Category Archives: 2011

Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


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Newlyweds (2011, Edward Burns)

Newlyweds is an exceptional disappointment. Not really because of the concept–upper upper middle class New Yorker whining–or the execution–Burns has his actors speak into the camera, the characters giving interviews–but because it’s always shaking and Burns, as writer and director, always takes the worse path. Newlyweds is a what happens, at least as far as Burns’s script, when you make bad choices. Every single time.

The film opens with titular Newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald out to brunch with her harpy sister, Marsha Dietlein, and her sister’s miserable, sexually frustrated (all because of Dietlein) husband, Max Baker. Burns goes out of his way to make Baker as gross as possible, and Dietlein as mean possible. The audience is supposed to be annoyed with Baker’s whining, but they’re supposed to hate Dietlein. She’s such a prude she doesn’t want to listen to Burns’s comic retellings of he and FitzGerald’s problematic sex life (it’s all FitzGerald’s fault, of course).

No slut shaming though, because they’re prudes. All the slut shaming is for Kerry Bishé, who shows up immediately following the introduction, as Burns’s long lost little half sister. Burns, writing himself possibly the shallowest role in the film–he really uses those into camera interviews to sidestep narrative responsibility–and Bishé had a bad dad, which has nothing to do with the film. It’s just there for immediate sympathy (not for Bishé, because she’s always being slut shamed, but for Burns). Bishé’s exceptionally traumatic visit all gets to serve to make Burns into an even better guy. Bishé’s shit out of luck.

Along the way, Baker hooks up with a twenty-three year-old girl (Daniella Pineda), Bishé hooks up with FitzGerald’s ex-husband (Dara Coleman), and chaos ensues. But it does give Burns the chance to write FitzGerald as a harpy in training and himself as a male savior. A sensitive male savior to some degree, but not much of one.

The worst thing is how much FitzGerald and Bishé appear willing to try to make this movie work, Bishé especially. And her performance is a mess. Burns and editor Janet Gaynor cut magic with every other actor in the film–Burns berating Baker is legitimately hilarious, regardless of Burns’s irresponsibility as a writer, and the walking shots (everyone basically walks from scene to scene Newlyweds, in William Rexer’s nicely lighted Manhattan) have great cuts–but Bishé’s editing is awful. Once the script gets around to revealing all her secrets, it’s like the editing is designed to make the audience sympathize less and less.

But, to some degree, everyone’s pretty good. Dietlein has a terrible, shameful part, but she plays the hell out of it. Burns has to double down on her being awful because otherwise it means he’s got the film wrong. And he does have it wrong. FitzGerald’s good, Coleman’s kind of great, Baker’s a cartoon (as opposed to everyone else’s caricatures). Even Burns, as an actor, is really pretty good. He’s mugging a little, but the rest of his cast isn’t, which provides an interesting contrast.

He just can’t seem to figure out how to direct his script, because it’s a bad script. He can make the movie–the actors work, Rexer and Gaynor are great, P.T. Walkey’s music is solid–but he can’t direct this script. There’s no relationships. Burns intentionally starts the film with these characters having no apparent foundation.

I wish Newlyweds were more pedestrian, because then it wouldn’t be such a disappointment. Burns really should’ve worked a little bit harder on the writing, because everything else is there.

I mean, if he’d actually been able to sell Baker as a legitimate character… the sky’s the limit. Though he probably wouldn’t have been able to sell him wearing a golf cap–Burns, not Baker–the whole movie. Did Burns have a golf cap company he was promoting or something?

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, William Rexer; edited by Janet Gaynor; music by P.T. Walkley; produced by Aaron Lubin, Burns, and Rexer; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Edward Burns (Buzzy), Caitlin FitzGerald (Katie), Kerry Bishé (Linda), Marsha Dietlein (Marsha), Max Baker (Max), Dara Coleman (Dara), Daniella Pineda (Vanessa), and Johnny Solo (Miles).


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Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Take Shelter is relentless; sort of an anti-Field of Dreams. Michael Shannon is a husband and father, respectable, employed member of a somewhat rural community. There’s not tons of money (wife Jessica Chastain pays for their summer vacations by selling her sewn goods) and daughter Tova Stewart has lost her hearing and needs expensive implants, but things are all right.

For about six minutes. Take Shelter runs two hours. By minute seven or eight, it’s clear there’s something really wrong. Shannon’s dreaming about the apocalypse and is compelled to build out his home’s existing storm shelter (the title’s a little cute).

It also turns out Shannon’s mom–Kathy Baker, who’s only in one scene but she’s great in it–is a paranoid schizophrenic and Shannon’s worried he’s similarly afflicted.

Director Nichols, who also wrote the script, gives Shannon a whole bunch to do. Almost eighty minutes of the film is entirely driven by toxic masculinity. During the second act, Chastain barely gets anything to do except react to Shannon. It’s too bad, because she gives an entirely solid performance in an underwritten role. Nichols gives her just enough to do to be taken seriously, then stops giving her stuff to do.

It’s the Michael Shannon show, which makes for two hours (or so) of excellent acting, but not necessarily the best way of telling the story. In the third act, Nichols has to put up or shut up as far as the MacGuffin. He doesn’t exactly forecast where it’s going–the film’s beautifully made–but there’s a real reductiveness to how he finishes it out.

Excellent photography from Adam Stone, editing from Parke Gregg, music from David Wingo.

There’s a lot of great stuff in Take Shelter (like Shea Whigham’s supporting performance), Nichols just fumbles the third act. Right after giving Shannon and Chastain an amazing scene together. It’s frustrating.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; director of photography, Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; music by David Wingo; production designer, Chad Keith; produced by Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Tova Stewart (Hannah), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Katy Mixon (Nat) and Robert Longstreet (Jim).


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Fast Five (2011, Justin Lin), the extended version

It’s almost embarrassing how well Fast Five is made. Director Lin can’t do two things–which might be important for the film if the story mattered at all–he can’t direct heist sequences and he can’t direct car races. He doesn’t care how the heist works or how the car race works, he cares about the scene looking good. And he and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon make Five look really good.

Is there any depth to that appearance? Not much, but it’s smooth and keeps the film moving at a good pace between action sequences. And there are lots of action sequences. Whether it’s car chases or fight scenes or gun fights, Lin puts together some amazing stuff. There’s no depth to it, but who cares… there’s pretend depth.

Chris Morgan’s script goes overboard acknowledging all the Fast and the Furious movies and their characters. Only there’s no depth to any of the characters. Gal Gadot and Sung Kang flirt. Is it cute? Sure, she’s an affable supermodel and he’s likable without much acting talent. Is it good? Not really. But it passes the time.

Until an action sequence. Or the promise of one (both Lin and Morgan very carefully build expectation for a fight between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson).

Speaking of Dwayne Johnson. He’s terrible. Laughable. But it’s actually immaterial to the film.

There’s some male bonding between Diesel and Paul Walker, but not much.

And Lin again gets a decent Walker performance.

In between amazing action scenes.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Justin Lin; screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Peter Denham; produced by Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel and Michael Fottrell; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner), Jordana Brewster (Mia), Tyrese Gibson (Roman), Ludacris (Tej), Matt Schulze (Vince), Sung Kang (Han), Gal Gadot (Gisele), Tego Calderon (Leo), Don Omar (Santos), Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Elsa Pataky (Elena), Michael Irby (Zizi) and Joaquim de Almeida (Reyes).


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