No matter how generally annoying a technical innovation or stylistic vogue might be (the telephoto lens, the zoom shot, rack focus, etc.), there will always come along a movie to show how it can be used to advantage. Or at least how it can be used to minimize the annoyance. Cloverfield performs this service for the grainy, jiggly image of the handheld camcorder, the mockumentarist’s best friend and a corner- cutting, cost-cutting device for any purpose. The premise — the excuse — is the making of a video souvenir at the going-away party for a Manhattan yuppie, the night before his departure to a plum job in Japan; and the product, by its very nature, is an exercise in subjective camerawork as extreme as, though not as strained as, Robert Montgomery’s anomalous Lady in the Lake, 1946. Amateurish by design, with the camera in the hands of a conscripted novice, the evolving souvenir is all we get for the first twenty minutes of the movie, a chance for young people (boasting an abnormally high babe quotient) to be young — which is to say, fun-seeking, self-involved, insouciant, fatuous, and all that — and a chance, too, to secure a vicarious connection from the young people in the movie audience. (A cast of unknowns, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, and Odette Yustman in alphabetical order, will help to narrow the separation between the young people on screen and those in the audience.) The party part goes on a bit longer than necessary, leading to suspicions of padding in what turns out to be barely an hour-and-a-quarter movie. It might have led also to squirms of impatience if the document had not been labelled at the top as the property of the Department of Defense, retrieved from the “area formerly known as Central Park.” You know something’s coming.
What finally comes at the twenty-minute mark is a Big Bang and a momentary power outage, signalling an attack whose initial indications insistently call to mind 9/11: the upper-floor fireball, the pancaking skyscraper, the advancing cloud of ash and dust, the lingering flutter of paper. You could call this unimaginative, literal-minded, even tasteless, but the truth of the matter is that 9/11 taught us more about toppled buildings than did all the Godzilla movies put together, and you would have to admit that the makers of Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves, paid close attention to the visual data and came close to re-creation. (The bronze head of Lady Liberty in the middle of the street, swatted off her body like a T-ball, is more strictly symbolic, and is potent as such. And near the end, the limply leaning building, propped up like a drunkard against an adjacent building, shows plenty of imagination.) Later indications will reveal, bit by bit, fleeting glimpse by sidelong glance, that what’s behind the attack is in fact a distant relative of Godzilla — the yuppie didn’t have to go to Japan; Japan came to the yuppie — a composite creature combining on a gargantuan scale the slimy squid, the plucked chicken, and the skinned calf, shedding like fleas some spidery creatures of more human dimension. (Additional aerial footage from a cable news network lends some helpful perspective.) It is quite understandable and quite realistic, in the post-Rodney King era, that the party videographer would choose to keep the tape rolling as his small circle of friends fights to survive the night (“People are gonna wanna know how it all went down”), and the shaky, sketchy coverage of the events only enhances their immediacy and intensity. If the dialogue, with modern-day freedoms, duplicates the banality that Susan Sontag affectionately noted in the grade-Z creature features of the Fifties — “There’s some serious shit going on” and “What’s up with that?” and “This is like a nightmare” and so on — it speaks disarmingly, now as then, of human inadequacy in the face of the unthinkable and the unbearable. (The truism that Godzilla and his compatriots were metaphors for the Bomb makes it an easy stretch to tab the new invaders as all-inclusive Terrorists.) And the monsters themselves, even allowing for their extended tendency to play peek-a-boo, are expertly realized. This is Blair Witch on a looser budget.
Nits can nonetheless be picked. You would think that at moments of peak intensity — as, for example, when besieged by creepy-crawlies in an unlit subway tunnel — the videographer would put down his camera to defend himself and his friends, and would settle for shooting the aftermath. (You would think, at the same time, that such interruptions could have been dramatically effective: just an audio record of the skirmish, let’s say, while the camera eye stares at nothing, followed up by a post-battle survey of the carnage.) Then, too, when you remind yourself that you are ostensibly viewing a found video and are not actually present as it is being shot, the theater-rattling sound effects are ludicrous. Maybe this falls under poetic license, but somehow it feels bluntly prosaic.
With Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen looks like he has overextended his stay in England. The refreshment is gone. Less engrossing than Match Point, less engaging than Scoop, it spins a yarn of working-class brothers (Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell, working their thespian tails off) who, in exchange for financial favors from a rich uncle, become literal brothers in crime, new to the game and unfit for it. Allen, writer and director, and absentee on screen, slides the chess pieces around on their felt bottoms, no friction, no deception, no hesitation, carrying out a telegraphed plan of attack. An air of detachment is the closest he comes to humor; a Dreiser-esque moralism spreads a wet blanket. One listens for his voice through the thick British accents, and one hears a frequent tone of whining and pleading, and just a snatch of highbrow chat about Greek tragedy. One looks for his fingerprints, and one sees a sedentary camera and a burnished surface. The spectator’s search for the familiar filmmaker generates most of the sparse suspense.
27 Dresses is a girly fairy tale to do with the proverbial always-a-bridesmaid, twenty-seven times by actual count, with a closetful of once-worn gowns to prove it, who stands mutely by as her slutty younger sister returns home and steals her dreamy boss right out from under her nose. Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and director Anne Fletcher unprotestingly accept all the romantic-comic conventions, the contrivances, the clichés, and tidy them into shape as if with a nail file and vial of varnish. (New cliché? The film shares with P.S. I Love You a scene in which the heroine and a romantic prospect experiment with a kiss and instantaneously agree there’s no spark, and no hard feelings.) Katherine Heigl, blandly beautiful whenever her face-crumpling fierceness isn’t spoiling the effect, gets an opportunity to play a more coherent character than in Knocked Up, and demonstrates a fine control of the light and shade of legible emotion. She keeps the blahs at bay.
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The festival year begins, as ever, with the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, the 18th Annual edition (coinciding, the printed program prompts us, with the 60th Anniversary of Israel), February 7 through 17, mostly at the AMC La Jolla, with annexes at the UltraStar Mission Valley, the UltraStar Poway, and the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre in the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. It comprises a couple of dozen features, pretty evenly split between documentary and fiction, most notably Israel’s nominee for the foreign-film Oscar, Beaufort. Full schedule and ticket information can be found online at www.lfjcc.org/sdjff, or, if you are cyberspatially challenged, at 858-362-1348.
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It’s a story that has been written and re-written for some while now. A belt-tightening newspaper, usually a smaller-town newspaper, opts to pare away its film critic, with his eye on the local scene, his sense of community, and his continuity in point of view, and to make do instead with an assortment of wire-service reviewers from afar. The story can now be set within our own city limits, after the Union-Tribune last week pushed David Elliott unceremoniously out the door. Differ with him where you may, he has been a critic who, straight out of the starting gate almost a quarter of a century ago, could write about movies from a base of knowledge and commitment. And from a purely selfish standpoint, differ with him though I did, an “alternative” voice such as mine (if I don’t flatter myself) wants and needs another, a bigger voice, to which to be an alternative. To say that I was completely shocked by the move would be to say untruthfully that I had never noticed in the pages of the U-T the increasing reliance already on supplementary wire-service reviews, the box scores filled with the star ratings of other critics across the map (as if one man’s stars counted the same as another man’s stars), the weekly Street insert to give vent to the voice of youth and inexperience, the forum of grade-schoolers, the second-opinion column of a self-christened “Movies Maniac,” not to mention the You-Be-the-Critic welcome mat on the website. In their heart of hearts, the editors appear to have clung to the belief (or else to have reverted to the belief) that anybody can be a film critic — a vestige, this, of the benighted days when the Home-and-Gardens beat writer might get moved over to the vacated film critic’s seat. No doubt the Internet, where literally anybody can build himself a platform, has given new life to the belief. Cyberspace may be limitless. Our town just got smaller.