Monthly Archives: May 2015

Progenitors: Poltergeist (original)

Not any sort of official series, but especially during the summer months, remakes and sequels are, if nothing else, great excuses to review the films that came before. As I am above no excuse to review a film, I must answer the call.

I would like so much to proclaim the original Poltergeist as a fascinatingly accidental volcanic meeting of disparate, jagged minds, the harsh nihilism of director Tobe Hooper jutting out into the heart of the sticky-sweet nostalgia of producer Steven Spielberg, whose nostalgia is in turn engulfing the nihilism of the director. Ideally, the two seminal figures in arguably the first AAA horror film of the early ’80s (the genre’s introduction into the big leagues of crass, craven ’80s consumerism) would have had their nails at each others’ throats like a cage match between a devil-worshiping, corpse-eating, grave-residing raven and an elegant, iconographic American eagle. Even if the two minds burnt each other out, the battle would be a bile-spewing front-row-seater if ever there was one.

At its best, Poltergeist almost gets there. Introducing us to Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) who reside in a regimented, rigid California suburb with their three children: Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’ Rourke), all of whom bear a grand-old Americana name if ever there was one. Now, most suburbs have their everyday problems…rats, tax collectors, salmon shorts, but ghosts is another story (I must concede, however, that salmon shorts may be the greater evil still). One night, Carole Anne discovers first-hand that something is up, and as time moves on, things begin to bump a little too much in the night for this family to handle.
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Worst or “Worst”: After Earth

After Earth is the sort of bad movie anyone could have made, which is disappointing after the release of three tried and true “M. Night Shyamalan”-encrusted bad movies of the sort that only his holiness could make. Or Kirk Cameron, maybe. But the point is there was a certain personal touch of badness on display, and following that tripartite masterpiece of anti-filmmaking, After Earth is just bad movie leftovers. Continue reading

Film Favorites: The Thin Red Line

Edited January 2016

A word on Terrence Malick, and not a terribly original word at that: the crux of the Malick state of mind, for at least its pre-Tree of Life existence, is fundamentally cinematic poetry, with any presumption of an artistically unmediated reality shot-through with an oneiric potency that nonetheless conjures Malick’s unique fascination with the vibrations of human being better than any more obviously “realistic” film could convey. Malick was introduced to the world through a high-minded treatise on the idea of an American New Wave film, releasing his debut, 1973’s Badlands, in a thick-on-the-ground decade of American grit and what many directors would call “realism”. The late ’60s and early ’70s had their Bonnies and their Clydes, their Bunches that were Wild, and even their Streets of indefatigable Meannness, and the consensus around those films was that they gallantly and brutally brought some fighting words for the Old Hollywood ways of geniality and safety. The general consensus is, in other words, that America got nasty in the ’70s, and specifically, that their films brought the “hard-won realism” in a way America never had before.

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Worst or “Worst”: The Last Airbender

M. Night Shyamalan is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when you thought he’d hit his true low, and just when you thought less creative control over his material would save the day, he pulls a fast one and comes up with something even worse. As it turns out, Shyamalan can vividly ruin a known property about as well as he can dream up mindless drivel of his own creation.

The Nickelodeon television show Avatar: The Last Airbender is generally regarded as a high-flying adventure with characters that fly even higher, a work of spirited kinetics that isn’t afraid to share in its character’s pain. All of this is accomplished via a broad narrative about a brother and sister of the water tribe (this world is ruled over by four tribes each aligned with an element). In the show, and in the film, these two are Katara and Sokka (played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone in the film, and I use “played” in a broad sense here). One day while exploring they discover a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), and the film follows the earlier portions of the television show as they come to realize he is the last of the air benders (benders being people who can control their affiliated element with panache). Continue reading

Worst or “Worst”: The Happening

And then he made The Happening. Lady in the Water was a collage of self-important grand movie statements about the state of the world doctored up by a man who had not one clue what the world was, let alone how to convey that on the screen. What could be a better counter to the big-boy statements of a preachy message film than an elementally chilly exercise in pure nihilism and horror? With the idea for The Happening, Shyamalan seemed to be at least listening and returning back to the muck and earthen horror of what he does best (indeed, atmospheric horror is the only thing he ever did well). Ideally, The Happening could have been an exercise in humorless style and pure cinematic horror, entirely visual and lacking in any of the pretentious import of Shyamalan at his worst.

Certainly, The Happening could have had no foreseeable investment in explaining itself to us (Shyamalan is always at his worst when he is trying to explain himself). It could have dragged us into the mud with no hope of learning or growing or bettering ourselves. It could have been a palate cleanser, a work as far removed from the constant and unforgiving parade of non-dialogue in a film that used humans only as mouthpieces for ideas. It could have been the golden child, a down and dirty slice of grim self-destruction with no interest in speaking to us at all. Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is often erroneously compared to Hitchcock. The Happening could have been Shyamalan’s The Birds. Continue reading

Worst or “Worst”: Lady in the Water

A note on “worst”: As mentioned before, this series is an attempt to dissect some of the alleged “worst” movies of all time, and primarily not a hope to actually find them. It is ridiculous and arguably mean-spirited to refer to any of M. Night’s films as among the worst ever made. They are a special sort of badness, and he is now four films deep into a wonderful, scorching form of incompetence, but it is wrong-headed to claim that “the worst movies ever made” all happen to be well-budgeted Hollywood films from the past ten years from a major director and with major stars.

What these films are, instead, are the most hurtful films in their badness, being that they corralled budgets and talent and screening time in major theaters and producers and such. In other words, M. Night Shyamalan’s films, like say some of the perpetual targets on lists of “worst” films ever, say Batman and Robin or Battlefield Earth, are notable not because of being the most artistically inept films ever made (although Battlefield Earth makes a great argument for itself on this front). They are notable because they are among the most artistically inept films ever made to ride notable budgets and be marketed in major motion picture theaters. It is a small but important distinction, and it allows us to move away from claims of “worst” and just get to the meat of these awful despicable films without having to back-up claims that they are legitimately artistically inferior to say, a horror film your dad made with his friends and a curling iron in 1973 that got screened once by a theater-runner, presumably via misdirection or trickery or losing a bet in a back alley. Continue reading

George Miller: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

It isn’t difficult to find issue with Beyond Thunderdome, nor is it difficult to pinpoint the root cause of the problems: Hollywood money, and the desire to go big or go home. Both things that Miller used like a sledgehammer in Fury Road 30 years later to wonderful effectiveness, but which here see him step up and trip over the need to focus on a plot that doesn’t much go anywhere. The pure cinema appeal of the series is certainly lost (with Fury Road, Miller managed to go big without inducing a case of the talkies), but it doesn’t do well to overly criticize something for simply having a more elaborate story. Still, admittedly, the focus on “plot” for Beyond Thunderdome sacrifices the queasy, nihilistic immediacy of the original Max and the off-kilter humor and the implacable malaise hanging over The Road Warrior, a malaise brought on precisely by the fact that the film never much “went” anywhere plot wise and established, instead, a feeling of stagnancy.
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