19 Aug 2014
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This Week at the Movies

"Super 8" is an Enjoyable Spielberg Homage, but Jean-Luc Godard's Latest is a Failed Experiment

This Week at the Movies

For the past few years, J.J. Abrams has been pegged as the next Steven Spielberg and with his new film, “Super 8,” the director has made a loving homage to the early films of his mentor. It also helps matters that Spielberg’s name is attached as the movie’s producer.

The film includes elements of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but its tone is closer in nature to Spielberg’s earlier, darker films - namely “Duel” and “Jaws.”

Much like the master’s killer shark picture, “Super 8” involves a cover-up. At the film’s beginning Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and a group of his pals are filming a B-grade zombie movie in their small Ohio town during the summer of 1979.

The crew includes bossy director Charles (Riley Griffiths) and ingénue Alice (Elle Fanning). The film bears some thematic similarity to Spielberg’s work in its exploration of fractured families: Joe’s mother has recently been killed in a factory accident and Alice’s father, who is the town drunk, appears to have been responsible.

One night as the kids are filming, a car pulls onto a train track, causing a derailment. Something very large and seemingly angry that is part of the cargo escapes. First dogs, and then people, begin to disappear. The Army’s tanks roll into town. You know the drill.

But “Super 8,” which is named after the camera and film stock that the story’s teens use to shoot their movie, stands out from the summer pack of blockbusters in that it sets a scene, retains a tone, develops characters and crafts a story, rather than bombarding us with mind-numbing special effects and shouted dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong – the film has its share of action sequences and, I’d argue, that it only (slightly) loses its pace toward the end when the effects and explanations are unveiled.

Overall, Abrams’ picture is a welcome relief to this summer’s dismal studio lineup. It’s the rare tent pole movie that includes a touch of personal filmmaking.

On the other hand, if Jean-Luc Godard’s latest – and potentially last – movie, “Film Socialisme,” suffers from any one thing, it’s that the provocateur has gotten a little too personal or, rather, delved too deeply into his own obsessions.

The film finds the director at his least accessible. It begins with an extended sequence on a Mediterranean cruise ship that includes some of the picture’s most lovely imagery. Patti Smith is on board and seems to be playing herself. The ship appears to be a metaphor for modern Europe.

In case you hadn’t heard, the film’s subtitles are purposely broken up into fragments that include nouns, but no verbs. The second sequence, which is a crashing bore compared to the beautifully shot first section, is set at a gas station, where a family, a donkey and a llama linger idly.

The final sequence is a rush of images, political slogans and scenes from past films, including Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potempkin.”

Godard, who helped to pioneer the French New Wave and direct such masterpieces as “Breathless” and “My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie),” has grown increasingly experimental during the past three decades. Some of his latter day work has been rewarding. But some of the pictures – “Film Socialisme” included – have become frustratingly opaque.

The film’s title and its smorgasbord of images past and present seem to point to a collective movie-going experience, rather than anything overtly political. But Godard’s attempts to challenge traditional means of viewing are so confrontational that the film fails to engage.

Stop back next Monday for This Week at the Movies. Reviews will include the comic book film “Green Lantern” and “Beginners,” which stars Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.

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