MOVIE REVIEW: Super 8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super 8 derails all the infantile movie-making of explosion artists and delivers a nostalgic return to the subtleties of cinema.

In retrospect, it’s funny to think that Steven Spielberg was condemned by many of his contemporaries during the ‘70s and ‘80s, that movies of such material merit were criticized of stripping Hollywood of its depth and reducing substance to spectacle. We can only laugh at at the thought of what those same detractors would think of filmmakers like Michael Bay.  But Spielberg was, and still is, far from a simple manufacturer of parlor tricks; he was a master storyteller, capable of photographing our most closeted fears and intimate imaginations.  Produced by Amblin Entertainment and Bad Robot Productions, and distributed by Paramount, J.J Abrams now aims to pay tribute to the man, his method, and its magic.

In a run-of-the-mill Spielbergian suburbia in 1979, Joel Courtney is Joe Lamb, a timid kid with an estranged father (Kyle Chandler), a recently deceased mother, and a fat filmmaker for a friend (Riley Griffiths).  When they’re not at school, Joe and the aforesaid weighty Charles make movies and talk movies.  Accompanied by the intimidating companionship of a young belle (Elle Fanning) and two of their buddies, the adolescent Hollywood aspirants take to the night to shoot their 8mm zombie flick.

Super 8’s first act is pure pleasure and a joy for the juvenile in all of us… especially those of us who made movies when were a kid.  Pressed for time in the late hours of the night, telling your friends to shut up and stop screwing around because you’re running out of film, arguing for twenty minutes about whether to go for a close-up or a medium… it’s impossible to suppress a smile.

Cue all hell breaking loose.  A speeding train springs from its tracks in a massive crash and, unbeknownst to the crew, a perverse E.T. frees itself from one of the cars, setting into motion the military occupancy of the small Ohio town.  The rest of the runtime centers on many of Super 8’s characters coming to grips with unresolved family issues, notably the Spielberg-trademark of fathers and their sons, and a straightforward ‘damsel-in-distress’ finale.

Closer to the third kind beings of Encounters than the central titular alien in the Extra-Terrestrial, the creature in Super 8 is more of a MacGuffin monster.  It doesn’t play a real role except to act as a catalyst for the maturation of Joe, his friends, and their families.  It drives the plot forward like a chauffeur… not really there, and you don’t really care… you just want to get to where you’re headed.  This excuses the fact that the alien is not nearly as memorable as notable others, although Abrams does well in adhering to the principle of what you don’t see is more frightening than what you do see, as blurring and obscure angles prevent you from almost never having a clear view of the monster, making it all the more menacing.

From a technical standpoint, Super 8 is a virtuoso comparable with the works of the maestro it models.  Whether it’s the mechanical madness of a tank crushing the innocence of a child’s playground, or the seldom shot of a silhouette against the skyline, the images here compliment, rather than dominate the established world.  Frankness forgiven, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again… movies with balls are nothing without heart.  The explosive images employed here are powerful because Abrams understands the principle that we don’t give two sh*ts about a propane tank exploding… we care about the people that the blast could harm.  Of course speaking of our director, what would an Abrams film be without a hundred lens flares, except that this time the visual device is actually relevant, continually reminding you that you’re watching a movie… and that’s what Super 8 is all about.

The awe and wonder of the film’s legendary producer trump the cheap cookie-cutter ‘blow it up and they’ll keep entertained’ strategy.  Its monster forges these people by being, rather than interacting.  Understand this… it’s not E.T. or Close Encounters… it doesn’t quite match the sentimentality of those films.  Nor does it wield the same amount of scriptwriting focus – I felt as though J.J. was working to too many things instead of one sole objective – but it undeniably possesses the heart of its producer’s predecessors, and similarly challenges its heroes to grow up… and yet stay young.  It tributes Spielberg, the frustrating fun of amateur film-making, but more than anything, it tributes imagination once again… And the power of ideas over imagery.

 


MOVIE REVIEW: X-Men First Class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s face it.  Prequels are made for one reason: because it’s cool to see where established legends come from.  It’s all about the moments, those periodic origin instants that reveal how a certain piece of lore of the franchise came into being.  And the smiles those moments draw.  But you always have to keep in mind that we’re here because of the familiar, and it’s up to the filmmakers to use the familiar as a foundation to provide the same amount of memorable moments as its source.  X-Men First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, regretfully doesn’t make good on that promise of a prequel; it doesn’t give you the moments and, while overall fun and fresh, not as many smiles as you’d hope.

First Class begins full circle, returning the film franchise to 1944 Poland, where Erik Lehnsherr pries a gate off its hinges as the Nazis separate him from his parents.  A less than pleasant encounter with the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) unleashes the rage dwelling inside the future magnet, and Lehnsherr sets on out a warpath of vengeance.  Flashforward to the Sixties.  Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is something of a magnet himself, a charismatic charmer of the opposite sex with McAvoy commanding the character, and notably both his legs, with vibrancy we’ve never seen before.  Though I wish he was a little less sure of himself – too often he appears as wise and experienced as his older self — the pre-paraplegic professor’s performance is the highlight of the picture.

From there, the script becomes much too cluttered.  Sir smooth-talking, who has befriended the blue doppelganger Raven / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), crosses paths with Lehnsherr, and with help from Agent Moira (Rose Byrne) they track a team of mutants to combat Shaw and his icy temptress played by January Jones.  But between Xavier and Lehnsherr, which are the only two characters you really care about, the villains, and the team of young mutants, far too many faces make it imp0ssible for the mildest emotional attachment.  The slimy Sebastian Shaw plans on starting World War III by coercing the Russians into militarizing Cuba.  Clever as it is that the movie interweaves historical fact with fiction, the Cold War context is lost in a screenplay that’s already juggling half a dozen characters and their origins.

What I found extremely tiring was the geographic jumping from Germany to London to America to Russia to London to America to… I’m sure there’s a few other locales I’m forgetting.  It’s literally all over the place, and reminds me of the first twenty minutes of The Bourne Ultimatum.  What’s even more perturbing are the patronizing subtitles indicating a location alteration every two minutes.  Snow = Russia.  Beaches = America… we get it.

Yet another issue: the origins themselves.  Again, the point of a prequel is that it reveals how a recognizable icon of the series comes into being, and that it does so intuitively.  One obvious example would be names… the aliases of all the mutants, strategically and intelligently woven into occasional puns.  Ready for disappointment?  Because in First Class it’s literally someone saying, “Hey, we should give ourselves nicknames… I’ll be Mystique, you’ll be Angel, he can be Professor X…”  The imaginative effort employed is overwhelming.

By and large, Marvel’s fifth mutation is an honest effort to show a younger, more innocent relationship between the Xavier-Lehnsherr rivalry, but an ambitious script spreads its characters over too much story, leaving you hungry for more. Apart from a notable cameo, X-Men First Class is short on memorable moments and the latter half of its runtime heavy on CGI action that you wish could have gone to greater character development.  After all, that’s the point of the prequel… to see where established legends come from, but more importantly, how they come about.  We know Magneto becomes the villain, we know that Xavier will we wheeling in a chair for the rest of his life.  We want to know how these events transpire… but only frustration awaits.  Don’t get me wrong.  As a stand-alone, it’s solid fun.  But it’s not a stand-alone.  It rests on expectations, and because of that, it disappoints to be uninspiring and hardly mesmeric.

1/2


MOVIE REVIEW: The Hangover Part II

“It happened again”, Bradley Cooper’s Phil tells his fretting girlfriend via telephone.  Indeed it has.  The very words not only summarize into three words the plot of director Todd Phillips’ Hangover Part II, the anticipated sequel to the 2009 comedic calamity of a bachelor party gone hilariously haywire, but they almost seem to mock the concept of the sequel itself, as the latest in lewd laughter refuses to take any sort of calculated risks with the series, leaving us with a tiresome, though still fairly fun, second round.

Cooper returns with co-stars Ed Helm and Zach Galifianakis, who are all whisked halfway around the world for Stu’s (Helm) wedding in Thailand.  Determined not to repeat the events of their last little drunken escapade, the three down a single beer for the occasion.  Of course, last call becomes first call, and morning glory in Bangkok sees an ape on amphetamine, Stu with a tattoo, and Alan (Galifianakis) with a cue-ball for a head.

As per its predecessor, The Hangover Part II is all about the men’s attempts to unravel the mystery of their wild night and to find a missing member of their partying party, as every backtracking step leads them farther from the truth and further into danger.  Now, the original was outrageous, but that’s what made it fun and relatable.  We may not wake up to a tiger in our Vegas hotel suite every Saturday morning, but we’ve all woken up at one point or another having to digest an incomparable amount of intoxicated consequences… sometimes we’re laughing, sometimes we’re not.  Part II is well titled, because it does feel like a part, like an episodic continuum of the first instead of an honest sequel.  It largely follows the same formula with seldom deviation, and is that bad? No, not at all.  It’s safe.  But maybe too safe.

Performance-wise, Galifianakis stole, and still steals, the comedic spotlight, though at times he kind of overdoes the idiot.  I’ve become prone to calling this the Jack Sparrow syndrome, when an actor, under the pressure of living up to his successful role, acts over rather than under his dramatic quota.  He’s still pretty damn funny though, and Helm and Cooper are in no way useless.  The trio, bolstered by the bulls*** that keeps testing their every vein of patience, are just as entertaining in Bangkok as they were in Sin City.

Yes, it happened again, and that means you can predict The Hangover Part II’s compliments to a tee.  But if you’re expecting the same number of shocks that labeled the Hangover, you won’t find it here, mainly because you know the sort of shocks that await.  Make no mistakes, there are just as many outrageous scenarios plaguing Part II, but the subtitle alone tells you: we’re recycling the successful… and it doesn’t make as near an impact this time around.  It takes very few risks, to the extent that structurally we’ve seen all this before.  However, if it’s Friday night, you’re looking for a few laughs, maybe even a few Wolf-Pack howls, then you can do no wrong by grabbing a couple of beers and giving her a look.  Just a few words of caution: watch your drinks closely.

1/2


MOVIE REVIEW: Thor

Epic. Outstanding. Absolutely breathtaking. At long last, a superhero film that keeps things simple, coherent and cohesive.  Technically brilliant. Pulse-pounding action with heart, that’s not simply there for the sake of being there.  Such words would probably resemble my rough draft of a one-paragraph review… of Spider-Man 2.

 That landmark film still stands (or rather swings) as a testament to superhero movies, to action movies, to movies.  Faithful to its source material, faithful to cinemaniacs, Marvel’s masterpiece was everything that Thor, directed by Kenneth Brannagh and distributed by Paramount Pictures, has failed to become, like so many of its recent brethren.

The latest comic book caper is a bundle of fantastical jargon.  It features its titular Norse god, an arrogant war-monger who wants his home of Asgard to go to war with its long-time natural enemy, the Frost Giants, who occupy the frozen wastes of Jotunheim.  Big Papa Odin soon intervenes, disapproves of his son’s reckless actions, strips him of his powers and exiles him to Earth.  Meanwhile, the mischievous Loki is already planning his cliché coup against the incapacitated king, who for whatever reason is engaged in some sort of cryosleep for the rest of the film – I sort of dozed off around this point.  So, thirty minutes into the movie, we’ve got Thor, Odin, Loki, Asgard, Jotunheim, the Frost Giants…. A cluster of names that mean little else than we’re in fantasy territory.

Then, Thor pulls a U-turn, with a fair fraction of the film’s focus on the hammer-wielding hero’s exile on Earth.  Now a mere muscular mortal, Thor’s as stupidly stubborn as ever.  We’ve seen this kind of plot before.  He meets a girl, she teaches him social interaction, and by movie’s end, our hero has matured.  Well, forget all that, because the said maturity that would normally encompass two hours seems to emcompass no more than two minutes.  To save words, the character development sucks.

Here’s my biggest problem.  Thor has no idea what it’s trying to be… it’s all over the place.  We started with a fantasy film, and now we’ve got a human tale, a personal story between a mythological man and cinema’s classic love interest who, believe me, is not so classic here.  Natalie Portman plays the astrophysicist who encounters him, and she’s about as useful to the plot as a pair of bricks are to a silky dress, only serving two purposes: to blanket our ears with technobabble, and to look incredibly horny every time Chris Hemsworth is on-screen… doubly so if he has his shirt off.  But there’s not even enough time for the romance to bloom, as Brannagh keeps taking us back to Asgard (or was it Jotunheim… hell if I know or care), where Loki has taken control.  It’s the definition of disjointed as, in the end, we get several plots which all feel incomplete.


I’ve never been a proponent of CGI, mainly because it’s been abused way too often by lazy filmmakers. Action is only as exhilarating as its established characters and story… then the effects become truly special.  Again… Spider-Man 2.  In Thor, it’s nothing special.  There’s CGI explosions, CGI battles… yawn.  Flashy but tiring, there’s no substance behind the gloss.

Whether you’re a die-hard comic book fan, or whether you’re just a cinemaniac, it’s hard to recommend the routine and redundant.  Thor is an action-packed, effect-laden, infantile mess of a movie… sure, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, you’ll have a few kicks… But great films aren’t about having a few kicks. They’re about lasting value.  Great superhero films have always involved a human story, a personal struggle that we can relate to – Spider-Man 2, Dark Knight, Iron Man etc. – but Thor’s sole personal struggle is our own sitting in a theater with glasses we tempt to chuck at the protruding images in front of us.  The love interest is undeveloped and pointless, the main hero is an obnoxious jerk who achieves personal growth with no visible challenges to his self, and half the picture is just CGI and fantasy lore that lack any sort of heart or reason in the world for you to care.  My advice: save your money and wait for Marvel’s X-Men First Class and Captain America.  I dare say, knowing Marvel’s standards, they can do little worse.


MOVIE REVIEW: The Battle of the Bulge (1965)

There seems to be this general mentality that if it’s old, it’s a classic.  What most people sometimes forget is that there was just as much crap being spewed out of Hollywood as there is today.  Of course, I’m talking about Battle of the Bulge, distributed by Warner Bros., a 1965 blockbuster in the truest sense, a real commercialized epic. You got your ‘pre-sold to the public’ A-list cast: Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews.  You got your tank battles, thousands of extras.  Yeah, you get it, it’s a spectacle with stars.

Set in the latter days of 1944, the film follows the eponymous battle in which Germany organized its last great offensive against the Allies.  Robert Shaw plays the tank commander leading Jerry, and Henry Fonda essentially plays his U.S. counterpart, minus the tank.  The Germans get the idea of sending in their own men dressed as Americans behind the Allied lines to disrupt communications, which is just hilarious.  It’s a perfect metaphor for all the Germans in the film.  They’re American anyway, some without German accents.  The story, as with most Hollywood war films, centers on the characters and Battle in particular follows a number of arcs, but the main problem with the film is that it goes on forever.  It’s 3 hours long, and despite an assortment of ambitious action set-pieces, it’s just too long, too tedious, and when the dust settles, there’s just not enough of a pay-off to justify your sore ass.

That said, your eyes will hardly be as painful as the splendor of the movie’s ultra-panorama, though not quite ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, boasts impressive visuals that, if nothing else, serve to keep your eyes from closing shut from boredom.  Some of the backdrop effects during driving sequences can be kind of cheesy, but hey, it’s not a documentary… this is Hollywood.  The battles are no Saving Private Ryan or, more relevantly, The Longest Day, but convincing enough for a ’60s epic, despite typically dramatic deaths involving soldiers uniformly raising their arms.

In sum, Battle of the Bulge doesn’t have enough to satisfy history buffs, film buffs, the casual moviegoer.  Bottom line: it’s just not much fun to watch.  Scratch that. It’s just plain boring. It’s got a bunch of fantastic actors who don’t really give any memorable performances and who are just there for the billing.  It’s more fiction than fact, and it ends with very little in the way of fulfillment… a waste of your time for those who don’t care for jargon.


MOVIE REVIEW: Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg, like many other big-name directors that emerged in the early ’70s, got his start in television, and it was their practice in this new medium that came to define a new generation of filmmakers.  Duel was just one of a number of films that Spielberg was contracted to make with Universal, and it was shot in a production span of two weeks!  Released in 1971, it tells the simple tale of man v. machine.  Simple tale, yet told with typical Spielbergian mastery.

Dennis Weaver gets behind the wheel as David Mann, a timid, white-collar wimp taking a highway drive on business when things take a turn for the surreal.  A truck driver plays mental games with the guy, forcing him into your classic cat-and-mouse scenario as he continually hunts him down, pushes him over the edge, but seems intent on leaving him alive to give him a chance in his deranged highway game of death.

It’s a film about masculinity as much as it is about paranoia.  A man who’s constantly intimidated and emasculated by his wife, by blue-collar buffs, by school kids, by tarantulas.  Only by facing the truck can he overcome himself and truly become a Man, no doubt the reason behind his surname.  It’s a theme that Spielberg’s known for and can more specifically be recognized in his 1975 thriller Jaws, for which Duel was just practice.

The truck itself, just like killer shark and  T-Rex after it, is a primordial force.  Even though at times you can see the driver’s arm or boots, his face is never fully visible, making the truck seem a being unto itself.  It’s brilliantly devised and excellently executed.  And again, like its oceanic successor, it’s a cinematic bundle of tension that warrants the praise of even Hitchcock himself.  Speaking of the great master of suspense, the music is eerily reminiscient of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score, the successive shrills of strings constantly complimenting the massive force of the impossibly fast truck.  That’s what Duel comes down to.  It follows the line between fantasy and reality, taking a plausible situation and imbuing with that primal fury.  No truck could accelerate as fast as it does in Duel.  Interestingly enough, there are actually scenes with mental narration,  like when Weaver stops off at a truck stop, a device rarely used by the film’s director.

All in all, it’s got action, thrills, fears about being attacked by an unstoppable and ruthless guerilla force, a theme that’s probably  more relevant today in an age of terrorism than in 1971’s Vietnam.  If you haven’t had a chance, put the pedal to the metal and get ready for one road trip you shan’t forget any time soon.


MOVIE REVIEW: Tarzan (1999)

The Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s ushered in a new age of animation in a period of continuous commercial and critical hits. Timeless classics like Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King.  As a guy born in the early ‘90s, these are films I grew up on, and grew to love. Even today, Disney’s miraculous line of comebacks are far more than cartoons and childish moral lectures.  They’re richly deep and powerful films.  Tarzan was released in 1999 and is usually considered to be the last of the revival, but does it stack up against its predecessors?

The movie follows the eponymous ape-man’s journey from childhood to manhood as he struggles both to earn the recognition of his simian tribe’s gruff leader Kerchak and figure out just why he’s so different.  The first half hour of the film is awesome.  It sets the whole story up.  Two families from two different worlds lose their child to a sabertooth, gorilla adopts the human child, father doesn’t approve, and right from the start of the film you’ve got Phil Collins belting out a myriad of memorable tracks.  It’s the perfect intro. The problem with the film is that it’s plot length is completely disproportionate to the amount of time given to its thirty-minute opening.  The obvious love interest Jane eventually shows up with a crew of standard Disney characterizations, i.e. a clumsy father and a macho jerk, but this is halfway through the movie’s eighty minutes.  Jane is played by Minnie Driver, whose charmingly cute and flirtatious performance is belittled by the fact that her romance with Tarzan materializes out of nowhere.  It’s a shame because, similar to Belle and her Beast, Driver plays the role really well and actually makes you care.  But again, problem is there’s no room for development and the moment they meet to the moment they’re swinging through the trees in love montages spans all but ten to fifteen minutes.  From there the movie persists in a similar pace with an ending that shouldn’t surprise any Disney follower.

Tarzan doesn’t get many marks in the way of originality either.  It’s essentially Beauty and the Beast and Lion King thrown together, and ideologically speaking, as with virtually every other Disney film prior, it’s steeped heavily in classical American values, including its assumption about male domination in the family unit.  After all, in the end Jane gives up her world to be in Tarzan’s, even adapting his entire lifestyle, swinging through the trees as her newly wedded husband smashes his chest in a primal show of supremacy.

But enough about that.  How does the film look and sound?  Like standard Disney magic, that’s how.  Phil Collins provides an absolute epic of an album, endowing much of the film with poignancy in tracks like ‘Son of Man’, ‘Strangers Like Me’, and of course the Oscar-winning ‘You’ll Be in My Heart’.  Your ears will be pleased. So will your eyes.  The use of deep focus animation makes Tarzan’s forests as visually memorable as the ball-room scene was in Beauty.  It’s a movie that captures your senses right from the get-go and refuses to release them until it’s final moments.

Ultimately, the film hits all the same right notes its predecessors of the so-called Renaissance hit.  As an eight year old, I thought it was great back when it came out in 1999.  It’s an emotionally-charged, charmingly funny, visually stunning epic… with Phil Collins.  Yeah, I don’t have to color-coat that part.  Phil Collins does the music.  It’s f***ing awesome.  It’s the end of an era in animation, but it sure as hell signals that ending with a bang… or perhaps a chest pump.


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