Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Super 8 - (2011) - Cinema Review (9.5/10)

Simply Super
It's been a while since I felt compelled to write a film review. There has been so much mediocrity in recent months, that I simply haven't felt the enthusiasm, but Super 8 has compelled me.

Set in the late 70s, Super 8 is helmed by writer and director J.J. Abrams, probably better known as the main force behind the series Lost, and the recent reboot of Star Trek. The film follows a group of pre-teen/teen kids as they make their own movie on 'super 8' film (For those who don't know, think of it as the handycam format of its day). In the process of filming a scene, they witness a terrible train crash. As it turns out, their camera filmed something mysterious in the wreckage. The military begin to take over the local area, looking for something that has escaped, whilst our young protagonists begin to solve the mystery themselves as increasingly strange things happen across their town.

The gang discuss the train crash
To put it simply, Super 8 is a nostalgic nod back to the days of E.T., Goonies, Explorers and a whole host of children's films from the late 70s and 80s. Films that captured the essence of childhood, mystery and adventure in a wonderful concoction of feel-good-fun. Bluntly, it has been far too long since someone made a film like Super 8. It is in a different league to even Harry Potter, reminding its viewers how children's films should be made.

Witnessing the super 8 film for the first time
I'll get the very minor flaws out of the way, first. The pivotal train crash of the movie is absurdly over-the-top. To the point where it feels out of place, given the setting and atmosphere of the rest of the movie. It felt like something Michael Bay would have looked at and said “Let's take this down a notch or two.” On top of that, essential characters, vehicles and equipment escape with barely a minor scratch, crack, or bit of dust. Secondly, the tired 'evil humans/military' plot device is overused. It is acceptable given the nostalgic setting and style, but that doesn't stop it being a cliché. Thirdly, J.J. Abrams has brought in his regular associate, Michael Giacchino, to compose the soundtrack. Unfortunately, whilst serviceable, Giacchino doesn't seem to be able to capture the grandeur of those he is following. With Star Trek, he was walking in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner (at his peak). With Super 8, he is very much following in the footsteps of Goldsmith again, and especially John Williams. Unfortunately, Giacchino just hasn't reached those heights, and fails to embody the musical sense of wonder that could have accentuated events even more effectively. In fact, the music used in the trailer (By James Horner from the film Cocoon) exemplifies this, because the film's own music can't quite compare.

Strange cubes...
Having said all that, I have to stress these are minor flaws in an otherwise superb film. One element that truly helps the atmosphere, is its period setting (Which makes me feel extremely old!). It is a perfect time in which to capture a sense of wonder and enthusiasm, where you can still have pre-teen characters who are not as jaded as their modern counterparts would be. They still have a sense of innocence and lack any contemporary cynicism.

Watching the military clean-up of the train crash
Joel Courtney is excellent as the lead character, Joe Lamb. He looks and acts the part perfectly, not once feeling out of place in the late 70s world. However, the real stand out is perhaps Elle Fanning (Sister of Dakota Fanning) who nails the part of 'token girl in the group of boys', without feeling like a 'let's appeal to the girls too' addition. Sometimes in these kind of films, the romantic interest for the young male can often come over as excessively mature, or at the very least the archetypal 'inaccessible school beauty'. Although there is a hint of this in her first introduction, after that point she is simply one of the gang. The romance (such as it is for this type of film) feels completely natural and sweet.

The film as a whole builds its pace nicely, never rushing things for the sake of getting to the whiz-bang effects. Super 8 definitely puts its story and characters first, allowing them to pull us into its adventure and mystery all the deeper. The nods to its inspirations are often clear, but never blatant to the point of copying. For example, a family scene around a table with misbehaving children is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there are echoes of Invaders from Mars, a character similar to the young lead of Critters, a shot overlooking the town at night that is clearly a wink to a shot in E.T., as well as numerous other films. However, these 'nods' work extremely well. They tread the fine line between drawing a smile of familiar nostalgia, without pulling you out of the film by being too obvious.

The standard by which many contemporary children's films are compared, tends to be Harry Potter. So with that in mind, I will say this. If someone told me they could only see the final Harry Potter film or Super 8, and asked which they should see, I would recommend Super 8 without a second's thought. There isn't even really a comparison. The unbridled enthusiasm and fun of the character's short film over the end credits, sums it up perfectly (Remember to stay in your seat and watch).

Watching in wonder
It is possible that modern youngsters may find Super 8 too slow or lacking in immediate special effects (Which could explain the over-enthusiastic train crash). However, I hope they give it a chance. This is the way children's films used to be, and there are no reasons why they can't be again. They embody a childhood sense of wonder, excitement, mystery, adventure and friendship that will entrance the young into dreaming of their own adventures, whilst whisking the old back to the best moments of their youth.


Image Credit: © 2011 Paramount Pictures

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - (2011) - Cinema Review (6.5/10)

Is it in B&W?
The Harry Potter franchise finally draws to a close, under the guiding hand of David Yates, who essentially took over directorship of the films since 'The Order of the Phoenix'. This time around, Hogwarts school of wizardry is under attack. In previous instalments we've seen a variety of locations. This time round, apart from a few early events, we're essentially treated to a siege movie.

The big question is, does it succeed at rounding off the story successfully? I'll say yes, but it's a tentative yes. This final film is a very mixed bag. Overall, the film structure feels like a series of ticked boxes. Step by step, covering exactly what needed covering, without any real passion or feeling. Don't get me wrong, the film is technically brilliant. It is slickly made, and highly polished. The acting is sometimes excellent and certainly never less than serviceable, even from the often criticized Daniel Radcliffe, but honestly, I don't know what else he could have been expected to do. Almost all of the characters you can think of, get their little moments, though in many cases they feel shoehorned in for the sake of completeness, without any real care for the characters or emotions involved.

Facing Voldemort
Unfortunately, the films no longer feel like children's films, even though that is their primary audience. Despite the subject matter, there is no 'magic' in Harry Potter any more. The content is dark and tough, but even that could have been managed in a less heavy handed and more nuanced way. You only need to see the way a film such as Super 8 deals with the difficult subject of a child tragically losing a parent in far more raw and realistic way than Harry Potter has ever done, but uses that to accentuate the film's themes and characters without losing its charm or child-like wonder. One scene in Harry Potter even treats its viewers to a bloody foetal figure in a setting reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's finale.

A grey world
David Yates seems to have decided that the only way to cover the darker subject matter, is to quite literally make the film dark. The final instalment feels as though it could have been filmed in black and white with the projector bulb turned down. They have desaturated the colours and darkened the picture so mechanically, it feels less moody than simply eye-straining. There is a trend for giving modern films an overall tint, such as sepia or teal, which is fast reaching over-use. In this case, Yates has just decided to drain the life from the picture. One shot especially stood out for me. A dramatic panning shot across the embattled bridges of Hogwarts as magical forces faced off against one another. It should have been epic and awe inspiring, but I could hardly make out what was going on, it was so dark and monotone. In contrast, the most moody and sombre scenes in the Lord of the Rings films feel vibrantly colourful, yet those are adult fantasy films. Heck, classic horror films like The Thing, Alien, Halloween, The Shining, feel like they were made in bright day-glow paints in comparison.

Professor Snape
One character and scene stands out in the final film, which I will give it credit for. This deals with the fate of Professor Snape, played by Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Truly Madly Deeply, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Without spoiling it for those who don't know, his story is by far the most poignant and moving. In most cases, the demise or success of other characters is dealt with in an almost throwaway manner.

Nearly Forgotten
Another under-developed element was the 'romance'. It was obvious from the first film, that Harry would probably end up with Ginny, yet eight films later, we still have practically no development on that front. It simply 'happened' for plot convenience a film or two ago (I can't remember which one), without being given the screen time to justify it (I presume that the books may have given it more depth).

Under Siege
The ending of the film also feels somewhat rushed. To compare The Lord of the Rings again, those films have been criticized for having too many long endings. The final film covers every character's eventual fate in great detail, and takes plenty of time to do so. After eight films, Harry Potter gets a somewhat forgettable 'The Next Generation' scene.

I know the Harry Potter films were intended to become darker and grittier as time passed and its characters grew older, but there is no excuse for losing the vibrant sense of magical fun that permeated the first few films.

He Who Must Not Be Named
(Otherwise known as Voldemort)
All I can say, is that it is a serviceable film. It works on the most basic levels, even if it never reaches beyond those. If you have collected the series up till now, it makes for an acceptable if lacklustre conclusion. Nothing more, nothing less.


Image Credit: © 2011 Warner Bros. Pictures

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Monday, 8 August 2011

In Memoriam

I haven't made any updates for a while, because my mother recently passed away. Somehow, posting about it on my blog seemed too trivial. Yet likewise, just carrying on as normal after a pause without saying anything, felt wrong as a well.

So I shall try to keep it simple. She will be remembered and loved always, by her friends and family. She was an inspiration for me in so many ways, whilst being supportive, enthusiastic and proud of my endeavours.

How many people can say that their parent, in their 70s, still enjoyed watching Harry Potter to Legally Blonde, read Terry Pratchett, played on their Nintendo DS, and instantly got the joke when you quoted some miscellaneous film reference such as “If Matrix was here, he'd laugh too” or mentioned a scruffy looking Nerf herder? Few, I can imagine.

She will always remain an inspiration, a moral guide, and someone I shall endeavour to make proud.

From the stars we came,
To the stars we return.

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.