Friday, November 4, 2011

Ten Statements About....A STIR OF ECHOES (1999)

Usually, I'd be happy to have Ileana Douglas put me under
her spell.  In this film however....uh, no.
"Does it hurt to be dead?"

1) This starts with one of the most compelling openings I've ever seen. The whole situation with Zachery David Cope's Jake talking directly to the camera about his day...and our slow realization that he's talking to what we'll learn is on two levels. First off, it makes us part of that 'little club' that Kathryn Erbe's Maggie refers to later in the film that Jake and Kevin Bacon's Tom forms as the film progresses. Secondly, it puts us in Samantha's shoes, preparing us for the first person POV when we start piecing together her very awful fate.

2) Koepp recognizes something very important when it comes to putting together a good film--namely, that care has to be taken to make all levels of production consistent, including casting. The great thing about Erbe, Bacon, and many of the other actors in this film is that none of them are movie star handsome, not even Bacon whose face has gained a blue collar character with age. These are people who look like they could have lived in the 'six square blocks' that Tom supposedly grew up on. Even Erbe and her screen sister Ileana Douglas may both be hot, but they're 'around the neighborhood' hot, not 'red carpet' hot.

3) One of the great signs of a great script is how seeds get planted to the film's climax very early on, yet we don't notice them until we look back on the movie. Koepp's script is so tight clues are planted as to what happened, the motivation for it, and the character arc Tom is about to go through within the first five minutes, long before the weird shit starts getting set in motion.

4) I've mentioned that Ileana Douglas is hot, right? What's interesting to me is how Koepp is able to invest her with elements of the comic relief without her character being made to look foolish. And Douglas is such an excellent actress that she's able to sell scenes such as her dividing up the potential single men at a party or struggling with a marijuana high while trying to put Tom back under hypnosis to reverse what happened to him without it ever coming off as broad.

5) That being said, the most fascinating and complex character is Frank, played by Kevin Dunn. Throughout the first act, it is Frank who plants many of the seeds that will point to Samantha's fate...and yet, he turns out to be far from the villain we assume he's going to be, and his motivations become understandable, if not sympathetic. It's a surprisingly good performance from someone who is, at his core, a comedian.

Ever wonder what Chase woke up to every morning that
season or two of HOUSE, Kevin?  You're about to find out...
6) Another great element of the film? While Samantha may get a little grumpy, as when she tries to spur Jake into moving forward by showing him horror films against his will (honest!), she's never out and out murderous. The worst thing she does is manipulate things so that Maggie badly bumps her head. And speaking of Samantha....

7) Can you believe she was played by Jennifer Morrison?

Yes, that Jennifer Morrison. And she's very good playing a ghost, mainly because her mope-face comes off as understandable when you're playing a dead spirit as opposed to a gifted medical doctor or the bounty hunting daughter of Snow White....

8) I love the fact that this film is, at its core, a murder mystery...yet Koepp doesn't let us know it's a murder mystery until we're already very, very commited to following Tom's character arc to its conclusion.

9) I bet there are some people who would find the inclusion of Eddie Bo Smith's Neil The Cop, given his role is tiny to the point of almost non-existent. And yet...Koepp needed to include that information in the film so we could understand what Tom is going through, but Douglas' Lisa doesn't have the spiritual toolbox to convey that to him. Thus his presence is necessary, even if it meant reducing Smith to Exposition Man.

"Waaaait a that the revival of my career..?"
But then, I also like how Smith represents a third aspect of the 'wider world' that Tom is accused of being afraid of, and what eventually prompts him to step into it.

10) Even though this was shot on location, I appreciate the fact that Koepp sticks to the idea that Tom has lived a very sheltered life that is confined to this one neighborhood...and the very few times the film ventures out of that neighborhood, Chicago looks alien and more than a bit scary. The setting is vital to the film, but Koepp refuses to force the Chicago-ness down our throat because it's not about a city but a couple of blocks within it.

Overall...forget M. Night Shamalyan and his shoutier, showier entry that came out the same year--this is the definitive ghost story for the turn of the millennium, a film that is grounded in reality and character, not style and atmosphere. Hell, I don't even fast forward through the end credits just so I can savor the highly appropriate song that plays under them, Poe's 'Hello.'

If you ignore this movie any more, I will find you. And you're not going to like it.

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