Poltergeist (2015) — a review

Everybody, let's give her a hand, shall we?

Everybody, let’s give her a hand, shall we?

It was inevitable that Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost story produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, would finally get remade. Taking place in a suburban paradise at the dawn of Reagan’s America, when owning a McMansion in the ‘burbs was considered the epitome of the good life, the original film was mainly famous for transplanting the creaky haunted house premise to (then) modern day suburbia. Poltergeist was lauded for smartly updating the horror film, even though writers like Richard Matherson had been doing the very same thing (and much better) in his published fiction and through his scripts for projects like the original Twilight Zone.

I actually remember the 1982 Poltergeist best for two real-life behind the scenes stories, the first was the tragic murder of actress Dominique Dunne, who played the eldest daughter in the film, by her ex-boyfriend. The second, more prosaic controversy was whether or not Poltergeist had actually been directed by Spielberg, much like how producer Howard Hawks was rumored to have actually directed the original version of The Thing.

It's bad enough to have an ant infestation, but, jeez, this is ridiculous!

It’s bad enough to have an ant infestation, but, jeez, this is ridiculous!

But as a film, the original Poltergeist was technically very well done, with spectacular ghostly effects that were impressive, and a storyline that focused on and emphasized the family as they dealt with this overwhelming supernatural threat in their own house. Despite the fact that I never found it to be very scary overall–it was more in the vein of horror-lite; a toned-down “horror film” that’s suitable for the whole family (it even had a PG rating)–it’s still an enjoyable film to watch even to this day.

I was in Galaxy Quest, and trust me,  I know when to quit. C'mon, we're out of here, right now!

I was in Galaxy Quest, and trust me, I know when to quit. C’mon, we’re out of here, right now!

While the 2015 film doesn’t have the specters of any behind the scenes controversy hovering over it, there’s not much to recommend about the new version, as it’s basically a by-the-numbers remake that’s very toothless and timid. Where the original at least had some solid performances (especially Jobeth Williams in particular, who was memorable as the feisty mother who rises up to try and save her family), everyone in the remake is too bland and lifeless for you to care about them.

Another major problem (and it’s not really the fault of the remake’s filmmakers) is that Poltergeist has already been remade–just under different names. The original Paranormal Activity, along with James Wan’s fun Insidious, and his superb The Conjuring, have reintroduced 21st century audiences to the haunted house story, while deftly redefining it, and have all done a much better job in doing so. In contrast to the inspired films that I’ve mentioned, the Poltergeist remake feels lackluster and tired. It might be time to consider giving these “noisy ghosts” a rest. –SF

John Wick — A Review

Entourage: The Next Generation, this fall on NBC!

Entourage: The Next Generation, this fall on NBC!

I was in my late teens/early twenties back in the wild and wooly 1980s, and I watched a lot of the action films of that era in the theater on opening day. And being a fan of these 80s actions films–many of which were gloriously cheesy–I appreciated the stunt work that went into them. Stunt men and stunt women would often put their very lives on the line just to make the on screen hero look good. In recent years, this accomplished stunt work has slowly been replaced by computer generated imagery (CGI). Gone was the amazement of watching real stunt people doing actual stunts, these days viewers play a dreary game of trying to figure out at what point in the film does the CGI took over from the live actors (in many newer films, this is usually all too easy to spot).

Dude, get your damned car out of my parking space!

Dude, get your damned car out of my parking space!

But John Wick, the new action film starring Keanu Reeves, was directed by stuntmen: Chad Stahelski, along with an uncredited David Leitch, and not only does it show, it’s all the better film for it. Reeves plays an ex-hitman who’s grieving over the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan), who, in her last act, has given him a puppy to take care of so that he won’t be alone. The scenes of Reeves struggling to deal with his wife’s death, along with getting to know his new canine buddy, are very affecting.

But like all of the best action flicks, even this small measure of bliss is shattered by a group of young Russian gangsters who invade Wick’s home (not knowing who he really is) to steal his car–a classic 1969 Mustang that the leader of the gang, Iosef (well played by Alfie Allen) covets the moment he spots the car during a chance encounter with Wick at a gas station. But as if stealing the car wasn’t enough, Iosef has to deal Wick a final F.U. by killing his dog, the last connection to his dearly departed wife that he had left. This sets Wick off on a malice-filled streak of revenge.

You really wanna meet Jesus? Just stand there and you'll be meeting him in a sec....

You really wanna meet Jesus? Just stand there and you’ll be meeting him in a sec….

John Wick is basically action, action, and more action, and I couldn’t have been more happier to see it. The stunt work is old school in that real people are being flung through glass windows, as well as flipping over cars that run them over. The fight scenes are dynamic and smart; Wick doesn’t take any chances when he doesn’t have to by mainly using his gun to blast away whoever stands between him and his prey. The film also sets up a secret assassin’s world with its own code of conduct. There’s even a safe haven, a hotel where no killing is allowed, that’s run by Winston (Ian McShane). If you enjoy a good, hard-driving action film with plenty of twists and turns, John Wick is your man. –SF

Gotham — a review of the show

Now before I wig out and try to kill you, can I offer you anything? Cheeseballs? Potato chips and dip? No? OK, let me just get my knife...

Now before I wig out and try to kill you, can I offer you anything? Cheeseballs? Potato chips and dip? No? OK, let me just get my knife…

Remember back when I reviewed the first episode of Gotham? Remember that? I liked it well enough, but I said then that I couldn’t really make a proper assessment of the entire series based on just one episode.

Well, now I’ve seen the entire season of Gotham–having just watched the incredibly dopey finale last night. And I’ve gotta say, this really isn’t my favorite incarnation of Batman–especially since Batman is nowhere to be seen. Granted, the idea behind this series was to show the rise of the infamous Batman rogues gallery in a Gotham City before the arrival of the Dark Knight. And the Batman villains–Joker, Catwoman, Penguin–are among the most fascinating baddies in comics.

So Gotham should be fantastic, right? Right?!

Tonally, it’s all over the place, with the characters acting stupidly to serve even dumber scripts that try to fit them into preordained story lines–which works about as well as fitting round pegs into square holes. In last night’s season finale, little Selina Kyle, aka She Who Will Be Catwoman, joins the Fish Mooney gang because…well, you know…just because. Selina, a strong female character who traditionally hates authority figures and who is so individualistic that she goes her own way even if it means going at it alone, gleefully becomes one of Mooney’s minions, even to the point of getting her hair styled just like her new very best friend.

We're forming our own pop group, the Eighties Kitties.

We’re forming our own pop group, the Eighties Kitties.

Ugh! If Selina had turned against Mooney, that would at least show a flicker of the Catwoman whom we all know and love. And Fish Mooney is just too bland and uninteresting a character to hinge your entire series on. I kept waiting all season for her a-ha! moment, the moment where she would finally be a real threat (or at least make sense), but the season’s over, and the Gotham writers just couldn’t be bothered because…you know…just because…ugh!

The real hero here was meant to be the young Jim Gordon, who, in the last episode, is desperate to save the life of a mob boss who he thinks would be “right” for Gotham City. (???) WTF? Even if James Gordon isn’t the last decent man on the force (which is what the character always was: an honest cop), if he had an ounce of brains in his head, Gordon would just step aside and let these maniacs kill each other–then go after the last man (or woman) standing. That would at least be cool. But, oh no, Gordon’s reduced to being just another mob lackey here because…you know…whatever…ugh….

There’s been a slow burn build up for a mob war that’s brewing in Gotham City all season long that makes it look like Gotham is striving for a gritty, Nolan-Batman feel. But then they have silly, cartoonish episodes where people are offed by balloons, and then they dive right back into the pseudo-grittiness again. I don’t really mind either direction–Batman has worked with many different interpretations; both serious and comical–but just make up your fricking mind and pick one, already!

Jeez, this show sucks...maybe Joss Whedon has another series for me to do.

Jeez, this show sucks…maybe Joss Whedon has another series for me to do.

The writing overall seems very indecisive, like how they keep toying with the arrival of the Joker (look, a guy in a red hood–oh never mind; wait, here’s a guy who kinda, sorta looks like the Joker, so maybe…oh never mind). As I was watching the final episode with Gordon and Bullock getting captured, escaping and then getting recaptured again, I just got fed up with the whole thing. Gotham has been renewed for a second season, and I hope the fans out there continue to enjoy it (however many of them are left). Me? I’m done, thanks. –SF

Avengers: Age Of Ultron — A review

Could those with tickets for the 11:00 show please...is anybody listening to me? Hello? I hate opening day....

Could those with tickets for the 11:00 show please…is anybody listening to me? Hello? I hate opening day….

The bad tidings start from the very beginning, when Avengers: The Age of Ultron begins like a James Bond film, with the Avengers already in the middle of a mission where they’re taking down the evil Baron Strucker (the always good Thomas Kretschmann, trapped here playing a one-note character). Avengers: Age of Ultron using the proven formula of another successful action film series right out of the gate is not very promising, but I forgave Joss Whedon, the writer/director, since this was an effective way to show this dynamic group in action, which leads up to a really cool slow-mo sequence of the entire Avengers team literally swinging into battle.

Nice…but oh, wait a minute, once these Hydra goons are squashed, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the really bad idea that the human race would be much better off with a sentient robot army lording over them (apparently the Terminator films don’t exist to serve as a warning against robots in the Avengers universe). This leads to Ultron, a Frankenstein-like monster who rises up to curse his creator Stark and the Avengers. This sounds like a great idea, but the Ultron robot is given voice by James Spader, who never really makes this bad guy feel very threatening for me.

Feel free to Just call me Red....

Feel free to just call me Red….

There’s too much witty repartee between Ultron and the Avengers for my taste, too many moments when the action stops, when the heroes pause to listen to this overgrown garbage can crack wise when they should be cracking its shiny head instead. It’s the famous ‘villain monologue’ scene that The Invincibles (a MUCH better superhero flick than this, BTW) makes fun of in smart scenes where the heroes actually get the villains to bather on as a way to defeat them. And even Ultron’s allies, a pair of super-powered glimmer twins named Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, barely register in this way overcrowded film, leaving the Avengers without a decent enemy to square off of (where’s Loki when you really need him?).

This Avengers flick travels to exotic cities all over the world and promptly trashes them in overdone CGI battles that felt too cartoonish and over the top. But it’s not just the overabundance of CGI that’s the problem here; I was also getting just as weary of the whiny, phony angst in the “quiet” scenes as I was of the CGI-on-steroids battle sequences. It turns out that even Ultron is ultimately suffering from daddy issues, given his hatred for his “papa” Tony Stark. It’s a shame. Where the first Avengers film felt fresh and exciting, this one seems tired and stuck in a rut, falling back on easy story-telling formula (and CGI) instead of even trying to be inventive.

And I got an unintentional laugh at the climatic set piece, where the Avengers are oh-so-careful to herd innocent civilians to safety before and during the final battle, which is an uninspired repeat of the Battle of New York City from the first film, only this time with robots. Having the heroes being overly careful with protecting citizens is actually a nice touch, and it brings up a good point. It’s basically the Merry Marvel team saying, ‘Look, this isn’t Man Of Steel! See? We care about the little guys on the streets!’

Touché, Marvel. But as flawed as Man Of Steel was (and yes, that flick certainly had its problems) I still enjoyed it far more than I did Avengers 2. I own MOS on Blu-Ray, and from time to time revel in its good parts (Antje Traue still rocks very hard as Faora-Ul–now she’s a cool villain!). Despite being flawed, Man Of Steel still manages to bring me enjoyment, which is a lot more than I can say about Avengers 2.

Probably the most annoying thing about Avengers 2 is that it didn’t stand on its own as a film, but wound up being too unoriginal, filled with far too many “been there, done that” moments. Thankfully, it’s been announced that the Russo Brothers, who did such an outstanding job on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, will be directing the next two Avengers films. Maybe this infusion of new blood behind the cameras will be what the Avengers series needs. –SF