Perplexities and excess
(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