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: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.

Following

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Lean, mean, rich film noir.

Review: Christopher Nolan’s rarely-seen first film, ‘Following’, is a claustrophobic, intricate noir. Here we enter an urban jungle populated by crafty criminals, femme fatales, and eccentrics; one such eccentric is Bill, a struggling writer who stalks people.  He does so because he needs experiences to write from, but it becomes an obsession, compelling him to invade the lives of others further and further.  With the help of a man named Cobb, he becomes a thief.  Cobb’s motivation is simple, “You take it away… to show them what they had,” but Cobb is far more devoted to this fiendish ideal than Bill realizes.

‘Following’ is spellbinding.  Unlike many low-budget, independent filmmakers, Nolan makes his limitations work for him.  Aesthetically, the film is grungy, off-kilter and bleak, the perfect feel for a neo-noir.  The story is quick to the point and has no fat.  Nolan makes use of the fractured narrative — something that would become his signature — to keep us disoriented, uncomfortable, and on our toes.  There is never anything uninteresting; every detail has some significance.

The film’s central themes are invasion and manipulation. The idea of following random people, just to get a glimpse into their lives, is downright prescient. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I can do that from the comfort of my couch. Most films about thieves center around greed, but the character Cobb insists that burglary isn’t the point.  Cobb wants to touch the human soul, to remind them of something they’d once known is true, but chose to forget.  He insists that “Everyone has a box”, a place in their homes where they keep their most prized mementos.  This functions like the safe in ‘Inception’, where the dreamer keeps their secrets.  Bill is attracted to Cobb’s seeming nobility, his philosophical approach, his comfort in such a risky enterprise.  But Cobb isn’t noble, he’s a predator, and whatever rhetoric he espouses to justify his bizarre lifestyle is just a cloak.  

Bill’s identity as a writer tells me that Nolan created the character autobiographically, at least to some extent.  Writer’s block is the worst, and I have contemplated carrying a notebook and observing people for inspiration.  When I realized the cost, I considered writing it into a screenplay, only being simultaneously disappointed and relieved that Nolan had already used the concept.  What happens to Bill, then, is every writer’s subconscious fear, that the world they strive to create will swallow them up.

I highly recommend ‘Following’ to fans of Christopher Nolan, film noir, independent film, and film in general.

Buy It From Amazon: Following

Classic Review: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

Stars:  ***1/2 out Four

Summary:  A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

If you werent thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

If you weren't thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

Review:  After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released.  Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.

It worked.

Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter.  The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’.  Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character.  Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized.  Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love.  Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil.  There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.

While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy.  It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph.  Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire.  Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive.  Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker.  This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time.  He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future.  The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?

The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz).  Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof.  This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach.  Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him.  The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results.  In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing.  Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder.  Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative.  So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic.  To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard.  It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life.  Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.

Once again, the film was a technical triumph.  The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together.  The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent.  Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route.  It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.

John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show.  There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.

Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’.  I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better.  But only slightly!  This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.