10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

★★★★

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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

Spotlight (2016)

★★★★★

Spotlight PosterDirector: Tom McCarthy

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 29th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber

At the inception of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, The Boston Globe newspaper is in the process of appointing its new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Despite this change, there remains a prevailing emphasis on ensuring the retention of local flavour. More than that actually; in upholding a local backbone prompted by the paper’s titular investigative team and its head man, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). The aforementioned Baron, blunt yet adept, arrives without any notion of hedonistic aplomb, a trait that reflects McCarthy’s exceptional outing as a whole.

Sometimes the film that resonates most is the one draped in assured, quality simplicity. Though some might disagree with the loftiness of my ranking, such simplicity is what endeared me so much to Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. And it’s a similar simple touch that paves the path for Spotlight, a film so rich and so thrilling. McCarthy directs with a stillness, allowing his actors to act and their words to burn into the audience’s psyche without distraction. This trust affords the Spotlight team — Baron, Robby, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradley Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all real life journalists who, at the turn of the millennium, took the Catholic Church to task over child abuse allegations — a platform to build their case.

Often, the camera diverts our attention towards battered notepads and scribbling hands, distinguishing the individual personalities within the team: tougher to read, Rezendes jots down notes underneath a table while interviewing a victim whereas Pfeiffer writes in plain view, her inclinations clearer and her projection softer. The former is a bundle of journalistic energy, constantly on the move and posing point-counterpoints. Rezendes is immensely dedicated to his craft — they all are, refreshingly — but perhaps more so to aiding the course of justice. He and Robby discuss the need for leisure time and Robby points out Rezendes’ only leisure time is his daily jog to work.

These reporters are studious, careful. They take their time to iron every crease, collating date from victims, legal papers and even Globe archives. It’s true investigative journalism executed with thoroughness, so much so that we feel drawn into the process. The tone is almost anti-Sorkin: there’s an air of justifiable caution on display here that Sorkin’s TV journalism jaunt The Newsroom bypassed in favour of addictive urgency. Both methods work, but the slower approach suits Spotlight’s sensitive subject matter far more (it also implores you to listen, therefore stretches of dialogue are easier to follow than those penned by Sorkin).

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ground such a grand story in local truths — the religious corruption infects a familiar neighbourhood. In any other situation this sort of coincidence might feel contrived, but not here where the sheer breadth of wrongdoing is so painstakingly relayed. Locality doesn’t immunise the team from significant global events; it’s 2001 therefore 9/11 is unavoidable, especially since journalism is our vantage point, and the attack drives all resources away from the child abuse scandal. Gamesmanship between rival city papers further funds McCarthy’s realistic portrayal of the job. If those realities aren’t enough, the reporting process at least thrives on-screen. (Even the aesthetic fits the journalistic groove, tinged with a greyish palette that matches the occupational ambiguity. It feels like a newsroom; we even see a printing press in action.)

Much like The Big Short, which also follows a brand of unethical discovery, Spotlight pointedly plants its ballpoint on one side of the debate. “Knowledge is one thing. But faith, faith is another,” says Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), leader of the diocese, with more than a hint of guiltlessness. McCarthy and co. are not against Catholicism but rather the structural inadequacies of certain segments of the Church, and their evidence is inadmissible. The team announce their respective affiliations to the religion (very little), undermining accusations of bias and offering up a tiny slice of their otherwise unexplored personal lives. And that’s how it should be. After all, this is an investigation and investigations should, ideally, lack personality.

Forget stopping short at admonishing priests, lawyers are also targeted for their mistakes (Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup play immoral attorneys opposite Stanley Tucci’s more upstanding lawman). Nor does journalism itself receive a free pass. This is as much a celebration of the profession as anything else, but in order to celebrate there has to be a level of humility. We see political jousting both within the Globe offices and outwith, during which we learn of costly past mistakes. Ignorance is the main allegation and this honesty resonates, adding roundedness to these real life characters who are far from impervious to perfection.

Speaking of which, those in charge of casting ought to be acclaimed for amassing such terrific depth. Apart from a solitary outburst of pent-up rage from Rezendes, powerfully delivered by Ruffalo, the performances are universally restrained. They’re quietly indelible too: Schreiber displays an uncanny knack for convincing without extravagance while McAdams, nominated for an Oscar, bears a warmth free from condescension. Of everyone, Keaton is the one who oozes most occupational comfort (as he should, given he plays the group’s editor), his aura exceedingly knowledgeable.

For this to work, the Spotlight team have to purvey a sense of well-oiled camaraderie and they absolutely do. The same can be said for McCarthy’s film, though to speak of his work just in terms of proficiency would be demeaning. It is proficient; it’s also socially reflective and genuinely gripping. Holes are punched in great institutions with justification, but you won’t find any holes in the story. For all the right reasons, Spotlight may well make you fall in love with journalism.

Spotlight - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Open Road Films

Reeling Them Off (June 2013)

Today I am going to talk about a few random bits and pieces — from film news to upcoming releases to recent movies I have watched. I reckon I will do this type of thing more often, rather than relentlessly bore you with four or five separate blog posts. About once or twice a month sounds about right.

“There goes my plans to do a live-action Garfield The Cat movie.”

Sony recently announced that, not only will we be getting The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but we will also be given extra helpings of the franchise by way of a third in 2016 and even a fourth at some point in 2018. Talk about optimism, eh? Well perhaps rightly so, because I think it is safe to say that, just like last year’s Spidey reboot which garnered over $750 million at the box office, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is likely to line many a pocket come next year, vindicating the somewhat premature announcement of a further two instalments.

One of the main problems with telling your audience that there will be another two films after the upcoming one, is that it sort of diminishes the importance of the next Peter Parker saga. Surely a Spider-Man film is not a Spider-Man film without Spider-Man, which would more or less exterminate any suspense during upcoming potential death scenes, as we know Spider-Man cannot die (at least, not yet)? Of course, there are ways around this — Alien: Resurrection being a somewhat distant example — therefore I guess the impending, or lack thereof, death of Spider-Man is not a huge issue going into part two. I have every expectation that the outing will be a solid one, much like the first, and will hopefully continue what is shaping up to be a successful reboot of the previously fledgling franchise.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is scheduled for release on the 18th April, 2014 in the United Kingdom.

Sticking with the subject of upcoming films for a moment, I would like to talk briefly about a few on the horizon. Firstly, the premier trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street — where Leonardo DiCaprio plays New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort — hit the internet a few days ago and, to be honest, it is not exactly what I had expected beforehand. My vision of the film was that it would be one focused far more on drama, with a more serious tone (who knows, this may well still be the case) however the trailer seems to give off a refreshingly comical ambience. This sits well with me as, being a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and his previous work with Scorsese, I reckon it will be interesting to see the two delve into a more comedic setting for the first time together. The trailer certainly made me laugh, and we are in the more-than-capable hands of a wonderful director and an exceptional cast, so this one should not disappoint.

The Wolf on Wall Street is set for release on the 17th January, 2014 in the United Kingdom.

“It’s good to be The Rock.”

Time for a dip into the rumour market and it turns out that the most electrifying man in sports all of entertainment, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (or just The Rock to all the cool people, like me) is being touted as one of the stars of the upcoming Terminator 5 film. The Rock, as he shall be known from here on out in this post, has had an excellent past few years in the film industry, and these have been capped off by a simply outstanding first half of 2013. In fact, the semi-retired professional wrestler, who’s four films this year have already grossed over $1 billion combined, has had a movie in the US box office top ten for the past seventeen weeks in a row — stretching all the way back to late February — and this run does not look like stopping any time soon with Fast & Furious 6 still going strong. The Rock has become something of a franchise resurrect-er recently, having taken stagnant franchises such as Fast & Furious, G. I. Joe and Journey to the… and giving them the shot in the arm required to reinstate themselves again. Being a massive professional wrestling fan myself, I have loved The Rock for over a decade and hope to see his acting career continue to thrive.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars in Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which is due for release on the 25th July, 2014 in the United Kingdom.

Just a quick note before I continue. Even though I have never watched The Sopranos (I know, I know) it is always extremely sad to hear about the passing of an actor, let alone one of such significance to the world of television. One day, i do hope to watch The Sopranos in order to truly appreciate James Gandolfini, but until then I do not think it is really my place to talk about the man as an actor — although I am sure I do not need to anyway, having read about his greatness on my Twitter feed. All I will say is may he rest in peace.

The other day I re-entered the realm of Netflix, something that was long overdue. I decided to watch a film titled The ABCs of Death, based on what I had heard about it. To begin with, The ABCs of Death is not a film — it is a collection of 26 short stories, each of which convey a depiction of death based a word associated with a letter of the alphabet. The ‘film’ is directed by 26 different directors from all over the world, and thus there is no real narrative to it and the audience already knows the eventual outcome of every short-story — death. There were a few entertaining letters, such as Q and T, and a number of the clips made me laugh due to their sheer ridiculousness — I am thinking H in particular — but on the whole the clips just did not make much sense and some of them were a bit too over-the-top in terms of violence and, well, other stuff. It is one of those things where you kind of have to watch it due to the intrigue, but afterwards — if you are like me — you will probably be regretting wasting over two hours on it.

“Chairs are for wimps.”

I finally got around to watching a few films I had wanted to see for while — The Breakfast Club, A Few Good Men and Broadcast News — and I loved all three of them, particularly The Breakfast Club. John Hughes has a way with making films which ensures they remain relevant so many years on: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles are two classics which more than hold up in 2013, and The Breakfast Club is no different. For a courtroom drama, a type of film which can sometimes venture dangerously close to the boring mark, A Few Good Men kept me grasped throughout, with the tension slowly bubbling as the film progressed, and it boasts a number of excellent performances from the likes of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. I watched the television show The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, last summer and in anticipation for this summer’s upcoming season two, I decided to watch Broadcast News, a film about three colleagues and their relationship with each other and their job. It struck me how similar the two are, even though they are created on different platforms, as both contain vibrant, witty scripts and bubbly, likeable characters (Holly Hunter and Emily Mortimer’s characters are incredibly similar).

Oh, and I also got around to seeing Die Hard. I now get the hype surrounding Alan Rickman in this film, although I do not quite get the hype surrounding the film itself. Maybe I should have watched it ten years ago, before being lambasted with similar “Cowboys and Indians” (“in The Towering Inferno,” as Mark Kermode likes to put it) type films over the last decade.

Anyway, I think that will do it for today. If you have any comments just write them below and I look forward to doing some more of these in the future!