In this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.
"Diane Arbus" isn't Diane Arbus the 20th century American icon; she's an imaginary composite Arbus. That's part of Fur 's self-important problem. The film is like a magic-house maze of mirrors--pretty but confusing unsatisfying and never-ending. It's also a Cliff Notes' version of Arbus as an artist. Kidman's Arbus who is transitioning into a solo artist's career is torn between split lives: A forbidden artistic affair with a full-body-haired Lionel (Downey) and her doting domestic husband Allan (Ty Burrell). Earlier in her life Arbus' father a furrier influenced his daughter's idea. In fact Fur's whole through-line is about hair of some sorts as Arbus sees herself as part of the imperfect obscured unshaven world she photographs. The real Arbus committed suicide in 1971 and this is her 122-minute tortured journey to understand herself amid the naturalistic damaged beauty of armless smallish characters. Sounds like a fun night out at the movies doesn't it? Kidman won't get any nominations for her Diane Arbus. But when the book is closed on her career playing Arbus will be regarded as one of her more fascinating performance. After her Oscar-winning turn in The Hours and then the very strange Birth amid broad comedies like Bewitched and Stepford Wives Kidman has shown her moody gazes before. She's sold all of us on understanding an artist's psychotic limits. Her performance as Arbus--nuanced and complex probably in need of more than one viewing (though the movie may prevent that)--is limited by unoriginality. In a Beauty and the Beast-inspired turn Downey Jr. plays the hairy Lionel not as a reclusive but instead conveys emotion through his warm eyes and controlled confident voice. Arbus finds his sensitivity and Casanova-esque flirting irresistible. Director Steven Shainberg best known for his kinky little indie Secretary chooses Fur as his follow up four years later. That’s a good--and bad--thing. His TV commercials background imbues his work with slick production sheen. Shainberg's hand-crafted meticulousness is evident from start to finish--from the 57-day shoot in New York to the subtle Alice in Wonderland visual allusions in Lionel's apartment to the 30-second shots of Kidman's porcelain face contemplating internal conflict. This is a special movie as was Secretary which won the Sundance Film Festival 2002's Grand Jury prize. Shainberg collaborating once again with Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson blurs the boundary lines of the three acts and mirrors the story’s messiness. Problem is it's confusing unappealing discomforting and sprawling in its artistic conceit. What's left is tedium guarded respect (maybe mild admiration) but certainly not affection. Fur is selfish in its perspective assuming that we care anything at all about the real—or imagined—Diane Arbus.
September 25, 2002 12:54pm EST
After Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a mentally disturbed woman who mutilates her body takes a typing course she goes looking for a job and is immediately lucky. Lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) obviously not very demanding hires her as typist in his shabby and not very busy office. Grey is immediately annoyed with the errors in Lee's letters. Fortunately Lee has the support of her overly protective mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) and devoted boyfriend Peter ( Jeremy Davies) another loser with parents proud of his job at J.C. Penney's. But Lee and Edward both recovering from nervous breakdowns develop a sadomasochistic relationship which has the duo enjoying spanking and masturbatory sessions at the office. Lee grows so fond of the abuse that she purposefully makes mistakes to provoke Edward. Eventually Lee realizes that she doesn't love Peter and she and Edward acknowledge the perversity that binds them.
Gyllenhaal is charmless as Lee; the very talented Spader seeming to want to carry on with the Bud Cort banner is wasted in his role as lawyer Grey; Davies usually interesting in a variety of offbeat roles here phones in his familiar goofiness as the boyfriend; and Warren who triumphed as the slutty gang moll in Victor/Victoria has absolutely nothing to do here as Lee's overbearing mother.
Writer/director Steven Shainberg favors meaningless close-ups tacky sets and settings lugubrious and phony characters and lame material all around. He fails to make kinkiness amusing his characters compelling or his story dynamic.