J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness

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2013

Paramount Pictures

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Produced by Bryan Burk, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof

Based on “STAR TREK” created by Gene Roddenberry

It was in the theaters 30 years ago and there have been ten Star Trek movies that came after it but none of them have matched the popularity and success of “The Wrath of Khan.” Ask any Star Trek fan what his favorite Star Trek movie is and 9 out of 10 times you’ll probably get “The Wrath of Khan” as an answer. Which kinda explains why Paramount Pictures has been trying their best to remake that particular Star Trek movie. They tried with “Nemesis” which I consider to be the worst Star Trek movie of all. Yes, even worse than “The Final Frontier” which is at least goofy nonsense that plays like the first cousin of “Spock’s Brain” on steroids. And the last Star Trek TV series to date; “Enterprise” tried to pull a “Wrath of Khan” in a three-part episode that guest-starred Brent Spiner as a Khan Lite bad guy.

Almost from the time when 2009’s “Star Trek” reboot hit theaters, fans have been asking if the new Star Trek team was going to remake “The Wrath of Khan.”  J.J. Abrams, the director of that movie and the sequel, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS continually insisted that they were not going to remake “The Wrath of Khan.” And you know what? He’s right. Oh, there are characters in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS named Khan and Carol Marcus but they bear only a superficial resemblance to the characters in that earlier film. And yes, that scene is recreated and somebody gets to scream “Khaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn!” but for me, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS isn’t a remake of “Wrath of Khan” at all. That doesn’t mean I’m as giddy about this movie as I was with the first one but my reasons for that have nothing to do with the nods to “The Wrath of Khan”

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A secret Section 31 installation in London is bombed and the bomber is a rogue Starfleet Intelligence agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) Turns out that the bombing was a ruse to get as many starship captains and first officers to attend an emergency meeting at Starfleet HQ so that Harrison can attack them with a gunship and eliminate as many as he can. Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) the mentor and surrogate father of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is killed in the attack.

Kirk gets permission from Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) to pursue Harrison to his hideout on the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Armed with 72 prototype photon torpedoes, Kirk gets the band back together; Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) Dr.‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban) Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) Chief Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) Lt. Sulu (John Cho) and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and takes the starship Enterprise into forbidden Klingon territory to bring Harrison back to Earth to pay for his crimes. The mission is quickly complicated by the revelation that Harrison is actually Khan, a genetically enhanced superhuman who has been in frozen cryosleep for 300 years. The photon torpedoes actually contain cryogenic pods holding more genetic supermen. Turns out that Marcus had been holding them hostage to get Khan to develop advanced weaponry for him. Beats me why Admiral Marcus is so hell-bent on starting a war with The Klingon Empire. Or how he thinks that a 300 year old man could help develop advanced weapons but STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS isn’t the kind of movie that slows down enough to let you engage your brain long enough to ask pesky questions like that.

Marcus has constructed a sort of super-Enterprise, the USS Vengeance and he goes after the Enterprise himself, determined to eliminate Khan once and for all. And if that means destroying Kirk, his loyal crew and the Enterprise as well, so be it.

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Strangely enough for a movie that aims to be as loud and as punchy punchy run run as it possibly can, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS contains plenty of good, solid performances and some really nice scenes between the principal characters. I got a big chuckle out of a moment on the bridge when Sulu is in command and has to run a really big bluff.  Karl Urban and Simon Pegg I enjoyed the most as they do an amazing job of evoking the essence of DeForest Kelley and James Doohan without imitating them. I’m half convinced that Urban must somehow have been related to Kelley.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison/Khan makes for a formidable bad guy and maybe I’m a little off in my thinking here but for me, Cumberbatch was much more interesting as John Harrison. Once the big reveal that he’s Khan is made, I was actually disappointed. I wanted to know more about Harrison and his deal and when he proclaims that he’s Khan my first thought was; “That’s the best they could come up with?” But it’s just such a pleasure to listen to Cumberbatch and see what fun he’s having double and triple-crossing everybody in sight.

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Peter Weller follows admirably in the tradition of previous Starfleet Admirals who have gone batshit crazy (seriously, doesn’t Starfleet do annual psych evaluations on these guys?) with gusto and it’s always a pleasure to see him on screen. As Dr. Carol Marcus, Alice Eve appears to be on the ship for two reasons and one of them is her already infamous scene where she strips down to her underwear for no apparent reason at all. It didn’t bother me at all but what does bother me is that guys are complaining about it. Really? Since when do guys complain about gratuitous scenes of hot chicks in their underwear in a movie?

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So should you see STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS? It’s a solid action-adventure space opera, full of explosions, chases, fist fights and yelling; “Fire all phasers!” If you’re a long-time Star Trek fan like myself I think that in order to watch it you have to come to terms that this is a Star Trek that is made for the movie audience of today. It’s the overblown spectacle, shouty rapid-fire dialog and CGI extravaganza audiences demand in their science fiction summer blockbusters. Star Trek TV shows are the way to go for allegorical explorations of contemporary culture and to delve into character.

No, it’s not the Star Trek I grew up with but it’s heart is in the right place and that goes a long way with me. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is an acceptable sequel but now that the five-year mission is underway I’m going to be looking for more from the next one than just a Warp Nine thrill ride.

PG-13

132 minutes

Star Trek

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2009

Paramount Pictures

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Produced by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof

Written Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman

Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been a fan of Star Trek ever since I can remember. It was a nightly ritual for me that I couldn’t go to bed until I had watched Star Trek on WPIX here in New York where they reran it for years at 11:00PM. And I’ve seen all the movies in the theaters the day they opened. I’ve watched every episode of every Star Trek TV series. Even “Voyager” and “Enterprise” I estimate I’ve read somewhere between fifty and seventy Star Trek books.

I relate all this not to impress upon you how much of a Star Trek geek I am but to let you know that I consider myself pretty well versed in things Trek. So when I tell you that the new STAR TREK movie is 80% on point you’ll have some faith that I know what I’m talking about.

The selling points of the movie are twofold: One: it’s directed by J.J. Abrams who has mostly had success in TV with shows such as “Felicity””Alias””Lost” and “Fringe”. But his motion picture track record hasn’t been too bad either what with his work on “Mission Impossible III” and “Cloverfield” Two: STAR TREK is Paramount’s attempt to reboot/relaunch its primary moneymaking franchise with an all new, younger cast playing the beloved characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov as well as giving the Star Trek universe an updated look and feel.

For a long time I’ve felt that Star Trek needed new blood. “Voyager” and “Enterprise” suffered from creative burnout as the producers of those shows had been with the franchise since “The Next Generation” and it showed. Star Trek badly needed someone new to come aboard and bring freshness to the material.

Thankfully, J.J. Abrams and company have done exactly that. STAR TREK isn’t a perfect movie and there are a couple of things that made me groan but there were also plenty of things that made me grin as well.
star-trek-6The movie tells us the story that The Original Series never did: how did the crew of the starship USS Enterprise first meet each other? Well, first of all, through some imaginative time travel futzing involving Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his pursuit/being pursued by a revenge crazed Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) we’re informed fairly early on that this is an alternate reality/timeline where things aren’t exactly the same as us old heads remember. Most notable is that without the guiding influence of his father, this James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) is a rebellious, risk-taking malcontent. But Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) the current captain of the Enterprise sees something in the young man and challenges him to join Starfleet. Kirk accepts the challenge and signs up, meeting Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana) and Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban)

Three years later, the planet Vulcan is attacked by Nero and his ginormous mining ship. Starfleet heads out to stop him but the ships they send are all destroyed. Except the Enterprise, of course, which is left in the command of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) a Human/Vulcan hybrid of frightening brilliance and severely disciplined logic who immediately clashes with the hot-headed Cadet Kirk as to the best way to deal with Nero. It soon becomes apparent that the two men have to learn to put aside their differences and work together because Nero also has plans to destroy Earth. All while meeting Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) who along with Uhura and McCoy will become their lifelong companions in adventure and exploration.

Star Trek (2008) Directed by: J.J. Abrams

The plot in STAR TREK really isn’t all that important or even interesting, to be honest. This is either the third or fourth STAR TREK movie that has had some huge cosmic whatchamacallit heading toward Earth to destroy it and the Enterprise is the only ship able to stop it. Makes you wonder why The Federation even bothers maintaining a Starfleet when it’s the Enterprise that’s always the only ship available all the time.

No, the real reason this STAR TREK exists is to introduce us to the new cast, the new Enterprise and set up this alternate universe/timeline so that we can go on to other movies that will hopefully have more engaging stories. The special effects are appropriately dazzling and at times even inspired. I’d have liked to have seen more of the interior of the new Enterprise but what we do see is glitzy to the max.

The acting is better than I thought it would be. The new cast wisely doesn’t try to imitate the mannerisms or speech patterns of the original cast. With the exception of Anton Yelchin who deliberately does the Classic Chekov accent. Instead, they channel the essence of what makes those characters work and they pull it off quite well. Especially Karl Urban as Bones McCoy and Zachary Quinto as Spock. Karl Urban has the added fun of throwing off a few of McCoy’s famous lines and he does them excellently. Zoë Saldana doesn’t have as much to do as her co-stars (and dammit, would it have killed them to have her say “hailing frequencies open, Captain” at least once?) A lot of Classic Star Trek fans were upset and confused by the romantic relationship between Spock and Uhura but it didn’t throw me at all. It certainly makes more sense than the revelation in “The Undiscovered Country” that Scotty and Uhura had been having a secret romance for years. Even in The Original Series there were hints that Spock and Uhura were closer than anybody else knew about. There were several episodes where it was shown that in their off hours Spock and Uhura liked singing together, often entertaining other members of the crew.

Eric Bana is one of my favorite actors and he disappointed me as Nero. In fact, Nero’s a pretty poor villain. There’s a reason we remember Ricardo Montalban as Khan and Christopher Plummer as Chang: they were magnificently realized villains of Shakespearian stature. Nobody’s going to remember Nero. Neither are they going to remember Ben Cross as Sarek, Spock’s father. Cross is so bland and dull it’s downright sad.

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The movie is chock full of Easter eggs and winks to the original series and films. I got a big chuckle out of the nod to “The Wrath of Khan” during the scene where Kirk is taking the Kobayashi Maru test. And there’s even a tribble thrown in. Can’t ever have too many tribbles.

That’s not to say I loved everything about the movie. There are way too many scenes where Kirk is hanging off a cliff or on a ledge and if you took coincidence out of this movie then you just wouldn’t have a movie. Too many characters just happen to be in the right place at the right time and there’s a coincidence involving Kirk and Spock Prime (as Leonard Nimoy is billed) that made me want to throw something at the screen. And I never got the sense that anybody was in any real danger. Even though Spock’s mother (Winona Ryder) is killed in the destruction of Vulcan I really didn’t feel any sense of loss since I never got to know this version of the character at all.

And speaking of Nimoy, he meshes so well with Pine, Quinto and Pegg in the scenes he has with them I wished he had had scenes with the other members of the cast. It’s a nice lump in the throat moment when young Kirk and the aged Spock meet and there’s a wonderful nod to “The Voyage Home” involving Spock and Scotty.

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So should you see STAR TREK? If you’re a fan then you’ve no doubt seen it already and have probably seen it a second or even a third time. But this is a movie that accessible to non-fans who just may want to check it out to see what all the fuss is about or who just want a slam-bang space opera. I know, I know…there’s been a lot of debate and argument that this new incarnation of STAR TREK is way too much punchy punchy run run and not enough of the philosophical core at the heart of STAR TREK. And I can see that. But that was tried once in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and even though I enjoyed it a lot there were Trek fans who didn’t, claiming it was too slow moving. Let’s face it, the STAR TREK movies that have garnered the most box office and the favor of fans and critics have been the more action oriented ones.

Hopefully with the next movie we’ll get more into the exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations that is really the meat of what STAR TREK is about. But as a launching point for a new series of STAR TREK movies, this is terrific stuff.

127 minutes

Rated PG-13

Better In The Dark Point #144.5

Episode 144.5: STAR WARS CRANK’D, OR EVEN J.J. ABRAMS HAS AN IDIOT UNCLE

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In this Point Five Episode, we examine the News From A Land Far, Far Away that J.J. ‘Lensflare’ Abrams is going to direct Star Wars: Episode Seven. Along the way Derrick and Tom discuss the hazards of The Casting Game, why society is producing so many snotty kids, and create the latest Jedi Knight sensation and his Light-Knuckles! Even Jason Statham has had to fail, so get to clicking!

(P.S….most singularly bizarre and funny BITD album cover eeeever. Expect it later tonight)

BETTER IN THE DARK
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Silver Age Comics Through Modern Eyes
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POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

2011

Sony Pictures Classics/Stage 6 Films/POM Wonderful

Directed by Morgan Spurlock

Written by Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick

Produced by Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, Abbie Hurewitz, Keith Calder, Jessica Wu

POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD may just be The Greatest Documentary Ever Made.  And here’s why.  Imagine that a magician like David Copperfield is going to perform the most amazing illusion you’ve ever seen.  But before he does the trick he breaks it down and explains to you in every single detail exactly how he’s going to do it.  After that, he goes ahead, performs the illusion and your mind is still totally blown at what you’ve just seen even though you know how he did it.  POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD is kinda like that.  Morgan Spurlock sets out to make a movie about product placement in movies by getting advertisers and marketing agencies to finance the movie.  Some corporate executives are quite simply gobsmacked when Spurlock comes into their offices with his storyboards and his pitch.  “Lemme see if I got this straight,” one of them says. “You want to make a movie about product placement that is paid for with product placements?”

That’s exactly what Morgan Spurlock wants to do and he does it in a manner that is so goofy that this documentary easily qualifies as a comedy in my eyes as during one encounter after another Spurlock explains his concept and is met with either outright astonishment, derision or really excited enthusiasm.

He doesn’t go into this completely blind.  He interviews directors such as J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg and Brett Ratner to find out how they feel about the demands studios place on them for product placement and what he should expect going into those types of meetings.  I found their honest opinions about it quite refreshing,  especially Brett Ratner who says bluntly that studios only care about two things when it comes to movies: “How much is it going to cost and how much is it going to make?” and that’s why they welcome product placement to help them pay for a movie.  Spurlock’s conversation with Ralph Nader about truth in advertising gave me some the best laughs in the movie as Mr. Nader is one of those people who are at their funniest when they’re not trying to be funny.

Some companies turn Spurlock down in a New York minute.  Some never even return his calls.  Others jump into the project wholeheartedly like POM Wonderful who kicks in a cool million simply to have their name in the title of the movie.  The rock band OK Go gleefully agrees to provide a theme song, naturally titled “The Greatest Song I Ever Heard.”

And the free stuff that Spurlock gets from the participating companies is mind-boggling.  He gets not one, not two, but six Mini-Coopers.  JetBlue lets him fly free. Hyatt lets him stay in their Executive Suites. Sheetz lets him pump free gas into his free Mini-Cooper.  Old Navy gives him truckloads of clothing.  It’s crazy.  But he’s getting away with it as he’s showing us exactly what these companies are willing to do just to insure their product and their company name is in a movie.

I wasn’t all that crazy about Morgan Spurlock’s first movie, “Super Size Me” as it seemed like a pretty pointless stunt to me.  I mean, even if you eat nothing but salad everyday it’s still going to have a detrimental effect on your body.  And I don’t need to watch a 90 minute documentary to tell me that eating McDonald’s fast food everyday isn’t good for me.  Tell me something I don’t know.  I enjoyed his short-lived FX series “30 Days” much more.  Every episode had either Spurlock or some other person spending 30 days living a lifestyle they were completely unfamiliar with, such as a Christian living as a Muslim.  It was a show that truly educated and it was a shame FX cancelled it.  If you can find it on DVD or on Netflix, by all means check it out.

But POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD I can recommend totally and completely.  Morgan Spurlock’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious and the reactions of the various corporate executives and their negotiations for their products are funnier than anything that could have been scripted.  It’s a documentary that doesn’t preach, doesn’t beat you over the head with a message until your ears bleed (I’m looking at you, Michael Moore) but gets its point across while it’s entertaining you at the same time.  Highly recommended.

PG-13

90 Minutes

Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol

2011

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Brad Bird

Produced by Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk

Written by Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum

Based on the television series “Mission: Impossible” created by Bruce Geller

Unlike a lot of people I really don’t have anything against the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film series.  The major argument people always throw at me is that it’s not the TV series.  Well, of course it’s not.  The only way to make it faithful to the TV series would be to get together a group of little known, semi-retired or B/C list actors in an ensemble piece.  Once I heard that Tom Cruise was going to be starring in the first one, I knew it was going to be his movie all the way.

And to be honest, I don’t have a problem with that.  America needs her own world-saving superspy and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has been doing a respectable job in the four movies to date.  I liked “Mission: Impossible” directed by Brian DePalma even though I think it deplorable what they did to the Jim Phelps character.   The second one was a let-down.  If it had been any other director, it would have been a home run but I was expecting more from John Woo.  Not that “Mission: Impossible II” was a bad movie.  It was my own fault for having such high expectations.  “Mission: Impossible III” was just okay.  Again, not that it was a bad movie and I enjoyed seeing Seymour Philip Hoffman play a bad guy as much as he appeared to be enjoying it.  But ten minutes after seeing that movie, I couldn’t begin to tell you what it was about.

But I’m glad to be able to say that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-GHOST PROTOCOL knocks it out of the park.  For me it’s the most satisfying and exciting of the four.  Wonderful globetrotting locations, great action, phenomenal stunts and engaging characters tied into a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cold War era James Bond movie adds up to an entertaining package.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is broken out of a Moscow prison by IMF agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) who need him to infiltrate The Kremlin.  Carter, Dunn and another agent, Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway) were working a mission involving the interception of a courier working for a shadow agent codenamed Cobalt.  Hanaway was killed during the mission and now Jane and Benji need Ethan as a replacement to complete the mission.

The mission turns out to be a colossal set-up.  The Kremlin is blown up with Ethan and his team implicated.  The President of The United States invokes The Ghost Protocol which disavows the entire Impossible Mission Force.  Ethan and his team, along with intelligence analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) are considered to be rogue agents.  Despite their having no backup at all, the four elect to pursue Cobalt and clear the IMF force.  It’s during their investigation they learn that Cobalt actually is Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear strategist who believes that nuclear war is necessary for human evolution.  He used the Kremlin bombing as a cover for his theft of a nuclear launch code device and framed the IMF so that he’d be in the clear.  From then on it’s a race against time as Ethan and his team has to stop Cobalt starting World War III.

I really enjoyed how the team aspect of the Mission: Impossible concept was used in this one.  It comes the closest to being faithful to the teamwork in the TV show as everybody on Ethan’s team is essential to the success of the mission and has their role to play.  If one person drops the ball, the mission is screwed.  Add to that the fact that Ethan has never worked with them before.  He’s in a situation where he has to trust them and get them to mesh together as a smoothly functioning machine.  In the previous three movies we’re constantly told what a great team leader Ethan Hunt is but this is the first time that we actually see him working at it.

The movie also has something the previous three didn’t have: some much needed humor thanks to Simon Pegg.  Thankfully, he doesn’t overdo the comedy relief.  He does just enough to enable us to laugh and relax a bit.  Especially during some of the exhilarating and truly harrowing action sequences such as the climbing of the Burj Khalifa tower.  If you have any kind of fear of heights at all, this scene will definitely leave you with no fingernails as I can guarantee you’ll chew them all off while watching.

The story takes some really clever twists and turns and there are resolutions to the sub-plots I honestly didn’t see coming, most notably the sub-plot involving the Jeremy Renner character.  And I loved the opening credits which pays homage to the opening credits of the TV show.

So should you see MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-GHOST PROTOCOL?  If you’ve seen the first three then you probably already have.  If you’ve never seen any the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films then this is a good one to start with.  You don’t have to worry about not having seen the first three to understand this as the writers and director get you up to speed on everything you need to know.  And with this movie, Brad Bird, who has done animated features such as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” shows that he’s an action director to watch.  MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-GHOST PROTOCOL is a terrific action picture.  Go watch and enjoy.

133 minutes

PG-13

Cloverfield

Paramount Pictures

2008

Directed by Matt Reeves

Produced by J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk

Written by Drew Goddard

The premise behind CLOVERFIELD is a simple one: what if a giant sized Godzilla or King Kong type monster attacked Manhattan one night and the story was told not through the eyes of the military or scientists but ordinary people just trying to live through that night?  That’s the story in a nutshell and it’s related to us by means of a video camera found after the monster attack.  A group of close friends have gotten together to throw a going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who has landed a lucrative job in Japan.  During the party he argues with Beth (Odette Yustman) a girl he had a brief but passionate love affair with.  The argument, along with everything else at the party is documented on a video camera by Rob’s best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) who really didn’t want the job but was hustled into it by Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) who really didn’t want to do it either.  Hud makes the most of it and even sees it as a way of trying to get to know Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) better.  Hud’s got the serious whim-whams for the chick.  The fact that Marlena quite obviously doesn’t want to have a thing to do with him is lost on the poor guy but everything is put in its proper perspective when Manhattan is blacked out by what the partygoers think is an earthquake.  They soon find out that much worse has hit The Big Apple.

An honest to Gamera monster has attacked Manhattan and is doing an absolutely bang-up job at tearing shit up.  Panic stricken crowds are fleeing while the military is trying to contain and/or destroy it with little effect.  It’s as if Armageddon times ten has come to town.  Rob and the others try to escape via The Brooklyn Bridge but it’s an attempt that ends in tragedy and spectacular destruction.  Then Rob gets a phone call from Beth who had left the party after their argument.  She’s in her apartment.  She’s hurt and can’t get out.  She begs Rob to help her.  Unfortunately the monster and the United States Army are having their apocalyptic disagreement right between them.  Still, Rob figures that if he uses the subway tunnels he can get to Beth.  Marlena and Hud go along as does Lily (Jessica Lucas) Jason’s girlfriend.  Hud steadfastly records their harrowing night on video as they struggle to rescue Beth and then get off the island of Manhattan alive.

CLOVERFIELD has a lot of good things going for it and number one is the cast of unknowns who go a long way to selling the reality of the situation.  This movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if say, Shia LaBeouf and Katherine Heigl were playing the lead roles.  Since these are faces we’ve never seen on the screen before (well, at least I haven’t) it helps to sustain the conceit that these are just ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation.  I liked most of the cast, especially Lizzy Caplan who in an amazingly short amount of time creates a real character through her body language and expressive eyes.  T.J. Miller just gets to be annoying about halfway through the movie as his character really doesn’t lend anything to the story and apparently he’s along just to tote the camera.  But the rest of the cast steps up to the plate admirably.  There wasn’t a moment when they didn’t convince me of the reality of what they were experiencing.

What else is good about CLOVERFIELD?  Well, the special effects were better than I thought they would be, what little I saw of them (more on that in a minute: stay tuned) what with the scenes of destruction and panic being a little too realistic at times.  There were some scenes where I thought: “My God, that looks just like 9/11.” Which is okay if that’s what the filmmakers intended.  But it was a little jarring to see it in what I had expected to be a simple monster movie. Which brings me to what you really wanna know.  You probably want me to cut to the chase and tell you if we see the monster at all in the movie.   I won’t keep you in suspense.  Yeah, you do see the monster but to be honest most of the time it’s shown at a distance or in quick cuts.  There’s only one time where we get a really clear shot of it but still, I couldn’t describe to you what it looks like if you put a gun to my head.  Which brings me to my main problem with the movie: the jiggly cam.

I understand that the movie is supposed to be a recording on a video camera and so it has been filmed in nothing resembling a conventional manner.  There are very few moments in the movie when the camera is still.  There are even moments when the characters are talking but the camera is pointed at the floor or at something else.  As I suppose a real person would do with a real camera in such a situation.  During a tense scene in the subway tunnels where Rob and the others have to fight off these spider-like creatures that have apparently dropped off the monster it’s really a chore to have to follow what’s going on as the camera is whipping about wildly.  To give CLOVERFIELD it’s credit: it’s got a solid reason for why the jiggly cam technique is used but halfway through the movie I was wishing I could reach in, grab the cameraman and scream : “Hold the damn thing steady!”

So should you see CLOVERFIELD?  I don’t think it’s going to be known as a classic of the monster movie genre but it is well made and has solid acting and great special effects.  It’s a monster movie that’s not about the monster.  It’s about the destruction and horror the monster leaves in his path and it’s presented in an entertaining manner. I enjoyed CLOVERFIELD and I think you will also.

PG-13

90 minutes

Super 8

2011

Paramount

Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Bryan Burk

Upon hearing that J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg were going to collaborate on a movie together, my reaction was the same as million of other movies goers: handsprings and doing the funky chicken victory dance.  I figured that with these two creative powerhouses on the same movie, they’d come up with a sure-fire, can’t miss blockbuster.  Upon seeing it in the theater, I felt let-down. And even now, after having let more time pass since the last time I saw it,  SUPER 8 is even more of a let-down.  It’s not that it’s a bad movie.  Technically it’s a good movie.  But the story still doesn’t turn my crank and there are too many things that don’t work for me that stack up higher and higher, forming a wall between me and the movie.

It’s 1979 and in the Ohio town of Lillian, a group of kids are spending the summer of that year filming their own movie: a homage to George Romero zombie movies.  Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is an aspiring make-up artist who has recently lost his mother in a steel mill accident.  He’s also lost interest in working on the movie until Charles (Riley Griffiths) the writer/director of the movie talks Alice (Elle Fanning) into joining the cast.  Joe has a serious crush on Alice and his interest in the movie is reawakened.

It’s during a nighttime shoot that Joe, Charles, Alice and the other kids working on the movie are witness to a horrendous train crash.  The next day, The Air Force moves in, quarantining off the town and searching through the personal research of Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman).  Seems as if Dr. Woodward knows what the Air Force is doing in Lillian.  And it involves something that was being transported on that train.  Something that is now prowling through the town at night, snatching both the townspeople and all manner of electrical devices.

SUPER 8 is described as a homage to the Steven Spielberg movies of the 70’s and 80’s.  “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” in particular.  I myself had the feeling I was watching a film made from a Stephen King screenplay written ages ago and maybe found on a shelf somewhere.  The Spielberg vibe escaped me totally as Spielberg had a way of getting totally natural performances out of his young actors.  None of these kids convinced me they were actually kids living in the late 70’s.  With the exception of Elle Fanning who is without a doubt the best actor in the movie, even beating out the adult cast.

A lot has already been said about that train crash that kicks off the story.  And indeed, it’s perhaps the most frightening train crash I’ve ever seen on film.  The problem is that it’s too much.  It would be right at home in a “Die Hard” or “Indiana Jones” movie but here it’s just ridiculous in the apocalyptic destruction that destroys an entire train station and what appears to me to be five square miles of countryside while leaving the kids untouched.  And that’s only the beginning of a lot of felgercarb we have to swallow if we’re going to buy the monster stuff.

And I guess that’s why SUPER 8 doesn’t work for me.  There’s a really wonderful coming-of-age-story that could have been told here about Joe and his friends trying to film their little movie while he comes to grips with his mother’s death and his emotional disconnection from his father (Kyle Chandler, who is so bad here he really should give back the check) all while experiencing his first romance with Alice.  The problem is the monster movie stuff Abrams insists on shoving in there.  A monster movie plot that bored me as there’s nothing special about it at all.

So should you see SUPER 8?  Let me put it this way: during the end credits, the finished zombie movie the kids have made is shown and I found that more fun and entertaining than SUPER 8.

112 minutes

PG-13