????? in Scream VI


As a rule, horror sequels aren't supposed to be good. Fifth sequels in any genre aren't supposed to be good. Sequels whose basic M.O. is “Let's do what we've always done … but in a different city!” aren't supposed to be good. And yet, almost preposterously, Scream VI proves to be very, very good – though if that praise seems suspect, I'd be willing to amend it to “very, very entertaining.” If you'll forgive the spoiler, I haven't had this much fun at one of these things since Laurie Metcalf donned the Ghostface mask. Given how many of the new film's cast members weren't even in grade school, or alive, back then, that's a lo-o-o-ong time.

In directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin's and Tyler Gillett's followup to their Scream “re-quel” from a mere 14 months ago, gone is the sitcom-bucolic setting of Woodsboro, California, replaced here by the gritty grime of New York City. Gone, too, but hardly forgotten, is Neve Campbell's series stalwart Sidney Prescott – although as we're assured, she's not dead, just in hiding. (And presumably working on her contract negotiations.) Returning, however, are half-sisters Sam and Tara Carpenter (Melissa Barrera and Jenny Ortega) and twin siblings Mindy and Chad Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding), all survivors of the previous Ghostface slaughter. Traumatized Sam is in therapy and the slightly-less-edgy others are all attending the fictional Blakemore University, and wouldn't you know it? The knife-wielding lunatic/s in the Munch mask is/are back, too, as we discover in the requisite mood-establishing prelude. But if last year's comedic splatter-fest went against franchise convention by allowing its first victim – that would've been Tara – to survive, this year's freaks out the fan base by having Ghostface actually remove his mask in the opening 10 minutes, and revealing himself to be ... Tony Revolori! That “lobby boy” sweetheart from The Grand Budapest Hotel!

Of course, if you're now thinking “Wow, short movie!”, you obviously haven't seen a Scream. After Revolori's collegiate killer is consequently killed himself by yet another Ghostface, we're off and running with a whole new set of potential murderers and victims that might include our “Core Four,” to borrow the nickname that Chad, to their deep embarrassment, imposes on his posse. In no particular order, there's Quinn (Liana Liberato), Sam's and Tara's cheerfully slutty roommate; Ethan (Jack Champion), Chad's sweetly virginal roommate; Anika (Devyn Nekoda), Mindy's new girlfriend; Danny (Josh Segarra), the local hottie whom Sam is seeing on the sly; middle-aged Wayne (Dermot Mulroney), a detective investigating the recent slayings; late-middle-aged Christopher (Henry Czerny), Sam's therapist; and Laura Crane (Samara Weaving), a film professor at Blakemore. Oh, wait. She's the one who dies in the opener. But that character name has so much cinematic mystery-thriller adjacency baked in that it would be a shame not to mention her.

Melissa Barrera and Jenny Ortega in Scream VI

It's Mindy who has the unfortunate task of delivering this series' de rigueur explanation of genre tropes that also serves as meta-commentary. You know the speech: It's the one that usually begins “If this were a horror movie … !” and goes on to detail how every living member of the cast, even the least likely suspect, might be one of the new Ghostfaces. (Mindy and the rest are wholly on-board with the possibility of multiple maniacs, given that this group is well-versed in both the “reality” of the Scream universe and the faux reality of the Stab movies that were inspired by the Woodsboro killings … . And now I have a headache.) When Mindy launched into her spiel here, it was all I could do not to groan. Last year's Scream crawled so far up its own ass in terms of echoes of echoes of echoes that the movie barely remembered to exist in the present, and much of the same threatens to happen in Scream VI. Courteney Cox's Gale Weathers has unsurprisingly landed in NYC, and is yet again introduced as an opportunistic media whore just so we're yet again forced to reevaluate her. Revisiting the franchise from Scream IV is Hayden Panettiere's Kirby Reed, a Ghostface survivor who's now an FBI agent. And even though he was killed way back in 1996, Skeet Ulrich's Billy Loomis is on hand, too, appearing (as he did in 2022) as a spectral vision of his former psychopath, because Sam is Billy's illegitimate daughter, you see, and … . (Sorry. Headache again.)

Happily, though, after the introductions, explanations, and regurgitations are taken care of, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett (working from James Vanderbilt's and Guy Buckick's script) can get down to the business of tickling and scaring us, which they do admirably and consistently, and largely thanks to the shift in setting. By last year's entry, Woodsboro had clearly run out of suitable sites for fresh terrors; there's only so much one can do with suburbia. But starting with its prologue that finds the doomed film prof navigating a Manhattan alleyway in which neither shrieks nor slayings would likely bother the passers-by, Scream VI keeps finding novel locations (at least for this series) in which Ghostface can do his/her dirty work. The attack in a downtown bodega was nicely staged – so many narrow aisles to pop up behind! – as was the familiar but still unnerving set piece in which the only escape from a five-story apartment is a shaky ladder balanced between one building and its neighbor. A shrine dedicated to Ghostfaces of the past housed in a dilapidated movie theater produced a touch of giggly menace. And with their film set during Halloween season, because why wouldn't it be, the directors' editing and compositions on a pair of subway cars results in one of the strongest overall sequences in the franchise's history, with the squeal of the cars, shakiness of the trek, and So Many Ghostfaces ratcheting up the spooky/funny tension to a delirious degree.

Plus, if you believe, as I do, that these films tend to sink or soar based on the ultimate revelations of their cloaked nutjobs, you'll likely be jazzed by the silly yet winningly inventive reveal here, where just when you think you've got everything figured out, there's an “Oh!”, and then an “Oh!”, and then an “Oh-h-h-h!!!” Clever, frightening, smartly paced, appreciatively knowing (Gale finally gets a personalized Ghostface call!), and well-acted across the board – with special shout-outs going to Barrera, Ortega, and Segarra, the latter that lovable dipstick Lance from HBO's wildly underrated sitcom The Other Two – Scream VI isn't merely the series' most enjoyable entry in more than a quarter-century. It's a first-rate horror comedy that treats audiences to verbal and visual ingenuity all its own – a juicy bite of the Big Apple. Watch out for those razor blades.

Woody Harrelson and Madison Tevlin in Champions


Had we been told 25 years ago that Bobby Farrelly would be directing a comedy in which Woody Harrelson played a basketball coach court-ordered to mentor wannabe athletes with intellectual disabilities, our responses would likely have run to gamut from “Awesome!” to “Oh sweet Jesus … .” As part of the duo who unleashed Dumb & Dumber, Kingpin (which also starred Harrelson), and There's Something About Mary on the world from 1994 to 1998, no filmmakers were more thoroughly revered and reviled for their unapologetic tastelessness, and the mind boggles at what Farrelly brothers Bobby and Peter might have done with this scenario in their pre-woke playground of the mid-'90s.

But for better and worse, times and temperaments change. Five years ago, as a writer/director, Peter took a similarly sketchy-for-a-Farrelly premise – uncouth lout chauffeurs gay Black man through the Deep South of the 1960s – and wound up winning Best Picture and Original Screenplay Oscars for Green Book. And now, although Academy Awards aren't likely to be in the offing, director Bobby has taken material that should theoretically have been kept far away from a Farrelly and has given us Champions, delivering sports-comedy uplift that's easy to find charming and touching despite your awareness of how blatantly you're being manipulated.

As a prototypical triumph-of-the-underdogs saga in which a DUI leads to Harrelson's G-league coach Marcus spending his community-service time in a Des Moines community center, nearly everything about Farrelly's and screenwriter's Mark Rizzo's adaptation of Javier Fesser's 2018 Spanish film is predictable. Everything, that is, except the presences of the 10 intellectually disabled actors – Bradley Edens, Joshua Felder, Ashton Gunning, Alex Hintz, Kevin Iannucci, James Day Keith, Casey Metcalfe, Tom Sinclair, Madison Tevlin, and Matthew Von Der Ahe – who comprise the movie's basketball-loving team of capitalized Friends. Harrelson is terrific in a role that meshes ideally with his talents, and Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, and Cheech Marin provide lovely support. Yet they aren't able to do what the Friends do, which is to keep you grinning (and occasionally welling up) even through the movie's many, many contrivances and awkward patches – and with absolutely no condescension. You don't watch this ensemble and think, “Aw-w-w … how sweet that they're trying.” It's more like “Wow … these folks are killing it.”

Ernie Hudson and Woody Harrelson in Champions

My major gripe with the film, and it's one that's likely to be shared, is that if the Friends weren't intellectually disabled, Champions would barely qualify as a comedy, because the players' idiosyncrasies aren't inherently hilarious. Marcus references Hoosiers early on, and if Gene Hackman were around, it's doubtful that laughs would be sought and generated through a teammate who refused to shower, or one who kept bragging about his sexual conquests, or one who engaged in victorious dance moves even when his thrown ball got nowhere near the basket. Maybe it's the players' relative innocence we're meant to chuckle at, and at no point, thank God, are we asked to laugh at the Friends. But that doesn't alleviate the nagging sense of opportunism – the realization that non-jokes are being treated as punchlines solely because of who winds up delivering them.

One of the chief subplots finds the developmentally challenged Johnny (best-in-show Friend Iannucci) upset that Marcus is sleeping with Johnny's sister Alex, whom Olson plays with sublimely tart resignation. Yet Johnny's anger, particularly his insistence on giving Marcus the stink-eye, is treated as little more than a go-to opportunity for humor, even though the root of that anger isn't remotely funny. Farrelly and Rizzo have obviously worked hard to individualize their mostly non-professional ensemble, and even the teammates who aren't fully fleshed out as characters are marvelously distinct. But the filmmakers never quite licked the issue of the Friends being employed as a device, with the truth behind their own thoughts and experiences secondary to their role in making the film's (white, straight, middle-aged) protagonist a better person. It sometimes feels as though all 10 Friends were collectively cast in the Mahershala Ali role in Green Book.

That being said, Ali was wonderful in his (second) Oscar-winning role, and the Friends are equally delightful, and Farrelly's movie gives you what you want from this much-revisited genre without, for the most part, making you feel like a sap. True, Champions' director, in what appears to be his squishy middle-age period, appears to have never met a cliché he didn't like – though I was frankly shocked that it took him quite so long to get to the obligatory whistle of the Harlem Globetrotters' “Sweet Georgia Brown” theme song. From their first post-Tinder hookup, though, Harrelson and Olson are a combined hoot even when their lovers' relationship veers into the expected pathos, and earthy wisdom is enjoyably shared by Hudson and Marin, and while the ultimate finale to the Big Game isn't entirely unanticipated, it at least produces just-enough specific surprise and the exact-right amount of sports-comedy tingles. And as I hope I've made clear, the performances of the Friends are consistently winning, even when they're losing, and I'm including their on-court performances. These clearly gifted athletes may not be Michael Jordan, but they'd sure kick my ass in a pick-up game.

Adam Driver in 65


I didn't have a stopwatch running at the time, but I'm pretty sure that the title of writer/directors Scott Beck's and Bryan Woods' 65 lands somewhere after the 20-minute mark of their 93-minute movie. So if my estimation is correct, allow me to pose a question: Have we now reached the point where even the explanation of a movie's title can be considered a spoiler? Because I'm sorry, but I don't know how to discuss this futuristic-but-not action adventure without revealing that the “65” refers to “million years ago,” and that its space traveler played by Adam Driver – a guy who looks and certainly talks like an Earthling – isn't actually from Earth. Please don't ask me, though, precisely where Driver's pilot Mills is from, or what his mission is, or anything about the life history of the pre-teen Koa (Ariana Greenblatt) whom Mills is newly charged to protect from toothy creatures, hazardous terrain, and an advancing asteroid. I'm not sure any of it matters. Though I would argue that it very much should.

Local readers will recognize Beck and Woods as the Bettendorf talents who spent more than a decade making almost uniformly first-rate features and shorts through their area production company Bluebox Limited. Genre fans from anywhere will recognize them as the screenwriters (alongside the co-credited John Krasinksi) of 2018's A Quiet Place, which is, to date, the only horror/sci-fi outing to net one of its actors, Emily Blunt, a SAG Award. Beck and Woods, as I've mentioned in numerous reviews of their works over the years, are intensely gifted; they're incredibly humble and engaging on a personal level; they're no doubt the only filmmakers who will ever quote one of my raves (as they did for 2006's The Bride Wore Blood) on the back cover of one of their DVDs. I am now, and will always be, a fan. I also found 65 to be a crushing, high-concept disappointment practically from moment one. The visual effects are totally fine – especially when, as frequently happens in Beck/Woods outings, your attention subtly shifts to the background when the foreground is receiving primary focus. But what, for me, ultimately ruined this prehistoric-sci-fi opus – beyond it being uncharacteristically dull – was its lack of detail, which proved to be a significant perk in A Quiet Place but an unfortunate detriment here.

In Beck's and Woods' 2018 Hollywood smash, it was never explained why our planet was overrun with shrieking, fanged, otherworldly creatures who boasted exceptional powers of hearing but couldn't see the claws in front of their faces, and we never understood why they chose Earth as their feeding ground. I, for one, didn't care. What I did care about was the survival of the Abbotts (the intensely empathetic clan enacted by Blunt, Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe), who heroically, ingeniously, found ways to both live and thrive – with a new baby on the way! – in a world in which you were probable luncheon meat for stepping on a twig. Naysayers to the contrary, just about everything in the nerve-shredding, disarmingly intense Quiet Place worked. Almost nothing, however, works in 65, partly because, here, we know exactly where the movie's monsters are from (65-million-years-B.C.-Earth) and what they want (to eat and be left alone), and have no non-Earthly idea where our protagonists are from or what they want … at least beyond a vague “somewhere else” and “to be anywhere else.”

Ariana Greenblatt and Adam Driver in 65

To be fair, we are initially introduced to Mills' romantic partner (Nika King) and their dying daughter (Chloe Coleman), the latter's expensive medical treatments requiring Mills to leave the family for an “exploratory mission” in deep space. But where is he going? What is he there to do? Who are the other dozen-or-so members of his flight team who expire, in cryogenetic freeze, after asteroids force their spacecraft to crash-land on 65 B.C. Earth? Why is the grade-schooler Koa even there? (To quote Sandra Bullock in Speed: “Why aren't you in school?!?”) Why doesn't Mills know who Koa is, and why is he surprised when she can't speak English – or, given the non-Earth setting, “English”? Wouldn't a deep-space pilot with a crew this small have previously introduced himself to everyone in his charge? Especially a presumably nervous nine-year-old? Especially especially considering that he's the father of a young child of his own?

All we're consequently asked to do is reflexively root for Mills and Koa – the latter of whom can't speak Mills' language but has no problem understanding “home,” “family,” and, less sentimentally, “shit” – to get off this damned inhospitable planet simply because they're human (or “human”). And it's not like there's much suspense involved. The overall tenor of this PG-13 release is too blithe to ever consider that Beck and Woods might kill off one, or both, of their primary characters. Yet as I neared the end of this depressingly unsatisfying genre effort that raised more questions that it ever answered, and one whose action set pieces were weirdly perfunctory, I began to wonder why the film was set on Earth at all. It's not as though Mills and Koa recognize the planet (this knowledge is solely for the audience's benefit), so shouldn't the information have ultimately meant something, at least to us? Shouldn't we maybe have been treated to Mills' and Koa's visit significantly affecting prehistoric times in some manner, with, perhaps, remnants of their crashing ship actually being the presumed “asteroids” that killed off the dinosaurs and initiated the Ice Age? As it stands, 65's protagonists landing on Earth is completely arbitrary in the larger scheme of things, and their arrival results in a movie – an unquestionably momentary setback for its creators – that's reminiscent, sadly, of loads of previously under-explored, underwhelming works of its type. There haven't been 65 million of them, thank heavens. But during my disheartening time spent here, it occasionally felt like it.



As of this writing, director Daniel Roher's Navalry is only a few hours away from either winning or losing – sorry .. not winning – the 2023 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Personally, I'm hoping for the win, and not just because I predicted its victory before I ever saw the thing. Having recently rectified that stupidity through its streaming on HBO Max, I can attest that this exploration into the life and near-death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is as superb as its reputation and British Academy of Film & Television Award suggested; it's a fascinating doc that plays like a riveting thriller that plays like an infuriating tragedy. (Halfway through my home-viewing, I had to cheat by pausing for a Wikipedia update, because I absolutely didn't want the movie to have the ending I feared.) As I'm arriving awfully late to this particular party, Roher's film having debuted on CNN last April before settling onto HBO Max last May, I'll keep this short by simply insisting that you catch it at your earliest opportunity. And be ready, if you can be, for the ultimate coup de grâce sequence in which the titular figure, identifying himself as one of Vladimir Putin's chieftains, actually coaxes a phone confession out of one of the men who tried to poison him. Those listening to the call on-screen look as flabbergasted as it's possible to look – an expression no doubt shared by the film's viewers (myself among them), though likely not shared by its viewers if Navalny receives its deserved trophy tonight.

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