Skip to main content

It's not safe out there.

10 Cloverfield Lane
(2016)

(SPOILERS) JJ Abrams lets fly a little Tommy Squeaker from his celebrated – or vilified – mystery box, and – waddaya know? – he has another hit on his hands. 10 Cloverfield Lane was on no one’s radar until a trail unfurled in the middle of January, and since then its behind-the-scenes moviemaking mythology has quickly snowballed into a discussion of cynical marketing that one might believe has eclipsed the movie itself. If one hadn’t actually seen the movie.


Originally known as The Cellar, then Valencia, it was rejigged during production when the Bad Robot team recognised thematic ties with 2008’s Cloverfield, leading to what has variously airily been described by Abrams as a “blood relative” and “spiritual cousin”. That’s still a tad misleading, in the way anyone expecting Halloween III to feature Donald Pleasance muttering darkly to himself would have been disconcerted at his complete absence, and evidences the kind of selling savvy at which Bad Robot are highly adept (or at times not so much, see the Khan-age that ensued from Mystery Box-ing Star Trek Into Darkness’ villain), but the result is undeniably a first rate, creepy, edge-of-the-seat thriller, expertly performed by its small cast and confidently delivered by debut feature director Dan Trachtenberg. About the only unearned aspect is linking it to Cloverfield.


Of which, Trachtenberg has said it doesn’t take place in the same fictional universe, which is a relief, as I was trying to figure out how these aliens matched the monster from the original in any way, shape or form. Fortunately, this element comes right at the end, so you’re hopefully not left too distracted during the really good stuff, but it’s a bit of an incontinent mix’n’match all the same. Messing with expectations in a way that ultimately doesn’t ultimately enhance the viewing experience. And I say that as someone who really liked Cloverfield, notwithstanding I’m not a huge fan of found-footage (I was slightly mystified by the backlash to the movie, as if people had been cheated).


I’ll discuss that ending first, since it really functions as an inessential coda. It’s fun, breathless and tense, but it pushes the picture from the skilfully depicted and immediate character-based threat and (relatively) plausible motivation of its protagonist into the low budget equivalent of blockbuster acrobatics. Heroine Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) had been fully summoning her repressed MacGyver tendencies hitherto, but now, as she is dragged up towards the maw of a semi-organic spaceship, she has the resourcefulness to fashion a Molotov cocktail and stick it up the ship’s stove pipe/arse/mush, before deciding she can’t get enough of that good action and resolutely heading off to fight the good fight. It’s more in keeping with the extravagance of Roland Emmerich than the oppressiveness of the preceding 90 minutes, so you can either see it as a much-needed release from that closed-in world or just plain frivolous and daft. I’m a tad torn.


The best of moment with regard to the unknown “Is it/isn’t it?” threat out there comes significantly earlier as Michelle escapes the clutches of saviour/captor/predator Howard Stambler (John Goodman). She reaches the outer airlock of his underground shelter, only to come face-to-face through with someone (Suzanne Cryer) who entirely meets the content of Howard’s dread admonitions of what lies beyond. It’s a stunning leveller, particularly as it was shrewdly teased in the first trailer, and impresses upon us how masterfully the Abrams box of tricks factory can pull the rug from under us when firing on all cylinders (admittedly, the lure of the title somewhat dictates expectations, but there’s the rub; you never really know with this kind of thing). Likewise, there isn’t much doubt that, when Howard begins waxing lyrical about his lost daughter, some ugly Josef Fritzl truth lies beneath (so making 10 Cloverfield Road a rather more sensationalist accompaniment to Room), but the exact course is no less impactful for all that.


This is, after all, a familiar milieu in the Abrams oeuvre. A large part of the first season of Lost was taken up with the mysterious hatch on the island, and the second season opened with its solitary sentinel Desmond, guarding vigil against the apocalypse (and convinced the outside was toxic) while accompanied by that very Abrams/Lindelof device of a classic song used to unsettling effect (there Make Your Own Kind of Music by Mama Cass); here we have I Think We’re Alone Now (not the Tiffany cover, which is some kind of unsettling all on its own). But where predecessor Cloverfield was a big monster movie shot intimately, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the reverse; classically but inventively shot (Trachtenberg made his mark with an unauthorised short film version of the Portal video game), it could work as easily as a play with the odd tweak.


Credited to Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (the latter was attached to direct until Whiplash became a go project), the plot’s twists and turns wouldn’t land if the characters weren’t solid, and the characters wouldn’t gell if the casting wasn’t firmly in place. Michelle understandably wants to get the hell out of her confined setting, having been side-swiped by Howard in his frenzied attempt to get home before the invasion begins. She’s just left unseen boyfriend Bradley Cooper (that must be where she learnt all her A-Team shit, making hazmat suits, gasmasks and freezing through locks). Winstead’s onscreen career has unfairly not yielded a breakout success, since she was unfortunate enough to appear in Tarantino’s worst film by a grindhouse-ing mile and Edgar Wright’s flop Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but through no fault of her own.


John Gallagher Jr is local boy Emmett who, in stark contrast to Michelle, fought to get into the bunker. He’s very much the third wheel in the battle of wills between Howard and Michelle, but Gallagher nevertheless manages to carve out a memorable place (I half-expected to discover he was in on Howard’s game, but that might have been a twist too far for Michelle to extricate herself from).


It’s that powerhouse John Goodman, as his best onscreen psycho since the much more endearing Hitler-heiling Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, who really provides the fireworks, though, and Winstead holds her own against him. Howard’s an anti-Dan Conner, ever-slightly on-edge and not quite right, incapable of not rattling his guests when at his most genteel (they may as well be dirty birdies). There’s the dinner table scene, preceding Michelle’s attempted breakout and meeting with an infected, where he passes from studied calm to undisguised rage over Emmett’s gabbing, and then comes to within a hair’s breadth of assaulting Michelle. Later, when they play Who am I? and Emmett hears it as Howard’s admission that he knows just what they are up to, it essentially is that, and from there it isn’t any great distance to a bullet in the scruffy interloper’s head and a beckoning vat of perchloric acid (the better to have Michelle all to himself). Howard’s most unnerving moment, however, simply involves having a shave and offering an ice cream.


Amusingly, this is also the movie where the crazy guy in the basement is on-the-money. Pretty much everything Howard says about the alien menace up above turns out to be correct. I’m not sure if it’s designed as a shot in the arm for lunatic conspiracy theorists (probably not, since in a single character they’re also burdened with being basement dwelling psychopathic, murderous abductors of teenage girls), but I rather like the conceit.


Admittedly, 10 Cloverfield Lane lurches into the unlikely even before Michelle regains her freedom, when Howard survives taking a bath in said acid and becomes an archetypal horror movie monster-pursuer, and earlier still there’s a rather rote making-domestic montage that suggest more time has passed than it actually can have done, but these can’t detract from the core strength of the button-pushing here. Accompanied by a sterling score from The Walking Dead’s Bear McCreary, Trachtenberg has made a first class little B-movie, one that very nearly justifies Abrams slightly eccentric obsession with secrecy by paying off in spades.


I’m not quite sure how much long-term potential there is in alien invasion-fringed movies with Cloverfield in the title, but if future encounters are as effective and unnerving as the first two (and yes, this “sequel” is the superior of the two), we could be seeing that impossible dream, a successful anthology franchise.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.