Friday, September 23, 2011

Summer Movie Wrap-up

It's been a long time since I've posted any movie reviews, mainly because I've been working a lot lately and just haven't had time to see many films. There was also a lot of crap in the theaters too, and some weekends there just wasn't anything out there that compelled me to leave the house.

Since I know the world is waiting with baited breath to see what I think, here are my thoughts on the precious few movies I saw this summer. 

Super 8
A big wet mushy love letter from J.J. Abrams to the kind of movies Steven Spielberg made in the 1980s (in fact, Spielberg himself produced the movie!) Set in 1979, Super 8 tells the story of a group of suburban kids who witness a spectacular train crash while filming a home-made monster movie. Soon afterward, strange things start to happen in their town, causing the kids begin their own investigation, leading to an unexpected discovery.

The movie is crammed full of Spielbergian influences (not that that's a bad thing), recalling elements of  E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies and more.

I loved pretty much everything about this movie. It's a welcome throwback to the sort of films I enjoyed as a kid, in style, pacing and overall look. It just feels like a movie from the 1980s that was lost and just recently unearthed.

The film makers also captured the look and feel of the era perfectly, which may also help explain why the movie appealed to me so.

The young stars are all perfect in their roles and seem to have been plucked from the 1980s just to star in this film. As for the adults, Kyle Chandler plays the town sheriff, and I really do not understand why he's not a bigger star than he is.

Spoilers Ahoy!

The cause of all the strange happenings in town is, not surprisingly, an extraterrestrial that's being held prisoner by the military, that just wants to get back to its planet. If I have one complaint about the movie, it's with the look of said alien creature. 

The alien is of course brought to life with somewhat less than convincing CGI. The filmmakers went to great lengths to make everything else in this movie look like it's from the 1980s, and then they give us a smoothly animated but ultimately dodgy looking computer generated creature. I would have liked to have seen the alien realized with special effects technology from that time-- with a Rancor-like puppet or stop-motion model. Yes, a puppet would no doubt have looked fake as well, but it would look true to the period. It was jarring to watch what appeared to be a vintage movie with a modern effect stuck into it.

One major question I had about the ending: The army deliberately starts a forest fire near the town to convince the residents to evacuate, so that they can secretly deal with the alien threat (!). A bit overkill, but what do I know, I'm not a colonel. This isn't just a little blaze; several scenes show a huge wall of flames in the distance, bearing down on the town. The alien, which just wants to return to its planet, uses its magic ET powers to build a makeshift spaceship out of bits and pieces of metal from the immediate area. It then blasts off into space, as the cast looks on in rapt amazement and wonder. The End. Except for one thing-- what about the forest fire? Everyone (including J.J. Abrams) seems to have forgotten that there's a massive inferno surrounding the town. Hopefully the army can put it out before it incinerates the populace.

Those quibbles aside, I highly recommend Super 8. Great job, J.J.! Now hurry up and make some more Star Trek movies. I give Super 8 a B+.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Director Joe Johnston makes up for 2010's lackluster Wolfman remake with the best superhero movie of the summer.

Captain America tells the story of Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid from the Bronx (who inexplicably doesn't have a New Yawk accent) who more than anything wants to go fight Nazis in WWII. He gets his wish when he's chosen for a top secret experiment, is pumped full of steroids, er, I mean the Super Solider Serum, and becomes Captain America. It's a fun, fast paced adventure story set in a time when heroes were still possible.

I have to confess I was never a huge fan of Captain America comics; mainly because he's just a guy. Sure, he's as perfect a specimen as a human can hope to be, but he's still just a regular person. Same reason I never liked Batman all that much. When I read comics, I liked to read about SUPER heroes. Superman, Mr. Fantastic, Spider-Man, The Thing-- characters that can do things I can't.

Despite that, this is the best superhero movie I've seen since the first Iron Man, and probably the best time I had at the theater all summer. Director Johnston seems to excel at directing 1940s period pieces, and also directed the criminally under-appreciated The Rocketeer. I've always been a fan of the whole 1940s "future tech" thing, which features "futuristic" technology with rivets and fins.

Chris Evans does an admirable job of bringing Captain America to life. I've never been much impressed by his acting before, but he seemed greatly improved in this role. Tommy Lee Jones shines as Colonel Chester Philips, and Hugo Weaving is great as always as the Red Skull.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of the Howling Commandos, another group pulled straight from the comics. Cap's sidekick Bucky even makes an appearance, sort of. In the comics, Bucky was Captain America's teen sidekick, ala Batman's Robin. Here Bucky is a contemporary of Cap, and more of a brother figure. He also meets a seemingly untimely end, but like pretty much every comic book character who's ever died, I have a feeling he'll be back in a sequel.

The film makers seem to have ramped up Cap's powers a bit. In the comic he was always portrayed as the ultimate human; as strong as a person can possibly be, but no more. Here Cap and Red Skull both are throwing one another across rooms with the strength of ten men. This power increase didn't really bother me, mainly because it probably wouldn't have been as interesting to show the hero and villain simply punching one another like normal people. I just thought I'd mention it as a change from the comic.

Cap's uniform is very similar to the Captain America in Marvel's "Ultimates Universe." The Ultimates comics are supposed to be more adult and "realistic," hence they feature a version of Cap who wears an army helmet and modified fatigues. The classic Captain America comic book costume does show up however, in the scenes in which Cap tours with the USO, hawking war bonds.

I'm really enjoying this "shared universe" thing that's going on with all the Marvel Studios movies. That's how things were in Marvel comics back in the day, and it's great to see it happening onscreen. I especially liked the inclusion of Howard Stark, our pal Iron Man's dad. He's obviously a thinly veiled version of Howard Hughes, and steals every scene he's in. One quibble: the Stark family timeline doesn't seem to add up. Howard Stark appears to be in his 30s in this movie (possibly even 40), which is set in 1942. His son Tony Stark appears to be in around 40 in Iron Man, which is set in the present day. That means Tony Stark would have been born around 1970. Therefore Howard Stark would have been in his 60s when Tony was born. It's possible I guess, but it seems like a stretch. It would have worked out better if they'd made Howard Stark Tony's grandpappy.

Another minor thing: the Red Skull made a good villain, but to my eyes his face had an almost plastic sheen to it. It didn't look like skin at all, not even ravaged pulled-taut skin. The prosthetic makeup  looked very artificial to me. Maybe it's just not possible to make a guy with a red skull head look realistic.

Spoiler!

I kind of wish they hadn't yanked Cap from the 1940s and into our time at the end of the movie. There will no doubt be sequels, and I'd like to see them set in WWII as well. There is a bit of wiggle room for them to do this: there's a montage in the middle of the movie where Captain America and the Howling Commandos liberate European targets from the Red Skull's control. They could easily set some more 1940s adventures within that montage period.

A fun period adventure and comic book story, I give Captain America a resounding A.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Part prequel, part reboot. A preboot? A requel? Whatever you call it, despite the fact that it didn't need to be made, it's one of the very few bright spots in this year's summer movie quagmire.

If you can accept James Franco as a scientist, then you should have no trouble accepting the story of a genetically altered intelligent chimp who leads his fellow apes in a rebellion against mankind.

Andy Serkis, Lord of the Ring's Gollum, plays (or I guess "motion captures") the all CGI chimp Caesar. He does a remarkable job bringing Caesar to life and making him sympathetic, and some have declared that he deserves an Oscar nomination. I think that's going a bit far-- I mean he is playing an ape after all-- but it is a moving performance.

Personally I miss the old school prosthetic ape makeup of days gone by, but since this story concerns real apes rather than man-sized talking ape-like creatures, I understand why they went the route they did. There are a few scenes in which the CGI apes just don't look quite right, but by an large they look and act realistically.

The viral and neurobiology science in the movie is a bit wonky, but overall the story is well-written, believable and intelligently told. It even ties into the previous films and sets up a sequel at the same time.

There are a boat load of shout outs and references to the previous films in this movie. Here are the ones I caught (um, spoilers, I guess):

• Caesar's mom was nicknamed "Bright Eyes" by the lab technicians. "Bright Eyes" was the nickname given to the human Taylor by chimpanzee Zira in the original Planet of the Apes.

• Tom Felton plays Dodge Landon, one of the evil caretakers in the ape house in which Caesar is housed. In Planet of the Apes, Taylor's two fellow astronauts were named Dodge and Landon.

• Dodge Landon also repeats two of Taylor's most famous and oft-quoted lines from Planet of the Apes: "It's a madhouse" and "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"

• In the ape house, one of Caesar's fellow inmates is a large orangutan named Maurice. Actor Maurice Evans played Dr. Zaius (also an orangutan) in Planet of the Apes.

• A chimp in the ape house is named "Cornellia." Similar to Cornelius, from Planet of the Apes.

• In the ape house, Dodge Landon uses a fire hose on Caesar, much like the apes did to Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes.

• At James Franco's house, Caesar is playing with a model of the Statue of Liberty. Surely you know why that's a shout out.

• James Franco's boss at the drug company is named Jacobs. There's no reason I should know this, but Arthur P. Jacobs produced the five old school Apes movies.

• The poster and opening credits use the same font as the old movies.

• In one scene we see a TV news report about the first manned flight to Mars. The ship is called the Icarus. That's the name of Taylor's ship in Planet of the Apes.

• In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the first word an ape says is "No." That's the first word Caesar says in this one too.

A totally unnecessary remake/reboot/prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to win me over with an surprisingly intelligent story. I give it an
A-.


Fright Night
Sigh... Hollywood pumps out yet another totally unnecessary remake that no one wanted nor asked for. Fans of the original will no doubt be put off by the very idea of a remake, and those unfamiliar with the previous version are unlikely to be compelled to see it.

The filmmakers do a decent job of updating the story for a modern audience, but the film just feels choppy, like large sequences are missing. For example, as soon as the idea that our hero Charlie Brewster's neighbor might be a vampire is brought up, it only takes about two minutes of screen time before all the other characters believe it as well. The Evil Ed character suffers from this choppiness too. He's introduced at the beginning of the movie, then he's bitten (I'm not issuing spoiler warnings to a remake of a 30 year old movie), then he drops out of sight as the script apparently forgets about him for the majority of the movie.

There are some odd leaps of logic in the film as well. The movie would have us believe that a Las Vegas suburb is the perfect breeding ground for vampires, due to the city's non-stop night life and because the transitory nature of its residents prevents suspicion when they inexplicably disappear. There's a scene at the beginning of the movie in which half the students in one of Charlie's classes are missing. Apparently the school officials aren't alarmed in the slightest at this occurrence because they assume the students and their families moved away in the middle of the night. That's all well and good for the school system, but what about the student's parents? Their children disappeared. Do they not wonder where their progeny have gone? Does no one ever contact the authorities about their missing children? Are they too addicted to the slots to care?

Much has been made of Colin Farrel's portrayal of a vampire, but personally I was underwhelmed. In my opinion he seemed to be playing himself for much of the movie (or what I assume he's like in real life).

The one bright spot in the film is Doctor Who's David Tennant, who puts in an awesome performance (as he always does) as a Criss Angel-like Vegas magician. He steals every scene he's in, and the movie needed much more of him. In fact I'm gonna say right now that his character deserves his own spin-off movie. Actor Chris Sarandon (who played the vampire in the original Fright Night) puts in a welcome cameo appearance and reminds us of how much better the original film was.
Unnecessary as are all remakes, I give Fright Night an anemic C.

Apollo 18
A "found footage" faux documentary in the spirit of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Although Apollo 17 was NASA's last official mission to the moon, the movie would have us believe there was a top secret Apollo 18 project, sanctioned by the Department of Defense. Once the American astronauts land on the moon they soon discover that they're not alone. They encounter an abandoned Russian landing site, complete with dead cosmonauts, proving Russian secretly made it to the moon. They also find that the moon is not quite as lifeless as previously thought.

The found footage style lends a certain credibility to the goings on and grounds the plot in reality (somewhat), so don't expect any Transformers-like action sequences. On the other hand, the realistic tone means that nothing very exciting is going to happen.

Using relatively unknown actors adds to the air of authenticity as well. The movie has a slow buildup of tension that I liked, but it'll probably bore younger audiences who are used to rapid-fire editing and storytelling.

BIG OL' SPOILER!

The moon turns out to be inhabited by crab-like creatures that look just like moon rocks. That's a fairly cool idea and explains why the moon looks lifeless to us.

At the end of the movie there's an ominous caption that states the Apollo missions brought back several tons of moon rocks to Earth. This is supposed to give the audience an uneasy feeling and make us exclaim "Oh no! The aliens are already here!" This might have been more effective if the last moon landing hadn't been 40 freakin' years ago. Seems like if there was any danger of alien contamination, we might have heard something about it by now.

Apollo 18 offers a few genuine scares but ultimately just doesn't go anywhere. I give it a C-.

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