Monstrous Stew, Right Size Serving

Money Monster wants to be a lot of things. Screenwriters Jim Kouf & Alan DiFore and Jamie Linden have thrown pieces of His Girl Friday, Wall Street, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Meet John Doe into a stew to create a populist-fantasy-black-comedy-thriller. It could have been a gray, unappealing mush. It’s fortunate, though, to have Jodie Foster in the director’s chair. She keeps the movie racing along for its tight 98 minute running time so it’s only afterward that you wonder, “How the heck was that as entertaining as it was?”

It does help to have George Clooney and Julia Roberts as the main characters. Clooney plays Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-style television investment guru who spices up the show with props, sound effects, and dancing girls. Roberts is Patty Fenn, his long-suffering producer who’s leaving to take a job at another network. In effect, they are Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, shooting their lines of banter at each other early on. The show’s about to begin with the main focus on an investment company headed by Walt Camby (Dominic West) that has lost millions of dollars overnight because of what Camby calls a glitch in the trading algorithm. Camby was to have been the guest on the show, but he’s been delayed on a flight from Switzerland so the company’s Chief Informational Officer, Diane Lester (Caltriona Balfe from “Outlander”), is subbing for him on a remote feed.

Soon after the show begins, Patty notices a deliveryman wandering around backstage. Then the man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) takes Gates hostage at gunpoint and forces him to put on an explosive vest. Kyle had sunk $60,000 into Camby’s company based on Lee’s recommendation of the investment. Now it’s gone, and he doesn’t buy the story of it being a glitch in the algorithm. Pretty soon, neither does Lee.

The movie is in effect a juggling act as the story flips between Lee in the studio, Patty in the control room, Lester at the company office, and the police who secure and evacuate the building and prepare to take Kyle down. Foster uses the camera so you’re constantly seeing the scene from multiple angles. She also brings in the reactions of people watching the hostage drama play out on television screens across the city. For some it’s compelling while others are jaded and treat it like another episode of reality TV.

Clooney and Roberts have a well-established rapport. Even when she’s a voice in his ear during the show, you feel the connection between them. Brit O’Connell works a bit hard at his Brooklynese, but you do care about Kyle, who stands in for all those who’ve been hurt by Wall Street machinations. (If you want a moral for the story, it’s that greed isn’t good.)

There were two delightful surprises in the cast. I hadn’t seen any episodes of “Outlander” but it’s now on my to-be-watched list, based on Caltriona Balfe’s performance here. She’s one of those actors that the camera embraces – everything going on in her mind communicates on her face effortlessly. Much of the show, though, is stolen by Lenny the cameraman, played by Lenny Venito. Like many in this country, he concentrates on doing his job, but in the end he goes so much past that to become a part of the story.

Money Monster is contrived and has to use several quick leaps to get to its desired conclusion, including a deus ex machina of hackers finding hidden evidence within a matter of minutes. That’s become a hackney cliché that should be eliminated from all writing. The movie also suffers in comparison to The Big Short which laid out a real story of the financial industry’s cupidity with an even darker level of humor – and was one of the best movies of 2015. But it does mix in a few twists on the formula that make it fun. There are worse ways to spend 98 minutes.

 

Captain America Rises

Of all the superhero series that have filled the screens of theaters – and filled the seats as well – the most pleasant surprise for me has been Captain America. The first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, had a tinge of nostalgia that you don’t usually find in the genre, with the origin story set during WWII. It also had a compelling and semi-tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter; not many superhero movies leave you with a tear in your eye. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel movie to date. So I was primed for Captain America: Civil War.

The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who helmed Winter Soldier and who’ve been tagged to take over for Josh Whedon for the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War. The script, based on the classic story by Mark Millar (who also wrote the base stories for Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service), was adapted by Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely who’d done the previous Captain movies and are also doing Infinity War. While they each may not be Christopher Nolan, as a team they come pretty close.

As a result of an operation run in Lagos, Nigeria by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) that causes a large number of civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (John Hurt) delivers an ultimatum from the United Nations to the Avengers: submit to oversight by that organization or be declared outlaws. He has an ally in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who’s racked by guilt from the Ultron affair.

Rogers sees the other side, that political interference could prevent them from being effective or doing what they see needs to be done. Wilson supports him and they refuse to attend the signing of the accord. But then the conference is attacked and it appears to be the work of the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers believes Bucky is being framed, and with the help of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Rogers tries to save his friend. But there is much going on behind the scenes with a mysterious player named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) pulling strings in the background while pursuing his own agenda.

After several movies each, the main actors wear their characters as comfortably as their costumes. One of the pleasures of Civil War is the new kids on the block. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins Team Cap and brings a welcome dose of snarky humor. For Team Iron Man there’s Spiderman (Tom Holland). The character has finally been repatriated to Marvel after fourteen years at Sony and five great to awful films, and Holland gives me hope the upcoming Spiderman movie will be the former rather than the later. Best of all though is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who’s out for revenge after his father is killed at the conference. Boseman is a powerful actor as he proved with 42 and Get On Up. Where superhero movies are often operatic in their emotions, Boseman dials it way down, which makes his performance all the more compelling. His own stand-alone movie has been announced for 2018, and I’m already looking forward to it.

It’s fun to see the consistency of the Marvel Universe. They brought back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, the character he played in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. They also again have John Slattery as the older version of Howard Stark, a role he began in Iron Man II.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how hard it is to make a good third movie in a series. Lord of the Rings managed it by pretty much filming all three as one movie, and it had the benefit of having a trilogy as its basis. Even when the third is done well, the second movie is often the stronger. Nolan ran into that with The Dark Knight, which still is the pinnacle of the superhero movie genre. The Dark Knight Rises was excellent and a fitting conclusion for the trilogy Nolan planned, but it will always be overshadowed by The Dark Knight. The same goes for Star Wars. Return of the Jedi was a decent final chapter for the original trilogy, but it couldn’t match The Empire Strikes Back. About the only time the third movie in a series was better was Revenge of the Sith, but then it didn’t have far to go to outshine episodes 1 & 2.

Civil War falls into the same slot. It’s thrilling, has a deeper plot than most superhero movies, the acting’s first-rate, and it builds to a satisfying climax, but it couldn’t top Winter Soldier. So hang your expectations at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is, a really good movie.

10 Best Movies That Touch On The Afterlife

It’s a theme that has occupied man from the dawn of civilization: what comes next? And if there is a “next” what’s it like. In fiction, the afterlife has appeared in stories for almost as long as there have been stories, such as Orpheus descending into the netherworld to rescue his love Eurydice. Dante tried to envision the Medieval Catholic view of judgment and the three-tiered afterlife in his Divine Comedy. Charles Dickens touched on it in his popular “A Christmas Carol” with its story of a second chance to change fate. There have been plenty of movies with afterlife themes since the creation of the cinema. Many of them have been bad or mediocre, but a few have handled the subject with insight or humor or heart-tugging drama. The following, in no particular order, are my choices for the best of the genre.

Warning: It’s unavoidable to have spoilers here since with some of these films the afterlife aspect is tied in with the climax of the film.

Heaven Is For Real (2014)

Sadly, the words “Christian” and “Movie” rarely are combined with “Good.” Too many are painfully simplistic with stick characters while some try to scare people into belief, such as the “Left Behind” series. Heaven Is For Real avoids those pitfalls and does a decent job communicating honest faith. Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly play the parents of a young boy who goes through a serious illness. When he recovers, he begins to describe visiting Jesus in Heaven during the illness. The movie doesn’t gloss over the struggles the family has, especially for Kinnear’s character who’s a minister having a crisis of faith. It likely helped that the movie was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask).

Field Of Dreams (1989)

“Is this Heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” “Iowa? I could have sworn this was Heaven.” Existential philosophy meets baseball, and magic is made. Through the filter of baseball the movie deals with the connections between our lives and the lives of those who have gone before us. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) spends the movie thinking he’s helping others, only to discover at the end he’s helped himself reconcile with his father. One interesting side note: Doc Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley) was a real person. There were some minor changes made – his lone game was in 1905, rather than the end of the 1922 season as stated in the film – but the stories about Doc Graham in the movie are based on interviews with people who actually knew him.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

What if you meet your soul mate after he’s dead? That’s the conundrum at the heart of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1900, the young widow Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) rents an oceanfront cottage only to discover it’s haunted by the previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). At first they’re antagonistic, but then it becomes growing respect and interdependent. Then a mistake drives them apart. But years later, when she’s old and frail, the Captain returns. When Mrs. Muir passes from this life, she’s freed from her broken-down body and we see her spirit, young and beautiful again. The afterlife is where they can experience together the joy that was denied them on Earth. That’s a decent description of Heaven.

Between Two Worlds (1944)

The play “Outward Bound” premiered on Broadway in 1925 and ran for 144 performances. It was filmed in 1930 with much of the original cast, including Leslie Howard in the lead role. The remake in 1944 was retitled Between Two Worlds and it incorporated WWII into the story. The main role went to John Garfield, though the supporting cast featured many outstanding Warner Brothers contract players, including Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edmund Gwen. The story deals with several Londoners who are killed in an air raid and then awaken on an ocean liner on their way to either Heaven or Hell. Their stories are told in flashback. It is a product of its age, with the emphasis on judgment and fear of damnation. One interesting sidenote: the original version’s star Leslie Howard had volunteered for the British Army after the war started. It’s believed he was on an assignment for British Intelligence when a plane he was on, bound for Lisbon, was shot down by the Luftwaffe. Howard along with everyone else on board was killed, the year before Between Two Worlds came out.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Like Between Two Worlds there’s an element of judgment and damnation in What Dreams May Come, but it also incorporates an element of grace and reconciliation. With the death of Robin Williams, this movie has become quite poignant. It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who’d had a hand in 16 episodes of the classic “Twilight Zone” as well as numerous novels and short stories that were adapted as movies (including Duel, I Am Legend, and Stir of Echoes). Williams plays a doctor whose two children die in an accident. Later the doctor also dies and awakens in a Heaven that’s created from his favorite painting done by his artist wife. He meets two helpers as he adapts to Heaven, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Leona (Rosalind Chao). Later he discovers that they are the spirits of his two children. They chose how he’d see them based on offhand comments he’d made to them. But in an echo of Orpheus, Williams must leave Heaven and negotiate his way through Hell to save his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who has committed suicide in despair after losing her entire family and been condemned to Hell. The movie won an Oscar for its special effects including the painted Heaven (with wet paint), other visions of paradise that look like Maxfield Parish paintings, and a Hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Ghost (1990)

Ghost could be viewed as Dante lite. When you die, you go towards the light, get dragged to the depths, or get stuck in between for a while. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin gave the audience a powerful love story – one that turned pottery making into an erotic exercise. But when Sam (Patrick Swayze) is shot in a robbery, he forgoes going to the light to stay close to his love Molly (Demi Moore). The life-and-death drama and some truly scary scenes are balanced by Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning comedic turn as a medium who discovers she’s not as fake as she thought. Ghost became the worldwide box office champ of 1990, and such success guaranteed it would be parodied. However, it retains its power, and the ending gives an affirming and deeper view of Heaven than most movies. As Sam finally walks toward the light, his last words to his love Molly are, “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.” That’s a desire for many people.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a good movie in its own right and could have qualified for this list, except that this remake which is superior. You have a script co-written by Elaine May (with Warren Beatty) along with an uncredited polish by the legendary Robert Towne. It became the 5th highest grossing movie of 1978. Along with co-writing the film, Beatty also produced, co-directed (with Buck Henry) and starred in this comedic fantasy about a saxophone-playing pro-football quarterback for the LA Rams who’s spirit gets pulled out of his body just before a serious accident by an overzealous angel (Henry). After an extended and hilarious search the head angel, Mr. Jordan, finds a millionaire who’s just died who’s body becomes a temporary vessel for Beatty’s soul until Jordan can find a suitable athletic body as a permanent placement. The cast is incredible, with Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and James Mason as Mr. Jordan. Like Ghost, the movie turns on Beatty’s connection with his love Christie that transcends his move to other bodies. Is love a glimpse of the eternity of Heaven?

Always (1989)

Steven Spielberg remade one of his favorite movies, the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, but switched the story from World War II to a contemporary setting with aviators battling forest fires. Richard Dreyfus’ hotshot pilot dies while making a water drop. He meets a Heavenly messenger who gives him an assignment – help the pilot who has replaced him to succeed. It turns out he also has to help his beloved (Holly Hunter) move on as well. The movie was noteworthy as the final film appearance by Audrey Hepburn as the Heavenly Hap. Always is the opposite of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait because rather than undying love, the lesson here is you must let go of what was in order to be ready for the eternal. As Dreyfus’ character says near the end, “I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.” In Always, holding onto what was corrupts and ruins our good memories.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

“I see dead people…They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” M. Night Shyamalan created a sensation with his first movie – unfortunately it was downhill from there. But The Sixth Sense remains a fascinating story of spirits caught in limbo and the young boy who can see them. It’s one of Bruce Willis’ best performances, and one of the best twist endings ever put on film, though when you know the see the movie again you see the clues salted through the script. It actually expands on the lesson of Always. To break free and move on, the dead must stop seeing only what they want to see. Their holding on creates a delusion in which they remain – they are truly haunted. The Sixth Sense would have been the top grossing movie of 1999 except for a certain movie called Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This is the second Bruce Joel Ruben screenplay on this list, and it’s quite different – and much more powerful – than Ghost. Strangely enough, both films were release in the same year. However it took 10 years for Ladder to get made, even though it was acclaimed as the best screenplay in Hollywood that hadn’t been filmed. That changed when Adrian Lyne chose to direct it after doing the hits Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, and Fatal Attraction. In Ladder Jacob Singer is a soldier wounded in Vietnam. Fast-forward to 1975 and he’s now a postal carrier in New York who’s separated from his first wife and family. Haunted by the death of his youngest son, Jacob finds his grasp of reality threatened by increasingly bizarre experiences and horrifying visions that revolve around his experience in the war. The movie wasn’t very successful when it was released, different from Ghost, but it became a cult hit and was a major influence on other movies. The cast was headed by Tim Robbins as Jacob, and also starred Danny Aiello and Elizabeth Pena, but it had several supporting actors in the cast whose careers took off after the movie, including Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember and S. Epatha Merkerson. If you’ve seen this movie, it stays with you forever. After increasingly horrific experiences, in the end Jacob becomes reconciled to what happened to him in Vietnam. When that happens his youngest son appears and leads his father by the hand up a staircase toward a brilliant light. We then discover that Jacob’s wounds in Vietnam were mortal and the years of life he seemed to experience was all in his mind as he fought to live – the years took place in days. Life will end for us all, but rather than viewing it as an enemy, it may come as a loved one to release us from pain and let us enter the afterlife with joy.

Honorable Mentions: Defending Your Life, The Others, Heaven Can Wait (1943)

 

On the Other Hand

I recently decided to stream a 2014 movie based on a well-received YA novel. I’d thought about seeing it in the theater on its first run but the word of mouth on it wasn’t great. So it took me a while to give If I Stay a chance. It starred Chloe Grace Moretz whom I enjoyed in Kick-Ass, Hugo, and Let Me In. On the negative side there was the remake of Carrie, though that misfire all wasn’t her fault.

The movie was the first fiction feature for R.J.Cutler, who is more known as a TV producer (Nashville, Flip That House) and a documentary maker (1993’s The War Room, The World According to Dick Cheney). The novel by Gayle Foreman was adapted by Shauna Cross, who’d done the screenplays for Whip It and What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Foreman did write a sequel  for “If I Stay” called “Where She Went” which kind of answers the original novel’s title right off the bat.

The caught-between-life-and-after-life genre has some good movies in it, but it also has some stinkers. The production is dealing with a universal moment for all humans; simply put, none of us gets out of here alive. You can’t get away from the profundity of the situation, even though it can be handled with humor. What you don’t want is a casual feel since, to use the cliché, this is a matter of life and death. You want to get down and dirty and struggle with the theme. The biggest problem with If I Stay is it keeps its hands clean.

The movie adaptation is straightforward, following the structure of the book. Mia (Moretz) is a 17-year-old High School senior who’s a talented cellist. She’s auditioned for Juilliard and is waiting to hear from them, and she’s also dealing with the end of a relationship with rock band frontman Adam (Jamie Blackley). On a drive with her mother Kat (Mireille Enos), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) and young brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), an oncoming car comes into their lane and hits them head-on.

Mia awakens on the snow-covered road with emergency service vehicles all around her. She sees what’s left of the family car, which isn’t much, and then she sees EMTs working on her body. She’s transported to the hospital where she watches the surgeons work on her body, but she slips into a coma and no one is sure if she’ll awaken. The movie flips back and forth from the hospital to events to show her family life, her development as a cellist, and her relationship with Adam. At the hospital, friends and family gather, including her grandfather (Stacy Keach), her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato), and Adam.

The best parts of the movie are the depiction of the relationship between Mia and her parents and family. Enos is luminous as Kat, and was likely happy to do a much more passionate role after the two seasons of the AMC series The Killing. Keach is restrained and effective as he switches between stoicism when around others and emotional vulnerability when alone with his comatose granddaughter.

While it has a promising beginning, the love story of Adam and Mia fails to be compelling because of clunky writing that slips into clichés so badly you’re pretty sure you’ve already seen their scenes before. Adam is on the cusp of success in his rock band while Mia’s hero is Beethoven. The story plays up the difference in styles rather than understanding how they blend. The writers apparently nere listened to the Beatles (“Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” in particular), almost any Harry Chapin song, or Damien Rice’s “Volcano” among a host of others. For a movie that centers on music, its poor understanding of the art form is like a flapping flat tire as the story’s progresses.

If I Stay suffers in comparison to other YA book adaptations, especially The Fault in Our Stars, which came out a few months before If I Stay. With Fault the audience was drawn in completely to the relationship of Hazel and Gus, and the story went in surprising directions. With Mia and Adam, you don’t really care about them, so you also don’t care if Mia stays or passes on. For a fantasy like this, that’s a fatal flaw.

Still Powerful

I recently watched Atonement again for the first time since I saw it in the theater when it was released in 2007. I’d found it devastatingly powerful the first time I viewed it, and that power was still just as potent nine years after its release.

The movie is based on the award-winning 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. The adaptation by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, The Quiet American) is remarkably faithful to the book. The one major change is the epilogue to the story, and Hampton improves on the book by making it more suitable for film. The story plays with perceptions and misconceptions, folding back on events to view them from different angles. It’s not exactly the untrustworthy narrator that’s recently gained popularity in books and movies like Gone Girl. If anything, it has some of the blood of Rashomon flowing through its veins.

The first part of the story takes place on a beautiful summer’s day in 1935 at the Tallis country estate in England. The central focus is on the precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer and has prepared a play for her visiting cousins to help her perform after dinner that evening. Briony’s older sister Cecilia is home from Cambridge, as is the housekeeper’s son Robbie, whose way is being paid by the Tallis family. Briony sees what she believes to be an argument take place between Cecilia and Robbie, and later intercepts a note that leads her to believe Robbie is a perverse sex maniac. When Briony’s cousin Lola is attacked that night, Briony denounces Robbie as the attacker and he’s arrested.

The remainder of the film deals with the repercussions from that event. For Robbie they include joining the army as a way out of prison, which finds him in Dunkirk with the retreating British Expeditionary Force in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940. He’d seen Cecilia before he was deployed, and now his focus is to make it back to England for her. Briony is older and wiser now, but testimony against Robbie has caused a complete break with Cecilia. She puts her education on hold to work as a nurse when the war breaks out, though she continues writing. Her great hope, though, is to be reconciled with Cecilia and Robbie.

The excellence of the casting has improved with age. Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy star as the star-crossed lovers. Knightly was well established by this point, having done Bend It Like Beckham five years earlier, followed by Love Actually and Pride and Prejudice. She’d also done the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, finishing it just before Atonement. It likely felt like returning to her roots after the temporary transplant to Hollywood. McAvoy was starting to make a name for himself in films after a decade in British television, including a role in the original English version of “Shameless.” He’d gained notice in 2005’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and then broke out with The Last King of Scotland the next year. There’s a definite, understated chemistry between the two that makes the story work.

The pivotal role is Briony as a child, and here the production lucked out by casting Saoirse Ronan in her first major role. She’s pitch perfect as the too-mature-but-not-mature-enough Briony, and the performance was impressive enough to earn her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She had a couple of missteps on her way to becoming a lead actress with The Lovely Bones and Hanna, two movies that weren’t so much bad as could have been a lot better, and we’ll forget about The Host (as most everyone has by now). With Brooklyn she showed her mature power as a performer, and I look forward to what she will do in the future.

The casting director, Jina Jay, found some excellent actors for supporting roles who’ve continued on giving fine performances. Brenda Blethyn was well known already and had an Oscar nomination for Secrets and Lies. She played Robbie’s servant mother, after having just recently played Kiera Knightly’s mother in Pride and Prejudice. There were three actors who were pretty much unknowns at the time of filming who have gone on to bigger careers. Juno Temple, who played Briony’s cousin Lola, hasn’t made as big a splash as she deserves, despite good work in films such as The Brass Teapot and Horns. A small role as a servant was played by Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones” and was recently in John Wick. But the biggest casting coup was that of candy magnate Paul Marshall, a guess of the Tallises that fateful night, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who’d already worked with Knightly on Pride and Prejudice and would work with both Knightly and Ronan again, on Anna Karenina and Hanna respectively. He carefully moves his camera to capture scenes from different angles, first putting you into Briony’s mind, then changing the view. When Robbie gets to Dunkirk, Wright has his camera flow in one continuous five-minute long take that winds through the confusion and fortitude of the British awaiting rescue on the beach. It’s a tour-de-force shot with a thousand extras that was shot over two days – one day for rehearsal, the other for five takes of which the third was used.

It’s a bit of an injustice that Wright wasn’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar, even though he did received nominations for both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards. Atonement received a Best Picture nod, and along with Saoirse Ronan’s nomination the picture received seven. It only won one, for Dario Marianelli’s score that incorporates typewriter strokes like drum beats.

In the novel the epilogue is a 1999 letter from Briony as the author of the piece. Hampton changes it to a television interview with her on the occasion of the book’s publication, her 20th novel. Briony is now played by Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s interviewed by the late writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), who passed away the year after Atonement was released. The brief, memorable scene explains the name of the film, and it will stay with you long after you see this magnificent film.

Surprise!

Usually a movie is tied to the studio publicity machine. A teaser trailer may come out a year before the film is released, followed by two or three more trailers to build up expectations. However, producer J.J. Abrams turned that around by releasing a first trailer two months before a movie’s release and having it serve as the announcement of the production. He attached the trailer to the Michael Bay film 13 Hours, but not many saw that movie. The next trailer came out two weeks later and was shown on the Super Bowl 50 broadcast, so millions saw it. That opened a floodgate of curiosity about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The movie was filmed under the script’s original title, “The Shelter,” and also had the name “Valencia” attached to it during production in Louisiana. The script was by first-time screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken, whose previous work in the film industry was as, respectively, an assistant editor and an assistant producer. Abrams brought in Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, to polish the script. He gave the directing duty to Dan Trachtenberg, who’d done a 7 minute short based on the game Portal that had caught Abrams’ eye. 10 Cloverfield Lane was filmed with a miniscule $5 million budget. The secrecy around the movie was such that two of the stars thought the movie had been shelved because they heard nothing about its release.

The movie is essentially a three-person play. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her boyfriend and drives off into the Louisiana night, just as a report on the radio talks about a large power outage on the coast. After a stop for gas, she continues on her way only to get into an accident. She wakes up on a thin mattress in a cinderblock room with a saline I.V. in her arm, a brace on her knee – and a handcuff securing the brace to the wall. She eventually discovers that she’s in an underground shelter that was constructed by Howard (John Goodman), a former Navy man who’s a doomsday prepper. Also in the shelter is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local guy who’d helped build Howard’s shelter and then talked his way into it when a strange thing happened.

What follows is a taut meditation on paranoia and suspicion that keeps on twisting the audience’s perceptions. I’d call it Hitchcockian, except Alfred had a much more sedate way of filming, even with Psycho. Here, Trachtenberg creates a claustrophobic mystery that also makes you feel like you’re riding on a roller coaster on which the brakes have gone out. He also manages to pay off the story in an amazing climax.

Goodman is top-notch as Howard. You don’t know whether he’s a psycho or a prophet, innocent or malevolent, until a moment that will shock even the most jaded member of the audience. The mystery of his nature keeps the tension ratcheted up throughout the film, even when things seem to be going well. Gallagher effectively portrays the wild-card in the hand. The key role, though, is Winstead’s performance as Michelle. The audience experiences the movie through her perceptions, so it can be a hostage drama, an action story of survival, or a cat-and-mouse thriller depending upon the moment, and she shifts between the iterations smoothly. One fun note: Michelle’s boyfriend, who shows up only as a voice on the phone, was performed by Bradley Cooper, whose first big role was on JJ Abrams’ “Alias.”

The movie is more of a second cousin than a direct relative of 2008’s Cloverfield. Abrams had marketed that found-footage film was also kept under wraps until just before its release as well (also attached to another Michael Bay film, the first Transformers). Cloverfield grossed almost twice its $25 million budget in its first week and ended up taking in $170 million worldwide. It was directed by Matt Reeves, who went on to direct Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it was written by Drew Goddard who recently did The Martian as well as executive produced the Netflix adaptation of “Daredevil.” (Both Reeves and Goddard have executive producer credit on 10 Cloverfield Lane.)

In a sense the movie harks back to Cold War thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Fail Safe, but it keeps the focus much tighter than those earlier films. It also outshines the original Cloverfield. While it may be a cousin, it definitely lives in a much higher-class neighborhood.

Time Marches On

When it was recently announced that Nicholas Meyer has joined the production team for the new Star Trek TV series, the hearts of Trekkies everywhere glowed with hope. Meyer wrote the screenplays for the best original cast movies – The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country – and he directed Khan and Country as well. He first rose to prominence as a novelist, having penned the bestseller (and the best Sherlock Holmes homage) “The Seven-Percent-Solution.” When the book was filmed, Meyer did the screenplay, and then six years later he did Khan. But in between he wrote and directed a film that crossed science fiction with mystery, with a large dollop of romance as well: 1979’s Time After Time. It’s long been a favorite of mine.

The movie begins in 1893 London. A prostitute is tossed out of a bar. The camera views her from behind a wrought-iron fence across the street, but then it begins to move as you hear footsteps. It’s looking through the eyes of someone following her. When she finally turns around and sees him, she speaks directly to the camera as they make an “arrangement” to go into an alley. As she readies herself she asks his name. The camera is tight on her face when he says, “John, but most people call me Jack.” Then there’s the sound of a knife ripping through clothing as the woman’s eyes go wide before they lose animation. It’s wonderfully effective with little blood shown. Meyer restrains the obvious violence throughout the movie. He lets a drop of blood speak volumes, so different from many movies these days that show blood by the bucketful. When he does show a bloody crime scene near the movie’s climax, it’s more powerful for the audience because of his prior restraint.

The scene changes to a dinner party hosted by H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell). After his final guest, his friend Dr. John Stevenson (David Warner), arrives at the table, Wells announces he’s invented a time machine and intends to travel to the future which he imagines will be Utopia. (The scene mirrors the opening of Wells’ book “The Time Machine.”)  He shows the men to his basement workshop where he explains how the machine works. They return upstairs to continue their discussion, only to be interrupted by the police who found the murdered woman right after the attack and traced the killer to the area. The men then notice that Stevenson is no longer with them. When the police open his medical bag they find his gloves and a knife covered with fresh blood. Wells goes downstairs and finds the time machine is gone.

He’s built a fail-safe key into the system so that if someone else uses the machine it will return to its last position in time. It does, and the display shows Stevenson’s gone forward to November 1979, so Wells sets out to apprehend him. He’s knocked out on the trip and when he comes to he’s in the middle of a museum exhibit dedicated to him and his futuristic works, none of which he had written by 1893. (Interesting side note: a young boy who points out Wells in the exhibit is played by Corey Feldman, who’d go onto fame in the 1980s and infamy after that.) Instead of London, the machine has been moved to San Francisco for the exhibit. Wells realizes Stevenson will need money, so he checks the exchange desks at the city’s banks until he discovers Stevenson’s trail. The banker who helps him, Amy Robbins (Mary Steenbergen) finds herself attracted to Wells, and he to her, but first he must stop a murderer.

In some respects, you could view Time After Time as a dress rehearsal for The Voyage Home. Meyer even films on some of the same locations, and wire-rimmed spectacles like the present Bones gives Kirk in the later film also are a prop in Time. He also gives a shout-out to The Seven-Percent-Solution. Stevenson has continued hs murderous ways, and the papers call the killer now preying on women the Bay Area Ripper. Wells goes to the police to tell them about Stevenson, but afraid the police won’t believe him if he told them he was H.G. Wells, he tells them he’s a London detective named Sherlock Holmes – unaware of the timeless phenomena Sherlock became, since only the first couple of stories were published by 1893.

The triumvirate of McDowell, Warner, and Steenbergen was a fortunate choice for Meyer, and all three have had long and distinguished careers. Life imitated art a bit, in that following the movie McDowell and Steenbergen married. They didn’t have the full Hollywood ending, in that the marriage only lasted 10 years, but they did have two children and one of them, Charlie McDowell, is a director whose first feature was the well-received The One I Love. Meyer had better luck as a casting matchmaker six years later when he directed Volunteers. The comedy starred Tom Hanks, John Candy, and Rita Wilson. Wilson and Hanks had worked together once before (on the Bosom Buddies TV series), but their romance began on the movie set. They married three years later and are still together.

Meyer did fudge the dates a bit, since Jack the Ripper was active in 1888, not 1893. But that’s a small quibble, especially when it comes to such an enjoyable movie. The movie was well received and it was nominated for an Edgar award as the best mystery movie of the year. It lost out to another movie set in Victorian times directed by a novelist turned movie-maker – Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery.

Time After Time shows up on TCM now and again, and it’s available on Amazon to watch or purchase. It’s worth checking out.