This Is a Movie Review: ‘Life Itself’ Has a Few Too Many Twists and Way Too Many Tragedies

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CREDIT: Jose Haro/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Oscar Issac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Dan Fogelman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Violent Accidents and Millennial Hipster Profanity

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love. (which he scripted) and This Is Us (which he created), Life Itself writer/director Dan Fogelman is now as synonymous with the game-changing twist as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s due for a backlash, and Life Itself is the perfect specimen to engender that anger. The film itself is not so much about the twist itself so much as it is about the entire concept of twists. Fogelman withholds essential information that prevents us from knowing until he wants us to know how various generations of people are related by coincidence or even closer connections. But he constantly shows his hand, or at least part of his hand, to let us know that a reveal is coming. In fact, this is all kind of a deconstruction about how we tell stories and save twists for maximum impact. I actually believe that such a theory-heavy idea could work, but the product we have here is filled with characters and events that are just exhausting.

The action is split by time and the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City, we’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a mostly happy couple who might have some insidious relationship issues lurking. Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) works the field and romances the waitress Isabel (Laia Costa). Along the way, we meet some of their parents, children, and employers. We immediately know how some of them are connected, while we then watch the other puzzle pieces come together in non-linear fashion to discover the rest of the connections. There could be a satisfying thrill to how the final twist weaves everyone together, but instead it is just exhausting, as all the misfortunes that these characters endure and the bad decisions that they make make for an excess of tragedy that is too much for any audience to bear.

Still, the ultimate lesson that Fogelman wants to convey is worth listening to and following: no matter what our history, no matter how much life has brought us to our knees, there is still a future worth pursuing. Life Itself does not need to be as excruciating as it is to make that point, but it is a valuable point nonetheless. And despite my misgivings, I still found this film oddly compelling, although that could just be because I like keeping track of how people are related to each other. Ultimately, I wish Fogelman had done more with the concept of playing around with the unreliable narrator, which he is clearly enamored with but ultimately a little tepid in how he examines it. It actually starts off promisingly, as the initial narrator shows up in person as himself to basically say, “Hey look, I’m really here!” But afterwards it’s pretty straightforward, but if that adventurous spirit had hung around, Life Itself coulda been something.

Life Itself is Recommended If You Like: This Is Us at its most emotionally manipulative

Grade: 2 out of 5 Unreliable Narrators

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Wonder’s’ Lessons in Kindness Are Obvious, But Timelessly Valuable

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CREDIT: Lionsgate Entertainment

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Noah Jupe, Ali Liebert, Danielle Rose Russell, Bryce Gheisar, Millie Davis, Elle McKinnon

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: PG for Middle School Bullying

Release Date: November 17, 2017

If you plan on seeing Wonder, please do yourself a favor and bring tissues. That is not a mark of quality in either direction, just a fair warning of what you’re in for. Of course, if you know the premise of the film, chances are you could have guessed as much. The story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a boy with a congenital facial deformity struggling to fit in at middle school, could not be anything but emotional. But the explanation for Wonder’s knack for keeping the waterworks running for two hours straight goes beyond the obvious. This is the type of movie in which rhetorically gifted actors make grand pronouncements about the importance of kindness and loyalty. Their insights are far from groundbreaking, sure, but their eloquence is a gift and the realization that people have had the courage to live up to these ideals is profoundly affecting.

Director Stephen Chbosky already demonstrated his emotional bona fides with the adaptation of his novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and with Wonder he has now confirmed himself as one of the best in the business for prompting a good cathartic cry. He pulls it off this time by taking full advantage of the academic setting. School is not just a place for learning how the world works, but also how to be a good person. It helps in that regard when you have dedicated educators, and Auggie has a couple of excellent teachers played by Daveed Diggs and Ali Liebert, and a fantastic principal played by Mandy Patinkin. They are not defined by their quirks but by their love of teaching. Diggs’ Mr. Browne is the type to write inspirational sayings like “our deeds are our monuments” on his chalkboard. It helps to be in an environment that reminds you of such simple, but necessary truths. Patinkin’s bow tie-sporting Mr. Tushman (yes, he’s fine with you laughing at his name) fulfills the bulk of the speechifying. With his words, he is marvelously generous, maintaining and spreading a positive attitude.

Wonder begins with Auggie’s perspective and narration, naturally enough. But it extends that generosity to multiple characters, making this less a story about overcoming physical defects and more one about how there are so many ways we can be cruel to anybody, but it is so much better if we instead reach out with kind gestures. The gift of subjectivity and their own narrated segments is granted to Auggie’s teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie’s best friend Jack (Noah Jupe), and Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). The lesson here is clear and effective: you never know someone else’s full story if you haven’t lived through it, so it is always wise to allow them to share it with you.

Chbosky can be a little haphazard with this subjectivity. It is no big loss that Auggie’s parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) are not afforded their own segments, as we still get satisfying peeks into their interiority. But it would have been nice, for example, if we had gotten a closer look at Julian (Bryce Gheisar), Auggie’s most frequent bully. We do meet his very unreasonable parents, but for a movie that is so kind in all capacities, it stings a little that he does not have more of a chance for redemption.

When you get right down to it, Wonder is simply a force for good in this world, demonstrating as it does that kindness, courage, second chances, and cameos from Chewbacca never go out of style.

Wonder is Recommended If You Like: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dead Poets Society, Room

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Astronaut Helmets

2015 Emmy Nominations Predictions and Wishlist

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For my detailed thoughts on my predictions and wishlists in the major Drama, Comedy, and Variety categories, check out these links:
Comedy
Drama
Variety

Guest Actor, Comedy
John Hawkes, Inside Amy Schumer
Michael Rapaport, Louie
Chris Gethard, Parks and Recreation
Dwayne Johnson, Saturday Night Live

Guest Actress, Comedy
Susie Essman, Broad City

Guest Actor, Drama
Mel Rodriguez, Better Call Saul

Guest Actress, Drama
Allison Janney, Masters of Sex
Linda Lavin, The Good Wife

Directing, Comedy
Rob Schrab, “Modern Espionage,” Community

Directing, Drama
Adam Arkin, “The Promise,” Justified

Writing, Comedy
Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” Community

Writng, Drama
Thomas Schnauz, “Pimento,” Better Call Saul

Animated Program
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”
American Dad! – “Dreaming of a White Porsche Christmas”
The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror XXV”

Commercial
Android – “Friends Furever”

Host – Reality/Reality Competition
RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Interactive Program
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Main Title Design
Man Seeking Woman

Single-Camera Picture Editing, Comedy
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”

Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program
Too Many Cooks
Billy On The Street With First Lady Michelle Obama, Big Bird And Elena!!!

Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or a Variety Program
Community

Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role
Man Seeking Woman – “Traib”