24 March 2016

First Impressions: 10 Cloverfield Lane

I'm tempted to name 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) as the first really great movie of 2016 (as much as I loved Deadpool [2016], though!), but this flick has a lot going for it. While it executes a lot of great script conventions really well and it's an enormous well-shot film with compelling actors in a carefully crafted taught story, it does however, borrow heavily from a lot of other films, ironically none of them being Cloverfield (2008). Let's discuss this film at length here with a crazy amount of SPOILERS dropping all over the place:
The only monster here is Fred Flintstone.

First of all, it should really be said that this film doesn't have the slightest bit in any way to do with Cloverfield. It's totally not a sequel. No big white goobers show up to eat plucky camera people. Sure there is some kind of monster attack, but it's not Kaiju. To some extent there are thematic similarities - both involve an intimate look at the people on the ground indirectly affected by an unprecedented attack, although the conceit of Cloverfield's found footage style is traded for a tense bottle story with extremely limited characters and locations. For the record I'm more into 10 Cloverfield Lane's style.

This of course begs the question - why attach the brand recognition at all? After seeing this fantastic trailer once two months ago I was all in, and although the Cloverfield connection intrigued me in a sense of "How will they connect the two?" when it turns out it's not connected at all, that didn't detract from the quality of the film except for the cognitive dissonance created by the separation between content and brand identity discovered after the fact. So, why not let it stand on its own?

Apparently the actors probably feel the same way, actually having no idea that their cool little movie was a Cloverfield tie in until days before the trailer was released. It's clear that this was a cheap way to stretch some life out of Bad Robot's earlier successful movie and capitalize on some kind of familiar name to push this film. I'm simply not sure any of that was necessary considering the strength of that trailer that comes off very unique and interesting on its own before the final Cloverfield tie-in is dropped. Still, it probably helped get some asses in seats (since it's been pretty successful, all things considered), although I'm not sure that inherent cognitive dissonance will help the film in the short term. Considering how good it is, though, I'm confident about its long-term cultural impact.

In general, this means really weird things for the future of film branding. There have already been other ideas thrown around that would very tangentially connect otherwise unrelated films. Some of these may share similar styles or more often, production houses, but it seems like a desperate attempt to employ name recognition, which is quickly becoming the most valuable way to make money in Hollywood.

I actually personally disagree with this assessment and I think it's missing a big point - the way to make money isn't name recognition but by simply putting out a project that connects with people. Is there a reason why Zootopia (2016) should make way more money than The Lone Ranger (2013)? No, they're both by studios that have had a ton of success in their genre with plenty of name recognition in actor and director. One film hit a niche and the other didn't. That's all it is, folks.

So enough of this production crap, let's actually talk about the film. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets her car wrecked by John Goodman, who then captures her so she can be his daughter in a post apocalyptic bunker (that may or may not be the apocalypse) along with a local village idiot who stands around until Goodman shoots him in the head and dissolves him in acid. MEW escapes but then has to fight aliens outside because IT IS the apocalypse.

Got all that?

Each of the three principal actors does a fantastic job. John Goodman hasn't had a role this meaty in a while, although he's had memorable turns mostly in Coen Bros films and Best Picture Winners. Still, he's a powerhouse in this film, able to appear kind and reasonable one minute, albeit with an air of inherent decent, and then instantly crank up the rage, exploding all over screen and totally dominating the scene.

Against this mighty foe, though, is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who holds her own against the mad John Goodman. She's capable of a ton and it shows here when she's given long stretches of dialogue-free scenes to emote through problem-solving, creative ways to escape, and trade between moments of desperation and badassery.

Finally we have John Gallagher, Jr., who struck me as a young Jason Sudeikis with a beard. His role is mostly someone to bounce off of the two principal actors here, but he's an intriguing character nonetheless, who has his own failed dreams, naïve sensibility, and dumbness, but his heart is in the right spot, which ultimately gets him shot in his face. You know, you can't win them all.

And that's pretty much it. There's a brief bit with a woman with a burnt up face trying to get in the bunker, but she dies outside, and apparently Bradley Cooper's voice can be heard as MEW's BF who calls her right before the car accident. I only saw that in the credits, I have to watch it again for sure to train my ears on that. For as distinctive as Brad Cooper is, his voice tends to pop up in odd places melded pretty well with the source material. Alright, just Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), but I'm still impressed.

This whole film is a long game of claustrophobic subtlety, and MEW is really the star here. The screenplay inserts the most Chekov's Guns I've ever seen, but they're often organic, which lessens their obviousness in a good way. It walks this fine line between screenplay convention and trickery, giving our heroes all the items that would be found in an underground bunker and setting them upon the impossible task of figuring out how to get the hell out there. Towards the end it was almost like things came together too perfectly, as if there were all these bits hanging out there that MEW picked up and used for her final escape, but as I said, it's mostly organic enough that when all these items that are useful later are established you don't think about it that hard or believe it's out of place.

That said, there were a few continuity errors that seemed distracting. The timing of John Gallagher's character entering the bunker doesn't seem to fit in (he said he arrived a few days ago, but if Goodman was racing home and hit MEW the night before to rush in, that doesn't add up). The same goes for the previous abductee, Brittany, who supposedly went missing two years ago, although that also doesn't seem to add up with the conviction of Goodman's character to remain in the bunker that long. I'm normally never ever distracted by these things because despite the best intentions of "Everything Wrong With", it truly doesn't matter when a film is good, but it was distracting for some reason here. I suppose it's because everything is so confined and beautifully crafted otherwise, when your mind is scrambling to put together the mystery, when these impossibilities jack shit up it takes you out of the film.
That bitch Brittany stole some puzzle pieces!

The film also does a great job of slowly unraveling the madness of John Goodman's character. It drops hints to figure out rather than big dialogue or exposition, which is such a welcome rarity. You can eventually piece together that he's simply looking for another girl to be his daughter, regardless if Mary Elizabeth is into it or not. There are some awkward hints at a sexual desire, but I think it's more innocent than that. At least in the sense that forcing a woman to live with you in a bunker forever pretending to be your daughter but NOT raping her is innocent.

I would be remiss if I didn't think a little bit about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. They end up being nice pairs for each other, on completely opposite ends of the "kidnap girls and keep them in a bunker while the fake apocalypse is happening outside" genre.

Of course, in a move that echoes Frailty (2001), it turns out that the Apocalypse is very real. I'm not sure if MEW's best course of action would be to settle into her role as John Goodman's fake daughter in a creepy bunker forever, but it's amazing that the film continues for quite a while after he explodes in a fiery, acidy mess as she fights some aliens. It's kind of an odd turn that suddenly vastly increases the scope of the film, although it retains the repetition of theme, tense mood, and MEW's ingenuity for finding Chekov's Guns.

We should talk about this a bit of course - namely that the final moment where MEW throws a Molotov Cocktail into the mouth of the weird bionic alien ship is totally an exact rip-off of War of the Worlds (2005), although it's arguably a little cooler. Actually, that weird green mist also reminded me of War of the Worlds in the sense that these cats are just spreading their shit everywhere to kill all humans.

Of course, this leads us to the most badass ending in recent memory where MEW is given a choice between the safety of Baton Rouge or to join in the mayhem in Houston. She elects to go to Houston. I had some fridge realizations though that this actually may not be that consistent with her character - wouldn't she want to just take a break? Or does she have those natural instincts, where she actually gets off on this stuff? I felt a little bit of  The Hurt Locker (2009) going on here. I'm not sure if it exactly lines up with the film thematically or with MEW's character, but it sure is a fist-pumping moment that really works as you're watching it. Maybe it works. I'm still going back and forth on it. Comments on this are appreciated. What do you think?

I'll rarely talk about more technical aspects of film because I'm still working on actually being able to credibly discuss them, but I thought the framing and camera work here was actually fantastic. There's a great moment after MEW whacks Goodman in the head with a bottle and tries to escape, but then he asks her to stitch up his brow. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg uses a wide shot with both characters melding with the edges of the frame until MEW reluctantly decreases the distance and comes to help him. It's a fantastic construction. The film is full of these really great shots and framing work.

So, it's not without its problems, but I really dug this flick. I'd stick it with DeadpoolZootopia, and Midnight Special (2016) so far this year.

What did you think?

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