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Films
by Kathi Maio

BUNKER MENTALITY


THE problem with most sequels is that they are sequels. More of the same. I guess many filmgoers must long for the oh-so-familiar aspects of film franchises almost as much as the studios who perpetually look to create a bankable box-office sure thing. I am not that kind of filmgoer, however. I want a movie to feel new and surprising and not an extension of a something similar that came out two (or more) years earlier.

That's one of the many reasons I enjoyed the "sequel," 10 Cloverfield Lane. It wasn't really a sequel at all. Many science fiction fans will recall the original Cloverfield from 2008. Directed by Matt Reeves and scripted by Drew Goddard, it was a creature feature in the (quickly irksome) style of "found footage."

The audience watches a video that accidently cross-cuts an idyllic day of new love for a young couple with horrific events from a month later. A bon voyage party, fraught with romantic angst, is abruptly interrupted by blackouts, bangs and rumbles…and then worse. Revelers soon realize that monsters large and small have descended upon New York City.

The monsters show little respect for the Statue of Liberty and even less for the trendy millennials of Manhattan. With regards to the latter, I'd have to agree with the alien attackers. What I liked least about Cloverfield was the cast of characters. I found them hapless and more than a little annoying. Of course, that might have been on purpose. Although satire didn't appear to be a major component to the film, perhaps the filmmakers were simply trying to keep viewers from caring too deeply for the half dozen or so "lead" characters. After all, one by one, they were soon dispatched by monsters and mishaps, not unlike the teens in an eighties slasher flick.

While Cloverfield was no mega blockbuster, its moderate success, along with dropped hints and teases from producer J.J. Abrams and associates, soon had fantasy film fans eagerly awaiting a "Cloverfield 2." What they got was something better. During his secretive hype period, Mr. Abrams called the second movie a "blood relative of Cloverfield." And there is a relationship between the two films. But in terms of tone and themes and about ninety percent of plot points, 10 Cloverfield Lane couldn't be further from its predecessor.

As the film opens, a young woman named Michelle (the excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hightails it out of New Orleans to escape a troubled relationship. Her peaceful, if spooky, late-night drive through rural Louisiana suddenly explodes, as her car crashes off the highway. When she awakens, she is on an IV drip and her knee is in a brace. But she soon realizes that this is no hospital. She is chained, on a floor mattress, in a windowless, concrete room.

As Michelle later admits, most situations of male violence and intimidation have heretofore elicited an impulse to run away. But this mysterious prison, with no escape available, brings out all the fight she can muster; much to the surprise—and grudging respect—of her captor, a portly man named Howard (John Goodman).

He tries to explain that he brought her to this underground shelter to save her. Howard claims there has been an attack of a chemical or nuclear nature and this well-appointed underground bunker is the only thing keeping both of them alive. Before long, Michelle becomes aware of a third shelter inhabitant: a younger man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). And Emmett confirms that the deadly dangers of the above-ground world are real.

Michelle's gut tells her that Howard is a psycho. On some level, that appears to be true. Emmett, who helped the older man build and stock his shelter, says that Howard, a former Navy satellite engineer, is a "black belt in conspiracy theory." But, as Joseph Heller observed, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you. So Michelle, and the audience, are kept guessing about exactly how crazy and dangerous Howard is for a good long while.

The suspense of 10 Cloverfield Lane would never have worked without the subtle performance of John Goodman in the role of Howard. Although Goodman is best known for bombastic, larger-than-life roles, his Howard is a quieter and much more chilling character. One minute he seems well-intentioned and calm. At other times, the steely glint in his eye is scarier than anything the gigantic monster of the original Cloverfield could ever dish out. The actor's performance is consistently unsettling and brilliant.

But with an apocalypse likely above, what's a girl to do? Michelle eventually decides that escape might not be her best short-term option. So she uneasily decides to go along to get along, and the three leads settle into an off-kilter yet oddly cozy—almost familial—social unit. Still, no one will be surprised to learn that Howard was not designed to be a benign pater familias for long. And Michelle never loses the suspicion that her role in this subterranean clan may be far from healthy for her physical or emotional well-being.

Like a really good episode of the Twilight Zone, the chamber play that is 10 Cloverfield Lane will keep audiences creeped out and guessing right up until the final scene. And, as long as you weren't hoping for another "found footage" creature feature, you will likely be very happy with your moviegoing experience watching this un-sequel.

Director Trachtenberg told The Verge that "the Cloverfield 'thing' can really be this platform to tell really interesting and fun and original stories." An anthology of very loosely connected quality movies? Now that's the kind of film franchise we can all get behind!

And for another quality thriller that explores a much different kind of bunker mentality, I would also recommend Eye in the Sky. South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, in earlier projects like Rendition and Ender's Game, has already contemplated the morality of war and military action. That theme is also explored, in all its complexity, in this drama (written by Guy Hibbert) about the use of drones in antiterrorism operations.

Colonel Katherine Powell (steely Helen Mirren) eagerly leads an international counter-terror mission to capture several most-wanted jihadists in Nairobi, Kenya. They include a British woman (loosely based on the real-life "white widow," Samantha Lewthwaite, suspected of involvement in the terrorist rampage at the Westgate shopping mall), whom the Colonel has been tracking for years. But a surveillance and capture operation changes rapidly when those only tentatively identified as the suspects move from the original location to a safe house in an al-Shabab stronghold. Using a futuristic miniature drone designed to mimic a beetle, a Nairobi intelligence operative (Barkhad Abdi) is able to monitor the doings in the enemy outpost, but the area is too dangerous, and populated with too many innocent Kenyan civilians, for a traditional military raid.

The international team, which includes photographic ID experts in Hawaii, a tense drone pilot (Aaron Paul) in Las Vegas, and a committee of political overseers in London convened by a world-weary lieutenant general (the late, great Alan Rickman) are all in a holding pattern. That is, until the drone beetle observes young men in the safe house strapping on armed suicide vests. At this point, Colonel Powell pushes for a targeted kill mission, using the Hellfire missiles on the Predator drone. But the challenge of having such a clear bird's eye view of the target, along with crackerjack statistical analytics of shrapnel and debris trajectories, is that there is no getting around the reality of "collateral damage" and likely civilian casualties. In Eye in the Sky that damage is personified by a sweet little girl selling her mother's bread at a village marketplace just outside the walled terrorist enclave. The Colonel has no doubts that the body count for two successful suicide bombings make the loss of even the most innocent of bystanders a justifiable act. Others are less sure.

Since much of the movie is a policy and ethical debate around a conference table in London and via video and telephone link-up between the various players around the globe, you might expect the film to drag a bit in the third act. It does—a little—but only a very little. Writer and director keep the action (or lack thereof) amazingly taut throughout. The debate is passionate and intelligent, and it is punctuated with tense on-the-ground action to contain the danger and, if possible, save the little bread seller and the exposed Kenyan agent.

Viewers will not be shocked to learn that the characters least likely to agonize about killing the innocent are Americans. These include a Secretary of State (Michael O'Keefe) who is only peeved that anyone would interrupt his ping pong match in China for a matter so trivial. Still, to be fair, the people who agonize most about the missile strike are also Americans, Paul's drone pilot and his rookie partner (Phoebe Fox).

Technology is, in the end, a blessing and curse…as we always knew it was. It makes killing easier to accomplish, but not easier to live with. It seems appropriate that one of the final lines of this excellent suspense film is delivered by Alan Rickman, in his last screen performance. "Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war," he tells an angry policy wonk. Whether they are in the trenches, or safely tucked away in a beige trailer in the Nevada desert, the soldiers are all too keenly aware of that cost.

For those interested in finding a film about the politics of terror for the whole family, I actually do, believe it or not, have a suggestion. And that is the fine animated hit, Zootopia. This adorable Disney cartoon about a plucky little bunny, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who dreams of being a heroic police officer in a city with twelve ecosystems, where lion and lamb-child finally live in peaceful harmony, is actually more thought-provoking than it might first appear.

It seems that certain members of the predator class—otters, panthers and the like—have started disappearing soon after they experience violent, psychotic outbursts. In an elaborate plot involving Mafiosi, government cover-ups, and potent botanicals, newbie officer Hopps is assisted, most reluctantly, by a flimflamming fox (Jason Bateman) in restoring peace to her anxious city.

Although Zootopia was clearly written and produced before the 2016 presidential race geared up, this kiddie flick is oddly prescient in its contemplation of the dangerous opportunism of political fear-mongering and its unsettling impact on society. And perhaps the movie will also inspire a discussion or two about the stereotyped roles of police as heroes, sexist bureaucrats, and fat, donut-chomping dopes. As a vegetarian, I came up with an additional issue to consider. I kept wondering about what the predators in this charming animated tale ate, now that society frowned upon them chowing down on their sheep and gazelle neighbors and co-workers. Are there factory farms located just outside of Zootopia where poor cows and chickens are bred and slaughtered for the hygienic meals of the lions and polar bear residents of our urban eden? If so, then I fear that Zootopia is just another failed utopia, like all the rest.

But, hey, don't worry. If you only want to view Zootopia as a cheery little feature cartoon, full of the frolicking anthropomorphic critters Disney excels in creating, it works perfectly well on that level, too.

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