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From left, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard in Super 8. (Francois Duhamel/Francois Duhamel / AP)
From left, Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard in Super 8. (Francois Duhamel/Francois Duhamel / AP)

Warren Clements: On Demand

J.J. Abrams's Super 8 bears the mark of Spielberg Add to ...

It’s J.J. Abrams’s movie. The man behind the series Alias and Lost wrote and directed Super 8 (2011), in which six young teens who set out to make an amateur zombie movie on super-8 film (it’s 1979) get more than they bargained for. But Steven Spielberg co-produced it, and his fingerprints are all over it.

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This is not surprising. Both Abrams and Spielberg made amateur movies in their teens. When Abrams was 14, a newspaper reported that he had won a super-8 contest. Spielberg read the article and hired Abrams sight unseen to restore Spielberg’s own early films, shot on regular eight-millimetre.

Then there’s the small matter of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. In an audio commentary on this week’s Blu-ray/DVD combo release, Abrams says he borrowed moments from both films: a chaotic dinner scene, a wide-eyed boy looking up.

One more thing. In Super 8, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, making an impressive debut) has lost his mother to an accident at work, and his father isn’t on Joe’s wavelength. He wants to send the boy to baseball camp. “It’d be good for you to spend time with kids who don’t run around with cameras and monster makeup.” In the Abrams-Spielberg universe, this is a sign that Dad is being unreasonable.

So the film progresses, and at the end, in a scene already packed with emotion, Dad delivers a line so glaringly the stuff of sentimental screenwriting rather than life that it takes the viewer – well, this viewer – right out of the movie. In an audio commentary on this week’s Blu-ray/DVD combo release, Abrams pipes up at that moment. “That was Steven’s line.”

Yet Abrams and Spielberg do make a formidable team. The direction of the young actors (including Elle Fanning, 12 at the time) is just right. Abrams wanted them to play real teens, not film teens, and they do. The action sequences – and this is a film filled with action sequences – are thrilling.

And the plot? While the kids are shooting a late-night scene on a railway platform in a small Ohio town, a truck drives into a train and causes an apocalyptic derailment. (“I wanted it to be the train crash these kids experienced,” Abrams says, “meaning the thing that they remembered as opposed to what it was really like.”) The kids’ camera has caught something unusual, but the film releases that information gradually, so that’s as far as this description will go.

The Blu-ray is stuffed with bonus features. Make a point of seeing the one in which cinematographer (and long-time Abrams friend) Larry Fong performs a few dazzling magic tricks. Now that’s entertainment.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

Starbuck (2011) You just never know. The girlfriend you have been neglecting tells you she’s pregnant, and then a lawyer breaks the news that those sperm donations you made between 1988 and 1990 resulted in 533 children, 142 of whom want to know your identity. David (Patrick Huard from Bon Cop, Bad Cop) checks a few of them out first, in this French-language dramedy from Quebec. The film has English subtitles; the deleted scenes and music video on the DVD and Blu-ray do not.

The Devil’s Double (2011) Dominic Cooper (the bad-boy rocker in Tamara Drewe) plays the double role of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and the unlucky Iranian underling forced to be the sadist’s body double. That’s a job you don’t want to have, and, in the circumstances, a job you don’t want to lose.

The Office (2001-03) For the 10th anniversary of Ricky Gervais’s original, great British comedy about deluded regional manager David Brent and his employees, those who bought the earlier DVDs get to buy the 12 episodes and Christmas special all over again. (Gervais himself said that. He was joking. Maybe.) Among this set’s enticements: the series pilot, audio commentaries by Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant, interviews with the cast and a making-of documentary. Trivia note: The boss on the Quebec version of the show ( La Job) is named David Gervais.

12 Angry Men (1957) Earnest in tone, this deliberately claustrophobic drama about deadlocked jurors remains a gripping piece of work, as Lee J. Cobb squares off against principled Henry Fonda while the other jurors pick and change sides. Criterion releases Sidney Lumet’s film on DVD and Blu-ray with several bonus features, including the 1955 television version.

Prep & Landing (2009) Clocking in at 22 minutes, this Disney computer-animated tale will work for older children who know something of office politics, military drills and snarky dialogue. Wayne (Dave Foley), one of the elves assigned to prepare houses for Santa’s arrival, is fuming about being passed over for a promotion. His attention wanders when he should be monitoring his new partner, Lanny (Derek Richardson). Complications ensue. This made-for-TV, Emmy-winning short film is accompanied on DVD by much shorter Prep & Landing spin-off cartoons.

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