31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting (1999)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Eleanor, Theo, and Luke decide to take part in a sleep study at a huge mansion they get more than they bargained for when Dr. Marrow tells them of the house’s ghostly past.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes

Director: Jan de Bont

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Boy, The Haunting sure brings back a lot of memories for me.  It’s 1999 and I’ve finished my first year of college.  I’d been a hardcore movie fan all through high school and middle school but with my growing independence I was able to pick what movies I wanted to take myself to and involve friends with.  The net was still in its relative infancy so to watch trailers outside of a movie theater you had to go on the web and hope your connection was strong enough to keep the preview from buffering forever.  I remember watching the original teaser trailer for The Haunting on TrailerPark.com about a hundred times because it had everything going for it.  Scary movie? Check. Famous director? Check. Popular stars? Check. Prestige producers? Check.  It was all there.  Then the movie came out.

Here’s the original teaser to jog your memory:

Speaking of memories, I remember seeing The Haunting on its opening day and being more than a bit baffled by what was going on with my sure-fire sure thing.  I mean, I had spent $20 to have the glossy double sided theatrical one-sheet poster sent to me so I could display it in my room – I didn’t spend that much money on a turkey, did I?  At the time, I felt I had.  The audiences were laughing at moments meant to be scary and the effects felt like a let-down considering the budget and who was involved.  I was so frustrated I think I saw the movie once more when it came out on DVD but hadn’t seen it in probably a decade and a half.

We’re in the season of scary movies so I figured now would be better than ever to revisit this remake of Robert Wise’s undisputed 1963 classic.  Also, seeing that the original novel by Shirley Jackson has received another remake in the form of a 10-part Netflix show, I wanted to give this one another look before diving into that new production.  Produced by Steven Spielberg’s (JAWS) studio Dreamworks SKG, aside from a few admittedly cheesy bits and those same iffy effects, I was amazed to discover that The Haunting wasn’t the corny mess I remembered it to be. Not by half.

The same day her sister announces plans to sell the apartment she shared with her recently deceased invalid mother, Nell (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) receives a call inviting her to participate in a sleep study at a secluded mansion.  She’ll be paid well and room and board is provided.  It seems the perfect solution to her dilemma.  Arriving at the ominous Hill House, she’s transfixed by the large estates beauty and ornate interior design.  Joined by bisexual vixen Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Side Effects) and all-American dude Luke (Owen Wilson, Inherent Vice), Nell settles in far easier than her fellow test subjects, seemingly unfazed by the house’s nighttime activities which involve strange noises and ghostly apparitions.

The study is being conducted by Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson, The Commuter) and, unbeknownst to the three, the study they are participating in has less to do with their sleep patterns and more to do with their fear reflexes.  He’s chosen Hill House for its storied history of being haunted and before he knows it the ghosts truly do come out to play in increasingly aggressive methods.  Soon, Nell comes to realize there are two sets of ghosts at work in the house.  One group is steering them all to a mystery hidden within while another more malevolent force wants to make sure Nell never leaves.

The first hour or so of The Haunting is a well-constructed vice grip that continues to tighten as the people explore the house and its impressively crafted rooms.  The production design here is out of this world, rich and detailed with no two spaces looking exactly alike.  Much of the huge budget must have been devoted to these playing spaces because while you sort of always know they are sets and not practical rooms in a real mansion the overall illusion is a wonder.  From the large ballroom to a panic inducing revolving room of mirrors, each door opens up to a new feast of the eyes.  Even nearly twenty years later it’s remarkable.

Where the film tends to run off the rails (and was then savaged by critics) is in the visual effects which look one step up from Casper the Friendly Ghost-style floating images. Some of them are downright laughable, especially the wooden cherub faces that decorate Nell’s room.  One moment they are giving you the creeps as their dead eyes bore into you, the next you’re giggling when their expression changes to horror with wide eyes and their mouths forming an “O”.  The final sequence is nearly all CGI and it fails to captivate you, though cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont (Flatliners) does stir up some good camera work during the final act.

Yet for all these problems which do play a part in diminishing the overall effect The Haunting was going for, I still found myself enjoying this re-watch all these years later.  It’s well-intentioned and largely well-made with a great cast (more Lili Taylor in everything, please) and is a masterpiece of set-design.  I went in thinking it would still be that cornball loser I had written it off as being all those years ago but found myself invested in the material and characters.  Sadly, this hasn’t been released on BluRay (why the heck not?) but do yourself a favor and find an HD streaming copy to rent.  It’s worth another look.

Movie Review ~ Red 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Retired C.I.A. agent Frank Moses reunites his unlikely team of elite operatives for a global quest to track down a missing portable nuclear device.

Stars: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough

Director: Dean Parisot

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Merriam-Webster defines goofy as “being crazy, ridiculous, or mildly ludicrous” and also defines silly as “exhibiting or indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment”.  Based on a popular graphic novel from DC Comics, 2010’s original Red was a film of goofy fun that was a surprise sleeper hit at the box office thanks in no small part to its game cast willing to poke fun at their gradual over-the-hill-ness.  Unfortunately, the sequel falls into the silly category with the gang reassembled for a movie that feels constructed for a quick buck.

Red 2 throws the audience right back into the middle of the lives of Frank (Bruce Willis, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom), Marvin (John Malkovich, Warm Bodies), and Victoria (Helen Mirren, The Door, Monsters University)…all supposedly classified as Retired and Extremely Dangerous (RED).  It’s hard to put the gun down though so all three still get in on the occasional action, though Frank is more focused on shopping at Costco with his quirky love Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) than playing international spy.

Elements from a mission from Frank’s past pop up suggesting his involvement with smuggling a nuclear device into Russia and that’s when Frank, Marvin, and Sarah have to go on the run to avoid several interested parties in getting their hands on the device and Frank.  This leads to a globe hopping mission that would make James Bond airsick and is punctuated by title cards announcing the latest destination in a redundant fashion (i.e. one moment we are in “England” and then it’s “London”)

Willis is a curious actor that seems to appear in no less than twenty films a year, many of them instantly forgettable.  Still, I enjoy the fact that he seems to realize where he sits on the Hollywood food chain and happily takes the money from the work he gets.  As always, Malkovich keeps things interesting while Parker instills her character with perhaps one too many layers, effectively short-sheeting herself.  You can almost hear Mirren’s eyes rolling throughout the film, yet she comes out largely unscathed thanks to the actress tackling the material and forcing it into submission.

As is the case with most sequels, this one gathers some new folks to replace those that didn’t survive the first film and that’s where the movie starts its rapid swerve off course.  Korean assassin Han Cho Bai (sleepy looking Byung-hun Lee, so much more effective in the nightmare-inducing I Saw the Devil) has some beef with Frank and a running gag of Frank stealing Han’s private plane has little mileage.  Neal McDonough’s American assassin is so perfunctory it almost seems like he was filming scenes for another movie.  While Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) is an interesting choice for the role of a looped-out scientist, the script by returning screenwriters Jon and Eric Hoeber never gives the award-winning actor much room to breathe and the result is a stifled performance.

Then there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages, Side Effects) as a Russian with the most pronounced Welsh-accent in film history.  I thought several times that Zeta-Jones might just make a meal out of the kitten-esque spy role but she’s treated so poorly by the script that she becomes yet another casualty of uninspired creativity.  In the end, the most dramatic thing about her is her bangs.

Instead of the tongue and cheek approach Robert Schwentke brought to the original, director Dean Parisot instead takes to sticking his tongue out at the audience who paid money to see this overly jokey film that takes shameless product placements to new levels.  It simply never finds its footing and has too many holes and passages that can’t be taken seriously.  The action sequences are devoid of any excitement and its PG-13 rating means that while lots of guns get fired and bombs explode there is nary a speck of blood in the entire film.  I’m not advocating for splatter sprayed all around just for the hell of it but the film was clearly trimmed of any/all serious violence to stay within its rating.

Red 2 is the most disappointing kind of sequel – one that tries to outdo the first without tipping its hat to any of the elements that made the original so appealing.  It’s a lazy and cheap looking film that might make for a decent rental down the road on a day you’re home sick from work.  That way, you can fall asleep in your own bed rather than in a movie theater and not feel quite as guilty.  Skip it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Red 2

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Synopsis: Frank Moses and his motley crew of retired assassins return for a second outing.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: In 2010, RED was an unexpected fall hit, propelling a sequel forward with much of the original cast in tow.  The nicely constructed first film was an oddball mix of action, comedy, and violence that played into the strengths of people like Bruce Willis while letting a star of Helen Mirren’s ilk go guns ‘a blazin’.  The sequel looks to be more of the same and in true Oceans 11 fashion more big names have been added to the list like Oscar winners Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins.  With new director Dean Parisot (taking over for Robert Schwentke who had his hands full with R.I.P.D) I’m hoping the same light touch is maintained, making this second film the first of several sequels.

Movie Review ~ Side Effects

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison

Stars: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Lately, the side effects of a Steven Soderbergh film are usually indifference so it doesn’t come as a huge shock that Side Effects follows suit.  In 2012 Oscar winning director Soderbergh released two vastly different pictures.  The first was January’s Haywire, an action showcase for its star Gina Carano and I wound up liking it more than I probably should have.  The second film was the wildly popular and wholly awful Magic Mike (it made my worst of the year list) which may have set tongues a-waggin but left me a-gaggin.  Entering 2013, Soderbergh has delivered another peculiar puff of a movie featuring A-list stars in an agonizingly ordinary script.

Familiarity is the name of the game here with Soderbergh re-teaming with his Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for this iffy thriller with a plot ripped from any number of Law and Order episodes.  Contagion was an interesting film that played well in the moment but disintegrated if you really sat down and thought about it.  With Side Effects, no thinking is required.  There’s nothing original here so your enjoyment of the movie is entirely dependent on how much you like the stars that pass through the glossy world filmed (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews) by Soderbergh himself.

Though Tatum receives high billing, he’s more of a supporting player in the story of a psychiatrist (Law) put through the wringer by one of his patients (Mara) as she deals with a depression that remerges when her husband (Tatum) is released from prison after serving time for insider trading.  Yes friends, right off the bat we’re supposed to buy that Tatum is playing a character savvy enough to be a financial crook while living in a luxurious mansion in Greenwich.  Don’t get me wrong, Tatum is a better actor than we all first believed but a high level business executive?  I don’t think so. 

Mara employs the same wild eyed chilly detachment which made her Oscar nominated turn as the title character in 2012’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so successful.  Here, though, that same approach comes off as sleepy…maybe it’s the fact that her eyebrows have grown back.  Though she has an interesting take on the character, she can’t really get to where she needs to be when the film requires it so she winds up as someone running after a train that’s taken off without her.

Ten years ago, Law may have played Tatum’s character but he’s an engaging centerpiece to the trivial plot twists the film employs.  Law plays his role pretty close to the chest for the first hour or so until he must give way to the script and hop in line with his heretofore ethical character suddenly changing his tune.  He’s married to a woman (Shaw, Hocus Pocus) that’s about as loyal as the day is long and soon he’s left to fend for himself against some increasingly unbelievable situations.

The best scenes are probably the scant few between Law and Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages) as a previous therapist of Mara’s character.  The two actors crackle together and Zeta-Jones especially lets every dippy piece of dialogue coo out of her mouth with pleasure.  I especially liked a brief moment outside of a restaurant when Zeta-Jones goes after Law with unusual rage…it’s the most real moment in the whole picture that’s beneath the talents of all involved.

If I’m being deliberately cagey about what kind of film Side Effects breaks down into it’s because even though the plot is beyond also-ran it still is entertaining in a strange way.  It’s pretty much the perfect length and doesn’t overstay its welcome too much, although you may be tempted to glance at your watch occasionally.  Soderbergh and co. keep things zipping along at a nice jaunt so even though you can see the finish line halfway through the race, you still are involved enough to stick with it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Broken City

Synopsis: An ex-cop trailing the wife of New York City’s mayor finds himself immersed in a larger scandal.

Release Date:  January 18, 2013

Thoughts:  It’s not as if Russell Crowe doesn’t have enough to worry about.  Already taking a (semi-deserved) drubbing for his lackluster vocal performance in Les Misérables, now he is showing up with a questionable hairstyle in Broken City.  From the looks of the trailer, it’s a Hitchcock-lite tale of crime and betrayal also starring Mark Wahlberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  While Zeta-Jones looks like an interesting star to be attached to the project, Wahlberg and Crowe seem to be playing versions of characters they’ve take on several times before. While this might make for a satisfying rental when it has left theaters, I’m not sure it’s January release date or late in the game marketing push bodes well for all involved.

The Silver Bullet ~ Side Effects

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison.

Release Date:  February 8, 2013

Thoughts: Well, if there’s one thing that you can say about Steven Soderbergh it’s that he doesn’t like to pin himself down in any one genre.  That can be frustrating at times for fans of his work as he’s been on an interesting run of inconsistent films in the past few years.  I for one still think Magic Mike was a piece of crap but I did enjoy Haywire and Contagion.  Re-teaming with his Contagion writer, Soderbergh has assembled a familiar stable of actors including Channing Tatum (The Vow, Magic Mike), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Jude Law (the upcoming Anna Karenina).  I get the feeling we’ll be in familiar territory with this film…so here’s hoping that the wobbly Soderbergh style doesn’t take over what looks to be a decent thriller.