10 Cloverfield Lane

March 16, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Cloverfield” was a 2008 monster movie that wanted to be part “Blair Witch Project”, part “Independence Day”, and part “Godzilla”. For me, the film failed to even be close to any of those in quality and in execution. The characters were at best boring, at worst irritating; and the film’s guerrilla-style camerawork was either dizzying or too unfocused and felt forced as “amateurish”. Every actor was too good looking to be considered realistic, and some were even recognized actors, which completely betrayed the “found footage” number one rule: you should be thinking you’re watching real people, not actors. Years later I saw the film again and it dulled into a watchable, somewhat amiable B-movie. Maybe that’s what it was actually intended to be–but whenever J.J. Abrams is involved, you know it’s going to aim higher. So for that, I gave it very bad marks.

In “10 Cloverfield Lane”, it seems that only part of the title is used to connect the two films together. We get the feeling that there will be a giant monster at some point. However, we’re introduced to a more intriguing, and unsettling story when we’re introduced to a boorish but somewhat likable hero/villain, Howard, played wonderfully by John Goodman in one of his best roles in his colorful career.

A young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), leaves her fiance after a fight, and heads into the abyss of Louisiana, only to be forced off the road and losing consciousness at the end of the car wreck. She finds herself cuffed to the wall of a small basement room attached to an IV. Howard comes in and introduces himself, feeds her, and tells her he saved her life. After she attempts to escape, Howard realizes he should level with her and tell her that he’s brought her to his bunker because of an attack. He’s not sure what the attack was, except that toxic air has been released into the atmosphere and it’s no longer breathable. They are seemingly the only survivors, save for one other person–Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is around her age. Emmett knows Howard, and worked for him. He believes everything Howard says, to the dismay of Michelle, but there’s a hint of doubt coming from him as well. She can tell he doesn’t want to believe Howard.

Howard eventually introduces Michelle to his entire bunker, complete with kitchen and living room, board games and a TV with a VHS/DVD player. He believes they may have to stay down there for years, which Michelle also has a hard time swallowing. It’s hard to tell if Howard is telling any sort of truth, because he has some logic to his theories about what has happened. Then he mentions aliens, and she really loses her faith in him.

As time goes on, they learn to accept each other in some ways. No one truly trusts the other, except perhaps Emmett begins trusting Michelle more than Howard, and begins to hear her out in her plans to escape. She attempts to leave the bunker at one point, only to be confronted by a hysterical woman seemingly afflicted with burn marks all over her face. The woman is at first seen as a victim of some sort, but then becomes aggressive and starts screaming at Michelle to the point where Michelle really can be the only one seen as a victim in all of this.

This incident, however, allows Michelle to finally believe Howard. But then, things start to fall apart again when she starts to learn about his past, especially involving his daughter Megan. As the story unravels, a very creepy question emerges: What if you were stuck in a bunker following an apocalypse, and your only company was a psychopath?

It’s at this point where the film really begins to crackle and pop, and there are many surprises as the mystery unfolds. The film has plenty of jump-scares, and even becomes a full on thriller towards its climax.

The climax is where the film may divide audiences. This film was not originally conceived as a “Cloverfield” sequel, spiritual or not. It does have some elements that will remind you of that film. However, it becomes something entirely different toward the end. Howard morphs into something utterly monstrous, lumbering and menacing, and though he is still a human being, we see less of one as the film reaches its surprising and audacious conclusion.

Goodman’s performance isn’t the only one to point out, though; Winstead is steady and balanced as Michelle. She reveals to Emmett in an emotional scene that she may have been abused in the past, but always runs away from everything instead of confronts it. She tells him a story about a young girl being publicly assaulted by her own father, and even if it’s not serious or life threatening, Michelle’s resolve is simply to leave the scene rather than help the little girl. This gives insight into her leaving her fiance, who may also have been abusive (voiced briefly by Bradley Cooper, as Ben, who tries calling Michelle after she’s left).

The three characters are engaging and their chemistry is very good, keeping us interested not only in the unfolding of the story, but in their lives as well. We want to see what happens to them, as much as we want to see what happens in the plot.

As stated before, the ending shifts everything to another level, and you either accept it or you don’t. But by that time, I believe the film has achieved something the original “Cloverfield” never did–a believable cast, a credible and appealing story, and a satisfying journey. Whether you like how it ends up or not, to me, isn’t as important as being completely enthralled by the events leading up to the conclusion. It is, essentially, a great ride.

My rating: :-)

Jurassic World

June 18, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

In 1993 we were treated to one of the most spectacular action adventure stories ever put to screen in “Jurassic Park”. While the plots involving the human characters were a bit thin, and Spielberg’s trademark “family” storylines were a bit skewed, it seemed OK to forgive all that due to the absolutely astonishing dinosaurs he and Stan Winston & Co. brought to life. The film was based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, although there were some major differences between what transpired in the novel and what happened in the film (the most obvious was the fate of Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum). The film did have a certain charm about it, even though it was about people being chased by dinosaurs. It was a bit like “Jaws”.

The film has now been classified as a classic, and for good reason. It did spawn a few sequels that I found unworthy of the first film’s greatness. “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” had a great premise, but the execution wasn’t satisfying. “Jurassic Park 3″…let’s move on.

Now, 22 years later, we have “Jurassic World”, which seems to want to forget about the sequels like we do, and remain the true spiritual sequel to the first film. The film stars Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, a friendly trainer of a new breed of Velociraptors, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing, the aunt of two boys who have been shipped to the amusement park (now called Jurassic World) to hang out with her while checking out the island. The boys, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins respectively), are at two different times of their life. Zach is a teenager, saying good-bye to his clingy girlfriend in the beginning of the film; Gray is elementary school age, and both are disturbed by their parents seemingly impending divorce. We come to find later that the trip that the boys take was initially supposed to be a family trip–but now they just want the kids to enjoy the park (how many parents have done this to their kids for Disney World I wonder?).

We also have the always appealing Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, the head of Masrani Corporation who owns Jurassic World. In his vision, he sees a dangerous ancient world that is also about having fun. He is much like Hammond, except executives at Jurassic World (including Dearing) believe Masrani’s dinos are going to be a much bigger success. I was asking myself–you know they never officially opened Jurassic Park to the public, how do they know World would succeed where Park failed?

But of course, Jurassic World has opened, and just like Hammond’s Park, this “spares no expense”. The tourists get to travel around in little hamster bubbles (guided by…well, you’ll see–it’s a very amusing cameo for a few different reasons) and really experience the World whereas Jurassic Park would just show you dinosaurs behind guarded fences while being in a jeep. And how fun would that be? Well like I said, no one ever really got to find out. But it seems as though the Park would’ve been safer.

Of course, problems arise when the latest dinosaur, a genetically altered (heh heh) beast of a thing called the Indominus rex supposedly escapes from its cage. Owen is brought in, after arguing with a militaristic security official at the company that dinosaurs can’t be used as a weapon for the US military, to see if he can talk some sense in Indominus. But he soon realizes this dinosaur has a high intellect, and fools everyone until it can legitimately escape, leading to a potential disaster with a dinosaur on the run.

Meanwhile, the kids take a detour in their hamster bubble until they come face to face with the dinosaur, and Claire teams up with Owen to go and rescue them.

From the point that Indominus escapes, we are just watching “Jurassic Park” again. However, the stakes are definitely higher since the park is open, and there is potential for some eye popping dinosaur fodder. The film really makes the most of its budget, although I can’t help but think there would be far more fatalities in real life. But this isn’t real life, this is the movies–and this movie delivers completely as a monster movie, as an action film, and a breathtaking adventure. Chris Pratt shines as the lead, always charismatic and doesn’t necessarily let the dinosaurs steal the entire show here. His pack of Velociraptors become integral parts of the film’s climax and are even, in a way, kind of cute. Bryce Dallas Howard is impressive as well, and even the kids are interesting instead of annoying (which is so typical of teenage/kid characters in these kinds of movies).

Though Spielberg did not direct this film, some of his trademarks are all over this too, and there are some nice homages to the original film. For a summer blockbuster, this will certainly satiate your appetite like a T-Rex in a crowded gift shop.

My rating:  :-)

Godzilla (2014)

May 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I suppose it’s not really a necessity to have another Godzilla film, especially made in America–but if we were going to have one, this one is certainly passable. It has a very complex plot for a monster film (but then again, so did “Pacific Rim”), and it misses out on a few notes in its character narrative; but as a monster film, it’s pitch perfect. We don’t get to see the King of the Monsters in all his glory for a long time; but when we do, it’s pretty fantastic.

The story begins with a credit sequence that takes us through little snippets of classified documents that show pictures revealing something that looks like an island in the ocean. During the 1950’s the US tries to destroy it, identifying it as a monster, with nuclear weaponry. Instead of killing it, however, it is later revealed that these giant creatures actually feed off of radiation. When we first meet one of our main characters, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (well played by Ken Watanabe), the year is 1999, and he works on a project called Monarch after discovering fossilized remains of a giant creature, as well as two eggs. We also are introduced to Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, who work at a power plant in Japan that is reporting seismic activity. Something ruptures in the earth, and the core is shut down, but not before the plant collapses, and gases are released inside, killing his wife.

Fifteen years later, in present day, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is in the Navy, returning home from duty, when he is told his father has been arrested. His wife tells him to go visit since it’s been so long, and Ford reluctantly goes to bail him out in Japan. He leaves behind his wife and his own son, to help his father. When he gets there, he finds that the town he grew up in is still considered a danger zone with radiation; but Joe, after being released, takes him back and the two realize they do not need radiation suits. There is no radiation. Joe’s prediction is that the plant did not fail, it was something else.

We learn that Serizawa still has the eggs; and when one of them hatches, we are introduced to our first monster in the film: a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The creature has wings and can fly, and has burning red eyes, flashes of light. The creature destroys the base that was holding it, and we find that there is another creature that’s hatched as well. These two creatures are searching for radiation to feed off of.

Then, the big creature returns. Gojira. The rest of the film tries to balance a narrative between Ford returning to his family, his family surviving the destruction of the monsters attacking each other, and the military trying to take down all the monsters. Serizawa suggests to let nature take its course, let the monsters fight; after all, no blast will destroy these creatures and they will simply feed off any radiation of any nuclear bombs that are exploded on them.

The film does a great job showing the monster fights, although the MUTO’s leave something to be desired as far as creative design. I do like that they gave Godzilla real eyes that we can see into. There is a wonderfully subtle scene between Ford and Godzilla, when Godzilla has fallen to the ground, presumably to die, and just stares into Ford’s eyes. It’s almost as if Godzilla’s saying, “It’s a living…” before disappearing into smoke. But it also lets us know that Godzilla has no issue with us. We’re just in his way. He’s trying to kill the MUTO’s.

The other parts of the film don’t bring much to the table, however, which is a shame. I liked the set up of Ford and Joe being like mirror opposites, with Ford being much more family oriented. That would have to come from the fact that he believed his father was too dedicated to his work and that he wants to provide and be a better husband/father. But that never goes anywhere, and we never get to know the humans enough to really care much about them. I liked Cranston’s character, and really believe they make a narrative mistake by leaving him out of most of the film. I also enjoyed Serizawa’s character as well–that stoic, quiet, knowing and understanding person who seems to have a connection with the monster as well. But most of the human scenes come off as very thin and underdeveloped.

Overall it satiates the appetite of anyone who wants to see a good “monster movie” and it makes Godzilla an appealing screen presence again. Much like Peter Jackson did with “King Kong”, Godzilla isn’t just a city crushing behemoth. While there isn’t as much personality as there is in “King Kong”, Godzilla shows us a side that even makes us root for him. The climactic battle between the monsters is certainly worthy of a theatrical viewing, and some of the cinematography is very well done. Grab a bag of popcorn, nestle in your seat, and enjoy watching the King of the Monsters back on the big screen.

My rating: :-)

Pacific Rim

July 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

Guillermo Del Toro always fascinates me as a filmmaker because he’s one of the most joyful visual expressionists I’ve seen in my lifetime. He seems to have a knack for creating interesting looking creatures and putting them in colorful and sometimes dangerous worlds, and it’s always intriguing. He had wanted to film an adaptation of the classic H. P. Lovecraft short story “At The Mountains of Madness”, possibly one of Lovecraft’s most beloved stories. Unfortunately, I don’t know that the film will ever be made, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites. Though we get tastes of it in movies like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, I don’t know we’ll ever really get the actual story in motion picture format. With Del Toro at leas you know it’d be visually stunning.

Instead, Del Toro teamed up with screenwriter Travis Beacham, writer of the 2006 remake of “Clash of the Titans”, and made what’s called a “kaiju” film–a movie about giant monsters–and I think some of the creatures were meant to be “similar” to Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu mythos universe. Well, I’m probably reaching, because what they came up with to fight these Kaijus are giant robots. I don’t think Lovecraft really wrote about those.

This is a very odd film. It’s saturated with a backstory that’s crammed into the first act as if we’re just supposed to be able to inhale decades of destruction and feel like the earth has been under attack and in a state of peril and understand where the technology came from to create mega robots. On top of that, we are supposed to care about characters we barely know and have complex backgrounds that aren’t given many payoffs or consequences. For instance, the main protagonist, a young strapping Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who loses his brother in a battle with one of the Kaijus. Jaegers, by the way, are the name given to the giant robots. Apparently two pilots must lock in to be able to absorb the power that Jaegers have in order to operate. There’s basically a “mind meld”, which means the two pilots must have things in common physically and emotionally and can lean on each other. In an ill fated battle, Raleigh loses his brother and is sent out of the program, doing construction work which looks pretty dangerous, but not very fulfilling.

Enter Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), five years later, tracking down his maverick pilot for another showdown with the Kaijus, who are continuing to destroy the earth and all our cities and ports. Apparently they come from under the sea, rather than outer space, but are considered “aliens” I think. If you’re following all of this, by the way, that’s good. Try and keep up. There’s more.

He is eventually partnered with a novice pilot but accomplished student, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a sketchy past that still haunts her but she is considered a perfect match for Raleigh, much to the chagrin to Pentecost. I’ll spare you the subplot that the United Nations decide to temporarily shut down the Jaeger project in favor of some sort of defense wall because it is imminently destroyed and serves as nothing more than a waste of about 10 minutes of screen time. The point is, Mako and Raleigh are meant to be Jaeger pilots.

But there’s a problem. She can’t let go of her haunting past, and that creates a rift in what’s called the “drift”, where the two minds meld before the Jaeger is fully operational. Pilots have to control their memories and feed them into their co-pilot in a way that isn’t aggressive or detrimental. They need to understand themselves in order to share them. So basically, if you ever happen to find yourself in a Jaeger mecha robot program, and your co-pilot is Amanda Bynes, you may as well jump out of the cockpit as soon as possible, and take your chances with gravity.

On top of all this, there’s another maverick cocky pilot (but he’s no Iceman) named Chuck (Robert Kazinsky) who doesn’t like Raleigh and thinks he’s bad news. But Chuck’s father Herc (Max Martini) has respect for Raleigh and knows the pain of losing his brother, even if Raleigh really doesn’t show it that much…because Charlie Hunnam isn’t that great of an actor. Sorry, Charlie. Loved you in “Undeclared” though.

Speaking of Charlie’s, there’s a miscalculated “humorous” subplot for comic relief I suppose with two nutjob scientists that come into play, trying to understand the Kaijus. One of them, Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), wants to find new ways to destroy the Kaijus. The other, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who resembles Louis Tully, wants to study the Kaijus and understand them. He also comes up with the idea of mind melding with part of a brain they captured from one of the Kaijus. Of course Gottlieb and everybody else thinks that Newton is crazy, and he turns into Vinz Clortho and sends the giant Slore against them to kill them all.

Just kidding. However, I realize these two scientists are supposed to be funny; but the comedy kind of clangs instead of amuses. Charlie Day literally looks like he came in from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” solely to crash the set. The only part of the comic sequences that work are with Ron Perlman who plays a black market Kaiju enthusiast, Hannibal Chau. Perlman is always good, even though his character is an unnecessary semi-villain.

Are you still with me? OK, so what Newton finds out is that the Kaijus are only sending their “soldier ants” and are actually preparing an even larger scale monster war, something beyond their “Categories” (Category 5 is the highest on their scale). He does this by mind melding with the brain of the Kaiju, of course, as he wanted to, and of course he’s right and knows how to destroy the Kaijus.

So let’s go back to Raleigh and Mako, who are given an old clunky Jaeger that runs on its own power, which comes in handy when they start facing some more technologically advanced Kaijus, and we find out that Mako’s backstory involves watching her family be destroyed by a Kaiju. But there’s a connection she has with one of the main characters that turns out to be one of the strongest and most emotional parts of the movie, and it works very well.

It took me a while to decide whether I liked this film, because as you can see, there’s a lot I have problems with. It’s very ambitious, it’s so chock full of backstory and exposition that sometimes it hulks around like a Jaeger itself. The battle scenes are tough to describe. In some ways it’s like watching an arcade video fighting game in slow motion. There are some dazzling effects, however, when these battles wind up destroying major (hopefully evacuated) cities.

Apart from some of the hackneyed “science” and major plot holes, I think I liked the main characters enough, and the relationships they develop, that it carried the film for me overall. You can lose all the other stuff and the film would be much shorter and probably more enjoyable. I think that Mako may have actually been a better central character, or Pentecost. Both actors respectively are incredibly strong and give top notch performances.

On balance, I did enjoy the film enough. But I really think that this being simply a movie does the story a disservice. While I’m sure there will be Mangas or comics that will go more into the backstory, I think this would’ve made a very entertaining Saturday morning cartoon series. It reminded me of shows like “Voltron” and “Transformers”, and even “G.I. Joe”.

I’d recommend seeing this film on the biggest possible screen to really get the idea of the scope of the battle sequences. Something like IMAX would be a great experience. I’m not sure whether the whole film will entertain you, but you will at least get your money’s worth of destruction. And for a summer popcorn movie, I guess that’s all you really need. Del Toro can do better, but this works enough for me.

My rating: :-)