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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In 2017, there was a great disturbance in the Force when Star Wars Episode 9 director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was unceremoniously jettisoned. He had spent over a year developing a script for the concluding film in this new Star Wars trilogy (he’s still listed in the credits for story) and I guess the producers must have had some strong feelings. Trevorrow was out and J.J. Abrams returned to close out the saga he had kicked off with 2015’s The Force Awakens. It felt like a safe choice, the return of an artist best known for dabbling in other people’s established worlds. 2017’s The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out), was, to say the least, divisive with the fanbase. It made sense to jump back in with Abrams who had delivered a fun, lively kickstart that made box-office records. Surely Abrams and his army of magicians would steer the franchise into safe territory and provide a satisfying ending to the character he created?

Note: I promise to keep this review free of significant spoilers beyond some minor plot points. If you want to avoid reading anything further until after having seen the film, I understand.

The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and well and offering a fleet of planet-destroying starships if Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s trying to uncover hidden clues about her parentage and still believes she can reform Kylo from the dark side. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are chasing after a series of artifacts to find the secret location for the Emperor’s secret planet and rebuild the fledgling resistance. Kylo and Rey are headed for a final confrontation to determine whether they turn to the light side or the dark side.

It is with a heavy heart that I feel like I have to admit that there wasn’t a single storytelling choice that I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker. It feels like Abrams and company were in a mad panic after the divisiveness of The Last Jedi and retreated to the safety of nostalgia and fan expectations. This feels like the producers made a list of fan demands and then acceded to them. It certainly feels like an overblown course correction, let alone discarding major changes and characters from Episode 8. Now fan service in itself is not a negative; there is such a thing as good fan service and bad service. The difference is that bad fan service relies heavily on pandering and reference points, leaving an audience unchallenged, and that certainly feels like Episode 9, a movie ever beholden to its calcifying past. My anecdotal evidence already tells me that many fans will love this movie, more than likely the same contingent that found such stinging fault in Episode 8, and I don’t wish them ill. I’m happy for them. For me, Episode 9 is a mess of bad plotting, rushed pacing, truncated character arcs, useless cameos, and a reheated Return of the Jedi climax that was as boring as it was exhausting and dispiriting. It’s supposed to be an end to this new trilogy, and a trilogy of trilogies, but the backwards-looking franchise will never be done paying homage to its cherished past while it eats its own tail until it vomits. This movie is so eager to please as many fans as possible that it feels like an anxious hostage.

I think it was a major mistake for The Emperor to come back into play this late. The very reappearance already cheapens the sacrifice Darth Vader made in Return of the Jedi, and it begs the question what has this evil old man been doing for three decades? Has he just been hanging around his completely empty rock planet sitting on his uncomfortable rock throne? Abrams throws some haphazard lip service that Palpatine was really behind everything, we just never knew it, but that feels cheap. It’s like in 2015’s Spectre when Christoph Waltz emerges and says, “Hey James Bond, while you’ve never met me until this moment, I’m responsible for every bad thing that happened in your life, not those other bad guys, and I just didn’t feel like saying anything.” It wasn’t a satisfying plot development then and it isn’t now. The “boss’ boss” manipulating in the shadows is simply an aggravating shell game. If Palpatine lived even after the second Death Star exploded, then what’s to say if he can ever be defeated? Even if he is toppled in Episode 9, what’s stopping him from being resurrected in Episode 12 to serve as another quick excuse for a major villain? This decision to bring him back to life also taps into a further reverence for bloodlines that The Last Jedi was valiantly fighting against. Star Wars may take place in a different galaxy but it frustratingly feels like only three families populate it. The Last Jedi proposed that you didn’t have to come from select magic bloodlines to be somebody important, that your past was irrelevant, and now Abrams and company sharply reverse course, hugging the concept of the Chosen One until it bursts. It feels creatively starved.

Too much of the movie’s 142-minute run time was devoted to hasty, convoluted plotting that served little else than to fill time. By the concluding movie in a trilogy, there should be no moments left to fill time, nor should we really be introducing new worthless side characters rather than using the people we’ve already established. The first 90 minutes of this movie could be condensed to “get a thing to get a thing.” It’s one superfluous obstacle after another, one item to gain another, that reminded me of video game fetch quests. Even worse, none of it felt like setbacks or difficulties because the movie was rushing through every sequence. If we have to rush through to cover four abbreviated action set pieces, why can’t we consolidate to two really good and developed action set pieces instead? A great way to make your movie forgettable is to cram it full of disposable plotting and short action sequences that never take off. I kind of liked one lightsaber battle along the surf of the ruins of a Death Star (of course there has to be another Death Star!) but that was it for the action. There wasn’t anything onscreen that even came close to replicating the thrills or suspense from Episodes 7 and 8. I felt more suspense in The Last Jedi for Rose’s doomed sister than I did for anyone in Rise of Skywalker. There was space where Abrams and company could have expanded and developed important themes and given characters room to grow, but the pacing feels so breathless in order to distract from the hasty plot retreats.

Characters feel like they zapped to the end of their character arcs because that was what was expected, but why they reached these milestones feels arbitrary from a plotting standpoint. It reminded me of, I’m heartbroken to even say, the final season of Game of Thrones; fans didn’t object on their face to character destinations but the journey to reach these points felt like it was missing key moments to serve as connection. Why redemption now? Why tempted by the dark side now? It plays more like Abrams said, “Well, we ran out of time folks, so let’s skip to the end.” Looking back on the trilogy, it was clearly Rey and Kylo’s story first and foremost, but the supporting characters ultimately feel abandoned and wasted. Finn had a great perspective, a Stormtrooper who defects, but that unique position is cast aside by introducing a new side character that serves no purpose other than to remind you that Abrams must have really not liked Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran). Seriously, Rose is sidelined to study monitors. Abrams tapped an old Lost alum, Dominic Monaghan, for this thankless duty, so why can’t Rose at least be the sidekick? We don’t need another new sidekick this late. Poe is another wasted character. He learns greater responsibility and teamwork in Last Jedi, but he’s really just a Han Solo stand-in, the rakish rogue quick with a quip. Episode 9 gives him an old flame but not much in the way of additional characterization. He feels the same from his first scene in Episode 7. Oh, and all the forced cameos Episode 9 makes time for feels almost like a Star Wars reunion special. That’s including the awkward use of existing General Leia footage to cobble together something for her. I’m wishing more and more that it was Leia that went badass kamikaze in Episode 8 as her exit.

At every point, the movie seemed determined to undercut itself when it came to themes, when it came to character growth, and when it especially came to sacrifices and stakes. There are four fake outs when it comes to deaths. What’s the point of sacrifices when it can just be reversed with little explanation? What’s the point of learning when the Force can just serve as a magic hand-wave solution for anything you need? There are some pretty remarkable leaps in what exactly the Force can do in Episode 9. The Rise of Skywalker even resets some pretty inane things, like Kylo Ren gluing his smashed helmet back together or a certain character getting a long-overdue medal for valor. The themes Abrams works with are extremely broad and lack the questioning of the inerrancy of the Jedi order from Episode 8. It’s also confusing when the theme is that your destiny is not written by your station when the movie repeatedly elevates the mythic at the expense of the nuance and human. It’s like saying your past doesn’t dictate your future while slavishly venerating the past at the expense of the present story.

Given the budget, talent involved, and Abrams’ natural pedigree for blockbuster filmmaking, Rise of Skywalker still has moments of grand spectacle and fun. The actors are still enjoyable to watch and Adam Driver (Marriage Story) is the definite MVP of this new trilogy. His character is, by far, the most interesting and the one that goes on the biggest emotional roller coaster. Abrams slides in some rather pleasing visual compositions. The score by John Williams serves as kind of a greatest hit collection of his many themes over the course of the 40-year saga. The denouement feels right, even if I quibble with the final line spoken. There are things to like, plenty, and I know many fans will find even more, but the good is trounced by the mistakes and miscalculations which just happen to be the really big stuff (plot, resolutions, characterization, action development, structure, payoffs, etc). Abrams himself has joked that he’s really good at starting stories and not so great at finishing them, so maybe choosing to have Episode 9 function as a conclusion not just to three movies but to three times three was overburdening.

I’ve seen it twice now and given some time to think it over, and I think I’ll declare Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as my least favorite of the nine core movies. I know these are inflammatory words, and for an easily-inflamed fanbase, but my level of disappointment is immense. I’ve enjoyed both of the previous Star Wars saga installments but I wasn’t quite expecting this. I groaned throughout the movie more than I laughed. Even the much-derided Phantom Menace had less at stake, and that’s why I hold the disappointment of Rise of Skywalker as the more grievous of the two. It had much to accomplish and much to payoff and its missteps cast a shadow over the previous movies. It also reconfirms for me my worry that there will only be a small world for Star Wars, a set of pre-approved parameters that creatives must adhere within, taking the same pieces and delivering variations of the same story. There are definite ideas that could work here with Episode 9, but the rushed pacing, inconsequential plot filler and side characters, and its use of nostalgia as a heat shield (look at that cameo please!) doom its execution. As much as Abrams wants to reject destiny, his Star Wars are still driven by a devotion to destiny. We won’t be getting another Star Wars for several years until 2022 and I think that’s a good thing (also without the Thrones writing team now too). The producers need some distance to determine where to go next. I just hope they understand they have an awfully big universe of untapped stories at their disposal and a wealth of eager storytellers with fresh ideas. Star Wars will always be Star Wars but it can also be much more if it wanted to be.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

The most interesting part of The Cloverfield Paradox might be the film’s release. Following the model of secrecy and subterfuge from producer J.J. Abrams, this was originally a script called God Particle by Oren Uziel (Shimmer Lake). It was reworked by Doug Jung (Star Trek Beyond) to meld it into the ongoing Cloverfield universe. It was originally scheduled for theatrical release in February, and then pushed back to April, and then it was scaled back to being released directly through Netflix. The first time the public saw a frame of this movie was during a high-profile Super Bowl spot that advertised it would be available for viewing as soon as the big game was over (the ad spot cost $4 million, or about one-sixth of the film’s modest budget). The Cloverfield Paradox is an intermittently entertaining film with some nice visuals, curious moments, and a bevy of good actors looking frantic and perplexed in space. It’s also a bit of a storytelling misfire and an underwhelming addition to the larger Cloverfield mythology.

High in space, a team of scientists is testing a cutting-edge particle accelerator that, if functioning, will provide abundant and renewable power for an Earth that is plunged on the brink of a world war thanks to depleted energy resources. Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is one of the scientists and wondering if she will ever get back to Earth and see her husband again. Then one fateful day, the accelerator works but then goes on the fritz, slamming everyone around the station. When they come to they realize that the Earth and moon are missing and they are adrift. That’s not the last of the peculiarities. A woman (Elizabeth Dibecki) is found inside the station, connected to the wiring. Where did this woman come from, where are the scientists, and what happened to the Earth?

The Cloverfield Paradox is never going to be confused as great sci-fi, but it can be good enough depending upon the tastes of the individual viewer. The opening very succinctly establishes the stakes of the mission as well as the toll of the repeated failures. Once the station does its wonky thing and the Earth vanishes, that’s when it hooked me. Are they in a different part of the universe? Did they accidentally wipe out the Earth? These are pertinent and intriguing mysteries deserving of attention. The visuals in the movie are slick and well lit by cinematographer Dan Mindel (Star Wars: Force Awakens), who ignores the old staple of the poorly lit space corridors throughout the film. The actors are all well cast and provide the kind of performances that make you care enough. Mbatha-Raw (Black Mirror’s “San Junipero”) is a terrific lead. She’s strong, smart, but also given a tragic back-story that informs her decision-making when the weirdness hits. Dibecki (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2) is primarily directed to be a statuesque mystery. Chris O’Dowd (Molly’s Game) is the comic relief that doesn’t wear out his welcome. None of the characters do anything that stupid. It’s just enough that you might feel sorry for some of them when they eventually perish. There are workable elements throughout the movie that will hold your attention and curiosity.

It’s shortly after its inciting incident of being mysteriously vanished that you start to realize the deeper story problems inherent with The Cloverfield Paradox. The central mystery (where are we? what happened to the Earth?) is enough of a hook but doesn’t allow for much in the way of a clear-cut throughline of how to uncover these answers. The clues that occur throughout the second act serve as almost random points of weirdness that rarely add up to anything significant. Little things like missing worms, the missing gyroscopic GPS drive, and a crawling arm serve as points of peculiarity but they feel disconnected from anything else happening. It’s during this stretch of the film where the film feels like anything can happen and not in a good way. The strange occurrences don’t follow any rhyme or reason even after it’s revealed what is causing them. They just happen because, most likely, somebody thought it would be cool or unexpected. This will only get you so far in plotting unless to can tie events back to character. The resulting explanation is a shaky experiment-gone-wrong that plays out like an unmemorable Star Trek episode, with the crew discerning what their new reality is and why. If you read about the original screenplay, when it was called God Particle and unrelated to anything Cloverfield, there was a lot more hard sci-fi intrigue and a paranoia plot reminiscent of the breakdown in civility in the flawed but serviceable thriller It Comes at Night. It’s hard not to have the opinion that the original screenplay by Uziel was made more generic.

The third act goes all-in on the action heroics and survival thrills, pitting characters against one another for the well being of their homes. What once began as a trippy, reality-distorted sci-fi film becomes a lazy climax where one character stalks corridors and casually shoots people. It’s a conclusion that feels too expected and rote for all of the weirdness that transpired earlier. It’s not quite the steep crash that was the final act for Danny Boyle’s otherwise engaging 2007 film Sunshine, but it’s certainly a less interesting way to tie up your movie. There are some fun set pieces. O’Dowd interacting with his missing appendage is a funny almost buddy comedy. Some of the deaths are visually interesting as they make use of the cold vacuum of space in killer ways. There’s a nice climactic moment involving a character coming to terms with his or her personal grief that feels moderately earned though still facile enough to be unmovable. It feels like another in a series of checklists as far as what kind of character arcs, set pieces, twists and turns are to be expected from a mid-range sci-fi thriller. I thought last year’s Life did all of this better and with more style and nasty menace. If you’re going to watch a derivative space station thriller, at least make it one where the filmmakers have more of a plan from scene-to-scene and a genuine appreciation for their source material.

Now let’s talk about what exactly makes this a Cloverfield movie. Much like 2016’s agile contained thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, this is a follow-up where the Cloverfield elements feels inelegantly grafted on. I suppose the use of the giant particle accelerator in space may have opened a hole in space-time for giant monsters to come through, but I thought it had been previously established as an alien invasion? Regardless, the only real storyline that tenuously connects the events in space to the larger Cloverfield universe is the storyline on the ground with Hamilton’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies). He’s recovering from whatever went wrong in space, which has resulted in cataclysmic damage across the Earth. He finds a lost and scared little girl and takes her under his protection, swearing to reach out to her family. They take refuge in a shelter. Every time the movie cuts back to Michael trying to reach his wife, or anyone really, and pacing nervously, I was getting bored. Who cares about this little kid when we have realty-bending mysteries up in space? If we don’t know what’s going on topside, or if the movie refuses to entertain some kind of accessible mystery, then every moment spent away from the space station is a moment wasted. The concluding conversation Michael has over the phone is simply there to remind the audience once again that this is indeed a Cloverfield movie, with an obvious visual reminder that feels too late.

The Cloverfield Paradox is another Cloverfield movie where the Cloverfield elements feel like the least interesting part. I don’t know if this is exactly the best plan for extending this franchise. With 10 Cloverfield Lane, I felt the gnawing suspense of an effectively developed contained thriller. With The Cloverfield Paradox, the space mystery and its ensuing twists and turns feel too arbitrary and disconnected to have more than their immediate impact. It’s a movie that sadly gets less interesting every moment it marches closer to its generic action-thriller conclusion. Still, there are moments here that will entertain and I’m happy that Netflix is becoming a breeding ground for the mid-range sci-fi films that Hollywood no longer seems willing to give space for. If you’re a fan of the Cloverfield series or high-concept space thrillers, there may be enough here to warrant a viewing and justify your time. I look forward to this model continuing, the next Cloverfield movie having even less to do with the Cloverfield universe. Maybe we’re only years away from an Oscar-bait film about overcoming adversity set amidst World War II and Cloverfield monsters. It’s like a recipe: just add Cloverfield monsters (or are they aliens?).

Nate’s Grade: C+

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10cl_posterThe mysterious sequel to the 2008 found footage monster movie sprung from nowhere, surreptitiously filmed without the general public having any idea of its connection to Cloverfield until mere weeks before its release. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day publicity magic act, something that J.J. Abrams is known for with his crusade against spoilers. The biggest surprise about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that the best parts of a slick and suspenseful movie are the parts that have nothing to do with Cloverfield. The majority of the film’s first two acts take place entirely in a bunker with one possibly disturbed individual played by a terrifically unsettled John Goodman. The unease and dread build nicely and the reveals are paced out in a clever manner to make us second-guess and second-guess our second-guesses. There’s a great moment during an awkward game of charades where Goodman’s character can’t conceive of calling a woman by the term “woman,” instead relying upon patronizing terms like “girl” or “princess.” There’s a darkness and a fury under the surface that should remind of Goodman’s expert turn in Barton Fink. This is a finely suspenseful and mysterious chamber piece until we leave the bunker and the movie officially connects into the Cloverfield universe. It’s a little sloppy and makes for a tonally inconsistent finale. It’s not enough to ruin the movie by any means but it certainly lessens the smartly constructed suspense and paranoia. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) makes for an effective survival thriller heroine, and her line reading of “Oh come on” is a divine highlight. As a Cloverfield movie, this opens up the space for a wider variety of humans vs. monsters stories, but as a movie, it plays at peak performance when it follows its own lead.

Nate’s Grade: B

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

latestMay 19,1999 is a day that lives in infamy for legions of Star Wars fans. The day hoped died. I remember trying to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was good but a second viewing confirmed my earlier fears. These movies were not going to be the same as the original trilogy, and George Lucas confirmed that with each successive release. I’ve had debates with teenagers who swear that the prequels are better films. They aren’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion; this is fact. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, you could sense that Lucas was burned out and had no desire to further awaken the ire of the fandom. Then in 2012 he surprised everyone by selling the Star Wars empire, along with other properties like Indiana Jones, to Disney for four billion dollars. Immediately Disney let it be known that they wanted to get new Star Wars movies into production ASAP. They tapped J.J. Abrams to spearhead the first steps in a new direction. No other movie has felt the weight of hype and expectation like Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans don’t want to be hurt once more by someone they loved. For millions of fans that grew up on the original trilogy, The Force Awakens will be the Star Wars movie they have long been waiting for. It erases the bad feelings of the prequels and re-calibrates the franchise. However, it is also flawed and seems too indebted to nostalgia. It’s certainly good but I cannot put away my nagging reservations (far, far less than what I felt with the prequels).

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the First Order has risen in place of the evil Empire. The First Order is lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and aspiring sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). They’re searching for the droid BB-8 and its owner, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The droid has a map that leads to the whereabouts of the last known Jedi – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). A Stormtrooper who adopts the name of Finn (John Boyega) runs away from his mission and joins forces with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger waiting for her family to return to her world. The duo finds BB-8 and seeks to return the droid to the Resistance. They run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a few other familiar faces on their journey to the Resistance base and to escape the reach of the First Order.

11875118_1007880092596925_2204135516599208531_oAbrams has captured the essential magic of what made the original trilogy so enjoyable and timeless. The prequels carried the burden of setting up characters we had come to love, and so as we watched younger versions of them or characters integral to their development, it was hard to ignore just how little we cared. It didn’t feel like Lucas himself cared that much, more content to direct his green screens than his actors. The special effects had improved but for much of the three prequels it felt like watching disinterested actors recite poorly written lines while they run around fake environments with no semblance of reality. The details that Lucas emphasized were ones that were unnecessary, like treaties and trade tariffs and the notorious midichlorians, which made the force into a blood disorder. The prequels harmed the legacy of the franchise. It takes only seconds for you to feel like you’re in better hands when you read the opening text crawl. No trade disputes. No galactic senate. It sets up its central chase and the important players in three brief paragraphs. And then we’re off and the movie rarely lets up.

We pass the torch to a new generation of characters and it’s here that Force Awakens is able to leave the large shadow of the original trilogy. The characters are great. Finn gives the viewer an entry point into a world we’ve never explored onscreen in any real depth, the life of a Stormtrooper, the cannon fodder of the series. He has moral crises and goes AWOL from the duties he has been raised to do. He doesn’t want to be a mindless killing-machine and forges his own destiny. Watching him embrace a sense of individuality is entertaining. He’s charming and excitable but also fearful of what may catch up to him. Then there’s the hero’s journey with Rey, a plucky heroine who comes of age over the course of the movie’s 135 minutes. Ridley has the presence and poise reminiscent of Keira Knightley, and the screen just adores her. It also helps when her character is easy to root for. Boyega (Attack the Block) and Ridley are terrific and even better paired together. They have a great chemistry and much of the humor is born from the characters rather than lame visual gags like in the prequels. It’s fun to hear characters verbally spar with actual good dialogue. Driver was the first actor hired and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve been watching the man on HBO’s Girls, you’ll know that he has a magnetic presence that separates him from the herd. He plays a villain that so badly wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps but the thing that holds him back is the “temptation of the light.” In one moment, a badass and imposing villain with super force powers had now also become an interesting character wrestling with his influences. Isaac (Ex Machina) is suave and cocksure as an ace pilot. His affection for the other characters is touching, particularly the robot BB-8. This little guy is going to be the toy that every child on Earth demands for the holidays. BB-8 is adorable from its first moment on screen and made me forget about R2D2. The big worry with Force Awakens was that its new characters would be compelling on their own. After one movie I’m looking forward to more adventures with the new kids on the block.

the-force-awakensAbrams has restored the sense of fun and awe that resonated from the original trilogy and the biggest compliment is that Episode VII feels like a Star Wars movie (more on which below). The action sequences are quick and filled with great visuals and shot arrangements. For those worried about Abrams’ penchant for lens flairs in the Star Trek reboots, they are completely absent in Force Awakens (Fun fact: for Star Trek Into Darkness, computer effects had to go in and take out lens flairs because Abrams later admitted he had gone a bit overboard). There are some beautifully orchestrated shots and sequences all around here. The first 40-minutes is the best part of the movie, before the older stars come back for their due. The rest of the film is enjoyable, no doubt, but I was more pleased with the original material. The technical expertise has never been higher. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a joy with watching characters interact with a real world of practical effects. Watching the characters run around real environments and real sets rather than immense green screens just makes it feel more real and vital. I enjoyed how worn and weathered the technology in this world comes across. The special effects are judiciously utilized and are excellent as anticipated. It’s easy to sense the reverence that Abrams and others have for the series as well as their determination to not repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many. Abrams has gone back to what works with these movies and recreated the playbook. It’s a movie that will satisfy the hardcore fans and reawaken their love for the series.

And yet it almost feels like Force Awakens is a swing too far in the other direction, an overcorrection to the prequels that turns a reboot into a loving homage that approaches facsimile. I was amazed at just how closely Episode VII follows the plot beats of A New Hope (mild spoilers to follow – for real, if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest, and I’m no monster and won’t dare include anything that would substantially deter your viewing, skip to the spoiler safe area). Here goes: once again we start with an escape from an evil starfleet ship, only to land on a desert planet. The hunt is for a droid with valuable information. Our dispirit band of characters collect on the desert planet and flee, only to be eventually pulled back to the evil base of operations, which once again is a giant floating orb that specializes in planet destruction and this orb seems to have the same pesky design flaw that plagued Death Star 1.0 and 2.0. How does this one design flaw still exist? Are there not backups and redundancies? It would be like Titanic 3.0 going down by hitting another iceberg. There are more parallels involving the characters and personal revelations that mirror Episode IV but I won’t go into detail on those (end of spoilers). Suffice to say, it felt like I was watching a cover act remind me how much I enjoyed the first Star Wars release. Perhaps Abrams felt his rabid audience needed to go backwards before going forward, pay homage to what had been built by practically reliving its plot in a galaxy not so long ago as it once was (it still is likely the same distance: far far away). It’s a movie that cannot escape the nostalgia of its predecessors, and so it indulges it instead. In deferring to fan demands, Force Awakens has moments that waver into the dangerous territory of fan service. This will harm its overall staying power once the glow wears off from audiences overcome with relief.

HT_star_wars_force_awakens_trailer_05_jef_150416_16x9_992Thankfully, the new main characters are compelling and I’ll be happy to follow their continuing adventures with Episodes VIII and IX and who knows. Abrams and company have set up the next generation of fan favorites that have the chance to grow out of the sizable shadow of the original cast. However, not all elements are given that same nurturing care. The Force Awakens is so briskly paced that it rarely has time to establish the new history of its universe. We get character relationships and reunions but I couldn’t help but feel that the larger plot they inhabited felt rushed. The First Order seems rather vague and their rise to power needed at least some explanation. Instead we’re dropped right into a timeline with an Empire knockoff. It’s just easy fascism placeholder. Why are the Republic and the Resistance two separate entities? The villains with the exception of Kylo Ren are pretty one-note and also callbacks to the bad guy types from Episode IV. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is in the movie for a lousy three minutes. I’m also not a fan of either of the two motion-capture performances courtesy of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I hated Nyong’o’s character and her performance. The character design for both of these creatures is rather weak and weirdly unimaginative. There’s also a habit of characters being naturals at things that would ordinarily require expertise. The worlds we visit and the creatures we encounter are all a bit too similar to earlier sources and distinctly unmemorable. We don’t learn much via our locations and geography and so it feels a tad interchangeable and meaningless, which is a shame.

The Force Awakens is a mostly exciting return to the rich world of Star Wars with characters we care about, old and new, lively action that feels substantial and real, and a sense of fun that isn’t at the expense of your full brainpower. Abrams had two missions: 1) eliminate the disappointment over the prequels, and 2) set up new characters and stories for future installments. Both have been accomplished. Abrams may have been the perfect candidate to restart the Star Wars series as he has a history of making films as loving homage to his cinematic influences. Super 8 was Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and Episode VII is very much homage to Episode IV. The well-trod story allows for the series to reset comfortably while setting up its new characters to take a greater storytelling burden from here on out. I hope future installments give us more development to make the worlds and the history matter just as much as Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, and BB-8. This may be an unpopular opinion but I feel that Abrams’ rollicking 2009 Star Trek reboot is a better Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens. Abrams and company prove you can make a new and good Star Wars movie. Now my own new hope is that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) will be able to steer the franchise into a fresher direction with Episode VIII. In the meantime, fans can sleep well once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

J.J. Abrams’StarTrekIntoDarknessEnterprisePoster return to the final frontier had me extremely excited for what the sequel to 2009’s smash Star Trek would be. It’s a different sort of Trek, a more rough-and-tumble, popcorn entertainment with the recognizable flavor of that other famous space opera that Abrams is steering into theaters come 2015. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, certain things became very clear to me. First, this is about everything you could ask for in a summer popcorn action movie. The set pieces are thrilling (my fave may be a human bullet shoot through a field of debris), there’s something new and dangerous going on just about every fifteen minutes, the stakes are constantly changing, and there are a bevy of well plotted character arcs for a deep and well acted ensemble. It’s about everything you’d want in a Star Trek movie… if you were a big fan of the 2009 film. If you’re a lifelong fan, you may have some reservations, notably the inclusion of a famous villain that shouldn’t be too hard to guess. The second half references to Trek cannon, especially Star Trek 2, feel weird for a film that broke away into a parallel universe so that it could chart its own course rather than relive the old stories. There’s homage and then there’s just subservience. Still, there are plenty of resonant themes, like friendship, sacrifice, and family, that are given adequate attention, amidst all the big-budget escapist thrills. There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that the actors ace. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) is incredible as the villain, a terrorist with a menacing, velvety voice that I could listen to all day. The vast majority of Into Darkness is tremendously entertaining, with a great pulse and sense of scene construction. The Abrams team knows how to make blockbusters in the old Spielberg variety, spectacle with humanity and humor and sweep. If this is what he can do with the Trek universe, just wait until Episode VII people.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is writer/director J.J. Abrams’ reverent homage to early Spielberg movies. For some, it will be too reverent to the point of being a slobbery love letter.

In 1979, a small Ohio town, 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is reeling from the death of his mother in a factory accident. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a police officer who doesn’t know how to raise his boy. He even tries to convince his son to spend the summer at a baseball camp. “It’ll be good for you to spend some time with kids who don’t run around with cameras and monster makeup,” he says. That kid is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a self-possessed amateur filmmaker. Charles is writing and directing a short Super 8 film and all his friends are helping. Joe’s specialty is makeup, given his attention to delicately painting models. Being the makeup guy comes in handy when the gang invites the local pretty girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to be in their movie. Joe gets to apply her zombie makeup. One night, the gang sneaks out to a train yard to film a scene in their movie. A U.S. Air Force cargo train is passing by and suddenly derails, in grand apocalyptic fashion. Strange things start happening all over town shortly after the train crash. Car motors and electrical equipment go missing, dogs run away to neighboring communities, and people start to go missing. The Air Force comes into town and takes charge. It seems that train was carrying something and that something has escaped.

What Super 8 does best is replicate a time, place, and mood. The movie is successfully awash in nostalgia, and that childhood nostalgia is the best aspect of an otherwise ordinary film. Abrams has fashioned the greatest film tribute to Spielberg in history. But its limited ambition makes it feel like the greatest cover band of all time. You’ve assembled al your talent and energy into replicating someone else’s original work. Congratulations, Super 8 is a glossy tribute to Spielberg. Now what? Well, the movie works well at finding that unique, infectious spirit of being young and full of ideas. Filmmaking, and movies in general, has a magic to it, the synergistic creativity and the sheer possibilities that can abound. Translating the imagination into a communal artistic experience. I’m sure Abrams was just as excited about the possibilities of a camera in his childhood as Spielberg was. That feeling of discovery, that rambunctious creativity, and the endearing clumsiness of amateur productions, it all rings completely true. I made silly movies with a camera and my friends when I was younger; my group of friends and I became known for our video projects in high school. So I could have readily watched an entire movie about kids and cameras and their artistic aspirations (as long as it was better than Son of Rambo). The highpoint of Super 8 for me was, surprisingly, the children’s short film “The Case” that plays over the closing credits. It’s funny and charming and sweetly affable. Finally seeing Charles’ finished film is the ultimate payoff.

Abrams as a director is quite capable of delivering big summer moments. He’s a genre specialist and a geek’s best friend. I’ve even compared his style to that of a young Spielberg in my review of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. Abrams has a natural feel for putting his camera in the right placement. While Abrams can do exciting action with the best of them, crafting compelling screen compositions to ignite the senses, it’s the smaller touches that connect to his storytelling that impress me most. The very opening shot tells you so much and grabs you. It’s a slow zoom into a factory’s sign proclaiming how many days have gone by without an accident. A man takes down the number plates and the count drops from 750 to 1. There’s a small moment where alice imitates a zombie, cocking her head, lurching, going in to bite Joe. And you see her, in that moment, as Joe does: a lovely young woman who makes your heart melt. With the aid of Michael Giacchino’s very John Williams-esque score, you effectively feel Joe’s burgeoning young love. Then when we pull back there’s a trace of Alice’s red lipstick along Joe’s neck, indicating she made actual contact. It’s a small detail that makes you smile all over. It’s these small details that often play to plot or character that affirm for me that Abrams is a director of fantastic promise, a true Spielberg protégé. Now if Abrams could lay off his excessive use of lens flairs (though it’s not as prevalent as Star Trek; you could make a drinking game into every time there was a lens flair).

The young actors are pretty good despite the somewhat hollow characterization by Abrams. These kids are defined by one-note traits (the kid obsessed with explosives, the wuss, etc.). I was going to be more upset by this until I remembered that movies like The Goonies, deemed a nostalgic classic by my generation, also had flimsy, one-note characterization (the fat kid is fat, the Asian kid has funny gadgets!). The scenes where all the kids are assembled make for some of the best entertainment. The young actors have a great rapport with one another and feel like a true makeshift band of friends. Their camaraderie, uncertainty, and hopes seem entirely genuine. They seem like real kids with real kid problems and worries. Courtney is a strong emotional center for the film. It’s hard to believe this is his first role on the big screen. Fanning (Somewhere, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has been acting ever since she was the two-year-old version of her famous big sister in I Am Sam. I’m on the record as saying that Elle is a superior actress to her sister, and I feel like that claim bears fruit with Super 8. There’s a scene where Fanning’s character is asked to practice some feeble dialogue. Her cohorts think of her as a pretty girl and a source of transportation. But in this one scene, she turns on a dime, bringing out real emotions that leave the boys breathless and the audience too. It’s reminiscent of the audition scene in Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts, at the flip of a switch, transformed into a different person, coursing with vibrant life. Consider it the toned-down kiddie version.

Truthfully, the monster stuff is actually the weakest part of the film. Super 8 works best as an endearing, nostalgic trip about being young. It works best as a coming-of-age tale and a somewhat touching first romance between teenagers. It does not work well as a sci-fi monster movie. You can tell that the monster/alien stuff has been grafted on to a separate storyline; the plots have little to no bearing on one another. If the kids happened to never go to that train stop that one night, their storyline would be almost entirely unaffected. It’s like parallel movies that pass each other occasionally but have little shared resonance. I found the human stuff, about being young and hurt and with your friends, to be affecting and interesting. The big-budget explosions, the monster mystery teased far too long, the subterranean third act that ends in a gob smack of logic issues, the heavy-handed metaphor about “letting go” (after only fours months? I think you’re still allowed to be sad four months after your mom dies) – that stuff plays well in trailers, but it’s far less interesting. The monster/alien conspiracy fails to lead to anything ripe in the narrative; the Air Force antagonists are more furtively empty than menacing. They don’t seem to care so much about a group of kids filming around the crash site. They’re pretty ineffective antagonists. The monster is hidden for so long, the film builds to an expectation level that it could never meet. The creature design of the monster/alien looks exactly like a smaller version of the Cloverfield creature (also produced by Abrams). When Super 8 is a poorly mimicking other B-movies, trying to wring tears by the film’s somewhat forced ending, I kept thinking, “The Iron Giant did this much better.” I guess once again aliens or a supernatural encounter helps people heal their family strife, which is something M. Night Shyamalan has been selling for years. This is one monster movie that would have been infinitely better without its monster.

Super 8 is obviously a personal film for Abrams, harking back to his boyhood days of monster movies, amateur filmmaking, and young love. This nostalgic time warp will likely succeed with many audience members. Nostalgia is a powerful narrative weapon. It taps into our warm memories of old. But nostalgia is easy to pattern. What’s difficult is creating a work of art that people will be nostalgic over a generation hence. Super 8 is not going to be an inspiration to a new generation of budding young filmmakers; it reconfirms the joy of monsters, movies, and creative possibility. But the elements don’t gel. The monster stuff feels tacked on to an affecting coming-of-age tale about a group of kids working together to make a movie. Rarely will the two plots really have much traction with one another. I think Super 8 would have been an even better movie had the “summer movie” elements been stripped. No monster. No sci-fi thrills. No military intervention. No train crash. Just kids, a camera, and the emotions of growing up.

Nate’s Grade: B

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek has a hold on geek culture like no other franchise. It’s lasted over forty years, sustained five television series, and ten feature films (about four of them good), and let’s not forget the plethora of fanatical merchandise that includes everything from Trek cologne to Trek coffins. Star Wars has all the box office clout, but Trek has followers so devoted that they will create and learn a separate language, Klingon, that almost assuredly will never be spoken by anyone else outside of the festival circuit (you will never see a written Klingon exam that asks you “Where the library is?”). The Star Trek fans have been a foundation of geek culture for over four decades. People take this stuff very seriously. Trek has always been a headier brand of sci-fi, more devoted to ideas and moral dilemmas than shoot-outs and space chases, though Captain Kirk did teach the universe how to love, one green-skinned buxom alien babe at a time. 2002’s abominable Star Trek: Nemesis was meant to open up the franchise to a wider audience, but the film was the low-point for a franchise that also included William Shatner writing and directing the fifth flick (Nemesis also broke the odd/even movie curse).

When director J.J. Abrams approached Star Trek with the purpose of reinvigorating the flagging film series, you would think the man would wade into such a storied franchise with trepidation. Nope. He openly said he was making a “Star Trek movie for people who weren’t fans of Star Trek.” He was even going to change Trek canon. I imagine Trekkies (and no, I will never use the preferred nomenclature “Trekkers”) were nervous about an outsider, the author of the cinematic classic Gone Fishin’, meddling with hallowed ground. As I suspected, these fears were unfounded. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash.

This new incarnation looks backwards, explaining how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together. The movie shows the path of Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), from troubled youth to eventual starship captain. Kirk’s father captained a starship for about 10 minutes, but he managed to save 800 lives under attack, including the birth of his son. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Kirk to Starfleet Academy with the promise of doing something more with life. We also witness the boyhood of Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is teased for being half-Vulcan and half-human. His human mother (Winona Ryder) encouraged Spock to embrace his human emotions instead of cutting them off, Vulcan-style. Kirk and Spock clash at the Academy, and then an emergency requires all the recruits to saddle up for their first mission in space. Nero (Eric Bana) is a dastardly Romulan who has traveled back in time. In the future, he blames an older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet and the deaths of billions of Romulans. To ensure this does not happen, Nero is going to eradicate Starfleet home planets, starting with Vulcan and then Earth.

J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. He brought tired spy conventions into the twenty-first century with the cool, twisty Alias and Mission: Impossible III, which was really an extravagant two-hour episode of Alias, and I mean this in the best way. He has an innate understanding of action sequences and knows well enough that an audience needs to be engaged emotionally, so he makes the action as character-based as much as possible. Abrams has a terrific imagination behind the camera, and he reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg in his ability to marry artistic integrity with big-budget crowd pleasers. Abrams and his screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, TV’s Fringe) have crafted a stellar Trek that will appeal to die-hards and those who couldn’t tell a Romulan from a Vulcan (I fall somewhere in between).

The time travel storyline could have used more juice, however, it serves its purpose by establishing a parallel Trek universe to work with. Beforehand, Trek had established so many previous stories that it hamstrung writing new stories because they had to be extensively researched to make sure they did not conflict with 40 years of canon. Abrams and company wrestled free from the grip of the established history and can now play around unencumbered to a degree. I mean, fans don’t want to see something radically inauthentic, but Uhura and Spock as a couple? Sure, why not? The fan favorite character catch-phrases (“She’s givin’ it all she’s got,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor?,” etc.) are organically worked into the story so that they don’t become falling anvils.

Star Trek‘s pacing can be whiplash inducing. It speeds through two hours of action and setup while still maintaining an emotional connection to the characters involved. The movie has a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and it’s fun watching well-known characters assemble and amble into new and interesting directions. The action is routinely thrilling and I enjoyed Abram’s small touches, like watching a crew member get sucked out into space and cutting all sound to illustrate the cold, empty vacuum. The amount of humor injected into the movie can be distracting at times, not because it isn’t funny but because of the brisk tone breaking. One second it’s a life-or-death scenario and the next Kirk is running around with giant goofy hands. Still, it’s good to see some humor in the Trek universe that isn’t related to alien culture clashes.

The young ensemble is amazingly well cast. I didn’t think a younger generation of actors would be able to step right in and play such lived-in characters, but they pull it off. The hardest shoes to fill are unquestionably Kirk’s, and Pine (Smokin’ Aces, Just My Luck) carries that same cocksure bravado without stooping to a stilted Shatner impersonation. His performance feels at times like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one, and he’s an appealing presence that captures the essence of a dashing and rebellious scrapper. This Kirk is still an adventure-seeking, skirt-chasing 1960s kid at play. Quinto (TV’s Heroes) is blessed to look remarkably similar to Nimoy, but the actor also gets to explore the human side of Spock. He feels compelled to harness emotion, like all Vulcans, yet it’s intriguing when certain emotions slip out and build a bigger picture about what’s going inside the mind of a being dominated by logic. Quinto has less to work with by design and yet the man finds interesting ways to ensure Spock can be recognizable. Each of the supporting actors has their moment, but my biggest surprise was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban has mostly been confined to lame action movies as of late, like Doom and Pathfinder. But he’s really funny and his performance captures DeForest Kelly’s mannerisms down without turning into a caricature.

If there is a main weakness to Abrams’ Trek outing it’s that it feels far more like the opening act of a larger movie. Nero is a fairly weak villain, though Bana gives him a nicely polished glower. The villain is really just a tie-in for the time travel storyline, which is also a narrative quirk to secure an open field for further stories. Meaning, that much of the movie can be seen as assembling the pieces to simply move forward on their own. It’s an expensive set-up movie, and Abrams makes sure that the audience sees every dollar of the splashy visuals onscreen. Personally, I was also getting tired of the cinematography decision to fill the screen with as many light flares as possible. It seemed like every other moment had a blast of light beam in from some direction. After a while it sort of felt like an eye exam where the optometrist shines a flashlight back and forth. And it takes far too long for Scotty (Simon Pegg) to appear in the movie.

J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michale Giacchino’s closing credits score. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space. Bring on more of the green-skinned women.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Cloverfield (2008)

I can think of no movie that has come out of virtually nowhere to build tremendous hype like Cloverfield. Before the summer of 2007 this movie didn’t appear on anyone’s radar whatsoever, and then came a teaser trailer before Transformers. The tease was nothing but party footage of well-wishers when, all of a sudden, explosions are in the distance, people are fleeing, and the Statue of Liberty’s severed head rolls to a stop in a street. Bam. Release date. Nothing else, not even a title. All of a sudden the world had an insatiable appetite for everything Cloverfield. Mega-producer J.J. Abrams had done it again. In one fell swoop he took control of geek nation. I never expected Cloverfield to live up to the massive hype, but this modern monster movie delivers more bangs than whimpers.

The first twenty minutes of the film introduce us to our cadre of yuppy characters. Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for Japan to take a business promotion. His friends throw him a surprise going away party to celebrate and wish him the best. Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), start videotaping the party. Jason hands off the taping duties to Hud (T.J. Miller) who, thankfully, has a much steadier hand. Hud walks around the party gathering interviews and he zeroes in on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a gal he’s been nursing a crush on. Rob is nervous to see if Beth (Odette Yustman) will come to the party. Beth and Rob are long-standing friends that took the plunge and had sex a couple weeks prior. Now Rob is hoping for something more but Beth isn’t on the same page; she brings a date to the party. Interrupting all this twenty-something relationship drama is a giant monster attacking New York City and dropping little baby monsters to scurry the streets and feed.

While not entirely unique, Cloverfield is certainly a reinvention of the dormant monster movie. By seeing its gimmick through to the very end, the film gives a perspective rarely seen in movies that involve cataclysmic disasters. Usually films that involve space aliens, monsters, or some form of incredible destruction follow the people in power, the Army generals, the politicians, the President of the United States as he solemnly looks out his office window and says “God help us,” under his presidential breath. Cloverfield, however, eschews all of that. This movie is all about people caught on the peripheral of a disaster and just trying to survive. They have no idea what’s happening, they have no idea when they will be in danger, they have no idea where to go, they have no idea how long they have, and they definitely have no idea what it is that’s obliterating the city. The film dares to place us in the shoes of ordinary civilians as they document the fantastic. The “found footage” concept and the ordinary perspective are interesting though some will quibble that staying inside one point of view is too limiting for the scale of Cloverfield. This film is more than The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla; this movie is a collective manifestation of the nation’s 9/11 anxieties. Cloverfield is the first 9/11 disaster movie. The shock and confusion of the situation take on even more resonance by triggering some of the same emotions many experienced on that fateful day in 2001. And yet Cloverfield doesn’t feel exploitative or disrespectful as it draws upon our 9/11 memories and fears, which is saying something substantial about the filmmakers’ skill and the remarkable healing power of time. Some images are unmistakable, like a white cloud of dust that blows through the city and also helps to shroud the monster. People scamper around the city yelling for some kind of explanation when some character, offhandedly, says, “Do you think it’s another terrorist attack?”

The film is also got some fabulously frightening moments that are not related to 9/11 anxiety. Cloverfield is a great, old school horror movie on top of a subversive social experiment. Talented writer Drew Goddard has had experience building tension on some of TV’s finest shows, like Buffy, Angel, and Lost. Now with his debut screenplay, Goddard cranks up the suspense and creepiness to maximum effect. Part of the horror is trying to find meaning in the madness but another equally enjoyable part is walking into perfectly executed classic horror moments. You will be on edge about what could possibly be around a corner. Our band of survivors decide to walk through the subway tunnels and discover that Hud’s camcorder has night vision; sure enough, you are waiting with baited breath for the second that night vision is shifted on and something pops out in view. There’s a distinct difference between cheap jump scares and spooks that, as I say, earn their boo. This tunnel scare is catapulted to frightening from the ominous buildup that comes from seeing hundreds of rats running away. When I saw the fleeing rats, I knew something very bad was coming from behind. The structure is clever as Goddard gives us back-story on Beth and Rob via the original footage of them canoodling that cuts in here and there. Goddard earns his stripes with a script swiftly paced, filled with genuine scares, and smart enough to keep an audience laughing with gallows humor at key moments (“Okay, so our options are… die here, die in the tunnels, or die in the streets.”).

You the viewer are in the middle of the action with this film and there’s no getting out, no distancing yourself from the chaos, no watching men in lab coats and military uniforms dissect the situation over large boards. The gimmick of Cloverfield is flawlessly executed thanks to director Matt Reeves, who spectacularly resurfaces from movie jail after writing duds like The Pallbearer and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Reeves explores some dark territory of his own but never breaks the tenuous tone needed for the movie to succeed. The movie is constructed with many long takes and it never exposes its secrets. I watched spellbound by the artistry of maintaining the illusion from beginning to end. Watching the Brooklyn bridge collapse from the inside is exciting and terrifyingly real. Reeves and Goddard smartly decide not to show their monster for as long as possible. Catching glimpses of a shadow or the flash of a tentacle-like appendage are enough to register goose bumps; the human imagination will always be more capable of engineering horror. Eventually the film does give its monster the proverbial close-up and the giant, skyscraper-sized beast looks a little familiar in design (think Vin Diesel sci-fi movie).

Cloverfield is a well-executed genre movie with a clever concept that is fully realized. The constantly bouncing and roving handheld camera might make an audience queasy, but the perspective of the end of New York City as brought to you via YouTube is stimulating and a comment on our self-absorbed culture. The film works as a finely tuned fright film elevated by its stylistic concept and the filmmaking skill to pull it off. Cloverfield being “found footage” and evidence from the Department of Defense doesn’t exactly bode well for the characters onscreen, and the film dispatches them with cool malice. No one is safe and no one can stop what’s coming. If that doesn’t sound like the perfect summation of 9/11 fears, then I don’t know what else is.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Few celebrities have had the intense flame-out Tom Cruise has experienced in a little over a year’s time. First there was the PDA-heavy relationship with Katie Holmes, never a wet tongue-kiss away from a camera. Then there was the couch aerobics on Oprah Winfrey’s set, bleating his over-the-top declarations of love like Roger Rabbit. This was followed by a series of testy interviews about his war of words on psychiatry and prescription drugs. Entertainment Weekly just ran a cover story asking, “Is Tom Cruise worth his paycheck?” He’s gone from Hollywood’s most bankable actor to a national punch line. To bring new life to Cruise’s spy series, he tapped TV mastermind J.J. Abrams to make his feature debut after Cruise churned through two seasons of spy series Alias DVDs. Abrams is a gifted franchise starter, first with Alias and then with Lost, and with Mission: Impossible III he does the best he can to erase the memory of Tom Cruise, daredevil of furniture.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out of field work at the Impossible Mission Force, training recruits for the big time. He’s settled into a comfortable home life with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he’s blissfully engaged to be wed. Ethan’s happy home is disrupted when IMF needs his services. It seems one of his trainees (Keri Russell, Felicity goes badass) has been captured by an arms middleman Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man that will get any deadly force to the right bidder. Hunt reluctantly goes back into the field, assembling a team that includes Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q, quite fetching), and pilot Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Their mission goes badly and Hunt is reprimanded for his cavalier actions. He’s determined to snag Owen and get justice. This leads to an incredibly stuffed game of cat-and-mouse, each jockeying for leverage. There’s some super powerful device called the “rabbit’s foot” that everyone wants but it’s not really important. What is important is that Owen is eager to strike back at Ethan’s most vulnerable point — harming Julia.

This movie is quite possibly one of the greatest TV adaptations of all time. No, not the Mission: Impossible series but Alias. Just like J.J. Abrams’ TV brainchild, this slick, propulsive caper puts a smart spin on familiar ground. We’ve got the flash-forward narrative trickery, the super gadgets, the undercover teamwork, the world-trotting sprawling vistas, and anchoring the whole thing with an emotional counterpoint, trying to lead a double, “normal” life and keeping your loved ones equally safe and in the dark. There’s a great scene in the middle of a mission where Ethan and Luther casually discuss the impossibilities of living a normal life given what they do. Luther warns that those close to you will only end up getting hurt, and by this point thanks to a startling, right-to-the-point opener with a gun to sweet Julia’s head, we know he’s right. That’s what makes the third go-round different: Abrams has injected some emotion into the darn thing. Ethan is pressed back into service and then becomes something of a knight in shining Kevlar, trying to save his beloved in the crossfire of international espionage. There are a handful of scenes between Cruise and Monaghan and they sell the emotional drama in tender quiet looks. As a result, the audience and Ethan are rooted to their seats beyond just the assembly line of pyrotechnics. Just like Alias (at least up until Season 3 when it jumped the shark with the long-lost sister). It’s like if True Lies was played straight and Tom Arnold was mercifully forgotten.

Ah, but what pyrotechnics they are. Things get heated with a trip to the Vatican and they literally do not let up, all the while raising the stakes by pulling Ethan’s home life closer to the danger of his job. You’ll be left breathless absorbing all the exhilarating action sequences, which to my best estimate are more than the first two flicks combined. The stunts are superbly death-defying. What makes action sequences so enjoyable, pay attention you Hollywood rubes, is when the stage is set and then we watch organic complications. Abrams has a tremendous feel for action and playfully extends virtuoso sequences of awesome carnage. An attack on a bridge is simply outstanding and gave me an overload of geeky joy. We’re given the tight, controlled setting, and then Abrams introduces the outside conflict and keeps developing it masterfully step by step. There’s air attacks, there’s running back and forth amongst the wreckage, there’s searching for guns while escaping attack, and then there’s flying leaps over gaping concrete holes. I was jumping in my seat with boyish glee. The slow-mo gun toss between Cruise and Russell? Awesome. The swing-shot jump off a gigantic skyscraper in Shanghai? Awesome. The use of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as gadget guru? Awesome. Mission: Impossible III is, if nothing else, an incredible adrenaline rush orchestrated by a man with a finger directly on the pulse of his audience. By summer popcorn standards, Mission: Impossible III is everything you could hope for. Sure it’s highly implausible but it’s just so damn fun.

Abrams has created quite a breakthrough for himself. Long regarded as a TV visionary for his tangled, engrossing pop-pulp like Alias and Lost, Abrams shows what he can do with a bazillion dollars and one of the world’s most recognized stars. Abrams intelligent, deft handling of his material, elevating tired genre devices with flash and reverence, reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg. This is a man that respects his material and respects his audience, but still knows how to bring home an entertaining movie. I’ve followed Abrams’ career since getting hooked on Alias in 2001, and I’m confident he will become the best friend a movie geek could ever have (Star Trek fans should be clicking their heels about Abrams’ rumored involvement). Even though Mission: Impossible III is Abrams’ film debut (and on record the most expensive ever for a first time film director) he already shows more command, more wit, and more hipness than most of Hollywood’s graying old guard.

Finally, this is the first Mission: Impossible film to utilize the team aspect of the TV show. Granted, Cruise still does most of the running, jumping, climbing trees, but thankfully this movie is more than the Tom Cruise Kicks Everyone in the Face Show a.k.a Mission: Impossible II. The supporting cast all have their one great moment and part of the fun is their interaction, seeing the pieces fit into place. Just like last summer’s Batman Begins I would like to see another movie immediately with everyone involved. Make it happen. This is the Mission: Impossible world I want to explore in greater detail.

Mission: Impossible III is not bulletproof. The movie seriously needed more time for its villain. Hoffman does a great job of bringing his bad man to grumpy life. He goes about business with a detached nonchalance, like a plumber fixing his 10,000th clog. It may sound silly but it works because Hoffman gives his character a lizardy, unscrupulous sense of ethics. He really will put a bullet between the eyes of anyone, possibly while reheating some food in his microwave. That’s the greatness of Hoffman’s villain, how ordinary he sees his line of work and what it calls him to do. Now, with such a terrific villain it would behoove Mission: Impossible III to give him plenty of screen time. Sadly, Hoffman has about three real scenes, and his end is anticlimactic and so is the film as a whole. And what does IMF have to do to curb moles? There’s been one in all three Mission: Impossible movies. Maybe they should offer better vacation plans.

Tom Cruise may have done a lot to wear out his welcome with the public but he knows to surround himself with good people. The decision to let J.J. Abrams helm Mission: Impossible III has finally given this franchise vision and sustained excitement. This movie is far more emotionally based than any other in the series and there’s a genuine emotional reason for all the fireworks this time. The team aspect is finally addressed and Hoffman makes a truly lecherous, scary villain. But the bread and butter of this flick are its breathless action sequences, brilliantly choreographed by Abrams, a name destined for even greater things. Abrams knows how to spin genre clichés into clever, loose, twisty, funny, thrilling, emotionally centered gold. I don’t care if Cruise abused a couch and the public’s good will; Mission: Impossible III is an extravagant popcorn movie and a great way to start the summer. If only they were all like this.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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