Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8: Plenty of pizzazz

Super 8 (2011) • View trailer for Super 8
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence, dramatic intensity and grody monster behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.10.11

This film reminds me how much I’ve missed the family-friendly action/suspense flicks of the 1980s, which introduced an entire generation of young stars to movie fans: The Goonies, Poltergeist, the prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the “young Indie” sequence, with River Phoenix), The Lost Boys, Fright Night and — most particularly — E.T.
And you thought your day was going badly? All heck is breaking loose in the
small Ohio town where our young heroes — from left, Martin (Gabriel Basso),
Cary (Ryan Lee), Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) — have
been trying to make an amateur zombie movie. They're about to discover
something far worse than even their imaginations can concoct.

Super 8 plays like an energetic cross between E.T. and The Goonies, and I mean that in all the best ways. I’d expect no less from producer Steven Spielberg and writer/director J.J. Abrams, who make a great team. To a degree, Abrams has re-visited his “unseen monster on the loose” concept from Cloverfield, but (thankfully!) absent the irritating, jiggly video verité point-of-view that ruined an otherwise nifty little film.

Spielberg’s touch as producer was present on some of the above-named thrill rides; he’s clearly able to help bring out the best in other directors. The same is true here, with a nifty premise that hits the ground running and maintains a palpable level of suspense, while allowing sufficient time to explore the key characters and their varied relationships.

And while our heroes are (for the most part) middle-school nerds, their savvy doesn’t come at the expense of adults who behave like boobs. The principal grown-ups here are just as resourceful, when necessary ... and there’s a whole lotta “necessary” populating Abrams’ cheeky, mildly retro script.

Two things to bear in mind:

First, this is a very loud film. The premise demands plenty of crashing, smashing and heavy gunfire, and sound effects editors David Acord and Dustin Cawood, and supervising sound editor Matthew Wood, definitely earn their paychecks. Given a theater with a well-tuned sound system — as was the case at Tuesday evening’s Sacramento preview — this flick will leave you wide-eyed and breathless.

Second, the PG-13 rating is deserved. The occasional shocks and jolts are on par with the severed head that unexpectedly bobbed into view, back in the day, during an underwater search in Spielberg’s Jaws. Since the whatzis is this story is large and carnivorous, draw the logical conclusions and be prepared accordingly.

Abrams opens his story with a doleful prologue, as young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a freak workplace accident: a sequence handled with poignant subtlety. The loss also is felt keenly by Joe’s father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler, familiar from TV’s Friday Night Lights), who works as one of the town deputies. For reasons not immediately made clear to us — or Joe — Jackson blames Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for the accident. To makes matters worse, Jackson is a distant father at best, and their shared loss further strains the dysfunctional family dynamic.

Four months then pass, putting Joe and his friends at the beginning of summer vacation. The small gang takes its marching orders from Charles (Riley Griffiths), who serves as director on an amateur zombie horror flick they’ve been making with his Super 8 camera. Joe handles make-up, model work and occasional script tightening; Cary (Ryan Lee), something of a nascent firebug, takes care of explosives and pyrotechnics; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the tallest and most mature-looking, is the primary star; and Preston (Zach Mills) does anything else that needs doing.

Charles, having just decided that a female role would amplify the “emotional involvement” in his movie, tags Alice (Elle Fanning) for this duty. This young woman comes with a bonus: a car that she’s willing to drive ... despite not having a license. Truth be told, though, Charles is sweet on Alice, and that will create friction elsewhere: It quickly becomes apparent that she and Joe are destined for whatever young love may blossom during the subsequent crisis.

Assuming they’re even allowed to remain in each other’s company, because Alice is Louis Dainard’s daughter.

Charles, a true guerilla filmmaker, thinks nothing of dragging his pals out for midnight sessions, in order to capture an appropriate mood; he’s therefore delighted, during one late-night shoot at the local train station, when they get a chance to use an approaching train as “background color.” They get more than they bargained for, when said train derails during an explosive, astonishing, jaw-dropping sequence that demonstrates Abrams means business.

I also get the impression that Abrams wanted to top the early train derailment that was so impressive in 1993’s The Fugitive. If so, he succeeded ... and then some. Folks at the preview screening applauded.

The aftermath is odd for several reasons, starting with the thousands of odd, little white cube-like thingies spilled all over the place ... and Joe’s uneasy suspicion that something large and nasty escaped from one of the cars. The kids’ bad feelings are verified when gun-toting military personnel quickly swarm all over the wreck, leaving our young heroes just enough time to escape undetected. Or so they hope.

The military types, played for maximum thug potential, are led by the tight-lipped Nelec (Noah Emmerich, always superb in such arrogantly condescending roles). Merely seeing Nelec proves — to us viewers, at least — that The Military Has Been Up To No Good, an opinion that Deputy Lamb quickly comes to share.

Then weird stuff begins to happen throughout town: unusual thefts, intermittent power spikes and blackouts ... and much worse. Soon, Joe and his friends — still trying to make their movie — find themselves at the heart of an increasingly disturbing mystery.

Abrams unapologetically hammers the “bad military guys” card, which is typical of this genre; we long ago learned that you can’t trust those who operate on the assumption that any means will justify a desired end. And these aren’t cartoon villains, either; Abrams grants Nelec and his minions an ominous bearing that (intentionally) makes us wonder who or what is the greater threat in this story.

The escalating chaos and danger aside, though, we remain involved because we care about our protagonists.

Courtney is great as the sensitive young hero: a boy far from over the loss of his mother, bewildered by his father’s unwillingness to share his feelings, and perplexed — yet cautiously delighted — by the attention coming from the new girl in his proximity. Indeed, the scenes between Courtney and Fanning are marvelous, starting with the first time Alice rehearses a scene for Charles’ movie, and Joe suddenly wonders if her impressively natural “acting” is being directed at him.

Fanning is excellent in all respects, particularly when it comes to Alice’s actual emotions (as opposed to those she “fakes” for the sake of her role in the zombie movie). The dynamic between Alice and Joe is complicated, fueled as it is by her awareness of her own father’s shortcomings, and the hostility between him and Joe’s father, and the likely cause. At first Alice wants nothing to do with Joe; then her behavior is motivated by guilt; then such negative feelings are overtaken by a growing crush. This is pretty subtle stuff, and Fanning nails every emotional nuance.

Lee and Basso are one-joke characters: the former a gleeful, pesky pyromaniac; the latter quite hilarious as he apes a method actor trying to understand his character’s motivation. Mills’ Preston doesn’t get much screen time, and his presence seems under-developed and superfluous.

Griffiths, on the other hand, is highly visible, his character quite well developed. The stocky Charles has a lot on his plate, whether dealing with all his uncontrolled siblings at home — a cute running gag — or self-consciously insisting that he’ll “lean out” one day soon, because his doctor said as much.

My chief complaint about Abrams’ story concerns the gender ratio. The Goonies gave us two girls, back in 1985: Kerri Green (the pretty one) and Martha Plimpton (the ungainly tomboy). Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and Abrams gives us only one girl? (Charles’ slutty older sister doesn’t count.) This seems an unnecessary step backwards, particularly when it would have been so easy to change the under-used Preston into a girl.

Yeah, I get the fact that 1979-era nerds invariably were boys, particularly when it came to amateur filmmaking, but a writer as clever as Abrams could have figured out a plausible way around that.

Production designer Martin Whist conveys a solid sense of time and place with this small Midwestern community, from downtown storefronts to the economic divide separating the comfortably middle-class neighborhoods from homes on the wrong side of the tracks (that would be the Dainards). Longtime Abrams colleague Michael Giacchino delivers a ferociously exciting score, although some of the music is drowned out by the aforementioned sound effects.

And be sure to remain in your seats for the closing credits, at which point you’ll finally see all the finished footage from Charles’ zombie opus.

Super 8 revives happy memories of similar cinematic roller coasters roughly one generation ago, and I suspect it’ll plant fresh — and equally happy — memories in this generation’s minds.

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