Life **|****

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The new sci-fi horror mashup Life follows a crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they successfully secure a speeding space probe from Mars that may hold the secret of life forms beyond Earth. After taking a sample from the planet’s soil, the ship’s biologist (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a single-celled organism that he’s able to revive with atmospheric adjustments and the slimy new passenger soon turns into a more complex being before their very eyes. When an experiment goes wrong in the lab one day, the new creature (who comes to be nicknamed Calvin) escapes his containment area and becomes increasingly hostile towards the astronauts on board.

The good news is that everything prior to the title card, say the first 15 minutes or so, is first-rate and includes a one-take tracking shot that expertly captures the crew in the middle of a mission as the camera zips around effortlessly in the zero-gravity environment. The bad news is that subsequent hour or so is poorly scripted, unmemorably acted and worst of all, highly derivative of other space horror films like Alien and Sunshine. From a conceptual standpoint, it feels like a rebuttal to The Martian, which is about one astronaut stranded in space who uses his intelligence and scientific know-how to navigate through his dire situation.

Life inverts this scenario and instead assigns us to a group of scientists with the kind of lackluster decision-making capabilities that have seemed to plague screaming teenagers in slasher movies for years now. Nearly every choice or plan that’s made by any character seems ill-advised and devoid of any common sense, to the degree that they’re not believable as top researchers in their respective fields, much less as reasonably smart people to begin with. This is a movie about the search for intelligent life and it seems that before Calvin enters the space station, there’s none to be found on board among the incompetent crew.

It also doesn’t help that the characters are not very well-established either, as director Daniel Espinosa is clearly in a big hurry to show us his ever-expanding digital monster rather than give us a crew worth rooting for in the first place. That’s a shame since the cast includes charismatic and capable performers like Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson who aren’t able to use their star power to put some life into their one-dimensional roles. The screenwriting duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick eschews any wit and flavor they may have had left from last year’s Deadpool script and instead settles for flat, perfunctory dialogue peppered with technical goobledigook for good measure.

The film doesn’t score many points on the dramatic and science fiction fronts but if you’re expecting a simple, space-set slasher movie, then there is some fun to be had as the crew members are dispatched in creative and often unexpected ways. The visual design for Calvin starts off a bit silly, as he initially flops around the lab like a squishy sponge but he continues to grow into a more sophisticated and menacing foe throughout the story. Aside from some of these horror elements and a promising opening sequence, Life is generally underwhelming and frequently reminds us of how much better it could have been.

Beauty and the Beast *½|****

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast

Disney continues their incessant parade of live-action remakes with this soulless and garish recreation of one of their most beloved classics and the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture before the genre received its own award category in 2001. Beauty and the Beast directly copies so many elements of the 1991 original that it threatens redundancy during every scene and seems to profess its inferiority with each passing minute. I wasn’t the biggest fan of last year’s Jungle Book rehash but at least that film had an engaging visual strategy and a fresh perspective on the source material, aspects that are sorely needed in this bungled attempt of an adaptation.

The story once again introduces us to an arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) who is transformed into a hideous beast by an sorceress after she is scornfully denied shelter in his mansion, only to be turned human again when he earns the love of another. We then meet a free-spirited bookworm named Belle (Emma Watson), who lives in a quaint French village with her charming father Maurice (Kevin Kline) while fending off the lecherous advances of the haughty townsman Gaston (Luke Evans). After Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast for trespassing, Belle offers to take his place in the haunted castle instead but after spending time with her captor, an unlikely romance begins to bloom.

Director Bill Condon has the unenviable task of essentially trying to improve on perfection, which includes carbon copying all of the successful portions of the 85-minute original and adding unnecessary plot details and extra musical numbers until we reach a bloated 130-minute runtime. To his credit, his film is paced rather well considering all of the superfluous baggage that threatens to weigh it down but he also doesn’t even attempt to make his own mark on this story either. Nearly everything in Beauty and the Beast is overdone, from the murky visual style (I can’t imagine how drab the 3D version must look) to the embellished effects work that hits its low point with a visually incomprehensible version of “Be Our Guest”.

In keeping with the overly polished aesthetic, the majority of the vocal performances (especially those by Emma Watson) come across as very “processed” with noticeable amounts of pitch correction being applied to singers who may not even need it in the first place. In contrast to this, Watson does her best to lend some naturalistic touches to her acting, which can be a tricky thing considering she’s mainly acting against a cast that’s added in post-production. Dan Stevens, who I loved in The Guest, doesn’t fare nearly as well in this conception of the Beast that obscures any emotive possibilities with weak motion capture and a lack of clarity that renders his character a moody mess.

Save for a few lines of new dialogue and a revised musical score by composer Alan Menken, I struggle to recall a single thing that this remake does that the original didn’t do better in the first place and while watching it, I found myself often wishing that I could watch the animated version instead. Its storytelling is much more efficient, its hand-drawn technique is superior to the standard issue computer-generated effects and most surprisingly, there’s a wit and comedic timing to the original that is completely absent from this rendition. Disney had the opportunity to re-contextualize this “tale as old as time” but by playing it safe and sticking to the profit-oriented playbook, they did a disservice to one of their greatest achievements.

Kong: Skull Island **½|****

Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island

Everybody’s favorite oversized gorilla is back for his eighth feature in Kong: Skull Island, a monster movie that’s lacking worthwhile characters and a plausible plotline but still delivers the goods with some excellent effects-driven sequences. Like just about everything else these days, one of this primary film’s goals is to set up a franchise –in this case, the Warner Bros/Legendary “MonsterVerse” that began with the glum 2014 remake Godzilla— but Skull Island does have enough unique touches to distinguish itself from other brain-dead reboots. Though its 1970s setting is meant to inspire comparisons to the Vietnam War and the subsequent war movies that were based on it, this is actually more of a throwback to the creature features of the 1950s that threw loads of terrifying creations onto the screen just to see what would stick.

After a prologue set during World War II, we move forward to 1973 as government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits a crew to substantiate his suspicions that an uncharted island may be home to ancient beings of massive proportions. Along for the ride is British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), in addition to US colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron. After dropping a heavy arsenal of explosives to “test for seismic activity”, the explorers are introduced to the gigantic ape Kong as he annihilates their air attack and leaves the surviving parties stranded on various parts of the island.

Besides setting the movie during such an evocative time period in American history, another key decision that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes when retelling this story is how early in its runtime he chooses to reveal his central monster. Where other directors have kept creatures like Jaws and Godzilla under the surface or obscured in some way, Vogt-Roberts knows the audience is there to see Kong do his thing and its no surprise that his first scene is the film’s highlight. In fact, the first 20-30 minutes are so clumsy in their attempt to flesh out the characters and their motivations that I almost wish we could have arrived at Skull Island even sooner.

For better or worse, the movie’s most sympathetic and enjoyable character isn’t a part of the initial band of visitors but is an eccentric resident of the island played by John C. Reilly who pops up about halfway through the story. Not only does he possess much needed wisdom about the mysterious land and the way of its creatures, he also has a wacky affability and the kind of goofy charm that Reilly has perfected throughout his career. During his initial encounter with Conrad and Weaver, he clues them in to the worst monsters on the island that he has dubbed “Skullcrawlers” because, well, the name “sounded neat” to him.

To its credit, Skull Island moves briskly from one creepy monster to the next but contrivances that keep our protagonists stranded on the titular island begin to pile up in ways likely to irk even those who say they don’t care about plot in monster movies. A certain character’s descent into madness (yes, this movie owes quite a bit to Apocalypse Now) begins to hijack the narrative about two-thirds of the way through and makes the concept of computer-generated behemoths brawling seem credible when compared to the overwhelmingly stupid decisions made by the humans. As a showcase for some jaw-dropping special effects, Kong is undeniably effective but it could have been much more memorable with some tighter screenwriting and attention to character.

Logan ***|****

Hugh Jackman in Logan

Hugh Jackman dons the CGI claws one last time as the mutant Wolverine for the brutal and sobering Logan, which is as startling a left turn into dramatic territory for the superhero genre as last year’s Deadpool was for the comedic sides of things. The X-Men series has always been attuned with the more fantastical and frivolous trappings of comic book fare –often the glut of superpowers across its myriad of characters can seem arbitrary and sometimes a bit silly– but the character of Wolverine has always been treated with more weight and seriousness in the film adaptations. It’s not surprising, then, that Logan feels like a culmination of the more mature themes that the character has established and is a perfect send-off for Jackman’s iteration of the brooding berserker.

Set in 2029 after the X-Men have disbanded and any remaining mutants are mysteriously absent, we follow an aging “Wolverine” (he just goes by Logan now) as he wastes his days as a nondescript limo driver in Texas while also caring for the now brain-damaged Professor Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart). After meeting with a desperate new client, Logan reluctantly accepts a job to transport a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a location nicknamed “Eden” in North Dakota, which allegedly provides safe haven for those with special powers. While on the road, they are pursued by the devious Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his mechanically-enhanced henchmen from the shady corporation Transigen that’s behind other “manufactured mutants” like Laura.

Director James Mangold, also responsible for the excellent 2007 remake 3:10 To Yuma, envisions this chapter in Wolverine’s story as a modern-day Western about a man whose lifetime of suffering and regret has finally caught up with him as his ability to heal fades away. His unrelenting focus is on the human side of these seemingly impervious superheroes, who we’ve previously seen manage incredible acts of courage and strength but now struggle just to get through each day as their bodies continue to fail them. The effects of their ailments can manifest themselves in exaggerated supernatural form–for instance, Xavier’s dementia triggers seizures that create a kind of “psychic earthquake” for those who surround him–but Mangold also gives equal attention to the constant necessities of sleep and sustenance (and, yes, bladder relief) along the way.

Aside from being an overt, Shane-referencing Western, Logan also functions as a throwback road movie with a sci-fi twist that has shades of superb contemporaries like Midnight Special and even the time-traveler Looper at the heart of its story. At times, it feels like a contrasting character study between two men dealing with the inevitability of time in polar opposite ways; Xavier with a sense of quiet humility and  Logan with a great deal of bitter resentment. Most important for fans of the series, though, this is an uncompromising, R-rated action feature that will satiate the bloodlust of hardcore Wolverine fans who have been denied the ultra-violent carnage that the PG-13 films previously kept at bay.

Even if this is used as a justification for the gratuitous and, dare I say, needlessly excessive action scenes, I still found the film to be more exhausting than exhilarating in the execution (pardon the term) of its combat. The opening scene, in which Logan confronts a pack of would-be car jackers, is well-choreographed and tightly edited but every subsequent scene of claw-imposed brutality begins to feel redundant and tedious throughout its punishing 140 minute runtime. Still, there’s plenty of other creative elements at play during Logan, in addition to a pair of terrific performances by Jackman and Stewart, that make it a worthy swan song for the Wolverine.