Sam Rockwell

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

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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.

 

 

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

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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.