Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane and an apology

Sorry for the light posting - I started a new business and have been busy and my free time has been going to projects.

10 Cloverfield Lane
  The Fun Lads Four and I saw  Cloverfield in the theater but waited on the semi-sequel to hit streaming.
BTW - we cut the cord on cable about 18 months ago and never looked back, We got a Roku stick and Sling TV subscription for Christmas and are sorry we didn't already have Sling! I recommend Netflix + Sling. For $30/month I have more TV and movies than I did with cable
  We watched 10 Cloverfield Lane (TCL from now on) last night and then discussed it for about 40 minutes.

Spoiler Heavy Review Follows

Nuts & Bolts
Director: Dan Trachtenberg in his debut on the big screen full-length.
Writing: Campbell (new guy with one previous), Steuken (new guy), and Chazelle (pro).
Production: Big crew with J.J. Abrams in there so it boils down to 'bad Robot made this'.
Music: Bear McCreary. Long time TV guy.
Cinematography: Jeff Cutter, who has done a few other things.
Editing: Stefan Grube, new guy with one previous.
  New guy crew with not a lot of well-experienced folks in the hands-on, at-the-top positions.

Straight to the Review
Brief, Stilted Overview: Michelle is leaving her fiance for no stated reason and has an accident. She wakes secured up in a bleak room with a gun-toting guy named Howard that says he saved her life. As soon as he frees her she fakes a fire and tries to kill him. He tells her there has been a massive attack and that the air outside the bunker they are in is poisonous. Another man in the bunker, named Emmett, confirms there was an attack and that he fought his way into the bunker although Howard tried to stop him. Michelle starts to flirt with Emmett but Howard chastises her for it. Michelle steals Howard's keys and attacks him trying to get out.
Outside a woman in obviously rough shape begs then demands to be let in saying 'it barely touched her' and acting rather oddly. Howard admits he accidentally caused the accident that hurt Michelle and he saved her out of guilt. Michelle settles down until later finding a message for help at another exit. Emmett and Michelle conclude Howard is a killer and begin making escape plans. There is a confrontation and Howard kills Emmett. Later Michelle attacks Howard, which sets a fire that ultimately kills Howard. The fire causes an explosion that draws the attention of an alien aircraft that drops and alien that begins hunting her. Michelle ultimately destroys the alien aircraft and drives off to join the Human resistance to the alien invasion.
Yes, really.
Editing: Workmanlike and unobtrusive, which is rare these days. Vert TV sitcom like.
Camera Work: Frankly boring. That isn't necessarily bad (I never stopped to notice anything wrong) but there were a fair number of opportunities for excellence I think were missed. Better alignment to show the tight spaces and confinement, for example. Instead it was shot like a sitcom.
Acting: John Gallagher, jr. isn't asked to do much but he does it well. He comes across as a solid pro with a background on stage. Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn't asked to do much, either, really, but she doesn't phone it in. This film was carried on John Goodman's back and he showed why he is a go-to character actor.
Music: We will cover that more later, but it was OK.
Directing: Meh. The directing wasn't bad but it wasn't great, either. The blocking in some shots was odd, How people moved around (especially regarding the above-ground shed at the end) was goofy and disjointed. My main complaint is that the director relied upon music and dialog to inform the view what they should think. Here is an example: when Michelle is first awake in the bunker the Ominous Music Stings were saying 'Hey! Viewer! This is scary!'.
  The problem was what we actually saw at that point just looked like a small, run-down rural clinic that needed funding.
  Here's another. In the movie, a touch over half way as I recall, Emmett and Michelle are talking and she just tells an anecdote about a kid being abused, and how she ran away 'like she always does'.
  The problem is this bit of dialog replaces actual on-screen development or organic exposition, She just says it.
  This made the Fun Lads all mutter,
  "Well, at least we know that at the end of the movie she won't be running away".
  Which leads us to the twin of direction, the
Writing/Plot: I was sorely disappointed. The director/editor/music team had to add stings because there wasn't actually much tension in the story. Yes, really. The opening one of the longest and least-interesting establishing shots I've ever seen. It doesn't add any tension, reveals very little about Michelle, and just sort of ...is.
Want to see what a good almost dialog-free in media res opening looks like? Watch the first 5 minutes of Rio Bravo. Of course, it was directed by Howard Hawks and written by Leigh Brackett and the opening is Dean Martin and John Wayne....
  As mentioned above, the obvious foreshadowing (or chekhov's guns) was so obvious it started to become humorous.
  Howard tells a tale of using a tool to freeze something metal and break it?
  "She's gonna' freeze one of those locks, soon" note the Fun Lads.
  Michelle mentions she wanted to be a clothing designer?
  The Fun Lads start making bets on how long before she makes clothing.
  Emmett mentions Howard's crazy stories about mutant space worms.
  The Fun Lads perk up,
  "There's going to be alien space worms?!"
  [There were].
  No, it wasn't necessarily horrible, there was just nothing else going on so it jumped out at you.
  The directing, writing, music, and plot were so formulaic that at one point I said,
  "Time for a montage."
  The Fun Lads all nodded with bored yup's and...
  The montage began.
  Maybe we're jaded; maybe spending their entire formative years actively reviewing film for their technical and artistic merit has ruined film for the Fun Lads.
  But they freakin' loved The Babadook, so I don't think so.
  But the two main problems with the plot were-
  First: Inconsistent characterization.
  Second: Designated heroes and villains.
  By 'inconsistent characterization' what I mean is - some characters, mainly Michelle, speak and act not in a way that resembles a real person, but as the plot demands. Michelle is shown as not trusting/being afraid of men. Strange guy at the gas station? Fear. Out of the blue anecdote about a man abusing his daughter? Fear. Odd discussion that she was physically abused? Fear. Emmett tells her something odd and contradictory?
  She immediately believes him and begins to risk her life based on his statement.
  Up to this point Emmett has revealed a few things - he isn't very smart; he isn't very well educated; he isn't very brave. He has revealed these to Michelle, mainly. But she simply trusts every word coming out of his mouth.
  By 'designated heroes and villains' I mean this: if you strip away the musical stings, etc., and look, really look and the actions and words of the people on the screen you will see that there is no reason to think Michelle is a good person, let alone a hero. And there is no reason to think Howard is a bad person except that Emmett says some things that can't be checked and Michelle eventually kills him.
  Disagree? Let's look at it a little.

  First Point: Michelle wakes up after an accident and has received medical care. Howard brings her food, starts to tell her about the literal end of the world, and gives her a key to free herself. She immediately fashions a weapon, starts a fire, and lures Howard in to kill him.
  We are meant to see Michelle as resourceful and brave and Howard as menacing because he carries a gun.
  But! Did Howard shoot the woman that tried to burn his home and tried to stab him to death?
  No, he tranquilized her.
  Did he lock her back up?
  No, he took her out and fed her and showed her evidence that he had saved her life.
  Objectively, the 'hero' Michelle attempted to kill a man she just met and he didn't even retaliate.

  Second Point: Michelle comes out of her room and hears that there was an attack from Emmett, the other guy in the bunker. She sees the evidence (dead livestock) that the air is poisonous. At dinner that evening she flirts with Emmett, obviously trying to manipulate him. Howard sees through this and calls her on it. In return she steals Howard's keys, smashes him in the face with a beer bottle, and tries to open the door to the outside. But Michelle sees a woman covered in what appear to be chemical burns who talks about 'it only touched me a little' and tries to get in, becoming more crazy by the second.
  This is the second time in one day Michelle has tried to kill everyone in the bunker.
  This is the second time in one day Michelle has personally assaulted Howard. Howard, who is carrying a gun.
  Does Howard Shoot Her? Beat her? Lock her back up?
  No, no, and no. He asks her to stitch up the wound she gave him and is rather polite and understanding about what happened. After she tried to kill him. Again.
  The 'hero' was manipulative and violent and almost killed everyone and the 'villain' was understanding, even kind.

  Third Point: After what appears to be a few weeks in the bunker Emmett and Michelle conclude that Howard is a killer. They steal tools and supplies to make a suit so that one person (obviously Michelle) can leave for help. Howard realizes something very fishy is going on and confronts both of them and demands answers. Emmett says that he, alone, did it. His goal was to make a weapon so that he could take Howard's gun. He wanted Howard's gun, he says, to impress Michelle.
  Howard kills Emmett for this.
  Thing is? This doesn't make Howard a villain.
  Let's summarize the entire movie to this point: Massive attack seems to have killed many people and made the air dangerous. Howard, who built this bunker for himself only, takes in an injured woman and then has a neighbor [Emmett] physically force himself into the bunker, stretching supplies and systems. Howard knows that Emmett is unintelligent, uneducated, and cowardly but keeps him in the bunker, anyway. Michelle has tried to kill him more than once, but Howard has kept her inside and unfettered anyway. Howard knows that they may be in this small bunker for years. Then Emmett tells him that his plan was to make a weapon to take away Howard's gun to impress Michelle.
  Let me repeat that slightly differently: Emmett told Howard that he planned to intimidate, harm, or kill Howard to get Howard's gun so that he could swagger around the bunker in an attempt to impress a woman.
  Emmett just described himself as untrustworthy and dangerous as well as willing to harm or kill for no real reason.
  Killing Emmett was fairly prudent, wasn't it?
  The 'hero', Emmett, is a thief and a liar who portrays himself as untrustworthy and violent and the 'villain', Howard, eliminates a threat to himself and Michelle.

  As I look back on the movie on thing that surprised me at the time and after is - Michelle almost never asks Howard any questions. Howard is shown again and again to be intelligent and observant. The film shows that Howard is well-prepared and well-connected. And, most importantly (as as was pointed out by Son #3) Howard was proven right over and over again. Massive attack; poisonous gas; alien assault; phase one and phase two of an invasion; Michelle was trying to manipulate Emmett; Emmett and Michelle were doing something dangerous; etc. Yet Michelle virtually never asks him to tell her anything. Howard has to volunteer information (including his name!) and Michelle will ask Emmett (who is shown to be a bit lacking) about Howard.
The Fun Lads Four also point out that especially with Emmett in the bunker there is no reason to believe that if Emmett and Michelle had simply listened to Howard after 12-24 months they would have left the bunker to a world where the invasion was already defeated and none of the three were ever injured while underground.

  The tagline for TCL was 'monsters come in many forms'. Let me posit this: if I were to shift the initial viewpoint character from Michelle to Howard and change the musical stings around I could probably edit this film to be this;
"After a mysterious attack an heroic veteran allows a neighbor and an injured woman into his survival bunker. Tragedy strikes when the emotionally unstable woman manipulates the neighbor and the hero until, in a final violent confrontation, she burns the hero alive in his own shelter showing that even a pretty girl can be - a monster".
  Same movie, isn't it? Hell, it is a better fit to what we actually see on screen!

  ALL THAT BEING SAID - John Goodman was great and the action at the end was fun.

Bottom Line
To me the definition of a three-star movie is 'I don't regret watching it, but I wouldn't watch it again unless I was snowed it and it was the only movie to watch'.
Three stars.

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