Movie Review: “Poltergeist”

Starring
Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Kennedi Clements
Director
Gil Kenan

“Poltergeist” is the worst kind of remake. Director Gil Kenan’s film is neither terrible nor good, but rather flat-out uninspired. This is a remake that brings nothing new to the table. Instead of updating the classic 1982 film, it’s a stale and safe retread. The story is almost exactly the same, and although most horror remakes don’t usually stray too far from the source material, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) hardly ever makes this version feel fresh. Beat by beat, “Poltergeist” is a lame cover song.

After falling on hard times, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) has to move his family – his wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their three children – to a cheap neighborhood. The neighborhood is actually quite nice from the looks of it, but there’s a catch: the house they bought is built on an old graveyard, and the bodies in the ground rise up to terrorize the Bowen family. After the abduction of the Bowens’ youngest daughter, it’s obvious why the family has to stay in their haunted house – they can’t call the cops or just leave her there – but this is still a horror movie where characters make incredibly stupid mistakes, and these decisions never come across as believable character traits or flaws, but instead, cheap tricks to achieve scares or move the plot along.

The film mostly consists of expected jump scares. Kenan and his DP, Javier Aguierresarobe, try to build an unnerving atmosphere with roaming camerawork, but they never build any real tension. Technically speaking, their work is more than competent, but none of their aesthetic choices ever add up to more than a few pretty frames, all serving a lifeless purpose. The third act comes close to conjuring up some scares, but by that point, it’s impossible to get invested in anything that’s happening on screen.

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Movie Review: “Tomorrowland”

Starring
George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Pierce Gagnon
Director
Brad Bird

“Tomorrowland” does not play by the usual ‘Disney PG movie’ rules. It hits harder, makes the audience uncomfortable, and has an alarmingly high body count. When we finally discover the movie’s endgame, this makes perfect sense, but it might be a shock up front to parents who see that the DreamWorks Animation movies are all PG, and therefore assume that “Tomorrowland” will be no different. It is drastically different – this film is a call to arms. It may take its name from a 60-year-old section of Disney World, but this movie is as right here, right now as it gets.

And while the movie is undoubtedly better than it would have been without writer/director Brad Bird’s involvement, the fact of the matter is that this is Bird’s weakest film, but let’s put that into perspective. He directed three animated masterpieces in “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” as well as the very good “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” is enjoyable; it just doesn’t measure up against Bird’s other films. It uses a jerky narrative device at the beginning that never works, and actually leaves the audience unprepared for what follows. It also has no business being 130 minutes long.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a high school science prodigy who spends her free time sabotaging the NASA site where her father (Tim McGraw, yes, that Tim McGraw) works in an attempt to delay his eventual layoff. One night she gets caught and arrested, and while retrieving her things after getting released on bail, she finds a pendant that, when she touches it, briefly transports her to another world with technology that far exceeds our own. In her quest to discover what this place is, Casey gains the help of a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who leads her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), who has also visited “Tomorrowland” but was exiled. Frank reveals to Casey that something bad is coming, and nothing can stop it. Casey convinces the jaded Frank to believe that they can avoid the inevitable, but soon they have another problem: a group of “Secret Service agents” seek to permanently close the bridge between our world and Tomorrowland, with extreme prejudice.

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Blu Tuesday: American Sniper and Cymbeline

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“American Sniper”

WHAT: After witnessing the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks in Africa, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlists in the Navy SEALS, eventually getting deployed to Iraq where he earns the nickname, The Legend, after becoming the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. But while Chris feels at home on the battlefield, he struggles to maintain a normal life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids while on leave from his numerous tours of duty.

WHY: For someone as prolific and revered as Clint Eastwood, six years is a long time to go without making a really good film (2008’s “Gran Torino” was his last), and sadly, “American Sniper” only extends that streak. It’s far from a bad movie, but there’s nothing really special that makes it stand out, either. Apart from Kyle’s impressive record, this is a story that’s been told countless times before, and in some cases, much better. Though it’s based on real-life events, a lot of what happens seems incredibly exaggerated, especially the ongoing battle of wits between Kyle and an Olympic medal-winning Syrian sniper, which feels like something you’d expect to see in a Jason Bourne film. The action sequences are handled really well, but the domestic drama is so boring and repetitive that the movie loses steam every time Kyle returns home. Part of the problem is that, with the exception of Bradley Cooper’s strong performance, the rest of the cast is underserved, especially Sienna Miller as his wife. “American Sniper” wants to have it both ways – as a war-on-terror fantasy and poignant PTSD drama – but while it doesn’t shy away from the physical and psychological horrors of battle, the movie is so heavy on pro-military propaganda that it doesn’t realize its dramatic potential until it’s too late.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a pair of featurettes about making the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Cymbeline”

WHAT: When Briton Motorcycle Club leader Cymbeline (Ed Harris) discovers that his daughter (Dakota Johnson) has secretly married humble orphan Posthumus (Penn Badgley) – despite already being promised to stepbrother Cloten (Anton Yelchin) – he banishes Posthumus from the outlaw biker gang, setting into a motion a series of events that threaten Cymbeline’s criminal empire amid a mounting turf war between the Britons and the crooked Roman police force.

WHY: Writer/director Michael Almereyda may have had minor success with his contemporary adaptation of “Hamlet” back in 2000, but this modernization of one of Shakespeare’s less popular works is an absolute failure. Not only has “Sons of Anarchy” already done the whole “outlaw bikers meets Shakespeare” thing, but there’s a reason why “Cymbeline” isn’t as well-known as the Bard’s other plays, and that’s because it’s not terribly engaging. Though it treads familiar Shakespearean territory with an array of secret affairs, false deaths, crossdressing women and betrayals galore, the story doesn’t make much sense in the context of its modern setting, especially with the preservation of the original dialogue. The movie boasts an excellent cast that includes Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Delroy Lindo, Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo, but many of them are wasted in insignificant roles, including a messy-haired Bill Pullman, who appears in exactly one scene. No amount of talent could improve “Cymbeline,” although Almereyda certainly tries, because while it’s easy to see why the actors would be attracted to such material (they get to perform Shakespeare without the commitment of theater), the film version is an even bigger mess than the play itself.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Michael Almereyda and actor Ethan Hawke, a behind-the-scenes featurette and additional interviews with the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Starring
Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Director
George Miller

George Miller may be 70 years old, but that hasn’t stopped him from outclassing filmmakers half his age by making one of the craziest, ballsiest and most badass action movies in ages. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has been decades in the making, and that passion shows in the final product. Though Mel Gibson was originally considered to reprise the titular role when Miller first hatched the idea back in 1998, after production was stalled by a series of financial and political difficulties (not to mention Gibson’s own well-publicized personal issues), “Fury Road” slipped into development hell for many years until Miller eventually got to make his movie. With the entire film famously storyboarded before a script was even written, “Fury Road” is about as nontraditional as a big-budget studio movie gets, surviving on its sheer originality, audacity and no-holds-barred attitude.

Set in the year 2060 and loosely following the events of the first three installments, “Fury Road” finds former cop Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) just barely surviving in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. When he’s captured by tyrannical leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and forced to serve as a human blood bank for his diseased male minions, known as the War Boys, Max’s fate appears to be sealed. But after one of Joe’s war rig drivers, the bionic-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), suddenly goes off course during a routine fuel run, Joe’s massive army chases after her – including sickly War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who’s so desperate not to miss out on the action that he straps Max to the hood of his car, connected only by a chain and IV tube, so he can continue to heal. It turns out that Furiosa is trying to rescue a group of female captives that Joe plans to use to repopulate the world in his image, and when Max eventually crosses paths with them following a miraculous escape, he reluctantly agrees to help get them to safety.

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Movie Review: “Pitch Perfect 2″

Starring
Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Devine, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg
Director
Elizabeth Banks

Second verse, same as the first. A little bit louder and, unfortunately, a little bit worse. “Pitch Perfect 2” is so, so very sequel. It finds room for characters who have no business returning for the second installment. It plays matchmaker, and lots of it. Money is not an issue for anyone at any point, even though there are several instances where it should be (these are college kids, after all). It gives far, far too much screen time to Rebel Wilson, and it has some galling product placement (Pantene and Dave and Buster’s, we’re looking in your direction).

In spite of all this, it’s also a massive crowd pleaser, filled with some ridiculously fun and elaborate song and dance routines and enough quality jokes to help the audience suffer through the less funny material (again, Wilson, mostly). The movie’s story structure is nearly identical to the first “Pitch Perfect.” If it’s missing anything, it’s the element of surprise. No one saw the first one coming, which is why it was a left-field hit, but this time, audiences are prepared, and can therefore see every plot development coming down Broadway.

The Barden University a cappella singing group the Barden Bellas, who have now won three straight college championships thanks to the leadership of Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), perform for the President at Lincoln Center and suffer yet another humiliating mishap on stage that leads to their suspension, and the near-certain demise of the group. There is a loophole in the terms of their punishment, though, that allows them to compete for the world championship, and if they win that, the Bellas will be reinstated. No American group has ever won the world title, though, and they face stiff competition at the hands of Das Sound Machine, a group of two dozen German men and women who look like they were manufactured in a lab, a lab with lots of steroids. Cue the “Rocky” theme.

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