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Super 8 (2011)
Super 8: Elle Fanning, America's Sweetheart
The delightful movie "Super 8" takes place during the summer of 1979 in the fictional suburban town of Lilian, Ohio, centering around a group of engaging eighth graders fascinated with writing and directing a bare-bones "zombie" movie. Armed with little more than a single Super 8 camera, a single spot light with props and costumes "borrowed" from their parents' closets our intrepid group of young thespians soldier on. Stay seated at the end of the movie because for what provides us with a charming sense of closure, we are treated to a viewing of the actual completed short "zombie" movie as the credits roll.
"Super 8," directed by JJ Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, is seen through the eyes of our young protagonist, Joe (Joel Courtney) and opens with the (unseen) accidental death of his mother. The only significant adult role is that of Joe's emotionally remote widowed father (Kyle Chandler) too caught up in his own grief and dedication to his job as the town's Deputy Sheriff to even think about his new role as a single parent.
Joe is a quiet, rather normal thirteen year old boy, whose hobby is assembling and painting model trains. It is his knowledge of painting his trains makes him the natural choice one to take on the role as the "make-up" artist. The object of Joe's affection is the lovely Alice (Elle Fanning,) a beautiful young girl who begrudgingly accepts Joe's invitation to play the female lead role in the boys' "bare-bones" production, but clearly enjoys the attention of playing the leading lady, as she slowly, yet inevitably, grows to return Joe's adolescent affection. Alice is also the only child of an emotionally distant single dad played by Ron Eldard (who coincidentally lost his mother in a crash when he was a child,) In one of the of the movies most charming moments Joe delicately applies make-up to Alice's enticingly beautiful, yet totally innocent, face. She is also the only significant female role in the entire movie. In addition to Alice, we meet Charlie (Riley Griffiths) who is the director and driving force behind the making of this distinctly amateurish "zombie" movie, that he hopes to enter in a local film competition. Rounding out their gang is the perpetually frightened "leading man" Martin (Gabriel Basso), the endearingly adorable cinematographer/pyromaniac, Cary (Ryan Lee) who carries a backpack full of homemade firecrackers as well as a mouth full of braces, and Preston (Zach Mills) who is basically just hanging out with his buddies.
What makes "Super 8" unmistakably Spielbergian, is that at the heart of an engrossing adventure film about a violent train crash, and the havoc, fear and panic created by the existence of an unseen alien monster hidden on the derailed train, is a very charming, poignant story of friendship, loyalty and young love,
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but although JJ Abrams is listed as the sole director, when was the last time you saw a movie poster that included the producers name in the same size font as the directors? Interestingly enough, in the opening credits, both JJ Abrams "Bad Robot" logo appears right after Steven Spielberg's "Amblin" production logo. Any fan of televisions hit shows "Felicity," "Alias," "Lost" or "Fringe" can tell you that the "Bad Robot" logo is a childlike sketched red robot head, hiding in black weeds in the light of a huge gray moon. Amblin's logo needs less description, it is a simple black and white sketch of ET and Eliot flying across an enormous white moon. Hmmmmmm.
It's certainly no insult to Mr. Abrams that "Super 8" seems like a finely tuned jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Spielberg's most enduring films including "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind," "Jaws," and "Jurassic Park" (whose logo is a sketch of the head of a huge red dinosaur in the shadow of an enormous white moon.) We can only hope that JJ carries on in the master's groundbreaking footsteps.
Parenthetically, I find it interesting that Spielberg is credited as the Executive Producer of this summers' enormously successful, yet entirely soulless, box office smash, "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon." Not only had the greatest director of our lifetime been the Executive Producer of all three "Transformers" movies, which get discernibly worse with every sequel, but he has just added the same title to the completely inconsequential tribute to Sylvester Stallone "Real Steel." Between Spielberg's Executive Producing choices and Tom Hanks' bloated, absurdly unfunny, instantly forgettable "Larry Crowne," I'm truly starting to get worried about these two extraordinary talents. With extraordinary talent, comes extraordinary responsibility to your audience. Come on guys...we've grown to expect far more from both of you.
50/50 Four Young Actors, Showing Why Their At The Top Of Their Class
50/50 is a truly extraordinary movie. This is a mini-masterpiece that is as thoughtful and compelling as it is funny and real. Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine 50/50 faces the emotional devastation of cancer as well the physical ravages of chemotherapy with the perfect mixture of pathos, wit and compassion, steering away from melodrama. This is clearly no accident as our protagonist Adam, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt starts the conversation with his mother about his potentially lethal diagnosis by asking her if she was familiar with "Terms Of Endearment." Mr. Gordon-Levitt appears in virtually every frame of the movie allowing us to see the confusion, pain, fear and virtually every other possible emotion without letting us feel pity for this kind, rather unremarkable young man. Adam innocently makes an appointment with a doctor to find out why the pain in his back won't go away, only to find that that he has a large malignant tumor pressing on his vertebrae. In a state of shock he begins the process of hopeful healing, including "chemo," hence the famous head shaving scene. The scenes when he is receiving the chemotherapy are shared with Philip Baker Hall as Alan, a fellow cancer patient. These hospital scenes could easily have been a devise for gallows humor or cornball father/son wisdom, but instead Adam and his Alan make easy conversation and Alan introduces his younger friend to the joys of medicinal marijuana.
Adam's support group is led by his best (and seemingly only) friend Kyle, played to understated perfection by the wonderful Seth Rogen (who is also one of the producers of the film) and his less-than-supportive girlfriend Rachel played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who earlier this summer played another unsympathetic role in "The Help." Anna Kendrick plays Adams young psychologist Katherine, who is actually the female equivalent to Adam. She is nervous, shy timid and loveably unsure of herself, Ms. Kendrick burst on the scene in the wonderful "Up In The Air," going step for step with George Clooney, and she does not fail to live up to those expectations. She is all sweetness and light and exudes an unparalleled sense innocent charm.
Anjelica Huston appears as Adam's overbearing mother, but plays her role with the same subtlety as the rest of the young cast. It would have been so easy to go over-the-top as the prototypical Freudian cliché nightmare "mother-from-hell." She is a woman dealing with her own tragedy as the sole caretaker of her Alzheimer-stricken husband (Serge Houde), when she learns of her son's illness. adding burden on top of burden. She is far more to be pitied, than scorned. Ms. Huston is as wonderful as you'd expect her to be.
Most of the movie relies on the chemistry between Rogan's Kyle and Gordon-Levitt's Adam. They truly deliver, without a single reference to the unfortunate term "bromance." This is a wonderfully, subtle, nuanced, deeply thoughtful piece of filmmaking. Bravo.
Real Steel (2011)
Real Steel; An Unintentional Love Letter To Sly Stallone
I suppose the moral to this story is that you get what you pay for. If you watch the television commercial, check out the trailer or have gone to the movies in the past twenty years, you could have predicted what this movie was about. I figured, how bad could it be? With Hugh Jackman starring, It's got to be a fun cross between "Transformers" and "Rocky." Well, the answer is that it's not terrible. But it's not just a gentle homage to the two incredibly successful movie franchises, but a blatant ripoff. The "Bots" look exactly like they were stolen from Michael Bay's private collection. And the screenwriter, John Gatins, seems to be obsessed with Sylvester Stallone. You can almost pick out the scenes that were plucked from the pages of Rocky, Rocky IV & Rocky V. But in reality, "Real Steel" has its roots firmly entrenched in a far less glamorous Sylvester Stallone vehicle called "Over The Top," a far-fetched yarn about a long-haul trucker who has to earn the respect of his oh-so-wise and precocious son (that he abandoned years ago) by entering a championship arm wrestling championship in a gaudy Las Vegas showdown. Oh, i forgot to mention that this arm wrestling trucker, named Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) tries to fight for custody for his son with the boys millionaire grandfather. Well, there you go, I just gave away the plot to "Real Steel." But lest I forget the most obvious "Rocky" ripoffs, a very beautiful Evangeline Lily plays "Adrienne," Her deceased boxing-trainer father plays the "Mickey" role, young Dakota Goyo, plays the "Robert," Rocky's son in 'Rocky V," and of course who can forgot the bad-guy champion robot is a dead-ringer for the evil Russian giant "Ivan Drago" in "Rocky IV" Just in case you were curious, he wears the same exact Ray-Bans that Stallone wore throughout the unfortunate movie "Cobra." Getting back to "Real Steel", for what it's worth, Hugh Jackman is one of the very few actors who can "open" a movie, but unfortunately, he has to fire his speech coach. Unfortunately this time around, his American accent is as transparent as Anne Hathaway's English (Scottish) accent in "One Day." I couldn't tell if his character, Charlie Kenton was supposed to hail from South Philly, like Rocky Balboa, or Brooklyn. And he was working at it so hard, that he forgot to act. He is very handsome and charismatic, and seriously has the whitest teeth I've ever seen, but I don't think he'll be playing Richard III any time soon.
He's also built like a professional body-builder. I've been a boxing fan for most of my life and boxers (with the one exception of Ken Norton 40 years ago) don't look like that. Just Google any fighter from Rocky Marciano to George Foreman. Boxers, especially heavyweights, don't have have "six-pack abs" or bulging veins on their bulging biceps. Even check out Rocky, or as it's now known as "Rocky I." Stallone was a big hulking guy who looked like a real boxer, which is one of the prime elements for it's iconic success. It's only when Stallone hired a personal trainer to try to replicate the musculature of Michelangelo's "David" did he set a new absurd standards in what men should look like with their shirts off. Forget boxers, human beings just don't look like "Rambo." But at least Stallone has made a career of looking like that. When did a long-haul trucker whose days are spent looking for robot parts in junk yards have time or money to hire the same personal trainer. It seems as if every man who takes his shirt off has to look like an underwear model. Jackman was supposed to be playing a washed-up ex-boxer whose claim to fame is that he got knocked out by the number one ranked contender to the champion. They even talk about his extremely unimpressive fight record. And since his retirement some fifteen years before, he's been trying, unsuccessfully, to make a living at Bot-boxing, in which giant metal robots take the blows. Does he stop at a Gold's gym in every city that he passes? To add insult to injury, Hope Davis is frighteningly miscast as the sister of his son's mother who is trying to adopt Max. Anthony Mackie,who practically stole the movie from Matt Damon in "The Adjustment Bureau," is electric as Finn, a small time fight promoter, and Evangeline Lily does as much as she can in the few scenes she's in. Most of the movie is the relationship between father and son, which is so predictable that it's a little scary.
What I do find seriously disheartening is that Steven Spielberg's name is splashed proudly across the screen as the "Executive Producer." I think that the man who has directed some of the best movies ever made should be more choosy about where he lends his well-deserved stamp of approval to. The Spielberg name is a brand. If the man is known to be involved in a movie, one has to assume a certain measure of brilliance. Without chipping away at his bearded visage on the cinematic Mt. Rushmore, the best director in the past fifty years has lent his name as Executive Producer to at least a dozen movies, not the least among them being "Men In Black II," all three "Transformers" movies, and "Cowboys and Aliens." Really?
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Crazy, Stupid, Love; a simple story ruined
I've come to the conclusion that Hollywood is incapable of producing a fully engrossing, delightfully simple "romantic comedy." "Crazy, Stupid, Love" makes the unfortunate mistake of presenting three touchingly believable stories along with three completely superfluous, "wacky" bad sit-com ones.Steve Carrell plays "Cal," the emasculated, depressed husband of his restlessly bored wife "Emily," played by the amazing Julianne Moore "Emily" who admits she has been cheating on "Cal" within the first few minutes of the movie and the couple spend the next 118 minutes trying to get back together. There are several genuinely charming, unaffected moments that allow us to see the chemistry Cal & Emily once had as a happily married couple.Ryan Gosling tries his superb, chameleon-like acting chops out on romantic comedy deeply involved in two of the three believable relationship with convincing ease. With a chiseled body, perfectly coiffed hair, million-dollar wardrobe and extraordinary good looks, Gosling "Jake" falls easily into the role of a disarmingly handsome, irresistibly charming cad. His confident playfulness reassures us that "Jake" is no mere shallow misogynist, he's simply a guy doing what he apparently does best. With a great deal of the action set in a chic cosmopolitan "glass-and-chrome" bar, Gosling, as the king of this castle, has yet to meet the woman who can say "no" to Jake's ultra-smooth "closing" line of "Wanna get outta here?" Witnessing Cal's self- pitying ineptitude, Jake decides to take him under his wing. Surrendering his credit card, Cal puts himself in Jake's hands for a confidence-building make-over. Gosling and Carrell's ensuing friendship is genuinely endearing as Cal progresses as Jake's protégé. The unthinkable happens when Jake becomes instantly smitten by the one woman who refuses his offer for casual sex. But to Jake's surprise and delight the same woman, "Hannah," played by the incandescent Emma Stone returns several days later, plants a big drunken kiss on Jake and insists that he take her home. In one of the movie's most charming scenes, Hannah giggles her way through Jake's mask of perfection, followed by both of them laughing at his admittedly canned and rehearsed seduction lines, with Jake finally admitting "What can I say? They work." Hannah and Jake don't have sex their first night together, allowing Jake the opportunity to begin to open up about himself for the first time, marking the beginning of their light and breezy, ever-deepening courtship. The problem with "Crazy, Stupid, Love," is that the writer Dan Fogelman and director Glenn Ficara didn't feel that these three stories in the hands of these four exceptional actors were sufficient to hold our attention. For some inexplicable reason, they felt the need to throw in Maris Tomei as the sex-starved schoolmarm "Kate," with whom Cal has his first successful one-night stand. She, of course, becomes the "one-night stand from hell," and "OMG!," turns out to be Cal's son's English teacher. In a disturbingly poorly written and poorly acted role, Ms.Tomei is so needlessly "over- the-top" as Cal's sex-partner turned "woman scorned" that she threatens to single- handedly destroys the credibility of the entire movie. Not quite finished, Mr. Fogelman and Mr. Ficarra felt the need to introduce John Carroll Lynch as the Cal & Emily's "wacky neighbor," who appears for the sole purpose of engaging Cal in a cringe-worthy backyard brawl. The fight is so absurdly contrived because the audience is well aware that Cal is the innocent victim, rather than the perpetrator of his neighbor's wrath. But worst of all, it wasn't funny. And as the coup de gras, they felt the need to throw Kevin Bacon into the mix as Emily's new boyfriend ("David Lindhagen.") His presence is so insignificant, that Ficarra and Fogelman must have been under laboring under the misconception that Mr. Bacon needed to add Carrell, Moore, Gosling and Stone to his famous "six degrees." The simple advice I would give to the movie makers of "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is "less is more." What could have been a delightful rom-com ends up as a convoluted mess. By editing out these pointless cliché-ridden characters, the four principals might have given us the streamlined, surprise hit of the summer, rather than yet another tepid, half-baked attempt at romantic comedy. Please refer to "Larry Crowne," "Friends With Benefits" and "No Strings Attached."
Brad Pitt hits one out of the park.
For those of you who may have forgotten that Brad Pitt is a great actor, welcome to "Moneyball." After what seems like a lifetime of being tabloid fodder for the paparazzi, it's easy to lose sight of Brad Pitt as one of our finest actors. Armed with a brilliant screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Pitt shows us just how completely he can dominate a screen for what is essentially a two hour and 13 minute one-man performance. In terms of the writing pedigree, refer to Steve Zaillian's "Schindler's List" and Sorkin's "The Social Network." What is of particular cinematic interest is the confident ease of Bennett Miller's direction, who's only other directorial credit was 2005's biopic "Capote," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
"Moneyball' is not a sports movie in the traditional sense, but really the story of one man and his relationship to the sport that he loves so much. Mr. Pitt portrays Billy Beane, a "bonus baby" for the NY Mets in 1980 (drafted by the Mets the same year as Darryl Strawberry.) However his career as a player never amounted to much. He ended up playing on four teams in four years with an anemic batting average of 218, with a grand total of 66 hits in 5 years. Beane's ignominious failure as a player haunted him throughout his adult life, as we learn in a series of flashbacks and his comment that signing with the Mets was the "last decision he would ever make for money."
Instead, Billy Beane made baseball history off the field. Long after his playing days were over, he ascended to the job of General Manager for the Oakland A's, the team with the lowest payroll in the baseball. And with the help of a young man (Jonah Hill) in his first job out of Yale, defying all baseball logic, develop a new, mathematically inspired method of putting a competitive team on the field without signing a single high-priced free agent, known as "Sabermetrics." It is this "front-office" brilliance and foresight that has made Billy Beane the baseball legend that his prodigious athletic talents never could.
It was delightful to see Jonah Hill in his first grown-up, non-comedic role. Hill and Pitt have an easy, comfortable relationship that grows convincingly throughout the film until they are essentially peers. Also of note is the adorable Kerris Dorsey (late of television's "Brothers and Sisters,") as Billy's precocious young daughter "Casey."
But all praise goes to the extraordinary Brad Pitt, looking every bit the ex-jock, with a wad of chewing tobacco firmly implanted in his lower lip, feeling most at home walking through the locker room as someone who has grown up in just such an environment. His easy-going delivery, and nice-guy demeanor makes Billy Beane a charming, lovable rogue that you are more than delighted to spend a couple of hours with. This is not a sports story in which you sit at the end of your seat anticipating a "9th inning home run" or a "12th round knockout," or a "last second basketball buzzer-beater." It is a thinking persons sports story about a flawed man haunted by his past failures, both as an athlete and a husband, who forever changes the game of baseball, long after his playing days are over.
Brad Pitt has truly hit one "out of the park" in Moneyball.
Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs reinvent the 1/2 hour sit-com.
It's not often that I laugh out loud at a half-hour sit-com. As a matter of fact, I think the last time might have been the first few years of "The Cosby Show." I loved "Entourage" and will sorely miss "Vince," "Ari," "E" and the gang, but that wasn't really a sit-com. But this week I received a delightful surprise. "2 Broke Girls" is truly hilarious. I mean laugh-out-loud hilarious. Kat Dennings was charming, smart and delightful in "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" with Michael Cera, and she was the the only reason to see the movie "Thor." The show does have an extraordinary advantage, being executive produced by Michael Patrick King (of "Sex & The City") and comedian Whitney Cummings who has her own self-titled sit-com "Whitney" coming out this week. Ms. Dennings plays "Max" a beautiful young waitress in a Brooklyn diner trying to make ends meet by moonlighting as a baby-sitter to an Manhattan socialite played by Brooke Lyons, who is also hilarious. Along walks Beth Behrs as Caroline, the daughter of a "Bernie Madoff-esque" character. She also has a more-than-vague resemblance to Paris Hilton. Caroline is now completely broke because "they" have frozen all the families assets. She literally owns what she is wearing. But instead of making her some ditzy airhead, we find out that she got a 2300 on her SATs and has a business degree from Wharton. The show starts out as a hilarious one woman show with Ms. Dennings showing off her finely honed comedy chops, and is slowly developed into a well-rounded story with Caroline establishing herself as Max's new friend and roommate. To relate any of Denning's brilliant, sarcastic one-liners would ruin it. But this is one sit-com to truly treasure. It's brilliantly written and brilliantly performed. Even the smallest touches are wonderful. Garrett Morris (late of "Saturday Night Live") is hilarious as the check-out clerk. He might have only had 3-4 lines, but they were memorable to mention here. Kudos to Kat Dennings & Beth Behrs. Lucy & Ethel for the 21st century.