10 Cloverfield Lane

Disclaimer: I did not watch the original Cloverfield before this one. But, as far as I can learn from the interwebs, the two have hardly anything to do with each other besides the name and J.J. Abrams. The original was a straight-up Godzilla-style monster movie, and this is…well, a different kind of monster movie.

It begins with our heroine, Michelle, hurriedly packing up and fleeing her apartment, leaving an engagement ring behind. As she’s driving on an empty country road, ignoring calls from her fiance, she is suddenly struck from behind by something and crashes. When she wakes up, she’s hooked up to an IV in a small, cell-like room, where she’s soon greeted by a man named Howard. Howard claims to have saved her life by bringing her to the bunker underneath his farmhouse, just before a chemical or nuclear attack contaminated the air outside. Another man, Emmett, also managed to take shelter in the bunker in time. The rest of the world as Michelle knows it, Howard says, is gone.

Would you actually want to spend the apocalypse with the kind of person who is prepared for an apocalypse?

But nothing in this movie can be taken at face value. From the beginning, the central question on both Michelle and the viewer’s mind is: Can we trust Howard? He’s clearly anti-social and a little odd from the beginning–as you’d expect from someone who spent years building a doomsday bunker under his house. But is he a crazy-prepared survivalist who took pity on two neighbors when his doomsday prophecies came true? Or is he just crazy? What, if anything, is really going on above the reinforced concrete ceilings of the bunker? And what secrets might be hiding on the inside?

The movie delights in dancing around the answers to these questions, which keeps the suspense high throughout the first two-thirds of the action. The three-misfits-stuck-in-a-room-together premise certainly allows for some lighter moments, but the claustrophobic setting, the hints of an unknown danger, the eerie soundtrack, and especially John Goodman’s acting as Howard, all combine to create a creeping sense of dread that gets stronger almost by the minute. Seriously, I never realised how amazing John Goodman is. Who knew the voice of Sulley and Pacha could carry a movie like this so effectively?

I also have to take a moment to talk about Michelle, though, because she’s one of the best horror/thriller heroines I’ve ever seen. Even though she starts the movie as a wannabe fashion designer with a history of running from her problems, from the moment she wakes up in the bunker she starts being endlessly resourceful, brave, and determined. Injured leg, creepy armed host, possible apocalypse–nothing stops her, at least not for long. It goes beyond mere survival instinct, too, as she consistently goes out of her way to try and protect others. She’s basically Ripley without the power armour.

Never thought I’d say that about the chick from Scott Pilgrim, but there you go.

And, since this movie only has about three characters, I gotta say something about Emmett, too. He’s great, both as much-needed comic relief and as bona fide hero when the chips are down. I also appreciate that the movie doesn’t try to shoehorn a romance in between him and Michelle, even though they might possibly be the only young man and woman left on the planet. You have to respect any product of Hollywood that avoids a romantic subplot with that kind of set-up.

And now we come to the hard part of this review. See, this is one of those movies where the ending is likely to change the way you feel about everything that came before it, for better or worse. And the Movie Reviewers’ Code forbids me to give away the ending. Plus, I’m a little conflicted about it myself. I will say this, though: if you’re familiar with J.J. Abrams’ other original work, you will probably be able to guess certain things about the ending pretty far in advance. As for whether it’s good or bad–I can’t decide, but I’m leaning towards good. On the one hand, it does drastically change the tone of the movie, which feels a wee bit like a cop-out. But on the other hand, it gives Michelle a great chance to show off her character development, and the tone it switches to is one which I generally like in a movie, especially at the end.

It’s definitely better than whatever they’re watching here.

You, the viewer, will have to decide for yourself. But however you feel about the last 15 minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane, everything leading up to them is fantastic. In a heart-palpitating sort of way. For sensitive viewers: there are very few moments of violence or gore on-screen, but when they do occur, the movie really makes them count. Then again, this movie can also make a game of Taboo scary. If you live in a basement, as I do, you may not want to watch this alone. As I did.

My dreams have been just fine, thank you very much.

Grade: A-

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Dollhouse

This is mostly going to be  a movie blog, never fear. But I happen to like television quite a lot, too, so once in a while I’m gonna have to review a TV show.

“Dollhouse” is a cyberpunk show by Joss Whedon that aired on Fox six or seven years ago. As you might guess from the combination of “Joss Whedon” and “Fox” in that sentence, it was cancelled after two seasons. But before it got cancelled, it was about a version of the present day in which a technology has been invented that can wipe out a person’s personality and memories and replace them with new ones. A very shady company called the Rossum Corporation uses this technology to run “dollhouses,” where the very wealthy can rent out mind-wiped people who will (temporarily) become whoever they want them to be–from secret agents to bodyguards to…well, more traditional roles. Each “doll” is re-set to a child-like state after every assignment, but one, named Echo, is starting to remember her previous selves. Meanwhile, an FBI agent is getting close to the truth in his investigation of Rossum, a rogue doll named Alpha is trying to take down Echo’s dollhouse in a more violent manner, and the shadowy heads of the corporation may have more sinister long-term plans than anyone suspects.

Unlike some of his other swiftly-cancelled projects, Joss actually got to wrap this one up pretty neatly before it ended, so it doesn’t suffer from the lack of closure that caused so many Browncoat tears. But while it has some good characters and great storytelling moments, this show has two big, loud problems, which, surprisingly, have nothing to do with Fox.

*sigh* A tiny supermodel in skimpy clothes who beats people up a lot. Some of Joss’s tricks get old.

First of all, the central character was not cast very well. For a show whose premise requires the main character to be a completely different person every episode (and sometimes several people in one episode), you need a stellar actress. Eliza Dushku, who plays Echo, is just a decent one. All her personalities seem more or less the same, and since this is one of those shows where minor characters spend a lot of time calling the main character “special,” that gets annoying.

What makes it even more annoying is that she’s surrounded by AMAZING actors. There’s the great Alan Tudyk, in one of his most impressive performances ever; there’s Summer Glau, who manages to put a completely different spin on “cute psycho” than she did in “Firefly;” there’s Dichen Lachman, who plays a doll 10 times more interesting than Echo despite getting less screen time; and there’s Enver Gjokaj, an actor I had never heard of before watching this show, which is a crime against talent and art. How is this guy not landing major roles in big movies and getting showered with awards? To say he has range is like saying the Empire State Building has floors.

Just a few of the characters he plays on this show.

The second problem is that “Dollhouse” is every bit as dark and unsettling as it sounds. The parallels to real-life prostitution and slavery are all too obvious. There aren’t many truly good characters to root for, and when they do pop up, awful things happen to them. An atmosphere of apocalyptic gloom hangs over the whole series starting near the end of season 1. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of funny and heartwarming moments, but the context often made me feel a little icky for laughing at them. The show’s premise allows for some interesting discussions on the nature of free will and what makes a person human, but it’s not a fun show. If it was any longer, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

That said, I must take a moment to highlight one of the bright patches. His name is Topher Brink, the surprisingly adorable mad scientist who programs the dolls. His character arc, which takes him from an arrogant, childish brat to a broken-hearted hero, is the kind of beautifully tragic storytelling I’ve come to expect from Joss. Even when the rest of the show was just making me angry, I could always relate to Topher (I’ll admit that worries me a bit). Topher gave me many feelings, but none of them were angry.

Topher feels may include laughter, nervous laughter, sudden urges to hug, and soul-crushing misery.

If  you’re a die-hard Joss Whedon fan, you will probably like “Dollhouse.” If you’re just a mild Joss Whedon fan, like me, it may or may not be worth your time. Either way, fair warning: there are quite a few sexually suggestive scenes, most of which do not take place between mutually consenting partners (unless brainwashing counts as consent), and there’s a fair amount of violence. Proceed with caution.

Or just re-watch “Firefly.” I find that’s usually a good idea in any situation.

Grade: C+

Spotlight

Like the majority of the human race, I don’t usually care a whole lot about the kinds of movies that win Oscars. But I had to make an exception for this one. After all, my day job is being a journalist, and I’m also a Christian (though not Catholic) which means I pay attention to church scandals the way a patient pays attention to a cancer diagnosis. So this movie’s plot struck a personal chord with me on two fronts.

It’s based on the real-life story of a team of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe who uncovered the widespread cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in their city and around the world. The movie starts in 2001, when Martin Baron becomes the new editor at the Globe. He finds out the Spotlight team is between stories, so he gets together with their editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson, and asks them to look into a history of lawsuits against a local priest who went to trial for child abuse. As the four reporters dig deeper, interviewing victims, lawyers and clergy and searching through court documents and church directories, they begin to realise that particular case is just part of a much bigger problem that the church has been covering up for decades.

Ah, the glamorous life of a reporter.

Journalism is probably one of the most mis-represented professions in fiction. Reporters are usually portrayed as dishonest vultures who are more than willing to disregard ethics and laws for the sake of a good story–that is, when they’re not glamorous heroes who travel the world braving bullets and explosions in search of The Truth. Spotlight is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that shows reporters just doing their jobs as they would in real life. Those jobs are not glamorous. For the Spotlight team, uncovering The Truth meant hours–days!–of poring over church directories and legal documents, showing up early to courthouses, talking to the same people over and over again, and asking very difficult questions. But they are absolutely portrayed as people who care about telling the truth, especially if it means ending a cycle of consequence-free crimes against children. Which, of course, they end up doing. And according to most of the real-life people shown in the movie, it sticks pretty close to what actually happened.

So, as a journalist, I found the film inspiring–not to mention educational. I’m fairly new to the business, so I found myself taking mental notes on the characters’ interview techniques. I also spent half the movie drooling over the Globe’s spacious headquarters, huge staff, and ability to let reporters spend a whole year on one story. Let’s just say my newspaper doesn’t have quite those resources. Someday… *sigh*

Tips I learned from this lady: show that you care, ask permission before recording, ask about the gory details.

Of course, there’s really no way to make a movie that deals with child abuse “fun.” Thankfully, none of the incidents the Spotlight team reported on are actually shown on-screen, but some victims do describe their experiences in detail, so–sensitive viewers, beware. (The movie is also rated R for containing the normal amount of swearing one hears in a newsroom.) Even now, years after the scandal came to light, it’s still shocking to see just how common and accepted pedophilic priests were in the church. There’s a particularly chilling moment when one priest casually talks about molesting young boys like he was recounting a trip to the baseball stadium, and then reveals that he himself was raped as a child, presumably by another priest.

All the reporters on the team are portrayed as lapsed Catholics, and the investigation clearly shakes their faith even more. Several victims talk about how their abusers’ position as clergy made it harder to resist them or to tell anyone else about the abuse. As one victim puts it, “How do you say no to God?” The script doesn’t get preachy against Christianity–it’s far too well-written for that–but it clearly shows how hard it can be for some people to believe in God when others do evil in His name. And, as much as I would have liked to see at least one example of a righteous priest or churchgoer in the movie, I can’t argue with that point. Neither would the apostle Paul, which is why we have Romans 2:23-24: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

This movie shows why I believe it’s so important for church leaders to be held accountable to their congregations for all their actions. No man should ever be equated with God in the minds of his followers, and none of his sins should ever be covered up.

Spotlight is an excellently-acted, well-written film about real-life heroes taking down real villains. And while it’s not as fun as some of the other movies that have featured Mark Ruffalo as a hero, it is important, and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

This is right before he Hulks out.

Captain America: Civil War

Once upon a time, I was worried that the first Avengers movie would be a complete flop. It was bringing together too many superheroes who were too different from each other, and there was no way they could all fit into one coherent plot without turning it into a traffic jam. Then Joss Whedon worked his magic and made all my fears look ridiculous. Now, four years later, consider the Russos’ task in directing Civil War. There are twelve heroes in this movie, two of whom are making their MCU debut, plus a couple new villains and side characters. Civil War has to set up the next four or five Marvel movies, wrap up loose ends from Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier, and somehow still be focused on Captain America enough to justify marketing itself as a solo outing for him. And it manages to do all that, and still be the most entertaining movie of the year so far. I think I love the Russo brothers.

As has become the norm with Avengers movies, this one starts with a big action scene. An Avengers team led by Captain America is in Lagos, trying to stop a very angry former HYDRA agent from releasing a biological weapon. They succeed, but newcomer Scarlet Witch makes a mistake that results in lots of civilian casualties. The world’s governments have noticed that this sort of thing happens rather often, and next thing you know, the US Secretary of State is showing up at the Avengers compound, asking the heroes to sign an agreement that would put all their operations under the supervision of the UN. Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over the mayhem his mistakes caused in Age of Ultron, is all for the new rules; Cap, still fresh from dealing with a corrupt government institution in Winter Soldier, is against them. The rest of the Avengers start to take sides, but things really get personal when Bucky Barnes is blamed for a bombing at the UN headquarters. Cap is sure he’s innocent and wants to protect his friend, but the Avengers who signed the agreement are obliged to hunt Bucky down. Also on the former assassin’s trail is the king of Wakanda, who is out for revenge after losing someone in the bombing and has many more skills than his title would imply.

Witness the living embodiment of “cool.”

As superhero movies go, this one is pretty much a masterpiece. Then again, so was the also-Russo-directed Winter Soldier, so what did you expect? The action scenes are beautiful. Captain America pulls a helicopter out of the sky with his HANDS. Bucky’s method of stealing a motorcycle must be seen to be believed. And of course there’s the epic six-on-six fight between both halves of the Avengers at an empty airport. Everybody gets to show off their skills, and it’s fun to watch because none of them are actually trying to kill each other (not at that point in the movie, anyway).

The good thing about the huge, sprawling nature of the MCU is that it gives filmmakers time to develop their characters and give them believable motives and relationships. What makes this movie work is the fact that we’ve spent several years getting to know the main characters, so none of their actions seem forced or unbelievable. The central conflict is basically the culmination of years of tension between Steve and Tony, starting when they first met each other in The Avengers. And I appreciate that the movie doesn’t really take sides. Both leaders are presented as flawed men just trying to do what they believe is right. Which makes the ever-escalating conflict between them all the more tragic.

As awesome as this scene is in the movie, I can’t get over how hilarious everyone’s expression is in this picture.

Of course, if I were to take a side, I’d be Team Cap all the way. For one thing, he’s just generally a nicer person than Iron Man, and for another, I always tend to sympathise with people who don’t trust the government. Like Steve says at one point, “My faith’s in people, I guess. Individuals.” The importance of individual choices is highlighted throughout the film; each member of the Avengers has to choose a side, after all, and each of their decisions has major consequences. This movie shows the damage that can be done by an individual who makes a wrong or ill-informed choice; but, through Bucky’s backstory in particular, it also shows the consequences of taking away a person’s ability to make the right choice. And it ain’t pretty.

I think Civil War also does an excellent–and heartbreaking–job of portraying the way a strong relationship can crumble. The Power of Friendship has been a major theme in all the Avengers movies, but this one shows that power isn’t invincible. Steve’s teamwork and friendship with Tony and the other Avengers has been able to overcome their personality differences, age gaps, murky pasts, etc.–but there are some things that can’t be forgiven with a pat on the back and a friendly monster slaying. Whether it’s a difference in beliefs or a personal injury, some rifts between friends are too wide to mend, at least for a long time. It’s, sadly, the most realistic thing about this movie. Bring some tissues. I’m serious.

On a lighter note, the new Spider-Man is great. Funny, powerful, and surprisingly angst-free (we meet him after he’s had a while to get over Uncle Ben’s death, so that helps). And T’Challa, aka Black Panther, shows up all the other heroes with his sheer majesticness and, by the end, considerable moral high ground. I can’t wait to see these guys in their own movies.

“This thing doesn’t obey the laws of physics at all!”

I have a few minor quibbles: couldn’t help but find the idea of Steve hooking up with his old girlfriend’s niece a bit icky, especially since her parentage is practically the only thing we know about her; and there was really no need for the location titles to cover the entire screen whenever they showed up. But those minor details weren’t enough to keep me from grinning like an idiot through the whole thing. This is a lovely film.

Grade: A