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Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt a movie star? The folks in Hollywood certainly seem to think so. After leading indie films like (500) Days of Summer and 50/50 to wider success, Levitt has received key supporting roles in big movies like The Dark Knight Rises and the upcoming Lincoln. But while his latest film, Looper, may not have Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg at the helm, it can certainly still be classified as a bona fide blockbuster action flick for the young actor to headline.
And while he may not be as big of a name, writer-director Rian Johnson has proven his clout as a director with smaller movies like 2005′s Brick and 2008′s The Brothers Bloom. So when film geeks found out that he and Levitt (who also starred in Brick) were teaming up again with a bigger budget and a sci-fi plot, the excitement was palpable. And, as it turns out, that excitement was absolutely warranted. Looper is the kind of bold, grand Hollywood blockbuster that critics constantly hope for, but only see once or twice a year. It has a brain in its head and an artistic sparkle in its eye. And, quite simply, it’s the best movie of 2012, so far.
Levitt plays Joe, a wayward assassin living in the year 2044. Being a “looper”, his job is to kill rival gangsters sent back from the future. Thirty years beyond Joe’s time, time travel has been invented and it has also become impossible to dispose of dead bodies (hence why they’re sent back to Joe’s time for removal). But, of course, there is a catch: for the sake of simplicity, loopers are eventually sent their future selves to kill (thus completing the “loop”). When Joe’s future self (played by Bruce Willis) decides to fight back against his seemingly inevitable end, this sends young Joe into a race against time, the mob, and (quite literally) himself.
At its heart, Looper is a sci-fi blockbuster. However, despite featuring a gun-toting Bruce Willis, it actually goes fairly light on the shoot-’em-up action. Don’t get me wrong – there are enough chases and blood splatters to satisfy those looking for a high-octane thriller. But for audience members looking for a little more depth, it also offers some surprisingly complex moral questions, unique character development, and delicate artistry. Rian Johnson applies his stylized visuals perfectly to a bigger scope, but he also doesn’t lose the intimacy that made the hard-boiled Brick crackle with such electricity.
Joe is an undeniably complex protagonist. In many ways, he is despicable. But while he’s hedonistic and ruthless, he is not without remorse. And by juxtaposing him against his even more morally complex future self (Willis), it highlights the emotional toll that his lifestyle has hit him with. As does young Joe’s unique relationship with a young single mother, Sarah (Emily Blunt), who he meets while tracking his future self. While some might argue that the film takes a slower turn once Joe meets Sarah and her son, the tenuous, frayed bonds that are revealed between that trio of characters offers the film its emotional heft. Blunt, especially, shines as the strong but vulnerable Sarah, and it’s largely her nimble performance that gives the film’s finale such a punch.
And speaking of emotion, it’s easy to get swept up in the film’s beauty. Johnson creates an expansive, slightly off-kilter dystopic world that is bleakly stunning. Something as simple as a shot of a skyline or a cornfield drips with such melancholy that it’s nearly overwhelming. It’s hard to pin down what it is about Johnson’s anti-Americana vision that works so well, but somehow Looper comes out feeling like a grade-A Important Film because of it.
This is not a perfect film. While Joe, Sarah, and her son are interesting characters, other supporting players (especially those played by Piper Perabo and Noah Segan) seem to get discarded part way through, and never fulfill their potential to be impactful. A few plot twists feel overly convenient and ultimately pointless. However, for the most part, Johnson has created a well-structured, thoroughly engrossing blockbuster. At two hours long, it never drags, and I was happy to let myself be pulled along for the ride. While watching it, I almost forgot that it was a sci-fi movie where people fly around on hovering motorcycles. It just felt like a rich drama that I wanted to see more of. And if you ask me, that’s one of the biggest compliments that I can give to a film. Looper is the rare blockbuster that can knock you back with its visual flare and still stay on your mind long after the credits roll.
Just a few days in, and TIFF has already screened a spat of critic and movie fan favourites. From grand blockbusters like Looper and Cloud Atlas to human dramas like Argo and The Master, big stars and big directors are already pleasing crowds at the festival. And you might as well add Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, to that list. Met with generally positive response from critics, the film is likely to connect on a gut level with many viewers.
Pines made its world premiere on Friday night, and I entered the press screening early this morning with the unique experience of knowing virtually nothing about the film. And honestly, it’s best to know as little as possible about this film going into it. As such, I’ll be very vague with the plot description. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver. Bradley Cooper plays Avery, a newly minted and overqualified police officer. When Luke gets caught up in some illegal activities, the two inevitably come face to face. Their meeting then sparks a chain reaction of repercussions that affect not only them, but also their family.
At its core, The Place Beyond the Pines is a story about masculinity and the consequences of actions. And Cianfrance evokes the ache of regret beautifully. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty, and like the characters on screen, the audience is held in a constant state of tension. This is not an action-packed movie, yet there is such suspense in every character interaction. A number of figurative threads could be pulled at any time during this film and the lives of the characters would almost instantly unravel.
Cooper perhaps does the best job of conveying this unsettled tone. Much of the latter part of the film deals with Avery’s struggle to come to terms with his past decisions, and Cooper gives an aching, slow-burning performance. His character is wonderfully complex, and Cooper sinks his teeth into every nuance of the role. It’s easily his best performance to date.
Also breaking new ground here is up-and-comer Dane DeHaan. Though DeHaan does not appear until later on in the film, his character quickly becomes a key player, and DeHaan deftly navigates the epic relationship landscape that Cianfrance has constructed by this point. He’s already impressed me this year in Chronicle and Lawless, but now given a meaty dramatic role, DeHaan shines even brighter. He’s given some scenes that easily could have seemed overly laboured or difficult to believe, but DeHaan’s easy naturalness never wavers. He just sinks into the role and inhabits every corner of it.
Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises)gives another fantastic, chameleon-like performance as a man who takes Luke under his wing. His subtle humour is welcome in this heavy film, yet his character also has plenty of demons of his own. Gosling turns in yet another great, emotionally captivating performance, and Eva Mendes is surprisingly good as the woman his character peruses.
One thing that really surprised me about The Place Beyond the Pines was the scope of the film. Cianfrance has experimented with time lapses already in Blue Valentine, but while that film felt suffocating in its intimacy, Pines feels almost grand and epic in its ever-expanding story. And Cianfrance put every minute of the two and a quarter hour runtime to good use. Yes, a couple of story elements feel a bit convenient and/or melodramatic. And yes, I did find the second third of the film to be a little too conventional in its “dirty cop” tropes (though Ray Liotta is great in his very small role). But ultimately, none of that mattered. The Place Beyond the Pines packs an emotional punch the gut. This movie is about the consequences of our actions. And as characters’ past decisions start to affect innocent people, it’s hard not to get engrossed in the injustice and tragedy of it all. Simply put, The Place Beyond the Pines feels poetic without being pretentious. It might not fully satisfy those looking for a bit more violence in their studies in machismo, but the slow-burning drama makes for a far more substantial product.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I am a young woman. So, yes, ostensibly I am in the “correct” demographic for Magic Mike. But I should also say that I would have almost zero interest in this film if it weren’t for its director, and the fairly positive reviews it’s received. Watching a bunch of beefcakes strip on screen doesn’t really gel with what I usually go to the movies to see. So yes – you could say that I went into Magic Mike a little skeptical.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Channing Tatum used to be a stripper, and in Magic Mike he plays the title character – a stripper. Also along for the ride is Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the aging owner of the strip club, as well as British prettyboy Alex Pettyfer as Adam, one of the club’s new recruits. But while director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Oceans Eleven) certainly does make the best of his extremely toned cast in all the ways you’d expecting (in other words: there’s a lot of stripping), he also manages to tell a compelling human interest story amidst all the thongs and dollar bills.
In fact, Steven Soderbergh structured Magic Mike in a really smart way. There are lots of quiet scenes, and on the whole, the movie is actually a fairly small character study. But by having the high-energy strip club performance scenes interspersed throughout, the movie moves along at a steady clip and feels more accessible than some of Soderbergh’s other “passion projects”. (Whether you see this as a good thing or simply a money grab will probably depend on what kind of Soderbergh fan you are.) And despite all these shifts in tone, Magic Mike feels very evenly paced. Everything that happens in the movie feels authentic to the character that Mike is set up to be, and sometimes a big part of the fun is watching how his day life differs so wildly from his secondary “stripper” lifestyle.
And, I have to say, a lot of this believability stems from Tatum’s performance. Until this year, I had no use for Channing Tatum, and I did not see the appeal. But between 21 Jump Street and now this, I have to give the guy some credit. Of course, he has the moves and charisma to pull off the stripper aspect, but his performance goes well beyond that. There’s one scene in particular, where Mike goes to apply for a loan to get his business endeavours off the ground. He dresses himself up and turns on the charm, but things don’t go as planned. This is such a little, intimate scene, and it relies pretty much solely on Tatum to convey Mike’s vulnerability, and how much he’s out of his league. Tatum nails this scene, and he brings that same surprising depth to much of the rest of the film.
Matthew McConaughey is also pretty fantastic here. Again, I’m really not much of a McConaughey fan at all, but he too has been making smart role choices recently. He offers up enough slimy charm in Magic Mike to steal every one of his scenes, and he somehow manages to make the whole club environment seem fun and absolutely horrible at the same time.
The other star of this movie is its style and cinematography. Any scene that takes place outside of the strip club feels so Soderbergh-y. And, for me, this worked really well. There are so many beautifully composed shots here, and I loved the sepia-tinged look of daylight world. I’m not sure how well these more “artful” elements will sit with general audiences, but if you’re a Soderbergh fan worried that this will be too sanitized, fear not. If you dug the style of his last film, Haywire, you’ll probably like this.
That’s not to say that Magic Mike is some arty, experimental indie flick. Its budget is modest ($7 million), but it’s also got plenty of your standard Hollywood tropes. Especially in the third act, there’s plenty of drama and romance designed to keep your typical moviegoer attentive. And the script, while pretty good for this kind of movie, offers up a few lines of dialogue that feel rather cliché and false.
Part of me wishes that Soderbergh would have gone even weirder and less neat with it all, but at the same time, he did a pretty impressive job of balancing genuine style with an entertaining, commercially viable movie. And, thankfully, he doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. I’m not saying this is Shame or anything (some of the melodrama – especially in the third act – feels pretty shallow and “Hollywood”), but Soderbergh does cultivate a nice dark-ish undercurrent to it all.
On the whole, Magic Mike may not be anything new, but I think it’ll please a surprisingly wide swath of filmgoers; It’s got plenty of abs for those who are there for the eye candy, it offers enough character development to placate those looking for a little more substance to go with it, and it even has some beautiful camerawork to satisfy film geeks like myself. Most importantly, though, if I go to a big summer movie, I want it to be fun. Magic Mike certainly manages to be that, and also a little more substantial.
Over the past year or so, it seems like we’ve seen a lot of small movies about big, visually challenging concepts that are usually reserved for studio flicks. You know – the end of the world, space travel, the creation of the cosmos. That kind of stuff. And now, Sundance darling Safety Not Guaranteed tackles a similarly sci-fi-inspired theme. But while it might be about time machines and time travel on the surface, like all indie movies of this kind, it’s not really about any of that.
Let me explain. In Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) plays Darius, an anti-social magazine intern who gets assigned to help investigate a man who claims to be seeking a partner for time travel. “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before” is all the personal ad reads. So, Darius goes with fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and reporter Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson) to investigate this man, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who they plan to write a magazine article about. Just like Darius, we’re not sure if Kenneth is crazy, or if there is any truth to his claim. But strangely, it almost doesn’t matter. Safety Not Guaranteed is much more about friendship, love, and regret than it is about a time travel. And as a result, it’s actually a pretty beautiful little movie.
The real strength of this movie is the relationships. First-time screenwriter Derek Connolly does a brilliant job of interweaving the different dynamics of his characters and making their friendships and romances seem natural. Whether it’s Jeff trying to find Arnau some action or Darius’ tentative friendship with the unstable Kenneth, these characters feel like real people because of the way they bounce off each other. The dialogue for the most part feels natural, and this helps prevent the strange premise from bogging the movie down in pure quirk.
Of course, it also helps to have performers who can bring believability to the roles, and director Colin Trevorrow certainly lucked out in that department. Mark Duplass is heartbreaking, funny, and genuinely sweet as Kenneth, who is as innocent as he is caustic. Duplass easily could have gone for an over-the-top performance here, but, as anyone who’s seen any of the films that he and his brother Jay have directed together will know, Duplass looks for the truth in his characters, no matter how strange they may be. One of his real strengths as an actor is in delivering natural-sounding monologues, and he has a couple unlikely, beautiful ones here.
Jake Johnson also delivers an unexpectedly moving performance as Darius’ snarky boss, Jeff. Initially, his character seems to be a pretty standard-issue movie prick, but as we learn more about Jeff, Johnson has the ability to show off some real acting range. As broad and funny as Johnson is in the early scenes of the movie, he becomes emotionally vulnerable in just as big of a way as the movie goes on. He’s not only bitingly funny, but he can communicate so much with a simple facial expression. The result is a scene-stealing performance that suggests big things to come from Johnson.
Despite its grand premise, there’s not a lot to Safety Not Guaranteed. However, there is a real sweetness that I found irresistible. From the gentle humour to the indie rock soundtrack to the montages to the heartfelt performances, everything just fell into place perfectly. And while love and loss may not be novel concepts in Hollywood, this movie has such a pure heart and genuine optimism that it completely won me over. It never really feels cloying, though. The relationships feel genuine and grow organically, and because of that, Safety Not Guaranteed completely enraptured me.
Attack the Block doesn’t offer much new to the alien invasion genre, but somehow it manages to chop things up and remix them in a way that feels fairly fresh. The movie centers around a gang of tough-talking teens living in a rough London borough. When mysterious extra-terrestrial monsters invade their “block” (which, in this case, means their apartment complex), the gang takes matters into their own hands in hopes of defending their turf.
First-time director Joe Cornish brings great style to this movie. It has a high-contrast kind of colour scheme, and the use of blues and other bright swatches of colour really make the film (which is set entirely at night) pop. The monsters even manage to be stylish, and the whole film has a very young, heightened look to it.
The opening couple scenes of Attack the Block made me think that Cornish was going to favour style and mayhem over an actual story, but he actually did a great job of developing characters with little fuss. As the film progressed, I became more and more engrossed in the relationships and the story. The film progresses in a very natural, smooth way, and, wisely, it never slows down to give extensive backstory on the characters.
In terms of acting, there are definitely some unconvincing moments, but in general, the young cast does a good job. The standout actor for me was Luke Treadaway (who, to be fair, does have considerably more acting experience than most of the others). He’s very charming as the collegiate pothead, Brewis, who unsuspectingly gets ensnared in the adventure. Treadaway makes the best of his small role and provides many of the film’s funniest moments. Also good is John Boyega, who presents a steely front as the gang’s anti-heroic leader, Moses.
Attack the Block won’t provoke any deep thought, but it’s definitely a fun ride for 90 minutes. It knows exactly what type of movie it wants to be. It not only succeeds as an alien invasion flick, but it also presents interesting characters and plenty of humour.
Recently, I’ve been trying to go into movies without knowing much about them. Sure, I check Rotten Tomatoes scores and see some trailers while at the theatre, but I try to avoid plot information and trailers when I can. Such was the case with Chronicle. It was a film that wasn’t even on my radar until it started getting strong reviews, and aside from its most basic premise, I didn’t know anything about it going in. I’m not sure whether or not that helped my enjoyment of the film, but either way, I did enjoy the film a lot.
In a way, there’s not much to know about Chronicle, aside from the basics. Our protagonist is Andrew (played by Dane DeHaan), an introverted teenager who decides to start filming his entire life. One night, he goes to a party with his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and while there, they discover a mysterious crater in the ground. After investigating its contents with the senior class president candidate, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the three boys begin to develop mysterious telekinetic abilities. And, as you might be able to guess, not everything goes smoothly.
Chronicle does a really interesting job of mashing up elements of superhero movies, teen comedies, horror films, and “indie” dramas to make something pretty unique. It plays things straight (well, as much as you can in a movie about teens with superpowers), and it’s a lot of fun to see the characters react to their newfound abilities. They don’t go out and save people or defeat bad guys. They just play dumb pranks and laugh about it. Of course, things get out of hand (and the film arguably goes too far over the top in the last 20 minutes), but I like that there’s never any supervillain to defeat in Chronicle. The conflict comes from the boys’ own lack of control, their personal lives, and from the dynamics within their group.
The “found footage” style of filmmaking suits the intimate feeling of the film well. The filmmakers make the best of it, and I liked that they used other types of cameras (security cameras, a fellow student shooting video blogs) to cull “found” footage from. The lack of music in this movie is also unconventional, and the substitute soundtrack (which includes a lot of background noise and silence) proves to be quite effective. The filmmakers also play around with the editing, and while the found footage approach may not be completely necessary to this film, it’s nice to see the filmmakers use it in a logical and effective way.
But aside from the construction of the film, Chronicle is a movie that relies heavily on character development. This isn’t a “superhero movie” in the conventional sense, and there isn’t a lot of action. It’s important that the audience cares about the three main characters, and I definitely cared about all of them. Andrew, Matt, and Steve are all distinct and have their own quirks, yet it makes sense that they would bond over these extraordinary circumstances. We don’t get a lot of backstory, yet we know who they all are. The screenplay, aside from a few cheesy lines, is strong and paints these characters in a believable way.
The movie also wouldn’t work without good actors. DeHaan, who looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, has the most emotionally exposed character, and he does a good job of making us sympathize with Andrew, but also makes the turns that his character takes feel (mostly) believable. Jordan, who was great on Friday Night Lights, is very charismatic. Steve is a character who’s confident to the point of occasional cockiness, and Jordan does a great job of conveying that while still making Steve likeable. Russell was the weaker link in the cast, but he’s still fine.
Chronicle is only 84 minutes long, and that feels like the perfect length. It’s a really fun time at the movies, and, most importantly, it creates characters that you become invested in.
I have a confession. I’m someone who tends to struggle to follow even moderately complicated movie plots. I have a bad habit of zoning out at the exact moments when I should be paying attention. You probably know which moments I’m talking about. It’s the ones where one character spends five minutes carefully laying out detailed plot exposition to another character, and to the audience. This is usually done in really unrealistic, heavy-handed ways that grind the movie to a halt. And while I’m definitely to blame for this shortcoming (I really should just listen more closely), I also like to pass the buck to the filmmakers. Maybe if they set out their exposition in more interesting, subtle ways, I would be compelled to pay attention, no?
This is where I give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a lot of credit. This is a complicated film. I imagine that even people more perceptive than I will struggle to follow every intricacy of the plot. However, it lays out its spiderweb of a narrative in compelling, unique ways. By switching between time periods, countries, and about a dozen different characters, things could easily get muddled. And while I wasn’t always 100% following every detail, director Tomas Alfredson did a great job of keeping things coherent and interesting.
At its core, Tinker Tailor is a who-done-it film. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired British Intelligence agent who must help his old crew figure out who among their group is actually a Soviet mole. That’s literally it. Of course, there is much more to the story than that, but I’ll let you sort out the finer details on your own.
The story is complex, and it gives you a lot to think about while watching. But the film can also be enjoyed on many different levels. Most notably (to me), it’s just gorgeous to look at. Alfredson’s visual style is right up my alley, full of damp tones, and sparse cinematography. Some of his shots of the London streets are absolutely breathtaking. His style seems very well-suited to the Cold War era, and he evokes such atmosphere. The tension and paranoia is almost palpable through the camera, and that is arguably the film’s strongest suit.
Of course, you also have to talk about the performances. Gary Oldman is magnificent, as always. George Smiley is such a repressed character, and Oldman nails it. Smiley plays his cards close to his chest, yet Oldman brilliantly gives away tiny hints in his expressions and body language to let the audience in on his emotions. These hairline cracks in the facade are far more telling than any over-the-top “freak out” scene that most movie character inevitably experience. I give Oldman huge kudos for having the steely, commanding screen presence to pull of what could have been a completely bland character.
The most surprising performance for me was from Mark Strong, though. It seems like Strong has made a career out of playing villains in blockbusters like Kick-Ass and Sherlock Holmes. I’ve seen him in at least half a dozen films, and while he’s always fine, he’s never made much of an impression on me. But he is brilliant in this movie. From the first 10 seconds of his performance, I knew that this was a different Mark Strong. He plays a British intelligence agent sent on a mission to Hungary, and he shows such a range of emotions and a great amount of soulfulness. This could easily have been a throwaway character, but Strong inhabits every inch of this role. I wouldn’t have thought that Strong would suit this type of movie, but he actually gives my favourite performance in the film, and one of my favourite Supporting Actor performances of the year.
Tom Hardy is also very charismatic as Ricki Tarr, a British agent accused of betrayal. It’s nice to see his character get a personal story arc, since much of the rest of the film is centered around the characters’ professional endeavours.
That’s actually one issue that I had with the film. It would have been nice to bring a little more warmth to the story and some of the characters. Of course, this film is all about the mystery, rather than the character study, but a little back story would help it feel less dry.
However, that’s not to say that it’s a boring movie. Quite the opposite, even if the pace is a bit slow. Alfredson is an expert at building tension, and the screenplay is taught enough to prevent Tinker Tailor from dragging. This movie would be worth seeing for the performances alone, so the fact that it’s also a beautifully shot, well-constructed thriller is just a bonus.
I love Cameron Crowe. He’s one of my favourite directors. Almost Famous is among my top five movies of all time, and I even enjoy his “lesser” films like Elizabethtown and Singles quite a bit. So when I heard that he was releasing a new movie last year, I was excited. Sure, the premise didn’t sound too exciting (a family buys an abandoned zoo and tries to get it back up and running), but anything Crowe is going to grab my interest. My faith waned a little bit thanks to a fairly sappy looking trailer, and the eventual response to the film (lukewarm reviews, and a general lack of interest from the public). But I went out and saw it today, and I’ll go as far as to say that this is a great film.
Okay, first of all, I will say that We Bought a Zoo has its flaws. It’s a family film, and at times, things get a little to precious and predictable. Some jokes fall flat, and some of the minor characters feel more like caricatures. But none of that really mattered to me in the end, because the film has so much heart. The relationship between Matt Damon’s character and his children is very warm, and as an viewer, you’re really rooting for them to make everything work out.
Speaking of Matt Damon, he is great here. It’s a mature, varied performance, and he plays a father very well. He hits the right emotions, and he brings a lot of warmth to the screen. Thomas Hayden Church also stands out as his brother, adding a lot of humour, and also sympathy to the character. The biggest surprise in the cast for me was Colin Ford, who plays Damon’s 14-year-old son. He’s very convincing as a moody, grieving teenager, and he brings the right combination of petulance and pathos to his portrayal. I was unfamiliar with Ford as an actor, but his screen presence here has me convinced that I’ll be seeing a lot more of him. Elle Fanning is also luminous in a smaller role. She’s proven to be highly charismatic and charming in films like Somewhere and Super 8, and she does similarly great work here with more limited screen time here. It’s also worth noting that this is one of Scarlett Johansson’s best performances. Her character is very well-defined by Crowe, and Johansson picks up on the nuances well.
As with all Cameron Crowe films, We Bought a Zoo also has a great soundtrack. Crowe digs out lots of old favourites, including Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but he also uses Bon Iver’s “Holocene” to nice effect. It’s also great to hear Temple of Dog’s “Hunger Strike” pop up, which is a neat little nod to Crowe’s love of 90′s grunge. Sigur Ros’ Jonsi also provides an original score the film, which is fantastic. It’s triumphant and uplifting, and that score adds a lot of emotional heft to several scenes. Crowe is a master of music, and the soundtrack is always one of my favourite elements of his films.
We Bought a Zoo is certainly trying to pull on your heartstrings, and for me, it worked. It’s lovely and simple, and sometimes that’s the best kind of film. A shorter run time could have made the film a bit tighter, yet I never felt bored. I find it very difficult for a film to keep my interest for the whole duration, but We Bought a Zoo did that.
In weeks leading up to the release of Super 8, the film came up in conversation with several friends. And in almost every instance, the person I was talking to said something along the lines of, “It looks interesting, but I have no idea what it’s about.” And while this is certainly a valid comment, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, but isn’t that the point?” The film’s cryptic marketing campaign teased the film just enough for audiences to know that some crazy stuff was going down, but it also kept most of the plot turns under wraps. And amid complaints that a lot of film trailers today give away “too much” of the film, this seemed like the perfect antidote. Yet now that a film was playing it coy, it seemed like people didn’t feel invested.
But if you ask me, it’s best to go into this film knowing very little about it, like I did. All you really need to know is that Super 8 takes place in the late 1970′s, and it’s about a group of friends who are making a zombie movie. While they’re making it, they witness a train crash, and after the accident, a plethora of strange events start taking place in their small Ohio town. One of the boys, Joe (Joel Courtney), is the son of the town’s deputy sheriff, Jackson (Friday Night Light‘s Kyle Chandler), who inherits the job of keeping the town calm during the aftermath of the accident.
Of course, there is much more to the story than that, but at its heart, Super 8, is a really fun adventure movie. In a lot of ways, it harkens back to the films of Steven Spielberg (who is an executive producer here) from the 1970′s, such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it has a wonderful twinge of nostalgia to it. But while it’s easy to draw parallels to other movies (the Stand By Me comparisons are also inevitable), director J.J. Abrams does a great job of balancing his obvious love for “retro” films with a thoroughly modern, FX-driven approach to the movie. Super 8 is bound to please both adults who remember the movies from the era that it references, and also older kids and teens who can identify with the film’s main characters.
Super 8 works quite effectively as an action blockbuster (for example, the train crash sequence near the beginning of the film is full of eye-popping, elegantly choreographed explosions), but I don’t think it would have worked nearly as well as a film if it weren’t for the strength of its two young leads. Courtney adds heaps of warmth (and disarmingly expressive, saucer-like eyes) to his quietly brave protagonist, Joe. He makes it easy to connect emotionally to a character that could seem distant because of his back story, and thanks to Courtney’s assured screen presence, it’s not a stretch to believe Joe as a hero. And Elle Fanning takes a step out from her usual waifish roles to play the outwardly bold but emotionally skittish love interest, Alice. Fanning is obviously the most experienced of the kids in the cast, and while that does show to an extent, she also becomes surprisingly believable as “one of the boys”. She and Courtney (in his first on-screen acting performance, by the way) also have a lovely chemistry that makes their romance sweet rather than sickly.
I’m always looking for movies that are just a blast to watch, and though they’re surprisingly hard to find, Super 8 is definitely one of them. Abrams (who also wrote the film) sets up each of the kids in a way that makes you care about them, and even amidst all the craziness that takes place in the movie, those characters never lose their sense of fun. Of course, you could pick the movie apart and argue that the children react to traumatic events in an unrealistic way, but that’s obviously the point. And for the type of film that Super 8 is, I’d much rather see the kids still cracking wise and bickering amidst the action, rather than getting relegated to plot propellers.
Because I cared so much about the characters, I found myself very emotionally invested in their plight. Joe and Alice share a couple of very tender, emotionally honest moments, and I found myself tearing up on two or three occasions during the film. I can’t say this about many films, but over the course of Super 8 I literally laughed, and I literally cried. Maybe it’s my own nostalgia for childhood (not that I’m very far beyond it), or the values of friendship, loss, and loving movies that the film celebrates, but Super 8 packs a surprising emotional punch.
The thing that I most remember from my prom is not the mediocre food, the ugly dresses, or even the general awkwardness of the whole affair. It is, instead, the part where we all waited to go into the reception hall where the prom was held. Because while most people arrived on time and somewhat inconspicuously in their limos and cars, one large group of students (who I will immaturely refer to as the “popular” people) pulled up in front of the entire graduating class, after everyone else had arrived, in a giant, noisy party bus. They then proceeded to individually exit said bus. Each one got their drunken, wobbly moment to shine. And for some reason, everyone felt obligated to actually give them the satisfaction of watching.
So when the impeccably coifed teens in Disney’s Prom repeatedly waxed poetic on how prom “brings people together” and how “for one night, it doesn’t matter who you were during for the past four years”, you’ll have to excuse me if I snickered a little. And a good portion of Prom is equally as naive and trite as those baseless pronouncements. But as flawed as the film may be, I still found it enjoyable on some strange level.
The plot of Prom is somehow both overly complicated and mind-numbingly simple. The main character, Nova (because apparently that’s a name now), played by Aimee Teegarden, is the up-tight, overachieving head of the prom committee. And by a string of events that literally make no sense, the school “bad boy”, Jesse (played by a young Johnny Depp Thomas McDonell) is roped into helping her prep the school gymnasium for the social event of the year.
Along the way, a smattering of Nova’s friends get their own underdeveloped storylines about finding dates for the prom, and a couple of charming underclassmen, Lucas and Corey (Nolan Sotillo and Shameless’ Cameron Monghan), put their friendship to the test when one of them pursues a blandly attractive classmate, Simone (Danielle Campbell).
Does this sound familiar? Does it perhaps remind you of 1999′s 10 Things I Hate About You? Well, I would not blame you at all if it did, because they are basically the same movie. Teegarden, McDonell, and Sotillo are all sighs and sass while they do their best Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt impressions, respectively, but none of them achieve anything nearly as lively as the original trio managed to. Teegarden is grating (as she is on Friday Night Lights) thanks to her unrelentingly affected acting style, while the two male leads here are vaguely charming but ultimately forgettable.
The one cast member who stood out to me (and not merely because of his towering stature) was Nicholas Braun. As the charmingly awkward character of Lloyd, Braun (who coincidentally played the Joseph Gordon-Levitt role on the ill-conceived TV update of 10 Thing I Hate About You) has a natural sense of humour that shines through on screen. Lloyd is disconnected from the rest of the characters, and his scenes play out almost like short comedy sketches. In fact, that self-contained comedic character was the one thing in Prom that harkened back to some of the classic 1980′s teen movies. Think of the paperboy in Better Off Dead or Long Duck Dong, the family’s exchange student in Sixteen Candles, and you’ve kind of got Lloyd. Thanks to Braun’s easy charisma and some fairly successful situations that the writers constructed for him, Lloyd was one of the saving graces of Prom.
That’s not to say that the rest of the film is worthless, though, because it’s actually better than I had expected. To start with, I have to give the filmmakers credit for largely avoiding easy pratfalls and gross-out humour. And while yes, there is a lot of truly cheesy dialogue (at one point a character earnestly states, “And now I am in this tree…and you’re beautiful.”), there are also some moments that turn out more charmingly than they have any right to. Lucas and Corey’s unfettered love of rock music strikes a familiar note for any semi-outsider who signed their lives over to music during high school, and the underused character of Rolo (a typical “stoner” character, minus the pot) comes out with some legitimately strange, fascinating, and witty observations (and creates a pretty awesome Facebook profile picture along the way).
Prom builds momentum as it goes, and by the time the kids actually get to the dance, somehow I kind of found myself caring about it all. The movie is clearly aimed at pre-teen girls who are yet to experience their own proms (and thus may not realise how unrealistic everything in the movie is), but it’s kind of a fun ride along the way. Much like the occasion that it’s named after, Prom is a perfectly pleasant experience if you leave your expectations at the door and just go along for the ride.