Thursday, June 23, 2011

Super 8

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso, Amanda Michalka
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. If it hits in just the right spot it can even trick you into believing you're watching something great by reminding you of a time when you felt you did. Writer/Director J.J. Abrams clobbers us with nostalgia in Super 8 and the results are so wildly mixed I've actually avoided sitting down to share my thoughts on it for days, mostly unsure of what they'd be. Attempting to invoke the spirit of vintage 80's Spielberg directed and produced movies like E.T. and The Goonies is a risky proposition in that it could either alienate or win over audiences in my age bracket who grew up with those films and know how special they are. It takes guts for Abrams to even try to invite comparisons to them for the sake of exposing younger audiences to a type of film that's becoming increasingly uncommon.

At points feeling like an homage and at others a lesser rip-off, moments in the first hour of this Spielberg-produced project (and his fingerprints are all over it) succeeded in making me feel like a 12-year-old again, until the plot careens off the rails and almost crashes and burns like the doomed train in the film. Luckily, it recovers in the last third to finish strong, thanks mostly to the child actors whose staggeringly authentic performances save Abrams as he loses touch with the movie it seemed he set out to make. Part of me wants to shake him silly for falling short of what could have been accomplished for stupid reasons, yet he also deserves a hearty handshake for even attempting to try something like this because we do badly need it. There are far worse things than trying to make a Spielberg-style coming-of-age summer blockbuster devoid of all cynicism but not quite getting all the way there. While I'm convinced I'm more impressed with the idea behind the movie (and maybe also the movie-within-the-movie) than the actual film itself, it's still a fascinating, if flawed, discussion starter that's entertaining and not easily forgettable. Abrams' execution may be sloppy, but he knows the right buttons to push.

Set in the small steel town of Lillian, Ohio in the summer of 1979 12-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is still emotionally traumatized by the accidental death of his mother four months earlier and a strained relationship with his father, Jack (Kyle Chandler), the town's sheriff. He wants to send him to sports camp for a few months, insensitive to Joe's desire to stick around to help best friend and bossy aspiring director Charles (Riley Griffiths) film his low-budget 8mm zombie movie with buddies Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills) and Cary (Ryan Lee). He's also somehow been able to recruit Joe's dream girl, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead, even as she endures a family drama of her own with alcoholic father Louis (Ron Eldard). During filming the kids witness a train wreck, the results of which are stranger than your usual train wreck and are captured by their Super 8 camera. What that footage uncovers raises a lot of questions and causes much chaos, even as the military, led by Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrive on the scene with an agenda.

The one aspect of this film that's unquestionably a grand slam are these kids and nearly all its memorable moments are supplied by these child actors who are so good together (in both the real movie and the movie within) that for a while it doesn't even feel like a homage or a tribute to better films from the 80's, but the real deal.  The dialogue between them is smart and funny, they're clearly defined and we care about the relationships between them, especially the dynamic between Alice and Joe. You'd never know this was Joel Courtney's very first appearance in a feature film and Elle Fanning leads the charge with her performance, trumping even her recent work in Somewhere as far as the layers of complexity she brings to it. She has this one huge scene everyone will be talking about involving her character's performance within the zombie movie that works on so many different levels you're likely to get a headache trying to figure out how she does it.  All the kids' performances are great and the first hour resembles the best elements of The Goonies, complete with a map and some of the character types even being dead ringers for those in that family classic. But I still couldn't help but wish it was in the service of a more inventive story.

Once the action gets rolling I couldn't help but wish the young actors' efforts were in the service of a better story.  Problems start with the big train crash sequence, which relies too much on fake looking CGI and reminds us we're watching an everyday modern day blockbuster reliant on cheesy effects rather than character. How did it not occur to Abrams that approach is completely at odds with a period coming-of-age adventure set in the late 70s? The decision to do this is so ill-conceived it made me think Spielberg could have been behind it given his inexplicable (and embarrassing) over-use of the technology in the recent Indian Jones sequel. This also doesn't really feel like it's 1979 so much as a movie that's supposed to be set during that era with kind of a close approximation of the the wardrobe and music, but little else. Not once did I think I was watching anything that took place in the 70's or even early 80's, but rather a picture paying tribute to the values of that era and the movies made during it, present especially in the relationships between the kids and their parents. Fans of his work on Friday Night Lights will be excited to finally see Kyle Chandler on big-screen, then be deflated to discover he's just being asked to play Coach Taylor with a badge instead of a whistle, but slightly meaner. As little as he's given, he's still solid, which is more than can be said for a hilariously miscast Ron Eldard who somehow plays the archetype of the drunken dad even more cartoonishly than it's written. But like an early Spielberg classic, adults are only always seen through the eyes of children, so if it worked then, it's kind of hypocritical to condemn the approach now even if Spielberg was never this blatant about it.

Mid-way through the movie turns into a sequel to Abrams' own Cloverfield mish-mashed with The War of the Worlds. And I'm not even exactly sure how the military gets involved, why citizens are being evacuated or anything. It just kind of happens all of the sudden and we go with it because we're along for the journey with these kids and they're the movie's saving grace. The decision to keep the alien creature's appearance a secret for most of the running time is perplexing, especially considering what it ends up looking like and how little a surprise that is. This isn't about unraveling mysteries, even if it would have helped to have more of the J.J. Abrams who created Lost and Fringe than the one who rebooted Star Trek. Stranger still is the decision to concoct an elaborate backstory for the alien shown in grainy black and white flashback footage that resembles the Dharma Initiative films from Lost minus the intrigue. Yet it all somehow still comes together in an ending that's already been criticized as E.T. meets Close Encounters, if you can call that a criticism. For me it rescues the movie since it recreates the sense of wonder that was present in the first hour but lost somewhere in the middle of all the chaos. Michael Giacchino's soaring, emotional score (which intentionally sounds lot like John Williams' compositions for Spielberg in the 80's) goes a long way in helping.

Being such a grab bag of plusses and minuses, when this ended I was sure I didn't like it (and reading this you're probably thinking I still don't), but that it's worth checking out despite its flaws should give you an idea how good it could have been, or maybe how badly I was rooting for its success. Spielberg's being credited as the producer but the extent of his actual involvement could been anything from being heavily involved on a day-to-day basis to just putting some money down and visiting the set once, so it isn't fair to single him out for what worked or didn't. That said, he did slap his name on it with a full endorsement and it's essentially a tribute to his filmography so it's hard to not walk away feeling its failings are somehow his fault, despite Abrams writing and directing it on his own. You also can't help but wonder why it didn't turn out as good as it could have been with all the tools and inspiration he had at his disposal. Super 8 works well enough, but in doing so only proves that past Spielberg casts a shadow too large for even he himself to escape.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blue Valentine

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it" may as well be the tag line for the relentlessly depressing, unforgivingly bleak Blue Valentine. The only funny thing about it is how viewers will watch thinking there's no way what happens to this young couple could possibly happen to them. Brutally honest and realistic to the point that it looks and feels like an improvised documentary, the film is about two characters shaped and defined by their past experiences, helplessly hurting one another. Flashing between past and present to track how a relationship implodes, this could have easily been titled (500) Days of Hell, with even the smallest, fleeting moments of happiness (and there are some) tempered by the knowledge of where we know things will end up. Yet strangely, I found it doesn't leave a completely depressing mark, maybe because there's relief in encountering a film that's truthful, or at least tells a side of the truth we're rarely exposed to in big studio pictures. But it's really about the astonishing performances of the two leads, one of whom was previously the best current working actor not to have a great movie to his name and the other a rapidly rising actress extending her winning streak.

Cross-cutting between timelines the story follows young, working-class couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) who meet in their mid-twenties but by their early thirties, married and with a daughter, look stressed enough to have lived a thousand lifetimes. Dean, a high-school dropout with no professional ambitions to speak of, temporarily works as a mover when he first meets and falls in love at first sight with Cindy, a pre-med student living with her parents and caring for her grandmother in rural Pennsylvania. Pregnant with her ex-boyfriend's (Mike Vogel) baby they rush into marriage within weeks and the early signs of trouble would be obvious to anyone but them. Coming from a broken home, Dean finds himself unprepared for this role of father and husband while Cindy, whose own parents' marriage set a model for emotional abuse, is no more ready than he. Interestingly, we glimpse only the early details of their courtship interspersed with what appears to be the final days of their marriage so there's actually a lot left open for interpretation. But due to the performances of the actors, it feels like we know everything there is, and sometimes even more than we'd like in many emotionally uncomfortable scenes.

In an outrage, this film was inexplicably slapped with an NC-17 rating before it's release and the studio actually had to appeal to earn an 'R,' proving true the worst assumptions that the MPAA sees nothing wrong with decapitating people with a power saw, but one borderline non-consensual sex scene is off limits, even if it reveals key truths about the story and its characters. Just the fact that a term like "borderline non-consensual" has to be used apprehensively to describe the scene is proof enough it needed to be included, if only for the important discussion it could inspire. Slaving over this project for over six years, writer/director Derek Cianfrance gave up his entire director's fee to help fund the film and even went so far as to literally have Gosling and Williams live together before and during filming. Much of the dialogue was heavily improvised to the point the actors could be considered co-writers and supposedly Cianfrance even wanted to film their past and present scenes years apart to add to the realism until budgetary constraints prevented it. It turns out that wasn't necessary since the actors sell the transformations as well as any real passage of time could.

Michelle Williams plays younger Cindy as youthful, innocent and vibrant in the past scenes but in the present embodies a woman who's still young in appearance but definitely not youthful in spirit.  Now with the demeanor of someone far older and more resentful, she's been emotionally pulverized by the years spent with the guy she thought she loved at one point. Defeated and drained of whatever optimism we glimpsed in the flashback scenes, Williams' mannerisms to convey it are so subtle it's almost impossible to believe Academy voters were observant enough to nominate her for Best Actress. But they were. And in doing that she joins only a handful of child or teen stars to not only survive, but carve out a successful big screen career by working hard and making smart choices.

Ryan Gosling hasn't made nearly as many smart choices and has often been the best thing in middling movies like the Notebook, Half-Nelson, Fracture and Lars and the Real Girl. This is finally up to his talent level and his transformation as Dean ends up being almost as much physical as emotional. With thinning hair, a pot belly and a mustache he manages to not only look even older than his character's age suggests but believably chart the devolution of this hopeful romantic into a sad sack loser with a drinking problem. Williams and Gosling elicit empathy for both and in conquering the difficult task of playing the same characters only a few important years apart, their biggest acting triumph is still giving us glimpses of their past selves, despite everything they end up putting each other through.

Far from a date movie, this is another one of those anti-romantic films that could tempt to audiences to take sides. Whether it's men siding with Dean, the women with Cindy, or vice versa, it doesn't really make a difference because the course of the story is so real and the script so authentic that you almost get the impression no one's at fault and the relationship was doomed to fail from the start. Even happier times end up seeming tragically sad in hindsight. A pre-marriage scene on the street with a ukelele strumming Dean singing as Cindy tap dances contrasts harshly with a post-marriage scene of a him crashing Cindy's workplace in a drunken rage that's so tension-filled I was waiting anxiously for permission to take a breath.

The argument that this is just another depressing independent film about working-class people making each other miserable only holds water until you consider the alternatives. Many mainstream movies gloss over discussion-worthy topics like this to send audiences home happy and let the box office receipts roll in. While there's definitely a place for films like that, there are way too many poorly written and realized ones. There's something to be said for doing things on your own terms and the passion Cianfrance put into the project is evident in every scene and the performances he got from his two actors. Blue Valentine may be depressing, but it leaves you thinking, and is harshly realistic enough to be viewed as a warning to those who haven't carefully considered the weight an actual commitment carries.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

5 Years of Memorable Movie Images

*This post is part of a continuing series celebrating five years of Jeremy The Critic®

Originally this was only supposed to be 50 images but, well, you know. Narrowing it down was tougher than expected. Also a bit of false advertising since there aren't just movie images here, but TV, or really anything I've reviewed over the past 5 years including some of the older titles you may have forgotten about. Even bad movies contain memorable images, though the great ones always have more, which is exactly why they're great. Some of these are SPOILERISH if you haven't seen the films so be warned. In trying not to go for the obvious, these stuck out most in my mind....

Across The Universe (2007)

Adventureland (2009)

Alpha Dog (2007)

The American (2010)


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Atonement (2007)

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Birth (2004)

 Black Swan (2010)

Blood Diamond (2006)

The Box (2009)

Brick (2006)

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Californication (2007-Present)

Casino Royale (2006)

Catfish (2010)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Clerks 2 (1996)

The Dark Knight (2008)

Death Proof (2007)

The Descent (2006)

Dexter: Season 4 (2009)

District 9 (2009)

Easy A (2010)

Elizabethtown (2005)

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Halloween II (2009)

Heavyweights (1995)

Hot Rod (2007)

 The Hurt Locker (2009)

 Inception (2010)

The Informers (2009)

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Into The Wild (2007)

Kick-Ass (2010)

The Lookout (2007)

Lost (2004-2010)

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Lucas (1986)

Match Point (2005)

Michael Clayton (2007)

The Mist (2007)

Moon (2009)

Never Let Me Go (2010)

No Country For Old Men (2007)

127 Hours (2010)

The Prestige (2006)

Ratatouille (2007)

Revolutionary Road (2008)

The Ruins (2008)

The Runaways (2010)

A Serious Man

Shutter Island (2010)

The Social Network (2010)

Somewhere (2010)

Southland Tales (2007)

The Stunt Man (1980)

Superbad (2008)

The Swimmer (1968)

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Taken (2008)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Toy Story 3

Trick R' Treat

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Up In The Air (2009)

V For Vendetta (2006)

Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

WALL-E (2008)

Watchmen (2009)

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

World's Greatest Dad (2009)

The Wrestler (2008) 

Zodiac (2007)