J.J. Abrams

The Cloverfield Paradox

08/01/18

J J Abram’s Cloverfield franchise has always wielded an element of surprise as part of its arsenal. The first film, a compelling ‘found-footage’ creature feature, directed by Matt Reeves, was sneak-released to cinemas in 2008, and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a low budget masterpiece.  Its 2016 successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense, claustrophobic thriller that initially appeared to have nothing whatever in common with its predecessor; until, that is, you reached the film’s final third and everything went completely (and satisfyingly) berserk.

And now, here’s The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah and somehow released direct to Netflix with hardly anyone (including the cast!) aware that this was going to happen. As a means of grabbing attention, it works a treat – but there have already been many voices on social media branding the new release as a complete dud – and news that a fourth instalment, with a Second World War setting, is already in the can have led many to believe that Abrams has, quite literally, lost the plot.

The opening of Paradox certainly grabs the attention, playing like a lost episode of Black Mirror. It’s the year 2028, the earth’s energy supplies are rapidly dwindling and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) is poised to leave her partner, Kiel (David Oyelowo) to go on a mission into outer space. She and the rest of her crew intend to use ‘The Shepard’ – a particle accelerator – to provide the earth with an artificial power supply – but they are warned from the very beginning that in so doing, they risk inadvertently opening portals that will allow alternative realities into existence. Well, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

The story now leaps forward to the mission itself, where Ava and her companions are trying to initiate the ‘Shepard.’ At first, they appear to have been successful – but then some very strange things start to happen… for a start, they can’t seem to find any trace of the earth. Then, they find a woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) trapped behind the walls of the spacecraft. She claims to be a trusted member of the crew, but they have never set eyes on her before. Meanwhile, engineer Volkov (Aksel Hennie) starts having some very nasty digestive problems and as for Mundy (Chris O’ Dowd)… what exactly has happened to his left arm? Meanwhile, back on earth, Kiel is having some pretty intense problems of his own…

And that’s pretty much it. The film cuts back and forth between its two locations throughout. It’s nicely shot and for the most part, it galumphs along engagingly enough, even though it soon becomes apparent that this is not so much a Cloverfield film as something else that has been slyly retrofitted to slot into that cinematic universe. Indeed, apart from a couple of subtle visual references, you’ll have to wait until the film’s closing moments to make any real connection with those illustrious predecessors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an age where film fans are more polarised than ever before, some viewers have excoriated Paradox, blasting levels of vitriol in its general direction that seem somewhat excessive. It really isn’t that bad – just a bit mediocre and nowhere near as good as its progenitors. And of course, the convenient thing about Netflix is, if you don’t like what you’re watching, you can always reach for the ‘off’ switch.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Advertisements

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15/12/17

Well, Episode VIII is suddenly upon us and everybody’s going crazy to see it, so I thought, what the heck, how bad can it be? I know I’ve gone on record as saying that Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises in history, (and I genuinely believe that) but J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was pretty decent stuff, largely because it had the good sense to deliver a sort of ‘greatest hits’ package, featuring all the best bits from A New Hope. This time out, we have writer/director Rian Johnson at the controls and I have to say, rather than the exhilarating flight we had last time, this is more reminiscent of an interminable train journey, packed with passengers you neither know nor care about. Will we ever reach our destination?

Proceedings kick off (of course they do) with a great big space battle, as the tattered remnants of the resistance flee from the overwhelming might of the Empire. (Sound familiar? Get used to it.) You quickly get the sense of worse things to come when the usually reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux is reduced to stamping around and leering at his underlings like a pantomime villain. Yes, there are state-of-the-arts special effects, but I feel completely unmoved by the spectacle. Shortly thereafter, we cut to a remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) that he should stop being such a moody monkey and come back to join the rebels. (You may remember this was where we left the previous film.) Luke manages to spend pretty much the entire two hours and thirty two minutes running time trying to make his mind up, though of course, we all know he’ll get there in the end…

This procrastination seems to be key to Johnson’s vision. Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) faffs around trying to decide whether he’s good or bad (when of course we all know which one it is), Rey seems, for quite a while, to be suffering from exactly the same malady and Finn (John Boyega) spends much of his time scampering around a variety of exotic locations with his new sidekick, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). The main problem is, everything feels turgid here and whenever we sense we’re approaching some kind of resolution, we discover that there’s another ending tacked on – and then another, and just for good measure, one more. The film is dedicated to ‘our Princess, Carrie Fisher,’ and perhaps the saddest thing is to see her hanging around in scene-after-scene, with very little to do but look mournful and mutter lines about ‘the Force’. (At one point, the script even has her put into suspended animation, which, I can’t help thinking, doesn’t feel entirely respectful to her memory.)

I’ve already seen a few decent reviews for The Last Jedi and no doubt, the hardcore fans will come out saying they adored it. (They generally do.) But for me, this one ranks very low down the pecking order, better than those terrible prequels, of course (though to be honest being beaten repeatedly over the head with a fresh haddock would be a step up), but limping along behind Rogue One, which at least a few fresh ideas to offer.

I can’t help feeling that the well is running pretty dry and unless somebody comes up with something very inventive soon, it may just be time to press the ‘self-destruct’ button on Star Wars.

Yeah. Like that would ever happen…

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Disaster Artist

08/12/17

Let me begin with a question: is it ever possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? In this analogy, the sow’s ear is Tommy Wiseau’s movie, The Room (https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2017/12/04/the-room/), a film of such toe-curling ineptitude that it actually hurts to watch it – and a film, moreover, that – since its initial release in 2003 – has somehow recruited a sizable coterie of avid fans, who gather at regular midnight screenings around the world to celebrate its general naffness. The potential silk purse is The Disaster Artist, the film about the making of The Room, in which James Franco plays Wiseau and, in a hubristic gesture that Wiseau would undoubtedly approve of, also directs.

Franco’s film opens in San Francisco in the 90s, where we meet young wannabe actor, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), who is struggling to make some kind of impact on the local theatre scene. At a workshop, he encounters Wiseau, a mysterious long-haired individual who, when invited to improvise in front of the other students, unleashes a ‘performance’ of such unabashed fury, that the more inhibited Sestero immediately wants to know more about him. The two men become buddies and, when Wiseau casually suggests that they should go to Los Angeles and ‘get into the movies,’ Sestero happily goes along – Wiseau already has an apartment there and he’s perfectly happy to share it. It soon becomes apparent, however, that there are a lot of unanswered questions concerning Mr Wiseau. Where does his seemingly bottomless pit of money come from? Why does a man who claims to be a native of New Orleans have what sounds like a middle European accent? And why is he so willing to go to any lengths to impress Sestero? Will there be a price to pay?

When, after months of fruitless auditions have resulted in exactly zero film or TV roles, Wiseau announces that there is only one option left: he will write a movie script for the two of them to star in – and then he will direct it. Which is pretty much what happens. Wiseau’s complete ignorance of the film-making process means that he ends up spending over six million dollars on his little vanity project and, since he seems reluctant to heed any advice from professionals, the result of all his labours is an incoherent mess but, undeterred, he sets about arranging a premiere…

It would be very easy to make a cruel comedy out of this but, though the film is often laugh-out-loud funny, Franco’s evident affection for Wiseau shines through in every frame. As the director has said in interviews, it takes as much commitment and ingenuity to make a bad film as it does to make a good one and it will be a hard-hearted individual indeed who won’t feel for Wiseau when his beloved project is greeted by hoots of derision from all who see it. Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau is uncannily accurate, as are most of the other performances here. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot some big names in cameo roles: Sharon Stone, Bob Odenkirk, Seth Rogan, Josh Hutcherson, J.J. Abrams. Oh yes, and there’s Bryan Cranston actually playing himself. Most telling of all is the extended sequence at the end of the film, where scenes from The Room are played alongside their equivalent from The Disaster Artist. They are virtually identical.

So, the million dollar question. Do you need to have seen the original movie in order to enjoy this homage? Well, it may not be an essential requirement, but it certainly helps me to fully appreciate the care and attention that has gone into this project. Mind you, with the new interest in The Room that the film seems certain to generate, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a general re-release is waiting in the wings, which I’ve no doubt will be a bonus for Mr Wiseau.

So, returning to my original question, in this case yes. The sow’s ear has become a silk purse – and this is definitely one of the most intriguing films of the year.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

10 Cloverfield Lane

Unknown-1Unknown

25/03/16

You have to hand it to J.J. Abrams. The original Cloverfield was arguably one of the best shakey-cam horror films ever, a creature feature that starred a giant alien, venting its wrath on New York (with particular reference to the Statue of Liberty). Interestingly, Abrams managed to sneak the film out under the radar, meaning that nobody had an inkling about its existence until the first trailers appeared in cinemas. With 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s somehow managed to repeat the trick, despite all the attention focused upon him because of a certain little Star Wars movie. So how does this film (produced by Abrams and directed by Dan Trachtenberg) relate to the first story? Well, interesting question…

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) falls out with her boyfriend, climbs into her car and drives off into the night. Then she’s involved in a sudden and quite shocking accident. When she wakes up, she’s being kept prisoner in the underground bunker of survivalist Howard (John Goodman) who tells her that there’s been an ‘attack’ above ground and that everybody up there is dead. She’s then introduced to Emmett (John Gallagher Jnr) a local guy with a broken arm, who has taken refuge with Howard and pretty much confirms his story. The three of them, it seems, could be stuck down there for years, but luckily Howard has laid in plenty of provisions… including a selection of jigsaw puzzles.

The film divides, more or less, into three distinct sections – the first third is a mystery (what really is going on above ground? Is Howard telling the truth or is he actually some kind of power-crazy nut job with a hidden agenda?) Part two slips effortlessly into psychological thriller territory, as Michelle  discovers some unpalatable truths about Howard and plans her escape. And part three… well, it would be criminal to give too much away, but suffice to say that the film, brilliantly scripted by John Campbell and Matthew Stuecken) expertly and repeatedly pulls the rug out from under you, until you barely know what to expect next. Despite its cross-genre nature, its a riveting ride from start to finish.

As good as the first film? Yes. It’s so different and yet, in its own way, it’s another absolute corker. Go see it and be prepared for surprises.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

21/12/15

Let’s start with something controversial. In my humble opinion, Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises of all time. Seriously. Let’s examine the evidence. There were two decent original movies, a third that was spoiled by the overly-cute warrior teddy bears, the Ewoks and then three watching-paint-dry prequels that committed the cardinal sin of being dour and earnest, when they should have soared. And yet the return of Star Wars has been greeted with an unprecedented weight of expectation, with whole multiplexes devoting every screen to J.J. Abrams’ take on the story. I mean, really?

If there was ever a safe pair of hands into which to place this much-loved series, they were his. (Look, for instance, how he dealt with the moribund Star Trek franchise, delivering a great big kick up the backside that jolted it into new life.) So I’m happy to report that Abrams has pretty much nailed it here too, salvaging all the best bits from the original movies and throwing in some cannily judged updates of his own. The keen-eyed will spot a few ‘Easter egg’ references to the original movies liberally sprinkled throughout the film. I should also add that Abrams comes up with a plot twist that will have hard-line fans gasping in their seats.

The events take place some thirty years or so after Return of the Jedi. Rey (newcomer, Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on a desert planet, eking out a precarious living from finding salvage from wrecked space ships. She encounters, Fin (John Boyega) a former storm trooper for the First Order, the new fascist dictators of the galaxy. Finn has become disillusioned by the cruelty of Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) and has done a runner, with his evil task masters in hot pursuit.

What follows is a series of chases, aerial dogfights and lightsabre battles but scriptwriters Abrams and old hand Lawrence Kasdan have cannily stitched everything together so that all the major characters are able to make an appearance without it feeling as though a crowbar has been used to jam them in to the proceedings – Han Solo, Princess Leia, C3PO, RTD2, Chewbaca… all the usual suspects are trotted out for inspection and it all works splendidly. Most importantly, Abrams has reinstated the humour that was prevalent in the first films and entirely absent from those po-faced prequels. Ridley, a kick-ass heroine from the new school manages to subvert a lot of the tropes that now make the originals feel vaguely misogynistic and Boyega and Oscar Isaac as fighter pilot Po Dameron, offer plenty of scope for the next instalment.

I might be in danger of damning the film with faint praise here but this just might be the best of the series so far.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney