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Tag Archive: Super 8


midnight-special-cast

Review by C.J. Bunce

Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial.  The Green Mile. Escape to Witch Mountain.  Watcher in the Woods.  Maggie.  Super 8.  The Omen.  D.A.R.Y.L.  A Perfect World.  Starman.  Michael.  Tomorrowland.  The Day the Earth Stood Still.  The Blues Brothers.  The Twilight Zone Movie.  What could these all possibly have in common?  Somehow they are all conjured up together into this year’s release, Midnight Special.

Let’s get the only problem with Midnight Special out of the way first.  It had an inexplicable limited release this past March.  And its theatrical and television trailer was creepy cool, but too cryptic to draw in the masses.  If you don’t tell people what your movie is about, they won’t always take the time to learn more and decide to see it.  And what a loss!  Midnight Special is not only one of the year’s best films, it’s one of the best films of the decade.

You will think about The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” but it’s nothing like it.  You will think about Haven and Grimm, but it’s not like that either.  And you may even accuse Stranger Things of being a knockoff of this film.  But it’s very, very different.

adam-driver-in-midnight-special

A father and his old friend kidnap his son from a religious cult, with the government in hot pursuit for very different reasons, drawn in by the son’s mysterious abilities.  Is some messianic end looming ahead?  Why is the government justified in tracking the father down for treason?  Replace the enchantment and wonder you’d find in Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T. with a combination of mystery, curiosity, and heart-pounding dread.  Gripping, personal, riveting–Midnight Special will keep you guessing until the end.  What happened to this kid?  Why does he have these powers?  What ends will his father and his friend go to protect him from what seems like the entire world crashing down on them? 

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Stranger Things cast

Stranger Things is a rare thing among plenty of series bombarding viewers of streaming services.  It would never get accused of trying too hard.  It’s good but not great.  It features no major actors.  It has developed a cult following yet it is not produced by J.J. Abrams (think Lost, Fringe, Almost Human, Believe, Westworld).  And for all these things, it’s just what we want.  We’ve had enough of CGI and big budget explosions and special effects.  Low budget is just fine–for now.  It’s that movie you are looking for late on a Saturday night, but stretched to eight episodes long.

More series like this will make Netflix survive despite all the competition from other services.  Stranger Things is good enough–good at sci-fi and horror and coming of age retro fun–to get you to sign up with Netflix for your next binge watch session.  More important than its storytelling is how the story is told, and the efforts taken to make the series, the characters, the setting, the dialogue, all look like it was filmed in the early 1980s.  Several artists have even mocked up the series marketing material into VHS tape packaging.  Were it a movie-length feature it would probably fool many.  It’s in the same vein as Disney’s Watcher in the Woods.  Like Stephen King’s Firestarter, Stand By Me and Silver Bullet it features kids in a coming-of-age setting.  Its monster/alien horror and soundtrack (available here) reflects the look and vibe of John Carpenter movies.  The marketing screams Stephen King, especially that red-on-black title font.  And it will no doubt gin up nostalgia to spur cassette tapes of its soundtrack like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Stranger Things VHS

It’s Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, if the story had taken a darker turn, and very similar to Spielberg and Abrams’ Super 8 (Super 8 poster artist Kyle Lambert even created the poster for this series to further lock in the look).  Critics have picked apart odds and ends found in the background of scenes–this item didn’t exist then, etc.  But ultimately the overall feel is very right.  You’ll point to a pitcher on the table, a rug on the floor, a poster on the wall, all that you had back then.  And the season one wrap-up is as satisfying as you’re going to find in a TV series.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Back in June, Super 8 was in theaters and Jason McClain discussed it here and noted the split in the film between the focus on the kids’ story vs. the focus on the adults.  I didn’t see this one in the theater and after viewing on video I wish I had, but only for the spectacular train crash.  Other than that, the film makes a great rental.  For me, this film was a cross between Goonies, Cloverfield, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, and Close Encounter of the Third Kind.  I found myself viewing this and questioning whether this was more of a J.J. Abrams movie or more of a Steven Spielberg movie.  And I found it to be a lot of fun.

I agree with Jason’s review, that this could have been a film focusing totally on the kids’ story—kids trying to make a zombie film.  Joel Courtney in the lead role, in his first film appearance, was cast perfectly as Joe Lamb—as every little kid who doesn’t get into trouble, tries to do the right thing, tries to be friends to everyone.  The film inside the film didn’t need to be a zombie film, but zombies was as good a subject as any, and something the director could use because of the humor zombie make-up adds to the picture.  And maybe because the film also wants to be a monster movie of the alien variety.

I also agree with Jason that you could cut all the adult themes and probably end up with a better picture.  I find it puzzling that every film about differing genres that includes kids must have a one-parent family at the core.  It used to be that all movies had two parents and two kids, and I understand over time why the change to more diverse families makes sense.  But I can’t remember the last time a two adult, couple of kids family was pictured on film.  They exist in real life so I’m not sure what the draw is for the barrage of broken families.  You’d think Hollywood would mix it up a little.  I expect filmmakers think it gives the film some weight.  I usually find dwelling on family in this kind of film unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot–the father-son and father-daughter reunion pieces of the film here included.

But back to the good parts.  The themes of young teens mimic the superb, classic kid film Goonies so much you could draw parallels through the whole movie.  Young boys’ crushes on the older girl.   Rescuing a friend.  The desire for adventure and the decision to go off and “just do it.”  The same themes were also addressed more seriously in Stephen King’s Stand By Me and less so in E.T., the Extraterrestrial.  If Goonies was better at being a kids’ film it was probably because the adults only played the enemies and barely served another purpose in the plot.  After all, in the context of a fictional adventure film, why not play into that natural tension between parents and kids?  In E.T., the adults were primarily the enemies, too.  In Stand By Me, again, no parents, just kids being kids.  The change-up is Close Encounters—where the little boy in the film is kidnapped by the aliens.  But even there the little kid parallels the real little kid story in the film–the little boy trying to get out, trapped inside the lead character played by Richard Dreyfuss.  Close Encounters is the ultimate kids film about grown-ups.  Dreyfuss wants to believe in aliens every bit as much as Elliott and Gerty in E.T.   The kids in Super 8 aren’t longing for this kind of connection, they just want to be the kids they are.

As a “horror-light” film, viewers will see similarities to the alien/monster pursuit in Cloverfield, and the alien/monster images from Cowboys & Aliens.  I thought this was a fun genre-bending exercise and it worked better here than Cowboys & Aliens but not as well as in Cloverfield.  I include Cloverfield in the discussion here because of the similar vibe throughout the last half of the movie, undoubtedly based on Abrams participation in both productions.

Super 8 should be looked back on later as a big film for Abrams.  Where Star Trek 2009 was J.J. Abrams’ big-budget sci-fi feature, Cloverfield was his Blair Witch-type horror film, and Mission Impossible III was his post-Alias spy movie, Super 8 is Abrams’ take on Spielberg–it’s his Spielberg homage of sorts.  I expect to see a boxed DVD set coming—Close Encounters (directed by Spielberg), then E.T. (directed by Spielberg), Goonies (written by Spielberg), War of the Worlds (directed by Spielberg) and then Super 8 (produced by Spielberg).  Not so much a set of coming-of-age films as a set of solid kids-being-kids films.  Although written and directed by Abrams, anyone would believe it was a Spielberg creation, were it written and directed by Spielberg.  Looking back on Abrams’ short list of films, it’s as if Abrams is a director mimicking the style of others.  As style goes, he certainly doesn’t have an established niche yet.  The only exception is those lousy lens flares he can’t seem to avoid.  You have to wonder if he sees something in those glares we don’t see, as we are blinded multiple times mid-film.  But it seems to be his signature.  A lens flare is even in his poster for the film shown above.  Bizarre.

If you pulled Goonies out of our fictitious boxed set, you have a nice series of alien films—Close Encounters, about meeting aliens, E.T. about befriending aliens, Super 8, about fearing aliens, although you have to empathize with the alien in Super 8, as with past Spielberg aliens, and then War of the Worlds at the other end of the spectrum opposite E.T., where the aliens are entirely and unquestionably our enemy.

Team Fanning also follows through again with a gaggle of teen actresses who only seem to get better with each new sibling to take the stage.  Here, Elle Fanning plays the tough teen with a chip on her shoulder, a role done before several times in films, but usually by male characters played by the likes of like Heath Ledger or Matt Dillon.  In one scene she switches from playing a kid character to playing an actress practicing for a scene to be filmed on the Super 8 camera, and the switch is as well done as you could hope for with any performer.  Ryan Lee in a small role as Joe’s friend Cary was a notable stand-out, playing the future pyromaniac who looks like a mini-Tom Petty.  The rest of the characters are a motley mix of typical honest, good, nerdy kids.

Reflecting back on the films about kids mentioned above, I have a note for the current onslaught of child actors, especially those playing lanky, skinny, fat, odd, etc. kids:  Just check out what happened to the child actors in the above films.  Drew Barrymore who was Gerty in E.T. is now a Cover Girl model and was a Charlie’s Angel.  The chubby kid, Jerry O’ Connell, in Stand By Me ended up as the leading man-looking guy who starred in Sliders and several later series.  Jeff Cohen who played Chunk in Goonies became an L.A. lawyer.  Sean Astin who played the lead in Goonies ended up as the beloved Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings.  And the oldest teen in Goonies played by Josh Brolin, was nominated for an Academy Award.  My point?  Awkward teens take note:  Life gets better.  The old child actor’s curse doesn’t exist anymore.

As science fiction goes, Super 8 stands up as a good film, as a horror film it’s a little light, as an adventure film it’s better than good, but as a film about kids, Super 8 is a solid, entertaining picture that will keep the attention of viewers of any age.

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

As a writer, the question, “What story do you want to tell?” is an important one.  It lends you focus.  It behooves you to describe some people in detail and leave others in the background.  It compels you to “cut your darlings” not in some back woods, creepy no-teeth father sort of way, but rather clever turns of phrases, sharp witticisms, and generally great writing that the writer spends days waiting to casually saunter into their sphere of imagination and then, when you realize the words, the precious words, have no use to the story, you edit them off into oblivion.  Well, unless you are anal retentive and fear the onrush of the end of all creativity and you copy and paste them into a file just so that you can go back and gently caress their loving characters when you need to believe you can still write.

Cutting those words can be such a chore.  You may not even believe you need to cut them when your reading buddies gently urge you in that direction.  You can make them work.  You can make them fit.  You have a vision and it should stay intact, no matter what anyone says.

Then, you’d end up with Super 8.

There are parts of Super 8 that had me spellbound: the director and his main makeup man riding bikes through the town; teaching each other through magazines; a boy’s first crush; applying makeup to another person, such a very intimate moment, especially when that person trusts you enough to close their eyes (well, trust and the fact they don’t want makeup in their eyes); and friends getting together for a project and pulling together whatever might be at their disposal to figure out how to do it.  I could have watched those kids all day, and the biggest smiles of the whole viewing experience came during the credits as we watched the film of those kids, “The Case.”

Unfortunately, there had to be adults in the film.

Unfortunately, there was a big special effects budget.

Unfortunately, there had to be parent/children themes to work into the story.

The movie starts at the funeral for Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) mother, Jackson Lamb’s (Kyle Chandler) wife, who serves as deputy for the town. Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) shows up, he’s been drinking, and Jackson Lamb handcuffs him, runs him to his car and leaves Joe sitting by himself outside sitting on an old swing-set.

Then, the title card, “Four Months Later.”

I understand that Joe sitting out by himself is his way of coping with his mother’s death while he looks at the picture in the locket that his mother always wore around her neck.  I understand that Jackson arresting someone is his way of coping and escaping the air of his own home, filled that day with sadness and uncertainty, as all the friends of his hometown crammed upon him and made it tough to breathe, let alone mourn the death of his wife.

That stuff is not the story though.  We’re four months later.  Yes, the hurt is still in Joe.  It will be always.  The grief does not define his character, his curiosity does.  As does his willingness to help his friends, his love of building models and him being at the wonderfully awkward age where he knows he likes girls and has no clue what to do about it.  The scene were Joe and Charles (Riley Griffiths) go upstairs for Charles to get dinner and we hear brief words from the parents and they earnestly invite Joe to stay for dinner, gives us how the adults feel about his loss.

Later that night the plan to film by the train station unfolds.  We get the back-story we need as night falls; all the kids sneak out and wait on Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to arrive with a car to take them to the train station.  Alice refuses to let Joe in the car she “borrows” from her dad because he’s the deputy’s kid. After all, she’s 13 and driving and that’s breaking the rules – the deputy’s family follows the rules.

So, what do we know from that paragraph to describe the opening of the movie?  We have an idea of what kind of father wouldn’t know her 13-year old took the car and has already taught her how to drive.

What is the relationship between Joe and Jackson?  He solemnly pledges to Alice that he’ll never tell, and we believe him, and we begin to know about that father/son relationship without a need for the opening scene.  A couple brief words like, “We don’t talk much anyway.  Especially not the last few months,” and soon the opening funeral scene fades in necessity.  All the scenes with Joe holding the locket when he gets nervous and we see how much his mother meant to him and now the opening funeral scene is completely superfluous.

Filming at the train station is a grand adventure.  Everything is low tech.  Everything is simple.  It’s the story of kids that want to make a zombie movie.  We’re getting to know the kids, their likes, their dislikes and their personalities as we watch them each prepare for the practice take.

Then comes the train crash.  I think it lasts longer than the car crash in The Blues Brothers.  Unfortunately, it’s about as funny too.  A train collides with a truck that swerved onto the tracks and somehow train cars fly everywhere in every direction.

Of course, the junior filmmakers are still alive.  It’d be depressing if they weren’t.  The car Alice borrowed from her dad does not have a scratch on it.  However, the train depot, the train and any gophers that may have been in the vicinity are ex-versions of their former selves.  Still, amid all of this chaos and destruction, the person driving the truck that caused the accident is also quite alive and gives them a message to not get involved.

Sadly, this is a pattern to the rest of the movie.

Whenever the kids are on screen and filming, guerrilla style, using the Air Force personnel that has appeared out of nowhere for their use, it is fun.  They’re having an adventure and are slowly figuring out the mystery surrounding this train.

Then, adults appear as plot devices, warning them to stay away from the train and/or their friends and bring along themes or story lines that I had no interest in following and I just waited until the next scene with the kids.  Or, some super-duper special effects scenes happen and I think, why does this matter?  Why do the filmmakers need to show this?  Why can’t the son of the deputy hear about it when he listens to his dad through his bedroom door, longing for contact that his mother used to create for his father and him, and the next day they can film there?

I won’t say much more about the story to avoid any spoilers, but, as you’d expect from a story about kids, the kids work together to help one of their own in trouble.  I’m also trying to block out what any character above the age of 20 had to do with anything and recapping would force me to remember.

I enjoyed parts of this movie, especially the scenes between Fanning and Courtney and the scenes between Griffiths and Courtney.  I felt as a guy, the filmmakers did a great job exploring issues that kids and adults would have as they create together.  However, instead of using the kids to explore the adult themes, the filmmakers thought their story had to get the adults involved as well.  As a viewer, I wish they hadn’t.