Super 8 (2011)

Fitting that Super 8 should begin with Amblin Entertainment’s iconic E.T. moon logo, this period sci-fi being the closest to Spielbergian magic that cinema’s gotten in a hell of a long time. With his ’70s-set throwback, director JJ Abrams has writ large a towering love letter to The Beard himself, holding his gilded back catalogue aloft like a cinematic holy text. But can Super 8 be more than just an anthem to a golden age of cinema?

Well, hell yes and not quite. In our CGI-saturated world of 3D movies and spectacle for spectacle’s sake, Super 8 comes as a breath of fresh air. Abrams’ intentions are clear – he wants to take blockbusters back to the basics and honour those qualities that turned E.T. and Close Encounters into such beloved classics. It’s telling that he chose to set his movie in the 1970s, Super 8 harking back to that time when movies were stories, not just excuses for epic explosions.

It’s an admirable endeavour, and it just about pays off. That’s thanks in part to the film’s young cast, a grubby gang of ragamuffins led by Joel Courtney’s likeable Joe. It’s 1979, and he’s just lost his mother in a freak accident – but he’s adamant that won’t stop he and his friends completing their latest low budget zombie movie. During a night of shooting, though, they’re caught up in a train disaster that will change their lives forever – not least because something has escaped one of the train’s containers.

There are epic explosions, of course, but Super 8’s bigger plot machinations always come secondary to the characters. It’s a whisker shy of being a two hour movie, but this is a sci-flick in the old style, blessed with nail-on-head casting and sensitive storytelling. Super 8 knows it has to earn its set-pieces, and it does so by punctuating a quiet story about loss and friendship with jolting snatches of action.

When Super 8 does take off, it’s a thing of wonder. That initial train crash is an earth-shaking, heart-in-mouth moment of awe-inspiring filmmaking, and it’s to Abrams’ credit that he doesn’t try to top it by creating ever-more ridiculous set-pieces over the film’s course. Each moment of peril brings its own surprises without relying on overcooked pyrotechnics.

The similarities between Abrams’ movie, though, and the films he’s homaging are hard to ignore, and some of those nods do feel a little too on the nose. Composer Michael Giacchino mimics John Williams’ twinkly soundscapes almost too well, Joe’s town is the very definition of Spielbergia, and parent issues are ladled on like nobody’s business.

It’s also a shame that Abrams isn’t interested in pushing the envelope further. When the inhabitant of that crumpled train container is finally revealed in all its glory, it’s something of a letdown. Instead of dragging Spielberg’s formula into dangerous new directions, Abrams is happy to rest comfortable in the shadow of his forebear, tipping that hat a little too far.

Still, a film that merely matches its (30-year-old) peers rather than bettering them is something to be celebrated. It’s rare enough for a summer tentpole to contain this much heart and intelligence without us nit-picking its weaker points. Hopefully studio execs are pricking up their ears. As 3D fatigue sets in, they’d do worse than to use Super 8 as a model for how movies should really be made. 4/5

 

Simon Pegg & Nick Frost’s Guide To Road Movies

Put your pedal to the metal and your foot to the floor as the Paul duo salute classic movie road trips…

Dusty Texan sunsets. White hot wheels. Parched, soulful yearnings. Road movies and America go together like Bonnie and Clyde, like Thelma and Louise… like, say, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. “One of the reasons America is so big on road movies is because it facilitates that,” says Pegg. “It’s a big country. You can’t do it in England – here you can get from one end of the country to the other in a day.” Which is exactly why he and Frost set their very own road movie, Paul, in the wilds of America – the kind of sprawling, untameable landscape where two blokes trundling along in an RV can result in all sorts of mishaps. Like, for example, meeting a strange little foul-mouthed alien.

Now that they’re experts on the matter of movies that take to the tarmac, Total Film asked Pegg and Frost to join us on a journey through the land of opportunity. Just what is it that drives road movies? “Incidents, peril, friendship,” muses Frost. “And also vista, geographical location. I think in every good road movie there’s that montage where the laughter and the talking stops, and you hear some Bluegrass and you see the Deep South…”

1. Sideways (2004)Los Angeles to Santa Barbara County, Californoa (130 miles)
Wine snob schlubb (Paul Giamatti) and TV actor fool (Thomas Hayden Church) putter up the coast to sup their way round the winery region for a two-hander stag do. DUIs and rages against Merlot inevitable.
Nick: Fantastic! Lots of nice geographical fodder to gaze at. I love the way a road trip seems to suspend everything that happens in your proper life back home. It’s all put on hold while you’re on the road.
Simon: I love that it’s about the need to discover and for something else in life. It’s a great metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life. It’s about what’s around the next bend; the bumps in the road, the corners, that kind of stuff.

2. Thelma & Louise (1991)Arkansas to the Grand Canyon, Arizona (1685 miles)
A ditzy housewife (Geena Davis) and a hardbitten waitress (Susan Sarandon) roadtrip from Arkansas to Oklahoma, shoot a guy and go on the lam. They’re heading for Mexico (avoiding Texas) but end it all in Arizona’s greatest tourist attraction.
Simon: “It’s a journey of self-discovery and physical journey, and it has this terminal end as well, which is brilliant. They can literally go no further in every way, geographically and in terms of themselves as people.”

3. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California (812 miles)
When Olive (Abigail Breslin) qualifies for a kiddie beauty pageant her whole fucked-up family climb into a VW camper can for a sweaty, sweary voyage of discovery. Everyone just pretend to be normal…
Simon: When we pitched Paul we said it was like Little Miss Sunshine but with Gollum instead of Alan Arkin. Everyone in that van goes on a sort of a journey and it’s a cracking soundtrack too.
Nick: Steve Carrell has a great beard in that.

4. Easy Rider (1969)Los Angeles, California to New Orleans, Louisiana (2206 miles)
Two bikers (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) flog drugs to fund their Route 66 journey to Mardi Gras in ‘Nawlins’. On the trip (in every way) they run into bigots, hippies and Jack Nicholson. Far out.
Simon: That’s a road movie that goes to nowhere but doom. It’s kind of heartbreaking. The campfire scene in Paul is a tribute to the campfire scene in Easy Rider.
Nick: We filmed in Las Vegas, New Mexico where Easy Rider was shot. It’s on at the cinema in Prospect, where Paul disguises himself as a cowboy. And the street that we are walking down is where Jack Nicholson and Henry Fonda meet for the first time.

5. Two Lane Black Top (1971)Needles to East Tennessee (1517 miles)
A pair of unnamed petrolheads race their ’55 Chevy coast to coast against a souped-up GTO. After burning rubber through California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas the film burns out during a bone-jangling drag race near Memphis.
Nick: I saw that when I was 18, it’s in my DVD collection.
Simon: We went on a lot of two lane blacktops on our road trip. They’re amazing rides because the one in Nevada goes in a straight line to the horizon, so it disappears out of sight, it looks like it goes into a hair-width point in the sky.

6. Vanishing Point (1971)Denver, Colorado to San Francisco, California (1277 miles)
A delivery driver (Barry Newman) is assigned to drive a new Dodge Challenger from Denver to ’Frisco and bets he can do it in record time. Pill popping, cop baiting and wheel spinning through Colorado and Utah, he delivers the car straight into a police roadblock in California. (Inspired the car-fawning in Death Proof.)
Simon: In Vanishing Point it’s a road movie where something’s got to be done but I see road movies as being it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

7. Trains, Planes and Automobiles (1987) Wichita, Kansas to Chicago, Illinois (714 miles)
Uptight guy (Steve Martin) and annoying fool (John Candy) take a plane (diverted from Chicago to Wichita due to weather), train (to Missouri), truck (to Jefferson City), bus (to St Louis), rental car (to Illinois) and milk float (Chicago) to get home for Thanksgiving. Those aren’t pillows…
Simon: It’s heart-warming and even though the end is sugary sweet you buy it, you allow it. You can earn that kind of sentimentality.

8. Dumb And Dumber (1994)Providence, Rhode Island to Aspen, Colorado (3539 miles)
Simple chauffeur Lloyd (Jim Carrey) convinces his equally dim friend Harry (Jeff Daniels) to drive a dog van across country to return a lost suitcase to the object of his affection. They accidentally go to Nebraska and complete last leg is completed on tiny scooter with frozen snot.
Nick: That film is so soundtracked! That film has got so much music in it.
Simon: It’s almost like a mix tape. There are so many great moments in that film. The snowball fight. And “You just go man”, and then they get frozen. What’s great about that is they actually go back halfway across America ! It’s great, I love that film.

9. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)Parchman Farm Penitentiary, Tennessee to Arkabutla Lake, Tennessee (102 miles)
Three Depression-era convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) escape the chain gang at a Memphis clink and begin a wandering journey via radio fame to find a $1.2million stash in a valley about to flooded by water for a new power station. Get into some darn tight spots…
Nick: I love the Coen Brothers, they’re perfectly suited to doing an American road movie. Their take is old America as well, so it’s pre-vehicle.

10. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)Chicago, Illinois to Walley World, California (2037 miles)
Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase) insists on driving his family across seven states to ‘America’s favourite fun park’ so he can spend some quality time with them. Thanks for the memories of desert breakdowns, dead grandmas and SWAT team stand-offs, Dad…
Nick: Love a bit of Chevy Chase.
Simon: The Griswalds are a kind of bizarrely American family in a structural sense. And to have the whole family on the road together… funny.

Via Total Film

A Boy And His Dog (1975)

Crafted somewhere in the overlapping space that exists between ‘70s exploitation flicks, trippy sci-fi and unapologetically daft B movies, A Boy And His Dog is a grubby, grainy end-of-worlder that’s crazier than Cujo and Mad Max combined.

Don’t let the boring title fool you, A Boy And His Dog is anything but dull. Set in 2024, it envisions a dystopian future Earth that’s been ravaged by World War IV. In that globular skirmish, a nuclear stand-off has devastated the planet’s surface, which is where we find Vic (Don Johnson), the eponymous boy. A wild thing foraging in a dusty, lusty landscape for food and sexual conquests, he’s helped in both of those endeavours by pooch pal Blood, a mongrel who’s able to communicate with Vic telepathically.

Yep, there’s that B movie influence. Adding a pleasingly pulp-y dimension to director L.Q. Jones’ sci-fi blend is the interaction between Vic and his furry sidekick – the latter a droll, world-weary old thing who’s obsessed with history and cranks out a wheelbarrow-load of pithy one-liners. Five minutes in, seeing a man mind meld with his dog seems as everyday as using a pooper scooper.

Despite its definite B-movie leanings, there are some interesting themes at play here. Vic’s descent into the ‘Downunder’ – where an Eden Project-echoing, hysterically upbeat new society has been formed – jars both stylistically and narratively with what has gone before, but that’s the point. As Vic points out, “I need to get dirty to feel clean again,” our hero preferring the freedom and simplicity of his life on the surface to the rigid, condemning structure of life Downunder.

That’s not to read too much into a film that is clearly out for a good time. Like the best exploitation flicks, it’s often unclear just where A Boy And His Dog is making social commentary, and where it’s just being sick. The film’s attitude to women is genuinely shocking – this future world positions them as pure pleasure objects who are freely raped and beaten by sex-crazed men. As if to counter-balance that horror, though, Vic’s treatment at the hands of breeding-obsessed Downunder socialists is equally queasily invasive.

Capping all the craziness off is an ending so wicked, so devious and so horrifically funny (paired with a spot-on final line) that you have to respect Jones and co for having the guts to do it.

A Boy And His Dog does have its shortcomings. You can’t help feeling a little robbed at never seeing the Screamers – horribly mutated holocaust survivors – while that narrative switch to the world of Downunder really does threaten to upend the film completely. Still, it’s a film almost purpose-built for the ‘guilty pleasure’ section of your DVD collection. Pacy, sly, and with some razor-sharp dialogue, it could just be the best post-apocalyptic, misogynistic, talking-dog sci-fi B movie you’ll ever see. 3/5

Logan’s Run (1976)

Nowadays, people like to say that life begins at 30. Not so in Logan’s Run, which presents a utopian future (the 23rd Century, apparently) where members of society live entirely for pleasure – until they hit their 30th year and are ‘renewed’ (read: blown into smithereens). Making sure that nobody does a literal runner before their time’s up are ray gun-carrying ‘Sandmen’, among them Logan (Michael York), who’s just been drafted in to go undercover and destroy a rumoured sanctuary for those life-loving rebels.

Hard to believe that Logan’s Run debuted just three years before Ridley Scott’s game-changing Alien. The complete antithesis to Scott’s gritty, grubby sci-fi (at least in visual terms), Run revels in pristine, colourful production design and showy futuristic flourishes.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Logan’s Run is old school sci-fi that strikes a perfect balance between spectacle and ideas. Crucially, unlike most modern day fare, Run’s flash and bang is all borne out of the story (apart from the ray guns, they’re just cool). The film’s stand-out stroll through a Washington reclaimed by nature even pips I Am Legend to the post decades in advance, while echoing that classic shocker ending from the original Planet Of The Apes.

Of course it’s dated – in places quite badly. But while the costume design and fitful bursts of cheesy over-acting are easy giggle-inducers, they also add to the film’s charm. And when you’ve got a hero-heroine pairing as earnest as York and Jenny Agutter, it’s difficult not to get swept into the high camp adventure of it all.

Meanwhile, for those suffering a serious case of CGI and 3D fatigue, Run’s deliciously archaic approach to special effects are a real thrill. From exceptionally-detailed miniatures to beautiful matte paintings and richly evocative lighting effects, Run is a treat for the eyes. There’s also a fantastically grisly set-piece involving a Bondian laser fight and Farrah Fawcett that holds up to the 21st century’s exacting standards.

One of the most interesting things about revisiting old sci-fi is seeing what the filmmakers got right and wrong about the future. While we certainly don’t have ray guns or giant teleporters (yet), Run’s flashy plastic surgery workshop, spliced with concerns about youthful vitality and Big Brother paranoia, show just how relevant the film remains even today. 4/5

Alien express

Some actors prepare for a film by reading a book or changing their hair colour. For Paul, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost decided to drive across America in an RV. “We did a road trip,” says Pegg. “We did the journey that’s in the film from California down to Miami and had an incredible adventure. A lot of what happened in that trip is included in the film – including meeting an alien.”

Back up, alien? That’s right. Having clashed with zombies and corrupt coppers, Pegg and Frost figured it was high time they took on the universe. Sort of. Like all their other ballistic buddy-ups, Paul – the first film script the pair have pot roasted together – promises a sandstorm of gags, guffaws and gripping drama.

Unlike their other films, this one has a filthy little alien (that’ll be Paul), who’s voiced by Seth Rogen and rendered on-screen by CGI.

“I studied with Andy Serkis for years,” jokes Rogen. “I was thrilled by how funny it was. Then I was told I would be wearing a spandex costume for a week. I was excited to take this technology that many very smart people have taken a very long time developing and pretend to jack-off with it.”

Discovered by Pegg and Frost’s characters when they embark on a Stateside road trip, Paul – a diminutive ‘grey’ who’s sort of a cross between American Dad’s Roger and a fratboy stoner – causes chaos for our intrepid fanboys. Chaos that’s helmed by none other than Superbad director Greg Mottola.

“If I could ever make a movie as good as Shaun Of The Dead I’d retire,” Mottola sighs. With Paul’s cast featuring the likes of Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Jeffrey Tambor and first lady of sci-fi Sigourney Weaver, he may have just made that movie.

Nick Frost Q&A
Pegg’s right-hand man talks road trips and being a thug…

Is Paul the first time you’ve written with Simon Pegg?
We’ve written lots of weird sketches and sitcoms together. But this was the first thing that we saw through to the end. To the climax, if you will.

How was the road trip?
The thing about doing a road trip in America is you draw the route on a big map, and it doesn’t look that far. Then after you’ve been driving for 10 hours the first day you realise you’ve gone a centimetre. It takes so long.

What got you into films?
Meeting Simon when I was 21 years old. Before meeting Simon I was a bit of a thick thug. Now I’m a slightly smarter thug.

Would you ever work with Jessica Stevenson again?
[joking, we think] I’ll say no.

Via Total Film