Sam Raimi

Film Review- ‘Poltergeist’ (2015) (**)

Posted on

Guess who's coming to dinner?
Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Classic Film Review: ‘Poltergeist (1982)’ (*****)

Posted on

AT&T’s ‘Reach Out and Touch Someone’ campaign takes it too far.

 

Poltergeist (1982)  ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein

Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor

Directed by: Tobe Hooper

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

As a species, we odd beings known as humans mark the passage of time in a variety of odd ways.  Some keep pictures, whereas others may travel to specific locations on an anniversary.  Me?  I watch certain films each year at particular times, for they either remind me of that time of year, were released at that time originally, or give me a general ‘feeling’ that can only come from being wrapped up in them.  The original Poltergeist belongs in that category.  It puts me in the mindset of a fall evening, when the howling, cool wind carries a bite that only a thin-skinned child can feel.  It also calls back to a time when the nuances of a house frightened me, when I assumed that things going bump in the night were after me, and when the fear of being lost was tantamount to death itself.  Directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre veteran Tobe Hooper, but crafted by Steven Spielberg (we can argue about that later), Poltergeist is a film that has affected me deeply in different ways at different points in my life.  It remains one of the best films of the genre, darned near a masterpiece of spiritual and familial terror.

I was near the tender age of 5 when I first saw the film, as it aired on broadcast TV for the first time.  For some unknown reason, my parents felt I was up for the experience.  After all, it was rated PG; a rating that was clearly inaccurate for the terrors and occasional gore on-screen.  However, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the furor surrounding its’ gore was still two years away, and thus the MPAA had yet to develop the PG-13 rating.  I remember feigning my bravest face after it was over, wanting my parents to continue bestowing those special privileges upon me.  Inside, my stomach churned.  Like any child that dealt with a menacing-looking tree, static on an analog television, or a creepy stuffed animal their family thrust upon them, it was clear that Poltergeist spoke directly to me.

As I learned later in life, that may have been close to Spielberg’s intention.  Like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released a week later in 1982, he framed this story through the lens of a child’s experience.  Children can be easily frightened by stuffed animals, or thunderstorms, dark closets, or even a misshapen tree.  Parents generally try to assuage them, and over time they overcome those irrational fears.  Poltergeist is intimately aware of those fears, and they’re all systematically brought to life in the film.  The scary tree will eat you, clowns are evil, and the closet literally will come after you.  In this film, the cozy comforts of a friendly neighborhood and a cookie-cutter home cannot save you.  From a parent’s perspective, all the safeguards we build up around our children, all the rules about talking to strangers, the fears we allay in our kids- this film boots them to the side, praying on our “parent” brain as well.  The film begins with that innocent, sweet tone, slowly lurking in the shadows to take everything precious and stomp on it.

Spielberg and crew made a smart, timely film that tore into the very fabric of baby boomers’ suburban dreams.  Representing the now aging demographic is Steven Freeling (Nelson). He’s the consummate post-hippie salesman father, passively parenting his children, selling carbon copy real estate like an old pro, escaping in aggressive Sunday football parties and beers with the exuberance of a frat boy.  His wife Diane (Williams), still riding that wave of hippie bliss, has yet to encounter her primal, maternal self at the beginning of the film.  Perhaps it’s the pot residue, but the most trying thing she seems to encounter are misplaced clothes and the death of the family bird.  They’re living the dream, or at least the Reaganomics version of the dream.  Even their kids are cute and relatively well-behaved, if not also blissfully unaware.  The dynamic can be summed up in a scene where Carol Anne (O’Rourke) is gently chided for staring at static on the screen for it will “hurt her eyes”; Diane changes the channel, apparently fine with the war film now on the tube instead.  Oh, the irony!

Then it starts to happen.  Carol Anne is caught talking to the ‘TV people’ in the dead of the night, the house appears to quake, and household objects move themselves.  At first, Steven and Diane think it neat, like a trippy magic trick; then comes the menace of the trippy magic trick, the snatching of the ‘WASP’ dream.  Carol Anne is taken somewhere, Robbie (Robins) is nearly devoured, and Dana (Dunne) is hysterical.  Steven, against his beliefs, consults a parapsychology team at the local college.  This motley crew, led by Dr. Lesh (Straight) and the odd, diminutive Tangina (Rubenstein), quickly learn that the Freeling’s predicament far exceeds the excitement of a time-lapse video.  In the span of fifteen minutes in the film, we go from seeing this relatively normal family deal with a standard, nighttime thunderstorm to being completely strung out in immeasurable grief, pleading with pseudo-science for assistance. This paranormal spirit that envelops the Freeling house succeeds in luring the family into a false sense of security, then it viscerally “breaks on through to the other side”.  What follows is a series of unexpected, thrilling, deeply moving scenes that play with the notions of life, death, instinct, and fear.

Of course the audience knows that something wicked cometh their way, for Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant and sinister musical composition wonderfully telegraphs it.  The innocent chants of a children’s chorus, coupled with precocious flutes, played against the backdrop of the Cuesta Verde neighborhood, slowly give way to shrill, treacherous brasses that signal the forthcoming evil.  I remember this score more than most; perhaps because, like Spielberg, Goldsmith created something that might exist in the mind of a child.  Just as the film covers a checklist of my childhood fears, the score is the soundtrack of my childhood dreams, full of light and dark.

It’s also important to focus on the film’s outstanding performances.  For all of the sadness and punch lines that surrounded this cast over time, everyone is superb here.  Both of the younger actors, especially O’Rourke, perfectly depict the innocence and real, palpable fright essential to their roles.  Nelson, as recognizable as he and his booming voice are, works well as the spaced-out dad forced into action.  Williams breathes life and guts into Diane, lending an honesty to a character that we weren’t entirely sure could handle the stress at first.  As a parent now, it tears me apart to hear her lament “she went through my soul”, syrupy words aside.   Beatrice Straight, the veteran stage actor, grounds the film in the middle of the chaos by patiently delivering a touching monologue about life and death.  It’s simple, sure, but it doesn’t pander.  Zelda Rubenstein’s most recognized role was Tangina Barrons, and for good reason; her odd, stern way of squeaking out lines drew ever so close to camp without crossing that line.

Tangent to the film itself is the much-publicized aura surrounding it, including the deaths of Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and others involved with the original trilogy.  The idea that the films were ‘cursed’ became something of a Hollywood legend, as did the story that real skeletons were used in the original’s pool scenes.  To boot, the notion that Spielberg literally directed the film has been debated for some time.  Despite Hooper’s credit as director, this movie does walk and talk like a Spielberg film, to the point where the Director’s Guild of America actually investigated the matter, leading to an open letter decrying the rumor by Spielberg himself.  We also know that Poltergeist exists in the pop culture ether with a select group of films; be it “they’re here”, “go into the light”, or “this house is clean”, many of the film’s moments and lines have been spoofed, hinted at, or quoted; few are those who cannot point out a Poltergeist tidbit.

The critical mass when this film arrived on the scene was generally positive, but still underwhelming.  As strongly as I have praised it here, I’m left with the feeling that Poltergeist is remembered well, yet may actually be underrated as a film.  That horror films tend to suffer from an aversion to praise may be in part to blame, but it seems as though the film’s influence on pop culture may have distracted some from seeing the film’s quality.  Those that see this today for the first time may not agree with my assessment of this film.  That could be based on comparisons to today’s thrillers combined with pre-existing ideas, but that is not an indication that the film aged poorly.  It genuinely seems to be a film that many look back on fondly, without the need to lament its’ age.  In addition, I find Poltergeist to be more of a “spiritual social commentary thriller” than a horror film anyway.  It bothers to challenge our ideas on a possible ethereal plane of existence, it asks what lengths a family might go to in order to save one of their own, and it threatens the dreams of the baby boomer generation.

Every child of the 80’s can see a little bit of themselves in a film like this, which lends to the film sticking in our minds.  Robbie’s side of the bedroom looked exactly like, well, my room.  That gnarly tree looked strikingly similar to a gnarly tree in my yard, right behind my bedroom window.  His fears were my fears.  Heck, I couldn’t sleep with the door closed for years, for every time I saw light through the door frame, I was convinced a spook awaited me.  Consequently, Steven and Diane’s realized fears as parents ended up mirroring my fears as well.  It touches at the very core of our parental instincts, like the desire to protect our children at any cost, even if it means confronting the ‘Beast’, or how mad we’ll dash to them when we sense danger (and how long that journey seems, no matter the distance).  Poltergeist is a film that seems to have crawled out of my childhood dreams and onto the screen- then back into my head as a parent, solidifying my opinion of it as a timeless classic.  Is it possible that I’m putting too much on the film, and the actual result is weaker that I give it credit?  Sure.  It’s also possible that Spielberg, Hooper, and crew simply captured lightning in a bottle, making a film that exceeded even their own expectations.  Time has been kind to Poltergeist, which has grown into an eminently watchable, smart, visceral thriller that aged far better than this writer.

Mini Film Reviews (Moon, The Hurt Locker, How To Train Your Dragon)

Posted on Updated on

Moon role models the hurt locker

Note- the following mini film reviews were from 2010 on a different blog that I no longer run.

Role Models (***1/2)-  This is one of those movies I said I wouldn’t see (because penis and boob jokes usually bore me), but I watched it to appease friends that insist I’m a movie snob.  Admittedly, this isn’t too bad, and in parts, I laughed heartily.  I also appreciated how the geek culture was both roasted and praised at the same time, as well as the skewering of the ‘energy drink’ industry.  I recommend this with a caveat:  I want comedies to stop being so formulaic (i.e. immature/lazy characters get drunk/high, lose/almost lose their forgiving girl, turn the corner, make a big mistake, and then go to great lengths to make everything better).  I hope the next comedy involving Paul Rudd isn’t so telegraphed.

Step Brothers (*1/2)-  Aside from the occasional humorous line (one delivered by a little girl, and one that you can only find in the DVD’s deleted scenes), I’d have to say I was really disappointed with this.  Adam McKay (Anchorman– my #3 funniest film) directs, so where does it go wrong?  Well, even in silly comedies, I still expect some semblance of sense.  This is a jumbled mess that extends a 5 minute idea (Hey!  We’re 40 and live with our parents!  How sad is that?!) into a feature.  I split this up into two viewings and still almost dozed off the second time around.  There are two types of Will Ferrell movies: Good, (Anchorman, Stranger Than Fiction, Elf)  and really bad (Superstar, Semi-Pro, Talladega Nights).  This falls into the latter category.

The Hangover (**1/2)–  For all the hoopla, I’m ultimately left wondering what the big deal is.  Sure, there are random funny moments (mostly the scenes stolen by Zack Galifianakis), and it wasn’t terrible by any means, but is this all we get for the top grossing comedy of all time?  I shouldn’t expect much from director Todd Phillips (‘Road Trip’, ‘Old School’, ‘Starsky & Hutch’), and this is definitely his best effort, but for the praise this one gets, I’m kind of bummed that this wasn’t funnier.  There’s too much Mike Tyson (one scene was enough), and I’m worn out with the whole ‘what happens in Vegas’ schtick.  Debauchery is only funny the first hundred times.  I really wanted it to be legendarily funny.

Tron (**)  In anticipation of the Christmas 2010 sequel ‘Tron Legacy”, I wanted to bone up on the original.  I had to remind myself that in 1982 this was something of a groundbreaking film in the area of visual effects (from what I’ve read).  However, in contrast to other sci-fi flicks that HAVE stood the test of time (Star Wars), the effects in this film are extremely dated…and it’s also a rather dull movie with dull characters, centered around the idea that computer programs can interface with real people, or ‘users’., and one such self-aware program wants to ‘rule the world’ or whatever.  The whole ‘computers taking over’ thing may have originated here (I’m not sure), but the ‘Terminator’ franchise has beat that idea into submission, along with countless other cautionary tales of technology.  I saw this when I was younger, but I never clamored to watch this like the other classics of the time, and I think I know why now.  The trailer for ‘Tron Legacy’ is far more interesting than any 2 minutes of this film.  It was probably way cooler back in 1982, but good movies always stand the test of time, shoddy effects or not.

The Hurt Locker (*****)- The most recent Oscar winner for Best Picture, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a truly great movie.  I say that even though I, like others, have grown tired of the slew of Iraq war movies in recent years.  I’ll also admit that I was apprehensive because I hadn’t been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous work.  However, there’s not a moment that I wasn’t on the edge of my seat.  It’s cliché to say that, but I’m not kidding; this is an intense film.  I think we all understand by now that ‘war is Hell’, but this film doesn’t concentrate on that.  For some, adrenaline is addictive, and for the lead character, played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner, the adrenaline rush war provides is a drug.  If there can be such a thing as a ‘fresh perspective’ on war, this film offers it, and does so in great fashion, following a bomb squad on various missions.  On a side note, I’m incredibly pleased that this won Best Picture at the Oscars over Avatar.  I enjoyed that, but only in the area of technological innovation was it superior to The Hurt Locker.  It’s good to know that using politics to sway voters during Oscar season this year didn’t work.

Bruno (***)-  Right after I watched this, I commented on Facebook that I’d never been so entertained and appalled at the same time.  I think that pretty much encapsulates this movie.  Sacha Baron Cohen, as the faux Austrian fashion guru, does everything he can to shock the viewer, and succeeds in that arena.  Occasionally, the gratuitous nature of the movie was a bit much, but at other times I was in stitches- not ‘Borat’ stitches, but still.  Afterwards I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t as entertained by this as I was ‘Borat’, but considering the bar that Cohen set for himself, anything short of that was going to let me down.  Slight spoiler alert:  the scenes with the reforming minister and the large crowd at the end are a little too real to be funny.  It’s unfortunate how pervasive bigotry can be.

Drag Me To Hell (***)-  Full disclosure- I can’t stand the ‘Evil Dead’ movies, or Army of Darkness, the supposed legendary starter films for director Sam Raimi.  However, he has made really good movies since then (A Simple Plan, Spider-Man 2), so I know he’s capable.  Keeping that in mind, and knowing that Alison Lohman was the lead (big smile), I figured I’d watch this with mild expectations.  I had also heard that this was somewhat ‘light’ on the horror and occasionally humorous- which ends up being the case. Lohman’s character is your average girl, trying to ‘make it in this world’, and thus takes a risk that ends with a curse being placed on her.  This film takes the curse very seriously.  The lengths her character has to go through in an attempt to rid the curse make this an entertaining, and at times, mildly scary film.  I’d have preferred that Raimi drop the amusing moments altogether and do a more ominous straight-up horror flick.  I think that would have capitalized on the real strong points of the movie, the scary moments.  (SPOILER ALERT): I was surprised to have enjoyed it, and was particularly taken aback by the ending, which was timed perfectly…not too much time in between the climax and the end, and thus we aren’t sure if there’s more coming or not.  The look on Justin Long’s face in the final shot is one I can imagine myself having.

Moon (*****)- I was so excited to see this little independent sci-fi film that I rushed to the computer to see which one of our theaters was going to carry it when it released.  Alas, NEITHER of them did.  Very, very disappointing.  I’d have thought that a film starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey’s voice would be somewhat attractive.  Of course, there must not have been room for this film when theaters had to have 10-15 showings of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen each day.  (Sigh)  Moon concerns astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell), who is nearing the end of a three-year mining shift on the Moon when he comes across an odd occurence while out in a rover: himself.  Kevin Spacey voices the robot GERTY, who runs things at the moon base, including the medical functions.  This is a deeply engrossing film that is part sci-fi, part character study.  I’m stunned Sam Rockwell wasn’t nominated for Best Actor; if you see the film, you’ll understand specifically why it must have been a difficult role to pull off, and he was fantastic.  Not everyone can show patience with films like this (sci-fi ‘thinking’ movies), but if you can be, it’ll be rewarding.  My only beef is with the typeface used during the trailer and credits, which is again the same unoriginal drivel that everyone uses to ‘appeal to a certain demographic’ (sigh x 2).

The Spirit (no stars)-  This will be short, mainly because it only warrants a short review.  This is an evil, terrible movie, with no direction and no value whatsoever.  Even Samuel L. Jackson yelling isn’t the least bit satisfying.  I had better check out one of Will Eisner’s comics to see if the source material is better, because this just sucks.

Gone Baby Gone (****1/2)-  Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a well-acted, emotional thriller that basically forces the viewer to examine some of their own thoughts.  Based on the book by well-known author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is a visceral film that deftly runs the gamut from child abduction to police corruption.  No scene is wasted, especially those involving Amy Ryan, who plays the drug-abusing mother of the abducted child.  After seeing her in ‘The Office’ first, I couldn’t help but be slightly shocked each time she swore or did something despicable.  Ed Harris is brilliant (again) as a cop with a unique perspective on justice, and Casey Affleck is surprisingly effective as the street-smart private detective that has to make the tough choices once he’s in over his head.  I looked back to see what was nominated for Best Picture the year this film came out, and both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are films I consider on par with or better than this, but I cannot believe this didn’t get at least a nomination over ‘Juno’, which I couldn’t stand.  I’m not sure I should feel comfortable quite yet, but based on this film, I admit I’m looking forward to Ben Affleck’s next directorial venture, The Town, which seems to have a nice little cast.  (*note- I’ve since seen both The Town and Argo, and they’re both brilliant)

Zombieland (****)-  I like my post-apocalyptic films to be a bit more serious, so I can really get a feel for the desolate nature of a world on the brink of extinction.  However, this was just plain fun.  It follows two, then four, survivors of a virus outbreak that has, as you guessed it, turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies.  The zombie thing is incredibly overdone, but this film isn’t concerned so much with the zombies as it is with the characters, and how they’ve learned to survive.  Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland’ is the main character, who suffers from a lack of self-esteem, but has made a list of ways to survive in Zombieland, a list that brought a smile to my face.  Woody Harrelson is the gun-loving redneck (no WAY) that has a soft side, and Emma Stone teams up with Abigail Breslin as con-artist sisters.  Zombieland is effective in part because it knows not to take itself too seriously.  It also has some fun set pieces, like the mansion of a celebrity (I won’t give it away), a grocery store, and an amusement park to play with the zombies.  I imagine that if ‘The Sims’ and ‘Resident Evil’ software joined together, we’d probably get something similar to this film.

Iceman (1984) (****)-  An effective film starring Timothy Hutton as an anthropologist who tries to connect with a 40,000 year old thawed out prehistoric man.  This could have been silly, but the performances are superb, especially John Lone as ‘Charlie’, the ‘iceman’.  I think anyone that can make a 40,000 year old person seem realistic deserves some kudos.  Also, there is actual science used and discussed throughout the entire ‘thawing’ process, not just a montage of scenes to move the plot along.  Look for Danny Glover in a role as a gamekeeper, and the principal from the Back To The Future films, James Tolkan.  I used to watch this often when I was younger, and I just revisited it a couple of weeks ago as a streaming file via Netflix online.  The film quality was incredibly poor, but I’m hoping that someday Universal will remaster it on Blu-Ray, and I’ll surely pick it up then.

Bolt (****)-  I’ve had the benefit of getting to know this movie’s ins and outs VERY well, as my son wants to watch it…A LOT.  Bolt is one of those rare Disney animated films that isn’t in the category of The Lion King or Toy Story.  I remember being intrigued by the trailer, which, as it turns out, contains the best jokes from the movie.  It’s an easy to digest movie for kids, and interesting enough for adults.  Bolt is touching without being forced, and I was able to appreciate the subtle humor.  Similar to the ‘Madagascar’ penguins, some quirky pigeons show up for comic relief as well.  You won’t mistake this for the Pixar movies, but it isn’t too far behind.

Love Happens (1/2 star)-   Why did I watch this?  Although I knew everything that would happen based on the trailer, I suppose I got sucked in by the Goo Goo Dolls song playing in the background.  Silly me…  Anyways, Aaron Eckhart stars as a self-help guru that (big surprise) isn’t quite as strong as he seems.  Jennifer Aniston continues to waste screen time as a flower shop owner that makes ‘bad decisions’, even though she OWNS A FLOWER SHOP that is thriving in a big city (Seattle).  But I digress- you can tell what happens based on the title of the movie, and nothing interesting is in between.  Eckhart continues to confuse me- he’s pretty good in some things (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich, In The Company Of Men), and appears miscast in LOTS of stuff (Thank You For Smoking, The Core, Suspect Zero).  That might be the definition of mediocre, I suppose.  I also want Aniston to go away.  I hope that isn’t too harsh.  Do give you an idea of how predictable and bad this is, I had the ‘finger gun’ pointed at my head about a dozen times while watching this.  I’ll state the obvious…sh*t also ‘happens’, thus we have this film.

Pandorum (***)-  It’s really, REALLY hard to find good science fiction films to watch these days.  Usually a film advertised as sci-fi turns out to be a ‘boo’ movie, where things just jump out at characters in between quickly edited shots. Pandorum is a film that I’d generally ignore based on plain old intuition- it has Dennis Quaid in it (strike one), gnarly-looking monsters just to have some (strike two), Paul W.S. Anderson as a producer (strikes three, four, five and six), and the same dreaded, overused, unoriginal typeface for its’ multimedia and credits as countless other movies (strike seven, and I’ll get to the typeface/font thing in another post).  Imagine my surprise when I was halfway through the movie and thought ‘wow, this doesn’t suck’.  That’s a victory in itself, but the film goes further.  To summarize quickly, two confused astronauts/’space military guys’ are on a ship travelling to an Earth-like planet called Tanis with the intention of settling after Earth has crumbled away, (awesome name for all you Raiders Of The Lost Ark fans) and are abruptly brought out of ‘hypersleep’ having to piece together what has happened.  They try to accomplish this all while dealing with monsters that have a curious secret behind their existence.  There are moments in this film that are genuinely creepy, and some occasional dumb moments that do a disservice to the overall intrigue the story has.  When all was said and done, I couldn’t help but enjoy it.  I even purchased it, maybe because if a sci-fi film shows any promise at all, I’m so excited that I think it’s better than it is.

Away We Go (****1/2)-  This might be the most unassuming good movie I’ve ever seen.  John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph star as 30-somethings who finally decide to get serious about settling down once they learn a baby is on the way.  They travel to various locations across the continent in search for a good place to raise their child, hoping that being around friends or family will ease their fears about parenthood.  What they discover instead makes this film a worthwhile watch, and dare I say, a great watch.  I was surprised once the credits rolled to see that Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) directed.  This had such an indie-film quality to it that I didn’t envision the heir to the James Bond franchise as its’ helmer.  Some critics have called this a snobby movie that imitates indie films in order to attract a certain crowd.  I can see that to an extent- Alexi Murdoch tunes are spattered throughout the film, and the ending was a bit over-played (the only thing keeping it from a straight ‘A’ rating from me), but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it has some important things to say about being a parent and a grownup.  I look forward to seeing this again as soon as possible, and I’d really like to see Maya Rudolph do more dramatic roles.

Inglourious Basterds (****)-  By now, I think we know what to expect with all Quentin Tarantino films, and this time around, we aren’t left wanting.  I wasn’t able to discern whether or not the film had any truth to it (according to history), and even though I doubt it, it doesn’t matter.  Set during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, the film centers around a group of Jewish American soldiers charged with the task of killing as many Nazi soldiers and officers as they can, a task for which their enthusiasm has no bounds.  As is the norm for Quentin, smaller stories are intertwined and come together towards the end.  Also, there are some trademark Tarantino graphic scenes, but I will say this- it appeared to me that he held back just a bit on the graphic stuff, and I appreciate that, because I do believe the movie as a whole benefits.  Great performances are abound, but in particular, Christoph Waltz (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) was as deliciously evil as any character you’ll see.  All this said, I’m honestly not sure I liked this as much as Pulp Fiction, or either Kill Bill film.  I suppose that because it isn’t as quotable, it may not be as memorable for me.

9 (***)-  No, this isn’t the recent musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis, or The Nines starring Ryan Reynolds.  This is an animated film from last year that I suspect very few people saw.  I had been intrigued by the trailer, which showcased a post-apocalyptic world with little canvas-stitched ‘beings’ running around.  The trailer also prominently mentioned Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) as executive producers, which didn’t really do anything for me other than convince me that it would be weird.  First off, the animation is brilliantly done, and there is a great deal of character in the ‘beings’.  Many well-known actors gave voices to the ‘beings’ (Elijah Wood, Martin Landau, etc), further adding to their charm.  One may gather while watching this that there are subtle ‘anti-war’ and ‘machines might take over’ messages, and we’ve gone down that road before (see ‘Terminator’ franchise).  There are also evil ‘machines’ that may remind some of the sentinels from the ‘Matrix’ franchise.  Even with recycled messages and machinery, though, this movie works, at least on the visual level.  I applaud director/creator Shane Acker for broadening the scope of his visionary student film, and even if the story isn’t anything new, it’s one of the most fascinating movies I’ve viewed in some time.

How To Train Your Dragon (3D) (****1/2)-  Released last Friday, DreamWorks gives us another CG-animated movie in the spirit of Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens’and Shrek.  Well, almost.  I admit that I haven’t seen the first two, but I have seen the ‘Shrek’ movies, as well as  Madagascar and Over The Hedge, so I have a good idea about what kind of movie DreamWorks animation offers.  I consider them far inferior in comparison to the offerings of Disney/Pixar, even though they are enjoyable.  How To Train Your Dragon belongs in the upper echelon along with the Pixar films.  I found it to be visually striking, humorous, touching, and, at times, even unnerving.  We’ve seen movies before about a boy and his dragon (Pete’s Dragon), and even a man and his dragon (Dragonheart), but somehow the material seems fresh.  There are vikings, dragon training arenas, cool warships, even cooler ‘dragon powers’, and a plethora of ‘fun’ moments.  I never felt that the movie talked down to kids or adults, and nary a ‘corny moment’, typical of kid-themed films, was found.

Without giving up major plot points, I’ll try to summarize: a village of vikings has been at war with various dragons for many years, and one boy, the son of the ‘king’, isn’t really enamored with the prospects of becoming a ‘viking slayer’.  In fact, he’s considered too much of a wimp to ever be considered.  What he does do is manage to corner the most vicious and legendary of the dragons, the ‘night fury’, and what follows turns out to be one heck of a movie.  This was the first film that my son enjoyed in the movie theater, and I can gladly say it was a good choice.  At 3 years old, he (mostly) sat still, even while wearing 3D glasses, and managed to deal with everything well.  Occasionally, the 3D is distracting (I’m still trying to get used to it), but at other times, it’s brilliant.  Also, I mentioned there were ‘unnerving’ parts- I felt there were a few scenes that were a bit too scary for younger viewers, and one in particular that, even in the fantasy realm, was more than I wanted my son to see.  On the whole, though, this is a great movie- no surprise once I saw the credits and noticed that one of the co-directors was Chris Sanders, who gave us Lilo & Stitch.  Those who have seen the ‘Stitch’ character will undoubtedly see some design similarities with the ‘night fury’ dragon.  Highly recommended.

Film Review- ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ (***1/2)

Posted on

"Why do I always fall for your type, Spider-Man?"
“Why do I always fall for your type, Spider-Man?”

 

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner (screenplay); Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, & James Vanderbilt (screen story). Based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Directed by: Marc Webb

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

It would be perfectly understandable for audiences to feel cynical about the ‘Spider-Man’ films.  After all the time, money, and emotional investment both the filmmakers and audiences shelled out for Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Sony “rewarded” everyone by hitting control-alt-delete on the franchise simply out of laziness and rights retention issues.  Coupled with the obvious fact that the first “Amazing” entry did little to deviate from the previous films, the whole saga has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

Now cometh the latest entry, hastily produced to capture whatever unique need we might have had for Marvel’s teenage hero.  What are we to make of this latest incarnation, and should we even care?  Absolutely, we should.  I’m pleased to report that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has most everything I never knew I didn’t have in a Spidey story.  Sure, this film exists in a familiar world, but it also offers enough new material and thrills to the point of reinvigorating my interest in the character, errors be damned.  It was a monumental task that could just as easily have fallen flat, but director Marc Webb and crew somehow constructed the most enjoyable web-slinger adventure thus far.

Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, whose world has settled a bit after the events of the first film.  He’s grown into and loves being Spider-Man, he’s rekindled his romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), and seems to be headed in the right direction on the cusp of high school graduation (let’s ignore that Garfield is 30 years old).  In contrast to Raimi’s trilogy, where being a hero seemed such a burden on Peter, he seems to genuinely enjoy his role as hero now, carrying the right balance of braggadocio and humility.  Dare I say it, Spider-Man is a heck of a lot of fun in this film.

Part of that comes from perhaps the best pairing of a superhero and love interest  on-screen to date.  As cliché as it sounds, Stone and Garfield absolutely have great chemistry together.  It’s clear to me that they want to kiss each other, and their emotion never seems forced; the fact that they are dating off-screen does add a specific resonance to the fates of both characters.  It nearly seemed like these two had already been together for an entire trilogy.  Gwen Stacy is simply a worthy partner to Spider-Man’s greatness in every way- she’s self-sufficient, ambitious, resourceful, and so darned understanding of what Peter’s duality is.  Garfield himself is far more natural in the role the second time around; he played it oddly in the first, with what I can only describe as emo-twitches.

There is a loose end to tie up from the first film- Peter’s parents.  After all, they apparently left forever when he was a young boy, and The Boy Who Would Be Spider-Man has been left to doubt himself and wonder why.  That inner battle with his self-doubt is the driving force behind the film’s emotion, and even drives the plot.  Peter’s father, a brilliant scientist in his own right, may have been partially responsible for some rather devious experiments while working alongside magnate Norman Osborn (Cooper).  This leads to an entire subplot involving a ‘special projects’ department at Oscorp, and the introduction of Norman’s son Harry (DeHaan) and Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Foxx).

Brief as it may be, the dynamic between the elder and younger Osborns is interesting and unexpected.  The duality between the two intentionally mirrors that of the Parker father/son duo, and it becomes very clear why Harry is slightly unhinged.  He’s trying to become his own man in the shadow of an awful father and a sprawling family business.  He’s been in boarding school for a decade.  He’s unbalanced.  Dane DeHaan pulls off unhinged and unbalanced with ease, and his unconventional delivery, though it may seem odd, serves him well in this role.

Foxx’s Max Dillon is another interesting character, and his story also makes sense.  He’s a loner, so much so that he idolizes with extreme prejudice (especially Spider-Man).  When he eventually sheds that feeling and reaches his breaking point, it’s logical that he becomes Electro.  Electro is a character with some gravity, for the previously powerless Max is granted enormous power, and does not execute that power with great responsibility (see what I did there?).  Plus, he’s a dangerous dude, also a little unhinged.  “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” gives us a  villains that align out of necessity and are in lock-step with logic. As a result, it feels more satisfying and less forced.  It’s ‘logical villainosity’ as I see it.

By my last count, there are many more villains in this film, some not fully realized yet, some perhaps lurking in the darkness. The wise move to focus on just two, however, helps this film stay clutter-free, unlike the famously flawed, overflowing “Spider-Man 3”.  On the other hand, merely introducing the idea of additional baddies, gives the architects of this cinematic saga the leeway to plug and play if necessary. It’s a smart move that should satisfy both hardcore fans (put that villain in there!) and casual viewers (that’s not logical!) of the series.

It’s necessary to praise the look of this film as well, for it’s the strongest part.  Those that groaned about the special effects in the earliest trailers (myself included) quite simply owe the effects team an apology, for this film is brilliantly rendered, with a vibrant palate that keeps from becoming too colorful.  The 3-D effect here was immersive, adding the depth required of a character swinging through the air via webs, or with electricity bounding in all directions.  For the first time, Spider-Man doesn’t look like Gumby when he’s CGI gliding in-between skyscrapers.  Even New York becomes NEW YORK here, realized better that any film in the series.

My chief complaint with the Raimi films was the ‘stodginess’ of the stories.  At nearly every turn, we found some character waxing poetic about power and responsibilities, mixed with Kirsten Dunst turning her head ever-so-slightly followed by another set of maudlin dialogue, and peppered with awkward, forced emotion scenes.  To be fair, there are a number of positive aspects of the trilogy as well, but to be honest, I find it forgettable, and something of a chore to watch.  On the other hand, Marc Webb has managed to pull off a highly difficult task, creating a technically brilliant film that should satisfy both the die-hard comic fans and the thrill-seeking crowd, all while having to make difficult editing choices and making something seem relevant and not simply setting up another film.

I won’t detail the actual finale to this film, but bold would be the best word to describe it.  It’s visceral, and doesn’t cheat; it’s simply there to digest, brilliantly realized without any pulled punches. I found myself liking this so much that I even forgave mishaps like the unfortunate ‘Rhino’ and Ravencroft psychologist characters.  With this entry, Webb has made his saga stand apart from Raimi’s, for this is bolder, fresher, far more fun, and less awkwardly operatic than any of the previous four attempts.  It ends with a specific momentum, that seems correctly on-track to become something larger.  To butcher Dickens’ prose, “it is a far, far better thing that Webb does, than he has ever done” with this sequel.

There was palpable, actual danger in this film, and the stakes just seemed higher.  The story’s events led me to believe that they weren’t interested in the same choreographed story line of most superhero films, and the jarring nature of the ending created a tension not present in these films until now.  It’s exciting.  I actually like Spider-Man a whole lot more than I did before this film, and I’m looking forward to an expanded take on the character and what I presume to be a vast array of nemeses.  Bring on Green Goblin.  Bring on Vulture.  Bring on Dr. Octopus, or Venom, or whomever this creative team decides to throw at Spidey next; it’s no longer a chore to watch him.

*Note- If you’re like me and have become accustomed to waiting until the end of the credits for a specific scene to set up the next film, don’t bother.  If you’re interested in a non-sensical, contractually forced teaser clip for rival Fox’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in the middle of this film’s credits, then by all means stay.  It was an unfortunate coda.

Mini Reviews- “The Man With The Iron Fists”, “Evil Dead” (2013), “Warm Bodies”

Posted on

Evil Dead The Man With the Iron Fists Warm Bodies

“The Man With the Iron Fists”–  (**) There’s an old saying : “If you’re going to make a Quentin Tarantino movie, it’s best that Quentin Tarantino directs it”.  Alright, so that’s not true, but it should be.  Q only “presents” this movie, and  Wu Tang Clan alum RZA wrote, directed, and starred in this passion project, which doubles as an homage to surreal Kung Fu cinema of yesteryear.  The words ‘passion project’ should make something sound like the beginning of a beautiful thing.  In this case, however, a silly threadbare story, which is what most martial arts films have, isn’t elevated to a coolness or beauty that good or great films of its kind have.

Unlike “Kill Bill” and other similarly toned exploitation films, the startling moments of gory violence and extreme action didn’t work for me.  The eye-gouging, scalping, and heart-piercing in Tarantino movies startle us, but seem right at home in the context of the film. RZA tries that with his film as well, but it’s startling in a silly way.  Instead of giving an uncomfortable guffaw after one unfortunate soul’s chest is split open, I just rolled my eyes.  Russell Crowe (I’m not sure what he saw in this role) does his best to chew out a supporting gig as a dangerous mystery man trying to enjoy his vacation of debauchery.  It’s not nearly enough, as this film turns out to be more goofy than I think it intended.

“Evil Dead” (2013)– (**1/2)  For some reason, the powers that be decided to remake the original “Evil Dead”, a film that’s very well-known, and is just awful.  I know that people love Bruce Campbell and the original “Evil Dead” trilogy, but putting myself through those films was an experience I can’t imagine doing again.  Why in the world would I watch a remake then?  I was admittedly intrigued by the marketing campaign, which boldly declared the new film the “most terrifying film you’ll ever see”. I figured anyone brave enough to stamp that on their poster must be serious about their movie, so I bit.

Amazingly, this isn’t a disaster.  The plot is typical, and vaguely resembles the original, as friends meet at an abandoned cabin for a weekend getaway.  This time around, though, it’s not all fun and games for the young adults, as Mia (Jane Levy) aims to get sober with a little help from said friends.  Of course, this means she’s the most vulnerable of the group.  That works out quite well for the freshly unleashed (and conveniently nearby) demon, or hellspawn, or whatever one might call it.  So far, so typical.  What works for this movie is the constant onslaught of gore and doom, which made me consistently uncomfortable; what didn’t work is that the filmmakers expect the sheer presence of said gore and explicit violence to work as a fear tactic.  At no point did I experience fear.  The possession/demon story line isn’t new anymore, and it isn’t enough to scare me.  I’m wondering if instead of a remake, a prequel might have been a better idea.  After all, the opening scene of the film was the most effective part, and a further look at the wretched story of the demon sounds more intriguing than Hell on Earth.  I suppose the claims of the marketing team aren’t accurate, but it is watchable, an accomplishment the original trilogy failed to achieve.

“Warm Bodies”– (***1/2)  Of the three movies I’ve seen in the past ten days, this is by far the best of them, even if it falls short on occasion.  If you haven’t heard of it, imagine the main ideas for “The Walking Dead” and “Safety Not Guaranteed” colliding with “Romeo and Juliet”.  In other words, this is a quasi-indie zombie romantic comedy with heart.  I’m sure that helps.

Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy”, “X-Men: First Class”) stars as a zombie who’s conflicted with the state of affairs in the post-apocalyptic world he’s in.  Why a reanimated corpse has any cognitive function at all is a mystery to me and the film, but I digress, for the film wouldn’t exist otherwise.  In a particularly grisly attack on the living, this zombie is overtaken with an urge to protect someone- the lovely Julie (Teresa Palmer, the Australian equivalent of Kristen Stewart).  So, he removes Julie from the situation, and takes her back to his ‘place’.  Again, why a zombie would have living quarters is perplexing, but it does give the plot a chance to advance.  The zombie doesn’t remember anything from his past, but can speak (kind of).  Through that, an unlikely relationship develops between Julie and ‘R’, as she christens him, and while he continues to protect her, he starts to undergo changes.

The changes I’m referring to are where the film really takes off.  Imagine being dead, or completely isolated from living society, and then someone makes the effort to understand you, despite the inherent danger and disgust involved.  No matter how dead, depressed, or isolated you might be, the film illustrates in a quirky way that love, or the energy of loving feelings, can bring anything back to the light.  Other zombies that ‘R’ feasts with began to feel similarly, especially the one played by Rob Corddry.  I would have liked this better without him in it.  Corddry is a scene-stealer, like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler before him, but in a bad way; he’s always got to “Corddry it up”, and it doesn’t fit in this movie.

We’ve seen unlikely couples on film before, from Romeo and Juliet to Jack and Rose, and the pairing of ‘R’ and Julie qualifies as one of them, albeit not as legendary.  There’s also a demanding, militaristic father (John Malkovich), the head of the living resistance, who would never accept a zombie- right?   This all comes to a head, of course, because the change in zombies coincides with an increasing discontent amongst the ‘bonies’, a sect of the undead that’s “too far gone”, and even kills their own kind.  Add that up, and of course there must be a final battle of sorts.  All in all this is a good film, with a lot of quirky humor, and surprisingly, a lot of heart.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like on a grander scale, where the history of the zombie plague was at least hinted at, and the science of viruses and the undead were taken seriously.  I don’t think that was ever the intention, but nonetheless I saw an even better movie hiding underneath.  It’s possible that the original storyteller, author Isaac Marion, simply wished to use zombies as a metaphor for how we live our lives today.  Are we basically zombies, and do we need to periodically reconnect with the world around us to regain our humanity?  I can see that being possible.