2011 log (6)

(11 Jun) Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams) 34
[ We’ve all heard the advance word about how this film is supposedly a big sloppy blowjob to Steven Spielberg (here credited as a producer through his Amblin Entertainment company) and his early films like “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” (something way too many critics are clamoring as if they were the first to figure it out). How refreshing to see a blockbuster with an old-fashioned sense of wonder, they say… and what I wonder is what movie they were actually watching.

I mean, sure, it’s set in 1979 in a suburban town, the protagonists are kids not unlike the ones in “E.T.” or the Spielberg-produced “The Goonies” (or Stephen King stories like “It” and “The Body/Stand By Me”), and the sci-fi/horror elements are kept off-screen for quite a while. Because as one of the boys, a wannabe filmmaker shooting a Super 8 zombie flick with his buddies during summer vacation, says at some point, it intends to not just be about the thrills but to tell a story and to make the audience feel something.

Alas, after a promising first act, “Super 8” goes off the rails (no pun intended) when the kids witness a ridiculously over the top train crash which they miraculously walk away from unharmed. That is the beginning of a long, long series of scenes full of preposterous mayhem, with the small town where the action is set blowing up over and over while the kids and most everyone else never gets hurt.

Elle Fanning is pretty great, but the other child actors are uneven at best, if not downright awful in some cases. As for the grown-ups (parents, cops, soldiers), they’re all dull dull dull, and they keep behaving like idiots… Which might have more to do with the mediocre writing than with the skills of the cast.

For all its forced nostalgia and homages, “Super 8” is ultimately closer to “Cloverfield” than to anything Spielberg’s ever made. It’s an overblown B-movie creature feature that jerks us around for a while with a so-called mystery surrounding the nature of the threat facing the characters, with a payoff nowhere near as successful as the setup (or the marketing campaign, for that matter).

Hate to break it to you, Mr. Abrams, but you, sir, are no Spielberg. You know what? Forget about this overrated movie and its goddamn lens flares, and just watch the music video for Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”. In 5 minutes, Spike Jonze totally outdoes “Super 8” in every way as far as early Spielberg pastiches go (can’t wait to see the full 30 minute version). ]

(12 Jun) Sans dessein (2009, Steeve Léonard & Caroline Labrèche)
[ Full disclosure: a few friends of mine were involved with the production of this low-budget independent feature, but given that it won the Best Local Film award at Fantasia in 2009, I’m not the only one who enjoyed it a great deal! The way I see it, the U.S. has Kevin Smith, the U.K. has Edgar Wright, and now Quebec has Steeve Léonard, Caroline Labrèche and the rest of the Dead Cat Films crew. Starring writer-director Léonard as a slacker slowly coming into his own and co-director Labrèche as the girl who helps him to do so, this movie is both funny and touching, juvenile and clever. Full of universal geek culture references (“Star Wars”, “Back to the Future”, “Star Trek”, etc.), “Sans dessein” is nonetheless Québécois to the core, which makes it a real treat. ]

(18 Jun) Green Lantern (2011, Martin Campbell) 27
[ After playing supporting parts in “Blade: Trinity” and “Wolverine”, Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds finally gets to star in his own superhero flick. Alas, said flick is rather dreadful, with a story silly even by comic book standards, cartoonish FX and talented actors wasted in thankless roles (Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, etc.). Only Reynolds himself gets to have a little fun (emphasis on ‘little’) as Hal Jordan, a cocky pilot chosen to join the Green Lantern Corps, i.e. intergalactic peacekeepers with nifty super-powers. What follows isn’t so much sci-fi action as endless expository dialogue setting up the film’s convoluted mythology, trite human drama, and Yoda-isms about the power of will versus the power of fear. And the big climax? A big fight between our “green space cop” and what looks like a shit monster. ]

(21 Jun) Cabin Fever (2002, Eli Roth) 50
[ Why is it that Eli Roth can be such a cool and funny geek of a guy when you hear him talking or read interviews with him, but his movies are just not all that great? Maybe it’s because the line is so thin between having fun with B-movie tropes and merely making another B-movie. Set in and around a cabin in the woods, where five young men and women must face some creepy hicks and a mysterious, deadly disease, “Cabin Fever” is like an 80s exploitation flick, with lots of bad writing, bad directing and bad acting… Which might be intentional – or not. In any case, the gore, T&A and juvenile humor are modestly entertaning, and some of it is even genuinely effective. I still feel like hearing Roth talk about this stuff might be more fun then watching him try to pull it off on screen. ]

(26 Jun) Just Go with It (2011, Dennis Dugan) 52
[ A loose remake of “Cactus Flower”, this romantic comedy is modestly enjoyable thanks to the chemistry between Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. The plot is a big preposterous mess of lying and scheming, but as the title implies, if you “just go with it”, it leads to some pretty funny situations. At other times, it’s just stupid (everything to do with Nick Swardson’s character, for one), and regular Sandler collaborator Dennis Dugan’s directing skills remain mediocre at best. Still, like I said, Sandler and Aniston work well together, Brooklyn Decker sure is easy on the eyes, and it’s kind of a hoot to see Nicole Kidman acting like such a goofy bitch. Worth a rental, etc. ]

(27 Jun) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay) 81
[ Not unlike “X-Men: First Class”, this third “Transformers” flick delves in alternate history storytelling, throwing the space race and the Chernobyl disaster into the timeline of the endless war between Autobots and Decepticons. Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf still finds himself caught in the middle, with a new babe by his side (model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and new supporting actors (Frances McDormand, John Malkovich) providing comic relief alongside the returning John Turturro. But all that is just to keep us mildly entertained until the main course, an hour-long sequence involving the near-annihilation of Chicago by evil extraterrestrial robots which delivers the most epic sci-fi action thrills since “Avatar”. Not-so-incidentally, Michael Bay got some pointers about modern 3D filmmaking from James Cameron himself. ]

(28 Jun) Scenes from the Suburbs (2011, Spike Jonze) 88
[ This Spike Jonze short film, which he co-wrote with Will and Win Butler from Arcade Fire, totally wipes the floor with “Super 8” as far as coming-of-age stories go. There’s no stupid monster, no over the top destruction scenes, no fucking lens flares, just some great young actors struggling to maintain their friendship as they grow up in a world they don’t understand. I love how no explanation is ever really given as to why the suburban town where it takes place is overrun by the police and army, and how the tale is told through a series of moments… memories… dreams? The cinematography is gorgeous, and the music of course is amazing as well. This doesn’t quite reach the genius level of Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, but it’s still a must-see. ]

(30 Jun) The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick) 93
[ It won the Palme d’Or and it’s already been hailed as a masterpiece and an instant classic by some. Easy, now. Oh, this is most definitely a great film, but upon first viewing, I have some issues with it. The first act didn’t quite do it for me, then the much ballyhooed about Qatsi-style creation-of-the-world sequence did impress me as an audio-visual showcase, but not so much thematically. And I believe it’s clear that the Sean Penn thread is the film’s weakest link and that the finale is a bit meh. All that being said, I still loved the hell out of the majority of the picture, starting with the courtship Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s characters onto the birth of their three sons and the way their childhood unfolds. All the Malick trademarks are there: the gorgeous magic-hour cinematography, the spiritual/existential voice-over narration, the use of music (both the Alexandre Desplat score and the classical pieces), the impressionistic storytelling, the attention given to nature… But while it may seem pretentious and quasi-experimental at times, I was surprised by how straightforwardly moving it can be – again, particularly during the scenes/moments involving Pitt, Chastain and their boys. I’ll have to see it again before I can say that I even come close to fully understanding it and chances are I’ll love it even more then but, right away, I can tell you that it’s the best film I’ve seen during the whole first half of 2011. ]

May / July