Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8: JJ Abrams’ Salute to Spielberg

Super 8 wants to create the experience of a high-school nerd growing up in Ohio in the summer of 1978. As a former Ohioan who was in high school that summer, I know exactly what Abrams is going for. It was an exquisite summer of sci-fi: Star Wars and Jaws, the mystery of friendship and hormones and the wonders of outer space. The movie opens with an industrial accident at a small town near Dayton. Then a diminutive high-school boy sits on a lonely snow-covered porch of his ranch-style house as neighbors and his father hold a memorial lunch. It’s a town of small, close-cropped houses that every kid wants to escape from. Neighbors wonder about how the boy will get along without his mother. A long-haired, long-sideburn dude drives up in a beat-up, yellow Mustang – the car’s engine rumbling over and over after the ignition shuts down – and goes inside. An argument ensues. The boys’ father, a cop, cuffs the dude, brings him back outside, and puts him in his police car. A title card says “Four Months Later.” Then the action starts.

What Abrams has here is essentially a salute to Spielberg. What follows is the perfect amalgam of every Spielberg movie ever made: a distilled blend of Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Saving Private Ryan, and ET, with a good deal of Stephen King's Stand by Me for good measure. Only Abrams adds his own metafictional gloss: the five young high school friends are filming a movie. What they capture on camera however is more otherworldly than anything they bargained for.

The hero of the film, Joe – the sad boy on that porch – is clearly a stand-in for the young filmmaker, and this is also clearly a very personal story. Abrams gets every detail of small-town ’78 Ohio just right – from the men’s greasy hairstyles to the sad, brick-and-stone ‘50’s ranch houses stuffed full of model trains, sci-fi-posters, film equipment and obscure magazines. The “production values” here are clearly borne from intimate experience. Joe is a bit of a blank slate: his mother just dead, all he has to cling to his an old locket she gave him, which has her picture holding him as a baby. What keeps him going is his friendship with a bigger, fatter kid named Charles, who is making a zombie movie, and has that talkative, obsessive energy of preteens discovering their first passion. There are other recognizable Jr. High characters too: the always slightly dazed cameraman, the shy actor who only comes out of his shell around Charles’ schemes, and the buck-tooth kid who carries his M-80’s everywhere and only wants to blow things up. Meanwhile, Joe’s father, a high-ranking cop, has his own problems: equally shut down as Joe, he won’t let his son see him crying in the bathroom, and his anger at the Mustang-driving dude (Louis Dainard…inevitably, Joe gets involved with Alice, Dainard’s daughter) is clearly a bomb waiting at the heart of the movie.

Then a train derails in front of the kids as they are filming their zombie movie (the scene of the kids doing their movie – and the lead up to the train derailment – is one of the film’s most hilarious – and maybe an instant cinematic classic). Something…well, alien…escapes from the train. And then everything goes to hell.

Like any good monster flick, what’s loose in the town is highly metaphoric. One could say it stands for the bad blood between Joe’s father and Dainard. One could say it’s the grief over the death of Joe’s mother. Maybe it’s physical manifestation of the Spielbergian imagination influencing the young filmmaker’s mind. Whatever it is, it’s got eight legs, moves likes a JJAbrams “Fringe” cross between a spider and a tiger, and is out for blood. Like Jaws, we only slowly get the monster revealed from the shadows. Members of the community start disappearing one by one.

This is classic sci-fi film making. Only a few big special effects scenes happen in the movie and they’re used with style. Almost a rebuke to a summer of X-Men and Transformers stuffed full of CGI effects, Abrams takes his time – almost the entire film – setting up the story, and lets the story, rather than the effects, drive the emotion in the film. The characters even comment about it as we go, explaining that setting up a good story is what makes us care about the characters (it’s why they are out there filming on that train station, and why they draft the young ingĂ©nue Alice as a love interest for the boys, and subject of peril for the plot).

The story is formulaic, but for a summer sci-fi, Abrams handles it with aplomb. Joe learns to be more of a hero – like his father – while his father learns to appreciate his kid. Meanwhile, Joe gets to look the monster in the eye, and everything is resolved when Joe decides to let go of his mother’s locket. The locket sails up to the town water tower, which then implodes with a shower of water, like a baptism, over the war-torn town.

If anything, Abrams goes too far in setting up the story of the characters. By the time we come to care about the reality of the inhabitants of this town, the introduction of the zombie-movie-style monster feels tonally wrong – too comic book-y. This could have easily been fixed by holding the monster to a higher standard. No one needs to die, except perhaps the bad-guy Sergeant, and even he could have been more than a one-dimensional foil. But I think Abrams is on too much of a Jurrasic park style role and felt more blood needed to be shed to get proper monster movie chills. I just felt that was the wrong metaphor for this story, which had started out to be so much more. If Joe is really the empathic one in the town – the misunderstood dreamer who only wants to get away and live his life – then the monster is his doppelganger, and it should have a conscience too.

It’s a great film. But by missing this crucial insight about the monster, it misses out on being a sci-fi classic. I wish it could have gotten there. It’s a bit like ET without getting that final music score. A great tribute to Spielberg, and a wonderful bit of nostalgia for all us nerds who group up loving those films. In the end almost, but not quite, Spielbergian.

X-Men First Class: Mutants Come of Age

With over forty years of X-Men stories to draw from, there is an endless repository of mutants and their history for Marvel to create sequels and spin-offs of this successful movie franchise. They chose wisely. With Bryan Singer back at the keyboards and the choice to feature the founding of the X-Men clan, the series regains the emotional resonance of the first two X-Men movies and delivers the kind of thrilling, coded political action-packed potboiler we’ve come to expect.

This film flashes us back to 1962 (and even farther, to fill in the origin story for Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Dr. X (James McAvoy)), before the X-Men existed but mutants roams wild causing trouble. One particular mutant – Sebastian Shaw – has the power to absorb and deploy energy at his will, and is bent on starting World War Three (in a comic book, alternate reality version of the Cuban Missile Crisis). As it happens, Eric Lehnsherr (yet to become Magneto) has a blood feud with Shaw, and is hunting him down to kill him. An intrepid female FBI agent is also on the case (MacTagertt), and when she teams up with the young Dr. Xavier and a CIA agent who happens to have a prototype of the device called Cerebro, all the ingredients are in place to start drafting the first X-Men class.

What is fabulous about all this is that this film gets just the right cultural ingredients into its pop-corn-flick cocktail: a clearly gay-coded discourse on mutant pride, a splash of retro Sixties brat-pack chic, and a twist of Men in Black, all over a bit of rocks in the personage of Emma Frost (January Jones of “Mad Men” fame), a steely dame who can read minds and turn herself to diamonds. While many summer movies seem like an unimaginative rip-off of the last few stories of recent years, with X-Men First Class, one gets more of an entertaining gloss of the moment, combining style elements from "Mad Men" and Tarantino with "True Blood," "Glee," and Bond, but in the service of its own original X-i-fied story. Sets like the “war room” and the Sixth Fleet are inspired by our cultural memory more than the real thing – looking more like Dr. Strangelove and Das Boot than anything from reality. This is why the insertion of real-life clips of Kennedy feel so false, in one of the film’s few wrong moves.

At the heart of this story is the emotional growth of the character of Magneto. Rumor has it that the originally planned release for this year – a full Magneto movie – was superseded by this flick, which combines Magneto’s back story with Dr. X and gives us a full class of original, teenage X-Men just learning about their powers, including Mystique, Havoc, Banshee, and Beast. But it’s still Erik Lehnsherr’s story that drives the arch of the film. Lehnsherr’s mother was killed in the Nazi camps by a younger Shaw (or older, since he gets younger as he gets more powerful). The murder of his mother unleashes Lehnsherr’s powers by tapping into two powerful emotions: anger and pain. The subsequent effect of Lehnsherr manipulating all the metal in the room gets to the core of what makes these movies work so well: the external representation of an internal emotion. When those filing cabinets get crushed and the metal knives and tables go flying we see exactly what Lehnsherr feels in that moment, and it’s powerful and brutal.

And as any good cultural studies student would discern, the external superpowers of the characters in this series are also a manifestation of their subconscious egos. When Lehnsherr raises the submarine from the depths of the ocean only through the force of his will, we know it symbolizes his raising of his subconscious, integrated self. The audience may not read this in so Freudian a way but the symbolism is powerful, and everyone feels it, nonetheless. Dr. X, then, is kind of the group’s psychotherapist, coaching each of the members to their full selves. Havoc’s inability to control his cosmic ray blasts is the perfect metaphor for the sloppy havoc of teenagerdome, and Dr. X is here to teach these kids the control necessary to become functioning adults.

More than the ego-driven Wolverine movie, First Class focuses on the team again, and especially on the developing friendship between Magneto and Dr. X. Singer has always been more at home telling ensemble-driven stories. Even if it doesn’t have the ‘cool mutant’ effect of Wolverine, such dramatic interplay between the main characters gives this film more resonance. Xavier brings the necessary rationality and focus to train his charges, including the anger-filled Magneto. The scene in which he captures a memory of Lehnsherr’s mother and teaches him to use that sense of “serenity” to improve his skill and range is not only well done; it’s the movie’s emotional core. The application of rationality to raw pain isn’t a bad lesson and the movie delivers it with both grace (Fassbender and McAvoy shine most in this moment) and the necessary visual flare.

After this high point, however, the movie races into its third act with little time for subtlety. My one irritation with the film is how tightly it’s been edited – there’s no time to breathe between scenes, and the rushing adrenaline of the music never lets up. As we rewrite the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and race into the final battle between mutants, too little time is left to fully develop the climax. Shaw is dispatched in a thematically resonant – but most unsatisfying – way (he isn’t able to put up any fight, which is disappointing given all the potential energy he just absorbed, literally). Meanwhile, characters choose up sides and obvious dialogue opportunities are missed as the movie races to complete itself in the audience-tested time limit. And while Magneto’s arch is well completed and bits of familiar trappings are filled in, we never really get to see how Xavier became the man he is on the inside. Adding five minutes of scenic transitions to the last half hour of this film would have served it well.

However, enough is packed into this confection of angst and superpowers that it’s worth seeing twice – as any good summer blockbuster should be. In a 2011 summer season filed with tent pole series blockbusters, it may not be the most original, and certainly not an out-of-the-park masterpiece. But it’s a solid hit to second, which is a great way to kick off the season.

Kung Fu Panda Two: Suffering From Sequelitis

As someone said to me before I saw this movie – once Po becomes supreme Kung Fu master and conquers the world, where could the story possibly go from there?

The first Kung Fu Panda surprised and delighted with the concept of a fat boy (Po, voiced by Jack Black) who envies kung fu heroes, and who really learns to master the art of athleticism and power. The sequel struggles mightily with the problem of what dramatic conflict to challenge the master with from here. In fact, it needs to spend the first two thirds laboriously undercutting everything that the first movie built up, by introducing a second major character flaw (the first, obviously, is that pandas would rather eat than fight). But now that this panda is the kung fu hero of the town, we find out that he has another problem he is struggling with – he doesn’t know who he is. That is, he’s been adopted, and there is a terrible repressed memory about his early childhood that is blocking him from his full powers at the time of most need. In order to overcome that repressed memory, he needs to master “inner peace.”

This puts the sequel now squarely in the realm of pop psychology, and it loses much because of it. Not only is the psycho-pop struggle of Po’s childhood signaled about fifteen moves back from when it’s necessary, it’s endlessly repeated just in case it hadn’t sunk in the first fourteen times.

Meanwhile we need a new super villain to fight. This one is a Peacock, and he’s invented gun powder. This gives him a technological advantage (or so it would seem) over the older technology of kung fu. One could go in so many directions with this parable of an arms race, but in the end, the movie chooses just one: how will Po overcome his childhood angst to use Kung Fu to defeat the Peacock’s weapons? Boring, I know, and a disappointment for a film series whose first episode surprised us with the humor in the dumpling-loving panda’s unlikely situation. For this reason, this film lacks the first’s wit and for long stretches is even a bit of a slog.

However, taking its inspiration from other fabulously inked children’s series – one thinks of the title sequences of Lemmony Snicket or Wall-E – the animation and art direction here rises above the story, and keeps this uninspired sequel afloat. To illustrate flashbacks, the art takes on a flat, two-dimensional black and white, stop-time quality that is really quite fascinating. Combined with the score, this is once again a case of talented below-the-line staff keeping a studio-forumula production from sinking into irrelevance. Even if adult attentions may flag, there’s enough visual popcorn flashing by on screen to keep the kids fascinated for two hours.

Once the third-act turn comes – and the panda realizes the source of his angst and decides to take action – the story is able to get past the laborious set-up and finally kick into gear. Once that happens, the old magic of the first film finally returns: the characters are moving forward with purpose again. This is where this movie should have started (and just dispensed with the crippling mystery). Po still has to figure out how to overcome the technological advantage of his adversary, but this is the essence of this series charm: we like to see this plush-size panda on purposeful action to overcome stunningly overwhelming odds.

We get 1/3rd a film here then for the price of a whole one. It feels a bit of a rip off. If the trend continues with the next film, it won’t even be worth the price of the rental.