The director J J Abrams, perhaps wondering why they don't make movies like they used to, has gone and done exactly that – a movie like they, specifically his hero Steven Spielberg, used to make. Almost every frame of it resounds with His Master's Voice. Fans may say Super 8 is a fond tribute, others that it's a blatant knock-off, but either way it doesn't matter, because Spielberg himself is onboard as producer to his one-time protege: at the age of 15 Abrams and Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) got a job cutting together Spielberg's old 8mm home movies. So the big man's really just returning a favour.
As producer of the TV series Lost and director of the last Star Trek reboot in 2009, Abrams already has form in crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Super 8 steers a hazardous path between the film he wants to make and the film he knows a multiplex audience wants to see. Until the final half-hour, when the latter imperative takes charge, he pulls it off rather brilliantly. It's no coincidence that his focus should be a group of young teen film-makers, earnestly trying to put together a Super 8 movie for a local competition. (It's the summer of 1979, before videocams and YouTube). Clever, too, of Abrams to make his hero not the director – that's autocrat-in-waiting Charles (Riley Griffiths) – but the make-up and special-effects artist Joe (Joel Courtney), a sweet, shy kid who's just lost his mum and can't connect with his tight-lipped dad (Kyle Chandler), deputy sheriff of their Ohio steel town. The motherless boy with a creative temperament: if he wore baseball cap and a mini-beard he couldn't be more Spielbergian.
Joe and the boys meet for a midnight shoot at an abandoned railway station, their mood indefinably heightened by the presence of an older girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), who's agreed to play "zombie wife" (it's that kind of movie). It also helps that she's brought her dad's car. When they get down to rehearsal, the boys are agog watching Alice play the (pre-zombie) wife begging her husband not to leave – like Naomi Watts's celebrated screen-test in Mulholland Drive her out-of-nowhere performance comes over as powerfully moving. What's so winning is Abrams's suggestion that this is the kind of moment that makes someone want to become a film-maker – the magical translation of art into feeling. The moment passes when director Charles spots a freight train heading their way and hastily starts filming the scene – "for production value!" he enthuses. The camera is still rolling when the train collides head-on with a truck and breaks up spectacularly – perhaps more spectacularly than a train has ever done in movies before. It's an early sign that Abrams is prepared to deliver the big CGI bangs, despite the otherwise grainy, pre-digital look of the film.
The derailed train turns out to hold a strange cargo – so strange it's kept off-screen for most of the story – but the evidence of it has been caught on Charles's camera. From here we are very decidedly in the land of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the US airforce arrive to investigate the wreckage and paranoia grips the townsfolk. Electrical goods and car engines go missing; pet dogs go missing; then people start to go missing. It seems that a teacher at Joe's school has the inside track on these bizarre happenings, but he's now prisoner of the authorities. Will the truth come out?
The suspense of this is not really the point. What keeps us enthralled is its nostalgic sensibility, partly for the time but mostly for its old-school film-making values. Abrams tell his story not by blitzing his audience with non-stop action but by concentrating on faces as they disclose and conceal emotion. He wants us to like his characters, without being neurotically insistent about it. His casting choices are inspired. Joel Courtney, a young actor I don't recall seeing before, has the perfect, pre-airbrushed look of 1970s adolescence, his freckly, bun-shaped face and imperfect teeth so in tune with the age. Elle Fanning, the bright teenage daughter in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, is terrific as Alice, her big gaze hiding just enough hurt to intrigue us. The tenderness between these two, traced with a light comic touch, is completely involving. Somebody should make Michael Bay sit down and watch their scenes together – he might learn why movies are about something more than blowing shit up. The lesser roles are nicely done as well, in particular Ryan Lee as pyrotechnics expert Cary, his teeth garrisoned with metal – talk about production values.
The film's charm doesn't last the distance. You can virtually pinpoint the scene from which it starts to decline into formulaic, FX-driven setpieces. Abrams has nerve as well as talent, but not enough of either to resist the gravitational pull of box-office numbers. The last half-hour is so much less interesting than what has gone before. Don't leave once the credits begin to scroll, though; that zombie flick the kids have been making is finally screened, and turns out to be both send-up and affectionate pastiche of raw tyro film-making. You laugh, at the same time as you think: that's probably just the sort of squib that Abrams, or even Steven Spielberg, once cut his teeth on.
MR POPPER'S PENGUINS (PG) ***
Starring: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino
If only Jim Carrey didn't want to be loved so much he'd be quite a decent comedian. Here as Mr Popper he starts out as he did in Liar, Liar some years back, this time playing a ruthless property developer (instead of a ruthless lawyer) who lives in a fab Manhattan loft and rides a limo: Carrey's natural talent is for making arrogance and smarminess enjoyable. Then Popper inherits from his late father a sextet of penguins (don't ask), but rather than dispatch them to the zoo he turns his loft into an Arctic playpen and gives them cute names. Huh? Alas, this is because it's a family entertainment, and Popper not only wants to win back the love of his neglected kids, he's also trying to woo back his ex-wife (Carla Gugino). Doh: the usual Hollywood guff about how the deal-maker is, underneath it all, a great dad who says things like "Yapsolutely!" Unfortunately, Carrey doing paternal warmth is neither funny nor convincing, and his last-minute conversion to cuddly capitalist will fool precisely no one.
FRENCH CANCAN (PG) ***
Starring: Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul
This digital restoration of Jean Renoir's 1955 homage to the French music hall is vibrant and colourful, though not quite a great movie. At 60 years old, Renoir was paying respects to his father, Pierre Auguste, and to a host of other painters – Lautrec, Manet, Degas et al – in his recreation of the Moulin Rouge and its performers. Jean Gabin plays the amorous impresario Danglard, who discovers female talent (Françoise Arnoul plays Nini, the Montmartre laundress who can dance), makes them stars, but cannot stay faithful. It's like a musical without proper songs – just snatches of songs (one by Edith Piaf) – which might have rendered its romantic frivolity more affecting. As it is, we hardly give two hoots for the prince and the baker in love with Nini. The Technicolor lends it zest, and the cancan finale is a delirious raise-the-roof setpiece. But as a whole it feels oddly impersonal.
KNUCKLE (NC) ***
The fighting Irish, as you've never seen them before. Ian Palmer, a Dublin film-maker, stumbled on this story of bare-knuckle boxing among Travellers almost by accident. With roots in an obscure but long-running feud between three families, the Joyces, the Nevins and the Quinn McDonaghs (no relation – I think), the fights recur every few years, usually an organised bare-knuckle contest, without rounds, in a quiet country lane or car park. What's most remarkable is that the warring families are related to one another: the shaven-headed bruisers out for blood might be first or second cousins. Palmer's focus is local hero James Quinn McDonagh, a genial family man who swears off fighting but is drawn back in, generally after a tit-for-tat exchange of insults. Nobody hates, or remembers, like the Irish. Palmer, granted extraordinary access to this private world, delivers a riveting account of a near-medieval clannishness and bellicosity.
THE TREE (12A) **
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies, Marton Csokas
Julie Bertuccelli's bereavement drama, set near Brisbane, Australia, begins intriguingly before wasting goodwill on clunky symbolism and leaden dialogue. Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in an uncertain performance) loses her husband and has to cope with four children on her own. Life isn't made easier when her pert eight-year-old daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) becomes convinced that the gigantic Moreton Bay fig tree next to their house is occupied by the spirit of her late dad. When Dawn becomes involved with a local handyman (Marton Csokas) the kid turns sulky, while the tree's roots begin, literally, to bring the house down. The conception of Dawn's character is unwittingly irksome – she's alternately snappish and indulgent – and her children don't endear themselves either, though Davies's performance as the tree-haunter impresses. Adapted from a novel by Judy Pascoe, it's one of those "personal" projects the director has got so close to that she can't see how it plays on screen.
SARAH'S KEY (12A) *
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance
It is unlucky timing that this comes out only weeks after The Round-Up, another French film examining the horrific betrayal of Parisian Jews by their own countrymen during the Nazi occupation. There is the same recreation of the Winter Velodrome, the desperate scramble to escape, the separation of children and parents at the transit camp before the final journey East... Kristin Scott Thomas plays an American journalist investigating the event over 60 years later, and stumbling upon a tale of survival that touches closely on her own French in-laws. The screenplay, shuttling between timeframes, grows more accommodating of cliche as it proceeds, and deathbed revelations start to pile up obtrusively as Scott Thomas pursues her story from Paris to Brooklyn. It's also one of those films that's clueless about the state of modern journalism – watch the editorial meeting in which the fearless writer tells her editor, "I want 10 pages on this story." Hmm. Why not try "And I want a pay rise, too," that may also work.
THE REFEREES (15) **
Given the unprecedented access allowed to its three French directors, this documentary on the life of top international football referees is oddly lightweight and unsatisfying. We go behind the scenes of UEFA's refereeing committee at the Euro 2008 competition, meet the various trios of refs – including our own Howard Webb – and learn a bit about their families. The film's one real coup is to show the mic'd conversations during the game between the referees, the assistants and the players: the speed of response and clarity of focus required are pretty intense, off the pitch as well as on. But without any commentary or editorial input the film looks passive and meek; instead of interviewing the individual refs it prefers shots of bear-hugs (what is this modern custom of men hugging like they're going off to war?), low-level banter and way, way too much of Howard Webb's dad – a nice old buffer who has nothing of interest to say about his son's profession. An opportunity wasted.