Movie Review ~ The Fabelmans

The Facts:

Synopsis: Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a film director as he reaches adolescence. But he soon discovers a shattering secret about his dysfunctional family and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
Stars: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Julia Butters, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 151 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Let’s get this straight. To me, Steven Spielberg is the most outstanding director of all time. Stop right there. I don’t want you to get out your well-worn movie journals or pull up your bookmarked film history pages that point to other celebrated directors whose films helped shape cinema as we know it today. For this guy right here (I stopped typing and pointed to myself), Spielberg is just the #1; thank you, and goodnight. It’s not just the JAWS of it all (the best movie ever made, you’re welcome), but his career has taken him through many different genres and styles. His constant need to innovate and create has kept him at the forefront of film and made him a game-changer. We flock to see his movies in the theater because he makes them for that theatrical experience. He made the best film of last year, West Side Story, fulfilling his long-held desire to make a musical, and some argue it surpassed the Oscar-winning original.

It’s a shame West Side Story didn’t repeat that acclaim at the box office and with awards, but it was, to me, a culmination of his work up until that point. The cinematography, score, screenwriting, technical elements, and directing all came together into one cohesive unit to create that modern masterpiece. What could follow that? The answer is arriving in theaters in time for Thanksgiving, and it’s The Fabelmans, a sometimes loosely autobiographical and often strikingly accurate portrayal of Spielberg’s life growing up and his family’s influence, specifically his mother. There’s already a lot of churn that the film will earn Spielberg his third Best Director Oscar (his last was 1999’s Saving Private Ryan) and that it’s currently the one to beat for Best Picture. But…is it?

You’re talking to a hardcore Spielberg fan here. Someone that will fondly bring up 1989’s Always in the same conversation as 2002’s Minority Report and who thinks 1991’s Hook continues to be overlooked all these years later. So, take it from this fan when I tell you that as moving and laudable as The Fabelmans is, there’s something oddly formal about it that also kept me about ten paces away from it. Part of that emotional lengthening is wrapped up in the very plot of the film. Still, it goes beyond that to a more significant issue with the screenplay (co-written with Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner) and its structure which is episodic as the years go by yet strangely frozen in time.

Spielberg opens his movie with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) having to be talked into a theater playing 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth by his beleaguered parents. He’s at an age where theatrical movies are still intangible, he fears the big images about to tower before him. After, on the drive home, the wide-eyed boy has been changed for the better and sets out to recreate the film’s famous train crash with his Hanukkah gifts of toy train cars that form a large locomotive. That’s not enough; mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) recognizes that. So, she borrows her husband Burt’s camera and lets Sammy film the crash so he can watch it repeatedly. And a filmmaker was born.

As Sammy grows up (eventually played for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle, The Predator), he and his camera witness a tidal wave of change in the people and places around him. Family dynamics that went over his head as a child can now be replayed and reexamined frame by frame, driving a wedge between Sammy and his parents as a pair and individually. He trusts his mother to care for them but can’t reconcile a betrayal that goes unspoken, and he laments that his father (Paul Dano, The Batman) has blinders on for more than just what his children take an interest in. Joining a new suburban high school only intensifies his feeling of being an outsider, made more apparent when he’s targeted by bigots and begins dating an ultra-Christian girl that can’t keep her hands off him.

There’s a lot of movie to go around in The Fabelmans, so you can understand how audiences feel like they’ve walked away richly rewarded with various dynamic scenes and performances. And Spielberg’s eye for detail and knowledge of technique put the film on a completely different plane of existence. It’s beautiful to look at, and the production design should win the Oscar now and be done with it. Newcomer LaBelle is a true discovery as Sammy, taking us through complex emotional arcs without much set-up from Kushner or Spielberg’s script. No one is incredibly well served by some of the dialogue, which never sounds like anyone other than a Pulitzer Prize winner wrote it. There’s one scene between Sammy and his younger sister Reggie (Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) that sounds like a conversation between two Central Park intellectuals on their way to a be-in. While it works better for Judd Hirsch’s (Ordinary People) hysterical cameo and some of Dano’s excellent work, Kusher’s phrasing doesn’t sound right coming out of teens/youngsters, and they occupy much of the latter half of the film.

The end of the finale credits for West Side Story had a simple message, “For Dad,” and it does not surprise The Fabelmans ends with a similar message to Spielberg’s mother. Williams is playing the cinematic realization of Spielberg’s mother, so a gentle touch is granted the character, even when confronted with behavior that may get a more dramatic hand if the story hadn’t been so personal. The extent of Mitzi’s close friendship with Burt’s co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen, Sausage Party) is hinted at, but Spielberg stops short of clarifying or speculating too much. In many ways, that’s admirable. A son wants to honor his mother by telling her story but doesn’t want to create trouble in the telling. Williams is on board with this and gives Mitzi that inner glow that radiates into her castmates. It’s not the slam-dunk award-winning role I was hoping for, so her competition need not worry, but it’s yet another sign Williams will be one of our lasting talents.

I’ve sat with the film for a few weeks now and hoped I’d want to see it again immediately, but it hasn’t hit me yet. There’s not a Spielberg film out there I wouldn’t watch again (actually, sorry, Bridge of Spies is a pass), and I’m sure I’ll meet up with The Fabelmans again, and I hope next time I’ll come away feeling closer to them than I did the first time. For now, you go on ahead and see if you get along with them better than I did.

Movie Review ~ She Said

The Facts:

Synopsis: New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor break one of the most important stories in a generation — a story that helped launch the #MeToo movement and shattered decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault in Hollywood.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton, Sean Cullen, Angela Yeoh, Ashley Judd
Director: Maria Schrader
Rated: R
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Will we ever know the full impact of the devastation caused by the actions of disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein? It’s not likely because the emotional trauma inflicted and multiple settlements over time have sent a ripple effect throughout Hollywood and beyond. The #MeToo movement may have reached its peak and plateaued (at least for a time), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more threads to unravel or details to unpack over those that remained complicit throughout the years. We’re living in that post-Weinstein world, and it can be hard to rewind to five years before the story came out. 

The new movie She Said asks audiences to step back and watch as two dedicated journalists used their skill and empathy to topple a titan many (including his victims) thought was untouchable. New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey wrote the book ‘She Said’ is based on in 2019. They then became characters in this movie adaptation written by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by German actress/director Maria Schrader, it’s got the air of All the President’s Men but is less interested in being a Hollywood version of what journalism looks like and focuses its energy on the stories of the women that were victimized and their truth which had been silenced for decades.

After a bruising experience reporting on the 2016 Presidential election, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman) took time off to tend to her newborn when colleague Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan, What If) called her. The two knew each other from work, but it was limited to that. While Jodi, with her two daughters, could commiserate with Megan and her struggles with post-partum depression, she wanted to ask Megan how she handled asking women tough questions about abuse. This led to the women working together when Megan returned from maternity leave, investigating the long-standing rumors of sexual abuse between Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein and several women.

Some of these women have familiar names, and some aren’t. All were targets and, ultimately, survivors of Weinstein’s fixation and abuse of power. Through pure old-fashioned journalism (pounding the pavement, consulting historical records, protecting sources, using off-the-record conversations to assist them in finding paths forward when they hit a dead end), the two reporters constructed a well-researched case that painted the producer in precisely the kind of light everyone knew him to be. Until then, he had flexed his considerable reach to have these stories squashed by just picking up the phone. In 2017, after Trump was in the White House and the country was fed up with how the nation’s leader spoke about women, the public started to be unwilling to accept dismissals of lousy behavior between those in power and those who worked for them.

While Miramax was an international company with offices in places like London and Hong Kong, when you think of Weinstein, you think of Hollywood. In many ways, having a British screenwriter and German director helped She Said gain some objectivity in its subject, and that reflects in its perspective shifting. As the book writers, Kantor and Twohey couldn’t help but become characters, but they aren’t the showy roles like Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffman took on in 1976”s All The President’s Men. That film is dynamite but revolves around a subject quite different than what is being exposed here. There’s no ‘gotcha’ journalism on display because it would betray privacy that was so pivotal. So, while we see the journalists at home, it’s for context rather than moving the story along. You can rest assured there are no scenes with Kantor’s husband complaining that she never is home to cook dinner or Twohey’s chastising her for missing out on a crucial newborn milestone.

The less-flash approach might give the impression She Said is a tad flat, and it does start to coast slightly around the halfway mark. It only becomes clearer later that this is a “just the facts” brand of entertainment, and it’s not that Schrader is purposely holding razzle-dazzle back; it’s that this is how it was, and no elaboration/embellishment is needed. Besides, how can you complain about anything when you have an entire cast full of marvelous performances? Mulligan and Kazan are excellent, as are Patricia Clarkson (The East) and Andre Braugher (The Gambler) as the NYT higher-ups that guide them with a steady hand to keep going.   The consistently excellent (seriously, always) Jennifer Ehle (Saint Maud) plays a pivotal role with grace but keep your eyes peeled for Samantha Morton’s ridiculously terrific work as one of the bolder Weinstein accusers. Morton’s (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) only got one scene, but it’s so ferociously good, she makes taking a sip of water so commanding. I swear I saw our entire audience clutching their sodas, all gulping at the same time she paused to have a drink. 

No amount of time could ever truly capture the details of this piece. I’ve read most of the books published on this scandal/movement and am still stunned by the number of influential people who looked the other way while this was happening. One of them is a producer on this film and while doing this feels like atonement, there is so much more that needs to be done to start to correct these errors in judgment. She Said is a small movie but a mighty one…and one of the year’s best. 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A timid typesetter hasn’t a ghost of a chance of becoming a reporter – until he decides to solve a murder mystery and ends up spending a fright-filled night in a haunted house.
Stars: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Skip Homeier, Dick Sargent, Reta Shaw, Lurene Tuttle, Philip Ober
Director: Alan Rafkin
Rated: G
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Growing up, from an early age, I can remember The Andy Griffith Show being on constantly in the background. Both my parents had been kids when it originally aired, and it brought them the warm nostalgia that led their generation to create Nick at Nite, beaming reruns out to the early adopters of cable television. As a second-generation consumer of the show, the homespun lessons and charm didn’t go unappreciated. Still, at the time, it was a roadblock to cartoons or more “serious” shows like The Incredible Hulk and The Six-Million Dollar Man. I do know that I learned to whistle by way of its famous theme song.

The absolute breakout star of that lauded series was Don Knotts, and after winning five Primetime Emmy Awards for his role as lovable Deputy Barney Fife, he left the series for greener pastures in 1966. By greener, I meant a higher-paying career in the movies. After the success of 1964’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Knotts was encouraged to try on the role of leading man, and his first project after departing the safety of his long-tenured job was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. This film, drafted by two writers from The Andy Griffith Show by request of Knotts himself, was tailor-made for the actor, playing to his strengths and expanding on the charisma that had so endeared him to audiences until that point.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is one movie that sticks out like a beacon in my brain, as it was frequently rebroadcasted during my childhood. Revisiting it recently reminded me how effortlessly watchable it is, maintaining a light-hearted spring in its step throughout. It may suggest scares in its title, and true, there is a mystery to uncover, but it’s of the Scooby-Doo variety and akin to a big-screen adventure of Barney Fife had he moved out of Mayberry and set up shop in a new town.   

Knotts plays Luther Heggs from Rachel, Kansas, who dreams of becoming a reporter for the Rachel Courier Express. Toiling away as a typesetter, he’s ignored by editor George Beckett (Dick Sargent, aka Darren #2 on Bewitched) and teased by star reporter Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier). Ollie also happens to be dating Alma Parker (Joan Staley), a beauty that the nervous Luther has long pined for. Luther gets an opportunity to pen a big-time story when a puff piece he writes on an infamous mansion, the site of a murder-suicide years before, becomes the talk of the town. 

When his editor assigns him to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house on the anniversary of the tragic event and then report back on his spooky stay, Luther takes it as a sign that he might finally get the job of his dreams…and perhaps the girl (Alma) of them too. When the night arrives, the creepy house reveals several secrets that send the town into a tizzy, making Luther a local hero but the target of its owner, who is now unable to sell the house because of its possessed state. Can Luther stop his knees shaking long enough to prove in a court of law that the house is haunted? And is it haunted, or is something else mysterious at play?

There is something soothing about watching movies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Filmed on the backlot of Universal Studios in Hollywood, you’ll be able to spot several locations that have shown up in many movies over the years. You’ll also pick out the faces of familiar supporting players from film and TV, and I liked knowing that they all drove in every morning, parked their cars, ate lunch together, and made this spirited film. It’s nothing mind-blowing in terms of story, effects, acting, or directing (though I will say the oft-repeated music cues burrow into your brain), but what shows is professionalism at its most efficient. Knotts is a riot and could have likely acted in the film alone, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken would have been nearly as entertaining. The ensemble, especially a host of old ladies playing members of Luther’s boarding house or busybodies, is often a hoot.

I’ve offered several films so far this season that might be too much to handle for those who don’t find horror their bag. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is that horror-lite selection you can choose if you want to say you watched a horror movie this year without giving yourself a nightmare while you do it. I think you’ll find this one as entertaining as I did.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hospice nurse working at a spooky New Orleans plantation home finds herself entangled in a mystery involving the house’s dark past.
Stars: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant
Director: Iain Softley
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Released in mid-August of 2005, it’s easy to see on reflection why The Skeleton Key didn’t unlock much business at the box office. Back then, summer was about those critical months for blockbusters between May and July. That final blazing hot month of August was usually reserved for bold swing comedies which studios pushed out with their fingers crossed. So, understanding that this Kate Hudson thriller came out a week after The Wedding Crashers was knocked off the #1 slot by the big-screen adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard gives you more context to its early reputation as a flop that sunk fast. Let’s not forget it barely had time to gather momentum before The 40-Year-Old Virgin arrived the following weekend.

Good movies eventually find their audiences, though, and over the last 17 years, The Skeleton Key has often meandered its way to a deservedly high position on the “Best Scary Movies to Watch Now” lists you may have searched for. Written by Ehren Krueger, hot off the American adaptation of The Ring and still contributing to success in 2022 with Top Gun: Maverick, this Universal Studios film boasts a small but mighty cast of strong actors and a reliably spooky setting. Despite some slightly cringe-y and questionable cultural missteps in writing and some phoned-in directing (by the amazingly named Iain Softley), it’s an assured good time for those seeking a firmly PG-13 scare.

Coping with unresolved issues with her late father by dedicating herself to hospice care work, Caroline (Hudson, Mother’s Day) accepts a live-in job for Ben, a recent stroke victim (John Hurt, Jackie) at a remote plantation home in the New Orleans bayou. A lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) hired by the man’s wife Violet (Gena Rowlands, The Notebook) to oversee the estate assures Caroline that the work will be easy; it will be dealing with the headstrong Violet that will be the biggest chore. Supposedly the last nurse hired quit, but Caroline is determined to stick it out no matter the personality differences, especially after seeing Ben’s state of despair.

Moving into the isolated house and given a skeleton key that opens its numerous rooms, Caroline is immersed in the couple’s lives and quickly learns their strange ways. Violet has her routines with Ben and expects Caroline to stick to her prescribed “remedies” to keep him calm. Of course, when finding a locked door in the dusty attic, she can’t help but be curious as to what may be behind a space meant to be off-limits. Using her key and a suitable time when Violet is otherwise distracted, she discovers remnants of local occultism and evidence of the conjuring and rituals used by previous house inhabitants.

Convinced Ben’s stroke-like state is due to one such ritual likely inflicted by Violet, Caroline delves into the tradition of Hoodoo and how it may have come to target her patient. The closer she finds the source, the more the target of a growing evil appears to point in her direction. Learning a few simple tricks of her own may stave off a casual conjuring, but it can’t compete with practitioners with a plan, a plan bigger than Caroline could ever imagine.

I remember seeing The Skeleton Key when it was released in theaters and reacting like many then, finding it to be serviceable entertainment with an ending that’s difficult to unpack in the moment. By the time you returned to your car, you’d nearly forgotten it all. What changed over the last two decades? Well, it is one of those movies that’s better on a second watch once you know the ending and can see how Krueger drops hints along the way of what’s to come. Understanding that going in makes subsequent viewings of The Skeleton Key incredibly fun. Just the other night, when I watched it with friends, we could pause it after the big reveal and connect some dots, something audiences couldn’t do in theaters back in 2005. Naturally, not understanding how it all fit together (and not being given enough time to do so) would leave you frustrated.

Not seeing it in so long, you also forget how good the performances are. Even six years into her career, Hudson was riding her peak rom-com wave, so The Skeleton Key was seen as a bit of a left-turn change-up. She’s good here, and while I would have liked to see some more diversity overall in the cast (Parenthood’s Joy Bryant is frustratingly just the black best friend who conveniently is there to explain the ethos of Hoodoo to her white pig-tailed roommate), Hudson is more than appropriate for the role. She pairs nicely with Rowlands as an aged Southern belle type that says things like “Fiddlesticks” and ends most phrases with “child,” No one can switch from sweet to menace and back again quite as pointedly as Rowlands and this is a great example. The late Hurt impresses as usual with an essentially non-verbal but physically demanding role, while Sarsgaard’s Southern accent is less present than he is in the movie. 

Worth a rewatch in October or any month you feel the urge, The Skeleton Key has already had its history rewritten by viewers who have discovered it again at home. It’s an excellent model for how a movie can open with a whimper but roar back over the years on good word of mouth. If you’ve never seen it, make sure to take your time to absorb the finale. If it’s been a while, welcome back. You’ll be glad you came back for a return visit.

31 Days to Scare ~ Duel

The Facts:

Synopsis: A business commuter is pursued and terrorized by the malevolent driver of a massive tractor-trailer.
Stars: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Carey Loftin
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  With directing, as in any artistic medium, it often takes time to develop your craft and find your signature style. No amount of formal education can prepare you for the rigor of getting out there and doing it, working with a crew, and the logistics of the business of filmmaking. There are compromises to be made along the way in service to many people that sign on the dotted line, and how one navigates this process is key to their ongoing success.

Then there are those rare unicorns of the industry that are natural champions, who make it look easy from the moment they arrive on the scene. Maybe it’s because it was their pre-ordained destiny, or perhaps, they came along and filled a necessary gap at just the right time. Whatever the reason, they came out of the gate burning bright and blazing throughout their career. The peaks outweighed the valleys, and their eventual obit won’t speak of any setbacks but of the advances they made, contributions that will go on forever.

You must put a name like Steven Spielberg at the top of that list. Born in the late ’40s to a middle-class Jewish family in Cincinnati, OH, the stories of a 12-year-old Spielberg making his first film involving a train crash are legendary. (At least to movie nerds like me.)  Creating films into his teens and dreaming of making it in Hollywood, Spielberg eventually caught the attention of a Universal Studios vice-president, who gave him his first job directing for the television wing of the studio. Working with the likes of Joan Crawford on his first gig, Spielberg continued to impress with his exciting approach to using the camera to assist in telling the story.

This early work led to the TV movie that would change Spielberg’s career: Duel. Based on a short story from Richard Matheson (who adapted it for the 1971 film), it’s got the simplest of set-ups miraculously stretched to a nail-biting feature-length. A businessman (Dennis Weaver) is driving across the Mojave Desert and inexplicably attracts the ire of a tanker truck driven by an unseen individual. As he continues his trip, the businessman is stalked by this truck through the twisting mountain roads and dangerous terrain, seemingly actively trying to do more than just run him off the road. Whether the increasingly terrified man slows down or speeds up, the truck continues to stalk him until a showdown at the edge of a canyon gorge. 

Debuting on ABC on November 20, 1971, Duel scored so high in both the ratings and with critics that Spielberg was brought back to shoot more footage so the film could be released theatrically in the US and abroad. A new 90-minute Duel contained more scary scenes between Weaver and the terror truck and a few more character-establishing scenes for Weaver. You can tell what scenes were shot after the fact because these inserts almost signal a forced acceleration that doesn’t always pan out as the filmmakers wanted. That’s especially true in a poorly written scene with Weaver on the phone with his wife who awaits his return.

Those quibbles aside, when it’s just Weaver vs. the truck (so skillfully driven by Carey Loftin), it’s a breathless excursion that ratches up the tension with each new mile clocked on the odometer. Weaver is perfectly cast as a mostly bland everyman that starts to unravel with frenetic energy wondering why he’s being targeted. In the sublayer of Weaver’s performance, you get the impression his character may be a bit of a blowhard in his daily life, so the “why are you picking on me” vibe feels like divine retribution. Yet, the situation is so realistic it’s easy to put ourselves in his place.

The comparisons to Jaws are inevitable, and Spielberg used visual and aural elements of this finale in the conclusion of his 1975 summer blockbuster. You can almost draw a straight line from Duel’s man vs. machine showdown on the barren highway to the confrontation the three men have with the great white shark on the open ocean. That’s another reason shooting outside the studio was so crucial for Spielberg to fight for in both movies. While it can be humorous in Duel to see the same landmarks fly by repeatedly due to Spielberg and cinematographer Jack A. Marta having limited highway to work with, there’s an openness to the location shoot that gives the impression that our leading man is very much on his own. 

Telling its story from the moment the credits begin, Duel is a wonderful (and still menacing) film to look back on as an origin story for a director on the rise. Though he’d stick around TV for a few more years, he wouldn’t make his feature debut with the Goldie Hawn-led box office disappointment The Sugarland Express until 1974. Still, the good critical notices for that film and the strong reputation he’d built in television, especially in Duel, is why producers trusted him with Jaws. Without that, who knows where we’d be today and if the summer blockbuster would have ever existed?

Movie Review ~ Bros

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two gay men with commitment problems are maybe, possibly, probably stumbling towards love. Maybe. They’re both very busy.
Stars: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Dot-Marie Jones, Ts Madison, Miss Lawrence, Eve Lindley, Jim Rash, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Debra Messing, Bowen Yang, Harvey Fierstein, Guy Branum, Amanda Bearse, Jai Rodriguez
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  To most people reading this review, it may not seem like a lot is riding on the release of Bros, but it’s another colossal watershed moment for Hollywood. While there have been “gay” romantic comedies over the years, few of them have had stars that identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community playing the lead roles. Often reduced to arch stereotypes that support the lead, LGBTQ+ actors have rarely had their moment in the spotlight, let alone starred in unironic films about their non-platonic love lives. Then along came Billy.

Billy Eichner that is. The 44-year-old comedian’s early career promise was evident with appearances on Conan O’Brien that led to his riotously funny show Billy on the Street. Originally airing on the hard-to-find truTV, it featured Eichner furiously running around NYC and stopping random strangers to ask them off-the-wall trivia questions, often for prizes. As it gained popularity, celebrities started to join Eichner for his irreverent guerilla game show, and the powers that be on bigger networks noticed the attention he was getting. Eventually, this led to Difficult People, a half-hour series he created with friend Julie Klausner running for three seasons on Hulu before being unceremoniously canceled in its prime. 

By then, Eichner was on his way to guest starring on TV shows and movies (he voiced Timon in Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King) and booking appearances at events showcasing his wry wit and dry observances on all things affecting our modern society. This brings us to his deal with Universal Pictures to co-write and star in Bros, the first gay romantic comedy from a mainstream studio featuring an entirely LGBTQ+ principal cast. A lot to shoulder but if anyone was up to the task, Eichner was confidently the one to do it.

Directed by co-writer Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement) and co-starring Luke Macfarlane, on one hand Bros serves as a great example of when you amplify the right voices, you wind up telling everyone’s story. Eichner and MacFarlane are a modern, complex pairing moving through the ups & downs of romance, finding laughs while targeting the heart. On the flip side, as a member of the very community it is raising up, I will say that while I found much to appreciate from the story and breadth of characters it represents, a closer examination finds the film to be structurally shaky as it overreaches in its talking points, inclusive to the point where it feels like casting by checkbox and lacking in the kind of tight, snappy editing that was the secret ingredient to the best romantic comedies it strives to be mentioned with.

Here’s the deal. No matter who you love, I’m going to give an honest read of any movie that comes my way. At the beginning of Bros, I struggled to find a rhythm with the comedy because I couldn’t decide if it was a commentary on modern gay romance or a gay romantic comedy with side commentary. So, we see Bobby (Eichner), a popular podcaster turned museum curator, viewing the myriad relationships around him and enjoying his freedom while illustrating his shenanigans trying to find quick love only to be let down by the experience. (How very Stephen Sondheim’s Company of you…Bobby) Gay dating apps are presented as shallow end-of-the-line pick-up spots for the desperate, while accepting the love you feel you are worthy of is Bobby’s modus operandi.

That mood shifts when Aaron (Macfarlane, Single All The Way) catches Bobby’s eye at a club. The hunky beefcake is a hairless Greek god next to Bobby’s fuzzy but attractive frame, and the two couldn’t be more mismatched, but they both share a connection that keeps them coming back to one another for reasons they can’t explain. That’s what the movie tells us, at least. While Eichner and Macfarlane have an excellent rapport onscreen and friendly chemistry as people, their characters never feel like their bond burns so deep they will go through some of the misery the script puts them through. It’s not until nearly an hour has passed that either character relaxes enough to let the other in just a bit, but even that is fleeting.

It feels almost wrong to nitpick at something as rare as Bros, and while I wholly recommend it because of its unique place in the canon of romantic comedies, I find that my expectations went a bit unmet at times. Don’t get me wrong, Eichner and Stoller’s script has blazingly funny lines, and an Emmy-winning sitcom star has a two-scene cameo that’s an absolute scream. Still, there are stretches where it often feels like it’s floating just below the surface of great or missing out on its possible full potential. Maybe that’s because Stoller’s directing isn’t as pulled together as it usually is; it’s for sure not edited with the crisp touch for sharp comedy (or continuity) like previous films. There’s also a strange fixation on allowing characters to shout/scream their lines when an “inside voice” would do just fine. (And this is coming from someone who can be the loudest person in the room when he wants.)

Based on the reaction of my audience, I’m likely in the minority of opinion. The packed house roared throughout the film, and I sensed their engagement with nary a break in the spell that was cast over them by Eicher, Macfarlane, and an eclectic supporting cast. Then again, these screenings often attract a curated crowd. I also am curious to see how the aggressive marketing of the movie might backfire. As much as Eichner and the studio have been pushing Bros, the publicity has seemed more plea than promo in recent weeks. I’m crossing my fingers Bros can be the crossover hit it needs to be to encourage more studios to invest their resources in other films that can speak to the everyday lives of the LBGTQ+ community and continue to include them (well, us) as the main focus in future projects

Movie Review ~ E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – 40th Anniversary IMAX Release

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lonely ten-year-old boy summons the courage to help a gentle alien stranded on Earth return to his home planet.
Stars: Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: P.G.
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: What more is there to say about Steven Spielberg’s 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that hasn’t already been covered in countless reviews since its release 40 years ago? Deservedly firmly ensconced on numerous “All-Time Best” lists, the four-time Oscar-winning film (three technical awards and one for John Williams’s unforgettable score) has seen several re-releases throughout the past four decades. A controversial “special edition” was released to theaters for the 20th Anniversary with additional scenes and digitally altered/enhanced effects to please the director more than anyone. While it wasn’t the worst director tinkering post-release until that point (George Lucas held that distinction), Spielberg realized his error quickly, and this edition where walkie-talkies replaced guns is now considered out of circulation.

For the 40th Anniversary, a Spielberg-approved IMAX release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in its original version is out, and I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to see this Best Picture nominated treasure in the theaters again. I try to make my rounds with Spielberg’s canon every five years, and it was the perfect time to revisit his sensitive exploration of a relationship between a suburban California boy and a friendly alien marooned nearby. I’ve always had a strong emotional pull toward the film because it’s one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater and then owning on VHS. It’s also a movie that brings back vivid memories of connecting the sentimental feelings a character is experiencing with how I was receiving them. As I grew older, the poignancy of the movie only intensified.

Perhaps it’s the gorgeous IMAX presentation that brings stunning new clarity to Allen Daviau’s cinematography and that glorious Williams music, but I found this showing of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to be overwhelmingly affective (and, I suppose, effective). It’s stirring the way screenwriter Melissa Mathison highlights separation immediately after E.T. is left behind by his alien family as they flee from government agents tracking their visit. By chance, he wanders into Elliott’s garden shed in a nearby suburban development, where he’s discovered but treated with kindness by the boy (Henry Thomas, Doctor Sleep), that understands the need to be comforted. Still reeling from the recent separation of his parents, the youngster is too old to play with his younger sister but too young to fit in with the friends his older brother hangs out with. The mismatched pair find each other by fate but perhaps it was meant to be. Their symbiotic relationship goes more profound, and I appreciate their invisible link more with each viewing.

Instead of Mathison and Spielberg wasting time on fish-out-of-water antics, the focus remains singularly on Elliott. He takes it upon himself to help E.T. back to his family and make him whole again with the help of his brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) and sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, Blended). Aside from a brief diversion to a school-day biology class that takes a stand against frog dissection, the movie never leaves the small world that Elliott knows. It also rarely shows the faces of any adult other than his mother, Mary (Dee Wallace, The Frighteners), keeping the movie’s perspective at a child’s level. When you’re a kid watching the movie, you don’t notice these subtle ways the filmmakers have engineered the film to speak to children by, in a way, taking a knee and looking them in the eye.

As an adult critic reviewing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, I can only give this the highest of marks. The movie is truly a gift, and that it has held up for forty years with its lovely emotions intact, without ever feeling sappy or sentimental, is a testament to the care Spielberg and co. made it. The performances, especially the kids, mostly Barrymore, and unequivocally Thomas, are outstanding, and knowing that the Academy could have given out a special Oscar to Thomas for his work and didn’t is a real shame. Had this been released today, the kind of realistically heart-tugging acting Thomas is doing would have almost certainly landed him in the Best Actor conversation.

Reviewing this as a long-time fan, I urge you to make the time to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in IMAX and bring your family and friends as well. It’s a tough movie for kids, I’m not going to lie, and I remember being emotionally distraught when I saw it originally. However, my parents used it as a way to talk to me about my feelings and encouraged me not to be afraid to show them. Waiting “until your kids are ready” is the choice of every parent, but this is one exceptional film your children will remember forever. After listening to and understanding their point of view, talking about it with them is imperative to open dialogue moving forward.

The Silver Bullet ~ JAWS (1975) – IMAX Re-Release

The Trailer:

Synopsis: When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community off Cape Cod, it’s up to a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer to hunt the beast down.

Release Date:  June 20, 1975 (original) / September 2, 2022 (Re-Release)

Thoughts: Even a casual visitor to this site would get a small inclination that Steven Spielberg’s boffo blockbuster JAWS from 1975 played a big part in shaping my young movie-going mind.  My idea of the perfect film, it’s a bona fide classic that I don’t need to defend because time has proven it was built to last.  I watch it at least once a year at home and make sure to catch it on the big screen any time it surfaces.  I knew this was arriving on IMAX, along with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and knowing that Spielberg had a hand in making it happen gives me even more confidence this will be a fantastic presentation of an already unforgettable thrill ride.  As a bonus, it’s also showing up in a separate RealD 3D conversion, though I can’t confirm if that will also be an IMAX experience.  Arriving right on time for the Memorial Day crowds, the men facing the gargantuan shark might need a bigger boat but audiences attending JAWS in IMAX shouldn’t need a bigger screen.  This trailer is well-edited and, aside from some chintzy font that makes it feel like a low-budget effort, will surely drum up some excitement from crowds watching it before current (like Nope) and upcoming releases.

Movie Review ~ Nope

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Barbie Ferreira, Donna Mills, Eddie Jemison, Fynn Bachman, Keith David, Wrenn Schmidt, Oz Perkins
Director: Jordan Peele
Rated: R
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With the commercial and critical success of 2017’s Get Out, a zeitgeist horror that broke big at the box office, Hollywood and audiences waited for what writer/director Jordan Peele would do next. Having been recently anointed with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his water cooler conversation starter debut, Peele had the freedom to go wherever his mood desired. That follow-up was Us, and while that 2019 film gave viewers more to scream about than think over, differing from his debut in that regard, it was nonetheless a thrillingly original sophomore outing. Apart from dabbling in producing and lending story ideas/input to other filmmakers (like the strong continuation of Candyman in 2021), Peele’s third feature was kept tightly under wraps, with only the title, cast, teaser image, and vague plot hints dropped during its production.

It’s been some time since I’ve been to a big movie like Nope with little knowledge of what I was about to see. That alone was enough to elicit a few good shivers as the lights dimmed and the Universal logo spun in front of me. Peele had turned genre films on their heads before and upended our expectations with his previous films, so what would this new feature bring? The answer played out over the next two hours, and while it continues Peele’s unbroken record of producing elevated horror films far more complex than you’d imagine at first glance, ultimately, by the conclusion, it adds so much to an intriguing structure that it buckles and becomes shapeless. That’s not to say your nerves won’t get a good jangle overall.

Training horses for the entertainment industry has stretched for generations for the Haywood family, and their name has become synonymous with quality. After losing their father to a tragic accident, Haywood siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, Queen & Slim) and Emerald (Keke Palmer, Hustlers) are left in charge of the family business and associated ranch in a desolate desert basin of California. Neither has quite the same influence as their father, and while Emerald has some showmanship to fall back on, her fast-talking charm can’t keep them afloat for long. With little prospects on the horizon, OJ is considering an offer from the proprietor of nearby Jupiter Gulch to buy their land and all remaining horses.

That deal originates from Ricky Park (Steven Yeun, The Humans), a former child star known for surviving a horrific incident on set during a live taping of his popular television show. Relocating with his family after taking over a rundown wild west town, Park has revitalized the clapboard creaker into a glittery tourist trap, complete with a live cowboy show that’s about to unveil a new act shortly. That new act is just one of the mysteries underlying a larger reveal that Peele keeps concealed for a significant amount of Nope’s runtime. The path to that reveal is a little rocky, though.

First off, it’s clear from the start that Peele had an end game planned and worked backward because all of the pieces fit together nice and snug. That’s great, but it leaves the first half of the movie with a lot of exposition and threads that have to be spun so Peele and the characters can weave them all together later. I think there are a few too many outlying secondary threads looped in that may add some brief dynamics to minor characters but don’t ultimately pan out for the movie as a whole. It’s admirable to give these periphery players weight, but when it distracts from the main narrative, it becomes an issue to solve instead of pass on.

I’m not going to tell you what’s happening in and around the valley occupied by the Haywoods and the Park family. I will say that something has got the horses spooked and is soon making them vanish altogether. Other unexplained phenomena involve items falling from the sky and weather systems that don’t behave as planned. However, saying too much more might lead me to reveal more that I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling. When Peele does pull back the curtain, it’s in ways that would make someone like Spielberg proud, and fans of films like Jaws or Tremors might get a real kick out of the influence Peele certainly took from those earlier movies.

What remains constant in Peele’s films is his knack for strong casting. Oscar-winner Kaluuya is a bit more subdued than usual here, a fitting match for his laid-back, make no waves character. Still, with other players like Brandon Perea as a tightly wired tech agent helping the Haywood siblings and the great Michael Wincott (Hitchcock) growling his way through the role of an excitement-seeking director coming on so strong, it makes Kaluuya seem asleep for much of the film. Yeun is third billed, which is a bit deceitful since his role is relatively tiny compared to Perea and Wincott. By far the most impressive is Palmer in full force mode. Starting the film as the free-wheeling younger sister bothered by little that doesn’t involve her and ending as a take-no-prisoners leader, Palmer is afforded scene after scene to steal by Peele and happily walks away with the film. It’s another example (like Lupita Nyong’o in Us) of Peele having an uncanny ability to write better for his female character than his male ones.

For those wondering, yes, Nope has some freakishly frightening bits…especially one that is returned to often involving an out-of-control animal that was hard to watch. More than anything, it’s Peele’s most visually impressive movie to date. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Ad Astra), shooting numerous sequences in IMAX, there’s a large-scale beauty to the film, much of it playing into the Old West themes Peele introduces early and references frequently. That ‘Wild West’ feel comes through in Michael Abels (Detroit) magnificent score, which grows more rousing with each new music cue. 

To say that Nope is my least favorite of Peele’s films is like comparing three satisfying meals from a trendy new restaurant you had and ranking the one served with potato chips lower than the other two served with fries. All fed you and were impressive creations; you simply preferred the two that were a bit crisper overall. By all means, say ‘Yep’ to Nope and go in with as little knowledge as possible (I’ve honestly given you the bare minimum), and I think you’ll enjoy what Peele has cooked up.