Shadow in the CloudReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/30/20 14:27:40
(Worth A Look)
“Shadow in the Cloud” is a movie that is so completely nutso that one doesn’t watch it so much as stare at it in slack-jawed wonder as it starts off at a near-fever pitch and somehow manages to go even further over the course of its 83-minute running time. It is the kind of film where describing it as “frothing mad” is not so much a criticism as it is a simple observation. After a couple of months of staid, serious-minded examples of Oscar bait, here is a film that is so relentlessly wild and over-the-top that you spend the first half astounded that such a thing could have ever gotten produced in the first place and the second half astounded that it is working as well as it does.The film takes place in 1943, during the darkest days of WWII, and as it begins, a aging Allied B-17, dubbed “The Fool’s Errand,” is about to take off on a last-second supply drop when it is boarded by Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz), a British flight officer bearing paperwork stating that she is to accompany the crew on the flight as part of a top-secret mission and a radio bag that she informs them cannot be opened under any circumstances. Without any time to argue the point or to seat her on an already crowded plane, she is put into the gunner’s ball turret until they can get up into the sky and sort things out—unable to fit her precious bag in there with her, airman Quaid (Taylor John Smith) promises to guard it for her.
Whatever tenuous sense of camaraderie there might be between the crew and the interloper is pretty much eradicated entirely only a few minutes later when Maude puts on a forgotten headset and overhears the others discussing her in terms so graphically misogynistic and hateful that to describe it as “locker room talk” would be considered an affront to most locker rooms. After she busts them by announcing her presence and that she heard everything they were saying, the others quickly pivot to insist that she is acting hysterical and clearly imagining things. This not only rightly enrages Maude but causes the others to get so comfortable with their bullshit blather that when she informs them of strange things that she s seeing outside from her unique vantage point, her concerns are dismissed as more female hysteria.
I would not dream of revealing anything that happens from this point on—which is maybe 20-odd minutes into the proceedings—and this is one of those films where it is best going into to it knowing as little about it a possible. Suffice it to say, considering that the film takes place in a plane flying a dangerous mission during WWII, most viewers will probably be able to guess one of the big surprises in store. More astute viewers may even be able to guess the second big development, especially if they recall the film’s goofy animated prologue, an addition that I suppose was necessary even as I think that it might have been more effective without it. However, the film still has a couple of big surprises in store that even those who are usually good at guessing such things will be hard=pressed to predict. Not only do these developments raise the stakes considerably, they expertly set the stage for the last third of the film, in which everything goes completely batshit insane and deliriously so.
“Shadow in the Cloud” has been the center of controversy for a while because it comes from an original screenplay by Max Landis, who has since gone on to become an industry pariah in the wake of accusations of everything from verbal cruelty to outright sexual assault. The screenplay was evidently rewritten several times by Roseanne Liang, who would also go on to direct it as well, and pretty much all the key players have tried to put as much distance between Landis and the final film as possible. Nevertheless, those with some familiarity of these matters may find it a bit hard believe that this tale of ultimate female empowerment could have been inspired by Landis, though they may have less trouble believing him as the person behind many of the unspeakable things said about Maude by the others when the crew is under the impression that she cannot hear them.
Once you are able to put that behind-the-scenes skeeviness behind you (and that may be more difficult for some viewers) the film starts to genuinely work as a crazy-ass B-movie fever dream—an example of a meat-and-potatoes narrative in which the meat was clearly stricken with mad cow disease at some point. The first section of the film comes across as if the B-17 story from “Heavy Metal” was rewritten by a feminist theory class and does a sly job of effectively setting things up without overtly alerting viewers as to what is about to come. This leads into the second section, in which the big surprises are eventually revealed in clever ways that are startling and effective on a visceral level while at the same time giving genuine emotional stakes to what could have easily been comic book-style nonsense. This ends up paying off beautifully during the truly gonzo finale in which all hell breaks loose, all adherence to the laws of physics flies out the window and it never quite descends into pure cartoonishness because we have an actual investment in what is going on.
So why does something as completely cracked as “Shadow in the Cloud” work as well as it does while equally goofball things like every “Transformers” movie not named “Bumblebee” are generally excruciating to endure. For one thing, the screenplay, whoever is ultimately responsible for it (both Landis and Liang are credited), is a smartly constructed work that starts off like a pure gimmick movie but ultimately reveals itself to be a smartly structured work that still finds time for moments that are equal parts lurid and loopy. For another, Liang approaches the material with a lot of flashy visual style—more than one might expect from a film taking place almost entirely within an airplane and much of that time within the confines of that gun turret—that somehow never grows obnoxious and which at times suggests what the “Raising Arizona”-era Coen Brothers might have done with similar material. Even at the end, when things could have so easily gone awry, she manages to stick the landing, which is more than can be said for most of the characters.
A great deal of its success, however, should go to the surprisingly effective performance by Moretz. To be sure, I don’t mean “surprisingly effective” as a sort of backhanded compliment regarding her acting—she has long since proven herself to be a strong actress and the way that she approaches the potentially ridiculous material in a serious and straightforward manner is one of the reasons it is so effective. However, she is not exactly the first person who comes to mind when the words “action hero” come to mind (and I am purposely ignoring those “Kick-Ass” monstrosities, so don’t bother writing in) but once she is finally unleashed, she, as the kids say, kicks unholy ass and is utterly and absolutely convincing while doing so. This is not to say that I necessarily want to see her doing nothing but big action movies for the foreseeable future but if another one comes around with her at the center, I know that her presence would automatically raise the interest level for me.Make no mistake about it, “Shadow in the Cloud” is ludicrous trash from start to finish and for all the people who are now reasonably intrigued after hearing my thoughts on it there will be an equal number who will want to have absolutely nothing to do with it. For the latter group, it is their loss because it is a solid bit of entertainment made with an abundance of ambition, energy and style and a desire to entertain that might be considered shameless if it weren’t so effective. The only real drawback is that most viewers will only be able to see this at home instead of in a theater—a definite minus because this is a film made to be seen with a large and enthusiastic crowd. And yet, it works so well that even if you are watching it all by yourself, you may still find yourself yelling, cheering and yelping—sometimes all at once—as you might have in the theater.
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