10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

2016 #180
Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

10 Cloverfield Lane

After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

Roomies

There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

3 out of 5

Phone Booth (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #69

Your life is on the line.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th April 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 18th April 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Colin Farrell (The Recruit, Total Recall)
Kiefer Sutherland (Flatliners, Dark City)
Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Last King of Scotland)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill)
Katie Holmes (Wonder Boys, Batman Begins)

Director
Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman & Robin)

Screenwriter
Larry Cohen (Maniac Cop, Cellular)

The Story
Slick, smarmy Stu uses the last remaining phone booth in New York City to call the young woman he’s trying to cheat on his wife with. Then the phone rings: there’s a sniper rifle trained on him, and if Stu doesn’t follow the caller’s instructions, he’ll die.

Our Hero
Stuart “Stu” Shepard, a slimy publicist who’s trying to cheat on his wife, strings along a kid with hopes of getting in the game, wears Italian clothes to make himself look better than he is, and is generally a dick to everyone. So not a very nice guy, really… but does he deserve to be shot by a sniper, hm?

Our Villain
A mysterious voice on the other end of the phone, The Caller has some kind of moral code, has demands of Stu to fit that code, and also has a high-powered sniper rifle that he’s not afraid to use on just about anybody. Surprisingly witty, too.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Ramey, the cop in charge of the situation once the police get involved, who is at least bright enough to realise there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Memorable Quote
(After cocking his gun) “Now doesn’t that just torque your jaws? I love that. You know like in the movies just as the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. Now why didn’t he have it cocked? Because that sound is scary. It’s cool, isn’t it?” — The Caller

Memorable Scene
With both his wife and mistress on the scene, and surrounded by police and news cameras, Stu finally makes his confession. A heartfelt monologue that is definitely a showpiece for Farrell.

Making of
The whole film was shot in just 12 days: ten days inside the phone booth and two to shoot the surroundings. To do this the crew worked “French hours”, which involves not shutting down the entire production for lunch (which just sounds logical to me), and was aided further by Farrell nailing some big scenes in one take.

Awards
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Best Colin Farrell in a Movie — see also: Daredevil)

What the Critics Said
“The triumph of director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen in Phone Booth is not just that they pull off the central gimmick but also that they fashion from it a creditable thriller. The result is a movie that combines a seriousness of purpose with a delight in craft in a way Hitchcock would have appreciated.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“It’s the kind of pulpy potboiler that is often wrecked by unnecessary padding, but the brisk no-nonsense approach here combines with its short length to make quite an entertaining off-beat thriller. Kiefer Sutherland’s vengeful psychopath who is only represented by a voice-over and a red dot for the majority of the film is the stand-out performance, but everyone involved acquits themselves admirably.” — Gary Anthony Cross, Film Noird

Verdict

Regular readers will know of my fondness for the single-location thriller, and this is one of the films that helped define that love. And events occur in real-time, which is just a bonus. Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland are both on excellent form as the hostage who maybe has it coming and the hostage taker who maybe has a point. Larry Cohen’s screenplay takes a simple setup and follows it through, keeping it engrossing but still relatively plausible (something other such films struggle with in order to extend their concept), with some killer dialogue to boot. It all adds up to an immensely effective thriller.

Next time… yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for #70.

Cube (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #21

Don’t look for a reason.
Look for a way out.

Country: Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 11th July 1998 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 25th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Maurice Dean Wint (Rude, Nothing)
David Hewlett (Scanners II: The New Order, Cypher)
Nicole de Boer (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Corrupt)
Nicky Guadagni (Crash, Lars and the Real Girl)
Wayne Robson (Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road, Survival of the Dead)

Director
Vincenzo Natali (Cypher, Splice)

Screenwriters
Andre Bijelic
Vincenzo Natali (Splice, In the Tall Grass)
Graeme Manson (Rupert’s Land, Orphan Black)

The Story
Six strangers wake up inside a mysterious 14-foot cube, its walls covered with circuit-like designs and each wall containing a door… which leads to another cube, identical but for the colour scheme. They soon realise that some of these rooms are boobytrapped with death-dealing devices. If they combine their different backgrounds and strengths, perhaps they can find a way out…

Our Heroes
The six individuals we follow are a fractious bunch. You may side with one or two, but at any given moment something might happen to make you rethink who should or should not be trusted.

Our Villain
The Cube itself is the enemy here… although with the amount our group fight amongst themselves, maybe it’s not the only problem…

Best Supporting Character
Part way through the film, our gang come across Kazan, who clearly has some kind of mental problem. I thought Andrew Miller’s performance was decent, but pretty much every other review of the film criticises all of the acting, and I’ve never seen Rain Man (a regular point of comparison), so who knows?

Memorable Quote
Holloway: “What does it want? What is it thinking?”
Worth: “‘One down, four to go.'”

Memorable Scene
The opening scene, which quickly establishes the danger of the environment so succinctly and memorably that Resident Evil ripped it off a few years later.

Technical Wizardry
The characters move through many rooms in the cube, a challenge for a low-budget production… unless, of course, all the rooms are nearly identical: there was only one cube set, with coloured panels changed to suggest the different spaces.

Making of
All of the characters are named after famous prisons around the world. Not only that, but their personalities reflect the characteristics of those prisons. To say too much might spoil parts of the film for those who’ve not seen it, but the curious can find a fuller explanation here.

Next time…
There are two sequels to Cube, Hypercube and Cube Zero, each worse than the last. Don’t waste your time.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Home Video Release)
Toronto International Film Festival — Best Canadian First Feature Film

What the Critics Said
“They don’t agree on the best course of action, and might one of them be a spy for whomever is in charge? The grating mechanical noises that echo through the Cube all around them seem to be the manifestation of the stress they’re under, stress they act out on one another. Holloway estimates they have only a few days without food and water before they’re too weak to continue, and yet they slow themselves down with their virulent bickering. […] As Rennes says, “Ya gotta save yourselves from yourselves,” and they’re not doing a terribly good job of that.” — MaryAnn Johanson, flickfilosopher

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“you can’t make [the plot] sound interesting — “for 90 minutes, people move through largely identical cubic rooms that want to kill them”. But it is interesting, mainly, and here’s where the Twilight Zone comparison is useful. […] the cast ends up filling somewhat allegorical roles: the Teacher, the Authoritarian, the Intellect, the Survivalist. And Cube, in finest Rod Serling fashion, plays out as a series of conundrums in which the audience is invited to think about how these different types, that is to say, these different worldviews and moral codes, interact with each other in a patently allegorical environment” — Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I offered some thoughts on Cube when I watched the two sequels back in 2008: “In its series of careful, measured, necessary reveals, the film strikes a perfect balance between what it lets the viewer know — and the revelations are expertly paced throughout — and what it keeps hidden, either for the viewer to deduce or interpret for themselves, or simply because one doesn’t need to know. […] everyone interested in the more intelligent end of the sci-fi spectrum should see Cube.”

Verdict

Regular readers will know of my fondness for the single-location thriller. A lot of that likely stems back to Cube, which I think pioneered the form as a popular one for new filmmakers making low-budget genre pictures, and is the yardstick all others must measure up to, at least for me. Throw a mismatched group of characters into a confined, mysterious setting and, hey presto, instant drama. Cube remains one of the best because of both the mysteries of its location, and the pure tension director Vincenzo Natali creates as the cast try to avoid or evade the deadly traps.

Next… yippee-ki-yay, #23 !

AfterDeath (2015)

2015 #197
Gez Medinger & Robin Schmidt | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18*

A woman wakes up on a beach in the middle of the night. Stumbling away, she comes across a beach house with three strangers inside. They establish that the last thing they remember was being in a nightclub when there was some kind of accident, and then they woke up here. Fortunately, they’re not stupid and quickly twig this place is some kind of afterlife, then begin to work out how to get out — not that they’re helped by the lighthouse beam which causes immense pain, or that if they run away from the house they end up back at the house, or the vicious smoke-monster that’s flying around…

A low-budget British single-location thriller with a mostly unknown cast (the lead is Miranda Raison, who you may recognise from Spooks, 24: Live Another Day, or even things that aren’t about spies), AfterDeath mainly trades on the mystery established by its situation. The characters are quickly sketched and somewhat archetypal, and the twists in their storylines aren’t all that surprising, but combined with the relatively brisk running time this means they crack on with trying to solve what’s going on. There are some familiar elements to this (the looping ‘world’), but also ideas fresh enough to keep it watchable.

Hampering that watchability is the ugly digital cinematography. There’s always the possibility this was affected by the fact I was watching via streaming, but I normally get next-best-thing-to-Blu-ray quality from Amazon Instant Video (where I watched this, obviously) so I’m inclined to think it’s just the shooting and grading choices of the filmmakers. The end result is frequently murky, making the film look like it was shot or finished on cheap equipment, exacerbating the low-budget feel in a negative way.

AfterDeath is billed in part as a horror, emphasised by the skull imagery used on the poster. It’s not particularly scary though, so if you’re after that kind of thrill then it’s one to miss. As single-location mysteries go, it’s not remarkably original or exceptionally engaging, but the story and its revelations are solidly executed and the whole is decently performed, providing you don’t strain your eyes trying to see what’s happening.

3 out of 5

* The film doesn’t actually have a BBFC certificate, but the trailer is rated 18. ^

Coherence (2013) + Circle (2015)

Coherence
2015 #156
James Ward Byrkit | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

Circle
2015 #157
Aaron Hann & Mario Miscione | 86 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

This isn’t something I normally do, but certain factors made me want to review these two films together. They’re both low-budget single-location sci-fi thrillers, but they’re also both more about humanity than ideas — they use sci-fi high concepts as a way to expose, examine, and comment on human behaviour. That I happened to watch them back to back only highlighted the similarities.

They’re also both currently available on Netflix, and both of their titles begin with the letter “C”. I mean, it was meant to be.

Despite those similarities, they’re tonally different, but quite subtly so. Part of the point of this double review is to try to tease out and explain what I think those differences are, because it was interesting to me that I felt the pair were so similar and yet so different. We’ll see how that goes.

To introduce them in age order (as well as the order I watched), Coherence begins in a very normal situation: a dinner party for a group of thirtysomething friends, who have a smattering of interpersonal issues. Then odd things begin to happen: mobile phones lose signal and shatter for no reason; there’s a power cut, but there are lights on at a house down the street… Could it be related to the meteor passing overhead? The way the story develops was part improvised: the cast met in the same location for five days, were given story and character prompts by the filmmakers, and went from there.

Circle, on the other hand, must’ve been very tightly constructed. A group of fifty people wake up stood in two circles in a black space, with an array of arrows on the floor in front of them. Every couple of minutes, a klaxon blares out a countdown and one of them is killed. They soon realise they have some control over this, so together they try to work out what’s going on and how to escape, whilst constantly having to select who’s next. Broadly speaking, this is a high-concept thriller in the vein of Cube or Exam.

It’s in this respect that the two films most differ. Both take place in very obviously sci-fi situations, but only one is really about its high concept — that would be Circle. The way the characters interact and the decisions they make are rooted in human nature, true, and the film keeps you engrossed by exposing their prejudices and how that affects their decision making. But, in many respects, it’s operating with familiar stereotypes: the young people who think the old should die first because they’ve had their life; the rich businessman who has no time for immigrants; white-black racial tensions; and so on. As is almost always the case, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason — if this were real, I imagine those kind of points would still be major factors — and writer-directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione manage to create tension and suspense nonetheless. This is more of a “what would I do?” kind of film, though; a high-concept thriller, rather than a true character exposé.

Now, Coherence undeniably has some similarities in this respect: the friends’ true characters are only revealed thanks to the sci-fi situation they find themselves in. It’s a more gentle kind of sci-fi, though; more domestic. It’s about how these particular people react to the strange situation, rather than being about the situation itself, a difference emphasised by them being slightly less archetypal than the characters in Circle. There are some scientific-y explanations for what’s going on, but writer-director James Ward Byrkit has said these were meant as a kind of inside joke — they’re a bit technobabbly and they don’t make complete sense. I have to say, I’m not sure I wholly buy this excuse, because I think you could look at Coherence as an exploration of a sci-fi-y idea, if that’s the way you were inclined.

However, it’s clear Byrkit’s focus lay elsewhere. Thematically, it’s about our fear of others, but, as Byrkit explains in this interview (which is very much worth a read for anyone interested in the film), “we’re projecting our fears onto other people, but the reason we’re afraid in life is because we’re projecting our own fears. Whether it’s fear of another country or another race, we’re projecting our worst fears about ourselves.” One character has this realisation quite succinctly in a “what if we’re the bad ones?” scene. But again, there are thematic similarities to Circle: projecting our pre-existing opinions and prejudices on to other people, and using that as a basis for decision-making, rather than assessing the actual evidence in front of us.

The kind of interest the two films offer to the audience are quite different. Although the situation in Circle is mysterious, the mystery isn’t the point — it’s an excuse to kick off the situation, as it were, and the point of the film is the ‘game’ and how it unfurls. In that respect it’s more of a “watch once” kind of film; a thriller that will have you engrossed and on the edge of your seat (provided you’re the kind of viewer who goes along with the concept, rather than thinking “well that would never actually happen”), but perhaps has little to offer beyond that.

Coherence, on the other hand, feels more like a deeply considered film. The mystery of the situation is ever-present, asking to be kept track of and deciphered along with the characters — however much Byrkit may insist that’s not the point! Then those characters, the way they behave and evolve through the situation, are also more richly drawn. With fewer to illuminate they’re less quickly-sketched than Circle’s mass of ‘contestants’, and so feel more like rounded humans. By the end, they’re doing things that might initially seem out of character, but actually aren’t at all. (If you can take it, dear reader, there’s a crazy-detailed explanation of the ending (one reading of it, anyway) to be found here.)

Although the similarities between those two works are clear to see, I’m not sure I’ve illuminated their differences as much as I’d’ve liked. Nonetheless, I thought they were both engrossing sci-fi thrillers, driven more by people than by concepts (albeit people dealing with those concepts!) In terms of rating them, Circle is a solid-four single-location thriller, while Coherence is a sci-fi-mystery character-drama that butts right up against the five-star bracket.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Last Passenger (2013)

2015 #6
Omid Nooshin | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last PassengerIf you’ve ever found a late-night train commute dull, this single-location thriller may make you rethink any complaints. Half-a-dozen people travelling from London to Tunbridge Wells find their train speeding out of control. It’s up to them to discover what’s happening and how to stop it.

Starting as character-driven slow-burn, but building to suitable levels of adrenaline-generation, some of the characters may be a little generic, but then it’s a genre movie. Anyone after answers to why this is happening will be disappointed, but that’s not the point; indeed, it’s refreshing to leave the villain unexplored.

An effective thrillride (literally).

4 out of 5

Union Station (1950)

2014 #19
Rudolph Maté | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

Union StationOften noted merely for being filmed in Los Angeles’ busy train station, there are some spirited defences of Union Station to be found. For my money, that’s nearer the truth: this isn’t some noir-era single-location-thriller, but a kidnap procedural with a significant role for trains and their locales. The best sequence isn’t even in the station: cops tail a suspect, get noticed, and the ensuing chase reaches a memorably grisly end.

Also in the mix are morally grey cops (“make it look like an accident”), one-step-ahead villains, and a blind girl in peril. The concoction produces an undervalued classic noir.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Exam (2009)

2011 #2
Stuart Hazeldine | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 15

ExamThere’s an argument that the less you know going into any film the better. Naturally there are some films this applies to more than others, and Exam is one such film. Eight young professional types go into a job exam/interview; the next hour-and-a-half is all mysteries and riddles — which is why you wouldn’t want to know too much.

The film occurs in real-time (more or less) in a single room. These are two narrative tricks I always enjoy the potential of. I’m not saying every film should be set in a single room and/or take place in real-time, but when pulled off well either is an enjoyable feat. Exam succeeds in both. Real-time is, I think, easy enough with the right story if you put your mind to it (though the Johnny Depp-starring Nick of Time fails to make it work, in my opinion), but making an engrossing and — even harder — exciting film set in one room is a challenging prospect. Even in a film like Cube, though it takes place on one identical set, the characters are actually moving from room to room.

Writer-director Hazeldine’s screenplay is inventive enough to keep the story rolling throughout the entire film, barely pushing the tale past the natural end of its ideas, while the direction and camerawork keep it visually interesting without tipping over into pointless flashiness. I suspect he may be one to watch, though almost 18 months after Exam’s UK release he doesn’t seem to have any directing projects lined up (at least according to IMDb).

CandidatesSuch a contained story relies heavily on its characters and the actors’ performances. Largely a cast of un- (or little-) knowns, all are decent — one or two may be subpar, but I’ve seen a lot worse. I don’t quite understand how some viewers can find White, played by Luke Mably, to be a completely likeable character in spite of his obvious flaws — he has his moments, but surely he’s not agreeable overall? Not a jot. That said, his is the standout part, a scene-stealing performance from Mably. There’s no clear-cut audience-favourite, which (from reading a few reviews) seems to be a problem for some viewers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing: never mind the realism of there being one perfect person every viewer will love, audience-favourites will either predictably win or be shockingly dispatched, so what’s the point?

As it is, various viewers may root for various applicants; and even if you like none of them, it’s not necessarily a problem: the audience is more-or-less positioned as Candidate 9, solving the puzzle along with the characters on screen. It’s the mark of a good mystery that it drags the audience in to trying to guess it too. (Or perhaps it would just be the mark of a bad mystery that it couldn’t even manage that, so maybe it’s not a point of praise as much a point of not-criticising. You may take your choice on this point.) There are plenty of red herrings tossed liberally around, many of which are well-used but perhaps don’t have the part you’d expect them to play come the ultimate revelations. Which is fine — He's got this exam all tied upit’s quite nice to find a plot that doesn’t feel the need to tie everything in to its reveal; a plot that can wrong-foot you by occasionally focusing on something that’s ultimately irrelevant.

The most major flaw is perhaps the final few minutes. Exam ends with a compact array of twists, all of them well-structured — they grow neatly from what we’ve been told already, as any good twist should, rather than hurling themselves in from nowhere for the sake of it — but there’s also rather too much information. I like finding out what was going on, but ambiguity can be good too (look at Cube) — so on one hand I’m pleased we’re told things, but on the other I think it’s overdone, providing too much backstory in a rush to explain everything the filmmakers have dreamt up. Dialled back a bit it would hit the nail on the head.

I also don’t know how it well the film would stand up to repeat viewings. The advantage it has in being a small, little-seen film is that you can go in knowing virtually nothing about what’s going to happen, and play along with the guessing game the characters are involved in — this is the film’s primary joy. But with all the answers revealed, would it have as much to offer when watched again? I can’t answer that, obviously. It’s certainly possible — Cube (which I’m mentioning repeatedly because there are numerous similarities) still works — but there’s no guarantee. The story poses some thematic questions — about motivation, morals, that kind of thing — for those who care to ponder them, The other candidatesand films that invite pondering tend to invite repeat viewing; but then again it works equally well (better, ultimately) as a straight-up “what’s going on?” thriller.

Nonetheless, as a first-time experience, Exam is an intriguing and entertaining head-scratcher. It was a very early contender for my end-of-year top ten — and four months later, still is. A borderline 5.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Exam is on Movie Mix (aka more>movies) tonight, Wednesday 18th March 2015, at 9pm.