“The Cloverfield Paradox”

“Paradox” is a well-suited pronoun for The Cloverfield Paradox, considering it doesn’t answer the questions it was supposed to.

Like in Lost in Space and Danny Boyle’s great Sunshine, Earth is suffering an energy crisis, prompting a space odyssey. Like in Sunshine, GravityMoon, and Life, the crew members are grieving, withdrawn, and headstrong. We have an astronaut who lost her kids (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a scientist who prefers being in space over Earth (Daniel Brühl), and a noble captain with a military background (David Oyelowo). There’s also the wisecracker (Chris O’Dowd), an astronaut who loses his mind (Aksel Hennie), and a caricature (the talented and underused Zhang Ziyi).

Like in Event Horizon, the crew travels into another dimension, then the crew turns on each other, the ship becomes possessed, and a giant monster attacks Earth. None of this is explained other than they went into an alternate dimension.

I admire the Cloverfield franchise because we don’t have many anthological film franchises and the previous entries were unique. Cloverfield combined the found footage and giant monster genres, resulting in a thrilling experience. 10 Cloverfield Lane established the film’s anthological style by acting as a psychological horror film set in the same universe (it’s the best of the trilogy). Paradox tries to establish a chronology to no avail.

SPOILERS OF PREVIOUS FILMS AHEAD!

Cloverfield was set in 2008 and revolves around a monster attack. 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t clear on when it’s set, but an alien invasion occurs. There were also small references in 10 Cloverfield Lane implying they’re in the same universe. Paradox has some small connections such as featuring a minor character from 10 Cloverfield Lane and featuring the Cloverfield monster.

However, if the film takes place in 2028, why is this monster attack happening without any reference to Cloverfield? This is due to a bad move on the studio’s part – turning a movie last minute in to the newest Cloverfield movie.

Paradox was originally titled God’s Particle and had no mention of Cloverfield until J.J. Abrams purchased the film and ordered rewrites and re-shoots to fit in the Cloverfield universe. Given that Paradox was already riddled with cliches and lazy writing, it wouldn’t have been any better, but it would have at least been more contained.

Because of the studio interference and setbacks, Paradox is overstuffed with too many ideas, conflicting tones, and cliched characters. I would have liked to know why a character’s severed arm came to life and how the ship became possessed rather than focus on a monster attack that was better executed in the first Cloverfield film.

In terms of film making, Paradox is amateur. It’s dimly lit with no color scheme, we have characters tell us what we’re seeing as it’s happening, and we even get a cheesy opening credits sequence that belongs in a 1990’s sci-fi channel show. Well, at least the cast tries.

I’m worried about genre films at this point; Netflix bought Paradox since Paramount had a packed schedule this year and studios are already selling films to Netflix for “similar reasons.” Do they really have packed schedules, or are they turning Netflix into the dumpster diver?

Grade: D- (only because the cast tries).

“Phantom Thread”

Goodbye, Daniel Day Lewis! I’ll miss you. Welcome back, Paul Thomas Anderson! I missed you.

Set in 1950’s London, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis) has a routined life. He eats breakfast quietly while sketching his ideas, he walks after work to recharge, and if just one thing is set off, his whole day is ruined. Reynolds’s life becomes complicated when he falls for a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who disrupts his routined life both unknowingly and knowingly.

I’m a huge fan of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood are two of my very favorite films, Magnolia is a misunderstood masterpiece, and I consider Punch-Drunk Love to be one of the best romantic comedies ever made. Anderson’s scientology epic The Master and noir comedy Inherent Vice were fine, but I was fairly underwhelmed during both. Anderson returns to his roots in Phantom Thread.

Like Anderson’s earlier work, Phantom Thread is a period film about dysfunctional relationships. Reynolds is an artist and prioritizes work over his love life. Alma doesn’t understand this at first, but later finds ways for Reynolds to show affection. In one fascinating scene involving a drunken customer ruining Reynold’s dress, Alma convinces an angry Reynolds to steal back the dress he designed, which balances passions for work and Alma. It’s one of many darkly funny character-driven moments.

Krieps brings a nice touch of darkness as Alma. What could have been another cliched underused love interest, is instead a clever, manipulative, and occasionally deadly femme fatale character. She loves Reynolds, but isn’t afraid to put him in his place. Krieps is every bit as good as her costar, Lewis.

In his final performance, Lewis is more subdued as Reynolds. He’s not yelling manically or talking in an overly masculine voice. He speaks quietly and relies more on facial expressions to convey emotion. Lewis captures the complexity of an obsessive artist. I understand his need for order while also understanding his need for solitude (even if he’s being a raging jerk about it). Anderson gives subtle visual queues to let us know when Reynolds loses control when he goes from well-groomed and sharp-dressed to having uncombed hair and a mismatched, wrinkled suit.

The final act of Phantom Thread is a brilliant piece of genre splicing. Though we’re watching a romantic period film, the final act contains moments of dark comedy and psychological horror, resulting in a haunting conclusion. It may drag in places, but Lewis and Krieps make the slow moments rewarding. Phantom Thread is a great return-to-form for Paul Thomas Anderson and a great send-off for Daniel Day Lewis.

Grade: A

“Insidious: The Last Key”

I’m back! After a nice break, let’s kick off the new year by talking about a January horror movie. We all know how great those are.

Set before the events of the first Insidious, paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) receives a call to investigate an entity that haunts her childhood home. Elise is hesitant, but takes the job to seek closure.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two Insidious films due to James Wan’s fantastic direction. I missed the third installment, but from watching The Last Key, I figured I wasn’t missing much there. The Last Key shows the franchise is on its last legs. isn’t the worst January horror movie, but it’s still not very good.

What made The Last Key’s predecessors memorable was their fresh spin. The first Insidious had refreshingly colorful demons, a lack of jump scares, a focus on childhood trauma, and one chilling conclusion that kept me wide awake. The Last Key succeeds in expanding on the franchise’s themes of trauma and even adds a realistic spin on possession. Unfortunately, it isn’t the same without Wan directing.

Gun-for-hire director Adam Robitel has an understanding of the franchise’s formula and tone, but he lacks vision. Instead of creating a dreadful atmosphere, we get the cliched rustic house with old toys and books lying around. Rather than building tension with editing, we get abrupt jump scares. Let’s not forget him settling for a long-haired, spider-crawling demon over something more original.

The worst sin Robitel commits though is overkilling the film with awkward humor. Elise’s assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell) return. I liked these characters in the previous films due to their witty banter; they spend a majority of their time in The Last Key creepily flirting with Elise’s oblivious nieces. I also found it strange that Elise rarely intervenes.

Writing and directing flaws aside, I slightly enjoyed The Last Key for Shaye’s performance as Elise. It was nice to see Shaye in a meaty role rather than be stooped to a exposition tool (my main issue with the first two films). Still, The Last Key is what I expect out of January: a quick studio cash grab.

Grade: C+

2017’s Best Films

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It’s time to talk about my favorite films of 2017! ItMother!, Wonder WomanSpider-Man: HomecomingSplitYour NameLogan LuckyThe Lost City of ZDetroitThor: RagnarokThe Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Wind River were all standouts, but these next ten films are my personal favorites of 2017.

10) The Shape of Water – Guillermo Del Toro’s latest fantasy film is as stunning and bizarre as his previous films, but more restrained. Del Toro focuses on an ensemble of outcasts played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer. The Shape of Water also excels as a romantic comedy and cold war thriller.

9) A Ghost Story – Arguably the artsiest film on my list, David Lowery’s self-financed supernatural drama is an unforgettable experience. A Ghost Story follows a ghost (Casey Affleck) trapped in an endless time cycle and we’re stuck with him. It’s a mesmerizing little film that explores time, loneliness, and love, bending our minds in the process.

8) Logan – We had a handful of great comic book films in 2017, but Logan is my  favorite! Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s final outing as Wolverine and Professor X is a glorious one. Jackman and Stewart both shine as broken versions of their beloved characters; newcomer Dafnee Keene also rips up the screen as young mutant, Lara. Fans of the Old Man Logan comic should be pleased since Logan has its dread, gore, and Apocalyptic Western aesthetics.

7) The Big Sick – The Big Sick is a gem. Kumail Nanjiani delivers a moving-yet-hilarious performance as a selfish comedian torn between culture and love in this insightful semi-biographical comedy. I’m picky with rom coms, but The Big Sick is the best one I’ve seen in the last five years.

6) The Disaster Artist – The versatile James Franco directs and stars in this chaotically funny Tommy Wiseau biopic. The Disaster Artist follows the troubled production of The Room, and doesn’t just poke fun at the film or the eccentric Wiseau. It also honors Wiseau’s passion, resulting in a surprisingly inspirational comedy.

5) Baby Driver – The summer’s best movie didn’t have superheroes, intelligent apes, or aliens. It had a likable getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who relies on his iPod to outrun the police in a series of thrilling car chases. Reminiscent of True RomanceHeatDriveThe Blues Brothers, Point Break, and La La Land, Edgar Wright’s explosive jukebox musical thriller is for fans of musicals and crime films alike.

4) Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig brings new life to the coming-of-age genre with the emotional roller coaster, Lady Bird. This is a film that balances humor, warmth, and sadness by focusing on a teenaged Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) complex relationship with her hardened mother (Laurie Metcalf). Ronan and Metcalf are the frontrunner contenders for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress due to their powerful work.

3) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Leave it to Martin McDonagh to craft an unconventional revenge film that doesn’t have revenge in it. This is a scathingly funny character study of broken people seeking both redemption and retribution. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell deliver the best performances of their respective careers as an angry, grieving mother and a redeemable sociopathic cop. Don’t miss Three Billboards!

2) Blade Runner: 2049 – The masterful Denis Villeneuve carries on Ridley Scott’s legacy in this mesmerizing sequel. 2049 continues Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) storyline, leads to some brilliant twists, and introduces us to Ryan Gosling’s mysterious protagonist, K. It’s a mind-bender that makes us question our perception of reality, and it’s packed with amazing visuals (courtesy of Roger Deakins).

1) Get Out – What? Because Get Out has an A, it can’t be #1 over the A+’s? Grades are arbitrary and Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is the best film of 2017. It’s a bloody, creepy, and darkly funny commentary on racial politics. Every time I rewatch Get Out, it gets better because I notice more easter eggs and certain details. Watch it once for the entertainment value; watch it a second and third time to catch all of the subtleties. Either way, you know a movie is number one due to its rewatch value.

This was a terrific year for film and I can’t wait what next year has in store. What were some of your favorite films?

2017’s Watchable Flops

I figured I’d write a fun countdown leading up to my best films. These are films that either underperformed at the box office or panned by critics, but films I still thoroughly enjoyed. Here are my top five watchable flops!

5) Justice League – I expected Justice League to flop given the DCEU’s track record. Thanks to Joss Whedon stepping in (though under unfortunate circumstances), Justice League was a fun adventure movie instead of more destruction porn. Also, kudos to Whedon for finally getting Superman right!

4) Colossal – This quirky indie film was sadly overlooked last April. Colossal is part dark comedy and part giant monster movie, focusing on two self-destructive characters (played wonderfully by Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis). That’s all I’ll say without spoiling Colossal.

3) Power Rangers – As a 90’s kid, I had some serious excitement for the new take on Power Rangers. I was pleasantly surprised with the movie’s craftsmanship, the ensemble performances, and the film taking on social issues without pulling too hard on my heart strings. Power Rangers is a lighthearted superhero movie that never takes itself too seriously.

2) Alien: Covenant – I get why some fans loved Alien: Covenant (it was arguably the best Alien film in 30 years) and I get why some fans hated it (what was the tone?). I enjoyed Alien: Covenant specifically because it explored the androids’ mythology, depicting them as gods to the xenomorphs. Perhaps people wouldn’t have been disappointed if the film were titled Android?

1) Logan Lucky – Steven Soderbergh’s directorial return is a blast. Think of Logan Lucky as a satirical version of Ocean’s 11, but in the South. It’s a shame Logan Lucky flopped since it’s one of the funniest heist films and features a great comedic performance from Daniel Craig.

What were your favorite underrated movies of 2017?

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

I saw a funny tweet earlier where mentions fans hated The Force Awakens for being “too safe.” The tweet also mentions how fans hate The Last Jedi for “taking too many risks.” Can we just all stop being angry fanboys and agree that The Last Jedi is fun?

Without spoiling anything, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to The Force Awakens takes place right after the first one ended. We focus on four storylines:

  1. Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains under the guidance of Luke Sywalker (Mark Hamill), but questions his guidance.
  2.  Finn (John Boyega) meets a Resistance member Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and they embark on an adventure to stop the First Order from defeating the Rebel Alliance.
  3. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) rebels against the Resistance leaders while trying to outrun the First Order in a never ending chase.
  4. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) questions his destiny and must choose his destiny.

The Last Jedi has a lot going on within 150 minutes. I admire that auteur Johnson expands on the Jedi and Force mythologies; The Last Jedi excels when it focuses on Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren. Part from that, I found The Last Jedi fairly disappointing. I attribute the disappointments to the film’s running time, which should have been 120 minutes.

Starting with the pros, the opening act is a mini Poe Dameron adventure reminiscent of the prologue of The Force Awakens. Isaac once again delivers a charismatic performance and has much more to do in The Last Jedi. Laura Dern plays a seemingly antagonistic admiral to Poe. When they meet, it’s built as a predictable Top Gun narrative, but I was left surprised. Poe’s story brought a lot of humor and heart to The Last Jedi. We’re also treated to the late Carrie Fisher’s final outing as Leia, who now acts as a mentor to Poe.

Johnson also turns Kylo Ren into a more complex character filled with anger, contradictions, and guilt. We see him go from mercilessly attacking the Rebel Alliance to briefly regretting his actions. Kylo Ren’s arc is unpredictable throughout the film and easily the strongest character arc. Driver’s portrayal of Kylo Ren here is a huge improvement over The Force Awakens.

Rey and Luke’s segment together is the film’s highlight due to Johnson’s fresh take. Hamill delivers a multi-layered performance as Luke; Luke is no longer a whiny kid, but a burned out Jedi in his prime. Ridley is just as good in this segment as she goes from idealistic to disillusioned. Also, we get to see the cute little Porgs here.

Now for the cons, I hated Finn’s segment. There, I said it. I’m in the minority and liked Finn in The Force Awakens, but his adventure with Rose is pointless. It serves no purpose to the film and neither does Benicio Del Toro’s eccentric thief character they encounter. This segment is an excuse to see another part of the galaxy and serves no purpose to Finn’s arc. It also causes several pacing and tone issues when we transition from this segment to the others.

When the segments tie together in the final 45 minutes, The Last Jedi is sensational. Johnson choreographs some innovative and brutal lightsaber sequences, gives us some stunning visuals, and writes some emotionally satisfying moments that made the final scenes unforgettable. I’m already looking forward to the next film because of The Last Jedi’s ending alone.

The Last Jedi is arguably the most polarizing Star Wars film of the franchise, but I still admire it for its risks. It’s downfall are Johnson’s overlong script and lack of restraint on callbacks. Maybe he’ll learn from his mistakes when his trilogy is released.

Grade: B

 

 

“The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water

Who can make a movie that has the kinkiest sex scene, the creepiest sex scene, and one darkly funny cat death? I’d say Guillermo Del Toro since The Shape of Water has all of those scenes.

Mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a military facility where an amphibian creature called The Asset (Del Toro veteran Doug Jones) is imprisoned. The lonely Elisa sees something special in The Asset as she shares eggs and music with him. Elisa’s closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and neurotic coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are concerned for her, but agree to help her free The Asset after sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) vows to kill it.

The Shape of Water is the closest Del Toro will get to making either a romantic comedy or Beauty and the Beast. This is an R-rated Disney movie; Elisa and The Asset are the Princess and Prince Charming while Zelda and Giles are Elisa’s comic relief sidekicks. In addition to the obvious homages to Disney films and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Del Toro explores ostracism and loneliness.

The film takes place during the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement; Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are all outcasts. Elisa is often taken advantage of for being mute, Zelda’s discriminated against for her race, and Giles often finds harsh rejection instead of love. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins are all wonderful in their performances and portray characters in pain. Hawkins in particular is a strong Best Actress candidate as the expressive Elisa.

As Elisa, Hawkins is committed in portraying a lonely, caring, and devilishly clever hero. We feel bad for Elisa when she makes a tough decision with The Asset, but we also root for her when she taunts Strickland through her sign language.

Shannon owns every scene as Strickland. Del Toro has a knack for writing memorable villains and Strickland is my new favorite of his. Unlike the film’s heroes, Strickland has it all. He’s a respected authority figure, has a beautiful wife, an active sex life, loving kids, a big house, and a teal Cadillac. Yet Strickland’s strive for perfection, acceptance, and decaying hand make him increasingly unhinged.

MILD SPOILERS ABOUT STRICKLAND

There’s a great visual motif with Strickland that emphasizes his growing insanity. After The Asset bites off two of his fingers, he gets them reattached, but we see them turn black and more infected as the film progresses. We also see him grow increasingly unattached and uncontrolled as the hand rots. It’s a gross visual motif, but a brilliant one.

I have to praise Del Toro for restraining himself and exploring psychologically complex characters. This is Del Toro’s most character-driven film to date. Yes, the film has some gore and a couple of bizarre sex scenes, but unlike other films, the sex serves a purpose. Elisa and The Asset’s sex scenes are intimate and highlight their love for each other while Strickland’s disturbing sex scene subtly depicts his lust for Elisa.

Though the film is set during the Cold War, I wasn’t too invested in Michael Stuhlbarg’s soviet spy character. Every time he appears on screen, The Shape of Water derives from its dark fairytale roots and turns into a spy movie, losing some focus and tone.

Still, The Shape of Water is a visual treat and delightful to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a huge competitor for all visual categories in the awards season.

Grade: A-