(Netflix Streaming, February 2018) Some movies are events more than movies and The Cloverfield Paradox is one of those—the events surrounding the film’s release are far more interesting than the film itself. To recap: third in a series of increasingly incoherent anthology movies somehow revolving around the word Cloverfield and the quest for corporate profits, the film once known as The God Particle was retooled to fit in the Cloverfield series during shooting, bought from Paramount by Netflix and released online mere hours after the first broadcast of its trailer during Super Bowl XLI. There has never been such an instant release of a mid-budget Hollywood film before (other Netflix originals were long in the making, and marketed traditionally), and that is the very definition of hype. Alas, when you strip away the hubbub and take a look at the film itself, what’s left isn’t much more than a disappointing space-station horror film. Even by the low standards of the sub-genre, The Cloverfield Paradox is less than it should have been: the plot is fairly dull, the subplots barely make sense and—adding insult to injury—the film features an explanatory broadcast explaining that once technical mumbo-jumbo is achieved, anything and everything can happen without explanation, not just in this movie but others as well. The crazy thing is that even as dumb a manoeuver as this may work: There’s a sizeable Cloverfield fandom out there, and it seems dead-set on rationalizing even the laziest half-hints provided by series producer J.J. Abrams. For clear-headed viewers, the scam is obvious: despite the elaborate ARGs and the mythology hints and the nonsense mystique of “The Mystery Box,” this is all a bunch of nonsense loosely tied together without purpose, taking advantage of the nerdy OCD trait of creating connections when there are none. The Cloverfield Paradox is about slapping a label on a substandard product and selling it at twice the expectations. The irony is that if it had been released in its original formulation, The God Particle could have been a pleasant low-expectations surprise. I do feel sorry for actors as talented as Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Daniel Brühl, doing their best but stuck in a nonsense film. Moment of directing also shine, but they’re quickly buried under the film’s internal contradictions and incoherent plotting—from a technical perspective, The Cloverfield Paradox is a s slick as any mid-budget Hollywood production. But I almost hope that Bad Robot has pushed too far with this second off-label Cloverfield product—now that the modus operandi of tying spec scripts to a blurry mythology is clear, the Cloverfield brand has been tainted as a low-end product. A fourth entry, Overlord (no telling what it will be named once it gets out) is planned for later in 2018. We’ll have a better idea by then how sustainable is that marketing model.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) By this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we should be used both to mere competency and the dangers of expecting too much. So it is that Captain America: Civil War is both a pretty good piece of pop entertainment, and one that probably won’t change all that much in the series despite its grandiose title. It does have the good sense of taking its dramatic motives in the past movies of the MCU, showcasing the death and destruction of previous instalments as excuse to contain the superheroes of the series. Conflict soon erupts when some of the superheroes rather arbitrarily divined themselves based on who thinks it’s a good idea and who doesn’t. It all leads to a fantastic airport fight, and then a not-so-fantastic fist-fight between Iron Man and Captain America. At least the action sequences are handled crisply by the Russo brothers, while the script is up to the usual Marvel standards—which is to say, competent but a good step short of impressive. Then again, Marvel hasn’t become a powerhouse studio without learning what makes for a decent blockbuster, and Civil War is another example of how the studio can give the illusion of change without necessarily threatening its cash cows. Performances are fine: Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, while Robert Downey Jr. is his usual self as Tony Stark. A surprising number of characters, both old and new, turn up in this non-Avengers film, redefining expectations of scale when it comes to MCU mid-phase movies. The blend of comedy, character moments, thrills and visuals is up to the Marvel standard. Even Daniel Bruhl’s villain is a bit better than usual; well motivated, devious and arguably even successful in the end. It all leads to a conclusion that slightly changes the status quo, but leaves enough hints that it can be resolved rather quickly in time for the next instalment. After seeing the nonchalant way Hydra was built up and then destroyed in-between chapters, it’s best to keep expectations low and simply go along for the ride. Parallels with the contemporary Batman vs Superman (which shares quite a few plot points) are strongly in Marvel’s favour. Now let’s hope than it can keep this streak of competence going well into the future.
(On DVD, September 2016) Describing the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union on East German seems like an impossible task, but Good Bye Lenin gives a clever high-concept to make it accessible: What if a son found it necessary to pretend to his frail mother, having recently emerged from a coma, that the Soviet empire never fell? What would it take to maintain such a deception, and how out-of-step would their reality be with the one outside the walls of their apartment? At time heartfelt and absurd, writer/director Wolfgang Becker’s film manages to portray the craziness of pivotal times and the heartbreak of good people trying to hold back change, at least in some limited way. Daniel Brühl (who has since become a well-known actor in Hollywood movies) shines as the protagonist building an ever-bigger lie on behalf of his mom. While the film isn’t entirely gripping from beginning to end (there’s a lot more than a big elaborate lie to the film, and Good Bye Lenin often loses energy in trying to sustain the most conventional parts of its story), there is a lot to like here, and it’s a fascinating everyday-life look at a very specific period of world history that often gets short thrift in history books beyond “the wall came down”. This is world cinema at its most accessible; charming, funny, dramatic and instructive at once.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Given the speed and excitement of Formula 1 racing, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more movies about the sport. Considering Rush, though, the wait has been worth it: Easily eclipsing 2001’s Driven, this historical bio-drama has everything we’d wish for in a racing film, and strong historical accuracy as a bonus. Centered around the 1976 Formula 1 season in which British racer Daniel Hunt competed against Austrian legend Nikki Lauda, Rush is an actor’s showcase, a convincing period recreation, a virtuoso blend of special effects and crackling good drama. Expertly directed by Ron Howard, it’s gripping from the very first moments, pitting a charismatic playboy and a valorous technician against each other. Howard’s direction doesn’t stay still for long, and does a fine job at summarizing an eventful season’s worth of incidents into a striking whole. The atmosphere of the high-flying 1970s Formula 1 circuit is impressively conveyed, including impressive race sequences with period cars. (Was is done with CGI or practical? It doesn’t matter when the film is that good.) Much of Rush‘s effectiveness boils down to its two lead actors: Chris Hemsworth makes full use of his charisma as the seductive Hunt, his brashness clashing against the methodical Lauda very well-played by Daniel Bruhl. The two make for compelling rivals, and Rush makes maximum use of their conflict in allowing us a peek into the mind of top-notch race drivers. As exciting for its dialogue scenes than for its racing action, Rush may not look like much on paper, but becomes steadily engrossing without any effort from the viewer.