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A Mixed Bag of Bones

Bag of Bones is one of Stephen King’s more recent efforts, and is probably not one of his more memorable novels.  It was released in 1998, following other books such as Rose Madder, Insomnia, Desperation, and most importantly The Green Mile.  It’s an enjoyable read, using some of his typical tropes (a writer protagonist, a small Maine town with secrets, a tragic car accident to name a few), but at its heart is a love story wrapped up in a ghost story.  In fact, in many ways it’s similar to some-time King collaborator Peter Straub‘s Ghost Story.  A&E has aired a 2-part TV adaptation of Bag of Bones, which is a pretty good, if not totally successful, film.

Pierce Brosnan (returning to the King-verse after starring in the non-adaptation of the short story The Lawnmower Man) plays MikeNoonan, a best-selling author deeply in love with his wife Jo (Annabeth Gish), who is killed by a bus while Michael signs autographs at a local bookstore.  Overcome by grief, he goes to a lakehouse where Jo liked to go when Mike is busy writing.  Strange things happen, and it appears that Jo is able to communicate with him through a bell hanging from a moose head (King wrote this book supposedly after he kicked his drug habit, though details like this make that questionable).  Unfortunately, there seems to be another, unfriendly spirit at work as well.  Mike also has a series of inexplicable dreams of little girls drowning and a black jazz singer from 1939.  One of the little girls turns out to be real; she is the granddaughter (Caitlin Carmichael) of the local rich tyrant (William Schallert in possibly the best performance of his long career) who makes Mr. Burns look kind and caring.  He is in a custody battle with the girl’s mother (Melissa George), his daughter-in-law who killed her husband when he was trying to drown the girl.  The jazz singer (Anika Noni Rose) also turns out to be a real person, or at least had been a real person.  She disappeared after a performance at a local fair in 1939, but for some reason Mike’s house is filled with her records, which play on an ancient record player at random and seemingly at will.  Magnetic letters on the fridge (why they’re there when they are usually for children to use to learn how to spell is never explained) spell out messages to Mike, which causes him to investigate and get in the middle of the custody dispute.  He discovers a long-hidden secret involving the singer’s disappearance and a curse that he’s unwittingly a part of.  Through the course of the story, he must resolve the curse, face off against the people in the town harboring the secret, and come to terms with his wife’s death.

This marks director Mick Garris’s seventh time directing a Stephen King movie, making him the official King go-to guy for adapting his work (though it appears that King himself had nothing to do with this production, which is unusual).  He photographs the wooded locations beautifully, and his predilection for wide-angle lenses work to his advantage.  He treats the material seriously and avoids the cheese that is tempting with material such as this.  It’s even forgivable that he cribbed from The Shining in having Brosnan kiss a woman who turns into a decaying corpse.  The teleplay by Matt Venne is competent and tells the story in an efficient manner.  While the novel isn’t one of King’s epic opuses (opi?), the hardback version still clocks in at 529 pages, so it’s a feat to condense the story down to a 4-hour (including commercials) running time without losing coherence yet keeping the momentum going.  In fact, when part 1 ended, it came as a surprise because it felt like the story was just getting going.  There were a few genuine jump scares and some fun, creepy atmosphere.  Being a basic cable movie, they could get away with a little more violence and gore than would be acceptable on broadcast networks (the drownings of children, a gunshot to the face, blood spurting from a neck wound) and a few expletives that felt completely unnecessary.

Pierce Brosnan brought gravity to the role and plays it for all he’s worth, but for some reason when he is required to perform a kissing scene it’s hard to think of anything but James Bond’s insincerity and womanizing during those moments; it’s an unfortunate side-effect of being strongly associated with an iconic character.  It’s also interesting to note how old he looks with his graying hair and chiseled features turning craggy, but as he’s in his late 50’s, he’s still holding up quite well and credit needs to be given to him for not trying to hide his age.  That said, it’s sad that in 2011, a man of his age still needs to be paired with a woman nearly 20 years his junior; Annabeth Gish is beautiful and plays her few scenes wonderfully, so it’s understandable why Brosnan’s character is in love with her, but couldn’t he equally have been married to a woman closer to his own age such as Mary Steenburgen or Kate Capshaw?  The supporting cast was mostly good, though this was definitely Brosnan’s show:  Gish’s presence is mostly felt through photographs; Rose’s jazz singer character has only one real dramatic scene other than appearing on stage singing or being represented on record albums; Matt Frewer had just a couple of scenes as Mike’s brother, playing a decidedly non-flamboyant character for a change (in interesting fact is that Frewer was featured in The Lawnmower Man 2 without Brosnan); Jason Priestly appeared briefly as Mike’s likeable agent; Melissa George was serviceable as Mike’s potential new love interest, though she doesn’t make much of an impact; Schallert was wonderfully creepy as the wheel-chair bound old man who ran the town.  The one misstep in the cast was the woman who played Rosette, the apparent caretaker for Schallert (this actress is not listed anywhere, so her name is unknown–if anyone can track it down, please put it in the comments), who is so over the top that she’s a living cartoon.

The biggest flaw in the flick is the climax.  It would be great if for once a Stephen King TV adaptation can have a good ending.  It seems that every TV movie/mini-series based on King’s work–including the ones he writes himself–have disappointing if not outright lame conclusions.  Bag of Bones is no exception.  We are presented with a tree with a badly superimposed face on it slapping Brosnan in the face with its branches; a ghost who just appears in the road, which begs the question as to why she couldn’t have done that all along; another ghost who appears in a water spout; a car chase that ends with a lightning bolt knocking down a street sign that causes a vehicle to explode; and a nonsensical fight scene that comes out of nowhere and serves no purpose other than killing off the last nefarious character.  Granted, this isn’t as silly as the characters in It ripping out the spider creature’s guts with their bare hands or the cast of The Langoliers jumping into the air in a freeze frame, it is still a big let down considering the rest of the movie was very engaging.

copyright © 2011 FilmVerse

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