Super 8

J. J. Abrams has what’s good in Steven Spielberg, and he has what’s bad, but he doesn’t have what’s great. It’s been groaned to death that Super 8 is an imitation of early Spielberg; what seems to be missing is the once obvious fact that Spielberg was, in his more skillful way, also strip-mining childhood influences. But let’s put it like this: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is on a whole other plane of being from its predecessors—B movies like This Island Earth (1955). Spielberg reinvented a genre, in his own image, for his own time. The extraterrestrial villains that were second-billed at ’50s drive-ins were read as Red; but by the late ’70s, audiences were scouring the heavens for salvation, so Spielberg introduced them to some friends from above. Abrams is reintroducing us to those familiar faces, and for nostalgists that seems to suffice. Star Trek was a string of self-effacing clichés that, with a few time-warps and a lot of scotch tape, looked reasonably enough like it had a plot; and if you use fluidity as a criterion for quality, Super 8 is way, way wetter. (Sticky, wet, but cozy—like a child’s bed.) What he did with one ready-made multiverse he now does to the year 1979—Blondie! Dawn of the Dead! Three Mile Island! Those were the days!—and his attitude toward it is far more munificent. But he doesn’t try to do anything more than golden-age Spielberg did, and it ultimately amounts to less.

Back in the summer of ’79, Spielberg—then 32—was still considered a wunderkind, and Abrams—then 13—was still an actual kid. Both, if the ballyhoo’s to be believed, were actively making movies. And so are the mill-town kids in Super 8, who inadvertently commit to celluloid their science teacher slamming his pickup truck into an oncoming train. Out pops an alien, in comes the Army, and sploosh goes the movie as it jumps headlong over the shark—the science teacher (played by Glynn Turman, who must be tenured, as he held the same post in 1984, in Gremlins) not only survives the collision, but even has the wherewithal to wave a pistol and instill a sense of foreboding. This isn’t a bad setup, and the writer-director leaves a few trails of Reeses Pieces that I was happy to follow—a sheriff getting abducted as the gas pump goes ding-ding-ding; a whole wall fully feathered with recent lost-dog notifications; a hickey from a zombie, etc. But the dots connect, inevitably, to an arachnid asshole that would’ve eaten E.T. for tapas. We’re told that it’s been in government captivity for over 20 years, and that it’s been mistreated—and underestimated—by their top operative, Nelec (Noah Emmerich). But Nelec is an Ahab with two good legs; he’s Khan without any wrath. And his white whale’s grievances aren’t made clear. Nor, save for the dregs of a humanist attitude, are the reasons we should care about its survival. When Spielberg cordoned his creatures off in spaceships in C.E.3.K., and kept them from appearing until the very end, the gambit paid off because his audiences were still basically F/X virgins. Jaded as we are today, seeing space aliens is no big deal; withholding one for so long, and then not having anything special to show for it, comes off as pomo prudery.

I don’t want to underrate the movie, but it should be noted that it seems willfully engineered to encourage overrating. A lot of this is soggier even than my bed metaphor: The way Super 8 calls up memories, if not the substance, of blockbusters past; the “autobiographical” loving tribute to filmmaking; the passing-of-the-baton business (Spielberg, whose innocence doesn’t always age well, is one of the producers); and that perennial positive criticism: that it’s “original.” To the first, I’ll admit that the child actors—and the intimacy with which they are directed—deserve their praise. The shy-guy hero is a bit of a Mary Sue; but Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, playing his puppy-lover, know how to keep their cuteness in check. There’s an inchoate pyrotechnician, who straddles the razor’s edge between being a future MythBuster or a future Unabomber. And, of course, the bossy fat kid, Charles (Riley Griffiths, a child-actor name par excellence), who, like myself at one point—and a multitude of others—thinks he can be a great director and a teenager all at once. But they don’t look or talk like characters drawn from Abrams’s life; they’re types. (The caped chunklet in Monster House—another homage à Amblin—was like Charles without the camera.) And the film “motif” is, for lack of a better word, undeveloped. indieWire suggests that the “script is about the fantasy of movies coming to life”—and I guess it is; but if these kids are the cineastes we take them to be, shouldn’t they be more ironical about living out B-movie clichés?

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s forehead peaks into the haze of his own imagination; he could be called an old soul. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he traces that lineage back 1,500 generations to the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, where paintings twice the age of any found before were discovered, drawn with a proficiency that went unmatched until just a few ticks back on the anthropological stopwatch: the Renaissance. He spelunks through our collective soul.

There is perhaps no higher mark of civilization than art, precisely because it isn’t a necessity in the way that government, technology, and even religion are; and one of the criteria for great art is that it pierce time like an arrow, communicating some sort of essential truth long after the artist’s natural life has ended. But what can we make of art that precedes civilization as we know it? Duuuuude. Essentially, Cave is the kind of this-shit’s-crazy documentary that stoners download from servers in foreign countries and gather round to watch in their dorm rooms on Friday nights, amid puffy psychedelic brumes. Except that it’s endorsed by the French Ministry of Culture and the History Channel—and perfumed by Herzog’s parietal effluvia. The director often sets his focus on more-or-less civilized people—if one is able to call Klaus Kinski or Nicolas Cage “civilized”—who are de-civilized by that great blunt object known as nature. In this respect, he’s at odds with 19th-century romanticists, whom he identifies with. But these cave painters, who counted neanderthals as contemporaries, used animals, rather than themselves, as subjects; they seem to have forged a peaceful symbiosis with the natural world. (Perhaps this helps explain why Herzog thinks of Godard as “intellectual counterfeit money”; perhaps he does not, or cannot, accept the iconoclast’s modernistic breakdown of form, his ability to depict chaos from an insider’s point of view.)

What I’m trying to say, without letting my shallow thinking fall off the deep end, is that Cave sees civilization as the icing on top of the human cake; Herzog’s using these paintings to reverse-engineer what Terence McKenna called our “cultural operating system.” With his casual, gentlemanly comportment, and roofied-Strangelove intonations, as well as the testimony of even-more-casual experts, Herzog is trying to find the direct metaphysical line that connects his own artistic impulses with those of the cave painters—whose works, but not biographies, have been preserved. (His phone-book metaphor is apt, if obsolete.) The word salad he tosses in the voiceover has a plaintive sense of wonder for dressing; it’s as tasty as the frosting. Never one to duck posterity’s gaze, Herzog’s greatest feat here, however, is to defer the spotlight to the paintings, which fade in and out like the flashlight glow that illuminates them. Tourism is verboten in Chauvet, lest it fall prey to erosion like Lascaux; even Herzog’s team was only allotted a week inside. Rendering what they saw in 3-D was a stroke of genius. Just as earlier audiences accepted black-and-white movies as more sincere and realistic than the candy-box coloration reserved for big-top spectacles—an effect that newsreels and photojournalism inculcated them with—audiences today, accustomed to depth perception only as far as superheroics or ursine martial artists are concerned, take 3-D’s more accurate approximation of our inborn eyesight as fantasy. Cave is more document than documentary. But in a summer of high gas prices, and overfamiliar forays into sequelhood, it may be the most fantastic staycation one could take.

Bridesmaids

If you’re into weddings, bridal showers, bitch slaps, and/or women shitting in the middle of urban thoroughfares while wearing designer gowns, you’ll fit snugly into the demographical canyon that Bridesmaids aims to please. And, chances are, you will be pleased. There’s some scuttlebutt being slung around that the film’s no more than a few skits stapled together; but Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo have locked those sketches into a script that truly coheres. They’ve got an inboard motor puttering its way to shore even when the jokes bob and sink in its wake. In box-office terms, this is a form of conventionalism; but if you’re LOLling yourself a six-pack, as I was—PX90, eat your protein-shaken heart out—the thoughtful way in which the details dovetail may strike you as a pleasant afterthought. (It’s a trite sentiment, perhaps, commenting on even triter sentiments, but it makes the movie seem like more than the sum of its gags.) And since Wiig is also the probably-autobiographically eccentric star, she imparts an iota of authorial presence—that is, a point of view. Paul Feig, the TV-veteran director, doesn’t give in to the temptation to let the style encroach on garish; but on most counts his stewardship was likely subordinated by Wiig and the producer, Judd Apatow, whose hand is a little heavy, and not altogether invisible.

Bridesmaids has a sweet-and-low-concept premise. Wiig plays Annie, a deer-in-the-headlights Milwaukee homegirl whose life has never really gotten off the ground—if it weren’t for the economy, her cupcake bakery would’ve been as trendy as her flaky fuck buddy, played by Mr. Macho Self-Parody (a.k.a. Jon Hamm). Lillian (Maya Rudolph), her best-friend-since-childhood, has just gotten engaged to a blue-blooded Chicagoan, and has asked the hapless, jealous Annie to be her maid of honor. Annie is painfully aware of the growing contrast between them; her one relatively secure position in life—Lillian’s biffle—is being supplanted by an opulent ice princess with the rather paradoxical name Helen Harris III (Rose Byrne). (Helen’s WASPiness is an acceptable comedic convention from the collective unconscious of filmmaking, even if, realistically, she’d more likely be a Real Housewife of Chicago these days.) Overwhelmed by bum luck, and a virulent case of jealousy, Annie Wiigs out; and Helen, whose resources are as infinite as her sang-froid, inevitably comes to Lillian’s rescue.

No sense laboring over the good; most of that is readily apparent. (Although I want to stress that this movie makes better use of cuss-words than any comedy I’ve seen of late.) But the film does have a few shortcomings. The biggest is Melissa McCarthy, quite obviously straining to be Lady Galifianakis. Almost all of her jokes, following her hilarious intro, are a little too far over the top: They dive-bomb into a pit of obviousness, and I found myself too conscious of all the belly-flopping to laugh. It should be noted that I seemed alone in that consciousness; and perhaps also in perceiving Megan to be a grossly caricatured butch lesbian whose creators evade censure because she just happens to like guys. And if my own stereotypes about sweet-and-sticky Apatow can be trusted, it was he who turned Megan into Annie’s big-hearted confidante as soon as the latter hit the pits—despite the fact that they’re scarcely seen bonding beforehand. Too many other, funnier, actors and characters are shunted aside: most notably Tim Heidecker, who’s criminally wasted in the role of Lillian’s fiancé. Is this a tip-off to those of us who know he puts the Tim in Tim and Eric that this marriage isn’t as perfect as it seems? Megan, his sister, hates his guts; but from the looks of it, it’s not because he was that much more popular than her in high school.

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