That’s Mint: The Wonder of Super 8

I never liked ET.

To be fair, it terrified me as a child, and I didn’t give it another chance until we watched it auf Deutsch in German II at Hudsonville High School. But even with a language barrier, those visuals that I hated and the themes I found contrived were there. Theoretically, I understand why this is a childhood favorite of many. Practically, I can’t compare it to my own.

So when I heard Super 8 was a sort of love letter to Spielbergian sentimentality, my expectations shifted. I love J.J. Abrams. He’s a brilliant storyteller with radical ideas about what modern entertainment should look like. Lost is one of my favorite shows, Star Trek is one of my favorite reboots, and the issue of Wired he guest-edited is the one I’ve permanently stolen from Scott. (Sorry, Scott.) Plus, Jurassic Park is the movie I enjoy more than any other, and Spielberg had a hand in plenty of fine films. Both Abrams and Spielberg are visionaries, people I admire for their accomplishments.

But once heard Super 8 compared to ET, however loose the comparison, I had trouble getting excited for it. I knew this was unfair and thus actively avoided reviews. I didn’t want to come in with a bias, positive or negative. And, as it turned out, that was the best approach I could take. Any expectations I had, Super 8 blew them away.

I always worry that other viewers might make comments during a movie, and my fears are often confirmed. This wasn’t the case with Super 8. The audience remained engaged through the film, and with good reason. It moves seamlessly from humor and drama to suspense and horror, then does it all over again. No transitions feel forced, any sentimentality feels completely sincere, and the terror feels real.

Super 8 doesn’t rely heavily on any one element. The story, the setting, the effects, and the actors—each is as important and impressive as the next. Because Abrams is an expert in the field of showing, not telling, the threat of the monster is always looming. Occasionally, a scene takes you out of the action completely and gives the viewer insight into complicated, realistic relationships between friends or significant others or fathers and their children. Other moments are light, charming, and funny, giving you a minute to catch your breath. When the threat shows up again, it’s scary, but never in a way you’d call cheap or forced.

Plus, it’s rare to see child actors this talented, and to have gathered so many in one place is nothing short of remarkable. As you might have guessed, the adults are every bit as remarkable as the kids, and I can’t recall the last time I saw a film in which every performer was as talented as the next—at least, not to this extent.

If you haven’t already, see this film. Don’t go in with any preconceived notions of what it’s going to look like or how it’ll play out in the end. You’ll be happier for it. And that was my reaction to this movie: pure, unadulterated happiness. It’s rare for me to be this wholly satisfied with a movie. If you go in the way I did, slightly hesitant, but still open-minded, I think you might feel the same.

Are We Having Fun Yet?: Why Party Down Matters To Me

Before I watched Party Down, I had no doubt I would enjoy it. Both trusted friends and my favorite critics called it out as something of a hidden gem, buried deep in the recesses of Starz original programming. So when the series became available on Netflix via instant streaming, I figured I’d give it a try. I expected to appreciate the crush-worthy comedic leads, the offbeat premise, and, naturally, the raunchiness factor that stems from being on premium cable. And I did appreciate all of those things.

But the appeal, as it turned out, was deeper than that.

Party Down presents the idea that the Los Angeles catering business is where dreams go to die. Every member of the Party Down Catering team ends up there because something went wrong with their actual aspirations. Henry Pollard (Adam Scott) hopes that Party Down will provide him with an escape from constantly being recognized as that guy from the beer commercial who shouted “Are we having fun yet?” That hope is dashed within the first 20 minutes of the first episode, setting a simultaneously delightful and depressing tone that lasts for just about the entire series.

I don’t doubt that Scott could carry a show on his own shoulders; in fact, I’ve often joked that I would watch a show called The Adam Scott Reaction Shot Hour. But he doesn’t dominate Party Down, and he doesn’t need to. It’s truly an ensemble comedy, with every character just as engaging as the next. Henry may be the one who ends up keeping the group stable, but he needs them–aspiring actor and vapid hunk Kyle Bradway (Ryan Hansen), unpublished screenwriter and hard sci-fi fan Roman DeBeers (Martin Starr), hapless entrepreneur Ron Donald (Ken Marino), well-meaning but morally bankrupt bit actress Constance Carmell (Jane Lynch), sugary-sweet stage mother Lydia Dunfree (Megan Mullally), and Casey Klein (Lizzy Caplan), a wry, flirtatious amateur comedienne with her eye on Henry–just as badly as they need him.

Some near-unspeakably awkward situations arise over the course of the show, including, but certainly not limited to, Ron’s failed attempt to impress his former classmates at the high school reunion he desperately wanted to cater; an only vaguely defined event that ends up being an orgy; and a Jewish wedding at which Kyle’s band plays an unintentionally wildly anti-Semitic song. Normally, I can only take cringe humor in small doses. But my tolerance, and my enjoyment, grew much stronger as I watched.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t just the humor that sucked me in. Cheesy as it may sound, it was the raw emotion hidden beneath layers upon layers of dirty jokes and spot on sarcasm. Even as you laugh at and/or with the characters, you begin to see that all they want is to collectively catch a break. Sure, they’re selfish and act on impulse when they think there’s something worth pursuing, even if that means leaving the Party Down team in the lurch. But at the end of the day, all any of them wants is to succeed or see proof that success is possible for one of their own.

When I watched Party Down, I was freshly off a year of unemployment. I had very recently experienced the pain of what looks and feels like failure. And so, I felt oddly reassured by this group, this motley crew of inexperienced caterers who are clearly meant for more than feigning interest in shallow conversation and remembering who’s allergic to shellfish. Though the endings aren’t always happy, and hope is a thing of the past, sometimes all it takes is a curious silver lining, whether it’s a casting call, a message on your voicemail, or finally being able to smile when someone asks you if you’re having fun yet.

And for what it’s worth, I am.