PICKS OF THE WEEK
Super 8 U.S.: J. J. Abrams, 2011, Paramount
Remember what it was like when you were 12? 14? Twelve, wishing you were 14? Remember how magical the world was then? And how magical the movies were: the ones that you really loved and remembered and were affected by?
For me, that was 1958 and 1959: Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Some Like It Hot, Ben-Hur, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Anatomy of a Murder.
For Steven Spielberg, the producer of Super 8, who's near my age, the movies he loved may have been some of the very same pictures. For J.J. Abrams, Spielberg's collaborator and Super 8's writer-director, they were maybe the movies of the late '70s -- which could have included Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Last Waltz, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.
Someday, more than a few adults will probably look back fondly on Super 8. And Super 8, the best of its kind this year, did make me feel, for a while, as if I were a kid again, as if I were 12 again -- and I'm sure that's just the effect that Abrams and Spielberg wanted.
It hooked me fast: Super 8's mass-audience pop-movie tale of six kids shooting their own Super 8 zombie movie, who then become involved in a real-life horror-story of monster alien attacks and military conspiracies erupting all around them.
It's a movie about making art (or entertainment, or schlock imitations of it) and of how art (and schlock) may be reflected in the world around you. Abrams sets the movie in a working-class Ohio steel town. And he gives all the kids plenty of personality and, some of them, a lot of back-story.
The movie begins darkly, with a family tragedy. But then it moves quickly into a semi-humorous, semi-satiric, amusingly realistic depiction of Joe's and his buddies' attempt to make their own version of a zombie horror movie, called "The Case," and heavily influenced by, and cheesily imitative of, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Except for their slightly older leading lady, all of "The Case"'s boy cast and crew seem to be classmates, about 12. The writer-director, Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), is a pudgy little egomaniac who comes from a big, bustling, relatively prosperous family, and, like Cecil B. DeMille, he's an imperious-acting, full-of-himself character who likes to boss everybody around.
But Charles isn't the center of Super 8. That spot belongs to Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), the movie's makeup man and designer -- crucial jobs in a zombie movie. He's the son of a local cop, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights). Joe is a sensitive, loyal kid, dedicated to the project and to his friendship with Charles. The tragedy: Joe recently lost his mother in a steel mill accident.
Super 8's (and "The Case"'s) leading lady, and a terrific one -- for both acting and looks -- is Alice Dainard (played by Elle Fanning, costar of Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, and younger sister of Dakota). She's both the middle school goddess of all the five guys, and the daughter of a guilt-ravaged local drunk, Louis (Ron Eldard), who was partly responsible for Joe's mother's death. That doesn't really faze Joe. He adores her, just as the others do. But it creates real problems with both Louis and Jackson, neither of whom wants their kids together.
You can see right away how much effort Abrams put into imagining these kids. So richly human is the opening here though, that Abrams could have had a very good little movie -- maybe even a classic -- if he'd just kept building on his opening, imagining the making of that zombie movie, and showed the way it's impacted and affected by the kids' lives, families and relationships.
Abrams collides the two stories -- literally -- in the movie's first great sequence: when the six are shooting a scene between Alice and Preston late at night at a small train station on the outskirts of town. Suddenly they all find themselves witness to a spectacular train wreck (modeled, both Abrams and Spielberg say, on the wreck in DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth). It's a wild catastrophe, shot in a frenzy of quick edits, hurled cars and flaming wreckage, and the opportunistic Charles insists on shooting the crash and trying to integrate it later into the movie, ordering Alice and Preston to rush into their lines, even as the train plows into a pickup truck parked on the tracks and boxcars begin flying and exploding every which way. (And as something very dangerous-looking begins clambering over and around the smoking mess.)
Something mysterious is going on, and eventually the area is swarming with determined looking U.S. Air Force types, led by the very mean-looking, granite-faced Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who becomes the kid's nemesis for the rest of the movie.
Shot with all the terror, kinetic fury and sleight-of-hand of the Abrams-produced now-you-see-it-but-mostly-you-don't alien invasion movie Cloverfield, the action scenes in Super 8 all but blast you out of your seat. And because Abrams has spent so much time drawing the characters here, the action and horror connect with us more.
Super 8 is also hot on period detail: from the spins we hear of The Knack's "My Sharona" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass," to the sight and sound of Walter Cronkite reporting on the CBS Nightly News about Three Mile Island.
At the end, alongside the credits, the moviemakers do something inspired. Abrams and Spielberg show us parts of the "final version" of "The Case" -- some of which is composed of footage we saw being made during the course of Super 8, and all of which was actually shot by the "Case" cast and crew themselves.
Listen. Seriously. Even if you never stick in your seat for all the credits after a show, you should not walk out of Super 8 until you see all of this ultimate little movie-within-a-movie. (Extras: commentary by Abrams and other filmmakers; Deconstructing the Train Crash documentary; featurettes; deleted scenes.)
Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah) (B)
France: Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010, Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay
Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah) is a movie about public and private tragedies, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay and filmed with much fidelity and feeling by director-screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner. It's a good movie, with one great long sequence set in 1942 France, during the infamous Vel d'Hive Roundup of Jews -- a sequence of horror, death and all-consuming fear that has an obsessive power, that's capable of gripping and riveting us just as the film's journalist-protagonist (Kristin Scott Thomas) is obsessed by the story of Sarah and her key.
We see and hear it all -- the screams, struggles, the brutality and lies from the police -- through the eyes of one family of Polish refugees, the Starczynskis (Natasha Mashkevich and Arben Bajraktaraj) and their children, Michel, the youngest (Paul Mercier) and blonde little Sarah (Melusine Mayance). In the midst of the arrests and turbulence her mother tells Sarah to lock up her little brother Michel (Paul Mercier) in a hiding place, a closet, after telling him to wait there, quietly, until they can return for him.
Of course they don't return in time: they are on their way to Auschwitz. But Sarah escapes from the French prison camp where she is first taken, and goes on the run with another little girl, who sickens and dies of diphtheria. She is granted refuge by an old French farming couple, the Dufaires (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot) and is sent by them back to Paris. Bent on finding and saving her brother, Sarah returns, her parents never. She finds the Marais again, the street, the building, the apartment, the closet. But it is too late, of course, for Michel.
We hear later what happened to him: how he screamed, how he pounded, how the screams stopped, how a terrible stench rose in the closet -- an odor that the new occupants thought was some dead animal trapped in the walls. Sarah, distraught, returns to her elderly saviors, the Dufaires. She grows up; she leaves home. She sends her kindly rescuers only one missive: a wedding announcement, for Sarah and an American husband. She never writes again. She disappears. She has kept the key.
Decades later, the American-French journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is married to a successful Frenchman named Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot), wangles an assignment from her editor to write a cover story on the Vel d'Hiv Roundup. Although she doesn't at first know it, her in-laws, the Tezacs, are the family that moved into the apartment after the Starczynskis and little Sarah were forcibly vacated. Julia, though beset by family problems (her discovery of her own late pregnancy and the disinclination of Bertrand to take on late fatherhood) digs further.
This is partly sheer melodrama of course, partly a weepie. But it's an interesting story and it grips you and moves you, especially at the beginning, during the roundup. Innumerable movie critics have complained that Julia's personal problems are so heavily outweighed, in emotion and significance, by the Holocaust sections that it creates an imbalance. Of course it does. How could anyone's marital problems, or everyday problems, or personal problems of any kind, possibly not be obliterated by spectacle of mass arrests and the Holocaust? But that doesn't mean that the movie trivializes the history it re-creates, either intentionally or not.
What's important in Sarah's Key about the sections with Julia is not that her own family problems are in any way comparable to Sarah's, but that there are great changes wrought in Julia by the past history she unravels, a history little known to many of us, and even to Julia's young newsmagazine co-workers.
The main point of Sarah's Key is that evil is a part of history, it happens, and it destroys lives and goes on affecting them in many ways until we come to terms with it -- that we shouldn't trivialize or forget it. Julia can be somewhat self-righteous and unlikable. But she does empathize with Sarah and she has a sense of justice and she's the one who finds and tells Sarah's story, and, in a way, she reclaims her to life. (Extras: documentary The Making of Sarah's Key.)