Monthly Archives: March 2016

Monster Mash

There’s big trouble above and below in ’10 Cloverfield Lane’

10 Cloverfield Lane

Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman & John Gallagher Jr.

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg

PG-13

Waking to consciousness after a car crash on dark highway, a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), finds herself on a pallet in a leg brace, hooked up to an IV drip—and chained to the wall of a subterranean concrete bunker.

“Please let me go,” she fearfully, tearfully begs when she meets the man who brought her there as he delivers a tray of food. “There’s nowhere to go,” Howard (John Goodman) calmly tells her. “Everyone outside of here is dead.”

There’s been an attack, he explains, a big one—maybe chemical, maybe nuclear, maybe Russians, maybe Martians. “Luckily,” he reassures her, “I’m prepared.”

So begins 10 Cloverfield Lane, the “little” movie—with a small ensemble cast of three, filmed almost entirely in a tight, enclosed set—that comes with such big expectations. Beginning as a script called The Cellar, it later enlisted the writer-director of the critically lauded Whiplash, Damian Chazelle, to “whip” the screenplay into something with a bit more bite. When Midas-touch superstar producer J.J. Abrams came onboard, fresh off the blockbuster buzz of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and changed the title, fans went crazy with frenzied speculation: How would this movie connect to Cloverfield, the 2008 surprise-hit monster-movie smash about an extraterrestrial attack, that he also produced?

Questions abound in (and about) 10 Cloverfield Lane, and if you want them answered, well—you’re just like the characters. And also like them, you’ll have to stick around to the end of the film, a terrifically tense, tightly wound underground psychological thriller that eventually explodes wildly, violently upward and outward.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead & John Goodman share close quarters in ’10 Cloverfield Lane.’

Is Howard an overzealous doomsday prepper, a conspiracy-theorist nut-job, a grieving father, a U.S. Navy vet who went off the deep end, all of those, none of those, or something else entirely? Why was Michelle in such a hurry to leave town that night? And what about Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the other guy in the bunker? What are those noises? Cars? Helicopters? Spaceships? Is the air outside really as contaminated as Howard says?

The mysteries mount, the clues pile up, the screws turn tighter and tighter, the distrust deepens, and claustrophobia and paranoia permeate every frame. Debut feature director Dan Trachtenberg, working with cinematographer Joe Cutter and production designer Ramsey Avery, creates an underground mini-labyrinth that teems with the details of Howard’s scarily obsessive mind—like a show home stocked from the Armageddon bargain bin of Bed Bath & Beyond.

Howard, Emmett and Michelle eat meals, play old board games, work jigsaw puzzles and listen to classic rock on an old jukebox in an artificial, increasingly edgy loop of normal domestic life. Frankie Valli’s “Venus” and Tommy James’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” never sounded so ominous and foreboding.

When things really break loose, in the movie’s final sequence, fans of the original Cloverfield will finally be able see just how this movie connects to the previous one. And as the address in the title suggests, monsters can come in all shapes and sizes, in all kinds of places, above us, below us and even right beside us.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Hop To It

Hip, heartwarming ‘Zootopia’ shows how far House of Mouse has evolved

Zootopia

Starring the voices of Gennifer Goodwin & Jason Bateman

Directed by Brian Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Rush

PG

A little girl dreams of leaving her rural hometown, moving to the city, becoming something no one else has ever been and making the world a better place. Sounds like a cliché, you say. Well, maybe—except in Zootopia, the little girl is a bunny, she wants to be a cop, and the city is full of other animals, but no people.

And there’s this: Rabbits are “prey,” like 90 percent of the population of the mammal metropolis of Zootopia, which is also home to predators—lions, tigers, wolves, foxes, jaguars. But over the centuries, prey and predators have evolved past their primal, biological instincts and learned to coexist…mostly.

And Zootopia, the latest Disney film, shows just how far the House of Mouse has evolved from dreamy prince-and-princess fairy tales of decades past. There’s bold new energy and excitement coursing through the studio, and it’s everywhere in this hip, ingenious, wildly creative tale full of wit, emotion and a message of inclusion, understanding and diversity.

To see where the movie gets its mojo, start at the top. Co-directors Brian Howard and Rich Moore’s credits include Disney’s Tangled, Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph as well as The Simpsons.

Zootopia’s first bunny officer Judy Hopps finds herself face to face with Nick Wilde, a fast-talking, scam-artist fox.

The smart, super-sharp story (Jennifer Lee, one of the writers, won an Oscar for Frozen, and Phil Johnson wrote the new Sacha Baron Cohen comedy The Brothers Grimsby and the underrated Cedar Rapids) begins with the departure of buoyantly optimistic Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) from pastoral Bunnyborough for the teeming Xanadu of Zootopia, where she aspires to become a police officer, the city’s first bunny cop. She does, and quickly hops smack into some deep-rooted prejudice, fears and stereotypes.

An elephant refuses to serve a fox in his ice cream parlor; a tiger is told, “Go back to the forest, predator!” It’s no stretch to substitute racism, sexism and other “isms” for the “species-ism” that Judy finds separating animals that are otherwise friends, neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens.

After Judy encounters Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly fox who makes his living running small-time scams and hustles, she soon must enlist his help investigating a mysterious case that’s baffled the police chief (Idris Elba, a blustery cape buffalo).

To say much more about the plot—which deepens and thickens considerably—would give away its many delights. The animal animations are outstanding, and the computer artists create special-effect magic melding the menagerie with the personalities of the actors—J.K. Simmons as a lion, Jenny Slate as a sheep, Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong) as a “naturalist” yak, pop star Shakira as a sexy gazelle (who sings the movie’s theme song, “Try Everything”).

The movie is a visual feast full of fun, suspense, surprise and adventure. It delivers its uplifting, more serious theme of unity and togetherness in a way that will rarely feel preachy or ponderous for kids. Grownups will keep busy tracking the dozens of pop-cultural riffs, sight gags and in-jokes, including meta-references to other Disney flicks and nods to classic Hollywood, like an especially clever Godfather scene and one of the best cop-doughnut jokes in any movie, ever.

From a talking mouse mascot to a flying elephant and 101 Dalmatians, Disney has always had a thing for animals. In Zootopia, they’re not only running the show, they’ve taken over the world. And they’ve got a very important, oh-so timely message for us all.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Fly Like an Eagle

‘Eddie the Eagle’ soars with inspiring tale of unlikely Olympic star

 

Eddie the Eagle

Starring Taron Egerton & Hugh Jackman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

PG-13

Ever since he was a tot, Great Britain’s Michael “Eddie” Edwards dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete. But the odds were always stacked against him.

Weight lifter, pole vaulter, discus thrower, hurdle jumper—he didn’t care. But no amount of backyard “training” made any difference. With congenitally wobbly knees bolstered by leg braces and thick eyeglasses to correct his terrible vision, young Eddie was no one’s idea of the Olympic ideal.

Though it takes a few—or more—liberties, Eddie the Eagle is based on the rousing real-life story of Edwards, who proved all the naysayers wrong to become an Olympic competitor, representing Great Britain in the 1988 Winter Olympics as a ski jumper. The movie traces his improbable journey, against the wishes of his working-class father, who urges him to settle into a proper trade, and England’s stuffy Olympic committee, which thwarts his every attempt to qualify for their team.

“Frankly,” one official dismissively tells teenage Eddie (Taron Edgerton), “you will never be Olympic material—goodbye.”

Eddie counters that curt farewell with his usual optimism, tenacity and pluck. Nothing is going to deter him. He sets off on his own to a Winter Olympics training facility, where he meets former ski champ Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), who reluctantly, eventually agrees to take Eddie under his wing.

As the stocky, bumbling, socially awkward Eddie, Edgerton is miles—or kilometers—away from his best-known former role as a stylish, slick super-spy in Kingsman. Jackman provides American-cowboy grit (all the way down to his boots) as a washed-up one-time “whiz kid” of the slopes and former Olympic star himself, who finds his own path to redemption through Eddie’s relentless ambition.

You probably haven’t heard of British actor-director Dexter Fletcher, whose films haven’t made much of a splash here in America. But he gives Eddie the Eagle a look, texture and sound perfect for its time and place, from Prince Charles and Lady Diana salt and pepper shakers on a kitchen table to the music, which combines pop and rock tunes of the era with instrumental synthesizer swooshes and swirls that would have been right at home driving the grooves of most any 1980s flick.

The movie shares its uplifting underdog spirit with Rocky, Rudy, Seabiscuit, Hoosiers and any number of other film sagas about individuals or teams that come from behind, power through roadblocks or are told they can’t, shouldn’t or won’t ever.

Hugh Jackman, left, poses with Eddie Edwards on the set of EDDIE THE EAGLE.

Hugh Jackman with the real-life Eddie Edwards on the set of ‘Eddie the Eagle’

When Eddie finally makes it to the Olympics, the crowd and the media love the naïve, effusively enthusiastic oddity who barely qualified for his team and who causes the announcers to declare, “The eagle has landed!” when he makes his climactic breathtaking, daredevil descent intact—and alive.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part,” we’re told, a quote from one of the games’ founders. And no one embodied that spirit like Eddie, whose inspiring, soaring tale of determination and personal triumph in the heartwarming Eddie the Eagle is a joy to behold as it takes flight.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Something Wicked

Potently unsettling tale burrows into your head to where nightmares live

 

The Witch

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie

Directed by Robert Eggers

R

In the modern world, “devils” are mascots for sports teams and witches vex pretty Disney princesses. But once upon a time, such things were much more serious and much scarier.

That’s the serious, scary and seriously scary setting for The Witch, in which a devout family in early 17th century New England is exiled from their settlement—the father (Ralph Ineson, who played Amycus Carrow in the Harry Potter movies) is too overbearing in his religious beliefs even for his Puritan neighbors to bear. When their one-horse wagon finally stops, they homestead on a scruffy patch of ground at the edge of a remote, dense forest.

Just as they’re getting into the rhythms of their new life, things start to go woefully wrong, beginning with the disappearance of their new baby boy, giggling in the grass one moment and gone the next. Did a wolf gobble him up? Or was it something more sinister—maybe a shape-shifting, spell-casting, baby-snatching sorceress?

All eyes look to the woods—and to the oldest child, teenage daughter Thomasin (19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy), who was in charge of watching the baby. She can’t explain what happened, and her inconsolable mother (Kate Dickie, from TV’s Game of Thrones) can’t forgive her. Her little brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), can’t stop casting guilty glances at her ripening signs of young-womanhood. And her very name itself includes the word “sin.”

Something wicked this way comes, indeed, especially when heinous accusations start to fly, pious prayers fill the air, crops fail, the chicken lays a bloody egg, and and the family goat, ominously named Black Phillip, begins to look, and act, more malevolent ever minute.

This super-creepy, potently unsettling film bowled audiences over last year at Sundance, where it took top honors for director Robert Eggers. It’s being marketed as a horror movie, and it certainly is that, but it has little in common with many other contemporary flicks sharing the label.

It’s a period piece rich in precise historical detail (including language), dedicated to an unflinching depiction of religious obsession driven to unholy extremes. Eggers drills into the same demonic DNA that made such movie classics as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining such disturbing dynamite; some of his images get inside your head and nest deep into cracks where nightmares live and lurk. It’s the first movie I’ve ever noticed a credit for a mental health counselor.

The movie is an eerie, roiling brew of double, double, toil and trouble, to be sure. But it also makes no bones about how Christian fanaticism in early America sometimes ran off the rails and plunged straight into the devil’s playground, especially when fear, superstition, hysteria and the suppression and oppression of females helped stir the cauldron. You don’t have to squint to see, a few decades down the road and just beyond the movie’s frame of reference, the notorious Salem witch trials looming in the distance.

The performances are riveting, especially from the youngsters, all newcomers. The soundtrack’s combination of synthesizers, dissonant orchestral tones and wordless choral pieces gives everything an unnerving underpinning of constant tension and dread. Director Eggers, a former production designer making his feature-film debut, is certainly a new talent to watch.

And The Witch, in limited release, is a knockout of a movie you should seek out—especially if you’re seeking something nightmarishly new that will chill you, and haunt you, like it’s the 1600s all over again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Race Relations

Jesse Owens biopic reminds us of runner and historic 1936 Olympics

Race

Starring Stephan James & Jason Sudeikis

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

PG-13

No one had ever seen anyone run anything like Jesse Owens.

The sharecropper’s son from rural Alabama began burning up the track in junior high. By the early 1930s he was setting new championship records for Ohio State University, and in 1936 he wowed the world, where he brought home four gold medals—for track, relay race and long jump—from the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

Race tells Owens’ tale, and its simple-sounding title packs a double meaning—about his fleet feet as well as the spotlight on him as a black man in a historically loaded moment in time, where he faced discrimination, racism and the pressure to represent his country and his “people.”

In the movie’s opening sequence, as Owens (Stephan James) prepares to leave home for college, his mother touches a scar on his bare chest, the leftover of a childhood tumor that almost claimed his young life. “God spared you for a reason,” she tells him.

That reason, the movie leads us to believe, was to stand up for what’s right, to walk (and run) humbly with your God-given gifts—and to stick it to the Nazis.

In 1936, the movie shows us, the United States was conflicted about whether to participate in the Summer Olympics at all. Germany had won the bid to host the events five years earlier, two years before Nazi Germany came to power. Adolph Hitler’s goal of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired master “Ayran race” was already making nasty international ripples. When a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee pays a diplomatic visit to Berlin to negotiate terms of America’s participation, he sees signs outside the gargantuan Berlin Sports Center reading “No Jews or Dogs.”

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten) keeps the camera rolling for the 1936 Olympics.

Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), expecting his highly trained athletes to dominate, wants to use the Olympics as the ultimate world stage to showcase German grandeur. He’s hired his country’s acclaimed filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten), to document everything from start to finish.

Jason Sudeikis

Director Stephen Hopkins takes a mostly straightforward, meat-and-potatoes approach, especially to Owens’ life in Ohio, where we meet his wife-to-be Ruth (Shanice Banton) and his coach, Larry Synder (Saturday Night Live TV vet Jason Sudeikis, very strong in a non-comedic role). The movie doesn’t really come alive until Owens arrives in Berlin, specifically when he first steps onto the futuristic field and is awestruck by a hundred thousand cheering spectators, a massive dirigible overhead blocking out the sun, Nazi banners, athletes giving “Sieg Heil!” salutes—and the sight of dur füher in his boxed seat.

Owens was an enormous part of the history of the 1936 Olympics, where his achievements delivered a big black slap to Germany’s smug Nazi face about their so-called racial “superiority.” A subplot about his friendship with their top athlete, Lutz Long, represents the bridges—instead of barriers—of the Olympics’ loftiest ideal.

After the Olympics, the great Owens came home a winner and a new record-setter, but we’re showed how his four gold medals didn’t exactly change the world—for him or anyone else. As the movie and the Black History Month timing of its release reminds us, there was—and remains still—a much longer race to be run.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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