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Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Director Daniel Espinosa, Olga Dihovichnaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare  and Jake Gyllenhaal seen at Columbia Pictures World Premiere of "Life" the movie at SXSW 2017 on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Austin, TX. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony Pictures/AP Images)

LIFE is Already Scary, Now It’s A Scarier Reynolds & Gyllenhaal Movie, Thanks

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

What is it with ‘ripped from the alt-news headlines’ movie plots lately? KONG: SKULL ISLAND has a hollow earth slash reptilian b-story, even a CIA mind control “Monarch” reference on a briefcase. Now LIFE, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, has a waterborne microbe from Mars mass-extinction horror twist.

Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal seen at Columbia Pictures World Premiere of "Life" the movie at SXSW 2017 on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Austin, TX. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony Pictures/AP Images)

Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal seen at Columbia Pictures World Premiere of “Life” the movie at SXSW 2017 on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Austin, TX. [Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony Pictures/AP Images]

While scary stories about hostile life on Mars is a running theme since B-movies in the 50’s, this one has some actual science to back it up.

LIFE, directed by Daniel Espinosa, touts the fact that the producers and writers consulted with “astrobiologists and space medicine experts,” one of whom is Dr. Kevin Fong. “Space is an extreme environment, like any of the extreme environments we’ve attempted to conquer in the 20th century – deserts, polar ice caps, our highest mountains,” Fong explained. “What we know about extreme environments is that you can’t go there for long and it’s not without penalty. You come back literally less than the person you were.”

“It’s hard enough to stay alive up there on a routine mission when everything goes right.  When things start to go wrong, people start to die off pretty quickly.” These cheery words underscore his experience as an astrophysicist and MD who’s worked on NASA’s Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston, meaning he is a medical expert on keeping folks alive and kicking in space.

No offense to the astro-geniuses, but frankly movie stars can explain a movie better.

Cast and crew of "Life" seen at Columbia Pictures World Premiere of "Life" the movie at SXSW 2017 on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Austin, TX. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony/AP Images)

Cast and crew of “Life” seen at Columbia Pictures World Premiere of “Life” the movie at SXSW 2017 on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Austin, TX. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony/AP Images)

In typical Jake Gyllenhaal extreme-character mode, he plays International Space Station denizen David Jordan, who’s already clocked 473 days afloat in outer space. “It was a beautifully paced, terrifying script.  It’s a fun idea. You think you know where it’s going, and then it evolves into something where you really, really don’t,” he added. “The life form is literal, but it’s also an incredible metaphor for what can happen. Curiosity is one of the most important human traits, but I think searching too far can be full of hubris. In that way, the life form is a repercussion for that kind of curiosity.”

“My grandfather was a doctor,” Gyllenhaal shared, “and Daniel and I talked about the similarities in my character to my grandfather. It’s a bit of an homage to him.”

Next some newcomers join the freaky plot, and things get terrifying as a look for proof of life on Mars backfires. Naturally the movie includes a requisite CDC, Centers for Disease Control, rep. This one comes in the form of Rebecca Ferguson, as Miranda North. “Miranda is a microbiologist sent up to protect everyone on Earth from whatever this is that we find,” Ferguson explained.

Her character puts up some “firewalls” against extra-terrestrial contamination. “The firewall is, first, the container that the specimen was in.  And then the room.  And then the station itself.  She has to do whatever she can do to protect Earth, because we don’t know what this life form is.” No, it’s not a gimmicky ‘life form,’ either.

Producer Julie Lynn nailed it best on that front. “We didn’t want the life form to be a person in a suit or a puppet. We wanted it to be something that could evolve from a cellular piece, a tiny cell. It’s not that it comes out with an intent to do harm; it is its own creature, and it is affected by what happens to it.”

Paris, France - Monday March 13, 2017: Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson at the Columbia Pictures "LIFE" Photo Call at The Planetarium of Le Grand Palais

Paris, France – Monday March 13, 2017: Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson at the Columbia Pictures “LIFE” Photo Call at The Planetarium of Le Grand Palais

Rebecca Ferguson spins it as a relationship game with the pathogen. “We all have our own relationship to this creature. Some of us love it, we nurture it.  Some of us want to kill it off in the beginning.  And that creates an incredible tension in the group,” she said.

Ryan Reynolds rounds it out with, “this script had such a degree of reality and a feeling of constant tension,” that he reteamed with his DEADPOOL writing pals Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, to ratchet up the stakes. Coincidentally, Reynolds also went back to the well with his SAFE HOUSE director Daniel Espinosa.

Having worked well with Reynolds, Espinosa is also super excited about LIFE. “I think the reason so many great directors have walked into science fiction is to work with the unknown — the fear or fascination with the unknown,” he said.  “We live in a world that is quite mundane, but in space, you enter an adventure – you don’t know how it looks, how it feels, what it can do to you, where it is. It doesn’t make a sound. That’s terrifying.”

Whatever the hell LIFE’s monster is in this case, the SAFE HOUSE director made it even scarier when he added that “this script felt more like a realistic science fiction. Maybe science reality.” Picture waking up ’50,000-year-old microbes’ inside crystalline hibernation on Mars, that is. Or, in movie critic shorthand, the DNA from amber plot device from Jurassic Park, but with super-freaky outer space Martian microbial goo meets Alien. Sorry for the gross oversimplification but this helps put your fears to rest, folks, because it’s only a movie. We hope. Alternative news purveyors might spin it as a doomsday scenario for planet Earth, lol. LIFE, go see it before it happens. It opens Mar. 24, brought to you by Skydance and SONY (Columbia).  Interestingly, Megan Ellison’s brother David Ellison is listed as a producer. The film has bowed in Berlin, Moscow, Paris, and at SXSW in Austin, Texas last week. [Most of the photos included are from SXSW premiere.] See their official website for showtimes and venues. Hahtag #LIFEMOVIE

Directed by:  

Daniel Espinosa

Written by:

Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Produced by:

David Ellison

Dana Goldberg

Bonnie Curtis

Julie Lynn

Executive Producers: 

Don Granger

Vicki Dee Rock

Cast:

Jake Gyllenhaal

Rebecca Ferguson

Ryan Reynolds

Hiroyuki Sanada

Ariyon Bakare

Olga Dihovichnaya

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How to Factor the Oscars: Hidden Figures, Stats on Women Revealed

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

Who knew NASA and IBM would be the corporate darlings of this year’s Oscar race? Or, translated into Award Season trivia for 2017, who knew HIDDEN FIGURES from 20th Century Fox, about three NASA human “Computers,” would run up unexpected numbers at the box office and put stars Kevin Costner, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe on the Oscar radar?

HF-228 - Octavia Spencer stars as Dorothy Vaughan in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Octavia Spencer stars as Dorothy Vaughan in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

The graph looks like this according to The Numbers, an insider box-office tracking service: Dec. 25, 2016 (release date) $515,499; Dec. 26, $831,571. Not impressed? By Dec. 27, the picture barely tops $1 M USD. However, in a five-day period between Jan. 5 and Jan. 10, 2017, in a run up to the Golden Globes, HIDDEN FIGURES goes from $2.5 M USD to $30 M USD. From Jan. 10 to Jan. 15, the picture tops $54 M USD and counting.

While the film took a backseat to singing-dancing LA LA LAND on Jan. 8 at the Golden Globes ceremony, nobody can deny that the film’s bump from being included in that awards show made a huge difference as far as audience awareness, and in turn box office totals.

You may not be a big fan of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or the checkered history of their Golden Globes presentation, but this year the GG’s hit it out of the park for a film that may have stayed hidden had not this show (among others) shined a spot on three remarkable African-American women who helped ushered in a win in the US-Russian Space Race back in the 60’s. The film picked up two nominations, for Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Ben Wallfisch for Best Score, and for Octavia Spencer as Best Supporting Actress in a motion picture.

HF-207 - Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

And now a brief moment to shine a spot on the man of the hour, here, because his star-power helped get this funded by Peter Chernin and other execs at 20th who always need “a name.” From Dances with Wolves to McFarland USA (see it), and now Hidden Figures, Costner is one of the only past or present A-List leading men with an eye on the prize for under-represented groups, including women. McFarland director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) singled him out for this Disney film because he is such a likable barrier breaker and that story is about a Mexican-American community track team that defies all odds.

DF-06401_R - Kevin Costner stars as NASA official Al Harrison, in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Kevin Costner stars as NASA official Al Harrison, in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

But enough about Kevin Costner, he won’t get a nomination because Best Actor is a tough field this year, although there may be an honorary Oscar someday for his efforts. So let’s recognize him here and now for helping get some tough-to-fund projects made.

Now back to HIDDEN FIGURES, and why this movie may slip out from behind the pack and take Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards presentation on Sunday, Feb. 26. (Yes, Best Picture.) This movie is adapted from the novel by Margot Lee Shetterley from Harper Collins, and the real title is “The American Dream and Untold Story of The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race.” Written by an actual native of Hampton, Virginia, the book casts a kind light on John Glenn (Glen Powell) whose performance here is noteworthy as he seems both gender-blind and color-blind. Shetterley herself, as described in her bio is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow, as well as “recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing.”IBMOct17

Along with gritty but elegant performances by actors Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), and Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), the film is a visual essay on the power of STEM in changing lives. STEM stands for Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology. It’s a plank in shoring up the American education system that is badly outdated. The notion that back in the 1960’s these real-life women of science (and of color) could have better chances than some women today is not lost on audiences. Hidden figures is a triple pun, their physical figures, math figures, and today’s still-grim stats for women in significant scientific jobs. Plus, the climate of learning in America right now is so consumer-oriented, most people barely know how to balance a checkbook anymore (much less figure payloads to the moon), as most of us live by the random swipe of plastic in a virtual ETF economy that circles the globe.

Melissa McCarthy hosted a Special Screening of this film earlier in the year, meaning it needed word-of-mouth among Hollywood’s creative community too. HIDDEN FIGURES has had music events. Pharrell Williams has a music credit and did a concert in Toronto for TIFF. It has inspired girl-empowerment events, screenings in Atlanta, all over North America, as a sleeper success story during this Award Season.

But back to the actual story. Vaughan just had a building named after her at NASA to commemorate her work, and Octavia Spencer pays off her legacy on her work getting us to the stars with a stellar performance. When was the last time you saw anyone hold up a Fortran programming book on screen and make it look like a way out of poverty. Spencer absolutely inhabits this real-life role as more than credible, but lovable. However, she is stuck in a very tough category for 2017, up against the formidable Viola Davis, who all but owns this supporting awards category for FENCES, the August Wilson screen adaptation of his literary playwriting masterpiece. Let’s just say there will be no Winner and Nominees in that category this year, it’s a win-win all the way around, no matter who takes home the statuette. TarajiHF17Taraji P. Henson, who slays in her role as Cookie Lyon as part of HBO’s urban epic Empire, did not even pick up a Golden Globe nom in the TV category on Jan. 8, but her performance in HIDDEN FIGURES is masterful in a different way. While she appears at times hysterical and high-strung as Katherine Johnson in HIDDEN, the reality her character touches is everything about all women in the workplace – from the bathroom to the Boardroom. And this is where the movie really spills out into the actual industry itself. It’s not just about women of color, it’s about all women, because no matter how you slice the stats, the stats are always lumped together as the percentages of females in key roles.

Take a look at the 2015 stats here, released in Feb. of 2016, known as the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD) from USC’s Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (IDEA). This excerpt here includes only few major statistical breakdowns on women in general for feature films. USCGenDir17Did you know 96.6% of all directors are men, with 3.4% women? Now factor women of color and that 3.4 percent divides again. Out of a pool of 6,421 writers, more than 71% are men, 28.9% are women. And, according to the study, an apologia of sorts, as in “it may also be the case, however, that executives feel more comfortable hiring women directors and screenwriters when the story pulls female.”

How many “executives” are women, you may wonder, to pull off this double miracle of generating more female-driven stories helmed by female-driven hands? Under the heading Top Corporate Executives by Gender and Position, this study reveals fully 81% of Board positions are held by men, while 79% are C-Suite (meaning C-level titles such as CEO, COO, CIO), and even in the ranks of Executive Management, another 81% are men. So we’re looking at a 1-in-5 chance changes will be coming anytime soon, as approximately 20% of the behind-the-scenes decision makers are women. USCCover17

HIDDEN FIGURES is that 1-in-5 project that got through the system. Directed by Theordore Melfi (St. Vincent (Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy)), he shares a screenplay credit with Allison Schroeder. Schroeder is the writer of Mean Girls 2, and credited on Pineapple Express, but she also has a BA from Stanford, and a went to the Producing Program at USC. Her own story is one of education and advancement, another hidden stat rolled up in this remarkable movie.

The box office for HIDDEN FIGURES continues to climb on a sharp curve upward, and this film ranked #1 in the US in popularity this week for a reason. Not because it’s diverse, not because it’s about women, not because it’s about women of color, math, science, space, or technology… because it’s beyond awesome. These three life stories, based on actual scientists from NASA who excelled and were recognized despite segregation in America, have such poignant arcs that the connection to the audience is palpable in the theater. Now let’s see if Oscar voters feel the same pull, not toward the heavens, but toward the real issue facing people here on earth.

HIDDEN FIGURES official story, full cast credits, and featurette trailers can be found on this link. And now we even send women into space, see these NASA stats from Graphiq.

Stay tuned for more Oscar predictions… and peruse USC’s CARD study here. Mostly add up HIDDEN FIGURES Oscar chances for yourself, see it now.

SCREENMANCER is a gathering place for people who make movies and go out on a limb handicapping the Oscars.

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