Review of “Venom”

A privately-owned spaceship from the Life Foundation is bringing back samples from space when something goes wrong and it crashes in Malaysia. Life Foundation is owned by Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a wunderkind and genius in the field of bioengineering and his ambition is to cure disease and prolong life no matter the consequences. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist focusing on exposing the powerful taking advantage of the poor. He works for a cable network out of San Francisco and is known for his hard-hitting and uncompromising reporting. His boss gives him an assignment to do a puff piece on Dr. Drake and, despite his reservations, he agrees. Eddie is engaged to Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), an attorney working for a law firm representing Drake and Life Foundation in a wrongful death lawsuit. One night, Eddie is up late to get a drink and notices Anne’s laptop is blinking from an incoming email about the lawsuit and he reads it. The next day during the interview, Eddie asks Drake about the lawsuit and Drake abruptly ends the interview. Because of Drake’s power and influence, Eddie and Anne are both fired from their jobs and Anne breaks off her engagement with Eddie. Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) does research at Life Foundation. The spaceship that crashed was carrying intelligent alien lifeforms found on a comet. One of them escaped and caused the crash, but three others were still found in their containment chambers. Life Foundation has been bringing in homeless people and experimenting on merging the aliens, called symbiotes, with humans. Troubled by the lack of ethics Drake is showing, Skirth contacts Eddie. At first, he isn’t interested as Drake had already ruined his life, but he changes his mind when a street woman he knows disappears from her usual place. Skirth sneaks Eddie into the lab where he finds his friend and tries to get her out of a containment room. She gets out and attacks Eddie and the symbiote merged with her moves over to Eddie. Suddenly, Eddie has increased strength and agility and, the longer he is merged with the alien, the more control the symbiote that calls himself Venom exerts over Eddie. Drake sends his head of security, Roland Treece (Scott Haze), and his men after Eddie, but Venom doesn’t want to be captured as he has begun to like Eddie. Meanwhile, the symbiote that escaped the spaceship and caused the crash, is making his way to San Francisco by hijacking various people to get on planes and travel. That symbiote, called Riot, has plans for the next Life Foundation spaceship and for life on Earth.

“Venom” has been roasted by the real critics with 32% on Rotten Tomatoes and 35 on Metacritic. Consistent numbers like this usually mean a movie is awful and nearly unwatchable. I almost dreaded seeing Tom Hardy and the rest of the cast embarrass themselves in what was likely a poorly constructed and amateurish production. “Venom” has its problems, but it isn’t the two-hour catastrophe it has been made out to be.

“Venom” is actually pretty good. The strength of the film is in the performance of Tom Hardy. After Venom makes himself known, Hardy has to react to a voice that isn’t there (probably read off camera) and establish a relationship that hews close to the Odd Couple. Eddie is dealing with being blackballed by the journalism community and the loss of his relationship. He’d rather work a menial job and stay under the radar. Venom is an aggressive personality and comes into the partnership with a plan and Eddie has no choice but to come along. It is an uncomfortable arrangement at first that morphs into a friendship based on compromise (for now) and mutual respect. Each provides the other with something they need. It is both parasitic and cooperative and none of it would work without Tom Hardy’s ability to make us believe this impossible arrangement.

Riz Ahmed turns Carlton Drake into more than just your standard villain. Drake is looking to improve the quality of life for everyone on Earth. His methods of getting to that improvement are what make him a villain. Ahmed easily slips between the slick and likable philanthropist and the manipulative and power-hungry megalomaniac, sometimes within the same scene. Drake, while not the most deeply written character, clearly wants to make a difference in the world but doesn’t want to waste time on things like ethics or safe testing. He’s more of a “let’s see what happens” kind of guy and Riz Ahmed plays him in a way that is both likable and detestable.

If anyone is let down by the script it is Michelle Williams. Her Anne becomes willing to accept and believe just about anything she is told once the movie dives deep into the story. Her character sees Venom in action and understands the basics of what’s going on, but she also jumps in with both feet to an extent that seems unbelievable. I liked that she was willing to help, but Anne does things that don’t make sense given her lack of experience with alien symbiotes. While this willingness helps move the plot along it also weakens what could have been a much stronger character.

“Venom” can’t quite decide what it is. Is it a buddy comedy? Is it a superhero (or anti-hero) origin story? Is it a drama about ethics and the desire to put profits over people? The film tries to do all these things and only succeeds with one of them. When it focuses on the relationship between Eddie and Venom, the movie sails along smoothly. It is entertaining as we not only learn more about the symbiote, but about Eddie as well. It makes a strong case for the two being the focus of several movies in a shared Spider-Man universe which will eventually put the parasite and the web-slinger against each other in a film. I am hopeful the next movie will have a more focused story and not waste so much time on secondary story elements that might work in a comic book but not in a film.

“Venom” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action and language. Venom bites the heads off a couple of people. We don’t see the aftermath but there’s no doubting what happens. Venom throws characters around in a large battle scene. While Eddie doesn’t want to hurt anyone there are clearly some serious injuries and likely deaths. A character is impaled by a large spike emitted by one of the symbiotes. Another shoots several small spikes simultaneously, killing several people. There is other assorted violence including car crashes, rocket explosions, falls from great heights and more. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Director Ruben Fleischer is responsible for one of my favorite films: “Zombieland.” He will also be directing its sequel, “Zombieland Too,” due out next year. Most of his movies have been of a smaller scale until “Venom.” With a worldwide opening weekend of $205-million, and a debut in China in the future, it seems likely a sequel and an eventual meet up with Peter Parker are in the cards. I hope the story issues get worked out as Venom is an interesting character and Tom Hardy handles the double duty very well.

“Venom” gets four stars out of five.

This week I’ll be review “First Man” for

Other movies this week:

Bad Times at the El Royale—

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest news on TV, streaming and movies available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to

Review of “Hell Fest”

Natalie (Amy Forsyth) is home from college to see old friends. Her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) lives with a punk chick named Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) who has never been friendly with Natalie. The three young women are meeting up with three guys: Quinn (Christian James), Brooke’s boyfriend, Asher (Matt Mercurio), Taylor’s boyfriend and Gavin (Roby Attal), a friend of the girls that would like to date Natalie. They are headed to Hell Fest, a haunted amusement park filled with rides, games and several haunted houses. Characters are dressed in costume and roaming the park, scaring the patrons. A killer is also roaming the park in costume. He has killed before at another haunted house a couple of years earlier. He spots Natalie and her crew wandering around and begins following them. Natalie notices she is being followed and tells her friends, but they tell her she is being paranoid and he’s just a park worker. Soon, the killer begins knocking off her friends one by one with his sights set on Natalie.

“Hell Fest” has an interesting setting for a movie about a slasher: Meandering a haunted theme park and knocking victims off with nobody noticing. It should have been a fun, gory romp with a wicked sense of humor. Instead, it is a slow, plodding slog with a couple of memorable kills but a great deal of dead time (pun intended) between anything mildly interesting happening. It is filled with unlikable characters and all the wrong people die.

The killer, referred to as The Other, is never seen without his mask and isn’t identified in the credits. It doesn’t really matter as The Other is a bland antagonist. He’s a pale imitation of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. He’s all stalk and no actual menace. The mask is pretty good. It’s designed by Alterian, the same company that made the masks in “Scream” and “Happy Death Day.” It’s the best thing about the killer as he is otherwise the same kind of unstoppable force we’ve seen a hundred times and in better movies.

The non-killer characters are generic types: The good girl, the party girl, the bad influence and the boys they have sex with. Each actor could have been swapped around to a different role and it wouldn’t have made any difference. No one in the film is very likable. Even Natalie is kind of a stick in the mud, constantly being hounded into doing fun things with the group while she and Gavin have a clumsy and boring beginning of a relationship. If there were some interesting people on the screen it might be more watchable, but the blandness of everyone on screen turns a dull story into a real snooze.

I would have liked for the filmmakers to mix things up a bit. They make a good start with the first main character to die. The death is creative (if spoiled by a bit of business prior to the murder) and is properly gory. Had that creativity been carried over to the rest of the deaths I might have been more forgiving of the disinterest I had in the story. What might have made things more interesting is if the filmmakers had taken a chance and knocked off their main character Natalie. Of the three female leads she is by far the least interesting. Both Brooke and Taylor possess far more personality, even if it is muzzled to allow Natalie to be the focus. Like Alfred Hitchcock in “Psycho” killing off his big star Janet Leigh half way through the picture, knocking off Natalie early on would have awakened the audience from its slumber and focused their attention back on the film instead of their phones wondering what other movie they could see that would be better. None of these actors are household names so killing the character we are led to believe is the one that will survive (spoiler alert: She does) wouldn’t be a big risk. Instead, the filmmakers stay on the tried and true path much to the movie’s detriment.

“Hell Fest” is rated R for language, horror violence and some sexual references. There are several stabbings, an attempted decapitation, a head crushed by a giant mallet, a hypodermic needle through an eye and other stuff. The main characters crudely discuss the possibility of Natalie and Gavin engaging in sex later in the evening. Foul language is fairly common.

Horror movie icon Tony Todd is sold in the advertising as a big part of the cast. He isn’t. His role is billed as The Barker and he’s on screen for perhaps 60 seconds. His voice is also heard throughout the film as the PA announcer. Todd deserves better than to be an unwitting part of deceptive advertising for a third-rate slasher film. Make him The Other, write him some silly puns as he kills boring 20-somethings and present the audience something more interesting than what this film offers.

“Hell Fest” gets one star out of five.

Two highly anticipated movies (for very different reasons) open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

A Star is Born—


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Review of “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is 10-years old and is being sent to live with an uncle in Michigan after the death of his parents in a car crash. That uncle, his mother’s brother, is Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), an unusual man living in an unusual house. The old Victorian-looking home is filled with dusty books, stuffed animals and clocks. Clocks of every type and style are on the walls, on tables and standing on the floor. Jonathan introduces Lewis to Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). While Jonathon and Mrs. Zimmerman are friends they insult each other almost constantly. Lewis misses his parents a great deal but especially his mother (Lorenza Izzo). She appears to him in his bedroom and comforts him. Lewis struggles to make friends in his new school with only Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) paying him any mind. Tarby is running for class president. Lewis notices things around his new home are odd: Things move on their own, a stained-glass window changes scene from one moment to the next and there are sounds late at night. Investigating these sounds, Lewis finds his uncle searching for something through the house. Lewis finds it all very strange and confronts his uncle. Jonathan admits to Lewis he’s a warlock and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch. The home is filled with magical things. It used to be the home of a powerful warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Isaac died the year before and Jonathan says he hid a ticking clock somewhere inside the walls of the house to drive Jonathan crazy. Jonathan wanders the halls at night looking for the clock to remove it, even taking an ax to the walls to find it. Jonathan isn’t telling Lewis everything about the house or Izard but, after Lewis pesters him, he is teaching the boy the ways of magic and that he must find his own style before any spell he casts will be successful. Lewis had better be a quick study as an evil force is coming and looking to exact its revenge on the world.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is based on a 1973 book of the same name by author John Bellairs. Fans of the book will find a fair amount of the story has been changed to provide a more cinematic plot and a definitive ending. It has all the elements of a new magical franchise for children and adults as the action is never too graphic and the scares are relatively mild, but the characters are interesting, and the story has moments of real tension and excitement. Sadly, the film also has some real problems that drag it down to very average.

My first issue is the pacing. Director Eli Roth, better known for his gore-filled horror films like “Cabin Fever” and the “Hostel” movies, doesn’t seem to know how a story that isn’t filled with graphic deaths should be told. While we get bits and pieces of backstory and plot scattered about in the parts of the film that aren’t the magic action scenes, much of this time is wasted with filler and fluff that doesn’t amount to anything. Tidbits of story are dropped like crumbs yet never go anywhere. Valuable clues as to the history of some characters is practically hidden and never expanded upon.

Second, the script from Eric Kripke doesn’t mind taking the long way around to get to a point. A couple of scenes with Lewis in his new school feel unnecessary as they don’t move the story forward. A friend that becomes a bully and a bad influence felt like a red herring as it is easy to interpret it as a magical deception that winds up being nothing more than the cruelty of adolescence. We are also treated to essentially the same events multiple times. This again feels like filler. The running time of 105 minutes feels far longer.

The world building in “The House with a Clock in its Walls” could use a bit of refinement as well. There’s no history of the magical world other than the immediate events that set the story in motion. We don’t know how Jonathon came to learn magic. Did he have a teacher? Did he join a coven? Is he self-taught? The same questions apply to Mrs. Zimmerman. We only have a few suggestions of her past and know she has dealt with the pain of loss like Lewis. Again, we don’t get much in the way of details. We know each character has suffered similar emotional pain, but that never gets explored in any way. Perhaps the source material was thin on this background or it was cut for time; however, I think it would have connected us more with the characters if we had known a bit more about them. We could have better understood why these three very different people would make their own kind of family.

All that said, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” has some moments of wonder and joy. Most of those come from Cate Blanchett’s Mrs. Zimmerman. Blanchett plays Zimmerman with a twinkle in her eye. She knows this is all bizarre and wonderous and loves every moment of it. Even when things get dangerous she manages to bring a bit of fun to it all. Blanchett has the best scenes with young Owen Vaccaro as Lewis. She emits a motherly presence around the boy and wants to protect him from both the dangers of magic and his uncle. I would have liked for Blanchett to get more screen time and more to do than just support Jonathon.

Owen Vaccaro is terrific as Lewis. Able to handle the scenes were Lewis is more awkward as well as the emotional scenes where he shows just how much the character hurts from the loss of his parents. We also see Lewis begin to grow and gain confidence as he studies and learns more about magic. Being that this is a kid-friendly movie, Lewis is on a path to be the hero of the story and Vaccaro is up to the challenge of showing the growth of his character. From timid and awkward to a brave hero, the journey of Lewis is believable thanks to Owen Vaccaro’s talent.

Jack Black is a bit of a wild card in the movie. Many times, I’ve considered Black to be best viewed in small doses: Better as a supporting character than a leading man. He always seems to be trying too hard. However, in “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” Black seems to be hardly trying at all. We get a few flashes of his usual antics, like the wicked grin and the sudden yelling of a line to dismiss a character, but this time he seems to be much more reined in. I’m not sure if he just didn’t feel like turning his character up to 11 or if director Eli Roth was putting the brakes on his performance. Either way, Black is almost subdued as Jonathon and that doesn’t help the film with its pacing issue.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is rated PG for rude humor, language, thematic elements, scary images, some action and sorcery. The rude humor is mostly derived from a topiary griffin that farts and poops leaves as a running joke. There are mummified hands, stuffed animals and haunted house characters scattered throughout the house. One character looks like a zombie with grey skin, bits of flesh falling off and bloodshot eyes. There are a few jump scares, but all are mild. Foul language is scattered and mild.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” has numerous problems from pacing to an overstuffed script to a lackluster Jack Black. It also has the wonderful Cate Blanchett, a new star in Owen Vaccaro and a magical universe that has more than a few similarities to the world of Harry Potter. Despite its weaknesses there’s a great deal to like about the movie. I enjoyed the wonderous and magical aspects and hope any future installments streamline the storytelling. Also, somebody give Jack Black a minimum of three cups of coffee before each shooting day to power up his performance.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” gets three stars out of five.

This week, four films want you to bring your eyes to your local multiplex and watch them closely. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Hell Fest—

Little Women—

Night School—


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Review of “The Nun”

When a nun commits suicide at St. Carta Monastery in Romania in 1952, the Vatican sends Father Burke (Demian Bichir) to investigate the death. Burke is an exorcist and has a long history dealing with supernatural phenomenon. Along with Burke is Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate who has experienced visions for most of her life and hasn’t taken her final vows. When they arrive in Romania they are shown to the monastery by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a French-Canadian living in Romania that delivers supplies to the nuns but has never sees any of them. Frenchie discovered the dead nun hanging by a rope in front of the abbey. Frenchie bring Burke and Irene to the monastery but quickly leaves. The nuns are standoffish and reluctant to assist in their investigation; but, slowly they begin to uncover the dark secrets of St. Carta, including the presence of a shadowy figure dressed as a nun that wanders the halls. She isn’t a nun. She is the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons).

Looking at it from the outside there’s a great deal to like in “The Nun.” It has “The Conjuring” series of films to kind of vouch for it, it has a creepy location in a medieval castle and it has a tall, willowy nun with glowing eyes and a stark, white face as the main antagonist. All that’s necessary is a decent story and some quality scares and “The Nun” would be a great new addition to the franchise. Maybe next time.

“The Nun” takes the easy way out, sending characters down dark hallways and into spooky cross-filled forests with only a lantern or candle to light the way. Invariably, something jumps out at them, on them or they fall into a pit. It happens so frequently you begin to wonder if the characters aren’t paying any attention. You ask yourself, “Didn’t they learn to ignore the whispered voice or not chase the shadowy figure the last time this happened?” They don’t, and the ultimate evil demon scares them but doesn’t kill or possess them. It becomes laughable after a time.

It is a technically a well-made movie, but it is emotionally vacant. While I started out interested in the fates of the three main characters and the nuns in the convent, I quickly grew bored as there’s no one that grabs your attention and makes you care about their journey. The most interesting character is probably Frenchie so of course he disappears for most of the middle section of the film. It doesn’t help that everyone in the movie is so dumb as to follow every weird thing they see or hear.

Our antagonist is also wasted when she shows up. The Nun, or Valak, is a demon from Hell bent on escaping the castle and spreading her evil across the world in service to Satan (I guess as we’re never told what her mission or goal is). She is shown floating down a hallway, as a shadow on a wall, a reflection in a mirror, etc., yet all these incarnations appear unable to defeat a priest and a nun. As these films require, she comes close as the story enters its finale, but (spoilers) she is defeated. As she’s part of “The Conjuring” films she must survive to infest the homes and dreams of people in the future so there’s really no surprise that she is beaten but shows up in a tag at the end of the movie.

The story follows all the usual beats of a modern horror flick and doesn’t attempt to break out of the formulaic box it is chained up inside of. Perhaps this is the reason the film isn’t scary. There were a few times I was mildly startled but never was I frightened by anything I saw. The potentially scariest scene in the film is in the trailer when Sister Irene is walking down a dark corridor, turns to look down a hallway (the camera turning with her) and turns back with a black-clad nun standing behind her. She is then attacked by Valak. While this scene has the potential to be a classic jump scare, it is wasted for having been in the trailer. I’ve probably seen the trailer for “The Nun” several more times than most as it’s part of my job doing reviews and a movie podcast. But one viewing of what could have been the biggest scare in a horror movie is enough to inoculate the audience, allowing them to build up a tolerance to the scene.

“The Nun” is rated R for terror, disturbing/bloody images and violence. I found the terror to be very mild, but my experience isn’t everyone’s. If you are easily frightened, then you should be prepared. We see the corpse of the nun that commits suicide after it has been hanging for a significant time. There are crows pecking at the body and the lower half of the face appears to have been eaten away. It is dripping blood. A reanimated corpse attacks and is killed (re-killed?) with a shotgun. Another reanimated corpse is set on fire and shot. Nuns gets thrown around a chapel with some dying of their injuries. An upside-down pentagram is carved by an unseen hand in the back of a character. A couple of characters are almost strangled and nearly drowned. A character is buried alive in a coffin then attacked inside the coffin by the demon. A character spits blood in the face of another. Foul language is very mild and limited to one or two uses.

“The Nun” joins “The Conjuring,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Annabelle” and “Annabelle: Creation” as the fifth film in the franchise. There are more films on the way as this series has made an enormous amount of money. The first four films with budgets totaling $81.5-million have made worldwide $1.2-billion. There are expenses over and above making the movie and studios get approximately 55% of the total box office. That means the profit from the four films so far is over $500-million. With audiences so willing to pay for the latest in the “Conjuring” universe, there may be movies coming at us for the next decade or so. “The Nun” is projected to have the biggest opening of any film in the series so far. I have to wonder if fans of the franchise will be disappointed in the lack of scares and flat story or if they will support the film so that more get made. I have to say, if the rest are like “The Nun,” I don’t want none.

“The Nun” gets one star out of five.

This week, I’ll be reviewing “A Simple Favor” for

Here’s what else is opening this week:

The Predator— (NSFW)

Unbroken: Path to Redemption—

White Boy Rick—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest news in TV, stream and movies available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to

Review of “The Little Stranger”

Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to Hundreds Hall to examine a young housemaid named Betty (Liv Hill). Betty isn’t sick, she doesn’t like Hundreds Hall. It is creepy and makes her feel uneasy. Hundreds Hall used to be a stately home but has fallen into disrepair over the years. Faraday’s mother used to be a servant at the home and he saw the home for the first time in 1917. Now 1947, Faraday is a doctor in his home town and still remembers the wonders of seeing Hundreds Hall. Living in the home is Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), her son Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) and daughter Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson). The family has hit hard times and they cannot keep a staff on hand to maintain the home. There are issues among the family members as well. Roderick suffered severe burns during the war and is also showing signs of what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. He is depressed and drinking excessively. He’s in control of the family’s business but spends his days drinking and aimlessly shuffling papers. Dr. Faraday wants to try an experimental electrical treatment on Roderick’s scarred and twisted legs to relieve some of his pain. Faraday has ulterior motives: He is attracted to Caroline and is obsessed with Hundreds Hall. As Faraday spends more time at the home, odd events occur: The friendly family dog attacks a child’s face, Roderick sets his room on fire and is sent to an asylum and scratches appear in various places around the house. Sometimes it is just squiggles, but the squiggles soon become letters spelling out “Suki,” the nickname of Mrs. Ayres first child Susan that died back in 1917. More odd events occur, some of them more terrifying than others. Has the family just hit a patch of bad luck or is the angry spirit of Suki haunting the formerly stately home.

“The Little Stranger” is sold in the trailer as a tense horror movie. It isn’t. It is something far scarier: An examination of class and socio-economic upheaval in post-war Britain. A description like that would send most people screaming and running away from the theater. It isn’t quite the college mid-20th Century advanced European economics class I’ve made it sound like, but the movie is taxing. It requires a degree of patience to watch the story of class distinctions, manners and quiet, smoldering passion that eventually leads to a few mildly stressful scenes that are horror-adjacent. Still, I enjoyed “The Little Stranger” for how the characters seem to be one way but mutate into something almost unrecognizable.

The performances are a large part of what makes “The Little Stranger” so interesting to watch. Domhnall Gleeson’s Dr. Faraday is a coiled spring. We don’t see it at first and just marvel at his rigid posture and the plumb-line straight part in his hair. He walks with as little unnecessary motion as possible. This really pops out when you see him walking next to Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres. She walks like a workman carrying a heavy load while he walks as if there’s a board strapped to his back.

That rigidity carries over into his emotions. Dr. Faraday is always in control. Happy, sad, angry, elated and disappointed all look roughly the same on Faraday’s face. There is a hint late in the film that his control has been beaten into him. We also see there’s a smoldering pit of rage hiding under that polished and practiced veneer of calm.

Gleeson is divine as Dr. Faraday. His performance is so subtle you don’t notice the small changes in the character that build up as the story progresses. It’s a marvelous bit of misdirection as we consider Faraday to be like a knight in shining armor coming to save this family from whatever demon is attacking them as the film begins. Soon some tarnish begins to show on that shiny armor and by the end we aren’t sure that the demon isn’t the one making a house call. It is a brilliantly measured and controlled performance that sneaks up on the audience.

Ruth Wilson portrays Caroline as the kind of woman we hear about in World War II documentaries that served during the war in a traditionally male role (whether in the military or the private sector) then had to resume a more accepted female role after the war. While she gave up her military commission to come home and help care for the injured Roderick, Caroline is still a strong and independent woman. Wilson shines in the role of a woman putting her own wants and needs on hold while she handles most of the household duties and helps care for her injured brother. Caroline’s desire to break free from the shackles of her responsibilities is always bubbling just under the surface and Wilson expresses the character’s feelings of stress beautifully. One brief scene has Caroline and Faraday kissing in the car parked in the woods near Hundreds Hall. Their mutual passion burns up the screen, but Caroline cannot let herself feel joy or pleasure and stops the encounter. The aggression and lust of this scene is palpable to a surprising degree as it is in such contrast to the repressive manners on display earlier. Both Wilson and Gleeson bared the souls of their characters in this scene and it is a turning point in the film.

The horror of the movie doesn’t have much to do with a possibly malevolent spirit in Hundreds Hall: It is the rigidity of the English class system and the erosion of its control and power. Dr. Faraday comes from common folk that worked hard to give him an education to become a physician. While he has the potential to become one of the upper-crust financially, he will never really BE one of them and he gets constant reminders to stay in his place. The knowledge he will never be considered an equal galls Faraday to no end and explains his obsession with Hundreds Hall and the Ayres when he gets an opportunity to be among them regularly. Flashbacks to his one childhood encounter with the home and family play a big part in telling the story and in explaining Faraday’s fixation.

I found the story and the performances interesting. That said, the pace of “The Little Stranger” is glacially slow. The story starts out as more of a domestic drama with small events happening every so often; but there isn’t much to quicken the pulse and raise goosebumps. The few moments of fear and tension are most charitably described as mild. The ending is unsatisfying as it doesn’t answer any questions about what happened. While that isn’t as damning as it sounds, the ending left a bad taste in my mouth as I wanted to know something concrete about what happened. Perhaps the ending is purposefully left ambiguous to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions; but I would have preferred definitive closure.

“The Little Stranger” is rated R for some disturbing bloody images. The face of the little girl mauled by the dog is never seen clearly but the injury is very bloody. As a warning to anyone sensitive to such things, the dog is put to sleep as a result and it is sad to watch. The aftermath of a suicide using broken glass to slash wrists is shown. Foul language is scattered and mild.

After I left the movie I wondered if there wasn’t a ghost at all. Was someone in the house responsible for all the bad things happening to the Ayres family? I had a suspect I thought was the culprit but after some consideration it was clear this person wasn’t responsible. That’s part of the reason I think “The Little Stranger” is a movie you should see. It had me thinking after I left the theater. As much as I love a good superhero, sci-fi and action film, I rarely give even the really great ones much of a thought after I walk back out into the sunshine (I normally see a matinee). This film has been on my mind off and on since it ended. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, “The Little Stranger” is an interesting look at a time before I was born and a culture struggling to maintain a grip on power. There also may or may not be a ghost child trying to subtly kill everyone.

“The Little Stranger” gets three stars out of five.

This week has action, faith and horror for you to choose from. I’ll be seeing and reviewing one of the following:

God Bless the Broken Road—

The Nun—


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Review of “The Happytime Murders”

In a world where puppets are alive but treated as second-class citizens, a private investigator puppet named Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta) is hired by bombshell and sex addict Sandra (performed by Dorian Davies) to find the person blackmailing her. Phil recognizes something in the blackmail note made from cut-out letters and goes to a local puppet porn store. While in the back looking through their records, a gunman wearing a hooded trench coat walks in and kills everyone in the store, including Mr. Bumblypants (performed by Kevin Clash), a character on a 1990’s TV show called The Happytime Gang. The police come to investigate the murders including Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). She and Phil were partners when he was the first and only puppet ever to be allowed on the police force. An incident nearly killed Connie and ended both their friendship and Phil’s career on the force. They don’t like each other but police Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker) orders the former partners to work together on solving the crime. As more puppet bodies pile up, including Phil’s brother Larry (performed by Victor Yerrid), there is an obvious connection to The Happytime Gang and to Phil as he always seems to be in the vicinity of the murders. FBI agent Campbell (Joel McHale) arrests Phil but Connie knows he’s not guilty as their time working together has rekindled their friendship. Since The Happytime Gang is coming back on the air via reruns on a cable network, the entire cast is set to profit. Which ever cast member is left standing at the end is probably the killer or is it?!

“The Happytime Murders” is an R-rated comedy from the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Brian Henson, under a banner called Henson Alternative that focuses on adult content. The movie is filled with bad language (coming from both puppets and humans), violence (directed at both puppets and humans) and sex (mostly only between puppets but not always). The production was sued by the makers of children’s show “Sesame Street” over the tagline “No Sesame, All Street.” The lawsuit was tossed out and the film was released without further controversy. Considering the opening weekend box office, it could have used a great deal more bad press as “The Happytime Murders” has nothing to be happy about as far as its performance. It has a very low Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores and opening day audiences gave the film a C- on an A to F scale. Perhaps I’m weird and dumb, but I liked “The Happytime Murders.”

What gets the most attention in the film is the mixing of humans and puppets in an otherwise normal world. We aren’t told why or how the puppets are alive and that doesn’t really matter. They are treated as less than human by humans (the puppets call us meat bags) and they are marginalized in society. We see the puppets have their weaknesses just like we do: The have odd taste in pornography, they indulge in smoking and alcohol, and many of them are addicted to drugs, specifically sugar. They often live in the seedier parts of town and do whatever they must to satisfy their cravings for powder or crystal sugar. Some drink maple syrup for their fix.

That description of the more down-and-out members of puppet society required a great deal more world-building than most movies invest in their human characters and settings. “The Happytime Murders” could be looked at as a metaphor for human relations with the marginalized members of our society and how they are treated as less than. With a slightly better execution, I believe “The Happytime Murders” could have been the kind of subversive comic statement that could have opened a few eyes of people that just came in for a few laughs. Sadly, the movie’s tone does sudden shifts from comedic to tragic to mundane and never allows any one moment to breathe for more than a few seconds.

The story is also a bit rote with a twist that is telegraphed from practically the opening scene. I enjoyed the mystery for a while, but it soon grew tiresome as puppet after puppet is dispatched in progressively more graphic ways. There are interesting characters sprinkled throughout, like Phil’s secretary Bubbles played by Maya Rudolph and a couple of puppets seen for only a moment that provides an argument against cousins marrying, but these are too few and far between. We focus mostly on Connie and Phil as they are forced to work together and rediscover their mutual admiration for one another.

Melissa McCarthy isn’t taxed as an actress in the role of Connie Edwards. She is either a foul-mouthed hard ass or a foul-mouthed good friend. Either way, we’ve seen this McCarthy before and will likely see it again. I suppose it depends on the surrounding players and the quality of the material as to whether this standard McCarthy performance is considered good or bad. For me it was very middle of the road.

The film overall works for me because of the warped world we’re in and the humor. We aren’t ever allowed to forget there are puppets living and walking among us. That gets repeatedly banged into our heads. It isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds and plays a big role in why McCarthy’s Connie is the perfect person to investigate this case. The humor is anchored in the ridiculousness of the premise and hammered home by a scene that plays a big part in the trailer: The puppet sex scene. Phil and his client engage in a loud and violent sex act in his office while the police and FBI wait in the reception area. While the scene is over-the-top in the trailer, it gets expanded and goes even bigger in the film with a particularly memorable Silly String finish. It’s the kind of bizarre and crude scene that should be the thing fans talk about in 30 years when this movie will likely be considered a comedy classic. That is the most out-there scene in the film, but there are plenty of others that are also very funny and almost as crude (an octopus and a cow shooting a homemade porno comes to mind). It isn’t consistently funny, but “The Happytime Murders” delivers enough laughs to make it worth the price of admission for at least a matinee.

“The Happytime Murders” is rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material. The previously described sex scenes along with a BDSM film playing on the screen of a porno theater are the most graphic sexual situations. The drugs shown being used are actually candy, powdered sugar and colored crystal sugar. There are no real-world drugs shown. Foul language is common throughout.

It isn’t art, but “The Happytime Murders” isn’t the catastrophe most of the critics are making it out to be. Admittedly, I didn’t enter the theater with very high expectations as I was aware of the low scores on the various review aggregators; however, what I saw was a subversive comedy taking pot shots at society and the treatment of those considered to be “lesser” and how that notion was garbage. Could it have been done differently or more effectively? Probably, but this film isn’t the complete disaster many make it out to be. I believe it’s worth giving a chance and make up your own mind. I did.

“The Happytime Murders” gets four stars out of five.

Three new films open this week in what is considered the final week of the summer movie season. I’ll see at least one of the following:


Operation Finale—


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Reviews of “The Meg” and “BlacKkKlansman”


In 1972, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) became the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After a short stint in the file room, Stallworth is moved to the intelligence division to spy on a speech by Stokley Carmichael, who took the African name Kwame Ture, hosted by the Black Student Union at the local college. He meets the president of the Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), at the speech and is smitten. His partner in the surveillance is Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). While flipping through the newspaper at his desk, Stallworth sees an ad for the Ku Klux Klan with a phone number to get more information. He calls and is immediately called back by Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and invited to meet the rest of the guys. Since Stallworth is black he convinces Zimmerman, a Jew, to meet with the Klan. He goes to a bar and is picked up by Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen), who quickly impresses Zimmerman as a full-blown psychopath. Zimmerman, using Stallworth’s name, can’t participate in any Klan events, like cross burning, until he gets his official membership card. The real Stallworth calls Klan headquarters and speaks with the Grand Wizard and national director of the Klan David Duke (Topher Grace) who will be coming to Colorado Springs to give a speech and officially certify the local chapter. Kendrickson is suspicious of the man he knows as Stallworth while also coming up with a plan to make a very public and deadly statement about the presence of the Klan.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a Spike Lee joint. It is sprinkled with humor, anger, intelligence, ignorance and bliss. It is a damning indictment of America and how it deals with race in the past, present and sadly, the future. As a white man I cannot begin to understand what it’s like to be hated for the color of my skin and for just existing. Much of Lee’s obvious anger is difficult for me to comprehend as I have no basis for it in my life. What I do understand is the film will make thinking white people very uncomfortable as it possibly energizes a second Civil Rights movement that will make the people that like the way things are also very uncomfortable.

There are many uncomfortable moments in the film but there are also some tremendous performances. First and foremost is John David Washington as Ron Stallworth. His performance is nuanced and perfect. Stallworth is learning about himself and how he feels about and lives the life of a black man. He’s a cop which automatically makes him suspect in his community, tearing him between two worlds. He is challenged by everyone in both worlds for either what he is or what he does. The pressures must be tremendous on African-American police officers and that pressure is well represented in Washington’s performance. The conflict plays out across his face in certain scenes such as during the speech he’s sent to infiltrate. There’s guilt, recognition and acceptance playing across his face during this scene and the character is never the same after. Washington can also handle the lighter, more comedic moments as well such as during his calls with David Duke and some of the choices the character makes while backing up Zimmerman while he’s undercover. Washington, son of Denzel Washington, has the beginnings of a very good career under his belt with a regular role on the HBO series “Ballers” and he has a significant role in the last film of Robert Redford’s career coming out next month.

Adam Driver is better known for his role on HBO’s “Girls” and as Kylo Ren in the current “Star Wars” trilogy but he his a very versatile and talented actor. His work as Zimmerman shows that. He also is torn in dealing with his identity as a Jew. As the film says, he “passes” as white and he hasn’t given it much thought until the hatred of his religion and heritage is shoved in his face by interacting with the Klan. He also has an awakening that triggers guilt and anger. Driver’s performance is painful to watch but in a good way as he spews hate for minorities and homosexuals. The vitriol takes a personal toll on Zimmerman as his self-deception about his identity is presented front and center to him. Driver blossoms in the role and could be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

It’s difficult to praise an actor’s performance when he’s playing such a despicable character but Jasper Paakkonen is frightening and brilliant as the deranged Felix Kendrickson. His hatred oozes from every oily pore as he gets wide-eyed, relishing every derogatory word. Felix is described as a general looking for an army and, if his passions were aimed in a positive direction, would be an effective leader of a group. Felix has a feeling of superiority over not only minorities but of his fellow Klansmen as well. He wants to lead them to earn the respect he feels he’s due. Paakkonen is possessed by the character and is a perfect villain on whom to focus all the audience’s rage.

Director Spike Lee’s direction is best described in this film as poetic. During the speech given by Carmichael there are individual shots of people enraptured by his words. Each is shot alone with a black background, isolating them from the group. Then Lee groups these faces in twos and threes making each unique face part of a tableau that adds to the power of the scene. Lee also pops back and forth between meetings of Klan members and a lecture being given by a black man that witnessed his friend lynched by a white crowd decades earlier. He also lets the hate run free and gives it lots of time to expose itself during planning sessions and get-togethers by Klansmen. These scenes are difficult to watch as the language of hate flows so thickly it nearly suffocates the viewer. That’s what Lee is trying to do: Bury the audience in the hate and make it so awful that it cannot be ignored. Lee is a master at rubbing our noses in societal hypocrisy. Maybe one day we’ll learn the lesson.

“BlacKkKlansman” is rated R for racial epithets, language throughout, disturbing/violent material and some sexual references. Horrendous racial epithets are common throughout the film. There is also homophobic language. Large photos of a lynched and burned man are shown. While these are grainy and it’s difficult to make out any details there is a graphic description of what was done. There’s a scene of police officers beating up a black man. A bomb explodes destroying a couple of cars. The sexual references are two men suggesting one wants to perform oral sex on the other. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

Based on the book “Black Klansman” by the real Ron Stallworth, Spike Lee’s film messes with a few of the facts, adds a couple of characters and punches everyone that sees the film in the gut. Perhaps the hardest part to watch is the final few minutes that uses archive footage from a recent event to drive home to the point we have a long way to go. I feel certain the film will be in the running for the next Academy Awards in several categories and it will deserve to win them all. It is a powerful film that needs to be seen.

“BlacKkKlansman” gets five stars.

The Meg

Billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) is funding an underwater research facility. It is doing cutting edge science and is about to possibly make a big discovery. The leaders of the facility are Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing). The facility sends down a deep-water sub with a crew of three on board. They are investigating whether the bottom of the Marianas Trench is actually the bottom. Their theory is its a layer of gas and the trench is deeper. The sub breaks through the layer of gas and discovers the ocean floor is covered with hydrothermal vents called black smokers. There are many unique lifeforms that are unknown to science waiting to be discovered. Then, something rams their sub, disabling it. The subs pilot, Lori (Jessica McNamee) sends out a last desperate message saying, “Jonas was right!” Jonas is her ex-husband Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a former Navy rescue diver specializing in deep-water rescues. Five years earlier while on a rescue of crewmen from a nuclear submarine, something was ramming the sub, causing it to implode. Jonas decided to release his rescue vehicle from the sub, saving 11 men but leaving two of his own behind. In the investigation that followed Jonas was found to have panicked causing the deaths of two of his men. He was thrown out of the Navy and the stress led to his divorce from Lori. Now, Dr. Zhang and an old buddy, James “Mac” Mackreides (Cliff Curtis) who works for Dr. Zhang, approach Jonas to try a rescue of Lori’s sub. Jonas is reluctant, but he attempts the rescue. Once he’s on the bottom Jonas finally learns what damaged Lori’s sub and likely destroyed the nuclear vessel: A massive variety of shark thought to have been extinct for millions of years, a megalodon.

“The Meg” is a big, dumb action movie. It has no more value than to be a pleasant diversion from the doom and gloom of the real world. That isn’t a complaint as “The Meg” is one of the better diversions of the summer so far.

What struck me most about the film is the look. The technology on display is impressive even if it is all fake. The screens, the panels, the design of the subs are all futuristic and practical at the same time. It’s a triumph of production design that might get some attention come awards season.

There’s also the general impression of the script. While you won’t walk out of the theater feeling smarter, you might remember a couple of lines or how all the characters (with the exception of Rainn Wilson’s billionaire) sound intelligently written. Wilson’s Jack Morris is clearly intelligent but with an edge of arrogance and self-importance. The rest of the characters know their jobs and perform them efficiently. It’s only when things start to go sideways that their personalities are differentiated.

Jason Statham delivers his usual tough-guy character but with a touch of humanity. While he starts the film as a bit of a jackass and he’s the hero in almost every situation thereafter, the script gives his character a bit of warmth and charm that’s sometimes missing from his usual roles. He even gets the beginnings of a love story with one character, something you don’t always see in Statham-led films.

The rest of the cast is good but there is one standout: Sophia Shuya Cai as Meiying, the daughter of Suyin. This little firecracker has most of the best lines in the movie. She has surprisingly strong chemistry with Statham and holds her own with the adults in the cast. Anyone that’s in a movie with this young lady in the future had better bring their A game as she is as much a shark as the title monster.

“The Meg” is rated PG-13 for bloody images, action/peril and some language. We see a severed arm after a meg attack. There are also sea creatures that are bitten into (or in half). A diver in a shark cage is nearly swallowed cage and all by the meg. Another diver is chased as he’s being dragged through the water by a moving boat. Swimmers are attacked and eaten by the meg. Foul language is infrequent and mild.

“The Meg” has plenty of action and thrills, it looks great and the megalodon is a fearsome creature that I’m very happy is extinct. I’m not a huge fan of getting in the ocean anyway and if a 90-foot shark with a mouth that could open as much as 10 feet wide was still swimming around you couldn’t get me to stick my toes in the sand, much less the water. I don’t mind going to a theater to see the beast as there’s air conditioning and I won’t get any sand in places that don’t like it. What I’m saying is, it’s a fun movie.

“The Meg” gets five stars.

This week I’ll be reviewing “Mile 22” for

If there’s time I’ll review one of the following for this webpage:


Crazy Rich Asians—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest in movie, streaming and TV news. It’s available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to