Home » 2015 » May

Monthly Archives: May 2015

Poltergeist (2015) ••1/2

Poltergeist_2015_posterStarring: Sam RockwellRosemarie DeWittKennedi Clements
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire
Horror/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: May 22,2015


reel-2 480px-One-half.svg cast-2cast-half  h-logo-3

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw Poltergeist, a remake of the classic film from the early 1980s.

While I don’t think it was intentional, it was a splendid comedy. Let’s recap:

We meet the Bowen family. The father is Eric (Sam Rockwell), the mother is Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the three children are teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), 10-year-old Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and 6-year-old Maddy (Kennedi Clements). The Bowens move into a house that has the oldest tree in the neighborhood in the front yard. Almost immediately, the kids are noticing strange noises and objects moving by themselves. Griffin is scared to death sleeping in the attic bedroom with a skylight showing the old tree’s branches swaying wildly in the wind. He’s alarmed to see Maddy talking to imaginary people in her bedroom closet and in the living room television.

Then something really strange happens. While mom and dad are at a party, Kendra’s cell phone leads her to the garage where the floor splits open and a skeleton pops up. Hilarious. The clown on the shelf starts running around and the tree breaks through a skylight and Griffin is held upside-down by his ankles. Guffaw. And finally, Maddie is enticed into a portal in her closet when spirits drag her teddy bear (well, actually it’s a unicorn pig stuffed animal) into the void. Are we scared yet, Scott?

Not really, Greg. As you point out, it’s unclear whether this version of Poltergeist belongs in the horror genre or the comedy genre. The casting of Sam Rockwell makes sense only if the film was intended to be a comedy. Rockwell is a wonderful actor, but he tends to play characters who don’t take the things that go on around them seriously. He doesn’t seem to be taking anything seriously in this film – not his marriage, not his kids, nor the hundreds of evil spirits that have set up shop in his youngest daughter’s closet. He’s an immature goofball caught in a movie that I think is trying to be a serious thriller.

Movies like this can only work if all the characters, at the beginning, under-react to events that would send ordinary people running for the hills. It would be a very short movie if people in Poltergeist behaved rationally. So the family sticks around for a few days despite the fact that electronic equipment goes on and off at random intervals, and objects are moving by themselves. Even paranormal scientist Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) has an assistant, Boyd (Nicholas Braun), who isn’t convinced that anything is amiss even after seeing a chair float in the air by itself and smash into a wall.

The movie continues with the comedy baseline when the Bowens learn that their subdivision was built on a cemetery. Everyone laughs nervously when Bowens’ boss’s wife blurts out “at least it wasn’t built on an indian burial ground.” This is a line from the original movie and also a common movie trope. I suppose it was supposed to be a tension breaker, but instead played out as a wink to the audience. It broke the tension all right, permanently.

I can’t say I enjoyed Poltergeist very much. I pretty much knew the plot from the original movie and wasn’t surprised by much of anything. Suspenseful moments in the film were filled with silence and seemed more dragged out than tense. The only enjoyable bits were scenes that were supposed to be super scary, and instead looked spoofy. The problem with this remake is that the original Poltergeist created a series of horror elements that have been reused horror movies ever since. So much so that they become cliches. This new Poltergeist, then can do no better than be a 90 minute cliche-fest.

Let’s examine the hero story. We have a family ensemble with a goofball dad, a rather dull mother, a stereotypical teenage girl, a 10-year-old (Griffin) who is a lightening rod for everything bad that can possibly happen to a kid, and little Maddy who possesses the gift of being able to easily connect with the hordes of demons invading the home.

Griffin turns out to be the one member of the hero ensemble who transforms. He starts out a scaredy-cat whom no one believes every time something horrible happens to him in his bedroom. By the end of the movie, he develops some serious cajones and basically saves the family from total destruction. It’s nice to see one person change as a result of this ghastly, ghostly story. The villains are the poltergeists, of course. Like all ghosts in scary movies, they seem to have anger management issues. And as in all scary movies, the ghosts know to scare people just a little at first and then gradually build up their scary tactics to a crescendo. It’s as if the ghosts know that to start out too strong would make for a very short movie.

Poltergeist was a breakthrough movie in 1982 which had the likes of Steven Spielberg writing the script. It was a taut thriller that used the abduction of an innocent little girl to create fear in the audience. That film frightened us more because of the fear of the unknown – we never really saw the ghosts. 2015’s version took us inside “the other realm” of ghosts and gave us a detailed view of the ghostly world. And I think this was a mistake. Our imaginations are much scarier than anything on-screen. I give Poltergeist just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, you put the nail in the proverbial coffin when you point out that young Griffin is the only transformed character in this movie. It’s a side-dish when the hero story should be the main course. Griffin’s transformation is due to his guilt at leaving his sister alone when she was in danger. He then feels he must redeem himself by going into the nether regions after her. It was a nice touch, but was too little too late. I give Griffin 3 out of 5 Heroes.

When looking at the cast of secondary characters, we find quite a few delights. There’s the academician who plays the Mentor character to the family. Then, she calls in the pinch hitter in the form of Carrigan Blake (Jared Harris) who reminded both me and Scott of Father Merrin from The Exorcist. This is an interesting side character – the Ultimate Authority. There was also the Skeptic in the form of the graduate student Boyd. I give this secondary cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

 Movie: reel-3Cast: cast-3Hero:h-logo-3

Poltergeist was a predictable, unintentionally funny remake of a movie that didn’t need to be remade, unless audiences needed to see a small girl get trapped inside a flat-screen TV instead of a big, bulky one. There’s really nothing to see here, and I agree with you, Greg, that the movie sabotages itself by showing the demons when all good filmmakers should know that less is more. I can only give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroic family had to overcome its poor judgment in staying in a home that was obviously haunted from the minute they entered its doors. Poor Griffin was the ghosts’ favorite battering ram and he was my pick to be the one member of the family most destined to need decades of intensive psychotherapy. But Griffin rises to the challenge and saves Maddy in the end. I give this silly family and redeemed Griffin 3 Heroes out of 5.

I found the supporting cast to be just as humorous as the family. Boyd accuses the family of making up the ghost story just moments after seeing a chair flying into a wall by itself. Do you remember the character of Quint from the movie Jaws? Carrigan Blake is Quint, right down to the shark-bite scars all over his body. I half-expected Carrigan to blurt out, “We’re going to need a bigger rope” but he never did. I give this unintentionally funny cast a rating of 2 out of 5.

  Movie: reel-2Cast: cast-2Hero:h-logo-3

Mad Max: Fury Road ••1/2

Max_Mad_Fury_Road_Newest_PosterStarring: Tom HardyCharlize TheronNicholas Hoult
Director: George Miller
Screenplay: George MillerBrendan McCarthyNick Lathouris
Action/Adventure/SciFi, Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: May 15, 2015


reel-2 480px-One-half.svg cast-3 h-logo-3

Scott, I thought we were done with the Fast and Furious series. Now we have Fury Road?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Movie audiences appear to be clamoring for movies filled with endless car chases. And with great fury and furiousness. Let’s recap.

In a future world where gas and water are scarce, we’re introduced to Mad Max. Max was apparently some sort of police officer who was charged with protecting women and children. We learn this through flashbacks of little girls asking Max “why didn’t you save us” in accusatory tones. Max is taken hostage by the wild boys and hung from his heels in a cavern.

We then see Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) secretly steal five breeding wives of the tyrannical and maniacal Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe and his henchmen give chase using a strange assortment of battle-equipped vehicles with Max strapped to the hood of War Boy Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult) car. Soon Max escapes and joins forces with Furiosa in an attempt to find a way home and to safety.

Scott, this movie was one long chase scene. There was hardly any time to create a plot. But there is one. Furiosa is trying to get these five young woman back to her homeland – The Green Place. When they arrive the land is dead and the only alternative is to go back where they came from. It’s a very basic story, just enough to justify all the car mania.

I have to say, though, I was impressed. It’s dazzling display of roadwork and a nightmarish vision of the future. Most people I’ve talked to were impressed by two things: the guy playing electric guitar on the front of a war vehicle, and how hot Charlize Theron looked despite being hairless and having just one arm.

Greg, Mad Max: Fury Road is a stunning technical and action-adventure achievement. The look of the movie is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The surreal visuals of the characters and their bizarre motor vehicles are simply incomparable. This dystopian vision of humanity’s future is disturbing yet creatively appealing.

Now, having said that, I was disappointed with the complete lack of character development and storyline. We are never introduced to the main characters. These characters just show up and are being chased, hounded, and tortured by Immortan Joe and his minions. I suppose I should root for them because they seem less dislikeable and bizarre than Joe and his gang, but we have no way of knowing if they are worthy of our support. There simply is no backstory to any of these characters. All we have is one heart-palpitating car chase scene after another. Yes, these chases were fun, but I hoped for much more from a storyline and character development point of view.

The star of this film was definitely the world created by director George Miller and writers McCarthy and Lathouris. We can only judge the characters by what they do, rather than what they might say. Max spends most of his time in the movie being victimized by others. He shows he’s not a bad guy because instead of killing Furiosa when he has the chance, he merely shoots the sand around her. He’s not a killer it seems. Later, when he has the chance to go his own way, he instead chases down Furiosa and her clan to convince them they are going the wrong way. Then he helps them to create a plan to return to the Citadel where there is ample food, water, and gas. So, he’s a good guy after all, but we can only learn this through his choices rather than anything he says.

I agree that Max and Furiosa follow the arc of the buddy hero story, in that they are two people thrown together who dislike each other at first but slowly develop a strong bond. The villains in this story depart from the usual pattern that we see in the movies, Greg. Usually, the mastermind villain (in this case, Immortan Joe) is a man who calls all the shots from afar, safe from any harm. Only his minions and henchmen come in harm’s way. But in this movie, Joe is in on the action in a big way, and he ultimately gets his comeuppance at the end.

Overall, the supporting cast is as memorable if not more memorable than our two heroes. This may be the case partly because the two main characters are so poorly developed, but also because the supporting cast members show some depth, not to mention unusual behaviors and vivid makeup and costuming. Props go out to Immortan Joe and Slit as the memorable villains, and to the friends and allies of our two buddy heroes. Specifically, the five breeding women and Nux, the bad-guy-turned-good-guy.

It’s interesting to see the transformation in a secondary character such as Nux. He starts out literally living off of Max’s blood and chasing the escaping brides. He’s a bad guy being lead by a dark mentor (Joe). But he soon falls in love with one of the brides and becomes one of the good guys. Here is a secondary character who undergoes a moral transformation. In the end he martyrs himself to save Max, Furiosa, and the remaining brides. He is a heroic, redeemed sidekick.

I enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road more than I expected to. Despite the lack of plot I was entertained by the imaginative and detailed dystopian future created by director Miller. I was drawn into the relentless chase and was able to appreciate the transformation of our buddy heroes as well as the sidekick. I give Mad Max 3 out of 5 Reels.

While Max and Furiosa don’t really create an alliance until the midpoint of the story, it’s clear we’re witness to a convergent buddy story. Our two heroes couldn’t be farther apart at the beginning of the movie. But their common desire to escape the villain Immortan Joe and find a safe place draws them together. I liked this buddy story and gave them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast was interesting as well. I’ve already talked about the evolution of sidekick Nux. The five brides pretty much played the damsels in distress. Aside from an occasional opportunity to reload guns, their job was to look beautiful and be rescued. The villains were more interesting than usual. Immortan Joe certainly played the classic mastermind villain (although as you point out, Scott, he definitely got his hands dirty). Joe had his own henchman in Slit and countless nameless and faceless minions. But there was a nice addition of three other factions of bad guys, each with their own mastermind villain.Two warring factions came to Joe’s aid, and the gas guzzling motorcycle gang chimed in to help our heroes. Sadly, we didn’t get much depth to their characters, so I give the supporting cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

 Movie: reel-3 Cast: cast-3 Hero: h-logo-4

Mad Max: Fury Road is a visual spectacle and dazzling feast for the eyes and ears. But there is little substance in the form of storyline and character development. If you enjoy the Fast and Furious franchise, you’ll enjoy this movie. I’ll give this this film credit for being highly memorable in terms of make-up, costuming, cinematography, and visual effects. But I can’t give any movie high marks without good meaty characters that we get to know. As a result, I can only award Mad Max: Fury Road 2 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes, Max and Furiosa, were disappointing because we never get to know them. There is no backstory and almost no dialogue whatsoever that can give us insight into their values, their history, or their character. As such, they do not change over the course of the movie, other than they grow to like each other and depend on each other for survival. Let’s face it — this is an action movie that assumes (perhaps correctly) that audiences only want chase scenes. I can only award these two flimsy heroes 1 Hero out of 5.

The supporting cast was more interesting than our two heroes. We’re not given much insight about Immortan Joe or any backstory, either. But he is obviously a deranged, maniacal cult leader with loads of charisma. Max and Furiosa’s friends and allies play a nice supporting role, and as you point out, Greg, Nux is the one character (albeit a supporting character) who undergoes a transformation. I’ll agree with your rating and assign this group a rating of 3 Casts out of 5.

 Movie: reel-2 Cast: cast-3  Hero: h-logo-1

True Story ••

True_Story_posterStarring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones
Director: Rupert Goold
Screenplay: Michael Finkel, Rupert Goold
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2015


reel-2 cast-2 h-logo-1 big-hero-half

Scott, after all the fictional stories we’ve reviewed it will be nice to review a True Story.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

How true, Greg. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) who is a writer for the New York Times. He is on an assignment writing about child slavery in Uganda. Under deadline, he combines the facts about 5 children to create a composite and his story appears on the cover of the Times. The problem is that when someone fact checks him the story falls apart. His editor fires him and Finkel believes his career is over.

Meanwhile, in Mexico Christian Longo (James Franco) is on the run from the police. He is accused of murdering his family. He is using Finkel’s name as an alias. When Longo is captured, the story hits the papers and Finkel, with few other options, approaches Longo to write the story of the murders and his trial.

Greg, True Story intrigued me. The movie takes us down several psychological paths involving greed and deceit, and how these vices lead people to destruction. Finkel allows his ambition to bite him in the ass twice in this film. First, he bends the truth in an article to make himself and his writing look better, and then later he allows Longo to bend the truth for the exact same reasons. Finkel isn’t a bad or villainous person but his self-serving drives continue to steer him toward disaster in this movie.

Finkel and Longo are two divergent heroes in that they are brought together, are compelled to work collaboratively, and then are wrenched apart at the end by a painful truth. True Story is, of course, based on actual facts, and going into this film — and at about a third of the way into the film — I had no idea how the story would resolve itself. But by the half-way point, it becomes pretty clear that Longo is yanking Finkel’s chain, as the movie introduced us to no other possible characters who could have killed Longo’s family. This fact made the ending a bit anti-climactic. Still, I enjoyed the ride.

Scott, with two academy award nominees (Hill and Franco) I expected a taught character study. Instead I got some really bad acting and some incredibly bad plot twists. When Longo (Franco) uses a literary term on the stand that Finkel (Hill) taught him earlier, Hill goes slack-jawed and rushes to the bathroom to slam his fist into a stall. It wasn’t the least bit dramatic. I think we can rightfully expect more from an actor who basically paid to be in a Martin Scorsese film (The Wolf of Wall Street).

The hero structure is, as you point out, a divergent hero story. The two characters come together for their one quest (to write a novel together) and go their separate ways at the end. The supporting cast is a little thin. And that’s too bad, because watching Finkel and Longo carry on like two talking heads for two hours was tedious. Finkel’s wife (Felicity Jones) was actually more interesting than Finkel. She detects Finkel’s ambitions and that he is falling into the same trap that got him fired from the Times. There’s a nice scene late in the film where she confronts Longo, and it is the best scene in the show.

You’re right, I was convinced that Finkel’s wife was falling for Longo, and I was pleasantly surprised when she visited Longo to verbally eviscerate him instead. The last thing we needed was for Hollywood to perpetuate the stereotype of women falling for the bad boy. As you point out, Greg, the supporting cast plays such a peripheral role in True Story. The focus of the film is on the dynamic chess game between an author and his subject. Or rather a cat-and-mouse game in which it isn’t clear who is the mouse and who is the cat.

The villain in True Story is Longo, who emerges as a brutal psychopath. Finkel is no choir boy either, as he is a known prevaricator and manipulator himself. And so on one level, this movie is disappointing in that we have two main characters, neither of whom are heroic and neither of whom change or grow at all in this film. They are who they are and their failure to transform themselves dooms them both. Perhaps this fact alone dooms this movie to mediocrity.

I think the acting in this film is what dooms it to mediocrity. Both players are full of themselves and deliver little punch. When the secondary characters are actually more interesting than the leads, there isn’t much hope. I won’t be recommending True Story to my friends, but it might be a good recommendation for my enemies. I give it just 1 Reel out of 5.

As we’ve discussed at some length, both characters are uninteresting and uninspiring. Finkel goes on to continue to interview Large even after the events of the movie. Their relationship doesn’t imply that either of them learned anything of value. I give them just 1 Hero of of 5.

The only secondary character of note is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s love interest/wife. She puts in a performance that offers the only tension in an otherwise lackluster presentation. She gets 2 out of 5 Cast points.

Movie: reel-1 Heroes: h-logo-1Cast: cast-2

True Story is far from riveting but the fact that it tells a non-fictional narrative makes it somewhat compelling. Jonah Hill and James Franco aren’t going to win any Academy Awards with their performances but they do a commendable job portraying two men whose lives become strangely intertwined. If you enjoy a psychologically interesting tale of deceit laced with greed, check out this film. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.

We have here a pair of divergent heroes who pique our interest but who never learn from their mistakes. Finkel and Longo are greedy and psychopathic, respectively, at the outset of the film and remain that way throughout. The best heroes in cinema evolve and grow, but not these two characters. Hence I can only give them 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is minimally important. I agree with you, Greg, that Finkel’s love interest is the only character worth noting and even she is pretty dispensable in the grand scheme of things. There’s just not much cast support here in a movie that desperately needed some depth of casting. I agree that 2 Casts out of 5 is an appropriate rating here.

Movie: reel-3 Heroes: h-logo-2 Cast: cast-2