Month: May 2015
Poltergeist (2015) ** (out of 5)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by: Gil Kenan
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings. It’s what Hollywood does today. I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I? I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines. For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original. Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable. Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before. Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly? Wouldn’t it be simply treading water? Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist. You’d be right. Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?
Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status. It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though. On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version. To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be. It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form. This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should. Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.
We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed. In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’. Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms. Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right? Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine. The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.
For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed. By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family. Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone? How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates? For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing. Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches. Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.
Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however. Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively. The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses. This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife. I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place. It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.
Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film. Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish. That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist? With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original. If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked. If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked. Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.
Hot Pursuit ** (out of 5)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, Richard T. Jones, John Carroll Lynch, Vincent Laresca, Joaquin Cosio, Jim Gaffigan, and Mike Birbiglia
Written by: David Feeney and John Quaintance
Directed by: Anne Fletcher
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: a straight, overzealous law enforcement officer comes into a dangerous situation and must escort a quirky witness from point A to point B. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the film has been done before. Ad nauseam. But oh, the hijinks! Be still my beating heart! Alas, I kid you- despite an honest effort (as usual) from Reese Witherspoon, combined with a perfunctory attempt to foist herself upon the comedic landscape by Sofia Vergara, Hot Pursuit is a tired, familiar viewing exercise. While I’m sure the principles involved had a hoot during filming, they forgot to provide much of anything to hold our attention, and assumed that tired stereotypes and also-ran clichés were fine stand-ins for actual fun.
Witherspoon is “Cooper”, the daughter of a well-known and respected police officer in the sovereign state of Texas. She grew up riding in a squad car, learning police codes through the scanner, and becoming a thoroughly trained officer herself. An unfortunate incident involving a taser has left her not quite disgraced, but also not, well, ‘graced’ either. In staying true to ‘cop movie’ form, Cooper is ridiculed by her supposed brethren as she is relegated to the evidence room. In a not-so-surprising twist of fate (but not really, since there isn’t a movie otherwise), her boss assigns her to a high-profile witness relocation mission. She is to accompany a FBI agent (Jones) to the home of Felipe Riva (Laresca), an important cog in the Vicente Cortez (Cosio) drug cartel, who is choosing to turn informant. Cooper’s part in this is to escort Felipe’s wife Daniella (Vergara), who wants to shove everything into her suitcase. She’s high-maintenance, it appears, and insists on having things her way. This, of course makes it difficult for Cooper to do her job. Do I hear sitcom?
We don’t have a movie if it’s a group of four people, though. Cooper and Daniella escape a sticky situation when two separate groups of assailants attack the household. Now it’s a road/buddy movie! These two sure do get into a whole bunch of shenanigans on their way to Dallas. First, they discover that there are (gasp) crooked cops! Then they lose their transportation. Then, of course, the straight-laced one gets all wacky after ingesting a banned substance. Then, there’s some physical comedy involving Jim Gaffigan’s awful stereotype of a rural Texan. But wait- there’s more! There’s a super hunky convict that takes a shine to Cooper, and we just know he’s going to crack that shell of awkwardness. There’s also more to Daniella than we may have originally thought. Cortez has killed her brother, or so we’re led to believe, so the chickens will, in all likelihood, come home to roost.
Please do not mistake my blatant sarcasm as intentionally vicious. I don’t hate this film, and for all intents and purposes, it isn’t Adam Sandler-level offensive to my sensibilities. I would have gladly welcomed a fresh take from a new release comedy, however, especially considering how likable and convincing Reese Witherspoon can be in most any role. Hot Pursuit simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to be fresh or new, especially when we consider that in the past few years, we’ve had multiple police comedies, usually pairing one straight-laced personality with an unpredictable one, or just a cop movie comedy in general. (See The Heat, 21 Jump Street, Ride Along, the Rush Hour films, Reno 911!, and even Let’s Be Cops for examples) At this point, whatever humor exists that is inherent to the police trade has been covered to the nth degree. It’s simply a tired formula that has seemingly bled out, and only gasps for life. I, for one, would like to officially call the time of death.
Oddly enough, the outtakes shown with the end credits outshine the film itself. We can see a distinct chemistry between the two stars, and their natural personalities are revealed. Now, if that magic could have been captured on-screen, we’d have something. Unfortunately, there is a humor deficit and familiarity with this film, which apparently forced the writers to rely on lazy cultural stereotypes and gross-out gags to generate laughs. Save for the staunchest of Witherspoon supporters, or perhaps those that can’t seem to get enough “Modern Family”, the film is wholly unnecessary. Actually, that thought leads to another- go watch “Modern Family”, then pop in Walk the Line, Election, or Legally Blonde (if you’re into that kind of thing) to get a better understanding of how these stars can make a project shine. Seek them out with a hot pursuit. See what I did there? I just made myself chuckle, a far greater accomplishment than I can credit to this film.
Ex Machina ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac
Written and directed by: Alex Garland
Apart from the occasionally palatable scientist (Neil DeGrasse Tyson comes to mind), the field of technology and science finds communicating their astounding results with the public a difficult task. Most of us can’t be bothered to leaf through the latest MIT Review or Popular Science to discover what brilliant people are creating or are on the verge of creating. As a result, it seems as though the public consumes the possible future through mediums such as film and television. Luckily for us, we’re occasionally fed these messages through the skilled lenses of Steven Spielberg (A.I.) and Spike Jonze (Her), or through the enchanting voice of Scarlett Johansson (Her). Ex Machina is one of those films, that doesn’t give up halfway through on its’ sci-fi senses just to blow things up. It’s the best type of work in this genre- a cinematic work that takes a thought and has a conversation with the audience before, during, and after the film.
Director Alex Garland, the writer of such science fiction fables as 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, handles his first directorial charge with the hand of an old pro. As the title implies, the film deals in gods and monsters, and is never swift to identify which is which. The subtlety Garland and the cast play between beauty and menace results in a truly mesmerizing, smart fable for our time- well, for all time. The film is science fiction embodied, chock full of questions, precisely in the manner I prefer to digest it. As it wades in both the shallow waters of our societal and moral atmospheres, whilst simultaneously toeing the line between tension and horror, it stands as 2015’s best thus far.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer for a company called ‘Bluebook’. We come to him as he’s just won an exclusive trip to meet the company’s founder and stay with him for a week. I imagine that would be like a Microsoft programmer spending a week with Bill Gates, whether that individual would want to or not. The fictional ‘Bluebook’, the world’s preeminent search engine, was created by a mysterious, reclusive genius (is there any other) named Nathan (Isaac). By now, we know the type; disconnected, awkward, wealthy beyond our imaginations, and lonely. Nathan is indeed that, it appears, and wants Caleb to interact with his latest creation, a “female” android named Ava (Vikander).
We know that Ava is a robot because we can see her metal innards, exposed gears, coverings and all. If we were unable to see her interact with Caleb, however, would we be able to tell whether or not she was human? That’s his dilemma, and a striking one at that. As the audience, we’re given their dalliances like acts of a play, each separate in nature, each building upon the previous one in terms of depth, understanding, and tension level. Caleb is increasingly affected by her pleasantness, curiosity, and insight, leading to emotions he can’t quite understand, including affection for her as a female. He begins to wonder what has transpired in this compound. Has Nathan, the creator, abused her? Does he keep her prisoner for any particular reason other than his own insecurities and misgivings? Does Nathan understand the responsibility of creating an intelligence, only to then repress its’ growth?
Caleb’s task, per Nathan, is simply to gauge whether or not Ava can pass for human, but it becomes clear early on that it will not, and cannot, be that simple. From their first chat until the film’s final moment, everything Ava says and does is unpredictable, just like the film itself. Will she be child-like? Will she be motivated to evolve? Will she see humans as a threat? If she does, will she use brute force, or maybe even manipulation, to achieve that goal? Does Nathan have a “kill” switch in the event of an emergency? Why does Ava not appear to be programmed with a template of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? Is there a reason the film doesn’t touch on them? Is everything that Ava says and does simply a result of programming, or has she actually transcended what she was intended to be? I hope you can tell that just by watching, the film inspires a number of interesting and difficult questions and thoughts. Garland writes this in a way that plays on our wonder of scientific possibility as well as our inherent fears of robots and the future. We can’t help but question what happens and what doesn’t happen during the film, creating a specific feeling of tension akin to horror. The film’s location, in an isolated, constricting compound in the mountains that can only be reached via helicopter, only adds to the feeling of impending doom. The film’s color palate adds to the feeling as well- the foggy, almost smoky wash when the camera is on a human, then clean and clear when focusing on an artificial being. Whether or not it was intentional, it certainly adds a dimension and a contrast to the film.
Another subtly horrific thought is the care, or lack thereof, in which each character handles the balance of life or death. We see Nathan throwing it around, not entirely concerned for the well-being of the things he hath wrought. We see Caleb doubt himself, to the point of questioning his role in the world, and his actual existence. In one breath, Ava seems to innocently understand the delicate balance of life, and in the next, it appears that she may not care in spite of her understanding. In essence, this is what humans may not be prepared for- giving life and an abundance of knowledge to a being, without taking the responsibility for what emotions they may encounter, the real fear they develop, and the results of such things. Thus, should we never attempt create it, as we do lack the comprehension to guide it? It is quite the sensation to watch and know that Ava is a machine, while simultaneously knowing that she may be more than a human.
I should take a moment to praise the performances here as well. All three leads are just simply outstanding. Gleeson is the perfect choice for Caleb, for we already buy him as a sweet, naive programmer, and then he expands on the role to include a darker side. Isaac, is, well, Oscar Isaac. His piercing intellect and gaze make him truly believable as a genius, and his awkward attempts to be a ‘regular guy’ with Caleb are perfect. He just isn’t a regular guy- he’s a reclusive genius, no matter how hard he tries not to be. Well, he’s also one of the top two or three actors working today, which may explain how wonderful the character is. Vikander, previously unbeknownst to me, is the real revelation here. One might assume that as a robot/android, there might be a limited range to display, but she is able to convey such optimism, such intrigue, and such menace with what amounts to just a facial performance. Her longing to see and do more is not a far cry from any Pinocchio story we’ve seen before, but it may be the most honest portrayal.
There exists the slightest hint that Garland made this material accessible as opposed to trusting the audience to digest an advanced plot about artificial intelligence, but I accept that. I’m also fascinated with Garland’s continued interest in the constructs of society, and how theoretical situations affect human beings in his work. In Sunshine, he sees an interesting dynamic within the pressures of saving humanity and our human natures. In 28 Days Later, he again puts human nature to the test in the wake of an apocalypse. Ex Machina is yet another test of our theoretical resolve, and I for one don’t believe his result is far from the theoretical truth. As he put it himself, this film is designed to emulate a future not too far from now, maybe ‘ten minutes out’. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a reclusive “Nathan” currently holed up somewhere with his own “Ava”. For all we know, there may be robots walking among us. Maybe Garland knows this to be true. It is clear to me that he should continue telling stories, and continue to generate what all excellent science fiction does- questions. This is a film that truly belongs in the upper echelon of the genre, which is no small feat for a rookie filmmaker.
Avengers: Age of Ultron ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, and James Spader (voice)
Written by: Joss Whedon, based on the comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Directed by: Joss Whedon
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
In the past few weeks, it seems as though I’ve developed a little something called perspective as it relates to the comic and superhero genres of film. Despite this blog’s moniker, I’m poor with the perspective on whether or not a comic film achieves what it sets out to do. Seeing the unfortunate, typical ‘fanboy’ reaction to the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser trailer taught me something, however- nothing can be achieved or enjoyed if we take this genre too seriously, or expect Oscar-caliber material with each entry, despite how much The Dark Knight spoiled us. These films should strictly be for fun, despite how deeply into the mythos we might delve. I admit to caring far too much for them, but I now can tell myself these things: they do not exist to alter filmmaking as a medium (even if they have certainly influenced it), they rarely bring hidden issues to light, and they rarely open my mind to new ideas. Having taken that necessary step back from the ‘everything is awesome’ attitude towards these films now, I can see this genre in a new light, the correct light.
It’s a good thing for Avengers: Age of Ultron that I came to this way of thinking. Despite his likely best intentions, director Joss Whedon has not busted open the proverbial creative bank, nor has he topped what he accomplished the first time around. He has, however, kept the material from being stagnant, whilst maintaining Marvel’s unique identity and giving us all the wit we can handle. Age of Ultron can be scatterbrained from time to time, lacking the focus attributed to previous films in this universe. Some plot points are non-sensical, some are skipped over (like the entire point of the Iron Man 3 film), and we’re handed a surprisingly heavy dose of emotional detachment. On the other hand, it’s an enormously entertaining and witty superhero epic, with gigantic, sometimes even unintelligible battle sequences that pound our senses into oblivion. If we hadn’t invested our time, energy, and emotion in these characters already, the film would be a mess. Alas, we’re invested so hard that it somehow works in spite of its’ flaws.
The film begins tying up the loose end that is the remainder of HYDRA, the World War II-era Nazi spin-off organization. We know from the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more, and that HYDRA is holed up in the fictional land of ‘Sokovia’ with Loki’s scepter from the first Avengers story arc. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Kretschmann) is in charge here, looking all “Bond villain-y” with his monocle and utilizing the technology within the scepter to do…something. The Avengers storm his castle, which is oddly littered with unfinished robots, some newfangled tech, and two ‘special’ twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively). When we first encountered these ‘specials’ (they’re mutants, but because of silly rights issues, this film can’t call them “X-Men”) in the Winter Soldier end credits, they were caged, as if dangerous. Clearly, things have changed, as Strucker can ‘unleash’ them like weapons against the invading Avengers.
One of the twins, the “witch” (Olsen), uses her mind-projecting powers on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) to show him a future in which he is responsible for the end of the Avengers, and, in essence, the end of the world. It’s a neat power she has, for it allows the plot to use her based on what it needs, almost like a ‘get out of jail free card for Joss Whedon. Stark’s experience in Sokovia causes him to rekindle a romance with an idea he had shelved- the ‘Ultron’ program. As he explains to Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), this defense program would, in essence, take the responsibility of saving the world off the Avengers. Here’s the problem- in starting the Ultron program, he inadvertently creates artificial intelligence. The film doesn’t focus on the greatest achievement in mankind’s history (the creation of A.I.), but we must remember- this isn’t a science fiction film, and talking about science would delay the explosions.
The ‘essence’ known as Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that emerges from a successful trial of the program rapidly becomes self-aware, gathers a rudimentary ‘body’, and in turn, begins to attack those that would reign it in. I found it interesting, and sensible that at no point did Ultron choose the path of least resistance, and at no point did he show much sympathy- he simply chose the natural path of defending himself, another sensible option considering the framework of evolution. You can imagine what happens after that- Ultron finds the Avengers to be a threat, and systematically attempts to eliminate them. I also find it interesting that the combined intelligences of Stark and Banner couldn’t predict this outcome, with their acute scientific acumen and all. I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a film if they had.
Everything that follows Ultron’s escape and subsequent terror plans is rather standard, and requires no explanation. The fun in this film does not come from trying to make logical sense of what Stark and Banner did, nor does it come from most of the action set pieces. Age of Ultron, like its’ predecessor, is at its’ best when the characters have time to talk. It’s an epic action film, sure, but what myself and most of the crowd cheered for were the personal moments. From the comraderie of the team when they storm the HYDRA castle to the exchanges at Stark’s party at Avengers tower, I loved the ‘lived in’ nature of the film as it recognizes and plays with the familiarity we have with these characters. The banter between fringe team members like Falcon (Mackie) and War Machine (Cheadle), the budding romance between Black Widow (Johanssen) and Banner, and the other side of Hawkeye (Renner) that we get to see is the most fun we’ve had in a Marvel film. Captain America (Evans) again asserts his status as the rightful leader of this team, never wavering in his morality or his dedication. This is an excellent, well-cast team of (mostly) professional actors, and when they’re allowed to interact as a team, it’s an extremely entertaining film.
I’ll go a step further on the casting brilliance and admit that Ultron is so much fun. Spader’s voice is a perfect complement to the CGI creation- completely and totally unhinged, sarcastic, all-knowing. Basically, he’s a psychotic hunk of vibranium. Despite the fact that we know Ultron’s plan cannot ultimately succeed, as there are future movies already planned, I still appreciate and revel in his lunacy, even laughing in disbelief at some of the words spewing forth from his mouth. Spader’s performance may not be the complete tour-de-force that Heath Ledger’s Joker was in The Dark Knight, but honestly, I don’t think it’s that far off. At the very least, it is certainly the film’s main attraction.
As I said before, I needed to step away from my fanboy feelings as I watched the film. Well, I suppose I needed to step away from my feelings on logic as well. I’m sure “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” explains where Agent Coulson is, but I haven’t watched the show, so I’m asking- where is Agent Coulson? Where are any of the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? Why would Falcon sit out the end battle? Why would Tony Stark push Iron Man aside in his last film, only to come back without question this time? Why should I care?
I shouldn’t, and I won’t care too much. Marvel has done a commendable job of creating their own cinematic world while keeping most of the moving parts in place. I suppose one could consider that the whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts in reference to the Marvel Universe. That doesn’t excuse some of the missteps and all-too-easy confluence of events in Age of Ultron, but if you see the film as part of a twenty-two picture saga (including future installments), the missteps are more palatable. This is the eleventh film of the saga, the literal midpoint, which would seem to be the fulcrum for future change in this universe. We sort of see it, and some events, like the immaculate conception of Vision, show a different voice and look from what we’ve seen before. The fanboy side of my brain, however, just wished for a slightly bolder, and braver, take on this universe we’ve come to know so well. I wish I could have sat with Whedon as he put the pen to paper, whispering ever so gently as he wrote, “Come on, man. Do something brave. Do something bold. We can take it; heck, we WANT it. We love these characters, even enough to let them go if necessary”. Instead, as our mid-credits scene promises, Age of Ultron is simply another bridge-builder, forcing us to stay tuned for the climax. Here, I begrudgingly give you my future money.