Movie Review ~ Fast X

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dom Toretto and his family are targeted by the vengeful son of drug kingpin Hernan Reyes.
Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jason Momoa, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, John Cena, Jason Statham, Sung Kang, Alan Ritchson, Daniela Melchoir, Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, Rita Moreno
Director: Louis Leterrier
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 141 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  After a four-year gap between the eighth and ninth entries (partly because of the pandemic), it’s great to be back behind the cinematic wheel of the Fast and Furious family saga for their tenth time around the track, barely twenty-fourth months after the last breathless conclusion. Plenty has happened during that time, with Fast X’s initial director (and long-time franchise helmer/writer) Justin Lin exiting due to conflict with star Vin Diesel and announcing that the series was headed for its final laps. Set to conclude with a 12th film that gives audiences plenty of time to gear up their goodbyes and the filmmakers to go out with a sonic boom…it all starts with the uproariously entertaining Fast X.

This series has always rewarded fans deeply entrenched in the films, so the more you know about the previous installments, the better. That’s particularly beneficial for Fast X, which begins with the heist finale of 2010’s Fast Five that ended the life of drug lord Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida). A little ret-con work has been done to insert new shots of Hernan’s son, Dante (Jason Momoa, Aquaman), who witnesses his father’s death and vows pain and suffering on all involved.

A decade later, Dom (Diesel, Riddick) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, She Dies Tomorrow) are again adjusting to a quieter life living under the radar and staying out of trouble. Raising Dom’s son (Leo Abelo Perry) in the stable family environment Dom and his siblings Mia (Jordana Brewster, Furious 7) and Jakob (John Cena, Vacation Friends) didn’t have is the priority. However, it becomes tricky to do so when the past doesn’t leave them alone. An unexpected visit from nemesis Cipher (Charlize Theron, Bombshell), who turns up on Dom and Letty’s doorstep bruised and bloodied, warns of the danger heading their way.

That deadly threat is Dante Reyes, seeking costly revenge on Dom and others that played a part in his father’s death. A flashy big baddie with a bark as bad as his bite, Dante plays a ruthless game with Dom and his gang introduced with a mission in Rome that goes awry for Roman (Tyrese Gibson, Fast & Furious 6), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, End of the Road), Han (Sung Kang, Raya and the Last Dragon), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, Army of Thieves) and culminates with a high-speed chase through Portugal’s highways, tunnels, and over a dam. In between, we visit Rio de Janeiro and Antarctica and get a few excellent surprise appearances along the way I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. 

While it sets the stage for Fast 11 in 2025 (which will probably feel like a bridge to Fast 12 shortly after), there’s an undeniable surge of power in Fast X that hasn’t been felt in a few chapters of this saga. Maybe it’s new director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) bringing his typically breathless directing pace out in full force, or it could be that the cast is just primed and ready to party, but Fast X is in a constant state of motion that never lets up.

Let’s talk about that cast, shall we? While Diesel is an immovable object at this point (the voice is so low I had to take a lozenge halfway through in solidarity) who never, not once, gets his white shirt dirty, he surrounds himself with a splendid supporting troupe that continues to hone their characters to a fine polish. Rodriguez is the consistent MVP of the group, bringing more pathos to a once-throwaway role than it initially deserved. I still am crossing my fingers for some one-off installment for Gibson, Bridges, and Emmanuel – all three have demonstrated they are a terrific trio that could hold their own like Jason Statham (Spy) and Dwayne Johnson (Jungle Cruise) did in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. A brief cameo from Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) as Statham’s mum is about on par with the early appearance of Rita Moreno (West Side Story) as Dom’s grandmother, who pops in to talk about, what else? family.

Newcomer Alan Ritchson (Ghosts of War) as a gruff agent now in charge of calling the shots, taking over for Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride), has the appropriate muscle-bulk to play Gun Show Grunt with the gang but can be a bit one note. Daniela Melchoir (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), as a new racer that crosses paths with Dom and Dante, feels a bit shoehorned in, but not as much as Oscar-winner Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) does in a head-scratcher of a role. Playing another government agent that feels like she’s there only to solve some script problems, Larson also doesn’t seem to understand what she’s there to do either. It’s a strange appearance.

Strange doesn’t even begin to describe what Momoa is doing…but it works much better for his job. Momoa is by far the best villain yet in these films and almost instantly becomes a character you’re desperate to see more of, even if you know his presence means terrible news for our good guys. Choices that wouldn’t work on any other actor work brilliantly in Momoa’s large, capable hands, and there’s not one frame of the film where he isn’t in complete command of the proceedings. It’s such a scene-stealing role that I’m shocked Diesel let him get away with it, knowing how Diesel likes to be the center of attention. The one-liners and line readings are perfectly molded to the character, and if the role weren’t written with Momoa in mind, I’d love to know who else was considered for the part.

True, Fast X doesn’t have as high an incredulity factor as previous installments (spoiler alert: no one goes into orbit), but that doesn’t mean the stunts performed are any less jaw-dropping. Our audience still whooped and clapped throughout and appropriately went nuts for a finale (and post-credit sequence) that will send you out of the theater buzzing on a “did they just do that to us?” high. Buckle up for this one because it is an adrenaline-fueled ride that doesn’t bother ever to hit the brakes on its audience. 

The Art of the Tease(rs) ~ Child’s Play 2 (1990)

Occasionally, I’ll revive one of my old “special” columns from my early days. Formerly titled In Praise of Teasers, I’ve rebranded my look at coming attractions The Art of the Tease(rs) and brought it back for a short run over the next few weeks. 

Starting in 2013, I used these peeks at past previews to highlight the fun (and short!) creatively mounted campaigns that generated buzz from audiences who caught them in front of movies back in the day. Some of these I remember seeing myself, and some I never had the pleasure of watching. More than anything, it makes me long for studios and advertising agencies to go back to showing less in modern trailers because the amount of spoiler-heavy material shared now is ghastly. Today, where all aspects of a movie are pretty well known before an inch of footage is seen, the subtlety of a well-crafted “teaser” trailer is gone.

Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there but pay attention to how each of these teasers works uniquely to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

Ask around about this teaser trailer for Child’s Play 2, and you’ll hear several horror fans easily able to tell you where they were when they first saw it (in theaters before Problem Child?). It’s short, sweet, and memorable. I’d also wager a bet and say that for many, like me, this was the first of the Chucky films longtime franchise fans saw, not the snazzy 1988 original. Not knocking the dependable 1988 Tom Holland-directed introduction to the cute doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer that launched a successful inventory of films plus a recent TV series, but John Lafia’s follow-up is often highlighted as a more colorful and fun outing. They’re just two different apples off the same twisted tree. I like the taste of both, but sometimes I prefer the sour tang of Child’s Play 2 more than the crispness of the one that started it all. Plus…can you deny how fantastic the ending of this one is?

Universal Studios (which bought the rights to the franchise from United Artists in 1990) did good with this nifty teaser, developing not one but two taglines. “It’s Playtime…Again.” and the infamous “Sorry Jack, Chucky’s Back” are indeed for the industry history books. A full trailer would follow later, but it’s not nearly as effective as this brief warning to anyone resting easy, thinking they were safe from another recess with our favorite Good Guy.

For more teasers, check out my posts on Batman, The Golden Child, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Flashdance, Mortal Kombat, Strange Days, Fire in the Sky, The Fifth Element, The Addams Family, Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch, Psycho (1998), The Game, In the Line of Fire

Movie Review ~ Knock at the Cabin

The Facts:

Synopsis: While vacationing at a remote cabin, a family of three is suddenly held hostage by four strangers who demand they sacrifice one of their own to avert the apocalypse.
Stars: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  There comes the point in every film from director M. Night Shyamalan where the director has laid his proverbial cards out on the table, and the audience has to choose. Do they forge ahead on the path laid out by Shyamalan (sometimes inelegantly), or do they reject it outright and spend the remainder wishing they’d opted for the rom-com in the next theater? With the once-hot director staging an intriguing comeback since 2015’s The Visit, more often than not, the viewer is more interested to see how things will turn out. (As opposed to a film like 2008’s The Happening when no one minded who wound up breathing by the time the credits rolled.)

After tripping a bit with 2019’s Glass and then literally wading into full-on silly waters with 2021’s Old, Shyamalan has taken a page from his successful Apple TV+ show Servant and delivered a compelling, tension-filled, one-setting thriller to kick off 2023. Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s frightening 2018 bestseller ‘The Cabin at the End of the World,’ Shyamalan has wisely retitled the film Knock at the Cabin (once you see it, you’ll know why) and tweaked the original screenplay drafted by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman which had bounced around unproduced for several years. The effect is 100 minutes of entertainment that reminds you how well Shyamalan can fiddle with our nerves using more than mere visual cues.

Wasting little time diving into the action, audiences find themselves in the woods near a remote cabin watching Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui in a knockout performance) collect grasshoppers. At the same time, her two dads relax on the back porch. The tranquility of her playtime is interrupted by Leonard (Dave Bautista, My Spy), a hulking figure emerging from nowhere that strikes up a conversation with the young girl. Our red alert is going off hardcore that Leonard is no good, but his easy-going charm works on Wen…for a while. When his three companions arrive with crudely assembled “tools,” the idle chatter turns ominous.

It’s here when things get a little dicey to talk about. If you’ve seen the preview or read any synopsis, it’s no spoiler to share that Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Persuasion), Adriane (Abby Quinn, Torn Hearts), and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Thunderpants) hold the family captive. Eric (Jonathan Groff, Frozen) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert) are then told they have to make an impossible decision for the rest of the world to continue. I won’t talk about the potential consequences of their unwillingness to participate as requested or if what the four outsiders are preaching is gospel. 

Interjected throughout are bits of the couple’s backstory before and after they adopted Wen, glimpses into their life that helps inform the second half of the film. The inclusion of these scenes may seem inconsequential at the time, but it’s another way Shyamalan uses his talents of emotional connection to round out his characters. Few writers/directors know how to do this as well, and in the midst of Shyamalan’s weird spinning out in his post-Signs era, audiences and critics alike failed to remember this overall strength.

One of Shyamalan’s best-cast films in ages, Knock at the Cabin, made me believe in the power of Bautista again after briefly being derailed by his shenanigans with the Guardians of the Galaxy films. His lead character has complexities that add unexpected dramatic weight. Also strong are Amuka-Bird and Quinn as ordinary people doing what they believe to be right and willing to take extreme action (in every sense of the word) to ensure what needs to happen happens. Groff makes inward gains in his work on creating three-dimensional characters that resemble real people, an area he’s struggled with. He’s helped along the way by Aldridge, who has to juggle more of the skeptical side of the coin, which is never easy. The weakest showing is Grint, the one member of the Harry Potter trio who can’t seem to find his niche outside of Hogwarts.

While intelligent for the most part, Knock at the Cabin isn’t above asking its characters to make a few head-shaking, eye-rolling maneuvers, i.e., why don’t people just shoot their attacker immediately? Thankfully, with a spooky score from Herdís Stefánsdóttir and moody camera work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Northman), Knock at the Cabin can maintain its tone right up until its finale. It’s one of the few Shyamalan films with a perfect ending, too. With its high-stakes, high-tension set-up, I don’t think I could revisit this Cabin soon, but this initial watch was worth the dark trip.

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


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.