Jul 30, 2021

2021 Catch Up: Chloe Grace Moretz [Shadow in the Cloud and Tom & Jerry]

Shadow in the Cloud
Dir: Roseanne Liang
1942. Just as their mission is about to take off, the crew of an armed supply plane is joined by Maude (Chloe Grace Moretz), a female flyer with a mysterious package that has to be kept safe. Made to sit in the turret under the plane, without her package, Maude becomes trapped, and that’s before she spots a ‘gremlin’ on the wing and an enemy fighter in pursuit.

Shadow in the Cloud is, it’s fair to say, a lot. It tries to roll several genres; claustrophobic thriller, creature feature, wilfully ludicrous action movie together, while also folding in a big helping of social commentary, and do it all in 83 minutes including credits. That director and co-writer (unfortunately with Max Landis) Roseanne Liang manages it, and only occasionally drops one of the many balls she’s juggling, is pretty remarkable. As Maude gets on the plane, and while she is locked in the turret and communicating via the radio, the characters are understandably broadly drawn and, it has to be said, a lot of the dialogue, most of it unreconstructed sexism directed towards her, is interchangeable between them. However, the long scenes that are just Moretz trapped inside this tiny pod are extremely claustrophobic, especially once she’s trapped with the gremlin able to attack from the outside.

The creature feature aspects also work well. The design of the gremlin is fairly familiar; a bat-like monster with sharp claws, but it’s well-rendered for the most part and there’s a sense of its presence and of the pain it can inflict in the first attack scene. Later we get to see it more fully, and again it's impressive. The effects in the big fight are well done enough that, even with a small budget, we don’t have any sense of Moretz trying to punch an empty space where the CG will be filled in.

This is only Roseanne Liang’s second feature. Her first, 2011’s My Wedding and Other Secrets, sounds like a pretty conventional rom-com, but it has my attention both on the basis of this one and featuring the great Cheng Pei-pei. Shadow in the Cloud is a big swing, and Liang pulls together all the elements, wedding them to strong images. The use of red and green light is striking, especially when it’s used over close-ups that identify the plane’s crew as we first hear them on the radio. Married to the synth score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper and inspired choice of end credits song, it’s an aspect that identifies the film as looking back more to B-Movies of the 80s than strictly to its world war two setting. 

Chloe Moretz is clearly having a great time as Maude, especially in the third act as she embraces her first action role since Hit Girl. She continues to project the toughness and resourcefulness that has always been part of her screen persona (and that made her such a terrible fit as Carrie). That we have any emotional investment in the McGuffin, the big reveal of which doesn’t quite resonate as powerfully as it might if there were a little more setup behind it, but undeniably raises the stakes, is down to her investment in the role and in that rushed backstory. The fact she treats the material seriously grounds it just enough for there to be tension even as it ramps up the ludicrousness.

This turn into the third act is where Shadow in the Cloud might lose some people. But others will find as I did, its full embrace and recognition of its own ridiculousness, while not winking at us, an audacious turn into a third act that has some spectacular action for a film of this budget level. For all its silliness though, this last part of the film does also bring the film’s politics front and centre, the idea seems to be that Liang is showing Maude as a woman embracing but not limited by traditional roles; that she can do what the men on the crew do, even best them at it, but still be more than just a ‘badass female character’. It’s all wrapped up in the film’s triumphant final image.

As I’ve noted, Shadow in the Cloud is trying to do a lot in a short time, and sometimes that means it short changes some elements (the male characters are as lightly sketched as the backstory), but it also means that it is a relentless entertainment. You do, at a certain point—probably when an explosion catapults Maude back into the plane—have to just decide to go with it, but if you do, I can’t imagine you not having enormous fun with it.
★★★★

Tom & Jerry [2021]
Dir: Tim Story

Tom and Jerry cartoons might be the first piece of filmmaking, of media, that I remember really loving. The Hanna Barbera shorts may be simple in premise—cat chases mouse, slapstick violence ensues—but the endless invention of the gags and the malleability of the animation, stretching and squashing its characters into strange new shapes, gets incredible mileage out of it.

The problem with taking Tom and Jerry from seven minutes to over ninety is easy to see; there’s no plot, no characters to speak of, and an hour and a half is long time to spend just stringing together gags without any real connective tissue. The 1993 film didn’t manage to square this circle, and committed the sacrilege of having Tom and Jerry talking for most of the running time. This version gets closer, but still fumbles.

The film is set in the real world, but for the apparently accepted fact that all animals are animated. We pick up with Kayla (a game Chloe Grace Moretz), just fired from her delivery rider job, she manages to pass off another woman’s CV as her own and get a job at a fancy New York hotel helping to organise the wedding of famous couple Preeta and Ben (Pallavi Sharda and Colin Jost). When Jerry moves into the hotel, Kayla volunteers to get rid of him, with the help of Tom. This doesn’t seem like a bad hook on which to hang the film’s slapstick sequences, but far too much screen time is taken up not by Tom and Jerry (or even Kayla and the rest of the hotel staff, including Rob Delaney, Michael Peña, Jordan Bolger and Patsy Ferran) getting into physically impossible comedic scrapes but by a story about Preeta not wanting Ben to go so big with their wedding and not listening to her about it. This is a kids movie, so it’s hardly an issue how shallow this story is, and Sharda and Jost are perfectly fine in their parts, it’s just that nothing about it is either funny or interesting, and it keeps the film’s main attractions off-screen for long periods at a time.

When it is focused on the cat and mouse duel, Tom and Jerry captures the essence of the original shorts beautifully (down to referencing a lot of classic gags). The Rube Goldberg like practicalities of shooting the plates for the animation to go over must have been fun, because the real world mayhem appears largely practical, but stays faithful to cartoon physics. The animation isn’t always brilliantly integrated, but the style, a sort of pseudo-3D look that has the flavour of classic Tom and Jerry, but doesn’t feel entirely flat, works well once you adjust to it. 
The film’s first half-hour is easily its strongest passage, with pure slapstick routines like Tom and Jerry fighting while Tom is playing keyboards in the park and Tom trying to get into the hotel, walking across power lines with predictable results, capturing the energy and look of the shorts perfectly and scoring some big laughs. As the film runs on though, there is less focus on these sorts of sequences, and the laughs dissipate. 

The live-action segments, to be fair, do have a couple of gags that hit. Peña taking a joke Moretz makes about a fish being in charge of aquatic activities at the hotel literally is very funny, as is a throwaway line from one of the spectators watching Tom play in the park, and British actress Patsy Ferran has a weird energy as Joy the bell girl that made me laugh a few times. On the whole though, whenever the titular pair are off-screen, the film’s energy dips disastrously. Moretz, strangely, plays better off the animation than she does most of her human co-stars, especially Jordan Bolger, who I think is meant to be a love interest of sorts, but the chemistry is absent to the point that the intent isn’t even clear. This is a real problem when it’s her job to hold together the human story of the film, such as it is.

There are good things here, and moments in which Tim Story and his team capture exactly what made Tom and Jerry brilliant, but there is also a sense that part of what made them brilliant is also the reason they don’t work at this running time. The surrounding padding that has to be there to facilitate some sort of story is often dull, and the balance is off, with the pure slapstick making up perhaps only 20% of the screen-time. It’s a big improvement on the last Tom and Jerry film, but that only goes so far.
★★

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