“The Cloverfield Paradox” Review

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Beyond the films themselves, the Cloverfield franchise deserves to be recognised as one of the most innovative and surprising ones out there simply due to how the films are marketed and released. The first film back in 2008 was famously announced with just a vague teaser and release date, making audiences wait over a year to determine what it actually was. Then, eight years later, a sequel was confirmed only a month before the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which had almost nothing to do with the original beyond some minor references and hints to a larger cinematic universe. Now we’ve seen the surprise release of The Cloverfield Paradox, a Netflix exclusive film that was only announced only a few hours before the film was available to watch.

To honour the secrecy the Cloverfield films are famous for shrouding themselves in, I’ll keep the narrative details of this review vague. A team of scientists working on the Cloverfield space station are performing experiments on a particle accelerator in an attempt to create infinite energy and solve the world’s energy crisis. Things go horribly wrong.

The Cloverfield Paradox puts forth some genuinely interesting concepts and ideas within the first thirty minutes to an hour, with similarities to sci-fi films such as Alien, Event Horizon, and Sunshine. The introduction of Elizabeth Debicki’s character is both surprising and horrifying, and a particular death scene seems to be trying to out-do Alien’s famous chest-buster sequence through sheer gross-out qualities. For a while I was even optimistically thinking this could finally be a worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s genre-defining masterpiece, the shadow of which hangs over nearly all sci-fi horror pictures, but unfortunately Oren Uziel’s screenplay runs out of steam towards the end. The interesting and weirder elements of the first half of the film become replaced by the same types of conflict that seem to appear in every space film, and the climax boils down to a one-on-one fight rather than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror teased at by the premise. Characters shout clichéd dialogue at each other and you get the sense that not even the cast really understand what’s going on. Which is a shame, because director Julius Onah has assembled a brilliant group of performers including Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, David Oyelowo, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as protagonist Ava Hamilton. Each actor fully commits to their role, even if the script lets them down at times, and Mbatha-Raw does a tremendous job bring true emotion to an often insane film.

As was the case with 10 Cloverfield Lane, Uziel’s original screenplay was not initially intended to be a part of the wider franchise. This is distractingly noticeable at times – scenes of Hamilton’s partner Michael as he deals with a mysterious disaster on Earth completely divert from the main plot and seem to only exist to provide vague links to the previous films. Rather than answering any questions about the greater story of the Cloverfield franchise, though, The Cloverfield Paradox just raises more questions of its own. The last shot in particular felt like an infuriating tease of the movie I could have been watching, instead of a satisfying conclusion to the one I just watched. Apparently there’s another Cloverfield film due out towards the end of this year. Whether or not that one will do anything to explain itself I can’t quite say, but given the series’ track record so far I’m sure it will be more interested in trying to deliver its own surprises rather than giving some depth to the franchise.

Despite the flaws of The Cloverfield Paradox, and I can’t deny noticing plenty of other critical reviews, I couldn’t help but enjoy it as an unexpected treat. Being unaware of a film’s existence until a few hours before its release makes it hard to be disappointed or build any real expectations about the final product, a refreshing change from the sort of blockbusters scheduled years in advance by franchises like the MCU, DC, or Star Wars. The Cloverfield Paradox will most likely be remembered largely due to the clever marketing move of its surprise release, but there are worse surprises to be had.

3 and a half stars.

“Just to Be Sure” Review

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Erwan Gourmelon is in a complicated situation. He’s just found out that his Dad isn’t his biological dad, his daughter is pregnant and doesn’t want to find the father of her baby, and the man who might be his real father is also the father of a woman he’s just started seeing. Trust the French to make a romantic comedy that not only displays such dysfunctional relationships, but also uses them to get to the core of what it means to be a parent, to connect with one another, and love selflessly.

Just to Be Sure is a charming story that brings a sense of whimsy to its deeply human and emotional themes. It’s a simple film, with director Carine Tardieu allowing the strength of the characters and wonderful performances to speak for themselves. François Damiens displays a kind heart and protective spirit as Erwan, who left his previous job as an officer to work in bomb disposal in order to look after his daughter after the death of his wife. Erwan’s job was a playful touch on behalf of the screenwriters, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a romantic comedy with as many explosions as this one. It’s also a nice metaphor for Erwan’s situation, as he spends much of the first act wandering around somewhat shell-shocked after receiving the bombshell reveal that Bastien Gourmelon (Guy Marchand) isn’t his real father. Instead he hires a private detective to find Joseph Levkine (André Wilms), the most likely option to be Erwan’s biological father. The scenes between Erwan and his two Dads were, for me, the strongest moments of Just to Be Sure. Marchand is heartbreakingly innocent as Bastien, unaware as to why his son seems to be pulling away from him yet still deeply proud of Erwan. As Joseph, André Wilms presents an affable man aware of his declining years and surrounded by loss, so seeking companionship wherever he can find it. When Erwan begins showing an interest in him, he’s delighted to find someone to spend time with – even before he figures out why. The theme of fatherhood purveys throughout the film, as Erwan encourages his daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing) to let the father of her unborn baby into his child’s life, and by doing so has to come to terms with what being a father really means. Is it just the biological connection, as may be the case with Joseph, or is the emotional support provided by Bastien over the years?

This exploration of what it means to be a parent is so effective that I found the romantic subplot between Erwan and Doctor Anna Levkine somewhat disconnected from the main themes. Shortly after Erwan and Anna’s disastrous first meeting they run into each other again and he asks her out, only to discover almost immediately that she is the daughter of Joseph and, possibly, his half-sister. Cécile De France is screen stealing as the confident, no-nonsense Anna, but the connection between her and Erwan was never quite believable. He is understandably hesitant to pursue the relationship after realising who she is, and I couldn’t find a reason for her to become infatuated with a man who becomes so clearly disinterested with her. The uncomfortable nature of their relationship does provide some of the best jokes in the film, but that doesn’t stop it from being, well, uncomfortable in an otherwise wholesome film.

Just to Be Sure is a light, fun movie that uses the dysfunctional and often cartoonish characters to explore universal truths about family and parenting, demonstrating the strength of French cinema to bring together the quirky and the important moments of life.

3 and a half stars.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Review

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I’m going to open this review with a controversial statement: The original Jumanji isn’t that good. It’s a fun enough blockbuster with at-the-time revolutionary special effects and a typically likable performance from Robin Williams, but hardly a classic. In that regard Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle succeeds as a sequel by being a fun enough blockbuster with entertaining action scenes, likable performances from Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black, and not much actual substance.

This time around the famous Jumanji board game has been transformed into a video game through the fairly flimsy excuse of ‘magic’ and ‘no-one plays board games any more’. After a brief prologue in 1996 to explain the game’s transformation, we jump to the present day as Jumanji is found by a group of teenagers in detention. There’s Spencer Gilpin, the nerd; Bethany Walker, the pretty popular girl; Anthony ‘Fridge’ Johnson, the jock; and Martha Kaply, the outsider. It’s noticeable that the film’s depiction of teenagers has barely developed beyond the character types from The Breakfast Club, though admittedly the script does try to make them more relevant by throwing in tired jokes about how teenagers sure do love being on their phones. Fortunately when they get sucked into the world of Jumanji and become their video game avatars the film’s pace and humour picks up considerably, and begins playing with the clichéd characterisations it’s just established. Spencer becomes the muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Fridge becomes short-statured zoologist Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar, Martha becomes martial-arts expert and scantily clad bombshell Ruby Roundhouse, and Bethany becomes the portly (male) academic Professor Sheldon Oberon. Having Kevin Hart as a macho jock trying to bully a timid nerd in the body of The Rock, while Jack Black teaches supermodel Karen Gillan how to properly flirt, provides some great character comedy and easiest the best jokes in the film.

Indeed the entire video game premise, while met with criticisms from die-hard fans of the first Jumanji, brings to the movie some refreshingly original concepts and scenarios. I was particularly impressed with how the life-system was utilised, with each character having three lives before Game Over. This provides opportunities to have the leads dying in surprising and occasionally hilarious moments while effectively raising the stakes for when they each start getting down to their final lives. Having the main cast playing stereotypical teens in the bodies of video game avatars enables them to play off their public personas, with Johnson in particular milking his famous smoulder for all it’s worth. He and Kevin Hart recreate the easy chemistry they had in 2016’s Central Intelligence, and Karen Gillan utilises her overly expressive face and knack for physical comedy in scenes where Martha tries and fails to act as the seductive Ruby Roundhouse. And who would have thought Jack Black’s best performance in years would be as a teenage girl? The four leads work off each other so well that the other characters end up feeling flat and unnecessary. Nick Jonas is largely forgettable as another player stuck in the game for twenty years, with none of the quirks that make the other four interesting and introduced too late in the film to make me actually invested in his predicament. Bobby Cannavale as the villainous Van Pelt displays some initial potential, with a threatening presence and the interesting hook of being able to control all the animals in Jumanji, but is ultimately underused and ineffective. Even at the end, when the characters return to the real world and their original forms, I couldn’t help but hope there would be still be some final scene of Johnson, Black, Hart, and Gillan.

It took over twenty years for the first Jumanji film to get a sequel. Time will only tell if it takes Columbia pictures that long to release a new instalment and make this a franchise, but nothing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had me feeling like it would be remotely necessary. It was a fun enough experience, but I can’t see myself wanting to return to the jungle any time soon.

3 and a half stars.

“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” Review

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Wonder Woman has had one hell of a cinematic year. Not only did the most famous female superhero in the world get her own solo outing and a major role in Justice League, but now Professor Marston and the Wonder Women delves into the true story of how the character came to be. And this historical drama manages to depict a more interesting narrative than either of the superhero films the character has been involved in this year.

In the late 1920s Professor William Marston and his wife Elizabeth were teachers of psychology at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges who developed an interest in their student and teaching assistant, Olive Byrne. The three eventually formed a polyamorous relationship, and together came to explore kinks such as submission and bondage as Professor Marston developed his own theories on human behaviour. Frustrated by society’s rejection of his lifestyle and romantic interests, Marston created a comic book filled with sexual and fetishist images in an attempt to promote his theories in popular culture.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women explores topics that we’re unlikely to see in a major superhero film anytime soon, and it’s rare to see a positive depiction of a polyamorous relationship in cinema at all. It’s truly fascinating to see how interests that are still viewed as taboo even today were instrumental in creating such an iconic figure, with writer/director Angela Robinson often presenting panels from original Wonder Woman comics to highlight how explicit Marston could be in exploring sexuality in his work. The three leads are also to be commended for making the relationship seem not only believable but completely normal. Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall have such natural chemistry together that it’s easy to accept them as a couple together since childhood. As the third party in this relationship Bella Heathcote’s character ranges from timid and demur to confident and in control, and Heathcote never struggles to show both Olive’s vulnerability and strength.

Robinson’s script is intelligent and often extremely witty, particularly the dialogue cuttingly delivered by Ferguson, but at times I found her direction overbearing. The first love scene between the three leads in particular is laughably explicit, as they ransack a college theatre department for costumes and props under the blaring sounds of “Feeling Good”. An excess of soft golden lighting accompanies other major turning points in the plot, attempting to turn them into something mythic rather than letting the extraordinary nature of the true story speak for itself. It’s an admittedly nit-picky criticism of an overall strong film but I couldn’t help feeling like Robinson didn’t trust her audience to recognise moments from Marston’s life and how they influenced Wonder Woman’s creation, so felt the need to make any references overt.

Overall Professor Marston and the Wonder Women remains an intriguing story with impeccable performances, and after watching it I can’t help but feel a new level of appreciation for what Wonder Woman stands for. I also don’t think I’ll ever look at the Lasso of Truth the same way ever again.

3 and a half stars.