by Steve Habrat
In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.
Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.
Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.
While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.
by Charles Beall
2011 was the year of vintage Spielberg. Along with J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” we were treated to the first animated feature film by this legendary filmmaker; these two films, for me at least, reminded me why I fell in love with the films of Steven Spielberg in the first place.
So we have “The Adventures of Tintin,” and boy is this a great film. I will admit that when I first saw the trailer for this movie, I aired on the side of caution. I had been familiar with the name Tintin, but had no idea as what to expect, and in a way, Spielberg knew this. Both he and Peter Jackson had a great challenge ahead of them, adapting a uniquely European comic for a worldwide audience. As someone who has no idea about the source material, and who thoroughly enjoyed the film, I can say their gamble was a success.
To delve into the plot of “Tintin” would be a disservice to the reader. But I will tell you this: this movie is a grand adventure in the style of the movies we grew up with. There is an underlying mystery, a legend, and it is up to Tintin and his sidekick Snowy to solve it. And I’ll tell you this, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, consumed in a child-like giddiness that I rarely experience while watching a film.
Spielberg, like Scorsese with “Hugo” (a magnificent masterpiece), uses 3D technology to add, well, another dimension to the story; it is a tool, not a gimmick. We are literally immersed in Spielberg’s world of Tintin and we see shots that no live action film could accomplish. There are chase scenes that come out of the imagination of an eight year-old, and it is obvious that the filmmaker is having a blast. The detail in every scene is impeccable, from the distorted reflection in a bottle to the consistency of the pores on a face. The love of film and serials past is evident; there is an homage to “Jaws” that made me want to go up to the screen and give it a big ol’ kiss.
But, most important, what we have in “The Adventures of Tintin” is a filmmaker who is constantly challenging himself and whom is willing to revisit the films of his childhood, and ultimately, the films that made him the artist he is today. Tintin will be, hopefully, a character that kids will embrace on this side of the pond. He is a smart character, who uses his intellect and imagination, not an iPhone and Google to solve mysteries or to have an adventure. I for one cannot wait to have kids, mainly because I want to see them discover movies, and “The Adventures of Tintin” will definitely be in the “Spielberg section” that I will indoctrinate them with.
Mr. Spielberg, bravo. (And I love you, please give me a job.)
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.
We here at Anti-Film want to encourage you all to go out and pick up the science fiction dazzler Super 8. This wonderful film is not only one of the best of the year, but is a wide-eyed testament to the magic of film, a magic that we here at Anti-Film School love with all of our hearts. Both myself and our own contributor Charles Beall went to the same college and both made our own independent short films, but we always collaborated with each other on these films. We would enthusiastically chat about specific shots we wanted to pull off, debating how to do some tricky lighting, slip in references to the movies that made us fall in love with film and so forth. As cinema lovers, it was a fantastic treat to see a movie that acted as a valentine to creativity and the power of imagination. If you have not read our immensely popular Super 8 review, click here to see what Charles thought of the film. Please go out and pick up this stellar piece of nostalgia. You will not be disappointed and that is our guarantee.
I want you to take a moment and name a film that you saw when you were a kid that left an indelible impression on you. Go ahead, I’ll wait. What was that? I’m sorry, I honestly don’t believe that Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, while an incredible film, left an emotional mark on you at the age of six.
Okay, now I’ll tell you mine. I saw E.T. for the first time when I was about four years old. How do I remember that? It is because I was petrified of this alien that made grunting noises like my father getting out of the chair. I couldn’t see the alien, so I assumed he was scary-looking. I could never get through the first half of it until I was about six when my mother told me that everything would be okay and just to watch it. Elliott brought E.T. up to his room, and in the grand reveal, he wasn’t that scary. For the next hour and a half, I went through a range of emotions: laughter at E.T. getting drunk, exhilaration as he and Elliott flew over the moon, concern when E.T. went missing, terror when the government descended on the house, sadness when E.T. “dies,” excitement when Elliott and his friends escape the government, and finally happy-sadness when E.T. flies away. Now, try and get that out of a movie when you’re six.
The fact of the matter is that Steven Spielberg is an incredible filmmaker. Yes, I hear your scoff and I do not care because it is because of his films that I was able to open my imagination and discover other works out there from many different filmmakers. We all have to start somewhere, and if it wasn’t for the films of Steven Spielberg, I do not believe my imagination would have been ignited.
J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is, unapologetically, a love letter to the Spielberg films of the late 70s and early 80s…and there is nothing wrong with that. Today, the movies at multiplexes are sequels and special effects extravaganzas that (for the most part) lack in the most important visual effect of all: the story.
Now, unless you’re Christopher Nolan (Inception, please), it is very rare that there is truly an “original” story out there because it has all been said and done before. However, there is nothing wrong with taking a concept and spinning it off into its own unique story, and that is precisely what Super 8 is.
A group of friends in western Ohio decide to make a zombie super 8 film over their summer vacation. They witness a train crash and “something” escapes and it is up to our young heroes to save the day!
That is the plot of the film, essentially. But it is the atmosphere and the characters that both Abrams and the amazing child actors create that is the heart and soul of this film. I can’t think of the last time I saw a mainstream Hollywood movie where there was such an engaging community of characters- to be honest, this movie could’ve done away with the entire monster plot and just watched these kids make a movie. It is because of these characters that you become emotionally involved in their plight and you root for them all the way through the end credits. Harkening back to E.T., Super 8 expands on the themes of friendship, family, letting go, and growing up. How rare it is to see a mainstream Hollywood film deal with these issues in both an intelligent and entertaining way.
Now, this film is not without its disappointing parts. Like an adrenaline-riddled thirteen year old, Abrams goes over the top with many of the effects that actually detract from the wonderful story he is telling. Also, the ending, while satisfying, is very abrupt and nearly brings the movie to a screeching halt. There could have been another half hour to wrap things up in a tidier manner.
With that said, it is obvious that I am biased towards Super 8. It was a trip down memory lane for me, back to a time when I saw movies from the late 70s and early 80s and wished there were more for me to see. It is also an ode to my hero, Steven Spielberg, and the effect he has had on film lovers for nearly 40 years. My hope is that kids that are twelve or thirteen see this movie and become enamored with the most wonderful special effect of all: imagination. Grade: A-