Tag Archives: Matt Reeves

“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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Top Ten Films Of 2014

Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why all of the best of the year lists have to be in the top ten? Like, what sort of critic was working on his list and thought that ten would be the magic number? Why ten and not twelve? Or fifteen? Five? Twenty? Eight? Why was ten specifically chosen as the big number? Was it chosen at random, or was it actually chosen for some relevant, significant reason?

Regardless of whatever the case may be, I’m choosing to be a little rebellious this year. For the past few years, I’ve seen enough films to make a “Top 15″ list if I wanted to, but if I had done that, my site viewership would go down by about twenty views.

So this year, to battle the preconceived notion that “best of the year” lists have to have ten movies, I’m doing two different things. 1) I’m adding an “honorable mentions” selection that while those films aren’t necessarily in my top ten, they are still significant films that have contributed to the year’s industry regardless. 2) In honor of our first full year without the wise, sometime snarky, words of film critic Roger Ebert, I’m offering a special Grand Jury Prize, which honors a film from the year which has made a notable accomplishment that fits outside of my year’s top ten.

As always, there is a few things you need to know before I get into my year’s best. First of all, I haven’t seen all of the films the year has had to offer. I’ve heard from so many people how Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild was emotionally stirring, with Reese Witherspoon’s performance being the greatest highlight of the film. I’ve also read from critics that Selma, A Most Violent Year, and American Sniper were great movies as well, but guess what? None of those movies get a wide release until after Dec. 31, so I’m not able to even see those films until after the year anyway. So what am I going to do? Release a revision to my current list, or add those films to 2015 if they’re good enough? I’ll make a decision when it comes to that. It’s the studio’s faults for releasing those movies so late into the year anyway. Blasted film mongers.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this is my list for the best films of 2014. Not yours. There has been high praise from many notable films of the year, including Edge of Tomorrow, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of those films will be on my top ten list because I didn’t deem them worthy enough to be on there. It’s nothing against the films or the filmmakers: I just didn’t think they were good enough.

If you’re not satisfied with that, then please, make your own top ten list. I’d love to read it, and if your reasonings are sound enough, I’d like to share it with others.

Now then, let’s hop to it, shall we? Here are my top ten films of 2014:

10. Interstellar 

A mesmerizing, breathtaking, and exhilarating journey that may have only slightly exceeded it’s grasp. Based on an idea by physicist Kip Thorne and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar takes place in the future on a dying planet Earth, where the only source of sustainable food is by growing corn. When former aircraft pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon a secret station that has been hiding NASA for so many years, Cooper enlists in a daring space mission to find a new planet that will be able to sustain and save the human race. A testament to the quality of film that Nolan is consistent in making, Interstellar is a brilliantly woven, thought-provoking plot, invoking the same themes of humanity and identity that Nolan exercises in all of his films. McConaughey reaches an emotional depth much deeper than past “Nolan” actors, and succeeds in making his character more human than hero. This is Nolan’s most emotional movie yet, but it’s also his most complicated and convoluted. But if Nolan’s only real flaw with this film is being overly ambitious, I don’t consider that a flaw at all. Three and a half stars.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A crafty and artsy film that acts as a homage to the early days of cinema. After being framed for a violent murder of one of his former hotel guests, Concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) teams up with his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence through a series of weird, wacky, and crazy adventures. Written and directed by Wes Anderson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a peculiar, quirky film, a fun and enjoyable ride in it’s own singular way. Anderson is very specific with the direction of the film, using practical effects and set pieces that gives the film a very distinct visual style and aesthetic. The antics Gustave and Zero go through are the stuff of slapstick gold, with these guys doing silly stunts and chase sequences that reminds me of the silent film days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s definitely seasoned for the art house crowd, and it’s definitely more difficult to appeal to the masses. But if you allow yourself to be lost in it and have fun with it, you’ll find that it is easily the most unique film of the year. Three and a half stars.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2

A wildly exciting and entertaining animated ride that appeals to both kids and adults. When a crusade of dragon-hunters reach the land of Berk and begin their hunt for the flying beasts, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) must team up once again with his dragon Toothless to stop the brigade and save Berk’s dragons and dragon riders. Written and directed by Dean DuBlois, who returned from directing the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a near-perfect follow-up. It hits on every note it needs to, from the comedy, to the animation, to the action, to the emotion. Hiccup is a much stronger, yet more vulnerable, character now, and needs to face more mature situations now as a grown man rather than as he did when he was a boy. In many ways, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to it’s first counterpart as Hiccup is to his younger self: they both grew. Three and a half stars.

7. Gone Girl

A brilliantly frustrating thriller that exercises themes of infidelity and media harassment. When Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, all eyes turn to Nick for what happened to his wife. When clues slowly surface and more details surrounding the disappearance reveal themselves, everyone is asking the same question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife? Directed by David Fincher and written by author Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a masterfully orchestrated thriller, equal parts daring, inventive, intelligent, and unpredictable. Fincher propels Flynn’s brilliant plot forward with expert direction, eye-striking camerawork, and a cast that Fincher pulls the best from. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse. There is not one note in the film that you can guess is coming. Three and a half stars.

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human/primate condition as two sides to one coin. After the chemical attack on planet Earth that took place at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leaders of the apes and the humans, respectively. As the human-primate war rages on violently, Caesar and Malcolm begin to see that the apes and the humans aren’t so different from each other, and they begin to explore any possibilities of peace between two races. Matt Reeves builds an intelligent, in-depth story around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and handles its premise with skill and precision.  It surprising that the basis of this film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. Serkis is a revelation in the movie, and deserves an Oscar nomination for both his physical and emotional performance. Four stars.

5. Birdman

One of the most mesmerizing, unique, disturbing, shocking, and darkly funny films I’ve ever seen. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu writes and directs this ingenious dramedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie actor trying to escape his image in a former superhero role by adapting his favorite broadway play to the stage. Keaton is a natural in the role, relating his own experience to portraying Batman in order to further authenticity for the character. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski contributes to the visual design of the film, shooting and editing it to look like one, continuous shot rather than multiple longer takes. But Inarritu is the most essential storyteller here, making a visual and emotional masterpiece that is so distinct in its own language that it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Four stars.

4. Whiplash

One of the most edgy, thrilling, and provocative films of the year. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, an upcoming college student who is majoring in music and dreams of becoming one of the best drummers in the country. A series of events lands him in the top jazz orchestra of Shaffer Conservatory and under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but harsh and antagonistic instructor who is known to go very hard on his students. Andrew and Fletcher both develop an intense rivalry that both hurts Andrew, angers Fletcher, and yet equally compels them both to become the very best they can be. Writer/director Damien Chazelle conducts both actors through his sophomore effort, and does a great job in producing a tense, electric vibe consistently throughout the film. Teller and Simmons’ chemistry with each other is equally perfect, with the both of them bouncing off of each other’s words and emotions as perfectly as a drum beat. This film is about more than just music. It’s about the human desire to be great and what sacrifices we’d make to get there. Four stars.

3. Boyhood

The most revolutionary film of the year, ambitious in both production and vision. A twelve-year project pioneered by writer/director Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, chronicling his entire life from when he was six years old, up until when he turns 18 and leaves for college. The movie isn’t so much a story as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is pulling each photograph out of it just to show it to us. When he is younger, Ellar isn’t acting but living, behaving like any other child would in the moment because he is in the moment. As he gets older, his performance gets more stagnant and Coltrane becomes more of a surrogate for us to express our emotions through, rather than experiencing his own. In this day and age, it’s rare to find a film as real and honest as Boyhood is. Four stars.

2. X-men: Days of Future Past

The best entry out of the X-men franchise, and the best superhero movie of the year. Serving as a sequel to both 2011’s X-men: First Class and 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, X-men: Days of Future Past is set in the apocalyptic future where mutants are being exterminated by humanoid robots called “Sentinels”. Having only one chance to go back in time and stop this future from ever happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) through time to their younger selves (Portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) so they can stop the triggering event and save the future. Directed by Bryan Singer, who formerly helmed the first two entries in the franchise, X-men: Days of Future Past is a game changer. It is not only a visually-dazzling and highly climactic sci-fi blockbuster: it is a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that focuses on its recurring themes of racism and xenophobia, once again bringing the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. X-men: Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the superhero genre. Four stars.

And finally, my number one film of the year is —

1. The Fault In Our Stars

Surprised? I’m not. The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical, heartbreaking, and genuine films you will ever see, and is more than worthy of being called the most emotional film of the year. Based off of the novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the love story of two Cancer-stricken teenagers: the shy and book-loving Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and the optimistic amputee Gus (Ansel Elgort). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Josh Boone, The Fault In Our Stars is one of the best stories ever translated from book to film. I initially was skeptical on seeing this film, considering how much it seemed to have been doused in rom-com syndrome. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Boone adapts Green’s story perfectly to the big screen, retaining everything in the novel from the visual details to the words that were written. But its Woodley and Elgort that sells it so well, their chemistry that vibrates so wonderfully with each other and leaves such an impression on you. Trust me when I say this isn’t your typical rom-com: it’s a heartfelt drama disguised as a tween movie, and it is the best of it’s kind. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s first Grand Jury Prize appropriately goes to Steve James’ documented biography Life Itself. Following Roger Ebert’s life and career from him growing up in Chicago, to when he got his first reporting job, to when he won the Nobel Prize for film criticism, to when he lost his best friend, to when he got Thyroid cancer, this film is everything that Roger Ebert is: funny, honest, heartfelt, unabashed, unflinching, and real. It doesn’t give you a peppered-up look at his life: it’s whole and accurate, as genuine as any of the reviews he’s written. I’m probably biased towards this subject, but the subject doesn’t count as long as it is handled well. James’ handles this story with respect and humility, and ends up telling a story about life itself rather than just limiting it to Roger’s story. It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and it brings me great pleasure to award my first Grand Jury Prize to this wonderful film tribute.

Honorable mentions include the creepy and morally ambiguous Nightcrawler, the funny yet stylish Guardians of the Galaxy, the humorously innovative The Lego Movie, and the quietly thrilling The Imitation Game, featuring the year’s best performance from actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Not all films can be honored at the end of the year compilations, but this year I was glad to have seen so many films and give each of them a chance to shine in their own way.

All the same, if you feel differently about some of the films on my list, or you have seen another film that deserves to be recognized, please comment about it. Or make your own list. Movies are deemed as great films not from individuals, but from the masses, and the only way you can tell if a movie has truly accomplished something is if it has the same effect on all its viewers.

On that note, my fellow moviegoers, I end with a classic line from my favorite film critic: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

– David Dunn

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“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

The predator and the prey are one and the same.

It all started with the eyes.

Looking deeply into them, we see the angry, vicious, relentless energy behind them, as hungry as an animal and as wild as a beast. A somewhat appropriate description, because these are the eyes of the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent primate we’ve come to know from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As we continue looking at his eyes, his steady, violent stare, we see his army of followers climbing on branches behind him.

He drops his hand, motioning them to attack.

After we see this powerful, expressive opening sequence, we are taken through this epic journey that is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human-primate condition from two different perspectives, as if they are two sides to one coin. The leader of the apes is Caesar, who now has his own family in his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The leader of a band of human survivors is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who also has his own family in Ellie (Keri Russel) and his teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Both of these band’s stories take place years after the virus attack that destroyed the most of humanity years ago, which we got a glimpse at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both sides have lost loved ones in the wake of the disaster. Both sides do not trust the other. Yet, as Caesar and Malcolm share close encounters with each other, they slowly begin to understand and see that their races are not so different from each other. As the human-primate war rages on, Caesar and Malcolm must combine their efforts to protect each of their families, and seek out peace between their established societies.

Remembering fondly of how I enjoyed seeing the ape empire’s beginnings and relishing in the context of human-animal abuse in Rise, I went into this movie knowing it had a strong foundation to build it’s story on, hoping that they wouldn’t fail. Not only did director Matt Reeves not fail in telling his story of Dawn; he expanded further upon the Planet of the Apes story in detail, action and commentary than I estimated him to. His film ended up being better than Rupert Wyatt’s film in spades.

Firstly, let’s talk about the similarities between each film. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writing/producing team behind Rise, returns yet again to contribute to Dawn’s story and to the production of this film. In many ways, I argue that both are better in this film than they were in the last one.. The plot of the first movie was an involving, interesting and emotionally compelling sci-fi thriller, a story that showed the worst of humanity and their cruel mistreatment of animals. Here, this movie has a more of a political facet in its structure, a drama that shows each race as a mirror of the other. It shows a civil anarchy blooming in the heart of each race.

The characters are compelling and have genuine interactions with each other, from Caesar confronting Malcolm on staying away from their home, to intimate scenes when Alex interacts with Caesar’s new baby boy. What I liked so much, however, is director Matt Reeves details not only to these emotions, but the visual display of the story in itself.

Being no stranger to visual effects or emotions with a filmography including Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeves is skillful in making an exciting action movie while at the same time making a involving apocalyptic thriller. It surprising with this film that the basis of the film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather, in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. It’s nice to see a big-budget blockbuster movie reaching for more intimate, personal situations, rather than the billion-dollar-sized explosions of garbage you’d see from the Transformers movies.

I do have a criticism in the movie in that the human characters were mostly boring. I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t remember a character’s name by the end of the movie, then that character is mostly forgettable. By the end of the film, I only remembered Malcolm’s name. I called Keri Russel’s character “Keri Russel” in the film while I labeled Smit-McPhee as a Jay Baruchel rip-off. I even looked at Gary Oldman’s character in the film and smirked in my head, “Well, hello there, Commissioner Gordon! Did you end up surviving the nuclear fallout in The Dark Knight Rises?”

What I realize though is that the humans aren’t supposed to be the main anchor of the film. The apes are center focus here, and this is really their story, figuring out their emotions, finding their identities, and realizing their faults as they look at human beings and see themselves deep within.

I think I realized this was a masterful film when it approached its final minutes, when we once again returned to the eyes of Caesar that we saw at the beginning of the movie. Only this time, they weren’t as aggressive as they were before. These were not the eyes of the predator, the hunter eagerly waiting to hunt his prey. No, these eyes were solemn and sad, as if they were looking at a bleak, grim future, one they were powerless to stop.

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