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Movie Review: “Life”

Starring
Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare
Director
Daniel Espinosa

Daniel Espinosa’s “Life” is a lean, mean studio B-movie that knows how to move. Right from the start, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick don’t waste time. The sci-fi thriller’s simplicity and brevity is one of its many strengths, in addition to some compelling performances, a genuinely nasty alien and a third act that finishes strong.

Calvin is the name given to the film’s antagonist, a deadly little organism (and the first sign of life discovered on Mars) that grows larger and more lethal over the course of the story. The alien wreaks havoc aboard an International Space Station inhabited by a team of scientists, including Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Katerine Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya). They’re all given personalities at an extremely efficient pace, so once the number of crew members begins to decline, it doesn’t feel like candy being tossed aside. The stakes are monumental in “Life,” and you can definitely feel it as the crew floats around in zero gravity trying to figure out how to kill this thing before it finds a way of reaching (and destroying) Earth.

“Life” is a pretty straightforward genre flick, but it isn’t thin. In fact, the simplicity that Reese and Wernick have achieved with movies like “Zombieland,” “Deadpool” and now “Life” is exhilarating in this day and age of bloated blockbusters. There’s not a single ounce of filler in these three films. They pick up and start running immediately, which Espinosa communicates in a lengthy opening take that is sometimes dazzling and sometimes a little obvious and strained. It’s the only scene where you’re aware of the filmmaker’s hand, but the sequence still has its moments. With the rest of the movie, Espinosa serves up an increasingly tense experience.

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Movie Review: “Nocturnal Animals”

Starring
Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber
Director
Tom Ford

It’s been seven years since fashion designer Tom Ford made his directorial debut with “A Single Man,” and although that movie was an impressive showcase for Ford’s visual panache that netted Colin Firth a much-deserved Oscar nomination, it left audiences wondering if he would be able to replicate that success. It may have taken a little longer than expected (after all, he has a fashion empire to run), but Ford confirms his debut was no fluke with a more ambitious and confident follow-up that’s every bit as stylish. Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan,” “Nocturnal Animals” is a dark and disturbing adult thriller that gets under your skin and stays there, and while it’s not always a pleasant experience, that’s what makes it so effective.

The film opens in truly shocking style with a montage of obese, mostly naked women dancing in a shower of glitter that turns out to be part of an art show curated by Los Angeles gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). Susan has everything she could possibly want – a dashing husband (Armie Hammer), a luxurious mansion and a supportive group of wealthy friends – but she’s not happy, trapped in an unfulfilling career and a loveless marriage that’s on the verge of falling apart. One day, Susan receives a package containing a manuscript from her ex-husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she left 20 years earlier when he was still just a struggling writer, and is surprised to discover that the unpublished novel, titled “Nocturnal Animals,” has been dedicated to her.

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Movie Review: “Demolition”

Starring
Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind
Director
Jean-Marc Vallée

Jake Gyllenhaal has really turned around his career over the past few years with character-driven films like “Nightcrawler,” “Enemy” and “Prisoners,” so it only seems natural that he would want to collaborate with Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian-born director who led Matthew McConaughey to Oscar gold in “Dallas Buyers Club” and helped revive Reese Witherspoon’s career with “Wild.” Unfortunately, while Gyllenhaal continues his fine form in “Demolition” – Vallée’s third movie in a row to deal with the subject of grief – the film isn’t as good as the performance at the center of it. Though it’s a refreshingly honest look at coming to terms with the death of a loved one, without Gyllenhaal in the lead role, “Demolition” wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.

The actor stars as Davis Mitchell, a successful New York investment banker who’s become so emotionally numb that he doesn’t know how to react when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) dies in a car accident – one that he escaped with barely a scratch. His father-in-law/boss Phil (Chris Cooper) believes that Davis is in shock and just needs time to process it all, but he can’t even squeeze out a tear at the funeral, instead fixated on the hospital vending machine that failed to dispense the peanut M&Ms he purchased shortly after Julia’s death. Over the following weeks, Davis writes a series of complaint letters to the vending company that take the form of cathartic, soul-baring confessionals filled with intimate details about his life under the assumption that no one will ever read them. But when the company’s lonely customer service representative, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), reaches out to Davis after being touched by his brutally honest letters, the pair forms an unlikely connection. With the help of Karen and her rebellious teenage son (Judah Lewis), Davis begins to dismantle his old life to understand what went wrong.

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Movie Review: “Everest”

Starring
Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly
Director
Baltasar Kormákur

It’s really not surprising that “Everest” is from the director of “2 Guns” and “Contraband.” A true-life story about survival may seem outside of Baltasar Kormákur’s wheelhouse, but that’s not the case. “Everest” is just as competently made as the director’s two action thrillers, and yet strangely, it’s also as emotionally distant and perfunctory.

“Everest” should be a harrowing story about survival, ambition and the human spirit, but it’s really none of those things, only ever scratching the surface of the story. The film follows a group of climbers as they set out to reach the top of Mount Everest. The team consists mostly of strangers, including the leaders of the expedition, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), as well as Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hanson (John Hawkes) and more. As Hall points out, humans aren’t built to survive the conditions of Mount Everest, especially once Death Valley is reached, so it’s a dangerous decision in the first place – one made only more dangerous when a brutal and violent storm hits as the team ascends the mountain.

That’s all there is to “Everest”: they go up the mountain, something awful happens, and that’s it. That’s as far as Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson’s script goes. What’s funny is that they’ve both written survivalist stories before: Beaufoy penned “127 Hours,” while Nicholson wrote last year’s “Unbroken.” “Everest,” unfortunately, is more like Angelina Jolie’s film, showing us a series of events without much meaning. There are a handful of emotional moments, but unlike “127 Hours,” there’s very little exploration. In one scene, the members of the group are asked why they’re climbing Mount Everest, and we’re given fairly basic explanations for such a complex and dangerous desire. We rarely see these motivations unfold or depicted on the mountain.

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Movie Review: “Southpaw”

Starring
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris
Director
Antoine Fuqua

Throughout the years, boxing movies have been synonymous with tales of redemption – from “Rocky,” to “Raging Bull,” to “The Fighter” – and Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is no different. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the story that hasn’t already appeared countless times before in other boxing films, but despite the clichéd plot, the movie isn’t without its charms. At the top of that list is star Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues his remarkable career reinvention from pretty-boy leading man to serious actor with yet another fantastic performance. It likely won’t earn him the Oscar nomination he was wrongfully snubbed for last year’s “Nightcrawler,” but it builds upon that transformative role with such mature confidence that it only seems like a matter of time before he’s finally rewarded for his work.

The movie opens with undefeated light heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) successfully defending his title at Madison Square Garden and cementing his status as one of the best boxers in the sport. Everyone wants their chance to go toe-to-toe with him in the ring, including hotshot fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), but Billy’s levelheaded wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), urges him to make the sensible decision and call it quits while he’s still on top… and before he becomes so punch drunk that he can’t enjoy his success. When Miguel instigates a fight with him at a charity fundraiser and Maureen is shot and killed among the chaos, Billy spirals out of control, landing himself in trouble with the boxing league and losing his house, his possessions, and most importantly, custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Desperate to keep her out of the foster care system where he spent his childhood, Billy seeks help from a gruff, veteran trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get back what he lost.

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