Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reviews: Thor, Pirates 4, The Tree of Life, Super 8

Silly in the best and worst senses of the word, Thor is also sloppy and incomprehensible. If Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 had ever featured a $100 million trainwreck, this would have to be it. That Kenneth Branagh, who is an undeniably talented actor and director, had anything to do with this disaster (based on Marvel’s comic about the Norse god of thunder) is almost as unbelievable as the movie itself.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
No matter how frenzied the action gets in Disney’s latest Pirates film, On Stranger Tides always seems to be on the verge of nodding off. Maybe that’s why there’s a new chase scene every five minutes. But a glut of “action” isn’t the movie’s only problem--it’s also lost Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley, who were the emotional core of the first three. Without them you’re left with a cast of undeveloped characters like Gibbs, Barbosa, and Sparrow, who may be fun but you just can’t build a real character out of him. The movie’s only saving grace is the romantic sublpot between a missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) and a beautiful mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (who also penned the first three) take the high road in making Philip a sympathetic man of integrity instead of a hypocrite or an untarnished saint. That’s doesn’t make it a good movie, but it’s enough to save it from being a calamity like Thor.

The Tree of Life
There’s been a lot of talk about the grace-vs-nature theme of Terrence Malick’s gorgeous and emotional Tree of Life but little's been said about what I feel is the film’s true focus: the father-son dynamic as a picture of humanity’s struggle with God. In the movie--which can be best understand as a stream of memories than a conventional story--a depressed architect named Jack (Sean Penn) reflects back on his childhood and his brother’s death at the same time as he struggles to understand who God is and why bad things are allowed to happen. Though at first glance the young Jack’s struggle with his father (played with incredible force by Brad Pitt) seems unrelated to the adult Jack’s struggle with God, they are actually two sides of the same coin. Just as the young Jack (played by the excellent Hunter McCracken) can’t understand what’s going on in the mind of his father, who vacillates constantly between love and rage, so his adult self can’t understand the mind of the Almighty.

But that doesn’t mean that Malick ends on a note of existential dread. Instead, Jack eventually settles into humble acceptance, with both his father and God. If Malick’s execution of this spiritual transformation isn’t all that it could be (why on a beach? and why do so many people have glazed-over zombie eyes?) far be it from me to complain too much. The Tree of Life succeeds on so many other levels that I think it’s earned a misstep or two. I hesitate to call it a masterpiece, because that word is so often applied to movies that will be forgotten is a decade or two, but I can’t help feeling that this one has a long future ahead of it.

Super 8
Speaking as a fan of both Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, I feel I can confidently say that you, Super 8, are no Spielberg movie. You’re definitely a mishmash of Spielbergian influences, but you lack a certain emotional and visual punch. Sure, you’ve got some scares, but where’s your tension? Where’s your delight in making us so anxious we can barely stand it? Okay, you’re your own movie, I get it--but you also make a big deal about the tradition you belong to. The problem is, I don’t care about your monster: in the first half of the movie, he’s a villain; in the second half, we’re supposed to feel sympathy for him. But how can I feel sorry for him if you don’t bother to develop him as a character. Case in point: E.T. Here, we spend almost equal amounts of time with Elliott and E.T. They develop a bond over the course of the movie, and so we feel heartbroken first when E.T. appears to die, and again when E.T. must finally return home.

And then, Super 8, there’s your other villain, the Air Force. Everyone talks big, especially Nelec (Noah Emmerich), but you don’t have the courage to make them truly villainous. Are you afraid you would seem unpatriotic? Fair enough. But at least make them mysterious, perhaps in the way the government agents in E.T. were mysterious.

Maybe I’ve being too hard on you, Super 8, but it’s just that I had high hopes. I expected genuine thrills, and yes, I even expected to witness the second coming of Spielberg. But I’m afraid all you gave me was just another monster movie.

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