Friday, June 13, 2014

J.J. Abrams and the Cinematic Art of the Lens Flare

In my not-so-humble opinion. I believe J.J. Abrams to be the best mainstream Hollywood director working today. And before you ask, no, I do not count Quentin Tarantino as a mainstream director, but instead, an auteur on the fringe. Anyway, as I was saying, I think J.J. Abrams is the best damn mainstream director working today. And again, before you ask, no, I do not consider the term mainstream to be an insult or even a backhanded compliment. So, in the tradition of Steven Spielberg, the Spielberg of fun Summer blockbusters and giddy popcorn flicks, not the Spielberg of overly pretentious message movies and hamfisted claptraps, mind you, Abrams has brought the mainstream Hollywood movie back to the side of good, and far far away from the likes of Michael Bay and James Cameron, and their ilk. With all this in mind, and on the verge of Abrams' destiny building foray into the elusive world of Star Wars (he's already done the other big sci-fi icon), and also on the verge of the director's 48th birthday (his June 27, 1966 birth makes the dude one year and one week older than your humble, or not-so-humble as the case may be, narrator), I give to you my original reviews for two of the director's best works (and two of the best sci-fi films of the last half decade, as well as two members of my personal top tens for their respective years) - both having originally appeared on my former film review site, The Cinematheque. So, without further ado, here are my original reviews for Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot and his 2012 Spielbergian Super 8. Have at 'em...and lens flares be damned!!

Star Trek (2009)

Forty-three years after Gene Roddenberry first boldly went where no one had gone before and thirty years after the first cinematic endeavor and twenty-two years after the coming of the next generation and seven years after the last movie attempt (and at least fifteen years after anyone really cared anymore), Star Trek has been reborn - or should I say, rebooted.

Daring us to once again boldly go, while at the same time tagging us with the bold statement that this was no longer our father's Star Trek (or in the case of us "older folks" who grew up with the original series - "our" Star Trek), TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams, probably the best mainstream director working today, has managed the seemingly impossible.  He has made a Star Trek so ingrained with four plus decades of sci-fi mythology as to please even the most discerning of die-hard Trekkers (even those still living in their parent's basement at near middle age - their own phasers set on stun) while at the same time keeping it youthful enough, modern enough, to bring aboard those legions of novice Starfleet cadets that the franchise is in so desperate need of gaining. Abrams, just like a young and cocky James Tiberius Kirk, has beaten the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru - and he only cheated a little.  How's that for a reference sure to confound all those aforementioned neophyte cadets yet thrill the legions of Trek nerds I boldly announce myself as completely in tune with?
Using the time-tested (pun very much intended) Trek standby (re: cheat) of time travel to create what is in essence an alternate reality Star Trek, Abrams comes aboard, as brash and full of bravado as Chris Pine's newly retooled rebel without a cause, Kirk himself, with not just a beloved sci-fi universe rolled out in front of him, but with the suave beauty of a clean slate to boldly go wherever he damn well pleases - and boldly he does indeed go. Abrams (born mere months before the original series first flew into living rooms across America) can have his space cake and eat it to - and blow it up if he wants (which he does in part).  Just like Roddenberry back in '66, it lays at his feet for him to do with whatever he so desires.  After seeing the finished product, this self admitted Star Trek nerd can safely say he believes that Roddenberry is looking down from his resting place amongst the stars with a happy heart - or at least he damn well should be, because Abrams has created a loving tribute to the universe that Roddenberry created oh those forty plus years ago.

The story begins, as always, in the heat of battle.  A federation ship is being attacked by Nero, a renegade Romulan looking more like a Maori beyond Thunderdome than the traditional Romulan of Trek lore. When the ship's captain is summoned over to the Romulan's obvious deathtrap, he places a young officer by the name of George Kirk in command.  To make a long story short, Kirk goes down with his ship after making sure the crew, along with his giving-birth-right-now wife and their fresh-faced new son, one James Tiberius Kirk, are shuttled off to safety. It is pure space opera and it works on just that level. After this we get backstories and character introductions (and even get to see cadet Kirk's tryst with a green-skinned alien) and finally just why that damned Nero is so pissed off at the federation - and especially Spock.  We even get allusions to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Nero screeches Spock!!! into the otherwise soundproof environs of space just as Shatner's Kirk yelled Khan!!!. It's just as cheesy and just as fun.   Pauline Kael once wrote of the second Trek movie that it was "wonderful dumb fun" and this is certainly no different - and I too, just like the late Miss Kael, mean that with the utmost sincerity and adoration.

And the new cast, the veritable nexus of chat room speculation and argumentative controversy ever since Abrams' revamping plans began to first unfold, works as well.  Chris Pine as the iconic Captain Kirk is a twenty-something horndog roustabout who joins Starfleet more out of spite or on a dare than out of any sense of duty.  The perpetually brooding Zachary Quinto plays the even more iconic Mr. Spock with a Vulcan calmness just this side of emotional eruption.  He looks so much like Nimoy one must wonder if he wasn't born to play the part.  Karl Urban, in one of the most dead reckoning impersonations in the group, plays Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy with the same bug-eyed curmudgeonry as DeForest Kelly's original grizzled anti-social country doctor with a taste for bourbon and a definitive distaste for space travel. Then there is Simon Pegg doing Scotty in high brogue as only a comic actor can and should do him. My one major criticism of the film is there is not enough Scotty (he doesn't even make an appearance until around minute 85 or 90). We also get Zoe Saldana as the smokin' hot Uhura in retro mini skirt and gogo boots (she really doesn't have much else to do), John Cho (Harold, sans Kumar) as the helmsman Sulu, Anton Yelchin as a seventeen year old Pavel Chekov, with a major case of 23rd century ADD, Bruce Greenwood as the ill-fated Captain Christopher Pike, Ben Cross and Winona Ryder as Spock's star-crossed parents, Eric Bana as the aforementioned Khan-esque Nero and even Tyler Perry as a Starfleet Admiral (luckily not trying to be "very funny").

All the favorite characters are here (but where are Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand?) fulfilling their duty as newly appointed icons, replete with all the old standard lines that have become part of sci-fi lore, but still, as always, this is the Kirk and Spock show. Philosophically set against each other - Kirk and Spock, body and mind - we watch the beginnings of an eternal struggle put to rest by the almost symbiotic way these two opposite reactions work together toward the same goal.  Both are great in the parts but it is Pine who has the decidedly tougher mountain to climb.  Pine has to channel the bravura of Shatner's Kirk but also avoid falling into the drama queen over excess of Shatner the actor.  A friend describes Shatner lovingly (sort of) as that embarrassing uncle who tries to get you to fish around in his pocket for a present. Shatner's presence, bloated jackass or not (and don't get me wrong, I loved him in the original role), will always be there and yet Pine manages to parlay only the good into his transformation into Captain James T. Kirk.

Yet, the old school Trekker in me (I was just two years old when the original series was canceled due to low ratings!? but grew up on the seventies reruns) cannot help but keep returning to Leonard Nimoy's Spock Prime.  More than just a glorified cameo, Spock Prime, who's inadvertent delineation of the known timeline which flips everything on its head is the nadir of the film's story, is the very heart and soul of the new Star Trek. Watching Nimoy back where he belongs and obviously loving every moment of his trek back home (pun intended again) is like once again seeing that beloved childhood friend you never even realized you missed like crazy but who has been in the back of your mind for years and years and years.  Just as Nimoy has gone home again (and who said you couldn't?) so to has this once, and always, impressionable perpetual youth.

Forty-three years of pop culture references - from South Park and Family Guy to Galaxy QuestSNL and even That 70's Show - and the franchise of Star Trek, with its phasers and communicators and its "beam me up Scotty" apocryphals, is still alive. Perhaps it has been on life support for a while now - kept alive long after any real interest in the later spin-offs and elongated episodic cinematic endeavors has gone as kaput as a red-shirted ensign on a landing party - but no matter how sick it may have become, the imagery has never died.  It is this very pop culture and all the mythos and iconography which surrounds it that makes Abrams reboot work as well as it does. His sleek new look that never takes away from the now-retro original series is a pitch-perfect melange of old and new sensibilities. My critical half (aka my pretentious half) is inline with my nerd half and I too can have my cake and eat it as well.

In the final scene, when everyone is on the bridge in those iconic (and somewhat cooler) original episode uniforms - I actually got chills (god, I am a nerd!!!) and Pine's subtle Shatneresque smirk and slap on Bones' shoulder and the way he sits in that captain's chair, legs crossed a la Shatner, along with the obvious love and care in giving us Nimoy's Spock "Prime", shows that though this is not our father's Star Trek and is definitely boldly going where no one has gone before, it would and could still hold high reverence for all that had come before it. The mythology is still there and yet, like Zefram Cochrane making first contact, Abrams brings new life to this long dead Phoenix and we realize we can boldly go anywhere from here. What more could we ever ask for? Now bring on the Klingons. Live long and prosper. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 05/09/09]

So there's my take on Abrams Star Trek Redux. Now let's cut to two years later and take a look at my thoughts on Abrams taking on of the monster movie genre.

Super 8 (2011)

Imagine a world of youthful memories, evoking a certain place and time of cinematic innocence, now all but lost to future generations, where children played at make-believe in the suburban utopia of woebegone days and the buddings of first love are felt in the small town purity of kids caught somewhere between their first swear word and their first cigarette. A place where adults were secondary, incidental even, and where monsters and aliens crept into our subconscious only to be made real by those purveyors of the era's newly born summer blockbuster machinations - a place of George Lucas and of Joe Dante and especially of Steven Spielberg. This place of seeming cinematic incorruptibility, where escapist fare was met with a sense of childlike wonder and the daily box office take was, though assuredly important and quickly becoming moreso, not yet the be all and end all of making movies in Hollywood, is where J.J. Abrams takes us with his deceptively brilliant evocation of a simpler, kinder, more gentle cinematic world in Super 8.

Set in the early summer days of 1979, in an archetypal small town in rural Ohio, Abrams pays the greatest homage to his mentor and master Spielberg (though Spielberg's credit as producer may smack a bit of nepotism in a way) by giving his monster movie an aura of that time when Spielberg was still a filmmaker with heart and soul (a filmmaker evoking his own childhood dream world) while at the same time giving it that more-bang-for-your-buck style that has come to epitomize the directorial signature of Abrams' still young (one could even say still budding) career. One could even go so far as to call this film an E.T. for a more jaded, more in-your-face and a much faster-paced generation of moviegoers - a less innocent generation of moviegoers if you will.  It is this blend - more sympathetic than Abrams usually makes out and less cloying than Spielberg, even vintage Spielberg can be - that makes the film work as well as it does.

After a brief prologue showing, in a very Spielbergian way appropriately enough, the loss of a wife and mother (a typically seventies factory where a sign stating how many days since their last accident being marked back down to one, a lone child sitting on a swing caressing the locket of his now dead mother) and the almost immediate shattering of the aforementioned cinematic innocence, Abrams sets his story rolling - and roll like proverbial thunder out of the gate it most certainly does. We are introduced to a group of kids, barely on this side of pubescence, in the process of making a zombie movie (George Romero can be seen as an influence as well), via their titular super 8 camera, complete with the idea of cheap but wholly appropriate special effects (blowing up model trains and filming it on super 8 is pretty much the most accurate way of describing La Spielberg's own filmmaking youth) and stilted but again wholly appropriate acting. We see these kids filming at a small train depot as a locomotive comes barreling past at a breakneck speed.

Once the train derails in the most spectacular of set pieces (Abrams certainly knows how to make his action go that extra mile) and our inevitable monster is set loose upon this unsuspecting small town America (shown, a la Cloverfield in quick shadowy spurts - making for the tension and inherent danger to be at a peak level throughout), and once the military swoops in and quickly becomes even a possible greater danger than the escaped monster they are not telling anyone about (and no one is digitally replacing guns with flashlights this time around Mr. Spielberg), Abrams movie kicks into high gear and we are shown the director who was only hinted at in the mostly awful Mission Impossible III (important only because it was what first showed what the director was capable of if let loose upon the big big screen of the cinema, with his daring-doo way of choreographing elaborate and convoluted action set pieces) and honed to an audacious bravura in his quite spectacular reboot of the dying Star Trek franchise.  The director who is quickly becoming something of an action-oriented auteur - and a Hell of a lot of fun to watch.

As for the cast, it is mostly populated by the kind of kids one would expect to find in such an homage.  Foremost among these kids are Joe, the town deputy's son and aforementioned lone child lamenting his loss, and Alice, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who seems to be in serious need of redemption from sins she carries with her that are not even her own. Joe is played with a wide-eyed sense of wonder that does its own evoking of Henry Thomas' Elliott in E.T., by first-time actor Joel Courtney, while Alice is played by the quite disarming Elle Fanning (just thirteen but the veritable veteran of the young cast) whose perfect blend of youthful exuberance and adult-like sensibilities (much like her older sister, the young actress's eyes evoke both a naiveté appropriate to her age and a frank knowingness that belies that very same age) make for the most layered character in the film - and she comes off as any red-blooded young teen boy's fantasy girl hot, sassy and dark, and she can drive a car! (where were the girls like this when I was thirteen!?). These two young actor's scenes together are the emotional high points of the film. The way their attraction grows and their playful interacting (Fanning's cute way of stealing a kiss while in zombie make-up) make for the most charming of young romances.

In all reality, it is the simple and unaffected budding romance between Joe and Alice, as well as these kids' tempestuous relationships with their equally bewildered fathers (played by a stoic Kyle Chandler and a pathos-riddled Ron Eldard), and not the monster nor the military, that is the central core of this spiraling, sometimes batshitcrazy movie. It is this side of Spielberg, the one seemingly long gone these days, that Abrams is paying homage to here, and it is this particular age (this critic turned twelve in the summer of 1979 and therefore am virtually the same age as Super 8's young protagonists) that makes it stick so personally for me - and let's face it, anyone who has ever grown up in the places evoked here and in the early works of that ever-present Mr. Spielberg. It is also due to this subtle approach to the storytelling aspect of the film that when we finally get to our expected dénouement, it is not the monster Abrams focuses his camera on but the kids - the human aspect of the story. In a way this ends up as something of a mixed bag of reactions come the fade to black and end credits.

Perhaps those of us looking for nothing more than the perfect action movie kicks will be left feeling a bit (but just a bit) disappointed as the layers of the film are peeled away, revealing each new reveal, albeit each one nestled inside stunning set piece after stunning set piece - and perhaps too those of us looking for pure summer blockbuster chutzpah and a balls out Michael Bay-esque finale that will theoretically leave every quasi-pubescent fanboy with a moist pair of jeans will end up feeling cheated by their own sense of imagined anticipatory self-rhetoric. I do admit to a feeling of disillusionment once our intrepid monster is fully seen and fully realized and the tension is unwarrantly alleviated and we are left with a let down of sorts. Perhaps though, what we are left with in this overly sensitized wake (and self-invented sense of moviegoing entitlement) is an emotional heft (and general warm fuzzy feeling - but in a good way) and a childlike fantasy that harkens back to those halcyon days (both cinematically and nostalgically) being evoked by Abrams in his loving homage to his mentor and master. Perhaps, it is more than a mere monster movie.  Perhaps indeed.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 06/10/11]

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web. And now we wait for Star Wars: Episode VII...


  1. The Star Trek film was quite good and I couldn't have said better(I really couldn't0 myself:) I have not seen the other film so cannot begin to even say anything but I would have been 15 at that time:) I like your first sentence about Spielberg's message movies-Love Schindler's List and Empire of the Sun but not a fan of Saving Ryan's Privates even though the beginning of the film was quite good

  2. Out of the 1000+ film reviews I have written and published over the years, these are two of the ones of which I am most proud.

    Oh, and yeah, the opening salvo of Pvt. Ryan is one of the best battle scenes ever put on film, but the rest of the film is mere cliche-riddled bunk.

    Thanx for stopping by, B.

  3. These are pretty elaborately written reviews. The grand cinematic knowledge of god ole Kevyn Knox. You may be a misogynistic ass, but you do know your film stuffs.