Friday, October 20, 2023

A Haunting In Venice


Premiered September 15, 2023.

Dateline:Venice, Italy, October 31, 1947. 

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the world's greatest detective, has retired from solving crimes and now lives a quiet life in Venice. His bodyguard, a former policeman named Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), protects Poirot from people who seek his detective services and those who would harm him.

Since the end of World War II, Venice has been occupied by U.S. troops. The Americans have brought their Halloween traditions with them. Venetian children are wearing costumes and marching in a Halloween parade. 

Poirot is visited by mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who has written stories based on Poirot's exploits. She invites Poirot and Vitale to attend a séance at a villa owned by opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). The séance will be conducted by a medium named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). Oliver wants Poirot to expose Drake as a charlatan. 

We learn that the villa used to be an orphanage that is allegedly haunted by spirits of children left to die during the plague epidemic. 

As the evening progresses, strange, seemingly supernatural events occur and dead bodies begin to pile up in the villa. Is the villa truly haunted? Or is there a more conventional explanation for the multiple deaths? The only man who can answer those questions and solve the mystery is Hercule Poirot!

J.A. Morris says:
I am reluctant to say much about the plot of A Haunting In Venice because to do so would spoil it. I've read some Agatha Christie stories, but I was completely unfamiliar with this Hercule Poirot adventure. In short, this is a typical Christie mystery, with the added bonus that it takes place on Halloween! If you're a fan of Christie and Halloween (like I am), you will enjoy A Haunting In Venice

This film marks the third time Kenneth Branagh has portrayed Poirot. He's as good as ever and Branagh also directed A Haunting In Venice. The rest of the cast provides good support and it's beautifully filmed. Branagh creates an atmosphere that makes the villa feel creepy and otherworldly.

While I enjoyed this movie, I didn't feel that it took enough advantage of the fact that it was a theatrical film. It looked great on the big screen, but it just felt like a "very good TV movie," nothing more, nothing less. It could've used a few more jump scares too. 

However, it's still lots of fun and it's something I could see watching around Halloween in the future. A Haunting In Venice is recommended, but it's limitations keep me from giving it a higher rating. 

J.A. Morris' rating:


2 and a half jack-o-lanterns.

RigbyMel says: 
A Haunting in Venice is an entertaining whodunit with a creepy edge. 1940s Halloween costumes are creepy all by themselves, and we get a well-staged séance, creepy visions, disembodied voices and murder to boot. 

The story is rather loosely based on Agatha Christie's 1969 book Hallowe'en Party. But it mostly only retains the children's party, an incident involving bobbing for apples and several character names.  I guess the Venice setting was deemed more visually interesting than an English country house? That being said, the Venetian setting does give us a reason (a bad storm) to keep Poirot and suspects trapped in the spooky haunted orphanage. Moreover, Venice's traditions of masquerade and carnival fit in nicely as a backdrop to the Halloween proceedings. 

I enjoyed Poirot's skepticism of the supernatural and its juxtaposition with the weird setting and possibly supernatural occurrences. Kenneth Branagh does a great job of portraying Poirot's ego and skepticism during the course of the film. Michelle Yeoh is excellent as the medium Joyce Reynolds and Tina Fey does fine as the Christie-esque author Ariadne Oliver.   

I like how the film uses its post-WW2 setting to develop themes regarding people being haunted by their war experiences, it adds a bit of depth to the proceedings.   

There were elements of the plot that felt a bit cliched and underwritten at times, but the setting and the actors make A Haunting in Venice worthwhile.  

RigbyMel's rating: 

3 jack-o-lanterns 

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Violent Night

Premiered December 2, 2022.

Christmas Eve has arrived. However, Santa Claus (David Harbor) feels cynical about his role in the holiday.  He takes a break from his deliveries to drown his sorrows in a bar.

At the same time, in Greenwich, CT, Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell), his wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) are driving to his mother’s mansion for the Lightstone family’s elaborate Christmas celebration.  Linda and Jason’s marriage is in trouble and they’ve been living apart.  Trudy is angry at her father because he forgot to take her to see Santa at the mall.  The only thing she wants for Christmas is for her parents to get back together.  

Jason’s mother Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) heads a major international oil corporation and has illegally obtained much of her wealth.  This comes back to haunt her when gunmen led by Jimmy Martinez (John Leguizamo) take the Lightstones hostage and demand billions of dollars.  Jimmy and his minions take on Christmas-related codenames, with Jimmy calling himself “Scrooge.”

When Santa arrives at the Lightstone house to deliver presents to Trudy, he quickly realizes what’s going on.  Santa steps into action and kills several gunmen. 

Can Santa save the Lightstone family and regain his Christmas spirit?  Or will Jimmy and his gang cancel Christmas forever?

J.A. Morris says:

I’ll mention up front that if you’ve heard of Violent Night, you probably know it’s not for kids and contains more violence and gore than just about anything we’ve reviewed here.  It definitely brings the violence its title promises.  Having said that, it's a very good R-rated action movie.  The main attraction here is David Harbor as Santa Claus.  Fans of Stranger Things (where Harbor famously portrayed police chief Jim Hopper)  will probably enjoy Violent Night. With anyone else in the role, this movie wouldn’t have worked.  

Gertrude Lightstone is played by Beverly D’Angelo.  I’m thinking this was a bit of stunt-casting, since D’angelo also plays Ellen Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (and other Vacation movies).  She’s convincing in Violent Night as a corporate oil executive who will use criminal methods to maximize profit.

Since this is a recently-released film I don’t want to reveal too much here.  So I’ll just say that I thought some of the bad guys in this movie got off easy, which keeps me from giving the movie my highest rating.

Still, it’s a well-made action movie and it’s entertaining from start to finish.  If you’re looking for blood and gore and Santa killing terrorists in novel ways, you will appreciate Violent Night.  

J.A. Morris's rating:

3 candy canes.

RigbyMel says:

Violent Night is an outrageously over the top Christmas action movie. It definitely earns its R-rating and is decidedly not for kids. When we saw the trailer earlier this year, I was reminded of a parody promo from Scrooged called "The Night The Reindeer Died" and thought it might have potential, especially with David Harbor as Santa.

When we went to see Violent Night, my impression was reinforced. David Harbor makes an appealing world-weary, butt-kicking St. Nick. I also enjoyed the way the film managed to tie in some of Santa's mythological connection to Odin in an interesting way. Also, Harbor's experience working with young actors in Stranger Things pays off with his interactions with young Trudy (played by Leah Brady), who makes you root for the family despite some of the loathsome behavior of her relatives.

As its title might suggest, the film is VERY violent indeed, making use of every conceivable holiday decoration -- up to and including a baby Jesus from a manger scene -- into a weapon of some sort or other. Some of the violence is so out there that it becomes humorous. And I am one of those people who tends to wince when people get punched in movies. I still winced, but I also laughed throughout Violent Night.

There are also darkly humorous turns such as the bad guys having ridiculous holiday themed code names ("Scrooge" and "Krampus," of course, but also "Frosty," "Sugarplum," and "Candy Cane.") However, under the mordant humor, violence and gore lies an almost sweet holiday tale of good triumphing over evil and a very entertaining holiday action flick.

RigbyMel's rating: 

3 candy canes 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Hocus Pocus 2

Premiered September 30, 2022.

On Halloween Night, 1993, in Salem Massachusetts, Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) and her sisters Mary (Kathy Najimy) and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) were resurrected when a black flame candle was lit. 

Twenty-nine years later, history repeats itself when two witchcraft-curious Salem teens named Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) prepare to celebrate Halloween and Becca’s sixteenth birthday.  They refuse a party invitation from their estranged friend Cassie Traske (Lilia Buckingham) and go to the woods to perform Becca’s birthday ritual.  The girls light a black flame candle during the ritual and accidentally summon our favorite witches from the beyond.

The Sanderson sisters are excited about their return.  They’re once again determined to brew a potion that steals the souls of children in order to gain eternal youth for themselves.  Lizzy and Becca pretend to idolize the sisters and that a potion containing children’s souls can be bought at the local apothecary…a Walgreen’s drug store.  The girls trick the witches into thinking that various beauty products in the drug store will achieve the same effect as their potion, but the ruse does not work for long. 

The witchy trio winds up at their old home, which is now a magic shop, managed by a man named Gilbert (Sam Richardson).  He became a fan of the Sandersons sisters when he saw them when they wrecking havoc in Salem in 1993.  Gilbert has been trying to revive them ever since so he agrees to help the sisters.   

Meanwhile, the Sandersons stumble on a campaign flier for Mayor Jefry Traske (Tony Hale) - who also happens to be Cassie’s father.  The witches realize that the mayor is a descendent of Reverend Traske, who banished them from Salem in 1653.  

They decide to take vengeance upon Traske and Salem by using his blood to create the dangerous Magicae Maxima spell which the sisters believe will make them all-powerful and immortal.  They leave to hunt down Traske after trapping Becca and Izzy in the basement.  They force Gilbert to collect the other ingredients.  Gilbert digs up Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) from the graveyard and enlists Billy’s aid in collecting potion ingredients.  Billy doesn’t realize that his head is one of the items needed to complete the spell.   The girls manage to escape from the basement and attempt to contact Cassie to warn her about the Sandersons’ return.      


Magical mischief and mayhem ensue and in order to find out whether Winnie, Mary and Sarah succeed in carrying out their plans, you will have to watch the movie! 

RigbyMel says:

Hocus Pocus 2 builds upon the cult nostalgia surrounding the first movie and has a lot of fun doing so.  There are quite a few nods to the original 1993 film (but alas, none of the original actors playing the kids who defeat the Sanderson sisters in the first film return).    That being said,  Midler, Najimy and Parker are always super entertaining to watch in their silly witchy roles. 

Winnie, Mary and Sarah also get another chance to shine musically with a scene set to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” appropriately re-titled to “The Witches Are Back” as well as a big song and dance number featuring their take on “One Way or Another” - originally of Blondie fame.  

I appreciated the somewhat fleshed out 17th century backstory the film gives to the Sanderson sisters – Winnie defies authority and refuses to marry and then fights to save her sisters from being taken away from her.   But I also appreciate that [SPOILER] our delightfully naughty witches never do get *completely* redeemed either.

Some of the jokes feel a bit re-hashed from the original movie, but the cast makes the material enjoyable even if it is a *bit* familiar.   

I also found it interesting that since there is a nearly 30 year gap between the original 1993 Hocus Pocus and its sequel, one can see some distinct differences in the way Halloween is celebrated then and now. Spookiness, treats and costumes remain consistent, but the context changes a bit. For example, the big trick or treating scene from the first movie has been replaced with a Halloween carnival which feels more like the “trunk or treat” events that have become rather more prevalent today.  

All in all,  Hocus Pocus 2 is good silly fun – not quite as good as the first movie, but enjoyable. 

RigbyMel’s rating: 


2 and a half jack o' lanterns.

J.A. Morris says:

I am mostly in agreement with RigbyMel about Hocus Pocus 2.  It’s a good sequel, about on par with the original.  It’s a fun Halloween movie, nothing more, nothing less.  Like the original Hocus Pocus, this movie is worth watching due to the presence of Midler, Parker and Najimy.  They’re all funny and their musical performances made me smile.  The younger actors are likable and do a good job in their roles.

I don’t understand why none of the actors from the original movie appeared in Hocus Pocus 2.  Most are still alive and it would’ve made the sequel feel more connected to its predecessor.  

There’s a scene during the flashback to 1653 where the young Sanderson sisters encounter the Witch Mother, who is played by Hannah Waddingham (of Ted Lasso fame).  The Witch Mother arrives with much fanfare and I expected to see her again during the portion of the movie set in the present.  

However (SPOILER ALERT), the Witch Mother is never seen or mentioned again.  I’m not sure why they teased the character and brought in an actor of Waddingham’s caliber for one brief scene.  

I was also annoyed by the preponderance of product placements on display in this movie, most notably during the Sanderson's visit to Walgreen's.  

Hocus Pocus 2 is recommended for anyone who liked the first movie or if you’re just looking for some light seasonal fare.  But I doubt it will attain the “modern Halloween classic” status of the 1993 film.  

J.A. Morris’ rating:


2 and a half jack o'lanterns.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Bewitched: "The Leprechaun"

Premiered March 17, 1966

Darrin Stephens (Dick York) is dismayed to learn that yet another of Samatha's (Elizabeth Montgomery) relatives has come to visit.  The visitor is a bona fide leprechaun named Brian O'Brian (Henry James).  

Brian turns out NOT to be one of Samatha's kinfolk, but is from Darrin's side of the family.  The leprechaun is seeking his last remaining pot of gold, which he'd hidden away in a fireplace in Ireland.

Unfortunately for Brian, that fireplace was transported from the Auld Sod to the US by a wealthy businessman named James Dennis Robinson (Parley Baer) where it holds pride of place in Robinson's mansion! 

Since Brian isn't in possession of the pot of gold, he cannot use his leprechaun magic.  Moreover, Samantha cannot use her witchcraft to obtain the pot of gold as its leprechaun bewitchment prevents this.  So Brian will have to find a way to retrieve the pot himself.  

Matters are complicated by Darrin's skepticism of the whole issue and the fact that Darrin's advertising firm would very much like to obtain Robinson's business.   Darrin goes to Robinson's home to verify Brian's claims and attempt to drum up some ad firm revenue, but is not very successful. 

The leprechaun decides to take matters into his own hands and runs into serious trouble in the form of guard dogs. Robinson himself calls the police and has Brian sent to jail.  Brian uses his one phone call to ask Samantha for help.   She obliges and springs him using witchcraft. Darrin is angry that she interfered and forbids her from helping further. 

Ignoring Darrin, Samantha witches herself and Brian back to Robinson's mansion to search for the pot of gold.  However, it seems that someone else has already discovered its hiding place! 

Will Darrin win another advertising deal for his firm?  Will Brian O'Brian regain his pot of gold or will he be reduced to a mere mortal?   Will Samantha think of a clever way to save the day?  

RigbyMel says: 

This is a slight and silly episode of Bewitched.  It's amusing to see how the sitcom's writers work some leprechaun mythos into the suburban setting -- but also a bit annoying to see how heavily they lean into the "drunken Irishman" stereotype.   

Brian seems particularly dopey for a leprechaun -- they have a reputation for being reasonably clever if not tricky, after all.  Maybe the loss of his pot of gold is dulling his faculties?   That being said,  Henry James is fun to watch as Brian the leprechaun and definitely knows how to work the blarney

I liked that they played with the sitcom's formula a bit in this episode as it's one of Darrin's nutty relations (not Samantha's) causing the difficulty.   However, Darrin is a bit less likeable than usual in this episode as well.   He's rather mean and unsympathetic to Brian and to Samantha throughout -- and they come through for him in the end anyway! 

Interestingly, Parley Baer who plays the episode's antagonist Mr. Robinson, appeared on nine episodes of Bewitched between 1966 and 1972.  He played different characters each time! 

"The Leprechaun" is an enjoyable episode of Bewitched with lots of St. Patrick's Day flair but it's not really a classic.

RigbyMel's rating: 

2.5 shamrocks 

J.A. Morris says: 
We should mention that even though St. Patrick's Day is never mentioned in "The Leprechaun," this episode premiered on St. Paddy's of 1966.  So I believe it qualifies as a "holiday" episode.

This is an OK episode of Bewitched.  I agree with most of what my co-blogger says.  If I have any problem with "The Leprechaun," it's that I felt it gets off to a slow start.  It's a "low energy" episode until Brian tries to get his gold back from Robinson.  

There isn't a lot of St. Patrick's Day programming out there, that makes "The Leprechaun" worth watching at least once, but that's about it.

J.A. Morris' rating:

2 shamrocks.