Monday, June 13, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Super 8 *** ½
Directed by: J.J. Abrams.
Written by: J.J. Abrams.
Starring: Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Kyle Chandler (Jackson Lamb), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Ryan Lee (Cary), Zach Mills (Preston), Riley Griffiths (Charles), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Noah Emmerich (Nelec), Richard T. Jones (Overmyer), AJ Michalka (Jen Kaznyk), Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward), David Gallagher (Donny), Brett Rice (Sheriff Pruitt).

JJ Abrams’ Super 8 is a like a blast of nostalgia from an era where blockbusters were less cynical than they are now, and actually cared about things such as plot and character development. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have taken a lot of flak over the years for ruining the era of the personal movie that flourished in American film from the late 1960s through the 1970s – but it isn’t really their fault that they made movies like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars and everyone loved them. Those were all legitimately great films as well, and it’s not really their fault that blockbusters today have become loud, overblown and at times borderline incoherent (well, since Spielberg is a producer of the Transformers movies, he can bare a little responsibility). Super 8 goes back to what made those films so special – expert special effects that served the movie, but did not dominate them. For me, it was a refreshing change.

The film takes place in 1979, in a small town in Middle America. Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just buried his mother, the victim of a tragic accident, and is having trouble relating to his emotionally closed father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a deputy of the local police force. Summer has arrive, and Joe wants to stay in town and help his friend Charles (Riley Griffths) finish his zombie movie. Jackson wants him to go to baseball camp for 6 weeks explaining “This is what we both need”). One night Joe, Charles and the rest of the cast and crew of his zombie movie – including newcomer Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) - travel to the local train station around midnight to shoot a pivotal emotional scene. Its while there that a train comes barreling down the tracks, and then something strange happens – a car drives onto the tracks and races towards the train. What follows is a giant explosion of fire as the train derails, and showers the area with strange cubes – one of which Joe pockets. The driver of the car turns out to be Mr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), the kid’s science teacher, who before passing out due to his injuries tells the kids to go away, and not tell anyone they were they. They follow his advice, but in the days that follow that become more complicated as the army, led by Nelec (Noah Emmerich) arrives and the town starts to be overrun with them. What exactly are they trying to cover up?

I enjoyed Super 8 – perhaps even more than I should have. It is a film cloaked in nostalgia and knowing movie references, that recalls the early films of Steven Spielberg – the producer of this film. I can imagine a young Abrams seeing those films in his childhood and being inspired to make movies himself – perhaps even a movie like Charles is making for this film, with his old, beat up Super 8 camera. This is a film that concentrates almost exclusively on the kids in the movie – and they do a fine job carrying the movie. What amazed me is that not only are the kids able to act well, but they are also able to act terribly when the characters are acting in Charles film. Many of the most amusing moments in the film are of these kids trying to make their zombie movie. Elle Fanning in particular was great in the film – a complex roll that demands a lot from her, but one she pulls off effortlessly. Her older sister is quite talented, but on the basis of this film and her superb work in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, I’d say that Elle is even better.

The movie focuses on the kids from most of its running time. Yes, there is the dynamic train crash sequence near the beginning, and the end of the film is full of special effects, but even in these sequences, Abrams never devolves into the kind of cinematic masturbation that many action filmmakers today do. The special effects are wonderful, but they never become the whole reason the movie exists – and the action sequences are shot in a way that makes sense, and provide clarity for the viewer. One of my big pet peeves about current action movies is the non-stop shaky camera work and rapid fire editing that makes some action sequences incoherent to the audience. Abrams seems to have studied the young Spielberg films extensively, and his actions sequences have the same sort of feel. After his first two films – Mission Impossible III and Star Trek – I questioned whether Abrams would ever be a great movie director. Both of those films are wonderfully entertaining (Star Trek especially), but both also felt like TV shows – which isn’t surprising because Abrams background is in TV. But with Super 8, he brings his direction to a new level. The film is not only wonderfully entertaining, written and acted, but it feels more cinematic than his other films. In a summer that has been dominated by sequels – good and bad – Super 8 was a refreshing change of pace for a blockbuster. I’m hard pressed to imagine a better blockbuster opening this summer.

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