Tag Archives: D

CLOVERFIELD

The studio has kept close wraps on “Cloverfield,” the new project from fanboy favorite J.J. Abrams (though he’s merely the producer), hoping that the sense of mystery surrounding the big-budget disaster movie will spark interest and insure a humungous opening-weekend turnout. But the only thing surprising about the picture turns out to be how unsurprising it is. Also—despite massive special effects—how boring. It turns out to be nothing more than a monster-trashes-New-York flick told from the perspective of a small group of unlucky people caught on camcorder during the mayhem. Even Abrams seems to think that it would be fair to call it something like “The Blair Godzilla Project.”

The script could have been scribbled on the back of a napkin. For the first twenty minutes we’re taken, videographer-POV style, into the preparations that Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are making for a surprise farewell party in honor of his brother Robbie (Michael Stahl-David), who’s decamping for a job in Japan, and the party itself, where Jason fobs off the job of recording “testimonials” from the guests to his dim-bulb buddy Hud (T.J. Miller). It’s through his implausibly intrusive filming of intimate moments that we learn that he’s got a crush on Marlene (Lizzy Caplan) and that Robbie’s besotted with Beth (Odette Yustman), a hottie he’s recently had sex with but then dumped because of his imminent departure. When she comes to the party with another guy, Robbie goes off the rails, and Beth leaves speedily.

In the middle of this domestic fuss—which we can’t care about in the slightest because the characters are just a bunch of self-absorbed, navel-gazing twenty-somethings barely sketched in—an apparent earthquake occurs, sending everyone streaming into the streets. But it turns out to be even worse: Manhattan is being wracked with explosions and collapsing buildings and soon police and military are evacuating people and bombing something we only glimpse through the haze. (All this is being filmed by Hud, whose work is our window to the event.) But amidst all the hullabaloo Robbie becomes obsessed with traipsing deep into the danger zone, with Lily, Marlene and the ever-filming Hud in tow, to rescue Beth, from whom he’s gotten a call indicating that she’s lying injured in her high-rise apartment. The driving force of the plot thus becomes—gasp!—a love story involving completely vacuous people who act very stupidly, and the rest of “Cloverfield” records how they fare.

I’m not going to reveal what the source of all the destruction is; the secrecy about it is what’s driving the publicity campaign. Suffice it to say that if you’re expecting something ground-breaking, in anything other than the most literal sense, you’re going to be very disappointed. The effects are impressive enough, though the grungy, jittery video perspective, with lots of grainy footage and blurred images as cameraman Hud flails about, make them frequently indistinct. (It must have taken a lot of money to make a movie that looks this crappy.) And one can’t help but wonder how ConEd keeps the lights on almost everywhere despite all the calamity—even in underground subway stations.

The larger issue, though, is whether in the post-9/11 age the use of such imagery about collapsing buildings and smashed Big Apple landmarks in the service of what’s basically a glorified B-movie shlockfest isn’t just a tad tasteless. Inevitably the filmmakers present the initial thuds and distant flare-ups in ways designed to suggest the possibility of terrorism rather than monster cliché, and that might leave you feeling a mite queasy.

But apart from those considerations, for a picture like this to provide anything but a few vicarious visual shocks, it requires characters you can empathize with, and they’re not just in short supply here—they’re simply absent. Apart from a few jokey lines for Hud, the dialogue is amazingly drab, sounding like the empty-headed drivel such dopey people might actually say in a night of drunken revelry—which might make for authenticity but offers very little emotional interest. And the young actors haven’t the chops to add anything to their threadbare parts beyond their naturally photogenic qualities and a generalized sense of desperation.

The end result is a movie that’s like a cinematic shell game that promises much but delivers little. It turns out that what the filmmakers have under that last cup may look gargantuan but is really pea-sized, a molehill dressed up like a mountain.

AUGUST RUSH

There are plenty of flaky movies out there this year—“Southland Tales” and “I’m Not There” probably take the cake—but one has to reserve a special place for this attempt at a feel-good flick about the healing power of music from writer Nick Castle and director Kirsten Stewart. “August Rush” is so gloriously, astonishingly nutty that it almost qualifies as an instant camp classic on the order of “Can’t Stop the Music,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or “Xanadu.”

But “almost” is the operative word. Though visually it swoons and zooms with absurd pointlessness (courtesy of John Mathieson’s extravagantly busy cinematography), in storytelling terms it never ascends the heights of absolute lunacy a real masterpiece of badness must attain—despite the hilariously maladroit insertion of an “Oliver Twist”-inspired subplot featuring, heaven help us, none other than Robin Williams masticating the New York scenery as a modern-day Fagin. He nearly takes “August Rush” into the stratospheric heights of awe-dropping idiocy, but once again it doesn’t quite get there.

The little hero of the picture is 11-year old Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), a supposed orphan in a New York children’s home with a preternatural feel for the harmony that exists in all the world around us. (He’s first shown “conducting” the wind in a convenient wheat field.) His genius is explained by the fact that he’s actually the offspring of cello prodigy Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) as a result of a one-night fling she had with Irish rocker Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers); but the kid was spirited away from her by her career-minded father (William Sadler), who informed her falsely that the child had died on delivery while forging her name to papers giving the infant away. Get all that?

Anyhow, little Evan, certain that his parents are alive, runs away to NYC, where—through the agency of tyke street musician Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III, working way too hard to be lovable as the Artful Dodger stand-in)—he’s taken in by Wizard (Williams), a guy with a stable of homeless kids who ply their musical trade for donations from the passing public. It turns out that Evan’s a natural—a brilliant guitarist despite never having had a lesson—whom Wizard intends to exploit to make it big under the pseudonym of August Rush. Through a series of most unlikely circumstances, August winds up as a scholarship student at Juilliard, where the wunderkind composes a symphony so brilliant that the school wants him to conduct it at a gala Central Park concert, though Wizard has other plans.

Wouldn’t you know it, also scheduled to perform at that concert is none other than Lyla, a distinguished Juilliard alumna returning to the stage after years away from her instrument? She’s also learned that her son is alive, and is searching for him with the help of kindly child welfare agent Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard). And Louis, who left his family band ago, just happens to have taken up singing again and is looking for the girl he’s always loved. Do you suppose they might all get together?

In telling this crackpot story Sheridan tries, with Mathieson’s strenuous help (most notably in the woozily shot and edited montages that are plopped periodically into the mix—they contain more flocks of soaring birds than early John Woo), for a tone of magical realism, but this is no “Billy Elliot”—there’s virtually no realism and absolutely no magic. And the musical elements (courtesy, one supposes, of Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer, though there are also several “music supervisors”) are terrible—elevator-quality New Agey junk posing a serious compositions (little August’s symphony, of which we hear a good deal at the end, is so bad it might have been composed by Mr. Holland). The Juilliard scenes, and the concert at the end, are positively ridiculous.

Add to the list of embarrassments the performances. Howard is wasted in a bland role, and both Russell and Rhys Meyers seem to drip blissful insincerity. As for Highmore, he’s called upon to spend far too much time staring up wide-eyed toward the camera like a human version of a puppy you’re supposed to ooh and ah over. But it’s Williams who goes truly bonkers with a turn that suggests what Mork might have been like had he gone completely to seed and developed a nasty streak. It almost makes one long for one of his bad “understated” performances.

One can just feel the desire of Sheridan to convey something about the enchantment of music and the power of love in “August Rush.” Unfortunately, the movie crosses the line from drippy earnestness to sappy absurdity, and the visual flamboyance only adds to the pretentious goofiness of it all.