Thursday, 26 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Cloverfield

Cloverfield - 7.5/10

(some spoilers, only small, but best avoided if you're not sure)

I somehow managed to miss all the hype for this one. I know I know, what barrel do I stick my head in all day? But I do think I was lucky there, as this is the sort of film you should go into knowing as little about as possible. That said, if you are reading this and haven’t seen Cloverfield but intend to, you might want to stop now.

I have to admit, I was sceptical about this one. The guy in the video shop recommended it, and he had a hard sell, because I strongly dislike found-footage movies. Shaky shaky, sick-making, ohmygodwe’reallgonnadie, more shaky, view of someone’s feet running, crash and boom in the background, people screaming, something interesting must be happening but all I’m seeing is these damn feet running, shaky shaky, uncomfortably zoomed in close-up, more shaky, etc. Not a fan of handheld camera in general, as in most cases I think it’s misused, put in to look cool or arty, or to add unnecessary ‘realism’, especially in fight scenes (and especially when it’s been beautifully choreographed but then for some reason they film it all in handheld technique and you can’t see anything for all the shaking), and found-footage tends to take this to new extremes. Yes, I know the point is that events are being filmed by ordinary people on ordinary cameras, and yes, that’s a great concept, but in reality, it’s just lots of shaking... argh! There’s a reason we admire beautiful camerawork; there’s a reason cameramen are well trained and cinematographers are paid a lot of money; there’s a reason we don’t put poorly shot amateur movies on cinema screens.

I find this easier to explain with a writing analogy. So here we go. Let’s say I want to add realism to my story, so I decide to write a conversation as it would happen in real life:
“Hey” said John.
“Hey” Victoria replied.
“How was your day?”
“Err... it was okay, you?”
“Mmm... yeah okay.”
There was a pause.
“So... ummm, what do you want for dinner?” asked John.
“Errr... Dunno, what do you want?”
“Ummm, not sure. What do you want?”
“I just asked you that.”
There was another pause.
“We’ve got some chicken that needs using.”
“Stir-fry maybe?”
“Errr... maybe. Wait, no, we don’t have any spring onions left.”
“You could go get some.”
“I could make a chicken casserole, but we’d be eating late.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“Errr... I might just order pizza.”
“But the chicken needs using.”
“Oh... right.”

And so on. Yes, realistic. Yes, it makes sense for the characters and the situation. But it’s boring as heck and doesn’t move the plot forwards. It doesn’t add to characterisation because it’s just a meaningless conversation. It’s annoying to read. There are too many pauses, and too much umming and erring. The writing is bad; there’s no skill there, nothing to keep the reader interested. Good writers know not to do this. They know that if they want to make a conversation seem realistic, they can do it artfully. Put the odd ‘err’ and ‘umm’ in, but don’t overload the conversation with them. Add pauses by describing what is happening in the room, or by observing a character’s nervous fidgeting. This has the advantage of adding potential characterisation as well as a little colour. There are other techniques too, but the point is that making something seem realistic, when it is actually being carefully and artistically constructed, is how to succeed. Simply recording a real conversation exactly as it happens, or sticking a cheap camcorder in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, is not.

Now to Cloverfield. This film was different from other found-footage films I’ve seen, and now I am seriously having to reassess my opinion of the genre. I actually liked it. No, I really liked it. Despite my negative bias, this film won me over, made me actually feel anxious for the characters. The actors did a great job of running around looking constantly scared – found-footage movies must be so draining for actors – and the concept was, while a little standard, very engaging. There were some problems; the plot occasionally dragged, the characters made the obligatory insanely stupid decisions they always do (many facepalms), and it seemed a little weird that the best bit of the whole film was in the subway tunnels where the actual giant monster couldn’t get to them. The monster was in danger of having the film stolen from him by the little critter thingies. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve played too much Fallout 3 and consequently subway tunnels are TERRIFYING to me.

But overall, the film was good, and perhaps the best thing about it was the camerawork. Yes, amazing isn’t it, given the vehemence of the rant above? Here’s why. What this film actually managed to do was present the camerawork as realistic, while at the same time constructing it as carefully as possible to be aesthetically appealing to the viewer. Yes, there was plenty of running and screaming, and yes, there were some of those shoe shots that are so irritating, but amid this were some genuinely inspired camera angles and framing, shots where the background was just as interesting as the crying face in the foreground. And you know what, even the constant shaking didn’t bother me. Perhaps because the actual substance of the film took over and made me forget it, or perhaps because the shaking was incorporated so well that it felt natural rather than annoying. Of course, watching it at home instead of on a giant cinema screen probably helps! I may be revising my opinion of found-footage movies, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing them on the big screen any time soon.

So does Cloverfield live up to the hype? I think so. And I’m glad I was persuaded to see it. Enthusiastic Blockbuster employee, +1. Cloverfield, 7.5/10. Me, don’t judge things before I’ve see them!

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