Review- Super 8

Gabriel Basso, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths in Super 8 (Paramount)

What I really want to know is what kind of alchemy is this? What sort of magic have Spielberg and Abrams been able to muster? A magic so mind-boggling that I’ve hardly been able to make sense of it until now. What I speak of is the fact that in Super 8 they’ve managed a seemingly innumerable amount of tricks that are baffling.

Firstly, watching this film is almost like being in a dreamlike state, the truest definition of mesmerizing because it’s as if it plays in a seemingly endless and consistent flow that’s always operating at the right speed. It’s the rare period film that actually feels like a film from the period it’s representing and it also so seamlessly and with no fuss whatsoever incorporates us in the world of the narrative such that it almost feels like a film you’ve seen before. Rest assured I’m not describing something that can be construed as being derivative (I’ll address that) it feels like an old favorite just minutes in.

There are few ideas that can be described as startlingly original, so everything boils down to execution and choices. In short, you can compare almost any film to a handful of others and this film will conjure the images of others, however, there is something to be said for what films you’re being compared to. Super 8 is garnering comparisons to The Goonies, The Monster Squad and Stand by Me and it’s better than the first two and as for the last one, there’s such a genre difference it’s really all about what’s your cup of tea.

One startling similarity it does share with Stand by Me is a bit more intangible in nature and it’s this: rarely do you see kids portrayed on screen not only so well as characters but also as friends to the extent that you forget they’re actors at points and you see them as people. There’s a level of ease, naturalness and comfort this core have with one another that jumps off the screen and brings you into the story such that even though some may be recognizable you think of them as real kids. The easiest way to engage an audience of all ages to a story driven by kids is to get them to identify and think “Yeah, I would’ve been like that kid in this situation” and this film nails that.

Just the fact that this foursome, the main one as Preston (Zach Mills) is funny, well-portrayed and has his own quirks but doesn’t join the “adventure” portion, (Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee and Gabriel Basso) can call to mind Stand by Me when they have two actors (Courtney and Griffiths) amongst them earning his first credit is darn impressive (as opposed to one for Stand by Me [Jerry O’Connell]). The wealth being pretty evenly distributed for moments: Lee easily has the most laughs with his pyromaniac slant but one of Basso’s lines got spontaneous applause at my screening. Griffiths and Courtney both had their types to play and played them very well well and with dimension; both being rather expressive and showing a good range of emotion.

Not to mention this film has an additional facet which is that of Alice played by Elle Fanning. So it is a boys’ club to an extent and an adventurous film with wise-cracking and ribbing but there’s some romance and additional drama thrown into the mix when Alice is cast in their Super 8 film and she in essence becomes one of the gang after the train derailment. Fanning is one of the aforementioned familiar faces and she does much more than hold her own in this film but rather shines.

While I give J.J. Abrams all the credit he’s due for doing such an outstanding job on this film it does also have Spielberg’s indelible fingerprints all over it also and I think they found a story they were quite simpatico on and connected to make something outstanding. There were Spielbergian visual signatures throughout making it feel every bit as much his film as Abrams’.

One such Spielbergian trait at play was similar to Jaws in as much as the creature remained unseen or seen only in part for much of the film and the tension, drama and fright caused by an attack doesn’t dissipate due to this fact but rather is heightened. While the mystery of its intent is shrouded so is the creature itself.

The additional benefit that comes from hiding the creature is that it didn’t create a lot of additional animation for CG artists. When the creature does finally reveal itself in full I didn’t think of the CG work for a second. First, because it was so well done and second because I was so enraptured.

This enrapturing made possible more easily by the fact that the film, as mentioned before, is mesmerizing but what people fail to note when using that term is that when literally mesmerized, hypnotized, all sense of time escapes you and this film felt like it was done nearly in the blink of an eye. It’s not that the pace is breakneck, as I indicated earlier it’s always correct, but it’s enveloping.

Since I heard of this film, and with each subsequent ad (minus the viral video I heard about today), I’ve reiterated that I think all films should be advertised as this one is: Give me images, just enough to get me intrigued and have me say “Ooh, What’s that about? I want to see that!” Almost any film can be marketed that way such that you’re left thinking “Wow, that’s going to be so awesome!” but few and far between are those that really are that awesome, but Super 8 is.

10/10

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Review- Win Win

Paul Giamatti and Alex Schaffer in Win Win (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

When writing a review I am not one who revels in deliberating on flowery prose with which to acknowledge the contributions of actors in a film. This is not to say an actors contributions to a film are insignificant, the prevailing reason for this fact is that as wonderful or irrelevant as a performance is, my opinion usually boils down to the narrative and how well it functions. However, on occasion you’ll find a character-driven piece that is so perfectly cast that it bears mentioning front and center.

That’s the case in Win Win. This film is all about its characters and each of the actors assigned to their respective characters could not be more well-suited, it’s quite literally pitch perfect. Paul Giamatti plays a more humbled and down-to-earth character than he’s usually given to toy with. The vulnerability there allows us to identify with him even when he makes mistakes and we know it at the time. He is flanked by friends who despite very different outward personas hide hurts from which they seek refuge. Each is played brilliantly by Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor respectively.

The mentions of the cast will continue as necessary but I can proceed because what works best in this film is that it never devolves into a self-indulgent character study but allows the plot to flow from the characters.

It takes a sufficient amount of time to develop the characters and then allows the information to progress the story rather than have the plot move ahead and character development is left chasing. A prime example is Alex Shaffer’s character, he first shows up as a complication in Mike’s (Paul Giamatti’s) plan then we learn who he is, he wrestles to have something to do and then we discover he’s good. Director Thomas McCarthy’s gamble to find an actor who was a wrestler first paid off big time, as Shaffer plays the role of a disaffected teenager to a tee and adds more dimension to the role than perhaps was even written.

The dialogue in this film is funny and like everything else is character-driven. Nothing is flippantly tossed out for a laugh but everything grows out of who we learn these people are and how they’ll react to given situations. Jackie, Paul’s wife (Amy Ryan) is a prime example of this. A lot of her dialogue is hysterical but only within the context of who we discover she is and not inherently.

The characters get introduced to in drips and drabs such that we quickly, without being spoonfed, discover what makes them tick. The family dynamic is introduced with a triad of scenes each punctuated in profanity, the depths to which Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is suffering from his divorce is revealed slowly and almost as an aside and even wrestling, which ends up being a major component of the film, doesn’t get thrown into the mix straight away.

The film benefits greatly from having a very tight and neatly structured script that paces itself to perfection. Aside from making sound and effective narrative decisions it is great mechanically. As I was watching it I wondered if Newmarket Press had picked it up for the Shooting Script series (it seems it has not but hopefully it will).

The title of the film reflects itself in the narrative in a subtle way in as you get the resolution you wanted. Yet, it’s the manner in which it’s handled that’s the most satisfying. It’s not a sappy or stereotypical ending. Ultimately, the characters end up with what they want but not how they expected to get and not without sacrificing.

The climactic conflict that needs resolving to get to said point is also very well dealt with. To put it simply it’s wordlessly and cinematically resolved. There are times in life when we know words are futile and an action must either be forgiven or not and life must go on. This is even more true in cinema and few films realize and this one does.

This is a great serio-comic film that resonates with truthfulness and is the rare film I’d categorize as a must see.

10/10