Old 06-09-2011, 04:11 PM
J.J. Abrams's Super 8

Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:



Super 8 (2011)

J.J. Abrams’s “Super 8” is a film that’s been wrapped in mystery ever since it was announced ages ago. A short teaser gave the feeling that the film would be another monster on the loose story like Abrams had dealt with in “Cloverfield,” which he produced, except this time the story deals with more of a human element than had been done in that film. It’s true that there are a lot of special effects, but Abrams seems to be trying to meld them together with more fleshed-out characters this time around while using a similar background story.

Our heroes for this adventure are a group of kids that includes Joe (Joel Courtney), Cary (Ryan Lee), Charles (Riley Griffiths), and Alice (Elle Fanning). The year is 1979 and Charles is trying to make a zombie film using his Super 8 camera with the help of his friends. He has asked Alice to step in to play the role of a detective’s wife, but during her first scene, a horrific train crash occurs when a professor of theirs drives his truck onto the tracks and speeds into the oncoming locomotive.

Not long after, strange things begin occurring around this small town such as dogs running away, the sheriff disappearing, and the presence of the military who aren’t about to explain themselves. Trying to figure this all out is the town’s local deputy, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), who also happens to be Joe’s father. Meanwhile, the kids take advantage of the train wreck and the subsequent military presence to continue filming their movie. There’s also a little romance in the air as Joe and Alice become closer during shooting. However, things begin to take a turn for the worse as the incidents become larger with the sudden appearance of an unknown creature.

So, did Abrams’s new monster flick live up to expectations? Well, yes and no. With all the mystery surrounding the project, it seemed like it would be really hard to live up to the hype that had been created. On the other hand, the trailer made it look like a slightly different version of “Cloverfield,” which it basically is. So on that front, it delivered exactly what was expected, and that’s not a bad thing at all. “Cloverfield” has been mainly a movie of style with characters that were kind of flat, but “Super 8” seems to take the other approach with more interesting and developed characters while ending up a little light on the style aspects.

It’s not particularly a great movie, but it does have a fascinating nostalgic feel. There have already been comparisons made between it and early Spielberg classics like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” This is not only because of the inclusion of aliens in the story but because of the wonder surrounding the impact the aliens have on the community and the engaging characters involved.

Where “Super 8” didn’t really work well was in the film’s pacing. There were times when the film felt like it was going by rather slowly, particularly in the first half, but this was slightly overcome by the development of the main characters that we would come to follow throughout the story. The second half is where the film basically becomes a special effects bonanza with things blowing up and burning left and right as the kids struggle to rescue one of their friends. The film runs about 112 minutes, but the special effects-heavy third act made the film feel like it went on a little too long.

Then there’s the creature itself. This is another area of the film that has been surrounded in speculation and also where the film has drawn more comparisons to “Cloverfield.” If you were expecting a whole new creature design that will knock your socks off, it’s best to go ahead and dismiss those expectations well before you get to the theater. The creature here is basically a smaller duplicate of the “Cloverfield” monster. Abrams did a good job in building up the mystery surrounding the creature, only showing us bits and pieces of it at a time as it runs rampant through this small town, but when we finally see it, it’s a pretty big letdown not only in design but also in the implementation of the special effects.

While those elements were a bit disappointing, one surprising part of the film that worked were the performances from a cast that features no big names. In fact, almost all of the kids were new to film, the one major exception being Elle Fanning who has already worked with such big directors as Sophia Coppola, David Fincher, and Tony Scott. All of the kids deliver great, realistic performances that really help bring the movie together. It’s hard to imagine being new to movies and having to run around on a set where many of the effects will be added in post-production, all while trying to make it convincing, but they all do an admirable job.

While it didn’t turn out to be the great movie some thought it would be, “Super 8” still makes for an entertaining film. The parts that work (that feeling of nostalgia through homage, the performances) work really well, while the film’s pacing and some of the special effects bring it down a notch. The best part of the film ends up coming during the closing credits, so make sure to stick around for a few laughs. With the completion of this project, hopefully Abrams will now move on to a little project tentatively titled “Star Trek 2.” 3/4 stars.
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Old 06-10-2011, 02:19 PM
When we associate director and producer JJ Abrams with film or television, we regard him as someone who has surprise for the movie going public, but only shows you a peek in order to make you anticipate it more. As producer of the director Matt Reeves's film Cloverfield, it was mostly a mystery of what was the thing that was tearing up the city, but we had to go to the theaters to see it for ourselves. However, when it was all said and done, Cloverfield was simply a decent monster movie meets Blair Witch Project, and that was that. Unfortunately, the same problem applies with Abrams directing the newest secret Super 8, a film that offers mystery of a train crash in a suburban area, but is pretty much what you are probably expecting. It's by no means an awful movie, but certainly a somewhat disappointing one.

The film follows young teenagers who are creating their own zombie movie on a super 8 video camera for a film festival in the summer of 1979. The make-up artist and protagonist of the film, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), has been slowly trying get over the unfortunate death of his mother at the steel mill. His father and deputy of the town's police, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), has been getting over the tragedy by occupying his time at work and having less time with Joe. This leads to Joe sneaking out one night to help his best friend an director of the film Charles (Riley Griffiths) shoot a scene at the train station. However, during filming a train from the Air Force crashes during the scene, leading Joe to notice something breaking out of a cargo hold. This leads to a series of events involving missing people and army intervention that leads Joe and his friends to begin investigating, while also attempting to finish their movie.

THe biggest contribution that JJ Abrams uses for his film is the influences of Steven Spielberg and a bit of The Goonies. This is mostly a blessing and a curse for the film, as certain things work for the film and others seem convoluted as the film leads to its conclusion. One of the best aspects of the film is the dynamic involving the kids and their film production of the zombie movie. The kids bring humor in all the right places, whether they are making their film or searching for whatever came off the cargo hold. There is even a bit of romance that works in the form of Alice (Elle Fanning), the sole girl in the film that Joe pines for. Unfortunately, while the Goonies-type relationship between Joe and his friends work, the rest just feels like something that came from a variety of Spielberg films. Whether its the estranged family or the mystery of the thing thats attacking the town in certain effective but slowly redundant scenes, there are markings of Spielberg all over it. It shouldn't be common considering Spielberg is the producer of the film, but all those themes soon bring the film down as it moves towards its conclusion, with the tone and motives flying all over the place.

Abrams has a handle on the film, with some nice shots and style coming from his previous film Star Trek, and he brings some good thrills,action, and surprisingly emotional scenes to the table. He also has capable actors who somehow raise the predictable dramatic scenes with their effective performances. Joel Courtney is a great lead as Joe, bringing humor with his romance scenes with Elle Fanning, while also taking home the dramatic scenes. Kyle Chandler is just as good as the father who is trying to do right by his son, but has to deal with a town that is suddenly having missing people and the army taking over their town. Elle Fanning is just as solid as her sister Dakota, and the actors playing Joe's friends make the most of their scenes, delivering the best laughs where it counts. It was also nice to see Noah Emmerich in the film, playing the leading army general who is trying to harbor the secret that escaped from the train cargo.

Unfortunately, with great performances, direction, and decent thrills, Super 8 gets bogged down with its homages to the great Steven Spielberg, leading to a film that seems too wildly uneven and predictable considering its mystery in the trailers. It just becomes another Cloverfield, a film that was decent and enjoyable enough, but that's pretty much it. However, stay during the credits, as one of the best part of the film happens at the time, celebrating the young and determined auteurs of movie making.

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Old 06-13-2011, 08:30 PM
Personally, I think Elle may be an even better actor than her big sister. At the very least, she's made better movie choices in career so far than Dakota did at her age. I mean, "Babel"/"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"/"Somewhere"/"Super 8" vs. "I Am Sam"/"Uptown Girls"/"The Cat in the Hat"/"Man on Fire" -- is there really any comparison?
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Old 07-07-2011, 04:47 PM

(J.J. Abrams, 2011)

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas revolutionized the sci-fi genre in 1977 with their one-two punch of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But somewhere along the line, the films in the genre lost the battle between spectacle and character, and became all about the spectacle. In the 80's, character still managed to hold its ground. Hollywood was entering a new phase - the era of the blockbusters - but character was still king in this world. E.T., Back to the Future, Aliens and others continued the tradition of character-driven space opera for the masses. But as the genre continued to grow and develop throughout the 90's and 2000's, studios began to realize how much money could be made on science fiction films, particular ones with aliens, and their money-grubbing sentiments took over. Battle: Los Angeles. Skyline. The Transformers sequels. And before them, Stargate, Independence Day, Armageddon. Bigger! Faster! More spectacle! More pizzazz! Nowadays, most of our sci-fi films, particularly ones dealing with alien invasions, are works of grand, CGI-ridden spectacle. But somewhere along the way, the characters got lost in the shuffle. Luckily, Spielberg is still around to steer things in the right direction. And now, one if his latest protégés, J.J. Abrams, has taken the reigns.

Super 8 works so well precisely because it's not about the spectacle. If you had to boil it down, it's about a group of kids in a small town in late 70's Ohio bonding, trying to make a super 8 movie while navigating the rough emotional landscape of pre-adolescence. Crushes, personal tragedies and absentee fathers make all of this difficult, but they band together and persevere. It just so happens that an alien life form starts terrorizing the town and gets in the way of their movie. Abrams and co. tried to play up the mystery of the alien in the advertising for the film, but what I really think they intended was to put the emphasis on the kids. This is their story, the film is about them, and anyone expecting to see some hardcore alien-terrorizing-civilians action will be sorely disappointed. However, those who elect to approach the movie with an open mind, harkening back to the sci-fi movies of the 70's and 80's that placed character above all, will be in for quite a treat. When the film focuses on the children - which it spends almost the entire runtime doing - it absolutely soars. Abrams really took the time to define each and every character's unique personalities and traits. We see the movie through their eyes and experience events through their lens, so to speak, so it's really important to give each one of them clear-cut personalities so we can sympathize with them. The film succeeds admirably at doing so - for the first time in years, we finally get a sci-fi film with real, tangible, relatable, full-fledged and interesting characters we love to get to know and enjoy rooting for.

All of this is thanks to an ensemble of extremely talented kids. The greatest find here is Joel Courtney, playing the immensely likable and relatable main character Joe Lamb. Joel has a young face, but kind: He has this inherent sweetness to him, and his gleeful wide-eyed reaction to the knowledge that his crush Alice will be joining them for the shoot is so adorable and likable. Through his scenes with his father, though, he displays an emotional vulnerability but also an intensity bubbling just under the surface. The film focuses on chronicling Joe's acclimation to this newfound rage and intensity, as we see him gradually take charge, become more assertive, and become a stronger character in the process. It is precisely this character-driven script that makes Super 8 so rewarding. But of course, there are many other elements to enjoy as well. The rest of the cast is also fantastic. J.J. Abrams gets much respect from me for avoiding creating an all-star Hollywood cast and instead casting small and relatively unknown. Elle Fanning is coming into her own as an actress and between this, Somewhere and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is poised to overshadow her sister's own Spielberg-affiliated achievements. All of the other kids deliver stellar performances, but the main standout besides Joel and Elle is Riley Griffiths who plays Charles, the passionate, over-achieving, somewhat bossy director of the film-within-a-film. Honestly, if any filmmakers can't see even an ounce of themselves in the characters of Charles... I don't know what kind of filmmakers they are. Rounding out the cast are spectacular performances from the adults, including the well-established Noah Emmerich as the villainous head of the Air Force and also Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler as Joe's father, Jackson. It's also fun to see established character actors like Bruce Greenwood and Dale Dickey pop up, even if it's only for brief roles.

But it's not just the story that harkens back to the great sci-fi adventures of the 70's and early 80's. Brilliant visualist Larry Fong lends Super 8 that distinct 1970's look and feel, complete with naturalistic lighting, dynamic camera moves, anamorphic lenses and beautiful streaking lens flares. This film is something of a visual departure for Fong - he is the man responsible for the unique and extremely artistic visual looks of 300 and Watchmen. But here, he scales it back a bit; delivering a beautiful, dynamic visual style that is naturalistic and serves the film's nostalgic purposes well. Attention to detail in the production and costume design further lend the film an air of nostalgic authenticity. Finally, Michael Giaccino's delicate, somber, emotional score harkens back to the classic, saccharine scores of none other than the master himself, John Williams. Giaccino is one of my favorite composers working today and it was an absolute treat to see him working in such familiar ground, but lending his own unique touch to the musical sound.

In general, that seems to be the main theme with this film: familiar, but different. Spielberg's touch and influence is felt in practically every scene and flourish in the film, from the sci-fi story to the plot told from a child's point-of-view to the focus on story, character and emotion amidst a fantastical, sci-fi setting to not fully revealing the monster until the third act. But despite the fact that the film works as a nostalgic love letter to the great sci-fi films of yore, it also still manages to feel vital, new, and extremely relevant. This is Spielberg seen uniquely through J.J. Abrams' own very distinct lens, and it is the combination of both of these directors' instincts, sentiments and styles that makes Super 8 the best film of the summer, and the must-see film of the season.

RATING: 9/10.
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