The Films of 2020: The Way Back (dir by Gavin O’Connor)


Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) used to be a star.  When he was in high school, he was a brilliant basketball player.  He led his high school, Bishop Hayes, to multiple championships.  Everyone expected Jack to have a bright figure but …. well, times change.

Decades later, Jack is a construction worker.  He spends every night at the neighborhood bar.  He wakes up every morning with a hangover.  He starts his day by drinking and he ends it by passing out.  He’s separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), and he can’t even enjoy a nice Thanksgiving dinner without everyone getting on his back about his drinking.

When he gets a phone call from his old high school, he’s shocked to learn that he’s being offered a job.  The school’s basketball coach has had a heart attack.  Father Devine (John Aylward) wants to know if Jack would be interested in filling in for the rest of the school year.  Though at first reluctant and perhaps not wanting to be reminded of the future he once had, Jack eventually agrees.

The team, it turns out, is not particularly impressive.  The school hasn’t gone to the playoffs since Jack graduated and basketball is such a low priority that the team only has 6 players.  When Jack takes over, the team that has only won a single game.  The team is undisciplined and so used to being losers that they can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a winner.  You know what type of team I’m talking about because, even if you weren’t an athlete in school, you’ve probably seen a movie or two about underestimated high school teams that, under the leadership of a new coach, ended up shocking everyone by making it to the playoffs.

Working with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), Jack struggles to turn the team into winners.  He’s a strict coach and, at first, the students resent him and his methods.  When he kicks one of the best players off the team for showing up late to practice, everyone thinks that Jack’s gone too far.  However, when the team actually starts to show signs of improvement, the team and the school rallies around their new head coach….

Of course, Jack still has his problems.  He’s too quick to lose his temper.  He curses a bit too often.  Despite caring about the team, he’s still weary about getting too close to them.  He’s emotionally damaged as the result of an abusive childhood and the death of his son.  A winning season isn’t going to magically change that.  However, Jack’s main problem is that he’s still an alcoholic.  To the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to sugarcoat Jack’s addictions.  Jack doesn’t magically become sober just because he’s found a purpose in life.  Even when he briefly cuts back on his drinking, the temptation is still there.  And when Jack finally does end up returning to his neighborhood bar and has too much to drink, the film is honest about the consequences of his actions.

The Way Back took me by surprise.  It started out as a well-made but rather predictable underdog sports story but it takes a turn during the third act and reveals that it’s actually a character study of a well-meaning but immature man who cannot escape his demons.  The film is honest about Jack’s problems and, to its credit, it doesn’t pretend like there are any easy solutions.  It’s going to take more than just coaching his team to the playoffs for Jack to make peace with himself and his past.  The film ends on a note that’s hopeful yet ambiguous.  Jack has a long way to go and you’re not totally convinced that he’s ever going to truly complete his journey.  But, at the same time, you’re happy that he finally got a chance to do something good with his life.

Ben Affleck was the perfect choice to play Jack and he gives the best performance that I’ve ever seen him give.  Affleck has been open about his own struggles with alcoholism but beyond that, it’s easy to see Jack’s struggles as a metaphor for Affleck’s own up-and-down career.  Like Jack, Affleck won a championship when Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture but it sometimes seems as if he’s struggled since then.  His directorial follow-up, Live By Night, was a critical and commercial failure.  His turn as Batman was appreciated by some but ridiculed by others.  When he stepped down from directing The Batman, he was the subject of the same type of uncharitable gossip that follows Jack as he coaches his team.  In the role of Jack, Ben Affleck gives a poignant, vulnerable, and honest performance.  He’s willing to be unsympathetic.  He doesn’t shy away from showing us that Jack, even at his best, can be a massive fuckup.  And yet, he holds onto our sympathy even while Jack does some very stupid things.  It’s Affleck’s performance that elevates The Way Back from being just another sports film to being something far more touching.

The Way Back may not be quite strong enough to be called a great film (though it’s certainly a good one) but Ben Affleck gives a great performance.

Black Brigade (1970, directed by George McCowan)


During the closing days of World War II, General Clark (Paul Stewart) wants to capture a Nazi-controlled dam and he thinks he’s found just the man for the job.  Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd) is a tough and good with a knife and a gun.  Carter is sent to take command of a ragtag group of soldiers who have spent the last three years waiting for combat.  The only catch is that the soldiers are all black and Captain Carter is a racist redneck.

This was an Aaron Spelling-produced television movie that was originally broadcast under the name Carter’s Army.  When it was released on video, the name was changed to Black Brigade, probably in an effort to fool viewers into thinking that it was a cool blaxploitation film instead of a simplistic TV movie.  The film has gotten some attention because of the cast, which is full of notable names.  Roosevelt Grier plays Big Jim.  Robert Hooks is Lt. Wallace while Glynn Turman is Pvt. Brightman (who keeps a journal full of the details of the imaginary battles in which he’s fought) and Moses Gunn brings his natural gravitas to the role of Pvt. Hayes.  Probably the two biggest names in the cast are Richard Pryor as the cowardly Crunk and Billy Dee Williams as Pvt. Lewis, who says that he’s from “Harlem, baby.”

Don’t let any of those big names fool you.  Most of them are lucky if they get one or two lines to establish their character before getting killed by the Germans.  The movie is mostly about Stephen Boyd blustering and complaining before eventually learning the error of his ways.  The problem is that Carter spends most of the film as such an unrepentant racist that it’s hard not to hope that one of the soldiers will shoot him in the back when he least expects it.  The other problem is that, for an action movie, there’s not much action.  Even the climatic battle at the dam is over in just a few minutes.

There is one daring-for-its-time scene where Lt. Wallace comes close to kissing a (white) member of the German Resistance, Anna Renvic (Susan Oliver).  When Carter sees him, he angrily orders Wallace to never touch a white woman.  Anna slaps Carter hard and tells him to mind his own goddamn business.  It’s the best scene in the movie.  Otherwise, Black Brigade is forgettable despite its high-powered cast.

Deep Cover (1992, directed by Bill Duke)


When Russell Stevens was 10 years old, he saw his father get gunned down while holding up a liquor store.  Now, 20 years later, Russell (Laurence Fishburne) is a cop who is so straight that he doesn’t even drink.  But because of his father’s background, a psychological profile that indicates Russell is unique suited to understand how the criminal mind works, and the fact that he has no loved ones at home, he is recruited to work undercover.  His weaselly handler, Carver (Charles Martin Smith), explains that going undercover means that Russell is going to have to become a criminal 24/7.  He can’t just do his job for 8 hours a day and then go back to his normal life at night.

With the government’s money, Russell sets himself up as a dealer, buying and selling the drugs that are destroying his community.  It does not take long before Russell meets David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a lawyer and aspiring drug kingpin.  At first, David makes Russell as being an undercover cop but, after Russell is arrested by the righteous but clueless Detective Taft (Clarence Williams III), David changes his mind and brings Russell into the operation.  The line between being a cop and a criminal starts to blur, especially after David and Russell start to bond over their mutual dislike of their boss, Felix (Gregory Sierra).  It doesn’t take long for Russell to get in over his head.

There have been a lot of films made about undercover cops losing themselves in their new criminal identity but few take the story to its logical conclusion like Deep Cover does.  Russell may start out as a straight arrow but, by the end of the movie, he’s killed a dealer in cold blood and broken his own personal pledge to never do cocaine himself.  He also discovers that David is often a more trustworthy partner than his own colleagues in law enforcement.  Fishburne and Goldblum both give excellent, spot-on performances as Russell and David and they’re supported by an able cast of weasels and tough guys.  I especially liked Charles Martin Smith’s performance as Carver.  (When Russell asks Carver if he’s ever killed a man, Carver laughs and says that he went to Princeton “just to avoid that shit.”)  Gregory Sierra is also great in the role of Felix and I loved that, of all people, Sidney Lassick played one of Felix’s henchmen.  That’s like seeing John Fiedler play the Godfather.

One of the best crime thrillers of the 90s, Deep Cover is not only a detective film but it’s also a politically-charged look at why America’s war on drugs was doomed to failure.  No sooner does Russell get into position to catch the man behind Felix’s operation than he’s told to drop the case because the State Department thinks that the drug lord could be politically helpful to them in South America.  As Russell discovers, the War on Drugs is more interested in taking out the soldiers on the streets than the generals in charge.  While men like Carver sit in their offices and move people around like pieces on a chess board, people like Russell are left to clean up the mess afterward.

Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2016: Race (dir by Stephen Hopkins)


race

Do you remember Race?

It came out in February of this year and it was kind of a big deal for a week.  I think everyone was expecting it to be a big hit, just because there’s never much competition in February.  Race is a biopic of Jesse Owens, the African-American runner who sets world records and won gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating a legion of Aryan athletes while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.  Not only is that a compelling story but 2016 was also an Olympic year.  Eddie The Eagle had already been a success due to the Olympic connection.  Add to that, Focus Features promoted the Hell out of this film.  In they weeks leading up to its release, I saw commercials for it on a nearly hourly basis.  The reviews, when the came, were mixed but generally positive.

I’m not really sure how Race did at the box office.  According to Wikipedia, on its opening weekend, it was sixth at the box office.  Apparently, the film only had a budget of five million and ultimately made a profit of $20,000,0000.  I guess that would make it a success.  All I know is that it seems like, for all the hype, Race just kind of came and went.

In fact, I didn’t see Race until about two months ago.  It’s one of those films that’s not really great but it’s certainly not bad.  It’s pretty much the epitome of being adequate.  It was well-made and generally well-acted.  Director Stephen Hopkins occasionally struggled to maintain a consistent pace (Race is over 2 hours long and feels longer) but he still did a good job filming the scenes of Owens of running and competing.  In the role of Jesse Owens, Stephan James was well-cast.  You not only believed him in the dramatic scenes but he was also believable as a record-setting athlete.  He had some great scenes with Jason Sudekis, who was surprisingly believable in the role of Jesse’s coach.

With all that in mind, why didn’t Race make more of an impression?  I think that, too often, Hopkins allowed the film’s focus to wander away from Jesse and the inner conflict he felt as he won medals for a country where he was treated like a second-class citizen.  There were too many random scenes of Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, playing Olympic officials and debating whether or not to boycott Hitler’s Olympics.  During the second half of the film, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) showed up and we got a few scenes of her trying to film Jesse’s triumph at the Olympics despite the interference of Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbles (Barnaby Metschurat).  All of these extra scenes are supposed to set Jesse’s struggle in a historic context but they’re unnecessary and distracting.  All the context that the film needs can be found in the fact that Jesse was a black man living in America in the 1930s.

For the most part, Race is uneven but occasionally the film delivers a powerful scene or two.  One of the most powerful parts of the film comes when Jesse, after setting world records and being proclaimed as a hero across the world, is informed that he still can’t enter a New York club through the front door.  As well, the scenes depicting Jesse’s friendship with German jump Luz Long (David Kross) are poignant.  In fact, they’re so poignant that I initially assumed that they were fictionalized for the film but actually, Jesse and Luz Long did become good friends during the 1936 Olympics.

Race is uneven but it’s not bad.  Stephan James gives a good performance as Jesse and, if nothing else, the film provides a worthy history lesson.

And here are the NAACP Image Award Nominations!


Dear White People

And continuing our awards wrap-up, here are the 2014 NAACP Image Award nominations!

(h/t to awardswatch)

MOTION PICTURE
Outstanding Motion Picture
• “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)
• “Dear White People” (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
• “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
• Chadwick Boseman – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• David Oyelowo – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Denzel Washington – “The Equalizer” (Columbia Pictures)
• Idris Elba – “No Good Deed” (Screen Gems)
• Nate Parker – “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)

Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture
• Gugu Mbatha-Raw – “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• Quvenzhané Wallis – “Annie” (Columbia Pictures)
• Taraji P. Henson – “No Good Deed” (Screen Gems)
• Tessa Thompson – “Dear White People” (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
• Viola Davis – “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (The Weinstein Company)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
• André Holland – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Cedric the Entertainer – “Top Five” (Paramount Pictures)
• Common – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Danny Glover – “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)
• Wendell Pierce – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
• Carmen Ejogo – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Jill Scott – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• Octavia Spencer – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)
• Oprah Winfrey – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Viola Davis – “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)

Outstanding Independent Motion Picture
• “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• “Dear White People” (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
• “Half of a Yellow Sun” (monterey media inc.)
• “JIMI: All Is By My Side” (XLrator Media)
• “Life of a King” (Animus Films/Serena Films)

Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture
• Chris Rock – “Top Five” (Paramount Pictures)
• Justin Simien – “Dear White People” (Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate)
• Margaret Nagle – “The Good Lie” (Alcon Entertainment)
• Misan Sagay – “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• Richard Wenk – “The Equalizer” (Columbia Pictures)

Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture
• Amma Asante – “Belle” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/ DJ Films)
• Antoine Fuqua – “The Equalizer” (Columbia Pictures)
• Ava DuVernay – “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)
• Gina Prince-Bythewood – “Beyond The Lights” (Relativity Media)
• John Ridley – “JIMI: All Is By My Side” (XLrator Media)

TELEVISION
Outstanding Comedy Series
• “Black-ish” (ABC)
• “House of Lies” (Showtime)
• “Key & Peele” (Comedy Central)
• “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• “Real Husbands of Hollywood” (BET)

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series
• Andre Braugher – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (FOX)
• Anthony Anderson – “‘Black-ish” (ABC)
• Don Cheadle – “House of Lies” (Showtime)
• Keegan-Michael Key – “Key & Peele” (Comedy Central)
• Kevin Hart – “Real Husbands of Hollywood” (BET)

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series
• Mindy Kaling – “The Mindy Project” (FOX)
• Niecy Nash – “The Soul Man” (TV Land)
• Tracee Ellis Ross – “Black-ish” (ABC)
• Uzo Aduba – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Wendy Raquel Robinson – “The Game” (BET)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
• Boris Kodjoe – “Real Husbands of Hollywood” (BET)
• Glynn Turman – “House of Lies” (Showtime)
• Laurence Fishburne – “Black-ish” (ABC)
• Marcus Scribner – “Black-ish” (ABC)
• Terry Crews – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (FOX)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
• Adrienne C. Moore – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Laverne Cox – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Lorraine Toussaint – “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
• Sofia Vergara – “Modern Family” (ABC)
• Yara Shahidi – “black-ish” (ABC)

Outstanding Drama Series
• “Being Mary Jane” (BET)
• “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC)
• “House of Cards” (Netflix)
• “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
• “Scandal” (ABC)

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
• LL Cool J – “NCIS: LA” (CBS)
• Omar Epps – “Resurrection” (ABC)
• Omari Hardwick – “Being Mary Jane” (BET)
• Shemar Moore – “Criminal Minds” (CBS)
• Taye Diggs – “Murder in the First” (TNT)

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series
• Gabrielle Union – “Being Mary Jane” (BET)
• Kerry Washington – “Scandal” (ABC)
• Nicole Beharie – “Sleepy Hollow” (FOX)
• Octavia Spencer – “Red Band Society” (FOX)
• Viola Davis – “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
• Alfred Enoch – “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
• Courtney B. Vance – “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)
• Guillermo Diaz – “Scandal” (ABC)
• Jeffrey Wright – “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
• Joe Morton – “Scandal” (ABC)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
• Aja Naomi King – “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC)
• Alfre Woodard – “State of Affairs” (NBC)
• Chandra Wilson – “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC)
• Jada Pinkett Smith – “Gotham” (FOX)
• Khandi Alexander – “Scandal” (ABC)

Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series
• Aisha Muharrar – “Parks and Recreation” – Ann & Chris (NBC)
• Brigette Munoz-Liebowitz – “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – Road Trip (FOX)
• Mindy Kaling – “The Mindy Project” – Danny and Mindy (FOX)
• Regina Hicks – “Instant Mom” – A Kids’s Choice (Nickelodeon and Nick@Nite)
• Sara Hess – “Orange is the New Black” – It Was the Change (Netflix)

Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series
• Erika Green Swafford – “How to Get Away with Murder” – Let’s Get To Scooping
(ABC)
• Mara Brock Akil – “Being Mary Jane” – Uber Love (BET)
• Warren Leight, Julie Martin – “Law & Order: SVU” – American Disgrace (NBC)
• Zahir McGhee – “Scandal” – Mama Said Knock You Out (ABC)
• Zoanne Clack – “Grey’s Anatomy” – You Be Illin’ (ABC)

Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
• “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (Lifetime Networks)
• “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
• “Drumline: A New Beat” (VH1)
• “The Gabby Douglas Story” (Lifetime Networks)
• “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)

Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
• Blair Underwood – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)
• Charles S. Dutton – “Comeback Dad” (UP Entertainment)
• Larenz Tate – “Gun Hill” (BET)
• Mekhi Phifer – “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (Lifetime Networks)
• Ving Rhames – “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” (Lifetime Networks)

Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
• Angela Bassett – “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX)
• Cicely Tyson – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)
• Keke Palmer – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)
• Regina King – “The Gabby Douglas Story” (Lifetime Networks)
• Vanessa Williams – “The Trip to Bountiful” (Lifetime Networks)

Key & Peele

Back to School #17: Cooley High (dir by Michael Schultz)


For our next entry in Back to School, we take a look at a film that is often referred to as being a “black American Graffiti,” 1975’s Cooley High.

Cooley High follows the adventures of two lifelong friends who are both seniors at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School in Chicago, Illinois.  The charismatic Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is a popular and friendly basketball star.  Meanwhile, Preach (Glynn Turman) is an aspiring writer who, despite his obvious intelligence, is also one of the worst students at the school.  Preach divides his time between skipping school, gambling, and writing poetry.  Alone among their friends, Cochise and Preach both seem to have a chance to escape from life in the projects.  At the start of the film, Cochise has just received a scholarship to play basketball in college.  As for Preach, he’s the eternal optimist.  He knows he’s going to make it, even if he doesn’t seem to be quite sure how he’s going to do it.

For the first half of the film, Cooley High is largely a plotless collection of vignettes featuring Cochise, Preach, and their friends skipping school, chasing girls, getting into minor trouble, and trying to avoid major trouble.  The emphasis is on comedy but, unlike a lot of high school comedies from the 70s and 80s, the humor grows organically from the characters.  Facing a future that’s likely to be dominated by prejudice, poverty, and limited opportunity, what can the students of Cooley High do other than laugh?  The second half of the film takes a far more dramatic turn, with Preach and Cochise accused of both stealing a car and snitching on the actual thieves in order to get out of jail.  The film’s downbeat conclusion may be predictable but it’s effective all the same.

One reason why I wanted to review Cooley High is because a few months ago, while I was trying to find something to watch on TV, I came across an episode of a show called Unsung Hollywood.  The title of the episode was “The Story of Cooley High” and it told the story of how and why this film was made.  It was actually pretty interesting to watch, as it featured interviews with screenwriter Eric Monte (who based the character of Preach on himself), director Michael Schultz (who directed a lot of memorable films in the 70s — including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — but has never quite gotten the recognition that he deserves), and the film’s two stars.  Even more interesting, however, were the interviews with the local Chicago residents who essentially played themselves during the filming of Cooley High.  Some of them had fond memories of appearing in the film while others were upset that the film’s box office success didn’t open up any new opportunities for them.  Most haunting of all was the fate of an amateur local named Norman Gibson.  After giving a genuinely good performance as a petty criminal who comes to a violent end in Cooley High, Gibson was murdered a year after the film was released.

As I mentioned before, Cooley High is often compared to American Graffiti and the two films do have some things in common, like the period setting and a great soundtrack.  Ultimately, though, Cooley High can stand on its own.

cooley

Review: Super 8 (dir. by J.J. Abrams)


The 1980’s was a special time in my life. It was another phase in my development in loving film. That decade saw many films starring kids and teens in coming-of-age tales both comedic, thrilling, dramatic and poignant. While there were many filmmakers who delved into this genre it was Steve Spielberg who mined it to great effect culminating in his classic boy-meets-alien film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s been almost 30 years since the release of that film and now comes a filmmaker who seem to have grown up idolizing and loving Spielberg films of that era. The year is now 2011 and J.J. Abrams is that filmmaker who dared to pay homage to those very same coming-of-age Spielberg films of the 80’s with his very own simply titled Super 8.

From the very moment the film begins there’s a sense of wonderment as we, the audience, meet young kids who become the central characters of Super 8. The film takes place in the early days of 1979 in the town of Lillian, Ohio as Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) tries to cope with the death of his mother. His friends keep him busy and dwelling on this tragedy through the Super 8 film they’re making in their spare time after school. These early scenes we begin to see the dynamics of the group as Joe acts as the calming influence on the group’s filmmaker, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the neurotic actor in Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the group’s stuntman/special effects tech in Carey (Ryan Lee). They all meet up at an old train depot where they plan to shoot scenes for their Super 8 zombie film. Into this eclectic group of kids comes in Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the wife to Martin’s detective character in their film.

It’s the scenes between the kids which lifts Super 8 from just being a nostalgic film to one that’s charming and magical. These scenes captures the creativity and youthful energy kids have always had no matter the era and place. These kids don’t act like stereotypes of what Hollywood thinks kids in films should act. There’s still little of the cynical teen dialogue that films nowadays give kids to say to make them seem more mature and worldly. There’s a sense of innocence in how these kids interact with each other. Some have called these scenes as being too on-the-nose nostalgic of Spielberg films of the 80’s. What some might call nostalgic I prefer to call as timeless. I still remember myself behaving with my childhood friends the way these kids did in this film

If Super 8 had just been about these group of kids trying to finish their Super 8 zombie film I conjunction with the dysfunction in the two main leads in Joe and Alice’s home life then Abrams film would’ve been the instant classic some have dubbed it. There’s only one problem with this and that’s the last half hour of the film and the scenes leading up to that involving the train derailment and the arrival of the U.S. Air Force to clean things up. The film begins to take on a split personality as these new elements get introduce to what has been a great coming-of-age story.

It’s these new elements and the final half hour which shows Abrams trying to combine a sweet story of kids and their lives growing up in small-town with an otherworldy and conspiracy tale that seem to come out of left field. By the time the final act of Super 8 arrives it becomes a different film altogether and the transition doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers might have hoped it would. Sure, this final reel has the thrills, explosions and danger, but the tonal shift in the story became so jarring that I had wished that Abrams just made two films instead of one. One film being the coming-of-age story and the other a thrilling sci-fi film.

Despite this I still enjoyed the film and I definitely loved the first two-thirds. The performances by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as Joe and Alice became the focal point for the story’s emotional foundation. Elle Fanning’s performance as Alice was one of the best things about Super 8. She nails every scene where she has to show extreme ranges of emotions but at the same time not try to oversell them. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where she begins to recount a personal detail as Joe sits behind her listening. Emotions begin to overwhelm her, but as kids moving towards teenhood are wont to do she tries to hold back the tears just waiting to flow freely and the sobs wanting to escapes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene alone had more than a couple people in the audience remembering similar events in their lives and just sobbing along with Alice.

Super 8 has been advertised as this mysterious film that may or may not have aliens but does pay homage to Spielberg and kid films of the 80’s. Abrams’ film definitely delivers on the thrills in the end, but it could’ve been so much more if it just stayed on course with just being about the kids and their magical time together making an amateur Super 8 zombie film in 1979. That would’ve been a film that deserved labels of instant classic.

All in all, Super 8 comes across as one of the more entertaining and magical films of the summer of 2011 if not the entire year. Make sure to stick around as the end credits roll to see the fruits of the kids labor titled simply as “The Case”.