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Movie Review: Mysterious 'Super 8' a tribute to times past

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“Super 8”
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Glynn Turman
Rated: PG-13

J.J Abrams grew up in the 1970s and absorbed at lot of the pop culture of the time. These days, he's best known for creating the TV show “Lost” and directing episodes of “Alias,” as well as big-budget films like “Mission Impossible III” and “Star Trek.”

His latest film, “Super 8,” is set in 1979 and features a group of middle school kids who are making a zombie film to enter in a film festival. This was well before the days of digital cameras and laptop editing. Yes, young folks, there was a time when films had to be shot on film, a much more difficult and time-consuming process than it is today. Abrams wrote and directed “Super 8” as a tribute to the film's producer, Steven Spielberg, who started out by shooting Super 8 movies when he was a kid. Abrams has worked with Spielberg on a number of productions.

The film within the film is called “The Case” and the auteur is a kid named Charles, but “Super 8” focuses more on his best friend, Joe Lamb, who serves as makeup and special effects man. The group of six kids has to sneak out of their homes late at night to get the job done. The main actress in “The Case” is named Alice, and although she's not old enough to drive, she secretly borrows her dad's car to haul the crew around. Joe finds himself attracted to the girl and at first doesn't think he has a chance. Things evolve. This doesn't sit well with Charles, because he has a crush on Alice, too.

One night, they are shooting at a local train station and hear a train approaching. Charles is excited because they can get some shots to add atmosphere. As they are shooting the train, they notice a pick up truck on the tracks headed straight into it. This causes a spectacular wreck and the kids scatter. The camera keeps rolling.

When they regroup, they look in the vehicle and recognize the driver. It's a science teacher from their school. Miraculously, he is still (barely) alive.

They also notice a lot of weird metal cubes that were on the train. Joe picks one up and takes it home.

The next we know, the small town is crawling with military personnel who are very interested in the cubes and re-packing them. These guys are tight-lipped and won't say a word about anything, even to the local authorities.

Suddenly, strange things begin to happen. Dogs disappear and show up in nearby towns, and motors from a lot of cars are missing.

The audience slowly begins to realize that there simply must be an alien monster involved. Abrams wisely uses a trick the best directors know: Many times less is more. We see glimpses of the thing but even the longest shot of it doesn't last very long.

Since the military won't talk, the kids decide to do some investigating on their own.

When Charles gets the roll of film developed, he notices some very weird things.
The film switches between the mystery and the story of the kids interacting.

Alice's dad, sort of a ne'er-do-well, forbids her from ever seeing Joe because Joe's dad is a sheriff's deputy. There's also a chance that Alice's dad may have had something to do with a factory accident that recently killed Joe's mom.

The military guys are questioning various people around town and want to talk to the kids and get that roll of film. Something important must be on it, but only the soldiers know why it's important.

The ending has an odd, clever twist, but it won't be revealed here.

One thing (of many) that Abrams succeeds with in “Super 8” is his attention to detail. In 1979, an age before computers were in every household, video games were primitive, texting was unheard of and the Internet wasn't for the common folks, kids had more time to do things such as making their own films, getting outside, even riding their bikes all over town. One adult complains about a new-fangled thing called a “Walkman” and thinks it's going to be just another thing to distract the youth of America. The production design of Martin Whist and cinematography of Larry Fong help Abrams recreate a time he obviously remembers with great affection.

If you like mystery/action films with a tender side, you'll enjoy “Super 8.” 
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