‘Life Itself’ Devastates, Delights

By Dianne White Crawford For The Signal Life Itself (Released) This film comes from director and writer Dan Fogelman who is famous for his many films like “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and television shows, including the hit NBC show, “This Is Us.” The film, with an ensemble cast, tells a story that spans continents and two generations. The film demonstrates how we are all connected by the good or the bad that life hands to us. It is through those connections that we can find meaning. Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) are madly in love, or at least from Will’s perspective they are. When something tragic happens, Will is left to pick up the pieces of a life he never signed up for. Not knowing what life has in mind, these characters are connected to characters in Spain. I don’t want you to be too confused so please just go with me here. Javier is a simple olive picker when noticed by his employer Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), who gives him a raise and a new position. With this money, he can finally make a life for his soon-to-be wife, Isabel and not yet born son, Rigo. As life unfolds as it does, in unexpected ways, their lives change and their futures with it. Don’t worry. Their connection to the american couple does happen. … What will surprise the audience most is how dark the film gets reasonably quickly. It certainly earns its R-rating within the first half hour of the film. It will shock and stun audiences, but when we start to pick up the pieces, we see the journey that Fogelman has in store for us. The writing style is filled with interwoven storylines, but the film is much more. It addresses topics on such a broad scale and it tackles the very subject the title of the film suggests: life. Oscar Isaac gives a stunning performance as Will. It is his raw emotion that grips the audience and doesn’t let go. Everything he does on screen is entrancing, and we are holding onto his every word and action. Another stellar performance comes from Laia Costa as Isabel. The scene where she is in bed and talking to Rigo about what he must do with his life definitely elicits an emotional response from the audience. Dan Fogelman’s writing continues to enchant and entice audiences the world over. His astounding ability to create worlds of hope and love around those of tragedy and loss is nothing short of magical. He can make audiences laugh and cry within minutes of one another. He finds the profound in the simple and beautiful in the darkness. Despite my love for the film and the message it sends, I do have one issue. I think that the choice to shift from English to Spanish with subtitles, is a bit jarring at first. Once you see what is happening, it makes sense and the characters feel much more authentic in their portrayal. So again let it works its magic. While the film is weighty, it offers a message of hope that I feel translates well to anyone. Despite the terrible things that happen in life, if we dare to get up and go just a little bit further, we can find love and happiness. The message of hope endures. The film will devastate and delight audiences the world over bringing universal messages of hope amongst tragedy and love amongst despair. A Simple Favor (Released) In the vein of Gillian Flynn/David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Paula Hawkins/Tate Taylor’s “The Girl On The Train” comes yet another vanishing woman mystery. This latest is based on again a novel, only this time the biggest twist comes with the selection of Paul Feig as director. That’s right, the director best known for “Bridesmaids” and other comedies, tackles a “whodunit and what did they do.” Neurotic mommy vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mother to a young son, and she’s the overly perky and perfect mom that causes other parents to sneer and snark behind her back. She’s also so desperate for human connection that she’s willing to befriend Emily (Blake Lively), the martini-guzzling fashion industry executive who is a hands-off mother to Stephanie’s son’s friend. We soon learn that martinis and playdates shouldn’t be mixed. Stephanie and Emily share dark, personal secrets. Emily discusses the financial woes she and her husband Sean (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”) are experiencing, even though they live in an ultra-modern mansion. He had success with his first novel, but has been hit with writer’s block since marrying Emily. Those secrets pale in comparison to what Stephanie unloads, leading Emily to anoint her as her new best friend. Of course we later uncover Emily’s truly dark (and deadly) secrets go far beyond possible late payments on the mortgage. As the two ladies bond, we get the feeling that Emily is playing some type of game with the always-cheerful Stephanie, though to what end we aren’t sure. One day, Stephanie does Emily a “favor” and then Emily disappears without a trace or word. The days pass and a sexual energy develops between Stephanie and Sean, while Stephanie uses her vlog as a tool in her amateur sleuthing. It’s tough enough to pull off a mystery, but a mystery-comedy is nearly the unicorn of cinema. Director Feig is at his best in the comedic moments – especially those featuring banter between Kendrick and Lively. Their scenes together are the highlights of the film. The film is oddly structured, yet still entertaining. Act I is really a dark comedy and budding friendship between polar opposite personality types, while the rest is a messy mystery with some interesting elements. The film has its moments. Ms. Kendrick is once again stellar in her role, and most viewers will find it entertaining despite the messiness. Searching (Released) This film may be told in a uniquely digital format, but at the core, this is a story of family, loss, and grief. The film features plenty of twists and turns, and packs an emotional punch on the way to a rollercoaster finale. Ultimately, the movie employs a style of filmmaking built for the social media age, while operating like a typical suspense thriller. It does not rely upon these technological platforms as a storytelling gimmick, though. The technological platforms instead are used to better demonstrate the disconnect that can occur between a parent and child when faced with tragedy. The film continuously shows ways in which advancements in technology have dramatically changed family interaction, for better or worse. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, iPhones, online videos, desktop and laptop screens are tools used throughout the film. The different modes of communication are integrated seamlessly. Today’s younger generations use technology with ease to interact with peers, as well as conceal certain truths, projecting only an image they deem fit to display. In the film, we see how young people may take advantage of these platforms to express themselves in an honest way online that they simply cannot do in the company of a parent. The experience of viewing this film presents a few questions: Despite the unprecedented access people now have to one another, whether by phones, screens, or text, does the communication itself between us really improve? What is the definition of a friend in this digital world, when the term friend is so casually used? And what, if any, are the differences between our “real-life” persona, and the “digital” one we choose to create? In some ways, the movie reflects a kind of cultural adaptation to the digital age that individuals and families must make, in order to effectively communicate. First time feature director Aneesh Chaganty has pulled off a visual magic trick, and a new cinematic language has either been invented, or perfected.   DVD Recommendation: Hunt For The Wilderpeople This film is based on the 1986 book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump, who himself is a bit of a legendary figure in New Zealand. The film begins with child protective services (or whatever it’s called in New Zealand) dropping off 12-year-old Ricky Baker to his new foster family. The agent considers Ricky a lost cause and describes him as “a very bad egg.” In a terrific screen introduction, “Uncle” Hec slowly comes into frame flashing a world class scowl and a wild boar slung over his shoulder. Ricky continues his habit of running away at night, but his foster mom slowly wins him over with her kindness, understanding and breakfast offerings. A tragic occurrence and fear of being shipped back to the juvenile center, has Ricky disappearing into the New Zealand bush. Soon enough Hec catches up and the two begin a relationship that is the core of the film. Sam Neill plays Hec in full grumpy curmudgeon mode … a nice compliment to the extraordinary presence of Julian Dennison as Ricky. Ricky and Hec together are a hoot to watch. It’s not simply the generational differences, but also a clash of one man who wants little more than to be left alone and a young boy who wants little more than to be noticed and cared about. It’s not so much the direction of their relationship that surprises, but rather the manner in which it develops. This film features not just colorful and interesting characters, but the beautiful landscape of the New Zealand bush … much of which we see during the humorous manhunt for Hec and Ricky. It’s a comedy loaded with a great deal of knowledge and loads of adventure for two social misfits. I enjoyed these films with Terrie, Julie, Marjanne and Carol. Until next week I remain at the movies.