New Release Tuesday: Super 8 (2011)

20 06 2011

“Super 8” is the third and most recent film from lens-flare enthusiast J.J. Abrams. Although we do see that trademark a couple times, “Super  8” is a drastic change of form compared to his other two, high-octane films (“Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible 3”) and such a change has never suited another director better. The plot revolves around Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a thirteen year old boy who, the summer after losing his mother, is helping his friends complete a gory zombie film for a local competition. While filming they are witness to a mysterious and explosive train crash which brings in the military and sets off an odd series of events. Joe and his friends work to finish the movie while investigating what really happened, all while navigating their interpersonal feelings. Abrams uses an excellent touch to weave all his strands together throughout the movie and allows them to all come together at the end creating a fantastic summer movie and one of the best using kids as leads.

“We’re going to find our kids.”

Movies revolving around young actors are a big gamble. There are few good enough at that point in their careers to produce the range and depth required to carry a movie. Sometimes it turns out adequately (the early Harry Potter films, ET) and sometimes it helps destroy the movie (The Phantom Menace), Super 8 is one of the rare examples where the young cast actually makes the movie. Several are ‘types’ among the child cast but they perform the roles well, and what keeps it from getting stale though, is the excellent writing of Abrams. He must clearly remember what it is like to be a kid making a movie because every one of them comes off as very believable. Sure, many of them only serve one purpose in film, but the dialogue and their interactions make these single-purpose-characters feeling fully formed. Joel Courtney plays the lead admirably and I think credit once again goes to Abrams for creating such a realistic character. I’m sure most of Joel’s work was quite easy for him being at that age but it must be noted that he rises to the occasion multiple times when a dramatic turn was required. The star of the film though is without a doubt Elle Fanning. I thought she was fantastic in one of my favorite films of 2010, “Somewhere”, and she once again shows that she may just be the best actress of her age.

“Production Value!”

It is easy to see why the keyword in most reviews of this film has been “nostalgia” and with good reason. “Super 8” invokes a feel of a time when summer movies were simpler. When it was more about telling a story. At the turn of the century when “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” came out, filmmakers realized that audiences now demanded more of a movie in terms of style and plot. This has resulted in them becoming more and more complex and produced some fantastic results like last years “Inception”, but when a movie like “Super 8” comes along it is a very refreshing change of pace.

Although it isn’t the best film I’ve seen in theaters in the last couple of years, it could very well be the most enjoyable experience. Between the warming feel of the movie, the great kids, and purely enjoyable ride of it all “Super 8” is the must-see movie so far this summer and one I’m sure that will be among the best at year’s end.

Score: 91/100


Comedy Monday: Our Hospitality (1923)

20 06 2011

With the playoffs over, my slight hiatus is done. Starting off is this early silent Buster Keaton film.

“Our Hospitality” starts off in 1810, where the McKay and Canfield families have a bitter feud. One night the two patriarchs of the families clash resulting in both of their deaths, McKay’s wife decides she wants her son, Willie, to live without any knowledge of this rivalry, so she sends him off to live with her sister in New York. Twenty years pass and Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) has grown up just as his mother intended until one day he receives a letter, it tells Willie that he has come into possession of his father’s estate. So, he decides to go and claim it and meets a beautiful woman on train there. Little does he know this is Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), and although they both care for each other quite a bit, Willie now needs to deal with her family who are adamantly trying to kill him. The story of lovers from rival families is far from new, but luckily “Our Hospitality” has a lot more going for it. It has several terrific scenes and great physical comedy. In the moments between where directors Keaton and Blystone allow the story to unfold it is handled very delicately giving this film the boost it needs due to its occasional unevenness.

One of the standout elements of “Our Hospitality” has to be in it’s set pieces, and by that I mean the smaller details placed in scenes and single locations where events unfold. The first is most highly attributed to the attention to detail. The New York set is based off an early painting and it is fascinating to see it compared to what we know now of the city. A bike that Willie McKay rides early on is an exact replica of the time, as is the train they ride. All of this gave me not only a sense of authenticity that would pay dividends later, but allowed it to be a fascinating film to be introduced to before the real events started to take place. Of the event pieces there are two that stand out; one would be the train sequence and the other is of course the infamous waterfall scene. The train allows for many scenes of comedy and really works to help the movie pick up steam (no pun intended). It builds from there up to the climactic waterfall in which the authenticity of the movie becomes extremely effective. Now, while also being funny, this scene is also quite tense and despite being mild for today’s standards it is filmed in such a way that you actually believe Keaton is at the top of a waterfall, giving this key scene in impact it definitely needs. “Our Hospitality” builds to that moment and it does not disappoint, drawing on everything that came before and creating one of the best scenes in comedic history.    

The only real downfall of the film is in the beginning. With a silent film, it is hard to give the audience the necessary backstory without it feeling slow and overwhelming. Such is the case here. In the beginning the audience is bombarded with information so that we are playing catch-up to an extent until Willie receives the letter and things cool down. The film is fairly short so the fast pace of the beginning works as a double edged sword; we move past the uneven parts quicker, but they become more uneven due to it. Like I said, once Willie McKay leaves New York the movie takes off and is incredibly enjoyable the rest of the way, yet even after this point the comedic bits are not always as consistent as a later Chaplin film would be for example. It should be noted that the high parts of this movie are as good as any silent comedy out there.

“Our Hospitality” is a great film. It starts off just alright but grows into something incredible. It has iconic scenes, a fantastic soundtrack, and great bits of comedy. If you’re a fan of silent films or old physical comedies you would be doing a disservice to yourself to miss this early one.

Score: 90/100

New Release Tuesday: X-Men – First Class (2011)

7 06 2011

The one thing I dislike about the recent comic book movie trend is the urge to reboot a franchise so soon. For me it would just make more sense to take the James Bond route and change-up actors and directors but keep the stories and developments intact, like lets say… comic books do with writers and illustrators. Yet I digress, this new X-men movie shows an evolution of the summer blockbuster from the first in 2000 to now in 2011. Before movies just had to have action and perhaps the occasional humor, now a certain class and style needed to set one apart from another and Matthew Vaughn does this part very well. We pick up at the very origins of the X-Men; Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is finishing his thesis at Oxford while Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) for past crimes against him. It is Charles’s helping the CIA that unites the pair as they close in on Shaw. Shaw is recruiting mutants in an attempt to destroy the human race and take over the world while Xavier must try to do the exact opposite. The film is set in the ’60s, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis which gives an ideal setting to produce a unique atmosphere that we don’t see, at least from blockbusters that often. Yet as many unique moments Vaughn gives us, we get just as many run-of-the-mill montages, and the overall film structure is far from ground breaking. “X-Men: First Class” is thrilling, fun, and the great leads provide the necessary depth to make it stand out ever so slightly from the saturated summer crowd.

“A new species is being born. Help me guide it, shape it… lead it.”

To take a reboot of a recently deceased trilogy seriously, something new has to be brought to the table and for “First Class” the most glaring are the worthy younger models of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. James McAvoy is a high rising Scottish star since “Atonement” and “Wanted” and he plays the role with all of the conviction and kindness you would expect of Charles Xavier. Michael Fassbender is a cinematic force in the making, from “Fish Tank” to “Inglourious Basterds” to “Jane Eyre”, he just keeps switching it up and providing exceptional results no matter what the role. The rest of the cast is rounded out quite nicely, Kevin Bacon provides the standard bad guy routine, January Jones of “Mad Men” is a little too cold as Emma Frost but perhaps that was intentional, and Jennifer Lawrence who I adored in “Winter’s Bone” does well with what she has but her character isn’t fleshed out that well. Everyone else is just there although some may recognize Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy) from his role on the British teen drama “Skins” where he played Tony, Angel being played by Lenny Kravitz daughter Zoe, Rose Bryne from either “Damages” or “Get Him To The Greek”, and obviously Oliver Platt. It is a young cast full of many talented actors and actresses which makes me very intrigued to see what the future has in store for this franchise.

“Ready for this?” 

The ’60s setting gives the film a very welcoming retro atmosphere, combining the attire and music to the CIA infused storyline makes it all reminiscent of a James Bond film but obviously lacks the swagger despite how hard James McAvoy tried. Henry Jackman is the composer for this movie, and gives life to many of the action scenes in the film, unfortunately is was rather hit or miss for me. The use of many deep, pulsating beats cannot remind me of anything but “Inception” which although may not be that original it definitely lends gravity to the scenes. It reflects the film nicely in that regard as it is ruthless in the action scenes. Vaughn constantly goes for the throat and although there aren’t many moments of gore, if any, the body count is fairly high. Despite Jackman’s occasional effectiveness in the score, far too often does he veer into something you would hear in a Michael Bay movie. The uplifting melodies seem far too generic and modern bringing me out of the ’60s feel and into a bland summer blockbuster.

Overall “X-Men: First Class” was a very entertaining movie: the characters are great, the actors are likable, many of the CGI moments are amazing, and the whole movie has a refreshing feel to it. Nevertheless Vaughn never quite goes for it, McAvoy and Fassbender do their best but the movie never leaves it all on the line or constantly provides the necessary tension that it touches upon whenever Fassbender takes the screen. It is an intriguing beginning to what could be a great new franchise, definitely better than the original X-men but I don’t think it quite reaches the standard of some of the genre standouts in X-men 2, Spiderman 2, or either of Nolan’s Batman movies. It is definitely worth your time this summer and I am looking forward to seeing how they build upon this in the usually superior second movie.

Score: 75/100

Comedy Monday: The Rules of the Game (1939)

6 06 2011

The critically acclaimed “The Rules of the Game” is widely regarded as not only one of France’s greatest films, but one of the best of all time. Needless to say I was quite excited at the prospect of finally getting to watch it. So much occurs throughout Jean Renoir’s classic that even having just watched it find myself wondering what actually just happened. The best summary I can provide would be that it begins with a man, Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who just set a record for crossing the Atlantic. At the celebration of his landing he finds that the woman he loves and inspired him to take up such a feat is not there. This woman, Christine (Nora Gregor), is married and embarrassed by the whole situation so she convinces her husband to to invite him out into the country with them and their friends to bury the hatchet. From this point on Renoir masterfully constructs this astute and provocative satire of the Parisian upper class.

“Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.”

Perhaps the most noticeable  aspect of “The Rules of the Game” is it’s complexity due to the number of central characters to the story’s plot. Now there are obviously some more developed than others but there are at least eight characters that we observe and come to know. They range from Christine and her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) to the servants in their house. With so many characters and a story inhabiting a restricted space we constantly see multiple storylines invading the same scene, we will see something occurring in the background that is a continuation of a completely different scene. This type of film-making was not only revolutionary at the time but keeps the pace going and makes every scene engrossing at the same time.

“Corneille! Put an end to this farce! “

Jean Renoir’s satire is a about the indulgent, care-free nature of the French upper-class. They do things that will obviously hurt someone else but with a mind only for their own desires. Weirdly enough they also have a bizarre system of honor to go with it, or the rules of the game that they play. The whole affair is contrasted by several effective scenes such as the mass killing of wildlife on a hunting outing. With the way Renoir presents the characters in his film it is easy to see the original outrage that was produced when it was first released. It would have been very controversial at the time but time often does good things to these types of movies, especially those that focus on an aspect of society. This is one of the reasons why “The Rules of the Game” is regarded so well today, it pushed boundaries that may not have been popular at the time but in retrospect those people were just too close to what the film portrays to be comfortable.

“The Rules of the Game” is a very fun and often funny satire, combining that with something a little deeper to say. The character interactions are complex and Jean Renoir weaves a narrative which involves all of them to almost an overwhelming point. Nevertheless Renoir’s classic is a timeless work of cinema and deserves a place among the best satires made.

Score: 94/100

Escapist Friday: The Princess Bride (1987)

3 06 2011

Oh the days when Rob Reiner was making quality movies, how I long for thee. Here he gives us the swashbuckling tale of revenge, romance, true love, betrayal, and a dozen other descriptors  I won’t bother to list. There are so many twists and turns in “The Princess Bride” that it would be unjust of me to describe what happens with a fraction of the luster the film provides. To put it simply it is about Buttercup (Robin Wright), who is set to marry a man she does not love when she becomes kidnapped by a trio of thieves. From there the movie takes off and what we are left with is one of the most re-watchable, quotable, and enjoyable movies ever made.

“You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” 

As far as films go, “The Princess Bride” may be one of the finest examples of escapism, primarily because it never lets the viewer forget it. This isn’t a movie about a fairy tale, but about a grandfather reading his grandson a fairy tale and we are just going along for the ride with them. Films explore so many different genres that this small touch allows the viewer to remind themselves that they are entering a story and produces a dreamy atmosphere. Another big reason why “The Princess Bride” is such an effective fantasy film is the ambiguity. Everything in the movie feels very grounded yet every so often something completely foreign will pop up reminding us where we are; from giant rats and killer eels, to the ridiculous names of places and a small hint of mysticism. “The Princess Bride” is definitely a fantasy film but occasionally seems very realistic at the same time allowing the viewer to really get involved in what is happening.

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” 

With any film that gets by on its wit and charm, the actors must all be up for the task which clearly everyone is in “The Princess Bride”. The two standouts of the cast have to be Cary Elwes as Westley and Mandy Patinkin an Inigo Montoya. Elwes seems to channel Errol Flynn to produce the perfect leading man for this adventure story (he would, appropriately, play Robin Hood later on as well) while Patinkin brings the conviction that Inigo Montoya couldn’t be without. To cap it off, Rob Reiner brings in an outstanding group to flesh out the rest of the cast including: Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Peter Cook, Carol Kane, Andre the Giant, Mel Smith, Chris Sarandon, and Peter Falk.

“The Princess Bride” isn’t a perfect film, in fact it is a fairly conventional story in a basic world. What makes it so good is everything else including the script and cast which are both top notch making it one of the most enjoyable movies to watch for people of all ages.

Score 90/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Ran (1985)

2 06 2011

Today we visit Kurosawa’s take on a Shakespeare classic. “Ran” is obviously based upon King Lear, but actually resembles quite little outside of the general premise. We begin on a beautiful hilltop as Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the powerful Ichimonji family is dining with his three sons and allies. He decides that it is time to step aside and pass on his legacy to his sons, he gives the First castle and leadership of his house to his eldest and the Second and Third castles to the other two. While the two eldest sons, Taro and Jiro, have nothing but sweet words for their father, Saburo calls him foolish and that Hidetora should not trust the other two. Hidetora obviously takes this as an insult and banishes Saburo and well as his adviser Tango who agrees him. Of course they end up being correct as Taro and Jiro turn on their father and one another. Ran is one of Akira Kurosawa’s largest films, taking place on a huge scale with castles, vast armies, and wide landscapes but at the same time it is really about the characters like most of his movies are.

“Only the birds and the beasts live in solitude.”

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a Kurosawa film would not be the colorful settings, yet that is what stands out the most in his final classic. Many scenes take place in locales that accentuate the green hilltops which rustle in the wind and the crystal clear blue skies. Armies feature distinct flags or red, yellow, blue, and white. Even during battle the red flames and great splashes of blood help make every scene vibrant. It all makes for a very unlikely setting considering how much death and destruction occur throughout “Ran”.

“Men prefer sorrow over joy… suffering over peace!”

Ultimately “Ran” is about chaos and violence bred from our own desires. Hidetora was a merciless ruler in his time; he murdered, mutilated, and burnt down entire castles. Taro, the eldest, loves his new found power and would do anything to hold it while Jiro believes Taro to be a fool and that he should rule in his place. Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, soon becomes the power behind the throne as she pulls the strings of war and violence in revenge for what was done to her family. In “Ran” everyone gets pulls into the violence, those responsible all have different goals and motivations but produce the same result while those ranging from completely innocent to only a little innocent get caught up in the aftermath. “Ran” primarily invokes pity, pity for all and on many different levels.

“Ran” is a beautiful, provoking piece of work from one of the greatest directors of all time. The colors play off one another strikingly well and although it is a visual treat, “Ran” has the depth within it’s characters to be more than just a war drama but also an intense look at the individual’s motivations and drives.

Score: 96/100