Archive for April, 2008

“Cloverfield” (2008)

It’s not easy to admit this. But they say confession starts the process of healing, so I’m just going to lay it out there. I ignored the reviews. I ignored my friends’ advice. I even ignored my own good sense. I was duped, see — caught up in the enthusiasm that anyone who can set up film so spectacularly has to deliver a terrific pay off. My pride’s only recourse is that no one can count me among the hapless many that shelled out full price for a ticket to see the disastrous train wreck that is Cloverfield.

It’s Robert Hawkins’s last night in Manhattan. His friends have all gathered to wish him well while one compadre totes a video camera around to capture everyone’s goodbyes—and the entire film happens through its lens.

A jolting earthquake brings everything to a halt. Everyone heads to the roof of this posh Manhattan apartment complex to see all the action, just in time to witness a cataclysmic explosion erupt in the city, spewing debris. Hawkins and his buddies evacuate the building, just in time (you’ll find yourself repeating this phrase a lot) to see the head of the Statue of Liberty crash into the streets of New York. A monster has invaded the city!

It’s a near-flawless logline; the perfect set up to a 90 minute disaster flick, and difficult to screw up. Somehow, the filmmakers actually manage to do just that. Thankfully, it only lasts about 73 minutes.

The marketing for this film was brilliant, releasing a quick trailer six months ahead revealing the premise, the creative minds attached, and a release date. No title. Audiences went crazy with speculation. Everyone started hoping to relive the Blair Witch phenomenon. The downfall started once we learned the title — an enigmatic name various web sites had floated from the beginning; a name with no relevance to anything in the film, implied or imagined, at all. And that’s just a precursor.

This near-flawless premise comes polluted with cookie-cutter iterations of any number of shallow personalities found on the WB’s line up. There’s the jilted lover, the lover’s hip brother, the brother’s endearing girlfriend, and the token slacker/best friend who just can’t keep his mouth shut. And they all have to find Hawkins’s girlfriend, trapped in her apartment. Conveniently located at the epicenter of the monster’s inexplicable wrath. On the 39th floor.

They have no choice, you see. Remember all those rescue workers, those heroes, that gave themselves and often their lives on 9-11? They’re conspicuously missing from this picture. Perhaps there is no emergency responder for convoluted plotlines.

When the performances captured in the trailers look and sound more natural than those used in the final cut, something’s amiss. Running on the premise that everything you see was supposedly culled from home video footage, spontaneity becomes a key selling point. Everything about this picture feels forced or manufactured.

Critics have drawn numerous parallels between this movie and the other “home video” thriller – The Blair Witch Project – and comparisons should end with the inclusion of the video camera. The terror of Blair Witch was elemental; it played on base fears, building on that oft ignored rule that what you can’t see is much scarier than what you can. Where Blair Witch terrifies, Cloverfield only inspires guffaws. So many scares spurn utterances of “I-seen-that-one-coming” that you wonder why the movie bothers to take itself so seriously. One particular scene might have earned a place among the more chilling moments to come out of the genre in recent years, were it not so delimited by cliché.

I really wanted to like this picture, yet every time I find a compliment, a qualifier has to follow. For instance, the film possesses some amazing visuals, but nothing that surpasses anything seen all the other times Hollywood has blown up New York. The filmmakers involved in this project – Drew Goddard, J.J. Abrams, etc. – have earned numerous accolades for their work on television for years. Not quite sure what happened here, but for all its marketing innovation, Cloverfield falls well short of what should have been a slam dunk.

“The Forbidden Kingdom” (2008)

Folklore follows a particular template, as most stories within a genre will do from time to time. The Forbidden Kingdom follows that template almost to the letter, and in many respects, it actually works in favor of the film. It’s the surprises that elevate it from just another mediocre kung-fu movie into an enjoyable little ride that doesn’t require a lot of effort.

Teenage kung-fu junkie Jason Tripitakus (Michael Arangano, Seabiscuit) buys bootleg martial arts DVDs off an old Chinese shop owner when he isn’t at home watching them, or asleep, dreaming about them. His dreams take him into a tale of the Monkey King — the ancient character of Chinese folklore, originally conceived four hundred years ago as an allegory for the fabled monk, Xi You Ji.

The film borrows particular elements of the legend — the king’s rebellious nature, and his defiance of authority — but twists them to suit its plot. Instead of earning the wrath of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King’s pluck gains him favor among the powers on high, until he is betrayed by the Jade Warlord, and cast into stone. Upon his imprisonment, he flings his magical staff far from the kingdom, to await its return by a prophesied warrior.

Naturally, upon visiting the shop for more DVDs, Jason stumbles on to the old bo staff. On his way to school, some punks rough him up and discover his haul of illicit media. They force Jason to let them into the shop, where they proceed to search for cash, trash the store, and shoot the owner. As the owner struggles, he pushes the staff into Jason’s hands, and breathes an order — return this to its rightful master. As he escapes the pursuant punks, Jason falls, and somehow plummets into ancient China.

Once in China, Jason quickly meets the rest of his fellowship, intercut with ample opportunities to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li work their own fun and fabled magic. Fight choreographer Wu-Ping Yuen delivers, as usual, though he does recall in places the tired duels of Neo and Smith.

Themes of revenge, courage and immortality rear their familiar heads, but the filmmakers wisely avoid the temptation to force feed their points. Plenty of fighting, plenty of war, and the plot sticks to stock development. In a few places, it even recalls The NeverEnding Story. Fifteen minutes in, a discerning viewer can probably piece together most of the plot, and its resolution. The script doesn’t ever reach a significant level of depth, but it never aspires to. It manages to land a couple successful twists, if one were not so inclined to check out IMDB before heading to the theater, that is. Otherwise, even those secrets are easily spoiled.

Its one gaffe might rest on the lazy inclusion of a crucifix, which hangs around the neck of — you guessed it — the greasy punk who likes to beat up our hero. Yet, considering hoodlum and gang iconography, one could argue for its accuracy. Kingdom treads comfortable waters. It neither challenges, nor instructs, but it does provide an escape, at least worth the price of a matinée if you’ve got a couple hours to kill. Folklore nerds and kung-fu geeks will likely get the most out of this one. Everyone else be sure to check your brain at the door.

(photo (c) Lionsgate)