Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 05, 2008 4:02 pm 
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"Are you still filming? People will want to know how it all went down"

Cloverfield
is an astonishing piece of vérité. Carried to an impossible extreme, as vérité can be sometimes, this movie pretending to be shot with a cheap video camera takes us right into a New York City Armageddon where giant serpents or trolls start out by duplicating the feel of 9/11, only all over midtown, with buildings collapsing or bursting into flames and people rushing around madly in extremis.

But it doesn't happen right away, because it's vérité--it really happened, you see--so a guy just happened to have a video camera in his hand while he was at a goodbye party in a downtown loft for a young corporate yuppie man who got a cool assignment to Japan. It's the clever conceit of this movie that a good twenty minutes go by before the Godzilla stuff happens, just long enough so you're actually getting vaguely interested in how it's coming out that something is going on between the party boy Rob( Michael Stahl-David), and his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), or something, and you've relaxed and almost forgotten what you were waiting for to happen, when it does. Wham!

And then everything is collapsing and somehow the strong survive all the way down to the bottom of the building--this is where 9/11 really echoes in your mind--and out onto the street, with cars and cops and people every which way and pieces of buildings falling into themselves and lights all red and orange, and the camera always a-tilt and running.because somebody has handed it to Hud (T.J. Miller), Rob's not-too-smart but faithful and determined best buddy, at the start of the party with instructions to record people, which he went around doing, till now. And Beth is up on the West Side, and Rob has the crazy notion that they've got to get up there to save her.

This being the post-modern media world, it's all a movie-within-a-movie-within-a movie. We are watching a film retrieved by the government from "the area formerly known as Central Park” after an "incident" code-named "Cloverfield," so this is the government's archival film now, and every so often it glitches back to an earlier film Rob shot, where he's on a first date on Coney Island falling in love with Beth. So you've got the halcyon past, the beyond-hellish present, and the unknown future all right there--in 74 minutes. This is another beauty of a movie that has not garnered enormous critical praise (though Edelstein of New York Magazine likes it and so did the witty Nathan Lee--let's just say it plays well in Manhattan) but has the beauty and extraordinary cachet of being as intense as any horror sci-fi monster movie you will ever see, and in a form utterly concise. And utterly true to Manhattan. The locations are quite vivid and specific and real, and these are 73 New York minutes, full of energy and speed and in-your-face.

And there is a monster--of the kind that's gigantic and terrifying but also so Japanese Fifties looking even though in color I tried to look away, because it broke the spell--which gives rise to or sloughs off more human-sized giant spider things that make a deliciously creepy crackling sound, like a giant crunchy rattlesnake, clattering and sliding around in people's faces and if it bites, watch out! You'll have a big bloody wound and after a while you won't feel too good at all.

Even though 28 Weeks Later took us down into a Tube station in similar circumstances, the stay down there in the Spring Street station with Rob and Hud & Co. stays with me. So does the first chaos on the street when they make it down from Rob's loft. This is a moderately high-budget grunge picture; it has the best of both worlds. It has tons of extras and special effects, but it doesn't dazzle you with their glitz, because you're just sort of glimpsing them through the terrified shaky hand of the, well, hand-held camera.

But I really can't remember much of it because, well, I was there, man. It all happened too fast. In fact many of the incidents that occur have been seen in other disaster movies, but still, this is what Nabokov meant when he spoke of transcending the tradition in one's own way. Reeves--and bless him, he's already planning a sequel--is a director who makes it all look and sound different, constant, non-stop, and intense. You couldn't take more than 73 minutes; it would be unbearable. And even before that the novelty wears off, and again and again you realize that Hud's still having the camera in his grip and working is wholly implausible. But the style, the look, and the feel of it are compulsive and hypnotic. This may be a bad movie. It is not a movie to take seriously. But it is a good bad movie, a very good one. It will fill you up. And like Chinese food, it will leave you feeling empty two hours later. But it will have been worth it.

You don't care about these people. They're shallow, emptily up-to-date, going nowhere. But that makes this all the more vérité. There are no heroes. No (human) villains. No human interest, really. Just stuff happening. Drew Goddard's screenplay deserves credit for that. And kudos to Michael Bonvillain’s cinematography with its endlessly chittering video effects and the FX flow, aided by Kevin Stitt’s lively cutting, which keeps things moving in and out, in and out, like a dying heart.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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