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Review – Poltergeist

With Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Jared Harris, Jane Adams. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Gil Kenan. Rated PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language. 93 minutes.

If you’re old enough to remember the original POLTERGEIST (1982) then you’re not the target audience for this remake. However one has to ask, “Who is the audience for this by-the-numbers haunted house story?”

In the last five years, the haunted house story has become even more popular than vampires or zombies. Besides the never ending series of “Paranormal Activity” movies, there’s been “Insidious,” “The Amityville Haunting,” “Silent House,” “Sinister,” “V/H/S,” “The Conjuring,” “Mama,” “Dream House,” and numerous others that went straight-to-DVD. If now was deemed the time to remake “Poltergeist,” it should have been to reinvent the genre, not simply go through the motions.

This one is so formulaic that some may think it’s ripping off the mediocre “Insidious” when, in fact, that film was a pale copy of the original “Poltergeist.” It begins with the Bowen family buying a suburban house that is being offered, we’re told, below market price. Eric and Amy (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt) don’t notice anything odd, but the children do. The youngest, Maddy (Kennedi Clements), immediately starts talking with invisible “friends.” The middle boy Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is easily spooked and soon finds a lot to spook him. The eldest, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), is the self-absorbed teenager who eventually realizes her siblings are onto something.

Then we get through the increasing signs that something is “wrong,” from a bunch of clown dolls hidden in the attic, to lights being switched on and off and boxes being moved around. Finally, Maddy is snatched by whatever or whomever is running this horror show, and the family turns to–wait for it–Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), a quirky investigator into paranormal activities. Is there any other kind? Of course, she brings in some young assistants but eventually they need the help of a true professional, Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), who exorcises haunted houses for his television show.

It’s all very slick and professional. The kids are cute, Rockwell and DeWitt deliver their dialogue with more style than was apparently on the page, and the arrival of Harris bring the moribund proceedings to life. Yet it’s all very predictable. Will they get Maddy back? What is the secret of the Bowen house? (In a nod to the original film we’re told it’s got nothing to do with “an Indian burial ground.”) And will we be dazzled by the special effects?

Let’s not spoil the rest of the story–although if you’ve seen enough of these movies you can probably guess–but as to the last question, the answer is, “No.” It’s not that the effects are bad so much as being lackluster. There’s no moment where you gasp and think you’ve never seen anything like that before, even in your worst nightmares. Instead you’re likely to think you’ve seen it all too many times before, and that’s the problem with the film.

As with most remakes, this “Poltergeist” is a film that didn’t need to be made. Here’s a message for Hollywood: if the only reason you’re remaking a movie is simply because you own the rights, it’s probably not worth doing.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Tomorrowland

With George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie,
Raffey Cassidy, Keegan-Michael Key. Written by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Directed by Brad Bird. Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language. 130 minutes.

To say that TOMORROWLAND is a disappointment isn’t really fair. If this reviewer was eight years old, it would seem like one of the best movies ever. It’s the difference between someone able to appreciate all the “gee whiz” elements and someone able to ask all sorts of inconvenient questions about the plot. So take the kids and check your cynicism at the door.

The film begins with Frank Walker (George Clooney) seeming to address us. Off screen is Casey (Britt Robertson), whom we’ll meet after a while. They’re arguing about how to best tell their story, and right away it’s clear that maybe writer/director Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof might have solved that problem before they started making the film.

As a young boy, Frank (Thomas Robinson) goes to the 1964 World’s Fair to show off his invention. There he meets Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who gives him a special badge, which allows him to go to a futuristic city where Athena and Nix (Hugh Laurie) actually live. Meanwhile, in our present, teenage Casey has been breaking into a NASA facility to prevent them from taking down equipment. (That she does it with relative ease is one of the film’s many narrative problems.) When she gets caught, she finds that one of those special badges seems to have turned up in her belongings, and she, too, gets to visit the future city.

Things get strange when two shopkeepers (Keegan-Michael Key, Kathryn Hahn) turn violent and demand to know about the “girl” who gave her the badge. She knows nothing about any girl, which is when Athena–looking the same as she did in 1964–shows up to rescue her. Athena gets her together with the adult Frank, who isn’t interested in Casey or her story… until robot men show up and start attacking.

For a long while, “Tomorrowland” is wacky and inventive, but when the robot men start vaporizing police officers who get in their way you begin to wonder if this is really a family film. By the time the main characters are all together in the future city–which apparently is in another dimension–the shagginess of the story is all too obvious.

Clooney is not known for this sort of film, but he plays the gruff but ultimately warm-hearted adult well, playing off his younger co-stars without overpowering them (or being upstaged by them either). Robertson is the film’s feisty heroine, quickly adapting to the increasingly strange occurrences. As for Cassidy, she offers a suitably serious presence for a character presumably much older than her actual age of 12, with her pleasant British accent adding the necessary gravitas. Laurie, alas, is sorely under-utilized and gets saddled with the big “exposition speech” to boot.

Given Brad Bird’s track record (including “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol”), it’s not surprising that expectations would be high for “Tomorrowland.” If it falls short, it’s because he’s done so much more.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

With Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman. Written by George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. Directed by George Miller. Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images. 120 minutes.

This time of the year there are certain kinds of movies that are best appreciated as amusement park rides. You don’t critique a roller coaster for poor character development or a predictable plot. You simply want it to go fast, have lots of turns and rises and drops, and leave you thrilled and exhausted. On that score, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD succeeds. If this is the sort of movie you’re looking for, it’s a good ride.

Beyond that, though, there’s not much there. Director George Miller returns to the scene of his earliest successes–the three “Mad Max” movies (1979-1985) that helped make a star out of Mel Gibson–and… well, it’s not quite clear what he’s doing here. Is this a remake? A reboot? A sequel?

The story, such as it is, involves a post-apocalyptic world where a handful of warlords enslave the remnants of humanity and fight over the remaining resources, like gasoline and ammunition. Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by one faction and treated as a “blood bank” for one of the warriors. When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes off her mission to help several luscious babes who are “wives” of the war lord escape from his clutches, Max is chained to one of the pursuing vehicles. He gets loose and joins forces–after a while–with Furiosa, The rest of the movie is them being chased by vehicles from what appear to be a violent and surreal version of the old cartoon “Wacky Races” back and forth across the desert.

That’s it. Unlike the original film, we get little sense of who Max is. He’s haunted by visions of a child, presumably his, whom he failed to rescue, but played woodenly by Hardy he exhibits less of a range than the tanker he spends part of the film in. Theron fares a little better as the driven Furiosa–complete with crew cut and mechanical arm–but we don’t learn much about her until late in the film. As for the rest, they’re cartoon characters who have been carefully designed with bizarre costumes, make-up, prostheses, and the like, but if you want to know who is who among the largely unknown cast, lots of luck. Reading the closing credits and seeing names like the Splendid Angharad and Cheedo the Fragile you may be surprised that the characters had names. Indeed, Max doesn’t even tell his name until nearly the end of the film.

As for the apocalypse babes, in a world where people are stapled together, deformed, branded, and/or covered with tumors (one character even gives his names), to have a group of women who look like they just came from a photo shoot for a fashion magazine comes across as something devised by the marketing department. (“Sure the boys will like the chases and shooting, but they need some hot women as well.”)

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is the work of a director trying to recapture his early success after a decade where his only films were the two “Happy Feet” cartoons. It’s got the action and explosions of a “Transformers” movie, but makes those films look like complex dramas in comparison.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Pitch Perfect 2

With Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld.
John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks. Written by Kay Cannon. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. Rated PG-13 for innuendo and language. 115 minutes.

For those of you who missed “Pitch Perfect” (2012), figuring it was some sort of teen musical about a capella singing groups, you missed out on one of the funniest, off-the-wall comedies of that year. Now the singing Bellas are back in PITCH PERFECT 2, and they’re zanier than ever.

At the film’s opening, the three-time national champions are performing before none other than President and Michelle Obama when Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has a very unfortunate accident. It leads to them being suspended from competition or recruiting new members, and the only way they can redeem themselves is by winning the world competition. This, they are told, is impossible, since everyone hates America.

Don’t worry about trying to make sense out of the plot. It’s the usual “slobs vs. snobs” comedy they’ve been making for years. What makes this work are the loopy characters and the unexpected situations and dialogue. Every time the action shifts to commentators Gail (Elizabeth Banks, who makes her feature film directing debut here) and John (John Michael Higgins), there’s no telling what’s going to come out of their mouths.

The center of the story is Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is interning for a music producer and looking to become one herself, while feeling guilty that she’s neglecting her sisters in the group. There is some romantic interest here, but the focus is on the competition, and especially the snide “Das Sound Machine,” the German group that takes every opportunity to belittle the Bellas.

The musical numbers are fun, but have their own comic edge, including an unexpected showdown featuring cameos by, among others, “Daily Show” alumni John Hodgson and Jason Jones. There’s also Katey Sagal as a Bella alumna dropping off her daughter Emily (Haillee Steinfeld), who becomes a Bella “legacy” (and also the potential means to continue the series if they want).

The two movies are what you might imagine would happen if “Animal House” was remade focusing on a female singing group rather than a bunch of frat boys. Broad slapstick and cartoonish characters are mixed with witty zingers and solid production values. Banks knows what made the first film work but doesn’t just go through the motions here. When the group goes off to a retreat to try to reconnect, the silliness of some of the more surreal characters is mixed with some feeling for a bunch of college kids who know they’re about to enter the real world. There’s been some carping about stereotyping, but the plain fact is that the movie makes fun of everyone, and none of the barbs draw blood.

“Pitch Perfect 2” isn’t the movie of the year or even the movie of the season. It is, however a very, very funny movie that shows strong, quirky, independent women working together and going after what they want without apology. As with the first film, this is a movie that will make you laugh out loud without feeling stupid.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments. 141 minutes.

For those not immersed in the Marvel Universe (like this reviewer), here’s what you need to know going in to AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. The gem in the artifact recovered at the beginning is part of a larger story that will pay off in a subsequent film. The twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) are really Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but they can’t say that nor mention that Magneto from the “X-Men” movies is their father, because those movies are made by a different studio. And there’s one brief scene early in the closing credits and nothing further at the end except a promise of more “Avengers” movies.

So the villain this time is a robot/artificial intelligence creature named Ultron (effectively voiced by James Spader) who was created in the laboratory by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Things go wrong and Ultron decides that the best way to make the planet peaceful is to destroy humanity. In terms of plot, you can probably guess where this is going. After all, if Ultron had succeeded, we wouldn’t be here.

The reason to see the film is not the plot but the characters, with the actors having a great time with the situations and dialogue fashioned by writer/director Joss Whedon, returning for his second outing with the superheroes. In between the special effects battles, Whedon does a solid job balancing a large cast of stars and supporting players. Everyone gets moments to shine.

Scarlett Johannson returns as Black Widow, now tasked with keeping the Hulk under control, Chris Hemsworth gets a running gag about who can wield Thor’s hammer, and Chris Evans gets some laughs with a throwaway line at the beginning of the film that keeps coming back to bite him. As usual with Whedon, the witty banter plays counterpoint to more serious situations. During the climactic battle involving Ultron raising an entire city to turn it into a meteor, there’s actually concern by the good guys about getting the civilians out of the way. This may be a first for these summer special effects blockbusters. Along the way, we also get glimpses of the hidden demons that haunt our heroes, making them more than just wisecracking action figures.

Almost forty years ago, George Lucas was considered foolish for opening his science fiction blockbuster at the end of May, weeks before the start of summer. The success of “Star Wars” changed Hollywood thinking in several ways, including reconsidering the calendar. There may still be a nip in the air some days, but as far as the movie world is concerned, summer has begun. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a comic book movie, to be sure, but it’s got enough spectacle, wit, and talent on display to make it a most entertaining kickoff to the season. There will be more films to come hoping to strike it big at the box office, but this one sets the bar marvelously high.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Home

With the voices of Rihanna, Jim Parsons, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones. Written by Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember. Directed by Tim Johnson. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. 94 minutes

HOME isn’t likely to be an Oscar contender in the animation category next year, but it is a charming entertainment for children that should amuse the adults that have to accompany them. Reminiscent of Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch,” it is about the growing friendship between a human girl and a space alien as they deal a variety of issues that place the entire Earth in jeopardy.

Oh (voice of Jim Parsons) is a happy-go-lucky member of the Boov, an alien race whose chief trait seems to be running away. Deathly afraid of the Gorg, they flee from planet to planet, looking for some place to be safe. Unfortunately for humans, they take a very paternalistic attitude towards a planet’s native inhabitants, summarily removing all humans from around the globe and relocating them to Australia.

Due to a mistake, young Tip (Rihanna) has been left behind, separated from her mother (Jennifer Lopez) and living with her cat named Pig. Oh, unlike the other Boov, is very friendly, and invited everyone to a housewarming party–including, unfortunately, the Gorg. Now everyone is after Oh so they can get his password to rescind the invitation, and Captain Smek (Steve Martin) has ordered him “erased.” So Tip and Oh are on the run, Tip to find her mother and Oh to escape erasure.

The humor comes from the expected sources, but that doesn’t mean it’s not often fun. Oh and Tip have much to learn about each other’s species and ways, as when Oh asks if Tip keeps the cat for meat or milk, or is startled when he spontaneously starts tapping his (four) feet to her favorite music. As befits a movie based on a book geared to pre-teens (Adam Rex’s “The True Meaning of Smekday”) there’s a lot silliness, from Oh repairing Tip’s car with a frozen slush machine, to his experiences in human bathrooms.

Besides the clever script, the film’s visuals are appealing, from the Boov invasion of Earth to the aliens changing colors depending on their moods. The film also offers a number of positive messages including the importance of friends being honest with each other, and the bond between mother and daughter. The surprise showdown with the Gorg ties into these themes as well.

With pop stars Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez in the voice cast (and Rihanna offering several songs on the soundtrack), and comedy icons Steve Martin and Jim Parsons (the latter of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”), there’s plenty of talent on hand to keep this simple story moving in an engaging fashion. Ultimately “Home” is about the importance of home and family, and how finding a place where you belong doesn’t always turn out as you might expect. It’s a message that should resonate with both young viewers and their families.•••

Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Insurgent

With Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts. Written by Brian Duffield and Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language. 119 minutes.

INSURGENT is the second film in the adaptation of the “Divergent” trilogy of books. One of the best thing about the first one was the announcement that it would only be three films. But then the greedy, selfish folks–called the “Erudites” here–saw the box office returns and announced that the third book would be split in two. They really have no shame.

Meanwhile, we’re back with Tris (Shailene Woodley) who thwarted a plot by the cruel Erudite leader Jeanine in the last film, but saw most of her faction–“Abnegation”–slaughtered by the “Dauntless” faction, who were being controlled by Jeanine. Now Tris and a few of her allies, including the dreamy Four (Theo James) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), are hiding among the fourth of the five factions, “Amity.” Imagine a hippie commune and you get the idea. Jeanine, however, has recovered a box than can only be opened by a strong Divergent–someone who doesn’t fit into any one faction–and sends her storm troopers out to capture them for ruthless testing. Guess who that happens to be?

To say more would be to give up some of the genuine twists in the plot, so let’s just point out the obvious: but for the success of “The Hunger Games” (books and movies) this probably never would have been made. It’s yet another dystopia in a post-apocalyptic world where a ruthless leader suppresses the majority of the people for the benefit of the few. Any similarity to the real world, and particularly to adolescent feelings of powerlessness, are purely intentional.

Shaileen Woodley has not yet had the opportunities that Jennifer Lawrence has had, so it’s not fair to compare them. Woodley does solid work here as she’s done elsewhere, and continues to be someone to watch, even if this series–financially successful as it is–will remain in the shadow of the other films. She is a modern female role model, showing both strength and vulnerability, intelligence as well as emotions. She’s decidedly not a male hero changed into a female character. On the other hand, she does have to keep a straight face in a sequence where she’s shown cutting her own hair and then appears with a perfectly coiffed shag haircut. Only in the movies.

The conspiracy gets more complex not only with the mysterious box that Jeanine hopes to use to wipe out the Divergents for good, but also the discovery of the “factionless” who may be a wild card in the proceedings. As adolescent science fantasy adventure, this should hit the sweet spot for its intended viewers (consumers of YA fiction of whatever age), but as serious science fiction, there’s a lot “handwavium” with technology that makes no sense except that it fulfills the needs of the plot. One such device seems to offer no hope of escape and then, just as easily, is suddenly no longer a factor.

Woodley carries the weight of the film, but Winslet seems to enjoy playing a ruthless villain. Naomi Watts shows up in a different sort of role among the factionless. Ashley Judd, playing Tris’s mother, returns even though she was killed in the first film. There’s a lot to be said for simulations and dream sequences.

“Insurgent” ends on several dramatic notes, making you want to know what happens next. At least this film offers a complete story. The final book, “Allegiant,” is being split like “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” and “Twilight: Breaking Dawn.” Making a movie of the first half of a book leaves those who haven’t it read it confused and unsatisfied. We’ll see this again, no doubt, next year. However, as long as these films make money, it’s a phenomenon that isn’t going to go away.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.




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