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LIFE ITSELF

Producer: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Aaron Ryder and Dan Fogelman
Director: Dan Fogelman
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Anette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Lorenzas Izzo, Isabel Durant and Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: Amazon Studios

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The second film to bear the title “Life Itself” in recent years is definitely the lesser of the two. The first was Steve James’s documentary about the later years of Roger Ebert, who soldiered on after losing his lower jaw as the result of surgery. It was powerful stuff. The latest is a pretentious, sappy drama of interlinking stories from Dan Fogelman, who has struck a chord with a wide television audience with his nighttime NBC soap opera “This Is Us,” and here tries to pull off a similar trick on the big screen. He fails miserably, the big life lessons he doles out having about the same level of meaning as the Deep Thoughts Jack Handey used to deliver on “Saturday Night Live.”

The picture opens with an infuriating start-and-stop Manhattan-set prologue, in which Samuel L. Jackson, in a ranting voiceover, introduces bearded street guy Will (Oscar Isaac) making a pest of himself in a coffee shop by serenading the customers with a boisterous rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” (later explained as a love song in an album drenched in despair). But in another bit, we see a happier, beardless Will and psychologist Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), whom, it turns out, his grubbier self is seeing to deal with the absence of his beloved wife Abby (Olivia Wilde).

Finally the on-and-off prologue is revealed as the hapless attempt of forlorn Will to begin a script—a therapeutic exercise, perhaps?—and Jackson disappears screaming about unreliable narrators, to be replaced by an unseen female one whose identity will be revealed only much later on. We begin the official Chapter 1 in Fogelman’s portentous presentation, about the romance and marriage of happy Will and effervescent Abby, an English lit grad student who is writing a thesis about—you guessed it—unreliable narration, of which she argues life itself is the greatest offender (by which she simply means that things happen unexpectedly). They soon have a baby on the way, with Will’s parents Irwin and Linda (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart) overjoyed at the prospect (Abbey’s folks are conveniently dead).

The melodramatic denouement of that segments will take us to Chapter 2, in which we’re introduced to Dylan (Olivia Cooke, with that most meaningful of names), who is celebrating (or not) her twenty-first birthday, having been raised by her grandfather. She’s a punkish, gloomy sort who argues with everybody, including the old man who clearly dotes on her.

Chapter 3 shifts to Andalusia, where the rich owner of an olive grove named Vincent Saccione (Antonio Banderas) gets involved in the domestic affairs of Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), the honest, upright worker he promotes to foreman after telling him, in a long, laborious monologue, about his family history. Javier has married the lovely Isabelle (Laia Costa), and the two have a son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero), in whom Vincent takes such an interest that it eventually causes Javier to take a decision that is frankly nonsensical—but not before he’s fulfilled the boy’s dream of visiting New York, with unfortunate consequences.

Chapter 4 shows us the grown Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) dealing with Bella’s devastating illness while going off to New York for college. There he has a brief but exuberant romance with a ditzy blonde named Shari (Isabel Durant) before breaking up with her after she plays a thoroughly grotesque joke on him, and as he walks the street afterward he comes upon a girl crying on bench. Who she is, you can probably predict. That’s followed by Chapter 5, in which we learn who the omniscient female narrator has been, and why we should care.

“Life Itself” features lot of fine actors, none of them at their best (though Banderas, oozing quiet sadness, comes closest), and an able crew, including cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who seems to have been especially happy doing the sequences in Spain, the landscapes in which he drenches in a halo of sunlight. But production designer Gerald Sullivan and costumer Melissa Toth aren’t terribly successful in using visual detail to suggest chronological change (Patinkin ages credibly, but Costa really doesn’t, even in her last scenes), and editor Julie Monroe struggles to keep Fogelman’s complex structure clear. It’s his fault, not theirs, that the elaborate cinematic house of cards winds up feeling dramatically shaky.

In the end, “Life Itself” will have its intended tear-jerking effect only on viewers who remain convinced that Forrest Gump’s observation about chocolates is an earth-shaking profundity.

PEPPERMINT

Producer: Tom Rosenberg, Guy Lucchesi, Richard Wright and Eric Reid
Director: Pierre Morel
Writer: Chad St. John
Stars: Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher, Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Anne Ilonzeh, Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming, Eddie Shin, Cliff "Method Man" Smith, Richard Cabral, Pell James, Jeff Harlan and Michael Mosley
Studio: STXfilms

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It’s great to see Jennifer Garner return to center stage with a leading role in a film after years in drab supporting spots, but a pity that it’s in picture that’s just a gender-reversal example of the same testosterone-driven nonsense so often entrusted to male stars. “Peppermint,” directed by Pierre Morel, the man responsible for putting Liam Neeson through his paces in the wildly successful “Taken,” is as brainless, and in many ways even more repulsive, a piece of junk as the director’s earlier violent schlock. Garner, of course, has the chops to pull off intense physical action—she demonstrated that in her appearances as Elektra, as bad as the movies might have been, and in her TV hit “Alias.” But in this case that gift is put to pretty noxious use.

“Peppermint” is basically the old “Death Wish” vigilante formula amped up to a thunderous level and given a female spin. Garner plays Riley North, who is introduced as a buffed-up, leather-clad type offing a sleazy, tattooed guy in his car, parked atop a Los Angeles building. But the chronology soon shifts back five years, to when she was a housewife with a job in a bank, a husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), struggling to keep them financially afloat as a mechanic, and a darling young daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming), bullied by the rich mother (Pell James) of a pampered classmate.

On December 21, Carly’s birthday, her party is deliberately sabotaged by that same nasty woman, and so the family goes off to a Christmas carnival instead. As they’re leaving, Chris and Carly are mowed down in front of he (in slo-mo, of course) in a drive-by shooting ordered by Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), who wrongly believed that Chris was involved in a scheme to rob him. Carly identifies the three gunmen and, refusing a bribe from their menacing attorney (Michael Mosley), testifies against them. But the corrupt system sets them free, leading her to go into a frenzy. She’s remanded to a mental institution, but escapes.

Now, five years later, she returns to wreak her revenge in a movie that simply reeks. Having learned martial arts and weapons usage during her time on the lam, she begins by executing the three gunmen (one of whom she was shown killing in that opening prologue) and leaving their corpses dangling from the Ferris wheel that she, Chris and Carly had ridden at the Christmas carnival. Then she eliminates the shady lawyers and the corrupt judge (Jeff Harlan) who had turned the original trial into a perversion of justice. (Only the judge’s termination is shown—complete with torture and a radio-controlled explosion.)

Then she turns her sights to Garcia’s operation. Over the course of several assaults on his underlings and his army of men, she must kill nearly a hundred men (almost all Latino), most with a bullet to the head. In the course of it all, she does suffer a few close shaves and some injuries, but a brief rest is usually sufficient to get her up and operating again, especially when the ghostly little figure of Carly shows up to wake her or just encourage her on.

But Riley takes time for a few good deeds, too. At one point she instructs a drunken, abusive father in the rule of good parenting—by sticking a gun in his mouth and threatening to blow his head off (she also tells the liquor store clerk not to sell the guy any more booze, or she’ll blow up his store). Presumably it was also via such direct methods that she cleared Skid Row, where she was hiding out, of crime. All of this, of course, is to make her sympathetic even while she’s wiping folks out in droves. And don’t think she forgets that nasty woman who treated Carly badly at school.

“Pineapple” proceeds through all the mayhem with a crude single-mindedness that’s pretty appalling, though it’s executed fairly efficiently by Garner, Morel, the rest of the cast, cinematographer David Lanzenberg and editor Frederic Thoraval. The only issue that acts as a slight speed bump for the audience as the bloodletting goes relentlessly on is the question of which of the cops pursuing Riley as she continues her spree is dirty. Is it crust cynic Moises Beltran, played by John Ortiz? Or his younger, more idealistic partner Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher, Jr.)? Or Barker, the dilatory narcotics detective (Cliff “Method Man” Smith? Or could it be pretty, no-nonsense FBI Agent Lisa Inman (Anne Ilonzeh)? Who cares since, when the answer is finally revealed, the villain’s previous actions don’t make much sense? Very little in Chad St. John’s script does, but it’s still smart enough to contrive an ending that allows for a sequel, if another slew of plausible victims can be found—“this time it’s NOT personal!”

The title of the movie, incidentally, alludes to the flavor of little Carly’s favorite ice cream, though it undoubtedly is meant more broadly to conjure up a feeling of the sweet and the pungent. In this case, by pandering so shamelessly to its audience’s worst instincts, “Peppermint” delivers a double dip of mindless “Death Wish” carnage, leavened with sappiness, that would have made even Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey blanch.