unoriginal from premise to promotional material. However, I decided to give LIFE a shot and surprisingly enjoyed this film. It’s not mindblowing or terrifying, but it’s a fun little sci-fi horror romp with loads of good qualities.

The ISS (International Space Station) is manned by a tight six-person crew and they’ve recently undertaken a mission to retrieve a soil sample from Mars. Wouldn’t you know it, the red planet’s dirt contains a bit of alien DNA. With some experimentation, one scientist manages to resurrect a cell and it becomes a rapidly evolving organism. Unfortunately for the ISS crew, the organism (nicknamed “Calvin”) reveals deadly tendencies and begins to run amok. In order to save themselves and the human race, the ISS crew will have to kill Calvin before it kills them.

That plot description might not sound like the most intriguing thing in the world because LIFE is like ALIEN crossed with THE BLOB. However, there’s pleasure to be taken from that as this B-movie material is executed with A-grade effort. The effects are top-notch as “Calvin” frequently shapeshifts depending on his growth and environment. This monster resembles more of a plant/squid hybrid than any straight-up horrific beast. “Calvin” is beautiful to look at, which makes his bloody rampage even more cool to watch. The creature design was based on a cross between actual fungus and moss found in nature, so there’s even an extra bit of realism to this threat.

Concerning “Calvin’s” actions, LIFE embraces its R rating with gleefully memorable kills. This isn’t a total gorefest, but things get very violent and (at points) disturbing. A couple of the film’s best deaths take a less-is-more approach, letting our imagination fill in the most graphic bits and giving us enough on-screen details to confirm our worst fears. There’s also a stellar sequence in outer space that sees a uniquely twisted demise. Basically, LIFE is a slasher film crossed with a creature feature and its entertaining when taken as either of those things or a combination of both.

As far as the ISS crew members go, LIFE fumbles the character development a bit as these people are mostly one-note stereotypes. The performances from a talented bunch of actors make them likable enough, but there’s next to nothing to them. Sure, there have ham-fisted attempts to flesh them out a bit. Jake Gyllenhaal reads from a children’s book, Rebecca Ferguson is a hard-ass with a penchant for protocols, Ryan Reynolds is his usual sarcastic self, Hiroyuki Sanada is a new father, Ariyon Bakare is a scientist who has insights on the creature, and Olga Dihovichnaya is the Russian one. However, there simply isn’t much to these thin characters…other than being lambs to the slaughter.

LIFE has its fair share of familiarity and clichés. There are attempts to kill “Calvin” that are directly lifted from the ALIEN series (complete with flamethrowers, ship thrusters, and air vents). However, these are made up for by the monster being so damn interesting and effective tension that’s built up with a skillful eye behind the camera. I’m also going to praise the hell of out this film’s ending, because, holy shit, this conclusion is awesome! I loved the final minutes and found them to be effectively haunting. It was the meanest possible way to end this story and I applaud the screenwriters’/director’s viciousness in having the balls to go there.

Overall, LIFE isn’t exactly original, but the ALIEN mixed with THE BLOB storyline provides plenty of entertainment on its own merits. Throw in a cast that breathe likability into rather dull characters, lots of effective tension that overcomes the clichéd familiarity, and one of the freakiest aliens to hit the big screen in quite some time, then you’ve got yourself a winner. LIFE is shockingly good and I give it a hearty recommendation for those who are craving a cool creature feature.

Grade: B

MR. HOLMES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements, some Disturbing Images and incidental Smoking

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Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher

(based on the novel A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND by Mitch Cullin)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy & Roger Allam

Sherlock Holmes. Whether you’re fan of his stories or not, you’ve definitely heard of this fictional detective at one point in your life. This might be a slightly unpopular opinion, but I’ve never exactly been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I enjoy the two Robert Downey Jr. blockbusters, Disney’s take on the character (THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE) and even read THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES in school. Other than that, I’m not a big Holmes aficionado. As a result, the announcement of MR. HOLMES (a film adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel) left me with an apathetic “meh.” I wasn’t planning on seeing this film in theaters and if I were to eventually review it, it would probably be far down the road. However, due to the urging of a few friends, I decided to give this small, little British movie a look.

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Set in 1947, Sherlock Holmes is a 92-year-old retired detective living in a countryside home with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger. Sherlock’s final days are passing him by and are filled with past regrets and memory loss. When Roger takes an interest in Holmes’s final mystery (which resulted in him retiring to the countryside), the elderly detective strains his memory for clues to the forgotten full story of that case. The only mystery here comes in Sherlock Holmes’s memories and the story is mainly played as a straight-forward drama. This is a most unusual Holmes movie and made all the better because of that.

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It should surprise absolutely no one that Ian McKellen is great in the title role. I cannot think of a single bad scene featuring this brilliant British actor and this film is yet another in a long line of memorable performances. Aiding McKellen’s portrayal of the world-famous detective is a purposely unconventional approach to his character. While other movies and books portray Sherlock Holmes as a pipe-smoking over-the-top genius, McKellen plays a more grounded Sherlock. In this fictional movie universe, Holmes is a more cynical man and has disdain for his exaggerated pop-cultural portrayal (shown in a brilliant scene where the elderly Holmes visits a movie theater showing a film based on one of his mysteries). The storyline is a blend of bittersweet drama and compelling mystery. The former comes in Holmes suffering through the trials of old age and a feeble body, while the latter arrives in Holmes’s flashbacks/memories. The mashing of these two different tones makes for an intriguing one-of-a-kind experience.

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Though the film has two distinct tones, there are technically three storylines at play. The main one is Sherlock’s struggle with old age and his tender friendship with Roger. The secondary plotline is the forgotten mystery that Holmes is trying to remember. The last (and definitely least) is Holmes visiting Japan to look for a medicinal plant that might aid his memory. These three plotlines weave in and out of each other with skill. Whenever one plot thread begins to overstay its welcome, the movie whisks us away into another. MR. HOLMES wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable or effective if it played out in chronological order, but its non-linear storytelling turns the film into a bit of a mystery in and of itself. Like the best mysteries, you never quite know where things are going either. Though I have issues with a couple of minor plot details, this movie had my full, undivided attention from the first frame to the end credits. That’s a pretty big compliment, seeing that I’m not necessarily an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes.

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For some reason, certain movie theaters have advertised MR. HOLMES as a family friendly outing sure to warm the hearts of every age. This could not be further from the truth. Younger viewers will likely be bored stiff through this melancholy drama, but I imagine that most cinema-loving adults will be pleased with this deliberately paced final chapter to a classic fictional character’s legacy. MR. HOLMES is one of the most unusual films that I’ve seen in quite a while and also one of the bigger surprises I’ve had this year. Those looking for satisfying closure to the celebrated fictional detective need look no further.

Grade: A

MINIONS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda

Written by: Brian Lynch

Voices of: Pierre Coffin, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Geoffrey Rush, Jennifer Saunders & Steve Carell

It seems like you either love the Minions or you hate them. There’s not much middle ground. These goggle-wearing, yellow-skinned, pill-shaped creatures originally showed up in 2010’s DESPICABLE ME and wound up stealing every scene they were in. With DESPICABLE ME 2, they were granted even more screen time and became an integral part of the plot. Naturally, little kids who already loved the Minions proceeded to quote them anytime anywhere, wear clothing featuring a Minion or two, and posting thousands of so-so memes. Personally, I love the Minions…but also believe there can be too much of a good thing. That’s part of the reason that MINIONS, a prequel to DESPICABLE ME, is flawed fun.

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Through a prologue we learn that the Minions have always been around since the beginning of time. As evolution went on, they proceeded to follow the biggest, baddest villains around (including a T-Rex, a Caveman, and Dracula). No matter how big and bad their master was, the Minions seemed to have a knack for screwing things up. After being exiled by Napoleon (yet another master), the Minions found themselves living in snowy isolated caves and forming their own society. As time passes on, it became clear that they absolutely could not function without an evil master. So this leads a trio of Minions (courageous Kevin, absent-minded Stuart, and little Bob) on a quest to find a despicable master to serve. Their search takes them to 1960’s New York where they attend a villain convention (think Comic Con for bad guys) and the trio become henchmen for the biggest, baddest lady around: Scarlet Overkill. You can probably (and accurately) guess how the rest of the film plays out.

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The plot of MINIONS is extremely simple and serves as an excuse for outrageous scenarios and goofy gibberish spoken by the title characters. I can say that there are legitimately funny moments that got a solid laugh or two out of me. The film is remarkably well animated and sports a great soundtrack (The Rolling Stones, Donovan, The Doors, The Who, etc.). Besides awesome songs used throughout, MINIONS has a lot of 60’s references and jokes that only older viewers will understand (including a jab at Nixon, the Beatles, and more). As far as non-Minion characters go, Scarlet Overkill is an enjoyable villainess but really doesn’t receive a ton of screen time. I found her obnoxious husband (voiced by Jon Hamm) to be far funnier than her character ever was. The biggest laughs in the whole film come from Michael Keaton voicing a villainous family man who happens to run across the Minions a couple of times on their journey.

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As funny as it can be and as good-looking as the animation is, MINIONS has a couple of big problems. These mainly come in pacing and certain jokes wearing out their welcome. It’s quite clear that MINIONS is an easy movie to entertain children with, as opposed to a great entertainment that both viewers young and old can enjoy (sort of like the first two DESPICABLE ME movies). There are highly enjoyable moments in MINIONS, but the space between these sequences seems to drag to a noticeably dull effect. It’s not like the movie gets outright boring, but it comes very close to that on more than one occasion. A few montages of jokes seem stretched to give the film a 91-minute running time too. During these scenes, it would be a safe bet that you could dash out of the theater, go to bathroom and return with the montage still playing.

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MINIONS is likely to be one of the highest grossing movies of the year. If children in my screening were any indication, this DESPICABLE ME prequel will be a huge hit among kids. In all fairness, that’s who the movie was always intended for. However, I just feel like they could have tried harder to put more stuff in that both kids and adults could laugh at together. Even with a running time of only 91 minutes, the movie feels a bit too long. If you’re under the age of 10 (good on you for being savvy enough to read this website), you’ll likely love this movie. If you happen to be older than 10 (my realistic demographic of readers), you’ll find a couple of big laughs and lots of chuckles…and that’s about all that MINIONS has to offer.

Grade: B-

THE RAILWAY MAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Prisoner of War Violence

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Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky

Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce & Andy Paterson

(based on the autobiography by Eric Lomax)

Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Reid, Hiroyuki Sanada & Tanroh Ishida

Based on the incredible life of Eric Lomax, THE RAILWAY MAN maintains a certain dignity around the tale about one man’s tragic aftermath of his wartime experiences. Inspired by a true story and mostly sticking to the facts with some wiggle room for creative licensing, this is an unusual WWII film that can’t truly be called a war film. I mean this in the most positive way possible. I found myself shaken and on the brink of tears as the end credits began to roll. This was the result of a movie that examines the ruined lives left in the years after WWII.  The most basic way of describing the plot is a PTSD victim suffering from the nightmares of his past tries to bring his painful memories to a close. There are two major flaws that keep it from perfection, but THE RAILWAY MAN is an incredible movie in most respects.

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The time is the 1980’s and the place is England. Eric Lomax is a railway enthusiast and has met an extraordinary young woman traveling on one of his routes. It’s love at first sight as the two become fast friends over the course of a single train ride. Love means marriage and Patti becomes his wife. Having served as a nurse for two decades, Patti can’t seem to help Lomax’s increasingly troubled state of mind. She tolerates shields he puts up against the outside world, but desperately wants to know why Eric is so troubled. The film then periodically flashes back to Eric’s horrible experiences in a Thai POW camp. Things become even more devastating for the couple when a chance arrives for Eric to come to terms with what happened at the place of his painful past.

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THE RAILWAY MAN gets off to a shaky start. If one were to walk into the movie not knowing anything about the plot, they might suspect that this was a mere bland British romance and then be completely shocked by the jarring change of pace later on. The script seems at odds with itself and projects two very different films on the screen. Without a doubt, the more interesting one to watch is the 1940’s POW camp storyline. For a good portion of the cutting back and forth in the first half, I felt as if the 1980’s scenes were dragging for too long and I wanted to see more of Lomax’s hardships during his time in the camp. There is also little to no chemistry between Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It’s not only the age gap in their characters, but I didn’t buy them as a convincing couple in the slightest. Her screen time withers away as the movie moves forward and time is dedicated to more pressing/interesting matters at hand. Kidman is a wonderful actress in the right roles, but it was a bad decision to put her into the role of Patti.

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Those are my problems with THE RAILWAY MAN and I’m so very happy to say that they mainly come in the rough opening patch. Scenes tie themselves together in a far better fashion for the final two-thirds. Colin Firth is riveting to watch as the older Lomax. A very wise move was putting more than capable Jeremy Irvine (who apparently performed his own stunts in the torture scenes) as the young Lomax. There’s a striking resemblance between Firth and Irvine, a quality that helps in any set of actors taking on the same role. Stellan Skarsgard shows up for a rather thankless role, but makes the most of what he’s given. The real tension comes in the interactions later on between Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada/Irvine and Tanroh Ishida. These scenes are the meat of the movie and sitting through the sloggy opening act truly pays off here.

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The tone of THE RAILWAY MAN is quiet and brooding, kind of like the title character himself. This is a movie where everything hinged the dialogue and acting. I’m sure some pieces of the story may have been exaggerated for the screen, but the general message of this real life tale remains the same and it’s a heartbreaking conclusion that actually got a few tears out of me. This being said, there’s no earthly reason why THE RAILWAY MAN has been rated R. The description states that it’s for “Disturbing Prisoner of War Violence” and though there are torture sequences, none of them are graphic. It’s hard to watch, but kept on a less-is-more level and never strays into gruesome territory. This story of a harsh reality has not been made accessible to the widest possible age group that it should be available to. It wouldn’t have become a huge box-office smash (it’s doubtful that hoards of teenagers would flock to see this on opening weekend), but it’s a film that needs to be seen (kind of like HOTEL RWANDA, which did get a PG-13 rating). Everything is remarkably restrained and understated in this beautiful little film.

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There’s a fair share of problems in THE RAILWAY MAN (a badly paced beginning, the lack of chemistry between Firth and Kidman), but the good far outweighs the bad. This is a heavy film that excessively rewards the viewer for sticking through the lesser parts. My feelings were simultaneously beaten down and brought up by the conclusion that is, thus far, the most emotionally powerful ending I’ve seen in a movie all year. The rest of the film isn’t quite as up to this high level of greatness, but there’s a lot to like. It’s not without some flaws, but I still say THE RAILWAY MAN is an incredible film.

Grade: A-

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