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 ~ Blink (1993)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma, a blind violinist who had recently undergone a revolutionary surgery, joins with a police detective to track a serial killer after she was an inadvertent witness to his latest crime.

Stars: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman, Bruce A. Young, Laurie Metcalf

Director: Michael Apted

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: My review of 1993’s Blink has to begin with another sad lament that mid-range thrillers like these are no longer made. Throughout the ‘90s movies like this would be released every few weeks and while none of them were going for awards or even enormous box office, many became small gems that are perfect for revisiting even two decades later. I remember looking forward to this one for some time and making sure my dad (who also had a fondness for thrillers) had this on his radar as well. Even at the ripe age of 25, Blink holds up considerably well as a suspense yarn and boasts quite a few good performances and one terrific one.

A blind violinist (Madeline Stowe, Playing by Heart) has been without sight since a childhood accident plunged her into darkness. Independent and more than a little flawed herself, Emma undergoes an experimental surgery that restores her vision but has several side effects. The most troubling to overcome is a visual delay that causes her to see things long after they occurred – so blurry people that visited her in the hospital one day won’t register as clear faces until the next. It may sound like a condition created for the movie but it’s a very real thing.  When Emma’s neighbor is found dead, she realizes she may have “seen” the murderer and tries to convince the detective assigned to the case (Aidan Quinn, In Dreams). He has a hard time believing her when she proves to not be the most reliable of witnesses, eventually pitting her newfound and still shaky sight against a killer’s aim to eliminate the only witness to his crime. There are several twists to the story as it chugs along, including a love affair between the detective and the woman he’s supposed to protect and the true motives of the killer which gradually come to light.

Directed with skill by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough) and bolstered innumerably by Stowe’s believably rough around the edges performance, Blink is a nifty little thriller with some strong suspenseful sequences. The screenplay by Dana Stevens doesn’t make Emma a perfect heroine, she’s a drinker who was emotionally and physically scarred by her mother and isn’t necessarily the victim people make her out to be. There’s some deep wounds here and Stowe navigates these tricky character nuances well. She’s nicely matched by Quinn and the two create more than believable chemistry (helps they already played a couple, albeit a troublesome one in 1987’s Stakeout). I also liked Peter Friedman (Single White Female) and Stowe’s doctor and even though I feel her part was majorly trimmed in the editing suite, Laurie Metcalf (Pacific Heights) is always a welcome presence.

Worth keeping your eyes open for, Blink is a strong reminder why we need these modestly budgeted thrillers to make a comeback. They are great for a rainy day or a stormy night!

The Silver Bullet ~ Horns

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Synopsis: In the aftermath of his girlfriend’s mysterious death, a young man awakens to strange horns sprouting from his temples.

Release Date: October 31, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve said it before in my reviews of his recent work but I find it quite admirable at how out of his Harry Potter comfort zone Daniel Radcliffe is willing to go to prove that he’s more than the boy wizard. Though he reaches for the stars, too often I find him lacking but when he fails it’s never a total wash as the work itself has more interest that what his performance brings to the project. With Horns, Radcliffe (What If) is under the direction of Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D) a director known for pushing some American boundaries when it comes to the horror genre. Much of this comes down to graphic violence but there’s a sliver of social commentary in even the gravest of Aja’s works. Co-starring Juno Temple (Cracks), this horror-comedy might not make Radcliffe more lovable but could work in favor of the actor shedding his wizard cloaks for good.

Movie Review ~ Django Unchained

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington,

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If you’re headed into a Tarantino film chances are you are expecting certain mainstays: coarse language, outrageous violence, non-linear storytelling, an eclectic soundtrack, and Samuel L. Jackson.  This holiday season, right in time for Christmas, Tarantino is releasing his latest epic yarn that thankfully gives his audiences/fans exactly what they’ve come for – amped up a few notches.  Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s most enjoyable films, one that takes the standard spaghetti western and gives it a nice bristle brush scrubbing thanks to an assured bravado most filmmakers today wouldn’t dare to employ.

Beginning in 1858, Tarantino opens his film with slave Django (Foxx) trudging along in chains through a desolate landscape after being sold at auction.  A superlative theme song and the director’s trademark bold titles establish that the movie is operating in a slightly altered reality, though it is set in the heart of a country on the brink of civil war.  This was the age of slavery and the film pulls no punches in how black men and women were treated, painting a fairly revolting picture on the way. 

All hope seems lost for Django until a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) waltzes into his life and changes his path from plantation to salvation.  Schultz needs Django to help identify a trio of wanted men…and in exchange he will give him his freedom and a split of the earnings.  When this initial bounty hunt show promise, the men decide to team up for a winter until Django can return to Mississippi and find his wife (Washington). 

The first half of the picture is really a breezy buddy film as Django and Schultz make a killing (har har) tracking down the men that are wanted dead or alive.  In between scenes of gruesome violence/vengeance there are some solid exchanges that Foxx and Waltz work wonders with.  Waltz still shines from his Oscar winning turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and returns in another memorable performance here in a role tailor-made for him.  I often find Foxx to be a little overrated but his work as Django is exciting and commendable – starting off as a man with spirit but without hope, you gradually see the life reentering his body as his friendship with Schultz thickens and a reunion with his wife draws nearer. 

It’s about halfway through the movie that things take a curious, but no less interesting, turn as Schultz and Django set their sights on finding the location of Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (just one of the memorable character names  along with Jinglebells Cody, Tennessee Redfish, Chicken Charlie, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly).  Information comes to them that Broomhilda or “Hildy” is now the property of one Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)…a silver spoon fed plantation owner Django and Schultz must outsmart if they are to save the girl and make it out alive.

The final act of Django Unchained plays out in Candie Land, and it in and of itself could have been expanded into an entire film thanks to some fascinating dialogue from Tarantino, scenes of violence that are both hysterical and horrifying, and a troupe of actors doing some very brave work when you consider their previous film roles.  It’s touchy subject matter but instead of shying away from it, Tarantino encourages all involved (the audience included) to go with it and stay engaged. 

Some early reviews of the film criticized Django Unchained for being too talky and long but I found it to be easier to get through than Inglourious Basterds (which I also liked).  This is probably because the nearly three hour film is episodic in nature so it just has a natural flow from one adventure to another. 

In typical Tarantino fashion, the violence is surreal, stylish, and in your face.  Nearly everyone comes face to face with a bullet at some point and they do one of two things: go quietly or die in screaming agony as the blood drains from them.  It’s gory and grotesque but there’s something definitively cinematic about it that keeps it from feeling too exploitative. 

Though Tarantino packs his film with more recognizable character actors than I’ve seen in any film recently (including Ted Neely – the Jesus Christ Superstar of stage and screen), the leads carry the film with ease.  In addition to the strong work from Waltz and Foxx, you have Washington playing the physically and emotionally taxing role of Django’s wife with beautiful confidence and Johnson as a Colonel Sanders looking plantation owner resisting the urge to be a cartoon.  Johnson in particular has a riotous passage with would-be Klansmen that wind up fighting over the sacks they wear over their head.  It’s a wonderful scene courtesy of Tarantino that gets the audience laughing at the bigoted bickering.

DiCaprio finally figures out the formula to turning in an award-worthy performance: be a supporting player.  Though many have cried foul that DiCaprio hasn’t received the award recognition he deserves over the years, I’d say that he really hasn’t truly earned it in any picture up until this point.  Here, in a large supporting role, he does his best work in ages as a vicious southern brat that has the tables turned on him in royal fashion.

Though much of the pre-release Oscar buzz has been for DiCaprio, I’d argue that the best performance in the film belongs to Jackson as DiCaprio’s head slave.  As slyly evil a character as I’ve seen Jackson play, he goes all out in the vile department without tipping the scales to farce.  I actually didn’t recognize Jackson the first few frames of the film he’s in, but once it sunk in and the audience saw him…it truly was his picture to steal and that’s exactly what he does.  If DiCaprio is to receive an Oscar nomination (as he probably will) here’s hoping that Jackson gets one as well.

The movie has about four endings and as the third hour was approaching I do admit that I was ready for the film to end.  Tarantino just can’t leave well enough alone (or resist a personal and oddball cameo) and while the ending was satisfying and felt right, I also wouldn’t have minded if it had said its goodbye twenty minutes prior.  That may not have worked for some audiences that demand explanation or a true wrap-up…but it would have made the ending of the film feel as special as the proceeding two and a half hours.

Tarantino has done wonders with this genre…turning the Western picture into what he’s called a Southern.  It’s a fast, funny, ferocious affair and it’s either going to send you out of the theater dazed and amazed or dazed and confused.  I thought it was a splendid film for mature audiences and wouldn’t mind putting it on my end of the year Best of lists.