Movie Review – “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016)

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Like with “Zootopia,” this is one film I had no interest in seeing until I saw the rating on Rotten Tomatoes. At the moment, “10 Cloverfield Lane” totes a 90% and is advertised as a sequel to the hit-monster movie “Cloverfield.”

Over the years, my feelings on Matt Reeves’ found footage attack on New York have drastically altered. Initially, I fell in love with the special effects work on “Cloverfield” and thought that there had never been so much detail on a giant monster attacking a city. But over time, better monster films came out and we got to see vibrant and massive monster attacks in films like “Pacific Rim” and 2014’s “Godzilla.” Not to mention, the shaky cam in “Cloverfield” was unbearable and the characters were less than stellar, making me root more for the city destroying behemoth.

But there was always a hint of mystery and confusion hidden behind the advertisements of “Cloverfield” and this new film is no exception. This made me intrigued about how the two films would connect, or if they would have anything in common. Combine this with the excellent reviews, and I felt like “10 Cloverfield Lane” was a movie worth checking out.

Following an argument with her boyfriend, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has decided to run away. While driving along a dark country road, she is in a car accident and is forced off the road. Mary wakes up with a broken leg and is confused by being chained to the wall. She finds out that her captor, Howard (John Goodman), has taken her inside his underground bunker against her will and repeated tells Mary that she should be thankful that he saved her life. Howard refuses to let Mary leave, saying that there is no world left to return to.

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While this film may have been advertised as a successor to “Cloverfield,” these two movies fall into vastly different genres. “Cloverfield” was an amalgamation of found footage and monster movies, while this is certainly a thriller, with no found footage in sight (Thank heavens for that). The only thing these two films share is a constant sense of paranoia and uncertainty, and similar speculations about what is attacking the human race.

But “10 Cloverfield Lane” was something that puts it ahead of its predecessor – John Goodman.

“Cloverfield” was so forgettable because of sub-par acting that felt like a slasher horror film and not a constant struggle for survival at the hands of a giant monster. But “10 Cloverfield Lane” immediately steps it up with John Goodman in a role that sees him dominating every scene he’s in, as a man who has lost everything to his rampant paranoia about the coming apocalypse. Howard wants to help people, especially his loved ones, but has seen far too many terrible things during his time with Navy to fully trust people.

Goodman plays the role as a man detached from society, only focused on surviving. He seems to have extensive knowledge of “the enemy” even though he’s never met them and although he saved Michelle’s life, he has no problem harshly disciplining her if she steps out of line or goes against the rules of his bunker. Part of me thought that Howard could have been an alien in disguise, as Howard’s strange emotions and lack of basic compassion for others was more than a little odd.

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This is a role unlike anything John Goodman has played before, but plays to his strengths. Goodman is excellent at switching from content and kindness to unbridled anger and make it seem like the most natural thing in the world. Any Coen Brothers film he’s been in will show that. But now we see John Goodman play an unhinged man who isn’t afraid to break out a barrel of acid to keep his “captives” in check, and then offer them dinner. Or perhaps he isn’t a man at all.

Outside of Goodman’s performance, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is satisfactory. Nothing stands out, but there isn’t anything the film did wrong either. It plays out like the captive thriller that you would expect, with the captor being the best part, and the overwhelming sense of confinement and paranoia driving most of the film. Michelle and the other member of their little dysfunctional family, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), are crafty and intelligent enough that their struggle to find out what’s going on and break free is intriguing and never gets dull or predictable.

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Near the end of the film, we do get our connection to “Cloverfield,” especially if you looked into any of the theories surrounding the monster attack on New York. That was to be expected though, and does not come as a surprise to me.

Overall, John Goodman is the reason worth seeing “10 Cloverfield Lane.” His performance takes an already good thriller and turns into a fascinating one, where you’re never too sure what is going to set him off. If you’re a fan of John Goodman’s acting or you’re curious about what happened in “Cloverfield,” give this one a watch. If you don’t like claustrophobic movies or thrillers about the end of the world, don’t bother with this.

Final Grade: B-

 

Mini-Review – “An American In Paris” (1951)

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Gene Kelly was a creep in this film.

Maybe it is because “An American In Paris” was made at a different time, or perhaps the people of Paris feel differently than Americans, but Gene Kelly was constantly getting in people’s business and sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Gene wasn’t afraid to make room for himself at a breakfast for two, interject with his own rendition of a musical number he wasn’t invited to, barge into his neighbor’s room without knocking or asking if he could come in, steal a girl away from her dinner party so he could dance with her, and then repeated call her at work to ask her out for dinner even after she said no.

Because of this, it is difficult to call Gene Kelly’s character “charismatic” and “charming.” He is more so abrasive and entitled, like he owns Paris and is friends with everybody in town.

That being said, there are some good musical numbers in “An American In Paris,” especially when Gene gets the children of his neighborhood to join him in a rendition of “I Got Rhythm.” Gene switches between English and French throughout the song and the children laugh at his many impressions throughout the song, like a train and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.

“An American In Paris” is based on of the orchestral pieces of George Gershwin, but the real star behind-the-scenes was Gene Kelly, who not only starred, but directed certain scenes and did the choreography for this Best Picture-winning production as well.

While I would say that “Singin’ In The Rain” outclasses this film in almost every regard, “An American In Paris” is still worth checking out for the classic Gene Kelly style that is intoxicating and irresistible. Whenever he is dancing in this film, it is impossible to take my eyes off the screen. And to think that all the dancing was choreographed by him makes this far more respectable.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Zootopia” (2016)

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It is a good thing I typically write my reviews a few days after initially watching these films. The reason I do this is to make sure that my initial feelings are not inaccurate and that I consider every angle of the movie before writing anything concrete down, just in case I say anything I did not fully consider. This allows me time to think about what the film meant to say and how it went about saying that message, which is crucial to this movie, “Zootopia.”

When I went in to “Zootopia,” I immediately challenged the film to impress me. This is a film that continues to hold a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, higher than my favorite film from last year, “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Had it not been for that insanely high rating, I would have no interest in seeing this film, especially after the painful trailers I had to sit through for this film with sloths in charge of the DMV.

That joke was funny the first time, and is painful every time afterwards. We get it Disney, you don’t think very highly of the employees at the DMV. When you make that the focus of your trailer, it gives me pause when thinking about attending your film. But hey, 99%. So it had to do something right.

Walking out of “Zootopia,” I wasn’t sure how I felt about the film. There were certainly many fanciful elements that could be enjoyed by children and adults, especially the intriguing mystery and the relationship between the two leading characters, as well as the colorful world of Zootopia that covers four different habitats for animals of vastly different locations to mingle.

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But then I considered “Zootopia”‘s message to the audience and the way it went about portraying it. At one point in the film, there is a point where the main character seems to look straight at the audience and discuss police brutality, that police are here to serve and protect and not cause more problems. As if the film is trying to talk directly to the city of Ferguson.

I understand that police brutality is a hot topic now and don’t intend to interject my feelings on the subject. My opinion is not nearly qualified or informed enough for that. My issue is bringing up this deep and hated discussion in a Disney animated film. A movie that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children are seeing and have to be told by their parents that this rabbit is talking about police brutality.

Then I let some time pass.

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I reevaluated “Zootopia” and remembered a key scene late in the film, when our lead characters, Zootopia police officer Judy Hopps, a rabbit (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), and con man Nick Wilde, a fox (voiced by Jason Bateman), discuss something that had been bugging Nick for a long time – that Judy was always carrying a can of “Fox Spray” with her, even after befriending Nick. Nick questions why Judy would do this, unless she was afraid of the natural order of this world, where the predators are always looking for an excuse to attack the prey.

Nick pretends to attack Judy, who is ready with that can of spray. This scene convinced me of what “Zootopia”‘s true message is about – fear.

Every character in this film feared one thing or another. Judy feared the natural order and put up a pleasant front in the face of insurmountable odds. Nick feared showing his emotions in front of others, and saw them as a sign of weakness. But what “Zootopia” demonstrated more than anything else was that fear is not a weakness. It allows us to see the dangers of the world and guides us to showing a brighter future, one where others would not share those same fears. And that future begins with facing those fears and telling the world that you’re not going to let those stop you from being a better person.

For a Disney animated film, that is a surprisingly deep message and a great one to teach children. In fact, it is a message that I’m sure some adults were happy to hear as well.

This made me realize that, while I did not care for the pretentious way Judy talked about police protecting the people, the overall message of overcoming your fears, no matter how big they may be, makes “Zootopia” a movie worth seeing.

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This is helped by the lead characters being so utterly adorable and likable. From the moment we’re introduced to Judy at eight years old, all she wants is to be a cop in Zootopia, even after her parents tell her there’s never been a bunny cop and that she should be willing to settle. This only causes her to try even harder, to the point she graduates at the top of her class and knocks out a rhino in a boxing match by making him punch himself.

Nick, however, is a scoundrel of the highest order. He plays everyone for a sucker and claims that he’s been making hundreds of dollars on the streets every day since he was twelve, hustling the animals of “Zootopia” with popsicle, skunk-skin rugs and anything else he can scrounge up.

These two make “Zootopia” worth watching, especially as the two learn from one another and we see Judy enjoy herself as she hustles fellow animals to help with her ongoing case of finding a missing animal in heart of Zootopia.

If I did have one other complaint with “Zootopia” it is that there are some scenes that are imaginative, and others that clearly lack it. The idea of a world where humans don’t exist but animals have evolved to the point where they have a human-like society is creative, but there is so much more that could have been done than what was given.

For example, we never see an aquatic life in this film. There are all sorts of land animals, with the city of Zootopia being split up into several different regions, include a frozen tundra landscape, a dessert and a tropical rainforest. But where do the sharks and whales live? Do they even exist? Have they evolved to the same point as other animals? How come there are next to no flying animals in the police force? You’d think the ability to fly and analyze the environment, especially for a bird like an eagle, would come in handy many times for the police department.

This might seem like a nitpick, but this does impact the feel of the film. The way which certain words are used hurts “Zootopia” in a way. In particular, the use of words like “anybody” or “someone.” It may be hard to grasp, but those are words used to describe humans. In a world where humans don’t exist, those words wouldn’t exist either. They would be replaced with words like “any animal” or “some animal.”

While there are some imaginative ideas in the world of Zootopia, I think it was difficult for the writers to grasp that this is not a human-created world. The animals don’t do very many animal-like things, aside from the occasional snarl, growl or joke about how rabbits love to breed. This story could have been told with humans and would have turned out just fine. “Zootopia” sits in that weird area where there was clearly some thought put into how this world works and is separate from our own, but not enough thought in other areas.

Overall, while my initial thoughts on “Zootopia” were less than glowing, I’ve come to appreciate the film was a funny and colorful ride that both adults and children can enjoy that has a timeless message about overcoming your fears. It may not be the most imaginative animated film in recent memory, but there is enough to keep the concept of an animal-led world intriguing and makes the mystery of the missing animals worth watching. Just be glad there is only one scene with the sloths at the DMV.

Final Grade: B+

 

Mini-Review – “The Great Escape” (1963)

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All you need to do is play that iconic theme by Elmer Bernstein, and show Steve McQueen on a motorcycle outrunning and out thinking Nazis, and you have an instant classic on your hands.

Throw in an all-star cast, including Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance and James Garner, as well as a tight screenplay that keeps up the tension throughout the nearly three-hour run time, and “The Great Escape” becomes a film that I would not mind checking again in the future.

If you haven’t seen this one, check it and be amazed by the struggle to survive. If you’ve already seen “The Great Escape,” watch it again because this prison escape against Nazis is full of charm, respect and wit.

Final Grade: A

 

“The Caine Mutiny” (1954)

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The only reason this movie is worth watching anymore is to watch the ship’s captain (played by Humphrey Bogart) be destroyed by his own rampant paranoia and blaming it on his subordinates. Other than that, “The Caine Mutiny” is a by-the-numbers Navy drama.

Cadet Keith (Robert Francis) is disappointed when he is assigned to the Caine, a beat-up piece of junk that is only held together by rust and the spunk of its crew, who all love their captain William H. DeVriess (Tom Tully). But when Captain DeVriess is reassigned, the crew is devastated to find that their new captain, Phillip Queeg (Bogart), is a by-the-books and strict dictator over everything on the ship, even getting upset at everyone around him if one sailor’s shirt isn’t tucked into his pants.

But he only gets worse from there.

At first, Queeg’s decisions seem minor, like a tow-line being snapped by the rutters while he was yelling at his fellow officers. Eventually, this leads to Queeg interrupting a movie the crew was enjoying, and turning the ship inside out looking for a key to the refrigerator, after a pound of strawberries went missing.

Queeg does not seem to care whether his men live or die, so long as he runs a tight ship and makes a good example to the Navy. But he also feels that his own men are undermining him, trying to make him look bad as they laugh about him behind his back, even giving him the nickname “Old Yellow Stain.”

All this comes to a boil when the Caine gets caught in a storm and Queeg ramps up his paranoia even further. Bogart’s eye dart from side to side, as if he’s looking for people snickering at him, and seems more invested in his pride than the safety of his crew.

Outside of the scenes with Captain Queeg though, there is not much to “The Caine Mutiny.” There is a standard romance involving Cadet Keith and his girlfriend, and the usual bonds between shipmates during war. These scenes aren’t necessarily bad, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them that you haven’t already seen in dozens of other WW2 films.

Overall, watch “The Caine Mutiny” for Bogart’s performance and how the crew reacts the captain’s paranoia.

Final Grade: B-

 

Mini-Review – “Contact” (1997)

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This is a strange movie to look at, because the main focus point is on two subjects that I despise talking about, religion and politics. Throw science into the mix and you have a recipe for a film that is bound to make everyone unhappy, no matter what they might believe in.

Yet “Contact” walks the fine line between science, politics and faith and seems to find a meeting ground that all three try so very hard to agree upon – the search for the truth.

In this film, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a radio astronomer, who is an atheist, and ends up locating an alien transmission from the star system of Vega. Ellie uses logic and reasoning throughout the process, even as the rest of the world has different interpretations after the news breaks. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) is a former priest who writes about science and religion, and constantly opposes Ellie for her lack of religious beliefs in the face of something so overwhelming. There are also several key political characters throughout the film that are cautious about every step taken, for the sake of security, for both America and the world.

What we get is a realistic interpretation to the world reacting to the news that we are not alone in the universe. Some are thrilled and want to help, while others are devastated that God would have created other life in the universe besides us. Others see the aliens as our saviors and even our new gods.

But one point is made clear throughout the film – No one has the right answers. Perhaps that is to the films strength and enforces the point that the world is what you make of it.

“Contact” is a fascinating piece that discusses many issues that are still relevant today, especially issues that Hollywood does not like to talk about. The strange thing is that it finds a way to make everyone happy. Whether you believe in logic and science or faith and God, there is something to be admired in “Contact” and is certainly worth checking out.

Final Grade: A

 

Toshiro Mifune Vs. Takashi Shimura

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When you think of a classic Japanese actor, who is the first that comes to mind?

Some might go for a modern pick, like Ken Watanabe from movies like “The Last Samurai,” “Inception” and Gareth Edward’s “Godzilla,” but most film buffs out there probably have a different actor in mind – Toshiro Mifune.

Mifune starred in sixteen of Akira Kurosawa’s films, where he played lead roles in “Yojimbo,” “The Hidden Fortress,” “Throne Of Blood,” “Sanjuro” and “Red Beard,” while also playing pivotal roles in “Rashomon,” “Stray Dog,” “Drunken Angel,” “High and Low” and most notably as Kikuchiyo in “Seven Samurai.”

Outside of Kurosawa films, Mifune played the lead role of Musashi Miyamoto in the Samurai trilogy, had a short career in American films, including a WW2 survival tale with Lee Marvin called “Hell in the Pacific,” and had been offered the roles of both Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original “Star Wars.”

For me, Mifune is the most intense yet passionate actor I can think of, both in and out of Japanese films. He often said so much without hardly saying anything, through body movement. Characters like Kikuchiyo and the bandit from “Rashomon” jumped around like they were always on caffeine, ready for the next piece of action. But then these characters could turn on a dime, taking that intensity and turning into a quiet calm that you think he’ll never break out of.

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Within a single swift movement, Toshiro Mifune could show compassion, anger, regret and sadness, like his speech in “Seven Samurai” about the craftiness of villagers and their need to pillage and steal when no one is looking, yet it was the supposed-protectors, samurais, that made the villagers that way.

This shining example of acting proved that Mifune was one of the greatest actors of all time.

However, Toshiro Mifune is not my answer to the question at the beginning of this post. As captivating and enthralling as he was, there is one other Japanese actor that I would say is greater – Takashi Shimura.

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In many ways, Shimura is the Yin to Mifune’s Yang. Two immortal Japanese actors, with entirely different styles of acting. While Mifune was intense and loved to get in people’s faces, Takashi Shimura was often laid-back and spoke with his eyes and smile.

Shimura starred in 21 Kurosawa films, including “The Quiet Duel,” “I Live In Fear,” “Drunken Angel,” “Rashomon,” the lead samurai Kambei in “Seven Samurai,” while also played roles in many Toho films, including Dr. Yamane in “Godzilla” and “The Mysterians.”

While Mifune’s speech in “Seven Samurai” is a standout example of his acting ability, Shimura’s introduction in the same film stands out just as much. We watch as this old man, without even speaking, as an entire village surrounding him, as he cuts off his ponytail, shaves his head and simply asks for some food. We find out that a sacred thief has kidnapped a little girl and is held up in the town’s church, with a knife to the girl’s throat.

Shimura’s plan is to pose as a priest, offering the man and girl some food, while trying to talk him down peacefully. Unfortunately, the thief resorts to violence and he quickly finds out that he is dealing with a deadly samurai. We see a man who has seen far too much violence for one lifetime, but realizes that it is often necessary to protect the innocent.

Rather than using his body movements to express himself like Mifune, Shimura uses the pauses between his sentences, as if he is contemplating how the situation will work out. This makes Shimura excel at quiet and often reserved characters, one’s who have a lot to say but know when and when not to speak.

I would compare Toshiro Mifune’s acting to Robert De Niro, a man known for his hidden anger yet never loosing sight of his compassion for others. Both of these men could fly off the handle one moment and be sobbing a minute later. While Takashi Shimura’s comparison would be James Stewart, as they both had a tendency to play the every-man, a character that faces problems and conflicts that we all face in life. He shares our thoughts, our feelings, our anguish and our turmoil.

The problem with comparing Mifune and Shimura is, as I said previously, they are two entirely different actors. While the two played opposite one another multiple times in films like “Stray Dog,” “Seven Samurai” and “Drunken Angel” (where oddly enough, the roles that Shimura and Mifune often play are reversed), trying to say which is better is like asking if Robert De Niro is a better actor than James Stewart.

Part of this is because these two come from different time periods of Japanese filmmaking. Shimura’s career began in the silent era in 1934, getting his big break in 1936 with “Osaka Elegy,” heavily dependent on the lack of audio and facial expressions. Mifune’s began in the late 1940s, after World War II, with his first major role coming in 1948’s “Drunken Angel.” By the end of the war, the Japanese film studio was in shambles, much like the country itself, and the Japanese people needed someone tougher and experienced to look up to, which Mifune exemplified.

So with two different backgrounds of acting, distinct acting styles, and contrasting types of film genres they excel in, this makes comparing the two difficult.

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I give the edge to Takashi Shimura for one reason – His role in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.”

In a tale of identity, regret and longing for a purpose in life, Shimura gives one of the most moving performances I’ve seen. The strange thing about this role is that Shimura hardly says anything for the first third of the film, and can’t seem to find the right words for the rest. Instead, we rely on the utter shock on his face as he learns that he has six months to live, his pools of sadness when he realizes that he hasn’t done anything with his life, and the sparks in his eyes when he understands that it is not too late to make a difference in the world.

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Takashi Shimura’s role paints a picture of a man who has wandered for thirty years, and only recently found the beauty of life, wanting to share that beauty with the world before it is too late. If it were any other actor in “Ikiru,” the film would not have been half as good. Shimura’s touch of sincerity and compassion makes “Ikiru” one of the greatest films I have seen.

For me, that same compassion and kindness is what puts Takashi Shimura just above Toshiro Mifune. They’re both actors I don’t mind putting in the Hall of Greats, and as the two most notable Japanese actors, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the man who could reduced me to tears with a nothing more than a smile and glimmer of hope.