Movie Review ~ Blacklight

The Facts

Synopsis: Travis Block is a government operative coming to terms with his shadowy past. When he discovers a plot targeting U.S. citizens, Block finds himself in the crosshairs of the F.B.I. director he once helped protect.
Stars: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Taylor John Smith, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Claire van der Boom, Yael Stone, Andrew Shaw, Zac Lemons, Gabriella Sengos
Director: Mark Williams
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  You’re at a crowded airline terminal after a long flight, and the entirety of your fellow passengers are huddled around the baggage claim waiting for the bags to descend from the magical conveyer belt from the mysterious area Above. Before I knew better, I would find a way to squirm my way through the throng and get right up in front so I could snag my bag and be on my merry way. Now, I sit back and relax because even if I’m in the head of the line and miss my well-packed piece of luggage I’m too nice to lug onto the plane and possibly whack the older woman in 16C with, I know it will eventually make its way around again for me to grab.

I consider the yearly event of a Liam Neeson soft-boiled action thriller much like that piece of luggage. It too has been all over the world and lived to see a brighter day, and if you miss it the first time it comes around, all you need do is wait, and it will come around again in time. At first, it was humorous that the Oscar-nominated star was taking brief forays into pure popcorn genre entertainment and that the films were so outright entertaining didn’t hurt. The Taken series, which began back in 2008, gave Neeson considerable street cred and created a character for himself that he’s used as the gruff template for multiple movies of varying quality over the better part of a decade now. Occasionally, he’ll land on one that takes off at the box office, but in recent years they’re beginning to feel similar. I quite liked The Marksman when it was released in the early days of 2021 but have missed several of the other generic titles, Ice Road & Honest Thief, also arriving in that same space of time.

Before the release of Memory later in 2022 and the un-dated Retribution (both remakes of foreign films), Neeson kicks off the year with Blacklight, an original story that reteams him with his Honest Thief director, Mark Williams. Filmed in Australia, which unconvincingly stands in for Washington D.C., and frustratingly remains drastically uneven for the duration of its lengthy runtime, it’s not a promising way for Neeson to approach his 70th birthday in June. While it gives an occasional hint it’s bothering to wake itself from a self-induced vegetative state, key performances are D.O.A. and can’t be saved. 

As a fringe operative for the F.B.I., Travis Block (Neeson, Non-Stop) claims to have never killed anyone in all his years serving as the go-to person when F.B.I. Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn, Blink) needs his specialized services. It’s never made entirely clear what Block does, though. At the start of the film, he’s flying solo saving the day for a cornered undercover agent with a blown cover in hillbilly territory. Later, we get the impression he’s played mentor to multiple officials over time in more of a training role.

One of these former mentees, Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith, Shadow in the Cloud), has been involved with shady dealings about which he wants to come clean. Of course, the F.B.I. can’t let that happen, and so Neeson is dispatched to stop his previous protégé from spilling the beans on national security issues. Discovering too late that what Crane has to say is more dangerous than either of them know, by that point, Crane has involved young reporter Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman, Dog), who is hungry for a juicy by-line. The more involved people, the higher the risk factor, and when his own employer comes after Neeson’s family, well, you can see where this is headed. 

Conceived initially by Nick May and Brandon Reavis and written by May and Williams, Blacklight is the most middle of the road, unsurprising film Neeson has made to date. It’s predictable enough for the viewer to spot any thorny moments early which are designed to be jaw-droppers down the road. The one thing that I could never have anticipated was to see Neeson in the middle of a car chase early in the picture with a garbage truck that changes from one shot to the next. Realizing a vehicle of this size can’t move the way they needed it to, it’s obvious the filmmakers rigged up a flatbed to resemble the main automobile. Still, the editing is such that each time the camera cuts from one angle to another, you’re obviously looking at a different truck.   

I wouldn’t say Neeson is phoning in this performance, but he does appear to be a tad fatigued on this outing. It’s almost like he was doing Williams a small courtesy appearing in Blacklight. There is a bright spot, though. Neeson seems to be enjoying himself in the scenes he shares with Raver-Lampman, a Broadway actress who is graduating to a leading role here and nicely rising above a poorly written part. Together, the two have an excellent crackle in their back-and-forth, and you can easily see why the producers felt it right to pair them together. If only she’d been given more to do aside from huddling around a computer and making obvious statements for audience members that might not be able to follow the flat plot involving a case of not-all-that-shocking government corruption from within. It felt like Smith was a compromise in the role after another actor meant to play the resourceful agent fell through. Called on to play action scenes with hand-to-hand combat, Smith looks like he’s in one of those videos from childhood you made showing your “skills” as a ninja warrior. Not impressed. Coming off more like a young Anthony Hopkins than an old Aidan Quinn, the veteran actor looks the part of an F.B.I. Director but isn’t always convincing us he could ever have got the job in the first place.

Assigned a fantastic title but referring to it only tangentially, Blacklight isn’t going to brighten the day of any fan of Liam Neeson’s, nor will it darken your mood either. There’s something resolutely comforting by which it’s so vanilla but it reaches its big finale that is uncorked with such little fizz I didn’t even know it had arrived until it was over. Neeson hasn’t yet fallen into the Bruce Willis territory of quantity over quality. However, with an increasing number of similar feeling films coming faster and faster, he needs to exercise some caution. I’m hoping these new films arriving soon, both directed by experienced professionals in the genre, help him bounce back to being the unexpected action star he once upon a time proved himself so nicely suited for.

Movie Review ~ The Marksman


The Facts

Synopsis: A rancher on the Arizona border becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy desperately fleeing the cartel assassins who’ve pursued him into the U.S.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Jacob Perez, Katheryn Winnick, Teresa Ruiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Dylan Kenin, Luce Rains, Chase Mullins, Christopher Mele, Grayson Berry, David DeLao, Esodie Geiger, Gonzalo Robles

Director: Robert Lorenz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It just so happened that the weekend before I caught The Marksman I watched 1994’s Nell which found one-time-all-time serious actor turned action star Liam Neeson in a much different mode.  Twenty-six years younger and starring alongside his soon to be wife (the late Natasha Richardson), Neeson is a hot-headed and passionate doctor making a compelling argument for protecting the innocence of a vulnerable woman.  The film’s success at the box office (along with his Oscar nomination the previous year for Schindler’s List) helped tip the scales in favor of Neeson’s A-List status and he became a bankable star for the next decade.  Then he made a potboiler of a film called Taken in 2008 and his career took another swift swerve.

Ever since the success of Taken and it’s subsequent sequels, Neeson has made a crackerjack living off of playing the rough-edged everyman put into extraordinary situations and rising to the challenge of beating back all that stand in his way.  While maintaining a steady career in other genres to keep his craft honed, it’s these muscle-y popcorn chomping action flicks that certainly pay the bills and, to his credit, a number of them have been of above average quality and well-tailored to Neeson’s strengths.  As time has gone by they’ve presented less and less of a stretch for the actors so while we aren’t seeing him taking on wolves in The Grey or sussing out a killer onboard a plane in Non-Stop, every now and then we see him riding a train for a Agatha Christie-esque mystery/adrenaline mash-up like the somewhat silly The Commuter.

You’d understand then why The Marksman didn’t immediately jump off the page for me when scrolling through the list of releases, right?  I mean, another Neeson January release with a familiar formula wasn’t exactly a clarion call for immediate viewing.  Yet something about this one felt different and more serious in tone than the recent endeavors so rather than let it be a film I fired up after it had been out for a while I pursued it a bit and am I ever glad I did.  While it’s not going to be anywhere near the top level of Neeson’s best known for works, The Marksman is arguably one of his more respectable efforts in quite some time.  Stripping away a lot of the false bravado and grime that has started to creep into his movies as of late, there’s a semi-Western vibe to the film that gives it that same feeling of it being Neeson against the world.  Even better, it features the return of the actor that convinced us of his passion for protection of true innocence.

With his Arizona ranch that stretches along the border of Mexico on the verge of foreclosure after falling behind in his mortgage, recent widower Jim Hanson (Neeson) is facing the reality of leaving behind the home he made with his late wife.  A former U.S. Marine sharpshooter that spent two tours in Vietnam, Hanson spends his days keeping coyotes of the animal and human variety off his land and helping any undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally from being left behind to die in the deadly heat…by turning them over to border patrol.  He’s not unkind in the process, just matter of fact in his transactional nature, especially considering his stepdaughter Sarah (a wan Kathryn Winnick, Wander) has connections to the department.  There’s nothing much to do around town but drive around and drink and he’s gotten good at both, finding too much comfort in the latter.

Hanson is out driving alongside the border wall with his dog when he spots Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) who have just snuck through.  What he doesn’t know is that Rosa is fleeing a dangerous cartel that has already murdered her brother and is now tracking her and her son…and they are hot on her heels.  This chance encounter spirals into a scene no one was expecting and leads Hanson to make an out of character choice to later remove Miguel from Border Patrol custody and deliver him to family in Chicago.  This cross-country trip is no joyride as the older man and child are tirelessly pursued by a lethal quartet of killers who are as well connected in the U.S. as they are in Mexico.  With no one to trust and their lives definitively on the line, Hanson and Miguel must learn to trust one another if they have any chance to survive.

For his second feature film directing gig, Robert Lorenz follows in the well-worn footsteps of his long-time friend and mentor, Clint Eastwood.  On a number of Eastwood films over the past two decades, Lorenz has served as producer (Jersey Boys, American Sniper) and/or second-unit director (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) and he’s clearly learned a thing or two about pacing from his squinty pal and more’s the better for it.  A flashier director might have turned The Marksman into a film that would have felt a little edgier but lost some of the laid-back soul it finds throughout.  It’s PG-13 rating becomes a benefit because with all the killing (and frankly there’s a lot of senseless murders in this one), it was nice to be spared a lot of the aftermath.  I wouldn’t half doubt the script was offered to Eastwood or written with him in mind – it’s extremely reminiscent of something that would appeal to him.  (In a nice nod, Miguel watches Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High on a hotel room during one brief respite on their journey.)

If I say that Neeson feels relaxed in the role I don’t want you to take that as a bad thing or that he’s coasting.  To me, it comes across like Neeson read this script and just instantly understood this character and where they are at this present point in life (or in their grieving process?) and how taking this boy and his challenges on would change him.  None of the action sequences seem unrealistic for his age (68) and when he springs into action it comes with a twinge of excitement not just for the audience, but for his character as well, like he’s plugging into a socket that’s long been decommissioned.  Perez is cast well against him too, avoiding a number of the pitfalls a child actor can plunge into when faced with these sort of ‘child in distress’ roles.  He’s afforded some true sincerity in his lines and gets in several that put present situations into a much more global perspective.  I liked the smaller bit parts Lorenz cast too, like the roadside attendant and gun store owner that Hanson meets along the way.  For once, the villain is actually fairly terrifying so anytime Juan Pablo Raba (The 33) is onscreen you weren’t quite sure what was going to happen.

Even managing to nail what could have been a cheat of a ending, The Marksman is largely a bullseye for Neeson and company with only its formulaic set-up being the major detractor above all else.  It’s beautifully shot by Mark Patten (a second-unit director of photography on The Martian who graduated to cinematographer) who doesn’t let the orange sun and sand of the desert swallow up the actors and if the score from TV composer Sean Callery’s feels like it’s been recycled from one of his numerous television themes at least it’s been lifted from a project that’s rousing.  Here’s to hoping that Lorenz turns in more crisp work like this.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll even convince Eastwood to come out of retirement if the timing is right.

The Silver Bullet ~ The King’s Man

: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them.

Release Date: September 18, 2020

Thoughts: In 2014, the spy adventure Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit with audiences and critics and presented a cheeky fun alternative to the wise acre superhero franchise films that were multiplying like rabbits.  It also helped to introduce the public to Taron Egerton who would return in 2017 for the go-big-or-go-home sequel before hitting the big time with his hopefully Oscar nominated turn in 2019’s Elton John biopic Rocketman.  With Egerton’s star on the rise and booked out on other projects and with the franchise having bankable legs, 20th Century Fox was in a bit of a tough place with director Matthew Vaughn on how to continue the story of the elite gentlemen’s agency that battled boffo baddies in style.  The answer?  Go back to the beginning. Recently moved from it’s original February release date, September 2020 will now bring us The King’s Man, tracking the original formation of the organization featuring Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace), Djimon Hounsou (Charlie’s Angels), and Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil).  I’m sure I’ll miss the Egerton-factor but this second trailer feels in the same spirit as the two previous films with action packed intrigue to spare.  Looks like royal fun.  

31 Days to Scare ~ High Spirits

The Facts:

Synopsis: The owner of an Irish castle decides to attract visitors by falsely claiming the building is haunted, only to have a pair of real ancestral spirits start causing trouble…

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly, Donal McCann, Mary Coughlan, Liz Smith, Tom Hickey, Tony Rohr

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As another October was drawing to a close and it was getting time to step away from focusing solely on scary movies for the year, I was thinking about what to feature for the last few posts.  I knew I’d cover some well-known titles and already planned out my Halloween entry but it was that last day, the 30th, that had me scratching my head.  Then it hit me…or actually it came crashing down.  I was just waking up this morning when a unexpectedly picture fell off the wall, causing a great deal of noise and starting the day off with a startle.  A faulty nail is the assured culprit but…what if a ghost was having some fun with me in the early hours?  For some reason, it got me in haunting mood and my mind went right to High Spirits, a silly but fun favorite of mine.

Now, let’s be clear.  A horror movie this is not so if you’re looking for blood, guts, and gore you can skip to tomorrow but if you need a spooky/goofy respite from suspense and are up for a trip back to the late ‘80s you have come to the right place.  Released in 1988 to mediocre reviews and no box office, this isn’t exactly an unheralded classic that didn’t get its due.  While I personally find it to be a riot, at the time it arrived in theaters audiences were already distancing themselves from this broad type of farce.  Over time, I think the movie has aged well and the cast is chock full of familiar faces, many of whom are turning in sharp and ribald performances.

Poor Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man) is having trouble getting guests to stay at his castle in the Irish countryside.  Though the place is in need of repair, Plunkett and his staff of locals don’t do much to spruce it up to make it more appealing to the tourist trade.  When he’s (literally) at the end of his rope, a light bulb for an idea goes off when he’s reminded by his boozy mother (a delightful Liz Smith) about the numerous ghosts that supposedly live in the castle.  Why not market the castle as haunted and, once the guests arrive, fake the appearances to create massive buzz?  That should keep the rooms occupied and the cash coming in.  Right?

The plan works…almost.  When the first batch of tourists arrive, they include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Diner) and Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, The Sentinel) a couple on their second honeymoon and they clearly need it.  She’s an uptight city gal while he’s looking forward to getting the most out of their creepy Irish adventure.  They’re joined by a priest (Peter Gallagher, Hello, My Name is Doris), a sexpot (Jennifer Tilly), and a demanding family from the suburbs (led by Martin Ferrero from Jurassic Park).  The staff do their best to give the group a good scare but the results are less than thrilling.  Figuring out they’ve been duped pretty quickly, the guests plan their escape…and that’s when Jack meets Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, Splash!), Peter’s very beautiful but very dead relative.

Murdered on her wedding night by a jealous husband (Liam Neeson, The Haunting) and doomed to repeat the violent act nightly for eternity, when Jack intervenes in a drunken daze it breaks the cycle and Mary is freed to be a regular old spirit.  Grateful to Jack for freeing her, the two strike up a connection that neither really found with their significant other.  The movie then becomes your typical boy meets ghost story, further complicated by her dead husband and his living wife getting into the mix.  All this happens while Plunkett tries to keep the other guests out of harm’s way when their less than haunted experience gets very real after the rest of the Plunkett ancestors get roused and the line between the living and the dead is tested.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would score an Oscar four years later for The Crying Game and also gave us Greta in 2019), the movie is total Sunday afternoon rainy-day fare and I think it’s a lot of fun.  It’s obviously not trying to be a classic in any sense but it has some memorable moments and performances that are off-the-wall enough to be quite amusing.  Smith is a hoot at Peter’s mum who is always three sheets to the wind while it’s nice to see Neeson so early in his career in a lark of a comedic role.  Guttenberg and D’Angelo can play these types of roles in their sleep but they’re engaging nonetheless and Hannah makes for a lovely apparition.  The production design of the castle is impressive and, haunted or not, you’ll likely wish a similar stay would be in your future.

High art?  No.  High Spirits?  Yes.

Movie Review ~ Men in Black: International


The Facts

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There are some movies you can’t wait to review. Once they are over you run home to your computer or laptop and hit the keys.  If the movie is good, the copy practically writes itself because you’ve been thinking about the specific points to make and how you want to let your readers know this is a film to keep your eye out for.  For bad movies, it’s often easier to pull your thoughts together on what to say but harder to pen a review that’s more than just a tear down of the production.  Then there are movies like Men in Black: International which is so instantly forgettable I had to prioritize its review for fear I would forget the movie entirely.

Arriving seven years after Men in Black III seemingly wrapped up the big screen adventures of the special agents tasked with protecting Earth from alien threats, Men in Black: International was originally intended to be a crossover with the gang from 21 Jump Street.  When that plan failed to materialize, the film went ahead as its own entity, spun-off from the original trilogy and, though retaining a few characters/creatures, largely telling its own story.  The result is a tedious time-waster by even the most generous of summer standards, with no one stepping up to make the case this was a franchise that needed to be rebooted.

Ever since she was a child,  Molly (Tessa Thompson, Avengers: Endgame) has been trying to identify the secret government agency that visited her house as a child and used a neuralyzer on her parents, wiping their memory clean regarding an alien encounter but forgetting to clear her as well.  She knows she saw a small furry blue creature and, though everyone tells her she’s crazy in the years that follow, is intent on finding out where the agency is located and joining their ranks.  By lucky happenstance (this is a 105 minute movie, after all), Molly is in the right place at the right time and finds what she’s looking for, eventually convincing Agent O (Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks) to take her on as a probationary agent.  The film races past any potential interest we have in how the agency trains its field agents, opting instead to just show Molly (now Agent M) suited up and ready to go, her boot camp days long behind her.

For her first mission, she’s dispatched to the London branch of the Men in Black, led by High T (Liam Neeson, The Grey) and her plucky curiosity gets her paired with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation) on a routine protection detail that turns into a fight to save the Earth from an evil force known as The Hive.  To make matters worse, aside from a nosey co-worker (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) with a grudge against Agent H, there’s a mole in the London branch so H and M have to stay one step ahead of a traitor on the inside who is following their every move.  The set-up gives way to a plodding second act where the agents sorta make good on the “international” promise of the title but largely go up against CGI villans that are rarely menacing, let along convincingly real.

Though paired together well in Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth and Thompson have awkward onscreen chemistry that goes above and beyond the characters initial dislike/distrust of each other.  Hemsworth in particular looks like he’s coasting on fumes for much of the picture and all that positive support he built up in his Avengers run evaporates with his listless performance.  The usually interesting Tessa Thompson also strikes out too, but she’s mostly undone by a script that doesn’t provide any depth to her character.  It’s like she never existed prior to the opening of the film and while that makes for a great MIB agent, it makes for a fairly hollow character we’re supposedly going to be rooting for.  You get the feeling Emma Thompson and Neeson recognized how sloppy this whole thing was and slowly started to back away from the movie because they dissolve into the background whenever possible.  Normally I’m all for a Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) appearance but her cameo as a zebra-wigged arms dealer that’s all arms is absolutely the time those with small bladders can get up and go to the bathroom.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) along with Iron Man screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum either never saw the original Men in Black films or did and just didn’t care about maintaining the quirky charm of the preceding films.  Especially in the debut film, there was a B-movie feel to the proceedings that helped make it’s shlockier alien creature elements a little easier to swallow.  The new film is straight-forward filmmaking 101 with little creative pride taken in anything from action sequences to creature design to 11th hour plot twists.  They say some movies are taken for the paycheck and this is one where everyone must have needed a new pool in their backyard.

Movie Review ~ Widows

The Facts

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office.  The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today.  It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience.  Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming.  It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.

Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen.  Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have.  Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.

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 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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Widows

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except debts left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Thoughts: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had a fondness for Widows, a UK television series created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).  In fact, McQueen liked it so much that he brought on Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn to modernize the story and signed on top notch talent to bring it stateside.  The result can be glimpsed in this trailer, an exciting first look at a hard-boiled crime drama that could be an award contender when all is said and done.  The cast is made up of Oscar winners Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) and Robert Duvall (The Paper), Oscar nominees Liam Neeson (The Commuter), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), and Jacki Weaver (Life of the Party), not to mention impressive names like Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (Furious 7), and Cynthia Erivo.  If the finished product is as impressively dynamite as this trailer, McQueen and company will have a very good fall.

Movie Review ~ The Commuter

The Facts

Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.

The Silver Bullet ~ Silence (2016)


Synopsis: In the 17th century two Jesuit priests face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity.

Release Date: December 23, 2016

Thoughts: Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, Silence is a late breaking entry into the serious awards season discussion.  Buzzed about for months (years if you count its overall development time) but as yet unseen, you never can really tell where a Scorsese flick will land in the eyes of critics but Silence looks compelling from the outset. Tackling the not super blockbuster themes of Christian oppression in a foreign land, it certainly has the visual hallmarks of a Scorsese film…including a lengthy run time.  Stars Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Adam Driver (Midnight Special) are stars continuing to rise and if you believe early odds, Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) could net a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.  We’ve got a few more weeks until Silence roars into view but count on this one to factor heavily in Oscar talk as the year concludes.