Friday, 5 August 2011

Kodak moments: "Super 8" and "Sarah's Key" (ST 07/08/11)

Super 8 (12A) 112 mins ***
Sarah’s Key (12A) 110 mins ***

That part of our culture dedicated to regurgitating itself has moved onto the 1980s for sustenance, and JJ Abrams’ Super 8 – concerning a small-town teenage filmshoot interrupted by aliens – means to spark nostalgia from the off: even its title derives from an obsolete home-movie format. Early scenes have a fun, Day for Night-via-Bugsy Malone feel, briskly delineating key personnel: chubby, loud-mouthed director Charles (Riley Griffiths); sensitive, just-bereaved make-up artist Joe (Joel Courtney); lead actress Alice (Elle Fanning), slightly older than the boys, trailing crushes in her wake. Then the aliens arrive, and matters get somewhat trickier.

Abrams, kowtowing before his producer Steven Spielberg, has the chaotic kitchens of E.T. and Close Encounters down pat, but this is Spielberg with a media-studies degree, mindful of how the television was always on in the background of those earlier films. “It’s on the news, so that means it’s real,” Charles huffs of the carnage he’s witnessed in person not hours before. Such dialogue ties Super 8 to the Abrams-produced Cloverfield, a Manhattan monster mash viewed entirely through mobile phone footage: to the postmodern cineaste, lived experience would appear greatly less important than recorded images.

What’s been lost is the innocence of those early Spielberg items – the sense of a moviebrat taking simple delight in raiding the cinematic toybox. The aliens of Close Encounters were peaceable envoys; in Super 8, they’re noisy set-crashers, and indeed the whole film gives into hustle-bustle, having constantly to reframe itself, and top its own effects. Abrams looks a victim of the aggressively commercialised marketplace Spielberg and co. created: those competing with the cacophony of a Transformers sequel in 3D are obliged to raise their game, or at least crank up the volume.

Super 8 remains a superior demonstration of summer-movie pyrotechnics, but its mechanically-reconstituted idea of childhood lacks heart: Joe’s deployment of New Age healing maxims to repel the aliens actually plays as less sincere than the finale of Independence Day, and results in an image of letting-go so on-the-nose as to make one snort. Then again, it seems telling our hero should experience his first stirrings for Alice while making her up as a zombie: any filmmaking wannabe with a Dawn of the Dead poster on his bedroom wall surely knows a mindless consumer when he sees one.

French drama Sarah’s Key hopes to follow 2008’s I’ve Loved You So Long and last summer’s Leaving as 2011’s Kristin Scott Thomas-Starring Crossover Hit, though it’s very much a film of two halves. The first, and best, is a pungent evocation of one of Vichy France’s blackest hours: the state-sanctioned round-up, in July 1942, of 13,000 Jews in Paris’s Vel d’Hiv cycling arena. Against this failure of national nerve, the vacillations of Scott Thomas’s latter-day journo, wrestling with a stuttering relationship while investigating the round-up, are merest soap, scrubbing insistently away at the accumulation of historical force until the film can reach a glossily pristine denouement.

Super 8 is on nationwide release; Sarah's Key is on selected release.

1 comment:

  1. A heartfelt, touching story that will leave you in disbelief that you never learned about this in school. This story will make you cry. This a book that will haunt you and you will find yourself wanting teenagers to read this as well as all of your friends. I highly recommend it. I think middle and high schools should use this among their required summer readings. Powerful.