Friday, March 11, 2016

Review: "10 Cloverfield Lane"

So people are excited about "10 Cloverfield Lane" because it was made in ultra secrecy and has been touted as a sorta-sequel to "Cloverfield," the 2008 found-footage hit thriller about giant monsters attacking the Earth, both of which were produced by "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" wunderkind J.J. Abrams (though he didn't write or direct either).

It's about people stuck in an underground shelter after some kind of attack has rendered the air above toxic. John Goodman plays the guy who built the place and runs it like a dictator, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is his guest/captive, and we're trying to figure out if his story is legit or he just kidnapped her.

The movie is reasonably enjoyable and engaging as a popcorn flick, though it often thinks it's being coy when really it telegraphs its punches pretty badly. Start with the title treatment in the opening credits, where the L's at the beginning and end of "Cloverfield" extend upward and downward, respectively becoming the "1" in 10 and the "L" in Lane.

"See?" the movie nudges us. "I'm the next chapter."

So how much of a sequel is this film, really? My normal inclination is not to blab too much about a movie that so obviously cherishes its secrets. But I feel like the filmmakers and promoters are engaging in some major trickery-dickery here.

So I'll just give a straight answer: Not so much.

"Lane" started as a completely original script by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken called "The Cellar," and over time got slathered with some Cloverfield sauce. Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash" was brought in to punch up the script. Dan Trachtenberg, who has various credits for technical work, makes his debut in the director's chair.

There are thematic similarities between the two films, but there's little continuity in the stories. It's questionable if they even take place in the same fictional universe.

Let's be blunt: The title is more about marketing than fidelity to an artistic impulse. "Cloverfield" was a low-budget ($25 million) science fiction film that made a bunch of money. "10 Cloverfield Lane" is an ultra-low-budget movie ($5 million) that falls more in the horror/mystery territory, which typically generates little buzz or ticket sales. It's the sort of movie that comes out in March and is usually quickly forgotten. Now it's guaranteed to have a big opening at the least.

I don't begrudge Abrams & Co. for a little chicanery to pump interest in their movie. But I'm certainly not going to go along with the ruse.

Winstead is the best thing about the movie. She's a wonderful actress who, like Brie Larson, has toiled from a young age doing often spectacular work ("Smashed") in movies that don't reach the public consciousness. She plays Michelle, a typical cinematic heroine: smart, independent, kind of disconnected from others.

As the story opens she's just walked out on her boyfriend, leaving behind her house keys and an engagement ring, but taking a bottle of single-malt scotch. While driving she hears some stuff on the radio about mass blackouts in cities, then a truck smashes into her and knocks her car down a hill.

She wakes up in a blank grey room, a brace on her knee, blood matted on her head and an IV in her arm. She's been stripped of most of her clothes, and the brace is handcuffed to the wall. Needless to say, she's freaking out. But Michelle manages to retrieve her clothes and phone from a pile in the corner, showing us she's resourceful and tough. Alas, no cell signal.

Then Howard (Goodman) shows up, and she's obviously thinking about twisted torture/rape/death scenarios. Howard, burly and bearded and wearing a sidearm, gives her few reasons for comfort. He's not overtly threatening, but issues dark warnings about her being thankful for his generosity and hospital. I saved your life, Howard insists.

Eventually Michelle earns tiny portions of freedom, and knowledge. They're in an elaborate underground bunker Howard built over the last few years. He's an ex-Navy man who worked on satellites and has some kooky ideas about alien invaders. The Martians' weapons will make the Russian arsenal look like sticks and stones, he insists.

One of the film's problems is that Howard's paranoia and malevolence should gradually grow over time, but the filmmakers turn him up to Full Kray-Kray right away. He's got the squirrelly stare, hand fidgets, sudden rages, etc. This serves to spoil impending surprises, which I'll not share.

Anyway, Howard insists the air is poison and they'll have to stay for a year or two -- at least. He's got plenty of provisions, an "aquaponic" air filtration system, some DVDs and VHS tapes, puzzles and board games.

There's also a sidekick: Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young local yokel who helped Howard build the shelter. He's got a busted shoulder received (he says) while forcing his way into the shelter after the attacks started, which took the form of biblical flashes of light far off.

Pretty soon a dynamic establishes itself: Michelle doubts Howard's story, even after Emmett verifies parts of it; Howard's behavior becomes even more strange and volatile -- he insists that the trio not touch each other, for instance; and Michelle recruits Emmett, a dim ex-jock type, into launching an escape plan.

I'll stop here with the plot description, since that's all you need to know and this is usually the dullest stretch of any film review.

Random aside: I was bothered that Winstead's character spends the entire time in the shelter barefoot, while Emmett and Howard always wear clunky shitkicker boots. We see her own shoes in the pile of clothes when she first wakes up, so how come she never puts them on? Is this a visual token of her subservience and vulnerability? A comment on Howard's archaic views on gender roles? A nod to the foot fetish demographic?

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is a pretty decent standalone film. It's got some solid scares and chills, along with a few dead spots. It's 105 minutes long and would have been better at 95.

As a sequel, though, it's a total con job.

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