(On Cable TV, January 2019) I ignored Odd Thomas for years, working from the conviction that it couldn’t be more than an average film if it had been adapted from a Dean Koontz novel. (I once read twenty-some Koontz novels in the span of a single year, and liked only one of them.) But as it turns out, this movie adaptation is something different from the usual Koontz. Introducing us to a small-town California psychic, this is a film that makes use of chatty protagonist narration, a fast-paced plot and some off-beat details to tell a story with a well-rounded execution from familiar elements. I suspect that much of the fluidity of the result comes from director Stephen Sommers, a capable sfx storyteller who had a few high-profile movies between 1998 and 2009 but seems to have been sidelined of the industry since then. The plot has something to do with preventing a mass shooting, but the way we get there is far more interesting than expected with plenty of humour, suspense, ingenious use of fantastic tropes and good actors in key roles. The late Anton Yelchin stars as Thomas, with an early role for Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a supporting turn from Willem Defoe. The hook is interesting, and while there is something slightly off about the overly cute banter as well as some of the individual moments along the way (including a far too dark romantic conclusion), the execution is generally above average and the film is a bit of an unassuming surprise. Even though it’s more of an underrated B-movie than anything else, I probably shouldn’t have waited so long to see it.
(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, November 2016) As much as it’s not advisable to trust Hollywood for anything approximating a history lesson, Free State of Jones offers a quick dramatic primer on the incredible story of Jones County, a small area of the Confederate South that managed to rebel against the southern government and remain independent throughout much of the American Civil War. Matthew McConaughey stars in another substantial role as Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who defiantly returns home with his dead cousin and rebels against the local authorities, drawing more and more support along the way. This takes us through the Civil War, well into reconstruction and the difficulties encountered after the moment most war movies end. It ends up being an uplifting story about inclusiveness, rebellion against injustice and the power that small communities can have in shaping their destinies. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell have good supporting roles as wives who reach a curious understanding. Free State of Jones is not quite as successful as it could be: it feels long at more than two hours and a quarter, resorts to title cards to explain what it can’t dramatize, isn’t always able to make the most out of its scenes, loses its way in flashforwards and occasionally feels like it’s repeating the same thing. Still, it’s an interesting historical thriller, and it has a few weighty themes on its mind. It could have been better, but it easily could have been worse.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) The National Football League has wrapped itself so tightly in the American flag and associated values that attacking it seems outright blasphemous if not vaguely treasonous. So you’ll excuse Concussion if it carefully walks a line between denouncing the league and yet not offending any sensibilities. Transforming true events in a conspiracy thriller in which a lone brave doctor discovers the link between football and premature brain damage, Concussion pumps far too much drama in its structure. It works, but only to a point: While the middle third of the story is reasonably gripping, the first act leisurely establishes the endearingly nerdish personality of its protagonist, and the conclusion peters out without a clear triumphant moment to ease the lead character’s trials. As the headliner, Will Smith is actually pretty good: he credibly takes on a Nigerian accent and minimizes his natural cockiness in a role that only needs a fraction of it. It’s a refreshingly adult performance for an actor who has had trouble evolving his screen persona. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does good work in what is slightly more than a generic character, while Alec Baldwin still makes the most of his propensity to play antagonists … even when he isn’t. Football is America’s secular religion, and Concussion occasionally seems preoccupied by the need to pull its punches. The made-up conspiracy angle (with FBI raids! And car pursuits! And a miscarriage!) whimpers out, leading to an underwhelming conclusion that relies a bit too much on title cards. Concussion is not a bad film, but it does feel unfinished at times.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) There is often a tension, in modern-made period films, between the most idealized aspects of the era being presented and the modern values we wish they’d embody. Classic examples include Victorian Britain, as confronted with their terrible record on human rights; Antebellum Southern United States and slavery; the suburbs of the nineteen-fifties and the place left to women. (Heck, any historical period in Western history featuring anyone who wasn’t a straight white male.) But it’s occasionally possible to find a topic that manages to address both kinds of wish-fulfillment, and that’s something that Belle accomplishes quite well. The story of a half-black woman raised as an equal in a rich British families in the late 1700s, Belle builds its dramatic tension based on what we expect from such an era, and resolves them by showing ordinary people acting decently. Here really isn’t much more to that: the film’s big conflict is solved by revealing a panting (a real-life painting, as it turns out). As far as progressive-values film go, it’s basic but enjoyable – the period garb look fantastic, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is lovely in the lead role, director Amma Asante does well and Tom Wilkinson continues a highly successful string of good supporting roles. Belle doesn’t need to be much more than be amiable and look good, and it does that well.