Sandpaper Required

You’ve likely heard the quote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but fewer people have heard how the line ends: “that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” The film industry believes in imitation as a business model. If a style or genre of film worked once, they assume it will work a dozen more times. Currently, thanks to the success of The Hangover and Bridesmaids, there’s a flow of R-rated comedies coming out of Hollywood. We get Neighbors, Office Christmas Party, and Fist Fight, among many others. Currently, the movie on the marquee is Rough Night.

Rough is right. The movie veers wildly from farce to gross-out comedy to action, with a script that seems more concerned about checking all the usual boxes. Sex? Check. Drug use? Check. Australian friend? Check. Director Lucia Aniello co-wrote the script with Paul W. Downs, the pair having worked together on the TV series “Broad City” and the mini-series “Time Traveling Bong.” I’d say the writing is cartoonish, except cartoons usually do comedy better.

The plot, such as it is, concerns four college friends reuniting for a bride’s night out. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is about to marry Peter (screenwriter Downs) and Jess’ college roommate Alice (Jillian Bell) has organized a trip to Miami to celebrate. Also invited are their two best friends from college, Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer), as well as Jess’ friend from Australia, Pippa (Kate McKinnon). The writers substitute stereotypes for characters: Jess is a hapless political candidate that no one really supports, Alice is the NFF (needy fat friend), Blair’s a hard-driving career woman, Frankie’s a liberal organizer in flannel shirt and jeans, and Pippa is Rebel Wilson.

After a coke-fueled trip to a nightclub, the women return to the house they’re borrowing. Frankie has ordered a male stripper from Craig’s List, and when a handsome though surly guy comes to the door, she invites him in. The guy does a rough dance, but grosses Jess out. Alice calls out that it’s her turn and leaps into the guy’s lap, sending him falling backwards so he hits his head against the fireplace and dies.

Paul calls Jess from his bachelor party, a pretentious evening of wine-tasting, and she almost confesses what happened before the phone’s grabbed from her hand and smashed. Paul (of course) assumes Jess is breaking up with him. Worse, he listens to his friends when they recommend he act like the former female astronaut who drove from Houston to Florida wearing adult diapers so she didn’t have to stop to confront a rival. (Apparently the writers didn’t remember the woman did it to murder her rival and then get back to Houston fast enough to establish an alibi. They convinced themselves the visuals would be funny. They aren’t.)

What follows is pretty much cobbled together from other films (The Trouble With Harry, Weekend at Bernie’s, Ruthless People, and others) while the women do everything they shouldn’t in the situation. The best part of this pastiche is Kate McKinnon, though she’ll likely be roasted on the barbee in Australia for her accent. On the other hand, ScarJo is miscast. One subplot has Ty Burrell and an unrecognizable Demi Moore as oversexed neighbors, a trope meant to titillate but that is just tedious.

The plot twists might as well be accompanied by flashing lights and blaring horns – subtlety is not something the script aspires to accomplish. And it twists itself into a pretzel to work out a happy ending. But probably the best way to sum up the movie is that there’s a long tag at the end of the credits to tie up a plot point, but I’d long before given up caring to pay attention.

Rough Night could definitely use sandpaper on its rough edges.

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Wonderful Woman

It has been a long trip to the silver screen for the most iconic female superhero. Wonder Woman first appeared in DC Comics a couple of years after its two male superstars, Superman and Batman, yet she’s just now getting her own movie. Christopher Reeve put on Superman’s tights and cape back in the 1970s, while Michael Keaton became Batman in the 1980s. Since then two more actors have played Superman while four others have worn Batman’s costume.

The good news is that Wonder Woman is worth the wait, particularly to have Gal Gadot play the role. Gadot is both a beauty queen (Miss Israel, 2004) and an Israeli Army vet, which pretty much puts her in the class of Wonder Woman off the screen. She began acting in movies in 2009 when she appeared in Fast and Furious, the fourth movie in that series and the one that refocused it after it drifted off to Tokyo. She was the best part of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in her first appearance as Wonder Woman. (The movie works best if you think of it as a teaser trailer.)

Wonder Woman begins shortly after Batman v. Superman with Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s cover identity, working in the Louvre in Paris. Bruce Wayne sends her the photograph she’d sought to recover from Lex Luthor. Looking at it, Diana remembers what led to it being taken back in 1918. The story jumps back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. Diana was the only child, created by Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, with life breathed into her by Zeus. She’s tutored in combat by Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest Amazon warrior, but it eventually becomes clear that Diana is someone special.

When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a German monoplane into the ocean by the island, Diana rescues him. He was being pursued by a German warship which breaks through the island’s protective screen and sends marines onto the beach to kill Trevor. However, they’re met by the might of the Amazons. In questioning after the battle, Trevor explains about “the war to end all wars” that has engulfed the world for four years, resulting in millions of casualties. While the Armistice to end the war is being negotiated, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is working with Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) to create the next generation of poison gas that will reignite the conflict. Diana sees the hand of Aries, the God of War, in the conflict, and knows she must stop him to stop the war.

While in its first season, the 1970s TV series with Linda Carter mirrored the origin story of the comic and was set during WWII. It switched to a contemporary setting for its last two seasons. Here, though, screenwriter Allan Heinberg along with others who developed the story set the movie during the First World War. It benefits the story in that it was the first truly mechanized war and widespread conflict, and it was before women gained voting rights and started moving toward equality. While Diana is a throwback to Ancient Greece, the setting also places her as far more progressive than the world at that time.

Director Patty Jenkins wrote and directed Monster, for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar. Since then she’s mostly done television (“Arrested Development” and “The Killing” among the series), but she helms this movie with a firm hand and a fine sensitivity to the story. The pacing’s tight throughout most of the film. It does suffer a bit in the third act from the same over-the-top action previously seen in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. It’s like DC has standard film stock to be used in any such battle sequences. Still, it plays much better than either of those previous movies.

One delight is Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve Trevor’s secretary/assistant. She pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are effective villains, and Anaya manages to still evoke sympathy in the end. (The Spanish actress is mostly known for her work with Pedro Almodovar in Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In.) Pine has plenty of experience in adventure movies with the rebooted Star Trek series, though he’s stretched past that recently with Hell and High Water. He can handle the comedic wit in the character, but still makes you care for and about him.

But the movie, rightly, belongs to Gal Gadot. (In case you’re wondering about the pronounciation, the first name rhymes with “doll” and the last with “a float.”) While most superhero characters mask their feelings, with Gadot’s Wonder Woman they are there to be seen clearly. More than that, they are the motivation for her actions. It is rare for an action movie to pass the Bechdel test, but Wonder Woman does that with flying colors. Hopefully the likely success of the movie will begin a flow of more films centered on female characters. That truly would be wonderful.

Nope, There’s the Kitchen Sink, Too

The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” has been around for at least a century. It means grabbing everything you can, overloading, filling something to overflowing. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. If you’re on the receiving end, a deal where you get everything but the kitchen sink is great for you, though it might be overwhelming. The phrase came back to me as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first Guardians film was a mammoth sleeper hit. Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, it literally was far out on the edge with little to tie it to Ironman, Captain America, et al. Even the tag of Thor that introduced Benitio del Toro’s Collector featured two secondary Asgardians rather than the Thunder Lord himself. Chris Pratt was known more for his comedic turn on “Parks and Rec” and was definitely not thought of in beefcake terms. While Zoe Saldana is beautiful and talented, it’s not that easy being green. Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista had only done a few movies where he was mostly featured for his physique. And arguably the two best-known actors in the cast, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were voices for CGI characters, including one who said only three words.

But it worked. After an opening that ripped your gut emotionally, it switched to the pure joy of comedic action during the opening credits. And it did benefit from a truly awesome mix of songs from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer/director James Gunn had paid his dues with some schlocky material, including scripting two Scooby-Doo movies, but he’d also shown his humor with the comedic/horror film Slither and the superhero deconstruction Super. He let the film flow from action to farce to tenderness to humor to heart-tugging emotion. It became the third highest grossing film of 2014, and beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most successful Marvel movie that year in the US, though Cap took the worldwide box office.

But you don’t get to fly under the radar twice. There was a huge amount of pressure on Gunn to match or beat the success of the original movie, and he had a budget twice as large to work with. It could have been a situation like The Matrix: the original a sleeper hit, the subsequent movies bigger and louder, but with plots that, to be charitable, were piles of mush. The good news is that Gunn’s blasted through the expectations and created an enjoyable movie that recaptures the feel of the original while going a bit deeper. The first movie was about five disparate characters merging into a family. Volume 2 is about how you bind that family into a unit, and about picking up a few cousins along the way.

Needless to say there are growing pains. The movie opens with a short piece from Earth in 1980, showing Meredith Quill with her spaceman boyfriend. Fast forward to the present day with the Guardians hired by the Sovereign race to protect the Anulax batteries from a rampaging monster. Most of the battle takes place in the background while Baby Groot rocks out to “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which definitely belongs on an awesome mix tape. In exchange for protecting the batteries, the Sovereign High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gives the Guardians Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) for the price on her head. However, Rocket figures since the batteries are right there, unprotected except by the Guardians, he might as well take them. The Sovereign don’t take kindly to it and send a huge drone force to destroy the Guardians. Their ship sustains major damage, but they’re saved by the arrival of Peter’s father, riding on a white egg-shaped spacecraft. The group separates with Peter, Gamora, and Drax accompanying Ego (Kurt Russell) and his companion, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet. Rocket and Baby Groot remain to repair the ship, unaware that the Ravagers who kidnapped Peter from earth have rebelled against their leader, Yondo (Michael Rooker) and are coming for the Guardians at the behest of Ayesha and the Sovereigns.

The kitchen sink comes into play on individual sequences, such as one where Baby Groot is asked to find a piece of equipment that will help Rocket and Yondo escape the Ravagers. It goes on and on, dancing perilously close to becoming repetitive and boring, but just when it’s about to tip over the edge Gunn cuts it and leads into a massive battle sequence.

Strangely enough, the two outstanding characters in the film are Yondo and Nebula. For Nebula, she gets to work out her issues of being the least liked daughter with Gomora. Of course, with these characters the “working out” is a prolonged battle that nearly kills both of them. For Yondo, he gets to rise to true hero status.

This is a movie you’ll likely want to see multiple times, just to catch what you missed the first time through, or the second, or the third. The final credits are another kitchen sink moment, with six – count ‘em, six! – tags, plus extras salted into the credits, including lines that say “I am Groot” that eventually are translated into an actual credit.

Volume 2 satisfies. Go ahead and watch it – a few times.

Not Enough Promise

There have been excellent movies that dealt with genocide. For the Holocaust, there’s Schindler’s List, Shoah, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Au Revoir Les Enfants, among many others. The Rwandan genocide had the powerful Hotel Rwanda, and for the Cambodian “Year Zero” cleansing there was The Killing Fields. Curiously, one genocide has never been the subject of a movie: The Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks during and after World War I. A million and a half Armenians were wiped out by the Turkish authorities, a full three/quarters of the population. Worse, the genocide became a template for the Holocaust. Part of the reason Hitler thought he could get away with his elimination of the Jews was how Turkey killed off the Armenians with little interference from other countries. To this day, the Turkish government officially denies that there was ever any genocide in spite of overwhelming evidence. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” in 1943 was thinking of Armenia when he did it. Later he explained, “…it happened so many times… It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians Hitler took action.”

The recently-released movie The Promise was an attempt to right that oversight. The producer behind the film was legendary businessman and ethnic Armenian Kirk Kerkorian. The movie-real estate-casino mogul hired the director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, to work magic a second time to tell the story of how the Armenians were purged from the Ottoman Empire after having been a part of it for five hundred years. (Historic Armenia was in the eastern part of Turkey and crossed over the border into Russia’s southernmost region.) I’d love to report The Promise fulfilled the hopes of Kerkorian, who died in 2015 well before the movie was filmed. Sadly, I can’t.

The $90-million dollar production had the resources, and the locations, set decorations, and costuming are first-class. George recruited an excellent slate of performers, including Oscar Isaacs, Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan (“Westworld”), Jean Reno, and James Cromwell.

The problem is the events get lost under a pedestrian romantic triangle. The film offers only the vaguest explanation of why the extermination broke out. It gives no context to the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern Turkey, including the youthful Army officers who staged a coup d’état in 1908 to remove the Ottoman sultan and set up a constitutional monarchy instead. (They’ve forever given the name of “Young Turks” to youthful insurrectionists in business.) There’s also little illumination given to the actual massacre, which featured death marches, concentration camps, mass burnings, and poisonings.

Instead, we have Isaacs as the small-town druggist Mikael who manages to make it to medical school in Constantinople by using the dowry he received for becoming betrothed to Maral (Sarafyan). There he lives with his uncle, a wealthy merchant, and comes into contact with Ana (Le Bon), the daughter of a world-renowned musician who is teaching dance to the merchant’s children. Ana, though, is in a relationship with American newspaperman Chris Myers (Bale). It’s both romantic and professional, as Ana is a skilled artist and illustrates the stories Chris writes. Turkey enters the war in 1914 on the side of the Germans, and on April 24, 1915, the deportation of 250-plus Armenian intellectuals signals the beginning of the genocide. (George and his co-writer, Robin Swicord, completely ignore that this coincided with the attempt by the Allied naval forces to break through the Dardenelles, which led to the failed land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula.)

The characters are simplistic and unconvincing, in particular Bale who ping pongs between the ugly American and the crusading news reporter. Bale’s character could have been a conduit for explaining the why of the events, but that chance is squandered. The movie also gives short shift to American Ambassador Henry Morganthau Sr. (Cromwell) who did much to alert the world to the genocide and organize relief for the survivors. He’s given one short scene, where his function is mostly to save Bale’s character.

The Promise is a disappointment. Hopefully someone will undertake a novel or a movie that does do justice to this horrible episode of history. The Promise missed its chance.

10 Natural Disasters – And the Best Movies Depicting Them

Movies have been showing disasters almost from the inception of the film camera. Thomas Edison had a team that managed to get onto Galveston Island and record the devastation following the 1900 Cat 4 hurricane that destroyed much of the city. For narrative films, in 1913 there was a depiction of the last days of Pompeii, and a comet causes widespread destruction in 1916’s The End of the World. With the increasing sophistication of special effects, and now digital effects, filmmakers can convincingly show disasters as part of their movies. Below are listed ten natural disasters, and my choice for the best movies to depict them. (I’ll include some honorable mentions as well.) Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

1) Flood: The Wave (2015)

According to the Bible, God promised Noah never to destroy the whole world again in a flood. But that hasn’t stopped parts from being washed away. The Wave is a Norwegian film about the collapse of the side of a fjord that sends a massive wall of water down the inlet towards a city. As the preamble of the film states, the movie’s based on past events that will likely again happen in the future. Click here to read my full review of this film. (Honorable Mention: The Impossible)

2) Hurricane: The Hurricane (1937)

This is the oldest movie to make this list, but there are reasons for its inclusion. Foremost, it was directed by a Hollywood legend, John Ford. Also, special effects probably became an Academy Award category because of this film along with San Francisco a year earlier. (The award was added for 1938.) While the main story of a Polynesian native and his wife (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour, slipping into a sarong for the first time) being persecuted by the island’s governor (Raymond Massey) is pretty standard, the climatic storm is intense even viewed with today’s eyes, as you can see in this clip. (Honorable Mention: The Perfect Storm)

3) Plague: Contagion (2011)

Plagues have had devastating impacts on humans. The Black Death in the 14th Century killed 50 million, or 60% of Europe’s population, and the 1918 Influenza pandemic killed between 20-40 million worldwide, more than died in the four years of World War 1 leading up to the outbreak. For Contagion, Steven Soderbergh assembled a huge cast to populate this story of another worldwide pandemic. Along with depicting the plague and its effects, the movie is also a mystery story that slowly reveals the origin of the disease and its spread. My full review. (Honorable Mention: Outbreak)

4) Tornado: Into The Storm (2014)

In the age of storm chasers and compact video cameras, it’s hard to remember that tornadoes were once the rarest weather event caught on film. Now you can watch hours of them on YouTube. Likewise, visual effect twisters have come a long way from the 35 foot muslin tube around a chicken-wire frame used for the twister in The Wizard of Oz. While most people might choose my Honorable Mention, for me the best Tornado movie is Into The Storm. The film uses (for the most part) the found footage motif to assemble the story of an outbreak of storms that decimates a Midwestern city over the course of a few hours. Click here to read my full review. (Honorable Mention: Twister)

5) Earthquake: San Andreas (2015)

I could have selected San Francisco, another granddaddy of the disaster genre, with its depiction of the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, I chose San Andreas because, different from many disaster movies, it gives its main characters intelligence. While it’s thrilling, it could also be used as a public service announcement of what to do during a quake. Much of the action is over the top, especially with the number of high rise buildings that fall like dominos, though that’s not completely out of the question. The Millenium Tower in San Francisco has sunk a foot and a half since it opened 8 years ago, and it has tilted 2 inches to the northwest. It’s located in an area where the ground could liquefy during a major quake, so San Andreas might be prescient. My full review. (Honorable Mention: 1936’s San Francisco)

6) Volcano: Volcano (1997)

This disaster has an overabundance of dishonorable mention movies, including the geographically-challenged Krakatoa, East of Java, the Irwin Allen disaster of a disaster movie, When Time Ran Out, and the 2014 embarrassment Pompeii. 1997 saw two volcanic movies released, Dante’s Peak (with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton) and Volcano (with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche). Neither are great, but I’m choosing Volcano because it has a cockeyed comic edge that helps you forgive the stereotypical characters and ham-fisted directing. Dante’s Peak, on the other hand, is deadly serious. Neither film erupted at the box office, but Volcano did have the one of the best movie poster tag lines ever: “The Coast Is Toast.” (Honorable Mention: 1961’s The Devil at 4 O’Clock)

7) Famine: Distant Thunder  aka Ashani Sanket (1973)

Famine is not a theme that is dealt with often in movies in North America or Europe. About the only time its possibility is faced is in science fiction, as seen in the honorable mentions. But in other places on the globe, famine is an immediate concern. Distant Thunder was made in 1973 by one of the greats of the Indian film industry, Satyajit Ray. Set in the middle of World War II, it focuses on the newly installed leader of a village in India, and on his wife. A famine grips the area and reaches catastrophic proportions. While the leader seeks to maintain his privileged position, his wife seeks to help the victims of the famine. (Honorable mentions: Interstellar, Soylent Green)

8) Climate Change: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

One problem with depicting climate change is that it happens gradually. Yet the effects are there to be seen in warmer average temperatures, more intense weather events, and changes in water levels. The best movie on this subject would be An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which has a sequel being released later this year: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. But we’re not dealing with documentaries here. So while climate change is referenced in movies like Interstellar and Into the Storm, the narrative film that focused on climate change was The Day After Tomorrow. Disaster specialist Roland Emmerich put climate change on fast forward and postulated what would happen if the change, leading to a new ice age, occurred in weeks instead of gradually. While it’s a popcorn movie entertainment, it’s worth remembering that it came out the year before Hurricane Katrina and 8 years before Hurricane Sandy. Where we used to talk about the storm of the century, we’re now down to the storm of the decade. (Another reason for choosing it: Al Gore used a clip from the opening sequence of Day After Tomorrow in his film)

9) Asteroid/Meteor Impact: tie – Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (2012) and These Final Hours (2013)

There have been extinction-level events caused by asteroids or meteors, but not since man came on the scene. The Tunguska Event in Siberia in 1908 was the largest in recorded history, caused by an object estimated to have been 200 to 600 feet in size. Rather than impact, it blew up in the air with the force of 10-15 megatons – about 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima A-bomb – and flattened 830 square miles of trees in an uninhabited area of Siberia. That’s large enough to destroy New York City and much of the surrounding area. But there are objects out there that are measured in miles. If they hit us, that would be the end. Two movies in 1998 – Armageddon and Deep Impact – had astronauts saving the world by breaking up the asteroid, but the fallacy of both movies is that there’d be a lengthy warning of the approaching object that would allow a mission to be launched. Instead, it’s likely we’d only have a short time to prepare for the end. Seeking a Friend… and These Final Hours both deal with that eventuality, though from different perspectives. Seeking a Friend… is pre-impact and follows Steve Carell trying to help Kiera Knightly get home to England before the end. It treats the situation as black comedy. These Final Hours is an Australian film set after the impact with a firestorm wave sweeping around the world. In the twelve hours before destruction reaches Australia, a ne’er-do-well discovers his humanity by helping a young girl separated from her parents. (Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

10) Miscellaneous Catastrophe: The Children of Men (2003)

Films have presented disaster in many massive ways: a solar flare microwaving the Earth (Knowing); the disruption of the magnetic field (The Core); the liquefaction of the center of the earth causing catastrophic movement of the continents (2012). But Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel, has the world thrown into apocalyptic disarray because no children have been born in over two decades. England has become a dystopia where immigrants are herded into ghettos while society slides towards oblivion. But then a man (Clive Owen) is recruited by his estranged wife (Julianne Moore) to shepherd a young African woman out of England to meet a ship filled with scientists. The catch is the young woman is pregnant. This movie was sabotaged in the theaters by one of the worse trailers ever, but it’s a powerful film with scenes that stay with you long after the movie ends. (Semi-honorable mention: If you haven’t seen The Core, it’s worth a shot. While the premise is ridiculous, its cast is filled with exceptionally good actors and it has a gonzo sense of humor that serves it well.)

The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

The Newest Tale As Old As Time

When Howard Ashman began the titular song of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast with the line “Tale as old as time…,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. Elements of the story can be found in tales 4000 years old, though the most direct link would be the story of Psyche and Cupid from the 2nd Century AD book “Metamophoses” by Platonicus. The modern form dates from France in the mid-1700s, with “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, though other authors have added their own touches to the story since then. It’s been filmed many times, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, and has spawned a couple TV series. The best version, though, has to be Disney’s 1991 animated feature – the first animated movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I wrote a full post on it after its re-release in 3D six years ago, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Now I must add an asterisk to that statement. If anything, the new live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is better.

This is the third live action version of a classic Disney animated movie to come to the theaters. Tim Burton started it with his Alice in Wonderland, then Kenneth Branagh did a sparkling non-musical version of Cinderella in 2015. The studio is planning a full slate of adaptations, with the next one to be Mulan next year. (Currently the plan is for it also to be a non-musical.) While I was looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, I admit I had a bit of trepidation as well. The 1991 version brought me to tears in the theater, and I still can’t watch it without choking up at the climax. But the new version isn’t just a hit; it slammed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Part of it is the casting. I’m now convinced that Emma Watson really is a wizard who’s cast a spell beguiling us. Her singing is just as wonderful as her acting, and her intelligence shines brightly in the character. Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6, The Hobbit trilogy) manages to make meta-villain Gaston realistic and definitely threatening, while Josh Gad’s version of LeFou is delightful and definitely deeper than the 1991 version. Dan Stevens probably is most known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” though now it will be for his performance as The Beast. Even with the massive makeup, you still see through to the Beast’s soul. The film has an overabundance of riches in its supporting characters. The castle is populated with Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A special delight for me was Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice.

Another benefit comes from the highly-successful Broadway version that expands the story from the 1991 film’s original 84 minutes. (The new version runs 129 minutes; there are a couple of places where the flow of the story slows a bit, but they’re minor hiccups.) Music from the Broadway version has been incorporated, with lyrics by Tim Rice to music by original composer Alan Menken, and the story has been fleshed out in other ways as well.

The adaptation was done by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which he both adapted for the movie version and directed. Chbosky had also done the adaptation of Rent, so he’s worked in the musical genre before.  He collaborated with Evan Spiliotopoulos who’d done multiple direct-to-video scripts for Disney and was well-acquainted with the studio’s style. Some of the story departs from the 1991 film and instead incorporates pieces from the 18th Century versions, in particular Maurice’s experience in the Beast’s castle, and expands Belle’s background. They also add some wicked quips, including one referencing the permanent winter surrounding the castle which passes without comment in the animated version.

Director Bill Condon, too, has worked with movie adaptations of musicals before, writing the script for Chicago as well as writing and directing Dreamgirls in 2006. He’d also won an Oscar for his 1998 script of Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Condon isn’t constrained by the visuals of the original. He pays tribute to them occasionally, such as during the “Bonjour” sequence as well as Belle’s “I want adventure” reprise, but overall he smartly reimagines the scenes and sets so they work in the live-action realm.

There was a kerfuffle amongst some conservatives when it was announced a character would be openly gay – no points for guessing which one. It truly is a tempest in Mrs. Potts. Nothing in the film is more objectionable than in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons from seventy-five years ago. They were a bit edgier than Disney, but they were funny then and are still funny today. Also, it’s rather ridiculous to be upset about a gay character in a film about a girl and a horned beast falling deeply in love. Beauty and the Beast is all about seeing the heart and not the externals.

What’s more poignant is why the character’s orientation was included. The lyricist of the 1991 movie, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He could turn a phrase as well as any of the giants of musical theater, such as Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Alan Jay Lerner. With his composer partner, Alan Menken, they’d created the musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Following that, Disney had them compose the songs for The Little Mermaid, the movie that established the new age of Disney animated brilliance. Beauty and the Beast was their masterpiece, but strangely enough it almost didn’t happen. The film was originally written as a non-musical. Ashman and Menken were working on what was supposed to be their follow-up – Aladdin – when Disney execs asked them to save Beauty and the Beast as the production was going nowhere. But during that time Ashman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It progressed to full-blown AIDS, and Ashman died eight months before Beauty and the Beast was released. That film bears the dedication “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” The inclusion of a gay character in the live-action remake was a tribute to Ashman.

As most know, Beauty and the Beast demolished the box office records for a March release, racking up over $170 million domestically and passing $300 million worldwide in its first weekend. But for me, its success was me sitting in my seat in the theater with tears streaming down my cheeks at the film’s climax. I knew it was coming, but still I was overwhelmed. I sat in the theater to the end of the credits to give myself time to recover.

When a movie can touch people in the audience with that power, it is truly something beautiful.