Monthly Archives: June 2011

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.

 

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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