We all must have been very good this year, because Netflix has seen fit to empty its magic bag and lavish subscribers with an embarrassment of goodies as we head into the holiday season. Odds-on awards horses from brand-name auteurs like Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu have arrived just under the eligibility wire, and the last week of the month will bring an ambitious DeLillo adaptation from Noah Baumbach as well as Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing follow-up to Knives Out. But that still leaves less high-profile gems, among them a literary adaptation with a primal fire burning inside it, a stylized reimagining of a Christmastime classic, and an Argentine rom-com with a diabolical hook. Treat yourself to a second eggnog and take a look at the original movie offerings new to Netflix this December.
Netflix spent $1 gazillion to get into the Knives Out business, and in exchange, Rian Johnson has delivered a whole lot of movie: bigger, longer, and more ambitious, this latest whodunit ups the stakes to the fate of the world as we know it. But the primary pleasures of intricate clockwork humor, diabolically clever plotting, and lip-smacking supporting turns from the ensemble of suspects have gone unchanged, channeled toward a spiky critique of Silicon Valley’s douche-to-disruptor grind-set. A four-quadrant crowd-pleaser the likes of which we don’t see too often these days, this investigative thicket has good fun playing its wicked game with Johnson subverting the screenwriter rulebook in every meticulously planted setup and reveal. He takes cues from a lineage of gumshoe forebears, most notably Columbo, the goofy-brilliant granddaddy of Daniel Craig’s chicken-fried sleuth Benoit Blanc, a role soon to rival James Bond in identification with the actor playing him. Like the detective who always had one more thing, this franchise has struck on a formula with endless potential for renewal.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Credit where it’s due to director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre: She delivers the goods in her faithful rendering of D.H. Lawrence’s infamously scandalous novel about the transformative, salvational effects of one woman’s all-consuming horniness. The heat has been turned up to a high burn in the affaire de coeur between Lady “Connie” Chatterley (Emma Corrin, of Netflix’s The Crown) and her strapping gamekeeper, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), her carnal needs unmet by the long-suffering husband (Matthew Duckett) who was left with genitals mangled by World War I. While the social mores forbidding their attraction grow ever quainter relative to our desensitized modernity, the raw primal force of Connie’s desire still rings clear, bolstered by Lawrence’s pristine prose and a tasteful visual equivalent in Benôit Delhomme’s lush, suggestive cinematography. In this current age of winky past-is-present riffs like Bridgerton, it’s a balm to see a film with an understanding of how and why this cloistered era could be sexy without the handicap of anachronistic updates.
Considering Don DeLillo’s take on postmodern anxiety in his novel — that we’ve been alienated from direct sensation and experience by our hectic present, left in a stultifying world of brand names and media theory — maybe it’s textually appropriate that Noah Baumbach’s adaptation feels denuded of humanity, hermetically sealed in its own ideas. As unexpected and thrilling as it can be to see a modest indie director commandeering a colossal sum of Netflix’s money for his spectacularly uncommercial spin on the Amblin-style blockbuster, the mannered performance style and rigorously faithful from-the-page dialogue contribute to a stiltedness that makes this apocalyptic family parable feel more like a set of theses to be pondered than a movie. The exception sneaks in right at the end, Baumbach’s most meaningful break from the source material being a transcendent musical number; it invites us to imagine a looser-limbed alternative to the subject matter that the director instead slavishly reiterates.
Matilda: The Musical
Roald Dahl’s fable about a precocious telekinetic moppet gets a newfangled musical treatment with classical sensibilities, pairing buffed-to-a-shine pop songcraft and TikTok-adjacent dance moves with the guileless enthusiasm that allows theater to alchemize corn into gold. A staggeringly talented cast of young performers (led by cattle-call find Alisha Weir in the title role) sells the hell out of the choreography covered by the agile camera of director Matthew Warchus, staying on after leading the West End stage production to phenomenon status. Although, for non-child viewers, the real treat is the supporting cast — Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham as Matilda’s villainous parents and a grunged-up Emma Thompson as the draconian Miss Trunchbull — pitched slightly closer to picture-book illustrations than Danny DeVito’s off-beat 1996 adaptation. But the ebullient charm of the prodigy-packed chorus carries the film, lifting the production numbers into a fantastical realm that Warchus floridly depicts with cinema magic working in harmony with the resourcefulness carried over from the stage.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
In the umpteenth take on the fable of the wooden puppet who dreams of being a real boy, Guillermo del Toro updates the political bent of the source text by situating his technically sophisticated stop-motion adaptation in the thick of Italian fascism during WWII. The pointed touches — a detour that sees the enchanted plaything jumped into the army’s youth division, a nose-thumbing play performed to taunt Il Duce himself — reinforce the grown-up air to a kid-geared project with uncommonly mature ideas about the inevitability of mortality, unspooled in a beautiful coda with a bleak edge. Prior to that, however, Pinocchio makes for a chirpy twerp who grates in the handful of cloying musical numbers courtesy of Alexandre Desplat. The detailed character design (the spirit of Death, correctly voiced by Tilda Swinton, is a standout) and fluid animation makes up for in polish what the matter-of-fact production design lacks in textural imagination, an adult sense of rigorous accomplishment muddling that childlike feeling.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu has a lot weighing on his mind, enough to crush the viewers of this odyssey through a singularly self-absorbed subconscious. In grand metaphors playing out on an epic scale for cinematographer Darius Khondji’s fish-eyed lens — a re-creation of the Battle of Chapultepec, a flash mob of symbolically fainting strangers, a tête-à-tiete with Hernán Cortés atop a pyramid of corpses — the director wrestles with guilty anxieties about his split Indigenous-white heritage, his Oscar-festooned successes, and his shortcomings as a parent. Such introspection has been the stuff of legendary art films before (the constant allusions to Federico Fellini ensure we know this), but the combination of narcissistic pity and howling, literal obviousness anathema to dream-logic makes this therapy session tiresome in spite of its visual elan. What’s more, Iñárritu’s efforts to anticipate and neutralize this criticism through the mouthpiece of a detractor who is then silenced comes off as defensive at best and cowardly at worst, a rigging of the game in which he’s the only player allowed.
God’s Crooked Lines
An investigative journalist (Bárbara Lennie, a screen presence more captivating than the film holding her captive) checks herself into a Spanish mental asylum in 1979, going undercover to suss out the culprit in a bedlam murder no one else will touch. At least, that’s what she says, a premise this psycho thriller pokes with the doubt of subjectivity as the sinister administrators gaslight her into questioning her own sanity. But at two and a half hours, director–co-writer Oriol Paulo has way overplayed his hand, heaping one twist onto another until the last one arrives as an anticlimactic conclusion. Moreover, his sensitivity toward the patients in this abject facility leaves much to be desired, and his prosaic visual vocabulary fails to capture the claustrophobic paranoia so expertly summoned by Steven Soderbergh in his film on an identical subject. Or, in other words: Unsane in Spain is mainly pretty plain.
The Marriage App
It’s one of those ideas so good you can’t believe no one’s done it yet: Stagnated spouses Federico (Juan Minujín) and Belén (Luisana Lopilato) hope to reignite their spark with Equilibrium, a company that gamifies marriage by assigning point values to acts of selfless devotion. (Changing the ice tray, for instance, gets you “three miles” toward ostensibly meeting each other in the middle.) So begins a volley of performative romance as both realize that gaining a surplus of “miles” would grant them leeway for any future indulgence, and begin desperately banking good favor to be spent on a solo vacation later. However broad the battle-of-the-sexes humor can be, there’s still a fundamental cleverness in this framing of fickle emotionality as precisely regimented bar-filling with the blunt work-and-reward causality of The Sims. Within this kooky setup, we arrive at very real conclusions about relationships: that affecting the appearance of a good spouse can be used as cover for actually being a bad one, and that little favors can serve as a cudgel wielded when it’s time to argue.
To the strangely crowded canon of secondhand celebrity biopics — My Week With Marilyn, Me and Orson Welles, et al. — we may add this partial portrait of Pablo Neruda (Claudio Arredondo) as related by the esteemed writer’s young mail carrier, Mario (Andrew Bargsted). Though the script from Guillermo Calderón evinces a rudimentary understanding of Neruda’s works capped at his facility for romance, a surprise considering that producer Pablo Larraín directed the more nuanced Neruda, Mario draws on his new mentor’s expertise in his own pursuit of his lady love, Beatriz (Vivanne Dietz). His literary-minded Cyrano routine occupies the substance of the film, but being Netflix’s first Chilean production, there’s also some obligatory local color pertaining to the instability of the pre-Pinochet years in the margins. Palatable and polite, it strikes the same note of awed nostalgia for the gods of art as the rest of its odd little subgenre.
Scrooge: A Christmas Carol
Everyone knows Charles Dickens’s story of the miser who turns over a new leaf come Christmas morning upon realizing that otherwise people will talk smack about him after he dies. This time around, the distinguishing factors are easily enumerated: the computer animation delving deeper into the fantastical than past live-action iterations could go; the shiny and sugary toe-tappers penned by late songwriting legend Leslie Bricusse; and a high-prestige voice cast including Luke Evans as old Ebenezer, Olivia Colman as the ghost of Christmas Past, and Jonathan Pryce as doomsaying Jacob Marley. Cumulatively, that’s more than enough to justify another mounting of the most done-to-death Yuletide classic, even if the pedestrian dialogue sacrifices much of the baroque beauty in Dickens’s prose. This is all perfectly serviceable in a vacuum, and yet when compared to the backlog of superior adaptations, even those for kids (this is Muppet territory, after all), the latest model has an inessential wispiness to it.
Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman
Nigerian tradition dictates that upon the king’s death, his right-hand man must commit ritual suicide to ensure his ruler’s safe passage into the afterlife and continued prosperity for their community. In the southwestern town of Oyo circa 1946, British colonizers got in the way of this custom for one Elesin Oba (Odunlade Adekola), an episode dramatized first in a play by Nobel winner Wole Soyinka and now in Biyi Bandele’s tormented, excellent film. Elesin finds himself torn between the earthly desires that make him fear death and the honor-bound sense of cultural obligation strengthened by opposition from the white invaders. Bandele holds these two clashing motivators with equal weight, rejecting the notion of barbarism presumed by the occupying forces while recognizing the gravity of the sacrifice being made. He strings a tension between the heritage of the past and the often hostile modernization hurtling toward the present, and the unspeakably tragic final scene makes clear that these warring ideas can exact terribly real casualties.
My Father’s Dragon
In partnering with Netflix, Irish animation outfit Cartoon Saloon has compromised on none of the environmentalist conviction, stylistic sophistication, and deceptive emotional maturity by which it’s made its name (see previous titles Wolfwalkers and The Secret Life of Kells). The yarn of a city boy (voice of Jacob Tremblay, surely at the tail end of his moppet window) escaping to a remote island and befriending a dragon (voice of Gaten Matarazzo, one of the Stranger Things kids) sounds as simplistic as a picture book, and the cut-paper-styled animation evokes that primal childlike feeling. But the sometimes rocky bond between the two anxious, unsure characters comes from a more grown-up place, as does the quiet reverence for the wonder and power of the natural world. Strengthened by a voice cast that makes the “A-lister potpourri” approach work better than most — Jackie Earle Haley as a wide-eyed tarsier is inspired — the film wields its sincerity deftly enough to make its instruction about kindness and patience ring true.
In this paranoid techno-thriller, director Annemarie van de Mond trades critical astuteness for virtual kitsch. Notwithstanding a diabolically clever Hitchcockian premise — a white-hat hacker on the brink of exposing a criminal syndicate is framed for murder via deep-fake video, a chillingly plausible eventuality — there’s not much to indict our inescapable surveillance state in this plain-stated illustration of its dangers. But we do get sublimely silly computer jargon, characters saying “I’m in” in Dutch, circa-Y2K visualization of the internet as tubes of psychedelic light, and programming inexplicably represented by animated neon stencils. More low-rent potboilers of this class could stand to take themselves a little less seriously, the most endearing virtue in what would otherwise be an on-the-lam relay race through various biomes of European drabness. Van de Mond doesn’t fully capitalize on the existential horror of logging on to realize your face has been stolen, the go-go pacing more occupied with fear itself than its insidious causes.
Enola Holmes 2
The adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s plucky teen sister — a label Enola’s eager to shed now that she’s opened her own detective agency, where clients seized by the sexism of the Victorian era come looking for her better-known big bro — continue, doubling down on everything fans approved of in the first installment. The Fleabag-y asides to the camera are more frequent, the visual profile has somehow grown even flatter in its presentation of Old Blighty, and the tendency to solve the prejudices of the past with today’s political compass is more pronounced than ever. Breaking with the source books to situate this chapter in the real-life 1888 matchgirls’ strike makes a feint toward a more grounded critique of the period’s rampant misogyny, but it’s the same broad-stroke chastising of the unenlightened from the comfortable vantage of the present. There’s something unsporting about this kind of hindsight wokeness, as if all the women of the time had to do to get respect was demand it; sure, easy for us to say.
Falling for Christmas
Audiences enticed by the pitch of “Lindsay Lohan–led, amnesia-motivated holiday rom-com” are most likely entering this experience with the bar already lowered just beneath the Hallmark standard. Those in the market for something sappy, illogical, and low-rent won’t be disappointed by Lohan’s prosaic coupling with Glee alumnus Chord Overstreet (well-cast in that his name already sounds like it belongs to someone who lives in a Christmastime village). But even good-bad gets better than this, the blanketing tedium overtaking the inherent gawk factor of an actress once on track to be Hollywood’s next movie star appearing in her first leading role in a film since 2013. Around that time, The Canyons and I Know Who Killed Me posited that Lohan’s limited range and forced manner could be channeled into the right register of non-realism, a concept perverted to snow-dusted, smiley-faced ends by the chipper fakery decking these halls.
As The Banshees of Inisherin drags a suddenly curdled friendship through theaters, Netflix retorts with this Turkish drama about a romantic relationship cut off with the same unexpected abruptness. Though the unknowability of a drastic choice isn’t the point here; quite the opposite, as Semih (Burak Deniz) takes a personal inventory mostly articulated in extensive flashbacks to suss out why girlfriend Defne (Dilan Çiçek Deniz, no relation) up and left him. It’s not much of a head-scratcher — whimsical impulsivity such as his can be electrifying on a first date, but maddening to bring home for settling down — and by the end, he’s made the obvious self-improvements in personal follow-through and self-control. He’s trying to get inside her perspective, but the film makes no effort to do the same, with Defne’s ghostlike presence filtered through his navel-gazing. In an attempt to get a clearer view of the woman he turned away, he turns her into a prism through which he can look at himself.
Sebastián Lelio’s adaptation of Room author Emma Donoghue’s novel never quite lives up to the deconstructionist brilliance of its opening minutes: Against a soundstage set, voice-over narration imparts the wisdom that we all ultimately choose whether to believe the stories we hear or not, a shorthand guide to parsing the dramatized historical episode that follows. Florence Pugh (reestablishing her impressive ability to show up the rest of the movie around her) plays a nurse tending to one of the “fasting girls” of 19th-century Ireland, said to survive for impossible lengths of time without eating due to the favor of God. The unraveling of what’s really going on with the afflicted young woman (Kíla Lord Cassidy) will indeed test the faith of all involved, but the straightforward formal makeup doesn’t match the conceptual challenges to our assumptions announced at the outset. Despite some intriguingly odd flourishes in the margins, this period drama nonetheless navigates to a conventional destination.
For a movie set predominantly within dreams, this reimagining of the old Little Nemo comic strips isn’t particularly dreamy. A precocious orphan (Marlow Barkley) takes refuge from her uninspiring life in the surreal dimension of the title, but it’s just a playground of twisting shiny CGI like any other, untouched by the disorienting illogic of the oneiric. (Doesn’t help that scriptwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman fixate on imposing order in this realm by organizing it around an enchanted bureaucracy. You know, for kids!) After following Jennifer Lawrence to the ill-advised sexpionage of Red Sparrow, director Francis Lawrence swerves back to the high-gloss fantasy he codified with The Hunger Games franchise, and he can’t help but reproduce that same feeling of apocalyptic drabness in what’s supposed to be a world of wonder. As Nemo’s ram-horned spirit guide, Jason Momoa is having more fun than the film around him, which talks so much about magic and conjures so little of its own.
Who’s a Good Boy?
It’s senior year, and a hapless beta male needs to ditch his virginity before graduation day — even with the action transposed to Mexico, anyone familiar with raunch-friendly teen comedies knows the drill. The specific articulation of gender dynamics is pretty old-school as well, so much so that it’s jarring to see in a movie released in 2022: The horny yet nervous Chema (Sebastian Dante, upholding the grand tradition of twentysomethings portraying high schoolers) wants to bang the hot new girl (Sirena Ortiz), but his excessive niceness gets him friendzoned! He gradually arrives at the realization that being a simpering lapdog (hence the title) isn’t the way to any woman’s heart, but the path to this epiphany is paved with cringeworthy gross-out gags about fleshlights and masturbation. And what is he learning, really? That being kind of a dick is essential to constructing the image of a potential sexual partner? Even if the counterintuitive physics of desire might make that true, it’s the last thing any man needs to hear.
The Sia-penned Top 40 anthems all over this ripped-from-the-headlines drama clue us in to a pop sensibility that sometimes struggles to carry the weighty subject matter: the true story of Syrian girls Yusra and Sara Mardini (portrayed by sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, their unfakable comfort with one another a major asset to the film), who swam alongside a sinking dinghy all the way to the island of Lesbos and, in Yusra’s case, to the 2016 Olympics as part of the newly-established refugee team. This retelling of their journey to overcome adversity wants to hit an inspiring high note, which it most certainly does, loudly and repeatedly. But the broad direction of Sally El Hosaini never gets a sense for the harder-edged realism integral to a geopolitically charged narrative such as this, evincing a timidity toward confronting the tragedy that must go along with triumph.
Wendell & Wild
Animation legend Henry Selick — the true mastermind behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (don’t be fooled by Tim Burton loyalists) — has completed his first stop-motion fantasia in more than a decade, and his Herculean effort comes through in every inventive, gorgeous, exquisitely textured frame. Aging the kiddie-goth aesthetics up to late-teenhood for a magical-realist fable by way of Hot Topic, Selick weaves together the fortunes of surly orphan Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross), her town on the precipice of getting bulldozed to make way for the private-prison-industrial complex, and a pair of demons (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and co-writer and producer Jordan Peele — their rapport as fresh as ever) hell-bent on opening a demented theme park. That’s a lot of stuff, and the lopsided script doesn’t always keep it in order, but between the astonishing level of craft on display and a killer soundtrack jam-packed with Black-fronted rock and punk acts, there’s more than enough to keep us in this eccentric world for 100 minutes.
The first Netflix import from Uruguay bestows a geri-action plot in the tradition of Death Wish and Liam Neeson’s last dozen movies on an actor more than up to the task. Diego Alonso, with a stare that could wither fresh produce, works the combination of steely resolve and kindly paternalism with all the dexterity and raw brawn of his American-genre counterparts. His generic mission to protect his turf from even more sketchily defined drug dealers gains a bump in specificity through his career as an all-purpose car minder, equal parts crossing guard, squeegee man, and traffic cop. The film instructs us to take this oft-overlooked job seriously by putting a junior helper (Catalina Arillaga) through their paces, their standard-issue dynamic perked up a bit by its particulars. But this is Alonso’s show, well deserved for a physicality that both conveys frailty and the willpower underlying it.
The Good Nurse
For his first English-language feature, Denmark’s Tobias Lindholm tackles a stranger-than-fiction 2003 incident in which a New Jersey nurse exposed one of her co-workers as a serial murderer. But there’s not too much drama in this dramatization — a straightforward retelling with psychological insight topping out at mommy issues and a hasty, half-hearted attempt at framing it all as an indictment of Big Health Care. The real focus is on the starring pair pitching their performances to the cheap seats. Jessica Chastain comports herself respectably in another of her visibly laborious feats of thespian heavy lifting, but as the covert maniac, Eddie Redmayne goes rogue and overacts with such recklessness that one wonders whatever made him a movie star in the first place. Lacking the perverse intrigue of true crime or the interiority of the double character study it wants to be, the film settles for a low-risk, low-reward safeness.
All Quiet on the Western Front
The 1930 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s WWI novel asserted that war is hell, but in Edward Berger’s blood- and grit-flecked new take, he wants us to feel the heat. Epically mounted battlefield scenes recall 1917 (and, in a deeper sense, Truffaut’s axiom about how all antiwar films inadvertently glorify that which they wish to denounce), focusing on the visceral quality of what’s supposed to be an emotionally devastating experience. Berger and co-writers Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson take smartly selected liberties with the source material, tweaking the ending to emphasize the arbitrary futility of armed combat. Such an eternal message doesn’t require much updating, and because Berger largely leaves the essence of the story alone, his remake comes to seem motivated by a desire to create a bigger, more brutal iteration of the text — a plain contradiction of its pacifist core.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone
This summer’s The Black Phone adapted a Stephen King yarn about a telephone that helps a lonely, motherless young man kill his nemesis; Netflix’s retort adapts a Stephen King yarn about a telephone that goes right ahead and kills the lonely, motherless young man’s nemeses for him. Those familiar with the suspense maestro’s bag of tricks won’t be too thrown by the premise: An unpopular kid (Jaeden Martell, a King veteran from both It installments) texts his darkest urges to the recently deceased millionaire (Donald Sutherland) he used to keep company, only to find his wishes carried out by the oldster’s spirit. The most fascinating, unexpectedly poignant element in an otherwise bland wad of content is the performance from Sutherland, no longer rising from a sitting position yet still possessed of all the wily energy he’s maintained over the past 50 years. The film zeroes in on the theme of grief, artlessly articulated in the obligatory catharsis of its final scene, but the pain of loss crystallizes more elegantly in the metatext.
Jumping From High Places
In the wake of her friend’s death, Sole (Federica Torchetti), a woman with chronic anxiety, realizes how finite life can be and sets out to experience all the splendors her mental health has kept from her — think of it like a riff on The Bucket List with one of the pals dead already, plus a heaping helping of Fleabag-styled fourth-wall breaks. Torchetti’s performance is perfectly likable despite the film’s immature depiction of anxious subjectivity, which conveys that Sole is nervous by having her scurry away from a window like an agoraphobe. She’ll come out of her shell, though the victory feels scarcely earned when the script fails to meet the star halfway in selling its protagonist’s distress. Director Andrea Jublin treats a medical condition like a funk one need only snap out of, his prescription being to take two appreciations for all of our ups and downs and call him in the morning.
The zillionth About a Boy knockoff to populate the Netflix content library has a few noteworthy virtues within its wormed-over pairing of an irresponsible adult with a precocious child companion. First is star Baron Geisler, so handsome and coarsely charming that we’re willing to believe him as a washed-up rocker, where most comparable films content themselves with a five o’clock shadow to telegraph that much. Second is the location shooting in Rotterdam, a city little depicted in cinema and shown here to be a modern Euro-hub for stylish, artistically inclined young people and immigrant enclaves. (Produced in cooperation with a tourism board? Perhaps! But they make a convincing pitch.) That said, there’s not much new here aside from the treacly frame story that rejoins the main pair in older age to prove that the love of family can weather any tragedy. Someone get Geisler on a plane to Hollywood — or just in better productions — stat.
Luckiest Girl Alive
In this shockingly ill-advised psychological drama, the difference between content and form expands into a vast chasm between the movie its creators thought they were making and the disaster they’ve actually wrought. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with the story of a New York career gal (Mila Kunis) coming to terms with the truth that she can’t bury a trauma-laden past under a façade of happiness and success. The issue in her journey to self-honesty is all in the “how,” her formative horrors — an eating disorder, a gang rape, a school shooting — rendered with such sensational brutality that it feels like director Mike Barker is trying to put us in the same boat of mental distress as his protagonist. We’re dealing with profound, immense human experiences, but nobody in here behaves like an actual person, right down to the bizarrely vindictive final lines of dialogue. This film wants to wield all the intensity of its hot-button subject matter but fails to realize that such powerful images come with their own responsibilities.
There has been a certain strain of gerontophobia in the air of late, films like Spanish-language acquisition The Elderly translating the planet-killing heedlessness of the boomers into more immediate bloodlust. In this German counterpart, writer-director Andy Fetcher likewise imagines senior citizens zombified en masse into a violent fugue state, though he’s more concerned with the looming evils of elder abuse in derelict, out-of-sight-out-of-mind retirement gulags than anything else. A family bands together during an onslaught of the toddling near-dead, the horde’s sluggish pace no indication of the severity to their attacks, which venture to some disgusting (pukes ahoy!) and grisly extremes. Fetcher orchestrates his slow-moving chase scenes with competence unassisted by the Netflix house style of sterile dimness, but he seems unsure of what it’s all supposed to say, his anxiety about the previous generation’s malevolence subsumed by the notion that they’re just acting out because we’ve mistreated them.
The Curse of Bridge Hollow
A couple Octobers ago, Netflix exceeded expectations with Hubie Halloween, which found spooky success by pairing a beloved funnyman with good old-fashioned foam-and-rubber frights in a picturesque pocket of autumnal New England. So why shouldn’t the formula work a second time, with Marlon Wayans as our family man battling an army of skeletons, witches, and killer clowns? The excess of lore required to explain how these costumes and decorations have sprung to life — his daughter, Priah Ferguson of Stranger Things synergy, picked up an old lantern with an unacceptable quantity of backstory — speaks to the extraneous scripting that gums up the works of enjoyable family fare. Scene-stealers Rob Riggle, Lauren Lapkus, and Nia Vardalos all show up and put in the work, but the film fails to meet its capable ensemble halfway by suffocating them with the kind of high-polish CGI piffle that interferes with so much talent in studio productions these days.
If Gen Z has been waiting for a Mean Girls of their own, this high-school comedy from Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (much improved since 2019’s Someone Great) is certainly willing to meet that need halfway. Playing on the cruelties that kids perpetrate in the name of popularity, the Strangers on a Train riff sees dethroned queen bee Drea (Riverdale’s Camila Mendes, still a teen at 28 years old) and new girl in town Eleanor (Strangers Things’ Maya Hawke) agree to sabotage each other’s bullies, though any assumption they’d fall for one another in the process has been misplaced. A noticeable spark of attraction between them fizzles out as the antics guide them into the arms of other romantic opposites, a tone-deaf feint in a film otherwise studiously calculated for viral traction with today’s youth. A fluency in their Twitterized vernacular — talk of “choosing violence,” a hat that says “I hate it here,” a title that seems to play on the “Be gay, do crime” adage — telegraphs exactly who’s meant to enjoy this, even if a film with an awareness of the term cringe sometimes lapses into cringiness itself.
Romain Gavras opens his rabble-rousing banlieue film with a technically dazzling unbroken long take that soars through a police station overtaken by protesters, past the surrounding fray with riot cops, and down a long stretch of road that ultimately leads to the rebel stronghold in a requisitioned parking garage. It’s an impressive feat of directorial coordination, and what’s more, the raw kinetic thrills dovetail with a bracing anti-authoritarian bent giving purpose to the visual and literal pyrotechnics. The same can’t be said for the remainder of the choreographed chaos, which has been seemingly designed to undermine the righteous fury of the opening shot. A thoroughly cockamamie plot involving a trio of brothers charting a simplistic moral spectrum — one Army soldier, one drug dealer, one community activist — turns the political personal, searching for redemption in the brutalizer class and faults in the oppressed. Co-writer Ladj Ly (a Cannes prize winner for the similarly confused Les Miserables) gives away his naïve desire to see everyone just get along in the final scene, which confirms that the film doesn’t even know who its enemies really are.
She’s been dead for 60 years, but Marilyn Monroe has seen better days. In Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, the actress and icon of midcentury glamor gets fed through a wringer of male predation, her deep-seated daddy issues the supposed key unlocking her tormented psychology. If anything, her constant search for approval from the men in her gravitational pull — the pair of nepotism playboys she loved, the husbands she sparred with, the studio bosses shown raping her in mercilessly photographed scenes, and most astonishing of all, the fetuses she aborted — turns a human woman back into a thin concept. Monroe’s life was indeed marred by abuse, but Dominik takes far too much fascination in its particulars, and has no interest in conceptualizing her outside of that pain. She’s treated as a vessel for suffering (and, in her copious nude scenes, an object to be leered at), in effect reproducing the exact cruelty that the film would have us believe it critiques.
A Jazzman’s Blues
Tyler Perry hasn’t evolved too drastically with his recent hitching to the Netflix wagon, the main point of departure in his southern-gothic tragedy being a bump in production value relative to his past forays into “serious” territory. In actuality, there’s very little to take seriously in this overcooked melodrama rehashing Perry’s same old penchants for excessive misery, stale Christian piety, and bitter tension within the African American community. In a ravishing corner of Spanish-moss-draped Georgia, a multi-decade saga of forbidden love and loss ensnares the tenderhearted Bayou (Joshua Boone), his white-passing paramour Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer), and his wrathful half-brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott), eventually taking the brothers to jazz-mad Chicago for a second chance at life. Incest, rape, prejudice, lynchings, and heroin addiction conspire against the collection of unlucky souls here, all their tribulation amounting to a ridiculous reveal in the final minutes. The script for this film was the first Perry ever wrote, all those years ago; today, it’s enlightening not for the change it illustrates, but for the lack thereof.
Love in the Villa
With so many articles calling for the reinstatement of the rom-com to cultural relevance, it can be easy to lose sight of why everyone turned on the genre in the first place. That’s why we have this low-effort embarrassment to its kind, an excuse for the production team to vacation in Italy that’s only using “being a movie” as a cover. Each component of the romantic comedy manifests as the worst version of itself, to the point that we even get a barely present gay best friend who seems to have fallen out of a wormhole that sucked him in from the ‘90s. To prove that our hapless heroine Julie (Kat Graham of The Vampire Diaries) has love in her heart, she waxes rhapsodical about her misreading of Romeo and Juliet as a classic love story to her class of third graders; the plot contrivance pairing her with Charlie (Tom Hopper, the result of typing “Glen Powell” into an AI art generator) couldn’t be lazier: the two have both booked the same villa for a vacation in Verona. There’s none of the frisky wit of Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers in their dull coupling, just the insulting assumption that starved rom-com fans will eat what they’re given and like it.
A Spanish-language parody of Twilight-mania appears just about a decade and a half too late, the pop-culture vampire boom so far in our collective rearview that the jokes in this horror send-up land dead on arrival. Nothing-special high schooler Javi (Óscar Casas) wants to win the heart of classmate Sara (Isa Montalbán), but she’s obsessed with the undead hunks from her favorite YA franchise, which have more of a Fabio-paperback vibe than the curious combination of chasteness and horniness that makes Stephanie Meyer’s work so singularly odd. When she comes to mistakenly believe that he’s a vampire, he lets it ride and a comic plot takes shape, neither of them aware that a real-life bloodsucker is in their midst and not happy about his onscreen representation. What would’ve been a cutting-edge premise in the early ’10s feels only moldier here for the lack of genuine frights or any humor that draws blood — writer José María Pérez Quintero’s idea of a good bit is a played-out misunderstanding between a father and the son he thinks is gay.
End of the Road
Queen Latifah gets her own Liam Neeson–style “I will kill to get my kid back” picture with this unremarkable action B-movie, reinforcing the dollar-bin non-prestige reputation of Netflix’s direct-to-streaming library. She and her brother Reggie (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, reiterating the fiction perpetuated by the Fast and Furious movies that one of the coolest guys in America is in truth a dorky source of comic relief) have packed up her kids and set a course for the Houston area, where their knocked-around family can get a new start. But when Reggie nicks a bag of drug money from a crime scene — clearly having learned nothing from No Country for Old Men — their road trip turns into a mad dash for survival across the New Mexican desert with contract killers and corrupt cops in hot pursuit. The colors of the neon-streaked visual profile never quite hit the lurid aesthetic director Millicent Shelton is going for, and the same goes for the film as a whole, never quite finding an identity of its own within its adherence to bankable trends.
The nice thing about the movies is how they show us pockets of humanity we’d otherwise never see, such as the cutthroat world of French competitive free diving. Without the aid of scuba tanks, using only their superhuman breath control, swimmers plumb the depths of the ocean as the pressurized environment pushes their lungs to the limit. This highly competitive milieu is the backdrop for a bout of amour fou between record holder Pascal (Sofiane Zermani) and the younger up-and-comer Roxana (Camille Rowe), whom he takes on as a pupil and sexual partner. Their relationship has an athletic never-stop-pushing intensity even before he starts choking her during lovemaking, a sign of how much more than a professional advantage he gets out of his oxygen deprivation. For all the novelty of its based-on-a-true-story setup, not to mention the lusty follow-through on its turn to the erotic, a lack of definition on Roxana neuters an ending that aims for devastation but only leaves a mild shortness of breath.
I Used to Be Famous
Once screamed for by hordes of adoring fans as “Vinnie D” of the boy band Stereo Dream, a washed-up Vincent (Ed Skrein, a mid-budget Nicholas Hoult) now plays his upbeat EDM for pensioners and passersby in the park. He’s bitter about his bandmate (Eoin Macken) leaving him in the dust to go solo, not to mention his brother’s premature death, and only rediscovers his zest for music by teaming` with an autistic drummer boy named Stevie (Leo Long, a neurodivergent actor). Their unlikely act explodes online after a live-stream of one performance, sending Vincent back into the uppermost echelons of fame and Stevie into an overwhelming industry his mother (Eleanor Matsuura) worries he can’t handle. Yet the friendship between the two mismatched talents sees them through. Those viewers not nauseated by the sweetness may still blanch at the condescension of a film that claims to advocate for the mentally disabled while looking down on them in pity, as in the telltale line “All he needed was a friend.”
Tuva Novotny — the Swedish actress-director you may know from Annihilation and will hopefully soon know from The Kingdom: Exodus — isn’t the first to liken the romantic tendencies of homo sapiens to behavior from the rest of the animal kingdom, but at least she’s funny about it. For parents and spouses Bjorn (David Dencik) and Frida (Pia Tjelta), monogamy has turned into monotony, and their respective efforts to give their flagging marriage a shot in the arm get an absurdist counterpoint courtesy of a rodentia-and-roosters theater troupe punctuating the main plot. They comment on testosterone and biological sexual appetites from within crude Gondry-esque costumes, a bizarre flourish that enlivens the flirtations with infidelity from both halves of the main relationship. The always-great Dencik wears masculine insecurity without any reservations; see how his neuroses are laid bare once his wife starts suggesting a trial separation or bringing a third into bed, like a Scandinavian Albert Brooks.
Hee Ching “Nina” Paw — a longtime treasure of Hong Kong cinema with unduly minimal name recognition in the States — shines here as a mother in crisis, carrying C.J. Wang’s drama on her back just as her character carries her family. She’s grown weary from years of tending to her out-to-lunch husband and adult children, but can’t deny her compulsion to people-please, a tendency that threatens to crush her once she starts seeking out a larger home. As compassionate toward mature womanhood as Douglas Sirk, rendered not in his dreamy gauze but with startling clarity, this finely shaded portrait gives a powerhouse performer a role that puts her through her paces. Behind every smile of reassurance she doles out to her brood of ingrates, we can see shards of sadness, and behind that, a deeper regret. If not for a fumbling conclusion that resorts to cheap narrative-gaming to find closure, this would be among Netflix’s best original releases this year.
Everyone just wants their parents to stop harassing them about finding someone to settle down with — it’s the one thing that connects us all, as suggested by the new rom-com that grafts the premise of the recent Plus One and Netflix’s own Holidate onto an Indian American couple. Economist Asha (Pallavi Sharda) and wannabe musician Ravi (Suraj Sharma) are both modern, independent-minded types bristling at the constant comments about marriage, so they agree to pose as significant others to make it through the summer’s battery of receptions. Obviously they fall for one another, an inevitability that’s not so bothersome when we can enjoy the company of two likable performers. The snag comes in the film’s effort to assert cultural specificity, which ultimately limits the depiction of today’s Indian young people by confining them in the parameters of arranged marriage. Even when bristling against it, the story still adheres to the clichéd terms in which cinema can imagine Indian identity.
South Korean action maverick Jung Byung-gil continues to develop his fascination with video-game mechanics in this excellent, ultraviolent shoot-’em-up about an amnesiac secret agent. His previous film The Villainess experimented with first-person POV cinematography, and he hasn’t abandoned the borderline sickeningly kinetic camera techniques that seem to pan and swoop at the speed of a bullet. But he has grown more playful in his writing, the first half of the film hinging on directions delivered to the unstoppable Carter (Joo Won, a beast) via earpiece as an analog for a player controlling a character. Nifty metatext aside, Jung has forged a combustible fight-scene showcase with a surprising political edge, imagining a not-so-distant future in which North and South Korea have unified against a common zombie-virus enemy. With nitroglycerine pumping through its veins, the film sets a new standard for sheer propulsive force.
You’ve got to give director and co-writer Jasmeet K. Reen points for audacity alone; not everyone would take on a black comedy about domestic abuse with overtones of Looney Tunes, but she grabs a dangerous premise with both hands and nearly wrestles it into submission. In an Indian chawl like any other, beleaguered wife Badru (Alia Bhatt) suffers under the cruel hand of her abusive husband Hamza (Vijay Varma), until the day he goes too far and she resolves to get revenge. Cue high jinks! That sounds rife with potential for distasteful missteps, but Reen errs on the side of caution by playing the scenes of Hamza’s violence with utter seriousness, to the point that she goes a little too far in the other direction and occasionally wallows in Badru’s misery. But more often, her scheming with her mother (standout Shefali Shah) tends toward the farcical, refreshing in its taunting of taboos. Empowerment is the point, its mushier aspects de-corn-ified by the morbid hilarity.
Code Name: Emperor
There’s a whole cinematic tradition of men denying the ethical ambiguity of their questionably legal jobs, only to grow a conscience after feeling the galvanizing touch of a good woman. (See: Baby Driver, Drive, The Driver, a handful of films not about driving.) Jorge Coira would like to give the same treatment of turpitude to Spanish secret-service agent Juan (Luis Tosar, quite good in last year’s Eye for an Eye), but doesn’t totally understand how these delicate physics of character work. After years of doing presumably shady political espionage for the state, Juan should know what he’s getting into when assigned a smear job on a candidate challenging the status quo. All the same, Coira and Tosar play his awakening like a sudden break from naïveté rather than a casting off of denial, as if he’s never considered the possibility that he might be complicit in dirty doings. The ticking-clock tensions build with agonizing confidence, none of which extends to the arc of personal transformation that’s supposed to hold everything else together.
13: The Musical
For decades, pint-size theater dorks found themselves (well, ourselves) in shows about ranch hands and feline humanoids; as of late, it increasingly seems that movie-musicals would rather meet excitable teens on their own turf, with recent films The Prom and Dear Evan Hansen honing in on the puberty years directly. This adaptation of a play by Jason Robert Brown (of The Last Five Years notability) continues the trend in all the most unfortunate ways, foremost among them the flat, deadened visual aesthetic standing in for the drabness of the suburbs. There’s precious little pizzazz in what should be an exciting time for young Evan (Eli Golden), as he preps for his bar mitzvah and learns the social outlay of the Indiana hamlet he’s just moved to. Brown’s peppy earworms have stood the test of time, but their exuberant brightness only amplifies how sterile and lifeless the film looks; in presenting a duller version of real life instead of a more brilliant one, the film contradicts the very reason musicals exist.
Netflix has leapt aboard the vampire bandwagon you may remember from the late ’00s, though these bloodsuckers aren’t of the glittery-heartthrob variety. Films like last fall’s Night Teeth and this buddy action-comedy directed by stunt veteran J.J. Perry instead focus their energies on mythology, laying out an intricate society oriented around the clandestine existence of the monsters. Collateral-mode Jamie Foxx isn’t just a vampire hunter; he’s a former member of the slayers union, allowed back in on a probationary basis so long as he adheres to its many codes of protocol and accepts a dweeby partner (Dave Franco) tasked with keeping him on the straight and narrow. Though the unexpected interest in the realities of labor and money gives the first half something to sink its incisors into — and the action sequences meet the high standard Perry sets for himself — it all leads us back somewhere familiar, to wormed-over non-wit (someone, explain the McG-style splash cards with dialogue titled onscreen) and to a more conventional enmity between humans and our hematophage brethren.
Look Both Ways
“It’s about that delicious little mystery I call life,” said 30 Rock’s Pete of a song he wrote, to the prompt reply of “Oh my God, that sucks!” The joke may ring in the ears of those watching this Sliding Doors riff, a belabored delivery system for trite pearls of dime-store wisdom about how life may have its ups and downs but we always end up right where we belong. On the eve of her college graduation, Natalie (Riverdale and Hustlers’ Lili Reinhart, her attempted movie star pivot DOA) has a pregnancy scare that forks into alternate timelines: a negative readout sends her to Los Angeles to pursue a career in animation under a Miranda Priestly type (Nia Long), while the positive keeps her at home in Texas to work the unmarried-mom angle. Both universes still award her love and success despite minimal charisma or talent, the validity of the film’s big ideas about destiny and chance hamstrung by a lack of emotional intelligence (and regular intelligence). Between the often delightful Reinhart and the Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu, everyone involved deserves better.
Kevin Hart’s campaign to prove himself the onscreen dad of the year continues apace with a buddy comedy that improves on his execrable Fatherhood while topping out at “moderately funny.” In this quasi-vanity project, he’s a go-go-go house husband granted a rare free weekend by his bacon-bringing wife (Regina Hall), so he rings up his old partner in crime (Mark Wahlberg) for the first time in years — cue out-of-control antics involving drug use, an animal in a place it shouldn’t be, and a sum owed to some gangsters keen on collecting. The jokes rise above the lamentable Netflix standard thanks to writer-director John Hamburg (of I Love You, Man fame), but he’s no match for Hart and his ego, indulged here with a portrayal that makes him out to be both saintly and persecuted. The conclusion flatters him at the expense of basic character logic, his happy ending making the unwitting implication that full-time child-rearing wasn’t even what he wanted in the first place.
The Next 365 Days
First came love (in the form of abduction that Stockholm syndromed its way into seduction), then came marriage (with a wedding that ended in gunfire, leaving our heroine’s life in the balance). But never mind baby carriages — too unsexy anyhow: The third installment of this Polish humpapalooza tests the union between the convalescent Laura (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) and Massimo (Michele Morrone) with a love triangle, turning her head in the direction of the sensitive Nacho (Simone Susinna). For all the heat supposedly smoldering between the chiseled leads, however, the spark seems gone in a franchise running out of buttons to push. The brazen perversion of the first installment has given way to stodgy domestic non-dramas, its flair for kink having lost its novelty despite a couple obligatory orgy sequences. Laura and Massimo get their groove back, of course, but directors Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Mandes are just going through the motions.
The Sea Beast
A bevy of fantastical beasties refreshes the somewhat old-fashioned seafaring-adventure genre in Chris Williams’s computer-animated charmer, perhaps the finest Netflix Animation joint yet. He samples liberally from his own Moana in the yarn of a dashing swashbuckler (voiced by Karl Urban) and the orphaned girl (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator) he takes under his wing as they befriend a lovable red leviathan and cutesy blue blob-thing, learning along the way that “monsters” aren’t as monstrous as they’re cracked up to be. The art direction evokes a bygone age by going easy on the digital polish and embracing the style of the vintage derring-do serials that previously inspired Pirates of the Caribbean, another clear influence. The action cracks, the humor never grates (a particular blessing in kiddie cinema), and the gooier stuff shared between our mismatched leads isn’t overplayed. While the scale of its watery set pieces can go tidal-wave tall, the film succeeds on the welcome modesty of its ambitions.
Get this: It’s a modernized take on the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with the sexually manipulative nobility replaced by obscenely rich upper-crust teens. The only thing this French update set at an elite Biarritz high school has on the broadly identical Cruel Intentions is the advent of social media, a hook that the story comes to lean on far too hard. The stepsibling angle has been abandoned, the connivers now a pair of seven-figure Instagram personalities (Simon Rérolle and Ella Pellegrini) nowhere near as drolly sadistic as any iteration of their forebears, even as they execute a similar do-and-dump bet on an unsuspecting good girl (Paola Locatelli). From the corny onscreen representations of rising and falling follower counts to the boneheaded lesson that there’s more to life than likes, the understanding of online sociology is nowhere near developed enough to serve as the film’s raison d’être.
Valley of the Dead
Prefab B-movies catalyzed by ghoulish Nazi science experiments gone awry are generally a good time (see Dead Snow and They Saved Hitler’s Brain), even if the ceiling for greatness is relatively low. This Spanish flesh-flenser about an invasion of Third Reich zombies interfering with the Civil War in 1938 is no exception, nasty and entertaining while as swiftly digested as limb meat. The aspect that really sticks to one’s ribs is the incoherent political subtext, under which the threat of an SS run rampant unites the Republican and Francoist forces under a common foe. In a mixed-up way, the cease-fire between Spaniards promotes a vision of nationalist togetherness, an idea lost all too quickly as another wave of hungry foes descends on our broad-shouldered heroes. In the meanwhile, the tooth-and-nail mêlées between the living and undead cut the mustard on their own terms, more tactical in their military bent than gory. ¡Viva el canibalismo!
Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between
Netflix teensploitation’s recurring fascination with activities manifests in full force here, with this grating romance in which a pair of lovelorn teens (Jordan Fisher and Talia Ryder) organize an “epic last date” before heading off to different colleges. They eventually realize that their feelings are too strong to be severed amicably and learn to stop denying themselves for cool rationality and other who-cares types of things — we’re more focused on how oddly choreographed and consciously staged their expressions of love are. They’re the latest YA-cinema couple to coordinate elaborate, highly Instagrammable outings instead of just hanging out at someone’s house like actual humans, a curious and proliferating artifice with uncertain grounding in actual Gen-Z behavior. Is anyone really so lame as to arrange a stroll down memory lane as a multiphase night of magic complete with costumes and musical performances? Whatever pathology motivates someone to record a flash-mob promposal video has seeped into moviemaking and brought us a display of devotion that’s all gesture.
In our post-Bridgerton world, interest in the aesthetics and lifestyle of the Regency era — layer-cake dresses, afternoon constitutionals, gossip about the most well-heeled bachelors — has spiked. But that surface-level appreciation becomes a problem in this Jane Austen adaptation that fixates on the superficial appeal while losing track of all the wit, social critique, and character nuance that makes the canonized novelist’s prose great. The “single and thriving” Anne (Dakota Johnson) and her cohort talk in a patois of old-fashioned propriety and Pinterest-board neologisms, their most widely cited offense being a line about a five in London ranking as a ten in Bath. (Her sister tosses off clunkers about practicing “self-care” and being “an empath.”) The proto-feminist spirit of self-determination falls away, replaced by an attitude profane in how it makes Austen’s women out to be basic, wine-slugging catchphrase-dispensers. A life of leisure can be seductive, but it’s supposed to set the scene for deeper emotional deliberations rather than serving as the whole entrée.
Under the Amalfi Sun
In 2020’s Under the Riccione Sun, tanned hotties frolicked and flirted between parties at the trashiest beach getaway Europe has to offer. This sequel migrates to Italy’s opposite shore and heads south to the Amalfi Coast, a location in no way distinct from the previous setting aside from the fact that it’s where several new characters live. And yet all the horned-up shenanigans are pretty much the same: Hapless loser Furio (Davide Calgaro) is still unable to seal the deal, while the handsome Vincenzo (Lorenzo Zurzolo) commands the majority of female attention. There’s nothing novel in the assorted attempts to find ass — or maybe even love — in this escapist paradise. The opportunity to vicariously experience the sun, surf, and sex is revealed as the entire draw rather than one facet of it. But fully enjoying that is difficult enough when we’re dealt such a callow ensemble of characters that we don’t even care if they find happiness.
The found-footage trend started to wane once filmmakers lost sight of the unorthodox formal techniques that suffused The Blair Witch Project with such terror; too many would-be successors just made a standard-issue horror picture, shot with cheap video cameras. This import from Taiwan, where it hastily assumed the title of the country’s all-time highest-grossing horror release, actually gives the feeling that a forbidden artifact has been unearthed. The extreme canting of the camera angles and the aggressively flat depth of field both confer the look of a true outsider object, an unsettling atmosphere in sync with the story of a woman defending her daughter from a demon she unwittingly released years earlier. The malevolent Buddhist spirit, which eats your soul upon learning your name, ventures further into the unknown than the various generalized ghosts haunting this subgenre. You’ll want to turn the lights on — I dare you not to.
The Gray Man
This film has a more apt title than directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the duo who inspirationally overcame a lack of any individual artistic sensibility to middle-manage some of history’s highest-grossing films) may realize. Each element in this overbudgeted lump of spy gamesmanship tastes of flavorless, ashen gray, starting with the deadened cinematography that makes everywhere in the globe-trotting plot look like nowhere. The cat-and-mouse manhunt entangling CIA agent Dani (Ana de Armas), black-op assassin Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling, conserving his charisma energies for the upcoming Barbie), and sociopathic rogue agent Lloyd (Chris Evans) goes in circles, which only serves to cue up an undeserved yet already confirmed sequel. Both expensive and cheap, overstuffed with talent that goes untapped, underlit and underexposed, it’s the purest distillation yet of the Netflix house style.
Behold, proof that originality isn’t necessarily a good thing. Screenwriters Kyle Jarrow and Liz W. Garcia have ginned up a premise that’s certainly new, though possibly because everyone else thought better of it: Left-leaning barmaid Cassie (Sofia Carson) can’t afford her insulin payments without insurance, and cleaned-up Marine recruit Luke (Nicholas Galitzine) owes 15,000 big ones from his former life as a drug addict. The logical solution to both of their problems, of course, is to become married so that she can get on the military insurance plan and he can reap the family-man pay bump. As the pair keep up the charade from afar while he’s on duty, the usual rom-com inevitabilities guiding them toward each other take on an irksome political false equivalency. He comes to accept the tenets of feminism, whereas she comes to concede that maybe war isn’t all that bad, a narrative raw deal that posits a porridge-consistency centrism as the one true path to love.
In the third installment of the cop-procedural franchise following tough-as-nails Pipa (Luisana Lopilato), returning director Alejandro Montiel seems to have finally cracked the code and broken his streak of painfully generic investigations. As Pipa looks into a power struggle and a body burned to death in the Andes mountains, the knotty plot incorporates the Argentine setting in a meaningful way for the first time, enriching an otherwise standard family-machinations plot with the simmering historic tensions between colonizers and the area’s Indigenous residents. Stopping a ways short of political nuance, the larger context of these sordid dealings still gives the film an identity distinct from the others in its series and genre. Not to mention that Lopilato seems more relaxed and confident than ever in the lead role, better when delivering clipped, hard-boiled-ish on-the-job dialogue than straining for nuance, as she did in the prequel. This film gives an air of closure to the trilogy, just as it was starting to hit its stride.
Adam Sandler’s unholy alliance with Netflix has not always been synonymous with quality, but this character piece set in the world of basketball scouting falls much closer to The Meyerowitz Stories than The Ridiculous Six. The oft-sluggish Sandman truly shows up as Stanley Sugerman, talent hunter for the Sixers and the kind of guy who has taken some licks from life, as we can tell from the permanent cast holding his scarred hand together. Once he finds the NBA’s next big thing in a Spanish stilt named Bo (Juancho Hernangómez), the double redemption arc becomes almost too orderly, as Stanley gets a second chance to create the career he squandered for himself while Bo gets the father figure he’s never had. But any hint of corn blends in with the overall spirit of uplift in a film that gets by on sound fundamentals — likable performances, the occasional joke that connects, in-game footage nimble enough to break your ankles. Throw in Dan Deacon’s kaleidoscopic maximalist soundtrack, and any front office would take that deal.
Trees of Peace
Alanna Brown’s chamber piece about four women taking refuge from the Rwandan genocide in a subterranean hiding spot means well but leans too hard on its good intentions. The captives hail from opposing walks of life — one persecuted Tutsi (Bola Koleosho), one moderate Hutu (Eliane Umuhire) who’s not onboard with her people’s campaign of destruction, one nun (Charmaine Bingwa) spreading the good word, and an American humanitarian worker (Ella Cannon) — and Brown’s dramatically contrived dialogue makes the facile suggestion that they would all get along if they could just talk out their problems. By turning a geopolitical dispute into a more feasibly resolved interpersonal one, Brown shortchanges the complexity of a quagmire she seems to regard more as a concept than a historical happening. See how the blasts of gunfire above come at just the right time to quell the petty disagreements in the bunker; this is all an exercise in diplomacy but with Brown using all sides as cooperative mouthpieces for thin ideas.
Decades of nukes-on-the-loose thrillers would have us believe layers of fail-safes protect America from fiery Armageddon, but it turns out that the only thing standing between us and certain annihilation is actually just one lady. Luckily for us, she’s played by Fast & Furious franchise regular Elsa Pataky in this lunkheaded yet likable ticking-clock action flick. Even if the warheads in question weren’t from the Russkies (they were stolen by some rogue anti-American terrorists, but that’s splitting hairs), there would be a distinct ’80s flavor to the sweat-beaded military grit in her last-ditch effort to avert doomsday, wrapped as it is in agreeable concessions to the moment. (We learn our gal has been stationed at this crap detail as punishment for reporting her on-duty sexual assault, an undeveloped detail pinned onto the script like a tail on a donkey.) But Pataky’s raw skill with fight choreography and the unrelenting tension of the countdowns on top of countdowns keep things moving at a sprightly pace, the rare Netflick that’s over before you know it.
Joseph Kosinski has directed the year’s finest American action film — which should make it easier for him to accept that his non–Top Gun: Maverick release of 2022 is a real clunker. This sci-fi thought experiment is still recognizable as his, with the filmmaker’s passion for architecture evident in the eye-catching brutalist design of the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center. But the stamp of George Saunders, author of the New Yorker short story on which the film is based, hasn’t been guarded quite so dutifully. Without the elegance and wryness of his prose, there’s no subtext in the futuristic parable about a prison in which inmates (like Miles Teller’s Jeff) can commute their sentences by participating in mood-altering medication trials controlled by the warden (Chris Hemsworth). All the gum-flapping about Big Themes actually says less with its pseudo-philosophical soliloquies than tacit insinuation would have done, and the final act turns the text’s theoretical foundations into a bland action tutorial no more accomplished than anything else in Netflix’s content reservoir.
The Wrath of God
As horror premises go, “What if Stephen King were systematically picking off your loved ones?” has a lot of potential — for clever narrative devices, arch literary atmosphere, and, at the very least, novelist humor. That’s the gist of this Argentine murder mystery, with its dulled overtones of horror failing to deliver on any of the aforementioned fronts. Luciana (Macarena Achaga) worries that the string of deaths in her family may not be mere coincidence but instead is the fiendish handiwork of a man well versed in the diabolical: the sadistic suspense novelist (Diego Peretti) she used to work for. Spending nearly half the movie in flashbacks that could have been left as third-act exposition — combined with the difficulty of fully integrating rival writer turned investigator Esteban (Juan Minujín) into a story that has sparing use for him — reveals this tale to be nowhere near as well crafted as the fictitious ones it alludes to.
Every year, Krakow hosts a Dachshund parade attracting wiener-dog owners from around Poland to show off their prize pooches and moon over everyone else’s. I can think of no better place to set a film. Onto this ripe milieu, Filip Zylber’s comedy imposes a screwballish plot about a reporter on the skids, Magda (Anna Próchniak), ingratiating herself with a decent-hearted tombstone inscriber (Michal Czernecki) and his sickeningly sweet child (Iwo Rajski) who are competing for the fest’s top prize. All the while, Magda is coping with her Dachshund phobia left over from an incident in her younger years! It’s the class of ridiculousness that would be just daffy enough to work, if not for Zylber’s steadfast dedication to being unfunny. The director has shown no improvement since his previous (journalist-oriented) Netflix job, Squared Love. The straight-down-the-middle tone never embraces its own absurdity, and the let’s-charitably-call-them-jokes have none of the zing identified with the genre that would have taken this premise somewhere worth going.
So, here we are: Netflix has finally reached the point at which the ideas it’s shamelessly recycling are its own. This motorbike-themed crime thriller from Spain gets stuck in a rut on the same dirt road already torn up by the French-Belgian Burn Out, from 2019, in surely the first instance of Netflix remaking one of the algorithmic successes that itself started out as a Netflix Original. The earlier portrait of an extreme racer forced into moonlighting as an illicit courier struggled to distinguish itself from the gaggle of similar DTV action forgettables, and if you can believe it, that issue has not been allayed by a film that’s upfront about its intention to do more of the same. Same Colombian cartels that are out of place considering the country of production, same cinematography that zips this way and that without really taking us anywhere, same lead performance of interchangeable glowering from scene to scene. There are worse Netflicks, but in simple terms of creative exhaustion, could this be the bottom of the barrel?
Raj Singh Chaudhary’s epic of bullets and sand is an homage twice over, a nod to the genre extravaganzas that flooded Indian cinemas during the ’80s, which were themselves a tribute to Hollywood’s classic Westerns and noirs. He does right by his influences with a sunbaked mystery rich in hard-bitten Peckinpah style, from the nail-spitting acting to the brisk runtime, which is especially surprising in Hindi-language cinema. We have a man in a white hat — Inspector Surekha Singh (the great actor-producer Anil Kapoor), the sheriff ’round these here parts — and a man in a black hat, the sadistic antiques dealer Siddharth (Harshvardhan Kapoor) roving around the desert and leaving a trail of corpses behind him. A gang of ex-military Pakistanis lurks in these northern hinterlands, making for one big powder keg that Chaudhary ignites in glorious fashion. The commendable merciless action and savvy inflection of iconography known all too well to American viewers makes this an inviting entry point for neophytes curious about the bustling universe of Bollywood and an edifying data point for longtime fans interested in seeing the effects of its globalization.
Fans of the rambunctious, mess-making Great Dane will be baffled and horrified to find that their beloved pooch has been mutated beyond recognition by crummy computer animation in this profoundly cursed feature vehicle. In its motion, textures, depth of field, and freaky angular design (the hip-to-waist ratio on the mom character puts Mrs. Incredible to shame), the cheapo style blows past any claim to realism without finding a workable alternative. Instead, the hard-to-look-at aesthetic goes hand in hand with every other aspect in an offense against art, taste, and basic logic that peaks when Marmaduke’s green cloud of flatulence moves a crowd of onlookers to puke and die. At least that severely miscalculated scene has the benefit of being funny (for the wrong reasons but still), whereas the rest of the film tops out at a perverse source of ghastly fascination like a fish born with too many eyes.
40 Years Young
Hotshot chef César (Erick Elias) has finally made the big time by landing a slot in the Grand Prix of cooking competitions, a showdown set in adoringly photographed, tourist-friendly Cancún. Victory will demand all of his concentration, so there couldn’t be a more inconvenient time for him to learn that the son (Ricardo Zertuche) he’s raised for ten years was conceived with another man. As he attempts to put his baggage to one side and cook through the angst, he’s helped along by a foxy vacation fling (Gaby Espino) too perfect to exist in workaday life. Their teasing romance, his processing of weighty feelings, and the broad comedy connecting them all suffer from a lack of seasoning in the unimaginative dialogue and overlit cinematography as bland and flavorless as a boiled chicken breast. Worst of all, the food porn isn’t even that mouthwatering, its colors too garish to be believable as fresh. It should be sent back to the kitchen.
Along for the Ride
Gender equality means that viewers of YA dreck should get their fair share of Manic Pixie Dream Boys to match the girls, an initiative undertaken by writer-director Sofia Alvarez in her emotionally stunted adaptation of Sarah Dessen’s novel. Quirked-up insomniac and recent high-school grad Auden (Emma Pasarow) spends one magical summer staying with her dad (Dermot Mulroney) in a cozy beach town, where she meets fellow night owl Eli (Belmont Cameli). He does the shallow, typical teen-lit thing of fixing her whole life with his attraction, so sprung for this largely unremarkable dork that he takes it upon himself to give her all the life experiences she hasn’t been social enough to have for herself. As adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies go, this one’s more immature than most, particularly in the callous way it uses an unseen character’s death as a device to give unearned depth to the one-dimensional Eli. Netflix has set a low standard for teen date-night fodder, but Alvarez manages to drag it down another notch.
This French iteration of the standard-issue buddy-cop flick may technically be a sequel to 2012’s On the Other Side of the Tracks, but the free-standing plot makes it a fully formed entity unto itself. The pairing of director Louis Leterrier (who just stumbled into the director’s chair on the tenth Fast & Furious movie) with star Omar Sy instead marks this as a sequel in algorithmic spirit to the success of their heist series Lupin. Sy and Laurent Lafitte (onetime star of Elle) ably play off of one another as two cops forced together after finding separate halves of a single dead body, leading them to a town under the thumb of a local white-supremacist gang. But their chemistry is squandered on a script that turns the retro mood of the ’80s throwback to plain retrograde thinking with takes on gay panic and leering lechery a few decades old.
Seemingly Netflix’s zillionth period piece expanding on a minor subplot of World War II — Munich: The Edge of War was only a few months ago! — this retelling of an espionage gambit to throw off Nazi forces during the invasion of Sicily doesn’t do much to enrich the facts with dramatic detail. Setting aside the self-evident hilarity of the thoroughly unkosher Colin Firth playing Jewish as lawyer turned spy Ewen Montagu, the script attempts to humanize him through a limp love triangle with a widowed secretary (Kelly Macdonald) and the other intelligence officer (Matthew “Tom from Succession” Macfadyen) running point on the mission. Stiff upper lips and a bit of the ol’ British gumption see them through, but there’s little to invest in at the international or interpersonal level, clichés of screenwriting being just as predetermined as the events of history. Down to the anticlimax unavoidable in an operation that hinges on indirect actions, there’s none of the lionhearted intensity the History Channel buffs motivating this niche subgenre would demand from a war story.
Rebel Wilson, so adroit in the deadpan mode of Bridesmaids and How to Be Single and even Pitch Perfect, fumbles in her career pivot to a smiley, vivacious leading lady. As a cheerleader fresh out of a 20-year coma and eager to pick up right where she left off as an 18-year-old, she mugs her way through the guileless girlishness that powers this fish-out-of-water premise as if trying to convince us that she’s less funny than she’s already proven herself to be. And the curriculum here is familiar enough that we know it by rote: She’ll realize that the former class hottie (Justin Hartley) is a big zero and the sweet-natured nerd (Sam Richardson) is more deserving of crush status with commentary on how times have changed the social pecking order of high school coming straight out of 21 Jump Street. Disappointingly normal where she should go all in on oddball, Wilson’s not-“It”-girl, Stephanie, isn’t fit to hold Jerri Blank’s textbooks.
A Perfect Pairing
It’s the algorithm in action: The 2012 sommelier documentary Somm did monster numbers during its time in the Netflix library, and though its licensing rights have moved on to riper pastures, its success has undammed a flood of wine. Amy Poehler’s lackluster Wine Country and the 2020 drama Uncorked are now joined by this unsavory rom-com set in the dog-sip-dog world of wine importing, an attempt to enhance the flavor of a bland formula by adding some tannins. To little avail however — the squeaky clean appeal of Victoria Justice clashes with the intensely unmemorable non-presence of her opposite, Adam Demos, and the done-to-death terms of their coupling (big-city business gal, cable-knit farm boy) have long since soured. Even the vineyard-porn B-roll doesn’t hit the spot — its functional cinematography unable to capture the refreshment of a chilled rosé or the warming embrace of the perfect Bordeaux. Even when doused in vino, there’s little to savor here.
A little Gordon Ramsay with more than a pinch of Jon Favreau’s character in the markedly similar Chef, grumpy Danish maestro de cuisine Theo (Anders Matthesen) needs an attitude adjustment. He’ll get one via news that his long estranged father has died and bequeathed him a sprawling Tuscan villa complete with its own restaurant — which he intends to sell so he can open a place back in Denmark but will, of course, transform him with its rural simplicity and sincerity. The comely, impossibly patient woman running the joint (Cristiana Dell’Anna) helps things along by reacquainting Theo with the immediate pleasure of good food, which Theo overintellectualizes and nitpicks in a sign that he’s as distanced from himself as from his late papa. The pair go together like sardines and peanut butter, his resolute fussiness never quite deserving of all the rural graciousness with which she meets it, but at least the food photography sticks to the ribs long after the thin-gruel personal arc has been digested.
As road trips undertaken by a pair of buddies go, this one’s got grimmer undertones than most: Amputee Salih (Engin Akyürek) has a whole mess of PTSD from the unspecified war that claimed his leg and decides that the best way to feel like himself again would be a long-haul drive across Turkey with his old Army comrade Kerim (Tolga Sarıtaş) to halt the arranged wedding of Kerim’s ex (Oyku Naz Altay). (Also in tow: a caged partridge — for metaphorical reasons.) Their confused intentions will sort themselves out along the way of their mishap-filled journey, though any flimsy personal revelations are undone by the ludicrous twist of the final act, a gotcha that’s neither clever nor narratively productive. Not to mention the goofy literal rendering of phantom limb syndrome — the absent extremity straight-up taunting Salih with the fear that he’ll never again be the man he once was. Director Mehmet Ada Öztekin wants a profound odyssey of redemption and growth, but he can’t dig inward more than a few feet.