Dec 9, 2019

TEN CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)



As disciples of J.J. Abrams know by now, he is a filmmaker who enjoys shrouding his films in mystery. Ideally, all filmmakers should, as the advent of social media and entertainment websites who cover every new development, right down to the design of Batman's new utility belt, are kind of ruining the magic of seeing everything unfold--even the smallest details--on the silver screen. This was what made 2008's Cloverfield, about a group of friends in New York experiencing their city being destroyed by a Godzilla-like monster, so startling. It wasn't just that the film was effectively crafted, draping what was essentially a ground-zero re-imagination of the sudden shock, horror, and immediate aftereffects of 9/11 with good, old fashioned monster movie mayhem, but the extremely subtle and vague ad campaign heightened the sense of mystique of what on earth Cloverfield was all about. The trailer featured people pooling in the streets hearing loud noises from afar before a large object is spotted hurtling from the sky and bouncing down their street, revealing itself to be the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, set to an unseen someone screaming their own head off. This coupled with some clever internet viral marketing helped usher Cloverfield into both box office success and cinema history.

For years, Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and writer Drew Goddard fielded inquiries about when Cloverfield 2 would be made, and they all fell back on the typical response of being open to it, but only if they were confident they'd cracked a concept worth exploring. Six years later, that sequel/not-really-sequel revealed itself to the world as not only being in the planning stages, but already having been shot, assembled, and ready for its big premiere. What has arrived is an experience that's clever, thrilling, sadly realistic, but conflicting and at odds with its lineage, all at once.


If Cloverfield was an attempt to appropriate 9/11 in an effort to make audiences experience a version of it for themselves, then 10 Cloverfield Lane takes the logical next step in showing what that kind of experience does to the human psyche, while borrowing elements from Night of the Living Dead, Misery, and an eerie scene from Spielberg's adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Doomsdayers are real people. They, too, have underground bunkers stocked with non-perishable foods, drinking water, and a cache of firearms. While these people have always existed among us, their numbers saw an increase following 9/11, and another following the election of Barack Obama. Entire "reality" television series have been created to cast a light on both these people and their mindsets. And 10 Cloverfield Lane does a pretty fantastic job of looking at one of these doomsdayers.

John Goodman as Howard, said doomsdayer, has never before played a character like this, not to mention it's been a while since he's enjoyed such a prominent role. He plays simmering instability rather well, but is also, effortlessly, able to fall back on vulnerable, sympathetic, and even caring. Who starts off the film as "the villain" transitions into something less clear and defined, as in his heart he believes he's doing the right thing, and his performance reflects that. It's only when he becomes the more typical movie monster when the celebrated actor has a less firm grasp on the role and starts to fall back on what we've seen countless times before.


Uneasy alliances between characters have always been a fascinating dynamic to explore, in that people who start off as foes become friends, and even grow to depend on each other, and for the most part, 10 Cloverfield Lane really nails that dynamic down, but while also leaving just the tiniest shadow of a doubt so that the audience never fully relaxes into their seats. The bond Howard shares with his "roommates," Michelle and Emmett, exists either as a formality or as a genuine human connection. With Howard, it's hard to tell, but it's our need as human beings to emotionally insist on the latter.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has struggled to find strong, action-oriented characters in genre films worth a damn, finds a believable heroine in Michelle, who transitions from someone fleeing a broken relationship with her boyfriend, Ben (played by an off-screen Bradley Cooper) to a full-blown heroine. Between this and a pivotal scene during which she shares one of her greatest regrets, it becomes clear that Michelle doesn't just want but needs to be a stronger person. Winstead easily enables this transition for her, as she deals with conflicts both at eye-level as well as above her--very, very above her.

John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett is on hand to provide some of the usual comedy relief on which the Cloverfield series apparently depends. Not quite as rapid-fire ridiculous as T.J. Miller in the first film, Emmett's presence is more equally balanced between poignancy and neutrality with the usual tension-lightening oddball comment. The use of this kind of character is better rendered this time out, offering more than just off-screen wryness, and it's through Gallagher's easy likability that this is possible.


10 Cloverfield Lane's only failing, but it's a significant one, is with its condensed final act, in which the exterior threat which has made the outside world so uninhabitable is finally revealed. Ironically, it's Abrams' insistence on utter secrecy that takes all the impact out of the reveal. For all of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the audience is waiting to see the monster (or its mini-monsters) from Cloverfield, being that the title confirms the former exists in the latter's universe. Even as we settle into the underground bunker story and allow ourselves to invest in this conflict, we can't shake already knowing what the larger conflict above them is, so when Michelle faces that conflict head-on, it doesn't come as a surprise but an inevitability. For someone as smart and insistent on surprise as J.J. Abrams, the best thing he could have done was call 10 Cloverfield Lane anything else--10 Howard Lane, 10 Paranoia Lane--to keep the invading threat a secret. Not only would this have added a new layer to Goodman's mysterious Howard, being that he repeatedly claimed the outside threat were "martians" (which was eagerly dismissed by his fellow occupants), but Abrams still could have tied this new film to the previous, kept his mailbox reveal, and packed an ever bigger surprise wallop to his faithful audience who weren't necessarily expecting "martians."

10 Cloverfield Lane's biggest issue is its title. With the word "Cloverfield" comes a certain expectation, and by proxy, takes away the impact of the big reveal. But everything leading up to that is expertly executed, especially when taking into consideration that this was director Dan Trachtenberg's directorial debut. Cleverly, and admittedly very ballsy, the filmmakers have placed a very intimate and very different kind of universe it into a very broad and very specifically genred universe. Unfortunately, it's this outside-the-box thinking that somewhat handicaps the film, causing it to end in a way that feels foreign and somewhat inappropriate. Having said that, 10 Cloverfield Lane still gets an easy recommendation.


Dec 7, 2019

THIS WILL DRIVE YOU INSANE


I can’t stop reading this over and over. I am in hell help me.

OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983)


You’re going to absorb so much information on rats from watching Of Unknown Origin that it’s absurd, and you’ll never see it coming. Like, apparently, a rat’s teeth never stops growing, hence why they chew, constantly, on everything, in an effort to wear their teeth down. 

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but a movie starring Peter Weller told me it is, and I CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IT. 

By film’s end, you will be a walking rat expert and no one will ever date you.


As you settle down to watch Of Unknown Origin, what will resonate with you the most after a while is that it’s honestly kind of good, with an absolutely committed performance by Weller and an almost JAWS-like approach to the material. (There’s even a scene where Weller’s Burt flips through books and photographs of rat attacks suffered by humans, complemented by a similarly moody Williams-esque musical score. It’s a shame none of the pages reflected in Weller’s glasses, or perhaps director George P. Cosmatos figured that might be going a tad too far.)

It’s easy and even kind of understandable to write off Of Unknown Origin if you’ve never had the pleasure, especially when you know that it was a product of the ‘80s, starred a pre-Robocop Peter Weller, and was about one man’s descent into hell thanks to the gigantic rat infesting his New York brownstone. And don’t get me wrong, Of Unknown Origin is silly, but not the kind of silly where you can just dismiss the film out of hand. It’s silly in the sense that it’s man vs. rat, but the concept is taken seriously enough, and Cosmatos is a skilled enough director (let’s pretend that the ghost-directing going on during the shooting of Cobra and Tombstone by Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell*, respectively, were overblown), that the film never feels like outright parody or B-movie stupidity.


And Weller, holy shit — he’s having so much fun with this role, and why wouldn’t he? This is an actor’s dream — the chance to transform, slowly, through the course of one film, starting off as a plain and mild-mannered junior executive and ending the film as a raving madman, willing to go to great lengths to destroy the rat that’s totally ruining his mind — and his own house in the process.

Throughout, Of Unknown Origin maintains a very sly sense of humor, through Weller’s own bemusement with the rodent, as well as the concept itself. And obviously, or maybe not so obviously, it’s also clever satire on the idea of the American Dream — in this case, the perfectly manicured, catalog-ready home: what it says about your status, and the silly lengths one may go to maintain its flawlessness. So, if that’s the case, then what does the rat represent? God knows. How social do you want to get? The scourge of the middle class or the poor? Maybe the homeless? Immigration? (This isn’t far-fetched. Creepshow, more specifically the segment “They’re Creeping Up On You,” in which E.G. Marshall’s hermetically sealed apartment is infested with cockroaches meant to represent the exploding immigrant population in the surrounding city, has explored this ground before.) Weller’s a white, well-to-do, suit-wearing fella who handles “deals” as part of his job, so based on the film itself, the rat can represent almost anything, since white people are everything. I mean, sure, the synopsis refers to “the rat race of Wall Street” and that’s a differing and fair allegory, but much more of the conflict takes place within the rat-infested home, with Weller’s job not suffering that much or causing that much undue stress. (Plus I just like my own analysis better because I’m whiny and proud.)


But if you’re not interested in social commentary, that’s fine, because Of Unknown Origin is still entertaining as hell if you’re taking the movie merely at face value. Only in rare cases do I find the animals-run-amok sub-genre entertaining — I’ll re-mention JAWS as a fave, and Alligator as a dark horse, but I’ll also mention that I find Hitchcock’s The Birds kind of stupid and Cujo extremely dull. Having said that, I’ll happily count Of Unknown Origin among the ranks of one of the good ones. Obviously it’s no JAWS, but it’s a hair better than JAWS 2, and that’s not bad. Maybe because, on paper, you wouldn’t think Of Unknown Origin had a chance, and maybe I like an underdog. Or maybe I expected an easily dismissible bullshit B-movie like the distributor’s prior release of Deadly Eyes and got something much more well rendered.

Be sure to watch it surrounded by your ratta friends that you bought from the local IKEA, to whom you’ve assigned differing personalities, and then talk to them during the movie and pretend they are talking back to you in little unique rat voices because you are just a total, total weirdo.



*Hey, Tango & Cash!

Dec 6, 2019

IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

 

(Contains spoilers.)

IT: Chapter One, which I guess is what we’re now calling the first half of this saga, was a mostly successful horror flick, if not an overly loyal adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary tome. Though the troubled production, began by True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and concluded by Mama director Andres Muschietti, culminated in a better genre picture than most people were expecting, certain audience members (including me) were a little disappointed that King’s novel wasn’t adhered to a little more faithfully. Still, the essence of the novel remained, and that was the most satisfying part. 

IT: Chapter Two always seemed like the more dubious gamble of the saga, for several reasons, but mostly because the portions of the IT story that deal with the characters as kids are far more interesting, empathetic, and nostalgic than the portions that catch up with their adult counterparts, and this applies to the novel or the original miniseries. Not to mention that the adult portions of the story lend themselves more to the mystical and the strange, including the very odd “ritual of Chüd,” which IT: Chapter Two utilizes and which feels too foreign and unusual when following the fairly straightforward normality of IT: Chapter One. While doing a better job of faithfully adapting the second half of King’s novel, IT: Chapter Two still feels overstuffed at times, and ironically offers a critical flipside reaction when compared to its predecessor. This time, IT: Chapter Two is more faithful to the source material, but suffers at times from offering an inconsistent horror experience, leaving this second half of the saga merely satisfactory. 


Even with the film running at a staggering three hours(!), IT: Chapter Two still feels like it’s in a hurry. It wouldn’t be right to say the introduction to the adult versions of the Losers Club feels perfunctory, but it's awfully streamlined, and Muschietti doesn’t provide enough time for audiences to catch their breath in between meeting each adult counterpart. Beverly (Jessica Chastain), especially, gets the short straw, with the film hurtling through a major part of her character’s background – that she’s matriculated from an abusive relationship with her father to an abusive relationship with her husband. Her character’s reintroduction not only downplays her husband’s mind games that exist in canon, but the film tries to be “slick” by falsely introducing him as a kind man to try and fool the members of the audience who already know he’s an asshole. Meanwhile, Bill (James McAvoy) is writing screenplays for the Hollywood system based on his novels, which star his wife, Audra, but after receiving "the call" from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), he immediately blows town, leaving Audra behind… never to be seen again. (If you’re familiar with the novel or the previous miniseries, you’ll note this is a major change.) Eddie Spaghetti (an excellent James Ransone, Sinister) is no longer driving cars for the rich and famous, but instead cites his job as a “risk assessor,” which rightfully sounds like the kind of job that a young, neurotic Eddie would grow up to obtain. (I have to give major props to Muschietti for re-using the actor who played Eddie’s mother in Chapter One to briefly play his wife in Chapter Two – it’s somehow both subtle and super on-the-nose, but it works.) The rest of the cast are introduced in the same rapid way, with none of them suffering the kinds of dramatic “Remember that time we were almost killed by a monster clown?” floodgates of memories you’d expect (unless you count a constantly vomiting Bill Hader), and before you know it, the Losers Club are back at the Jade of the Orient Chinese restaurant screaming at demonic fortune cookies. But not Stan, though! Poor Stan (Andy Bean, Swamp Thing); he barely registers as a blip in this new take. By film’s end, when he’s essentially speaking to his friends from beyond the grave, it feels far too late for his character to have the kind of significance the film is asking for, and audiences almost have to remind themselves who he was again. (Poor Stan!)


The criticisms I had for IT: Chapter One remain, mostly in that the changes made from the source material seem unnecessary and useless, feeling especially wrong when arguably significant events from the novel are chucked out in favor of brand new creations that the story, frankly, didn’t need. Whether it's Bill trying to save the life of a young boy who lives in his old childhood house, or the out-of-nowhere revelation that Richie has spent his life running from the fact that he’s gay, there’s nothing wrong with these new subplots, but they just don’t add anything new or constructive to the mix, and this in a movie where there’s already a lot going on. And, again, the humor – for the love of Bob Gray – the humor. Muschietti is fully capable of establishing a creepy and dreadful tone, but he seems intimidated by letting that tone sustain, too often subscribing to the philosophy of setting the audience up with scares and then deflating the tension with a joke. IT: Chapter One had its fair share of this, but IT: Chapter Two’s three-hour running time really accentuates this technique to the degree that it becomes frustrating. Sure, some of the gags are funny, but some are face-palming tone killers, and I’m still trying to figure out which I hated more: Eddie being vomited on by the cellar leper set to ‘80s pop, or the too-long scene where Richie and Eddie are terrified by a Pomeranian. If this were any other property, I’d be more forgiving, but this is a story about a demonic, intergalactic clown who EATS children – who tore off the arm of an eight-year-old kid in the first scene of the first movie – so maybe things shouldn’t be so hilarious. Maybe it’s okay for horror films to retain constant horror instead of the constant up and down emotional ride Muschietti likes to curate. Admittedly, though, some gags do work. The constant references to writer Bill botching the endings to his novels are amusing on both a surface level as well as a meta one, and King, who has been criticized for years with that same claim, was a good sport for letting Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (the Annabelle series) throw that in. (King cameos as an antique shop owner and shares a scene with McAvoy's Bill, where he tells him that same thing.) Ironically, however, after flinging this joke toward Bill several times, the flick’s own ending feels anticlimactic and silly, being that our cast of heroes literally bully Pennywise to death.

Unless Warner and New Line decide to go ahead with IT: Chapter Zero and explore the town of Derry’s morbid, dangerous history from King’s novel (or if Muschietti assembles his “director’s cut” and resurrects much of the unused footage he shot for both chapters), then this is all she wrote for this long-mooted IT saga. Like the miniseries itself, or the novel before it, or hell, even the kind of idealistic childhood as suggested if not experienced by the young versions of the Losers Club, this new take on IT starts strongly and ends satisfactorily, resulting in an above-average horror epic that manages to be scary, touching, imaginative, and conclusive, even if it’s not definitive.