Film Review: Life Itself (dir by Dan Fogelman)


Watching Life Itself is like getting a Hallmark card from a serial killer.  Even if you appreciate the sentiment, you still don’t feel good about it.

Written and directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself attempts to juggle several different themes, so much so that it can sometimes be difficult to understand just what exactly the film is attempting to say.  That said, I think the main lesson of the film is that you should always look both ways before stepping out into the middle of the street.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a horrific backstory, involving a decapitated father, a pervy uncle, and a gun.  It doesn’t matter if you love Pulp Fiction or if you think Bob Dylan’s more recent work is underrated.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a dog and husband who is so in love with you that he’s practically a stalker.  It doesn’t even matter that your pregnant and looking forward to naming your firstborn after your favorite musician.  If you don’t look both ways before stepping out into the middle of the street, you’re going to get hit by a big damn bus.

That’s the lesson that Abby (Olivia Wilde) does not learn and, as a result, she not only gets run over by a bus but we, the viewers, are subjected to seeing her repeatedly getting run over by that bus.  As temtping as it is to feel bad for Abby, my sympathy was limited by the fact that she and her husband (Oscar Isaac) named their dog Fuckface.  I mean, seriously, who does that?  Not only is it cruel to the dog but it’s also inconsiderate to the people who have to listen to you shouting, “Fuckface!” whenever the dog gets loose.  For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t seem to get how annoying this is.  That’s because Life Itself is another one of those movies that mistakes quirkiness for humanity.

The other annoying thing about Abby is that she’s an English major who somehow thinks that the use of the unreliable narrator is an understudied literary phenonema.  In fact, she’s writing her thesis on unreliable narrators.  Her argument is that life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator because life is tricky and surprising, which doesn’t make one bit of sense.

Speaking of narrators, Life Itself has three, which is three too many.  Two of the narrators are unreliable but I get the feeling that the third one is meant to be taken literally, which is a shame because the film would have made a lot more sense if it had ended with a Life of Pi-style revelation that none of what we just watched actually happened.

Anyway, Abby getting hit by a bus has repercussions that reverberate across the globe and across time.  Not only does it lead to her husband writing a bad screenplay but it also leads to him committing suicide in a psychiatrist’s office.  Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), grows up to be what this film believes to be a punk rocker, which means that she angrily covers Bob Dylan songs and stuffs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich down another girl’s throat.  Meanwhile, in Spain….

What?  Oh yeah, this film jumps from New York to Spain.  In fact, it’s almost like another film suddenly starts after an hour of the first one.  You go from Olivia Cooke sobbing on a park bench to Antonio Banderas talking about his childhood.  Banderas is playing a landowner named Vincent Saccione.  Saccione wants to be best friends with his foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) but Javier suspects that Saccione just wants to steal away his saintly wife, Isabel (Laia Costa) and maybe Javier’s right!

Javier has a son named Rodrigo (who is played by five different actors over the course of the film before eventually growing up to be Alex Monner).  When Saccione gives Rodrigo a globe, Javier decides to one-up him by taking his wife and child on a vacation to New York City.  Rodrigo has a great time in New York, or at least he does until he distracts a bus driver, which leads to a bus running down a pregnant woman…

…and the movie’s not over yet!  It just keeps on going and believe it or not, there’s stuff that I haven’t even mentioned.  Life Itself has a running time of only two hours.  (For comparison, it’s shorter than almost every comic book film that’s come out over the past few years.)  This is one of the rare cases where the film might have been improved with a longer running time because Fogelman crams so much tragedy and melodrama into that running time that it literally leaves you feeling as if you’re being bludgeoned.  This is one of those films that gets in your face and screams, “You will cry!  You will cry!”  Even if you are inclined to cry at movies (and I certainly am), it’s impossible not to resent just how manipulative the film gets.  You get the feeling that if you spend too much time wondering about the plot holes or the on-the-nose dialogue, the third narrator might start yelling at you for not getting with the program.

Life Itself is full of twists that are designed to leave you considering how everything in life is connected but, for something like this to work, the twists have to be surprising.  They have to catch you off-guard.  They have to make you want to see the movie again so that you can look for clues.  The twists in Life Itself are not surprising.  Anyone who has ever seen a movie before will be able to guess what’s going to happen.  For that matter, anyone who has ever sat through an episode of This is Us should be able to figure it all out.  Life Itself is not as a clever as it thinks it is.

Also, for a film like this work, you have to actually care about the characters.  You have to be invested in who they are.  But nobody in the film ever seems to be real and neither do any of their stories.  (To the film’s credit, it actually does point out that one narrator is idealizing the past but that’s an intriguing idea that’s abandoned.)  Everyone is just a collection of quirks.  We know what type of music they like but we never understand why.  Background info, like Abby being molested by her uncle or Isabel being the fourth prettiest of six sisters, is randomly dropped and then quickly forgotten about.  Almost ever woman has a tragic backstory and, for the most part, a tragic destiny.  (Except, of course, for Rodrigo’s first American girlfriend, who is dismissed as being “loud.”)  Every man is soulful and passionate.  But who are they?  The film’s narrators say a lot but they never get around to answering that question.  This is a film that insists it has something to say about life itself but it never quite comes alive.

Some critics are saying that Life Itself is the worst film of 2018.  Maybe.  I don’t know for sure.  The Happytime Murders left me feeling so icky that I haven’t even been able to bring myself to review it yet.  Life Itself, on the other hand, is such a huge misfire that I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it.  There’s something to be said for that.

Here’s What Won At The Emmys Last Night!


Last night, Lisa Marie did not watch the Emmys because she says that, “I’m just not feeling TV this year.”  If Twin Peaks had been eligible to be nominated, I bet it would have been a different story!

Instead, she asked me to watch the ceremony and let everyone know what I thought.  It needed less politics and more cats.

Here’s the list of winners:

COMEDY

BEST COMEDY SERIES
“Atlanta”
“Black-ish”
“Masters of None”
“Modern Family”
“Silicon Valley”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
X — “Veep”

BEST COMEDY ACTRESS
Pamela Adlon, “Better Things”
Jane Fonda, “Grace and Frankie”
Allison Janney, “Mom”
Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
X — Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Tracee Ellis Ross, “Black-ish”
Lily Tomlin, “Grace and Frankie”

BEST COMEDY ACTOR
Anthony Anderson, “Black-ish”
Aziz Ansari, “Master of None”
Zach Galifianaks, “Baskets”
X — Donald Glover, “Atlanta”
William H. Macy, “Shameless”
Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”

BEST COMEDY SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Vanessa Bayer, “Saturday Night Live”
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep”
Kathryn Hahn, “Transparent”
Leslie Jones, “Saturday Night Live”
Judith Light, “Transparent”
X — Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”

BEST COMEDY SUPPORTING ACTOR
Louie Anderson, “Baskets”
X — Alec Baldwin, “Saturday Night Live”
Tituss Burgess, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Ty Burrell, “Modern Family”
Tony Hale, “Veep”
Matt Walsh, “Veep”

BEST COMEDY DIRECTING
X — “Atlanta” (“B.A.N.”)
“Silicon Valley” (“Intellectual Property”)
“Silicon Valley” (“Server Error”)
“Veep” (“Justice”)
“Veep” (“Blurb”)
“Veep” (“Groundbreaking”)

BEST COMEDY WRITING
“Atlanta” (“B.A.N.”)
“Atlanta” (“Streets on Lock”)
X — “Master of None” (“Thanksgiving”)
“Silicon Valley” (“Success Failure”)
“Veep” (“Groundbreaking”)
“Veep” (“Georgia”)

DRAMA

BEST DRAMA SERIES
“Better Call Saul”
“The Crown”
X — “The Handmaid’s Tale”
“House of Cards”
“Stranger Things”
“This is Us”
“Westworld”

BEST DRAMA ACTRESS
Viola Davis, “How to Get Away with Murder”
Claire Foy, “The Crown”
X — Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Keri Russell, “The Americans”
Evan Rachel Wood, “Westworld”
Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

BEST DRAMA ACTOR
X — Sterling K. Brown, “This is Us”
Anthony Hopkins, “Westworld”
Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”
Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”
Liev Schreiber, “Ray Donovan”
Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”
Milo Ventimiglia, “This is Us”

BEST DRAMA SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Uzo Aduba, “Orange is the New Black”
Millie Bobby Brown, “Stranger Things”
X — Ann Dowd, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
Chrissy Metz, “This is Us”
Thandie Newton, “Westworld”
Samira Wiley, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

BEST DRAMA SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jonathan Banks, “Better Call Saul”
David Harbour, “Stranger Things”
Ron Cephas Jones, “This is Us”
Michael Kelly, “House of Cards”
X — John Lithgow, “The Crown”
Mandy Patinkin, “Homeland”
Jeffrey Wright, “Westworld”

BEST DRAMA DIRECTING
“Better Call Saul” (“Witness”)
“The Crown” (“Hyde Park Corner”)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (“The Bridge”)
X — “The Handmaid’s Tale” (“Offred”)
“Homeland” (“America First”)
“Stranger Things” (“Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”)
“Westworld” (“The Bicameral Mind”)

BEST DRAMA WRITING
“The Americans” (“The Soviet Division”)
“Better Call Saul” (“Chicanery”)
“The Crown” (“Assassins”)
X — “The Handmaid’s Tale” (“Offred”)
“Stranger Things” (“Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”)
“Westworld” (“The Bicameral Mind”)

MOVIE/LIMITED SERIES

BEST LIMITED SERIES
X — “Big Little Lies”
“Fargo”
“Feud: Bette and Joan”
“Genius”
“The Night Of”

BEST TV MOVIE
X — “Black Mirror: San Junipero”
“Christmas of Many Colors”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”
“Sherlock: The Lying Detective”
“The Wizard of Lies”

BEST MOVIE/MINI ACTRESS
Carrie Coon, “Fargo”
Felicity Huffman, “American Crime”
X — Nicole Kidman, “Big Little Lies”
Jessica Lange, “Feud: Bette and Joan”
Susan Sarandon, “Feud: Bette and Joan”
Reese Witherspoon, “Big Little Lies”

BEST MOVIE/MINI ACTOR
X — Riz Ahmed, “The Night Of”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock: The Lying Detective”
Robert De Niro, “The Wizard of Lies”
Ewan McGregor, “Fargo”
Geoffrey Rush, “Genius”
John Turturro, “The Night Of”

BEST MOVIE/MINI SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Judy Davis, “Feud: Bette and Joan”
X — Laura Dern, “Big Little Lies”
Jackie Hoffman, “Feud: Bette and Joan”
Regina King, “American Crime”
Michelle Pfeiffer, “The Wizard of Lies”
Shailene Woodley, “Big Little Lies”

BEST MOVIE/MINI SUPPORTING ACTOR
Bill Camp, “The Night Of”
Alfred Molina, “Feud: Bette and Joan”
X — Alexander Skarsgard, “Big Little Lies”
David Thewlis, “Fargo”
Stanley Tucci, “Feud: Bette and Joan”
Michael Kenneth Williams, “The Night Of”

BEST MOVIE/MINI DIRECTING
X — “Big Little Lies”
“Fargo” (“The Law of Vacant Places”)
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (“And the Winner Is”)
“Genius” (“Einstein: Chapter One”)
“The Night Of” (“The Art of War”)
“The Night Of” (“The Beach”)

BEST MOVIE/MINI WRITING
“Big Little Lies”
X — “Black Mirror: San Junipero”
“Fargo” (“The Law of Vacant Places”)
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (“And the Winner Is”)
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (“Pilot”)
“The Night Of” (“Call of the Wild”)

VARIETY/REALITY

BEST REALITY COMPETITION PROGRAM
“The Amazing Race”
“Amercan Ninja Warrior”
“Project Runway”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race”
“Top Chef”
X — “The Voice”

BEST VARIETY TALK SERIES
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”
“Jimmy Kimmel Live”
X — “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
“Late Late Show with James Corden”
“Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
“Real Time with Bill Maher”

BEST VARIETY SKETCH SERIES
“Billy on the Street”
“Documentary Now”
“Drunk History”
“Portlandia”
X — “Saturday Night Live”
“Tracey Ullman’s Show”

BEST VARIETY SERIES DIRECTING
“Drunk History”
“Jimmy Kimmel Live”
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
“Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
X — “Saturday Night Live”

BEST VARIETY SERIES WRITING
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”
X — “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
“Late Night with Seth Meyers”
“Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Embracing the Melodrama #39: True Colors (dir by Herbert Ross)


True Colors

For the past 9 days, I’ve been posting chronological reviews of 54 of the most (and least) memorable melodramas ever filmed.  I started with a film from 1916 and yesterday, I completed the 80s.  Today, we start in on the 90s with the 1991 political drama True Colors.

True Colors tells the story of two ambitious law students.  Tim Gerritty (James Spader) is a wealthy idealist who wants to work at the Justice Department so he can uncover and prosecute political corruption.  His roommate and eventual best friend is Peter Burton (John Cusack).  Although Peter initially lies about his background, it’s eventually revealed that he comes from a poor family and the result of growing up in poverty has left Peter with an obsessive desire for revenge on everyone who has ever looked down on him.  And how is Peter planning on getting that revenge?  By marrying the daughter of Sen. James Stiles (Richard Widmark) and eventually running for a seat in the U.S. House.  Despite the fact that Tim happens to be in love with Sen. Stiles’s daughter as well, he still supports his friend Peter and even agrees to be his best man.  However, as Peter gets closer and closer to achieving his goals, Tim starts to reconsider their friendship….

There’s a scene about halfway through True Colors, in which Peter Burton attempts to blackmail Sen. Stiles into supporting his political career.  Stiles agrees but then angrily adds, “God help you when the people find out.  They always do, you know.”  I was naturally waiting for Peter to come up with a properly sarcastic response but instead, Peter simply looks down at the ground, properly chastened.  It’s a jarringly false note and, unfortunately, everything that comes after this scene feels equally false.  The film, which starts out as such a strong portrait of what happens with friendship comes into conflict with ambition, ends up turning into a painfully predictable political diatribe, the type of thing that makes the portrait of politics in The Adjustment Bureau seem subtle and nuanced by comparison.  When Tim decided to betray Peter, it should be a moment full of moral ambiguity.  Instead, we’re expected to ignore their long friendship and just be happy that Tim is willing to do the right thing and protect the integrity of the American political process.

And, who knows?  Maybe that’s the way people viewed politics back in the early 90s.  But for audiences today, it all feels really naive and simplistic.

But, if you can manage to look past the film’s weak’s script, you can enjoy the acting.  John Cusack is wonderfully intense as Peter, making the character compelling even when the screenplay lets him down.  Watching him in True Colors is like watching the performance that he should have given in The Butler.  James Spader is sympathetic as Tim and, like Cusack, his performance almost allows him to overcome a script that doesn’t seem to realize that Tim is essentially a self-righteous jerk.  And finally, there’s Mandy Patikin who has a lot of fun playing the local crime boss who sponsors Peter’s career and who, in one memorable (if out-of-place ) scene beats up a shark that’s jumped up on the desk of his yacht.

Much like High Stakes, True Colors is one of those obscure films that occasionally pops up on cable, usually late at night and usually serving as filler between showings of better-known films.  Keep an eye out for it, if just for the chance to enjoy the performances.