MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Poltergeist / When Marnie Was There

POLTERGEIST (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Gil Kenan, 2015


One thing you can say in favor of the latest Poltergeist is that at least nobody in it gets tortured, hideously maimed, eviscerated, eaten, or chopped to screaming bits. Children may take their parents to this picture, without fear of nightmares.

Also, the details of the Poltergeist’s spooky story aren’t revealed to us on a cell-phone movie camera found flushed down a toilet or buried in the local cemetery. There is a cemetery, or half-a-cem etery, in the movie, and there’s also much of the original family plot—about a typical nice suburban family moving into an untypically haunted house and apparently triggering a battle among these beleaguered folks and the Ghostbusters they hire, and the rampaging poltergeists (“noisy ghosts” in German), who are prowling around the closets, the shadowy corridors, the TV sets, and anywhere else you can stick a Steadicam or a handheld camera.

This show borrows the old story and characters, but updates the plot from the early ‘80s, an era of relative prosperity, to right now—a time when jobs are few, money tight and horrors plentiful. One victim of this limping economy is the Bowen family. Papa Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell), who has lost his job (as a TV director?), is hunting new ones, and has, somewhat rashly, decided to buy a house while he does. Mama Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), also somewhat rashly, is trying to become a writer. The kids, uprooted and uneasy, save for sunny little Maddy (Kennedi Clements), find themselves bedeviled by a closet full of seemingly haunted and sinister toys (including a particularly evil-looking clown), by a mysterious, threatening, seemingly haunted tree, by haunted kitchen utensils, a haunted electric drill, and by a haunted TV set, which we’ll all probably recall from the 1982 movie. Soon all (haunted) hell breaks loose — and everybody is scurrying around, including the furniture.

The Poltergeist gang have, it seems, kidnapped Madison (aka Maddy), the adorable little girl of the family, and whisked her off to PoltergeistLand and hidden her in the TV set, probably somewhere between the shopping channels and the reruns of CHIPs. Can anyone rescue her? Have they paid their cable bill? And, just to cover all possibilities, why don’t the Bowens keep looking for her above ground or outside the TV at the same time? (One can almost hear Sam Rockwell, in an outtake, yelling: “No Goddammit! My daughter’s in that goddam TV set, and I damned well know it! Haven’t you seen all those ads, for crissake? Now leave me alone, you goddam morons.“)

Despite the updated backgrounds and modernized details, this is all pretty much like the original 1982 Poltergeist, which Steven Spielberg (as writer, producer and, many say, uncredited co-director) made just before he made E. T. (as director). It’s one of his most personal films, even though Tobe Hooper, director of the genuinely terrifying 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed it alone.

E. T. and Poltergeist were released within a week of each other, in the summer of ‘82, and both were huge hits (E. T. holding for a while, the all-time box office record). Both have remained classics of mainline-movie fantasy from the ‘80s, that era of often dumb shows for serial moviegoers, but also of a few triumphs. And both are, in different ways, unrepeatable—though, while there will probably never be another E. T., or even an “E. T. II,” there were a couple of mediocre Poltergeist sequels flung at us in 1986 and 1988 by people who should have known better. In these days of endlessly recycled, rekindled, regurgitated and recopied movie horrors, a Poltergeist reboot may be foolhardy, but inevitable.

If you’ve seen it before, you’ll probably remember most of it. If you haven’t seen it, you‘ll probably remember it anyway, from all the movies that have copied it. If you don’t watch horror movies and you wandered into the theatre under the delusion that you were catching a horse movie called Coltergeist, or a movie about a lovable village dunce named Doltergeist, you may be in for a bad moment or two — especially when Maddy gets sucked into the TV set and the cameraman is attacked by the haunted drill and the clown starts prowling around, leering like Bozo on absinthe.

It’s not a total loss. There are even some pretty good things in it — including a shivery special effect or two and snappy, hip performances by the actors who play the suburban parents Eric (Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (DeWitt) and okay ones by the guys who play the poltergeist experts, de-haunting specialist Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and TV reality show ghost-rouster Corrigan Burke (Jared Harris). The kid actors aren’t bad: 6-year-old Kennedi Clements (as Madison), as a cutie, and teenager Saxon Sharbino (as Kendra) as a phone-hogging teen-aged pain. The middle kid, Kyle Catlett as convincingly nervous Griffin, outperforms them, and occasionally the adults. The direction, by Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) has some flair, and the tech stuff is, as usual, suitably spooky and ultra-techy. The screenplay was written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, and I think it’s safe to say he won’t get another Pulitzer Prize for this—though the film does have better dialogue than most current horror movies. Which, of course, isn’t hard.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan-U.S.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014

Beautiful beyond words, heartbreakingly sad, and as lushly romantic as a night in the magical forests of our childhood dreams, When Marnie Was There may be (we hope it isn’t) the swan song for one of the cinema’s great treasure troves: The superb Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. If it is, it’s a lovely coda and a fitting last chorus. But pray that it isn’t.

Run for decades by the sensei (master) himself, the recently retired Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli was responsible for some of the greatest hand-drawn animated features in cinema history (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl‘s Moving Castle) — most of them directed by Miyazaki, but a few (like Marnie and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) directed by his colleagues Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Isao Takahata. Yonebayashi is the maker of both Marnie and the equally lovely and moving The Secret World of Arrietty.

If you love old-fashioned animation, here is something you must see: perhaps a last example of one of the most beautifully imagined and meticulously fashioned feature cartoons of the old style. Based on a somewhat homoerotic girl’s novel by the British writer Joan Robinson, it‘s about the deathless friendship of two little 12-year-olds, brunette Anna and radiant blonde Marnie (voiced in the English language version by Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka), who meet and become best friends in an apparently haunted mansion on the marshlands of the countryside of Hokkaido, a northern island of Japan.

Anna is a young artist who is alienated from and bullied by her schoolmates in the city of Sapporo, and is sent to the countryside one summer to rest and recover. There. she discovers Marnie, peering down from a window in a seemingly deserted mansion that is only reachable with a rowboat or during low tide. And there, Anna bonds with a girl who may not exist, at least in the real world.

Yonebayashi and his colleagues—including co-writers Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando (also an animation director)—imbue Anna‘s and Marnie‘s milieu with both fairytale splendor and realistic grace. Their entrancing film follows Anna in her childhood past, picks her up again in the present (when she‘s grown up), switches back and forth, and endows her whole story with a spectral, supernatural, glistening beauty of the kind one imagines Alfred Hitchcock would have wanted for his own long-planned romantic ghost story: an adaptation of James M. Barrie‘s play “Mary Rose” that was his (unrealized) dream project for decades.

There are two versions of When Marnie Was There available from its US distributor GKIDS (one hopes they will both be on the eventual DVD release): the original Japanese language release and the English language version, released to theatres here with Steinfeld, Shipka and other Hollywood actors like Kathy Bates, John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Geena Davis. Some aficionados will want to watch both; some may content themselves with either the original or the Americanized second one. Either way, they will be seeing one of the most visually beautiful, mesmerizing and graphically stunning movies of the year: a hand-made masterpiece from one of Japan’s greatest (and hopefully not yet lost) film factories and traditions. (In Japanese with subtitles and in English, dubbed.)

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Feature films are suffering a kind of bad time right now, in my opinion, because the feature films that play in theaters are blockbusters. That seems to fill the theaters, but the art-house cinema is gone. If I made a feature film, it might play in L.A. and New York, a couple of other places, for a week in a little part of a cineplex, and then it would go who knows where. I built this to be on the big screen. It will be on a smaller screen, but it’s built for the big screen. You want a feature film to play on a big screen with big sound, and utilize all the best technology to make a world. It’s really tough after all that work to not get it in the theater. So I say that cable television is a new art house, and it’s good that it’s here.”
~ David Lynch

“The purpose of film isn’t to present the kindness of the world.”
~ Isabelle Huppert