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Column Fri Jun 10 2011
It took me awhile to realize what the J.J. Abrams written and directed work Super 8 actually was, and once I settled into that notion, the world got a whole lot better. More Stand By Me than Close Encounters or E.T., Super 8 is one of the truest, purest examples in recent memory of a movie that reminded me of friends gone by, the fun that being a kid used to be, and the way movies energized our spirit of adventure to make our own sci-fi short films that borrowed from Star Wars, as well as episodes of "Star Trek" and "Buck Rodgers." If you ever walked out of a Steven Spielberg (a producer on this movie) film wanting to find out more about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life — or wanting to just kick ass after walking out of an Indiana Jones movie — you will absolutely respond to Super 8.
The plot of Super 8 is ridiculously simple: a group of kids living in late-'70s small-town Ohio are making a zombie movie in their spare time. Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is an extraordinary make-up artist (following the handbook by Dick Smith), while his closest friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the film's director. Charles manages to get Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to agree to be in the film because he likes her. She may not be the most beautiful girl in his school, but he senses that she is a kindred spirit. It doesn't hurt that she's a terrific actress and can even cry on cue. But Alice seems to find more in common with Joe, which is not good news since his mother's recent death seems somehow tied to her father (Ron Eldard). And when Joe's dad, the local sheriff Jackson (Kyle Chandler), finds out the kids have been keeping company, he forbids it from happening again. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of many favorite characters, Cary (Ryan Lee), who has a passion for explosives that begins with firecrackers and ends with... well, it never ends. The child actors in Super 8 are all so good.
In an attempt to do as much location shooting as possible, the kids sneak out at night to use a small, abandoned train depot as a set. When they hear a train coming, they rush to get the scene shot so it will end just as the train goes by. But just past the depot at a train crossing, a pick-up truck swerves to get on the track — headed straight for the train barreling down the track. If you've seen any trailer or the teaser for this movie, then you know the disaster than ensues. And as many of you know, something held behind a well-sealed door gets out, but what you don't know is that it isn't the only bizarre thing that happens during the crash.
The kids retrieve their camera (which, although knocked over, continued filming) and get the hell out of Dodge as the local Air Force authorities converge on the crash site. Although the kids are clearly shaken up by the events, they also are charged to finish their movie and even decide to use the train wreckage as a background for their set up the following day. And that's one of the many things about Super 8 that rang so true for me: these kids aren't traumatized by destruction; they're energized by it. They want to take more risks. When Sheriff Lamb finds out his son not only is keeping company with Alice, but seems to actually like her, he puts a lockdown on Joe, but that doesn't deter these kids from getting together and finishing their zombie flick. Art before all else!
The military presence in the town grows exponentially, and the kids soon figure that something has gone missing from the train. Despite the film being set in 1979 (there are reports of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant disaster on the TVs), in a weird way, the way Abrams handles the Air Force clampdown (led by Noah Emmerich's Nelec) feels more like something out of a 1950s, paranoia-driven sci-fi film. Naturally, the kids find a way to use the presence of military vehicles in their town as part of their movie.
I don't think there's any secret that there's an element of Super 8 that is not of this world. But here's the thing: that part of this story didn't capture me to the same degree as the much larger sections of the film about friends and family, and I don't think that's a flaw of the filmmaking; I think it's deliberate. The extra-terrestrial vs. the military elements are the backdrop for a much more interesting and human story being told about parents and their kids, about loss, and about forgiveness. I'm sure that's exactly what all of you science-fiction fans really want to hear, right? But the truth is, without getting overly sentimental, Abrams pulls it off in the same way Spielberg always managed to. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is less about first contact and more about making connections with other human beings as well as a power greater than oneself. For Roy Neary, meeting those aliens is tantamount to meeting God. But I digress, because these kids don't care about seeing or meeting aliens as much as they want to do whatever it is they're going to do together.
People are tossing around the word "nostalgia" a lot with regards to Super 8, and I find that odd because, by definition, nostalgia implies a glorification of the past. If you want to see a movie that's out now that contemplates nostalgia, I'd recommend Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris (I'm serious, go see it). I never got the sense that Abrams was glorifying the late '70s with this film beyond a few small tributes to model making and mentions of a couple movies of the period. The film is set in this time because it was the beginning of an era in history when children could make their own movies with Super 8 cameras that were actually affordable to people without a lot of money. Abrams is chronicling the birth of a kind of cinematic imagination that began in the mid-1960s and ended with the video camera.
Super 8 is a small movie about a big subject, and other than certain alien-related moments (and the big train crash), I could imagine someone making a movie like this for very little money. The real drama in this story is not whether or not an alien can be wrangled or what it is it's trying to do now that it's free. I was far more unnerved by the scenes between Joe and his dad as they try to navigate the silences of their relationship without Joe's mom around any more. Jackson is convinced he would be a terrible single dad, but the look in Joe's eyes tells us he at least wants his father to try before shipping him off to camp for the summer. This film broke my heart several time, for all the right reasons. Super 8 is a film for people who remember that there was a time when it was OK to mesh science fiction and stories about caring people and families. You can't laud Spielberg in one breath and decry having your heart strings plucked forcefully in another; he used to do that all the time.
I miss the days when coming-of-age films took themselves seriously, even when they were designed as comedies. So it was a bit of a shock to watch a film like Submarine, from British comic actor and first-time feature director Richard Ayoade ("The IT Crowd"; "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace"), which is a deft melding of dark humor and a gut-wrenching personal tale (adapted from Joe Dunthorne's novel) told from the perspective of Oliver (Craig Roberts), a boy who seems destined to be (perhaps happiest when) heartbroken.
In a delightfully strange way, Oliver narrates what might almost be considered this document of his own life — although you wouldn't call this film a documentary. He occasionally discusses camera angles and plot points as if he thinks/knows someone is watching him, a concept not unfamiliar to teenagers. Oliver is a borderline outcast; he isn't the one who is picked on the most in school, but he's on the list. He also has a crush on a girl named Jordana (Yasmin Paige), who has just enough setbacks of her own that Oliver is right to think he might have a chance at dating her.
While Oliver is maneuvering his own romantic involvements, he's also carefully observing the chilly relationship between his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor), especially when mom's old flame, a spiritual New Age douche played wonderfully by Paddy Considine, ends up moving in across the street. Oliver has reason to be concerned since dad has a history of depression, and Oliver knows for a fact that his parents haven't had sex in many months (he checks the dimmer switch in their bedroom daily). Some of the film's funniest moments occur when Oliver gets into a relationship with Jordana; he gets so cocky that he starts dishing out advice to his folks.
What Submarine never forgets to remind us is that no matter how mature Oliver tries to act, he's still just a kid, and he doesn't quite know how to handle things like sex or Jordana's mother getting cancer. In fact, he acts like a right jerk with regards to the latter. Some may find Oliver too unlikable to get behind watching his adventures in this film, but I found him both sad and charming. It sometimes hurts to want to be grown up before your time; I could identify with his plight.
It's a little sketchy as to what era this film is meant to be set. There's a definitely '60s vibe to the clothes and look of the film, but a few '80s references pop in here and there as well. I think the ambiguity is deliberate, and thereby makes this story timeless in a sense. Director Ayoade does a great deal visually to spice up this age-old story, but primarily he relies on his gifted young and old actors, and I was always fascinated and curious where Oliver's journey would take us next and how many new ways he would find to ruin things. To add just the proper atmosphere of gloom, Ayoade has enlisted Arctic Monkeys' singer Alex Turner for some lovely, somber acoustic numbers that make up most of the film's soundtrack.
I believe that if you find yourself drawn to romantic comedies involving social outcasts, rather than the kind of cutesy love story we see about once a month, you'll get sucked in by Submarine, a film produced by Ben Stiller's production company, which made me happy that someone out there is keeping an eye out for quirky movies such as this. I never thought it would be Stiller, but I'm not going to get picky at this point. There are just enough bizarre touches courtesy of Ayoade to fill in any potentially ordinary moments, and he has a real flare for telling this brand of sometimes emotionally uncomfortable story. There are a disproportionate number of solid bigger-budget films to see right now, but if you're in the mood for something a bit less grand and loud, Submarine is an excellent choice. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Submarine writer-director Richard Ayoade.
So many times (perhaps too many), great actors elevate or even save an average movie. And sometimes that doesn't happen, even if the performances are strong. Although not the first film in recent memory to tackle the sensitive issue of school shootings, Beautiful Boy may be first to attempt to do an in-depth portrait of the parents of such children or young adults. These parents are often the first to be demonized after their child, and in nearly every case they are given little choice but to leave the community lest they be targeted for repeated harassment.
In this film, two fine actors, Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, play Bill and Kate, whose son Sammy (Kyle Galner) is having a difficult time in school. In one of the few scenes we see him in, Sammy is a broken, sunken college freshman who knows he is talking to his parents for the last time. For most of the next day, the parents have no idea that the shootings they're hearing about on the news are being perpetrated by their son, so they are just as concerned as all the other local parents, waiting to get word that he is alright. But hours later, police show up to the house, and their lives are forever changed.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the work done by Sheen and Bello here. This is a couple in deep trouble even before the shootings, but these events force them to look at their lives, parenting, and existence as a married couple. One day, these events pull them together and make them stronger; the next, it's ripped them apart. I got a real sense that parents in this situation are traveling on a similar rollercoaster. Where the film drops the ball is in the wildly inappropriate directing style from Shawn Ku (who co-wrote with Michael Armbruster), who seems to mistake tight close-ups and a flailing camera for an artistically credible indie film. The story is compelling enough; there's not need for the cinematic gymnastics. I was always moved by the parents' plight, both understanding why the community would turn against them and local media never lets them alone. And while they are able to escape the attention by staying with her brother's family for a time, it's when they are alone together in a low-rent motel that the world starts to make sense and they start dealing with what has happened.
Beautiful Boy isn't a complete failure as a movie at all, even beyond the strong acting. But it misses the mark a few too many times for me to wholly recommend it. Fans of Sheen and Bello desperate to see them in anything they do (that list would include me), you won't be disappointed. But when style starts trumping substance, as director Ku lets happen too often, you have to cut your losses and call the film an affectionate, well-intended failure.
Bordering (but thankfully always avoiding) cornball is a surprisingly moving little movie about a father and son relationship set in a time when both are in the most significant transitions of their adult lives. Christopher Plummer plays Hal, an elderly gentleman whose wife of many decades has just died. Rather than simply mourn her loss until his own death, he takes the opportunity to do something he's wanted to do since he was a young man: come out as a closeted gay man. His son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) takes this lifestyle change in stride, only voicing any concern when his dad's discovery of such things as gay clubs leads to ill health.
This is a film that makes significant use of flashbacks to the early months of Plummer's living out in the open. In the present, we see McGregor getting involved with a beautiful French actress named Anna (played, oddly enough, by the beautiful French actress Melanie Laurant). The two start up what both understand will be a short-term relationship, since she has an acting gig planned for a few weeks down the road. Not surprisingly, they start to develop real feelings for each other, which only complicates the little time they have left.
Meanwhile, Hal finds out he's got a chronic condition that gives him limited time left to live, but rather than tell all of his new friends (in particular, his boyfriend Andy [Goran Visnjic], with whom he has an open relationship) and bring everybody down, he decides to throw parties until he's too sick to do so, so that people will remember him at his most fun and happy. Oliver is concerned but does nothing to stop him. I was actually kind of impressed with this particular section of the film because it chose not to waste our time with false melodrama over this decision. When someone we love is dying, we tend to stop dictating how they live out the remaining time in the life, and writer-director Mike Mills understands this simple concept.
Both storylines come to emotional heads (one about affairs of the heart; the other about death), and I may have lost some interest in the Oliver-Anna relationship, but they both manage to stay far away from cheesy turns of fate or phrase that so often ruin movies like this. There are no villains in Beginners, so Mills expertly finds his drama in the other places that make more sense within these stories. I think we all know there's nothing Plummer can't do, but it's nice to see McGregor play a relatively normal person dealing with everyday setbacks, tragedies and the occasional positive influence.
Nothing about Beginners is going to set your world on fire, but not every movie has to do that. This is a strong little movie with big ideas played out on a small scale. I like the way the film (through the Hal character) addresses the experience of being gay in the 1950s and how marriage was sometimes the only way from being branded as such at the time. In its own quiet way, this film tells a few stories that have never been told before, and that alone makes it worth checking out. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer
When I walked out of this miserable little kids movie — and let's be clear, this is a kids movie not a family film — I pulled out my phone and almost without realizing it typed the following sentence for the Twittersphere to read: "The script for Judy Moody feels like it was written entirely in capital letters and on purple paper." For those of you having a tough time reading between the lines, my point is that subtlety does not exist in the Moodyverse, as much as your brain will beg for something to be clever or quiet or ironic. Oh no, every child in this movie is talking at full volume; the color pallet remind me of a child who has just slurped down a rainbow lollipop and then vomited; and the adults are dumber and act more recklessly than the children. This film isn't just terrible; it's outright irresponsible, and not in a cute way.
Since the filmmakers must have known that this film wasn't going to appeal to parents, they went ahead and cast noted child-favorite Heather Graham (Boogie Nights, The Hangover, my dreams) to play Judy's aunt Opal. So I fully expect a lot of dads are going to take their daughters to this one, if they can't talk them out of going at all. Other than wear a few inappropriately low-cut or short garments, Graham doesn't make things any worse, I suppose.
The movie concerns a young girl named Judy (Jordana Beatty), whose school year is ending and is planning to have the most exciting summer of her life thanks to a series of challenges she's set up for herself and her friends. If you complete the challenge (such as ride a certain roller coaster ride without puking, or swimming with sharks, or riding an elephant), you get "Thrill Points"; if you somehow screw up your challenge, you get points deducted. First of all, she finds out that two of three best friends are going away for the summer. Boo. The one remaining kid is a bit of a bizarre child that Judy isn't that excited about spending time with in the first place. I wish I could explain to you all just how miserable I was watching this bratty, screaming girl do one stupid thing after another. Her parents leave for a trip to California to visit relatives, but leave Judy and brother Stink (Parris Mosteller) under the care of Aunt Opal.
Rather than simply enjoying her summer like a normal kid, Judy has a miserable time trying to plan and schedule all the fun right out of every activity on her list, some of which are legitimately cool things. And yes, some people try to make mention of this fact, but she reacts by fighting with them instead of overcoming what is clearly a mental illness and enjoying what's left of her summer. I sat in the theater watching Judy Moody with a gaggle of younger girls and their parents (mostly moms — clearly the word hasn't gotten out to the dads about Heather Graham), and I was in no way baffled by the lack of response kids gave to this movie. I half expected one of the children to stand up and say, "I'm not buying this. Let's leave," and start a mass exodus.
Alas, much like myself, they stayed and endured one of the single most obnoxious creatures ever set forth on the screen (the movie is based on the popular book series by Megan McDonald, who I definitely want to assign full credit for this creation). And while we're assigning blame/taking credit, this film comes courtesy of Like Mike and Aliens in the Attic director John Schultz. If Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer makes any kind of money this summer, I'm holding everyone reading this personally responsible. It's not enough to simply not go to see it yourself; you must also discourage others from seeing it. And anyone writing me to say, "Oh, leave this alone. It's a kids movie," well you can go right on down that special road to hell paved with VHS copies of Mac & Me. Kids shouldn't have to be subjected to this garbage any more or less than anyone else. I'm done talking about this mess. Good day, sir!
The Big Uneasy
This Friday, June 10 at the Music Box Theatre, there will be a special 7:30pm-only screening of a documentary directed by Spinal Tap member, former SNL cast member and voice of many a "Simpsons" characters, Harry Shearer. The film focuses on the actual causes of the 2005 decimation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Now, you may notice I said "during" Katrina not "by" Katrina, and it's this distinction that serves as the basis for Shearer's The Big Uneasy, the screening of which will be followed by a Q&A with the director.
Shearer's self-narrated documentary is a scary, flawed, but ultimately effective look at the political football known as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an organization whose technical skills are meant to design structures that keep both property and life safe from natural disasters and damage that may be caused by factors such as the passing of time. The Big Uneasy begins as a beat-by-beat examination of the systematic failures of New Orleans levy system. The case is made quite effectively that the levees were not knocked down by water surge; rather, they were eroded from beneath because the levees simply weren't build deep enough into the soil beneath them. They literally slid out from the bottom.
Shearer also takes time to talk to a cross section of New Orleans residents about such commonly asked questions as "Why don't people move the city further inland?" John Goodman plays the role of "the rest of America," who don't quite perceive the pride and sacred culture of those who live in the region. A collection of community activists and leaders sit around a table attempting to spell out answers to these ignorant queries.
But at about the halfway point, Shearer structures a far more disturbing work that focuses on a systematic, decades-long pattern for the Corps of Engineers that weaves poor engineering work, ecological disasters, and a policy of sloppy cover-ups that the government won't do anything about because Congress using the extraordinary amount of money that is funded to the Corps every year as mean to funnel "works projects" to individual states. The more money, the better, regardless of structural integrity or cost. If a better system to, for example, build effective levees also happens to be the less expensive one, the Corps will go with the less-effective, more expensive project because it means more money.
Yes, this is one of those docs that will piss you off, especially when you see the well-chronicled stories of a handful of men and women who dared to defy the Corps, and the price they had to pay. The Big Uneasy actually managed to surprise me with just how willing and able to look right into the camera and lie some people are. After all these years of seeing it on TV news or documentaries, it still shocks me to see it right in front of my face, and Shearer gives us plenty of opportunities for people to fine tune their lying skills. As someone who has grown to love post-Katrina New Orleans (and owe it a visit before year's end), it's baffling and upsetting to see this influential and vibrant city and its citizens treated like so much garbage. The movie is worth seeing even without the Shearer appearance; with the appearance makes this screening essential. I believe Shearer is sticking around for a later screening of This Is Spinal Tap. What could be better? For more information or to purchase tickets to the screening, go to the Music Box Theatre's event page.