108 posts categorized "3 jalapeños"


'The Butler' could learn from the butler

President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and Cecil Gaines in the cinematic White House. (The Weinstein Company)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
does something its title character, poised, non-intrusive White House butler Cecil Gaines, would never consider.  It rushes and over-serves. 

Generally, though, The Butler, as the sprawling political drama was called until a title squabble necessitated the addition of director Daniels' name, is a noble project of keen interest to anyone willing to take a hard look at the grittier side of U.S. history.

It should come as no surprise that Forest Whitaker, the Academy Award-winning title character of The Last King of Scotland in 2006, is superb to the point of jumping into the Oscar contender’s race again as Gaines.

Whitaker waved his fist in the air and screamed orders as dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  As Gaines, though, one of his generation’s most gifted actors gets under the skin and into the soul of a humble man whose granite backbone was forged as a young boy when he witnessed ruthless mistreatment of both parents on a cotton farm in the Deep South in 1926.

 Slavery may have officially been a thing of the past by about a half century by then, but this film’s early  scenes may inspire some in the audience to dig out a history book and check to make sure.

First as an act of survival, then as a vocation, Gaines learns to serve.  Once he makes his way to Washington, D.C., the observant servant lands a job first at a fine hotel and finally at the White House, where he stands out as a loyal African-American serving wealthy white folks.

The Butler begins to flounder when it becomes apparent that Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of Precious:  Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009), and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change on HBO) haven’t set out to tell a personal story, but a personal story that will touch on every significant moment in black history from cotton field violence to Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House.

Not since Little Big Man (1970), which featured Dustin Hoffman and spanned about a century of Old West history, has a film bitten off so much.  Even with a running time of 12 minutes past the two-hour mark, The Butler rushes along; alternating scenes of Gaines serving seven presidents from studious Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to gregarious Ronald Reagan, who is very well-acted by Great Brit Alan Rickman, with Louis, Gaines’ eldest son who migrates south for college and chronicles the civil rights movement.

Some characters come and go swiftly in this father-and-son tale of reverent service by the elder that contrasts sharply with rebellious freedom fighting by the son.  That son, by the way, is performed without flaw by David Oyelowo (Lincoln), who appeared last year in Daniels’ The Paperboy and could be in the running for a supporting actor Oscar himself.

Oprah Winfrey also brings strong support as Gaines’ longsuffering, often boozed-up wife Gloria.  Perhaps a bit advanced in age to pull off scenes as a young adult, the near-legendary TV chat host and media mogul performs her difficult character with nuance and skill the rest of the way.

I also enjoyed Jane Fonda’s brief scenes as Nancy Reagan.  Not just for Fonda’s acting chops, which she has long displayed, but just for the irony of Fonda, the über liberal, portraying the wife of a famously conservative U.S. president.

It would be a mistake to think of The Butler as the accurately portrayed story of a humble man who had a backstage pass, as it were, to history and polished the White House silverware as his ostracized son fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement, however.

This is a case of a story “inspired by” the extraordinary life of Eugene Allen, who actually served eight presidential administrations.  Strong’s screenplay merely uses the real story (which can be found in Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post piece titled A Butler Well Served by This Election as a dramatic launching pad.

Characters and historic conflicts are inserted to stir the dramatic pot wildly when, from this aisle seat, the man and his humility would have served the dramatic purpose just fine.


MPAA rating:  PG-13 (some violence and disturbing images, profanity, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)

Running time:  132 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3 (out of 4)


The Russians are coming!

Routine in some aspects, the gritty war-drama "5 Days of War" stands out as an example of the positive power of real-simulated action over computer-generated effects.

If you're anything like me, you'll want to keep your head down as bullets fly in this dramatic recreation of the brief, but bloody David vs. Goliath five-day conflict between Russia and the Georgian Republic in 2008.

Director Renny Harlin, once known for mainstream thrillers like "Die Hard 2:  Die Harder" and "Cliffhanger," hits the cinematic war zone with the full cooperation of the Georgia military and citizens.

That means when you see hundreds, perhaps thousands of attack-ravaged refugees fleeing their homes ahead of the Russian tanks, you are really seeing live humans instead of five or six folks multiplied by computer into the masses.

British actor Rupert Friend ("The Young Victoria") is out front as Thomas Anders, an American TV correspondent.  Along with fellow journalists Sebastian Ganz (British actor Richard Coyle of "Coupling"), The Dutchman (Val Kilmer) and Zoe (German actress Antje Traue), they treat war as nightly drinking binges with dangerous duty during daylight hours.

"5 Days of War" maintains its "Black Hawk Down" desperate feel throughout, as Anders repeatedly steps into active combat zones to get the story and, in this case, the girl; a schoolteacher named Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui of "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" and "Entourage" on HBO) cut off from her family during a bombing raid.

Harlin, while quite adept at using powerful images and sound, is not quite equal to Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down" director) when it comes to keeping it real and believable.

As powerful as the war scenes are, drama becomes melodrama at times.

Still, for those who enjoy war dramas that push them to the edge of their seats with heavy artillery and tank fire, "5 Days of War" keeps the action blasting throughout.

An added plus is Andy Garcia as Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili and Harlin's determination to make a modern-day war picture the old-fashioned way with real actors and effects.


Life is like a box of just being there

I never knew Forrest Gump had a country cousin until I saw "Our Idiot Brother."

Actually, Paul Rudd's Ned isn't really a simpleton or savant, as Tom Hank's Forrest was.  Ned is just a seriously laid-back guy who chooses to go through life telling the unfiltered truth, trusting strangers and constantly getting chastised -- or jailed -- for his simple approach to life.

In other words, it looks like Ned, who lands in the slammer in this raunchy comedy's opening sequence for being talked into selling pot to a uniformed policeman, has little or no chance in the cold, hard, "me-first" real world.

Life isn't like a box of chocolates for Ned, it's a constant swift kick below the belt.

But Ned, superbly downplayed by Paul Rudd behind a bushel of hair and beard, only wants to reunite with his dog, Willie Nelson.  Yes, a dog named Willie Nelson.  

Directed by Jesse Peretz, who guided Rudd through "The Ex" and "The Chateau," "Our Idiot Brother" is the thinking person's raunchy, low-brow comic romp.  Ned sells dope and acts like one at times.  But he also wanders into domestic dilemmas involving his three sisters (played with spunk by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer).

Like the late Peter Seller's Chance Gardner in the now-vintage comic-drama gem "Being There" (1979), Ned sometimes soothes troubled waters by simply showing up and shutting up.

Rudd, who has the uncanny ability to look like a straight man even when his character is way off into Goofville, turns in a subtle, understated performance that's a refreshing diversion from what we usually see in today's over-the-top raunchy comedies.

"Our Idiot Brother" turns out to be a well-acted exercise in cinematic ensemble folly that makes for an enjoyable evening of frenzied vs. cool reacting movie-going.

Screenwriters Evgenia Peretz, a "Vanity Fair" contributing editor who's the director's sister, and her husband David Schisgall, write themselves into a corner bubbling over with over silliness a couple of times, however.

Why else would they dub the Golden Retriever Ned is constantly trying to retrieve "Willie Nelson"?

You'll just have to wait until the final scene to answer that one.


Fangs for the memories

The 3-Ds in "Fright Night" stand for death, dumb and dufuses.

Yet the remake of the 1985 comic-horror-thriller about the vampire next door slithers coldly and with a sick sense of purpose; like a snake on the prowl after dark.

Actually, Jerry (Colin Farrell), the handsome mysterious stranger who has just moved into a house in the Las Vegas 'burbs, is more like a shark.

Charley, the kid next door, finally snaps that Jerry (Yes, Jerry the vampire) must be a blood-sucker when his classmates, including former best bud Ed (talented Christopher Mintz-Plasse), fail to show up for school.

Normally, I am not in favor of remakes.  They are, however, here to stay.

At least the "Fright Night" re-do is in very good hands, even if it's a little cheesy-goofy.  Director Craig Gillespie ("Mr. Woodcock"), who guided Ryan Gosling through an extremely difficult performance in the outstanding dark comic-drama "Lars and the Real Girl," makes good use of his actors, his script and the gimmicky 3-D effects.

Gillespie wisely waits, waits, waits until just the right couple of moments to spring -- make that fling -- images into the audience.

Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek," Mel Gibson's son in "The Beaver") finds enough nuance in Charley to keep his startled character real enough.   

Farrell, on screen recently in "Horrible Bosses," was excellent in the hit-man comic-drama "In Bruges" (2008), a superb thriller almost no one saw.  Here he's a laid back vampire.  Laid back, that is, until night falls, hunger takes over and the fangs come out.

The real star here, though, is Scot actor David Tennant (the BBC series "Dr. Who").  Tennant, a relative fresh face in this country, acts circles around his castmates as Peter Vincent, a blow-hard "vampire killer" on stage on the Vegas strip who is drawn into the real fright fight.

The late Roddy McDowall, who played a TV "Fright Night" host in the original, would be proud, and perhaps a little jealous of this fast-paced remake with real bite.


'Glee' rocks the house for marketing geeks

Over time, some memories begin to blur or, in other cases, super-size.

I don't recall Grand Prairie High School music assemblies of a few decades back rockin' the house like what you'll see, hear and feel in "Glee:  The 3D Concert Movie."

I add "feel" to the mix because no bass drum stomp or guitar riff has rattled my insides like what we hear in th "Glee" concert opus since The Who smashed their guitars and drop-kicked the drum set on the Memorial Auditorium stage in Dallas in the early '60s.

Very slickly produced, "Glee:  The 3D Concert Movie" is directed by Kevin Tancharoen, who called the shots on the "Fame" big-screen revise a couple years back.

Full disclosure:  I'm not a fan of the wildly popular Fox TV series, which harmonizes into its third season next month.  I am a fan of Jane Lynch, who portrays salty Sue Sylvester on the show.  Truth is, I never could stomach the TV show long enough for Lynch to appear.

The concert film, though, is something else.  I could do without the insertion of real-life geeks (the dwarf cheerleader, the gay guy outed in the eighth grade, etc.) that's peppered throughout.  Come on guys, if you're going to cut Lynch out of the concert film, which apparently someone did, also 86 the cheesy pathos.

"Glee 3D" doesn't need that.  The cast members who sing, all tangled in high school drama on TV, set a very high standard vocally.

Lea Michele, Rachel Berry to "Gleeks," belts out a rousing version of Barbra Streisand's signature "Don't Rain on My Parade" that may have the rafters still humming at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ, where the concert film was lensed over two nights.

Plano native Kevin McHale is also a show-stopper as Artie, the geeky kid in the wheelchair.  For those of you unfamiliar with Artie's dream in the TV series, the lively number recreating the event on the concert stage might leave some cynics in the audience -- if they're allowed into the movie auditorium at all -- scratching their heads.

Normally, I'd say a movie like this would be for "Glee" devotees only.  The choir (or glee club) singing to the choir (or glee club) as it were.

Not this time.  I encourage all marketing majors as well as music majors, singers and anyone who enjoys a pulsating musical act on stage to attend as well; perhaps with a set of earplugs.  

Present and future marketing execs may be overpowered by the rush of music and put off by the corny theme of "geeks as gods."  Publicity professionals could take notes on how a well-oiled stage show can rumble along so magnificently as a cash cow marketing vehicle, though.

That's something to "don't stop believin.'" For sure.


Yep, 'Cowboys & Aliens;' Git over it

Whoa, hold on a minute Western movie purists.

Before you get a burr under your saddle because Old West gunslingers take on high-tech aliens from outer-space in the sci-fi Western "Cowboys & Aliens," you should know that uneasy genre saddle bag-fellows have gotten into dust-ups before.

It's been a while, but left-handed outlaw Billy the Kid took on none other than Dracula himself in 1966 in a horror-Western titled "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula."  That same year, the West got a little wilder with another odd pairing.  How many of you remember "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter"?

I didn't think so.

"Cowboys & Aliens" is a genre hybrid.  Granted, it's a far-fetched one, or at least it appears to be until you realize that in fiction there are no real boundaries except the limit of one's imagination.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who concocted the comic book this film is based on in 1997, obviously can go off the usual grid when it comes to storytelling.

And so can director Jon Favreau (The "Iron Man" franchise) and, for that matter, co-stars  Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who draws top billing.  In today's ruthless Hollywood, James Bond trumps Han Solo apparently.

Set in New Mexico Territory circa 1875, "Cowboys & Aliens" begins with a jolt.  A camera pan across the dust and scraggly brush soon reveals a startled former outlaw named Jake Lonergan (Craig).  Jake awakes from some sort of unexplained trauma that has rendered him with no memory, but with some sort of newfangled bracelet that, to say the least, "ain't from around here."

Jake staggers into the saloon in the former boom town of Absolution (gotta love those town names in Westerns).  Before he can enjoy a few shots of whiskey, he's flirted with by a mysterious alluring lady named Ella (Olivia Wilde of "The Change-Up"), arrested and thrown in the pokey.

But not for long.  As the title clearly states, the Wild West is about to get a little wilder.  Strange lights illuminate the night sky, and before the citizens -- good and bad hombres alike -- know what's hitting them, several of the townsfolk are lassoed from flying machines and carried off into the darkness.

In traditional  Westerns, this would be the moment when a posse is formed.  Heck, that even happens when things get down and dirty (and thirsty) in "Rango."

In this one, though, the supposedly good guys, led by ruthless rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), form an alliance with the mysterious stranger (Craig) and some equally ravaged Indians to square off against the otherworldly marauders from up yonder somewhere.

A gaggle of screenwriters throw every cliché in the book into this thing.  Dolarhyde, the toughest guy in these here parts, has a bully/wimp for a son (Paul Dano).  Nat (Adam Beach), the rancher's No. 1 hand, of course displays all the traits the old man would want in a son.

As weird as all this is, however, the production value is top notch.  The special effects live up to their title, director Favreau stirs the off-kilter genre melting pot with gusto and the acting gets the job done in all areas.  I do wish Ford had backed off just a little from his over-gruffness a little earlier than he did, though.

Think of "Cowboys & Aliens" as that odd looking, but bright and shiny dangerous ride way back at the edge of the carnival.

Then strap yourself in for a wild ride and go kick some serious alien hiney.


'Smurfs' up!

If you're about 5, which I am give or take a half-century or so, "The Smurfs" frolic across a movie screen in eye-popping 3-D like Snow White's blue-tinted Dwarfs on holiday in a far, far away place called New York City.

Those slightly older than that might detect more than a little similarity to the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" franchise.

It's refreshing that this big-screen re-tooling of the TV cartoon "Smurfs" of the 1980s is aimed at kids.  Even though human adults co-mingle with the magically transformed Smurfs in a modern day Big Apple, there's no attempt at dual-aged comic appeal.  You know, jokes that appeal to the target kiddies and others aimed at kids' parents, who generally tag along to movies like this.

The story is simple enough.  In an attempt to avoid peril at the hands of evil  wizard Gargamel (talented Hank Azaria with a shaved head and prosthetic buck teeth), a six pack of tiny Smurfs are sucked through a magic portal and deposited in a stream in Central Park, New York, Earth.

Gargamel and his hissing cat Azrael soon show up as well, and the race is on.  But Papa Smurf (voiced with serious wisdom and wit by the ageless Jonathan Winters) and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) manage, quite by accident, to land in the apartment occupied by a nervous ad exec (Neil Patrick Harris) and his good natured wife named -- what else -- Grace (Jayma Mays).

There's not really anywhere to go in a family comedy featuring main character a little over seven inches tall that the Chipmunks haven't already ventured, of course.  But director Raja Gosnell ("Scooby-Doo," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") and a handful of screenwriters keep the mayhem coming.

The little blue dudes and one, only one little blue lady (Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry), are adequately computer-generated and in 3-D (in select theaters).

Harris ("How I Met Your Mother" on TV), proving versatile enough for almost any show biz situation, fully commits to his plight of playing second fiddle to a handful of little blue, well, handfuls.

"The Smurfs" turns out to be fun for the entire family, whether you're a kid or a parent watching your child giggle at the silliness.

But what do I know?  I'm this many (holding up four fingers and a thumb), give or take a half-century or so.


Wheels up for Carell's star vehicle

"Crazy, Stupid, Love" arrives totally as a surprise and packs a goofy entertainment sucker punch that refreshes, stimulates and causes a lump to form in the throat.

I like the title.  That's exactly what crazy, stupid love does to a person.

Perhaps the title is more than a little bit redundant, but the new starring vehicle for "Office" (on TV) expatriate Steve Carell sports an impact and sophistication we rarely see in the dog days of cinematic summer.

Before you'll even have a chance to drop a dollop of popcorn butter-like, nuclear waste-like substance on your shirt or blouse, a life bomb wrecks the emotional landscape of one Cal Weaver (Carell).

His wife and high school sweetheart Emily (Julianne Moore) blurts out that she wants a divorce.  And while she's blurting, Emily confesses that she slept with a guy (Kevin Bacon) from her office.  These heart-stunning revelations fire across a restaurant table at the very moment Cal was sure Emily was about to announce her dessert choice.

"Crazy, Stupid, Love," unlike many middle-age crazy flicks, keeps at least one foot -- OK a toe or two -- grounded in reality.  

Suddenly single in his 40s, Cal hits the neighborhood disco bar.  Sipping a girly drink from a straw, he's greeted by blank stares from the general 20/30something mojito slurpers on the prowl for love, or at least someone to make the long night pass a little less painfully.

This might be a different film if it were directed and/or written by a woman.

It's not, though.  Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who collaborated on Jim Carrey's outrageous dark comedy "I Love You Phillip Morris" last year, take a script by Dan Fogelman ("Tangled," "Cars") and fill the screen with dark humor, steamy romance and surprises in the final reel that might just curl your hair (assuming you have some).

Jacob (Ryan Gosling of "Blue Valentine" and "Lars and the Real Girl"), the local disco stud, takes Cal under his wing.  He shows his sadsack, jilted elder what to wear, what drink to order, how to wear his hair and what to say to fish for willing companions for the evening.

I won't go into details, especially when it comes to Cal's needy commitment to his almost-ex or his encounter with a love-starved disco tart portrayed with excellent full-tilt boogie by Oscar winner Marisa Tomei.

It's best to simply strap in for the ride with a movie like this.

Just know that Carell, making the transition from a very popular TV sitcom ("The Office"), no longer needs training wheels for his star vehicles.  This is where Carell finally gets smart and learns how to stroke his hangdog victim acting tools into a big screen arsenal.

And while we're on the subject of actors finding solid footing, let's add Emma Stone, who plays aspiring attorney Hannah, to that list.

Stone ("Easy A," "Zombieland"), either blessed or cursed to bear a striking resemblance to troubled actress Lindsay Lohan, displays an acting range in this one that I, for one, was surprised by.  Very pleasant surprise, that.

This film is at times crazy and stupid.  

I loved it.


No ring of honor, but 'Green Lantern's' fun

In essence, the challenge for the main character in "Green Lantern" is exactly the same as the task for the filmmakers.

The degree of success for both depend chiefly on the imagination.  Imagine it well enough and it will happen.  If the anointed G. Lantern needs a chainsaw, for instance, he need only imagine one and it appears.

A winning comic book-to-big screen transformation, however, might not be so easily accessed.

The ability to make it happen is pivotal in a movie year when the long-vaulted and stashed away comic book character is the second superhero, of sorts, to go green.

Seth Rogen donned a black mask (oddly enough) as "The Green Hornet" back in January.  Now comes Ryan Reynolds, People magazine's reigning "sexiest man alive" as flaky-yet-fearless test pilot Hal Jordan.

Jordan, as any self-respecting action comic book fan knows, has a date with a mysterious, green-glowing ring brought to Earth by a dying member of the Green Lantern Corps.

"Green Lantern," scripted by a gaggle of writers, is directed with some pizazz by established filmmaker Martin Campbell.  Campbell has called the shots on a varied cinematic menagerie; two James Bond adventures (the "Casino Royale" remake, "GoldenEye"), a "Zorro" flick and edgy Mel Gibson in "Edge of Darkness."

Campbell doesn't elevate a comic book romp into near-Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh did recently with "Thor," a twist admired from this aisle seat.

Instead,,"Green Lantern" lights up as a rather goofball slant on superherodom.  On a very busy day where Hal crashes a jet in a test pilot dogfight and arrives very tardy for a birthday party, he's abruptly whisked away in a green cloud to the scene of a recent alien ship crash site where the dying Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is in a bit of a rush to pass on the ring.

Even though it gets somber at times -- there is, after all the reverent oath -- "Green Lantern" is mostly about being an escapism frolic that hits on enough entertainment cylinders most of the time.

Hal, being the first Earthling to join the forces that protect the universe (many looking like they just stepped out of the "Star Wars" bar), is, shall we say, a reluctant hero.  This will all come down to a battle of wills between the Green Lanterns and Parallax, literally a dark cloud of destruction that builds on fear and might just pay Earth a destructive visit.

The special-effects, which are primarily computer-generated (right down to the Green Lantern suit and mask), are top notch throughout.  Reynolds ("Buried," "The Proposal") is steady enough as Hal, and Blake Lively, who had more to do in "The Town," holds her own as Lois Lane.  Excuse me, as  Carol Ferris.

Comic book thrillers like this must, by definition, have someone to overact and chew the scenery.  In this case it's Tim Robbins as pompous Senator Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard comes close to overdoing it as Hector, the senator's son.  But as Hector's involvement in the plot escalates, Sarsgaard wisely tones down his actions.

Bottom line, "Green Lantern" is a lively enough thrill ride around the universe.

Speaking of a thrill ride around the universe, though, a question:  If veteran Green Lantern-er Abin Sur requires a space ship to zip around the galaxies (and eventually crash-land in an Earth swamp), how is new recruit Hal Jordan able to soar solo without so much as a pair of goggles?

Enlighten me, oh mystic Green Lantern.  


Raiders of the lost art

I believe it's a film critic's duty to dive a little deeper into a movie than just to say, "Yeah, I liked it" or "It stunk".

For the most part, I did like "Super 8," the genre hybrid with equal parts sci-fi creature feature and a gushing valentine to kids stricken by the gnawing bug to make movies at a tender age.

I would not be fulfilling my obligation, however, if I didn't point out that writer-director J.J. Abrams, who called the shots on the "Star Trek" reboot prequel in 2009, grew up as a kid filmmaker.

And know this:  The near-legendary Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"), who also cut his cinematic teeth shooting 8mm flicks as a kid, is not only Abrams' champion and mentor.  Spielberg serves as a producer on "Super 8."  As noted in the press notes for the film, as such Spielberg and Abrams -- mentor and adoring (near-worshiping) protege -- spent countless hours sharing an editing room.

And, as it turns out, their creative force behind "Super 8" is joined at the hip.

Never mind that probably 90 percent of the target audience for this heartfelt coming-of-age teen adventure probably has no clue what Super 8 was.  Abrams and Spielberg know, and they force feed their loving memories of youth long past to audiences perhaps more interested in what's making a wrecked train boxcar shake and rumble than young artistes loading up an 8mm camera to make a zombie movie.

Anyone who knows Spielberg's impressive film library will be able to spot elements of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" all over "Super 8," and a little "E.T." as well.  

Abrams was a kid of 11 when Spielberg's "Close Encounters" hit movie screens in 1977.  Take a look at that one and you'll see Spielberg's stamp all over this one.  The "We're not alone" feel grows slowly as inanimate objects begin to move around.  The plot reaches a fever pitch as "Super 8" casts its heavy-handed spell.

Lonely, moody teen Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) is mourning the sudden death of his mother when events beyond his involvement in a neighborhood film project begin to turn tiny Lillian, Ohio into a madhouse in the summer of 1979.

There's the aforementioned train wreck.  And, as often happens on a movie set (even a neighborhood one), Joe is falling for the leading lady, a feisty tomboy beauty named Alice.  Elle Fanning, who was very good as a pampered actor's daughter in "Somewhere," is even better here.

When Alice is asked to cry during a scene in the zombie movie, Fanning doesn't just amaze her teen colleagues, she brings a respectful stillness to a movie audience in the dark that is rarely perpetuated by one so young.

"Super 8" goes off the deep end a little when it comes to the surprise in the boxcar.  Remind yourself that Abrams produced the bouncy-cam thriller "Cloverfield" in 2008, though, and you'll have a better understanding of what drives this one.

This is a film rich in subplots, such as a feud between Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights"), a deputy sheriff, and Elle's father (Ron Eldard of "Black Hawk Down"), who's often at odds with the law.

The mother lode of riches comes from Spielberg's influence, however.  As the tension mounts, we get to see into a few houses of this Ohio steel town.  But not all of them.

The camera never takes us to the house where Richard Dreyfuss, or someone channeling his performance in "Close Encounters," is going crazy forging a model of Devils Tower, Wyoming out of mashed potatoes.