Characterz (2016): Old Time Fuzzy Fun (Review)

The fuzzy characterz

Directed and co-written by Jon Binkowski  (Lisa Enos Smith was the other scribe on the project) Characterz is set in Florida theme park Old Time Fun Town and is an Indiegogo funded family comedy.  Set in the world of “fuzzy” park characters and summertime jobs, the film has a cast full of familiar faces and voices. 

Mitchel Musso (Monster House, Hannah Montana) stars as Tucker Ostrowski; recent junior college graduate and wannabe Disney theme park designer. Musso also narrates the film. Walt Willey (Tainted Dreams, All My Childrenis Benjamin Fletcher the theme park director. Newcomers Miles D and Ana Eligio play Tucker’s new friend’s and colleagues Jerry and Samantha. 

Veteran character actor Isaac C. Singleton Jr. plays Franklin Jefferson Washington (the new fuzzy whale and fellow character actor, the legendary, Felix Silla  has a cameo as the park’s designer.  Police Academy alumnus Michael Winslow plays a cop, of course,  and The Moody Blues drummer and songwriter Graeme Edge has cameo in the comedy. 

Another veteran performer makes an appearance; Leave It to Beaver regular Ken Osmond has a role as one of Samantha’s “children” Daniel.

Filmed at the Old Time Fun Town theme park this is funny family fare.  The movie follows Tucker’s adventures as he learns how to be a “fuzzy” and  his attempts to woo Samantha (Eligio).  The first thing he learns it that the fuzzy characters are the very bottom of the food chain. Along the way he meets the residents at Sam’s “home” and he becomes inspired.

Both director Binkowski and producer Smith are self confessed “Theme Park Brats” who grew up in the industry and Binkowski’s first job was as a walrus fuzzy. There is a lot of love in this film for the amusement industry and it shows in the characters, the dialogue and he storyline.

Characterz is not hysterically funny but it is quirky and fun.  The characters have been drawn so well that the audience fall in love with them all, even the villain.  While watching the film  do not be surprised to find yourself grinning throughout.

The plot has a satisfying twist to it and can be seen as a homage not just to the “fuzzy” characters but a nod to all those small theme parks that have disappeared from the landscape. (Parks like Dogpatch USA,  for example,  that briefly find a niche and then quietly close.)

Eligio is perfect as the “girl next door” that Tucker falls for and Miles D was brilliant as the ever optimistic Jerry.  (On a sidenote: It was brilliant to see Michael Winslow again. The fact that he can still imitate all those sounds is beyond impressive.)

For anyone who has ever donned the skin, the memories will come flooding back. Characterz shows all the sweat and discomfort that the performers endure to please the crowds and the kids.

At 102 minutes the film is long, but never feels that way. It is a little slow paced but not too much.  The characters and storyline  are interesting enough to keep the viewer watching.

Characterz is a solid 4 star film for the family.  It is cute, quirky fun and well worth watching when it comes out on 12 July via VoD. Smaller kids may find some of the jokes confusing but should find the fuzzy animals entertaining.  Check it out, this movie will make you smile.

Film poster for Characterz

Jessica Darling’s IT List (2016): Junior High Challenge (Review) [Update]

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[Update] It was helpfully pointed out that this review seemed to be missing a paragraph or two in regards to the cast. The omission was one of poor editing and has now been rectified. Mike’s Film Talk apologizes for any upset this may have caused. The problem has now been rectified. Thank you.

Based on Megan McCafferty‘s book, part of a series, Jessica Darling’s IT List  follows the journey of our heroine as she begins junior high school, aka middle school, and all the missteps along the way.  Jessica is a young lady who does not get overly excited about dating, finding the right friends or wearing fashionable clothes. Her new school is a huge challenge.

The new seventh grader is more concerned about being Jessica. Her older sister Bethany (Blair Fowler) comes home from college to give her little sister some tips about what not to do in junior high.  Jessica (Chloe East) tries the IT list and things do not go smoothly.

Along the way she makes new friends and finds middle school a challenge. All the rules have changed and she has problems.  Anyone who has changed schools as they have moved up  the academic ladder will recognize  the issues that Jessica faces.

From being put in the wrong class (woodwork) to the challenges of finding new friends while trying to hold on to old ones, the move to a new school can be  minefield.

Directed by Ali Sher (her first feature length film) from a screenplay written by Julie Sherman Wolfe this tween comedy  hits all the right notes. With a superb supporting cast the film moves smoothly from one disaster to another. 

Abraham Benrubi plays Mr. Pudel the bigger than life woodwork teacher and Myrna Velasco is Miss Garcia the teacher who manages the cheerleaders in the school. Both these actors bring much to their roles and Velasco is funny as the overly enthusiastic faculty member. 

Chloe East does an excellent job as the “fish out of water” girl who tries to take her sister’s advice. Jacob Melton is spot on as Aleck/Marcus and all the young cast do a fine job telling the story. 

Emma Rayne Lyle does a bang up job as Bridget, Jessica’s “Bestie,” who also finds the move to middle school difficult.  From being upstaged by the school mascot “stupid chicken,” to having her new boyfriend move in on her best friend, Bridget has her own issues. 

The interaction between East and Lyle works very well. The two have a splendid chemistry together. East also is a perfect fit with Melton  and these young actors all  sold that awkward feeling between existing and potential when something is amiss.

There are moments at the start of the film where it feels like all these tweens are focussing on the wrong things. However the message at the end of the movie is a reassuring one.

The feel of Jessica Darling’s IT List is reminiscent of old time live action Disney.  For those who grew up on The Wonderful World of Disney and those Annette Funicello serials on Sunday evenings, or even their older films like the original The Parent Trap, will notice a similarity.

(It also has a touch of Nickelodeon mixed in there.)

Although in this film the Jessica sorts her problems out with a minimum of help from the adults.  They are there to help when needed,  for instance Mrs. Darling (Jane Sibbett) comes to Jessica’s aid when there is a wardrobe problem and the school nurse helps out as well. 

This is a comedy though so any problems are quite light hearted and not life threatening.  In terms of violence, bad language and sexual situations; there are none. Jessica Darling’s IT List is a family film and it is one that the entire clan can sit down and watch together. Even grandma can see this one and not be offended.

Younger kids will like the movie as it shows the mysteries of junior high school (middle school) and the adults will get the relevance of how the microcosm of school never really changes.

This is a 4 star film where  the storyline is funny and not too mature for the age group of the characters.  Jessica Darling’s IT List premiered on 20 June and is available on  VoD. Check this one out, it is an enjoyable romp through the seventh grade that will bring back memories for some.  For others  it is just a good giggle at the journey of our heroine.

Keep an eye out for the Mighty Eagle…

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Goosebumps (2015): The Revenge of Slappy – Review

Jack Black is R L Stine in Goosebumps

With music by Danny Elfman, directed by Rob Letterman  (from a screenplay by Daniel Lemke based on a story by Scott Alexander and  Larry Kraszewski  influenced by  R L Stine’s books) ‘Goosebumps’ is great fun and a lovely homage to the man who has spellbound kids for years.  It is interesting to note that Tim Burton was originally slated to direct the film and one wonders how different his ode to Stine would have been. Darker most definitely and more black comedy along with a few legitimate scares.

It could have been nice.

This version, starring Jack BlackDylan MinnetteOdeya RushRyan LeeAmy Ryan and Jillian Bell is played strictly for laughs, self-referential gags and has been aimed at a younger audience. All these things together do not ruin the film’s amusement factor but the lack of any uneasiness or scares leaves out the impact of  even the television series. 

Released in the 1990s (The show ran from 1995 through 1998 and was a favorite of my daughter and me “back in the day.”) The series was based upon the stories of Stine and he was the creator.  There were episodes that were terrifying, funny, odd, and one was a grim black comedy that left the viewer uneasy for days after. (These were done so well that even adults – as I can attest – were instantly hooked.)

This 2015 film is more a funny, and loving, homage to the prolific author. Black is Stine a recluse who shuns his neighbors in Madison, Delaware and lives with his daughter Hannah (Rush) who is homeschooled. Zach (Minnette) and his mother Gale (Ryan) move in next door and Stine’s daughter is immediately attracted to the new guy in the neighborhood.

Stine warns Zach off and threatens dire things will happen if the boy does not leave them alone. Things escalate when Zach hears Hannah scream and calls the police. Stine convinces them everything is fine and later Zach talks Champ (Lee) into breaking into the house.

Once inside they inadvertently release a monster who creates havoc on the entire town. The kids decide they have to stop it. Unfortunately, even though they are successful another monster, Slappy the ventriloquist dummy,  is out and he wants revenge for being locked up.

The film follows Stine and the kids as they team up to defeat Slappy and his legion of monsters that he keeps releasing. (Black does the voice of the dummy.)

‘Goosebumps’ entertains and there are splendid moments. The scene with the garden gnomes in the kitchen is a brilliant nod to Black’s 2010 film ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ Lee’s character can scream like a pre-teen girl and it is truly hysterical.   The ferris wheel stunt was a nod to the 1979 film ‘1941’, or not but that was where I first saw the gag.

Unfortunately there are things that clang.

The two police officers felt as though they had walked onto the wrong filmset.  A far too juvenile piece of comedy that felt flat and damned annoying. (Perhaps they were put in for the younger audience members?)

There were no scares at all, everything was set up for the laugh or the giggle. While Stine must have loved it, he did, after all, begin by writing jokes, it was a major disappointment that they did not put at least one uneasy moment in the film.

A final note of complaint is this (without giving anything away) Hannah was not a monster. (Watch the film and this will make sense. If you still do not get it email the site we will explain it to you.)

Overall, despite the small disappointment factors, ‘Goosebumps’ was a fun film to watch.  All that was missing was the popcorn and the fizzy. Slappy does come close to making the viewer uneasy but never quite makes it, he is villain and not a monster.

‘Goosebumps’ is a 4.5 out of 5 stars. This would have gotten a full five if it had just one good scare.  It is on Netflix at the moment and well worth the 103 minutes spent watching it.

‘Stitchers’ ABCs Answer to Scorpion?

Promotional still from Stitchers
It may seem a bit unfair to maintain that ABCs Stitchers is the network’s answer to, or version of, Scorpion especially since the premiere has apparently taken several things from other shows as well. Scorpion, with its cast of socially inept geniuses, including the real life leader of the group Walter O’Brien (played by Elyes Gabel), is the closest match in terms of characters. It could also be said to borrow heavily from The Bridge with its “autistic” female lead, played very well by Diane Kruger, who is another social inept because of her mental issues.

Stitchers stars a group of relative newcomers with Allison Scagllioti (Warehouse 13, Redemption) being the most senior member of the cast in terms of experience. Emma Ishta (I Smile Back, Manhattan Love Story) is the incredibly attractive lead, Kirsten who suffers from “temporal dysplasia” which does not seem to really exist at least not according to Google. In the series it is an inability to sense time and also appears to prevent the individual suffering this mental problem unable to “feel” normal emotions, e.g. love, despair, grief, et al. There is a similar affliction which is a common symptom of ADHD but that is not mentioned in the show.

After the premiere’s teaser, or open, we meet Kirsten who is being accused by her housemate Camille (Scagllioti) of tampering with her PHD project. Unsurprisingly, Camille is also a brilliant student, again along the lines of Scorpion, with its genius level IQ cast of characters, and as Kirsten cannot prove her innocence she is suspended from the PHD program until she can be cleared.

She is approached by the local police about her “father” who apparently killed himself. She claims he was murdered, but never really explains why she knows this. After Camille suggests, sarcastically, that Kirsten should hack the police computer via the Head Instructor’s office computer which she then does, the temporal dysplasia suffering PHD student is kidnapped.

The upper graduate learns that her abductors are a “secret” government agency that puts or “stitches” someone’s consciousness into the brain of a recently deceased individual to pull out memories and help solve crimes. Not just who murdered the victim but, as in the first episode’s plot, other information that can solve other problems/crimes.

Ayo, the head of this secret agency’s LA branch (played by Sola Bamis) recruits Kirsten and the man who runs the stitchers program, Cameron (Kyle Harris) immediately fills the slot reserved for a “will they, won’t they” type interaction.

While the overall plot may seem new, it does appear to borrow from a lot of other shows, at least two of which were Eliza Dushku vehicles; Dollhouse and Tru Calling especially the latter show where the recently deceased were aided by the show’s heroine.

As mentioned above, the CBS summer replacement show Scorpion is the most obvious influence on the series as all the incredibly intelligent leads are socially inept, although heavier on the geek ratio, “Star log date…” It also seems to borrow a little from Prometheus where scientists “trick” the decapitated head of an alien into believing it is still alive in order to harvest its memories.

The show even appears to borrow from Avatar to a degree in that the protagonist enters another’s consciousness via similar methods as in the James Cameron film. This show could still prove to be entertaining and interesting enough to revisit as the season continues. Certainly all the main actors are attractive and if the writers can control their attempts at clever topical and pop culture references the series could be successful.

After all, who does not want to watch a beautiful blonde heroine waltz about in a skin-tight “cat-suit?” Joking aside, it would be nice to see more of Scagllioti, and not in a cat-suit sort of way, as this actress was brilliant in Warehouse 13. Yet, another “time will tell” new show that may not overcome their apparent lack of originality. Stitchers airs on June 2 on ABC Family.

30 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith


Tom‘s grandpa called him from outside his grandparent’s house. “Tom, come on out here. I want to show you something.”

Tom reluctantly tore his eyes off of the roller derby he’d been watching and stood up. It must be something interesting, Grandpa wouldn’t have called him otherwise. “Okay.” Tom shouted back. He switched the television off and glanced guiltily at his Grandma. She was sleeping setting up on the couch, but she had not even blinked when he’d shouted.

Grabbing his straw cowboy hat, Tom ran out the closer front door and crossed the porch with its covering of yellow grains of fly poison and dead flies. He knew that later Grandpa would sweep all the bodies and poison up and throw it in the ditch; he’d then spread new poison and remind Tom needlessly about not touching it.

Even though Tom was 12, he knew that Grandpa wasn’t treating him like a baby, he was just being careful. Something that Grandpa was very good at. Years before when Tom was about 5 or 6 Grandpa had worked at a lumber mill two towns away. He worked the big band saw that made planks out of trees.

“I was just standing there feeding the tree through the saw. It was stupid what happened. That damned old place was noisy as hell,” Grandpa paused and looked around cautiously for Grandma, she did not like it when he swore, she went to church every Sunday and would get really cross when he used foul language as she put it. “I heard a horn honk outside the factory on the main road. I glanced out the window and when I looked back, four of my fingers were laying in the sawdust on the floor. I don’t remember anything after that because I passed out.”

He stopped and pulled a machine-made cigarette out of his shirt pocket; put one end in his mouth and struck a match on the seat of his jeans. “They said it was damned lucky that I fell backwards when I passed out. If I’d fallen forward, I would have lost a lot more than my fingers.”

He always chuckled when he got to that bit while his eyes kept looking for Grandma. He never tired of telling that story, Tom knew because he’d asked him a least a hundred times how he’d lost his fingers. Grandpa always used to say that he learned all about being careful after his accident.

When Tom rounded the corner of his grandparents stone house, he saw his Grandpa standing in between the garden plot and the two rows of grapes in front of the barn. He held his .410/.22 over and under shotgun in his left hand. His right hand with a thumb, one half of a middle finger and all of his little finger rubbed his mouth; he alternated this gesture with licking his lips.

Tom found out years after his Grandpa had died that he had a drinking problem and that the rubbing and licking was a dead give-a-way that he wanted a drink. He went around the back of the house, skirting the ivy that grew on the corner of the house because it had a tendency to sway in the breeze and sometimes it would tap you as you walked near it. He glanced quickly at the stuff that was full of big black spiders and the odd tarantula; just looking at it made goose bumps dart up and down his back.

Grandpa was wearing his old grey work trousers and a snappy blue striped long sleeve shirt that he’d rolled the sleeves up to his elbows to ease off the explosive heat of the day. He also wore his grey hat, its brim was round and the crown had been fixed into a flat Arizona style that was pinched in the front from him taking it off and putting it on. He never used the brim to remove the hat, because as he put it, “It would make the brim droop so I couldn’t see very well.”

Grandpa smiled that perfect false teeth smile that Tom had grown up seeing, the one that made years drop off his face and had the curious effect of making him seem both kind and contrary. Thinking about it, that pretty much explained grandpa’s personality in a nutshell, kind enough and good-humoured, but, he did bite if you got him riled.

Tom had no idea how old his grandfather really was. His age changed from year to year. His birth records and the family Bible had been destroyed in a fire and he claimed to have no real idea when his birthday was. Mom said she thought he knew perfectly well how old he was but that it was his idea of a joke to keep changing it each year. Tom had to admit, he found it pretty funny. Grandma never said one way or the other how she felt about it.

“Come on up with me to the barn Tom,” Grandpa said. “There’s something I need you to check on for me.” He turned and started walking up to the gate that led to the barn. The chickens, which were fenced in by the barn along with their henhouse, started clucking and chasing each other around at the sound of the gate being opened.

Tom liked looking at the ground when the weather was this hot and dry; each time your foot touched the ground a puff of pale dust would drift lazily up, just like in a western where the horse’s hooves would make little dust geysers when they trotted across the ground. Tom wished he had spurs on his boots so they make that ca-ching noise while he walked through across the dusty ground. That would have been so cool.

“Stupid damn things think they’re going to get fed,” Grandpa said. He chuckled and closed the gate behind Tom. As they approached the barn the air seemed to get very still and a lot hotter. Grandpa took off his hat and pulled a bandanna out of his pocket to wipe his forehead. “The top of that barn is blasting out heat like a furnace, ain’t it?” Tom nodded and the old man finished wiping his brow and put his hat back on while the damp bandanna wound up back in his pants pocket.

“I need you to go up into the loft of the barn for me. You don’t need to stay up there it’s too damned hot to spend too long up there.”

“What do you want me to do, Grandpa?”

“I need you to tell me if you see a possum’s nest up there. Something has been stealing eggs and I’m pretty damn sure it’s not a weasel. A weasel would kill the chickens or at least worry the hell out of them. They’d be all bloodied up and spooked.”

They both arrived at the ladder leading to the barn’s loft at the same time. Grandpa was right, Tom thought. It was like a furnace in the barn and not just in the loft either. The heat made shimmery waves in the air as you looked up at the barn roof. Tom hoped grandpa had meant what he said about not being up there too long.

“Climb on up there boy and look for that nest. Tell me if you see anything.” Grandpa sat on a stump and pulled out one of his cigarettes and lit it. “Like I said, don’t take too long. It’s too hot.”

Tom went slowly up the ladder. He didn’t like heights and had a fear of falling. He gritted his teeth and went up; he wasn’t going to chicken out in front of his grandpa. He’d just concentrate on the barn wall in front of him and not look down.

As he went up he could hear the cicadas buzzing, the noise sounded angry and loud. The first time Tom had heard the sound he was scared. He’d never heard anything like it before. His dad had just laughed and said, “Don’t be scared of that. It’s just a jar-fly.” Dad had looked on the ground and found a dead one to show him. “It’s their wings that make that noise, I reckon. They’re pretty big so that must be why they’re so loud.”

Tom got to the top of the ladder and took a cautious step or two into the barn’s stifling loft. The buzzing seemed to be louder in here and sweat ran down his face and body. The hay in the loft made his skin sticky and itchy in seconds and you could see hay motes swirling in the air, despite the lack of breeze in the barn.

Suddenly Tom caught the whiff of something rotten. It smelt like the sulphur water at his friend Hank’s house only worse. Putting his hand over his nose and mouth he headed towards the smell. Looking down at the floor he saw a lot of eggs scattered around one corner of the loft. He picked one up with the idea that he would show it to grandpa, he then noticed that the smell seemed to be coming from the eggs.

He dropped the one he had been holding and it exploded on the floor by his feet. Instantly the smell got ten times worse and he started to gag. He whirled around and headed toward the ladder to get down. His eyes were watering so badly he couldn’t see properly and he almost walked right off the edge of the loft. He waved his arms for balance and then backed blindly down the ladder.

He was in such a hurry to get away from the smell that he actually fell off the ladder just before the bottom and he landed in a huge puff of dust.

Grandpa stood up with his mouth gapped open for a minute and then started laughing. “What the hell was that all about? Are you okay?” He stepped forward and stretched out his almost fingerless hand for Tom to pull himself up.

Getting to his feet, Tom used his hat to dust himself off. “There’s lot of rotten eggs up there Grandpa; all in one corner of the loft.”

“Did you catch any sign of that damned possum?”

“No, sir just lots of rotten eggs.”

“That’s where he’s taken em alright. I’ll have to come back tonight after dark and grease his skids.”

“What does that mean, Grandpa?”

The old man shook the gun gently, “I’m gonna turn him into a possum angel, boy.”

Grandpa walked off toward the house chuckling to himself and Tom followed after him. When they got near the ivy corner of the house, he suddenly veered off to the right and went behind his work shop.

There was another small fence behind the shop that didn’t have a gate, it was too low. Up against the back wall of the building were a bunch of strawberry plants; the smaller fence was meant to keep rabbits away.

Grandpa stood just outside the fence staring hard at the plants. He stepped carefully over the small fence and moved slowly towards the plants. Tom started to say something, but the old man held his hand up and he shut his mouth. It was almost like grandpa had eyes in the back of his head.

He put the gun up to his shoulder and clicked the safety off. Leaning forward he put the barrel of the shotgun down into the strawberry plants. Tom leaned forward and saw that at the end of the gun barrel was a possum. It was playing dead.

Grandpa shot it and a fountain of blood shot up in the air. He leaned down and grabbed it by the tail and slung it over the fence by the garage’s back door. He broke the gun open ejecting the spent .410 shell and quickly put another one in. With a quick flicking motion the he closed the gun back up and it was ready to fire again.

He stepped over the fence and poked the possum with the gun barrel. The animal whipped its head around and bit the barrel. The second the possum’s mouth closed down on the barrel, grandpa pulled the trigger again.

There was an explosion of blood, teeth and brain matter that flew over everything and everyone. To Tom the whole thing seemed to be in slow motion and the shotgun sounded ten times louder than when grandpa had initially shot the possum.

The old man stood with his chest heaving as he panted and reloaded the shotgun again. This time when he nudged the now headless animal it did not move. He leaned down and grabbed the tail again, this time slinging it into the field behind his workshop. He took out his bandanna and wiped the bloody mess off of Tom’s face and then his own.

“No more free eggs for that little bastard.”


Both Tom and grandpa jumped like they’d been shot. It was grandma and she was furious. “What have I told you about shooting so close to the house?” She was wiping her hands on her ubiquitous apron and moving quickly towards the two of them.

Grandpa just gestured to the spray of gore that was spread across the once white door of his workshop. “Varmint.” He broke the gun open and handed it to Tom. “Boy put that in the house while I go get the hose to wash this mess off.”

Grandma didn’t say another word and went back into the house shaking her head. Grandpa disappeared into the workshop and was moving things around looking for the hose. Tom stood staring at the mess and then he turned to look and see if he could see the animal’s dead body from where he was standing.

Nope, it was completely out of sight.

Grandpa came back with the hose and hooked it up to the faucet at the back of the house. He began spraying down the door with the water. The water ran red along the side of the shop and Tom could see the animal’s teeth moving along with the stream.

Years later when he’d killed his first man and the man’s teeth had exploded out of his mouth like shrapnel, Tom thought of his grandpa and the possum teeth that had floated down the rushing water like white and red rafts floating out to sea.

Shoving the gun back in his coat pocket he murmured, “There you go you little bastard, no more free eggs for you.”

Michael E. Smith copyright 28/01/2013


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