Alien: Covenant(5/21/2017)

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Having original opinions can be lonely sometimes.  That’s especially true now that we live in the era of the bandwagon and the pile-on when it comes to the popular opinion on movies.  Maybe I’m just being wrongly nostalgic but I feel like there was a time when opinions about movies used to spread a bit more organically whereas today it seems like consensuses are basically built by instantly posted reviews by critics two days before a movie comes out and are then either confirmed or slightly tweaked after a weekend of tweets.  There might be a backlash sometime around a week after the film comes out and maybe a backlash to the backlash the next week but for the most part the die seems to be cast for a movie pretty fast and if you’re on the outside of the consensus you can easily find yourself in a pretty lonely place.  One movie that got pretty cruelly shot down in this environment was Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien which sought to expand the series beyond its horror roots and use it as a platform to examine scientific and philosophical ideas.  It also had a couple of plot holes and script problems, and as such it was quickly torn apart by the consensus.  Personally, I rather liked it.  I could recognize its problems but felt like they were more than outweighed by its visual grandeur and ambitious storytelling and while the film does have other defenders they’ve been pretty well drowned out too by the sometimes kind of nasty wave of negativity that hit the film. Now four years later Ridley Scott has come out with a follow-up called Alien: Covenant and it may well rekindle all the arguments that raged around the previous prequel.

Despite what the title may suggest, this is very much a sequel to Prometheus and picks up about 15 years after that movie’s conclusion.  We are once again following a rather ill-fated space voyage, this time of a colonization ship called The Covenant which is headed for an uninhabited planet which could serve as a base for a new society.  At the film’s start everyone on board except for the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, playing a different robot from the one he played in Prometheus) is in stasis when a sudden accident hits the ship killing a handful of the sleeping colonists including the captain.  The rest of the crew is woken up and needs to immediately stabilize the ship.  With that done they suddenly realize that they are actually close to another planet that may well be an inhabitable alternative to the planet they were initially headed to.  Deciding that they need to explore this world before they think about waking up the rest of the colonists the new acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to lead a landing party despite the objections of his second in command Dany Branson (Katherine Waterson).  When they land they suddenly realize that this planet has had other visitors previously and strange things happen when they run into a mysterious black substance on the ground.

Prometheus was in many ways a pretty bold movie.  It was Ridley Scott rather defiantly making the statement that Alien was a series that wasn’t defined by Xenomorphs so much as it was defined by an aesthetic, at least when Ridley Scott was making it.  Scott proceeded to use that world and aesthetic to explore what humanity is willing to do in order to find the meaning of life.  While doing that, it also proved to be kind of clumsy when it sought to also be something of a monster movie.  Critics certainly seized on the movie’s questionable moments and used them to dismiss it, which is a reaction that was on one hand understandable and yet on the other hand a bit dismissive.  In many ways it felt like the film was being punished for its pretension and for the raised expectations that it had elicited with its promising trailer and highbrow title.  For the sequel Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox seem to have realized that and done everything they could to signal that this is in fact a very much a monster movie.  It’s put the word “Alien” in the title and it has a xenomorph front and center in in pretty much every advertisement for the movie.  However, despite what the title would have you believe this is still very much a sequel to Prometheus in terms of storyline and also tries to retains many of its sensibilities while also functioning as a monster movie and the results can be rather schizophrenic in terms of tone.

Prometheus ended with what appeared to be the creation of the first xenomorph through the combination of an Engineer and a squid-like monster that was implanted into the Noomi Rapace character and removed using a medical station.  This is pretty much ignored if not re-coned out of existence by Alien: Covenant and we are instead given a new interpretation of how the xenomorph came to be.  This is the most Prometheus-like element of the movie.  I don’t want to give too much about this away but let’s just say that it involves a mad scientist, interesting imagery and Percy Shelly quotes.  Prometheus was also plenty pretentious but it seemed a little more earnest about it, here it almost kind of just feels like the new writing staff is a lot less interested and are just doing their best to throw a few philosophical ideas because that’s considered to be part of the franchise now.  That isn’t to say that a couple of these ideas aren’t without interest, but they seem weaker and they sometimes clash with some of the more base genre elements that are here as well.  These genre elements are… alright.  There’s certainly some nicely gooey looking gore here and a few interesting set-pieces, but a lot of them seem like they should be a lot more exciting in theory than they actually are.

The movie certainly isn’t as suspenseful as Alien, not by a long shot, and it also isn’t anywhere near as thrilling and action packed as Aliens.  In fact the Alien movie is most reminds me of might actually be Alien 3.  Like that movie this tries to go back to the “one or two aliens versus multiple humans” but less effectively than the original, and like that movie it does have a few decent kill scenes, and like that movie it has a slightly undercooked but potentially interesting element of character study.  Needless to say, that isn’t the Alien movie you want to be compared to but to be fair it is better than being compared to Alien: Resurrection or one of the Alien Vs. Predator movies.  Ridley Scott does remain a solid craftsman and the movie does share a lot of the solid design work and cinematography that made Prometheus work as well as it did even if they don’t seem as fresh and interesting this time around, but it also carries over that movie’s tendency to have its characters do remarkably stupid things to get themselves killed, and frankly I think this movie is way worse in that regard.  In many ways it’s a movie that just carries over a lot of its predecessor’s flaws while also minimizing a lot of its strengths to almost be the worst of both worlds and it’s only through Ridley Scott’s skill and hutzpah that it isn’t a much bigger disaster than it is.

20th Century Women(1/21/2017)

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It’s amazing how useful a high concept can be, at least when it comes to spreading the word about a movie.  For instance, Arrival can easily be described as “a woman must learn an alien language in order to save the world” and while that is a gross oversimplification it certainly gets the attention of the person you’re talking to and gives them an idea what they’re into and makes them want to hear more.  It works for movies that are basically grounded character studies as well, for instance the fact that Moonlight has that tryptic structure gives it a distinctive little hook that makes it easier to convey something that’s special about it real quick.  When a movie doesn’t have a catchy little hook things can get a little harder explain.  Take the new film 20th Century Women for example: when someone asks what that’s about you stuck fumbling though this long explanation about how it’s this movie set in the late 70s with this unconventional family with a single mother and a tenant and this teenage son who feels things and… etc etc.  That’s a mouthful and I suspect it will limit the movie’s audience, but it is a movie that’s worth considering so give me a minute to explain all of this.

The film is set in Santa Barbra in 1979 and focuses in on a mother and son.  The mother is named Dorothea (Annette Benning), who had her son relatively late in life and divorced her ex-husband not long after.  She has something of a free spirited attitude and raises her son in a somewhat unconventional way.  That son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is now fifteen and entering into that age when teenagers generally withdraw from their parents and she begins to worry about his well-being after an incident where he’s hurt taking part in a dangerous choking game.  In response she approaches his childhood friend, who is emphatically not a girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning) as well as a tenant living in the house whom Jamie admires named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and asks that they sort of help out in his upbringing in certain ways.  This is a rather vague and unusual request and the two react to it a bit differently.  Also in the mix is a guy named William (Billy Crudup) who has been helping with some construction on the house, and he sort of interacts with the characters in various ways as well.

20th Century Women was written and directed by Mike Mills who is probably best known for helming the 2010 film Beginners.  That movie is probably most notable for a performance in it by Christopher Plummer, which earned the veteran actor a long overdue Oscar.  Otherwise though, I found that movie to be fairly forgettable and I can’t say I was expecting a whole lot more from Mills’ follow-up.  However, 20th Century Women seems to be something of a refinement of the style that Mills explored in that previous movie.  Both employ vaguely wistful voice-overs and both also use cutaways both to fill in past events and also to give the film a vaguely collage feel at times.  All of that is handled a lot better this time around and the film adds to that an interest in rich period detail.  The movie makes a very big point of the fact that it’s set in 1979, which seems to be a year that was very carefully chosen.  This was after all the year Kramer Vs. Kramer came out, divorce was slowly becoming a fact of American life but it wasn’t quite the norm yet and a family like this was still certainly a bit outside of the absolute mainstream.  What’s more that hippie spirit was still sort of alive, certainly in Santa Barbara at least, and the punk scene (which was decidedly post-punk at this point) was still providing something of a counter-cultural voice albeit a lot more faintly than it used to.

The film thrives in its ability to create unique characters and give them interesting dynamics between one another.  Central to the movie of course is the relationship between the mother and the son.  Dorothea is introduced as a child of the depression who is in her 50s as the movie opens.  She’s way less judgmental and more permissive than you’d expect from someone of that generation and has a bit of the hippie to her.  There are limits to this open mindedness however and she can be a bit smothering at times and Annette Benning does a solid job of hitting this balancing act.  Under her guidance her son has grown to be a fairly open minded if somewhat passive teenager, albeit one with the usual angst for someone of his age.  Then there’s the Abbie character who is involved in the punk scene but also has a bit of a depressive side to her as she’s recovering from cervical cancer as the film begins.  Her attempts to help “raise” Jamie are interesting if a touch comical at times like her decision that he needs to read her copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves.” Gretta Gerwig, an actress who has somehow managed to avoid playing a girlfriend in a superhero movie thus far, gives one of her best performances here and breaks with the borderline typecasting she was starting to fall into.  Finally there’s Elle Fanning’s Julie, who has an interesting relationship with Jamie in that she insists on being “just friends” with him despite the fact that he clearly has a crush on her and she interacts with him in semi-intimate ways that a “just friend” normally would not.

At times 20th Century Women started to feel like it was going to just be a collection of really well drawn characters with no real movie to actually fit them all, but I do think it ultimately comes together at the end and justifies itself.  In many ways the movie seems to be presenting a vision of a world where everyone sort of behaves exactly the way third wave feminism wants them to: the women talk openly about their inner womanly thoughts (often to the point of oversharing), the men listen intently and spend a lot of time thinking about the women’s feelings, no one is slut shamed, and single motherhood is only a moderate challenge.  It seems like a pretty pleasant world, but it also kind of rings a little false at times; like a vision of an imagined utopia rather than the real world where people don’t share all their feelings like this and people aren’t as receptive of advice.  In this sense the film is almost like a vigorous defense for building a pleasant bubble around yourself and your family (whatever form that may take) even if it can only last so long.  The film is breezy but impactful and it was ultimately a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with these people.

4

Arrival(11/14/2016)

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Science fiction is more popular right now than ever… at least if you’re willing to have a sort of loose definition of what the genre covers.  Six of the top ten highest grossing movies of last year could be called science fiction if you’re willing to expand the genre to include films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Inside Out, but even though those movies involve killer robots, DNA manipulation, and symbolically technological manifestations of the mind none of them quite have that sci-fi smell to them.  Even the more unambiguously futuristic of these sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 ultimately feel more like action movies than like true ruminations on humanities future and its relation to technology.  Movies that really truly feel like pure science fiction rather than a sci-fi twist on some other genres are pretty rare.  The only noteworthy movies from last year which would seem to fit the bill are The Martian, Ex Machina, maybe Tomorrowland and possibly ChappieEx Machina in particular seemed to be the real standard bearer for “thinking man’s sci-fi” and while it was made on a very small scale it seemed to have a pretty remarkable cultural impact for what it was.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the kind of brainy sci-fi that a certain kind of slightly nerdy cinephille craves is pretty rare so when one actually gets made it tends to be a pretty big event, and that’s why movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are so hotly anticipated.

Arrival appears to be set in the present or very near future and begins when twelve large cylindrical alien spaceships suddenly arrive on earth and begin to hover over twelve separate and seemingly random places on earth including one ship that stopped in a largely uninhabited location in Montana which is quickly cordoned off and isolated by the military.  The ships do not show any overt signs of aggression but cause great amounts of worry among the populace just the same.  All this is shown from the perspective of a linguist working at a university named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who seems to be overcoming a great loss as the film begins.  Shortly after “the arrival” she is contacted by a US Army Colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker), who knew of her from some previous top secret translation work she did for the military.  After some convincing Weber agrees to bring Banks out to the site and see the UFO for herself.  There she learns that the military has been able to board the ship periodically and see the aliens but have no real way to speak with them in their rather unusual language, but think that Banks and a scientist she’ll been working with named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) might have what it takes to break through and determine what these aliens want.

Arrival is directed by a guy named Denis Villeneuve who’s made a number of movies recently that I’ve been less enamored with than a lot of people.  I thought Prisoners was kind of ridiculous, that Enemy was rather ill-conceived, and that Sicario wasn’t as smart as it thought it was.  However, most of my complaints about all those movies tended to be leveled more towards the various writers involved than at Villeneuve’s direction.  I’ve always held out hope that when Villeneuve finally found the right script that he could pull off something special and with Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival, which is based on a Nebula winning novella by Ted Chiang, I think he’s finally found material that’s worthy of his talent.

The film clearly resembles Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact in that it presents something of a procedural exploration of how the world would react to a potential first contact situation with an alien intelligence but there are also hints of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the way the government struggles to communicate with the aliens and in the way the characters take their encounters fairly personally.  What follows is an exploration in the difficulties of communication as the Amy Adams character tries to figure out how to get through to these aliens while the world goes mad around her.  Adams, who rarely disappoints, continues to does a great job of anchoring this movie.  In the last couple of years she’s done a great job of transitioning from her early “adorkable” roles into a more well-rounded actress who can really carry a movie.  Jeremy Renner is also a solid co-star, though I’m not quite sure what Forrest Whitaker doing with his accent in this.  Villeneuve also has some solid collaborators behind the scenes like his longtime composer of choice Jóhann Jóhannsson but I was a lot less impressed with the film’s cinematography by Bradford Young.  Young is a young (no pun intended) DP who is viewed as something of a wunderkind by the media, but I don’t really see the appeal.  His movies all look like they’re being played on TVs that have had the brightness jacked up with all the blacks being diluted into greys.  Given the setting this isn’t quite as distracting as it was in Selma but I still don’t really care for it.

Arrival is kind of a difficult film to talk about without going into spoilers.  As you can probably guess there’s something of a twist about three quarters of the way into the film which makes you rethink a lot of what came before and it’s certainly something that takes a minute to wrap your head around.  I’m not going to take a deep dive into it right now but it is a twist with implications that are at once both fascinating and not entirely logical but I think I mostly liked it.  I don’t see Arrival going down in the annals of great science fiction as a classic of the genre, but it is solid, certainly smarter than what you’d usually expect from what looks like a very expensive movie from Paramount Pictures.  Maybe that says something about the low standards of Hollywood right now… or maybe it suggests that we’re a little spoiled from all the truly excellent science fiction we’ve had in the past and the very high standard that was set by movies like The Abyss, The Day the Earth Stood Still or the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact.  Either way, it’s definitely a movie worth seeing even if it kind of falls into a strange middle ground between summer blockbuster and award contender.

4

Aquarius(10/29/2016)

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When it comes to Brazilian film I must admit that my experience is largely limited to the great 2002 film City of God, which I’m on record as saying is one of the best movies of the 21st century but which seemed to be both the start and end of a one film revolution in the country.  Of course that is likely my own ignorance talking: looking through my personal database that may actually be the one and only true Brazilian film that I’ve even seen (the only other films that came close were the foreign produced Black Orpheus and Kiss of the Spider Woman).  I’m not exactly sure why that is given that my intake of films from other South American countries like Argentina and Chile has been, while still limited, at least a bit wider than that.  Among the Brazilian films I’m managed to miss out on was a 2012 film called Neighboring Sounds, which has developed quite a following in the time since then.  That film was the feature debut of a director named Kleber Mendonça Filho, who is becoming one of the most prominent (if domestically controversial) filmmakers from that country.  Given that I neglected to catch up with that earlier film I thought it would be a good idea to catch his latest, and much buzzed about, follow-up Aquarius right out the gate.

Aquarius is a character study of a woman in her 60s named Dona Clara (Sônia Braga), who lives in an old condo building near a beach in the city of Recife and has been living there for well over thirty years.  As the film opens she is the last remaining tenant in the building with everyone else having sold their apartments to a development company who plans to remodel the entire building and re-sell the rooms at a higher price.  They have offered Dona Clara with a very generous offer above market value for her to sell, but she has steadfastly refused to entertain this offer and plans to stay in her apartment until she dies.  From there we get a passive aggressive standoff of sorts between Dona Clara and Diego (Humberto Carrão), the representative of the development company.

Aquarius has generated a lot of controversy in its home country, but seemingly less for its actual content and more from acts of activism on the part of its cast and crew in the wake of recent political turmoil in the country.  This is ironic because there’s not a lot of evidence of turmoil in the movie.  I’m no expert on Brazil but my understanding is that they were looking like they were on a big upswing for a while there only to run into all kinds of strife that rained on their parade right as they were about to host the Olympics (which had seemed like a good idea back when they were on that upswing).  This film seems like it was conceived back when they were still ascending and is a film that is perhaps wondering what the price of all their progress was.  In this sense it shares something of a thematic similarity with another recent film from a BRIC country: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, which is something of a rumination on the drawbacks of China’s turn towards western ways of doing thing.

Then again, if the film’s intent was to suggest that Brazil should think twice before paving over the old in favor of the new it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to drive that message home.  We certainly get a good idea of why Dona Clara would like her apartment and the lifestyle it brings, but it doesn’t really explain in too much detail why she sees it as a landmark worth defending.  Is it perhaps just a matter of sentiment?  That she simply wants to preserve the sentiments of thirty years of living there?  I don’t know, that just seems like quite the first world problem to me.  The film certainly positions Dona Clara as a bit of an underdog against this coldly calculating land developer, but it takes quite a bit of privilege to be able to turn down two million reals just because you like the view and have some nice memories of a place.  Some of the films better scenes are the ones where Dona Clara is passive aggressively sparing with the developers’ representative and I maybe would have liked it if we’d gotten a more nuanced battle between the two where the developer gets a few more words in edgewise about the value of preserving the old vs. making way for the new.

I am perhaps getting a little bit too deep into the assumption that this is meant to be a thematic/political film when it is perhaps better appreciated as a character study, but even then the film only does so much for me.  Dona Clara is certainly interesting in that she’s an older woman who has been largely undefeated by the challenges in her life and has remained a fairly hip 60-something with her record collection and whatnot but she didn’t quite strike me as a wildly unique or fascinating person despite Sônia Braga’s best efforts, at least not to the point where simply watching her live her life would be enough to carry a movie.  Kleber Mendonça Filho visual sensibilities seem to be solid but not quite unique enough to completely hold my attention and this movie is not exactly the most fast paced thing you’re likely to see either.  The movie has been picked up by Netflix and will likely be debuting on that platform soon but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best environment to be watching it on.  I can definitely see myself having lost patience with it a lot faster if I was at home and surrounded by distractions.  I don’t know, I’m wondering if I’m missing something with this one.  The movie certainly walks and talks like a noteworthy movie but I’m not quite seeing the point to it.

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American Honey(10/15/2016)

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One of the most common title formats in cinema is the “American [fill in the blank]” format, which as far as I can tell goes back at least as far as 1973’s American Graffiti and has been used dozens of times.  It may or may not be as common as the “[fill in the blank] Story” format be it’s certainly the more loaded of the two.  It’s not a titling convention that’s often used for mellow movies with modest intentions, rather it’s used when you want to make it clear that you’re not merely making a movie about a hustle, or a psycho, or a gangster, or beauty, but are instead making a bold statement about America.  The latest film in this tradition is Andrea Arnold’s American Honey which refers not to delicious substance created by bees but to “honey” as a term of endearment to refer to a woman or girl and is also borrowed from a country song that plays late in the film.

The film is set in modern America and centers on a girl named Star (Sasha Lane) who at one point says she’s eighteen but who I sort of suspect is actually supposed to be a bit younger.  Star starts the film living in a pretty grim living situation with two rather awful looking parent/guardians.  When by chance she runs into a band of other young people traveling through her town she is given the offer to join them and takes it immediately.  These young people are part of a “magazine crew” which travels across the country going door to door in various neighborhoods selling magazine subscriptions, often by falsely claiming that the proceeds are for charity.  Along the way to these various sales the crew resembles a sort of gypsy convoy of millennial debauchery and partying as the kids spend a lot of time sitting in a van smoking pot and listening to a lot of trap music.  The group’s manager is Krystal (Riley Keough), who is slightly older than the rest of the bunch and is initially distrustful of Star and who may or may not be sleeping with her most efficient salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who is also seemingly getting a bit too old to be doing this and has been selected to train Star in the ways of doing these sales.

American Honey is in many ways something of a companion piece to another recent movie, Hell or High Water, in that it’s the work of a British director working in America who is perhaps a bit more interested in doing a cultural/sociological portrait of the American lower class than they are in the story at hand.  The difference of course is that Hell or High Water does have a concrete (and somewhat clichéd) crime story to rest on while this film doesn’t have a genre basis and is a lot looser and more episodic in nature.  The film was directed by Anrea Arnold, who broke onto the stage of finer filmmaking with her 2009 film Fish Tank, which seemed to place Arnold into the tradition of British Social Realism of the Ken Loach/ Tony Richardson variety with its focus on the under-privileged and its use of non-actors.  American Honey would seem to be an attempt to transpose that way of working into an American setting and Arnold reportedly took an extended road trip across the South and Southwest in order to find the “real” American before making the film.  On those journeys she found non-actors to cast in her film, including the film’s star Sasha Lane and presumably some of the film’s other actors, who manage to mingle pretty seamlessly with more experienced performers like Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough.

Another recent movie I might be inclined to compare this to is Everybody Wants Some!! in that it is essentially a hangout movie about observing bunch of dumb kids act like dumb kids, albeit very different kids from a different time and without the same nostalgic hindsight. The film is about group of teenagers and early twenty somethings who were clearly not born into privilege and don’t appear to collectively have a lot of education and can seem like rather tacky people from the outside looking in and they can be really wild at times.  These people are basically the opposite of what I was like when I was that age given the studious buttoned down lad that I was, in fact they were the kind of people I tended to actively avoid and unlike the dudes in the aforementioned Linklater movie I don’t know that I’d find much common ground to discuss with them if I let my prejudices drop and tried to strike up a conversation with them.  And yet, watching them from the safety of a movie theater they aren’t necessarily unpleasant to observe and you do almost start to see something in their youthful energy as they’re setting off fireworks or spontaneously dancing to a Rhianna song.

Andrea Arnold films all this material with conviction and does inject the movie with a lot of energy.  I do wish that Arnold would move on from her peculiar obsession with framing her movies in the Academy ratio, but otherwise her work behind the camera does a great job of feeling controlled and kinetic without smothering it.  However, the film’s episodic nature will test a lot of viewers and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to lose some patience with it as well.  As the film goes on you keep expecting the central character to go through more of a conventional arc and at times it starts to look like her relationship to the Shia LaBeouf will give the film a bit more of a recognizable shape in its back half, but whenever the film seems to be going in more of a plot driven direction it retreats back into slice of life territory.  I don’t know that I begrudge this approach exactly and I enjoyed it to a point but I maybe would have liked some sort of slightly more concrete example of what this whole journey means for our protagonist and where she’ll end up as a result.  In short, I would have liked an ending.  But, as they say, the journey is more important than the destination and this is certainly a solid work of filmmaking any way you cut it.

4

10 Cloverfield Way(3/12/2016)

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In 1982 John Carpenter engaged in a strange little experiment that’s still debated in genre circles.  Having already produced one sequel to his 1979 classic Halloween in which he definitively killed off the Michael Myers character, Carpenter needed to find a way to please producers who were demanding a third film for the franchise.  His solution was to convert the Halloween brand into a sort of anthology series in which each installment would be a standalone horror film dealing in some way with the titular holiday and the movie he delivered, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, was about a cult selling possessed Halloween masks rather than a knife wielding killer.  Long story short, that movie left fans expecting a more conventional sequel confused and the movie did poorly as a result.  That movie has amassed something of a cult following and many have argued that if it had simply been released without the Halloween branding it would have done better.  I’m not so sure about that.  I’d argue that the movie is more flawed then some of its defenders suggest and that few people would be talking about it today were it not a distant cousin of a more famous horror movie.  Either way the experiment didn’t work out.  The next Halloween movie brought back Michael Myers (as did the next six sequels/remakes) and no other franchises tried to do the anthology thing… until now.  Thirty-four years after Halloween III J.J. Abrams has seemingly decided to have another go at making an established horror franchise into an anthology series with the “sequel” to the 2008 monster film Cloverfield entitled 10 Cloverfield Lane.

This spiritual successor to Cloverfield is seemingly set in a different continuity from the original film and doesn’t use any kind of found footage conceit.  Instead it focuses on a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has just left her boyfriend moments before the film begins and is driving off to some other location when her car is seemingly struck and run off the road.  Moments later she wakes up in a small room in what appears to be an underground bunker.  This bunker is being run by a man named Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a doomsday prepper and conspiracy theorist who tells her that there’s been an attack of some kind and that if either of them try to leave they’ll be killed by the radiated air outside.  Michelle is obviously suspicious of this and thinks she’s been kidnapped, but we did hear just before her accident that there had been some kind of blackout across the Southeast and the one other inhabitant named Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.) also claims to have seen a flash in the distance before fleeing to the bunker.

In interviews producer J.J. Abrams has described this and the original Cloverfield as “two different rides at the same amusement park.”  In other words he’s using the “Cloverfield” brand in order to help market stand-alone science fiction films produced by his production company that happen to share a certain Twilight Zone sensibility.  It’s a move that anthology TV series like “American Horror Story” and “True Detective” may have prepared the public for and is basically a smart way to give a leg up to movies that would have lacked name recognition otherwise.  I’m not sure how well this will work exactly.  I like the original Cloverfield a lot but it was a divisive film and it’s also been a while since it came out, I’m not sure how much hunger there is out there for something similar and I’m also not sure how many people are exactly going to understand what they’re going for, but if this is what has to be done to get original IPs out there I’m not going to complain.

A secondary objective of the newly christened Cloverfield franchise seems to be that the films will act as launching pads for young “Bad Robot” affiliated directors who want to work from the jump in a commercial space rather than toil in the indie world.  The original Cloverfield was (sort of) the debut feature for Matt Reeves, who previously had TV credits but is now the inheritor of the newly revived Planet of the Apes franchise.  This time Abrams has tapped a guy named Dan Trachtenberg who previously mostly made commercials and made something of a splash with a short film based on the “Portal” video game.  He was also something of an internet personality and hosted a couple of podcasts that I used to listen to from time to time back when he was a nobody.  Those podcasts, which I tended to listen to more for his co-hosts than for him gave me the impression that he was very amiable personality whose taste in film runs on the geekier rather than auteurist end of the spectrum.  Also I gathered that he was rather obsessed with the 80s and nostalgia thereof.  He’s the kind of guy who would cite The Karate Kid as a “classic” and that perhaps makes him a natural collaborator with the director of Super 8.

The direction here is mostly slick and professional if not terribly distinguished.  It certainly doesn’t have the experimental edge of the original Cloverfield which was a film that was almost entirely defined by its technique rather than its story.  This one is more traditional.  There’s no found footage conceit or any other particular gimmick aside from the fact that it’s this sort of confined chamber drama with only three real characters.    The film’s real weakness probably stems from the film’s script, which was written by a couple of guys named Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken and which was also apparently worked on by Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash).  The screenplay does a decent job of setting things in motion and does seem to have a handful of good ideas, but there are some shaky elements as well like sub-plots in it that go nowhere (hint: earrings) and there’s also a pretty major scene in the film that is resolved through some really coincidental timing (hint: escape attempt).

Of course the element of the film that will probably generate the most discussion are the developments in the last fifteen or twenty minutes (and we’re diving headfirst into spoiler territory here) in which it’s revealed that Howard is not crazy and that there was a damn alien invasion going on while our three characters were hunkered down in their bomb shelter.  This isn’t a complete shock twist of the Sixth Sense variety as it was pretty clearly foreshadowed that science fiction things are a possibility in the movie, but the way that the film shifts from Ex Machina into War of the Worlds is still pretty leftfield and it also reveals the main commonality between it and the original Cloverfield: both are film that depict people who have limited and unconventional perspectives on an apocalyptic situation.   The difference is that I found the way the original film cockteased its audience by giving bits and pieces of “the goods” before retreating to be rather invigorating where a conventional take would have been boring, but I’m not sure I feel the same way about this approach.  If anything, I kind of left the film feeling like the alien invasion movie that we only got a taste of would have made for a more exciting film than the somewhat interesting bit of theatrical drama that we got.

I will give them this though: the twist ending wasn’t a pure gimmick and did play into the film’s wider story.  It is was almost certainly a deliberate choice to make the last spoken words in the film something along the lines of “we need people with combat and medical skills.”  Howard had both of those things but rather than use them to help humanity he used them to keep himself safe to no real end.  As such, the twist with the aliens vindicates his paranoia while condemning his tactics.  It’s that kind of trickery that ultimately keeps me on board with 10 Cloverfield Lane and J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” philosophy.  However, there is probably a reason why I’ve spent almost as much time discussing the ways that this film would be marketed and branded rather than its actual content.  The first Cloverfield was something special, something I’ll be talking about for a while and this wasn’t really.  We’ve seen thrillers like this with minimal casts and a single location before; they’re really not as rare as you’d think and I don’t know that this one really added a whole lot to the equation, but it’s certainly a good movie, probably the best one you’re likely to find in wide release right now but I can’t really call it a homerun.

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