Friday, June 10, 2011

Film Review - SUPER 8

Ordinarily, it's not really fair to criticize a new release for failing to live up to a milestone of the art-form. Classics come with too much baggage, and have had the benefit of time to saturate the public consciousness and become something larger and more important than a mere motion picture. So, what then to make of J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a reasonably efficient thrill-ride nostalgia trip that so desperately wants to stand on the shoulders of giants and invite warm comparisons to watershed Spielberg masterpieces such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.? How can one clearheadedly judge a film that so blatantly muddies the waters by mining its most effective elements from treasured memories of the past?

I'm not sure it's possible. For some, Super 8 will be held in high regard purely for its uncanny ability to tap into the nostalgic mindset of its audience. This is a film that seems determined to make ticket-buyers wistfully yearn for childhoods they never actually had. That's not necessarily a fault of the picture, so much as a statement of its obvious intent. I heartily enjoyed the majority of my time spent in the film's idyllic 1979 setting, surrounded by its Goonies-like gaggle of precocious film buffs, but, leaving the theatre, I couldn't help but feel a little let down that the film didn't swing for the fences. When Spielberg blazed new ground with material like this, he infused it with passion, intelligence and tingle-inducing wonder. He created films you didn't just watch, you experienced. Abrams, on the other hand, doesn't have the same drive for innovation or grandeur, and never quite manages to fully immerse us in his world. It's a fun entertainment, but not a whole lot more.

Set in the sleepy Ohio suburbs, Super 8 stars impressive newcomer Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, a sensitive 12-year-old recovering from the loss of his mother, who died in a tragic mill accident. Obsessed with monsters, movie make-up and homemade model kits, he's in the midst of shooting a super 8 zombie movie with his friends and rebellious crush Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning - a dead ringer for a pre-teen Drew Barrymore) late at night, when a cargo train mysteriously, not to mention explosively, derails. Soon, the military - who enter the picture as ominous flashlights in the night ala E.T. - are swarming the area looking for... something. As the kids continue to assemble their project, strange occurrences begin to happen around town; dogs start running away. Electricity flickers on and off. Something is out there and its just a matter of time before Joe and his friends run headlong into it.

Naturally, if there's one thing almost every Spielberg work has in common, it's aloof father figures. Super 8 completes the homage package by supplying not just one of these all-important characters, but two! Joe's stern, grieving deputy sheriff father (the always welcome Kyle Chandler) urges his son to grow up and consider new hobbies, while Alice's deadbeat alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard) carries a shameful secret of his own; one which threatens to disrupt the slowly emerging romance between the two tweens.

Boldly confident from the get-go, Super 8 works best during its first hour, as we get to know and understand the kids and their little isolated universe. Abrams' script makes a wise call early on in delaying the kids inevitable involvement with the supernatural elements of the story until the third act. Sure, they're present for the fiery train-wreck - which is grand in scale but not as convincingly rendered as I suspect the filmmaker thinks it is, given how long he milks it on-screen - but soon their attention turns back to that which is most important to them; namely, their movie. Many screenwriters have failed miserably writing kids, but Abrams understands the innocent self-absorption that comes with that age, and implicitly realizes that, for them, making a movie isn't just a pleasurable activity, it's everything.

As he proved in his previous filmic forays, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III, and high profile television work, Abrams posesses one of the canniest eyes for casting in the business. To his great credit, there is not a single child actor in the film who rings false. Courtney and Fanning ably share most of the spotlight, and generate the picture's most powerful dramatic fireworks, but the supporting cast is no less colourful. Riley Griffiths, as the crew's wannabe director, possesses just the right amount of gusto and bossiness, while Gabriel Basso, as the over-anxious leading man, earns the film's biggest laugh during an action sequence involving a bus. Ryan Lee, who boasts some truly daunting dental wear, is also delightfully true-to-life, playing that kid we all knew who never went anywhere without a lighter. These characters are an utter joy to spend time with and, unlike in Richard Donner's often tiresome The Goonies, their non-stop, overlapping chatter is funny, honest and comprehensible.

I really wish the film didn't trip so badly over itself once it introduces its otherworldly co-star. Had it played a less prominent role in the emotional pay-off of the film, it would be far less problematic than it is. Plainly put, Super 8's creature is a dud. Over-designed, poorly explained and always obscured by darkness (likely to hide the fact the CG is less than stellar), it's a generic non-entity in a film that requires us to care about it to truly triumph. Remember E.T.? He was both a brilliantly nuanced character, as well as a poignant metaphor for Elliot's impending loss of childhood. This movie's mysterious being has neither a personality nor clear thematic purpose. Worse, it's appearance in the third act disrupts the natural flow of the other story threads, leading to a rushed finale that badly undercuts the movie's grand attempt at a tear-jerking final moment of awe. Spielberg knew when to pace himself and let the audience bask in his fantastic images and sounds, whereas Abrams seems over-eager to wrap everything up as fast as possible and fade to black.

Yet, despite not succeeding at meeting the standards set by its influences, there's still plenty to recommend Abrams' quirky little film beyond the performances. There's so much love in each and every frame - from the kids' elaborately designed rooms, full of geeky little touches and period detail, to the quiet minutiae of small town life and, my personal favourite, the beautifully evocative shots of the spellbinding night sky - that it’s impossible to resist falling prey to the picture’s gentle whimsy. As a cinematic journey, Super 8 may fall short of the stars, but it's nonetheless a journey still worth taking.

3.5 out of 5

P.S.: Make sure to stick around during the credits to see the kids' completed super 8 movie. It just may be the most charming sequence in the entire film.


Going in, Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus had to accomplish very little to entertain me. I'm a total sucker for bad killer sea creature movies (Read my obsessive retrospectives for both Jaws 3-D and Jaws The Revenge for proof), and all I ask is that the filmmakers manage to throw in some weirdo inspiration here and there amidst the brain-jellying exposition and scenes of washed up actors staring at unconvincing computer monitor screens. A memorably gory kill, perhaps. Or a climactic monster death so astoundingly ridiculous you find yourself fumbling for the rewind button. Heck, even a winking bit of pointless nudity (an old genre standby that has sadly become a rarity).  I'm an easy customer.

Unfortunately, MSvsCS - as I shall henceforth be referring to it - fails to deliver any of these base desires. Oh, it's rated R, all right. For language. Language! This is a killer shark/crocodile movie whose most extreme element is the F-word! I really don't understand the logic behind that decision. Why make such a film and not deliver on the audience's modest expectations? It's not like there was ever a danger of anyone being invested in the storyline!

What is the storyline, you ask? Well, it's about a Navy acoustics scientist (Jaleel White - he who once wore suspenders, giant red-rimmed glasses and nasally uttered the immortal phrase "Did I do that?!" ever Friday night on ABC) who is developing a new audio technology to repel sharks.  After his fiancĂ© is killed by Mega Shark, who sinks her battleship by leaping over it three times and smacking it with his tail, he is recruited by the military and a tanktop-wearing government agent babe (Sarah Lieving) to destroy the errant fish. But wait! Over in South Africa, a ginoromous prehistoric crocodile has emerged and escaped into the sea, causing the rough-around-the-collar resident croc-hunter (Gary Stretch - who looks like a squintier, sleazier, hairier Pierce Brosnan) to also be brought in on the action. Will the hunter and Urkel be able to put their differences aside and stop the carnivorous man-eaters once and for all? (Spoiler: Yes. Yes, they will.)   

It's amazing how sizable a chunk of this film is spent with Urkel, croc-dude and Agent Hotty McHotterson sitting in a fake helicopter cockpit tediously arguing over whether or not the scientist's "hydrosonic spheres" will save the day. (Spoiler: they do!) Even though the flick runs only 88 mins, I feel like I'm still trapped in that godforsaken airborne purgatory waiting for someone to take charge and DO SOMETHING! ANYTHING!!! No one sane expects strong writing in a direct-to-DVD creature feature, but if you're going to give actors awful dialogue, at least make it so wretched it's hilarious, not boring.

Further, this is a picture which, in its very title, promises an epic clash between the titular monsters. The reality, however, is much more disappointing. The two beasts, which look like refugees from a Super Nintendo game, chomp down on each other's tails in unison and form a rudimentary circle. They then spin around and around, repeatedly and bloodlessly. To add insult to injury, even when destroyed they remain locked in their eternal game of Ring Around the Rosie. This could be forgiven if there were a few decent human fatalities, but there aren't. Most are just swallowed whole, disappearing into a blur of ugly CG. Yawn.

Ultimately, MSvsCS is a complete waste of time. It lacks the so-terrible-it's-funny qualities that made Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and Raging Sharks quasi-brilliant, and never lives up to its deliciously pulpy title. Too bad, so sad.

I'll probably still watch the inevitable sequel...

1 out of 5

P.S.: It's never a good idea to name your submarine USNS Invincible. Soon or later, it will be proven to not be.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

One-Sheet Showcase - STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)

Category: Camp

I chose this poster to launch the inaugeral One-Sheet Showcase for a couple reasons, first and foremost being that I'm attending a Star Trek convention this weekend. What better way to celebrate my impending 3-day festival of fanboyism (and fangirlism) than with the goofiest official film poster ever inspired by the beloved space-hoppin' franchise?

Would I consider this a cool poster? No, not really. While The Voyage Home is easily the most light-hearted of the original cast's cinematic run, this one-sheet strictly sells the high-concept, fish-out-of-water comedy stuff (which, to be fair, it has no shortage of), rather than the crowd-pleasing sci-fi adventure tale elements involving a pair of humpback whales named George and Gracie. It's also hard not to childishly giggle over the fact that Spock and Kirk are beaming into San Francisco via rainbow. I imagine numerous slashfic authors hold this art up as one of their most profound inspirations.

All kidding aside, though, I still have a great deal of affection for this poster. Why, you ask? Because it unabashedly promises a carefree, fun time at the movies. Take a second and try to remember some recent blockbuster lobby art, not aimed at children, which actually tried to sell the movie as being a cheerful experience. It's harder than you'd think. Nowadays, everything has to look dark, intense and - the buzz word which is driving me slowly insane - "EPIC!"  Why is every franchise, no matter how good-natured and breezy (Pirates of the Caribbean or Iron Man, for example), sold on soberingly solemn images better suited to a wrenching period drama? Lighten up, people!

Certainly this Star Trek IV poster has no shortage of detractors in the fan community, but I like it because it's eye-catching, colourful and unpretentious - not to mention completely devoid of irony. It genuinely makes me want to see the film being advertised. Besides, it must have worked a little bit, as Voyage Home was the highest-grossing Trek film until J.J. Abrams' awesome reboot - which also had inappropriately moody one-sheets - dropped in 2009.

So while few die-hards would ever choose to own it over a vintage Wrath of Khan or Search for Spock print, I'm still greatful it made it out of Paramount's promotional department 25 years ago.

Cinematic Consumption - DEATH WISH 3

Death Wish 3 is not a good movie. In fact, it is - perhaps unsurprisingly - a pretty terrible one. However, unlike the vile second franchise entry, this flick figures out its tone from the very beginning and rides it out to the bitter, hilarious end. No one comes out of the film smelling rosy, but I'll be damned if I didn't laugh my fool head off throughout.

The fun continues as eternally cursed architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns to his former hometown of New York. Now, you'll be forgiven for thinking the city looks a little odd, as the picture was shot in London. Which looks nothing like New York. At all. Rather, the entire film almost seems to unfold at the same bombed-out location where the finale of Saving Private Ryan took place; all mountains of debris, crumbling brick buildings and poorly-maintained, empty streets. Populating the town is roughly thirty sadistic gangland punks and about a dozen mournful citizens (the latter of which trudge, shoulders slumped and heads down, solemnly along the sidewalks waiting to have their grocery bags knocked out of their hands or purses stolen - an occurence which takes place every 5 mins or so in the movie.) I hate to blame the victim, but when you're outnumbered by bloodthirsty psychopaths who attack you on a daily basis, it's probably high-time to wise up and peruse the real estate ads.

Anyhow, Kersey shows up at an old friend's house, only to find him savagely beaten. After his final side-splittingly operatic death rattle, the cops bust in and arrest the baffled former vigilante. But all is not as it seems. Dimwitted police chief Shriker (Ed Lauter) - whose office looks like it was constructed in an elementary school classroom - decides that the old gun-wielding lunatic is the lesser of two evils and sets him loose, with a plea that he keep the cops informed of his activities. Which he promptly doesn't. Soon, the gang starts picking off saintly locals and Kersey is pressed back into action. By the end, the entire "city" is at war, as smiling old folks and shopkeepers, following the senior citizen ass-kicker's noble example, take up arms and blow every single facepaint-wearing hoodlum to hell. It's the ultimate NRA wetdream.

Yesterday, I made no attempt to hide my disgust for Death Wish II (Notice how the roman numerals disappeared with this chapter? Too bad. I really prefer uniformity in my movie titles), yet I had an ironic blast with this installment. Returning director Michael Winner has made an amusingly  moronic campfest, full of ludicrous ultraviolence, phony sets and plenty 'o  kroovy, that never for one moment convinces the viewer that it's transpiring in anything resembling the real world. This is Bronsonland, dammit, and it's a deliriously silly place to be, where everyone dies oh-so-spectacularly and youths dress like Billy Idol's reject back-up band. Even the horrific violence against the elderly is forgiveable as - on-screen - it's committed solely on overweight stunt men in embarrassing wigs. In fact, the only depressing element of Death Wish 3 is having to watch Martin Balsam, the great character actor who appeared in Psycho, Cape Fear and 12 Angry Men, cash a paycheck.

Actually, come to think of it, the love story between Kersey and a ditzy public defender (played badly by Deborah Raffin, who was 32 years younger than Bronson. Ick.) was pretty freakin' grim to endure too.

The Death Wish franchise is beginning to remind me of a far less awesome version of the Rambo series. The first is an effective character piece, while the follow-ups devolve into carnage-strewn blast-o-ramas. Does this mean that Death Wish 4: The Crackdown or Death Wish V: The Face of Death (Obviously, I can't stop now!) will manage, like 2008's Rambo, to unite the opposing strengths of the first and later films and create a satisfying whole?  Honestly, I ain't holding my breath.

1.5 out of 5

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Cinematic Consumption - DEATH WISH II

What an utterly revolting pile of rotten celluloid this is! Whereas 1974's Death Wish, while hardly a great movie, was at least an intriguing, straight-faced character study of a peaceful man driven mad by urban decay and a gruesome attack on his family, this sequel wallows into the muck and asks us to celebrate it's irredeemable qualities. I'm no prude when it comes to shocking or disturbing subject matter, but this flick left me desiring a hot shower.

Taking place 2 years after the first film, Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey has put his vigilante ways behind him - a character change that makes little sense given the original's ending - and is once again living a peaceful life as an architect, lovingly supported by his radio reporter girlfriend Geri (Bronson's former flame Jill Ireland). One day, while out at a fair with Geri and his mentally traumatized daughter, who still hasn't recovered from her sexual assault in the first film, he's accosted by a group of colourfully garbed punks (including a very young Laurence Fishburne in stupid pink sunglasses) who steal his wallet. Kersey chases them off but, in an act of revenge, the nogoodniks break into his house and savagely gang rape and murder his latina housekeeper. Then, when Kersey returns home, they knock him out and kidnap his daughter and rape her too. After she's killed - courtesy of being impaled on sharp fence posts (Seriously!) - Kersey moves into a hovel, dresses as a homeless man, and sets out to even the score.

On a B-movie level, Death Wish II could have worked. Sure, it's trashy stuff, but there's no reason that it couldn't have been fun in a cheesy exploitation movie kinda way. However, returning director Michael Winner seems unsure of how to move away from the grim seriousness of his first instalment. He tries for over-the-top cartoonishness in his treatment of the teen thugs - who are about as threatening as the gangs in West Side Story - and Bronson-delivered violence, but uncomfortably revels in the unnecessarily prolonged scenes depicting horrific violence against women. No breasts are left unbared, and all dignity is out the window as Winner lingers sadistically on ever scream, plea for mercy and choking sob from his on-screen victims. Even worse, the rape of Kersey's handicapped daughter is bizarrely shot so as to be erotic, which is, frankly, intolerable. By the time the third such scene rolled around, I loathed Winner and his dubious filmmaking morals far more than the utterly laughable criminals.

Then, after thirty or so minutes of this torture, we're supposed to cheer as Kersey ploddingly wanders around town gunning down the guilty. But, personally, I was so disgusted with the film, that I just watched, bored and numb, waiting for the 88 minute runtime to reach its welcome end. Even Bronson seems embarrassed to be associated with the project, and does little more than smirk, squint, stalk and shoot. Death Wish II isn't just a bad film; it's a loathsome and stupid one.

1 out of 5

Monday, June 06, 2011

New Content Coming Soon

I think it's been pretty obvious since the beginning that this blog is a constant work-in-progress. Sure, it's always been a home for reviews, and the always incredible Epi-Cast podcast, but other features have had far less staying power. Remember the Epitorials and video reviews? Boy, those sure didn't last long... 

Well, in an effort to help provide content outside of the standard full-length reviews, I'm going to add a pair of new features that will help add to the site's value.

The first new addition will be Cinematic Consumption. This new feature will be a personal viewing diary of sorts, with short reviews/reflections on movies I've just watched. This will hopefully allow more space for the older films I view. Why should new releases have all the fun? Huh? Tell me!!! The entries will be less structured and dense than the standard reviews, and, hopefully, more candid and tongue-in-cheek. When appropriate, of course.  

The second will be a weekly feature called One-Sheet Showcase, in which I'll post some of my favourite movie posters. Those chosen will run the gamut from awesome to hilariously campy, with commentary as to why I chose them. Look for those to be posted on Wednesdays.

So, there you have it. Lots to be excited about if you're easily excited! See you soon!