Per­plex­i­ties and ex­cess

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(M) he lat­est film from the team be­hind Lost, the new Star Trek se­ries and Su­per 8, Bad Ro­bot Pro­duc­tions, has emerged as qui­etly as its name­sake, Cloverfield. Like that 2008 mon­ster sci­ence-fic­tion film, 10 Cloverfield Lane had its own co­de­name, “Va­len­cia”, and was filmed in se­cret: de­tails of its plot and even genre were kept from Hol­ly­wood’s hype ma­chine. Its ti­tle was re­vealed only in Jan­uary.

And that is ideally how the story should re­main for view­ers if they are to fully en­joy this film. That makes a re­viewer’s role prob­lem­atic, of course, but the joys of see­ing an Amer­i­can film with­out the weight of mar­ket­ing and pre­con­cep­tions are too rare and make this an un­com­mon plea­sure.

So, what to tell with­out go­ing too far? A neat open­ing mon­tage shows a young woman, Michelle (iron­i­cally, the once sta­ple “scream queen” of many hor­ror films, Mary El­iz­a­beth Win­stead), leav­ing her home in a rush, ac­com­pa­nied by a soar­ing score that tells you things will not be OK. She drives to parts un­known and, while do­ing so, takes a call from her boyfriend (voiced by an un­seen yet recog­nis­able Al­ist star) be­fore the film’s first shock. She’s sideswiped and her car is knocked into a deathde­fy­ing roll be­fore she wakes up in a grey bunker, chained to a wall.

At this point, one hopes des­per­ately the film be­comes Room rather than Saw. Thank­fully, it does — al­though Dan Tracht­en­berg’s de­but fea­ture veers quickly from the film for which Brie Lar­son re­cently won her Academy Award.

Rather than use the vic­tim as the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, as in Room, Tracht­en­berg main­tains ten­sion by shift­ing the fo­cus. The pro­tag­o­nist, at dif­fer­ent points, could be the man who con­structed the bunker, the slightly askew sur­vival­ist Howard (played with quiet mis­chief by John Good­man); fel­low ab­ductee Em­met (John Gal­lagher Jr, one the cloy­ing, too-young jour­nal­ists in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO tele­vi­sion se­ries The News­room); or what lies above the bunker.

The first screen­play by Josh Camp­bell and Matt Stuecken (with a touch-up by Damien Chazelle, who was due to di­rect it be­fore his won­der­ful Whiplash went into pro­duc­tion) is tight and sus­pense­ful de­spite this be­ing, in essence, a three-handed cham­ber piece. It’s as much fun at­tempt­ing to de­duce what kind of film this will be as it is guess­ing the real men­ace.

You sense aliens or some nut-bag con­spir­acy the­ory will emerge — be­cause the Bad Ro­bot team didn’t think the dra­matic op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by the sur­vivors of a jet crash stranded on a Pa­cific is­land were enough to sus­tain the TV se­ries Lost. And the Cloverfield ref­er­ence in ti­tle sug­gests some sci-fi spin, even if Bad Ro­bot papa JJ Abrams de­scribes this film as only a “blood rel­a­tive”.

It is best not to know where 10 Cloverfield Lane will take you. Revel in the com­pe­tence of its craft and the play­ful­ness of its per­for­mances. And revel in not know­ing, for once. The bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tion on co­me­di­ans is re­lent­less. Which is a con­cise way of say­ing Sacha Baron Co­hen’s lat­est com­edy, Grimsby, is dis­ap­point­ing.

Co­hen has earned fans’ eter­nal love for cre­at­ing a bunch of dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ters in­clud­ing the wit­less wannabe gangsta Ali G, wit­less fash­ion­ista Bruno, Kazakh jour­nal­ist Bo­rat and the wily, tyran­ni­cal dic­ta­tor Gen­eral Aladeen, and plac­ing them in movies that, for the most part, blended in­no­cence with bite.

Grimsby is an al­to­gether more ob­vi­ous af­fair. The clear dif­fer­ence with Co­hen’s pre­vi­ous films and char­ac­ters is they were satir­i­cal; Grimsby is a par­ody. So it’s harder to for­give his mis­fires here be­cause there is no sub­stance be­hind them.

It is a par­ody of a spy film meets buddy film in which Co­hen plays Nobby, an English soc­cer lout with a Liam Gal­lagher-es­que hair­cut and chops, whose love for his home town, Grimsby, ex­tends as far as his beloved Grimsby Town FC and the pub down the road.

The brief in­tro­duc­tion to his wel­fare-de­pen­dent Lin­colnshire life and fam­ily of nine kids Lane, Grimsby, and wife, Dawn (an un­der-utilised Rebel Wil­son) is amus­ing, if sneer­ing and not as lov­ing as other Bri­tish satires, in­clud­ing Gavin and Stacey and The Royle Fam­ily (whose Ricky Tom­lin­son, ap­pears briefly as lo­cal “Paedo Pete”, in an awk­ward re­minder of what could have been).

The film is di­rected by Louis Leter­rier, bet­ter known for his glossy ac­tion films The Trans­porter and Now You See Me, sug­gest­ing the film would not be happy tool­ing around north­ern Eng­land. And so it is not.

Nobby still keeps a room for his long-lost brother Se­bas­tian (Mark Strong), who is now a se­cret agent with MI6. Strong’s open­ing scene prom­ises some­thing thrilling from Leter­rier: the fre­netic chase, shot from the point of view of a first-per­son shooter video game, is cap­ti­vat­ing.

Then the brothers meet and Grimsby be­comes an awk­ward hy­brid be­tween an analob­sessed com­edy and lesser ac­tion film, with some­what un­nec­es­sary, Bond-like tours of South Africa and Chile and, ul­ti­mately, that most ob­vi­ous of ac­tion-movie de­noue­ments, a foot­ball sta­dium in which all will be killed.

To be sure, cinema lacked an anal-fix­ated ac­tion spy com­edy, but the genre may lan­guish af­ter this. Par­tic­u­larly as Grimsby’s “best” mo­ments are trade­mark Co­hen, push­ing his scat­o­log­i­cal hu­mour to what can only be con­sid­ered, at least in this film, ele­phan­tine ex­tremes. And yes, there is a comic set piece as out­ra­geous as the naked bed tango in Bo­rat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of Amer­ica for Make Ben­e­fit Glo­ri­ous Na­tion of Kaza­khstan (al­though the other big comic scene might leave you feel­ing a lit­tle dirty).

Un­like Co­hen’s pre­vi­ous films, Grimsby is all ex­cess and no sub­tlety. Leter­rier doesn’t help as his ac­tion scenes be­come indis­tinct, with their cheat­ing quick ed­its and the flash­backs to the brothers’ youth played in­con­gru­ously straight. In short, the di­rec­tor is look­ing for heart in a screen­play that doesn’t have one.

Also, a few ac­tors are look­ing for a film that doesn’t hon­our their tal­ents. Pene­lope Cruz, like Wil­son, is wall­pa­per as a mo­tive­less vil­lain and Co­hen’s wife, Isla Fisher, an­swers the phones.

Strong is a fine stage and TV ac­tor who hasn’t yet found his ca­reer-trans­form­ing film role, un­for­tu­nately, and here he does his ad­mirable best to keep his eye rolling strictly to his char­ac­ter.

For this is Co­hen’s film and he de­liv­ers his share of healthy, guilty laughs. Just not his usual share, or with his usual flair.

Mary El­iz­a­beth Win­stead and John Good­man in 10 Cloverfield top; Sacha Baron Co­hen in


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