A gritty kids’ adventure that isn’t quite great

Films
SUPER 8
Cert: 12A

Sometimes it can be a pleasure to see a children’s movie with real grit and pathos (especially after you’ve watched Mr Popper’s Penguins – see the review below). Of course, Super 8 has an A-grade pedigree, having been produced by Steven Spielberg and written and directed by J.J. Abrams, the man behind Lost and Cloverfield. If these two can’t make a high-intensity alien movie to please the masses, who can?

Set in an Ohio mining town in the summer of 1979, it features a group of young friends hell bent on making a movie. One night, they’re filming at a remote train station when a train goes past and, headed off by a pickup truck, crashes. It’s a massive explosion, cars everywhere, the kids left puking and shocked in the rubble. Looking back at their footage (yes, the camera is saved), they see something monstrous clamber out of the train. And why is the US Air Force the first to swoop in among the wreckage? As with all such films, the knowledge, guts and intuition lie with the kids, while the power lies with the disciplinarian, despotic and generally stupid grownups.

The retro feel of Super 8 is amazingly gratifying – think old Fords and walkmans and drug stores. And the kids form a charming, believable unit as they grapple with hormones, parents and terror.

But I felt sorely let down by numerous unexplained plot threads and red herrings. The turning point in the action is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, and the teemingly complex backdrop to the alien situation is left virtually left unexplained. The result is a sense of random messing around with special effects and themes, and in the end it’s not clear what happened and why. Cute, smart kids clubbing together will take a film like this a long way, but without a coherent plot, it stops short of being great.
Zoe Strimpel

MR POPPER’S PENGUINS
Cert: PG

Mr Popper, played with the usual facial elasticity by Jim Carrey, is hardworking, wealthy, and in possession of a massive bachelor pad overlooking Central Park.

One day he comes home to find a package from his late father, who was a naturalist and explorer. It’s a frozen penguin “for the man who has everything”. The penguin appears stuffed until – whoops! – it turns out to be alive. From here the film becomes a gushier version of Carey’s Ace Ventura. We watch him cohabiting with penguins (which soon multiply), speaking to them, hiding them from the neighbours and parading around Manhattan with them.

Unlike the quirkily misanthropic Ace Ventura, though, Mr Popper is driven by love for his family (aww) – his two kids and his ever-less estranged ex-wife. Keeping the penguins (all six of them) is his chance to show he is capable of love as well as money-making. That he’s a family man really, not just a money-man.

It’s cheesy, predictably sugar-coated stuff. The penguins themselves live in that uncomfortable land between being real animals and cartoons. They understand English, for example, and can run baths and poo in the toilet. But they also have normal penguin requirements, like sardines and ice.

There are some superior moments, though, revolving around Carey’s fascinating face. His meditation on a penguin egg’s failure to hatch, while freezing on his outdoor balcony in a parka, is very funny.

Mr Popper should mildly please kids under ten, but for anyone even a tiny bit older, I’d stick them in front of Ace Ventura Pet Detective any day. ZS

SARAH’S KEY
Cert:15

Kristin Scott Thomas is an actress who apparently never gives a weak performance – one reason being that, acting mostly in French films, she’s able to find the meaty roles that rarely crop up in British and American cinema. More’s the pity. Sarah’s Key, a slow, uneven film looking back from the present at the Nazi Holocaust as it played out in France – a subject that has rarely been examined in film – is not altogether successful, but again shows the acute emotional intensity and intelligence Scott Thomas brings to her roles.

She plays an American journalist in Paris, who by accidental circumstance finds herself investigating the deportation of Parisian Jews in 1942. She and her husband move into a house that during the war was the home to a small French Jewish girl called Sarah, who was rounded up with her family. Sarah hid her brother in a closet, locking it and taking the key with her, eventually escaping to try and save him.

In the present, Scott Thomas’s character Julia is dealing with her own familial issues while looking into this tragic history. The problem is that her story hardly gels with Sarah’s, and the parallels are superficial at best. It’s strange that such potentially weighty material should end up feeling rather superfluous, Scott Thomas’s beautiful performance is worth catching in itself.
Timothy Barber