John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

If your biggest complaint about a movie lies with its title, that movie is probably pretty great, and director Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is pretty great – a splendidly acted, hugely entertaining nail-biter that continually surprises despite its claustrophobic setting and cast of characters that can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But while it may lure fans of 2008’s astoundingly irritating “found footage” monster mash Cloverfield, did that title really need to be baked into this one, effectively establishing Trachtenberg’s outing as some kind of sequel or prequel? Theoretically, the thrill of 10 Cloverfield Lane lies in our not knowing where its true threat lies. It’s a measure of the film’s success that it works despite a title implying exactly where that threat lies.

It also works because, until its action-packed final minutes, the movie achieves its jolts and prolonged terror through unsettling insinuation and dread; for most of its length, Trachtenberg’s film is like a feature-length meditation on the T-shirt adage “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Following a late-night traffic accident, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle) wakes up attached to an IV and chained to a wall in an underground bunker. Her “host” Howard (John Goodman) explains that he saved her life, and will continue to keep Michelle safe as long as she doesn’t try to escape. Yet try she does, and when her attempt is foiled, Howard and bunker-mate Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) lay out the situation: The world has been decimated by some kind of nuclear or viral attack, everyone is dead, and while the sounds Michelle hears outside – A car? A helicopter? – may be transport vehicles, they’re not transporting humans.

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield LaneConsequently, while Michelle quietly questions the truth behind everything she’s told, most of 10 Cloverfield Lane unfurls in the underground shelter that Howard – described by Emmett as “a black belt in conspiracy theory” – has spent years constructing. The film’s humor and creepiness, meanwhile, stem from the dichotomy between our leads’ perilous situation and the ’50s-family-sitcom homeyness of their uncomfortably close quarters: The jukebox plays “I Think We’re Alone Now” while faraway banging is heard; hints of Howard’s potential psychosis land in the midst of game night. (It’s legitimately disconcerting when Howard is unable to guess the answer “Little Women” while playing Password.) Directing his first feature, Trachtenberg already displays a masterful talent for juggling and blending competing tones, and he creates sequences of subtly teasing suspense, including a crawl-through-the-air-ducts nod to Alien that climaxes with an unnerving plot twist. Yet while the pacing and staging underground are dynamically effective, and the compositions impressive even in the overtly, disappointingly Cloverfield-y climax, Trachtenberg’s true gifts may yet prove to be performance-based – if, that is, he’s given future opportunities to elicit such excellent performances.

At least since her eye-catching turn in 2006’s Final Destination 3 – one of those rare, unexpectedly forceful genre-flick portrayals that made you scan the end credits wondering “Who was that?” –Winstead has been a near-miss star too often stuck in films undeserving of her greatness. With luck, 10 Cloverfield Lane will finally alter her unfortunate career trajectory, because she’s just perfect; effortlessly empathetic, Winstead never makes a showy deal out of Michelle’s cunning and buried strength, and worlds of resourceful intelligence can be found in her wary yet penetrating stares. Gallagher, providing low-key humor and loads of heart, makes Emmett an exquisitely endearing meathead, and continues to suggest that he may be the most gifted underrated screen actor of his generation. (See also Short Term 12, Margaret, TV’s The Newsroom and Olive Kitteridge ... .)

As for Goodman, this instantly, irrepressibly likable character actor is bone-deep chilling here and yet, miraculously, still likable – a balancing act that perhaps only he could pull off. Howard’s geniality never an inch or two removed from complete instability, Goodman here tops even his most delicious funny/scary turns of the past, leaving you too breathless to laugh yet too delighted not to try. Much as I disagree with the decision, I get why this Goodman showcase is called 10 Cloverfield Lane. If a follow-up had to be suggested by its title, though, I would’ve much preferred Barton Fink 2: The Resurrection of Charlie Meadows.

 

Sara Lazzaro and Adam Greaves-Neal in The Young MessiahTHE YOUNG MESSIAH

Just by dint of being a movie reviewer, many people no doubt think I’m a jerk, so I may as well say something truly jerky regarding the biblical drama The Young Messiah: The movie’s biggest problem is Jesus – or rather, the little kid (Adam Greaves-Neal) playing Jesus. To be fair, director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s imagining of Christ’s life from ages seven to eight is no great shakes regardless. This abstractly intriguing speculation on biblical history is plodding and repetitive, and while the film (like grimacing co-star Sean Bean) is undeniably earnest, the only vitality is provided by Christian McKay as Jesus’ ailing uncle and Rory Keenan as a blond Satan with heavy eyeliner. Its significant failings, though, may have been ignored had Greaves-Neal boasted anywhere close to a divine presence. He doesn’t, however, and as adorable as he and his overbite are, the fidgety child performer appears sadly out of his depth, and simply doesn’t hold the camera in any way that would make The Young Messiah more than a dully serviceable Lenten field trip. We’re meant to be awed by this Jesus’ preternatural grace and charity, but unfortunately Greaves-Neal inspires less awe than “Aw-w-w-w!

 

Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in The Brothers GrimsbyTHE BROTHERS GRIMSBY

When it comes to screen comedy, how far is too far? A man forced to suck poison out of his brother’s scrotum? A pair of spies hiding out in an elephant’s vagina while another elephant attempts to impregnate her? An HIV-positive youth in a wheelchair thrown from a football stadium’s bleachers? Blood from said child landing in the mouth of Donald Trump? If any or all of the above made you grimace as you thought, “Yes, that’s too freaking far,” director Louis Leterrier’s The Brothers Grimsby will definitely not be for you. The rest of you psychopaths are invited to watch, endure, and, if you react the way I did, hate yourselves for laughing so hard at star Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest exercise in shockingly bad taste. Barring Cohen’s Sean Connery imitation, it’s a mess as a spy spoof, boasting an incoherent narrative and insulting roles for Rebel Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane, Barkhad Abdi, Gabourey Sidibe, and Cohen’s real-life wife Isla Fisher, whose character name as an MI6 assistant may as well be “Woman on Phone.” But as a repository for the grossest of gross jokes, it’s fitfully hysterical, never more so than when Mark Strong – an outstanding straight-man comic here – refers to Cohen’s treatment of Daniel Radcliffe with “You managed to do in eight seconds what Voldemort failed to do in eight movies.” Yes, he killed him. I’m deeply ashamed to admit it, but The Brothers Grimsby frequently killed me.

 

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeSchulzNow.

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