‘The Polar Express’ Deserves More Respect Than Most Christmas Movies Get

The Polar Express movie poster

The Polar Express” was directed by Steven Spielberg’s protégée Robert Zemeckis, and it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg which Tom Hanks was a big fan of when he was kid. It involves a boy who is selected along with many other kids to take a train ride to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus and see his intricate operation of present giving. This voyage will have this boy meeting other kids on their way as well as many other characters, most of who are played by Hanks.

That’s right, Hanks plays six different parts in “The Polar Express,” and it has me wondering if this was done to save money on what must have been a very expensive production. Among the parts he plays includes a hobo who may not actually be real, Scrooge, and Santa Claus himself. But the most prominent role he plays in this movie is the Conductor of the Polar Express itself. He’s a man who is constantly running the train on what he says is a “tight schedule,” and he cannot help but be occasionally convinced one of these kids is determined to keep the train from reaching its final destination. He also has this wonderful talent for punching out your tickets to form certain words in them. I mean really! He does it so fast! How does he do it?

The big thing about “The Polar Express” is it is an animated movie by the way of motion capture. This has become a popular way of making movies in an animated fashion as actors where these suits and have these tiny white balls glued to their face and bodies. With the help of computers, which at this point we cannot live without, they can be captured on film and manipulated to look like they are in a place too expensive to build as a set. It is remarkable stuff however, and it could serve as further proof of how actors will never be replaced by technology because we need them to make the technology work effectively. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved this makes me feel.

I was surprised at how much I liked “The Polar Express.” It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have a heart and emotions which are far more genuine than other Christmas movies. It is also exciting as we see the train and its main characters struggle to stay on board as it goes through many treacherous parts in a journey to one of the coldest places on the planet. Seeing it in 3D is a major plus as well because the effects seem so real to where the kids in the audience were literally trying to grasp at the snowflakes falling from the screen. Heck, I even found myself doing this a couple of times.

This is the one thing I want to mention; the audience was full of kids there with their families, and this initially was a problem for me. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan in Los Angeles when it was released, and it was full of parents completely incapable of keeping their kids quiet throughout the entire movie. Here I am trying to watch one of the weaker movies from the Pixar catalogue, and there’s a little boy right in front of me who cannot get himself to sit down and kept asking his mother for more candy. If you can’t shut your kids up, don’t take them to the movies! Stay at home and watch “Finding Nemo” on DVD. My niece has already seen it hundreds of times to where her parents can recite every line (not that they want to).

But at the same time, seeing these kids get totally sucked into the magic of the movie with the 3D technology was really special. Hearing them talk back to the screen, especially my niece, brought a smile to my face as they got completely caught up in the journey “The Polar Express” took them on. This is the kind of movie you want your kids to see. When it first came out, many found the technology disturbing and scary, but that’s really ridiculous. While it doesn’t look like typical animated movies they loved from their past, it does aim to continue to preserve the innocence none of us are quick to lose.

If there is anything which takes away from the experience of watching “The Polar Express,” it’s the lame ass Glen Ballard song some of the characters sing in one scene which you hear again during the end credits. I am sick and tired of crappy love songs sung and written by white guys. They reek of lameness, and this movie is not even a musical!

Don’t worry about parents telling you about how creepy it is. This one is fine for the whole family. Those who disagree have long since lost the mindset of a child, and that’s just tragic.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’ Ends This Series with a Whimper Instead of a Bang

Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension poster

With “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” we have finally reached the end of this long running horror franchise. At least, this is what Paramount Pictures is saying. They said the same thing after “Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” and looked what happened there. When asked to explain the end of his movie “Halloween,” John Carpenter said it shows how evil never dies. This is a perfect explanation, and it helps explain why Michael Meyers keeps coming back to Haddonfield, why Freddy Krueger continues to haunt the dreams of teenagers, why Jason Voorhees continues to hack up camp counselors, and why Pinhead continues to lure the infinitely curious to that crazy box of his. Could the ever-malevolent demon known as Toby finally be stopped once and for all?

Well, let’s hope so because “The Ghost Dimension” confirms the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has finally run out of gas to where I wished the filmmakers ended it after “The Marked Ones.” This sequel returns the series to another tale of a white suburban family terrorized by Toby, and the family keeps looking into the things which go bump in the night even as the story get progressively worse. On the upside, this sequel does attempt to answer all the questions we have about this series and doesn’t just tease us endlessly the way “Paranormal Activity 4” did, but nothing is as scary as it once was.

This movie opens with a quick throwback to the literally back-breaking finale of “Paranormal Activity 3” where young Katie and Kristi are gathered up by their grandma Lois and taken to a room where a man tells them they are a critical part of Toby’s plan. We then move forward to 2013 where we meet the Fleeges, a family comprised of Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and their young daughter Leila (Ivy George). They are later joined by Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill) who just broke up with his girlfriend, and also Skylar (Olivia Taylor Dudley) who is a nanny or a yoga instructor or something along those lines.

Each “Paranormal Activity” movie has a twist on the technology used to exploit the presence of the demonic Toby, and this one is no exception. Ryan and Mike end up coming across this giant video camera (and yes, they used to be that big) which actually allows them to see the spiritual forces hovering around the home which take the form of an oil slick that moves around ominously. Pretty soon, young Leila is talking to Toby because impressionable kids are easily for demons to influence, and the family comes to discover they are living in the same house that grandma Lois lived in years ago. Yes, there are no such things as coincidences in a “Paranormal Activity” movie.

Let me start with “The Ghost Dimension’s” biggest problem, it feels like a movie. The previous installments, even “Paranormal Activity 4,” never made me feel like I was watching a movie. Instead, they felt like documents of real people being haunted by forces they can’t control and which encroach mercilessly on their safety. They felt real, but here everything feels highly scripted as the actors are forced to utter a lot of exposition in an effort to explain to the audience what Toby’s big plan is. As a result, everything feels contrived, and the movie comes across as just another exercise in found footage terror.

Furthermore, the characters are frustratingly one-dimensional and incredibly idiotic to put it mildly. A lot of opportunities to make them relatable or the least but likable are blown by the screenwriters as I never came to care much about them. After a while, I became more eager to see them become devilish entertainment for Toby. I do have to say, however, that Ivy George does very good work here as Leila, and she provides “The Ghost Dimension” with some of its most haunting moments as her face becomes a mask of possession which makes her intensely unpredictable.

The real big news about “The Ghost Dimension” is it’s the first “Paranormal Activity” movie to be shown in 3D. Now I’ve seen 3D used to great effect in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and Gaspar Noe’s “Love,” but watching it here only reminded me of how “The Ghost Dimension” feels more like a movie and less like an experience. In the end, the extra dimension feels like a stunt which adds nothing to the proceedings.

Also, in its attempts to answer many of the questions we have about Toby, it makes this horrifically violent demon look no different from so many others in cinematic history. Just as it was with the first two “Alien” movies, the thought of the monster is far scarier than the sight of it, and seeing Toby in his demonic form just takes away from what’s frightening about him. And the explanation of Toby’s “plan” feels like something out of a dozen other horror movies.

The original “Paranormal Activity” was supposed to be a stand-alone movie. It was supposed to end with Katie dying, but Paramount Pictures decided to change this ending and made Katie look like she was invaded by some evil force. The movie’s amazing success ensured sequels would be made whether we liked it or not, but the first two actually added to the original’s ending and built up a mythology which left audiences endlessly intrigued. But watching “The Ghost Dimension” makes me realize there was no way anyone could have concluded this mythology in a satisfactory manner. The revelation of Toby’s big plan sounds like something out of a dozen other horror movies, and it made me wish I knew a lot less about him.

“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” does leave the door open for another sequel as the demonic force takes on a new form, but this really should be the last one for a while at the very least. It’s sad to see this franchise end on a banal note as things began feeling fresh again after “The Marked Ones,” but many horror franchises tend to overstay their welcome, and “Paranormal Activity” is just the latest example. We need to face the facts; the thrill is gone.

* ½ out of * * * *

Please check out the following reviews:

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

 

Mad Monster Celebrates 30th Anniversary of ‘Jaws 3-D’ with Guests

Jaws 3D Mad Monster poster

Okay, “Jaws 3-D” is not a great movie (I’m being generous here), but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see it on the big screen where it was being shown in 3D. I had seen it on television so many times and kept wondering if the experience of watching it with the extra dimension would make it more exciting. Mad Monster put together the 30th anniversary screening for this much-maligned sequel together at TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood back in 2013, and they presented fans with a beautiful DCP 3D print to watch. I have a hard time believing the 3D effects looked as good in 1983 as they did that evening.

In addition, Mad Monster also brought along guests who were involved in the making of “Jaws 3-D:” director Joe Alves, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb and producer Rupert Hitzig. All three were eager to talk about the making of this sequel, but they never did discuss how it was received when it was released 30 years ago.

The original plan for the third “Jaws” movie was to make it into a spoof to be called “Jaws 3, People 0.” Plans for this, however, fell through due to conflicts with Universal Studios, and this led to David Brown and Richard Zanuck resigning from the studio. Alves remarked how the pre-production on “Jaws 3-D” showed how smart Hollywood executives are. Of course, he said this with a bit of sarcasm.

“They really didn’t want to make ‘Jaws,’ and we fought to get that made. They tried to stop it four times,” Alves said of the executives. “’Jaws 2,’ after they fired the first director, they closed it down and Verna Fields (who won the Best Editing Oscar for “Jaws”) and I had to convince Ned Tanen (then President of Universal Studios) that we should go ahead and make it. And then here comes the third one, and they think so much of their biggest movie that they title it ‘Jaws 3, People 0’ which means they are making fun of their most successful film.”

Fields, who later became Vice President of Universal Studios, contacted Alves and told him, since Brown and Zanuck left, the rights to “Jaws” were sold to Alan Landsburg, a television producer best known for “That’s Incredible,” and he was making a mess of everything. Fields asked Alves to talk with Landsburg, which he did, and Landsburg offered him the chance to produce the sequel. But having worked 100 days as a Second Unit Director on “Jaws 2,” Alves was far more interested in directing it. But the conversation became very interesting when Landsburg told Alves of what his plans were for this sequel.

“I said you have to think about making a big shark,” Alves told Landsburg. “And he said, ‘oh no, no, no, no, no. I just want to use real sharks from what I have from ‘That’s Incredible’ and mechanical people.’ So that’s how great the thinking was when this production started.”

Alves then went to visit various aquatic parks for research, and he came across an underwater exhibit which was in 3D. He thought it was great and loved the depth of the technology being used. After exiting the exhibit, he started to think about the possibilities of filming “Jaws 3” in 3D.

“With ‘Jaws 3-D,’ you accomplish two things,” Alves said. “You take the onus off the third because there were very few thirds back then; I think ‘Rocky III’ was the only one at the time. And then you introduce a fresh look at it (the franchise). I went home and did a shark drawing in 3D and I took it to Landsburg and to Sid Sheinberg, and he looked at it and said, ‘Can I have this?’ I said ‘Sid, you’re President. You can have whatever you want! I just got to show it to Lew Wasserman first.’ I got the directing job and that’s how it started.”

Gottlieb had written the screenplays for the previous two “Jaws” movies, but he originally was not brought on board to write the third. The original script was credited to the late, great Richard Matheson whom Gottlieb said he great respect for, but at the same time he found his script to be “problematic” at best. As a result, the studio called him to see if he could help them out once again.

“When Joe (Alves) and Rupert came on, they all agreed on me,” Gottlieb said. “I had done the other two under difficult circumstances, and they said, ‘Can you do it again?’ So off I went to Florida and looked at Sea world, surveyed the situation and thought, yes I can do the script.”

Once everything was ready to go, the cast and crew proceeded to Orlando, Florida to film “Jaws 3-D,” and Gottlieb said the only food down there was “deep fried, refried or just fried.” Making the movie proved to be challenging not only because they were filming in 3D, but also due to the fact they were dealing with water and a big shark. Alves described the process of working with 3D to the audience.

“We worked with one film and not two cameras,” Alves said. “You take and split 35mm film one way that you have a proportion that is really difficult to compose. A shark is very difficult to get out into the audience because it has a dorsal fin. If you cut the dorsal fin off, you could float it right into the audience. You could take a snake through it, but as soon as something hits that frame it jumps back. So, the shark could come out as far as the dorsal fin and that was it.”

Hitzig went into further detail about the complexities of working with 3D back in 1983.

“This film was so different because we were so awed by the concept of 3D, but you only see in 3D those frames that work; you don’t see the ones that don’t work,” Hitzig said. “Now there is a point of convergence, and the two lenses of the camera have to be put into convergence. So if I’m focusing on you and you’re in vertical in the back, then I’m focused on you but you’re gonna be two images in the back. Joe had to watch out that there were no verticals in the back because they were going to be too strong. So we go to the motel room in Orlando and we would be watching the movie and going ‘that shot is beautiful’ and ‘oh no!’ Our eyes would go cross eyed or walleyed and we ducked to the floor. Nobody was looking at the performances. So, after the third week, I put a sign in the motel room that said ‘just when you thought it was safe to open your eyes – Jaws 3-D!’”

Now its 30 years later, and 3D has come back to life thanks to new technologies which have made it far more effective than ever before. Then again, not everyone is a big fan of 3D and many are tiring of seeing every other movie with the extra dimension. Gottlieb shared with us his thoughts on 3D.

“I haven’t seen it (‘Jaws 3-D’) in 30 years and I’m looking forward to it,” Gottlieb said. “Every 3D movie is an experience, and sometimes I like to see them twice; once in 3D to have the stuff whizzing by, and a second time flat so that I can enjoy the story and the performances and everything else without the distractions of shooting for effects.”

Before the screening of “Jaws 3-D” began, Hitzig wanted to remind the audience of something.

“Remember that its 30 years ago,” Hitzig said. “We didn’t have CGI, we didn’t have video editing and everything was cut on film which was a problem with 3D. I remember in the very beginning, Sid Sheinberg said, ‘If you can get the shark to come through the screen and land in the audience’s lap, we’ll all be rich. So try and get that shark (which was so huge) through that little screen.’ Instead of CGI, we had to composite on videotape and then go back to 3D which was almost an impossible technical stunt. It’s not an apology, it’s just a realization of what you’re going to see.”

Alves also remarked on a conversation he once had with film critic Gene Shalit.

“I had talked to him on ‘Jaws 2,’ and he wanted to know what we were doing on the third one,” Alves said of Shalit. “I was showing him the 3D stuff and was saying, ‘If it was a snake I could get it into the audience.’ A couple of years later I happened to be working on another movie and I saw Gene and he yelled over, ‘It should have been a snake!’”

Gottlieb left us with one last technology note.

“This script was typed on a typewriter. Fingers on keys, an IBM electric, clickety-clack, clickety-clack.”

Well, “Jaws 3-D” will never go down as one of the finest motion pictures ever made, but watching it reminded us of how much better it is than “Jaws: The Revenge.” Plus, seeing it in 3D made the experience more fun than without it, and this is saying a lot because these days 3D isn’t worth the extra money. The film may not have been a critical success, but it still did turn a profit at the box office and people have not forgotten about it. Big thanks to Joe Alves, Carl Gottlieb and Rupert Hitzig for taking the time to talk about their experience making “Jaws 3-D.”