Wednesday, March 29, 2017
While holding a geosynchronous orbit over the planet Earth sometime in the near future, six multinational astronauts man the International Space Station, which has just managed to catch a damaged probe returning from Mars that’s filled with valuable soil samples as the film begins in the middle of everything. Soon enough, after poking in the pilfered dirt, lead xenobiologist, Hugh Derry (Bakare), whose handicapped legs are negated by zero gravity, unearths an inert Martian amoeba that he is able to reanimate, which inevitably turns out to be a huge mistake.
Now, there have been several protocols established for this kind of contingency and breach, written-up and enforced by the quarantine officer, Miranda North (Ferguson), as the alien life-form, dubbed 'Calvin', quickly escalates from “awe” to “argh” but these quickly break down as the monster escapes from the isolation lab and starts attacking the rest of the crew, rounded out by mission leader Golovkina (Dihovichnaya), chief engineer Murakami (Sanada), medical officer Jordan (Gyllenhaal), and Adams (Reynolds), the gung-ho mechanical engineer. And when Calvin proves nigh indestructible, these six soon find themselves trapped between an alien that wants to consume them and the cold reality of the ultimate sacrifice needed to keep this invasive species from reaching the planet Earth...
Now, before we get into the guts of the film, I need to address the venue for a second. Our local multiplex holds a notorious reputation for being an awful place to watch a movie but it has improved greatly over the past couple of years in terms of general competency and quality of your theatrical experience, meaning more often than not the floor is clean, the film is in focus, is matted right, the lights are shut off when the movie starts, and someone bothers to shut the doors so you don’t have to listen to the movie playing across the hall, too. However, when I attended an early Monday matinee this week and the minutes ticked past the designated starting time, with the lights still ablaze and the screen still dark, being the only soul there, I made a quick check to see if I was in the right theater first (-- I was), and then headed to the snack bar to ask if anyone would be interested in starting the movie in theater seven.
By the time I got back the lights were off and the preamble before the endless stream of trailers started. (Is this a normal AMC thing to show nearly twenty minutes of previews and commercials before the film even starts? Or is it just our local?) And then, as I resettled into my seat, a second viewer came in. And while he had dozens of seats to choose from, this guy choose the one directly behind me, which allowed me to hear him noisily dig around in his popcorn sack and chew every morsel and slurp his soda from the opening credits to the very end of the movie. Good times. So, to sum up, I have no idea if these annoying circumstances had any influence on my less than favorable reaction to the film in question but they surely didn’t help. Then again, this movie had plenty of problems all on its own.
See, as Life (2017) played out it's hard to shake the feeling we have seen all of this before. It’s like Gravity (2013) meets Alien (1979) by way of a multitude of knock-offs and Swhy-Fwhy originals. Also, toss in all the glacial urgency of The Andromeda Strain (1971). Oh, and also Grabbers (2012) came to mind due to the eventual cephalopodic, final mutation of the rampaging creature.
Still, this hodge-podge of a film is entertaining enough, even though it cannot quite decide if Calvin, which grows the more it consumes, and it has since gotten pretty big as six is whittled down to two, is just some kind of wild animal motivated by pure survival instinct or something a little more clever and sentient (-- and judging by its industrious nature to engineer several escapes, I’m thinking the latter). And that isn’t the only coherency problem the movie has, as several key scenes didn’t quite jive. (Slight spoilers from here on out.) I understand that it could latch onto Derry’s leg and him not realizing it -- but him not seeing it do this is another matter. And so, we have no idea when it got there as they seal off a section of the ship to try and asphyxiate the monster, not realizing it’s already inside the defensive safety perimeter.
Things are not helped by all the characters involved being one note ciphers, either, which are pretty much defined by their job description. You don’t want to see these people killed, but I’m damned if I could tell you why? They try to flesh them out some -- Murakami has just become a father, Jordan appears to have been out in space a little too long, but there just isn’t any time to get to know these people. Some familiar faces in the cast add some weight, but Rebecca Ferguson is wasted and it appears at first glance Ryan Reynolds was essentially some Janet Leigh level stunt-casting, until further research shows he was supposed to play Jordan but scheduling conflicts had him taking the smaller role and the first to fall victim -- rather messily -- to the creature, who may or may not be the root cause of the extinction of life on Mars or the sole survivor, explaining why it is so hard to kill.
Originally slated to be released on Memorial Day, Columbia studios, being scared off by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and Alien: Covenant (2017), moved the release date of Life back to mid-March. And after watching it, I can kinda understand the studio’s waffling and lack of faith. And then there’s that ending. *sheesh* Speaking frankly, I hated the poorly executed and completely telegraphed “shock” twist ending as director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick play two-card monte with a pair of escape pods and that, I think -- no, I know, soured the overall experience of Life for me the most, tempering and otherwise, 'meh, it wasn’t THAT terrible' impression.
What I can say for sure is the first half of Life is much better, engrossing and suspenseful than the last half -- unless scrambling around and sealing doors and bulkheads is your idea of a stellar action set-piece and a good time at the movies. I did not hate this film and it was by no means a bad movie. Well acted, and competently executed on a technical level -- except for the ending, Life just rang a little too tired and familiar for me. (And did I mention I HATED the ending?) Probably worth a look at a cheap matinee, but beyond that I’d wait for a rental. As always, your survival rate may vary.
Life (2017) Columbia Pictures :: Skydance Media :: Sony Pictures Entertainment / EP: Vicki Dee Rock, Don Granger / P: Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg / D: Daniel Espinosa / W: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick / C: Seamus McGarvey / E: Mary Jo Markey, Frances Parker / M: Jon Ekstrand / S: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Monday, March 13, 2017
Fractured Flickers :: A Lover In Your Arms, Some Tobacco Juice in Your Lap: The Audacious 3-D Money Shot in Gordon Douglas' The Charge at Feather River (1953)
After the box-office success of House of Wax (1953), Warner Bros. was quick to strike again in Natural Vision three-dimensions, this time offering a picture in the great outdoors and switching genres from horror to a western. They even tried to entice director Andre de Toth to helm The Charge at Feather River (1953), hoping for that same magic, but he was already committed to The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953); and so it fell to Gordon Douglas, who was about a year away from unleashing the giant bug movie to end all giant bug movies, THEM! (1954).
And Douglas did a pretty good job with the assignment, too, telling the tale of the Guardhouse Brigade -- sort of an early, proto-version of The Dirty Dozen (1967), where frontier scout Miles Archer (Madison) is recruited by the cavalry to turn a ragtag group of prisoners (-- that's chock full of some notable character actors --) into a feasible fighting unit to rescue the McKeever sisters (Wescott, Miles), who were kidnapped by the Cheyenne almost five years ago but have been recently spotted as the Indians are on the move and on the warpath, having been prodded into conflict by the encroachment of the railroad onto their sacred lands.
From there the film holds a few surprises up its sleeve as the covert action plays out, most notably the fact that one of those sisters, destined to marry the chief, doesn’t want to be rescued and does her best to sabotage all efforts to escape, including dumping all of their water and releasing the horses. The film is also infamous for coining The Wilhelm Scream, a death rattle that has been heard for decades since it was first yelped, again and again and again, whenever someone met an untimely demise. This, of course, has been traced back even further to the film, Distant Drums (1951), and if you still have no idea what I’m talking about click on this handy link and I will gladly clue you all in.
And on top of being some pretty solid cinema sagebrush, along with The Wilhelm Scream, The Charge at Feather River also holds the distinction of including one of my all time favorite uses of 3-D in film -- both for its audaciousness and downright goofiness. To set the stage for this incident, we have to catch up with Sgt. Charlie Baker (Lovejoy) and Pvt. Ryan (Brodie), who’ve set out on foot to try and bring back help for the rest of the group, currently out of water and low on ammo, holed up on a ridge.
Things get a bit dicey when they come upon a war party and must take cover to avoid detection. But as the two men, who have some bad blood brewing over some suspected infidelity with one of their wives, silently watch and wait for them to clear off so they can move on...
A rattlesnake takes that opportunity to slither out of the rocks and gets the drop on them.
And while it rattles menacingly and threatens to strike...
Unable to take any action with their pistols lest they alert the Indians...
Baker is forced to, well, improvise a solution:
That’s right, Baker horks up a big old glob of tobacco juice at the reptile. And not only does he do this once, he does this twice as his aim was a bit off on the first salvo.
Of course, to simulate this, Lovejoy spewed his makeshift mortar fire right into the camera, landing a cud of Virginia’s soggy finest right into the viewing audience's’ lap. Neat. Or gross, I guess, depending on how you close you were sitting I’d wager.
Anyhoo, cinematically speaking, Baker’s gooey gambit paid off and the rattler retreated, allowing them to press on, setting the stage for that final charge the film’s title promised.
Even without the 3-D, The Wilhelm, or the tobacco spit THAT WAS COMING RIGHT FOR US!, TWICE!, The Charge at Feather River is still pretty entertaining. But when you add all those ingredients back in, the film moves from pretty entertaining to downright historical. And no, that is not a typo.
Other Points of Interest:
The Charge at Feather River (1953) Warner Bros. Pictures / P: David Weisbart / D: Gordon Douglas / W: James R. Webb / C: J. Peverell Marley / E: Folmar Blangsted / M: Max Steiner / S: Guy Madison, Vera Miles, Frank Lovejoy, Helen Westcott, Steve Brodie, Neville Brand