Thursday, June 30, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

I like a sensational, spectacular, sci-fi movie done well, like when the filmmakers combine the macro—the sweeping backdrop of the cinematic preposterous—and the micro—the focus on a select few caught up in the madness. J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg understand this balance, making this alien movie both exciting and endearing, and a solid summer film.

Think Cloverfield meets E.T. Like the former, it’s a monster thriller and an alien flick but, like the latter, it’s a coming of age movie with tons of heart and comedy—and aliens.

It is the summer of 1979 in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. A group of elementary-aged filmmakers witness a brutal suicide attempt leading to a massive train crash. The next day, a battalion of Air Force officers converge upon the small town. Strange disappearances, mysterious deaths and unexplained phenomena shock the town. The kids, a scrappy bunch of misfits, slowly piece together the mystery, revealing a shocking secret.

From scene one, I was immediately drawn into and engrossed with the lives of the sextet who supply the micro aspect of the film. The acting is top-notch from very talented child actors—notably Joel Courtney, who portrays Joe Lamb. Elle Fanning is also quite good as Alice, and both leads handled the weighty material handed them with dexterity. The interactions between the children’s characters were genuine and even heart-wrenching—as when Joe and Alice try and help each other cope with the death and crippling loss of close relatives. The film delves into themes of death, single-parenthood, drunkenness, abandonment, depression, guilt and forgiveness. Here is more depth than your typical summer blockbuster.

Super 8 is character drama, first and foremost, but it is also an intense sci-fi actioner. The train collision, during the opening and played out over several minutes, was wondrous to behold, riveting and gloriously shot. The kids are caught in the middle of the action; railroad cars barrel narrowly by, hurtling like projectiles, exploding like bombs. The rest of the film is equally suspenseful and visually arresting, showcasing impressing special effects.

But the film suffers in the third act from predictability and a lapse in realism. While still entertaining, there was nothing in the movie that left me guessing, and I called the ending from miles away.

Though shallow, the plot is redeemed by constant humor, every joke hitting its mark accurately. It was consistently funny—one-liners, snappy sarcasms, hilarious sight gags breaking the tension. The laughs were a delightful break from the stress of the harrowing situations. And as a tip: don’t miss the end credits.

The score by Giacchino was unremarkable. It worked in the context of the film, the deep bass notes aiding the sense of impending doom, but none of the cues really stood out.

The other downside to the movie is the copious amount of language. For a movie with kids as main characters, the language is extremely heavy, most of it spewed from their young mouths. There was also some drug content, though this is discouraged: when one character gets “so stoned,” another runs away screaming, “drugs are so bad.

Super 8 is a solid movie. The micro elements are fantastic, the interactions genuine, the emotions raw and the ending redemptive. The macro elements are strong, visually captivating and technically wonderful; they suffer from a lackluster third act, but slightly. It’s got micro and macro; it’s an almost perfect summer film.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Jack is back! His beloved Black Pearl missing, Jack finds himself running from the British, crossing swords with an old flame, and getting shanghaied by Blackbeard’s pirate crew. Their mission: locate the Fountain of Youth. To unlock the water’s immortal powers the crew needs a mermaid tear, two chalices belonging to Ponce De Leon, and a willing (or unwilling!) human sacrifice. Alliances are drawn, broken, re-drawn, and re-broken as pirates, British regulars and Spanish conquistadors all compete for eternal life. Captain Jack must face zombies, mermaids, and—deadliest of all—the return of a forgotten love.

Rob Marshall takes the helm as director, navigating his first foray into the action genre with aplomb. His talent is apparent as he directs a compelling story with a perfect pace. Renowned for his dramatic dance numbers, Marshall brings his Oscar-winning knowledge of choreography to the action, translating the energy and artistic flair of dance into fun, swashbuckling chase and adventure sequences. The scenes always captivate, each setpiece more elaborate than the last. The opening carriage chase through London’s streets is wonderful and fun. Then there’s the sword fight on the docks, the escape from the Spaniards’ camp, the battle for the Fountain of Youth, and (my favorite) the dangerous encounter with the mermaids. These aren’t your typical Disney little mermaids—they’re fierce, vicious and deadly, luring innocents with beauty, then slashing and devouring with razor-sharp fangs. Supernatural elements like Blackbeard’s zombie pirates, his “possessed” ship, and the legendary Fountain of Youth lend the film a fanciful, yet eerie and sinister, tone.

Despite the dark story, the dialogue and cast were light. Johnny Depp re-immerses himself in the role of the swaggering pirate. He is Jack Sparrow. Geoffrey Rush returns in a delightful performance as Captain Barbossa, pirate-turned-privateer. And we are introduced to the laid-back yet shockingly brutal Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the sensuous and volatile love interest of Captain Jack.

The dialogue is fantastic. The characters’ interactions are superb, especially between Jack and Barbossa. The scene in the teetering ship boasts the best dialogue of the series. I was never sure where their comradeship stood: friends one second, enemies the next.

With Will and Elizabeth’s romance shelved, the story was able to focus more on Jack and Angelica, and on the love story between the missionary Philip and the mermaid Syrena. This romance develops when Syrena saves Philip’s life and notes that, unlike other humans, he seeks to save—not destroy—life. This subplot could have been great, but was tedious as neither Philip nor Syrena’s characters ever fully developed. But the romance between Jack and Angelica was perfect. Their nuanced banter, filled with sarcasm, bitterness, and barely perceptible fondness, added excellent comic relief.

The score disappointed. Instead of new themes and riffs, I heard a battery of recycled themes from the past three movies. Zimmer added a touch of Spanish guitar to embellish the themes, but it wasn’t at the level of creativity I’ve come to expect from my favorite composer.

The film’s protagonists have a modicum of morality, and themes of honor, duty, love and self-sacrifice are hinted at, but never realized. There was more sensual content than in the prequels; sexual banter flew fast and furious between Jack and Angelica, and some crude references were made. The mermaids appear nude, although their feminine figures are always obscured by voluptuous locks or scales.

While shorter than its predecessors, this film features outstanding performances, a compelling story, brilliant dialogue, beautiful sets and cinematography, cheeky romance, and extraordinary action. It looks and feels completely different from the first three; the characters are mostly new, and it is less a continuation and more like a franchise reboot. This is a solid piece of entertainment definitely worth a watch.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fast Five (2011)

Fifth in The Fast and the Furious series, this film is still coherent on its own. Big-time smuggler Dom Toretto escapes from custody, thanks to his sister Mia and her boyfriend Brian. The three converge on a train transporting high-value sports cars, but their larcenous scheme is complicated when corrupt Brazilian mogul Reyes interferes. They find themselves on the run, pursued by both Reyes’ thugs and federal agents. Taking refuge in the favalas of Rio de Janeiro, they assemble a team for “one last job”: a heist of all Reyes’s cash reserves.

Joel: This was a fast-paced movie—the action never flagged—and an entertaining two hours filled with speeding cars, explosions, and impossible fights, flights, and stunts. The plot was cohesive but constantly changing; the characters many but defined; the score sparse yet appropriate; the dialogue light. It’s an action movie, not a work of art, but the action was artfully done.

Michael: Fast cars, big guns, pretty girls. While you get what you pay for with Fast Five, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d seen it all before—only better. Ocean’s Eleven, Italian Job, Inception, Mission: Impossible—these are all similar heist movies but have more poise, polish, comedy, and character. The dialogue here is awful, the acting worse, and most all attempts at comic relief fall flat. Except for the action, there’s nothing here worth seeing.

J: Sweeping and picturesque cityscapes were immediately prominent. The iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Rio’s hills, the cubist mosaic of the favalas, the miles-long expanse of the Rio-Niterói Bridge stretching across Guanabara Bay. The color and vivacity, breadth and breath, of the Brazilian outdoors really made the scenes come alive, and contrasted with the dull, muted indoor shots.

M: The shots were repetitive and boring—the first sweeping panorama was cool, but using the same transition between every scene was uncreative overkill. Same with the soundtrack: it was headache-inducing. Brian Tyler’s original score was nice, but unfortunately underused, and instead replaced with loud rap and hip hop. The songs fit the mood, but they annoyed me.

J: I enjoyed the soundtrack. It was unorthodox, but fitting. The percussive rhythms intensified the action sequences; Brazilian-inspired beats colored and complemented the Latin scenes; the electronica segues and rap sequences supported the street-racing theme; vintage radio crackle delightfully tarnished riffs of evocative samba. Apart from a few brief gems, most of the soundtrack won’t stand on its own, but it worked with the film.

M: If pounding music didn’t dull the senses, there was the acting. The performances and dialogue were frequently ridiculous; “serious” and “touching” moments, like when Mia abruptly mentions that she is pregnant, were without nuance—and induced hearty chuckles. In fact, while the attempts at humor may have miserably failed, there was plenty of laughter. This movie was unintentional comedy of the year.

J: Fortunately, the dialogue was sparse, and, except for some cliché and unconvincing romantic attempts, the acting centered on the action. I was afraid all the characters would blur together, but each was quickly differentiated. The fast-tongued Rome provided running commentary and comic relief; eye-catching but minacious Gisele was always ready with pointed words and weapons; and the redoubtable federal agent Hobbs quickly illustrated his no-nonsense style with the emphatic, unnecessary, and fortunately unrepeated, “Stay the f— out of my way.”

M: There was an unnecessary amount of swearing and sexual content. The camera frequently zoomed in and lingered on barely-clad women, crude references abounded, and the language was stronger than I prefer.

J: I was frankly surprised, and discomfited, by some elements. Several characters punctuate their speech with innuendos and mild profanities. In one scene of Rio’s hot-rod aficionados, the camera hesitates on the women’s scant Brazilian dress and provocatively-baring hemlines voyeuristically. Two men brutally bludgeon each other with their fists, smashing into walls, shattering windows, their faces trickling blood, until one scrabbles for a pipe wrench and drives it down with a sickening (off-screen) thud.

M: The film’s one redeeming quality, setting it apart from other caper movies, is the string of unbelievably incredible driving scenes. The closing car chase through the streets of Rio was the most over-the-top, destructive, and totally awesome I’d ever seen. The turbo-charged Dodge muscle-cars, towing their ten-ton load, causing explosions, crashing and demolishing buildings, scenery, and everything else—wow! The effects of this scene were so shocking and unbelievable I couldn’t help but gape in amazement. The gun scenes, fist fights, action and chase scenes make the movie almost worth watching.

J: It’s a solid action movie. Because of the brief but distasteful language and lechery, I can’t recommend it. But it was one exciting and impressive film.

M: It’s mindless, it’s over the top, it’s fun, it’s profane, it’s often crude. But despite the action and adventure, it’s not worth the ticket price.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Sequel dread. You all know it. You loved the first movie, you’re excited to revisit familiar characters, you’re curious to see what new adventures are in store, but you’re nervous that the return trip will be disappointing. Let’s face it, you’ve had lots of reinforcement that sequels are awful, and seldom has the second surpassed—or even equaled—the first.

But Kung Fu Panda 2 shattered all negative sequel dreads. A cinematic treat both visually and narratively, it continues the story of Po the Panda, newly christened Dragon Warrior, as he joins the Furious Five, an elite group of Kung Fu Warriors sworn to protect China from evil. No longer at odds with his Kung Fu counterparts, Po journeys with his team to defeat the dastardly peacock villain Lord Shen, who threatens to annihilate China and destroy the ancient art of Kung Fu forever. But Po faces personal challenges as well. He must uncover his true identity and learn that no matter how sad the story’s beginning, it is the ending that matters.

The first thing I notice in an animated movie is its artistry. The animation here is stunning. Beautiful scenes of China’s landscapes, vistas, waterfalls, architecture, and cities splayed in colorful array across the screen, the palette bright and vivid. The animated characters were incredibly detailed, each with unique facial quirks, fur texture, and coloring. Animated movies have the challenge of starting from scratch, without pre-existing sets, props or lighting. The animators here did a fantastic job filling each shot with the perfect amount of foreground, mid-ground, and background, every frame beautiful and interesting to behold. On a technical level, this film is a masterpiece.

The soundtrack reunites worthy composers Hans Zimmer and John Powell. The first Kung Fu Panda score was an audible feast. This one revisits many of the old themes while adding some new, and the oriental flair enhances the film’s flavor and mood. It’s superb.

The dialogue is excellent, deftly combining physical comedy with hilarious, snappy wit. The laughs were earned; the mirth never stemmed from that lowest common denominator, bathroom humor. And while it was genuinely funny—several scenes had me rolling—it was never corny. I most enjoyed the scene where our posse of Kung Fu warriors attempts to infiltrate the enemy’s stronghold by hiding inside a large dragon puppet. As they parade through the city, they “ingest,” “digest” and “expel” all enemies in their path. And Jack Black’s voice so perfectly suits the large, furry panda that his delivery itself is enough to induce chuckles.

But this film isn’t all about laughs; it has tons of heart too. Fairly deep for a “kids’ movie,” it addresses heavy themes of adoption, the importance of family, compassion, inner peace, and self-sacrifice. The characters’ development and maturity from the first movie was apparent, each growing with age and experience.

But the highlight of any “Kung Fu” movie is the action, right? Well, you get loads of it here, and, boy, is it fun. Each fighting scene is more explosive, exciting and engrossing than the last. The action never gets repetitive and the fight moves are often unbelievable (it is a cartoon) without being absurdly over the top. The fights are not only visually arresting but emotionally captivating. There’s a constant sense of danger, a palpable feeling of suspense and uncertainty. No character ever feels safe from the throes of death. Anything can happen.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the villain was not nearly as compelling as the ferocious leopard from the first movie, Tai Lung. The peacock Shen has some good lines, but while he’s pretty evil, I never really feared or hated him. However, this is an incredibly small complaint for an overall excellent film.

The animation was stunning, the fights enthralling, the characters developed, the dialogue witty and often deep, the score beautiful, the story endearing and, with no real detractors, this is pretty much a perfect movie. It is not only a great sequel but a great standalone film. In fact, I think I liked it even better than its predecessor. I’m looking forward to revisiting this gem again, and hoping for another sequel. This movie is great. Go see it.