REVIEW: “American Murder: The Family Next Door” (2020)


I try not to get too caught up in the highly publicized true crime tragedies that capture our national spotlight and often play out on our television screens. One that did grab me was the 2018 disappearance and murder of pregnant mother Shanann  Watts and her two young daughters four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste. The very idea of such a crime was horrifying and it only got worse once the killer’s identity was fully revealed.

The new Netflix documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” comes from director Jenny Popplewell and chronicles the Watt family murders in a uniquely chilling way. The film tells the entire story through social media videos, text messages, phone call audio, original television newscasts, police body cameras and security camera footage. No narrator, no interviews, no dramatizations. It’s a methodical presentation of the facts that may come across as a little too polished, but it builds its case like an expert prosecutor.


Photo Courtesy of Netflix

For those unfamiliar with the heinous crime, in the early morning hours of August 13, 2018 in Frederick, Colorado Shanann arrived home after a weekend business trip. Her husband Chris Watts had stayed home with their daughters. Later that day both Shanann and the couple’s two girls were reported missing. An investigation by the local police and the FBI ensued. Two days later Chris was arrested after failing a polygraph test. He would later admit to murdering Shanann who was 15 weeks pregnant with their third child. After some initial hesitation, he eventually admitted to murdering their two daughters but not before the story made national news and the victim’s reputation had been brought into question.

Popplewell along with her editor Simon Barker are able to put together the weeks leading up to the murder in large part thanks to Shanann’s family who provided access to her social media and texts. It paints a picture of a woman with a rocky past who found happiness and stability in her new husband. Facebook videos show a warm and loving family, but text messages begin hinting at a different reality.

We see Shanann struggling with insecurity while becoming increasingly aware that something is not right with Chris. We see her worries most vividly in texts she makes to a close friend and confidant. She notes Chris’ distance and she begins to suspect infidelity. Through these flashback sequences Popplewell gives us pieces to the puzzle that can’t possibly explain the horrendous acts that would follow but adds some eye-opening context.


Photo Courtesy of Netflix

And then you have the investigation itself revealed through some riveting points of view. The body-cam footage from the police officer doing a wellness check chills you to the bone. We see the man who just a few hours earlier choked his pregnant wife to death and smothered his two daughters deceptively playing the part of the worried husband and father. Later, through interrogation room security footage, we see the polygraph test administered and ultimately the confession of the monster. Smartly, Popplewell doesn’t make this into a mystery. We know who the killer is from the start. That makes everything see more unsettling.

The film brings another uncomfortable truth to light. It exposes how much of our lives are self-published online. Personal confessionals, relationship issues, pictures of young children. In one sense it helps illuminate the truth behind this particular crime. In another sense it highlights the dependence millions of people have on web-based social networking. Holding up Shanann’s cellphone, Chris tells an officer “This is her lifeline.” Yet we also see how deceptive the online lives people create can be. As for evil, it can hide behind a number of unassuming and unnoticeable masks. And sometimes you can pass it everyday in the comforts of your own neighborhood. “American Murder: The Family Next Door” is now streaming on Netflix.



First Glance: “Minari”

The Sundance hit “Minari” has been among my most anticipated films and yesterday A24 only solidified my excitement by dropping a new trailer. This family drama from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and its Audience Award earlier this year and many believe it is primed and ready for an awards season run. Everything about this beautiful first look shows why it could be a serious contender.

Set in the 1980’s, the film follows a Korean-American family who move from the West Coast to a farm in the rugged Arkansas Ozarks to pursue their American dream. The hardships of starting a farm quickly surface and eventually put a strain on the family. Things are complicated even more with the arrival of their unruly grandmother. The film stars Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-Jung, Alan Kim, and Noel Kate Cho. The cinematography, the score, the deeply human story – I can’t wait.

“Minari” is still listed as coming soon but A24 said it will be out in time for Oscar consideration. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you will be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story” (2020)


I wasn’t long out of high school when a short-tempered sociopathic Chihuahua named Ren Höek and a kind-hearted but dense Manx cat named Stimpy made their debut on Nickelodeon. It was August of 1991 and it only took one episode for me to be hooked. During its run the darkly funny and sometimes surreal cartoon gave a much needed jolt to the stale state of animation, earning two Emmy nominations and gaining a passionate cult following.

The new documentary “Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story” eyes the creative side of the rowdy and sometimes controversial cartoon. More specifically it highlights the show’s creator John Kricfalusi, an immensely talented artist responsible for not only building the show but eventually tearing it down. Kricfalusi’s innovation and willingness to push boundaries made Ren & Stimpy household names. However it was his controlling nature and dictator-like leadership that eventually led to the show’s demise.


Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

“The Ren & Stimpy Show” broke the mold of the generic prepackaged cartoons that appeared more interested in selling toys and merchandise than being creative and entertaining. Kricfalusi wanted to push back against what he called “the decay of animation“. Along with partners Lynne Naylor, Bob Camp, and Jim Smith, Kricfalusi co-founded the animation studio Spümcø and began creating Ren & Stimpy for Nickelodeon. From its genesis Spümcø and in turn Ren & Stimpy were artist-centric. While the writing was wacky and off-the-rails, the animation embraced a classic style with artists not just drawing but also hand painting and hand inking.

Documentarians Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero give a brief intro to the Ren & Stimpy craze before diving into their biggest interest – the behind the scenes talent and turmoil at Spümcø. Interviews with key studio figures give good insight into the joyous but uncertain early days and their rise to fame once the cartoon seemed to take on a life all its own. While interesting and necessary, these scenes are a little drawn out (no pun intended) and left me eager to move on to the darker side of he story.


Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

That comes with the second season of “The Ren & Stimpy Show” as the pressures of success and expectation begin chewing away at the studio, specifically Kricfalusi. Through the words of his co-creators, Easterwood and Cicero reveal Kricfalusi’s tumble from demanding boss to abusive megalomaniac. An even darker turn comes when it’s revealed that Kricfalusi allegedly used his status to lure and groom underage girls, aspiring cartoonists, into sexual relationships. Easterwood and Cicero not only speak candidly with Kricfalusi about the accusations, but also one of his accusers Robyn Byrd. It’s disturbing stuff.

“Happy Happy Joy Joy” adds a bitter taste to what was one of my favorite cartoons featuring two of my favorite animated characters. After seeing this documentary some will have a hard time seeing Ren & Stimpy in the same light. At the same time the film shows there were many other artists and creators who were just as essential to the show’s success during and after Kricfalusi’s tumultuous reign. Still, the revelations hang a cloud over the show’s groundbreaking early days branding the once celebrated animated television series with a dark and troubling legacy.



Great Images from Great Movies #18: “The Untouchables”


Truly great movies can leave indelible marks. It may be through an emotional connection to the story. It may be through a remarkable performance or a signature scene. But it can also be through the brilliant imagery a film can carve into your mind. That’s what this feature is all about – highlighting great images from great movies. Today we look at Brian De Palma’s 1987 gem “The Untouchables”.


(All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

So what are your thoughts on “The Untouchables”? Which of these great images stick with you the most? Please share your favorites in the comments section below.

First Glance: “Cadaver”


Cadaver: (noun) a corpse. Not exactly the warmest or most inviting title for a movie but if the new trailer is any indication it’s crudely fitting. Netflix’s new film “Cadaver” is set to premiere on their streaming platform just in time for Halloween. Yesterday gave us our first look at this Norwegian psychological thriller and it makes for an enticing seasonal fit.

Written and directed by Jarand Herdal, “Cadaver” is set in the wake of a nuclear disaster. A couple and their young daughter are among survivors invited to a hotel to attend a charitable dinner theater. Once there the attendees are fed a meal and given a mask to distinguish them from the actors. Needless to say things take a rather wicked turn. “What makes us human in times like these. What separates us from the animals.” That’s a question Herdal seems ready to explore.

“Cadaver” premieres October 22nd on Netflix. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Rent-A-Pal” (2020)


At first glance you might be tempted to consider David a punchline. He’s a forty-ish introvert who literally lives in his elderly mother’s basement. But not long into the new thriller “Rent-A-Pal” we see there is another side to David, a compassionate and dutiful side. He’s actually still at home because his mother has dementia and needs constant care. His father died 10 years prior leaving David as his mother’s primary caregiver. He fulfills the role diligently and honorably, shelving any ambitions for his own life to take care of his mother.

“Rent-A-Pal”, written, directed, and edited by Jon Stevenson, opens as a character study of a lonely single man entering middle-age with no meaningful connections to society. Brian Landis Folkins plays David with a sincerity and earnestness that instantly grabs our sympathies. David is more than a hapless sad sack. He has a big heart and he’s driven by a well-meaning compulsion to be there for his mother (Kathleen Brady). Of course we know the dangers of such self oppression so it’s no surprise once that pent-up bitterness begins to crack David’s otherwise benevolent surface.


Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Stevenson wastes no time shifting from character study to slow-drip psychological thriller. I didn’t catch an actual setting, but his story feels plucked right out of the late 1980s, before there was an internet and when VHS was the hottest thing in home entertainment. As they were in the 80s, video tapes are everywhere in Stevenson’s film. From sweet moments with his mother watching their fuzzy copy of “His Girl Friday” to getting tapes of potential matches from a dodgy dating service called Video Rendezvous. It’s David’s connection to the latter that pulls on the loose thread of his psyche which slowly begins to unravel.

After months with no matches David visits the Video Rendezvous headquarters to update his profile. While there he comes across a bargain bin video tape called “Rent-A-Pal” which he promptly purchases. Through it he’s introduced to Andy (Whil Wheaton), a sweater vest-wearing interactive buddy in the gentle, unassuming Mister Rogers mold. In the video Andy simulates human conversation by asking scripted questions, pausing so the viewer can answer, and then feigning interest in the responses. At first David sees through Andy’s canned act even finding it “weird“. But as disappointments mount in the real world and his mental state erodes, David starts to play along with Andy and his skepticism turns to obsession. He forms an unsettling bond with his TV buddy believing he’s finally found a friend who listens and cares.


Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The tipping point comes when David gets a surprise call from Video Rendezvous who have finally found him a match. They set him up on a date with the genuinely sweet and caring Lisa (Amy Rutledge). The two hit it off and immediately plan their next date. But back home Andy (now more of an on-screen projection from David’s mind) lashes out like a jilted lover. So on one side he has Lisa who has given him a taste of the happiness he’s longed for (and you could say is his door back to reality). On the other is Andy, an outlet for his loneliness and desperation which adds fuel to his darker, uncontrollable impulses.

Despite its wacky premise, “Rent-A-Pal” works because it doesn’t see its subject matter as a joke. There are certainly dark comedy elements (some of which are quite funny), but the film takes David and his issues seriously. It doesn’t always strike that tricky balance perfectly and there were moments when I couldn’t tell if the movie was laughing at him or not. Still I give Stevenson and Folkins credit. Together they give David depth, making him more than a one-dimensional caricature. Meanwhile Whil Wheaton gives one of the more chilling portrayals of the year. He alone makes this well worth watching. “Rent-A-Pal” is now streaming on VOD.