Butcher’s Crossing (GFF23)

Some films don’t hit immediately. Some seem designed to make the audience unsure how they feel about it until they’ve spent a little time with their thoughts. Director Gabe Polsky’s adaptation of the 1960 John Williams novel Butcher’s Crossing is one such piece. Once it was over, there was a palpable feeling of loss from knowing that men like those portrayed really did nearly wipe out the entire buffalo population. This message itself is so impactful that analysing the film itself became a secondary concern, although that may be to its advantage.

Set over the course of a year in the early 1870s, it follows young, educated Will Andrews as he funds and joins a major hunt helmed by the erratic Miller. Nobody in the small town of Butcher’s Crossing believes that a herd as the one Miller claims to have seen could exist but, along with Andrews, hide skinner Fred and drunken, God-fearing Hodges they venture deep into Native American land to find them. The film was shot primarily on location at a Buffalo reserve, which is to be commended. If a story like this is to be told then it’s best to do it with as much respect as possible. Though the subject matter may be dark, this detail doesn’t go unnoticed and, coupled with the cinematography, really helps it to stand out from a crowd of westerns.

The film’s biggest issue is that it can often feel rushed. Miller’s arrival in town, infatuation with a local barmaid and the forming of the troop feels like it spans several days while the film’s ending feels just as abrupt. It’s the space in between, where the meat of the plot lies, that the story becomes well-paced and dives into the degenerating minds of the group. There are hasty edits in here too but they feel deliberate and designed to convey the deteriorating mental states of these men rather than to hurry the plot along. The performances do a great job at reflecting this too, with Cage bringing a more subdued and uneasy among of that well-renowned Cage-ness, although the stand-out is Fred Hechinger who always feels one buffalo kill away from self destruction.

The Cloverfield Paradox

When is a movie actually two movies? When it’s The Cloverfield Paradox. The third part of the (current) Cloverfield trilogy had an even bigger challenge than its predecessor, needing to live up the legacy of two great movies instead of just one. Instead of going down the “spiritual successor” path, it opted to be a semi-sequel to both, placing all 3 films in a semi-shared universe which is a lot less complicated than it sounds. However, this isn’t where the issue lies, instead it comes with the focus of the plot which comes in two parts. Primarily it follows Ava Hamilton and her crew aboard the Cloverfield Space Station who are testing the Shepard Particle Accelerator to find a source of infinite energy for the Earth which is rapidly running out. Things go horribly wrong when they find themselves catapulted across dimensions to an alternate Earth, which is where the semi-sequel aspect comes in. It causes a rip in dimensions causing what is known as the “Cloverfield Paradox” which opens portals to other dimensions allowing unknown horrors to seep through. Essentially, it gives birth to the Cloverfield Multiverse. It’s an interesting enough story on its own but the secondary plot sees Ava’s husband Michael attempting to survive the carnage back home with a small child in tow.

This decision makes sense in theory. It should allow for more concern for Ava and what awaits her should she get home, but it doesn’t pack the impact it needs to. This is partially because not enough time is dedicated to the secondary plot and the little time that is spent with it doesn’t delve as deep into the monstrous destruction as it needs to. It’s also partially because the primary plot isn’t entirely focused on Ava’s return home. It’s the ultimate goal of her and her crew but they spend most of their time focused on surviving increasingly weird and horrific events aboard the station. The Cloverfield Paradox is trying to be a horror space sci-fi and a re-tread of the original Cloverfield, but it spends an unproportionate amount of time on both meaning that neither feel complete. This is likely due to it not originally being a Cloverfield script. Much like 10 Cloverfield Lane, the project started life as a spec script but unlike that film, The Cloverfield Paradox feels like it’s cramming that IP’s elements in. The former merged it with the script to add a layer of suspense but barely focused on it whilst the latter made it its own point of focus. This plot element didn’t need to be cut but it needed to at least be refined. Perhaps have the Cloverfield Paradox affecting the alternate Earth before jumping back to their own hoping to escape. The reveal in the film’s final moments is tense but mainly due to actor Roger Davies’ performance as Michael instead of the moment feeling earned.

The primary plot aboard the space station is interesting on paper too, yet somehow lacks punch in its delivery. The dynamic between the crew isn’t as solid as a film like Alien, even when it tries to be, because these are standard characters with very little development. They should be the priority and the plot should revolve around how this disaster tests their relationships, which are already tense having lived in a confined space for two years. Instead, the plot treats them as side characters with much of the time on the station being spent with Ava. Eight members is a lot to juggle even when there isn’t an entire secondary story. Alien capped its crew at seven and spent more time with them in the opening act before the attack so that the eventual murders would be impactful. It feels like The Cloverfield Paradox was trying to replicate that but never focusses on the correct aspects.

The word “focus” has been used a lot in this review and, whilst repetition should be avoided where possible, it feels fitting because this film lacks focus. It can’t pick a plot, character or twist to maintain for overly long which simply isn’t an issue had by its predecessors. Those films work, in part, because the aim to tell one sole narrative with a small cast of characters. Cloverfield had 6 friends travelling through a deteriorating New York City to save another friend whilst 10 Cloverfield Lane spent its time with 3 characters in one location with two trying to escape to a world they aren’t even sure is there. The Cloverfield Paradox pits 8 characters against a space station that could collapse at any moment and anomalies that may do worse than kill them while also depicting life on Earth through 2 more characters. There is plenty here that could work if it was given a bigger role but as is, it’s a mediocre display of all these aspects with another stunning Bear Macreary score.

Perhaps the real monster is the Hollywood demand for sequels regardless of quality.

Signed: Your spooky neighbourhood queer

10 Cloverfield Lane

When is a sequel not a sequel? When it’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. The hit follow-up to the iconic Cloverfield had a lot to live up to in terms of legacy but it opted for a different path than most sequels. Instead of being a direct continuation of the story, it serves as a “spiritual successor” which maintains the atmosphere of the IP and very little else. This is largely due to the film beginning development as an independent script from writers Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken before J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot swooped in and adapted it to fit the world of Cloverfield.

This means that the plot was the primary focus of the script rather than conforming to public perception of legacy or trying to continue a story that needs no continuation. The film sees recently brokenhearted Michelle trapped in a bunker with conspiracy theorist Howard and town handyman Emmet during a supposed global attack. It’s a tale full of twists, with each more crushing to our characters than the last. At the center of it is Howard, whose motivations are always in question whether he seems kind, quirky or malicious. He switches between playing the roles of protagonist and antagonist which keeps the audience on their toes. This would be true regardless of what horrors may or may not await in the outside world.

The ambiguity of what is happening outside adds a further layer of tension. Howard’s theories are never specific enough to be believable but that could just be because he doesn’t know for certain what has happened. This ambiguity would be enough but 10 Cloverfield Lane takes it one step further by seemingly confirming each theory as the story progresses. Is it attacks from Russia, invasion by aliens or is there simply nothing wrong at all? The major twist in the plot may seem to be whether Michelle can escape Howard (and that is a twist) but it’s primarily what may await her if she gets free. This reveal even pulls a bait-and-switch at the very last moment to keep the audience on edge for as long as possible. Knowing the outcome doesn’t harm the ending of the film either, it simply changes why this aspect is so tense. Instead of worrying what may happen to Michelle outside, we become concerned by the lengths she is willing to go through to escape Howard and meet her fate.

Despite not being a found footage flick, there is still a high level of realism present, largely due to the production methods. Instead of filming scenes out of sequence due to location and actor availability, the film was shot entirely in order minus a few pickup shots. They also used MDF Boards (painted to look like concrete) to construct a physical bunker which, aside from allowing them to film however they wanted, allows for a natural flow from room to room. There’s no trying to figure out schematics (a la Seinfeld’s apartment) because this is a physical space with a physical layout. It was also designed to look like it had been built in stages over the course of many years which is a minor enough detail that most probably won’t pick up on it but still adds a layer of authenticity. It’s all wrapped together in the bow that is Bear McCreary’s unsettling score. It allows for an added level of emotion manipulation that the original Cloverfield was never able to provide, and it is never overused. When the scene requires silence, it has it but when the tension needs lifting there’s the score. This is only one of McCreary’s many projects, but he would, most noticeably to me, go on to provide the score for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

There are those who will claim that the sequel is never as good as the original but films like 10 Cloverfield Lane prove that they are wrong. It’s not just on par with its predecessor, it surpasses it on every level. It has fewer elements in location and cast means that there is a much smaller room for error…so none are made. It’s worth getting trapped with.

Signed: Your spooky neighbourhood queer

No Exit

What makes a film good? Objectively, it may be aspects like the script, cinematography, score, and lighting but subjectively that’s not such an easy question to answer. One might argue that enjoyment of a film is enough, although this line of thinking may lead to heated discussions with those who don’t agree. There is a lot of grey area in these discussions too. Some parts of a film may be objectively good, while others are objectively bad, but you feel the bad is outweighed by the good. Take, for instance, Hulu’s newest thriller No Exit.

The plot follows a recovering drug addict who finds herself trapped in a community centre with several strangers in the midst of a blizzard. As she gets to know these people, she uncovers a kidnapped young girl in a van in the parking lot, although there’s no way of knowing whose van it is. The tension builds as secrets are revealed and the heroine must decide what the right thing to do is. It’s an excellent premise, told well, but it has several key flaws. The biggest of these is the dialogue, which is often cheesy and predictable. It’s riddled with cliches and exposition but, paired with the acting, it leads to an entertaining first half. No Exit’s tone is serious, or at least it’s trying to be, but the film is more enjoyable as a B-Movie. Even an inexperienced thriller viewer will call the kidnapper early on, although given that this reveal is the mid-point plot twist, it feels as if that doesn’t really matter. The second half contains plenty of twists and turns to continue watching, even if it’s a more glum experience than the first half.

No Exit is, in essence, a bottle story: a term used to describe plots that happen entirely in one location. (Think the fly episode of Breaking Bad or the classic Doctor Who episode Dalek.) Granted, it’s a fairly large location, using the several rooms of the community centre and the parking lot outside, but this is where the action stays. It’s used to great effect in the final act, with the heroes inside the buildings and the villains outside it, in a scene that keeps the tension high. It’s a stunning locale too, bathed in fluffy white snow which perfectly contrasts the villainy taking place. As the plot escalates, so too does the violence, which may inflict a wince from viewers. There’s a gun present for the majority of the second half, but it’s the nail gun and use of said nail gun which make for an uncomfortable half-hour.

The film’s other major flaw is in its display of drug use. The opening scene, set in a rehabilitation centere, is done well and feels genuine but as the film progresses, drugs will remain prominent. The heroine finds a small stash in the car that she uses to escape rehab and contemplates taking it throughout the plot until finally caving during the final act. Until she takes them, this is a really respectful way to portray these issues but she uses them in an act of heroism. This ties taking drugs with heroism in a moment that really doesnt sit right. The moral was so close to being that people are capable of incredible things without drugs, until it fumbles at the final hurdle.

Regardless of the mixed messaging and cliche-filled script, No Exit is still an entertaining way to spend part of an afternoon. It may not delight in the way that filmmakers had intended, but it delights nonetheless.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer