Friday, May 22, 2015

PALE AS A GHOST: "Poltergeist" Cannot Exorcize The Specter Of The Original Film

The recent trend of rebooting / remaking / rehashing past franchises shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the decrying of Hollywood’s lack of originality, the fact remains that reboots are generally met with success of varying degrees; especially given Hollywood’s belief that today’s generation couldn’t be bothered with the films their parents grew up with. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Poltergeist is added to the ranks. However, reboots carry new sensibilities and new spins on familiar situations; some work, some don’t. Further, to remake a film, franchise, etc., will inevitably invite comparisons to the original.  In the case of this 2015 retelling of this classic film, the proverbial devil is in the details, but unfortunately a satisfying experience they do not make.
The situation is the exactly the same.  A family moves into a house on a new development project. However, the house is haunted by restless spirits known as “poltergeists” which kidnap the family’s youngest daughter. Thus, the parents resort to extraordinary means to get her back. The original film 1982 film directed by Tobe Hooper and executive produced and primarily written by Steven Spielberg, considered one of the seminal horror films of the 1980s, casts a long shadow. Director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire seem painfully aware of that fact, as the specter of the original casts a shroud over the entire production, right down to the changing of the main characters’ names and, in some cases, genders (the house is even devoid of a swimming pool). The thing about the original film was that, despite the supernatural shenanigans that took place on the screen, the true horror came from the film’s allegorical take on man’s greed and duplicitous nature, which was the payoff in the film’s climax. Here, it is addressed one-third into the film then discarded; a clear indication that things will be different for those who have seen the original, but by the same token robs any power this film might have had because it gives nothing equally potent to match it. But when one considers that Sam Raimi of Evil Dead and Darkman fame is one of the producers, one can expect less outright scares and more humorous, tongue-in-cheek spooks.  
Given the technological special effects advances in the past thirty years, a lot that went implied in the first film is given a more in-your-face, literal interpretation which, while more potent visually, incongruously minimizes the horror empirically; though Kenan is not above using techniques that can be currently found in a “Halloween Horror Night” attraction. There are a lot of modern touches and sensibilities that update the story. The use of electronics and drones that pierce dimensional barriers, for example, that renders the film more sci-fi than horror. What (scant) scares do come stem from the modern “jump scare” style of filmmaking, making it seem more derivative than it already is. Though the film is not a parody, there are moments that it seems to veer towards it. The set ups engender more anticipatory giggles than fearful foreboding (That being said, anyone afflicted with coulrophobia would be wise to avoid this film).
With a runtime of 93 minutes, the film seems almost like the Cliff Notes of a story. Instead of taking the time of building actual suspense, Kenan’s direction moves at a quick pace, as if impatient to get to the next scary moment or “isn’t this cool” shot. If there was ever a horror film of the modern era that suffered from attention deficit syndrome, this one is it. 
Unfortunately, another aspect as to why the scares are deficient stem from the fact that it's hard for a viewer to become invested in one-dimensional characters who are engaged in hinted-at character arcs that do not allow for any emotional payoff. As patriarch Eric Bowen, Sam Rockwell is basically playing Sam Rockwell, and an annoying one at that. His performance is so lackluster the viewer has no clear indication as to where he’s emotionally at. As his wife Amy, Rosemarie DeWitt is appropriately distraught, fragile, and fallible. The most charismatic performance comes from Kyle Catlett as the precocious and endearing Griffin Bowen, who’s perhaps the most capable of the entire family and has the closest thing to a character arc. Kennedi Clements as Madison Bowen is cute and vulnerable, which seems to be the only requirement for this character in either version of the story. The only other performance that stands out is Jared Harris as the “exploitive-television personality-paranormal investigator-John Edwards” analogue Carrigan Burke, who takes the place of Zelda Rubinstein’s “Tangina” from the original. His character is earnestly entertaining; however, what character arc he has and shares with fellow paranormal investigator Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), is given lip-service only with a relatively minor payoff.
Poltergeist is, in a word, perfunctory. At best, it’s a superficial, gee-whiz yet lackluster summary of a story that unfortunately has no meat to it. What is missing is any empathy for the characters or their situation, or any subtext that the best horror films are infused with. Unfortunately, cheesy though the effects may be to the modern eye, the specter of the original 1982 film hangs over this one like a shroud, and not even an exorcism can salvage it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

AGING WELL: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" Keeps Up The Stride Of The Marvel Movie-Making Machine [MILD SPOILERS]

Way back in May, 2012, I concluded my review of Marvel's The Avengers with the following statement:
"Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!"
Three years later, we have the answer in the form of Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cinematic bombast of flash and spectacle guaranteed to leave the viewer exhausted by the end of the film, yet still somehow left wanting more.
The film begins at a breakneck pace, with the Avengers, comprising of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruafflo and Lou Ferrigno), Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) invading an overseas H.Y.D.R.A. secret base in order to retrieve Loki’s scepter. Upon realizing that the artifact holds the secret to developing AI technology that could create a peacekeeping force that would obviate the necessity of the Avengers, Stark enlists Banner's aid to create Ultron (James Spader, Less Than Zero; Sex, Lies, & Videotape), a robot meant to be the first line of defense against interplanetary threat. However, upon gaining sentience, Ultron reinterprets its directive to assert that the only way to save humanity is to destroy it and, with the aid of the super-powered twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla; Kick-Ass) and Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen; Godzilla, Oldboy), sets out to destroy without but not before destroying The Avengers from within.
One of the main obstacles this film had going in was that the first Avengers was so epic in scope and execution that the sequel had to be even bigger in all respects. Joss Whedon, both director and scriptwriter, accepted said challenge. The need for character introductions having been obviated by all previous Marvel films, Whedon wastes no time with exposition; which is incongruously both its strength and weakness. Plot-wise, many assumptions are made in the beginning without fully being logically reasoned out and, while jarring, this “cliff notes” approach makes sense given that Whedon crams as much action and character interaction within a two hour, twenty minute time frame; which he does with mostly positive results.
Whedon's main strength as a story teller has been characterization, and it shows here; though he has the advantage in that the main players wear their roles like a second skin (including Samuel L. Jackson as a weary Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill).  Nevertheless, Whedon's ability to juggle the screen time of the main cast is to be commended.  Hawkeye and The Hulk are given more to do this time around, which is likely due to the fact that neither carry a Marvel franchise of their own. Unfortunately, Thor is given the short shrift in terms of characterization, but it is by no means a slight as his own journey is still essential to the plot.  There is really little to say about the main cast other than the fact that despite having played these characters many times before, there is no sense of “been there, done that” fatigue that afflict most heroic franchise actors (looking at you, Christian Bale); in some cases, quite the opposite. Evans’ seems even more invested in the Captain America persona than ever. A subplot involving The Incredible Hulk and The Black Widow adds a new wrinkle that allows for an extra bit of spice to Ruafflo’s and Johannsen’s performances.  Downy, Jr. continues Tony Stark’s cinematic psychological evolution, his manic performance bringing in all of Stark’s previous experiences to bear in a manner that drives the central conceit of the plot forward. Renner’s Hawkeye is also given an added character development that grounds the film with a much needed and necessary human element. 
Of the newcomers, Spader, who provided motion capture work along with voice over, chews the scenery as the malevolent Ultron. His engaging in sardonic colloquialisms is a bit jarring at first, but a refreshing change of pace from the usual robotic intonations of robots in other films. Both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen bring youthful, brashly cocky energy to their roles and their performances mesh well with the original six. Also of note is Marvel mainstay Paul Bettany in his roles as both Jarvis and the Vision, as he imbues both AI constructs with surprising poignancy. Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie make extended cameos as James Rhodes/War Machine and Sam Wilson/The Falcon, respectively; their presence adding welcome comic relief.
The film teeters on political commentary. Though the words “liberal” and “conservative” are never uttered, the ideological lines between offensive versus defensive warfare are clearly drawn and debated, though given the events of the film more weight is given to one side. Whedon manages to incorporate it into the story without either being heavy-handed or losing sight of the fact that this is a superhero film. However, this does lead to one of the few missteps in the film: The overused “hero v. hero” trope. While it fits within the story’s context, it takes place too frequently here. Its inclusion is understandable given that AoU serves as a thematic precursor to the plot of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War (as well as set-up for Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War) but within the context of a self-contained film, it's tiresome despite its impressive spectacle of presentation. However, it's not only a narrative staple of the Marvel “brand”, but it serves as required counterpoint to their heroism at the film’s climax. It’s refreshing to know that the filmmakers are aware of the types of heroes they are, with the ability to “beat the bad guys” while ensuring the safety of civilians, and inspiring hope while doing so. Warner Bros. should be taking notes.
Another annoying trope is the “Hollywood-think” of “we’re paying this actor to play this role so we’re getting our money’s worth by seeing his/her face.” All well and good, but when one is going to see a movie about superheroes, they expect to see said superheroes in their full regalia on screen, not have Steve Rogers wearing the majority of his costume sans mask/helmet. (Never mind the fact the amount of times Steve is referred to by his nom de guerre can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. He’s Captain America when in action! Don’t shy away from that! Embrace it! Sheesh!)
The special effects are top notch, with special mention towards the CGI renderings of both The Hulk and Ultron, though the 3D viewings showcase their relatively minor weaknesses. The battle scenes are exciting; well-orchestrated and choreographed, even if some beats go on far longer than they should. In fact, so much is thrown onto the screen, it almost leads to sensory overload, especially in IMAX 3D. If the intent was to create a roller coaster effect while remaining stationary, it succeeds. It should be noted that said success is bolstered by the musical arrangements of Brian Tyler accompanied by Danny Elfman, who manages to improve upon Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme. While Tyler has said in interviews that he wanted to create a score reminiscent of John Williams’ Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) (though more heavily on the latter than the former), it’s Elfman’s contributions that are more evocative of those classics. Their combined effort is a sublime acoustical experience which offers subtle integrations of the heroic themes from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Thor: The Dark World (2013) (the latter two also by Tyler). Unfortunately, much of the score’s nuance (yes, there is nuance) is lost amid the sound effects. Nevertheless, it effectively does what any good score should do, which is highlight and season the unfolding events for maximum visceral punch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron starts 2015 summer season with a nuclear bang, filled with even more thrills, chills, pathos, triumph, and fun than its predecessor, even if it verges on taking itself way too seriously.  In conclusion…well…please refer back to the quote referenced above.