Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Classic Review: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Stars: ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  It is indeed a triumph of escapist entertainment, that cemented the ‘Indiana Jones’ legend.

This poster, like Led Zeppelin, gets me pumped.  I think I'll go out, and kick ass or something.

This poster, like Led Zeppelin, gets me pumped. I think I'll go out, and kick ass or something.

Review:  Back in the day, this installment of the Lucas/Spielberg adventure film series was the most controversial among fans.  Some people loved it for its guts (in the sense of gumption) and its gore (not in the sense of Al) and its rousing sense of catharsis.  Others hated it for its darkness, horror sequences, and its difference in style from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Of course, it has been retroactively absolved of its sins by the fan community at large since the release of the similarly controversial ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’.  Nevertheless, here’s where I stand in the argument.

The first thing that must be done in the viewer’s mind before experiencing ‘Temple of Doom’ is the realization of a simple fact: This film is not ‘Raiders’.  All four ‘Indiana Jones’ movies have their own rules, textures, and stories that distinguish them rather largely, even though they are (arguably loosely) connected by inner continuity.  The second thing is that the viewer must not go in unprepared for the film’s darkness.  I do sometimes wish they had stuck with the original title, ‘Temple of Death’, because the frankness and implications of it are more in line with the film’s tone.  The tone, however, is the film’s greatest cinematic weak point.  It swings very broadly from a zany sense of comedy-adventure akin to mainstream 1930s films of the same vein, and a bleak, horrific atmosphere more akin to horror films of the 1980s.  The clashing sensibilities of these two tones is what has made the film so controversial.

What the movie communicates, though, by contrasting the two, is Indy & Co’s journey into (basically) Hell and back.  The established lightness of the film gives the heroes something to go ‘back’ to once the conflict is over.  ‘Temple’ does take risks, but it takes them only so far.  If you’re prepared for what’s going to happen, the horror sequences, while disquieting, only serve as a backbone for Indy’s roaring rampage of revenge on the villainous Thuggee cult, which is what we’re hoping to see.  The bad guys nearly triumph, but the good guys do win in the end.  As a distinct story, this is what makes ‘Temple’ worth seeing: It’s an update of the classic myth of the hero’s journey into the underworld.  Though ‘Temple’ has Hindu sensibilities on account of its Indian setting, the story has a pronounced Christian flavor.  The notion of Christ’s decent into Hell to rescue the captives is, in a way, mirrored by Indy’s rescue of the slave children.  To quote St. Cyril’s words about Christ, ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.  In the same way, the only thing left in the devastated and emptied Temple of Doom is the lonely statue of Kali, with no one to worship it or satisfy a demonic blood lust.  There’s a purely human hope expressed in seeing the Hero return from Hell with a train of freed captives.  We have to believe that even the most horrible things that exist can be destroyed by a bond of love and nobility.

The controversial nature and timeless tone of ‘Temple’ cemented what ‘Raiders’ had begun.  Indy’s legacy was established, though the series now had the scent of smoke.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Adrenaline soaked, fist-pumping action, and a decent moral argument, as well.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Review:  Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion maestro, provided the effects for the original 1981 ‘Clash of the Titans’, and behold, it was very good, in an ’80s cheese kinda way.  It really wasn’t that great, though, and so it was one of those properties that more or less deserved a remake.  The opportunity was there to take the mythology-blending concept of the original and infuse it with a stronger story and better characters.  To my surprise, the new movie does just that — if not totally to the extent it could have.

It’s a tighter, leaner affair.  Instead of humanity simply bowing to the whims of the famously capricious and arbitrary Greek deities, as in the ’81 film, here they reflect the real world 21st century resurgence of humanism and rebellion against the religious norms of the past.  The citizens of the city of Argos are waging an all-out war on the gods, mirroring the overthrow of the Titans by the gods themselves in the distant history, as told in the stars.  The Olympians control the good and bad fortunes of humanity, and to the people of Argos, it has become apparent that they have become a liability to the socially evolving race.  As people get more powerful and intelligent on a personal and societal scale, what need have they of the mercy and favor of the dangerously fickle gods?  Boiling down this cosmic struggle into one man, of course, is the protagonist, Perseus (Sam Worthington), who discovers he is the half-human son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and watched over by the ageless, knowledgeable and sexy-cute Io (Gemma Arterton).  There’s nothing particularly Oscar-winning about these performances, or by the rest of the large and very fun supporting cast (including Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Hades), but they fit perfectly with tongue-in-cheek and grandiose nature of the material.  The action is all fantastic, of course, but what makes it awesome is how enthusiastically played everybody is.  No one seems the least bit bored, here.

The great moral statement made by the new ‘Clash’ is the conclusion of Perseus’ story arc, and what separates him from his morally schizophrenic father: Simple humility is the correct response to power.  The gods failed to be better than the dangerous Titans because they saw power as entitlement and superiority rather than a burden or call to serve.  Perseus, the movie seems to say, is what we ought to expect from both the divine and mankind.  “We fight and we die for each other, not for you,” Perseus tells Zeus.  Which, of course, encapsulates the good of humanism, which when properly understood, is in no way antithetical to Christian theology.  “God became man,” says Christian St. Athanasius, “So that man may become god.”  Christ, like Perseus in ‘Clash’, chose to live and die as a man rather than as God, and in doing so elevated mankind beyond our comprehension.  The Christian God is nothing like the domineering Zeus.  Jesus has nothing to prove, except His love, and humbles Himself to achieve that end.

‘Clash’ is a rip-roaring yarn, and great entertainment.  Go see it.

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.

Classic Review: Lillies of the Field

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Review:  To recognize both the conclusion of Black History Month and the recent Academy Awards Presentation, I thought it would be fitting to review Lilies of the Field, the first film to give the award for Best Actor to an African American, Sidney Poitier.

The opening shot of Lilies of the Field does not do much in the way of grandeur—an old car driving down a desert highway with a simple song in the background.  It’s not epic, it’s not grand; it’s comfortable, cozy.  In many ways, this shot sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The film introduces us to Homer Smith (Poitier), a self described “black Baptist” and a drifting handyman, who stumbles across a convent in the Arizona wilderness and is hired by its nuns to do some maintenance work.  Homer first works in order to make a quick buck—something the Mother Superior, the other lead in this movie and something of an antagonist to Homer, promises but never gives.  Still, she manages to coerce him to stay, work, and even drive the nuns around.  A bond begins to grow between Homer and the religious sisters.  The center event of the movie though, is when the Mother Superior asks that Homer build for them a chapel near their convent.  At first reluctant to do so, Homer soon finds that this chapel is a matter of pride for him, and with faith, humility, and hard work, the logical “happy ending” is reached.

Though depicting Catholic nuns and having a famous Bible quote, the “lilies” passage of Mathew 28, as the movie’s theme, this film manages to not feel overly religious.  Catholic, even Christian, elements are kept to a minimum.  Jesus, for example, is only mentioned in song.  The presence of God, though he himself is commonly mentioned, does not saturate this movie.  Yes, it’s about faith, but it’s also about human relationships.  The constant struggle between Homer and the Mother Superior is iconic, as each side represents a strong personality that holds out to get what he or she wants, only to find in the end that each must give in order to receive.

As I said in the beginning, this is a film that gets much of its joy out of quality simplicity.  Sidney Poitier gives a performance deserving of his Oscar as Homer.  It isn’t five minutes into the movie that we, the audience, completely accept him as a convincing and believable character, despite the fact that we know nothing of his past.  Still, his performance doesn’t feel overly dramatic.  He’s no Ben-Hur, but for this movie he certainly doesn’t have to be.  Lilia Skala as the Mother Superior plays an equally convincing role, again never failing to incite believability in her character.

Lastly, though the technical aspects of this movie are not mesmerizing, they flesh out the movie quite well.  It was shot on location in the desert, and a real sense of progress is felt as the chapel gets closer and closer to completion (an actual crew labored through the night to achieve this effect).  Finally, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, with its folk-grassroots sound and use of a popular Baptist hymn, complements the movie beautifully and is in itself a treasure to simply listen to.
In conclusion, Lilies of the Field is a touching little movie.  A sort of diamond in the rough, this film gets two thumbs up from me, and I cite it as an example of how great movies need not be expensive.