Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cloverfield

3.5/4

Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, Odette Annable, Mike Vogel

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Terror and Disturbing Images

"Cloverfield" was the first of its kind: a found-footage monster movie.  It wasn't the first film to present itself as being a documentary shot by the actors ("The Blair Witch Project," "The Last Broadcast" and others came first) nor was it the first movie about a monster attacking a major city (that category has too many entries to count, although it's clear that the film takes a lot of inspiration from "Godzilla").  Armed with a modest budget of $25 million and a brilliant marketing campaign, "Cloverfield" attempted something radical.  That it succeeded tremendously is only icing on the cake.

Rob Hawkins (Stahl-David) is a young guy leaving for a VP job in Japan.  His friends, including Lily (Lucas) and Hud (Miller), are throwing him a surprise send-off party.  Hud is tasked with recording well-wishes from all his friends.  But just as the party is getting underway, the power goes out.  Then there is an explosion in Midtown.  Lady Liberty's head flies down the street.  It soon becomes clear that this is not a terrorist attack, but a monster who has come to shore and is intent on destroying the city.

"Cloverfield" works for many reasons, but primarily because it doesn't shoehorn its characters into types.  They're real people and their actions and dialogue feel authentic.  The opening party, which introduces us to the characters works because it doesn't have a real plot.  This could be any party with people in their 20's and 30's.  A girl passes out on the couch.  Hud tries to flirt with the sexy Marlena (Caplan), even though she doesn't remember him.  There's awkwardness when Rob's friend Beth (Annable) comes, because they slept together and now that he's leaving, she has a new boyfriend.  Hud promptly spreads this around to the whole party.  And so on.  It's not great art, nor is it particularly interesting.  But that's precisely why it works.  It's the sort of thing that can happen to anyone.  It binds us to the characters (there are flashbacks with Rob and Beth that are conveniently inserted at "random" times...the explanation for this is quite clever) in a way that traditional filmmaking cannot.

It goes without saying that this wouldn't have worked if the actors didn't sell their characters.  They do.  They're completely average, and unlike some indie movies that try the "average guy" thing, it works because they reflect reality rather than imitate it.  They are all more than capable of holding our interest, something that the teens in "It Follows" were not.  The actors, none of whom had any idea what they were auditioning for, used this as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.  T.J. Miller has the comic friend type pigeonholed (he was the friend in "Deadpool"), Lizzy Caplan appears to get the roles that Zooey Deschanel turns down, and Jessica Lucas was in the godawful "Evil Dead" remake.  Ironically, the actor who gives the strongest performance is Michael Stahl-David, who hasn't had much of a career outside of this film.  He's tremendously warm and appealing, and if I may say so, adorable.

Director Matt Reeves understands how and why a horror movie works.  The power of suggestion is essential for a horror movie, and the handheld camera is utilized so well that it lets us see the creature(s) without getting a good look at them.  We only have just enough of an idea of what is there that our mind fills in the blanks.  And our minds are in overdrive.  While the shaky-cam had its detractors (and became an overused crutch for suspense), there's no denying that it works here.

While not groundbreaking like "The Blair Witch Project," there's no denying that it's tremendously effective.

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