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10 Cloverfield Lane (2016 Review)

14 Mar

In what is being touted as “The best sci-fi blockbuster thriller of the decade”, 10 Cloverfield Lane marks a different approach to storytelling than its cinematic sibling Cloverfield. Released in 2008 as a found-footage alien invasion, the former isn’t so much as a direct predecessor as it was inspiration for this J.J. Abrams-produced mystery.

Something has happened. Something big. Our heroine Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a sort of make-shift hospital after a car accident. She learns that “an attack” of some sort has left much of the civilized world in shambles and she had been brought underground for her own safety by a mysterious ex-military man named Howard (John Goodman).  Tensions between the two characters rise as the films progresses, creating unexpected results.

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg and co-written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a quieter, scaled back, and more intimate film than Cloverfield, though equally as anxiety-ridden and claustrophobic. By restricting most of the action to a few rooms, the film becomes heavily reliant on the writing strength of its plot and characterization. Unfortunately, this is where 10 Cloverfield Lane falls a bit short; the few characters are simply a flat and uninteresting mix of tropes we have seen many times before, and the narrative becomes convoluted and veers dramatically off course during the film’s second half. At points the film almost feel comically hokey in the same way something like Grand Piano does (a film that was also written by Chazelle). However, if you liberally apply your suspension of disbelief and just accept whatever happens, then 10 Cloverfield Lane actually becomes a lot of fun. Though it’s filled with tropes and plot holes, the story, most importantly, is a largely unpredictable slow burn, with several twists awaiting the viewer during the chaotic third-act.

Bottom Line: Though it suffers from basic character tropes and less-than-stellar writing, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a surprisingly fun and unpredictable thriller if one is willing to suspend expectations. 

Rating: 6/10

Film Recipe: Room War Of The Worlds 

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Eddie The Eagle (2016 Sundance review)

3 Mar

The “secret screening” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a biopic about Michael Edwards, the famous British ski-jumper who earned the moniker “Eddie the Eagle“.  Young Michael (Taron Egerton) had always dreamt of becoming an Olympian, even when doctors discouraged any kind of competitive sports at an early age due to leg braces.  As Michael grew, the dangerous sport of ski-jumping captured his attention, and he set his sights on becoming Britain’s first ski-jumper in over 60 years. Soon, he crosses paths with a retired American jumper Bronson (Hugh Jackman) who reluctantly serves as his mentor after a series of unsuccessful attempts at jumping the 40 meter ramp.  Even though the British Olympic Committee is against letting the unorthodox athlete compete for safety reasons, the misfit duo of trainer and trainee soon prepare for a bid at the 1988 Winter Games. The rest is history.

From the first scene of Eddie The Eagle, we know what we are getting into. This isn’t serious, Oscar-baiting affair, but rather a family-friendly underdog story with a good helping of comedic touches. Directed by Dexter Fletcher and written by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton, Eddie The Eagle is a delightful combination of quirky characters and earnest storytelling. However, the film is given to us in an extremely tired and overused package, and it’s hard not to see Eddie as anything more than a well meaning but dressed-up cliche.

Still, Eddie is incredibly charming in its earnestness. Edgarton is perfectly cast here as the sheepish and innocent athlete, while Jackson fits his role like a glove playing Bronson, the cowboy renegade who always has a whiskey flask in hand (emblazoned with an American flag, of course).  Both give great performances and the quick-witted, dry-as-a-desert remarks between the two characters are some of the film’s finest moments. It becomes clear that Fletcher knows his story well, has a specific audience in mind, and (like any good director) caters towards what the audience wants to see. Thematically and aesthetically, Eddie excels with flying colors and manages to be entertaining throughout its runtime thanks to a combination of solid editing, music, and photography choices. Much more sophisticated than it’s cartoonish nature would imply, I was surprised how much I found myself rooting for Eddie The Eagle.  

Bottom Line: Though it takes the form of a conventional sports drama, light-hearted Eddie The Eagle is playful enough to stand out with an overdose of British wit, ingenuity, and charisma.

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipe: Cool Runnings (1993) + A Walk In The Woods (2014) + Rudy (1993) 

 

Deadpool (2016)

18 Feb

Deadpool, the long-gestating passion project of Ryan Reynolds, has finally seen the light of day. After a decade of negotiations with 20th Century Fox over if/how/when the beloved comic book character would get his own film (the studio had its speculations after the lackluster Green Lantern from Warner Bros), test footage featuring the foul-mouthed superhero was “leaked” in 2014, which elated passionate fans who took to the internet to petition for a proper, R-rated movie.

Directed by VFX artist Tim Miller, and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who both worked on the cult comedy Zombieland), Deadpool focuses on the origins of the titular character, a cancer-ridden mercenary who is as meticulous with his snarky word choice as he is with his aim.  After an attempt to get cured by a mysterious man named Ajax (Ed Skrein) goes south, Wade Wilson aka. Deadpool decides to seek vengeance on the man who hurt him.

Deadpool is no fan of subtlety, and most of the film features our anti-hero in full R-rated glory. A gritty, violent, and foul-mouthed take on the genre, Deadpool wears its MPAA “R” like a bright and bloody badge of honor, making every use of the word “fuck” you can think of.

Despite its rating, however, this is far from being anything close to an “adult” film; with a heaping supply of genitalia jokes, masturbation jokes, drug references, fourth-wall-breaking gags, and quips at other characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Deadpool seems set on being both an accessible and juvenile action flick while still attempting to take the superhero genre into dark and subversive territory. The edginess often runs thin however, and Deadpool ends up – more often than not – falling back into the same tropes it’s desperately trying to poke fun of.

Still, it’s surprisingly satisfying to hear Deadpool riff on and on in a meta state of self-parody, and there are a few jokes scattered throughout that are actually smart (and pretty damn funny as well).  Ryan Reynolds fits his role like a glove and makes a huge comeback performance as a leading action-hero. Technically, the film is a marvel considering its “small” budget of 58 million; Miller’s keen eye for visuals works wonders in his direction, and the action scenes feel fluid, engaging and fresh. Structurally, the many flashbacks and flashforwards actually work in the film’s favor, contributing to Deadpool’s self-aware, Brechtian quality.

Bottom Line: It might play out like a nauseating wet dream of a 15-year old, but Deadpool still has enough bite to put a uniquely funny spin on the ever-tiring superhero formula.

Rating: 6/10 

Film Recipe: Watchmen (2008) + 4th wall breaks + masturbation jokes (both of the literal and figurative variety) 

Anomalisa (2016 Sundance)

28 Jan

What does it mean to be human?

Perhaps no other question has plagued writer/director Charlie Kaufman throughout his work than this age-old existential dilemma. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa marks the first animated film from Kauffman, with all the characters taking the form of stop-motion puppets. It’s a brave choice to render a deeply human artistic vision with inhuman objects, but somehow it all works so well. These characters feel and look familiar enough to be incredibly relatable while still maintaining their foreign and still-life properties through the wall of puppetry.  Anomalisa unfolds itself in a sort of hallucinogenic, dream-like state, with each scene blending into the next until a narrative starts to take shape:

The film focuses on Thomas Stone, a sort of well known cheerleader for customer service reps nationwide, as he has been summoned to speak in Cincinnati Ohio for a business convention. Unfortunately, Stone seems to be suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown, one that makes him inept to connect with others around him – despite their obvious love and adoration for him. Stone sees everyone else in the world as “the same”; simple replicas of one another without any depth, feeling, or emotion. Stone is miserable man, plagued with the mindless existence of others, until he meets someone who, by chance is “different….. a real person.” This prompts Stone to reconsider his options, in order lead a fulfilling life of love and authentic connection.

Johnson and Kaufman pay special attention to the small details in the world of Anomalisa; it doesn’t matter if they are the physical details of the production itself (every set piece was painstakingly crafted and animated by hand) or the subtle character details that make these puppets spring to life and take on the personas of real people. Financed entirely from funds through fans from Kickstarter, Anomalisa is one of those quiet films that makes an impact through its many smaller parts. It plays like a short film actually, with a only a few interior set pieces being used, but it’s incredibly powerful in its message and, ultimately, hauntingly truthful. Though there are some jarring and awkward moments (one particular scene featuring puppet sex drags tragically for too long) it’s intimate ideas about loneliness, desperation, self-consciousness and connection somehow become incredibly poignant as the film progresses, and even more so after the credits roll and you are left to reflect on what you have just seen.  It might not have the towering ambition of Synecdoche New York, the meta, self-awareness of Adaptation, or the Inception-esc surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Anomalisa is singularly Kaufman’s most restrained and intimate work.

Bottom Line: A labor of love from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa makes a profound statement about humanity through its many small (and sometimes painfully truthful) charms.

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe:  Happiness + Her + Being John Malkovich

The Lobster (2016 Sundance)

25 Jan

There are films. There are movies. And then there is The Lobster. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film is set in the not-too-distant-future where single people are turned into animals if they remain without a significant other for too long. Yes, you read that right – these unfortunate and lonely folks are literally are transformed into another species.

Our hero is a nameless university professor (Colin Farrell) whose wife has just vanished – presumably with another lover. Faced with the possibility of turning into an animal, he enrolls into a hotel that specializes in matchmaking, in hopes that he will soon connect with another love before it’s too late. It’s at this mysterious hotel where he meets an unusual assortment of characters, from a woman with chronic nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), to a man with a lisp (John C. Riley) to a powerful huntress who may or may not be a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  Other interesting characters are thrown into the mix during the film’s second half, (which takes place outside of the hotel) including performances by Ben Wishaw, Rachel Weiz, and Lea Seydoux.

In the world of The Lobster, every human is miserable, awkward, and desperately lonely. The resulting interactions between these odd characters are painfully hilarious.  Like Lanthimos’ previous Oscar-nominee DogtoothThe Lobster contains a richly distinct tone that relies on deadpan humor with an absurdist touch. It’s a strange film, with each moment building awkward tension from the previous. Contrast The Lobster with the nihilistic and disturbing Dogtooth, and you see Lanthimos has turned down the gritty, Haneke-esc violence in favor of something more subtle and charming. Though it’s wildly unpredictable and completely absurd, everything in The Lobster feels like it has purpose and meaning, and the layered themes Lanthimos brings up about companionship, love, and connectedness become surprisingly touching.

Boasting an ensemble cast, immaculate cinematography, and a stunning score, The Lobster is a near-masterpiece. Though its artsy weirdness and irrational sensibilities might not be for everyone, Yorgos Lanthimos has no doubt defined himself as a unique and exciting storytelling voice.

Bottom line: Brilliantly crafted with a good amount of dark humor, The Lobster is thoughtfully bizarre and joyously unpredictable; it’s the rare kind of mind-melter that’s both cognitively stimulating and emotionally touching. 

Rating: 10/10 

Film Recipie: Moonrise Kingdom + Borgman + A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence 

The Revenant (2016)

7 Jan

Nature is cruel. At its most basic level, the humanity expressed in The Revenant seems to be designed to accomplish one thing and one thing only: survive at all costs. The film, directed by Oscar-winning Alejandro Inarritu, is a 150-minute long examination on brutish, dog-eat-dog survival with impeccable visceral and cinematic detail.

Set in early 1800’s, a group of trappers lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) are making their way through the wintery Montana landscape with a load of valuable pelts. Among the party are Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an experienced mountain man with tribal ties to local Native Americans, his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a short tempered man with a particular disdain for natives. It’s clear right off the bat that these are hardened men in desperate times. In what may be one of the greatest opening battle sequences of all time, the group is ambushed by an Arikara hunting tribe, leaving multiple deaths on both sides. Desperate for supplies, the group must now travel through the snowy wilderness towards a nearby outpost, all the while trying to survive the threats from the harsh elements, native american hunters, wild animals, and each other.

Shot beautifully by veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Birdman), The Revenant is becomes more breathtaking and visually complex with each passing moment. Like fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of MenGravity), Inarritu seems to have become fond of the long-shot, utilizing Lubezki camerawork to create a fully immersive and naturalistic narrative experience. By avoiding as much CGI as possible, the cast and crew painstakingly suffered through a lengthy, 9-month production phase where some allegedly ate, slept, and lived like their character counterparts for months on end.  DiCaprio said some scenes were “some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” Aledegy, The Revenant far exceeded and nearly doubled its production budget.

All this dedication from the cast crew does payoff, with the end result being an absolutely brutal and realistic look into nature’s dark side. Inarritu is no stranger to suffering, with many of his previous films (21 Grams and Biutiful in particular) focusing in on the emotional impact of human sorrow. But in The Revenant, that suffering becomes more physical, intimate, and raw as we accompany one character’s journey to seek revenge after enduring hellish depths of physical and emotional pain. Inarritu knows how to foster incredible performances from his actors (DiCaprio is great as always, but Tom Hardy truly puts on a show), that, when combined with visual elements, create a compelling and rich story. At its core, it’s a man vs nature survival story, but The Revenant does show off a deeper, even spiritual side of the hellish nature.

Bottom Line: Expertly-directed with incredible attention to detail, The Revenant is a visceral, immensely rewarding, and near-spiritual experience, while still somehow equally as harrowing, ruthless and painful. 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Nihilistic wilderness survival of The Grey (2011) + savage violence and brutality from Game of Thrones