Friday, March 11, 2016

In Theaters: 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Written by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle. Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr., voice of Bradley Cooper. (PG-13, 103 mins)

Filmed in secret in late 2014 under the meaningless working title VALENCIA, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is what producer J.J. Abrams describes as a "blood relative" and "spiritual successor" to 2008's found-footage, monster-rampage hit CLOVERFIELD. It's not a direct sequel, and as such, Abrams and the filmmakers--director Dan Trachtenberg making his feature debut, and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and WHIPLASH Oscar-nominee Damien Chazelle--have been lauded for their game-changing approach to building a franchise brand. I guess 1982's HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, wherein producer John Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace consciously set out to fashion a seasonal horror franchise that didn't involve Michael Myers or Laurie Strode, seems to have faded from everyone's memory. HALLOWEEN III was panned by everyone--critics and audiences--for the same reasons 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is being praised, though time has been kind to the initially much-maligned HALLOWEEN non-sequel, and it's now considered a major cult movie of the 1980s.

Rather than tread down the path taken by CLOVERFIELD, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE thankfully abandons the hand-held, found-footage approach and takes place mostly in an underground bunker where Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in shackles after leaving her boyfriend (a phone call voice cameo by Bradley Cooper) and promptly getting into a car wreck on a pitch black stretch of road. She's being held captive by Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist/conspiracy theorist who seems quite insane, talking about how everyone is dead after an "attack," possibly nuclear or chemical, that could've either been "the Russkies or the Martians." There's a third resident, local handyman Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard build the bunker and came banging on the door, begging to be let in when the attack began and the sky lit up. Michelle is skeptical of Howard's claims that it's uninhabitable outside, but Emmett corroborates the attack, and after Michelle attempts to escape but holds off on opening the last door to the outside when she sees a burning, bleeding, and blistering woman begging to be let in, Howard's story seems to hold water. While a sense of post-apocalyptic domesticity sets in--the shackles come off, they make dinner, listen to music, play board games, Howard has an extensive DVD and VHS library and watches PRETTY IN PINK--Michelle can't let go of the nagging suspicion that something is off: his constant talk of his dead daughter, his mood swings, his arbitrary rules, and the general feeling that he's not being upfront about everything that has happened or will happen.

To say anything more would involve too many spoilers, but Trachtenberg and the screenwriters really tighten the screws with 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, filling it with a mounting, claustrophobic sense of unease and dread that comes from the use of sound and Bear McCreary's score but mostly from Howard's volatile unpredictability, going from fatherly concern to volcanic rage and back again in a heartbeat. This is absolutely essential Goodman, maybe even his best performance outside of his work for the Coen Bros, and he's matched by Winstead, who reveals herself to be a tough and fierce heroine who won't be underestimated. There are several out-of-nowhere surprises and certainly one of the most jolting shocks of the year in the second half, but then the story switches gears in ways that play into the CLOVERFIELD mythos but end up almost derailing the film. Like RATTER, another recent shocker that collapsed in the home stretch, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE starts confusing "ambiguity" with "not revealing anything," and the psychological suspense thriller that was brewing and beginning to boil over is abandoned with an abrupt finale that, no matter how planned it was, can't help but feel like a hastily-conceived reshoot ordered by a skittish studio in order to keep IMDb from collapsing and crashing under the weight of apoplectic comments section bitching and the rage of indignant fanboys. It's worth noting that under the shepherding of Abrams, Chazelle reworked Campbell and Stuecken's original spec script, originally titled THE CELLAR, revamping it to fit into the CLOVERFIELD universe, so if it feels like two scripts stapled together, that's because it is.

There's probably all sorts of ways for really obsessive CLOVERFIELD fans--do such people exist?--to tie the movies together (Howard was in the military and worked with satellites and he the name of the road he lives on is the same as the government code word for what went down in the first film, etc, etc), and maybe Abrams has plans to oversee future installments that are blood relatives of this film. As it is, it's got the feel of an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode that was working beautifully until it had to shoehorn in a late-breaking plot development in order to become something that it actively and purposefully spends nearly 90 minutes trying not to be. Imagine if Conal Cochran's insane Silver Shamrock plot in HALLOWEEN III was put on the backburner and the film abruptly brought Michael Myers into the story with 15 minutes to go and you'll have an idea of what 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE does--it doesn't crash into a wall, but it definitely takes a wrong turn before skidding to a halt. This is a film that will provoke divisive reactions and people will be arguing about it and sifting through the minute details for a while (there's all sorts of supplemental info about Howard's job and other background material at an online ARG, but who has time for that DEVIL INSIDE bullshit? If it's pertinent to the film, then put it in the film), but a one-viewing gut reaction says it's an expertly-acted (I can't stress enough how terrific Goodman and Winstead are here), character-driven, and intense nerve-shredder of a thriller that just randomly becomes a completely different--and inferior--movie with 15 minutes to go.

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