The Cloverfield Paradox

Release: Sunday, February 4, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Oren Uziel

Directed by: Julius Onah

The Cloverfield Paradox, a surprise addition to the Cloverfield collection which debuted on the heels of Super Bowl LII, is itself an experiential paradox. How did I just sacrifice an hour and forty-five minutes of my time and yet feel like I watched nothing at all? I certainly didn’t just watch a Cloverfield movie. Yet they’re telling me I did.

This third chapter revolves around a group of earthlings orbiting our planet in the space station Cloverfield. The year is 2028. For two years, while basking in the ultimate bird’s eye view of home, the crew, a united front of international experts, have been unsuccessful in using a particle accelerator to stem the tide of a global energy crisis. Of course, operating such a scary and complicated device carries with it all sorts of disastrous consequences. Like, you could rip apart the fabric of space time and inadvertently introduce xenomorphs into our reality. Or worse, Jar Jar Binks from a galaxy even further away.

After what seems to be a major breakthrough the crew find themselves not celebrating by dousing themselves in the champagne of the heavens, but instead wildly off-course, distanced from Earth and in ways that are kinda-sorta hard to explain. With a lack of signposts pointing them down the right galactic avenue and with bizarre occurrences on board the ship becoming more frequent, how will our fearless heroes ever make it back home? And if they do, to what degree will their space madness and the anarchy down below have advanced?

The Cloverfield Paradox is populated by quality actors who play their parts well enough. But the script has no idea what to do with any of them so it just caps off their trajectories with a fancy, thoughtful death to make them seem unique. It’s good to see that Chris O’Dowd‘s sense of humor is not lost in space, and he also wins the Most Interesting Character Award by way of possessing one of the most interesting arms arcs. Someone loses their mind then has worms explode out of their body Alien-style, only to have their corpse violated post-mortem. There are other bizarro occurrences, but I’m compiling a Best Of list here and those (A) don’t make the cut and (B) are more spoiler-rich.

Not that I would necessarily feel evil for divulging more secrets. After all, it is amazing how much damage a film title can do. At least one writer has interpreted Oren Uziel’s Event Horizon-esque plot as an origins story. After double-checking, the internet seems to be in this writer’s corner. If this is true, if Paradox is intended to lay the groundwork for the past (Cloverfield (2008) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)), it manifests as one of the weakest, most poop-throwingly dumb origins stories I have ever seen. I’m left wondering whether there would have been fewer issues had the film retained its working title God Particle. Bye-bye, burden of expectation. What we would be left with is just another generic tale of how highly qualified astronauts lose their cool at all the wrong moments yet make just enough right calls to SURVIVE SPACE!!

Recommendation: A generic sci-fi thriller set in space masquerading under the banner of a Cloverfield sequel/prequel. The one advantage of this particular release is you won’t have to travel far for the disappointment. +10 Bonus Points for convenience, but then deduct 100 for the bait-and-switch. This isn’t Cloverfield; this is a much less violent, less Sam Neill-eye-gouging Event Horizon

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Logic doesn’t apply to any of this.”

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Free State of Jones

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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Concussion

Concussion movie poster

Release: Christmas Day 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman

Directed by: Peter Landesman

Concussion is the kind of movie one watches because they want to get that warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing the big bad corporation that is the NFL taken down a peg or two. They watch it and are glad to see they’re not the only ones who think poorly of a league commissioner that officially — wait for it — owns a day of the week.

The bluntness of the title tells you everything you need to know about the story. This is the movie — well the first one, anyway — that strikes the one nerve no other football (or really any sports) drama has before. It focuses on Nigerian pathologist Dr. Benet Omalu (Will Smith), who discovers a link between severe head trauma and the physical violence of professional football.

His initial fear is confirmed by a series of deaths of former football ‘legends’  — the mourning of the passing of Junior Seau is thinly veiled — which inspires him to bring his findings to the attention of the league, much to the dismay of colleagues, including his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), and the league itself, who’s not so much worried about the findings as it is about their stash of cover-ups being discovered.

Of course the league knows about the aftermath; of course they know about the concussions. They won’t know to call the epidemic something fancy like chronic traumatic encephalopathy but big businessmen like these aren’t that oblivious. They’re just really good at not talking about an issue. The confluence of power and controversy (and secret-keeping) is Roger Goodell, who, wanting to put these recent blows to his public image behind him, probably became ecstatic when an actor who looks exactly nothing like him was hired to play the part.

It’s not all Luke Wilson’s fault, though. Concussion isn’t a sensational movie; contrivances and a few shaky performances abound, but it is really timely and its convictions are strong enough to be taken seriously. Will Smith’s certainly are. He might be at a career best here, gracefully becoming rather than mimicking a personality that now will become quite famous. Smith’s typically easygoing nature has been retooled with stern coldness, a commitment to solemnity not seen since Seven Pounds.

But back to Wilson’s Goodell for a second. For a character that gets all of 5 – 10 seconds of screen time, this might seem like a lot of wasted effort but he’s actually a major concern of mine. In a film that takes place often behind closed doors, Goodell’s still the one most distanced from the controversy. We never get inside his own personal office. Wilson’s appearance in mock video footage is more obligatory than compelling, yet the brevity of that appearance — not once in the same physical space Omalu occupies — lends Goodell this mysterious aura. That’s a reality check for you: even in a film purportedly confronting the cold hard truth, Goodell remains unscathed.

The NFL as a whole remains relatively out of reach for the duration of the picture as a matter of fact. Concussion builds momentum mostly through Omalu’s several investigations that he eventually publishes with the help of Pittsburgh Steeler team doctor Julian Bales (Alec Baldwin) in a medical journal. Those findings eventually bring the heat down upon Omalu and Bales — even Wecht — the league threatening through phone calls and police investigations their very careers. But the league offices are rarely a factor here. Instead it’s the strength of Smith’s performance that gets us to really care.

Just as it may be the case for the commissioner, I think the job of supporting a story of this magnitude shouldn’t have to fall to one person. Alas, here we are.

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Recommendation: Emotional story rooted in facts, Concussion offers fans of Will Smith another enjoyable outing yet the framework around him is all too familiar and forgettable. Not expecting to hear about too many outrages caused by this film, as everything we learn in this film is stuff we have already read about over the years: the NFL is a broken, money-sucking machine. What else is new?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “When I was a boy, Heaven was here. And America, was right here. You could be anything, you could do anything. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American.”

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Jupiter Ascending

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Release: Friday, February 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  The Wachowskis

Directed by: The Wachowskis

As Jupiter ascended, my patience and enthusiasm did precisely the opposite, and at warp speed, too.

After production delays stalled the Wachowski siblings’ follow-up to their impressive Cloud Atlas, I still held out hope that even with extensive CGI surgery the general experience would remain unaffected. I guess I was right. The story we’re presented — a girl, born under a starry night sky, doesn’t believe she’s worth much but as it turns out she is actually on a collision course with an unearthly huge responsibility: saving her/our planet from being harvested by a campy celestial tyrant — remains as a decent second-draft that needed more updates than the visual component of the film did. All of this is to suggest I overlooked the fact that maybe, just maybe, the Wachowskis had been sitting on their weakest story to date.

Sure, you can go ahead and snicker at a polished Channing Tatum whose Caine Wise humbles his Magic Mike on the virtue of insane hair-do’s alone. His goofy appearance makes the film ripe for parody, as do the talking reptilian villains, Eddie Redmayne’s awful performance and Mila Kunis’ lack of credibility as a planetary savior. Part of what makes a Wachowski creation entertaining as well as endearing is this tendency for their situations and characters to stay on just the right side of bizarre. Odd customs and cultures, strange dialects, occasionally clunky dialogue and over-the-top action sequences trickle their way into each one of their productions. It’s as much fun to go along with the ride as it is to nitpick over their ongoing infatuation with Asians and creative nomenclature. Jupiter Ascending, however, oversteps a line.

Jupiter Jones loses her parents much too soon, and so she’s raised in a strange and somewhat oppressive Russian household that has her waking up at quarter to five each morning to scrub toilets and bemoaning how much she “hates her life.” I think I would too with a name that may or may not imply I am a gigantic blob of gas. It’s a good thing she’ll soon be targeted by a powerful intergalactic family that has just lost its matriarch and needs a new heir. The surviving Abrasax siblings — Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) — are squabbling over who should seize control of their estate, a sector of the universe that includes Earth. Tatum’s genetically-modified human/wolf appears in Chicago to rescue Jupiter from a random attack by some of Balem’s minions (the Keepers) once the freckled maniac learns of her existence and her true identity. The girl of course has no idea what is going on.

Funny enough, neither do we.

Her naivety swells to the point where it becomes the driving force behind the narrative. This is a little misleading because at the heart of this space opera is the need for Jupiter to find her true calling in life, and to her that means finding the one person she really loves. That’s something that overrides her desire to own the Earth. If you’re not distracted by the incredibly cool renderings of space and its myriad civilizations — toss in an intergalactic police force referred to as the Aegis for further confusion — then you might have the unfortunate luck of coming to the realization that this is all the Wachowskis have to offer here. Jupiter Ascending is a standard love story mired in overly complex mythos, poor acting and silly storytelling.

Damn it if the ideology of these Abrasax weirdos doesn’t tease something greater though. There’s this almost poetic fascination with the largest celestial body in our solar system and how a superior form of intelligence may someday be the downfall of our civilization. Jupiter, the planet, is really a thing of beauty and the film can’t emphasize this enough. The visuals are jaw-dropping, even if they’re mostly dedicated to action sequences that go on a few minutes too long. But even on Earth, as Jupiter is shrouded in a cloud of bees that refuse to sting Her Majesty, the cinematography is beautifully refined.

I’d be okay with the story taking a backseat to impressive scenery had the Wachowskis not already established themselves as filmmakers who pride themselves on being able to present the complete package: stunning visuals accompanying intelligent, if not revolutionary storytelling. Everyone in awe of Jupiter and her ascent can only feel completely betrayed by this declension.

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1-5Recommendation: I’m not really sure that I do. I think I feel more comfortable recommending you save a few bucks and going to check out something else.

Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “I will harvest that planet tomorrow before I let her take it from me. . .”

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Belle

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Release: Friday, May 2, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Period dramas are like unicorns when it comes to this blog. In fact, I believe them to be such a rarity that this is the very first time one dared rear its head here. But it only seems fair. After all, I did make a promise to switch things up a little, didn’t I?

Consider this the coming-out party for relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, herself a daughter of a mixed-race couple — her mother, a Caucasian nurse and father, a black South African doctor, separated a year after giving birth. While this is a role which does not quite unearth Oscar-caliber talent just yet, it would be wise to keep an eye out for this native Oxford, England star in the coming years.

At the center of this lavishly decorated period piece is the beautiful and remarkably mature Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) and a black slave, whose arrival on the front steps of the Kenwood House signifies not only a massive turning of the tide for her adoptive aristocratic family but a challenge to the status quo. Set on the precipice of a major (positive) development in the European slave trade circa the 1780s, Amma Asante’s second feature film observes a society fully immersed in ignorance and paralyzed by fear. Everything from the rich tapestry of colors to the exquisite decorations and costume design to the nearly-flawless dialectical affectations transports the audience back in time, no questions asked.

Pleasant surprises are all well and good, but I will admit that I’m slightly panicky right now, because the thought of me actually enjoying a period drama to the level that I just have means that I’m now susceptible to exploring other creations in this vein. Who knows, maybe I’ll even cave and start watching modern television phenomenon Downton Abbey. These are just. . . scary thoughts. I will rue the day I start watching my entertainment with a fancy wig upon my head or a teacup at my side at all times. (Maybe. . . just maybe, I’ll do those things simply for kicks.)

Yes, this is me admitting in no uncertain terms I am not the target audience for a movie such as this.

And yet, Belle’s struggle captivated. Her evolution from outsider-looking-in to active participant in her father’s (read: England’s) politics of the day is well-handled, inspirational, even if the PG rating does on more than one occasion feel like a restriction. Her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (a predictably excellent Tom Wilkinson) holds the position of Lord Chief Justice of England, considered essentially second in power only to the King himself. As such, Lord Mansfield has certain decisions to make.

His most pressing concern involves a ship en route back to England from the Caribbean, whose crew is reported to have disposed of its slave ‘cargo’ because they were diseased and the remaining members on the ship were perilously close to running out of clean drinking water. A legal loophole would theoretically allow the tradesmen to claim insurance on the loss of items forfeited, but given new evidence — which here is dramatized as the collaborative effort of Dido and would-be husband, John Davinier (Sam Reid), a passionate young lawyer deemed too low for Dido’s standards by “papa” — Lord Mansfield rules in favor of the insurers in a landmark decision that effectively puts an end to the British slave trading.

Punctuated by the odd moment or two of confrontation, Belle manages to keep things personal yet maintain a distance so as to indeed encompass a broader audience. One is left wondering after awhile if the harsh, unflinching lacerations of Steve McQueen’s camerawork and brutally realistic overtones are more effective at conveying the depths of despair individuals felt at this time.

Though McQueen’s film made the lawlessness of institutionalized slavery crystal clear to viewers brave enough to endure his work, Asante’s approach lulls one into a false sense of security by portraying the opposite end of the spectrum — the elite and privileged — and while its not as viscerally disturbing, the moral corruption is no less painful. Lingering expressions of confusion and hopelessness worn on Mbatha-Raw’s face often do enough so that comparisons to more brutal films aren’t necessarily unwarranted but merely inevitable. There lurks an air of danger and desperation perpetual, and though we’re not quite satisfied with how quickly we manage to outrun it, we do feel a modicum of escapism and inspiration come this time.

Based on a true story, Belle is propelled by a solid cast registering compelling performances on all sorts of levels — relatively low-profile Brits James Norton and Tom Felton are gleefully vile as the profusely snobbish Ashford brothers, the respective would-be suitors for Belle and her stepsister, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) if society is going to have its way with them, and Emily Watson offers firm support as Lady Mansfield, the first to offer Dido a place in her home. While proceedings don’t particularly scream renovation of the costume drama get-up, it at least adds sufficient evidence of why these films offer great escapism as well as an education.

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3-5Recommendation: If smitten by the rich detail of period drama, I can see no reason you would not want to check out the exquisite surface beauty of Belle. Beyond that there is a lot of material to sink teeth into, but the fact remains this sort of story is beginning to show its age. There is virtually no event that doesn’t come with a heaping helping of foreshadowing and predictability. That said, that’s not enough of a reason to not recommend this well-acted piece of British history.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “My greatest misfortune, would be to marry into a family that would carry me as their shame.”

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