Film releases: August 5

Super 8 is a bravura exercise in being bravura. It is thrilling, fatuous, pyrotechnical, whimsical, barnstorming, batty, out there, out to lunch and finally, though it flails exuberantly to the last frame, out of ideas. There is too much of everything and not enough of anything. The only mercy is that the film isn’t in 3D. That would have been an embellishment too far. That would have sent us all screaming into the parking lot.

Filmmaker J. J. Abrams, who made Star Trek (the prequel) and the TV series Lost, has been dubbed by some the “new Steven Spielberg”. What a label. It is frustrating enough dealing with the old Steven Spielberg: that eternal wonderchild’s alternations between genius and schmaltz. Now Abrams, who once spent apprentice time restoring Spielberg’s home movies, has made a fantasy feature (co-produced by Spielberg) that resembles a one-man tribute-band show. Spielbergian kids in suburban-industrial Ohio, while making a Spielbergian Super-8 zombie film, witness a violent freight train crash, staged with Spielbergian panache. Soon the army is crawling Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style all over town. Then the plot takes an ET-ish turn.

Must we dub Abrams “Repro Man”? Too easy. Super 8 cannot be dismissed as mere pastiche. There is craft, guile and inventiveness in the early scenes of camera-mad kids kicking their horror creation into life. The girl (Elle Fanning) with the spooky make-up and spookily genuine acting talent; the boy with the overactive gag reflex cued by moments of real-life terror (panic-vomiting, a kidflick novelty); the plump boy director excitedly crying “production values!” at every intrusion of reality, including the midnight rumble of the approaching freight train in the ramshackle railway station.

The film is set in 1979, the heyday of movie brat culture. Perhaps the menacing, unexplained cobalt light that slices across the frame whenever danger threatens symbolises the impending dawn of a colder, crueller future. Farewell 8mm, hello Blu-ray. There is a more elemental, less emblematic menace in the soundtrack: an aural forest, brilliantly composed, of creaks, rustles, whines, wind-howls, matching the dark silhouetted woods from which something monstrous keeps emerging.

Abrams has flair. And perhaps he is offering something more sinister, more admonitory, more modern than ET or even Close Encounters. Perhaps – let’s speculate – Abrams is saying that in the age of militant jihadism and multi-character cataclysm (political, meteorological, economic) the era of being friendly to the unknown is over. The moviemaker who knows his zeitgeist and trusts his vision shoots first and asks questions – or encourages his audience to – later.

Carrey’s new comedy starts well: they always do. His manic real-estate agent fillets costly New York mansions of their owners by buying them out so that his firm can redevelop the places. (Hollywood translation: ruin). He is selfish, mean, funny. But then the hero receives two cratefuls of penguins willed to him by his explorer father. Soon his apartment is a winter wonderland, snow-filled for the critters whose adorable pranks will surely help Carrey re-bond with – yes – his estranged wife and kids.

So the laughs are a downpayment on the schmaltz. A Hollywood mainstream comedy must have a gooey ending, otherwise the moguls don’t feel they are improving or saving society. (Whatever happened to Billy Wilder? Weren’t there once comedies that started sour and stayed sour?)

You might as well walk out after 45 minutes of Mr Popper’s Penguins because the film walks out on you. Until then, Carrey’s shtick, verbal and visual, remains the best in the business. The face performs gymnastic, nay pyroclastic, spasms while the voice cracks gags as a top chef cracks eggs: quickly, expertly, instantly separating, when possible, the joke from the runny stuff.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Tree demonstrates another truth about the mummer’s craft. A good actor working with nothing becomes a bad actor. He or she seizes up like a car without oil. Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree is Freudian claptrap set in Australia. A giant tree reaches out to maul a house and its bereaved family. Dad died after crashing his car into the tree; ergo the tree comes to host and represent his spirit. The characters grandstand and goof off with increasing glumness. At one point – and at the press show only the Daily Mail had the crude good sense to laugh aloud (too much art-movie reverence from the rest of us) – a helpless Gainsbourg says to a kid: “Would you say we were a happy family?” Dear me, no. Audiences in the large commonsensical outside world will have a whip-round, before the movie ends, for the collective euthanasia bill.

In Sarah’s Key another quasi-Franglais actress, Kristin Scott Thomas (British but Paris-dwelling), stars in another French-directed art movie with too many branches reaching in all directions. The 1942-set tale of the rounding up of Paris Jews and their pre-deportation corralling in the merciless, foodless, toilet-less Vélodrome d’Hiver has its power vitiated by familiarity. The same tale was told in last month’s The Round Up. The modern-day story of a reporter (Scott Thomas) sleuthing through descendants of one Jewish victim, the titular Sarah, who innocently caused a brother’s death, is weak, sprawling and pedagogic. If we want a history lecture, let’s have Shoah. If we want a history drama, let’s have The Reader.

Knuckle tells you more than you ever wanted to know – in my case, not much – about family feuding and bare-knuckle fighting among Irish travellers. But Ian Palmer’s documentary wears you down. Perhaps there is something compelling, if crackers, about the way the Joyces, Nivens and Quinn McDonaghs keep meeting in lanes, car parks or encampments to bash each other’s faces to near-bits. Prize money is on offer: in the last fight we see, £120,000. But family pride and passion are the main spurs. The hatreds never seem to subside. Whenever there is danger that they might, another son is ordered to bulk up and punchball-train so he can rearrange a rival scion’s features until he looks like a Francis Bacon painting or a train crash from Super 8.

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