Sunday, May 31, 2015

Poltergeist ★

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    The art of film-making has come a long way since its historic conception in the late nineteenth century and since the first feature-length picture graced our presence roughly one hundred years ago. We have been transported through numerous decades of innovation, including the muted yet lovable silent era, the studio dominated productions of the 1940s and 1950s, and the American New Wave of the 1970s.

    Yet, with all due respect, it would seem that the twenty-first century has been composed of nothing more than mediocre efforts--highlighted by several great films--but mostly consisting of banal reproductions of past ideas, deemed as an experience for a new generation. Not only is this a blatant lie to anyone who can see through this facade of derivative creation, but it ultimately compromises the integrity of the art of cinema. Where have all the great filmmakers gone?

    "Poltergeist" is a 2015 horror film that attempts to recreate the atmosphere and magic of the 1982 original, yet failing to realize why it was so captivating to begin with. For, it wasn't the emphasis of horror or frightening images that made it all the more compelling, but it was the instances of uncertainty and the charming moments of humanness that touched our heart; all of which surely cemented the Spielberg produced original as an instant classic, and none of which seem to be present in this year's latest debacle. There is no magical build-up, hardly an atmosphere of suspense, and so many predictable fright scenes that make even the worst horror films a shining spectacle of sophistication.

    If anything, however, this rendition simply comes off as a poor recreation of the first installment--down to the minute detail--as several key lines of dialogue are rehashed (including the lines "They're here" spoken by the youngest child of the seemingly cursed family and "It's not like its a tribal burial ground," a line used to justify the act of building a suburban neighborhood on a cemetery) and certain objects remain in the spotlight for interpretation. The ominous tree and creepy clown doll return in an effort to spook the audience and the television once again becomes a symbol of how modern technology has placed a negative constraint on our society. There is even a focus edit in roughly the same place as the original, which only proves how uninspired this picture actually is. (Art should try to create, not imitate.)

    What this all basically comes down to is this: Was there even remotely a reason for this film to be made? The answer is a resounding no, and yet, this is only one instance in a plethora of circumstances that can serve as a prime example of this unwarranted pattern of behavior. Have we lost all sense of ingenuity? Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: Steven Spielberg can be proud of the fact that his "Poltergeist" will live on as the epitome of classic horror film-making, as pictures of this stature only add to their predecessor's greatness, if applicable.

Poltergeist ★★★1/2

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    Fundamentally speaking, the 1982 film entitled "Poltergeist" can surely be designated the most quintessential cult classic ever made. It has everything: An overemphasis on branding, recreational drug use, excessive gore, a string of memorable dialogue, an eerie and downright ominous musical score, and several strange and heartwarming stories surrounding its production. (The latter consisting of quite a few mysterious and unfortunate deaths involving cast members aligned with the process, along with moments oozing of auteur professionalism, as producer Steven Spielberg had to console both the lead actress and leading adolescent star--albeit in different fashions--in two instances of pure terror.)    

    Not to mention a number of included elements drawn from the real life experiences of the filmmakers themselves--that being a fear of creepy clowns and menacing trees--both apprehensions of a young Spielberg. Yet, what is most intriguing about this picture is the puzzle surrounding the final product. Although the credit of direction is given to Tobe Hooper, it would seem that Spielberg's creative talents were far more tangible (Spielberg is listed as producer and contributor of the script) except, of course, until all hell breaks loose within the last fifteen minutes of the film. (A decision that will be discussed further and one that could have used a little more "E.T." and less "Texas Chainsaw Massacre.")

    In essence, however, it is this strategic build-up and sense of unpredictability (a trademark of Spielberg's directorial ambitions) that fuels this film to success. For, it creates an atmosphere knee deep in human emotion--and although most of the frightening images evoke a rather perturbed feeling instead of unadulterated terror--it never becomes lost on our minds. This portrayal of your typical 1980s suburban family and the everyday occurrences that surround their lives is exceedingly simple; nevertheless, doubtlessly effective.

    We are thrown into a world much like our own by way of several key scenes and a set that certainly utilizes its live screen capacity to the fullest extent. "Star Wars" memorabilia tends to litter the children's bedroom in the most genuine manner, and scenes involving that of mischievous children and nighttime scares (best represented by the alarm of a frightful thunderstorm and the uneasiness surrounding a darkened bedroom closet) only add to this air of authenticity. When paranormal activity begins to rear its enigmatic head--culminating in the abduction of the family's youngest child--we are never in doubt as to its plausibility, simply because of the coaxing that has already taken place.

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    Accentuating this ambiance of sheer captivation are two indispensable performances provided by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the lovable and fearing parents. Nelson truly embodies the run-of-the-mill working man, who spends his free time hosting football parties and indulging in marijuana, among other things. Yet, it is his change in disposition, once things begin to unravel, that really highlights Nelson's inner solicitude--which has clearly been there all along--still never becoming more present than that first instance in where we see its effect on his mood. Williams obviously has a more emotionally charged role here and excels in her delivery time after time, when force is ultimately needed to guide her conviction. She clearly comes off as a tormented mother, whose only goal is to protect her children, and this is not only refreshing, but invariably winning.

    Although the theme of "Poltergeist" generally settles around that of emotional mood and the fear accompanied with uncertainty (or the fear of the misunderstood for that matter), there are numerous hints to something larger at play. There is the underlining notion of the ramifications of man's tampering, scenes exposing both of the younger children to death and suffering (loss of innocence), and a symbolic treatment of the television that would have Philo Farnsworth himself brimming with delight. (The latter of which is best encapsulated via an intrinsic metaphor, as once the youngest child, Carol Anne, is caught sitting too close to a scrambled TV set, she is told that it is "bad for her eyes," and the set is then changed to an unblemished station, providing our adolescent with images of war and destruction instead.)

    Which brings us to the most pivotal decision of the production: The unnecessary act of bombarding the audience with a ludicrous amount of grotesque images and bewilderment in the last fifteen minutes of running time; a decision that surely came from the mind of credited director Tobe Hooper, whose reputation for these types of qualities precedes itself. It was intelligibly the wrong calculation, considering the resolution of the conflict had already been completed and nothing of any value was added, except, of course, for an ending motif that again alludes to the destructive nature of the television on our lives.

    "Poltergeist" has a monumental foundation based on a plethora of magic moments that only Steven Spielberg can provide. A magical kiss in a time of great turmoil, the act of covering up a frightening clown in a moment of adolescent terror, and several instances of emotional restraint that charm from days on in. Let's be honest: Although the previously mentioned, and rather unfortunate, sequence of events does allude to the workings of Hooper, Spielberg obviously had a hand in the commitment, considering his heavy contribution to the script. (Now, it is not uncommon for screenplays to be thrown out from time to time, but this still does not explain why Spielberg insisted on slipping into a pool of mud, complete with real human skeletons, in an effort to console Williams, which just so happens to take place during this string of nonsense.) "Poltergeist" will always be characterized by the magic of Spielberg and this reckless decision, the blame of which will ultimately have to be pinned on the filmmaker, himself. He is a brilliant artisan and should have known better in this particular instance, in what can be deemed the pinnacle of his career. After all, 1982 was noted as the "Summer of Spielberg," not the "Summer of Hooper."      

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ★★★★

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    The significance surrounding the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a film that spawned a franchise of quite a durable stature, stems from its tendency to break away from the conventional superhero and provide a subject matter that is not only unique but somewhat more compelling. We are introduced to the rise of these four brothers through a scene that is entirely thespian (considering its on-stage lighting and feel), and yet, it worksnot because we are blown away by the monologue at hand, mind you, but because it is spoken by a wise-talking rat. And that's the beauty of its design.

    We cannot help but fall in love with these teenage turtles who spend most of their time below the bustling streets of New York City learning the art of Ninjutsu and ordering Dominos pizza. Their disparate personalities clash at times (much like most siblings), and they ultimately have a hard time obeying their father-like figure in Master Splinteranother complication that arises once adolescence transitions into adulthood. Throw in an antagonist from the past, a TV news reporter in April O' Neil (Judith Hoag), and the kidnapping of a family member, and you pretty much have a storyline that has become a staple in the "Turtles" cinematic universe.

    The finely crafted exteriors of the characters (provided by the wonderfully talented Jim Henson and Company) and an atmosphere that brims with authenticity, which, in part, is due to the plethora of stock characters that grace our presence, makes this film that much more memorable. The irate police chief, the overbearing news producer, and a taxi cab driver who, after coming into contact with the easily irritated Raphael, simply turns to his bewildered passenger and asks, "You going to La Guardia, right?" being most notable of the bunch.

    These personas not only enhance the setting, but they help the film achieve a sense of realism that is direly warranted. (I mean, our central characters are walking and talking reptiles, so it is only right that our filmmakers attempt to nail the customary, observable patrons of society.) This is surely not to mention a sequence where our lovable protagonists find refuge in the countrysidewhere the aesthetic beauty of the wilderness speaks for itself. 
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    Although the design of our heroes' costumes has perceptible flaws, (most notably the head, which, at times, displays the actor's face within the costume through the opening of the mouth) the emphasis on a rather rustic and tattered look could not be more ideal. After all, they do live in a sewer, and although it is not uncommon for our mischievous protagonists to catch a flick every now and then above-ground, it would hardly be acceptable to see them roaming around the local mall in an effort to pick up fighting gear. Of all the directions in which their appearance could have gone, this is unquestionably the most practical and, to be quite honest, it is the most endearing.    

    If this particular rendition of our beloved "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" somehow made it back to the silver screen, I would guarantee that its allure would captivate the minds of any young child who has not come into contact with the franchise. I also believe that it would outshine the 2014 debacle of the same name, but that is beside the point.

    A brilliant execution of low-key lighting (which only adds to the film's dark and somber mood), an excellent display of action choreography, and a well-written dialogue infused with modest humor, all contribute to a film that simply should have failed, if for no other reason than for the poor outing from its resident human star in Hoag. (Her performance is quite substandard, and it seems to be relatively melodramatic in form.) 

    Nevertheless, what we have here is a picture that succeeded because of its universal theme of family (brought to our attention by way of our heroes' experience and a subplot involving O' Neil's boss and son) and because of several touching moments between these four brothers. It is the most sophisticated portrayal that one could ask for, and, unfortunately, it just becomes another reminder of how ingenuity has been replaced by technological advances, i.e., special effects. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road ★★★★

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    There is no question that director George Miller is an enigma in his own right. I mean, it is quite hard to believe that this is the same man who produced cheerful and family-oriented films such as "Babe" and "Happy Feet." This rendition of Mad Max is surely his Magnum Opus (as well as an insight into the eccentric and outlandish portion of his mind), yet it is also a magnificent work of art that has been in production hell for far too long. 

    A simple allegory--yes--but it is also a testament to his particular style and brand of film-making. "Fury Road" is simply a tour-de-force of non-stop action and brilliance, which just so happens to come in the form of what I would designate to be a rock opera. (The picture not only utilizes several "acts" to compose the whole, but features a metal head guitarist, who produces jarring notes while the action takes place.) Intrigued? You should be.

    Now, if you are expecting to indulge in a film where Max Rockatansky is the central focus, then you will be sorely mistaken. The character of "Mad Max" has been reduced to a shell of his former self, which ultimately seems to be a harsh ramification of the cosmic irony treatment he has received over the years; sure, he is present and somewhat integral to the story at hand, but it seems to be more of a "passing of the torch" type of setup than anything else.

    In post-apocalyptic Australia, the land has been reduced to nothing more than salt and the instinct of survival. Only a handful of civilizations exist, including the "Bullet Farm," "Gas Town," and a somewhat lush environment known as "The Citadel," which is run by a dictator named Immortan Joe. Water is given to the helpless civilians in intervals and most of the dirty work is handled by an army of "War Boys," who in the opening moments of the film, capture a broken man turned scavenger in Max (Tom Hardy)

    This rather nihilistic and suicidal culture of The Citadel (in which the War Boys believe they will reach the halls of Valhalla upon death--glad to see Norse mythology still alive and well) is gearing up for a run to "Gas Town," when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the driver of the "War Rig" and a well-established leader, decides otherwise.

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     Meanwhile . . . . . . but is the plot really of any importance here? I think not. The rest of the picture merely involves the War Rig on the open dirt highway that is Fury Road, as Furiosa attempts to steal several precious "objects" that belong to Immortan Joe, who subsequently follows in pursuit; Max begrudgingly tags along and the rest is history. This strategy is not only exceedingly simplistic, but absolutely brilliant. Characterizations are blatantly left short in an effort to convey the allegory at hand (that being one with a nature of sexual equality), and although this structure generally fails in its aims, it succeeds invariably here. Action films worldwide take note.

    What is most striking about this film is its unique production design and a style that ironically seems more artistic than anything else. The latter is created by way of numerous techniques, most of which can also be found permeating throughout Miller's original trilogy, including: fast motion, long tracking shots, and an indirect subjective viewpoint that ensnares the audience's attention with relative ease. Symbolism comes in the form of natural symbols, such as the raven (also found in Miller's earlier productions), and same shot relationships, such as a pregnant stomach representing innocent life, accompanied by a spray of bullet rounds to express death. (It would seem that Miller is trying to claim that in this realm: Both are one in the same.)

    An abundance of visual metaphors (executed both internally and externally) help to round out this one-of-a-kind style, which at times can be compared to the comic book atmosphere of "Sin City." The majority of these external "visions" allude to the haunting past of Max, yet Miller is obviously intent on placing an artistic touch in every crevice that he is able. There is a junction in the picture where we are flashed with what seems to be a yellow paint splotch, which makes very little sense; nevertheless, evoking a feeling of unadulterated inspiration.

    The look and feel of the picture are utterly evocative, and one can certainly understand why a film's production is deemed a collaborative effort if they stay long enough through the end credits. ("Fury Road" contains one of the longest production lists I've ever seen.) The obvious utilization of color filters on the camera gives the picture an almost orange peeled tone during the day and a mystical hue of blue at night. (The former being brought out even more by the shade of Hardy, who looks to have overdosed on spray tanning.) There are even special lighting effects used in the character's eyes while, under the night sky, that signifies how Miller pulled out all the stops on this one; every note is composed elegantly.

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    As far as the allegorical script is concerned: The film is teeming with insinuations to the struggle for woman's equality, and every character fits this mold to a certain extent. Furiosa and her journey to "redemption" comes to symbolize feminism in its purest form (strong and able) and Joe represents the chauvinistic eighteenth century frame of mind that places the sex of women--and their children for that matter--in the same category as a bundle of possessions. Even particular scenes give off this impression, most notably in one instance where Max has to hand over the last shot of ammo because he knows Furiosa is a better aim.

    My only issue with this formula is that allegories tend to subdue the complexity of the character's disposition to where it becomes one-dimensional, however, Theron's performance clearly impedes this process; Theron steals the show with this portrayal and provides a heartfelt sentiment that most actresses can only dream of.

    Exactly what is 70-year-old director George Miller attempting to communicate here? The quotation that is boldly displayed at film's end suggests that there is a bigger picture at play; that is what makes the philosophical riddle all the more captivating. Not to mention the single shot motif in which Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a symbolic War Boy who garners his own subplot, devours a fly in a seemingly graceful fashion. Could this be an ode to the 1959 film entitled "Suddenly, Last Summer," where it is implied that mankind is nothing more than a viscous being that feeds on each other? Possibly not, yet whatever Miller is suggesting here, more of the same has become undoubtedly warranted.

Mad Max ★★★★

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    If there is anything to be said about the 1979 film entitled "Mad Max," a picture that spawned one of the most underrated action franchises in the history of the cinema, it has to be in regard to the relentless suspense that enshrouds this rather nihilistic and peculiar atmosphere. Director George Miller not only instills a sense of uncertainty into a plot that is routinely simplistic (considering its focus on a sole persona and his progressive descent into darkness), but he does so in such a way that captures the essence of Ozploitation cinema--a term that characterizes a certain style of film-making that blossomed in 1970s Australia. 

    Let's face it: "Mad Max" is a film that expresses the qualities of the above-mentioned style (which can become quite intolerable at times) in glamorous fashion. The picture is littered with scenes of a "campy" mentality and inexplicable situations in which a young female is led into a dangerous circumstance by way of her mindless decision-making skills. (Both of which have become a staple in shoe-string budgeted horror films.) 

    Nevertheless, Miller somehow finds a balance between cheesy and sophisticated, as his employment of several techniques essentially helps to mold this picture into a heart-pounding extravaganza on wheels. Fast motion, long tracking shots, and the indirect subjective camera viewpoint (a subtle positioning of the camera that eliminates the emotional distance between audience and character, yet not entirely placing the events in the eyes of the participant) all enhance this frenetic mood. The post-apocalyptic world never seemed more enjoyable.   

     The plot: Our story takes place sometime in the near future, in the Outback of Australia; the Earth has become little more than a planet filled with dirt and chaos. Order is set into place by a group called the Main Force Patrol, who proceed to lay down the law by scouring the roads in suped-up vehicles they like to refer to as "pursuit specials." Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is obviously the most skilled driver, which ultimately pits him against a renegade psychopath in the opening minutes of the film after several other Patrollers fail to bring him into custody. 

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    After an intense chase scene (which makes those of "Bullitt" seem downright bland) ends in a fiery death for the gang member self-labeled as "The Nightrider," Max finds himself as the target of a vicious group of marauders, who are not only hell-bent on avenging their fallen comrade, but who seemingly have adopted the way of life that can only be found in philosophical doctrines--this being the brutish State of Nature. They pillage, they plunder, they sexually molest anyone they can find, all while being led by a man named Toe-cutter. Max will have to walk the fine line between violence and insanity, as his life will be turned upside down by the reckless actions of this pack of disgruntled raiders.

    Although this picture can certainly be characterized as a simple action film, whose conflict becomes a symbolic clash between law and lawlessness (or in the film's context--a battle of "the Scags versus the Bronzes," the latter of which alludes to the bronze badge carried by law enforcement and the former a slang term for the raging motorcyclists), its soul is undoubtedly tied to this single character study, which is perfectly executed by an extremely young Mel Gibson. Max is a character doomed by cosmic irony, which becomes more evident as the series progresses, yet it is this internal conflict and struggle for human dignity that makes him all the more compelling. He not only doesn't want to kill or be killed for that matter, but he refuses to succumb to this instinctive insanity that has taken hold of humanity.  
    The scene with the greatest emotional impact (other than, of course, the traumatic event that shapes Max's outlook on life, which can be deemed rather overdramatic), and arguably the most important scene in the film itself, takes place after the climax and in the denouement. Gibson fills the screen with this sense of repressed anger and quiet rage, which becomes quite frightening; not necessarily because of his tone or actions, but because of the progression of his character. His restraint here is impeccable, and this cannot be overstated. It is at this point that he actually becomes "Mad Max," and that we realize that the action genre will never be the same. Thank God for that.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Prince of Egypt ★★★1/2

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    We are told at the beginning of Dreamworks' "The Prince of Egypt" that the film remains true to the essence, value, and integrity of the story at hand (that being the book of Exodus and Moses), and this is verifiable to a certain extent. In fact, we have a picture here that not only indulges into themes scarcely aligned with children's animated features, but one that has a tone and mood brimming with a hint of fear; a fear that can only be attributed to God's wrath. (Which can be quite a profound experience for any adolescent.)

    Although the focus of Exodus does tend to highlight that of Moses and his journey to enlightenment, it is the actions of God and his intentions that really strikes us most. I mean, everyone with a personal faith of some kind pines to feel this relationship with their believed creator of life, and Moses is a persona that brings this seemingly impossible connection to existence. The few scenes in which our main protagonist actually interacts with God are surely the most important, and undoubtedly the most difficult for the actor in the moment. (In this particular instance it is Val Kilmer who, much like Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," ironically voices both.)

    Several scenes become overdramatic at times (most notably when Moses commits a punishable act, and the brotherly separation that it causes thereafter), yet the film never forgets to inject a quiet moment of reflection or internal conflict, as Moses struggles to accept his real heritage and subsequent role in God's plan. This film is a delicate piece of work, if for no other reason than the fact that it is simply the first insight into the morals of God, which must be accepted by this single man, as he comes to realize how thoughtless the actions of the Egyptians actually were.

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    This is somewhat of a breakthrough for children's entertainment, especially considering the depth of the subject matter and the lack of promotional tie-ins--the latter of which being influenced by the decision of Dreamworks co-founder Steven Spielberg. Its reliance on tawdry humor is at a minimum, and although symbolism is conveyed in rather simplistic manners, it is this sense of "compactness" that works so well. Character's allude to certain philosophical views with phrases such as: "Sacrifices must be made for the greater good" and "I cannot change what you see," all in an effort to condense a historic and life changing event into one epic showing; a notion that could hardly be expressed by last month's lovable Disney release entitled "A Bug's Life."

    The texture of the picture is truly a wonder to behold, as it essentially becomes dictated by the mood of the scene. Soft, muted color tones are utilized in moments of elation, and dark shadows encompass the atmosphere when things seem to become more serious. (This can certainly be ascertained during the night of God's wrath, in which he takes the life of every Egyptian firstborn, as the only visible color becomes a series of red streaks--or lamb's blood--which helps to protect the Jewish people amidst a background of pure darkness.)

    What makes this film even more compelling is its musical composition, which comes in the form of several symbolic songs and a masterful score composed by Hans Zimmer. It is obvious that Dreamworks intentionally pulled out all the stops in what becomes their first hand-drawn animated feature film. The question now becomes whether or not they can continue the magic. (An indefinable quality which only the likes of Disney and Don Bluth have been able to capture and share many decades over.) However, one thing is for certain: As long as Spielberg has a hand in the production, success becomes generally inescapable.