Cloverfield Paradox, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Although entertaining on the surface, one realizes that halfway through “The Cloverfield Paradox,” based on the screenplay by Oren Uziel, the picture is merely composed of pieces from great sci-fi horror projects that came before, from its look to major plot points. This is an issue because without an identity of its own, the problems of the messy latter half are all the more amplified. It is easier to overlook shortcomings of an ambitious work with some original elements because at least we are given something new to digest, to think about. As a result, the project is a mild disappointment despite early high points.
With several nations being on the edge of worldwide war due to a severe energy crisis, pressure is on seven researchers, each from a different country, aboard a space station to modify the settings of a particle accelerator and create a source for an infinite amount of energy for everyone on the planet to use. After two years of crushing failure, their most triumphant day also turns out to be their worst: the correct setting has been achieved but it comes with the cost of unleashing unimaginable horrors on the planet as well as within the space station.
The cast is composed of solid actors not strangers to character-driven work. Because the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, and Daniel Brühl are capable of delivering subtleties behind every emotion and course of action, individually and as a unit, they have a way of grounding increasingly impossible situations into something digestible, relatable. For instance, Mbatha-Raw provides dramatic gravity to a grieving mother whose children perished in a fire. During her character’s more intimate moments, particularly when she is by herself in a room wrestling with regret and painful memories, she is careful not to rely on melodramatic techniques in order to establish a connection with the audience. Couple these performers’ strengths with an intriguing, mystery-filled first half, the picture promises an experience that will continue to fascinate and surprise.
A barrage of space station problems is one of writers’ techniques to increase tension. This approach works for a while since these scenes are propelled with high energy and urgency. However, when the film reaches quiet moments between action, it is significantly less involving. Tension flatlines rather than maintaining small peak-to-peak amplitudes that can soar at a drop of a hat. There are ways to maintain tension divorced from action, high decibels, and visual effects. This is where the screenplay comes in.
Attempts are made by introducing suspicions and strange characters with questionable motivations, but the third act is so poorly executed, so filled with clichés, that there is ultimately a lack of payoff. Yes, the final act involves scrambling for a gun. And, yes, there is a last-second would-be twist that relies on the bellowing of the score rather than thought-provoking silence. The last fifteen to twenty minutes, I think, personifies what is wrong with numerous sci-fi action pictures of today: they are strangers to elegant and subtle denouement. Must everything be so grandiose, ostentatious?
Directed by Julius Onah, “The Cloverfield Paradox” might have benefited greatly from an audience test screening or two because the bits of poor writing can be recognized easily and therefore fixed in some way, perhaps by providing twists within or from certain clichés. While the work does not aspire to become a new classic, it must be modern, relevant, and clever for its time throughout its entire duration.
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing? — Khalil Gibran, “The Prophet”
Although segregation has been struck down in the country, Southern states still prevent African-Americans from registering to vote. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), having just received a Nobel Peace Price, urges President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law, now known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that will make it illegal for American citizens, despite one’s color, to be discriminated against and hindered from voting. To inspire the president to pass the federal legislation, Dr. King and his colleagues arrange a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
“Selma,” written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay, balances rousing and small moments with elegance and panache. It commands a silent power that bleeds through one scene to the next and by the time Dr. King must deliver a speech, it is urgent, explosive, and moving—a reminder that when it comes to racial discrimination, our country, despite its progress, still has long way to go.
Oyelowo is magnetic in playing a monumental public figure. I admired that he has found a way to communicate that his character is very much a man of intellect and yet he knows how to talk to people in such a way that he almost always ends up getting what he sets out to accomplish. This is difficult to do; a less capable performer might have relied on physical or aural resemblance to create a character rather than wearing the skin and living that character. Oyelowo is a joy to watch whether it be during powerful speeches or moments of vulnerability when having a real conversation with his wife (Carmen Ejogo).
The fight between husband and wife that takes place in the middle of the film is critical because it shows Dr. King as an imperfect man. In school, we learn about the man’s great accomplishments. Here, we get a chance to learn the difference between Dr. King in the public sphere versus Martin in the private sphere. The fight humanizes the figure.
It is most appropriate that the scenes which command the most attention take place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There is real tension as hundreds of black people march toward a white police force, the latter all too-ready to use their tear gas, guns, whips, clubs. Not only is the brutality of violence captured but also the sheer hatred toward The Other. These are not scenes of violence that come across as rehearsed and so we watch in real horror as helpless individuals—a lot of them of a certain age—getting thrown around and pummeled without restraint. It is necessarily that we absorb this violence as if it were being done to us or our loved ones, especially viewers of color.
The film is criticized for some inaccuracies but I am not a historian. What I do know, however, is that the material is worth seeing because it is well-acted, beautifully photographed, and its essence remains relevant in modern day America. And yet, which I found most refreshing and surprising, the work has a certain relaxed quality about it. It is not solely composed of one important scene after another. It actually gives us some time to breathe, process and, perhaps most importantly, to make connections regarding racial tensions in our country today.
Jack Reacher (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
From several hundred yards away, six shots are fired and five people—four women and one man—drop dead. Everyone believes it is an act of random shooting by someone who has gone insane. The investigators, led by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), are in luck to have found a fingerprint on a quarter inside a parking meter closest to where they believe the sniper aimed for his targets. It belongs to James Barr (Joseph Sikora) who has conveniently fallen into a coma after fellow inmates almost beat him to death. Lucky for him, his request for a man named Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) reaches Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the District Attorney’s daughter intent on making sure Barr gets a fair trial, and Reacher pays close attention to the news.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, “Jack Reacher” is a slick and intelligent thriller that is bold enough to break its razor sharp tension from time to time and allow humor to seep through when it is least expected. What results is a thriller with a gravitational pull; one that is capable of smirking at its audience but it never gives the impression that it is above them.
The opening scene that involves the shooting and the resulting investigation are executed with confidence. Since not one line of dialogue is uttered, just sounds of the gun and images of people running away from danger, horror and curiosity are amplified. It allows us to ask questions not only about the shooter and his motivations, but also those performing the investigation. With the latter, smooth and consistent cuts are utilized. Since no one speaks a word, we do not get the feel of who they are and their methods. We see only the pieces of evidence that must be bagged. There is an immediate red flag. In good thrillers, finding straight-cut answers are almost never that easy.
Cruise employs his usual balance of charm and cold calculation, but this does not mean his techniques are tired. On the contrary, they are appropriate for his character, someone who has had extensive military experience, a ghost in a crowd of faces. Although the plot involves a mystery, Reacher is a curiosity, too. He is quick to put things together and even quicker on his feet. There is a discussion later on involving people who appear smart because they are so specialized in a task or field. Upon closer examination, they are not really. Their response times are just faster than everyone else because, in short, their minds function mostly through familiar patterns. Having not read the novels by Lee Child, I was genuinely interested in figuring out if Reacher was that type of person.
Humor takes center stage when Reacher interacts with ordinary folks, from guys who pick a fight in a bar to an old but spirited man (Robert Duvall) who owns a shooting range. I was tickled by the fact that they tend to underestimate Reacher, whether it has to do with his physicality or ability to logically sort through misinformation, until, of course, it is too late. I probably would have, too, given that the man wears the same shirt every day.
The sexual tension between Reacher and Rodin is uncomfortable but not in an enjoyable way. The manner in which the characters inch toward one another and then having to pull away feels too silly, tonally off, something from a bad romantic comedy. I would rather have seen them have a go at each other and later apply their complete focus and attention on the investigation. Because of this, the final third is disappointing. There is confusion: is Reacher determined to rescue Rodin because he has romantic feelings for her or is his drive mostly due to the remaining guilt from having failed to save someone else?
And then there is the mastermind of it all. This person gives a powerful speech about being a survivor, but we are not given a sufficient answer as to what exactly he or she hopes to benefit from the shooting. A line or two offers an explanation but it is almost too generic for someone who has gone through all the trouble.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.