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Finesse with Less

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THIS AIN’T PLEASANTVILLE: Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney star as small-town Ohio kids battling a malevolent force in ‘Super 8.’ Courtesy photo.

Super 8
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Starring Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths

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THIS AIN’T PLEASANTVILLE: Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney star as small-town Ohio kids battling a malevolent force in ‘Super 8.’ Courtesy photo.

There’s a lot of retro going on this summer. Last week I sat through a super mod 1960’s version of the “X-Men.” This week I’ve been magically transported back to the 1970s in the Spielberg-flavored, suburban-set alien adventure, “Super 8.” It’s an unconventional, earnest popcorn film that manages to be the surprise of the movie season.

I say “surprise” because the films of summer are usually little more than special-effects-laden spectacles that assault our eyes and ears until our brains are no longer capable of logic or reason. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a few flurries of supersized spectacle being lobbed at us by director JJ Abrams (“Star Trek”). However, it is tempered by some very quiet, very personal stories of kids dealing with loss, love and the difficulties of low-budget filmmaking.

Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is an average kid who has been dealt a bad hand. His mother has died in an industrial accident, leaving him in the care of his father, a sheriff’s deputy who has never been emotionally available. Joe spends most of his time with his friends working on a super 8 zombie film.

They’re an interesting group of malcontents. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is Joe’s best friend and an aspiring filmmaker. He’s obsessed with finishing his film and has roped everyone into helping him complete his zombie opus, including the affable Alice (Elle Fanning). Joe is immediately smitten. There’s some difficulty to their relationship and some shared baggage. Alice’s father is also troubled. He shares some small amount of culpability in the accident that killed Joe’s mom. It’s just another day in suburban Ohio. Kids are out playing, hormones are a’bubbling, and a secret Air Force train crashes, unleashing a potentially malevolent force onto the small community.

I would like to pause here and take a crazy break. I don’t have a lot of issues with “Super 8.” In fact, I think it’s quite impressive, but sometimes there are things in films so glaringly strange, it must be addressed. So, indulge me: An Air Force train? Seriously? You’re the Air Force. You have, in your possession, a violent and dangerous threat of unknown origins. You have to move said threat from one side of the country to the other. How on Earth would the Air Force tackle that one. Of course! Use the Air Force train. I assume that if the Navy had the same problem they would use the Navy Zeppelin. Seriously? An Air Force train.

The train crash is one of those moments where the film reverts to “giant summer sense killing” action. The crash is so inconceivably large that I laughed—a lot. It was like watching a scene from “Transformers,” one of those obscene FX moments where physics and gravity are abandoned so that we can watch a train do a triple somersault and explode like a freight car-sized firecracker. Apparently, Air Force trains cannot only be derailed by a pickup truck, but are also designed to fly.

Things begin to get complicated around town. Dogs begin to make mass exodus. People start disappearing. The Air Force rolls into town with the subtlety of a hammer to the face, and begins the kind of military operation conducted by moustache-twirling villains who seem more likely to tie widows to train tracks than run a branch of the armed forces.

“Super 8” is at its most compelling when it sticks to the smaller moments. As much as “Super 8” would like to be a Spielberg-ian-style adventure film, it falters because Spielberg learned early on that less is more. The “less” in “Super 8” is fantastic. The kids are fun, the relationships feel real, and Abrams does a great job of capturing that sense of childhood awe. The “more” is a little less refined.

There’s a scene toward the end of the kids running through a shell-shocked neighborhood where it looks like the Air Force is trying to recreate the bombing of Dresden. These large set pieces feel out of place. As a director, Abrams is still a work in progress. “Super 8” is his best film to date, but he still could learn a few lessons on how to rein it in.

Even with some rather glaring flaws, “Super 8” is still far and above the most entertaining film I’ve seen this summer. Good performances, strong storytelling and an interesting take on the typical monster movie. It’s a nice respite from the typical sensory overload of summer cinema.

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