Friday, 19 August 2011

Understanding J.J

This is a review of Super 8 and includes a lot of details about the plot and what happens in the film. You may consider these spoilers, I'm not sure I would. 
I had a birthday recently. Don’t worry; I am not fishing for presents. Though a guilt gifts could go a long way. I just wanted to tell you that I got one present that meant the world to me, the limited edition of E.T. which includes the right version, the one with the guns, and an original signed photograph of Steven Spielberg. 

The signed photograph was not made especially for me and was probably mass produced at some point. All the same, when I opened this present and the minute I realised what it was I started chocking up fighting the tears in my eyes, my heart stopped for a brief moment, it is all my heart can afford in my age, and I thought I was dreaming. This is exactly how I felt when I first saw E.T. and this feeling will always belong, in my head, to Steven Spielberg, even if we don’t always see eye to eye.     

Watching a Spielberg film, especially as a young girl, I never thought “This is a Spielberg film” I was very much under its spell, I hope Mr. Spielberg will forgive me for saying this, but the last thing I cared about was that it was a Spielberg film. I’m sure he understands and takes it as the compliment it was meant to be. Only in the last few years (yes it took me that long) have I actually been enchanted by the man as much as by his films, and only then did I realise just how big his influence has been and still is, not just on me.  

Thinking of all the different Spielberg it is hard to define “a Spielberg film” like you would so many other film makers, his style and genre of choice always changes. Even in the case of E.T. and Close Encounter of the Third Kind that at first look seem to have similar themes, but are so very different. I don’t know many film makers that can hop between different styles and genres like Spielberg does and still be as magnificent[1].   

Then there is J.J Abrams. I didn’t hate Mission Impossible 3 and I also didn’t hate the Star Trek film he made. This is probably the nicest thing I can say about J.J Abrams.

The thought of an Abrams love film to Spielberg put me in turmoil of emotions, perhaps even more so since I have been nursing my own love script for Spielberg. On the one hand I was angry. “Why does Abrams get to confess his love of Spielberg before me?” and a less kind voice in my head said J.J Abrams is not worthy of making a Spielberg love film. On the other hand, more and more people, whose opinion matters, were raving about the film and another, nicer voice in my head was screaming and jumping up and down (voices can do that) with joy that finally someone made THAT film, for Spielberg. 

Knowing very little about the film apart from the fact that there are going to be kids and there is going to be a Spielberg. I calmed the voices in my head down and finally went to watch Super 8 wanting to love it more than anything else.

Half way through the film I realised I can’t love it. I decided I want to hate it and if possible, with passion, but I couldn’t do that either. When the film has ended I was left with the strangest feelings. More than anything else I felt I understood J.J, which is why I now allow myself to call him J.J. Or if not J.J, I can understand why he had to make this film and imagine how, hopefully, excited and nervous he must have been making it.

There was so much to love in the film, great ideas, really good intention and most importantly genuine love for Spielberg. I put my resentment towards J.J to one side and tilt my head, smiled and nod with the kind of understanding and solidarity that us Spielberg fans share.

Unfortunately J.J doesn’t have the talent, and for the first time in my acquaintance with him, it actually pains me to say so. I am not cynical, I can’t be when I’m around Spielberg, it genuinely breaks my heart to say that, particularly because it had all the right ingredients to be so fantastic. 

An absolutely brilliant premise; a bunch of kids making a zombie movie, when a train crashes, with a bang turned all the way up to eleven, and a captive alien escapes and causes havoc in the small suburbia. The alien simply wants to get back home and the evil and stupid grown up not only prevent it but and hurt it. Is it any surprise the alien becomes a hater of men after all these years of sufferings? And in a true Spielberg spirit the two main kids grow up without a mother, and dysfunctional fathers, who need to learn a lesson from their children.

That explains it!
Everything is there, yet it doesn’t work. The biggest problem was that sadly I couldn’t for one minute forget that I am watching a J.J Abrams film. His signature artistic flairs, which I adored in Star Trek, angered me in the film and blocked my way to the kids’ hearts. Ho if it were only the flairs that were the biggest problem of this film… 

Making the alien ugly and monstrous, and get the viewers to feel for it, is quite the challenge. The Elephant Man and Beauty and the Beast are just two of the many films that come to mind which set a certain standard of making the ugly loveable. It seems those films have past J.J by. The alien in Super 8 hardly has any screen time. For most of the film we can only parts of the alien, and he seems to be destroying things. When Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman) says the alien is a part of him I thought a connection was made; Dr. Woodward will give the alien a voice or something of the kind. Alas that wasn’t to be and no one else volunteered to speak for the alien or even make a real connection. When Alice tells Joe that he only wants to get home, he and more importantly we already know that, get with the programme Alice! Instead of telling us once again what he wants and running away from him, how about… mmmm… I don’t know… Help him build his ship? This was genuinely what I thought,  or perhaps hoped, would happen when Joe and Cary save Alice. 

 I couldn’t help thinking about a much better execution of a similar idea. Doctor Who, The Planet of The Ood (Series 4, episode 3). Tthe Ood are ugly aliens who are used as slaves of humans. Not only are they ugly but they all look the same, which makes it harder to treat them as individual, see the differences in their personalities or characteristics. Nevertheless, Keith Temple, the writer, and Graeme Harper, the director, created heartbreaking “monsters” with the Oods. Holding their brains in their hands which sounds disgusting, in Temple hands becomes the very thing that makes them so peaceful and vulnerable, just like Donna, the Doctor’s companion points out. Since aliens are much more J.J’s thing than cartoons or Black and White films, I wish he watched that episode and learned a valuable lesson in making the ugly beautiful.

After the illusion didn’t work and the monster wasn’t interesting I turn my attention to the kids, after all the kids are our future and hope will come from them. The cast of the kids is wonderful, which made it harder for me to watch their talent lost in some very questionable characters

Cary (Ryan Lee) and Martin (Gabriel Basso) the less dominant kids of the bunch become cardboard caricatures. I have learned nothing about them apart from the fact that Cary is a pyromaniac and Martin has a tendency to throw up when the going gets tough. This is so thin that I couldn’t even find it funny. None of the Goonies were a caricature, even if they started as ones.

Charles (Riley Griffith) is by far the best actor and a part of me wishes the film was about him. Charles is the kid that is trying to make the Zombie film. However I think I loved him more for his acting than his actual character. As a character he is quite awful and mean, and I didn’t find his constant use of the word “mint” funny or charming. I thought he and Joe were supposed to be best friends, but wouldn’t best friends know each other’s love interest? Would a best friend not know how important the model train is for Joe to ask him to blow it up so casually? And if they are not best friends, why then oh why does Joe help with the film and let Charles be so mean? Charles doesn’t have to be the image of nice, but it is very hard for me to make any excuses for him when all he does is bark at people, and has hardly any likable quality. It was because of his acting and constant annoyance that I liked him, not his character. I did however absolutely adored his finished film that was played during the end credits. That was a real diamond.   

Lastly the two main kids Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) who were good, but for some reason, probably all that I listed above, I just couldn’t connect with them. Not in the level I ever connected with Spielberg’s film kids.

The great moment of emotional climax in the film should be when the alien lifts Joe and they look into each other’s eyes. This was the closest I got to feeling anything remotely close to how I felt when Elliot meets E.T. for the first time, or when I saw the musical conversation in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Super 8 was not the film I wanted it to be, which is why I cannot love it. Surprisingly it saddens me. However, it is such a beautiful attempt full of love and admiration that I can’t hate it either. More than any characters in the film, and more than anything else I felt I could, for the first time ever, relate to J.J Abrams and for the first time I loved him.       

[1] Hitchcock comedies, in comparison, are at times embarrassing.


  1. קשה לי כרגע לכתוב באנגלית אז אענה לך בעברית - פוסט יפה מאוד אבל אני לחלוטין לא מסכים איתו. לצערי נראה לי שרוב האנשים נמצאים דווקא בדעה שלך. אני חשבתי שהילדים היו נהדרים. השניים הראשיים בעיקר אבל כולם. אני מסכים שהם אולי לא היו מאופיינים בצורה מבריקה אבל האם את באמת חושבת שכל אחד מהגוניס היה מאופיין טוב יותר? אני לא.
    גם לגבי החברות אני לא מסכים איתך. כן, שני חברים הכי טובים שנמצאים יחדיו מאז הילדות נוטים להתעלם מהחשיבות שכל אחד מהם נותן למשהו אחר ולזלזל בהם. אפילו היום, מוקדם יותר בסטטוס שנמחק, רבתי עם אחד מחבריי הטובים ביותר אי פעם ריב שנבע מחוסר היכולת שלו לקבל דברים שלי הם חשובים ובעיניו הם תחביב חסר חשיבות ממשית.
    לטעמי הסצינות עם הילדים הם פשוט קסם. קסם שכבר מזמן לא חוויתי בקולנוע.
    לגבי הצד השני, הצד הג'ייג'יי, זו כבר קצת בעייה. כן, המפלצת מחורבנת ואין ממש מה לעשות איתה - אי אפשר לחבב אותה כפי שהיא מוצגת ולכן היא מתפספסת. גם מבחינת קצב JJ מפספס לדעתי. אבל כשאני מסתכל על הסרט באופן כללי ההנאה שלי ממנו היתה מושלמת. באתי לאהוב ויצאתי מאוהב. אני מסכים איתך שיש לו פגמים רבים אבל לטעמי הם נבלעים בתוך כל הדברים היפים שהיו בו מבחינתי.

  2. והכי חשוב - ממי קיבלת את החתימה ואיך נהיים חברים שלו? :)

  3. Wow! First of all you commented and shared and for that I will not only forgive the Hebrew but will accept that you disagree.

    Yes I do think that all the kids in the goonies had more than pyromania and vomiting habits. Not always a lot more but enough for me to remember their names without having to resort to IMDB as I did with Super 8. I didn't think the kids in Super 8 were bad, I just thought their characters were somewhat neglected. I would accept your claim that best friends can sometimes be inconsiderate if there was anything else in the film to make me feel there was something more in that friendship, more than Joe craving for a family supplement.
    The reason I loved Charles the most, by the way, is that I felt he was created in the image of Spielberg as a kid. A young film terrorist. Brilliant! Like I said in the end, I couldn't really hate the film either though, because I really felt I understand what he was going through, or at least in my head I do.

    :) I got the picture from English Natalie and her boyfriend Shane. As I move countries I make sure I have a Natalie around...

  4. I didn't love Super 8, although I liked it. I like Cloverfield a lot, but I found Star Trek to be very uninteresting (and that cameo... ohhh, it's like Generations all over again!) I think Super 8 is OK. I enjoyed watching the documentaries more than the film, which I think started to sag under the weight of its own VERY CAREFUL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. Anyway, I wrote a little skit about the (possible) genesis of Super 8 that I thought I would share with you. For readers other than the Notorious one, be warned: it contains potential spoilers of Cloverfield, Super 8 and various other films of Spielbergs (which, if you haven't seen them, there's no point in reading further anyway). I hope you enjoy (it's in the next comment):

  5. [Phone Rings]
    Uh, uh, hello?
    Hi JJ, this is Steven here, Steven Spielberg.
    Oh, uh, wow, hi Mr Spielberg, I...
    Listen, JJ, just before we get into all that, I just want to check, you are jewish, aren't you?
    Uh, uh, yes, I am, I mean...
    Good, OK, let's see. So, I watched your film, Cloverfield. It's a pretty rough cut, huh?
    Uh, well, actually, I think the edit's pretty much locked. You see...
    JJ, my son, my son, a film is never finished, only abandoned. Now, now, I've seen the rough cut and I have a few suggestions.
    OK, but I really think, uh...
    OK, here we go. First of all, it's about four twenty-something-year-olds. They're almost in their thirties in fact! What if, instead of four adults, you made it about four... kids! Or five, that would be even better, especially if one of them was a fat kid.
    Oh, well, you see, uh...
    OK, and how about, instead of the main character sleeping with his best friend of so many years and going off to Japan, how about he's a little boy who has a difficult relationship with his father! Now there's cinematic gold for you!
    Well, uh, I'm not sure...
    Oh, come on now! It's worked for me in almost every movie I've made!
    Alright then. Now, instead of New York, why not set it somewhere nice and suburban?
    And instead of running about the place, maybe they could get around on bikes.
    Yeah, but...
    And that ending? It's too miserable. You really need to have a blossoming romance between the two leads (not consummated, of course), and everybody getting on with their fathers again. Hey, there's an idea! Why not have *both* the main character *and* the love interest have difficult relationships with their fathers! It's like, I dunno, two Indiana Joneses!
    But listen...
    And the monster. Oh the monster. I'm really not sure. Monsters? Hmmm. What if it were an alien from outer space? Not something terrestrial. And those black eyes have got to go. Let's have nice, friendly eyes... and maybe some kind of moment that involves breathing or sneezing... something nasal, you know?
    Well, I really think...
    And, instead of it killing everyone without any apparent moral sense, why not - and I'm just brainstorming here - why not make him a kind, good-natured kind of alien that just wants to get home.
    Home? But...
    Yeah, he can take off in a big spaceship with everybody gathered around. There can be lights, and characters watching while they hold hands with their until-recently-estranged fathers, and a nice rising orchestral score...
    By John Williams?
    What? No! Don't be silly! You can't have my John... Something *like* John Williams, but not *actually* John Williams. So, JJ, what do you think?
    Well, they're neat ideas Mr Spielberg, but, uh, what you're talking about is a completely different movie.
    Ah! Now you're talking. A completely different movie! I tell you what, I'll produce it for you. You'll barely notice I'm involved, just like Gremlins or Back to the Future.
    Well... gosh, that really would be swell. You know, I always wanted to make a film about Super 8 film.
    Super 8, eh? Well, it's a good jumping off point. You probably won't need that idea after the first act, you know, once you've got into the father figures and the aliens and things. OK then, I'll be in touch. Bye!
    Errr... OK, bye.

  6. HA! HA! HA!

    1. I haven't seen Cloverfield, I probably will at some point, but given my tendency to projectile vomit at the thought of hand held camera (and not because it makes me sea sick rather because I kinda hate it) and my problematic relationship with JJ, I can't say that Cloverfield is at the top of my watch list.

    2. With your permission, Simon, I would like to copy this skit and post it as a guest post, if that is cool with you?