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Feature


Young lovers Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) end their relationship when Rob scores a Vice Presidential job in Japan. Weeks later, Rob’s friends throw him a surprise party to celebrate his new job. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) has been given the task of filming goodbye testimonials during the party, a job he quickly hands over to best friend Hud (T.J. Miller). When Beth shows up with a new beau the party turns sour, as do Rob’s spirits. While Jason and Hud attempt to console Rob something throws the Statue of Liberty’s head at them.

Cloverfield
Cloverfield belongs on a pedestal in the annuals of classic exploitation cinema. It may’ve cost $25 million (which is still incredibly cheap by studio standards), and it may’ve been released in a couple thousand theatres to a final stateside ( edit to clarify: release weekend) total of $40 million, but it’s still a film that “attract[s] viewers by exciting their more prurient interests”. That’s the wikipedia definition, witch goes on to define the genre as “rely[ing] heavily on the lurid advertising of their content rather than the intrinsic quality of the film[s]”. If this doesn’t exemplify everything that makes Cloverfield special, I don’t know what does. What better thing to exploit then the western world’s ongoing fear of repeat terrorist attacks? If it’s good enough for Steven Spielberg it should be good enough for anyone, right?

The ‘relying on lurid advertising’ part is the part that makes Cloverfield a truly modern exploitation vehicle. The film’s producers, which include TV production superstar J.J. Abrams (I’m entirely unfamiliar with the man’s work, except Mission Impossible III), put together one of the most tantalizingly enigmatic as campaigns in recent history. Cloverfield sported no fewer then six fake titles, none of which were present on the original trailers that were mysteriously tacked onto Transformers with almost zero previous internet buzz. Post trailer release the net was plenty abuzz with even more mysterious viral promotional sites. Suddenly, what appeared rather obviously to be a monster movie by way of the Blair Witch Project was rumoured to be an adaptation of everything from H.P. Lovecraft to Voltron and the ‘Rampage’ video game series. The best William Castle ever managed was a buzzer in the seat.

Cloverfield is at its best when it’s manipulating us with images of massive destruction from a candid street level. I found myself genuinely nerve jangled during these combat photography by way of Youtube chase scenes. For several glorious moments I was legitimately transferred to a horrifyingly real world where terrifying monsters stomp on innocent, terrorist frazzled New Yorkers. As a horror fan I’ve found it harder and harder to find movies that really frighten me and Abrams and director Matt Reeves found a successful means to bring out my basic real life fears by supernatural means. During these moments I knew what it was to be an A-bomb distressed Japanese man watching the original Godzilla for the first time.

Cloverfield
Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but be entirely torn out of my frightful state of suspended disbelief every time the film stopped to develop its plot and characters. Upon a first viewing (in theatres) I assumed that I just didn’t like the characters, and that the plot depended on too many coincidences and dubious character choices. These are still unavoidable problems, but a second look has led me to a slight change in reasoning. I now think that a character-driven feature simply can’t sustain such authentic realism. The only way it could work is for the film to be strictly plot-driven, following the army’s battle with the monster from start to finish through various media film sources, as if one were flipping through channels as the event happened live (just like it happened on September 11th). Something tells me Paramount wouldn’t have given up 25 million dollars for that project.

The problem with Abrams and co.’s concept, which is a clever one, is that it requires much more suspension of disbelief then most of us are capable of. This is the real world, and real world rules keep applying. A second viewing on a smaller screen only allows these issues to scream louder. There aren’t a lot of films that attempt the ‘found footage’ approach, and every single one, though often successful on a visceral level first viewing, can fail when nit-picked apart. Some audiences simply aren’t willing to go along with high concept for high concept’s sake.

The most successful ‘found footage’ movie is still the granddaddy, Cannibal Holocaust (though Ruggero Deodato was inspired by the often faked and sold as real Mondo films of the 1960s, and the first third doesn’t really work at all). Cloverfield’s biggest hurdle of disbelief is Hud’s reasoning for continued documentation—why wouldn’t he just drop the camera and run? Cannibal Holocaust (and to a lesser extent the Cannibal Holocaust inspired Blair Witch Project) doesn’t have this problem because the protagonists are documentarians that are actually creating the mayhem. But I suppose a film from the point of view of the Cloverfield monster’s giant camcorder would be more funny then frightening. Still, it’s hard to deny Deodato’s film had influence on Abrams (see below).

Cloverfield
Cloverfield

Video


The ‘real world’ video of Cloverfield is not supposed to be high definition (though technically it was filmed as such), so this standard definition disc is more then acceptable. The movie looks kind of like crap throughout, but it’s been specially crafted to look like crap, so more power to it. The lighting is dull, the framing is awkward, the grain is heavy, the focus is bad, etcetera and so forth. The colours are often quite bright, with surprisingly minimal blooming (unless of course intended). Through the grainy and dulled compositions the compression is surprisingly minimal. This overall dingy look actually helps sell the digital monster effects, and I imagine the eventual Blu-ray release will be perhaps a bit too sharp in these areas.

Audio


Cloverfield’s audio is one of those things that can pull you out of the film if you think too hardly about it. Some digital camcorders come with stereo microphones, but none of them come with 5.1 microphones (mostly because there is no such thing). But this is really an unnecessary nit-pick, because the ferocity of a large-scale monster attack wouldn’t work as well in mono. The trade off for intense, multi-channel soundtrack is a lack of music (mostly, there’s some music-like ambient noise). Without the unrealistic 5.1 track we wouldn’t get the impressive punch of the creature’s early attacks, or the visceral impact of the army attacks. The vast majority of the film is centre-channel friendly, and most of the stereo and surround channel work is devoted to light ambiance.

Cloverfield

Extras


This disc isn’t without its fun extras, but overall I’m a little surprised at the general lack of volume. I know I’ve been making claims of double dips for review after review, but this disc really strikes me as a stopgap to a better release. Clue number one comes with director Matt Reeves’ solo commentary track.

Reeves’ track is, technically speaking, very good, fulfilling many questions about the pre-production process, the filming process, and some of the post-production process, and his personal views and attachments to the film, but the absence of Abrams is suspicious to me (perhaps he was too busy with his new Star Trek project). Perhaps I’m just a little double-dip paranoid on this one. Regardless, I learned quite a bit about the making of Cloverfield from Reeves’ calm and collected commentary, specifically about the early production (though he doesn’t cop to ripping off The Descent’s best scare). Some fans may be disappointed by the lack of detailed description of the film’s monster and his (her?) origin (another possible clue to a future special edition release).

The deleted scenes (four) and alternate endings (two) will probably disappoint most of the film’s biggest fans as well. All the deleted scenes take place during the film’s almost unbearable opening party. There’s no new monster footage or alternate and more violent versions of some of the lice attacks. The alternate endings both come to the same conclusion as the final film (no proof of survival, or death, or monster getting away, or monster being quashed), but vary slightly in length and location on Coney Island. All scenes feature a Reeves commentary track.

Cloverfield
Three decent featurettes fill out a couple of facts Reeves may have missed during his commentary. ‘Document 01.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield’ is your basic who, where, when, and why of the production. Abrams and the actors are given a shot at explaining themselves. It’s not too deep, and it isn’t too long, but it fulfils a few of our informative needs. ‘Cloverfield Visual Effects’ is more like it, delving deeper into the film’s fleeting magic. It’s a credit to Reeves and the effects crew how hard it is to even notice some of the film’s more special slight of hand. ‘I Saw It! It's Alive! It's Huge’ is a brief look more specifically at the design of the monster, though it does literally repeat the other commentaries.

‘Clover Fun’ is the blooper reel, which mostly consists of actor T.J. Miller making people laugh, but also includes some destruction related follies. A few previews, an Easter egg (don't get excited), and a weblink end the extras.

Cloverfield

Overall


Cloverfield should’ve been released in 2007 so critics could’ve called it the year of the monster or something (well, had The Host or The Mist been the hits they deserved to be). Had any of these films, each special in their own way, made any genuine impact we might have seen an intelligent resurgence of thinly allegorical monster films. Unfortunately, it’s looking like this was just a flash in the city stomping pan. This DVD doesn’t roar loud enough for me to assume it’s even close to the last word on the film, but the price seems right at most outlets and we should enjoy our modern monster movies while we can.


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