Film Review: Spirit Halloween: The Movie (Strikeback Studios/Hideout Pictures)

By: Jesse Striewski

On the surface, Spirit Halloween: The Movie appears to be not much more than one long promo ad for the annual store in which it takes its name from. But despite its obvious flaws and cheesy-ness, it actually works as family entertainment in the same vein as the Goosebumps films, with a nostalgic touch similar to Stranger Things thrown in for good measure as well.

The plot is far from groundbreaking; a trio of adolescent friends (played by newcommers Donavan Colan, Jaiden J. Smith, and Dylan Frankel) faced with the pressures of growing up and the societal norms that come along with it, decide to spend Halloween night in said novelty store. But of course the ghost of a crabby old landlord (Christopher Lloyd) cursed by a witch before his demise in the 1940’s, is haunting the joint and looking for a permanent new body to possess before it’s too late.

Former ’90s babe Rachel Leigh Cook co-stars as the mother of one of the young boys, and Marla Gibbs (best known from such ’70s and ’80s staples as The Jeffersons and 227) plays the strange but wise old grandmother of one of the other children, each bringing just a tad more talent to the mostly unknown cast.

Spirit Halloween (the store) has become a pop culture staple, and an annual tradition as common as the haunted house for many. All in all, the film is harmless (perhaps even a bit shameless, depending on your viewpoint) fun, and perfect fodder for the spooky season.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

Series Review: Stranger Things Season 4 – Vol. 2 (Netflix)

By: Jesse Striewski

By now I’m assuming most fans of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things are likely already caught up the entire fourth season of the show, so hopefully no spoilers can be found here for anyone. This season truly was a gift to fans of the series, and even though volume two consists of just a couple of episodes, there’s so much compacted in it it’s almost overwhelming.

The numerous storylines all feel like small movies that could stand alone themselves. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) isfinally forced to come into her own once the secret government facility she’s been regaining her “powers” at is ransacked and officially put out of business for good, leading to a tearful goodbye with her “Papa” (Matthew Modine).

Meanwhile, Eleven’s extended support system is broken off into three separate groups, each trying to fight the evil that’s threatening mankind, while making it back to each other. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Will (Noah Schnapp) make their way across state lines to get to her, while Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) and the rest plot to take on Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) himself head-on. Lastly Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) escape their way out of Russia after fighting their own demons.

Each specific plot leads to its own satisfying conclusion, with enough twists and turns to make your head spin, often with emotional results. But what makes these characters so endearing is the ability to relate to them on a human level, which is ultimately a reflection of well-crafted writing. Thankfully, the door is left ajar again for another follow up, which all of us already engulfed in this little world created by the Duffer Brothers are already waiting for with much anticipation.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Retrospective: 40 Years Since ‘E.T.’ Phoned Home By Jesse Striewski

Long before Stranger Things, are imaginations were captured by a man named Steven Spielberg, and a loveable little guy known simply as “E.T.” The film became an immediate hit, and a staple for every ’80s kid such as myself (what kid back then didn’t want to be able to fly on their bikes with their friends, and after dark at that?!).

Originally released on June 11, 1982 (after premiering at Cannes on May 26), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial follows the story of Elliot (Henry Thomas), a suburban ten-year-old who discovers his newfound friend from another world in his backyard. Along with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and kid sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot keeps E.T. a secret from his single mom (Dee Wallace) and government agents hot on the trail, all while bonding with the little fella and incorporating some of his traits.

The film sways from Sci Fi/adventure to drama (with just a hint of horror in the beginning), and broke the record of highest grossing film of all time, knocking Star Wars out of the coveted spot and remaining there until another Steven Spielberg film, Jurassic Park, took the title of number one eleven years later in 1993.

It also spawned countless toys and merchandise, including the ill-fated Atari game, notoriously remembered as one of the worst video games of all time after being rushed for a Christmas 1982 release (to this day it still remains a topic of lore to many). There’s even been theme park rides, such as the original E.T. Adventure ride still operating at Universal Studios Florida to this day.

Copies of the ill-fated Atari 2600 game and an original VHS of E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial from the author’s collection.

In a 2020 interview with the film’s star Dee Wallace, I had to ask her what made the film so endearing after all of these years. Her response was simple enough; “I still cry, I still laugh. As we all know it’s just a magical movie, and has become a part of our consciousness. I never get tired of it, or talking about it – and I can’t say that about all of my movies (laughs). It opens hearts and reminds people of what’s really important, and we just need a lot more of that these days.”

I couldn’t have possibly said it better myself if I tried. All these years later, instead of terrifying, this little green man from another planet still manages to pull at our heart strings. Spielberg has entertained us all and caught lightning in a bottle both before and since its release, yet there’s still just something special about E.T.

Series Review: Stranger Things Season 4 – Vol. 1 (Netflix)

By: Jesse Striewski

It speaks volumes for a show to still be as captivating as Stranger Things is four seasons in, and yet somehow this series only gets better with time. Within seconds of it starting, you’re instantly sucked into its world, and forgot about everything and anything else going on around you, the ingredients of not only great, meticulous writing, but flimmakers who actually care about their art.

This latest season contains so many subplots, I’m not sure if I can even sum it all up accurately without giving too much away. Long story short, a new evil in the form of a demon named Vecna is threatening Hawkins, and after the popular school cheerleader (Grace Van Dien) is killed in the house of local metal head and leader of the local D&D club, Eddie (Joseph Quinn), the kids get wrapped up in solving the mystery while trying to stay alive.

Meanwhile, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has since lost her powers and struggling to adjust to living a “normal” life, is brought back to a facility by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) to help regain her strength back. And while all this is going on, Hopper (David Harbour), who survived the events of season three but has since been imprisoned in a Russian hell, is plotting his escape while Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murrary (Brett Gelman) get tangled up in a kidnapping while attempting to free him.

While the show has always paid homage to ’80s films like E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial (among many others), this particular season has a strong influence from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, with dream-like sequences similar to those from said franchise (there’s even a brief appearance from Freddy Kruger himself, Robert Englund). And the tributes to such metal bands as Dio and W.A.S.P. via the Eddie character are a nice touch as well.

Since the show first started in 2016, it’s caused an unprecedented pop culture phenomenon, and rightfully so, considering the care and attention to detail put into Stranger Things is immaculate. There’s an artistic integrity often not found elsewhere these days, and I find myself wanting to go back to revisit the earlier seasons each time a new one emerges. There’s a simple reason why we respond so strongly to ‘throwbacks’ like Stranger Things; maybe it just reminds us of a time when the world – and life itself – was just a simpler place.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Film Review: Godzilla vs. Kong (Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Entertainment)

By: Jesse Striewski

It’s been nearly sixty years since the last time two of the silver screen’s greatest titans ever faced off against one another. Godzilla vs. Kong no doubt delivers on the over-the-top, larger than life, escapist entertainment in the best way possible.

A little Sc-Fi heavy at times, the plot focuses on a now-captive King Kong being released to more or less save humanity from a seemingly hostile Godzilla, who’s really just peeved by the creation of a Mechagodzilla by the evil Apex Cybernetics. Meanwhile, an Apex employee and conspiracy theorist named Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) who is hell bent on exposing the truth, teams up with a couple of kids (one of them once again being Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame, joined this time by Julian Dennisen) to get the job done. This aspect gives the film a very real, ’80s-adventure feel to it in the same vein as E.T., where the kids must ultimately save the day from under the adults who only know about half of the actual story.

The other portion of the main storyline involves an expedition to “Hollow Earth” with Kong lead by a couple of doctors (portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard and Rebecca Hall) to find some magical “power source.” And if you think that all sounds somewhat nerdy, you’re absolutely right, though there is a somewhat touching relationship between Kong and a young girl (played by Kaylee Hottle) that helps add a much-needed dramatic element to the film.

In short, Godzilla vs. Kong is far from flawless. But as far as modern action films go (which I’m truthfully not too big on, especially the countless superhero flicks churned out these days), it’s at the head of it’s class. It is without a doubt the ideal type of flick to take the fam out to, sit in a dark theater, and just forget about the rest of the world for a night.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Series Review: Stranger Things Season 3 (Netflix)

stranger-things-3-everything-we-know-1

By: Jesse Striewski

Every once in awhile, a cultural phenomenon will come along that changes the landscape of things as we know it. Since 2016, the Netflix series Stranger Things has been doing just that. With the show’s third season having been out now for just under a month, it’s due time to analyze the series’ latest outing (and with as few spoilers as possible, of course).

The skeptics out there may find it a stretch for yet more freaky events to find their way to the same basic group of kids in the same small Indiana town (circa 1985), yet it still works. The writing is still witty, the main cast still (mostly) stellar, and the atmosphere is still as spot on as ever.

David Harbor and Winona Ryder again lead the way as Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers, while Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo continue to stick out above the younger cast as Eleven and Dustin, respectively. Newcomer Maya Hawke (daughter of actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) is a welcomed edition to the cast as well.

Without revealing too much about the story, this time around there’s multiple sub-plots that involve everything from the usual hideous creatures, to Russian conspiracy. Eventually the puzzles are all put into place before everything is interconnected at the Starcourt Mall, and all hell truly breaks loose.

There’s definitely no shortage of options to choose from when it comes to shows to watch these days. But it’s rare for one to be as well thought-out, put together, and engaging as this show has consistently been.  Every nail-biting episode leaves you hanging on for the next, and each new episode delivers. Instead of relying on dumbed-down sex and gore like so many other movies and shows, Stranger Things has managed to focus on the human side of things perfectly.

Watching this series with my family for the past three years has reminded me of being a kid in the ’80s, watching eventful shows like V in complete wonder. I’ll take that feeling again any day.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars