Thursday, June 16, 2011

"SUPER 8" dir. J.J. ABRAMS

At a breakfast gathering awhile ago, some friends and I were discussing the fact that there are certain types of films that aren't made anymore. They're difficult to define and not genre specific, but when you see one of them your heart kind of fills up and you gasp a little inside at the blush of sweet nostalgia that overtakes you. The film we were talking about was the John Candy/Dan Ackroyd vehicle "The Great Outdoors"; other prime examples would be "Uncle Buck," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," and, most definitively, "The Goonies." These are films that were so closely intertwined with their time they couldn't really be made today, and their narratives spoke to an idea of patience amongst audiences who were willing to entertain something slightly more thoughtful, exuberant, and wide-eyed. J.J. Abrams' wonderfully entertaining "Super 8" looks to tap into that hazy innocence and for the most part succeeds, resulting in a breakneck film that subtly references much of the above while still throwing in enough thrills and destruction to appeal to a modern aesthetic. Abrams trades on his audience's knowledge of these films; while you don't have to be a late-twenties/early-thirties geek to enjoy "Super 8" it sure as hell makes the ride more fun and allows the emotional aspects of the film to resonate a tiny bit more.
Set in small town Ohio circa 1979, "Super 8" follows a tight-knit band of horror film obsessed middle schoolers through the making of their latest celluloid opus, a no-budget zombie film that director Charles (Riley Griffiths) hopes to enter in competition. While obviously an amateur effort, it boasts impressive effects and makeup work courtesy Cary (Ryan Lee) and narrative focus Joe (Joel Courtney.) Joe's make-up and model building are especially advanced, showcasing a sensitivity born from his mother's death months before. The production hits a snag when Charles realizes he needs to introduce a female lead; after roping in the dreamy, bleary-eyed Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the role the kids sneak out to film a crucial scene at the train yard. From here the film absolutely takes off, beginning with a train derailing that screams with wanton, joyous destruction and an adrenalized approach to the idea of "thrilling." The kids manage to catch it all on tape, including one of their teachers driving his truck straight into the train, causing all the damage. One of the train cars spills out a mountain of weird cosmic white cubes; Joe pockets one and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of how the cube and the crash fit together. To say too much more is to spoil the fun; best to just let the film grab you by the hand and lead speeding down its dark, freaky hyperfun tunnels.
Fitting that Steven Spielberg had his hand in three of the films i mentioned earlier. He's executive producer here and its from his pool of influence that Abrams draws most liberally (and reverentially.) Abrams' intent is to recreate the sort of "kids against the world" movie so intrinsic to the early 80's; everything in "Super 8" can be traced back to the magic of "The Goonies," whether it's the effortless interaction of all the kids and their broadly drawn personalities (scaredy-cat, pyromaniac big-mouth, egomaniacal fat-kid, sensitive and wounded everykid, doe-eyed love interest) or the relative inefficacy of adults' ability to believe, Abrams paints a world in which children hold the power to unlock the mysteries lurking just beneath the surface. "Super 8"'s mysteries are a little more brutal and frightening than those found in "The Goonies" but even that film held the threat of death over its protagonists; Abrams merely swaps one set of oppression and obfuscation (the Fratellis) for another (the U.S. Army), giving his kids ample enemies and situations to circumnavigate. The Spielberg connection has another key role to play in "Super 8" as well defining the sort of film Abrams is emulating; Spielberg has never shied away from his interest in extraterrestrial life, nor has he ever seemed to tire of the mystery and contemplation associated with the more paranormal aspects of its suggested existence. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." both dealt with misinterpretation and the necessity of a childlike wonder to appreciate the events that unfolded; so too does "Super 8" rely on an appreciation of the vast weirdness of the universe and an adult world's tendency to punish rather than try and understand. This narrow adult view results in "Super 8" being a much darker film than you'd expect. There's a lot of menace, terror and death hidden in the Ohio shadows.
Adults prove completely unreliable in the film, some well-intentioned (Charles' parents) and some totally lost (Joe's father) but all somehow distant and unable to peacefully traverse their kids' world. Abrams captures this gap masterfully, illustrating the pains and frustrations of trying to communicate with people who are supposed to be able to help us and guide us but end up caught in their own petty squabbles and notions of what's important, ultimately failing those they're meant to protect. Alice's father attempts to prevent her from seeing Joe because of the guilt he feels over his role in Joe's mother's death (which was virtually nil); his feeling of complacency in what was essentially an act of universal indifference creates a despondency that only alienates his daughter and poisons his own life. Joe's father feels similarly towards Alice, unable to let the pain of loss go and be a father to a son who desperately needs him to be one. He channels all of his grief into his police work, attempting to be a guardian to the entire town rather than the one person who most needs him. These intergenerational rifts necessitate the strong relationships between the kids, forcing them to create their own webs of support and essentially their own contained world. Abrams establishes and maintains this sense of removal better than most any film in recent memory, tempering nostalgia with pain and a bittersweet sense of loss not felt since "Stand By Me" (another film "Super 8" owes a strong thematic debt to.)
As the various kids the cast is uniformly excellent. Some characters are more detailed than others but virtually every actor inhabits their role with fervency and determination, speaking to how fun this film must have been to be in. Riley Griffith is particularly outstanding as Charles, lording over the group like a mini Orson Welles infatuated with his own vision and imagined magnetism. Joel Courtney plays Joe well, illuminating his artistic sensitivity and empathy. Ryan Lee infuses Cary with an impish sense of cataclysm, delighting in all things pyrotechnic, while Gabriel Basso makes Martin's fearfulness into an endearing trait rather than the stumbling plot block it could have become. Elle Fanning is also excellent as Alice, bringing the washed-out playful narcolepsy she displayed in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" to a new level, creating a teenage dream girl whose neither "manic" or "pixie" but mysteriously alluring, leaving little wonder that she creates some discord within the group. It no doubt helped that Abrams allowed the cast to actually make the zombie film the kids are working on (it screens during the credits and is very fun) and learn about each other through creative interaction; their comfort and closeness with one another shines through and gives "Super 8" an authenticity that most films struggle to create.
Everything here works. Abrams has fashioned a marvelous tribute to the sorts of films he (and by extension, a lot of us) loved as a kid. The creation of a world populated with wonder and mystery is difficult to resist, whether you're twelve or, like me, thirty-two. Quality storytelling never gets old, and films like "The Goonies" never really feel dated. J.J. Abrams has taken the best of Spielberg's cosmic interests and fused them to a coming-of-age story that's both affecting and exciting. This is blockbuster filmmaking of an entirely different sort, one that doesn't dismiss its audience as explosion-hungry idiots or pander to base emotional response. "Super 8" is an absolute blast-the first 20 minutes are totally edge of your seat rollercoaster style fun-and it gives new hope to the idea that summer films are brainless garbage only looking to make back their investment. By embracing his own geekery again, Abrams has given us another intelligent film that still manages to be character driven and fun as hell.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


As inscrutable as it is beautiful, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" sets a new standard for film as poetry. Beyond dense and layered to a point of near total obfuscation, the film unfolds with a languid, riverlike pace, floating along as a dream and surrounding you like a universal meditation. There are big, huge ideas here, rolling across the sky as clouds, daring you to try to reach out and touch them. This is a film about everything Malick has ever considered, and by turn everything we too have ever considered; attempting to wrestle down nothing less than the meanings behind the meanings and the point at which any of our existence began to be significant, Malick creates an homage to the awesome spectacle of being in a way that almost no other filmmaker has been able to do.
This is a piece of art that is really beyond any sort of criticism because the vagueness of the narrative and the overwhelming feel of the universal aspects leave room for little other than subjective interpretations; you may come away from this film feeling a renewed sense of spiritual awareness, you may come away from this feeling a deep-rooted anger towards the way your life has panned out, you may come away from this feeling beyond confused and wondering what, exactly, you're supposed to do next to try and make sense of any of what you've witnessed. The raw material is there for you to work with, and I think part of what Malick has put into this picture is a freedom to look at the themes and ideas and mould them into whatever you need them to be. There is obviously a great deal of Malick himself in this picture, at least as much as we're likely to ever get, and it becomes very easy to think of "The Tree of Life" as the film he's been steering his career towards for the last forty years. It's that epic, that expansive, that immersive...but there's an intimacy at the heart of it that pulls against the universality that dominates the film's framework.
Visually the film is stunning; Malick's images are pure majesty, photographed instances of literature in motion, the weeping sorts of compositions that line the sleeping hearts of time's greatest artists. Red blood cells coalesce into nebulas, white blood cells morph into the stars themselves, dinosaurs engage in strange acts of what might be mercy, trees sway and dance, and planets rise across the horizon and assert themselves as the universe's great obstinancies. It all seems larger than it could ever possibly be, like Malick is trying to get at something that even he isn't able to entirely grasp. That sense of mystery haunts every frame of "The Tree of Life"; i think it's the film's greatest strength, but that level of open-endedness could very well be off-putting to less philosophically minded viewers. This is most definitely a think piece, and if you don't come away from the film with about a million different questions about what the fuck is going on all around you all the time, then "The Tree of Life" has failed in its only real identifiable theme. Malick wants us to be in awe of everything around us; all of nature has value, all of life is inscrutable, and trying to understand something so beautiful and vast and magnificent is beyond mere mortal applications of thought. As it ventures further into theoreticals, philosophy ultimately begins to fail as it dissolves into math and logic; Malick's film is able to expound on these sorts of questions in a more poetic and visionary way, and in this manner his philosophical engagement with questions of being becomes slightly easier to comprehend. Not that there are any answers here-there aren't-but there's an attempt to illustrate what's inside.
Like "The Thin Red Line," much of the film's narrative is advanced via an interior dialogue; questions of upbringing and personality and how much we get from whom and what is actually us in the raw dominate the proceedings. The actions that these dialogues give way to don't seem near as important or epochal as the questions that led to them; much of the film has a hushed and quiet pace befitting intense contemplation. For me, a lot of the film was spent simply trying to listen as i was bowled over by image after breathtaking image, idea after confusing idea. The story exists to give the film some sort of grounding; how it ties into the concept of being in the universe, how we're supposed to fit Malick's simple earthborn sliver of time into EVERYTHING, is a slightly more difficult puzzle to put together, one that i'm not really sure i can do.
This willful obscurity helps make the film much more alluring; the jumbled cohesiveness and tendril-like extensions of implied meanings create a resonance that maintains hold long after the credits have rolled. Watching "The Tree of Life" feels a bit like walking through impossible halls of architecture is some removed astral plane, forever staring up at beauty and vision that you don't really get. It seems lifted from another realm, plucked out of a churning magic and let loose on the reality we've come to know. It's a little discomfiting but in the best possible way; Malick's demand that you think about what you're seeing becomes intuitive as the puzzles stack on top of each other.
There's little else i can communicate about "The Tree of Life" other than it is an absolute must see for anyone remotely interested in film as art. Malick has attained a status similar to that of Kubrick, and rightly so; the ambition seen here is so far-reaching it becomes reckless, more fearless and challenging than any other film you're likely to see in the next several years. Questions, at their best, give way to more questions, an infinite dialogue with possibility and perception. "The Tree of Life" wants that dialogue with you, and it wants to open you up to the insane, explosive beauty and wonder that exists all around you. Every action, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, has a mirror in gargantua near infathomable. We don't think about these things enough, but Terrence Malick does-his wish to convey that sense of awe and grace is a gift to the world of film. This is a major work, and i cannot recommend it more highly.