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“Super 8,” Reviewed

“Super 8,” Reviewed (photo)

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J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” really is like a child’s Super 8 film, with all the good and bad that that comparison suggests. It’s ambitious and unfocused, imaginative and contrived. It’s flawed, but it’s also really close to being a truly wonderful film. There were parts that I absolutely adored. And there were parts I borderline hated.

The film itself is almost as bifurcated as my reaction. Maybe that’s part of the problem. It begins, with incredible promise, as the story of a group of young teenagers let loose on their small Ohio town for summer vacation in 1979. They’re making a Super 8 movie about a cop investigating a series of zombie murders: Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the director. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the lead actor. Cary (Ryan Lee) is the pyromaniac and pyrotechnics expert. And Joe (Joel Courtney), whose father Jack (Kyle Chandler) is a deputy sheriff in town, does the sound, makeup, and models. Joe’s mother died a few months earlier in a mill accident, leaving Jack an emotional wreck and leaving Joe with his friends, their movie, and not much else.

Charles, perhaps voicing the fears of Abrams himself, worries his movie might be too heavy on special effects and too light on characters you really care about, so he writes a part for the cop’s wife and casts Alice (Elle Fanning). Alice is pretty and a natural, untrained actor. Her entrance into this group previously populated only by boys shakes things up in the best way possible. The scenes between the kids as they work on their movie in cluttered bedrooms and noisy diners are full of charm and authenticity. This is one half of the film.

The other half begins when the group is out filming at the train station one night as a train comes hurtling down the tracks. “Production values!” Charles yells, and they all scramble into position. As they’re shooting, a truck drives into the path of the train and derails it in a massive special effects sequence. Suddenly the pressures and complications of adulthood — or maybe just the demands of large-scale mainstream filmmaking — have invaded the kids’ previously humdrum lives. Now they can’t just focus on their little film; they’ve got to also contend with a massive government conspiracy and an escaped passenger from the train whose size and strength suggests he’s not from Ohio. The metaphor’s right there for anyone who wants to see it: the director trying to make a movie about life as it’s lived who has to throw in some aliens too just to make it commercial.

“Super 8” was co-produced by Steven Spielberg, whose own movies about children, aliens, and the American suburbs inspired Abrams’ screenplay as much as the director’s own filmmaking projects as a youth. And “Super 8” is full of Spielberg homages in general, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” homages in particular, right down to the particular style of the lens flares that frequently flash onscreen (by the way, lens flare in an underground cave in the middle of a blackout? That just doesn’t make any sense). But where Abrams has certainly aped the look, feel, and milieu of early Spielberg, he missed one crucial aspect. Particularly during that period of his career, Spielberg was the unparalleled master of meshing epic stories with minute character studies. “Jaws,” “Close Encounters, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” these movies are near-perfect blends of big-scale narrative and small-scale humanity. Abrams has the potential for all of that but he never quite reconciles his two halves — the kids and their movie, the alien on the loose — properly. He dives deep into the characters in the first act, then practically forgets about them as he crams in as many scary alien attacks as possible. As a result, when he suddenly returns to the characters in between the beats of his sci-fi spectacular finale, it feels forced instead of heartwarming. In some ways, Abrams’ last film, “Star Trek,” which blended action and character and heart more successfully, is a more Spielbergian film than “Super 8.”

I think I’d be less bothered by the alien scenes if I was more interested in the alien. Abrams loves to talk about his “mystery box” theory of moviemaking, and how the more you withhold something from the audience, the more they’re interested in seeing it. That approach certainly jives with Spielberg, who turned a crappy animatronic shark into a lurking, unseen menace and turned “Jaws” into a classic. Of course, Spielberg found a narrative-motivated reason to keep the shark off-screen — the humans are above the water in a boat and can’t see Jaws — while Abrams basically just sticks the camera in the most obstructed angle in any scene to cover his monster. When we finally do see the “Super 8” alien, he’s just not impressive enough to justify the lengths Abrams goes to hide him.

Like most Spielberg classics, “Super 8” preaches a moral of childhood innocence triumphing over adult cynicism. But the cynic in me can’t help but feel like a truly great film about kids and their dreams got buried here underneath a fairly formulaic monster movie. When Abrams occasionally gives the alien muckety-muck a rest, the kids are terrific, and Elle Fanning in particular delivers a very moving performance. The movie doesn’t quite go off the rails along with that mysterious train, but it’s pretty close.

Note: The best part of “Super 8” comes during the closing credits. Don’t leave the theater until you see it. And after you see it, tell us what you thought of it! Leave us some comments below or on Twitter and Facebook!

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…