Friday, January 18, 2008

Romance/ horror -- no, they're not the same

Summary: A look at two new films, one formulaic, the other trying to break the mold. "27 Dresses" proves negligible. "Cloverfield" tries hard not to be defeated by the demands of its genre.


In the routine and mildly engaging "27 Dresses," Katherine Heigl ("Knocked Up") seems to be working way too hard for light comedy, maybe because she's been asked to carry a predictable romance on her shoulders. Heigl plays Jane Nichols, a woman who gives new meaning to the phrase "always a bridesmaid." Jane's eagerness to serve as a bridesmaid supports the movie's title. She has accumulated 27 dresses at the various weddings in which she has participated.

The plot: Jane's love for her boss (Ed Burns) is frustrated when her younger sister (Malin Akerman) shows up for a visit and knocks Burns' character off his feet. Meanwhile, a society writer (James Marsden) takes an interest in Jane. In hopes of advancing a stalled career, he begins research on an embarrassing article about Jane's obsessive dedication to weddings. But guess what? If you said he overcomes his cynicism and falls for her, congratulations: You've seen a movie before. Here's another shock, Jane has an acerbic best friend (Judy Greer) who adds tart flavor to the mix. Strictly a formula job, "27 Dresses" hardly qualifies as memorable, in other words, a typical January release.


The sci-fi horror movie "Cloverfield" is less typical and far more interesting. If it weren't for the fact that "Cloverfield" rips a page from the "Blair Witch Project" book, it might have looked like a true original. But the movie's central conceit clearly has its roots in the tipsy camera work that defined "Blair Witch." As was the case with "Blair Witch,'' we're supposed to be watching an amateur video found after a terrible calamity. Manhattan -- always a target of choice when it comes to big-screen devastation -- takes another beating in a movie that occasionally recalls the horror of 9/11. This time, though, it's not terrorists who take a bite out of the Big Apple, but a giant, building-crushing monster. Director Matt Reeves' gimmick forces him to maintain a tight focus. If you don't like whiplash photography, stay home or, at minimum, bring an airsick bag. Every shot in "Cloverfield" is hand-held, creating the impression that the movie isn't a movie at all, but a tape made by someone in the midst of a terrible panic.

We never know more about what's happening than the characters, several of whom try to escape Manhattan. Perhaps to enhance the climate of anxiety, we don't see much of the monster, which has a giant torso and flailing arms (tentacles?). We're also never told what the creature is or how it got to New York. This lack of explanation may frustrate some viewers, but it's part of the reason "Cloverfield" becomes eerily efficient: It's disciplined enough to maintain a consistent point of view.

We don't know all that much about the characters, either. Rob (Michael Sthal-David) is leaving for Japan (home of the Godzilla franchise) to assume a new job. The movie kicks off at the surprise farewell party that has been arranged for Rob. His pal Hud (T.J. Miller) collects video good wishes for Rob and later becomes the videographer who photographs the chaos resulting from the monster attack.

For once, a group of insulated 20somethings can't fall back on their media-honed wits. A tipsy immersion in rampant destruction, "Cloverfield" -- which clocks in at a fleet 84 minutes -- has its share of improbabilities, but still makes for a smarter-than-average monster mash. Among the delectations: The Statue of Liberty is beheaded and the Brooklyn Bridge is ripped from its moorings. Did I mention that brigades of terrified rats stream through subway tunnels? Did I have to?


"The Killing of John Lennon"is as weird and disturbing as anything I've seen in quite a while. Using entries from Mark David Chapman's diary and filming in real locations, director Andrew Piddington takes us inside the world of the man who shot John Lennon. Visually charged and full of creepy narration, the movie chronicles Chapman's obsession with Holden Caufield, the hero of "Catcher in the Rye." In the capable hands of actor Jonas Ball, Chapman also is revealed as a notoriety-craving nonentity with little ability to understand his own behavior. I'm not sure we'll ever find explanations for people such as Chapman, and that's what troubled me about "The Killing of John Lennon." The movie is riveting in its way, but in the end, it's difficult to say what we've gained by entering Chapman's twisted psyche. As a result, this extremely well-made film makes us wonder exactly why it exists. We'll have plenty of time to think about the question: A second film about Chapman ("Chapter 27") is due later this year.

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