‘Green Room’ Review

Bruised, battered, raw and visceral, Green Room is merciless and malicious — a full-on assault to the senses that doesn’t give a damn what you think of its unflinching violence or brutal gore. And it’s all the better for it. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin follow-up is prickly, punchy, provoked and prone to anger, and it might just possibly be the leanest and tightest film we’ve seen so far this year. There’s not one ounce of fat on its bones, and it knows how to get in-and-get out with persistence and a vengeance. It’s a wire-focused, supremely confident piece of work. Saulnier immerses you head-on in its dread-filled vibe, doesn’t ever relent and, in the right moments, knows how to get deep under your skin. It’s a gnarly little affair, one that’s never afraid to mean business at any turn. But with that all said, for all its fighting spirit, it lacks a firm bite.

It’s hard to figure out what exactly keeps Green Room from being a really good movie. Because all the right ingredients are there, and it’s certainly not from a lack of trying. It follows The Ain’t Rights, a low-rent punk band consisting of bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and singer Tiger (Callum Turner), as they travel on chump change and near-sighted dreams in a van on “tour” across the Pacific Northwest. They steal gas from parked passengers, eat the free Mexican food their last venue gave them and drink themselves silly on cheap booze whenever possible. They’re just a couple kids trying to get the most out of life, really. But that doesn’t pay the way for their travels or expenses. Their penny-pinching can only take them so far, and they need some legitimate dough if they want to keep themselves moving. And that’s when neo-Nazi skinheads come into play. As they do.

After one of their “higher-paying” gigs falls through, Portland radio host Tad (David W. Thompson) has a solution for their current money woes: his cousin is associated with the local skinhead movement (sorry, ultra-left movement) nearby and, though they can certainly be a tough crowd, they’re willing to pay well for their services. And so, bucking up and putting their game faces on, they take the deal and make their way to the extremist bar — which is miles and miles away from the rest of civilization in the backwoods of who-knows-where. They know a good story can come out of this ordeal, and they joking play Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off” to seal the deal. And while that ruffles some hairless folks’ feathers, that’s not what gets them in trouble.

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After their set, Pat runs in the backroom to get Sam’s charging phone and sees something he never, ever should have seen. From there, they’re taken under the neo-Nazi’s vicious watch, with fellow skinhead captive Amber (Imogen Poots), as they must find a way to beat owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) against his next course of action. And over the course of one bloody night, The Ain’t Rights will find things are far from alright.

If there’s one thing Green Room doesn’t lack, it’s edge. It’s brutal, raw and bloody in ways most films don’t even try to be these days, and there’s a hint of pride in its veins as it tries to push itself towards the breaking point. But with that said, it doesn’t seem to have any fun in its naughtiness. It’s hardcore, sure, but it doesn’t really have an overwhelming purpose or hard-hitting message. Like Blue Ruin, Sauliner explores what makes good people go towards their breaking point, and studies what defines right and wrong with one’s life is put on the line. More or less what brings out the depravity of man. It’s a familiar passage, but one the filmmaker does well in his own right. His goals are simplistic, but nevertheless sincere. Sauliner knows what he wants to get across, but I still get the sense he doesn’t really have a strong point or any demanding themes to his work. It’s vicious, but not quite malicious. It knows what it needs to say, but I still get the sense Sauliner doesn’t really have a reason for why that should to be said.

But good filmmaking is good filmmaking, and Sauliner is still one hell of a filmmaker. Green Room is never less than effective in its unsettling dread. You can feel the fraught intensity in every frame; there’s hardly a moment where you’re not in a state of total distress towards the second half. And as the body count begins to pile up, you’re constantly inching closer in your seat, wondering just how these kids are going to get out of their predicament. It’s a taunt little number, one that shows assurance and diligence to its craft even during some of its false notes. But like some great punk sounds, it blasts fury, spit and thunder with little care for reason.

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Despite fine attention to character motivation, especially as it continues onward, you never get a firm assessment of these characters, both good and bad. Some restraint is commendable — particularly towards Amber’s hazy reasons for being a member of this group in the first place — but more often than not, it makes our leads feel a little too flimsy or, worse, completely disposable. When it comes to The Ain’t Rights, Pat and Sam are the only ones that stand out, and that makes half the band pretty interchangeable. All they really talk about is music, in mostly broad strokes. And even that seems a little disingenuous, though intentionally so. There’s nothing really to latch onto them, and that makes it hard to really care about them — especially as they meet their ends. 

Even the skinheads themselves, including Darcy, are a little grey. Sure, they don’t want the police mucking things up — and they obviously have more-than-unsettling personal beliefs — but Sauliner chooses not to explore anything about them beyond skin surface (no pun intended). They’re mostly stock villains for this ride, and while that’s good enough, they’re merely opposition for our protagonists to overcome. No more, no less. And that’s fine, but a little one-note.

At every turn, Green Room decides to keep it simple. And, again, that’s respectable in a lot of ways. It keeps the atmosphere frigid and a laser focus. But it also makes you hard to really dig yourself into the music on full-blast here. You admire the tight licks and hot skills on stage, but you never feel compelled to dive headfirst in its mosh pit. Even when you want to enjoy the impressive showmanship on display, you always have to admire it from afar. And that kinda leaves you bobbing your head for all the wrong reasons.

But that’s not to take away from what’s truly exceptional about this film. Sean Porter’s cinematography is quietly stunning, Julia Bloch’s editing is razor-sharp, Brooke and Will Blair’s music always keeps you in-tune with the film’s rhythm and the violence, while a little repetitive by the end, always packs a blow thanks to Joe Badiali’s shockingly meticulous make-up work. And the acting all-around from this talented cast is commendable, though Poots and Shawkat are the standouts of the bunch. Those two often give depth to their characters where the page may not allow.

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Stewart, while given a role of a lifetime here, doesn’t ever get enough playground time to truly relish the role, while Yelchin plays the helpless bystander role well-enough, but also comes across a little limited. And while it’s nice to see Macon Blair return to work with his Blue Ruin director as Gabe, Darcy’s questionable right-hand man, he often feels like an afterthought to the story-at-large.

Unless you’re extremely put off by gritty violence, there’s no reason why Green Room should leave you blue. It does exactly what needs to, and it does a stellar job with that in the precise little moments. Yet, I couldn’t help but want just a little more. The dark comedy that drove deep throughout Sauliner’s last indie smash doesn’t shine as often here. Well, except during the very first shot and the almost pitch-perfect final line. And in the end, it can’t help but make Sauliner’s third film feel a little, well, second-rate — even though he’s clearly grown more diligent and crisp as a filmmaker. I know there are only great things to come from him, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next. But Green Room somehow feels both full-force and held back in its ambitions. I just wish it stopped for a moment to figure out what’s behind the music. But with that said, it’s still punk as fuck. And that’s good enough. 

Rating: B/B+

‘Hardcore Henry’ Review

Hardcore Henry is a frantic eight-ball, one fueled with the power and energy of Red Bull, prepubescent hormones and restless leg syndrome. It’s a jarring shot to the balls of static and relentless intensity, a film that’s at one both incredible and tedious in its execution from the first minute onward. Shot entirely on GoPro cameras strapped to the heads of professional life-risking stuntmen, it’s a gimmick of a movie that’s impeccable to its style and craft, but never quite able to deliver anything beyond its initial test reel. It’s exactly the type of cinematic experience that wins you over with its quick-edited trailers and death-defying in-your-face stunts, but one unfortunately never able to excel beyond its flimsy plot and confusing character motivations.

In an age of first-person shooting games and virtual reality simulations, is Hardcore Henry, the feature directorial debut of Biting Elbows’ frontman Ilya Naishuller, truly the future of cinema? It’s hard to say, but probably not. There are simply too many limitations in its admirable-but-mildly nauseating format to truly take off. At least, at this time. But there’s no denying the brass cojones on display here. In the right moments, it can, indeed, be just as batshit-crazy fun as it promises. But those moments often feel few-and-far between, especially after irksomely familiar set pieces and thinly-stretched plot mechanics make Naishuller’s first film more muddled and unintentionally haphazard in its execution.

Hardcore Henry is exactly the kind of looney, maniacal, politically incorrect, no-holds-barred balls-to-the-wall punk-rock extravaganza I should have loved. That I walked away feeling kinda sluggish, indifferent and beaten in all the wrong ways suggest that either I’m getting too old for these kinds of rodeos, or this movie wasn’t exactly what I hoped it would be. Either way, I couldn’t help but leave a little empty handed. Was it truly too hardcore, or was something lost in perspective here?

What constitutes as a plot in Naishuller’s is basically little more than a launching pad premise to get us from one POV action beat to the next POV action beat. Through the eyes of Henry, we’re transported into a futuristic holding cell where a beautiful young scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett) reveals that our on-screen avatar has lost his left arm, left leg and a majority of his memory in an off-screen accident. He also, at least temporarily, lost his ability to speak. In the process of gaining mechanic limbs and readjusting to life after an extended coma, Estelle lays another bombshell: she and Henry are actually happily married together and will run away together after he recovers from this madness. But just as Estelle’s groundbreaking medical procedures are set into place, they’re attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a menacing warlord with Albino features who kidnaps Henry’s wife and kills her co-workers in the process. Set on revenge, our unseen lead is set to take action into his own hands until he runs into the mysterious Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a bizarre shapeshifter of a man who practically impervious to death and gives Henry directions on how he can save his love.

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From there, we follow Henry in a massive killing spree across Moscow as henchmen are slaughtered left-and-right and explosions, car crashes and gun-fire come a-plenty. So what’s not to love here? Well, it just too little, too late at this point. As much as the film would protest otherwise, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this before. In terms of plot structure, Hardcore Henry is noticeably inspired by the Crank movies, and sometimes in all the right, nitty gritty ways too. But this first-person spectacle has already been done in cinema by the likes of Enter the Void, Cloverfield, 2012’s Maniac remake, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project and, well, basically any found footage movie ever made. Always Sunny also had an entire episode shown directly from Frank’s POV this season. The novelty isn’t in the idea so much but rather the execution. And in those terms, Naishuller’s debut feels a little too limited for its own good — despite the ever-visceral action on display throughout these 96 minutes.

To call the plot of Hardcore Henry nonsensical would be an understatement. Naishuller, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t give a damn whether or not any of this makes a lick of sense, so long as you follow along with the insanity and have a good time. And I’m always for having a good time. Maybe too much so, according to some of my friends. But Naishuller falsely assumes having video-game aesthetics means you don’t have to have a solid narrative. The main problem here is that most first-person shooter games generally have a plot — at least, as far as I can tell. I’m not much of a gamer, honestly, but I know most video games today have more than a threadbare series of events to keep gamers’ hands compulsively glued to their controllers. Though Hardcore Henry carries itself on the loosest of story threads, it can’t help but feel disorganized and discombobulated even within the confines of its straight-as-an-arrow focus.

The plot grows more scattershot than simply crazy, and while its goofiness is always inspired, its mythology fails to add up. It’s evident most things happen because the filmmakers thought it was just a fun idea at the time. For example, characters are elevating elementals just because it’s cool, dammit. And executive producer Copley’s loose-fitted backstory lets him play variety of supporting characters, each wackier than the last, just because it gives the District 9 star the chance to not only experiment with different wigs and costumes, but also pull an Edge of Tomorrow and constantly get murdered in a series of bizarre, downright comical ways. But all this does is kill any sense of stakes or tension. Henry is such a bona fide killing machine that he never truly feels at odds with his opponents and, therefore, it doesn’t seem like he’s in any serious risk or peril throughout the growingly monotonous, if exceptionally well-performed, action sequences. There are never any firm rules established in this universe, and while its off-the-cuff mentality is fun in certain contexts, it makes for a meandering film before long — one that also grows more repetitive and less impressive as it goes along.

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What’s more, the one-person viewpoint doesn’t allow the full scope of these incredible practical stunts get their full due. Only one motor chase sequence on a highway, seen heavily in the promotional materials, and the final climax fight get a full scope and widespread perspective. Everything else feels filtered and minimized, and that includes some of the neat production designs, impressive low-budget special effects and committed-to-the-teeth performances. Everyone involved, both in front and behind the camera, are really giving this one their all, and that Hardcore Henry doesn’t give them their full due is just a disservice to their amazing sacrifices and whole-hearted beliefs in Naishuller’s marginalized vision.

But one shouldn’t belittle what is accomplished here. It’s a valiant effort on everyone’s part, and while it’s not a full-on success, it’s filled with passion, dedication and wholehearted convictions at every first-person turn. Unfortunately, I didn’t love Hardcore Henry. In fact, I don’t even think I liked it all that much. But I respect its unapologetically tone and lowbrow kookiness in the face of adversity and ill-logic. But for all the winking absurdity and malicious imagination on display here, there’s just something missing here. It’s not heart, and it’s not brains. Though this is one dumb movie, it has every right to be. And it’s certainly not lacking persistence. What I guess it’s missing is follow-through, not in terms of execution but providing something we really, truly haven’t seen before, as promised to us from the very beginning.

Once you’re adjusted and familiar with the premise and gist of Naishuller’s first film, it doesn’t exceed itself beyond simple means. No matter how impressive its action can be, it begins to lose its stunning spark all-too-quickly. What worked so beautifully in small doses becomes aggravatingly dull after a while, all before even the half-hour mark. And that’s something I never thought I would say about this film. Beyond some of its questionable-at-best depictions of women and its underlying homophobia, Hardcore Henry is just a little too meager for its own good. Despite the sometimes unbelievable feats and off-the-cuff enthusiasm it transpires, it soon begins to feel wearisome at best and unbearable at its worst. And inspired moments inevitably become too little and too far in-between to salvage it from overwhelming boredom after all while. For a movie that calls itself hardcore, it feels just a little too light for its own well-being. And that’s a perspective I’m disappointed to take.

Rating: C+/C

‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Review

I’ll admit, I’m going to be biased here.

A movie featuring Batman and Superman together, at once, partnering up or squaring off amongst one another is exactly the sort of spectacle piece of cinema I’ve dreamed about for ages. Ever since my playground days, I’ve wondered about the cinematic possibilities of watching two of my favorite superheroes together in the same frame, and pondering over who would win in a fight if forced to throw around some kicks and punches. I certainly wasn’t alone. After all, this kind of thought is the basis for Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Easily among the most recognized and beloved do-gooders of all-time, the caped heroes are celebrated for a reason. In addition to being well-rounded, interesting characters, they each bring inspiration, awe and hope to a world that often doesn’t have that. They’re saviors in more ways than one.

Is that the kind of movie we get from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Well, no and yes. This is undoubtedly a monumental cinematic achievement, having two of the greatest superheroes of all-time face one another in ways they’ve never been given the chance to cinematically. Individually, they bring a great deal of weight with their respected histories and legacies, and under this new blockbuster, they demonstrate their greatest strengths and weaknesses when testing their true worthiness or displaying the full morality of their characters in one another’s company. It’s a movie of epic proportions, and while not a perfect one, it nevertheless lives up to the challenge in many, many other ways. So did I enjoy it? You bet. And does it work altogether? Ultimately, I would say so.

That’s right, if you’re expecting me to give Zack Snyder’s latest film a bashing as long-winded, overstated and hyperbolic as the blockbuster-in-question, look elsewhere. Seriously. You can easily find the malicious, no-holds-barred takedowns from any number of condescending reviewers online. I didn’t come into WB’s franchise universe-builder expecting an absolute travesty like some will, nor did I go in wanting to hate it. Not that everyone who dislikes the film went in with such shallow intents, I know. Even if I don’t agree with their points, I respect those who wanted to like it but didn’t. Hey look, it happens. I’ve been there to; I get it. It sucks. But here’s the thing: I’m not here to make you change your mind.

Your opinion on BvS is basically set from the first reel onward. If you thought Man of Steel was a disaster, you’re going to have a miserable time with this bloated, overlong energy drink of a film. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it because Snyder didn’t make a film that’s simple to define, easy to swallow or one you can enjoy the whole time. This is an oppressive, ruthless, merciless piece of work, and it’s a fairly self-serious one too. That might be too much for some, and I can understand why. It doesn’t help that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, on the whole, flawed-as-hell. But if you’d let me elaborate for a little bit (okay, a lot a bit), I think Snyder’s latest is an appropriately epic achievement, and one that lives up to a great deal of its anticipation. It’s a potentially game-changing genre picture that cements itself among the most important superhero movies of the past decade or so in my eyes, just like Man of Steel. Yes, I did say “like Man of Steel.” I still think Snyder’s last film is among the most vital superhero movies in years. So take that into consideration, and prepare yourself accordingly.

Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice want us to examine a world that’s both similar and distant from our own. Immigration scares, theorist threats, malicious warfare and even gun control are very real threats in this interpretation of the DC universe. Only now, there are also aliens from some planet named Krypton threatening human existence. Snyder accomplishes this sense of never-ending danger and uncertainty in a way that’s both very mythical and extremely grounded. The actions of Man of Steel loom heavily over Batman v Superman, and the consequences for said actions affect the greater outcome of everything that happens here. Since Superman (Henry Cavill) directly harmed several people under Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) employment and care in the Metropolis battle, he is a vixen and a global threat, a single-alien crisis capable of unstoppable destruction in his wake. That is, unless he’s stopped. And while others reach out to him in the heavens to save them in times of peril, others, like our titular Gotham native, believe they need to take matters into their own hands if they want to make sure there’s not even a one-percent chance he’ll destroy the planet-at-large.

Whether or not the world needs Superman, he is not a hero. He’s no longer a symbol of justice or the foundation of hope. When the city builds a statue in his honor, a man crippled by his attacks (Scoot McNairy) feels compelled to spray “False God” over his medal chest. The Man of Tomorrow is not a man of code; he lives in the moment and has to live with the aftermaths of his actions in every waking second. Absolute power can corrupt absolutely, as we’re told by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter). He is compelled to do right, but doesn’t know how. He might be faster than a speeding bullet, but he can’t fly around the world and save everyone at once? Does this ultimate make up more human, or more alien, as a result?

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Perhaps the main reason why I admire Snyder’s two Superman movies so much is because he’s willing to challenge his audience in ways most studio filmmakers are often afraid to. Though he’s far from being subtle, he’s not a mindless director. In fact, I think he’s a deeply contemplative man, one who likes to think big ideas and make people challenge their understanding of superheroes. This is something he’s tried to accomplish since 2009’s Watchmen, but I think he’s truly coming into his own. While Batman v Superman can end up a bit of a slog at times — particularly towards the middle, which can feel a little aimless— there’s always a theological reverence to these larger-than-life figures, one that admires what they stand for and who they often strive to be but constantly has us question who, exactly, is a hero in a post-9/11 world. In Snyder’s vision, there are no clean-cut heroes, and sometimes there’s no real justice.

These are broken, often morally-plagued individuals, and Snyder and co-writer Chris Terrio (Argo) do not want us to sit idly and imagine a world where everything ends with natural conclusions and fair outcomes. You truly get an idea where these two idols — one mortal, one “god”— are coming from before they decide to throw fisticuffs. We feel this world, and thanks to Larry Fong’s awe-inspiring cinematography, we get a sense of its scope at multiple angles. This somber, often aggressively bleak look into the DC universe always carries a grave amount of stakes. Even if you save hundreds, you’ve lead thousands more to their deaths. Even if you’re a hero in one man’s eyes, you’re nothing but a traitor in another’s. There are no clear good guys.

As someone who loves to think about the greater picture during my “mindless” entertainment, these are thought-provoking discussions I think most superhero movies SHOULD have. To see the greater ramifications of one’s actions, mortal or otherwise, it gives a depth and a sense of honesty (almost) that leaves a lot to chew on and discuss, even when it doesn’t always work much like the aforementioned Man of Steel. But does it kill the entertainment value? At times, yes. Will it limit the audience? I guess so. Does this make for a fun night out for the whole family? I wouldn’t really say so.

Throughout the screening, I couldn’t help but watch the parents of two children in front of me, trying desperately to get their children’s attention as all this mayhem happened on the enlarged screen in front of them. Admit all the political talk with Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nancy Grace, to name a few, smashing-and-crashing between our titular leads, fire storms, buildings collapsing, heavy moral discussions about a savior’s purpose in a morose world, and countless deaths, they would spring up to point enthusiastically at the first sights of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and a couple other DC characters that get a quick introduction before the end credits (side note: no end credits scene, so you can go home if you want). It ultimately seemed like a futile effort, for their children would likely never grasp the full intellectual layers of these conversations and find the action on screen a little, well, nullifying.

This is not a movie for everyone to enjoy, and I see why that might bother some people. Snyder doesn’t make easy films, as I’ll continue to stress. His bombastic tendencies are aggravating to a lot of people, and it’s easy to see why some might find this film, among other things, “too dark.” Though this might be based on comic book characters, much like Christopher Nolan’s own Dark Knight trilogy, this might not be a grand night out for all parties, most especially children with sensitive hearing and an aversion to violence.

Yes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a loud, dark, brooding, hyper-violent and sometimes ugly film. But to dismiss it entirely would be, well, missing the point. At least, I think. Snyder presents a world where you not going get all the punches, slams, kicks and pummels you’ve envisioned in your head for years, but also question what comes behind every single blow. It’s a tricky balancing act that’s not accomplished with complete success, but one he captures as he retains an epic feel, and a gigantic sense of scope, without making anything feel marginalized when the movie jumps into smaller, more intimate moments in-between the chaos. That is a true feat. While that’s what some people see as its greatest weakness, I see as its absolute triumph. This is a contemplative, vigorous, bold and downright ballsy film, the likes of which we don’t often see from conventional studio films. And that needs to be celebrated. Whether or not you like it, it needs to be respected. And personally, I liked it all the same.

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There are many things I left undiscussed. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Joker-reminiscent Lex Luther, for instance, I found to be a massive amount of fun, and brought some much needed levity to the proceedings. I wish his motivations were made a little clearer and not simply spouted upon over and over again, but that’s how it goes. Amy Adams and Diane Keaton, as Lois Lane and Mama Kent, respectively, both give good performances as always, but feel largely short-sighted. Jeremy Irons Alfred is magnificent, bouncing off Affleck’s Wayne well while giving him some humility in the process. And speaking of Affleck, while he’s fine enough as Wayne, he’s absolutely aces as Batman. He rocks the suit like it’s nobody business, takes down foes like he’s chowing down lunch and engages in a single-shot, super-well choreographed single-man fight sequence in the desert that’s among the best I’ve seen in ages. And his Batmobile comes in a long line of epic rides under the billionaire’s name.

Let’s see, what else? Laurence Fishburne is also massively entertaining, if also underutilized, as Barry White, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet. Gadot looks amazing in the Wonder Woman suit, but merely does okay outside of it. She’s not bad, mind you, but you never forget that someone better could be in the part. In the midst of heavy contemplation and the large-scale action, it’s very easy to see where Terrio’s script ends and David S. Goyer’s hack writing begins. Long, beautifully-written monologues will constantly be interrupted by blunt lines that feel ripped from the 1960s serial. It’s never less than jarring. But that score, man. Man oh man, that score! Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road) produce something that’s never short of breathtaking. They build on the masterful accompaniments of the original film while complementing it with chilling arrangements that always remind you how much danger is presented on screen. It demands you pay attention for each-and-every-second; it’s truly genius work.

For all its faults —and there are many, as I’ve pointed out myself — Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a celebration in creating a distinct, uncompromising vision of a world similar, and not, to our own. It’s a towering, monumentally-wide look at topics we’re prone to look away from in our superhero movies, and discussions we don’t often have after seeing a movie with men punching each other in capes. But to write it off as little more than noise and confusion is a fool’s errand. It offers a lot to think about, and once you start picking apart the message, it does start to fall apart, much like Zootopia. But that it lets us have these discussions, as opposed to giving us run-of-the-mill productions like most films under Marvel’s banner, it’s a soaring relief on its own.

Snyder, once again, has realized a polished, highly-stylish and unflinching vision that feels appropriately cinematic in every single moment. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s definitely one worth watching. Even if it doesn’t always fly, it floats on the goodwill it preserves. Because it gives fans what they have wanted to see their entire lives, while also letting them wonder why they praised these loons in the first place. And that’s something super special. Hopefully, it’s also the dawn of a new age of thoughtful, intellectually-stimulating cinema. If one with some extra punches and explosions to boot.

Rating: B/B-

 

 

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ Review

Expectations are a weird thing, aren’t they? In a day-and-age where we feel entitled to know absolutely everything before we really know anything at all, it’s really hard these days for Hollywood to stay ahead of the game in any way, shape or form. And so, much like the first Cloverfield film eight years ago (?!), the announcement of 10 Cloverfield Lane was as much of a surprise as a major motion picture business can create these days. Diverting the attention of the public-at-large through the production codename Valencia, the unanticipated first trailer for what looked to be the much-desired, if largely-unexpected, sequel to the original monster hit (in more ways than one) came like a bombshell before Michael Bay’s 13 Hours this January, similar to the one Paramount also sprung for Cloverfield (back in the good old 1-18-08 days) before Bay’s first Transformers movie in summer 2007.

Like any production from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot banner, it was another genius slice of marketing. Here comes this movie that literally had no buzz whatsoever, which is now among the most anticipated of the early new year. And we only have to wait another two-or-so months! It’s another testament to Abrams’ infamous mystery box. But if 10 Cloverfield Lane — the “blood relative” to the found footage film that shares its name, as producer Abrams has called it of late — proves anything, it’s that maybe the mystery box wasn’t shut tight enough. Even though the trailers almost gave away almost nothing, I couldn’t help but feel as though I knew exactly what I was getting with this one. My mind went in open, but I still had a pretty good idea of what giddiness I was getting into.

With his first feature film, director Dan Trachtenberg — whom many on the web may know best from his days co-hosting The Totally Rad Show — rattles us up with a taunt little jack-in-the-box of a movie, one that leaves up cringing, squirming and cavorting with delight in our seats waiting for the big, expected reveal to finally pop out. It’s a highly suspenseful thriller, not unlike the other film that shares 1/3rd of its title, but having lead us to believe the jack inside the box was going to appear one way, it’s hard not to get just a little disappointed when the doll that springs out the box is not quite the jester you were kinda hoping would appear. I guess I should explain a little more.

Don’t get me wrong: what you get here is well worth the time invested and spent. I doubt many will walk away thinking they were robbed a good movie. You get a wonderfully wrapped package, but what’s inside the gift box may not be the dollhouse you thought you put on your list. Enough with the toy metaphors, you say? Fair enough. I guess what I’m saying here is: there might be such a thing as promoting a movie too well. Because, sometimes, the clover you turn over may not have as many leafs as you thought.

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So let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we? Alright first off, is 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield? Well I’m not sure, really. After mulling it over for a bit, I think it’s safe to say the answer is: no. At least, that’s my answer. Abrams could prove me wrong. He’s done it before. Does it have similar themes and  consistencies? Absolutely. Are the thrills and jump-scares effective, especially when surrounded by the booming intensity of IMAX speakers? Totally. Do they have some tie-ins with one another? They do, actually. I advise you to be on the lookout for the Slusho logo. That’s a key one I notice, even if it’s a little obvious. But of course, the characters are now completely different, the actors are recognizable, the setting is elsewhere, the camera is actually holstered by a tripod, related destruction doesn’t happen on-screen and, in fact, none of the events of the original film are mentioned, shown or addressed. Not even a little bit. I think this is as good a point as any to mention that, if you don’t want to know anything about this one, I would suggest not reading too much further. In short, it’s a good movie. But it has some problems.

Without getting into too many details, there are some monsters — just maybe not the ones you were initially expecting. This is at the heart of where I feel the promotional materials misdirected people, if even just a little bit here. I think it was a dirty trick on somebody’s part to include the Cloverfield monster’s semi-iconic roar in the promos. That’s a petty thing, I’m know. And it doesn’t relate to the actual movie at hand, I’m aware. But it’s deliberate and, quite frankly, kinda wrong choice. And a damn sneaky one too.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note, once again, that Trachtenberg shouldn’t be blamed. Far from it, I would say. Objectively, his debut is —at its absolute best — a shockingly confident tour-de-force, an impeccably well-crafted filmmaking grand entrance aided well by an equally smart, often self-aware screenplay and boosted by layered and deeply-felt performances from the three leads. It’s a supremely well-oiled machine of a bunker pulse-pumper, which makes the fact that I can’t say I completely loved it all-the-more frustrating. But that’s the case here, and I don’t want to lie to you fine folks. After all, you guys seem like nice enough people. I don’t want to stray you wrong.

Again, was I going in with too many preconceptions? Perhaps. But at its heart, I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is merely a very well-groomed B-movie — although one acting chiefly as a chamber drama piece, not unlike recent Best Picture nominee Room. But, you know, minus some of the whole childlike wonder found in the first half and all. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. and especially John Goodman are all aces in their parts, committed to the intensity with full convictions and never blinking at the chance to travel down the dark, twisted, occasionally haunting road this tight-quartered picture goes down through Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) warped little screenplay. It’s an absorbing, affectively unsettling little isolated mystery, and playing it in an enlarged format like IMAX actually adds to its engulfing sense of enclosure. You only think you know where it’s going to go, and don’t really know which way it’ll turn at any moment. But at the same time, you kinda, sorta do in many ways. And this gets to the heart of my biggest gripe.

As stressed before, expectations are everything, and I wish Abrams and his team — including executive producers Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves, the writer and director behind the initial Cloverfield, respectively — were just a little clearer about their intentions, and less murky with themselves about what they wanted to do here. Because I feel such wishy-washy attitudes is what keeps 10 Cloverfield Lane from being the great movie it should very well be. It’s among the few movies where having a monster pop out at the end actually makes things worse, and knowing these monsters are coming googat all hurts some of the morally ambiguity, and questions about whether or not there’s such a threat outside, that’s created inside the confined bottle where most of Trachtenberg’s film is hosted. As weird as I feel saying it, I kinda wish this wasn’t a Cloverfield movie. I wish it was just its own, self-contained little thing. It wouldn’t nearly have gotten the widespread attention it has now — which, admittedly, it does deserve, in many respects —but it would have been much more satisfying as a whole.

I spent way too much of this review focusing on what bothered me here, and I shouldn’t have. Because 10 Cloverfield Lane is, indeed, a good film all-around. The performances, as mentioned before, are absolutely excellent, including one A-list cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil. And I genuinely think Goodman’s chilling, versatile against-type role (you could say he’s not playing a very… good man, hehe) would be considered prime Oscar-material, if it wasn’t a genre film, not to mention one that came out in early March. Also, the sound design and the score constantly keep your ears glued for clues and your heart in your stomach, and it comes across so vividly through the louder-than-normal speakers available here that you’re always on edge.

And the attention-to-details on set is both impeccable and very considerate; I can’t wait to see where Trachtenberg’s career takes off after this debut. The use of silence and not throughout alone, namely in the wordless opening five minutes and one restless dinner session, proves he’s learned well from the filmmaking etiquettes of Alfred Hitchcock. And a nice weaving of comedy between beats of suspense (namely towards the middle and end) shows he knows the importance of balancing tones, and does so in a fluid manner. Plus, the tight editing proves there’s still a place in Hollywood for a fraught, well-clipped high-budget film. It’s nice to know not everything needs to be pushing the two-hour mark to be considered a good film. Good pacing is key to making a solid, worthwhile film.

And that, on the whole, sums 10 Cloverfield Lane up pretty well: solid and worthwhile. I don’t like that the promotional materials make you think you’re going one way when it’s ultimately just short of the ride there, but the trip down the rabbit hole isn’t unrewarding. This is an unnerving, tight-gripped film, and one that effectively peels away the details like an onion and knows a thing-or-two about holding the attention of its audience. In the future, though, I hope Abrams and the folks over at Bad Robot make it a little more straightforward with their brand.

10 Cloverfield Lane proves the Cloverfield name should be treated as various chapters in an ongoing, freestanding sci-fi anthology franchise, not unlike Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone or, more appropriately, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It should stay the course of reintroduced itself once throughout each decade or so. Skewing fans to think it’s otherwise feels like a petty cash grab, in some respects. And I don’t think that was everyone’s intentions here. Much like Reeves’ original film, this new Cloverfield doesn’t completely live up to the hype, but it nevertheless captivates you all-the-same. As masters of promotion, however, I think it’s more appropriate for Bad Robot to wiggle the collar than to tug at it sharply. We’ll follow you either way at this point, Abrams. His company may know what they’re doing, but it perhaps should reconsider what mysteries are best left unhidden.

Rating: B/B+