What the Hell Is That? (How JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, and SUPER 8 Saved the Summer Blockbuster)

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Sometimes movies are just plain magic. It’s been said that all magic is merely technology we don’t understand yet, and that may be, but when it comes to movie magic Super 8 is about as close as it gets to the real deal these days.

I’m 34 years old, and grew up in the early 80s as a creek-exploring, tree-fort building, outside-all day kid of kid… for the most part… I do remember getting in tons of trouble for dozens of  incidents involving going places I wasn’t supposed to go, being out later than I was supposed to be out, and be way filthier than I was supposed to be when I came home… and I do remember always living next to large wooded areas (in Oregon, go figure) that we spent countless hours playing away in (and receiving poison oak from).

So what does this have to do with the latest summer blockbuster from director JJ Abrams? Well, that’s what the movie is all about… childhood, loss of innocence, fear of the outside world, and most importantly: imagination. Super 8 is about a young man (old boy?) who’s mother has just died in an accident at the local steel mill because she volunteered to take someone else’s shift.  Joe (Joel Courtney) is left with his father, a sheriff’s deputy, his dog, Lucy, and his good friend Charlie (Riley Griffiths), whom Joe is helping make a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera setup… the year is 1979.

From the opening scene, a wake for Joe’s mom, it’s clear that this is no ordinary movie. The dialogue is fresh, the kids’ acting is phenomenal, and at some points  during their adolescent tirades, it feels like Tarantino is writing. In plain speak, it’s exciting from the very beginning because every single one of the characters is engaging, funny, and easy to like… it’s even got that horrible guy from ER in it as Joe’s love interest’s drunken father, and he does a great job. I’m talking all across the board, this movie is flying on green for most of the way.

Flash forward 4 months and summer has come to the little town of Lilian, Ohio. Charlie’s zombie movie is moving ahead full steam, and Joe seems to be hanging in there with a locket of his mothers that he carries everywhere he goes. Then Charlie decides to make some changes to the movie, and thus changes all their lives forever.

On the last day of school, Charlie informs Joe he’s written in a wife for the main character, Detective So-and-So, and has asked the enchanted Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the part… oh and she’s stealing her dad’s car to pick them all up at midnight for a trip just out of town at the old train station… to film a scene… “for production value.” All of this is handled with the light and whimsical banter of adolescents of yesteryear… in fact, when the sheriff sees a clerk wearing a brand-new Walkman he remarks, “That’s all we need, kids walking around with their own stereos… it’s a slippery slope!”

No by know we’ve all seen the preview for Super 8, so when the speeding train blows its whistle in the middle of the night, we as the audience know that some bad ju-ju is about to go down. Charlie hits the roof, “Grab the camera! PRODUCTION VALUE!” He screams, directing everyone to their places, “Just be louder when the train’s going by…” get us chuckling when the thundering train downs out all of the dialogue in their scene… and we can barely hear the screeching of tires far down the line at the next road… but Joe does. He turns in time to see the speeding truck pull up onto the tracks and head straight for the train before it’s hit by the locomotive, and bursts into flames. Then Joe sees the locomotive jump the track, and soon the entire train is flying through the air, 10 feet from them, at 90 miles an hour. This is about one of the most exciting action sequences in recent years, as even in the few short minutes the movie has been on, we’ve already grown very attached to the group of troublemakers. The effects are seamless, the sense of that metal hurtling through the air just inches from the kids as they run had me chowing liquorice like there was no tomorrow… whew!

As the flying train cars come crashing down around them, and explosions are knocking these poor kids around like rag dolls, Joe gets seperated from the rest of the group… and soon the cacophony dies, and most of the train grinds to a halt… except for the car directly in front of him, which starts pounding. We know there’s something nasty in that train car, something big enough to rip the door off like it was cardboard, and thankfully Abrams makes the decision to not show it to us for another hour or so… Well into the Air Force investigation, military cover-ups, and adolescent first loves that make up most of this brilliant film. This is how great movies are made. You take an original story in a timeless setting, superior acting, and a skilled director, and the magic just happens (with a little help from the fx guys).

Now I have to admit, I’ve been following this movie for awhile and was just in one of those “absolutely excited to see it” moods, and I’m happy to report, that it lived up to almost all of my expectations. If you’ve only heard sketchy things about Super 8, do yourself, your family, everyone you know a favor and go see it immediately. This is one that will go down in the books, and that might even just be ok with JJ Abrams, who drew heavily from producer Steven Spielberg’s early films (you know, those little films like E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Jaws that practically invented the summer blockbuster?).

Super 8 is so much more than a movie though. It is a glimpse back into what some will feel like was a simpler, easier time… when everything wasn’t at our fingertips, and there was still a big, scary world out there for kids to want to explore…

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Toomb’s New Releases for 6/10 (Old School Blockbuster Edition)

Filmmakers do wonderful things, fantastic things, and those very few who have the gift and the eye, filmmakers perform magic that can change our lives, move us emotionally, and even now… time-travel. While I know time-travel as a plot device has been done and done again, that’s not the kind of time-travel I’m talking about. Time-travel (sorry, I had to say it one more time).

What I’m talking about are those precious images that many of us have, those nostalgic and faded memories from a childhood that was simpler than the fast-paced world we live in today. Of tying cards to our spokes and pedaling down the street with our original Converse All-Stars (the ones made in America) and our faded Levis jeans… For me, as a child of the 80s, it was all about Steven Spielberg movies… (although I’m not sure it’s because of my childhood that I remember these classics the way I do, or whether it’s because of these classics that I remember my childhood the way I do… how meta, I know…)

When I remember my younger years, I remember the world that movies like Jaws and E.T. portrayed, the sentimental summer evenings when kids actually left the house to find adventure, my friends and I were the Goonies, we were the Explorers (yeah, not Spielberg, but still, a classic). Today when I watch Spielberg movies I see my childhood, harkening back to a different time, when we sought adventure in the fantastic, and movies like E.T., Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were the foundation of our imagination machinations.

So when I saw the original trailer for Super 8, a movie-within-a-movie about a group of kids in 1979 who are helping their buddy finish his “zombie-movie masterpiece” while a possible real (alien?) threat descends on their small town… I was floored. Taken immediately back to my childhood, with the bell-bottom jeans and the hot-rod cars, people who actually talked to each other in person… Super 8, named after the camera the kids are using to film their movie, hearkens back to an age of filmmaking that brings all of those memories flooding back… the trailer alone looks like a peek back in time… like uncovering a missing Spielberg masterpiece from 1984. Super 8 is the attempt, by young filmmaker JJ Abrams, to recapture that lost, true Summer Blockbuster… and from all the reviews I’ve seen, Abrams has seamlessly blended nostalgic camerawork and cinematography with ulta-modern special effects to give us what possibly might be the last of the true Blockbusters (well, unless he’s creating a new genre this weekend… “The Spielberg Throwback” perhaps?).

Often billed as the creator of Lost, Abrams has been making a significant splash in tinseltown the past few years. Starting with the oft-overlooked Mission Impossible III, which came out at the height of Tom Cruise’s madness a few years ago (when everyone realized he was insane, but forgot he was still a great actor). MI:III, in my opinion, was the pinnacle of a frankly lack-luster franchise previously helmed by auteur Brian De Palma and Hong Kong shark-jumper John Woo. From the first few frames of MI:III, it had me absolutely hooked, and I knew I was seeing the work of a skilled director. With 2009’s sci-fi pop masterpiece reboot, Star Trek, Abrams’ cemented his status as a rock-solid action director who seemed to have learned the most important aspect of blockbuster filmmaking, knowing what the audience wants to see, even when we don’t know. Star Trek is such a triumph in every way, as a homage, a reboot, and most importantly- it was accessible to the general non-Trekkie public.

So if you’re looking for a great time at the movies this weekend, Super 8 will be worth the lines at the theater. If not, perhaps the significantly horrible-looking Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.

Also this weekend we’ve got the new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris,which is getting rave reviews as well. Owen Wilson plays an aspiring writer who gets lost while walking the streets in Paris and runs into many famous writers, much to the chagrin of his wife who wants to know who he has been spending his nights with. How do you tell your wife you’re having late-night conversations with Ernest Hemingway? Midnight in Paris is rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.

From Japan we’ve also got Takeshi Mike’s latest brutal look at the waning days of the Samurai (no Tom Cruise in this movie),  13 Assassins. I watched this movie last weekend, and while some of the early scenes of brutality (used purposely to show just how insane and evil the bad-guy is) may turn some viewers off, this is truly one of the best Samurai movies I’ve ever seen. An aging Samurai must hatch a plan to assassinate the Shogun’s mercilessly evil brother in late 1800s Japan in this sword-and-honor historical piece from one of Tokyo’s most shocking directors. A must see in my book, despite the decidedly dark first act, 13 Assassins proves to be an instant classic… the real “Last Samurai,” and it’s rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity

Our local theaters in Eugene are featuring the following:

(thanks Google)

Bijou Art Cinemas

492 East 13th Avenue, Eugene, OR – (541) 686-2458

‎1hr 28min‎‎ – Rated PG-13‎‎ – Comedy/Romance‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 4.0 out of 5.0

5:25  7:45pm

‎2hr 6min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Action/Adventure/Drama‎ – IMDb – : Rated 3.9 out of 5.0

9:15pm

‎1hr 43min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Comedy‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 3.9 out of 5.0

4:50  7:00pm

‎1hr 46min‎‎ – Action/Adventure/Drama‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 2.8 out of 5.0

10:00pm

The David Minor Theater and Pub

180 E. 5th Avenue, Eugene, OR – (541) 762-1700

‎1hr 50min‎‎ – Rated PG-13‎‎ – Drama/Western‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 4.0 out of 5.0

5:10  9:30pm

‎1hr 53min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Drama‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 3.5 out of 5.0

7:25pm

‎1hr 57min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Comedy‎ – IMDb – : Rated 4.6 out of 5.0

7:25pm

‎2hr 9min‎‎ – Rated PG-13‎‎ – Drama‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 4.1 out of 5.0

5:10pm

‎1hr 47min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Comedy/Romance‎ – IMDb – : Rated 4.1 out of 5.0

9:30pm