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Archive for June, 2011

Super 8 is an odd bird for a summer release, I think, mostly because it eschews the typical extended sequences of adrenaline-pumping action sequences for a quieter, more contemplative bent in its storytelling.  (This contrast couldn’t be more evident when one compares the trailer for Transformers that played right before Super 8 started with Michael Giacchino’s contemplative strings rising up behind the Paramount and Dreamworks logos.)  It’s something that a lot of moviegoers might not appreciate, particularly those moviegoers in the studios’ beloved 25-and-under-male demographic, but I also get the impression that this is not a film that really cares who watches it.  Writer and director JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible 3) has openly admitted that Super 8 is a tribute to Steven Spielberg’s films and productions from the later ’70s and early ’80s; it shows, and I feel like this film is more for those who grew up in that same era than the 25-and-unders of 2011 (irredeemable film nerds like myself notwithstanding).

Set in 1979 Ohio, Super 8 follows Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a soft-spoken twelve- or thirteen-year-old who is the son of the local deputy (Kyle Chandler) and has recently lost his mother.  The story takes place at the start of summer, as Joe is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a super-8 zombie film with their other friends.  Charles has also recently cast Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) in a new role in his film, and it’s obvious right from the start that Joe has a bit of a crush on her.  While filming one night at a local train station, the kids witness a horrific train crash that might not have been an accident.  They rush back to town and tell no one, but soon after mysterious and strange things start happening: all the town’s dogs run away; appliances, car engines, and people start disappearing; and the military figures cleaning up the accident seem to know what’s going on but aren’t saying anything.

The storytelling structure is one of the most compelling aspects of this film.  This is a plot that’s been seen before, but it’s told with such winning earnestness that you can’t help but be compelled as exposition slowly trickles out of the movie’s narrative faucet, and we are all rewarded with a well-earned deluge just as the third act hits high gear.  It’s such an enormous change from (for example) PotC4, where exposition was dumped on the audience early and often, but without doing anything to make the film more entertaining or compelling.  By making sure the audience knows only about as much as the main characters, Abrams has almost guaranteed that the audience will be just as invested in the film’s central mystery as those characters are.  It’s a rather welcome change from so many films today that worry their audience won’t “get it,” and so make sure to tell them as much as they can, as often as they can.

I also particularly enjoyed how the film was about a group of kids/preteens/almost-teenagers, but never condescended to them.  Their experience is just as complex and valid as any adult character’s (both in this film and in other of the summer ilk).  It certainly helps that the young actors–particularly Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning–are fantastic, and it’s their performances that hold the film together, partly because their experience of the narrative most closely mirrors the audience’s.  They’re a diverse and entertaining group, and Abrams’ script and direction makes them a realistic, grounding presence in the film.  In their interactions, they’re almost always talking over each other, holding two or three conversations at once; it’s a neat detail that injects a layer of familiar realism to the somewhat fantastic proceedings.

I think part of the reason I feel so drawn to this film is because of the way it’s sort of (but not entirely) about movies itself.  It’s about the stories we want to tell and the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the day, or through a tragedy, and how we have to roll through the accidents and unexpected events that add Charles’ beloved “production value!” to our personal narratives.  And that, I think, is the most universal aspect of the film, though from what I understand, anyone familiar with producer Steven Speilberg’s oeuvre will find a lot of nostalgia lurking in the frames of Abrams’ self-proclaimed tribute.  (Though the overall style of the film is familiar to me, I can’t really own to noticing anything specific, since I’ve never even seen E.T. all the way through.  I’m a terrible film nerd, I know.)

There are places where Super 8 falters, unfortunately: one of the plot resolutions near the end felt almost perfunctory, and I really didn’t feel like Kyle Chandler’s harried deputy was developed to his fullest (though Chandler still puts in an excellent performance).  But that aside, I still feel like Super 8 is something special, a rare film that takes pleasure in keeping its secrets, with a story and performances that make it, all in all, an enchanting entertainment.

4.5/5

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It’s kind of hard to believe that this is the fifth film in the X-Men franchise.  (It’s also surprising that it made it to five films without a complete reboot a la Spider-Man.)  I’m a fan of the first two films, but the third film was an exercise in how not to construct a narrative, and I didn’t bother with the Wolverine spin-off.  I’ve been rather leery of First Class throughout its production, and the trailers all seemed to confirm that it was going to be another ridiculous entry in the franchise that will probably never be allowed to die a peaceful death.  I was intrigued, then, to see it turn in mostly positive reviews and went to the theater last night feeling cautiously optimistic.

While X-Men: First Class isn’t a perfect film by any means, it did a lot to reignite my faith in future X-Men films.  It focuses, as the first two films largely did, on building character and story over creating epic action sequences, and it manages to hold up thanks in large part to the excellent performances almost across the board from its cast.  I found myself genuinely engaged with the film throughout, and while there were more than a few points where I was rolling my eyes at a line of dialogue or a particular editing choice–well, I can’t say that it’s a problem that’s totally unique to this film alone of the franchise.

The story of X-Men: First Class might best be summed up as this: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis must be prevented by the efforts of a group of mutants led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassebender) after a different group of mutants led by one Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) expend a great deal of energy in making sure nuclear war between the United States and the USSR will happen, as a precursor to the rise of a mutant-led society.  While much of the film involves Charles and Erik gathering the group of teenaged/twentysomething mutants that comprise the “first class” of the title, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the conflict that drives and unifies the film, and the script manages to neatly marry many of the subplots together under this umbrella event.

What makes First Class such a delight to watch, however, are the performances, particularly from McAvoy and Fassebender, who have a great chemistry together and manage to sell the friendship between Charles and Erik beautifully.  Their scenes together were often the best in the movie, and they were pretty spectacular to watch on their own, as well.  (I particularly loved Fassebender’s early scenes as Erik, before he meets up with Charles and the others.)  Another great performance came from recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique, who did a pretty good job conveying the character’s confusion over her self-image and personal identity as a mutant.

Overall, I found X-Men: First Class to be a highly enjoyable film, and a solid entry in what has thus far proven to be a fairly anemic summer movie season.  It manages to jumpstart the franchise after the critical stumblings of the previous two films, and I’m once again interested to see what happens next for the X-Men.

4/5

(Also, a bit of an aside, but I loved how the film didn’t shy away from having the characters speak the necessary foreign languages in the various foreign settings the story flew through.  After the intelligence-insulting, English-speaking Spaniards that appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, it was a welcome relief to see even a small sliver of reality on the silver screen.)

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I didn’t see the original Kung Fu Panda, which came out in 2008, until several months after its release, when I caught the ending of the film on cable.  I was surprised at how genuinely funny and, more importantly, heartfelt even the last fifteen minutes or so of the film were, and decided to give the whole thing a shot by renting it on DVD (this being back when rental stores were still relevant and around).  I was, to say the least, pleasantly surprised at the sort of film Kung Fu Panda was–it certainly wasn’t what the previews and commercials had advertised it as, and that was probably the biggest surprise of all, coming from Dreamworks Animation.

So now we’re here, three years later, and the somewhat inevitable Kung Fu Panda 2 has arrived.  I will admit to still being a little nervous about this film.  Dreamworks’ sequelitis problem is rather well-known, and even after the equally pleasant surprises of last year’s How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind, I remained a little leery of what the sequel might hold.  It turns out, however, that my worries were almost completely unfounded; Kung Fu Panda 2 is another delightful and heartwarming picture from Dreamworks Animation.

Kung Fu Panda 2 picks up an unspecified amount of time after the first film.  Our hero, the panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) has settled into his position as the Dragon Warrior among the Furious Five (voices of Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and others).  But word soon comes to the warriors that the villainous Lord Shen (voice of Gary Oldman) is preparing some sort of great weapon that could spell the end of kung fu itself.

That honestly isn’t the best summary of the story as a whole, which is as much about Po dealing with his past as it is about Shen’s machinations.  Both elements of the story are played out rather well, though I much prefer Po’s introspective storyline to the more action-based plot with Shen.  That said, the action sequences are all marvelous to watch, much as they were in the original film.  As a whole, the film never loses sight of where its heart is, and that, I think, is what makes it such great fun.  It isn’t quite a straight-up comedy (which I’m sure is how the trailers and TV spots have been selling it), but it isn’t like HTTYD, either, a drama with some funny bits.  I’d say it falls more on the dramedy end of the scale; it can be funny, but it also takes time out to be serious when it needs to be, which is one of the best aspects of the film itself.

I’m not sure I really have all that much to say about this film.  It’s got a gorgeous production design, following on from the equally beautiful design from the first film.  The voice cast is top notch in all corners.  I absolutely loved Gary Oldman’s performance as Shen, and anyone who is avoiding this movie (or the first one) because of Jack Black is avoiding it for the wrong reason, because he once again puts in a performance that is both endearingly enthusiastic and genuinely emotive.  As I mentioned before, the action sequences are great fun to watch.  While Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t perfect–like Megamind, the story gets a little montage-happy towards the end of the first act–it’s still a great deal of fun, and I highly recommend it.

4/5

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