Sunday 19 January 2014

Letterboxd: POLTERGEIST (1982); RED 2 (2013); THE BLING RING (2013)

Sunday 19 January 2014
★★★½ (out of five)

Tobe Hooper's POLTERGEIST came to my attention in the early-'90s when I was a pre-teen. Back then I remember it had a reputation for being a Very Scary Movie—partly because of an alleged "curse", as child star Heather O'Rourke died months prior to POLTERGEIST III's 1988 release (and the original used real human corpses during one climactic scene). For awhile, it was a movie I only caught moments of on late-night TV when my parents were out. I can't remember sitting down to watch it from beginning to end, and certainly haven't seen it for a good 15 years or so.

In re-watching POLTERGEIST today (31 years after it was made), it has inevitably lost some of the spell it once had. I think it has moments of creepiness (that freaky clown doll), but I wouldn't call it outright scary. It has a fantastic build-up (including a brilliant scene with some magically stacking kitchen chairs* that M. Night Shyamalan loosely recycled for THE SIXTH SENSE), but once the poltergeist activity kicks in the movie instantly becomes a phantasmagorical movie ghost train.

The modern equivalent of POLTERGEIST is probably PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which has its own issues and worse sequels, but certainly presents poltergeist phenomena in a more realistic and unsettling way. POLTERGEIST is more of a crowd-pleasing dose of spooky silliness, where the potential to genuinely frighten audiences dissipates the moment a gnarled tree bursts through a bedroom window and abducts a boy. It's a very silly shock, and arrives so early that POLTERGEIST never recovers enough for you to ever take it seriously again. And maybe you shouldn't be—and it's just that my childhood memories of what this film was supposed to be doesn't match my modern experience of it in the slightest.

As a 'fun haunted house film', this is certainly an impressive and entertaining entry into the genre. Many of the special effects haven't aged terribly well (especially a bizarre sequence with an obvious fake head clawing its skin off in a mirror), but some were clearly cutting-edge for '82—and reminded me of GHOSTBUSTERS-style visuals a few years later (puppetry where strings and rods are masked by effervescent lights). I also really enjoyed helium-voiced Zelda Rubenstein as diminutive psychic medium Tangina Barrons, whose presence lifts the film once she arrives to help three ghost-hunters with their investigation. (Lord know what those guys were doing beforehand, as there was little point in them documenting anything when there's a bedroom containing furniture and toys that are constantly spinning around the room.)

There's also an interesting underlying subtext regarding then-President Ronald Reagan's family values (which harkened back to the 1950s), and how the family in POLTERGEIST struggle to stay together in their little suburban bubble of 1980s Americana. The television is forever playing flag-waving adverts, and the film itself opens with an instrumental of The Star Spangled Banner. It's perhaps not coincidence that the evil invading their home did so through the TV set, at a time when cable TV was catching on in the US.

It's easy to see why POLTERGEIST was so influential and remains a classic in many people's eyes. It's a lot of fun and the climax is so bonkers it's genius, with a brilliant closing shot. There's always been some debate about whether or not Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) directed this, as credited, or producer Steven Spielberg took a more hands-on role most days... but whoever was responsible, they made something that's broadly stood the test of the time. However, I'm looking forward to the Sam Raimi-produced remake, which will hopefully bring more realism to the table before things are allowed to get crazy. Raimi also knows how to make a living tree scary instead of absurd, as EVIL DEAD fans will attest...

(* Sadly, high-definition means you can now see a pot plant wobble on the left-side of the screen when the camera pans away from the unstacked chairs, which alerts you to the fact the chairs are being hastily stacked off-camera.)

★½ (out of five)

It's OCEAN'S ELEVEN with older, less attractive people as retired spies. There's even a superfluous Chinese member of this EXPENDABLES-like gang, and Catherine Zeta Jones along for the sequel.

RED 2 is an impotent affair, for all its loudness, with entire action sequences reminding of better films (SALT, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, xXx... um, RATATOUILLE?). You sense the quiet desperation of the people involved in this. Having a starry cast makes for an enticing one-sheet poster, but when they're given nothing of interest to do it's all for naught.

I barely remember much of the first RED, but recall it holding my attention more until my brain erased it as the credits rolled. Bruce Willis has been phoning in identical action performances for so long that his interchangeable weariness is now infecting his co-stars. And how do you make Paris and London look so dull and dreary on-screen, given RED 2 is supposed to be a larger-than-life film originating from a comic-book?

At least Anthony Hopkins chewing the scenery is reasonably entertaining, and a few of John Malkovich's deadpan expressions are good for a giggle. But the presumed joy of Helen Mirren doing John Woo-style stunts is seriously overestimated.

★★★ (out of five)

Sofia Coppola's latest is a straightforward film, retelling the true life story of the so-called 'Bling Ring' (a group of privileged Valley brats who robbed the homes of the rich and famous, with little more than access to, Google Street View, and sheer nerve). Half the runtime is dedicated to 'crime' (the astonishingly easy burglaries, where no celebrity seems to own a security), and the second to 'punishment' (where the gang are caught by the police and put on trial).

It's well-constructed, directed and acted (particularly from Emma Watson, further edging away from her prim HARRY POTTER heroine), but what lingers most is the scripts witty barbs about fame and the power of celebrity on impressionable teens: the girls can't list a single characteristic of Angelina Jolie that isn't physical; one burglar can't wait to hear what victim/idol Lindsay Lohan said about their exploits (like it's an exclusive quote), and in the end the materialistic kids achieve the fame they crave through their criminal behaviour.

THE BLING RING's perhaps a little thin (being based on a Vanity Fair article, The Suspects Wore Louboutins), and the characterisations aren't particularly deep, but it's an entertaining tale about an audacious spate of break-ins that has something to say about the mindset of modern-day American teenagers raised by the E! Network.
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