Tomb Raider


Lara Croft takes aim.

(2018) Adventure (MGM/Warner Brothers) Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Daniel Wu, Alexandre Willaume, Tamer Burjaq, Adrian Collins, Keenan Arrison, Andrian Mazive, Milton Schorr, Hannah John-Kamen, Peter Waison, Samuel Mak, Sky Yang, Civic Chung, Josef Altin, Billy Postlethwaite, Roger John Nsengiyumva, Jaime Winstone. Directed by Roar Uthaug

 

The Tomb Raider videogame franchise remains a benchmark in the industry. One of the first to feature a female main character, it was (and is) a rollicking adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones that requires a quick wit as well as fast fingers. Of course, lead character Lara Croft’s notoriously buxom figure didn’t hurt sales either.

After a pair of successful but mediocre movies in the late 90s and early 2000s, the franchise is being rebooted with Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the lead role. She lives in a beautiful and opulent estate but is a bike courier to pay the bills; that’s because her father (West), a billionaire, disappeared seven years previously and Lara doesn’t want to sign the papers that will give her the inheritance because doing so would be as much as admitting he’s dead, something she steadfastly refuses to believe.

Then she gets wind of a possible location where her father might be and off she goes to find him. It will involve finding the tomb of a cruel Japanese queen, avoiding a terrible curse as well as barbaric corporate sorts who seek to open the tomb and unleash hell on the world. Aided only by a drunken sailor, Lara goes off to save the day but she is not yet the confident adventuress that inhabits the video games. Yes, this is an origin story.

On the surface of it, casting Vikander as Croft is a slam dunk move. She’s truly a wonderful actress, has ballet training and moreover is a fan of the videogame. She bulked up on muscle and performed some of her own stunts for the film but oddly enough, her portrayal of Croft didn’t really connect with me. In fact, I found the whole tone of the film to be flat in an off-putting way. It probably didn’t help that the screening I attended was virtually deserted. There just didn’t seem to be as much chemistry or energy going on in the movie.

Some of the stunts and action set pieces are more than up to snuff. When the movie channels the old serials (which it does do from time to time), it seems to do better. The expository scenes are where the film shows the most problems. Also, some of the CGI is murky and hard to see; I didn’t view this in 3D so I can only imagine how bad it looked in that format.

There are enough thrills and fun for me to give it a mild recommendation but with the caveat that many of the reasons that videogames don’t translate well to movies are present here. Fans of the videogame series probably won’t like this much and fans of adventure films in general probably will agree with them. If you keep your expectations low, this can be a good time however.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are quite exciting.
REASONS TO STAY: Vikander doesn’t seem a good fit for the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only two actresses to date to play Lara Croft in the film versions – Angelina Jolie and Vikander – are also both Oscar winners.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Solomon’s Mine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Game Night

Poltergeist (1982)


You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

(1982) Supernatural Horror (MGM) Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Dirk Blocker, Allan Graf, Lou Perry, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Joseph R. Walsh, Noel Conlon, Helen Baron. Directed by Tobe Hooper

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Our home is our castle; it is our safe place, somewhere we escape to from the cares and troubles of the world. We are protected by our walls, our windows, our doors. Those we love the most are there with us. Our home is our security.

Steven Freeling (Nelson) has a suburban castle, brand spanking new in the center of a spiffy new development. He sells property in the neighborhood and is responsible for most of his neighbors having the lovely new homes they all have. His family includes wife Diane (Williams), son Robbie (Robins), daughter Carol Anne (O’Rourke) and teen Dana (Dunne) from his first marriage. Life is sunny and perfect.

Then odd things start to happen. Chairs are found stacked by themselves. Carol Anne hears strange voices coming from the TV set. Toys begin to move from themselves. They see strange lights and hear strange noises. Unable to account for any of these phenomena, they consult Dr. Lesh (Straight), a renowned parapsychologist and she concludes that their home may be haunted by a poltergeist. When tests confirm a malevolent presence (to put it mildly), things begin to go from bad to worse – and even worse still, Carol Anne disappears.

Desperate, they bring in Tangina Barrons (Rubenstein), a powerful psychic and medium, to help them get their daughter back. She detects a horrifying presence, something malevolent and deceitful who is using Carol Anne to control all the other spirits locally. Getting Carol Anne back however won’t be the end of the affair.

This was a collaboration between Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Steven Spielberg and two more diverse styles I don’t think you could find. There has been a great deal of controversy over the years regarding Spielberg’s role in the movie. He is listed as a co-writer and producer but many have said that he did many things a director might do and that he was on set all but three days of the shooting schedule. Certainly there are many of Spielberg’s touches here; the quiet suburban setting, the family in crisis pulling together, the escalating supernatural crisis. However, even today it remains unclear just how much creative contribution Spielberg made to the film. Keep in mind he was filming E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as filming was wrapping on Poltergeist. Some of the scenes though are very definitely NOT Spielberg-like.

Nelson used his performance here as a springboard to a pretty satisfying career that has shown a great deal of range, from his sitcom work in Parenthood to dramatic roles in movies like The Company Men. His solid performance as the dad here – a dad who is not the perfect sitcom dad but for all his faults and blemishes still cares deeply about his family and would put himself in harm’s way for them – changed the way dads were portrayed in the movies. Nelson also gets to utter one of my all-time favorite lines in the movies: “He won’t take go to hell for an answer (so) I’m gonna give him directions.”

Rubenstein also made a memorable appearance and while her career was cut short by her untimely death six years ago, she will always be remembered for her absolutely mesmerizing performance here. There’s no doubt who steals the show here and even while O’Rourke was incredibly cute, she didn’t stand a chance against the hurricane force of Rubenstein’s personality.

The movie set horror tropes on their ears. Rather than the haunted house being a spooky old mansion, it was a suburban split level of the type that many people who flocked to see the film back in 1982 lived in. That brought the horror home for many; they could see spider demons in front of their master bedroom; skeletons emerging from their swimming pool and their dining room chairs stacked on their dining room table. It could happen to anyone and that’s what makes it truly terrifying.

The effects here are not groundbreaking and most of the time practical effects were used, sometimes in some quite clever ways. There really aren’t a ton of special effects here in any case; it is the unknown that scares us most and Hooper/Spielberg wisely left the best scares to our imaginations.

There’s nothing scarier than death and this is all about what happens to us after we die. Sure, atheists probably think all this is nonsense but no more so than a bratty teenage boy on some backwater desert planet being the savior of the universe. It’s all a matter of how you look at things. Hardly anybody wants to die, but nobody wants their afterlife to be worse than their life. Poltergeist taps into that fear, the fear of death and brings it right into our living rooms. What could be scarier than that?

WHY RENT THIS: It’s one of the scariest movies ever made. Relocating a haunted house flick to a suburban environment had never been done before. Nelson and Rubenstein give career-making performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people have issues with kids in peril.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images and scenes of terror. There’s also a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zelda Rubenstein was a medium and a psychic in real life before becoming an actress.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 25th anniversary DVD edition has a 2-part documentary on poltergeists. The Blu-Ray includes that and a digibook that includes essays, trivia, production notes, photos and cast and crew bios.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $121.7M on a $10.7M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Dressmaker

The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

Creed


Stallone gets a new lease on life.

Stallone gets a new lease on life.

(2015) Sports Drama (MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Richie Coster, Andre Ward, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Malik Bazille, Ricardo McGill, Gabe Rosado, Wood Harris, Buddy Osborn, Rupal Pujara, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Eye, Johanna Tolentino. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Legacies can be tricky things. We want our kids to end up better than us, to be their own people and to leave their own legacy, but sometimes our accomplishments get in the way of that. Our own success can put enormous pressure on our children.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) has had a hard time of it. Growing up in foster care after his mother passed away (having never known his daddy who died before he was born), he is raised by Mary Anne Creed (Rashad), wife of the immortal heavyweight champion. Eventually he finds out that his father was in fact Apollo Creed, the product of an extramarital affair. Mary Anne informed Adonis of this when he was younger and Adonis, who has the boxing bug pre-wired into him, prefers to go by his birth name so that he can make his own name in the sport. Sadly, that’s only gotten him so far – low-rent fights in Tijuana.

He wants to do better though and gives up a high-paying job in which he’d just gotten promoted and heads east to Philadelphia to look up an old friend of his father; Rocky Balboa (Stallone). At first, Rocky is not terribly interested. He is busy running his restaurant and has left the boxing game behind him. Just about everyone and everything that has meant anything to him is dead or gone; he’s alone in Philly, growing older and somewhat wiser and a little bit wary about caring for anybody ever again.

Still, he sees something in Adonis – his persistence, his passion perhaps – and decides to take him on. After an impressive fight against an up-and-coming middleweight, word gets out about Adonis’ lineage. That attracts the attention of “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real life pugilist Ballew), the World Champion from Britain who is getting ready to hang up his gloves after being convicted on a weapons charge (which somewhat ironically wouldn’t be a crime in the United States). When a sure-fire payday falls through, his manager (McTavish) is scrambling to find one last opponent and the son of Apollo Creed would have to do, particularly with ex-Champ Rocky Balboa in his corner.

As Adonis begins training, he falls for a neighbor, Bianca (Thompson) who has a burgeoning career of her own as a sultry R&B singer. Everything is going better than Adonis could have hoped; but things begin to fall apart, partly through circumstance and partly through his own bull-headed rage. Can Adonis overcome the chip on his shoulder and make a name for himself, or will he be doomed to be the failed son of a legend who couldn’t measure up to his dad’s legacy?

Coogler, who directed Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station, absolutely nails it for his big studio debut. A fan of the Rocky series since childhood (and bonded with his own father over), he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, but merely brings all the right elements forward to make this a 21st century Rocky movie, and succeeds in what may sound like a modest ambition but is in reality much more difficult than making an homage or a reboot.

He shows off some astonishing chops as a director including a jaw-dropping travelling shot that follows Adonis into the arena from his dressing room for one of his first fights. He also films each of the three boxing matches in the film differently and  in doing so makes each match unique and memorable, so that the boxing sequences never get boring.

Stallone in particular benefits from Coogler’s sure hand in the director’s chair. We see Rocky not as a strong man in the prime of life but as an old man, facing his own mortality having outlived his wife and best friend. In many ways, Rocky has given up and is just waiting to play out his hand but Adonis instills in him once again the champion’s will to win. We see Rocky as not so much an icon, or even the cartoon character he eventually became in many ways, but as a  complex man who is much more than a pug who talks like he’s taken one too many shots to the head.

Jordan, who showed tremendous potential in Fruitvale Station, fulfills it here and shows that he can be a major star. His Adonis can be tender but has a hunger in him that drives him, one that sometimes drives him to rage. That rage often sabotages his dreams and drives away those closest to him. Adonis has to find a way to make peace with his feelings for his father and move on, and in a sense he does but there’s a lot more to it than that. To Coogler’s credit (he co-authored the screenplay), this is the kind of movie that makes you think about it and discover little nuances in the story that suddenly appear when you examine the performances. That’s some good writing, right there.

Early on, the movie is a little slow-paced as the characters are established, but that can be forgiven as it allows us to connect with them more later on. However, with the movie nearly two and a half hours long, that may be a bit more than modern attention-deficient audiences to bear, so keep that in mind.

When this movie was announced, I was sure this was going to continue flogging a franchise that I considered to be a dead horse. I was a little more hopeful when I heard Coogler was directing it – I’m a big fan of Fruitvale Station. But seeing this exceeded all my expectations and showed that even when you think a film franchise has done and said everything it can, the right artist can come in and breathe new life and make it seem fresh and new again. A lot of folks are calling this one of the best films of the year and I can’t really argue with them. This is certainly a must-see movie for the holiday season, and should be seen the first chance you get if you haven’t seen it already. I’m certainly regretting waiting so long to get into the theater to see it myself.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally powerful. Some of Stallone’s best work. Jordan serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit, particularly early on. A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence (and a little outside the ring), foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Rocky film to not be written by Stallone, nor does he appear as a boxer in the ring. It is also, at just over two hours, the longest film in the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Holly and The Quill begins!

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

Max


Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

(2015) Family Drama (Warner Brothers/MGM) Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Lauren Graham, Robbie Amell, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria, Raymond W. Beal, Edgar Arreola, Jason Davis, Pete Burns, Miles Mussenden, Joan Q. Scott, Ian Gregg, Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by Boaz Yakin

]It is a Hollywood truism that it is never a good idea to work as an actor with children and animals, unless you like getting upstaged. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable – families must have their films and they are often crawling with kids and pets.

Max is a dog working for the military. He and his handler, Kyle Wincott (Amell) are in Afghanistan, where Max faithfully sniffs out weapon caches for the Taliban and alerts the platoon when there’s trouble. However, all of Max’s training can’t save Kyle from a Taliban ambush.

Back home in Texas, Kyle’s family is living day to day; his ex-marine Dad Ray (Church) bears his wounds that he got in Desert Storm and runs a storage facility. His wife Pam (Graham) relies on her faith in God to get her eldest son back home safely and to keep the peace between Ray and their youngest son Justin (Wiggins). Justin is at an age where he is, quite frankly, a jerk – like most teenage boys. He has little or no respect for either parent (less for his demanding Dad than his Mom), plays videogames all day long and has no interest in spending his summer working for his Dad who really needs the help. He is also burning bootlegged copies of videogames that haven’t come out yet for a local hoodlum named Emilio (Soria), who is the cousin of his best friend Chuy (LaQuake).

The Wincott family is devastated by the news of Kyle’s passing. It is Max, however, who is the most inconsolable. His relationship with Kyle and devotion to him is such that he is of no use back in the field; he suffers from PTSD (and yes, dogs can be afflicted by it) and won’t let any other handler near him. The Army ships him back to Texas where he was first trained to see if anyone can deal with him. They bring the dog to Kyle’s funeral, where he breaks hearts by running up to the casket, pawing at it and with a piteous whimper lies down at the foot of it. Why don’t you go get a tissue now, I’m sure you need it.

Anyway, the only person Max responds to is the sullen Justin. As it turns out, Justin is beginning to respond to Max, too – after his mom forces him to take care of the dog on his own. It would seem an insurmountable obstacle for Justin, who doesn’t know the first thing about caring for a dog. Fortunately for him, another cousin of Chuy – this one not involved in anything illegal – named Carmen (Xitlali) – has raised pit bulls in her family for ages, so she agrees to help Justin out. The two start to take a shine to each other.

However, things get complicated when Kyle’s buddy – Tyler Harne (Kleintank) returns from duty early and gives Ray an account of Kyle’s death that puts the blame squarely on Max. Ray is all for putting a bullet in the dog’s head after that but cooler heads prevail. Max clearly doesn’t like Harne – he gets upset whenever he’s close by, barking and trying to break his chain to get at the former Marine. Justin thinks Harne is up to something. When Justin’s suspicions prove correct, Harne has Max taken away by animal control to be put down and when Ray finally figures out that his younger son has been right all along, kidnaps Ray to hand over to the drug cartel that he is selling weapons that he liberated in Afghanistan to with the express instructions to take his buddy’s dad to Mexico and make him disappear permanent-like. It’s up to Max to escape doggie death row and aid Justin in finding his dad.

I liked the first part of the premise – bringing a military dog home and helping the dog heal from his PTSD, while simultaneously helping the family heal from the grief of their loss. Had they stuck to that story this might have been an excellent family film. Unfortunately, they add the whole far-fetched junior detective angle that just turns the movie into an Afterschool Special and not a particularly good one.

What saves the movie is Max himself; the dog is absolutely wonderful, the kind of dog that epitomizes why the species is Man’s Best Friend. One can see why the military and law enforcement both rely heavily on dogs, particularly those of Max’s breed. Max will definitely tug on your heartstrings and in a movie like this one, frankly that’s his job.

I didn’t talk much about Carmen in the story summary but let me tell you, Mia Xitlali may have an unusual last name but she also has unusual talent to back it up. She’s absolutely a knockout in the looks department but she has plenty of screen presence to make her a talent to watch out for, so long as she doesn’t go down the Selena Gomez path. Latin actresses don’t often get really juicy roles but hopefully one will come this lady’s way – I know she’ll make the most of it when one does. Mark my words, this girl has a future ahead of her.

Wiggins, who was impressive in the far better Hellion, is less so here. Mostly, he’s the victim of awful writing; Justin is so sullen and so angry at the world that it is absolutely excruciating to spend time with him. Sure, this might be more typical of teenage boy behavior – and I helped raise one as well as having been one, so I know they can be real jerks – but most teen boys, even my son, had redeeming qualities. Eventually Max turns Justin around but by the time he does, you’re pretty much already over Justin. Sadly, Yakin gave Wiggins some cringe-inducing dialogue to speak and you can almost see Wiggins wincing when he says it.

I get that this isn’t meant to be a work of art but it could have been so much better. I think the story that takes up most of the first part of the movie is far more compelling than the Disney Channel detective show that makes up the second. I wish Yakin had trusted his main story to carry him through although to be fair, it’s quite possible (and even likely) that the studio may have had something to do with adding the kids save the day second half. In addition, when a filmmaker casts actors the caliber of Graham and Church and then gives them little to do but look stern or sad, that’s a bad sign. Still, those looking for family entertainment that isn’t animated in a year in which it seems like the only good option for families is Inside Out could do worse than seeing this as a break from multiple viewings of Pixar.

REASONS TO GO: Max is terrific. Some nice cinematography. Xitlali shows some legitimate talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedantic story. Church and Graham criminally underused. Justin may be a “typical” teen but far too abrasive to get much audience sympathy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and peril, disturbing war sequence and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Five dogs play Max, who is a Belgian Malinois (not a Belgian Shepard as is at least once remarked upon in the movie) which are a breed used often by the military and police; the primary canine actor, whose name is Carlos (great name!) also appeared in the movie Project Almanac.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bolt
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meet Me in Montenegro

Poltergeist (2015)


A show of hands.

A show of hands.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox/MGM) Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow, Doug MacLeod, Eve Crawford, L.A. Lopes, Soma Bhatia, John Stoneham Jr., Kathryn Greenwood, Molly Kidder. Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a movie is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to horror movies. The trick is to stay true to the original material while making it fresh and original enough that fans of the original feel like they’re seeing something new as opposed to a shot-by-shot rip-off. Add to the mix that it is an iconic film like the 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist, which was originally directed by Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper and produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and you’ve got yourself a tall order.

Taller still because most of your target audience will have seen the original except for maybe a few disdainful Millennials who don’t watch “old” movies, and yet it is that crowd who may enjoy this movie the most as they will see it without the baggage that the rest of us take into the multiplex with us. It is hard not to compare the movie to its source material, and yet it is at the same time somewhat unfair until you remember that the filmmakers knew what they were getting themselves into.

Many of the original elements remain; a modern family in a modern suburban home (in this case, in Illinois) that has a bit of a history, beset by paranormal activity of increasing malevolence. A little girl disappears and can be heard from the television set. Paranormal researchers who are blown away by the level of phenomena they witness. A psychic who may well be the only hope to get the little girl back.

Gil Kenan was a pretty odd choice to direct this; he has mostly directed family-oriented fare like the Oscar-nominated Monster House and the kid-centric fantasy City of Ember. The original Poltergeist had kids in it of course, but the focus was on the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Kenan chooses to make the middle child, Griffin (Catlett) the focus and to enhance his character with all sorts of neuroses and anxieties. The kid needs some Valium, or at least some therapy which his mother actually vocalizes at one point. Having a kid who jumps at every bump in the night in a house that is haunted by angry spirits seems a little cruel.

Rockwell and DeWitt, who play the parents, are underwritten compared to their two youngest, Catlett and Clements (the Heather O’Rourke of this movie). There are tantalizing bits of business; DeWitt’s character is a writer working on a book, but we never see her even attempting to write. Rockwell’s character has been laid off from John Deere and at one point there’s an indication that he has a drinking problem, but that’s never explored. They seem to be good parents and decent people but we don’t really get to know them very much.

Rockwell in many ways carries the movie; he’s a rock-solid actor who can be as likable as anyone in Hollywood, although he tends to portray characters with a collection of tics and quirks that are largely absent here. In the one scene that he and DeWitt get to show some intimacy (before kiddus interruptus, something every parent is familiar with) they display genuine chemistry together but for the most part they are reduced to reacting to one scare or another. DeWitt is likewise a terrific actress who is in my opinion somewhat underrated. Once again, she doesn’t really get to show what she can do in a role that is more cliche than character.

Harris and Adams play the psychic and the paranormal researcher respectively and unlike the original they have a past. Harris in particularly with his Irish accent is entertaining, which considering he has to fill the late Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes is a considerable achievement. Mostly, though, they – like the parents – are second bananas to the kids and the CGI.

There are some decent enough scares here, a few of them telegraphed by the trailer but they don’t come close to living up to the original. See, I’m doing it too – and everyone involved had to know that there was no way in figurative and literal Hell that this was going to live up to the original, right? Which begs the question; why remake this at all?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a way that a remake of Poltergeist couldn’t be a terrific film on its own merits or even live up to the original, but this one flatly doesn’t. The pacing is weak, the scares aren’t as scary and it simply isn’t a thrill ride like the first one was. There are certainly some things that are worthwhile about the film; they modernize it nicely although I suspect that will date the movie somewhat in years to come. Some of the CGI effects are nifty. The adult cast is solid; I sympathize with Rockwell, Harris, Adams and DeWitt who give it a good college try, but making a family friendly film out of a horror classic which seems to be what the studio and the filmmakers were shooting for is a half-baked idea at best. This is one movie that should have been one of those Cedar Point roller coasters that turn you upside down and backwards and dropped us down insane hills and into dark tunnels; instead, we got a kiddie coaster.

REASONS TO GO: Sam Rockwell is solid. Some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Haunted by the original. Relies too much on Clements and Catlett.
FAMILY VALUES: A bunch of frightening images and scary moments, some foul language and a sexually suggestive scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Adams previously starred together in the 1998 indie film Happiness.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING; 6/10
NEXT: Lawless