31 Days to Scare ~ The Messengers (2007)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An ominous darkness invades a seemingly serene sunflower farm in North Dakota, and the Solomon family is torn apart by suspicion, mayhem, and murder.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, Evan and Theodore Turner, John Corbett, William B. Davis, Brent Briscoe, Tatiana Maslany, Dustin Milligan, Jodelle Ferland
Directors: Danny Pang & Oxide Pang
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: One thing I enjoy about these 31 days every year is the chance to revisit some of the films I know I’ve seen but may not remember with as much clarity to have a definitive opinion still.  Like yesterday’s selection, The Skeleton Key, I remember seeing The Messengers in the theater during its original run.  However, it has faded so much in my mind to just a faint shadow of a memory that scanning my wall of movies for a weeknight selection, I had to stop and think if I could tell my partner enough about it to know if it would pass his “too scary for me” test.  All I could say for sure is that it starred a very young Kristen Stewart in her pre-Twilight era…and that was good enough for him.  The rest…well, I hoped for the best.

Like The Skeleton Key, The Messengers was a genre film that arrived when studios traditionally slid this unpredictable box office fare into theaters and hoped something would stick.  Released in the first weekend of February 2007, it opened at #1 and made nearly its entire budget back (16 million) in those first three days.  Subsequent weeks saw the typical significant drop off for these kinds of films, with it being out of the top 10 before the end of the already short month and far outside the top 25 before mid-March.  That’s likely because the critics savaged the film, comparing it to the slew of other movies involving paranormal hauntings coming around that time.

I can’t say I blame the reviewers or the audiences for feeling this way, but that was then and far removed from the onslaught of what was seen as derivative features; viewed today, The Messengers gets the job done more often than it leaves you wanting more.  While it may start to stretch credulity as it strains at the limits of Mark Wheaton’s screenplay based on a story by Todd Farmer, it has built up enough tension and overall goodwill in the viewer that you’re more willing to buy what the cast and directors are selling.

Uprooting their lives to move to a farm in North Dakota, the Solomon family are Chicago transports looking to start fresh.  There’s a reason they want to get out of the city, a cause that’s brought up numerous times in hushed tones and obtuse vagueness but never entirely spoken of until far too late in the story for it to have the necessary payoff.  What you need to know is that daughter Jess (Stewart, Personal Shopper) has to gain trust back from parents Roy (Dylan McDermott, Steel Magnolias) and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller, Kindergarten Cop).  Along with toddler Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner, a marvelously serene and well-adjusted set of twins considering what the film puts them through), the family moves into the farmhouse that screams “move home!” even in broad daylight. 

The Solomons (well, the parents) ignore numerous warning signs and, later, pleas from Jess to get out of their new living space, even turning down a persistent banker (William B. Davis, The Tall Man) determined to help an unknown buyer acquire the land back from the family.  Just as Roy thinks the work of running a sunflower farm (I guess someone must grow them…and they make great visuals later on) will be too much, along comes the laid-back John (John Corbett, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged), a handyman looking for work and a place to stay.

The house continues to exhibit strange behavior, suggesting the presence of an entity trying to get at the family.  At first, only young Ben seems to be able to see them, but soon Jess is encountering the ghosts as well, creepy crawlies that are either slowly prowling out of focus behind the actors or scurrying around the ceiling just out of full sight.  At first, the effects of these scenes elicit nervous laughter, but it gets freaky quick.  Relying partially on jump scares but equally on old-fashioned prickles of fear, the directors know how to stage scenes that build creative suspense.

If the house is indeed haunted and what the goal of ‘the messengers’ get is a bit convoluted.  There seems to be a twinge of cheat filmmaking, with elements from the beginning repeated in the finale but changed to fit the solution.  That’s all well and good, but being deliberately deceived feels like compensating for a script that couldn’t make it across the finish line.  And yet, the movie is often scary thanks to the intelligent approach given to it by Stewart.

Perhaps it’s because we know her as such a deep-well actress now, but even at 15, we can see her talents are starting to fortify.  Our knowledge of the performances she’ll give likely influences our overall feelings toward what she’s doing with the character.  The writing is schlocky and a little trite, but Stewart is never less than 105% committed to believing in her teen struggling to adjust.  It goes far in making us feel what she thinks.  The adults are a mixed bag, each having good and bad traits.  I didn’t believe any of the family was a cohesive unit, despite the presence of Miller and McDermott, two actors I often like. 

Danny & Oxide Pang had been huge in China with their widely regarded horror films, so getting them for their first English-language movie was huge news.  Their visual style is evident from the ghostly apparitions resembling the pale terrors from The Grudge and The Ring, and they handle physicality well.  Is The Messengers an unheralded classic waiting to get its due?  No, I don’t think so.  It is a film far better than I remember it being, providing 90 minutes of agreeable scares and a chance to see how far Stewart has come since her early days before the Twilight films came a-calling.

The Silver Bullet ~ Autómata


Synopsis: Jacq Vaucan, an insurance agent of ROC robotics corporation, routinely investigates the case of manipulating a robot. What he discovers will have profound consequences for the future of humanity.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Gosh, so many other movies raced through my mind as I watched the trailer for this futuristic sci-fi flick starring Antonio Banderas (The Expendables 3). Visions of Minority Report and, most vividly, I, Robot were dancing around in my brain and perhaps that wasn’t quite a bad thing. Both are solid films with some interesting social messages to them and if Autómata has something to add to the conversation then I am all ears. Banderas hasn’t led a film in quite some time so I’m curious to see how this one turns out for him, especially considering his estranged wife Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) is part of the cast as well. I’ll never turn my nose up at a slick slice of life look at robots in the future so my battery is cautiously charged for this one.

In Praise of Teasers ~ In the Line of Fire (1993)


I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately. It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

With the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy just passing us by, this modest yet clever teaser was on my mind.  As a child of the 80’s, my exposure to Clint Eastwood wasn’t very diverse in 1993 when I first saw this teaser trailer for In the Line of Fire.  Come to think of it, at that time this action thriller surrounding Eastwood playing cat and mouse with an assassin (John Malcovich, netting an Oscar nomination for his work) could have been one of the very first Clint film I had seen.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film but do recall it had a few nice twists and unconventional moments.

Missed my previous teaser reviews? Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch

Movie Review ~ Olympus Has Fallen


The Facts:

Synopsis: Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s been said that timing is everything and if that’s true then the producing team behind Olympus Has Fallen should have listened to that wise old saying when it came time to release their film concerning a hostile takeover of the White House.  Released back in March at the height of tensions between North Korea and the US, the film did respectable business but was nowhere near the type of pre-summer hit that everyone involved must have hoped for.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that the final product would have ever really caught on regardless of when it was released because it’s a largely goofy affair that scores highly on the tension scale but exhausts itself and the audience with melodramatic acting and far too many extraneous plot happenings.  Opening in the shadow of July’s similarly themed White House Down, Olympus never really rises from the ashes of a been-there, done-that vibe that would have seemed more at home in a season of 24.  Oh wait…24 DID do nearly the exact same plot in its second to last season.

Poor Gerard Butler just can’t catch a break when it comes to films.  Though critics may make you think otherwise, he’s never been a true box office draw and a parade of stinkers in the last two years hasn’t helped his clout in Hollywood.  Olympus Has Fallen is probably his best film of the bunch, mostly because it allows Butler’s more macho/muscular streak to emerge rather than bear the weight of the romantic comedy nightmares he’s been stuck in recently.

Here Butler is a former guard to the President, a role he loses after an iffy opening sequence set on an icy bridge involving the First Family.  It’s never adequately explained how/why he gets bumped down a few notches on the Secret Service totem pole but it helps set up his redemption later in the film.  Now he’s a paper pusher with a nice view of his former office from his standard D.C. digs.

When a terrorist attack leaves the White House in shambles and the President and his staff held hostage in an underground bunker, it’s up to Butler to perform a one-man rescue mission by any means necessary.  The bulk of the first half of the film is taken up by the seemingly endless infiltration on 1600 Penn Ave by Korean militants that want the US to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  To do so would surely mean the fall of South Korea but with the fate of our nation’s leaders at hands what choice do we have.

These kinds of films where US governments are held hostage by a foreign entity always make me squirm because the movies always go the same.  It’s clearly stated that we do not negotiate with terrorists but when you flash a loved one in danger everyone always buckles.  The body count in this one is high which adds some extra suspense in who truly will survive by the time the credits roll.

Working in what must have been left over set pieces from The West Wing, director Antoine Fuqua moves the action around with ease even though most of it takes place in shadowy darkness.  It becomes hard to tell who is who…but when it’s just one man against the bad guys…you just need to focus on Butler and his bone-crushing methods of extracting information about the head villain in charge.

The big bad wolf is Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as one of the least intimidating villains in recent memory.  Though he doesn’t hesitate to put a bullet into more than a few people, Yune’s calm delivery seems more sleepy that sociopathic.  On the opposite side of the hero coin, Aaron Eckhart’s (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) President Asher is underused and not called on to do much but play on his All-American looks to cut a believable presence as the Commander in Chief.

Filling out the cast are several overly earnest performances that never seem to gel with each other.  Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) is the Speaker of the House that’s thrust in charge when both the President and Vice President become indisposed.  Freeman’s played the President before (in 1998’s Deep Impact) and he’s largely recreating that role here.  Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd pop up in pivotal roles and poor Radha Mitchell is the victim of overstuffing the turkey as Butler’s wife.  This whole storyline between Butler and Mitchell has nothing to do with the plot and bogs the film down.

Two respected actresses are also on hand and both are fairly disappointing.  Angela Bassett (This Means War) has little to do but give off of looks of both horrified terror and ballsy determination as the Secret Service Director.  With each passing role Bassett seems more determined to simply toe the line and not step out of her comfort zone.  Even worse is Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) in an atrocious wig offering line deliverers that seem to be coming via satellite based on the way she pauses before each one.  Leo growls and howls through most of the film…culminating in her unintentionally hilarious recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in pained agony.  For my money, the actresses should have swapped roles…I’m slightly convinced they mistakenly were given the wrong roles and no one noticed until it was too late.

Even with its silly plot contrivances and less than stellar special effects the film does truck along with reckless abandon that entertains more often than not.  You absolutely have to check your brain at the door and be prepared for some slightly tacky moments near the end when people start cracking jokes while standing in the middle of a sea of dead bodies.    A rental at best, Olympus Has Fallen may eventually get the job done but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s really worth it at the end of the day.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias


The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.