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.

Movie Review ~ Annabelle: Creation

The Facts:

Synopsis: Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.

Stars: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In 2013, James Wan’s The Conjuring gleefully scared the bejeebus out of me and a bunch of other movie-goers that had been disappointed with horror movies for years. Smartly made, terrifically acted, and with significant replay value, it signaled a turning of the tides from the torture porn popularity of the Saw films into something with a bit more meat on its bones. Basically, it classed up the joint. Building off that film’s popularity and while waiting for Wan to deliver The Conjuring 2 in 2016, Annabelle was a quickie spin-off developed and released in 2014. Focusing on the freaky doll that was featured in the prologue to The Conjuring, it was clearly a cash-grab . Though it was competently made, it lacked the will to scare and wound up being a disappointment in my book.

With The Conjuring expanding into its own cinematic universe ala DC Comics and Marvel, a prequel to the spin-off sequel is here and it’s doozy. Annabelle: Creation is, as implied, an origin story and rights every wrong committed by its predecessor. The scares are there in droves, the acting is better than it has any real right to be, and director David F. Sanberg (Lights Out) brings some serious style to the proceedings with inventive cinematography and taut pacing. Best of all, it manages to connect to all the films that came before it and hints at what terrors await us in the future.

The prologue of Annabelle: Creation introduces us to the Mullins, a happy family living on the outskirts of a country town. Producing handcrafted dolls in his workshop, Mr. Mullins is putting the finishing touches on his newest wooden wonder when tragedy strikes and his daughter is killed in a car accident. Twelve years later, after they are forced out of their orphanage, a nun (Stephanie Sigman, Spectre) and six orphans in her charge come to live with the Mullins. This act of charity has deadly consequences for all when the girls start to experience strange occurrences all centered on a doll discovered locked away in a room lined with pages from the Bible.

An isolated house. A dumbwaiter with a mind of its own. A creaky stair-lift. A character that wears a porcelain mask to hide disfigurement. A battered scarecrow. There are so many warning bells going off in Annabelle: Creation that the audience and the characters are keen to and honestly that’s part of the fun. While there’s a mystery central to the story, it’s not complex enough to poke a bunch of holes in nor slight enough to write off as baloney.   Sandberg and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (IT) have taken extra time to flesh out most of the characters without sacrificing pace or the attention of the audience.

Unexpectedly, where the film shines the most are the performances with the children often surpassing the adults. Talitha Bateman (The 5th Wave) and Lulu Wilson are convincingly strong leads with Bateman offering the right amount of pluck as a child crippled by polio while wide-eyed Wilson colors her growing fear with a nice dose of moxie. I struggled with the flat line readings of Sigman’s nun at times but she grew on me before the movie was over. Anthony LaPaglia (The Client) and Miranda Otto (What Lies Beneath) as the grieving parents harboring a dark secret do a lot with what little expository dialogue they have and their presence here gives some good grounding to what could have been a cheap-o scare-fest.

Fans of this series will get a few surprises from previous films and make sure to stick around until the end of the credits for a little teaser of the next chapter in this burgeoning library of horror.

Movie Review ~ The Homesman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto,Hilary Swank, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richte

Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You haven’t seen bleak onscreen quite like you’ll see it in The Homesman, a drama with Western sensibilities.  Based on Glendon Swarthout 1988 novel and adapted by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, and star/director Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), the film ambles down a road to the unknown and is not for the wary.

It’s the mid-1800s in the Nebraska Territory and independent Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has come from New York City to lay claim to a land of her own.  The opening scenes show Cuddy as a hard-working woman of the land, but one that has a recognizable hint of sadness around the corners of her dirt streaked face. Unable to find a husband, she entertains suitors with food and entertainment like a black widow without any venom.

Volunteering to transport three women from the territory part of the way back to their homes, Cuddy sets out in a covered wagon across the desolate landscape of pioneer life…but not before getting a desperate claim jumper (Jones) to accompany her in return for a fee.  All three women have seemingly lost their minds due to the harsh conditions and maybe Cuddy is just doing the honorable thing by stepping up to take on a task that the men from the community won’t…or maybe she relates to them more than she cares to admit.  Either way, the journey holds surprising turns for all involved.

Though depressing and an overall stunningly somber film, The Homesman is finely crafted and possesses enough darkly comic gumption to take narrative turns that could upend a lesser work…though a particular game changing twist is dealt with so quickly that should you go to the bathroom and miss it you may think you’ve come back to a different movie all-together.

Jones and Swank have the perfect faces for this material, his showing the crags of a life lived from problem to problem and hers displaying a plaintive wish for a dream that she sees fading each morning she wakes up.  While Swank has two well-deserved Oscars in her possession, she has about a dozen other performances of note that may make you question her strength as an actress.  She redeems herself again here and I’m sad the work isn’t getting more attention at the end of the year.

If you’re waiting to open your Twizzlers until Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) shows up on screen you’ll be waiting a long time as the actress only pops up for a brief cameo late in the film.  Actually, everyone else in the film are really just there for a scene or two before drifting off into the dusty atmosphere of the journey Jones/Swank are on.

Worthy of a look if you’re in the right mood, even with its desolate subject matter The Homesman ends with a bang…a quiet bang…but a bang all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Homesman

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Synopsis: A claim jumper and a pioneer woman team up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: Packed with so many Oscar faves that it could double as sketch on Jimmy Kimmel, The Homesman is the type of award festival bait that could be hard to resist.  Though the Western genre landscape has been largely barren for quite some time, when one does hit its mark it usually lands square in the bull’s-eye.  Once again, early buzz has Hilary Swank moving to the front of the Best Actress race in a film not many people have heard of…whether she can nab her third trophy remains to be seen.  All the elements seem to be there, though, and working alongside the likes of Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, also taking on writing and directing duties), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), and James Spader (Mannequin) I’m very interested in seeing if The Homesman can deliver on some rather intriguing promise.