Poltergeist

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Between this new Poltergeist remake and the upcoming Jurassic World, I guess 2015 is the year we collectively set aside to lavish Steven Spielberg with tongue baths. I mean, I’m glad we can all agree that Spielberg is a great director, but is there such a drought of new ideas that we have to go about recycling like this? Of course not! It’s just that if it doesn’t carry enough name recognition to make a guaranteed return on investment during opening weekend, then the cynical, ponderous Hollywood mechanism wants nothing to do with it. So then we get soulless, transparent cash-grabs like this.

From a critical standpoint, the film shot itself in the foot from the word “go” by having the temerity to call itself Poltergeist, necessarily inviting comparisons to Spielberg’s original film from 1982—a far superior movie, incidentally; but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you? For those of you out of the loop, the original Poltergeist was a surprisingly intelligent little supernatural horror flick with an undercurrent of satire aimed at the shallow, superficial suburban decadence that consumed the American middle class in the 1980s, and perhaps still does today. Vitally, that theme was an essential element of the plot, whereas in the new Poltergeist, the “blind consumerism” angle is replaced, in a rather conciliatory way, with an “over-reliance on technology” angle, and even this half-hearted nod to the original is quickly dropped when the writer can’t think of anywhere to go with it.

And speaking of writing, the one responsible for this floundering, go-nowhere knockoff is none other than David Lindsay-Abaire. “Who?” you might ask. Well, he’s the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole, since you’re so curious. I’m told that it’s actually pretty famous as plays go, but that being said, it’s baffling how tepid and all-around bland this screenplay is, considering the acclaim of the author’s previous work. Not even Sam Rockwell, who really hasn’t had a bad performance to date, can save the script from being just generally drab and uninspired.

My main problem with the film is that it’s so overwhelmingly safe. It takes no risks and pushes no boundaries; you know, exactly what you shouldn’t do if you plan on remaking a beloved staple of the horror genre. That new Evil Dead that came out a few years ago—also produced by Sam Raimi, incidentally—was at least something that took a few chances, regardless of it’s overall quality. But what we have here is basically the same points as the first Poltergeist with vastly worse execution. No anthropomorphic trees, no dead-body swimming pool hijinks, no apparitions, no “gotcha” twist ending because the pacing was all wrong, no classic Speilbergian face-melting, and perhaps most importantly, no Tangina Barrons (or equivalent).

While we’re drawing parallels between the two films, allow me to draw another. Remember that little old lady in Poltergeist who came to “cleanse” the house? The lady with the high, squeaky voice and a face like an English bulldog’s? Well, what if I told you that the eccentric medium in question, Tangina Barrons, was basically Spielberg’s answer to Lucas’s Yoda; that is, a physically small and frail being possessed of immense spiritual power. Needless to say, that whole genre-subverting element is lost when you cast someone like Jared Harris in her place.

Likewise, the decision to show the interior of the iconic dead-world wasn’t one that should be taken lightly, as the decision to avoid showing it in the original film and simply portraying it a mysterious, cloying blackness afforded it a certain mystique. While the imagery they decided to go with in the remake is admittedly quite striking—a horde of bodies crawling over each other in a scrambling mass—but to immediately put pay to any good will the film may have built up, they decided to do it in fake-looking CG that comes across as more laughably low-budget that frightening.

Not helping matters at all is the fact that literally every single one of the film’s even remotely scares were given away in the trailer. See, I was always under the impression that a trailer was intended to set the tone of the film, maybe get the audience exited to meet the characters or intrigue them with a unique setting—not, as it’s apparently done nowadays, to serve as a substitute for the film itself.

Frankly, I don’t have much more to say about this disappointing mess of a film. On the bright side, it’s relatively short, so you won’t have to endure it for too long, and “endure” really is the right word. The film does nothing to set itself apart from the veritable stampede of similar “baby’s first horror movies” that get released periodically throughout the year. It’s disappointing because even with a metaphorical cheat sheet—the first Poltergeist movie—Abaire and director Gil Kenan seem to have decided to tackle a remake without a thorough understanding of what made it a good movie in the first place. Ah, but what’s artistic integrity when there’s the movie-going public to fleece, right?

Rating: 2 out of 5

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

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I’m rolling up to the Mad Max party pretty late, I admit. I’ve had a lot on my plate recently, so it was certainly gratifying to sit down to a screening of Fury Road and enjoy the mind-numbing catharsis for a while, and if there was ever one word to perfectly describe this fourth installment of the franchise, “cathartic” would certainly be it.

Written, directed and produced by the famed Dr. George Miller (he actually does have a medical degree), Fury Road is undeniably biggest, most brash and in-your-face film of the year so far. The sheer density and scale of the world that Miller has managed to create is remarkable in itself, but becomes even more so when the film proceeds to deliver some of the most deliriously fun-to-watch action sequences that I remember seeing, full stop. Critics have described the direction, especially in regards to Miller’s action sequences, and practically balletic and, indeed, the marvelously fast-paced and beautifully impactful action all takes place at break-neck speeds as the combatants hurtle across the dessert at mach 10.

And can I just take a moment to say how damn gratifying it is to see an action film without a color palate consisting of mainly shit brown and dishwater grey? The rich, vibrant primaries offset with the oil blacks and stark whites are really a joy to see from a visual standpoint. Even more importantly, Miller internalizes the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and allows the rich and detailed mythos of the film to be communicated visually, rather than stop the action to shove exposition down the audience’s throats like Tomorrowland or Jupiter Ascending, to use recent examples. The fact that things aren’t out-and-out explained to us makes them all the more intriguing. From characters and costumes to settings and action-setpieces, everything in Fury Road’s universe is lovingly designed and detailed, yet it all makes sense within the context of the world. Nothing seems out of place, and everything is there that needs to be there.

Speaking of, I’m pleased to report that Miller brings back all of that delightful homoeroticism that characterized the series after the first Mad Max. You know: all these characters running around either S&M gear or mostly naked, a sort of fetishistic reverence for the leadership, and in this one, Nicholas Hoult and Tom Hardy spend the first forty-five minutes attached to one another with a chain and a hypodermic full of blood. Tell me that’s not somehow symbolic!

Regular readers will know that it almost killed me to say so many nice things about a movie, so now let’s move on to the shitty parts before I start hemorrhaging internally.

Some cretinous pleb on tumblr claimed that Fury Road was the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling, and I had a good old pretentious chuckle over that. The story deserves close examination because, as is the case with a lot of bombastic action films, the narrative is basically just an excuse to string together some barely connected action sequences that will (hopefully) distract the audience from how insipid the plot actually is. And that’s certainly the case with Fury Road, for what it’s worth. The story can basically be summarized thus: the good guys steal the bad guys’ mcguffin(s), and the bad guys are willing to expend virtually unlimited recourses to get them back. So far, so standard.

From there, it really is just your typical, loosely-connected string of setpieces serving as little more than an excuse to show off the high-octane action, most of which takes place in featureless desert, occasionally swapped out for a slightly different bit of featureless desert, but at night this time.

As is usually the case with these films, Max himself is by far the least interesting thing in it. Then again, the beauty of the Mad Max franchise has always been more about the insane world and less about Max’s more-or-less generic character. This does lead me to question, however, whether Max’s presence is strictly relevant to the plot. Realistically, you could take Max out all together and you’d be left with pretty much the same film. I assume the intention was to retain brand recognition, but if that’s the case, it’s a pretty cynical approach on Miller’s part.

On that note, I was actually kind of disappointed at how archetypical and one-dimensional Miller’s characters tuned out to be. We have Max, of course: the gruff, stoic action hero who thinks a sure-fire way of acting cool is to show as little emotion as possible. Then we have Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who frequently reminds us that she’s seeking “redemption,” though never actually mentions what she wants to be redeemed for. We’re left with a weird scenario in which Furiosa is willing to risk life and limb to achieve her goal, but we don’t actually get a glimpse of her motivation for doing so. Sure, she want’s to be redeemed, but practically speaking, that’s little more than providing a perfunctory and slapdash justification for why the conflict exists at all. The whole story revolves around Furiosa and her decisions, but it’s a shame that she comes across as little more than the stereotypical supercilious bad-ass action chick.

To my mind, the character with the most potential for development was Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, a rather bumbling and inept War Boy, bred specifically to be a member of the main baddie’s personal army. Hoult gives quite an admirable performance, but his character, too, is marred by rushed development and an unfulfilling arc. Nux is originally a zealot, a War Boy obsessed and devoted to his leader, Immortan Joe. At the drop of a hat, however, and a casualness with which one might change a boring TV channel, Nux switches sides and joins Max and Furiosa on their quest for not-particularly-justified redemption. My point is that Nux’s realignment carries no emotional weight because it seems as though the only reason he made the choice that he did was because the plot demanded it, and not, as we might expect, because he felt remorseful or conflicted about his actions.

But there’s me going on and on about the minor flaws in what is otherwise an extremely well-made film. Sure, the characters are kind of flat, and their motivations and arcs don’t make a lot of sense, but the simple fact is that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most fun and all-around entertaining movies that I’ve seen in a really long time. In many ways, it serves as the perfect counterpoint to, say, Age of Ultron’s cold, superficial and ultimately boring action and story. Amazing, isn’t it? You put a bit of heart and passion into your film and, lo and behold people like it, and rant for way too long about it on a tin-pot movie blog that no one will ever read.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Netflix Movie of the Week #20: The Triplets of Belleville

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After having sat through too many disappointing major Hollywood this year already, I delved into the Netflix instant streaming catalogue to find solace and to cleanse my palate, as it were. I had heard before of The Triplets of Belleville, but I initially dismissed it as the type of ponderous European animation that you’d need to be nostalgic about to properly appreciate. But, being the wild and free-spirited soul that I am, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a watch anyway. So imagine my surprise when I found Triplets to be one of the most weirdly absorbing and imaginative films that I’ve seen in a very long time.

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CHAPPiE

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You know, even after three feature films I still can’t decide if Neill Blomkamp is actually a good director. From a conceptual level, he works wonders; the worlds he creates are rich and vibrant, and his 3D motion capture and visual work are second to none. The problem, however, is that significantly less consideration is afforded to how all those different pieces ought to fit together and, as far as his films are concerned, I’m kind of let down by how much the seams seem to show, as it were, as he tries to fit all the parts together.

I’d like to tell you that Chappie is a hard sci-fi exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and its implications in a quickly changing and increasingly modernized world—but I can’t, because that would be lying. The actual film is about a robot adopting a thuggish affectation and then shooting up other robots. So forgive me if I sound bitter, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been sold a lie here. Even the trailer boasted promises of uncommon substance, including a voice-over of the film’s title character proclaiming, “I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Suffice it to say the reality of the situation is that what we ultimately got was a much shallower and garish production, unfortunately devoid of any real substance.

As I mentioned before, the 3D animation in all of Blomkamp’s films, not just Chappie, is unrivaled, owing chiefly to the fact that Blomkamp’s background before he entered the film industry was, in fact, animation. Much like Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, their backgrounds are in visual design, not writing, meaning that they generally have gorgeous-looking films that are riddled with plot holes and sloppy development. There are a lot of instances when the film just sort of glosses over the details only to move rapidly on to the next major point, hoping that the audience didn’t notice; and although I sometimes don’t mind the “artful dodge” technique (like in Looper, for example), in this instance it really took me out of the experience.

It seems strange, but in each of Blomkamp’s films, I can almost point to the exact moment when the story takes just slightly too large a leap, which ultimately ends up losing me. In District 9 it was the fact that the allegorical drama I’d been watching suddenly turned into an action movie apropos of nothing; In Elysium (probably my favorite of the three) it was the magi-technological wonder-machines that instantly repaired Sharlto Copley’s mangled neck-stump; and in Chappie, it was the inexplicable discovery of human consciousness uploading—mere days after the invention of a primitive AI, mind—that was somehow attained thanks to the computing power of, like, six PlayStation 4s stacked on top of one another.

In all honesty, the film’s ending devolves into narrative gibberish. It’s like listening to a five year-old kid recount his imaginary adventures during playtime. Any pretense of realism is dropped so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, nice bow, which was a weird shift of tone that really threw me for a loop. Blomkamp is a fan of what you might call ‘soft’ sci-fi, and indeed, the science in Chappie is so soft that you could spread it on your toast and have it for breakfast.

Even without the more substantial plot elements and thematic exploration that I would have like to have seen, the film wasn’t all bad. The always-excellent Sharlto Copley does a lot of the mo-cap and voice action work for the character of Chappie, and to his and Blomkamps’s credit, it’s all pulled off beautifully. Likewise, it’s always a joy when you get to hear some genuine accents in a Hollywood movie, and Blomkamp’s dedication to his South African heritage is genuinely praiseworthy.

After having given it a bit of thought, I think I’d really like to see Blomkamp team up with someone like Dan O’Bannon, or with Ridely Scott to a lesser extent, to function in a sort of “ideas-man” capacity, much like George Lucas was the ideas-man during his collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. Either that, or Blomkamp really needs someone who can fill in the gaps that are missing in his stories, as well as the general world building.

Blomkamp’s movies are generally fun, and Chappie, at the very least, holds interest, but I was really quite disappointed that the film turned out to be just another slick, Hollywood action movie with the central conceit: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a robot acted like a gangster?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Blackhat

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As you may or may not be aware, the term “blackhat” is 1337 H4X0R speak for an operative that infiltrates a secure network in attempt to steal stuff or generally just spread alarm and discord. How apropos then, that the actual film in question is basically akin to cinematic terrorism, perpetrated by the known insurgent Michael Mann.

I can picture Mann sitting alone in his smoke-filled office at four o’clock in the morning, half-empty bottle of whiskey on his desk, racking his brain, trying to figure out what the kids are into these days. Apparently, he arrived at “computers” and presumably by extension “hacking,” but significantly less thought was afforded to whether or not those particular thematic elements are entertaining to watch. Say will you will about the virtues of real-life computer coding, but an associate of mine assures me that it’s not a terribly engaging enterprise for whatever spectators may be around.

Let me not mince words here: Blackhat is a dull, plodding, downright arduous film to sit through. Mann, once the king of the high-impact action movie, seems to be pitifully floundering these days. Gone are the days of colorful and exciting films like Heat, Collateral, and Thief, only to be replaced by this absolute slog of a film. Mann was trying to do the whole rebooted 007-franchise thing: all sleek exteriors and muted colors, offset by dazzling set pieces and engaging action sequences. But the visual style aside, the Bond series fills its world full of interesting characters and actual moments of humanity and levity—you know, like the things and actual human being might experience. Blackhat, alternatively, consists entirely of a collection of lifeless characters humorlessly grumbling their way through a miasma of unconnected motivations, betrayals, and obfuscations, strung together with a paper-thin chain of nearly unwatchable gunfights made all the more excruciating by camerawork that looks like it was done on a middle-schooler’s iPhone.

Maybe it was just the shitty writing and wholly uninspired plot, but Blackhat really drove home how inadequate an actor Chris Hemsworth actually is. Bored monotone and inexpressive grumbling seem to the order of the day, and not only for old Thor. Every single person in this fiasco seemed like they had just come round from a chemical-induced coma for the duration of the picture, from Viola Davis to Wang Leehom. Somewhere along the line, I remember having one of those little dissociative moments that you get sometimes; I was watching myself watching the movie, and I remember thinking, “I will never get these two hours of my life back.”

And I’ve seen some bad writing in my time—I’ve seen some abortively bad writing, I’ll tell you now. But the word-vomit that must have constituted the final draft of the script, written by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl (Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), has got to be some of the absolute worst. Aside from the blatantly unlikable and senselessly hostile protagonist, the majority of the inter-character dynamics might have been written by someone who has literally never interacted with another living human being. It’s just sad, really, because I know Mann can do better than this. I just want to grab him by the lapels and shake some sense into him, preferably while shouting, “Come on, man! You’re better than this!”

I know the critique is basically just adding to the cacophony of negative press that’s surrounding the film already, but I really can’t stress enough how much of a farce this production really turned out to be. Hopefully the film won’t torpedo Mann’s reputation too much, because I genuinely believe that he’s got much greater ability than he’s exhibited here, but, it must be said, Blackhat is pretty much a write-off.

Rating: 1 out of 5

American Sniper

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Now, I’ve seen a good number of movies in my time, and I fully admit that I’m probably a little jaded, but I can’t be the only one frustrated by the insurmountable arduousness of this whole Oscar season in general and American Sniper specifically. The professional news sources will tell you that Mr. Eastwood’s latest opus has broken all kinds of box office records and has made more money that God at this point; but after having put quite a bit of thought into my review of the film, I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It irks me that original and imaginative movies like Birdman only end up raking in a fraction of the cash that something like American Sniper does, but that’s people for you—forever loath to get out of their tiny comfort zones.

Clint Eastwood is a very old man—he’s eighty-four, according to Wikipedia—and it seems to me that a lot of his later work, and American Sniper specifically, is mired in a lot of really uncomfortable old-world machismo and outdated nationalism which manifests itself and a weirdly earnest “us vs. them” mentality that seems singularly out of place in this Web 2.0 world. Eastwood’s actual technical direction isn’t as much at fault as the writing is, which usually what it comes down to with these kinds of things. Weirdly, a lot of the special effects in the film look laughably fake, and I’m reminded specifically of one sequence in which Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are trying to have a serious exchange, but they’re very clearly handling a fake Fisher-Price baby; and I’m sitting in the theater all the while, barely stifling laughter.

Cooper, playing real-life American sniper Chris Kyle (whose biography inspired the film), does a pretty fair job, though as I mentioned before, a lot of the problems I found with the movie stem from the protagonist coming across as a bit of a bully and more than a little dense, which proved problematic as the film progressed, as Cooper’s was of course the character the audience was meant to identify with. Cooper is joined by a host of more or less low-key actors, who all give serviceable performances, though playing the gritty, emotionally detached soldier is probably one of the easier jobs as far as acting goes.

This particular review will probably be a little more subjective than normal—you know, since usually my reviews are models of level-headedness and non-partisanship—but the problem that one runs into a lot of the time with character driven films like American Sniper is that the success of the movie lives or dies on whether or not the audience can connect to the protagonist. I had the same problem with David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, also starring Cooper. It wasn’t a terrible movie, per se, but the fact that I found the main character almost totally un-relatable was what killed it for me, and I think the same idea applies to this film as well.

Apart from having a rather dull protagonist, the film mostly consists of a series of factual events from the life of Chris Kyle, occasionally spiced up with some classic Hollywood sensationalism. While the aforementioned nationalistic pride is certainly there, I think the Eastwood may have missed an opportunity to make a broader connection in the form of Kyle’s role in a much larger and increasingly ambiguously defined conflict. It’s pretty obvious the American Sniper wants to be something like The Hurt Locker, but the fact that if writer Jason Hall had entertained even for a moment the idea that his writing ability is on par with that of someone like Oscar-winner Mark Boal, then he’s got another thing coming.

Despite the earth-shattering commercial success of the film, I mostly found it pretty lacking. Maybe that’s my inborn desire to be contrary about everything speaking, but I really feel that the majority has really missed the mark on this one. I’ve seen good war movies, and I’ve seen bad war movies, and I’ve seen shocking war movies, and I’ve seen emotional war movies, but American Spectrum falls right off the spectrum, right into the pit where the downright bland and mediocre war movies reside, hopefully never to see the light of day again.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Selma

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Jesus Christ! You can’t even walk down the street this winter without tripping over an Oscar-baitey biopic with every alternate step. I mean, honestly—have you noticed that four of the eight best picture nods this year are biopics? Not that anyone gives a shit about the Oscars, obviously, but the point I’m laboriously trying to drive home is that I think we could all do with a bit of escapism that isn’t mired in a bloody-minded scramble for awards. But whatever. Selma, then.

Ava DuVernay, responsible for a few critical darlings including the Ebert-praised 2011 drama I Will Follow, directs the project. Generally speaking, there’s not too much to find fault with as far as technical execution is concerned, and the few yet surprisingly engaging action sequences are well presented and appropriately weighty. I was a bit suspect of the mixing of real-life documentary black-and-white style footage and the slick 2014 present-day footage; the intention was obviously to add to the immersion and remind the audience that Selma was based on real-life events, but in reality I found the juxtaposition quite jarring.

Written by mysterious entity calling himself Paul Webb and incorporating some contributions from DuVernay herself (for which she is not credited) Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s attempts to secure the voting rights for the black population of Selma, Alabama circa 1965. The film is Webb’s only screenwriting credit, and the Internet remains reluctant to divulge much of his biographical information. Be that as it may, the film is functional if unchallenging, and serves more to document the facts of the Selma campaign rather than to tell an enduring story. When you get right down to it, what we’ve got here is basically a run of the mill “good vs. evil” story with a slight change of outfit. What is the message that we’re supposed to take away from this, exactly? That racism is bad? Thanks, Selma, but at this point that’s kind of up there with “the Nazis were dicks.”

I’m kind of getting down on a mostly decent film, and I think it’s because I disapprove of the intention behind it. The posters for Selma, instead of boldly proclaiming the film’s title, might as well read “OSCAR BAIT: HANDLE WITH CARE.” It’s pandering, mostly, and for that I find myself ill disposed towards it. It’s an open palm, groping blindly for a hint of gold come February. The cynic in me is fully expecting Selma to win best picture, but the truth is that essentially anything else deserves to win more. The film is so safe and committee-designed and virtually incapable of offending or challenging anyone that I can hardly say that it adds to the culture of cinema in any way aside from the mostly serviceable technical execution.

For what it’s worth, David Oyelowo is a fine actor, and plays Dr. King with admirable aplomb, though generally his role is restricted to making sweeping speeches and proselytizing—all tailor-made for maximum poignancy, naturally.

The bottom line is that Selma is just okay. That might sound like an inelegant summation coming from a guy who just spent five paragraphs shouting into a void, but all in all it’s an exceedingly safe movie that just happened to hit the theaters in a year so rife with sociopolitical tension. It’s watchable, to be sure, but fundamentally insubstantial, and I resent it for it’s award-hungry intentions.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5