Tag Archives: Drew Godard

“CLOVERFIELD” Review (✫✫✫)

Turn the camera on.

Why is it when we think of monster movies, we remember the larger-than-life creatures more easily than we do the main characters? For instance, we don’t remember Ann Darrow as easily as we remember King Kong. We don’t remember Hideto Ogata over Godzilla. It’s simpler to remember Frankenstein’s monster rather than Dr. Frankenstein himself. And it’s easy to see why too: the monsters are more interesting than their human co-stars are. We all know someone like Ann, Hideto, or Victor because they’re all human beings, just like us. King Kong, Godzilla, and Frankenstein’s monster have never existed and can never exist. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate us so much: because they play on fantasy rather than reality.

Let Cloverfield, then, be the monster movie to flip the genre on its head. Not only do we not know the name of the monster that is tearing apart New York City, but our focus is poured almost entirely into the human survivors. It’s just as well too. Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that blends entertainment with art, method with innovation, fantasy with reality.

So yes, if you happened to miss the highly talked-about teaser trailer before the movie’s release, Cloverfield is another monster movie. There’s a big baddie, there’s a city, and chaos and destruction ensues. That’s how far the similarities extend. The difference in its approach this time around lies is its execution. While King Kong and Godzilla are framed and staged on a massive scale as monsters clobber each other and throw each other into buildings and landmarks, Cloverfield instead focuses on a smaller scale as found footage off of a New York City regular’s camcorder. This New Yorker is named Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and he is accompanied by his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) and his lover Beth (Odette Annable), of whom he has a complicated past with. Great time to have relationship problems, isn’t it? In the middle of a destroyed New York City while a monster is obliterating everything in sight.

Here is a movie that succeeds more as an experiment than it does as a film. Cloverfield is a movie that takes genre conventions and throws them out the back window, taking any direction it wishes as it propels its humans through the chaos of a quickly collapsing New York City. The risks it takes both pays off for itself and then doesn’t. Most of the time, the movie’s intentions shine clear and have a strong payoff for its audience. At other times, it’s shaky and unstable, much like this movie’s handheld shooting method.

I’ll start with the positives. First of all, it’s different. That much is a compliment you don’t hear too much nowadays in corporate Hollywood, which pushes out sequels and remakes like the happy meals at McDonalds. Yes, Cloverfield’s overall premise has been used and reused, but it’s originality comes from its forced perspective towards these human characters. Here’s a question for you: out of all of the horror movies you’ve seen, how many characters have you been able to relate to on a personal level? No, I’m not talking about relating to them in the sense that they’re running away from giant monsters or psychotic axe murderers. Sure, we like to root for Ellen Riply in Alien or Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but take them out of their own movies for a second. How many of them can you relate to as people rather than as movie characters?

Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that understands its characters before it understands its visual effects. This is in credit to both screenwriter Drew Godard and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, who both understand that for this story to work, we need to relate to the characters as regular people rather than as survivors. Them taking the time to change their focus and build on exposition works. After a very brief introduction, we understand who these characters are, their motivations, and their relationships to each other. When they die, it’s genuinely heartbreaking. It means something when they’re killed, as opposed to being just another number for the monster’s kill count. Because of our investment into Rob, Beth, Hud and others, we’re scared for them and with them as they’re running through a violently torn apart New York City, desperately searching for the people they love most. By making that the focus, Cloverfield works not just as a horror or monster movie, but also as a tragedy. Such deepness is rare for disaster pictures nowadays, but Cloverfield pulls it off well, unlike most of today’s big-budget blockbusters.

Of course, with this “found-footage” method of shooting, it also raises some problems for this production. For one thing, there is not a single steady shot in the movie. The camera is always shaking back and forth, which didn’t bother me as much, but I know it will cause motion sickness for some unfortunate viewers. Another problem is that with this shaky-cam method of shooting, some of the action flow is incoherent, or sometimes, lost altogether in a tense disaster scene. Most of the time, Bonvillain handles the camera well enough to capture important moments, like to focus on the tail of the monster or on a character when they are wounded. Sometimes though, Bonvillain’s method of shooting exceeds his talent on the camera. For instance, what do you see during a chase scene? A lot of the camera rocking back and forth between the motion of a character’s legs as they’re trying to get away.

The sad part is that Bonvillain is almost powerless to do anything about this. Making this a steady shot would do nothing to convince us that this was really happening, considering the camera is being supposably held by a movie character that A) Doesn’t know how to shoot, and B) Is in the middle of a literal disaster. But then again, the shakiness doesn’t do any favors for our eyesight either. You’re screwed either way.

I’ve repeatedly went back and forth on this movie, bobbling the pros and cons around in my head, trying to decide on which element beats out the others. There’s good cases to both sides. We identify with our heroes as people rather than as movie characters, and that humanity makes their crusade all the more important to us. The sense of mystery, eeriness, and hopelessness plays out perfectly like an H.P. Lovecraft novel. The scares and the thrills are all there. That much the movie has going for it. On the opposite end, though, we have a shaky camera that makes people want to vomit, a few genre cliches that the movie can’t escape from, and a pathetic, lackluster ending that just suddenly cuts off and leaves an empty, unfulfilled feeling for its desperately hungry audience. I have no problem whether a character lives or dies for the sake of drama, but when you’re stuck not knowing, that’s just dangling a hook in front of your audience that they’re never going to reach.

I’m giving the movie a thumbs up for one reason: it tried. It experimented. It did something different, and it partially worked out for itself. That’s a thumbs up not for the movie itself, but for the movie-making business.

Years ago, aspiring filmmakers dreamed of big visions in their heads. They experimented, they failed more times than they succeeded, but they took steps towards creating their visions, and their reward was seeing their beautiful, breathtaking ideas playing on the big screen. Filmmakers these days lack that creation or that aspiration, and they prefer piggybacking off of other people’s creations just for the big buck. The creators behind Cloverfield need to be honored not necessarily for their movie, but for their aspiration to create. They sought to make something all their own, and whether you like it or not, that’s exactly what they did.

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“THE MARTIAN” Review (✫✫✫)

Again with this, Matt?

Hollywood has spent too much money trying to bring Matt Damon home. I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. Our first venture to bring him home was in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Then, we brought him home from Syriana. His most recent attempt was in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar. And now we have The Martian.

Don’t worry, it’s a good movie. The story is thorough, the visual effects are convincing, and Damon does a great job evoking tension and sympathy from his viewers. I swear to God though, if he gets himself trapped on another distant planet or war zone anytime soon, I’m leaving his ass behind and joining a traveling circus with Jimmy Kimmel.

Based on the novel of the same name, The Martian tells the story of the Ares III crew, an astronaut team sent to scout and research the planet Mars. While there, the team gets hit by an intense sand storm and is forced to initiate an emergency evacuation from the planet. While making their escape, however, one of their teammates, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by debris and separated from his team. Believing he was killed, his teammates board the ship and launch away from the planet.

The Ares III team forgot to account for one thing, however. Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon, so of course he’s going to survive. He didn’t last through war zones, conspiracy theories, and elaborate heists just to let one planet do him in.

Now alone on a planet that is incapable of sustaining life, Mark Watney needs to figure out how to survive and eventually escape from the planet Mars.

This film is directed by Ridley Scott. You can see that as either a good or bad thing depending on what part of his filmography you’re looking at. It’s true, he’s known for science-fiction classics including Alien and Blade Runner, as well as the Academy Award-winning Gladiator. But in recent years, he’s also been responsible for a number of duds. For example, has anyone seen, and liked, Robin Hood, The Counselor, and Exodus: Gods and Kings?

Well, don’t worry dear reader: Scott is back in his prime, and he orchestrates his environments beautifully here. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily just because of him. This world was crafted from the mind of author Andy Weir, who before writing The Martian was a software engineer for Sandia National Laboratories, AOL Inc. and Blizzard Entertainment. When he originally published The Martian on his website, he conducted extensive research on Mars’ geography, astrodynamics, and botany to make the book as scientifically accurate as possible.

By the time Ridley Scott and writer Drew Godard read the book, they didn’t have to adapt it so much as reproduce it.

The thing I love most about The Martian is the research that went into it. When it starts, you think this is going to be another survival story in space, not too dissimilar to Gravity or Apollo 13. The surprising thing, though, is that The Martian isn’t so much thrilling as it is fascinating.

Picture being stuck on a planet with no water, no oxygen, and no food. Seems hopeless, right? And indeed it is, but Watney was trained for environments like this. He adapts. He learns to deal with what he is given. So how does he react to having no water, oxygen, or food? He creates his own water by super-heating Mars’ humidity, he tears apart NASA machinery to stockpile on oxygen resources, and he learns to artificially grow his own potato garden by planting them in (don’t vomit) his own feces.

These are just a few of the problems Watney faces in the film. How does he create transportation? How is he going to communicate with NASA? What does he do if a sandstorm blows open a hole in his space station? What if his crops suddenly die out? What if he runs out of oxygen? What then?

This is how the film builds tension: by throwing impossible survival situations at our poor hero and watching as he dissects for a solution. Does his methods get outlandish? Of course they do, but they are reasonably outlandish, and that’s because of the reality Weir grounded Watney in while writing his novel.

Scott’s visual prowess lends well to the film’s scientific applications. In terms of scale, this film operates on a smaller budget than his other recent films (Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings’ budgets were $200 million and $145 million, respectively. The Martian’s was $108 million). Yet, in comparison, I’m inclined to say this is his most visually authentic film yet. The reason is because of Scott’s use of practical effects. For science-fiction films, it’s so easy to place your character in front of a blue screen and plaster generic Mars footage in the background. That wasn’t good enough for Scott. For the background alone, he went and filmed the production in the Wadi Rum Valley in Jordan, which has the appropriate sandy landscapes and shade of red that is accurate to the geography of Mars. He constructed 20 sets for the many areas Watney traverses. His production crew grew legitimate potato crops so they could capture the process of photosynthesis on film. For any other director, they would have settled for the easy way out, plastering CGI around your actor and having them react to what isn’t there. That wouldn’t do The Martian justice. Scott knew that and created the best visuals possible for a movie that deserved it.

I have one gripe with the film, and that is its climax, which ironically is supposed to be the high point of the film. I can’t say exactly what happens with the end, but I will say it went on for too long. By the time we arrive at the climax, we know what’s going to happen to Watney. What kind of a movie would this be if it ended any other way than what we were expecting? The thing is that Scott treats us as if we’re too oblivious to it, and he draws it out to a ridiculous length in an attempt to further thrill his audience. It doesn’t work. By the time the ending rolled around, I was looking at my watch, wondering how much longer this scene was going to drag out. Climaxes aren’t supposed to do that. They’re supposed to keep you further engaged with the film: not waiting, impatiently wondering when its going to end.

So does Mark Watney survive? You tell me. He is played by Matt Damon.

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