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 ~ Welcome to Marwen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.

Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: We’re often asked to provide our instant reactions to movies on our way out of advanced screenings.  This can be a good way to get some off the cuff remarks or quick takes to bring back to the studios as to what audiences felt the moment the lights come up and the credits start to roll.  I struggle in these moments to come up with two to three sentences that summarize two hours of thoughts, preferring to let the feeling marinate for a while until I can let it flow out here.  My overall opinion of the film rarely changes, it just solidifies as my mind works on detailing why I feel the way I feel.

With Welcome to Marwen, I knew leaving the theater it was one of the most troubling movies I’d seen all year but the way the movie nagged and gnawed at me in the days since I saw it was truly something to behold.  Hailing from a major studio with a well-liked star and Oscar-winning director, it’s a drastically misguided misfire that has no clue who it’s audience is or how to balance its technically impressive effects with a dramatically inert narrative.

Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Secret Garden) turn the doc into a narrative feature starring Steve Carrell (Beautiful Boy) as Matt Hoagancamp, an artist recovering from a brutal beating that has found a most unique coping outlet.  Creating a WWII-set world of his own in his backyard, he photographs dolls inhabiting his town of Marwen in various adventures featuring Cap’n Hogie, a stand in for Matt himself.  While Cap’n Hogie is the bomber jacket wearing tough guy in the group, he often needs to be saved by an assembly of leggy female figures that are modeled after various women in Matt’s own life.

This is where the movie starts to provide some extremely problematic issues it can just never recover from.  The real-life women in Matt’s world are his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a war veteran we briefly see in flashbacks (Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures), a friendly worker at his local hobby shop (Merritt Weaver, Signs, by far the best performance in the film), his co-worker at a local diner (Eiza Gonzalez, Jem and the Holograms), and most disconcerting of all, a sexy French maid inspired by a nameless woman Matt sees in an adult film (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the directors real-life wife…yuck).  In reality, the women are portrayed as normal human beings but in Matt’s fantasy world their sexuality is heightened, their cleavage is on display, their skits are hiked up to crotch level, and they exist only to serve and protect Cap’n Hoagie’s wishes.  Basically, they are sex figurines.  Which would be fine if the movie ever acknowledged that this is odd and oddly disrespectful…which it never does.

When Nicol (‘I spell it with no “E” ’) moves in across the street, Matt becomes infatuated by the woman who seems to understand his quirks, especially as it relates to his penchant for wearing women’s high heels.  That Matt has a shoe fetish is but one of several of his eccentricities the film introduces only to never fully explore to any kind of satisfactory degree.  Though not gay, Matt finds that while wearing a woman’s shoe he can more easily get at the ‘essence’ of women (or, “dames” as he calls them) and, bless her heart, Nicol barely bats at eye when he delivers this corker of a revelation.  As played by Leslie Mann (This is 40) Nicol has a restrained charm that suggests she’s put up walls to guard her own emotional sensitivities.

Aside from it’s odious devaluation of nearly every female character that walks across the screen (Christie and Monáe are barely in the film in human form), the movie also has a rather large blind spot when it comes to talking about PTSD and the lasting effects of mental illness.  Clearly, Matt is suffering from major mental health problems brought on by his vicious attack and Zemeckis and Thompson don’t seem the slightest bit interested in presenting Matt with any kind of support outside of his made-up world of Marwen.  His interactions with people outside of Marwen are either comedic fodder or humiliating emotionally – it’s no wonder he’d rather spend time all alone with his dolls.  The one solution presented is in the form of a blue pill medication that no so subtly takes the form of another “doll” named Deja (Diane Kruger) who doesn’t seem to have a real-world counterpart but obviously has a huge hold over Matt’s psyche.

I have absolutely no idea who the audience would be for this movie.  It’s not a family film, it’s not a film an older adult audience will find much value in, and it’s certainly not a movie for the mid-range crowd who have a plethora of better choices this holiday season.  It literally has no target audience and I am mystified at whoever would have thought this would have made for a good feature film.  Carrell seems uncomfortable, and not just in the heels but as this is a Zemeckis film, it’s technical merits are first-rate.  Zemeckis is like a dog with a bone where motion-capture animation is concerned but here the technology works well in making Carrell, Mann, Monáe, and company all realistically doll-like when they are in Marwen.  It’s a good-looking movie, even if it’s rather ugly on in the inside.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House

The Facts:

Synopsis: A greedy woman makes the mistake of murdering her husband while an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa Claus outfit is on the loose.

Stars: Mary Ellen Trainor, Larry Drake, Marshall Bell, Lindsey Whitney Barry, John Kassir

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: NR

Running Length: 22 mins

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While it gradually dissipated in quality over the course of its seven season run, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt opened with a first season that was chock full of scary tales helmed by some of Hollywood’s top directors.  The second episode was a Christmas-themed yarn (ironically broadcast in the dead of summer in 1989) directed by future Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and while my memories were fonder of it when I was a child, it’s a nice little 22 minute lark you can fit in during the holidays between another viewing of Home Alone or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The credits are barely done before a cheating wife (the late, great, Mary Ellen Trainor, then married to Zemeckis) offs her husband (Marshall Bell) in their remote home on a cold winter’s night.  With her daughter upstairs anxiously awaiting the arrival of St. Nick, she attempts to dispose of the body in an outdoor well but fails to heed the warning on the radio warning of a madman (Larry Drake) in a Santa suit on the loose.  It’s no spoiler to say that mother and daughter get visited by Kris Kringle…but not the one they were expecting.

Watching this again recently, I was struck by some bad acting and pacing problems that I didn’t register when I was younger.  It’s not as taut as it could have been…and that makes sense considering this tale was filmed before with better results.  In 1972, this story was part an anthology in the theatrical release of Tales from the Crypt and in that version it was a full 10 minutes shorter.  The extra time here feels like padding and though it’s barely a half hour it starts to feel long before the halfway point.  Even with that said, there’s something manically delightful about this contained piece of business from an A-List director eager to try his hand out again on the small screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Walk (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: The story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: After the first true teaser, I can see a viewer watching the newest trailer for The Walk on their computer screen, tablet, or iPhone and thinking that the biopic is another technically proficient film from Robert Zemeckis (Flight). However, my first experience with the trailer was on a 7 story tall IMAX screen in 3D and the effect was, as intended, impressively dizzying. Inspired by the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, Zemeckis looks to be using every cinematic trick in his repertoire to its fullest advantage as he brings audiences sky high for this true life tale of one man’s attempt to do the impossible. Those familiar with the documentary will know there’s more to the story than just stringing a wire between two buildings and with Zemeckis at the helm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) in the leading role, I think the transition from documentary to biographical narrative will be a smooth one…one that’s required viewing in IMAX 3D.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Walk

walk

Synopsis: The story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Release Date:  October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Inspired by the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire, this is the true story of a high-wire daredevil that pushed the limits of his technique.  The original documentary was a nail-biting bit of wonderment, easily deserving of its Academy Award and I’m interested to see what director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) makes of the material that was already told so well.  Zemeckis isn’t as formidable as he once was, opting to produce more films that he directs but when he does the results have been unique and defined by real storytelling.  Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) as Philippe Petit, our first look at The Walk doesn’t give away much…but at least you’ll have time to check out Man on Wire before The Walk arrives in October