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Cloverfield: Short, but effective

Plus: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

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Godzilla meets the “queasy-cam” in “Cloverfield,” a movie that crosses the Monster-Attacks-Manhattan formula with “The Blair Witch Project.”  No, Godzilla doesn’t appear in person, but the movie’s monster looks like a close relative on the evolutionary tree, especially in one close-up.  The close-up ends with what appears to be a POV shot of the guy with the video camera being eaten, but later he’s still around.  Too bad.  If he had been eaten, but left the camera’s light on, I might have been reminded of the excellent video of my colonoscopy. 

The movie, which has been in a vortex of rumors for months, is actually pretty scary at times.  It’s most frightening right after something very bad begins to happen in lower Manhattan and before we get a good look at the monster, which is scarier as a vaguely glimpsed enormity than as a big reptile.  At least I think it’s a reptile, although it sheds babies by the dozens, and they look more like spiders crossed with crabs.  At birth they are already fully formed and functioning, able to scamper all over town, bite victims, grab them in subway tunnels, etc. I guess that makes the monster a female, although Godzilla, you will recall, had a baby, and the fanboys are still arguing over its gender.  (Hold on!  I just discovered online that those are not its babies at all, but giant parasitic lice, which drop off and go looking for dinner.) 

The film, directed by Matt Reeves, is the baby of producer J.J. Abrams, creator of TV’s “Lost.”  It begins with home video-type footage and follows the fortunes of six 20-something yuppies.  The lead character is Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is about to leave town for a job in Japan.  At a farewell surprise party, Hud (T.J. Miller) takes over the camera and tapes friends wishing Rob well, including Jason (Mike Vogel) and the beautiful Lily (Jessica Lucas).  Hud is especially attentive toward Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who says she’s just on her way to meet some friends.  She never gets there.  The building is jolted, the lights flicker, and everyone runs up to the roof to see all hell breaking loose. 

The initial scenes of destruction are glimpsed at a distance.  Then things heat up when the head of the Statue of Liberty rolls down the street.  Several shots of billowing smoke clouds are unmistakable evocations of 9/11, and indeed, one of the movie’s working titles was “1/18/08.”  So the statute has run out on the theory that after 9/11 it would be in bad taste to show Manhattan being destroyed.  So explicit are “Cloverfield’s” 9/11 references that the monster is seen knocking over skyscrapers, and one high-rise is seen leaning against another. 

The leaning high-rise contains Beth (Odette Yustman), whom Rob feels duty-bound to rescue from her 49th-floor apartment near Central Park.  The others all come along on this foolhardy mission, even though they’d made it to Brooklyn just before the bridge came down (not explained: how they got back, and how, after walking all the way to Columbus Circle, they have the energy to climb 49 flights of stairs, Lily in her high heels).  Part of their uptown journey is by subway, without the benefit of trains.  They’re informed by a helpful soldier that the last rescue helicopter leaving Central Park will have “wheels up at oh-six-hundred,” begging the question of how many helicopters it would take to rescue the population of Manhattan. 

The origin of the monster goes unexplained, which is all right with me after the tiresome opening speeches in so many of the 30 or more Godzilla films.  The characters speculate that it came from beneath the sea, or maybe from outer space, but incredibly not one of them ever pronounces the word “Godzilla,” no doubt for trademark reasons.  The other incredible element is that the camcorder’s battery apparently lasts, on the evidence of the footage we see, more than six hours, maybe 12. 

The entire film is shot in queasy-cam hand-held style, mostly by Hud, who couldn’t hold it steady or frame a shot if his life depended on it.  After the sneak preview, I heard some fellow audience members complaining that they felt dizzy or had vertigo, but no one barfed, at least within my hearing.  Mercifully, the movie is even shorter than its alleged 90-minute running time; how much visual shakiness can we take?  And yet, all in all, it is an effective film, deploying its special effects well and never breaking the illusion that it is all happening as we see it.  One question, which you can answer for me after you see the film: Given the nature of the opening government announcement, how did the camera survive? 



Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel and Odette Yustman

Matt Reeves

PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images. HHH – Roger Ebert

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

If you can’t think of three more endearing recent family movies than “My Dog Skip,” “Babe” and “Millions,” then here’s another title to add to the list.  “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep” is based on a book by the author of “Babe,” made by the director of “My Dog Skip,” and stars the hero of “Millions,” and it fully lives up to its lineage.

The movie, set in Scotland but wonderfully photographed in New Zealand, tells the story of a 12-year-old named Angus (Alex Etel) who finds a curious egg on the beach, brings it home, and is astonished to see it hatch a cute little amphibian with a big appetite.  He names it Crusoe, and conceals his new pet in the work shed, where it doesn’t remain a secret for long, particularly since it seems to double in size every day or so.  One day it’s terrified by the family bulldog, and a day later the bulldog is terrified by it. 

The time is World War II.  Angus lives with his mother, Anne (Emily Watson), and older sister, Kirstie (Priyanka Xi), and keeps a bulletin board with news and memories of his beloved father, who is away fighting the war.  He tries his best to be “the man of the family,” per his father’s final instructions, and there is another man around, Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), who helps out with barnyard duties and general repairs. 

Lewis becomes pals with Angus and Kirstie, and helps them keep the secret of Crusoe from their mother, who might not approve of the pet, especially as it balloons to twice Angus’ size, and then three times, and then four times, until it grows so big that there is nothing to be done but move it from the work shed to the nearest large body of water, which is, you guessed it, Loch Ness. 

We learn the legend of the water horse.  In all the world, only one is alive at a time.  Before it dies, it lays an egg, which will produce the next water horse.  As it reaches maturity, it looks like a jolly sea serpent with certain characteristics reminding us of Shrek and E.T., especially in its playful nature, humanlike expressions and inadvertent gift for comedy. 

The farm has been commandeered as a posting for a British artillery unit, charged with placing a submarine net across the mouth of the loch.  The unit commander, the supercilious Capt. Hamilton (David Morrissey), seems certain this is where German U-boats will first land on British soil.  Some of his men are equally certain that Hamilton drew this cushy assignment as a way of staying out of action.  Anne is courted by the slick officer, who goes out of his way to insult Lewis, the man-of-all-work.  But all is sorted out with a vengeance, as Angus gradually comes to accept that his father may not be coming home. 

Like most British family films, “The Water Horse” doesn’t dumb down its young characters or insult the intelligence of the audience.  It has a lot of sly humor about what we know, or have heard, about the Loch Ness Monster and various frauds associated with it, and fills the edges of the screen with first-rate supporting performances.  Imagine a family film with actors the caliber of Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and Brian Cox as an old-timer who spins stories in the local pub. 

Will younger kids be a little scared as Crusoe approaches the dimensions of a whale?  Maybe, maybe not.  Kids seem harder to scare these days, although I’m afraid some of them will find themselves taken to “Sweeney Todd,” which is definitely not for under-13s.  What kids will love is Angus’ thrilling bareback ride on Crusoe.  And viewers of all ages will appreciate that “The Water Horse,” despite its fantasy, digs in with a real story about complex people and doesn’t zone out with the idiotic cheerfulness of Alvin and his squeaky little friends. 

Rated PG for some action/peril, mild language and brief smoking. 

★★★1/2 – Roger Ebert

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