Review Round-Up: February 9


The Cloverfield Paradox (dir. Julius Onah)

This film, a surprise reveal during the Super Bowl that was posted to Netflix immediately after the game, which is the third film in the loosely associated Cloverfield franchise, is supposedly pretty bad. Matt Zoller Seitz at finds a bit to appreciate about the film—Onah’s approach to revealing the film’s SF world, for example—but settles on a star and a half for the film. In his final paragraph, he pins the film’s failings on its creative team, headed by J.J. Abrams: 

J.J. Abrams, whose name is on the film as a producer, perfected the so-called "mystery box" method of storytelling that promises profound and shattering revelations only to pivot to bromides like, "We should all be nicer to each other" or "Let's learn to forgive ourselves." The script to this one falls well within that wheelhouse. I'd like to visit the alternate universe where 'The Cloverfield Paradox' is worthy of the stroke of PR genius that launched it.

This sounds about right to me. Abrams’s schtick has been old for some time. There were several things I didn’t like about The Last Jedi, but the best thing about it was the way it exploded all of Abrams’s silly mystery boxes from the first film.

A tired-sounding David Edelstein (whom I’ve been a bit iffy on ever since he spent half of his Wonder Woman review crassly detailing his fetish for Israeli women) also doesn’t see much to appreciate in Cloverfield except its director. The content of the film is familiar SF melodrama, but ...

The Nigerian-born director Julius Onah is extremely skillful. The screen is loaded with colorful sci-fi bric-a-brac but the frames are nonetheless spacious. He knows how to keep the camera in motion without being a hot dog about it.

Far less forgiving is David Ehrlich at Indiewire, who is almost convinced that J.J. Abrams has managed to kill a franchise that seems to have excited no one more than the reviewer himself:

By the end of the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, 'The Cloverfield Paradox' was revealed on national television. By the end of the fourth quarter, it was already streaming on Netflix. By the end of the night, Abrams’ best idea had led to his biggest blunder. It’s too soon to say if 'The Cloverfield Paradox' killed its franchise (a fourth installment is already slated for later this year), but it’s already clear that the 'Cloverfield' brand — until yesterday a magic word capable of stirring excitement out of nothing — is now tainted beyond recognition.

Come on, dude, Netflix is making a sequel to Bright. J.J. Abrams’s baby is not in danger.

Fifty Shades Freed (dir. James Foley)

The erotic movies that, reportedly, are roughly on par with 90s Cinemax softcore—but tamer—and in which the principal male character is a never nude chauvinist, may have just gotten watchable. At Indiewire, Manuela Lazic reports that the films have finally found a sense of humor about themselves: 

At this point, who would have thought that a 'Fifty Shades' film, supposedly interested in the very alternative kind of sexual experimentation, would provide enjoyable (and maybe for some, even exciting) sequences of respectful and playful foreplay and oral sex?

Even more surprising: how this lighter approach to sexual intercourse seems to lift the spirits of the characters along with the tone. Johnson, radiant and committed, gives Ana a certain confidence and ease that she’d never had before, and Christian, the man of steel himself, proves he has a few decent jokes in him – though Dornan struggles slightly to portray that goofiness. In cinema as in sex, a dose of self-awareness can do wonders.

Other critics are less sure. Diametrically opposed, in fact, is Chris Nashawaty’s review at Entertainment Weekly, which accuses the new film of the same anti-feminist inclinations as the other films. Nashawaty, too, found humor in the film, but reaches different conclusions about it.

The audience I saw this with cracked up the whole time. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-so-let’s-nervously-laugh way, but in the can-you-believe-this-is-an-actual-movie forehead-slapping way.

Emily Yoshida has my favorite take, neither as dismissive of Nashawaty’s nor as accepting as Lazic. Her review takes sum of the films series’ cultural impact and relevance, and lightly mocks the superficialities that are almost too obvious to dwell on. Bad sex scenes, cardboard acting, tepid romance, and staid plot aside, what should bother us about these films is its adoration of money and the billionaire lifestyle. The films are on the wrong side of the defining cultural war of our era:

Money has always been the cushion for 'Fifty Shades’ spicier provocations, and it’s the aspect of the series that has aged the worst in the three years. Since E.L. James’s books originally made their splash, we as a culture took our sweet time realizing that most billionaires are more interested in deporting immigrants than sweeping young assistants off their feet, and we have become more suspicious of the powerful boss/naïve intern dynamic that fuels so much of the film’s sexual intrigue. Not that anyone is or should be looking at these films with such a stern eye, I’m just saying that they look more out of step with the times than ever. As the trilogy goes out, more desperate than ever to convince us it was in on the joke all along, it’s hard to say exactly what the joke was.

Another February weekend, another slow week for film releases. Maybe we should all just go see Phantom Thread again: it’s like Fifty Shades but without the sex, the violence, the helicopters, the expensive vacations, or the jeans. This week, we’re stopping with two films; Black Panther reviews also started appearing this week, but I’m saving that for its release next week. In the meantime, I’m going to try to catch that Hedy Lamarr documentary at the Music Box before it’s gone.