Meera and Henry have left the rat race of Boston for a small town and their dream home, which Henry, an architect, builds for them. But paradise is about to be, well, intruded upon. A break in rattles the couple, and Meera (Freida Pinto) starts to feel uneasy in her luxurious but secluded home. What’s more, it turns out those responsible for the break in were also suspects in a case of a local missing woman. Meera and Henry (Logan Marshall-Green) might have accidentally built their home in the middle of something complicated and violent.
I think most of us would be frightened by a break-in. It’s very invasive, isn’t it? To feel like someone’s been in the place where you normally feel safe. Meera’s uneasiness grows when it seems that she and Henry are healing along different paths; Henry is ready, in fact insistent, that they move on quickly, while Meera doesn’t feel so confident. She’s a therapist, perhaps more in tune with her feelings, and recently in remission from cancer, so she feels lucky just to be here. Henry was by her side through every treatment and every bad day, so it feels strange to suddenly not be united in this, and issues only worsen as their case gets more complicated.
This thriller by Adam Salky is new on Netflix. It’s a home invasion movie like many before, and many afterward too, I’m sure. They’re effective because they literally hit us right where we live. Intrusion isn’t any great addition to the genre, but it’s fairly benign, and Pinto is lovely to watch. Character in these types of films, especially female ones, tend to be one-note, shrill and terrified, whereas Meera is a little more determined, more pro-active; not merely a victim, but an agent in her own fate. Give it a go if you feel like sleeping a little less soundly tonight.
Nightbooks is a horror movie for kids – not young kids, mind you, but older, braver ones not prone to nightmares.
Young Alex (Winslow Fegley) is a prolific writer of scary stories, only some recent bullying has him vowing to give it up. On Halloween night he wanders into a strange apartment which turns out to be a witch’s lair, and a prison for the children she holds captured within. Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) is also being held prisoner there, by a witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who collects kids. In order to survive, Natacha forces Alex to read her a different scary story every night, a new one that he writes. Natacha is very fussy about her stories; she actually knows ghosts and vampires and the demons, and the details have to be right. An even stricter rule: no happy endings. Alex will spend the rest of his life trying to write stories that please Natacha, and being threatened with death (or worse!) when he doesn’t!
The movie felt a little familiar to me, but I could definitely see kids, who have fewer references than I do, enjoy this as a gateway into horror. Horror-lite. Magic potions, toothy creatures, frozen children, a hairless cat, sleeping witches, poison candy: this movie has pretty much everything a kid’s nightmares are made of. But director David Yarovesky isn’t trying to scare the stuffing out of your kids, just sort of creep them out a bit, things looming in the shadows, light playing tricks on you, that sort of thing, horror’s oldest tricks, still classics, all of them.
Nightbooks won’t be any adult’s favourite film but it’ll likely be a popular benchmark for kids, possibly a hit among the sleepover set. Fegley and Jewett are sweet kids and perfectly able to carry this film upon small, slimy shoulders. Ritter lends a little something new to the wicked witch trope, with fabulous costumes and beautiful, unwitchy hair. Most of all it’s nice to see aspiring writers and young creative minds being lauded. What a wonderful thing.
Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is a widow running a dusty little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, Montana, 1925. She has a gangly, sensitive son named Pete (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with an interest in medicine and a fondness for flowers. One night, a bunch of crude and rowdy cowboys come in for supper. Their bosses, ranch owners Phil and George Burbank, are brothers you’d swear were from different mothers. George (Jesse Plemons), the more mild-mannered of the two, wears a literal white hat. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), is the mean one, the man with the sharp edge, who eggs on the cowhands as they verbally abuse Pete as he waits on them. Pete dissolves into nervous ticks, his mother dissolves into tears. Tender-hearted George checks in on them and one thing leads to another – pretty soon he’s confessing to brother Phil that he and Rose are married.
Rose’s life at the ranch isn’t a happy one. Phil is determined to make her life miserable, and Rose wilts and regresses under his misathropy and mistreatment. Husband George, clueless when it comes to women, tries to cheer her up with a piano she can’t play, and social engagements that are more of a burden. The Burbanks are gentleman farmers, which George embraces, well-dressed in bowties, hands kept clean, nothing but gentility for him. Phil, meanwhile, has no time for baths because he’s too busy riding the land, castrating the bulls, and bullying everyone in his vicinity. With Rose turning to bourbon to escape her unhappiness, tensions are about to get even worse with Pete about to join for his summer break from med school. His delicacy makes for an easy target on the ranch, and seems to bring out a particular cruelty in Phil.
Writer-director Jane Campion may not seem like the obvious choice for a film about toxic masculinity, but trust that she is a master story-teller and will get the job done. The Power of the Dog may be a little slow to start, but the tension Campion builds is powerful, even uncomfortable. From the moment Cumberbatch punches a horse in the face, you know without a doubt that something terrible (well, more terrible) is going to happen. There’s a certain fatalism about it; with every character that’s hiding something, repressing or sublimating something, we feel that tension tightly coiled and ready to spring like a predator on its prey.
Campion digs deep into their psyches, and a talented cast goes a long way in helping her establish bits of torture and trouble roiling beneath, but it’s never what you expect. Though Phil despises weakness, it can sometimes be an asset, hiding things in plain sight. This is also a metaphor for the film, the way it creeps up on you, even though you’re expecting it, even though you see it coming, it will still surprise you.
Dunst and Plemons are very good in this, their real-life romance lending authenticity to their quiet, couply moments. The film, however, comes down to the strange, complicated, and antagonistic relationship between Peter and Phil. Peter brings out the worst in Phil, he triggers something in Phil that he seems powerless to ignore. Smit-McPhee plays Peter meekly, deferring and often cowering to Phil, but also seeming to understand something essential about Phil that no one else can see. And although this is not the kind of role Cumberbatch is known for, he finds so many nooks and crannies in Phil that he makes him a truly compelling, almost charming, character. He’s educated, and cultured, but he prefers to walk around in stinking chaps, with testicle juice caked around his fingernails. His misanthropy seems automatic, his cruelty instinctual, and yet when no one else is around, we see a softer side of Phil, a side he takes great pains to keep secret. Yet somehow Cumberbatch can take those two sides of the character and make them feel both at home in the man who always remains a bit of a mystery, perhaps even to himself.
The Power of the Dog implies that everyone has a tormentor, and Campion delights in dangling them with astonishing talent and assured mastery. I can’t wait to see it again.
The Power of the Dog is an official selection of TIFF 2021.
It is scheduled to be released in an Oscar-qualifying, limited theatrical release on November 17, 2021, and then heads straight for Netflix on December 1. It is already a Best Picture front-runner so catch it any way you can.
For a hot minute, Mary Elizabeth Winstead was everyone’s indie crush, appearing in quirky movies where she flexed her acting chops. But she’s always had this other side to her, the ability to flex muscle as well as chops, appearing in the Die Hard franchise among other movies consisting mainly of running and shooting, up to and including her most recent credit in Birds of Prey as The Huntress. Perhaps this duality is inevitable; reigning indie queen Florence Pugh has recently made the leap into the MCU as Yelena in Black Widow (and I’m guessing beyond). Winstead isn’t the first to trend this way, but she’s certainly an excellent example, believably tough and resilient, yet adding dimension to her characters with a humanity and vulnerability that many action movies don’t make time for.
In Kate, she plays an assassin who has 24 hours to find and punish her murderer. Yes you read that right. Someone wanted her to suffer; she knows she’s going to die, and it becomes increasingly and wincingly apparent throughout the film. But as she methodically machetes her way through Tokyo, she finds herself bonding with and pairing with the daughter of one of her previous victims, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau). It’s a uniquely interesting relationship that allows Kate the time to atone for some of her sins, but also to come to terms with the cost of her life’s choices. She’s leaving chaos and violence in her wake, and she’s determined to make a little more before she goes.
Kate’s heart bleeds vengeance. Her eyes bleed blood. She drags her broken body through the garish neon lights of Tokyo fueled by her thirst for revenge and motivated by the only sort of legacy she can leave. Winstead plays Kate with a lot of grit; she is ruthless yet compassionate. She is a woman forced to reckon with her transgressions in the hours before her death, even as she adds to them. Winstead makes sure that Kate is a surprisingly complex character as she crawls toward her doom, destruction in her wake, and possibly her own soul, determined to finish one last job for her handler (Woody Harrelson), the only family she’s ever known.
Kate more than earns its R-rating in bloody violence; fight scenes are tautly directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Ring), and even though there’s a strong narrative component, the action is so relentless there’s hardly room to breathe. Kate drops on Netflix this Friday, September 10th, and I think you’ll find it unusually hard to be disappointed.
Cassie (Victoria Justice) and Lisa (Midori Francis) have been best friends since childhood, but during the week of Cassie’s 25th birthday (an annual tradition of weeklong partying fondly dubbed “Cassie-Palooza”), the fact that they’ve recently been growing apart becomes glaringly obvious. After a tearful disagreement, Cassie suffers a sudden accident, and dies.
In the afterlife, an angel (Robyn Scott) breaks the news to Cassie that she has not yet ascended to heaven as she still has unfinished business down below. It’s been a year since her death and her loved ones still haven’t moved on. Cassie -the-Ghostly-Apparition will have 5 days to fix things with her mother, her father, and of course with dear Lisa.
To be honest, I really didn’t care to watch this movie. From the Netflix thumbnail alone it looked like the kind of low-budget schmaltz-fest that I have little room in my life for. However, the need to review is strong in this one, so after spending a whole day refusing to make eye contact with it, I eventually acquiesced in a moment of weakness around 1:30am.
Most shitty movies, as you may be aware, have a music montage in them. Some good movies have them too, but all shitty movies have at least one, often more, the signature move of a director who’s out of ideas but not time, padding for an inadequate script. This particular shitty movie actually starts with a music montage, which is kind of like wearing a MAGA hat in public: a fair warning to all that the contents herein are definitively shitty. Steer clear for your own good. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Is Afterlife of the Party a good movie? It is not. It’s not even a good title! Don’t butter my butt and call me a biscuit, Netflix. Netflix Originals are hit and miss. Or hit and miss and miss and miss, more like. Often they’ll give writers a rest and let their algorithm make the movie for them. What do people want? Music, romance, foreign accents, fairy godmothers, second chances, and once in a while, a croissant. So Netflix stitched these seemingly random items together and they called it Afterlife of the Party. Will people click on it and watch? Likely yes. Possibly in droves. Not Bridgerton droves, not Tiger King droves, not Extraction droves, but still, millions of people, especially young women, who like movies that are easily digestible, 30% fashion show, and an opportunity to have a little cry. And it’s actually not that bad. The cast seems no-name to me, but it’s decent, and the costumes and sets aren’t as low-budget as I’d feared. But it’s brainless and predictable and not super high quality. The rest of us should rewatch Beasts of No Nation. Or Mank. Or The Irishman. Or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, by thunderation, which is still many miles ahead of this one.
Small rant, hardly even a thing: When we older millennials look back on the teen movies of our youth, yeah, they’re problematic. She’s All That had a cruel but common theme for its time (1999): a popular jock (Freddie Prinze Jr.) made a disgusting bet with his friends that he could transform a loser (Rachel Leigh Cook) into a hottie. It’s a disgusting premise and I totally understand wanting to redeem ourselves, but a simple gender flip was never going to do it. With a teenager girl in the driver’s seat, it’s less sexist but just as gross. We can do better.
The Premise: Padgett (Addison Rae) (but what kind of name is Padgett?) is an influencer with enough followers and pull to earn significant sponsorship, enough to pose as at least as wealthy as her friends at an incredibly affluent high school. When a live feed goes totally wrong, earning both a bad breakup and an even worse meme, her loss of sponsor puts everything in jeopardy. Her plan to win them back involves picking her high school’s biggest loser (Tanner Buchanan) and surreptitiously makeover him into someone not just datable, not just fuckable, but prom kingable.
The Verdict: Part teen romance, part shameless product placement, it’s very easy to not take He’s All That very seriously. Turns out, people still don’t like finding out that they’re bets, and frankly I’m surprised that Padgett’s mommy never warned her against them. Single mother Anna, played by Rachel Leigh Cook, should know better. Matthew Lillard, who also appeared in the original, now more than 20 years ago, plays the high school principal. Lessons will be learned, teenagers will be crowned, if you’re over 30 you’ll feel ancient, social media will be lionized, Kourtney Kardashian will prove behind a shadow of a doubt that she is not an actor, Kiss Me will be covered, and by God, there will be dance offs. For some reason.
The last installment in the popular Kissing Booth trilogy catches up with our young protagonists just after high school graduation.
The Premise: In the first two films, we established that Elle (Joey King) and Lee (Joel Courtney) were a couple of besties who had a list of very strict rules, including the most important of the bunch: do not date my older brother. So of course Elle falls for Lee’s older brother, Noah (Jacob Elordi). Now that they’ve been together a while and Elle has managed to juggle both a relationship with her bestie Lee and a romance with his brother Noah, she’s got this summer to make a really big decision: go to college in Boston with Noah, or in California with Lee. The stress of choosing disrupts her ‘perfect last summer,’ leaving both brothers ultimately disappointed. What to do?
The Verdict: We’ve all grown up a little since the first Kissing Booth (which actually had a Kissing Booth in it) debuted way back in 2018. It was a simpler time. We were innocent then. Kissing booths didn’t automatically trigger virus phobias. This, however, marks the end of an era. Elle’s not just faced with a tough decision but a harsh reality: up until this point in the trio of films, her life has been guided by the whims and inclinations of two dashing, dueling brothers. It’s time for her to assert herself and figure out her own path – whether or not it includes the Flynn boys – or another boy from her past who is mad handsome as well. These movies are flighty pieces of improbable teenage romance. How can they afford a summer so jam-packed with epic activities, especially after it began with a road trip and will end, potentially, with a bill from Harvard? Who would trust a bunch of teenagers with a beach house for the summer? Who’s insuring their vintage muscle cars and motor bikes? Yes, I have questions and concerns, but if these movies are to be enjoyed, you simply take them as they are, not even blinking when someone pulls up in a goddamned yacht but simply appreciating the easy grace with which literally everything falls into their laps. Farewell, kissing booth, possibly COVID’s ground zero, and a career launcher for Ms. Joey King.
John David Washington’s in the wrong place at the wrong time in this Netflix thriller.
The Premise: Beckett (Washington) is on vacation in Greece when he suffers a tragic car accident, which is only the start of all his problems. Turns out, the abandoned building he crashed into was hiding a kidnapped child, and now Beckett’s in all kinds of trouble, injured and on the run in a foreign country, chased by corrupt cops and determined criminals.
The Verdict: I feared at first that this was simply going to be one of those photo-finish races to the American Embassy: been there, done that. It wasn’t, quite, but nor did it amount to much more. Washington tries his best, and Alicia Vikander oozes enough chemistry to account for his motivation, but the film remains frustratingly underwritten, never giving us enough to fully invest in the thrill, let alone buy into just how quickly Beckett turns from simple tourist to just shy of super hero. His maneuvers are increasingly ludicrous, his luck notoriously bad, and the logic behind this whole farce is something best left unexamined. If you’re in it solely for the chase, you won’t be disappointed, but if you’ve come to expect character and story, maybe give it a pass.
Love those cheesy holiday romances but can’t quite cope with Christmas in July (or August)? I’ve got your fix.
The Premise: Erica (Christina Milian) suffers two major blows: the album tat was going to be her big break gets shelved, and her fiance leaves her a month before their wedding. Reeling, her friend convinces her to take a seasonal job singing at a tropical resort – a beachy change of pace is just what she needs to, you know, get her groove back. But uh oh: her ex (Jay Pharoah) shows up – not to win her back, but for his own destination wedding to another woman. Yikes! And Erica, of course, is supposed to be their wedding singer! Double yikes.
The Verdict: It is what it is: a sweet and simple romance. It’s definitely not much more, but Christina Milian is very watchable (as evidenced in her previous Netflix offering, another romance punnily titled Falling Inn Love), and so is her love interest, the very hunky Sinqua Walls. This one’s only for fans of the genre, but those who are are sure to love it.
I don’t typically think Melissa McCarthy is at her best when her husband Ben Falcone writes for and directs her and this movie hasn’t exactly changed my mind about that, but it was just good enough to make me smile.
McCarthy’s charm is her saving grace; even when she’s not exercising the full spectrum of her talent, she’s still extremely watchable. Joined in Thunder Force by Octavia Spencer, these two ladies have fun chemistry and an even funner premise. A mutation has rendered a handful of lucky sociopaths into supervillains, but unfortunately for the world, no heroic counterparts exist. Thankfully Emily (Spencer) is a real brain, and she’s developed a special treatment that would grant the kind of powers so people could really fight back. It’s possibly that Emily and her childhood friend Lydia (McCarthy) are not the best choices to receive this treatment, but let’s not dwell. It’s happening. Lydia’s getting super strong and Emily’s going invisible and you better believe Lydia’s pretty pissed that Emily’s training is so much easier than hers. Of course, the training’s going to pale in comparison to fighting Chicago’s worst villain lineup, including The Crab (Jason Bateman), The King (Bobby Canavale), and Laser (Pom Klementieff).
Thunder Force is 100% stupid of course, but also like 55% funny. My laughter was often out of sheer confusion, but the kind of confusion that’s curious and maybe even a little awed. It’s still not a great equation but I’ll take it. I may even watch it twice.