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Entries in Steven Spielberg (2)



Stars: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Matt Frewer, Rafe Spall and Penelope Wilton.
Writer: Melissa Mathison; based upon the children’s novel by Roald Dahl.
Director: Steven Spielberg

Premiered Out of Competition at 69th Festival du Cannes; screened at the Grand Lumiere Theatre.

Rating: 2/5

Steven Spielberg has been open about his adoration for the classic Roald Dahl children’s novel The BFG, of how the 1982 book was standard bedtime reading in his household and how an adaptation has been in development for close to 20 years. He is not alone; the book is a publishing phenomenon that impacted a generation of young readers, just as Spielberg’s body of work is arguably the most fondly favoured American film output of the last half century.

Reteaming with the late writer Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-terrestrial) and long time producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Spielberg at least delivers on his promise to get it made. Unfortunately, the only element of the entire production that inspires any kind of wonder is just how far from a satisfying adaptation the film proves to be, given the potential held by the pairing of these two great storytellers.

The heroine is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a little girl with big dreams who wanders the halls of her 80’s era London orphanage (looking very Harry Potter-ish, as does much of the film) well into the witching hour. Barely 10 words have been spoken in the film when we meet Oscar-winner Mark Rylance’s not-yet-friendly giant, who abducts Sophie from her bed and takes her to a faraway land. The trauma of the abduction barely registers on Sophie and soon a type of accelerated ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ kicks in. The pair chatter away interminably in the giant’s home at the expense of plot establishment, the now friendly giant instead introducing her to such wonders as The Tree of Dreams and a workshop where he mixes the tree’s pickings to create happy night time visions.

The BFG is the runt of a large band of horribly ill-tempered, one-dimensional giants (just like the ones in Bryan Singer’s dud Jack The Giant Slayer), many times larger and with a cruel hunger for human flesh. Sophie convinces The BFG to come with her to Buckingham Palace, resulting in the film’s liveliest, funniest sequence, and advise The Queen (Penelope Wilton, the film’s best asset) and her offsider Mary (an entirely ill-fitting Rebecca Hall) that the giants are a real threat and a military first strike against them is the best option. Nocturnal kidnapping, the threat of cannibalism and the upside of a tactical airborne offensive all make for a modern family movie, apparently.

The absence of any discernible narrative for a great swathe of the film may not bother the real littlies; colour and movement abound and Barnhill is cutey-pie enough to connect with the tots. On the other hand, parents (in fact, anyone over 10) will be driven to distraction by the sweetness-over-substance approach. The BFG and his clan also speak in a broken ‘pigeon English’-like dialect called ‘gobblefunk’ that is often impossible to understand, ensuring a ponderous 115 minutes of young ones pulling at your shirt sleeve and asking, “What did he say?”

Steven Spielberg has rarely ever let the technology at his disposal do the work for him. Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, A.I. and Minority Report broke new ground in almost every frame, but Spielberg steadfastly put story first.  The BFG more readily recalls his lumbering over-produced misfires 1941, Hook and Always. It also bares witness to just how fallible the director is in this late-career stage; for every great work (Munich; Lincoln; Bridge of Spies), he persists at shoehorning storylines into experiments with CGI and performance capture tech, resulting in stinkers like Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.

The occasionally pretty images captured by DOP Janusz Kaminski and omnipresent orchestral work of John Williams keep demanding that we feel for Sophie and her gargantuan friend, but Spielberg’s erratic tonality, overly-familiar technique and heavy-handed graphics renders what should have been a soaring adaptation of Dahl just plain dull.



Stars: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements and Saxon Sharbino.
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire.
Director: Gil Kenan.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 2.5/5

If Gil Kenan’s remake of Tobe Hooper’s (or, if you believe the scuttlebutt, Steven Spielberg’s) 1982 spectral spectacular Poltergeist is remembered at all, it will be as further evidence of Hollywood’s disregard for the horror genre in its pandering to the PG-13 demographic.

Robbed of the upwardly mobile, early 80s spunk that imbued leads Craig T Nelson and the great Jobeth Williams with such warm personalities, whiny smart-alec Sam Rockwell and an anaemic Rosemarie DeWitt star as Eric and Amy Bowen, two career-less strugglers mired in an America of foreclosed suburban blocks. In 1982, The Freelings earned our affection with funny and familiar family moments that remain fan favourites (the burying of the dead bird; giving the pool guys the finger; the battle for remote control with the jerk-neighbour); in 2015, The Bowens are introduced in a static single shot, bundled together in their bland people mover and shrilly yelling over each other to be heard. In modern screen parlance, writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s lazy opening represents ‘establishing character.’

Those rich characterisations that ensured emotional investment in the plight of the all-American nuclear family are but one of the many assets exorcised in this shallow retelling, but it is arguably the most crucial omission. The narrative’s dramatic impetus has been taken away from the mother; the tormented focus that the grief of losing a daughter to supernatural forces and the desperate determination to get her back provided Williams with meaty maternal material. Alternatively, DeWitt is largely a nonchalant bystander, barely registering a furrowed brow as her youngest navigates ‘The Great Beyond’. Similarly, Rockwell’s father figure seems annoyed by the overall inconvenience of the spiritual invasion; any comparison to Nelson’s crumbling emotional wreck is really no comparison at all.

Otherworldly heroism falls to middle-child Griffin, played by an ok Kyle Catlett (moms can’t be heroes in 2015 franchise reboots); his role is essentially a live-action version of the animated tyke director Kenan conjured in 2006’s Monster House.  Teenage sister Kendra is played with an ultra-modern ironic detachment by Saxon Sharbino, who can’t be jolted into any kind of emotional life no matter how much the ethereal denizens of her home try; the abducted moppet made famous by the late Heather O’Rourke is ably realised by Kennedi Clements, easily the best of the ensemble. Jared Harris and Jane Adams are reduced to naff comic relief in roles that carried dramatic weight 33 years ago when played by Zelda Rubinstein and Beatrice Straight, respectively.

If the human elements are left wanting, there is some meagre joy to be had in the prerequisite frights. The most successfully rendered reworking of an original element is the clown that freaks out Griffin (although how it comes to be in his room at all represents an implausible disregard for new home owner due diligence); based on the high profile that the clown has in all the marketing material, the producers are aiming for the ‘creepy doll’ audience that PG-13 hits The Conjuring and Annabelle brought in. Also relatively effective are CGI-heavy re-imaginings of the iconic ‘Killer Tree’ sequence and the ‘Wardrobe to Hell’ portal to the homes’ heart of bi-location.

To list further failings in Kenan’s remake would begin to sound churlish – the financial hardship the Bowens find themselves in means no backyard pool sequences; no E-Buzz, the family dog whose animal instincts first sensed the true nature of the house; no discernible music score, unlike Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestral masterwork. Also, blaming the atmospheric ineffectiveness on the tinny digital sheen that has replaced the rich, deep shadows and vibrant colours provided by film stock is a moot point; film production is what it is in the modern industry.

Fact is, Poltergeist 2015 was not made to honour its source material. Nor will the PG-13 audience for which it was created be all that familiar with its origins (or, for that matter, what a poltergeist even is). It should be judged on its own terms; in that regard, it is a tepid, mid-range effort, lacking in logic and derailed by one-note characters servicing a narrowly focussed B-movie storyline. It’s just that little bit sadder that proof exists indicating it could have been so much more.