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.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
With three number one singles and fresh off her win from the Billboard Award’s Top Song—even before her first album was released—Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) goes back to her hotel room and decides to jump off the balcony. Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer in charge of guarding her room, manages to talk her out committing suicide, but a slip on the railing and a few paparazzi are all it takes to sensationalize a story. Noni, who dreamed of becoming a singer since she was young, is just another pop star whose life, according to the press, is spiraling out of control. Not surprisingly, the truth is almost always more complicated than a few pictures.
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “Beyond the Lights” surprised me with its willingness to dive into various depths when it comes to how it may be like for a person whose profession involves receiving constant scrutiny while being under the spotlight. Based off the trailer, I came to expect a silly love story where a man rescues a woman from her unhappiness. On the contrary, the picture is about self-empowerment, learning to find the strength from within oneself to step out of another person’s shadow—in this case, parental expectations from Kaz’ father and Noni’s mother—and lead a life that is healthy, maybe imperfect, but one that feels right for herself.
The scenes between Noni and her mother, Macy (Minnie Driver), are dramatic but moving nonetheless. Not once is the screenplay shy about criticizing parents who treat their children like a product to be sold instead of a loved one to be protected. Driver embodies a manic intensity in portraying a scary parent that one would not want to disappoint or cross. With the film having a running time of two hours, which is a bit overlong in parts, I liked that the material provides a bit of her backstory, why she treats her own flesh and blood like a piece of five-cent meat.
Although less powerful, the scenes between Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a freshness to them, too. The two performers share chemistry physically but they do not rely on looking pretty or handsome to get us through their relationship. There is fluctuation in what they think and know about one another and so as they get to know each other, in turn, we feel like we are getting to know them.
Mbatha-Raw has the makings of an excellent, respectable, classy performer. To me, she delivered two performances: one with a purple weave on and one with her natural hair. Every time she is in front of a microphone and sings, it is magic. Not once does she forget that she is an actress playing a singer—not the other way around. Notice that when she sings, her facial expressions are more pronounced; though words are coming out of her mouth in a form of a song, her expressions command power because they highlight the emotions behind the words.
“Beyond the Lights” is an entertaining drama that makes some fresh choices. It is elevated by good performances, especially by Mbatha-Raw, and solid writing, at its best when not pushing too hard to be romantic. While watching the film, I thought about the female pop and R&B artists of today. I wondered if any of them could shine much brighter if image did not count as much and if the glitz and glamour were scrubbed off completely.
Larry Crowne (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), a former chef in the Navy, has been an associate at UMart for several years. He shares a camaraderie with his co-workers, is friendly to customers, and great at his job. When he is called in by his superiors, he suspects he is to be named Employee of the Month. In actuality, his bosses inform him that he has been let go, citing the bad economy as a reason. Also, they tell Larry that even though he is good at what he does, there is no chance of him ever climbing the corporate ladder because he did not go to college. His solution: to go back to school and get a degree.
Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos, “Larry Crowne” takes serious issues involving job instability and unemployment and colors them with a lighter shade, often to an amusing effect. Some might say that this is an inappropriate avenue given that there is nothing funny about a person losing his or her job. While getting fired or let go along with the feelings it unearths is a serious matter–more than a handful have become so desperate that they committed suicide–the filmmakers intended to make a comedy. Therefore, it must be evaluated with respect to the genre and not what we believe is or is not respectful.
When Larry decides to go back to school, the picture carries a certain excitement. From the people he meets, like cute-as-a-button Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her passion for vintage clothes, to the classes he signs up for, like Speech 217, The Art of Informal Remarks, led by Marcedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), and Economics 1, led by Dr. Ed Matsutani (George Takei), there is grace in the way subplots pile on top of one another. I enjoyed tug-o’-war between the youthfulness of the situation and Larry, no longer a young pup, trying to keep up with the groove. It is not always easy.
Serious situations are not simply swept under the rug. The scenes of Larry having to make difficult decisions since he can no longer afford the mortgage for his house ring some truths. His interactions with his neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson), holding a year-round garage sale, offers some humor but it has enough small, personal moments that serve as a reminder that they, too, have had their share of pecuniary instability. In a way, Larry sees the happy couple as possible life he can have if he can manage to get his life back on track somehow.
It is not just Larry who has to struggle. Mercedes is extremely frustrated with her husband (Bryan Cranston), a writer who claims he gets work done at home when, in reality, he spends a lot of his time looking at pornography. On top of her problems at home, she no longer feels passionate about teaching. So, she turns to alcohol to drown the thoughts and feelings that she does not want to deal with. I enjoyed that this message is communicated clearly: hangovers disappear but problems do not.
My problem with the movie is neither its intentions nor its small scope. It is in the many conveniences of the script that do not feel completely believable. While Larry and Mercedes are supposed to be yin and yang, their scenes wonderful to watch when life’s silly coincidences converge with their effusive charms, some strands left me wanting more.
For instance, Larry eventually joins a bike gang after being invited by Talia. There is chemistry between the two even though they are about thirty years apart in age. I felt that the material shies away from their electricity, relying on the bike gang distraction as a sort of quirk, an excuse for them to not deal with their feelings. Talia is an adult, smart and plucky, and there should have been no shame in a possible romance between them. Instead, the script conveniently paints her as “the nice girl,” a plot device designed to build a romantic bridge between Larry and Mercedes.
“Larry Crowne,” directed by Tom Hanks, is about people trying to make it through one day at a time but it needs more highs that feel more complete–highs that are not restricted to Mercedes binge drinking after a long day of work.