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Review: 'Cloverfield' something to see

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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Not many trailers have had the impact of the teaser for "Cloverfield," which debuted last summer attached to Michael Bay's "Transformers" bearing not so much as a title and the solitary credit "Produced by J.J. Abrams." (For some of us, it was the high point of the evening.)

Cloverfield

New Yorkers make a run for it in "Cloverfield."

That teaser consisted of handicam video footage shot at a party featuring beer, self-conscious testimonials and a pretty girl in the corner. Then, a tremendous explosion sent everyone up to the roof for an eyewitness view of the fireworks -- pandemonium breaking out across New York City.

That was all it took. For a significant proportion of the moviegoing public, this intense DIY disaster movie became a must-see picture right there. Not bad for a flick with no stars and no name.

Whether Paramount has sustained that pitch of excitement and curiosity over the last few months or allowed the hype to get out of hand will become apparent over this weekend. But at least I can report that, sometimes, there is truth in advertising.

"Cloverfield" (the title is essentially meaningless -- they might as well have called it "Cabbage Soup") turns out to be exactly what is looked like it could be: "Godzilla" shot in the style of "The Blair Witch Project."

It's a simple idea, but effective. A tired, old formula becomes fresh and contemporary. We've seen this story before many times, but it never looked quite like this before.

For 20 minutes, there's nothing going on. Really. A couple fools around with the camera. He points the lens in her face, then she returns the favor. Neither of them has much to say. They're just happy to be together.

The timecode jumps forward a month. Lily (Jessica Lucas) is throwing a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), her boyfriend's brother, and Rob's friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), is coerced into documenting the event on Rob's camera. For the next few hours, he's stuck with it, even as this modest memento rapidly evolves into a slice of first-person reportage and horror vérité.

There's a similar viewpoint in George A. Romero's latest doomsday chronicle, "Diary of the Dead." Hollywood spectacle traditionally gives us the best seat in the house, reframed every few seconds for maximum advantage. That's not the case in these films. We're stuck with one point of view as the drama unfolds around us, and as in life, the camera is often pointing the wrong way when something dramatic happens, then gets swept along in the chaos and confusion of the moment.

When it works, this silly symphony of jerk pans and jump cuts can be both authentically experiential and conceptually playful, as in a breathtaking rescue from an apartment building listing like the Tower of Pisa. When it doesn't, you wonder how long it will be before someone sues a studio for whiplash.

Some viewers will find the style a mixed blessing at best -- it's not the smooth ride we're used to, certainly, but then maybe this genre could use a good jolt. It's easy to grow blase when computer graphics do all the work for you. Here we spend Act II straining to see whatever it is that's laying waste to the city, and Act III recoiling from glimpses of something unspeakable.

Scenes of New Yorkers running from a swirling cloud of dust and debris cynically evoke the nightmare of 9/11; later sequences suggest the kind of urban firefights we read of in Iraq. These hot buttons are pressed almost at random. But underneath the stylistic brio, what we get is a lean video game scenario and a dash of prime Hollywood hokum, engaging enough for what it is.

A good deal of the energy in "Cloverfield" derives from the ingenuity with which Team Abrams (director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard are both old associates) tackle the limitations they've set for themselves -- maximizing the micro point of view. That includes bringing the thing in at less than 90 minutes. It's long enough -- the gimmick has been exhausted, the novelty is wearing off. At least it's been something to see.

"Cloverfield" runs 90 minutes and is rated PG-13. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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