REVIEW: “The Cloverfield Paradox”

clove poster - Copy

Paradox: (noun) a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.

Cloverfield: (noun-ish) a kooky yet cool concoction from J.J. Abrams featuring a series of movies seemingly revolving around the same cataclysmic event. Kind of. But not really.

What started in 2008 as a simple yet effective found-footage horror movie has blossomed into a surprisingly successful feature film franchise. The original “Cloverfield” was followed by 2016’s “10 Cloverfield Lane”. Now two years later we get a third installment, “The Cloverfield Paradox” and a fourth is due out in October.

One of the fascinating things about these movies are how each (so far) are from different horror movie sub-genres. “Cloverfield” was a monster horror movie while the second film was a psychological thriller. “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a straight science fiction horror movie taking place mostly in space. All three are openly influenced by other films but are unique within their franchise. But defining the franchise as a whole, well that’s a bit tricky.


“The Cloverfield Paradox” takes place in 2028 which immediately separates it from the previous movies. The earth has been crippled by a global energy crisis and nations have joined together to launch the Cloverfield space station. The station is manned by a multinational crew of technicians and scientists who are preparing for an experiment which could lead to an infinite energy supply for the entire planet. But tin-foil hatters warn that the experiment could rip a hole in the space-time continuum allowing all sorts of bad things to happen.

On earth, communications officer Ava Hamilton (Guga Mbatha-Raw) reluctantly leaves behind her husband Michael (Roger Davies) to join the Cloverfield mission. The station’s crew consists of several good faces: Daniel Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, and Aksel Hennie. Each come from different backgrounds and have their own perspectives about the mission and the chaos down on earth. Sometimes the planetside political tensions bleed over onto the station and the film smartly explores that dynamic. Perhaps not as much as it could have.

Needless to say the experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned and the crew begin noticing a series of creepy anomalies. At the same time officials on earth have lost contact with the Cloverfield and the situation on the ground has worsened. The film tries to juggle time on the space station with Michael’s time on earth, but it’s Michael’s side that feels a little underserved. For the crew it turns into a survival horror story as they try to undue what their experiment has done.


“Paradox” operates much differently than its predecessors. At the same time its story rhythms and some of the character treatments lean heavily on the movies that inspired it. You can’t help but notice it. There are times when the familiarity and predictability are a bit much. Also you can see potential in some of the story threads they begin but do little with. Still, I tend to have a soft spot for these types of genre pieces so the issues weren’t hard to get past especially considering all the movie does well. It stocks a good cast and the performances hit there marks. The production design and special effects are impressive and Bear McCreary’s score hearkens back to 90’s era adventures – big and persistent but fitting. Most importantly, “Paradox” sprinkles in some clever clues as to how it is connected to the overall “Cloverfield” franchise.

Director Julius Onah and writer Oren Uziel have been attached to the project since 2012 when it used the developmental title of “God Particle”. It was eventually confirmed to be the next Cloverfield film but faced numerous delays. The true stroke of advertising genius (and guts) came February 4, 2018, Super Bowl Sunday. A teaser trailer debuted proclaiming the movie would be available immediately following the big game. No press tour or pre-release trailer campaign. It marked a new attention-getting approach for the industry.

So where does “The Cloverfield Paradox” fit in? Let’s just say you could call it a prequel. That’s my take on it and I enjoyed how this film brought me to that conclusion. But many people have left it with a much different reaction and with their critical guns have been blazing. Sure, it’s a traditional sci-fi horror picture that doesn’t break new ground outside of its slick advertising trick. But is it really trying to break new ground? I would argue it’s trying to make a fun, intriguing “Cloverfield” installment. Speaking for myself, mission accomplished.


REVIEW: “The Commuter”


I must admit, I do find some enjoyment in these January/February Liam Neeson action-thrillers. They are rarely great but almost always entertaining (to varying degrees). These things started with 2009’s “Taken” which reinvigorated Neeson’s career and made him an unexpected action star. Multiple films have followed (most with the same familiar flavor) and most do pretty well at the box office.

The latest addition is “The Commuter” which sees Neeson playing a 60 year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman named Michael MacCauley. Each day he takes the same train into the city with many of the same fellow commuters. His daily routine is shattered when out of the blue he is laid off from his job. Now unemployed with a son heading to college and a mortgage due, Michael boards his train for the ride home to break the news to his wife.


As he takes his seat an unusually inquisitive woman played by Vera Farmiga sits opposite of him. Turns out she and the people she works for know a lot about Michael. The mystery lady tells him of $25,000 hidden in the train’s bathroom. If Michael takes the money they will consider him working for them. All he has to do is identify a passenger who goes by the name of Prynne before the train’s final stop. If he does that an additional $75,000 is his. The woman hops off and the train leaves the station.

The financially desperate Michael finds the money in the bathroom but quickly learns the task isn’t as easy or as innocent as it sounds. The people pulling his strings prove to be bad news and they will do anything to get the job done including hurting Michael’s family. From their the film becomes a cross between Michael identifying Prynne while also finding a way out of the mystery group’s clutches.


As the train speeds along the track it’s the story that flirts with derailment. The further it goes the more intense and absurd it becomes. But that’s part of what I like about these things. Plus I enjoy watching Neeson who by now can do this role in his sleep. I also like the always good Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson who pops up playing Michael’s sympathetic friend and ex-partner (sorry, no Ed and Lorraine Warren shared universe stuff). But it’s Neeson who keeps the story rolling which isn’t the easiest of tasks.

“The Commuter” marks Neeson’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra. All four of their ‘race against the clock’ thrillers feature the same basic framework with a few narrative differences. In other words you know what to expect – a fast pace, good action, that Neeson growl, and some amusing corniness. If you don’t like their previous movies this one won’t change your mind. But if you’re like me and get a kick out of these things “The Commuter” will give you what it promises. Nothing more, nothing less.



REVIEW: “Columbus”


A mere 40 miles south of Indianapolis is the quirky city of Columbus, Indiana. In many ways Columbus is like any other modestly populated city – it has its schools, churches, and key industries as its financial backbone. But this city of 45,000 people sports one unique distinction. It is the home for an amazing variety of modernist art and architecture.

This provides the setting for the aptly titled film “Columbus” – the impressive debut feature from Kogonada. Known only by his first name, the Korean-born Kogonada previously worked as a video essayist spotlighting legendary auteurs from cinema’s rich history. A quick gander at his website reveals not just an understanding of his subjects (Bresson, Godard, Kubrick just to name a few) but also a genuine passion for their visions and techniques.


Kogonada brings that knowledge and affection to “Columbus” which he directed, wrote and edited. His appreciation for the city’s architectural heritage is just as evident and it’s captured in nearly every frame. Whether Kogonada is shooting Columbus City Hall, North Christian Church, Irwin Union Bank, or the Robert Stewart Bridge, he and cinematographer Elisha Christian use each modernist structure to subtly establish personality and emotion.

But this isn’t simply a Travel Channel city tour. Kogonada’s use of architecture is full of purpose, but the heart of the film is found in the two main characters – two polar opposites bruised by their own personal circumstances. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a Columbus native and recent high school graduate who works at the local library. She’s bright and ambitious but her dreams are tossed aside because of her obligations to her troubled mother (Michelle Forbes). Jin (John Cho) works as a literature translator in Korea but is called to Columbus after his estranged father falls into a coma.

Clearly influenced by Linklater’s “Before” trilogy and with the minimalist strokes of a Jarmusch film, the story has these two strangers meet and a relationship is slowly formed. Similar to Jesse and Celine in “Before Sunrise”, Casey and Jin are cracked open through a series of conversations that occur as the two stroll across Columbus. Between their musings on Saarinen, Pei, and Weese are the more personal and revealing exchanges that gradually endear them more to each other and to us.


While the framework may not sound highly original, the film avoids all of the traditional story beats you might expect. It’s sometimes tempting to allow our expectations to get ahead of a story, but Kogonada doesn’t leave much room for that. There is always a hint of uncertainty with these two characters and their unique relationship. This leaves the audience guessing.

One thing that differentiates “Columbus” from the “Before” films are the scenes when Casey and Jin are apart. More than mere filler, these moments give form to the conversations the two have together. We get a better understanding of Casey through her modest and worrisome home life with her mom or her discussions with her neurotic friend and co-worker Gabriel (nicely played by Rory Culkin). For Jin its the quiet alone time wrestling with how he should be feeling or reflections with his father’s longtime assistant (Parker Posey). These scenes are elegantly composed and never feel false or contrived.

But the most potent ingredients are the two lead performances. Cho is a natural at subtlety – somber, reserved and authentic at every turn. But it’s Richardson who steps out as a true revelation. She’s an incredibly expressive actress and we never see her overplay a scene or oversell an emotion. She conveys an effortless charm and sincerity that instantly captures our sympathies. It’s an eye-opening performance.


There is a soulful longing in both Casey and Jin – two hurting people from very different places forced to put their lives on the back burner. In one scene Kogonada has them wrestle with the question – is there a healing power to architecture? What seems like an absurdity may not be so far-fetched. It’s architecture that first connects these two wounded souls and it lingers in the background during each of their conversations.

Perhaps Kogonada’s camera answers that question for us. There is a therapeutic quality to his perspectives. His camera rarely moves and he communicates plenty through every carefully composed shot. And while “Columbus” highlights the allure of architecture, it just as much showcases the fine art of cinema in what is one of the most striking debuts in decades. Kogonada is a filmmaker to watch.



REVIEW: “The Circle”

CIRCLE poster

Nestled somewhere deep inside of “The Circle” lies an interesting concept for a movie. Maybe it was bad creative choices. Maybe the Dave Eggers novel didn’t translate well from book to screen. I’m guessing it’s a combination of both that shortchange this film adaptation. There are certainly some filmmaking decisions that don’t pan out and you would like to think the tech-heavy story is better explored in Eggers’s novel (which I haven’t read).

“The Circle” is directed by James Ponsoldt who also wrote the screenplay along with Eggers. Their story tinkers with modern themes of privacy, interconnectivity, and even Information Age totalitarianism to a degree. It all sounds nice a relevant. Problem is it’s all squished together in a half-baked of soup of clumsy execution, unbelievable story angles, and underdeveloped relationships.


Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, an aimless twenty-something stuck working a crummy job, driving a crummy car, and with a crummy social life. Things perk up when her best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her an interview at The Circle, a Silicone Valley tech corporation in the mold of Apple, Google, etc. Mae gets hired (to what position I still haven’t figured out) and is soon grafted into the company’s cultish hipster culture.

Tom Hanks plays Eamon Bailey, the company’s Steve Jobs-ish CEO who has his predominately millennial employees under his charismatic spell. He opens the door for Mae to climb the corporate ladder by becoming the face of his push for more control of the world’s information. Mae’s rise makes her a celebrity on campus but distances her from her family and friends.

A key conflict in the film pits Mae’s old personal life again her new life of success and popularity at the Circle. The film struggles to make Mae’s personal life worth caring about. Her parents are played by Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly, the two genuine characters in the entire movie. Paxton’s Vinnie struggles with MS while Headly’s Bonnie is his strong supportive caregiver. They are easy to care for but much of that comes from the real life circumstances. Both Paxton and Headly died this year adding an extra emotional punch to these final performances.

“The Circle” tries to offer up a thought-provoking critique but ultimately it’s more goofy than provocative. First off it’s simply impossible to believe in The Circle as an actual organization and it’s even harder to believe in the many characters who bought into it. And in this world don’t underestimate the power of the frownie face emoji in foreign policy. And then you have Mae stepping out and becoming ‘transparent’. It’s meant to be a big deal step forward when it’s nothing more than a souped up YouTube channel


Several other things stand out. Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”) plays Mae’s shy childhood friend. They do some interesting things with his character before it runs off the rails but it’s hard to enjoy it because Coltrane’s performance is so bad. And then you have John Boyega, a welcomed addition but he the story completely wastes him.

Despite its many sour notes “The Circle” isn’t unbearable. It moves along pretty well and it keeps your attention. But I wonder if that’s due to good filmmaking or to my bubbling curiosity that just couldn’t wait to see where this mess would go next. Regardless of what it teases, “The Circle” doesn’t really go anywhere and that may be its biggest flaw – lots of potential, practically all of it wasted.



REVIEW: “Christine” (2016)


The on-air suicide of news reporter Christine Chubbuck has long been considered one of television’s most shocking moments. Behind that tragic event lies a troubling story of a young woman’s loneliness, self-doubt and severe depression. The movie “Christine” sets out to explore the final few days of Christine Chubbuck’s life right to its violent end on live tv.

Craig Shilowich wrote the script after feeling a deep personal connection to Chubbuck’s story. His own seven-year bout with depression inspired him to explore the issues that could have drawn Chubbuck to such a drastic final act. Shilowich interviewed family and coworkers in an attempt to piece together Christine’s state of mind. Director Antonio Campos allows Shilowich’s story to slowly boil which is perceptive but also harrowing since we know how it will end.


Christine Chubbock is played by Rebecca Hall who gives us a remarkable performance that burrows deep beneath her character’s fragile surface. Hall’s physical and mental transformation show an intense level of commitment that draws us deeper into the story. Hall’s method is somber and restrained which helps her to visualize the crippling effects of depression.

The film explores several areas of Chubbock’s life, each contributing to her troubled mental state. First is her personal life, specifically her lack of companionship. Campos puts a heavy emphasis on Chubbock’s loneliness. Her past is hinted at through references and the relationship with her mother offers some of Christine’s most vulnerable and perceptive moments.


We also spend a lot of time in her workplace – a Sarasota, Florida television station. Her main focus as a news reporter was on local community pieces. This puts her at odds with her abrasive and mildly chauvinist boss (Tracy Letts) who pushes for more sensationalism in her stories. She also finds herself lagging behind her competition for a new promotion in a bigger news market. There’s even a sudden health issue she is forced to deal with.

Subtly the film grows more unnerving with each step forward. Campos methodically puts together the pieces of this story and it’s tough to endure knowing the tragic finale that lies ahead. The presentation is authentic thanks to dashes of retro 70’s detail. The performances are superb especially from Hall who should be mentioned among the best of the year. But the real punch comes from the story itself, a mournful heart-breaking account of Christine Chubbuck’s final days. The filmmakers understand that which makes “Christine” all the more powerful.



REVIEW: “Don’t Think Twice”


Writer-director Mike Birbiglia proves he’s one to watch after his smart, witty, and utterly genuine comedy/drama “Don’t Think Twice”. This infectious indie examines the fine line between collaborative loyalties and personal career ambitions while at the same time celebrating a very distinct form of American performance art.

Birbiglia’s career in humor has had many faces. He’s mostly known for his stand-up comedy but has found success as an author and film actor. Birbiglia also spent time doing improv during his college years which strengthens his voice in this film. He’s a guy who intimately understands the difficulties of the funnyman trade which is made clear by the delicacy and candor he uses in handling his material.


The story revolves around a Brooklyn-based improv troupe known as The Commune. It consists of six friends who genuinely love what they do but who aren’t without higher ambitions. While they maintain steady audiences, making people laugh isn’t always a lucrative occupation and several members work side jobs just to get by. The big blow comes when the group is hit with the news that their theater space is closing. Yet regardless of their circumstances and just like in improv, the tightly-knit group always have each other’s back.

Miles (played by Birbiglia) founded the group and spends his spare time teaching improv and talking about the time he was “within inches” of making it big. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) has a ton of talent but tends to thrust himself into the spotlight. His girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) doesn’t know where she wants her career to go. Allison (Kate Micucci) has been struggling to finish her graphic novel for years. Bill (Chris Gethard) battles insecurity and feelings that true success has passed him by. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) lives off of her rich parents and is constantly in counseling. It’s a good assortment of characters with solid performances throughout.

Their camaraderie is tested when one member breaks their second commandment – “It’s all about the group”. Reps from Weekend Live (a sketch comedy television show in the vein of Saturday Night Live) attend one of The Commune’s shows and afterwards offer auditions to two members of the group. What looks like opportunity for two gives way to envy, frustration, and insecurity as each person is forced to deal with where they are in life both professionally and personally. And as in reality, the truth isn’t always easy to digest.


Despite the great chemistry in their performances and their seamless friendships, Birbiglia creates a looming cloud of desperation that hangs over each character. And everything is grounded in reality. Because of this the film works as a genuinely funny comedy but also a bittersweet drama. Everyone feels in tune with their circumstance and each relationship we get is authentic.

By the end of “Don’t Think Twice” I felt I knew each of these people. I knew their personalities, their struggles, and their aspirations. Most importantly I cared. That’s because there is an honest approach to the material by everyone involved. I found myself caught up in its wit and sincerity as well as its ability to remind us that life can be as spontaneous and uncertain as the performance art this film is celebrating.