Movie Review ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family whose suburban home is haunted by evil forces must come together to rescue their youngest daughter after the apparitions take her captive.

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Kennedi Clements

Director: Gil Kenan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I was mad when MGM and Fox announced they were remaking the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist.  Like, mad.  Like, really, really MAD.  How could any studio, director, or screenwriter even hope to come close to, let alone best, a film that has aged well and still scares the ever loving hell out of anyone that gives it a spin?  Haven’t we learned from remakes lately that it’s best to leave well enough alone and maybe focus on something original…or in the absence of something original pour through the countless numbers of average films and give them a spit-polish for a new generation?

Now let me say that as mad as I was and as incredulous as I remain that a remake of Poltergeist made it through the planning stages, I’ll tell you now that this 2015 take on Poltergeist isn’t a bad film.  It’s made well, has a fair freak-out factor, and features worth-a-watch performances that don’t feel like they’re careening down the copycat highway.  Here’s the thing, though.  It’s also so completely unnecessary that I wound up just feeling bad for everyone involved because their budget and time were all for naught.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz The Great and Powerful) may have changed the names and some key plot elements from the original script by Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and he may have inserted some new millennium colloquialisms and technology that wasn’t present in the early ‘80s but he’s retained the overall gist and familial themes that worked so well in Tobe Hooper’s film.  This turns out to be a wise choice because what’s been carried over remains the most interesting thing about the film.

Downsized from his job and forced to move into a new home with his wife and three children, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) is your typical cool dad that has a witty quip at the ready but loves his family.  He’s a little ashamed that he can’t be the provider and feels guilty that his family has had to uproot their lives.  The original film featured a family that lives in a pristine new residential development but the neighborhood that the Bowens call home feels sad, another victim of a depressing economy.  The groovy ‘80s décor from the 1982 film gives way to a bland three story cookie cutter home with butter yellow walls and a heck of a lot of ghosts.

The events unfold in much the way we expect.  Family moves in, bad things start to happen, little girl starts talking to the television, a big storm arrives and the little girl vanishes.  While Lindsay-Abaire has nobly tried to put some feeling into the Bowens, the economical running time doesn’t leave much wiggle room to develop the characters as well as Spielberg did originally.  What made Spielberg’s script so jazzy for the time was putting JoBeth Williams’ stay-at-home mom front and center, a key player in the action of finding and saving her young daughter.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) mom is more passive and not only lets her husband do most of the work but lets her scared of the dark son overshadow her when the going gets rough.

Nice to see that the children cast aren’t the annoying tots that they could have been.  Kennidi Clements is a sprightly tyke, precocious enough to believe she may have been born with a psychic gift but endearing enough to make you fear for her safety.  Saxon Sharbino as the oldest daughter seems like an afterthought, a character kept in because the remake rules demanded it.  Though I had some problems with Kyle Catlett’s middle child being moved to such a prominent role at the expense of his parents, the young actor does good work with a role that might seem more at home in a PG rated thriller for kids.

Now for the bad stuff.

The original film featured Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight as a wise but unprepared paranormal psychologist who enlists the help of Zelda Rubinstein’s medium to save the day.  The remake casts Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) in Straight’s role and turns the medium into a television ghost hunter (Jared Harris, Pompeii) that was romantically involved with Adams years ago.  Adams is full-on crazy cat lady with her unkempt hair, multiple pairs of glasses, and plaid skirts while Harris is no worthy replacement for the missing medium Tangina.  I just haven’t the faintest clue what the thought process of the creation of these characters was…landing on the idea that perhaps the studio hopes to make some sort of spin-off with these two (if you must, stick around for a post-credits sequence that explains my thoughts) but it’s just unwise through and through.

Director Gil Kenan helmed the admirable animated Monster House and his Poltergeist comes across like a sequel to that film more than it feels like a remake of the 1982 Poltergeist.  In fact, in Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire’s hands the film has the overall sense of a campfire story that’s been passed down over the last thirty years.  Over time the names have changed and modern references have been inserted…but the heart of the film remains and when the ghosts come out to play there’s some marginal fun to be had.

Still…I left the film not totally disappointed in what I’d seen but so very depressed that much effort was spent on something with no lasting value.  I’m especially troubled by the thought that some audiences may see this film before ever experiencing the dynamite scare fest that inspired it.  I think it’s better than Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III…but overall it’s a bummer.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Anne is staying with relatives in a high-rise building and the supernatural forces that have haunted her previously follow her there.

Stars: Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn-Boyle

Director: Gary Sherman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The best thing that can be said about Poltergeist III is that at least it’s better than its predecessor…though the bar was set so low by Poltergeist II: The Other Side that that’s not saying much.  The third sequel to one of my all-time favorite films had a troubled production and limped onto the screen amidst a cloud of doom.  Still, it has one or two interesting sequences and is more than competently made…but fails to deliver on anywhere near the same level at Poltergeist.

Young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen, Carrie) in a new high-rise apartment building in Chicago.  She’s there to attend a school for the gifted but it’s clear that it’s maybe more to give her beleaguered family some distance from the girl that attracts ghosts…and most likely because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wanted nothing to do with the movie.  Her aunt lives with her new husband (Tom Skerritt, Steel Magnolias) and stepdaughter (Lara Flynn-Boyle) in a gloriously late ‘80s mirrored apartment…a perk of his job as one of the developers of the building.

It’s not exactly clear how it happens but somehow the vengeful spirit of Reverend Kane wasn’t totally vanquished in the previous film and has tracked Carol Anne down with the intent to finally take her to the other side.  This traveling ghost takes a page from the shark in JAWS: The Revenge and travels out of his comfort zone to lay claim to the girl that got away.  Over the course of an evening, Carol Anne and her family are hunted by Kane and his minions of spirts throughout the building, from the parking garage to the swimming pool.

Now I firmly believe that a good movie could have been made of the material here…but director Gary Sherman was either too limited by the paltry budget or his imagination to deliver a worthy film that wound up putting the final nail in the Poltergeist coffin.  Not that he was helped by the numerous maladies that seemed to plague the film…chief being the tragic death of O’Rourke before the film was finished.

Performances are all over the board here with Skerritt and Allen showing up for their paychecks (though Allen seems to have fun with how alarmingly insensitive she is to her niece) and O’Rourke improving slightly on her dreadful previous performance as Carol Anne.  It’s nice to see Flynn-Boyle’s first screen appearance but stormy weather arises when Zelda Rubinstein shows up to preside over a master class of bad acting.

A film that’s literally just smoke and mirrors, it’s a shame that Poltergeist III couldn’t make something of material that should have worked better than it did.  With multiple deaths associated with the series that came to be known as the Poltergeist Curse, it’s no wonder the studio took one look at the finished project and anemic box office returns and decided to call it quits on future installments.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist II: The Other Side

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Freeling family has a new house, but their troubles with supernatural forces don’t seem to be over.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Julian Beck, Will Sampson, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Director: Brian Gibson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s no secret that the mid ‘80s produced a bad case of sequelits in most major studios and after 1982’s Poltergeist scared the pants of audiences throughout the summer it didn’t take a genius to see that a sequel would be on its way.  Released in May of 1986, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is one of the worst sequels ever and while it doesn’t tarnish the memory of its predecessor it sure gives it the good college try.

It’s been one year since the Freeling family encountered some nasty goings-on in their storybook like tract-house in suburban California.  Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood), Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) are living with Diane’s mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) while they find a place to live.  In the original film there was a third child and she’s never mentioned…at all.  Tragically, the young girl that played the role was murdered shortly after the film was released, the first to die in what was later called the Poltergeist curse.  I get that they didn’t want to recast the role but to not mention her at all was very strange.

Anyway, our feisty medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) has enlisted the help of an Indian shaman (Will Sampson) to help dig through the remains of the original Freeling home to discover secrets of the bodies that were buried under the development.  She uncovers the skeletons of a religious cult that died with their leader, Reverend Kane (Julian Beck, the second actor to die, this time before the movie was even released).  Somehow the spirit of Kane is released and again targets Carol Anne…hilarity, sorry, hysteria ensues.

It’s been rumored that Poltergeist II: The Other Side went through some major cuts in the editing room and it shows.  At a scant 91 minutes, the film doesn’t have the luxury of the slow burn that made the first film so enormously enjoyable. It’s a very get in and get out affair with a special effects heavy third act that inspires more snoozing than shrieking.

Especially disappointing is how bad the performances are here.  Nelson and Williams seem like they’re serving community service, but I’d be mad too if I had to pretend to vomit up a gigantic animatronic tequila worm like Nelson does in one particularly nasty scene.  Robins was never an especially, um, gifted child star and when he’s attacked by his braces you may be rooting for the metal to win.  The angelic O’Rourke was a tiny six year old in Poltergeist and her performance felt spontaneous and without guile…but in the four years between films she must have enrolled in too many child acting classes because she stinks.  While I loved Rubinstein’s unexpected charisma in the first film, her Razzie Award nomination for the sequel was absolutely deserved.

The worst thing about Poltergeist II: The Other Side is not that it’s a cheap money grab for fans of the original…it’s that it’s so very boring.  Though loaded with decent effects and benefiting from Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, it barely holds your interest for even seconds at a time.  It’s a silly mess that doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the landmark film it followed.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist (1982)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a family moves into their new home, they notice strange events that mostly affect their young daughter.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, James Karen

Director: Tobe Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  How sweet it is to feel the tingle that goes up your spine when you’re sitting down watching a truly satisfying horror film…there’s just no other feeling like it.  Horror films have come and gone over the years, each one a more cannibalistic example of mindless copies of something original.  But try as they might, no haunted house ghost tale can hold a candle to classics like 1963’s The Haunting and 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films are handsome, classy productions that aren’t cheap scarefests and each delight in playing (or rather, preying) on the things that scare you.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite films of all time because it fits into several categories at once (like the best horror films do…see JAWS as an example).  It’s a drama, a mystery, a midnight movie freak out, a paranormal thriller, and a period piece all centered on one suburban Regan-era family out to live the good life in a new home development that holds its share of buried secrets.

Life for the Freeling family is pretty typical of the time period.  Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood) is a sales agent for the residential development where he lives with his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), and three children (Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke).  The kids go to school, the mom cleans the house, sports are watched on the television over the weekend, and the biggest problem they face is worrying about the new pool they’re putting in the backyard.

Strange things begin to happen, though, seemingly out of the blue.  Little Carol Anne (O’Rourke) starts to talk to the television and the “TV people” that want to play with her.  A scary tree and ominously stormy nights keeps young Robbie (Robins) from getting a peaceful slumber.  Not to mention the kitchen chairs that stack themselves and some strange gravitational pull that moves things across the room at an alarming pace.  It all culminates in the film’s first big scare and before you know it, Carol Anne has vanished yet her presence and voice remain in the house.

What happens next involves a team of paranormal investigators (lead by Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight) and one tiny medium (Zelda Rubinstein) as they attempt to help the Freelings find their daughter and rid their house of the titular entity that for some reason has targeted them for trouble.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and written/produced by Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), the film is a welcome blend of the eye-popping scares that Hooper was famous for capturing under the watchful hand of Spielberg’s sensitive script.  I’ll admit that there’s a part in the film which always causes me to tear up a bit…how often do you find that in a film that literally tosses skeletons and rotting flesh at the screen?

What’s so wonderful about Poltergeist is that even though it spawned two disappointing sequels, inspired three decades worth of copycats, and is clearly a film from the early ‘80s it manages to remain timeless and timely.  The scares continue to work like gangbusters and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I never manage to lose interest in the story being told.

Movie Review ~ I’ll See You in My Dreams

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A widow and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age

Stars: Blythe Danner, Mary Kay Place, Martin Starr, Sam Elliot, June Squibb, Reid Scott, Malik Akerman, Rhea Perlman

Director: Brett Haley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Screening movies can be an interesting experiment in timing. Between seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road (two gigantic movies in scope and sound) I caught a preview of the quiet drama I’ll See You in My Dreams. The title alone lulled me into a slight slumber and I’ll admit to being this close to “resting my eyes” on several occasions…but I’ll admit that by the time the credits rolles I found the film to be a nice change of pace from the current cinematic offerings and features a lovely star turn from its leading lady.

I’ve always liked Blythe Danner and appreciated that in her later years she’s not merely known as “Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mom” but had continued to find roles that showcase her well. I met Danner in New York nearly a decade ago after her stellar performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and was struck not only by her dynamic onstage presence but how radiantly beautiful she was up close and personal (something I can’t say for some actors I’ve met over the years).

The film is nearly a one-woman show as Danner (The Lucky One) anchors every scene of the movie she’s in (which is every one of ‘em) whether sharing it with one or more members of its pleasant supporting cast or going it solo playing a long-time widow retired to Florida. Though she doesn’t live in one of the numerous retirement communities the state has to offer, she still makes it out to the weekly bridge game held at a local senior palace with her spry friends played by Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Rhea Perlman (The Sessions).

Focusing on two burgeoning relationships: a friendship with her pool boy (Martin Starr, This Is the End), and a romance with a newly arrived hunk (Sam Elliot, Draft Day) the movie develops at its own pace and takes its time to highlight the feelings both men stir in Danner’s independent character. A strength in the screenplay from Bret Haley (who also directs) and Marc Basch is that they’ve crafted Danner’s widow not as someone lacking something in her later years but excited at the prospect that a new adventure she never expected may be awaiting her.

Truly, it’s a piffle of a movie and feels perhaps too small for a big screen but it’s wonderfully acted and conveyed with a sensitivity toward those in their golden years that know it gets greater later. Even a phony-feeling section where Danner and her pals toke up on medical marijuana gets a pass from this citic because the four ladies play it with such verve. A truly special scene finds Danner and Starr in a barely populated karaoke bar where Danner delivers a tender rendition “Cry Me a River”.

So far this summer the movies have been appropriately gonzo but unexpectedly overwhelming which has led to a decided fatigue even before the previews have ended. If you’re looking for a respite from the flash, give I’ll See You in My Dreams your time instead.