The films of Steven Spielberg hold a special place in Gen-X hearts. For those who came of age as The Beard hit his peak in the late '70s and early '80s (Yes, he peaked there. Aside from the amusing misstep 1941; Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark represent an amazing streak and still stand as the best films he's ever made) his distinct storytelling and visual sense wound up leaving as indelible a mark on future filmmakers as it did on fans.
Colleagues Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis worked under his banner to produce films that had that Spielbergian quality, resulting in classics like Back to the Future and Gremlins. But even in a generational sense, there are few filmmakers who haven't felt the influence of one of American cinemas most popular and successful directors.
But what writer/director and übergeek J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) has crafted with Super 8 is nothing less than a soup to nuts homage of the feel, look and wonder of The 'Berg's signature style. And Abrams is no Spielberg.
Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is the son of a small-town Ohio sheriff's deputy and whose mother recently died in an industrial accident. His father, said deputy Jackson (Kyle Chandler) is overwhelmed by trying to raise the remnants of his family alone.
Joe has a cadre of friends led by Charles (Riley Griffiths), a pushy and demanding kid who is trying to film a zombie flick with Joe on make-up FX and their nerdy friends, Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Zach Mills) and the metal-mouthed Cary (Ryan Lee) filling out the various production and acting duties.
Charles casts the cute girl from school, Alice (Elle Fanning) as his female lead, whose father isn't happy about her hanging out with Joe -- for reasons more personal than are at first apparent. So the group must surreptitiously sneak out to an abandoned train depot to film their horror epic. When an old Dodge pickup truck unexpectedly barrels down the tracks, colliding with an oncoming freight train in a spectacular derailment, their little Super 8 camera captures something they could have never imagined.
Except if you paid attention to the marketing. Abrams is semi-notorious for maintaining an air of mystery around his productions. That began with the Matt Reeves-directed monster-beats-the-shit-out-of-New York, "found footage" mash-up, Cloverfield. The marketing campaign held its cards close while floating a viral arm that hinted at the mysteries of the beast. And while the end result was enjoyable enough, a good example of budget filmmaking with real scope, and thankfully vague about its Lovecraftian beastie, it was still no more than no-nonsense monster movie.
With Super 8, the obvious sense of Spielberg-hat tipping can't make up for Abrams half-baked script, which tags many of the visual and narrative cornerstones of The 'Berg, rather lovingly, but never comes together into a cohesive whole. Essentially a re-make of E.T. with a Jaws-like predilection for concealing its "shark," Abrams doesn't find the balance between the halcyon nostalgia of his '70s period-setting, the sweet pull of those first real friendships and the suspense of his extraterrestrial sub-plot. Worse, he hints at story devices that are, in the end, irrelevant. Oddly shaped white cubes, technology that can apparently coalesce like alien Legos to form a spacecraft barely figure into anything, much less he climax. The kidnapping of some of the locals, presumably out of spite, ultimately has no discernable rationale except to give the kids a Goonies-esque opportunity to go underground on a rescue mission.
Abrams cribs shots from Close Encounters, Jurassic Park and most obviously E.T., drenched in lens flares and with only a dash of his own style to be felt -- the train derailing recalls the airplane crash that opens Lost while the beast shares more than a few design elements in common with Cloverfield's creature. Super 8 is a survey class in Spielberg 101 in every way (right down to a schmaltzy, maudlin ending) but for a solid script. Abrams still manages to bring it off (he saved Star Trek from a script that was easily a bigger mess than this) and it is fun to watch him play in the sandbox of Spielberg's tonal style and look, though it still feels like an inconsequential mirage.
Of course, being an Abrams flick, it looks great. Shot on 35mm with the Panavision lenses so preferred by Spielberg, and which encourage those overt lens flares, Super 8 looks the part of a '70s Amblin flick while the sound design of Skywalker Ranch and the creature FX by ILM look and sound far more expensive than the cast. Abrams elicits good performances from his ensemble of young actors (Fanning being the stand-out) who all seem like caricatures of kids in Berg's world, where nerds band together on the meridian between childhood penchants and girls becoming interesting.
Abrams made the movie he wanted to see, no doubt. Super 8 is a kids' flick for nostalgia-junkies, though if I had a kid I think I'd just start him (or her) out with the original works of the master (and executive producer) Abrams clearly has so much respect for.
Part of Super 8's charm was its '70s setting since it was integral to the tone and intent of the film. With François Ozon's Potiche, the '70s setting seems hardly to matter at all except to the costume designers. Though, that isn't the reason to be unimpressed by this tepidly amusing comedy.
The French writer/director best known stateside for his sexy and engaging Swimming Pool, François Ozon here tries his hand a farce. Based on a decade old play by Pierre Barillet, Potiche is the sort of quaintly annoying comedy of caricatures that usually the Japanese can only get away with. In fact, Ozon's tone often recalled Jûzô Itami, whose Tampopo is a culturally self-aware comedy and a female empowerment film, as well, though more condescendingly so.
Unlike Itami's Tampopo, Ozon's Suzanne Pujol (the estimable Catherine Deneuve) isn't being put in her place by society as a whole -- just her douchey, philandering husband, Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). Robert runs a successful umbrella factory, started by Suzanne's father, and his iron fisted (by French standards) management-style has driven the union members to strike. The town's mayor, and conveniently Commie Party leader, Babin (Gérard Depardieu) is called in to mediate when the workers actually kidnap Robert. It turns out Suzanne and Babin have a deeper history than her captive husband suspects.
Sidelined from schtupping his secretary, Mrs. Nadège (Karin Viard) by the kidnapping -- and a strange illness that requires medicinal "drops" -- Robert, a relentlessly unlikeable prick, is forced to take leave to Greece and give over the reins of the umbrella factory to Suzanne. She metes out jobs to her over-grown children; the arty, directionless, leftist son, Laurent (Jérémie Renier) and her more conservative daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), while conceding to all of the union member's demands.
Unsurprisingly, harmony ensues amongst the workers, as Suzanne reclaims herself from the doldrums of a trophy wife existence and her father's company from free-market short sightedness -- at least until Robert, who she could be realistically forgiven for murdering, returns.
Nothing about Potiche is subtle. It plays like a transparent polemic that attempts to meld family drama, socialist manifesto and Norma Rae-as-a-cloistered, rich, French matriarch into a tonally inert whole. Ozon is satirizing the wave of American-style capitalism in modern France, while making fun of French expectations of a workday, in the context of a '70s-set, women's lib flick ("potiche" being the French for "vase," or a trophy wife). But it would have helped if the proceedings had a sharper edge -- or even if they were particularly funny. Farce should be a needlepoint of characters that are broad and real, stuck in their own ridiculousness and that of their time so that the barbs might carry a tangible sting. Potiche, with its trivial characterizations, takes stabs but never feels like it's going for the kill as a satire, drama or comedy.
It is an effervescent affair, Ozon's framing being as bright and clean as ever, while the episodic nature of the source material lends to the intimacy of these caricatures. Potiche is not a slog. Catherine Deneuve is as regal as could be expected, making her relationship with Gérard Depardieu seem equal. They are both charming, as should be evidenced by their filmographies, and do more than any other element to elevate the material. Still, the misplaced tone takes what could have been a sharp, cogent satire and renders it as a glancing, muddled rom-com with disconcertingly little cinematic ambition for the man behind Swimming Pool.
It's hard to feel contempt for something as relentlessly light-hearted as Potiche. Its leads, in Deneuve and Depardieu, are venerable and Luchini plays a fine cad. The story eventually revels in their juicy sins and if you're a true masochist then perhaps some of the soapy plot reveals will feel satisfying. They're almost enough to forgive how inconsequential it seems. If any of these characters felt real, forgiveness would be easier.
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