10 Cloverfield Lane


Mary Elizabeth Winstead goes for a late night snack in the larder.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead goes for a late night snack in the larder.

(2016) Thriller/Horror (Paramount) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr., Douglas M. Griffin, Suzanne Cryer, Bradley Cooper (voice), Sumalee Montano (voice), Frank Mottek (voice), Jamie Clay, Mat Vairo, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg

 

Some things are bad, like getting into a car accident. Some things are worse, like waking up from a car accident chained to a wall in a bunker with people you don’t recognize. Other things are unfathomable, like discovering that the reason you’re in a bunker is because there’s been an invasion that killed millions.

But that’s what happens to Michelle (Winstead) who discovers herself in precisely that situation. Her apparent benefactor is Frank (Goodman), a twitchy survivalist whose ham-fisted insistence on gratitude and civilized behavior indicates that the man beneath the façade may be truly a monster; then again, he may not be. Also in the bunker is Emmett (Gallagher) who is one of those guys who has a kindly heart but above the neck, not a lot going on.

You may have noticed the address referenced in the title and yes, there is a kind of connection with the hit found footage film Cloverfield but most of it doesn’t become apparent until the final ten minutes, unless one is sharp-eyed and intimately familiar with every facet of the film. There are little Easter eggs (Frank apparently worked at one time for the satellite manufacturing company that figured in the very end of Cloverfield) scattered about as well.

First-time director Trachtenberg shows a lot of big league confidence and skill as he brings up the tension level to about a 9. One never knows what’s going to set Frank off so the other characters are walking on eggshells around him and there is the nagging feeling that Frank isn’t telling the whole truth about the situation to either Michelle or Emmett (who knows a lot more about what’s going on than Michelle does). The effect is extremely unsettling.

Goodman is absolutely fantastic here; he can be a gigantic bear or a kitty cat when he wants to be  Here he’s like storm clouds rolling over the prairie, erupting into massive discharges of lightning and thunder without a moment’s notice. Goodman dominates the film from beginning to end and delivers a performance that emphasizes why he’s one of the best pros in Hollywood today. Winstead is no slouch either, an actress who in a just world would be a big star right now. She continues to hover around the edges and deliver outstanding performances but something tells me this won’t be the breakout she needs to take that next step.

The biggest problem here and the one that really explains the low rating is the movie’s last ten minutes. In attempt to be a mash-up, the movie veers from one genre – the taut claustrophobic thriller it has been all along – into something else entirely. You can pretty much guess where it goes based on the title of the movie, and the effect is jarring like taking an abrupt left turn off Broadway in New York and finding yourself in an alley in Kabul and feels like this part of the movie was tacked on in a hurry by studio suits wanting to take advantage of a brand name that might put butts in seats.

I’ve seen critics compare this movie to Room but it’s nothing like that – whereas the Oscar-nominated film focuses on people emerging from a small, cramped, locked room, this film focuses on the situation within that small, cramped, locked room. This is a thriller, not a drama – so beware of specious comparisons. Still, this is a solid if unspectacular thriller that doesn’t quite fit in the Cloverfield mold but is kind of forced into it by producers maybe out to keep the brand name alive or simply to make a buck; I’m not sure which but I would have preferred that they would have made the transition from one genre to the other a little more smoothly – or not at all.

REASONS TO GO: Goodman is a force of nature. Excellent tension built throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending veers off into a strange turn. More of a slow burn than a rapid boil.
FAMILY VALUES: Thematic elements including some frightening sequences of threat and claustrophobic conditions, some occasional violence (some of it brutal) and brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bradley Cooper provides the voice of Michelle’s boyfriend Ben over the phone during the opening scenes of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast from the Past
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Admiral

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Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)


Beauty and the geek.

Beauty and the geek.

(2011) Sci-Fi Comedy (Focus) Julian Villagran, Michelle Jenner, Carlos Areces, Raul Cimas, Miguel Noguera. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Offshoring

You wake up after a night of partying and drinking. You’re in a strange bedroom. You don’t remember very much from the night before. The electricity is off. Giant spacecraft are hovering over the city. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Julio (Villagran) is in exactly this predicament. He finds himself in the apartment of Julia (Jenner), a woman so blindingly beautiful that he knows he has no right to score with this kind of woman. Neither of them can remember sealing the deal however, although there is evidence that they did – clothing scattered all over the room, that sort of thing.

While they’re trying to get their heads around the situation, with the city deserted and apparently evacuated while they slept off their epic bender, there’s a knock on the door; it’s Angel (Areces), a nosy neighbor who as it turns out has a crush on Julia. Further complicating things is the arrival of Carlos (Cimas) who is Julia’s ex – but maybe not so ex as she is leading the other two men to believe. He’s a survivalist and has plans on how to ride this situation out.

However, even Carlos didn’t come up with the scenario that all three men, incredibly jealous of the other two, would try to one-up each other to impress the girl, getting them pushed out of the apartment on the premise that maybe they are aliens in disguise. No doubt Julia will be taking eye-rolling to a new art form.

This is Vigalondo’s follow-up to the excellent Timecrimes which was his first feature. Like in that film, Vigalondo  takes genre tropes and turns them on their ear somewhat. In this film, we never see the aliens or learn why they are here. The action instead focuses on the three men trying to win the one woman. The alien invasion is more background noise than raison d’être.

Jenner is a nice find, remarkably beautiful and able to play both shallow and smart. She’s not mere eye candy here although the other men treat her character that way somewhat and her character is not above manipulating the other men. Villagran makes a fine non-heroic sort, a good guy who is in over his head.

There aren’t a lot of effects other than the magnificent alien ships which hover soundlessly in the Spanish sky. Vigalondo keeps the pace moving quickly and has a deft touch with the comedic aspects; for example, one of the men, locked out of the apartment, throws tennis balls in frustration at the open window which is a lot funnier than it sounds.

Keep in mind that the movie isn’t about the alien invasion so much, although there is kind of a Twilight Zone feel to the movie – or to be more accurate, an Outer Limits feel. It’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s a bit of a comedy, a bit sci-fi, a bit romance and a bit farce. Mostly, the movie is about what lengths men will go to in order to win a beautiful woman, and everyone knows the answer to that one – whatever it takes.

WHY RENT THIS: Uses a lot of genre cliches in unexpected ways. Jenner makes a wonderful lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Cantabria, a city in northern Spain.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Currently unavailable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

As Good As Dead


As Good As Dead

Cary Elwes tries not to make a crack to Andie MacDowell about using a stronger brand of sun lotion.

(2010) Thriller (First Look) Cary Elwes, Andie MacDowell, Frank Whaley, Matt Dallas, Jess Weixler, Nicole Ansari, Brian Cox, Clark Middleton, Emma Kantor, Juliette Bennett, Nasry Malak, Crispian Belfrage, Claudine Oriol, Mario D’Leon, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Jonathan Mossek

 

Vengeance is a dish best served cold or so they say. Ten years after is plenty of time for the dish to cool down I’d say.

Ethan Belfrage (Elwes) is a left-leaning photojournalist in New York  who has a family, a nice loft in midtown and a fairly successful career. He walks the dog, is friendly with the neighbors and is in general an upstanding citizen.

When a pair of thugs break into his apartment and tie him up to a chair, he is at first alarmed but not too surprised – apartment break-ins are not entirely unknown in the Big Apple. When a hideously scared woman calling herself Helen Kalahan (MacDowell) strides in, Ethan becomes a little bit concerned. When it turns out that one of the thugs, Jake (Dallas) is her son, Ethan begins to get a bit suspicious. When he notices that the other one, Aaron (Whaley) has an SS tattoo on his neck and seems more than a little bit bloodthirsty and unhinged, Ethan begins to sweat.

It turns out that Helen believes that Ethan had something to do with the murder of her husband (Cox), the hate-spewing preacher of a kind of skinhead survivalist fundamentalist Christian cult. She means to extract a confession from him, even though Ethan denies it. In fact, he denies it under torture, which doesn’t seem to impress Aaron all that much. When Ethan denies it after Aaron intentionally injects an overdose into a neighbor woman, well, one begins to wonder if maybe he is innocent after all. Still, you get the nagging feeling that Ethan knows a hell of a lot more than he’s telling.

This has a Hitchcockian element to it that’s quite pleasant; there are bad men involved and you’re not sure if the lead character might not be worse than the lot of them – and you have the nagging suspicion that he’s getting his just deserts. Then again the murdered pastor is so heinous that you can’t help feeling that justice was served on that end as well.

MacDowell, long one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, spends the entire movie in make-up depicting terrible scars, walking with a limp and generally spewing hateful things. One of the true Southern belles in the business, it’s kind of shocking to see the twisted reverse of that institution – it’s frightening and fascinating at the same time. This is truly one of her best roles in the last few years.

The movie is for the most part well-scripted although it bogs down occasionally. There is a sense that there is cruelty and violence mostly for its own sake; it loses its shock value early on and I think the film might have benefitted with more psychological aspects – as when the neighbor is slowly dying and Ethan is helpless (or is he?) to save her.

I think if they’d tightened up the writing a bit and cut some of the filler this might have been quite a taut little thriller. A little more flashback showing off the “good” pastor might have added a bit to some of the backstory, particularly to Jake who seems a tad conflicted here. There are enough elements to give this a slight recommendation, but not really enough that I feel motivated to urge anyone to go out of their way to find it either.

WHY RENT THIS: Tense when it needs to be and rather than revealing the twist all at once, does it in stages which is in itself a nice twist. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turgid and muddled in places. Uses violence more gratuitously than necessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it brutal), a bit of drug content and a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacDowell is originally from Gaffney, South Carolina and rose to fame as a model, with Yves St. Laurent, The Gap, Vogue and Calvin Klein.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55,618 on an unreported production budget; I wouldn’t bet on profitability here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Hulk

Predators


Predators

Adrien Brody, Alice Braga and cohorts are definitely NOT in Kansas anymore.

(20th Century Fox) Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins, Danny Trejo, Oleg Taktarov, Mahershalahashbaz Ali, Louiz Ozawa, Changchien, Carey Jones, Brian Steele, Derek Mears. Directed by Nimrod Antal

A very simplistic world-view of life is that we are either predators or we are prey. It’s simply a matter of where we want to be on the food chain, and what we’re willing to do to get there.

Royce (Brody) awakens in a very confused state. One moment he was with his unit, the next there was a bright light and now he is in free fall. That’s not a good place to be when you’re just waking up.

He manages to deploy a parachute and ends up landing safely, if a little bit roughly, in the jungle. One by one, a number of other parachutes deploy and soon there’s a group of people, all with roughly the same story, including Isabelle (Braga) an Israeli sharp-shooter, Stans (Goggins) a convicted killer two days from lethal injection, Nikolai (Taktarov), a Russian trooper keeping the peace in Chechnya, Hanzo (Changchien) a Japanese yakuza, Cuchillo (Trejo) a Mexican druglord, Mombassa (Ali) an African militia man and Edwin (Grace), a doctor.

Royce, for his part, is a black ops mercenary with not much in the way of a moral compass beyond getting the job done and surviving it. What they are all doing there is a bit of a mystery, as is where “there” is – Isabelle, who claims she’s been in most jungles of the world, doesn’t recognize this one. Amazon, maybe?

All that goes out the window when Royce notices that the sun remains stationary in the sky. It further takes a turn for the Twilight Zone when they emerge into a clearing to see a whole arsenal of moons floating serenely in the sky. They are most certainly not in Kansas anymore, or anywhere else on earth for that matter.

The appearance of strange bad-tempered warthog-like creatures with an array of bony spikes protruding from just about everywhere on their bodies doesn’t bode well. However, soon enough Royce figures things out – they are on a game preserve and they are being hunted. Sure enough, a Predator soon makes an appearance, with just enough technology for Isabelle – who was apparently privy to a lot of sensitive information – to recognize them from a report about a strange encounter with an American military team in South America in which only one survivor emerged. Will this team, stranded in an alien planet with no food or water, have even that many survivors?

This is billed as a sequel to the original Predator (1987) and there are plenty of references to the original from the obvious (Isabelle’s report) to the subtle (the playing of “Long Tall Sally” over the end credits, a song that was also played at the beginning of Predator). Obviously, the filmmakers had a great deal of respect and reverence for the original.

They may have been a bit too reverential, however. The storyline is essentially identical to the first Predator with a group of well-armed military people being picked off in a jungle one by one by predators, although in the original it was just one. While the original Predator saw an established and cohesive American military team being attacked, here it is a bunch of people from a variety of different disciplines and nations all brought together for the first time, and they bicker a good deal, although when the rubber hits the road they are terrifyingly good at what they do.

The cast is surprisingly good, especially Brody who isn’t known for action movies. He does a credible job here as the brutal and taciturn mercenary. Brody has obviously bulked up for the role, although he isn’t as muscular as, say, Stallone or Schwarzenegger, he has that wiry muscular toughness which is more in line with what you see in the modern military. Fishburne has what amounts to an extended cameo as the only survivor of a previous group brought to the planet to be hunted – he is there essentially to supply a bit of comic relief (only a bit) as well as a sense of perspective about how long this has been going on.

The action sequences hit all the right buttons, from the “predator vision” which is meant to resemble infrared, to things going boom. There are a number of nausea-inducing killings, which are very high on the cool meter, as well as a really nice sequence when Hanzo goes mano a mano with a Predator.

One of the little things I liked was that the Predators have different looks to them – I’m not talking subtle differences, but major ones, the way you would find in different ethnic groups. One of the problems with science fiction movies is that you rarely get a sense that alien races have the diversity of the human race; they have a tendency to be generically the same.

There are a few little quibbles with science in the science fiction here. A planet or moon that keeps one face turned towards the sun with planetoids or moons orbiting nearby would be torn apart by the gravitational forces; at the very least it wouldn’t have much of an atmosphere. Since some of the scenes take place at night (which I’m assuming occurs when one of the planetoids or moons gets between the game preserve planet and the sun) the screenwriters could have avoided this merely by giving the planet a rotation. Other than the scenes with the spiny warthogs and the view of the multiple moons, there’s no sense that you’re on a distant planet; all of the fauna are earth-bound varieties which would be extremely unlikely, unless the Predators terraformed the planet and seeded it with plants from our own world, which would seem to be a very expensive and labor-intensive job just to create a game preserve.

But these are quibbles and most viewers aren’t going to care about such things. This is about action and there is plenty of it. The action and character development is good enough to make this an enjoyable two hours. In a summer full of disappointments in terms of quality movies and box office, Predators stands out as one of the better popcorn movies in an off year for them.

REASONS TO GO: Solid summer action film fare. Brody is impressive as the mercenary.

REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially the first Predator relocated, with a team that isn’t as cohesive as the first one. You rarely get a sense that you’re on an alien planet.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of gore and violence, as well as some nightmare-inducing Predators running around. Given the pervasive foul language as well, I’d restrict this to older teens for the most part.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez conceived the idea for the movie back in 1994 and wrote a script that was submitted to Fox, who rejected it for being too expensive to produce. 15 years later, they changed their mind and Rodriguez wrote a modified version of the script that would be less expensive to produce, and delivered – the movie cost $40 million to make, relatively inexpensive for a high-profile summer sci-fi action movie.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty, the jungle location is more claustrophobic than grand in scale; it will easily fit in your home theater system. Those with smaller televisions might want to take this in on the big screen, however.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Inception