10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

★★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane PosterDirector: Dan Trachtenberg

Release Date: March 11th, 2016 (US); March 18th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Mystery

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

There’s a great deal to admire about a film that chooses a path and sticks to it in spite of executive-level switcherooing. 10 Cloverfield Lane only discovered its Cloverfield bloodline midway through development, a potentially hazardous move that would have rendered many other outings spineless, but sweeping conviction shines through here. The path Dan Trachtenberg confidently guides his movie down is laden with rich slabs of character identity. So rich, in fact, that it’s probable you’ll forget about the Cloverfield connection after 15 minutes (I did) and instead enjoy a simple thriller with tantalising — and, crucially, natural — twists and turns, its three pro-cum-antagonists each carrying the weight of intrigue.

We have Howard (John Goodman), the overseer, aka the one who owns the bunker within which the film takes place and who calls the shots accordingly. Then there is the convert, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), already booked into Howard’s hotel by the time we arrive. And finally, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s the sceptic. You can tell because her red nail polish wears away with stress. Michelle doesn’t call ahead as much as awaken in Howard’s bunker having felt the brunt of a pummelling car accident, one that catches both her and us off guard, a proper assault on the solar plexus.

Escape hangs over proceedings. The film opens with Michelle, who has the appearance of someone desperately trying to escape something — a relationship, perhaps, and probably life in general (odd titbit: Bradley Cooper voices her pleading boyfriend, relegated to a phone call). Bear McCreary’s ominous score plays as Michelle frantically scrambles around her flat looking for road booze and as she departs, keys shunned on the table, that drone grows in intensity. It aids a tone that suggests trouble; via car radio, we hear of widespread power outages. Shortly thereafter, Trachtenberg unveils imagery that reflects an air of claustrophobia: the rusty chain clamping Michelle to the wall in Howard’s bunker, for instance, or the large iron door reinforcing her isolation.

Winstead plays the terrified, suspicious type so well, her eyes often wide and bulging. She is vulnerable, clearly, and yet full of defiant craft — there’s more than a touch of stellar horror heroine going on here. Goodman, meanwhile, juggles sanity and insanity with incredible credibility. He breathes heavily, panting almost, as if he’s about to explode in a fit of rage or is recuperating from a previous outburst. The less said about his character’s motives the better, though Goodman’s soon-to-be iconic introduction ought to be noted: the camera tentatively navigates around Howard’s hulking figure before unveiling his menacing face from a low angle, further feeding our anxieties.

Who is this man and what does he want? Those questions fuel the film’s allure as it cagily probes away at answers. Early on, Howard bemoans humanity’s lack of preparation, that we talk a good game from afar and then panic when true disaster hits. “Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.” The flood on this occasion is a nuclear attack, according to Howard (frequent power surges bolster his end-of-days argument). Turns out this is a man who has proactively prepared for disaster by building a sturdy bunker. Maybe he’s not the freak, but we are. His musings start to make sense.

On the flip side, “Surviving Doomsday” books line the shelves of his shelter and you begin to wonder if the whole scenario is a deluded madman’s ruse. There is a false home-sweet-home aesthetic, plants that are surely fake, and a fictional kitchen window. Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter concoct a terrifically creepy malaise through framing — more than once, Howard appears to creep up on Michelle and Emmett while the pair are mid-conversation. There is nowhere to hide. Feelings of paranoia and mistrust battle with hints of Stockholm syndrome. These themes recall an episode of Lost starring Henry Ian Cusick and Clancy Brown where the former struggles to unravel the latter’s bunker-based theories.

But deep-seated worry does not have a stranglehold on the piece. Penned by a trio of writers — Whiplash director Damien Chazelle apparently revamped much of Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s initial plot and character work — the screenplay includes moments of wry comedy that don’t try to detract from the disconcerting situation, but instead lighten the mood just enough to afford the film a more digestible front. Often it’s Gallagher Jr. who is tasked with making quips and he obliges with assured charm, as opposed to the purposefully awkward charm the actor evoked in The Newsroom. Even McCreary’s brooding score takes a break: “I Think We’re Alone Now” plays over a montage of momentary serenity. It’s splendid song-weaving.

The title “10 Cloverfield Lane” may suggest otherwise but this is a character drama first and foremost, tinged with high-concept thrills that complement splashings of sci-fi and horror. The people on-screen share a complex dynamic, an alluring one built around secrecy and regret and revelation. You think you know where it’s all going and then Howard whips out a Pretty in Pink VHS (he seems like a VHS kinda guy). You get so drawn in by the chess game that any Cloverfield associations become somewhat irrelevant, which, I suppose, is a real credit to both the idea and its execution. For the first time in a long time, I left the screening wanting more. Wanting a sequel. Imagine that!

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

★★

Director: John Moore

Release Date: February 14th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney

If Jai Courtney wasn’t a younger, less-bald Bruce Willis he probably wouldn’t have been part of A Good Day to Die Hard. Similarly, if Live Free or Die Hard hadn’t scooped up almost $400 million at the box office, six years later we wouldn’t have to sit through this shallowest of John McClane sequels. A total horror-show it ain’t, but apparently some people don’t think cricket is boring and most of us hate that. After a long journey extending all they back to terror in the tower in 1988, there has been a severe breakdown at stop five. Though after two and a half decades spent invariably recycling old material, what more d’you expect?

A less capable, more cigar-and-newspaper-on-a-Sunday-morning appearing John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Russia upon hearing that his son has had a run-in with the law having been arrested for an assassination attempt. In reality, Jack (Jai Courtney) is an undercover CIA agent working to bring down dangerous and corrupt government official, Viktor Chagarin, although John doesn’t realise this, probably because of that age thing. An explosion coordinated by Chagarin during the resultant trial allows Jack and whistle-blower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) to escape custody, and chaos ensues.

The film is stuck between trying too hard to be slyly comedic on one hand and a serious action flick on the other. The original Die Hard got this mix spot on, mainly because the premise was ridiculously exciting, Willis looked interested and Alan Rickman delivered one of the finest villainous performances in recent cinema history. Here the narrative is a poorly executed mess and Willis looks like a guy who has randomly invaded a film set while on his holidays abroad, perhaps thinking it’s all part of a Russian cultural process. There are also more bad-guys on show than laughs, although having said that you’d be hard-pushed to exude more than a handful chuckles.

The plot then. Wearing more holes than an unending golf course, it doesn’t take long to induce a succession of wearisome head-shakes. After essentially saving the world throughout his previous four films, you’d expect John McClane to have a bit of know-how about him when it comes to dealing with machine-gun wielding terrorists. Apparently not anymore: his first conversation with Jack comes nonchalantly in the presence of bullets harpooning all over the place and the odd explosion going off. Ah, it’s probably to do with the age thing. There are far too many contrivances, the most notable being an endless progression of villains, each one ‘badder’ than the next. It gets so ludicrous that McClane himself to switching sides wouldn’t come as a total shock (hey, that sounds like a better film). I think son Jack gets it right as at one point he alludes to, “Making it up as we go”.

Sticking with Jai Courtney, he’s not a bad actor at all. In fact he’s fairly decent in this given the retched dialogue that’s being spluttered about: “But I’m your father”; “And I’m your daughter,” is probably the worst of a bad bunch that collectively cannot be saved by ‘knock, knock’ jokes or even former franchise favourites (“Yippee ki-yay…”). Willis’ spark as McClane is non-existent; the eccentric hero has turned charisma vacuum. Again the script really doesn’t help matters and there aren’t any outlandish sequences that give Willis the platform to be his glorious former action-star self, however the man simply looks like he really cannot be bothered with it all. One of the major let downs of the entire film is how little the super-talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead is utilised. McClane’s daughter was introduced in the previous outing and is relegated to a beginning and end cameo. Her only real contribution is offering McClane an ‘Idiot’s Travel Guide’ before his journey to Russia. That must be another age joke then. Given the lack of intuition on display, her scarcity is even more criminal.

On the plus side the action scenes do look great, having evolved to even grander scale this time around. In particular the helicopter scene at the end is excellently executed and actually gives the film a bit of oomph to clutch onto towards its climax. Unfortunately no visual escapade can save proceedings, and the only other glaring positive to take from A Good Day to Die Hard is that you only have to sit through an hour and a half before checking it off your list of films never to sit through again. The sheer disappointment stems from the franchise’s previous successes, principally the pleasantly surprising Live Free or Die Hard, and therefore there can be no excuses dealt in serving up this newest nonsense.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. On this evidence you can’t teach an old dog much else either. If only McClane had made do with living free, nevertheless, this is probably a good day for the Die Hard adventure to die hard.