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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: LIFE ITSELF

The Buzz: Dan Fogelman, the successful creator of the acclaimed and meteorically popular tv show This Is Us makes his return to the big screen in an attempt to recapture some of that same cross-generational formula that has captured the rapt attention of so much of Middle America on a weekly basis. Life Itself is his sophomore effort following 2015's Danny Collins, and was the subject of a big bidding war between Paramount, Universal and Amazon, the latter of which won the rights to the film to the tune of $10 million dollars. Life Itself spans several decades within two families, both centered on a shared tragedy, and studies the intricacies of their relationships and the impact trauma has had on their familial lines.

What's Great About the Movie: A third of Life Itself is set in Spain, and stands apart from the rest. Captured almost fully in Spanish and subtitled, there's something to be admired about how Fogelman has seemingly tricked his intended audience into watching a "dreaded foreign language film". When Antonio Banderas first arrives on screen, and he immediately involves you in a monologue regarding the circumstances in which his character has found his fortune, there's a level of genuine pathos and emotional investment that is instantly sated within the viewer. Perhaps it's his years of starring in subpar projects, but there's a confidence in his line deliveries, and his ability to formulate a living, breathing character out very little that speaks volumes about what a powerful and undervalued performer he actually is. Thankfully, much of the rest of this sequence (approximately 1/3rd of the film), while veering into melodrama a little too sharply at times, is equally co-anchored by Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta, whose story is handled with a defter touch and built around strong-enough chemistry that the all too brief sojourn into their lives is when Life Itself isn't actively painful to watch.

What's Not-So-Great About the Movie: Everything else. The first third of the film feels like tragedy porn, trying its best to both pontificate over and over on the concept of an "unreliable narrator" and pull at the viewer's heartstrings, while competently achieving neither. The final third of the film feels basically like a (poor quality) Lifetime movie, but not in a fun and satirical way. It's hard to understand how the middle portion of the film is so much more watchable than what leads and follows it, but perhaps some of the credit is due to the fact that I wasn't hearing the dialogue in English. There are good ideas buried in this film, but they're completely washed away by the poor dialogue, the asinine philosophizing, and the way the actors wrestle with the script. Oscar Isaac, usually one of the more reliable performers in any film he's in, is completely drowned by this material. He looks uncomfortable and feels, at the very best of times, completely inauthentic. Olivia Wilde fares no better. Fortunately we don't have to spend the full running of the film with these characters, but they manage to tank the movie before it even gets out the gate.  

Final Verdict: If you like This is Us.... just go watch that. 

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