Archive for March, 2016

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is not a sequel to “Cloverfield”. It started off as a script about two people trapped in an underground shelter with a man who may or may not be crazy and may or not be lying about a tragedy that has befallen the world, and then was re-written (both before and after principle photography) to include some sci-fi elements, thus making the word “Cloverfield” a sort of cue that sci-fi goings-on are about.  The result is a film that, for the first hour, is pretty damn wonderful.  Then we get a third act that feels Frankenstein-ed on and, while it works thematically, it does not at all work tonally.

 

Let’s talk about themes. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is in some ways about choosing between the lesser of two evils, and in some ways about the question of whether the devil you do know is better than the devil you don’t know. The film is also very much an exploration of abusive relationships. This will all need elaboration. Our main character is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She runs away from her fiancé in the middle of the night and, while driving, is hit by car. The accident knocks her unconscious and she wakes up in an underground bunker, chained to a wall, and hooked up to an IV. A man comes in named Howard (John Goodman, in an overall phenomenal performance). Howard claims that some sort of event happened on the surface the night of the accident. He doesn’t know if it was nuclear or chemical, but alarm bells in Michelle’s head go off when Howard suggests aliens were a possibility. In any case, Howard says the air outside is poisoned and they can’t leave. He eventually unlocks Michelle and the threat that he’s kidnapped her for some sort of “Room”-like reason disappears. Still, there’s something off about Howard.

 

Also in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a man who was one of the workers that was hired to build the bunker for Howard. He claims he saw a weird flash of light and forced his way into the bunker, thinking something was going down, partially corroborating Howard’s story. Emmett is a simple guy, but not dumb, and ultimately seems to have a good heart. As time goes on, the three of them have make a home in the bunker, but it’s never entirely a happy place. Howard insists that rules be obeyed. He has outbursts and uses fear to keep Emmett, and especially Michelle, in line. He phrases things in a way to inspire shame and guilt in Michelle, and makes himself out to be the victim even when he’s acting crazy, violent, or out of line. Basically, Howard exhibits many of the qualities an abuser will have toward the partner or family member they are abusing. Later, we learn that Michelle grew up with an abusive father, and the film will make us question the relationship between Howard and his estranged daughter. Howard is sometimes an object of sympathy, and is sometimes heartlessly cruel, and I imagine the abused can view their abusers as both thanks to manipulation or Stockholm Syndrome or both.

 

The central mystery of the film is what exactly, if anything, happened to the surface world, and how truthful and/or crazy is Howard. As a small, isolated, tightly focused character drama, this film really, really works. You question everything, clues are given at a nice clip to keep changing your perception of the situation, and new twists and mysteries come up at times that show that this film is about as well-paced and expertly written as one could hope. While the original screenplay for the film was written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, it was heavily re-written by Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed the excellent film “Whiplash”.  “Whiplash”, oddly enough, was also about an abusive relationship, which in that film involved a teacher and pupil. Whether this will continue to be a theme in Chazelle’s work remains to be seen, but he certainly understand the dynamic enough to write about it as well as I’ve seen any screenwriter capture it.

 

As things in the bunker get tenser, Michelle is faced with the decision of whether life in the bunker under Howard is worse than risking escaping to the surface, where she knows something bad awaits her, but doesn’t know the extent or severity of it. Howard is the devil she knows, and the outside is the devil she does not know.  She has to decide which is worse, and maybe she’ll reach a breaking point where nothing could be worse than life in the bunker. She has to decide which is the lesser of two evils. Sorry for the cheap shot, but I wonder if the Bunker is Trump and the outside is Hillary, or vice versa.  The point is, sometimes no good option is on the table, and one is forced to figure out which bad option is worse. There is no Bernie Sanders option in “10 Cloverfield Lane”.

 

That last half hour doesn’t ruin the film, but it does diminish the film’s quality. Granted, the major themes of the film remain intact, even the abuse theme (escaping from an abusive relationship can still dump you into a scary and uncertain world with a challenging path ahead of you), but after spending an hour with a tight, tense, character-driven movie, the last half hour feels like someone changed the channel on you. It doesn’t help that it’s riddled with logical gaps (should the problem be solved as easily as throwing a Molotov cocktail?) and feels like a worse movie in execution anyway (bad one-liners and far-fetched science abound).  Still, the obvious third act sell-out to get money (this film would never has made as much money without the “Cloverfield” label….too high-brow and smart) is less egregious than “World War Z” and it’s Pepsi commercial finale, and they did maintain thematic consistency, so that’s something.

 

If the third act had followed the first hour in a more tonally cohesive manner, this would have been one of the best films of this still early year. Instead, the third act degrades the quality of the film to simply being slightly above average. I hope the original ending finds its place on the inevitable DVD release. B.

Risen (dir. Kevin Reynolds)

Posted: March 23, 2016 in Uncategorized

(**NOTE: My apologies for the long period of time between reviews. Aside from having gone to Disney two weeks ago, I am working an average of 25 hours a week and taking 5 classes in school, while still trying to find time to see as many movies as possible. Still, got this one up before Easter.)

 

“Risen” is not a normal Christian movie. It was financed by a major studio, has an actual Hollywood director behind the camera in Kevin Reynolds (“Waterworld”, “One Eight Seven”, etc.), and has actual well known actors in it who are not known as either washed up B movie actors or super-Christian in real life (Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Cliff Curtis, etc.)  With the financial success of Christian films like “War Room” and “God’s Not Dead”, you can sense mainstream Hollywood wanted to make their own Christian films to squeeze money out of an audience that cares less about quality than they do about having their beliefs pandered to in the most explicit way possible. So what happens when actual filmmakers try to pander to Christian audiences but still, because they are not super-Christian themselves, want to attempt to make a film that works outside of its preachiness?  Well, you end up with “Risen”, which is a weird piece of fiction that feels like a piece of Christian fan fiction got spliced with an episode of “Law & Order”. “Law & Order: Jesus Inspection Unit”, if you will.

 

“Risen” creates a non-Biblical, non-historical account of a Roman tribune (Joseph Fiennes, miles away from softcore porn like “Killing Me Softly”) tasked with investigating the disappearance of Jesus’s body from the tomb. Christians, in addition to believing Jesus is an actual, historical figure, also believe he rose from the dead 3 days after being executed: the Resurrection. Lesser known to non-Christians, there was then a period called the Ascension, where Jesus spends about 40 days between his resurrection and his actual trip to Heaven on Earth as a sort of ghost figure who hangs out with his apostles and appears to other various people.  “Risen” shows us this Biblical story through the eyes of our fictional tribune, Clavius. Clavius views the followers of Jesus with contempt, seeing them as stupid or crazy cultists. The Jewish Pharisees, who urge Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) and the Roman authorities to quell the Jesus cult, are portrayed as corrupt local political officials, thus continuing the perhaps unintentional anti-Semitism of most Christian films depicting the crucifixion. Oddly enough, Jesus’s followers, the apostles, are portrayed as wide-eyed, brainwashed goons, and objects of ridicule not just for Clavius, but also by proxy for the audience. Seriously, the apostles come off as aloof, naïve, and insane.  Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto), well, at one point Clavius asks the roman soldiers if they know of a prostitute by her name, and every soldier raises his hand. A weird bit of comic relief about…how much Mary Magdalene is a popular whore?

 

If I didn’t know better, I’d say “Risen” is a film that has subtle contempt for its Christian audience.  Oh sure, the boring third act of the film completely caters to them by giving the basic pious arguments for faith that we’re used to, but the rest of the film is basically Clavius asking very logical questions of Jesus’s followers and believers, and behaving much like atheists who criticize the entire concept of Jesus as a deity do now. The film goes out of its way to have Clavius constantly point out the absurdity of various witnesses stories and recollections. Even then, the only reason Clavius is ever drawn over to the other side of the argument is when Jesus literally appears before him and is able to have conversations with the guy. Jesus, by the way, is played by Cliff Curtis, who at least LOOKS like he comes from Judea. I’m so used to ridiculous portrayals of a Caucasian Jesus that having an actor who actually has an olive complexion gets some points in my column. Sure, it’s easy to believe something when living (sort of) evidence appears right in front of you. The film kind of stacks the deck that way. Jesus’s resurrection isn’t proven through normal empirical, investigative methods. My guess is if Jesus single-handled appeared before every non-Christian and had a talk with them and demonstrated supernatural powers, there would be a lot more Christians. Shame he won’t do that for anyone except Clavius and people who already believe in him.

 

So the film is mostly a police procedural. Clavius deals with Pilate and some background politics. He’s saddled with an inexperienced partner (Felton, better known as Draco Malfoy from “Harry Potter”), and he goes about investigating crime scenes, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, and basic law enforcement stuff. There’s some discussion of Roman gods, but for all intents and purposes Clavius is a stand-in for a skeptical atheist who is turned into a believer. The film giving Clavius what no actual atheist is ever given, definitive proof, is besides the point, I guess.  We also get a small, low budget action scene at the beginning of the film that is of the sword-and-sandal variety, and has some PG-13 violence to spice things up a bit before the rest of the film becomes very dialogue heavy.

 

Honestly, this is one of the least bad Christian movies I have seen.  That’s not to say it’s good. That last act is mind-numbingly boring, and while the film has some impressive sets, it uses them repeatedly to milk the most out of the film’s obviously low budget. Most of the acting is satisfactory, even if Fiennes mostly broods his way through each scene. Also, while the film ultimately ends up as preachy as any other Christian film, the movie does have a weird undercurrent of subtly criticizing Christians, as if the filmmakers have contempt for the inevitable audience for this film and have hidden clues to that in plain sight for ironic nonbeliever audience members like myself to pick up on.

 

Also, I genuinely like the concept behind this film, even if the execution falls short. A man believed by some to be a god is executed. He disappears. Since dead people don’t come back to life, and the political situation in the area is a ticking time bomb, an investigation would need to go forward. Grafting a cop drama onto a Bible story is, as far as I know, a pretty novel concept. I give the filmmakers points for that originality.

 

“Risen” isn’t as laughably bad as most Christian films are, and the production values, on a nuts and bolts level, are higher than most Christian films, though still much lower than an average, non-Christian period film. I enjoyed some of the film on its intended level, and found it interesting and amusing at portions. The last act is still pretty awful, and the film isn’t exactly captivating, so I wouldn’t call it a good movie, but it’s an interesting mediocre. C-