Archive for December, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Starring- Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan

Director- Terrence Malick

PG-13- some thematic material



I love that I opened this review saying that I thought I had good taste in music. This was 2011. I still listened to Christian music sometimes in 2011. Anyway. It amuses me how flowery I got whenever I reviewed something “serious.” I stopped using contractions and put the word “certainly” in front of every sentence. I forced bad poetic observations in wherever I could. These days, even when I’m reviewing something very serious or “artistic,” I’m more than happy to lead with a dumb joke and get a little more serious later on. Even then, I think I write pretty casually. Writing isn’t so much developing a voice, I think, as it is figuring out what your voice already is and embracing it. On the movie: I ultimately never got around to seeing it again. I’m still, admittedly, not into more “abstract” films like this. I did see “Days of Heaven” recently and really liked it, so maybe I’m starting to understand Malick a little better.

I am not a music critic. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s not that I think my taste in music is bad. I actually think it’s pretty good, but then again, I would think that.

But I am terrible at interpreting music artistically. I’m used to narrative, conveying ideas in a concrete way, showing me images of people doing, saying, and experiencing things, causing me to think critically and draw my own conclusions.

Music, though, from a lyrical perspective, tends to be more abstract—series of lines that don’t always seem connected but often are. Whether they mean something or are trying to create a mood is left up to interpretation. That’s a big part of the fun for some people, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them that; there’s beauty in it. But it’s never been for me.

Why do I bring this up? Well, it matches almost exactly my feelings about “The Tree of Life.” One musical group I enjoy is Florence + the Machine. When I’m listening to their songs, my reaction usually isn’t, “Yes, I totally understand what this song is about, and I relate to it.” It’s more like, “I haven’t a clue on Earth what this means, but it sure does sound pretty.”

That’s kind of how I felt about “The Tree of Life.” Most of the time, I had no clue what was going on and did not understand the information that was being conveyed to me, and yet, I found it strangely mesmerizing.

As such, I don’t necessarily feel as though I’m fully equipped to review it. I’ve put it off for nearly a week now, trying to think it through. Many other beautiful reviews have been written; Roger Ebert’s would make for a great start. I have no such insight. I am still new to this, and unused to the concept of the “art film,” whatever that might be.

None of that is intended to suggest that I didn’t pick up on some of the film’s themes and that I don’t have thoughts as to how it could’ve been better. I will do my best to discuss those in full. Consider all of this, then, an extended disclaimer—I do not know what I am talking about. I will talk about it anyway. Such does one grow in one’s understanding of the arts.

As I have discussed this film, mainly online, one perspective has emerged rather prominently as how a Terrence Malick production ought to be viewed: it is an experience, meant to be felt rather than decoded and picked apart for its meaning. I have pondered this extensively in an attempt to determine where it fits with regards to “The Tree of Life.”

Certainly this film is more like poetry or music than actual storytelling. That is why, in part, I feel as though my perspective on it is uneducated. I would love to hear the thoughts of an actual poet or musician on this film, as they might better interpret it.

It does have a certain rhythm to it. Throughout, it feels a lot like poetry. It brilliantly mixes sound and visuals to haunting and beautiful effect. It’s the sort of movie that, love it or hate it, its imagery is going to stick with you. And it has me, despite my own mixed feelings about the film itself. It is frequently gorgeous, special mention going to the spectacular creation scene—or whatever you might call it. It depicts the Earth coming into being and does so with a sense of scale, wonder, beauty, and even violence that is unrivaled in modern cinema. This is an incredible moment, regardless of what one thinks of the film itself.

And I will agree with the aforementioned perspective—much of the imagery does not seem to convey meaning. It is designed to create a mood, an experience. It does so well, for the most part. I found it enchanting. But there is, in my opinion, a minor problem with its degree of abstraction. The naturalistic imagery is the most effective, fitting well with the film’s themes and clear evocation of life’s experience. Still, every now and again, the film decides to completely lose its mind and convey something less realistic and tangible—an image of a house underwater, with a boy swimming out of it. A woman who is flying in circles for no good reason. It is as abstract as a random shot of a field of sunflowers, but it is still less real. It took me from the moment. But it is a small thing—as poetry, music, or whatever you would call this, exactly, “The Tree of Life” is undeniably effective, haunting and beautiful.

However, there is also a narrative, to a degree. It involves a family that receives tragic news about the death of one of its sons, and the direction their lives take afterwards. It’s seen in retrospect through the eyes of another son (Sean Penn), now a grown man, who reminisces about his childhood and takes us back to the 1950s, to his home and his parents.

It is here that the primary theme emerges. The marketing campaign emphasized this part of the film—the way of nature, and the way of grace. Ostensibly, the way of nature is represented by the young boys’ hard-edged, authoritarian father (Brad Pitt), and the way of grace shines through in their kindly mother (Jessica Chastain, who is apparently determined to be in all the movies). It is worth mentioning here, if only briefly, that Brad Pitt has not received enough recognition for his role; it is his best work in years, the first time in a while I could truly say I saw him as a character rather than Brad Pitt.

The film portrays both these approaches to life, clearly favoring the way of grace. Those who choose the way of nature find themselves alone, with no one to turn to when things grow dark. What is interesting to me is how the film seems to equate the way of nature with the way of justice. In a sense, it is really about the conflict between justice and mercy. Justice, after all, is what’s supposed to happen, what we both deserve to do and deserve to have done to us. Grace, obviously, would be the subversion, doing unto others what they need to have done, even if they don’t deserve it. The way of nature/justice favors the strongest, the fastest, the smartest—they’ve climbed the ladder, earned their way to its top.

There is a scene shortly following the creation sequence that has been widely mocked. It shows one dinosaur, a predator, approaching another one that is sick and wounded. The predator, instead of eating it, pities it and shows it mercy. Many have found this scene silly, but I think that’s actually the point of the scene. It shows how grace is a powerful subversion of nature, something we don’t expect to happen. It’s not supposed to happen that way. The strong survive, and the weak pass on.

The film does not speak positively of those people who choose the way of nature. They may find success, but when the tides turn, and they realize how they have harmed the “weaker” among them, they find themselves truly alone—indeed, weakened. Nature is unstable; to choose to play solely by its rules can lead only to destruction. In that sense, this film is the perfect antidote to “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.”

There are other themes as well, though less pronounced. It’s clear that “The Tree of Life” is the sort of film that will mean different things to different people. On that level, I will confess, quite openly, that for much of its running time, I was lost. Things were happening that I didn’t quite understand or relate to. It certainly does a beautiful job of conveying the experiences of life from birth to death; in that sense, it is universal. I suspect that my own emotional distance from the film perhaps stemmed from the fact that I am twenty years old, and don’t have a whole lot of actual life experience to compare it to. Perhaps if I revisit this in forty years, I will find it far more resonant.

It is interesting to examine the film’s religious aspects. Though they did not get me thinking as intensely as the idea of grace and nature, there were still very personal for me. I know little of Terrence Malick; it seems that no one really does. But watching “The Tree of Life,” I get the impression he and I have had a very similar religious experience. It is difficult to explain that without sharing my entire life’s story, which I am not presently wont to do. But his characters ask questions and approach faith and doubt in the same way I do and have always done. As such, these elements of the film resonated with me far more deeply.

Where does it go wrong? That is the question. I ultimately have mixed feelings about it, and it’s difficult to articulate why. Certainly it is a divisive film that is going to mean different things to different people—or perhaps nothing at all. It is not the sort of film I could pick apart on the level of story or characters and directly say, “This could have been done differently to make it better.” Perhaps a critic of music or poetry could do a better job of that.

For me, though, it stems back to the original perspective, that Malick’s films ought to be viewed as experiences rather than messages to be decoded. My problem with that argument is that I think “The Tree of Life” tries to be both.

I have made clear in the past that I am no fan of abstract art. As such, it will probably come as a surprise when I say that the problem here is actually the story, or whatever you’d call it. The problem is that it begins as a mere experience, and spends the first half hour or so being exactly that. It creates impressions of moments and situations, from small family interactions to the vastness of the universe itself. Indeed, it is not necessarily meant to be decoded; it is an attempt at creating pure, mesmerizing beauty.

But then, it throws in this story-like element, and introduces the ways of nature and grace. At that point, it clearly becomes something to be studied, thought about, discussed—what does it mean? What is it saying? What does it mean for us?

And the problem is that it then, for the rest of its running time, swings persistently back and forth between evoking experience and conveying meaning. Those are two entirely different mindsets, but it leaves the viewers with no clues as to when they ought to stop seeing something as beautiful and start seeing it as profound. Some things are to be interpreted; others are not. It does not, in my opinion, juxtapose them very well.

I could also say that it is probably about an hour too long, but it seems like so trifling a complaint at this point. “The Tree of Life” is deeply flawed. It is also very beautiful, in equal or perhaps greater measure.

I won’t lie—I think part of my aversion to this film is that it just isn’t my thing. I enjoy movies that explore abstract concepts, just not the ones that do so in abstract ways. Symbolism tends to put up a wall of interpretation that forces me to focus more on what a film is saying than what it actually means. I find it off-putting, though I understand in full why others think the experience rewarding. And it is a beautiful and provocative, though deeply personal, work of art. It is undeniably mesmerizing, like the most beautiful of songs. It appeals to the experiences in life that are universal to all of us, and it captures the exact feeling of them—the way they smelled, tasted, sounded, and felt.

But it has a message, too. And I had trouble getting past that wall of interpretation. I was fully willing to go where the film took me if it wanted to create a mood, or meditate upon its themes if it wanted to explore them, but I wasn’t prepared to have to do both at once. That’s where I got lost.

Nevertheless, it is worth seeing, for two reasons. The first is that, while not universal, to those whose hearts and minds are similar to Terrence Malick’s, this film is extremely likely to become an eternal favorite. It is also likely to be enjoyable to those who simply want to bask in the purity of its beauty, which rarely relents throughout its running time.

And the second reason is that I am an idiot, and probably wrong about everything I just said. I can no more criticize “The Tree of Life” than I could review one of Bach’s symphonies. It is foreign to me—foreign, and yet, utterly beautiful.

-Matt T.

*NOTE–My next review is likely to be “Cowboys and Aliens.” And I am definitely ready to write a frivolous two-pager again. When was the last time I did that, anyway? 

Warrior (2011)

Starring- Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn, Maximilliano Hernandez

Director- Gavin O’Connor

PG-13- sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material



Sorry for the spoilers. In my defense, the freaking box art spoils the ending as well. Anyway, apart from my statement that this movie doesn’t couch some of its emotions in blatant cheese…I stand by this. I fully believe “Warrior” to be one of the most underrated films of the last several years.

“Warrior” is like someone called a mulligan on “The Fighter.” Don’t believe me? By way of comparison:

The leads are two brothers, Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton). Brendan is a stoic family man, settled and trying to stay that way. Tommy is anything but—a lonely, aggravated loose cannon with nowhere to call his home and few people to call loved ones. Both are fighters—or at least were. Brendan has been out of that game for a while. But Tommy is preparing for his first go at it.

(And I am not trying to insinuate that boxing and mixed martial arts fighting are the same thing, because seriously, MMA fans, I will never make that mistake again. I promise.)

They were managed and trained by a parental figure—in this case, their father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). He was an alcoholic then, recovering now. The more important fact is that he caused both boys a large and irreparable amount of damage. They haven’t seen him or one another in well over a decade.

But Tommy’s attempted rise pulls him back in. He starts to train him, which puts him on a collision course with Brendan, who is attempting to start a life with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and two young daughters.

Do you see what I mean? The differences, as I have noted, are these: the parental figure is a father rather than a mother, he is a former addict rather than a current one (and to a different drug), it is the quiet and reserved brother who is making a comeback rather than the brash and energetic one, and said brother currently has a family rather than the makings of one. Beyond that, the groundwork is almost entirely the same.

And that is absolutely, in every conceivable way, not a complaint.

“Warrior” could stand to be more original, it’s true. But I don’t care, because it’s the movie “The Fighter” should’ve been. I didn’t think much of that one; I think the world of this one. It is strong in all the same ways, while almost systematically addressing all the complaints I had about the latter film. Even given its critical acclaim, I would not hesitate to call it severely underrated. It might be one of the year’s best films.

Both “Warrior” and “The Fighter” showed us broken worlds populated by broken people and broken families. The family in “Warrior” could no longer be called one—Paddy’s alcoholism drove his wife away, and she died with Tommy alone at her side. He blames older brother Brendan for this, for staying with his father after the split. If anything could be said for the family in “The Fighter,” at least they were still together.

But whereas “The Fighter” showed us a deep, dark hole and said, “Yup—this sure is a deep dark hole,” “Warrior” dares to suggest that the light could shine even there. And it does so largely without melodrama, and almost entirely without falling back on overly convenient resolutions. This is not a film that ends with forced tears, with the two brothers falling into their father’s embrace with tearful apologies and platitudes all around, followed by a “where they are now” epilogue in which Paddy cradles his grandchildren while Tommy and Brendan reminisce about the good old days as if nothing at all had happened. No, “Warrior” ends with a mere suggestion, showing us in at least two moments, in the actions of the three, that there is hope yet. It does not insinuate that any such resolution will be easy. It only lights the spark and waits for the audience to do the rest—challenging rather than handing the whole ordeal over on a silver platter. Relationships take a lifetime to build and can be destroyed in a single moment. These characters have spent a lifetime destroying their relationships; it will take no less than a lifetime to restore them. It will take hard work rather than happy coincidences. But, in the film’s final moments, we see that it’s possible.

Of the three characters, the largest amount of the Oscar buzz has centered on Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon. Such a nomination would be well deserved. I am more familiar with Nolte through his reputation than his work and didn’t know what to expect from his performance here, but it is wonderful. I anticipated the standard bitter, gruff, abrasive ex-drunk. What I got was something else entirely. Paddy is not the star of the movie; in fact, he probably has the least time on screen of the three. But his character is the most fascinating by far.

Nolte plays him with fragility. Paddy’s drinking days are behind him; he is legitimately trying to do good by others and earn his place in the world. He tries to find his way back into the lives of his boys. He’s learned how to love them, but he cannot bear the fact that they may never love him back. Both are harsh to him—Tommy telling him to his face why he is despised and deserving of it, and Brendan keeping him at arm’s length from the grandchildren he’s never met. He totters about from situation to situation, thirsty and begging for love but being constantly rebuffed.

He is always listening to an audiobook of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In his darkest moment, we learn why. He screams at Ahab, tells him to turn the ship around before everything is destroyed, to stop chasing the white whale. What the white whale represents is uncertain—his alcoholism, his pursuit of fighting glory? Who knows? But he is gripped by the inevitability of it all. He knows what comes after—the hollowness, the loneliness. He knows what his own pursuit of self did to his sons.

It is when that hint of possible reconciliation occurs that we see Paddy finding a shred of peace. What he wants is his sons’ love; what he truly needs is for the damage he did to them to be healed. It is in that selfless moment, seeing their joy and knowing that he cannot share in it, that he offers up what might be his first and only genuine smile in the film.

The performances surrounding his are similarly brilliant. Tom Hardy establishes himself here as a talent to watch. It’s a long step from smarmy British guy Eames (“Inception”) to blue collar ex-Marine, and he pulls it off seamlessly. Joel Edgerton, too, is likable as the closest thing the movie has to an everyman. I would need to see him in other roles, though, to determine if he is a truly excellent actor or just really good at playing Joel Edgerton.

“Warrior” has a more interesting finale than “The Fighter” as well. I am, as I have said, constantly aggravated by the glorification of fighting-based sports in which the primary objective is to beat one’s opponent beyond functionality. I don’t think they appeal to the best part of human nature. “The Fighter” pitted its likable protagonist against an arrogant opponent who repeatedly insulted him prior to the match. The climax of “Warrior” works differently.

The impetus of the film’s plot is derived from an exclusive tournament designed to find the toughest man in the world, the prize for which is a neat five million dollars. Brendan needs the money because the bank is threatening foreclosure on his home. Tommy needs it for his own reasons—and, in a small way, to prove himself. The audience identifies with both men and wants both to win, in varying degrees. Both have everything to lose. It is inevitable that they will come face-to-face for the grand prize; the trailers have made no secret of that.

What happens is no ordinary action climax. It becomes less about the fight and more about the relationship. It goes on and on, well past the point where one of them becomes very seriously injured. Neither lets up. One doesn’t want to fight; the other needs to.

They find themselves on the floor, arms entangled, one brother trying to force a tap. At this point, the audience wants only for these two not to hurt one another. And it is in that moment that the film finds its most redemptive scene.

It’s a shame that what comes before that certainly does glorify the sport, almost goofily so. The two brothers climb the ladder by battling through fight movie staples such as the stoic and unstoppable Russian and the excessive loudmouth with a ridiculous nickname. These scenes are clearly meant simply to be enjoyed. That’s troublesome.

It’s not hard to poke holes in the plot’s logic, either. It is difficult to accept that two brothers, one a novice, the other well out of practice, could even make it into so exclusive a tournament, let alone defeat nigh invincible world champions to meet one another in the title bout.

But it is not, in the end, the occasionally overlong fight scenes that contain the heart of the film. The heart of the film is in its relationships—broken, complex, but hopeful. Its heart is in its characters, who are suitably compelling. The film certainly embraces its clichés, but it earns them on the back of raw emotion. As befits a film with its title, “Warrior” holds nothing back.


-Matt T.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (2011)

Starring- Taylor Shilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Michael Lerner, Jon Polito, Jsu Garcia, Graham Beckel, Edi Gathegi, Rebecca Wisocky, Christina Pickles, Neill Barry, Joel McKinnon Miller

Director- Paul Johansson

PG-13- some sexuality


“Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” is like an ingeniously contrived trap for movie reviewers, because, you see, nobody really expects me to talk about the movie. Oh, no, the vast majority expects me to talk about my ideology so that they can, based on that ideology, determine whether or not I am “unfairly biased” (read: disagree with their unfair bias) and what, therefore, they ought to think of my opinion—fair, loving review, or a partisan hack job. Not that those desperately hoping for a negative review are any better, or would treat me any differently should I disagree.

Well, unfortunately for all of you, I’m not nearly so controversial. My profile calls me a moderate, and I meant every word of it. I am an expert at taking both sides, or perhaps neither. I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing while watching “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.” And yet, regardless of my actual ideological feelings, the film provoked an uncommon rage in me, the kind I didn’t think a depiction of fictional events could inspire. It didn’t take me long to realize why that was—it is ninety minutes of everything I hate about politics, and a lot of what I hate about poor filmmaking.

Conservative audiences—stay your hand. Give me a bit to explain what I mean by that (and probably still tick you off anyway). Then leave me your angry comments, because they’re better than none at all.

I should start with the necessary information—I have not read “Atlas Shrugged.” I do not plan to do so. It is far easier to go online and research objectivism than to put myself through a novel that ostensibly contains a seventy-page monologue on economic theory. I hesitate to even call such a thing a “novel,” as that would imply the presence of story and characters and themes, portrayed subtly, which generally inhibits one’s ability to monologue on the free market at a length exceeding multiple Shakespeare soliloquies. If you’re going to write a political treatise, write a political treatise.

And I’ll just be honest—love or hate “Atlas Shrugged,” you have to admit that this book most likely cannot be filmed. It barely lends itself to book format; it’s not going to translate well to the silver screen.

Do you want me to talk about the technical problems of the film? I’m not sure there’s a point, given that both sides of the debate at least to some extent think critics make up said problems to serve a political end. Nevertheless, for discussion’s sake, I should start by saying that the story is paper-thin and uninteresting. There is next to nothing at stake. It is a film about rich people having rich people problems. The plot mainly involves corporate executive Dagny Taggart (Taylor Shilling) trying to build a railroad out of an untested metal produced by Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler). Both stake their careers on it and are persistently obstructed by government bureaucrats. Nevertheless, they are swimming in their millions and probably would not suffer too much if they failed. The film invents the reason that it’s simply about “owning” something, which is a flimsy foundation, since the story could not in good conscience suggest that they are doing it for the betterment of mankind.

It is the first act of a three-act story (to the extent that a seventy-page monologue can be called part of an “act”), and it cannot help but feel as such. The movie ends the moment it threatens to become interesting. Before that—nothing. It’s impossibly boring, completely uninterested in human emotions. A lot of people talk about business, and that’s pretty much it. Taylor Shilling and Grant Bowler are absolute charisma vacuums, possessing all the spark of a broken toaster. Bowler might improve under better direction, but Shilling seems hopelessly robotic. On top of that, the presentation is standard, showing little imagination, nothing visually arresting. It’s not terrible, though, just unmemorable and made like a cheap TV movie.

But again, that’s probably not why you’re here. You want me to talk about my ideology, and I’m simply not going to do so. Nevertheless, this movie ticked me off. In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect representation of the current political climate—divided straight down the middle and pulled clear to the sides, with me or against me, black and white, cut and dry. The far right and far left—and I do mean far—are the only ideologies that exist in this movie’s worldview. It’s hard to watch the film and not notice that the main characters seem to oppose nearly all government regulation, even where it begins to make sense on the level of a compelling interest. Even worse are the antagonists, who are so comically socialist (and have such powerful and efficient control over our largely ineffectual government that I began to wonder when Lord Voldemort was going to put in an appearance) that they no longer qualify as the average American liberal—they go far beyond that, to a point where they are, in reality, the marginal extreme, incapable of wielding that kind of power or carrying that kind of presence in government. Most modern American liberals would never take it as far as these guys. And the movie simply refuses to acknowledge that anyone exists in between these two extremes.

It oversimplifies the inherent complexities of the economic system, which are the very reasons we have economic theory and people who devote their lives to studying it. It drags the whole thing down to an insulting level. It is not interested in whyconservative policies are better for the system; they simply are. We are presented with a crumbling world, told that liberals and socialists are to blame, and then left completely hanging. I’m sure the book gets into more depth on this subject, but the movie doesn’t, and that’s what I’m here to review. News outlets such as FOX News have spoken of this movie like it was blacklisted—“the movie Hollywood doesn’t want you to see.” Utter nonsense. If you see this movie and are convinced to change your worldview, you are an idiot. That has nothing to do with its political ideology, but rather with the fact that it does not at any point stop and make a genuine argument for it. It simply says, “This is just the way things are.”

Disagree with that political ideology? Well, you’re either stupid or evil. “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” goes straight for the “probably evil” angle and presents the opposition as almost comically evil: fat, greedy politicians huffing on cigars, mustachioed cartoon villains speaking in husky rasps, and whining, entitled children. This is where the movie went from “boring me to death” to “actively ticking me off.”

There has been nothing more detrimental to the American political dialogue than this mindset, which has become ridiculously pervasive. As people become more and more entrenched in their sides, usually along the lines of Republicans and Democrats, the debate becomes less about finding solutions and more about defending territory. We ignore what the other side has to say because we are too busy prepping our counterattack. It forces us into such a black and white worldview that we, failing to understand our opposition’s argument, come to the conclusion that our beliefs are simply so self-evident that in refusing to agree with them, one is required to be either deliberately malicious or lazily ignorant. It comes from both sides, and far too heavily. I refuse partisan identification strictly for this reason—I don’t want it to become a part of my identity. I’ve seen myself become territorial over it; I don’t want to go back there again.

“Atlas Shrugged” seems only to encourage this mindset. That’s why it angers me. One does not have to broaden his or her social circle much to find out how clearly and apparently untrue it is that our opponents are scoundrels and morons. I have known intelligent and friendly people on both sides. It is simply impossible that so diverse a population as the United States of America could so easily be split into two homogenized groups. Is there even any place in that world for those of us in the middle?

It doesn’t seem like “Atlas Shrugged” thinks so. Whatever its political ideology, which was entirely irrelevant in forming my opinion of it, its arrogance and pandering to the worst aspects of our political culture stand out as its true flaws. It preaches to the choir and doesn’t do it well. The only persuasive influence I could see it having would be a corruptive one. It is not the worst film I have seen this year, not by a mile, but it is one of the most aggravating.

-Matt T.

*I would’ve liked in this review to talk about my problems with the tenets of objectivism itself. Conservative political ideology doesn’t bother me. I agree with parts of it, and the parts I disagree with I acknowledge do have a logical basis. I suppose objectivism has a similar basis; nevertheless, I disagree with it far more strongly. At the same time… It is far too early in my blogging career to start getting in-depth about politics. I’m not well equipped for controversy.

*I have no idea why the images keep going in and out. It’s not doing that on my Google Sites page. I’ll try to figure that out, but again, I’m an idiot with computers.

Super 8 (2011)

Starring- Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, David Gallagher, Jessica Tuck, Joel McKinnon Miller

Director- J.J. Abrams

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use



I’ve already knocked this one down a category, so I’ve obviously fallen out of love with it a bit. Mostly, I think it’s a good movie about kids having adventures while making their own home movie…that also has a giant monster, for some reason. Also, I called J.J. Abrams one of the greats in this review and…even for that time in my life, I can’t imagine why I thought that. I mean, he’s good, most of the time, but “great” is a status we reserve for, like, Martin Scorsese. In addition, I was dumb and did not know that “Captain America: The First Avenger” is actually pretty good. Also, LOL, 2011 Me who was still vaguely optimistic about “The Hobbit.” You poor bastard.

J.J. Abrams should be proud of himself. I think. He’s joined some very nearly-esteemed company, currently including Gore Verbinski and… Actually, it’s pretty much just them, off the top of my head. Maybe Peter Jackson, depending on how “The Hobbit” goes. What do they have in common? I’m going to start nit-picking the crap out of them.

The reason for that is, as of “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams has established himself as being very nearly one of the greats of the current generation. He’s not there yet. But he’s so bursting with potential that I literally think there’s nothing more important he could do for his career than to read his criticisms and study them carefully. He still has his requisite flaws, rearing their ugly heads in each of his movies. This keeps them from complete greatness. And it’s true of “Super 8.” But he is brimming with cinematic hope—particularly regarding summer blockbusters, a genre that has been suffering lately.

Oh, “Super 8” is not original. It is what it is—nostalgia, homage, all that jazz. But it made me nostalgic and thus—success. It reminded me why I used to love summer movies. It becomes easy to forget.

It grasps a central truth that other similarly nostalgic pieces, such as the recent “Captain America: The First Avenger,” lose. Nostalgia is not merely reminding us of the films we once loved, recreating their trappings—visuals, acting, score, etc. Oh, this is part of it, and “Super 8” basically gets that. But what I’ve described is a hollow imitation. What you need to capture is their spirit, and “Super 8” does exactly that. It remembers what it’s like to have a movie brimming with mystery. It remembers when an adventure could be taken seriously while retaining its sense of humor. It remembers that a movie can be both scary and touching. It drops the pretense, the irony, the slam-banging of pyrotechnics and CGI (okay…mostly).

It gets that nostalgia is about appealing to a place inside all of us, one that’s not merely contingent upon whether or not you’ve seen the movies it’s evoking. This is a movie that is first and foremost about childhood. There just happens to be an alien monster in the mix.

And the kids are great. J.J. Abrams has said that this movie is at least partially based on his childhood (I imagine there were fewer alien monsters). That shows; it has that right amount of soul. It’s a bit like “A Christmas Story,” if not necessarily to the same extent, in that its approach to childhood is universal. We all had these experiences, these friends, these little moments. It’s one of those films where you can look at the cast and figure out who you were.

It’s about a group of children making a movie. The hero is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), though he’s only the makeup guy on set. This is mostly uninteresting, but it does afford him the unrestricted right to touch the face of Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), one of the movie’s stars, who also happens to be very pretty. The way the movie handles this relationship is laudable. As I recall, the recent remake of “The Karate Kid” gave us two preteen kids in a relationship and expected us to treat it like an adult romance, something deep and complex and worth getting invested in. “Super 8” doesn’t play this for too much melodrama. It is a childhood crush that results in a lifelong friendship—in other words, it’s real.

There’s also Cary (Ryan Lee), the resident destructive maniac and probable sociopath, whose favorite hobbies include blowing things up and picking fights he can’t win. Martin (Gabriel Basso) at least appears to be the oldest, which doesn’t stop him from—and perhaps even abets him in—his anxious, panicky, and overcautious nature. Preston (Zach Mills) seems to be the resident awkward genius who only hangs out with kids his own age because there are no adults around to impress. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director, bossy and overbearing. Watching him plan his movie is like watching my own childhood unfold before me. He understands, at least in principle, what needs to be done to make his movie good, but he’s not skilled enough to actually do those things. I have enough old home movies and binder-encased novels lying around that prove I was the same way. He’s learning, just as I was.

While filming their movie—which, of course, involves zombies, who all seem to be played by Cary—they witness something spectacular. A train wrecks, not by accident. Their camera catches a glimpse of something otherworldly as it escapes from one of the cars. They keep it a secret… Then the military shows up. And people begin to disappear.

J.J. Abrams reveals here a skill I didn’t realize he possessed. He has a handle on tension similar to the one M. Night Shyamalan had before… Well, you know. He understands that fear is not in shrieking violins and loud jump scares—though “Super 8” gives us plenty of both—but rather in quiet and haunting images. All of the dogs in the town disappear. They are found days later. The locations in which they are discovered form a perfect circle around the town. Joel discovers a strange object in the wreckage of the train; at night, it rattles around atop his dresser. Townspeople report strange goings-on. At only a few points do we experience moments of outright fright, and the silence of the movie beforehand lends them all extra punch. When the movie decides to be scary… Well, it’s electrifying. It knows that the wait is more important than the payoff, that what we don’t see is far scarier than what we do so, and that subtle background events are the essence of atmosphere.

Where it fails is in a common weakness of J.J. Abrams—he gets character and spirit, maybe even story to a certain extent, but he seems unable to examine his plots logically. The plot holes are aplenty, and while it’s nothing quite as dramatic as “Star Trek,” the entire third act of the movie is constructed on a flimsy premise. He can load his characters with tons of personality and make them perfectly likable, but I’m not convinced he gets “motivation” just yet. Most of the characters lacked sufficient reasons for their actions at the end of the movie, other than that which the plot required.

There’s quite a bit of controversy about the film’s ending as well, which I will echo. More than just silly—which it certainly is—I found it a bit morally troubling. I admire a movie that is willing to insert moral complexity into its villains; “Super 8” does this both with the military’s gruff, take-no-prisoners leader, Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) and the alien monster itself. However, moral ambiguity inherently demands to be explored—above all, if you establish that it exists, you cannot moments later expect us to happily ignore it.

Both these villainous entities have reasons—or at least explanations—for what they do in this movie. That does not, however, make them justified—only human. Moments later, we are asked to celebrate as a villain gets his way, not stopping to wonder what it meant for the innocents who were harmed by his actions. It implies that redemption is something we are owed rather than earned. For actions, there are consequences—our motivations do not always mitigate them.

A movie like this ought to be about understanding and loving people—and alien monsters, I guess—despite what they do. We are all human, imperfect, going through life justifying even our most unjustifiable of actions. But instead, it gives what I assume to be the unintentional impression that those justifications are accurate, that what we are is more important than what we ought to become.

As such, I may have to echo the increasingly common sentiment that this is very nearly a brilliant coming-of-age film about kids being kids and doing kid things. It took me back to years long since past. And maybe, in addition, it could have done without the alien monster.

But it is, for what it’s worth, still very nearly a great alien monster film.

-Matt T.

NOTE–Hey, everybody, sorry about this taking so long. I’m in full-on finals week mode right now, so I’m treading that fine line between sanity and insanity and don’t have much free time. I’ve also decided, after much deliberation, that I am going to cease rating things so many points out of ten. Not because this is terribly artsy, but because it’s so hard to objectify this process. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that I’ll be seeing “The Tree of Life” soon. Nothing at all. Stop looking at me like that.