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.
Improving on his last two duds The Village and the dreadful aquatic nymph tale Lady In The Water writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan gets back to the kind of eerie paranoid thriller he so successfully mined in early efforts like The Sixth Sense and Signs. The results this time are mixed in this story of a mysterious environmental “happening” on the East Coast that is causing large groups of people to commit suicide. As he does in his most effective films Shyamalan focuses on a core group of people who must find a way to survive these strange events. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia science teacher already dealing with marital problems with his attractive but rather unstable wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) now thrust into full crisis mode as he his wife a fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) hit the road by train then car to escape the unusual plague first thought to be a terrorist attack. The group soon realizes it is more than that perhaps a forceful message from Mother Nature cued by the growing winds and rustling of tree leaves. Joined eventually by two older boys Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.) and Josh (Spencer Breslin) Elliot tries to be the voice of reason as each person begins to meet their own fates on a journey into a heartland of unexplainable terror. Unlike most contemporary horror films in which actors must battle butt-ugly creatures most of the genuine frights in this flick are left to our imagination. Here Shyamalan wants us to experience what the characters are going through the abject fear on their faces. Wahlberg is particularly good at expressing a growing feeling that events are slipping out of his control. He’s amusing in a direct encounter with a house plant he fears may now have the upper hand and in the film’s best sequence where he must convince a batty paranoid old woman (an intense Betty Buckley) to let the group stay in her remote farmhouse. Forced to utter lines like “just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil invented ” the quirky Deschanel has her work cut out for her but is likeable enough in the end. As a math teacher Leguizamo spends much of his screen time calculating everyone’s odds for survival until his own becomes questionable. As his daughter Sanchez is appealing and handles herself well. Shyamalan is the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock--in his own mind at least. Hitch’s The Birds seems to be the template but that 1963 classic is light years ahead in every way. Unfortunately Shyamalan is becoming something of a one-trick pony as The Happening is basically a retread of things we’ve seen him do before. There is no question he has superior skills. He clearly gets the horror genre; he just doesn’t seem to know how to make it fresh anymore and the answer isn’t by ratcheting up the body count. Reportedly 20th Century Fox asked him deliberately to make an R rated film (his first) and its those gore-filled elements which seem superfluous here. Do we really need to see a guy commit suicide by willingly letting some zoo lions rip off his arms? It’s glaring and out of place with the subtler aspects of the director’s style. Plus the use of overbearing and obvious music cues (score is by James Newton Howard) shamelessly telegraphs whatever scares the movie and only serves to emphasize the shortcomings of M. Night’s sketchy screenplay. Still as a summertime time-waster The Happening fills the bill but as an eco-thriller with dire warnings for humankind it drowns in its own promising potential.
I say "creepy" because Untraceable’s theory could actually be a reality. The possibility of a tech-savvy psycho setting up a Web site that displays graphic murders could happen with the fate of each of the tormented captives left in the hands of the public: The more hits the site gets the faster the victims die--and in the case of Untraceable die in very gruesome ways. Of course Untraceable also gives us a peek at the good guys--the FBI division that is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is one such Internet expert who along with her co-worker (Colin Hanks) is stymied by KillWithMe.com’s untraceablity. But soon the movie turns predictable as the cat-and-mouse game gets personal and Marsh must race against the clock to stop the madman. Lane has certainly looked better in her past movies. For obvious effect they’ve made Agent Marsh rather worn-down with dark circles under her eyes and very little makeup as she sits in front of the computer hunting the bad guys all night on the late shift. The fact that she’s also a widow having lost her cop husband to the job and caregiver to her young daughter doesn’t help the woman get anymore rest. Then when the crap starts hitting the fan and people close to Marsh get hurt the actress really shows the pain on her already haggard face. Marsh even admits “I do a lot of things well but I don’t lose people well.” It’s a standard tough-FBI-agent role and Lane is very capable at it. Supporting her is Hanks (Orange County) as the resident comic relief (what little of it there is) as well as Billy Burke (Fracture) the local cop trying to help Marsh catch the psycho Internet killer. As for the killer himself the actor who portrays him (and I won’t give it away) is very effective in the role. There are a couple of other things Untraceable has going for it besides the chilling premise: director Gregory Hoblit who knows his way around a crime thriller having directed gems such as Primal Fear and Fracture and the dank Portland Oregon locale. Hoblit creates just the right amount of tension and dread as the clock ticks down and the race nears its end but something about an overcast rainy environ just lends itself to more doom and gloom doesn’t it? Of course there are also the torture scenes which add a certain level of Hostel-like horror. What Untraceable lacks is a compelling narrative. The bevy of writers involved (never the best of signs) tend to throw in too many conventional thriller plot points--like the red herrings on who the killer is before he’s revealed and explaining why the killer is doing what he’s doing. All these things dilute the film’s initial potential. Still let’s just hope this doesn’t spawn real-life copycats.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.
A truck carrying hazardous materials accidentally drops one of its containers into a small lake contaminating it and its delicate ecosystem. Trouble arises when the wacky town entomologist feeds his collection of exotic spiders contaminated crickets which act as a sort of spider "steroid." The result is a horde of giant hairy spiders that prey on the town's unsuspecting inhabitants. Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) doesn't believe her son Mike (Scott Terra) when he tries to warn her about what's going on but blames his "media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare" on too much boob-tube watching. Then when mining engineer Chris McCormick's (David Arquette) aunt gets spun--literally--into one of the spider's webs he enlists the help of Sheriff Parker and paranoid radio announcer Harlan Griffin (Doug E. Doug) to fight off the eight-legged freaks. Armed only with rakes ski poles and chainsaws the townspeople fight off the spiders in a losing battle before Chris comes up with a master plan that will blow the arachnids to smithereens.
Prankster Arquette (See Spot Run) tones down his funnyman routine in Eight Legged Freaks and takes on the role of the humble hero. It's refreshing to see Arquette playing a more subdued character with less of a slapstick edge although I half expected him to start yelling at people to "dial straight down the center." As the sheriff Wuhrer (Berserker) plays her dual role well as a headstrong single mother of two and the town leader. Sure she looks a little too hot to be a chief law enforcement officer but maybe some sheriffs really do look like that in small-town America. While the laughs may not have been coming from Arquette there were enough to be had thanks to Doug whose most memorable role to date has to be Sanka Coffie from the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings. His radio announcer in this film believes the government is conspiratorial and that the spiders are the alien invasion he has been warning people about for decades. Doug delivers some of the movie's funniest lines.
New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (Larger Than Life) wrote and directed Eight Legged Freaks a sort of homage to mid-1950s B-movie sci-fi thrillers like Tarantula or Earth vs. the Spider. But while these cult films were funny merely by accident--Tarantula director Jack Arnold probably wasn't being intentionally campy--Eight Legged Freaks at times seems to try too hard. Packing in one joke after another takes away from the spiders' scariness making them seem more like a practical joke than a potentially annihilating threat. The special effects are extremely slick however and the spiders are well done with techniques approaching those in the 1997 sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers (but none of the gigantic CGI spiders are as scary as the real-life tarantulas caged up in terrariums at the start of the movie). Although at 99 minutes the film moves quickly the final scene in which the townspeople are being chased through a labyrinth of mining tunnels drags on a bit too long.