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In Theaters: Baby Driver (2017)

For a young fellow like Baby, music is the milk of life.  Mixed and remixed, culled from the ambient noise of human motion and refitted into a soundtrack that guides his every step and every action, life has a rhythm and a composition that he will not deny himself.  When he walks down the street, his ears eternally plugged into a set of ear-buds, even the most rudimentary task is backed by a piece of music he has compiled just for the occasion.  When he is in the company of human conversation, he uses an old mini-recorder to record conversations that he then later recombobulates into a musical tapestry.  When his boss is asked about Baby’s mental capacity, he responds “Was he slow?” and Baby later turns that phrase into a private musical interlude.  It’s all for a cause, you see, not just battling a case of tinnitus but it has become an all-consuming obsession.  Baby’s lust for music becomes our lust for music and his compositions are still ringing in this critic’s head.  That’s a good sign.

You can have your clanking and clattering robots and . . . whatever Tom Cruise was doing in The Mummy, I’ll take director Edgar Wright’s lyrical and beautifully composed Baby Driver, thank you very much.  This is an action movie, a fun action movie edited and orchestrated within an inch of its life and reminding us of what movies use to be – a tingle of fun and energy and originality.  It has been put together by Wright and his editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss with precision and skill – they deserve an Oscar nomination.  They have fashioned a heist movie, one put together with style and a sense of fun.  For once, no one is trying to build an extended universe.  Baby’s universe is all we need.

Reeling from a childhood trauma that has left him nearly deaf, Baby (Ansel Elgort) – for that is the moniker he gives people – works as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) the manager of a robbery syndicate in which he hires three crooks to pull the job and then puts them in the getaway car to be driven by Baby.  Behind the wheel, this young fellow is something to behold.  Using a carefully chosen song as a timer for the robbery, he can smoke through traffic like a dream, turning and drifted and dodging police cars and spike strips in a manner that would leave that Fast and Furious gang coughing up dust.  He’s very very good at his job.  He’s so good in fact, that the other crooks underestimated him.  Presently the trio, which includes a hot-headed loose cannon named Bats (Jamie Foxx), a seasoned veteran named Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his babalicious wife Darling (Elia González), doesn’t trust the kid.  They take his youth, not to mention his silence, as suspicion that he might be a narc.  Underestimating the kid’s skill is their undoing.  You sense from this gang, particularly from Bats, that if they just trusted his skill and stopped trying to pad their own egos then everything might be just fine.

Maybe they should adopt his rhythm.  As they jump into his getaway car, he brings up “Bellbottoms” by The John Spencer Blues Explosion and seems to compose his getaway in time to the music.  Before the robbery he tells his cohorts to wait – “I gotta start the song over.”  The action works in unison to the music – and then there’s the further step that the ambient noise of everything from squealing tires to police sirens become part of the composition.  Returning to the hideout, the song doesn’t end.  Everything in the frame becomes part of the music from the stacks of money being counted to the chatter of conversation.  It’s all in their air, and Wright doesn’t waste any of it.

The story is not nearly as compelling as the atmosphere that drives it, but we still care about what happens.  Baby is in debt to Doc and is presently pulling his last job before he is let off the hook.  Looking ahead at his prospects, he comes across a pretty waitress named Deborah (Lily James from the live-action Cinderella) who seems so uncomplicated that she could almost be transparent.  His entire association with her never-the-less gives weight to the film’s later scenes when the plan goes belly up thanks, in large part, to Bats’ hair-trigger suspicions.  This is a story that builds and builds, telling us the major plot points as they unfold rather than making it all clear at the beginning and then drawing a through-line to the next action scene.  Of this, I will say no more.

Edgar Wright, in his other films from Scott Pilgrim to The World’s End is becoming the master of the extra layer.  It’s one thing to put people in a scene and move them around but it’s quite another them an extra dimension.  It’s one thing to introduce a weapons-dealer but another to have him lay out a monologue about his inventory as if he’s selling pork products.  Every character here is someone we remember from the burly short-order cook to the kindly postal worker whose face we remember later in a key moment of danger.  The actors in the supporting roles seem to have been hired for their faces.  We remember them and that is key.

This movie is like a breath of fresh air.  It is, at last, an action movie in which the director is directing the action and not hoping that a lot of whiz-bang forward-motion will be enough.  Great action scenes keep the action in the center of the frame and use the editing, not as punctuation, but as the notes in the visual composition.  That’s what is special here.  Wright and his editors are really putting together a feast for the eyes and the ears.  Our brains have to connect with each and every piece of the visual narrative so that we can follow along with the flow.  Too much quick editing without thought or orchestration becomes convoluted and we give up – we become passive and are excised from the moment instead of becoming part of it.
Think of the greatest action movies from Die Hard to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lethal Weapon to Bullitt the more recent KingsmanWith its action scenes Baby Driver rises to that league in a movie that is put together brilliantly and with loving care – somebody wanted to make this movie.

 
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Posted by on 06/28/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

Confessions of a Shopaholic is a silly comedy about a serious addict. In this case, the addict is Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), who gets a near-sexual thrill out of the act of buying clothes. She is so addicted to shopping that when she passes a store window, the mannequins actually speak to her, giving her sales pitches.

If this were an independent film – or a film made in France – the movie would end with her destitute and living on the street. It is not, this is a Hollywood romantic comedy, which means that Rebecca’s serious addiction will lead to a great job at a magazine, comic mishaps and a romance with a cute guy. It also wants us to believe the impossible. For example, the irony that she is the daughter of blue collar extremely understanding parents (John Goodman and Joan Cusack) who have saved every penny they ever earned.

You can’t buy the plot for one solitary moment, but you find yourself drawn into this hapless comedy by its one redeeming element: The performance of Isla Fisher. She was the little firecracker who fell for Vince Vaughn in The Wedding Crashers and she retains some of that crazy spark here. She has a manic way of diving into a situation with near-violent determination as when she goes to 50% off sale and comes to blows with another shopaholic over a pair of boots.

Fisher bears a strange resemblance to Amy Adams. She’s not nearly as sharp as Adams, but she is no less charming. The preposterous plot is spurred by her infectious charm. She has a lovable face, framed by a beautiful mane of light brown hair, and skin like porcelain. She has wide-eyes that sparkle when she is happy and grow dark when she is sad. The film’s art direction by Kristie Zea (who worked on The Silence of the Lambs) does Fisher a lot of favors. Everything is decorated like a store display, brightly lit with lots of bold colors. It brings out Fisher’s eyes and her beautiful hair. It also speaks to the rapture of Rebecca’s charge-card world.

I just wish that she were in a better movie. There isn’t a single moment of originality or creativity. It follows Rebecca’s attempts to make her way through a job writing a column in which she tries to help people organize their money. The irony, of course, is that she’s so bad money that a debt collector is stalking her like a bounty hunter. Oh-Ho! I wish it were possible to recommend a fun performance in a movie that is tired and ordinary, but I just can’t do that. All I can say is that if you do take the plunge, focus your attentions on Fisher’s bright, charming face. Do that, and then try to imagine a better movie for her – maybe one where she gets some serious help for her addiction.

 
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Posted by on 06/26/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I don’t care about this movie, I really don’t.  I’ve been burned too many times to even care at this point.  Something about this series slips my brain into a state of bilious apathy.  To admit that this movie is better than the previous installment is like saying that a rectal exam is easier to endure than a nasal swab.  It’s as much fun as both.

Like a bad relationship in which I’ve forgiven my partner once too often, I know the pattern by now because it doesn’t seem willing to change: The good-natured Autobots have a tiff with the hate-fueled Decepticons and they have brought their war to our planet so we can watch one of our most beautiful metropolises (In this case, Chicago) demolished for well over an hour. What did Chicago do to deserve this?

Transformers: Dark of the Moon has more story than the previous films, but it is still another loud, dumb, crude, overlong monstrosity. The story is convoluted and involves a plot that begins in the early 1960s, surmising that President Kennedy’s determination to put a man on the moon was fueled by an alien spacecraft called The Ark that landed there (Kennedy occupies the film via a bad special effect that is ineffective and rather creepy). Between the giant robots that inspired the moon landing and the mutants that got involved in The Cuban Missle Crisis in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, it is wonder that JFK didn’t resign.

Here in the good old 21st century, the war between the two robot factions has come to earth and the only real question to be raised is which faction will occupy the planet once our cities are reduced to rubble in the mechanical struggle. I didn’t really care why the robots came to earth or what they did when they got here. After the movie explains their intentions, I somehow felt that I was better off not knowing. I thought back to the simplistic purpose of this summer’s superb Super 8, in which the visiting alien’s central focus was a willingness to tear this planet apart just to get off of it, The Transformers plot over-extends itself.

On the human scale, the Autobot’s top ally is Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) who has graduated from college, taken up with a gorgeous new girlfriend named Carley (Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely) and is frustrated because he can’t find a decent job. Added to that is the presence of a billionaire car collector (Rob Morrow) who is Carley’s former boyfriend. Sam is frustrated a lot in this movie. He screams a lot, throws fits a good chunk of the time and seems so animated that we wonder if he isn’t on something. It is possible that Mr. LeBeouf may have figured out what I have about his role: If we stand back and look at this plot from a distance, Sam really has no purpose in this movie.

Humans are beside the point. My overriding problem with Transformers: Dark of the Moon rests with the robots. The Autobots and the Decepticons are incomprehensible when you look at them. I can’t tell one from the other. They seem built from a morass of metal that forms something 40-feet tall with arms and legs and something that might be mistaken for a face. This time around some have hair for reasons I can’t begin to explain. Those faces aren’t expressive, but hidden within all the metal. They have mouths but why do they need them? When they fight and their bodies are pressed against one another, you can’t tell one from the other. They’re metal, therefore they can’t get hurt, so why do we care? If they get destroyed, they can be rebuilt. Right?

Plus, they make no logical sense. How does a 50 foot-tall robot have enough metal in his body to transform into a full-sized pick-up truck? They are on this planet to fight one another, but what are they fighting about? What makes a robot good or evil? Who decided which side they would be on? What makes them intelligent? What makes them able to think and talk? What do they do when they aren’t fighting? Who sent them here? Who built them? Why were they built? Why do they transform into a automobiles? The robots are all male, so are their females? Was this trip really necessary?

 
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Posted by on 06/24/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Rachel Getting Married (2009)

A lot of movies feature big weddings. It was not until I saw Rachel Getting Married that I realized how much they all look alike. Rachel gets married in the film, but that’s only the first layer description. This is a movie about a gallery of interesting people gathered together for a happy occasion. The wedding here is different form the norm because it is Indian themed despite the fact that neither of the participants are Indian. Rachel is white American and the groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) is African. The family and friends on both sides are a mixture of cultures.

There are a lot of characters in this movie and many fit together in unexpected ways. Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) is not your standard neurotic bride but is relaxed and happy to have all of her loved ones together. Something else that I noticed that is different from the standard wedding movie is how the bride and groom interact. Most grooms in the movies are good-natured doormats whose function is to perform a snazzy proposal and move out of the bride’s way only to show up later at the wedding. Here, the groom is named Sidney, a gentle fellow who expresses his vows at the alter by singing a tender a capella rendition of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” Everyone involved seems to be having a great time except, sadly, for Rachel’s younger sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), whose story holds the film’s dramatic center. Kym has been in and out of rehab for 10 years and is making good strides to get clean. She has arrived at her sister’s wedding on a day pass from the clinic. What becomes clear right away is that while Kym can claim to have been clean and sober for 10 months, she hasn’t swept her emotional closet free of all of her demons. She is self-centered, a wet blanket, a drama queen who wants to be the center of attention, as in a moment when she turns a simple toast into a confessional, lined with rehab humor – few of the wedding guests laugh.

All through the preparations for the wedding, Kym continues to be out of place and always seems to be at odds with Rachel. Coming between the girls is their genial father Paul (Bill Irwin) who is so low-key that he seems unable to raise his voice. Paul is divorced from the girls’ estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger) who is overbearing, especially when it comes to Kym’s recovery. Much of Kym’s demons, we discover, fall back on an incident from long ago that the family doesn’t discuss. Years ago, Kym was left with her baby brother Ethan at the park. She was high on pills and later drove her car into the lake where her brother Ethan drown. That memory comes to light during a happy moment when Paul and Sidney are having a competition to see who can properly load the dishwasher in record time and one of the dishes that falls into Paul’s hands was Ethan’s and it stops the moment cold.

What is fascinating about Rachel Getting Married is that while the movie has a dramatic center, it never feels manufactured. We feel that the family’s problems with Kym have been ongoing and nothing ever comes up that we sense hasn’t been festering for years. Most of the best moments in the film happen because of Hathaway’s performance. She’s one of the best actresses of her generation, making her mark mostly in comedy but here finding a character who is fully realized. Kym is a mess, she is an enabler, she feels sorry for herself and she makes everyone around her miserable. I give credit to Hathaway for playing a character this unlikable. She isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.

Ironically, just three weeks before Rachel Getting Married was released came another wedding-themed movie, named Bride Wars, about a hateful spite war that kicks off between best friends over the venue at which they both want to have their wedding on the same day. It also starred Anne Hathaway but that film had nothing to offer but silly sitcom nonsense. It was hateful and cruel and mean-spiritied, the kind of film that is cobbled together out of spare parts from bad comedies. This film is much brighter, much fuller and with well-rounded characters. Everyone here is memorable even if we don’t get to know them. Rachel’s wedding is one that we remember because of the people involved.

 
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Posted by on 06/21/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Poltergeist (2015)

It is very likely that the remake of Poltergeist may be impossible to enjoy on any level. If, like me, you’re a connoisseur of the original and look on it with fond memories, this retread will come off as a soulless carbon copy. If you’ve never seen Steven Spielberg’s film, then this will come off as bland and colorless and rather indistinguishable from any other CGI horror movie made these days. In its intent, it sparks all manner of questions of necessity. Why remake good movies? Why not instead – as the late Gene Siskel once remarked – remake bad movies and make them better? As with the flat remake of Carrie a few years ago, you get the sense that the filmmakers know the notes but not the music.

The original worked because of our investment in the characters. The Freelings felt like a real family, nestled in their suburban cocoon in the midst of the 1980s Reagan-era economic boom. We felt their security and the reality of their comfortable situation, and that made it much more palatable when they found their sanctuary invaded by forces they couldn’t explain. The movie took the time to get to know them, we got invested in the housekeeping details and the daily (and nightly) rituals.

In the remake, we meet the Bowen family; father Eric (Sam Rockwell), mother Amy (Rosemary DeWitt) and their three kids: Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), a sullen teen who is forever glued to her tablet; middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) who is terrified of just about everything; and cherubic six-year old Madison (Kennedi Clements) who makes a habit of talking to things that aren’t there. We don’t see these people as a family so much as a troupe of actors grouped together to play one. Their lives are spelled out in very sparse details. Eric just lost his job with John Deere, and Amy is a failed writer who wants make time to write her book. That’s it. That’s all we know about them. They’re a family struggling in the midst of Obama-era recession. So, how they’re able to afford a new house is a question no one can be bothered to answer. The fact that they are struggling in tough economic times makes their ghost problem feel like insult to injury.

It takes less than 20 minutes of screen time before the terrors begin (in the original it took an hour). With the parents out of the house having dinner with friends, Kendra finds corpses popping out of the basement floor while Griffin is whipped around the house by an angry weeping willow, and Madison is lured into a bedroom closet that, up to this point, no one has been able to open. She disappears into the netherworld and Eric and Amy, at a loss for what to do, get help from a rather bland quartet of paranormal investigators, headed by a reality show psychic named Carrigan (Jared Harris, son of Richard). He takes up the role occupied previously by the diminutive spiritualist Tangina Barrons. Where Tangina exuded comfort with a hint of huckstering, Carrigan is a jokey old croke who is forever telling stories about the scars that adorn his body. You know he can get Madison back, but you never feel that tender assurance that Tangina gave to Diane that she could get Carol Ann back.  The motivations are gone, and even the mother’s heroism is replaced. Rosemary DeWitt does a serviceable job but the mother role in this film has been diminished – she’s not the one who brings the daughter back!

The remake feels like a rush through paces we’ve been over before brought to you by filmmakers who never bothered to understand why they worked in the first place. Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper worked to create a sense of magic and life and energy. That movie was also fun. This one, directed by Gil Keanan (Monster House), feels like a checklist. There’s no time for anything, no time for characters, no time to establish tension or mood.

The better images of the original are glossed over or thrown out completely. The eerie snowy screen of that old TV set in the original felt like a quiet window into another dimension. Here it has been replaced by a rather bland malfunctioning flatscreen. The clown attack that came in the original’s third act comes very early in this one so there’s no buildup of tension or terror. Even the house seems dry and dull. The only addition to the remake is that we get to see where the youngest daughter went, but it’s not a place of wonder so much as a fake CG zombie nightmare that looks like something George Romero would dream up. Even the ending seems like a misstep. Where the original ended with sadness and loss, this one ends with a punchline.

If there’s a single word that sums up the remake of Poltergeist it is “banal.” This is a dull film, devoid of life or energy. The actors go through the motions of a story that really doesn’t merit being repeated. There’s nothing to improve upon. Even the special effects feel artificial. There’s no wonder or spectacle or magic. Again, why remake his movie?  Why not update it.  Tell us what is happening to Carol Ann now as she enters her 40s?

You know what? Go back and watch the original again. It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen it. This weekend, instead of going to see this chunk of indifference, stay home and watch the original film and get caught up in its spell all over again.

 
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Posted by on 06/20/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

Poltergeist II: The Other Side is sound and fury signifying nothing, a good-looking special effects show that contains no less than a flying chainsaw, a set of killer braces and a creature excised from the human body through vomiting, yet it can’t find a cohesive foothold to string any of those ideas together.  Then again perhaps they couldn’t.  How exactly do you build a narrative that leads to killer braces?

It isn’t exactly news to report that Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a sequel to the hit 1982 thriller, but the surprising news is that this movie does everything wrong that the original film got right.  Like The Exorcist, key to the success of Poltergeist was that the characters were so grounded in reality that when the supernatural stuff started to happen, it leant the special effects a degree of credibility.   This sequel goes the other way around so we feel the effects but the characters are simply there to be knocked around.

That’s too bad because Poltergeist is one of the rare horror films that actually earns the right to a sequel by virtue of ending on a note so melodramatic that we might have been disappointed if someone didn’t find a way to get that family out of their funk. That film, you will recall, ended with the Freeling family fleeing their house as dead bodies popped out of the ground before the house was sucked into oblivion.  The family, now homeless, checked into the Holiday Inn.

As much as Poltergeist II: The Other Side is valid enough to continue their story, it does not, however, live up to the original. The story is silly and the characters feel like cardboard cut-outs, with witty little jokey dialogue, when it isn’t laced with supernatural hoo-ha.  The supernatural stuff in the original was mounted on a semi-plausible idea: their house was mounted on the grounds of a relocated cemetery.  Here there’s some nonsense about protection from evil forces and the protective force of the family bond.  This is filtered through Indian mystical nonsense and something about a 200 year old religious sect that wants Carol Anne’s life force back on “the other side”.  Whatever.

The story picks up a year later, which is a problem because the two movies were produced four years apart. That means that the little blonde Carol Anne, who was five years-old in the original is six now and played by Heather O’Rourke, who is actually nine.  That gives us the agonizing sight of watching a nine year-old playing a six-year old.  Why not just set the movie four years later?

Anyway, the story deals once again with the Freeling family, Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), and the kids Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne.  The teenage daughter Dana is absent here and never mentioned. They have moved in with Grandma (Geraldine Fitzgerald) after their house was sucked into oblivion.  Naturally, Dad refuses to buy a TV.

The hole where their house once stood is under investigation by the medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein) and a Native American mystic named Taylor (Will Sampson) because “there’s a presence.” What that “presence” is steps on the premise of the original film.  In the earlier film, it was explained that a real estate company made a strange decision to uproot the cemetery without moving the bodies.
Now we learn that a 19th century cult sealed itself inside a cave at the urging of an evil minister named Henry Kane.  Kane is alive and well and stalking around trying to capture little Carol Anne and take her back to the other side. It is hard to figure out exactly what Kane is, whether he’s a spirit or some kind of satanic manifestation.  We never know.  There’s some suggestion that he can manifest himself into a different forms but that is never really explained either.  This movie is one long series of loose-ends.

The movie is also one long series of special effects for their own sake.  Hardly a scene in this movie isn’t crafted without one.  The back half of the movie is a strange venture into the mystical world that seems to be neither here nor there.  Somehow the family does battle with the forces of evil by using their strong family lifeforce – nevermind the fact that one of their numbers, 17 year-old, Dana is missing.  Somehow they enter the netherworld through a multi-colored Indian campfire, and I was never completely sure how they got out.  I suppose I wasn’t supposed to ask.  It’s a sad day when the only way to enjoy a movie is to stop questioning its overwhelming gaps in logic.

The one thing that does work here is the performance of Julian Beck as Henry Kane.  Dressed in the vestments of an 19th century minister, his face is skeletal with large teeth beared over curled lips. His voice is slippery and unnerving. There is something about his presence that, in a better movie, could have really come to something.  He shows signs of what the movie could have been.  More priest and less family bonding might have helped.  You know what would have been a great sequel?  This family in therapy.

 
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Posted by on 06/18/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Poltergeist (1982)

In 1982, Spielberg was contractually forbidden from receiving a directing credit because, at the very same moment, he was still working on E.T..  While Poltergeist was made for MGM and E.T. was made for Universal, he never-the-less managed to work on both projects at once he was contractually forbidden from receiving a directing credit while preparing E.T. so he gave Hooper the directing credit.  So, the fact that this movie was released exactly 7 days before E.T., and both were enormous hits, the summer of 1982 was dubbed “Spielberg Summer.”

Revisiting both films, I was struck by how similar their worlds seem to be.  They both take place in the nest of the American middle-class white suburban world of the Reagan years.  Both films could have taken place in the same California neighborhood, and both films seem to exhaust the same kind of familiar worlds that we all grew up in.

The most appealing thing about Spielberg’s work at this period is that it never seems to take place within a set.  The Neary House in Close Encounters, Elliott’s house in E.T. and the Freeling house in Poltergeist all seem to exist in a certain plane of reality.  The Freeling home has an earthy quality about it.  There is a lived-in feel to it. Look around the living room, the kid’s bedroom, the kitchen. Everything feels like it’s been there for years, not like a prop man set it up just before the cameras rolled. That, I think, settles our minds into the reality of this house.

Poltergeist is an interesting experiment in artistic styles – two differing styles to be exact, and what happens when they clash might have made real mess if not handled with care. In this corner is Steven Spielberg, the prince of Suburbia, who – more than any other filmmaker – understands the world of middle-class America. In the other corner is Tobe Hooper, the mastermind behind one of the best and most unsettling horror films of the 1970s, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. Their efforts together create a brilliant haunted house movie that both tenderly shows us a family in crisis but also the strange, supernatural events taking place around them.

The credits give the reigns to Hooper, but Hooper’s style comes from the special effects elements. We are familiar with his other films and we can see some of the inspiration of Texas Chain Saw Massacre here – rotting corpses, flesh ripping, demonic faces, and decay. We remember his elements in that Texas house all those years ago and much of it exists here.

The villains here are hardly ever seen. They’re ghosts, lots of them apparently. We are never sure how many. There’s some discussion of “The Beast” but what does that mean? In the supernatural half of the film we are led to believe that they are full of surprises, that they can open a portal to the next dimension and take the family away. On the reality side of things are Spielberg’s favorite villains – corporate America, the same kinds of people who didn’t want to close the beaches in “Jaws” for fear of losing summer dollars. Here their machinations are much worse, a real-estate company that made a very bad decision.

Yet, this film is successful, I think, because of the human characters. There’s a close-knit family, and to our surprise, one that we actually care about. Mom and Dad – Steven and Diane Freeling – Steve is a real estate agent and former football player. Diane is a former flower child turned doting mother and housewife. The kids are just as defined. There’s 16 year-old Dana, whose forward-thinking attention is more attuned to her social life than anything going on at home. There’s 8 year-old Robbie, who finds fear in the most normal of everyday objects like a stuffed animal and a tree outside the window. And there’s 5 year-old, cherubic Carol Anne, who is prone to sleepwalking and whose attention seems unsettlingly distracted.

If not for the production design and the well-defined characters, the movie would be a complete wash-out. Like “The Exorcist” or “Carrie” the movie has to be grounded in reality for the supernatural stuff to be effective. That’s especially true of the characters who arrive later, after Carol Anne has been kidnapped and taken to the next dimension. It might have been fatal if the movie had been led by the investigating parapsychologists or even the erudite medium that blows in to explain the situation. Their work is so foreign to us, that putting them at the film’s center might have made the movie seem like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” If there is a weakness in the film, it probably comes from the myriad attempts to explain what is going on. The parapsychologist has her explanation. The medium has hers. Even the evil real estate developer has his explanation. Yet, it never really comes together, and after a while they all feel like club-footed theories. Late in the film there is a long-winded explanation of the supernatural forces that have kidnapped Carol Anne, and why, slows that I think slows the picture down. It reminds me of the blabbering psychiatrist at the end of “Psycho”, who comes on to explain the plot, when we in the audience don’t really care. Get on with it.

Yet, it is unfair to be snide about a movie like this. You kind of have to go with it. If there is an illustration of where “Poltergeist” succeeds, it must be in its comparison with “The Amityville Horror” which tells almost the same story but is a complete mess. That film did everything wrong that “Poltergeist” did right. It was a haunted house movie that only cared about the special effects, tossing the characters around like pegs. Also, that film allowed the horror to extend outside the house for no reason. In “Poltergeist”, the terror stays home and that lends it a bit of credibility. Grounding the supernatural events to the house allows us to orient our minds to some measure of limits. There have to be rules, otherwise the movie feels like it’s just a bucket of special effects with no purpose. “Poltergeist” is a prime example of how to make a haunted house movie under the best of filmmaking talent.

 
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Posted by on 06/17/2017 in Uncategorized