Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Directed by Tomas Alfredson.
2011. Rated R, 127 minutes.
Cast:
Gary Oldman
Colin Firth
Tom Hardy
Mark Strong
Benedict Cumberbatch
Toby Jones
John Hurt
David Dencik
Ciarán Hinds
Kathy Burke

In October of 1973, a British Intelligence operation goes terribly wrong and one of its operatives, Jim Prideaux (Strong), is shot and captured. In the aftermath, George Smiley (Oldman) is among the people forced into retirement. At about the same time, a few others are promoted to prominent postions due to them getting their hands on some high grade Soviet intelligence. Fast forward a bit and Smiley is dragged out of retirement to perform a sensitive investigation. It is suspected that one of the men who have risen through the ranks is actually a mole. This is a remake of the 1979 film which starred Alec Guinness.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is indeed a spy movie through and through. However, it’s concerned with the drama of real people who are spies, not the stereotypical action heroes we’ve come to believe them all to be. The effort is placed on trying to figure out where the secret rooms are, who’s meeting there and what they’re saying, not in trying to dazzle us with our hero’s death defying feats. To this end, it sets a deliberate pace that will admittedly feel slow to some. For others, it will leisurely suck us in as we come to understand there is nothing leisurely about the situation at hand. We’ll grow more fascinated as the twists and turns mount. We may even feel we need a tour guide to help navigate the course.



This is where Gary Oldman comes in. Basically, he holds our hand through the maze. He doesn’t have all the answers but he’s darned good at looking for them. Since he is holding our hand, we can’t help but get to know him. What sticks with us most is how unhappy he seems. True, he makes Smiley a stoic chap, but that just seems to be how the man operates in his professional life. Beyond that, there is a deeper sadness to him. Obviously, part of it is because he was unceremoniously dumped when stuff hit the fan. There’s more to it than that due to some other things we find out over the course of our time with him. Even when he should be happy, he appears unsure that it’s alright to feel that way. Oldman conveys all of this perfectly in one of his most subtle portrayals.

All of the things that make TTSS wonderful can work against it, as well. As mentioned, it can drag at times. During this time, it’s possible to get a little lost. As great as the acting is there really isn’t much character development. The situation develops, the people do not. Finally, part of its charm is that it’s a period piece. Since the Cold War has been over for quite some time now, it can feel dated. Certainly, there is some relevance to today’s world but it may not be so easy to pick up. In the end, it’s an excellent spy flick that isn’t for everyone.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Switch

Directed by Josh Gordon, Will Speck.
2010. Rated PG-13, 101 minutes.
Cast:
Jennifer Aniston
Jason Bateman
Patrick Wilson
Juliette Lewis
Jeff Goldblum
Thomas Robinson
Bryce Robinson
Todd Louiso
Kelli Barrett

Wally (Bateman) is a really nice guy. He’s a bit on the neurotic side, but a nice guy nonetheless. He’s also in love with Kassie (Aniston). They’ve tried dating once, but found they were more suited to a platonic relationship. At least she thinks so. They have been bestest buddies ever since. Unfortunately for him, he can’t seem to fight his way out of the friend zone. Suddenly, he’s in luck. SPOILER ALERT! Since he is the nice guy and this is a Jennifer Aniston rom-com, it’s inevitable that they’ll wind up together. It’s the how that provides us with a movie.

Kassie is really listening to the ticking of her biological clock. She’s not interested in getting married or even seriously dating anyone, for that matter. Still, she wants to have a baby. She logically decides to get artificially inseminated. In rapid fashion, she turns down Wally’s offer to be her donor and finds Roland (Wilson), a handsome dim bulb to do the same. So far, so good. However, here is where the plot gets completely contrived. At the behest of Debbie (Lewis), her other best friend, she throws an “insemination party.” Uh…no, this doesn’t involve Kassie in anything even remotely sexual so don’t get your hopes up. It’s a mostly regular party with two major differences. The first is that at some point there is a big announcement to let all the revelers know that Roland is off to the restroom to make it with a dirty magazine and a cup. Second, another announcement. This one will kick everyone out so that Kassie can have some privacy while performing the insemination herself. Huh? Who does this? Is there even a doctor present? Yup, we see him sitting on the sofa smoking a joint. Lovely.


Between the two announcements, a very drunk Wally heads to the bathroom to use it for its intended purpose. Of course, he finds himself alone with Roland’s donation. One thing leads to another and he winds up switching out Roland’s sample for one of his own, unbeknownst to anyone else. Ewww. Again, who does this? Needless to say, Kassie gets pregnant and moves far away to raise the baby in a safer place than New York City. Fast forward seven years and she moves back to the city with her son Sebastian (both Robinsons) in tow, who is obviously just like Wally. Our seed-switching hero agonizing over how to tell Kassie what he’s done and that he loves her ensues.

For a romantic comedy, The Switch is remarkably light on both elements. In place of romance, we get the aforementioned agonizing. We also get lots of bonding between Wally and his illegitimate son. Comedy is generally supplied by Debbie’s usually unfunny putdowns of Wally. Occasionally, we do get some real humor through a wonderful but underused Jeff Goldblum as Leonard, Wally’s boss. Aside from the ickiness of the actual switch, the movie moseys along plowing through genre clichés and banks on our inherent soft spot for the two stars. By that, I mean it hopes we have one for Bateman, it just knows we have one for Aniston. If you’re in the demographic they’re aiming at, have at it. If not, follow Wally’s lead and switch this out for a different specimen.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Act of Valor

Directed by Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh.
2012. Rated R, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Roselyn Sanchez
Alex Veadov
Jason Cottle
Nestor Serrano
Emilio Rivera
Ailsa Marshall
Gonzalo Menendez
U.S. Navy SEALs
U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen

Act of Valor is billed as a movie made by U.S. Navy SEALs for U.S. Navy SEALs. The rest of us can either take it or leave it. I have a feeling that anyone into action and/or war flicks will take it. Our tale follows a team of SEALs whose mission is to rescue undercover CIA agent Lisa Morales (Sanchez). She’s been kidnapped after her cover is apparently blown by Cristo (Veadov), the international drug dealer she’s been investigating. Pretty quickly, it’s discovered that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Unsurprisingly, our heroes find themselves efforting to stop a major terrorist plot with eyes on multiple locations within the United States. Before any of this happens, frontline defenders of the free world do what they must. They have a get-together at the beach to say goodbye to their loved ones, maybe even confide in one another in hopes of resolving any last minute personal issues. For Lt. Rorke, the team’s leader ,it’s an especially difficult time to be deployed. His wife is expecting their first child. He doesn’t want anyone to know, but his bestest buddy Chief Dave is a bit of a blabbermouth. Everyone knows.

With that, we’re on to the part of the movie that keeps us on the edge of our seats: watching the SEALs in what becomes a global operation to end a threat against us, here at home. This isn’t Rambo or Commando impossibly and singlehandedly mowing down hundreds of bad guys and dropping corny one-liners. This is a team of highly trained seamen who are excellent at what they do, but will take help whenever they can get it. The action scenes feel real. We see them implementing their training. Save for possibly one moment involving an RPG, there are no superhuman feats. It helps maintain tension during these sequences. Our sense of danger is palpable. If there is a drawback, it’s that the first person shooter angle is overused. It comes across gimmicky and not as clear as it needs to be.


Wisely, there aren’t endless soliloquys of exposition. Explanations are given in a succinct, no-frills fashion. It’s basically, “This is what we know and that is where you’re going. Go get ‘em, boys!” The one piece of story AoV does use lots of words on is what’s going on with Lt. Rorke. This is repeatedly hammered into our head to ensure our proper response at the end. The writers don’t seem to understand that it doesn’t need to be so heavy-handed. Trust me, we get it. With a little less time on this, the ending would still have the same effect. Less time here would also benefit the performers. Lt. Rorke and Chief Dave get most of the lines among the good guys. Believe me, neither is in line for an Oscar. A Razzie, maybe.

AoV manages to overcome its flaws to deliver a movie that’s exhilarating, sad and controversial. It entertains, but not merely for entertainment’s sake. It doesn’t dwell on the rights and wrongs of war. Instead, it just presents us with the reality of these men’s lives. However, in doing so it may come across as pure propaganda and more than a bit militaristic. The actual U.S. Navy is said to look upon this as a recruitment tool. That said, the action still carries the day. Narratively speaking it’s average or less in comparison to other action flicks. In terms of combat scenes, it’s much more.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Unknown

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
2011. Rated PG-13, 113 minutes.
Cast:
Liam Neeson
Diane Kruger
January Jones
Aidan Quinn
Bruno Ganz
Frank Langella
Clint Dyer
Sebastian Koch
Olivier Schneider
Stipe Erceg

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (Jones) arrive in Berlin for a swanky bio-technology conference where there is going to be a major announcement. When they get to the hotel, he realizes he’s left his briefcase at the airport. While his wife checks in, he catches a taxi to go retrieve the case, without telling her. On the way, the cab he’s riding in has a horrible but spectacular accident. He survives, but goes into a coma. When he comes to, no one knows who he is, including Elizabeth. She’s even with a guy who claims to be her husband, the real Dr. Martin Harris (Quinn). With no ID and no one to corroborate his story, he can’t prove otherwise. As if that weren’t enough, a couple of henchmen are following him around trying to kill him. I hate when that happens.

In an effort to reclaim his identity, Martin retraces his steps, looks for clues, etc. He also recruits Gina (Kruger), the cabbie, to help his cause. Of course, they have to survive the occasional run-in with the aforementioned henchmen. They also uncover things that seem to explain what’s going on. Before you know it, we’re watching The Bourne Identity starring Liam Neeson. Unfortunately, this isn’t nearly as innovative as that was when it came out. To be sure, it does some things well and manages a bit of excitement. However, it never escapes Matt Damon’s shadow.


For that matter, it doesn’t escape Neeson’s own shadow. More specifically, the one cast by the movie Taken. Whatever its flaws, Taken is a fun, no-holds barred action flick. In it, Neeson kicks a lot of ass and establishes himself as a genre star. Unknown seems to owe its existence to that movie. Alas, Unknown is not Taken. It drags things out a bit where that movie is concise, insistent on not letting us catch our breath. As I implied earlier, this actually takes more cues from the Bourne series. It executes many of the same moves, just not as good.

None of this is to say, Unknown is a bad movie. It’s not. There is certainly fun to be had. This is especially true if you’re looking for a movie where Liam Neeson barks lines in his megaphonic voice and beats down baddies, this is a solid choice. You’ll get what you came for. To continue the time-honored tradition of talking out of both sides of my mouth, even ardent fans of the actor probably won’t call this a masterpiece. It gives us a few thrills and an interesting finale. We’ll just forget about it not long after it’s over.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Arthur (2011)

Directed by Jason Winer.
2011. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Russell Brand
Helen Mirren
Jennifer Garner
Greta Gerwig
Geraldine James
Luis Guzmán
Nick Nolte
Murphy Guyer
Evander Holyfield

Arthur (Brand) is a fabulously wealthy alcoholic party-boy who fails to comprehend most things beyond what would be expected of a toddler. In fact, he’s still cared for by his nanny Hobson (Mirren). Tired of the exploits that keep landing him on the front page of the newspaper and embarrassing the family, and more importantly its business, his mother mandates that he mary the company’s respectable exec Susan (Garner) and settle down. If he doesn’t he will be completely cut off from the family fortune. Of course, he doesn’t particularly like Susan. To complicate matters even further, he’s become smitten with Naomi (Gerwig), a poor girl who scrapes by giving illegal tours of Grand Central Station to tourists. Yes, this is a remake of the beloved 1981 hit starring Dudley Moore.

In the title role, Russell Brand does the usual Russell Brand schtick. His Arthur is hardly distinguishable from his Aldous Snow, his character in both Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. If you’re a fan of his, this is great. If you’re not, then it’s not. In either case, the movie constructed around him isn’t as good as either of those. Arthur just drags us down a road we’ve traversed many times. It’s that road where all the rich people are cold and calculating, possibly evil, while all of the poor are virtuous and loyal, almost angelic. Even this can work if the story is told in an interesting manner and/or we’re given round characters we feel empathy for. Such was the case with the original, unless nostalgia is getting the best of me. These people are cardboard cutouts of characters in other crappy movies who were caricatures to begin with. It all adds up to us not caring one iota about what happens to them because we’ve already seen them in other movies and didn’t particularly care for them, then.


Whatever the material’s shortcomings, the cast is game. While Brand is vigorously doing Brand, Jennifer Garner is feverishly working the dominatrix in a business suit angle, complete with riding whip. Either I’m jaded by years of seeing her as the good girl or she doesn’t have too many evil bones in her body, so I can’t quite buy it. Still, the effort is there. Helen Mirren gives her character dignity, sincerity and depth beyond the lines she speaks. It’s a typically wonderful performance from her. Greta Gerwig as Naomi is the exception. For pretty much the entire time she’s on screen her eyes are big as saucers and she can’t remove the perma-grin. Regardless of context, most of her lines come across as if she’s saying “Gee Willikers Arthur, that was neat!” Of course, during her sad scenes she’s worse. I could “see” her acting. That’s never a good thing.

Arthur plays out exactly as it is set up to right from the start. It’s a straight-forward entry into the ever-expanding romantic comedy genre. That might be okay if it were funnier. This is the major difference between this and the original. That one has more laughs. Most of the jokes here don’t quite work. Aside from the novel appearance of a not-so-heroic Batman and Robin plus two by the gaudiest of all Batmobiles, our new Arthur fails to stand out from the crowd.

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Roommate

Directed by Christian E. Christiansen.
2011. Rated PG-13, 91 minutes.
Cast:
Leighton Meester
Minka Kelly
Cam Gigandet
Aly Michalka
Danneel Ackles
Billy Zane
Frances Fisher
Tomas Arana
Lauren Alfano

Although a college student, Sara (Kelly) is pretty dense. She’s the last co-ed on campus to realize that her new roommate Rebecca (Meester) is a few assignments short of a syllabus, if you know what I mean. Within thirty seconds of the two meeting, Rebecca becomes obsessed with Sara. Actually, obsessed is putting it mildly. She also becomes violent against anyone who spends any time with Sara. As you might imagine, Rebecca isn’t very popular.

For the next 90 minutes or so, we get a very tame and much dumber version of Single White Female. That movie is bolstered by a gutsy, decidedly adult tone even if it is merely a riff on Fatal Attraction. Bridget Fonda is sufficiently suspicious and eventually afraid of her roomy, as we are. It lacks much restraint and goes for gold whenever possible. The best thing it has is a skillful and deliciously over the top performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh in the psycho chick role. All of these things add up to a guilty pleasure. On the other hand, The Roommate is a watered down, stupid PG-13 rated mess inhabited by non-descript actors giving bland performances. This assessement excludes Billy Zane as the faux-chic, ultra-sleazy fashion design instructor. He's far from bland. Then again, hasn’t Billy Zane become a warning sign that you’re watching a bad movie?


Anyhoo, stupidity isn’t inherent is the premise of The Roommate. We’ve been thrilled by plenty of these types of movies. Stupidity comes from the handling of that premise. Having one character not realize something about another often works. It doesn’t work when the unknowing character is completely oblivious to even the most obvious signals. That’s just plain frustrating. Speaking of stupid, there’s Sara’s binge-drinking buddy Tracy (Michalka). I won’t say exactly what happens to her but it’s an uninspired take on a certain iconic scene in the classic Psycho. Yes, compared to that and most other films that label themselves “horror” and/or “thriller” Tracy’s ordeal is quite tame. The stupid part is she has a choice between two actions that most of us would take, or a third choice that only the most timid among us would even entertain. Of course, she shows all the backbone of a jellyfish then mostly disappears from the movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bigger girls aren’t still taking her lunch money.


If there is one daring thing The Roommate does it’s that it takes the lesbian subtext of SWF and pushes it to the forefront. Even this is botched, though. It’s not necessary to the plot or done with any other meaningful purpose. It’s simply there to try and recapture our attention with the most risqué thing the restrictive PG-13 rating will allow, a few seconds of a two pretty girls kissing. By the way, neither of which is Minka Kelly, so don’t get your hopes up. If anything, this serves as a reminder that this is a mostly a bloodless, sexless affair that can’t even manage to excite us horndog guys in the audience or scare anyone who has ever had a sibling or friend jump out at them and scream “boo!”

The Roommate is fairly unwatchable. It’s not good in any way, shape or form. It also lacks the balls to go all out and become a so bad it’s awesome experience. Instead, it just grates on you with its idiocy and predictability. We don’t like our heroine as much as we just can’t believe how dumb she is. As for our villain, Meester gives a game effort in the role but doesn’t seem like someone we can’t handle. Here’s an idea: skip this, find a copy of SWF and watch that, instead.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Directed by Russ Meyer.
1965. Not Rated, 83 minutes.
Cast:
Tura Satana
Haji
Lori Williams
Sue Bernard
Stuart Lancaster
Dennis Busch
Paul Trinka
Ray Barlow

The title Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! doesn’t inspire thoughts of artsy fartsy cinema. I didn’t pop this in expecting a thoughtful examination of the human condition. If the title weren’t enough of a hint, it is a Russ Meyer film, after all. Entertaining junk is what I wanted. Entertaining junk is what I got. By the way, when I say “pop this in” I mean into the VCR. Couldn’t even find the darned thing on DVD or on the internet.

For those unaware, Russ Meyer is pretty much the father of the sexploitation flick, directing over 20 such movies in his career. They’re cheap, campy and exploitive. However, there is a certain passion that bleeds through the craziness. He wrote, directed and produced all of his own movies which were made on shoestring budgets. Pretty clearly, every warped moment leapt from the confines of his brain and plastered themselves on film. Yes, they objectify women. However, it’s atypical of the what that implies. In Meyer’s work, that generally means portraying the female gender as dominant, supremely confident and comfortable in their own skin. These are big, bad broads.


Big is a term that can be used to describe Meyer’s artistic vision. That vision and its description absolutely includes breasts with the emphasis on big. He’s obsessed with them. FPKK is nothing, if not a barely restrained display of that obsession. It’s only restrained at all because of when it was made and what he was trying to do. In 1965, nudity was impermissible if you wanted to have your movie seen by a “respectable” audience. Indeed, Meyer wanted to expand beyond the nudie circuit of which he was a star auteur. Therefore, in place of all-out nakedness we get lower than low cut, tighter than tight tops hosting a jiggle-fest of epic porportions.

Handling a rather healthy chunk of the jiggling is Tura Satana as our most voluptuous villain Varla. If you ever have the chance, read up a bit on Ms. Satana. As outlandish as her character is, her life seems to have been even more so. Allegedly, she survived a gang-rape at a very young age, learned martial arts and exacted revenge on her tormentors. She worked as a burlesque dancer at like 14, became involved with Elvis Presley at some point and turned down his marriage proposal. Trust me, I’m only skimming the surface. There’s lots more. One look at her outfit here informs us it must’ve taken an act of God for her not to have a massive flop-out every time she made a sudden move. By sudden I mean those unexpected things us humans do, like breathing. And I do mean massive in the most literal sense of the word.


The second most buxom babe is Rosie, played by the singularly named Haji. Finally, there’s Lori Williams as Billie. She doesn’t have nearly the bra size of her two co-stars but ably depicts another of Meyer’s fetishes. She has the kind of curves we normally only see on cartoon characters. By the way, she also had a relationship with Elvis. I guess it really is good to be the king.

Our three ladies are a trio of vicious vixens. By night, they’re go-go dancers. By day they drive fast, yell at each other and have the occasional catfight. In between all this, some square and his girlfriend invade their space. One thing leads to another and the square ends up in a fistfight with Varla. Bad move. She literally kills him with her bare breasts, um – I mean hands. The vivacious villains then kidnap the girlfriend since she’s the only witness and sorta go on the run. They wind up at the secluded house of a dirty old paraplegic after hearing from a gas station attendant that the man has a bunch of cash stashed on the property. The man lives with his two sons, one of whom is mentally challenged, to say the least. This little bit of info comes after one of the best exchanges in cinematic history. The attendant is leaning into Varla’s car window, telling her how he wants to get away and “see America” while staring intently at her cleavage. She snaps at him, “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!”

The story is only mildly interesting and unintentionally funny in spots. It’s the sexual innuendo filled dialogue and outrageousness of the situation that keeps us locked in for much of the runtime. That and the jiggling, of course. The conduit for both is the insanely and deliciously over the top performance by Satana. She snarls and screams nearly every one of her lines, barking orders and double entendres alike. All the while her boobs defy the laws of physics by bouncing around like basketballs but somehow not falling out of her barely there blouse. Alas, I’ve said too much. I’ll sum it up by saying it’s so bad, it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Deeds

Directed by Tyler Perry.
2012. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Tyler Perry
Thandie Newton
Gabrielle Union
Brian White
Phylicia Rashad
Eddie Cibrian
Jordenn Thompson
Beverly Johnson
Rebecca Romijn

Jamie Kennedy

Life is perfect for Wesley Deeds (Perry), or so it seems. He’s the CEO of a very successful company, drives a Porsche and is the apple of his mother’s eye. He’s also engaged to the beautiful Natalie (Union). The only hiccups are he works long hours and his brother Walter (White) is a jerk, feeling slighted by their deceased father who willed Wesley the company’s top spot. For Lindsey (Newton), things aren’t going quite so well. She’s the single mom of a six year old girl. Early on, they get evicted from their apartment. She can’t afford to pay rent because the IRS is garnishing her wages. With no other options, Lindsey and her daughter sleep in their car. That is, they sleep there after mom’s shift as a night janitor. Why yes, silly, she works for Wesley’s company. And yes, she finds herself cleaning his office while he’s there working late. If you don’t know where this is going you should crawl out from under your rock every once in a while.

In what’s become a pattern for writer, director and, in this case, leading man Tyler Perry, in between Madea movies he doesn’t go for laughs. It’s a welcome development, a much needed reprieve for those of us who’ve grown to despise the loud-mouthed, pistol-packin’ grandma. People who love her tend to also love anything Perry does so no problems on that front, either. Both sides might be pleasantly surprised that this is just a plain ol’ fashioned boy meets girl. As such, Good Deeds plays it totally straight. There are no extraneous buffoons hanging around nor a collection of outwardly evil men to get us all riled up. For the most part, this film is populated by “just” people.


As a romance, Good Deeds is a lukewarm affair. It plays things safe to the point of unrelenting predictability. The irony is that Wesley's fiancee spends much of the movie lamenting him for the same thing, being bland with all the spontaneity of clockwork. For both the movie and the character, our leading man is much the blame. One of Perry's great strengths is getting strong performances from his cast. However, the one actor he has the most trouble with is himself. As Madea, or anyone which requires him to physically disappear into them as much as possible, he's a bundle of hyperkinetic energy. With his own face in plain view he's exceedingly bland. His Wesley Deeds is no exception. Unfortunately, this means he doesn't generate any sparks with either Union or Newton. It doesn't help that the character is written as an impossibly good person. There is no edge to him whatsoever. His inevitable break-up is of the most cordial kind imaginable. Even his one "rebellious" fantasy is Mother Teresa-esque.

The movie is at its most passionate when it turns its eye toward the subplot of Walter being mad at the world, including his own mother played by a steely-eyed Phylicia Rashad. Too bad these are both completely one dimensional characters with a story that goes nowhere. However, they do provide us with plenty of melodramatic fireworks whenever they share a scene. White's is an angry, guttural performance of material that doesn't allow him to be anything more.

Whenever our focus is on Mr. Deeds (yes, I'm fully aware of what I did, there) and the triangle that forms around him, we simply barrel downhill until we reach the inevitable conclusion. It does so in a mostly unremarkable fashion that makes this hard to love, or hate. There are some touching scenes involving Wesley, Lindsey and her daughter Ariel (Thompson). There are some horrible scenes and transitions where things just happen too easily. However, the bulk of it is merely average.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, June 4, 2012

Super 8


Directed by J. J. Abrams.
2011. Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.
Cast:
Joel Courtney
Elle Fanning
Riley Griffiths
Kyle Chandler
Ron Eldard
Zach Mills
Gabriel Basso
Amanda Michalka
Joel McKinnon Miller
Jessica Tuck

A group of middle-school friends are making their own zombie movie using a Super-8 camera. By the way, we’re in 1979 so they can’t use a digital camera or upload it to YouTube. They all sneak out of their houses late at night to film a pivotal scene at the local train station. While they’re shooting, a passing train is spectacularly derailed by a pickup truck purposely driven on the tracks directly at said train. It soon becomes clear that something very scary, very dangerous and very different has escaped from the wreckage and terrorizes the small town.

Super 8 is one of those movies where it’s biggest strength may also be its greatest weakness. Writer and director J. J. Abrams gets loads of mileage out of the friendships between the boys and in particular out of Joe’s (Courtney) budding romance with the group’s only girl, Alice, played by Dakota Fanning’s younger sister Elle. She is excellent. I’m not sure if it’s because of or in spite of the fact she is the only female in the crew, but her performance really stands out. Abrams also uses a certain old school trick to perfection. He doesn’t fully reveal his monster until late in the proceedings. It’s fitting that Steven Spielberg is this film’s producer. He used this sleight of hand better than anyone in the original Jaws. As it does there, in Super 8 it adds a layer of mystery and makes the creature scarier than he would otherwise be.



On the flipside, those things that make Super 8 work, hold it back a bit. The whole thing feels extremely derivative. It’s very reminiscent of lots of movies that were made within a few years of when this one is set: The Goonies, The Monster Squad, Stand by Me, The Sandlot, etc. Of course, even that list would not be complete without including E. T. Nearly every element of S8 seems to come from one of those movies, including the totally rushed and botched ending. That portion of our feature is a truncated version of one of those others that doesn’t quite feel right. Just so you don’t go thinking it’s all about the oldies, there is a healthy dose of Cloverfield thrown in, too.

What rescues S8 is that Abrams does a masterful job telling his tale. We feel for the kids involved and identify with them even as they decide to do some incredibly foolish things in hopes of saving the day. Visually, it works magic in the opposite way of most movies. We’re far more tantalized by what we don’t see. It’s lack of originality likely won’t be apparent to young’uns or anyone else who hasn’t seen those other movies I’ve mentioned. To them, it will be a breath of fresh air. To me, it’s the answer to the question “what if Spielberg had directed Cloverfield back in the 80s?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: E. T. without the Reese’s Pieces, glowing index finger or sunny disposition.

MY SCORE: 7/10