Friday, July 1, 2011

Capsule reviews: Super 8, Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Super 8 (2011, J. J. Abrams)
The closer the release date for Abrams latest film, the more excited I became. While the original teaser trailer and some of the posters did not grab me in the slightest, it seemed as though once the studio showed a little bit more, at least to contextualize the film, my interest peaked. Sitting down with some friends at a recent IMAX screening, I was practically giddy.
In essence, Super 8 is a thriller involving a group of very young teens who adore film, especially making films. Among them are two that we the viewers follow the closest, Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), two long time friends who miraculously get Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a role in their next project, a hopeful entry for an upcoming film festival. One night, while shooting a scene at a train station, an incredible calamity erupts when a man drives a car into an oncoming locomotive, causing a dramatic mess. From the wreckage emerges ‘something’, something alive, big and angry, which goes about the small town, picking people off one by one. It is up to Joe, Charles and the rest of their little group to find out what exactly is going on.
Quite simply, Super 8 was a genuine delight. Having young teens, possible no older than 13, as the protagonists held the risk of not working as well as one might like. It seems very difficult to find genuinely good young actors who can give credible performance and not be one note. In Super 8, J. J. Abrams has a brilliant cast, with Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and, in particular, Elle Fanning delivering memorable performances, thus lending credible three-dimensionality to their characters. Seeing then screen, witnessing their antics and interactions certainly called back to some of the things I did with my own friends when we were nothing but innocent lads. Emotional attachment to these characters was never going to be a problem and I applaud the actors and the casting people for putting on such a good show. At the time when the story begins, Joe is experiencing some difficult times with his father in the months after his mother passed away due to a work related accident.
It goes without saying that eventually these two stories converge near the end, with the results being satisfying both in terms of emotional fulfillment, but equally with regards to the epic scope, not to mention that the event cathartic for the human and non-human characters. Without giving away too much hopefully, Joe’s story arc, one of inner and outer turmoil, is brilliantly echoed with the plot thread which concerns the mysterious being lurking in the shadows of the city. Speaking of the mysterious entity, there were, admittedly, some moments when director Abrams was being a cute with the camera in how he was dead set on not revealing its nature, even though other people in the scene could witness it in all of its glory. Overall though, most of the scenes involving the powerful foe were pretty well executed in terms of style (in the ‘horror’ vein), so all was not lost. I can easily consider Super 8 as not only the best movie of the summer so far, but one of the best films since the start of 2011. This movie has not reached serious box office success and is therefore already fading away from theatres and I strongly encourage people to go see it.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay)
Now arrives the supposedly final instalment to a series which presents a stupendous paradox: being critically maligned to the point where one wonders, just by reading reviews, if the filmmakers committed deadly sins, yet simultaneously experiencing box office bonanza. At the end of the day, if the money is coming in by the truck full, then it might not matter so much if word of mouth is generally negative. But that is neither here nor there, so let us get to the review.
Picking up shortly after the second chapter ended, it is revealed early on, in some genuinely interesting scenes (my god!) how the crew of Apollo 11, which performed the historic trip to the moon in 1969, discovers alien technology on the ‘rock’ (read: Transformer technology). The actual physical aspects of the technology involve, first, a series of large glowing tubes that, if used accordingly, open up a portal to bring elements of Cybertron to Earth and second, a former Prime, Sentinel (Leonard Nimoy), who was in a dormant state before being awakened by Optimus (Peter Cullen). Naturally, the Decepticons want to make use of said technology by enslaving the human race and using it to rebuild their former home. Meanwhile, Sam (Shia Leboeuf) whines about feeling underappreciated he cannot find a job despite that he saved world, twice. One sympathizes.
I will say the following, I had an okay time with Dark of the Moon. Not great, not super, not awe-inspiring, but okay. Are some of the clunky things director Michael Bay is obsessed with back with a vengeance? Of course, he would not be Michael Bay without them. This means that, as per usual, the film is too long, features a series dialogue exchanges which are sold as funny but are not in the slightest, and his editing of simple scenes which should respect character beats and interactions is frequently terrible. This last criticism might seem more detailed and picky than the first two, but I definitely noticed it. With regards to scenes that concern dialogue exchanges, not the action, it often feels as though one second is missing here, another second is missing there, and so on and so forth. It as though he is always cutting away from a face or an exterior shot a second too early. It leaves a lot of scenes with a discombobulated tone. Very strange.
All that being said, the action is the best the series has ever had. The scale and high-octane tone was supposed to be present in the first two films, and maybe was at times in the first film, but overall Bay’s cinematography and editing choices made most of the battles a total mess. Not so with Dark of the Moon, in which the titanic scale of Autobot-Decepticon fights is fully realized and given the treatment it really should have had since the beginning. Better late than never I suppose. While most of the human characters smack of vapidity (oddly enough the only exception in the bunch just might be newcomer Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who replaces Megan Fox, but that’s not saying she is great either), the giant mechanized warriors do feel ‘fleshed out’ to a degree. Bumblebee was a genuinely fun character to have around this time and the dynamic between Optimus and Sentinel was, I guess kind of neat.

No comments: