Sunday, July 17, 2011

JJ Abrams

Every once in a while a movie comes along that really affects me. It moves me or has me thinking about it a lot not to mention seeing it multiple times. In the past it’s been ground-breaking movies like Blade Runner or Amadeus. Last year’s Inception also comes to mind.

This summer it has been JJ Abrams excellent work of art called Super 8. On the surface – this film can seem like just another coming of age story with a funny, great group of friends who also happen to run into a scary powerful extraterrestrial that’s trying to get home. (Ring any bells?)

In fact, many critics have compared (dismissed?) it as just a nice little homage to Spielberg’s movies of the 80’s (ET, Goonies, Gremlins etc.) as well other kid classics like Stand By Me. And every person with whom I’ve seen it with the exception of my wife has had comments like: “Oh it was good but kind of just reminded me of…” (See the above mentioned movies) or “Yeah it was ok…a little slow in parts.”

Personally, I think JJ has gone a step further in showing his uncanny ability to hone in on what really counts in ALL movies – and that is: characters matter! If you can develop the characters as completely as possible – they become a group of people that we are solidly rooting for and want to hang out with! We even desperately want to help them complete their journey.

Forgetting for a moment his prolific successful experience as a TV producer and writer; (Alias, Lost) - as far as feature films go – this is Mr. Abrams 3rd time at the helm of director (and his 2nd as both writer and director) and he is already proving himself to be a master.

He currently holds the record for the biggest budget given to a first-time director for a feature film – and that was for his directorial debut of Mission Impossible III. Tom Cruise asked him if he would direct it after seeing his work on Alias.

His second film – which he wrote as well – was the brilliant rebooting of the Star Trek original series franchise - still holding a solid 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.

So needless to say he’s doing something right. And in my view, the thing he’s doing right (write?) is characters. And especially their relationships.

Super 8 is so brilliantly put together and moving for several reasons. First of all – JJ and I are only 2 years apart in age which puts him at 45 and since Super 8 is set in 1979 (when I was 15) I can tell you he nailed that part down perfect. Costumes, sets, décor, music – you name it – it was bang on!

Second, he manages to pack in so many lifelong principles and emotions – loss, forgiveness, redemption, first-love, coming of age and maybe, most importantly timeless friendships, that all flow so beautifully that they don’t become lost, trite or convoluted. By the end of the movie you love all of these people.

This brings me to the third reason: The casting. Every character in this film is so perfectly cast that it’s almost impossible to think of anyone else playing them. And with one or two exceptions, all of them are unknowns! Joe, the main character has an unbelievable ability to convey emotion without saying anything. There is a brilliant scene that is so moving but if you blink you could miss it – but again shows Mr. Abrams real talent; it’s right after the train has finished crashing and Joe is standing by himself but he can hear something trying to break out of the train-car in front of him – petrified, he pulls out the necklace that belonged to his mother and holds it in his shaking hand and the emotion in his face is so powerful. You can’t teach that kind of acting.

Cary, the pyromaniac friend almost steals the show and provides all of the comic relief. I could go on but go see the movie and you’ll see what I mean.

Lastly, with the exception of the look, I think JJ came up with the perfect alien. Not an ET, Yoda, or Ewok cutesy thing but a powerful, frightening and scared creature that is not without malice but simply is scared itself and just wants to go home. It’s what makes Joe’s courage and heroics that much more stirring and profound at the end. I would have chosen an alien that looked a little less animal-like because when you start to do that it makes it harder to believe that this creature could have built a space ship and traveled through the galaxy – but I’m nit picking.

Maybe its nostalgia or perhaps I’m just a sucker for a well told story with compelling, thoughtful characters and emotions that seem to be so rare these days; but it is easy to see why Mr. Spielberg was eager to be the producer on this film as well as lend his Amblin brand name to the production.

If JJ Abrams continues with these kind of moving, strong characters and triumphant thoughtful story-telling, I think he’s on his way to surpassing his mentor.