Friday, January 25, 2008

*** out of ****

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to New York City after Will Smith fought off the zombie-inducing virus in December's "I Am Legend," the Big Apple is in peril again in the new monster flick "Cloverfield."

"Cloverfield" took America by surprise as a trailer screened before the mega-hit "Transformers." From there it has turned into an Internet sensation that will meet most expectations.

Shot entirely with a hand-held camera, "Cloverfield's" bouncy thrill ride will divide audiences. While it is steadier than "The Blair Witch Project," the first film to find success with this technique, take heed of this warning: Don't sit in the first row.

The story: We are watching a government classified tape found in Cloverfield, the code name for what was Central Park. The story centers on Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), who are throwing a surprise party for Jason's brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob is moving to Japan for a new job.

At the party, Rob's best friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), is taping testimonials from Rob's friends, but seems to be giving most of the camera time to Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who is on the way out to meet other friends. She doesn't quite make it, as the building they're in gets jolted while Manhattan comes under attack by a skyscraper-size monster.

It's a straightforward story, but confusion sets in as these terrorist-like events unfold. Instead of evacuating the city, Rob enlists the partygoers to scavenge through the mayhem with the hope of rescuing his former girlfriend, Beth (Odette Yustman), who cut the party short with her new beau, Travis (Ben Feldman).

As Hud continues to document the journey, we feel part of the hunt. We get glimpses of the monster throughout the film and can piece together that it looks like a reptile that walks on all fours with a tail large enough to whack down anything. For added terror, it spawns giant spider-like friends as well.

The cast of relatively unknown actors adds to the reality of the film. Add to the mix terrific special effects and the low $25 million budget is surprising.

"Cloverfield" definitely has the J.J. Abrams touch and will have viewers glued to the screen.

Drew Goddard wrote, or at least outlined, the screen play for the largely improvised film. Matt Reeves takes his second stab at directing after his 1996 comedy debut "The Pallbearer."

A unique thing about "Cloverfield" is that unlike "Legend" or other horror flicks, the scares produce themselves with the high-tense realism of the situations. One scene that will certainly produce shrieks is the one at the subway station.

"Cloverfield" also plays up some fears reminiscent of 9/11, with clouds of dust billowing down Manhattan streets and an eerie scene where skyscrapers are crumbling in the distance. Another great scene to look for is the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling down the busy streets of New York City.

"Cloverfield" is a refreshing look at monster films and a reminder of Hollywood's originality. Next time, let's hope the director remembers to bring a tripod along for a smoother ride.

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