Tag Archive for coming of age

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (11/17/12)

Movie Poster: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2

Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg

Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner

How long is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2? 115 minutes.
What is The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 rated? PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity.

CLR Rating: 2/5 stars

Photo by Andrew Cooper – © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

Final sparklevamp flick packs a surprise end, deserves a salute.

I have to start a slow clap for the new (and final, commence exhausted brow-wiping) Twilight movie. It surprised me, partly by not being the worst thing to happen to cinema in ages, but also by completely tearing the book apart. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t a masterpiece. Meyer’s saga is problematic, poorly written (and addictive, damn her) drivel, and the movies have, on the whole, been really awful. In the interim between Breaking Dawn Part 1 and this new film, I managed to forget Bill Condon was directing. The veteran director, who confused film critics everywhere by taking the helm, infused a dying series with dignity by upending the book’s completely anticlimactic final “battle.”

In the final scene of Breaking Dawn Part 1, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) opens her newly crimson eyes to a future as a vampire. The new movie picks up exactly at that scene, and apparently being a vampire is a little like taking ecstasy. This transformation process, so grueling for most new vampires, is remarkably simple for Bella, and hey, she never even has to kill a human! Because her given superpower (in this series, most vampires have them) is super self-control. Oh right, and she has a baby. A baby named Renesmee (hurk), who is supposed to be the most gorgeous infant ever to grace the earth, but whose CGI features make her terribly creepy to behold (IMDb reveals there were no less than ten girls employed to play Renesmee). To further complicate the instinctive repulsion we feel toward a baby rendered entirely by computers (it’s notable that none of the teenage girls in the theater made a peep when the baby was revealed), teenage shapeshifter Jacob (Taylor Lautner) has imprinted on the kid. In a surprisingly entertaining scene, Bella, always a weakling, tosses super-strong Jacob around like a teddy bear, screaming about how he nicknamed her daughter after the Loch Ness Monster.

Renesmee’s “growth rate is unprecedented,” says Carlisle Cullen, who puzzles over notebooks and furrows his brow in true “perplexed doctor” fashion. Upon hearing the Cullens plan to leave Forks to protect Bella and “Nessie,” Jacob goes to see Bella’s dad Charlie, strips down in front of him (to the delight of every Twihard and Twimom in the theater), and turns into a wolf. Hey Charlie, the world isn’t quite what you thought it was. Also Bella’s a vampire. (I exaggerate.) Then all is suddenly well again (seriously?) until Irina, one of the Cullens’ enemies from Alaska, sees Renesmee catching snowflakes in a meadow. She’s no normal child, of course.

In the past, vampires created vampire children, who were uncontrollable and destroyed vast numbers of humans, villages, and cultures in the midst of terrible-twos tantrums. The Volturi, the vampire governing committee, were forced to intervene. When Irina sets eyes on Renesmee, she sees an Immortal Child. Rather than, you know, asking her friends what they’re doing, she goes straight to Italy to fetch the evilest evil vampires there are. Alice (Ashley Greene), the one who sees the future, discovers that the Volturi are coming…and everyone panics.

The Cullens gather as many “witnesses” as they can. There will be no battle here, the Cullens, the ultimate “vegetarian” vampires, insist. The new additions include Lee Pace, Joe Anderson, and Mia Maestro, and come from the Amazon, Ireland, Egypt, and Transylvania. Unfortunately the Volturi want Alice for themselves (everybody wants to see the future!), so they’ll use anything to get to her. Alice and mate Jasper head for the hills, but not before giving Bella a clue that leads her straight to Wendell Pierce, a.k.a. The Wire’s Bunk Moreland. The plot thickens, and then thickens some more. Montages happen. Bella learns that on top of her super self-control, she can project a shield to those around her, protecting them from ill. Joe Anderson, an American adopting a horrid British accent, doesn’t believe it and generally creeps around the edges, making everyone nervous. Lee Pace is charming and witty, relating war stories from most of the American battles of the last 200 years (oh you vampires). Taylor Lautner is cute and amiable. New vamps arrive with new powers to play with.

Here’s where the movie diverges from the book. In Meyer’s version, there is no battle. There are “warring” factions of vampires standing in a snowy field giving each other the side-eye, and then it’s over. What kind of end to your “saga” is that? Condon and writer Melissa Rosenberg devised a brilliant scheme; a gruesome vampire/wolf melee has most of the series’ important characters dying horrible deaths. Without truly spoiling anything, it really does deserve that slow clap.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock probably caught that Stewart and Robert Pattinson, our very own Bella and Edward, started dating during the filming of the first movie. It was your typical Hollywood love story, first thinly veiled in a publicity ploy, then reveled in by Summit. It seems that when Stewart saw the end of the films in sight, she jumped into (non-penetrative?) bed with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. She then issued an embarrassing plea begging Pattinson to forgive her (but not, it’s notable, mentioning Sanders’s wife and child). Pattinson, who was busy making Cosmopolis with David Cronenberg, has recently started appearing with her again. Woe is me, young love, etcetera, etcetera. I was curious how the media, who immediately dubbed Stewart a “trampire,” and the Team Edward Twihards, who cruelly took her to task on Twitter, would affect the reception of the final film. Well, on Friday evening, the theater wasn’t full of screaming girls or Team Jacob t-shirts. Aside from a little extra security, a few mild squeals at Lautner’s washboard abs, and a packed parking lot, it was a relatively staid affair. The crowd at Pitch Perfect was rowdier.

The Harry Potter kids, brought up in the relative calm of the British acting world by Dame Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, and Michael Gambon, exited the series gracefully and continued their careers graciously. Not so for Twilight’s leading lady. Stewart has appeared at two of the film’s premieres in transparent lace getups and heels. “Here I am, this is it, and you can damn well deal with it,” she seems to be telling us. “Also, thank God this thing is over with.” For someone who obviously wants to seem like she couldn’t care less, Stewart certainly gives off a “look at me” vibe these days. And to be fair, I wish her the best. She was brilliant as Joan Jett in The Runaways, and passable opposite Melissa Leo in Welcome to the Rileys. The girl has talent, and it’s been sorely underused. (Pattinson and Lautner, I’m not so sure about.)

The series is over now. For now, we are done with sparkly vampires and weak, whining leading ladies. The trailers that played before the movie betray its audience: World War Z, Carrie, Beautiful Creatures, and Stephenie Meyer’s next project The Host (starring Saoirse Ronan, who is fantastic). The Twilight series filled the void left behind by Harry Potter. One has to wonder, once The Hunger Games is over, whatever will we do with ourselves?

This is Julia Rhodes, your official California Literary Review Twilight critic, signing off. I bid thee adieu. Fare thee well, Twilight stars. Best of luck. I’m with Stewart: Hallelujah! Let’s go get a beer and celebrate.

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (10/6/12)

Ed. Note (3/20/14): I was in a bad mood. I actually rather like Pitch Perfect these days, and I still love Rebel Wilson. Damn that “Cups” song, though.

Movie Poster: Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect

Directed by Jason Moore
Screenplay by Kay Cannon

Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Skylar Astin, Freddie Stroma, Alexis Knapp, Adam DeVine, Ester Dean, Brock Kelly

How long is Pitch Perfect? 112 minutes.
What is Pitch Perfect rated? PG-13 for sexual material, language and drug references.

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie still: Pitch Perfect

Anna Kendrick stars in Pitch Perfect.
Photo: Peter Iovino/©Universal Pictures

A cappella flick fails to hit the right notes.

 film Nerve online

A cappella is serious business, according to this weekend’s PG-13, teen-centric opener. Unfortunately, Pitch Perfect can’t expect to be taken seriously. With stars like Anna Kendrick (Oscar-nominated for Up in the Air, the best part of the Twilight movies) and Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids), it was a good prospect – a movie featuring funny women being funny, with singing and dancing! What’s not to like? But thanks to bad writing, shallowly drawn characters, and misuse of comediennes, it just can’t hit the high notes.

Beca (Kendrick) starts college at Barden, the same school where her divorced father teaches. In order to avoid his well-intentioned meddling, she follows her sullen roommate Kimmy Jin to the activities fair, the place where collegiate dreams go to be corralled. In this land of school-sponsored camaraderie and ego, she encounters Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (True Blood’s Anna Camp), the remaining members of Barden’s all-girls a cappella group, The Bellas. In a tragic incident last spring, Aubrey projectile-vomited orange goop all over the stage at last year’s International Championships of A Cappella, and they are doubly determined to regain their dignity.

Dignity, however, seems at a premium when the two women are forced to scrape from the “bottom of the barrel” at Barden to achieve their eight-person quota. Fat Amy (Wilson) is, well, The Fat One. Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) is The Weird One. Cynthia Rose (Esther Dean) is the Token Lesbian. Stacie (Alexis Knapp) is the Oversexed One. Beca, The Sullen but Actually Invested One, rounds out the group. This is how any sports comedy goes: star athlete leads team to the finals, lets team down horribly, is forced to redeem himself by taking on new, “alternative” teammates and changing his whole mindset.

As the fall semester ramps up (not that you’d know it, as no one ever goes to a class in the movie), the rival a cappella group on campus, The Troublemakers, recruits Beca’s fellow radio station intern Jesse (Skylar Astin), an adorable, geeky movie buff. (It may be that I’m a bit of a sucker for movie geeks in film, but that’s for another day.) Since part of The Bellas’ oath is “I will never engage in sexual activity with a Troublemaker, or my vocal cords will be ripped out and eaten by wolves,” Jesse’s status as rival is supposed to be an obstacle. Actually, the obstacle is Beca’s standoffishness, her determination to reach her goal. College is for suckers! She wants to be a DJ, man. After she explains she can never make it to the end of a movie because she gets bored, Jesse shows her The Breakfast Club.

By using the last scene of the movie, Pitch Perfect throws a nod to the preceding teen movies it strives to emulate – but it completely misses the point. Just before Judd Nelson does the world’s most famous fist pump, Anthony Michael Hall narrates, “You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms; in the most convenient definitions. What we found out is that each one of us is a Brain, and an Athlete, and a Basketcase, a Princess, and a Criminal.” Hughes’s message was that there’s more to your average kid than meets the eye; that even kids from opposite social strata struggle with the same problems, heartbreaks, and pressures. In Pitch Perfect, nobody’s more than The Fat One, The Sexy One, The Dumb One, The Alternative One, and The Gay One.

Basically, Pitch Perfect took The Breakfast Club, Bridesmaids, Glee, and Bring It On and squashed them into a messy blob that leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Characters, particularly Camp’s Aubrey, add an “aca” prefix to words, much as Bring It On’s cheerleaders said “cheerocracy” and “cheertastic.” Fortunately, the intended audience probably hasn’t seen that one. The lesbian character, sporting Fantasia Barrino hair, is also thrust to the forefront for the occasional laugh – because lesbians always take every opportunity to grope someone’s boob in a rehearsal, right? Sure, it’s great that, since Judd Apatow insisted the food poisoning scene stay in Bridesmaids after Wiig and Mumolo’s initial protests, women can now be gross in comedy. It’s a good thing. But having a character spew a CGI stream of orange liquid, then having the women roll around in it, is not only deliberately derivative, but pointlessly classless.

Rebel Wilson’s character is likewise imitative of Melissa McCarthy’s in Wiig’s 2011 film. Fat Amy, self-appointed such so “twink bitches like you don’t call me it behind my back,” is the butt of every joke, and the audience loves it. The only redeeming factor is that Fat Amy is the butt of her own joke; her confidence and random, hilarious interjections (“I once fought a crocodile and some dingoes simultaneously”) nearly save the character. Wilson’s comedic timing and enthusiasm almost make you feel comfortable laughing at Fat Amy – because you’re sort of laughing with her. Unfortunately, the character still stumbles into the “laugh at the fat chick” jokes a few too many times. Isn’t it funny that her skirt doesn’t fit her the same way as it does the other girls? Isn’t it funny that somebody throws a burrito at her from a moving vehicle? Get it, a burrito for the fat chick? Isn’t it funny she’s surrounded by hot guys? Fat girls don’t have boyfriends! Ha-ha. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least – but the audience in my theater ate it up.

Finally, let’s get to the reason we all went to see it: the singing and dancing. Well, what you need to know about that is that Glee does it better. The choreography, cinematography, and arrangements are fine, but Ryan Murphy’s popular show, though it occasionally traipses into movie-of-the-week territory, sports some truly brilliant stage performances. A few of the scenes in Pitch Perfect invigorate and enervate the plot, but it also falls into one of Glee’s frustrating traps: no a cappella group is going to be, ahem, “pitch perfect” and choreographed masterfully without practicing. Where are the practice montages? They would’ve been a perfect way to get to know our characters better, and for our characters to get to know one another. Missed opportunities abound.

Kendrick, who was wonderful in Up in the Air and has spot-on comedic timing, is underused; a shallow, sullen character isn’t the right role for her. Wilson, whose tiny role in Bridesmaids probably got her here, is a comedic genius, and easily the funniest part of the film – the directors did the right thing by allowing her to improvise throughout, but I wish fewer of the jokes had been about how funny fatness is. Color commentators Elizabeth Banks and Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins have a number of funny scenes – but the intended audience probably doesn’t actually know who they are – though when Superbad‘s Christopher Mintz Plasse appears onscreen in a cameo, the whole theater gasped. The movie gets half a star for Wilson, half a star for Banks and Higgins, and half a star for its male lead, Skylar Astin, a cute goofball who has great chemistry with Kendrick (at least until the awkward kiss). Now I’m going to watch Stick It and The Breakfast Club and wash the taste of this drivel out of my mouth.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (3/24/12)

Movie Poster: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Directed by Gary Ross
Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

How long is The Hunger Games? 142 minutes.
What is The Hunger Games rated? PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.

CLR Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Movie Still: The Hunger Games

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
Photo: Murray Close/©Lionsgate

It’s everything you’ve been waiting for.

One thing’s for certain: you don’t want to live in the world of The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s trilogy presents a future America that’s as bleak as it is plausible. A world in which the government’s efforts to contain an unruly populace include sacrificing 23 children a year. A place where those who dare to speak their minds have their treasonous tongues cut out of their heads. This is an America in which the very rich and extremely powerful enjoy an unsteady reign over a poverty-stricken population that struggles to stay alive. This is the world of The Hunger Games, and like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or Brave New World, it is absolutely terrifying in its familiarity.

Gary Ross’s film is based on the first of three young adult novels that are fast, well written, and smart. Fans have towering expectations for the movie, and luckily it hits all the notes we’ve been waiting for. The books and movie follow sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resident of coal mining District 12, in the country of Panem. Katniss is effectively mother to her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields), and spends her free time hunting illegally in the woods with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Katniss, unlike simpering Bella Swan, is a certified badass. Watching her hunt is hypnotic – and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they fashioned beauty from her coaxing a deer out of hiding.

Once a year, explains a title sequence at the beginning of the film, a kind of gladiatorial pageant takes place in Panem. To quell a potential uprising, the government takes two children between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district and forces them into an arena where they fight to the death. Every citizen of Panem is forced to watch this death game. As mandated, Katniss and the rest of District 12 gather in their Sunday best for the Reaping, the ceremony in which the names are drawn (the concept is like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel). Whose is the first name to be drawn? Even though she’s only in the running once, it’s Prim, of course. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place – which is the first step in her unexpected, clumsy journey to leading a revolution.

The government, headed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), frames the Hunger Games as something to which people should look forward; according to the powerful it is an honor for children to die for their district. Thus the propaganda film (which sounds oddly, frighteningly biblical) calls the sacrificial lambs Tributes. The second Tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who once threw Katniss a loaf of burned bread to keep her from starving. The two of them board a bullet train to the Capitol, a glimmering oasis of wealth and decadence, to be treated like superstars while they prepare to brutally murder their peers.

In the Capitol, they meet their mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former winner of the Games and a drunken louse. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is a kind of liaison between the Capitol and District 12, an eccentric and bizarre creature hidden beneath layers of makeup and brightly colored clothing favored by the citizens of the Capitol. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, decked out in a Who-from-Whoville pompadour of blue hair) is the announcer and host, the face of the Games; Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) is the man behind the scenes, the great designer. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is the District 12 Tributes’ stylist/strategist, a guardian angel who helps them make an impression.

Katniss narrates the books, and making a film from a novel written in the first person is a daunting task. The filmmakers do a brilliant job of conveying the vast difference between poverty-stricken District 12 and the wealthy, decadent Capitol. Katniss is stunned by the abundance of food and space, the gleaming metallic surfaces of the Capitol; it is unlike anything she’s ever seen before. What we see is akin to an episode of “Cribs” – we value and encourage this kind of decadence in our celebrities. The film portrays this well, in lingering shots of both the Districts and the Capitol. Lawrence, likewise, expresses subtle emotions while remaining outwardly stone-faced.

The actual Hunger Games don’t start until well into the film. There’s a lot of storytelling to get out of the way, a lot of buildup, but never does it feel slow or forced. The suspense builds to bursting as Katniss and Peeta mold themselves to give ‘em a show, and just when you’re ready to explode the film enters the arena. The Games themselves are as brutal as you’d expect. They are, after all, teenagers stabbing, slicing, crushing, and shooting each other. There are a few kinds of Tributes: the cunning and ingenuous, like Fox Face (Jacqueline Emerson) and Rue (Amandla Stenberg); the strategic and talented, like Peeta and Katniss; and the Careers. Careers train daily until they’re 18, just biding their time until they’re given the chance to “honor their districts.” Careers Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid), and Glimmer (Leven Rambin) form a deadly alliance and it’s left to the rest of the Tributes to avoid them.

Katniss and Peeta pretend to fall in love because that’s what the audience wants, and what the audience wants is integral to survival, because the rich can pay to send gifts to those in the Games – medicine, food, ointments. The arena itself is a computer-controlled nature preserve where the gamemakers can employ lethal tactics to murder the children or force them to murder each other. All of these things are artfully explained by cutting away from the arena and onto Caesar Flickerman, our master of ceremonies. Tucci’s toothy grin is both engaging and disingenuous – his casting is perfect.

The movie doesn’t feature voice-over narration from Katniss; we’re outside of her head, and that leaves more creative legroom to keep up with the rest of the characters. It may feel jarring to some fans to leave the arena so often. Frankly it releases some of the tension, though, to cut to Seneca and President Snow, or Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith. All of the performances are spot-on. At 20, Jennifer Lawrence has an earnest maternal quality; she was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for Winter’s Bone, another movie in which she played surrogate mother to her siblings. Stanley Tucci is always fantastic. Harrelson plays Haymitch with just the right amount of bitterness and a splash of deliberate funny. Elizabeth Banks, nearly unrecognizable in Effie Trinket’s uniform, is entertainingly strident and out of touch. The makeup, costuming, and special effects are also pitch perfect. Ross and the rest of the crew treat the book with reverence and respect, and the end result is exactly what fans will want.

We’ve seen movies like this before – in 2000, Japan’s Battle Royale took the world by storm with its horrifying portrayal of an entire high school class fighting to the death. The two bear similarities, certainly; however, Battle Royale is a jarring and gory satire of the inherent, petty malevolence of teenagers, while The Hunger Games is a dystopian nightmare that happens to feature a teenage protagonist. (It’s also worth noting that Battle Royale was banned from wide release by the US and UK until just this year, while The Hunger Games is only rated PG-13.) Comparisons are unavoidable, but the two are separate entities.

On opening night, the theater was filled with preteen girls carrying bows and wearing shirts that declare TEAM PEETA or TEAM GALE; you could mistake this fandom for something along the lines of Twilight – there’s giggling at every kiss, every meaningful glance. Bella Swan, though, wouldn’t last two seconds in the Hunger Games without her shimmering savior. Katniss Everdeen is a strong, smart, fast, and cunning protagonist – and this movie is one I’d encourage my hypothetical daughter to see and love for herself. In short, it’s everything you’ve been waiting for, and may well be the best movie of 2012 so far.

Movie Review: Super 8 (6/11/11)

Movie Poster: Super 8

Super 8

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by J.J. Abrams

Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb
Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard
Kyle Chandler as Jackson Lamb
Amanda Michalka as Jen Kaznyk

How long is Super 8? 112 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Super 8

Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), and Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb) in Super 8.
Photo credit: François Duhamel
© 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Action-adventure flick throws us back to the days of yore, gives us something to smile about.

A group of plucky, slightly foulmouthed teenagers inadvertently witness the release of an alien creature onto their small town. They must subvert the sinister military presence to discover the mystery behind its origins, and soon they discover it only wants to go home. Sound familiar? Perhaps a little “E.T. phone home?” Well, Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg knows from whence he comes, and he and director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) fashioned a summer movie that’s both homage to and a playful jibing at 1980s action/adventure filmmaking. Since the first full-length trailer released, people have guessed that Super 8 is a cross between The Goonies, E.T., and Cloverfield, and that’s exactly true. But luckily for us, those flicks were pretty great.

In 1979 in Lillian, Ohio, thirteen-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother in a gruesome accident. He’s harboring a problematic crush on tall, willowy blond Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), and only just getting to know his gruff deputy father (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile Joe and his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) are making a Romero-inspired zombie movie along with Alice and three friends. When they sneak off in the dead of night to film at a train station, the six teens witness a train crash that is certainly the coolest you’ve seen in years. While the accident miraculously only leaves them a little charred and jarred, the thing that escapes from an armored train car causes very real, very frightening troubles in Lillian.

The film’s opening features the Amblin logo writ large, the soaring bicycles silhouetted on the moon deliberately evocative of that other alien movie. Super 8 is a very purposeful throwback to early 80s filmmaking, from color scheme to tone to subject matter. Even more than that, though, Abrams and Spielberg made certain the camera itself plays an integral role in the film. Lens flares chop through characters’ faces, obscuring them in favor of reminding us we’re watching a movie. Blatant Steadicam is a continuous reminder that this is all playing out in front of a camera. The movie is sprinkled with dual focus shots, which are as jarring as they are captivating – and were heavily used by Brian de Palma in the heyday of 1976’s Carrie. Super 8’s title is derived from the most readily available home video film in that era. Charles’s room is adorned lovingly with posters for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead, and it escapes exactly no one that what’s happening in Lillian is exactly the plot of a disaster movie. The self-referential tone reminds us that we’re watching a movie that’s as much about aliens in small-town America as it is about other movies.

Abrams brought crew members from “Lost,” including composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Larry Fong, onto Super 8. Giacchino’s score seems to be aping those of Spielberg’s most frequent musical collaborator John Williams, but that works here. Fong’s experience occluding monsters in “Lost” and “Fringe” comes in handy; although a super 8 camera is the first thing to capture our E.T., we first see the creature in the reflection of a puddle. Just as it becomes maddening that we can’t get the bigger picture, Abrams finally hands it to us – and the creature won’t disappoint. Abrams wrote the script, which manages to balance wit, sweetness, and scares with aplomb.

Twelve-year-olds the world round will shortly be nursing a crush on Joel Courtney, whose infectious grin, floppy mop of brown hair, and button nose would’ve landed him on the cover of Tiger Beat twenty years ago. Kyle Chandler, AKA Coach Taylor on the brilliant “Friday Night Lights,” may be a one-trick pony, but damned if he isn’t great at playing a brusque but caring father. Elle Fanning, younger sister to Dakota (whose child-star trajectory seems the least disastrous of any recently, and who whipped out a great performance in The Runaways), captures the camera’s attention with her ability to change personas in a flash. Good genes and an almost eerie maturity must run in the Fanning family.

Super 8 is by no means perfect. It’s a little trite, a little sentimental, and glosses over a few plot points that should’ve been fleshed out. The military men are unreasonably evil – no Peter Coyote to play the friendly believer in uniform here. The Romeo and Juliet subplot that underscores Joe and Alice’s innocent romance could’ve used a little more development. The troupe of kids doesn’t quite have the rapport they did in The Goonies or E.T., but their reactions to catastrophe are charming all the same (the screaming, cussing, and puking are reminiscent of another period favorite, The Sandlot). Finally, this creature is no cute little humanoid that heals wounds, though our protagonists do form a psychic connection with it; Abrams smoothes over its penchant for brutality with a slightly ham-fisted attempt at humanizing it.

These small flaws aside (and they really are small), Super 8 is quality filmmaking. This is what a PG-13 summer blockbuster looks like. For those of us who grew up on 80s action flicks it’s a delightful return to form. Hopefully it will engage a whole new crop of kids and entertain their parents in the process. Smart, scary, sweet, and witty are not attributes you often get to assign to one film, but this one takes them all. We’re in the midst of a country-wide heat wave, so what better thing to do than retreat into a cool, dark theater and let Abrams and Spielberg thrill you? Go. Enjoy.

Movie Review: Pirate Radio (11/14/09)

Movie Poster: Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio

Directed and written by Richard Curtis

The Count – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Quentin – Bill Nighy
Gavin – Rhys Ifans
Dave – Nick Frost
Minister Dormandy – Kenneth Branagh

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: The Men Who Stare at Goats

A Brilliant Comedic Cast Keeps This Period Piece Afloat

Richard Curtis, the director of 2003’s romcom Love Actually, has made another film about the beauty of falling in love—but instead of stodgy Brits having awkward conversations in limos, Pirate Radio (British title The Boat That Rocked, a much catchier moniker) features a pure, sincere adoration of rock and roll music. Set in 1966, Pirate Radio follows the ragtag crew of Radio Rock, a station on a rig anchored in the North Sea off the coast of England. The film starts with a bit of history: in “the greatest era for rock and roll,” the British government refused to play pop or rock on its sanctioned stations, causing fans to tune into offshore stations. Twenty-five million fans, to be exact. The government, therefore, was reduced to making up new laws to illegalize pirate radio stations.

The movie doesn’t truly have a singular protagonist, which is one of its only faults. Young Carl (Tom Sturridge) finds himself expelled from school for smoking, and his mother sends him to spend time with his godfather (Bill Nighy) aboard Radio Rock. The crew takes him under their collective wing, but though he may be the initial focus, the viewpoint gradually shifts about until it’s clear each and every crew member is a protagonist of sorts. Luckily, the ensemble cast (many of whom have worked together before, as movie and TV fans will surely notice) has fantastic chemistry and rapport, and Curtis’s screenplay allows the actors to perform to their fullest.

Veteran Brit actor (and scenery chewer extraordinaire) Kenneth Branagh plays the delightfully dastardly Sir Alistair Dormandy, whose singular life’s goal is to shut down the pirate stations causing unrest via airwaves in England. Branagh rolls his “r”s and shrieks like a madman; the effect is perfect in this role. It’s nearly impossible to be understated or subtle while spewing lines like “If you don’t like something, you simply make it illegal,” and Branagh works his magic here. Jack Davenport, most recognizable to Americans as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s Captain Norrington, plays Dormandy’s assistant Twatt (the irony of the name is not lost). The duo creates an excellent foil for the amiable crew of Radio Rock, which includes some of Britain’s finest comedic actors, as well as perennial weirdo Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Rhys Ifans plays legendary DJ Gorgeous Gavin, slinking about in a purple velvet suit, a feathered hat, and treating the microphone like a lover. Nick Frost, Simon Pegg’s affable sidekick in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, gets a leading role as chunky ladies’ man Dave. Rhys Darby, a New Zealand native whose role as band manager Murray on the hit HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” has placed him securely in the sights of a cult audience, reprises his role as lovable geek. Nighy’s trademark pauses and tics add luster to the impeccable captain Quentin. Seymour Hoffman lends his slightly disheveled and wacky persona to the role of The Count, the only American DJ, whose passion extends to risking his life in the honor of rock and roll. His role is virtually an extension of Lester Bangs, the legendary music journalist he played in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. All in all, the cast of fantastic comedians make the film.

Pirate Radio is a true period piece; costumes include plaid suits paired with paisley scarves, huge lapels, and tight corduroy pants. The film’s women are decked out in miniskirts and mod check, and Emma Thompson, playing a small role as Young Carl’s mother, appears with a bouffant and a houndstooth-patterned cape. The fact that this sort of apparel is currently available in your nearest Urban Outfitters is likely not lost on the filmmakers. The movie features a great classic rock soundtrack—of course—and a nostalgically affectionate tribute to the swinging 60s’ sexual insouciance. Radio Rock’s broadcasts are juxtaposed with shots of listeners across the UK, twisting and jiving to the era’s best music. The film will have audiences resisting the urge to dance in their seats (or the aisles).

Aside from the lack of a true protagonist, a number of small story arcs fall a bit flat, and the film may be a bit long at over two hours. However, a hilarious cast, a few genuinely poignant moments, and a slightly silly but ultimately uplifting end save the plot from disaster. The brilliant cast and funny script make for a fine film that probably won’t enjoy the sort of release it deserves in America—which is unfortunate, since it’s exactly the kind of movie whose heart and ingenuity should trump trashy big budget disaster movies at the box office. Whether these characters DJ’d out of love for the music, or purely in rebellion against censorship of an unstoppable force, their adoration of the cause (and ultimately each other) manages to keep the movie triumphantly afloat.