MOVIE REVIEW- In the clover: One good choice among the rubble

Special to THE HOOK

January. It happens every year. The Hollywood studios see it as a dumping ground for their inferior products. Discriminating viewers have year-end award contenders to catch up on, so the new movies that open are aimed at undiscriminating viewers. Many aren't screened for critics, which is distributor code for thumbing their nose at literate ticketbuyers.

This week, for instance, a new Rambo sequel and another in a series of witless satires are opening without press screenings. There's also a ghetto musical (which was screened) whose reach exceeds its grasp and a thriller that could be okay, but it wasn't screened until after our deadline.

I scheduled some minor elective surgery for the first week of January this year, assuming it would be less painful than watching One Missed Call, In the Name of the King and The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.

One exception to the January curse opened last week. As one of the first good releases of 2007 was the Korean monster movie The Host, monsters took the lead again this year, with the all-American Cloverfield.

It's shot Blair Witch style with hand-held cameras– supposedly the same videocam passed from hand to hand– but this time you can actually see something. The opening doesn't hold out much hope for the characters we're about to meet when a government label informs us the video was found in "the area formerly known as Central Park."

There's essentially 15 minutes of set-up and one hour of terror. First we see some of what was originally on the video before it was recorded over. Robert Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) wakes on April 27 and starts photographing Beth Mcintyre (Odette Yustman), whom he's loved since college and has finally slept with. They plan a day together, including a trip to Coney Island.

Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) starts recording on May 22, the night of a going-away party for Rob, who is going to Japan to be vice president of something. He's embarrassed that he never called Beth again, figuring his upcoming move didn't give them much of a future.

Wanting to spend more time with Lily (Jessica Lucas), Jason passes the camera to Rob's dim bulb best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) to record testimonials from the guests at Rob's party. The one Hud's most interested in is Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who doesn't know he's alive.

Once the relationships are established, things start happening. What feels like an earthquake causes a brief blackout in Manhattan; a tanker capsizes in the harbor and an explosion shoots off fireballs in all directions. When the partiers run outside, the Statue of Liberty's head comes rolling down the street.

They try to escape over the Brooklyn Bridge, but one of them dies as the bridge collapses, just as Rob gets a call from Beth. She's trapped in her midtown apartment and, whether motivated by love or guilt, he vows to save her, even though the military is conducting a mandatory evacuation of the island.

Hud dutifully documents the journey, which includes walking along subway tracks and climbing 59 flights of stairs, up and down. There's a deadline because the military plans to level Manhattan after evacuating the last civilians by helicopter at 0600. If they're that efficient you know this takes place in some future time when FEMA's been replaced.

Along the way we've been seeing glimpses of the giant creature that's been wreaking all the havoc. From a distance it could almost be Godzilla or a larger King Kong, but in later close-ups it looks like a bigger, darker Gollum. As a soldier says, "Whatever it is, it's winning."

There are also little critters that fall off the big one and skitter around attacking people. They're like big spider crabs with bigger teeth.

Cloverfield may not be great cinema, but it's an effective blend of the old and the new. Amid the mayhem, the image that may linger longest is of a ghostly, riderless horse-drawn cab going down the street as if nothing were happening.

If you sit through 12 minutes of credits, you'll hear the lone original piece of music, Michael Giacchino's Roar! (Cloverfield Overture) [sic!], which should have an afterlife in concert halls.

The Blair Witch Project took place on a website and in your mind, with nothing on the screen. Cloverfield gives you a visual payoff, besides being made by solid professionals working hard to look amateurish.