Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Drugs are so bad!" ~ Super 8

Okay, before I get going I want to apologize for my lack of comments and replies. Blogger has been sketchy lately and every time I try to comment back on my blog it makes me log in again and takes me to the sign-in screen! I have no idea why, but it’s really starting to tick me off. I hope this glitch gets fixed soon. Anyway…
Most of you who know me already know this, but if you don’t, I’ll tell you. I LOVE, LOVE J.J. Abrams. He is a creative mastermind who has spawned my favorite television shows and one of my top favorite films ever Star Trek (2009). So it’s no surprised that Super 8 is a film I’ve been waiting for over a year to see ever since its teaser trailer. The film ended up being completely not what I expected, but that’s totally fine with me in this case.
Super 8 isn’t Abrams’ normal composition. I would rather call it one artist’s homage to another, in this case, Abram’s homage to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg produced the movie, no surprise. I wouldn’t stop there, I’d go so far as to say it’s a homage to the imaginative films of the 70s and 80s. These films often involved children, aliens or fantastical creatures, and a little bit of adorable cheese. Super 8 had all the above. Channeling films like The Goonies, E.T., The Never Ending Story, and definitely the sci-fi aspects of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The thing I noticed right off the bat is the excruciating attention to detail. The sets, props, costumes, everything was accurate to the time period of 1979. The entire film feels like it was not only set in that time period but also filmed during that time period. From the posters and books in the bedrooms, to the candies sold at the gas station, to the tacky fashions and furniture, everything was pitch-perfect. There were so many creative shots that involved rack focus, silhouettes, perspective. You can tell detail went into the shot list and story boards. And of course filled with Abram's signature lens flares!
What sealed the mood of the film was the score. Michael Giacchino is to J.J. Abrams what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. Giacchino does the score for every production in television or film that Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, produces. What was neat about this score is that Giacchino also made this his homage to John Williams. It very much had his flavor in it and it’s that style that perfectly packaged the mood and setting of the film. I was actually convinced it was John Williams until the credits said otherwise.
It opens beautifully with a sign in a factory that says “--- Days Since Last Accident” It had something like 600+ and a worker takes down the numbers and puts up the number 1. That immediately hooked me. That’s a perfect example of how you show instead of tell in film. We then move to the scene of a funeral. Young Joseph Lamb sits sullenly on a swing set in his front yard in the dead of winter. He is a black spot within the snow drift. I really like this introduction. Everyone is inside discussing and consoling the death of his mother, but he’s out alone in the cold. He looks longingly at his mother’s locket, an item much like a glorified security blanket for him. This is the introduction portrait to his character.
I’d say the other chief character is Jackson Lamb, Joseph’s father, played by Kyle Chandler. Chandler has a kind of a family in-joke value for me, so it’s always hard to see him without wanting to laugh, however that didn’t happen once in this film. He’s come a long way from his time in the Early Edition TV show. He was utterly convincing as the hard-edged father and local law enforcement bad ass (perdon moi francais). I was really taken with his character because Chandler played him with a wonderful subtlety. He is the type of actor who holds all his emotion in his eyes. Even if he seems stone-faced you can see everything going on in the eyes. He is a duty-bound sheriff’s deputy who takes zero nonsense from anyone. When the sheriff goes missing, he fills the shoes immediately without hesitation. I loved that he was a very clever character utilizing the tactful common sense and courage he had to get the job done, instead of bumbling around aimlessly.

I thought that it was an interesting choice for their last name, Lamb. Implies gentleness, or sacrificial lamb, when you see the types of characters Jackson and Joseph are. Jackson, like most men in that time period, is uncomfortable with his emotions. One quick shot of him crying in the bathroom, no doubt in mourning over his wife, is all you need to see. He shies away from giving his son the affection he needs. At one point in time, the sheriff tells Jackson “Go home and give your son a hug.” Jackson’s face after that statement is a look of almost terror and you get the impression that the weight of fully loving his son and being vulnerable enough to do that. There is one scene in particular where he and Joe get in a heated argument. I thought that scene was the best in the film acting-wise. I was utterly convinced that they were father and son. Their mannerisms, tone, body language was perfection. It wasn’t some over-the-top dramatism,but rather elusive relational accuracy.
The children were well-cast and funny and the smorgasbord of side-characters were all entertaining and unique. The family dynamics and relationships held together with realism even in the midst of a child-like science fiction piece. Joe’s friend Charles, who is the director of the super 8 zombie film, was a great caricature of film directors. The train blows up and he’s screaming about the focus ring falling off. There were so many wonderful filmmaking in-jokes. I am sure this had some of Spielberg’s own autobiography laced in.
Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota Fanning) had a quiet elegance about her, even when acting alongside a bunch of dirty boys, as she played the role of Alice. Her father Louis is a drunk who slept in and missed his shift the morning Joe’s mother was killed, it would have been him working had she not picked it up. Her father is a direct opposite of Joe’s father, however both parallel in their grief. Louis’ wife left him and Alice years ago and of course Jackson’s wife was killed. You see throughout the film how both men are shown dealing with their loss, and the awkwardness of their role in their children’s lives, in two very different ways. In the end, they come to terms with their place and with their love for their children. It’s kind of a cheesy ending, but that’s true to the style of this film and the time period and genre it’s emulating.

I’m not going to talk about the alien, because in my opinion the alien was subplot and the plot was the characters. This may have Spielberg written all over it, but having the completely character driven story with a mysterious plot that you never seem to get all the answers to is classic J.J. Abrams. I personally love this syle because in our modern age stories all too much action and not enough of anything else. What drives the action is even more important that the action itself. It really doesn’t matter who this alien was or where he came from, but how did his presence affect the lives of the characters and press them on forward. Of course the alien aspect keeps it true to the science fiction genre and gives fun things to play with on screen. Including naming the gas station company “Kelvin” and making it a point to show that. Nerdy in-joke.
A lot of people just want to come to movies, particularly in summer, to see things blow up and die. While Super 8 has that going on, it’s not about that at all in the end. It’s about a boy’s journey to letting go. Throw in some geeky cheese, a unique script, and flawless production design and you have what I call the most original film of the year.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Between rage and serenity... X-Men: First Class

Blood and honor... Which would you like to shed first?” - Erik Lensherr

I am going to admit it; I am probably a little bias when it comes to X-Men. I’ve loved it since I was a child. The original cartoon aired in the 90s was amazing. I was in love with Gambit and wanted to be like Storm, but I loved all the characters equally.  I still can’t pick a favorite character, Nightcrawler or Gambit? Or Wolverine? Ah! Other than Iron Man, X-Men is the best Marvel Comic concept and full of “marvelous” characters (Sorry I couldn’t resist that one).

The first two films are great, especially X-Men 2 which boasts one of the best opening scenes in film history as Nightcrawler attacks the White House with Mozart’s Requiem scoring the scene (makes me want to stop what I am doing and watch it right now). The third film X-Men: The Last Stand is regrettably horrible minus Archangel and a spot-on casting of Kelsey Grammar as Beast. I pretty much would watch it again just for those two because every other character basically went to pot, along with the script. X-Men Origins: Wolverine definitely fell short, but mainly I was just happy to finally see my beloved Gambit on screen. And now we have X-Men: First Class, the prequel we never knew we wanted and certainly never knew would be this amazing. Saddle up, cowboys; this is going to be a great big blog!

The film opens immediately taking us back to the first film with the moment Erik discovers his power as he and his family are rounded up in the Nazi concentration camps in WWII. We get to delve a little deeper into the scenario though when we meet a man named Schmidt, known the rest of the film as Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon. I must say he was a fantastic villain. I was impressed that he could speak German and Russian so beautifully. Kevin Bacon has always creeped me out, so this was a perfect role for him. We get to see the events that made Magneto hard as metal, including the killing of his own mother right before his eyes by Shaw. Shaw then delivers to Erik one of many great pieces of dialogue that reveals the character, “So, we unlock your gift with anger… anger and pain…”

The story of Magneto, Erik Lensherr, is the most compelling part of the film. It’s utterly sorrowful, as we all know how the story ends up later on, and deeply sad to see how all the wonderful parts of him get snuffed out by this “anger and pain.” At one point Erik refers to himself as Frankenstein’s monster and Shaw as his creator. There’s such a deep philosophical connotation throughout the film that speaks of controlling what’s inside you before it controls you. Oddly enough, Magneto proves incapable of that while his friend and counterpart, Charles Xavier, chooses to meet that challenge every day. Another notable observation is that Magneto’s helmet is the helmet Shaw wears throughout the film, so essentially, Magneto ends up becoming just like the man who destroyed his life, as so many villains do.

What makes Magneto’s tale utterly superb is the mesmerizing performance given by Michael Fassbender. He is an actor quickly climbing my charts since seeing him in Inglorious Basterds and Jane Eyre, but it’s this role that shows he is capable of drawing out a deep emotional response not only from himself, but from his audience. Each scene he was in was thoroughly intense. I couldn’t take my eyes off him the entire time and often it was his moments without dialogue that spoke the loudest. The mark of a fine actor.

I have to mention my favorite scene in the film, which is a moment when Charles Xavier, Professor X, is trying to help Erik control his power. At this point, they are training with other mutants to find and apprehend Shaw to essentially stop WWIII from starting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles challenges Erik to move a satellite dish. To say the thing is huge would be an understatement. Erik thinks he needs anger, emotional stimulation, to conquer the task, but Charles knows it’s so much more than that. Then he says the film’s great tagline, “I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity…” This ties into the theme I mentioned earlier of control and finding balance. These mutants must learn to balance their desires, emotions, and abilities. He uses his telepathy to dig into Erik’s mind for a serene moment and he finds a memory of Chanukah Erik had with his mother. Charles explains it as he “accessed the brightest part of Erik’s mind.” Fassbender beautifully allows hope and disbelief to simultaneously wash over his face, he replies, “I didn’t know I still had that…” Gah! That line tore me apart. That entire scene was filmmaking magic.

James McAvoy had a great challenge in his role as Charles Xavier, who is THE X-man,  but he nailed it. He’s been a favorite actor of mine for years and never disappoints. He showed us with believability what a younger Charles would be like: boyish yet responsible, respectful yet with a bit of a swagger. He perfectly captured the spirit of an incredibly intelligent young man just out of college with a bright future ahead... who uses science in his pick-up lines at the bars. He kept up the quintessential characteristics of Charles, such as putting others before himself and always thinking about the bigger picture. Unlike Magneto, Charles was always aware he was a part of something greater than himself.

The film also hit a major point about our society, particularly in the obsession with image. At first glance, it may seem silly, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a great moral point to make in our age. The way the mutants felt about their appearance, the insecurity and the rejection, can easily be compared to the ridiculous standards of our society today. The mutants, particularly Raven (Mystique) and Hank McCoy (Beast) felt they had to hide their natural forms and that their cosmetic appearance needed to fit with the rest of the world. However, they were hiding who they naturally were, who they had evolved to be. This is comparable to our society that values dieting to point of anorexia, taking drugs and supplements to speed up muscle production, and plastic surgery to shape our faces and bodies and smooth away "imperfections." This expectation alienates what is natural, and that was very much the issue in the film. In the previous X-Men films they dealt more with the fear from humans toward their kind, and in this film it touched more on acceptance versus rejection from the world.

Even Charles thought they should hide their forms and seemed to have the same expectation of the world’s view on beauty and acceptance. So did Hank McCoy, he was extremely insecure. However, these two characters meet and ironic fate. Charles, one of the most powerful mutants of all time, ends up in a wheelchair, and after many times of making a big deal about his hair, he ends up going bald. He is like any young man with a misplaced sense of vanity. Hank makes a serum to undo his mutation, and it ends up accelerating it instead, causing him to fully become Beast. The thing is that once Hank really becomes Beast, it’s like he finally comes into his own and sheds his boyish insecurity to become warrior-like. Proverbs is truly right; beauty, while enjoyable, is absolutely fleeting.

On the subject of Charles and his wheelchair, there is some debate as to the way it happened in the film, but personally I thought it was the way it ought to be. There is a C.I.A. agent named Moira McTaggert, played by the lovely Rose Byrne, who fights for both humans and mutants. (I was sort of secretly hoping she and Charles would get together, but anyway…) Magneto is trying to kill hundreds of humans during the climax, and she begins to shoot at him to stop him. She fires off bullets and Magneto deflects them, and one of them hits Charles square on the lower spine. To me, this makes perfect sense in the scheme of the story. Charles was the one person who wanted absolute reconciliation between both sides. He was the symbol of peace and righteousness, and he becomes paralyzed because of a human and a mutant fighting each other. Such a grand symbol of the war, and how the war between these two sides can only prevent or paralyze, peace and righteousness. Awesome!

This film also brought an onslaught of mutants, some of which we have seen in different forms before. For the baddies there was a guy named Azazel who was like a red version of Nightcrawler and had Guillermo Del Toro’s fingerprints all over him, clearly. There was Riptide who wore swanky purple suits and could start tornadoes from his palms. Then there was Emma Frost who was a telepath that turns to diamond form. Personally, I thought she was a pretty worthless character. You could have taken her out of the film and made no difference. Basically, I think she was just some eye candy for the boys out there as she uses her cleavage more than her telepathic ability to get what she wants. That’s also how I felt about the Angel character too. Yeah she was pretty, whoohoo she’s a stripper with beautiful wings who spits fireballs like Super Mario, but she was worthless to the story other than to be eye-candy. And Lenny Kravitz, I’m sorry, but your daughter can’t act.

However, I really loved the adorable redhead known as Banshee. He was charming and had a sweet ability. When he learns to use his sonar, that screaming voice of his, to create enough sound waves to make himself fly, that was pretty legit. He should totally be in a metal band too as his day job. It was also awesome to see Cyclops’s relative, Havok or Alex Summers, in this film. You can see how Scott Summers has similar powers and both of them have a sense of honor and fear of hurting others with their gift. There was also Darwin, a guy who can adapt to any environment, and last but certainly not least young Raven, or Mystique, played by rising star Jennifer Lawrence. Even William Stryker’s father made an quick appearance.

My criticisms of the movie are slim, but there. For starters, I mentioned my dislike of Emma Frost and Angel as merely being eye candy and little of any other kind of substance. That goes along with the scene where Moira strips down to her lingerie in Vegas to follow a Colonel into Shaw’s lair filled with other girls in their lingerie. That’s what I like to call “fan service.” Necessary? Absolutely not. But they throw it into the movie because sex sells and we buy it like sheep. The other thing I didn’t like was the whole “Mutant and Proud” slogan Mystique kept harping on throughout the film. It’s akin to a cheesy banner you’d find at a Pride parade and, I’m sorry, but that isn’t X-Men. At least they could have come up with something unique and less annoying. But other than that…

Heavens, this post is long but there’s so much to say. I didn’t even mention to groovy way they used the 1960s as a backdrop and weaved our historical events into the plot. Or the fact that there were some majorly creative shots in the cinematography. Or the wonderful cameos, particularly Hugh Jackman’s quick insert as Wolverine that made the whole audience chuckle. At any rate, this was the best time I’ve had at the movies this year so far and I am happy that the prequel I never thought I wanted became something I got to have anyway.