‘Cloverfield’ Lives Up to the Hype

Cloverfield

The fact that “Cloverfield” is any good is something of a miracle. This movie was released in January, a month where Hollywood tends to dump all their crappy movies because they have no idea of where else to put them. Plus, this is a movie which could have easily collapsed under the height of anticipation and expectation which preceded it with its brilliant marketing strategy. We all saw the brilliant teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown down into the middle of Manhattan. We didn’t see the title for the film until months later, and we couldn’t stop thinking about it. This trailer was analyzed like it was the equivalent of the Zapruder film which captured the Kennedy assassination, but now the movie is finally here and has gotten 2008 off to a strong start.

“Cloverfield” takes place in the city of New York which has seen its fair share of destruction on and off the big screen. It starts off with some color bars on the screen and there is a message stating the footage we are about to see is from the area “formerly known as Central Park.” Those are ominous words indeed, and it leaves us in a state of suspended tension as we already know something very bad is going to happen. We first meet Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) as he is filming the apartment of the woman he just slept with, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). We see them hanging out in Coney Island throughout, but the movie then jumps ahead to a month or so later when Rob is about to leave New York for a new job in Japan. It turns out Beth and Rob never really hung out with each other again after the great day they had, and the time they had together is always on their minds. But just as they try to sort out their personal issues, the earth shakes beneath them and, of course, all hell breaks loose.

The movie does take its time getting started which is not a bad thing as it takes time to establish the main players and their backgrounds. The script doesn’t flesh them out completely, but they are fleshed out enough to where you do care about them. The big surprise party thrown for Rob is filled with people who look like, at the very least, got a callback for one or more of the shows on the CW network. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers add more ordinary people into this party who did not have the perfect body or such Noxzema clear faces, but anyway.

What makes this monster film particularly effective is how it is told from the ground view. We are there with the people as they experience this disaster firsthand, and the characters are not just simple clichés who look and feel like they belong in a typical watered-down sitcom. This is what drove me nuts about Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla.” Like Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” it is not caught up with the military as they make decisions on how to destroy this enormous beast. It is more concerned with people like you and me and how we might struggle to survive in this situation. The adrenaline keeps running high as Rob and a few others make their way through the decimated city to get to Beth who is trapped in her high-rise apartment.

Another key factor is that “Cloverfield” doesn’t show us the monster right away, and this as a result makes the thought of the monster becomes more terrifying than anything else. We do get to see the monster eventually, but not in its entirety until the latter half. I would love to describe the monster to you, but I’d rather you discover it for yourself as I really don’t want to spoil the surprise. Nothing will compare to the first time you watch this movie.

The movie is also dominated by the shaky cam work which threatens to become an overused method of filmmaking these days. For those of you who have serious motion sickness problems, don’t sit too close to the screen. As for myself, I actually dealt with it just fine. I was starting to think I might have reached my limit with shaky camerawork after watching “The Kingdom,” and it fails in comparison to the brilliant camerawork accomplished in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” But here, it’s fine and it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

“Cloverfield” is not exactly brilliant filmmaking, but it does get the job done and with no real music score might I add. We don’t get to hear a score until the end credits where Michael Giaachiano composed a piece of music which serves a tribute of sorts to the monster movies of the past. Credit, however, should go to director Matt Reeves who directs his first movie here since “The Pallbearer” which was made back in 1996. He keeps the action grounded enough to where we have no problem following the characters even if their situation is not entirely probable. Anyway, we go into a movie like this to have a good time, not to think too hard about everything going on.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Diary of the Dead’ Has Romero Taking Aim at the Internet Generation

Diary of the Dead movie poster

I had an English teacher who once said, “We have all been mediatized. This is a generation that has been robbed of its innocence.” This has stayed with me since because nothing could be truer. She said this back in 1994, back when we had yet to fully discover the internet, and we were not yet addicted to Facebook, You Tube or our cell phones. She remarked of when she watched a trailer for “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.” It looked like a very innocent movie, and yet there were teenagers in front of her who said, “This looks so lame!” As a result, she felt they were robbed of any chance of enjoying this movie as they were more interested in watching something which was its polar opposite. When you combine the loss of innocence to the ever-growing world of technology, it is apparent there is no going back to the way things were. We are now more “mediatized” than ever, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live without the internet or cell phones.

This is the main sticking point of George Romero’s zombie flick, “Diary of The Dead,” as he takes aim at a generation so sucked into You Tube and of watching things not just from a distance, but an emotional distance as well. We have become so enamored of watching disasters and car crashes from afar to where it appears we have been robbed of our ability to actually help others. As a result, Romero’s vision of humanity is especially bleak as he wonders if it is even worth saving.

The movie starts off as a film within a film as we watch a horror movie turned documentary called “The Death of Death.” The horror film itself is not going well as everything is behind schedule and the crew and actors are restless. All of a sudden, they hear on the news of the dead coming back to life, and everything changes forever. Some head home, and others head to the college to rescue their girlfriends. From then on, it’s a race for survival as the world is soon overrun by zombies, or so the internet and television tells them. What are they gonna believe?

“Diary of The Dead” could be seen as being released too late as “Cloverfield” had arrived in theaters just before. Both films are shot in a handheld style, but whereas “Cloverfield” used the technique as a gimmick, “Diary of The Dead” uses it as a commentary on our fascination with watching the worst life has to offer. Many people went crazy and beyond nauseous with the camerawork in “Cloverfield,” but those same people will be relieved to see Romero and his Director of Photography Adam Swica have reined it in to where it shouldn’t alienate the audience.

The film crew on “The Death of Death” is made up of different characters. There’s the director, Jason (Joshua Close), who believes if it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened at all. There’s his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who gets increasingly annoyed at his filming everybody, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who always looks like he is prepared to beat Jason to death, and there’s the drunken film professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who looks upon everything with a bemused detachment. What Romero succeeds in doing as a writer is giving us characters who aren’t simply types. If they come across as clichéd, he and the actors subvert those clichés as each character becomes increasingly unpredictable in their actions.

Romero also gives us strong characters who are females and minorities. He started doing this years ago with “Night of The Living Dead,” and he continues this tradition here. The female character who is the strongest in “Diary” is Debra as she is driven to get back to her family and is not about to get sucked into watching everything through a camera lens. Michelle Morgan gives this movie its best performance, and she also narrates the film within the film which gives you a pretty good idea of what happens to her character in the end (or does it?).

While the crew ventures home in an old and stuffy Winnebago, they run into all sorts of people who are quickly learning how to survive in a world being overrun by zombies. They run into a squad of African Americans who have taken over a small town and refuse to leave. This is because, for once, they have power over something they have never power over before, and you could see it as a revenge for all they have been put through over the years. There is also a deaf Amish man who provides some of the funniest moments as he blows up zombies with dynamite before introducing himself to the frenzied group of film students.

What makes these “Dead” movies so relevant even after four decades is they are really social commentary movies designed as zombie movies. Romero looks at how society is enslaved by its own wants, needs, beliefs and prejudices in. “Night of the Living Dead” dealt with civil rights and gave us a black man as the chief protagonist, something you didn’t see in movies back then. His ultimate destiny at the film’s climax said much about the times when the movie was released. “Dawn of The Dead” dealt with our quest for materialism, wealth, and of having everything we could possibly want, and it looked at how it leaves us feeling as empty and dead as the zombies who look to tear their way into the mall for fresh human flesh. “Day of The Dead” dealt with the paranoia and crazed determination of the military and its inherent sexism. Then you had “Land of The Dead” where Romero went after the wealthiest people of all and how selfishly involved they are in their own interests, and it served as a huge criticism of Reganomics which gave us the great lie of how this great wealth and riches could be yours even though this would never be the case.

Now with “Diary,” Romero looks at our addiction to watching the unthinkable instead of doing anything to stop it. You have to look at all of Romero’s “Dead” movies in context to see they are really a long chronicle about the decline of western civilization. It all started with civil rights and the reaction to it, and it’s been downhill ever since. To call this latest film bleak is a severe understatement. Romero doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the human race, and the last scene questions whether humans are really worth saving.

If you’re wondering about the blood and gore, there is a good deal of it in “Diary” even though it is not on the same level as “Dawn” or “Day.” Still, there are some good kills throughout, and the characters make good use of a scythe as well as a bow and arrow. Romero, after all these years, doesn’t skimp on the gory stuff. However, it still takes these characters way too long to figure out the best way to defeat a zombie, which is to shoot it in the head.

The other interesting thing about “Diary” is the way the characters and their reality are drawn out. Whereas in “Cloverfield” where there was a chance for safety and victory against what was attacking New York, there is no real hope for anyone in here. Whether or not they make it home, they quickly realize this is a conflict which will never cease. It will just get worse and worse until there is nothing left. “Diary” forces you to think about what you would do if you were in this situation, and this makes the movie all the more terrifying.

One big difference in this specific “Dead” film is, unlike the others, there is no military presence. None of the characters have a clear idea of whether or not there is even a military left. They are left to fend for themselves in a world which has gone dead on them, and their only link to the world is technology and the internet. But with everyone voicing their opinions through videos and blogs, who is to be believed when they’re so many different opinions circling all over? All you have left is chaos and anarchy, and every man and woman for themselves. The characters in this movie are smart enough to recognize this, and this makes the events for them all the more suffocating.

I liked “Diary of The Dead” a lot, and it shows Romero is still a strong force in the realm of independent filmmaking. While the first three “Dead” movies are pretty much untouchable at this point, I would put this one ahead of “Land of The Dead” which I thought was good but may have been encumbered by too much studio interference from Universal Pictures. While Universal gave Romero the money he had been begging for years to get, he’s back to his indie roots this time around and seems a lot more comfortable as a result. The movie’s pace does slow in its last half which had me a bit restless, and some moments last longer than they should have, but these are minor complaints at best.

Regardless of how bleak Romero’s worldview continues to get in each “Dead” movie, there is something to be said for his efforts to spend decades raising money to make them. There was a big lull between “Day” and “Land,” and this shows his endless determination to see his vision reach the screen one way or another. And here he is 40 years later, making a new zombie movie for generations old and new. There may be room for another one Romero zombie yet, and there is hope to be had even if our world continues falling apart. I wouldn’t mind seeing him do one more, but I hope it comes out before the apocalypse hits us.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is an Infinitely Intense Thriller

10 Cloverfield Lane poster

A few hours after watching “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I found my nerves were still fried by what I had just witnessed. It feels like it has been ages since a movie made me feel that way, so that’s quite the compliment. Billed as a “spiritual successor” and a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield,” this one works best if you know very little about it when you go inside the theater. Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten a kick out of this as the filmmakers play with your expectations and leave you in a suspended state of suspense throughout. It would be wise to see the movie before reading this review because it is that riveting.

The movie opens on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things and moving out of the apartment she shares with her fiancé Ben. While driving through rural Louisiana, she ends up getting into a very serious car accident which renders her unconscious, and she later wakes up to find herself in a concrete room chained to the wall. Eventually she meets Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who tells her he saved her life and is nursing her back to health. However, Howard also tells her that a deadly attack has taken place and that everyone outside is dead or dying.

They end up occupying an underground bunker which Howard built himself as he always suspected that America was going to be attacked somehow, and along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) they try to live normally by watching videos, doing puzzles, playing board games and occasionally playing a song on the jukebox. But things are never what they appear to be, and soon the bunker won’t be big enough for the three of them.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” marks the feature film directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg whose previous work includes a short film entitled “Portal: No Escape” which caught the eye of producer J.J. Abrams. It’s a heck of a debut as Trachtenberg puts us right into Michelle’s shoes as we come to have as much an idea of what’s going on as she does. Was there really an attack? Is Howard really worth trusting? Should they stay in the bunker until it’s alright to come out? Questions keep coming up as we try to stay one step ahead of the characters, but anything is possible and nothing can be left to chance.

Trachtenberg is also well served by a strong screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and “Whiplash’s” writer/director Damien Chazelle which gives us characters who are complex and easy to relate to. These three people are not cardboard idiots out to make the dumbest mistakes possible but instead complex individuals trying to navigate through their own personal issues while attempting to adjust to a possibly post-apocalyptic world. This only adds to the very palpable tension which escalates throughout as does the sharp cinematography by Jeff Cutter, the efficient editing by Stefan Grube and the pulse-pounding music score by “Battlestar Galactica” composer Bear McCreary.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven to be a terrific actress thanks to her unforgettable turns in movies like “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and in the criminally underrated “Smashed.” She is a revelation here as Michelle as her character goes from running away from trouble to being forced to confront it head on. It’s great to see Winstead portray Michelle not as some ordinary action heroine, but instead as someone trying to stay one step ahead of those who might not have her best interests in mind.

John Gallagher, Jr. is perhaps best known for his work onstage in the rock musicals “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” as well as for appearing on “The Newsroom.” For a moment it looks like his character of Emmett is going to be some clichéd southern dude, but Gallagher never falls into that trap as he reveals Emmett to be a man whose best days may have passed him by, but who is not about to give up on life and those he cares about.

But after coming out of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I kept wondering if audiences realize just what a great actor John Goodman is. He has delivered one terrific performance after another for years, but has his talent been taken for granted? After serving time on “Roseanne,” he delivered a stellar performance as the seriously disturbed insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. I was reminded of that performance while watching him here as Howard as this is a character who cannot be simply described as a good or bad guy. Goodman makes him into a complex human being and one who is driven by fear more than anything else, and this makes the actions he commits all the more unnerving.

It may still be early in 2016, but Goodman most definitely deserves Oscar consideration here. He proves what a masterful actor he is in that he never has to move a muscle in certain scenes to generate severe unease in the other characters as well as the audience. Just a glare from his eyes will have you on edge as Howard is a man desperate to control his surroundings as well as the people living with him. It’s a frightening performance as Goodman makes Howard terrifyingly unpredictable in his actions. At one point Howards seems agreeable, and in the next he finds himself in a rage. If you are not convinced that Goodman is one of the best actors working in movies today, watching him here should change your mind.

Like I said, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has been described as a “blood relative” or a “spiritual successor” to “Cloverfield.” Those descriptions are very appropriate as it differs quite a bit stylistically to the 2008 movie. None of the characters from “Cloverfield” appear here, and this one is not a found footage film which means no shaky cam. In fact, it’s highly likely that “10 Cloverfield Lane” doesn’t even exist on the same timeline as “Cloverfield.” Still, this movie does share a number of thematic elements that were prominent in its predecessor. To say just how many of them it shares, however, would ruin many of the surprises in store for the audience.

While most sequels or follow ups try to outdo their predecessors by giving us something even bigger, this follow up is instead more simplistic in its approach and shows how less can be more. Trachtenberg makes you experience every claustrophobic and nerve wracking moment to an infinite degree, and it makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow “Cloverfield” right out of the water.

2016 has so far given some good movies and others that will be forgotten in no time at all, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is one of the first great movies I have seen so far in this early year. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride filled with sharp turns, and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *

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