Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield (2008)

The hype for this movie has been building steadily ever since the cryptic trailer premiered in front of The Transformers last summer. First all there was was the name J.J. Abrams, the guy behind the hit TV show Lost, and the date 1-18-08. Then some cryptic websites popped up, begging people to find answers... but not really giving any. Then in the past few weeks, a new trailer with a second or two of a monster leg just heaped buzz on top of the pile that had already formed. So today, the question is finally answered... was Cloverfield worth the build up?

Woah, woah, woah Nelly...set it up for us a bit...

Ok, as the movie starts, we see a bunch of weird Government Department of Defense screens, when some intro text flashes on the screen that the video we're about to see was found in the area that "used" to be known as Central Park. Wow. Ok, talk about setup. We know by just seeing the trailer that part of the Big Apple gets blowed up real good...but the area that USED TO BE CENTRAL PARK???? This movie now has my full, and undivided attention.

For the next hour and a half, every second of video we see is taken from the video found inside a home video camera. So we start out seeing people out shopping, getting ready for a going away party. Interspersed are some bits of the underlying video they are unwittingly recording over. This video shows a couple of people out on a couple dates from a couple months prior to the current night. Nothing that really seems too important to the story at this point (but rather poignant later), mostly just some background on the people we are obviously going to be following. Soon we are at the party itself, and the cameraman is going around getting going away messages from other party goers and other such merrymaking. Again, we're just getting to understand some personal dynamics between certain members of the party when the house began to twitch. The city began to pitch. Yes, what is believed to be an earthquake hits the City, and an oil tanker capsizes near the Statue of Liberty. So they decide to go up on the roof to try and get a look at what's going on.

That's when the fun really starts.

So, we get it's a monster movie...why is this one different than the rest?

Well, on the surface, it really isn't. The big monster comes in, destroys a lot of buildings, kills a lot of people, and the government comes in to fight the monster. But to dig a little bit deeper, you start to see subtle differences. First off is the way the movie is shot. The easiest way to explain it is the monster movie version of The Blair Witch Project. The next thing I noticed is how quickly the military is mobilized to take on the monster. I'll get back to why this really stuck out to me in a bit. I think the third thing that really struck me was just how powerful this monster was. Now, I've seen some Godzilla movies, I know they can mess up a city fairly quickly...but this one destroys all of lower Manhattan, and gets near Midtown within SECONDS of its move onto land. Not to mention how the Statue of Liberty's head gets used as a bowling ball. That's a level of destruction I have never seen before, and that's not even talking about the Alien / facehugger / velociraptor parasites this bad boy seems to carry around for fun. This is one bad mofo.

You said something about questions...what kinds of questions?

If you don't want anything spoiled, you may want to skip this bit...

Because of the perspective the movie is shot from, there are far more questions than answers in this movie. This may leave a bad taste in some people's mouth. Some of the questions that ran through my mind while watching the movie, and thinking about it soon afterwards:

Where did this monster come from?
Are there more?
Did they actually kill the thing?
Does any part of New York still exist?
Since when did stores carry cell phone batteries that were already charged?
Where the heck did they find a video camera battery that lasts that long?
It's pretty obvious that the government knew about this being before the attack...why didn't they do something about it?

Final thoughts

As a disaster movie, I would have enjoyed seeing more of the destruction, but I understand fully why it wasn't shown. You still get to see plenty of building explode, lots of crumbling walls... the Empire State Building coming down like a cheap tent during a stiff breeze was alarmingly subtle, but effective at showing the raw power of this beast, and you do get to see up close and personal just how fierce it is. As a monster movie, I believe this has to be one of the most ferocious and strongest monsters I have ever seen. I mean, this thing takes a stealth bomber strafing to the back, and it barely phases the thing...that's STRONG. I really wish we were able to learn more about this thing.

One thing I want to mention, is how well humor is used to break up the action. There is a scene that takes place in the subway, and the personalities of the characters really come out and there are some genuinely big laughs. Maybe it's just out of how unexpected it is for someone to crack a joke while trying to escape a monster that can take down the Brooklyn Bridge with one swipe, but for whatever reason, they had our audience laughing HARD for a good five-minute chunk of the film. That was a nice way to mix things up to make the audience lower their guard for just a few minutes before things get rolling again.

So there's Cloverfield. It didn't quite meet the hype I had built up, but I was not disappointed by the film, in fact I rather enjoyed it. I could definitely see two more movies coming out of this project. A prequel that explains the origins of the monster, and a sequel that gives closure to the whole insane experience. Because, let's face it, even though our story got closure...there's a whole lot more that happened once the camera shut off. I kind of hope those movies don't get made, because I think they may cheapen this experience. Of course, if they do make those movies...I will be there because I am so very intrigued by this monster right now. This movie gets a very solid B.

Next time, I don't have a planned movie to review. I'm thinking about digging into my stack of DVDs of made for TV disaster movies from the mid 1990s. Also, upcoming in a few weeks, we're going to take our first step outside the world of disaster movies, and into a disaster board game. Should be fun.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sunshine (2007)

Sometimes a movie comes along that just hits a sweet spot. Director Danny Boyle's (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) Sunshine was one of those movies for me. With it's recent DVD release, it is my hope that more people will take a chance on what I feel was one of the most underrated films of 2007. Because I want people to see this movie, I'm going to try and keep spoilers and in-depth descriptions to a minimum, but I will say that even while trying to be vague... spoilers will probably abound.

But isn't this a disaster movie blog? Where's the disaster and chaos and carnage?

The most valid argument against reviewing this movie here. It's true that Sunshine does not meet the criteria I set up just a few weeks ago when I decided to start writing these reviews, but I still believe it's worth discussing. For one thing, the story only exists because of an ongoing disaster which, if not dealt with, will end up with the Earth plunging into eternal darkness...and surely the imminent extinction of all life. Of course, you never see the Earth until the last minute of the film, but again if this disaster wasn't occurring, this adventure would not need to take place.

OK, we'll play along, so what's the disaster?

Basically, in the near future, the sun (a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees) is dying. It is turning into an inert material, and therefore is not producing much light / heat for the Earth. About 7 years prior to our entry into the story, a group of seven astronauts were sent to the sun with a giant nuclear warhead (disaster movie cliche #1) to attempt to reignite the sun. As far as anyone knew, they were not successful, so a new crew was sent out with all the remaining radioactive materials on Earth collected in a bomb that weighs as much as Manhattan Island. They are truly Earth's last hope.

So what's so special?

The main reason this movie has stuck with me so deeply is that it is one of the most visually stunning movies I have seen in a long time. There is one scene in particular fairly early in the movie where the special effects and the story and the AMAZING musical score combined to not only send chills down my spine...but took my breath away for a few seconds. It was easily the most amazing scene I have ever experienced in a movie theater. How's that for some hyperbole? The first 3/4 of the movie is a lovely piece of old-school science fiction; at times even feeling a bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey. While there is action...there is a slow and deliberate pacing to a lot of the action scenes which really helps draw out the emotional content of the scenes.

And now... M. Night Shyamalan

Not literally, but it is impossible to discuss this movie without bringing up the twist about 20 minutes before the end of the movie. This twist has violently divided people who have seen the movie. Because, you see... how do I do this gently, a new "human" character joine the Icarus II's crew. Up to this point, every bit of conflict has been between the crew, or some crisis on the ship. But there is a larger debate that our new "friend" brings up. Should we be meddling with God's work? Maybe it's just His way of saying "Ok, you humans were a good experiment, but really, I'm done with you."

It's a fascinating question, and one I'd like to have spent some time exploring. Sadly, we don't get that exploration time, we have to settle for a shift in tone for the entire movie from sci-fi to horror. Because this new character we meet, believes that we shouldn't be trying to stop the inevitable, and he takes it upon himself to make sure the mission fails...violently. Having said that, I absolutely love the way the character is presented visually. You can tell he's severely burned, but you never get a good look at him. He's blurred out, shot from weird angles, even white noise is used to completely unnerve the is quite an interesting series of scenes. I for one find that the ending, while flawed, still works. I wish I could see the movie continue with the original tone...and see how the story would have unfolded that way.

All we are is dust in the (solar) wind

Sunshine was my third favorite movie I saw in a theater in 2007. I liked it that much. It's not perfect, but wow, what an experience it was. I was deeply saddened to see how this movie got buried. It never got any publicity, it never got a big theatrical release, and even its single DVD release with a few extras, but not a ton, got buried until after the holiday season. So I felt it was important to bring Sunshine some more well-deserved attention.

As another plug for a movie that got no love that needs to be seen by more people: Shoot 'Em Up, Shoot 'Em Up MY GOD SHOOT 'EM UP. Thank you.

Well, as I post this, it is just after 1:00 AM on 1-18-08. Which means one thing. In about 9 hours, I'm going to try and get into a showing of Cloverfield. And while it doesn't meet my usual criteria again (I don't think monster movies are true disaster movies)... the way the Statue of Liberty's head gets used as a bowling ball has got all my disaster-sense tingling. So look for my thoughts on Cloverfield here very soon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Poseidon (2006)

So, for no visibly particular reason, 2006 brought us a big-budget, big-screen remake of the classic Poseidon Adventure. With an all-star cast (Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfus), and an all-star director (Wolfgang Petersen); the stars seemed to be aligned for a spectacle that could possibly outshine the 1972 classic. Sadly, a nearly non-existent script and poor character development sink this remake.

If I were to nail down what bothers me about this movie most; it is that I don't care if any of these people live or die. In the brief time we get to meet them before the boat flips over, we meet a bunch of people being snarky to each other, and a gay man whose mate had found another man. He may be the only character that gets developed enough to really form any kind of emotional attachment with. And even then, just before the wave hits, he's getting ready to end his own life... apparently seeing a huge wave coming at you changes your outlook on life.

So, with barely any character development before the disaster, surely the script will remedy that with lots of sharp banter, and detail the rest of the journey right? Yeah, not so much. There's a lot of yelling and screaming, but nothing truly memorable. In the original, there were several great exchanges between Reverend Scott and Mr. Rogo in particular. Here there are a couple of sappy moments between boyfriend and girlfriend, and between boyfriend and girlfriend's father, but overall there's just nothing going on dialog wise to give us any depth to the people we are following.

The most notable scene where some dialog would have helped is near the end. In the original, Rev. Scott has a rather heated exchange with God, it's a very memorable and bittersweet scene I talked about last time. Here? Our hero (Josh Lucas' character...despite seeing the movie several times, I still can't remember any one's name) yells "I can't do it", grunts a couple times, and then saves the day. Wow. Stirring.

Now on to the stuff I did like, and I did like quite a bit. First of all, this movie is pretty unrelenting pace wise. There is one fairly long break nearer the end of the movie that gives you some time to breathe. Other than that, there is always something exploding, or something important just about ready to go underwater.

Second, the ballast tank scene may be one of the most tense I have ever experienced. As everyone is sitting, silent, waiting and hoping for this valve to open. You think all hope is lost, when suddenly it opens and everyone is thrown into the next tank...just to do it all again. It's a really well done scene.

Third, there are many nice moments that touch on scenes from the original (whether they were intentional or not). Most of them were small things, like tossing a sheet over a dead body with a horrified look. Others were more blatant such as the scene where the precocious young kid holds onto a bolted down item to survive the flip (changed from a table to a piano, but it's basically the same), and then has to jump into a sheet to join the rest of the people.

Overall though, this movie just seemed to miss the mark. It's not all bad, but it just pales in comparison to the original. I would be remiss if I didn't mention one thing Poseidon has that the original doesn't: Kevin Dillon and the worst acting job in the history of cinema as Lucky Larry. This over the top portrayal of a boorish, drunken, womanizer stuck in a 1970s that I don't think actually existed is so comically's actually worth the effort to see. Literally, the character is so bad, that when he dies about 10 minutes later, you actually feel better for the rest of the movie that they don't have to try and fit his shtick in anymore.

I give Poseidon a C-. It just does not have the magic that the original had.

Is there even more Poseidon? Why yes there is!

While there is a sequel to the original Poseidon Adventure, and a made for TV version of the movie as well (and possibly even more movies I don't even know about yet!). I'm going to come back to look at those at a later date.

Next time I'm going to answer the question of "When is a disaster movie not a disaster movie?" by looking at the recent DVD release of one of my top 5 favorite movies of 2007: Sunshine. Because, even though it does not fit my (or many other) definition of a true disaster movie...the movie wouldn't exist if the Earth wasn't in danger. Then of course, 1-18-08 is Cloverfield day. And when a movie trailer starts with a scene of New York City going up in a big ball of fire...THAT has my full and complete attention.