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Kicking the Tweets
Friday
Jun172011

Green Lantern (2011)

Echo-friendly

I had zero expectations going into Martin Campbell's Green Lantern. The trailers looked terrible, and I figured this was just DC Comics's way of jumping onto the "Let's Make Obscure Comic-Book Characters Cool" bandwagon that Marvel kick-started with 2008's Iron Man. It didn't help that early reviews were not just negative, but scathing on a near-personal level. After having seen the film, I'm happy to report that Green Lantern pleasantly surprised me.

Wait! Come back!

I'm not endorsing the movie, nor am I surprised by its current 24% critical approval rating. I was surprised by the mediocrity of almost everything on screen, by the sheer blandness of this sugar-free, green oatmeal.

I can't explain why the ninety-percent-stolen screenplay, poor casting and ignorantly proud lack of internal logic didn't upset me; maybe because, after a few short minutes, picking the movie apart as it was unfolding became an unavoidable game. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but Green Lantern's problems are too numerous and glaring not to notice (unless you're the degree of fan who will show up to the theatre wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt, in which case there's probably no room for debate, anyway).

Let's start with the film's mythology. In an impressive opening sequence that didn't at all remind me of Thor, we're introduced to the Guardians, a race of god-creatures who created and oversee everything in the universe. In the beginning, they used the glowing, green power of will to establish a home world from which they forged 3600 magical rings; the rings sought out one being from each of the 3600 sectors of space to become an enforcer of justice. United, they formed the Green Lantern Corps.

Congratulations, if William Shatner's line, "What does god need with a starship?" just popped into your head.

Yes, the all-knowing, all-powerful Guardians--who, mind you, can do or manifest anything with their minds (except when they can't)--need an army of space cops to keep the universe safe from...them, I guess?

Moving on, we learn that one of the Guardians went rogue and harnessed the power of yellow energy, or fear, and became so consumed that he turned into the life-force-sucking entity called Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown). After an epic battle that we never see, Parallax is imprisoned within an asteroid by the noble Lantern, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). As the film's main story begins, a trio of explorers crashes through the asteroid's unstable surface and lands in front of the green-energy prison in which Parallax has been confined. He opens his eyes, sucks them dry, and floats off into space.

Six months later, Parallax shows up in another system and attacks Abin Sur, mortally wounding him. Clinging to life, he steers his ship towards Earth in search of a worthy successor to the ring.

Let's back up a moment. If I were a council of omnipotent gods who'd somehow managed to foil an unstoppable monster, I would certainly have tried to destroy it (not hard to do, I'd imagine, for a group of omnipotent gods); short of that, I would have confined it to a remote sector of space, sealed off by a series of twelve-thousand force fields. At the very least, I would have installed an alarm, so that it couldn't sneak up on my people half a year later.

Hey, Ian, isn't Ryan Reynolds in this movie?

Boy, is he! And if you were worried that he'd try to break free of the hot, smirking frat-boy-type that he's perfected in the last decade in order to play the serious test-pilot that his Hal Jordan character is supposed to be--don't worry: he's still Van Wilder at heart.

Hal crashes a fighter jet while testing his skills against two state-of-the-art, pilot-free planes. He's fired from the aeronautics firm run by his best-friend-since-childhood, Carol (Blake Lively), and mopes home. On his way, he's picked up by a ball of green energy and flown to the spot where Abin Sur wrecked his spacecraft. The alien hands Hal his ring, mumbles something about being "chosen", and dies. Hal quickly discovers that the ring can manifest any form that his mind can imagine and he uses it to pulverize a gang of drunks who attack him outside a bar.

It's interesting to note that the moment when Hal clobbers these guys using a giant cartoon fist is played for laughs (or at least cheers). Sorry, but I sided with the attackers, who were laid off from Hal's firm because his cavalier attitude and subsequent accident forced the business to make cuts. Not that I agree with people beating up on each other, but I would've been pissed, too, at this wisecracking, entitled fuck.

Emerging "victorious", Hal is transported through space to the Guardians's home planet, Oa. There, he is outfitted with a green hero's costume and introduced to other members of the Corps. A training montage ensues; first with a giant dog-pig-thing called Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan, who advances the idea that no matter how far one goes into space, one can always find a stereotypical, black bad-ass to toughen up a stereotypical, soft cracker), then with the erudite, pink-skinned Sinestro (Mark Strong).

Based on his name, you'd probably think Sinestro to be untrustworthy. And I have to give screenwriters Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg credit for the movie's one surprise: that Sinestro is a grouchy but stand-up guy from beginning to end. That doesn't include the end credits, however; an Easter Egg sequence containing the most unconvincing character turn since Anakin Skywalker's Revenge of the Sith switch.

Jesus, this review is all over the place. I might as well as have just snuck my laptop into the theatre and live-blogged Green Lantern. In a way, though, it's the only way to effectively describe the film, which is itself so ramshackle and poorly edited that we're barely given time to register anything but the inconsistencies--until the end, when every scene drags on to utterly predictable conclusions.

For the sake of brevity and clarity, allow me to present the rest of the synopsis as a word problem. Read the following description, and then pick the lettered answer that best describes the movie from which the plot elements have been stolen:

Hal doesn't think he's up for the challenge of being a Lantern, so he quits. After Hal returns to Earth, Parallax wipes out a large contingent of the Corps, leaving Oa exposed to greater attacks. Meanwhile, an improbably named, weaselly scientist named Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) comes into contact with a piece of Parallax, which causes his body to mutate into a hybrid of the alien, complete with swelled head. Hal must save Earth and his newly non-platonic friend, Carol, from the fear-feeding scourge, which looks like a cloud of CG white-guy dreads with a face.

A. The Last Starfighter

B. Spider-Man 3

C. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

D. All of the Above

Bonus points if you noticed that the earlier fighter-pilot sequence is almost beat for beat the climax from Iron Man, in which Tony Stark takes his armor into the atmosphere to scramble his high-speed pursuers' electrical equipment.

Despite all of this, I don't think Green Lantern is the worst movie in the world. It's just not really worth your time. The only decent actor here is Strong, who made me wish the movie had been called Sinestro and the Green Lantern Corps; Lively continues to confound by being consistently worse on the big screen than she is on Gossip Girl. The CG is distracting, busy, and seems to exist solely to show unimaginative comic-book readers what their favorite characters look like moving around (if that's enough for them, maybe Fredrick Wortham was right). And the story's old hat.

In an era where new comic-book movies come out every month, you'd think that studios would be hip to the fact that everyone's down with the formula now. With the exception of X-Men: First Class (which kind of cheats), all of these movies are the same. They spend two hours introducing the same primary and secondary characters we've seen a hundred times before, having those characters square off against an unimpressive foe, and then fading to black with the promise of more "breathing room" (i.e. budget/balls) in the sequel.

Green Lantern is just more of that, except with about twenty Parallax-sized plot holes and zero charisma. It would have been nice if the creators had learned something from their characters and delivered a movie whose only limits were those of imagination.

Thursday
Jun162011

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) Home Video Review

A Serious Mensch

I just figured out what I want for my birthday. It's a big request, but I've been pretty good this year, so maybe the universe or God or Hollywood can make it happen--just this once: My dream is to have Woody Allen consult on every major motion picture from now until the end of time. I'm not asking that he star--or even direct--but he should at least run the script meetings, with full authority to shame any hack writers into quitting on the spot.

Case in point: 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, another film that I'd somehow managed to avoid but which set off fireworks in my brain from the opening scene to the last. Allen's tenuously connected stories about wealthy ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) and struggling documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen)--both of whom have unique approaches to dealing with failing marriages--examines guilt and responsibility in ways I only thought were masterfully addressed in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.

I love that film, and think it still holds up, but Crimes and Misdemeanors adds a layer of intrigue to its existential and romantic complications. Judah has come to what he thinks is the end of a two-year affair with his stewardess mistress, Dolores (Angelica Houston); she has other ideas, and sends letters and makes phone calls to his house in the hopes that she can confront Judah's oblivious wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom). Dolores doesn't go full-Fatal-Attraction, but she makes the fatal mistake of telling Judah that she knows about some unethical practices he was engaged in while building a new opthalmology institute--a declaration that prompts him to ask his black-sheep brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach) to have her disposed of.

On the lighter side, Cliff is stuck in a loveless marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) who wishes he would aspire to be more like her brother, Lester (Alan Alda), a successful television producer with a stack of Emmys and a wandering eye. Lester offers Cliff the chance to direct a documentary about him for public television; Cliff reluctantly accepts, figuring the money will help him complete his passion project--a profile on a Holocaust survivor who preaches about love. While filming Lester, Cliff falls for a recently divorced producer named Halley (Mia Farrow), and they begin an awkward, practically one-sided courtship.

The common thread here is Ben (Sam Waterston), Wendy and Lester's brother and a long-time patient of Judah's. Over the course of the movie, Ben loses his sight, but uses his rabbinical wisdom and optimism to try and keep his siblings' lives together and save Judah's marriage. Though he is a stand-in for God--even manifesting as an advice-giving mirage in Judah's living room--no one heeds his advice. This is very important, as Allen takes great pains to lay out what he sees as the rules of the universe: God is always watching; He rewards the just and punishes the wicked.

In a typical movie, justice would be meted out as follows: Judah's guilt would either trip him up and cause him to get caught, or drive him to suicide. Cliff would break from the bonds of his spiteful wife and her vain, idiot brother and run away with the warm and intelligent Wendy. But by the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, both men are utterly defeated, devoured by vanity and a false sense of superiority. Landau delivers his closing monologue with a wild, thousand-yard-stare, causing us to question whether or not Judah buys the bullshit he's slinging. Cliff's fate, in a way, is worse.

Allen's screenplay is like an exercise in which he tries to tackle the subjects of paranoia, guilt and faith from two wholly different sensibilities--dramatic and comedic. I can't recall a film that's attempted this, and it's hard to imagine one doing it better. On their own, Cliff and Judah's stories would have been interesting, but by fusing them Allen gives new context to both: as the murder plot gets deeper and weirder, we break to check in on Cliff's lovesick, crumbling life for comic relief; when that becomes that becomes too uncomfortable, we check back in with Judah, whose conscience drives him to actions both tragic and comic.

Through it all, Allen reminds us that these are essentially decent men who committed the cosmic sin of aspiring to become something they're not: Judah is supposed to be the good brother, remaining aloof in his perfect marriage and world of privilege (indeed, his only troubles with Miriam seem to come from complacency). When he steps outside that box, the universe (Jack and Ben) warns him and gives him ample opportunity to confess his sins and follow a hard but redemptive path.

Cliff suffers from the sense of entitlement that comes from being an artist surrounded by people who aren't creatively inclined. He has the restlessness of a twenty-something but is trapped in a world of settlement and expectations. Instead of doing the noble thing after falling for Halley, he tries to kick-start an affair, which starts him on down a path of ignobility; his behavior becomes more bold and erratic (his cut of Lester's documentary is mean and hilarious), and he forgets that the reason he's never made anything of himself is because he has neither the spine nor the tools--unlike the people he looks down on.

Crimes and Misdemeanors shows us how inherently interesting people can be. Allen gets great mileage out of letting terrific actors (Alan Alda as a scumbag, who knew?) play real characters, without too many off-putting flourishes--though towards the end, Cliff's Allen-esque one-liners and asides got to be a bit much. If his characters can be this compelling just going to work and lying their way through cocktail parties, imagine what they could do dodging giant robots or conquering deep space!

I know, it's silly to suggest that Woody Allen do punch-up on Transformers 3, but everyone's biggest complaint about dumb, summer blockbusters is that they're, well, dumb. Wouldn't it be nice to see characters you actually give a shit about, who act like people you know, having to face not just existential crises but giant, metal ones? I, for one, think it would be great to see a well-respected actor pop up in a franchise picture and think, "Wow, Frances McDormand really brought something to this role", instead of, "I didn't realize there was an expiration date on Fargo residuals".

I know, it's a lot to ask. Besides, box office figures suggest that the average moviegoer prefers to have nothing to do with reality while being entertained. I don't know when that happened, but it seems like someone, somewhere, got away with something big. 

Tuesday
Jun142011

Bicycle Thieves (1948) Home Video Review

Steal This Movie!

Some people think modern movies are crap; that everything old is great. I'm not necessarily one of them, but they have a point. Maybe the ubiquitous opportunities for everyone and their mothers to become filmmakers nowadays has drowned the medium in mediocre garbage. It seems I have to look harder to find examples of good or interesting cinema past, say, the mid-1970s, than when sifting through the relatively meager selection of the first seven decades.

Full disclosure: I haven't seen every movie ever made.

Case in point: Why have a I never seen a film like Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves? Nearly every great movie has been ripped-off and recycled into a dozen lesser iterations. But for some reason this beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, wholly original story has been left untouched. Maybe that's a good thing, but given the advances in both technology and storytelling, I shouldn't have to trek back to 1948 to have my mind blown.

Set in post-World War II Rome, the movie tells the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man who may have been middle-class at one point, but who is now forced to wait in a mob outside the employment office for news of day labor. A friend offers him a job for the following morning because he knows Antonio owns a bicycle. Antonio races home to tell his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), that they have to sell whatever they can to get the family bike out of the pawn shop.

The next day, Antonio drops his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), at the school-bus stop, and heads to his new gig. He apprentices briefly under a poster-hanger, who shows him how to affix large paper advertisements to brick walls--something he'll need to do perfectly, several times a day, all around the city.

During one of his first solo projects, a thief (Vitorrio Antonucci) swipes Antonio's bike and disappears into the bustling mid-day crowd. Antonio is livid. He can't do his job without the bike, and his family has nothing left to sell with which to buy a new one. He runs to the police station, but is told that there aren't enough resources to track down a single bicycle. Maria suggests consulting a popular local psychic, but Antonio insists that's a waste of time.

The next morning, Antonio and Bruno scour the local markets with their friend, Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), and some of his off-shift co-workers. Thinking the bicycle may have already been dismantled for parts, they pick through bells, pumps, tires and frames, looking for serial numbers and familiar markings--to no avail. Father and son eventually split from the group and wander different neighborhoods on their own.

It's not a spoiler to say they find the bicycle thief, and I won't go any further than that. This film's climax is one of the most harrowing I've ever seen, a perfectly orchestrated exercise on the part of De Sica and co-writers Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, and Gerardo Guerrieri (working from Luigi Bartolini's novel) in creating the same panic in his audience as in his protagonist's mind. I've never understood the "yell-at-the-screen" cliche usually associated with horrror movies until watching Bicycle Thieves. Antonio's defining moment is one of such gut-churning honesty and desperation that even the gods take notice (you'll see what I mean).

If a movie about a guy looking for his bike all day sounds boring, let me assure you there's nothing pedestrian about Bicycle Thieves. Yes, it's more about subtext and the mental gymnastics of being a broke, defeated breadwinner, but it's also about elevating filmmaking to its greatest (at the time) potential. If for no other reason, you have to see what De Sica and cinematographer Carlo Montuori do with Rome. I've been to Rome, and it didn't look half as gorgeous in person as it does in stunning black and white. These artists create a fantasy world where every street corner is interesting to look at and every glimpse of the greater city from the low neighborhood streets promises a thousand just-as-lively stories. You could get lost in some of these frames.

I also love the unexpected emotional notes the story hits; such as when Antonio decides to give up his search and invites Bruno to join him for some lunch. He makes the rash decision to spend money he barely has on a fine, little meal of wine and pasta. The bold choice frees him from the constraints of fear, just for a few moments.

De Sica and company undercut this by focusing on Bruno's perspective, which is tainted by several glances at an adjoining table, where a well-to-do family is devouring a better meal as if it means nothing to them. Antonio realizes that the bicycle doesn't just represent a job, it's a way of eventually making his family comfortable enough to enjoy something resembling a life of leisure--if only on special occasions. In the course of five minutes, we the audience plunge past the depths of despair into murky, green oceans of jealousy and resurface--renewed and determined to make it to find a surer footing; and there's not a contrived beat in the scene.

Despite being an Important Drama, Bicycle Thieves has really cool, really unexpected touches of comedy and weirdness. In the market scene, Bruno just manages to avoid being hit on by a pedophile. Later on, Antonio and Bruno visit the psychic and ask for help in locating the bike. Outside of the fact that their exchange made me realize that Tim Burton's opus, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, was a satire/homage to this film, I loved watching the clairvoyant and her handlers deal with the easily manipulated crowd; the film is unclear whether or not the woman has extrasensory abilities--she treats all her customers as suckers, regardless.

It's so refreshing to see a movie made by people firing on all cylinders. At the same time, it's sad to think how rare an experience that is. Sure, one could argue that today's big-budget blockbusters and rom-coms are made for a totally different audience than the kind that appreciate intimate dramas. But I think a lot of that has to do with conditioning. Most mainstream films nowadays are like McDonalds food: senses-dulling, hastily consumed approximations of things that will actually nourish people. Bicycle Thieves is an exhilarating reminder of a time when movies were made to inspire and invigorate, not just create artificial demand for more processed garbage.

Note: Somehow, Bicycle Thieves became more popularly known as The Bicycle Thief. If you go into this movie thinking of it as The Bicycle Thief, you'll do yourself a big favor, especially towards the end. Trust me.

Sunday
Jun122011

Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008)

The Feel-bad Movie of the Summer

You're right to question my judgment as a movie critic when I pan Super 8 but give a full-throated endorsement of the direct-to-video slasher film Return to Sleepaway Camp. One is a disposable, cliche-packed spectacle that relies on cheap thrills to titillate a half-awake audience; the other is about a killer stalking teens in the woods.

What makes Return to Sleepaway Camp a must-see is its unrelentingly nasty attitude. Every line of dialogue is a slight or a threat, and is often followed by someone getting at least jabbed in the chest. The film's protagonist, Alan (Michael Gibney), is a sad, overweight boy who's picked on by popular kids and camp counselors alike. Writer/director Robert Hiltzik makes the odd but brilliant decision to strip Alan of any sympathy by making him a bully as well; on top of that, it's suggested that he has a learning disability.

None of this is tasteful, on paper or in practice, and watching the film is like an endurance test. The most terrifying parts don't involve a shadowy figure dipping the asshole assistant-cook in a vat of boiling French-fry oil or tying a counselor's penis to a jeep's bumper with barbed wire; no, all of that is good times and gravy compared to watching exchanges like this one, in which Alan has a run-in with camp owner Frank (Vincent Pastore):

Alan:  You fat fucking liar!

Frank:  Watch that mouth of yours!

Alan:  Let go of me!

Frank:  I'll let go of you when I kick your ass outta this camp so fast you won't know what hit you!

Alan:  You fucking dick!

Frank:  Get back here!

Alan:  Your ass stinks!

Yep, our hero's catch-phrase is "Your ass stinks!"

I recently criticized the movie Defendor for what I believed to be a gross mockery and insensitivity to people with mental issues. But I don't have the same problem with Alan, whose bad wiring was either the result of an accident or a problem from birth--the movie isn't clear. Is this hypocritical? Maybe, but Return to Sleepaway Camp wears its lack of a moral compass firmly on its sleeve; there's no uplifting, moral message about Alan triumphing over adversity and catching the killer. At the end of the film, he's beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead. This makes my enjoyment of his angry tirades and socially awkward pranks merely sadistic, not inconsistent.

Don't worry: I didn't spoil anything by revealing that Alan's not the killer--an idea Hiltzik would love for you to believe at various points in the film. No, the murderer is actually Sheriff Jerry (Felissa Rose).

Once again, no need for a "Spoiler" tag--unless you're the only person on earth who could watch this movie and not notice the awful, exaggerated fake nose and hastily applied fake beard on this cop who happens to pop up right before or right after the murders.

I should probably back up for a moment for anyone not familiar with the Sleepaway Camp series. The 1983 original is a classic bit of nastiness known both for its brutality and shocking ending.  The killer in that film was a girl named Angela who, until the final scene, was thought to be one of the story's heroes. As it turns out, Angela was actually a boy dressed as a girl, and the movie ends with her chopping off the head of her/his boyfriend on the beach and revealing her schlong-erific naked body to a group of shocked camp counselors.  Rose reprises the Angela role in Return, disguised up as a local sheriff until the end's Big Reveal.  It's a clumsy nod to the original film, and an awkward sidestepping of the middle sequels--in which Pamela Springsteen (Bruce's kid sister)--played a wise-cracking version of the transgender terror.

The whole scenario is even more ridiculous than it sounds, and it wasn't long before I began to wonder whether or not Hiltzik was making A) a horror/comedy, B) the world's worst horror movie, or C) a masterpiece in an as-yet-defined genre of his own design.  The film is very modular. You could take the slasher elements out completely and have, essentially, a camp-based reality show about self-obsessed teens and a half-assed After School Special about bullying; you could take the self-obsessed-teen elements out and have a mediocre-to-decent slasher film (complete with CG flying limbs and--no kidding--an homage to George Orwell's 1984); on another level, you might appreciate the whole thing as a meta-exercise in actors trying and failing to break out of their comfort zones.

Pastore plays Frank as a semi-cultured pseudo-Mafioso who's obsessed with his pet bird. At one point, Alan calls him a "big Pussy", which is the name of the character Pastore played on the HBO mob drama The Sopranos. Return to Sleepaway Camp also has the distinction of being Isaac Hayes's last role; Hayes became insanely popular in the late 90s for playing Chef on South Park. In Return, he plays the camp's chef, and wears an identical outfit to that of his cartoon avatar. Watching both of these actors stumble through a nonsensical horror movie is worth the ninety minutes alone.

But nothing can compare to the awesomeness of Paul DeAngelo as Ronnie, the head counselor. Ronnie survived the first movie and returns to the franchise as the ultra-fit, ultra-caring mentor to an entire camp of asshole children. He's one of two half-way decent human beings in the movie--but Hiltzik gets around this problem by making him totally ugly and totally insane. Within five seconds of any of DeAngelo's line readings, I guarantee you'll either be reaching for the fast-forward button or ordering the movie on DVD. DeAngelo comes across as a workout-infomercial hose with a Pacino crush; for lovers of uncomfortable comedy, he might just change your life.

In a world ruled by lame, predictable genre films, Return to Sleepaway Camp is an obnoxious, aggressive, soulless, low-budget nightmare. Everyone who claims to love movies should see it at their earliest possible convenience.

Saturday
Jun112011

Super 8 (2011)

Coke II

You may recall that last summer I ran a highly controversial, top-secret transcript of an Iron Man 2 meeting. The whole thing turned out to be bullshit, but I have it on good authority that the packet I received in the mail yesterday is the real deal. Once again, my source is anonymous, and the details are pretty juicy.  Having returned from a screening of Super 8 just a few hours ago, I have no reason to believe that the following is fake.

2/18/11 Transcript of “Make Super 8 Super Great” meeting, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles, CA.

Meeting Host:

 Beth Bishop, Senior Story Consultant, Paramount I.M.P.O.R.T.A.N.C.E. Committee

Attendees:

 Steven Spielberg, Executive Producer, Super 8
J.J. Abrams, Director/Writer, Super 8

Transcriber:

 Kat Seussen, Templeton-Young Professional Errands

Beth Bishop: Thanks for coming, guys.  Sorry for the short notice, but the Executive Committee felt we should talk about this sooner rather than later.

Steven Spielberg: Talk about what?

J.J. Abrams:  Didn't you read the meeting invite, Steve? They hate the movie. They wanna bury it!

BB: No, J.J. No one hates the movie. But there are some very big concerns here that we'd like to discuss going into the twelfth edit.

JJA: It's the lens flares, right? Well, you can tell Marty and Jack to go fuck themselves, and to stay off Internet chat rooms while they're at it!

BB:  The lens flares were brought up as a potential problem, but I don't want to get off on a bad foot here. Let's back up and talk story. Everyone appreciates how big a fan you are of Steven's, and we think it's really cool that you wanted to pay homage to those films of his that made you want to be a director. But some people feel you've gone too far.

JJA:  What does that even mean? How do you go too far in bringing the magic and delight of nostalgia to all of America?

BB: Nostalgia is okay, as long as it's not the only thing a movie has going for it. We all think you did an amazing job bringing 1979 small-town Ohio to life. But how hard is that to do, really, when you've got Paramount bank-rolling your picture? No, it comes back to the story you're trying to tell, and we're frankly disappointed in your weak material.

JJA: Weak material? Steve, can you believe this shit?

SS: Hmm?

JJA: Lady, I spent six days writing this screenplay--half of which I was crying in my attic, rifling through comic books, old movies, and quarter-built monster models. Super 8 is about that. It's about growing up a freak, a free-spirited artistic soul whose only expressive outlet is the magic of cinema.

BB: Yes, we've established the fact that everything in the movie is authentically period. But I'm talking about the plot. I'm going to tread lightly here, because I've read about your sensitivity to this subject, but is it possible--possible--that you were so wounded from the critical failure of Lost's final season that you decided to play your next project completely safe?

JJA: Fuck you.

BB: I'm being serious here. Super 8 is the most conventional sci-fi movie any of us have seen in at least a decade. There is literally nothing surprising in it, except for the moment when the main character's dad sneaks out of military custody by disarming his machine-gun-wielding escort and stealing his clothes. But if the audience laughs at that part the way the suits did, our opening weekend is sunk.

JJA: Oh, come on! That part's just supposed to be fun!

BB: One board member called it, "a cheap gag in lieu of creativity". Another said it was, "the moment I checked out of the movie entirely."

JJA: Steven, that bit was good, right?

SS: You betcha.

BB: We feel it betrays a lot of the honesty of the movie's first third. I mean, there's a lot of strong stuff in the beginning, with the family ripped apart by the mom's death, and the dad having to come to grips with a son he doesn't really know. Even that's really derivative Disney nonsense on some level, but the actors really make the moments believable. It's the alien storyline that sinks the film.

JJA: What do you mean?

BB: Honestly, we expected more out of you than Cloverfield Meets E.T. Think about it, an alien crash-lands on Earth; is pursued by unscrupulous government agents; bonds with a group of lovable kids; and then flies home. Sure, you trick the audience into thinking there's something more around each corner, but at the end of the day, this is a decades-old story with so-so special effects.

JJA: "So-so special effects"? Give me one example of something that's unconvincing in this movie!

BB:  The opening train wreck.

JJA: You're kidding me, right? We spent a quarter of our budget on that scene, and brought in thirty of the brightest effects whizzes on the planet to pull it off!

BB: Okay, but when you spend five minutes blowing up a train and filming fiery debris rocketing out at six characters who are running for their lives, it helps if everyone and everything look like they're occupying the same physical space. I counted at least four instances where flying hunks of metal would have decapitated or maimed the actors had this scene been filmed live. But not only do all of the characters survive the crash, none of them are seriously injured.  On top of that, they hop into a "borrowed" car that--by virtue of its proximity to the train station--should have been pulverized.

JJA: Didn't realize you were a physicist.

BB: I'm not, J.J. But I grew up in the late 70s. One of the reasons we remember the incredible stunts in movies from our youth is because they were done by real people putting themselves in real danger. The only recorded Super 8 injury is a carpal tunnel complaint filed by the Lead Compositor.

JJA: Sorry to break it to you, Beth, but this is the digital age.  Kids don't wanna see models and makeup anymore. They're too savvy for that now. They wanna see shit that only a computer can give them.

BB: I suppose that goes double for your alien creature, too?

JJA: Of course! What, we're gonna have nine guys in a rubber suit chasing Elle Fanning down the street?

BB: No, but the alien is just another example of computer-graphics laziness run amok. This isn't just my sentiment; others at the screening expressed concern that your monster looks like someone grafted the head of the Cloverfield alien onto the body of General Grievous from the Star Wars prequels and dipped it in liquid shit. Pardon my French.

There's also the issue of practicality. The alien has massive claws for hands and yet is able to string up the people it captures in a cave underneath a power plant, and rig a series of small-to-medium-sized electrical appliances that it stole from all over town?

JJA: Well, I--

BB: And what about the scene at the end, where every piece of metal in town is sucked up in a giant magnetic field that wraps around the water tower? You make a big deal out of cars, guns and jewelry being drawn skyward. But in the crucial scene where Joe has to let go of his mother's necklace, you can clearly see a bicycle lying on the ground next to him, and a necklace resting firmly on another character's neck.

JJA:  Ooooo! Look at the nit picker! It must be great to sit up here and critique art all day, instead of having to go out there and actually, y'know, make it.

BB: A truly committed artist makes sure their work is worthy of both their name and their audience's time. Wouldn't you say so, Steven?

SS:  I guess.

JJA: You're saying Super 8 is a waste of peoples' time?

BB:  In its current state, yes.  But I think if you take out all the alien stuff and re-focus your efforts on telling a coming-of-age story about kids making a horror movie, then maybe you've got a shot.  Heck, you could even keep the title.

As it stands, you've got a terrific young cast, a handful of pretty emotional scenes, and a sci-fi storyline that--if presented in a modern-day setting, without any of the nostalgic trappings--would be laughed out of theatres before the midnight screenings' first reel change.

Oh, and getting back to the lens flare thing.  J.J. is there an eye condition we should know about? Seriously, there are so many light spots and streaks that I thought half the movie was melting.

JJA: It's called "realism", baby! You'd actually see those things if you were occupying the reality of the film.

BB: Sure, if I were filming that reality with a camera, but light doesn't bounce of the eyes like that. Marketing is considering providing free sunglasses to audience members just so they can kind of tell what's going on in some of the more egregious scenes.

JJA:  I don't have to listen to this. Steven, let's go.

BB: Excuse me, we're not done here.

JJA: Yes.  We are. Do you have any idea how little any of your studio notes matters? I'm J.J. Fucking Abrams. This is Steven Fucking Spielberg. We shit blockbusters. We'll make the studio's money back in the first week of release and turn a half-billion-dollar profit before the movie hits blu-ray.

We'll be a critical darling based solely on the feelings--the magic--our movie will evoke in people who pine for the good old days. So what if everyone's seen more exciting and original versions of this exact same story? Super 8 will be What's Playing between the X-Men prequel and fucking Green Lantern!

BB:  So, you're not at all interested in making Super 8 the best possible movie it could be? You're okay with our releasing boring, derivative fluff that's only passable to middle-aged men-children, instead of trying to make a new, original classic?

JJA:  Our release date is May tenth, honey. Originality happens in the fall.

BB:  Well, I'm sorry you feel that way, J.J. I'm afraid the Executive Committee have decided to shelve the project until you're more agreeable to tightening it up.

JJA:  Don't feel sorry for me, Beth. You see, I happen to have it on good authority that the eleventh and final edit of Super 8 will hit theatres right on time--thanks to a couple of late-night phone calls from my friend and mentor here. Now, if you'll excuse us, I've gotta sink my teeth into some rewrites on Ehren Kruger's 3-D Jaws remake.