The second film in a year to help graduate a Pixar veteran into live-action filmmaking (Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol being the first), Andrew Stanton attempts to recapture some of the wonder he created with Finding Nemo and Wall-E, and does it mostly successfully. An adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars, the first in an eleven-book series, John Carter chronicles a civil war veteran who is transported to the world of Barsoom, (or what we know as Mars). There he reluctantly becomes involved in a civil war between the planets’ inhabitants.
The filmmakers originally decided to change the film’s title from A Princess of Mars because boys wouldn’t go see it, and then changed their minds about calling it John Carter of Mars because of the planet’s track record at the box office. As a result, it’s an exciting film with an unexciting title, and an expensive film with unimpressive financial returns. It’s a shame, because this is arguably a better film than Avatar, which shares similar themes. The green-skinned creatures are more realistic than the N’avi, for one, not to mention Captain Carter being a much more sympathetic hero than Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully. Disney was right to cast relative newcomer Taylor Kitsch in the lead role; he’s extremely likeable and completely carries the movie. His co-star and love interest, played by Lyn Collins, struggles with her clunky dialogue but manages to be charming anyway.
It’s a well rendered world that you believe in, a hero and heroine that you like, and a great story arc. So where did it go wrong? Putting aside the edit that should have been half an hour shorter, there are several elements that could have been wisely omitted. Mark Strong leads a race of shapeshifting overlords who are invisible, bald, robed and all-powerful; without these characters, the world of Barsoom would have been much more believable and frankly, way less corny. Even though they were a part of the book, they didn’t make a convincing transition to the screen, and the movie version would have benefited greatly without them.
The movie also opens with an airship battle above Mars, following a cliche narrated opening shot of the planet itself. It shows us right from the start what this mysterious planet is all about and what its humanoid inhabitants look like. We then meet John Carter and follow his story, which is a very well put together character introduction. If we had met John before he went to Mars and then traveled there with him, the mystery of and anticipation for Mars would have been all the more great.
Aside from these downfalls, the movie succeeds in two areas: being extremely fun, and setting up an intriguing mythology. Just how John will travel to and from Mars - and how it appears from his Earth-dwelling friends’ perspectives - keeps you thinking after the curtains close. The action sequences, aside from the opening one, are more exciting than most blockbusters provide these days. One particular battle, where John and his dog-like pet take on an army of green martians by themselves, is cleverly intercut with his tragic backstory, and the only downside is that the scene is too short.
Based on the poor ticket sales, we probably won’t get another Barsoom movie from this team of filmmakers. It’s a shame, because there is real talent involved here and some sequels would be more than welcome. Avatar sequels are coming, since people seem to like those. But with a better marketing campaign and a better title, John Carter might have reached the audience he deserves.
Woody Allen is Hollywood’s most persistent writer of love letters, often to women but more often to the city of New York. Here he applies the same affection, and generates ours, for the city of lights.
Through Owen Wilson, Allen brings an American sensibility to Paris. Wilson plays Gil, a frustrated screenwriter on holiday with his frustratingly shallow fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). Writing movies is too easy, says Gil (and apparently for Woody Allen this is the case, since he spews out dozens each decade). Dreaming of one day becoming a serious novelist, he begins to walk the streets of Paris after dark, and gains inspiration through a series of encounters with early 20th century writers.
At this point the film becomes a fantasy, no explanation being required for the means in which Gil travels back in time. If it’s all only in his head then the plot is still as satisfying, since the lightbulb moment of the film could have been reached by Gil either through fantasy or contemplation. The central idea behind Midnight in Paris is that nostalgia is relative; while Gil dreams of living in a ‘golden age,’ others from that time see the generation before them as the true golden age. Only until he realizes this can he be satisfied living and writing in his own area.
Icing the film with its palpable charm are the numerous characters - not only Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali (played by Adrien Brody, who suffers from Allen’s most indulgent dialogue), but also its original characters. Michael Sheen plays the self-admiring professor who Inez adores (there is one of these archetypes in every Allen film), and he steals every scene with his hilarious pretentiousness. You can’t look anywhere on screen without finding someone charming.
As far as the whole show goes, it is Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that steals it. He is the manliest of manly writers, pouring hilariously descriptive observations over Gil as if writing a novel on the spot. He never smiles but always prompts us to, as he carelessly floats through life, no longer impressed by himself or his exploits. There is no character arc here, just great characterisation.
While it’s not a masterpiece - the film drags in the middle before reaching its satisfying conclusion - Midnight in Paris is a loving tribute, intentionally or not, to Woody Allen’s own work. If it doesn’t draw you to Paris, or to reminisce about times long gone, then it at least makes you want to watch his greatest films all over again.
Red State is Kevin Smith’s first attempt at the horror genre, after a career telling toilet jokes (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mallrats among several other cult hits and misses). He’s lampooned faith before with the sacrilegious Dogma, but here he tackles religious fundamentalism with a dark and surprisingly skilful eye. Auctioning the distribution deal after the movie’s Sundance premiere, he controversially bought the rights himself and then released the film in only a few theatres around the country, with a digital download and home video release shortly after. It’s a unique release strategy, and one that perfectly matches the uniqueness of the movie itself.
The film begins with three teenagers who have met a woman through an internet sex site. She has agreed to ‘meet’ them all simultaneously, so they borrow a parents’ car and venture out into the darkness of middle America. There they stumble across a group of religious zealots, strongly inspired by the real life Westboro Baptist Church, a group of gay-hating, intolerant nutjobs. When the boys are kidnapped to be sacrificed as punishment for their carnal desires, the movie makes a clever genre-switch and becomes a tense hostage film. John Goodman plays a federal agent whose orders are to kill everyone inside the church, innocent children included. The climax is both surprising, witty and too obscure to possibly see coming.
The church’s leader is played awfully creepily by Michael Parks, who you may remember as the mumbling Sheriff from the Quentin Tarantino universe. We spend the whole film wishing someone would shoot him, punch him in the face or just simply tell him to shut his mouth. His comeuppance, the last line of dialogue in the movie, is exactly the right amount of satisfying, and a brilliant callback to Smith’s history as a master of banter.
The reason Red State is such a refreshing entry into its genre is that it’s also an experiment in genre. It begins by instilling a great sense of dread; the events that unfold in the first act are quite disturbing and make you wish that things would turn out for the better, or at least that the tone will change. This movie makes us beg for something - and the most brilliant thing about it is that it actually delivers. Thankfully, while it’s always tense and engaging, it does allow us moments to breathe. Unlike Wolf Creek and Van Diemen’s Land - both bleak indie films that burden the soul - this lets up and changes its tone enough times to not make us wish we never entered the cinema (or in this case, viewed the DVD or digital download).
Red State is a mature work for someone who has made a career out of immaturity, and while it’s not always comfortable to watch, it’s a completely engaging thriller and a much-needed slap in the face to both church and state. It’s important though, and reassuring, to remember after viewing that there are still positive examples of both.
If you could bottle that feeling of walking out of a ‘movie of the year’ movie, then that stuff would sell truckloads. The feeling doesn’t come often, but Drive has done it, thrilling audiences worldwide with its surprising charm and sneaky style. It plays out like an indie drama, gentle and unassuming. But it’s all just a front for what’s lurking underneath: a slow-burning, tense and wildly entertaining crime thriller with its feet firmly in the 1970s.
Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed driver, a Hollywood stunt car performer who moonlights as a getaway car driver at night. He’s extremely good at what he does, and has strict rules about how he uses the small window of time for each job. He’s an enigma of a character - we really don’t know anything about him, except that he was taken in at a young age by gruff mechanic Shannon (played sympathetically by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston). The driver is a man of few words, but he really knows how to move a car. His skill isn’t shown in a gimmicky or flashy way, but worked into the script naturally (he inches effortlessly into a parking spot without even looking at the wall in front of him, while his attention is glued to a couple of thugs outside). The driver forms a bond with his next door neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son, but only until her husband is released from jail. Played by the always intriguing Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Robin Hood), he brings with him a whole lot of trouble, which draws the driver out of his controlled world and into a more dangerous, unpredictable one. The driver soon gains the negative attention of a couple of local gangsters (an unrecognisably sinister Albert Brooks and his sidekick, Ron Perlman), and the movie shifts into high gear.
Most scenes play out like this: the stakes are set, the tension builds for as long as the human attention span will allow, and then all hell breaks loose. Shot in beautiful neo-noir style, and paced delicately to draw us inside the movie, it’s a ballet of violence and passion. While some character deaths lack punch, it’s only because the other deaths set the standard so high. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who won the Best Director award for this at Cannes, clearly knows the work of Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino, but brings his own unique vision. His attention to detail and mastery of the genre make this essential viewing for any cinema lover.
Enough praise hasn’t been mentioned, but Drive is deserving of the highest. Ryan Gosling carries the movie, and his acting ability is in top form all throughout, culminating in the final scene where his skill is etched into movie history. Everyone involved seems to know they were making something special, because this is an operatic ode to the crime genre, lovingly made to be thrillingly enjoyed.
Well, Jon Favreau. You’re really taking it easy, aren’t you? Iron Man put you on the map, Iron Man 2 disappointed some but still thrilled others, and now you’ve quit that franchise to focus on an upcoming family movie, The Magic Kingdom, that sounds a lot like Night at the Museum in Disneyland.
There’s no indication that Favreau’s career is slowing down, but Cowboys and Aliens proves that he might be getting too comfortable. The visuals and style are top-notch, but the storytelling involved is lazy and uninspired. It earns points for telling you right from the outset what you’re in for: There are cowboys, and there are aliens. Yes, in that order, but picture the ‘and’ being quite long, because we don’t see any aliens for quite a while, and when we do, they’re nothing to write home about. Their ship designs are pretty sleek, zipping around like flying spinal cords, but their intentions are a bit murky and, once again, they don’t wear clothes. Creature designers, can we get some simple fashion for these highly advanced beings, please?
This is a western that is played completely straight, but it happens to feature alien invaders. This was a smart choice by the writers (Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who were all involved in Lost and Transformers, but who brought none of the former’s smarts to this table). It’s just a shame that none of the characters are very three-dimensional. Jake (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory and a strange device strapped to his wrist. Equally mysterious is Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman with a secret past. But stealing the show is the gruff Colonel Dolarhyde, played by Harrison Ford, having a lot of fun with his role and simultaneously getting his groove back. It’s his character who goes on the biggest journey and yet our hero is the very boring Jake - a sad choice, because every time Ford is on screen the movie wakes up a little.
The movie doesn’t lack in the quality department - all the performances are solid, as are the effects and stunt choreography. There’s just something about it all that isn’t very exciting, and it really should be. There are no ‘wow’ moments - nothing that makes us want to fistpump the air. Even Independence Day had some edge of your seat moments. Even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull kept us involved in all its ridiculousness. Cowboys and Aliens is an expedition for gold that only turns up rock.
Planet of the Apes is one of the essential science fiction classics from the 1960s, and while its sequels and prequels progressively get worse and worse, the story arc they form is truly memorable. This latest entry disregards Tim Burton’s bland remake and for the most part, it disregards the original series also. It’s an odd move considering a reboot wasn’t asked for or necessary; there are plenty of Apes stories that could have been told in continuity with the existing stories. Like the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this tracks the story of how apes came to rebel against humanity and create the future Earth that Charlton Heston so famously discovered in the original film. But this time, instead of time-traveling future apes coming back to the 1970s, the revolution occurs because of genetic experimentation.
James Franco plays Will, a scientist on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s. After some mistrials, most of his test apes are put to death except for one - a baby born in secret, who Will takes home and calls Caesar. This ape grows up to be highly intelligent, and as Will’s serums get stronger, so does Caesar. There is a definite bond between Caesar and Will, but mistreatment by the guards at an ape facility cause Caesar’s disdain for humanity to grow. Eventually he figures out that he can use Will’s serum to make the other apes smart, and all doesn’t end well for the human race.
If you’re thinking a few hundred apes versus all of man’s firepower isn’t much of a contest, you’re right. But it’s actually handled quite well within the film. The reasons for why man will eventually give way to primate rule are believable and actually tied directly to this story. It’s quite a bit more realistic than the original story, and it forms a satisfying conclusion to this entry.
There are several references to the original as well, some of which work and some of which don’t. Most of the dialogue references are given to Draco Malfoy, the cruelest of Caesar’s caretakers. His ‘get your dirty paws of me you damn dirty ape’ is pretty cringeworthy, as is his ‘it’s a madhouse! A maaad hoouuuse!’ But there are a few more subtle references that strike cinematic gold. One features a NASA launch for a ship called the Icarus, which was the name of Charlton Heston’s ship that got him lost in time and landed him in the future (then later in the film, a newspaper headline reports that the Icarus has disappeared). There are a few instances of this littered throughout. It’s a little odd considering this is largely ignoring the original continuity, but it’s still the stuff that geek dreams are made of.
The movie’s setting tends to drag a little, mostly being spent inside animal cages and Will’s house. But when the action kicks in during the third act, it’s really impressive and a lot of fun. The various apes are actually well-drawn characters, and their behaviour is very realistic. I’ll never be a big fan of CGI and these apes are fully digital, so that probably kept me at a distance the whole time knowing that they’re not real actors on set. But they did their best with the limitations and created a very convincing show. When Caesar rides into battle on the Golden Gate bridge on a horse, it sends chills down the spine. There are also a few surprise twists after the battle that will leave audiences waiting for the sequel, which we will get since this movie made quite a bit of banana money.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a resounding success and a refreshing surprise. While it’s not one of the best movies of the last few years, it’s thoroughly entertaining and a nice reminder that modern science fiction can be thought-provoking, touching and exciting. If only we could get those real monkey suits back.
The Dark Knight may very well be the best comic book movie of all time. But as far as faithful adaptations go, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger has set a new standard. The tone of the books has been perfectly captured here, evoking the same feeling of nostalgia and true heroism that fans have always admired. This had the potential of being a campy mess, but the filmmakers found great ways to ground the outlandish elements in reality…for the most part.
This is an origin story, in which the puny, asthmatic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is continually rejected from the United States Army during World War II. When a German scientist sees the true heart and soul of Rogers, he is chosen to take part in an experimental program to create an army of Super Soldiers. Rogers sees this as his only chance to serve his country, and he emerges from the experiment at the peak of human perfection. During all this, evil Nazi scientist-turned-cult-leader Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) plans to dominate the world, after the initial Super Soldier experiment sent him mad and left him disfigured as the Red Skull.
The technical skill involved in reducing Chris Evans into a puny adolescent is nothing short of amazing. The technology isn’t seamless, as Evans’ head has clearly been digitally stitched onto a skinny actor’s body, and he never really moves his head much during these scenes. But it’s an effect we’ve never seen and it makes us really feel for the character of Steve Rogers right from the start. Once he transforms into Captain America, the movie kicks into over an hour of pure non-stop fun, with a great supporting cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hayley Atwell, a newcomer who plays Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter. The chemistry between these two actors is the best we’ve seen in any Marvel movie, and it’s a shame Peggy probably won’t be seen in any future instalments.
Hugo Weaving plays Red Skull to the best of his abilities, but the material he has to work with is less than satisfying. He’s a very one dimensional character, which is a shame because he’s one of Marvel’s most iconic villains. At a certain point in the movie he transitions from Weaving’s own face into his hideous red form, but it’s pretty much a rubber mask without any indication of burning or scars, and it makes us wish he’d put his Weaving mask back on. Fortunately, he does provide his army of soldiers with some pretty impressive vehicles and machinery, so the obstacles Cap and his men face are quite fun.
The film’s climax is exhilarating, which can’t even be said of the incredibly fun Iron Man films. Those third acts were rushed and lost steam, but this one rockets to a thrilling finale. But if I were to grasp at straws looking for story faults, I’d point out that Cap gives up quite easily when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Where previously he would have found all kinds of adventurous ways out of a sticky situation, he instead decides to throw the towel in for a scene than feels more like it’s been set up just so he can have an emotional radio conversation with Peggy. Indiana Jones never failed to find his way out of a pickle, and since this film owes so much to that series, it’s a shame they didn’t take a similar cue here. Instead they opted for a plot device, but thankfully it’s forgiven because of what happens next. The film ends with a surprisingly exciting lead up to The Avengers, where we’ll see Cap join up with Iron Man, Thor, and a few other Marvel heroes in what could potentially take the comic book movie throne.
What makes Captain America great is that he represents a more innocent time, when America’s moral core was much more black and white. He doesn’t compromise on right and wrong, and he shows respect even to his enemies. When asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he replies ‘I don’t want to kill anybody. I just don’t like bullies.’ It will be interesting to see how his old-fashioned outlook will fit into the modern world of The Avengers, which takes place in a much more compromised, divided America than the one he’s used to.
Joe Johnston tackled retro-fitted science fiction adventure before with the underrated Rocketeer, and mastered the craft of family-fun momentum in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jumanji. With this film he’s brought elements from all of his best films together, crafting one of his personal best as well as one of Marvel’s best. The studio should be proud and confident now that they have proven that faithful adaptations don’t have to be gritty or realistic - they just need to give the audience a good time.
For many people, Harry Potter has been as much a part of the developmental process as homework and breakfast cereal. Either in book form, movie form, or both, the characters have delighted audiences worldwide and created some of the most dedicated fans of any franchise ever. Putting the quality of the books aside, the film versions have been hit and miss for those not acquainted with Harry’s literary adventures. And now we’ve been given the final instalment, which for the most part succeeds in delivering a satisfying and extremely entertaining farewell.
David Yates directed the final four Potter films, beginning with the dullest of them all (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and concluding with the best of them all. While his previous visual style was dreary and monotone, here it’s a perfect blend of dynamic colours - as seen in the final battle between Harry and Voldemort - and impressive CGI, including a white dragon upon which our wizardly trio escape from an underground labyrinth.
Mentioning the trio (Harry, Ron and Hermione) brings me to the film’s biggest fault. Again, we’re putting the books aside here, so this is only a criticism of the film as it stands on its own, but the character of Ron is given a disappointing conclusion here. Is he not the Han Solo of Hogwarts? He’s the one that gets the girl, and the one who has his best friend’s back, but he’s only given a few small heroic tasks, and acts as the mouth of the audience, particularly when asking Harry to explain the complications relating to the Elder Wand. There were opportunities for him to be very heroic and really prove his worth, but every single one of these is taken by Neville Longbottom. This is a character who previously served only as comic relief, and while it’s good to see him step up, it’s hard not to think this should have been Ron.
Another criticism of the film - spoiler alert - is the way that Harry defeats his enemy. Not only does he destroy Voldemort in an empty area where nobody is watching, but he doesn’t get the chance to actually physically hurt him. After all the evil Voldemort has cast upon the world, we want to see Harry at least punch him in his noseless face. Instead, we get another sparkly wand duel until one of the wands underperforms, followed by Voldemort turning into dust in a rather gentle manner. Think of the great villain deaths: Emperor Palpatine being thrust into an exhaust shaft by Darth Vader; Die Hard’s Hans Gruber and Jack Nicholson’s Joker falling to their deaths; Pulp Fiction’s Zed getting his just rewards. Voldemort is one of cinema’s most iconic villains, but watching him die is sort of like watching a tree shed its leaves for winter. Beautiful, yes. Satisfying, not really.
One thing the film did right is wrap up the complex story of the series’ most interesting character, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Snape’s loyalties have always been ambiguous, and here we get the full explanation of just what exactly he’s been up to since Harry first entered the school. A scene where Voldemort sets his pet snake upon Snape is an excellent moment, managing to be scary, heartbreaking and interestingly filmed all at the same time. Not bad for a director who before Harry Potter was directing television, and has since developed a style of his own as the franchise grew stronger.
These films are really for fans only - nobody only kind of likes them, they either find them mind-blowingly amazing or slightly dull. I’m in the latter camp, mostly due to not being able to emotionally connect with the characters. But thanks to the last couple of entries, those involved really did step up their game. Too little too late, maybe, but the quality of this finale does make one curious as to what they might have been missing all these years.
Well, that was another Transformers movie. If you’re not a fan of the series, the third instalment will do nothing to win you over (though it does smartly replace its leading lady and tone down some of the annoying comedy). If you are a fan, I see no reason why this would be disappointing. And I also envy how you developed such a high tolerance for constant, unbearable assaulting of the senses.
This third film starts out interestingly, with some backstory about the Autobots’ only hope crash landing on the Moon in the 1960s, becoming the secret reason behind the space race. It’s a great concept that is wasted in Michael Bay’s overindulgent franchise. What could have been an intriguing science fiction premise is here just an excuse for another alien invasion. In this regard, Dark of the Moon is unique among the trilogy; the evil Decepticons pose a full-scale threat to the entire world now, rather than simply fighting each other on our turf. The good-natured Autobots must stop this from happening, through a series of explosions and metal crunching and extremely cliche lines of dialogue.
Sam (Shia LeBouf) finds himself struggling to get a job, even after saving the world twice during his first two adventures. He has little to no contact with the Autobots now, since they’re under military command. This is a good place for his character to pick up from, because it gives him something to prove. Does he prove it by the end of the film? Not any more than he already has.
Rosie Huntington-Whitely replaces Megan Fox as Sam’s above-league girlfriend. While her first scene is clumsily acted, her actual performance isn’t too bad. She doesn’t have to do much and her character Carly is a much more sympathetic and caring love interest than Fox’s greased-up ice queen. Neither’s attraction to Sam makes any real sense, but that disbelief had to be suspended two films ago.
The rest of the cast is fine. Yes, it’s weird that three Cohen Brothers alumni appear in the same movie here (John Turturro, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich for some reason). But their presence in such cheap Hollywood fare doesn’t mean they give bad performances, as some other reviews have implied. It’s the fact that they’re there at all that is the mistake. A bloated franchise doesn’t need this many more characters. There’s also Patrick Dempsey as Carly’s smarmy boss, Alan Tudyk as Turturro’s loyal assistant (providing a few of the only actual funny moments), all of the military dudes from the last movies, Ken Jeong for some reason, and Sam’s parents. Lots of characters in a movie with lots of robots and lots of action and not a single moment to breathe.
By themselves, there are several scenes which are quite impressive. One involves the least amount of robots, where a squad of soldiers skydives through a crumbling Chicago. It’s an exciting sequence that stands out among the rest. There’s also a great shot of Sam driving inside Bumblebee, who transforms, jettisoning Sam into the air and then catching him while transforming back. It’s the money shot of the film, and Michael Bay surely knows how to capture these. But it’s a simple case of the parts being greater than the sum. There is just too much going on in almost every frame. Action shouldn’t happen constantly, it should be a payoff to a mood created by dialogue or tension. Consider the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park, one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed. It begins by building suspense. We are put into the character’s shoes. Spectacular action ensues - and then we take a break, waiting with baited breath for the next great action scene. With Transformers, the action isn’t earned. It’s just there, all the time, and it’s simply annoying.
The notoriously panned second film, Revenge of the Fallen, is honestly only marginally worse than this entry. Some of the problems have been thankfully removed, but the major problems are still there. We should be able to tell which giant robot is the bad guy during a fight. But the complexity of the designs make the fighting extremely difficult to follow. Not to mention new robots who appear unexplained out of nowhere, and who look so incredibly similar to existing ones. Why their accents are so culturally diverse is a huge mystery, but there probably isn’t a reason for it except to add some comic relief. You know, because they sound different to us.
Dark of the Moon isn’t a guilty pleasure, but it is guilty. We deserve less from our summer blockbusters, because - please, somebody get this memo to Mr. Bay - less really is more.
The Tree of Life will either be the most glorious, transcendent experience you’ll have at the cinema, or if you don’t have a superhuman attention span, one of the most excruciatingly dull. Even if you can read into the themes that it slowly and broadly lets waft at you, it might still be a struggle to be inspired or informed by it. The title suggests we will learn something profound about the nature of our existence - as does a quick glimpse at Terrence Malick’s terrific filmography - but it’s also the auteur director’s most indulgent work to date.
The film follows Jack, a young boy being raised in the 1950s by his hypocritical and hard-hearted father (Brad Pitt) and his angelic, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain). If there’s one recurring theme, it’s one of growth, and specifically for Jack, growth through a loss of innocence. It also shows Jack as an adult (Sean Penn), but the relevance here remains a mystery, except to possibly make a vague statement about death and the afterlife - though we never see the character die. That would make sense.
Brad Pitt is never a bad actor and he certainly isn’t incompetent here, but he’s just…dull. Jessica Chastain is solid but doesn’t have much to say or do. It’s young Jack and his brothers who particularly impress. From them, Malick hones his directorial skills to draw very natural performances.
I consider myself a great appreciator of Malick’s work. His The Thin Red Line is one of the best war films ever made; it sat proudly next to Saving Private Ryan in the same year. Malick’s style is evident both there and here, but here it’s not supported by any attempt at a decent narrative. Shifting at random between three timelines (if you count the entire history of the Earth as one individual timeline, in which cells multiply and dinosaurs roam), the movie substitutes stories for moments and dialogue for narration. For the first half hour it seems like it’s going to work - as characters pray to God, asking about why we exist, we are taken into the heavens and get a glimpse at God’s point of view. It’s in these moments a spectacular and overwhelming planetarium show; two hours later, it’s God’s fingers on a chalkboard the size of a cinema screen. There are moments of greatness spattered throughout, but more moviegoers will likely miss these due to feeling utterly removed from it all. Take in particular a sequence where Jack realises the point where his innocence dies. He’s ashamed for something he does, and he cries for God to take him back to where he was. This was one of a few moments that spoke clearly about our nature, and it cleverly paralleled the cosmic scenes, as nature grows, is destroyed, and then reborn. I only wish this kind of brilliance had been part of a more accessible package. This movie polarises audiences not because they aren’t smart enough, but because it makes them feel like they’re not.
The acting, cinematography and sound are all top notch, as would expect from a director of this calibre. It’s the script - if you can imagine one for this - that lets it all down. The opposite of a poorly written movie, The Tree of Life is a great movie deep down inside a poorly structured non-narrative.
When The Devil Wears Prada is a preferred option over a movie starring three screen greats (Harrison Ford, Jeff Goldblum and Diane Keaton) and the usually charming Rachel McAdams, you know something’s wrong. This is a similar coming of age story for a plucky young career woman, but set in the world of morning television. Unfortunately, we don’t get commercial breaks.
Becky Fuller (McAdams) is fired from her New Jersey television station, only to find herself being handed a much better opportunity by a New York City producer (a criminally underused Goldblum). Her task is an uphill battle, since her new show Daybreak is on its last legs. Diane Keaton’s hosting prowess isn’t enough to keep it afloat, so Becky enlists famed veteran anchor Mike Pomeroy (Ford) to be Keaton’s co-anchor. He’s completely opposed to the idea of daytime pop journalism, but a loophole in his contrast makes it happen. What ensues is a long, long movie where Becky battles Pomeroy as he intentionally ignores his duties. But because it’s formulaic, we know there’s a heart somewhere inside that gruff exterior.
It’s annoying to see Harrison Ford play a grumpy old man. It worked in What Lies Beneath because it was a decent role. Here he actually seems like he doesn’t want to be in the movie. Like his character, he deserves better than this gig. And he’s underperforming out of spite.
It’s also embarrassing to see Diane Keaton play nasty. Everything about her character is gimmicky, especially when she resorts to cheap tactics to win more viewers (a sumo wrestler suit comes to mind). There is a scene where she and Ford both try to have the last word during the news sign-off. Sound familiar? It’s ripped straight from Anchorman, and it doesn’t even try to hide it.
But the worst part of Morning Glory is its lead. Becky Fuller is a completely unlikeable character, and it’s not all the fault of Rachel McAdams. She’s energetic and driven to the point where she can’t think about anything or anyone but her job. And it’s not a charming character flaw, it’s simply frustrating to watch. If we can’t believe in our main character, then what are we investing our time in? When she makes her obligatory act three life-changing decision, it’s not one that anybody in their right mind would make, and it’s purely contrived for the purpose of the story. So putting up with her for two hours literally has no payoff.
It’s too bad, because a dramedy in this unique setting could have worked. But the reports are in, and the forecast is grim.
You could watch Drive Angry. You could even watch it in 3D, if you wanted. Or, for a more entertaining couple of hours, you could get your hands on a tape of film critics during one of its screenings. Their reactions must have been much more entertaining than the film itself. It wouldn’t be much different than seeing a bag of potato chips served up on MasterChef.
Speaking of polar opposite levels of quality: Nicolas Cage’s career. From the opening scene, it has to be asked what it is that makes him do films like this. There are rumours that he’s under financial pressure, and simply has to take frequent paychecks. Part of me wants to believe that’s the case, because there is no other way an Oscar winner with moments of brilliance speckled throughout his career would happily take on roles like this one. But alas, here he is, having sex with a naked woman while he’s fully clothed (he doesn’t disrobe before gunplay, see), and then taking out several armed attackers while continuing to have that sex. What might be a hilariously entertaining scene is tainted slightly by her moaning. Is she enjoying this? Or terrified? And when it’s over, and we discover that she’s actually traumatised to the point of needing a therapist, we can’t help but feel dirty.
The basic premise of this mess revolves around Milton (Cage), who escapes from hell - apparently just by driving really, really hard - in order to rescue his baby granddaughter from a baby-sacrificing cult. Along the way he picks up a feisty drifter (Amber Heard), purely for the sake of eye candy and a feigned female empowerment arc. As the two of them pursue the cult in their hotted-up muscle car, they too are pursued by one of hell’s gatekeepers, played with cheese by William Fichtner (Prison Break, The Dark Knight).
I get what they’re doing. They’re trying to give us something so tongue-in-cheek, so outrageously sadistic and jaw-droppingly blasphemous that we can only laugh and enjoy the ride. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did the same with Planet Terror and Death Proof, but they did it well. With Drive Angry, all we get is something sadistic and blasphemous, but it’s so tediously shoved in our faces that nobody could even be bothered writing a complaint letter. In other words, it’s Grindhouse cinema at its worst.
On paper, Paul seems like it would be a lot of fun. Geek friends travel together across America on the ultimate quest filled with nerd culture and science fiction in-jokes. Then again, one could have said the same about Fanboys.
Both films offer less than the promises of their premises, but this one’s a lot better. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are a great comic team, and fit right into their roles as life-long buddies on their way to San Diego Comic Con, and then across the country to visit fabled UFO sights. Unfortunately without the help of Edgar Wright, who directed them with pitch-perfect precision in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the expected snappiness isn’t there and it just feels, well…boring.
And then they meet Paul, a hitchhiking alien. Voiced by Seth Rogen, he’s the saviour of this movie and a real treat to watch. While his foul mouth often comes off as a gimmick, his design is endearing (particularly the human eyes) and, while a bit ‘obvious,’ as stated by Frost, is mentioned in the script as having inspired the design for the classic alien in pop culture. Paul’s been here since the 50s, and was once in the government’s hands. Before his escape and eventual road trip with our boys, he informed the government agents about his kind, and even helped Steven Spielberg with movie ideas (illustrated in one of the movie’s best moments).
Kristen Wiig is funny as always, but her pre-Bridesmaids supporting schtick is felt. She’s a great comedian, so seeing her in a love interest role like this is the same as it would be seeing Tina Fey as a side character. Rounding out the cast is a ho-hum Jason Bateman, who plays an government agent hot on Paul’s heels, and Sigourney Weaver, whose presence is a spoiler until she appears in the finale. But really, if you didn’t recognise her voice on the phone the whole time then you won’t enjoy this movie anyway.
The references are amusing, and when Paul finally reaches his (very nostalgic) destination, the movie kicks into high gear. The final sequence is where it all works, but it’s too little too late. At the end of it all, it feels like a recipe with good ingredients that are mixed all wrong. And it wouldn’t have hurt to add a couple of pinches of Edgar Wright.
When that golden, sparkly Oscar dust settles, it’s easier to see movies for what they truly are. Yes, this Best Picture nominee is more interesting and fresh than The King’s Speech. Yes, it is a movie that’s worth seeing and deserving of its praise - but it’s not a particularly significant filmmaking accomplishment. There are a few reasons it’s as highly acclaimed as it is, finding its way to the top of many of 2010’s best lists, but the main reason by far is the stunning Jennifer Lawrence.
She lost the Best Actress award, but more than earns her nomination here as Ree, a seventeen year old taking care of her younger siblings in the chilling Ozark mountains. When her estranged father skips parole, Ree is told that if she doesn’t find him and bring him to custody, they will lose their home. The fact that she still refuses to allow her neighbours to take care of her siblings just goes to show how corrupt and dangerous these hillbilly townsfolk are. So Ree sets off on a journey to find her father, one filled with drugs, deceit, and the potential for Deliverance-level chills (though that potential never fully pays off).
John Hawkes (Lost, Deadwood) is another shining element of the film, playing Ree’s terrifying uncle. His arc is fulfilling and his performance is outstanding (also earning an Oscar nomination). Usually playing a snivelling second in command type, here Hawkes is menacing and commanding, and you’re never quite aware of his intentions. His presence on screen doesn’t allow for snack breaks.
There are moments of suspenseful brilliance, particularly when Ree and her Uncle are pulled over by the town’s sheriff. Other scenes are tense but don’t quite deliver, which is sort of a representation of the whole movie. How Ree finds her father - or doesn’t, whether or not you’re worried about spoilers - is a little too easy and, while technically harrowing, doesn’t have the dramatic weight that it should since the mystery of his whereabouts is simply handed to her.
This is a near-excellent film with an excellent cast, and it’s made even more significant by launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence. She’s already jumped to the mainstream as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, and next is set to play the lead in the adaptation of beloved teen book series The Hunger Games. Without criticising Winter’s Bone too much, it should be noted that it’s similar to previous indie Oscar contender Frozen River, not only for launching another powerhouse talent in Melissa Leo, but because of its location and subject matter. That film was arguably better, at least on a narrative level, but this one shouldn’t be missed on account of its lead emerging as a rising star.
J.J. Abrams has made a career out of keeping a tight lid on his projects. Between Lost, Alias, Mission:Impossible III, Cloverfield, and Star Trek, he’s formed a solid filmography. If his work doesn’t impress, at the least it’s always surprising. He loves mystery, and he knows that the majority of his audience does too, even if they don’t know it. Remember a time before the internet? When we would go to the cinema with only the little information that a preview had provided us? These days we can’t escape spoilers, or creature designs, or one-liners. So Abrams and Paramount have taken a risk by giving us a movie campaign that shows us little about the movie’s events. And the mystery is a rewarding and inspired rarity.
If there was ever a specific period from which to draw inspiration, then it’s the work of Steven Spielberg from the 1970s and early 80s. Super 8 is J.J. Abrams’ tribute to this period of cinema history, and plays like a love letter to a director who also got his start shooting on 8mm film in his backyard. Watching the film is like seeing that love letter read out during class - Abrams has put his soul on the line here, by mimicking someone else’s soul, but in doing so he’s given us a summer blockbuster that actually has a soul…could you imagine?
A cast of relative unknowns brings the story to life, which features a group of kids in 1979 shooting a zombie movie on their Super 8 camera. They capture a spectacular train crash on film, then investigate the mysterious events that begin to happen around town. The military has a keen interest in the incident, as something sinister has escaped the train and is wreaking havoc all over the place. That much we know from the trailers, and it’s really all we know before the movie rolls. It’s honestly the best way to watch a film, and in the case of Super 8, most of the surprises are exciting, but some fail to impress.
The design of the creature, for one thing, is less than great. There’s not much to say without giving anything away, except that its form does not at all serve its function. I can imagine a large wall of concept art, with hundreds of creature sketches to choose from. Abrams and Spielberg, who serves as producer, must have blindfolded themselves and pointed at one randomly, because this surely can’t have been the best design. Early Spielberg films, such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, feature real beings made from practical effects. Both these directors know better than to use an entirely CG creation, which separates the audience from the heightened reality.
Fortunately, Abrams clearly cares more about the heart of the story than about the spectacle, and while the creature suffers because of it, the rest of the movie shines. From the opening scene we’re with these kids all the way - we care about them on a Goonies level, and whenever they’re not on screen, we’re wishing it would cut back to them. In fact, when the creature is attacking, or the military is militarising, it’s significantly less interesting than when the kids are just making their zombie movie. This isn’t a criticism of these scenes, but a testament to how well the characters are written, and to the natural ability of the kids. The hero of the film, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), has lost his mother but finds solace with his newfound friend and crush, Alice (Elle Fanning). Their growing relationship holds the movie together and makes us wish we were their age again. There’s nothing forced or hammy about these kids, and they are the movie’s biggest strength. You won’t find a better ensemble cast at the movies until Abrams returns with his Star Trek sequel. You also won’t see Simon from 7th Heaven getting stoned anywhere else, either.
The period is recreated in perfect detail, from the road signs, the fashion, to the military insignia. It’s easy to imagine a thirty-something Richard Dreyfuss stepping into frame. The way characters interact on screen is very improvisational, particularly in the home of Joe’s best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths). It recalls Jaws and again, Close Encounters - a conversational style that filmmakers, Spielberg included, sadly no longer employ. It all comes together to create a believable world from another era, and if it weren’t for the modern visuals, it would feel like a movie straight out of that era.
So far, this is the film of 2011. It’s not perfect, but it has captured some of that childlike magic in a bottle. It’s a hard thing to achieve this side of Spielberg’s career - the man hasn’t bottled any of it himself since Jurassic Park and perhaps small moments of Catch Me if You Can - but it’s on display in Super 8. The waiting and the mystery have proven once again that J.J. Abrams is a filmmaker to watch and wait for; he’s the most likely candidate to eventually take over Spielberg’s throne. One must wonder what words were said between the two of them after viewing their collaboration, and how much self-pinching J.J. Abrams must be doing. Imagine the story, because it’s real: a kid filmmaker grew up to be the king of Hollywood, inspiring another kid filmmaker to grow up and make a movie about a bunch of kid filmmakers. Full circle doesn’t get any more magical than that.