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

 

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Oz: The Great and Powerful Review

Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Have you ever been tired of your normal, everyday existence and instead yearned for a life of excitement? This question is especially poignant in regards to Oz because it lies at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle and also sums up the film’s own aims as well. Aspiring magician Oscar Diggs wants, above all else, to be a legendary performer, while the film itself wants to be Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland so badly that you can almost see the strain. Oz: The Great and Powerful bills itself as the first movie event of the year, yet in reality it’s nothing more than a fizzling disappointment.

Sam Raimi, who has earned a place in the hearts of generations of horror fans for his work on the iconic Evil Dead series as well as a host of other admirable accomplishments, directs this foray into calamity and frustration. James Franco as wannabe wizard Oscar Diggs strikes the wrong note with his slightly overblown and overacted performance which seems disingenuous in all the wrong circumstances. While it’s established that Diggs is nothing but a glorified conman who frequently hides behind a facade of grandeur, he never readjusts when he’s trying to be sincere which makes the tone come across as goofy in many cases. My suspicion is the Franco’s overacting is a compensation for having little to no visual cues when the scenes were shot, as a result of many of the set pieces and even characters being computer generated. In addition to Franco’s floundering, it seems as though the only reason that Mila Kunis was involved in this production at all was to see if Raimi could squeeze her into a pair of tight leather pants. Indeed, even though her performance wasn’t unwatchable, she seemed to have a lot of the problems that Franco did and there were many other, better choices for the role.

The question at the front of my mind after having seen Oz is this: If the vast majority of set pieces and characters are computer generated (not particularly well, I might add), why didn’t they just decide to animate the entire thing? Instead of the seamless interplay between real world and computer generated objects- a la Avatar (2009)- Oz ends up looking like a 2013 production of Space Jam and frankly, it’s extremely distracting. Computer generated characters move fluidly enough on their own, but when interacting with or even standing near actual people, they suddenly take on this unsettling, uncanny valley-esque range of motion. More surprising is the fact that a Walt Disney Studios film like this one has such shoddy animation, when Disney has consistently produced some of the best animated films around. On the other hand though, maybe we’re supposed to take all of this in through a filter of irony. Just as the original 1939 Oz looks charmingly dated by today’s standards, perhaps Raimi wants to make an artistic statement and come full circle by making his prequel look like complete ass. Yep, and maybe I will declared King of England.

I mentioned a moment ago that Oz bloodily rips off Alice In Wonderland, which in reality is no surprise with the involvement of art director Robert Stromberg, who leant his distinctive visual style to both Alice as well as Avatar. Stromberg’s imagination generally yields impressive outdoor expanses and lush vistas, and while they certainly return in abundance in Oz, their downfall seems to lie in their technical execution rather than their artistic realization. Likewise, Raimi actually wanted Johnny Depp to play the wizard. Allegedly, Depp was initially intrigued by the role, but as fate would have it, he was already busy working an another 2013 release, The Lone Ranger. If Depp had taken the role, they might as well have renamed the film to “Alice in Wonderland 2: We’re really phoning it in now.”

I think that a lot of what was wrong with this film stemmed from the fact that we all knew how it was going to end. I mean, we knew how it was going to end anyway- this is a Disney movie after all- but more than that, we know that the wizard has to save the day so that the events of The Wizard of Oz can occur. Sadly, the plot is so predictable and bland that there’s really not much to save it from stagnation. Though Oz was a miss, hopefully Raimi will be able to redeem himself soon as financier of the highly anticipated Evil Dead remake in early April.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5