Super 8

Once upon a time, there was a world when movies focused on story, character and inventiveness. That was the world that many people claim was changed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg with the one two punch of Jaws and Star Wars. Many cinema lovers have bemoaned the influence of special effects and self conscious references to pop culture and other movies that have come along since. While there were clearly thousands of movies to love prior to the end of the 1970s, they are loved as films of their time. Historical epics and personal dramas always seem dated, simply because styles change. It does not mean that the films are worthless, It means that they become pieces of their time and place. The end of the 70’s brought new styles, that were substantially more ambitious and at the same time simpler. Visualization could not go back to pre-2001 standards, but stories needed more personal and warmer ways of making those fantasies and reality based stories work. While Lucas pursued the technology that will eventually lead to virtual characters and scenery, Spielberg thrived in the storytelling of the everyday, using visuals as a counterpoint to the narrative on the screen, not as a replacement for it. The period between 1975 and 1993 is the era of the true Spielberg touch. Don’t get me wrong, I think Spielberg has made some amazing films since then, but they are stylistically different and of a new era. J.J. Abram’s “Super 8”, is a film that could fit into this Spielberg golden age with ease.

Many of the touchstones of a Spielberg film of those times are on display here. Children are the main protagonists, many are missing a parent or have a parent in the stages of arrested development. The movie plays in a small town that could easily be a Spielberg suburb. The lighting comes right from the template of such films as “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”. All that is missing is a poignant theme and a dramatic fanfare from John Williams to complete the picture. That said, although the film harkens back to the classic period of Spielberg films, it is very much an Abrams film from the get go. The classic set ups are interrupted and highlighted by screen flare. The action sequences are intense and fast, without the slow build up of many of the Spielberg films. Characters are not always likable, even when they are our heroes. There is however one more important similarity in “Super 8” to those Spielberg classics. The child actors are one hundred percent dead on. The director has gotten performances out of the kids that no one else seems capable of doing these days. There are moments in the movie when the acting is so polished and right for the tone of the film, you might wonder what planet these kids came from. There is a scene where the female character has to play a character in a movie, and be so effective at performance that we forget we are watching a performance inside of a performance. The boys respond like real boys would in that situation. Later on there is the right amount of jealous petulance to make the friendship here seem real as opposed to artificial. The screenplay by Abrams works well but it has to be sold by the best ensemble acting by kids since “Stand By Me”.

Earlier, I said that the action scenes are quick, without the slow build of the old Spielberg. I don’t mean that the movie does not have any build up. Everything leading up to the train wreck is paced well and builds character naturally. But when the crash happens, there are no double takes, moments of pause to set up another stunt or build more tension. In “Jurassic Park”, the T-Rex attack takes ten minutes and has a dozen bits of business in it, “Super 8″ does it’s big set piece in half the time, without any heavy objects dangling precipitously, or any slowly deteriorating rope, glass, walls or trees. Tension in this movie comes from sudden surprises, and some dramatic violence that doesn’t feel like the old master. This is where you can see J.J. Abrams style is dramatically distinct from Spielberg’s. There were a bucket load of films produced by but not directed by Spielberg in the 80’s time-frame;”Gremlins”, “Goonies”, “Poltergeist” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” all come to mind. This movie feels like it could be part of that pack.

Anyone who loves movies should appreciate that a big part of this film is dedicated to young filmakers trying to put together a movie. Chuck, the kid directing the zombie movie within a movie, is conversant in story telling. He has an idea of what production value means and he cares about the performances of his friends, the amateur actors of his movie. Joe, is our main character and hero. He is a jack of all trades on the movie set and does whatever his friend needs him to do, the perfect production assistant. The idea of trying to accomplish something good with very little resources, is something all film students will recognize. The location is exactly right, it looks like it could be Ohio, without having to run to Canada to film the town. The music soundtrack is populated with songs that would be mixed very much the way they were in this film, a power pop rocker, followed by a disco themed New Wave dance tune and then throw in some ELO. Abrams is probably aping himself with these characters since he is of the right age and place to be one of them. His recall of the spirit of the times rings pretty accurately.

There are only a couple of reservations that I have about the film. I know it is a long standing practice to make the military the bad guy in science fiction films. Those movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or even “E.T.” showed authorities as the real danger to us. Those dangers seem to occur not because of maliciousness but out of ignorance or a misguided way of trying to manage a problem. This movie makes the military, in particular the Air Force, evil. The colonel in charge is not just a bureaucrat, he is single minded and mostly indifferent to the people he swore an oath to defend. I don’t know how they could crack the nut of the story without having an organization like this in charge, but the reckless way the Air Force is referred to left me saddened that some kid somewhere is going to think that is what soldiers and airmen are like. It bugs me. The other element that I thought was a bit weak was the quickness of the resolution of the story. There are seeds planted of course, early in the film, but they germinate much too quickly in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Everything else was well developed, from the bitterness of the two dads, to the romance that is hinted at from the beginning. I think there is five more minutes of story needed to work out the resolution with the “secret” in the story and the adult characters. Other than these two things the movie is pitch perfect.

If you are a fan of science fiction, Steven Spielberg, action horror, and good story telling, this is a movie for you. The actors make it all work and the writer director has taken inspiration from his producer to bring us one of the best films from Hollywood this year. This movie works and will satisfy the movie goer and the film connoisseur at the same time. This is the most Spielberg like movie since Jurassic Park, and it comes from a writer-director we are seeing hit his stride in the last three or four years.

X-Men: First Class

I forget sometimes how much I like going to the movies in the middle of the week. The crowds are less, it is a distraction from the obligations of the work week, and it gets me out of the house and out of my rut. I can usually see something that was not high on my list of priority’s after some of the other big films have dominated my attention on the weekend. This week is a little different, I saw X-Men First Class, tonight because I had not rushed in over the weekend, so it was not a second tier choice but it was something that got put off for other reasons. It is nice to have something that was this well put together on the regular week agenda, instead of some movie I chose because it was what started next. I’m sure some of the pleasure I took in tonight’s viewing is a result of not having to be in class at the end of the term, but most of it is due to the quality of the movie.

Ten years ago, we saw the first of the X-Men movies and were also impressed by how well a fantastical story had been translated into a real movie. In a cartoon, you can believe almost anything because it is so unusually imagined in the first place, one more step seems small. When you translate it to film with actors, the results could be laughable. When I was a kid, I was not a big comic geek, but I did prefer Marvel characters to those of the D.C. Universe. However, I have no memory of X-Men at all, my knowledge came only from the animated TV show that my kids watched occasionally. Like I said, we really liked it, but the second X-Men movie was the pinnacle of the story and remains my personal favorite. This new version is an attempt to launch the series anew, which seems strange for a movie franchise that has only been around for a decade and has four successful films to it’s credit. It is true that the last two films were a bit pedestrian in nature, in part because of new directors and a continuing storyline that needed to be wrapped up. This movie works well as a prequel, telling us of the origins of characters we met in earlier films and setting up the conflicts that will make up much of the story we have already seen.

The director on this version, is Matthew Vaughn,who made two of my favorite movies of the last few years: Stardust and Kick Ass. This movie is a larger scale than those things but there are some elements that made him a good choice for this movie. He has a good visual sense when it comes to character and location. He is also solid in getting as much out of a story as possible without too much exposition. Both Dolores and Amanda thought the movie was a little episodic and too quest based. I did not feel that way, I thought there was a pretty natural evolution in the story. There is one sequence that seems a little unnecessary, the capture of a renegade X-Men character in the Soviet Union. I thought there was otherwise good economy in telling us how the X-Men were gathered and how the sides ended up being divided. I have no doubt that there are literature majors and philosophy students that could go into all the allegories that the whole series sets up. This movie does not dwell on those points, rather it acknowledges them and moves on to develop the narrative. The setting of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis works well at providing a danger to the world, but not yet one posed by the war of the X-Men to come.

As I have done in a number of other posting, I would like to recognize some of the character actors that make films work, even if their names do not put butts in the seats. Oliver Platt has been a favorite around our house for years. I had no idea he was in this movie until he showed up. His role looked like it would be significant, but it finished somewhat unsatisfactorily. Michael Ironside is a face everyone will recognize but most will not know by name. He shows up and does a small but effective take on a military commander, a part he has done many times before, and probably why he feels well cast in the bit role. One of the X-Men is played by the kid from “About a Boy”, which remains an always watchable, perfect film, here at our house. I did not recognize him at all but Dolores spotted him pretty quickly.

This is a solid entertainment that raises the quality level of the X-Men franchise back to the peaks that it reached in the first couple of movies. There will be more films in the series as well, but to succeed they will want to take the time necessary to develop a good story, not just a new entry in the franchise. Studios always want product in the pipeline, and a film every two or three years from a pedigree series fits the ticket. Audiences will turn away from most of these films if they fail to meet the standards set early on. The reason the Batman series needed a re-boot is because the movies just became product. X-Men First Class does not feel like an obligatory entry in a franchise based on timing, it feels like a well thought out film and it plays like one that the makers cared about enough to get it right,

Summer Movie Projects 2011

Last summer, exactly a year ago as a matter of fact, I started this blog with the 70s summer movie retrospective. I covered a lot of odd films but also some well beloved popular movies. I am going to continue posting reviews of films I see in theaters this year, but I thought I would add some occasional theme posts for the summer. I may do an 80s retrospective but I hope to pull in a few of you who read the blog periodically by asking you to respond to certain movie prompt postings. For instance, listing your favorite movie poster for a particular film genre, or guiltiest comedy pleasures. The family is driving some of the topic ideas but I want the community to offer suggestions as well.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. I love this movie poster, it is from a wonderful adventure film set in the 1930’s. If you are looking forward to the Spielberg “Tintin” movie this Christmas, you should love this movie.

Even if you don’t care for the film, you have got to love the poster. This is an art deco, sci-fi retro dream come true.

Is there a poster that you think is as beautiful? Let me see it. Please post a link or the image itself. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll put together a slide show and we will all discuss together.

In Defense of Seeing Movies Alone – The Atlantic

In Defense of Seeing Movies Alone – The Atlantic

This was an interesting article. The author made several valid points but I think he might be a little over sensitive to being in a theater alone. I have done that for 40 years and felt singled out not once. Lonely a few times, but mostly satisfied that I did not have to share my popcorn with anyone.