31 Days to Scare ~ What Lies Beneath

The Facts:

Synopsis: The wife of a university research scientist believes that her lakeside Vermont home is haunted by a ghost – or that she is losing her mind.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Wendy Crewson, Amber Valletta

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  As we are pummeled with more and more content in streaming services and theatrical distribution, I’m finding that I have less and less confidence in feeling satisfied with my overall experience.  There’s simply too much coming too fast and that has led me to latch on to older films that I know will always deliver.  Cinematic comfort-food, these movies can be relied on to provide laughs, thrills, chills, or tears exactly when I want them with little risk involved.  Around this time of year, I’m clearly in the mood for some scares and though it’s nice to explore the available new releases and to dig into the past to discover overlooked older titles there comes a time when only the true-blue winners will do.  The time is now.  And What Lies Beneath is one such film.

On paper, you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect movie in the eyes of this critic back in 2000.  A lifelong Michelle Pfeiffer Pfan (not sure if that’s a thing, but I’m starting it now) and having grown up on Harrison Ford adventures, watching them being teamed up in a Robert Zemeckis suspense/thriller was just too very good to be true.  I trolled the movie websites endlessly for news of the production, bought the poster and hung it in my room, watched the trailer on repeat, and was there opening night to see the finished product.  Delivering on every promised level, it’s a well-orchestrated, old-fashioned scare machine that unapologetically jolts you as much as it can in 130 minutes.

After sending her only daughter off to college, Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) is dealing with the empty nest blues in her New England lake house.  With her university professor husband Norman (Ford, Blade Runner 2049) busy working days and long nights at the college, she’s often alone and becomes interested in the tempestuous couple who have moved in next door.  Eventually turning into full-on nosy neighbor with binoculars in tow, Claire is startled when she witnesses the wife (Miranda Otto, Annabelle: Creation) having a private emotional outburst that hints she’s somehow scared of her spouse (James Remar, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).  When the wife disappears and a ghostly spirit seems to start sending Claire messages, she becomes convinced a sinister presence has descended over the house.  What she doesn’t expect is just how close to home the spirit may be.

Fans of the Marvel movies will be interested to note the screenplay was written by Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson in Iron Man, etc.) and he’s done a good job, especially in the first hour, of establishing Claire and Norman’s relationship and how it changes the more she believes she’s being haunted.  Norman is sympathetic to his wife’s feelings, having supported her through a recent accident, but can’t quite get on board with her paranormal paranoia.  Gregg’s script does shift into a different gear that is clearly a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and it’s not the last of the twists the movie has in store for us.  True, if you watch the preview (which I highly suggest you Do Not Do) you’ll have picked up on the turn of events but almost 20 years after its release I think we’re far enough along that you could watch the movie again and not remember where it’s heading.

Made during a hiatus in filming Cast Away when Tom Hanks was losing all that weight, Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) pulls out all his bag of tricks and creates a few new ones along the way.  There is one camera move in particular involving Ford and Pfeiffer that’s often cited as a “How’d They Do That” moment and it is quite impressive.  The entire film looks amazing with each piece perfectly assembled and every clue exactly where it needs to be to assist audiences in putting the puzzle together.  Even if you are a few steps ahead of the Spencers in figuring it all out, you’ll still be impressed with what Zemeckis and his team have done in the presentation of the film.  As mentioned before, the scares are plentiful and become relentless in the final forty minutes.  Not just relegated to jump scares, some genuinely hair-raising moments and shocks come when you are the least prepared for them.

While Ford may get top billing, this is Pfeiffer’s film all the way.  In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s totally glorious as a woman already a tad emotionally vulnerable teetering on the edge of feeling crazy but also knowing she’s not imagining the strange occurrences and sights that are happening in her house.  She’s gets ample support from an energized Ford who would soon turn into a bit of a grumpy presence in film; he’s quite invested here playing against his usual action hero role type as a man with imperfections that may be contributing in part to what’s happening with his wife.  Pfeiffer has to go through a lot, spending a large portion of the film soaking wet but it’s all in great service to the success of the performance and film.  In a small supporting role, Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest) is kooky fun as Claire’s eccentric friend.  Though I get the impression more of her work was left on the editing room floor, what little we see of her brings a welcome lightness to the movie.

Released in the summer of 2000 to great box office and becoming the 10th highest grossing film of the year, it surprised me critics weren’t kinder in their original takes on the film.  Sure, it’s definitely derivative of Hitchcock and yeah, of course it would have been more enjoyable had the trailer not given away one major twist which rendered the first hour almost inconsequential, but not totally. Thanks to Pfeiffer’s commitment alone, there’s a high-class of sophistication to this thriller so few movies aspired to even back then.  We definitely don’t have movies like this anymore…all the more reason to celebrate the shivers it so gleefully gives.

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 ~ Need for Speed

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind.

Stars:  Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson

Director: Scott Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Though I want you to read the whole review, let me say right off the bat that there’s no real need to see Need for Speed.  It’s a hare-brained, noisy, overlong film that most will probably find subpar in comparison to other muscles and muscle car films like Fast & Furious 6.  Even with that disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I found myself enjoying Need for Speed more than I thought I would/could.

Based on a popular game from Electronic Arts, Need for Speed has a rather lenghty set-up that takes up a good half hour of your time but ably covers a lot of bases you’ll need to get something out of the final 100 minutes.  Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a good ole boy living in the kind of quaint small time town that so many city denizens would long to visit…for a weekend.  Taking over an auto-body shop from his recently deceased dad, he’s seeing the bills pile up and begrudgingly takes an offer from rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to soup up a car to be sold at auction.

Said car is a beaut and attracts the attention of a Julia, a comely associate (Imogen Poots) of a wealthy business man…and leads to a dangerous situation that sees Tobey imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  Upon his release he sets out for revenge, bringing Julia and a bunch of emotional baggage along for the ride.

A gigantically silly film, I couldn’t help but just sit back and enjoy the ride that the 3D converted film provides.  Needing to make it cross-country in less than 48 hours, Tobey burns rubber though scenic vistas while avoiding the police and an array of roadblocks both literal and figurative.  Culminating in an illegal street race across the beautiful coast of California, Need for Speed should be credited with never slowing down…because it’s only after the lights come up that you realize how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Compensating for his tiny facial features by pitching his gravely voice to the Christian Bale basement level and over emoting the simplest of line readings, Paul isn’t nearly as impressive here as he was in his award-winning turn on TV’s Breaking Bad.  He’s better than Cooper (Dead Man Down, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), though, who isn’t the formidable foe the character and movie calls for.  Michael Keaton (recently seen in 2014’s failed Robocop reboot) must have filmed his scenes in a day and laughed all the way to the bank as a hyper mastermind behind the final race.

The grand prix winner of the film is Poots who works the same kind of magic she did with That Awkward Moment earlier in 2014 by effectively stealing the role out from under her male counterparts.  I had forgotten she was in this so when she appeared on screen I had the feeling the movie was about to be kicked into a higher gear…and I was right.

Though it hits the skids plot-wise as it nears the finish line, director Scott Waugh stages some mighty fine action sequences that don’t fall victim to repetition.  Using very little in the way of visual effects, Waugh is able to up the ante on race films without coming off as showboating.  It adds a considerable amount of realism to a non-realistic flick and I enjoyed his employment of interesting camera angles.

This is a film I wish was released later in the summer when I could have seen it at a drive-in movie theater.  Though set in present day it has a pleasingly retro-vibe to it even if it lacks the overall cool factor that made classics like Bullitt so monumental in the race genre.  If you’re in the mood to put your brain on cruise control and can take your hands off the wheel, Need for Speed could be a road trip worth taking.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Despicable Me 2

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Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts: I was a surprising fan of 2010’s Despicable Me, finding its skewed humor fit nicely within the animation created by Dreamworks Studios.  Like the penguins from Madagascar, the tiny yellow imps that are the secondary characters here threaten to steal the film out from under our main hero/villain and that’s AOK with me.  After the bomb that was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carell must be thanking his lucky stars he has this film coming up in June because this one is a sure-fire bet to clean-up at the box office.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Croods

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Synopsis: The world’s very first prehistoric family goes on a road trip to an uncharted and fantastical world.

Release Date:  March 22, 2013

Thoughts:  I guess I kinda liked it better when it was called The Flintstones.  Well ok, the family of Neanderthals featured in The Croods may be a little pre-Flinstonian time but there’s a strange déjà vu feeling about this that doesn’t hold much appeal.  Even the vocal presence of Cage is annoying, proving that being heard and not seen can’t save his plummeting star status.  The one thing that may tip the scales on this one is a script with contirubtions from John Cleese and (aside from Cage) a nice voice cast with Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, and Cloris Leachman.