Halloweentown (1998)

Halloweentown. Directed by: Duwayne Dunham. Starring: Debbie Reynolds, Kimberly J. Brown, Judith Hoag. Runtime: 1h 24 min. Released: October 17, 1998.

Truly, Halloweentown is the classic Disney Channel Original Movie. It was the fourth to premiere on the network as a DCOM, but it feels like the one that started it all. I’d watch it every Halloween when I was a kid. Watching it now, I don’t know why I stopped that tradition.

The story’s simple. On her 13th Halloween, Marnie Cromwell (Kimberly J. Brown) learns from her grandmother Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds) that she’s a witch. Well, Aggie wants to tell her she’s a witch but Marnie’s mom, Gwen (Judith Hoag), wants her to live a normal human life.

Marnie really finds out she’s a witch by eavesdropping. In teen rebellion, Marnie and her brother Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) stow away on a flying bus when Aggie goes home to the titular Halloweentown. Their little sister Sophie (Emily Roeske) also tags along, unbeknownst to them. There, they help their grandmother against a dark force that’s threatening Halloweentown.

First of all, the settings are great. I hadn’t seen this film for… a while. The last time I watched this was at least before 2012. Anyway, the sets in this are great and revisiting Halloweentown is such a cool thing. The way they dress up the real town of St. Helens, Oregon, really makes it become Halloweentown. It’s believable they’re in another world where everyday is Halloween.

The monsters here also look pretty good. I know none of them are real, but it’s about convincing the audience, mostly kids, watching that they could be real. There are a couple costumes that look bizarre, like half-human, half-dog people in an aerobics class. There’s also a brief glimpse at a Cyclops character. It’s literally just a person with a papier-mâché head on with an eye painted on it. It’s great for the laugh, and all the Halloweentown characters look really good besides them. One notable one is a skeleton, Benny the Cab Driver. He’s just animatronic, but he looks good and he’s still funny.

The Mayor, Kalabar (Robin Thomas), is one of the more interesting human characters. He’s also trying to make sense of what dark force is threatening Halloweentown. Citizens become evil, like how monsters were perceived in the “Dark Times,” and then they disappear altogether. When we find out what’s doing this, it’s a shadowy figure who looks like a mix between a goblin and a scarecrow looking-thing.

By the way, the made-up history of why Halloweentown was made and why these monsters were essentially exiled to another world is interesting and well-written by Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Aggie explains that in the Dark Times, humans and monsters lived together but hated each other, as the humans tried to destroy the monsters and the monsters tried to make the humans’ lives miserable in response. Thus, they made Halloweentown. Aggie also explains that Halloween became a thing because the humans copied their traditions, and as she puts it, “Mortal see, mortal do.” Watching as a kid, that made-up history is so believable and really cool. Now, I’m an adult (well, arguable) and that history’s still cool to me, and the themes of classism is really interesting. The way that history works into the main conflict is also very smooth.

Speaking so much of Aggie, Debbie Reynolds is great as the character. She’s a legendary actress, but I really know her best as Agatha Cromwell. And revisiting this now, it’s nice to see that pretty much all of the acting is surprisingly good for a TV movie, and it’s so nice to see that the actors are actually passionate about this, especially Reynolds. Kimberly J. Brown is always great as Marnie, too. She’s the most excited one of the kids learning that she’s a witch because she’s always been interested in the occult and now it makes sense why. As much as this is just a Halloween story, it’s a coming-of-age story for Marnie.

Dylan and Sophie are good characters, too. It’s Marnie’s show, but Sophie’s there for the cuteness factor and Dylan has a few good moments, too. The story line is well-structured and moves at a quick pace. I usually have problems with these Disney Channel Original Movie endings, but this feels more eventful than most of them. The budgets just don’t allow for a big climactic battle with big effects.

Most of the effects look pretty good, actually, like Aggie floating down from the bus looking like a Halloween Mary Poppins, and the magic in general looks fine. Flying buses, on the other hand, don’t look as good but that’s expected for a TV movie. The make-up for the monsters look good. As for any horror here, there’s more of a focus on the comedy but the main villain looks pretty creepy. Also what’s happening to the characters when they disappear is eerie.

Amazingly, I don’t have a lot wrong with this and I’m trying not to be biased with all my nostalgic love for this film. There are some cheesy moments, and I think a character named Luke (Phillip Van Dyke) is the cheesiest thing about this. Also the main sub-plot of Marnie’s mom, Gwen really wanting her kids to be humans is murky. She’s caught between two worlds because she married a human, so the kids are half-human, half-witch/warlock, so in that way it’s a bit interesting. But the motivation for shoving it down their throats that they have to be human isn’t clear.

I think it just lends to a message of kids being able to make their own choices. Marnie puts it well. “If you want to give up your roots, that’s fine. I don’t and it’s not right for you to try and make me.”

Other than that, I honestly think it’s the best TV movie I’ve seen. The production value is great, the actors don’t phone it in, and everyone looks like they’re giving it their all. I just loved this as a kid and I think it’s really cool to know that I love this nearly as much watching as a 24-year-old. It’s time for me to start watching this every Halloween again.

Score: 80/100

Under Wraps (1997)

Under Wraps. Released (premiered): October 25, 1997. Directed by: Greg Beeman. Starring: Adam Wylie, Mario Yedidia, Clara Bryant. Runtime: 1h 35 min.

When people think Disney Channel Original Movie, ones like “Halloweentown” or “High School Musical” stand out. But today, I’m reviewing the true original DCOM, “Under Wraps,” the first to premiere on the network as the re-branded Disney Channel Original Movie.

A local museum curator and grump, Mr. Kubat (Ed Lauter), dies and Marshall (Mario Yedida), Gilbert (Adam Wylie) and Amy (Clara Bryant) decide to see what weird stuff the old guy had in his basement. They find more than they bargained for when there’s a mummy named Harold (Bill Fagerbakke, Patrick Star on “Spongebob Squarepants”) chilling in his sarcophagus.

As far as these DCOM Halloween movies go, they’re rarely scary. They just have spooky monsters and usually make for decent Halloween movies. “Under Wraps” is easily the least scary of them all. But that’s not this film’s intention (or usually any of the DCOM Halloween movie intentions). This mummy is just funny and entertaining. There’s some good fish-out-of-water humour and slapstick comedy that made me think of Jim Carrey. The makeup is decent for Harold, too.

Some of the humour’s childish, but again, that’s understandable for a Halloween TV movie made for kids. I’m still a kid at heart so there’s some okay enjoyment to be had here. Certain sub-plots aren’t always interesting. For example: Marshall’s Mom (Corinne Bohrer, and that’s literally the character name) is dating a new guy named Ted (also played by Bill Fagerbakke) and Marshall isn’t coping with it well after his parent’s divorce.

It’s not super interesting while watching but it was probably put in because it would be relatable for any kids watching it that may not be handling divorce well. It handles it fine in that respect and the attempt at developing a character is welcome, as they don’t try with anyone else.

Basically, Marshall likes horror movies; Gilbert’s spooked of his own shadow; and Amy is… Well, she’s not well-developed and she’s there for an eventual schoolyard crush, and her mom (character name simply Amy’s Mom) is selling Kubat’s house so she’s their way into the basement to find Harold.

The friendship with Marshall and Harold is a highlight. The main plot of the film other than just three kids hanging out with a mummy is they have to get him back into his sarcophagus before Halloween ends. If they don’t, he’ll turn to dust and his soul would be lost, as a horror shop owner named Bruce (Ken Hudson Campbell) tells the kids. He’s a horror shop owner but also an exposition fairy.

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Bill Fagerbakke in “Under Wraps.”

The villain and the main conflict is weak and there’s a dumb twist that’s too silly to not talk about. It’s really the stuff you’d see in a TV movie like this, so SPOILER WARNING! Basically, the Kubat guy is still alive. He faked his death because he was going to go to jail for tax evasion. He’s trying to sell the sarcophagus but wants Harold because a real-life mummy is real valuable. Of course, the kids don’t want Harold being sold to one of his shady buyers. They really dress Kubat as a gangster interested in arts and culture when they show he’s the villain. END OF SPOILERS!

The acting’s fine for the kids, and when Marshall fake cries it’s the only bad moment. If they’re doing random hijinks, they’re completely passable. The teleplay by Don Rhyme is fine for what it is, but character development, plot structure and the conflict is shaky at best. The mummy makes up for it by being funny most of the time, and without him being so amusing this would have been a lot worse.

I think the best writing is a movie-within-a-movie called “Warthead IV” that Marshall adores. The monster looks like the Toxic Avenger and there’s some funny, cheesy overacting. But when the monster crashes through a window and puts the Movie Dad (Tom Virtue, Steven Stevens on TV’s “Even Stevens”) near a spinning knife in the garbage disposal is the closest this comes to horror. It’s campy and looks like a fun movie, and I would watch it. It’s one of the better moments of the film.

Score: 60/100

eXistenZ (1999)

Directed by: David Cronenberg. Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm. Runtime: 1h 37 min. Released: April 23, 1999.

I’ll start off by saying I did not fully understand “eXistenZ.Basically, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is premiering this virtual reality video game called eXistenZ (roll credits) that’s a huge deal but then the goth-looking guy (Kris Lemche) from “Final Destination 3” attempts to assassinate her and she goes on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law). He’s a marketing trainee but also her protection. Then, they must play her own game to make sure it’s not damaged.

I think my main problem with this film is the fact that the world’s rules aren’t well established. There aren’t rules to the game and it’s all so ambiguous. We’re not even given the premise of this new game, either, as it seems just the fact that Geller is releasing a new game is reason enough to buy it. She’s like a god in this world.

The world itself that David Cronenberg creates is just strange. The way they play Allegra’s virtual reality game is through these game pods that are made out of recycled animal and amphibian organs. They look like little stomach’s and they’re rather unsettling.

What’s stranger is where these little creepy pods have to be plugged in for the user to play the game. They’re plugged into a hole in your spinal cord called a bio-port (the film shows this can be an oddly erotic thing). No one’s born with this bio-port, it’s done surgically so these characters can play video games. And we’re supposed to believe people do this willingly. If that’s what it took to play video games in the real world, man. I’ll say goodbye to all video games and just stick with movies. That’s a hard pass.

That’s the kind-of the stance Ted Pikul takes as well, because he has a phobia of being penetrated surgically. Honestly, he’s the only normal one in this world because of that. Law and Jason Leigh carry the film well as their characters. Other supporting players like Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston, Willem Dafoe and Don McKellar are good.

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Jude Law in “eXistenZ.” (IMDb)

The story itself and plot structure feels very fluid and moves at a fast pace. There’s a lot of action and it’s a really bizarre sci-fi thriller than anything horror in the traditional sense. The outline of important events feel compact in this admittedly thin plot, and there’s not a lot of dead space in the film. Some of it isn’t always interesting and some stuff doesn’t make a lot of sense, either.

I think that’s my problem. When I don’t understand something fully it hinders my enjoyment and I didn’t understand a lot of stuff here. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. It’s very well-made and well-directed by David Cronenberg, this just isn’t a world I’d want to immerse myself in again.

It’s a fine ride for one watch as it consistently keeps you guessing if they’re really in the real world or in the game world. And I was usually intrigued even if I didn’t love what was going on. The end of the film is the most memorable part in this. and there was a lot of stuff that I found interesting – especially the gun made out of flesh and bone that shoots human teeth. Just that sentence alone should tell you how creative “eXistenZ” truly is. I also never thought I’d see video game consoles that look like living, breathing organisms. Honestly, I wish I didn’t see them, because the noises they make and the way they look are hella creepy.

Score: 60/100

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Released: May 22, 1996. Directed by: Brian de Palma. Starring: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart. Runtime: 1h 50 min.

Based on the hit TV show from the 1960s, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) tries to clear his name when he’s suspected for disloyalty to the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) after a mission goes wrong and he’s left as the only survivor.

The script’s mediocre as Ethan must deliver the second half of a non-official cover (NOC) list, a list of covert agents in Eastern Europe, to an arms dealer named “Max” to discover the identity of the actual spy. I watched this three days ago and I barely remembered the NOC list. Out of the first three films, Brian de Palma’s direction and style are easily the least forgettable, as well.

The script does have some surprises and the cast helps keep it interesting, especially Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. He’s charming and great here and “Mission: Impossible” serves as a solid introduction to Ethan.

For the rest of the cast, I’m sure it was surprising when the film came out in 1996 that Emilio Estevez gets killed off in the first 25 minutes. For me, watching this for the first time in 2018, I was just surprised seeing him in this. Jon Voight’s also good as Jim Phelps – the only character from the original TV series.

It’s interesting seeing who Ethan aligns with to try to clear his name, since he can’t exactly get help from the agency. Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) has a decent chemistry with Ethan, but she’s the most forgettable out of the female leads of the first three films. Luther (Ving Rhames) is great and so is Jean Reno as Krieger.

The film itself though only has a few great action scenes, especially the dangling wire scene – which is so tense and the whole sequence is so entertaining – and the train finale is also great.

Throughout the film, Ethan is trying to evade director of the IMF Eugene Kittredge (Henry Czerny). Kittredge wants Ethan to come to them, saying “You find something that’s personally important to him and you squeeze.” The thing is, he doesn’t execute on this line because it doesn’t feel like Ethan has anything to lose. The stakes for this film simply don’t feel high enough, making the non-action scenes dull.

Score: 65/100

Dumb & Dumber (1994)

Released: December 16, 1994. Directed by: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly. Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly. Runtime: 1 hr., 46 min.

The cult favourite Dumb & Dumber put the Farrelly brothers on the map. It was also part of Jim Carrey’s first breakout year of a trio of films that made sparked his great career, along with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask.

For me, it is definitely the definitive road trip film. It’s a buddy comedy about two complete idiots, Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) who travel cross-country to Aspen, Colorado, in pursuit of one of Harry’s limousine passengers, Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly).

She purposely left her briefcase at the airport as ransom payment for her kidnapped husband. It was meant for thugs – Joe Mentalino (Mike Starr) and J.P. Shay (Karen Duffy). When Christmas grabs the briefcase, the goons mistake him for a “professional” or an FBI agent and not just a love-struck buffoon.

Both Lloyd and Harry have lost their jobs. Harry was a pet groomer who recently spent his life savings turning his car into a sheepdog. With no jobs or reason to stay in Rhode Island, Lloyd coerces Harry into a road trip to Aspen to deliver the briefcase to Swanson, who Larry later thinks is named Samsonite – the brand name on the briefcase.

The thugs learn of their intentions and pursue them, but not before they take decapitate Harry’s pet parakeet, Petey. Both Larry and Harry think his head falling off is from old age. The two idiots need some cash for the road after Lloyd was robbed. Lloyd hilariously sells miscellaneous items, including Petey, to a blind adolescent named Billy, who lives in their apartment building.

Billy misconstrues the bird as simply quiet, and it becomes a bit of a sensation on the news and one of the film’s funniest moments. The clever humour about two guys being stupid as they can be won’t be for everyone.

Surely, their sheer stupidity can become frustrating, but it’s the joke. If you like two guys getting in a lot of misunderstandings, you are sure to laugh. If you are one of those people who are continuously frustrated by that one incredibly stupid character on every sitcom, avoid this. The two protagonists are that type of character and their daftness is the ongoing gag.

The plot isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but it’s good enough for a simplistic road trip buddy comedy. And for the film’s tone and the protagonists, it fits very well. It’s funny when just about everyone they meet overestimate them.

Thugs think they must be special agents – and never for a second do people consider them just being the idiots they are. Even Mary mistakes Harry’s stupidity as intentional humour. She also thinks that their orange and sky-blue tuxedos are an ironic joke.

There are plot inconsistencies. Why does Lloyd pack mittens and think there are Rockies when at first he thinks Aspen is in California and calls it a warm climate?

But their misadventures along the way make it largely worth it. I, for one, was hooked by the first gag. Limousine driver Lloyd crawls back to the passenger seat of his limo to hit on a beautiful woman. He asks her if she is from Jersey and she says she is from Austria. He then tries to impress her with an Australian accent, which just perfectly captures his stupidity early on.

Score8/10

The Rugrats Movie (1998)

Rugrats movieReleased: November 20, 1998. Directed by: Igor Kovalyov, Norton Virgien. Starring: Elizabeth Daily, Christine Cavanaugh, Kath Soucie. Runtime: 79 min.

Tommy faces responsiblity when Dil, his new baby brother is born. As with all newborns, the child becomes a bane to Tommy and the rest of his gang. Even Phil and Lil don’t like them. So they decide to return Dil to where he came from, the hospital. But they get lost along the way, REALLY lost, and get into even more trouble with a circus. Can they find their way home and can Tommy and Dil just get along? And to top things off, Angelica goes out to find them and has little luck.

This is the movie event of 1998 for anyone who likes snot jokes. Everyone else: Keep your distance. It’s not so bad, but I don’t really like it. There’s little for older folks to enjoy; it opens with a homage to Indiana Jones, but that’s mostly it.

David Spade voices a bit role. That’s enjoyable. Tommy feels neglected because of all his parents’ attention is on Dil. It’s a bit poignant and real. The music numbers are lame. I forget them already. The movie is just forgettable, silly and boring, and I don’t remember chuckling all that much.

Score50/100

Happy Gilmore (1996)

Happy GilmoreReleased: February 16, 1996. Directed by: Dennis Dugan. Starring: Adam Sandler, Christopher McDonald, Julie Bowen. Runtime: 92 min.

“Happy Gilmore” is a silly sports comedy, which is its purpose; but God is it funny. Sandler plays the titular Happy Gilmore, a hockey-player-turned-golf-player because he has a wicked slap shot, but he can’t exactly skate so well. He takes his hockey skills and places them on the golf course, even if he has a hard time tapping the ball in sometimes. To help him with that is a love interest, Virginia Venet (Julie Bowen), and a former golf pro, Chubbs (Carl Weathers) to teach him how to improve on his game.

Happy’s motivation to join the golf tour is his grandmother, who hasn’t paid her taxes in years. Due to that, she loses her home – and in order to get it back, he’ll need some money.

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Fights with Bob Barker and other golfing patrons, distracting patrons yelling “Jackass!”, the villain, Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald), and endless product placement for Subway certainly makes this a satisfying and memorable Sandler movie. Oh, and then there is Ben Stiller’s turn as a crazed worker at the retirement home Gilmore’s grandmother stays at.

“Happy Gilmore” is a sweet, if entirely predictable sports comedy, and one of my favourite golf movies, even if it’s not in the same league as “Caddyshack.” It is still both Adam Sandler’s and director Dennis Dugan’s strongest comedies. I find myself laughing at this every time, no matter how many times I watch it.

There are solid chuckles throughout, and truly hilarious scenes. People will, of course, like it a lot more if they enjoy Sandler’s brand of comedy. This character gets very angry, which makes the title ironic. He’s a nice guy who means well, even if he’s generic to a fault. He is one of Sandler’s best characters. Wouldn’t it have been awesome if Sandler’s “Anger Management” movie was a sequel to this?

Score83/100